Friday, December 28, 2007

Halo 3 (Xbox 360)

It feels silly to do a review of Halo 3. Given the ridiculous sales, chances are you either already own it or have decided you're not interested. But it feels equally silly to not comment on the "largest entertainment launch of all time."

Fundamentally, Halo 3 is more of the same. But that's not a bad thing. You've got to remember that the first Halo established the viability of the shooter genre on consoles. We have it to thank for a successful gamepad control scheme, melee attacks, an evolution beyond health kits, more strategic gameplay due to a limited weapon load out, offhand grenades, engaging vehicles, a cooperative campaign, and revolutionary enemy AI. This game alone was enough to get me back into console gaming for the first time since the SNES. The all-nighter where I first completed the campaign (co-op, of course) stands as one of my most memorable gaming moments ever.

The first Halo had excellent multiplayer (albeit with a crazy overpowered pistol), but it was limited to LAN parties. The second Halo set the bar for online multiplayer matchmaking so high that it's yet to be rivaled. Seriously, playing any other game online is downright painful. They place the burden on you to find a server with good connection that's not empty, not full, and has competitively skilled players. With Halo all you have to do is say "I want to play," and the rest is taken care of.

The third entry doesn't deliver any more grand revelations to the shooter genre, but it does clean up its remaining blemishes. The moment-to-moment tactical gameplay has always been so intense that we almost ignored the atrociously repetitive level design. Halo 3 rights this wrong at last with some truly varied environments, creating a singleplayer campaign that is well paced, rewarding, and thoroughly replay-able. I've milked it for every achievement point available and I still sometimes itch for another go through. The multiplayer is less dramatically improved, but with tighter balance, better voice options, and the ability to review films of your matches, I'm certainly not complaining. No, the jump to Halo 3 is not as large as those before it, but there's no denying that this game is a solid package.

There are some that have called Halo overrated. I'm sorry, but they're just haters. Get over yourself, overlook the Dew-fueled frat-boy underbelly, and acknowledge this series for the huge impact it has made. The Master Chief's latest battle may not bring much new to the table, but it is a solid game and well worth your time.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Freedom Writers

I recently watched Freedom Writers via the Xbox Video Marketplace. It's not a standout film by any means. In fact, you've probably seen it before. It's basically the same as Dangerous Minds or Take the Lead, or to a lesser extent Dead Poet's Society, The Emperor's Club, Mr. Holland's Opus, or even Save the Last Dance. Take disadvantaged/disillusioned students, throw in an inspirational teacher, and have them overcome the system to create a heart warming, life changing story. This particular "naïve white teacher thrown in with inner-city kids" movie isn't bad, but it certainly isn't revolutionary either.

So why am I talking about it? Well, in this (true) story, the teacher in question stays with the same students for four years before moving on to a job at a university. She doesn't try to recreate her direct teaching impact with another generation of disadvantaged kids. Throughout the movie she alienates her fellow staff members instead of motivating them. And the extreme focus on her students leads to the failure of her marriage. Nothing about her story seems repeatable or sustainable.

Yet the tale is supposed to be inspirational. We're supposed to look at this and say "Hey, if you just put enough elbow grease into teaching, those kids will stop stabbing each other and become world leaders!" Hard to validate, because her success story is singular. But somehow this four year experience with the same class of students is supposed to create a foundation for educational reform. Maybe I've been watching too many documentaries lately, but I expect a little more critical thinking and a little less tear-jerking.

I realize that I can't completely relate to this story. I went to school in Gig Harbor, which is about as far from the inner-city as you can get. I had some great teachers at times, but I never experienced anything close to the life-altering hug-fest depicted in dramatic teaching movies. I spent a short stint in college studying education and practicing on real kids in real schools (much more real than the schools I went too). I definitely have concerns over the education system, but to be inspired I need more than "Hey, I tried this thing once and it kinda worked."

There are some interesting ideas to extract from this story, like having students progress year to year with the same teacher. With an extended exposure the teacher has an improved chance to connect with individual students. And by being forced to work with the same peers students can learn that family is something that can grow out of other sources than blood or ethnicity. When people deal with each other for a prolonged period of time they have to work out their differences, even if they still don't like each other. In my opinion that's the most important lesson of family, and it'd be great if school reinforced it. If you can just float on from class to class you never really have to learn how to resolve individual differences.

There are drawbacks, of course. If you only ever deal with the same set of people you won't be as good at meeting and befriending new people (something that I personally am still terrible at). And creating a new scope of "us" has the side effect of designating a new "them" (although I'd argue that the more tribes you belong to the less of a problem that is). So I don't think this is an idea taken to the extreme. But some more non-elective social persistence in the schools sounds like a good thing.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Ranting Against RMT

Okay, I'm about to go off the nerd deep end and rant about RMT (Real Money Trading). But even the Discovery channel has recently discussed this space, so maybe it's not too niche. I'd even argue that this topic extends beyond gaming. Increasingly our world is being defined by goods that are easily cloneable and have to be controlled by Intellectual Property laws and the like. With the music industry scrambling to figure out how it fits in anymore, it's valuable to look at the virtual economies happening in online video games. I'm sure there's a great discussion to be had there, but as I said, this is a rant...

Okay, so there's this growing presence in the MMO genre of Real Money Trading. RMT is the idea of exchanging real-world currency for in-game currency or services. And as a gamer, I consider this a Bad Thing. The entire draw of an RPG is character advancement; the more time and skill you dedicate to the game, the more powerful and refined your character becomes. RMT means that someone can plop down some money and instantly get the same prestige and abilities as someone who worked for them. If these were only aesthetic, or if MMORPGs weren't inherently collaborative/competitive, it wouldn't be such a big deal. But when real money gives someone an unfair gameplay advantage over other real people, it's cheating.

Raph Koster, am esteemed MMO game developer (who's blog I subscribe to), has decided to defend RMT as an unavoidable outcome. When posed with an anti-RMT solution of limiting trading possibilities, he counters by claiming that exchange of objects and services is the same, and thus the only way to prevent RMT is to remove all collaborative gameplay. I recognize that both of these are exploitable, but I definitely do not agree that they are equivalent. Yes, you could spend real money to hire someone to escort you and ease your game experience, but that still involves a time commitment on your part. You could hand over your account to a power leveling service, but that also compromises your account's security. Neither of these options compare at all to the instant gratification of items and currency purchased with real cash.

I'll concede that some amount of RMT is always going to happen. But I'm pretty sure that restrictions can be imposed to make it inconvenient and not as generally viable. Yes, you're probably going to limit some positive trade on the other side of the coin. But with the anonymity of the internet I'm far more worried about rampant exploitation than blocking the rare unsolicited act of kindness. I certainly don't share Raph's romanticizing of item gifting. You have something that you don't need anymore (either because you outgrew it or because you never had use for it at all) and give it to someone else who can use it. Big whoop. Isn't the real problem here that the item has no value to you? What's the point of the game handing you items that you have no need for, or allowing something that previously had value to become worthless? Trading is just as hollow when the items are arbitrarily worthless as when they are arbitrarily valuable.

I like Raph's blog. I like that he's willing to question assumed gameplay devices like levels and gold. But as a gamer I really can't follow him on this journey. You can certainly question the inequality incentive of the MMORPG genre, but as long as you're bought into that structure you have to admit that RMT is an anathema to honest players.

Truthfully I consider the economies of MMOs to be more annoying than appealing. I get all this loot which I have to hang on to because I recognize that junking it to a vendor might not generate as much profit as selling it to another player. But of course I generally have no idea what the value of an item is. If I'm lucky I can find the same item up for auction and use that as a reference price, but such an immediate snapshot doesn't give me any real sense of longer-term demand and value. I really need to research some sort of "blue book" value, compare that to current server demand, and be prepared to spend lots of time babysitting an auction (or soliciting a direct sale) in order to get the optimal return. And of course the game itself never gives me adequate tools to carry any of this out, so I'm fighting the system the whole time. It's in no way fun, so I generally just price my auctions to sell quickly so that I can spend less time economizing and more time having fun.

But you say there is some entertainment to be had here, right? It's great to get some drop that you realize is going to fetch a pretty penny. But of course that's really just money for you to spend on some other item that another player can't use, so why the need for a middleman? Couldn't you have just got a drop that was relevant to your character in the first place? Player crafting adds something to the trading equation, but more often than not it's just a really expensive minigame whose outputs are obsolete (nerfed out of fear of rampant RMT, of course). So is it really so bad if trading in MMOs is severely restricted or eliminated altogether? You could still collaborate on that whole gameplay part, but as far as permanent character advancement goes you'd be on your own, in an exploit-free bubble.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock (Xbox 360)

It's hard to talk about Guitar Hero III without also blabbing about Rock Band, but I'll do my best to fight the temptation. We'll save that comparison for when I do a proper Rock Band review. But it's totally fair to start talking about Guitar Hero III by looking back at what I had to say about Guitar Hero II.

As soon as Guitar Hero II landed on the Xbox I was ready for a truckload downloadable content... which never really came. There were 7 track packs released, 4 of which were recycled from Guitar Hero I, and 2 were indie collections that I frankly don't have the patience for (at least not at that price). So effectively there was only 1 interesting track pack… yeah. It's too early to really say whether Guitar Hero III is going to follow that pattern. There have been 2 real track packs so far, which look decent but I haven't bothered to pick them up. Guitar Hero certainly isn't competing well against Rock Band when it comes to either pricing or selection. Instead of focusing much energy on downloadable content they're going to focus on yearly title releases. You're effectively getting one huge infrequent bundle of tracks, which is cheaper in bulk and comes paired with a software update. It's not that bad as long as the selection agrees with you and that gameplay gets refined. So, yeah, how's that gameplay doing?

My main problems with Guitar Hero II were around unlocking stuff for multiplayer and the awkwardness of coop account management. Guitar Hero III has added a coop career that removes the need to play singleplayer in order to unlock tracks. Unfortunately that's the only improvement here. You're still totally boned if you hit a brick wall and need to dial down the difficulty (you'll have to start your campaign over from scratch). And the whole coop career falls apart when multiple Xbox Live accounts are involved. Only one player gets credit for advancing through the career and there's no way to play the career online. There's only enough coop in Guitar Hero III to put a bullet on the back of the box - it's in no way a complete experience.

The other main gameplay addition is the battle mode. A few times in your solo career you go head to head against some guitar legend. The two of you alternate playing ridiculous riffs and try to send bad voodoo at each other at the most inopportune moments. It's generally a refreshing change of place due the objective switch and the nice intricate guitar solos. Your final battle is with the devil himself, who in no way was paying attention to the linear difficulty curve. I breezed through most of the solo career on Hard but failed countless times against the devil. I'm all for a good challenge, but don't be a tease and hold it all off until the end. That's just frustrating.

In multiplayer the battle mode doesn't fare nearly as well. Far too many matches end after the first attack or so. The only way to keep it from being arbitrary is to have both players play on a difficulty far below their comfort level, because lefty flip and double notes on expert is pretty much an immediate game over even if you have your act together.

The achievements in Guitar Hero III are a complete step backwards. I realize I'm an achievement whore, but I seriously deserve more than 15 goddamn points for beating the whole game on Hard. Assuming you pick up a 250 streak and a 250k score, you're looking at a grand total of 35 points. To put it into comparison, Guitar Hero II doles out approximately 150 points for the same accomplishment. Never mind the fact that both games have the brain-dead notion that beating the game on one difficulty doesn't warrant the achievements for the easier difficulty levels. They actually expect you to play through the game on Easy even if you beat it on Expert (which is fun... how?). Okay, so they're not handing out points for beating the game, what are they giving them out for? There are some ridiculous achievements for multiplayer (consecutive wins, are you kidding me?), and a whole bunch for coop which has the aforementioned problem of requiring that you do the whole thing twice if you're dealing with multiple Xbox Live accounts. The real value of achievement points is presenting the player with an interesting challenge that enhances and lengthens their enjoyment of the game. Guitar Hero III just throws a whole bunch of hoops your way, none of which are any fun.

I've been really hard on Guitar Hero III. I fundamentally enjoy the game, but not because they did anything to enhance the experience. I just plain enjoy pretending to be a rock star. The most important thing, the track selection, is pretty good (even if it does break into inane metal bullshit at the end). And the new guitar is nice, although I saved the money and only picked up the disc. I don't completely regret buying the game, because I know it'll get used at parties. But now that I have Rock Band I'm really thinking that Guitar Hero III would have been better off as a rental.

Monday, December 10, 2007


In general I make a point to not comment on my work. It gets enough of a percentage of my mindshare as is, and I have to try hard to force it to idle. But it's also unfair to let key events go by unmentioned, especially when they directly contributed to the quiet months of the summertime and autumn for this blog.

For the last year I've been working on the Zune client team. Almost a month ago we released what we've been working on to the public. And I'm damned proud of what we accomplished. It was a herculean effort, but we stuck to our guns and created something I think is both beautiful and functional. Thankfully it seems like the press agrees (my favorite quote: "the software, full of links to artist bios, band photos, and complete discographies with album art, is quite attractive and makes iTunes seem like a big, boring spreadsheet").

The Zune release may be old news for a lot of you, so under the pretense of bringing new information the table… you should really check out Zune Originals if you haven't already. They very recently opened up customization of the very popular Zune 80. If you are looking to get a Zune, having it etched is the way to do it. And if that news is old to you (jeez, it's only been a week), well then there's a new Zune Arts video up.

The Zune is a great product, and it's got a solid team with a great vision behind it. It's only going to get better from here...

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Planet Terror

Apparently I've got zombies on the brain, so I might as well get this out of my system while I'm at it.

I recently rented Planet Terror from the video store. It's one of the movies from that Grindhouse double feature. You know, the crazy preview with the girl with a gun for a leg? That movie that nobody saw? Yeah, that one.

I'm totally behind the concept. A return to B movies with cheesy one-liners, comical gore, and general overall badness? Sign me up.

There's one catch. You've gotta embrace it. If you're going to be shallow and unintentionally funny (or intentionally unintentional), do it all the way. And make it short. Because the novelty of a movie's B-ness is seldom maintainable for a standard feature length.

But unfortunately Planet Terror is dark and brooding in a way that undermines the awesome ridiculous moments. It's stuck in serious mode for so long that you forget that the movie is supposed to be a caricature, and then when the absurd moments come you're not in the right context to really appreciate them as funny. Editing the movie tighter probably could have alleviated its identity crisis a bit, but I really think the problem came from an unbalanced vision. It stinks of a director taking their craft too serious, even when they're trying to poke fun at it.

I can't help comparing the movie to Shaun of the Dead, which successfully lampooned the zombie genre. To achieve its resolution Shaun drifted into being a real zombie movie by the end, and as a result stopped being funny. But at least it didn't jerk you around back and forth - the comedic pace was steady in the face of zombie realism until the climax.

There are some good moments in Planet Terror. When the movie finally gets around to giving the heroine a gun for a leg, there are some awesome over the top moments. And there's this great part where they cut out some key plot development due to a "missing reel." It's just a shame they didn't do that to more of the movie...

Friday, December 7, 2007

More Zombie Gaming

When making my request for a specific type of zombie game, I had no idea that there was in fact an entire web site devoted to that genre. So I went through and tried a whole bunch of them to see if what I was looking for already existed. Short answer: no. But some of them were close.

Boxhead: The Rooms
This overhead arcade game pits you against and endless onslaught of boxy zombies. You run around collecting ammo, blowing up barrels, and unloading whatever you've got into the zombies slowly lumbering towards you. The weapons are fun (and upgrade over time), but the selection mechanism for them isn't as precise as I'd like considering how fast the action is. The pacing is nice, with it never being too boring nor becoming entirely impossible. It also keeps driving the action forward with a combo system that requires that you chain kills together to keep your score up. This game also has one of the key elements of my ideal zombie defense game: traps. My main complaint is that you're only worried about your own skin; there aren't any other survivors or a base to defend.

Boxhead: Halloween Special
A variant of the Boxhead game above, this one requires that you rescue survivors instead of just holding off zombies by yourself. Which sounds like what I'm looking for, except that it seems to have come at the price of the fun frantic pacing of Boxhead: The Rooms. It takes awhile before you really have to worry about the zombies at all. And fundamentally the slow helpless survivors are a pain to escort (they're definitely part of the problem, not the solution). They're not really interesting to guide either, as that you always pick them up and drop them off at the same locations.

Zombie Rampage
This is another arcade survival game, except this time you also have a base to defend. The base isn't more than a little bunker, but it makes holding off the zombies more interesting. Do you let them go for the base and stay out of harm's way? Or do you risk your own neck to bait them off the base? Similar to The Last Stand the zombies come in waves, and in-between waves you can repair the barricade and get new weapons. Unlike The Last Stand there are no other survivors to help you with base defense. However there are far more options for how to upgrade your character. You can increase your movement speed, decrease your reload time, and choose from a much wider selection of weapons (including a minigun and a laser cannon). The pace of Zombie Rampage is way too slow at first (a common problem, and truthfully one that S&I had as well), and the terrain isn't interesting in the slightest. Add some fellow survivors, a more interesting settlement to defend, and some reasons to risk venturing far from the base (supplies, other survivors, whatever), and you've got a contender here.

Zombie Horde 3
It's clear that this game has a lot more effort poured into it than the games above. There's a story with cut scenes, an intricate equipment interface, a mini-map, day/night cycles, and vehicles. But it's amazing how with so much time spent on development, not a lot of thought went into the game's pacing. Before you can advance the story you need to buy a new weapon to break into the police station. Raising that money involves wandering the city killing zombies for cash. Unfortunately the city is completely barren, and the zombie spawn rate is terribly slow. A couple minutes in and I was already bored. Combat was infrequent, and when it did happen it was easy. I finally got enough money to buy a shotgun and break down the barricade, but after a short story sequence I randomly got cornered by many more powerful zombies and quickly went from bored to dead. Game over.

I hate to be so harsh on this game, because the infrastructure is high quality. Equipping your character looked compelling, I like that you get a melee attack, and the nighttime flashlight effect is nice. But being technically competent does not make a fun game. The save system ensured that I didn't lose too much time, but after dying I really had no motivation to keep going.

Guess I'll have to keep looking...

Tuesday, December 4, 2007


So I may not have found my game about zombie defense, but there are no shortage of movies on the subject. I completely stumbled upon Fido by chance last night. Nothing about the title or cover caught my eye, and honestly I would have skipped it entirely if it hadn't been on Xbox Live Marketplace when I was too lazy to go to the video store down the block. The preview totally won me over.

Fido can kind of be described as Dawn of the Dead meets Pleasantville. Or maybe as an extension of the resolution of Shaun of the Dead. Or as a macabre Lassie. Anyway, the concept is brilliant and the movie sports some of the funniest lines I've heard in a long time. It's kind of a one-note, but that particular note doesn't wear out before the movie's over. If you find zombies in the least part amusing you should check out Fido.

But beware old people - they are not to be trusted.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Zombie Gaming

So I recently ran into this little Flash zombie game called The Last Stand. Zombie games are plentiful, but this one is interesting in its focus on zombie defense with light RPG elements. Each night you defend yourself against the zombie horde, and each day you decide how to split your time between repairing the barricade, searching for other survivors, and looking for weapons.

The dormant game designer in me really wants to take some of the ideas from that game to the next level. While I enjoyed The Last Stand, sitting behind a barricade madly clicking at impeding zombies does eventually get old. Fundamentally zombies just don't make very dynamic enemies. You've got to add something else to spice things up. Thankfully zombies are a common topic, so we can look at some high profile games and think about what they did to keep our lumbering friends entertaining.

Dead Rising is filled with traditional zombies. They mill about slowly and don't pose much of a threat if you're paying attention. The tension in the game comes from the sheer number of zombies, the scarcity of weapons, and other survivors who have turned homicidal. The zombies are more of an environmental hazard than a direct threat. Dead Rising has a survival mode, which on paper could be exactly what I'm looking for. Unfortunately success involves gathering up food, finding a good hiding place, and watching the clock count down before you need to make another food run. The zombies will never disturb you in your high perch, so really 90% of the gameplay is waiting. Success is only achieved by being completely risk averse, and I'm pretty sure Burnout taught us years ago that risk = fun.

Half-Life has a lot to teach us here, both from a perspective of zombie variety and entertaining defensive gameplay. The basic zombies here are easily manageable, but their agents, the jumping screeching headcrabs, demand that you keep on your toes. Your foolproof tactic of waiting it out from high ground could work against the basic slow zombies, but not when there are headcrabs crawling out of the ducts and fast zombies crawling up the pipes. Half-life has also demonstrated that defending your turf can be extremely engaging (the turrets in Nova Prospekt, the standoff in the Antlion cave, and the epic Strider assault from Episode Two). It's a shame Gordon's never had to hold it out against a zombie onslaught (the closest would be the elevator sequence from Episode One, which isn't as epic as what I'm thinking of).

And of course we can't forget the "fungal zombie" that is Halo's Flood. These guys leap more than they shamble, and have maintained the ability to use firearms. Paired with the humanoid zombies are swarmy parasites that require you keep an eye on as-yet-uninfected corpses. In addition to all this, Halo 3 added Flood that can change form to prevent you from playing too defensively. The strategy of fighting the Flood never gets as layered as what you get from some of Half-life's set pieces, but the moment to moment combat is always top notch.

As we can see, two of the greatest shooters of all time have stooped to using the zombie cliché. They've mixed things up as much as possible, but you're still basically just shotgunning down shambling masses on your way from point A to point B. And don't get me wrong, that's still fun. But would a more strategic zombie game work with survivors to rescue, barricades to maintain, traps to set up, and resources to secure? Well, you tell me, but I sure think so.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Now Playing

The Orange Box (Xbox 360)
I've already pumped a ton of time into The Orange Box and I still feel like I've barely scratched the surface. I started out with Portal, which is a little slice of gaming perfection. I then moved on to play Half-Life 2 for my third time (yes, it's that good), but for my first time on a console and my first time with achievements (Ravenholm with only the gravity gun = good times). I've only cracked open Team Fortress 2 for one round but it was a total blast. I'm big supporter of renting these days, but really no one with a 360 should be without The Orange Box.

Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock (Xbox 360)
More of a good thing is still a good thing, and with Guitar Hero all I really need are more songs. Thankfully Guitar Hero III delivers a quality set list. Sure they've added multiplayer and that crazy battle thing, but that's not really what'll sustain me. I'm looking to Rock Band to evolve the experience, but in the meantime I'm content with more of the same from GH3.

Halo 3 (Xbox 360)
Really, who hasn't been playing Halo 3? As awesome as Halo's multiplayer is, I'm a member of the "singleplayer first" crowd, so right out of the gate I holed to play through the Chief's latest rumble in the jungle. I was not disappointed, as that Halo's level design seems to have caught up with the excellent gameplay. I've been squeezing in some multiplayer as well whenever I've had the opportunity, but there are so many games on my plate right now that it's hard to justify prioritizing another round of Slayer over other games. There's no rush, because we all know that Halo 3 multiplayer will be rocking until the End of Time.

Lord of the Rings Online (PC)
I spoke awhile ago about potentially putting down WoW and trying out LotRO. But I never proceeded to mention that I actually followed through. You heard me - I successfully broke free of WoW. You could say that I didn't quit, I just changed cigarette brands; but I haven't really been playing LotRO much at all, so it's more like switching to a nicotine patch instead. Don't get me wrong - LotRO is a very capable MMO and has a leg up on WoW in some ways. I like that they planned for varying group sizes (and even have solo instances). I like the ongoing epic quests. I love those moments when you connect to the book (like getting lost in the Old Forest, or climbing Weathertop). I love the deed system (i.e. MMO achievements). But although the game is technically more powerful it ends up feeling rough around the edges. The UI is unintuitive and clunky in a lot of places, and the art direction overall just isn't as good. It's still fun, but I have a hard time deciding if I'm not playing much because of some flaw or if I'm just burned out on MMOs in general.

Metroid Prime 3: Corruption (Wii)
I'd probably be raving about Metroid all over the place right now if there weren't so many other great games also keeping me busy. Halo and the Orange Box came along and totally derailed my ongoing Metroid campaign. I'm hoping to get back to it now that I have some more free time, because what I've played so far has been great. The control scheme works really well, the action is great, and the environments are gorgeous. What more can you ask for from a Metroid title?

Guitar Hero 2: Rocks the 80's (PS2)
I think this one's destined to gather some dust for awhile given that GH3 is commanding my attention right now. But as a rental or a budget title Rocks the 80's is better than the bad press it got. There are some fun songs in there, just don't pay full price for this one.

Puzzle Quest (Xbox 360)
I heard that the DS version of this game wasn't quite as good as the widescreen version on the PSP, so I decided to wait until it hit Xbox Live Arcade so I could try the trial for free. Little did I know what I was missing all these months. Puzzle Quest is freaking brilliant. It takes the short term game from a puzzle game like Bejeweled and combines it with the long term structure of your average RPG. The result is an RPG that is fun all of the time, not just in the abstract. RPG elements have been tacked onto many other genres before in order to give them longer appeal, but this particular blend comes off really well.

Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin (DS)
Taking a little vacation a couple of weeks ago gave me enough plane time to sit down with the latest Castlevania. I've had a hard time getting into it because it is so similar to its predecessor. More of the same gameplay wise isn't necessarily a bad thing, but recycled art sure is. You don't want people to feel like they're playing the exact same game. And that's what it feels like, except the characters and script are even more obnoxious. But hey, you gotta pass time on the bus somehow.

Final Fantasy VI (GBA)
I've had some frustration with the modern RPG lately, so I just had to go back and play one of the classics to cleanse my palate. I'm still a little burned out after WoW, and I've had to whore out my bus time to work for the past couple months, so I've been proceeding slowly. But FF6 really is as charming as ever.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Catching Up

A healthy, balanced life is within reach - I can almost see it. I haven't had much energy to post here, but thankfully I haven't been completely absorbed in work during all this time. I figure the best way to get back into the swing of things is to recap what I've been playing over the last couple months during my radio silence. I've got a big fat pile of games that I've finished and should really give a proper review, but I don't know if I'll ever own up to the backlog. So I'll just run down the list and keep it short:

Lost Planet: Extreme Condition (Xbox 360)
An enjoyable but forgettable third person shooter. I enjoyed the dynamic of having your life constantly tick down as you freeze to death (I'm a run and gun player anyway) but spending so much time shooting storage tanks and trudging slowly through the snow to go fetch orange goop took out some of the bite. Shooting big bugs was fun, but oddly enough shooting snow pirates was not. But you can do a lot worse as a rental.

Bully (PS2)
I'm not sure why this game got so much controversy, because the content is no more racy than Revenge of the Nerds. The game really feels like living out one of those high school or college "coming of age" flicks with their cliques and quirky authority figures. The lead character may be a brat, but he actually grows as a character. The script is good, the cast is good… there's actually decent storytelling in there (in a video game of all places…). You can see the GTA roots in the gameplay structure, but this time around the violence is mostly cartoony (with noogies and stink bombs instead of AK-47s) and the topics aren't as blatantly offensive (sketchy lunchroom fare instead of coked-out hookers).

Super Paper Mario (Wii)
Even though I adored The Thousand Year Door, I was excited at the idea of changing it around to add more of a platforming focus to Super Paper Mario (there's always room for more classic Mario gameplay, right?). But, well… meh. I think this game went wrong in two key ways. First: Although it discarded the majority of the RPG genre's gameplay mechanics, it kept the whole "story" thing. The script wasn't poorly written, and actually has its cute moments (although not as many as Thousand Year Door), but from a pacing perspective it's really jarring to go back and forth from platforming to reading pages of text. Second: The mesh of the classic paper style and the retro 8-bit vibe wasn't very successful. Either would have been okay on their own, but together they created a visual style that felt disconnected and cheap. And although I don't think the 2D/3D gimmick ruined the game, it didn't help either. Super Paper Mario isn't a complete waste of time by any means, but you're better off going for The Thousand Year Door.

Command & Conquer 3 (PC)
It's a bit hard going back to C&C after experiencing the fine tuned excellence of games like Starcraft and Warcraft. But C&C always holds a warm place in my heart for nostalgic reasons. Sure, every game basically boils down to the same race to build super units and then stream roll over the enemy, but at least the game keeps that satisfying. This latest iteration takes the great graphical detail of Generals and applies it to this classic franchise. Good times, but not especially deep.

Rayman Raving Rabbids (Wii)
Although Rabbids is really just a minigame collection, it's got enough really good games in it to make for a pretty engaging experience. In particular, each stage ends with a great "on rails" shooter game. With the Wiimote this is the first time I've really ever had the feeling of playing something like Area 51 from the arcade in my living room. It's a fun and accessible gametype and I can't wait to see more games that focus on that. The rest of the minigames are generally pretty fun, so if you're looking for a way to swing that Wiimote like a crazy person, this is a good choice.

Well, that list of games that I've completed over the last few months. Of course I've got more that I'm currently working through, but I'll write up details on them later:

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The last metroid is in captivity...

For someone who's such a Metroid fanboy, I'm actually not much of a fan of the original. I've been spending a decent amount of time on the Virtual Console lately, and the original Metroid hasn't aged nearly as well other big franchises (like Mario and Zelda). Even when I know where I'm going I invariably get lost in the repetitive environments. And entirely too much effort is spent farming energy to fill up your tanks. In Zelda you may have more heart containers (energy tanks), but each heart drop gives you back a full one (not 5/100) and there are both fairies and potions to give you big refills in times of need. I've never actually had the stomach to finish the original Metroid, although I try every now and then if only to experience it's historical significance.

Super Metroid, however, is one of the greatest games of all time. It is a timeless classic - the pinnacle of 2D action gaming. It may be 13 years old, but it still can r0x0r your b0x0rz.

I was aware that these classic Metroid games were coming to the Virtual Console, but it was seeing the speed runs at PAX that really motivated me to try a run of Super Metroid after all these years. Back in 1994 I worked my butt off to get the best ending (which requires beating the game in less than 3 hours). But do I still have what it takes?

Turns out, yes. Stuffed away in the recesses of my brain is all the information I need to blaze through Super Metroid (no GameFaqs crutch here). I can barely remember a movie I saw last week, but I know exactly what section of wall to shoot to reveal another coveted super missile tank. My run clocked in at 2:00 even (which was 50% items). There's a lot of time I could shave off there for sure: I stopped for way too many items, made and extra trip to Brinstar, and I got totally lost in Maridia. I just might try for another run to see how low I can go, but I'm totally proud of the fact that I can still rock it after all these years.

Now, by today's standards beating a game in 2 hours sounds crazy. We expect a bare minimum of 10-20 hours even from our action games. But I like the fact that Super Metroid can be done in 2 hours. Instead of being a game padded with filler, this is pure gaming goodness that you don't mind playing again and again. But don't go thinking that my 2 hours is any sort of achievement. The Speed Demos Archive clocks the record at 0:32. The skill involved in a run like that is crazy impressive, (on par from the jaw dropping Quake Done Quick runs). Super Metroid is a natural fit for speed running, as that the very nature of the gameplay impedes progress gated on movement enhancing upgrades (high jump, dash, grapple, etc.). Very clever and dexterous people can overcome those obstacles through other means, bypassing or at least speeding up large sections of the natural progression.

Of course there's a reason that these titles are hitting the Virtual Console now, and that's the release of Metroid Prime 3: Corruption this week for the Wii. From the reviews it sounds just as awesome as I'd expect from its pedigree, and to get you up to speed GameTrailers has done an excellent retrospective on the entire Metroid series (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

In the meantime, if you've got a Wii and some spare cycles, I highly recommend you go download Super Metroid. It won't disappoint.

Saturday, August 25, 2007


If you couldn't tell from my lack of posting, life has been rough lately. But not yesterday. Yesterday was a good day.

Yesterday was the first day of the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX). I've never been before, but this year I've been plugged into more gaming blogs and the more I learned about PAX the more interested I became. What totally sealed the deal for me was this adorable story about Gabe attending a Pokemon tournament (and the warm fuzzy follow-up). These guys and their web comic are hardcore yet laid back gamers - people like me. PAX is basically a party by gamers for gamers. And I am so into that.

I'm fortunate enough to live in Seattle, so getting to PAX is cake for me. I distinguished the usually common walk downtown by grooving to some 8-bit remixes on my Zune. Upon arriving at the convention center I was immediately struck by how the place was swarming with my ilk. My heart swelled to see so many good people (albeit a bit pale) coming together to geek out over something they love so much. I guess it's a sign of how stressed I've been to say that I wanted to get all teary at the sight of a whole bunch of gaming geeks milling around.

I wasn't at the convention for more than ten minutes before I got to play Rock Band (priorities are priorities, after all). I was there early before the line got totally ridiculous plus I got bumped up to fill out a group of three that needed one more. They were sitting there, ready to go, but looking so sad because they had no lead guitarist. And I, like a true guitar hero, raised my hand as if to say "I will save you!" The song was Learning to Fly by the Foo Fighters, the difficulty was Hard (I didn't have the balls to try out Expert on a new song in front of a crowd that large), our drummer kinda sucked (props to him for trying ), but it was totally awesome.

The Rock Band guitar feels a less solid in heft than the Guitar Hero one, although it looks way cooler. The strum has a lip to it, giving it more grip than the Guitar Hero triangle of slipperiness. The fret buttons don't stick out, making them feel a little more like piano keys than buttons (which I think made them feel more substantial and a bit easier to slide over). I didn't get a chance to try out the mysterious high frets. The whammy bar feels like a real whammy bar, and the guitar has an actual effects switch. If you ignore the fact that it's way too light and seems to be made of too many pieces, it totally feels like a Fender Strat.

As that I was playing lead guitar, I didn't really get much of a chance to feel out the drums or vocals. But the guitar portion was more or less exactly what you get from Guitar Hero. It might have just been due to my virgin run on the song, but it felt like the timing was a little more critical than what I've grown used to. The fret UI indicators also don't seem to stand out as well (either in size or color) compared to Guitar Hero, but again that could just be me resisting change. All in all it felt like a solid round of Guitar Hero but with a whole band behind me.

Totally aglow from my rock experience, I wandered the show floor a bit longer until I found the Wii section… complete with playable Metroid Prime 3. I had to wait in line a bit for this one, which was made extra painful by how bad the guy was in front of me. I don't mean to be too critical, but we weren't resetting the demo after each player so I had to start off wherever he stopped - totally lost, 5 minutes in the opposite direction from where the action was. So I didn't get to sample a great deal of the combat. But I can say that the controls are really smooth. This was my first real Wii shooter, so I can't say how it compares to other games, but I can say that I never felt like I was fighting the controls. The pan regions on the edge felt a little sticky, but by the end of my run I was already compensating for that and moving around like a champ. I did spend a large time staring at a grapple point, frantically trying to figure out what button to press… until I realized that you grapple with a totally hot nunchuck gesture. Apparently I was making it waaay too complicated by thinking in terms of "buttons."

I wandered the floor for a bit longer, and on my way out I just happened to catch the keynote. I hadn't planned on attending, after all what does Wil Wheaton have to say that I need to hear? But I'm totally glad I went, because the speech was awesome. He basically just talked about his life of being a gamer, from dumping his allowance into the arcades to playing Guitar Hero with his kids. He was witty, funny, and completely relatable. And again I was strong by a great sense of camaraderie for all my fellow gamers filling out that theater.

I finished off my evening with wine, steak, and DotA. Unfortunately those people online didn't seem to have heard Wil's "Don't be a dick" message, but it was still a pleasant way to end a pretty awesome day.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Wiimote + Halo = Hot

My friend OBsIV has at last completed his side project to adapt a Wiimote for use on an Xbox 360 to play Halo 2. Check out all the info (complete with a demo video) here.

I haven't had a chance yet to play a shooter on the Wii. Well, unless you count the awesome bunny shooting sequences from Rayman Raving Rabbids. I think I'm just waiting for the perfection of the control scheme in Metroid Prime 3. But maybe I can hold myself over by sticking it to the Covenant wii-style...

First order of business: Convince OBsIV to add a melee Wiimote gesture. Hot!

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Ocean's Thirteen

We love thieves. Not some dude who breaks into your car or pulls a gun on you in a dark alley. Those guys suck. No, we love heist-pulling, safe cracking, masterminding, acrobatically flipping, car chasing thieves. You know, the kind that only exist in movies. They act a whole lot like Bond, all classy, sneaky, and above the law. But instead of saving the world they're sticking it to the man whilst serving themselves.

Ocean's Eleven was a great heist film. A big fancy pants cast with a nice elaborate heist and just the right amount of twists, all set to great music... what's there not to like?

Ocean's Twelve I didn't care for as much. It was fine, but it got a little too elaborate and twisty for my tastes. Plus it lost the unifying goal of nailing the casinos - a villain that we can all easily unite against.

Ocean's Thirteen is a return to the first movie. We're back in Vegas, although this time we're sticking it to Al Pacino instead of Andy Garcia. There are still twists, but not to the extent of "everything you saw in the last 30 minutes was a lie." The scale is much more reasonable… well except that whole business with the Chunnel drill. The result is that the film doesn't have a mega climax with everything is being turned on its head left and right. But I really don't have a problem with that, I love it when a plan comes together. Instead of being on the edge of your seat, Ocean's Thirteen is more like a laid back music video. Pleasant sights and sounds, not too much thinking, but satisfying.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Hot Fuzz

Created by the same people (and sharing some of the same cast) as Shaun of the Dead, I was totally excited for Hot Fuzz, even though I didn't know anything else about it. Which is dangerous, because coming into a movie with expectations of any kind is basically asking for trouble. But Hot Fuzz totally delivered, and is definitely the best movie I've caught in the theater in a long time.

Although Hot Fuzz covers different subject matter than Shaun of the Dead, they are very similar in that they succeed at both honoring and satirizing their respective genres. Just as Shaun of the Dead made a good zombie film, Hot Fuzz is a good action film. It makes good use of the same sort of rhythmic tension building transitions that Shaun had, and the action scenes are simultaneously awesome and hilarious. The characters also get a good amount of development, and are very different characters from Shaun, even though the actors are the same. It's a movie that manages to be many things, but the one thing that it never compromises on is being flat out fun. Seriously, it was awesome - go see it.

The movie was preceded by a trailer for another Simon Pegg movie. And although the trailer pretty much told me nothing, I'm already excited to see more.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Why We Fight

It's been entirely too long since my last post. Work has been very demanding lately, and it's left me tapped. All my critical thinking has been dedicated to my professional life. And I'd bore you with that, but I'd have to kill you afterwards. Which given the general anonymity of the internet is a task that I just don't have the energy for.

So I've been coasting along day to day. And invariably in a time like this the fluff in my Netflix queue sticks me with a bunch of heavy stuff. I'm loathe to switch the brain back on, but eventually I have to succumb. At least afterwards I never regret it.

The film this time was a documentary called Why We Fight. On one level it works to answer the question of how we got to where we are today in Iraq (which is summed up quite well, and you can watch it on YouTube here). But on a deeper level the documentary is an analysis of our gradual slip from an isolationist nation into the self-appointed global police force and what the implications of our militarization has on our social and political structure.

At the heart of the film is President Eisenhower's farewell address, which is startling in its candor… especially in the context of the modern world where our president is a complete tool. Seriously, I ache after hearing real public discourse like that - the kind that builds real confidence in our nation and its future. But one of the key parts of the message of Why We Fight is that there is no villain. The problem lies not in a person but the military-industrial complex - a interdependency of defense industries and politics that's good for business but bad for people.

While it seems that Michael Moore's documentaries lose a good deal of their bite by trying to blame the world's problems on a single person (be it Charlton Heston or George W. Bush), Eugene Jarecki's Why We Fight comes out a lot more sensible. Even Dubya comes off as a victim in this huge military machine that we've built for ourselves. Unfortunately that also makes the solution more complex: there's no motivation in the system to stop, so I guess it's up to We the People to say that spending more than half the budget on defense is officially ridiculous.

I'm finding myself so frequently frustrated with politics these days. I wish that the political wheels turned without having to be so carefully monitored. I realize that I get the majority of my information in entertainment form, but it seems to be the only honest filter out there. I don't have the heart to take it straight. Wrap it up in a joke, work it into a narrative (I caught Syriana a couple weeks ago, which incidentally is another (well told) story of shitty foreign policy)… just do something with it. Well, something other than spread it out over 24 hours of "crap your pants" fear-mongering that is at the same time both too serious and not serious enough. Wait, I take it back - maybe I can take it straight. It's just sad that my only reference of what that would be like is footage of our president from 50 years ago.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

It's about time

It's been almost ten years, but it looks like we're finally getting a sequel to Starcraft. Blizzard announced Starcraft 2 to a huge crowd of giddy Koreans this past weekend. But let's be honest, it's not just the Korean gaming professionals that are excited; Starcraft is one of those games that everyone grooved on for years and is still totally playable today.

As always the cinematic is awesome but tells us nothing. There's a pretty long gameplay demo that gives us a taste of what's in store for the Protoss, but of course that only makes me hunger for more. So far it looks like Starcraft but prettier. But honestly, that's all I really need. Just give me an excuse to play the game that I secretly wish I was still playing anyway.

I've always preferred Starcraft to Warcraft, thematically. Something about that Starship Troopers meets Aliens vibe strikes a chord with me. True, Warcraft got more interesting when they brought in the undead, but there's always a part of me that wish I was rocking it Zerg style. Modernizing this franchise to make it relevant again is pretty darn exciting, and if there would have been an E3 this year, this would have been the biggest news from it.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Comic Book Movies

Rotten Tomatoes posted a nice round up of comic book movies, worst to best. In light of my accusations of Superman sucking, it's interesting to see how all the big franchises stacked up. Here's the filtered list:

88 - Batman & Robin
81 - Superman IV: The Quest for Peace
71 - Superman III
54 - Batman Forever
39 - X-Men: The Last Stand
35 - Spider-Man 3
27 - Batman
24 - Batman - Mask of the Phantasm
23 - Batman Returns
19 - Superman II
17 - Superman Returns
16 - X-Men
9 - Superman: The Movie
8 - Batman Begins
5 - X2: X-Men United
4 - Spider-Man
1 - Spider-Man 2

All in all I'd have to say it's pretty accurate. The new Spider-Man isn't so hot, but the third X-Men was worse. Actually, there seems to be a strong pattern of the third movie sucking bad. But it doesn't have to be that way; it is possible for the third movie to be the best.

Superman is all over the place in the list, spanning pretty good to spectacularly bad. But Superman's top movie isn't as high as Spider-man, X-Men, or Batman's. Why? Because Superman sucks.

Need more proof? Take the average rankings:
  • Superman: 39.4
  • Batman: 37.3
  • X-Men: 20.0
  • Spider-Man: 13.3
It's official.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Guitar Hero II (Xbox 360)

It's hard to really explain how much I love Guitar Hero II. But I don't really have to, because everyone else seems to as well (reviews: GameSpot, GameSpy, GameRankings). It's one of those games that anyone can play and have a blast. I played the first Guitar Hero for the PS2, which totally rocked, but the sequel's arrival on the Xbox 360 is a distinct upgrade. The graphics are totally better, although that's more a feature for the spectators, not the player. There's a cooperative mode where one player can play lead and the other can play rhythm or bass. There are more songs. As a 360 title there are achievements, which are well balanced. There are also leaderboards where you can size yourself up against your friends or the whole world (I'm currently ranked around 13,000). The gameplay itself is more of the same, but no one's complaining about that.

There's no doubt that Guitar Hero II is a great game. But its popularity opens it up to high scrutiny, and there's a lot of controversy around some of the features. Two of the most obvious additions for a 360 based Guitar Hero would be wireless controller and downloadable content. The lack of a wireless controller I've come to terms with, since real guitars aren't wireless. But there's been a ton of controversy around the pricing of the downloadable tracks. If you applied the pricing they're using to the 50 songs that came with the game it would cost over $100 to download them, yet the game with the guitar was only $90. You can debate how much one of these songs should cost, but no matter what number you arrive at it sure shouldn't be more than the current box price. I want downloadable content, I do. I bought the tracks that are available, as overpriced as they are. I will happily re-purchase all the tracks from the first Guitar Hero, because I see the value of having them instrumented for coop and whatnot. But I'd rather not get gouged in the process.

As I've mentioned before there's also some controversy over Guitar Hero II's unlockable content. I personally felt the pain of that the first time I tried to plop down on a different Xbox and play multiplayer. Your experience is pretty limited when you start out with only a fifth of the songs. And you can't unlock new songs via multiplayer - you have to go antisocial and unlock them in singleplayer first. There's supposedly an unlock all cheat code, but I could never get it to work. The best way I've found to handle this is to put your save game on a memory stick and carry that with you. But even then only one person gets credit for coop unlockables. Coop is an absolute blast, so it's a shame they didn't iron out more of the kinks.

The problems are minor in the grand scheme of things as they don't prevent the game from being fun. I guess it just gives the developer some stuff to smooth out in the software for Guitar Hero III. My only question with Guitar Hero is when can I get more of it? Are we going to get more downloadable tracks? What about the awesomeness that is Guitar Hero 80's? Is their strategy to sell yearly discs or to rock the downloadable content? It honestly doesn't matter to me, as long as I can get my fix. So far it seems my appetite for Guitar Hero is insatiable.

Friday, May 11, 2007

No Spore This Year

Unfortunately it's been reported that Spore isn't releasing this year. Which bums me out because I've really been looking forward to it. Oh well, the revolution will have to wait another year :(

If you don't know what Spore is, well, it's time you found out about it. Seeing it end to end for the first time can be a religious experience. But given that people might have various levels of interest, I'll give you some choices:
  • Original full presentation - The hour long GDC 2005 talk by Will Wright. If you're a geek like me, you'll appreciate the whole back story and all the commentary on procedural methodology.
  • Original demo - The half hour demo portion from the above 2005 presentation
  • Gameplay clips - Three minute reel from GDC 2007
  • Flash Movie - Only like a minute long, but does a surprisingly good job of summing up what the game is all about

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

An Inconvenient Truth

I'm a bit behind the times, because I only just got around to seeing An Inconvenient Truth. It's definitely a "must see." Not like "must see TV," more like "must see or we'll all die."

The picture Gore paints is pretty grim, but it comes off as informational rather than sensational. The film works very well for raising awareness, but not so well as a call to action, leaving you with this "now what?" feeling. But that's probably a smart decision. By choosing to concentrate on presenting the non-debatable facts the film doesn't give people much room to question whether we have a serious problem on our hands. But what to do about is mostly left as an exercise for the reader.

The one firm call to action is to visit the web site, which in general focuses on small things you can do, not large lifestyle changes. That's cool, I guess, but that's kinda like trying to lose weight by switching to low fat cookies instead of, you know, diet and exercise. Now I'm not saying the solution has to be unnatural liposuction (Which I guess in this context would be what? Stop driving cars altogether? "Reducing" the world's population by half?). There has to be some achievable middle ground. But to think that we can fix this problem by switching to a different kind of light bulb is pretty naïve. We should do those little things, but they're not going to be enough.

The title of the film is perfect: there's a clear truth here and it is pretty damn inconvenient. The facts presented to us demand that we change. What worries me most is that I don't think people are naturally good at change or compromise... especially Americans. Our whole culture is founded on stubborn individualism. Our days of driving huge cars everywhere to eat heavily packaged fast food have to come to an end. And I don't trust the average American to let that go. Which I guess means we're all gonna die... which is also pretty darn inconvenient. Drat.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Tags, Feeds, Oh My!

If you're subscribed to my feed, you probably got a barrage of old posts this weekend. That's because I went over all my posts and did a sanity check on the tags. In particular I added the inverse of the "game" tag: "notgame". There are a number of people who have told me that they like the blog but can't make heads or tails of the gaming stuff. And as far as I can tell you can't get a link to posts without a particular tag, so I figured a special tag would have to do. From what I can tell you can't seem to get a feed on a filtered view of the blog, but I guess that's the price you pay. You'll just have to ping this page manually.

I also added a tags list in the sidebar to the right. It's kinda low tech; I'll have to do some research to figure out how to add a Flickr-style tag view.

Where to go from here?

I blogged before about how MMO's need achievements. And it sounds like the new Lord of the Rings MMORPG is delivering just that. It also helps that it's based in the very rich world of Middle Earth. So, I'm tempted…

But I don’t know if I have the energy to start another one of these games. I've been playing WoW for two years now, and for a large chunk of that time it was pretty much the only game I played. Which is not how I like to operate. I'd rather experience a variety of different stories than be entrenched in one ongoing epic. It took me awhile to break free from its grasp, and I don't want to fall back into bad habits again.

I'm at a turning point with WoW. When the expansion came out I set a goal for myself that I would delay the inevitable endgame grind as much as possible by staying focusing on seeing all the content. This weekend I completed one of the primary goals I set for myself: run all the (non-hardcore) instances. And I already finished off my single player questing goals weeks ago (the only quests left in my log are the group quests that are impossible to find groups for). I need to decide if I want to take a crack at Karazhan, but besides that I've reached the end of the content. I've essentially seen all there is to see without spending an absurd amount of time grinding to the next tier. And I'm not really interested in taking another character through the same old stuff again, which is how I handed the pre-Burning Crusade level cap.

My plan right now is to put my WoW account into hibernate and only pop in as they bring more content online. But new stuff comes along rarely, so it sounds like I won't be playing much WoW. The question I'm posed with now is do I hang up my MMO hat or do I pursue the next evolution that is Lord of the Rings Online?

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Now Playing

GameSpy has a periodic article that they do called What We're Playing where all the staff weighs in on what games they're playing (aptly named, yes). I find it interesting because comparing all their lists can give you an idea of what games have broad and/or lasting value. But it's also nice because you get little two sentence impressions without the pressure of a full preview or review. And as I continue this blog I'm seeing the value in that from their end. I try to complete every game I come across and have something interesting to say, but sometimes the journey to get there is so long that it's worth throwing in offhand comments along the way.

Guitar Hero II (360): It's hard to say how much I love this game. Currently I'm working on 5-starring Hard and scraping by in Expert (currently in tier 6). Both of which are totally owning me, so I don't know if I'm gonna make it, but it's still fun anyway. Seriously, if you have a 360, get this game.

Command & Conquer 3 (PC): I'm towards the end of the GDI campaign. The game totally brings together the classic C&C setting with streamlined gameplay from Generals. However it does seem like I can always succeed by just turtling and then building the uber army (no unit caps FTW?).

Final Fantasy V Advance (GBA): Holy crap old school RPGs are long; I've been playing this one pretty solid during my commute for months. But at least the job system is interesting, making me feel like I'm not grinding the whole time. After killing lots of time getting uber job combos and all the legendary weapons I'm finally enroute to the final boss.

World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade (PC): I'm actually approaching my criteria for being "done" with the game. I've completed every soloable quest in Outland and most of the group quests, leaving me for a relatively small quest log. It's actually kinda annoying because there's no longer a point for me to play at any time other than in a group. The stuff coming in the next patch looks interesting, but outside of that I may end up putting this game down for awhile after a couple weekends more.

Twilight Princes (Wii): Haven't got back to this for a couple weeks because of other games. I've only finished the first dungeon so I've got a lot ahead of me. I'm not yet sold on the wiimote gestures for fighting but everything else seems pretty good.

Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin (DS): In my commute time I've decided to put this on hold so that I can focus completely on finishing FFV. But I'm eager to return to it as that I had a good time with its predecessor.

Friday, April 27, 2007


You know what's cool? Threadless.
You know what's not cool? Ripping off Threadless.

That's low.

But that's okay, because we can make up new ones faster than they can copy them.

Trauma Center: Second Opinion (Wii)

There was an article over on GameSpy awhile back about how innovation in games is overrated And I agree with them - there's nothing wrong with an incremental evolution of an old formula. But it is quite refreshing when something totally different comes along. Trauma Center: Second Opinion is one of those games (links: GameSpot, GameSpy, GameFly). In it you play the role of surgeon, using your wiimote to slice, dice, and stitch your patients into good health. It's the sort of experience that couldn't really happen on any other platform (save the DS).

I was surprised by how approachable they made a game about surgery. I've had people with almost no experience with the Wii jump in and start removing tumors in a matter of minutes. The controls are easy to pick up, but the game is crazy intense. You've got this clock ticking down, the heartbeat monitor beeping, and if you screw up this person is dead. Well, not quite; if you lose a senior doctor scolds you and takes over… even after you've become world renowned super surgeon. I guess they figured the whole "Game Over" screen meaning "You Lost a Patient" would be too much for people to bear. Instead they put in probably the most ego destroying Game Over message ever. But all of this together just builds together to make you feel like a total badass for every operation you complete successfully.

You may feel like a super surgeon while playing the game, but it's a far cry from being medically accurate. I'm pretty sure that most illnesses are not caused by medical terrorism. And I'm positive I've never seen anyone on Scrubs fix anyone by removing biologically engineered creepy crawlies (and obviously Scrubs is the bastion of medical legitimacy). So if you're looking to use this game as training for your future career in medicine… well, good luck with that. I just hope I don't find myself on the other end in the O.R. with some Trauma Center grad smothering antibiotic gel on anything that moves.

Occupation viability aside, Trauma Center is an easy game to recommend. It's fun, makes great use of the wiimote, scales to different skill levels, and is basically unlike anything else out there. Plus chicks dig surgeons.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Geek out: Master Chief vs. Samus

If you're capable of geeking out over video game stuff, then definitely watch this video. Having done my own game character matchup ages ago, I can definitely appreciate how much more badass this guy's video is.

Stopping to smell the roses

The Washington Post had a very interesting article (which I found via Raph Koster's gaming blog, of all places) describing an experiment they did to essentially see if people would inconvenience themselves for something unexpected and beautiful. They took a world renowned violinist and plopped him down as a street musician in a commuter packed metro station. It's a really interesting article, so you should just go read it.

There's a lot to think about in that article. But I'm going to take a tangent off of one small comment from it on our willingness to experience new things:

"For many of us, the explosion in technology has perversely limited, not expanded, our exposure to new experiences. Increasingly, we get our news from sources that think as we already do. And with iPods, we hear what we already know; we program our own playlists."

It's one of those odd human truths that at some point in everyone's life they experience a cut off point past which they cease seeking out new things (in particular, music). It's the scariest thing to me about aging. Having my body fall apart pales in comparison to losing my desire for new experiences. The unknown and unfamiliar are particularly uncomfortable things for me, but I consider it part of my human journey to push myself and try to grow as much as possible.

It's ironic that our technological revolution has empowered individuals so much that we're growing apart and losing our ability to do anything truly interesting with that technology. Technology has always been pioneered by the socially inept (i.e. nerds). But the time has come to blow past that and start making technology something social and collaborative. Most of the interesting individual software pieces have already be written - the true next frontier is technology working together, and technology working for real people. And this technology can't just aim to satisfy our every selfish indulgence - we should have software that actually makes us better people.

There's so much to be done here. In the realm of music, Pandora has made a great start. The whole concept of "play me something that I want to hear, but haven't necessarily heard before" is brilliant. It needs to explode into other places. Movies, TV, news, food… really just about everything is in need of some quality individually-tailored recommendation system. All the content is there - the problem is that no human can parse all the information available today. People will stick with what they know because finding something else is too hard. We need to make it easy.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Why Superman sucks

I recently caught Unbreakable on TV. I'd forgotten how much I enjoy that movie. It's so… understated. I guess you could say it's about a superhero, in that you've got a person with a superhuman ability who does something heroic. But that sounds too grandiose. It's more like the story a dude who learns something about himself and does some stuff. At no point would a moment where this guy gets into yellow spandex or form fitting leather seem normal. For a comic book themed movie it's very down to earth.

Comic book movies got a resurgence after the releases of X-Men and Spider-man back in 2000 or so. Everyone on some level likes these kinds of stories, because the underlying message is plain and simple: "you're special." But if you just blindly go for the whole superhero theme, you're missing the point. X-Men is great because each character has a ridiculously specific power that often alone would be useless (making much of it about character interactions), and it's also got this interesting political story of the how the many treat the few. Spider-man is great because the character is a total geek (young, awkward, and flawed), but also because his heroics are on a small human scale. Both these franchises are relatable on some level. Especially in the beginning, where it's basically just glorified adolescent awkwardness. The discovery portion is consistently entertaining, but afterwards… not so much. When it goes from personal to epic… ugh.

And of course we've got Batman. He doesn't even have super powers… unless money counts as a super power. He's rich and pissed off - what's not to like? Well, when he gets too campy, that's no fun. As long as its dark, gothic, morally ambiguous batman… that's good stuff. Again, imperfection is relatable.

So far so good, but then there's Superman. Superman can do everything. He can fly, melt stuff with his eyes, deflect bullets, lift just about anything, and of course rewind time by flying around the sun real fast. He's so ridiculously overpowered that they had to write in some crazy green crystal to give him a weakness. And on top of this he has the most boringly good personality ever. Why should we care about this guy? Honestly, who gives a crap? I get that in the beginning he came in a time where we needed heroes, and that he wasn't always so ridiculously super. But at this point I'd rather we just call it quits and never return to this franchise ever again.

These days we have Heroes. It's part Unbreakable, part X-Men. And the TV format lets us spend more time getting to know the characters. The announcer for the commercials and spoilers drives me nuts, but the actual content of the show is quite good. They stuck us with a big break mid season, but thankfully there's only a week left before I can get my fix again. I just hope they don't all meet up to form a Justice League to discuss their new spandex uniforms.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Mario lands on the Wii

Technically our good friend Mario has been available on the Wii since launch via the Virtual Console. But as far as most people are concerned the first new Mario game for the Wii will be Super Mario Galaxy. Which isn't quite true. Mario's on the Wii now in the form of Super Paper Mario (links: GameSpot, GameSpy, GameFly).

While Galaxy is going to be a jaw dropping 3D glitz explosion, Paper Mario is low tech. That's not to say it looks bad - its flatness is quite charming. For those of you that played Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door on the GameCube, you know exactly what I'm talking about. But instead of being an RPG with some platformer elements, Super Paper Mario is a platformer with some RPG elements. In other words, it should appeal to more people. I found The Thousand Year Door to be a high quality RPG, but RPGs aren't for everyone.

And given that it's primarily 2D, Super Paper Mario may hit that sweet spot that New Super Mario Bros did for the DS: simple and classic. I haven't had a go at Mario's new Wii adventure, so I can't say for sure. But consider it at the top of my queue.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Unlockable Content

Penny Arcade's post today stirred some thoughts on the whole concept of "unlocking" in games.

It’s pretty standard practice these days. Not all of the content of the game is available at the beginning and you have to do something to make it available. In some situations that’s totally natural. In a sense the whole RPG game mechanic is based around unlocking content. But when the content isn’t naturally tied into game balance it does raise some questions.

The source of this recent round of discussion has been around Guitar Hero II. When you pop in the game, only a handful of songs are available and you have to beat them to unlock more. And you really have to crank up the difficulty if you want to be able to unlock everything. This isn’t anything new – the first Guitar Hero was this way and so are many other rhythm/singing games. But is this cheating you out of content that you should be able to access right out of the box?

I have mixed feelings about this. From a singleplayer perspective I enjoy the challenge of having to work through a progression of harder and harder content. I like that it took some work to get my reward (as long it was fun, not work). But from a multiplayer perspective I find it extremely annoying when I can’t just jump into the action with my friends right out of the box. Warioware, for example, requires that you essentially clear the entire singleplayer experience before being able to do any multiplayer at all.

So essentially I feel that unlocking is a nice incentive for personal growth, but should never get in the way of social gaming. And when you think about those personal milestones, we already have a system to reward those: Xbox 360 achievements. So in the modern world of account-based gaming is the whole concept of unlocking irrelevant? I think partially yes, but not completely. In my recent run through Saints Row I liked the fact that completing activities netted me both acheivement points and new outfits, cars, weapons, and whatever. But in this case the bonus content is the minority, not the majority. So I think there's still a place for unlockable content, but only on the periphery. Solve those whole personal milestones with non-gameplay currency (i.e. achievement points).