Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Poker For Dummies

Some months ago, there was a cryptic trailer from downloadable games purveyor Telltale Games. It suggested that, unlikely as it may seem, it was indeed possible for characters like Team Fortress's Heavy, Sam and Max's Max, Homestarrunner's Strong Bad and Penny Arcade's Tycho to feature in a single media item that wasn't terrifying and poorly written erotic fan fiction, and that such a project was actually underway. Fairly quickly, the internet realised that the trailer showed each character holding playing cards, and that this meant a poker game instead of the epic universe merging adventure for which we all hoped. The official reveal reinforced this notion- the game was to be called Poker Night at The Inventory.

The game was released a couple weeks back, now- I don't know exactly when because I am not a professional reviewer who knows such things. Exactly as promised, it features the four fine fellows, playing poker, in a club by the name of The Inventory. The player assumes the role of a fifth gambler, imaginatively named "The Player", who joins the table for some cold war action. Wait, sorry, that was last week. You play Texas Hold 'Em.

I must admit, I was not intimately familiar with poker. The extent of my knowledge was that some dudes with grim expressions sat at a table and attempted to rob one another with the veneer of a gentlemanly card game over proceedings. As such, it might have been a rash move to preorder this game the moment it became available. I can't rightly recall why I did so, now- perhaps I was still expecting that incredible and hypothetical adventure game, perhaps I just wanted to see those characters together, or perhaps I had some eldritch premonition of the nature of the finished product and decided I wanted in on that. Regardless, it turned out to be a wise decision.

The actual gameplay is fairly unexceptional. You are playing poker, single player poker. As such, there is nothing spectacularly innovative in the way the game actually plays out. There are a couple interesting additions to the gameplay- winning tournaments unlocks new tables and decks, as well as items for spectacularly entertaining multiplayer shooter Team Fortress 2, but nothing to drop the jaw. What makes the game interesting, then, is not the actual game. No, Poker Night's strength comes, perhaps unsurprisingly, from who you are playing with.

The handful of people who read this post may or may not know the characters featured in Poker Night, so I will explain. We have Max, of the Sam and Max series of games- a rabbit, bipedal, capable of speech and of questionable sanity. Also at the table is Strong Bad from Home Star Runner- a small but macho man, dressed or possibly formed as a Lucha Libre wrestler. The third player is Heavy Weapons Guy, the minigun toting Russian bear-man from Team Fortress 2. Finally, there is Tycho Brahe, from excellent gaming webcomic Penny Arcade- suave, eloquent and profane. They are all humourous characters from gamer culture, and they come together marvellously- the dialogue interactions between them are hilarious. I was more familiar with Tycho and the Heavy than with the others, but, though knowing the characters is helpful, the comedy is not exclusive- anyone can laugh at Max's explanation of his learning the game (involving, apparently, a mobster and a tire iron), or the Heavy's constant hunger for "sandviches". Very quickly, I settled into the game, despite not really knowing how to play, just listening to these fours' banter. It's not just dialogue, either; in a genius move, the personalities extend to the playstyles. Hyperactive Max makes brave bluffs, too excitable to fold anything but the worst of hands, while cool-headed Tycho plays conservatively, with the occasional big bluff to grab some riches. All this contributes to a sense that you are really playing with these characters, their joking and taunting immersing you in a game that on first glance is unremarkable.

I know just enough poker to know that Tycho's smug smile won't last long.

This is an interesting concept, and, to me, an exciting one. This game is entertaining despite the actual gameplay being unspectacular, if solid. To my mind, this is a vindication for those (myself included) who feel that games offer new prospects as an art form. While I'm sure the core rules of Texas Hold 'Em predate the proud state of Texas, this game adds a new dynamic to the experience. I've long thought that, properly formed, video game characters gain an extra solidity as the one experiencing the game, unlike the one reading or watching a story, is interacting directly with them. In Fallout 3, just watching the Lone Wanderer's childhood friend exile him from their home wouldn't have anything like the effect as actually having that happen to you as the player. Similarly, though watching these four characters play poker would doubtless be enjoyable, I think the extra complicity required of the player in proceedings adds something rather wonderful.

Admittedly, there is not enough of the funny dialogue, and on a couple of occasions I have felt certain that I have lost a hand I should not have, but that could be because I don't know a damn thing about poker. I gotta say, though, these flaws really aren't enough to make this unique experience worth missing, especially at the low price.

So! I suggest you give Telltale Games' Poker Night at The Inventory a look, if only to utterly refute my weird ideas about it in the comments section. Go get it!

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Something Approximating to a Black Ops Review

*checks watch*
*checks calendar*
*checks mysterious stone circle used by the ancients to measure the passing of aeons*

Six months? Time for a blog post!

Hello again, reader, if, contrary to my suspicions, you exist. After six months, one would assume I had been preparing some unstoppable megapost bursting utterly with fresh content, and one would be at least partially wrong. Y'all know I don't prepare posts; the actual time between decision to write one and it appearing on your screen is often a single day; that is simply how I roll. So, to the meat of the post.

As anyone with something that could be described as consciousness is doubtless aware, there is a new entry in the Call of Duty franchise. This is a fairly momentous event in the games industry, given the series has consistently sold numbers of copies approximately twice the population of Earth. So, being a blogger (and a fanboy), it is my duty and requirement to buy it and bore you with my opinions on it.

Named Call of Duty: Black Ops, this latest entry in the series ditched both the modern setting of the more recent games and the traditional WWII aesthetic in favour of exploring the grimy world of Cold War espionage. Instead of the usual heroism and apple pie, players would experience denied operations- assassinations, sabotage and mutually assured destruction. The single-player campaign promised to centre around one of the aforementioned assassins and saboteurs, being tortured for information, with the playable missions following his flashbacks as the interrogation slowly draws what is needed from him. The set up, then, was excellent, and the game looked ready to take on last years leviathan Modern Warfare 2, one of my personal favourites and the best selling game or possibly thing in the course of human history. But how was the execution? The game was developed not by Infinity Ward, creators of the Call of Duty franchise and later its excellent Modern Warfare subseries, but Treyarch, secondary developer and annualisation puppet of the Activision overlords. Could the game hold up to the hype? Well, no.

Completing the campaign of Black Ops was a bit of a chore, in truth, with a few notable exceptions such as the Vietnam missions, but that's probably more to do with my pathological love for the Vietnam War than anything. Perhaps it was nostalgia from the first Modern Warfare, but MW2's characters interested and entertained me so much more than Black Ops, though, admittedly, Woods is badass and awesome. The Cold War theme fails to quite hit home- at no point did I really feel like radioactive Russians were under my bed, as I understand was the norm in the ‘60s. Gameplay is standard CoD fare- shooting people, blowing up things. The covert nature of the so called black-operations also seemed ill-explored. The first Modern Warfare had an interesting duality going on- there were the US Marines, very much in the media eye, subject of news bulletins played over loading screens, and also the SAS- the hyper-competent, ultra-covert killers, battling the Russians without anyone apparently realising. There was a similar deal in MW2- bearded man’s man Captain Price remarks that the epic suicide revenge mission he planned would go unremembered, for instance. This all served to remind you of the global significance (or not) of the events portrayed in the game. Black Ops didn’t do the same, at least for this reviewer. It could be the repetition, but the set-pieces in Modern Warfare's storylines excited me more, the missions gripped more, the single-player maps were more interesting to me. Though I never thought of MW2's single player as its strongpoint, it managed to entertain me significantly more than BO's.

The almost comically awesome Frank Woods.

As for multiplayer, well; I loved Modern Warfare 2. I loved it despite the quickscoping, and the lightweighting, and the noob-tubes, and the nuke boosting. Again, maybe it was just me, maybe I naturally evolved my play style to the point that these things ceased to affect me overtly, but in any case, though they bothered me, they did not break the game. I loved the pace, I loved the killstreak rewards, I loved the challenges and rank progression, I loved the maps. Though I consider myself a serious gentleman and hardcore gamer, I rank this mainstream shooter among my favourite games of all time. As such, when I heard about Treyarch's attempts with Black Ops to remove much of the, frankly, bullshit, prevalent in MW2's multiplayer, I was ecstatic- the game I loved, streamlined, purified, and with a sweet Cold War setting to boot!? I was stoked beyond belief. I went to a midnight launch for Black Ops, which is not something I have done previously, and was among the first to buy the game. From here, however, everything went downhill.

The maps seem overcomplicated and poorly designed- sometimes, a minute can go by before a shot is fired in a standard match, as the maps simply do not allow the free flowing, fast paced action of MW2. I may be imagining it, but the core gunplay seems to have been altered, and, to me, ruined- the perfect gunplay the series has had since the beginning, gone. The progression system has been tampered with, too; but the new "CoD Points" system simply lacks the compulsion to achieve and improve that the challenge-based system of MW2 and its precursor had for me.

A Huey, swinging in to minigun most of downtown Havana to the ground.

The new, watered down killstreak rewards also fail to hold up for me- while I realise the cumulative element of MW2's rewards irked many, I felt it really enhanced the gameplay- the greater amount of choppers and fighters buzzing overhead made possible by this approach making the match that much more spectacular. Black Ops, by contrast, seems to have lost that exciting element of support. Now, we have legions of ridiculous, slightly childish, and damn near unstoppable toy cars screeching after dismayed Special Forces operatives, with the odd spy plane or attack chopper swooping in to lend some credibility to the notion that this is an actual conflict between factions armed with machines more threatening than those given to children. Being awesome, I am familiar with some of the more unobtainable rewards, such as the Blackbird (actually a good idea, giving real time information of enemy position and facing), Chopper Gunner (this time a bloke hanging out the door of a Huey with a minigun instead of MW2's monstrous Apache/Havoc chain gun) and Gunship (granting full control of an Mi-24A Hind attack helicopter to the player) and they just don't excite like the hovering Harrier, lumbering Pave Low or earthshaking AC130 on offer in MW2. Incidentally, the reward vehicles are the same for all multiplayer factions. While MW2 was not perfect in this regard (why some Brazilian gangsters were in a position to employ special operations gunships and bombers used only by the US Air Force always puzzled me), the Russians using a Hind where the Americans used a Cobra was at least a nod to the military aircraft enthusiast section of the playerbase, which might be populated by me alone. Here, doubtless aware that most players couldn’t tell a UH-1 from an F-15E (cretins), Treyarch has used the same visuals for every killstreak for every faction, a reminder of the apparent laziness I observed in my very first review feature.

My hard-earned Chopper Gunner being shot down by some mouthbreather with a missile launcher.

The game is not utterly bereft of virtue. What Treyarch has messed up has been unable to totally overpower all that Infinity Ward originally did so well- the game is still recognisable as Call of Duty, whether that name fills you with a fanboy’s excitement or a game-snob’s dread, and therefore the experience is intense and memorable, though, perhaps, not to the same extent as one of Infinity Ward’s offerings. Some of Treyarch’s additions are actually rather nifty, such as the Theater mode- unoriginal, but still entertaining, and very useful for adding screenshots to a blog post- and the Wager matches, where players are given some fairly obscure weapons and made to fight to the death. The single player, while a little railroaded, does have a compelling Cold War action thriller at heart, and a couple of delightful badasses in the form of Frank Woods (straight talking Commie slayer) and Jason Hudson (ice-cool, shades wearing CIA operator), and the occasional shining set-piece. The Zombie mode is fun, too, and the semi-secret level where players assume the roles of Kennedy, McNamara, Nixon and Castro to fight of the horde of undead is simply hilarious.

There's me! Defending my care package from a Cuban like a good capitalist should.

The conclusion that I am forced to draw in the end is that Black Ops is the product of a franchise that has become a victim of its own success. Obviously, I am no corporation-hating-commie-liberal, but I am truly concerned about what the dark council at Activision is doing to my beloved Call of Duty series. In a better, kinder world, Infinity Ward would produce astounding games at the rate they desired, and Treyarch would not be forced to produce annual entries into blockbuster franchises. Black Ops is a game that drives fellas like me to write long-winded blog rants, not because it is so bad, but because it should be something better.