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Arkham City: First Impressions

Ok, so I FINALLY received Arkham City in the mail on Friday, and was able to play it a little bit over the weekend (although I am still in the middle of a pile of homework, so I wasn’t able to spend hours and hours on it, as I would have liked). Currently I’m in the museum and trying to get my hands on the Penguin. I’ve just destroyed his three radio signal jammers and making my way back into the building (for those of you who are playing the game, you probably know what I’m talking about).

There’s a ton that is awesome about this game, but I feel as though I have to compare it to its predecessor, Arkham Asylum. There isn’t a whole lot different between the two games, but because Arkham City was so amazing, this isn’t really a bad thing. Arkham City allows you more freedom to explore a larger, more diverse space than the asylum in which you were trapped in the first game. For me, this is both great and frustrating at the same time. I am terrible at navigating my way through virtual spaces—I get turned around frequently, have a tough time seeing holes or geographical clues on my old 26″ television, and am a nervous gamer.

The latter point is troubling in Arkham City, a game that requires a lot of stealth. Because I feel as though I must sneak around without being seen (which is only partly true), it takes me FOREVER to get from one side of the map to the other, or through a building with a number of doors and corridors. My nervousness also forces me to play most of the game in detective mode, which takes away from the beautiful, realistic detail that is present in the city. I know that the reliance on detective mode was a point of feedback that Rocksteady received after Arkham Asylum, but I haven’t seen anything so far that suggest they have tried to address this.

My biggest complaint about Arkham City so far is that it lacks a similar kind of progressive narrative arc that made Arkham Asylum so interesting. In Arkham Asylum, you found items like interview tapes and secret etchings that provided bonus narrative further revealed the fascinating characters encountered in the game. There are side missions in Arkham City (so far I’ve encountered two significant missions that involve Bane and Victor Zsaaz), but they don’t really build throughout the game. In fact, I could have completed both challenges right away, but I’ve instead decided to hold off on doing so, and simply complete them as I run into them accidentally. Neither challenge really enhances the characters involved. For the typical gamer, this is probably not a problem at all, but for a big-time Batman fan like myself, this is a drawback. However, I reserve the right to change my mind once I complete these missions once-and-for-all. I may be proven wrong in the end.

What do I like about Arkham City? Pretty much everything else. The opening was really cool, and the main story arc is pretty good. In the end, it’s a great Batman movie. The combat and action is good, and the environment—complete with chatting gangsters, surveillance choppers, and friendly bums—is awesome. The city architecture is realistic enough to pull you into the game, but creepy and gothic enough to make it authentically Batman. I haven’t explored the amusement park section too much yet, but I’ve flown by a few times and I can’t wait to get in there and explore. There is something ultra creepy about amusement parks at night, and it’s the perfect lair for the Joker.

I also really love the playable addition of Catwoman. She moves through the city completely differently than Batman, and her secondary story arc is a great touch. I also have access to the Robin character (having bought my copy of the game from Best Buy), but haven’t encountered him yet. He may even be available only in the challenge maps, though I hope he pops into the campaign portion of the game at some point.

There’s lots left to explore in the game yet (I think I only have 3 or 4% of the game completed), so I have yet to formulate a complete opinion of the game. But has it met my expectations so far? Absolutely. This game is awesome, and a great sequel to Arkham Asylum, which blew my mind the first time I played it. I can’t wait to finish up my homework (which may not happen until December) so I can get back into Gotham.

 
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Posted by on October 25, 2011 in Gaming Experiences, RPG

 

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Major Project Preview: World of Warcraft Overview

The following is an excerpt from my upcoming ENGL 794 major project, where I will be comparing World of Warcraft, Age of Empires and Utopia in order to create a game concept of my own. Specifically, this is an in-depth overview of World of Warcraft, which will be pared down significantly for my final project.

Exploration

Exploration in World of Warcraft is as basic a concept as you can get with a first-person (or third-person, which you can experience in WoW) role playing game. Gamers simply wander around the vast virtual world looking for avatars who can offer them quests, and ultimately a reward. Getting from point A to B is tedious, and while finding new territory is interesting it is only useful by way of offering more quests and more enemies with whom players may interact.

The world is beautifully rendered, however, and seeing the various, diverse land is a treat. In this regard, exploration is a pure instance of discovery that brings inherent pleasure. Much like the feelings that Europeans must have experienced as they discovered new plants and animals in the New World, gamers can feel excitement and surprise when they run into an odd creature or a breathtaking view.

Development/Avatar

Because game progression in WoW revolves around the avatar—the personalized, computer-generated virtual creature that gamers of WoW control in order to move through the game—I have decided to combine my critique of development and avatars here. Michael Heim has described avatars in a way that I think works very well in the context of online role playing games like WoW: “shared fantasy identities that prove [gamers] are alive and telepresent through real-time playful interactive construction. Avatar identities are finite points of presence, intrinsically interactive and plural, embedded in communities of other avatars” (in Flanagan 68). Meanwhile, Mary Flanagan argues that avatars are “an other (perhaps a soft other), with whom we develop a relationship” (68). The difference between these two definitions is that Heim sees avatars as a virtual representation, or stand-in, of a real person, while Flanagan sees avatars as a kind of remote-controlled robot. I think either definition can work in WoW depending on how players choose to use their avatar. For me, I designed my avatar after myself and added accessories and weapons that spoke to me personally (for more on my experience creating a WoW avatar, click here). However, gamers may choose to create an avatar that is completely different from themselves, as seen in this clip from the television show How I Met Your Mother:

Gamers may also treat their avatars as a subservient “other” by putting their avatars into situations they would never go themselves. For instance, gamers may find enjoyment from casting their avatar off cliffs, feeding it to wolves, using it as bait to help others, etc. For me, I avoided these situations as I had invested myself into my avatar as an extension of myself, and used it to interact with others as I would interact with others in person (within the boundaries provided by the game).

At any rate, the avatar is an extremely important component of WoW, and indeed the entire game is played in order to make your avatar as powerful as possible. Quests are completed in order to obtain accessories—or in-game currency that is used to buy accessories—for your avatar, and experience points, which help increase certain powers and abilities. Gamers do not own any land in WoW, but rather only what their avatar can carry on their virtual person.

The development of one’s avatar seems to be enough to keep most WoW players interested (even obsessively hooked), and the progressive points-as-reward system is simple and effective. But, as one game reviewer has pointed out, “the grind” of exploration and avatar development can be a bit much:

…let’s talk about The Grind. In a traditional persistent online RPG, you advance your character by killing an endless string of monsters, and by doing “FedEx” quests where you get some money and/or experience points by delivering an arbitrary item from Point A to Point B. As your character advances, his or her progress begins to slow. It takes longer and longer to get to the next level, because you need more and more experience points each time, yet the experience returned from monsters and deliveries does not scale accordingly. Yet you feel compelled to continue because at Level X you get a really cool spell or other ability that’s supposed to make the game more “fun.” (McNamara)

Avatar development in WoW is a trap, and an effective trap indeed.

Combat

The combat in WoW is bulky, slow and unappealing. Essentially, players can engage a single target at a time (at least early on, in my experience), and fire different spells or attacks in timed intervals. What this leads to is an almost turn-based combat system (think Pokemon or even “go-fish”) where two avatars give and receive hits until one runs out of defensive stamina. After playing games with phenomenal hand-to-hand combat (Arkham Asylum comes to mind), the battles in WoW just don’t impress. I realize swordplay, magic, gunfighting and the like are difficult to combine, but there has to be a more natural way to make it all come together. Aside from the flashes of mystical lightning, swinging of hands/swords or the bursts of fire from the barrel of a blunderbuss, combat in WoW is pretty lame.

Here’s a sample PvP (player-vs-player) battle (the addition of “Sandstorm” energizes things significantly):

Interface and Controls

As you can see from the screenshot above, the interface in WoW can get pretty complicated. Along the bottom you have your inventory of spells, objects and weapons; in the top-right corner you have a map and different options for navigating the game-world; along the top are health meters for you and your enemies; and to the left are other human-controlled avatars with whom you may interact. I have to say that I became lost in this mess more than once, and never really got to understand all of the features that were available to me.

In terms of controls, WoW requires a keyboard and mouse (it’s played on a computer, after all), which became overwhelming to me as well, since I have in recent years become a console gamer exclusively. I am told that you can get used to finding the proper buttons to hit on a keyboard and that the game can be manipulated rather smoothly, but there are a lot of keys on a keyboard, aren’t there? And figuring out which keys do what, and in which situation, became a nightmare for me.*

*Again, I admit that I only played this game for a couple of weeks and my experience is extremely limited. But this was my initial impression.

Cinematics

The most incredible part of WoW for me is how detailed and diverse the developers have made this massive virtual world. Every village and city has its own look and feel and the land is covered in prairies, mountains, lakes, forests, deserts, and all kinds of geographical variation to keep things fresh and to help players remember where certain items or individuals are located.

The computer graphics may be somewhat polygonal and dated, and lack a realistic edginess that some gamers may prefer. But I found the stylized characters and buildings appealing and, more importantly, consistent throughout the game. Without much knowledge about the kind of computing power it takes to run such a game, I suspect the developers at Blizzard were forced to make certain concessions when it came to graphic design in order to have the game play smoothly online, which it did for me (at the university—not at home).

The opening cut scene for World of Warcraft: Cataclysm (which is the updated version that I experienced) is a pretty cool video, and certainly one that should get players excited to get into the game and start playing. Unfortunately, I did not run into any further cut scenes like this in my two weeks of gameplay (maybe there are more later on?…) and the loading images that I did see were standard images that seemed to come straight off of the box the game comes in.

Finally, the sound in WoW is bland, ineffective and sparse. Eventually I ended up muting the game in favour of my personal library of music. All narrative elements that are offered to gamers through meeting characters and completing quests are written in pop-up boxes—nothing is voiced. Occasionally you will hear a grunt, roar or squeal from a nearby character, and attacks/spells are accompanied by appropriate booms and clangs. But I certainly never encountered music or sound that aided in submersing me deeper into the game.

Overall Appeal

Obviously, what I lacked in my two week trial of World of Warcraft was the “massively multiplayer” element. I think WoW could be a really fun game if I had a bunch of friends who I could meet up with online and annihilate other groups of people, and certainly that seems to be the appeal for hardcore gamers of WoW (as depicted in the online series The Guild):

However, from the perspective of a single player looking to have fun independently with others, WoW is a vast space that takes far too long to explore, and the individual quests do not come together to form a cohesive narrative. Instead, I found myself bouncing back and forth from one spot to another trying to gain experience points and accessories for my avatar, until I eventually found the game too time consuming to continue, and I haven’t been lured back (despite the fact that WoW can now be played for free up until you reach level 20).

WoW is a fun game to try out, and certainly a marvel in terms of environment design. But there are only a few elements that I would like to take from the game and incorporate into my own.

Works Cited

Flanagan, Mary and Austin Booth. Re:skin. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 2002.

McNamara, Tom. “World of Warcraft Review.” IGN. 10 Dec. 2004. Web. 1 Aug. 2011 <http://pc.ign.com/articles/572/572070p1.html&gt;.

 
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Posted by on August 8, 2011 in RPG

 

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Bow to WoW Entry #1: “What’s YOUR Game?”

All I needed was an excuse, and finally I got it.

Recently the English 794 “Video Game Theory” class and I were assigned to play and comment upon World of Warcraft: Cataclysm. The playing was done in the fine arts computer lab, where 10-day trials of the game were installed on the school iMacs, and the commentary (at least some initial commentary) will be provided right here. I had never played the game prior to this course assignment, though I admit that I would have happily jumped on the opportunity, had I the necessary bandwidth on my home/dorm computer and a few close friends who played the game.

I’ll put together a more complete review of my World of Warcraft (WoW) experience later on, but first I have to answer the question offered by Mr. T(ureaud)—”what’s your game?”:

The Creation Screen. (Why anyone would want to play this game of imagination and make-believe as a human is beyond me.)

It’s an interesting question to be sure, because for Mr. T (and the millions who play WoW), it is not the game itself that is so interesting, but how each individual user of the game approaches it and interacts with others. For instance, WoW users do not take control of a pre-determined character in the same way that a user would control Batman in Arkham Asylum, or Cole Phelps in LA Noire. Before they start playing, users create their online “avatars” by selecting one of 12 “races” for their avatar, which range from the familiar mythological (dwarves, elves & taurens) to beings of Middle Earth (orcs, trolls & humans) and creatures I’ve never heard of (draenei and worgens). Users then assign their avatar a “class” and customize the look of their avatar in terms of its colour, hair, gender and size.

For “my game,” I chose to play as “Dyldebeest,” a Tauren Hunter.

A strapping young Tauren.

“Dyldebeest,” the Tauren Hunter

In choosing the Tauren race, I did not pay much attention to the polarization of the 12 races, which are split into teams of 6—the “Alliance” and “Horde.” It doesn’t take a student of history to spot the similarity with the Allies and Axis of WWII, and the obvious assumption is that the Alliance in WoW=good, and the Horde=evil. But in my experience this is irrelevant, since the point of WoW is to kill nearly anything in your path in order to loot the remains for money, and the game’s back story doesn’t do a good enough job to make me feel more guilty for killing an elf than an orc or a wild rabbit. The Tauren falls under the “Horde” grouping, so if that makes me a bad person, please feel free to pass judgement.

But why a Tauren as opposed to the ever-popular elf, dwarf or troll races? Simple. They are badass. Look at the picture above. That thing’s shoulders barely fit into the frame. The only WoW race that would pose a challenge to the Tauren in battle (in my opinion) would be the “Worgen”—essentially werewolves of a 70/30 split in favour of the wolf. But werewolves tend to have those annoying habits of howling at the moon and urinating in public, so I thought I’d stick with the serene and civilized ways of the Tauren.

Yeah, pretty cool. But my Tauren would stomp this guy.

More specifically, the Tauren race has a number of traits going for them that, from my perspective, made them the ideal choice for me. Here are the guiding points that I was offered when putting together my avatar (paraphrased by WoWWiki) and my thoughts:

  • Their natural body structure grants them not only great strength, but an incredible Endurance to damage.

Awesome. As a n00b, I know I’m going to take some early hits. I need all the help I can get as I wander around blindly.

  • Their immune system is compounded with a deep connection to the natural world, thus they have a passive Natural Resistance to everything from poisons and acids to the weather.

Excellent. World of Warcraft is huge, and I’m likely going to spend some time bush-whacking. If I can take advantage of the world around me, I’ll have a significant advantage. I’ve also read that I move pretty slowly, so I’ll probably be stuck in the weather from time to time.

  • Being great huntsmen and natural wanderers with a certain natural affinity, the tauren developed a deep knowledge of the botanical life of Azeroth, using it in various shamanistic rituals, as well as for medical treatment. Because of this the tauren are natural herbalists.

This is pretty interesting to me. I don’t really understand the significance, but as I said earlier, I expect to take hits, so medical treatment would be a good thing to have.

A Kodo, the Tauren ride of choice

  • Hunting the kodo and wandering the wilds has not been easy for the tauren, and facing the centaur has made it no easier. All tauren are born with the ability to communicate with the spirits in times of need, beseeching them to shake the earth and stun their enemies. This ability has been nicknamed the War Stomp by the tauren’s enemies.

I like this. I didn’t really want to deal with magic and attack enemies with fire or lightning that comes out of my hands. I want to hit them with hammers, shoot them with arrows and, apparently, hoof-stomp them.That sounds like a rewarding experience.

Next, I had to assign a “class” to my Tauren, and I chose the Hunter class:

Hunter is the only ranged class in game that do mainly physical damage. They can tame pets to help them in a fight. Depending on what type of pet you decide to tame, you get different spec options for your pet… Hunters also have the unique ability of putting down various traps to help the party and handicap their opponent(s). (WoWWiki)

I liked the sound of being able to avoid face-to-face combat with the use of “ranged” weapons, pets and trap-setting. As far as I’m concerned, the more annoying I can be without taking a bunch of damage, the better. Plus, I figured that if an enemy got through my ranged defenses and close enough to strike me, the hulking mass of my Tauren should compensate and I’d just stomp on whatever strength my enemy had left.

Finally, I named my Tauren Hunter “Dyldebeest” (my go-to gaming username, hence the name of this blog), and customized my avatar’s colour and facial hair (went with the braided goatee, obviously).

Below is a chart that shows the different races, the classes available to them, and the “base stats” that work as the foundation of all of the avatars’ abilities. The Tauren is like a stegosaurus—a walking tank with a brain the size of a walnut.

Click image to enhance

World of Warcraft gives each of its races a pretty in-depth back story, in order to give you a feel for what’s in store during your first few hours of play in your avatar’s “home” territory (eventually, you’ll be able to wander outside of this territory and the back story will mean less and less). The Tauren race has a pleasant history, much of which is modeled after the history of North American aboriginals. WoWWiki (clearly my go-to for everything WoW-related) provides the Tauren back story, as borrowed from the World of Warcraft Guide:

For countless generations, the bestial tauren roamed the plains of the Barrens, hunted the mighty kodos, and sought the wisdom of their eternal goddess, the Earth Mother. Scattered across the land, the wandering tribes were united only by a common hatred for their sworn enemy, the marauding centaur. Seeking aid against the centaur, the chieftain, Cairne Bloodhoof, befriended Warchief Thrall and the other orcs, who had recently journeyed to Kalimdor.

With the orcs’ help, Cairne and his Bloodhoof tribe were able to drive back the centaur and claim the grasslands of Mulgore for their own. For the first time in hundreds of years, the tauren had a land to call their own. Upon the windswept mesa of Thunder Bluff, Cairne built a refuge for his people, where tauren of every tribe is welcome. Over time, the scattered tauren tribes united under Cairne’s rule. There are a few tribes who disagree about the direction their new nation should take, but all agree that Cairne is the wisest and best suited to lead them towards the future.

Though the noble tauren are peaceful in nature, the rites of the Great Hunt are venerated as the heart of their spiritual culture. Every tauren, warrior or otherwise, seeks identity both as a hunter and as a child of the Earth Mother. Having reached the age of maturity, you must test your skills in the wild and prove yourself in the Great Hunt.

Here’s a fly-by of the first territory Tauren users experience when they begin playing WoW:

That pretty much breaks down the initial “character creation” stage in World of Warcraft. While this experience occurred before I even began playing the game, one classmate remarked over my shoulder as I was creating my Tauren, “here it is—the moment of truth. Don’t blow it!” Indeed, having the ability to create an online avatar—a second personality not unlike those created in the infamously popular game Second Life—is perhaps what most effectively draws gamers to WoW. More than the massive world in which players can explore, more than the epic battles that take place between a variety of mythological creatures, and more than the interaction between players that the game offers. Perhaps it is all of these elements combined that truly creates the “second life” (if I may borrow the phrase) that WoW players experience,  but I argue that it is with the computer-generated “physical” presence that players most readily identify themselves.

In my next installment of the “Bow to WoW” series I will attempt to provide a more academic approach to the phenomenon of the online avatar, and what it means for not only online gamers, but casual surfers of the web. I will then follow that up with a broad overview of my gameplaying experience with the 10 day trial of World of Warcraft: Cataclysm.

Fun Fact

Not as awesome as the Tauren, but still a classic.

The Tauren race is clearly based off of the minotaur, which has always been my favourite mythological creature. Wikipedia alert!

In Greek mythology, the Minotaur (Greek: Μῑνώταυρος, Latin:MinotaurusEtruscan Θevrumineś), as the Greeks imagined him, was a creature with the head of a bull on the body of a manor, as described by Roman poet Ovid, “part man and part bull”. He dwelt at the center of the Cretan Labyrinth, which was an elaborate maze-like construction built for King Minos of Crete and designed by the architect Daedalus and his son Icarus who were ordered to build it to hold the Minotaur. The Minotaur was eventually killed by the Athenian hero Theseus.

Works Cited

“Minotaur.” Wikipedia. 4 Jun 2011. Web. Retrieved 4 Jun 2011 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minotaur>.

WoWWiki. 2011. Web. Retrieved 6 Jun 2011 <http://www.wowwiki.com/Portal:Cataclysm>.

 
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Posted by on June 6, 2011 in Gaming Experiences, RPG

 

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