01 December 2008

Feeling the Wrath

Another unexcused absence on my part. Damn Blizzard and their digital heroin.

Some old news I wanted to comment on. First off, this tidy bit of news hit late this month. Now, I've been keeping a wayward eye on the development of Batman: Arkham Asylum and this development was rumored from the very moment details about the game started to hit. Batman: The Animated Series is still one of my favorite incarnations of the franchise and Mark Hamill is one of my favorite actors to portray the Joker. (Yes, just barely beating out Heath Ledger, rest his method-acting soul.) With so many people from the former show directly working on the new Batman game, I'm strongly of the opinion that, even if the gameplay is blasé, the story and acting alone will carry me through. High hopes riding on this game.

Earlier this month, I caught word that EA is reviving the long forgotten Dungeon Keeper series. I was overjoyed, until I discovered there were only plans for developing it for the Chinese market. As an MMO, no less. Really? Was Dungeon Keeper a breakout hit in Southeast Asia? Was I not aware? How would an MMO Dungeon Keeper even play? What would it be, an MMORTS? As crest-fallen as I was at this tease of a headline, this still gives me hope that we may yet see a proper sendup of the series on these shores.

Brutal Legend was picked up by EA after being unceremoniously thrown to an uncertain fate by Activision. With Ghostbusters also having found a home with Atari, all is well again for what will surely be two exceptional titles next year.

Kristena just brought this tidbit to my attention. Apparently, the PSP is a phone. I wonder if my carrier supports it. More than anything, this article just reminded me that I used to want a PSP. Mostly, because I wanted a portable Disgaea. But I couldn't meet the $200 price of entry. Then, Disgaea came to DS and all was right in the world again. But, a phone? I need to get me one of them.

Ubisoft made a big scene by releasing Prince of Persia for PC with NO DRM. After the Spore fiasco, I thought maybe Stardock's "laisséz-faire" attitude towards piracy was starting to spread to the rest of the industry. Then I read this and started to doubt their motives. If there's any truth to this and launching PoP DRM-free is indeed "a trap", then... well, I guess there's really no news at all. Pirates will be pirates. Large companies will continue to hate on pirates. Sun rise, sun set.

I want to take this opportunity to set the record straight, since every time this non-issue makes the headlines, my ears start to bleed. Pirates are not "thieves". They aren't shining beacons of morality, but they're not taking anything from the company either. Whenever someone downloads a cracked ISO of Painkiller, a hard copy of the game doesn't disappear from a Wal-mart shelf. The corporate fat cats would have you believe otherwise. Game companies report estimated losses to financial analysts based on illegal download activity for pirated versions of their games. But they do this on the assumption that each download of a pirated copy of a game is a lost sale. i.e. a person who would have bought the game had the illegal download not been available. This is nonsense. Anybody who has ever at any point downloaded illegal content, be it movies, music, OR games, will tell you to your face that there's only one reason they reach for those downloads: They're free to anyone with an internet connection. Maybe they're broke and couldn't afford the game in stores. Maybe they're bored and just sifting through game downloads at some torrent repository. The one thing they all have in common is they're after a free ride. If pirates started charging even $5 per download (1/10th of what they would pay in stores.), you'd see download rates for those games drop by half, if not more. If all pirated software disappeared from the world, all of those users wouldn't rush out to their local Best Buy to purchase the missing games. A minority of hardcore fans might make room for a must-have game in their budget, but most people would just do without. And that's why I can never support the games industry in their anti-piracy efforts. Their whole argument against the opposition is predicated on a fabrication. Piracy is much less morally ambiguous than outright lying.

And, that seems about as good as any place to stop. Back to the frozen wastes of Northrend for me. Wish me luck!

How does a phrase like "corporate fat cats" even exist? Are all hippie liberals watching Rescue Rangers between nude love-ins?

26 November 2008

A Much Shorter Absence

Haven't posted in a while for a couple of reasons. And those reasons are Fallout 3, Fable II, Mirror's Edge, Left 4 Dead, and Wrath of the Lich King. Mostly WotLK, though. This time of year is always a crunch but, surprisingly, this year has been fairly light compared to holidays past. Still, the new content in World of Warcraft alone consumes the majority of my time. I managed to tear myself away from the shores of Northrend long enough to make a few updates.

You may or may not have heard that the NIMF has done an about-face with it's stance on video games and declared the fault to be mostly, if not entirely, on parents and educators. The industry report card contains such sweeping statements as "[t]he ESRB has become the entertainment industry leader in educating retailers and parents about the rating system." Like many, I was overjoyed to hear this. This could be the first major step towards the video game industry being accepted as a legitimate medium, right up there with movies, television and music. This is definitely worth keeping an eye on. Let's hope this is only the start of a trend away from blaming games for all of the ills of the world.

Reading up on Star Wars: The Old Republic, a certain detail concerning the gameplay caught my attention. Bioware intends to implement a companion system, allowing players to recruit certain NPCs to travel and quest with. Although only one companion can be recruited at a time, each recruitable character comes with their own story, abilities and quests. The reason I found this notable was that this seems to be a throwback to Neverwinter Nights, Baludur's Gate and, of course, Knights of the Old Republic. If done properly, this feature alone could bring what makes all of Bioware's single player affairs so great to the game and serve to make The Old Republic stand out from the MMO crowd. Just when I thought I couldn't be any more excited at a new Bioware release.

One last things before I head back to the frozen peaks of Azeroth, if you're ever even heard of Mortal Kombat, you need to take a look at this. In response to the release of Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, Maxim Magazine scored an exclusive with Hernan Sanchez, the voice responsible for the iconic "Finish Him!" in every Mortal Kombat game since the beginning. And, rather than delivering a typical interview, Maxim took the opportunity to do something exceptional. I think "Flawless... Ensemble!" has to be my favorite...

05 November 2008

More EndWar

I want to take a moment to bring up Tom Clancy's EndWar once more. If you recall from my last post regarding the subject, EndWar is a nifty new RTS coming to PC and consoles that combines voice commands with quick, small scale combat to make for a fine strategy experience. Checking my usual sites this morning, I saw that 1up.com had posted their review of the game, the day before it's scheduled to hit retail shelves. So I read it, as is my ritual, and was shocked (Shocked!) by the apparent contempt for the fledgling IP contained within. A "C"? I've played EndWar in both beta and demo forms and I'm of the opinion that , even if one were to concentrate solely on the faults of the game, it's a "B-" at worst. The game MIGHT have taken a slide in quality since the beta but, given the state of the demo, that's unlikely.

Now, normally, I'm not one to dispute review scores. I read reviews largely for entertainment value and I'm seldom swayed by their expressed opinions, especially when they conflict directly with my own. Furthermore, I pay the review scores even less mind than the review itself, since the numbers are largely arbitrary and useless without the content of the article to provide context. If this were simply a case of differing opinions, I would have payed it no mind and this post would be about something entirely different. Maybe politics and their effect on games.

But this seemed to be more than just a case of "to each, his own". Certain phrases in the review tipped me to the notion that Mr. Haywald's review was less than impartial from the start. He starts with some niggling complaints about the single player campaign. I can't speak to this because I haven't been able to sample the full game, but it does set the tone for the rest of the review. The first really suspect phrase is "[...]beyond a few minor differences in upgradeable abilities, each faction feels exactly the same." I was under the impression (and I've seen firsthand) that the developers went out of their way to give each faction a unique feel. The American's fight with precision, the Euros are fast, and the Russians are lumbering powerhouses. They all play the same, in the sense that the controls are no different and the unit types are the same, but the units receive different upgrades the more you play, upgrades that further differentiate the different playstyles. I was honestly confused when I read this part of the review.

In the next paragraph, the review starts to break down into senseless nitpicking. "EndWar's rock-paper-scissors battle system -- helicopter beats tank, tank beats transport, etc. -- doesn't add much variety, either. [...] [T]he context-sensitive commands they learn aren't intuitive to use and simply add an annoying layer of micromanagement. What's the point in having tanks that can fire SAMs if you have to tell them to do so every time?" (Bold print added for emphasis.) First off, the "rock-paper-scissors" gameplay adds a layer of strategy to an otherwise small-scale game. This isn't Starcraft. The point is to maximize the effectiveness of the units your given, not to march over the enemy with an overwhelming force. This gives the game a feel more similar to what (I'd assume) real combat is like. Which brings me to the part in bold. Really? You're going to complain that you have to TELL your units to do things? Yes, what's the point, Mr. Haywald? Why bother playing Super Mario Bros. when you have to TELL Mario to jump? Why play Halo when you have to TELL Master Chief to shoot aliens in the head? Why, indeed? Maybe we'd feel more at home reviewing a non-interactive medium, like books or movies, hm? OF COURSE you have to tell them to use their abilities. There's a reason I mentioned Starcraft earlier. That game has a similar system, where units are given special abilities, in addition to their default attack, that have to be activated manually by the player. The difference between that game and EndWar is that Starcraft allowed you to command many units of the same type to activate their abilities in unison, whereas EndWar does not. Starcraft also expects you to micromanage dozens of units simultaneously while EndWar tasks you with managing... well, one dozen. Seems to balance out, at least in my eyes. It also takes the bite out of Justin Haywald's petty criticisms.

"Moving your forces from point A to point B is simple enough, provided that you carefully monitor the route they take -- without your input, your army's single-minded march easily derails. If a tank gets in front of your infantry on the way to an outpost, they'll just try to walk by without opening fire, taking cover, or doing anything intelligent whatsoever." Once again, I'm baffled by Mr. Haywald's observations. Did he review a copy of the game from Bizzaro world? Even in the private beta, units were intelligent enough to fire upon nearby enemy units while following your movement orders without deviating from their path to your designated destination. In my personal observations, this aspect of the game had even more polish on it when it went to public demo. I was surprised by how effectively my units would react to unexpected confrontations before I could give them new orders. The only exception to this are infantry units, who need to be directed to garrison a building or find cover, as they are weak when fighting from an unfortified position. The infantry AI will automatically seek cover if they are attacked while idle but this sometimes is ineffective, as Mr. Haywald points out. Of course, this all ties back into that "annoying layer of micromanagement" that Justin is ever so fond of.

Just when I think I couldn't be any more baffled, Justin hits us with the next statement. "Playing against real people is, as always, more fun than just challenging the computer. Human opponents are more unpredictable and thus make things more exciting. But this mode's as vanilla as the main game, with no additional options -- and the same micromanagement problems that plague single player are just as persistent." At this point, I was certain that Justin had played a different game than I had. Ignoring for a second that he neglects to even mention the game's persistent online campaign, his logic still seems faulty. EndWar comes with three skirmish gametypes (Assault, Conquest, Siege). The game doesn't really need any more than that. The whole point of the game is providing a simple ruleset to build strategy on. The complexity of the game comes from the nuance of meeting the demands of each battle. Of course, since Mr. Haywald doesn't seem to enjoy the game at it's core, why would the multiplayer change his mind? Omitting the existence of the online campaign, though, is inexcusable. It's more than half of the game. In the beta, the online campaign is what kept me coming back. The gameplay reminded me of Chromehounds and gave me hope that EndWar might fix some of the minor flaws evident in that game's multiplayer. Also, the rank and upgrade systems gave the game a sort of RPG levelling appeal that kept me coming back, even when I knew my progress would all be lost when the beta ended. Justin Haywald doesn't mention ANY of this in his review. I... wow. Words fail me. The inconsistencies in this review leave me speechless.

Finally, and this a big "Finally", Mr. Haywald wraps up his review: "It just isn't enough by itself to raise the game beyond "mediocre RTS." It's definitely worth checking out to see voice command done right, but overall, it lacks the depth and substance to bring anyone over from superior PC alternatives." This last phrase is highly suspect and, frankly, is what inspired me to type out 1000 words on the topic. "It lacks the depth and substance to bring anyone over from superior PC alternatives." Let's just forget for a second that I, personally, think the game has more depth and substance than Mr. Haywald gives it credit for. If we take his words at face value, he's saying that PC RTS are better because they're MORE COMPLICATED. This, combined with his allusions to Command & Conquer at the beginning of the review, seems to tell us that Mr. Haywald would rather be steamrolling newbs with a squad of 4 dozen Mammoth Tanks than learning the ins and outs of a new game, regardless of its quality. Maybe you feel the same. I certainly don't. The point is, this is a glaring example of a reviewer's taste and bias interfering with his assessment of the innate quality of a game as a product. Is the game good? Bad? Who cares? Justin Haywald doesn't care for it. Why should you?

Go ahead and tell me I'm reading too far into this. Tell me I'm splitting hairs. Hell, feel free to point out that MY bias is what inspired me to write this rebuttal to begin with. You'd be right on all accounts. That doesn't make my point any less valid, though. I just want to know: How can an otherwise intelligent person who considers themselves a gamer look at a lovingly crafted game with the same level of spit shine as EndWar and think "Meh."? Judging by Gamerankings.com, I'm not alone.

25 October 2008

Multi-Post I

Just a few tidbits I wanted to touch on here, a couple of issues I've wanted to mention that aren't complex enough to warrant their own post.


First of all, I've been seeing a lot of forum buzz around Fable II regarding how allegedly easy it is. This notion interested me, since I felt the same way for different reasons. The general consensus seems to be that since combat isn't "challenging", the game as a whole fails to challenge. I also find myself breezing through the game, but not for lack of trying, so to speak. One of the big selling points for Fable II (aside from the disappointing co-op) was the revolutionary control scheme. Though more of an evolution than a "revolution", the much lauded single-button combat means that combat is more skill-based. No memorizing complex combos or sifting through magic menus mid-combat here. Push the button you want for the action you want when you want it. This means that when facing the game's opponents, you can concentrate on fighting them instead of the control scheme. This doesn't mean that the enemies are any less deadly, only that your ability to beat them isn't hampered by poor design decisions. For a seasoned gamer, used to dealing with handicaps of this nature, this would make the game seem "easy", but I know several people who's experience with the game has been enhanced by these gameplay mechanics. I just wanted to dispel any perceived notion that Fable II is less than a fulfilling experience.


More and more people inside of the gaming industry have been pointing to games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band as musical influences. They say that radio stations pick playlists that compare to music rhythm games in order to capitalize on their popularity. I think that select individuals among us forget there's a world outside of video games. Let me clear things up with a helpful pie chart:

Hopefully, this clears up the issue for some of you.


Lastly, I just wanted to hop on the bandwagon and point out how awesome Jonathan Coulton is. I'm pretty late to the party, I know, but anyone who knows me will tell you that it takes me a while to pick up on new things. If you don't know, Coulton is the musical mind responsible for Still Alive and Skullcrusher Mountain, familiar to anyone who enjoys Portal or Rock Band. Still Alive was great, but it took me hearing Skullcrusher Mountain as well to make me realize, "Gee, maybe I should listen to some of this guy's other work." I now count myself as a fan and I haven't looked back. The music is well constructed and the lyrics are always clever and original. If you haven't already, check out his website. And his music. I personally recommend Brand New Sucker, Chiron Beta Prime, and Sibling Rivalry.

21 October 2008

Tom Clancy's EndWar Coming to Handhelds

I just read here that Tom Clancy's EndWar, in development by Ubisoft Shanghai, is getting a PSP and DS release in addition to it's console and PC releases. To those who don't know, EndWar is Ubisoft's new real-time strategy game, set to revolutionize how we think about RTS on consoles with its voice controls and simplified, fast-paced gameplay. I didn't know what to think of this game when I first heard of it, but I had a chance to play the beta when it was released earlier this year and I've been hopelessly addicted to the demo since it hit Xbox Live marketplace. I've been anxiously awaiting this game's release ever since.

So, of course, I was happy to hear that a handheld edition was in the works as well. RTS games are severely underrepresented on handhelds, particularly the DS. I know part of this lies in technical limitations, but an unorthodox RTS like EndWar would be just the thing to change our expectations of what a portable RTS can do. I mean, hell, Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings was fun enough. Unfortunately, I read on to learn that both of the portable EndWars are turn-based strategy games. Not only that, but that they're completely eschewing EndWar's "simplicity is perfection" philosophy with 20 unit types per faction, incorporating ground, sea and air tactics. What? Even the screen captures make the games look less like EndWar and more like a fancy Advance Wars knockoff. Don't get me wrong; I'm sure both of the games will be excellent in their own right, especially if they maintain the standard of quality set by their console counterparts (if nothing else). I just thought that a portable EndWar had potential for so much more. The simplified rock-paper-scissors RTS formula of EndWar would make for a seamless transition to handhelds, with the expected graphical downgrade (though, on PSP, maybe not so much). Hell, the DS is uniquely equipped to handle voice commands!

At any rate, keep an eye out for EndWar this November, regardless of the platform you play it on. If you're an RTS fan at all, it's at least worth a look.

10 October 2008

Starcraft II Trilogy

News just came out of Blizzcon that the much anticipated Starcraft II will be split into three separate retail releases, titled Terran: Wings of Liberty, Zerg: Heart of the Swarm, and Protoss: Legacy of the Void. The announcement just broke so details are scarce, but the bottom line seems to be that if you want the complete SC2 single player experience, you need to buy three different games. Now, this raises several concerns.

When I first heard about the Activision/Blizzard merger, I had many deep reservations. Given Blizzard's track record for enjoyable, highly polished games (Warcraft, Diablo) and Activisions reputation for milking any and all gaming cashcows till the teat runs dry (13 Tony Hawk games in 10 years?), I was afraid that the quality of Blizzard's stable of classics would noticeably decline. In that context, it would be difficult not to see this announcement as the latest symptom of Activision's "business first" attitude affecting Blizzard's game line, but this news isn't all bad.

First of all, we don't know how much each installment is going to cost. We might see three releases for $40 each. Even $50 each isn't that far fetched, with today's pricing standard moving towards the $60 spectrum. Of course, any of these prices can only be judged on the merit of how much content comes in each bundle. Activision Blizzard insists that each installment will be a title unto itself, with the same content as the original game, if not more so. This is a valid point, if true. It's validity stands to be seen on release day. Only time will tell.

Which brings me to my next point: we just don't know yet. What we do know is that all three releases will come with fully-functional multi-player. We also know that all three factions will be playable in each version. Despite the bleating from the dissident section of the Blizzard community, there's no evidence that this decision was inspired by a search for more money. More likely, the work on the various faction campaigns took longer than expected and, to offset rising development costs and to appease a loyal fanbase waiting too long for a sequel, decided to break up the offline content into three packages with consecutive release dates. This way, gamers can get their hands on the multi-player and dig into the Terran campaign without having to wait the months for the Zerg and Protoss stories to be finished up.

Of course, this is all conjecture. It's also completely possible that those evil suits at Activision have strong armed Blizzard into digging a little deeper into the wallets of their fanbase for two unnecessary retail bundles. After all, money is the only fuel that can sustain the fires of their hell forges, where they offer their sacrifices of forsaken children to their dark lord, Cuthyl'Naruus.

01 October 2008

Spore DRM: It's A Bitch, Ain't It?

Digital Rights Management (DRM. Copy Protection, by any other name.) is most definitely the hot topic in the PC gaming scene right now, specifically in Spore. Console gamers... well, they'll just play in the sand, blissfully ignorant, won't they? Somebody who's never had to coax the game out of their disc via installations, driver updates, driver downgrades, and various other ancient voodoo rituals couldn't comprehend the implications of yet another barrier on the road to JUST PLAYING THE DAMN GAME. And that's a shame since, even sheltered as they are playing on their Xbox 360s and PS3s, they're not totally unaffected. A distressingly large portion of the console gaming population can attest to the abomination of copy protection embedded in PSN and Xbox Live downloads. Microsoft, in recent months, has introduced an online tool to allow people to transfer DRM for their 360 downloads between consoles, but even this isn't foolproof (I have my own experience with this, but that's a horror story for another day.). But I digress.

The fact is game publishers have resorted to punishing paying customers for piracy, something they, as paying customers, have nothing to do with. At all. Apparently, the next best thing to shooting yourself in the foot is aiming for the vital cash flow. Furthermore, DRM doesn't obstruct pirates. It barely registers as a hurdle. Most modern DRM is code written by companies who do nothing but DRM work (Securom, Starforce, etc.). If 5 different games all have Securom security on their discs, the groundwork for that code is probably similar, if not identical. Pirates are elite hackers on steroids and most copy protection measures are just another line of code for them to glance over on their way to converting a game from a disc to a digital copy to be distributed online.

So, copy protection doesn't bother hackers. That leaves customers. (Just to clarify real quick, those are the people trying to give these companies money.) Unless you've been living under a rock (or a console), you've probably heard about the DRM controversy surrounding Spore. Spore uses the Securom protection and requires online activation to access all of the game's features. In addition to all of this, EA decided to limit the number of online activations to three(3). This number was later increased, after much bitching from the peanut gallery, to five(5). In addition EA dismissed the whole issue from the start, saying that only 10% of their user base has tried to install more than thrice. This could likened to Toyota releasing a 2009 model car that, when crossing the Ukrainian border, explodes. Then saying "Less than 10% of our customers drive our product in Eastern Europe." It's THAT level of willful ignorance.

Of course, this is only an obstacle if you bought the game. If you acquired the title through a less legitimate source, say, a torrent site, then these little nuisances are conveniently weeded out in the piracy process. So, again we're back to punishing consumers while exalting pirates. Yes, EXALTING. In a world where companies exhibit such flagrant disregard for their "valued customers", pirates take on the role of modern-day Robin Hoods (Maybe, "|20|}1|\| |-|00[)$"), taking it all back for the little guy. Well, thieves are thieves. From a PR perspective, companies like EA couldn't be dealing with this issue any more ham-handed. It ought to be a rainmaker: people are stealing from them. For them to take that and turn THEMSELVES into the villains takes a special kind of incompetence. The kind that usually makes you eligible for government assistance.

Electronic Arts and every other publisher out there needs to make a few vital changes in their position. Firstly, just accept the fact that some people are going to steal your product. If it bothers you that much, get on Congress' collective ass to pass harsher penalties for distributing protected IP illegally. Or, better yet, take a nod from Stardock and assume a much less authoritarian position. i.e. start making it worth more to buy your product than to pirate it. Spore should be a natural in this regard. One of the games biggest selling points is the ability to seamlessly integrate other people's creations into your games, as well as share your creations with everyone else. This is something you need to register with a legitimate copy to do. You shouldn't NEED to saddle your software with viral copy protection (Securom DOES affect system performance. Don't let anyone tell you different.) and draconian install limits. This is paranoia on your part. Nothing more.

Which brings me to my second point: start treating people like potential sales instead of potential criminals. The glass really is half full, EA. A quick glance at gaming forums will tell you that a good portion of people who pirate your game are honest folks who bought the game and are determined to actually PLAY it, despite your best efforts to the contrary. Your attitude towards your customers has done more to drive them to piracy than the price tag ever could have. You've taken the stance of a metaphorical old man, shaking his cane and yelling from his stoop at the kids skateboarding in the street. Stop it. It's not going to change anything and it just makes you look cold and out of touch.

That being said, I'd like to address the individual for a moment here. If you pirate games just to avoid paying for them, or anything else that couldn't be defended as a "legitimate" reason (acquiring out-of-print games, a backup copy for a legally owned game, nonsense like this Spore business), than you are a criminal. A SWAT team's not gonna come bust down your door any time soon, but, morally, you know you are wrong. If you have the money and want a game, go buy the damn thing. Somebody worked hard to make that game and they'll never receive due credit for their work unless somebody buys it. If you just gotta get you some free games, there are other options. Do your part to end this pirate-publisher hostility.

That ended up a lot longer than I planned. Shoudn't be surprised, though. It's a complex issue. The bottom line is publishers need to take responsibility for their role in the issue and generally loosen up, while the pirates themselves need to find something better to do with their talents. Like hacking the e-mail accounts of corrupt political figures.

26 September 2008

Back From An Impromptu Hiatus

I'm back! Not that I was missed or anything. That would suggest I have an audience outside of the handful of personal friends I strong armed into critiquing my reviews. (An odd request, that. Reviewing a review.) I didn't really mean to stop writing. I just sort of forgot to. For 4 months. Give or take.

But now I'm back! And better than ever! Well, "better" stands to be seen, but I'm definitely back. And I've decided to fill this space with more editorial content. It seems cut-and-dry video game analysis doesn't pull in the crowds these days (Any days?), so this space will henceforth become, in addition to a platform for the occasional game review, my personal soapbox for commenting on any game-related news. To start with, there's this gem.

First off, let me say I frown upon fanboyism in all of it's forms. One company/console/genre/series isn't better than all others just because you say so. And just because it's better now doesn't mean it always was or always will be. And just because it's better AT ALL doesn't necessarily mean that the competition is worthless in it's own right. Fanboyism (and fangirlism) is a disease by any other name. It's close-minded bigotry and that's never good for anybody.

Because of financial circumstances, I'm currently limited to an Xbox 360. (Not counting my DS. And, yes, I was forced to sell my Wii.) Given the choice, I'd own all three of the major consoles. Since that's not an option, I went with a 360. (Exactly why is a long story that I won't get into just now.) Now that I have it, I wouldn't give it up. There's a handful of games that I'd like to have a Wii or PS3 around to play, but even if we had them, our 360 would still get more play.

All that being said, let me say that I'm sure the forums will be ablaze with fanwankery either reveling in the triumphant smiting of the 360 or leaping chivalrously to it's defense. 90% of the people who see this clip will gravitate to one of those extremes: unbridled joy or righteous indignation. My reaction? Indifference.

LittleBigPlanet looks interesting, but it hasn't inspired in me the rabid, drooling passion it seems to strike in so many others, thanks in no small part to my lack of a PS3. Even so, I'm not so attached to my console that I feel the need to protect it from insult, like some beleaguered paramour. Even if I was, this video certainly wouldn't come close to offending me. The clip, for what it is, isn't particularly funny or incendiary. It's the mockery equivalent of Nelson Muntz pointing and going "HA HA!" and, beyond showing off the versatility of the LBP editing tools, isn't very exceptional in its own right. It certainly doesn't rise above the sophomoric fanboy flame-baiting it's so obviously intended as. Even as a trolling effort it's a weak showing, since it's sure to only get a rise out of the most confrontational of 360 defenders.

07 June 2008

Review: Grand Theft Auto 4

System: Xbox 360 (Also on PS3, PC)
Release Date: April 29, 2008
ESRB Rating: Mature
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar Games

Occasionally, controversy has struck the game industry. Actually, "occasionally" may be an understatement. As early as the 70s, Death Race scared uptight parents with the notion of vehicular zombie manslaughter, Chiller shocked 80s arcade-goers with its "violence for violence' sake" gameplay, and Mortal Kombat rocked the collective sensibilities of the 90s with it's digitized actors and gory fatalities. All pale in comparison to the media outrage surrounding Rockstar Games and a little title called Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. However, amidst all the PR hullabaloo is a proven series of games that served to pioneer the urban sandbox genre. Grand Theft Auto 4 is the latest game in that series. Fanboy hopes run high and prerelease hype runs rampant, but now that the title has seen retail release, does the game do it's legacy justice?

The answer is an emphatic "Gouranga!". GTA4 maintains the nonlinear storytelling and freeform carnage of the previous titles, but introduces interesting new elements befitting the first next-gen Grand Theft Auto game. The established formula of dropping players in a city and giving them a royal buttload of guns to do with what they will remains intact, but with a twist. Liberty City (the setting for the game, as well as for GTA3) now feels like a living, breathing metropolis. Pedestrians, no longer props in the urban backdrop, seem to take on lives of their own. On any given street corner, a woman may answer a cell phone call as she walks by, a man may be mugged by a local hood, only to receive assistance from a passing patrol car, or you may even encounter a homeless bum in the midst of a crackpot rant, stopping only to beg for change as you walk by. Liberty City lives.

But I digress. The biggest change from the previous games is the emphasis on modern consumer technology. Early in the game, you receive a cell phone from your cousin and, shortly after, you are introduced to the internet. As soon as you get your first safehouse, you have the option to veg out in front of your TV and, of course, the radio stations make a welcome return. The cell phone serves as your main form of contact with the various mission-giving miscreants of Liberty City, but the rest serve up more of the trademark social satire that has become synonymous with Grand Theft Auto.

Of course, the core of the game has always been shooting and driving, sometimes simultaneously, and if you've played any of the previous GTAs (save for 1 or 2), you should know what to expect here. The lock-on targeting system of old returns, but with some welcome improvements. Clicking the left trigger while holding a weapon will lock on to a target, but applying less pressure to the button allows free aiming, similar to the look and feel of Resident Evil 4. Even when locked on to a target, you can use the right analog stick to adjust your aim to strike specific points on your target. In addition, GTA4 introduces a cover system to the game. Pressing the right bumper will instruct Niko to press himself against the closest object large enough to use as cover, allowing him to shoot around corners, This system will feel familiar to anyone who's played Rainbow Six Vegas.

Which brings us to Niko Bellic, the Slavic hero of our story. If you've watched any of the prerelease trailers, chances are you already know that Niko is an eastern European vagabond with a sordid past who comes to America hoping to create a new life for himself. What you probably don't know is that Niko happens to be the most memorable and well written hero you'll ever encounter in a Grand Theft Auto game, maybe any game. Keeping with the cinematic production values of the GTA franchise, the entire game is full of top notch writing and masterfully acted personalities which you are given plenty of opportunities to familiarize yourself with thanks to the new relationship mechanic. In addition to receiving missions from these people, many of them can be invited out for a time on the town, drinking, bowling, playing pool, or just to grab a bite to eat at the local Cluckin' Bell. You can even catch a stand-up comedy act or watch a little dinner theater. Each of these diversions comes with their own respective minigames, but what I found most engaging about this feature is the chance to spend more time interacting with the in-game personalities. I can't stress enough how good the writing and acting in this game really is. You'll come for the non-linear combat driven gameplay, but stay for the engrossing story and likeable characters.

Along with exceptional single player experience, Rockstar ups the ante with online multiplayer, a series first. You'd never guess this is GTA's first online outing, though, with how smooth finding and playing an online match is. The run-gun-drive-and-gun-some-more gameplay translates beautifully to online deathmatch play, but fragfests are just the tip of the iceberg. The multiplayer really shines when offering more objective based gameplay. Cops n' Crooks pits a player team of police against another team of criminals in effort to kill the designated "boss" before he reaches the scripted waypoint. Also of interest is the Turf War mode, where teams of players compete to control various sections of the city. All of these concepts have been explored elsewhere, mostly in first person shooters, but GTA4 brings it into a living urban landscape with a serviceable, if not downright pleasant, control scheme. Add to this a Free Mode where players can do as they please through out the city and you've got one off the most complete gaming experiences you'll find on a single disc. The multi-player alone will keep people coming back for months, even years, to come.

Grand Theft Auto IV is a magnum opus for Rockstar. Combining elements of all the previous games, while adding new concepts exclusive to this one, GTA4 will be a tough act to follow. Even so, with new episodic downloadable content* already in the works, Rockstar Games doesn't seem daunted by the task. A life of crime never looked so lucrative.

Score 10/10

* As of this writing, downloadable episodes are an Xbox 360 exclusive.

23 May 2008

Review: Rock Band

System: Xbox 360 (also on PS3, PS2)
Release Date: December 18, 2007
ESRB Rating: Teen
Publisher: MTV Games
Developer: Harmonix Music Systems

Being a fan of Guitar Hero, I figured from the moment I heard about Rock Band that I'd want to try it at some point. The price tag was a bit intimidating, though. It wasn't until late March that I thought to myself, "I've got a guitar controller and a headset mic. I should at least check out the song list. I mean, they've got Learn To Fly on there!" So I hit up my Gamefly account to have a rental copy shipped to me. I spent some solo time with the game and, satisfied with the experience, tried to talk my roommates into sharing the $169.99 cost of the retail bundle. "200 bucks is too much for one game," they said. "We'll end up playing it for a week and then it will just collect dust." Two months later, our instruments haven't had a chance to cool off, let alone collect dust. Time flies when you're having fun.

If you aren't aware of the music game phenomenon that is Guitar Hero, the concept of Rock Band may be a little alien to you. The game uses custom controllers designed after musical instruments. Two guitars (lead and bass), a drum set (new to Rock Band) and a microphone allow four players to play out their respective parts in a band. The singing plays pretty much as you'd expect, acting somewhat like a karaoke game. The other instruments have colored buttons (frets for guitar, pads for drums) that are hit in unison with notes moving on the screen while a music track plays in the background. As long as each player hits the notes accurately, the music plays flawlessly. Mistakes made while following the on-screen notes are represented by the absence of that respective part from the soundtrack. The game rates your performance with a score.

Now that everybody's up to speed, let me address the other 99% of the world: Rock Band borrows liberally from Guitar Hero.* The guitar parts are played the same way, both games have special energy gathered during songs to boost performance scores (Star Power in Guitar Hero, Overdrive in Rock Band), both use the same angled vertical scrolling for notes, but that's where the similarities end. The addition of other instruments is less a cheap gimmick and more an evolution of the genre. The 4-player Band World Tour mode is satisfying in way that are difficult to identify. Four players create a band (creating their name and logo, as well) and tour the cities of the world building on their fame and gathering fans. It's worth noting the social element of playing Rock Band. A lot of real musicians (including the developers themselves) have commented on the shocking social parallels between playing Rock Band and playing in a real band. We would find ourselves offering encouragement to the guitarist during a particularly difficult solo, congratulating each other after a good set, or criticizing each other if thing go poorly. An excellent example is the advancement through difficulties. When your band gains enough fans, it's necessary for all of your band members to advance to the next difficulty level. Otherwise, no more fans are gathered. Anyone in the room could feel the very real frustration when more skilled players were held back by lesser hangers-on. Such was our devotion to making our band the best it could be.

Rock Band has also received criticism from real musicians, mostly accusations that playing an instrument on your console doesn't compare to really playing the instruments. Well, it doesn't. Especially on the lower difficulties. On Expert, you're basically hitting the songs note for note, but only on Expert. It is a game, after all, and having fun is more important than a spot-on music simulation. And, oh, it is fun. I've seen people with no interest in the music game genre fall in love with Rock Band. Hated Dance Dance Revolution, hated Guitar Hero, can't get enough of Rock Band. And the multi-player component is a big factor in that.

Sadly, the single player experience on Rock Band isn't quite as polished. It could be compared to Guitar Hero, in that you move through increasingly large venues playing increasingly difficult songs until you reach the end. It lacks the cinematics and presentation of Guitar Hero, though, and isn't nearly as satisfying as World Tour mode. Even more upsetting is the lack of any World Tour perks. Playing alone means no fans, no custom setlists. Just play the songs you're given. It works for what it is, but it doesn't even compare to multi-player and could have used a lot more work. But Rock Band wasn't made for solo careers. It's all about the group dynamic.

And the songs. 58 songs come on the disc, in genres ranging from 1970's punk (The Ramones) to modern alternative metal (Faith No More). Worth noting is the downloadable songs. Like iTunes, players can buy new tracks online to add to their personal playlist. Songs are rated by difficulty for each instrument and again cover a large selection of genres. Songs can be downloaded individually or in Track Packs of 3-4 songs. Rock Band has been offering downloadable content since immediately after launch, but recently we've seen the addition of Albums. Starting with Judas Priest's Screaming For Vengeance, Harmonix is offering 9-song packs for 1200 Microsoft Points ($15). All of this just serves to add more variety to an already impressive soundtrack.

The question remains "Was Rock Band worth the $200 price of admission?" Personally, I'd have to say "Depends". If you've ever dreamed of being a rocker, but have always lacked the talent, exposure, or sheer force of will, get this game. If you like singing, drumming, or playing the guitar, get this game. If you enjoyed Guitar Hero, definitely get this game. Downloadable content and the inevitable release of Rock Band 2 means your investment won't be collecting dust any time soon.

Score 9 /10

* I know that Harmonix made Guitar Hero 1 and 2. Stop questioning my standards.

12 April 2008

Review: Super Smash Bros. Brawl

System: Nintendo Wii
Release Date: March 9, 2008
ESRB Rating: Teen
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Sora, Ltd.

I still remember when Super Smash Bros. was announced for the N64, so long ago. I read the news in Nintendo Power and I was quick to relate the information to all of my friends. This was the moment we had long only dared dream of: All of our school yard debates (Could Link beat Bowser? Kirby vs. Jigglypuff? Was Mario or Luigi the mightier brother?) could be settled once and for all in this capable cross-over brawler. When Super Smash Bros. Melee came out two years later, it improved upon the original formula in all of the right ways. Not only did it bring more fighters and stages to the table, it added more game modes (Adventure, Events) and features (trophies). Personally, I spent many a happy twilight locked in four way battle on the old Gamecube. Given this history, one wouldn't be too shocked to hear that I was excited about the news of a Nintendo Wii installment of the series. With this news, though, came apprehension and fear that the game wouldn't live up to it's grand heritage.

Among the biggest fears of the Nintendo faithful anxiously awaiting Brawl's release was the control scheme. Anyone who's played and enjoyed Melee would have a hard time imagining playing their beloved franchise with anything but a Gamecube controller. In this regard, Nintendo does not disappoint. Brawl has 4 different control modes. The game can be played with a Gamecube controller, Wii Classic Controller, Wii-mote with Nunchuk, or just the Wii-mote. All of these methods are functional, but the Gamecube and Classic controllers stand out as the preferable input devices. The Nunchuk is serviceable at best and the Wii-mote is a joke, by comparison. With Wavebird in hand, Brawl plays almost exactly like Melee. This is sure to delight Smash Bros. fans, but if the previous two games left you cold, don't expect any revelations in Brawl.

Indeed, with everything that has changed since Melee, just as much has stayed the same. The gameplay is nearly identical. Up to four combatants still enter one of many Nintendo themed stages and pummel each other to increase accumulated damage and ultimately launch each other into oblivion. Good times. All that has really changed since the last game is the addition of new levels, characters and items. The most notable of the new items are the Smash Balls. After spawning randomly somewhere on the current stage, a Smash Ball will float around unbidden by obstacles, waiting for one of the contestants to attack it and inflict enough damage to unleash its power. Whoever delivers the final blow to the item comes aglow with energy and can then launch an ultimate attack specific to that character. The "Final Smash" attacks range from overpowered (Fox's Landmaster Tank) to hilarious (Kirby's Cooking Pot) to nearly useless (Ness' Starstorm). Thankfully, the imbalance in finishing moves doesn't carry over into core character balance. Though the Virtua Fighters and Soul Calibers of the world may dismiss Smash Bros. with a derisive smirk, there's no denying that beneath the party game veneer is hidden a deep fighting engine with pick up and play mechanics that are as fun to master as they are to learn.

On top of fighting just for fun's sake, Brawl is loaded down with extras. And when I say "loaded down", I mean "Go on. Just try and unlock everything." Like the previous games, unlockable characters and stages abound and the trophies from Melee make a welcome return. In addition to more Nintendo characters to thrash, Konami's Solid Snake (Metal Gear series) and Sega's Sonic the Hedgehog show up for the action here, a move sure to please fans of those respective series. Also new to the series in Brawl are "Challenges", Xbox-Live-Achievement-like goals that unlock stages, soundtracks, even Virtual Console demos (called "Masterpieces). Even after the last character is in the roster and the last stage is available for brawlin', completionists will have enough to keep them busy for weeks, even months, chasing after every last Challenge.

Many of these unlockables can be attained through the newest game mode, "The Subspace Emissary". This story mode is meant to replace and expand upon the Adventure mode in Melee. Though there are some interesting ideas here, the execution is a bit lacking. Repeated enemies and a cliche crossover storyline keep this mode from standing out as a solid single-player experience. Aside from the memorable boss battles and the obviously lovingly crafted cut scenes, much of the content here feels like filler, like an IV drip of content for people too faint of heart to unlock everything through the Brawl and Classic modes. Fortunately, the bitter pill of playing through for all the unlocks is sweetened by the ability to play co-op with a friend.

The core of the Smash Bros. franchise is multi-player: gathering around a television with 3 friends and savagely eviscerating each other. This element of gameplay remains intact in Brawl, with the addition of a few game modes. Timed, Survival, and Coin matches (pummel your enemy, then grab the coins he drops) return. The introduction of Special Brawl allows players to set up local matches with unique rule sets, but the real star of the show is the addition of online play. The party game atmosphere of Smash Bros. begs for anonymous online play and Brawl delivers. Delivers a bare-bones multi-player experience, that is. Anonymous matchmaking is available via "With Anyone" play which is functional, if nothing else. The biggest disappointment is in the "With Friends" online mode, where Nintendo's signature "Friend Codes" make an unwelcome return. I admit the Friend Code system could work, if say they were the key to a centralized friend list. The design decision to force gamers to exchange different Friend Codes for a different friend list for every online Wii game they purchase is a perplexing choice that Nintendo seems determined to go the distance with. And this doesn't even speak of the inherent latency issues the Brawl servers were suffering when I sampled the game. It seems that with online content, Nintendo takes two steps back with each step of progress made. (At the time of this writing, Nintendo's official response to the latency issues is essentially "The lag will go away when less people are playing online". They made this announcement with such confidence as to lead me to believe that they had just learned how network servers work and were certain that this was news to us as well.)

Online issues aside, Brawl looks fantastic, and I don't even feel the need to qualify that statement with "for a Wii game". Nintendo has made no secret of their decision to bank on innovation for their new console rather than pure horse power, but if Nintendo keeps churning out games like this and Twilight Princess, the distinction will be almost indiscernible. Brawl builds on the artistic style of Melee while taking everything to the next level, as is apparent in the finer textures and smoother polygons. The variety of characters and environments would be impressive even on a more powerful console. This attention to detail and love for the material shines through in the sound department as well. Many of the skillfully crafted remixes and orchestral arrangements of classic Nintendo theme music have since found their way onto my personal playlist.

After all the dust has settled on the battlefield, I think it's safe to say that I'm not disappointed. Quite the contrary. Super Smash Bros. Brawl stands as a shining example of how to do a sequel right. It expands upon the previous games while polishing the entire experience to near perfection. It also stands as an open love letter to Nintendo and the legacy that the company has built over the last three decades. If Nintendo continues to produce games of the same quality as Brawl, here's hoping they stay in business for another thirty years to come.

Score: 9/10

All Reviews Must Go!!!

Welcome to Discount Game Reviews. The purpose of this blog is to provide intelligent, unbiased reviews of games for all platforms. Unfortunately, since I'm currently the only staff reviewer and my console selection is limited to what I can afford, expect only to see reviews for Nintendo Wii, Xbox 360, Nintendo DS and PC, at least for the time being. Depending on how much support this blog sees, I may decide to take on other reviewers in the future and it's only a matter of time before I get around to getting a PSP and PS3. Let's not get ahead of the game, though.

I currently have no plans to keep an update schedule, as my ability to review games is ultimately limited to what I can acquire and play. Comments are welcome and e-mail feedback can be sent to discountgamereviews@gmail.com. At any rate, thanks for stopping in. (Page views are the official currency of the internet.)