Friday, September 19, 2008

Rock Band 2

The other half-sequel is Rock Band 2. This one is full-priced at $60. If you think of it as just a content pack for Rock Band, it's still not a bad deal, considering there are over 80 songs on the disc and songs are typically about $2 each to download. Although I personally wouldn't have bought every song on this disc if they were á la carte. So what else is there?

Although I didn't initially expect it, they did make all Rock Band DLC compatible. Not only that, but for a modest $5 fee (licensing issues), they made it possible to "rip" (almost) all the Rock Band on-disc songs to your hard drive and make them available to play in Rock Band 2. So, when I put Rock Band 2 in for the first time, I had a library of over 150 songs to play. (The game also comes with a code to download an additional 20 songs later this year, when they become available.)

As far as features. The Solo Tour is gone. Instead, it's just a Band World Tour, which you can play alone (in any of the four instruments, including bass this time) or with others, offline or online. Your band can even have more than just four people in it that shuffle in and out.

Most everything else is the same. You still have almost the exact same character creation controls (I rather wish you could import your Rock Band avatars), although fortunately you no longer have to create a separate avatar per instrument. Basic gameplay hasn't changed; there are still notes sliding down a track, streak multipliers, and white notes that earn overdrive. You still select from a list of playlists at a list of venues in a list of worldwide cities (the interface of which is almost identical to the original). There's still an "endless setlist" to complete.

There is a new "no fail" option, which is great for playing with my 6-year-old son, who can now bang on the drums, miss all the notes he wants, and still play along. I did notice during one song that his note track turned blue, like a guitar solo, so I guess drum solos have been introduced. There's also a "drum trainer" mode, which I believe lets you practice certain beat patterns — I haven't had a chance to play with that yet.

Is it worth getting? If you play online with friends, then definitely. Most of them will be getting it, most likely, and based on my experience last night, it's much easier to jump in and out of an online session. Online band tours are a huge bonus as well. If you don't have Rock Band, it would probably be worth waiting for the Rock Band 2 instrument bundle to be released next month first. Otherwise, the existing instruments work just as well in the new game.

I don't know if it's fair to call these games "half-sequels" or "point releases" or what. What is the threshold for calling a game a true sequel? What, for instance, makes Call of Duty 4 more than just an "expansion" to Call of Duty 2? The new setting? Different weapons? The challenge system in multiplayer? When it comes down to basics, aren't you just running around with a squad of inept teammates who can't seem to advance without their Private leading the way, using the left trigger to aim and the right trigger to shoot? I don't know. It's really more just a "feeling" than a checklist I can go through and say "yep, it has enough differences; it's a sequel".

I "feel" that both these games end up being just "half-sequels". Viva Piñata is priced right for it, though, especially after two years; and Rock Band has enough new content and features to make the price worth it, even after less than a year.

Viva Piñata: Trouble in Paradise

Picked up a couple sequels this month. Interesting thing about these two games, is that although they are new retail releases, they are really just incremental upgrades to existing games. But it's not all bad.

The first of these is Viva Piñata: Trouble in Paradise. It's often considered a "cop-out" when reviewing a game, especially a sequel, to say "if you liked X [the first one], you'll like this", but this is one of those cases where it's really true. The game play is virtually identical. You have a garden, you attract piñatas, you satisfy the requirements to make them stay, you satisfy another set of requirements to make them amorous, you romance them by guiding one through a Bezerk-like minigame to the other, you breed more piñatas which attract other species, etc. You can buy decorations for your garden — some can satisfy the aforementioned requirements, some can make your garden safer by keeping pests away — and you have to contend with sour piñatas, weeds, Ruffians, and Professor Pester.

They've streamlined a lot of things, to help with some of the annoyances of the first game. For instance, in the first game, planting a seed involved going to Costalot's store, buying a seed, planting it, then going back to the store to buy fertilizer. Now, there are shortcuts to both buying seeds and fertilizer right off the D-pad. Also, the hyper-annoying problem of simply finding the piñata you wanted (especially if it was a flying type that could be all-but-invisible perched up in a tree) has been greatly mitigated by a quick-find function bound to the bumpers.

Taking a cue from their friends at Bungie, you can now take screenshots in the game that are uploaded to (although the number and duration of that storage is limited). They've also worked in a use for the LIVE Vision Camera. Very similar to the in-game post office that lets you crate up a piñata and send it to someone, you can take a picture and "capture" the piñata in that picture as a card that can be scanned using the camera. It's a little gimmicky, to be sure, but I can't help thinking it's really a way to let kids trade piñatas with each other without having to sign them up for Live Gold accounts.

Speaking of kid-friendly features, there's a "play for fun" option that gives you unlimited money and a fully-functional garden, without interference from Ruffians. I know my 6-year-old is going to appreciate this, as he doesn't have the patience to build up a garden from scratch and just wants to get in and play. Even the regular garden starts a lot more "complete" — you no longer have to spend the first 15 minutes of every garden whacking the hard dirt and clearing out junk before you can start doing what you want.

Other features are nice additions, like local and online co-op and silly little minigames that you can play with your piñatas (although those minigames could really use some instructions — I went through the racing one a dozen times and still have no idea how to use the loathers I picked up, how I won, or why I lost the first eleven times). And thank goodness they finally added bird-proof fencing, so I can grow the weeds that some piñatas need without some sparrowmint swooping in, eating it, and getting sick.

When it comes down to it, though, it's still that same Sims-meets-Pokémon game that first came out two years ago. But I enjoyed it then, and I enjoy it now. And they priced it right at $40.

Back in Black

I posted a thread on the Geezer Gamers site to see if anyone had a hard drive transfer kit laying around from their own replacement or upgrade experience, and user uk1fan came through for me. Armed with the kit, a copy of my replacement plan, and my 360 wrapped up in the original packaging, I went to Best Buy to do the exchange. Because of the price drop, I traded even-up for a brand-new Elite, and I had no issues transferring all my data over to the new console. Score!

(Of course, all my content licenses can't be transferred until next year, since I already used the License Transfer tool earlier this year to consolidate everything on the last console...)

I noticed something interesting about my new console. It seems to access data much faster than the old one(s). When I go to the Games blade, the "My Games" number used to count up fairly slowly, and pulling up the games list would take almost a full minute for the list to populate and for games to shuffle into place. Now, when I hit the Games blade, the "My Games" number counts up almost too quickly to be seen, and the game list is populated almost instantaneously.

Another thing I noticed is that "Inside Xbox" videos used to buffer constantly. Often, I'd have to wait 30 seconds or more for every 10 seconds of video. But just yesterday, for the first time in a long time, I watched an entire "Inside Xbox" video without a single "Buffering..." message at all (even when I first started the video).

And a third, relatively minor thing, but in context makes me wonder. When I used to use the Chatpad, I'd almost always have to go back and find where it dropped a couple letters before sending my message. But the first time I sent a message on the Elite, it picked up every letter, nothing dropped.

I opened a discussion on Geezer Gamers about this. I was curious if it was a function of the Elite console (an unadvertised benefit of the "black box"), the hard drive (was it something about the 120GB hard drive, or something about the 20GB hard drive being the same one I had with 360 #1 in 2006, even if the console attached to it had been replaced twice), or the newer innards that all new Xboxes have now?

We haven't come up with any firm conclusions. After all, we're basing this on purely anecdotal evidence. Some have said they've seen a difference when they've upgraded hard drives. One said he noticed just about everything I did when he picked up a new 60GB Pro.

Could it be that the old 20GB drives were crap, maybe lacked some on-drive cache that the 60GB and 120GB drives have? Could it be that the process of upgrading and transferring had the net result of doing a hard drive defrag, that is needed more than we know? (I remember when I used Ghost to defrag, as completely removing and recopying every file does a particularly good job as a very thorough defragger.) Could there be something extra in newer consoles that actually does do a better job (an upgraded SATA controller)? The CPU and GPU changes have been talked about for a while, but if there's been any news about other changes to the 360, it hasn't jumped out at me.

In any case, I'm very happy to report that I have a nice new console that hopefully *knock on wood* I'll never have to replace again.

And if so, I have a new Replacement Plan, good through September '10, and RRoD coverage through September '11. ;)

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Oh, not again...

It would appear that Xbox #3 is heading for the great scrap heap in the sky.

This past weekend, I decided to play some Project Sylpheed. I was playing fine for quite some time. I started one mission, got about 15/100 of a second into it (I only know this because there's a mission timer), and the game froze. I rebooted, started the game back up, launched the same mission, got just over one second into it, and froze again. I rebooted, started the same mission a third time, and played through without incident. I noticed that the 360 was cool to the touch, so I didn't directly suspect overheating, although I had been playing a while (it was Labor Day, I played a lot).

Tonight, I watched a couple streaming video features from the Marketplace, and then I played through the arcade releases. When I got to Pirates vs. Ninjas Dodgeball, I played through the tutorial fine. When I started a match, though, as the CPU threw the first ball, it froze. I rebooted, started it again, got to the exact same point, and it froze again. I hoped for some buggy code, and then I went into Halo.

I started off with a game of Swat, which was unremarkable except for this annoying habit of Swat where it seems to let me kill people with one shot at the beginning of the game, and then suddenly lets people take five or six full bursts without dying. (I've watched the saved films from some of these games; I'm definitely hitting, they're just not dying.) After that, I accepted an invite and joined a game of Assault on Standoff with 7 other Geezers against another team of 8.

It was a grueling battle. The bomb went back and forth, bodies went flying everywhere. We even managed to plant the bomb a couple times, only to have it disarmed quickly as they attempted to do the same.

The announcer said "Five minutes to go." I had the bomb and was within the glowing safety dome of a bubble shield, when a tango decided to invade my personal bubble. I clicked the stick to swing the bomb. I heard a crunch and an "Oof!"... and the screen went black. I waited a few seconds for some feedback — the scoreboard, a respawn timer beep, anything — but nothing came. It was frozen solid.

The next several minutes were spent removing and reattaching peripherals to the 360 and rebooting, trying to see if it would boot up. Sometimes it would freeze before the boot animation would finish. Sometimes, it wouldn't freeze until the first popup clicked on. Once, I managed to boot up to the Halo title screen before it froze.

Not once did I get any error code, except for the four red lights when I powered the console with the A/V cable unplugged.

The only remarkable thing is that Project Sylpheed happened to be the game I was playing when my last 360's video processor went on the fritz. Very suddenly, the screen had a red tint, and the framerate dropped dramatically. I exited to the dashboard and everything looked fine, even booted up Shadowrun and played fine, although it was spotted, almost like I was looking through a screen door. But when I powered off and back on, one red light and "E 74" on the screen.

I don't think the game is to blame, though. Both last time and even now, I can recall random lockups happening leading up to the error. They were just sporadic, not happening every day.

Of course, the console is well beyond its one-year warranty. It is, I believe, also beyond the Best Buy replacement plan (although I might be able to check on that).* And since it refuses to give me any error lights at all, it is of course excluded from the three-year coverage on the Red Ring of Death.

And this is just as my copy of Viva Piñata: Trouble in Paradise is being shipped, with a Fable 2 and a Banjo Kazooie preorder on the way later this fall...

*Update: Turns out, Xbox #1 died in November of 2006, which I replaced with a Best Buy replacement plan. Since I had to purchase a new plan at the time, my current plan expires in November of this year. Looks like I might be getting my hands on a new 60GB Pro system soon...