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Stuff your Criticism, I want a review!

Do video games get reviews, or criticisms? What’s the difference? This panel, hosted by a number of editors from The Escapist, Ars Technica, and the Boston Phoenix, among others, focused on the distinction between the two types of writing. A review, it seems, is focused on a product and potentially convincing a reader to buy something or not. A criticism, the panelists argued, is a piece written with a much deeper intent — to truly understand the game and communicate a particular experience to the reader. A review might be something you read before playing a game, and a criticism something afterwards. Reviews give you a comprehensive view, while a criticism is more on an in depth snapshot. Which is more effective and useful for the reader? That’s for you to decide.

Chiptunes! From the square wave to the stage

Chiptunes, the type of music created using chips from a variety of old gaming systems, have risen in popularity over the past couple of decades. Daniel Behrens (aka Danimal Cannon, or the guitarist of Metroid Metal), explained the phenomenon during this panel, and how to get into composing chiptunes yourself.

“Chiptunes is not a genre,” he stressed. In the same way a piano isn’t a genre, chiptunes are just a vehicle for a variety of genres from jazz to dubstep. That said, however, some genres do exist only in chiptunes, such as “hyper-melodic,” which has astonishingly fast melodic lines, and “chipthrash,” which “sounds like the biggest pile of noise ever,” Cannon said.

Chiptunes come in a variety of flavors depending on the chip used to create them — popular choices include the chips from the NES, Atari, Genesis, Gameboy, and Commodore 64, among others. While the learning curve for chiptunes can be very steep, it’s worth it, Behrens said, because it is both rewarding and very cheap.

The fact that chiptunes offer a limited amount of notes to work with, Behrens claimed, is just fuel for imagination. Harkening back to the theme of the keynote address, “Having restrictions in art forces you to be creative,” he said, unlimited options are stifling.

Looking to get into chiptunes? Cannon recommends a lot of listening and careful study of pieces you like, along with prodigious use of Google. He encouraged beginners to explore forums and ask questions, and to read the manuals for the chiptunes software. Some of the websites he recommended for listening and exploring chiptunes are chipmusic.org, noisechannel.org, netlabels.org, bandcamp.com, and snesmusic.org

N00dz or GTFO! Harassment in online gaming

Harassment in online games is more common than most gamers are comfortable admitting — and most don’t like to talk about it at all. This panel focused on the continual harassment of women on Xbox Live, and the hostile gaming environment it can create.

Throughout the entire talk, a PowerPoint played in the background displaying a number of vulgar messages that the panelists had received over their time gaming online. Despite the incredibly offensive nature of the remarks, they laughed it off.

The panelists emphasized that one did not need to “feed the trolls” to get harassed on the Internet. We saw a video intentionally made to look like it was the 1950s of a woman in an old fashioned dress who expressed the desire to play video games after cleaning up in the kitchen. A male narrator guided her through the steps of setting up an Xbox live account, chastising her when she entered her name as “Doris.”

“Don’t choose a distracting name!” the narrator scolded. He proceeded to tell her not to choose a distracting avatar when she selected a character with a skirt, and also not to distract other players with her voice by using a headset. When male players hear her voice and recognize her as a woman, he explained, it activates “The Stupid,” which would just cause problems for everyone. A show of hands in the audience demonstrated that many women had similar experiences online, and had stopped playing Xbox live as a result.

Two of the panelists run their own websites displaying some of the negative encounters they’ve had online — http://www.notinthekitchenanymore.com/ and http://fatuglyorslutty.com/. The site has proved a useful tool to facilitate discussion, they said, and a number of women have written in to them to say that they found the site helpful because they had thought that “they were the only one” getting harassed.

The panelists encouraged the women in the audience to keep playing and to ignore the trolls. It’s about the “politics of fun,” they said. “Reclaim your right to play a video game!”

Boston Indie Showcase

In sharp contrast to the enormous game studios on the expo floor which employ hundreds of developers, indie developers create games by themselves or with a team of one or two other people. On Saturday evening, five indie devs hosted a panel about breaking into the gaming industry. Most of them worked from home and developing indie games was their full-time job. “It’s not really about money,” one of them said, “but I need money to like, eat.” We had a chance to play three out of the five games featured at the panel, which are listed below.

Bean’s Quest

In Bean’s Quest for iOS you control a consistently jumping bean named Emilio, carefully timing left-right movement to correspond with the nonstop jumping in a way that doesn’t cause you to be impaled on spikes or fall to your doom. While very simple and not particularly challenging, it was still tough to put down the demo. A combination of polished level design and charming eight-bit sounds and graphics make Bean’s Quest quite addictive.

Girls Like Robots

Girls like robots but hate nerds. Nerds love to sit in the corner. Robots are always happy; or perhaps more accurately, they’re never sad. In Girls Like Robots, your goal is to assign seating for a diverse cast of opinionated characters in a way that maximizes their happiness. It is a strangely calming experience.

SpellTower

SpellTower doesn’t seem like a very original game on the surface; searching a grid of letters for words is the core of many word games. SpellTower differentiates itself by adding a Tetris-like element to the gameplay. As a result, this game is quite strategic. The graphics and menu design are commendable, but where SpellTower really shines is in its sound design. Every move the player makes is accompanied by a subtle but satisfying sound effect.

Nintendo

Kid Icarus: Uprising — Nintendo, Released March 23, 2012, DS

Mario Kart 7 — Nintendo, Released Dec. 1, 2011. DS

Nintendo had a number of games for display in their booth, mostly for the 3DS. They had Kid Icarus: Uprising, Mario Kart 7, and Spirit Camera: The Cursed Memoir, among a couple of others. We had a chance to play Kid Icarus in a four-player versus battle. While the game looked good and seemed like it would be fun, I struggled with the stylus driven controls. Eight years after the Nintendo DS came out, I still find it clumsy to try to use the stylus with one hand while navigating the D-pad (or in this case, the mini joystick) and holding the system with the other. Given time, however, I think the game would be a fun multiplayer experience. We also had a chance to play Mario Kart 7 for the handheld system, which definitely retained the Mario Kart charm while adding new elements.

Aliens: Colonial Marine

Xbox/PS3/Wii U/PC, Gearbox Software, Fall 2012

Alien fans have reason to rejoice — the new Aliens game, Colonial Marine, will be an official canonical sequel to the popular science fiction series. While players can expect to recognize a ton of reference from the movies, those new to the story will still be able to play the game as a standalone piece. The development team of the game are all die-hard Aliens fans, so it seems like a lot of care went into its production. Certainly, for just playing a few rounds with the dev team, it looks like Aliens: Colonial Marine might be one of the better movie-related games out there. In multiplayer mode, players decide between joining the team of aliens or the team of marines. Playing against the developers of the game, who selected the alien team, I was expecting to lose handily. It was still shocking to see four aliens scurry effortlessly along walls and on ceilings, making my marine seem slow and clunky. Luckily, the marines get the guns…

Quantum Conundrum

Xbox/PS3/PC, Airtight Games, Summer 2012

Quantum Conundrum is an awesome looking game by the creative director of the first Portal, Kim Swift. It’s a first-person puzzler, where you must get around by manipulating the dimension you are in. In the demo, we switched between fluffy mode, where everything was very light, to heavy mode, where everything was (surprise) very heavy. This allowed for clever manipulations of the environment — for instance, when stuck behind a glass wall, you can switch to fluffy mode to pick up a safe, and then throw it at the glass and switch to heavy (or regular) mode midair to have it smash through the glass and open up your path. The gameplay was smooth and the art style looks great — similar to a cross between Team Fortress 2 and Portal. This game is definitely on our “to-play” list.

Dyad

PS3, Shawn McGrath, TBA

Dyad is an upcoming title for PlayStation 3 by indie developer Shawn McGrath, who has created the entire game almost entirely by himself. It is a “warp speed abstract racing game,” where one increases speed by pairing colored enemies further down an infinite tube. Visually, the game looks rather similar to the Ubisoft 2011 game Child of Eden, but the gameplay is different. Once a pair is made, you shoot through them and must continue pairing at faster and faster speeds while simultaneously avoiding the enemies you do not pair. When you have enough pairs, you can use the harnessed energy to shoot through multiple enemies and destroy them. This simple premise makes for an incredibly engaging and addictive game that is nearly impossible to put down. Dyad was one of the few titles Holkins recommended at the press panel, and was later featured on the PA website.

Tera

PC, Bluehole Studio, May 1, 2012

Tera touts itself as the “first true action MMORPG, providing all of the depth of an MMO with the intensity and gratification of an action game.” The game was situated in the heart of the exhibit floor, inside of a rather large tree stump with faux stained glass windows. Graphically, the game is beautiful, and also seems to have a solid story behind it. We had a chance to play a cooperative mode with six other players, and were guided very skillfully through the demo by one of the exhibitors. The game flowed smoothly, and my character’s skills and strengths were distinct enough from the other players’ to make me feel useful and involved. The diversity of abilities encouraged the six of us in the demo to work as a team, and it didn’t feel forced.

Assassin’s Creed 3

Xbox/PS3/Wii U/PC, Ubisoft, Oct. 30 2012

One of the largest booths on the exhibit floor was the black circular room for the newest game in the Assassin’s Creed series. Fans who waited out the hour-long line were treated to a video featuring Alex Hutchinson, the creator of the game. After introducing the new hero (Connor, a half British, half Native American assassin) and the setting of the preview (Bunker Hill, 1775), Hutchinson elaborated on the upgrades from the previous game. More emphasis has been placed on the on-screen characters; all of the animations have been redone from the earlier games, and AC3 is now capable of displaying up to 2500 enemies on screen. This is a huge increase from the previous game, which could only render 200 enemies at a time. Since this is AC3’s first time dealing with armies, the dev team wanted “epic crowds” to give the player a grand sense of realism, explained Hutchinson. The video also featured new “predator” type moves, where Connor can stalk his targets, and a variety of new items such as the tomahawk. AC3 also has the new ability to climb trees and cliff faces, an omission from the previous installments in the series.

Borderlands 2

Xbox/PS3/PC, Gearbox Software, Sept. 18, 2012

The Tech had a chance to speak with the art director of Borderlands 2, Jeremy Cooke. The sequel to the popular 2009 game Borderlands, Borderlands 2 features more of the first person shooter / RPG elements that defined the first game. “We changed the art style halfway through,” said Cooke. We wanted the look to be “more wild” and “over the top,” he said, referring to the game’s comic book style graphics. The graphics are changed post processing, he explained, and were put in to add energy and color to the game. “We invented our own style,” he said, imparting that the dev team didn’t want the game to be an anime or a carton. For some parts of the game, the team would take a photo and “smash it in,” Cooke said. They would reduce noise, create contrast, and bring out the most interesting parts in a particular surface.

While the first game featured a lot of Mars Volta and other similar music, the trailer for Borderlands 2 has the dubstep song “Doomsday” by Nero instead. Many studios take themselves too seriously, Cooke said, and the dubstep is mostly a “tongue-in-cheek” joke, especially since they have Claptrap (the robot) dancing in the video. Most of the game, he said, will not feature dubstep, and will instead be similar to the first game. In addition, the game will have radio stations throughout the adventure, so players can choose what music they listen to. Much of the music that will be on these radios will be original work from the variety of artists at Gearbox.

Cooke took the last moment to emphasize the importance of story in Borderlands 2. Fans weren’t happy with the end of the first game, he said, so they are taking extra care with the sequel. “Story is a big thing for us.”

We were able to play through a co-op level as the character Maya, who could set aside her gun for a moment to suspend enemies in the air with her telekinetic abilities. It was a notably fun game; the funky graphics and sounds, excessive weapons, and general tone made for a frantic, but not stressful, experience. The unique cel-shaded graphics were particularly refreshing after becoming accustomed to the dark, ultra-detailed graphics of the rest of the FPS games on the expo floor.

Far Cry 3

Xbox/PS3/PC, Ubisoft, Sept. 4, 2012

The Far Cry booth at PAX was set up to show off multiplayer mode, and we got an opportunity to play a round against other PAX attendees of various levels of cluelessness. Despite playing with a team of strangers, I felt an allegiance to my team right away. There were a variety of factors contributing to this team feel: level design and spawn points subtly encouraged us to move as a pack, and players have the opportunity to revive their dying teammates, usually at a risk to their own well-being. Like in Team Fortress 2, it is advantageous to have a diverse mix of weapons on the team. The slower, consistent running speed for all players prevents your group from fanning out across the map instantly. This team based attitude is refreshing; especially coming from a game like Halo, where it feels like the only thing keeping your teammates from shooting you in face is the fact that it would lose them a point.

Max Payne 3

Xbox/PS3/PC, Rockstar, May 15, 2012

Rockstar has been known to be a company that enjoys glorifying violence. True to form, the Max Payne 3 booth at PAX had brochures advertising the “kickback of each bullet’s entry as they pepper an enemy.” The exhibitor who took us through the demo gleefully described the physics and “realism” of the game as a bullet burst through my character’s face in slow motion.

Seeing someone get hit by a bullet was shocking every time; something about the way the characters reacted was just a little too real. It was excessive and a little disturbing, but it also had the effect of making me genuinely afraid of my character getting shot. After being mortally wounded, you have a brief, frantic opportunity to fire at your potential killer. If you are able to kill him before you hit the ground, your life is spared. Strangely, this only added to the fear of dying; being thrown into such a desperate, stressful fight for your life every once in a while makes the life feel valuable. The psychological weight of dying in Max Payne is unmatched, and it’s what made the game so intense.

The cover system in this game is also superb. I didn’t feel that the game was guiding me toward any particular shelter; there were dozens of places in every room that I could duck behind, offering varying levels of protection from incoming bullets. At a certain point I stopped searching for the spot I was “supposed to” stand, and instead considered every corner, table, and ledge in my field of vision a potential shelter; it was very immersive.

Spec Ops: The Line

Xbox/PS3/PC, Yager Development, June 26, 2012

Spec Ops: The Line’s cinematic quality was both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Our demo started with the main character manning a machine gun as he was flown through what was left of Dubai, gunning down enemy helicopters. The graphics are incredible — the following scene of watching a helicopter explode into a building was truly jaw-dropping. However, the effect felt manufactured — with no control over the path of the aircraft, the trajectory of the enemy helicopter, or knowledge of the surrounding area, it felt like just watching a movie. Despite the superb voice acting adding to the cinematic feel, this was cool to watch, it wasn’t necessarily the right feel for a video game.