Friday, July 31, 2009

Friday afternoon tidbits

Whoa, quick week. Can't believe it's time for the links already. Let's get to it!

-Hit Self-Destruct is no more. The last post went up this morning. I highly recommend you read it, along with the archives. Duncan is one of the best game writers out there -- maybe the best. It's a shame to see him move on. There may be more to say about this later.

-Recently, Edge's "Time Extend" feature took a look back at the superb Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, one of my very favorite games from the PS2 generation. I'm glad to see that they didn't merely focus on the gameplay, as terrific as it was. They're correct in observing that the storyline and characters were atypical for the genre, smarter and more heartfelt. The Prince of that game was cunning and roguish, and his inner monologues were genuinely funny -- not at all like the angst-ridden prefab Prince of Warrior Within. No wonder it didn't sell very well.

-Newsflash: Video games are not recession-proof. Is this a surprise? Not really. But it does help to explain why so many publishers are pushing games into 2010. It's not about polishing or revamping. They're afraid nobody will be buying. They may be right. I still think this fall represents a golden opportunity for gamers.

-On the Fall 2010 front, Bill Harris's console posts are always worth reading, especially when he drops in a fact like this: This fall, there are five music games coming out in the span of eleven weeks. We reached saturation point on these things long ago, didn't we? Especially with news that Rock Band revenue has been dropping precipitously, you have to wonder who they're still marketing the instruments to. Consumers would be much better off if they released this new games as digital downloads, as well as physical media.

-Sparky Clarkson does one of my favorite things a writer can do: takes a video game seriously. He looks at the storyline versus the mechanics of Red Faction: Guerrilla. I admired this game quite a bit, as you may remember, but it's hard to do anything but smile sheepishly when I read a criticism like this:
Although 'guerillas' often show up when you need a hand, nobody ever attacks a convoy or hijacks a truck without your assistance, this despite the EDF's tactic of regularly sending lightly-protected, high-value convoys to destroyed bases in territories it no longer controls.

That's dead-on. It's the sort of thing you can ignore when the gameplay succeeds on its own terms, as this game's does. But Sparky is right that the world of Red Faction is not one that is believable in its own right, not in the way that something like Far Cry 2 or Fallout 3 was (my comparisons, not his). Still a blast, though!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Bigs 2 comes up small

Above: Dustin Pedroia, looking somehow even less human than usual.

My review of The Bigs 2 is up now at thephoenix.com.

I am by no means an expert on sports games. The reason I wanted to play The Bigs 2 is that I expected it to be unlike most sports games. And it is, to some degree, but a big part of the reason I didn't like it turned out to be the extent to which it betrayed the game of baseball.

In my life, I've been fortunate to attend a couple of significant baseball games. My favorite memory is game 3 of the 2003 ALDS, the Boston Red Sox against the Oakland Athletics. The Sox had dropped the first two games in Oakland, and were facing elimination at home. After the game went into extra innings, the Red Sox brought in pinch-hitter Trot Nixon, a fan favorite and a lefty who'd been on the bench to start the game. Trot launched the game-winning bomb into the center-field seats. You know what, I could almost feel the shockwave from that blast.

The Bigs 2 does a good job of rendering that type of thing. When a "big blast" home run bursts into flame, streaks across the sky like a comet, smashes into a building, and shatters all the windows, I'd say that's faithful to the spirit of the sport. It's exaggerated and cartoonish, sure, but it captures something true about the way a game-changing home run feels. It takes something real and pushes it to the extreme.

Most of the rest of the game does not do this, usually for less obvious reasons. The fielding animations are just terrible -- there are hardly any of them, and the transition from a fielder's picking up the ball and actually throwing it is cumbersome. Fielding at all is bizarrely difficult, because your fielders stop running well before you have a chance to tell where the ball is in relation to them. These fielders are actually slower than their real-life counterparts.

As for the mini-games that mark every dramatic catch, they're not only insanely difficult (for you, not for the computer), but they bear no resemblance to what the player onscreen is actually doing. It's as though another game entirely parachuted in for just those sequences.

Batting is a little weird too. I understand that the pace needs to be quicker than in a faithful sim. Yet I can't really understand why The Bigs 2 punishes you for taking a pitch. If you see a pitch coming that's not in your batter's wheelhouse, you'd think the smart move would be take the strike. But doing so fills up the other team's turbo meter, so you have to just flail away at every throw. That's stupid. In all the time I spent with this game -- which, I'll grant you, was not a lifetime, because I disliked it so much -- I never once saw a batter walk.

I mentioned this in the review, but perhaps not strongly enough: I hate, hate, hate the way this game portrays the players. To a man, they are depicted as mean, joyless, roided-up idiots. When the art isn't inadvertently comic (Jonathan Papelbon's head looks like Charlie Brown's), it's just frightening (Joe Mauer does not, in real life, walk around looking like he's spoiling for a fight). I'm only half-joking in the review when I say they should have made J.D. Drew into a literal robot. A great way to make a cartoon-like baseball game that still showed love and respect for the sport would have been to try to represent the players' personalities in an outlandish way.

But that's not what The Bigs 2 is about. It's about turning baseball into just another violent, stupid, adolescent power trip.

(Did I just do the thing where the blog post is more interesting than the published review?)

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Breathing room

Game Informer's cautious realism is vindicated once again with news that Sam Fisher has, in fact, snuck past his fall release. The list of games not coming out this fall is an impressive one. Besides Splinter Cell: Conviction, you can look forward to not playing Bioshock 2, Heavy Rain, Singularity, Red Steel II, Bayonetta, MAG, Starcraft 2, Red Dead Redemption, and almost certainly many more. The fall 2010 release window is starting to look like Omaha Beach.

This is the best news I could imagine.

In recent years, the holiday videogame season has turned into a form of ironic punishment. If you like one AAA action title, the reasoning goes, you're going to love several of them every week! So we flail to keep up with the rising tide of must-have games, using each new release as a handhold on the way to the next one, because, dude, I'm pretty sure the one that comes out next week is GOTY material. It's like your mom catching you with a cigarette and forcing you to chain-smoke a whole pack, just to teach you a lesson.

In the meantime, nobody can stop to sink their teeth into games that deserve thoughtful consideration. Some games get overlooked completely amid the hubbub, games that at other times of the year would rightfully earn the spotlight. Sometimes it seems like being a gamer today is more about catching 'em all than about playing them once you've got them, in the same way that Facebook is more about collecting people like baseball cards than about friendship.

I say we should enjoy the chance to go deeper with fewer games this year. And it's not as though we'll be wanting for anything new: Batman: Arkham Asylum, Uncharted 2, Modern Warfare 2, Beatles Rock Band, Brutal Legend, Halo 3: ODST, Borderlands, Ratchet and Clank Future: A Crack in Time, Assassin's Creed 2, Left 4 Dead 2, and freaking dozens of other games are still on the schedule.

Geez, look at that list. It would be nice if a couple more of them got pushed back, actually. We'll never have time to play all that.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Friday afternoon tidbits

Because I didn't learn my lesson last time, I'm going hiking again this weekend. Presumably there will be no waist-deep snow to wade through at this time of year, unlike the last time. If I don't come back, tell them I was cool.

-Duncan Fyfe's farewell tour at Hit Self-Destruct (which is total bullshit, by the way) includes a penetrating look at the state of games journalism. His conclusion: It's much better than it was, but there's always something tragic about growing up. No one really sees working for a game magazine as akin to landing a job in the Wonka factory anymore. That makes for better writing. Isn't it also a little sad?

Duncan talked to a few excellent writers for this piece: Simon Parkin, Kieron Gillen, Nick Breckon, and Chris Remo. I'm in there too, for some reason. When Duncan first asked me about my career high points, I wouldn't have expected that one of them would be seeing myself mentioned in the same breath as those guys.

-The announcement of the Rock Band Network is further evidence that Harmonix isn't just fumbling around in the dark. Rather than forcing people to use in-game samples, they're giving musicians the tools to import their actual music into the game. Kirk Hamilton has a good take on what this means from the musician's perspective. You have to wonder how they'll handle the inevitable flood of submissions. Good problem to have, I suppose.

-The latest edition of the Brainy Gamer podcast features an interview with Clint Hocking, plus a round-table discussion about game design with Hocking, Manveer Heir, and Borut Pfeifer. All three guests have some terrific insights into game design, which comes as no surprise. It's great to hear the perspective of the people who make the games. That's something the broader public -- myself included -- doesn't make enough of an effort to do.

-More reasons never to have kids, from Julian Murdoch at Gamers with Jobs. What I mean by that is: I can't risk somebody melting the ice around my heart!

-Anybody notice that PixelVixen707 hasn't posted since the book came out? Guess the marketing budget's tapped.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Game informing

Selected closing sentences from several previews in the latest issue of Game Informer, presented without comment:

Splinter Cell: Conviction -- "Let's just hope Sam doesn't sneak past his fall release, because we've been waiting long enough to play what's looking like one of the best games of the year."

The Last Guardian -- "With the PS3 breaking down technical barriers, the possibilities with Team Ico's next masterpiece seem to be endless."

God of War III -- "With the massive titans waging war, more gods entering the fray, and Kratos determined to topple Olympus, God of War III will be packed with jaw-dropping moments worthy of passing into legend."

Assassin's Creed II -- "We'll know more about whether our high hopes are justified as we get hands on time with the game in the coming months."

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves -- "Our time with the game left us confident that Drake's second big journey may be just what Sony needs to draw in PS3 doubters."

ModNation Racers -- "If the gameplay shows even half the potential of its customization tools, ModNation Racers might be the game that finally drags the kart-racing genre into the 21st century."

New Super Mario Bros. Wii -- "There definitely were bigger, more graphically impressive games at E3, but we'll be surprised if many of them are as anticipated as New Super Mario Bros. Wii."

Dirt 2 -- "We're eager to see what other cities Codemasters has transformed into rally circuits."

Heavy Rain -- "We can't wait to meet the remaining protagonists in the upcoming months to see if they, too, can dodge a grisly end."

Alan Wake -- "While we still have nearly a year before this spooky narrative finally hits the Xbox 360, it looks like the title will be worth the long wait."

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow -- "But if the final game can live up to the excitement caused by the trailer... Lords of Shadow may finally give gamers a 3D action title worthy of the Castlevania name, even if some series staples are missing."

Borderlands
-- "With fast-paced action, strong co-op, and this much variety, we can't wait to gather some treasure hunters and start exploring this promising wasteland."

Homefront -- "Though it wasn't shown or talked about in detail... what little we've seen of Homefront looks good."

League of Legends: Clash of Fates -- "We've spent a lot of time with DotA and other games, and League of Legends is clearly the most exciting title in the sub-genre to date."

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Monkey business

Above: Guybrush drinks in the beauty of Flotsam Island.

My review of Tales of Monkey Island episode 1 is up now at thephoenix.com. There's a brief mention of the voice acting, although not to the degree that I talked about it yesterday. Instead, I spend more time in the review talking about what works in this game, because on the whole it's a pretty entertaining way to spend a few hours.

Still, it feels pretty insubstantial on its own, and depending on your play style it may be worth waiting for the entire series so you can play through all at once. That was the case I found with the Sam and Max revival, anyway. But there I go scooping myself again. It's all in the review!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The voice of the oppressive

Above: Guybrush Threepwood, mighty pirate.

The only accurate blanket statement anybody can make is that there are no accurate blanket statements. But this one is close: voice acting never makes a game better, and can only make it worse.

Let's acknowledge the exceptions early. Plenty of games have had good or even great voice acting (The Darkness and Half-Life 2 come to mind). I'm saying that the presence of recorded dialogue is, at best, a net zero for the overall quality of a game, and more often, it's a negative. The history of atrocious voice acting is well documented elsewhere. Yet the campy grandeur of the original Resident Evil is, in its own way, one of the biggest reasons to enjoy that game. It's the games with passable voice acting that can be more insidious -- games where speech adds nothing, while slowing down gameplay or, more often, hammering you with the same few soundbites over and over.

Lots of games suffer from repetition. Recall Marcus Fenix growling "Nice!" after every successful active reload. Resident Evil 4 is still my favorite game of all time, but one of its two noticeable flaws was the merchant's boundless curiosity about what you were buyin' or sellin'.* Recently, Ghostbusters, a game with better-than-average voice acting, decided it would be a good idea for Egon to shout "Aim high!" every four or five seconds during battle. What's the logic behind stuff like this? I think it's, "We've paid for the actors' time; we'd better get our money's worth!"

Nowhere is this a bigger problem than in adventure games. Games like Tales of Monkey Island rely on dialogue for everything. The story is told largely through character interaction, and many puzzles can be solved only by sweet-talking the characters who have what you want. The voice acting is just fine in this game -- totally serviceable. It is not, however, so good that I want to hear the same handful of lines repeated dozens of times in the course of a five-hour game.

Guybrush has only a few stock responses when you attempt to use an item somewhere it has no use. He says something clever about almost each one. And he says the same clever line every time. It's possible -- no, likely -- that many of you are smarter than me, and in the course of playing an adventure game aren't reduced to trying to use every item in your inventory with every hotspot on the screen. That's just how I roll, and in the old days, when the written rejection was superimposed over the action, it was easier to ignore.

Worse, in this case, is that the game seems to provide the player with more dialogue choices than they actually recorded for Guybrush. You'll see four different jokes to choose from, but when you select one Guybrush doesn't say it. He says some canned, plot-advancing line, one that may or may not also be funny. Then, the player has no option to go back and explore the other lines. I think this is also a case of the producers trying to maximize their dollar: you pay the actors as little as possible, and use their work as much as you can. A sensible business decision; not great for the gameplay.

Tales of Monkey Island is pretty fun (my review is coming later this week). Still, I couldn't help but think that it would have been better if the developers had gone the text-only route. They could have packed more jokes and deeper dialogue trees into the game, while saving on costs and even bandwidth for digital distribution. Instead, they hired actors and ended up making, perhaps, a lesser game.

(Then again, it's totally possible that you can choose to disable the speech and enable subtitles. I didn't even think to check that until right this second.)

*The other flaw: QTE knife fight against Krauser.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Friday afternoon tidbits

Seeing a couple of movies this weekend: The Hurt Locker and Harry Potter. Which will be better? I can't even begin to guess.

-Kyle Orland imagines what life would be like if game characters used Twitter. Pretty funny, and an excellent opportunity to link to my own game-related Tweets.

-Also on Crispy Gamer, Scott Jones envisions a world in which great authors reviewed video games. The Hemingway excerpt almost made me choke.

-While I was on vacation, Clint Hocking responded to the Far Cry 2 perma-death phenomenon that's sweeping at least two blogs. He's a hell of a sharp guy, and argues forcefully once again that it's the elements of gameplay themselves that create meaning, and not a designer-imposed narrative.

-Ryan Stewart's review of Guitar Hero: Smash Hits is worth reading on its own, but he does himself one better with a visual summary. His Guitar Hero Venn diagram neatly categories each song according to whether it is fun, good, hard, or any combination of the three. And, yes, "Back in the Saddle" is terrible.

-This one's been making its way around the intertubes, but in case you messed it: Jeff Atwood explores the devolution of the ads for Civony and Evony, from the initial generic Lord of the Rings rip to -- well, see for yourself.

-The sports blog Deadspin took a page from their Gawker media compadres Kotaku and posted "If They Were Athletes: The Robots from Mega Man 2." Curt Schilling as Air Man is too perfect.

Let the weekend start... now!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Retro game bash: The ugly

Pushing 30 years old, and I still select clothing for humor value.

Because what's a retro game bash without a game-related novelty t-shirt? Yes, I did wear this. And I'd do it again. In a second.*

On one level, the retro game bash was a chance to get together and re-live some good experiences. Those all-night game sessions in high school were some of the best times of my life. It was great fun to revisit them for a day.

It was also a reminder to savor what we already have. If you're anything like me, you've got a lifetime of gaming collecting dust in a closet somewhere. Games that defined your childhood, that formed the basis of lifelong friendships, that provided some of your happiest memories -- they're sitting in the dark, waiting for you. Give them a try. You might like what you find.

It's so easy to focus on the next big thing, to get swept away in the hype, especially if you're plugged into the games blogosphere. Ask yourself: Does it really matter if BioShock 2 gets delayed? Is it more important to drop today's new release the second tomorrow's hits shelves? At this point, we've got over 30 years of other games to enjoy. It's a shame if we don't stop, once in awhile, to do exactly that. You won't regret it.

Unless you play GoldenEye.

*Preferably with a sexier pose next time.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Retro game bash: The bad

Above: Unfortunately, a real product.

Yesterday I talked about the high points of the retro game bash. Not everything was hunky dory. Take the food. (Please!) I don't know when it happened, but at some point over the last 10 years I stopped enjoying junk food. It wasn't even a conscious decision. Little by little, things like soda and chips vanished from my diet. Gorging on this crap at the bash came as a shock to the system.

Drinking Mountain Dew was not a pleasant experience, nor was drinking several more, all from the World of Warcraft-themed "Game Fuel" line. Both the cherry-flavored Horde and berry-flavored Alliance varieties are sickly sweet, but you have to give the edge to Alliance because it is a blue color that exists nowhere in nature. It looks like it should be in a beaker in a mad scientist's lab. Plus, I just don't understand why soda has to be high-concept these days. (You even see beer starting to go this way now and again, when "it gets you drunk" ought to be the lynchpin of the whole thing.) But the drinks weren't nearly as bad as the food.

The Doritos "Late Night" line is, frankly, bewildering. What is the difference between tacos at midnight and tacos at another time of day? Has anyone ever gone to Taco Bell at 6 P.M. and thought, well, this is okay, but what it could really use is another six hours sitting out at room temperature? Because that's essentially what "Tacos at Midnight" Doritos taste like. Don't even get me started on the other flavor, "Last Call JalapeƱo Poppers." There's no way that's even a thing. I mean, at least people have occasionally eaten tacos at midnight. Nobody has ever rushed the bar at last call for remaindered apps.

Onto the games. I'm not hugely into bigtime retro gaming (i.e., pre-NES), and it didn't take long to remember why. The Intellivision controller is insane. The control pad is a shiny disc, which might lead you to think it rotates. You would be wrong. You press its sides for four- or eight-way controls. I understand that when the Intellivision was released, there was no precedent to draw on for the controller, but they could have done better with a little common sense. Atari's joystick made perfect sense at first glance.

I am not a big fan of the Atari 2600 catalog, though, and it's not hard to remember why. It seemed like every game for that system was a direct clone of something else, usually Space Invaders. Even acknowledged classics like Adventure and Yars' Revenge seem unplayable to my modern sensibilities. They're like cave paintings: obviously important, and fascinating historical artifacts, but I can't engage them on their own level.

Some of the bad games we played weren't surprises. We love Area 51 precisely because of how bad it is. That was the lightgun shooter that used digital photography of costumed actors to depict an alien invasion of the infamous government facility. The pace is slow, the graphics choppy, and the gameplay rote. Enemies all explode in an identical, cartoonish gib animation. The cover art depicts some sort of ghoul in a sleeveless orange jumpsuit brandishing two assault rifles. At one point, an actor playing an ally runs in front of the camera, waves his arm slowly, and shouts "Stay low!" in the least intense tone you can imagine. It is truly terrible. And so awesome.

A couple games, sad to say, have aged terribly. I remember Treasure's Guardian Heroes as an unappreciated classic. It's a sidescrolling fighter with heavy RPG elements and what I remember to be incredible hand-drawn graphics. Today it's a pixelated mess, prone to slowdown, and not very fun. Granted, we were locust-like in our approaches to every game that day, swarming from one to another, but Guardian Heroes didn't hold anybody's attention for very long.

Then, of course, there's GoldenEye. I know I didn't love this game 10 years ago, but today it is beyond bad. Unplayable. With four people playing at once, the frame rate drops to what feels like single digits. Even with two or three players, the low resolution and copious anti-aliasing makes it seem like the part of the eye exam where the doctor is showing you different lenses and you say, "Worse!" But you expect graphics to seem worse years later. What's surprising is how bad the gameplay is.

In GoldenEye, you can't jump. There's no crosshair. The levels are largely flat and nondescript. You can only aim along the y-axis when you're motionless. Firefights are nothing more than players running circles around each other. I know this game deserves a lot of credit for being the first successful console FPS, but we used that logic to determine what's good today, then people would still be riding bicycles with the giant front wheel. Nothing in this game gives me what I want from an FPS.

Tomorrow: The ugly. It will be a shorter post, I promise.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Retro game bash: The good

Above: Yes, you can hook up an Intellivision to a plasma screen.

What do you get when you combine classic video games, piles of junk food, and a bunch of aging nerds? Besides a funky odor that lingers for days, I mean. You get the retro game bash -- a lifetime's worth of video gaming compressed into one day.

The day before the Fourth of July, some old friends convened and brought with us an Atari 2600, Intellivision, Sega Saturn, N64, Dreamcast, and backwards-compatible PlayStation 3. To ensure an authentic retro experience, we also loaded up on Doritos and Mountain Dew, just like we did when we were teenagers. Playing through a few decades of gaming history, while fueling up on caffeine and powdered cheese, yielded some surprising lessons. In particular:
  • Some old games really rock.
  • Some old games really suck.
  • It is no wonder I never got laid in high school.

Let's start with the good stuff. First of all, I was surprised that it worked at all to hook up an Intellivision and an Atari 2600 to a plasma TV. The Intellivision even looked pretty good. The Atari suffered a bit from screen stretching, which we probably could have tweaked a little in the TV's settings.

Here's a bit of 2600 trivia that's sufficiently interesting to warrant its own paragraph. Did you know that you can plug a Sega Genesis controller into the 2600 and use that instead of the original joystick? Mostly a curiosity, unless of course you've misplaced your joystick. Which we had done.

Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, for the PlayStation One, is still a great game. Looks nice on an HD screen, too, even on a PS3. No smearing or other ill-advised "improvements" to the visuals. The only problem with this game is that everybody knows that Donovan has the best drop pattern, so everybody plays as Donovan all the time. In the HD remake, the designers tweaked the drop patterns for the sake of balance, which should have made the whole thing better. Only it didn't.

Sega's first-party games were completely badass. We didn't have time for the racing games, but Virtua Fighter 2 and both Virtua Cop games are phenomenal -- no nostalgia required. VF2 still looks great. The backgrounds are sparse, but the character models are colorful and fluid, locked in at 60 fps. And unlike so many fighting games that require a master's degree just to learn the movesets, anybody can jump right in and understand what they're doing.

The Virtua Cop games, too, are swift moving and fun. They don't look quite as good as Virtua Fighter, simply because there's more happening onscreen, so the level of detail is lower. The action is fast and furious, though, still the best designed lightgun shooting I know of. Of note is the car chase sequence in the first level of Virtua Cop 2, in which you can shoot out the tires of enemy cars and watch them flip into the air.

Sega's Dreamcast was well represented as well, if a little less "retro" than some of the other systems there. Crazy Taxi is still a fun romp, although arcade mode starts to seem repetitive to me even after just a few minutes of play. And Soul Calibur, a game I never spent much time with, looks phenomenal on a standard-definition television. You could have told me it was running on a 360 or a PS3 and I'd have believed you.

One big surprise: San Francisco Rush, for the N64, is a game I loved back in the day, but wouldn't have thought would hold up. Big mistake. N64 games in general have not aged well in the graphics department, and scanning Rush's race tracks for shortcuts is no easy task if you're not sure where they are. But racing through the familiar courses -- and hitting those huge jumps -- is as fun as ever. Mostly, that's because of the physics: ding your car just a little and it'll twist and turn in unpredictable directions, leading to insane crashes and the occasional death-defying recovery. It's a blast.

Tomorrow, I'll talk about some games that didn't hold up so well, including some surprises.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Changeling

Above: "I want my PlayStation back!"

So, you've been dying to know how the saga of my broken PlayStation 3 played out. The good news is that it's back and it works. The bad news is that it's not my PlayStation 3. It's an impostor.

To Sony's credit, the turnaround time on the repairs was quick. In fact, the bottleneck happened on my end, for reasons to boring to recount here. I shipped it to them on a Thursday, and the replacement unit arrived exactly one week later. According to the UPS tracking, they accepted delivery on Monday morning and sent the replacement out that evening. That's pretty good.

Since my unit was out of warranty, the replacement ended up costing $149, plus tax. I'm not happy about that, but what can you do? Given the cost of parts and labor, it's probably some kind of a bargain, and just cheap enough that it wouldn't seem worth it to buy a whole new system with a bigger hard drive and pack-in games. I backed up what I could, crossed my fingers that they wouldn't wipe the rest of the hard drive, and sent it away.

They didn't even attempt to convince me that they repaired the unit I sent them. The single-page documentation in the return box doesn't diagnose a problem. All it says is: "ENCLOSED YOU WILL HAVE EITHER YOUR FACTORY CERTIFIED REPLACEMENT OR YOUR SAME CONSOLE REPAIRED UNIT." Given the swift turnaround time, not to mention the otherworldly shininess of the hull, I'm guessing it's the former.

And that's okay, obviously -- far preferable to having no PS3 at all. But it still felt a little weird to boot up the system and have to set the time and all that. There was a moment of terror when the system told me I couldn't use my copied save files, since I wasn't the original user. It turned out that I had to sign into the PlayStation Network before it recognized me as the owner of the saves.

I know full well that I probably won't use the bulk of these saves ever again. Many of them are for games I don't even own anymore. Still, together they account for probably hundreds of hours of playtime. Most of them -- maybe all of them -- represent a significant portion of my life's work. In a way, they're the only proof that I ever existed.

Okay, I'm exaggerating, but when I thought I lost my Far Cry 2 saves I really was ready to throw the whole thing out the window. I put more effort into playing that game than getting my college degree.

Welcome home, PlayStation 3.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

We interrupt this vacation

...to bring you a link to my review of Ghostbusters: The Video Game on thephoenix.com.

Rarely have I played a game that tracked so closely to my expectations. If you think you might enjoy this game, you probably will. It's a well made game that takes full advantage of your built-in love for the franchise. That's certainly not a bad thing.

All right, back to vacation.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Friday afternoon tidbits

It's a holiday weekend, as we here in the USA celebrate "America, Fuck Yeah" day. (Contrary to popular belief, that is not every day.) Hopefully you're not still at work. If so, have some links.

-The Brainy Gamer plays The Darkness, and makes some astute observations. It's impossible to play this game and not feel the urge to analyze it. At this point, it can't cost any more than 20 bucks. You owe it to yourself to give it a shot.

-Speaking of repairs, Mike Rousseau's Xbox RRoD'd on him. The service went fine, but then Microsoft tried to charge him to re-download his stuff from the marketplace. After that first post, somebody from the company contacted him and fixed the problem. That's good customer service, but they should be treating everybody that way in the first place. Right, Sony?

-As you may know, I'm a man who loves his taxonomies. So I was psyched to read Justin Keverne's "Taxonomy of Left 4 Dead," in which he breaks down the personalities of each of the characters. What I like best about the game is that the player's actions can mesh with the characters' personalities in unexpected ways. Francis might be written as misanthropic, but depending on who's controlling him he may be shown to have a heart of gold. That interaction makes for depth I wouldn't have expected before I played the game.

With that, I'm on vacation. Regular posting will resume the week after next.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

We need a new logo designer

I just noticed that the logos for Terminal Reality and Volition are quite similar:


That's it. That's the whole post.

Selective service

Here's the problem with trying to get a PlayStation 3 serviced: the stuff Sony's website tells you bears no relation to the stuff they email you, which in turn comes from a different planet than the stuff they send you through UPS. Each resource -- the website, the emails, and the physical forms -- has some of the information you need, but none has all of it, and in some cases they're contradictory.

Take the security issue. The website tells you to delete your stored billing information, which I did, and then to delete all the designated users. Well, their directions for that didn't work. A form they sent with the shipping box recommended many more steps, up to and including formatting the hard drive, while also giving different instructions for deleting users.

They also give you two different forms to (maybe) include with the system. One is sent in an email, as a link to a form letter. On the form letter, you have to include things like your service request number, the problem you're having with the system, and your serial number. Only, this link is included in an email that also has your service request number, the problem you're having with the system, and your serial number. So rather than pre-populating those fields, ensuring that they're correct and legible, Sony prefers that you print the blank version and copy the fields by hand. Makes sense to me!

You're supposed to include the letter with the system. In fact, you're supposed to "securely tape only the completed first page to your system before packaging for shipping." Which is fine, except that the fields you need to fill out extend to the second printed page. So, disregarding the directions, I securely taped both pages to the system before packaging. I hope that doesn't invalidate my repair.

Confusingly, a similar but condensed version of that same form comes with the pre-paid shipping box. It has most of the same fields, but not all of them (specifically, it doesn't ask for your serial number). There is a field for the service request number. Now, the service request number, as Sony emails it to you, is a single letter, followed by a dash, followed by a long number. Like this: A-123456789.

The field to enter your service request number is a single box, followed by a dash, followed by several more boxes. However, you're not supposed to include the letter! It's not part of the service request number. It's a stowaway. You're supposed to write it like this: 1-23456789.

And, yes, I only found this out after I'd written the letter in that first box, and then ran out of space.

Now I have two different forms to include, so I taped one to the system and taped one to the plastic bag that the system goes in. My serial number is in there once, and the service request number twice. I deleted most things off the hard drive, but not everything. (Also, I backed up all my saved games, except for Killzone 2 and Resident Evil 5, because copying that data was "not allowed." WTF?) This would all be fine if the conflicting directions and forms didn't have me about 60% convinced that I've messed something up. How will I know? I've already learned that I can't trust the online FAQ.

Nintendo did a much better job with this.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Prototypical

Above: Chris Benoit is really mad / Chris Benoit is really angry

My review of Prototype is up now at thephoenix.com. Maybe it should be "review," in quotes. I did sink a good deal of time into the game, but not nearly enough to feel I had a handle on it, before the PlayStation 3 melted down. Rather than try to conceal that fact, I figured I should make it clear from the start. Not an ideal situation, but honesty is the best policy and all. I can live with myself after writing this review.

It's too bad, though, because I was enjoying the hell out of the game, far more than I expected. It's impossible not to compare Prototype to inFamous, and it felt like the game I wished inFamous had been -- much faster and more ridiculous. There's just no comparison between the boring powers of Alex Cole and the ludicrous powers of Alex Mercer. And I much preferred the speedy platforming of Prototype to the static cling of inFamous, though it did have its own problems.

I hope to have a lot more to say about Prototype in the future. Far, far in the future, when I finally get my PS3 back.