Thursday, May 31, 2007

Difficulty Issues, Part I

      Since video games possess a trait that no other form of entertainment can claim - interactivity - there has always the dilemma for developers to determine where the line in the sand should be drawn: Should they try to challenge the player's skill at the very real risk of scaring many casual gamers off? Should they try to make the game easier so that everyone can play but lacking that feeling of accomplishment? Or should they just go balls-out and make it as realistically hard as they can?

      All of these are valid options for a developer, and it's all about the audience the game is being designed for. If it's a game that caters to the hardcore audience, then developers can feel more comfortable about jacking the challenge up. If the game is more mainstream, the developers must adjust the difficulty accordingly so that everyone can see the game through beginning to end.

      While each of these options carries its own reward, they each also carry a detriment. Harder games increase feelings of accomplishment and reward for skill, but too many "GAME OVER" screens and you could discourage the player from continuing. Easier games allow everyone to play through an entire game start to finish with little to take them out of the experience, but fail to make the player feel skilled.

Are Today's Games Too Easy?

      It's practically indisputable that once games made the leap from 2D to 3D, they got unquestionably easier. The sense of challenge (and frustration) of the games of yore was replaced with the more lackadaisical attitude of the Super Mario 64-era games. One of the catalysts for this was 3D's lack of true depth perception; developers couldn't design as many death-defying leaps since gamers had a much harder time gauging their character's abilities- projecting a three-dimensional environment onto a flat screen doesn't work so well in practice, as developers quickly realized. In addition, technology allowed for deeper (and longer) games that were more story-driven, so it became much more pertinent that a player see a game through.

      But at what cost? Games had become far easier, a trend that continues today. Only a choice few games relegate themselves as truly challenging experiences, with Ninja Gaiden being the first example to pop into my head. The rest either project themselves as easier or offer players a choice of what kind of experience they want to enjoy, with probably the best example in recent years being the God of War franchise:

      With God of War, Easy and Normal difficulties are not going to really challenge the player too much, and consequently are more representative of today's games. Hard mode allows for more challenge without being too frustrating, but for true old-school gamers, there is an unlockable fourth difficulty setting where the player deals half the normal damage to enemies, who in turn are five times as powerful.

      I myself have yet get more than ten minutes through God of War II's fourth difficulty as the challenge is admittedly too great for me.

      So are today's gamers "spoiled" from the easier difficulty of today's games? While today's games are easier, yes, are they too easy? Probably one of the best ways to simultaneously answer both of those questions is to compare two relatively recently rebooted franchises, Ninja Gaiden and Prince of Persia. Both games started off as unquestionably difficult games, even for their time, but with their recent 3D reboots, they parted ways.

      While Ninja Gaiden stayed true to its roots and kept the player's jaw clenched, blood pumping, and adrenaline surging as they constantly were under the threat of formidable foes, Prince of Persia opted for a different approach. Rather than sticking with the painfully punishing difficulty and stickler controls, the reboot, Sands of Time, went down a much more modern path.

      Not only was the game much more forgiving, it was almost ridiculously so, allowing players to literally rewind or slow time (limited use though) to avoid mistakes, and even showed the player a glimpse of what was to come. The Prince moved much more fluidly and was much more acrobatic, and the game relied more on twitch-based skills than memorization and strategy.

      So are games too easy today? Probably. While I can't say I miss throwing my controller down in frustration or the artificial lengthening of games through audacious difficulty, it's hard to dispute that beating a classic game is a much more rewarding accomplishment as a direct result of sometimes infuriating difficulty. On the other hand, I feel it is much smarter to strike a balance in a game's difficulty- challenging, not frustrating.
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Monday, May 28, 2007

Killer7 Review

      It's rare for any game to transcend the normal boundaries of being a "video game," mere mindless entertainment, and join the ranks of "art." Killer7 is both beautiful and thought-provoking, and it will take you hours and hours of research to attempt to fully wrap your head around the incredibly complex and multi-layered story. It's intriguing. It's confusing. It's vulgar and violent and rude. It's political commentary at its most convoluted, yet gripping nonetheless.

      Upon playing through Killer7, my (and I'm sure most people's) reaction can be summed up in five words: "What the fuck just happened?" Sure, you'll be able to grasp the basic gist of what's going on and some of the symbolism, but this is the kind of game that is going to throw you for a loop and just leave you there to scratch your head. There's going to be Usual Suspects-worthy plot twists that are going to upset the balance of whatever you thought you just started to understand. And by the end, all you'll be able to do is just helplessly babble "...Wait, what? But he... I thought that... And..." Yet I still fully appreciated and enjoyed the story. It's incredibly deep and I'll be very lucky indeed if I can ever fully understand it. It's unlike any story I'd heard before and one of the best. I won't give anything away, but the ending is completely shocking on two levels. The first level you'll think was somewhat predictable but still awesome, but you'll eventually learn that what you thought (as in you'll assume stuff that'll probably be false- trust me) happened in the end didn't. Then shock wave #2 hits you. Amazing.

      The immensely complex story is contrasted sharply by the beautifully simple graphics and admittedly shallow gameplay. The game's presentation will floor you immediately and keep you in awe throughout the experience, making you anxious to see the next environment and hear the next sound effect. Killer7 shows that the amount of polygons your game pushes isn't important unless you've got the art style to back it up, and Killer7 most certainly does. The surreal atmosphere of the game really comes together in some spots and when it does, it's awesome to behold. The game is truly like experiencing a dream sometimes.

      When discussing the controls, most reviews for Killer7 have been completely apologetic. I consider this attitude a huge insult to the game. While the controls will initially seem like an unnecessary hindrance, eventually you'll come to the conclusion that the game's controls simply wouldn't work as well any other way. This isn't the kind of game where you need to be jumping around and strafing like Master Chief. Your enemies (zombie suicide bomber terrorists with a permanent grin) walk at you in a straight line, and you do the same to them. This isn't complex A.I. that you have to deal with. By taking camera controls away from the player, the developers are able to show exactly what they want to show, exactly how they want to show it. They can direct you only to places you need to go rather than letting you waste hours of your life exploring empty rooms. Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto had discussed the possibility of remaking old GameCube games for the Wii, but I believe that Killer7 is the only GameCube game that would truly work better on Wii- the simplistic controls and focus on shooting with little camera control make it a perfect fit for the Wii Remote. If this news story is true, then my prayers may yet be answered.

      The combat is a love it or hate it situation, I think, and I loved it (for the most part). However, I feel that this is the kind of mechanic that grows on you over time. Of course, as with any game, it is not without flaws. For one thing, the enemies all respawn periodically, so it becomes a huge hassle at times to go back through previously explored areas, especially in the later levels where the enemies are more difficult. The combat mechanics are also extremely simple, with the player really only able to run, stop, and then shoot at enemies. It's extremely rewarding to nail a shot at a Heaven Smile's tiny weak point and watching them erupt into countless blood drops.

      Other than the unique art style, one of the most discussed features of the game is the small army of interesting characters you'll control. It's surprising that Capcom made most characters so useful in normal gameplay and not just for specific puzzles, like using Kaede Smith for precision or Kevin Smith to outright avoid some enemies. It's easy to gravitate towards one or two characters, though, and indeed I found myself gravitating towards Dan Smith, the ultimate badass of the bunch, and away from Con Smith, who I only used when it was absolutely necessary. Every character in the game (NPCs included) have incredibly diverse personalities. I grew to enjoy listening to the conversations they were having because it's like the characters love to talk, but never really listen to each other. Almost nothing makes sense, even in context, and after awhile it's just another charming little feature of the game you'll grow to love.

      Besides the art style and amount of playable characters, the thing that struck me the most about Killer7 is how well the game sets up atmosphere. One thing it has been (wrongly) criticized for is how sparsely the soundtrack is used, leaving you with only your characters footsteps. This is actually one of the game's best features. You'll find yourself running down a seemingly empty hallway, with only footsteps to occupy you. You turn a corner and all of a sudden you hear an eerie, high-pitched, maniacal laugh, so you whip out your gun and start blasting away. And when there is music to listen to, it serves a purpose. The area you run through before a boss fight plays beating rave music and will pump you up. When you're running through a funhouse maze in an abandoned amusement park in the dead of night, the upbeat carnival tunes will creep you out.

      Killer7 is very difficult to review because it's a game that should and does speak for itself. All I can really tell you about it is that while this certainly isn't a game for everyone, it's become one of my favorite games.
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In The News (5/20-5/26)

      NOTE: Sorry for missing my usual Sunday "In The News" post deadline (today's Monday). To make up for it, I'll supersize it:

On The Cusp Of A Price War
      It looks as though we're going to have one hell of a holiday season this year folks. According to analysts, Microsoft will lower all the 360's SKU's prices by $50 and Sony to respond in kind, dropping the PS3 to $500, the PS2 to $99, and the PSP gets a redesign. This should be quite a thing to watch. A price war is certainly good for we as consumers- the less money spent on the initial investment (the console), the more money we have to justify the purchase (games). But for the hardware manufacturers (mostly Sony though), this could really hurt them, at least in the short term.
      But can a $100 price drop really help Sony out that much? The PS3 will still be a hearty $500. They'll just have to grin and bear it and hope that that PS2 $99 "magic" price point and potentially renewed PSP interest can keep them afloat until the hardware gets cheap enough. However, other analysts are saying that any price cut Sony can realistically introduce will be "too little, too late." Is that true though?
      I mean, Sony's plan from the get-go with the PS3 has been "long-term" while Microsoft and Nintendo have both been thinking about "short-term." Will Sony's strategy really be able to pay off? We see that the PS2 is still doing magnificent seven years later, consistently selling about 180,000 units per month, and always outselling the XBOX 360. That's got to make Sony feel good. And certainly the PS3 has more legs than the PS2 had has. The problem is that those legs are just taking a little while to sprout, and when people buy a $600 game console, they want that thing to rival a millipede in terms of legs. That's the reason that the PS3 has had such a slow start.
      But what about the PSP? Can a redesign really save it? Does it even need saving? Remember, the PSP (in the USA) pretty much consistently outsold the DS for two years until the DS Lite was introduced and the PSP was left in the dust. Following that logic, giving the PSP a brighter screen, better battery life, a hard drive, a more refined D-Pad and Analog Nub (or even a second nub), a new type of plastic to stop rampant fingerprinting (like the Zune), another price cut from the current $169.99 to maybe around $139.99 (reasonable, I'd say), and a lot more worthwhile original games along the lines of God of War: Chains of Olympus, Exit, Lumines, Wipeout Pure, GTA:LC/VC, etc and you'll see a PSP renaissance taking place.
      Let's just hope that Sony's late-2007/early-2008 lineup of amazing software and potential price cuts can help them beat back the ravaging success of the Wii and (to a lesser extent) XBOX 360.

Nudity the Cause for Halo 2 Vista Delay
      Wow. One of the funniest error messages around is in the Halo 2 Vista edition, and it warrants a delay for the entire game. The only time you can get this error message is in the map maker (a feature most gamers aren't going to use that often) and somehow get the .ASS error, which seems like just a little joke one of the developers put in there. Honestly, why is this such a big deal? First of all, this is not an error message that will rear its ugly head (that deserves an "lol") pretty much ever, so who is this going to hurt? Second, it's just a guy mooning you. That's funny. In a Mature-rated game, that's funny. I could understand if we were talking about this kind of thing in Barbie's Horse Adventure or whatever, but let's face it. The ESRB is clear that this game is for 17+ gamers ONLY. Developers shouldn't have to worry about making their M-rated game appropriate for all audiences.
      And finally, it's an ass. So what? Why does society say it's okay to shoot somebody in the face until they die and have blood spilling out, but it's over the line if you curse or show skin? (Tangent)Curse words are just words with stronger meanings. We need to get over the "stigma" of curse words in society.(/Tangent) In addition, we need to get over our outright fear of nudity. What's an ass really, anyway? It's just more skin with more fat with a crack down the center. That's like looking at a fat guy's back folds only he can't poop out of them. This paragraph has been more like a vent against society, so I'll get more on topic now.
      You'd think that after the Hot Coffee madness and the equally infuriating Oblivion fiasco, the ESRB (and game industry in general) would have learned from the experience. Microsoft took the correct route in dealing with this, I suppose, but the principle of it all is just messed up.

Why Work Is Looking More Like a Video Game
-(If you don't have/want a NY Times account, go here.)-
      Michael Fitzgerald of the New York Times just recently wrote an article about why boring work activities are becoming (and should become) more like video games. It's actually a pretty interesting read and shows you the practical use of video games in real life and the workplace. God knows it would have made my time as a Target cashier more bearable if there was more of a video game aspect to it than "keep your speed above 88 or get fired." Had there been some sort of reward or even an interesting combo system (or better yet, a leaderboard) to keep cashiers occupied, motivated, and competitive with our scores, it would have made all the difference. My job wouldn't have just been this unbearably boring and even annoying task, it could have been fun.
      Of course, games in the workplace are going to be far in the future at this point since gaming really is still in its infant years and still discovering just what exactly it means to be a video game. As the article mentioned, we aren't going to be seeing anything along the lines of Zelda, probably ever, but who says that those fully-fledged games can't be used for business? Every World of Warcraft fan is quick to point out how popular conducting business meetings from around the world seems to be in-game, so why aren't more online games being used for this very purpose? The most obvious reason is that most online games, like first-person shooters, require a good amount of attention, so these wouldn't be the most productive meetings. More casual games like WoW or perhaps Texas Hold'em Poker that don't require as many mental reserves would be more fit for "business-but-fun" meetings.
      However, meetings aren't the only thing video games would be good at. I already mentioned having a more video game-esque atmosphere in a cashier setting, but what other kinds of jobs could benefit from this type of video game mixture? A job that requires a lot of typing could benefit from a very casual music experience, where certain keys (or words) make certain ambient noises, allowing for a much more engaging (and relaxing) environment for typing jobs. Factory workers in assembly lines could enjoy a more interesting environment if while they were putting together items and such, they were involved in a kind of rhythm game.
      Again, this is all in the future. Right now, we simply don't have the societal influence or the technology to really implement some of these innovations. Hopefully within my lifetime we'll get to it.

Valve Keeping Downloadable Content Free
      Slow clap for Robin Walker, people: "You buy the product, you get the content," he said. "We make more money because more people buy it, not because we try and nickel-and-dime the same customers." Tell that to Electronic Arts, please, who are notorious for charging for things on current-gen systems that are free in last-gen versions of their games. Thank goodness we've got a couple developers looking out for us as consumers. Valve not only talks the talk, but they walk the walk: They've committed to bringing any additional content for Half-Life 2, Team Fortress 2, and Portal, on ANY system, out for free. They claim that the extra content helps spur new sales of the original game, leading to more money earned than if they charged everybody for that additional content.
      Not only that, but Valve is also the developer bringing a staggering five game pack (Half-Life: The Orange Box) that includes Half-Life 2, HL2: Ep.1, HL2: Ep.2, Team Fortress 2, and Portal all for the standard "next-gen" game price of $60. Valve is absolutely a revolutionary in terms of trend-setting. Not only did they popularize digital distribution with their Steam service, but it seems that now they want to show the game world what good customer service really is.
      Now, I understand why there might be some opposition from publishers, developers, and even the hardware manufacturer to things like this. Microsoft already protested Epic Games' insistence on releasing additional Gears of War content for free, eventually forcing them to follow a Halo 2 model (pay now, free later). Even if I don't like it, I get why Microsoft did that. They want the XBOX Live Marketplace to be mostly full of content that costs money. They get money from it, and so does the publisher/developer. Therefore, they need people to expect to have to buy things from the Marketplace. Again, I completely understand that, just as I understand that this content costs money to produce. However, as Valve is proving, as much (or more) money can be made from free content.
      But seriously, though, kudos to Valve. Here's to hoping that the Orange Box becomes the world's best selling video game (compilation).

WEEKLY SAMPLER: PSN 1.5M / 2008 Wii Shortages? / DRM Surrender? / Big 3 2007 / Jackass / Mega Man vs. Halo!

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Sunday, May 20, 2007

In The News (5/13-5/19)

Common Sense Media Rating System
      Common Sense Media has teamed up with Best Buy (and Cox Communications according to the commercial I just saw) to try to popularize their in-depth rating system which competes with the ESRB. It works by giving each game, movie, TV show, etc an on/pause/off rating (on meaning appropriate for all ages, off meaning mature, and pause meaning parents should decide whether or not their kid can handle it), as well as the ESRB rating, an age rating (10+, 17+, etc), a review score (out of 5 stars), and even a review of each game. Many in the game industry seem to be coming to the quick defense of the ESRB, calling the Common Sense ratings "confusing," (especially at 1UP Yours, who obviously don't know what they're talking about [last 8 minutes]), but the Common Sense ratings are actually pretty clear and give more information than the ESRB ratings.
      Let's say you're a parent. Let's say you're looking for games for your kid. Let's say you look at Sonic the Hedgehog for PS3; it's a name you recognize. The ESRB rating tells you it's appropriate for your 10 year old, so you buy it. When you put in the game, you find out it's appropriate, yeah, but it's also complete shit. Now let's say that you found the Common Sense rating instead. It tells you the ESRB says it's appropriate and that the Common Sense people agree, but it also says that the game has a one star rating. You read their review to confirm this one star. They just saved you $59.95 and a headache.
      So am I saying that the Common Sense rating should take over? Not really. I think they still need a little work getting up to standard by reviewing more games, but since they review everything from games to movies to websites to music, their staff is spread pretty thin. Therefore, I think it'd be a lot smarter for the ESRB to just learn from the Common Sense folks and innovate. Include a review score at least.

Confirmed: Sony's Big Quarterly Loss Comes True
      So it's no big surprise that Sony is losing money on the PlayStation 3. Sony's games division has pulled down the overall finances to a $563 million net loss. That's not really newsworthy, but the implications of this may be. Sony has two options here: Try to just ride it out and hope that their killer software (seriously, check out Sony's Gamers' Day stuff) can pull the PS3 out of oblivion until the tech gets cheaper. That's option one.
      Option two is just doing a dramatic price drop now to help spur sales of the PS3, which will further their debt in the short-term, but may help them in the long-term since there will be more PS3-owners out there buying more games and Blu-ray movies that Sony makes licensing money off of. As to which option Sony will take, I really couldn't say. Both seem like pretty poor routes for them to go down.

Why There's No Folding On 360, Sony Displeased
      Folding@Home on PlayStation 3 is a feature that allows idle PS3s to help contribute to fighting disease for the Stanford University research group. People have been wondering why Microsoft hasn't released a similar feature for the XBOX 360. Well, apparently it's because the XBOX 360 isn't designed to handle that kind of processing and will cause the console to overheat and even warp, causing a fatal flaw. This is already happening through normal use, so obviously Microsoft can't have people using a feature that is designed specifically to use all available processing power for extended periods of time. The amount of "red rings of doom" would be staggering.
      But it seems that Sony already feels threatened by any whiff of a 360 version of Folding@Home, which doesn't really make sense. Rather than acting like a child pointing a finger and screeching "copycat!," Sony should be acting like suave adults and telling everyone "Microsoft learns from the best." It's not about the company's image; it's about letting normal people contribute in a big way to stop diseases. Sony needs to put their petty suspicions aside and act like trend setters. If they want to counteract any PR undertones Microsoft may have, then all they need to do is wish that 360 Folders would have as much impact as PS3 Folders using superior machines.

WEEKLY SAMPLER: Gamers' Day / Motorstorm Update / Starcraft 2 / Hard Boiled

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

WarioWare: Smooth Moves Review

      "Rule #3: Let go of your inhibitions."

      That's one of the first lines of text you're presented with upon starting WarioWare: Smooth Moves, and oh, how true it is! When you begin the game, you'll "pshaw!" it and try to pretend like Smooth Moves is going to be any of your typical emotionless games where you just sit your fat ass on a couch and mash on a controller. Nope, sorry. Wario's going to require you to get up and dance, (literally- my favorite of the 205 "microgames"), flap your arms, jump rope, hula, sprint in place, and even sword fight (second favorite).

      It's in the variety of microgames that WarioWare excels. One minute you'll be balancing a broom on your hand, the next minute you'll be shoving dentures into Grandma's mouth, and the next you'll be rapidly fanning a giant robot off a cliff. You'll shake ants off a banana, pick a nose, and grate a cell phone. The first couple times you play a microgame... It's almost magical. You've got just a few seconds to access the situation and execute the solution. Once you've played through a microgame a dozen or so times, though, it'll be fun, yeah, but lacks that new car smell that made it so great the first time around.

      What with there being 205 microgames, surely there are going to a few stinkers. And rest assured, there are. One has you moving a hole under a guy to make him fall through it, but it's almost insurmountably difficult merely to move the hole downward. It doesn't help that this is currently the most fickle Wii game I've played so far. If you aren't pointing directly at the sensor bar, your various on-screen avatars with flash and go completely unresponsive until you realign yourself. It's annoying. It's frustrating. It's infuriating. You will get angry.

      The typical reaction when either describing or showing off Smooth Moves to someone is "is that really fun?" And you can't really blame them. Watching someone sweep leaves for a couple seconds, then grind meat doesn't seem like a normal fun video game task. So you'll get them to try it out, and that's where good ol' Rule #3 comes out to play. When they start out, they'll be very apprehensive about how they look, reluctant to use the Wii Remote as a trunk or do ridiculous poses after boss stages. By the end, they'll be laughing and swinging their hips and looking like an idiot. It's awesome to sit back and watch the transformation.

      But on the subject of other people, multiplayer is where Smooth Moves falls a little flat. You can have up to 12 people crowded around a TV passing a single Wii Remote around playing microgames that don't really make sense in context of the multiplayer (but really, when did they ever?). There's no simultaneous multiplayer, just taking turns. And if you've got a large group together, you'll be waiting a little while to play. Not only that, but when you bring Smooth Moves to a friend's house, you'll need to beat the single-player campaign to unlock multiplayer. That's dumb. Now, the single-player campaign, while full of memorable moments, will only take you about an hour to an hour and a half to complete. This is bad. However, the lack of content is made up by the game's nature to lend itself to continued replay over time in short bursts.

      WarioWare: Smooth Moves has an interesting presentation. It's completely random and has a stylized and extremely varied art style. I'm not joking when I tell you I could reproduce faithful recreations of certain stages in Microsoft Paint. The story lines are totally unrelated to each other and have crazy cutscenes with simple, stylized graphics that work in the situation. The only problem is that while the random content and insane art style fit the gameplay, the cutscenes are short, but a little too long for their own good, causing your attention to gradually shift. When the delightfully lazy narrator describes each new Wii Remote position, using off-the-wall analogies like how holding the Remote like an umbrella lets you "channel the quiet dignity of a circus clown in the midst of a thunderstorm," you won't be able to help but laugh at how random and creative the developers got and won't be able to wait for the next position.

      WarioWare: Smooth Moves is definitely a fun game that has enough style and replay value to warrant a purchase. But only if you can follow Rule #3.
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Sunday, May 13, 2007

In The News (5/6-5/12)

Mortal Kombat lacks online, blames Nintendo
      Mortal Kombat: Armageddon came out for PS2 and XBOX last year and had online play. Now it's about to come out for the Wii and it isn't going to feature online play. Why? Because Nintendo (once again) isn't taking online play seriously. Nintendo is a Japanese company at heart, and Japan still isn't so hot on playing with other people online. They've started to warm up to it, but America is still the place to be if you want a serious online strategy. That's why Microsoft, based in USA, has the best, most robust online service. Sony has started to catch up, but Nintendo still lags behind.
      What I'm afraid of is that the Wii will be another GameCube (aka worst online of the big three). Nintendo obviously still didn't think that gamers cared about online (or more accurately, that they cared) before the Wii came out, thought it was still just a fad and never really prepared any sort of online. Then they saw everybody's reactions and were like "shit guys, hurry up and make something!" And now the first online Wii game is going to be Pok√©mon Battle Revolution. Wow. They couldn't have picked a shittier game to start off with.
      Not only that, but who says they'll even get online right when it does finally come to fruition? All we really know right now is that it'll have game-specific 16-digit friend codes, which wouldn't be quite so bad if I could add someone's code to my friends list and it would just automatically send them an add/deny message rather than waiting until they add me as well. But of course, this is Nintendo, so let's not get optimistic. Here's my prediction: Friend codes, crappy online, no voice chat during games, and a lack of third-part support due to disinterest and Nintendo's unwillingness to help developers out.
      But then again, I'm a cynic.

Rock Band's peripheral prices in focus testing
      So how much are you willing to pay to be in a rock group? That's what Harmonix, the developer behind Rock Band, wants to know. It seems that their focus group is doing us gamers a service by rejecting the $200 and $175 price points and getting Harmonix to think seriously about $150 for the game, a guitar, a drum set, and a microphone. That's a pretty good deal.
      But the real concern there is whether or not Rock Band is going to be able to take off and either eclipse or be eclipsed by Harmonix's former baby, Guitar Hero. After having paid almost $100 million for Red Octance and Guitar Hero, Activision surely isn't going to go out without a fight and let Rock Band invalidate their purchase. Rock Band is promising a much more full-fledged experience with more master tracks and big names (being backed by MTV) and more of a community-driven experience complete with online play. But now Activision is promising much of the same, like online play for Guitar Hero 3.
      Competition is always good for gamers. If only somebody would challenge EA, huh?

SOE Porting More Classics for PS Network
      It looks as though Sony is going to continue expanding their collection of old games to the PlayStation Network, most noteworthy of these additions is Joust, which already came out on the XBOX Live Arcade, enhanced by Microsoft with online play. So what can Sony really add to Joust to differentiate their version from Microsoft's? Obviously they need online play, but to justify its appearance, they need to price it lower than Microsoft and give it extra features like new levels or maybe even a graphical overhaul (like Super Mario All-Stars did), but I wouldn't expect them to go that far.
      But what I want to know is what these companies objectives are when they port old games to their new consoles. Is it to add filler, merely a distraction while new games are being developed? Or is it a serious source of revenue? Is it to let new gamers experience old games or to make money off of the nostalgia of older gamers? These companies really ought to be designing new games for their online services, original and exclusive to their platform. Make some new awesome 16-bit game, and it'll sell. People love that kind of stuff. But for how long will downloading old games be popular?

WEEKLY SAMPLER: DS Lite Sales / Crackdown DLC / Vib-Ribbon PSN / Rock The 80s

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Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Graphics vs. Gameplay

We've all seen the popular argument furiously typed by forum members everywhere: "Gameplay > Graphics!" But is that really true? Is a game with bad graphics but good gameplay really so much more redeemable when compared to a game with good graphics and bad gameplay?

In a certain sense, absolutely. It's why games like Super Mario Bros have held up so well. They excel so much at simple, addictive gameplay that their aged appearance suddenly becomes less important. Even though a game like Guitar Hero really isn't much of a technical showcase, it's so fun that it can stand the test of time regardless.

However, in another sense, absolutely not. It's why games like Forza 2 and Halo 3 are already being criticized for having less-impressive-than-expected graphics, and these games aren't even finished yet. It's why a game like flOw that has impressive visuals but mediocre gameplay and has been compared to "an interactive screen saver" can still garner favorable opinions.

Killer7 is a game that relies solely on presentation. The story, visual style, and sound were so much the concern to Suda 51, the game's director, that halfway through development, he apparently was still "unsure" about what they'd decided to make of the gameplay, and it definitely shows in the final product. The gameplay is basic and flawed, but the game looks phenomenal.

Yet, if "gameplay > graphics" is true, then surely this game should have automatically garnered horrendous review scores the likes of which no one had seen before. It should've been crucified. But alas, it did not. Reviews were mixed, yes, but Killer7 is either a rule-breaker or an exception.

What Constitutes "Good" Graphics?
Condemned: Criminal Origins is a very good example to demonstrate what "good" graphics really are and should do. In that game, it's all about the mood and atmosphere and creeping you out before all of a sudden some crazy-ass motherfucker comes running out of the shadows with a lead pipe screaming bloody murder. Graphics are a huge part of that kind of game and they exemplify why we need so-called "good" graphics.

We need to define what actually makes "good" graphics. "Good" graphics are not just eye candy, but actually serve a purpose. In Condemned, they immerse you in the world. In Burnout, they show where to go and any obstacles you need to be aware of without thought. In Resident Evil, they frighten you and make you dread going around the next corner.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, gameplay can also serve graphics. With killer7, the gameplay was not the main attraction, but rather the story and presentation. Design choices like running on rails promote a focus on the graphics and allow the player to experience the game rather than merely play it.

How Important Is Art Style?
Regardless of what machine a game is running on or how many polygons it pushes, inevitably it all comes down to art style. While The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time has aged considerably since its release, The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker still looks amazing and will continue to look amazing for years to come, all thanks to the phenomenal art style.

WarioWare: Smooth Moves is a great example of a terrific art style. The simple, fun gameplay is paired with graphics that are often so basic that you have to wonder if they used Microsoft Paint. This overly simplistic art style actually goes a long way in enhancing the gameplay and charming the player. The whole thing is totally bananas, but it works.

There aren't many games with a more distinctive art style than Okami. You may know it as "that weird Japanese water-paint wolf game." And you may be right. It's impossible to discuss Okami without gushing over how gorgeous it looks. Without that art style, Okami would've merely been labeled a Zelda clone and fallen into obscurity. Instead, it's regarded as a work of art, and for good reason.

Drawing Conclusions
Many people claim that great graphics are not important to a game's quality. They claim that gameplay is all that really matters, but they aren't thinking things through. They regard games as singular, mindless experiences without any concern for what effect the presentation has on the overall game. Games are complex experiences that require gameplay, graphics, and sound design to all do their part to create a cohesive and memorable experience.

Simply put, both graphics and gameplay have equal importance to a game.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

In The News (4/29-5/5)

GTAIV designer 'limited' by HDD-less 360s
      So you may have heard of them. Maybe not. The makers of Grand Theft Auto, Rockstar, have reported experiencing difficulty overcoming the lack of a hard drive or a next-gen disc format in the XBOX 360 for their upcoming game, Grand Theft Auto IV. This raises some significant questions for the future: Will PS3 ports suffer due to the 360's limitations? Has Microsoft's decision not to include an HDD with their Core system hurt them? For that matter, is this proof that Sony has made the right decisions? The answer to all three of those questions is "yes."
      Due to the lack of a next-gen disc format or even a hard drive standard for all XBOX 360's, I believe that they have not only hindered developer's options, as they must always design for the lowest common denominator (the 360 Core unit), but hurt gamers as well. Sony, as a result has a lot of great tech that truly does "future-proof" their system, but will not be fully exploited other than by PS3-exclusive games.
      At the beginning of this generation, many criticized Sony's decision to make a Blu-ray drive standard, citing many early XBOX 360 games that used extensive compression to overcome the lack of space of the DVD9. But now, we see that those people were wrong, and that as these games get more and more "next-gen," they'll require more space, on both the disc and hard drive, something that the XBOX 360 can't offer. But only time will tell if this hardware advantage for Sony will lead to more exclusive games or dumbed down ports.

Downloadable PS1 Games Now Playable on PS3
      Speaking of Sony, you can now play PlayStation games purchased from the PlayStation Network Store on your PS3 (previously only playable on PSP). This is something that should have been done from the beginning, but now that it finally has been implemented, at least we can say that Sony is handling it pretty well: If you've already bought a game from the Store, you can upgrade it to the PS3-compatible version for free. It seems that Sony is finally starting to "get it."
      If they keep this up, Sony may end up having the most advanced downloadable game service of the consoles. While Nintendo will undoubtedly have the most appealing retro selection available and Microsoft currently holds the "original content" title, Sony could establish itself as the most innovative: Download a title to your PS3. Play it. Then move the save to your PSP and play it on the go. Then update the save file on the PS3 and play it on your TV again. You can do that.

Wii's First Original Downloadable
      While the actual story about the Impossible Mission remake isn't that compelling or note-worthy, the fact that the Wii's Virtual Console is going to finally begin getting original titles is certainly significant. Where will they promote these games? Will they stay inside the Virtual Console proper? My honest prediction is that Nintendo will send out messages either for all new original titles or for select few original titles to all Wii owners, much in the same manner that they send messages for system updates or new channels.
      Now, putting advertisement boxes throughout the Wii console the way Microsoft can for the XBOX 360 wouldn't work very well, though, because the interface simply wasn't designed for it. And does this mean that the Wii Connect24 service will finally get some use? I'm just hoping that a) there'll be plenty of original titles, and b) there'll be an option to automatically download each one, either while it's on, in the background during gameplay or whatever, or while it's off, so I'll wake up to a new game demo occasionally.

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Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Bully Review

      From the time you start up Bully to the time you finish, you'll be completely engrossed in an experience that is as close to high school as you could probably ever want in a video game. Playing as Jimmy Hopkins is not only visceral as you whale on nerds, jocks, and bullies alike, but Bully delivers something more that many video games fail to grasp: Immersion. Emotional Investment. Depth. These are all concepts that when attempted by most games are lost to a sea of meaningless violence, forgettable characters, and a severe lack of focus. Bully is not one of these games.

      So let's talk about immersion for a moment. You know the feeling; everything around you, and even you, disappears and leaves nothing but the game. You're not playing the game. You're experiencing it, letting it all wash over you, absorbing it into every corner of your mind. It's rare for a game to ever accomplish making you forget about your own problems and get caught up in the main character's. Bully succeeds at this by taking the formula from Grand Theft Auto and downsizing it, focusing it. It's a smaller setting, with fewer characters, and just less to worry about. And that's where Bully's secret lies. It's a game all about structure. Wake up, go to class, enjoy your day, go to sleep. More games, like Grand Theft Auto, need this kind of structure. It's a game that's all about intimacy. Because everything is more focused, you feel much closer to the characters, the school, and the town of Bullworth.

      Going down a hallway in Bully is an experience all in itself. You'll see familiar characters bustle around you, never repeating character models as in most games, telling you "Hi Jimmy!" or "Get lost, loser!" depending on what you may have recently done to him or her in the past. One of them may try to pick a fight with you, so you'll shove him against a locker, but now his friends are involved. It seems like you're overwhelmed, but a prefect walks by and complicates things. I embarrassingly was startled enough by the arrival of a prefect one time that I actually yelled "Cheese it!" as I led Jimmy to the safety of an empty locker.

      Once you're safe, however, the bell rings to go to class and the clock begins to tick. You spot your girlfriend and give her a quick kiss before booking it to class, where you'll learn skills to help you throughout the game. Once you're out, a nerd runs up to you asking for help, and the fun starts all over again. It's this kind of experience that happens often in the game, where you get so caught up in the world of Bullworth Academy that it seems to transcend the status of being "mere entertainment."

      Rest assured, though, that the "game" elements of Bully add up to form the whole. Every time you fight a member of a certain clique, for instance, their theme music will begin to play, so when you fight a nerd, you'll have a completely different experience than fighting a jock. The music will be different, yes, but so will your opponent's fighting style, dialogue, and reactions. Not only that, but as I said, character models are not repeated, so you may find yourself in a fist fight with "Pee Stain" Algie, the head of the nerds. Or maybe you'll spot Derby, the head of the preps, and you'll remember when he called you a "filthy Democrat!" and jumped you that time in the boxing club, so you'll drag him into the bathroom and give him a swirly. Every fight in the game, inside of a mission or not, is memorable in this way. It's not as brutal as Grand Theft Auto or The Warriors, (these are just teenagers after all), but expect to be surprised at just how savage some of these fights get- kick to the ribs, knee to the balls, baseball bat to the shoulder, spud gun to the stomach.

      But let's talk about the dialogue for a minute which I mentioned briefly a moment ago. These characters are damn funny and all have something damn interesting to say. You'll want to sit and watch almost every cutscene, because not only do they brief you about what you're supposed to do next, but they practice something that again, many games don't bother with: Character Development. You'll actually learn things about each character that gives you a better overall perspective on their personality and the motivation behind their actions. That bastard greaseball Johnny Vincent isn't such a bastard once you get to know him- he's just insecure. And that changes how you feel about these characters, and you will care about many of them. You will hate many of them. And you can even interact with them outside of the missions: A cool feature of the game is the ability to lock on to a character and talk with them, compliment or insult. While compliments will get you a smile from the guys and a kiss from many of the girls, insults will more often than not get you decked in the face. Unfortunately, it's nowhere near as good as it could've been because the conversations you have are always so disjointed that you are booted out of the experience and reminded that you are playing a video game.

      I strayed from the "humor" I was about to discuss. I apologize. The nerds are downright hilarious. Some are completely terrified of you and everything you stand for, while others are threatened by your conquest of the school. They'll get picked on in gym class and run away with their arms flailing wildly. The jocks are equally amusing, such as when you beat one of them to a pulp and kick them while they're down, they might pathetically utter something like "there goes my scholarship..." or "when I heal, you're so gonna get it!" The preps just make you want to pound their faces in, with their snobbery and admissions of incest. The entire game is filled with that sort of humor, both the easy jokes about high schools like the repulsive lunch lady, or the ones that are above and beyond, like the drunk English teacher's crush on the promiscuous art teacher whom Jimmy happens to fancy.

      The game's story is great despite being a typical rags-to-riches tale filled with betrayal, deceit, and conspiracy. The writing will make you laugh at some characters and genuinely care for the well-being of others. The music ties into every aspect of Bully, adding yet another layer of depth. The framerate is a little choppy at times but never enough to distract you from the chaos happening on screen. But one of the biggest sells of the game, to me at least, is just how well put-together the whole package is, and this is best illustrated, I think, through the interactivity of objects. Grabbed a nerd? Stuff him into a locker, give him a swirly in the toilet, shove him into a trash can. See a poker table that people are crowded around? Go kick it to pieces. Water fountain, fire alarm, random piece of wood lying on the ground... All things you can use. The game even goes beyond just changing from night to day- there are seasons and holidays (dependent on storyline though).

      Bully is one of the funniest, most immersive, compelling games to come around in a long while, and you owe it to yourself to check this game out.
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