A moment of Amy Winehouse levity from Photoshop Disasters

amy-winehouse-gets-new-handPhotoshop Disasters is often good for a howl. And it fits nicely into my “geek skills” category on this blog.

With great power comes great responsibility, yadda yadda yadda. As if Amy Winehouse doesn’t have enough problems… she now has Thing growing out of her left shoulder.

(Click to visit Photoshop Disasters. They’ve got some doozies.)

Gears of War 2 gets a new smoke grenade

Gears of War fans, rejoice. The gameplay for those previously useless smoke grenades is getting a facelift.

In the first Gears of War, the smoke grenades were as useful as they would be in a Quake 3 deathmatch. There’s really nothing tactical about GoW; it’s a pure twitch game with zero stealth. And I’m not knocking it. It does what it does, and does it pretty dang well.

Fortunately, that gameplay is getting an upgrade. The GoW 2 smoke grenades will deliver a shock blast that stuns players within the grenades’ explosive radius. Even better: the grenades will have a unique tactical function, knocking shields out of the hands of any targets in the blast area.

(Shields are another new feature, allowing players and NPCs to roam around with a fair-sized bit of portable cover, like the jackals from Halo.)

That’s the news from here. Keep those thumbs happy.

ACL “Sound and the Jury” contest horrors

ACL’s “Sound and the Jury” contest has started, and in a pretty marginal way.

The winner gets a slot at the ACL music festival – huge prestige. It could be a launching pad to great things for the right band. A band with talent. Too bad the bands who are currently winning are spectacularly weak. I’m sorry, Sound and the Jury, but pale imitations of Jack Johnson don’t deserve any stagetime at the Austin City Limits Music Fest.

It just goes to show: being popular doesn’t automatically give you talent. True in the videogame development world, too.

I’m voting for Kissinger right now. I like ’em; check them out. There’s a link there to their MySpace page. All they have to do is get in the top 100 to advance. If you have alternative suggestions I’m open to them too.

Game visuals in Gears of War 2, and RIP CGW

Two quick notes for you game-hungry readers…

First

if you’ve seen the screenshots for Gears of War 2, you might want to compare them with the screenshots for Gears of War 1.

You’ll notice that:

a) GoW 2 is gorgeous.  Haze, smoke, particles. Details recede into the background. Textures are richer and more plentiful. AND…

b) GoW 2 is a lot browner. In fact, if you’re old school, you’ll think that GoW 2 has caught the infamous Quake 2 disease of obsessive brownness. Yellow-browns, red-browns, greenish browns, blackish browns. Every tint and shade of brown is fully represented. Color contrasts, however, are hard to find.

Hopefully the full game will show more variety, because it looks like hella fun to play. I just don’t want it so rococo with texture maps that it causes me to lose the brown spectrum in my eyes.

Second

I got a postcard a few days ago from Games for Windows Magazine, once the mighty CGW. (And boy, is that a step down, to lose a feared and respected moniker like CGW in favor of Microsoft’s paltry G4W tag.)

Well, the ignomy doesn’t stop there. My postcard says,

Dear G4WM subscriber,

We regret to inform you that Games for Windows Magazine has ceased publication with the April/May 2008 issue. I am, however, happy to inform you that the remainder of your subscription will be fulfilled with Electronic Gaming Monthly – The #1 Videogame Magazine.

Quaint, especially for PC gamers who care not a whit for the console-heavy content of EGM.

Yeah, you bet EGM is #1. Once again, corporate greed and ridiculous marketing strategems waste money and take choices away from the consumer. RIP, CGW. You deserved better.

Best videogame monster

Best videogame monster: now accepting your nominations

The best videogame monster. Now that’s a competitive category. Like best movie villain, except a heck of a lot more likely to make your palms sweat.

Even if you’re a novice videogamer, you’ve probably seen your share of incredible videogame monsters. Some examples that spring to my mind:

  • the Big Daddies from Bioshock,
  • the implacable Unseen Terror from Infocom’s Enchanter,
  • the suicidal bombheaded screamers from Serious Sam,
  • True Ogre, the oversized, winged, fire-breathing final boss from Tekken 3,
  • the vicious three-headed Hydra from God of War, which you face in several stages (you actually take out a single hydra head early in the level, so you could call it four-headed),
  • Psycho Mantis from Metal Gear Solid, who did some eerie personality analysis of you, the player!,
  • Saddler from Resident Evil 4,
  • and the Colossi from Shadow of the Colossus.

What makes a “best videogame monster”?

Obviously, everyone’s going to have differing opinions about what’s the best videogame monster. Sometimes it’s a devilish boss like Final Fantasy VII’s Sephiroth. Sometimes it’s just a common grunt like a zerg from one of Starcraft’s zerg rushes.

We could judge by gameplay, by backstory (this is a game writing blog, after all), by ingenuity, by shock factor.

But, my friends, this is a simple blog. Just let me know what’s the best videogame monster that you cherish most fondly. What fiend springs to mind, howling and spitting, when you think “best videogame monster”? It doesn’t have to be your best videogame monster of all time. Just your best monster of the moment or the week or the month. Lay it on us.

Best videogame monster of the moment

For me, right now, it’s got to be a miniboss from the PS2’s Bard’s Tale.

Two words: Haggis Monster. That’s right. An enchanted sheep’s stomach, stuffed with the other organs of the sheep, including the lungs*, liver, and heart. Mmm!

According to Answers.com:

A 150-g portion is an exceptionally rich source of iron; a rich source of protein; a good source of vitamins B1, B2, niacin, calcium, and copper; a source of zinc; contains about 33?g of fat, of which half is saturated; supplies 450?kcal.

* Because you can’t vend any product containing the lungs of an animal in the U.S., true haggis is illegal. Take that, you dirty Scots!

What happened to M. Night Shyamalan?

What the heck happened, M. Night Shyamalan?

I just saw the ad for the new M. Night movie. It’s designed to look like some kind of andromeda strain movie.

“There appears to be an event happening,” a man intones. This, according to our statistics, is the blandest, most uninformative, passive-voice piece of advertising ever recorded in the history of modern advertising (post-1890).

Then we see the word SOMETHING flash in big letters. People look panicked.

IS, say the titles. Some crap about it being a three-stage phenomenon, going from disorientation to fatality.

HAPPENING, say the titles. Apparently the fatality is caused by people spontaneously being turned into silhouettes that fall from great heights.

Suspense! And now the name of our filmic production? It’s called THE HAPPENING.

Oh. My. Gawd. How could this be?

How could M. Night make such a laughable and airheaded trailer?

How could the guy behind The Sixth Sense continue to piss away his once-mighty creative license with movies like Signs and The Village?

How can this guy continue to land talent like Wahlberg, the star of his new pic?

Does he still know how to tell a good idea from a weak one? Has he lost the knack of screenwriting?

The third stage is fatal

M. Night, the clock is ticking. This Happening better be happening. Hollowood is the home of upward failure, but you know, you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. Even fanboys.

Gameplay Cliches

Gameplay cliches get a lot of chatter, but when the game is successful and has a core experience that people enjoy, no one says a word.

Case in point: Gears of War.

Mine carts.

Ammo boxes that are strewn around abundantly.

Crates that contain ammo boxes. Also strewn around at every juncture.

Lava levels.

Gears of War has all of these gameplay cliches.

Not a peep about it in the rags.

Napoleon Dynamite and other dance scene movies

Time to break open the scope on this blog a bit and chat a bit about movies — not overtly fanboyish movies like Blade but movies in general.

You see, today I was speculating about a new subgenre of popular non-musicals. Outsider movies that feature a “big finish” dance scene. Specifically, Napoleon Dynamite and its lesser cousin, Little Miss Sunshine.

The climaxes of both of these movies turn on a dance performance – a dance that goes against type, that surprises its audience, that affects the quest of the central characters.

These movies are testaments to the transformative power of dance.

The seed of this movement was germinated back in 1994’s Reality Bites, in one of the funniest scenes of the movie. While on the road, the characters spontaneously do kind of a sitting Cabbage Patch to Squeeze’s “Tempted.”

Reality Bites trivia:

  • Gwyneth Paltrow, Anne Heche, and Parker Posey, virtual unknowns at the time, all auditioned for the role of Vickie Miner, which eventually went to Janeane Garofalo.
  • Bites was also Renee Zellweger’s big-screen debut.
  • Zellweger has only one g, as I just found out.
  • Bites was written by my high school classmate Helen Childress. (Note how it’s set in Houston.) We have various theories about who Ethan Hawke’s character is based on, and whether the name of his band references a Super 8 film we made.
  • In said film, I get my hand run over by a psycho who turns up in my apartment elevator, follows me to the garage, and steals my car. That’s pretty much the entire plot.

Beware, however. Soon dance will start to insidiously infiltrate the content of the movies. First it’ll be a dance number during the credits after one of these “big finish” movies. Then it’ll be a character who sends secret messages with his toes during the scenes leading up to the big dance. And finally, it’ll be a dialog-less movie where the entire plot is communicated through tap-danced morse code and interpretive dance.

Beware. You heard it here first.

Dangerous movies

Game design: Call of Juarez

Game design case study of the Xbox 360’s Call of Juarez

I played a decent chunk of this shoot-em-up – “the only Western first-person shooter experience on Xbox 360” – the other evening. I’m curious as to what other Westher shooter experiences there might be in the game universe. I’m offering $25, public accolades, and a free Space Squid t-shirt to the first person who can find me a Western second-person shooter experience on the 360! Jump on it! Wiki and google it, baby!

Anyhow, here’s our game design case study on Call of Juarez.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a decent Western shooter – since 1997’s Outlaws (Lucasarts), to be exact – and this one has some cool ideas percolating under the surface. I was thinking of starting with the game design mistakes so I could wrap with the good news, but I decided to follow a certain cinematic trope. Cliched but too fun to resist.

The good game design

I give the Juarez game designers credit for trying to inject new life without throwing out the baby with the bathwater. For example, weapons have lifetimes, and after pumping out a lot of lead, they start to cook off and finally explode. Like Halo, Gears of War, and many other shooters, Juarez dispenses with the healing item treasure hunt; you only have to avoid damage for a time and your health crawls right back up. Health status is indicated by the color of the hit direction indicator – an entirely new and harmonious idea. This eliminates the need for any kind of health bar.

Special notice goes to Juarez’s special version of “bullet time.” It’s a toned-down version of the gameplay mechanic that Max Payne made famous. You have to holster your weapons to use it, which means you have to plan for it in advance. You can’t just punch a button when things get hairy. You also can’t fire at anything; your movement is slowed. No silly diving through a hail of bullets.

Instead, you see two cursors progress from the lower corners of the screen and move toward the center. Each represents the business end of one of your holstered revolvers. As they pass over your slowed-down opponents, you can open fire and put them down. If you’ve positioned yourself wisely going into a standoff or ambush, you can change the odds dramatically.

Other good design elements: Some good level design that throws a variety of challenges at you from different directions. Nice mood and tone (the main character is a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher whose Bible is one of his weapons). Some environmental interaction, like the ability to use fire as a weapon, and to douse fire with buckets of water. Audio includes some distinctive gunshots.

The bad game design

Juarez throws in a fair percentage of jumping puzzles and narrow walks. I’ve never been a fan of designing jumping puzzles into first-person shooters. Why? Simple. You can’t see where you are. If you fall off that pipe between the barn and the water tower, whose fault is it? I’d say it’s half yours and half the game designer’s, because you can’t see your freakin’ body.

There’s also an odd plainness to the game that gives the experience a sheen of plasticity. Details are sharp enough; the texturing has been done adequately, although few items or scenes give you that “wow” that many 360 games deliver. Animations are jerky and lip-synch atrocious. Even the guns you find – marquee items if there ever were ones – are designed with a shortage of polygons. The game also is badly lit, in my opinion. In the level I saw, I think the art department was designing for stark shadows, but as a result we get either full blare or near-darkness. This is a gameplay gaffe as well as a missed opportunity for nuance that would better display the game’s textures and polys.

The ugly game design

The capper is a problem with the camera and gameplay design. I believe Juarez suffers from a distance, accuracy, and visibility issue. To survive Juarez, you have to approach enemies carefully and use cover. They’re fairly accurate and so are their weapons. You end up shooting at hidden bad guys as both you and they are hunched down behind obstacles. Basically, you end up moving the aiming reticule over dark spots on the screen where you think a bad guy might be shooting from, based on the hit direction indicator, and firing into that tiny space whenever the cursor turns red.

This is surely ugly game design. Although Juarez has plenty of virtues, for me this was the equivalent of pixel-hunting in an adventure game. You know, where the game designer has placed some special exit or item in the level, but because he’s too lazy to think up a good way to create gameplay, he’s hidden it with darkness or a bad camera angle, forcing you to click all over creation looking for it.

The game designers should’ve changed the dynamic, if you ask me. Much less accuracy for the bread-and-butter revolvers. (This is the Wild West, not Iraq. A thug shouldn’t be able to pop me repeatedly from 100 yards away.) Bigger and bolder. A different focal length on the virtual camera, if you will. Zoom in. No revolver sniping. Force both the player and the bad guys to get up close and personal, putting a premium on careful approaches followed by bold attacks and battles of nerves. It’d be a different kind of first-person shooter entirely. It’d be fresh game design.