Sunday, March 30, 2008

Rock Band (Xbox 360)

Back in December I was harsh to Guitar Hero III, but with good reason. By the time I was trying to write down my thoughts on Guitar Hero I had already started playing Rock Band. And Rock Band blows Guitar Hero out of the water.

Let me put it this way. There's actually a PS2 version of Rock Band. It has the core gameplay, but lacks the online multiplayer, deep character customization, world tour mode, and downloadable content. You know what that sounds like to me? Guitar Hero… but with more instruments. I'm sure it's still plenty of fun (and I'm glad that a similar version is making its way to the Wii), but that feature set really impressed upon me how far ahead Rock Band really is.

The full Rock Band kit costs a pretty penny, it's true. But I think that even if you were only to play Rock Band with a guitar it'd still be a better value than Guitar Hero. The tracks aren't all guitar showpieces, and the upper echelon of difficulty isn't as ridiculous as Guitar Hero III. But the things surrounding the core guitar gameplay are way better. Your character may not be as flamboyant as the premades in Guitar Hero III, but you'll have a deeper connection with them through your fine level personal touches. The stages may not be as grandiose as Guitar Hero's, but the band members move more believably and the action is shot in a way that actually responds to the music. The fretwork may be less furious , but that's because you're not barraged with awful metal songs. Songs in Rock Band are better on average because they have to be well rounded in order to be enjoyed by a group. And if you don't like them, go hit up the weekly downloadable tracks and customize the track list to your liking. And if you do eventually tire of just playing the guitar, you can try out the vocal career with that headset that came with your Xbox. Even without getting the drums that's still a ton more game for your $60.

I'm not sure why I'm so stuck on defensively comparing Rock Band to Guitar Hero. Guitar Hero is fun, and it's awesome that it's become a cultural phenomenon. I'll still totally rent the Guitar Hero expansions that come out. But I'm pretty sure the Guitar Hero franchise is going nowhere.

Enough of my negativity… let's talk Rock Band.

Rock Band is the ultimate party game. Because there are three different types of instruments, pretty much anyone can find something that appeals to them. Eventually you'll get sick of strumming or whatever, but change up your instrument and it's blue skies again. Add some DLC so that the song list doesn't get repetitive and you've got hours and hours of fun.

I do wish there was a better way to teach people on the fly, because in a party setting you'll get people rotating in that need some hand holding before they can survive on easy. If they take down the band they'll get frustrated and/or embarrassed and quit. The game needs a "Don't boo off my aunt" setting. Or some sort of mode that shows "here's what you did, and here's what you were supposed to be doing…"

You can go all night just playing song after song, but there's also a World Tour story mode. In it you go around world playing gigs to earn fans, fame, and money. It's a cool idea, and it was really fun at first. But after a while you get stuck with lots of lengthy gigs and songs you don't want to play. If there were shorter set lists or more customization options this would be a great party mode with a sense of progress.

Something I really appreciate about Rock Band is that it's reasonable about achievements and unlockables. I jumped right into Expert guitar in the solo mode but got stuck on the very last song (which is fun right until it gets completely obnoxious at 90%). Were this Guitar Hero, I'd be screwed and have to start over from the beginning on Hard. But in Rock Band I was able to drop the difficulty and finish off just that tier, which gave me credit for Hard, Medium, and Easy. Thank you Rock Band, for not being a dick.

Now that they've patched in an integrated music store, I'm not sure what more I want from Rock Band. I'd like to see the World Tour mode go online and get more variety. And of course more songs is always nice, but I'm pretty happy with the steady flow of a la carte tracks. A free play mode on drums would be fun. I also wouldn't mind a return of some of the stats added in Guitar Hero 2, where you could see what parts you needed to work on. But overall I'm totally content. I've been playing Rock Band pretty steadily for the last four months and I'm nowhere near bored with it.

Rock Band will change how you listen to music (so will playing an instrument, but Rock Band is much more accessible). You'll find yourself listening to the different parts of a song and thinking about how awesome it would be to play. Your idly drumming fingers will develop form and purpose. You'll love some songs you used to hate and hate some songs you used to love. You'll sign internet petitions to get The Darkness added to the DLC. You'll wonder when the manager of Led Zeppelin's digital content will get their head out of their ass. You'll wear eye liner to work and tell people that you're in a band. You'll start snorting lines of coke off of hookers and… okay, maybe not all of that will happen. Your mileage may vary. But it's a damned fine game, no doubt.

GameTrailers Retrospectives

The fine folks over at GameTrailers have really been outdoing themselves with their Retrospectives. It's kind of like watching the History Channel for games. The production level on the videos is really high so if you're at all interested in the subject matter I recommend you check them out.

They recently kicked off a new retrospective on Star Wars in gaming. There's about a bajillion Star Wars video games out there, so it's no small feat to chronicle all of them. They're two episodes into the retrospective currently, and you can start watching here.

While you wait two weeks for the next installment you can watch these completed retrospectives:

Saturday, March 29, 2008


I'd like to say that monster movies traditionally had a sophisticated sense of suspense and restraint, and that the modern CG movie has ruined that. But let's be honest, monster movies have always been extremely dependent on special effects (even before the computer got involved), and they've always been about as sophisticated as a steaming pile of poo. However I do think that modern moviemaking technology has led to showing off the monsters too often and too early. The movie makers are no longer worried about you noticing that it's just a Dude In A Suit, so they justify ramming their overly glossy 3D animation down your throat.

Enter Cloverfield, modern monster movie brought to us by Lost's J. J. Abrams. And you know what? It's good.

The twist to Cloverfield is that the entire film is experienced through a camcorder held by one of the characters. As a viewer you're never yanked from that single storyline. And, more importantly, you're never granted a viewpoint beyond what the characters would experience. It's very immersive, if sometimes a bit nauseating due to the shaky camera work. The result is that the moments when the monster is obscured seem contextually appropriate. It's the result of panicked amateur camerawork, not an arbitrary restriction in an otherwise cinematic wide-angle production.

Cloverfield has all the ingredients of a good monster flick: a cool monster, lots of mystery and suspense, and key characters dying left and right. Which is important, because as far as I'm concerned It's just not a real monster movie if everyone survives intact. Seriously, no happy endings allowed. I'll accept bittersweet, like when the survivors struggle between feelings of both victory and loss. That's fine. But if the entire cast is all alive and well (covered in soot, grime, and blood, of course), then that's just not good enough. I demand a sacrifice!

Monday, March 17, 2008

Now Playing

It's time again to filled you in on what I've been playing.

Tabula Rasa (PC)
As was probably clear from my review, I've really been enjoying this MMO. The aesthetics, which I had criticized, got more interesting when I finally got off-planet. It's still nowhere near as consistently inspired as WoW, but it's a bit better. I'm very close to the next class split, which will mean that I can finally get my flamethrower. Believe me, I am stoked to flame some fools, but even if it's not as awesome as it is in my head I can always flip over to one of my clones and experiment with a different class branch. The game has gotten a little more grindy as I've approached level 30, but it still moves along way faster than any other MMO.

There was a bit of news a month ago that NCSoft would be making a console MMO. And I think that there's a good chance that could be a port of Tabula Rasa. I've never played an MMO so apt for console play; the interface would be a no brainer to map to a controller. It's true that there are other challenges in bringing an online persistent game to the consoles, but most people write off the possibility of a console MMO because of the interface, and Tabula Rasa wouldn't have that problem.

Lord of the Rings Online (PC)
Actually, I'm not playing LotRO. I officially canceled my subscription last week. LotRO was always a bit on the slow side, but after playing Tabula Rasa I just couldn't handle it. I couldn't even power through one more level to make a clean 40. So I decided to call it quits. I'm not sure if the recently announced expansion will be enough to lure me back. I totally want to explore Moria, but I don't know if that'll be enough. I've already written about what I think is wrong with the game, but don't be surprised if you see more posts as I examine it further, even if I'm no longer playing it.

Rock Band (Xbox360)
It's amazing that I haven't posted a review of Rock Band yet. But I usually only write about a game when I'm done with it… and I'm still playing a ton of Rock Band after all these months. The weekly DLC has definitely help keep it fresh. With so many tracks and so many ways to perform them, this game ain't going anywhere anytime soon. But yes, I will get off my duff and post a proper review.

Smash Bros Brawl (Wii)
I played the crap out of Smash Bros Melee on the Gamecube, which firmly planted Brawl as one of my most anticipated Wii titles. It hasn't disappointed me yet. That's not to say that it's exceeded any expectations - it's met them precisely. Basically it's exactly like Melee except with a couple more small features. It's more of the same, so if you loved Melee you'll love Brawl.

I haven't used my DS in months. When work was crazy I got into the habit of working on my laptop on the bus instead of playing. Unfortunately the habit stayed even after things calmed down. I'll probably have to pick up something like Phantom Hourglass to get my motivated again, because Portrait of Ruin wasn't cutting it.

Pile of Shame
Here are the games that somehow got pushed to the side and I haven't given the attention they deserve:

There was certainly a long period of there being no high quality Wii titles. But it seems that when they finally did come out I wasn't ready for them.

Review Backlog
Given the large list of AAA titles from last fall, I'm a little behind on my reviews. Here's the list of games that are pending a write-up:

Monday, March 10, 2008

Most Wanted Games of 2008

A year ago I posted about the Most Wanted Games of 2007. There's no doubt 2007 was an epic year of gaming, but how did the list fare? Well, more than half made the cut for 2007:

I managed to play all of those except God of War II and Phantom Hourglass (both still sitting in my queue, of course). None of them disappointed (C&C3 was probably the least impressive, but was in no way bad). And there were some great surprises that came along after the list was made (um, hello Rock Band?).

What about the titles that didn't make it? Here they are:

Definitely all games still worth being excited about. Burnout released about a month ago to general praise, and Brawl hit stores this last weekend. Both GTA and Spore have set release dates, so it's looking like there will be some serious heavy hitters in 2008.

GameSpy did another roundup, so I went through their new list. Here's a sampling:

Totally absent from the list seems to be "More Rock Band," but I think they're only operating on officially announced titles.

It's not quite as epic as 2007, but it's still pretty impressive. There are three titles in there that haven't seen love in ages (Starcraft, Street Fighter, and Fallout). I'm not really into fighters, but Street Fighter's nostalgia mixed with a sweet inky art style puts it on the list, even if I'll take Brawl over it any day. WoW doesn't have the hold over me it once did, and I'm presently smitten with Tabula Rasa, but I'll definitely be tempted by some more high quality Blizzard content. Speaking of which, Starcraft 2… hell yeah.

Last year I picked Spore as my most wanted game. And I'm sticking to that, even if Starcraft 2 tempts me with something familiar and safe. The expectations for Spore are ridiculous, but it can fall pretty far from the mark and still be revolutionary. Thankfully there's plenty to keep me busy between now and September.

Gaming Podcast Roundup

The new Zune software has added support for podcasts, so I've been spending the last couple months trying to find the right podcasts for me. Finding podcasts is really easy, but finding a small set of good ones to listen to regularly is no small feat. To really decide if you like a particular podcast or not it generally takes listening to a couple episodes, each with a running time that is often an hour or more. And there are hundreds of podcasts on each conceivable topic out there.

As that ninja humor is already well covered, I figured the next thing to do was nail down a couple solid gaming podcasts to introduce into my commute. And I'm here today to share my findings with you. Note that all the podcast links in this post are set up to subscribe in Zune.

GameSpot HotSpot (audio)
As you can see from watching their video reviews, GameSpot has a lot of down-to-earth gamers in its employ. Well, they did. There's a good chance you heard the drama of Jeff Gerstmann's firing, and since then my other favorites Alex Navarro and Ryan Davis have also left. It's sad, because a lot of podcasts try to have fun and joke around, but the GameSpot crew was one of the few to actually pull it off without being obnoxious. This was one of my favorite podcasts, but the best people from it are gone, and I haven't had the heart to listen to it since. It looks like Ryan Davis is trying to recreate the magic outside of GameSpot with his Arrow Pointing Down podcast, but I haven't had a chance to listen to it yet.

1UP Yours (audio)
1UP Yours has become one of my favorite shows, primarily because the hosts are knowledgeable, well-spoken, engaged, and keep the show mostly focused on their personal gaming experiences (every show opens up with "What You've Been Playing"). I like that these guys talk about deeper social and political gaming topics. The only real downside is that they're so immersed in the gaming industry that they can be a bit jaded and pretentious.

Achievement Junkie (audio)
There isn't a podcast out there that I've listened to with hosts more likeable than Nelson and Natalie. There's plenty of witty banter between them, and they know to not take themselves or the gaming industry too seriously. Despite what the title might lead you to believe, they're more casual gamers than hardcore achievement whores. Best of all, this is one of the few podcasts that is consistent in its length. Every episode is somewhere around half an hour or forty five minutes long. You'd assume that all podcasts follow that pattern, but no - most of them meander on for well over an hour. I appreciate that Achievement Junkie is succinct. The downside? Well, I'm none to fond of my listening experience being broken up by Navy ads, and the prerecorded segments by the non-hosts are lame.

Major Nelson (audio)
This is one of the highest profile gaming podcasts. It's well produced and moves along at a good pace. Unfortunately as that Major Nelson is Xbox's official voice, he can't really say anything controversial. The result is that the podcast ends up sounding a little too much like an clinical corporate Xbox ad, devoid of personality.

Joystiq (audio)
I already read Joystiq for my gaming news, so listening to their podcast is pretty redundant. And fundamentally reading news is far more efficient than listening to it, so there's nothing to be gained from this podcast.

ScrewAttack (audio)
I really enjoy ScrewAttack's excellent Video Game Vault videos, and the charming duo also has an audio podcast. Unfortunately the depth of content isn't up to the level of their video productions. As far as Listening To Dudes Talk it's pretty decent, but that's about all it is. They actually spend a surprisingly small chunk of the time talking about games, with a stronger focus on supporting their website community's contests, events, and such. Which is cool if you're plugged into that community, but not so useful otherwise. What I really want is a podcast feed of their videos, and I have yet to find one. It'd be sweet if I could automatically get content like the Angry Video Game Nerd's awesome coverage of Ghostbusters to take with me on the go.

GameSpy Debriefing (audio)
I tuned into this one and got undirected ramblings by uncharismatic people. I couldn't even make it through a full episode. I feel a little guilty not giving them another chance, but frankly there are too many podcasts to sort through.

Video Game Outsiders (audio)
This podcast features a trio of Geek, Girl, and Loud Mouthed Annoying Guy. They see the world through very different eyes than the rest of the gaming press, which makes for sometimes entertaining, sometimes awkward arguments. Their main hook is supposed to be that they are casual gamers, but after two years of doing a weekly podcast they've started to crossover into the hardcore. As a result I have a hard time figuring out who their audience is. I do appreciate that they focus on their personal game playing experiences and don't waste much time on news. That's not to say that they don't waste time though, because this podcast runs way too long.

My main problem with this podcast is that I flat out don't like one of the hosts. He's stubborn, can't see the world through anyone else's eyes, and steamrolls over anyone else when he disagrees with them (sadly the geeky host can't articulate himself well enough to fight back). He's also extremely inconsistent, spouting praise for a game one week and then totally indifferent towards it the next. Really, he's just a terrible person and single handedly ruins this podcast for me. But I somehow can't seem to bring myself to unsubscribe from this fascinating train wreck.

GameTrailers Video Reviews (video)
This isn't really a podcast, but it is a great way to get awesome video content onto your Zune. GameTrailers stitches together great video reviews, and they're not to be missed. I only wish that they reviewed more titles so I could make more of my rental decisions this way.

1UP Show (video)
This video podcast has great production values and interesting (if sometimes pretentious) people. Unfortunately it runs a little long for a video podcast, so I never end up watching it. The few times I have had the time I enjoyed it.

The Wiicast (video)
Tragic. Totally, utterly tragic. Couldn't make it through a full episode. But I will say that the show that recently slammed The Wiicast is even worse.

Well, that sums up all the podcasts I've been sorting through. I've learned a lot about what I do and do not like from my podcasts. A set of people with spontaneous banter is good, but not if it means showboating or epic overtime. I have a preference for audio podcasts because they don't demand my full attention. I'm actually surprised that I haven't found a good audio review podcast. I'm fine reading my news, as that most of it gets filtered out by headline anyway, but I wouldn't mind having reviews or general editorial content just flat out read to me so I can listen to them on the go.

As of today my running favorites are 1UP Yours and Achievement Junkie. They aren't without their faults, but they have a consistent level of quality. There's about a bajillion other podcasts out there that are also worth a whirl, but for now I need to stop the insanity and focus on enjoying the few I've landed on.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Running With Scissors

I don't read as often as I'd like, but that's not the only reason you don't see many book reviews on this blog. Although reading a book involves a similar time commitment to that of a video game, I usually don't find myself with much to say after I've finished a book. I think that's partially because for me books are more personal, and any description of them is littered with comments of "well, you really had to be there." In contrast, games have such technically measurable attributes that it's easier to arrive at some sort of review structure.

I guess it takes a movie to push me over the edge, because I wouldn't be sitting here today to talk about Running With Scissors if it weren't for it's recent film adaptation. I enjoyed the book, but I just didn't have much to say about it. But the movie got me all riled up.

The epic memoir that is Running With Scissors puts you in an odd spot as a reader. The events are so outlandish that you're not really sure if you're supposed to be laughing or crying. But of course the subtle cues of the book cover tilted me a certain way. A kid with a cardboard box over his head… that means I should be laughing (because boxes are funny, duh). The back of the book reinforced this with quotes like "ridiculously funny", "hilarious", and "loony." Okay, so we're supposed to laugh at this guy's crazy tragic life story. I'm down.

Enter the movie, which tells the exact same story, but this time with moody music and tearful introspection. Had I not read the book, I probably wouldn't have noticed, but I did, and the tone of the movie is an insult to the story as it exists in my head. Someone spoiled the whole thing with a pity party. Don't get me wrong, Augusten's story is a terrible one. But in reading the book I didn't believe he felt it to be so. When you're a kid, and you have no context, you don't know what's normal and what's not. He proceeded through his life the same as any other, laughing away his crazy surroundings. At least that's how I processed it, and I was okay with it because he was okay with it. In no way was it this dreary tale of an emotional boy and his mother's descent into madness. Well, it is, but only if you take an objective adult perspective, and that's not what this story was.

I came out of the movie feeling betrayed. Now I'm that guy. You know, the one laughing at someone else's misfortune. In the book I got lured in thinking that I'm laughing with them, and then the movie comes around and tells me that I'm a terrible person. Well screw that. My reading comprehension may be questionable but I can still list many places where the movie distorted relationships to make them better fit its moping agenda. That makes them dirty liars and thus I can confidently ignore their judgment of my character... right?