Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Video Game Murderers: Three Series Cut Down Before Their Time

Not every video game series can make it big. Maybe the creators ran out of money, maybe it wasn't marketed well, or maybe it just plain sucked. Still, for every dozen or so games that fail for legitimate reasons there's at least one that dies a much less justified death.

We're talking about video game murder here, and not the awesome kind that Jack Thompson rants about. These are good or at least decent games cut down before their time, either through greed, jealousy, or sheer stupidity. We'll count them down and get to the bottom of exactly what went wrong and who's to blame.

3. Tactics Ogre/Ogre Battle

It began as Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen and continued until the Game Boy Advance's Tactics Ogre: Knight of Lodis. Developed by Quest, Ogre Battle practically invented the tactical RPG system that would later spawn Final Fantasy Tactics and every game Atlus has ever published.

In an interesting twist from most video games of the era, Ogre Battle decided to actually bother setting up an intriguing story in a well-created setting. Nations, landmasses, and politics carried over between games. The storyline was deep, involved, and just a little bit dark without being completely hopeless. No one could ever accuse Ogre Battle of pandering.

So what happened? As it turned out, publishers Atlus weren't really very active in the United States at the time, so Quest wanted another publisher to take their game to the states. That's when they met Enix. Enix agreed to publish Ogre Battle in the United States, but there was one catch: the game would have no marketing and would be only an extremely limited release.

After Squaresoft pulled the exact same trick with the sequel it was over. Lead designer Yasumi Matsuno left Quest along with several other developers and soon joined up with Squaresoft. Quest tried to continue the series but the games they created were subpar and tanked horribly. It wasn't long before Square-Enix bought Quest completely and destroyed every last trace of the series.

Square-Enix than proceeded to put Matsuno and his team to work on Final Fantasy Tactics, which as it turns out is just like Ogre Battle in every way, except without any of the things that made Ogre Battle awesome.

2. Legend of Dragoon

Developed by Sony Computer Entertainment back before they sucked, Legend of Dragoon was an interesting and well-designed if not absolutely unique RPG released almost immediately after Final Fantasy 8. The game revolved around the main characters' abilities to transform into magical warriors with the power of dragons, called Dragoons.

An interesting addition was an -at the time- new and radical precision combat system. Whenever you attacked two symbols would appear on the screen. The larger symbol would shrink down and if the player managed to hit the attack button at the moment they were the same size, they could execute combination attacks. If this sounds familiar it's because it's been re-used in many RPGs since, including the recent XBox 360 RPG Lost Odyssey. Remember this system because it will become important in a bit.

Despite receiving high scores, around 8 out of 10 from independent critics, professional review sites blasted the game, giving it scores of 3 or 4 out of 10. The major complaint from these sites was that Legend of Dragoon's precision combat system was almost exactly like Final Fantasy's limit break system which, as anyone who's ever played Final Fantasy can attest, is a bold-faced lie. These reviews were such blatant bullshit that sites were petitioned to re-review the game. Those few that did all gave the same review.

Prior to Legend of Dragoon, the most amazing things to happen to RPGs were the active time battle system and the limit break system, both first utilized by Square-Enix. Legend of Dragoon's precision combat system made both of those systems look like exactly what they were: sad and impotent attempts at injecting new life into a series that had run out of ideas.

I'm not going to make the claim that Square recognized a legitimate and powerful competitor to their Final Fantasy series and paid critics to destroy it in order to save their own asses. All I'm saying is every professional video game review site of the day not only blasted this game and not only completely dismissed the one thing that made it hands-down better than every other RPG of the time, but also name-dropped the game's primary competitor many, many times right there in their reviews. So I guess that I absolutely am saying that yes, Square destroyed Legend of Dragoon.

1. Daikatana

It started with a single ad. "John Romero is about to make you his bitch." The story of Daikatana is one of a single man's over-inflated ego. Romero enforced an impossible schedule on his tiny team of developers, switched game engines mid-design, and worst of all laid the hype on thick every step of the way, having started advertising from the first day of production, as opposed to when the game was actually about to come out.

When the game finally came out three years later fans were sick of even hearing the name, so when the game ended up being a four out of five game at best it was demolished by gamers and critics alike. Among game developers it's still commonly considered one of the worst games of all time and the poster child for what not to do when making a video game.

With 24 levels split into four distinct time periods, Daikatana was a game rich in content and most people who've played the game and judged it on its own merits will tell you they liked it. The only major problem with the game is the buggy AI, which is kind of a weak argument against it, considered we still don't quite have teammate AI down even today. (See also: Mass Effect) Many professional critics even openly admitted later on that they reviewed the game based on the first few minutes. Even I know you're not supposed to do that, even if I did totally do it myself once.

In the end this game is the victim of rampant, unchecked ego, over-ambition, and a good old dash of plain animal rage. John Romero may have put the knife in Daikatana's heart, but the public drove it in with a flying front kick, then proceeded to beat the corpse with a shovel. When it's all said and done you almost don't even know who to blame. John Romero created Doom and is too cool to hate, and you can't really blame the gaming public for being mad at three years of hype just completely failing to pay off.

That's why, in the interest of fairness and for the sake of completion, I'm going to go ahead of give credit for this one to Square-Enix too. Hey, they could have been involved. You don't know.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Video Game Review: DC Universe Online

DC Universe Online, or DCUO, is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game based on the DC comics universe - you know, Superman, Batman, Lex Luthor. That place.

I hope I didn't blow your mind just there.

DCUO is kind of a tough one to call, as there's good and bad about it. So allow me to illustrate how I feel about it with a segment I call The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

The Good

The combat system is amazing: intuitive, actually involving movement and strategy. DCUO is one of the few MMORPGs I've ever played that actually made me feel like I was playing a real video game. The only other MMO I've played that had a system nearly this good was Maple Story, which is fundamentally flawed in entirely different ways. Even City of Heroes, my all time favorite MMORPG is basically the same as all the others: stand still and press a button whenever your recharge runs down.

The powersets are amazing as well. While there may not be very many of them they all have interesting and exciting powers. I actually looked forward to learning my next ability and wondering what cool thing I was going to be able to do next, as opposed to most MMORPGs I've played where my main concern is how good my build is going to be.

Of course, the story is good too, especially for a free MMO, which isn't surprising when you consider the writing staff at work here. The head writer is longtime DC writer Geoff Johns, whose works include Blackest Night, Brightest Day, along with a handful of Batman, Hawkman, Green Lantern, and Flash comics, among others. Along with him are a team of other greats, including Marvin Wolfman, who created -among other characters- the Teen Titans, Tim Drake (aka the third Robin), and Blade. Voice talents include Mark Hammill as the Joker, James Marsters as Lex Luthor, Wil Wheaton as Robin, and Adam Baldwin as Superman.

They also had Tracy Bush, who did the voice work for all the murlocs in World of Warcraft, so there's that too.

I should also mention that the graphics aren't terrible, though they really just don't do it for me.

The Bad

I mentioned before that my all time favorite MMO is City of Heroes, which brings me to my major gripe about DCUO: the customization. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that DCUO and CoH should be held to the same customization standards just because they're both about superheroes, but really, come on. The body customization is basically non-existant. You have three options for build, each with three sub-options for size, and you have no control beyond that. You can't even change your face, which is particularly upsetting since you look like a hideous goon.

As for costume options, the "lock style" option where you can lock a piece of your outfit's appearance to remain the same regardless of your equipment is a nice option, but the costume options are just so damn limited that it's not like you'll be likely to find an outfit you really like anyway.

As I hinted at before, your powerset options are extremely limited as well. This is primarily the fault of the story -your powers come from "exobytes," small robots that contain all the powers of the DC heroes and villains- so you're only allowed to have powers that established DC heroes have. So since no DC hero has, for example, wind powers, neither can you. The lack of options for your powers is even more upsetting than the lack of appearance options.

The Ugly

The PC version...

Unlike most MMORPGs, DC Universe Online was originally designed to be played on a console, specifically the Playstation 3. The PC version, as a result, is...not so hot. It's not particularly stable, especially on lower-end computers, and the control system is fairly difficult to get used to with a keyboard and mouse.

KR Rating: [4] Good

I can't call this anything less than good when it has so many talented people putting in so much hard work to create such and impressively promising whole. In the end, it's also impossible to call it great when it's so flawed and limited. So it gets a rating of "good." It's not bad, but it could've been so much better.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Movie Review: Shyamalan's The Last Airbender

Shyamalan's The Last Airbender attempts to retell the events of the first season of the popular Nickelodeon cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender, which by itself should tell you most of what you need to know about why this movie is so hated. The movie only covers about half the episodes, which are only about 20 minutes long after you remove commercials, the intro sequence, and the credits, but that still leaves almost three and a half hours of material which this movie tries to cover in half that time.

Maintaining the story through that process meant sacrificing a lot of understandability. If you're the kind of person who reads a blog like this you've probably seen the series and if not then you should, so I won't go into the story right now. What I will say is the editing process cut so much out that even the title character, Aang, ends up as just a plot device instead of a character, though to be fair even the characters that do stay characters have more wood in them than a 2x4.

By far the biggest mistake Shyamalan made, however, was the same one made by most directors shooting adaptations: he felt that he needed to "fix" the source material. The series was great but it was still a Nickelodeon production, that is to say aimed primarily at kids. It's more comedy than drama and generally lighthearted. Clearly, Shyamalan felt that the world of Avatar would be better as a straight fantasy epic. In the process he ripped out the heart and soul of the story. I like high fantasy, I really do, but Last Airbender is not generic fantasy and shouldn't be treated as such.

What we're left with is a semi-coherent mess of a film, choked by random changes for change's own sake, even down to randomly changing the way characters' names are pronounced. (For example the comic relief Sokka, whose name is pronounced exactly how it's spelled in the show but is pronounced "Soak-a" in the movie.) Of course, much has also already been said about the random ethnicity reassignment - in the show everyone was chinese, while in the movie everyone is white except the evil Fire Nation who are now inexplicably Indian - Mr. Shyamalan's own people - but honestly the less said about that the better.

KR Rating: [1] HORRIBLE

When I was researching this article IMDb assured me that people who liked Shyamalan's Last Airbender also liked Eragon, thereby instantly proving the point of every person who has ever said anything bad about either movie.

On a more serious note, one enormous oversight pointed out by fans of the show is the exclusion of the Kyoshi Warriors. If you've seen the show you know who they are. If not I won't spoil it except to say they're a group of warriors who served a previous avatar and that after season one they become a very important part of the show. According to Mr. Shyamalan, their leader, a female warrior named Suki, was his favorite character. He even shot an entire hour-long segment revolving around them, but in the end he cut the entire thing because he knew he would never be able to do them justice.

This, of course, begs the question of why this stroke of conscience did not apply to the rest of the process. Of course you can't do justice to six and a half hours worth of show in an hour and 43 minutes. Even a Lord of the Rings style three hour epic might've had trouble, especially when the cast is filled with - and I'm sorry but it must be said - talentless hacks, with the few talented actors on hand all wildly miscast, most notable in the case of comedian and Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi, who is for some reason cast as the main villain!

Shyamalan's Last Airbender was doomed from the start, but somehow ended up even worse than anyone could've suspected.