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Legends.

 

 

The first computer we had in our house was a Packard Bell desktop my family bought from Sears.

My brother and I spent a lot of time poking around on it, trying to figure out how to make it fun.

At first, we played a lot of Kidspace: A software suite that came pre-installed.

Kidspace had some cheap, strange games in it:

An odd medical game where you entered a patient’s body and attacked infected cells.

Another game where the player was a paleontologist exploring a barren world of static dinosaurs.

Kidspace was quiet and calm.

We spent a lot of our time there, it was pure in that it didn’t try to market anything.

Kidspace is what turned my brother and I on to PC Gaming.

We later moved on to Megarace.

Megarace grabbed us: It felt fast and dark.

It took place in something resembling a cyberpunk future with biker gangs.

Akira with none of the relevance.

Megarace was obnoxious and entertaining and we stuck with it for a while.

We only stopped playing when we couldn’t ever beat the fifth or so level.

The first ‘real’ PC game my brother and I tried to play was Star Wars: Rebel Assault II.

At the time, neither of us was interested in the Star Wars franchise, but this seemed like a fun, arcade-like rail shooter.

RAII pushed our desktop to its limits.

It ran well enough to play, but it wasn’t a smooth experience and would often crash.

Having played on consoles most of our childhood, we didn’t understand that PC gaming involved constant hardware upgrades.

Around this time, Command & Conquer: Red Alert released and all the kids at school were talking about it.

I had never heard of the RTS genre.

When I started Red Alert, I was disappointed that this wasn’t a first-person game.

That feeling soon faded as I began to enjoy the fulfillment of commanding and developing armies across alternate historical campaigns.

Due to the low hardware requirements, Red Alert ran much better on our desktop than RAII.

Red Alert was a substantial game.

It evolved so much from its predecessor: Command & Conquer.

I still play the original Red Alert today.

Around 1998, we finally upgraded our computer.

We bought a stock HP desktop in which my brother installed a dedicated graphics card.

This is where our love of PC Gaming soared.

We bought Half-Life, downloaded Counter-Strike, and played Unreal Tournament endlessly.

Playing these classic 3D games was formative.

Today, each one has reached mythical status in terms of pioneering design and action.

We understood that there was a lot we missed out on in those early years with our Packard Bell.

There were lineages, lines of thought we couldn’t follow on PC back then.

And when Diablo II released, I had little reference for what it was doing.

 

Careen.

 

The only game I played that was aesthetically similar to Diablo II was Red Alert.

I did have an understanding of different types of RPGs (Action, Tactical, Turn-based, etc.) due to the 90’s boom of JRPGs on console, but I had never played one with the strange, static, isometric camera of Diablo.

I did appreciate not having to always worry about moving the camera around since it locked onto the character.

Red Alert was exhausting about managing the camera.

I loved Diablo II’s dark atmosphere and art style.

The music was some of the best I heard in a PC game.

What struck me about D2 the most was how it felt like an action game, but it wasn’t.

It sat in a strange space where different RPG genres met.

It felt like the sort of game that could only belong on PC, but also seemed translatable to console.

Of course at the time I saw the line between PC and console as non-porous and rigid.

The strange loyalties of children: Being attached to wherever they are.

In the ignorance o f that age, I recall seeing games like Doom and Diablo I on Playstation and getting angry about how they don’t belong there.

This sentiment was stronger with regards to Diablo because Diablo II was exclusive to PC and MacOS.

It never felt as though we would ever see a Diablo II port on console and we still haven’t.

I spent years in D2’s world.

Its action was so immediate and satisfying, it took a long time for the game to grow stale.

It eventually did, but only by virtue of time.

By the time Diablo III released in 2012, the world of PC games had shifted.

The PC gaming market had gone through a difficult period where consoles were setting the tone and creating markets for games, but the PC had begun to ascend as the dominant consoles began to show their age.

Also, the PC platform had begun a shift away from relying solely on large, AAA releases to a more balanced approach between innovative, cheap, independent games and well-known franchises.

Independent titles like Torchlight tried to capture and innovate on Diablo’s established formula in 2009, three years before Diablo III released.

But something always felt off about games like Torchlight and Path of Exile, something about their action felt unsatisfying.

The first time I played Diablo III I realized how much I had missed its solid responsiveness.

It took awhile for me to get used to the new art style and the real money auction house was unnecessary, but overall it still felt like Diablo.

The music was still quiet and deep, the game’s somber tone was left untouched, the enemies were varied and interesting.

However, Diablo III felt like a more universal game than D2, from the beginning Diablo III felt like a game for everyone and anyone.

It walked a very thin line between the casual and core audiences: The beginning of the game felt streamlined and, even on normal difficulty, it was too easy (especially with the introduction of followers).

At the same time, Diablo III boasted a ‘Hardcore’ mode that featured character permadeath.

Over time Blizzard pruned away at the game.

By removing unnecessary, game-breaking features like the auction house and by expanding core elements like the game’s difficulty and loot, Blizzard sincerely focused the game.

When the Reaper of Souls expansion released earlier this year, Diablo III had gone from being a great game diluted by under-developed ideas to an elegant action RPG.

Having become the game it always should have been, it was ready to fulfill its promise of universality.

 

Library.

 

When Blizzard announced that Diablo III would be coming to current-gen consoles in 2013, I remember the vitriol erupting from a portion of the embedded PC community.

They were offended that Blizzard had released this game on PC with a lot of questionable decisions (like the removal of the skill tree) that were only justifiable had Blizzard been trying to streamline the game for console release.

The assumption in the beginning was that like Diablo II, D3 was going to be a PC exclusive.

This sentiment wasn’t due to the PC community not wanting the console community to enjoy PC games, it emerged more out of the environment Diablo III released into.

Late in the console life-cycle, publishers and developers were looking to cash in with quick and cheap console game ports on PC.

Often these ports would be missing what were considered key PC features: thorough graphics options, dedicated servers, universal gamepad support, multi-monitor support.

The PC community was shown little consideration.

The mechanical simplicity of Diablo III was no longer seen as just trying to boost the audience on PC, but rather that Blizzard had developed D3 with the intention of releasing to consoles at some point.

When the last-gen console versions did release in September 2013, the anger had died down and the game was left to be judged on its own merits.

It was well-received critically, but it didn’t garner much discussion.

This seemed like the game’s lowest point: Its original fans felt betrayed and the console fans didn’t pay as much attention to it.

But Blizzard did manage to find a near-perfect balance one year later on the new-gen platforms.

In the year between D3’s last-gen and current-gen release, the game changed.

With the introduction of Reaper of Souls the game was modified down to its core.

It was more polished and more expansive.

While I didn’t play Diablo III on last-gen consoles, I did pick it up on the Playstation 4.

I hadn’t touched Diablo III in over a year and I was surprised at how different the game felt on console.

This wasn’t a matter of one version being better than the other, the two were just different.

On PC, Diablo III feels like a western Action RPG.

It feels like a game about numbers and exploration.

What struck me on console is how much more it feels like an arcade game.

It’s a faster game.

Blizzard implemented a dodge move making the character more mobile, more fluid.

It’s as if the two versions of the game each explores and emphasizes a different face:

The PC version filters the game as a number-crunching, exploratory RPG.

The console version, as a fast, smooth, arcade action game that reminds one of Gauntlet.

It was the inverse of what RAII had represented.

This is a testament to the Diablo series’ malleability.

A testament of its ability to change shape in order to emphasize one of its many successes of identity and mechanics.

A lot of games try to be Diablo, but they only ever succeed at one aspect of it.

Few games are confident enough about what they are to succeed on different platforms by altering their identity.

With its difficult and complicated trajectory over the past two years, Diablo III has hammered itself back into significance, back into coherence, by embracing its ability to diverge.

Diablo III is like a circus acrobat with a rocky past:

Always seeking to forget about where it came from while contorting itself to entertain as many people as possible.

 

Always reaching out through action while exposing its dense, fluid heart to the world.

 

 

 

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Lattice.

 

 

I never played the original Killzone.

When it released on the PS2 in 2004, its reception was lukewarm.

The first Killzone was highly regarded for its aesthetics, but was derided for a lack of stability (framerate issues, general bugs, broken AI).

I didn’t purchase Killzone 1 because it was a console shooter in the PS2 era, I was unconvinced that this was viable and Killzone’s problems proved it.

Even if Bungie had shown it was possible to create a thriving console FPS on the Xbox with Halo:CE in 2001, Guerilla hadn’t been doing what Bungie had been honing since 1991.

The only console FPS I played in that generation was the last FPS released on PS2 in 2006: Black.

While Black still felt lacking, it worked a lot better than expected.

It had a strong identity, crafted through sound.

Black won ‘Best Art & Sound’ at the Develop Industry Excellence Awards and was nominated for ‘Best Audio’ at the 2006 BAFTA Video Games Awards.

Black didn’t receive much attention in the larger gaming community.

It was the end of both the PS2 and the Xbox. Everyone was waiting for the new console generation to drop.

In the time between Guerilla’s creation in 2000 and Black’s release, Bungie had released two Halo games and Halo 2 both broadened and focused Halo:CE’s premise.

Halo 2 was not only a more fluid experience, but it set the standard for matchmaking on consoles in 2004, two years before Black’s release.

Halo 2 defined the future of console FPSes by proving that online multiplayer can be important to consoles provided the experience is streamlined.

It was also a faster, tighter game than its predecessor.

The lore had taken root and the game’s boundaries were significantly expanded, but it moved the player through varied environments and set-pieces at a quick pace.

When the PS3 released in 2006, the Halo series had cemented itself as the pre-eminent console FPS (exclusive to Xbox).

Nobody discussed Killzone or Black the way they did Halo.

Halo’s tech-spirituality transcended the game.

It was revered.

It wasn’t until Killzone 2 released in 2009, that Sony and Guerrilla found an alternative and an answer.

 

Neck.

 

In the age of searching for ‘The Next Halo’, Killzone 2 was pegged by many to be a ‘Halo Killer’.

It wasn’t.

KZ2 wasn’t a failure by any means, but it wasn’t seen as the instant legend Halo:CE or Halo 2 were.

But Killzone 2 did something that neither Halo nor Call of Duty did: Verticality.

Ever since the creation of the modern first-person shooter with Wolfenstein 3D, the genre has been obsessive about exploring horizontal space.

There are always small deviations in verticality, but the focus is generally about moving across a world, not through it.

Games that decided to explore vertical space more prior to KZ2 are today considered modern classics: Half-Life 2. Crysis. Counter-Strike.

But these were PC shooters and PC games were always conceptually ahead.

Both Halo and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare tried to integrate a passing glance at vertical space.

The beauty of Halo’s ringworld is that the player can see it looping over them into the horizon.

A simulation of climbing, when the player was doing nothing but moving forward.

CoD4 tackled verticality by emphasizing aerial and long-distance threats like helicopters, gunships, and snipers.

KZ2 though was built around vertical space.

The game never gave the sense that the player was moving across a world.

The environments were dark and closed.

Either the player was moving up, down, or penned in by looming structures tearing at the sky.

Killzone 2 seemed to absorb some of the lessons of PC shooters. It was a grand hybrid of both worlds.

The multiplayer was quick and deep, implementing a leveling system similar to what CoD4 presented, the levels were innovative and interesting, it had a unique visual style to rival Halo’s.

With each successive iteration of the Killzone franchise, Guerrilla focused the series’ obsession with vertical space.

Killzone: Shadow Fall has massive cities that both drill down and bloom up and moving through them is fulfilling in ways other shooters aren’t, not even the Halo series.

 

Satellite.

 

After ending their console exclusivity with Microsoft, Bungie was set free.

The Halo franchise was passed on to 343 Industries while Bungie worked on their ambitious, multi-platform project: Destiny.

No one knew quite what to expect from this game considering the amount of hype it had generated.

We are still in the beginning of a new console generation and the marketing of games has been loud and heavy.

Watch Dogs is the worst example of this: A mediocre GTA-like with little innovation and an enormous marketing budget.

The gaming community wanted Watch Dogs to be better than it was because it was a new-gen game.

At first, Destiny felt like more of the same: Heavy marketing and another future-FPS from the development house that brought us Halo.

But in the beta, it became evident there was more going on.

When it released a month later, the game reaffirmed what the beta had suggested:

Destiny is a study of the history of the FPS genre as a whole.

It is reminiscent of both Doom and Wolfenstein 3D by having the player move across both vast, open spaces and tight corridors.

Its shooting has the crispness of Rage.

The story of the game is woven into the environments the player frequents, expressing a narrative and aesthetic style similar to Half-Life 2 and Halo.

Destiny’s level progression would not exist if not for CoD4’s pioneering multiplayer leveling system.

Its persistent online world and seemless matchmaking on console is owed to the ground Bungie broke with Halo 2.

The clear, aural identity of the weapons reminded me of the amazing things Black had done with sound.

But what stunned me the most is Destiny’s suggestion and seamless incorporation of vertical space.

Many of Destiny’s missions has the player either tunneling down into some alien dungeon or battling upwards towards the sky.

Bungie’s use of vertical space isn’t as ‘full’ as Guerrilla’s in Killzone, but it is different enough that it doesn’t matter.

What Killzone often presents is a stark contrast between tight, claustrophobic environments and wide-open vertical horizons.

Destiny doesn’t really explore that duality.

Even the alien tunnels the player moves through have a stunning amount of vertical space: large structures, high ceilings, etc.

In these locations, Destiny’s use of vertical space is similar to arena shooters like Quake and Unreal Tournament.

However, when the player is out in open terrain, Destiny is often suggestive of Half-Life 2’s City 17 and its relationship to the Combine Citadel.

City 17 is a major hub/transition area and the Citadel can be seen from nearly anywhere in the city, always looming over the player.

In Destiny, Bungie break up the visual monotony of the horizontal by incorporating large, looming structures on all the planets.

On Earth, it’s the Traveler and the enormous, dead spaceships.

On the Moon, it’s giant cliffs and peaks collapsing into huge chasms.

On Venus, it’s the Vex superstructure hovering in the sky.

Part of the reason open-world shooters like Fallout 3 grow stale is because there is little to break-up the visual monotony of the horizon.

There is nothing aspirational.

Many complain that Destiny seems like a very small game, but the lens with which they view the game is inaccurate.

One of the bigger problems of modern games is they never take the time to allow the player to occupy a space.

Either through a rushed narrative or weak action, the game is pushing the player forward without any real presence.

Destiny forces you to explore and re-explore a place over and over again. It asks the player to pay attention to the world.

It’s asking the player to just relax and be in it.

Destiny has dedicated buttons for sitting and dancing.

It never feels rushed.

Like Dark Souls, it has a dignified quiet.

A lot of the talk around Destiny compares it to Borderlands, but that is a disservice to the game.

Borderlands is a simple, boring shooter that uses a loot system and an over-saturated visual style as its hook.

Destiny is contemplative, even more so than Halo.

It is empty and tall. Wide and fragile.

It is a koan wrapped in an epic.

Destiny isn’t really like any other shooter, but it is the entire history of the genre.

Thorough and thoughtful, Destiny is an honest experience, an elegant one.

An experience that, with the right kind of eyes, nearly anyone can rejoice in and grow from.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Orpheus.

 

 

1) Nintendo Wii U Gamepad

 

The gamepad is bloated plastic.

It is expansive.

Even with all its technology (touchscreen, console streaming) it feels empty. It feels like a pastry puff.

The face buttons have a deep, low click when pressed and a higher-pitched, muted release.

There is stiffness to them that both speaks to the solid build of the device and of over-engineering.

Everything on the device presses like a face button except the analog sticks.

The D-pad is enormous, making it difficult to use, and clicks hard on presses, tiring the thumb.

It is nice to have triggers that snap rather than melt against your finger, but the ability to gauge force is gone.

The gamepad is not a subtle device.

It is gaudy, heavy, and tight.

It is empty, but with the right amount of friction.

A friction born from Nintendo’s first-party games.

It lacks subtlety, it lacks the hidden finesse Nintendo games demand from the players.

It’s almost as if the gamepad is a reaction to the Wii controller’s light weight.

But there wasn’t any subtlety there either since the Wii depended on inaccurate motion-control.

Nintendo gave up the sword to build the tank.

 

2) SNK Neo-Geo X

 

The Neo-Geo X is a gorgeous machine to look at.

It is a contender for the most beautiful handheld ever made.

Everything about it is understated: A black and gold color scheme and a layering of texture.

The face buttons are tighter than the Wii U gamepad, but not as audible. The buttons make the same noise being pressed as they do being released.

This lack of noise from the face buttons is offset by one of the few innovations the Neo-Geo X possesses: The joystick.

Catering to arcade/action games, Tommo built the Neo-Geo X with a microswitch joystick.

Any tap in any direction creates a loud, audible click.

The NGX has great density, but lacks the puffiness of the Wii U gamepad.

It doesn’t sit comfortably in hand.

One of the best features of the system is the split shoulder buttons.

Rather than have two long shoulder buttons at the top of the console, Tommo cut each shoulder button into two, making the NGX the only portable console with four shoulder buttons.

The PS Vita could have benefited from this feature with PS4 remote play.

The downside to Tommo/SNK’s approach to the shoulders is the difficulty in curling fingers to tap L1/R1 since they are stunted to make room for L2/R2.

The NGX has a soft rubber back that feels sticky and decadent.

This is a texture more hardware manufacturers ought to use.

In spite of its problems, this is one of the best handheld gaming devices ever made.

Even better than the Neo-Geo Pocket Color.

 

3) Xbox 360 Controller

 

The Xbox 360 controller is pretty. Its lines are both direct and subtle.

It has a better silhouette than the Sixaxis.

Between the travesty of the original Xbox controller and the success of the 360, Microsoft learned quick.

Borrowing design elements from the Sega Dreamcast, the 360 controller has one of the most unique faces of any modern console.

One analog stick positioned high on the left, bottom left sits a rolling D-pad, and further to the right the second analog stick.

The setup does seem obtuse at first, but the obviousness of its design begins to show when moving around three-dimensional spaces.

The controller itself has a nice heft and sticks in the hands.

By far the 360 controller is the most stable to hold.

It just fits.

Though the buttons are not exceptional.

Even the NGX has better face and shoulder buttons than the 360.

Its face buttons require quite a bit more force than the PS3 or the Wii U and stick out much higher than they need to.

The face buttons are too stiff.

This is strange to me when combined with the presence of a well-made rolling D-pad.

The rolling D-pad is part of what made the Sega Genesis controllers so wonderful, perfect for fast-paced action games.

Why combine a tool used for quick, fluid movement with slow, stiff buttons designed for something like inventory management?

The shoulder buttons are also difficult to press.

They are both small and require exceptional force at strange angles.

They feel almost as stunted and difficult as the NGX, but where SNK/Tommo made their decision based on space conservation and utility, Microsoft has no excuse.

The trigger buttons are actual triggers and have a strange arc to them that doesn’t work on a controller.

They are uncomfortable.

The 360 controller is an elegant, confused piece of hardware that is trying too hard to be too many things.

 

4) Sony PlayStation Vita

 

While the NGX is a product of subtle, layered design, the Vita is a powerhouse of interaction.

It has an enticing weight.

It is a very dense machine and that density is justified by the overwhelming amount of technology within.

An OLED touchscreen on the front, a touchpad on the back, two analog sticks, and front/rear cameras.

The D-pad is near perfect. It feels like a flat, rolling D-pad. Each directional press has a very subdued click that is felt more than heard.

The analog sticks are short, but responsive. They have a balanced tension that sits somewhere between the 360’s tightness and the Sixaxis’ give.

I enjoy the NGX because of its combination of textures.

Its joystick is a matte, rough plastic. Its face buttons are a clear, smooth plastic. Its case is all gloss on the front. Its back is a sticky-smooth rubber.

The Vita would have benefited from more experimentation with texture.

It would have been better without any of the gloss, like the 3DS XL.

Sony already used matte plastic around the D-pad and beneath the face buttons, they should have extended it to the whole system.

It is slippery.

It is too thin to hold comfortably and manipulate all input options.

It puts enormous strain on the wrists and hands.

While making the system larger would have been questionable, it would work better with some grips built into the back of the system rather than the two large dimples it does have.

The Vita’s highlight is its face buttons.

They are tight and responsive. They don’t feel cheap.

They have two clicks each when pressed and released, felt deep in the bones.

Pressing buttons on the Vita is a joy.

The face buttons alone are enough to make someone find reasons to play with it.

It draws you in with its innate experience.

 

5) Nintendo Game Boy Advance SP

 

The Game Boy Advance SP is one of my favorite handheld consoles of all time.

A console that drips with intimacy.

When closed, the SP is appealing and understated.

It feels good to hold and to look at: A slight rectangle with rounded corners.

It has an appealing thickness as well. It doesn’t suffer from the hyper-driven thinness of most handhelds today.

On opening the console, the proportions are less appealing.

When open, the SP looks worse than the Game Boy Pocket.

It does maintain the intimacy: The screen is small and bright and the controls are simple and obvious.

On its face the SP has only two buttons, D-pad, backlight adjustment, and Start/Select.

The whole console is matte plastic, which gives it the right amount of friction.

Nintendo positioned the Start/Select buttons near the bottom, making pausing awkward.

The SP D-pad feels similar to the Vita D-pad.

There is more space between the directions on the SP, but it has a great rolling effect. Otherwise, the SP D-pad has the same tight click as the Vita’s, without feeling difficult like the Wii U gamepad.

What’s amazing about this is that the SP predates the Vita by almost a decade.

Not only is the D-pad ascendant, but the A/B face buttons are also as good as the Vita: Dense, heavy clicks that reverberate in the thumb.

The GBA SP does have two shoulder buttons as well and while they are tight and loud, they are just as awkward to press as the NGX and the 360.

This doesn’t affect the SP as much as the other two since the shoulder buttons are not utilized in critical situations.

It’s inspiring to see what Nintendo is capable of when they get things right.

The SP came out on the back of one of the worst-designed handheld systems in history: The Game Boy Advance.

Much like with the PSV, the SP is so satisfying to interact with, it makes you find reasons to play it.

In 2014 it still doesn’t feel dated.

This is a portable device that continues to hold its own, almost 10 years later.