Talking Chromehounds

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When Xbox Live was originally announced about a year after the old Xbox debuted, I was impressed by Microsoft's decision to include integrated voice chat with every Live-enabled game. This was several years ago, at a time when voice chat in online games was still quite rare. There were a few attempts to make speech an integral part of gameplay, but they were mostly cult hits like Seaman and Fire Team. Leave it to Microsoft to identify great potential and cash in, because, sure enough, the speech component of Xbox Live turned out to be a major differentiator. Many of us who've been playing online Xbox games for a while probably have trouble remembering the days when we needed to feverishly type messages to teammates in between actually trying to play.

As for me, though, despite liking the idea of voice chat in my games, I never got into in the old Xbox days. I'd use voice chat for communicating with a partner or a small team in games like Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow. But I spent most of my time on Xbox Live with the headset crammed somewhere under my television, gathering dust. The Xbox 360 is forcing me to crawl out of my shell a little, though. Specifically, I have Chromehounds to thank for this. From Software's giant robot game somehow got me talking online, sometimes to strangers, much more than any game has in a while. It's been a strangely discomforting yet liberating feeling.

I still don't like getting on Xbox Live to anonymously chat with random people. If I wanted to socialize, I wouldn't be sitting at home playing games. But in a fiercely cooperative / competitive game like Chromehounds, conversation during gameplay has real purpose. Our exchanges during a typical mission often sound like they could have come from a war movie: "Got a visual on the enemy, on the hill at grid B-7. Looks like a sniper... whoa, yes, it's definitely a sniper. I'm taking fire, need backup. Any other hostiles in the area?"

We don't talk like this to ham it up. It just naturally makes sense in the context of the game. We don't take our matches with deadly seriousness, but at the same time, the relative realism and intensity of the game's combat--along with the time-consuming nature of the game--encourages us to have a serious attitude about it. Maybe this is what helped draw me into the game and continue playing weeks after my review was posted. I have a much easier time talking to people when I feel like I've got a good reason for it.

As someone who's been playing games for as long as he can remember, I freely admit that I've used gaming as a substitute for social interaction, since I'm not an outgoing person by nature. So, playing a game that forces me to talk to other people whom I don't necessarily know that well adds a significant level of challenge, and honestly, I don't entirely like that aspect of the game. But, in exchange, I also think I'm taking something valuable away from each session of Chromehounds, which I don't get from most games.

My point is this: The ability to speak to other players doesn't automatically enhance every game, and needs to be integrated intelligently, as is the case in Chromehounds. There's a negative stereotype surrounding the average game player--he's someone you wouldn't necessarily want to talk to--or at least, I wouldn't. But when tight-knit collaboration and tactical planning between several players is fundamental to gameplay, voice chat can really enrich the experience.

This is nothing new, in a sense. Clans have been coordinating through speech in online first-person shooters for years. But I think Chromehounds' slower pacing makes it a particularly good implementation of this. In Counter-Strike, I'd usually be dead by the time I could finish my sentence. In Chromehounds, there's an entire game mechanic around controlling radio stations on each map that enable player chat within those areas.

Chromehounds could have been a lot better in certain ways, but I'm prepared to call it my favorite mech sim in years. I love the alternate-reality setting and mech designs, and the action and mech building can be very satisfying. The achievements feel really rewarding when you unlock them, too. The game seems popular, so I'm hopeful Chromehounds will become a dynasty, picking up where the Armored Core series and pretty much all other mech sims left off.

Street Fighter II' Hyper Fighting: Late-Nite Gut Reactions

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I wanted to post this last night but, wouldn't you know it, our user videos processing robot had decided to turn in for the evening.

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Despite my mixed reaction to this game, I promised myself I'd keep playing it at least until I got all the points. Hope to punch some of you in the pinky toe online.

Tonight: Street Fighter II' - The Early Morning After

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Tonight's the night when Street Fighter II' Hyper Fighting comes out on Xbox Live Arcade. I'm going to be there the moment that happens and you'll get to join me for that magical journey in the form of janky webcam video of the game, controls getting fumbled with, and me either acting pleasantly surprised or a little disappointed... possibly depending on whether I win my first matches online or not. Just thought I'd bring some fellow Street Fighter fiends a first impression in that form before handing in the review assignment. I'll be anxious to see how the game finally turned out, but I've got Chromehounds and a readdiction to Hexic HD to keep me busy until then.

I'll Drive that Tanker

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Australia's a beautiful country. I got back from break on Sunday morning, having spent about a week along the southeastern edge together with my wife and kid. Did a good amount of driving, albeit no postapocalyptic biker punks gave chase at any point. I did see wombat crossing signs, though.

This trip met my definition of a getaway, given that Australia is relatively far from California (it's a 15-hour flight from San Francisco to Sydney). It's also the middle of winter there while it's the middle of summer here. I think most non-Australians have an impression that the country is perpetually surfer-weather-hot (and they might not be aware that the seasons are reversed), but the bright and cool winter days over there were very nice in their own right. As if this trip weren't enough of an escape from my day-to-day, the laptop I brought along with me malfunctioned in transit, leaving me disconnected from GameSpot and the Internet and forced into what might be considered a minor withdrawal. Rather than spend a bunch of time in Internet cafes, I figured I might as well roll with it and hark back to a time when life didn't completely revolve around computers and the Internet. This was the longest I've been away from e-mail and web browsers in at least 10 years. On the other hand, my life has always revolved around games as far as I can recall.

Besides some clothes and a beat-up laptop, all I brought was a DS with Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow in one end and Super Robot Taisen: Original Generation in the other. Together, these games were more than enough to keep me busy during the ample amounts of idle time I had on hand, considering I dragged the family along for the crazy ride--we didn't exactly have plans to party all night. It also tells you something about how awesome Super Robot Taisen is (and perhaps how messed up my priorities are) that I'd already logged dozens of hours playing that game before the trip, continued to play it during the trip, and am still playing it now, whereas I whipped through just about everything I wanted to do in Castlevania during the trip in a total of about 15 hours. And that was a great Castlevania game, too.

Have I mentioned before how ridiculous it is that Japanese-translated Game Boy games have some of the best stories of any games in the past few years? Super Robot Taisen's localization isn't as good as that of the Fire Emblem games, but the story itself is just as long-winded, deep, and interesting. It's totally disposable in a way, since there's a long-lasting and involved strategy RPG at the heart of the game and you could just skip the story sequences if you really wanted to. But as with Fire Emblem, I found myself getting really engrossed with how much attention the game paid to its characters, despite being limited to simple text-based dialogue. It's got this great big ensemble cast filled with just about every anime character archetype I can think of. And while I stopped considering myself an anime fan right about the time I attended my first and last anime club meeting in college, Super Robot Taisen makes me miss all of that stuff and badly want to go back and watch all of Macross and Space Cruiser Yamato again.

I also miss Australia a little already. But it's good to be back.

Designer Threads Is Up

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It'll be interesting to see what people think of this, a podcast concept we've been batting around for a while and that we've finally taken off the ground. Here's how I described it, rather defensively, in an e-mail to some members of staff earlier in the day (pardon the obnoxiousness of the self-quoting):

"The goal here is to go deeper into the minds of some of the game industry's best and brightest, while avoiding melodrama, ass-kissing, muck-raking, digging for details about unannounced projects, and so forth. It's meant to be a casual, interesting, approximately hour-long conversation in which the guest does the vast majority of the talking. It's meant to cover a wide spectrum of topics that all tie back into gaming."

Anyway, I hope you enjoy it if you give it a listen. Between this and Matt Rorie, Boss of Bosses, I'm happy to be going into this holiday weekend having contributed to a couple of relatively original projects around here. Summertime is always slower for new game releases, but we've got a lot brewing. At the end of the day, though, I just like making this stuff. All the planning, all the meetings, none of it's worth the effort if the end result isn't helping us to do more interesting stuff more often.

My hope is that this first episode of Designer Threads serves as a proof-of-concept that in turn makes more interesting people from the game development business willing to talk to us on this level; moreover, their handlers will need to be open to seeing the value of letting such conversations get out in the open.

Food for thought going into a brief break filled with brothers-visiting-from-New York, Super Robot Taisen: Original Generation, and Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow. Happy Fourth to my fellow Americans. Having lived in the Bay Area for so long, I feel like I need to point out I'm not being ironic when I say that.

My Gamercard Is Broken

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I'm referring to that thing on the right, which is lying about the Xbox 360 games I'm playing right now. In its defense, at least it stopped showing that double-blasted PlayOnline Viewer as my most recently "played" Xbox 360 "game." But in my defense, it sure isn't showing Table Tennis, GRAW, or Tomb Raider: Legend like it should be. The problems all started in May, at around the time I was playing Final Fantasy XI and actually paid to download Rare gamer pictures because I liked the idea of having Fulgore's likeness representing me instead of a blowfish. In hindsight, I guess I deserve whatever horrible punishment that combination of activities brings on me. Besides, I decided to stick with the blowfish after all. Because if you bite into a blowfish, you God damn die, my friend. Unless you prepare it as a Japanese delicacy. So when next you feast on delicious blowfish, think of your old pal Greg. Now, what was that were you saying...?

I've been taking a break from my 360 lately, in part--inexplicably--because of this dumb, completely trivial bug with my gamercard. It won't acknowledge that I'm playing different games, so I just won't play different games for a while, till Chromehounds comes out or something. Not that I need a giant robot fix, 'cause I've got one. I've gotten addicted to Super Robot Taisen: Original Generation (review coming soon) and I've also gone back to a few PC games I'd always meant to get around to, maybe in part so that I could avoid mentioning them in my Pick 5.

Unsung Heroes of Fighting Games, Vol. 1

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Here are some fighting game characters that deserved more credit in the grand scheme of things. This is not to say they received no credit whatsoever, mind you. BONUS!! Due to unprecedented demand, this volume has more than doubled its original size!

1. Ranmaru - Ninja Masters ( 1996 ), NeoGeo
 
Ranmaru holds the distinction of being one of the only female fighting game characters who isn't necessarily a complete disgrace to womankind, at least from my utterly skewed perspective. She's one of the strongest characters in the game (she's the midboss), and her sword transforms into a frickin' snake at her command and crawls back into her grip after she throws it into your stomach. RATING: Thulsa Doom's Head

2. Kannuki - Bushido Blade 2 ( 1998 ), PlayStation
Kannuki was in the original Bushido Blade, but in Bushido Blade 2, he started snapping fools' necks in addition to running them through with a sword. I still remember the smirk on his face in the game's CG intro. Basically this guy came across as incredibly scary, and to me, he's one of the first 3D fighting game characters who seemed to have personality on the level that 2D fighting game characters did. Also, his name sounds a lot like "tanuki." RATING: Haohmaru

3. Karman Cole - Art of Fighting 3 ( 1996 ), NeoGeo
 
No one likes the Art of Fighting series, despite how great and underappreciated Art of Fighting 2 is. However, Art of Fighting 3 admittedly wasn't a particularly good game, though it did have some good qualities. One of these was Karman Cole, who's just a straight-up bodyguard/brawler. No fancy fireballs. No ninja magic. Just fists, feet, slacks, a red coat, and a name you wish your parents gave you. RATING: Johnny Dangerously Smoking Jacket Scene

4. Captain Kidd - World Heroes 2 ( 1993 ), NeoGeo
 
Though Capcom sued Data East in particular over copyright infringement, since Fighter's History was a pretty shameless Street Fighter II knock-off, we all know that the real Street Fighter II knock-off was World Heroes. But something amazing happened between the original World Heroes and its sequel, and that thing is Captain Kidd. Though he basically looks--and plays--like Guile in a pirate costume, there are many nuances to C. Kidd that make him one of the best, most memorable fighting game characters to date. Those nuances include, but are not limited to: Shark Knuckle, Pirate Ship, and Shark Upper. In other words, if I could have any fighting game character's moves in real life, I would choose those of C. Kidd without a second thought. RATING: Better than Real Pirates

5. Heavy D! - The King of Fighters '98 ( 1998 ), NeoGeo
It's a well-known fact that the Japanese don't know how to do the whole "urban" thing with their games, and they don't know how to do "gritty" either. Look no further than Leon S. Kennedy's smooth-shaven face and prom date haircut for incontrovertible proof. However, Heavy D! is an incredible exception. Seriously, just look at this guy. It's some of SNK's best character design work, so it boggles the mind why they never brought Heavy D! back for another round after King of Fighters '98. RATING: Clubber Lang

6. Omega Red X-Men: Children of the Atom ( 1994 ), Arcade
 
Forget Zangief. Omega Red is the greatest Russian video game character, and he's easily one of Capcom's best creations in its post-Street Fighter II days. They brought him back for one of the Versus games some years after Children of the Atom, but for some insane reason he lost a bunch of frames of animation and stuff like that. He plays like no other fighting game character out there, looks like a cross between Blanka and Axel Rose, and pretty much murders Cyclops in his ending. He is my friend. RATING: CCCP

7. Armadon Primal Rage ( 1994 ), Arcade

Primal Rage joins Art of Fighting 2 as one of the most underappreciated fighting games ever released. It had an interesting, complex combo system and the whole thing was done in claymation, which is awesome. Of the cast (which includes a character named Blizzard and a character named Diablo), Armadon was probably the greatest character. In particular, he could fly up into the air and land spikes-first on his enemies, producing the bloodiest move in the game. And besides, who among us didn't dream of being an ankylosaurus as a child? RATING: Dinersaurs

8. Geki Street Fighter ( 1987 ), Arcade
 
Can someone explain to me why Capcom brought back Birdie, Eagle, Adon, and Gen from the original Street Fighter, but never bothered to bring back one of the scariest, deadliest characters from that game? Geki practically screamed "look at how bad ass I am" way before it was cool to have bad-ass ninjas in your game. And he's got a dirty claw and can teleport around. And his name straight-up means "rage." I see you are already convinced. RATING: Ken-Oh

9. Spinal - Killer Instinct ( 1994 ), Arcade
 
Sure, yes, he's just a stupid skeleton with Ryu's headband. But he looks like he comes straight out of Jason and the Argonauts, right down to the jerky stop-motion animation. Gameplay-wise he's completely unique, since he can morph into his opponent (with apologies to Shang Tsung), generate his own projectile weapons, and hurt people while teleporting. He may not look like much, and I bet people pointed and laughed at Spinal even before he was an undead skeleton. But he gets the last laugh. And what a laugh. RATING: Dio

10. Skullomania - Street Fighter EX ( 1997 ), Arcade
So you think Skullomania is some kind of lame attempt at a joke character from a failed effort to bring Street Fighter into 3D? I pity you. Though Arika, not Capcom, developed Street Fighter EX, it just so happens that Skullomania is one of the last great original fighting game characters to appear in a fighting game bearing the Capcom brand. He's a Japanese salaryman by day who moonlights as a superhero with crazy acrobatic moves with such names as "Skullo Dream" and "Skullo Dive." Amazing. RATING: Cobra Kai

Thank you for your recognition.

Apple and Nintendo Would Make a Cute Couple

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Speaking of Apple and life-changing games, "Is Nintendo the apple of Apple's eye?" is a recent Crave Talk article (coming in from GameSpot's network affiliates in the UK), and I found it to be very interesting indeed. I have to admit, it never really occurred to me that Apple and Nintendo might make a good match, but then I immediately felt stupid for not recognizing the potential. So which one's the Angelina Jolie in the relationship, and what crazy name would they give their kid? What I've been saying for a long time isn't that, it's this: I'm surprised Apple hasn't gotten into gaming in a serious way, for a company that's had such success tapping into young and emerging markets with its slick, user-friendly designs. The Apple ethos seems like it could easily be applied to gaming.

And that seems to be what Nintendo's been doing: applying the Apple ethos to gaming. The look of the DS Lite (out tomorrow!), the name and whole brand positioning of the Wii, the gross overpricing of the precious little Game Boy Micro...this stuff is straight out of Apple's playbook. They're both very big on the "think different" thing, so yes, my first impression is they seem like they'd make a good match and a fearsome team.

What do you think? Impossible, right? What's next, is Microsoft gonna release a videogame console and are the makers of Grand Theft Auto gonna start making ping pong games?

EDIT: As a counterpoint to the article I linked to up top, gaming blog Joystiq cites reasons why this merger will never happen.

Some Software Never Goes Obsolete

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It's great to see so many people getting into our Pick 5 feature story that we posted today. It got me all nostalgic, so for old time's sake, I went and dug up my treasured old Apple II copy of Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny while visiting at my parents' house. I was relieved to see it's been kept carefully preserved, with the cloth map neatly folded, Origin Systems product catalog still there, and all four original double-sided floppy disks intact. (Thankfully I've always managed to keep my gaming stuff in good condition.) As I was rummaging around, I was asking my dad, a retired software engineer, how one of the last products he worked on called Unicenter TNG finally turned out. We'd spent the morning arguing about the merits of the game development process. "Eh..." he said disappointedly. "The problem with software is you pour so much time and effort into making it and then it becomes obsolete and is forgotten almost immediately."

I just held up that Ultima V copy in response.

"Well, that's true," he admitted.

My Fists Have Your Blood of Them

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Codesmith Mr. Horn quietly recorded some of our late-night Street Fighter II Hyper Fighting sessions. I watch this stuff and can't help but scrutinize the results.

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Have I mentioned how much I love this game? OK, I've just settled it in my mind: the arcade version of Street Fighter II Hyper Fighting is my single all-time favorite game, if I had to pick just one. I've got a lot of other games I love with all my heart (Ultima V, Samurai Shodown, Star Control II, and so on), but I can come back to Hyper Fighting an unlimited number of times and it still makes my blood boil the same way it always has. As long as I'm up against a similarly skilled opponent, at least.

There's a guy named Neil who works on this floor who's probably better at it than I am. I think I'm 2 and 5 with him, but that's as many times as we've played. It's sort of weird to put it this way, but playing against him those few times is definitely the most fun I've had playing games in a long time, even though I've been playing some great games lately.

He said he played in Sunnyvale in the game's heyday. I was playing mostly in San Francisco, which is where I lived...Sunnyvale and Milpitas were like the promised land. Granted, there was no shortage of good players in convenience stores across San Francisco's Richmond and Sunset districts. I spent a lot of time in South San Francisco as well.

How stupid am I about this game? So much so that the Bay Area region you come from, if you played in the Bay Area, tells me a lot about what sort of player you are. It's like being the fighting game equivalent of a wine snob. This game just had unlimited depth to it. I wasn't even good enough for the tournament circuit, even though I'm probably better and more practiced at this game than any other game I've ever played, with the possible exception of Samurai Shodown II. I got pretty good at other games since, and got really into some first-person shooters and RTS games and so on, but I've never felt as competitive about a game as I do about this one.

I've obsessed over many, many games before, but this is probably the one I obsessed over the most. If there were still arcades with people still playing this game competitively in them, I suppose I'd still be right there with my quarters.

Speaking of which, earlier today a new and improved build of the Xbox 360 version of the game went up on the PartnerNet testing service. I'm still holding out hope that the online play will do the game justice.

There's more Street Fighter for me this weekend with Street Fighter Alpha Anthology. Good times.