Andy Laub

Andy Laub is a designer & developer in the Twin Cities.

Published Nov 09

Double Duty »

Same names, different games.

You may have heard some fuss about a new game that came out recently. I think it had something to do with warfare that takes place during modern times, but I’m not quite sure. There are apparently snowmobiles in it?

Indeed, Activision’s Modern Warfare 2 has touched all of our hearts and souls since its release earlier this month. Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but you wouldn’t know it from their pushing it as “MOST ANTICIPATED GAME EVAR (until the next one)”. And I suppose they’re right – MW2 gives you a lot to be excited about.

For one, it’s a direct sequel to 2007′s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Yes, there was another CoD game last year: World at War. No, that one took place in World War 2 and doesn’t fit into this chronology. And it was developed by somebody else.

Wait. Yes, that is confusing. Recall this post, if you will, about my dislike for the two-developer system (specifically one of the two developers) that Activision uses to push CoD games out the door on a yearly basis, quality notwithstanding. In that article I wrote:

What if Infinity Ward stopped making COD games, leaving the franchise to Treyarch, and instead used the technology they’ve already developed to create a new, self-owned franchise with similar content? Presumably it would continue in the modern warfare vein and would play the same.

Interestingly, that’s sort of what’s happening here. I don’t know what the plans are for the seventh installment in the CoD franchise, but presumably it will be a Treyarch effort once again. But in the meantime, notice that the “Call of Duty” label on MW2 was extremely downplayed. Initially they had planned not to include it on the marketing at all, but I suppose it’s helpful in that most people are totally clueless and wouldn’t make the connection. So in a sense, Modern Warfare is very much poised to be its own franchise at this point (or already is, I suppose).

With all of that said, I hadn’t picked up a CoD game since the first Modern Warfare. World at War and its return to the WW2 setting didn’t entice me enough to buy or even rent; only when one of my CoD-addicted friends finally replaced his WaW disc with a shiny new one with the words “Modern Warfare 2″ on it did I ask to borrow the old one to give it a try.

Call of Duty: World at War

In a few words, I found World at War to be very, very good. As is typical of the series, you’ll frequently be switching between two protagonists (in this case an American and a Russian) as they embark on their distinct tours of duty (plan on visiting the Pacific and traveling from Russia to Germany). The characters are likable enough, with excellent voice acting. Your immediate superiors are voiced by Kiefer Sutherland and Gary Oldman, respectively (wow!), as are the narrations between missions.

Speaking of “between missions”… holy shit. Even if you have zero interest in the game whatsoever, you NEED to see these cutscenes. They are simply gorgeous examples of motion graphics:

Seriously, this game has no right to have graphics this nice. I think that’s a compliment. Other than that, it’s pretty much all standard Call of Duty fare. I enjoyed playing through it even thought the missions were not without their frustrations, but I can only handle so much trench warfare before wanting to move on to something else.

Modern Warfare 2

Enter “something else”. With all the ruckus about the newest member of the family, I knew I had to give it a try. I managed to find a lone copy available for rental yesterday and figured I could hammer through it by the end of the weekend. Well, I was right, but change “end of the weekend” to “one sitting” and you’ll find my single-player experience to be comparable to that of anyone else who’s enjoyed the game.

I think we’re almost at that point where the single player campaign is becoming token addition in Call of Duty games. You don’t buy this game to play it alone. Well, you can, but that would be a waste of $60 (this coming from someone who has wasted $60 several times). Single player is good for about a week of entertainment at best, which is why it’s fine rental fodder for folks like me who are adverse to shooting strangers online. And by “shooting strangers online” I mean “getting shot by strangers online”.

And in this case, the campaign is not only short but somewhat disheveled. As I mentioned before, MW2 is a direct sequel to the first game, in that you see the return of some of the original characters. I think this is great, because it’s already a huge divergence from the traditional Call of Duty “slice of life” model where you see a little bit of everything.

I don’t know that they take advantage of this as much as they could, though. As with World at War you’ll be switching between protagonists constantly, each of whom has missions that feel quite different. I understand the reasoning for this mechanically, but it also seemed a little unbalanced. Then again, that’s easy to forget because I spent a lot of time trying to figure out exactly what was going on.

I think that in writing the “story” for the game, Infinity Ward had a meeting and said “okay, we want to have missions that take place in A, B, and C, with combat that features X, Y, and Z” and then they wrote some scripts that vaguely made that possible. That’s not to say the game isn’t a lot of fun to play; it’s just more disjointed than usual. The fact that MW isn’t tied down by a factual background and has gobs of technology at its disposal means that you can cover a much larger variety of terrain in a much smaller amount of time.

Epilogue

You’ll notice that I didn’t really go into any detail about graphics or sound, but if you’ve played any of the CoD games on the new generation of consoles, you know what to expect. They’re both great, and they remain great year after year.

Even though I’m not interested in what is really the focal point of the games (multiplayer), I’m still interested to see where the series (plural?) heads after this. Treyarch really pulled a 180 with World at War, and Infinity Ward can do pretty much anything they please with a title as vague as “Modern Warfare”.

Sounds about right:

I wouldn’t play [New Super Mario Bros. Wii] with any person you want to see again. In its multiplayer interpretation, which I suggest be referred to as “Divorce Mode,” choreographing your platform jumps in a way that does not interfere with another person’s basic game interactions can be quite difficult…

Stubborn »

New Super Mario Bros. Wii is pretty great, except for the “Wii” part.

After what seems like decades, Abe and I finally have a week where we don’t have extracurricular activities eating up every evening. Thanks to a Target gift card and some smooth talking on my part, we decided to spend some of that time with New Super Mario Bros. Wii.

We played through the first world last night, and looking back I think I enjoyed it. The game looks great, and we did a decent job of remaining alive (a definite plus) and so I hope that trend continues. Similar to 2006′s New Super Mario Bros. on the Nintendo DS, this game is a spiritual successor Super Mario Bros. 3 from the NES days. A prime choice; I consider SMB3 to be the pinnacle of Mario side-scrollers. So all is great, right? Well… no. While the game in and of itself has a lot of potential, there were also some attributes that really felt detrimental to the whole experience.

The big news in NSMBW is that you can play with up to four people simultaneously – no waiting for your turn; everybody’s on the screen, all the time. Except when they’re not. Unfortunately, it is possible for players to find themselves scrolled right off the screen, which can be overcome but may also result in death if they’re beyond the threshold of what the game decides is “safe”. Fortunately, the deceased player will quickly return in a bubble that you need to pop to get them back into the action (imagine Baby Mario in the Yoshi’s Island series).

Player interaction is another iffy item. For better or worse, your characters cannot all occupy the same space at the same time. This becomes problematic when two overzealous teammates decide to tackle the same obstacle simultaneously and instead end up as obstacles themselves. You can overcome this by constantly trying to call out your plans (“okay, now I’m going to jump on this Koopa”) but that seems like a strange thing to need to do for what should be a relatively casual experience. At the same time, it really does add to the atmosphere of the game and make it more interesting.

The biggest problem with this game, though, is where it is. My opinion is and always will be that the Wii platform is a hinderance to “normal” games. The controllers suck, not only in a physical sense but in an “it takes me 5-10 minutes to even get them to work” sense. By the time I’ve gotten the console to function I’m already beginning a game with a feeling of disappointment. Maybe it’s a repetitive fluke (oxymoron?), but how can Nintendo expect the console to appeal to non-techy casual gaming types when they can’t reliably sync their controllers to their consoles?

And while I realize that motion control is the Wii’s bread and butter at the moment, I think it’s ridiculous that they feel obligated to tack it on to every game just because it’s there. Making the game rely on motion control means that we are stuck with the basic Wiimote turned sideways (ugh, just like Super Paper Mario) instead of being able to use a Gamecube controller, the Wiimote/nunchuk combo, or the classic controller.

And that interface! Still so terrible.

Dear Sir »

I’m sorry I almost ran you over. I guess.

Let me begin by apologizing for the near incident that occurred last week. As someone whose feet are in his top three preferred modes of transportation (pending weather and destination), I want to say that I understand the hassles that accompany being a pedestrian in this fine city we both call home, and that those hassles are only compounded when vehicles (large and small) become involved.

However, I feel that there are a few things that went awry in this situation that could have easily led to a catastrophe. I would begin by suggesting that, when you inevitably need to cross a street, you choose a location other than a few yards around what is essentially a blind corner for traffic. You could’ve begun at the corner itself, where I would’ve been able to see you before I turned, or you could’ve walked the extra block to the next intersection where there are crosswalks and crossed there, or even waited until you were a few yards further down the block so my experience wasn’t just “turning-BOOM-pedestrian” (fortunately not literally).

I am happy you were at least as far from the corner as you were, as when I rounded the corner (with no stop sign, mind you) there was a fair gap between the right side of the street (where you had come from) and where you presently were (nearly in the middle of the road). As such, I altered my course appropriately, veering slightly more toward the right to give extra space between you and my vehicle. I chose this approach as it represented a clear path for me without inhibiting your progress, since it’s preferable for me as a pedestrian to, well, get my ass out of the street as soon as possible since that’s where cars go.

Imagine my surprise, then, when instead of continuing on your way (or even stopping in the middle of the street, similar to a deer!), you decided the best course of action was to jump backwards into the path of my car. You got me good here – I definitely was NOT expecting that move! As I steered to the left in an attempt to avoid your maneuver, I was already sensing futility in this exercise, and was not disappointed when you jumped back the left, and in front of me a second time.

At this point I must ask if you’ve ever been walking down a hallway and encountered someone going the opposite way? If so, you’ll be familiar with that awkward little dance that happens when right of way is being determined. Between two (relatively) slow-moving people, it’s little more than an annoyance. However, I would not recommend playing this game with a car, or really anything larger than yourself. I’ll just say that I’m glad I stopped and did not hit you, but only because of the hassle it saved me in the end. I’d highly recommend that next time this happens to you (and given your self-righteous tirade afterwards, I’m sure it will), you act in a more predictable manner instead of like some sort of wild animal.

New music for the runnings. What else needs to be said?

Collapse »

I think I got the entire flu in three hours. It was just a very bad choice of hours.

Saturday started innocently enough. A half-hour run, followed by some delicious cereal and a couple hours of nerdery before making my way downtown to prepare for the first of the day’s two performances of WCT’s 1776. It was shortly after noon when I walked through the stage door of the Grand Theater with my recently acquired sandwich, which I made short work of as I readied myself for the 2:00 matinee. Life was good.

As the show began, I felt awfully tired. I wrote it off to the heat, and after the first scene took the opportunity to rest a bit backstage as I had a long while before I need to return. I was still feeling a little sluggish afterward, and digestively something just felt… off. My next scene came and went, and while the tiredness went away, the nausea did not. I opted to miss my next entrance and spend some time in the bathroom (fill in the blanks), which seemed to help, and felt cool and rejuvenated for a short period after that. The feeling was short-lived, and the final few scenes left me feeling beat from every direction. I was still nauseous, and the tiredness from before became a full-on exhaustion.

It’s fortunate for me that 1776 is based around congress, and as such there’s a lot of sitting, because there’s not a lot else I was able to do at that point. It was a struggle just to keep my eyes open, and the lightheadedness I felt was becoming worse every time I had to stand for any reason. There was a point where I experienced what seemed to be a total disconnect between my brain and the rest of me, as I could not make my hands function.

As the show neared its end and we all approached center stage to sign the Declaration of Independence (spoiler alert!), I was struggling to keep it together for just a few more minutes. All I had to do was stand for a few moments, and then make it through bows, and then I was done. I failed.

My first thought: SHIT. I awoke to the curtain call music and the face of Edward Rutledge, one of a group of my fellow congressmen to carry me to the wing. If you’ve ever fallen asleep slightly while in a lecture or meeting or any other place where it’s inappropriate to do so, you may be familiar with the state where you start to dream and then you kind of wake yourself up. I think that’s what happened to me, except while I was standing up, and on stage. I’m fortunate that I was surrounded by others so I never even made it to the ground.

The next few minutes were… interesting. I only opened my eyes briefly after waking up, but I was so exhausted that I couldn’t keep them open. They sat me in a chair offstage, and I felt like I could’ve sat there basically forever and been happy. I can’t describe how relieved I felt (physically – how I felt mentally is an entirely different story) to just finally stop. I can certainly understand the cause for concern, as while I was totally lucid, that’s probably not what it looks like when somebody collapses and then just sits there with their eyes shut for ten minutes.

Eventually we went down to the orchestra lounge, where there are couches, and I rested a bit more. Abe brought me a Subway-brand cookie and that was delicious (did I mention he was in the audience for this show and this show alone? I was thankful for that). I was still feeling a little off when I stood, but I had some delicious pizza with the rest of the cast and felt a lot better. Fortunately the brother of a fellow cast member was able to step in for the Saturday evening performance (and did so with aplomb!), which left me free to go home and rest.

So it could’ve been a lot worse. Some people thought the collapse was part of the show (because that apparently happened when it was hot in congress back then), so I guess I can consider it my body’s own personal ad-lib. Fortunately I was able to return for the closing matinee on Sunday and celebrate the end of yet another fantastic WCT production with the rest of the cast and crew. I also owe them my thanks for their concern and help both before and after the incident.

(PS: I’m pretty sure it wasn’t actually the flu.)

Swan Song »

The Ballad of Gay Tony is a fitting farewell to Liberty City.

I took a brief hiatus from my Forza 3 marathon on Thursday to pay a final visit to Liberty City with The Ballad of Gay Tony, Rockstar’s latest (and likely last) installment of downloadable content for Grand Theft Auto IV. Given my fondness for all things GTA, it shouldn’t come as much of a shock that I was watching the credits roll by lunchtime Saturday.

Rockstar’s approach to TBoGT doesn’t differ much from the previous installment – once again you’re put in the shoes of what was previously only a supporting character. As I said before, the experience you enjoy the most really depends on which character and lifestyle you are most comfortable with. In this case, that character is Luis Lopez, ex-con turned bodyguard of/business partner to nightclub impresario “Gay” Tony Prince (who bears a remarkable resemblance to Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark).

As a result, the game is centered around Algonquin, Liberty City’s equivalent to Manhattan, and the high-roller atmosphere extends to fast cars, great new music, and a slew of new over-the-top missions. Of course it’s not all fun and games, but I’ll just leave it at that with regards to plot. You’ll run across plenty of characters that you’ve been previously introduced to, including one loose end from the core game that I was glad to see tied.

I have to say, I really liked Luis as a protagonist – while he kept getting thrust into situations that were less than ideal, I never felt that things were completely out of control like I did with Niko or Johnny. One constant across all GTA games is that you can continue to experience the city even after completing the missions. You may find it telling that when presented with that option in TLaD I opted instead to return to the original game. I don’t expect that to be the case this time around.