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Published September 16, 2011
Tom: Prologues and openings generally tend to be the most memorable parts of videogames. Most players can easily conjure memories of setting foot in the underwater city of Rapture for the first time, getting their starter Pokémon from Professor Oak, or smashing their first headcrab to bits with Gordon Freeman’s signature crowbar. The best introductions immediately involve the player in the world of the game and teach the gameplay mechanics in a clever or non-obtrusive manner.
It makes sense – first impressions are the most important, after all. It’s generally safe to say that if the first hour with a game is frustrating or unrewarding, the rest will usually follow suit. However, there are always exceptions: games that put a stumbling foot forward and end up rewarding the faithful who soldier on despite confusing tutorials, odd difficulty spikes, or boring prologues.

Justin: One of my greatest frustrations within the Pack is that my self-proclaimed Nintendo fanboyism means that my recommendations of that company’s games are usually dismissed. It doesn’t matter if I say that Donkey Kong Country Returns features amazing platforming set pieces or that Super Mario 3D Land looks to be doing some neat tricks with perspective because Justin has his StreetPass hat pulled over his eyes. Given that insurmountable hurdle, I don’t even know how I’d get my fellow podcasters to check out 2006’s Chibi Robo, a late cult classic for the GameCube that gets one major thing wrong at the outset of the game before getting so many things right.

The game is something of an open-world exploration game, in which you play as a tiny robot programmed to make a family of three happier. Later in the game, that means exploring the expanses of the house, interacting with other toys and uncovering secrets throughout. It’s like playing “Toy Story” through a bizarre Japanese lens. However, before you can get there, you’ll have to deal with stupidly menial tasks in order to level up. It’s been a couple years since I’ve played it, but I think this meant scraping dog crap off the kitchen tile with a toothbrush, if memory served correctly. (You’ll also spend a lot of time just picking up trash.) Of course, there are no physical boundaries keeping you from the more desirable content of the game, but without leveling up your battery – via dirt scrubbin’ – your Chibi Robo is basically stuck in one spot, clinging to electrical sockets for dear life until the game’s brutal time limit sends you back to the living room. As you slowly upgrade, you’ll find that the game has tons to offer, but it certainly takes its time getting there.

Though this is a particularly egregious example, there have been a handful of other Nintendo games that also adopted the “crawl before you can walk” policy. Few others have derailed gamers as much as the first village in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. Those who made it out of this excruciating tutorial discovered an expansive, engrossing update to tried-and-true 3D Zelda. Twilight Princess features an incredibly dense overworld, great artwork and inventive dungeons, such as a yeti’s mansion and the Zelda equivalent of a Tony Hawk skate park, that would have detractors letting up on their “more of the same” outcries.

The problem is that it’s buried under a couple hours of tedious goat wrangling and weak supporting characters that just never shut up. It’s simultaneously incredibly obtuse and patronizing, and it’s the only reason I haven’t replayed Twilight Princess since. If you look back at Ocarina, you can get to the first dungeon, the Deku Tree, in about 15 minutes. In Twilight Princess, it truly felt like an eternity. This Nintendo fanboy can only hope that Skyward Sword doesn’t dwell to much on the setup before giving you the classic sword and shield combo that we all know is on the way.

Kaz: I have a strange but particularly extreme “bad first impression” story.

To set the scene: it’s sophomore year of college. I’m visiting a friend’s apartment. I walk in to a completely silent living room.

I was invited here. I was told that there were a bunch of people in here waiting to hang out.

Walking further into the apartment I see the faint glow of monitors. Every single person in this apartment is glued to his monitor. Looking over their shoulders, I’m pretty sure I’m looking at Warcraft 3, but things are very odd about this particular game of Warcraft. There don’t seem to be bases or armies at all. What is this?

“DooOOoTaAaAaAaa,” one of the zombies affixed to their screens groans.

I tried to understand this Defense of the Ancients (DotA) game they had apparently spent hours playing doing but it was all lost on me. “You play for 30 minutes as one character in Warcraft? There aren’t any armies? Where do you get resources?” A string of decidedly unenthused questions streamed out of my mouth. Surely this just wasn’t a game for me. Anything that can turn my friends into mindless drones is not the game for me.

Flash forward: hanging out online, I’m sent a link by my friends to join a beta for a strange unheard of game called: League of Legends. Not realizing that I was about to get sucked into the brain melting world I was so dismissive of a couple years prior.

The first matches were rough, I had no clue what the basic strategies were and the game was filled with experts. I was persistent, though, and over 500 games later (250+ hours) I kick myself for not getting on the bandwagon sooner.

Come to think of it, Counter Strike: Source was the same way, so everybody get ready for Global Offensive…

Tom: Alpha Protocol, a spy thriller from last summer, is a game that doesn’t get enough love. It’s also a game that doesn’t do much to elicit any emotion other than frustration until a good few hours in. Tons of dialogue choices, a highly fluid mission structure and some unique gameplay elements should have earned this title more acclaim, but after playing through the opening you’d be hard-pressed to find evidence of any of these features.
The dialogue choices have the potential to drastically alter your path through the game, influencing friends to become enemies, enemies to become friends and a number of lovely ladies to shag you – spy thriller, remember? – or throw drinks in your face. However, meeting the main character at the beginning of the game, you’re basically only given extreme options to react to people like one of the following: a huge asshole, a smug dick or a borderline rapist.
It takes awhile for the subleties of the dialogue system to start paying off, but even longer to gain enough XP to build a character who isn’t a complete moron. I can imagine most people only spending a few seconds trying to aim the first pistol in the game before realizing the main character apparently shotgunned a jug of ethanol in an unseen cutscene before being deployed on the first mission. No one should have to devote three or four levels worth of experience to the mastery of a single gun before unlocking the prestigious “aim in a straight fucking line” ability. Eventually, enough XP is earned to either craft a stealthy character or competent shooter, but the first few missions are pretty rough no matter which options you take.
If you can get over the sterile opening, difficult learning/experience curve and weird “gotta poop” shuffle your character does when in stealth mode, you’ll find Alpha Protocol to be a competent RPG that provides an experience few other games this generation offer. Plus, on completion of the game, you gain access to a giant lumberjack beard for your character (seriously) and a bonus dialogue option that lets you verbally hand people their ass. Classy.

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