Review: Endless Space

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The turn-based strategy genre has long counted sci-fi galactic settings among its repertoire. The Masters of Orion series and the Galactic Civilizations series are both excellent (not to mention the masterful Alpha Centauri), and for faster-paced real-time play Sins of a Solar Empire has in recent years been at the top of the heap. So what does Endless Space bring to the table? Primarily this: since Galactic Civilizations, there has yet to be a killer turn-based space faring game. Second, Endless Space innovates in the genre in interesting ways by combining gameplay aspects successful elsewhere but as of yet not introduced into this specific medium. Third, no other contemporary 4X strategy game in space feels as authentically sci-fi compared to this. Endlessly interesting technologies, beautifully rendered planets with diverse bonus phenomena, a synth-heavy score; rather than add a coat of paint, the science fiction universe laid out in Endless Space is aesthetically superb and imbedded into just about every aspect of play.

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Endless Space is a sci-fi geek's wet dream - which is not to say is without its blemishes, far from it. Despite the incredibly useful and clear UI (User Interface: menus, etc) some important parts of play feel surprisingly under-communicated. For instance, there are a variety of different ways to win (most all of them traditional), but you'll have no idea what goes into it or what these ways are; only a percentage on that victory's likelihood - a tab for victory conditions would be quite useful. Also, there's no encyclopedia, which would've been especially helpful in a game world which is almost entirely fictional yet incredibly deep and complex. See a wormhole you want to pass through? You need the right tech, but sadly that involves visually looking at each of the over-100 individually to find it, hoping you might recognize it. Finally, even on the easy settings, the early hours of play including perhaps the first few entire games, will feel as confusing as exhilerating precisely because of the complexity and lack of hand-holding. If you can't do experimentation and trial and error, Endless Space is not for you. However, for those bold enough to brave the outer reaches, and are intrigued by the freedom the game offers, Endless Space is just what you've been waiting for.

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It's rare to laud a game initially based on UI, but in this case Endless Space deserves special recognition. This game was built for your computer; that means that mouse right and left clicking and hovering are the prime modes of interaction with the screen, and moving through charts, planets, maps, etc is slick and intuitive. Hitting the Esc key or Enter is never a requirement, and the controls are so intuitive that you'll wonder why just about every other PC strategy game doesn't flow as well - it just works, an astounding accomplishment in its own right. Zooming around the galactic map is therefore surprisingly enjoyable rather than a chore, with information boxes popping up under solar systems as you near them, expanding as you approach to reveal even more. Upon clicking on a star, you move to the Solar System map which is a better and more appealing version of what you'd see in Galactic Civ or MoO3. Even better, you can zoom to any planet and get your sci-fi senses buzzing with planet-art that makes Mass Effect planets look like stone-age 8-bit bowling balls. A wide variety of planet types can be found, each with the possibility of positive or negative bonuses (not unlike the effects of 'moral dilemnas' in Galactic Civ) and resource bonuses, which are revealed given proper research.

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Each of the currently eight playable races has an intriguing mixture of strengths and weaknesses (each of which can be adjusted) and moral alignments appear as well, though the depth of them does seem illusory. Diplomacy and trading options require research, but feel responsive, balanced, and intelligent once explored. Moving an armada to your border planet alongside a neutral empire will cause suspicion immediately, trades for techs and resources is intuitive, and each race feels interesting to play with. Heroes also join your empire (as in MoO), are upgradable, and can support either solar systems or fleets, depending on your interests. In either case, heroes provide massive bonuses and are crucial to success.

Then there's the technology tree, a feast for your imagination but likely a bit more frustrating for your reasoning. There are many innovations here, but primarily they consist in a Witcher 2-esque branching system with four main poles. This means that making strides in one area does not require advancement in another, something quite different than your typical Fraxis tree. Furthermore, advancements on different core paths are linked, such that one must reveal a resource in one area before one can use that resource for a military, industrial, or terraforming upgrade elsewhere: webs within webs. Furthermore, each technology feels significant and presents its details with a simple mouse-over, with zooming in and out working precisely the same as with the map. However, the lack of an encyclopedia here, and the creativity of the technologies (part of the game's strength), also means you'll definitely feel like you're in the dark at first, presented with a wall of very interesting but deep material to work through, which can be intimidating and frustrating without patience. The depth here is worth the patience, but the superb UI ought to be have extended to this area as well, or perhaps the tutorial ought to have done more to flesh out a first game concretely.

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Combat in Endless Space is quite interesting and innovative as well, with less of the drawbacks the tech tree has. Ships are customizable (in content, not appearance aside from initial form - so no Galactic Civ crazy constructions) and doing so is, again, quite intuitive and clear. Fleets can be created and expanded and lead by heroes, can combat enemy ships and invade solar systems, and rely on the principle of strategic skill over statistics alone. In the first place, combat consists of six periods with three main phases (long, medium, and short range), during which a different weapon type will be more effective (there are three main types in the game) and the same holds for defense - a little paper rock scissors, except for the card system. Each phase requires you to pick a card from a growing list, each of which presents a maneuver and counters a different maneuver (for instance: sabotage, engineering, defense, retreat, etc). The variety is great enough, and the perks and drawbacks of each are intriguing enough, that rather than feel flat, combat feels much more alive than any other turn-based game, where a bit of skill and luck might turn the tide, or sink you. The battles themselves take place in that system's space, displaying grand vistas highly reminiscent of Star Wars (but with less ships etc.), blowing Sins of a Solar Empire out of the water.

Endless Space is a fantastic real-time strategy space faring game, standing tall alongside the genre's greats, and besting them in more ways than one. Endless Space isn't an indie throwback, it's a forward-looking game built to stand on the shoulders of its predecessors. While the complexity is mitigated in most ways by an exceptionally well-thought UI, it's staggering in other ways, meaning Endless Space is long-form, requires failure and replay to learn, and could be intimidating to those new to the genre. For veterans, however, Endless Space feels timely, and perhaps a little timeless.

8/10

Critical Reflection: Bulletstorm

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"Killing as an art form!" proclaims doggedly likable space pirate and protagonist Grayson Hunt, as he accidentally causes an elevator to crush a mutant, only to get in and ride it up. Thus Grayson condenses Bullestorm's essence: killing as creative act.

Bulletstorm is on the one hand a game of pure spectacle. Like Bayonetta, it is its excessiveness which is entirely pleasurable, the degree to which it achieves a sublimity whereby the rational mind is surpassed by the vision before it. The only response is, did that really just happen? The sequence when Hunt and cybernetic partner Ishi storm the miniature city, attaining the stature of Godzilla in a world harkening to Japanese cinema, is one of many fine examples. Bulletstorm may not be as psychedelic as Bayonetta, but in place of the surreal it substitutes the exaggeration of a summer movie blockbuster. Only this exaggeration isn't concerned with reality at all, only with stretching it as far as it will go. It is the pure spectacle of Bulletstorm that gives the breath of inspiration to all the killing that needs to be done.

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For killing itself desires to become spectacle too. The reigns are handed to the player, the brush and oils to the artist who might conceive in her imagination a form which her being works to unfold in the material itself. A corkscrew-like projectile punctures the momentarily aloft mutant, stunned by a kick to the head which is submerged already in a pumpkin-like pod, and carries him through space past the devilish spikes and into the mouth of a giant man-eating plant. To achieve a moment whereby the artist, staggered by her composition, steps back and asks herself, did I just do that? At times, the production surpasses even the mind who accomplished it. If the player experiences moments like these, even in brief, she links her consciousness to all the players who have gone before, those skilled enough for their play to pass into beauty in every game. In this, Bulletstorm may not be unique. What is precisely unique about Bulletstorm is the game's explicit and constant push to make the player realize it.

As with all ideas, however, its significance is in the degree to which the execution follows. It is on this level that I think Bulletstorm both succeeds and fails. Bulletstorm at times seems to merely provide training wheels to the flourishing biker. For each weapon there are already designated forms by which the player might achieve a creative act. Points are earned by the originality of the kill, but it is an originality already thought, contained in the game's own systems. Though initially the creative impulse is helpfully guided by these forms, there may come a point where the creator says to herself, why only these? Certainly, Bulletstorm tries to ameliorate the problem through secret and special kills, often based on local context (always a source for the inspired creator), but even this are limited in number if not scope. In sum, the game can only reward the players creation to the extent that it is foreseen, hence already created, the simple chemical consequence of the elementary parts. What a creator really wants to realize, however, is not what is foreseen but the unforeseen original act.

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Thus the ideal of creation discovers its limit in a playground circumscribed by a pen. Bulletstorm is simply not designed with enough openness to account for the unforeseeable, in a way that perhaps Scribblenauts is. Certainly, this is due in part to the limited horizon of the game world which proceeds by its relatively simple components: grab, kick, shoot, in conjunction with the environs of burn, shock, melt, fall, chop. Perhaps if the creator is felt a little empty, missing that color which would achieve just the right contrast, it is due to this calculable limitation. That being said, Bulletstorm presents enough sublimity in its playground to keep any artist occupied for at least one time through its course. Whether it achieves what Grayson proclaims it does, however, might belong to the eye of the beholder.

Review: King Arthur II: The Role-Playing Wargame

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On the one hand, King Arthur II: The Role-Playing Wargame is brilliantly conceived, has a compelling role-play component, and displays a wonderful aesthetic. On the other hand, the real-time strategic battles don't function properly, the engine is finicky, and despite the beautiful broad brush strokes there isn't much content or complexity below the skin. To be sure, King Arthur II has many problems – so much so that at times the whole thing becomes far too tedious and bothersome. However, if a player can stomach the bad, there is a surprising level of rewarding experience to be had here.

Developed by Neocore Games and produced by Paradox Interactive, King Arthur II sequels King Arthur (2004, PS2) and King Arthur: Fallen Champions (2011, PC). It has multiple modes of gameplay, namely real-time combat juxtaposed to a semi-strategic overland management. The later is composed of diplomacy, research into lore, and troop movement. In a way the game resembles the Total War series, though with a fairly robust role-playing element layered into the management section. Heroes, like generals, gain experience and learn new skills, but can also be assigned fiefdoms which depending on their development add significant boosts to their army. Troops also level up, with gained statistical (numbers) increases and perks. Troops can be recruited once you have possession of a town or landmark from which they can be cultivated, the towns able to be upgraded and developed in the winter season (in which no troop movement is possible) for bonuses as fiefdoms. On top of that, players can craft new weapons and equipable items at special forges from loot that you collect through battle and role-playing missions, which can buff heroes exponentially.

Guiding the player through the experience is a poorly communicated narrative which sets tasks for the primary hero, William Pendragon, son of the ailing King Arthur, and other special heroes the player recruits rather further into the game. The overarching narrative is unfortunately very shallow, positing significant events with little context or attention to delivery. As such, it mostly stands as a framework with which to guide the player through the game. The overland play is not 'open world' per se, as only by following through the missions does the player progress, with very few exceptions. Diplomacy offers a little spice to overland management, as depending on certain factors you can gain alliances with smaller kingdoms which grant different opportunities, from the financial to the militaristic. Of course, you can always forgo diplomacy and just run all the other kings out if you like. Interaction with other kingdoms and the occasional random enemy troop suffice for what isn't scripted in the game.

The best part of King Arthur II is most definitely the missions themselves. Though they're not without fault, they present an interesting storytelling twist on top of a compelling reward system. Though a few consist only of battles, and some simply the possibility of one, by far the majority of missions the player engages in pertain to the unfolding of the, albeit very weak, plot. Yes, you will encounter some of the fabled heroes of legend, but they're too shallow to sympathize with. It isn't the plot which is compelling; rather it is the Choose Your Own Adventure st*yle of the missions as they unfold. Circumstances lead to decisions which in turn divide into further decisions and consequences. For instance, when William Pendragon enters London, a whole host of possibilities open up from government overthrow, backroom dealing, and cordial diplomacy, each of which has its own minute complexities. While unfortunately these events give little context for what a character might do, who to trust, or general motivations, that doesn't stop them from being surprisingly engaging. What replaces context (which ought give some motivation or momentum) is the desire to gain specific bonuses towards your 'morality', possibilities for expansion, financial gain, and military assistance among others. The morality system is also original, composed of four quadrants granting bonuses via right/tyranny and Old Gods/Christian God. The consequences of mission decisions often turn on a possible reward which is instantly practical: troops, cash, or power. In a real sense, these are the core narratives of King Arthur II; the Arthurian plot be damned.

It's unfortunate, then, that the combat is as thin as the teetering plot. Anyone expecting a Total War caliber RTS will be disappointed. Squad movement and organization is very similar, but the A.I. is generally very poor, on top of being much too overaggressive. Battles are won and lost on mobbing your army against smaller fragments of your opponent's. Unfortunately, once the A.I. of a squad is in battle with an opponent, or even near an opponent, directing them to take any action is off the table. Combat becomes strangely mindless and a matter of brute force, assuming the player doesn't charge an army of archers against some dragons or some such nonsense. There are few complex scenarios either, for instance where danger could come from multiple directions or there was a need to take down castle's walls. Camera movement is also more annoying than it ought to be, as especially during the set-up phase the camera can't move back behind the troops. Just getting a good view to organize can be a chore. The troop interface is also a tad too large to see the on screen action, aggravated by the lack of camera freedom. Though the addition of heroic powers employable on the battlefield seems promising, even that doesn't do enough to really make the combat more than tolerable, at best. The auto-battle button will likely see far more use than normal.

It's a double ill fortune then that the combat is so poor because King Arthur II looks so great, especially in combat. Though the frame rate can chug on higher settings, the landscapes are marvelous. At times a rugged wilderness with tremendous use of the vertical dimension, at other times a hellish wasteland with horns breaking the dry ground's crust, this theatre has a grand stage. The overland map is equally exquisite. All of Britain is laid bare, carved into fiefdoms and transversed by verdant hills and valleys, cracked plateaus, and desolately smoking black ranges. The sound design comes through most in the game's score, much of which is reminiscent of a sort of mystical world, voices pitched to high fantasy but the beat driven by a darker insistence. Most of the mission texts are fully voiced, all by the same actor who does a passable job at least, with a quality reminiscent of listening to an audiobook.

The overall aesthetic of a dark fantasy world seems to teeter on the edge of a truly great instantiation, with only a matter of shallow and inane content holding it back. Narrative or no, King Arthur II could have used more flesh on its bones, a complexity of character or a life beyond a trope. In the end, it's very hard to care about any of the heroes or the narrative events, at times making even the enjoyable missions feel entirely arbitrary – clearly, an opportunity was missed here. Still, the art and sound do wonders to make the time spent with King Arthur II enjoyable, and in their own right are quite superb.

Sadly, the game's engine is rather finicky, especially on high setting. Running the game on a high-end laptop (which runs Witcher 2 beautifully) the game crashes incessantly. Dropping all the settings can help smooth things over, but doesn't seem to ditch the problem altogether. On top of that, the load times are be atrociously long even for a game of its kind, and other quirks seem frequent, for instance the experience of a line of shadow falling over the overland map in sync with the player's camera movement.

As such, King Arthur II, if it is to be recommended (and I think it can be) ought to be recommended only to a role-playing audience, those interested in making interesting role-playing decisions and reading a good amount of text. The world is certainly beautiful, but rather shallow on both a strategic and investment level. Yet some of the role-playing elements are really satisfying, from the interesting mission structure to crafting and leveling each hero. King Arthur II is almost a really good game, one that just can't quite make it, with one too many problems. Still, an interesting dark fantasy world is hard to come by. That it could be more than a fine diversion is unlikely, however.

6/10

Alice: Madness Returns - A Critical Reflection

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If there is one thingAlice: Madness Returnsseems to suggest it is that of an identity. Though American McGee's name is no longer in the title proper,Alice: Madness Returns(2011) is undoubtedly the product of a continuation of his vision, originally asAmerican McGee's Alicereleased in 2000. Clearly, it is unusual for the director's name to appear in any title (Sid Meier's Civilizationa fine exception), and it speaks to an ownership and interpretive vision of a source material to which the name most often attached would obviously be Lewis Carroll. ThisAliceis McGee's, as a distinction from Carroll's. The question of interpretation is thus at the forefront, as a sort of 'cover', the like which is most often found in the music industry – except in this case the 'cover' crosses the boundaries of genre, from book (and film) to video game. What does it mean to translate across genres in such a manner? Is it important that American McGee does not even direct the game but is down solely for the game's concept? And most of all, what kind of identity doesMadness Returnscarve out for itself?

The first and most outstanding aspect ofAlice: Madness Returnsis the depiction of Alice Little herself. Playing as a skinny, pale, impotent girl become active and powerful is a rather profound experience, especially given the bulking protagonists surrounding the game on all sides – even 'Fem-Shep' seems infinitely more 'male' than Alice. The realization of Alice is thus of some import, and inMadness Returnsshe forms the center of the game in a manner rarely seen. Typically, the avatar is void, a husk for the incarnation of the player, yet here Alice seems rather to be in the state of becoming whole in an uncommon manner. Much of what brings Alice to life are not so much the contents bestowed upon her (narrative towards self-salvation), but rather the differences between the different Alices – from the mundane Alice of the 'real world', clad in black and white, poor, powerless (even the way she runs in the 'real world' is frail) who transforms into an entirely different Alice once in Wonderland: an Alice whose very clothing, movement, and face are transformed into an woman of action (idealized for sure, but not necessarily sexualized – though sexualization does have some import for the narrative). It is not in the narrative but in the very depiction of transformation, the differences taken together, that compose her being. Thus, themyriad dressesand compositions of her being are one of the great joys of the game, as are the incredibly varied artistic st*yle implimented – the purely aesthetic as substantive being.

Certainly, there is a sense of an inside/outside dualism between Alice and her environments, but one transcended in the end in the becoming of Alice figured in the becoming of London-Wonderland (it is the cheshire cat who calls it 'Londerland'). Of course, there is a tradition of reading the original text as a representation of the 'real world', in which each character is figured to represent the real in some way. This is not out of line with American McGee's interpretation which, though it rarely draws a one-to-one correspondence between the characters of Wonderland and those of London, explicitly makes Wonderland into the unconscious state of Alice, in such a manner that to 'save Wonderland' is to save herself. Unfortunately, this correspondence comes off too easy, both because it is not rigorous enough (Wonderland is just an excuse to platform and fight, with barely a narrative to behold) and perhaps at the same time too rigorous (is not Wonderland as Alice's unconscious far too cliché? and therefore not that interesting?). The relationship between Wonderland and London, between Alice's unconscious and consciousness, feels deeply flawed.

But what to make of this flaw, and what might it say concerning the game's effects? In part, I think it is the result of poor writing. Though the voice acting inMadness Returnsis generally good (again, especially the voice of Alice, Susie Brann) the writing is devoid of the life of the source material. The cheshire cat is a fine example; whereas in the books the cat is cryptic but in a Socratic fashion, always questioning Alice on her presuppositions, inMadness Returnsthe cat more often than not is simply a commentator, dispensing a 'wisdom' in nuggets that have no real place, rather than one who puts Alice to the question. At one point he states, "purity of heart is to will one thing" (google the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard) but the effect is the same as if he had said "looks like it might be rain", that is, it has none – it is purely arbitrary. Other times, especially towards the end when the cheshire cat urges Alice onward, his statements become entirely redundant, urging Alice to take a position of power towards her foes. But is Wonderland really a space of powerfulness or rather of something else? The attention to power seems to sweep away the paradoxes that once populated its landscapes, in favor of self-help self-realization – even the 'power' of the unconscious wilts in this light. At times, I felt as if there was an audience – specifically the category of 16 year old emo-types – due to the cat's running commentary on suffering, but with a lack of intensive suffering on the part of Alice as action-hero, its effect seemed trite.

If the writing feels arbitrary, however, it is at least in part because the game itself is far too recognizableas a game. In the Disney film, one of the most profound moments is the simplest – when the cat disappears and the smile remains, an effect without a cause, an object devoid of contextual sense,an image without referent, but a more powerful effect for it. There are times when theMadness Returnsyields such objects, for instance the rolling doll's head which detaches the player from any simple body, or the change in perspective given by becoming a giant, the castle yards now so many toothpicks. Yes, the art design has its moments of brilliance but on the whole the world seems built around transversing its space (which makes its space feel empty, merely for passing by) rather than accumulating around substantial moments (which are few).

Thus the implicit question: what kind of interpretation ofAlice in Wonderlandis given by a platformer? As such, I won't be the only one to say that every single level, even every good moment in the game, is stretched out far too far, levels going for far too long and wearing their welcome. For a game which seems to indicate meaning in all directions,Alice: Madness Returnsfeels weirdly devoid of life and signification. Rather than effects without causes, the effects are tied too easily to causes (the parallel narrative of Alice, the fire, and abuse) to which they don't relate, or to causes which are entirely obvious (the 'gamey' feel of the enterprise – the "real" cause: platforming). The narrative landscape is simply unmoving, as if all that really matters is the variety of Alices in their myriad outfits.

All of which brings me to the aesthetic ofMadness Returns. For my part, while there are moments of sheer brilliance in the aesthetic landscape (the 'house of cards' level, the watercolor platforming, the level of the dolls) the game's emptiness is profound. In this way, it is reminiscent ofBayonettain that the entire content of the game is essentially filled by the protagonist herself, though I would argue that the world of Bayonetta is a greater reflection of the protagonist than Wonderland is. Furthermore, as inBayonetta, there is a strong sense of the protagonist's st*yle which becomes significant in its own right – st*ylebecomes substantive whereas what is otherwise the game's substance no longer matters. Like Bayonetta, Alice is (I think) a powerful example of femininity in games, though in an almost antithetical manner, orphan rather than divine witch. Yet with both of them, what is interesting is that it is the perceived which becomes all important, it is the look of the character which has the character's being, it is the tone and vibe, the resonance of the character that comes to be profound. As in Nietzsche, it is the mask which is the truth of being.

Where I thinkMadness Returnsfalters, then, is not on its (somewhat archaic) gameplay but in its inability to carry this idea through on all sides (whereasBayonettalargely succeeded in this endeavor).Madness Returnsis a game desperate to find some profundity in the becoming of Alice as she traverses Wonderland, and yet it is precisely this significance which eludes the game proper – is it any wonder that there is virtually nothing compelling the play and moving it along? Even the surprising end-game reveal does little to communicate any meaning to the entire endeavor, but functions more as an excuse – a reason to finish playing rather than go on. In short,Madness Returnscannot come to terms with what it wants to be; it is without identity – a strange thing to say of a game which seems to indicate nothing but an identity, be it American McGee's or Alice's.

Review: Dear Esther

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Dear Esther is a compelling game. Originally a Source mod, downloadable to use with Half Life 2, it has finally been released bythechineeseroom on Steam as a game complete unto itself. The experience of Dear Esther is of a singular vision – rather unlike anything else out there – and it will definitely stretch your definition of 'game'. The player moves through the environment making encounters along a path which piece together into a meaningful context in such a way that the real and dreamlike seem to coincide. Superb aesthetics and sound design, along with well-executed voiced passages makes the world come alive. Despite the game's brief duration, while it lasts it has a power all its own.

To review a game likeDear Estheris a difficult task because, on the one hand, it is in many ways a purely aesthetic game: one interacts by movement alone, slowly progressing along a generally linear path. On the other hand, the aesthetics themselves involve a technical description that could easily make the experience of play out as its skeletal components, robbing the descriptive terms of their power.

With that in mind, taken separately, each ofDear Esther's component pieces stand up very well on their own. The primary (in-game) interactivity takes place via the players movement. Environmental designs guide the player through a course of sorts, which passes by numerous events and objects. Certain of these spark a well-voiced narration that, though when put together reveal a sort of meaning for the encounters you have, on their own bend towards the poetic, relying as much on the sense of the words and word combinations as any determinate signification (ie, narrative writing). Movement is smooth and almost surreal. There is no 'running': movement has been slowed in a way that requires the player to take it all in. The is also no physical self to perceive – footsteps are heard only softly – and the camera flows up and over obstacles as if afloat. This lends the player's perspective a dream-like quality which dovetails well with the contextual environment that builds up around you.

While not technically excellent, or no more so than the Source engine the game is built from,Dear Estheris visually exceptional. The environment feels hand crafted; each rock unique, the physical landscape sweeping from beaches up to plateaus authentic, lending a realism to the exploration that counters moments which seem to leave reality, giving them additional weight. As much of what the player encounters involves remnants of past events, it is especially impressive thatDear Estherachieves a strong sense of a time having already past, now seen as having accumulated the environment's changes. Furthermore, the level design despite its general linearity does an excellent job of pacing. There always seems to be a sight or event hidden around the corner or seen from a distance, continually drawing the player along.

Even more impressive, however, is the sound design and score. Blending the environmental sounds of a lonely northern island with instance-initiated gentle but urgent musical scores, the sound easily sweeps along the player. The shifts in music and tonality are such that they create a sense of ascribed meaning to the events as they unfold, though on a repeated playthrough will underline different moments based on your different movement through. The score's effectiveness is helped by a rather wide variety of instrumentation – from piano, violins, and cellos to electronic noises and pulses. The ambient sounds are equally engaging. From the wind to the waves, the sound does a superb job of localizing the player, compounding the sense of reality which anchors the game's otherwise unreal sensibilities. Finally, the voice acting itself performed by Nigel Carrington is just outstanding. Occurring repeatedly in 'instances' throughout the game, the narrator's lines are delivered authentically and with purpose, never melodramatically, and in such a way as to build on each other, like a spoken poem.

Taken as a whole, each of these components come together for a special and perhaps profound experience. The joy of play is as much in the soaking up of the aesthetics as it is putting together bits and pieces of notes and objects and senses to create a meaning throughout one's time. Yet how does one ascribe meaning to a chain or series of chance events but by making each event necessary?Dear Esthereven intimates a sensibility which is almost 'meta' in regards to itself, though never in a distracting or noncontexual way. In fact, most of the interaction withDear Esthereffectively happens at this secondary level between the player and the game, rather than through the player's character who is essentially a blank slate or purely perceptual organ. In other words, much of the interaction is by way of the player's own interpretation of the unfolding events. It is not unlike the experience of a game likeMystbut is certainly not 'puzzle' oriented, and therefore more essentially open to interpretation, as with any purely artistic expression.

Put simply,Dear Estherwould fit right in at any contemporary art installation. Certainly, what the player 'gets' out of it or even if the game is convincing will depend to a certain extent on one's disposition. That being said, the aesthetic excellence of the game and the way in which the scattered meanings are woven together ought to be enough to give even the action-only gamer pause. Quality speaks for itself, andDear Estherhas it in spades. By far the biggest drawback is the brevity of the experience, which clocks in at around an hour or so. If you're ok with a one-time only experience that will stay with you long after, however,Dear Estherdeserves all the time it has to give you.

. . . .

"We are not like Lot's wife, you and I; we feel no particular need to turn back. There's nothing to be seen if we did. No tired old man parting the cliffs with his arms; no gifts or bibles laid out on the sand for taking. No tides turning or the shrieking gulls overhead. The bones of the hermit are no longer laid out for the taking: I have stolen them away to the guts of this island where the passages all run to black and there we can light each others faces by the strange luminescence."

Apologies on Being Gone and Best of 2011

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Wow, I haven't posted to Gamespot on Months, and here I used to be such a good member. First, to the few who might have noticed my absense, I've largely moved myself over to the startup RobotGeek.co.uk where I (along with another mystery gamespotter) have been writing. Recently I took on the Reviews Editor position, and have generally been writing weekly reviews, analysis, criticism over there. If you want to see my recent history, go here (no my real name isn't TechnologoDoom...). For a while I was still double posting to this blog, but man that get's old. However, I'd like to keep it to talk about more personal matters game-wise, inappropriate for that venue.

In other news, I'm studying Philosophy in Belgium, did Christmas in Berlin and New Years in Amsterdam. Not too shabby all around. PS - Happy New year to everyone. If you want to talk Gilles Deleuze, I'm writing my thesis on his 'Proust and Signs'. but enough about that.

Here's my Top 10 Games I Played in 2011 (This is NOT the best OF 2011).

Good lord I played a bunch of games, but the new and exciting thing this year was my new gaming laptop which i took with me to Belgium, and the whole world of PC gaming I've missed out on since roughly 2004. Likewise, there's a bunch of console only games from summer-fall that will be on this list next year i'm sure (Catherine, Dark Souls in particular).

Furthermore, a few of the huge AAA games that released this year really did not cut it for me (see my articles on RobotGeek: Portal 2 and Batman Arkham City). Here's what did:

10. The Void

I put it on this list NOT because it's functionally playable - I'm convinced it's not possible to get anywhere close to what I think is the end, much less off the first few islands. It's here because it's mindbendingly beautiful (aurally and visually) and creative, an experiment, argument for 'games as art' (which I won't get into, and don't believe in really) in the manner of it's sheer creation of another world which is a singular viewpoint, an expression of one. Anyway, I rage quit this game.

9. Terraria

If you own a PC you've probably seen or played this already. and it's great - a really focused platforming minecrafty spelunker of a game. Definitely enjoyed it, but haven't stuck around for all the updates. Probably one i'll go back to at some point.

8. The Third Age - LOTR Mod of Medieval 2 Total War

Being a (relatively minor) LOTR geek (I go more for intellectual sci-fi) didn't stop me from playing this ubermod of a game. Sure it's old, but the Medieval 2 game still works well on its own merits (having played it for hours and hours) and the mod really then takes what's great about the original, tweaks it all up, but somehow retains the core ballances needed to keep the Strategic gameplay compelling. That's just darn impressive! If you're a LOTR fan, buy M2TW in order to play this mod.

7. Shogun 2 Total War

The first TW game I played, and technically the best. Beautiful overland maps, compelling realtime combat, etc etc. I only wish you could play more factions... and that Steam would let me use my current location in Belgium to buy the new expansion! (I should get back on that)

6. Arx Fatalis

Released to Xbox and PC in 2002 (? - same year as Morrowind... all brown too) a now forgotten RPG gem. Morrowind is still my fav game of all time, and so I don't mind playing an outdated FP RPG, which is Arx Fatalis. Except that the magic system of scribing figures in space to cast is rather hard, it's also pretty darn cool. It's rare to go back 10 years and still feel like the system works, that it's still playable. For me, not only was it playable, but it was one of my favs all year.

5. Civilization V

This shouldn't be this high, but darn if i didn't log so many crazy hours into this game. Everyone seemed disappointed with 5 comared to the beloved 4, but this iteration is better. Hexes are better. Not stacking units is better. I could go on. It could use some big expansions like we saw in the last game, but as is Civ V is just hands down a great Strategy game still. Now if only they would make Alpha Centari 2!!

4. HItman Blood Money

I wasn't prepared to like this game, but bought it on a Steam sale and gave it a run. Turns out its one of the most amazing games i've played in a while. The openess of the executions is fantastic, the set-piece locations are aesthetically on-the-money, the gunplay is smooth, just great all around (See my review here at GS). I'd be shocked if Hitman Absolution was better than this. Shocked.

3. The Witcher 2

The most perfect union of technical sophistication and aesthetic artistry, this game is hands down gorgeous. I can't stop looking at Triss' hair (on her head, please). Or the catapults. Or the flames. Or anything really. It's just great to look at. Thankfully, it's also a much better set of combat rules than the first Witcher, though it's still darn hard. I got slaughtered so much at first it was embarracing. The end could've been tighter, and I have a few nitpicks, but overall one of the best RPGs of this generation... since Dragon Age Origins i'd say (depending on whether you count ME2).

2. Neverwinter Nights 2 (and Mask of the Betrayer Expansion)

Old school RPG. I was in D&D heaven with the sequel to Bioware's old ****c. Gotta say, I still love all the ****lore, the stats, the plotting my characters, it's endlessly gratifying. And NWN2 plus expansion was well over 100 hours of pure D&D CRPG bliss. The Mask of the Betrayer expansion, in particular, was mindblowingly great in my estimation. I can't believe I missed this game. Makes me want to go back and play Baldur's Gate all over again.

1. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

So much was stellar this year in my collection that putting Skyrim first was harder than I thought it would be. Read my review if you like at RobotGeek, but I thougt the game tremendous. I still play it (on my second character, 160 hours in) and consider it superior to two other Bethesda games I adore: Fallout 3 and Morrowind. Is it perfect? nope. But it's the greatest instanciation yet of the idea Bethesda has about FP RPGs, worlds, and roleplay. And whereas Oblivion, in my estimation, was always interesting but never compelling, Skyrim brought the bacon back from Morrowind this time. I know there's folks out there who think it's far to long and far too boring. I have no reply, because those are what the game in many ways is: long-form role-play, and if you want quick content, it isn't your game. PS - it's such a gorgeous game, i'm tempted to start a blog of just amazing skyrim pics.

That's all. hopefully I post again before the next semester ends!

Dead Island: Know Thyself

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(Dead Island's visuals rely more on st*yle than on technical brilliance - which is mostly the same in all other aspects)

There's something to be said about the success of games relying equally on nailing appropriate gameplay mechanics for a specific genre as well as refining those mechanics to what's appropriate, given the new and original elements in a game which separates it as a unique instanciation within that genre. In other words, games, like any of the broader "arts", need to take from what's around them to define themselves as much as they need to strip those expectations in light how that game positions itself in its context. In light of that, few games I've played recently make so many missteps on this account as Dead Island. In taking the RPG formula and inserting it into an action-adventure game, one of the most prominent effects of playing Dead Island is how obviously some of the RPG tropes simply fail in this context, as if Techland simply didn't have a good sense of how to refine its unique position amid genre expectations.

Genres in the "arts" writ-large have always acted as a source of meaning-context for new forms. Especially in cinema, but in painting and philosophy too, genres are what allows us to have expectations for a game which gives us initial understanding to approach the new, while at the same time allowing for variations on that central theme. The rise of the Western or Musical in cinema are perfect examples of this. I would not be the first critic to note, however, that game genres themselves feel woefully inadequate to the extraordinary divergence of games in the last decade. It's becoming harder and harder to situate a game within a given gameplay context, in large part because many developers are doing an admirable job at stretching what they've inherited into new and interesting forms. So much so that at times it feels as if the genres themselves are crumbling, replaced by a more singular and visceral sense of inheritance - like those games we call "Metroidvania" in sty*le. Or take Limbo - it's hard to boil it down essentially into its component pieces of puzzle, platform, etc. Part of the reason that game is successful is that while it combines genres in new and interesting ways, it clears a space for itself at the nexus of such mergers. Here, mechanics which were taken from the core genres themselves find a home which is entirely appropriate to the new space forged by Limbo - a space which accomplishes as much on an existential plane as it does on a physical one.

(Here's the only menu that is both aesthetically pleasing and informative)

Unfortunately, Dead Island fails to properly gauge its relation both to its inheritance (the RPG, the Zombie-Action game, and the Brawler, primarily) as well as to its own unique composition amidst those contexts. So while Dead Island is, at least in terms of primary mechanics, an Action-RPG, it fails to have a sense of which RPG mechanics to leave behind in the bold new space they've created: the Zombie Action-RPG. One might think: why not simply lift the same mechanics from Dragon Age or Gothic II, plop them down, and paint them anew in Zombie highlights. Essentially, that's what Dead Island did.

The inventory management system, for one, is simply atrocious. Perhaps if Dead Island had taken from the still-clunky Fallout 3, instead of from Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, the inventory system would be in better shape. Yet, Dead Island's inventory system is everything wrong with the game - it's bulky (a clear lift out of RPGs from at least 5 years ago if not longer), it's non-sortable, and it's ugly (doesn't fit the aesthetics of the other game menus, which are quite nice). It's as if no thought went into its incorporation other than the question "which Action-RPG inventory system should we simply rip-off?" It was torn and patched into the game without so much as a reflection, it seems.

How Dead Island works with RPG "numbers" is equally telling. On the one hand, you have weapons which deal certain types of damage and have statistics associated with them (handling, durability, etc.) as well as enemies with health and stamina bars above their heads. On the other hand, these numbers seem meaningless except in relation to themselves - as purely a means to see if this knife in my hand is deadlier than the crowbar on the ground - as a communication of "progression" in the game. RPGs have used this system for decades successfully. So how does Dead Island screw it up? First, whereas in games of the D&D lineage, where the numbers on the surface only mattered in context to the numbers under the hood (base stats, AC, and the like), Dead Island proffers only the surface numbers which apart from the rest lack all context or meaning. If this knife deals 200 damage and this club 100 force, I still have no idea which is better - I simply have to count how many strikes it takes to bring down a zombie, because none of the under-the-hood stats are revealed. What's worse, however, are level caps assigned to weapons. For instance, at any level, say 10, you may have an item in your inventory which is only usable at level 15, say a crowbar. That my character needs to be, artificially, at level "15" to use a crowbar is patently absurd. Have many RPGs used that system over time? Yes, though not without mitigating senses of appropriateness. It's one thing to have a "real" barrier, say like a skill, which is needed to use an object. It's another thing to need to be at a certain "artificial" level to use a crowbar. The crafting system falls on the same broken design - that I need instructions to know how to attach nails to a stick. It simply reveals the absurdity - the gaminess - of the whole enterprise. And one of the things Dead Island does best is remind you constantly: you're playing a game.

(The flimsy knife requires level 14 to use. Can someone explain this to me?)

Not all the fumbling with context is on the RPG-side of the game, however. An equal part of the game's shortcomings result from a failure to give the zombies any weight: Respawn in the same location upon death means a very low sense of punishment for failure, as well as inflating the already impending sense that these zombies aren't scary at all - if anything they're just one more barrier between you and your goals. They could just as easily be rats in a dungeon or wild boars in a forest - there's no "sense" to them.

All of which leads me to say that Dead Island is a perfect example of a game which has no sense of itself. It can't place itself in context appropriately to what it takes from the past, nor from what new experiences it forges. Dead Island is entirely blind and dumb to itself. As such, you won't be surprised to read that it feels like a bunch of mechanics slapped together, with the hopes that slaying zombies will do enough to wash everything else in enough blood to hide their glaring flaws. I'm not saying that the game isn't worth playing, or that there aren't moment of enjoyment to be had. As an educational experience, however, Dead Island shines.

Moving to Belgium tomorrow

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Hey all,

FYI, i'm moving to Leuven, Belgium (outside of Brussels) tomorrow! Should be pretty exciting. I'll be studying in a one-year graduate philosophy program, before ideally returning to the states for more school. screw the US, europe here i come :)

can you name the philosphers?


TRAUMA (PC/Steam) - Review

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TRAUMA - 8/10

"TRAUMA has the wonderful ability to transmute the totally ordinary into an extraordinarily magical experience."

- - -

Indiecade and IGF finalist, TRAUMA, has been on the indie scene's radar for a while now, and has finally been released on Steam. Though you'll likely get an hour or two's worth of play, you'll be rewarded with some surprisingly moving moments and a sense of real discovery.

As a women lies in her hospital bed, she moves in and out of consciousness, to remembrance, dream, and back again to awake. The journey, in four stages, is open to your whims, as you can complete any part of the game in any order. That said, all the stages are connected and are necessary to progress through the whole entirely.

The play occurs through a sort of revised point-and-click. Images float before a black backdrop, and by moving the cursor to and fro, you'll draw out of the image other images which connect to the previous one. Moving around in the world, then, and examining "objects" (which are often not really objects in the traditional sense) is certainly a point-and-click affair. Yet you also learn the ability to inscribe symbols on the screen which turn you left, right, back you up, or turn you around, and eventually you'll learn secret abilities which allow you to progress through each stage's multiple endings. As a mechanic, mousing through images and pictures and occasionally inscribing symbols works quite well with the overall simple nature of the presentation. As images of remembrance, all extremely local and yet simultaneously etherial, the tool is used more as a way of discovery than the typical "puzzle solving" in ****cs like Myst. Certainly, you'll need to "solve" specific solutions, but the tone here is much more exploratory.

In these four worlds of dream/remembrance, each is composed of serial pictures of landscapes which though initially often seem mundane (a road at night, an old factory at sunset, etc), flower and unfold into strange and metaphysical landscapes. It's this congruence of the ordinary and the extraordinary that's so powerful in play, and it's easily the remarkable aspect of the game. The hospitalized woman's voice speaks to you (herself) as you explore, in a calm but thoughtful tone, as soft piano plays behind it all. The setting, then, becomes surprisingly moving, as the women's voice, the transcendental pictures, and the events which unfold all serve in an understated manner to draw you in compellingly.

As a relatively simple experience, TRAUMA lets you discover on your own how to proceed, though it does give you hints as you progress though a variety of Polaroid images scattered through each level. Some teach you the mechanics of drawing symbols to maneuver through the world while others are hints to the multiple "solutions" for each stage. Each of the four stages has four different endings, each of which is able to be experienced multiple times, with the game "ending" when you complete each for the final "Road Less Traveled" stage. If you're a completionist, though many Polaroids are difficult to find, upon completing all the endings for a stage you're granted a new sense which allows you to judge the distance to each remaining Polaroid. It's a useful addition, though as the Polaroids themselves are useful only in helping to obtain all the endings, it's a modest gift.

Clocking in at one to two hours, TRAUMA might be slightly more expensive than you might want to pay, though the game itself is certainly fresh. Far and away the most provocative aspect is the ability of the game to transmute what seems like a far-too-normal world into someplace magical. It's a rare treat, accomplished by understated art design, appropriately subdued sound, and a focus on exploration over traditional "puzzle solving." TRAUMA won't knock you over the head - it's far too mature for that. Rather, it seeps into your consciousness as you play, and is quite wonderful given it's simple presentation. If you're looking for strong puzzle mechanics, action, or traditional gameplay, look elsewhere. However, if you're an art-house gamer, interested in seeing what the game-medium can deliver in terms of emotional impact and experimentation, clearly you need to pick this up.