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Zombies zombies zombies!

I got my first chance to spend time with Left 4 Dead 2 last night, playing through the "Hard Rain" campaign with three coworkers for a couple of hours.  We didn't make it past the finale, even though we were only playing on the Normal difficulty mode, but that was the only point where all of us died, and we probably could have made it through if we hadn't been too tired to give it another shot.  I will say that there were many points during the campaign where we were in full-on panic mode, though, with at least two of us very near death, out of ammo, or both.  At least once per map after the first one, we wondered if we would make it.  It was pretty awesome.

If you've been following the game at all, you've already read about the changes they've made so I won't try to detail them all here, though I'm going to end up mentioning most of them because they're primarily good changes.  It is a different game from the first Left 4 Dead, and even if it's not a very different game I think it's different enough to be better and easily worth the money, especially if you got in on the 4-pack that essentially chopped off a quarter of the price.

My favorite enhancements to the formula:

  • Melee weapons.  It will be hard to go back to playing L4D1 without having axes, machetes, swords, guitars, baseball bats, etc.  There's a good diversity in the selection, though they do seem to be roughly divided into "fast cutting" and "slow smashing" weapons.  The guitar feels noticeably different from the machete but not so much different from the baseball bat.  Regardless, they're effective and satisfying to use.  My favorite is easy: katana.
  • The spitter.  I would just say "the new special infected" but I think the spitter is really the star of the show, because it means the tactic of locking down a corner, such a ready go-to strategy in Left 4 Dead, just doesn't work anymore.  Combined with the new "on the move" crescendo events, this game is serious about not letting you hunker down in one spot, and that's great.
  • The overall variety of weapons, zombies, "power ups", and so on.  Having to make decisions between a health pack and incendiary ammo, or melee weapons and pistols (two types of pistol, at that), or pills and adrenaline, means you need to be thinking on your feet and talking to your team about those choices a lot more than in the first game.  You want somebody to have that defibrillator, but you're going to have to convince somebody to pass up a health kit for it.  Along with the increased variety of normal zombies (riot zombies, clowns, etc) and the extra special infected, there's a lot more for the AI director to play with, and I suspect the game will take a lot longer to become routine.
  • The atmosphere has been made palpably more tense.  I still wouldn't call Left 4 Dead 2 a horror game, but while Left 4 Dead was a straight-up action game with zombie trappings, I definitely felt more freaked out in "Hard Rain" than I ever did in the first game.  Having the AI director control the intensity of the storm and tie it to the horde spawns was a brilliant move, and when you've lost sight of your friends and you're low on health, you can't help but feel it in the pit of your stomach a bit.  Other little touches like moving witches (and much more liberal use of those witches, especially in one level) further amp up the tension.  It's simply much better than it was.

If I have complaints, they mostly center on the characters - I don't feel like Rochelle really has much of a personality yet at this point in the story, and Ellis simply seems to be a joke from the developers gone wrong, trying to get cheap laughs but ending up just grating.  Maybe as I spend more time with them and follow the story (which I understand is not only fleshed out but also integrated into their vocal interactions much more) I'll change my mind, but for right now I miss the old team.  That's a fairly minor complaint, though, and I'm definitely glad I picked up the game.  Like L4D1, I feel confident I'm going to get a ton of play out of it.

Speaking of Left 4 Dead 1, as I mentioned earlier, Mike Bellmore and I spent last weekend playing through the mods for Part 2 of our "Zombie SPOOKTACULAR" feature over at Immortal Machines, and it got posted last night.

We played the highly anticipated "Cold Case" and "Dead Before Dawn" mods, both released on Halloween.  The latter is quite good, if unpolished and occasionally unreasonable in what it demands of the players.  The former... is not.  To find out why, go read the column.


WiiWare Demos? About Time.

Apparently Nintendo's WiiWare service is finally offering demos of their games, though only some are available and it seems to be either the whim of Nintendo or of the game publishers that determines which games will and won't have demos available.  Nintendo is about 3 years late with this option, but I suppose late is still better than never.  There's a lot of quality software on the WiiWare service that I suspect would have sold much better out of the gate if demos had been available (and some, like the subpar port of Tales of Monkey Island, that I would have avoided if a demo had been there to warn me).

Of the demos that have just become available, I highly recommend checking out World of Goo if you somehow haven't played that yet, and Bit.Trip Beat if the description "retro rhythm game" does anything at all for you.  The Bit.Trip series is crazy hard, but also really rewarding, fun and unique.

Also unique and carrying my unhesitating recommendation is NyxQuest: Kindred Spirits, a game saddled with a terribly unfortunate name (it was originally Icarian, but apparently that didn't fly with the Big N) but graced with surprisingly deep gameplay.  A physics-based platformer not entirely unlike Trine, NyxQuest sees you walking and flying a fragile but nimble winged girl through a treacherous desert, using the IR pointer to shift giant blocks and redirect fireballs at enemies so as to craft a safe path.  You're controlling her directly with the nunchuk, and the world with the Wiimote, and it all comes together very nicely - the levels are well designed, the physics feel good, and the game looks and sounds pretty great for a WiiWare title.  Now that there's a demo out, if you own a Wii you really have no excuse not to check it out.

Some other WiiWare titles I think you should keep your eye out for a demo of, just in case Nintendo bothers to go back and put them out:

  • LostWinds (and its new sequel, Winter of the Melodias)
  • Onslaught
  • MegaMan 9
  • Excitebike: World Rally (actually, if you like Excitebike, just buy this one now)
  • Tetris Party
  • Toki Tori
  • Swords & Soldiers

And there's plenty of titles I'd like a demo of, because I hear they're good but I haven't pulled the trigger on them yet...

  • Bomberman Blast
  • Art Style: Rotohex, Cubello and Orbient
  • Space Invaders Get Even
  • Water Warfare
  • Contra Rebirth
  • Groovin' Blocks

WiiWare is a really good service, and has the potential to become great.  World of Goo, NyxQuest and LostWinds are solid examples of how to use the strengths of the Wii control scheme to the benefit of your game - they use the pointer better than many full retail releases - and both those games and the delivery system as a whole deserve more attention than they get.  I suspect the number of Wii owners who don't even know what WiiWare is or what's available there is huge, and these demos are a step in the right direction.  One that comes surprisingly late, but hopefully one Nintendo will follow through with.


A Couple of Sweet Links for Your Sunday

Came across these this morning and figured they'd have some pretty broad appeal, and so they should be shared.

The first one is a quick hit: Destructoid has posted a pretty awesome video of New Super Mario Bros on the Wii (out today! ...though my copy from Amazon won't be here until midweek at the earliest, sigh), wherein Luigi is carried through a full level by his 3 co-op partners in rather amazing fashion.  I was already pretty hyped for NSMB Wii, and this isn't helping my patience any.

The second will take a little more time to digest, but I promise it's worth it: if you have any fond memories from your childhood of the Choose Your Own Adventure books, you really should go read this simply excellent analysis of the series.  Clearly written from a position of affection, it dives pretty deep into how those "games" worked, and how they changed over time.

That's it for now.  Hope everyone's having a relaxing weekend!


Too Much To Play!

I'm really feeling the time crunch right now when it comes to all the games I really want to put more time into, balanced against work, family, reading - you know, the rest of life - and so unfortunately, this new site of mine which I want to get a running start on with lots of writing has suffered this week.  My apologies for that.

A brief list of the things that are occupying my time that I'm really enjoying and I recommend you check out:

  • Already mentioned - Torchlight and Borderlands.  I've gone on about Torchlight at length, it's still great, and the full editor is out now so the mod scene is most likely about to explode for that.  Last night I got my hunter character up to level 20 in Borderlands, and again, now that I'm "playing it right" I really am having a much better time.
  • Dragon Age: Origins.  I think the large review sites have covered this fairly well, but even after hearing their praise I'm genuinely surprised (and thrilled) at how excellent the storytelling in DA:O is.  The voice acting is some of the best - and some of the most - I've seen in any game I can remember, the combat is a mix of the best parts of Baldur's Gate-era Bioware games and the best parts of more modern action RPG's / MMO's (skill cooldowns, party inventory, fantastic UI), and I really am enjoying the world they've built so far.  Beating this game will be a long trek for me but I'm looking forward to taking it.
  • The original Left 4 Dead, in anticipation of its upcoming sequel.  I've been doing a piece over on Immortal Machines about some of the full campaign mods that have come out for Left 4 Dead - we covered "Vienna Calling" and "Death Aboard" a couple weeks ago, and we're about to tackle "Cold Case" and "Dead Before Dawn".  It's great to see such large-scale user created content for any game, but in light of the recent bru-ha-ha over the PC port of Modern Warfare 2 (which I won't right now get into) it especially warms the heart to be reminded of how well some games on the PC encourage their players to not just play the game, but play with the game and engage in the creative endeavor of generating content.
  • Batman: Arkham Asylum, which I got really deep into right after its PC release but then got distracted from when Torchlight came out.  I need to get back into it and finish it up, because it's an exquisitely crafted single-player action game, and the best videogame representation of the Batman character I've ever seen.

So just between those things I'm already more than maxed out on my gaming time, but there's also New Super Mario Bros. Wii, which is about to arrive and which I'm very excited about if for no other reason than I'll have another game my wife will probably be willing to pick up and play with me.  And of course Left 4 Dead 2 is imminent, so my coworkers and I will be giving that at least one night a week, most likely more at the outset.

Oh! This didn't get much fanfare, but a WiiWare remake of the original NES title Excitebike just came out this week, called Excitebike: World Rally, and it's delightful.  It's a 3D game but it plays on a 2D plane just as the original did, with the same basic mechanics of getting the angle of your bike right for jumps and landings, tripping up your opponents, balancing boost against overheating, and building your own tracks.  There are now multiple backgrounds for different locations to add some visual flair, and it's playable over Nintendo's WFC system if you can tolerate the friend codes.  If you have any fond memories of Excitebike, I think it's worth the $10 to check out.

So that's that, and now I'm off to figure out which game I'll bite off another chunk of.  I'll probably cross-post my Left 4 Dead mod article on Cold Case and Dead Before Dawn here once we get that up over at IM.  After that, we'll see what there is to talk about.  I'll probably feel the need to praise NSMB Wii, since the rest of the internet will be covering the praise of Left 4 Dead 2 with wild abandon, I'm sure.


In Which I Admit to Being Wrong About Borderlands

I had a chance to play Borderlands for the first time at the Penny-Arcade Expo in early September (which does not feel like it was 2 months ago. Where does the time go?).  The demo station I played it on was a PC surreptitiously placed at the nVidia booth, which wasn't actually showing off the game, but rather a fishtank-like computer case that was cooled by filling it with nonconductive liquid.  They just had Borderlands running on it by happenstance.  The first area of the game - right after creating a character - was on display, and I played probably 20 minutes of the opening.  I loved it, and pre-ordered it as soon as the 4-packs became available on Steam.

Unfortunately, the day it came out, I had to come to grips with a sad truth:  the PC version of Borderlands is in many ways a mess.  There's no way to look at it that doesn't say - or perhaps scream - "lazy port from the 360", and it's painfully clear that the 360 version was the only one given any UI design consideration whatsoever.  Navigating the menus and dialog boxes is a strange mishmash of mouse and keyboard tricks where, for example, only the PGUP and PGDN keys will scroll through quest text boxes (no arrow keys, no mousewheel).  The FOV is locked at a claustrophobic, narrow value, and expanding it requires editing INI files, as does skipping any of the 7 intro movies(!) or the 5-minute cinematic that plays every time you make a new character.  Vehicles must be driven by aiming them with the mouse; the A and D keys will not turn your car, nor can any keys be mapped to this function.  And the multiplayer requires all players to have a Gamespy account, and maintain an internal friends list of Gamespy account names if they want to invite their friends to play.  (Hello, late 90's! I missed you too. How is Kali?)  I'm probably forgetting a few things... it's surprisingly clunky.

On top of those annoyances, the first several times I played I just wasn't having fun.  Being that the game was marketed very heavily as a co-op experience, after completing the first couple of quests I jumped online with some friends from Colony of Gamers to kick the tires, and we simply got slaughtered.  The scaling of the enemies was completely merciless, and we weren't getting loot drops that kept up with our opponents.  Comparatively small groups of bad guys would stop the whole group in our tracks, requiring us to use all our ammo and die / respawn several times just to progress a miniscule amount.  It was not a positive experience.

Soured by that first impression, I found myself increasingly irritated with the game design on my subsequent single-player excursions.  My weapons weren't doing enough damage and just weren't that fun to use.  The quest layout would take me all over hell and back, requiring me to fight through respawned enemies I'd already killed 3 times just to hand in a quest and get a new one.  Loot would seemingly always drop for classes I wasn't playing, but hardly ever the one I was (a hunter).  And the world just felt empty, with nothing to do but run or drive to a new place and shoot more monsters, like an MMO without the people.  After grinding a character up to Level 16 or so, I was ready to write Borderlands off, call it a loss, and recommend that people avoid it, especially since Torchlight required so much less effort to have fun with and was considerably less expensive.

So where's the part where I admit I was wrong?  I guess I only half admit it, so I apologize if that was a bit of a tease, but fast forward to this weekend.  Much of the above is still true, but I've spent at least 7 hours playing Borderlands between Friday and today - a lot more than I played the decidedly splendid Torchlight - and frankly I'm kind of eager to get back into it even now.

Here's what I've discovered, some of which will seem like no-brainers, but together they've been enough to make the difference between "meh" and "let's play that again!" for me:

  • The game does not scale to 4 players very well unless you want an extreme challenge, but 2 or even 3 is much more manageable. 3 can get pretty hairy, but hasn't yet felt unfair.
  • Voice chat is essential. That first night with 4 of us, none of us could get the in-game voice working (actually, I still never have, but now we're using Ventrilo in the background), and you just can't coordinate your tactics without it. It also makes planning your route for quest pickups and dropoffs much, much easier.
  • The vehicles in Borderlands are also ridiculously overpowered weapons, and running over an enemy is almost always the best way to dispatch them if you have the option, at least in the early game.
  • Specialize in one skill tree, at least if you're playing as Mordecai (the hunter). I was trying to do a "jack of all trades" thing on my first character and that just doesn't work for him. I've found Gunslinger to be the one that best suits my playing style, but I'm sure Sniper and Rogue both also have their strong points. Just pick one and stick with it, early on.
  • Don't feel limited to the weapons that are "right" for your class. My enjoyment of the game went up substantially once I decided that if I find a great combat rifle or shotgun, I'm just going to use it. Great weapon stats will outweigh your weapon-specific class perks (again, at least at first). Also, use grenades. Frequently.

It's still a very lazy port, and it's clear that the game wants to be played on the 360, which is a shame because any game with "FPS" and "RPG" in its description should fit the PC like a glove.  But no matter how many complaints I might have about the details of its PC incarnation, I'm forced to admit that I've had more fun playing Borderlands this weekend than I've had with any other multiplayer game this year that I can recall, including Left 4 Dead.  That's no mean feat.  They've done a great job, when you've got 2 or 3 people rolling together, of setting up fights where you'll barely survive and you'll need to revive and support each other throughout a pitched battle, but more often than not you'll make it if you're coordinating well.  That's exhilerating every time, and a very strong draw to keep playing.

Someday I may even be willing to try 4 players again, but I think I'll give that some time.  It's only now starting to win me back; I won't risk being driven away again just yet.