Gaming Press Looses a Giant - Ryan Davis R.I.P.

Heavy hearted this morning seeing the news that Giant Bomb's Ryan Davis has passed away. Just 34 years old and married but just a week. I've listened, watched and read is work on Gamespot.com and Giantbomb.com for ten years now so seeing this was a shock and almost feels like the death of a friend. - R.I.P. -


Year Walk

If you have an iPhone or iPad and haven't checked out Year Walk yet, what are you doing!?

Year Walk by Swedish developers Simogo explores something so uncommon in games as Swedish folklore, and no that doesn't mean vikings or Norse mythology.

Year Walk is a superb experience that utilizes the iOS interface in really smart and unique ways and tells a fascinating story from our history in the process.

But be warned it does get creepy so maybe not something for the youngest ones.

Oh and make sure to get the free Companion app as well it is more significant than it might seem at first blush.


Moral Effect

"Jane" Shepard

In preparation for next years release of Mass Effect 3 I've been playing through Mass Effect 1 & 2 with a second, Renegade, character to experience the flip-side of my main, mostly Paragon, Shepard. 

In most RPG:s that allow for these types of choices I tend to play the way I feel I would, or would like to, in real life - which tends to be fairly altruistic and good natured, except when someone really irritates me.

So now that I'm trying to go almost the opposite route I feel I need some kind of moral and philosophical compass to navigate by to not just blindly choose the most evil/nasty option because really what's the fun in choice if you've already made your mind up ahead of time. 

Admiral Helena Cain

I decided that I would use the Battlestar Galactica character Admiral Helena Cain of the Battlestar Pegasus as my template. A military leader with a hard and relentless attitude that shows little compassion, never willing to compromise and is always ready to commit any atrocity that she deems necessary to accomplish the greater good - the survival of humanity and the eradication of any beings that stand in the way of that goal.

In fitting with the themes of Mass Effect - where, colaboration with and understanding of, other races is a key component to besting the Reapers I also though it fitting that she would be a specist, quite in line with the opinions of Cerberus in the second game.

Even with this role-model though I often find it difficult to go against my better judgement. Backing the Terra Firma party with their specist undertones, giving Liara and Tali the cold shoulder and eliminating the Rachni queen where tough decisions that felt so wrong. The old cliche "it's good to be bad" sure rings true in some situations when you want to let off steam, but staying the path of a hardened narrow-minded and compassion-less character is hard. Maybe that's a good thing though, I loved to hate Cain in Battlestar and tough I feel very much a part of my "Cain" Shepard I hope I'm not just experiencing "the other side" of Mass Effect, but that I'm also scrutinizing myself through this mirror image.



Succeeding Games

That age old question: Sequel vs. new IP - which is more successful and desirable, the tide seems to flow back and forth between them. On the one hand we want the new experiences and fresh milieus that a new property brings - however unproven game mechanics and unknown characters have a harder time finding funding, require more testing and might still in the end turn out to be unappealing, unrefined or simply remain unnoticed by their intended audience.

On the flip side sequels bank on a proven formula, a built-in audience and a safe established brand that is more easily green-lit by publishers and who's financial success is much more easily prognosticated. However sequelitis always seems to hit sooner or later, we've all felt sequel fatigue and many IPs struggle to retain their audience past the third game in the series.

Try as they might to breathe new life into it by "remaking", "rebooting" or "reimagining" a series - we are often left with something less charismatic, too different, too samey or just plain broken for us to care.

So what's a game dev to do? Enter the spiritual successor. Though mostly out of necessity and seldom by choice, these games still seem to be able to find that sweat spot between the fresh-but-unproven new and the safe-but-tired old.

Not bound by the fiction and characters of it's predecessor - yet being able to take it's successful mechanics, atmosphere and built-in audience - the spiritual successor can basically reboot an IP and create a new one at the same time, while gaining the good will that both are granted by their respective audiences.

BioShock took the cult following of System Shock and enticed the rest fo us with a new exiting IP. Harmonix reinvented the sub-genre of rhythm games they created with Guitar Hero when they split with Red Octane and created Rock Band. BioWare took what they'd learned creating Star Wars Knights of the Republic and made their own Sci-Fi universe complete with a myriad of alien races, good vs. evil choices and magic that is The Force in all but name.

Some devs have also taken to this practice by choice, giving us Shadow of the Colossus from Ico, Heavy Rain from Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy and Assassin's Creed from Prince of Persia and Splinter Cell.

Taking it one step further - Irrational Games is doing it again with BioShock: Infinite and there's Dark Souls - From Software's spiritual successor to Demon's Souls which in turn was the spiritual successor to the team's King's Field series.

Let's hope that we see more games created using this method if and when sequels can't do the job. What will respawn next, standing on the shoulders of their forerunners?...


The Bliss of Ignorance

There's been a lot of talk about the way video game reviews tend to be more like product-reviews - running down checklists of pros and cons instead of focusing on emotional impact and resonance. However in my experience those reviews are few and far between and usually only appear on the mass-market sites like GameSpot and IGN, while reviews on other sites and in magazines are much more focused on the experience. Often music and movie reviews are brought up as guiding stars for game reviews to aspire to.

When reading movie or music reviews however, I'm often struck by the level of dissection in them. Talks about the acts of a movie, anticipation, chords and scales in music - these are things I have no feeling for - or rather though for. So when a reviewer states that this and that happened in the second act, or complaints about the amount of exposition in a movie, I just don't connect. I see a movie or a piece of music as a amorphous, flowing, continually changing experience that has a beginning and an end, not as a LEGO set of pieces crafted together that can be picked apart.

Games are a different beast though, and while I want and try to go into a narrative-based game in this same way, more often than not I start seeing the man behind the curtain pulling the strings. Thinking about AI-routines, analyzing texture detail and mentally noting the verbs available to me as the player. I often think back fondly: to the days when a friend would come round with a new game that I had never hear of and that would promptly consume my thoughts for weeks or months to come; when I got back into gaming after a few years hiatus and explored the world of Starfox Adventures in wonderment - slowly walking around the environments constantly turning the camera to inspect every finely crafted detail like a true gaming tourist; or the sense of anticipation for what new game genre I would discover next.

Perhaps it's a matter of over exposure - I'm a life-long Star Wars fan, and it use to be I would watch the movies once or twice a year and often though about that universe and was by default interested in new books or games in the franchise, however since a few years back I've been listening to the Star Wars fan podcast The Forcecast and have found that the weekly show satiates all my Star Wars craving to the point that I seldom feel a hunger for more. Now, when it comes to gaming that isn't quite the case, but I do find that taking in a lot of games media does affect my enjoyment of games in a negative way, turning me into a critic instead of a gamer. That said I can't imagine giving up following games news all together, and there are of course many perks to keeping up to date, not the least of which is filtering out the must-play games and the ones to avoid.

On this weeks episode of the Eurogamer podcast the question was posed of what game you would like to be able to experience again for the first time - I find it hard to single out a specific game and although I don't want to have my gaming history erased it would be interesting to know how I would experience games now if I hadn't played any before.


Review - Zuma's Revenge

Zuma - if you haven't played it - is a puzzle game where a winding row of marbles are moving towards a stone skull. Your goal is to stop them from reaching it by firing like-colored marbles from a stone frog in the center of the screen so that groups of three or more marbles of the same color are lined up, where by they explode and the remaining marbles role back to fill the gap. With some strategically aimed shots you can create chain reactions that garner you more points and more time to direct your next shot. Some marbles grant special powers that are activated when destroyed - there are those that create a larger explosion which destroys marbles in a radius around them, some that slowdown the marbles' advancement or downright rolls them back a short distance.

Almost six years after PopCap released this classic they're back with the sequel Zuma's Revenge. The original is one of Popcap's more well know and successful games and it has been released on a large number of plaforms and a Deluxe version is available on XBLA and PSN. Zuma was addictive and challenged players reflexes as well as their ability for tactical planning - like and game of it's ilk should.

So what new features have PopCap put into Revenge to trump it's predecessor? As it turns out, not much. Sure Zuma's Revenge is a good looking and slick game, there are a few new power-ups like: Laser (let's you zap away four unwanted marbles), Lightning (destroys all marbles of a given color) and Tri-Shot (a "shotgun"-type blast that destroys a large group of marbles). The game includes the main "Adventure" mode (60 levels to beat in order) there's the "Challenge" (70-levels where your goal is to gain as many points as possible in three minutes), Heroic Frog (replay the Adventure levels on a higher difficulty) and Iron Frog (a set of extra difficult levels that you must beat with just one life).

Another addition is the boss fights at the end of each of the six stages of "Adventure" mode. In these - like in most games - your goal is to find the boss' weakness and then exploit it to win. This basically involves moving back and forth (on these stages your stone frog is on a rail instead of fixed in the center of the screen) to avoid it's attacks and then find the right tactic to hit it - either directly by knocking marbles out of the way and then aiming for the boss, or by indirect hits by exploding marbles. The bosses are relatively simple but a welcome break from the standard levels, something I would have liked to see more of. With the boss levels it's apparent that the main Zuma concept is flexible enough to experiment with - so it's a shame that PopCap has chosen to play it so safe with this sequel.

If you've played Zuma there's not much here that you haven't already seen, you can happily keep playing Zuma (Deluxe) and not feel like you're missing much. If however you've yet to experience this great action-puzzler Zuma's Revenge is a great place to jump in - well worth at least trying.

My Score: 7 of 10


Review - Bookworm Adventures Volume 2

Bookworm Adventures Volume 2 is a word-puzzle game with some light role-playing elements mixed in. Using a 4x4 grid of random letter tiles the player must construct words that, depending on their lenght and the use of less common letters (think Scrabble) do varying amount of damage to an opponent that the protagonist - the titular bookworm Lex - must defeat to progress.

During the corse of the game you'll aquire magical items and abilities - like doing extra damage when spelling an adjective, or those that affect the letter tiles by increasing your chances of getting possitive effects (in the form of colored gems that do extra dammage or heal ailments) or that reduce the risk of those with negative effects (tiles that deal damage to Lex or don't do anything at all). Lex will also gain new companions that provide their own unique bonuses.

Big Words
When PopCap released the original Bookworm Adventures in November 2006 it was one of the most ambitious casual games to date - A word-puzzler with RPG elements, pleanty of humor and a fair amount of animated graphics was far more substatial than most other titles in the genre. Bookworm Adventures was a big success, much bigger than even PopCap was expecting. PopCap was now growing, both in size and their games' prodution values. The company also grew in the eyes of the so called "hardcore" gamers as well as their more traditional fans.

This does makes it more difficult to be impressed by the sequel though. Very little has changed in Adventure Mode, the games main mode, the graphical style remains the same and several assets look to have been re-used even if new enemies and environments have been added. The three mini-games from the first game: Link n' Spell, Letter Rip and Word Master also make a re-appearance. The animations are stiff and simple and some sounds are a bit grainy. The magical items and abilities that effect the tiles are of little importance - as long as you fairly consistently build long words that are worth a lot of points and avoid the tiles with negative effects the game will just role on.

Choose your Words Carefully
That however, is the main appeal of the game, the fact that it just flows - there's nothing that irritates or frustrates and you can spend as much time as you like finding that perfect word - you'll soon realize you've spent the last twenty minutes working on a single word without the slightest hint of boredom - or perhaps you instead choose to play at a higher pace, focusing more on tactics: using the gem tiles in smart combinations (for example early on you will gain the ability to combine several gems in one word to create rainbow-colored gems which act as wild cards) and choosing which magic items and which companion to bring with you on each level carefully - depending on play style and which potions you have at the moment.

In an interview with Gamezebo lead artist Tysen Henderson said of the original Bookworm Adventures "It was very important to us to make sure that none of the elements do you have to absolutely understand or pay attention to succeed at the game. If you just spelled words and that's all you wanted to do, you will succeed, regardless if you wanted to pay a whole lot of attention to everything else."

The Name of the Game
After games like Puzzle Quest where the role playing aspects play such a large part of the game, their rather shallow use in Bookworm Adventures Volume 2 feels like a missed opportunity. But irregardless your opinion of the philosophy behind the games design, there's no denying that this is a captivating and addictive game, that brings out the wordsmith in even the most apathetic student of English and you will no doubt learn a new word or two in the process. Regarding graphics, as you focus on the task at hand the actual graphics are of little importance and if I sounded harsh towards them, it's only because PopCap has set the bar so high with Peggle and Plants Vs. Zombies.

With a price tag of $19.95 you get a lot of game for your money. Adventure Mode is long, with three "story books", each made up of ten chapters and with a total of over 130 enemies it till take you quite some time to play through them all. Depending on how much time you spend puzzling on each word the total playtime may vary drastically, but expect to spend at least 30 minutes per chapter. During the course of the adventure you'll also unlock six minigames of varying merit - but you'll no doubt find at least a couple of them worth your while. Personally I found the time-based ones all too hectic, the "survival Mastermind" game Word Master on the other hand is more fun than it should be.

My Score: 8 of 10

Translated from original review on PixelPlayer.se