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Embedded Reporter: Diablo III
Jun 30th, 2008 by Dan

Deep from the trenches, it’s time for your Monday video feature: Embedded Reporter.

It doesn’t get much bigger than Diablo III. Enjoy!

PC: In Case You Hadn’t Heard, the New World is Being Found Again
Jun 28th, 2008 by Dan

In case you’ve been living under a rock or just don’t really follow PC news, everyone is abuzz about the announcement of Sid Meier’s Civilization IV: Colonization. As many have pointed out, that’s quite the epic title, but I suppose it’s appropriate considering the epic nature of new-world colonization.

Ryan Davis of Giant Bomb posted a great article as an uninitiated player of the series. All I can say on the matter is that I sunk SO MUCH time into the original Colonization that I can’t wait to get my hands on this new game. It’s gonna be…wait for it…legendary.

Game Overview: Current Gen All-Stars
Jun 27th, 2008 by Dan

Insert another credit, because it’s time for your weekly video game news and you’ve just hit the Game Overview screen.

Due to some poor life decisions, I find myself stranded for five weeks without any video games. What’s a guy to do, right? Well, rather than just giving you some of the headlines from the week’s video game news in lieu of what I was planning to be gameplay impressions, reviews, and the like, I’ve instead started a five week “All-Stars” feature. Each week we’re going to look at a video game era and spotlight my top three games from that era. Each of these games will also receive a place setting at the prestigious “Table of Honor” feature that I’m working on. Here’s the weekly plan:

Week 1: 8-bit Console Era
Week 2: 16-bit Console Era
Week 3: Post-16-bit Console Era, Pre-Current Generation
Week 4: Pre-Current Generation PC Games
Week 5: Current Generation

Yeah, the categories are broad, particularly weeks three and four, but it’s how I want to do them, so get off my back!

Wow, we’ve finally made it to the last week of my all-stars feature! Beginning back in November of 2005 with the launch of the Xbox 360, this generation has seen some of the biggest shifts and changes that the industry has ever seen. Again, starting with the 360, consoles finally began to be a match for the PC market with online matchmaking services rivaling the best on the PC drawing gamers to the consoles in droves, depleting the once very robust leader in innovation and technology’s user base. Not a group to sit on its haunches, Valve re-invigorated the PC market with its Steam platform, a release and matchmaking mechanism that has recently started to rival Xbox Live in terms of functionality.

The PS3 launched about a year after the 360, promising much, but struggling to deliver any worthwhile software for a full year after launch. Its online service also leaves much to be desired, with no cross-game integration to help it out, it pales in comparison to XBL, even though it is free.

The greatest shift in gaming has come from the revolutionary Nintendo Wii and the Big N’s “Blue Ocean” strategy. Nintendo, understandably weary of being in last place for the last two generations, decided to take their console in a totally different direction, emphasizing the casual through an accessible control mechanism, affordable system, and lighter gameplay fare. While their strategy has succeeded, selling out systems each and every month and given them a greater install base than the Xbox 360, even with a full year’s delay in launch dates, many a “hardcore” gamer feels like Nintendo has forgotten about them with their new strategy.

The brilliance of this strategy has caused many a developer shift as both Microsoft and Sony attempt to develop motion sensitive controls to mimic the Wii and the huge blockbuster game releases of last gen start to tone down some of their production values in favor of appealing to the mass market. Minigame compilations flood the market as countless companies try to tap into the previously unreachable markets. Most find failure as Nintendo continues to milk dollars out of the Nintendo DS and Wii, causing concern for third party developers on both systems.

While the music gaming phenomenon technically began last generation, both Harmonix and Activision have enjoyed unprecedented success with their Rock Band and Guitar Hero franchises. It seems that music gaming is one of the next big things, with Activision basically saturating the market with GH products and Harmonix releasing track packs every week to expand the already robust playlist of the party-friendly Rock Band.

Yes, the new generation has advanced gaming by leaps and bounds, with the 2007 holiday season being one of the best gaming history has seen in a long time, but the new generation has also drawn new lines; created new schisms. All of a sudden the terms “hardcore” and “casual” have divided a once unified user base. Nintendo’s radical decision to eschew high definition graphics in exchange for cost-effectiveness has split third party developers who now have to choose to develop for the HD systems or the system with the highest rate of ownership, but smallest attach rate (average number of games owned). Many claim that this will be a long one, unlike last generation, since Nintendo has proven that low-tech can still bring innovation and sales. All I know is that it’s still early and it’s still anyone’s ball game. The slow start of the PS3 is turning out to have been a slow boil while the 360 is looking like a flash in the pan as it peters out. Nintendo’s massive onslaught of sales still hasn’t even shown signs of slowing down, baffling everyone who said it was just a fad. I can’t wait to see how it all turns out when the dust settles, but until then, I’ve been enjoying some great games. Let’s take a look:

This first game revolutionized the gaming world last year by proving that a cohesive, well-thought out, well-written, but incredibly short game can top a robust 20 hour experience simply through the power of brilliant game-design, hilarious dialog, and a little bit of cake. Yeah, it’s Portal.

#3 Portal

Many of you know the story of how Portal came to be developed at Valve, but for those of you who don’t, here goes:

Up in Washington there exists a game design school called DigiPen. Since Valve is a Washington-based company as well, they tend to send people to check out the work done by students to find potential new hires and ideas. Cue Narbacular Drop, a project by students that featured the portal jumping gameplay we know and love in Portal. The story goes that someone from Valve saw the brilliant idea, brought them over to Valve headquarters to show Gabe Newell, and Newell hired them all on the spot, which was a brilliant move on his part.

Portal is a shining beacon of game design because it does everything that it sets out to do perfectly. It’s just the right length, has just the right amount of humor, has just the right difficulty curve, etc. Valve takes forever to produce games, we all know this, but Portal proves that our patience is definitely worth something.

There’s not really much else to say about this brilliant game, it has to truly be experienced to be understood as the masterpiece that it really is. Go out and buy it, seriously…it’s only like $20 on Steam

Here’s the ending credits, complete with the super-famous “Still Alive.” DO NOT WATCH IF YOU HAVEN’T BEATEN THE GAME!

International “Still Alive”!:

My #2 game would actually make a better Indiana Jones movie than the abysmally stupid Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It currently tops my most anxiously awaited sequel list based on the promise of another adventure with its hilarious and cool protagonist. Last clue: the PS3-exclusive company that produces these games seems to have an affinity for main characters sharing the same name that starts with ‘N’. These obscure hints may lead you to realize that I’m talking about Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune.

#2 Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune

I bet you didn’t realize that the best action movie of 2007 was actually a video game. Uncharted follows Nathan Drake, supposed descendant of Sir Francis Drake, as he searches for the hidden treasure of El Dorado throughout the South Pacific. Joined by his partner Sully and the requisite sassy reporter Elena (yet another example of a restrained female character design that is STILL cool despite not having huge knockers. Take that sophomoric game designers!) Drake faces off against a plethora of pirates and puzzles as he discovers the dastardly secret of Drake’s fortune.

It sounds pulp-y, but that’s the point. Uncharted is the first time I’ve ever played a video game and thought “Well, this could actually be a movie without very much changing about it at all.” Play it and you’ll get the same impression. Voice acting is superb, the story is pretty cool, there is very real chemistry between characters, and the game just looks beautiful. Along with MGS4, this is one to show off your HDTVs to your friends. (Quick MGS note: I haven’t beaten MGS4, so it’s not eligible for this list).

Gameplay is pretty simple and mostly revolves around third-person shooting coupled with a cover system a la Gears of War. This part does get a little old sometimes as enemies continue to spawn at some points, but it’s well-done enough to not be too tiring. There’s also some platforming tossed in as you explore ruins that feels very satisfying. In fact, a great deal about what makes Drake such a cool protagonist stems from the fluidity of his movements both in combat and exploration. The way that he jumps from ledge to ledge, stumbling as he lands gives you that all important “Yeah, I think I could do that” feeling that makes up a successful everyman protagonist.

If you’ve never even seen Uncharted before, go rent it or buy it or come over my house. I’ll let you try it out.

E3 2007 Trailer;

Gametrailers Review:

And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for, my #1 game of the current generation. My choice may surprise you, but I think that at the end of the day, it has to be number one based on how much time I’ve put into it compared to any other game in my entire library. There’s no good way to hint at it, so I’ll come out and say that my top game of this current generation (so far) is Rock Band.

#1 Rock Band

Rock Band and I had a strangely hostile relationship when I first learned of it. Not being as well-versed in video game news as I am nowadays, back then I had no idea that the original developers of Guitar Hero II were behind RB, I just saw that someone else was trying to make a music game and that it was really, really expensive. As a fake-guitar player, I also didn’t quite see the allure of drums or vocals.

That all changed when I started to see footage of both games and learn about the pedigree of both series. Concerns began to crop up in my mind as GH3 coverage showed the game design to be stagnant, note charts a bit asinine and arbitrarily hard, and art style to be ridiculously ugly. This was also about the same time that I learned of the very ugly breakup between Harmonix and Red Octane and EA/MTV’s partnership with Harmonix. There was an immediate shift at that point where I realized that I was siding with the wrong company and antiquated game design. The music game future lied with Rock Band, its new digital distribution system, and four instruments.

As a quick aside, I actually actively hate Activision and the GH franchise over stupid stunts like this one. There’s no reason why they should have screwed over PS3 GH3 owners who just wanted to be able to use the same guitar peripherals over both games. No one needs as many plastic instruments as Activision is going to force upon us very soon…

Back to Rock Band: it’s yet another one of those casual games meant to open up the market. How does it do this? There’s the simple four-player multiplayer aspect that makes the most sense in this context. Gathering up four friends to play music on fake instruments has turned out to be a tremendously appealing concept. I can honestly only think of one or two of my friends who doesn’t enjoy Rock Band at all. Friends of mine who live thousands of miles away are excited to get some Rock Band in next month when they come to visit. It has that much draw, especially to people who typically don’t game at all, including older gamers (NOT my parents) and women. While being able to shred on expert isn’t about to impress any of the ladyfolk, it’s still a good game to bridge the gap between the gamer and game-hater, since most people who have never played video games can understand music within a few minutes.

The other real innovation in casual gaming is that Rock Band is not as ridiculously hard as Guitar Hero 3. Activision went the totally opposite direction, attempting to create a hardcore experience with note charts that made no sense, but were harder to play. Rock Band’s more intuitive note charts seem way easier by comparison, but they still provide tons of fun and, most importantly, they generally won’t fail an appropriately skilled player during multiplayer play, the main draw of the game. Yeah, Rock Band is a lot less fun solo than with friends (still way fun though), but it’s meant to be played with friends, not alone. I’ve spent countless hours with large groups of friends handing off the guitars, drum sticks, or microphone as we shredded the night away (and probably made our dormmates hate us…bwahaha).

Rock Band is, by and large, the only reason I turn on my Xbox anymore and it gets playtime at least once a week from me as they launch new tracks each and every week. As it introduces me to new, sweet music (Boston being my favorite discovery so far), it’s impossible for me to not rate this as the best thing to happen for me since I started gaming. I’ve always loved music and had some aptitude for it, but never really learned to play anything. RB gives me the freedom to love that music using a medium that is friendlier than actually picking up a guitar (although I do aspire to actually start playing at some point in the near future). Detractors will say, “Why don’t you just play real music?” I will say, “Because I love music, but don’t have the time or money to devote to learning a real instrument right now. Besides, this is fun for me and my friends, so stop being a jerk.”

At the end of the day, isn’t that what really matters with a video game? Aren’t we just supposed to be having fun?

“Margaritaville” Guitar and Drums:

“Rock and Roll Band” (one of my favorites!)

Another funny Rock Band-related PA comic.

And with that, I officially close out the Game Overview All-Stars feature on this blog. I’m sure you readers have pretty different opinions from me, so feel free to let me know what you think. I’m not planning on doing any runner-ups for this generation, but keep an eye out for game reviews in the future receiving the prestigious all-star award.

Remember guys, video games are all about fun. I spend a lot of time gaming, so it’s good to know that there are such fine specimens of gaming to make deep, lasting impressions on me. Keep it up game devs and I’ll keep picking up that controller.

Game Overview: Pre-Current Gen PC All-Star Runner-Up
Jun 26th, 2008 by Dan

Yeah, I know I told you that this would be posted last weekend, but things got a little hectic with my travel plans, so I decided to hold off until the day before the big finale for this one. I know you’re all on the edge of your seats waiting for the announcement, so let’s get right to it.

The final game of this category comes from a dying genre whose brief golden age drove the development of narrative, graphics, and voice acting. Here are some more clues:

1. The recently VERY troubled studio that produced this game used to put out tons of games in this genre, but has since abandoned the genre to produce games based on the very lucrative movie licenses it owns. If you’re sharp, you already know the company and genre I’m referring to at this point.

2. The protagonist of this game has the unique ability to hold his breath for 10 minutes at a time. Astute readers already know the series, but now need better clues to narrow down the game.

3. This picture will help the less savvy readers figure out the series.

4. Final clue: This game essentially retcons the previous games because the original series creator was not at the helm. Hence, the actual secret is still unknown to this day.

Our one and only runner-up in this category is the incredible Lucasarts classic, The Curse of Monkey Island

Runner-up The Curse of Monkey Island

I should clarify a few points before I get into the CMI love, namely regarding the series creator, Ron Gilbert, and the last great Lucasarts adventure game, Grim Fandango. Ron left Lucasarts after Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge along with the other writers of the series, Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman. So, as mentioned before, the remaining team members were more or less forced to retcon and/or disregard story put forth by Gilbert, Schafer, and Grossman to further the plot of their own game. I will openly admit that, despite the awesomeness of CMI, MI2 is actually the best in the series, story and scenario-wise, but that doesn’t mean it should beat CMI on this list, in my opinion.

Also important to mention, to me, is the superb Grim Fandango. Written by the brilliant Tim Schafer, GF is one of the best adventure games I’ve ever played with an epic, funny story, great characters, and an amazing setting but it just doesn’t meet the intangible bar that CMI set, mainly due to the fact that it left less of an impression on me.

CMI just has something about it that will instantly make you love Guybrush Threepwood, so even though it can be beaten in individual categories like the story of MI2 or the setting and plot of GF, CMI is just more fun to play.

No doubt feeling some pressure from the shift in graphical style of the King’s Quest series with their seventh installment, CMI shifted to a cartoony, almost Disney look with its portrayal of Guybrush and the world around him. Gone were pixelated sprites, in were scenes and animations geared toward making you think you were playing a cartoon. If you really think about it, we’ve had cutscenes since the early days of video gaming, but most of those were rendered in-engine (nowadays some series do still render cutscenes in-engine (Half-Life, Metal Gear Solid) as a stylistic choice). CMI featured fully animated cutscenes in a seamlessly integrated art style to the in-engine graphics. Needless to say, it was and, to a degree, still is a beautiful game that makes the player feel like he’s controlling a cartoon, ages before cel-shading would start to become mainstream.

More important to the in-game immersion was the choice of Dominic Armato to voice Guybrush Threepwood. The prior two games were still a little early in the computer game timeline to feature voice acting, but I honestly believe that Gilbert, Schafer, and Grossman would be hard-pressed to find a voice actor better than Dominic Armato to voice the lovable pirate. Say what you will about the direction the series has headed since the loss of the original brains behind the series, but Armato was the best man for the job. His voice just jives with the goofy, inept, clueless, and sarcastic nature of Guybrush so well that it’s hard to skip dialog even the nth time through the game just cause you want to hear him say the same goofy lines the umpteenth time. The rest of the cast is also well-voiced, but Guybrush is the standout role, as he should be.

Plot idiocy aside, the writers for CMI definitely didn’t slack in the humor department, with snappy one-liners filling the game from opening to closing coupled with sight gags, brilliantly written insult swordfights (complete with rhyming!), and the only in-game song that could possibly give “Still Alive” a run for its money. CMI had it all in the days when the adventure game was fresh, fun, and, most importantly, still considered a viable genre. Aside from Telltale games, it seems that no one is interested in adventure games any more. That being said, it’s not like today’s gamers aren’t being tricked into playing them nowadays, between the Phoenix Wright games, Professor Layton and the Curious Village, and Hotel Dusk: Room 215 at least plenty of Nintendo DS gamers are still able to get a small adventure game fix. With Ron Gilbert getting Hothead games to publish DeathSpank, hopefully we’ll see a bit of an increase in other adventure games. Sure would be nice, I miss the genre.

Here’s one of the best in-game songs you will ever see, complete with some Insult Swordfighting:

A little fun at the expense of the KQ series:

There you have it, another era summed up in a few games. I’m not saying that these are the only good games, just that they represent some of the best. Be sure to tune in tomorrow to see my favorite games of the current generation.

Wednesday Morning Quarterback: The Visual Argument for HD
Jun 25th, 2008 by Dan

You’ve probably heard the saying that hindsight is 20/20 on Monday morning, so just imagine how well I can call ‘em two days later on Wednesday. That’s right, it’s time for Wednesday Morning Quarterback, your weekly sports round-up.

This coming Friday will finally bring me back to civilization and cable television, which brings with it the ability to finally watch sporting events reliably on television, a luxury I haven’t been able to enjoy for about four years. More importantly for me, it also brings with it the ability to watch games in High Definition.

I know plenty of people who just don’t get the point of HD. To them there is no real, compelling reason to watch television at a higher resolution. I can think of at least three friends of mine who frequently poke fun at my HD obsession and claim that I’m basically wasting my money obsessing over it. Personally, I think that it takes a certain special something to really make the point of HD stick: sporting events.

Consider my friend Margot, a high def detractor who commonly scoffs at my obsession. We’re both fans of Lost who just started watching this year. Since the entire back catalog of Lost episodes happened to be online, we were both watching episodes off of ABC.com to eventually get up to Season 4. Once I hit Season 3, which was available on Blu-ray, I naturally started renting those discs from Blockbuster. Consider the following: ABC.com claims to broadcast Lost in HD online. Really, it just has a certain high bitrate limited by bandwidth potentially reaching up to 720p. While I think I might have hit full HD on the S1 and S2 episodes once or twice, Margot never even came close since her connection was so bad. Instead, she saw blurry, choppy, un-synched video. One final point: Lost takes place on a deserted island. It’s actually filmed in Hawaii. This results in breathtaking vistas and locales on screen. Margot came over a few times to watch some of S3 in HD and she actually seemed to think it looked quite nice. When I finally asked her “Well? Now do you see the point of High Def?” she disappointingly responded with a “Not really. I’m just glad it’s not choppy.”

What was the point of that rambling story? Not even a beautiful show like Lost can argue the case for HD. Our next case looks at my former roommate Min. He also witnessed Lost on both my computer and the Blu-ray, but while he thought it looked nice, he still wasn’t really convinced. For him the revelation came, as I predicted, through sports. This is the same roommate of mine who is thoroughly ambivalent to sports in general, yet, for some reason, watching the Celtics in the NBA championships did it for him. One day he was watching a game that the landlord forgot to turn on in HD. He told me that he was thinking “Holy cow, what happened to the broadcast?” When they finally noticed that they needed to swap to the HD broadcast, he finally saw the light with the pronounced on-screen differences.

My brothers-in-arms, as you attempt to convince your significant others or friends that the wave of the future is HD, I implore you to use sporting events as your main argument. It really is your best bet, since action movies will typically fail to convince a good portion of women and sitcoms in HD also tend to have minimal impact.

Feedback: Rx Bandits
Jun 24th, 2008 by Dan

You may recall a post back in the day where I lauded the amazing Live from Bonnaroo 2007 album by Rx Bandits. It only recently occurred to me in my car this weekend while listening to the aforementioned album just why it is so good and why the Bandits are so good in general.

You see, back when I was reading the Wikipedia page for the Bandits albums The Resignation and …And the Battle Begun I noticed an interesting little tidbit:

“Guitars, bass, drums, and some keyboards on this album were all recorded live. Vocals, horns, percussion and additional keyboard parts were then overdubbed. They only allowed themselves a limited number of takes for each parts. Once a take was recorded, it was left as it was, with no post-thought interference.”

So, more or less, the reason why the Bandits sound so good on their live CD is that the songs sound more or less the exact same way they perform them live. Aside from sharper vocals, I’m not really missing out on a bunch of little details like I am in other live CDs from artists who like to really fill out the sound of their CDs. There is also a sense of energy and chaos in the Bandits CDs that I think stems from the limitations they arbitrarily place on themselves to get their takes done well within the boundaries.

Incidentally, I think this is why so many other live CDs disappointed me in the past. Many artists cannot help but be attracted by the allure of post-processing and its ability to modify their songs beyond what is actually humanly possible by the band. What results is a beautiful track (if the artist is good) that I love listening to, but am ultimately disappointed by when played live. I think that more bands should try to tone down and simplify their sounds to go for this more genuine, authentic sound. I think it can only help.

One last note, I’ve discovered that the Rx Bandits will be showing up in Baltimore on tour on 29 July. Count me there, I can’t wait.

Embedded Reporter: Meet the Sniper
Jun 23rd, 2008 by Dan

Deep from the trenches, it’s time for your Monday video feature: Embedded Reporter.

In their continued quest to create the most hilarious videos for each character class in Team Fortress 2, we had the debut of the Meet the Sniper video last week.

What can I say? Valve just oozes brilliance from every pore. If I’m not mistaken, the only classes we have left now are the Spy and Medic and the possibilities for both of those classes should be hilarious. I just love that the new class designs allow for such individual characterization. The new art style was a brilliant idea.

Game Overview: Pre-Current Gen PC All-Stars
Jun 20th, 2008 by Dan

Insert another credit, because it’s time for your weekly video game news and you’ve just hit the Game Overview screen.

Due to some poor life decisions, I find myself stranded for five weeks without any video games. What’s a guy to do, right? Well, rather than just giving you some of the headlines from the week’s video game news in lieu of what I was planning to be gameplay impressions, reviews, and the like, I’ve instead started a five week “All-Stars” feature. Each week we’re going to look at a video game era and spotlight my top three games from that era. Each of these games will also receive a place setting at the prestigious “Table of Honor” feature that I’m working on. Here’s the weekly plan:

Week 1: 8-bit Console Era
Week 2: 16-bit Console Era
Week 3: Post-16-bit Console Era, Pre-Current Generation
Week 4: Pre-Current Generation PC Games
Week 5: Current Generation

Yeah, the categories are broad, particularly weeks three and four, but it’s how I want to do them, so get off my back!

Constant through all these years of transitioning video game consoles has been and always will be the PC games market. Despite all those cries of “The PC market is dead!” I’ll tell you one golden rule about the PC market: It will always exist for as long as people use PCs, which seems like it would be indefinitely, the way that technology is going. I will concede that the PC gaming market is not in its golden years like it once was. The reasons for this are many, including more powerful home consoles whose games look comparable to PC games, the advent of the laptop, and the general weakness of any non-gaming rig due to lame motherboard graphics processing power.

However, despite these issues, the PC has always managed to produce great games and it will always continue to do so for the foreseeable future, simply because the markets have not converged enough yet. In fact, the four PC games that I will be talking about in this generation are all mostly games that either just plain don’t work well on consoles or just plain control better on the PC.

One final note before we begin, X-COM: UFO Defense will not be appearing on my list, even though it’s a staple of top PC lists everywhere. The simple reason: I’ve never played it. Maybe one of these days it’ll be on Steam or something and I’ll get a chance, but for now I have no idea how it plays. Also on the never played list: Fallout and Baldur’s Gate. These games might be so awesome they replace what’s on my list, but I don’t know any better at this point.

The first game we’ll be looking at today is one of the most popular games in the entire world. This game is so popular that an entire country more or less enjoys it as a national past time, complete with comedy routines that revolve completely around mimicking in-game sounds. It’s the game that’s sweeping Seoul and supposedly getting a sequel this year, StarCraft.

#3 StarCraft

I still remember the first time I tried to play StarCraft. Note that I said tried…

We ran a pretty pathetic rig back in those days. I’m sure it was decent at some point, but our 90 MHz (seriously!) junker couldn’t quite run anything! StarCraft installed and I even managed to get it to boot, but playing it…well it ran at a snail’s pace. I even remember trying to play it with my friend Tony over the Internet on our 14.4 modem (I know…). Needless to say, I never quite got around to beating StarCraft back then, but once we updated to a 1 GHz computer (holy cow! an order of magnitude better than our “100 MHz” machine!) I was finally able to experience Blizzard’s masterpiece.

Blizzard may have started their RTS days making Warcraft games, refining mechanics and storytelling ability with their Tolkien rip-off world, but they really came into their element once they took it into outer space. The single-player campaign tells the brilliant story of the Protoss, Terran, and Zerg as they all jockeyed for control of the known galaxy. Whether you were controlling Jim Raynor for the Terrans, working with the heretic Zeratul of the Protoss, or the converted Queen of Blades, Sarah Kerrigan, for the Zerg, you always felt like things were plenty cinematic (even though briefings were just talking heads) as the plot twisted and turned. As far as I’m concerned, StarCraft was really the only real original story that Blizzard was able to tell. Warcraft III borrows heavily from SC (come on…Arthas becoming Undead totally mirrors Kerrigan! Don’t even get me started on how the Protoss and Night Elves are nearly identical…), as it well should, since the betrayals and battles make for a very compelling storyline. Trust me when I say that the game that launched ten years ago was a masterpiece whose continuation I cannot wait to see later this year (hopefully!).

As far as gameplay goes, SC goes far beyond what most other RTS designers were doing at the time. Sure, most RTS games, Warcraft included, had multiple factions that the player could control, but rarely did these factions vary in essential gameplay concepts. They all had comparable infantry units or heavy units that had more or less identical firepower to each other. In fact, a lot of the time, the faction choices basically just represented which art style you preferred most and had little to no impact on gameplay. The three races in StarCraft absolutely bucked this trend. If you played as the Terrans you were required to play a fundamentally different game than the Protoss or Zerg were playing. The magic that made SC so special was that you basically had three games packed into one neat little package.

Even with these great innovations, everyone knows that SC has survived this long for one reason alone: competitive online play. Blizzard was wising up to Internet gaming not too long before SC’s launch, so it was no surprise that StarCraft launched fully capable of online competition via the awesomely free Battle.net matchmaking service. Sure, people had direct connected through phone lines to play RTS games before, but this was unprecedented. Now you could just log on and see who else in the country was on and just go up against their army. It took great study and care to actually be competitive in the online SC community, but B.net was a great idea by a company devoted to high quality releases.

I think the only thing I have to say to really make this sink in is that you can make a living in S. Korea just by being a professional StarCraft player. I rest my case.

Blizzard was also really great with cinematics, even way back in the day. Check out the opening to SC: Brood War:

The next game on the list has been a favorite of mine since I was in grade school. Granted, the version I will be featuring today is the latest iteration (beat the release of the current generation by about a month), but that’s only because the latest version has come back and shown us how truly amazing the series is. There’s nothing like a game that will have you awake at 0500 with the sun streaming through your windows as you tell yourself, “Damn, I gotta go to sleep…I’ll get on that after this next turn…” That’s right, I’m talking about Civilization IV.

#2 Sid Meier’s Civilization IV

If you’ve never played a game in the Civilization series, then you don’t know the meaning of gameplay addiction. I’ve played many games until ungodly hours of the morning, but the game series that has made for the most red-eyed, bleary mornings has got to be Civ. If it weren’t for Civilization IV, the best of the series would have been the sophomore outing, Civilization II. Not that III was no good, but it just kept too much the same while not making enough different and new, which is, I believe, why IV succeeded so well in the series. It took everything that was bogging down the Civilization series, gave it a quick boot to the head, and came at it from a new, amazing angle.

I have to give great credit to Soren Johnson for reinvigorating what some may have felt to be a stagnant series. Civilization IV benefits from the direction he took it, making multiplayer a focus, getting rid of corruption and civil disobedience, adding great people, removing infinite city sprawl (ICS!), and attempting to diversify combat. Sure, sometimes the game is still slow, you still see unit stacks of doom, despite siege weapon deterrence, and the occasional phalanx might do serious damage to a battleship, but once you start going in and messing around with your own custom governments, you’ll see what an improvement Civ IV is to its predecessors.

A relative rarity for these lists, Civ lacks any story whatsoever other than whatever narrative you happen to create as you play. At the end of the day, you’re fully in control of your empire and more or less in control of how the AI treats you. For example, I know for a fact that Gandhi is secretly a war-mongering bastard. I have experienced his nuclear fury (granted…it was in retaliation for nuking him first, but still…). I’ve also seen the great Julius Caesar reduced to groveling at my feet as my armies marched into Rome (always satisfying) and I cannot emphasize how much of an aggressive, back-stabbing asshole Montezuma is, but these things do not make a game story. Plenty of the games don’t even feature any of these leaders, if you choose them not to. It’s a testament to this game’s character that I am able to have such fond memories of battling AI for world dominance without anyone but my own computer controlling them.

I would tell you to go out right now and buy Civilization IV to experience utterly refined game design and fun, but I don’t want to be held liable for the drastic decline of the rest of your life as you sink countless hours into building up the mighty Persian empire. Just remember that I warned you about this when it’s now 0723 and you’re still saying “Once construction on this wonder completes I’ll save and go to bed.”

Here’s some video of diplomacy gone bad:

A GREAT trailer compilation:

My absolute favorite PC game in pre-current gen era is actually a bit of a surprise to me. If you would have told me before I ever booted up that wonderful piece of software that I would love a first-person shooter. It’s like someone opened the faucet of creativity and poured it on this wonderful game. If this game is still as awesome when it’s 50% depleted, it will still kick more ass than most games on the market today. My favorite PC game (really up to the current gen) of the generations preceding this one is Half-Life 2.

#1 Half-Life 2

Valve is used to revolutionizing the medium. Gordon Freeman’s first quest was game of the year when it launched and Half-Life 2 received similar acclaim. There’s just so much about the game that it just exudes perfection. From the moment the game opens and the G-Man deposits you on the train into City 17, Half-Life 2 just never stops. Every character has inherent life and realism in their actions, the voice acting is superb, and the story just flows so well.

I could ramble on and on about how awesome HL2 is, but instead I’m gonna focus on something that only a few other games in the ENTIRE history of gaming have ever done (Ico’s the only one I can think of, but be sure to add more if I forgot some), add a sidekick that you not only genuinely care about, but is also totally useful, lifelike, and, most importantly, not annoying.

Alyx Vance is, bar none, the greatest character ever created for a video game. Game designers create tons of NPCs, especially female ones. It is so easy to go the cheap route: plenty of T, plenty of A, but, from the get-go, Valve knew they were gonna do something else. Alyx is a pretty girl, mind you, but in a much more restrained, realistic way. She wears normal jeans and has no cleavage, which is, quite frankly, pretty rare in this business (see Naomi Hunter in MGS4 for a blatant example of the opposite). Even so, if you were to go to a Valve message board, you’d most definitely find tons of posters stating how much they love Alyx. How did Valve do that? Quite simply by paying attention to real human emotion and interaction and by hiring amazing voice talent.

Voiced by Merle Dandridge, Alyx is given more than enough life by her voice acting, the way she reacts to situations, the way she urges you forward, and the way she interacts with the other expertly characterized NPCs. When Alyx is scared, you can not only see it in her amazingly animated face, you hear it in her voice. It’s present in abundance, yet it’s also understated. It’s perfect, really. She truly is your companion on your journey (even more so in Episode One).

Half-Life 2 brought life back to PC gaming and the FPS genre for me in such a big way. Never in my wildest dreams as an RPG player would I have imagined that an epic, fun, and good story could be told in that context. It just goes to show you that a masterful game can exist in just about any genre, it just takes talent and like ten years of time and devotion.

Enjoy the haunting opening to HL2 that drew me in right from the get-go:

And that, my devoted readers, is that. Be sure to tune in later this weekend (it may be Sunday instead of Saturday) to see the runner-up for the PC category!

Game Overview: Post 16-Bit, Pre-Current Gen Runner-Up Part 2
Jun 19th, 2008 by Dan

This final runner-up was the smash success sequel to a radical idea from Nintendo that, surprisingly, almost didn’t even see the light of day on US soil. Today we examine the best-selling game on the Gamecube, Super Smash Bros. Melee.

Runner-up: Super Smash Bros. Melee

The idea was so brilliant, I’m surprised no one came up with it earlier. Take the most famous, recognizable characters from Nintendo’s varied franchises and toss them all together in a game where they can pummel the crap out of each other. Melee refines the concepts first introduced in the N64 classic by adding in dodges, another special move, more dynamic stages, and way more characters.

If you don’t quite get why this game belongs on this list, consider the following. Super Smash Bros. Melee was a launch title for the Gamecube, launching on 3 December 2001. The sequel, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, launched 9 March 2008. Over the six and a fourth years that SSBM was out, I can honestly tell you that I played Melee for a significant percent of my multiplayer game time over that span. That’s a game with legs! The game itself was something that I enjoyed playing even beyond the life of the Gamecube.

There are gamers out there who have never played Smash Bros. and there’s also a large number of gamers out there who actually find the series unplayable or don’t believe it to be a legitimate fighter. They may have some sort of a point on the fighter status, but, in my book, I think this is a rather good thing. Take your typical fighter: Virtua Fighter or Soulcalibur. You could spend ages trying to learn all of the moves and intricate engine of the game. Even once you know all these moves, as Yahtzee has said, you’re still prone to losing on a bad day to a button mashing monkey.

OR you can have a relatively simple fighting system like Smash Bros. with four special moves coupled with attacks in all directions on the ground and on the air. That’s the entire moveset for every character. Sure, some moves have slight intricacies to them that take a while to master, but Smash Bros. is a wholly accessible fighting game that totally rocks.

The last thing worth mentioning is the intricate statistics tracking system upgraded from the N64 game (but, sadly, downgraded for Brawl…WHY!!!). Anyone who’s spent any degree of time with me knows that I LOVE gameplay statistics and being able to keep track of all the intricacies of your game time is way cool. My dream, one of these days, is for these statistics to start including vital weights so that when your buddy starts playing on your system, but only has half the gametime you’ve logged, you can actually compare stats in a meaningful way.

The original Smash Bros. had the best commercial, so here it is:

SSBM in 8-Bit:

And that’s that for Post 16, Pre-Current. Tune in tomorrow for the best of the PC (pre-current gen) and the rest of the week for the runner-ups. Don’t forget that next week we’ll finally have the tops of the current gen!

Wednesday Morning Quarterback: 2nd Place Woes
Jun 18th, 2008 by Dan

You’ve probably heard the saying that hindsight is 20/20 on Monday morning, so just imagine how well I can call ‘em two days later on Wednesday. That’s right, it’s time for Wednesday Morning Quarterback, your weekly sports round-up.

Once Florida managed to turn their rough road trip around and take two of three from Philadelphia, we got ourselves tripped up by the stellar Tampa Bay Rays, taking only one win out of the three in that series. Now our hopes of landing in first place lie solely in our ability to trounce the MLB’s worst team, the Seattle Mariners, while the Phillies hopefully lose to one of the best, the Boston Red Sox.

Monday’s game worked properly for the Marlins with a 6-1 win over Seattle, but Philadelphia’s 8-2 drumming of the Red Sox isn’t helping things any. Unfortunately for the Fish, the schedule jumps from relatively easy to unbelievably difficult in a few very short days. Our next opponents are the underrated, yet strong Oakland Athletics, another series (this time at home) against the very good Tampa Bay Rays, followed by our last series against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Baseball being the unpredictable game that it is, we could see the Marlins stay very strong against all of these teams, but we’ll see what happens for the squad on yet another tough group of series.

I should also mention that Andrew Miller is finally turning in some high-quality performances. The past two games he’s pitched he’s allowed only two runs and gone for seven innings both games. Perhaps he might turn into a great pitcher after all…

Other notable baseball news from the past week include the firing of Mets manager Willie Randolph along with two other members of his coaching staff. This is most definitely due to the Mets being tied for third place (of five) in their division and an epic 6.5 games back from the Phillies. The Mets are a high-salaried team and I know that management was expecting a LOT more from the team this year. As NL East rivals, I can’t hope for too much good to come their way, but let’s hope some luck heads their way with the new internal shakeups.

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