Friday, October 31, 2008

Friday afternoon tidbits

Above: I stole this from someone who stole it from Kotaku. God love ya, Google image search.

Ah, Halloween. I look forward to the day I am a suburban homeowner, so I can hide in the bushes and spray miscreants with my hose. Until then, I'll continue to spend the holiday as I always do: barricaded in my apartment. But first, some leftovers from the week that was.

-First of all, welcome to everyone who showed up here thanks to N'Gai Croal's Edge column, "The Importance of Being Easy" -- and there are a lot of you! N'Gai and I seem to be coming from the same place regarding game difficulty. It's not that games shouldn't be challenging, it's that they shouldn't be so punishing. I, too, was a big fan of the Vita-Chambers in BioShock. And it's a marked contrast from Far Cry 2's approach, which is to rob you of all progress since your last save when you die. So if you die and haven't saved after finding some diamonds, scouting guard huts, or whatever, you'd have to do all that again. Given the scope of the game world, that's difficult, and frustrating.

-As long as I'm stroking my own ego here, Iroquois Pliskin wrote a great post about survival horror, in response to the Brainy Gamer podcast from earlier this week. He makes an excellent point about Resident Evil 4. Why was it still so scary when it did away with the series' usual miserly distribution of resources, and instead emphasized high-octane action sequences? Because, "...the key element is the fact that you cannot run and shoot at the same time. This turns open ground between you and the enemy into the scarce resource; you are constantly torn between ceding and standing your ground." Insight, people.

-This must be a watershed moment: The New Yorker profiled Cliff Bleszinski. It's a good read, although there's not much that's new to the kinds of people who spend their time reading and writing video game blogs. Still, nice to see coverage of this sort in such a highbrow publication. I guess this article had a few high-profile detractors (including Matthew at Magical Wasteland), but I didn't see the problem with it. Hell, compared to Patricia Marx's shopping columns and Sasha Frere-Jones's pop music reviews, this is Pulitzer-worthy. (And despite Tom Bissell's noting Bleszinski's request not to be called "CliffyB" anymore, the editors proceeded to do just that in the subhed. Nice work, guys.)

-Speaking of all that, the magazine's profile of Will Wright a couple years ago was also good, but less unexpected, somehow. I can honestly say that the last thing I expected to see when I got this week's issue was a picture of CliffyB dressed in Marcus Fenix's armor and holding a chainsaw bayonet.

Just in case you thought you were the only one struggling with what to play and what to skip, we're having the same problem at the Phoenix. There are just too many games for the space we have. (Partly, that's because this is the first holiday season that everything we've requested has actually shown up.) It's leading to some hard questions about what's worth covering. We'll try to get everything in if we can, even if it means running some stuff web-only, but it's disappointing.

What about you? What are you buying? What games have you decided to skip, and why?

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Quiz: The Year in Swooning

Match each of these games with the breathless excerpt from its review.

1. Grand Theft Auto IV
2. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots
3. Dead Space
4. Far Cry 2
5. LittleBigPlanet
6. Fable 2
7. Fallout 3
8. Resistance 2

A. "Is it possible to give a game an 11? If so, this would be the game that would merit that score."

B. "I now know how film critics felt after screening "The Godfather." ...doesn't just raise the bar for the storied franchise; it completely changes the landscape of gaming."

C. "It is not hyperbole... an achievement that rivals greats like Half-Life 2 and BioShock. Its nuanced and labyrinthine plot, fully-realized characters and devastating attention to minute graphical details are beyond reproach."

D. "...a staggering, genre-defining achievement - marrying an utterly immersive world, memorable characters, incredible production values, some of the most inspired ... mechanics ever devised and so much heart ... Stands so far ahead of the majority of the games ... that it would be a crime against gaming not to laud this title as anything other than a masterpiece."

E. "...a landmark title that fundamentally changes the genre. Better than the original in every way, it is an amazingly rich adventure packed with anything and everything from exploration to fierce gun battles to harrowing car chases. It's incredibly polished, enormous in scope, and one of the best games of 2008."

F. "While the single-player experience is a great tale with an epic scope, it is equaled, and perhaps surpassed, by the multiplayer modes, which are perhaps some of the best I've ever played, and I'm particularly picky about my multiplayer."

G. " of the most important games to be released this decade. A tall order with the hype machine running overtime for the game but the way it reinvents how video games are played is sure to have lasting effects indefinitely."

H. "One of the greatest RPG’s ever made, a must own game for fans of the genre and anyone who wants to experience something truly unique."


1. B (Game Informer)
2. A (IGN)
3. C (GameSpy)
4. E (GameShark)
5. G (Kombo)
6. H (WonderwallWeb)
7. D (Xbox World 360)
8. F (IGN)

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


Above: Leigh Alexander, right, defends Princess Debut to a skeptical Mitch Krpata and Michael Abbott, left and center.

I had the pleasure of joining Leigh Alexander as a guest on the latest episode of the Brainy Gamer podcast, as part of Michael Abbott's new "Gamers Confab" roundtable discussions. We covered quite a few topics, including what we're playing now (Rock Band 2 ftw), the difficulty of keeping up with all the fall releases, the desirability of keeping up with all the fall releases, and the state of the survival horror genre. That last subject takes up about the second half of the conversation. We talked about Dead Space and Silent Hill specifically, with room to talk about classics of the genre, and what the hell makes a game scary, anyway.

I thought we had some pretty interesting things to say, while covering a lot of ground. Mostly it was nice to have the discussion with live people, as these are topics I never discuss with anybody in real life. Sometimes it's nice to just sit down and shoot the shit about these subjects, without all the editing and hard work of a good blog post. You sort of get the impression, listening to the podcast, that we all felt that way.

Have a listen, won't you?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The sounds of silence

Above: Nothin' unusual happenin' here

My review of Silent Hill: Homecoming is up now at

The comparison to Dead Space is unavoidable. As horror games, they couldn't be more different. Dead Space is all surface: it's loud, flashy, and precision engineered. Silent Hill is a bit more sloppy as a game, but it's also the more subtle and disquieting experience. Both are good, but I think the overlap between them is probably as small as it could be while still falling under the general heading of horror. I liked Silent Hill a bit more, although since both games essentially did what they set out to do, I imagine that opinions differ.

I mentioned in the first paragraph of the review some of the glaring gameplay problems. I left one out: You can't invert the Y-axis for your camera controls. You can invert them for aiming a gun, which is something you don't do often in this game. Probably 80% of the combat is with a melee weapon. I'm a Y-axis-inverter since old times, and it took me a good five hours to get used to this. In a weird way, that ended up making the game scarier, since I always seemed to be looking just slightly away from where I wanted to. Given the choice, I'd still have wanted the option to change it.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Collecting scalps

Friday, October 17, 2008 -- 3:47 P.M.

ETpwnhome: d00d i got far cry 2

doobyscoo420: what!! it doesnt even come out 4 like another week

ETpwnhome: haha i no they totally broke street date at my best buy

doobyscoo420: i gotta go check mine

ETpwnhome: good luck man im gonna go SHOOT THE FUCK OUTA AFRICA

doobyscoo420: k have fun

doobyscoo420: guess ill just play dead space or some shit :(

Friday, October 17, 2008 -- 11:10 P.M.


ETpwnhome: OMG OMG OMG

doobyscoo420: they didnt have it at my best buy :(


doobyscoo420: and i tried gamespot and even target

doobyscoo420: :(



doobyscoo420: well i got to the last boss of dead space and its pretty cool

ETpwnhome: dude.

ETpwnhome: srsly?

doobyscoo420: it has big tentaculs and stuff

ETpwnhome: who cares about dead sapce lol

doobyscoo420: did u ever get past that asteroid shooting part

ETpwnhome: my guy has MALARAIA

ETpwnhome: fuck u

Tuesday, October 21, 2008 -- 7:37 P.M.

doobyscoo420: DUDE I GOT FAR CRY

doobyscoo420: i havent even started it yet but im so siked

ETpwnhome: lol good luck with that pos

doobyscoo420: we should play mulitplayer

doobyscoo420: wiat what

ETpwnhome: its so dumb

ETpwnhome: like it doesnt make sense. theres all these dudes who keep making u do dumb stuff for no reason, and like u drive around 4 an hour and dont do anything

doobyscoo420: what about the malaria

ETpwnhome: its GAY

doobyscoo420: so do u want to play multiplayer or no???

ETpwnhome: haha no dude i got littlebigplanet an im about 2 play the FUCK out of it

doobyscoo420: what i thought that got delayed 2 next week!!

ETpwnhome: lol ya i got mine from gamestop cuz i no the manager n they have tons of copies in the back

doobyscoo420: oh shit i gotta check my gamesotp

doobyscoo420: guess ill just play far cry or some shit :(

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Space is the place

Above: A commonly seen Dead Space screenshot.

My review of Dead Space is up now at As usual, space restraints kept me from mentioning a couple of things I would have liked to. Briefly:

-The audio really is spectacular, but upon reading some other reviews, it seems that I missed out by not having surround sound, or any kind of home theater setup at all. It's a real shame. If you haven't played it yet, I'd recommend headphones. Or maybe you have a sweet 5.1 surround setup -- in which case, go to hell.

-Another terrific aspect of the interface is the ability to locate the direction of your current objective. All you do is click the right trigger and Isaac will generate a blue, laser-like line along the ground toward his destination. Simple, intuitive, and useful -- and occasionally dizzying in the zero-G rooms.

-Dead Space gives you the ability to upgrade your suit, weapons, and abilities by exchanging power nodes at sporadically placed workbenches. Every time I cashed in a power node, I immediately felt sharp pangs of buyer's remorse. On the first playthrough, there only seem to be enough nodes to power up a couple of things all the way. I maxed out my suit's stats -- which increased my hit points and my air supply -- but otherwise I only minimally upgraded each weapon. Maybe not the wrong choice, since I made it through without much trouble, but now I wonder what it would have been like to have some awesome firearms. (You do get 10 free power nodes and the option to start a plus game upon completion, though, and I have to admit it's a little tempting.)

-Can we talk about the ending yet? What's the statute of limitations on that? Felt like a real kick in the balls to me, but I don't want to say anything in case people are still working their way through it.

(By the way, is "Dismembers only" the most clever headline of the year? I say yes.)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Mama, I'm coming home

Above: Hellooooo, nurse!

Reviewing games can be harder than I think people realize, but it's still not that hard most of the time. Although it takes work to play through a game and then write a decent story about it, at least it's usually easy to figure out exactly how you feel about a game. Once in awhile, though, along comes one of those split-personality games, one that has much to recommend it, and much to recommend against it. The biggest difficulty in reviewing a game like that is figuring out what kind of reader you should be targeting.

I say this because I'm currently playing through Silent Hill: Homecoming, a game with a tepid Metacritic score, but also at least one passionate defender whom I respect. I can't help but compare it to the last game I played, Dead Space, which I liked but did not love (review to be posted soonish.) Both are nominally survival horror games, but in many ways they couldn't be more different.

Dead Space is a polished gem of an action game, made at the highest level of competence. But it's also, in the final analysis, "just" a shooter. Its scares are exclusively of the loud, icky variety. Silent Hill has that, too, but it has a more subtle and insidious approach to horror. For all that critics have rightly lauded Dead Space's sound design, it's Silent Hill's audio that has gotten under my skin: the crackle of my radio when monsters approach, the snuffling of hungry beasts somewhere in the fog. The fundamental difference between the game is one of subtext: Dead Space is all surface, and Silent Hill is all about the primal fears that lurk underneath.

And yet -- Silent Hill is also, in some ways, not a very well made game. It hews to the rules of the genre: save points are few and far between, resources are scarce, and the controls are almost useless in key moments. Excusing the combat because it's supposed to be bad sounds like a lame argument even before you've finished making it -- but one of the reasons I didn't find Dead Space as scary as I hoped was because the combat was too good! Silent Hill's problems are even more mundane than that: I lost about 20 minutes of progress when my character got stuck between a bookshelf and a filing cabinet, and I had to reset.

The other day, I was reading through some of my old reviews, and was a little chagrined to realize how inconsistent my criticisms have been across games. Sometimes sloppy details cut the legs out from under a game with a gripping story, or sometimes they seem irrelevant because I've gotten so involved in the narrative. Sometimes all the polish in the world can't make a game interesting. There doesn't seem to be a consistent metric, except that I like what I like.

This may not be as bad as it sounds. One of the only truths about video games I've ever come up with is this: A good game succeeds in spite of its flaws, while a bad game fails in spite of its virtues. You may choose to judge a game by how well it plays to its strengths, or how egregiously it showcases its weaknesses. Sometimes that's an easy call. Sometimes it isn't. The hard part is knowing that, whichever you choose, half of your readers will probably disagree with your priorities.

I think I know which way I'm going to go here.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Friday afternoon tidbits

My birthday is this weekend! Let's hope it's a good one. I had a plan to see Max Payne, eat barbecue, and drink craft beer, but after seeing the reviews maybe I'll skip the movie and double up on the brew dogs. We'll see. In the meantime, here are some non-birthday-related links to start your weekend.

-The tsunami of praise for Dead Space reminds me of Leigh Alexander's "Four-Month Bell Curve" hypothesis, which will seem ever more relevant as we head into the holiday release season. It's a good game! But I get the impression on message boards, and even in some reviews, that people are talking themselves into something on this one. But it's easy to think that when you feel like you're in the minority.

-Speaking of Dead Space, Stephen Totilo got stuck at the same asteroid-blasting sequence that I did. It's really hard. The controls are great when you're on foot, as you are for 99% of the game. I don't know what happens once you strap into that laser cannon. I felt like I could never put the sights where I wanted them. All told, it probably took me 10-12 tries to beat that part. Even the boss battles never took more than two. It's strange when a game executes its core gameplay so well, and then grafts on something that feels so out of place.

-Tom Armitage at Infovore had a good post on the relationship of player, camera, and character, vis-à-vis Alone in the Dark. Sounds like the developers had the right idea, if not quite the chops to pull it off. Then again, Tom's post reminded me of the impassioned defense of the game from's Daniel Weissenberger. This could be one of those misunderstood works of genius we're always saying we want. One day, when I have all the time in the world to play whatever I want, I might give AitD a spin.

-I'm not going to get on my high horse about the LittleBigPlanet delay. It's a pretty astonishing story, though. The funny thing is that the letter making Sony aware of the religiously offensive content suggests a smarter solution than delaying the game: removing the song with a downloadable update.

-A blog can be a cruel mistress. It's hard enough to keep one updated at all, never mind regularly posting quality content. Andrew Sullivan, one of the first real, full-time bloggers, has published a piece in the Atlantic called "Why I Blog," which is well worth reading, especially if you are a blogger yourself. Blogs will never replace books, essays, and long-form articles. But they don't have to. They are their own form of expression, with their own virtues and their own drawbacks.

-A high school student in Kentucky faces felony charges after writing a story in which zombies overrun his school. No matter how many news stories like this I read, I'm flabbergasted every time. (h/t Pat Duggan)

-It occurred to me that I'm only about two months away from having to put together a top-10 list for the year. As it stands, I can think of maybe 5 games that would belong on there. Before the year is out, I'm going to need to make the time to catch up on some things I missed, including Castle Crashers, Yakuza 2, and Wipeout HD. What else do you suggest? (For a list of everything I've played and reviewed this year, see all posts tagged with "reviews.")

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Have you hugged your boss today?

Above: Your vacation time is not approved

Today is National Boss Day. In observance, I'm re-posting the link to a project that Ryan Stewart and I worked way too hard on: The Phoenix's 20 Greatest Bosses in Video Game History.

This list contains no real surprises, but I'm proud of the descriptions we wrote of each character. Plus, Wikipedia has linked to this article at least twice, which is an odd point of pride for me.

Make sure to read some of the comments, too. Pure gold.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008 User-Submitted Previews: Far Cry 2

Above: Counting the seconds until a user says something silly

As regular readers of this series are aware, users generate enough hyperbole to power 60 million American homes for a year. Everything they talk about is a surefire game-of-the-year contender, based often on screenshots or clips at Gametrailers that feature no actual gameplay. Which is why I was a little surprised at the tepid response to Far Cry 2. Oh sure, the plaudits are numerous, but compared with what users have to say about most high-profile games, this is a drubbing.

"Bond Fan" sets the tone:
This game is going to be good. Its gameplay looks good, the story should be good. They even have multiplayer this should be ok, still debating on whether it will be good. This is definitely a game to look at and ask for christmas so you have time to rent it.

I've never seen a user hedge his bets so much. If guys like Bond Fan were running the economy, we wouldn't be in this mess. "This mortgage-backed security should be good, still debating on whether it will be good."

"TUTZO" lays down the ultimatum:

After reading the multiplayer reviews, i am a little hesitant as to the playability of multiplayer in the long term. The map editor and the main story is what is keeping this title on my pre-order list. I can't wait to create some new school versions of classic Counter Strike user created maps..... AWP Map REDO...anyone?? Although it will be competing with Fallout 3 and Fable 2....which are also pre-ordered..... it better be good or this game is getting shifted to the bottom of the pile.

He'll still buy the game regardless, but if it's not good it's going to the bottom of the pile, where presumably it will have plenty of time to sit and think about what it's done.

"gamestopper" has the bleakest outlook:

You have to reserve it to get 3 more hours of gameplay and a fold out map which is cool, but it looks kinda bad because the farcry predator was always the same as the last ones, and i hope it doesn't have that, and if i reserve it it's just a waste of money because there's no demos of it or actual good game play, so i wouldn't buy it, but rent, but to me i give a thumbs down. This is my opinion.

He almost sounds like he's being forced to play this game, and renting is the least painful way he can choose to do it.

Maybe gamestopper should be a little more stoic, like "jtk43":

I will probably buy this game soon after release.

I mean, my God, what other choice do you have?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Who am I, Dead Space edition

Above: A wittily-captioned screenshot

Yesterday, we talked about the relationship between the player, his character, and the game camera, and how that relationship needs to stay consistent throughout a game in order to maintain the illusion of reality. If the player is assuming the role of a character -- not just directing his movements, but inhabiting his body -- then the game shouldn't do anything to take away the player's agency, without a good reason. This is a mistake many first-person games make.

Dead Space, a third-person shooter, has the opposite problem. The hero, Isaac, is a silent hero in the Gordon Freeman mold. Other characters speak to him constantly, but he never replies. His face is covered at all times by an impersonal mask. He may as well be a robot. Yet by showing Isaac from a third-person perspective, the developers have removed the logic from this style of protagonist. As the player, I am watching him from a distance -- a slight distance, but a perceptible one. It doesn't make sense that he doesn't respond to the things other people say. I think to myself, I can't possibly be the only person who thinks this guy is weird.

Further, the storyline attempts to give Isaac motivation in the form of a personal relationship with a crew member on the Ishimura, the ship he's been sent to rescue. It's not clear if she's a lover or an ex-lover, but the prologue shows Isaac pining for her, and as events on the Ishimura become ever more dire, he begins to hallucinate her presence. But because the player is unable to form that third-person relationship with Isaac -- because Isaac is not given his own dialogue and personality that we can share -- this attempt at providing subtext doesn't quite work.

Dead Space also does something original that does work, and that I'd like to see emulated in other games. When it comes to characterization, the game gets lost a little bit between first- and third-person. But Dead Space's interpretation of the physical space of the Ishimura, and of the relationship between the character and his surroundings, is consistently played out in smart ways.

To start with, there's no HUD. Isaac's health is represented by a light meter running up his spine. Each weapon displays its own ammo count. But that's been done before. What's unique to Dead Space is that when Isaac pulls up a map, his inventory screen, or his mission objectives, these elements are actually projected holographically in the game space. We're not looking at them so much as we're looking at Isaac looking at them. They don't live in their own meta-space, apart from game events.

It may not be obvious that this is what's happening at first. Isaac picks up audio and video logs that display in front of him. You might notice that their relative position to him doesn't change with the camera. What's surprising is when you swing the camera around and notice that you're looking at a reverse image of a video message, or your inventory screen. At one point, you see another character watching a video communication that hovers just in front of him, and you realize how committed the game is to rooting everything in its virtual reality.

With a survival-horror game like Dead Space, the setting is every bit as important as the action. The Ishimura still doesn't feel like a character all its own to me, the way Rapture or the Von Braun did. But the developers have set down a useful marker for others to follow.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Who am I?

In college, I had an awesome creative writing professor named Rick Reiken, whose big lesson was what he called the "author-narrator-character" spectrum. As the writer, it's your job to figure out the separation between the author and the narrator, and between the narrator and the characters. Are you, the author, also acting as the narrator? Or is the narrator a separate, fictional character? Is he part of the story or an observer? You can choose to write from any place on this spectrum, and you can arrange the distances between its three points in any way you choose for your story. What matters is keeping everything on this spectrum consistent throughout the piece. As you might expect, it's harder than it sounds.*

Video games have a similar spectrum -- and about the same spotty record of success as a bunch of undergraduate wannabe novelists. In a game, there are three entities sharing control of the experience: the player, the camera, and the character. The difference is that these don't exist on a straight line. They all overlap, like a Venn diagram. In a first-person shooter like Half-Life, the player, the camera, and the character are all the same. In a third-person action-adventure game like God of War, the camera and the player are distinct, but the player and the character are mostly one and the same. In a strategy game like Warcraft, the player and the camera are the same, but the characters are on their own.

That's the broad theory I've been turning over in my head for a few days, ever since I started playing Dead Space. I'm less interested in how this applies to all games, and more interested in how it might help us make sense of single-player, storyline-driven games. Essentially, what these games need to decide is where to put the barrier between the player and the character he's controlling. Camera control can be the most important element in this. (Corvus Elrod's recent series of posts about game cameras informed some of my thinking on the subject.)

I mentioned Half-Life above. It's a game that comes up often when people discuss the pros and cons of trying to make the player feel like he is the character. Some people like the approach Valve takes to Gordon Freeman, and some people don't, but what's important to note here is how consistent it is. You see the world only through Gordon's eyes -- he is the game camera. When NPCs speak, they are addressing the character, the camera, and player all at once. Through four different Half-Life installments, this has never changed. The concurrent camera and character control is never arrested from the player, except when Gordon Freeman is physically restrained by something in the game world.

Compare this to the muddled take in the very bad, inexplicably defended, Clive Barker's Jericho. It seems as though Jericho takes the Half-Life approach, merging the player with his character(s) as closely as possible. But there are problems almost immediately. At the beginning of the game, your character wakes up in bed and answers the phone. You see this through his eyes: First you glimpse then ceiling, and then your perspective see-saws as the character sits up. You see his hand reach down, pick up the phone, and raise it to his/your ear. And then, you don't hear what's being said on the phone.

That one moment gives the lie to the whole charade. If you were watching him from a third-person perspective, the lack of audio would make sense. But you're not. If you were in the head of this character -- a conceit which forms the basis for most of the gameplay that follows -- you should hear what he hears, in addition to seeing what he sees. Without that internal logic, it's harder to lose yourself in the game. It's behind the eight-ball even before the flaws of the gameplay show up.

As I said, this issue has been on my mind since I started playing Dead Space. That's because Dead Space does one thing extremely well with its take on the player-camera-character spectrum, and one thing poorly. Tomorrow, I'll talk about both of those in detail.

*I look forward to the day that Professor Reiken, upon finding this page after Googling himself, leaves a comment to let me know I got that all wrong.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Between a Rock Man and a hard place

My tepid review of Mega Man 9 is up now at Frankly, it may be less interesting than my first blog post about the game, but it's more of a traditional review so perhaps you will get some value from that. Or not! At the very least, clicking through helps to ensure that I will continue to have a job.

I am hoping to show this game to some other old-school Mega Man fans and get their take on it. My guess is that they will be more positive than I was. Then again, most people probably don't allow video games to plunge them into existential crises.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Midweek link love

I'm embargoed from talking about Dead Space until Monday,* which is a shame, because there's a lot I would like to say about it. And while I'd like to continue to bore you with the details of my unstoppable rise to drumming dominance in Rock Band 2, I've probably beaten that drum to death, too.

(Okay, quick digression: I'm working my way up the challenge mode on hard difficulty. I can't believe it, but after the first three tiers, I'm starting to feel downright proficient. Syncopation isn't taking me by surprise. Relatively fast rolls on the snare are nothing. I see every reason to be overconfident at this point. "Painkiller," here I come!)

So instead of all that, how about a brief link dump?

-This is why it's good to check your referrer logs. I had a couple of hits in there from a site called PixelVixen707, which I highly recommend you check out. Rachel's newly posted review of Fracture is much more entertaining than it sounds like the game was. Great stuff.

-Mike Walbridge has been on a tear lately. His write-up of Mega Man 9 is an insightful look at the game that makes a few points I haven't seen elsewhere. Mike argues that MM9 is much more forward-looking than anybody gives it credit for. I can't disagree, and yet it was the retro elements that were responsible both for what I liked and what I disliked about the game. (My review should be up shortly.)

-Hit Self-Destruct may often qualify as "brilliant," such as in this post about whether Hideo Kojima needs an editor. I was disappointed to learn that Insult Swordfighting shows up on the second page of Google results for the phrase "Kojima needs an editor." Here's hoping this post boosts my ranking!

-Iroquois Pliskin wrote a nice look at Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Sometimes there's an advantage in reviewing a game well after its release, because you're not swept up in the excitement of its newness. You can talk about what really interests you without feeling the pressure to condense the entire game into one easily digestable paragraph. (By the way, I thought my own post about Call of Duty 4 made some similar points.)

*Is "embargoed from" accurate? I don't have any idea what the proper usage is here.

Monday, October 06, 2008

I must be holding the drumsticks wrong

Yesterday, this bruise appeared on my hand and wrist:

Above: Now that's just gross

I wracked my brain trying to figure out what I'd done. I hadn't fallen, hadn't tried to catch anything heavy, hadn't smacked my forehead in response to idiocy. And yes, it does hurt a little, particularly on the bone right where the wrist meets the hand. There's only one thing it could possibly be.

It's got to be the drumsticks.

What else was I doing all weekend? Just drumming my brains out in Rock Band 2.

(This includes completing "Give It Away," btw, and nearly five-starring it. I was feeling confident until "We Got the Beat" added 10 times as many kick drums as anything else I'd played to that point.)

That still doesn't explain the bruise to my satisfaction. It's not like I've got the sticks in a death grip, pounding away on the skins as though they'd killed my parents. I hold the sticks pretty loosely between my thumb and forefinger. I hit the pads lightly, for fear of annoying the neighbors. There's just no way I'm rocking hard enough to cause bruising. But what else could it be?

Above: One more look

Not that mere injury will keep me from continuing to rock out. Rick Allen lost an arm and kept playing the drums. What kind of a wuss would I be to let a bruise stop me?

Friday, October 03, 2008

Beat not happening

Above: Livin' the dream

Seems like it's always two steps forward and one step back in Rock Band 2. I'd mentioned recently that I seemed to be stuck between medium and hard difficulty on the drums. At this point, drumming on medium is almost boring -- which is not to suggest that I'm hitting 100% on most songs, just that I feel like I've got a handle on it and I'm ready for something new.

On my first attempt at increasing the difficulty, I attempted challenge mode on hard difficulty. Did all right for the first couple of songs, and then got trounced by "Give It Away," making it perhaps 20% of the way through the song before failing out. I retreated back to medium.

Last night, I quickplayed a few more songs on hard, and found to my suprise that I was owning them. During "Go Your Own Way," I couldn't believe my limbs were actually keeping up. I felt like they were doing all the work on their own, with my brain acting as a spectator. I earned five stars. That was also the case on a few other of the easier songs. Flush with confidence, I returned to my saved challenge game and restarted "Give It Away."

Well, this time I only failed after about 40%. There is a fundamental conceptual shift from the beats I've been playing succesfully, and the beat in "Give It Away." It's as hard as moving to hard mode on the guitar for the first time, when you have to learn to shift your hand up and down the neck. Instead of being iteratively more difficult, it requires you to learn an all-new mechanic. That's where the challenge and the fun both come from.

I don't know the terminology -- maybe Dan Bruno can help with this -- but the problem I'm having is that "Give It Away" starts to insert the bass drum in between hits on the pads. Other songs have done this, too, even on medium difficulty, but they haven't tripped me up in the same way. Usually that's because you at least ride one of the pads the whole way. Here, you ride the blue pad most of the time, except for one hit where the bass pedal takes its place. You sandwich that kick between two other beats: the blue pad by itself, and then the blue and red pad simultaneously. I can't make this work in my head. Playing at 80% speed in practice mode helped a little.

No doubt I'll get past this, sooner than later. That's how these games usually go. By Monday I'll probably be talking about how I ripped through several tiers of songs on hard mode. At least, that's the plan. But this is the difference between difficulty that entices and difficulty that discourages. Rock Band 2 gives you endless avenues for improvement, while dangling the carrot right in front of you. When I say that Mega Man 9 demonstrates, more than anything, how much games have changed, this contrast is what I'm talking about. Games today are your friends.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Let there be rock

My review of Rock Band 2 is up now at -- and while it's still a 360 exclusive, at that!

It's a very positive review, and yet I think my enthusiasm for the game still doesn't come through all the way. I've given two other games a higher rating this year (Crisis Core and Braid got a 9.5; this got a 9.0), and yet I'd be hard pressed to say this isn't actually my game of the year so far. I fell into the trap of thinking that because it's not so different from its predecessor, that must be a strike against it. Well, it isn't. This game rocks.

That was driven home for me when I invited my brother over to play. He'd been a big fan of the first two Guitar Hero games, but had never played Rock Band. Sure, I'd been enjoying the hell out of it, especially since I'd never owned the original. But to see the reaction of someone who'd never played the drums before at all reminded me how much freaking fun it is. There's still no other way to have such an experience, unless you're actually in a band. Playing Rock Band 2 ought to be mandatory.