Saturday, February 25, 2006

Guitar Hero: Torment

I've been playing two radically different games lately. I often try to join them together, playing one immediately after the other, because otherwise one mood will dominate the other. It's like, I dunno, pairing a sweet wine with a sour cookie or something.

The first game is Guitar Hero. It's sort of been on my radar for a while, mainly due to the pumping it's gotten on Penny Arcade. For a game like this which falls outside of my normal genres and points of reference, I'll usually wait a while so I get a chance to hear second opinions, later reactions, broader reviews, and hopefully a drop in price. The last element didn't look like it would be coming soon, but all the former ones were present, so I figured, what the heck? It sounded like a fun game and would add some welcome variety to my RPG-heavy library.

For those who aren't part of the VG news circuit, Guitar Hero is a game built around a peripheral. When you buy the game you get a plastic guitar, with some buttons and stuff where you would normally find frets and strings. You then use this guitar to "rock out" with the songs in the game proper; you're playing the guitar part, obviously, while the rest of the "band" handles the rest of the music.

These sorts of games are very popular in Japan. I've heard cool stories about how these games can actually be linked together. You know how, in an arcade, if you have four people starting a race together you can race on the same track against each other? Imagine that, except it's in a virtual rock club, and two of you are on guitars, one on drums, and another singing. It's kind of like that. This has never really caught in here in the States, but the folks at Red Octane (who create what are bar none the best dance mats for DDR) and Harmonix (who did Frequency and Karaoke Revolution) figured out that the time was right; the market has been sufficiently penetrated by "rhythm games" and the like that it no longer seems COMPLETELY absurd that people will pay money to play a fake guitar.

At first I was struck by the similarities in gameplay between DDR and GH. In both cases you have blocks falling down the screen, and need to hit the button when the block reaches a certain point. The main difference is that, in DDR, you're hitting a spot with your foot, and in GH you're touching a fret button with your finger (while strumming with your other hand). Now that I've played the game way too long, though, I'm just as struck by how many differences there are, which are the result of the fact that dancing is very different from playing guitar. One of the most common things in DDR is when you keep one foot in a certain spot while moving around the other. There's nothing analogous in GH, just because people don't play like that - you have chords and long notes, but you never switch chords in the middle of a long note.

The music is just amazing. A lot of it is harder than what I prefer to listen to, but it's wonderful to play with. The lineup is stunning - Black Sabbath's "Iron Man," Jimi Hendrix's "Spanish Castle Magic," the Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated," "Take Me Out" by Franz Ferdinand, "Sharp Dressed Man" by ZZ Top, "Texas Flood" by Stevie Ray Vaughan... actually, look up the game if you want a full list, it's really solid. I appreciate the variety between old and new songs, and they all definitely rock.

The feedback is impressive, too. In DDR, when you miss a step, nothing really happens besides a word popping up. If you do it too many times, people begin booing you. Here, though, missing a note means that you just don't hear the guitar play during that part; it's really obvious and sounds bad, which is a big incentive to do it right. My one complaint is that I'd like more variety in the "messing up" sound; it always sounds like a non-electrified plink, when it should just sound like a wrong note.

Every song is great, but the most fun for me to play is probably "Cochise" by Audioslave. I'm actually not a big Audioslave fan, but playing this song is really, really fun.

As is often the case for these sorts of games, it's the career mode that carries me away. You start off playing gigs in basement parties, and as your reputation increases you expand your set list and move into larger venues. In advanced modes, you get cash by clearing each song, and can spend this money on new guitars, new songs, guitar skins, and more. This provides a great sense of progress and accomplishment. You get more cash for higher scores, so there's incentive to keep trying that hard song instead of just barely beating it and then moving on.

There are different difficulty levels, and the change is HUGE. I'm reminded of the leaps in DDR, where going from Easy to Normal was traumatic for me. Here, on Easy mode you just need to manage three of the five frets. Going to Medium adds the fourth fret and a world of pain. I still haven't gotten used to it yet; you need to choose between using your pinky to (awkwardly, painfully) strike that button, or move your hand to use a stronger finger but risk losing your place on the neck. I'm struggling through, but just getting 3 out of 5 stars on most songs. I have one song left before I "beat" the game at this level - "Bark at the Moon" by Ozzy Osbourne - but I'll be spending lots more time trying to get higher scores and playing the bonus songs, and just having fun rocking out. There's a big chance that I'll never make it to Hard mode, and I'm perfectly fine with that. (I've never attempted Oni on DDR, either.)

I can't wait to try two-player mode. That's going to be AWESOME.

This game is one of those things that feels very frustrating to describe, just because it isn't something you like for its features; it's something you like for the pure joy of participating in the amazing music you hear. I love the freedom of pacing back and forth in front of the TV, hammering on the guiar, tilting it vertically and rocking out. There's nothing quite like it.

"Joy" is a good word to summarize my Guitar Heros experience. It is also the opposite of what you feel when playing Planescape: Torment. I'm on the third disc now, not sure how much is left to go, but I've done enough to feel comfortable writing a post, so here it is.

Some background: This game was created by Black Isle, the same people who did the phenomenal Baldur's Gate games. It is powered by their Infinity Engine, which powered those games, and was released in 1999, between BG1 and BG2. It is set in the Planescape multiverse; I'm not very well-versed in D&D, but I believe this is part of the D&D multiverse.

It's a pretty good game, despite some annoying technical mishaps. Apparently this is one of the big reasons why the game wasn't a success; it was simply buggy and nearly unplayable. Before even starting a game I patched it up, and even with that I'm regularly running across bugs. A bad one came in the very first minute: when I tried to open a door it removed the key from my inventory but didn't unlock the door, so I would have been stuck if I hadn't very thoughtfully saved my game immediately at the beginning.

There are other reasons why it didn't take off. One thing I like about it, but many others probably hate, is that it's incredibly text-heavy. Sure, you spend some time collecting items and fighting monsters, but virtually everything important happens in conversation, and it's through dialog that you gain the most important experience and abilities. A lot of the time it feels more like a mystery game than an RPG, and rather than saving before combat I now save before talking to anyone.

The first two strikes against the game, then, are its bugs and the reams of text to read. The third is its relentlessly dark and morbid tone. I'll get into this more below, but this is probably the darkest game I've ever played. This shows in the art, the character design, the plot, the dialog, even the weapons. And unlike a lot of other dark games, here it isn't undercut with humor or confined to a few dramatic situations. From the moment you start the game until... well, at least partway into Disc 3, you're surrounded by misery and suffering.

I don't want to scare you off and say that the game is bad - I'm still playing it, after all - but playing it is a pretty heady experience. It really does affect my mood, and after the first few sessions I'm now careful not to play it for more than an hour or two at a time.

Minor Spoilers

Your character is The Nameless One, and he's probably my favorite thing about the game. First of all, he has a fascinating backstory. You start the game with amnesia (which has been used in a few other games to good effect) and you, the player, try to uncover your past while you, the character, tries to do the same. One of the first things you discover is that you are an immortal. You're not a god or anything (at least, I don't think so); you simply cannot die. The game starts when you wake up in a morgue; unlike in Shadowrun, you really WERE dead, but you can't stay dead. You are covered with tattoes; this element reminded me of "Memento"; your character knows that the more he dies the more memories he will lose, so he tattoes the most impotant information on himself so he won't forget. That's one of the most dreadful things about the game; you come to understand just how long this has been going on, possibly hundreds or thousands of years. Over and over again the Nameless One (so called because he can't remember his name, though he may not even have one) comes close to finding whatever he is seeking for, then is cast down and starts again from the beginning. In his wake he leaves the tormented souls of those he has drawn around him in his quest. That's another plaintive element of the game: you've travelled in a party before, as characters do in all RPG games, and others died to advance your quest; and now you don't even know what that quest was.

Obviously, the background is pretty unique for an RPG. As David has mentioned, The Nameless One sounds like a villain, and in many ways your character looks like he could be (or, heck, IS) a villain. After being constantly killed and resurrected he looks like a zombie, with ashen skin and glazed eyes, wearing a loincloth and a sash of bones. The further you dig into your history you discover that in previous incarnations you basically WERE a villain, who delighted in torturing and killing innocents; in others you were heroic, acting kindly while pursuing your quest. And in this game, it's up to you: unlike the Baldur's Gate games you don't choose your alignment at the beginning, it is malleable based on your actions, and you have ample opportunities to move between good and evil, chaos and law. (My current alignment is Neutral Good, though I keep skipping between that and Chaotic Good.) Your class is malleable too; you can become a Thief by traning in it, and I think I'll be able to become a Mage later. Just to be clear, this isn't multiclassing or dual classing, you actually CHANGE your class. Anyways, it's unusual to have someone with so much power and such a dark background as the protagonist in an RPG.

Fortunately, the uniqueness extends beyond the background and into the gameplay. They aren't kidding when they say that you're an immortal. If you ever die in a fight, you don't need to load your game; your body falls, is probably dragged somewhere else (the morgue pays cash for dead bodies) and you wake back up with full health. This has really changed the way I play the game compared to other RPGs, in fact kind of the opposite of the BG games, where if your main character died the game ended but if companions die you can resurrect them. Here I regularly sacrifice the Nameless One to save the life of a wounded comrade, and almost never bother saving before fighting.

To keep the pace of analogies going, this feels revolutionary on the same order of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. That game included a remarkable feature that allowed you to rewind time, so if you attempted a tricky jump and fell to your death, you could rewind back to before you tried the jump. In both cases, the games change a longstanding game convention and come out with a new system that feels infinitely less frustrating than anything that came before. After playing both of these I wish that more games were like this; having that escape keeps frustration from getting too high and lets you focus on the fun parts of the game. But, in both cases, the escaping-death feature flows organically from the story of the game, so it isn't something that would feel like it fit as well in other games.

Oh, and this game is really morbid. Incredibly macabre. You regularly abuse your body, ripping out an eyeball, letting someone chew on your leg, ripping off your entire arm at one point. This doesn't have huge consequences in the game - as an immortal, everything regenerates and heals - but it's pretty stomach-churning to read about. Oh, and there's one scene where you have someone open up your stomach and take out all your intestines so you can find a key or something that was in there. That was pretty gross.

The companions are kind of odd, too. The first one you meet is a flying skull named Morte (get it?). He's basically a chipper version of Murray the Talking Skull in the Monkey Island games, except he can move under his own power and is a fearsome fighter, attacking with all his teeth. Both skulls are incredibly talkative, though. I don't know my next two companions as well - there's Dak'kon, an elderly mage/warrior, and Annah, a tiefling thief. There's a bit of the party cross-chat here that I loved so much in BG2, though it's rarely amusing.

There are smaller changes, too. There's no armor in the game, at least that I've found yet; the Nameless One still has an Armor Class of 8. No swords, either. However, there are plenty of axes, hammers, clubs, fist weapons, and some daggers. The game designers took evident pleasure in letting you use odd items as weapons: a scalpel can be wielded as a dagger, a set of antlers can be swung as an axe, and an dismembered arm (to be fair, YOUR dismembered arm) is used as a powerful club.

The game takes place in a city called Sigil which doesn't exist in the prime universe. It's on top of an infinitely tall spire, supposedly in the middle of the multiverse, and is filled with doors into other universes. There's no sun or moon, just an alternately dim and light sky. You never go "outside", to forests or fields or even caves or mountains; the entire game (so far) takes place in or under the city, and it's a grimy, messy, ugly city. Think Shadowrun, but more organic and less mechanical. This is yet another game where the art impacts my mood. Being surrounded by squalor and ugliness in the game constantly increases the feelings of claustrophobia.

As a side note, if you've played BG2, I think the actors you met in the playhouse are meant to have come from the Planescape game. It's been a while since I did that so I'm not sure if they are specific characters in this game or not.

In one way the game is closer to Morrowind than BG. Planescape has factions which you join much like you do in Morrowind; you do a series of quests and eventually are initiated, gaining access to that faction's special stores, healing and other goodies. Well, I've only joined one so far, but it looks like I may be allowed to join more later on.

I actually don't feel like getting into the specifics of the plot right now, even behind a "major spoilers" tag. I may summarize it once I beat the game. Suffice to say that as time goes on you uncover more of your past and learn more about what's happening in Sigil. I still don't know what my quest is, what I ultimately need to do. I know I've made powerful enemies and am curious if that was inevitable or if I could have acted differently. I'll keep poking away at this and will report back once it's all done. I'm treating this game the same way I treat a lot of books, "It might not be very fun, but it's interesting, and I want to see where it's going."

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