Tag: Steam

Game Review: Mark of the Ninja

One of the reasons I thoroughly enjoyed games like Deus Ex and its sequel Human Revolution is due to the stealth elements. I’ve dipped my toe into Thief, and I also got a charge out of both of Rocksteady’s Batman games (Arkham Asylum and Arkham City). Stealth-based games need a few things to work well: clear indicators of how easily the enemy can detect you, multiple routes to your objective, and an atmosphere of tension generated by foes and situations that present you with puzzle-like ways to overcome their deadly obstacles. Klei Entertainment’s Mark of the Ninja has all of these things, with the added bonus of appealing to aficionados of the legendary spies and assassins of feudal Japan.

Courtesy Klei Entertainment

For centuries, the Hisomu clan has defended its secrets and maintained its traditions. Without warning, the diabolical company Hessian Services storms their dojo and makes off with those secrets. Our hero is awakened from his recovery from an extensive tattoo (the titular ‘Mark’) to rescue his master, and embarks on a path of revenge and assassination. However, the Mark that allows him to move undetected and leap superhuman distances comes with a price: before it drives him mad with power, he is expected to take his own life.

Klei Entertainment previously made the Shank games, somewhat over-the-top side-scrolling action games in the vein of Mad Max or some of the nastier, in-your-face encounters of Borderlands. The designers have traded frenetic, button-mashy action for a more quiet, measured approach. Like the good stealth games mentioned above, Mark of the Ninja is built around smooth motion and wide-open level design. Moving around the maps feels natural and intuitive, and you think less about button-presses and combos than you do about guard search patterns and the locations of fuse boxes and lights that ache to have darts thrown at them.

Courtesy Klei Entertainment
The cutscenes are like something out of Gargoyles.

Adding to the atmosphere is the art style, steeped in darkness and flowing like ink from a brush. While the faces of the characters may be a little cartoonish for the game’s occasionally violent content, it definitely works within the context of this game’s world. When the game plunges into darkness, be it due to the environment itself or your darts shattering lights above the heads of hapless mercenaries, it becomes clear the art style was more than just an aesthetic choice. Your character becomes a shadow of his former self, literally, with only the ink of his mark visible to us as we sneak from one hiding place to another. It lends the game incredible atmosphere and tension all on its own.

Sooner or later, though, you will encounter your enemy. The decision must be made if you will dispatch them or try to sneak past. Killing guards does make it easier to make it across the room, but at the end of each level, if you manage to avoid killing anyone you get a substantial bonus to your score. The game also rewards you with Honor, which can be used for upgrades. Paradoxically, your upgrades make it easier for you to kill people. It’s hard to say if the trade-off is substantial enough to prevent you from doing fun things like hanging bodies for other guards to find, or picking off a room full of enemies one by one just to see how scared the last one gets.

Courtesy Klei Entertainment
“Hmm. Where does one stab a laser?”

Let me draw your attention to the screenshot used above. Pretty dark, isn’t it? As much as I’m uncertain as to how well-balanced the game is in terms of sneaking versus killing, I want to reiterate how lovely the game is and how well its art style informs its gameplay. Being reduced to a dark silhouette against a dark background, especially when it happens just as a guard turns to face your direction, never stops producing a sadistic little grin and the desire to jump on the big dumbass to give him a wedgie. Unfortunately there is no “wedgie” option, and we’re back to deciding if we want to try and move on in spite of the challenge or if we take the quick and easy path of murder.

As much as I like Mark of the Ninja, I haven’t gotten too terribly far with it, which may make this more of a “First Impressions” write-up than an actual review, but the flow of gameplay is so smooth and the storytelling so organic I can’t help but recommend it. Scaling a tower to close in on an enemy feels like an achievement in and of itself, the challenges the game presents provide incentive to be even more inventive and careful, and there’s something inherently badass about a game featuring a ninja behaving in this way. When was the last time Ryu Hayabusa actually snuck up on someone? I think it’s been a while. Mark of the Ninja is available on Steam and XBLA, and it’s definitely worth checking out.

Steamy Aftermath

Courtesy Valve
It’s judging you.

Valve is an insidious bunch.

Not in the vein of a Bain Capital, Blackwater, or Monsato, mind you. I don’t believe they’re deliberately attempting to ruin lives through cold, impersonal profiteering. It’s undeniable, though, that events like the Summer Steam Sale, which just ended this past Sunday, are affairs during which the software developer and distributor basically prints money. They also make it very difficult for other companies to start or maintain digital distribution services.

Case in point: on the last day of the Steam Sale I saw Galactic Civilizations II was deeply discounted. Being a fan of 4X games, especially those set in space, I momentarily lamented the state in which the sale had left me (which I’ll get to in a moment). But then I remembered I bought GC2 some time ago from the publisher, Stardock. Curious, I looked into how to redownload the game and its goodies, hoping I could activate it on Steam. Sadly, not only was that not an option, but I also was forced to download and use a GameStop application to get the games.

Now, GameStop in general turns my stomach. The fact is, though, that their little app is functionally no better or worse than Steam, or EA’s Origin. However, Steam has already tied itself into so many games and collected so much revenue that it’s difficult to stop. Gabe and the folks at the Valve office may be making money hand over fist, but at least their company is one I feel more comfortable dealing with and support than the likes of EA or GameStop.

I can’t deny, though, the diabolical nature of Steam’s deepest discounts. This highly-recommended game is $10 one day, this lost gem is $5 the next, and so on. Those charges, while small in and of themselves, do tend to add up. Especially if the event is a week long, or longer, you may find yourself destitute by the end of it, and downloading more games than you could hope to play within a reasonable amount of time. I haven’t finished the first Witcher, for example, and now Witcher 2 is waiting to be played immediately after, provided I can find the time around sessions of Binding of Issac, The Walking Dead, and Batman Arkham City to name just a few.

The thought has crossed my mind that I could play a lot of these games marathon-style for the next Extra Life event, coming up in October, but my original plan for that was to do a Wing Commander marathon instead. More details later. The bottom line is, for all of their good business practices, decent public relations, and excellent game design, in the aftermath of this latest sale I can’t help but think there’s something to the notion that Valve may be secretly evil.

Meaty Goodness

meatface.jpg

It seems simple at first. You’re a boy made of meat, and you’re in love with Bandage Girl. The good news is, Bandage Girl loves you too. The bad news is, Dr. Fetus hates everybody and YOU especially, so he beats you up and kidnaps Bandage Girl. Your quest to rescue her is a side-scrolling platforming affair. And despite the slick digital controls and polished graphics, it’s devastatingly old-school.

I say ‘old-school’ because side-scrolling platforming has been around since the old console wars. Mario did it on the NES, Sonic did it on the Genesis. And it’s a type of game that does something that is somewhat missing from open world games, first-person shooters and MMOs: its challenges are static and structured. As Chris Plante writes in his Escapist article ‘Hard-Earned Victories,’ when you manage to complete a level, that completion is a reward in and of itself. Which ties into the ‘devastating’ part of my description.

Watch TotalBiscuit’s Wipe-A-Thon 3000 to see just how blood-curdlingly frustrating this game can be. Plante describes this as the game ‘pushing back’ against our efforts to beat it. It doesn’t guide us with arrows, objectives, waypoints or NPCs. It presents us with the challenge, sits back and watches us try to overcome it. And when the player does pull it off, after “lots of trial and even more error”, he or she feels like a million bucks, like a superstar. The boss levels seem especially geared for this.

Now, I’ve only beaten the first chapter and its boss, but I can say with confidence that if this trend keeps up, I’m going to end up with more raised heart rates, cramped fingers and victorious cries that earn me funny looks from my wife. The combination of the established challenges, an incoming death machine driven by a maladjusted genius fetus in a jar and the kickass soundtrack pushed me to overcome the scenario. I refused to give up. I took breaks, shook out cramps, grabbed some water. And when the Li’l Slugger finally exploded, I cheered.

Super Meat Boy took me to a very interesting and unexpected place.

It tapped a reservoir of resolve that, in my everyday life, often goes untapped. I don’t often see my daily challenges as that immediate, that insurmountable. But in this case, I did, and I took each of my failures in stride (and trust me, there were a LOT of failures) only to shake them off and try again. I learned from every mincing, grew more determined with every red splatter. Why do I not do this more often? Am I not challenged enough? Did I specifically grab this on Steam during the sale for a bargain-basement $3 instead of waiting to get Microsoft points because I knew using the keyboard would increase the challenge?

I’m not entirely sure what the answers are, but I do know that facing down a new year with a finished manuscript, a renewed resolve to improve my situation and new ideas for projects to undertake, I’m going to need to come back to that place Super Meat Boy unlocks more often. I probably won’t be adding an X-Box game pad adapter to my PC any time soon, because in addition to needing that money elsewhere, I feel slightly more accomplished pulling off mind-blowing maneuvers with the keyboard.

I really can’t call this a review, since I haven’t played the entire game through, and it will be some time before I collect enough bandages and A+ ratings to render a ‘professional’ verdict. I can, however, offer this recommendation:

Super Meat Boy is available on Steam, XBLA and will soon be available on the Wii. Get it. You won’t be disappointed, but as TB says, “You may break yourself.”

Counter-Strike:Source vs. Team Fortress 2

Courtesy Valve
Courtesy Valve

I was given a guest pass for Counter-Strike: Source during the Steam sale. I was curious to check it out. I haven’t played Counter-Strike since my college days, and since then I’ve discovered the likes of Team Fortress 2 and the Left 4 Dead games to get my co-operative shooting action on. With TF2 being the closest cousin to CS:S in terms of gameplay, the comparison seems inevitable, so let’s toss these two in my blood-soaked cage and see what happens.

Premise

Counter-Strike:Source sells itself as a quite sober affair. Terrorists plant bombs in locations, and the Counter-Terrorists (CTs) work to prevent said bombs from going off. That’s pretty much it. It allows the game to become something of a shooty sandbox, filled with actual sand (on some maps). This simplicity isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does make things feel a tad big generic.

Team Fortress 2 is the ongoing struggle between two rival companies over a few scraps of land. Instead of the rather serious tone CS:S strives for, however, TF2 is much more interested in the fun factor. While a rather interesting and somewhat elaborate back-story continues to emerge for both the overall premise and each member of the team, none of it seems involved so much with taking itself seriously as it is with being awesome.

CS:S 0, TF2 1

Cast of Characters

Courtesy Valve

CS:S‘s characters are a bit like its premise. You have Terrorists and CTs. Other than some aesthetic differences between, say, the SEAL team and SAS, the characters are completely interchangeable. The only way to really differentiate yourself is to constantly buy a particular set of weapons & equipment that suit your style of play. There really isn’t much more to say about it.

TF2 has a cast of characters that each have a unique look, voice and style of play. While there’s no appreciable difference between playing a Terrorist or a CT in that other game, you cannot play the Heavy and then switch to the Scout or Spy expecting to play the exact same way. You don’t have to know anything about guns to find a class that works for you. Again, there’s very little getting between you and just having fun with the game.

CS:S 0, TF2 2

Look & Feel

Courtesy Valve

Counter-Strike: Source looks good. The different gun models are pretty accurate, the maps feel realistic and the frenetic pace of the game puts one in the mindset of a tense situation with a clear objective, be it planting the bomb or preventing the explosion. It also, unfortunately, veers towards the same realism as Call of Duty or Battlefield meaning that as accurate as the maps might be in simulating a desert town or an old Aztec ruin, for the most part things are not going to be looking very bright or fresh, but rather somewhat dirty and used.

As I mentioned previously, the look & feel of Team Fortress 2 is somewhere between The Incredibles and Sam Peckinpah. Brightly colored animated characters who gleefully blow each other to bloody smithereens. The maps are still a bit drab, at least the default ones from Valve appear that way, but that’s because most of the land being fought over is located in a desert. Still, I hope I’m not alone that the generic CS:S calls of “All right, let’s move out.” or “The bomb has been planted” are not quite as entertaining as “CRY SOME MORE!”, “You got blood on my suit”, “Stand on the freakin’ point, dumbass!”,”Wave g’bye t’ yer head, wanker!” or “SPY SAPPIN’ MAH SENTRY!”

CS:S 0, TF2 3

Customization

Courtesy Valve

There’s a surprising amount that one can do with Counter-Strike: Source, given that it’s somewhat bare-bones. One of the servers I played on used a mod to give players races, powers and items inspired by Warcraft. Yes, people can be Night Elves, Forsaken and even named characters like Thrall and Archimonde when playing this mod. It’s interesting and I have to appreciate it from a programming standpoint, but I couldn’t shake the feeling it was an effort to make CS:S more interesting.

TF2 lets you make custom maps, and I’ve seen some interesting modifications to class items, some of which have made it into the live version of the game – the Pain Train melee weapon, for example. However, you’re not as likely to see these mods as you are those created by people playing CS:S, so while the CTs get the point, it feels to me like it wouldn’t be necessary for such extensive changes to be made to CS:S by the community if the game had more to it.

CS:S 1, TF2 3

Community

Courtesy Valve & Scout's Mom

Counter-Strike:Source players are aggressive. I don’t just mean in play styles, either. They’re so focused on blasting the opposing team with either their simulated firearms or another homophobic epithet that they won’t answer simple questions, like where one could find information on key binds. It’s tough being a new player, too, because the first clean kill you make is sure to be met with curses and accusations of hacking the game. At least, that was my experience.

In comparison, Team Fortress 2 players seem more interested in helping one another in having a good time. Now, maybe it’s because I play on the Escapist servers more than most others, but most of the epithets that come my way are in the form of a backhanded compliment. A frustrated vocalization is far more likely to be met with a sadistic, good-hearted giggle than the accusation that you like it rough from men with hairy bums. And when you get your revenge, you’ll probably be complimented on it. You’ll have the occasional immature mike-spammer, but on PC servers at least, they won’t last long.

CS:S 1, TF2 4

So that’s how it plays out in this cage, folks. The CTs get their butts handed to them by the gleeful mercenaries of RED and BLU. To me, Team Fortress 2 is a lot more fun, challenging and rewarding than Counter-Strike ever was, and when my guest pass for CS:S expires I will not be all that interested in playing just about any other co-operative shooter than…

…Wait, what’s this Killing Floor game my Escapist chums keep talking about?

Looks like we’ll need to spray down the cage sooner than I thought…

Full Steam Ahead

Train

The Steam sale has pretty much reached its conclusion, and has saved many lives. After all, bees can kill with their stings, eating outside is a good way to attract ravenous bears, and have you ever taken a soccer ball to the face? Damn. That’ll mess you up. Never happens when playing Steam games.

My first order of business during the Steam sale was to round out my PC’s version of The Orange Box. I finally got my hands on the full version of Team Fortress 2. User-made maps, Valve’s great updates, the works. I fired it up on the X-Box once later, and really, it’s not the same. You never find anything cool as you play, you only have a few generic achievements to pursue and you’re limited to about five different maps. Boring. I’ve been playing on the PC exclusively ever since. Along with Half-Life 2 Episode 2, I also downloaded Garry’s Mod at the same time. I haven’t played with it much yet, but the idea of a sandbox with a physics engine and a fully-functional programming language for me to play with is very appealing. It’s a back-burner, percolating thought. I’ll get back to it later.

Left 4 Dead and its sequel is a great deal of fun. The idea of being one of the last few humans alive fighting against a slavering horde of one’s former fellow man is both harrowing and kind of exciting. Especially if there’s plenty of ammo & pain pills laying around. The best part of these games, though, is playing with friends. There’s nothing more satisfying than shooting zombies off of a friend, and nothing more terrifying than getting knocked down and wondering if the undead will tear off your head before your buddy can come to your aid. I’m looking forward to playing more of it.

My next likely fodder for a game review, however, is The Witcher. Being an old hand at role-playing games, and having played through the likes of Mass Effect and Dragon Age, this game seems right up my alley. I do still need to finish Dragon Age’s expansion, so it’s almost a race between it and The Witcher, and Awakenings has a head start. Of course I need to take time away from World of Warcraft to play either of these when I want an RPG fix.

There’s plenty of writing to do, as well. The holiday weekend is meant for recharging my batteries, as is the upcoming family reunion in Mystic. But for now, in terms of gaming, it’s full Steam ahead.

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