Polygon: A Promising Start

Last night, the game journalism Twittersphere exploded as Polygon’s long-awaited site finally went live. Since February, they’ve been temporarily operating under the banner of Vox Games (which wasn’t a bad-looking site in its own right, and will continue to operate in Polygon’s absence), but as month after month went by with promises that the site would be worth the long wait, I began to wonder whether it would ever be completed. Well, it’s finally here, and it is indeed a sexy-looking piece of HTML.

As I had originally hoped, the site content seems to be equally divided between news, reviews, and features. The first one is about what you’d expect and is capably headed by former Kotaku boss Brian Crecente, but it’s the last two tags that have got me in a pondersome mood.

I read Matt Leone’s Super T.I.M.E. Force feature, and while it was a well-written article on its own merits, I was mostly struck by the beautiful layout of the article. The artistic spread looks like something you’d see in a print magazine, not on gaming news sites where style has traditionally been eschewed in favour of substance. IGN’s presentation has always been hampered by their stubborn reliance on “pagination” of online articles, a relic of the print era, while Kotaku is little more than a blog format with a screenshot header. Every Polygon article looks like an immense amount of effort went into its presentation, and in the Super T.I.M.E. Force article in particular, the use of pixel art from the game liberally sprinkled around the article makes for a classy presentation. The white-and-maroon colour scheme of the whole site is simple, yet clean and unobtrusive.

Something games journalism has struggled with as of late is the philosophy of reviewing games. Nearly every media outlet has a different review scale, making it difficult to compare scores between sites that use numeric scales, letter grades, no scales at all, or something else entirely. Out-of-five scales like the old GamePro mag had (probably influenced by the industry standard for movie reviews) are too tiny and don’t allow for enough variation, especially when scaled up to match the industry norm of a ten-point scale . Conversely, allowing for scores like 8.6 and 5.7 allows for too much variation and renders the decimals pointless; can a writer really tell the difference between an 8.6 and an 8.7 game? Letter grades are okay, but numbers are easier to reconcile with aggregate programs like Metacritic and make comparisons between sites easier (is an A+ equal to a perfect ten, or is it anything above a 9?) Kotaku was somewhat correct in assuming that appending a numerical score to the review renders the actual writeup redundant to a vast majority of readers, but they then missed the point completely by marking games on a “yes/no” scale. If you’re against review scores because you feel they invalidate your writeup, then why would you render your writeup completely irrelevant by attaching the simplest review scale in journalism history to your review? Of all the games journos out there, it appears Kotaku has struggled the most with reviewing games; earlier this year, they ran a horrid series of “Gut Checks” that told readers whether they should buy the game based on their initial feelings (and well before they had played enough of the game to warrant an actual review). Hilariously, these Gut Checks usually included the opinion of a reviewer who hadn’t even touched the game yet.Games are complex things, full of quirks and nuances that all affect a review score either positively or negatively; by simply telling gamers whether they should buy the game or not, a lot of those individual components get tossed by the wayside. I do think it’s possible to add up these components and convert them into a standardized score. Speaking from experience, it’s a bit messy when one first starts out because you lack a strong point of reference for, say, a 7/10 score, but over time you’ll know exactly what a 7/10 feels like and be able to readily compare it to other games you’ve scored as 7/10.

Personally, I feel that scoring games out of 10 with 0.5 gradations in between whole numbers is the way to go (because sometimes games feel better than a 6, but not quite a 7). Perhaps that’s why Polygon’s rating system just feels right to me. But another part of their reviewing philosophy resonated with me even more than that: their practice of using non-static review scores. In today’s day and age, where DLC and patches can rapidly change the game’s value and playability at the drop of a hat, I feel like fluid review scores are long overdue. Many people are acting like we’re going to see games swing between 3/10 and 8/10 every time a patch drops, but I seriously doubt any of these so-called “amended reviews” will bring such drastic changes on a regular basis. To paraphase Shigeru Miyamoto, a bad game is bad forever, and no amount of patching will usually fix that. Bugfixes can render a game like 007 Legends playable, but at its core, it’s still a shitty, underdeveloped cash-in lacking in gameplay, and at this stage, Eurocom won’t be able to save it. On the other hand, a game like Fallout: New Vegas that was marred by bugs upon release but was still, at its core, a pretty good game could be dinged a few points by Polygon on Day One, then could have had its score bumped up once the patches rendered it a better game than its predecessor. Mass Effect 2 was a great game, but even its score could’ve been bumped up following the release of the widely acclaimed Lair of the Shadow Broker DLC. And what about MMOs that continually release new content? Compared to the bulk of the game, all of these patches and DLC are small changes that wouldn’t change the overall review score by more than a point or two. I could only see this becoming a contentious issue with games like Star Wars Galaxies that essentially revamp their core gameplay over their lifetime, becoming a completely different game in the process.

It’s too early to say for sure, but Polygon could very well become my primary source of video game news. I currently use Kotaku for up-to-the-minute news, Gamasutra for more thoughtful insight into the industry, and the Penny Arcade Report for editorials. But if the content flow remains strong and the presentation continues to be top notch, Polygon could well surpass all of them in garnering my clicks.

LostWinds: An iOS Port Done Right

As I’ve intimated previously, I’m not a huge fan of non-traditional video game controllers. After over five years on the mainstream market, both touch and motion controls still feel gimmicky as all hell, and in 99% of all cases, using a traditional gamepad instead would vastly improve the controls. Despite the seeming popularity of motion and touch controls, Nintendo and Apple have fractured the development industry, forcing developers to either learn how to create games featuring these controllers on the fly (often with poor results) or forgo releasing games on these consoles at all.

Occasionally, we do get an exceptional original game designed for the ground up for these alternative control schemes (World of Goo comes to mind), but it’s rare that we see a game that is improved by porting it to one of said schemes. LostWinds began life on WiiWare in 2008, where it got pretty decent review scores (though it could be argued that those scores were facilitated by low expectations, given that LostWinds was one of the only games on Nintendo’s downloadable service at that time). In my opinion, the game suffered because of its motion controls; the Wii Remote is a surprisingly unintuitive controller for “painting” lines on the screen, which is the game’s main gimmick (you “draw” wind currents to move Toku around or blow fire onto wooden doors).

I recently picked up the iOS app for free, so I figured I’d give the game another shot. Believe me when I say that this game is vastly improved by touch controls, to the point where it feels like it was meant to be on this system.. A virtual D-pad allows you to make Toku run, and unlike other onscreen D-pads (I’m looking at you, Zenonia), LostWinds‘ D-pad feels great. It’ll feel very intuitive to anyone who has experience with the 3DS’ Circle Pad. Furthermore, a swipe of the finger sends out a wind gust quickly and accurately, making triple jumps much easier than they were in the WiiWare version. I’ve been playing with my left thumb on the D-pad and my right index finger controlling the wind, which I’ve found is a pretty good setup, but a number of different control options are offered, including a “tap and hold to walk” scheme reminiscent of adventure games.

The actual game itself is pretty short and laughably easy, but it’s also pretty relaxing. Actual enemies are few and far between and are easily dispatched when encountered, and the environments are bright, colourful, and breathtaking. Like most iOS games, it’s a game that can provide a distraction for someone who’d just prefer to chill for a little bit, but it offers a fair bit more substance than the high-score chasing of Angry Birds or Super Crate Box. Had iOS been the lead platform rather than WiiWare, there’s no doubt in my mind that LostWinds would’ve been considered one of the platform’s AAA titles.

Many people seem to think that a AAA iOS title equates to squeezing a touchscreen version of Gears of War onto a cell phone, but that’s generally not what the audience wants or needs (Ryan Payton and Camouflaj had this problem when trying to drum up support for Republique earlier this year). AAA iOS titles take advantage of the demographic’s casual mindset and the device’s unique capabilities, all while crafting a user experience deeper than Angry Birds, but less involved than Metal Gear Solid. We need more games like LostWinds on iOS.

The Bioware Retirement Conspiracy

I know I’m a little late on this one, but I had been sitting on this post in case something more interesting came up. However, October’s been a pretty slow month for hard gaming news, so now it’s time to go buck wild with conspiracy theories. I usually don’t buy into this sort of crap, but I’m willing to play devil’s advocate in this case because it’s such an unusual circumstance.

The past few years have seen Bioware turn from one of the community’s most beloved developers to one of its most hated, mostly due to the perceived interference from their corporate masters at EA. Following two very public gaffes this year in the failure of Star Wars: The Old Republic and the Mass Effect 3 ending fiasco, the Bioware docs felt it was time to leave the company they founded. My own feelings are mixed; it’s difficult to tell exactly how much involvement Zeschuk and Muzyka (impossible names, both) had in game development in recent years. Much of the blame for Mass Effect 3 has fallen on the stubborn shoulders of Project Director Casey Hudson, while the two top guys at Bioware Austin (the studio responsible for SWTOR) have both left the company. If anything, it’s these actual developers that are responsible for Bioware’s recent string of troubles, not the doctors themselves, so I doubt having them retire is going to improve the quality of Bioware’s future output.

So how much of this decision is due to community outrage, upper management pressure, and personal desire, respectively? About a week after the retirement announcement, an interview with former Bioware staffer Trent Oster surfaced, in which he shed some light on the situation. Oster stated that Zeschuk and Muzyka were indeed irritated by the fan fallout surrounding Bioware this year, and suggested that the creation of fan petitions against their life’s work had them burnt out on the video game industry. However, even more interesting is Oster’s suggestion that Muzyka had intended to climb the corporate ladder at EA, possibly as high as becoming the next CEO after John Riccitiello (who was rumored to be on thin ice earlier this summer). That certainly puts EA’s acquisition of Bioware into perspective; it’s possible Muzyka intended to eventually work his way to the top of one of gaming’s largest publishers from within. But reportedly, the failure of SWTOR hurt Muzyka’s standing with EA’s upper management, and perhaps upon realizing that he had blown his chance, Muzyka decided to hang up his skates.

The in-thing for former studio heads right now seems to be starting a new indie studio, so it’s possible that despite their “retirement,” we’ll see Muzyka and Zeschuk return to games at some point. But, man, these guys could do pretty much anything they want (being, y’know, MDs as well as former CEOs), so why would they continue to break their backs in an industry that demonized their company in the span of a few short years? Why would they return to a difficult, thankless profession like medicine when they no longer need the money? Why wouldn’t they just drink tons and tons of beer, as Zeschuk plans to do?

Difficult (But Still Fun) Games

In my last post, I laid bare several of Borderlands 2‘s worst flaws, and I consider its frustrating difficulty to one of the chief reasons why I haven’t played it in almost a week now. While I will readily admit that I prefer my games to be a bit on the easy side (I crave progression and despise forced repetition), I’ve played plenty of games that offered just enough of a challenge to make me feel like I’ve got to turn on the ol’ brain and earn my progress (Portal 2, Pikmin 2, Telltale’s adventure games). I don’t usually play ultra-difficult games because I find the payoff dwarfed by the endless hours of pain and suffering, and I’m not interested in completing games solely for bragging rights. But despite my preferences, I have found myself legitimately enjoying a handful of maddeningly-difficult games over the years.

Part of the reason why I stuck with the following games is that despite the monumental death toll, the core gameplay was so fun that I had to keep playing. Another reason is that I was eventually able to master all of these games, but it took a lot of practice and patience. My skills have since faded, but even when I was at the height of my power, there were some sections of these games that I just could not beat, and with my aging reflexes, my window of opportunity for 100%-ing these games has long since passed. But I came damn close, and for a time, I was caught in the grip of some of the hardest games the market has ever seen.

F-Zero GX – I remember bringing my GameCube to a friend’s party back in the day. We set it up next to a kid who was stubbornly playing PS2 while the rest of us did our best to run each other off the road on F-Zero. At one point, the PS2 kid (who was playing Gran Turismo) looked over at our screen, and I could almost hear his jaw hit the floor. F-Zero GX was a shockingly fast racer for those brought up on more realistic sims, and it boasted some gorgeous visuals (courtesy of SEGA) and a punishing level of difficulty to boot.

F-Zero GX is the kind of game where you die if you don’t exhibit a godly level of precision over your racer. In the earlier levels, you’ll probably just bounce off the walls a few times before you explode, but in the later races you’ll immediately go careening off the track into oblivion (instant game over), since there are hairpin turns and no fucking walls. At that speed, the slightest twitch in your thumb and your racer is toast. But I somehow got good enough to beat a few Grand Prix on the highest difficulty with a handful of different racers, and I even unlocked a few AX pilots by beating the excruciating Story Mode chapters on the highest difficulty. My two greatest regrets were that A) I never unlocked the AX tracks (never could beat Diamond Cup on Master), and B) I never unlocked the Rainbow Phoenix, which I thought was the coolest racer (couldn’t beat Story Mode chapter 1 on Very Hard…gah).

Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn – In retrospect, I probably made this a lot harder on myself than I should’ve because I consider myself pretty damn good at Fire Emblem games. I was doing a no-death run and playing without using the overpowered laguz Royals, which worked out pretty well until the endgame, where I discovered it was actually impossible for me to beat the final boss. I couldn’t believe it; I had to restart completely, and over 100 hours of game time went down the drain (Radiant Dawn is a long game). I used the same masochistic rules in my second playthrough, but this time I paid much more attention to my character builds and XP gains. The endgame isn’t the only difficult part of the game, however; in both playthroughs, the final third of the game was spent carefully assessing probability ratios and testing movement ranges, and as a result, each chapter took me over 3 hours to beat. Radiant Dawn is definitely the hardest of the five localized Fire Emblem games, but it’s a game that speaks to my OCD in soft, hushed tones and strokes it lovingly. While F-Zero GX required me to make split-second decisions, Radiant Dawn gave me as much time as I wanted, and I needed every second of it to make sure I had the perfect battle strategy.

Super Meat Boy – I still can’t believe I even beat* this game. While F-Zero GX and Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn are generally considered difficult, Super Meat Boy is the only one of the three that was actually designed to be so. Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes sought to create a game of legendary difficulty, but not one that would drive people away in frustration, and in my opinion they succeeded. The key is the fact that each Meat Boy level takes under 30 seconds to beat, meaning you could die instantly but still know that you’re only five or six jumps away from the goal. It’s a tantalizing prospect, and one that kept me playing despite my growing corpse pile. The last level might have taken me a full week to beat, but when I finally beat it, you can get everyone in the building knew about it (I screamed pretty loud). Mind you, this was before I bought a wireless receiver for my 360 controller, so I beat this thing using a keyboard. Nearly gave myself carpal tunnel.

*Light World only, but that’s more than enough for me. Cotton Alley and the Dark World are for masochists.