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That Was Then, This Is Now

This week we're in the thick of evaluating the launch lineups for the PlayStation 3 and the Wii. These are exciting times, though we're keeping focused on the task at hand, knowing that these consoles are only going to launch this one time. As part of this, we're not letting ourselves get distracted by whatever uproar is naturally caused when the reality of one of our reviews of a launch title clashes with people's expectations. Amid some of the clamor that tends to come up, though, some legitimate questions do arise, and people often wonder how come Game X earned such-and-such score some months or years ago while the newly released Game Y, which appears to be better, earned a lower overall score. The answer can be as complicated as you like, but boils down to the expression "that was then, this is now." Each great new game that's released effectively raises the stakes for all future games. You can find out more about our philosophy for reviewing games by reading About Our Rating System, though in the end, we intend for each of reviews to stand on its own.

PS3 (Not) Preordered... Ouch

Update: Too good to be true, or maybe I'm lucky and just don't know it. Got this e-mail this evening: "Thank you for your recent visit to  Unfortunately, your pre-order for the PlayStation 3 gaming system will be cancelled."

The 60GB PS3 and a copy of Resistance: Fall of Man, shipped overnight to my work address, came out to $741.07. Oof... but man, I really never thought I was going to wind up preordering one of these. Talk about an impulse purchase.

Thanks to GameSpot forums newshound dvader654 for starting a thread about Best Buy taking preorders, like, now. "GO NOW this won't last long," he wrote, and instantly off I went. My credit card didn't even register for some reason, so I moved to plan B and went with the check card, meaning I've already been dinged for that ridiculous sum. Damn you, vader!!

I acted on instinct. This was the worst of my gaming fandom forcing my hand. I don't really want a PS3 that much right now. But I like the idea of having one when bazillions of Japanese people can't. It's that awful video game elitist snobbery creeping up, sort of the same thing that made me import an original PlayStation right when it came out for even more money than what I paid just now (granted, I got three games with it, not just one, and an extra controller and memory card).

Sony once said something about how people would pay whatever they wanted to charge for the PS3, and as distasteful of an idea as it is, a lot of us knew they were right. Some of us really would pay anything. And some of us can rationalize the whole process knowing that there's always Ebay. At any rate, I tried to be pragmatic about this. With as short of a supply of PS3s as there's likely to be, I figure at worst, we could use another one for the office. Plus, I'm just curious to see if it'll actually show up. Did I really just get dibs on a PS3 just now? I figured it was long gone.

Last year I preordered my Xbox 360 on a whim just days before its release due to a surprise online sale just like this. If nothing else, I'm pretty sure I did this in the hopes that I'll wind up as satisfied with my PS3 as I've been with my 360.

That New Gears of War Ad

Interesting. It's interesting.

I've been watching Comedy Central to catch the Wii South Park episode I missed earlier this week. (Apparently the World of Warcraft episode was well received if they moved right on to cover the Wii.) Later I couldn't help but notice a surprising commercial for Gears of War, featuring a decidedly emo-sounding song called "Mad World". This video's a few days old so I'm late to the party, having distanced myself from too much exposure to a game I've been eager to play. The video is easy to recap: As tough-as-nails space marine Marcus Phoenix finds himself in a really bad situation against some alien scum, there's this piano-plinking melody and a contemplative male vocalist singing about, what, life. It's about the last song you'd expect to hear associated with a balls-to-the-wall macho extravaganza like Gears of War. It's Trailer 5 if you haven't seen it.

I wouldn't necessarily say it really works, but it works. It caught my attention because of the contrast. It also caught my attention because I happen to know Gears of War looks really, really amazing on first impression and I can't wait to hear what Jeff has to report on it from having played it all weekend long. Is this game going to wind up being as good as it looks...?

It's hard not to feel a little jealous of the idea of someone playing Gears of War all weekend long before it's out. But hey, I get first dibs on the PS3, so what the hell right do I have to call the grass greener on the other side. You'd stab me for that thing. For my part, I'll try and live up to the responsibility of undeservedly having one. It's insane to think that, in a way, the year in games is really only just getting started with stuff like Gears of War and Zelda hitting over the next few weeks. Too early to tell just how good this stuff really is, but it's sure going to be interesting to find out.

RPG'd Up

For the first time in months, my copy of Super Robot Taisen: Original Generation has left my Nintendo DS. That's because I've moved on from Final Fantasy XII for the PS2 to Final Fantasy V for the GBA, among others. On the other side, in the DS card slot, I've got Contact, an RPG I've been looking forward to since E3 (any game worked on by Killer7's SUDA-51 commands my attention). On the PC, I'm playing Guild Wars Nightfall. At the top of my backlog, I've got Neverwinter Nights 2. Still to come, Gothic 3. And this weekend, Justin, Bethany, and I sat down for our eight-hour marathon of World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade.

What a year it's been been for role-playing games, and I could have said that if Oblivion were the only one to come out. OK, Burning Crusade technically isn't out till next year, but still. All that's missing is a new Fire Emblem game, but since my DS has both barrels locked and loaded with interesting stuff, I can't complain. It's a busy season for reviewing games, but it's the best time of year for gaming. If only it lasted a couple of months longer, I figure.

Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 is Better than Most New Games

I can speak for myself and for probably at least two other editors here at GameSpot when I say I'm more enthusiastic about the release of Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 on Xbox Live Arcade than about the majority of the new games this month. And I admit that's both kind of funny and kind of sad.

Part of this is due to a sense of relief after a feeling of dread waiting for the game to come out, like sitting in the waiting room for news about how a loved one's surgery went over. Apparently it's not easy to take an old arcade game and translate it, without making any sacrifices, onto a platform that's many times more powerful than the original arcade hardware. Just ask the developers of most every arcade classics compilation, which we're always excited about when we first hear about them, and then usually wind up giving fairly low marks to because of various little oversights and inaccuracies that really hurt the experience. What a difference a little extra fine-tuning makes. I was also very hopeful for the release of Street Fighter II' Hyper Fighting on Xbox Live Arcade, but some issues with the translation and the online play really took the wind out of my sails. I worked my way up to the game's full 200 achievement points, promptly stopped playing, and never looked back.

On the other hand, it appears that the developers of UMK3 for the 360 have done the right thing, by not settling for less than an arcade-perfect emulation and then focusing on solid performance online. Jeff's review even notes that the audio is even clearer than the arcade version. And the best thing I can say about the game's online performance, other than the fact that it works, is that it's fast. Our very first player review for the game effectively points this out: You don't waste a lot of time wading through lobbies, waiting for people to accept challenges, and so on. I wasn't able to log much time with the game this weekend, and even ran into some connectivity problems that were probably due to a flaky WiFi connection, but was impressed and in some strange way inspired that guys like Jeff and Dave had already logged about 200 matches a piece. I can't begin to tell you how much things like sluggish menus and bad loading times bother me in today's games. It's part of the reason why cartridge-based game systems like the Nintendo DS can still seem so refreshing, in spite of seeming technical inadequacies compared to other systems like the PSP.

As for Ultimate MK3, why does this game still hold up? For that matter, how on Earth can it be better and more fun in this day and age than the new Mortal Kombat: Armageddon? I invite anyone who's bought Armageddon and who has an Xbox 360 to compare the games side by side. Is it really the nostalgia talking when I say Ultimate MK3 is straight-up better? Or is it that the characters in Armageddon don't have as much personality, the flow of the combat isn't as smooth, the audio isn't as good, and so on? You could even take it back to the old 2D versus 3D argument; the hits in UMK3 pack a punch to them that few 3D fighting games can deliver.

Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 isn't my favorite game in the MK series, but I played it an awful lot in its heyday in 1995, and I always had a blast. So while there's certainly a degree of nostalgia there for me, it's really just the idea of having a skill-based, no-frills, pick-up-and-play competitive action game that makes me so excited for it right now and once more. It's been said often: Games today are a lot more complicated but not necessarily a lot more fun on the whole than games used to be. I like complexity just fine, but simplicity isn't a bad thing--especially since simple games aren't necessarily lacking in depth. Look no further than PWXShock's amazingly detailed UMK3 Competitive Character Guide for proof of that.

Sony Steps Up

Today was Sony's answer to Microsoft's X06 and Nintendo's Wii event from the past month or so. Unfortunately I missed the presentation leading up to the open gameplay session at the even, but I did take a good, hard look at the nearly 30 different games that were playable there (our On the Spot broadcast this afternoon included many of them). And while I wasn't blown away by anything that I saw, I was still impressed. Those games didn't look noticeably different or better than what the Xbox 360 is doing right now, but they absolutely did look better than what the Xbox 360's launch lineup looked like at this time last year.

I have two thoughts on the next-gen race at this time, I suppose in reference to all the discussion that normally takes place about how all this madness is shaping up:

1) It's too early to call the winner, between Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft. Nintendo has outlived its "dark horse" status and now seems to be favored by many to win this round (meaning, sell a whole mess of systems before the end of the year). Not to be outdone, Microsoft had a great showing at X06 and already had an excellent system with a solid lineup of games in the Xbox 360, and the future for it looks bright right now. As for Sony?

2) Anyone who's already written off Sony and the PS3 is short-sighted. Yeah, Sony was practically asking for a lot of the flak it's gotten since E3 for making some very bold promises and then scaling back those promises. And the PS3's pricing still hurts. And the system will be impossible to find for a while. But give them a few months. Come on, we've all heard about the tortoise and the hare.

The Games: I saw nothing mind-blowing today but I did see a lot of games I might happily wind up buying and playing. Resistance and Lair stood out to me as the most interesting-looking games in the bunch, although stuff like Virtua Fighter 5 and Ridge Racer 7 is stuff I could see myself coming back to. Too bad VF5 isn't out at launch.

The Controller: The Sixaxis controller has a light, sturdy feel to it. I played a good number of Virtua Fighter 5 matches and found the controls to be responsive. The D pad seems better than the Xbox 360 pad's disappointingly flimsy D pad, but then I've spent much less time with the Sixaxis thus far, and initially thought the 360's D pad was better than it really is. The Sixaxis' buttons all seem good, and the light weight of the thing is a plus. But the lack of a rumble feature still really bums me out. Come on, can you imagine playing Metal Gear Solid 4 without any kind of feedback? I guess this means Psycho Mantis won't be coming back. I'm optimistic about the motion-sensitive aspect of the controller--if I were a game designer, I'd love to make a Ninja Gaiden or a God of War with evasive/defensive moves mapped to the motion sensors. But it seems like the motion-sensor part would have been better as an addition to force feedback, not a replacement.

The Machine: The system itself is a huge, imposing thing, like a python-sized PSP that swallowed a football. I'm very, very thankful it doesn't have an external power brick like the 360, and prior to having done the math, I'd guess that the weight of a 360 plus the brick is approximately the same as the weight of the PS3.

The HUD: It looks nice and understated. Maybe a little too mellow for a game system, but Sony would never stoop to calling it a game system, right? The PS3's interface and online features all look promising from what's been shown so far. If the PS3 doesn't have an answer to the Xbox 360's achievements system, that'll be another knock against it in my book, though. Again, too early to tell. I wasn't at all excited about the 360's achievements system until I'd already been playing 360 games at home for about a month.

The Trade-Off: It'll be very interesting if the day comes when we're forced to make a choice between two versions of a game, one for the 360 that features unlockable achievements and rumble support, and one for the PS3 that looks a little better. But you know what, I suppose we already have that choice when games come to both the PC and the Xbox 360.

The Bottom Line: Bottom line for me right now is: If one were to forget about all the nonstop coverage of the PlayStation 3's lead-up to launch and just look at the system as it was presented today, and its games as they were presented today, one would have good reason to be excited about the PlayStation 3's prospects. No need to fret too much about not being able to find one at launch, because it'll probably only get better from there.

While I had my brief bouts of pro-Sega/anti-Nintendo and pro-Nintendo/anti-Sega sentiments way back when, for the most part I've always been platform-agnostic. Speaking from the perspective of a somewhat obsessive but discriminating game player, I'd surely wind up buying both the Wii and the PlayStation 3 based on what I've seen of them by now, despite being very happy with my Xbox 360 already.

After After Hours

Whew. Thanks to everyone who came out and who tuned in. Last night was fun and it was great to be able to bring people first-hand access to some upcoming games. The game industry spends too much time hawking its wares to the same old media types (ahem) and not enough time showing their games off to all those people out there who maybe, just maybe, will buy their games one day. I've got no doubt that the hundreds of people who stood in line all night to see BioShock, for instance, will be telling their friends about it. And word of mouth is still the ultimate authority.

Major thanks to our video production team, which planned out and pulled off one of our most elaborate shows outside of E3. Some of our boys also volunteered for some important jobs that made sure things ran smoothly. We could pretty much feel that this was a big improvement to our freshman effort last year.

OK. Now to play hella Splinter Cell.

Before After Hours

Tonight's the big night when GameSpot After Hours goes down. We're going to have all hands on deck at this thing and I'm looking forward to seeing how it all turns out, and especially to meeting some local GameSpot users. I'll be working some portion of the time during the show, but with any luck, I'll be able to take everything in just like any of the attendees.

Right now I'm just tying up some loose ends, such as adding some more trivia questions to the ever-growing queue. I've found an odd new passion in coming up with gaming trivia, as it's surprisingly challenging to come up with a decent question, let alone a decent variety of these. Here's a recent one:

Domingo "Ding" Chavez appears in which of these games?
a) DarkStar One
b) Fantastic Four
c) Rainbow Six
d) Killer7

My aim is to make the questions interesting and informative even if you don't know the answer. If you've taken the On the Spot trivia during the past few weeks, most of those questions are from me. Expect to see a good number of new ones during After Hours and more added each week, and please let me know if you have any thoughts on them.

Oh, and do check out After Hours as well. It's not what you'd expect from us here so we'll appreciate your reactions. OK, I'd best get back to it.

Farewell to Clover

Apparently four-leaf clovers don't always bring good luck. Capcom announced less than a day ago that it will be shutting down Clover Studio (full story).

Clover is the developer of such games as Viewtiful Joe, Okami, and God Hand. Led by Atsushi Inaba, who surrounded himself with veterans of such games as Resident Evil and Devil May Cry, Clover Studio's brief moment in the sun brought us several original, interesting, and impressive games that were consistent with the company's creative vision.


It's difficult to not feel sad or cynical about this news, because one would hope that a company founded on the principles of creating high-quality, original games with distinctive presentations could achieve substantial success.

But there's some silver lining. Capcom is a business and it needs to do what's best for the business. Good for Capcom that it had the sense to fund a development house like Clover in the first place; I trust there are no regrets over having taken those risks, even if things didn't work out ideally. I also think the quasi-martyring of a company like Clover Studio gives rise to other development teams with similar aspirations. I remain confident that artistry and commercial success need not be inversely proportional as far as games go.

While I very much would have liked to see what those guys at Clover could do on the new wave of platforms, I'm glad to have played the games they made. And I'm sure the talented developers of Clover Studio will find new homes with other development teams if that's what they want. It's clear from playing Clover's games that the developers were after more than just commercial success; and they achieved at least that much.

Spoon-Fed Wins

I just finished God Hand earlier this week. It felt great.

Much like how your dad guilt-trips you about how he used to walk 10 miles in the snow each day just to get to school, longtime game players tend to agree that games today are a lot easier than they used to be. This is partly because games today are better-designed on the whole; things like save points and continues are taken for granted but weren't always around. Also, old games often made up for a lack of content with an extra dose of challenge. These were games you could theoretically finish in less than a half hour, but they took weeks or months to master. Meanwhile, today's games are often a straight shot from beginning to end, and many action games in particular leave you with little left to do once you reach the finish line. I'd say that the level of challenge provided by today's games varies as wildly as their overall quality; why do you suppose that is?

It's because nailing down a game's degree of challenge is as subtle of a thing as quality of its overall design, and more often than not, the two are deeply connected. As a longtime game player I fundamentally believe that games should be challenging; and if they're not, they better have a really good reason for it or a lot of other really good qualities to make up for it (I'm looking at you, Okami). But I also don't think a high level of difficulty and a high level of challenge are the same thing. I'm sure it's not very difficult to make a game hard, nor is it difficult to make a game easy. Yet it must be very difficult to balance a game in such a way that the player is compelled to push himself to his limits to succeed, without reaching that breaking point where he just gives up and moves onto the next game in his queue.

I think the reason most games today are easy is because game designers are afraid that most players will shy away from a challenge. It's human nature to follow the path of least resistance. They're now trying to design games that put you up against really tough-looking enemies in really dangerous situations, but using a just a few button presses you can perform these death-defying escapes and brutal finishing moves, and hooray! The day is saved. Have you seen much of Heavenly Sword for the PS3? The game looks fantastic. But as a game player I think I should have to work a little, or even a lot, to pull off, say, some insane-looking flying spinning kick that clear the screen of every 250-pound, highly trained bad guy. Yes, I think games are a form of escape, and it's fun to get to play as characters who can do things, or get away with things, that aren't possible in real life. But no, I don't think games should be the equivalent of empty praise or condescension. The best examples of all media--books, movies, games, everything--are the ones that give their audiences some credit.

The problem is, cynicism reigns, and people think that the more credit is given to an audience, the narrower that audience becomes. In terms of gaming, they might cite examples like World of Warcraft or Saints Row, which followed existing formulas to the letter but simply made them easier, or dumbed them down, and then cashed in. My take is that World of Warcraft and Saints Row improved on some of the design problems of other games like them, and the end result was that they felt not necessarily just easier to play, but less frustrating.

Here's the catch: games should be challenging without being frustrating. It's not wrong for a game to kill you off, or even kill you off repeatedly. It's not wrong for a game to seem very, very hard to the point where you think you might never be able to finish it. But it is wrong for a game to make you feel like you should just give up. There are ways for games to greatly challenge you while keeping you glued, preventing you from just throwing in the towel. In effect, then, these are the games where you wind up feeling pretty damn good at the end of it all, like you accomplished something substantial. Alternatively, a really easy game might offer you some amazing-looking cutscene once you've steamrolled through 10 hours of pushover enemies, but all you did was put in the time. There's a reason time and effort go together, though.

Really tough games like Ninja Gaiden and Devil May Cry 3 have achieved substantial commercial success, proving that not everybody wants to be spoon-fed outstanding victories in their action games. In these games, you can pull off some incredible moves, but you really feel like you're fighting to survive. I think each of these games could have done a better job of giving the player some sort of context in which to learn the gameplay, rather than get dropped in off the deep end from the very beginning. But the presentations of these games and the raw challenge was enough for many of us to press on through and wind up better off for it.

As a game reviewer, I can appreciate an easy game because it's an easy assignment. But as a game player and a critic, there's little chance that a low level of difficulty will mean I'll wind up liking a game more. Granted, I don't think every game should be catering to those of us who've been playing for more than 20 years. On the other hand, there are many of us out there, and I think the best games provide a level of challenge that anyone who likes games on the basest level should be able to appreciate.