Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Top Games of 2007

Just a round-up for anyone interested in what I was playing last year. Keep in mind I had basically no money in 2007, so this is by no means taken from the full list of quality titles that came out last year. Just the ones I cared enough to fork out for, or at least rent (or liberally borrow from the internet, but only in a few cases. Honest.) :

1. Super Mario Galaxy (Wii)
- Sort of obvious, really. A pureblooded Mario platformer is on average as fun as supermodels in jello, and this one was the best one yet.

2. Mass Effect (XB360)
- My XB360 game of the year is Bioware's Mass Effect, a game I ended up renting three times overall. The combat never gets boring (despite having rather dumb enemies for an FPS) and the exploration elements were top-notch - I loved scanning the planets for valuables and reading their detailed histories (I know, nerdy). What this game really does for me, though, is create that optimistic Dark Chronicle feeling: that the first game was the flawed experiment of a new format which the inevitable sequel will nail perfectly.

3. Final Fantasy XII (PS2)
- Technically a 2006 game, though Europe (and therefore I) didn't get to play it until February of last year. Fantastic game that distanced itself from the tired traditions of the series while retaining the Final Fantasy charm.

4. Bioshock (XB360)
Bioshock already got reviewed once by me. It's somewhere on the blog, go look for it.

5. Rogue Galaxy (PS2)
My inevitable Level-5 entry, Rogue Galaxy was a little more generic than Dark Chronicle but still maintained a high level of RPGing quality with much, much to do by way of sidequests and the like. The weapon system was similar but improved, the Hunter missions were fun and time-absorbing and the whole setting - an intergalactic pirate ship out to find the galaxy's greatest treasure one planet at a time - is perfect for an exploration-based RPG. Outshone by Mass Effect in terms of sheer spectacle and size, but a great little game nonetheless.

6. Moero! Nekketsu Rhythm Damashii Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan 2 (DS)
Yep, compulsory elitist video game snob entry of a Japanese-only release with a unpronounceable name. Ouendan 2 is a sequel to the similarly-named hit DS rhythm game and continues its mission to bring cheer and bolster confidence to people on the edge of failing some monumental event of their lives. As well as the comedy aspect (largely intact despite the dialogue being entirely in Japanese), the game continues to be devilishly difficult and fun at the same time. The songs have improved and a few very convenient features have been added (some from the ill-received US version, Elite Beat Agents). It's a nigh-perfect DS game.

Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (DS)
Widely reported to be the best DS game of 2007 and one I'd agree with if I hadn't wasted an exorbitant amount of time on Ouendan 2. A similar case to Mario Galaxy: the Zelda developers could've phoned it in - the name alone would've shifted a million copies without even trying - but went ahead and created a fantastic, innovative game anyway.

8. Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria (PS2)
Valkyrie Profile 2 is the first chance, along with the PSP port of the original,
for many European gamers to play this fantastic Norse God-based RPG series from Tri-Ace. You only have a small cast of "normal" human characters - the bulk of your adventuring group comes from Einherjar: the glorious dead that the Valkyries are charged with delivering to Asgard, the home of the Gods. This dynamic party of characters, coupled with unique 2D exploration and an almost-real-time strategic battle system brings together one of the finest RPGs I played last year.

Metroid Prime III (Wii)
- Included as part of the "most improved" category. The second game kind of dropped the ball, giving the game an interesting (if occasionally exasperating) gimmick but nothing else new. The third takes full advantage of the Wii, no mean feat for an already stable engine, as well as adding a whole bunch of cool new elements, such as remote controlling your ship to assist you in crucial missions.

10. Eledees (Wii)
- Guilty pleasure time. Eledees (Elebits in the US) is essentially hide-and-seek with a HL2-esque gravity gun, allowing you to throw the furniture around as you seek out tiny electric-based lifeforms and capture them. The more you capture, the more power the surrounding electronic objects gain and the resulting power boost increases the weight limit of the items you can toss around. It becomes addictive fun very quickly and perfect for those of us who have always wanted to trash a house with little effort.

Ten Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):
Blue Dragon (XB360) (Cute RPG with lots to explore but essentially flawed)
Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin (DS) (Terrific 2D Castlevania, like most of them)
Chibi-Robo: Park Patrol (DS) (Brilliant sequel to the GC classic)
Drawn to Life (DS) (Innovative "draw the stuff you need" platformer)
Eternal Sonata (XB360) (Another cute RPG with repetition problems)
Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo Tales (DS) (Minigames galore in this card-battling curio)
God of War II (PS2) (Hyper-violent, button-mashing myth-them-up)
Overlord (XB360) (Like Pikmin, only with way more carnage and farting)
Puzzle Quest (DS) (Bejeweled/Zoo Keeper with a great RPG built around it)
Super Paper Mario (Wii) (A decent, but not amazing, RPG/Platformer hybrid)

Games I didn't get to play but will acknowledge that they may have made the top ten list had I played them: COD4, Guitar Hero 2 (and 3, and Rock Band for that matter), Orange Box (including Portal, which sounds great), Crackdown and either of the new Pokemon

Games which were out in 2007 in Japan/US but aren't out until 2008 in Europe and may make next year's list: Beautiful Katamari, Persona 3, Zack and Wiki: Quest for Barbaro's Treasure.

And finally, fuck Halo 3.

Thank you and good night.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Game Idea: Luddite

Yet another strategy game I'm afraid, though one that requires an equal mix of smarts and explosions. I know, those two things aren't usually the busomest of buddies, but I figure everyone likes explosions and the smarts are sort of unnecessary once you get into it.

You're a demolitions expert, one that is currently part of a guerrilla team of rebels fighting a conquering race of colossal mechanical creatures. In order to bring down these mechanical titans, you need to blow them up from inside their own power shielding, which renders them invulnerable from outside weaponry (which is how they took over your world so quickly). A second factor is their repair-bot technology which allows them to quickly replicate any damage by speedily reforging lost metal parts and repairing/welding holes and the like. As such, you need to move fast and create a network of explosives that will destroy the creatures utterly once set off, detonating every vital part before they have a chance to recover.

As such, you need to study the theoretical blueprints, reverse-engineered by fellow rebel scientists who have a vague understanding of how these synthetic aliens work, and plant all the necessary explosives before being discovered and then escaping the creature's proximity before the bombs go off. Sounds simple enough, right?

The gameplay is in the form of a stealthy platformer with multi-goal-based objectives (such as "go here and then here and then here" rather than a single course through the level) and a constantly moving and dynamic "stage", similar to the bosses in Shadow of the Colossus, though far larger and less personal. You have to evade not only the detection systems of the gigantic robot you're walking over and under (which tend to be in the form of smaller robotic parts shaped like alarms and cameras) but also the repair-bots themselves, who will identify you as a mechanical error and try to fix you. Just to clarify: you don't want to be fixed by those things. You have little in the way of weaponry, since most of your carrying capacity is taken up by the many explosives you need to plant, so discretion is the key. You can actually blow up the repair-bots without immediate detection if you're careful, since there's a delay between the destruction of a repair-bot and the time when the lost signal is acknowledged by the main lifeform, but this will mean speeding up your work since you now have a time-limit. Prolonged detection or the acknowledgement of a lost signal will mean highly corrosive gas will be vented throughout all areas of the lifeform, eliminating any organic life (such as yourself) that may have gotten in - You can, however, escape the gas by retreating temporarily and trying again later (hopefully with all the planted explosives still in place).

Your character is also equipped with a lightweight flying apparatus which can be unfurled and escaped on when necessary to escape the gigantic robot, either before it vents the gas or before the explosives go off. A partially destructive result (PDR) will not destroy the lifeform but its repairs could take a considerable amount of time to complete, based on how many explosives went off and how many repair-bots you put out of commission. A completely destructive result (CDR) will eliminate the creature entirely, allowing you to move onto the next one. Each being has its own personality and appearance, ranging from humanoid to animalistic to far more conventional "mechanical" shapes such as a giant sphere or a tank. It's up to the pre-mission theoretical blueprints and the various modifications to those plans while on the job to decide where best to plant the explosives. Sometimes, some reconnaissance is necessary for an informed decision of where best to strike - your colleagues can interpret what you're seeing from a video feed from your beneficial vantage point this close to the creatures and may often change their minds about the best spots to place an explosive.

Obviously, the danger level will be considerable, since you're carrying a lot of dangerous materials and have very little to defend yourself with. In most cases, you can simply dump the explosives and get the hell out if it's getting too risky. The explosives aren't easy to get ahold of, but they're far more replaceable than you are (which makes a welcome change). You can decide to leave the explosives (both planted and abandoned) where they are if you escaped without detection, or set them off to create a distraction to escape in as well as give you a head-start on the next attempt. The robot will recover the damage quickly if you failed to destroy it completely and be more alert for your next attempt, but may still be distracted with repairs when your next attempt is ready to go.

The tense, time-sensitive action, the deliberate decisions needed when calculating the optimum destruction as well as the non-obtrusive-but-still-sort-of-prevalent stealth elements should be a decent package. The massive majesty of your antagonists should cause some amount of awe and dread too.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Game Idea: Capsule World

This game idea is partly (mostly) based on Kinder Surprise toys, which are awesome to the max. Or were. Back when I was a kid. In the late 80s. Which was also, coincidentally, the last era where it was socially acceptable to say "awesome to the max".

Capsule World is similar to a world-based God-Sim such as Civilization or Black & White. You have full control over the development of the little area of the world that your people reside in, and partial control over the rest of the currently barren planetoid. In order to populate your world with a plethora of interesting specimens and artifacts, and also increase the physical, cultural and educational boundaries of your existing followers, you need to resort to the "divine tumbler": Basically one of those giant egg machines you find in arcades and outside convenience stores where you crank the handle and a capsule comes out - only really, really big. The resulting capsule, in the context of the game, can contain almost absolutely anything. However, once hatched, the capsule's contents must be placed somewhere on the Capsule World - at which point it will blend in and become part of it.

These capsule contents can vary in their usefulness. Almost all have an inherent value and will, at the very least, make your world a little bit more interesting to live in. They can range from mundane tools, such as giant deposits of valuable minerals or metals as well as lush forests and seas, to the slightly inconvenient, such as dinosaurs or the undead. Once added to the world they become an indelible and inseparable element of it. Your denizens will react to their new gifts/neighbors as best as they are able, though the net gain might not always be as positive as one might hope.

Your main tasks are to concentrate on the safety and happiness of your people and integrate these new random elements as best you can. The game will pause the action going on planet-side every so often for a compulsory capsule addition, though you are able to add new elements at any time yourself. More capsules means more variation in your world which will ultimately net you a higher score as the world eventually develops into a somewhat strange but beautiful and (importantly) "complete" world. It's recommended you get a new capsule every time you've stabilized the effects of the previous capsule - this way you can maximize the benefits of the additions and their enhancement on the world without losing too much stability among your citizenry (along with not losing the citizenry itself).

While you can control the population as a whole, defining where their research and development should work towards (in proper Civilization fashion) as well as setting up defenses and such, the people tend to think and act for themselves. This includes curiosity, something inherently human and inescapable. Your people will attempt to explore and interact with any capsule additions as they appear as dictated by their natural curiosity. This may lead to many unfortunate incidents as they come to terms to what has just landed on their world and their changed reactions to the world and to you (since, as their god, they blame you for everything). It's up to you to manage those incidents amongst everything else. Your people aren't stupid though, so anything dangerous will be given a wide berth if too many lives are lost and anything beneficial will be mined and exploited as effectively as possible.

The people will also, charmingly, come up with their own ideas about what these new additions are and why they were placed here, based on the kind of history your world has had so far and their relationship to their maker. For instance, if most of the capsules have been bad news until now, your people will be generally pessimistic and may view the advent of a genuinely advantageous capsule as a trap, something new for the tyrant deity to break their wills with. Inversely, if it's been nothing but milk and honey for your people up to this point, something like the coming of gigantic deadly insects will be accepted gingerly by your people as some adorable buzzy friends to play with (until they start eating people, that is). These analyses from your people are generally based on their overall happiness score which will eventually even out to a moderate and informed level as they grow in intelligence and wisdom. A mixture of both good and bad additions is necessary for the people to retain a sense of cautiousness as well as happiness.

Important focuses when developing this game will be to include a highly playable and configurable god sim with a truly diverse cast of additional elements to establish on the world. Ideally, such a set-up will recreate a near endless amount of variations and, therefore, a considerable amount of replayability. A finished world, with all the strange elements integrated effortlessly and overlapping one another, along with an ongoing timeline of what joined the world and when, as well as a diverse population of people thriving due to (or in spite of) the additions should be a thing of wonder for the player to want to look back on, or perhaps share with others.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Game Idea: Sacrifice

Okay, so, the exact mechanics of this idea is still a little nebulous for the time being, since I don't want to make another Lemmings thing so soon. So the actual game may end up being a lot different. Since this idea is sort of broad, I can later apply it to the genre of my choosing (currently, it's a third-person shooter thing, though could easily be something else). I also mess around with the concept of time manipulation again, which I still don't think we've seen the last of after the success of the Prince of Persia games (and Blinx to a lesser extent).

You control a squad (or a clan or a bunch of dudes) of some kind. You have a series of tasks to perform, but they are highly dangerous due to the enemy's resources vastly outnumbering your own. In fact, the only way to achieve these missions is through various life-threatening exercises, such as experimenting with the enemy's defences, using units as bait to draw out the worst elements and various other techniques that will no doubt end in you losing one (or many) of your units for the sake of the mission. Upon achieving the mission objective, though, you can reverse time and regain all your lost units, while still succeeding with the mission - the goal of which may vary to things like a top secret item you need to recover (which you take with you when you go back in time) or learning an important code or password (which you can memorize before returning).

In order to pull these missions off, you need to get your commander (the player character, in other words) into the enemy base without him dying. The rest of the units, however, are entirely expendable, since you'll be getting them back once time resets. Of course, they're not aware of this (and won't ever be as long as you keep resetting time) and so will need some coaxing to perform anything too dangerous. They aren't die-happy fanatics, nor are they stupid, so you'll have to be inventive if you're putting them in harm's way for the greater good. So no simply strapping explosives onto them and getting them to run at enemy enclosures. Losses are always to be expected though, via the enemy's superior weaponry or traps or any other kind of security measure so don't think your success is based on how many of your units survive. In fact, you may need to repeat the mission a few times (by going back in time before achieving the objective) to get a sense of where all the dangers are. Since your troops won't remember, you can get them to obliviously set off any booby trap or hidden ambush without risking yourself.

The appeal of this game will be twofold: First, and most obvious, is that sense of sadistic fun that's been a staple of these kinds of management games since they first began. The second is that it will allow some really inventive (and cruel) level design: The designers will want to constantly challenge the player with apparently impossible situations to get through, where the only way to win the mission is to lose almost everything else in the process. It should still be difficult to solve even after you get all your subordinates to trip every kind of nasty surprise out there. As long as you play by the golden rule of always keeping your main character safe and out of harm's way (he's a bit of a cad), you can experiment with various tactics as often as it takes before making a run for the goal yourself. Your hapless troops are just going to have to bite the bullet a few times first. In the unfortunately literal sense, in most cases.