In case you missed it, Valve has released the free demo for Left 4 Dead this week, allowing all users (with steam installed) to play the first 1 and a half levels of the game. After getting online late Tuesday night and getting some 4 player co-op in, I pre ordered the game even though I said I didn’t have enough money. While I do have an entry planned comparing L4D to Team Fortress 2, the demo isn’t complete enough for that comparison right now. However I can get into some specifics over the main campaign from the demo.

First off I must congratulate the person who created the animations for the undead, it is a thing of beauty (and fear) in how the infected run at you even while you pelt them in the chest with gun shots. Now for those who have no idea what the hell I’m talking about, L4D is a co-op shooter where four people must survive the zombie apocalypse. To make things interesting there are two things other then the zombies to keep you on your toes, the Director and the special infected. The Director is the AI that watches your progress and will randomize zombie and item positions. As well as spawning mobs (and I do mean mobs) of undead anywhere to come at your group. The special infected are zombies with unique powers and in the full game, other players can take control of them to make life rough for the survivors. Each special has a unique power to compensate for their low health with exception to one. The boomer pukes on survivors drawing mobs to them while blinding the person and explodes when it dies. The hunter can pounce on a survivor pinning them until they die or he gets shot off of them. The smoker can pull someone with its tongue then proceed to strangle them similar to the hunter. The tank is walking death and can take loads of damage while pounding the crap out of anyone who gets within arms length. The witch… well I’ll let you meet her for yourself.

I along with everyone from my Steam group have been playing this demo which on a good run clocks out at about 20 minutes for over 6 hours, thanks to the unpredictability of the Director and of course the insanity that is co-op. I fully believe that Valve is going to score another hit with L4D and with content updates similar to TF2 promised I’m already drooling like the ravenous mobs I’ve had to take down last night. So I suggest if you’re in the mood for some co-op to grab the demo now, you only have about 5 days before it goes down and the full game starts up; please when you’re firing wildly, watch where you’re shooting.

Josh

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Saint’s row 2 has been receiving some major accolades since its release. Fans say that it manages to out GTA, GTA 4 which has spurred some arguments about the open world genre. Having spent the past weekend knee deep in Stilwater, I’m ready to look at both titles and hopefully render a verdict.

Both GTA 4 and SR 2 deal with revenge, for Niko it was an ex comrade, for the character SR 2 it seems to be the entire city. From there both titles split off into what they want to accomplish. SR 2 provides players with numerous off the wall activities in an unrealistic setting. GTA 4 however puts the player into a detailed world for the player to live in. While both titles have side quests to do in-between the main story, SR 2 utterly destroys GTA 4 in this regard.

The side quests in SR 2 may not make sense in real life, but for a game they work in providing the player with challenges and rewards. Every challenge in SR 2 will provide the player with 2 rewards ranging from infinite handgun ammo, to better defense from bullets. This gives the player a variety of activities to do while providing rewards for doing them. GTA 4 hangs onto its realistic setting for dear life and besides a few mini games, the only side quests you can do is take people out for a night. While this can provide you with some interaction between the characters it doesn’t do a thing for the player once you unlocked that person’s ability (free helicopters, health recovery, etc).

Moving onto the general game mechanics (driving, shooting, and fighting) is where GTA 4 excels over SR 2. The more realistic feel of GTA 4 beats out the unrealistic controls of SR 2. Driving a car in GTA 4 is harder at first but it does grow on you, while in SR 2 prepare to be flipped and sent flying a lot. The ability to use cover and a combination of free aim and lock on makes the gun play more satisfying in GTA 4 in my opinion, even though you have more weapons in SR 2. Hand to hand is used more in SR 2 then in GTA 4, however the fighting mechanics are more developed in GTA 4 for the limited time you do use them.

The story of both titles is where they both miss the mark. GTA 4’s story is the usual gangster tale filled with betrayal, stereotypes, and enough crude jokes at women to kill any chance that a female gamer will be able to enjoy the plot. SR 2’s story about the main character’s plan to retake the city for his gang, but from there things get disturbing. The game tries to make you create an on screen persona using the character editor; however the actions the character commits during the cut scenes are just disturbing. Many times I feel less like trying to take over the city and more like a sociopath on a rampage, which completely ruined the story for me. In other words, I wouldn’t be playing either for a well thought out plot.

So what’s the verdict? Even though SR 2 is less realistic then GTA 4, it makes up for it with sheer game play depth and rewards. As an experience however GTA 4 grinds it into dust, Stilwater is just soulless compared to the design of Liberty City. The first time I took a helicopter up in GTA 4 I was in awe at the view, not so much in SR 2. The winner is SR 2 by an inch; while GTA 4 is designed better Rockstar forgot that there has to be things to do in the city other then the story. Now if the long rumored downloadable content adds a good amount of depth to the world then things would be different. Even though SR 2 is the less technically impressive one, the sheer amount of things to do makes it the winner in my opinion.

Even though SR 2 is better in my opinion, it isn’t going to win the title of best open world game. I think a game that combines the detailed world of GTA 4 with the variety of activities of SR 2 would be the best open world game. In other words, I would love to explore every inch of Liberty City, but I want to have all the things to do in Stilwater. Also it would make my life easier if they don’t hire anymore writers who have watched “The Sopranos” or “The God Father “.

Josh

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Last night I caught the Sweeny Todd remake with Johnny Depp, after hearing a lot about the violence and the story. Overall I didn’t like it, not because it was a musical (I was never a fan of musicals), but because I found the actual character of Sweeny Todd not that realistic. It is very easy to create a stereotypical or crazy bad guy, but it requires some though to make a great villain.

Having read several books by Joseph Campbell on the hero archetypes, in my opinion his observations break down when dealing with a story with a villain protagonist. The “shadow” archetype or antagonist in a story is someone who is the antithesis of the hero; more importantly they are on a mirrored quest similar to the hero.

In a story dealing with a villain as the hero this usually doesn’t apply. Our “hero’s” quest isn’t the opposite of the antagonist, as they want to kill the person. I do think that there are certain characteristics that elevate someone to be a good villain both as the protagonist and as the antagonist of a story.

In my opinion the following characteristics are what define a great villain. First their goal can’t be to kill everyone they see for no reason; completely insane sociopaths aren’t really that deep. Next they must believe that their goal is right, this is from Joseph Campbell, they can’t be doing this just for revenge or profit, but because they believe that they are right (even if they’re the only ones that see it that way).

There must also be an end, something the person will do once his plans are over; sitting in a tower laughing hysterically doesn’t count. Lastly, they must have a set of morals; yes I know that sounds odd for the villain of a story. Defining a good villain in my opinion you need to have some human (or perhaps the right word should be realistic) element to them.

Even if it is a really loose set of morals (” I swear not to kill anyone on Tuesdays between 1 and 2 PM” for example). The villain must have some personal limitations similar to the hero that shows that they’re not some invincible monster sitting in a lair somewhere. Moving on it’s time to talk about anti heroes.

Some people think that a good anti hero can be the villain of a story; I have to disagree with this. Most often the difference between an anti hero and a true villain is their reasoning. An anti-hero does what they think is right to better the world above the views of society. While a villain does what they want without any regard to society in general and goals are more just for them. Recently I’ve watched two different amines with very interesting protagonist, who both walk that line between anti hero and villain.

I will be mildly spoiling the basic plots of two amines, so be warned. In the series “Death Note”, a boy name Light finds a notebook which can kill anyone whose name is written down in it. After trying it out he decides to remake the world by killing anyone who commits a crime or goes against him, the “god of the new world”.

Next is the anime “Code Geass”, Lelouch is a student living in the conquered land formerly known as Japan. The ruling empire treats all Japanese citizens as second class citizens, and is fighting against a rebellion seeking to free Japan.

One day Lelouch receives a strange power and decides to use it to destroy the empire and rebuild the world; if this means lying to everyone he knows and killing innocent people in the process then that is ok. Both characters are real winners right? While they both sound like villains in a normal story, one of them is an anti hero, can you pick him out?

The winner is Lelouch, while neither one of them won’t be winning any humanitarian awards he is the anti hero, the reason in my opinion is the cause for their crusades. Lelouch was antagonized by the empire which led to his plan to destroy it; he wouldn’t have done anything if there wasn’t an empire controlling the world.

Light on the other hand had no one that was an antagonist and decided to do this for himself. His antagonist is created by his actions of killing people, which makes him the villain in my opinion. Both characters have a set of morals, a clear goal above just killing people, something their trying to attain. The only real difference is what started them on their journeys, Lelouch wanted to attack the empire before he got his power, while Light decided to do his goal on a whim.

Getting back to Sweeny Todd and why I didn’t find him compelling, he did not have a moral code, killed everyone he saw, did not have a goal past killing people for revenge, and lastly from what I saw, he did not even show any hint that he believes he is right.

Now while he works for the subject of the story, it was hard to root for him as the main character. I don’t want to get too much into this as I’m working on an entry about it, but Saint’s Row 2 also has this problem. The main character (the player) in this game is very hard to root for. As his actions come off less as trying to retake the city; more like a sociopath.

Lastly, I have a challenge for you; can you create a great villain whose goal it is to kill everyone? You can create their back-story, personality, but it must explain why their goal is to kill everyone.

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I’ve been a fan of real time strategy titles for going on 13 years, ever since I played the first Command and Conquer game and moved on to Starcraft. Since then I’ve witness a downward spiral of the genre in general, moving away from managing an army to a hot key driven slug fest. Some titles have attempted to stop this from happening such as Rise of Nations, Rise of Legends, and the Age of series. For this entry I’m going to talk about the horrible evil phrase known as “micro-management”.

In the past I went after the rushing aspect of RTS titles, saying that it causes the game play to be dumb down and destroys strategy, well MM is another factor that causes this. MM comes from two game play elements, one an unwieldy interface and two the combat itself. Let’s start with the interface; controlling a vast army requires effective management skills. The player’s window into the game space is the interface; without a good one the player is severely handicapped and must rely on speed over control. Here is a list of what I think makes up a worthy interface for a RTS game.

(Please note that the following may or may not have been put into a RTS game yet, I would like to see them in one at some point. This is not a be all end all list, chances are I will miss some details.).

Ability to set up control groups and set rally points to them.

Able to have some control over military forces while back at base, and have control of base production while watching combat.

Any and all unit abilities can be set to auto cast.

Units can be put into formations with one click, and new units joining a formation will fit right in.

I’ve said it before, one example of what not to do with an interface was Supreme Commander (I did not play with the expansion which supposedly made things better). For a game that was so epic in scale, it had the most micromanagement I’ve seen in some time.

For the actual combat system, it is a bit trickier to explain. The three factors for the combat system are, unit counters, speed, and special abilities. Unit counters is difficult to balance, either they’re so strong that a unit that runs into there counter is dead in an instant, or counters only work when you have massive numbers of the counter unit (in other words, not balanced towards 1 vs 1 fighting). Special abilities are powers that unique units can use when commanded to, the problem is that in most RTS games finding the unit in the sea of fighting units to use it can be a nightmare. Most often you will find the unit after the battle is over or the unit will die. Finally speed is another tricky issue, as it is very subjective. I know gamers who prefer to play all RTS titles at a slower speed compared to normal. For me, the recent Command and Conquer games were too fast and I got wiped out within minutes. Ironically for me Sins of a Solar Empire which is a 4X take on the RTS genre, is the only strategy title that I cannot play at the normal speed out of boredom.

Fixing the problem with MM in RTS titles is hard, as many gamers don’t see it as a problem. Over the last decade or so competitive RTS titles have become popular around the world, in no small part thanks to Starcraft. Many gamers feel that being able to control and manage 100+ units at once all over the map with hotkeys is a skill required to play RTS games. Perhaps this is a generational issue; I’ve long since grown out of the phase of high speed RTS games. I don’t believe that every RTS game should have a multiplayer component; that it is possible to create RTS games with amazing storylines without needing online play. With Starcraft 2 coming out (or at least part 1 of it), I doubt I’ll be able to last long on Battle.Net considering my track record with Starcraft 1 (damn those zergling rushes).

Josh

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