So many games ask you to shell out 50 or 60 bucks, and for what? Thirty or so hours of playtime? Great, but what if you don't want to spend a whole week in fantasy land? That's where episodic gaming comes in: smaller games selling for less and offered up on a more frequent basis. Y'know, like Heroes or Battlestar Galactica--shows that keep you glued to the set from one week to the next. Well, the new TV season may be a couple months out, but that doesn't mean PC World's slack celebration can't pay its own tribute. Here's a quick list of new (and old) episodes to try.
Siren: Blood Curse
Season Starts: July 24
Episodiness: 12 episodes; in a set, or in smaller packs
The Deal: Bloody zombie-ish things? Check. Creepy puzzle-solving mysteries while you (literally) have to beat back said demons? Double check. Siren: Blood Curse really gets under your skin as a thriller (Think The Ring meets Silent Hill), and it's also Sony's first experiment in episodic gaming on the PS3. Some talk a good game about episodes, but this release really sells the idea. Each chapter closes on a cliffhanger. Start a new chapter, and it might as well say, "Last time on Siren...."
As for how they are dishing out content, you can buy the game in three separate packs (each containing four chapters) for 15 bucks each, or you can purchase the bundle for $40. My advice: Download the demo before buying. I enjoyed it, but some people might be turned off by the gore (this game ain't for kiddies), the slightly twitchy controls, or the way that the moody lighting effects make things tough to see on some sets.
Season Starts: July 31st
Episodiness: 24 episodes; a new episode runs every Thursday on Gametap.com.
The Deal: Don't know about you, but I like my games seriously twisted. And American McGee's Grimm looks like it'll take first prize. The concept: The series takes classic stories like Little Red Riding Hood and knocks 'em on their asses. The expurgated versions of Grimm's fairy tales that most of us grew up on--and especially as transplanted to this game--are sweet and nice, and someone needs to set that straight. That's your job: To run through this world and corrupt everything you touch.
In the end, it's a simple jumping puzzle game, and you can finish an episode in about 30 minutes. But the world is so well done (both in its "good" and "evil" state), I found myself wasting time just looking around and taking screen shots for new desktop backgrounds. Unlike other games that promise episodes on a monthly--and in some cases yearly--basis, Grimm's got a new adventure every week--24 episodes in all. If you want to give it a shot, the first episode ("A Boy Learns What Fear Is") will be available free at Gametap.com. From there on, you need to sign up for the service. As the old saying goes, "your first taste is free." The only downside is that you'll have to wait a week to play.
StrongBad's Cool Game for Attractive People
Season Starts: "Any day now"--sometime in August
Network: Wii and PC
Episodiness: Five monthly(ish) episodes
The Deal: It's a game where you control a luchador-masked man named "StrongBad" that answers e-mail all day while wearing boxing gloves. No joke. This insane antihero has been in residence on homestarrunner.com for years now, answering reader e-mail in Web toons, singing songs, and inventing video games. SB's Cool Game for Attractive People, which is coming to the Wii (and PC), will walk you through StrongBad's world of weird. And trogdors. And something called "The Cheat."
Feel like crying, "But Darren, I'm not a die-hard SB fan!"? Don't sweat it; the inside jokes will be just as funny to newbies. My cube neighbor laughed at this stuff--and he hates everything (including puppies). Just go with me on this one: It's a candidate for strangest adventure game series ever made. And most awesome.
Season Starts: Ongoing news coverage
Episodiness: 88 or so missions (if you include variants like multiplayer)
The Deal: Since 2004, Kuma\War has made a name for itself by recreating wartime scenarios from the nightly news and converting them into game form. I was a little worried at first that these realistic sorties would come across in poor taste. Let me put it this way: At times, this game is. Since then, the developers have expanded into games recreating famous aerial dogfights (History Channel's Dogfights) and robbery busts (Spike TV's The Killing Point). Like Kuma\War, all these games are free, sponsored by advertisers and TV networks. Granted, their stuff doesn't have the hottest graphics known to mankind, but you can't argue with the price.
Half-Life 2: Episodes Season Starts: Currently in repeats
Network: PC, PS3, and Xbox 360
Episodiness: Two episodes out, one more coming.
The Deal: Half-Life 2 was huge when it came out in 2004. I'm talking summer-blockbuster huge.
With other-worldly enforcers and freaky creatures to fight, the game is full of addictive action, puzzles, and great story-telling. Since that time, Valve has sold us on this whole idea that smaller, high-quality episodes can hit quicker than it takes to assemble a full game.
Almost two years after HL2's launch in late 2004, HL2: Episode One shipped in June 2006 for about 20 bucks. Then, last fall, The Orange Box dropped like a megaton, bundling not only Episode 2, but Portal, Team Fortress 2, and the last two Half-Life 2 games. A third title will round out the episodic trilogy at some point, but honestly, there's something wrong with you if you don't try it. Besides, people are assembling all sorts of creative mods (and episodic mods) for Half-Life 2. Download Minerva if you don't believe me. That may as well be a whole other Half-Life game.
Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-soaked Precipice of Darkness Episode 1
Season Starts: Currently in repeats
Network: PC and Xbox 360 (PS3 this fall)
Episodiness: One episode, more coming "at some point."
The Deal: Yes, the above mess actually is the full name of a relatively short episodic adventure. Penny Arcade is a fan-fave Web comic amongst the gaming set, but those not in the know are missing something: a sharp-looking action game dripping with style--and wise-ass dialogue worthy of an Evil Dead/Army of Darkness marathon. There's only one episode out so far, but the creators promise that more are coming.
Sam & Max
Season Starts: Currently in repeats
Network: PC (Wii this holiday)
Episodiness: Two "seasons"; 11 episodes
The Deal: Never heard of Sam & Max? Really? A mainstay of classic adventure gaming? OK, imagine the most twisted cartoon you ever came across on late-night TV, except you're interacting with it. The stars--a homicidal rabbit and a Sam Spade-inspired canine--bust some of the weirdest crimes on the planet. And on the moon. And in Hell. The first two seasons have already run on Gametap and have since been released on everything from Valve's Steam service to special edition DVD-ROMs. If you're any kind of fan of oddball puzzle-solving adventures, this is a must-have. Not sure if it's for you? The "Abe Lincoln Must Die" episode is free on the Telltale games download page.
Wing Commander: Secret Ops
The Deal: Like every great TV series ahead of its time, WC:SO was a little too ambitious for its own good. Nowadays, 120MB downloads per installment may not sound bad, but we're talking about an age when you were lucky to have a 56KB modem. Fortunately, if you know where to look, the faithful continue to crank out free, fan-created Wing Commander episodes like WC: Standoff. Download it and savor some space opera dialogue (not to mention shooting down Kilrathi).
Well, until the next episode...
Senior Writer Darren Gladstone geeks out over gadgets, games, and odd uses for humdrum tech. In other words, he's a nerd--and he's okay with that.