Thursday, December 28, 2006

Crystal ball

Here's my take on what 2007 may bring in the world of games. It's true, I have little confidence in anything I say there.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

2006 honorable mentions

Just wanted to mention a few more games worthy of notice this year.

Most Noble Failure: Dead Rising

"Failure" is too strong a word here. Dead Rising didn't quite make good on its ambitions, in my view, although many disagreed. Capcom is a fantastic publisher and developer (they released my game of the year in both 2006 and 2005), so it's not surprising that even one of their weaker efforts was more interesting than many "better" games. I don't need to devote any more space to the game in this blog, since I covered it extensively earlier this summer. Just wanted to give it one more shout-out.

Critically Acclaimed Game I Just Didn't Get: The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

There are lots of contenders for this award, notably Zelda: Twilight Princess, but at least I had some fun with that game. Oblivion really was like Doing Chores: The Game. One of the principles of game design is called telescoping, which is the process by which a primary goal is broken down into smaller goals, each of which may be broken down even further. Oblivion took this to a ludicrous extreme. I have never played a game that strove so aggressively to make me feel like it just wasn't worth it to put in the effort. You can't take a step without being handed another task to do. It's like being at work, except you're not getting paid.

Best Game That Wasn't Really Eligible for a "Best of 2006" List: Burnout Revenge (Xbox 360)

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that Burnout Revenge 360 was the most fun I had with any game this year. Since it was a port from a 2005 title, I didn't review it or anything, but god damn this is everything a racing game should be. The leap to high-def graphics actually did improve the gameplay, because you could see much further down the road and therefore make better driving decisions. And I just love smashing stuff up.

If You Had to Own One Console This Year, It Was: PlayStation 2

Let's be honest: no other system had the quantity of good games that the PS2 had. The 360 had its moments, but the PS3 landed with a thud and the Wii had exactly one killer app. The PS2 had several. Maybe it's not surprising that the most popular console in history had the most to choose from, but what else do you want from your game system?

Worst Game: X-Men: The Official Game

Not much of a surprise. Although it was a toss-up between this and Driver: Parallel Lines.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

There it is

It's the ten best games of 2006!

A better name would be "The ten best games I played." Better still would be "Six awesome games and four good ones."

Monday, December 18, 2006

We got links

If I am assassinated any time in the near future, it will likely be because of this Zelda review (never mind that it's a positive review).

There's a link within that story to the list of the best games of the year, but it doesn't seem to be working currently. I'll post it whenever it comes online.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

That didn't take long

I've had my Wii for two weeks, and it looks like I'll be taking Nintendo up on their offer. Whoops.

At least I haven't been injured yet.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Sorry for the delay

Looks like thephoenix.com has undergone a redesign. You know what else could have used one? Superman Returns.

Next week will be a review of Zelda: Twilight Princess, as well as the best games of 2006. I may do some blog-only honorable mentions, as well.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The crankiness is back

Back to what I do best: lowballing acclaimed games like F.E.A.R.

Monday, December 04, 2006

The Wii acquisition

A little more detail on how it shook down:

Yesterday, acting upon a well-corroborated rumor, I got up at 6:30 and drove to Target. They don't open until 8, but when I pulled into the parking lot at 6:45 there was already a long line -- much longer than I'd expected. More people showed up every few minutes, and finally around 7:10 a guy in a red shirt came out the front door. "I've got 48!" he yelled. He'd be handing out tickets shortly so the lucky 48 could claim their prize. The kid behind me, who looked college-aged and was accompanied by his girlfriend, did an exact count and determined that we were in the low fifties. But surely not everybody in the line would want a ticket. There were girlfriends, bros, and kids. We just didn't know. They didn't start handing out the tickets until 7:30. And it was cold. The line continued to grow.

Finally, the Target manager started working his way along the line, counting off loudly. I didn't hear him until "Twenty-one!" It seemed like he hadn't even made it halfway to me. I started to get worried. But as he proceeded, suddenly he was only a few spots in front of me, still in the thirties. I got ticket number 40. Once the 48th was gone, dozens of people in line dispersed. Many headed to the Best Buy across the plaza, which didn't open until 10.

At 8 o'clock, they opened the doors to Target. At that time, I glanced over at Best Buy and saw the entire line dispersing. They must have gotten bad news about Best Buy's stock. We lined up again inside Target, tickets in hand. Nobody was allowed into the department without a ticket. It took me half an hour to get to the front of the line. I was ushered over to the games, pointed out my selection, and then had to wait to be escorted over to the register. There, I handed over my ticket, and my debit card, and then I was finally able to walk out with my Wii.

NP: Andrew W.K. - "Victory Strikes Again"

P.S.: Given the units Nintendo has been able to deliver so far, and its status as one of the hot Christmas gifts this year, I'm guessing it'll be much easier to acquire one after the New Year. They may even stay on shelves for a couple of hours at that point. But I'm not sure how easy it'll be to get one before Christmas.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Got one.

The Wii is mine. All I had to do was show up at Target at 6:45 AM on a Sunday! I was fortieth in line, too. People are nuts.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Friday, November 17, 2006

DriveTime

I made another appearance on the video blog DriveTime to talk about the PlayStation 3 and the Wii. We stopped by the Best Buy at 8 yesterday morning, and host Ravi interviewed some enthusiastic consumers. This was before they all got screwed.

Best Buy to consumers: "Psych!"

As if Sony weren't doing their best to blow the PlayStation 3 launch, Best Buy has decided to get in on the plebe-screwing fun. Their Landmark Center location was supposed to open last night at midnight. People were lined up on Wednesday, and when I stopped by yesterday morning the hundred or so folks massed out front were being told that the "official" line couldn't form at noon. Company policy, you know.

So some people left, intending to come back for the free-for-all at noon. The store, though, decided simply to sell rain checks to everyone in line so they wouldn't be outside all day, screwing several faithful line-waiters.

And then, the coup de grace: police sent everybody home, because the store didn't have a permit to be open so late.

If there was one saving grace for Boston folks, it was that the Landmark Best Buy reportedly received 140 units, far more than most stores are apparently getting. Let's see, 140 PS3s times $1400 profit per unit on eBay...

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Too dumb for print

So Gears of War is good. Really good. I think it's going to topple a lot of 360 fence-sitters, and it should. It is the rare sort of game that absorbs you so fully, you tend to forget you're playing a game at all. The immersiveness isn't due to any reinvention of the wheel. In many ways it is "just a shooter." But every aspect of the gameplay experience has been tweaked to perfection, mostly due to fantastic controls, and as a result you barely notice the conduit between your brain and the screen. In the course of writing a laudatory review, though, I wasn't able to mention some of the problems I did have with the game. Gears is top three of the year, for sure, but it also suffers from its designers' inability to rein in some of their more unfortunate impulses. To wit:

- One of the most stereotypical black characters I can imagine. He's a former pro football player nicknamed "The Cole Train," and is given to whooping things like "Yeah, baby!" As if all that weren't bad enough, the song that plays over the end credits is not the kickass orchestral score you're treated to for the rest of the game. Instead, it's one of the worst rap songs I've ever heard, which samples the Cole character saying things like, "This my kind of shit!" My girlfriend came home while this song was playing and I turned it down because I was embarrassed. It's that bad.

- The most cynical sequel tease ever. Usually they at least wait until after the end credits to say "But wait, the war isn't really over!" Here they do so before you even have a chance to savor your victory. Not that I'm terribly concerned about revealing spoilers, but without going too deeply into detail, the massive, Locust-exterminating explosion has barely stopped echoing before we learn that the Queen is still alive and well. Lame.

- Don't put the gun on the mantle unless you plan to have it go off. While Gears delivers on its share of big moments, there was a strange bit of foreshadowing that went nowhere. Near the end of act four, you encounter the most massive enemy yet, which lumbers around on many legs and has guns the size of ranch houses mounted on its back. After successfully escaping it, I assumed we'd meet again, mano a mano. Didn't happen. Why not?

- Oh, also during the end credits, there are pictures of the entire GoW development team along with yearbook style quotes. Frankly, I feel like Epic has been congratulating themselves on this game since well before it came out. Sure, it ended up delivering on the hype, but show a little modesty, guys. I don't need a toothy picture of Cliffy B saying he can't believe he gets paid to make games.

Glad I got that stuff off my chest. It's way too nitpicky to include in a review, and like I said, the game is phenomenal. I'll cap this post with a list of awesome things that I didn't specifically mention in the review (review will posted next week, btw):

- One class of enemy, called the Kryll, can only move in the dark. One act takes place at night; you have to constantly remain in the light, and find flammable things to light up otherwise impassable areas. Otherwise you die pretty much instantly.

- Great sound design. The shrieking wretches are a highlight in this regard. Overall I think the game does more with the sonic environment than anything I can think of other than Call of Duty.

- The emphasis on flanking and lines of fire manifests itself in so many unique ways. One of the great things is taking cover behind a column or pedestal and getting the drop on an advancing foe (and bisecting him with the chainsaw bayonet, natch).

- Shooting General Raam in the head until his face collapses.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The perils of aging

It no longer seems like an effective use of my time to spend a couple of hours of the day leveling up. Even so, Final Fantasy XII is pretty darn good.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Downloading Contra was a mistake

Eventually I will learn my lesson and stop getting suckered in to these Xbox Live Arcade games. I can live with their version of Contra not resembling the NES game I know and love so well. I understand that it was an arcade game first. But what I can't live with is not being able to customize the controls. On the 360 pad, I want A to be jump and X to be shoot. A is jump, all right, but they force me to use the B button to shoot. I can't imagine anything more awkward -- that's exactly the opposite of the way the human thumb is designed. And you can't change it!

Gay.

Edit: My mistake, A is shoot and B is jump. That's even worse.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Somewhat of a surprise

Bully turned out to be damn good, and a lot smarter than I think anybody expected.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

What's this? A game review?

Yep. This week, it's God Hand.

By the way, for those of you who hang on this blog's every word, the next few weeks should have some pretty interesting games. It's looking like Bully, Guitar Hero 2, Final Fantasy XII, and Gears of War. That's an exciting slate.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

A question about schwag

As an obscure critic for an alt-weekly, I don't rate too highly with publicists. Nevertheless, occasionally I get goodies along with a game. My favorite was the chocolate-covered Oreos Nintendo sent along with Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, and I did ironically wear a Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas hat from Rockstar. Rockstar is pretty good about sending schwag, actually. They included a t-shirt along with Bully. But how do they know they should send shirts to critics in size XL?

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Happy Boss Day

This Monday, October 16, is National Boss Day. What better way to celebrate than with a list of the best video game bosses of all time?

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Yakuza

I'll freely admit that my love for Yakuza is a case of enthusiasm overwhelming my better judgment. I've read some lukewarm reviews of this game, and I can't really quibble with any of the points made. But my guard was let down completely. I loved it.

He speaks the truth

Wired's Clive Thompson posted a column yesterday about the difficulty of actually finishing games these days. He's dead-on in many ways. I have fond memories of playing RPGs for 10 hours at a stretch in college. In one semester alone, I powered through Final Fantasy III/6, Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy X, and Chrono Trigger. I estimated that I spent about 125 hours on those games, all told.

Now? I don't remember the last time I finished a game. Well, sure, I finished Half-Life 2: Episode 1 and New Super Mario Bros., both of which took six hours or less. Maybe it's not a coincidence that I rated them so highly: I was able to have the full experience. Before that? Shadow of the Colossus, maybe (10 hours). And before that, Resident Evil 4 (~20 hours). They were good enough to keep me playing to the end, but still short enough that doing so didn't require sacrifices on my part. A game like Oblivion, on the other hand, is practically impossible to enjoy if you're working a full-time job and have a reasonably active social life. Hell, Oblivion practically is a job. And this isn't to impugn the people who are able to make time for longer games, obviously -- I would if I could. Just interesting to note that I'm no longer in the target demographic.

I'm going to finish Okami, though. You'd better believe that.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Screwed again!

I filed this fall games preview on August 28, well before the rumors of Super Paper Mario's move to the Wii got going. And, you know, if that happens, the central argument of the thing falls apart. Whoops.

I guess this isn't as bad as last year when Rockstar delayed Bully the day after that year's preview went to press.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

In this week's Phoenix

In a bit of a departure from the usual, this week I have a roundup of web games based on TV shows. It's interesting, I guess.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

deadrising.blogspot.com

Dead Rising seems to have a tractor beam-like hold on me, which may be due to the massive praise I keep seeing heaped upon it by another, better blogger. While I can't argue the validity of any of the substantive points Bill Harris makes, I feel like the experience I'm having with the game could not be any more different. Partly, it's just a matter of taste. In general, I like a tighter, more linear game than you get with Dead Rising. In this case, though, I'm not sure that that's what bothers me. Instead, it seems like the unorthodox design choices that Capcom made, which Harris praises so highly, keep coming back to bite me in the worst way.

Of course, it all comes back to the save system. The first several times I tried the game, my biggest problem was forgetting to save. I'd power through boss battles, find badass weapons, level up, and then lose it all. You can always restart the game with your stats saved, which is a cool feature, but the fact that you have to restart the game several times in order to make any meaningful progress is ludicrous. I've restarted four or five times by now because I keep running into dead ends.

The latest: after defeating Adam the clown, I started to escort a guy who knew a shortcut back to the maintenance room. Since I had one bar of health left, I ran to the nearest save point I could find. My save happened to coincide with the guy's death, so there was no way I could save him. Maybe I still could have found the route he was going to show me, but still being so low on health I decided to make a run for a nearby grocery store. Finally I made it, saved again near there, and saw that I was close to a gun store. I reached the gun store again low on health. As soon as I walked in, there was a cutscene that showed me with an ally I had never seen before. Obviously I had jumped way ahead in the storyline. My ally and I were both murdered in the course of about five seconds.

What are my options now? My save point has me so far up shit creek that I likely have no chance to succeed in the current game. I've stumbled into a portion of the game that I'm not nearly powerful enough to survive. I'm seeing cutscenes that make no sense in the context of what else I've already seen. The game is so open and offers so many different ways to play that you can actually play it wrong. All I can do is start over. And that, ironically, is not giving me the choice to play it my way.

In the final analysis, I don't see what is gained by the system Capcom went with that would have been lost with a more traditional system. I'd argue that allowing multiple saves provides more of an incentive to explore and to try new things, because you know you won't be penalized so harshly for making a mistake. Would Dead Rising be less tense if you had that escape hatch? I'm not sure. It could be. But it would also be a lot more fun.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Texas Hold 'Em

Just like everyone else with an Xbox 360, I imagine, I downloaded Texas Hold 'Em. It's free, of course, and we like free things. The game is available until Friday to anyone with a Live account, and thereafter will cost 800 Microsoft points. What's Microsoft playing at here, I wonder? I haven't read their strategy for this game anywhere -- and that statement should not be construed to mean that I've even looked -- but I have a theory. In the game, you have a finite bankroll. You cannot simply restack your chips for online play (nor, does it seem like, for single-player mode).

My guess is that Microsoft is happily giving away the game for free, and plans to make people purchase more chips when they run out. If this is the case, it's hard to see how this can be distinguished from online play through sites like Party Poker and Poker Stars. No, it's not "real" money, but it's only a few degrees of separation from it. You buy Microsoft points with actual money, then use MS points to buy fake money? I hope not.

(The closest I could get to clarification in the press release was this: "Your virtual bankroll is tied to your gamertag and keeps a running tally of your chip count. If you lose all of your chips in a poker game, you'll have to play lower stakes buy-in games to make back your stack and earn your way to the big tables." If I were a real journalist, I would call Microsoft and ask what the deal is.)

Dirge of Cerberus

The full review.

One thing I didn't make clear in the review is that there's no gauge or meter for the limit break. You just acquire them as you would any other item, by picking them up off the ground. It's ridiculous. But then, so is the whole game.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

One-minute game reviews

There's probably no reason to spend significant time or effort talking about games everyone else has played already, so I figured I'd sum up the games I've been playing in just a sentence or two.

Oblivion: A game that gives you as many options as you'd have in real life turns out to be just as boring as real life.

Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence: For Hideo Kojima, video games peaked with Dragon's Lair.

Lumines: There is at least one reason to own a PSP.

Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII: Video games finally have their answer to Joanie Loves Chachi.

Actually, that Dirge of Cerberus line was in the review I filed with the Phoenix for this week. I'll provide a link when it goes up.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

I take it back

I keep getting revved up to go back to Dead Rising, convinced that this time I've got it all figured out. Then I find myself turning the system off in disgust after half an hour or so. I just don't have the temperament for it.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Dead Rising

The review.

I think there's much more to be said about Dead Rising. I often feel like I need more time with a game to fully get it, but with this game I feel like I need weeks. I plan to go back to it. We'll see if a deeper understanding leads to a deeper appreciation. For now, though, what the fuck is with that save system?

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

I play games

Then I write about them.

I keep meaning to post some actual content. My intentions are good.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Prey

My review here.

Now, as awesome as the portal gimmick is in Prey (make no mistake, it is a gimmick, and it is also extremely awesome), it looks like Valve software might be upping the ante. This is the trailer for a game they should be releasing later this year called Portal:



I think everybody wants to play this game.

Friday, July 14, 2006

What game developers hate about reviewers

I got this link via Kotaku. It's a list of complaints that game developers have about reviewers, and I can't let it pass without responding.

Complaint 1: Developers hate game reviewers that only play their games for a few hours

This is a valid complaint. But what's the solution? Most of the time, it is impossible to play a game to completion and file a review on time. If I'm lucky, I get a game a week before I need to file my story. More often, I get two or three days. I make a good faith effort to cover every part of a game -- I play every multiplayer mode, explore every feature as much as I can, and delve as deeply into the primary mode as possible. Even so, I can count the number of games I've actually beaten before writing a review on one hand. This year alone, I think I made it through Black (six hours) and Half-Life 2: Episode 1 (five hours).

I don't think critics of other media have this problem. A movie is two hours long, which is why you see film critics cranking out several reviews a week. An album takes less than an hour to listen to from beginning to end, and music critics can listen in the car, at work, in the gym, and so forth. Book critics might be in the same boat -- they need to devote several hours to one piece of work, and they need a dedicated environment in which to do it. On the other hand, I'd imagine they receive galleys well in advance of publication date, whereas playing a game before it goes gold can only yield unfair assessments.

Maybe this phenomenon is even what explains the plague of inflated game scores. If you feel like you've missed something, you want to give the game the benefit of the doubt. Why is this a problem for developers?

I'd also point out that I can think of few games in which the experience changed noticeably after the first few hours. A good example was Castlevania: Curse of Darkness: I played that all the way through before reviewing it, and had the same impression ten hours in as I'd had at two hours. (The impression, by the way, was "Eh.") And when I went on to finish Resident Evil 4 after I'd written the review, it continued to knock my socks off every step of the way.

Complaint 2: Developers hate game reviewers because they don't understand games that are targeted for a specific audience

This is a valid complaint, but there's a flipside. Someone who makes a game for kids -- like a Spongebob Squarepants title, say -- probably doesn't want to be reviewed by the 30-year-old tattooed guy who used to play Quake professionally (no, that isn't me). But magazines and newspapers are aimed at a specific audience, too, and if a publication like the Phoenix runs a review of a kid's game, then it's either as a joke or because there was nothing else to review that week. No hard feelings.

Complaint 3: Developers hate game reviewers who review games in proxy for an entire genre.

I guess we are acknowledging the existence of bias here. Although I don't like the way this complaint is phrased, it's essentially correct. Lots of reviewers are naturally going to write more useful reviews in genres they're familiar with. Like, I write about sports games because there are so many of them and because EA enjoys sending out promo copies, but you know what? I don't like sports games. I would prefer never to play a sports game again as long as I live. There's nothing more I can say about Madden. Again, I imagine this is less of a problem at your IGNs and your Gamespots, where there are probably more specialists. As a guy who reviews what he's given, I don't know what I can do. I give everything a fair shake, but it's much easier for me to judge some games on their merits. How is this different from movie critics panning every blockbuster that comes down the pike because they're waiting for the next impenetrable Jim Jarmusch film?

Complaint 4: Developers hate game reviewers who have no idea what it takes to make a game.

This is the one really bogus comment on the list. I hate the mentality that anything ought to be above criticism, or that certain people's opinions are invalid. I remember reading an interview with ESPN.com columnist Bill Simmons once where he said that nobody had a right to bitch about his work unless they were sportswriters themselves. This from a guy who makes a living bashing athletes and sports executives from the comfort of his Los Angeles mansion. Everybody has a right to an opinion -- the only qualification they need is an ability to express it.

To address this more closely: a game is supposed to be fun, and if it's not then I don't care how hard anybody worked on it. You don't get points for trying. Do better next time.

I also appreciate the rich irony of first bitching that reviewers suck because we review games within the time constraints we have, and then bitching that reviewers suck because we're not sensitive to the time constraints that developers have. We all do the best we can with what we've got. Most of us just don't have that much.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Street Fighter II follow-up

Just got word that we can expect to see Street Fighter II on Xbox Live Arcade on Wednesday, August 2. That would also be the day I go from ultra-fast Comcast cable internet to molasses-slow 768k DSL.

Niiiice.

Nearly instant update:

I'm confused.

This announcement came in the form of a press release from Microsoft. The gist is that there will be a new XLA game every Wednesday for the rest of the summer. The list looks like this:
  • July 12 – Frogger
  • July 19 – Cloning Clyde
  • July 26 – Galaga
  • August 2 – Street Fighter II’ Hyper Fighting
  • August 9 – Pac-Man
But then you read a little further down and:
‘STREET FIGHTER^ II’ HYPER FIGHTING’ takes the best from retro gaming and combines it with the signature features of Xbox 360 and Xbox Live, creating the best ‘Street Fighter’ experience to date, on July 26.
Which is it? July 26 or August 2?

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Half-Life 2: Episode 1

My review.

Sorry for the belated post. I've been out of town.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

We're nearing Q3 2006

Still no Street Fighter II for Xbox Live Arcade. This was supposed to some out in Q1. What gives? What could possibly be taking so long?

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories

My review.

Pink DS Lite

I find it hard to believe that the secret to cracking the elusive "girl gamer" market is something as simple as releasing your system in colors like pink and teal, but here we are.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Half-Life 2: Episode 1 user stats

Looks like I'll be reviewing Half-Life 2: Episode 1 for the Phoenix, so no impressions just yet. I did want to pass along this link, which shows gameplay statistics Ep.1 collects and sends back to Valve over Steam. That the data collection amounts to someone watching you play the game is a little creepy, but also fascinating. For one thing, it's strong evidence that all the blowhards who claim to play games only on hard mode are dirty liars -- only 6.68% of users played Episode 1 on hard. (Despite my own well-known love of winning without effort, I didn't play on easy -- I'm one of the 74.22% of users playing on medium difficulty.)

There's a jump in user deaths for the map called "ep1_c17_02." The average completion time for the game is 4 hours, 56 minutes, but the average play time is only 2 hours, 48 minutes. Does that mean that part of the game is too hard? The average user is playing for about 3/5 the time it takes to beat the game. The spike in fatality rate seems to occur about 3/4 of the way through the game. That could mean people are abandoning Ep.1 when it gets too tough.

On the other hand, the "Highest Map Played" bar graph shows a linear trend downward. There's not a dip in level completion corresponding to the spike in deaths. Map "ep1_c17_02" loses about 4% of users from the prior map, and a loss of just over 3% to the next map. Most likely, people take a break during a difficult part and then come back to the game later. Additionally, the data show that it's taken at least one person ten hours to beat Ep.1, so they could just be wrecking the curve.

By the way, the stats go deeper than what Valve has chosen to share. Here's Gabe Newell, as quoted in a Eurogamer interview:
Essentially playtests create a proxy for what will happen when the game is being played, but with Episode One we're saying let's stop using the proxy and watch how people play. Rather than having hundreds of playtesters, there are eight million Steam accounts right now, so we'll have eight million playtesters. It tells us which weapons they're using, so we can say "they're not using this weapon, why not?", here's where people are getting stuck "huh, ok, they're not supposed to be stuck here". Here's the stuff they like, here's the stuff they don't like.
I picture some guy in a labcoat looking at a clipboard and saying, "This one guy in Boston really seems to love crouching behind things and letting Alyx do all the shooting."

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Do the Mario

It's important to note that this did not seem strange to me at all when I was eight.

Maybe custom soundtracks are awesome

I've yet to try out custom soundtracks on the 360, although I know at least one internet person who refuses to play any game that doesn't fully support the feature. I think I was just convinced, completely by accident.

I'm playing Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories on the PS2. I had the TV muted and was listening to "New Noise" by Refused on the computer (you can listen to it here if you've never heard it). About 3/4 of the way through the song, there's a soft interlude, which coincided exactly with my taking a car off a huge jump. You know the type of GTA jump I'm talking about: slow motion, multiple camera angles.

But it gets better. There's a slow build-up back into the main part of the song, which culminates in four percussive blasts. The first one hit at the instant my car hit the ground. It was amazing. I'll never be able to replicate it. But that's probably what custom soundtracks are for.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Magnetica

My take here.

Let's look ahead to the future

The future, Conan?

That's right. In the very near future, I'll be firing up Half-Life 2: Episode 1. It's downloading now. I hope to share some impressions within the next few days. This is also my first real experience with Steam, since I bought Half-Life 2 at a brick-and-mortar. I love the tangible sense of ownership that a box confers, but the ease and swiftness of digital, on-demand delivery makes a lot more sense. It's environmentally friendly, too. No big losers here, except for retailers and cardboard manufacturers. Hey, it's a brave new world.

For the longer term, Jim sent along this link. It's a tease, really, about Red Octane's plans beyond Guitar Hero 2. While there are no specifics, it seems reasonable to assume that within a few years it will be possible to assemble an entire GH-style band, with a couple of guitarists, a bassist, and a drummer. I'll up the ante even further: once that's done, I bet we'll see clubs hosting competitions in which groups of gamers get in front of a crowd and rock virtually. At the very least, people would participate just for the chance to get onstage under the auspices of some truly bitchin' band names.

My band will be called "Days Inn Golgotha."

Hot blog on blog action

I wanted to flag this entry over at Slop Culture, in which the authors call out Gamespot readers for being idiots. I'll defend Gamespot readers to the extent that "best of" lists based upon a wide sample always seem to elevate mediocrity, but the larger point of the entry is totally valid. Is Duck Hunt a great game, or merely a game that was widely played? Surely it's not a great game. It's barely a good one. To quote Gertrude Stein, there's no there there. As a tech demo for the Zapper, it was pretty sweet. Otherwise, it was nothing more than a neat bonus on the Super Mario Bros. cart.

On the other hand, it was necessary to seek out more rewarding titles back in the day (not that I did, really -- I was playing through Contra and Mega Man 2 eight hundred times each*). If not enough people voted for River City Ransom as the best NES game of all time, then my guess is that it's because not very many people played it. Everybody who got a Nintendo, on the other hand, got Duck Hunt. No wonder a good number of rubes lived to vote it the best game of all time. Does it even compare to the greats? Not hardly.

*This should in no way be construed as criticism of either game. They're both among my favorites. I just meant that I tended to play a few games over and over, rather than play as many games as possible.

Monday, June 19, 2006

How much is $600, really?

The folks at GameTrailers.com have been kind enough to post the E3 Metal Gear Solid 4 trailer in HD. It's worth a look if you haven't seen it. There's no gameplay footage, naturally, which renders any judgment premature. Still, it's hard not to be impressed on many levels. I don't think I've ever seen a shaky-cam effect done right by a computer before, even though they've been trying since Doom. The physics of the helicopters and bipedal robots seem like a step forward. They've even made Raiden cool.

The trailer ends by promising a 2007 ship date, which means there's no reason to spend the money on a PS3 this calendar year. Prove me wrong, Sony.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

DS Lite

My good friend and roommate Ryan just came home with his brand new DS Lite. I've wanted one since I heard they existed -- being the good Nintendo fanboy that I am -- but I did not realize how much I wanted one until I saw it myself. Sure, it's smaller. Sure, the stylus is bigger. You don't need to see the thing to understand why these are improvements. It is, however, impossible to internalize the difference in picture quality until you see it with your own two eyes. We placed them side-by-side. It's not even close. It's as though the original DS displays only in black and white.

Must... acquire... DS Lite...

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Xbox Live Arcade is a tease

Under "New Releases" in the Xbox Live Marketplace was listed Street Fighter II' Hyper Fighting. I've been saving my Microsoft Points for months just for this. Sadly, it was not to be. All they seem to have released so far are a theme and a couple of image packs. What's the freaking hold-up?

And is it strange that the game I want the most on the most cutting-edge system is a port of a game that came out over a decade ago?

Rockstar Table Tennis

The actual review.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Quality vs. Quantity

On The Phantom Gourmet, a restaurant's rating is derived equally from the quality of its food and its location. This means restaurants that serve great food can suffer for being in a lousy neighborhood, whereas places that give you lukewarm poop in a bowl are rewarded for having a downtown address. This doesn't make sense. Sure, location matters. But what's more important to you when you're trying to decide where to eat?

Apropos of the general reaction to Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis, I've been thinking recently about a similar flaw in the traditional game criticism metric: the idea that more game equals a better game. In the broadest sense, I do not care how much of a game there is -- only how good the experience is. Sure, it's great when a game like Resident Evil 4 takes 20 hours to complete. Burnout Revenge took me over 24 hours of play to complete 90%, which I did gladly. But those are exceptional games. We all remember when Bo Jackson was kicking ass in both baseball and football -- that doesn't mean we should penalize other athletes for playing only one sport. Nor does it mean that anyone should have encouraged Michael Jordan to try his hand at baseball. Yet reviewers, while generally praising Table Tennis, apparently can't make it through a review without tsk-tsking Rockstar for not including a career mode. Why?

The original Tetris had two modes. Two. It didn't have a story or even require a tutorial. Yet people played it until their Game Boy batteries died, and almost twenty years later Nintendo is still profiting off of the core design. On the other hand, EA Sports keeps force-feeding their already bloated properties every year, and the games are starting to burst like the gluttony victim in Seven. In EA's case, more is too much. Table Tennis, in a sense, is the anti-Madden. The point of the game is to replicate the one-on-one table tennis experience. That is the standard by which it must be judged.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Thursday, May 25, 2006

The drought may be over

In the near future, I should be posting links to my reviews of New Super Mario Bros. and Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis.

A point of clarification regarding the nature and purpose of this blog: I won't review games here if there's a conflict with a print publication I write for. Insult Swordfighting is a place for me to muse on the practice of game criticism, general video game theory, and great games from the past. It's intended to supplement, not supplant, my professional writing. It may be easy for the line to get blurred.

I felt like I should put that out there, for some reason.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

FIFA World Cup 2006

My somewhat muddle take is online now.

The abbreviated version: Are you looking for a World Cup game? Well, this one exists.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Gears of War: The Race to E3

MTV2 showed a great half-hour documentary this weekend called Gears of War: The Race to E3. Their cameras were given what seemed like extraordinary access both to Microsoft's Redmond offices, and Epic Games' headquarters in Raleigh. The result was the funniest, most uncomfortable workplace comedy since the original The Office. It helps that the featured player was Cliff "Cliffy B" Bleszinski. (And who ever thought, back in the days when Jeff K. was still funny, that the nickname would have stuck like it has?)

Bleszinski is the revenge of the nerds personified. Not only does he wear tight pants and borrow his boss's Lamborghini to go out partying, but he also breaks up with his 19-year-old girlfriend and gets back together with her in the course of about five minutes. (Not kidding -- the show covered the span of maybe two months maximum, and it went from "We're perfect for each other" to "We broke up" to "We got back together.")

But much funnier was the barely-veiled hostility between the developers at Epic and the money men at Microsoft. The developers' liasion at Microsoft is a 40-ish woman who spends the entire show with an "I got my MBA for this?" look on her face. To watch her sweetly smiling at Epic's president as she explains that Microsoft feels the chainsaw-bayonet is a little excessive is to see the pinnacle of pointless inter-office power plays. The guys at Epic absolutely would not compromise on the chainsaw, either. I think they turned out to be right.

Best moment, hands-down, happened after Gears of War was introduced to a rapturous reception at E3. Bleszinski runs into none other than Bill Gates outside the convention hall. It seems impromptu. Gates comes over to say hi. Cliffy B starts babbling about the chainsaw. Gates glances off camera repeatedly, but Bleszinski adds clause after clause to the longest run-on sentence ever captured on film. Gates asks if they're on track for a fall ship date, and Blezsinski stammers like his teacher has nailed him for not doing his homework. Finally, Bill Gates simply says, "We're counting on you," and then Cliffy B asks for a picture. You need to see this show.

Fortunately, since this is an MTV2 production, it will probably be on several times a day for the next month. It's probably on right now.

Catching up

As I mentioned earlier, I'm making an attempt to catch up on some of the great games I missed during the current generation. My list is below, but it feels incomplete. If anyone has any more suggestions, leave them in the comments. (Even if I've played your choice, we can still talk about how awesome it was. Unless you choose something terrible, in which I case I will berate you without mercy.)

PlayStation 2
Metal Gear Solid 3
Katamari Damacy
ICO

Xbox
Ninja Gaiden

GameCube

Actually, although I never played Super Mario Sunshine or Wind Waker, I'm pretty sure there's nothing else I need to play on the 'Cube. Resident Evil 4 was the alpha and the omega. Prove me wrong, kids -- prove me wrong!

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

I am so tired of EA Sports

Be sure to check in next week for my review of FIFA World Cup 2006!

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

OutRun 2006

My review of OutRun 2006: Coast 2 Coast is online now. I have this habit of looking at a game's Metacritic score immediately after I assign my own score. Often the scores are similar -- within ten points or so by their standards. But with this game, I nearly did a spit-take. I gave it a 4 (represented as 1.5 stars on thephoenix.com), and its Metacritic score at the time was 83. Even considering the notorious score inflation in the game press, that's still a huge difference. I must be wrong.

Contra update

After browing the comments at Kotaku and some Wikipedia entries, I've concluded that A) the Konami code will be included in the XLA Contra, and B) the emulation will definitely be of the arcade version. All of my earlier comments stand. Plus it seems that the port keeps the original's vertical screen orientation. I'll wait for the Wii's Virtual Console edition, thank you very much.

Also, in Europe the game was called Probotector, which has got to rank in the top five made-up words I've ever heard.

Monday, May 15, 2006

A horrifying revelation

My own personal favorite bit of news from E3 was the announcement of a Contra port to Xbox Live Arcade. Contra was my favorite game as a kid. It was the first game I ever beat, and I played it so much that eventually I could beat it without dying. Its levels are ingrained in my muscle memory. I think it also informed my taste in games -- to this day I prefer linear action titles to the free-form, exploratory gameplay that's in vogue today (witness my gleeful reaction to Black, which was pretty poorly received by most of the game press).

There's only one problem: XLA Contra will certainly be an emulation of the original arcade version, and not the Nintendo translation!

This is a problem. Not only will the graphics be different than I remember (and I don't care that they'll be better), but the play control is bound to be just a bit off. Timing will be different. I can see myself plummeting into the icy waters of the Snowfield level, getting torched by the flames of the Energy Zone, and setting off one intrusion alarm after another in Bases 1 and 2.

The same thing happened with NBA Jam. I was a Ben Wallace-style menace on defense after months of gameplay on the Genesis version, only to hit the arcades and get called for goaltending every time my opponent took a shot. So much for beating Contra without dying. I can't even get anybody to believe me anymore, and I certainly won't be able to demonstrate.

This sucks.

Update: Ye gods, what if it means no thirty lives code?

Wii considering

It's been a couple of weeks since the name was unveiled, and Nintendo, by all accounts, had a boffo E3. So does the word "Wii" actually bother anyone at this point? I'm already used to it. I even think it's endearing.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Devil May Cry 3

In the post below, I credited Capcom with historically providing "hyper-responsive gameplay." I was thinking specifically of the Street Fighter series, but the same description could be fairly applied to Mega Man, Viewtiful Joe, and Devil May Cry. I'm currently playing my way through Devil May Cry 3, as part of my attempt to catch up on the notable games I've missed during the current generation (this will probably also merit its own post at some point).

Imagine having to learn Street Fighter again from scratch. I'm talking tabula rasa. Imagine not knowing how to do a quarter-circle motion on the d-pad, or how to charge backwards for two seconds. Imagine not knowing instinctually how to buffer attack commands. Not only would you suck at the game, but you'd probably give up trying pretty quickly. This is how I felt about DMC3. It took me about two hours of gameplay before I stopped tumbling down the sheer face of the learning curve.

The comparison isn't perfect, because DMC3 shares a lot of the action/adventure prerequisites like double-jumping and item-based puzzles. But the combat system is conceptually more similar to Street Fighter than to Prince of Persia. I'll try to explain it as quckly as possible before your eyes glaze over.

Dante, the main character, can attack with a sword and with a gun interchangeably. One button is mapped for each type of weapon. Additionally, he can carry two of each type, and switch between them on the fly. So, without any interruption in gameplay, you can attack with four different weapons about as fast as you can press four different buttons. You can do several different attacks with each sword, based on different directional inputs. You can do aerial attacks and interact with environmental objects like poles and walls. Although you can lock on to a given enemy, unlike in most games that doesn't preclude the horde of other fiends from also attacking you. Finally, you are rewarded for accruing "style" points, which basically means that failing to make your attacks as diverse and creative as possible results in a penalty. On top of all that, the enemies and boss fights are difficult to the point of cruelty.

It's an amazing game.

It's amazing because there's no point at which you're not in complete control of what's happening onscreen. Hence the difficulty, but hence the reward. There are games in which a small input on your part results in a disproportionately large action onscreen. There are also games in which you feel like you're really outworking what you're seeing on your monitor. Devil May Cry 3 requires serious manual dexterity -- you have to have a finger on all four shoulder buttons at all times -- but it all pays off in the feedback you get. Because Dante's foes can absorb so much punishment, there's no shortage of extended, eye-popping combos you can pull off. And just like in Street Fighter, the combos work because at any point you can change what you're doing. You don't have to wait for your sword-swinging animation to finish and reset before you can start blasting away with your pistols.

This is something I wish more game developers would try to focus on from the outset. I'm certainly not against fancy animations or the context-sensitive action commands that have been popping up everywhere lately (such as in Tomb Raider: Legend and Capcom's own Resident Evil 4). But it's important to remember that any kind of barrier between the control pad and the onscreen action had better be there for a damn good reason.

(Devil May Cry 3: Special Edition is available for $20 as part of the PlayStation 2 Greatest Hits collection.)

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Lost Planet demo impressions

Kudos to Microsoft for making so many E3 trailers and demos available through Xbox Live. It's a great use of the medium.

The big news so far this week (well, besides the Halo 3 trailer) is the early demo of Capcom's Lost Planet. Talking about previews is dicey -- it's not fair to criticize the flaws in an unfinished product, so all you can do is praise what works. This results in the often orgasmic previews you see from some of the larger outlets. Even so, there's a lot to like about Lost Planet.

The demo contains two modes: one in which you face off against Starship Troopers-like alien bugs, and one in which you take on humanoid space pirates. Whether the latter is supposed to represent an online multiplayer experience, I can't say.

I spent more time fighting the bugs. The game's third-person shooting mechanics are more traditional than those found in Capcom's own Resident Evil 4. You can run and gun. One great new innovation is that hitting a shoulder button will swing your view 90 degrees. It's one of those slap-your-forehead touches that makes you wonder why no one thought of this before. We'll be seeing that in many more games to come.

The graphics are great, probably on par with Ghost Recon. The transitions between environments are so seamless that only after playing did I realize I'd gone from a sub-arctic landscape through an industrial installation into a cavernous underground hive, without any interruption in gameplay. People say graphics aren't as important as gameplay; although that's true, there's no questioning that strong visuals like these heighten the feeling of immersion.

There's one complaint I have, which I hope will be fixed by the final version. There are no animation interrupts. That is, if you're firing a gun and decide you want to throw a grenade, your character won't simply stop shooting and fling a grenade without delay. Instead, the animation needs to finish and your input won't register. It doesn't even buffer. This is odd coming from Capcom, who have made their bones off of that kind of hyper-responsive gameplay. I don't like having to clear away from battle and stand still for a moment in order to switch weapons. I hope this is something that Capcom will tune up before release.

Ace Combat Zero

My take.

Ranking the big three

E3 isn't over yet, but the keynote presentations are done. Here are some quick impressions.

Microsoft: Given the current paucity of AAA titles for the 360, I wonder how well served Microsoft was by launching it last November. They could have waited, made improvements, launched with a few killer apps, and still beaten Sony by months (and by $200). Still, I love the Live architecture. I'm excited to see Live Arcade titles like Contra. Capcom's Lost Planet demo strikes me as the first truly next-gen experience I've had with my 360 (I may cover this in more detail in another post). Microsoft has had a surprisingly good E3. I would not have expected that.

Nintendo: The only reason I'm not blown away is because they didn't offer significantly more information about the Wii than was already available. Not revealing a launch date or price point hurts. Then again, with the $250 rumor floating around, it gives them latitude to make a big splash later -- say, by announcing that the Wii will actually launch at $199. Frankly, the biggest news from Nintendo was all the great new stuff for the DS and even the GameCube. Yoshi's Island 2? Paper Super Mario Bros.? Yes, please.

Sony: Six hundred dollars. That's all anyone took away from Sony's presentation. Recently, I was researching a piece on personal tech, and I noticed that $399 seems to be the starting point for nearly all consumer electronics (the Scooba, the SkyScout, and most point-and-shoot digital cameras all seemed to retail for that). But $599? Even the people behind the counter at Gamestop couldn't believe it. Sony is nuts. I think Bill Harris sums it up better than I can.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

PlayStation 3 to launch at $599

World to Sony: "Are you out of your fucking mind? You really are out of your fucking mind!"

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Insult Swordfighting Privacy Policy

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