Saturday, December 12, 2009

A face for radio

At GeezerGamers.com, we have a community podcast, where the hosts do a get-to-know-you interview with a member of the website, talk about current games, and then discuss some gaming-related topic of the week. Basically, it's just a bunch of old guys shooting the breeze about video games.

Since the hosts live on the east coast of the U.S., most of their guests have also been from the Eastern or Central Time zones, as those are the people they've happened to game with most often (although I've actually been a guest once myself). In order to remedy this and give the west coast members some representation (and to take some of the pressure off of the east coast hosts from having to do a show every week), there will now be two shows, an east and a west coast show, on alternating weeks.

What makes this exciting is, I will be one of the co-hosts! Fellow Geezers SquidgeyFlint and FireMedic41 will be the other hosts, as we do the West Side edition of the Geezer Gamers Community Cast.

Our first episode, where FireMedic41 acts as our "guest" and subjects himself to the "20 questions" segment, is up on the GGCC Blogger site.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Left 4 Dead 2

Valve took a lot of heat for announcing the release of Left 4 Dead 2 a mere year after its predecessor, which seems odd considering Madden games get a lot less and Call of Duty games get nearly zero criticism for doing the exact same thing year after year. Many seem to feel that Left 4 Dead was not given a promised amount of support or DLC, or that the content of Left 4 Dead 2 should have only been released as DLC for the original.

Left 4 Dead 2 in a lot of ways is the same game as Left 4 Dead, however it does bring a ton of new content that I think "merely" distributing it as a downloadable add-on would not have been feasible. (Honestly, if it were possible, they probably would've made a lot more money partitioning it out as DLC; so the argument that they were trying to milk customers by packaging it as a separate full-price game doesn't hold water.)

Left 4 Dead 2 brings four new survivors into the zombie apocalypse. The setting is in the southeastern United States, and the survivors have a distinct Southern flavor to them. The levels are a lot wider, meaning the survivors aren't guided down a narrow channel through the level; and the levels occur in broad daylight as well as the middle of the night. There are a lot more weapons, rather than just three different weapons in two different powers. There are also new assists (adrenaline shots and defibrillator units), and all-new melee weapons. There are also new special infected — the charger, spitter, and jockey — and new "uncommon" common infected, like CDA agents in hazmat suits and police officers in body armor.

The Director, the program that controls the overall experience, has some new tools in its arsenal, as well. It has more options for distributing medpacks and weapons (no longer placing the same groups of the same weapons in the same locations), the ability to block off some pathways and open up others to change the overall layout of the level, and even the ability to control the weather in some situations.

Ultimately, though, the gameplay is pretty much the same as before. You have to get through the level from one safe room to the next, trying not to get killed along the way. A couple of the new campaigns end in the same type of "hold out for rescue" event as before, but some have very new objectives. One, you have to collect gas cans and fuel up a car to make an escape (while hordes of zombies try to prevent you from doing it), and another you have to keep moving and run across a long bridge. There is even a new style of "crescendo" event — not only do you have mid-campaign moments like Left 4 Dead where you have to stand your ground against an extended horde for a predetermined period of time (e.g., while a noisy elevator slides into position to grant you passage), but Left 4 Dead 2 has new moments where you start the event at one point and have to battle your way through the zombies to the "off switch" to stop the event, and the horde will only keep coming until you do.

Although each of the five campaigns in Left 4 Dead 2 are considered a "game" and can be played in any order, the dialog at the beginning and end of each tells a more coherent story played in sequence, showing the survivors' journey from Savannah to New Orleans and their ultimate rescue by the armed forces. The game therefore does give just a little more of a story than Left 4 Dead — although there is still no real depth or detail given to the backstory. You still don't know a lot about the characters themselves (unless you read the little bio given in the manual), and nothing more about the infection itself.

Compared to Left 4 Dead, the characters in Left 4 Dead 2 don't show a lot of personality. (The notable exception is that Ellis, if you linger in the safe room for a moment at the start of each chapter, will launch into a very long story about the misadventures of his friend Keith, before getting cut off by one of the other survivors.) While the survivors in Left 4 Dead were constantly throwing out one-liners and brief little interchanges throughout their adventure (from Francis's constant murmurings of things he hates, to the always-entertaining elevator dialog in No Mercy, to Zoey, upon seeing the graffiti "GOD IS DEAD", whispering an awed, "Oh, no, the zombies ate God!"), the Left 4 Dead 2 foursome seem to be all business. They swear a lot more, too, which I don't terribly appreciate.

One thing I noticed about the level design is, because the Left 4 Dead 2 levels are so much more "open", it is much easier to feel lost. When playing the original Left 4 Dead, the level design was so constricted and the use of lighting was so dramatic, that it was quite nearly like riding on rails. There was almost no question where to go next. By contrast, I've found that Left 4 Dead 2 does not have the same "guided" feeling to the design, such that I'm not always sure where to go next. Part of that, I think, is because a lot of the levels are daylight, where "follow the light" just isn't possible — but even in the nighttime of the Hard Rain campaign, the lighting cues just aren't as obvious. In fact, I got thoroughly lost wandering through the sugar mill of Hard Rain, and if I didn't happen to be in a party chat with someone who happened to remember enough of that level to give me some general direction, I'm not sure how long I would've wandered around that level. One of the tricks the game uses to help you find out where to go is, when your character is about to go through the right door or up the correct ramp, he'll signal to his fellow survivors with a helpful "Let's go this way" — but that only seems to occur if you're already heading the right way to begin with. If you can't see or find the right door, you don't get a lot of help. Certainly, this is a problem that will fade with experience, but it does ramp up the learning curve in trying to get through the campaigns.

There are five new campaigns, which are all playable in co-op and versus modes. The Survival mode, that was added as free DLC to Left 4 Dead, is included in Left 4 Dead 2. There is also a brand new "Scavenge" mode, where survivors try to keep a generator fueled as long as they can while the infected try to prevent it. The variety of game types do give you more of an option of how much time you need to commit. A campaign can last up to an hour on the easiest level; versus can be a very lengthy proposition, depending on the skill of both teams. On the other hand, Survival and Scavenge offer a co-op and versus game type, respectively, that generally lasts a relatively short time, like 15 minutes or so.

All told, it definitely feels like much more of a complete package than the original, which by comparison seems like a Left 4 Dead Lite. Although it seems more difficult getting a team together (since its release has been eclipsed by this fall's mega-blockbuster Modern Warfare 2 — or is it because people aren't as excited about this release as the last one?), the teamwork and camaraderie in banding together mowing down hordes of zombies to get to the next rescue point is just as fun as the last time.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Download now, play next week!

Interesting DRM-related goings on in the PC world. The distribution network Steam is offering the ability to not only pre-order games, but pre-download them as well. Since downloading a full game is not an instantaneous process (and is expected to be even worse on a big game's release date), you can download the code early, but be locked out of play until you are able to activate your copy with their server, on the game's actual release date.

Sounds perfectly reasonable, as far as it goes. They have enabled that for the upcoming Left 4 Dead 2, and they also had it available for the much-anticipated Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, whose official release date was Tuesday of this week.

Although the official retail release date was Tuesday, some retailers started selling copies early (which was quickly and "unofficially" copied by GameStop in those areas). So, if you elected to buy a physical game disc instead of the "convenience" of a digital download, there's a chance you could've been playing it early.

Wait, it gets better. When the official retail release date rolled around and people lined up outside retail stores to buy their shiny discs, those who bought the "convenient" digital copy found that it did not activate when midnight changed Monday into Tuesday. In fact, the digital copy would not unlock until Thursday, a full two days later. There was some more confusion as the unlock date was pushed even further out until Friday, but it seems to have been pulled back now to Wednesday night.

Meanwhile, people who bought their shiny discs will have had their fully functional copies for over a day and a half (assuming no issues with DRM).

Wow. So, apparently, in the digital download future, we can not only buy games that we don't own, can't resell, rent, or trade, may not be able to back up and will lose at some uncertain point in the future, but now you can download games and not even get to play them!

I'm sorry, how exactly is this a good thing? Oh right, the publishers directly get your money, whether you get to play the game or not; so it's good for them.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Forza Motorsport 2

Riffling through some papers, CyberKnight finds an old, incomplete post started back in January. He blows the dust off the pages and decides to finish it.…

A friend of mine recently picked up Forza Motorsport 2, which has just been released as a Platinum Hit collection that includes all DLC for the budget price of $20 (and, interestingly enough, the DLC alone, still on Marketplace and still at its original price, totaling 2000 points, or $25, exceeds the retail cost of the game — but you don't need to hear me go through that again, right?); and in an effort to entice me to join him, he designed the car I've dubbed the "CyberKnight Industries Two-Thousand" that he wanted to "gift" to me. So I decided to pick it up.

I've played the Project Gotham series, and although I have an ok time with it, it's not something I spend hours of time with. I'm not exactly a car enthusiast, so really, racing one car isn't much different than racing any other to me. So, I have to say, in all honesty, Forza doesn't "excite" me. It's an enjoyable game, to be sure; just not something that I feel like I can fully appreciate as much as someone who could tell you the difference between a 2007 Porsche and a 2005 Ferrari, and what would happen if you put a Mitsubishi engine in each.

Which leads me to my next point. Project Gotham delivers a very "canned" experience — the cars in the game are the cars you get to race, as-is. However, in Forza, you can customize your car down to ridiculous details. Different engines are available, different drive shafts, injector systems, exhaust pipes, spoilers, suspension systems, tires, rims, parts I never even knew existed. For a race, you can adjust the downforce applied by the spoilers, adjust tire inflation pressures, gear transfer ratios, and so on. You can even paint your car, and although you're given a very basic set of tools and shapes, a competent painter with a lot of time on his hands can make very intricate patterns, designs, and pictures. What's more, cars can be traded, with all their upgrades and tunings and paint designs, in an online auction house.

In a race, too, you can get telemetry data on your car. Overlayed on the screen, you can see different data, such as the real-time friction vectors applied to each tire, the G-force sustained by the car, and other data.

On the leaderboards, you can download replays from other drivers, and during playback you can view the same telemetry data, and (if the driver allowed it) see what precise tuning data they used to drive their car.

The amount of customizability and information available is enough to impress a complete racing n00b such as myself.

Of course, there is still one annoyance that I can't seem to escape when it comes to racing games. If you're running against equivalent AI, you cannot make a single mistake. The next closest car will always be within a second behind you, and the first error you make in a turn (which, invariably, means you will spin out and end up facing backwards) will result in your opponent passing you, and you will never see him again. Forza 2 does have the option to turn down the AI's difficulty, which greatly reduces this frustration, thank goodness. (Even better, by the time I'm writing this, Forza Motorsport 3 has been released, and it includes a new feature — rewind — so when you make that mistake, you can actually "undo" it and not have one error completely destroy 20 laps of perfection.)

The UI is just a little clunky. It seems to take one too many button presses to have to get around to change cars or slip into the auction house to view your auction statuses. Going into a career race, if your current car isn't appropriate for the race but you have cars that are, the game is very helpful in showing you just the narrowed-down list of cars to pick from; however, that only seems to happen if your current car doesn't work. If your current car is fine, but you want to select a better one, you have to go all the way back out of career to your garage to see your full list of cars and find one yourself.

Niggling UI issues aside, I'd have to say the game sure impresses me. Not sure if that says a lot, considering I'm not a huge car or race fan, but there you go.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Wait... That's not really progress...

If you buy a piece of content, such as an Arcade game, off of the Xbox Live Marketplace, it is tied to two pieces of information: the gamertag that made the purchase, and the console on which that purchase was initially downloaded. Those two bits of information are encoded in a "license". That license is generated and stored on Microsoft's servers, and a copy is stored with the content (possibly encoded within the file itself, maybe in a separate file; its exact location isn't important).

When you go to access this piece of content (i.e. play the game, or select the downloaded map from the in-game menu, or watch the video, or whatever the "content" is), the console reads the license and checks to see if either of two conditions are true:

  • 1) Is the gamertag in the license currently signed in and connected to Xbox Live?
  • 2) Is this console the same console as the one in the license?

(note that a valid, active connection to Xbox Live is required to validate condition 1)

If you have, or have ever had, more than one console (either you own more than one, or you've replaced it via a store warranty instead of a Microsoft repair), you may have purchased content on multiple consoles, and so you have licenses that have different consoles stored in them. If you are the only game player in your household, this might not be a problem, as no matter where you are, you will always validate against condition 1 and be able to play your content (as long as your internet connection is active and Xbox Live isn't down).

However, if your internet connection goes down, or you have other family members in your household, you may find that some of your legally purchased content doesn't work right — either it's unavailable, or it only lets you play in "trial" mode. This is because condition 1 can't pass (either you aren't logged in when your family/housemates are, or you are unable to log in), nor can condition 2 (it was initially downloaded to some other console).

To mitigate this, Microsoft created the "License Transfer Tool", which lets you transfer all your licenses' console registrations to the same console. Using the tool, you can move everything to your new/current console, updating the console ID stored in the licenses on Microsoft's servers. To update the copy of the license on your actual console, you have to re-download each piece of content individually — however, when you select to re-download a piece of content you already have, your console just updates its copy of the license, which is a very quick download. It's still tedious if you have a lot of content to re-download, since you have to do it one at a time, but at least each download itself is typically less than 15 seconds.

Finding all your content used to be a royal pain in the neck. You could go into your Xbox dashboard and page through your download history, but, since everything (every preview video, every game demo, every seemingly inconsequential bit) is stored there, it was tedious to page through and find it all and download it all one-by-one from the console.

Now, the last page of the transfer tool on the web has a link to your download history, and you can add items to your queue straight from there. Each piece of content is labeled with what it is (demo, video, arcade game, add-on pack), making it much easier to tell at a glance whether it's something that needs to be queued, and an "add to queue" button is right there on the list. The queue is still limited (to a couple dozen items), but if your Xbox is on and signed in while you do this, it will be downloading the licenses faster than you can fill the queue.

Note that Microsoft insists this is not for everyday use, for moving content back and forth between consoles at-will. To enforce this, they only allow the tool to be used once every 12 months.

I had been resisting doing all of this for a while, but my kids were bumping up against some arcade games that were showing up as trials again recently, and I decided to bite the bullet and do it (again; I had done it once before, the harder way, well over a year ago), and I marveled at the improvements in the process. Now they can play all the games I've downloaded.

Sounds nice and easy, right?

Well, it occurs to me that, with every Xbox I've gone through (I think I'm on #5 now), and with some licenses that have transferred and some that haven't, whether I've used this tool or not, the vast majority of my games have not had any issues whatsoever going from Xbox to Xbox.

Why? Because they're on disc.

While they did make the license transfer tool much easier, it's still many, many, many times harder than it should be. Why can't you move your Xbox Live Arcade game to another console and let another gamertag play it? For that matter, why can't you take a game to a console that's not connected to the internet? There's nothing stopping you from doing that with a disc.

Maybe they did make a bad situation better, but it's still a very bad situation.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed

Hey look, another review that was waiting for me to finish. Since I finally finished the game, I suppose I'll finish the review now.

I'd wager just about everyone knows the story of Star Wars, at least as told in the movies. Episodes I - III tell of a young boy, literally born from the force of good, who is born in poverty and struggles to fight for what's right and good as he grows up; and of a man of evil, who transforms a republic into an empire with himself as the head, brings about war and dominance, and corrupts and twists the young man to become his servant. Episodes IV - VI focus on that formerly good young man's son, who dedicates his life fighting the evil of the emperor and his father, in the end redeeming his father from evil.

There's a time between Episodes III and IV that we don't know a lot about. The way the movies are set, we don't need to know much about them, as we see at the end of Episode III the seeds of the story that will be picked up right where it left off in Episode IV 28 years earlier. (That's right, kids — Episode IV came out first. Oh, and let's just be clear: Greedo never fired a shot.) But it's probably safe to assume Vader didn't sit on his hands for 17 years waiting for his kids to grow up and kill his boss.

The Force Unleashed inserts a story into this time frame. Darth Vader, while on his Jedi genocide mission for his emperor, finds that one of his victims has a son who is strong in the Force. After killing the Jedi, Vader takes the little boy and raises him to be his own apprentice, secretly. His goal is to use this apprentice to overthrow the emperor (it's a Sith thing, it's what they do), and to prepare him for this task, he trains him to be a powerful combatant. Which means, basically, you get to kick butt with the Force.

One of the main selling points in The Force Unleashed is its blending of technologies to create a realistic environment. The Digital Molecular Matter engine is in play so that wood splinters, glass shatters, and metal warps; and the Euphoria engine is working so when you pick up an Imperial trooper and fling him through the air, he will panic and attempt to grab on to anything he can to stop from flying around. The result is a fairly realistic feel to the environment. You know, considering it's in a galaxy far, far away and you're causing Imperial troops to fly through glass and wood with the controlling power of the universe.

The premise of the gameplay is solid. I mean, who wouldn't want to be an awesome, Force-wielding mercenary? Sure, you've seen Yoda use the Force to pick an X-Wing up out of a swamp, but this trailer shows the potential scale LucasArts was going for, where the apprentice is seen pulling an Imperial Star Destroyer out of the sky.

The problem is, they seemed to spend the rest of the game making sure you couldn't just waltz through and kick butt with the Force. Enemies have shields that resist the Force, others have weapons that effectively ignore Force shields and lightsaber blocks, and what should be the most common of enemies wield sticks and staffs that hold their own against a lightsaber. In other words, they nerfed the Force.

Additionally, your character is extra-nerfed, as well. Every hit will knock him off-balance or down enough to leave him vulnerable to a number of other attacks while he sobers up — on the harder difficulty settings, this often means one or two hits (and the combo of follow-up attacks received before you can even block, let alone fight back) are enough to do you in. Enemies will, of course, have little difficulty breaking out of any multi-hit combo you try to inflict on them in return, with their Force-resistant sticks and armor.

Not to mention this poor, tormented soul whines like a farm boy pining for a set of power converters — but I'm starting to accept that as standard fare for a Star Wars story.

The boss fights are an exercise in frustration and patience. Usually, there's a certain move or trick that tends to work better than anything else, but usually it's just a matter of evading or racing one unblockable attack after another until you eventually wear the boss down to a quick-time event to finish him off. Those finishing events do add a nice touch of cinematic flair, plus a little bit of cool-down after an intense fight, but they do leave me wondering, "Why couldn't I have pulled all those kick-butt moves on him during the last 10 minutes of combat?"

The story itself isn't bad. It actually does a pretty decent job of fitting right in with the movies, including what I consider the "default" ending. (You have two choices at the end, resulting in a "light side" and "dark side" ending, and the way the camera is positioned at the time you make the choice, it pretty much has you aimed straight down one path and almost completely hides the other.) For as cheesy as it is in some respects, it's not at all out of character for Star Wars — love it or leave it.

The game play, though, leaves a lot to be desired. It's fairly frustrating, even when you're playing at the easy levels (you don't die so much, but you still spend an unreasonable amount of time getting knocked down and waiting to stand back up). It's hard to shake the feeling that you're fighting with both midichlorians tied behind your back.

Still, I slogged through it, because there were achievements to be had. And it's not like I'm any stranger to frustration.

I did pick up the Jedi Temple mission pack when it went on "sale" as a "Deal of the Week". It was extremely short. I played through the mission in a half hour on the hardest difficulty, and because (maddeningly) the difficulty completion achievements don't stack, I played through three more times on each of the lesser difficulties. By the end of two hours, I had played through it four times and completed all achievements. I haven't had any interest in the $10 Tatooine mission DLC.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Defense Grid: The Awakening

My first introduction to tower defense as a genre was when the game Crystal Defenders came to Xbox Live. In "tower defense", enemy units attempt to travel from point A to point B, and you must stop them by placing defense units, commonly "towers", along their path. It is very strategic, in that you must decide where and what kind of towers you place to maximize the damage done to the enemy.

I was intrigued by the concept, although that particular game didn't excite me enough to sell me on the game. But when Defense Grid came about, that changed.

In Defense Grid, you have a power plant with two dozen "cores", and enemies come into the field and try to grab a core and escape. In some scenes, the enemies follow a fixed path, and you place your towers along the edges of the path. In others, there are multiple paths connecting large, open spaces, and you place your towers in those spaces to shape the enemies' path.

You have a small arsenal of towers to choose from. There are towers that can only attack at a limited range, towers that can lob volleys at long range (but are useless at short), a tower that can counteract stealth and increase resource retrieval, and one that can emit a pulse and slow down the travel speed of all nearby enemies. Once purchased, a tower can be upgraded up to two times, increasing stats like attack speed, range, and power.

Towers cost resources to produce, which are earned both by destroying enemies and as "interest" on existing unspent resources (so the longer you wait to build towers, the more resources you could have).

The game is extremely simple to play. You can easily finish every level in the campaign with very little effort. However, to get the silver and then the gold medal scores on each level, it takes quite a bit of strategy. It is, to coin a phrase, easy to play, but a challenge to master.

Something I didn't find out until after I had already purchased it, is that the Xbox Live version is actually a port of an existing game for the PC. However, the Xbox Live version includes a few more levels. And, oddly enough, it is priced at only 800 points, or $10 — whereas the retail price of the original PC version was actually around $15. So, wonder of wonders, the Xbox Marketplace's normal price was actually quite a deal compared to the PC version of the game.

I found the gameplay offered at the price to be well worth it. It's certainly been a challenge to complete, just from an achievement perspective; trying to maximize scores and gold-medal all the maps and play variants keep it personally interesting.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Halo 3: ODST

Bungie's latest release in the Halo franchise was first announced as an "expansion" or a "mini-game", one that wouldn't be a full-priced release. As a consequence, many reviews and comments have judged the release of Halo 3: ODST based on its value as a $60 game. It's probably a fair enough judgment for any game, but ODST probably wouldn't see its value picked apart in just about every review and forum if they hadn't announced that it wouldn't cost $60.

They also billed this game as an "expansion", which seems a little unfair to the game itself (and doesn't help the judgment of its price point as a stand-alone game). The inclusion of the multiplayer component of Halo 3 in the box (with three new maps, not yet released on the Xbox Marketplace), plus the fact that it is called Halo 3: ODST and not just Halo ODST, just seem to add to ODST's identity crisis. Is it a game of its own, or just an extension of Halo 3?

The game takes place in the city of New Mombasa, Africa, which is under attack by Covenant forces, the attack that kicked off Halo 2. (The time frame overlaps probably as much as Halo 2 as it does Halo 3 — making me wonder even more about the "3" in this game's title.) You start out as the rookie of a squad of Orbital Drop Shock Troopers — on the butt-kicking scale, they rank way above a normal Army or Navy soldier, but below a Spartan. The squad is preparing to drop into a lone Covenant ship hovering over the city, when an ONI agent joins the team and changes their orders to drop into the city itself on an unrevealed mission.

This game is quite different than the Master Chief story that comprises Halo 1, 2, and 3. Master Chief is all about eliminating the enemy, plowing through Covenant invaders like a combine through wheat. However, Master Chief has the benefit of being a genetically-enhanced soldier with a metric tonne of powered armor.

An ODST, by contrast, is neither biologically modified nor encased in armor. He is much more — for lack of a better word — "human". Granted, he's no slouch. He's the best of the best, as far as human marines go, at the peak of physical conditioning and trained in a wide variety of human and alien weaponry and technology. He can even run at a normal speed while carrying a machine gun turret. However, without the protective armor, an ODST is much more vulnerable to damage. He doesn't have regenerative health, or a motion tracker, or shields, or the ability to dual-wield. In many ways, it's a lot like Halo 1.

There is a simulated sort of "shield-and-health" system like Halo 1. In ODST, the "shield" is "stamina", and it's not measured with an electronic bar but by a reddening of your vision. When your stamina is depleted, damage is taken to your health (which does have a measurable bar). Staying out of the line of fire will recharge your stamina (and clear your eyesight). It's much less resilient than an actual "shield", but it serves the same basic purpose.

Back to the story. As your squad drops into New Mombasa, the Covenant ship jumps into slipspace. (This is the point, in Halo 2, where Master Chief, Miranda Keyes, and Sergeant Johnson follow in the In Amber Clad and wind up on Delta Halo.) The resulting shockwave from the slipspace jump creates an EMP that knocks out the electrical systems in the ODSTs' drop pods, and they crash in various places around the city. You, playing as the unnamed and unvoiced "Rookie", wake six hours later in nighttime downtown New Mombasa, alone.

The gameplay is split here. The nighttime New Mombasa city streets, as the Rookie, have you attempting to find your squadmates. Although the game purports to offer stealth here, even playing on easy, I found that I was unable to avoid encounters with Covenant forces. The battles tend to be much smaller-scale, with patrols of just a few grunts and a brute typical. You're guided to the story elements in turn by a checkpoint system controlled by the city's Superintendent computer (or, presumably, if you wander around on your own, you could discover them in any order). These nighttime interludes can last as little as 10 minutes if you focus on the next checkpoint and go straight there.

Once you find a relic (a damaged helmet, a discarded sniper rifle, an empty can of biofoam), the game shifts into a "flashback" mode, where you switch to the point-of-view of one of the ODSTs that was there, and the events that led up to leaving that item where you found it. These modes are closer to "typical" Halo: more action-oriented, faster-paced, fighting with squads of AI-controlled marines against larger and more diverse squads of Covenant forces. It is through these "flashbacks" that the story comes together.

On the way, you can find audio clips that tell a side-story of a certain girl whose father worked on the Superintendent program, and what happened to her when the Covenant appeared over New Mombasa. It's completely optional (aside from achievements), but it is a good-quality story with about 40 minutes of audio that is highly reminiscent of the "I Love Bees" audio program that preceded Halo 2.

Eventually, the squad is reunited, and, without spoiling the story, the game ends with the squad making a stand against several waves of Covenant forces as they wait for evac. It gives a fitting climax to the battle, while appropriately setting up the Firefight mode.

Firefight is the Halo version of what Gears of War has popularized as "Horde Mode", where you and up to three friends battle cooperatively against wave after wave of incoming enemy forces. Having not played Gears, I can't offer any first-hand comparisons, but I have heard that ODST generally moves a lot faster in that even the early waves give you a significant number of enemies. It increases the challenge by not only adding more and stronger enemies, but by cycling through different combinations of skulls. These are the same skulls that are available in the ODST and Halo 3 campaigns (the ones in Halo 3 had to be found to be "unlocked" for use; in ODST, they're available from the start) that alter gameplay by making the enemies more damage-resistant, making weapons drop with less ammo, and so on.

In some ways, Firefight is a good mode for picking up and playing with friends. It's set up like the campaign, where you pick your squad from your friends (no matchmaking) and you fight against the AI, but it doesn't lock you into a scripted story and make you and your friends choose a subset of an involved story arc to play through.

On the other hand, Firefight's strength is also its weakness in that it reveals just how simple the gameplay is in Halo; and both how much the story is a powerful part of the game, and how shallow the game feels without it. With wave after wave of the same enemies on the same level, a Firefight match can get almost tiring after a typical hour and a half that a good squad can pull off (on the short end), where it's almost a relief when the lives run out and the game ends.

If I had to compare ODST to Halo 3 (which, considering the way it was marketed, I sort of have to), I would have to agree with those that have said that ODST is "less" of a game than Halo 3. The campaign is shorter, and it only has a single, rigid multiplayer mode in Firefight. (ODST does come with Halo 3's multiplayer as a separate disc, but I don't think it's fair to consider that a part of ODST — the Xbox doesn't anyway, as it identifies the game as Halo 3. Besides, if you already own Halo 3, and especially if you've acquired all of the map packs up to this point, the only value added is the remainder of the Mythic map pack that is only available on the disc packed-in with ODST.) However, to judge it on its own, or to even compare it to the multitude of other games that have been released at a $60 price point, I think the game delivers a fair amount of value. The narrative is classic Bungie storytelling, although in a very different format than before. The gameplay feels a lot like Halo 1, which you may love or hate (but you will definitely love the return of the pistol). It's the same, excellent blending of gameplay, story, and music that has made Halo the success that it is. And if the $60 price point still feels too high, about half the retailers out there are already offering the game with deals or discounts out of the gate.

Monday, October 5, 2009

I Can Haz Recon

I'm working on my write-up of Halo 3: ODST, but there's a certain side-benefit to the game. It includes its own set of "Vidmaster" achievements and the promise that, if you complete all the Vidmaster achievements in ODST and Halo 3, you can actually unlock the coveted Recon armor type for use in Halo 3 multiplayer.

What's so special about Recon? Well, to be honest, not a whole lot. Let's face it: it's just another armor type. It gives you no special advantage in the game, there are no special properties to it, you don't run faster or jump higher or take any more damage. And yet, this armor, previously available only by the grace of the employees at Bungie if you happened to "somehow" get their attention, was so sought-after that people were willing to surrender their accounts to random people just for the unlikely possibility that this purely cosmetic model skin would be unlocked for their use.

Some say the fact that anyone can now unlock it on their own diminishes the "value" of Recon. There is a point to this — this was a prize that, according to Bungie, was reserved for those who did make some noticeable, positive contribution to the Halo community. Although, the game has been out for two years, I think (and, so it would seem, Bungie agrees) the point has long since been made, and opening it up to the rest of the world isn't so bad.

And it's not like the armor is easy to get by any means. Let's take a quick look at what is involved:

  • 7 on 7 Halo 3 — Get 7 experience points in any playlist on the 7th of the month. When this achievement was first released, this involved finding a playlist where you had less than 7XP, waiting for the 7th of any month, and getting the appropriate number of wins. This achievement coincided with a new per-playlist XP system, so ideally it wasn't an issue. However, to accommodate those who exceeded 7XP on all playlists really quickly, Bungie occasionally makes a new playlist around the 7th of the month, where everyone has 0XP. Needless to say, I didn't have that problem; I had plenty of playlists under 7XP when the first 7th rolled around.
  • Annual Halo 3 — Finish the last level of Halo 3 with four players, on Legendary, with the Iron skull, with everyone in Ghosts. The thing that makes this one difficult is, because of the Iron skull, if one person dies, the whole team reverts to the last checkpoint. However, making the final run on the exploding Halo in a Ghost, I think, is more fun than in the default Warthog. After doing this once for myself, I've been in a party to help others get this achievement twice since. It's called "Annual" because it only counted on or after 25 September 2008, one year after the original launch date of Halo 3.
  • Brainpan Halo 3 — Find all the hidden skulls on all Mythic maps. In Forge mode, you can find a skull on each of the maps in the Mythic map pack. I'm not a fan of "find all the hidden…" achievements, so I automatically go to the internet for things like this. Finding the hidden skulls on each of the six maps (three were only available with ODST's release) was trivial.
  • Classic ODST — Finish any level solo, on Legendary, without firing a shot or grenade. Although this wasn't super-easy, there was one level in particular where it was possible to blast through — although a slight glitch where the game seems to consider honking the horn of the Warthog "firing a shot" meant I had to do this more than once.
  • Déjà Vu ODST — Finish the last level with 4 players, on Legendary, Iron skull on, without a Warthog or Scorpion. This is extremely similar to Annual (hence the name), except I would argue much harder. Bungie did make it easier than it could've been in this set-up by giving you a pair of Mongooses and rocket launchers for everyone with 999 (!) rockets apiece, but it was still slow-going with many restarts and, at times, checkpoints that just refused to pop.
  • Endure ODST — On Firefight, with 4 players, on Heroic, survive to the start of the 5th set. This was, by far, the hardest of the challenges to complete. In Firefight, you have a limited number of lives, and although you can earn a few more, if you run out, the game is over. A "set" in Firefight consists of three "rounds", and each round is five "waves", so in order to get this achievement, you have to survive four complete sets, or 60 waves of enemies. The game makes each round & set progressively harder by cycling the number of skulls activated. By the time you get to the last wave, all the skulls (except Iron) are turned on, so that enemies are tougher, shots do less damage, you can't recover stamina unless you melee, they throw grenades like there's no tomorrow, they dodge your grenades, and what weapons you manage to find have less ammo in them. And if you fail, you can't just restart at the last checkpoint and continue — the whole effort is wasted. I had three failed attempts of note (a fourth, we didn't even make it past the second round), all of which we got to the 4th set (one all the way to the very last wave), and each lasting over two hours.
  • Lightswitch Halo 3 — Achieve the rank of Lieutenant in any playlist. This is one that undoubtedly unlocks over time if you play enough, although I managed to get it in a weekend of Double-XP Grifball.

Finally, after a very late night on Saturday and with the help of three other friends, I completed the Endure challenge, unlocking the last of my Vidmaster achievements. I now, officially, legitimately, haz Recon.

Of course, I still suck. :D

Monday, September 28, 2009

Used game sales fuel new game sales

Here's an interesting tidbit. According to this article, Game Crazy noticed that a not-insignificant percentage of new game sales were paid for by trade-in dollars. While publishers whine and cry over used game sales hurting their bottom line and doing everything they can to stop it, here's a data point that shows that because people are free to sell back their used games, they then have the money to go buy a new game.

Granted, this is coming from a store that deals in used game sales, so they have a bias in putting out information that favors their business model. Still, facts are facts. I know people who do this very thing, trade in several games and buy a new game with the proceeds. I couldn't guess the percentage, but it's still interesting to add to the discussion.

The whining from the publishers, of course, is based on a faulty premise that is often applied to piracy (in fact, I contend a lot of anti-used measures are implemented under the guise of cracking down on piracy), that every used game sale (or pirated game) is a lost retail sale. In a way, it's saying just because some people were willing to spend [some lower price X] on a used copy of the game, the same people would've been just as willing to spend [higher amount Y] on the exact same game, new. It's absurd. Why not extend that to say if they were willing to spend [Y], they'll be willing to spend [even higher amount Z], and start charging $150 per game?

Meanwhile, Sony and Microsoft continue to show they just don't get it. In their quest to eliminate used game sales and gain complete control over distribution and the market itself, they continue to show they just can't compete. Microsoft continues to release games via its "Games on Demand" service at price points higher than retail, and Sony just announced that they have abandoned any plans to let users trade in their disc-based games for digital copies for their new drive-less handheld, the PSP-Go.

"Digital distribution is the future," goes the common refrain in public forums on the topic. So it would seem, the future involves getting less product (no disc, no manual) for a limited time (many, many stories of games getting lost in hardware shuffles) with less rights (can't rent, loan, trade, return, or re-sell) for more cost. Where, exactly, is the progress here?

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Ghostbusters

"Who you gonna call?" If you grew up in the '80s, you don't even have to stop and think about this one. The answer is automatic. In fact, it's probably so automatic, you often come up with the same answer anytime someone suggests anything remotely pertaining to questioning who is going to be the recipient of a telephone call.

The game can be best described as an "interactive movie". Written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, it plays out like a movie, with the characters voicing dialog that sounds appropriate for a feature film. Even better, all four original Ghostbusters actors voice their characters in the game, making it very much like another movie. (There are other voice actors that reprise their roles as well.)

The voice acting is very good, for the most part. The only one I was disappointed with was Bill Murray, who didn't sound like he was "in the moment" — he read so calmly and quietly, even in times of high intensity and action, it sounded like he was about to fall asleep, when I could hear him at all.

The story draws heavily on elements from the first two movies, where the city of New York is once again threatened by Gozer. You are a new recruit to the Ghostbusters squad, and part of your raison d'ĂȘtre is to test new weaponry, and to give the four someone to talk to and abuse besides each other. It's a little disappointing that you don't get to play one of the actual Ghostbusters, but it does solve the question of which Ghostbuster you would actually play, letting the story revolve around different Ghostbusters at will withouth forcing you to change characters mid-story. It's a feature that works — so well, in fact, that the game's weaker moments are when you are on your own, or even with just one other Ghostbuster.

It is somewhat disappointing that the game features no story-mode co-op. Considering how well the story is written for the single-player experience, I'm not entirely sure if it would've worked to just throw a second player into the mix and get the same story experience. There is, however, a four-player online mode in what is often compared to Gears of War's "Horde Mode". Having never played Gears, I can't speak to how it compares. There are a few different types of modes, from protecting equipment from ghostly attacks to capturing as many ghosts as possible before time runs out. Beyond that, there's really not that much to say; the game play is relatively simple and fairly easy to jump into.

One of the multiplayer mode's shortfalls, though, is its complete lack of a party system. We found that we were able to get around this fairly effectively with the Xbox dashboard party system; however, it was not a complete substitution for a legitimate in-game party.

The game isn't without its faults. Occasionally, there are segments where the difficulty reaches obnoxious proportions, where you're hopelessly outnumbered and enemies keep attacking through your futile efforts at defense. And there are a couple instances where the requirement to progress isn't made clear — the game's constant prompting to "use the slime tether" doesn't really help if you don't know on what to use the slime tether. It's also not altogether uncommon to find that you've managed to slam a ghost under the ground, from where it can attack you but where you cannot reach it.

All told, though, it's not a bad game. Not only does it rate extremely high on the nostalgia scale, but it actually does a fairly decent job of turning ghost busting into a decent action game.

Monday, August 24, 2009

O Sonic, Where Art Thou?

I saw this article on gaming blog Kotaku titled "Sega: Impossible To Please All Sonic Fans With One Sonic Game". It's an interesting read for me, considering Sonic and I went to college together (in a matter of speaking — Sonic the Hedgehog was released right before my freshman year, and Sonic & Knuckles came out in my senior year).

I'm certainly one of those who looks at the Sonic games today with a great sense of disappointment. The Sonic I knew was a high-speed side-scrolling platformer, games that excelled in their simplicity and playability. But when I picked up Sonic Heroes for the Xbox, I found this 3D adventure platformer overloaded with characters I had never heard of, trying to be… I don't know exactly what.

What I did find, though, is that my kids absolutely loved it. In fact, they still do. Despite the fact that I look on the game with a certain level of disdain, and I wish they would gain an appreciation for the original Sonic from the retro collection discs I have (and they have played it from time to time), the fact is, they do like this game.

Then came this Sonic Unleashed game, and you could hear the sound of thousands of old-school Sonic fans collectively screaming, "He turns into WHAT?!?" They released a demo on Xbox Live, which was a single level, with Sonic running at high speeds through a very Mediterranean-esque town collecting rings. If the entire game was like that, I would've been thrilled. My kids loved the demo, too. So I ended up buying the game for them, fearing their disappointment when they found out half the game was a much slower fighting game instead of the mach-speed running.

Imagine my surprise when they had almost as much fun beating up on Robotnik bad guys as a werehog as they did at other times.

So back to this interview published by Kotaku. I'm reading this, and suddenly, it all makes sense. If there were two bits that really summed it all up, it would have to be this one from Sega of America's VP Sean Ratcliffe regarding the criticism aimed specifically at the Sonic Unleashed werehog:

"If you read all those things, and we do — maybe not quite every single one, but the vast majority of them — and it's amazing the sort of diatribes you get. But if you sit down with a group of 8, 9, 10 year-old boys, completely different story."
And then this:
Sega's core Sonic target, in fact, isn't those who grew up with Sonic. It's those who are growing up now. "It very much is in that under 12 group," [head of Sega of Europe and America Mike] Hayes said. "And what we have to do is make a Sonic that is of a quality that delights that audience, first and foremost. I'd argue that we very much achieved that with products like Sonic Heroes[…]"

Yes, I'm disappointed in what Sonic is today. But as it turns out, it's more or less according to plan. I'm not the target audience. My kids are. And, as it turns out, they're doing very well hitting their target.

Monday, August 10, 2009

I demand my Games On Disc

Microsoft is rolling out an update to the dashboard, and included in this update is the launch of a new service, called "Games On Demand". It replaces the Xbox Originals program that was available, where you could buy some Xbox 1 games, download them to your hard drive as if they were a (multi-gigabyte) Xbox Arcade game, and play — in fact, all the Xbox Originals games are being moved to this Games On Demand service. What's new is, they are also adding Xbox 360 games to this service. (They are also allowing direct purchases of these games, in real dollar amounts, using a credit card, instead of requiring the purchase of Microsoft Points first.)

It's probably not hard to guess what my opinion of this service is, considering I've complained about trading out physical discs for digital downloads on more than one occasion. Whereas some might find this "convenient" or a "sign of the future" that they can just download and go, I find it a sad harbinger of the further removal of our rights as customers. So far, the games they are releasing on Games On Demand are older games, not current releases, so the level of scrutiny will be a little lower. But I have to wonder how many times it will take for someone to wait several hours for a full DVD to download (when they could have driven to the store, bought it, and returned home in less time, probably — in any case, it certainly won't be quite "on demand", especially compared to, say, Netflix, which goes from "click" to "play" in under a minute) before they give up on the service. How many will find themselves unable to play a retail game when their internet connection drops, because their license information got screwed up in the last repair. How many will suddenly realize they can't trade in this older game. How many will complain when the first bit of retail content is removed from Microsoft's servers due to a licensing issue, and that retail game they bought is no longer available. When will the majority of the consumers realize that this "iTunes model" of digital content is no good here?

I may not have to worry. It looks like Microsoft is trying very hard to shoot this program in its own foot. Gaming blogs are already noticing that the games are way overpriced, compared with the open market on the same games on disc. (They haven't yet reported on the connection, though, that the prices are perfectly inline with their other annoying fact, that the DLC for these games is still on Marketplace, still at its original price.)

Microsoft also continues to provide way undersized and overpriced storage solutions. $150 for 120GB of storage? You can buy hard drives measuring two TERABYTES in size for two thirds the cost. So, users will be more inclined to keep their old 60GB and 20GB hard drives; and if they don't have the disk space for a digital download, it won't happen.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Mass Effect

One of my Christmas gifts was a $15 GameStop gift card, and it just so happened that used copies of Mass Effect were in the $15 bin (since new copies are now retailing for $20).

Mass Effect is a gratuitous sex simulator, where you get to choose between heterosexual or lesbian scenes that you are then able to act out in detail, with full-frontal nudity and…

Whoops, sorry, was channeling Fox News there for a moment.

Mass Effect is an RPG set in a time where humans have recently begun to colonize the galaxy and are taking their place in an alliance of alien races. Your character, Commander Shepard, ends up gaining notice of the ruling council and is enlisted into the elite corps of soldiers, the "Spectres". Your initial mission as a Spectre is to track down a rogue Spectre who is conspiring to bring an ancient race of terrorist warriors to destroy the galaxy, or something like that.

Along the way, you pick up side missions and quests that add players to your party. You can pick two from your retinue to accompany you at any given time. Achievements exist for completing the game using particular people for the majority of the game, requiring replay for all the achievement points.

As referenced above, Mass Effect got some press a year or so ago for their inclusion of a sex scene. General opinions about Fox News aside, this was completely absurd. Why BioWare didn't sue for libel, I don't know, as the reports went from mere exaggeration to outright fabrication. There's no "full frontal nudity", for one thing. For another, it's not a "simulation" in that the player controls it; it's a cutscene, which for someone not familiar with videogames means a prerendered video (or sometimes realtime-rendered by the game engine, as is increasingly common these days with more powerful consoles) that the player can only watch, not control. As far as what's shown, it's no worse than what you'd see on a daytime soap opera. Now, as a relatively conservative Christian, I will say it's probably a little more than I care to see in a videogame (or a daytime television show for that matter), but considering this is part of a Mature-rated game, I don't think it's out of place.

Except for the fact that the whole romance subplot feels out of place. The proponents of Mass Effect's intimacy liked to build up the fact that the "sex scene" isn't just haphazardly thrown in for the sake of having a sex scene — it's the culmination of the romantic interaction you have with the character over the course of the game. However, the lines of dialog that seem to have any basis in romance just seem… forced. I don't know if it's bad writing or if it's Mark Meer's flat delivery of the lines (when I expressed this in the Geezer Gamers forum, others commented that the female Shepard voiced by Jennifer Hale is much more flirty and animated), but it just fails to grab me emotionally. When confronted by a female character who professes the need to talk about our relationship, all I can think is, "Why?" When Shepard says "I feel the same way about you," I can't tell if he's feeling romantic or feeling like heading to the mess hall for a pizza.

The story world is fairly well detailed. Following in Halo's footsteps, books have been released to expand the universe. Authored by the game's lead writer Drew Karpyshyn, they provide an interesting (if optional) expansion on the game's story. At this point, I've only read the prequel novel, Revelation. It's very interesting to see events unfold in the novel that are touched upon in the game. In games, you often have to take your environment and situation for granted, with perhaps the most rudimentary backstory to set it up. Karpyshyn does a great job detailing the backstory and giving it life, making this passing "oh yeah, you're doing this because of some past event" moments in Mass Effect's main quest seem more real. It also adds a little flavor to some of the side quests, as you have a greater understanding as to why a race might behave a certain way and might need help defending against another. (The second book, Ascension, takes place after Mass Effect, so although the audiobook is on my MP3 player, I'm not listening to it until after I complete the game at least once.)

Mass Effect plays a lot like BioWare's previous epic, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. It is primarily an RPG. You spend the majority of your time walking or driving around, talking to people or looking for items. Combat, however, is a little closer to an RTS, although Mass Effect brings it a little closer to even an TPS. You and the selected members of your team have certain strengths and weaknesses, and presumably you pick and choose companions that give your party the right balance for the task at hand. (Or, if you're going for the "complete the majority of the game using character 'X'" achievement, you pick that one every time.) When in battle, you control Shepard in a TPS mode, and your companions start to do their own thing. You can, however, hold the bumpers, and that freezes the action and lets you order yourself or your teammates to use your special biotic powers, switch weapons, move, or attack targets.

One major complaint I have is that every command you give your team is done from your point of view, which means if you can't see the target, you can't order your teammates to hit it. I suppose if you consider that you are Shepard, it makes a little sense. You can tell your companions to be aggressive or defensive in their abilities, and if they see an enemy they will react how they see fit. Still, I definitely prefer the Knights of the Old Republic mechanic a little better, where you could switch off and "become" another member of your party and see what they saw (even if it does take you "out of character").

The missions are your typical RPG fare — explore this planet, carry this message, find these people, and kill any bad guys along the way. If a character implies that a mission must be done "urgently" or "right away", that really means "whenever you decide to get around to it". For me, that means spending a lot of extra time exploring and doing side quests instead of plowing straight down the main storyline. What can I say? When I play a game like this, I like to feel like I've seen everything there is and didn't miss something because I was in too big a hurry to get to the end. Besides, the side quests help buff my character for the main quests, so I'm not outmatched when I come across the next "big boss".

It can be frustrating when you come across a fight that you're not ready for, as it's not always entirely clear what you're ready for and where enemies of various strengths lie. Did I die because my tactics were wrong? Or are these guys just 30 levels above me? Where do I find enemies closer to my level anyway? But a very liberal save system (you can save at any time, as long as you're not in battle) makes it much easier to manage and backtracking less painful — as long as you remember to take advantage of it. And again, if after a couple tries you find that this area of bad guys is not for you until your character has properly leveled up, there's nothing that's forcing you to do that mission right now — you can leave the area without penalty (as far as I've noticed) and come back however long it takes later when you're ready.

BioWare, I feel, did a decent job with scale. The galaxy and the planets you explore all feel very large, but in "reality" they are a lot smaller than they seem, as the number of places you can actually go is very constrained. I did feel a touch disappointed when I realized this, but I've quickly come to appreciate it. I at once feel the vastness of the area I'm in, and yet I feel in control, not lost.

One common complaint that's been the brunt of many a joke on the internet is the loading times. There are a lot of them, and they are long. BioWare tried to make them mildly interesting by making them happen in elevators, and trying to make something happen in those elevators — dialog between characters, or news reports reflecting quests or events you just completed. It adds very little to the game (although I guess if you have to have a loading screen, dialog is better than a progress bar?), and the game is now coded to require this elevator ride of at least a certain duration. So, if you were to, say, install the game to your hard drive, you'd find your time spent on the elevator (especially the one on the ship, the Normandy, that appears to be powered by an overweight hamster in a rusty exercise wheel, and contains no news speaker or talkative companions to pass the time) doesn't decrease at all.

I finally finished the main story (which is why I'm finally getting around to making this blog post live). I definitely enjoyed it, especially when I got my stats up to the point where I was actually halfway decent in a combat situation. I also started a second playthrough (achievements of course), and by restarting the campaign with the same character, you can start off with the same stats and equipment you ended the last game with. I don't know if I'll be able to finish all the achievements in time for Mass Effect 2, but it'll be fun to try. :)

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

DLC - Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

One of the arguments in favor of digital distribution is that you don't have to keep track of a physical medium. There's no disc to lose or get damaged. However, the digital copy is stored on a physical storage device — typically, a magnetic high density storage device ("hard drive" for you laymen). In some cases, you have the option to make a backup to a CD or some other storage medium (which brings you right back to the "disc to lose"), but otherwise, you're at the mercy of the selling company and its continued existence, and any promise they might have of letting you re-download a game you purchased.

One of Xbox Live Arcade's selling points has been that you can do just that — re-download anything you've ever bought at any time. It's one of the reasons they've insisted you don't need anything larger than a 20GB (or 60GB or 120GB) hard drive, because you can always delete something and re-download it later for no charge.

For the most part, that's true. And that may still be Microsoft's intent. But you know what they say about intentions — the road to hell is paved with them.

First, Yaris disappeared. Understandably, no one got very upset. Not only was it a horrible game, it was also free, so no money was lost.

Then went Lost Cities, and now go Double Dragon and SpeedBall 2. These are games people are actually paying for, and now, due to expiring licensing deals or other corporate politics, they are gone. The "delete and re-download" promise is broken. If you don't have a memory card or an unsupported device for extracting (and later re-writing) data for your storage device, you can't make a backup onto a PC or a CD-ROM or other offline storage. Even worse, if your console is repaired or replaced, you can't use the license transfer tool and re-download licenses for content that no longer exists, meaning the one copy you hopefully still have is only good for that one gamertag to play while connected to Live, until that copy fails and/or that account is suspended or terminated. Then, that's it, it's gone forever.

So to what high-profile Arcade game does this need to happen before people take notice? What if Namco Bandai went into bankruptcy or its IP was purchased by another company, which forced its titles, including Pac-Man C.E., to get delisted from the Xbox Live Arcade?

At least in that case, I'd be safe. I could still play it. I have it on the Namco Museum Virtual Arcade. It's a shiny disc that I can put into any Xbox 360 at any time, online or offline, and play it signed in under any account.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection

The last console I owned before I got an Xbox was a Sega Genesis. I got it in high school, and it went with me through all four years of college. The system still lives in my basement. I haven't plugged it in in years, but I have found Genesis emulators and ROMs (for just the cartridges I own, thank you) and played some classics from time to time.

I remember seeing Sonic's Ulitmate Genesis Collection announced a few months ago, and it was exciting news. I never heard its release date (10 February, according to Wikipedia), but I saw it pop up on a friend's gamercard and made a special trip to Best Buy to pick it up.

The collection features 40 games and retails for $30. Not a bad deal, especially considering that the games include some of the megahit classics like Phantasy Star (the entire series, including the first Sega Master System game).

The set of games on this collection and the set that consists of the cartridges gathering dust in my basement have a very small intersection. The Phantasy Star series matches, as do most of the Sonic games (I never played Spinball or 3D Blast, although from what I've heard, I wasn't missing much). But other than the occasional game here or there, that's about it. I guess despite a friend once accusing me of being able to play Sonic the Hedgehog blindfolded, Sonic and I don't have a lot in common in our Genesis game collections.

It's an interesting walk down memory lane, back to an era where the side-scroller and platformer were king. Not only does the collection have the games, but it includes a picture of the cartridge and box art, plus interviews with some of the developers and project managers who worked on the original games. It offers an interesting perspective, especially for me, on a time when I was the excited consumer, to see what drove the producers to make these games.

Of course I have to mention the achievements. They are fairly simple, spread across a large number of the games, with no more than one achievement for any game. Most of them require you to do some very trivial task in the game, so you don't even have to play through very far. Only two or three may require some thought or finding a special trick or YouTube walkthrough.

Some of the games are downright creative, though. Of the games I had never played before, I was really taken by Comix Zone, which takes place in the panels of a comic book. It's just very different than anything I've played before.

Not that games today aren't creative or innovative; it just seems that there's so much focus on technology today, that the creativity sometimes gets lost or masked; whereas it was the 16-bit era when developers' creativity started to blossom with technology that was good enough to expose it, but not so good that it overpowered it.

But maybe that's the geezer in me talking.

Anyway, a lot of good, solid games; nice extras with the interviews and a little blurb about each game; even little things like saving states, customizing controller buttons, sorting games by name/genre/date, and assigning a personal rating. Could've been better to include Live support (friends leaderboards at least; online play probably was way out of scope for the project, even on games that would've made sense for it). Pretty easy 1000 achievement points, too. Probably won't unseat Halo for the most-played game in your 360, but if you don't have a Wii for its Virtual Console and you want to get your hands on a good Sonic game (oh yes, I went there), this'll do nicely.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Namco Museum Virtual Arcade

It may seem a little odd that I'm releasing reviews to games when I can't play games, but actually, this down time is a perfect opportunity to finish up a couple posts that have been neglected while I was playing instead of writing.

According to Wikipedia, Namco has released 17 different compilations under the name Namco Museum. The one for the 360 is the Namco Museum Virtual Arcade. It consists of 34 games, divided into two sections. One is the "Arcade" section, which consists of full versions of nine games available on the Xbox Live Arcade. The other is the "Museum" section, which consists of various arcade and other release games.

Achievement junkies may at first be disappointed to find that there are no achievements for the Museum games at all. However, considering there are 9 Arcade games with the standard 200 points apiece, that does mean this disc has 1800 achievable* points on it, which is quite a deal for a single disc. It's also worth noting that, to purchase these titles on the Xbox Live Arcade separately, it would cost $60's worth in Microsoft Points, while this collection (which includes 25 other games) retails for half that (and dropping).

*Note that "achievable" is used here in more of a theoretical sense; some of these are fairly easy, but some are pretty darn hard.

The classic games are nostalgic and extremely frustrating. Many of these games come from the arcade, which was designed to eat quarters as quickly as possible. Additionally, the 360's analog stick and substandard D-pad were not made for precision, four-direction control, and the games do little to compensate for this. For example, when you push right on the analog stick, you rarely push directly right, but often have some slight Y-component in your direction. The game seems just as interested in your 2% down as it is in your 100% right, and you may find your New Rally-X car taking a sudden turn south when you want it to go east.

Another minor flaw is that the older games don't identify their soundtracks to the system. While one could argue that part of the reason for playing these games is to relive the arcade experience, music and all, when you're playing a game over and over again trying to get that last achievement, the 8-bit music can start to grate, and being unable to mute them or replace them with your own is a bit irritating.

One mitigating factor to the arcade games is that they all seem to be "enhanced" with the ability to start at the last level you completed. There is also some limited ability to tweak the settings to give you more lives per "quarter" or to adjust the rate at which extra lives are awarded. It may not seem like much in a generation where health is something you recover by hiding for a few seconds and lives are essentially infinite, but to someone who grew up with these games, it's entirely expected and in-context.

One thing I found rather disappointing were the "Arrangement" games in the Museum. The Namco Museum release for the original Xbox, which we have (and, fortunately, is compatible with the 360), has Pac-Man, Dig Dug, and Galaga Arrangement, which feature two-players-at-once play and are a lot of fun. The versions on this disc are not the same, as they only allow for a single player at a time. In fact, they are almost completely different games, not just graphically, but in game play as well.

Included in this collection are some newer releases, too. Pac-Man Championship Edition, while probably not quite worthy of making videogame history, is really a lot of fun. I suppose I can pat myself on the back for nailing all 200 achievement points with surprisingly little effort. Galaga Legions, on the other hand, is quite a different beast. A quick summary of my gameplay would be "oh crap I can't see what's going on where are all these enemies coming from what's that thing how do I kill it shoot shoot oh wait, did I die?" So, a lot like Geometry Wars — actually, if you took Geometry Wars and re-skinned it with Galaga designs and sounds, and added copious helpings of blur and light bloom, you'd just about have Galaga Legions. About as stingy with the achievement points, too. Good for a laugh. ;)

Still, for a value collection, it does live up to its name. There's quite a sampling of games, mostly old with a few new ones thrown in. In fact, as I alluded to before, if you were to buy just the Pac-Man C.E. and Galaga Legions games off of Xbox Live Marketplace, you would already match the current open-market retail cost of this entire disc-based collection. Plus, you can trade, loan, borrow, or re-sell this version, and if you end up playing on a different console for whatever reason and you can't connect to Live to authenticate your Gamertag and licenses, you can still play these games. What a concept.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Maybe it's not so elite after all

I got home yesterday, and my kids are playing the Xbox. My son puts in Hot Wheels Beat That, and after the opening video plays and the title page appears, he says, "Why is the Xbox all fuzzy?" Indeed, the picture looked like it was coming over a bad analog broadcast over a pair of misaligned rabbit ears antennae (anyone remember those?). My older son comments how it looks just like the Xiis are displaying on the dashboard, all snowy and semi-transparent, and my wife says it must be some new feature of the dashboard.

Oh, it's a new "feature", all right, I think. Failure in rendering of 3D elements, where 2D elements such as videos and most of the dashboard are fine? Yeah, I've seen this before, right before Xbox #2 started booting up with an E74 error.

My kids play for a while. Most of the game is fine, but the signs with arrows guiding their Hot Wheels cars around the track show the same "snowy" overlay. And when they are finally done and quit to the dashboard, sure enough, the Xii is standing there, fuzzy and see-through, like a hologram on the fritz. I cycle the power, expecting to see a multilingual error message and a single red light. To my surprise, the box actually boots, although the boot animation shows some fuzziness in places. I then power down the box, and we go to have dinner.

Once the kids are in bed, I power on the Xbox, only slightly hopeful that maybe, just maybe, I'll be able to break the shrinkwrap off my Father's Day gift and play Ghostbusters, even if things are slightly "snowy". Alas, it was not meant to be. The lower right quadrant light was flashing red, and the screen displayed "System error, Contact Xbox Customer Support" in various languages, with E 74" displayed prominently at the bottom. Removed the hard drive, tried rebooting — of course, no dice.

I then took the hard drive up to my office and hooked it up to my PC using an X360USB adapter to back up as much data as I could, just in case. I didn't get as much as I would've liked, considering I started late (it took me some time to find a version of Xplorer360 that would read a 120GB drive), I didn't have a lot of free space on my desktop (I still have some home movie files I need to burn on DVD taking up hard drive space), I couldn't easily pick and choose what to back up (the 360 doesn't use easily-recognizable filenames), and I couldn't just select everything and let it fly (not only did I not have enough space, but Xplorer360 copies everything to your system temp directory first, which is on my undersized C: drive, before moving it to your target destination; I couldn't just copy everything to my data drive directly). I ended up just copying the profiles and calling it good before I fell asleep in my chair.

I then took the hard drive back to the 360 and turned it on, just for kicks. It powered on, and oddly enough, everything looked fine. It was after midnight, so I didn't want to start playing at that point, but I took some time to copy all profiles to a memory card and what save games I could (some games don't let you without logging on to the game, and some games don't let you even then). When I was done, I noticed my Xii was looking snowy and transparent again, so the moment truly was fleeting.

This is my fourth failure, and will be my second time going through Microsoft repair, as soon as I can make time to get it done. I suppose it's a good thing I haven't been able to use the license transfer tool to move all my licenses to this console.

Pre-Natal

One of the big darlings of this year's E3 was Microsoft's new motion-sensing and voice-activated technology, code-named Natal. And since this is the 21st century and any idiot with a blog can post their opinion on anything whatsoever, here is this idiot's opinion on Project Natal.

It's a gimmick.

Granted, it's a very cool piece of tech. The ability to track a person's body in three-dimensional space is very cool. And from what I've read, it does compensate beautifully for low light (and even for someone walking in the camera's field of view trying to "distract" it) beautifully.

But is it really "the future of gaming"? Is it really the end of the controller as we know it?

The idea of motion-controlled gaming isn't new, obviously. The Wii has been doing this for a couple years now. And obviously, it's a pretty marketable gimmick — they've sold a few hundred billion of these things. However, the thing I've noticed is, everyone I know who has one, doesn't use it. It's the modern equivalent of a board game — it sits on the shelf collecting dust, except for the couple times a month (or less) that company comes over, when you dust it off and gather around and play. Granted, you have a lot of fun playing; but at the end of the night, it gets put back on the shelf, never to be seen or heard from again until the next party.

Now, my impressions may be skewed by my sample set. The people I know are either "hardcore" gamers (i.e. people who grew up on consoles, who play racers or shooters as a hobby, who have a line item in their budget for games, etc.) or non-gamers (people who don't even spend time playing Peggle in a browser; for whom videogames aren't even an afterthought, but so far beyond thought as to cause them to mistake their game console for a toaster on occasion; but they have a Wii because their family or friends convinced them or it was legally required in their district). I know very few of the in-betweens (the "casual" gamers, those that do spend hours on end playing Peggle from their MySpace pages), and none well enough to know what their console gaming habits might be. These may be the ones who play the Wii day in and day out that I'm missing.

Even so, it really doesn't change the fact that it's my opinion, and my gaming style and habits, and that a Wii doesn't exactly fit.

So what is Natal doing that's different? Well, the biggest difference is, there's no controller. Instead of tracking a single point in space that you're holding, Natal is going to track all of you. So, no remotes flying off their straps, no controllers (theoretically) to lose, and no issues with batteries going dead in the middle of a game or having to calibrate or align with a sensor bar.

So is this going to be good for gaming? Well, as someone who's purchased the Live Vision camera, I haven't seen how. The camera came with a download of Totemball, which you play by moving your arms up and down to control the speed of your left and right side — move forward by raising both arms, turn right by raising your left arm and lowering your right, etc. Assuming for a moment that Natal eliminates the issues with the camera not always tracking your hands properly (and from all reports, it does quite well), playing a game like this is exhausting. There's a reason Totemball has an achievement called "Fit Player" that is described as "Play a level for 20 minutes without resting (or your arms falling off)."

Plus, it just can't possibly work to completely replace a controller. While the marketing video shows an interesting demo of a skateboarding kid doing tricks in front of the camera and having that translated into the game, I'm picturing playing Tony Hawk, where the moves you could do in the game included flipping upside down and doing one-armed handstands. Does that mean if you aren't atheletic enough to do a headstand, you won't be able to play the game? And how is this going to extend to things like Halo or Call of Duty that involves a lot of running and jumping around? Or Street Fighter or Dead or Alive, where your character's fighting moves include acrobatic flips and jumps and unrealistic manoeuvers like turning upside-down and spinning, using your legs like a heliopter to fly across the screen?

What about navigation? Wouldn't it be cool to page through movie and game listings by waving your hand? Again, I think it's going to be more tiring to go through pages of items by crossing your hand back and forth across your body, as opposed to the current method of pressing a button on a controller — a controller which has buttons for moving a single item at a time (the D-pad), moving a page at a time (the bumpers), and to move continuously with minimal effort (holding a button down). While there is a convenience factor to not needing to keep track of a controller or remote, it's much more effort to use for any length of time.

To have the option to interact with the machine without a controller in a pinch, however, is very appealing. I definitely like the idea of being able to use a free hand if I misplace the remote, or if the remote is out of reach and I'm otherwise incapacitated (either due to injury, pure laziness, or feeding/rocking a newborn baby). But that's only if it works, if the convenience of this "backup plan" isn't outweighed by the frustration and fatigue brought on by having to do repeated, exaggerated gestures to positively signal my intent.

Basically, it comes down to throw, or the amount of movement you need to push in order to trigger a reaction in the game. The camera is good, but it cannot rival the millimeters required to depress a button. Scale that movement difference up to hundreds or thousands of repetitions a night, and you can see how tired you'll get how quickly. For that matter, one of the reasons I don't spend as much time with the 360 racing wheel in racing games and just use the controller is because of the throw issue. To make a hard right turn, the difference between turning a wheel ¾ of a turn and pushing a stick an inch to the right is substantial.

And I'm still not convinced it's going to be 100% perfect. To move several pages of items from left to right, you're going to have to pass your hand from the left to the right multiple times, and in between each pass, you need to bring your hand from the right back to the left. Is the camera going to be able to determine the difference between a movement back to the left preparatory to another pass to the right, versus a deliberate movement to the left to push the list backwards?

There's also voice control and recognition. I'm not nearly as confident in this technology as I am in the motion control. My experience with Microsoft's voice recognition has been dubious at best. Will it be perfect by the time Natal is released? I wouldn't get my hopes up.

Facial recognition is another feature that is demonstrated in the video. A person walks up to the console, and Natal recognizes the user and signs them in. This, too, sounds neat, but it makes me wonder how this will work in our family of 5½. Whose face will it scan and log in when we're all sitting in our little family room?

That brings up another concern I have, thinking of my family in particular. How does it constrain input to the correct user? When you have boys who want to cause problems for each other, how do you tell Natal to ignore user A and not user B? It must be possible, as one of the E3 articles I read commented on the presenter walking in front of the reviewer on purpose to demonstrate that Natal, once "locked on" to a player, would focus on that player and ignore the distractions. But how do you tell it who is what?

I freely admit that a lot of this boils down to uncertainty in a real-world environment. "Wait and see," some might say, "and you'll see just how well it works." And that is true. One thing my wife and I agreed on as we watched the videos was that our kids are going to love this. I imagine I'll be getting this close to launch, as long as it's not too expensive. (Priced too high, and I'll be waiting for the software support and peer reviews in other homes first.) At this early preview stage, though, I'd have to say I'm "cautiously pessimistic".

Thursday, June 4, 2009

At least they're reading the headlines

About two months ago, I wrote a blog post about someone whose son was conned into giving up his Live credentials in the empty promise of getting Halo 3's Recon armor. The title of this post was I'll give you Recon if you give me your password, and in the post, I describe how the lure of an in-game treasure is used to swindle a poor gullible soul out of his gamertag and email account. I then say the first rule of security is, "you never, ever give out your password to anybody, no matter how legitimate they claim to be."

Imagine my surprise when I found this message in my Xbox Live inbox this week:

my email addres and password is email <redacted>@yahoo.com password <redacted>666 send me recon buddy

This appears to be a brand new user. The only games on his gamercard are Guitar Hero II and Halo 3, with his first achievement unlocked on 25 May. At the rate he's going, though, I fear he may not have his account much longer.

I like that my blog is getting read, but it'd be nice if, you know, people would read past the title.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Disney's Bolt

Disney's Bolt is based on the movie of the same name. The movie (according to Wikipedia's summary — I haven't watched it yet) is the story of a dog that plays a superhero in a TV show, who is accidentally mailed across country and must make his way back to Hollywood.

Rather than playing out the plot of the movie, instead the developers chose to dive deeper into the TV show fantasy world. You play as both Bolt the super-dog (with his TV show superpowers intact), and as Penny, his owner and the daughter of a kidnapped scientist, as they try to rescue said scientist from the evil super villain.

The gameplay alternates between Penny, who uses sneak and stealth, and Bolt, who pounces on bad guys in a much-simplified hack-n-slash style.

The game is fairly simple. As Bolt, the majority of your play is attacking enemies by jumping up and pressing X and/or Y to attack, repeatedly. Once you hit an enemy enough, a "B" button icon floats over their head, and if you attack with the B button, you will grab onto them and can then press any of the four buttons to do a "finishing move".

As you progress, you'll come across enemies that are resistant to the basic attacks, and you'll have to use one of Bolt's "special powers" to stun or weaken them first. Most of the time, your first encounter with each of these will have a single instance of that enemy and plenty of on-screen tips to help you learn how to defeat them (although one particularly frustrating segment on a train introduced a frisbee-wielding maniac that seemed unstoppable, with no on-screen tips, until I happened to catch a random loading screen tip that gave me a much-needed suggestion for dodging and returning his discs).

The difficulty ramps up by throwing more and tougher enemies at you at a time, which makes the game simple, but rather repetitive.

Penny's segments are much more low-key. With no health bar, one attack means a restart. She has the ability to go invisible, giving her the power of a "sneak attack", and if she is caught, a quick-time-event button press comes to her rescue. Fighting and avoiding enemies is the minority of her tasks, though; she must spend more of her time navigating the terrain. Finding where to go is made easier by an "enhanced vision" mode, which highlights "interesting" paths in yellow.

Penny also occasionally comes across computer terminals, that she "hacks" in a minigame very reminiscent of a few Xbox Live Arcade shooters — left stick moves, right stick fires. Move and destroy everything in a 2D playing field, without getting destroyed yourself, and the terminal is hacked.

It's a very simple game, with very easy to learn controls. Some platforming parts can get frustrating, as can some of Bolt's fighting sequences when the game just wears you down with the repetitive flow of stronger enemies. There is, however, very little consequence for failure, as the game simply restarts (often fairly close to where you were), and you try, try again.

It's also a fairly long game. For a movie tie-in, there's an extraordinary amount of original content (probably having to do with the fact that it's not trying to recreate the movie). There are lots of environments, and the cutscenes and in-game voice acting are pretty well done. The game is fairly well polished. Although there are some areas that are difficult to get through due to questionable environment structure, the game is completely playable with almost no game-breaking bugs or even destructive camera controls. (My son did seem to come across one moment where Bolt somehow got into one of Penny's mission areas, where the only way out was to "suicide", but the game recovered gracefully on the restart.)

Achievement-wise, most of them are straightforward, pretty much unlocking themselves as you play the game. The "Max out health/power/gadget bars" require finding and collecting all the upgrade items along the way — most of those are easy to spot, but if you're not using a walkthrough, it's easy to miss one or two. And there are a couple others that, while they may not be entirely self-evident, are easy enough with either a little planning or a simple guide.

All things considered, it's really not a bad game. It may not be terribly exciting, as the bulk of it is fairly repetitive, but at least it doesn't feel like your typical "movie-to-game" game.