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Status Report: Gears of War 3 [GO]
Sep 21st, 2011 by Dan

Gears of War 3

(Courtesy csullens)

Hey guys, Gears of War 3 is really good.

I’ve only played the first act in Arcade mode and ~20 waves of the new Horde mode, but it’s awesome.

Arcade Mode

I really like the addition of the score/kill tracking in arcade mode. It makes things extra interesting and adds that nice competitive edge to the cooperative proceedings. I fixed my NAT this morning to allow me to host so that I could pick Mutators too. These are modifiers, like the skulls in Halo, that allows you to change the game subtly. There are two ones available right away: one that forces ammo scavenging instead of allowing ammo drops, and one that makes enemies fire like headless chickens when they die.

I can’t wait until I unlock the Laugh Track. I think that would make Gears even more hilarious to play.

Four player campaigns make a huge difference. Having three other dudes around allows them to make things even more chaotic and crazy awesome. I don’t think you can do four player local, but that would be sick. I want to be able to play this game with Ian and Min

Horde Mode

The new Horde mode has you earning money that you use to upgrade defenses and buy weapons. Guess what, guys? It’s awesome. It’s just so much fun to kill these relentless waves of enemies (thank god it’s not all Tickers like it was for me and Min when we tried it in GoW2) and try to survive. The boss waves every ten rounds are pretty brutal. We had to face two Berserkers in the first boss wave that just decimated us. Our second boss wave at 20 had a Lambent Berserker, which is only vulnerable at certain times. He was tough!

It’s been lots of fun and I can’t wait to play some more when I get home today.

EDIT/ADDITION:

At first I thought I’d be playing multiplayer games as Anya all the time…until I realized that the new character, Samantha Byrne, was voiced by Claudia Black (she played Chloe in Uncharted 2) and was super awesome. New multiplayer avatar selected!

My Brush With Call of Duty [GO]
Jun 6th, 2011 by Dan

cod black ops

So bro, I played this sick game Call of Duty this past weekend and it was totally awesome. There was, like, a free weekend, so I played the multiplayer and I told all my bros, “Hey brahs, put away the beer pong, quit taking bong hits, pop your collar, and let’s get our Call of Duty on!”

Oh man, that’s real tough to shake. I keep lapsing into bro-speak ever since I played the free trial weekend of BLOPS, as I like to call it. Frattiness aside, CoD actually wasn’t that bad. In fact, I’d rather play CoD than Halo and I’d say it’s almost as good or better than Counterstrike.

The crux of what makes CoD so good is its persistent leveling system. It’s shocking how long it took game design to find it, but it’s a dangerously addictive system. See, every match you play and good thing you do in a game unlocks perks, weapons, and other modes. These unlocks end up propelling a player forward and making him want to keep playing. “I’ll quit once I hit level 10” was something I started telling myself about four matches and before I even came close. It kept me playing and interested in unlocking new classes and the ability to make custom classes.

Call of Duty’s other benefit is the relative fragility and realism behind its characters. It’s still a little less realistic than, say, Counterstrike where you can easily go down from two bullets, but it’s up there with realistic military shooters. Halo annoys me because of how sturdy everyone is. Call of Duty almost annoys me with how fragile everyone is, but that just makes me want to play even better. Forget that health auto-regens and you’ve got a system that works great for me.

Will I buy BLOPS? Probably not. It’s too close to the next CoD for me to invest in the game, but I might actually consider getting the next one if I hear that multiplayer remains just as good. Don’t worry, I’ll still be me, even if I get a little fratty…and…totally sick, brah.

(Pink) Masks [Game Overview]
Jan 14th, 2010 by Dan

But none of it is pink...

False Advertising

While running errands the other day I saw a girl wearing a blue pair of sweatpants that had the word “Pink” in large white print on the back. It got me thinking about the discrepancies between who we are and who we tell people we are. I can honestly say that I’ve never met a girl in a bar and opened by saying that I play approximately 20 hours of video games a week or that I run this blog. Instead I’d be far more likely to mention the movies that I like, the music I listen to, or the fact that I love baseball. It’s not really a lie, I’m not proclaiming to be pink when I’m clearly blue, but it’s not being totally honest with myself or the things that I spend most of my days doing.

It comes naturally from experience, since almost every girl I’ve ever dated or been interested in just doesn’t care much about the things that I do, which does call into question whether or not they’re suitable for me. I mean, is it really fair that she wants me to listen to the convoluted soap opera going on between her and her friends or that she wants me to take a real interest in her major or profession, but when I even start to talk about engineering, my job, or a video game I’m met with blank stares or a plain “I don’t care”? I’ve got a friend who tells me that she honestly cannot stand to listen to the things that her significant other talks about. Other girls have actually complimented me because I don’t subject them to the same boring conversations that their boyfriends or husbands would subject them to. Is this even healthy?

To a certain degree I think it’s healthy to have these partitions in place. That old stereotype about men talking about football while the women talk about shopping does play out plenty of times in groups that I’ve been a part of and nobody really worries about that. Men and women simply have different interests and tastes, but that’s not quite what I’m talking about here. I feel sometimes that even if the guys were to talk about video games they’d be way more likely to talk about Halo, Call of Duty, or Madden. Thing is, even if I did play those games, I’d still feel reluctant to talk with them about the topic because I have considerably more hardcore knowledge on the subject.

There’s nothing wrong with being familiar with a player’s career and having intimate knowledge of a team’s history. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who didn’t find it a little strange that you know Derek Jeter’s batting average for every year he’s been in the majors. I guess it’s a question of intensity. When something that you enjoy ceases to be that and becomes something that defines you, people start to frame their viewpoint about you in a different way. If I were to let my love of videogames or comic books or (back in the day) anime define me, I would always find myself pigeonholed into a certain group. Part of my high school life was spent hanging out with people who let these fringe pursuits completely define them and I found myself unhappy with the restrictive social group I found myself a part of. It turned into an us vs. them thing. They were busy loving football and being tools while we were technically ostracized just for liking things that weren’t in the mainstream.

That’s just not how I operate. When the opportunity came up to associate with and hang out around the Diversity Programs folks at Cornell, I opted not to. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with diversity groups or minority clubs, but it always seemed, to me, that these groups that hung out with each other based on unimportant qualities like ethnicity tended to be very insular and, to quote kindergarten, “not play well with others.” I guess the question I’m trying to ask is: does choosing not to let the things that define my personal life define me mean that I’m lying to the world?

I’d like to think it doesn’t and that I’m more versatile this way. By not forcing myself to hang out exclusively with like-minded individuals, I’m able to broaden my horizons and learn about way more topics than I’d otherwise be able to. Plus, I have got friends who are just as passionate about the things I privately am too, so it’s not like I’m not able to talk about the things I love (except baseball…the only person I know who is as passionate about baseball is kind of a tool). The only downside that I can see is that I end up with friend groups who are polar opposites to each other and who might not get along, but integrating friend groups isn’t really necessary for a healthy, happy life anyway.

Since this post is more emo than what I typically allow on this site, let me close by saying that my research has determined that Pink is a label of clothing by Victoria’s Secret.

I'm glad I don't have anyone to whom I'd have to explain why I was browsing the Victoria's Secret website to. I can see the conversation now: Research for my blog! Honest! Well I had to look at the bras too!

Relevant and necessary graphical explanation or desperate traffic-grab?

Dr. Feelgood: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Social Gaming [GO]
Jul 16th, 2009 by Dan

This was a piece I wrote for Gamers With Jobs to try and score a writing gig. They ended up going with two other writers, so I figured I’d post what I wrote here. Enjoy.

It was last month when I realized that something had gone terribly wrong . There were fifteen people in my apartment, maybe a tenth of them lifelong gamers, and they were all here to play video games. Most strange of all: there I was, microphone in hand, belting out “Don’t Stop Believing” in front of my friends. As my voice cracked on the high notes I wondered how I reached this point. Wasn’t I the same guy who refused to go to karaoke bars to avoid singing in public? Weren’t these people the same ones who scoffed at Final Fantasy and Halo?

I still remember what social gaming used to be, back when I was a kid. A mere ten years ago it was some combination of me, my brothers, my cousins, and my buddies all crowded around our tiny television set playing Goldeneye. If we weren’t cackling at our proximity mine craftiness, we were smashing in dunks while setting the net on fire, boom-chaka-laka. There was one constant and it was that we were all boys of various ages playing simulations of things that boys love. Shooting spies, hitting home runs, killing monsters, hand-to-hand combat, all of the social gaming conventions out there catered explicitly to teenage males.

Those times are over. The success of the Nintendo Wii has all but erased the teenage boy stereotype from general gaming. All Nintendo had to do was keep toeing that same party line that dated all the way back the days of the Famicom: make gaming fun and uncomplicated and they will come. In droves, apparently. The Wii went and did what we all thought impossible. All of a sudden grandma was playing. Wives, girlfriends, kids, old men, they were all playing and it was more than socially acceptable, it was cool. I didn’t have to force my girlfriend to pick up a controller, she wanted to come over and play tennis. It’s still kind of crazy, when I think about it.

Ignoring the power of the Wii when considering other social gaming phenomena like Rock Band is naïve, at best, so we must consider that the Wii created the culture of social gaming that enabled the success of Harmonix’s band simulator. After Nintendo convinced everyone that swinging a remote around and pretending it was a golf club was cool, getting them to jam to music they already loved on fake, plastic instruments seemed trivial. So it came to pass that I pre-ordered a copy of Rock Band and threw the first of many Rock Band parties the day it arrived in the mailroom of my dorm.

A former electrical engineering student like myself is easily able to cultivate a large group of friends who love video gaming in general, so rounding up gamers to try out the latest video game was a trivial ordeal for me. The real trick was rounding up the non-gamers. Word of mouth spread slowly at first, but it wasn’t too long before the people who had last played a video game in 1991 started to outnumber those who could recite the Konami Code on command. The moment it should have dawned on me came that January.

I had returned for my final semester, classes had yet to start, and I had rounded up two of my buddies who were similarly in town early to play some of the DLC that had come out over the long winter break. As the three of us rocked out, a very confused face peeked into the open doorway, clearly wondering what all the commotion was all about. Her name was Allison, she was a transfer that semester, and she was super cute.

“You wanna play?” I asked

“I don’t really know how to play…” she protested, clearly not wanting to embarrass herself.

“It’s easy, all you have to do is sing the words.” I was doing my best, but I was losing her. Singing in front of people she hardly knew was not on the agenda for the day.

“Come on, it’s house rules, everyone has to sing. We’ll all go too,” my friend Lee chimed in. We had no house rules, but he was a genius because she picked up the microphone and a friendship was struck up with a pretty girl. It later turned out that Allison had transferred to Cornell to be closer to her boyfriend, but the point was that my gaming that day was social.

I think it’s perfectly fair to say that Rock Band is responsible for me growing out of my shell that last semester at school. My guitar skills developed to an expert level and I soon stopped worrying about failing in front of the weekly attendees of Rock Band night. When I picked up the guitar I started thinking of myself as a performer and I began singing and dancing. Whenever I picked up the microphone and embarrassed myself, I laughed it off and developed confidence in front of my friends. The only thing I feared more than singing in front of people was dancing, but thanks to those parties, I found myself cutting loose on the dance floor more and more, even sans alcohol. Still, the revelation had yet to sink in.

We’re back to last month and I’m belting out “Don’t Stop Believing” on expert, my voice cracking on the high notes. I can’t believe that I’m singing in front of a girl I’m actually trying to impress, that it’s not even crossing my mind to be embarrassed, and that I’m actually passing the song.

A lot of criticism is levied against Nintendo for diluting the player base and creating the hard/softcore schism. After E3, the Wii Vitality Sensor was trumpeted as proof that Nintendo had lost sight of the goal, but, as someone who has grown as a person due to social gaming, I can’t stress enough that they’re among the few who have got it right. Gaming should be allowed to be social too. Who knows, you might end up someone.

-Dan Mesa is just a city boy, born and raised nowhere near south Detroit.

Rhythm Heaven Review [Big N]
Jun 11th, 2009 by Dan

I’ve always harbored this delusion belief that I would be pretty good at music if I ever picked up an instrument. I have no evidence to back this up. Back in the fifth grade when I played the recorder I wasn’t an instant pro and I didn’t pick up the drums in Rock Band without some struggles (I still can’t play expert). I just know two things that give me this notion: 1. I can keep a beat down fairly well and 2. Other people don’t seem to be able to.

Logically, this isn’t what separates Jimi Hendrix from the average Joe who picks up a guitar or we’d have unbelievable musicians coming out of our ears, but it seems to me that the most essential skill behind successful musicianship, rhythm, is in short supply among people I know. It would be a gross oversimplification (that’s 144 times as much oversimplification for those keeping score at home) to even presume that skill on the Rock Band drums translates into real, musical talent, but on the other hand, I find it hard to believe that someone who can’t hold a moderately easy beat on easy or medium difficulty in that game has any musical ability at all.

So now we’re back to me and how I think that the only thing keeping me from being a rock star is actually picking up an instrument, a hypothesis based almost exclusively on my ability to play Rhythm Heaven, it seems. Does that mean that people who can’t manage to play the game can’t play music? I think I’m finding more and more flaws in my argument by the minute…

Former-roommate Min Chen tried his hand at some Rhythm Heaven not long after I picked up the game and the esoteric and heavily Japanese-influenced game seemed to mystify him. This is a man who plays the piano, and pretty well, mind you, who can rock pretty hard on the drums in Rock Band (expert difficulty, thank you very much), but he can’t manage to beat the very first level in Rhythm Heaven. It’s not really all that complicated: you hold the stylus on the bottom screen to cock back the bolt launcher and when the two nuts intersect, you flick the stylus to launch the bolt to connect the nuts. The rhythmic catch to this mini-game is that you’ve got to hit the nuts with precise timing. They come in from opposing ends of the screen playing a scale as they come in: Do Re Mi Fa So. You launch at So. Cake, right? I beat it my first attempt and I think I got a perfect on my third. Not one pass from Min. It makes absolutely no sense to me, because I thought he’d be great at the game.

There’s a reason it’s called Rhythm Heaven, you know. The game supplies visual cues all the time, but in 99% of the games you honestly could close your eyes and still play quite effectively. Some games are actually harder if you’re watching what’s going on just because of how trippy and strange the visuals are. The controls seem intuitive enough, you really only ever have three things to do with the stylus and they’re about as fundamental as can be. You either tap, flick, or hold. It seems like child’s play, but if my boy Min can’t do it, I’m almost reluctant to recommend the game to friends of mine who don’t fall squarely into the gaming category. You know what, I’m gonna just say that practice will help you move past most challenges, meaning that even the most unpracticed of gamers can manage to successfully play this game, with a little bit of practice.

Nintendo is actually really keen to this part of the audience. A quick look at the ad-campaign surrounding this game proves that they are actively targeting the novice gamer for this title. Beyoncé Knowles headlines one ad while 16-year old girls are the focus of one of the others. Here’s the hidden genius behind Nintendo’s design, there exists, within the game, a café that the player can enter at any time to “take a break.” Fail a song three times and you’ll see a little speech bubble hovering out of the café. The owner is beckoning you inside. He’s concerned and he doesn’t know how to say it without offending you, but are you having trouble with the song you keep failing? If you want, he can unlock the next one for you and you don’t have to keep bashing your head against the wall. It’s entirely up to you, of course.

The first time you see this, if you’re a long-time gamer with way too much pride, like I am, you’ll scoff and ignore it. Who does the café guy think he is to tell you that you suck at a game and give you a free pass? You go back to the main menu and attempt to tackle that game some more. You probably beat it. You’re quite happy with yourself for your accomplishment. Screw the café guy for thinking that you couldn’t do this on your own. Later on in the game you’ve failed the same game for a half hour. You’re tired of the garbage that they localized the soundtrack with. You realize that, hey, no one will know if you move onto the next one. It’s not like the game is going to call up your Halo-playing buddies to tell them that you needed help. Just like that, you take the free pass, move onto the next challenge, and you’re having fun again. Just. Like. That.

There’s some serious hypocrisy at play here for me. I’m the same guy who was so annoyed with the ease of Super Mario Galaxy that I wrote a whole blog post about how games were too easy. How can I justify, nay, laud a game for easing games through its challenges. I honestly don’t have a good answer to that question. There’s something about rhythm/music games that annoys me when it comes to failure. I admit that it’s mega-frustrating to play the same level ad infinitum until you can master a specific jump or get its timing just right. Just today I was playing Bubble Bobble Plus! with Eric and he clearly reached the limit to his patience when the remake’s ridiculous level design managed to stonewall us at level 72. He was about ready to quit. If I hadn’t looked up the solution online to the busted game mechanics, we wouldn’t have beat the game’s hundredth level and I would have remained a freakish, bubble-blowing dinosaur. It’s not the fate I wanted.

Digressions aside, imagine playing the same goddamn song over and over and over again. Play it some more to really get to where every note in that song makes you want to hurt someone. This is why I don’t mind easy progression in music games. The genre is about listening to new songs and mastering their challenges, but I think music reaches an annoying threshold a lot faster than missing a jump in Super Mario World. When your content revolves solely on progression to experience it, does it make sense to hold the player’s hand and help him along? I admit that this is a question of game design that far exceeds my expertise, but it is much appreciated in this case.

Well, we’ve hit about 1200 words and I haven’t even really explained the game at all, so I’d say we’re about due. Most websites will tell you that Rhythm Heaven features 50 unique mini-games for you to complete. This is something of a lie. There are actually 51 challenges, but only 24 are unique challenges, 10 are remixes composed of compilations of the other mini-games to different music, one is a playable credit sequence, and 15 are harder versions of past stages. Each unique stage has you using the stylus (and one button in one case) in unique ways to the music to earn a passing grade at the level. The remixes are brilliant combinations of the mini-games, the most fantastic of which sometimes interrupt you and transition to the next game with such fantastic flow that you’re already completing the next task. Some of the later ones will play upon this tendency and do the opposite to trick and cause mistakes.

The stages combine to make for the most fantastically random collection of characters and locations ever seen in a non-WarioWare game. One second you’ll be controlling a dog ninja slicing vegetables, bones, tires, and frying pans, the next you’ll be a DJ messing around with a turntable. Word on the nets is that some of the WarioWare folks were actually behind this game and the strength of their design, which allows randomness to mesh into a surprisingly cohesive experience, truly shines through.

When you’re tired of the rhythm games, there are other rhythm toys, basically ideas that didn’t make the cut, for you to mess around with and that’s about it. Most people’s biggest complaint with this game is just that, there’s not a whole lot of game there when you get right down to it. If you’re the type who wants more than ten hours of relatively shallow game from your portable collection, this isn’t the right title for you. If you love music, love intelligent design (not the kind that opposes evolution, the type that means a fine game), and love fun, well this is the game for you. It will have legs because you love the music or the quirky games and there’s always the pursuit of perfect scores to hold your attention.

There are some issues with the game that mostly revolve around its localization. I understand that you can’t really bring a game like this to the states without translating the Japanese, but for some reason the vocal localization seems way lacking in comparison. Uninspired lame English vocals just don’t hold a candle to the Japanese tracks. I’ve said it before, but the Japanese could totally suck too, but my lack of understanding would prevent me from realizing it sucked. Keep it in Japanese.

I can’t really emphasize how truly awesome this game is. It’s hard to think of a DS game I’ve had this much fun with in a long time. The combination of quirky strangeness and razor sharp mechanics make for a well-spent $30.

Left 4 Dead [Review]
Dec 6th, 2008 by Dan

There was a day, back in my youth, when I abhorred first-person shooters. Sure, I played some Goldeneye here and there with my friends, but I was never a Doom, Unreal, or Halo fan.

Then something spectacular happened: a company that I’d heard of, but avoided their games because of my fps ambivalence released one of the greatest games I’d ever played: Half-Life 2. It revolutionized my understanding of FPS games and instilled in me blind trust in Valve. I loved Counterstrike: Source, Team Fortress 2, and Portal.

It was a foregone conclusion that I would then get Left 4 Dead, which I’ve come to see as one of the greatest multiplayer experiences I’ve ever played. Here’s the basic premise, if you haven’t picked it up from my other posts: you have four survivors from the zombie apocalypse whose aim in each level is to make it from the starting point to the next safe room. At the end of each movie (the name for each of the four campaigns) you have to fight off the zombie hordes while awaiting a rescue vehicle of some sort.

The real power of the game is that it requires you to play cooperatively. With each survivor that you lose, you will find the game that much harder. Letting teammates fall behind or leaving them behind yourself will always result in trouble. You also strongly rely on your teammates if you get incapacitated or knocked off a ledge. The icing on the cake is that Valve encourages even more teamwork with their achievement system. Unfortunately, Valve also seriously hates you and proves their enmity with the AI Director.

The AI Director will sometimes have pity on you and give you a lull so that you can revive your teammates or heal up, but that pity is just the AI taking pity on our organic weakness. Just wait until the inevitable evolution of the AI Director into Skynet. I’m just saying, it hates humanity that much.

Versus mode is plenty of fun, allowing survivors and special infected to all be controlled by rival human teams. It’s almost too unbalanced though, as a moderately well-organized zombie team will always be able to destroy a mediocre survivor team. I’m curious to see how balanced expert teams of both would be, since special infected die from a few hits and it’s kind of easy to overwhelm the survivors.

In any case, expect Valve to keep on updating L4D and continue bringing us a stellar multiplayer experience. I wholeheartedly recommend L4D so long as you have a good internet connection. If you’re playing without the net or you’re expecting a deep single-player experience, avoid it for now.

Game Overview: Post 16-Bit, Pre-Current Gen All-Stars
Jun 13th, 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!

The 16-bit era may have refined the gameplay of each generation prior to it, true modern game design didn’t officially begin until the release of the post-16-bit consoles with their 3-D capable processors. We’ll just pretend that Star Fox didn’t exist on the SNES for the sake of this point, but even if we do allow it, the 3-D effects in Star Fox, or on any system prior to the SNES, were primitive at best. The first real 3-D game with any influence on modern 3-D games was the launch title of the Nintendo 64, Super Mario 64. Everything from camera control to hub world design has been more or less ripped from this first, pioneering game to just about any other 3-D platformer and the conventions set forth by SM64 were even adopted by genres as distinctly different as RPGs.

Also debuting with the Nintendo 64 was analog control on the home console. Mario was able to walk or run dynamically based on how much pressure was applied to the control stick, and other companies took notice. Within a year or so, the Sony Playstation had its own dual analog stick control (two makes it better!), which initially seemed like a rip off, but was brilliant in conception as the second control stick allowed for the natural progression of the camera buttons into the camera stick. Dual analog controls led to the current incarnations of the console first-person shooter and the genre’s best attempt at mimicking the pinpoint precision of mouse and keyboard FPS control. Voice acting became prominent as developers moved away from cartridge media (some more begrudgingly than others :cough: Nintendo :cough:) onto the more spacious disc-based CDs and DVDs. In fact, games and gaming matured into the more cinematic experience we now enjoy based on the power increases this generation.

Surprisingly enough, the company that had been synonymous with the video game, Nintendo, faded into virtual obscurity with the Playstation replacing it as the industry leader. Late in this time period, we saw also saw the launch of the Microsoft Xbox and as we laughed at the bulky design, gigantic controllers, and relative lack of games available, save Halo (which I will go on record as saying I don’t really care for), Microsoft cooly and stealthy maneuvered into first place in terms of HD systems with its next console launch.

We’re getting ahead of ourselves with that last point, so let’s get back to the list. Our third place game takes place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…you meatbag. A blast from the past in taking place a whole 4,000 years before A New Hope, it’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.

#3 Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

Lucasarts knows one thing is constant about its fanbase: they will consume just about any piece of Star Wars-related media that they throw out there and that attention to detail is commonly expressed through the many mediocre video games that the company puts out. While the series has actually enjoyed a number of stellar titles, the prequel video game blitz had been taking its toll on consumers as the property was overexposed and not with a bevy of AAA titles.

Enter BioWare, a company you wouldn’t typically associate with the sci-fi genre (back then). They were best know, at this point, for Neverwinter Nights, a D&D-based dungeon crawling RPG, and Baldur’s Gate, another D&D based fantasy RPG. These are very highly regarded titles to this date, as old as they are, but I know many of us couldn’t help but wonder about how Knights of the Old Republic would turn out.

Not being a company to stray from what they do well, KotOR’s battle system is essentially a turn-based RPG based on, what do you know?, the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons. The interesting part about the engine is that it defaults to a game that is very much not turn-based. You can input commands for the character to carry out in their next “turn”, but the turns were relatively seamlessly hidden from the player, making it appear that the non-queued actions were being carried out on the fly. Couple this interesting and actually well-orchestrated battle mechanic with the ability to wield a one-handed or two-handed lightsaber or dual-wield one-handed lightsabers, throw in a couple of force powers, including that evil lightning thing that the Emperor does, and you had fanboys frothing at the mouth to get their hands on this game.

Which brings us to the story, which was, rather unlike the Lucas-penned prequels, nothing short of amazing. As mentioned before, our story begins 4,000 before A New Hope and two mega-powerful Sith Lords, Darth Revan and Darth Malak, were wreaking havoc on the Republic, as Sith Lords are wont to do. The Republic is able to decommission Revan, thanks to the powerful Jedi Knight Bastila Shan, but Malak was still out there terrorizing systems with vast resources at his disposal of a mysterious source.

So what does this have to do with you, the Player Character? First, you have to decide on a couple of things: your name, gender, appearance, you know, the basics, then you’re plopped right onto a Republic ship of some sort that Malak is assaulting to get his hands on Bastila. You meet up with Carh Onasi, Bastila escapes on to the surface somewhere, and you and Carth head down to the planet yourselves to look for her, starting your adventure. The greatest part about this narrative though is that you can partially control its direction. Many of the quests and sidequests have multiple solutions based on decisions that will affect your alignment. What’s this alignment deal? It’s the core of the Star Wars existence, Light Side and Dark Side. Basically, your decisions will net you Light or Dark points that will determine which force abilities your character eventually has available to him/her. Helping people out generally nets you Light points. Helping someone out, getting your reward, then killing all of the parties involved and looting their corpses usually nets you Dark side points. While the game lets you officially decide on your ending in a dialog tree near the finale, these actions that your character undertakes will affect the way your avatar is displayed on screen and the way that characters interact with the player character. Someone like the hilarious and very evil droid HK-47 will applaud the taking of innocent life, guilty life, uninvolved life, etc., but a goody two shoes like Bastila or Carth will be a quite the buzz kill as they criticize the mass murders you may choose to commit.

Speaking of characters, the batch in this game are about as good an ensemble cast as you can find. Sure, Mission Vao, T3-M4, and Juhani aren’t that interesting, but the rest of the cast delivers it strong, with HK-47’s performance making him the stand-out character in the entire Star Wars Universe for me (followed by the eminent Grand Admiral Thrawn (AKA Mitth’raw’nuruodo) and the super-cool Mara Jade and Talon Karrde (can you tell I love Zahn’s Expanded Universe books?)).

“Definition: Love is making a shot to the knees of a target 120 kilometers away using an Aratech sniper rifle with a tri-light scope…Love is knowing your target, putting them in your targeting reticule, and together, achieving a singular purpose against statistically long odds.”

-HK-47

Yeah, he’s that awesome.

All of this great characterization and gameplay would be for naught if BioWare hadn’t come up with an equally awesome plot for our beloved player character to run through. The tale relies very heavily on the plot twist that SPOILER ALERTyou are Darth Revan/SPOILER ALERT and that the battle where you were supposedly killed resulted in you simply being captured and the Jedi Order reprogramming your mind. This overarching story of the Star Forge combined with the mini-sagas taking place on each planet make for an excellent narrative structure that BioWare continues to implement in its other AAA sci-fi epic Mass Effect.

KotOR is probably the best Star Wars game I’ve ever played and among the top-notch RPGs I’ve ever played (rare for a Western RPG!). If you’ve never played it, you can pick it up for either the original Xbox or just play a slightly enhanced version for the PC or Mac. What are you waiting for? Go play it or I’ll send HK-47 after you!

Here’s some great HK-47 video, but beware, they contains spoilers (also, the second is from KotOR 2)

This next game will probably be the most controversial entry among all of the games I’ve elevated to this position. I’ll give you a few hints:

1. Its unveiling followed a proof of concept video shown at a prior trade show that was considered to be much cooler than the final product

2. Regardless of your opinion on this iteration in the series, it’s generally accepted that this game blows

3. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker VariousSee More The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker Various at IGN.com

#2 The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

I’m sure a good chunk of the Zelda fans out there are wondering “Why Wind Waker? Doesn’t Twilight Princess qualify for this era?”

Yes, Twilight Princess does qualify for this era. Unfortunately, I think it’s uninspired and it suffers from lack of cohesive focus. When I played TP I felt like I was going through the motions to complete what was supposed to be an awesome game. It was definitely a more mature story and arguably slightly more interesting in execution, but it just felt lifeless and like Nintendo was just cranking out a mature LoZ title just to appease the fans after Wind Waker. Miyamoto genuinely thought that Wind Waker was a great game and I think he was seriously affected by the US fan backlash over what he felt was where the Zelda series should live. It kind of reminds me of Metal Gear Solid 2. Taken from a rather biased article written by Jeremy Parish of 1up.com, I found this quote:

“Kojima supposedly once said of Metal Gear Solid 2, ‘This is my Metal Gear. If it is to be destroyed, I will do it my way.'”

Parish admits directly after the statement that this quotation is probably apocryphal, but the general idea is still there. In Japan Kojima didn’t bother to hide that Raiden was the main character because he knew they wouldn’t mind him so much. In the states, Raiden does not have a very good reputation and a lot of gamers were upset about being duped.

This bait-and-switch happened to a much lesser degree with Wind Waker. Back in Spaceworld 2000, the aforementioned proof-of-concept video was shown.

This is what people began to expect from the next Zelda game. Miyamoto, perhaps remembering that Zelda was based on his childhood adventures in the countryside, seemed to want to bring Zelda back to its more innocent roots. The art style of WW is strongly reminiscent of A Link to the Past and the atmosphere is much less serious at times than that of Ocarina of Time (which is also amazing, but just doesn’t make the list, I like this one more).

The moral of the story: don’t make Miyamoto do what he doesn’t want to do. Otherwise you end up with a soulless game like TP instead of WW.

Speaking of WW, the game starts off by tying back to the Ocarina of Time, but this is definitely not the Hyrule that you once knew. In fact, it’s not even really Hyrule at all. The people of this world live on islands within the Great Sea. After your sister is kidnapped for looking too much like Zelda, you set out with some pirates to save her. Along the way you get a boat, explore dungeons, etc. Typical Zelda fare.

SPOILERS

The story does get good though, as you eventually discover that the pirate captain you’ve been gallivanting with on occasion is actually the reincarnation of Princess Zelda, holder of the Triforce of Wisdom! You, naturally are the reincarnation of Dan (what? I always rename Link), so you’ve got the Triforce of Courage. This leaves the Triforce of Power, which, as always, is in the possession of the evil Ganondorf. You discover your true identities underwater in the game’s surprise twist. It’s unclear precisely what happened, but at some point the threat of Ganondorf was so great that the only way to defeat him was to call forth the Great Sea to submerge Hyrule and Ganondorf once and for all. The King of Hyrule, AKA the ship you’ve been sailing around in the whole game, was still alive, but sealed beneath the waves while Ganondorf had mysteriously escaped. Once you fully recover the Triforce of Courage, you confront Ganondorf, who extracts the Triforces from Zelda, Dan, and himself, and claims that whomever touches the Triforce will get a wish granted, his being the restoration of Ganondorf-controlled Hyrule. Before he can make a wish, the King of Hyrule touches it and wishes that Hyrule and Ganondorf be washed away and for Link and Zelda to escape. Link and Zelda turn Ganondorf to stone to keep him from escaping, water pours into the previously sealed-off Hyrule, and the great kingdom is erased from history.

/SPOILERS

Aside from being my favorite LoZ game story, I think that the Great Sea is my favorite LoZ overworld. Sure, it’s a little dull sometimes to sail around the map with the whole vast expanse of blue, but it’s also calming and fun at the same time. You see, you set the wind direction and you just put up your sails and move. Every little quadrant of the map features at least one, but typically more secrets and challenges and the whole island design allowed pre-Mario Galaxy development because each island could be specifically tailored to challenge different aspects of your arsenal of equipment and moves.

Sailing is fun, the story is fun, the gameplay is fun (but WAY too easy) and, at the end of the day, isn’t that what really matters?

I remember seeing this sucker in the movie theaters:

This Japanese commercial emphasizes the stark contrast between how Zelda is marketed in the East and West. Our commercial has that dark and edgy look while the Japanese one is more whimsical in presentation:

The top game on my list for this era is one that I actually finished fairly recently. While some may argue that there might be bias because it’s the most recent of these games that I’ve played, those people are wrong. What is this game? Here’s the only hint you’ll get: within this game you will experience pain, fear, end, fury, sorrow, and joy. The one that doesn’t make much sense is probably the giveaway that I’m talking about Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (Subsistence).

#1 Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater

I’ve already waxed quite poetically about the game and story of MGS3 in my review, so if you skipped that guy to avoid spoilers, don’t bother reading it now, but that’s a good chunk of the validation for why this game sits at the #1 spot.

Still, I figure I should expand a bit about what makes this game so great. More than any other Metal Gear game to date (that I’ve played), Metal Gear Solid 3 absolutely embodies the tagline of “Tactical Stealth Action.” As you slink through the Russian jungle to achieve your mission, you really do feel like this is how it would theoretically be done. Naked Snake is also a great character. He hasn’t seen as much action as Solid at this point in his life, so he’s more naive and pure. Seeing him develop into the persona of Big Boss is truly moving as you see why both Naked and Solid end up making the decisions they later make in life after growing tired of the endless manipulations of governments.

The game succeeds on all fronts and truly deserves to stand out as the best this era ever produced.

Here’s a parody video highlighting one of the other characters as the actual protagonist:

Yet another parody movie regarding the end of the game:

Oh man, what a great Japanese commercial:

So that’s that for the Post 16-bit, Pre-Current Gen top three. Keep tuning in this week to see what didn’t quite make the list, but was still awesome!

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