Monday, March 31, 2008

The ship is sinking! Get out!

In the past few months, I've played three games in which my characters had to flee a sinking military vessel within a certain time limit. For whatever reason, sinking ships are the new hotness -- the 3D equivalent of the collapsing bridge in old-school platformers. You know, where you ran across as pieces of the bridge tumbled away beneath you.

Above: The bridge is collapsing! Go go go!

Which is to say that it's not usually all that surprising or fun, escaping from sinking ships. Some games do it better than others. From worst to best, here are the sinking-ship sequences I've played recently.

3. Army of Two

Above: "I'm gonna sink this bitch."

The biggest problem with Army of Two's ship-sinking sequence is that half of the cool stuff happens offscreen. The aircraft carrier is loaded with nuclear warheads that could fall into the wrong hands unless our intrepid duo -- you guessed it -- sinks the ship, and detonates the explosives underwater. There's a little cutscene where you push the warheads onto an elevator, and then suddenly you appear on the flight deck with a minute to run to a lifeboat. Not only do you need only about twenty seconds to make it, but the only obstacles are a bunch of shipping containers that appear from the ether and tumble toward you. It's bush league. You hear me? Bush league.

2. Dark Sector

Above: Not a sinking ship. Thanks for nothing, Google Image Search.

Dark Sector's sinking ship sequence plays out a bit better than does Army of Two's -- but on the downside, it happens in the game Dark Sector. Here, you have ten minutes to escape a sinking ship, and it may be a sign of how muddy the storytelling is that mere days later I cannot recall what I was doing on the ship or why. To escape, you have to solve a few puzzles using the glaive's "aftertouch" ability, steering it around corners and through gaps in fences and whatnot, all while fending off a bunch of brainless mutants.

The biggest problem, like much of the game, is that the puzzles aren't integrated well into the game. Why would a ship have doors that can only be unlocked by hurling an electrified boomerang at them? It just doesn't make sense. Plus, they tried to increase the drama by having the ship spring leaks all over the place, but the leaks are all identical: they're all at the same height on the walls, they all spray the same amount of water, and they're usually evenly spaced along your path. It's not good when these things call attention to themselves.

1. Call of Duty 4

Above: Sinking?! I did NOT see this coming!

As I've said before, Call of Duty 4 is awesome, and the funny thing is that it doesn't do anything that hasn't already been done in other games. It just does everything so much better -- including sinking a ship.

Once again, I don't really remember what we were doing on the ship, although I think it had something to do with retrieving some vital documents. What matters is that the escape is executed brilliantly. The ship lists to one side, with the controls providing just the right amount of resistance, and various committed foes take potshots at you. In the Call of Duty way, the whole sequence is a sensory overload. I felt something like panic my first time through, particularly when I lost sight of my squad and found myself charging blindly down corridors -- the wrong corridors, as it turns out. It was to be the first of my approximately seven thousand deaths over the course of the single-player campaign.

In conclusion, if you really want to escape from a sinking ship, do it in Call of Duty 4. Or, more likely, do it in every game for the next five years, until somebody comes up with a better idea and suddenly you're making one hang-glider escape after another from mountaintop fortresses.

Friday, March 28, 2008 User-Submitted Previews: Grand Theft Auto IV

A new trailer for Grand Theft Auto IV has excitement at a fever pitch. The game is due to be released on April 29, but that hasn't stopped our friends at from sharing their opinions on the final product. As always, spelling mistakes and grammatical errors are not a result of transcription.

"Beastmaster" has taken a scientific approach to analyzing the game:
After perfusely scouring the internet for information and specs I have come to the conclusion that this installment of the GTA Series is shapping up to be the best yet. Rockstar is stepping away from the more aspect they used in San Andreas and are going more toward realism. Many of my friends are constantly saying that I am overly hyped about GTA 4, but I just reserved my copy today and wont they regret those words on release day.

They won't regret those words because they'll be too busy asking nicely if they can play. And you'll let them. We've all been there.

"Gummi" counsels his fellow gamers to be a bit more circumspect:

Alright.... look ! GTA 4 is going to be a game to look forward to in april, but only ONE of the great games coming out in "08" People say GTA 4 is GOING 2 Be THE BEST GAME EVER !
How can it when GOW 2 comes out later this year ? GTA 4's graphics don't even look like what they should for a next -Gen game, the Guns they put in the Game seems like the same ones they put in every GTA, an the Quote on Quote "Best GAME Ever dosen't even have a online Mode where you can share the excitement with your friends ? Halo 3, one of the best games ever ! COD4,one of the best games ever ! GOW, one of the best games ever ! GTA 4 still needs to prove a lot more before it Ranks in as BEST GAME EVER!!!!!

How can one sequel I've never played be the best game ever when another sequel I've never played might come out at a later time? GTAIV needs to prove a lot more before anybody but the most ardent fanboy believes it's better than Resident Evil 9, which comes out in 2019.

"Jordan" laments Rockstar's betrayal of the little guy:
I think this is going to be a good game to play but whats sucks is that the people who own PS2 don't get the chance to play it and they get screwed.

And how come Sega Saturn owners are getting screwed? Where's the Atari Jaguar version? Multi-platform, my eye.

"Black JaCu" seems a little confused about something:
I always love reading what people have to say. But I think who ever comments about these games are really gay. I just felt like i had to say something. SO who ever is going to coment on this game or any game saying this is the best ever or finaly or yes its comming your all realy gay.

If everybody who comments on the game is gay, and Black JaCu is commenting on the game, doesn't it follow that Black JaCu is himself gay? Or will he invoke the Larry Craig defense ("I have a wide commenting stance")? Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course.

"xbox 360 guy" deserves plaudits for effortlessly blending incoherence with bald-faced lies:
this game is going to be so cool because the graphics and i played the game. it feels like your in the game it so cool you can do so much now you should get this game i like it because sound and missions the xbox 360 is the best to get grandtheft auto iv for that system i already played the playstation 3 for iv and it sucked. get iv for the 360 the = end

To recap: It's cool because graphics, and he likes it because sound and missions. And even if you take it at face value that he did play the game before this comment was posted last November, his username kind of gives the game away.

Of the numerous comments proclaiming GTAIV the best game ever made, none quite reach the grandiloquent heights of the one by "colbog":

this is the reason why you have a system, this game is why you came to life, this game is the best, trow all your games to garbage, and forget about the world this is time to brake up with your girlfrien guys, the graghics and game experince is 5000 stars, ?????? yea really.

After posting this, colbog ascended to heaven on a winged steed.

The = end.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Dark Sector has got me stumped

Immediate Update: So the first time I tried after making this post, I figured it out. It turns out you have to go back out into a particular hallway, where an otherwise nondescript portion of wall has magically opened up to reveal a hidden passageway. I don't know whether to blame myself or the game for this, but at least you've gotten a rare insight into just how terrible I am at video games.

The game is probably too new for anybody to be able to help me yet, but I figured I'd ask. I am stuck in Dark Sector. Hopelessly stuck. As in, I've replayed the same part at least fifteen times and still don't even have the slightest idea what I should be doing. If anybody could possibly help, I'd appreciate it.

Here's the scenario: I've just gotten the glaive's shield power. There's a cutscene where I'm introduced to a character named Nadia. Immediately following the cutscene, I have 60 seconds to either escape the room, defuse a bomb, or maybe even do something else I'm not thinking of. There's a door that looks like the probable escape route, but there's no prompt to open it. I've searched for switches or buttons that might open it and come up empty. I can't see anything that might interact with the glaive. The route I took into this area is blocked.

I don't have any idea what to do. I can't even tell you how much time I've spent replaying this part. It's probably something obvious, but I just have no idea at this point.

Addendum to "Nintendo and the last mile"

In my last post, I talked about Sony's nearly bulletproof manufacturing, and their lack of any systemic hardware problems. That's still true -- the failure rate for the PS3 seems to be substantially lower than that of its competitors. But Moriarty at Ain't It Cool News is experiencing one massive exception. Not only has he been having severe problems with his unit, but Sony is seriously face-planting the last mile:
The first girl who helped me today told me that the update can do that to machines. Now, when I first got my PS3, one of the selling points was that the machine is essentially "future proof," but if these firmware updates might fry your machine completely, then that’s not really future-proofing anything, is it? The girl seemed to be totally nonchalant in telling me this, too, like it shouldn’t bother me.

So suddenly, I’m feeling a whole lot less evangelical, folks. I’m going to call my friends who I convinced to buy the PS3 this week, and I’m going to make sure they know that this might be an issue. I thought I could sneer at the Xbox 360 RROD, but it turns out this machine is just as susceptible to sudden and complete system death. At least in my experience.

When I mentioned to the second guy I dealt with on the phone today that I felt like should write about why I couldn’t write my reviews, and how unreliable my experience with the PS3 has become in the last month and a half, he told me to "go ahead and slander us if it makes you feel better."

It's hard to imagine Sony's customer service reps handling the problem any more haphazardly. Note to CSRs: You never know how big a megaphone the customer may have. How bad does this look for them now? Even if the 1% failure rate Sony claims is true, that's no reason to slag off those customers who do experience failure -- particularly in Sony's case, where their installed base is still lagging behind Microsoft's and Nintendo's. That's terrible form.

Nintendo and the last mile

Ramit Sethi at I Will Teach You to Be Rich once wrote about something he called the "failure of the last mile," which simply means that it's the last contact with someone that's the most important. In business terms, it means this: Every company makes mistakes. Bad companies make it hard for their customers to get those problems taken care of. Good companies make it easy. What matters isn't so much what was wrong, but how -- and whether -- it was made right. Ramit cites the peak-end rule: "…we judge our past experiences almost entirely on how they were at their peak (pleasant or unpleasant) and how they ended. Virtually all other information appears to be discarded."

I bring this up because all three current-gen console manufacturers have shown how they run the last mile. Microsoft and Sony have both stumbled a bit along the way. Nintendo hasn't. Recall all of the problems that have accompanied the Wii. First, the wrist straps were breaking. Then the Wii Remotes themselves were. Then it turned out that leaving the Wii in Connect24 mode for too long caused the hardware to overheat. Then a significant number of units couldn't read the Smash Bros. discs. In each case, Nintendo got out in front of the problem.

Rather than let the drumbeat of customer complaints reach a crescendo, as soon as it became clear that the wrist straps weren't strong enough, Nintendo announced that they'd be replacing everybody's straps free of charge. Just go to the web site, fill out a form, and you'll get yours in just weeks. Same thing with the new padded jacket that now comes standard with all Remotes, and the GPU overheating issue. I happen to dislike the feel of the jacket and don't use it, and never took advantage of the graphics card repair, but it's the principle of the thing: Public outcry hadn't reached uproar status in either case, but the company stepped up, said it was their fault, and upgraded everybody for free.

And that's what they did with the Smash Bros. snafu. What am I going to remember about this incident six months from now: That my Wii was unable to read a particular game, or that Nintendo repaired my unit for free and returned it to me within a week?

Contrast this to the way Microsoft and Sony have handled similar (and similarly inevitable) problems. When reports of Xbox 360 hardware failures started popping up everywhere, Microsoft took a page from the Bush administration playbook and denied that anything was wrong at all. That only made the problem worse, so they took the next logical step: Attacked the people making the complaints. Microsoft claimed the reports of an epidemic were exaggerated, a vocal minority was making them look bad, and so on. When they later extended their manufacturer's warranty to three years, this was seen in the community less as good customer service and more as a grudging admission of guilt. Although these days you can get your 360 repaired pretty easily, and usually free, peak-end theory still applies: What people remember is the arrogance, and the denial of any widespread problems in the first place.

The PlayStation 3 hasn't experienced even a fraction of its competitors' problems on the manufacturing side. But on the marketing side -- hoochie mama! Sony's PR pronouncements from Bizarro World have been well chronicled here and elsewhere, so I'm not sure it's worth rehashing all of them. But just consider their spin on the missing rumble support from the SIXAXIS: "Rumble is dumb. Only fags want a controller with rumble." (I am paraphrasing slightly.)

In the meantime, educated consumers were aware of the pending lawsuit against Sony by Immersion Corporation, claiming patent violation. Once the lawsuit was resolved, Sony magically decided once again that rumble was the smartest and most heterosexual controller feature anybody could ever offer. The Dual Shock 3 goes on sale on April 15. Will they follow Nintendo's lead and offer a free Dual Shock to those of us who bought their system before it was available? Just after they admit that Xbox Live blows the doors off the PlayStation Network, I'd imagine.

Although the problems ranged in severity from Sony's boneheaded community outreach to Microsoft's catastrophic hardware failure, in every case what customers end up remembering is how each company dealt with what had gone wrong. Nintendo seems to be alone among the hardware manufacturers in understanding the value of a little humility. It's yet one more reason why the Wii is running away from the pack in this console generation.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Wii Watch: Day 9

"Out for Delivery." Huzzah!

Let's hope all goes well from here, and I can stop burdening you with the mundane details of a console repair.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Wii Watch: Day 8

The Wii repair has hit its first real setback. After my earlier optimism, the UPS tracking page has changed since the "arrival scan" in Louisville, Kentucky. That was on Saturday. If this page is to be believed, it's still there. And that would be terribly upsetting. I'm impressed that Nintendo was able to turn it around so quickly, but now I turn my ire to the United Parcel Service.

And my ire is up.

Army of Two review

Not only did I fail to spend my entire Army of Two review talking about the storyline, I actually spent the bulk of it talking about the gameplay mechanics. And still missed a lot. So, you know. Do as I say, not as I do.

Either way, this is a pretty fun game. I feel like the single-player mode has actually gotten a bad rap. The only major concern I had with it is that the AI-controlled teammate was usually unable to successfully drag my character to safety and administer first aid when he was hurt. Granted, that's a significant problem when it comes up. But generally he's pretty good about going where you want him to go and doing what you want him to do, even if it's almost always easier to put him in Aggro and just sneak around melee-ing everybody to death.

Another criticism I didn't make in the review: It's kind of hard to enjoy the two-player action when everybody on your friends list is still playing Call of Duty 4 like it's their job.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Wii Watch: Day 6

These guys don't mess around. They shipped out the Wii yesterday, and according to the tracker it arrived in Kentucky at 2:10 PM today. It's entirely possible I could have this on Monday. Pretty impressive, really.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Wii Watch: Day 5

My repair status now says "shipping," which is encouraging. What's discouraging is that in the "amount" field next to good old ASSY WHITE, it now says $75.00, instead of the "no cost" promised on the original repair form.

I assume that's just to let me know how generous Nintendo is by not making me pay that amount.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Wii Watch: Day 4

In an awesome development, Nintendo allows you to track the status of your repair on their website. So far there's nothing for me to see except that they've received my Wii and the game. Those are itemized on the page as:



"Assy White" sounds like a character from The Wire.

Rock Band: $11,000,000 and counting

Let's do some math, shall we? Everybody likes math.

Game|Life reports that Rock Band has now totaled six million digital downloads.

You can buy individual songs for $1.99, or three-song packs at slight per-song discount, $5.49 (using the PlayStation Store numbers here, although I believe Microsoft Points price out about the same).

Assuming that every downloaded song was purchased as part of a pack (not a safe assumption at all), that's two million purchases at $5.49 per purchase.

2,000,000 x 5.49 = $10,980,000

Now factor in any number of single-song downloads for $1.99 and Rock Band has easily topped eleven million dollars in online revenue alone. That doesn't count revenue for the $170 bundle, or any of the recently-released peripherals.

This thing is a runaway train. And the new in-game store is only going to grease the tracks further.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Wii Watch: Day 3 tells me that my Wii has arrived at Nintendo's offices. I was about to say it arrived "safely," but the truth is I have no idea what those animals did to my defenseless Wii in transit. I think I did a good job of packing it. Who knows? I just stuffed a bunch of newspaper all around it and then shook the box to hear if anything moved. Nothing did. Still, it's entirely possible that Nintendo's repair dudes will open the box to find a pile of pulverized plastic. Worse still, they may open it to find nothing at all.

These are the things I worry about. I should never have children. I'll be calling the school every day to make sure they're still alive.

Strike hard! Stick to the rhythm!

Okay, so one clever closing line can't make up for an otherwise uninspired Patapon review. But it sure can't hurt!

Patapon is part of a proud tradition of games whose intentions I very much like, and whose gameplay I do not. It's always a strange feeling to applaud developers for what they tried to do, but I do think it's important for them to take risks and stretch their creative muscles. Sometimes it may not pay off right away, but the experience of trying something like this may pay off later. (This is how I felt about Puzzle Quest, and as a result I have high hopes for its sequel, Galactrix.)

For a more positive and in-depth look at Patapon, I recommend Daniel Purvis's review.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Two sides to every review

Via GameSetWatch, I read an interesting thread on NeoGAF about Gamespot's Army of Two review. (Is that enough links in one sentence for you?) The complaint is that the reviewer, Joe Dodson, centered his critique on the game's storyline and themes, and therefore failed to do his job. Worse, the original poster seems to feel that such considerations have no place in game reviews. As somebody who tries to base most of his reviews on issues of story and theme, I frankly found this troubling.

So I was heartened to read both the review in question, and many of the dissenting replies in the thread. I have a couple of possibly unfair prejudices in mind about Gamespot and NeoGAF. The former has often seemed dry and snooty to me, and the latter has seemed like the Internet's petri dish. Gamespot's review says, basically, that Army of Two is a fun game with some troubling overtones. (In fact, the bulk of the review deals with gameplay issues, and not the storyline.) I haven't played the game too much yet, but from my experience so far, Gamespot's take seems about right.

This is the first game I'm aware of that explicitly name-checks 9/11, to the point where an early cinematic shows a character waking up to see an image of the Twin Towers burning on his television. How do you see that and still say this is just a game? How do you play the rest of the game -- which is about Blackwater-esque mercenaries fighting in such fantastic locales as Afghanistan and Iraq -- without constantly drawing parallels to the real world? I'd suggest that if you can play this game without once considering the issues it raises, maybe you really are desensitized.

To be clear: I'm not saying any of this is out-of-bounds for a game. In fact, I think it took some serious stones for Army of Two's developers to go this route, and for EA to publish it. This is the world we live in, and I'm glad to see a game embrace that. The only problem I'm having so far is that, even in the short time I've played it, the undertones keep shifting under my feet. It seems thematically confused. On one hand, it's goofball satire, with braindead and vaguely homoerotic interplay between the two leads, and hyperbolic portrayals of suicide bombers who run toward you shrieking and waving their hands above their heads. On the other, it trends toward distressing realism when talking about the uneasy balance between the military and unaccountable private contractors. It's possible this all gets tied together in a cohesive way before it's all said and done, so I don't want to go too far with it just yet. I only want to emphasize that the angle Gamespot took in reviewing Army of Two is a legitimate one.

And I'm glad that so many of the commenters on NeoGAF seem to agree. A significant number of them don't, and think that reviews should stick to the basic issues of graphics, play control, and so on. That, too, is defensible. But it's less interesting to me than more critical game reviews, and most people seem to agree that critical game reviews are what we currently lack. This comment summed up the dischord in the thread:
The videogame media are a bunch of parochial idiots for just mechanically praising games on graphics, sound, sex, and violence in reviews, instead of being more mature and evaluating games as an entertainment medium with storytelling, characterization, and a cultural context.

The videogame media are also idiots for evaluating games as an entertainment medium with storytelling, characterization, and a cultural context instead of just telling me how the graphics are and whether the game is worth playing.

Or something like that.

Well put, but let's not forget that there's room for both kinds of reviews. It may be fair to criticize Gamespot for publishing this particular Army of Two review when they've made their bones by catering to hardcore gamers with a more straight-ahead editorial style. I happen to think someone could write an interesting and enlightening review of the game without spending more than a token passage or two talking about the gameplay. A game that explicitly raises topical issues absolutely deserves to be dealt with on that level, if not by every reviewer.

What is Army of Two trying to say? Does it succeed in saying it? These are the kinds of questions we ask without hesitation of books, movies, and music. I've said it before, and I'll say it again now: If we want the broader public to treat games with the respect we think they deserve, then it's our responsibility to set the example. That means answering these kinds of questions first, before people like Jack Thompson try to answer them for us.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The red Wiing of death

My office has become a console graveyard. It's like the scene in Gone with the Wind where the camera pulls back to reveal an endless array of dead and wounded Confederate soldiers. My SIXAXIS, as described in the control pad stress test, lies mangled and useless next to the PlayStation 3. The Dual Shock 3 comes out on April 15, so I need to try to make it a month without playing another PS3 game, or I'll have to buy another SIXAXIS. Yes, I have no one to blame but myself, but I'd still rather not sink $50 into a soon-to-be-obsolete peripheral if I can help it.

The much sadder sight is the empty Wii stand next to the TV. Say what you will about that little system, it's certainly easy on the eyes. And now it's gone, probably for another seven business days. I packed it off to FedEx this morning in an old J. Crew box. The idea was not to draw attention to the package's contents, as Nintendo recommends, but that's sort of hard to do when the address label blares "NINTENDO OF AMERICA" on two different lines. I did not feel confident handing it over to the purple-suited fellow behind the counter at my local FedEx Kinko's.

If you think my apprehension is unwarranted, let me tell you about the time I received a parcel from Rockstar Games that had been ripped open and retaped somewhere in transit. My copy of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was nowhere to be found (although, fortunately, the thief had left me a sticker and a hat). The courier? Federal Express. I don't know what's worse: that FedEx employs thieves, or that said thieves probably post at NeoGAF.

Amid all this catastrophic hardware failure, there's one noisy, overheated, disaster-prone machine that just keeps humming along like nobody's business: Old Reliable, the Xbox 360. That console has just passed the two-year mark of uninterrupted service. It's like my office is sitting in some localized Bizarro dimension.

Having said that, I imagine my 360 has only weeks to live.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Good old Nintendo Wii

Well, after not using it for months caused my the graphics card to partially melt itself, now my Wii seems to be resistant to loading Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Twice it gave me an error message that recommended turning the system off, and now it's displaying the loading screen while making a horrible grinding noise.

Oh, there we go: "An error has occurred. Press the Eject Button, remove the Game Disc, and turn the power off. Please read the Wii Operations Manual for more information."

So that's great. It seems like every time I put a new game into this system, it doesn't want to run it. There's almost always an error message of some kind. Usually it only happens once, though. I feel like I read something about Smash Bros. giving people trouble.

To Google!

Edit: Yep, here it is. Great that Nintendo will pay for shipping for me to get this fixed, but that doesn't really help me file a review next week. Awesome.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Smooth move, Best Buy

All right, unrelenting pressure from my peers in the gaming community, not to mention my editors, led me to pick up Super Smash Bros. Brawl at Best Buy. Generally I'm a big fan of that store, not least because I can walk in two days after the release of a popular game and buy it without being guilt-tripped about not reserving it by some choad wearing a Bluetooth earpiece. Best Buy just takes your money and gives you the game! It's a revolutionary business model.

Even so, I was pretty upset to see this:

Did you catch that? Take a closer look.

Yep. And that was plastered on every one of the dozens of copies they had on display. I mean, if you're going to try to gouge gullible consumers, you could at least make sure you're spelling your stupid sales pitch correctly.

I still like them better than Gamestop.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

One-second Sins of a Solar Empire review

After last week's hemming and hawing, I think my Sins of a Solar Empire review came out all right. It might even be helpful to a general audience -- who knows?

Even so: In some ways, that review is about six hundred words too long. I can distill it to its essence without writing any words at all. Allow me to present the one-second version of my review:

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Burnout: No, not the game

Maybe it's the brighter days and warmer weather. Maybe it's the string of mediocre games I've been playing for weeks. Maybe it's the steamrolling hype for Smash Bros and GTAIV. Whatever the cause, one thing's for sure: I'm feeling burned out on games.

I don't feel like playing them. Don't feel like writing about them. Don't much feel like reading about them (although Kotaku's story on the haunted Ms. Pac-Man machine was an exception). I've failed to respond to solicitations for pitches from two different publications, which is always a brilliant career move. But what can I say? I'm not feeling the juju, and I don't know why.

Does anybody else ever have this problem? Leigh Alexander once tried to abstain from playing anything for a full week, and found it impossible. Jeff Gerstmann's gamer score is over 55,000. The internet is awash with people who come up with dozens of blog posts per day. That's dedication. It's all I can do to power up my PSP to sock away another level or two of Patapon.

This, too, will pass, but if you were wondering why posting has slowed down lately, now you know why.

And you were wondering, weren't you?

Friday, March 07, 2008

Super Smash Bros streets early

Word is that several retailers have broken the street date for Super Smash Bros Brawl. This according to threads on NeoGAF and Hipinion, so I'm convinced. One piece of advice: You're better off checking your local independent stores instead of bigtime chains, what with all their "rules."

Still can't say I care too much. I don't think Nintendo's PR firm is sending us a copy, either.

But you guys feel free to go nuts on that thing.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Sins of a solo game reviewer

I need some advice. I'm reviewing Sins of a Solar Empire for the Phoenix. You may have heard of this game -- it combines elements of real-time strategy and turn-based strategy in an intergalactic setting, on what the box promises is an "unrivaled scale." It's been reviewed well elsewhere, with a Metacritic score of 89.

And I don't have the slightest idea how to review it.

I've argued before that an encylopedic knowledge of games is only part of the equation for good games criticism. But obviously a writer needs to have a solid foundation in the genre he's playing if it's to be an informed and balanced review. When I play an action-adventure game, I'm drawing on decades of experience with that style of play. I can zoom right up the learning curve, without getting hung up on the basics.

That's not the case with strategy games like Sins of a Solar Empire, whether we're talking about real-time or turn-based. I've never played a Civilization game or a Command and Conquer game. I've spent about five minutes each with Warcraft and Starcraft. I know so little about strategy games that I can't even think of any other ones off the top of my head. And I'm spending my time not on comparing Sins of a Solar Empire to other strategy games, but on learning how to play it.

I see from the Metacritic page that Sins was streamlined compared to its brethren, but you could have fooled me. The instruction manual is novella-length. For people steeped in the genre, it might feel like the most user-friendly interface ever designed. For me, it's like learning a foreign language. My biggest fear is writing a review that comes off as dumb and uninformed -- to write the RTS equivalent of a review of an action-adventure game that sounds baffled that you press the A button to make your character jump. And yet... I am uninformed.

So what do I do? It would be unfair to the game to review the genre by proxy in place of a detailed discussion of its unique characteristics. But it would also be unfair to the readers to pretend I'm an authority on strategy games, or even that I would have paid any attention to this game if I weren't getting paid to do so. I'm thinking it'll take some combination of a forthright admission that I'm not an expert with a focus on those things that I really do like about it, even if they may not be intrinsic to what most strategy fans are looking for.

But I'm not sure. How would you approach it?

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Won't find me in the Club

My review of The Club is up now. I'm tempted to say it's not a bad idea for a game, except I couldn't really tell you how they could have made it better, so maybe the idea was the problem after all.

One thing that confused me about this game was the sometimes contradictory feedback you get. For example, much of the environment is destructible, which is neat visually. But with the exception of numerous exploding blue barrels (of course) scattered everywhere, none of it can be used to kill your opponents. And since you're scored partly on accuracy at the end of the level, taking advantage of this feature is detrimental. So why is it there?

(I suppose it's possible that you aren't docked for shooting interactive items, but that's a better excuse for why I usually scored around 20% accuracy.)

Still, The Club isn't a poorly made game at all. I just think its appeal lies wholly for Skill Players, and I do not count myself among them. Could still be worth a rental if you consider yourself that type of gamer.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Career opportunities

With the departure of Jeff Gerstmann, Frank Provo, Alex Navarro, Ryan Davis, and now Jason Ocampo (did I miss anyone?), it appears that Gamespot is hiring. They're advertising three open Associate Editor positions: two general, and one PC-specific. It still doesn't seem to fill all the gaps left by the departed, but it's much more than I've ever seen posted. That place used to be locked down like Fort Knox.

Despite all that's happened there over the last few months, I'd be surprised if they have any trouble filling these positions. Without knowing any specific numbers, I'd be willing to bet that the number of people who want to make a living writing about games still exceeds the number of available jobs by at least a thousand million percent. Really, despite the hit its reputation has taken of late, Gamespot is still a leading publication -- one of the first two or three sites that come to mind. They might even pay a real salary, who knows. (Actually, does anybody know? I'm curious. Post anonymously, if you want.)