Stick of Truth: Matt ‘n Trey make a Paper Mario of their very own

SouthParkTheStickOfTruthI just played and finished South Park: The Stick of Truth. Been a while; finally got around to it.

Reaction? Pleasantly surprised!

I knew the game was an RPG, and I knew that Obsidian were damned good at making RPGs. There’d been good buzz, and anybody could tell that the graphics were dead-on from videos and screenshots.What I wasn’t expecting was that Stick of Truth played like an old-school JRPG. And what I really wasn’t expecting was that it was going to be a Mario RPG!

Yep. That’s what it is: a JRPG. Stick of Truth doesn’t play like either your Skyrim or your Final Fantasy. It doesn’t have the wandering aimlessness of the former, nor the complex, baroque combat favoured by the latter. What it’s got is exactly what Nintendo’s been providing in their RPGs going all the way back to SuperStar Saga: two-person combat teams, a choice of two distinct direct attacks that use timed presses of action buttons, upgradable “magic” attacks that focus on QTE-style button prompts, and time defences that you must use if you want to survive.

Heck, it’s even got the swappable companions that you’d see in Paper Mario, and the companion abilities that you use for both out-of-combat puzzle and in-combat ass-whuppins!

See, what separates good JRPGs from bad ones, more than anything else, is that the bad ones make you slog through fights you don’t enjoy and wish you could skip in order to get dribs and drabs of storytelling, while the good ones make a point of having encounters be something you want to do and enjoy doing. There are lots of different ways to do that–Suikoden 2 and Panzer Dragoon Saga both pull it off, but in completely opposite ways–but that’s the core of it. So, yes:

Stick of Truth is a damned good JRPG.

It’s one of the rare RPGs where I actively sought out combat simply because the combat loops were intrinsically engaging, instead of extrinsically rewarding with levels and loot and such. Every attack cycle featured meaningful choices, tests of player’s system knowledge and hand-eye skill, and gave both kinaesthic and visual rewards for success. It’s a joy to play, just as Nintendo’s JRPGs have been.  It’s proof that the “JRPG” vs. “western RPG” concepts aren’t really about Japan at all.

(It’s really about the way that the game abstracts skill and handles the division between “exploration” vs. “encounter” mode of play.)

Most people probably don’t buy it because they’re JRPG fans, though. Who’d even know? Obsidian hasn’t made one before now. Obsidian’s proven that they know exactly how it works, and even provided some great nods to previous RPGs, but players won’t know that. No, they probably buy it because it’s a South Park game. How’s it stand on that? Here’s the answer:

Stick of Truth is also a damned good South Park game.

You probably already knew that the visuals are dead-on. It’s almost eerie. Excepting the camera-angle and camera-distance concessions made for ease of player movement, it could easily be an episode of the series. The voice work is just straight-up South Park, too. All the available voice actors return, and the character voices are handled with the same level of care that the series has. It’s South Park.

The plot is a continuation and resolution of the whole Game of Thrones-related plotline from a while back, so it fits into the series’ continuity, and the way that the player’s integrated into the whole thing as the “new kid” is seamless. It even has the standard South Park plot structure, where a relatively simple conflict between the kids in the first act escalates into absolute madness by the end. It doesn’t quite feature the social insight that makes the best episodes so good…but it also doesn’t have the complete lack of political insight that makes the worst episodes so painful.

Is it funny? That’s too subjective to say. laughed. Sometimes really hard. Sometimes out of shock–at times Stick of Truth was the most vulgar game I’ve ever played. If you’re easily offended, stay away. It is unapologetically offensive.  It pushed a lot of buttons, including buttons I didn’t even know I had. Be aware.

(Since I’m Canadian, but also spoiler-averse, all I’ll say is that, yes, the game’s moment of crowning glory involved the True North Strong and Free.)

I’m not sure how relevant all of that is, though. The strange thing–the funny(?) thing–is that I never really played Stick of Truth for the jokes, or the art, or the voice work, or the story, engaging as they all were. I played because I enjoyed it as a game. I enjoyed exploring and finding stuff. I enjoyed upgrading and customizing my gear. I enjoyed using my out-of-combat abilities to gain an advantage in combat, and in both taking down tough bosses and absolutely crushing the “trash mobs” in a few turns.

It also shows what was so wrong with Fez. Like Fez, it has winning, clever core interactions that are intrinsically fun to do. Unlike Polytron, though, Obsidian and South Park Studios took that core and placed it inside a framework of meaningful choice and engaging narrative-building.

I also feel that shows that the whole narrative vs. ludology thing may be a bit of a misdirect; that truly solid games do both. You can focus on one or the other, but even the most narrative-driven storyteller should maybe break out the ol’ deck of cards and test out some gameplay loops.

In the meantime, I’m going to catch up on all those old SP episodes I missed. Also going to need to start digging through Obsidian’s back catalog. I’ve been sitting on New Vegas for ages. Think it’s time to rectify that. And since Trey Parker gave EarthBound a specific shoutout as a design inspiration, it’s time to rectify that little gap in my knowledge, too. Wish me luck.

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So what’s the issue with Fez?

Yep, I finally got a chance to try Phil Fish’s Fez. Well, to be honest, it’d been on my steam list for a long time; I’d just never installed it, since it’s so obviously a controller-focused game. I got access to a controller, so I gave it a try.

This isn’t a “review”, though. I haven’t finished the game yet. Not sure if I’m even going to. See, there’s two things that jump out at me with Fez: it’s a great mechanic…in search of a game.

Yeah, Fez is kinda twee

Doesn’t look like much…until you see it rotate.

Fez is a mostly 2D retro-platformer. There’s lots of them out there. Tons. The indie scene is absolutely littered with them. It’s practically the go-to format, since it not only appeals to nostalgia and a hipsterish yearning for the authentic, but it’s damned cheap to make a retro-platformer compared to almost every other modern genre.

(The gameplay loops are well understood and intuitive, the art’s cheap, the music can be done on a Casio, nobody expects realistic physics, etc. )

The gimmick is that it’s only mostly 2D. It starts out 2D, but after some arcade-referencing shenanigans straight out of ROM CHECK FAIL, you gain the game’s signature ability: rotating these two-dimensional playfields along the Y-axis. 2D becomes 3D. Your little avatar also get a sweet hat.

This mechanic works. Wonderfully. You still move in two dimensions, but you think in three. Since you move the character in two dimensions but rotate the playfield in a third, players start feeling like they’re controlling two simultaneous avatars: the little be-hatted character, and the playfield itself. It’s almost a dance between the two: the character moves, and the playfield rotates, both moving back and forth, up and down, ’round and ’round, to accommodate the other. There’s a reason the demos of the game were lionized so much.

But what you’re doing with that mechanic…

The point of the game is to find cubes. That’s it. That’s all. You have to find two, then four, then eight, then sixteen, then thirty-two, and (optionally) 64 cubes. Some are whole, some are broken into little “bits” scattered around the playfields. Some are normal yellow cubes, comparatively easy to get; others are “anti-cubes” that are harder to find, requiring players to solve obscure (and, frankly, often obtuse) puzzles.

There are things dressing all this up, like an annoying, time-consuming cypher substitution language and some odd retro-referencey nonsense involving tetris pieces and a possibly-duplicitous hypercube that’s this game’s Navi. None of it matters.  It’s just cubes, upon cubes, upon cubes.

Why on EARTH was this seen as a good idea? If your game is a big ol’ retro reference, I can see drawing on Super Mario 64….but why take away the absolute worst thing about Super Mario 64? It’s astonishingly boring. It sounded boring when I figured out what I’d need to do, Getting dozens of McGuffins was boring to think about, and even more boring to do. Hence why I haven’t finished the game yet. I just can’t see the point of it.

Sure, the mechanic saves the experience. Navigating the environment and solving its puzzles, character and playfield locked in their endless dance? That never stopped being fun. It never got old. Fez is like a dumb shooter with a great “feel”; what you’re doing is pointless, but it feels great. It’s got the “micro” down cold, but is flubbing the “macro”. Maybe that changes…but I honestly can’t see how.

It’s too bad. Fish clearly put a lot of thought and work into the game. There’s a lot of immensely obscure stuff going on; quick Google searches bring up stuff about cryptography and steganography and whatnot right out of an ARG. But I don’t see how it’s become this universally lauded classic, and I do wish that he’d spared some of that thought to ask whether or not a bit more variety in goals might have helped the experience. Even a more traditional structure of forward progress would have helped.

Guess I’ll scoop up some more cubes…ugh…and finish it. Maybe I’ll find out then.

(Image is from Wikipedia.)

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Does Thomas Piketty explain why there are too many indie games? Maybe…

The Indiesplosion on Steam of 2014 has lead to a big ol’ argument over whether the market’s now crashing, 80s style. There’s an absolute TON of new games on Steam now, many indie, and many transparently terrible. So we get Jeff Vogel saying that there are too many games, there’s only so much money, and discoverability is impossible. “Only ‘x’ number of dollars that can pay for ‘y’ number of games”.  While Robert Fearon says “what, just because there’s a bunch of indies now there’s suddenly too many? Isn’t that conveenient?” in response. 

Okay, fine, that’s not a direct quote. A direct quote of Robert would be something like this:

It didn’t happen during the 16bit years when shareware, the demo scene, Blitz Basic, commercial games got spewed out one after the other! It didn’t happen with DOS despite there being thousands and thousands of games around the place and more being made week in, week out. It didn’t happen with casual, it didn’t happen with windows, it happened now, under our watch. Forty fucking years and that’s our lot, we nuked it in six. 

Uuuggghh…I hate arguments like this. They’re so well-meaning and snarkily uplifting that I feel like a jerk knocking them down. Nevertheless: Robert, the problem is gatekeeping and distribution.The reason why music didn’t die when a million different little grunge bands appeared in the 90s (or punk bands in the 70s) is the same reason why the thousands of DOS games weren’t a problem back then: because we had multiple levels of gatekeeping going on, and distribution was in the hands of those gatekeepers. It didn’t matter how many DOS games you made; they were only going to end up at the local store unless you found some way of distributing them, and the distributors made their literal business out of deciding who was worth it and who wasn’t. 


Distribution is trivial, especially for an indie game. Distributing something as small as most indie games is so comically cheap you could likely do it with many home connections. The only reason why Steam is so sought-after is because people want Steam’s easy library organization and patching. It’s not really about distribution

Because distribution is trivial, and duplication is free, there are no “local” markets anymore, and nobody playing gatekeeper. (Even Valve’s given it up.) There’s every reason for games to stay in “print” forever and be universally available.  As Vogel said, you aren’t just competing against free games, you’re competing against every game ever made, as well as almost every other piece of created entertainment ever made, not to mention thinly-veiled amusements like Facebook and HuffPo and BuzzFeed and Twitter and whatnot.  

On that I think that Fearon’s wrong, and Vogel’s right. There really are too many products chasing too few dollars, and it is unique, due to distribution. (See Everything That Clay Shirky Has Written Ever.)  

That’s not the important bit, though. The important bit, the one that neither piece talks about, is the economic side of all this. Why is the pool of people willing and able to buy games so limited? Why is Vogel’s “x” variable so small? Because people’s inflation-adjusted wages are stagnant at best. Free-to-play relies on “whales” for the same reason that Thomas Piketty wrote the most important book of our century, and why London, New York, and Vancouver are becoming empty cities of oligarch vacation homes: because the only economic model that works anymore is one that targets the vanishingly-small-but-fabulously-wealthy people at the top of the world’s economy.  

Remember, the concept of “whales” in F2P monetization schemes comes from casino lingo, referring to the people who blow hundreds of thousands of dollars at the tables. It’s all about extracting a majority of cash from a minority of players. The majority don’t have it to begin with.

And why are there so many indie devs? Because people want to be able to make a living actually making something, something that they see as valuable and worthwhile.  Game-making is one of the only places where you could conceivably do that nowaday–most other creative fields are in worse shape than gaming is–but you sure aren’t going to find it in AAA development. (See: any given Gamasutra piece on the industry.) Is it any wonder that people with any sort of skills in the field are piling into indie development? What else are they going to do, devote 90 hours a week to some doomed tech-bubbly SF startup or soul-crushing, economy-wrecking NYC finance gig? Or just resign themselves to a lifetime of poverty?  

So while Vogel’s point is right, but I think Fearon has a legitimate grievance about his tone. People are trying to make it big, yes, but it’s because “doing okay” is no longer an option in an economy divided between the rich and the poor. You need to swing for the fences, because there’s no such thing as a base hit. If indie can make you rich, the modern economy means that you’re compelled to try. That’s not their fault.

This isn’t a problem that can be fixed by the game industry itself. It’s a symptom, not a cause. Vogel’s “x” and “y” are parts of bigger forces, so arguing about whether or not the industry has issues is a completely irrelevant waste of time. Depending on who you talk to, we’re either living through the transition to a new feudalism, or the slow self-destruction of the capitalist system. If you’re going to worry about something…worry about THAT. 

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Carmack’s Wrong. How can Carmack be wrong?

It’s a weird position to be disagreeing with John Carmack.

The man’s a well-known authority on everything to do with tech, and especially on VR. He’s the guy who made DOOM and Quake. His legendary Quakeworld address ignited public interest in VR. His decision to move to Oculus was hailed as one of the best signs for VR.

Doesn’t matter. I can’t buy this:

Honestly, I wasn’t expecting Facebook (or this soon). I have zero personal background with them, and I could think of other companies that would have more obvious synergies. However, I do have reasons to believe that they get the Big Picture as I see it, and will be a powerful force towards making it happen. You don’t make a commitment like they just did on a whim.

John, everything I read says that these decisions were made on a whim. The decision was made in literal days: 3 days by some accounts, 5 days by others. Oculus had just discovered that they have serious competition, including Sony’s own Morpheus headset. They were in trouble and needed a big wallet to stay ahead.

Meanwhile, Facebook was and is terrified over their inability to make a serious splash on mobile platforms,to the point of paying an unbelievable $20b for WhatsApp. Suddenly they’re given an opportunity to get in on the Next Big Thing, VR, by taking advantage of Oculus’ fragility and buying their way in. They had to do it immediately, though, before Google or Microsoft come calling.  Considering that Palmer Luckey is, what, 21 years old, it was never going to be that difficult. So they proceed to roll over Oculus like a semi carrying a load of gold bricks, and three-to-five days later it’s all over.

What about any of this doesn’t say “whim”? I suppose the sequence of events might imply that it’s motivated less by whim and more by desperation, but it’s still the opposite of a carefully considered decision on anybody’s part. This could blow up spectacularly, on the level of AOL/Time Warner, and nothing I’ve seen yet suggests it won’t.

Sure, VR in games will still be fine. VR in general will still be fine. Still confident about that. But everything I read about this makes me less confident in Oculus. And, sadly, that now includes Oculus’ CTO.

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Facebook Buys Oculus.

Yes. This is a thing that happened, and everybody’s up in arms about it, yelling about how Kickstarter betrayed them or some such thing.

Not a fan of the deal, certainly, but theoretically this is what Kickstarter is supposed to be for. It’s an early round of investment so that creators can get something together that they can sell to the big money men: a kind of crowdsourced angel investing.

The problem is that, well, sometimes the product isn’t what you thought it was going to be. Oculus is like a lot of companies in that it isn’t being bought for their product, it’s being bought for the expertise and talent that comes with it. The actual “Oculus Rift” may well never exist as a product; Facebook will probably take their version of VR in an entirely different direction.

(Yes, yes, FB are saying they won’t change anything. Everybody promises that. Anybody with a cursory knowledge of the gaming industry knows better.)

I don’t think it’s a good deal, simply because it was rushed into by all parties: Facebook are panicking because a mobile ecosystem is out of their reach and are trying to get in on the ground floor with VR. Oculus rushed into the arms of a company that isn’t a great fit simply because they solve the short-term financing problems and have a less notorious corporate culture than Google and Microsoft. There’s no real fit there, though: of all the applications that would be enhanced by VR, Facebook is just about the last thing you’d think of, and they haven’t demonstrated any ability to move into new sectors whatsoever. The debacle of social gaming proved that. 

Even so, this is still how this sort of thing works. Maybe it will be important for Kickstarter campaigns to assure backers that they won’t get bought out and have the product buried. Not sure how they can do that, but it might be a thing. Or, maybe, Kickstarter might well need to provide some sort of equity after all.  Either way, backers will need to recognize that other people might get rich off of something they backed. If they aren’t comfortable with that, there’s lots of honest-to-goodness charities for them to support.

As for the Rift’s gaming applications? I’m not actually worried about that. Sure, Oculus opened the door. Sony (and others) proved, though, that VR in gaming is something that’s coming no matter what. Oculus was a leader, but there’s lots of room for others. 

Don’t worry. You’ll still be able to play Minecraft in VR. It’ll just have a different logo on the side. 

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Why isn’t playing Bioshock: Infinite fun?

So after about a year of waiting, I finally, finally got to try Bioshock Infinite! Joyous day! How I’d waited! How I’d anticipated! I’d even avoided (most) spoilers!

With no small amount of glee, the game got started, and things began in earnest. Great start, too: ominous lighthouse, neat ascension, and those early moments with the baptism and the fair were straight-up magical.  

Then the shooting started.  I started strafing and aiming and firing and whatnot. I hucked a few fireballs at people, and hid from automatic turret robotish things. I swapped out guns and bought ammo. And as I did all of that, the magic just sort of…leaked out. 

Don’t get me wrong. Not being any sort of Internet hermit, I’d heard this opinion before. It was a whole big thing in the reactions to Infinite from people whose opinions I trusted. What shocked me is that all of those people were people who were clearly sick of FPSes and that sort of gameplay. I’m not. I still like FPSes quite a bit. So what happened here? Wasn’t sure.

Sure, I was playing on a console, and I’ve never been a gigantic fan of console shooters, especially shooters that have aim-down-sight (ADS) mapped to R3. (WHY?) Once I remapped the controls so that ADS was sensibly mapped, though, I was able to play it like any other console FPS. It wasn’t really a problem. It even fixed Bioshock’s dodgy console aim correction. 

I kept playing, and kept shooting. I got to the section where you met Elizabeth, and started on my way with her. And, guess what? Elizabeth’s great! Irrational (RIP) did a good job of making her an asset instead of a burden. She’s one of the most visually expressive characters I’ve seen in gaming, rivalling Link in Wind Waker. She’s got personality to spare, and the scenes where she’s introduced and where you see her dancing on the pier were brilliant enough that they almost brought that early magic back. 

But, dammit, I’m still not having any fun.

I’ve just passed the section where you’re (avoiding spoilers here) “interacting with the soldiers and their general”, and it honestly reminded me of the amazing sequence in Bioshock where you’re dealing with that mad artist. And, yet, again, that was engaging, while this isn’t. I’ve just met the Vox Populi and their leader, and I can’t find myself caring. I’m neck-deep in a sequence mocking the hell out of company towns and “captains of industry”, and all I can think of is how much more I enjoyed it in Bioshock.

Maybe it’s the level design? Bioshock Infinite was sold as having expansive levels, and these ain’t that. It’s actually a step back from Bioshock’s intricate levels; these are basically corridors with a few mildly-large combat arenas scattered between them. The game doesn’t even bother providing a map; THAT’S how dull the level design is.

(Let’s not even try to compare it to System Shock 2. That’d just be depressing.)

Maybe it’s the “magic”? The Vigors also seem to be a step back from Bioshock’s plasmids. Bioshock’s very first Plasmid attack, the lightning blast, was not only easy to understand and to use but allowed for fun weapon/magic combos and devastating environmental attacks. It was your first ranged weapon, too, which tremendously encouraged its use. Infinite’s first Vigor is an overly-expensive (and temporary!) turret hack. The second one is a dressed-up grenade.  The third is a dressed-up stun. Woo. 

Maybe it’s the guns? They’re…guns. Aggressively generic guns. Pistol, machine gun, rifle, RPG, grenade launcher, etcetera. Even the upgrades are boring. “25% bonus damage”? “10% larger clip”?  Who cares? And you can only carry two at a time! In a SHOCK game!  Why is Bioshock making you upgrade weapons that you won’t even know you’ll have access to?

But I feel like all of those things are quibbles. I’ve played games that were objectively more annoying, and didn’t give a rat’s ass. Those things aren’t anywhere near enough to explain it. I’m not burned out on FPSes, I like the setting, and I like Elizabeth. I even like Booker, sorta. And this isn’t one of those games where you aren’t supposed to be having fun. I LOVE those. I have this whole huge writeup about Spec Ops: The Line that I still want to post up here. The thing’s clearly supposed to be fun.

So the question remains: Why isn’t playing Bioshock: Infinite fun?

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Rock Band creator Harmonix is making a new game…and you won’t believe the genre!

Harmonix is making a new game! Harmonix is making a new game!

And it’s an…FPS? A free-to-play FPS?

Anybody else get Rez flashbacks just now?

The hell?

From Rock Paper Shotgun:

It almost sounds like a joke when you first hear about it. How does Harmonix, creator of wildly far-reaching rhythm hits like Rock Band and Dance Central, go for a more “core” crowd? Why, they make a musical shooter, of course. Hoho, what a topical yet preposterous notion! Let us adjourn to ye olde Chuckle Hut, where we shall instantly acquire wealth beyond our wildest imagination.

Yet, here we are. And you know what? Chroma looks (and sounds, obviously) like a pretty darn cool idea. If you perform actions – from shooting to running and jumping – on song beats, you’ll do them with more aplomb. Moreover, different teams represent different musical genres, with weapons and environments creating sounds synced to a beat underlying each level. It’s a giant, rhythmically thrumming combat arena, with DNA that crisscrosses between music theory and Quake.

Put that way, it’s really exciting. One of my absolute favorite types of game is the synaesthetic one, where beat and music are incorporated into more traditional gameplay. It’s what made Rez (and it’s all-but-sequel Child of Eden) so beloved, and what makes games like Everyday Shooter so damned much fun. It’s gaming-as-dancing, true gaming-as-dancing without DDR’s often-hamfisted attempts to shoehorn quasi-dancing into a sort of gameplay.

Thing is, any decent game is already going to have a rhythm. Designing and playing games is all about loops; smaller activity loops, within larger activity loops, within larger activity loops. A well-made game will manage the pacing of those loops…and what is creating a rhythm other than managing complex, interacting sonic loops?

The free-to-play part is a bit concerning. We can only hope that they’ll take their cues from Valve instead of King, Zynga, or EA, and make the in-game transactions cosmetic and convenient instead of gruesome and annoying.  If anybody’s earned the benefit of the doubt, though, it’s Harmonix. So let’s see what happens.

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Merry Christmas

…and a happy humbug!

The New Consoles (with a slight digression on Default Platform)

Got into Toronto this past week, so I’ve now had the chance to try both the PS4 and the Xbone. Quick thoughts on each:


So I head into the Microsoft store to mess about with a Surface Pro. I see the Xbone display. I see it’s playing Forza and not-Panzer-Dragoon. I pick up the controller and play and…well…it’s basically an Xbox.


Yes, the graphics are somewhat better. But that controller still feels pretty much just like an Xbox controller. The finger rumble is sorta neat, though I found it distracting on Forza. I also like the weird angular trigger thing, which meant that you could easily two-finger the triggers. I’m absolutely down with that: I HATE four-fingering the triggers, always have, and likely always will. Since I’m not a huge fan of trigger-centric console game design anyway, though, it’s not a deal-maker or deal-breaker for me. Other than that, it’s just a 360 controller. You’ve used them.

Forza was “driving game”. Fun, convenient speed-up and slow-down lines, maybe slightly too realistic for my tastes, but that’s about it. We’ve been playing this since the PlayStation. Not-Panzer was Not-Panzer: you moved in a path and shot stuff, though it didn’t have that lock-on feature yet, and it didn’t have that classic Panzer aesthetic that made that series so damned good.

Of the two, I’d take Not-Panzer, though it made me pine for Panzer Dragoon Saga like you wouldn’t believe.

None of the weird TV stuff was available, so I have no idea how that works. Ditto with the Kinect stuff. I did scroll through the Home page to see what was there, though. I didn’t have time to see much, but what I saw was “lots of downloadable media bits”.

Verdict: Absent the weird media stuff…it’s an Xbox. Just, y’know, more so.


I also head into the PlayStation store. (Toronto has a PlayStation store. Bet you didn’t know that.) I bellied on up to one of the kiosks and picked up that controller.

It’s not basically a PS3. The controller’s why.

No, I’m not one of those writers who whinges about the Dual Shock 3. I still chalk that one up to a review community that’s still just a wee bit too fixated on the 360 as the “default platform”, with everything else treated as a deviation from that default. The DS3 isn’t a 360 controller, so you read moans about how it doesn’t “feel right”. The PC uses a different kind of interface that’s more sit-forward instead of sit-back, so you read moans about how they “just want to play on the couch”. What it comes down to, I believe, is just the inherent conservatism of the community; they have a platform and ecosystem they’re invested in, and while they’ll venture away from it when they have to, but they’ll grumble the entire way.

The Dual Shock, a controller whose design nobody took issue with back when the PS2 was the Default Platform, just ended up the victim of that misguided conservatism.

But I digress.

That said, the new PS4 controller is, yes, better. The new wider shape and paddle elements are easier to hold, leaving your hands at slightly less of an angle. The L2/R2 triggers are definitely easier to use, since they feel like they’re travelling slightly farther and don’t feel as spongy as the old DS3 triggers or as flimsy as the 360 controller. (I actually preferred it to the Xbone controller, though I’ll still grant that nice  The concave design of the thumbsticks and slightly higher tension works, too. The touchscreen is a clever addition. The “share” button feels gimmicky, but it’s a gimmick I can get behind. I don’t have a problem with the DS3, but the DS4 is an improvement.

Playing Knack, though, showed that although things might control slightly differently, they just don’t look that much different. Launch games are never examples of the best a system has to offer, and they certainly aren’t usually gameplay powerhouses, but they at the very least are supposed to look different enough that you get that “Wow!” reaction. Every previous PlayStation had one of those: The PS1 had Toshinden, the PS2 had Dynasty Warriors 2 and Ridge Racer V, the PS3 had Resistance: Fall of Man…but the PS4’s big all-audiences exclusive, Knack, just didn’t have it. All those little parts were neat, but just made me think of a somewhat fighty version of good ol’ Katamari Damacy. Beyond that, it looked like an HD console game. That’s it.

There was a standout moment, though: Octodad: Dadliest Catch. Octodad on a controller works exactly as well as I’d hoped. It’s silly stretchy fun that has you maniacally swinging those sticks around like you’re back catching monkeys in Ape Escape on the PS1. It’s an utterly ludicrous concept that shows why indie gaming is so damned much fun, and seeing it up on display at that kiosk was a genius way for Sony to demonstrate that they’re as indie friendly as any console in industry history. It also kinda cements that whole “it’s utterly PC-developer friendly” thing. I’m still used to PS3 being the Weird System of the generation, like the Saturn or the Turbo. Having a Sony box be accessible after all this time is something to get used to.

Verdict: It’s not a PS3. It’s not even a PS2. It’s something new. It doesn’t look new, but between the controller and the sheer joy of Console Octodad, it feels new.

Sort of ironic that this ended up that way, and I might feel differently once I get a chance to play around with the Kinect 2. But there we are.

(Postscript: I don’t hate the Kinect concept, and truth be told, I don’t have a problem with MS or the Xbox, either. I like that the 360 gave Sony the kick in the ass they needed, and Halo’s good stuff. I just dislike the whole Default Platform thing. I have ever since it was the NES.)

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Hearthstone Impressions (And a wee bit of personal stuff)

It’s been far too long.

It’s been hard to write lately. I’d underestimated circumstances’ ability to affect one’s ability to sit down, focus, and communicate. Starting to think I’m a bit like Spider Jerusalem, who “never could write when [he’s] out of the city”. Urban and suburban/exurban life are more strikingly different than I’d ever known–and while I might still take up a standing offer to enjoy true rural existence for a little bit, this exurban exile reminds me of how much I appreciate and depend on the energy and vitality of the city.

I kind of sympathize with Andrew Ryan’s Periclean Bioshock slogan about how “all good things flow into the city”. An odd sentiment in a profoundly physiocratic country like Canada.  It’s still never felt truer.

(Oh, and if anybody from Bento Miso in Toronto reads this: I profoundly miss your space and the company I found within it.)

Anyway, I did get into the beta of Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft. It’s been a great experience. It’s amazing how such a slight game has revived my bruised faith in Blizzard.

Why “revived”? Several reasons:

  • It shows that Blizzard still understands game design. Hearthstone takes the core of Magic: the Gathering, with its strategic-level deck building and tactical-level in-game card management, and removes a lot of the difficult and idiosyncratic elements that make Magic so hard to learn. Resources are straightforward, interrupts are kept to a minimum, and card effects are easy to understand. I’d never played more than a few hands of Magic, and I was up to speed in Hearthstone after a few games.
  • It shows that Blizzard learns from its mistakes. The Diablo auction house was an absolute disaster, a disaster that I’d identified over a year ago and that Blizzard is only now rectifying. There was real danger that a free-to-play game Hearthstone would be as blatantly “pay to win” as Diablo 3 had been. It was quite plausible that Blizzard would (once again) dangle the prospect of profit in front of their audience, creating yet another ultimately unsatisfying metagame.

That didn’t happen. You can get by quite nicely without paying for cards, and cards aren’t tradeable at all. You won’t make money playing Hearthstone, and you shouldn’t.

  • It reveals that amazing Blizzard polish. The game is beautiful. Screenshots don’t do it justice. Cards have top-notch art and animate beautifully: minions transform into gamepieces and drop onto the board with a satisfying “thunk”, while spells really animate and fly across the gameboard with every bit of the dazzle of the World of Warcraft abilities they were based on.

If anything, spells and abilities are almost better than their WoW counterparts.  Almost all are immediately recognizable, even if you don’t look at the description. That’s a lot more like DOTA2 or League of Legends, boding well for Blizzard’s newly retitled MOBA, Heart of the Storm. That’s probably why Hearthstone is rivalling those games when it comes to streaming popularity right now.

Yes, the game still has balance issues. Rogues were overpowered and Priests useless right before I got in, and from what I’ve seen, the reverse is now the case. (Though I’d hate to see them remove Mind Control, since it’s one of the most interesting effects in the entire game, and used to great effect in a way that it never was in World of Warcraft.) There are still too many classes that are near completely dependent on rare cards to be viable. And I feel that the way the matchmaking rating system works could stand to be a bit more transparent.

Honestly, though…those are minor issues and almost certainly why this beta is happening in the first place. They’ll sort ’em out. I, finally, have faith in them.

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