Hellboy: Science of Making a Good Game


Hellboy fans are not a demanding group. All they ask for is a chance to see the big red guy pummel his way through a Lovecraftian rogues’ gallery and spew the occasional one-liner. So when the Hellboy game came out for the original Playstation back in the day, it seemed like it resulted from gathering the world’s greatest underachieving game developers. Thankfully, Krome Studios and Konami seem to be bringing out something much more worthwhile with Hellboy: Science of Evil for the Xbox 360.

I had about half an hour with the game, which gave me enough time to play through the first level and part of the second. It opens up with a stylish intro of Hellboy running through the woods, intercut with typical white-on-black opening credits that showed the game’s cinematic influences. While the Comic Con convention center was too loud to hear most of the dialogue, it was obvious the cutscenes were shot with care. I was assured by the Konami rep at the show that Ron Perlman and Selma Blair handled voice acting duties for their characters and Mike Mignola and Guillermo Del Toro oversaw the whole project. Ron Perlman? Voice acting in a video game!? Who knew? Though I have to say he’s much better looking as Hellboy than the face-melt monstrosity Lord Hood from the Halo series.

From the initial cutscene I was thrown into a brief combat tutorial in the game’s opening graveyard level. Your combat repertoire consists of light and hard punches, grabs, and a gun. It’s typical fare for a game clearly influenced by God of War and Ninja Gaiden, however the pace is completely different. Unlike the lightning speed of Ryu Hayabusa, or the flashy combo-extravaganzas of Kratos, Hellboy is more of a lumbering powerhouse. The pace and destructable environments actually reminded me of Otogi, which is a wonderful thing.

Hellboy can take quite a beating. I never came close to dying in combat, which is kind of accurate considering the pummelings he takes in the comics, as well as a little worrisome. I’m assuming that was because it was the first level, but it was easy enough to border on repetitive. At the same time, I’m not entirely sure how well the combat will hold up if the difficulty ramps up. As far as I could tell from my demo time, which was with a 95% complete version of the game, there is little in the way of defensive options. It’s entirely possible that I’m an idiot and missed them, but any evasive maneuvers aside from running away were absent. I can understand the motivation here; making Hellboy blindly aggressive is certainly not out of character. However, when I was surrounded and really had to avoid attacks, I ended up running away with my tail between my legs to recover.

In most cases, though, defense wasn’t necessary, and I had a lot of fun tossing all the different enemies around. The grab attack was a key aspect of the gameplay, allowing you to pick up random items as weapons, toss small or stunned enemies around and smash open doorways. Some of the best moments from the demo included beating down a werewolf with a cross and tossing all the little Gollum-esque goblins around. At the same time, some of these actions, like opening doors by smashing them open, became horribly repetitive within the span of the demo. It makes me think there’s some kind of conspiracy to include mundane recurring actions in licensed games. Breaking doors is to Hellboy what casting “Reparo” is to Harry Potter and saving that same guy who keeps falling off of buildings is to Spider-man 2.

I don’t want to dwell too much on problems in an unreleased title, but I do have a few concerns that I hope get cleaned up in the final product. For one, the aiming controls were incredibly clunky. Aiming is generally auto-targetted, and it worked for the most part, but as soon as I had a specific target in mind it became a wrestling match with the right thumbstick. I nearly lost control and suplexed the girl playing next to me because of it. My other issue is related to the graphics, which, for the most part, are quite beautiful, but reminded me of 1996 during a few moments. Throughout the first level, you are pursuing a witch who can transform into a billowing flock of crows, or bats, or something; I wasn’t quite sure because they were sprites who when they got close enough to see looked more like Space Invaders.

Issues like the ones I mentioned are potentially enough to drag this game down, but keep in mind that I’m just speculating. Once the final game is released, I hope to check out its most compelling feature: co-op. According to the Konami representative at the show the game allows two-player campaign co-op with the second player controlling Abe or Liz. It’ll be interesting to see how differently the two of them play. Any game that carries the old school torch of sitting on the couch with a buddy and playing on a single screen is probably at least worth a rental. If what I played is any indication, Hellboy may just stand out from the rest of the summer-game-movie pack.

Ironman: The Game About the Movie About the Comic


The Ironman demo at Comic Con was the same demo available on Xbox Live, so rather than read this, you can spend about the same length of time playing it yourself. The demo offers up a short mission from the Middle East areas of the movie. There are two relatively simple objectives, and whether you complete them or the time runs out, the demo ends. Unlike the timed demos for games like Crackdown, which almost gave you too much of the game, Ironman offers so little that I really have to question the time limit.

I can only assume the demo was intended for Comic Con and was timed so others could play, but the limit exists on the Xbox Live demo as well. Either way, there isn’t much content to find here, but it does give you a taste of the game’s mechanics.

First of all, Ironman is fast, almost too fast. At any moment you can switch between moving on foot, hovering, or jetting around at blinding speeds. However as mobile as you are, it’s hindered by the vomit-inducing camera. It not only has a hard time keeping up with everything, but any time you try to handle it yourself, the game essentially tells you to fuck off. Why give the option to aim manually and then constantly wrestle it away?

I did eventually adjust to the camera, though it was never truly competent. Ironman’s omnipotence over all the enemies in the demo is impressive. You can zip over to any objective and hover overhead raining death on scores of defenseless tanks, foot soldiers, and artillery. While it’s pretty cool, I found it ironic that Ironman’s weapon of choice was essentially a pea shooter. He shoots this dinky laser beam out of the palm of his hand, and while it tears everything up well enough, it feels about as badass as shooting rocks out of a slingshot.

Throughout the demo we have Robert Downey Jr. giving plenty of cheesy one-liners that were clearly phoned in. I can only hope this isn’t indicative of the quality of the movie, otherwise we’re in for a trainwreck of Spider-man proportions. (Yep, I went there.)

While the demo was short, it begs the question, “Why does this exist other than to cash in on the success of the movie?” The momentum is cool, but the world feels so empty and bland, the action lacks kinetics, and the dialogue is cringe-worthy. Of all the comic-to-movie-to-game adaptations on display at Comic Con, Ironman was the only one to offer that soul sucking cash-in feeling I’ve come to expect from licensed products.

The Incredible Hulk Ultimately Destroys Everything


While the developers of Crackdown ditched the series to work on APB, Edge of Reality is hard at work on Crackdown 2, a.k.a. The Incredible Hulk. While it really has no relation to Realtime World’s early ’07 stunner, Sega showed a demo at Comic Con that conjured up fond memories of tracking down agility orbs. Of all the games at Comic Con, it looked the most exciting. Unfortunately, it was still early, and the people running the demo the game at the show were unwilling to hand us the controller.

What was shown was an open-world romp through Liberty…I mean, New York City. The Hulk can smash just about anything, climb any building, and jump really damn high. He can even smash buildings and throw pedestrians, features that I’m not entirely confident will make it into the final game. Cloverfield got away with knocking down buildings in NYC and conjuring up images of 9/11, but will a teen-rated video game get the same treatment?

The demo I saw was brief, and while the freedom the game offered was stunning, there wasn’t much in the way of goals. Time will tell if The Hulk is simply a playground or something a little more substantial. Regardless, you can rip a car in half and use it as boxing gloves, so I’m excited.

Metal Gear Online Sucks Because I’m a Halo-Playing Philistine


Metal Gear Online is going to be a tough sell for the typical online shooter crowd. From my brief time with the game, it was clear that it was from a Japanese developer emulating Western shooters without straying too far from Japanese sensibilities. It may have been the demo environment, which consisted of two team deathmatch rounds. There are a ton of ways to play MGO, including a “Solid Snake vs. Everyone Else” mode that honestly sounds really fun. However, if what was on display at Comic Con is an indication of the core gameplay, I’m not sure how much MGO will offer for those weaned on Team Fortress 2 and Halo.

While games like Halo slowed down the pace for console players, Metal Gear brings it to a grinding halt. It’s telling that the game has an autoaim option, yet I was continually caught with my pants down. Switching equipment requires you to bring up the standard Metal Gear wheel menus, which in the single player games paused the action, but here just leaves you completely vulnerable. Throwing grenades, hopping in your cardboard box, or using the stun knife all require you to stand still and flip through a menu. While it’s true that everyone in the matches are limited by these constraints, fairness does not always equal fun.

For a few rounds I tried my hand at free aiming, and found the movement of the analog stick to be far too sensitive and drifty, while still limited to the turning ability of a tank. Auto-aim worked a little better, but the best players will probably want to avoid it so they can get those quick headshots.

For Metal Gear fans and Japanese gamers, MGO may be the perfect complement to MGS4. It’s certainly faithful to the series, and the controls hold true to many of the Japanese conventions that many of us over here just don’t understand. While the shooter market on 360 is oversaturated, the PS3 market is somewhat lacking. MGO may have an audience on the PS3, even over here, but PC or Xbox 360 owners aren’t going to find much here for them.

Gears of War 2 to be Bigger, Better, More Badass


When president of Epic Games, Michael Capps says that Gears of War 2 will be “bigger, better, more badass,” you have to believe him. Epic has a track record of games which can only be described as awesome and rad, so it will be no surprise if Gears 2 follows suit. At Comic Con, Epic ran a panel to discuss Gears 2. While the trailer shown at the beginning of the panel was the same as the one shown at GDC, it was a good reminder that Gears of War 2 is going to be extremely badass. Everyone was surprised, even skeptical, that Epic was planning for a sequel that would be bigger and better than its predecessor. However, watching Marcus chainsaw a Locust soldier surely made most of us believers.

After the badass teaser, the developers jumped right into Q&A. The Comic Con attendees stepped up to the plate with hard hitting questions. Capps let the audience in on several secrets about the game, including some of the game’s badass, cool, and great mechanics and storyline. The sequel to the 2006 game of the year will have awesome shooting, badass chainsaw fights, and sweet online play. The story will be epic, badass, and bigger than the original.

A lot of people had questions about the gripping story from the original game and wanted to know how they’d expand on it for the sequel. Josh Ortega, the writer for the new game, assured us it was going to be amazing and better.

Lastly, when asked whether Gears of War 2 would be awesome, Michael Capps responded, “Absolutely.”

Late to the Party, but the Candy is Oh So Sweet


While it may be a year old, I doubt anyone at Rare is complaining about another Viva Piñata review. Positive or not, any exposure to Microsoft’s 2006 flagship failure is going to be good at this point. Viva Piñata was billed as the premiere family title for the Xbox 360 in holiday ’06, set up alongside Gears of War (of all things) in their first-party lineup. It previewed poorly in the months before its release, with poor frame rates and oddball gameplay making it a hard sell. Despite great reviews and some brilliant advertising, it was a market disaster. The next year, a separate developer slapped together Viva Piñata Party Animals, a Wii-esque shovelware party game that more than likely sealed the coffin on the VP license forever.

We all know the 360 is a mancrafted piece of manliness. Especially in that year when almost everyone played Gears of War, a game about shooting your way through grey town and brown town and chainsawing monsters in half. I was guilty of matching the 18-24-year-old Shooter McBulletsmith demographic as well. Nearly everyone with a 360 was enamored with Epic’s lowest common denominator adventure. Don’t get me wrong, Gears was fun, but it was stupid, it lacked art direction, storytelling, and a third of the five-hour campaign was abysmal. And now when I look back, having played both, it puts some perspective on how unfortunate Viva Piñata’s failure was.

A year later, the 360 hasn’t expanded it’s demographic. Now, rather than shoot ugly grey mole people, we shoot terrorists and purple aliens. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, as some of the bigger games of 2007 pushed different genres (Mass Effect), told real stories (Bioshock), or even just added a few colors beyond grey and brown to the shooter palette (Halo 3). However, Microsoft has yet to come back to the family demographic in the same way it did with VP. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that there hasn’t been anything like Viva Piñata this console generation.

So what is it? Well, that’s where this review gets difficult. I can go on and on about its market failings, and how unfortunate it is that this gem got cast aside, but the reality is the game is hard to quantify. Not only that, but at first glance it looks fucking dumb. Everyone in the game journalism community seemed to take it at that basic face value until it came out. When the pessimistic previews ceased and the glowing reviews started coming in, it was already too late; the real coverage died out, and no one was willing to admit they were wrong.

The only reason I have the game is because when my Xbox self-destructed for the sixth goddamn time, Microsoft was kind enough to offer me a free game. My options were Project Gotham Racing 3 (I already owned PGR4), Kameo (Rare’s mediocre 360 launch platformer, and another reason to pre-hate VP) and Viva Piñata. When I chose Viva, John Smith from India told me, “You know that’s a kid’s game, right?” You can’t even outsource to fucking South Asia without coming across nay-sayers. But I suppose when the building they work in was constructed out of unsold copies of the game, they’re encouraged to turn people away.

Okay, so I still haven’t said what the game is, so let’s get into it. Viva Piñata combines the cultivation and development aspects of life simulators like The Sims or Rollercoaster Tycoon with the discovery and collection elements of Pokemon, a dab of RPG-style questing/leveling, and brilliantly colorful, clean, timeless graphics. It’s all of these things, or it’s only some of them. You start with a small junkyard, and after the tutorial section in which you clean it up and start your garden, the game is what you make of it.

As you develop your garden, it becomes an inviting area for the various piñata species in the area. In this game, you play the role of the omnipresent cursor that, armed with a shovel, watering can, and bag of seeds, sets out to become the best gardener on Piñata Island. There’s more to the story, which you unlock over time through a storybook, but the lore of VP is ancillary, and I mostly ignored it. The real plot is your experiences and what you take away from it.

Now, if I haven’t lost you already on that last paragraph, I understand I’m probably not selling many of you. Understand that, while there’s truly mass appeal in this game, it is a family game, after all. If Pixar movies make you cringe, then I’d probably just go back to Call of Duty 4. That’s not to say Viva Piñata isn’t without its own brand of irreverence. Most of the basic gameplay is tame; breeding piñatas is referred to as “romancing,” and the actual sex is nothing more than a simple minigame and a video of two piñatas dancing (after which an egg is delivered by a weird fat lady). However, I doubt I’ve got many parents reading this, so I’ll let you in on how far down the Bunnycomb hole goes.

The helper characters are where the game presents much of the humor that will fly well over most kid’s heads. While your garden is filled with innocent and colorful piñatas, the shops are full of dirty humans. A woman named Costolot runs the item shop, and as her name states, she is a greedy, chocolate coin-hungry wench. She’s also suggestive. One of her recurring lines as you enter the shop is, “Are you looking for something seedy? Oh, I didn’t mean like that.” You know there’s some “romancing” going on in that store after hours.

Willy Builder is the shop owner in charge of building the various sex shacks you need to get your piñata breeding mill running. He’s a drunk who shows up to work late, overcharges, and only eats bacon sandwiches. He’s basically the stereotypical construction worker, except he nurses pints of milk.

Leafos, the first of the humans you come across, seems innocent enough. However even she falls prey to typical human weakness, spreading gossip and false rumors and leading you down dead ends. What does it all mean? There’s definitely a bit of social commentary going on here.

All the while your innocent stable of piñatas go about their predictable daily lives. One of the great things about the game is that while there are many complicated aspects to the piñatas, they’re consistent. A BarkBark is always going to start a fight with a KittyFloss, a Lickatoad is going to eat a Taffly, and an Elephanilla will accidentally trample smaller piñatas. Part of my hatred of The Sims was that it was hard to gauge what made them happy or why bad things were happening. What Viva Piñata lacks in random unwanted bullshit happening constantly it makes up for in sheer content.

From the opening tutorial to my last five-hour marathon session, Viva Piñata consistently doled out new content. Each step of progression is awarded with another layer of gameplay or new piñata species. Depending on your pace, I’d say there’s between 30 and 50 hours of refreshing content, and if you attempt to accomplish every goal the game throws at you, you’re looking at hundreds of hours. Again, it all comes down to how you play. One person may choose to focus on a small number of piñatas, naming and accessorizing them, sending them away to parties, and evolving them into new forms. Another may set up elaborate breeding camps, detaching themselves from these virtual pets and breeding as many as they can to sell off and reach the level of “master romancer.”

Yet, possibly the most brilliant aspect of Viva Piñata is that, as cold and calculated as you may choose to play it, not only will it stay consistently fun, but it’s also going to get you at some point. In my case, I’d finished breeding Fudgehogs and reached master level for that species. I sold off all of them but my first one, and decided to name it and dress it up in a pirate hat and hand cuffs. (The accessories are out there.) But Sonic the Fudgehog wasn’t happy, and eventually no amount of joy candy could cheer him up. He became so depressed that he stormed out of my garden singing Dashboard Confessional, and I never saw him again. It was a depressing moment, but it also amazed me that I’d grown somewhat attached to this virtual creature.

Viva Piñata may be a hard sell, but I think anyone can get hooked on it. I had it for a few months before I even bothered to open it, and over a year after its release, it feels refreshing and brand new. I can’t recommend it enough. Tracking down a copy shouldn’t be hard, and you should be able to find it for a mere $10-20. I’d easily have paid full price for Rare’s masterpiece, and I honestly wish I’d bought it back then and never gave Gears of War a passing glance.

Big Willy Shatner Saves the Galaxy


Mass Effect is the new(ish) RPG from Bioware, in the vein of their previous game Knights of the Old Republic. Much like that game, it offers a massive plot spanning a large world where the decisions you make actually matter. The difference here is that it all happens in a new universe created by Bioware. While KOTOR had the benefit of six movies, a million supermarket novels, and a truckload of existing Star Wars games backing up its plot, Mass Effect is a completely unfamiliar world.

Well, not completely unfamiliar. Mass Effect employs the kitchen sink mentality, throwing in a little bit of every sci-fi story ever. It has its own version of the force, cylons, forerunners, faster than light travel, muppets, and lots and lots of synth. However it rarely comes off as derivative. Mostly it’s because there’s so much there. The story is rich, and by rich I mean you may actually drown in information in the first few hours. Bring a swimming buddy.

This encyclopedic detail to the world is both the games strongest and weakest point. Games can’t always be paced the way you want. There’s no rewind button and sometimes you can’t even pause. So when a novel’s worth of information is forced on you like a download in The Matrix you may feel the need to unplug. I know I did. After some time reading the codex, a literal encyclopedia of Mass Effect tucked away in the pause menus, it started to click. Once you understand the difference between a Quarian and Salarian, you’ll be set.

The good thing about this presentation is that everyone’s motives are clear, and the overall plot is extremely solid and well defined. My only issue is the occasionally and inappropriately stilted dialogue. It’s hard to fault the game for this, since it’s about forty hours long with fully voiced dialogue, several branching conversation paths, and different replies based not only on your actions, but your character’s sex and upbringing. However, when the romance plotline comes off like a Power Point presentation, it’s a little awkward:

“Hypothesis: I am falling in love with you Shepard.”

“I’ve classified similar feelings in myself.”

“Let’s fuck.”

In general, the dialogue is fine though. The only other hiccup in the plot is how the technology of the game tends to detract from the cutscenes. Built on Unreal Engine 3, Mass Effect suffers from many of the problems inherent in an engine apparently only capable of making space marines fight each other. The graphics are constantly caught with their pants down, textures pop in, and models gain detail before your eyes. It’s incredibly jarring to watch someone go from Play-Doh to uncanny valley in a few seconds. The graphical issues carry over to the gameplay too, with long loading times and slideshow framerates breaking up the action.

While we’re squarely in complaint territory, let me whine about the inventory system for a minute. If I had to nail it down for you, I’d say it’s kind of like Microsoft Office. Do I need to go on?

To be honest, there’s really a lot wrong with Mass Effect. I could probably go on for a while about the laundry list of poor design decisions. Most games would be easy review fodder if they had the number of issues ME has. None of it matters though, because what it does get right completely overshadows all of it. I can’t even bring myself to poke fun as much as I originally wanted because nearly every moment playing this game put a smile on my face. After all the hours I spent on it I’m already dying to finish up this review and go back for more.

Game & Film Opinion by Joe Donato