Category: reviews

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger Review


Call of Juarez: Gunslinger
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger

I’d heard a lot about Call of Juarez: Gunslinger [Download] on various podcasts so when it was on sale during the winter steam sale I went ahead and bought it.

The premise of Gunslinger is that you play an old bounty hunter in the Old West and you walk into a bar and start telling stories about all these famous outlaws that you fought. Because it is in the form of storytelling, there are times in the games where someone will say something like, “I heard about that. You killed 50 people that day” and you play that section shooting tons of people but then the game will stop and your character will say, “No, it wasn’t like that. I only killed 5” and then you will replay the scene the other way. This video does a pretty good job of describing the game:

I found the game to be entertainingly told but other than that to be a pretty basic linear shooter with few places to vary from the main path.  There were also only a handful of different weapons which I found disappointing.

What I found most interesting about the game was how they worked with and around the limitations of the game engine. It uses the Chrome engine which is pretty enough and also powered Dead Island. What it doesn’t seem to be able to do, however, is animate mouths because no one in the game ever seems to talk on camera. All the storyline about telling the story is through cut scenes or voice overs. It has been a while since I played Dead Island but I seem to remember people talking in it so I’m not sure if this is the engine itself or more a sign of the design choices of Gunslinger.

Another interesting aspect of the game’s design is that the fact that at tomes the story will backtrack or be told with different facts means that the player is in effect replaying the same level twice (or more) which means that the game designers can make the game longer without having to create any more levels. Several of the levels also take place in Ye Old Western towns which might very well be the same town because they looked quite similar. I admit that I didn’t really bother to read all the text or pay that much attention to where the game was being set but there were times when I thought I was playing a level set on the same map as a previous one.

While these things work pretty well, not everything about the game works as well because some of the arcade game-style stuff feels at odds with the conceit that the player is experiencing a retelling of a story. For example, there are points for shooting multiple people that you can use to level up which draws attention to the fact that it is a game.

The most dissonant gameplay element is that each level has hidden “Nuggets of Truth” cards that you can collect and which tell you the historical facts behind the colorful story you are playing. While this is neat in concept, the reality is that because they are hidden meant that while I was playing I spent a lot of time wandering around in nooks and corners looking for these secrets and not playing through to the next part of the game. So while I liked the concept, the execution was more of a distraction than it should have been.

Overall Gunslinger is fun if you like old school shooters and are interested in storytelling in games and how the software used can influence how a game is made.

three thumbs up

Tell me a story
About outlaws and cowboys
Just don’t distract me.


Ecstasy of Order Tetris Documentary Review


Ecstasy of Order
Ecstasy of Order

Ecstasy Of Order: The Tetris Masters is about the 2010 Classic Tetris World Championship and follows some of the competitors in the days leading up to the tournament. After the success of The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, which featured the underdog Steve Wiebe facing off against the “villainous” Billy Mitchell, it is easy for filmmakers to follow this formula and try to find a “good guy” to go up against a “bad guy.” While watching Ecstasy of Order, it is tempting to try to try to pigeonhole the participants into these categories. This is especially the case with Thor Aackerlund who gained some level of fame in his teen years by winning the 1990 Nintendo World Championships by using a special technique to move Tetris pieces faster than normal. Thor has all the makings of a “Billy Mitchell” character: Thor’s fame makes him a legend among long-time competitive Tetris players, he is a bit of a mystery to viewers because he isn’t one of the people that the film follows, and just before the tournament he posts that he has broken the Tetris record but doesn’t offer any proof.  I won’t spoil how it turns out but just let me say that Thor’s story is very compelling.

One of the things that I really appreciated about Ecstasy of Order is that not everyone in the film is a straight white man. By following a couple of women (one of whom is a lesbian) and a couple of Asian-Americans, the film shows that the gaming community is broader than most mainstream media coverage would lead you to believe. Additionally, by focusing on a variety of people, the film broadens its appeal by giving viewers a number of people to identify and root for.

The film also goes out of its way to explain Tetris and some of the strategies involved for those who have been living under a rock and don’t know what Tetris is. Some of the information comes off a bit superfluous for those of us who don’t live under rocks but even though the film focuses on the NES version of Tetris, it does mention some of the less well-known versions of Tetris (like an arcade version where all the blocks are invisible). For those who are looking for information on Tetris’s creation, I would recommend tracking down a copy of the tv documentary Tetris: From Russia with Love. Unfortunately it isn’t available on DVD but it is easily found online by searching for the title.

Ecstasy of Order is a compelling documentary with engaging depictions of the tournament competitors and recommended viewing for anyone that liked King of Kong or has binged on Tetris so much that they see falling blocks when they go to sleep. Ecstasy of Order is available on DVD and viewable online from a number of places.

Six Thumbs Up

Tetris pieces fall
Is Thor a villain or not
Watch the film to learn


Encyclopedia of Video Games with cool stuff by this guy with the thumbs

An edited collection including my first official publication has been released: Encyclopedia of Video Games [2 volumes]: The Culture, Technology, and Art of Gaming. Edited by Mark J. P. Wolf, it includes a few entries written by me, such as this wonderful, guaranteed 100% accurate and authoritative entries on the history of Sony and the Playstation 1 and 2 (guarantee not valid in any country, world, or timeline):

I’ve included affiliate links to so if you decide to buy the two volume Encyclopedia of Video Games for the low, low price of $189 you can give me a commission:

Or, for my billions of readers in the UK you can buy it for the even more amazing price of £195.24!

If you live somewhere else, well… I don’t have an affiliate code for any other countries so just send me a blank check and I’ll send you a copy in 4-60 months… 😛

In all seriousness, the price may be high but it is two hardcovers and over 700 pages in total. While I can’t speak for the other contributors I know that I put a lot of energy into my entries to make sure they had better and more authoritative information than wikipedia entries (of course now someone can just cite my entries in wikipedia ;-)). I think there is going to be an ebook version out at some point so hopefully it will be available soon.

Duke Nuke Them Four Forever

Back when Duken Nukem 3D came out there were lots of people pitting Duken Nukem 3D vs. Quake and arguing over which was better. Well, now that Duke Nukem Forever is out I don’t think there is really any game to compare it to.

Even if you ignore the storied history of the development of DN4, the game is really dated in lots of ways. The graphics look like they are about Doom 3 level. The humor is straight out of the previous game and the weapons are too. It also really feels pieced together from numerous different parts. There is a random strip club section which is just pointless. Perhaps weirdly, there is a whole section in an alien space ship that feels like it was taken from Prey complete with doors that look like vaginas. The physics are pretty weird too. For example, in one section you have to stack some barrels to tip over a shipping container and when the container begins to tip over one of the barrels floats in midair and if you get too close to them you bounce off weirdly. The most dated thing about it, however, is the gameplay. There are parts that feel very dated with basic physics puzzles and numerous boss fights.

The game it reminds me a lot of the original Half-Life for some reason. Oddly enough, Duke Nukem Forever was originally meant to come out back around the same time Half-Life came out. I wonder if it had came out back then if people would be pitting Duke Nukem Forever vs. Half-Life?

As it stands, Duke Nukem Forever is eminently forgettable. There is some juvenile and offensive misogyny in the game which might spark some controversy on slow news days. I think that Gearbox really just wanted to shove this out the door as quickly as possible so they could make their own Duke Nukem game. Maybe that one will be more memorable…

The Final Hours of the Final Hours of Portal 2…

So I’ve played through the single player portion of Portal 2 twice now — once normally and once with the commentary (although I did miss one of the comments at the very end because I pressed a button before I got to click on the commentary and then didn’t have an opportunity to listen to it). I haven’t played the co-op part though because I don’t have any close friends with Portal 2 and I don’t want to play it with strangers.

Anyway, I enjoyed Portal 2 but I wouldn’t say it was perfect. I wished there was more of the Rattmann stuff and while I’m a big comic book fan the Lab Rat comic wasn’t enough. I also felt the gel stuff, while fun, felt kind of unnecessary and like padding.

I think my biggest issue is with the writing. Without going into spoilers, I’ll just say that Wheatley’s storyline was extremely predictable and the revelations of GLaDOS was immediately obvious. Most irritatingly, for me, was Cave Johnson. He just seemed way too similar in style and humor to Team Fortress 2’s Saxton Hale.

A couple days ago I also had the opportunity to read through Geoff Keighley’s The Final Hours of Portal 2 ipad app. And by “had the opportunity” I mean I downloaded a copy of it not that I got a special showing or anything. And by “downloaded a copy” I mean I pirated it and then unzipped the ipa file and looked through the jpeg files that the text is embedded on because I don’t have an ipad. Apparently, the text is available on the Kindle even though the official website doesn’t mention it. I downloaded the free sample and the images were in black and white so I passed on it. However, now it is available as an Adobe AIR app on Steam and I did pay for that so I’m all totally legal now officer.

I found The Final Hours to be a quite fascinating read. I was left with wanting more though. I really liked books like Masters of Doom and the criminally out of print Game Over even though they are both flawed. While it is unfair to expect a $2 app to be the size of a full book, I would like to see The Final Hours of Portal 2 to be expanded to full length.

I’m a sucker for Valve games and I’m a sucker for “making of” books (about games I care about, mainly) so it is little surprise that I liked Portal 2 and The Final Hours of Portal 2. Like everyone else, though, I’m really waiting for more Half-Life.

Scott Pilgrim is for Hipsters

Scott Pilgrim is a tough movie for me to review. I’m not sure if I liked it. I did like it better than the comic. I read the first issue and flipped through the second. There were some good things. I chuckled a couple times. However, there was a lot I didn’t like — a lot of things that were also in the film. The number one thing I hated was the art. I’ve been a comic book fan since before I could read and while art is subjective I find little redeeming about this art. There were times I couldn’t even tell the characters apart. But I’m writing about the movie not the comic…

I’ve seen Scott Pilgrim compared to films like Napoleon Dynamite (a film that I turned off after about 20 minutes), and Juno (a film I’ve avoided seeing because the clips I’ve seen make me want to run away). So basically movies for hipsters. Scott Pilgrim is pretty much a movie for hipsters too. Now I don’t mean that if you like the film you are a hipster. I may be judgmental but I’m not that judgmental.

Now of course there is the question of “what is a hipster?” Different people may mean different things but when I think of hipsters I think of style over substance. I think of superficial appropriation of things without any depth of knowledge about them. And fixed gear bikes. What is the deal with those?

And Scott Pilgrim is about style and not substance. Sure the whole message is about Scott confronting his past blaa blaa blaa. However, saying that in the last ten minutes doesn’t really make the rest of the superficial stuff ok. I liked the style of the fights. Those were fun. Those were in my opinion a good use of style. What wasn’t were the videogame references. Those were the most superficial thing in the film.

So many people have said and written that this is a film for gamers. But they are wrong. There is no depth to the videogame references. They are all references made by a someone who seems to have had a NES as a kid and hasn’t had any contact with gaming outside of Dance Dance Revolution and Guitar Hero since then. The most obscure reference was to Clash at Demonhead. There are tons of references to Zelda and Final Fantasy but they aren’t that subtle or obscure that they would be known to gamers.

This does make me wonder if this is just my own bias or if this is a legitimate criticism. I’m not really that into Zelda and I don’t like Final Fantasy. To be honest I’m not a console gamer and don’t really like many Japanese games — which make up the majority of the videogame references in Scott Pilgrim. If there had been a first person segment in the film maybe I would have liked it more.

However, I still think that the videogame references are shallow even if they are from games I don’t love. Most of the references in the film consist of taking fonts, sounds, or status bars from games. Beyond “hey that’s a reference to X” there’s no much else to them. It doesn’t really even make any specific references to elements of the game beyond what someone would get from looking at them for five minutes. There’s no chickens that attack you, no Phoenix Down, no warp pipes (although I guess you could argue that the way Ramona gets around is similar to that). Heck, can a player get an All Your Base?

Originally I was probably going to end this post with this. I might have talked about how Ramona has no agency in the film, or how creepy it is that Scott is going out with a high school girl, or how there seems to be some fetishization of Asianness going on (and the fact that the author is partially of Asian ancestry doesn’t dismiss that argument). However, I recently ran across a post on NPR about Scott Pilgrim that included some links to reviewers hating the film because of its videogame references.

I think that the fact that one of the quoted reviewers felt the need to start his review with “First of all, I’m not a video gamer. I have discovered more appealing ways to not have a life” or with a definition of fan service (a professional writer thinks it is ok to do that? I tell my students they will fail if they start by defining a word) and by writing, “Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World is Fan Service: The Movie, an insular, punishingly alienating experience preaching only to the faithful, devoted hearts of arrested 12-year-old boys. It’s singularly fixated on video games and shallow visions of women as one-dimensional objects to be either obtained or discarded and offers no possible point of entry to anybody over the age of 30.” shows just how large a chasm there is between videogame culture and those who don’t know anything at all about games (after all the vast majority of videogame references in the films are from games made in the 80s which means that pretty much the only people who would have a point of entry to it are people near the age of 30).

In these reviews one can see not only an ignorance of videogames but an actual distain for them. It may not hurt that the writer who claimed to have “more appealing ways to not have a life” (apparently trolling on the internet is more appealing to him. Check his responses in that reviews comments from some examples) was born in 1956 but it does show an astounding amount of willful ignorance and outright contempt for videogames. No wonder there are always news stories about “murder simulators” and the Supreme Court is going to hear a case on videogame laws .

I think this explains why Scott Pilgrim didn’t do well at the box office. If it is too hipster to appeal to the hardcore gamers and some non-gamers dismiss anything gaming related then all that leaves are the hipsters. …And they are probably too cool to actually go see any movie that anyone’s heard of any way.

Is Gameloft videogaming’s version of The Asylum?

It isn’t much of a secret that I’m a fan of bad movies and one of the more infamous companies that make bad movies is The Asylum. They are the producers of a lot of films such as 18 Year Old Virgin, The Day the Earth Stopped, Snakes on a Train, The Terminators, and Transmorphers. As these examples show, The Asylym’s gimmick is that they think of a title that is similar to an upcoming film, make a film as quickly as possible, and get it into the video stores to piggy back on the original film.

Well, it seems like a videogame company has seen how easy it is for The Asylum to make money and has started making their own knockoffs. I was listening to the idle Thumbs podcast when one of the hosts mentioned Gameloft‘s “awesome” iphone games. Not having an iphone I can’t say if the phones are any good or not but I can’t help but think that they would be just as good as The Asylum’s films with titles like: Dungeon Hunter which I’m sure is nothing like Diablo,diablo

Blades of Fury which looks nothing like Tekken, tekken

Modern Combat: Sandstorm which looks nothing like Call of Duty 4: Modern Combat, cod4

Gangstar: West Coast Hustle which has no similarities to GTA: San Andreas, gta

and I’m sure that the fact that Guitar Rock Tour has a title so similar to Guitar Hero and Rock Band is just coincidental. rockband

Please tell me I’m not the only one hoping that Gameloft and The Asylum will hook up so we can get some games based on The Asylum’s films. That would be incredible.

Review of Mia Consalvo’s Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames

I’ve been a fan of Mia Consalvo’s work for a while so I was really looking forward to her book, Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames. If you haven’t heard anything about it you can find a pdf of the introduction (and the index too, but that seems to be less valuable) on the MIT Press site.

Despite the book being from MIT Press, I found it a bit less academic than I would have hoped. This isn’t to say that it is a bad book but it isn’t the hardcore theory-filled analysis that I was hoping for. As it stands, the book seems to sit somewhere between Masters of Doom and the stuff in the DiGRA Digital Library. I found the book to be entertaining if a bit too mainstream. There is some very interesting analysis of cheating, game guides, and faqs to be found in it though.

Left 4 Dead Review and Reflections

Through Valve’s SourceU program that the class I’m teaching tells I’m lucky enough to have gotten Left 4 Dead for free and I’ve been playing the heck out of it. It is a really fun game. The AI Director (or is it Director AI? I’ve seen both) might be a sign of things to come if it can be adapted to other games. Basically it means that the era of enemies being in the same place every time you play the game is over. The AI Director decides when, where, and how many enemies appear in the game so that “It’s never the same game twice.” If they put this into Half-Life 2 Ep 3 then it could be really awesome.

That isn’t to say that the game is perfect, however. From a design point of view tey made some interesting choices. I’m tempted to say that it suffers from “console-itis” but I’m not entirely sure that is the case. The first and most noticeable thing is the matchmaking system. It is braindead. They don’t let you pick your own server unless you use a console command. Is it some attempt to make people friend each other so that the Steam friends system has tons of people using it? Is it some plot that Valve can build up their friends database as a selling feature to get other game developers to use Steam features?

There’s also the fact that even if you get together with your friends you still can’t pick your own server. There’s not even any way that I’ve seen to pick a local server only. They also don’t represent your ping as a number but rather as cell-phone reception-like bars.

Once you get into the game there are also some interesting design choices. They worked really hard to make people play cooperatively and engineered in ways to encourage that. When you reload your character shouts out “I’m reloading.” When you heal your characters yells out “Cover me. I’m healing.” Valve started this with TF2 where players would automatically thank the medic for healing them and this brought it to a new level by these kinds of things as well as having your character say things like they are hurting or that they hear a zombie near and goes so far as to having characters say things that are purely character-related such as having Francis the banker comment on how he hates things such as tunnels, vans, and airports. This is quite a difference from the silent Gordon Freeman.

I’ve talked about the meaning of “cinematic” before and this game is one of the first that I think really does make things explicitly cinematice. Each of the four chapters has a movie-style poster that appears on the screen as the level loads and even have witty tag lines. Then the actual beginning of the level has an overhead shot that zooms back that is not only cinematic but serves to give a short overview of what the player is in for. The final level at the airplane is especially film-life in that it shows a smoking plane going overhead and eventually crashing in the distance as a start of the level. This film metaphor is carried through to when you finish the mission by having the scrolling film credits serve as a way of showing player stats. If a player doesn’t make it to the end of the mission the credits begin with “In memory” of that player. The credits end with a nod to credits for films featuring animals by stating “X number of zombies were killed in the making of this film” which cleverly serves as a way of telling you how many zombies you killed in the game.

One final thing which Valve did in both this game as well as Team Fortress 2 was to nail down everything. On of the aspects of Half-Life 2 that got a lot of attention and hype was the physics and that you could pick things up and do things with them. Half-Life 2 DM was all about throwing toilets and cast iron radiators. In both Left 4 Dead and Team Fortress 2 everything is nailed down. You can move very few objects. On some TF2 levels there are barrels you can break but they seem to have no impact on gameplay. In L4D there are very few things you can move. While I can understand why they did that – it opens up potentials for griefing and exploits – I wish they hadn’t done it. It places restrictions on gameplay and it disrupts the believability of the world when kitchen chairs are immovable objects.

There are more interesting game design choices in the game but these are some of the ones that I didn’t see mentioned elsewhere and that really jumped out at me. As time passes it will, as I alluded to earlier, be interesting to see how this game influences subsequent Valve games.

Start of the new semester

Once again another semester has started. This will probably be my last semester here at IU Bloomington since I’ve applied for a teaching fellowship at one of the satellite IU campuses (I’ve tentatively accepted an offer from one but the paperwork hasn’t gone through I I’ll wait to mention which one lest I jinx it!)

Over the break I started playing a coupel games I thought I would mention. The first is probably not new to a lot of people: Peggle which is kind of a cross between Pachinko, The Price is Right’s Plinko, and bumper pool.
The next is probably less familiar but just as addictive to those of us that love FPS games and zombies: Zombie Master. There’s also Zombie Panic but I’ve not gotten around to playing that yet. ZM is kind of a combination between a FPS and an RTS with the zombie master playing from overhead god mode and using a control panel to spawn computer controlled zombies. I think I like it partially because of the zombies but also because the fact that they are zombies means that they are mostly slow which means that it isn’t really an advantage to use hacks or cheats and you don’t die right away from a headshot like you do in Counter-Strike. There also isn’t much trashtalking because you are all on one team and the zm will be someone different next round.

The final game I’m playing is probably the most obscure: You Are Empty. It is a Russian-made FPS that is set in the 50s-era Soviet Union (what is it with Eastern Europeans making FPSs lately?) It features mentally ill or handicapped people wearing head restraints and straitjackets running at you with sharp sticks, firefighters with flamethrowers, and ten feet tall killer chickens. To the best of my knowledge it is a 100% accurate depiction of life in Soviet Russia…

I have no idea what the name of it means but it is like 90% of the way to a decent game. It looks kind of like Half-Life 2 with the setting of a worn down deteriorating city but it lacks the Source engine’s physics or ability to pick as many things up. The main character is also the slowest character ever. He may be on crutches or in a wheelchair for all I can tell because when you are trying to run from a giant chicken you feel nothing but frustration. I wish they could give the company another 6 months to polish it (perhaps they need to Polish it to make it up to snuff?) or that someone would remake it for a better engine.

It wasn’t all great gaming over the semester break though as I did experience one gaming-related heartache. I tried to play Bioshock but my videocard is only a shader model 2.0b card and it requires a 3.0 card. There is a hack to make it work with my card but it says it could take up to 15 minutes to load a level. I think I’ll wait. Regardless, until I upgrade I’ll have to start reading minimum system requirements. Nooooo…!!!! The horror! The horror!