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Pirates, Barbarians, and Daoist Sages

Hail has been periodically ratting my house this weekend, an environmental abnormality for this time of year. However, being a bit of homebody myself, I welcome the indoors time.

Three things I'd like to post impressions of today: Zack and Wiki (Wii), Age of Conan (PC MMORPG), and The Forbidden Kingdom (Movie).

Zack and Wiki

Puzzles and Pirates seem to go together well.  Escape From Monkey Island is forever enshrined in many gamers' hearts as being amongst the best Lucasfilm adventure games ever made. Even the only puzzle-based MMORPG is literally called, "Puzzle Pirates," and has performed rather well. Capcom's Zack and Wiki continues this fine tradition.

Zack and Wiki's plot is the somewhat surreal stance of being a plucky young boy (Zack) with a magic flying golden monkey (Wiki) who are members of a band of rabbit-like air pirates out to find treasure. Lust for treasure, it would seem, is their entire modus operandi. The backdrop is cute, kids will love it, even if stodgy old adults will say the whole thing is so sugary it induces gangrenous cerebral gingivitis.

The gameplay contributes to the adventure gaming genre in at least two interesting ways:
  • First, rather than having one lengthy adventure sequence (as is the tradition amongst adventure games) there's instead a central hub where you are dispatched to individual puzzle areas. This grants the developers freedom in designing a ton of areas. Each area is basically one giant and well-detailed puzzle area with a number of cute touches and a theme. There's apparently so many of these areas that, by the time I had cleared the 5th one, I noticed my books back at the hub area were still empty of the various discoveries I was supposed to find as I continued to play.
  • Second, a great deal of the puzzles challenge you to use your Wii remote creatively. Rather than just combining lock with key to open the door, you have to insert the key and twist it in the lock. Rather than just throwing the mushroom down the hole, you have the mushroom in hand and need to turn your hand over in order to drop it. Deploying an umbrella requires mentally figuring out you're supposed to point the Wiimote up and hit the 2 button. This mechanic both provides immersion and generates a feeling of technical appreciative awe in most anybody who might be in the room with you.
The main critique I have against Zack and Wiki is that the puzzles are very trial and error in execution. Careful observation is supposed to protect you from an unfortunate demise, but the result seems to be that nearly anything ventured is death. Once, noticing a trap door that may lead to demise, I attempted to lead Zack around it... no dice, he walked right to the middle of it and died. Another time, a a boulder rebounds down a ramp to Zack who, stupidly, just stands there and dies... the solution was to trigger the boulder while Zack was standing about 5 feet away. Perhaps the developers feel that the whole thing should be intuitive, but I don't feel that it worked out that way.

Despite its kid-friendly exterior, Zack and Wiki is a reasonably frustrating game. I'd like to say that its clever puzzles require an adult brain to navigate. However, considering that avoiding death seems to be a matter of observing the developers' strange game logic, this game would make a good gift to adults who need to be knocked down a few pegs by their kids' greater capacity to adapt to nonsense. Maybe I'll finish Zack and Wiki, but it's more likely I'll send it back to GameFly before I ever get around to that 6th puzzle area.

Age Of Conan Weekend PvP Preview

I like to think that, just because I've played about every prominent MMORPG under the sun (and quite a few obscure titles) that I'm a true connoisseur of massively multiplayer gaming. Thus, after playing only a few hours of the Gamespot Age of Conan PVP weekend preview (a gutted version of the full game) I've the irrational belief I know enough about this game to rant about it. Feel free to mentally apply to me the appropriate opprobrium that comes with disbelief of my incredible superpowers.

Age of Conan guided gameplay footage, compiled by GamingAlliance911 from Gametrailer videos.

Instancing Enabled?

I'd like to start with my weakest conjecture first: The entirety of Age of Conan is instanced, just like Guild Wars. The Player versus Player certainly was, and that's a really good thing because it means the most fundamental flaw in most MMORPG's PvP has been averted: teams are actually even.

However, as part of the Gamespot weekend preview crowd, I'm not given complete run of the game and thus unable to determine if the entire game is really instanced. I'm basing most of my judgment that most of the game is instanced because the Player Versus Environment (tutorial) portion certainly was, and there seems to be a Guild Wars-like quick travel map.

If it completely instanced, that's both good and bad for the game. It's good because Guild Wars proves that an instanced MMORPG is a clean and well implemented MMORPG. However, it's bad because that much instancing breaks down the "massively multiplayer" aspect to such a degree that most (including the Guild Wars developers themselves) would agree that "massively" no longer belongs in the title. There's a definite lack of ability to take seriously a virtual world that duplicates itself indiscriminately.

But how does it play?

We all have our criteria of what we rank games by. Me, I'm a gamer by most pure definition of the word: I play games - not specifically to explore, achieve, dominate, or socialize - but simply because I enjoy playing a good game. Well, it's not so simple, really... it's the meat of the game, the sense of flow it exudes, that interests me the most. Thus, my criteria for any game is, "How well does it play?"

This, at least, I should have been able get from the Gamespot preview build. The answer, at least from the build I got to play, was: disappointing... but not completely so.

Age of Conan takes some steps in the right direction:
  • There's no auto-attack mechanic. Instead, the player taps hotkeys that refer to a forward, forward left, and forward right attack.
  • Enemies have three "shields" distributed about them, and attacking in directions with less shields is the difference between dispatching a foe in two hits instead of ten.
  • Hotkeys trigger a "combo mode," requiring you to tap attacks in a certain order.
  • You can "dodge" by double-tapping a directional key or "block" by holding X.
  • Terrain blocks attacks and the arc of your attacks will affect every enemy within range.
So far, it seems excellent, because the player is involved to the point where they have to pay attention to play. Involvement is one thing many MMORPGs lack.

Unfortunately, Age of Conan is dumbed down to the point where the involvement is largely pointless busywork:
  • Once you realize what the shields surrounding the enemy mean, you don't need more than a few dozen IQ points to master attacking in the right directions.
  • The combos are only 1 - 3 directions long, making them absolutely trivial.
  • Dodging is pointless because it's more detrimental to your own offense than it is your foes' (who will probably hit you before you avoid them anyway).
  • Blocking is pointless because you're just forestalling the inevitable and it's better to kill the enemy quickly. (At least when soloing - I imagine this would be handy for a Tank in a group.)
  • The overall PvE balance, at least in the first 6 levels in the tutorial I was allowed to play, is way too forgiving. I actually managed to mash way way through a few hundred enemies without even realizing what the shields meant.
Overall, all that involvement is for naught because there's not much in the way of depth in the combat mechanic. Without some kind of depth what's to keep a gamer engaged for the countless hours from level 1 to 80? This is what I look for in every new MMORPG I play, and it seems Age of Conan is lacking.

As a supporting point, I'll say that the game feels visceral. It's all about screaming a war cry you dive in, blood pumping, and hit people until they stop moving. At times, there's lots of lovely gore as you take a head off or drive your spear into a fallen enemy's abdomen. If you want lots of hacking as you drive your enemies before you to the lamentations of their women, then you're in luck: They've definitely got the "barbaric" feeling of combat established.


Through and through, Age of Conan succeeds in creating a feeling of sweaty man combat. This is assisted to a great degree by the excellent writing, which sounds as though it may have been lifted directly from the pen of the late Robert E. Howard.

Conclusion

As a story of sweaty man combat, Age of Conan succeeds. However, as a game, Age of Conan is destined to fall by the wayside as yet another shallow MMORPG. Tabula Rasa is about as deep in terms of crouching behind cover and firing different kinds of guns as Age of Conan is with its positional shielding and very short combos. From what they've given the GameSpot players to preview, the bar has not been raised.

The game is just close enough to being interesting to really annoy the hardcore gamer. For example, what if they had moved the combos off of the hotbar and made them a string of at least 5 directional attacks you need to execute in a set order with good timing to complete? This would both de-clutter the hotbar and introduce some challenge. A smart player might even recognize when their enemy is setting up a combo and block. That would be reasonably awesome gameplay.

However, judging by the evidence I see here and there in the interface, what I'm recommending in the previous paragraph may have been the system before I had a chance to try out the game. I suspect that, like many MMORPGs, at some point during the beta a bunch of lousy players complained that such a deep system was simply too hard. Thus, Funcom accommodated them by dumbing down the gameplay. The result is yet another vapid, unchallenging, waste of gaming life.

I want to shake the developers and say, "Who are you? You are game developers. How about you design games you know are good instead of trying to accommodate fools?" However, it's not my job that is at stake, I can't demand artists create great art at the expense of alienating a larger core audience. This remains a crusade that is unique to the hardcore gamer that most people - particularly those who don't take games seriously - simply won't understand.

The Forbidden Kingdom
 
I'm no movie connoisseur, but I enjoyed Jackie Chan and Jet Li's "The Forbidden Kingdom." As somebody who has taken a shine to some aspects of eastern philosophy, I enjoyed a lot of the lines given by the Daoist Sage (played by Jackie Chan) as well as the Buddhist Monk (played by Jet Li).

The overall production is a bit of a fairy tale: Modern day boy finds mystical artifact, is transported through time to ancient mythical Chinese days, where he soon becomes embroiled in martial arts adventures that are part of conflict between ruling immortals. Some people are going to find that a bit overly surreal.

If you don't mind all the martial arts violence, it's a great tween movie. Even if people are still getting their faces punched, not too many people kick the bucket and not in a terribly grisly manner. It's not Kill Bill gory. The Forbidden Kingdom is, to a great extent, a movie that highlights some of the better points of martial arts movie fun in a morally responsible manner.

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