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by Ethos

Sunday Soapbox: Let’s Play in the Sandbox!

Sunday, June 6th, 2010

Now, while I may have failed at writing… well, anything this week, I did happen to pick up a copy of Red Dead Redemption. Sure, I didn’t pick up up until Saturday evening, but, did get my hands on it. (Xbox 360 version.) And, I did play it. In fact I played a decent 5-hour chunk, and while I feel I need more time to provide decent impressions, I also feel like now’s a great time to talk about “Sandbox” games in general. What makes a good sandbox game good? What works in a sandbox game and what doesn’t? What are some examples of good and bad sandbox games?

For the hell of it, let’s first define a “sandbox” game. On Wikipedia, a sandbox or “open world” game is described as follows:

The term sandbox refers more to the mechanics of a game and how, as in a physical sandbox, the user is entertained by their ability to play creatively, boundless of artificial structural constraints, and with there being “no right way” of playing the game.

Yeah, I referenced Wikipedia. Got a problem with that? In any case, the above description is pretty darn accurate. Sandbox, free-roaming, open world; they all mean the same thing: a game in which you’re allowed to freely traverse a massive, open gameworld, and interact with that game world however you see fit. Think Grand Theft Auto. Assassin’s Creed. Infamous. Prototype. Fallout 3. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. And, of course, Red Dead Redemption.

So, what is it that makes a sandbox game fun? What makes a good sandbox experience, as opposed to an average one?

In my opinion, the most important requirement for a sandbox game is also a very simple one – there has to be a wide variety of things to do. Quests, tasks, missions, whatever they may be – but in order for the player to shape his own experience within the sandbox, you have to give him the appropriate tools. If you present them with a massive, open world to explore, and then populate it with only four or five different activities, then the player will quickly become bored. Plain and simple. And yes, I am glaring at the original Assassin’s Creed right now.

I’ll take this as an opportunity to discuss Red Dead Redemption. As Ethos stated in his insomniac edition of Scatter Storming, there is indeed, a “shit ton” to do. And, for now at least, it’s all fun. There are bandits to kill, Sheriffs to aid, property to buy, poker to play, horses to ride, treasure to hunt, movies to watch – the list could go on and on and on. And this is what’s opened up in the initial five hours – I highly doubt I’ve seen all there is to see. It’s quite shocking, really. And a lot of fun.

Another crucial component of a quality sandbox game is this: the ability to impact the world around you in a noticable, meaningful, or profitable way. Preferably all three. In Red Dead Redemption, if you perform noble task, you’ll score with the noble folk – including local Sheriffs and other such influential people. However, if you go for a more aggressive, self-serving, or violent approach to things, you’ll get in close with the seedy criminal factions. In Assassin’s Creed II, city guards will treat you differently depending on how many people you’ve stabbed lately. And, not to mention, your financial contributions can restore an entire town from slums to splendor.

A bad example would be the original Assassin’s Creed. Assassin’s Creed II is one of the best sandbox games I’ve ever played, which makes it that much more ironic that the original Assassin’s Creed is probably one of the worst. I’ve already called it out for having nothing to do within its massive world; but in addition to that, what you do has absolutely zero effect on the world at large. Kill as many people as you want, be they civilians or assassination targets, and nothing changes. And, aside from stabbing people, there really isn’t any meaningful way to interact with the world of Assassin’s Creed. I know it’s a bit late to be on the Assassin’s Creed hatewagon, and that’s not really my intent here – it is, though, one of the better bad examples.

If the player is expected to spend all of his time within the bounds of a single, massive gameworld, then it had better be a good world. And by “good” I mean endearing, believable, and attractive – make the player want to explore it. Red Dead Redemption pulls this off quite impressively; night and day, a bustling virtual populace makes the world seem very much alive, and very much like a real place. People talk aloud about current events in the world, passer-byes on horses shout hellos, bandits attack on the road, drunken idiots attack prostitutes – some of it sounds trivial, and some of it ridiculous – but its the small, quirky things that make a world feel alive and endearing to the player. A big city filled with mindless, shambling mutes doesn’t quite cut it – and, while I could glare at Assassin’s Creed yet again, I think I’ll take the opportunity to glare at the much-overrated Infamous.

Gameplay in a sandbox game is, perhaps, the greatest challenge. Why? Because gameplay mechanics have to be solid enough to hold up for a long period of time, (as many hours as the player chooses, really) and they have to be able to work in a variety of interchangeable gameplay scenarios. Since there’s no traditional level design, you can’t ever really use gimmicks – such as, say, a level on the back of a massive Titan. No offense to God of War, or course; just using that as an example of something you generally won’t find in a sandbox. So, this being the case, the core, “day-to-day” mechanics (as it were) have to be strong. And, once again, Red Dead Redemption is a shining example of that. Combat is nothing new – in fact, it’s suspiciously similar to that found in Uncharted – but it’s solid, fun, and bloody. The “Dead Eye” ability, while just another incarnation of Bullet Time, is still incredibly awesome. It has to be used sparingly, but that makes it all the sweeter when you activate it, and deliver head shots to five different bandits with your double-barreled rifle. Horse riding is surprisingly enjoyable; perhaps because of how beautiful the rugged Western landscapes are, and thus how beautiful the sites are.

Oh, wait... this one was ALMOST a sandbox game. Sorry.

Perhaps the most difficult thing to do, though, when building a sandbox game is this: maintaining a narrative that can move at the player’s pace, yet retain its focus as a whole. Sure, you want a compelling story to accompany the world you’re in – but, you also don’t want to be hindered by it. It’s a tough line to walk, but once again, Red Dead nails it. Basically, the story is advanced whenever you decide to take on a story mission. These missions are often simplistic, and short, but they always add something to the overarching story. Even if it’s just a three-minute conversation during a carriage ride into town, you’re always given some valuable bit of information or character development. And, since these missions are generally short and sweet, that means you can keep the story moving at a brisk pace – if you want to. But you probably won’t want to. You might want to spend 45 minutes or so completing two or three story missions, and then an hour or two riding around, shooting at game, fending off bandits, picking flowers, or trying your hand at the (highly addictive) poker minigame. Think it sounds simple? Well, it should be, but not many games get it this right. In Infamous, the story takes a backseat for hours at a time while you carry out overly-elongated story missions that do very little to advance the actual plot. If you don’t have a compelling story to accompany the world, players will lose interest.

Sandbox games can provide some of the most memorable gaming experiences, since they’re largely shaped by you, and how you choose to exist in the world around you. But, like any genre, there’s a big difference between a good sandbox game, and an average one. Or… a bad one. With the advent of current-generation hardware, the genre’s become quite a bit more popular than it once was. Frankly, it’s a trend that will probably continue to grow. With games like Assassin’s Creed II and Grand Theft Auto 4 selling in the several millions, the people have expressed their love of the sandbox genre. But hey, if games like Red Dead Redemption are any indication, this could be a good thing.

‘Nuff said

Friday, June 4th, 2010

Scatter Storming. Issue #032

Friday, June 4th, 2010

So I’ve had some pretty fucking terrible insomnia the past few days. And apparently my body is being extra cruel by not letting me employ my usual “wrap my sleep schedule around” technique, as I woke up wide awake at 2:30pm for no reason despite not being able to sleep until 9am.

Therefore my current plan is to try and finish some tasks that have been on the back of my mind before I sleep in hopes that it will ease my brain. Probably a terrible idea, but I’m grasping here. The point is that finishing this Scatter Storming is one of those tasks. So I can’t promise this will be any good, I can just promise that it will exist.

I’ve been playing Red Dead -
Unlike the perpetually disappointing Riddles, I bought Red Dead Redemption on Tuesday, and while I haven’t been playing the hell out of it, I have definitely sunk a few hours in. So far, I’m really digging the voice acting and – surprisingly – the visuals. There’s a fair amount of texture pop-in, but the sprawling landscapes, authentic towns and beautiful sunsets really do create a pretty enthralling world. To be honest, I’m really in to it so far. There’s a shit ton to do, there’s a lot of genuine humour to be found if you’re looking, and there are stats and challenges galore. Now, while this is often assumed, I’m reserving final judgement until I beat it. I specify that for this game in particular because a common complaint I hear about GTA 4 is that it starts off with a similar sense of enthrallment and immersion, but then just gets repetitive and boring. So I have that fear. Still, I wasn’t interested in playing GTA 4, and I was interested in playing Red Dead, even without the Riddlethos factor. Riddles claims to be buying the game on the weekend, so maybe we’ll have IMpressions then, but I’m not holding my breath.

Godfuck it, I’m tired -
And I really don’t think I have anything else to say, I just need to crank this thing out.

Oh right! –
Fucking Brave Story has made up for introducing the stupidest character ever by having a sidequest to defeat a giant enemy crab. And if there was any confusion as to if it was a coincidence or not, there is dialogue after the quest’s completion that goes something like this:

A: How did you defeat the giant enemy crab?
B: We stabbed it in its weak sp…oh never mind

I was impressed.

That’s it. Fuck off and enjoy the absolutely hideous picture of me on the cover. Seriously, that’s got to be one of the worst pictures of me ever, and there are some REALLY bad ones.

Alright, well…

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010

I thought that Riddles would be posting a HLL today, so I was holding off on my Scatter Storming. No dice, eh Riddles? Oh well, I’ll still give you all my Scatter Storming tomorrow, but for now know that I’ve been playing Red Dead and I’m enjoying it more than I thought I would. Still, the thing about GTA is that it looked interesting, but it also looked like it got boring fast. I’m definitely very far from final judgement, but I can’t deny that I’m definitely enjoying myself so far, and I’ve been impressed with the dialogue.

Alan Wake Review – Fear The Dark

Tuesday, June 1st, 2010

LIKED:

-Solid combat mechanics

-Some intriguing storytelling

-Some impressive atmospheric moments

DISLIKED:

-Major lack of atmospheric focus

-Some awkward storytelling

-Repetitive gameplay

Alan Wake is a strange beast. Billed on its own boxart as a “psychological action thriller,” Alan Wake is a solid action/horror experience built on some solid gameplay mechanics. It tells a clever, twisting story that managed to hold my interest until the end. And, at its finest, it does garner some atmospheric merit. But while Alan Wake does many things well, it never manages to jump off the page in any meaningful way. The result is a game that is fun to play, but ultimately, rather unfulfilling. Read on, and I’ll explain.

STORY

Alan Wake often draws comparison to Quantic Dream’s interactive thriller, Heavy Rain. The only real reason for this is that both games share an emphasis on storytelling. Alan Wake is (or attempts to be) a psychological thriller, filled with all the mystery, intrigue, and plot twists that you’d expect. The premise is quite basic, and quite familiar: Alan Wake is a struggling writer, hoping to enjoy a quiet vacation with his wife, Alice Wake, in Bright Falls – a quaint (read: absurdly fucking creepy) little mountain town. Unfortunately for Mr. Wake, things go wrong mere moments after he checks into his cabin. Alice is assaulted and thrown into an icy lake to drown. Alan dives after her, but quickly blacks out. He wakes up a week later, with no memory of what’s occurred in the last seven days – the last thing he remembers is the drowning figure of his wife. From there, shit just gets crazy, for lack of a better phrase. Alan soon discovers that the events unfolding around him are the living manifestation of a novel he wrote – with himself as the main character.

I won’t discuss specifics any further. Credit must be given where it’s due: Alan Wake’s storytelling has some real merit. The concept is quite clever indeed, and it’s a mystery that’ll keep you guessing until the end. Unfortunately, though, as clever as the plot may be, the execution often falters. While playing Alan Wake, it’s difficult not to draw comparisons to several other comparable stories – Silent Hill, Shutter Island, The X-Files, Secret Window… the list could go on, frankly. It’s actually somewhat vexing, as is the game’s liberal use of tired, clichéd horror conventions. Sure, the horror genre is built on certain conventions, but Alan Wake seems to go out if its way to include each and every one of them. Creepy little resort town with a dark secret? Check. Old woman with cryptic, forboding words that come true later? Check. Missing wife? Check. Dudes with chainsaws? Check. Check, check, check, it’s all there. I promise.

Now, as we all know, a story doesn’t have to be particularly original in order to succeed. What matters most is how well it’s told. Are the characters robust? Is the pacing efficient? Is the scripting strong? Does it build a cohesive atmosphere? These are the questions to be asked, and when it comes to Alan Wake, the answer is “not quite.”

Alan Wake is an entertaining protagonist, and he’s characterized well during the game. However, he’s also the only character in the game that’s developed to any extent. Nobody else is given any meaningful attention, and that includes Alice, Alan’s missing wife. It’s kinda difficult to give a damn about her, or her grim fate, because the game devotes absolutely no screen time to her.

Something that really annoyed me throughout Alan Wake was the absurd amount of pseudo-foreshadowing that never paid off, and never made sense. I’m referring mainly to the radio and TV transmissions that you can listen to/view during the course of the game. On the radio, you’ll usually hear an excerpt from some talk show, and the subject matter is so vague and pointless that you can’t even tell if it’s even supposed to be foreshadowing. On TV, you’re generally treated to scattered episodes of a horror show called Night Springs. Obviously an homage to The Twilight Zone, the show always tells the tale of something weird and supernatural. But again, while it’s clearly supposed to provide some sort of insight or foreshadowing, it’s never clear what that is. I spent an substantial amount of time during Alan Wake standing still, watching TV or listening to the radio. And, after beating the game, I’m still not sure why.

The most damning flaw, though, is this: Alan Wake gravely suffers from a lack of focus when it comes to setting and atmosphere. The game can never quite decide if it wants to be a Silent Hill-esque psychological thriller or an X-Filesy supernatural action flick. One moment, you’re walking through the woods, shrouded in darkness, flinching at every sound. The next, you’re cruising around in one of the game’s several bizarre vehicular sequences, mowing down zombies in a way that’d make Woody Harrelson proud. The next, you’re having epileptic visions of futuristic space-men in makeshift Big Daddy costumes. (I’m being dead serious.) What this grab-bag of plot elements does is ensure that Alan Wake never manages to reach the level of atmospheric genius that it occasionally teases. Also, as you can probably gather, a lot of it is simply ridiculous in its own right. I rolled my eyes more than a few times.

Don’t get me wrong: Alan Wake is an entertaining yarn. But for every clever twist or shocking revelation, there’s an equally stupid tangent or senseless revelation to make sure the story never reaches the level of narrative mastery it strives for.

GAMEPLAY

The storytelling may be all over the map, but Alan Wake’s gameplay is based on some very simple, very solid mechanics that make it an oddly fun game to play.

Gameplay is straightforward enough. You make your way through dark, creepy environments with a both a flashlight and a weapon in hand. Creepy shadows known as Taken attack you often, and in order to defeat them, you must first focus your light on them, and then shoot them.

Alan Wake is oddly combat-intensive. At times, you’re up against close to a dozen enemies at once – and your arsenal of weaponry can become quite robust. Pistols, flare guns, shotguns, and flashbangs make for some explosive combat sequences. It’s an odd thing; these bombastic combat sequences seem rather out-of-place in a survival-horror game, and yet, they’re some of the strongest moments Alan Wake has to offer. Taking down a hoard of Taken with an assortment of flashbangs and bullets can be extremely satisfying indeed.

But, while blowing away zombies is well and good, Alan Wake is missing that crucial element of helplessness. Simply put, the game far overpowers you, and because of this, it’s just not that scary. In a good survival-horror experience, the emphasis should be on conservation and survival. Bullets should be scarce, enemies should be overpowering, and there should be a constant, gnawing sense that death is close at hand. In Alan Wake, you don’t get that feeling, because you spend 90 percent of the game decked out like a nerdy Rambo. Ammo is absurdly plentiful; I can recall one, and only one instance, in which I actually ran out. And, while you’d think the addition of a flashlight would only make resource management more of a challenge, I never ran out of batteries. Ever. Probably because the damn things recharge, for whatever reason. (Not even the Energizer Bunny can do that, Remedy.) I found many creative ways to slay zombies in Alan Wake; but I never once feared for my life.

Alan Wake’s gameplay also suffers in that it tends to be quite repetitive. Mission variety is sorely lacking; rarely is there an objective aside from “travel from point A to point B.” And it’s the same every time – walking down dark path, pausing to slaughter the occasional hoard of Taken, and then resuming dark path-walking. Occasionally you might have to power a generator or open a gate, but that’s about it. There are a few notable exceptions – Alan’s escape from a mental institution comes to mind, as does a very tense gameplay segment involving bear traps. But, overall, Alan Wake tends to be a very repetitive – and thus, predictable – experience.

Alan Wake is a fun game to play. Combat is satisfying, and the night-shrouded environments are fun to explore. But, as a survival-horror experience, it just doesn’t work. Unless you have a serious aversion to the dark, Alan Wake probably won’t scare you in the least.

GRAPHICS

Alan Wake looks really good in motion. In-game environments are gorgeous. Sure, they’re all dark and shadowy, but Alan Wake makes the night look both beautiful and unsettling. Most of the time, your path is illuminated only by the flashlight you carry, and the effect is really quite mesmerizing. By necessity, the lighting effects of the game are flawless. The beam from your flashlight behaves with remarkable realism. Dramatic lighting effects such as the glow from flares lights up the screen in a spectacular fashion.

Alan Wake has a lot of technical wizardry behind its in-game graphics; unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the cinematics. Alan Wake has a lot of cinematics, and by modern standards, they’re pretty damn ugly. Character models are washed-out, low-poly, and poorly detailed. Animations – particularly facial animations – are absolutely laughable, and really detract from some of the dialog scenes. Also, for whatever reason, many of the cinematics suffer from dramatic artifacting.

In short, Alan Wake looks good during gameplay. Once the cinematics start rolling, things get ugly.

SOUND

Alan Wake really could have benefited from a more intricate sound design. It’s hard not to recall 2008’s Dead Space, and its masterful use of sound to build its atmosphere. Alan Wake has no such mastery in its sound design; in fact, none of it really stands out. On top of that, the voice acting isn’t particularly strong, and the music is mostly forgettable. None of it is bad – it’s just regrettably mediocre.

CONCLUSION

Alan Wake is frustratingly middle-of-the-road. It’s a solid, but unamazing interactive experience that always feels like it’s on the edge of brilliance. But, strive as it may to reach that goal, it’s hindered by a lack of focus, and an inability to break the mold in all but the smallest of ways. The game is a classic example of a missed opportunity for greatness, as well as an example of undeserved over-hype. The ending to the game implies that sequels could follow, and I’d really like to see Remedy take another crack at things – but, sadly, I don’t think that’s going to happen.

Alan Wake - 7.5/10

Welcome to Riddlethos Redemption Week

Monday, May 31st, 2010

Welcome one, welcome all to yet another week at Riddlethos.com. For the none of you who are keeping track, this happens to be Week #44. And no, there’s no real significance behind that number. In fact, there’s none. At all.

Anyway. It’s Riddlethos Redemption Week here at Riddlethos.com, as the hastily-made banner up top indicates. (If you can’t see it, then stop using Internet Explorer, please.)

Perhaps you recall Alan Wake Week? Maybe not, it wasn’t that exciting. For anyone, really; neither Ethos or I fell in love with the game, and Ethos ditched it as soon as Mario Galaxy 2 fell into his hot little hands. As for me, well, I’m actually almost done with the game, and I have a review outlined. It’ll be late, yeah, but I still want to voice my definitive opinion on the game.

Point being, though: we both somewhat regret devoting the week to Alan Wake rather than Rockstar’s critically acclaimed blockbuster, Red Dead Redemption. So, in order to redeem ourselves, we’re having a Riddlethos Redemption Week. In honor of… well, you get it. Horrible pun, horrible. But hey, do you expect any less from us?

Alright. Well, right now, I’m about to go (hopefully) finish Alan Wake. And then I will review it. And who knows, maybe afterwards I’ll go grab a copy of Red Dead. We’ll see.

Oh, and to all our American readers: Happy Memorial Day! I hope your respective employers were kind enough to give you the day off. Like mine was. Mwa-hahaha.