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.