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).

Saints Row (Xbox 360)

I actually finished Saints Row a couple weeks ago, but I felt compelled to keep playing it because there was just so much extra stuff to do (links: GameSpot, GameSpy, GameFly). The game is an unabashed GTA clone, but it's a pretty decent one. It nails all the core elements of driving and shooting, and gives you plenty of varied missions. It doesn't hit the strong thematic stride of Vice City or San Andreas, making it feel more like GTA III but with more contemporary gameplay.

In many areas the gameplay is even more polished than the latest GTA game. Your map is very interactive and lets you set waypoints that will actually map out driving directions. The customization allowed on your character is very impressive, enabling you to craft whatever thug your heart desires. But it's not all an upgrade - Saints Row definitely suffers from a lack of a mid-mission check point system. There's nothing more obnoxious than a difficult mission that starts over with a long cross-city drive every time.

There was nothing particularly wrong with the story, character models, or voice actors. They were all passable, and sometimes even good. But the dialogue suffered from extreme Mountain Dew syndrome. It's as if someone decently talented wrote the script, but then afterwards marketing came through and marked it up with "cock sucker" this and "muthafucka" that. And I'm not even talking the casually swearing - that's a given. It's more the random Tourette's outbursts. Basically every cut scene had at least one, and it was totally unnecessary. As if a game revolving around gang violence wasn't "hardcore" enough.

The radio stations have always been one of the most entertaining parts of the GTA series, and here Saints Row falls short. The track selection just isn't that good (and I mean in quality, not quantity). In Vice City I would find myself still grooving to a song even after the 20th time; in Saints Row most of the tracks grew tiring a couple seconds in. The one exception was the classical station - which is always perfect for gang banging. I have a great memory of toying with a policeman by letting him chase me on foot as I slowly backed up to the tune of "Ride of the Valkyries."

The side missions in Saints Row are definitely noteworthy. These aren't just the tried and true taxi and ambulance circuits. There's ho stealing, drug running, depraved senator escorting, and much much more. But my favorite was "insurance fraud," where you throw yourself down stairs and in front of cars to make the most believable injury with the most witnesses. If that's not fun, I don't know what is.

Saints Row is graphically pretty buggy. So much so that someone even wrote a musical about it. I also thought it was odd that when your cars got beat up sometimes instead of a crumpled hood they looked more like a wrinkled shirt. But whatever - none of the bugs ever got in the way of the gameplay.

Overall Saints Row was a pleasant experience. The content of this type of game is totally violent. And juvenile. And offensive. And socially backwards in about every way. But it's fun. It's true, I wish there were more game developers that picked up the sandbox format and applied it in a less delinquent way, as with Simpsons Hit & Run. But in the meantime since I personally am not in danger of gang banging in my real life, I'll gleefully continue pimping hos and rolling deep in my virtual one.