The only thing GameStop doesn’t fail at

…is failing.

So I’ve got an upcoming trip to the east coast. I don’t know how I keep ending up going back to Northern Virginia every summer, when one of the main reasons I moved away from the area was to get away from Northern Virginia summers. But I do not argue.

Since this is the first of five trips of 2,000 or more miles in the next five months, I decided to swing by GameStop to see if they had any DS games for the trip. Specifically, I’ve heard good things about Dragon Quest V and Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor. So after picking up my fiancée’s shoes from the shoe repair shop, I paid a visit to our local overpriced mall.

Dragon Quest V.  Wait, IV.  Whatd I say?

Dragon Quest V. Wait, IV. What'd I say?

I didn’t see either of the games on the wall at GameStop, so I figured I’d ask the clerk — who had just finished extolling the virtues of how awesome it is to save $2 by purchasing the used version of a game, then sell it back the next day and buy something else. Used, of course.

As of this writing, I have never lost my cool and yelled at employees who suggest this — after all, they probably have no idea that neither developers nor publishers make any money off used game sales. But it’s still pretty frustrating.

Anyway, I successfully talked the customer out of Lost: Via Domus and into Fallout 3, and proceeded to inquire about the availability of my two targets.

First of all, Devil Survivor was sold out. The closest copy? 20 minutes south in Burien. Strike one.

However, they did have a copy of Dragon Quest. So the employee took his unfortunate blond dye job to the back to grab it for me. He comes back, box in hand, and proceeds to ring me up. I swipe my card and am about to sign when I notice that he’s grabbed a copy of Dragon Quest IV, and not V. Strike two.

I point out that he’s brought me the wrong game, at which point he mumbles something about not being able to read properly, and some other such nonsense. He then tells me to sign for the purchase anyway. Uh, no, I don’t think I’ll be doing that. Strike three.

He continues to cancel the transaction, but not before turning the signature capture device around, taking the little pen, scribbling a fake signature, and hitting “Accept”. Strike four, five, six, and seven.

I mean, sure, retail is hard. Maybe it’s easier to to a refund of something that someone’s actually signed for. But you don’t just do that, right? Or is my inner old man showing?

So I assume I’ll have a refund on my statement the next time I look. Maybe not. Maybe I’ll have one more reason to hate GameStop on Monday morning.

Oh, and they didn’t have Dragon Quest V, either. Apparently it’s been discontinued. Helloooooooo, Amazon.

TWIT: This Week In Twitter

  • Burned through Rydia’s Tale and Yang’s Tale (FF4 episodes) in one evening. Tomorrow, Palom’s and Edge’s, maybe. Episodic RPG = good times. 01:53 2009-07-07
  • Come to me, Loom. If you’re half as good as I remember, you’ll definitely be worth $4.99. Thank you, @lucasartsgames. 10:59 2009-07-08
  • While I instinctively recoil from giving GameStop any of my money, their “summer sale” is hard to resist. Is it time to buy Bionic Commando? 10:31 2009-07-09
  • No, no it’s not — already sold out online. Dammit. 10:31 2009-07-09
  • Apparently Trine is not coming out for the PS3 this week after all. Sigh. You’re killing me here, @SonyPlayStation. 16:18 2009-07-09
  • In the lobby at Benaroya Hall for the Final Fantasy symphony. Way too many shorts and “funny” T-shirts. Have some respect, nerds! 19:22 2009-07-09
  • Somehow I ended up with better seats than the composer. Huh. うえまつさん。。。ごめんなさい! 20:43 2009-07-09
  • Bethesda is offering Daggerfall for free. But at a roughly 2k/sec download, it won’t be playable until the fifth Elder Scrolls game is out. 11:05 2009-07-10
  • Continuing the streak of @GameFlyInc sending me games from my queue that I’m really not all that interested in: “We’ve Shipped: Killzone 2″ 13:57 2009-07-10
  • Against all odds, I found Persona 3: FES… at Sears, of all places. GameStop, you’re fired. Again. 17:25 2009-07-11
  • Finally getting back to Uncharted. The writing and VO are easily on par with the best ever – System Shock 2, FFXII, etc. 01:22 2009-07-12
  • Finally beat Uncharted – 18 months later than I should have. What a fantastic game! If only the combat were a LITTLE easier. Too much dying. 23:28 2009-07-12

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TWIT: This Week In Twitter

  • @EA I’ve been making games for ten years. I’m in Seattle, but was born in D.C. I’m looking forward to EA continuing to support original IP. in reply to EA 11:08 2009-06-29
  • New liveblog/pseudo-review of Fallout 3: Point Lookout up at http://games.grantroberts.com. Definitely worth the $10. 21:21 2009-06-29
  • Something is wrong with me. After spending over 80 hours on Persona 4, I’m moving right to Star Ocean for the 360… which has THREE DISCS. 23:29 2009-06-30
  • Aw, man, Trine is out now for the PC, but it’s more expensive and, well, more PC-ish. Can I wait for the PS3 version? 10:50 2009-07-02
  • @bradshoemaker Any idea when the PSN version is coming out? I can’t seem to find that info anywhere. in reply to bradshoemaker 13:23 2009-07-02
  • @loveb_ug The only multiplayer it has is co-op, which I would probably only play with you. So ultimately, it’s kind of your decision. :) in reply to loveb_ug 13:53 2009-07-02
  • Man, FF4: The After Years is definitely not messing around. I haven’t had to reload yet, but these dungeons are no joke. 18:05 2009-07-04
  • Finished the first FF4: The After Years episode. If you like FF4, you should definitely pick it up. It’s hard, though! 12:11 2009-07-05

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Fallout 3: Point Lookout Liveblog

Here we go again, with another episode of the phenomenon that’s taking the gaming world by storm: Grant’s pseudo-liveblog of games that he sort of feels like playing!

Today, we present Fallout 3: Point Lookout. It’s the fourth expansion for last year’s smash hit RPG. I’ll be playing it on the PC. Enjoy!


Continue reading Fallout 3: Point Lookout Liveblog

TWIT: This Week In Twitter

  • Just seeing Everyday Shooter for the first time. It’s not at all what I had pictured. Pretty impressive nonetheless. And sleep-inducing. #
  • May have been too hasty in returning Bionic Commando to Gamefly this morning. Maybe I’ll buy it for the 360 soon, and throw Grin some cash. #
  • New liveblog of my final hours with Bionic Commando. I owe it that much, at least: http://games.grantroberts.com/?p=162 #
  • Just got the “bad ending” of Persona 4. Just like pretty much every branching ending ever, it was completely disappointing. Time to reload. #
  • Tried to play some Point Lookout before bed, but “The Steam Servers are currently too busy to handle my request”. Well, good night, then. #
  • I’m only 30 seconds into the Trine demo (http://is.gd/1eG2Y) and I already love it. Definitely an immediate purchase when it hits PSN. #
  • @jeffgerstmann You reviewed Dark Messiah when it came out. It’s only $5 this weekend on Steam. Think it’s worth a purchase at that price? #
  • “Sorry, but I don’t do group trips.” Oh, Bethesda. What would we do without you? *extended, heavy sigh* #
  • Eighty-two hours and forty minutes later, I have finally completed Persona 4 — with the “True Ending”. Best RPG in at least seven years. #

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So long for now, Bionic Commando

I want to give GRIN money just for their ridiculously good cutscenes.

I want to give GRIN money just for their ridiculously good cutscenes.

Well, here it is. The end of my run through Bionic Commando for the PlayStation 3. I wanted to finish it, but it just got to be too frustrating. If I didn’t have several non-frustrating games available to play, I probably would have stuck it out. But for now, it’s back in the mail.

In general, the game is a blast to play whenever you’re able to use the bionic arm freely.  Whether that’s swinging through deserted (yet gorgeous) areas, or flinging cars, rocks, and enemies hundreds of feet through the air, it’s always a good time.  Similarly, the cutscenes are over-the-top in a way that a lot of games are afraid to try.

Unfortunately, the game also features a few too many setpieces with dozens of enemies and not much room to use the arm against them.  It was one of these scenarios that led to me giving up and going back to Persona 4.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  I present my final few hours with Bionic Commando.  We start on Friday night.

Continue reading So long for now, Bionic Commando

One (possibly final) hour with inFamous

I’ve received a good reaction to my Bionic Commando “liveblog”, so I figured I’d keep up the practice.  Last night, I wanted to squeeze in a little gaming before heading to the monthly Industry Night event at a local bar, so I sat down and fired up the PS3.  In retrospect, I should have kept the original disc in the tray.

As usual, the comments in bold are real-time reactions to what I’m seeing on the screen.  The smaller text below is my post-liveblog reaction.

I should stress that the most of inFamous — running around and shooting electricity at everything — is an absolute blast.  It’s so much fun to blow up cars and bad guys that I played the game much longer than I ordinarily would have.  The game itself is quite pretty, and gets a ton of things right.  Almost everyone at Sucker Punch should take a bow for what they’ve accomplished.

But as is sometimes the case with games of this type, the non-combat aspects just don’t seem to hold up their end of the bargain.  For me, that is.

Anyway. This “liveblog” contains a spoiler that occurs near the end of inFamous. Read on at your own risk.

 


Continue reading One (possibly final) hour with inFamous

Three hours with Bionic Commando (PS3)

So I’m going to try something a little different.  Lately, when I’ve been playing (most) games, I find myself taking notes a lot more often than I used to. I write down everything that occurs to me, good and bad, as I’m playing through. I first started doing this for inFamous, but that text file has grown much larger than I’d anticipated.  So we’ll tackle that game once I’ve finished it.  For now, here’s my initial impressions of Bionic Commando for the PlayStation 3, in real time.  My post-”liveblog” comments are below each entry.

 


 

Continue reading Three hours with Bionic Commando (PS3)

Too much of a good thing

The other night, I went with some friends to a tiny shack a few miles in northern Seattle called Lunchbox Laboratory. They offer custom made gourmet hamburgers with meats like buffalo, “dork” (duck and pork), and “churken” (you get the idea).

Their default burger is a half-pound of beef, or cleverly named beef substitute. And while I love me a good hamburger, that’s just too much meat for one sitting. While my two dinner companions wisely saved half of their burgers for later consumption, I chose to play it on hard, if you will, and finished the whole thing at the table, black truffle mayo and all. A half-hour later, my body wondered what the hell my mind was thinking.

So what does this have to do with anything, other than a random video game joke dropped halfway through the second paragraph? It’s that feeling of too much of a good thing. Our games have evolved to the point where it’s no longer sufficient to excel past a certain level. Sometimes, you have to worry about what happens when you eat that whole burger.

Let’s look at a relatively recent example: Fallout 3. Now, that game has certainly been picked on enough in the past year — sometimes unfairly so. They do a ton of things right. But during my first and second playthroughs of the game (obviously they can count me as a fan), I noticed a few examples of things they did a little too right.

For instance, their “exploding head” technology. Now, I’ve played pretty much the same character in all three main titles in the Fallout series — a Small Guns specialist. So when I played through the game both times, I boosted my Small Guns skill to the point where I was maxed out long before I reached the level cap. This ensured that whenever I encountered an enemy, all I had to do was enter V.A.T.S. and deliver a few shots to the target’s head in order to defeat them.

And oh, how I would defeat them. When your Small Guns stat is high enough, then every kill turns into a shower of nearly black blood and body parts. Curious if Bethesda Softworks accurately rendered the intricate components of the human head? Just get that Small Guns stat up to 100, and you’ll have more evidence than you’d ever need. It’s a good thing they added a 5% damage bonus to the Bloody Mess perk, because otherwise no one would ever need it — every enemy turns into a bloody mess when you shoot them with a high enough skill.

Another example of Fallout 3 eating the whole burger is their implementation of “what is the character looking at” technology. This is, of course, great technology to have, as we learned in the first Halo when it decided your initial control scheme. But in Fallout 3, as best as I could tell, the only time it was ever used was to check and see if the player was looking at something that could be lockpicked or stolen. How do I know this? Because within a half-second of looking at these objects, whether I meant to or not, someone nearby would suspiciously yell at me for where my gaze settled.

A more recent case of “too much of a good thing” is Rockstar’s downloadable expansion to Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and Damned. For those of us who haven’t touched the original game in nearly a year, the initial few minutes of the expansion can be a little jarring. You’re thrown into TLAD with no preamble and asked to remember how to drive, fight, and survive. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be a problem — Rockstar has honed their craft to the point where even if the player doesn’t immediately know what’s going on, the story will be enough to carry the experience for a while.

But when the player, controlling Johnny Klebitz, goes to the biker gang’s clubhouse, things get complicated in a hurry. TV! Internet-enabled computer! Pool table! Arm wrestling! Wall of portraits of fallen bikers! As someone who hadn’t even remembered how to take cover or jump over obstacles, this barrage of extraneous activities was a little scary. It’s great that I’m able to do all these things in one location — and it feels realistic, seeing as how I’m a biker. But drawing out the introduction a little would have gone a long way.

Mass Effect had a similar issue early on in their progression. Once you complete the action on the initial planet and finish your business at the Citadel, the entire damn galaxy opens up. There are dozens of planets to explore, with side quests at some of them, and resources to harvest at most of them. When I played through the game and reached this point, I digressed for almost twenty hours just doing side quests and exploring the galaxy — and promptly burned out on the experience. I shelved the game for six months until I was ready to play it again.

Now, in all of these examples, the problem may lie more in the way I played the games than in their designs. But it’s hard to argue that a few minor (?) changes wouldn’t have made them better. Like making exploding heads and body parts only be an occasional treat for getting a string of critical hits. Or increasing the timer to two or three seconds for the “is the character looking at something they want to try to steal” check.

Maybe it would have been a little less overwhelming to roll out activities in The Lost’s clubhouse over a few visits, rather than all at once. Or just let the player discover them on his own organically. And maybe there could have been some kind of territorial dispute that makes it unwise for Spectres to approach certain star systems.

Would any of these changes have made their respective games significantly better or worse? Probably not. But little things like this can add up — and sometimes, they can make the difference between going home hungry and being just about perfect.

Making them listen

One trend I’ve been noticing a lot in games lately is the respect they seem to be paying to their dialogue. While some titles are still following the old convention of only delivering story via cutscenes, some of the best games in the last year are bucking that trend.

Let’s look at a game that’s been rather criminally underappreciated from last year: Dead Space. If there’s been a more highly polished experience in recent memory, I’d be hard pressed to name it. Dead Space completely envelops you in its world, and it couldn’t have done so without its frequent conversation interludes.

Now, much has been made of Dead Space‘s commitment to a seamless play experience. The only HUD available to the player is on the character’s back. When you access your inventory, the game does not pause. As admirable as these conceits are, I want to focus on something that seemingly trends in the opposite direction: their decision to lock the player in place during key story moments.

It’s true — when Isaac is receiving information from his other two associates in the first part of the game, it’s impossible to get into combat or save the game. The doors surrounding the player lock, forcing them to listen to what the game has to say. Plus, the player still feels like they have control of the character in these situations because they can still walk around and look at the gorgeous environments and animation. But all the while, they’re absorbing what EA is telling them.

Another game from last year tried a different tack. In Fable II, there are several stretches during the game where characters will want to talk to the player. Whether this is just character development or information about the next quest in the main story line, the results are the same: the player listens.

This is because Lionhead slows down the player’s movement speed during these scenes. In some cases, the conversation is perfectly timed to play out over the distance that the player must walk. This, of course, feels a bit more contrived than the way Dead Space handles it. But once the initial dissonance of “hey, why am I moving slowly?” is over, focusing on what the characters are saying is easy.

Now, there are obviously some ways to address this issue that are less compelling. While Fallout 3 and Oblivion are amazing achievements, their conversation system is sometimes the enemy of immersion. They both have the occasional in-engine scripted sequence that the player can skip if they want to. But when it’s time to talk, it’s really time to talk. The outside world freezes, all other sound gets muted, and the camera zooms way in on the speaker. While this certainly gets the player’s attention, it’s a little jarring to go from freely exploring vibrant worlds like Tamriel and post-nuclear D.C. to being locked into a staring contest with an NPC.

The results are more chaotic on the other end of the spectrum. In Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, the entire game is being told via flashback. The Prince’s narration (which is some of the best ever delivered in a game) can start or stop at any time. In some cases, he is providing calm, laid-back exposition while the onscreen Prince is in the middle of savage combat. But this contrast only helps the impact of the Prince’s words as the player hears them — and, most importantly, the player will hear them.

So what’s the answer? Well, there are clearly many different ways to solve this problem, and some methods are clearly more effective than others. But the most important thing is that we need to not be afraid to make them listen. We’ve got great stories to tell. Let’s make sure they get heard.