Thursday, September 29, 2005

Paranoia Reminder

Don't stick your neck out, they'll cut your head off.
Comfort Gaming

When times are difficult or stressful, many of us look to things that give us comfort against those stresses. Comfort foods are the classic example, but some people do gardening, or yoga, or other activities. I run 5 miles in the dark every morning at 4AM to loosen up my brain and muscles, and I also fall back on some of my favorite video games as a form of stress relief.

In fact, I would say that certain games are like comfort food to me. I call them ‘comfort games’. So what makes a game suitable as a ‘comfort game’? A couple of things are critical – why you play the game and how playing it makes you feel. There is never a bad time to play a comfort game, but there are particular times when you will learn which games are your true ‘friends in times of need’. These are times you don’t really want to talk or need a hug, you just want to be transported somewhere. While there are various games that you can turn to in a certain mood – anger games, humor games, or whatever – a comfort game is something that you actually find relaxing.

Here are the three games that I would most characterize as my primary ‘comfort games’.

Jedi Knight II:
This game was a revelation to me. I was certainly not new to gaming – or Star Wars – in 2001, but for some reason things all fell into place. In 2000 I had configured my Toshiba Portege laptop to run the Jedi Knight and Mysteries of the Sith games which was great since I was traveling one week a month. The family had gotten me the VHS of ‘Episode I’ the day it came out, and I had been keeping an eye out for information on the upcoming ‘Obi-Wan’ PC game. By the time the Obi-Wan game got cancelled and Jedi Knight II was announced, I was fully engaged. It looked exactly like something I wanted to play, and for the next year I gobbled up whatever information I could get. When it was released, I had to stay away for a few days – because my birthday was 7 days after release and I decided to let my family get it for me.

That night, I installed it and just wanted to try it out ... and four hours later I needed to rip myself away to get some sleep. I played the heck out of that game until I finished. And, by the time I finished I realized it was my favorite game ever. Not the 'new infatuation' type, but the real thing. Something had happened when I was playing ... the early areas recaptured my Dark Forces love like an homage, and the Yavin Training section was just a catharsis unlike any other in all of gaming for me. By the time I reached Yavin again, I was totally immersed in the experience and anticipating my next run through the game. And that happened immediately after I finished. Then again after that, and again, and so on.

And each time I play, I am immersed in the characters, the world, the fantasy of the Star Wars universe as a Jedi. Each time I get to Yavin I get goosebumps going through the training. Each time I reach the Doombringer I am totally relaxed facing waves of Stormtroopers and Reborn and Shadowtroopers. And each time I reach the final battle level I rejoice in the glorious music from Return of the Jedi. Indeed the game has brought special love to many themes I had previously glossed over, such as 'Lando's Palace'. I am not blind to the many flaws in the game, nor have I ever been. It is just that - for me - the game is totally transcendent. It captures the right experience in the right way and just totally connects with me in a way that a game never has before or since. And in doing so has become my ultimate comfort game - guaranteed to take me to another place in which I am relaxed and comfortable and thoroughly enjoying the experience.

Gothic 2: It is interesting that a game that ‘gave me the smack down’ at first has become a comfort game. After ‘getting into’ RPG’s through Neverwinter Nights on the Mac, and then playing Knights of the Old Republic on the PC and picking up Baldur’s Gate 2 and the expansion for the Mac, my next RPG was Gothic 2. This is a game that doesn’t wait around for you to get your act together – if you stray from the path early on you will die a quick and painful death.

Yet as I played it, I became very engrained in how the game 'does things'. Perhaps it was the music that drew me in, perhaps the easy style of the protagonist. Maybe it was the lively towns and interesting characters. Whatever it was, I was hooked. The game can get really hard at times, and is unsympathetic to you getting yourself in trouble. Yet I find it a pure pleasure to play, and have completed it several times despite the 60+ hour length. Why? It is a compelling world in which to role-play. You are not given a choice as to who you are, but you are given almost total freedom on how to accomplish things and live life in the world. Combined with everything else, Gothic II remains one of my favorite games and one that I can just slip into and lavish in.

As I was writing this, I learned that 'Gothic 2 Gold' is coming, which will include the 'Night of the Raven' expansion. Can't wait!

Soldier of Fortune II:
This certainly didn't start as a comfort game. There is tense action that will tear you apart throughout the game, the story is droll, the characters hackneyed, and it plays almost exactly the same each time. Yet it has become one of my favorite and most replayed games. Why is that? Quite simple - because of how it feels. It is a nice, solid but simple shooter, but the weapons and locational damage system remain unmatched to this day. While newer games may have more realistic looking and sounding weapons, they all tend to use the 'meatbag' approach to hit damage - you are a generic mass that absorbs damage uniformly, except for your head. SoFII did a wonderful job of making your shots feel like they mattered, and given the weapons you got (particularly the overpowered shotgun!) and the satisfying blood-gurgle as you popped someone's skull with a head-shot, it is a glorious game to replay. And because it is easy to become very familiar with the game, you can work out strategies to taking out areas of enemies in different ways. Very satisfying game, and since I have become very good at it, just a relaxing way to while away an hour here or there.

So how do you predict whether a game will be a comfort game? Who knows?!? I have a hard enough time determining whether or not I'll like a game, and if I do like it I have a hard time figuring out whether it will become a 'replay favorite', or just a fun diversion I only play once or twice. Finding a comfort game takes time and patience. But in the end they can be the most rewarding gaming experiences of your life.

What are your comfort games?

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Bard's Tale Second Opinion Review

I got my copy of the Bard's Tale for very cheap off eBay right before GamerDad posted Marc Salzman's review. I had previously decided not to get the game, so the timing was interesting - it allowed me to get a view from a perspective I always appreciate on a game I bought on a whim, and therefore had pretty low expectations from. So what did I think about it?

First, the very fact that I'm putting this on my blog rather than submitting a 'protest review' to GamerDad indicates that I don't radically disagree. Perhaps I'd score it a bit higher - I was thinking 70% rather than 60%, but scores are meaningless, it is the context that matters.

And it is in that context that I feel the review misses the mark. It talks about well-done dialogue and average gameplay. Let me address each of these.

The problem with doing a combined parody / homage in a game is that you must still make the player go through that which you are parodying. That, to me, is the Bard's Tale's greatest weakness. In order to keep the focus on the lighter side of the game, the developers removed much of the role-playing. You have some control over the level-up process, but not much. Items picked up are either equipped or converted to gold depending on whether they are more powerful than what you already have. In some ways I actually like this system (compared to selling 100 'rusty swords' for 6 gold each in Gothic 2). And the Bard's summoning system is a mixed-bag. On the one hand you get the coolest little dog to battle with you and many helpers to get you through battle. On the other hand, you get all of these cool summons but do nothing with them - for instance you get a beautiful ranged warrior 'Heroine', but never make a comment to her. What a waste. But the real weakness is battle - the combat system is really not fun. Compared to Dungeon Siege 2, or any solid action-RPG for that matter - the combat feels weak and gets boring and frustrating quickly. I would tend to rate that aspect even lower than the GamerDad review.

As for the humor and presentation, the game really plays like a Mel Brooks comedic parody of RPG's. There seems to be an endless stream of dead or soon-to-be dead 'Chosen Ones', cliched quests and over the top scenes. Many of these hit, while some fall flat. But in the end it is this aspect that drives the player through the game - every conversation is interesting and you are offered choices whether to be nice or 'snarky'. And you need to read the situation to know which will get you what you want (which is basically coin, cleavage and rest from adventure). The production values are very high, as is the interplay between the Bard and the narrator. The graphics show the lower resolution artifacts of their console roots, but are satisfactory otherwise.

My summary would be - if you are looking for a serious role playing experience, look elsewhere; if you are looking for some light fun, Bard's Tale might be for you; and if you have $30 to spend on a game ... find a better game. I'd give the combat and RPG aspects 2.5 stars, the humor and pacing 4 stars, and the overall game 3.5 stars.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Letter to PC Gamer on the F.E.A.R. Review

When I saw in the back of last month’s PC Gamer that the ‘world first’ review of the game F.E.A.R. I did a bit of math to satisfy my curiosity. November issue means early September delivery, which means late August press date which means mid-August deadlines. That means an early to mid-August play-through required.

As I check now, as I read the article on September 13th, the game *still* hasn’t ‘gone Gold’ – which means that you have produced a review based on an unfinished game that may or may not represent what us consumers see at retail.

If the demo is any indication the game will be great, but that isn’t the point.

First, I do not accept it as a 'review', as the game is not out yet, and couldn't have truly been 'gold' for press time. Therefore calling it a ‘review’ is a fraudulent claim – perhaps ‘final test drive with score’ would have been more appropriate. Then you could have followed up with a ‘full review’ next month. Less glamorous, perhaps, but more honest – and do your readers deserve less? Don’t you want us to regard you as the serious journalist magazine of PC gaming, not yet another flashy and pretty hype zone?

Second, I have no doubt that you played the game, but where and under what conditions? Nothing is mentioned in the review, but I assume you went to the developer’s studio, where the game was already installed on their test system, and were allowed some amount of hours of supervised play. What does this do to your credibility?

There have been several reviews in recent issues that discussed installation difficulties across machines, difficulty getting settings correct, and so on. None of that could have entered into your review because it was conducted in a sterile environment. And I love your reviews in general – they are pointed and direct, and cut no corners. But even the feel of this review is softer - more like a preview – when compared to the reviews for Dungeon Siege II or Fable in the same issue.

As I say - I am hopeful that FEAR will be the 90+% game you describe, but am bothered on principal by the 'scoop at all costs' mentality here - I didn't like it when you did it for HL2, and I don't like it now.
Boxed Sets Can Be Gems
The first boxed set of music I ever got was a set of Wagner's Orchestral works on three albums that I bought in 1981. It has remained with me in one form or other ever since, and remains on my iPod to this day. The next one I got was 'Miles Davis - The Columbia Years 1955 - 1985'. This wasn't bad - I had the majority of the music, but there were some new tracks, and the presentation format - one CD for 'Blues', 'Standards', 'Moods' and 'Electric' - made it great car listening in those pre-iPod days.

Then my wife got me 'The Complete Columbia Studio Sessions, 1965-68', which has always been one of my favorite periods of Miles' stuff; some of my favorite music of any type. The problem was I already had all of the music from that period, and for the few extra 'alternate takes' it just wasn't worth having, so I returned it and got some newly released Miles live stuff from the 70's (Black Beauty, At Philharmonic and Dark Magus).

Since then my box set purchases have been a decidedly mixed bag - 'Complete Bitches Brew Sessions' is a tremendous 4-CD set of music that shows the creative genius flowing through Miles at the time of the Bitches Brew sessions, and comes across as a tremendous augmentation of the original 2-CD set, making it a must have for any fan of the music. 'Complete In A Silent Way Sessions', on the other hand, represents much of what is wrong with boxed sets. First off, it isn't all from the 'In A Silent Way' sessions - much of it is from earlier. Also, lots of the music is previously released, and much of the unreleased material consists of lesser alternate takes and rehearsals. Only a couple of songs - such as Ghetto walk" - are remarkable and worth having. This is not a very good value.

The latest addition to my boxed set collection is a newly issued set called 'The Cellar Door Sessions'. This is a 6-CD set recorded live over a four day stint that Miles and his sextet of that time played at the Cellar Door Club in Washington DC. In these appearances, Miles was playing with a band consisting of Gary Bartz on saxophones, Keith Jarrett on keyboards, Michael Henderson on bass, Jack DeJohnette on drums, and Airto Moreira on percussion. Heavily edited sections of the final concert of the stint on December 19th, with John McLaughlin on guitar as a guest musician, were previously released as part of the Live-Evil album. But until now, the Bartz-Jarrett-Henderson-DeJohnette-Moreira band on its own had never been heard on official releases.

Now this is what a box set should be – ‘beyond the music’, as it were. The ‘Live Evil’ CD has always been a favorite of mine, as it captures so much of where Miles was going at that time. To take that vision, and expand it from 2 (album length) CD’s to 6 full-hour CD’s allows us a look into everything the group was doing at that time. Despite there being largely 5 songs repeated in each session, there is a huge variation in the music presented. The amount and level of improvisation – and not just solos, but actual twisting of the rhythms and themes and structures of the tunes from performance – is simply staggering. As Michael Henderson put it, "we were vicious. This band was on the edge and off the rails." And Keith Jarrett adds in the liner notes “His (Miles) playing is so strong here that I need not comment on it. If it doesn't knock your socks off, you aren't wearing any."

The songs features across the sets were: Directions, Honky Tonk, What I Say, Sanctuary, Inamorata and a few short interludes titled Improvisations. Yesternow – one of the songs from the Tribute to Jack Johnson – is featured on the first day only. While I have know of these songs from their various appearances on live recordings of the period – such as at the Fillmore East and West recording and the ‘Black Beauty’ concerts – it is amazing how much variety is put into them here. The band really is thrilling, and every minute of every CD is worth listening to.

This set has taken a high-listening spot on my iPod, and has reaffirmed my faith that the box set can represent the possibility to fill in the musical space in a way that single CD’s can never approach.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

My Last Ditch Effort for Listeners
I like strange music that almost no one else likes. That is fine, and I have dealt with that for about 25 years now. Since I followed Jeff Beck from the Yardbirds through his fusion work, which led me to John Scofield and Miles Davis, my tastes have veered way off the mainstream. It didn't take me very long to branch through the entirety of Miles' catalog, picking up a taste for people like John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman along the way. By exploring some of these artists I discovered Anthony Braxton, John Zorn, the Art Ensemle of Chicago and more. By the time I switched fully to CD's in 1986 I already had a formidable collection of avant-garde music, as well as many mainstream and modern jazz artists such as Wynton Marsalis and Pat Metheny.

But along the way I found that I had fewer and fewer people I could share my music with. While I had no problems getting a few people to go see Pat Metheny Group, only my best friend went with me to Ronald Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society, and only because he was my friend. No one really wanted to listen to most of my music - especially the really 'out there' stuff. One more artistic type in our house drew a cartoon of a saxophone being tortured that was hilarious, but also represented the general opinion of the sounds emanating from my room.

I knew my wife was not a big jazz fan from back when were were just casual friends in college. But when we started dating, we both had a love of music, so we would share and try each others' stuff. She actually liked some of mine - bits of Miles, Metheny, Coltrane, David Sanborn, Marsalis, and that sort of thing. The wild stuff she couldn't take. And that was fine - we had a basis. And she has always been willing to give my new stuff a listen - even if she knows she probably won't like it. My kids have never liked much, but will occasionally give it a listen - calling it 'Daddy's Crazy Music'.

So why do I bring this up now? Last weekend she suggested I put on some music and I mentioned to her - "it is interesting how much less tolerant all of you have become of my music: it is to the point where there are perhaps half a dozen choices of what all of you will listen to, and it just isn't worth me bothering." This touched a nerve, so at breakfast on Sunday she declared to the boys: Daddy is going to put in some music and we're all going to give it a listen.

So what to put in? That is a tough choice ... do I choose something neutral that I am only choosing for them hopefully to tolerate it, or what I want to listen to ... which would make them want to rip their own ears off? What I wanted to listen to was Miles Davis, but really something like 'Zimbabwe' from his 'scorched earth' period, which would have been too harsh, so I picked "The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions". I had played it before for them without any permanent harm, so I thought it would be safe.

So how did it go? Pretty awful, actually. My wife was the first to leave, going in to do some laundry and never really returning. The kids sat for a few minutes, then took care of their dishes and went into the family room ... and I put on David Sanborn and later Allan Holdsworth to have something that might interest them. At some point they went upstairs, and I was left alone. So I put on the Pangaea 'CD' (from my iPod) and listened to Zimbabwe while putting the new DVD player in the home theater center and putting the door back on (had to be taken off because the old system was too deep), and while I was still reorganizing things the kids came down and starting playing around, no interest at all in the music, and when my younger son actually started practicing piano on his portable keyboard, I thought 'enough' and switched it off.

How do I feel? A bit disheartened, although frankly not surprised. We all develop our own tastes, and my kids are into pop and rock, as is my wife. Perhaps someday they will have interest in my music, but they don't now, and it makes no sense to push it.

For the mean time, I'll put in Miles' 'Kind of Blue' or some Metheny or Wynton Marsalis or something similar when asked to share. Oh, there is one silver lining - I can get them to listen to the best and most important music of the year, Pat Metheny's 'The Way Up', without them knowing what they are absorbing.

Small victories.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

System Seller vs. System Buyer
A lot of press time is being spent talking about how the new Nintendo DS game 'Nintendogs' is for teenage girls. If the game brings more girls (and women) to gaming in general, that is all the better. But my experience has shown me that this game is appealing to gamers of all ages, genders and genres. It is not just a gimmick, it is a fun and engaging experience that gets right to the heart of gaming. I saw my first 'live' Nintendog from my handheld gaming 'partner in crime' from work, who is over 30 and quite proud of his Nintendog. And my boys would wet themselves with delight with delight if I would buy the game - and let them use it, of course. But so what is the big deal about the 'young girl' slant on marketing?

Perhaps it is the distinction between the 'system buyer' and the 'system seller'. When my parents got me a GameBoy back in '89 (yes, I was 23 at the time!), it came with Tetris. Now, when you buy a PSP, most everyone gets Lumines. These are 'system buyers' - you wouldn't buy a PSP simply to play Lumines any more than you would have bought a GameBoy simply to play Tetris. But they are great games that are a blast and therefore a 'must have' for owners of the systems.

So what is a 'system seller'? It is a game that - in and of itself - makes you want the hardware. Many people saw Halo as the XBox's system seller. But I think that it was more of a 'fence pusher' - many people were ready to buy and just needed something to make them say 'yep, gotta have it'. Even so, there haven't been too many games that could make a 'system seller' claim in recent memory.

But there are people who had no desire for a Nintendo DS suddenly running around with one and rejoicing at each new trick their Nintendog can do. Are they Game Geeks like me? No - they are relative non-gamers, which amounts largely to women and girls. And if, as was the case with the Sims and some other games, this brings more talented and intelligent people into gaming, we will all benefit from it.

I also have to say that there is some mixture of irony and satisfaction seeing once mega-arrogant Nintendo seeing this huge success so soon after once underdog Sony proclaimed Nintendo as pretty much for kids and not worth consideration. I want to see vibrant competition in the handheld space over good games that capture the imagination like Nintendogs and Advance Wars: Dual Strike, not very graphically intensive console rehash garbage like Dead to Rights Reckoning and Death Jr.

Friday, September 02, 2005

(Not so) Greatest Hits
A couple of weeks ago USA Today ran an article called "'Best Of' albums not so great these days", which talked about how the scope of what a greatest hits collection means has changed. As the article mentions, it used to be a milestone, and not only did it it provide a retrospective of work, but often allowed new listeners to experience the artist at their very best. I think of many of the great albums of the 70's that I grew up with - the Eagles Greatest hits was mentioned in the article, but also Rolling Stones' Hot Rocks, the Beatles 62-66 and 67-70, even the Who's Kids Are Alright soundtrack - which did more than just bridge the years, they allowed a whole new generation to experience great music. Too many of the greatest hits now seem to be compensating for the fact that many current CD's only have one or two good songs. Put out a CD a year for a few years, and you are ready to have a 'greatest hits' CD ... which is really just a collection of the non-crap from your CD's.

So why does this matter? Well, after seeing 'The Kids Are Alright' when it came out in 1979, I was hooked - I was 13, had taken up the bass pretty seriously for a while, and was ready to rock. For several years, even as I evolved from rock through fusion to jazz and whatever the avant-garde stuff I listen to now is called, I always had a soft spot for the Who. They are one of the few rock groups represented amongst my 300+ CD collection. But I haven't bought anything of theirs in nearly 20 years. However, family and friends seem to forget that you grow up and change, so I have gotten various Who related items as gifts through the years. What I recently got was "Moonlighting: The Anthology - Roger Daltrey", a two-CD compilation of the singer's solo work.

Given that I brought up the USAToday article, can you see where this is going?

Roger Daltrey is one of the truly great rock frontmen, encompassing a vocal power and physical presence that have become a fundamental part of the rock music landscape. Singers from Robert Plant to David Lee Roth and beyond have emulated that style over the years. One thing Daltrey wasn't - was a songwriter. So when he ventured out into solo territory, he used other people's songs, with mixed results.

There is some good stuff in this collection - but not many surprises. Some of the stuff I already had - I had 'McVicar' and 'Under a Raging Moon' on album and had already digitized 'Free Me', 'Bitter and Twisted', 'My Time is Gonna Come', and 'Without Your Love' from McVicar, and 'After the Fire', and the title song from 'Under a Raging Moon'. I had also gotten 'Say it Ain't So, Joe' and 'Giving It All Away' from iTunes courtesy of my enthusiastic Diet Pepsi drinking, and knew of his version of 'Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me' from the Lost Boys, although I never had a copy.

So what does that leave? Not very much - most of his 70's stuff is throw-away, tending to be slow and melancholy songs I found boring and uninspired. I found McVicar to be his best album, even if the movie never even made it to the US. But everything of quality was well played when the album was new - which was also true for 'Under a Raging Moon'. I had checked out but ultimitely not gotten anything newer, and the selections featured here merely confirm this - mediocrity abounds. There are a number of live songs here, some of which are decent enough, but none that are worth buying - and none that I even bothered ripping to my iPod. There was a previously unreleased song that left little impression on me. The one truly new addition to my iPod was 'Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me', which was even more powerful than I remembered.

So, I had 8 of the 37 songs already, and I digitized and replaced those that had come from vinyl. Add to that the one new song, and it is still less than 25% of the collection that I found even worth recording from CD.

... and I thought that it was the low quality percentage that resulted in collections in the first place?

Thursday, September 01, 2005

First Day of School 2005
Well, the kids are back in school again - and the busy schedules have started. We've already had a soccer practice and piano lesson, and I went to a Cub Scout district meeting last night - but that was good as the speaker was really focused on making things fun and adventurous for the kids. That is something that is really needed when you're trying to fit 10 pounds of you-know-what in a 5 pound bag ...