new challenger

I make games. I also play them. I talk about both activities here.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Games I'm Playing Right Now Part 4 - PSP Edition

I didn’t make a conscious choice to stack a bunch of PSP games up and play them all back-to-back until I realized just how many PSP games were in my “to play” stack. The last couple of months have been extremely strong for the Sony handheld, and there are some pretty interesting games on the horizon that may permanently legitimize the PSP as an actual gaming device, despite Sony’s best efforts to sell it as something more convergent.

Pursuit Force (PSP)
When I first saw Pursuit Force, my interest was piqued immediately – primarily because in all of the pre-release footage of the game, it seemed to be a mechanic-driven game. Let me clarify the term “mechanic-driven” before I go further. Super Mario Bros. is a mechanic-driven game. In it, players use a jump mechanic to perform most of the game’s activities. You jump to kill enemies, clear gaps, access power ups and end levels. There’s even a special reward for performing 8 successive jumps without touching the ground. It is the mastery of the jump and its varied use that drives the game’s play. You can jump anywhere, if you’d like, and oftentimes experimentation leads to interesting and entertaining outcomes.

Pursuit Force, on the other hand, would probably be better categorized as a gimmick-based game. Its main distinction is that the player takes control of this sort of highway patrolman (although to be fair, not all the action takes place on roads), whose goal is to thwart the activities of a handful of crime syndicates. This is largely accomplished by killing them all during high speed chases, during which the player jumps mightily from vehicle to vehicle, blowing away driver and passenger alike, then taking the recently appropriated vehicle, advancing to the next target, and doing it all over again. The jumps, while visually impressive and exciting are only possible when you orient yourself in a very specific way in relation to your destination. When in place, an icon appears, letting the player know that they can perform their aerial assaults. So really, getting your vehicle into desired locations is the impetus of the game, whereas the selling point – the gimmick – of the game is the jumps.

So with that clarification out of the way, all that’s left is to judge the game based on what it is. The game is fun enough, and it’s certainly presented well, and I was really into it right up until the moment I first died. Now before any conclusions are jumped to, this is not a rant about difficult games, I’m quite fond of challenge – I’m currently playing Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence on European Extreme difficulty (you know, the one where if you’re even seen, you die). My issue with Pursuit Force is that when I retried the mission that had previously killed me, I successfully completed it without a hiccup – The part where I died before didn’t even come up again as a tense moment. I didn’t feel that successful negotiation of the mission was due to some sort of masterful negotiation of a challenge. When I’m spotted in MGS3: S, it’s because I’m in the wrong place at the wrong time, or I didn’t disable a guard quickly enough, or my camouflage isn’t appropriate for the environment. There’s something that I as a player can improve on. Death in Pursuit Force is not a tool used to show what you shouldn’t do because death in Pursuit Force feels entirely arbitrary. The player’s interface with the world of Pursuit Force – particularly the aforementioned jumps, but also in the actual killing of your targets – is so rigid that it doesn’t really feel like there’s anything at which to excel. My understanding of the game seemed to have reached a plateau – and unfortunately when there’s nothing left to learn in a game, player interest drops dramatically. I’ve played it a bit since this realization, but I’ve mostly moved on to other things. Such is my experience with Pursuit Force.

Daxter (PSP)
I’m going to go ahead and get it out of the way here: Daxter is my current frontrunner for Game of the Year 2006. I have had no greater addiction, enjoyment, and satisfaction from any other game released this year, and I couldn’t be more surprised. I’ve been a fan of Jak and Daxter primarily through proxy. The few times I’ve played the series, I’ve found it competent but flawed. While I respect it for many things, including its technological achievements, I have always found its spiritual sibling and stable mate Ratchet and Clank vastly superior. I’ve always rooted for the series, as its roots lie deep in the platformer, where my console gaming obsession began. Plus, their former leader Jason Rubin is a vocal critic of the current state of the videogame publisher/developer relationship, and his developer call-to-arms from a few years back was both invigorating and inspirational.

Daxter was not developed by Naughty Dog. It was developed by Ready at Dawn, but it seems as least plausible that the two companies had some back-and-forth with the development of the title. The most obvious giveaway for me was the masked loading – there are little if any loading screens once you get underway. Levels are streamed, and lots of zone changes are hidden with elevators and doors that take a while to open. This is actually a really nice touch for a system like the PSP, where loading time can really eat in to the shortened play sessions I typically allot for handheld play. The graphics are spectacular, consistent with the cartoon-like style that the Jak series has always retained. And then there’s the actual play itself – pure platforming goodness. Sure, the inevitable vehicle levels with their sloppy friction rear their heads, but that just seems to be par for the 3d platformer course these days. Daxter is a perfectly polished, well-executed wonder of a title; I give it my maximum recommendation.

Exit (PSP)
I decided to buy Exit based on the first impressions I got of it from Tokyo Game Show last year (wow, marketers must love people like me). I saw the graphics, I heard it was about rescuing people from dangerous situations, I read the inevitable comparisons to Elevator Action, and I made my choice. This game hits on a lot of the things that I approve of in games. Its graphics are bold and distinct. Its play seems specifically targeted towards brief handheld-friendly play sessions. And its premise is about helping people. Ah, helping people.

I have a weakness for games about helping people, and I don’t mean the world is in danger, and I need you to kill 4,000 aliens to save the world type of helping people. I mean an earthquake has stranded people in precarious situations that require your assistance, and an evil mom has locked away her daughter in a big castle full of easy-to-push blocks type helping people; a more personal approach to the concept, you could say. This type of play is my videogame kryptonite. Thus, Exit seemed like a perfect fit for me. And it almost is.

Where Exit breaks down is in its controls. It’s just too damn clunky, relying on grid-like movement and precision when actually manipulating your avatar is annoyingly obtuse. Some of the control decisions are perplexingly arbitrary, like the mouse cursor you use to associate your companions with certain environmental instructions. It all just comes together a little jarringly, and the game ends up feeling more like a puzzle game with human-like avatars than an action game with rescue as a motivation.

Despite this I still recommend the game – it’s very fun, if you’re a puzzly kind of guy, which I most certainly am.

Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror (PSP)
I saved this game for last, not because it’s the best, but because I played it for the longest before reaching a conclusion on it. I spent at least 4 or 5 play sessions just going through the tutorials with different controls options, trying to find something that was comfortable. Although I still haven’t yet reached Syphon Filter Nirvana, I can at least say with some certainty that I’m enjoying the hell out of this game. Based purely on the recommendation of new challenger reader cog (who apparently shares my distaste for capitalization of proper nouns), I went out and bought Syphon Filter, half expecting not to like it. You see, I haven’t played a Syphon Filter since the PS1, and back then I billed it as a sort of poor man’s Metal Gear Solid. Having not been a Metal Gear fan at the time (that would have to wait until 2004’s masterpiece, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater), you can interpret this to mean a greater insult than it may appear to be.

Okay, so I’m not completely wrong in my characterization of Syphon Filter as a poor man’s Metal Gear. The first “boss” in the game is a watered-down version of The Fury, complete with flame thrower and fire-retardant outfit. Also, the main character is supported by a varied cast, including several women; your main sidekick is even a Chinese woman, a la Mei Ling. Again, in and of itself, a Chinese woman as a partner in a videogame is not enough to warrant screams of “MGS clone,” it’s more of an accumulation of coincidences is all that leads me to the conclusion. Perhaps it’s a bit of tongue-in-cheek on their part, I don’t know, but the similarity is enough for me to notice. One thing that’s hugely different between the two games is that where Metal Gear promotes stealth and non-interaction, Syphon Filter is all about blowing people away with various weapons. The developers encourage conflict most of the time, and when they do want you to be stealthy, they’ll place enemies with their backs to you, intensely focused on one goal or the next.

I know it sounds like I’m kind of bagging on the game, and I partially am – the game is not perfect. But Syphon Filter is the real deal. I used to have a pretty strict rule about not playing console-styled games on the handheld (the first time I sat down to play the story mode, I literally turned off the game as soon as the opening cut scenes were done playing out – they took that long), but Syphon Filter has taken a sledge hammer and reshaped my tolerances of what I will give a chance on my PSP. That doesn’t mean I’m buying Me and My Katamari!

Thanks for reading.

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