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".