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Game Overview: Rock Band 2, Super Mario RPG VC, Lazy, Dangerous RPG DLC
Aug 22nd, 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.

Rock Band 2

It may technically still be summer, but we’re right on the cusp of the most exciting game season in the year, the Fall release schedule. Did you realize that Rock Band 2, a game I’d say might be the first official big Fall release, comes out on 14 Sept. for the Xbox 360? That’s only tree weeks and a few days away. I can’t believe that one of my most anticipated titles for the year is so close to release, but I’m also a bit disappointed. Rock Band 2 is coming out a bit too soon. The 360 version is coming a bit early, but the others and the instruments should be coming out either just before or just after the year-old mark for Rock Band. I know it’s not their fault. I know that Guitar Hero: World Tour is the real reason that the game is coming out too soon. I just hope that Harmonix is able to make this release complete enough that they can get by with their actual dream of releasing a music platform sustained by DLC.

While we’re on the topic of music gaming, Sony leadership surprised the video game industry with an announcement of instrument standards. There will no longer be a situation like GH3 and Rock Band on PS3 where people who bought GH3 for a spare guitar were left out to dry while the 360 owners were able to use their GH3 guitars in Rock Band. This is great news, we don’t need a million sets of plastic instruments cluttering up our living rooms.

Super Mario RPG

PAL territories are getting their hands on Super Mario RPG on the Virtual Console this week. This is excellent news for those of us in North America who have been desperately waiting for its VC release. It’s only a matter of time now.

Tales of Vesperia

As reported by Kotaku, Xbox 360 RPG Tales of Vesperia has kind of a dangerous precedent its setting by allowing lazy players to buy experience levels, gold, items, or skills for real-world money. Sure, ToV isn’t an MMO, so this isn’t going to throw the economy off balance, but it just seems a bit strange to go and sell an easier time in your game. I don’t support it at all and I hate monetizing these trivial things that should not be sold.

That’s it for this week’s edition of Game Overview, stay tuned for more video game news over the next week.

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 Special Tuesday Edition: Obsessive 100%
Apr 22nd, 2008 by Dan

If any of you clicked over to Leigh’s post at Sexy Videogameland about obsessively completing games, then you already know where I’m about to go with this post. If you didn’t, here’s yet another link.

Call it a personality disorder, but I have an obsessive need to unlock the full 100% potential for video games that I enjoy. I know what you’re thinking, if he’s gotta include the “enjoy” caveat, it’s not really obsessive then, is it? Let me tell you, that caveat did not come easily. It took years of mental conditioning to be able to realize “Hey, I want to play too many other games to go at this pace on such a crummy game…” Once I did finally realize that forcing myself to 100% complete a game that, honestly, wasn’t worth it, I’m was able to log off of Gamefaqs and get onto another game that will eat up my time. You see, since I’m a university student, I do have more time to play than 9-5ers, but I don’t have as much time as when I was in high school because of classes, exams, homework, and trying to maintain a social life (kids, stay away from World of Warcraft).

Where do I draw the line? Mainly wherever it’s going to just take too much time to be worth it. I loved Final Fantasy X, but when the game asked me to dodge lightning something like one hundred times in a row to get an ultimate weapon, I said screw it. My party was tough enough that I wouldn’t need that one ultimate weapon just to kill Sin. If it wasn’t, I would train up and make do. There were other, less time-consumingly stupid sidequests that I could go waste my time on.

The advent of the Gamerscore on Xbox Live! has brought up some really interesting issues too. Before achievement points and worrying about increasing my Gamerscore (I know it’s low, but I don’t have the time to be a real achievement point whore), I honestly never worried about fully completing an action game or a music game. I’ll tell you which achievements I can resist though – Guitar Hero 3’s asininely stupid ones like playing through the career mode on a controller instead of the guitar (really? play through on my controller for ONLY 15 achievement points), winning 500 matches (grind, anyone?), or even playing through a song on expert with the sound settings turned down (no sound in a MUSIC GAME?). The Rock Band achievements are much less idiotic. Fully completing cities, completing career modes, achieving milestones in the World Tour mode, these are all acceptable to me.

My first Xbox 360 JRPG introduced a new dastardly trick to entice me to get full completes on games that don’t deserve it. Lost Odyssey, mind you, is not one of them, but my progress to the end of the game has been halted by the achievement point list that includes optional bosses and leveling up all the characters in my team. It’s definitely brilliant because those side quests, in other RPGs, usually include neat story details about the characters that you wouldn’t see otherwise, they give you sweet weapons and armor, and they also satisfy my need to fully complete an RPG that I love.

Just because I’m able to resist these urges more and more nowadays doesn’t mean I’m fully out of the woods. I was trying to burn through MGS and MGS2 to complete the series before MGS4’s launch in June, but now that I’m on MGS3 and June’s far away, I’ve taken it upon myself to hit up Gamefaqs to find out where all the Kerotans (strange little frog thingies that you have to shoot) are and all the different types of food so that I can get a whole bunch of sweet bonuses after I complete the game. Persona 3: FES launches today, but will be in Gamestop waiting for me tomorrow, and I have no idea what I’m gonna do about all the Social Links. After reading Leigh’s article, I convinced myself that I should just play the game naturally, but then I went and watched the 1UP show and learned that the Social Links that you max out contribute to your ending. How could I not try to max them out and get the best possible ending now?

I will admit that part of my completionist nature comes from the fact that I have a lot of games on my plate and I want to get to them all. If I can beat them all 100% the first time through, then I don’t have to play them again to see the stuff that I missed. People usually ask me about this when they see me browsing Gamefaqs or another walkthrough when playing a video game, either asking “Why don’t you just finish the game if you can?” or “Why are you looking at the guide? Why don’t you figure it out yourself?”

The answer to both has to do with enjoying the storylines of games oftentimes a lot more than the gameplay. If it’s a good game, I want to see as much of it as possible, so I bother with the sidequests to learn more about the characters. Anyone who has ever wandered through the Phoenix Cave in Final Fantasy VI knows how incredibly moving (maybe this is just me) it is to see Locke passionately search for the one thing he has heard can save Rachel. Most people, I like to think, were moved when (SPOILER ALERT) the Phoenix failed to revive Rachel (/SPOILER ALERT). It’s little touches like this that go to flesh out just why Locke is so committed to protecting Terra and Celes once he meets each woman.

If it’s a bad game, heck, I just want to be done. I don’t care about figuring out the strategy to kill a poorly designed boss with a character I don’t give a damn about. I don’t care about figuring out the proper path through a bland Zelda-ripoff temple. It’s just not satisfying since by that point I’m playing the game only because I like to finish what I start.

Adventure games are the exception to this. I oftentimes love the game, I’m just not willing to try and figure out how I’m supposed to use the chicken with the tree to save the monkey in the swamp. The game type just asks you to think too much like the designer to complete mentally unnatural and unintuitive tasks. Yahtzee makes some good points about Adventure game design in his review of Zachkand Wiki that I totally agree with.

In the end, I guess I’m not that bad about obsessively completing a game, but when the design is just so well-done as to encourage the player to do it, I honestly can’t resist. When you have a screen full of little glass windows to smash open for Super Smash Brothers Brawl, who can resist the urge to just go for the unlockables? Those trophies and stickers are also so cool…

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