Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Hot Wheels: Beat That!

There's really not a lot to be said about Hot Wheels: Beat That! This was a game purchased for one of my kids, who likes playing with Hot Wheels cars, when my wife found it on sale at Toys 'R' Us.

It's a very simple game. Controls are a little loose, but it's not too difficult to stay on course, and in general, in cases when you are blown off course or into a hazard, you are returned to the track quickly. You pick up weapons by driving through rings, and fire them off with a touch of a button. The weapons are fairly simple and traditional, ranging from a missile to a mine to a smokescreen, with a few more interesting weapons, like a shocker, a parachute that slows your target down for a time, and an EMP that destroys the weapons your opponents may be carrying.

Game types include the traditional races to the more goal-oriented "destroy X opponents in Y seconds". Each race, in addition to giving you points (or "flames") for earning first, second, or third place, also gives you two secondary goals, like use a weapon so many times during the race or simply obtain and use a power weapon. The secondary goals also earn you an extra "flame", and the accumulated number of flames unlock more races and better cars from the garage.

Multiplayer is all local, and can be played as a race with (or without) AI, or in a combat mode, where you score points by hitting your opponent with a weapon. Unfortunately, the cars and arenas in multiplayer are unlocked by playing single player, which limits the fun friends and family can have just jumping in to play this game until a single person does the work to unlock everything. (I really hate this requirement.)

The environments vary from a bedroom to an attic to other around-the-house locations. Race tracks include standard Hot Wheels tracks (although wider to allow three or four cars to race side-by-side), household elements (like plastic cups, with the bottom removed, to act as a short tunnel), and the fantastic (puddles of radioactive goo). The raceways can get busy and hard to see at times, however there tend to be a decent supply of arrows guiding you along the correct path at any given time.

All in all, it's not a bad game. The game play is very simple, something that's almost better suited for an arcade game than a retail release. It is worthy of note that, of all the games the kids got for Christmas, this one seems to be spending the majority of the time in the Xbox. It's simple, arcade-style fun.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Nice game you're downloading; shame if something were to happen to it...

I've ranted against the move from physical to downloadable distribution before. It's still a subject that I get very passionate about. I've avoided blogging about it, though, because otherwise I'd turn this into one big "SAVE THE DISCS" blog, and I'd much rather talk about games than stupid stupid marketing decisions, but I came across something that really got my blood boiling again.

This Ars Technica article describes an experience attempting to buy the infamously-DRM-riddled game Spore in downloadable form. In a nutshell, when you purchase and download the game, they maintain a record of this transaction and allow you to redownload the game for reinstallation at any time — for six months. You are given the option to extend this "protection" interval to two years for the price of $6.99. After that (with no option to backup the installation files to a CD), it is gone forever.

As the author points out, this means if you intend on getting a new computer beyond two years from the date of the game's purchase, or if your hard drive ever crashes and needs replacing, you're out of luck as far as the game is concerned.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Digital distribution has never been about customers' "convenience"; it is and has always been about control — seizing control of the distribution, sale, and after-sale. They eliminate manufacturers and shippers and the money paid to them, they eliminate retailers and their cut of the profits, and they eliminate the customers' ability to re-sell their used games on any market. They also eliminate borrowing and renting from the equation (unless people start getting in the habit of lending out their whole PC). Every player of the game must play an individually-purchased copy, with 100% of the profits coming right back to the publisher/distributor (with the savings passed on to their executives' bonuses). Any additional restrictions that might cause a person to have to pay for the same game twice is just icing on that cake.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Banjo Kazooie

As an encouragement for preordering Banjo Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, one could get a free download code for the original Banjo Kazooie for Xbox Live Arcade. This is essentially a port of the old Nintendo 64 game, except the graphic engine has been retooled to take advantage of higher-definition screens and widescreen aspect ratios. The characters are still rather low in the polygon count, but as comparison videos reveal, the result is much sharper and cleaner than one would get simply hooking up an N64 to a modern TV.

This deal was a no-brainer to me. I figured a couple cartoony platforming characters would make a good upcoming Christmas gift for the kids, especially with the game retailing at $40; but when they added the free download for the $15 arcade game, that clinched the deal.

I never played the original Banjo Kazooie on the Nintendo 64 (my brother didn't even get an N64 in the house until after I left for college), so these characters were all new to me. The game is a faithful reproduction of the N64 game, though. In fact, when I got stuck in a couple places and found myself looking for help on the internet, it was a walkthrough of the N64 version that led me to the missing pieces.

Overall, I'd have to say it was a fairly enjoyable game. It is a very simple platforming adventure, with very old-school goals, like "collect all the notes". And it has some of those frustrating elements that older games still used, like the concept of "lives". (Or have we just gotten spoiled by being able to endlessly fail and retry?) There are certainly some frustrating elements, such as twitchy camera control and narrow ledges at great heights that are awfully unforgiving of missteps caused by twitchy camera control. And I never did quite get the hang of the "beak bomb" maneuver. But there were some really classy tricks, too, like the way the music seamlessly changed styles as you walked from one region to another or dove underwater.

I played a little of the Nuts & Bolts demo, and one thing I noticed was that it was really light on character orientation. I don't know if it was removed from the demo or if it's not in the game at all, but it does make me wonder a bit if it's not in Nuts & Bolts at all. Nuts & Bolts (from the demo; haven't played the full game yet) focuses on the vehicles you can build and drive. (In fact, in-game loading text recommends getting Banjo Kazooie from XBLA for classic platforming.) But things that had me fairly confused in the Nuts & Bolts demo (like the mechanics of swimming) became clear when they were introduced while playing Banjo Kazooie. It makes me wonder if Banjo Kazooie isn't just a handy prequel to Nuts & Bolts, but is rather a prerequisite. Time will tell when it comes time for that game to come up in the post-Christmas rotation.…

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Left 4 Dead

I'm not really into the whole "survival-horror" genre. The classic Stephen King movies, Friday the 13th, etc. aren't my kind of thing. I even passed up on the critically-acclaimed game Bioshock, because I played the demo and it kind of creeped me out. So I already had some trepidations about Left 4 Dead when the demo reached Xbox Live Marketplace. However, since the demo was out there, I was willing to give it a try.

This game is very definitely a member of the survival-horror genre. It takes place after some kind of disease has turned most of humanity into killer zombies, referred to as "infected". (Apparently. The game doesn't waste time with silly things like "backstory".) You play as a group of four people who are the only non-infected people in the area, and your goal is to get out.

It is set up to resemble your classic horror movie. You select one of four "episodes", which determines the setting in which you'll play. As you start the episode, you're greeted with a movie poster about the episode. (The game even has a setting for the amount of film grain effect, giving you control of how much movie experience you want.) Each episode is divided into a series of "chapters". The goal is simple: battle your way from one "safe house" to the next. (Each safe house marks the end of a chapter, there being five chapters per episode.) The end of the episode involves summoning a rescue and making a final stand against waves of infected until the rescue vehicle arrives to carry your party to safety.

Game play is ridiculously simple: shoot (just about) anything that moves. The game is controlled by what they call the "director", which decides what to throw at you when. In this way, the game, despite being in the same environment with the same basic play every time, rarely plays exactly the same way twice. One playthrough, you may encounter a horde of zombies in a certain parking deck. The next time, that same parking deck may be eerily quiet. Yet a third time, you may find a "tank" that rips your group apart.

The thing that makes this game very different is the emphasis on teamwork. Certainly, in most games, you can do much better if you work together, but in Left 4 Dead, it is a requirement. Not only does the system reward you for team play, but there are zombie attacks that will incapacitate one of your party that require a second player to save him.

I played through the demo with a couple other Geezer Gamers, and I very quickly saw the appeal. Communication and teamwork in a very fast-paced (unlike traditional zombies, the Left 4 Dead infected move very quickly) and simple setup. Even then, I wasn't sure I had room in my budget for a new game, but when I happened to be the lucky recipient of a Target gift card at a corporate trade show, I decided to use the funds to pick it up.

It has indeed been as much fun as the demo, and more. The campaign can be played solo or co-op — there are always four players, with computer AI managing any players a human does not currently control; and the AI actually does a decent job of sticking with you, watching your back, and rescuing you from incapacitating zombie attacks.

A very nice feature is that it supports complete drop-in, drop-out co-op. If you set it up as such, you can play a campaign and allow your friends to drop in and take control of one of the other survivors at any time. And, if the player leaves, the AI will take control immediately. What's very nice is that the AI will take temporary control — if a player pauses his session for any reason, the game will continue, but his player will be under AI control. It's not only nice in that it keeps the game flowing when life gets in the way for one person, but it's absolutely essential for the game play, because players must stick together and play together to survive, and one player being away from their controller at a crucial moment could literally mean the difference between life and death.

The versus mode is played by choosing from one of the two episodes available (identical to the four campaign episodes — oddly enough, only half of those are playable in the versus mode). One side starts as the survivors, and one side starts as the infected. The survivor players play through a chapter normally, and the infected players spawn as one of the "specialized" infected types (the type is selected randomly each spawn). Points are awarded for how far the survivors get, plus bonus points if they reach the safe house, how much health they had when they got there, and a couple other factors. Then, the sides switch and the chapter is replayed. Each of the other chapters in the episode are then played in turn, twice each. At the end of the match, the points are totaled and a winning side is declared.

Because each chapter is played twice, a versus match can end up being very long. With the switching back and forth, though, you don't notice the time. You just have to be aware that there's a bit of a commitment going into it.

One very compelling feature is the "commentary" mode. In this mode, text bubbles are scattered throughout the level. Walk up to one and activate it, and you'll hear an audio clip from game developers, producers, managers, artists, etc. about various elements in the game, sometimes with models appearing or the camera taken out of your control to illustrate the topic. It is something like a self-guided, walking audio tour of the game. It's truly fascinating. And to let you focus on the tour, in this mode, zombies will completely ignore your character. (Achievements are of course disabled.)

For being a genre I normally avoid, I'm certainly having a lot of fun playing Left 4 Dead with my fellow Geezers. My only concern is, because of its focus on team play, that it could potentially die quickly should the world move on to the next big game. (There are already some nights where the L4D ranks are a little slim compared to those playing Halo 3 or Gears 2.) In the meantime, though, I'm loving it.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Demos are like what now?

Gears of War lead designer "CliffyB" a while ago defended his decision not to release a demo for Gears 2 by telling GamePro:

A beta is like hooking up with a girl just to say, "yeah, I f*cked her." I know that sounds crude, but it's the honest-to-God truth. Once you play a beta, you can check it off your list -- you can say, "yeah, I played it." Then you might not feel motivated to get that initial cherry popping from the proper, final game.

Honestly, we could make a demo, but Gears of War 2 wouldn't be out until February of 2009 [if we did]. That stuff takes times to put together.

Certainly not unexpected coming from this overgrown fratboy.

Hey, "Cliffy", here's another "honest-to-God" perspective for you: demos are like the first date, the time where you meet somebody, get to know them, and decide if it's the kind of person you want to bring home with you and spend some quality time with.

Not everyone's first date is the same as "going all the way", and there's still plenty of magic to be had when you get the full game home, unwrap the disc (with any luck, not slicing your hand in the process of getting that vacuum-wrapped cellophane off), and play the full campaign or all the multiplayer modes for the first time.

Left 4 Dead gave me a demo. I didn't think I would like it, since I normally don't fall for that genre. I played the demo one night. Just one. I now own the game and am loving it. Mirror's Edge gave me a demo. It's just a short training mission. I played it over and over again until I finally bought it for myself for Christmas.

See how that works?

So go ahead and disparage the concept of a demo. Go ahead and whine about how it would be "too hard" or take "too long" to make one. It'll just be $60 I won't be spending — to extend the metaphor — to bring a girl home to bed without having even met her just because you say she's a good lay.

See, that would be "cheap sex".

Friday, November 21, 2008

A Kingdom for Keflings

I used to play a lot of Warlords Battlecry on the PC years ago. I would spend a great deal of time building my cities and armies, often taking hours to complete levels that could conceivably be done in 15 minutes if I would stop building and start fighting. I did at one point play Warcraft III, and I was rather amazed at how it could do so well. The characters were about ten times the size, but they were almost cartoon-like compared to Warlords Battlecry, and the number of unit types and playable sides were pathetic in comparison. I was completely unimpressed, and when I later learned that they were going to create an entire world based on this game, I was dumbfounded. "Who would actually spend time here?" I wondered, bemused. "There's no way something like this will sell."

Yeah. Anyway….

I think the best way to describe A Kingdom for Keflings is, it is very much like Warcraft III (not World of…), but without the "War". You are, pretty much as the title implies, building a kingdom for a race of people called "keflings". You direct the keflings to go and get resources (lumber from trees, rock from quarries, etc.) and bring them back to the workshops. Once these workshops have enough resources stored, you can have them build building parts. Put certain building parts together on the ground in a certain configuration, and you'll have a new building. Of course, to know what parts build what buildings, you have blueprints; and to make things easier, when you have a blueprint selected, the ground will be highlighted where parts need to be placed to complete the selected building.

Instead of a "big metal hand in the sky" for directing the keflings and arranging building parts, though, you play as a giant, someone about four or five times the size of a kefling who walks among them. You can select from one of a few predefined giants, or you can play as your Xii. Ooh, exuberance. It's nice to be able to bring in your predefined avatar; probably even more interesting to play co-op with a friend's personalized Xii as well, but I haven't tried that yet. Probably an irritation about being a giant instead of a disembodied hand is that you are subject to the terrain, in that you can't move through buildings or trees — however, I have yet to be completely prevented from going anywhere, so it's more conjecture than anything. The huge advantage is, you can get involved in the game. If, for instance, you're waiting for more rocks before you can build the final piece to your building, instead of waiting for your keflings to mine it, you can go and mine it yourself (and, being a giant, more quickly and efficiently, too).

Occasionally, the mayor will get your attention and give you quests. So far, these have been really trivial tasks — build so many buildings, stock so many of such-and-such resource in the workshop. The rewards are little things, like love from the keflings ("love" is an item that is used to "activate" a house, bringing more keflings into your kingdom) or items that let you, as the giant, do bigger and better things (move faster, lift more resources at a time, etc.).

Constructing buildings unlocks blueprints for more buildings in a sort of "tech tree". For instance, building the stone cutter's shack, which lets you turn lumps of rock resource into a cut stone resource, unlocks blueprints for buildings whose parts are made of things including cut stone. It's kept fairly simple; in general, if you look at your list of blueprints and keep building the buildings at the bottom of the "tree", you can be pretty sure that it'll unlock the next building, and you'll have what you need to build it (or at least start collecting the resources for it).

It's a very casual game. There are no time limits, no enemies to attack or be attacked by, not even a natural disaster or disease to worry about. All you do is build, build, build. The game does a good job of hand-holding for the first few minutes and gradually letting go. The only real frustration I have is trying to remember, when I'm in the workshop, how many of each part I've already built and how many remain for the building I'm working on (as all parts in the current blueprint are highlighted, it's not a question of which, just how many). And when that's the only frustration (make a mistake and over-build, and you simply have to punch the part until it breaks down, then take the resources back to the workshop and try again), I think it can be said that this is a fairly low-stress game.

All in all, I think it's a pretty good casual game, and being the first Arcade game developed with Xii support (but not the only to support them; when the NXE launched, Uno and a few other games were immediately updated so you could play with Xiis in place of gamerpics), it makes a good entry for their "new and casual" theme Microsoft seems to be targeting with this whole New Xbox Experience.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Experiencing a new Xbox

I got the opportunity to upgrade to the "New Xbox Experience" a few days early. I haven't been entirely certain about this new dashboard, but I figured if I wasn't going to have a choice, I'd rather get in on it sooner than later. At the very least, maybe I could avoid the mass clogging of teh intartubez when everyone else tries to download it at once on the official release day.

I suppose we could start at the beginning, or the first thing that you have to do when you boot up the NXE and sign in, and that is create an Avatar. Are they just copying the Wii's Miis? The resemblance is undeniable (which is why I've dubbed this Xbox verson of the Mii a "Xii"). You are creating a cartoon-like humanoid with an oversized head that represents "you" (or whatever image you wish to project as a gamer). They are much more refined-looking than the Playmobil-like eggheads, though. I did get a chance to create Miis when I visited my mother, and this time around, I felt more like I was creating an actual character and less like I was creating a plastic toy. The customization options are at once more and less flexible than the Miis. You do have a range of face parts to pick from, however you can not fine tune their rotation, position, or dimensions as you can on the Wii. However, you also get to pick clothes for your Xii, something that on a Mii is limited to just shirt color.

I was originally ambivalent about the Xii. my avatar I was amused with Miis, but I didn't really become too attached to them. They were fun to create, but they were just toys. And yet, after booting up the new dashboard for the first time and spending 20 minutes or so creating this little "mini-me", creating a little person to go with the identity behind the gamercard that defines "CyberKnight", I was rather surprised with how attached I was to the little guy. So much so, in fact, that I was disappointed to find out how little he means to the New Xbox Experience.

You see, he only appears in one place: "My Xbox". And he's only there to present your motto when you go past your stats panel. That's it. If you elect to take a picture of him to use as your gamerpic, then that static image of him will appear in various places, too; but the full, animated character, for all his hype and all the rants and raves about him, just doesn't take that big a role.

Now, this is just the beginning. Actually, it's less than that; this is before the beginning. When the NXE officially launches, there are supposed to be four Xbox Live Arcade games that will be retrofit to support Xiis, plus the new retail Scene It? Box Office Smash and arcade Kingdom for Keflings games will support them. But, I'm not sure I want to have to boot up a game of Uno or buy a specific game to spend time with my Xii. And I'm not so sure I want games to start defaulting to using Xiis as character models. They'd be out of place on the stage in Rock Band, I think. They definitely wouldn't be appropriate in Call of Duty, and I'm reasonably sure we don't want to start putting Xiis in COG battle gear to fight locusts in Gears of War. I think a little more proliferation around the dashboard is in order. I'm not saying he has to keep popping up like Clippy ("It looks like you're trying to browse the Marketplace. Can I help?"), but having him show up somewhere besides just the one place would be nice, especially since I spent so much time putting him together.

Avatar created, you now go to the dashboard. It is, of course, very different. I'm sure you've seen pictures, so I won't bother describing it in detail. One thing I did notice when the new system was first demonstrated back at E3 was that not everything was on the screen at once. For example, in the old dashboard, you could see all five blades. You knew Marketplace was to the far left, Xbox Live was next, Games was to its right, Media was beside that, and System was at the far right. However, looking at the main level menu, you can't see everything. You only see four or five entries. And they expanded it, so there are more entries. When you're on an entry, how do you know which way to go to get to the one you want? Without just "knowing" that the My Xbox channel is at the bottom of the menu, you could potentially be scrolling up and down, not knowing if you were getting closer or further from it. (I've seen the extremely non-computer-literate try to navigate a menu when they have no point of reference. They will go back and forth like a ship lost at sea, rather than taking the more logical approach of going all the way one direction, and only when all options are exhausted trying the other way.) It appears they mitigated that a bit by making the menu loop, so you could keep going in one direction and eventually circle through everything, but it's still a little disorienting when you don't have a good point of reference.

The panels within a channel are just as bad. In the demo, the presenter went to the My Xbox channel four or five times, and I never saw his gamercard. I was starting to wonder where it went… until he happened to move left. When you scroll to the right (as apparently he had done off-camera once), items disappear off the left, and there's no indication that something is out there. This was mitigated a bit, too, before I got my hands on it, because whenever you enter a channel, you always are placed at the leftmost panel.

The panels have the same problem of not showing everything, though. Because the panels are so large, only three or four appear on the screen at a time. My Xbox has seven entries (that I can think of off the top of my head). For a new user, if you told them to find the System settings, this could be very difficult. Why? First, they'd have to go to My Xbox. Then, they'd have to scroll all the way to the right to get to the System panel. It doesn't sound hard, but consider that you can't see the System panel when you get to My Xbox. How would a new user know that it's there? They may end up going through each channel and having to scroll all the way to the right (and back, for fear of missing something) until they find the panel they want. Compare this to finding something on the old Blades, like, say, network settings: you see all five blades, and figure "System" is probably the best candidate. (Or maybe you don't make that assumption, and you have to page through each blade.) Once you get to the purple System blade, you can see right there, on the list of menu items, the "Network Settings" entry.

In many ways, it reminds me a lot of my first experiences with Vista. It's a lot of flash and a lot of show, but trying to dig in and find something is very difficult until you finally "just know" where it is. Except that Vista has a search function to help you find things.

Speaking of finding things, let's move on to the Marketplace channels. Instead of viewing text lists of titles, you now see cover art or movie posters. Graphically, this is much more interesting, however it does present an interesting problem. See, covers are not uniform. They are drawn in a variety of styles, with varying artwork or pictures. The titles, too, are in different places, styles, fonts, and sizes. If you don't recognize a movie or game by its cover, it can sometimes be a challenge to find the title, especially on a picture of the cover on the screen. Selecting a panel does often show a one-line text description below, but it is in a small, white font against a pale background, which is not easy to read on my 34" 1080i screen.

Also, browsing through game videos isn't terribly efficient. Go to the game video section, and you may see a few panels, all showing the same game's cover art. Without paging through each one in turn to read the pop-up text, you can't tell which Call of Duty video you're looking at.

There is a new Friends channel, which is where you can see your friends' Xiis (the only place, as far as I can tell). It's very graphic, showing each friend standing beside some structure, shack, or pile of stuff (which, as far as I can tell, is pretty meaningless, except it's based on the dashboard theme you've selected) and a picture of the game they're playing. Presumably, if your friends are in a party, you'll see them grouped together — I haven't seen that as of yet. Unfortunately, it's not terribly useful. You can only see the friend's name when you select them. (Parties, if the preview videos I've seen are still accurate, are worse, as the names are displayed one at a time for a couple seconds each, meaning you can't tell who's in a party with a glance.) And you can only see three or four friends at a time. It's all pretty much eye candy.

Fortunately, the old friends list still exists. The Guide button has been completely revamped to bring up what approximates the old Blades interface. The initial screen in the Guide is more compact, with fewer features presented at once, but it now has blades of its own to the right and left to view more functions. For all my complaints about the dashboard being hard to navigate and see things, the Guide is very familiar and much easier and more streamlined. I'm still getting used to the layout, as not everything is where I expect it to be, but it's a lot easier to flip the blades back and forth to find things. It is also very responsive, displaying and reacting to button presses much faster than the old blades ever did.

About my only real complaint so far with the Guide is that it is in the center of the screen, and when it appears it fades the background process (dashboard or game) very dark, making it very hard to see what's going on back there. This makes it very difficult if you're comparing information from the Guide to the game (like, say, comparing your friends list to your current Halo 3 party to see who's missing), or if you're waiting on something in the game and need to be able to see the game to know when it's time to close the Guide and get back to it.

Well, that, and I'm not too crazy about the color scheme, but that's purely aesthetic.

My favorite feature, though, is being able to install games to the hard drive. I tested this with two games so far: Fable II and Chromehounds. Other sites have already compared loading times for many games, including Fable II, and have documented the decrease. It's often just a few seconds off of a half-minute of time, not much to write about. It is quieter and supposedly decreases wear on the DVD drive, which are bonuses. However, what isn't mentioned as much is the "short loads" — the DVD accesses that occur while the game is playing. You can hear it in things like Fable II when you enter a new area. After the "long load", you are in the new town, and you can start walking almost immediately. However, some things will not have loaded yet. Sometimes people will be invisible until their character models are loaded, or the glowing trail hasn't been drawn yet as it's pulling more information from the DVD (you can hear quite a lot of access of the drive during this time). Quite often, this DVD access will cause a drop in frame rate. Also, when you hit the start button to bring up the menu, the DVD drive spins for a moment, resulting in a slight pause before the menu appears. With the game loaded to the hard drive, the majority of these delays are just gone; and when there is a lot of loading, the frame rate drop isn't there. Chromehounds benefited greatly as well, as not only were long loads noticeably reduced, but short loads (which were often depicted in the game with a spinning "Loading" icon) were almost too short to be seen. I suppose for this, I can be more thankful for the "opportunity" I had to upgrade to an Elite earlier this year.

Like it or not, the New Xbox Experience is coming. I'm not entirely sure I like the new dashboard. They seem to have sacrificed function for style, and I'm not sure that's not going to end up being simply confusing in the end once they get past the "wow, neat" factor and actually try to use the thing. The new Guide, though, is quite useful, and installing things to the hard drive (if you have the space) is a huge bonus.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Fable II

Ok, time for my review of my time in Albion.

Fable II is a pretty casual RPG. The story picks up many years after Fable I. In many ways, it feels like the same old Albion, but after the passage of time, it's definitely bigger.

Because of the sheer size of Albion, it can be a little daunting to figure out where things are. Fortunately, the game tends to lead you along to where you need to go next. When you set a quest destination, a golden trail appears that leads you along the path towards that destination. It's very similar to the footprint trail and the Marauder's Map used in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix game that made it very easy to find your way around what would've otherwise been a castle-sized maze. It's a convenience that lends it to more casual play. Additionally, you can "warp" to any destination you've already been, which makes it a lot less frustrating going back and forth between places that are geographically distant. If you find it too easy, though, you can always turn the trail off; however, the inaccessibility of the in-game map (which is only available via the pause menu and does not offer much in the way of markers or a zoom function) makes attempting to use it almost futile; so it's really a question of use the glowing trail, or nothing.

Combat is very simple to master. You have one melee weapon and one ranged weapon, and one button uses each. There is also one button for casting magic. This is probably the most complicated to set up, and even then it's not too difficult. You have five levels of spell, and what level you cast depends on how long you hold your spell button (a meter shows you what level you're about to cast). The spell that gets cast at each level is something you have to define, based on how many spells you've "purchased" with your experience points. But setting that up is very easy to do (and very easy to change with a really simple menu option). Once you have that set up to your liking, combat becomes fairly routine, as you'll have X, Y, and B for melee, shoot, and cast; all you have to do is decide what you want to do when, and press the button at will.

Clothing is pretty incidental to the game. While it does give you boosts in attractiveness or alignment, which can help you in interacting with NPCs, there is no "armor" component to them. You could effectively fight all your battles in your underwear with no penalty compared to fighting fully dressed. On the one hand, it does take away from the "RPG-ness", in that there's less you can do to build your character to prepare him for battle. However, on the plus side, it does give you the freedom to dress your character and make him look however you want, without having to sacrifice personal style for gameplay function. (Another choice for "casual play".)

Making money is pretty easy. Assuming you didn't abuse the glitch in the Pub Games and transfer in a million gold pieces (which, despite warnings to the contrary, did not result in any negative consequences to your character in Fable II), all you have to do is buy properties (houses, shops, food stalls). Money is automatically collected and deposited into your account in 5-minute increments. As an additional bonus, the game remembers when you played last, and the next time you start the game, it gives you all the money you would've earned if you had the game running in the meantime. (Some have found ways to abuse this by setting their system clock well into the future before starting the game.)

The story is pretty typical. You start as an orphan on the streets with your big sister. You see her killed, and an old blind woman ends up guiding you to become the next hero, destined to stop your sister's murderer from his grander scheme, which is to bring all of Albion under his rule. Along the way, you need to recruit three others who are also of the ancient line of Heroes and bring them together. You have your typical quests, which you can choose for good or for evil, which affects how people react to you and your general appearance. (It does not appear to have a direct impact on the game's storyline, as far as I can tell.) If you just stick to the main quests, you can probably finish the game in a weekend, much like Fable I. However, there is a number of side quests that come up that can substantially lengthen the game.

The multiplayer element leaves a lot to be desired. The way they chose to implement it, a second player can join in at any time. However, that second person joins in as one of a small set of pre-defined henchman, rather than bringing in their full hero. The hosting player chooses how the earned experience and gold is divided between players. Although the henchman doesn't bring much with him, the gold and EXP he earns can go back with him to his hero, so there is something to be gained.

While that is disappointing to those who want to compare heroes and have them fight side-by-side, I can understand it. It solves the problem of having a high-level hero and a low-level hero trying to play together, where one hero is essentially dragging the other.

The biggest disappointment to multiplayer, I found, is the lack of camera control. I guess the idea was to synchronize the experience on both consoles and to encourage (or force) teamwork, or to keep it from being too easy to get separated and lost, by making the camera fixed to both players; however, the henchman already has a quick option to return to the hero's side at the touch of a button. Not like it is really needed, since with the fixed camera, you can only separate by about 20 feet at most. The camera, therefore, only serves to limit your experience to a small window, one that often is pointing the wrong way to show you the direction you want to go (or the direction from which enemies are attacking).

One advantage to multiplayer is the achievements. Any achievement a hero earns in multiplayer is credited to both the hero and his henchman. Unfortunately, it really seems to be the only advantage to multiplayer; at least the only time I've played multiplayer is to earn or give achievements with someone else.

But it has brought out the Santa Claus in me; one of the more difficult achievements is the "Dollcatcher" achievement, as it requires collecting one of each of the five named "hero dolls" in the game. The trick is, the game will only give you one type of them. You may get more than one doll, but it will always be the same name. The only way to collect all five names is to get other people from Xbox Live to give them to you (as long as the game has chosen to give them a doll of a different name). Now, once you have all five dolls, the achievement will pop for you, but you can bring in a henchman and make a quick purchase at a gift shop in the game (which triggers a re-scan of your inventory, identifying that yes, you have all five hero dolls) and pops the achievement for your henchman.

After making some trades with some people in both Geezer Gamers and Achieve 360 Points forums (mostly in trade for the "Completionist" achievement — one that is possible to get on your own, but takes some extra effort, which I managed to do), I managed to get all five hero dolls. So now, I posted an offer in both forums. For nothing more than a message asking for help, I'll bring anyone in to give them the achievement. And since I already had the difficult achievements (I only had one left, which I've since earned on my own), I don't need anything in return. So I get to give away an achievement to a couple communities.

Yes, if you need the achievement, I can hook you up. Just send a message to me over Xbox Live. My gamertag is, well, pretty obvious if you're reading this blog.

All in all, I have really enjoyed this game. Could it be better? Absolutely. There could've been more consequences for your actions. (Good and evil does change how people react to you and your appearance, but it doesn't seem to really change the story.) There could've been more standard RPG elements (like armor, or more weapon choices, perhaps shields, or a requirement to choose between ranged and melee fighting styles with more than just a button press). Co-op could've been much better (a controlled camera, or independent views; ability to bring in your own hero, maybe with bonuses/handicaps to balance with the "host" so one player isn't doing all the work). The ending could've been much more climactic (without spoiling too much, it does end with not a lot of fanfare; although, to be honest, I don't necessarily mind that a game doesn't decide you have to endure a 20-minute boss-fight endgame *cough Halo 2 cough*). It could've been longer, with more main storyline quests (and more side quests even; they did start to get repetitious). But when it came to the end, I felt fairly satisfied. A good story was told, and I was a part of it.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Starting them young

I generally have three problems when it comes to playing the drums in Rock Band. The first is that I'm just not very good. Not much I can do about that, really.

The second is that, when I play on my own, it's after the kids are in bed. Beating on the drums makes a lot of noise, and the 360 is set up in our family room.

I decided to try to muffle my Rock Band drums by taking some self-stick foam and colored felt (something I've seen mentioned on "teh intarwebz"). I haven't yet had a chance to try them out, since I've been spending a lot of time in the land of Albion playing Fable II, but the worst case scenario is that I'll just have to peel the foam and felt back off if the drums don't work.

The third is that, when I try to play, our not-quite-two year old wants to get involved, which means grabbing the drumsticks, beating on the drums while I'm playing. My wife tried to solve this by getting him his own set of "drumsticks" — a set of bamboo knitting needles (as they function about the same and are much cheaper than anything labeled "drumsticks"). Unfortunately, at best, it only means he comes to bang on the drums with his drumsticks while I'm trying to play, which doesn't do me a whole lot of good.

Well, my wife got another idea. Using the leftover colored felt, some sour cream containers, black felt, and a lot of hot glue, she made my son his very own set of Rock Band drums.

Front view Top view Back view

Initial tests are positive — he loved playing with it. Hopefully, it'll keep him distracted when I'm playing my set. We'll find out — whenever I manage to make my way out of Albion.…

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...

Friday, August 29, 2008

Pot calling the Kettle "Racist"

Just a quick update: I got my first vocal idiot complaining about my choice of gamerpic tonight, during a ranked game of Catan. He said, and I quote in entirety:

McCain is a racist! He's going against a black man! Obvious racist!

Yes, obvious, I suppose, if you only look at the color of the candidates' skins.

I'm not sure if the correct action, then, is to let Obama run uncontested because he is black; or if it's just that a white man isn't allowed to run, and the Republicans are required to pick a black candidate just because the Democrats did.

But I didn't bother to ask. Something tells me that such a question would've exceeded this individual's mental capacity.

Xbox Politics

An interesting joint project has MTV's "Rock the Vote" releasing some promotional material over Xbox Live. Apparently, by downloading a gamer picture, you can indicate your desire to register to vote, and Microsoft will provide a way to register. I'm not sure how the logistics of this will all work out, and to be honest, I don't necessarily care, since I've already registered. I've always been a little dubious about the whole "Rock the Vote" campaign anyway. Sure, it promotes awareness and participation in the political process, but it doesn't seem to do much to make people take it seriously.

But anyway, part of the promotion included gamerpics of the frontrunners for the two major political parties: McCain and Obama. Without getting into political details (this is a gaming blog, after all), between the two, I support McCain over Obama. However, I don't choose to identify myself as McCain, so I didn't see the need to download the picture and make it my own. Besides, I know when it comes to identifying people online, I see the gamerpic as part of that identity recognition, and I didn't want to "confuse" other people by changing mine. And, admittedly, another part of the decision was a concern for how the unrestrained masses of Xbox Live would react to a political statement with which I'm sure a non-insignificant number don't agree. (After all, there are two topics that are almost always dangerous on the internet: politics and religion.)

However, after a discussion on, and after noticing people on my friends list downloading these candidate pictures, I decided not only would it be fine, but it might actually be an interesting experiment to see what happens. So, I downloaded the McCain picture and set it as my public-facing gamerpic. (Because I didn't want to include friends in this "experiment", and out of respect for those who may identify me by my BugBash picture, I left my friends-facing picture the same.)

Last night was my first night in Xbox Live matchmaking with my new gamerpic. I decided on Catan, both because of the high-visibility of gamerpics in the game and the fact that I still need the "accumulate x points" achievements.

It's difficult to say what reaction it provoked, if any. The first game I played, one player dropped out immediately, leaving a computer to fill the seat. Even though there was an AI to pick on, and I was behind for much of the game (with the AI and one human battling for the lead), both other humans seemed to take great joy in hitting me with the robber. This didn't last the entire game, though, and, ironically, I was able to come back from behind and win that game.

Right after that game, I ended up in another ranked match with fellow Geezer AylaAtHeart, and we played through that game without any noticeable incident. I did check my reputation during that game to see if the previous gamers left any feedback, but it seemed unchanged.

Ayla and I played, and then we spent some time attempting to coordinate getting into a ranked match with another Geezer, bifercatur. During that process, I did end up having to back out of two games that attempted to start. (I mention this because this kind of behavior is something that, by itself, could be worthy of bad feedback.) We did eventually get into a game, and then we played one more after that which Ayla couldn't get into.

I didn't notice any disproportionately mean play (except for some good-natured ribbing from Ayla and bifer, which I'm reasonably sure was not gamerpic-related since they would see my BugBash pic). I did have more than one string of bad luck, but that was due to bad dice rolls, not players. All in all, for expecting fire and brimstone spewing from my headset, it was fairly anti-climactic.

Although my 360 Blog did report a drop in rep yesterday. I'll have to check that out.

I'll add new posts with this label if anything interesting happens, but for the moment, it doesn't seem that political statements on Xbox Live matter all that much.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Fable and Fable II Pub Games

With Fable II coming out this year, I decided to finally finish Fable. I got it as part of an Ebay auction when I had to replace my old Xbox. It's a pretty good game. The only real glaring issues I had were with camera control (can't look "up" or "down", just rotate around you and zoom in or out on you), target lock (I rarely used it except when trying to shoot my bow or magic from afar, and in the final battle it kept locking on to the minions instead of the main boss), the enemies that would multi-hit faster than my character (may have been a function of me using a slower weapon, although it was described as "light"), and that my character would occasionally swing in the wrong direction (which might have been helped if I used target lock, except when fighting groups of enemies, I didn't want to target a single enemy).

The game suggests you can choose between good and evil. However, I found that it seemed very easy to get on villagers' bad graces without even trying, and difficult to correct mistakes. Towards the end, I had managed to build up a fairly "good" reputation, which happened quite slowly. Women (and some men) would fall in love with me just walking into the room. It was rather amusing. Then, I had a choice of three quests. One was to rescue a bandit spy. That one seemed fishy, so I passed it by. Two involved a bandit execution. One was to free the bandit being executed, and one was to stop the bandits from freeing the one being executed. I thought that the game designers would determine that stopping a killing was the lesser evil, so I chose that option.

Apparently, that was the wrong choice. But here's where it gets very annoying. My stats said I was still positively aligned. I even saw the halo and butterflies around me when I stood still. Yet my face had become darkened, and now villagers cowered in fear. My (in-game) wife wanted nothing to do with me. Even when I tried picking up a simple escort mission, the traveller refused to follow me, instead trembling in fear and running away.

I didn't get any more quests to undo the damage, and even wandering around killing bandits (which did give me "good" points) didn't change anything. I was quite annoyed with the whole thing at that point and just went on with the main quest to finish the game.

Maybe there's some moral point to that, like it's easier to be evil than good or that people believe the worst — but it was a rather disappointing twist to an otherwise good game. The main story (which hopefully didn't change with my errant quest), at least, was interesting.

Moving on. Fable II comes out this fall. As in Fable, you will be able to earn gold by playing games in pubs. To make things interesting, though, the pub games can be downloaded separately as an Xbox Live Arcade title. These games can be played outside of Fable II, and the gold earned in those games is "real" gold earned in the "real" game.

Personally, I think they should be giving away the Pub Games for free as a promotional tool for Fable II. They only "sort of" are — if you pre-order Fable II, you can get a code to download the Pub Games for free. Which I did.

Right away, there's a huge difference in the games between Fable and the Fable II Pub Games. Fable had several games across Albion, and some of them were actually based on skill rather than chance. The Pub Games, of which there are only three, are almost all chance.

The first, Fortune Tower, is a type of card game. Cards are dealt, and you are given the opportunity to collect money based on the total value of cards in a row, or take a chance that the next row dealt will be a better value — the risk being that a card that matches a card from the previous row can end the round and lose your complete bet. I would argue this game takes the most thought, as you have to constantly weigh the risk against the potential reward and decide whether to "press your luck or pass". Still, it is quite possible to completely lose your bet with a deal of only six cards, and while it would seem the odds of this happening should be quite small, it happens with alarming frequency. Fortunately, a small glitch in this particular game allows you to bet the minimum but get credit for betting the maximum, minimizing the risk and maximizing the rewards. As long as this glitch goes unpatched, this game can actually be used to consistently make money.

The second game, Keystone, is essentially roulette, except instead of a spinning wheel, you bet on the outcome of three dice. The third, Spinnerbox, is nothing more than a slot machine, where gameplay consists of pressing the A button.

These games can be extremely frustrating, primarily because you really have no control over the situation. Indeed, the achievements aren't based on doing anything, but on the random chance that something just happens. Example: The "No Stone Unturned" achievement is earned in Keystone when a 3 or 18 is rolled as the first roll in a game. For an hour and a half, I played the first roll of Keystone, cashing out and restarting when the roll failed to come up 3 or 18. It never did.

The tournaments are especially bad, in that it seems the computer opponents are especially favored by Lady Luck. Many times, I have watched helplessly as my minor successes are leapfrogged by the major successes of the AI players. I lost count of how many times I'd win gold and yet drop two or more places in the leaderboard for the tournament, because my winnings were a pittance compared to my opponents'.

If nothing else, this game is a strong reminder of why I don't gamble in real life.

I just hope I can get those final achievements, so I can spend the rest of my time earning gold before Fable II is released...

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

A step in the right direction

I saw a piece of encouraging news today. is reporting that Gears of War 2 will have filter settings for language and violence, so that gamers will be able to turn off the excessive gore and the foul language.

While some bloggers choose to laugh this off as childish or silly, I personally applaud this move. Finally, some choice is being given back to gamers to control the kind of experience they want to have (and expose their families to).

I'm certainly not naïve to think that it turns an 'M'-rated game into a 'T', but at least it gets rid of the over-the-top violence and language that so completely turned me off of Gears 1 with just two minutes of game video.

And as I believe I mentioned before, it's not just about my kids. My kids don't get to play 'M'-rated games — the console is in the family room, so we can monitor its usage, and we use parental controls to help enforce this rule. Also, as a rule, I don't play 'M'-rated games until they've gone to bed. So if it were just about them, the content of an 'M'-rated game wouldn't matter one way or another. It does matter, however, for the simple reason that I just don't like it. Period. So being able to turn some of it off is very appealing.

Does this mean I will run out and put a preorder down for Gears 2 and join the throng that will be battling locusts on "Emergence Day 2"? Eh, no. It's still a pretty violent game. I need to see what these gore settings reduce. If the main character is still running around with a chainsaw graphically ripping bodies in half, even without blood splattering over the screen, will I be comfortable with that?

Ideally, a demo would help me make this decision, but as before, "CliffyB" doesn't think his game needs a demo to sell. (Apparently not to the masses, just to me. :shrug: ) I'll have to wait until I see some hands-on gameplay videos and see what the swear-less, gore-less experience turns out to be, and if it's for me.

But this ability to turn off the excessive junk that doesn't affect game play is a very good thing.

While I would of course prefer the stuff not be there to begin with (Halo never went close to "over the top", nor did Call of Duty, and they both did just fine), I hope future developers that find the need to add language and gore, also have the sense to add the option to turn it off. Gamers like me certainly appreciate it.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Home is where the heart is

Just because I'm an Xbox fanboy doesn't mean I automatically assume anything on other consoles is junk. I take a good, hard look at the pros and cons of each feature, and then I declare it junk. ;)

I've been interested to see where the PlayStation Home feature will go (besides pushed back further and further to an unspecified date in the future). I think it's an interesting idea, trying to capitalize on the popularity of things like Second Life. But just how useful is it? If it were available today on a console that I owned, would I be dying to spend time there? Or would I just see it as getting in the way of my games?

I noticed an article on The Escapist by Susan Arendt, who was treated to a tour of Home at E3 2008. Her conclusion? "I still don't get [it]." From what she described, Home centers around these sponsor-themed areas, which seem to be focused on driving advertising to the players. It does provide a way to meet up with people, play mini-games, get together to launch full games, and so forth. Although personal spaces have been talked about before, Ms. Arendt doesn't mention it in her article. Whether they're still there or not, her report seems to indicate that the focus is on advertising-themed areas. And it all seemed open.

I have to agree with her assessment about "not getting it". I'm not sure it'd be somewhere I'd want to "hang out", either. As it is, I get plenty of "hanging out" in the in-game lobbies of Halo or Call of Duty between games — which is, after all, why I have a game console in the first place, to play games.

So anyway, I just finished a long night of Halo, jumping around from party to party of Geezers, occasionally playing by myself until I found an open party of Geezers, musing about my friends list and how it's filling up again with some new GG members, when suddenly it occurred to me. I suddenly realized exactly what Home should be.

Home should be filled with community-driven sites (houses, buildings, bars, whatever the paradigm is). Perhaps these sites could have memberships, to control the population and protect against "griefers" — how sites are created, who owns them, and who could control who is and is not a member would have to be worked out somehow. Then these spaces would have people who share more than just a passing interest in a particular brand name; they'd have a sense of community, and want to hang out there. Advertising space could still be sold, but it could be open to ads that cater to a much broader demographic than just the "Uncharted Theme House". Give these communities some control over how their house is run, and they'll be more than glad to hang out there.

From my world view: I don't spend a lot of time on the corporate page; I spend my time socializing on the forum. How useful it would be if I could log on to my console, wander into the "Geezer Gamers" house, see who's playing what and who's hanging out waiting to play, and go from there. And if there were bulletin boards where schedules could be posted, or tournament information specific to the house, with an integrated web site for when I wasn't in front of my console...

I think Sony has it backwards. Home shouldn't be advertiser-driven; it should be community-driven.

Of course, now my big hope is that Microsoft sees this, steals the Home idea from Sony and flips it right-way-around for the 360, because that's the console I own. ;)

Monday, July 21, 2008

Crosswords on a console?

Released to Xbox Live Arcade this last week was Coffeetime Crosswords. Because Arcade games have a trial option, I downloaded this to see how it would work. I usually love that feature of Xbox Live Arcade, because it gives me the chance to try out games that I would never risk my hard earned cash on. In this case, though, I'll make an exception. I wish I never even had a chance to try this one.

I already had some doubts about how a crossword puzzle would work with a controller, but it seriously seemed like they tried to make the interface as clumsy as possible.

A few things were done right. You can use the stick to move around the puzzle, or press the triggers to jump from word to word sequentially, and a quick tap of X switches between across and down. Then a tap of A (I think it was A) brings up the letter input wheel.

"Ah ha", I thought. "This is like Shadowrun. Or even that Buku Sudoku game. I just push the stick in the direction of the letter on the wheel I want and..." Bzzt. Wrong. Pushing the stick, you see, moves you around the puzzle. To input letters, you have to use the bumpers to cycle around the wheel until you get to the letter you want, and select it. Only half the letters are visible at a time, so you either cycle around to the "switch" option to switch it from A-M and N-Z, or you press and hold both bumpers for a second or two.

"Well, that's awfully inconvenient," I thought. "Fortunately, I have a chatpad attached to my controller with a full keyboard. I'll just use that to type the letters I want." Bzzt, wrong again. The chatpad is completely not supported. Nothing happens when you type letters.

The time required to enter the answer for "a Hawaiian feast", the short word "LUAU" (which requires flipping the letter wheel back and forth for each letter) — that alone was enough to make me delete this game with prejudice.

I don't think a user interface has ever before made me quite so angry so quickly. I quite nearly felt insulted.

Even if they added keyboard or chatpad support, I'm still not convinced that a console is the best place for a crossword puzzle. Buku Sudoku was, by contrast, pretty well done (although it did expose the flaw in my controller, in that it doesn't recenter itself from a slight drift left — apparently a common problem, and a big issue in navigating the sudoku board), but I still wouldn't play that on a 360 when I have a PC. Even the most basic of freeware is easier to use when you have a full keyboard and mouse. Achievements and Xbox Live can't make up for that.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Wii could care less

My aunt spends a lot of time entertaining her grandkids, so she has a lot of toys at her house, and sometimes she buys (or successfully talks my mother into buying) toys she finds especially "neat" or "fun" for my mother. So while we were visiting my mom and aunt, my kids and I got to spend some time playing with the console whose name I still can't use without my inner child giggling hysterically: the Wii.

My 8-year-old son is at that stage where he wants anything, just because it is remotely "neat" or "fun" or well-advertised on TV. (Case in point: he was trying to convince us how much our lives would be improved by a certain kitchen gadget after he stayed up after his bedtime watching an infomercial the other night.) So when he says he wants one, I have to take this recommendation with a heavy dose of salt. Now, it is true that my boys are spending quite a bit of time playing it, but considering it's really the only thing they have to do while my wife and I help my mother get some of her home improvement projects done while we're here, it's pretty much the default activity.

I suppose it should be noted that my mother is not a gamer, by any stretch of the imagination. So it should come as no surprise that the only games we have available are Wii Sports and Wii Play, and by her own admission, the only reason she has Wii Play is because she wanted a second controller, and for the same price, Wii Play is a controller and a game.

So, what is my general impression of the system and these two games?


There just wasn't anything really exciting. I started to understand comments like "two GameCubes duct-taped together". Actually, I'm more reminded of that scene in Back to the Future 2, where the kids deride the arcade cabinet as being a "baby's toy". Although I did see one instance of what other people have witnessed: my mom, the non-gamer, did actually play, enjoy, and win a game of bowling against me and my son.

The system doesn't really draw me to it, though. I don't want to go and play it, and when I do, the moment is really fleeting. I don't get immersed in the gaming experience like I do playing a 360 game.

As far as the major gimmick, the "Wiimote", I didn't care for it. There is definitely something to be said for a literal "point and click", especially when it comes to aiming. But some things were more difficult. If that sensor bar wasn't right at the front edge of the TV, or if someone walked in front of it, it was rather useless. Not to mention jittery. Although on the one hand, it felt like I had more "instant" control over where I was aiming, on the other hand, it felt like I lacked precision, as I couldn't hold the stupid thing steady with a tripod. And that doesn't even get into trying to maintain precision while using the rest of the buttons (re: the tank game, where one must aim with the Wiimote while moving one's tank with the cross pad and firing with the trigger).

Motion sensing was a little better, although somewhat frustrating. I don't know if it was a function of the game or the Wiimote itself, but it seemed that small movements wouldn't register correctly, so I had to exaggerate. Also, movements had to be "set up". Case in point: I couldn't take a couple practice swings in golf in rapid succession; I had to pull my arms back, pause, wait for my Mii to wind up, and then make my swing. Also, as far as golf was concerned, I had to swing the Wiimote in an arc that was perfectly perpendicular to the ground. If I didn't bend directly over it, thus having my arc at any kind of non-90° angle, it either wouldn't register the swing, or would be extremely unpredictable in the strength it did register (instead of just rather unpredictable, which it was most of the time — why could I make the same practice swing 5 times, have it register at one strength, and make the same swing a sixth time, and have it register at something completely different?).

Although there is something to be said for actually swinging like a bat or tennis racket, those motions — and more especially the motions for bowling, pitching, and golfing — are very tiring (at least for an old guy like me — not so much for my kids at that age).

Unfortunately, neither my mom's nor my aunt's systems are connected to the internet, so I was unable to investigate how that works, which is a shame. How much is missing from the "dashboard"?

I'm sure that this experience is directly related to the discs I had available. What would I think of the Wii in the home of a gamer, where it is well-fed with a healthy diet of new, varied, immersive games, connected to a stable lifeline of internet connectivity?

I don't know, but what I did see, compared with what I already have with the 360, made it really hard for me to care.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Jump, jump, JUMP!!! -- The Fuzion Frenzy announcer explained

Probably one of the most universally hated things about Fuzion Frenzy 2 is the announcer. During the games, he chatters non-stop, saying the same things over and over again; and between games, he does a lot of extra hand-waving and unnecessary talking. Fortunately, the game has the option to turn the announcer's volume down to zero, which is absolutely essential to save one's sanity; but why does this guy exist in the first place?

While on vacation, I got a chance to see G4TV on my grandparents' satellite TV. One of the late night shows was a japanese show where contestants had to do some pretty challenging athletic feats. The host instantly reminded me of the Fuzion Frenzy announcer, with the deliberate hand gestures and overly-dramatic statements. During the competition, an announcer would chatter incessantly about what was going on (although, not being a computer program, he had a more limitless repertoire of phrases). But he did at one point say "Hop! Hop! Jump! Jump!" as a contestant attempted to hop a unicycle across some low platforms. :D

So apparently, as annoying as the Fuzion Frenzy 2 announcer is, he's actually rather authentic as far as japanese game shows go. Now I know. And knowing is half the battle.

He still gets muted, though.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Lego Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures

Traveller's Tales hit upon a winning formula. Take two franchises, mix together with quirky humor, and serve. My kids and I loved playing the Lego Star Wars series, so it was with only the slightest hesitation that I picked up Lego Indiana Jones when it released this week (the uncertainty coming from the fact that my kids have not seen the Indiana Jones movies, and are still probably a little young for them).

If you're familiar with the gameplay of Lego Star Wars, you'll find they haven't strayed from the basic formula: you and a partner (either an AI or a human, drop-in and drop-out at any time) proceed more or less linearly through a level, breaking stuff apart to collect studs, building things, and fighting bad guys. The primary goal is to get through the level, while bonus goals consist of finding hidden treasures, such as the ten pieces of an artifact hidden in each level or the parcel to be mailed back to Barnett College (analogous to the "minikits" and "power bricks" of Lego Star Wars). The game spans the first three movies, with each movie broken into six levels. There are certain classes of characters that have specialties — females can jump higher, researchers can use a book to decode heiroglyphs, etc. Each level has a "Story Mode", where a scripted set of characters are at your control; and once you complete each level's Story Mode, it unlocks "Free Play", where you can transform into different characters on demand. Free Play is required to get some hidden treasures, as you can access different classes' specialties as needed, e.g. be female to jump to a high ledge, become Indiana to use the whip to swing to another platform, and then become a short character to crawl through a small tunnel to reach a hidden artifact piece.

It might be easier to point out the differences between Lego Indiana Jones and Lego Star Wars. The puzzles in Lego Indy are more complex, requiring a lot more problem-solving. In addition to building things up and tearing them down, you also have to pick up and move boxes, find keys, pick up and throw items, repair machinery, and dig up items and treasure from the ground. For the most part, the game does a good job indicating what needs to be done where. When you pick up a box, for example, a white arrow begins flashing at the point where it needs to be placed. Also, when you get reasonably close, the arrow turns blue, telling you it's ok to drop the object, as it will be placed where it needs to go. Trying to perfectly place some object in some location is almost never a problem. If you see some machinery smoking, it's a sure bet you'll need a wrench. Something glowing on the ground will require a shovel, and so on. There are a few occasions where it's not immediately obvious what to do, however, and that can lead to some frustrating moments. A certain boss battle, for instance, that takes place around a plane, had me wandering the field for a good 20 minutes before I finally went online and found that someone discovered the plane can shoot. If the movie scene didn't play out so differently, maybe I would've stopped trying to recreate it.

Although speaking of recreating movie scenes, when you get to the final chapter of the last movie, if you haven't seen the movie, you may have a very hard time. I didn't see any clues to the right answer and had to rely on my movie memory to progress; I wonder how my kids will do there.

Some tasks must be completed by using both characters in concert. In Lego Star Wars, this was usually accomplished by having the player perform some primary function, while the AI does some supporting role to finish it off. Occasionally, that happens in Lego Indy as well, but there are times when you are required to do both actions. You position the first character, and you press Y to switch to the other. Different from Lego Star Wars, it now no longer matters how close or far away you are from your partner; you can switch at any time (just about; opposite sides of very large levels, not so much). The game will prompt you to press Y when this is required, so you don't have to spend too much time wondering. Half of me thinks that makes solving those puzzles too easy, but the other half prefers that to the 20 minutes of wandering around not realizing the plane I kept jumping into and out of can shoot.

Combat can be a little frustrating at times. Many of your enemies will come after you with guns, and by default, none of your characters carry them. Thus, you will have to run at them, taking hits until you get close enough to hit back. The whip is effective, but slow, and only hits one enemy at a time — not so good when you have three or four shooting at you. Fortunately, when you fell an enemy, in most instances you can pick up their weapon; so it is possible to take a gun and open fire on your foes. Ammo is limited, however. Bazooka soldiers are probably the most annoying, as they have a tendency to fire at just the right time to kill you two or three times in a row (the second explosion hitting just as the invincibility time from your first respawn wears off). Fortunately, they don't appear all too often, so the annoyance is temporary.

Overall, the game can feel rather small. Partially, that assessment may have to do with most recently playing Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga, a game that was based on six movies, with six levels in each, expanded to have two stud meters and two sets of minikits per level, plus extra levels, bounty hunter missions, a two-player arcade mode, five hundred characters, two turtle doves, a partridge in a pear tree, and a kitchen sink (plus Indiana Jones as an unlockable character) — I'm sure adding features until they felt it was more than just a bundle of two existing games and worth buying even if you had those other two (hey, it worked for me). However, it's not necessarily a bad thing. Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga was huge, to the point that the 100% achievement felt like a chore. Considering the number of things that had to be done, the number of gold bricks to collect, the number of times you had to play each level to make it happen — in the end, it was just too much. Lego Indy has no "Super Story Mode", no bounty hunter missions, no stud-collection extravaganzas; it just goes back to the basics, keeping the game simple and clean.

Downloadable Content and Forwards-Compatibility

It's just been revealed that Guitar Hero: Aerosmith won't support GH3 DLC. While I think that's a bad move, because it makes GH:A just a niche side-product, it got me thinking (a dangerous pasttime, I know).

We're starting to see the potential of DLC, how it can extend the life and interest of games for a long time. I think EA/Harmonix is the poster child for this. While I may not be interested in what they offer every week in Rock Band, I do keep an eye out to see what they are offering each week.

But how long should we expect this extra investment to carry? Is it reasonable to expect DLC to be forwards-compatible with future versions of the product? (Or new versions to be backwards-compatible with the DLC, however you want to look at it.)

I've seen the comment made (by myself included) that current Rock Band DLC should be compatible with Rock Band 2. But it could be impossible, depending on how different RB2 is from RB1. Just hypothetically speaking, if RB2, say, added a fifth instrument, and you had a five-person band, what would happen if you tried to play a set that included a RB1 song, which only has four instruments? Force one band member to sit out? Unless they re-encode all DLC to be RB2-compatible by adding the fifth instrument, it would be pretty pointless; and that's a lot of work I don't see any company willing to do for free for existing content.

Additionally, why would DLC for a specific game be treated any differently than the included content for that same game? Sure, if the content isn't compatible, I'm going to miss playing Boston's "More Than a Feeling" in RB2, but I'll also miss playing "Foreplay/Long Time". What would I reasonably expect Harmonix to do about that? They'd have to distribute all the RB1 content on the RB2 disc with all the new content, provide some way to hot-swap discs (or use the HD-DVD player to load both discs at once), install the RB1 content to the hard drive, or release the RB1 content as DLC — and that's assuming the content would even be compatible with whatever RB2 does.

I can see why Activision/Neversoft is getting a lot of flak about GH:A, seeing as how what they're releasing is essentially a content pack for an existing game (GH:A hasn't been advertising any big features or innovations over GH3). If Rock Band 2 turns out to be Rock Band 1.5 and has the same lack of compatibility, they'll deserve a lot of heat, too.

I think the reason that some of us hope for more is because the content is a little more personal. This is music many of us have grown up with and enjoyed, to which we have an emotional attachment. Having a chance to actually (pretend to) play those songs we used to just listen to is something we're hesitant to let go of.

But if Rock Band 2 has the innovation, I know I'll buy it. Of course, how much innovation is required to offset losing all the old songs is another question. I know of some must-haves, like online bands (although if you ask me, that should be a patch to the existing Rock Band), but I'm afraid that's more of a case of "I'll know it when I see it".