Updates to Features

Hello,

Just letting the readers know that I have updated two of my previously posted features: The Challenges of Game Balancing and The Direct Effects Model of Media Theory. I did some additional proof reading and added some new media to each story. The biggest addition was the inclusion of quotes for each story. I thought these quotes added some extra insight to each feature and made them a bit more engaging. If you haven’t checked out any of these features yet, now you can with some extra information. Please give me some feedback so I can improve my writing and my future stories.

As for the blog, I plan on hopefully posting a double review for Tekken Card Tournament and Tekken Revolution some time next week. Stay posted and thanks for your support.

-Frank (T-1000)

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Review – Injustice: Gods Among Us – Xbox 360

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*Note: This review is based on v.1.03. I have not had enough time with the latest version to fully test out the changes. Some of the issues I expressed in my review seem to have been “somewhat” addressed. I also haven’t bought any DLC of any kind so I am reviewing the game as is.

Fun, Flashy, Innovative and Unpolished

These are the words I would use to describe Injustice: Gods Among Us, NetherRealm Studio’s latest fighting game based on the DC universe of comic book characters. The game is fun to play and introduces many new welcome ideas to the fighting genre but its lack of polish in the gameplay department keeps it from really excelling above the genre’s other heavy hitters.

Character Roster

Injustice is, in my opinion, the best fighting game based off of the DC universe and the game utilizes its characters and setting very well. The game’s roster features all the fan favorites you would expect including Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman and Flash. There are also some lesser known characters such as Killer Frost, Soloman Grundy and Ares.

The character roster is the highlight of Injustice as it is large and varied and the characters play pretty much like you would expect them to. Batman is a hand to hand combat beast and his gadgets give him options for almost any situation. Superman hits incredibly hard while still being relatively light on his feet. Bane has his patented back breaker and Green Lantern summons objects like rockets, machine guns and brick walls when he attacks.

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The characters in Injustice play very similar to their comic book counter parts

While the roster is varied and the character designs are mostly unique, the game favors a zoning style of play. A large portion of the roster has at least one zoning tool available to them and with many having multiple zoning options. I believe this emphasis on zoning has had some impact on the balance of the game which I will cover later on in the review.

Single Player

Much like Mortal Kombat before it, Injustice features a lengthy and detailed story mode that is still uncommon to see in fighting games. The plot revolves around the DC heroes being transported to an alternate future where Superman has used his powers to take control of earth and create a military like state of government. The Batman of this future seeks the help of our heroes in stopping Superman’s oppressive regime.

A lengthy and detailed story mode doesn’t automatically make for a good story as it is pretty passable and lacks any real depth. The plot device the writers use to explain how characters like Joker can fight head-to-head with the more powerful characters like Wonder Woman is absurd and a deus ex machina at its finest. The dialog is bland and the ending is incredibly generic and anti-climatic.

The story mode also tries to distinguish itself from multiplayer in that the player has to play quick time event mini-games before certain fights. These mini-games are gimmicks and how well or bad you perform them has little to no impact of the proceeding fight. I found these mini-games tedious but at least they made me anxious to get into the actual game.

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The story in Injustice is lackluster but entertaining

While I personally didn’t enjoy the story mode much, I am sure many players will find it entertaining. The absurd plot isn’t out of the realm of other DC comic book stories and the characters are presented fairly well overall. Some of the voice performances are done convincingly (Kevin Conroy!) and others not so much but overall it’s not horrible. The cheesy one liners tend to be more humorous than annoying.

Injustice features plenty of single player content outside of the story mode such as the traditional ladder style arcade mode, time attack modes, survival modes and many more, many of which must be unlocked.

Of these extra single player modes, Star Labs is the largest and most unique. Unfortunately, much like the mini-games in the story, I found Star Labs to be painfully gimmicky. Star Labs is structured like the challenge modes of other fighters, but instead of presenting the players with challenges that teach them combos or skills useful to learning the game, Star Labs has gimmicky challenges such as blowing up objects before they reach a defenseless civilian or fighting an opponent as lighting strikes hit you and interrupt your actions.

There are some challenges that might be useful to the player that actually helps he or she learn the game but they are weighed down by the other ridiculous challenges. The fact that you cannot choose which character’s challenges to play and are forced to play them in a specific order (at least until you earn enough points to unlock the others) makes this mode even less appealing.

Gameplay and Multiplayer

Despite its wealth of single player content, Injustice is just like any other fighting game in that its strengths lie in its competitive multiplayer, which is where most players will be spending their time. Thankfully, Injustice offers a fun, though unrefined, and unique multiplayer experience that I am sure many players will enjoy.

The game has a lot in common with other modern 2d fighting games, even more so than Mortal Kombat. Holding back to block is a welcomed addition that I’m sure players of other fighting games will appreciate. Using down back is still the preferred method to block against most characters as only overheads and jumping attacks can break a crouch block. Cross-ups are also present which will no doubt give players more options to open up their opponents.  Other staple 2d mechanics such as special moves, super moves, push blocking, cancelable normals, anti-airs, invincible wake-up attacks, and ex specials (in the form of meter burns) are all present in Injustice.

Injustice differentiates itself with several new and innovative gameplay mechanics. Of these, stage interactions are the most critical to the overall gameplay. While other fighting games have had interactive stages before that have some kind of impact on gameplay, Injustice gives you control over these interactions unlike any other game before it. These interactions are used at specific spots on stages and perform a variety of effects.

The affects of these interactables are determined by the character you are using. Powerful characters like Superman will simply grab objects and hurl them at the opponent, causing massive damage. Agile characters like Flash will jump off environmental objects to get into favorable positions. Characters like Batman and Joker can plant explosives on the environment for more timed attacks. These are just some examples but the overall depth of stage interactables is much more varied.

At first glance, it appears that power characters have the advantage when it comes to interactables but, in my opinion, interactables feel pretty balanced for every type of character. Power characters for example cannot get out of the corner as easily as agile characters because of their inability to jump off of the environment. Also, when power characters use interactables, they are usually one shots as the object in question disappears. Other characters can continually use the same interactable multiple times. Again these are just examples and the way characters use environmental interactions varies greatly.

While I do not feel like stage interactions are over powered by any means, there are some aspects to them that I find questionable. Most notably, I feel having interactables be unblockable is completely unnecessary. Stage interactions occur very quickly, are executed with one button, can be used in combos and can be meter burned for hit absorbing armor. Making stage interactions unblockable simply puts the other player at more of a disadvantage than they already are.

Overall, I’m pleased with how stage interactions function in Injustice. They add a completely new level of strategy to the game. Not only do stages play a more important part of the overall gameplay but the character the player plays in conjunction with a stage is also very important. These interactions make Injustice feel fresh and unique from other fighting games on the market.

Injustice also features several other smaller innovations. Another innovative new feature introduced is the ability for both players to choose a stage at the start of the match. For the most part, fighting games have traditionally only given the ability to choose a stage to one player (either the winner or loser). In Injustice, both players can choose a stage and the game will randomly pick one of those choices. It is a rather small addition that changes the way stages are selected, which is actually of big importance when you consider stage interactions.

Another innovative new feature is the ability to choose between alternative control styles. The default option uses the Mortal Kombat control scheme where special moves are executed using single directional inputs in sequence. The alternative option features a control scheme similar to more traditional 2d fighters in which special moves are executed using circular motions. The latter option is much easier to play on an arcade stick in my opinion

Other fighting games have featured multiple control schemes but they usually come in the form of a normal and simple/beginner mode, which can drastically changes how the game is played and often removes options for those opting for the simpler control scheme. The alternative control style in Injustice simply changes the way certain attacks are executed, allowing players to further customize their controls. The use of alternative control schemes is something I hope more fighting games implement in the future.

I would also like to make note of another unique feature in Injustice: clash. The clash mechanic is this game’s version of a burst or combo breaker found in other fighting games with an additional twist. A unique animation plays when a clash is triggered and players enters a mini-game in which they wager their meter against that of their opponent. Players can wager any amount of meter but the player who wagers the most meter is the one who wins the clash, regardless of who initiated the clash. The winner receives either extra stamina for those who initiated the clash or extra damage for those who were the victim of a clash.

Clash unfortunately feels like a gimmick. I’m sure NetherRealm Studios was attempting to add some extra depth and strategy with this mechanic but it ultimately feels useless. Players who have a significant lead in stamina and meter have no need to wager anything. Their opponent will regain about 30 percent of their health but no damage is done to the leading player, and 30 percent stamina disappears quickly with one mix-up or combo. On the flipside, there is no reason the losing player shouldn’t wager all or most of their meter.

Additionally, wagers can be decided before they are even triggered. If either player has a lower amount of the meter than the other, the one who has the most meter will essentially win automatically. Ultimately the strategy surrounding wager is really shallow and the impact it has on the game is minimal.

Overall, Injustice’s gameplay system is unique and mostly solid. It is also simple and very easy to play. Newcomers and casual fighting players will no doubt find Injustice fun and easy to jump into. With this said, the system is far from perfect and many of the issues found in NetherRealm’s previous game, Mortal Kombat, are also present here and ultimately hold the game back.

To start, the combo system in this game is quite inconsistent. Combos are usually done using a combination of cancels and air juggles. Juggles work pretty much the way fighting game players would expect them to but cancels are a different story.

In fact, I don’t even see cancels in Injustice as cancels in the true sense of the word. In most other fighting games, cancels involve the player inputting the command for another attack while another attack’s animation is still in progress, canceling the animation of the previous attack in progress. Only certain attacks can be canceled and they are usually canceled at any time during the attacks animation or during a certain window during the animation.

This does not appear to be the case in Injustice. Rather than inputting the command for the next attack during a specific time, cancels seem to be executed by just simply inputting the commands in sequence, similar to how strings are executed. There really is no timing involved outside of just immediately inputting the command for the second attack after the first.

This form of executing cancels is problematic as it essentially removes the concept of hit confirming. Instead waiting to see if their attack connects before they perform a combo, the player has to either fully commit and go all in with the combo or just play it safe but do little damage in the process. Also because timing still plays a factor in juggles, the execution of combos can be inconsistent when combining cancels and juggles. This issue can ultimately be overcome and I’m sure most players will get used to how combos work but it’s still an annoyance and a disregard for fighting game mechanic fundamentals.

Another aspect of the gameplay system that doesn’t consistently work is the wake-up attacks*. Much like other 2d fighting games, players in Injustice can perform attacks as they wake-up from being knocked down. This serves to avoid mix-ups or stop pressure as the player returns to their feet.

The problem however is that wake-up attacks rarely work this way in Injustice because the timing to perform the attack always seems to be different. I’m not sure if this issue occurs because every attack in Injustice leaves the character knocked down for a variety of different times (different knock down frames for each attack) or if the timing just varies. Additionally, most wake-up attacks can easily be interrupted, including invincible attacks, by meaty attacks.

Wake-up attacks are just incredibly inconsistent overall and difficult to use in match. This is not a gigantic problem by any means but if a mechanic is available in a fighting game, I expect it to work consistently. I’m sure most players will find some way around this problem but it is unfortunate that they can’t rely on wake-ups to help them deal with 50/50 mix-ups, which are really powerful in Injustice.

Other gripes I have about the gameplay system: trades are odd, throws are too easy to break, frame data is inconsistent (at least based on the frame data given in-game), cross-ups are brain-dead easy, meter-burn execution is inconsistent and other various issues with the other mechanics I discussed early in the review. The controls also feel a bit stiff at times which I believe is due to the quality of the animation, which I will discuss later.

The online mode for Injustice is also pretty bad. Like Mortal Kombat before it, the netcode isn’t well developed as the game lags significantly. I suppose the netcode has improved from Mortal Kombat but not by much. Even playing online matches locally (about 30 miles) creates some noticeable lag. This is very unfortunate considering I believe this game will have a lot of appeal among casual players, who are more likely to play online than offline.

As always, it is difficult to gauge the balance of any competitive game soon after release and Injustice is no different. The game tends to favor a zoning style of play so characters with good zoning tools feel strong in this game. Characters with limited zoning capabilities feel like they have an  inherent disadvantage. However, most of the characters have at least some zoning tools of their own or ways to get around zoning, so the balance isn’t too skewed.

The effectiveness of zoning may indeed change later on the game’s lifespan. With NetherRealm’s propensity to constantly make balance changes, there is really no telling how the game will change over time.

The gameplay system of Injustice is overall playable and most people will get a lot of enjoyment out of it. There is also enough depth to the gameplay for competitive players to find value in it. However, it still suffers from many of the issues that plagued Mortal Kombat and it ultimately makes the game feel unpolished.

Presentation

Speaking of unpolished, Injustice‘s presentation, much like its gameplay, is also quite inconsistent. The character models, while having high polygon counts, look very plastic and many of the textures in the game are low resolution. The overall animation is pretty bad and downright terrible in some instances. The characters look incredible stiff when they are attacking which may contribute to the stiff feeling of the controls. The game slows down from 60 frames per second to 30 during cut-scenes, super attacks and stage transitions, which makes the low quality of the animation all the more noticeable.

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The character models and animation aren’t impressive but the stages and particles look awesome

On the bright side, the stages look significantly better than the rest of the game. Artistically, the stages are well crafted and inventive. They are incredibly detailed with tons of interactions and effects being displayed in the background. The low resolution textures are also less noticeable for obvious reasons.

The sound in this game is incredibly generic. The hit effects sound more like slaps than punches and kicks, though the environmental interactions sound particularly brutal. The music is very low volume and mostly doesn’t fit the fast-paced rhythm of the gameplay. It is not bad but it just doesn’t add to the frantic and intense nature of the gameplay and ultimately feels out of place.

Fortunately, the gameplay is more than enjoyable  enough to overlook these presentation issues. Poor quality animation in particular affects my ability to enjoy certain video games but I was mostly able to overlook it in Injustice because I was entertained by the gameplay. I will go ahead and assume that this will be the case with most of the players that pick up the game but I know there some out there that cannot overlook the presentational aspects of a video game so easily.

Conclusion

Injustice: Gods Among Us is a fun game across the board. The gameplay system does feel unpolished , with certain fighting game design fundamentals absent or poorly implemented. However, it is still enjoyable overall and its many new innovative features and mechanics, make Injustice feel fresh and unique for the numerous other fighters currently available. The stage interactions in particular are well done and add a layer of strategy that significantly changes the way players approach the game. Injustice is a very approachable and overall easy to play game with plenty of single player content, which will make it very appealing among casual players.

Overall, Injustice is fun and I encourage anyone who likes the DC universe or fighting games to give it a try.

Score: 3/5

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Did Spacewar!, MUD and Snake Influence Millennial Culture?

Technology, interactivity, instant gratification, and engagement are all words often associated with the millennial generation, those born between 1980 and 2000.

These words are also commonly associated with something else: video games.

Like millennials, video games advanced and came into their own during the start of the information age, evolving alongside and influencing other technologies such as the Internet and personal computers and offering people a new form of interactive entertainment.

However, video games did not just help influence the development of other technologies, but they also influenced many aspects of modern culture such as interactivity and online communities.

So, is it possible that video games helped influence the millennial culture?

According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, millennials grew up with regular access to technologies such as personal computers, mobile phones and the Internet, and they feel their use of these technologies makes them unique from other generations.

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An info-graphic of the Pew Research Study

In the book The Ultimate History of Video Games, author Steven L. Kent explains how video games helped influence modern technology.

In the 1960s, it was men like Steve “Slug” Russell,  the creator of Spacewar! that is commonly referred to as the first computer game, who first began creating applications for computers outside of mathematical and practical use. Visionaries like Nolan Bushnell  and Ralph Baer were among the first to market computer technology to the general public with products like Computer Space, the first video arcade game, and the Magnavox Odyssey, the first video game console.

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The original Spacewar! running on the DEC PDP-1

The personal computer also has origins in the video game industry. Steve Jobs  used the bonus he received from Atari for creating Breakout, with a lot of help from Steve Wozniak,  to help fund the Apple II. One of the most successful personal computers of the 1980s, the Commodore 64, owed much of its success to its large library of video games, according to video game historians Matt Barton and Bill Loguidice.

Video games were also among the earliest applications to take advantage of computer networks. According to Mark Hachman, editor at PC Magazine, video games like Empire and Maze War were played on networks like PLATO and APRANET, precursors to the modern day Internet.

Some of the first applications available on mobile devices were also video games, as noted by the Entertainment Software Association. The popular game Snake first appeared on scientific calculators designed by Texas Instruments and cellphones by Nokia during the mid 1990s. Video games have since become a standard feature offered in mobile phones and are some of most frequently used applications by users of modern mobile devices.

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Snake running on a Nokia cellphone

In addition to influencing the modern technology used by millennials, video games also influenced much of the culture associated with these technologies.

Interactivity is an important component of many of the technologies millennials use today, and video games were some the first interactive applications available.

Thanks to the arcades and home consoles of the 1970s, video games gave the public the ability to experience media like never before through interactivity. People no longer simply watched what happened on a screen, but could directly take control of what was being displayed.

Today, many devices have user interfaces that offer instant feedback to its users. Computer operating systems, television guides and websites all allow the user to directly interact with technology and make better use of it, utilizing concepts taken from video games.

Millennials are also often associated with their desire for instant gratification, which is due in part to the use interactive technology. When millennials play games or use interactive UIs, their actions are represented almost instantly on screen.

In the book Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, authors Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman explain that even the slightest action like pressing a button to create an action on screen is gratifying to players. Even though these actions are simplistic and don’t offer immediate reward, players receive gratification just from knowing they have direct control over these actions.

Due in part to interactive technology, millennials may be more accustomed to receiving immediate results and feedback. For example, millennials are more likely to get bored performing menial tasks, quit activities that don’t offer immediate rewards and become frustrated quickly. In short, millennials need to feel engaged in the activities they perform.

“I think this (need for engagement) is the product of us growing up in a progressive society filled with so many conveniences,” said Joshua Vincent, academic tutor at El Paso Community College and millennial. “Engagement is an active process, so it’s difficult to find meaning in information you are not interested in.”

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Millennial students find the traditional lecture classroom boring and unegaging

Engagement is another concept familiar to video games. Part of the success of video games lies in their ability to engage the player.

The interactivity between the screen and the player, the choices players make, the rules that govern those choices and the rewards they receive for completing tasks all blend together to create meaningful play. According to Salen and Zimmerman, meaningful play is the element that separates games from toys and other forms of play — and is what makes them engaging.

In more ways than one, video games are the perfect vehicles for captivating users, so it is no coincidence that many millennials enjoy playing video games. According the Pew Research survey, twice as many millennials play video games as compared to other generations.

Businesses and educational institutions have taken note of this aspect of millennial culture and are looking for ways to better hold their interest.

In an article for Forbes.com, Ben Werner of Microsoft Dynamics details a new process called “gamification” in which employers experiment with offering rewards to young workers for performing well on the job and keeping tabs of these rewards using leader boards. Werner describes this process as being similar to how video games reward players for completing certain tasks and keep track of the best players online.

The Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center at Northern Illinois University is looking into using games and simulations to better engage its millennial students. Additionally, this university is planning to offer 24/7 technology services to students to help satisfy their needs for interactivity and immediate service.

The interactive nature of video games has also influenced how the millennial generation socializes.

According the Pew Research survey, 75 percent of millennials have created social networking profiles. Social networks such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter are the modern evolution of online communities, a culture that has roots in video games.

In fact, playing video games were some the earliest ways in which people interacted with others via network. By playing each other competitively and cooperatively online, players were able to interact with one another without being in the same room, city or even country.

Along with these online games came online communities. Fans created bulletin boards on university servers to discuss ideas and share content for their favorite video games. These bulletin boards were the precursor to the modern day online forums.

The concept of bulletin boards was taken further with the introduction of the Multi-User Dungeon or MUD in 1978. According to Hachman, MUD was the very first online virtual world. It allowed users to create their own text adventures and  share and play them with others around the world. MUD, no doubt, influenced the development of massive multiplayer online games such as Ultima Online and World of Warcraft, which in turn inspired virtual worlds such as Second Life and IMVU.

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MUD was a textbased adventure that allowed players to create their own adventures and share them with others on the network

A common practice that developed with online video games and online communities is the use of an alias, screen name or tag to identify one’s self online. Today, many people use their real names on social networks but the use of a screen name is still common among millennials in  online forums, chat rooms and online multiplayer video game services.

There is no doubt that video games, and the technologies they influenced, had an impact on millennial culture. This isn’t so surprising as video games are the product of developments made in previous generations. Like any other generation, millennials are influenced by past generations.

The question now is, how will the post-millennial generation be influenced by millennials, video games or other developing technologies?

Sources:

Pew Research Center, “Millennials: Confident. Connected. Open to Change,” Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends (2010). http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2010/02/24/millennials-confident-connected-open-to-change/

Steven L. Kent, The Ulitmate History of Video Games (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001).

Mat Barton and Bill Loguidice, “A History of Gaming Platforms: The Commodore 64,” Gamasutra (2007). http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/130406/a_history_of_gaming_platforms_the_.php?page=5

Mark Hachman, “Infographic: A Massive History of Multiplayer Online Gaming,” PC Magazine (2011). http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2390917,00.asp

Entertainment Software Association, “The Evolution of Mobile Games,” The Entertainment Software Association (2012). http://www.theesa.com/games-improving-what-matters/mobile-games.asp

Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004).

Ben Werner, “When Work Resembles a Video Game, Millennials Thrive,” Forbes (2013). http://www.forbes.com/sites/microsoftdynamics/2013/04/22/pwning-the-contact-center/

Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center, “Millennials: Our Newest Generation in Higher Education,” Northern Illinois University (2012). http://www.niu.edu/facdev/resources/guide/students/millennials_our_newest_generation_in_higher_education.pdf

New Feature and Injustice Review Coming Soon

I have been hard at work writing some more material for my blog as well as writing assignments for my summer class. Needless to say, I wanted a small break from the keyboard. Now that I feel more refreshed, I plan on adding more content soon. I’ll be adding a new feature in the Video Game History category that analyzes how video games helped influence modern culture and a new review for Injustice: Gods Among US. Hopefully I will have these up by early next week. Just stay tuned.

Also, the blog has a new look. The old theme I was using was glitching out so I had to change it. Let me know what you think. I’ll probably spice it up some more later on.

Thanks for your time and attention.

-Frank (T-1000)