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World of Warcraft on South Park

That was the best half-hour of television I've seen in a while. In case you hadn't heard, the latest episode of South Park was all about World of Warcraft. That could have just as soon ended up very poorly.

One who didn't know any better might easily dismiss the whole thing as a paid-for shilling for World of Warcraft, but I think anyone who's played the game and watched the episode would beg to differ. That episode showed an unreasonably deep knowledge of and interest in the underlying game and both the good and bad aspects of its player community. And it was funny. Bonus points for the gratuitous car jacking sequence.

What's going to be strange is to see how many players in the game will now be emulating the "celebrity" characters of the South Park cast. Talk about life imitating art imitating... wait, I'm confused. Wait, are games art?

As for South Park: After the theatrical film, which was great, I was sure the show would jump the shark. Very few shows survive their movie-theater debut. But here we are, years later, and South Park evidently is still going strong. Some of the shows are arguably trying a little too hard to tap into pop-culture trends, and an episode like this one conceivably would have been better six months earlier. But my hat's off to those guys, the people behind that show. It's a strange compliment to pay to a show like South Park, but I feel like it's still got integrity. I was pretty skeptical going into that episode but they pretty much nailed it. All the in-game footage was more than a little weird to see on my television, but not in a bad way, in the end. And the conclusion of the episode was great, not nearly the heavy-handed commentary I expected but the very same message.

Maybe I'll sleep on it and feel differently in the morning. At what point does it become unfashionable to say nice things about something everybody likes?

Not yet, that's when. Quick, leave a comment before it's no longer cool.

How to Hook 'Em

You know that phenomenon about how original movie ideas always come in pairs? For every "Sixth Sense" you get a "Stir of Echoes". Now this weird, weird force has apparently come to the world of gaming. How else might we explain the forthcoming games Army of Two, Kane & Lynch: Dead Mean, and Crossfire, each of which will be offering the very unique, one-of-a-kind concept that will have you playing as a pair of characters with complementary skills?

Also, did I miss any? Of these, I'm most looking forward to Kane & Lynch. Hitman developer Io Interactive has always had a great sense of style, and the idea of a game about a medicated psycho and a washed-up mercenary having to work together sounds great. Oddly enough, Crossfire is coming from the same publisher as Kane & Lynch, and from the initial announcement sounds much less distinctive. Army of Two made a fairly impressive first showing back at E3, but the oddly referential title and over-the-top character designs put me off at first glance.

At any rate, let's hope all three of these games are fantastic, because since each one seems to share the same basic hook, each one is going to seem less original in turn. Kane & Lynch at least has more to its premise than two guys having to work together to kill stuff. Most of all, though, I think games like this illustrate the fact that new games these days need to have some sort of simple, compelling hook to stand out from everything else. What's your average first-person shooter going to do? It can't do anything. Some games can still get by on name recognition: Call of Duty. Others need some sort of blatant twist: In Prey, you can walk on the ceiling!!!

With the exception of sports games, I think conventional game genres are just about dead. Think about your favorite games; I'll bet you that you like all kinds of different games, not just one or two types of games like first-person shooters or fighting games or strategy games. You just like good games. Like, maybe you love Oblivion or KOTOR but you don't consider yourself to be big into RPGs. But think back--maybe your gaming interests were more clearly defined in the past. That's because the games themselves were more clearly defined, too. You didn't have first-person shooters with role-playing elements. You didn't have racing games with story modes. Games have also become somewhat easier to get into now than before. What's the last game you played where you felt like you absolutely needed the manual? All these things are conspiring to make gaming such a hit-driven business. Why settle for just another racing game when a game like Saints Row offers some great car racing and so much more on top of that?

So I think games are coming to a point where the concept and the execution, and an original hook and the art direction, are going to be a lot more important than the genre, the controls, things like that. Nobody wants to play another shooter. But they'll line up to check out Gears of War, just because it stands out. As for me, I'll gladly play a sports game that's not tied down trying to copy real-world leagues. How come there are so many great fictionalized sports movies but so few great fictionalized sports games? Hardly anyone's even trying, but there are plenty of guys like me out there who like the sports themselves, but simply don't follow, can't follow, all the real-world wheelings and dealings that serve as the frame of reference.

Originality is hard to come by, and it can be a subtle thing. When we think of original games, we often think of the wildly original ones like Psychonauts or Katamari Damacy. But a simple twist can go a long way, often much farther than a totally out-there concept. Today's games need to feel relevant more than they used to, and relevance need only be a breath of fresh air, not a gulp. How else to explain why Microsoft's recent X06 event, despite having many fewer games to show, handily trumped the preeminent Tokyo Game Show? In what little hindsight we already have, this TGS seemed kind of like the same old thing, even in spite of high-profile games like Metal Gear Solid 4 and Devil May Cry 4. But X06 gave us stuff like Alan Wake and BioShock, that's in some ways even more intriguing. And there were the announcements. Peter Jackson's working on a game. Halo's spinning off in a new direction. Who knows how this stuff will pan out, but the prospects are exciting.

It's a pivotal moment for gaming right now, with two new consoles about to hit the market. Despite everything that's been said, it's just way too early for anyone to be able to accurately predict what's going to happen--look no further than the short histories of the PSP, the DS, and the Xbox 360 for evidence that, if anything, the opposite of what's expected is the most likely thing to come to pass. This much I'm sure of: Game developers are trying new things. The differences may not be readily obvious--Dead Rising could be brushed off as "just another zombie game"--but a few key differences can really add up. We'll have to see how those three co-op games turn out.

Soapbox is Up

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that the GameSpot Soapbox was coming. Here it is. As of this writing, it's not quite ready for prime time and not being publicly promoted, so enjoy the sneak preview. There's also some more work that needs to be done in order to bring out more contributions from the community, so stay tuned. We hope this page addresses a long-standing request from ya'll to be able to get to all the editors' profiles from a single place, and you'll also get access to some really insightful stuff from some GameSpot users. For those who get auto-magically selected to appear in the User Soapbox, they'll walk away with a fancy, new emblem for their trouble.

As an aside, we finally fixed it so that GameSpot editors' reviews are listed in their profiles. Apparently I've reviewed about 600 games for this site. I thought it was more :( .

Not Just Your Ordinary Wolf-God Game

I had high hopes for Okami since both the look and the premise of the game really appealed to me from the moment I first saw and heard anything about it. But I wasn't expecting the game to turn out just this good or this long. Times like this I have a tiny tinge of regret that I burn through games relatively quickly when working on review assignments, as a game like this really ought to be savored (and then that tiny tinge goes away because I got to play Okami all weekend and that's rad). Okami really reminded me a lot of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and I loved that game.

It's a strange thought, but at this point, much of what I know about Japanese mythology comes from video games. I know all about things like tengu and oni and exorcism talismans and such. I also know that there's this one really nasty nine-tailed fox out there that's up to no good. Also, apparently the ancient gods of Shinto could double-jump and air tackle.

This game really seemed like a labor of love, mostly because it's fully twice as long as the reasonable standard for games of this sort. That's particularly impressive given how much crazily great artwork they crammed in. Every single character you meet in the game is unique, and there are dozens of different monsters, many of which you only encounter maybe once or twice. There are dozens of different fish you can catch in just the one optional fishing minigame, even. At a time when so many games recycle art and animations and sound effects from their predecessors, it's pretty stunning to get a game with so much original content.

Maybe they should have called it God of Peace to get more people to take notice. Back when I was obsessed with all things Japanese back in high school and college, this would have been like my ultimate dream game. Today it's still not far off, but Japanese mythology seems less exotic now than it used to, since it's been covered by so many games and so much anime and so on. Of course, Okami puts a totally unique spin on it.

One thing I really liked about the game is how it acknowledges its above-average length by including a few key moments in the narrative that remind you there's still much more to come. About 10 hours in, you complete a major plot point that could have made for an entire game...but then it hits you that "the journey was far from finished. In fact, it had only just begun." And the narrator ain't lying when he says that, either.

Capcom's done a great job by making a lot of its major games surprisingly long for good measure. Resident Evil 4, Onimusha: Dawn of Dreams, Shadow of Rome, Devil May Cry 3, Dead Rising, and now Okami are all games I went in thinking would probably be pretty short or of "average" 10-hour length, and then they just kept going and going till I was completely satisfied that these concepts had delivered all they were good for. These days it seems one of the biggest challenges facing game developers is just filling up a game with enough interesting content to keep people going for more than a couple of sittings. But you wouldn't figure there was anything difficult about making games from playing Okami. It's like if Pixar were Japanese and made games.

Company of Heroes Redux

In the 10 years I've been reviewing games for GameSpot, I've had to make factual corrections to reviews on rare occasions, but these were almost never substantial enough to warrant an adjustment to the overall review score. Nevertheless, it was without any second guesses that we chose to make changes to the Company of Heroes review today, the most obvious of which will be the bump in the graphics score, which, in turn, took the overall score from an 8.9 to a 9.0--and that's a small, important difference that earned this game our Editors' Choice award. Let me explain exactly how and why this happened.

After the review went up on Monday afternoon, we learned through postings on the game's official message boards that the game shipped with a bug that causes poor performance on systems with SLI video card configurations. Our primary high-end test system has such a configuration, so we reconfigured the machine to verify the problem. Sure enough, simply by removing one of the system's two video cards, we got substantially better performance out of the game; you'll see how well it runs in the video review.

Although we tested the game on four separate machines during the review process, I did spend at least half my time running the high-end system, on which I experienced performance that seemed inordinately sluggish. This impacted my experience with the game and directly influenced the graphics component score. So, once we had discovered the bug and resolved it without having to download a patch, we felt it was important to disclose the bug in our review.

Furthermore, we reconsidered the game's graphics and decided that an uncommon, resolvable bug affecting a relatively small number of players was not a sufficiently strong reason to knock the game's graphics score down by a point; we were close to giving the game a 10 for graphics in the first place.

So we raised the graphics score to what we felt the game truly deserved, added a reference to the SLI bug in the review, modified a few other references to the visuals in the review, and appended an Editor's Note with a much, much more concise explanation of all this.

This, too, is an explanation and not a defense; we stand by our decision and made that decision knowing it could be misunderstood, but wanted to do the right thing rather than take the easy way out and do nothing. One could argue that had we waited longer before publishing our review, we could have caught this issue (or a patch would have been released) and a post-publish change wouldn't have been necessary. However, we make every effort to publish our reviews as quickly as possible once we are fully confident in the accuracy of the content. Had there been any doubt about the facts of the review on Monday afternoon, we wouldn't have posted it.

As for the issue of bugs and post-release patches: We expect every retail game to be as reasonably bug-free as possible, but understand that bugs in games do happen. We take reasonable measures that the average game player would to circumvent any bugs we run into when testing, and will not mention minor bugs in our reviews, but are not tolerant of bugs that substantially detract from gameplay. And we do not think the promise of post-release patches is a suitable make-good for bugs, either. In this case¸ we were able to resolve the bug without having to wait for and apply a downloadable patch (which will reportedly be out by the end of this week, for what it's worth). That's part of the reason why we felt all the more strongly that our review needed clarification. As a matter of policy, we do not re-review games based on patched changes, though we will consider the effects of any patches available at the time during which our review period is taking place.

Thanks for your understanding of our choice to make an exception in this case. We are committed to providing you with the timeliest, most accurate game reviews possible.

Coming Soon, the GameSpot Soapbox

Cross-posting this from the features forum, but I just wanted to tip ya'll off that we'll soon be launching a section that promotes the latest editorial blog posts from the GS editors as well as GS users. If you'd be interested in being a part of it, all you need to do is post to your blog and flag that post as an editorial, and our high-tech robot will magically pick the best, most insightful of these to get pointed to more prominently. A bunch of you are posting great commentary to your blogs already, so this is partly a heads-up that you'll soon be able to reach a wider audience with some of your words (or videos) if you want to. Video blogs more than welcome as part of this. And, look, I lied about the robot, OK?

In case you've been keeping score, our intent is for this to fill the void left by things like GameSpotting and Freeplay (if you were very partial to those, please give this new format a fair shake before passing judgment). It'll let our staff as well as all of you say your piece about relevant issues in gaming. What we'll be looking for from our audience are opinions on game-related topics. We're hoping for a variety of modes of expression, so don't assume we'll only look for long essays or anything like that. If I could offer any advice, it's to be creative and talk about the things you care about.

Company of Heroes Is Right

Company of Heroes is still "just a game" and everything, but it's one of those games that pushes the boundaries of realism (at least in terms of presentation) further than they've gone in the past. I've never cared this much about my tanks in a real-time strategy game, and it doesn't help that when these things have caught fire and are nearly destroyed, you hear their drivers going, "Go, just gooo! Drive, or we're dead!" and stuff like that. For as sterile as most World War II games seem, one of the reasons I really like Company of Heroes is that it has personality.

The graphics are straight-up impressive and everything, and the game plays fast and plays great; but it's a lot of the smaller, subtler details that really got my attention. The way the units whisper to each other during night missions was a really cool touch, for instance. And the victory point system used by default in skirmish and multiplayer matches is very smart, ensuring that such matches are roughly predictable in how long they last, but very unpredictable in terms of how they unfold. And it takes a while before you notice that all the destruction caused during battle is permanent. Wait, were those huge craters and smoldering buildings there at the beginning of the battle...? No, no they weren't.

I had high hopes for how this game would turn out knowing Relic was behind it, since these guys have been making great, innovative RTS games for year, and I certainly wasn't disappointed. Bring on the Russians and the Japanese. And the Tyranids.

Stifling Idiocracy

Forget about the scaled-down PS3 launch, I was really disappointed to find out earlier this week that Mike Judge's new movie Idiocracy was, apparently, already in theaters on a very limited release. I don't go to the movies hardly ever anymore, but I intended to see this one on opening night as I did with Office Space and Beavis and Butt-head Do America. I quickly drummed up a good conspiracy theory on why the movie was getting swept under the carpet, but this article from the Chicago Sun-Times is much more well-informed than anything I could offer on the subject.

I don't think Idiocracy is playing anywhere near here in the Bay Area, but if it's playing near you, do me a favor and go see it.

What to Get a 1-Year-Old

My daughter's first birthday is coming up in less than a month. She's now at a point where she can stand in front of the television and block my view while I'm trying to play. Can't she just parent herself? Man, babies are sooo needy. And sooo whiny.

I promise you that my long weekend almost exclusively spent playing Disgaea 2 had nothing to do with my decision to order a Prinny Plushie directly from the publisher's online store.

I was surprised at how much I liked Disgaea 2 considering it's so much like the first game, which was great fun three years ago. Normally I have less of a good time with sequels that generally rehash the format of their predecessors, but it really helped Disgaea 2's case that there was a whole new storyline this time around. I've seen some fans complain that the new story isn't as good or as funny as the original's and I just don't see it; I thought the game was pretty hilarious in a lot of spots, and liked the main characters and supporting cast quite a bit. I can imagine someone preferring the original because its main character is so unconventional, but taking a step back, I wish more games devoted this much time and energy to having great, original, amusing stories like Disgaea 2 does.

I'll let you in on a little secret. Who do you really think I bought the Prinny Plushie for...? Do the math, my friend. The Missus, she's going to think it's a weird stuffed penguin. And the baby, she's not old enough to think, she's just old enough to get in the way of a man and his life's mission. Curse you all!!!

John Romero, Yakuza, and Dog Eat Dog

Three almost-unrelated topics before I go coughing my way into a three-day weekend:

The second episode of the Designer Threads podcast is up, featuring Doom and Quake cocreator John Romero. Mr. Romero's now working at a new Bay Area-based company he founded and, I think, what comes across from this interview is that he's still as enthusiastic about gaming as ever. Maybe that's no surprise coming from an industry veteran like him, but for me it was a lot of fun to talk to him about games other than his own games. While this interview is about an hour long and covers a fair amount of ground, there was an awful lot more ground I wanted to cover but didn't get to. At any rate, as this podcast series is still in a fledgling state, I welcome any and all feedback about the questions, the tone, the length, and whatever else.

In other news, look for my review of Yakuza on Monday, if you're looking for a review of Yakuza. I was very, very excited about this game when I first heard about it, as the subject matter is something that's of great personal interest to me. (In fact, the first game design document I worked on back in my college days was for a Yakuza action strategy game.) In the end, I'm glad to have played through that game, but also glad to have set my sights back on Disgaea 2--sorry the review isn't ready yet. In reference to Justin's recent blog post, we don't always have the luxury of getting 100 percent final review code when we ideally need it. But, to be clear, this is our own shortcoming and something we could always be more aggressive about when working with the game industry. For your part, just you keep on giving us the grief we deserve whenever we're not as timely as you want or expect.

Finally, I was fascinated by the report that Rockstar's upcoming game Bully has apparently undergone a name change to Canis Canem Edit, Latin for Dog Eat Dog. It's an interesting but bizarre title--like, why not just call it "Dog Eat Dog", which is a compelling title that's in English? Yeah, I get that the Latin is because it's a mock-school crest, but still. "Bully" is a great title as well, but the fact that it's caused this poor game a ton of controversy before the game's even come out is a little depressing. I'd still like to think that all the controversy surrounding games like this one is ultimately helping people become more educated about what games are and what they're not.

In life, you gotta pick your battles, right? I can only presume to know what goes through Rockstar people's heads when they're faced with so much adversity and ignorance over their games; I wish the company were more vocal about its creative intentions, but I suppose they can't say much of anything without causing a huge commotion, and they've got a parent company that's probably sweating bullets over anything that they do. What I mean, though, is I'm kind of glad they changed the title of Bully if that's what they did. Seems like everyone was getting hung up on just the name alone, so why not change it and move on? I figure Rockstar won't hold back with the content of the game itself, and that's where they should be sticking to their guns. People can call it whatever they want. I just want it to be good. Personally--and speaking from the perspective of someone who went to a Catholic all-boys uniformed junior high* but is a Jew--I'm very much looking forward to that game.

* There was a Catholic all-girls uniformed junior high right next door.