February 2011


February 23, 2011

Mindjack is a great gimmick stuck inside a mediocre game. In Mindjack’s future disembodied consciousnesses can zip from person to person inhabiting them to further their own agenda. It’s a very interesting and scary concept that, sadly, is never really touched on in the game’s narrative. It made for an interesting, if flawed in its execution, gameplay mechanic, but it really would have shone as a central part of the narrative. It’s a shame that it was only intended to be believed as a part of this world and not an interesting part of the narrative.

And the narrative needs all the help it can get. Despite the interesting premise the story is sub-standard spy fiction complete with unexpected twists that you’ll see from a mile away and enemies cum allies that are easy to spot. While the by-the-numbers spy story is going on you’ll be busy mind-controlling enemy soldiers, inhabiting robots, and forcing civilians to do your will. Taking over enemy soldiers and robots in one thing. They’re out to get you, and you’re just fixing the odds in your favor. Everybody is a willing combatant. Everybody, that is, except for the small army of businessmen you convinced to storm the enemy and be ripped to shreds while you take potshots at them from relative safety. There is a huge missed opportunity here to show the player the negative repercussions of his actions. Instead the only criterion for success is that you must make it through the level and both agents must survive. There is only one outcome, and nobody cares at all that I sent innocent people to their deaths.

Much of this would be forgivable if Mindjack were a competent shooter. I’ve enjoyed my fair share of mindless shooters with terrible stories. Responsive controls and decent enemy AI that make for fun firefights can save just about any FPS for me. Mindjack stumbles on both counts. Movements feel robotic (which is only okay when I’m inhabiting a robot) until you try to dodge – then you have superhuman speed. Enemy AI is sub-par as well. Enemies will try to take cover to shoot at you, but you’ll never see them execute a flank, and occasionally they’ll just run around in circles as the code behind them desperately tries to figure out which box is the best one to hide behind. 

Mindjack’s most interesting gameplay feature, though, is the ability to enter other players’ games. We’ve been doing this for years. Co-op is the best way to play Halo: Reach, and the co-op mode in Shank is a blast. The difference in Mindjack is that more often than not when you join an online game you’ll be playing as the bad guy. This is great on paper. We’ve wanted enemies that felt like human opponents for as long as we’ve had enemies. And now we do. The problem is that there is no real reward for the enemies when they win. Since somebody else is playing through the story your win is their loss which makes their do-over the closest thing that you have to a reward. This serves to frustrate those playing the protagonist and bore those playing as enemies. It’s entertaining at first to play an enemy and make the game more challenging for the guy on the other end, but it’s only fun to yank the football away from Charlie Brown for so long.

Mindjack reminds me a lot of the first Assassin’s Creed – amazing premise with loads of potential that just doesn’t come together. Mind hacking is a very interesting concept that needs to be better explored, and adversarial multiplayer bleeding into the main story could be amazing. As it is now, Mindjack is a collection of neat ideas jammed into a mediocre game. The neat ideas just aren’t enough to forgive the below average movement and shooting. Mindjack should be a much better game. Hopefully we’ll see a sequel flesh out those ideas and deliver on all that potential.

Pros: Mindhacking is a great concept, adversarial campaign multiplayer is interesting

Cons: Controls feel stiff and unnatural, sub-par plot that ignores mindhacking altogether, no real reward for those playing as enemies online


The Committee is in session. We’re taking on various issues in gaming, and our word is final. This week, we look at writing and story in games.

In support

Justin Last: There are some wonderfully written games out there as well as some horribly written movies. Games like Bioshock, Half-Life 2: Episode 2, and Uncharted 2 may not stand toe-to-toe with film greats like Schindler’s List and Inception, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anybody who would rather watch Battlefield Earth or one of SyFy’s puppet-monster of the week made-for-TV movies. Just because the best movies have better writing than the best games does not mean that the worst movies have better writing than the best games as well..

In opposition

Graham Russell: Game writing can be good. It can be very good. It can regularly exceed that of your average summer blockbuster. As far as the achievement ceiling goes, though, the very presence of interactivity keeps a masterpiece from being as carefully curated as the best films of all time. For a more modern example, look at the directing style of David Fincher. He films a scene so many times from so many angles, cutting hours and hours of video into just seconds and creating just the experience he desires. Storytelling is more than just words on a script, and these visual cues make for a powerful tale. Game writing has to take into account that players aren’t experiencing things in the same way or at the same times, and they usually don’t get through the story in one sitting. Games can have wonderful, immersive worlds and stories within them, but it’s just not quite able to do things a passive medium can.


In support

Andrew Passafiume: Western-style storytelling generally offers more choices and plenty of interesting characters. A lot of Western games these days, RPGs especially, are incredibly non-linear, giving the writers room to explore many different possibilities. This alone opens up so many new ways for gamers to feel invested in the world the writers have created, and also care about the characters, rather than guiding them along a set path. Not to say linear storytelling never works, it can work quite often, but Western game developers/writers have taken more chances and had them paid off in big ways.

If you asked me five years ago, I might have said otherwise, but I feel Western games have really improved (and continue to improve) greatly in terms of writing. 

In opposition

Mike Clark: I’ve always associated Eastern-style storytelling with third-person perspective, while Western-style has been in the first-person. Where in Western-styled games more often you are the character, Eastern has had established characters that you watch grow and develop as you control them.

With that, there’s this sense of detachment from the character in Western, like in games such as Fallout 3, where immersion and story development doesn’t seem as important. In going with Eastern-style, you watch as a character grows and develops, much like a novel. While it doesn’t have as much freedom as the other style, the characterization and by assocation the storytelling, seem to have less detachment and more substance to them. While I may not be in that game’s story as an avatar of myself, I’m more immersed because of who I control during the course of the game.


In support

Gerry Pagan: 8-bit and 16-bit games alone are proof enough that a game doesn’t need a good story to be great. We don’t play classics like Mega Man X or due to the engaging struggle between Reploids and Mavericks, nor does the recent Bayonetta’s flimsy plot reduce the quality of the top-notch visuals and combat. While it’s always nice to have a good plot to go with good gameplay, it’s usually a combination of awful aspects that bog down a game to the point where even its best feature isn’t enough to save it.

In opposition

Graham Russell: Here’s my sticking point with this debate: while there have certainly been games that have succeeded with no story at all, a bad story, like any other bad thing added to a good product, is just this grating thing that pulls things down. Otherwise great gameplay, interspersed with inane cutscenes, painful dialogue or just poorly-translated text boxes, gets taken down one notch into “just good” territory. A great story is immersive. A bad one has the opposite effect.


We’ve weighed in. What do you think? Let us know in the comments.

Nintendo has finally revealed the launch lineup for the US for the 3DS, and its a big one. At final tally, 16 games will be available for it at launch (18 if you count the built-in games), with at least 12 more coming out before E3 in June. Nintendo will be releasing Pilotwings, Steel Diver and Nintendogs, with the other 13 coming from strong third-party support. The official MSRP for 3DS games will be $39.99.

We’ll be updating our launch center soon. The list of launch titles, with links to our available previews, is after the break. READ MORE


February 22, 2011

Double Fine Productions are well-known for their offbeat, quirky humor.  Their latest offering, Stacking, is a departure from the typical adventure genre, with Russian stacking matryoshka dolls serving as the inspiration and basis for everything in the game. One controls Charlie Blackmore, the youngest son in a family of chimney sweeps, as he uses his ability to stack into larger dolls to save his family from an evil baron.  

The game is broken up into a hub world and several stages, each filled to the brim with different scenarios and puzzles. Every doll has a unique ability, from the smallest tap-dancing child doll to giant gentleman with proper uppercuts. Each puzzle can be solved by putting all of these abilities to use, with multiple possible solutions for each scenario. The puzzles are incredibly clever and well-thought out without becoming frustrating, and finding dolls with unique abilities is not hard to do. 

The game has a built-in hint system for each puzzle scenario, which gives you two vague hints before telling you the answer outright. It’s encouraging to solve every puzzle on your own, but it doesn’t penalize you for using the hints. There’s a small timer that prevents you from abusing the system, but it’s not too long before it might be bothersome to wait it out instead of getting frustrated with some of the more vague and abstract puzzles. The multiple solutions and hint system help the game feel accessible, always making progress into the game.

It’s amazing how Double Fine can take a game, center the game’s plot on issues like child labor and the Great Depression and turn them into a humorous story. Stacking is long enough that it feels lengthy without overstaying its welcome, and the puzzles ever feel repetitive. It’s well worth the asking price, and we hope Double Fine sends more games like this our way soon enough.


A TopWare marketing executive confirmed today that a third Two Worlds game is in development already when responding to concerns about the quality of the recently released Two Worlds II. READ MORE