To those who are tired of numerical review scores and have no confidence in five-star ratings systems, I would like to present a new way to judge video games.
Well, not really. Or at least not completely seriously.
Last week, after closing up shop at work, I went to an EA Christmas-in-October event. I played a bunch of the publisher's upcoming 2007 games and realized that I could say quite a lot about them just by describing how I died in them.
Does telling you how I bought it in each game help you determine if you'd buy the game? Let's try this: judging a game by how it kills you.
The EA event took place at a catered club, filling two floors full of EA console, PC and mobile games. "Rock Band" was set up on a balcony that overlooked a pit of EA Sports games. The sports pit was surrounded by stands of casual titles, including a few Wii games that needed to provide players room to swing elbows and point remotes.
Among those Wii titles I first found "Medal of Honor: Heroes 2." The Word War II first-person shooter is one of those games for the system that may look the way it does because it is also being developed for the PSP. But graphics are not the criteria of the day! How I croaked in it is. So, my Noteworthy Death: gunned down by Nazis while I wielded a Wii Zapper. If I had a stopwatch I could give an exact number that explains why the death was noteworthy. But I didn't. So please settle for the explanation that I got further into the game using the Zapper than I did using the Wii remote and nunchuck. When you use the Wii and nunchuck, the game controls as you would expect a first-person-shooter on the Wii to. You move the character with the thumbstick in your left hand. You aim and shoot with the remote on the right. You use your standard FPS-player skills, and, if you're like me, you feel kind if dispassionate about it, because, well, you've used FPS skills in a WWII setting many, many times. When playing the game with the Zapper, the levels are reconfigured as on-rails shooters. You simply point the Zapper at enemies and shoot; or fire at healthpacks to restore energy. The Wii moves you through the level. I've played plenty of World War II first-person shooters, but I haven't played an on-rails one... ever? Such a set-up makes things easier, lets me live longer in the game, and, you know what... if we can get an on-rails WWII game out of this, why not? So the relative lack of player-death in one of the modes is what impressed me.
Almost directly above "Medal of Honor," on the balcony opposite "Rock Band" I played a snow level in the high-end PC first-person shooter "Crysis." At previous EA events I had played a tropical level and a zero-gravity encounter. My favorite aspect of the game had been he ability to charge up super-strength, punch trees and then watch them fall with realistic physics: nothing like some real physics being used to render a ridiculous bit of wood-chopping. This time, my Noteworthy Death: knocked out from behind by falling rocks -- twice. This dead was aided by the chortling (cackling?) of EA rep Andrew Wong. "That's a real-time weather system!" he said as other hunks of snow and ice -- the ones that didn't knock my guy to oblivion -- skated down past my corpse. Wong had set me up to start on a high, snowy slope. My first task was to run down it, minding the screen-shaking avalanche that began to rumble behind me. Wong explained that the avalanche was different each time, a product of the game's physics systems letting large chunks of ice slide in my direction, falling as they may. When he stopped laughing he reminded me I could activate my super-suit to sprint. I did. I survived. And then I fought some very tough floating tentacled alien things. At least they attacked me from the front. Do you want a game that's sophisticated enough to have a new avalanche each time?
Next to "Crysis" was a couch, set up for people to lounge while playing the co-op third-person military action Xbox 360 / PS3 game "Army of Two." I played a couple of levels accompanied by two of the game's level designers who traded off on being my partner. I spent most of my time in an aircraft carrier level, shooting bad guys and taking turns drawing fire away from my co-op partner, then taking advantage of the moments when she decided to draw fire. I learned that if I drew the fire and turned red (representing the "aggro" state), I could then play dead and immediately transfer the attention-drawing "aggro" from my character to her, a surefire way to mess with your co-op partner's stealthy flow. I also learned that I can do non-damaging moves to my partner's character, like back-slapping. It all sounds good on paper, but this game left me unsure of the final product. The developers worried me when they started talking about a four or five-hour completion time, but then they said that was only for the easiest difficulty level. I was more worried about how I died in this game. Noteworthy Death: enemies in the level exchanging glances and eventually a fatal knockout blow. For whatever reason, the heavily-armed enemies and my character kept running right past each other. Right past each other. The way you would if you were trying to shoulder check your least favorite friend into a row of lockers. When these moments happened I'd mash buttons trying to melee them. They'd get away. We'd fire at each other at that close range and not hit each other. Eventually, a blindly ambling enemy might walk into a killing blow or do the same to me, but with the game supposedly shipping this winter, I was surprised that the enemies running past me seemed dumber than the rocks in "Crysis." And I wasfrustrated when they got the kill in those moments and I didn't, because the moments felt like they shouldn't have happened at all.
The hardest game I played at the EA event was the DS version of the dancing game "Boogie," probably because producer Jean-Charles Gaudechon, who I once interviewed about the already-released Wii version of the game, demanded I try the title's mini-games on the hardest setting It was brutal. Whether I was being asked to tap stars as they zipped through circles, to sketch shapes (including the letters "EA") or spin a hula hoop around a dancer, I was getting zero points. People had complained that Wii "Boogie." was too easy. Be careful what you complain about, people. "We learned our lesson from the Wii," Gaudechon told me. Then, having proven his point he let me drop the difficulty and win a little. Ah, but the Noteworthy Death came when I played the game's main dancing mode while wearing 3D glasses. You don't have to use the glasses. You can just play it straight, tapping the stylus to the beat, poking properly timed combos and manipulating an occasional singing or strumming mini-game. Play the game with the glasses and the graphics need to be tweaked in an options menu. I ran into a problem because the graphics, while popping off the screen in 3D, seemed to be mostly of the same color as the icons streaming by. I couldn't keep track of what I was supposed to hit. So I lost. I like the 3D effort, but playing with glasses remains a challenge. "Sly 3" and "Metal Gear Acid 2" and "Rad Racer" didn't knock the eature out of the park either.
Those were the four ways I croaked in four of EA's games. Can we really tell how good or bad these games will be, based on them? At least you've got a different angle, maybe one that shows where and how these games might stop you in your tracks, begging the question: facing these obstacles, would you go back and play some more?