Thursday, February 21, 2008

Gears of Who?

At the GDC, Microsoft's keynote address listed a lot of new and exciting things coming up for 2008. At the end of the presentation, it was announced that Gears of War 2 was coming out for the 360 this November.

I couldn't be less enthused.

Gears of War was, arguably, the top game for 2006. As a gamer, I wanted to know about it, see if it was something I would want to play. The best way for me to find out something like that, of course, is to try out a demo. However, they didn't see fit to release a demo, preferring, as they said, to concentrate their efforts on supporting the game (DLC and patches as needed). Although, what I found interesting, is a press conference, when a reporter asked lead designer Cliff Bleszinski how he thought to convince people to buy the game without a demo. "CliffyB's" response? "Have you played the game?" As if he was completely unaware of the irony of his statement.

So, without a demo to go by, the next best thing is a gameplay video. I found one that happened to show some dialog between a couple characters as they were between battle segments. In just a couple short minutes of video, I heard enough foul language to make me feel physically ill. And then it got to the gameplay. "Bloody" and "violent" don't even begin to describe it. And, to be honest, I don't want to go into too much depth trying to describe it.

I've heard plenty of justifications for all of this, usually revolving around how it makes it more "realistic". If I were fighting a swarm of evil monsters, I could probably expect those fighting along with me to drop a few swear words. Even though I try not to use such language, I might be so inclined to do so myself. The next time I'm in that situation, I'll let you know. And if I were taking a chainsaw to an alien, chances are there would be a lot of blood and body parts that wouldn't magically disappear when the enemy dies.

My response to this, though, is simple: this isn't reality. It's a game. It's how I choose to be entertained. Call of Duty and Halo managed to be entertaining first-person shooters without spraying the screen with blood or setting new high levels of fps (f-words per second), so yes, it can be done.

CliffyB gives me the impression of a boy who never grew up, who never learned things like "restraint" and "temperance". His over-the-top swear- and gore-fest of a game does little to assuage that.

Of course, I speak only for myself. As I said, the game did very well. Of course, so has the Grand Theft Auto series. (Heck, The Jerry Springer Show is still on the air.) I make no attempt to account for the tastes of the masses. I'm sure Epic Games will hardly notice my lack of purchase. My only regret is that I may have very few people to play with this November when my Friends List is a long series of "Playing Gears of War 2", much like it was back on "Emergence Day" when it was almost all "Playing Gears of War".

Maybe then, though, I'll finally have some time to finish up Blue Dragon or Lego Star Wars...

Turning in my drumsticks?

Last night, I played some Rock Band online. I got an invite from Maizrim and SifuTed offering to let me play drums. Since the baby was just getting to sleep, I figured I should decline, and they switched around and graciously let me join as a guitarist. Had some more fun and started to play a few songs on hard difficulty, which increases the notes and adds the fifth fret. I still think there should be something in between. It's not fair to increase the number of notes and chords and add hand-shifting at the same time. Although my companions were complimenting my efforts, it was still humbling to be scoring a lower percentage on hard than they were on expert. (Even if I had just started on hard, and I had never played most of these songs before, where they've been practicing quite a bit.)

After the east-coasters went to bed, and my wife took the baby up to his bed, I decided to try and make some progress on my solo drum career. I forget what song I was playing, but it starts out with a fairly simple pattern, one that is taught in the training for drums: yellow on the beat, kick-drum orange on 1 and 3, and red on 2 and 4.

Could. Not. Do it. At the risk of sounding insensitive to those who are so afflicted: I felt retarded. I could not make my hands and foot work when they were supposed to.

After getting booed off the stage twice before the song even got started, I went into practice mode, where you can set the song section and speed. I put it on the intro only, and set it at 50% to start. That was fine. Increased to 70%. Took a few beats to get set, then fine. 80%, ok, definitely not perfect. 90%, not good.

Have I done this beat before? I'm pretty sure no, not at this speed. And this was only on medium. How on earth was SifuTed doing this stuff on Hard and Expert? For that matter, how do real drummers do it?

In training, it made it sound really easy. And, at a 5,000' level, it is: your right hand taps on every beat, your foot taps on the even beats, and your left hand taps on the odd beats (or vice-versa — it's hard to say which one is the downbeat when you're just trying to keep up with the scrolling track).

I don't quite know what the trick is, though. Can I get my right hand to just tap out the beat on autopilot so I can concentrate on alternating left hand/foot? Nope, my right hand doesn't seem to work on autopilot. Am I just thinking too much about it? Hard to say; I would imagine if I could get into the rhythm, it would start to fall into place, but I can't get there to find out.

In any case, I guess I affirmed from where my son gets his lack of coordination.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Do you wanna get rocked?

We decided to get me an early birthday present today. I wasn't sure if I was going to get Guitar Hero or Rock Band. I wanted to be able to play with Solstice, who has Guitar Hero, and the Rock Band guitar doesn't work with Guitar Hero, so I thought Guitar Hero would be my first pick (and maybe pick up Rock Band at a later date, perhaps splitting the cost with Solstice or something). On the other hand, Rock Band comes with more instruments, which would mean my two boys would get to play with me — although it only comes with one guitar, and the cost of a second guitar is almost as much as the cost of Guitar Hero bundled with a guitar.

Although I was going to take my Best Buy 10% off coupon and pick one up, I checked the fine print: "Excludes new release DVDs, Power Price items, video game accessories and video game hardware; Guitar Hero bundles and accessories; Rock Band bundles and accessories." As it turns out, Sam's Club carries the games at prices more than 10% less than Best Buy anyway. And, since Sam's Club's inventory is often like a box of chocolates, I suspected perhaps that would decide which game I got today.

Turned out, I was right. Sam's Club only had the 360 version of Guitar Hero III (with "X-plorer" wired guitar), not Rock Band (full set, although they did have the game and the drum kit separately, which I think is more expensive than the full set right there). So that's what I got.

When we went to Wal-Mart, though, my wife saw Rock Band, and she actually pressured me a bit to get it, because she figured the kids would enjoy it. I couldn't deny they'd probably love banging on the drums, or that they wouldn't give me a moment's peace anyway if I didn't constantly let them have a turn on the axe. So yes, we ended up getting that, too.

In the end, I'm very glad we got both. My oldest son and I played Rock Band most of the day. (My next oldest isn't quite old enough to get rhythm down yet.) He first tried the drums. He went through the tutorials and was doing fairly well, until it started to put three things together. He's still just a little too young to get both hands and a foot to coordinate. (So that job went to the second son, who of course didn't fare any better in the actual game but has a lot of fun with the controller unplugged just banging the drums along with us.) He next tried singing, at which he did very well, especially considering his age. (Heck, I tried singing later, and I don't think I did that much better, honestly.) I give a lot of credit to how they implemented singing in this game, where you sing along with the band and you are shown the pitch you're actually singing in relation to what is expected, so you know how to correct it. (And credit to my boy for doing pretty well with the talent God gave him.)

Finally, though, he tried the guitar, and that's where he ended up having the most fun. And because we had two guitars, he could play along with me. We played most of the time, me playing lead guitar on medium, him playing bass on easy, and we were doing really well, even getting a couple 5-star scores.

So perhaps it was a bit of an indulgence getting both games, but I really think it worked out for the best. (Although we still can only use one guitar with Guitar Hero, which is too bad.)

Later, after the boys went to bed, Solstice came over with his X-plorer to jam with the new games. We started out with Guitar Hero III, since I happened to have that in the 360 when he came over (getting that "complete the training mode" achievement). We played through the first few songs, since I hadn't unlocked any yet (yes, I know there's a code to unlock them all, although I don't know if it was deactivated with the latest patch that fixed some of the other glitches — in any case, we had plenty of songs to play without going to look it up). Then we moved on to Rock Band and took turns trying out the various instruments. I had only done the guitar up until that point. I discovered that, yes, I am a bass, and no, I can't match the pitch of the singer; I do have to drop it an octave. It doesn't sound as "cool", but at least I don't get booed off stage. I also discovered that I am a lot better at the drums than I expected I would be. Not great, but hitting in the mid 80%s consistently just starting out. Solstice is a much better singer than he admits to (we'll get him singing in the church choir yet), and if he knows the song really well, he can even pull off singing and playing the guitar at the same time, which is impressive. He's more into rock music than I am, so he's more familiar with more of these tunes, which means he ends up singing most of them a lot better than I do. (So if he's a better singer, why am I in the choir and he's not? Good question... *cough* *cough* *ahem*)

I'll have to spend some time with Guitar Hero III before I do a comparison post, but it was definitely interesting when I put the Guitar Hero disc in after playing Rock Band most of the day. The mechanics of the game are almost identical, but with that much being the same, it made GH3 feel like so much less of a game than RB — and, when the tutorial in GH3 started talking about "battle mode", I almost felt like it was trying too hard to add a gimmick to make it different than "just another release of the same Guitar Hero game". But these are only first impressions. Like I implied, I really didn't get into GH3 yet, certainly not enough to get a real feel for it, and definitely not enough for me to say anything but "this is just a quick first impression; take with a generous helping of salt."

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Carry on, my wayward gamer...

Dance Dance Revolution. It seems like a good idea. Get up, get moving, "dance" to (Japanese) pop music beats. I never could get into it, though. For some reason, I can't make my feet move to where they need to go, when they need to get there. I thought maybe my kids could get into it, since they like to dance and show off to music; but the DDR mats we got for the Xbox went almost completely unused.

When the Guitar Hero craze started to take off, I derided it for what I thought was basically "Strum Strum Revolution". "It's like DDR, but without that pesky exercise component! Score another one for America! W00t yeah!"

I guess my first introduction to next-gen rhythm games was with the release of Boom Boom Rocket for Xbox Live Arcade. Still jaded by my preconception of an Americanized wimping-out of DDR's physical exertion, I didn't think that much of it, although I admit, after a while, it started to grow on me a bit. The tunes they picked for the demo were kind of catchy, and there was actually something to falling into a rhythm that had something to do with the music. No, it's not like actually playing an instrument, but it's kind of fun.

Not too long ago, the Xbox Marketplace released a demo of Guitar Hero III. I downloaded this and gave it a try. While you don't get the full effect playing it with a standard controller, I found myself enjoying this as well. Not only does it have the same fun mechanic where you're matching a rhythm to music, but the music is something I actually enjoy listening to.

Ah, but then the practical part of me spoke up. "Well, if you like listening to the music, why not just buy the CD and spare yourself the frustration of having to push buttons in time to the beat?" And I deleted the demo to make room for new content. "You wouldn't need to make room if you had one of those 120GB hard drives." "Shaddap, it's way overpriced; don't get me started."

Which brings us to last night. Solstice invited me over to play some Guitar Hero II. So I did, and the most peculiar thing happened: I had a lot of fun. Even though it hurt a lot. I once dated a guitar player to tried to teach me how to play, and it just hurt to bend my wrist around the neck of the guitar to play. Even though this isn't anything like a real guitar, it still felt the same. Also, I have to admit, the music was a little out of my range for taste — it's a little "harder" rock than I generally like. But that wasn't really the point. We had a lot of fun "rocking out" together. Which pretty much confirmed another suspicion I had about this game before: it's really more of a party game, one I'd probably only be playing if I knew I'd be playing with somebody (besides just my kids, who aren't quite old enough to play seriously yet).

So I suppose I'm starting to feel a little peer pressure to pick up an axe. I suppose it's only justified, considering I managed to peer pressure Solstice into picking up the 360 when Halo 3 was released. To make matters worse, I just got a Best Buy coupon. Although it's too late to save me some money on Burnout Paradise, 10% is a lot more off the price of Rock Band...

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Master Chief needs a break

I've decided that I need a break from Halo. For the past two weeks or so, I haven't been having very much fun. It seems that every game is an exercise in frustration. I can't seem to do anything.

Ever helpful, my fellow Geezers would offer words of encouragement. "These guys are just good." Well, no, that can't explain it. I can empty a clip into someone's back, aim for the head, do everything right according to all accounts, and my shots just refuse to kill. Unless a higher skill level means bullets bounce off of your armor or something. If I shoot someone point blank with a shotgun twice and they don't die, but they can shoot me once with a mauler and I go down, that can't be a skill problem. How do you correct for that?

"Just stick with it, you'll get better." That's the thing. I'm not getting better. I've played it about every day for the past two weeks, and I'm not getting any better. My rank has only been going down. And I can't figure out what I'm doing wrong, so I can't get any better.

Plus, when I'm seeing things like my spiker grenades passing through enemies and my Spartan laser firing backwards and killing myself, what am I supposed to do? Seriously.

So, I have decided to give it a rest. I already miss playing with my friends, though, but I am doing just fine without the frustration.

So what am I playing? Well, I've been playing a lot of that other FPS, Call of Duty 4. Not that I'm especially skilled in that game either, but I'm not alone in suck. Actually, it was kind of interesting. Although I was consistently on the losing team, I was also consistently one of the highest scorers on my team. And, as the team of random people and I were getting pwn3d, we were co-miserating as to how we couldn't seem to do anything against the other team. I'm going to keep plugging away at it and see what happens with me, because there's a tournament at a local Play 'n' Trade in which I'm half-considering embarassing myself.

I also decided to pick up a copy of Burnout Paradise. I had been waiting for a Best Buy coupon or something to save a few bucks, but I decided I'd go ahead and get it with some Christmas money and jump in. It is quite a bit different than the rest of the Burnout series, and while I do miss a lot of the game types from the old games, I do like what they've done with the new game. And, as a big plus, on my very first night driving around Paradise City, I get an invite from another Geezer, who invites a few more, and we spend the night doing challenges around the city. The challenges are great, because they give you a reason to be together in a party besides just randomly driving around the city. The races are a little annoying, though, for someone new to the city; not knowing where or when to turn, I was totally lost in every race we tried (and the GPS didn't seem to help me get there). Plus, turning is pretty difficult until you get the hang of it — and I definitely don't have the hang of it yet. I think it didn't help that I was playing PGR3 with my son earlier in the day, because the driving style is completely different — not to mention the e-brake button in PGR is the boost button in Burnout, which although seems like a little thing, when you're trying to get used to the turns and when to brake and when to boost, it's not. (It's like going from COD to Halo in the same day; consider yourself lucky if you don't end up blowing up a Warthog underneath you because you threw a grenade instead of boarding it.) I also discovered a disadvantage in racing for a newbie — although the host can give everyone the same car to supposedly put everyone on the same page, if you haven't taken that car to the repair shop personally (which, if you've never seen that car before because you just started playing that game, you won't have), you'll have a beat-up version of it that blows up with the slightest hit.

Summary: I like Burnout Paradise, but it does have quite the learning curve.

Back to the point, though. I don't know when I'll return to Halo. I'm sure the free release of the first map pack will get me to play it, or perhaps the upcoming patch (the one that fixes the melee that Bungie insists isn't broken), if not sooner. For now, though, I just need a break.