Kevin-V / Staff

Forum Posts Following Followers
5151 10097 25908

Kevin-V Blog

Warning: Long-Winded, Pretentious Advice Follows

"How do I become a game reviewer?" I get that question a lot, and the answer is never simple. I can tell you how I became a game reviewer, though it is far less glamorous than you'd imagine. I wrote for a few years for a site called Inside Gamer Online, which then became Gamer 2.0, without getting paid a dime, and while moderating in the GameSpot forums. Eventually, I started to freelance for GameSpy. (My first professional review was for the putrid Crime Life: Gang Wars.) Some time later, I got a call from GameSpot and made an important life decision: I moved across the country to become part of a team I greatly admired.

The most important thing you can do before becoming a professional reviewer is to know and understand the greatest tool of your trade: The written word. No matter how tight your connections and how strong your evaluation skills, you probably won't join a major publication unless you have a good command of language, and the talent to use that language to communicate your point of view. That doesn't mean I think of myself as some sort of game reviewing guru; I am just a guy that happens to be pretty good at writing, so I don't want to sound like a pretentious snob! But I'm lucky to work with the best, and the best part of working with the best game writers in the business is that we learn from each other. The more I read the work of my peers, the better my own writing becomes, and I hope that I can inspire them in the same way.

In any case, a lot of people ask me for advice, so I hope the thoughts I have cobbled together help aspiring critics out there. Please take things with a healthy dose of reality; every publication cultivates its own style, so perhaps my advice isn't universal. But I hope that my musings might offer armchair critics looking to make it big something to think about.

This book's most important advice: "Omit needless words." Lose the adverbs and tighten up the writing. And here you thought Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little were E.B. White's finest achievements!

1 -- Know the rules of grammar and punctuation, and spell correctly.

This is basic advice that probably sounds silly to you. You may be surprised, however, at how lightly some take the English language. All the minutiae your teachers tossed at you is meaningful. Diagramming sentences isn't very compelling, but it's the basis for understanding the structure of our language. Knowing the difference between "its" and "it's," knowing that "Ludacris" is not the same as "ludicrous," knowing that a "mute" point is not the same as a "moot" one--these are important bits of knowledge. And don't leave out the dots and squiggles we use to punctuate the written language. Learning when to use a colon ( : ) and a semicolon ( ; ) is just as important as knowing the difference between "they're," "there," and "their."

This isn't the place for me to hammer on the basics; there are volumes written about the form and style of the language. Start with Strunk & White's The Elements of Style. For punctuation, I am a huge fan of Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots, & Leaves. There are (shockingly) a lot of entertaining books about grammar out there, so don't worry that reading about language has to be as tedious as watching the grass grow.

Knowledge is power!

2 -- Read a lot.

Read. Voraciously. And I don't just mean game reviews. Read everything you can, and don't limit yourself to Tom Clancy and Stephen King--and don't avoid them either! There is so much to learn from other writers, and even if you don't consciously analyze everything you take in, it still seeps into you. But next time you read a book, pay closer attention. If you like something, ask yourself: What makes that passage so good? You might be surprised to discover all the tricks you learned in English class at work. A good metaphor or a bit of alliteration can have an enormous effect. (Aside: I am a big fan of alliteration. You shouldn't force it, but choosing the right words can make all the difference. "Far-flung fields" and "distant meadows" mean the same thing, but the alliteration on the former phrase might help the sentence sing, while the latter snippet might make it sink like a stone.) Take notice of these things and try to incorporate them in your own writing. Which reminds me:

3 -- Don't stick to a precise format.

Experiment. It's good to have an idea of the points you want to hit, and it's good to start out working with a comfortable format. But eventually, try to move away from the dry template of intro-story-gameplay-graphics-conclusion. Sometimes the old chestnut format is perfectly fine. But when you finish a game, the things that mattered most to you don't always adhere to such a cut and dry formula, do they? If story doesn't matter in a particular game, why start with it? Let the game help you decide how you should write about it. Killzone 2's story doesn't stand out; that's why I didn't write about it until the bottom of the first page of the review. In addition, while its visuals were astounding, I wanted to communicate to the reader that this wasn't just another pretty game--that its most important feature was its core shooting action. That's why I didn't start by mentioning the visuals, though I knew most other reviewers probably would.

See if you can do the same. Play with language and don't feel as if you need to put your thoughts in some rigid, pre-ordained order. That doesn't mean to throw random thoughts at the page; you still have to organize your points. (Don't talk about the story in paragraph two, and then start in again on it in paragraph six, unless you have a good reason for doing so.) But try letting the game inspire how you write about it. If it's a beautiful game like Okami, write in flowery language that bursts with imagery. If it's Condemned, use bright, punchy words. Play with language and see what happens.

This novel had a big impact on me. Let your favorite authors inspire you.

4 -- Avoid cliches.

This is a tough one, because cliches don't start as cliches, but are born from overuse. I find them creeping into my own writing all the time and have to be incredibly careful, because they can enter my vocabulary and are hard to remove. Here are some of my least favorite game writing cliches. Feel free to add some of your own in the comments below!

-- "The graphics are a mixed bag." This chestnut makes my skin crawl. Never use the phrase "mixed bag." Want to know why? Google the above phrase, in quotes, and see how many reviews appear. You'll immediately understand why.

-- "A helping of gaming goodness," or similar phrases. Don't do that. That one's older than that phrase about things being older than your grandma.

-- "The blah-blah-blah series started in 1990 with the advent of blah-blah-blah." Feel free to mention previous games if you are reviewing a sequel! But you don't need to devote an entire paragraph listing the history of a franchise. It's the fastest way to get me to click away from the page.

-- "I'm a big fan of XYZ." It doesn't matter. Which leads me to:

5 -- Remember that it's about the game, not about you.

I'm not against use of the first person (in other words, using "I" in a review), though GameSpot review policy is that we don't use first-person point of view, with occasional exceptions made for "we." But whether or not you use "I," don't forget that you are evaluating a game, not writing an essay about your life or gaming habits. Try to avoid beginning your reviews like this: "I was a big fan of the original Ninja Gaiden." Or, "I played with Transformers when I was a kid, so I was excited to play the latest Transformers game." Or, "When I heard that David Jaffe was working on a new Monster Hunter game, I definitely had my reservations." (Side note: I made that up. Don't get too worried that David Jaffe is making a Monster Hunter game!) The reason to avoid a similar statement is simple: It's irrelevant.

This can sometimes be taken to absurd levels. Entire paragraphs may be dedicated to gaming theory, what the author thinks of the current direction of DLC, or treatises on the future of adventure games. Reviews are evaluations of a product. I'm not against giving the reader some context, but I think it's absolutely important to remember that the review isn't about you--it's about the game. If you spend any amount of time writing about something that has nothing to do with your evaluation, consider approaching the review differently. This harks back to my earlier point: Let the game decide how you should write about it.

Stephen King's greatest advice, from his great book On Writing: "Murder your babies." If you are in love with something you wrote but it doesn't make the article better, lose it. Even if it makes you cry.

6 -- Think critically.

One thing I've learned over time is that there is a difference between "I liked this game a lot" and "this is a superb game." I am thankful that I had such great mentors as Alex Navarro, Greg Kasavin, Jeff Gerstmann, and Justin Calvert. They taught me that the final experience is what matters, but that the experience needs to be put in context. I might have fun with a game, and obviously fun is important--but that's not all that matters. Learning how to think critically is just as important, and just as time-consuming, as learning the written craft. It takes time, but I think it's helpful to remember two things.

Firstly, just because you like a game doesn't make it a 9/10, or an A, or a five-star game. It's easy to get caught up in an experience, but don't forget all the other times you had similar experiences. Is the game really great--or is it just good? Is it really as awesome as that game you played last week, which you also thought was "ohmygod 10/10!?" This doesn't mean that you shouldn't express your opinion and back it up! But remember to stay grounded in reality. This is why you should play as many games as you can: You need to give yourself a frame of reference. If the game gives you that buzz that only the special games can, shower it with praise! But if every positive review you write is so glowing that you can navigate your basement with it, you might need to step back a bit.

Secondly, don't be a slave to the public school interpretation of scores. This is less of an issue if you are working with a 5-star system, but the A-F and 0-10 (or 0-100) scales come with a vast amount of baggage stored away in our minds. I was guilty of this myself when I was writing at Inside Gamer Online. A 6/10 seemed so incredibly low to me then, and we're all attached to this specific system we learn at school that tells us that 70% is something to be ashamed of. This is, I believe, why you may see generally lower scores coming from European publications than American ones. European schools don't structure grades the way we do in the US; the stigma attached to these kinds of scores is unique to us.


Take all of this advice with an open mind. I'm not a genius, just a dude that loves what he does for a living. But I think this is sensible advice that's worked well for me, though the lessons didn't all come easy. I'm still growing as a writer, but as long as I continue to love games and love the written word, I plan to keep writing. If you ever want me to take a look at something you've written, I try to offer feedback whenever someone asks. It might take time, but I usually follow up!

In the meanwhile, feel free to follow me on Twitter, where I frequently hand out plenty of pointless advice free of charge, and without being asked!

The Problem of Genre

I've been thinking about the subject of game genres a lot since reading some of the comments in our Game of the Year feature. A few folks here and there question calling The Sims 3 a strategy game--and I even notice from time to time comments from readers that wonder if Demon's Souls is a role-playing game. The answers are relatively simple (we've always considered The Sims series to be strategy as opposed to simulation, and Demon's Souls is absolutely an RPG), but these queries point to a much more interesting dilemma: How should games be classified in an era when the lines between genres continue to blur, and is the idea of genre itself antiquated?

The Sims is an excellent place to begin searching for answers. If you thought to ask, "Why do you classify The Sims as a strategy game?" then consider the alternative: Classifying it as a simulation. You could certainly suggest that The Sims simulates life and therefore belongs in that category--but would the confusion be diminished if you saw a simulation game-of-the-year category that included Microsoft Flight Simulator, Silent Hunter, and... The Sims? Do those games have any more in common with The Sims than do Dawn of War and Plants Vs. Zombies? Not really. I could even throw something in like Forza or Gran Turismo, but driving sims get classified as driving games, and would just further convolute the issue. What, then, for a genre-defying game like The Sims 3? We're forced to put it in a category, and strategy seems like as good a place as any.

The Sims 3: bending genders, and genres.

Then what do we do with games that meld genres together to the point where it's difficult to say that the game's one thing over the other? Sometimes, it's just feature creep. Warcraft III has RPG elements, but it's still a real-time strategy game; Wolfenstein and Army of Two let you customize and upgrade weapons, but I wouldn't think of calling them anything but shooters. But what about, say, Spellforce, which is a pretty complex amalgam of strategy and role-playing? Or how about tactical RPGs like Valkyria Chronicles or Final Fantasy Tactics? Should we call them RPGs, or strategy games? We ponder this kind of dilemma every year when planning our GOTY feature. This year, Trials HD, Henry Hatsworth, and A Boy and his Blob were thorns in our sides. What exactly is Trials HD? Is it really a racing game just because you control a motorcycle and are under pressure from the clock? Is it a puzzle game, forcing you to solve dilemmas brought upon you by the game's physics? Or is it a platformer, forcing you to overcome obstacles in order to go from point A to point B? In 2008, Braid was a troublesome entry. Is it a platformer, because you climb ladders and do lots of jumping, or is it a puzzle game, because of the way you have to manipulate time?

My brain hurts from all these considerations. I've heard some argue that gaming is stagnant, because too many games so neatly fit into a simple category, but I don't believe that. In fact, I think the idea of putting games into neat categories is becoming increasingly convoluted. If you think that it's been too long since we had a "brand new genre" in the way that games like Doom and Wolfenstein 3D introduces first-person shooters, you should think again. Instead, we've simply pigeonholed genre-breaking games into existing classifications. I think of tower defense games as their own genre, but they've fit neatly into the strategy category. Puzzle Quest has initiated a follow-the-leader string of puzzle RPGs. Borderlands is a shooter, sure, but it feels more akin to a loot-heavy action RPG like Diablo than a typical FPS. Then you have all sorts of indie games, from Blueberry Garden to Flower to Flow to Eufloria, some of which fall into this hypothetical category of "ambient games," but are still sequestered into neat boxes so we can make them fit into a genre.

The finest city-building game ever. Stop looking at me funny. What would you call it?

But for what reason, really? I get that maybe you aren't into shooters, for example, and want to have general ideas of what games are like to play. But let's say you like RPGs but not shooters; what happens to a game like Mass Effect 2, which features stop-and-pop Gears-of-War/Uncharted-style action? Do you play it because we call it an RPG and you like those, and then dislike it because you don't like that kind of shooting? Or maybe you love it, because the action has a different kind of context than it does in "pure" shooters. Point being: Does sequestering games into genres make sense anymore?

You could make the same argument for films, television, and literature as well, actually. Even there, answers that seem simple aren't as clear as they first appear. Is Star Wars science fiction, or fantasy? My unusually level-headed coworker Lark Anderson thinks it's a western, which sounds silly, but makes perfect sense. After all, when developing Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry described it as "Wagon Train to the stars," so a comparison between westerns and Star Wars doesn't seem so odd. Star Wars also has much in common with the old serial adventures, and is based heavily on Kurosawa's film The Hidden Fortress. So if you think of Star Wars as sci-fi, wipe the slate clean and take a closer look. Maybe you'll rethink the idea of categorization.

And so it is with games. We like to put games in compartments because it makes them easier to describe and understand. It's unlikely the concept of genre will disappear in games, but even so, take this opportunity to dismiss your notions of what genres you like, and which you don't. You might have overlooked a game you would have fallen in love with simply because you "don't like that kind of thing." Genres may be here to stay, but maybe it's time to approach games with a clean slate.

Your task this month: Play a high-quality game in a genre you decided at some point that you don't like. Maybe you'll still feel the same way. And maybe--just maybe--you'll fall in love with a game you never imagined you could.

Fun With Kevin's Inbox, Part... Huh?

Full disclosure: This was actually forwarded to me from someone else in the office, but I think it is too delightful not to share.

From: ****
Sent: Wednesday, January 06, 2010 8:51 PM
To: ****
Subject: Dubious Honors? Millions of readers daily? I am worried about sequels...

I think there is a real ideology beyond economic considerations of novelty where old games may no longer be... FIXED. I am thinking of Game Boy s first Final Fantasy. It contains a musical theme I contend is mine and ended up there as Manzanita was an aquaintance of one-of my mothers. But the game is by far the best RPG on its line (sprite, vs Fallout, Nethack, Baldur s), and it is not being republished. I ve found more than one _sabotage_ in games, where the EXACT SAME game with a correction would be more welcomed than a sequel, but it does not happen. These sabotagesare schizophrenicin origin, understandable, explainable and QA does not filter them. Now I see that you take it into consideration! Is it a prize or a punishment? Code maturity is lost if the game attempts to be new instead of a better version. I can name several examples. But now you publish there were less weekly novelties! Do you really have MILLIONS daily looking into videogames? Areyou considering migration to phones and such? I cant find fora with more than, say, 22000 visitors or polls with more than, 2200 votes, 1500 average. If that s the whole internet space, we are losing it! WHO has the means to locate people online, physically? Is Network Solutions beyond ideologies and purely economics and customer oriented? Do you have to fight with polices, who can be proven are schizophrenic prone? Schizophrenic means entropy, flatline and negation. If I keep using the internetbut end up finding the exact 20+ families and varieties, were does that leave us?

The 2009 Cubby Awards

Hi everyone, and long time no post!

As I do every year, I have compiled a list of my top games of the year--though this time, I did it in a slightly different format. Rather than list my top 10, as I did last year, I am presenting individual awards to the games I think are most deserving. Mind you, these are based on my own personal preferences; they should necessarily be construed as reflecting the winners in any official GameSpot Best-Of category.

This was an impressive year. I played a lot of games in 2009, and while some were immediately forgettable, others lingered, either because they were awesome, or because they were lousy. I enjoy this time of year, for what it's worth, and enjoy being part of the official GameSpot discussions. But the best part is getting to recognize games that would have otherwise been forgotten, had they not done one or two things exceedingly well. For example, Velvet Assassin will not blow anyone away, but its atmosphere was incredible--so incredible it was what made the game worth playing. Cryostasis was somewhat buggy and little-played, but its sound design and story were amazing, and we get to recognize it for those things.

It's also a time of surprises. Some readers believe that we buy into "hype," while others suggest that we should only include games they've heard of. (Obviously, those two things can't coexist, but that's lost on many.) But it comes down to this: What did we play, and love? We're in a unique position. We played a lot of games, the popular and the undersold both, and so we're not concerned with whether a lot of people played a game and are in a position to agree with us--we're simply concerned with whether it was good. In games, as in every other form of entertainment, what's good isn't necessarily what's popular, though sometimes it is. That's why you see categories that include The Sims 3 and Comet Crash living in harmony. (You may never have heard of Comet Crash, but you should damn well play it.) It's because we want to recognize what's good, not what's popular. If there's one hope I have this year, it's that you consider playing a game on our list you hadn't payed attention to before now. Never heard of Deadly Creatures or Bit.Trip Void? Now's the time to see what you were missing!

And so on to the Cubbies!


The Paris Hilton Award for Style Over Substance
Ninja Blade

I read occasional complaints from folks that see Ninja Blade as a sort of poor-man's Ninja Gaiden or God of War. And all I can say is: So? Gleefully silly, knowingly derivative, and brilliantly over the top, Ninja Blade is pure fun, and doesn't need excuses made for being exactly that.

The I Don't Get It Award
Borderlands

Borderlands gets a lot of love from various corners, but I haven't quite grasped what it is that people seem to love about it. It doesn't draw me in, because it doesn't do enough to hook me. There's no story worth mentioning, the world seems very bare-bones, and I can't shake the feeling that the art style is trying to compensate for a general lack of personality. Borderlands is a great tech demo, but it is a mere shell of what it could have been.

(Runner-Up: Shadow Complex)

The We've Seen This Before So Why Is It So Damn Good? Award
Dragon Age

There's nary an original bone in Dragon Age's fleshy, scaly body (which is what makes Bioware's recent comments about JRPGs' recycled elements seem hypocritcal), nor does that really surprise me. It's part Lord of the Rings and part D&D, and features enemy designs ripped right from the Tolkien playbook. Yet it works. Not because the plot is going to set the world (or Middle-Earth) on fire, but because the world is well thought out and filled with memorable characters that bring it to life. We've seen it all, but great writing and dialogue make us care in spite of the familiarity.

The Nicholas Cage "I Know You're Better Than This" Trophy
Creative Assembly

Empire: Total War is a great game, but a buggy, flawed beast as well; I have high hopes that Napoleon: Total War improves on this shaky foundation. But it's Stormrise that earns CA this nod. Tellingly, publisher Sega released Stormrise at the very end of its fiscal year, just as it did with Universe at War the year prior. It's a sign that the publisher had essentially given up and needed to get a product on shelves that would continue use up resources without any benefit to revenue. In other words: Sega likely had no faith that the game would get any better. And that's because Stormrise is flawed to its very core--and as we all know, you can't polish a... well... you've hear the saying.

(Runner-Up: Rebellion and Bethesda, for the shameful Rogue Warrior. What were they thinking?)

The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Prize For Brilliance Over Bugs
Cryostasis

Had Cryostasis not been so buggy, it could have been 2009's PC game of the year. But in spite of its technical issues, its story, its ambience, and its originality stood out in a year of endless sequels. This is an awesome and flawed game that deserves its day in the sun. In this cases, an Arctic sun.

The John Cougar Mellencamp "Hurts So Good" Award
Demon's Souls

It's hard. It's unforgiving. And it's the most brilliant and innovative game of 2009, taking old-school dungeon crawling and infusing it with an incredible online component that's built into the very soul of the experience. And everything is implemented so well, never removing you from the world itself with "gamey" elements that intrude in other games. No "co-op" mode menu, no "player hint" menu, no "invite" menu... it's all built into the Demon's Souls' fabric. This is a game that will be played and loved by its fans long after 2009's sales juggernauts have been shelved and forgotten.

The Barry Manilow "I Can't Live Without You" Award
Moxie

"What the hell are you talking about, Kevin?" You thought this to yourself just now, didn't you? Well, fear not, for I am not insane. Moxie is an excellent word game for the iPhone that has kept me busy on my commute to work almost every day for months, when most iPhone games have gotten boring, even popular favorites like Bejeweled and Bookworm. You should check it out.

The Stripped Tease Award
Tie: Demigod and League of Legends

It seems like a great idea: Take the Defense of the Ancients mod for Warcraft III and turn it into a full-fledged product. The problem is, we're still waiting for a full-fledged product. Demigod could have been good had it worked at launch, and we garnered a lot of flak for criticizing this competitive online strategy game for barely working online. Fans felt it deserved the benefit of the doubt, but as it came to pass, we see that games shouldn't require that kind of benefit. Demigod still doesn't function properly (though it has improved), and it serves as proof that you can't trust patches to make it all better.

As for League of Legends, it's a great free game, but a lacking retail product. Again, it's a game built around future promises and expectations that delivers very little up front. If this sub-genre is going to take off in the retail market, we need a full-bodied game, a complete product. Until that time comes, there's simply no reason for DotA players to convert; not when it costs money.

The Unsung Hero Award
Killzone 2

It was easy to look at Killzone 2 as that "incredibly good-looking shooter." But when I wrote the review, I didn't write about the visuals until the second page for a reason: They weren't the defining feature of this fantastic first-person shooter. Killzone 2 is moody, intense, and the most fun I had with a shooter this year, including the super-anticipatedModern Warfare 2. Its multiplayer is an overlooked and amazing haven for 2009's best firefights, thanks to its multi-mode matches and lots of little features (spawn point cameras, for example) that kept me coming back. When other shooters delivered more of the same, Killzone 2 felt unique, and was more exciting than any multiplayer experience I had this year.

The "You Can't Go Home Again" Needlepoint Plaque
Tie: F.E.A.R. 2 and The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Athena

Some games exist as perfect points of light. They were the right game at the right time, and yet hold up years later as well. But some games are best left shining in the darkness. F.E.A.R. had already suffered from a couple of disappointing expansions, but with Monolith at the reigns of its sequel, I expected more, or at least, something on par with the original. F.E.A.R. 2 is a good shooter, but it isn't a special one. Dark Athena suffers in a similar way, which makes me wonder: Do developers sometimes forget what made their games so wonderful in the first place? It's not always about checking off all the right boxes; the best games grab you by the heart or the bollocks and don't let go.

The "It Isn't Just More Of The Same" Award
The Spore and Sims 3 teams at Electronic Arts

We've come to expect expansion packs that just give us more of the same. Rather than lazily crap out mundane and expected expansions, EA gave us delectable delights with Spore: Galactic Adventures and The Sims 3: World Adventures. In the Spore expansion, you got to create and experience little adventures, and in the process, be a bit of a game designer. In World Adventures, you took your sims on holiday to explore tombs, where all sorts of surprises were waiting. In both cases, we got something unexpected. And for that, I am thankful.

The Dan Brown Award
Assassin's Creed II's ending

You know what? It's nutty, maybe even a little cheesy. And you know what? I loved it. But one thing I am sure of: Whether you liked it or hated it, I bet you'll remember it. I'm already formulating ideas for what I think Assassin's Creed III could be (like I did with the first game), but this time, I didn't feel cheated. An awesome game with a memorable conclusion that had me eager for more. What more could I have wanted?

The Gift That Keeps On Giving
Dissidia Final Fantasy

Along with The Sims 3, this is the game that I had a hard time pulling myself away from late at night, bleary-eyed, desperately needing some rest. The action is great, but what makes Dissidia so difficult to put down is how it keeps doling out the rewards, never running out of wonderful things to give you. More importantly, it doesn't feel like you start with half a game to start with. Instead, the joys just pile on.

The Gift That Could Have Given More
Scribblenauts

I don't know a single person in our office that wasn't psyched about Scribblenauts. That is, until we finally played the full game. It's a fantastic toy if you're the creative type, but as a game, it lacks. It's exploitable and controls poorly, and after playing through a few levels, I have absolutely no desire to return; the controls killed it for me.

The "On A Roll" Award
Relic Entertainment

Relic has yet to release a bad game. From Homeworld to Impossible Creatures, each of these game delighted and sometimes astounded me, and with Dawn of War II, they have another winner. It wasn't a home run, mind you. Dawn of War II's identity crisis is an issue, and the single-player campaign is nothing compared to Homeworld II's astounding story. Yet online, Dawn of War II is a thrilling and dynamic experience that reminds me that even when it takes chances that don't work out, Relic is a developer you can rely on, when so many others can't consistently deliver.

The "It's Better Than You Think" Award
Tie: Comet Crash and Dirt 2

Forza 3 is brilliant in its own way, but Dirt 2 is a beautiful and thrilling game in its own right. Justin Calvert and I had a conversation not too long ago in which I mentioned that it is very difficult to find anything wrong with it. The cars drive so well, and the game looks and sound so good, that it's hard to find anything to criticize. You may argue that it could have done more, but it's hard to see how it could have done what it does any better, from it's cool menus to the pure fun of kicking up dirt on the tracks. It got overshadowed by Forza 3 (which is a different kind of experience), but I would argue that it's every bit as worthy of your time and money.

Comet Crash is this year's "huh?" game that showed up in multiple categories, including strategy game of the year. And it totally belongs there, though it's easy to see why someone who hasn't played it might be vexed. 2009 was the year of the tower defense games. Yeah, I am getting sick of them too. But Comet Crash does it much differently by keeping you constantly active, and its multiplayer is a total hoot because it lets you create unit paths using the turrets you place. It's an extra layer of strategy that keeps every game different from the last. Don't let its unassuming looks fool you: This is a game that everyone should play, and is deserving in every category in which it appeared.

The "I Will Remember You" Award
Tie: Red Faction and Infamous

Don't worry, Red Faction and Infamous. You're still awesome, and I will send you Christmas Cards every year so you remember how much I love you.


So that's it for this year's Cubby Awards! Don't forget to vote in GameSpot's Reader's Choice awards, and feel free to let me know what your favorites and least favorites were. Also, be sure to follow me on Twitter, where you'll get a lot more from me on a daily basis than you will here. Until later: Ciao!

A Month Is Too Long: Dissidia is Coming, and a Few Other Thoughts

I haven't been specifically ignoring my blog as much as I've been deeply rooted in the constant flow of games to review. It's been a busy month, but I am grateful that a dry spell has evolved into something more stimulating. It goes in spurts, doesn't it? A bunch of middling games fill out the calendar, and suddenly something good or even special comes along.

Activision didn't send review copies of Wolfenstein for the PC or the PS3, so we should be getting those at retail and getting reviews up by the end of the week. Additionally, a Dissidia review will be up by the end of the week as well; we filmed the video review today. In the meanwhile, if you're anxiously awaiting the review, satiate yourselves with some video:

[video=6215704]

I've also put up a ton of screens. Here are a few:


I hope you enjoy the media. I will also be working on my Spore adventure that I promised a few blogs ago. I plan on tearing myself away more often to keep you all updated on what's going on in my small but decidedly crowded corner of the universe.

In the words of American Dad's Roger: "Haha! I'm away!"

Inspire a Spore Adventure Contest: The Winner!

Goodness I have been busy, so I apologize that this follow-up is a long time coming! In my last blog, I asked you to create an idea for a Spore adventure that I could create. I would choose the entry that was the best, and was the most viable to create, and create it using Spore: Galactic Adventures. The individual that suggested it then gets a copy of Spore and its expansion!

Well congratulations to @Emperor_Jimmu: I will be creating an adventure based on your suggestion, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight! Not only is it a good story, but it is doable within the context of a 10-minute adventure. Send me an email to kevinv--at--gamespot--dot--com with your name and address (and Steam account name, if applicable), and I will either send physical copies of the games to you, or I can gift them to your Steam account.

In the meanwhile, I will get to work on the adventure. When it is done, I will record a playthrough of it and post it here! My thanks to everyone that posted a suggestion.

Kevin's Newest Blog Contest: Inspire a Spore Adventure

As you probably know, I really like the Spore expansion pack, Galactic Adventures. I am pleased with the adventures I created (check out Perseus' Quest, which I think turned out well; too bad the Sporepedia hasn't updated yet with the correct number of plays and so on). I am now in the process of another one based on Korean legend, and can't wait to finish it this week.

But this is where you come in. Once I am done with the current project, I need a good idea for the next one--and I want you to be my muse. So come up with a little story idea. I'll choose the one I like most and seems most feasible to create, craft the adventure, and capture a playthrough so you can see how it turned out. Even better, I will send you a copy of Spore and its expansion, either a physical copy, or via Steam. (If you already own both or either, we can work out a different PC game). Here's the nitty gritty:

1. Give me a loose idea of a small game story that can be played through in around 10-12 minutes. It can be an original idea, a favorite legend or myth, a parody, or something else entirely! Feel free to be creative.

2. Just don't get too carried away. The Spore adventure creator has limitations, so I can't explore the seven levels of hell or anything. But it can have up to eight acts, and include combat, dialogue, fetch quests, and so on. But be as nonspecific as possible (rough outline), because the more specific you get, the less able I will be to create an adventure that intricate.

3. Reply here with your idea. I'll choose the one I like most based on a combination of how good it is, and how feasible it will be to create. Reply by July 1 at 12 PM (noon) Pacific Time, and you'll be eligible.

4. I will announce the winner in my blog. If I choose your entry, I will create it, and when done, I will record a playthrough and post it on the site. I will also credit you on the published adventure. And finally, I will send you a copy of Spore and Spore Galactic Adventures, either via Steam, or via snail mail. This will entail giving me either your Steam username, or your name and address. These would be emailed to me and kept private.

5. I like waffles. Mmm.

So that's about it. I look forward to hearing your ideas and bringing it to life. In the meanwhile, I keep my Twitter updated with all sorts of weird exploits, including Spore ones. And who knows, maybe I will like more than one adventure. If I do, I can't give the game to more than one person (how much money do you think i make!?), but I would certainly create your work of art!

As Promised: You In Sims 3 Form!

Hi there! In my last blog post, I promised the first five users to post links to their photo that I would create a Sim for them in The Sims 3. Only three people decided to link their photos, but it was enough to have a bit of fun. Now, game limitations keep me from getting it spot on, but hopefully I got close!

First up, @MaddenBowler10:

On to @drumbreak1. You were tough because the photo was black and white, and there is no re-creating your awesome hair. But here you go!

And lastly, @nickscho! Hope you enjoy your likeness.

Now, back to E3 preparations. Enjoy the show this year; I know I will!

E3, The Sims 3, and The Year So Far

E3 is practically here--and oddly, a few important, highly anticipated games are coming out around this time, a move that intrigues me, and one that makes it easy to make pre-release conjectures (some of which, interestingly, aren't really legitimate worries, and some that are, judging from what I have seen and played). One of the biggest, The Sims 3, comes out next week. It's an interesting release date, because coverage on major sites may get buried alongside E3 news. Luckily, I spent dozens and dozens of hours with it, and you will see the review up on Monday morning when the review embargo lifts. Sadly, most of our video equipment was all packed up, but we did manage to cobble together a video review, though it won't feature our snazzy greenscreen set. We went old-fashioned!

EA likely doesn't care about coverage getting buried--The Sims 3 is bound to sell like hotcakes. After all, it is the second sequel to the best-selling PC game of all time. A few other games are also on their way next week, like Fuel and Red Faction: Guerilla. I have played through Fuel's single-player component, but because we were given code that plays only on a debug unit, and there weren't pre-release online sessions, I haven't been able to play an important aspect of any modern racing game--multiplayer. Additionally, we were given PS3 code, but not Xbox 360 code. That means you won't see a review for Fuel until after E3. You will probably see Red Faction this week, though. The query that's easy to make, though, is the one you ask when a film isn't screened for critics: is the game released during that week because the publisher is worried about negative buzz? I certainly wondered it, but honestly, a few observations have led me to believe that we shouldn't rush to such dismissals.

So even though the review is done and written, I am still messing around with The Sims 3, so I have a proposal for you. Respond to this blog with a link to a photo of yourself; if you are one of the first five people to do so, I will try my best to recreate your likeness in sim form and post a shot of the resulting Sim here. I have had some success with likenesses; my virtual Chris Watters and Shaun McInnis are spot on, though to be fair, Chris and Shaun themselves created them. So let's have some pre-E3 fun to keep ourselves occupied!

I also have a few thoughts on the first half of 2009.

Winners:

Strategy games. Dawn of War II is one of my favorite games so far this year. The single-player is unusual but fun, yet it's the online component that is fast and furious enough to keep you enamored. RTS? Fast and furious? Oh yes indeed. Not so fast and furious, but no less wonderful: Empire: Total War. A bit buggy at release and somewhat different from its predecessors in some ways for sure, yet still supremely addictive and worth playing.Also worth playing: The RTS/action hybrid Battlestations: Pacific, Men of War, and the underappreciated (and now free) BattleForge. Last year's strategy pickings were slimmer than they should have been; this year has offered several good several strategy titles already!

Tower Defense. Who could have imagined that Plants vs. Zombies would have become so beloved so quickly? And how about the amazing Comet Crash on PSN, a potential game of the year candidate? The recent Swords and Soldiers on WiiWare also has tower defense elements and is quite wonderful. Just when you think a genre really has nowhere to go, game designers prove that creative minds can always find a way to breathe new life into old concepts.

Dumb Fun. Ninja Blade is one of my personal favorites yet this yea, and its mixed critical reaction really surprises me. It isn't deep, it isn't serious, and it isn't trying to be like Ninja Gaiden, so stop comparing them! It is, however, a trip. It's been a hit in the office, though it's hardly perfect--yet I just get a rush when I play it. And here I thought I could never like quick-time events again. And how about The Dishwasher? There's a game that is just pure fun (and quite difficult), and shamefully underselling. Excitebots? Hell yeah. Just all fun. What's wrong with just--being fun? Nothing, I tell you, Nothing!

Hidden Gems. Here's where those games come that some folks can't quite wrap their heads around. They often come from lesser-known devs and explore concepts and mechanics that make your head spin. They might have some technical issues, and won't be everyone's cup of tea, but they deserve credit for being exactly what they are. Cryostasis is this year's best example. It's slow to unfold, but it draws you in. It's for the thoughtful gamer that doesn't need every moment to be filled with bullets and blood, the gamer that likes a sense of place and time, the gamer that likes mystery and doesn't need a quick payoff. So far, it's my favorite story this year. Necrovision, Zeno Clash, Deadly Creatures,Trash Panic, Zubo--don't overlook them because they sound weird or have little buzz. They may not be for you, but they deserve consideration.

Killzone 2 and inFamous. I made up a category just for them. It's the category of AWESOMENESS.

Losers:

Strategy Games. For every up, there's been a down. Let's start with Stalin vs. Martians, the worst game so far this year. Please stop giving this game a reader review score of 10 because you think it's funny. It's not funny when you do that. It just isn't. Or Stormrise, possibly the second-worse game so far this year, and a shocking misstep from a developer known for great strategy games. Demigod is fun, but it's not a complete product. Nor is it perfectly functional, even now. I got some flack from certain quarters over that review; people wanted us to go easy on it, as it came from a publisher known for its commitment to customer service. But as always, we don't review a product based on what it could be in the future--I have to tell it like it is. And it was broken. And it's still not fixed. Connection issues are still a major issue, the pantheon stats are still not fully functional, and there are other scattered problems. In other words, it is the perfect example of why no developer or publisher gets the benefit of the doubt--and why you should never, ever, ever trust that a game will be fixed in the future, or blindly trust the proposed timeline for those fixes. Stardock recommends using a third-party program called GameRanger to help with the connection issues. And you know what? That's unacceptable. Anyway, we also got disappointing expansions for Company of Heroes, Red Alert 3, and World in Conflict--shocking developments for three games that set high standards for the genre. Which brings me to:

Expansion Packs. Those two games I just mentioned belong here, along with Neverwinter Nights 2: Mysteries of Westgate. I realize not every expansion can be as awesome as The Lord of the Rings Online: Mines of Moria, but even the most forgiving fans should still expect more than a quick grab for their buck.

Sequels. There are some wonderful exceptions, some of which I noted above (oh, and Street Fighter IV of course), but there are also some real drags in this regard. The Godfather 2 isn't good. I know there are folks out there that stand by that game vehemently (just as some stood by last year's appalling Mercenaries 2), but it's so flawed, so broken, so devoid of personality, and so contrary to what the license stands for. Puzzle Quest Galactrix is another one that dropped the ball. Neither F.E.A.R. 2 nor Riddick: Dark Athena are bad games; actually, both products are good. Yet when compared to the originals, they suffer somewhat. Moody, sure, but they aren't special in the way their predecessors were. And Bionic Commando is less a sequel than it is a reimagining, nor is it bad, but it doesn't live up to series' standards of quality and fun.

Humor. Night at the Museum is a great way to earn 1000 achievement points in 2 hours, but as hard as it tries, it isn't good for a laugh. Leisure Suit Larry: Box Office Bust's humor is awful. I like dirty jokes as much as anyone else, but you can't leave out the joke part; being dirty isn't funny on its own! And of course, Stalin vs. Martians belongs here too. It thinks it's so clever, but how wrong it is. Of course, there was some truly funny games this year, like Prinny: Can I Really be the Hero; Eat Lead; and Wallace & Gromit. But clever humor seems to be a lost art in games. Giants: Citizen Kabuto, LucasArts adventure games like Grim Fandango, Armed & Dangerous--we need more of these nowadays. Games that tickle us.

What are your winners and losers so far this year? And don't forget to show me your photo, so I can create you in The Sims 3! Also, check our E3 page, and follow me on Twitter. I will be getting possible questions to ask developers and publishers on my E3 appointments in real-time on my Twitter through the week, so keep an eye out!

The Sims 3: The Addiction Continues

Remember how my wife Ursula was throwing up? She was indeed with child. I helped her out as best I could. I even read that damn pregnancy book like she asked after she was done with it. And when time came, I drove her to the hospital, where she gave birth to a beautiful baby girl named Arabelle. Arabelle is a wad of energy; she likes waking us up through the night, which makes Ursula quite cranky, since she possesses the "neurotic" trait. I find that keeping her busy checking the sinks and the stove is the best way to let her sublimate her obssessive-compulsive behavior. She also does a lot of gardening, which leaves Sim Kevin taking after Arabelle more than she does. Blast! This is what I get for being a penniless band manager, while she helps her boss out with important "research" and stocks the fridge with tomatoes, grapes, and lettuce. What goes on in that lab, anyway?

This is my little bundle of joy. One of my favorite parts was when I didn't have a crib, so my Sims just keps putting her on the floor. If I am not careful, they'll do it in public too. On my visit to a local barbecue, I put her down in the grass, and another Sim went haywire when she started to cry, so I sent my wife to tell him a thing or two. He had a tantrum but didn't cause more trouble.

Here's the barbecue in question. Sim Kevin is eating hot dogs, while Ursula waits for her turn at the grill. This must be when Arabelle was laying in the grass, since neither of them are holding her!

Sometimes you have to get away from the wife, you know? This should have been a pleasant after-work dinner party. Instead, I met this dude named Cycl0n3 Sw0rd. I knew of him already, because Ursula delivers vegetables to him for profit. Well anyway, I thought his name was dumb. I mean, who uses a moniker like that in real life? His whole rich lifestyle with him and his bimbos in their huge loft offends me. So I told him what I thought.

He didn't take too kindly to my continued offenses however, but I didn't let up. First I told him his mother was a llama. Then I slapped him. Finally, I showed the scrawny ass that there was only room for one geek in town, and it's the one with the normal name and the beautiful wife. Well, I tried to show him. I lost the fight, but not before I declared Cycl0n3 Sw0rd my nemesis. I will not rest until I take him down.

Luckily, Ursula is less inclined to get herself into trouble. Here you can see her chatting it up with Sim Justin Calvert at the library, who managed to talk about computers--while in his workout clothing. Poor Justin. I should have put more thought into giving him a better exercise outfit.

It's hard work having a baby, an issue I have extended by cranking up my Sim lifespans to the longest possible. Luckily, because my Sims have opposite work shifts, I don't have to spring often for a babysitter, though Sim Kevin's barely had time to practice the guitar he's so busy with late night feedings and diaper changes. I'll keep you posted with more developments in the life of Sim Kevin and his wacky friends as the week progresses.