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Clean Slate

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I won't go so far as to say that I have no interest in MMOs. That's not precise. The truth is that I'm a guy who sunk 150+ hours into Oblivion and 100+ hours into Dragon Quest VIII in the last year alone, so I fear that something like World of Warcraft would break me. Literally, I would be pieces. So interest isn't the problem, although I feign apathy, the real issue is more of survival.

Also, I haven't had a gaming PC for several years now. WoW runs on my preferred Mac platform so that is troubling, but other titles like City of Heroes and Guild Wars are out of my reach anyway. That makes it somewhat easier to pretend they don't exist. But I do still dream sometimes about building a box that would be capable of running modern PC games; I'm usually held back by the required investment that typically dwarfs what it would cost for a new console. Well, that and the savage panthers my wife keeps behind an iron gate which bears a sign reading, "Do Not Open Unless Paul Buys a PC." They're beautiful creatures, those panthers, but their hungry growls suggest strongly that nothing good could come from the opening of that gate.

The temptation of MMO and that of PC procurement exist as separate entities which apart are not too difficult to overcome and which combined represent such a terrifying potential for disaster (also, mauling) that mostly I carry on my daily life without concern. Unfortunately, there was bound to come a juxtaposing variable that would catch me off guard like a ninja or a wolf disguised as a sheep. Or perhaps a wolf disguised as a ninja-sheep, with tufts of white wool peeking through hastily wrapped black cowls that hide vicious fangs and hidden throwing stars. The variable is Tabula Rasa, an action MMO by Richard Garriot that sounds from descriptions like a curiously compelling blend of Halo, Battlefield and WoW.

It was easier when the game was struggling in development, scrapped and approached anew every so often which gave it the air of vaporware. I suppose underestimating Garriot was foolish in hindsight, but I learned a long time ago not to dwell on the past because it's a good way to realize just how great a fool I truly am. But now the game looks like it is actually near completion and I'm scared. I won't go so far as to say I'm to the point of cowering, but I heard the panthers yowl last night and I admit, the crown of my head could not be seen outside the protective shield of the covers.

Don't believe me? Look for yourself:

[video=6176515]

What Makes a System

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I can't remember if I mentioned it before or not, but I'm quite intrigued by R-Type Tactics. So much so, in fact, that this marks the first instance of a game--or anything for that matter--that has made me wish I owned a PSP.

Which is not to say that I don't see merit in the PSP; it's a nice little platform and has some interesting features and capabilities. But ultimately I buy game consoles in order to play games and while there are several PSP exclusives that seem intriguing such as Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror and Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops, none are sufficient to make me think, "If only I had a PSP so I could get in on some of that!"

This is how it always works with me: I see a console released and I examine the features and think, "Huh. Okay." Then some amount of time passes during which games are released and eventually I begin building a list of them which I want to play. Usually this applies to exclusive titles but to some extent it also simply represents games which I am currently not capable of playing with my existing hardware. Eventually the list builds a critical mass where the number of games it contains outweighs the number of games that I'm interested in for my current hardware and that's how I decide it's time to consider making an investment.

What strikes me as interesting about the PSP/R-Type Tactics thing is that it is the first game for that platform that is on my "Want to Play" list at all. Like I said, there are other games I would play if I could, but so far just this one that I truly want to play enough that it makes me regret not being able to. What's odd about this is how long it took for the PSP to come up with a game that I feel like I'm missing out on. For a system that's over two years old now, that's pretty unusual.

But then again, ever since the XBox 1's late-to-the-party arrival marked the beginning of the end for last gen hardware, I've somehow approached things a bit differently. For example, at this point in the previous round o' consoles, I already had the Dreamcast, PS2, GameCube and GBA and was only about six months from the XBox. This time I have one console and one portable... and I'm not really feeling that I'm missing much. In fact, while I hesitate to make any predictions because I'm almost always wrong about what I won't purchase, at ths point in time at least I'm feeling pretty happy with just the 360 and the DS.

I noticed the other day that part of it is my ability to explore each respective system's libraries a bit more. I've played games on both systems that definitely would have fallen through the cracks a few years ago. Games like Condemned: Criminal Origins and Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney are the kind of word-of-mouth games that aren't exactly marquee titles which means they have a kind of risk-vs.-reward element to them (especially if you're making purchases). I mean, let's face it, it's pretty safe to buy the next Halo or GTA game: If you liked the previous ones you're pretty much guaranteed to get more of the same. When you have pretty much every piece of available hardware you end up playing only the really "loud" games that have the most spotlights shining on them because with that much hardware you have so many options you can't keep up even with those sometimes.

But there is something to be said for picking a campsite and setting up a tent in it for a while so you have a chance to really sit down and soak up all the scenery, not just the biggest landmarks.

* * *

Just a couple other notes today: First, I picked up a copy of the aforementioned Phoenix Wright from GameStop for $20 new due to their Memorial Day sale. I admit that I have less hesitation with purchases (so long as the prices are reasonable) now that I'm heavily into Goozex; purchases now just feel like deposits into a sort of General Gaming Fund whose collective value remains far more constant than it has historically been. It does decrease with time and trading activity, but on a much gentler slope.

Anyway, the game is remarkably fun for something with so little actual interaction. I think part of it is that PW is almost the ideal bathroom game. I'm not ashamed to admit that one of my principal pleasures with portable systems is the potty factor: Given the choice between reading some dumb magazine and letting the game continue, I'll take the latter any day.

Also, for whatever reason I got started down the path of examining the leaderboards on 360Voice.com. You know, I'm a bit of a gamerscore nut and I take a perverse joy in seeing it steadily rise, but I will never understand how someone could take that and extrapolate it into a state of mind where you feel happy doing whatever memory card tricks or hacks or whatever to give yourself points you didn't earn. I mean, look at this person. S/he "earned' all 1,000 points from Viva Pinata in a single day. Which is pretty funny when you realize that one of the achievements in that game is awarded for putting 50 hours into it. Hmmm.

It's not a jealousy thing or even a bitterness over his/her willingness to cheat when I am not. I honestly don't care what other people do to get their scores wherever they are, I just don't see how doing whatever this person did to acquire all those points even remotely resembled fun. And since gamerscore and achievement points are utterly valueless outside of the associated entertainment they ostensibly represent, doesn't it seem like an incredible waste of time?

Talkin' 'Bout My Generation

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There is an absolutely fascinating discussion on Newsweek's Level Up about the status of the current round in the console wars. The conversation is ignited by the recent sales data which shows some interesting things such as this comparison (omitting portables and last gen hardware for the time being):

1. Wii - 360,000 units

2. XBox 360 - 174,000 units

3. Playstation 3 - 82,000 units

It's worth noting that the Wii outsold the 360 by more than 2:1 and likewise the 360 outsold the PS3 by more than 2:1 which means the Wii is destroying the PS3 at a rate in excess of four units to one. And while it appears the 360 is killing the PS3, the conversation includes several points which highlight that if that is true, Microsoft is killing Sony softly.

By all accounts the XBox 360 ought to be annihilating the PS3 because all the reasons people point to as causes for the Playstation's lackluster sales are pretty much addressed by the current state of the 360: Lower price, wealth of AAA titles, lack of direct competition with the previous gen's console and a fairly certain short term future as far as anticipated titles go. So why the relatively lackluster system-to-system comparison? Isn't it obvious that the 360 is the way to go?

I think there are a couple of factors that N'Gai Croal and Geoff Keighley overlook regarding the 360's comparatively slow adoption rate. The first one is that the graphical difference between Xbox 1 and the 360 isn't as dramatic as the jump from Playstation 1 to PS2. Compare even a late gen title on PS1 (Parasite Eve, perhaps) with an early PS2 title (Ico) and the difference is pretty impressive. I'm a fairly early adopter when it comes to video games because I don't like getting too far behind the curve on the sweet new games since too much backlog eventually overwhelms me and I end up issing titles I really wanted to play, but I could easily have waited another six months or even until Halo 3 before upgrading my XBox 1 to a 360. It's true that once you see what next gen consoles can do the improvements are there, but outside observers may have a harder time justifying what seems like an incremental upgrade. Compare the screenshots for this 360 game with this XBox 1 title; other than some sharpness, which may be attributed to the screencap method for all we know, they look similar.

Another factor may simply be that MS has kind of a bad reputation with the kinds of people Croal and Keighley call hardcore gamers. At the very least a lot of very technically savvy people aren't the biggest MS fans and I suspect there is plenty of overlap between the groups. I've heard more than a few people say they have no interest in whatever MS is selling as far as consoles go; it's difficult to prove one way or the other but one has to at least consider what the company's reputation does for their sales--or sales potential. One could point out that Microsoft's stuff does continue to sell, but the argument could also be made that part of that is easily attributed to them riding the long waves of past successes. Since about the late 90s MS has seemed to be kind of a day late and a dollar short: Zune vs. iPod, XBox vs. Playstation, perhaps even Vista vs. OS X (although obviously not in total sales for that last example). I wouldn't go so far as to say the XBox isn't a success because it's made by Microsoft, but I might suggest that it will have a hard time getting anywhere near the mass acceptance the PS2 did because of who they are.

And finally, it could be that for as much as people pick on the PS3's price, the XBox misses the pricing sweet spot as well. I think a huge part of the problem is that the XBox that could most fit into the average gamer's budget is widely perceived as being useless or at best incomplete. I know for a fact that was my biggest stumbling block: One of my favorite features of the original XBox was the hard drive and I wasn't about to step backwards into a memory-card based system just to get a small horsepower upgrade. It wasn't until GameStop's XBox trade-in promotion basically eliminated the cost of the hard drive that I felt comfortable enough to buy a 360. I think MS is on the right track by offering a $299 system, but they need to realize that no one wants it without the hard drive, especially when a separately purchased drive pushes the total cost of the unit directly into the range of the premium bundle. Simply having a SKU at the right price isn't enough, that SKU has to represent a product people are really willing to buy. In the summer months when these things are being bought by their eventual owners (versus holiday time when the money is coming from confused folks with a loved one who happens to be a gamer), you can't count on a lot of "whoops" sales where a clueless buyer grabbed the cheaper system just because it was without really understanding why.

The other thing that stood out to me was the seemingly casual dismissal of the impact Halo 3 and GTA IV might have on hardware sales. Croal and Keighley use Gears of War as an example of how a hit title may not drive console sales significantly but I think that overlooks two things: 1) Gears was heavily hyped but ultimately it represented an unproven, brand new IP. People who already owned an XBox 360 were probably hyped about it because it was a great showpiece for their system, but I don't know that even the great reviews it got made it seem worth $460 to check out (console + game). 2) Halo 3 and GTA IV are feverishly anticipated titles following up gigantic successes on last gen consoles. As long as San Andreas and Halo 2 are still the latest and greatest for those franchises, hardcore fans of those series may not find themselves compelled to upgrade until a sequel hits stores that they have no access to. I wouldn't be so quick to assume that Halo and GTA will follow GoW into hardware sales disappointment.

Couch Day

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I agreed to cover a co-worker's shift tonight even though it's supposed to be the middle of my weekend. Since I knew I had to endure an unexpected night at work I treated myself to a rare vegetation day and just played hours of XBox instead of doing any of the useful things I normally attend to during the weekend.

The time spent was excellent, I must say. Behold, some highlights:

* I finally beat the stupid boss in Alien Hominid. That guy really angers me, so it was delicious to finally lay the smack down on him. I didn't get anywhere near the "No Continues" achievement and in fact I was down to my last two lives when I finally polished him off. But the one good thing about incredibly challenging games is the true sense of accomplishment when you finally emerge victorious.

* I made a ton of progress on PGR3. I decided my problem with racing games is that after a while you're just, you know, driving around. That seems very trite but for whatever reason the novelty of driving really fast and power sliding around turns wears off pretty quickly for me which means the game's secondary features have to carry a lot of the load. In PGR3 the secondary features are primarily buying new cars and playing online. Online play is not terribly attractive to me because the game has been out so long that the only people still playing it are those who are chasing #1 ranks and stuff so if our comparative skills were an SAT question it would be like: "ironsoap is to a blind old lady as every other PGR3 player on Earth is to Jeff Gordon." I think I wish that there were more to do with the game because the racing is fun but I can only stomach about ten races in a single sitting before I start getting antsy. Gotham TV, Photo Mode, Course Creator and all those other side activities just aren't enough. It's been a very long time since I played a Gran Turismo game (PSOne in about 1996, I believe) but I seem to recall those games having an almost role-playing element to them where you tuned up your car and added upgrades and stuff. That sounds more like the kind of racing game I'd be into. It's very possible I'm misremembering GT, but a game where you kind of had to build your own cars would be pretty cool and I can't imagine no one has ever made something like that. Naturally I'm too lazy to look it up.

* It has come to my attention that I'm the worst super spy ever. My Stealth rating in Splinter Cell is typically around single digits and in one recent mission it was at -2% by the time it was over. Fortunately you can usually just run-n-gun your way through certain levels, but it literally takes me three times as long to sneak through a level as it does to just mow everyone down. My only complaints with the game so far are that the camera is set too close to your character so that looking around is unnecessarily difficult because I feel like Sam Fisher's dome is constantly in my way. I know you can switch perspectives, but you have to stop moving to do that and usually I get into trouble when moving from one hiding spot to another at which point I start getting wailed on while I struggle frantically with the camera trying to see past a screen-filling noggin to figure out who's shooting me.

* I tried a couple of demos today. One was for Blacksite: Area 51. I had never even heard of the game before I fired up the (short) demo, but I was pleasantly surprised by it. U3 Engine makes it look pretty nice and it has some cool features like a simplified squad control scheme (it uses one button) and some interesting vehicles. It's also supposed to include Live co-op through the campaign, which is intriguing primarily because the demo is so well executed. I really appreciated the demo's conclusion which is very cinematic and reminiscent of a solid movie trailer that just leaves you wanting more.

* On the other hand, the DiRT demo sucked. The game is painfully boring to look at. I guess that's just the hazard of a game where you spend most of your time driving around in the desert, but I felt like I was driving around in circles since all the terrain looked identical. Plus the driving is no fun since the physics are screwy and the roads are really narrow. When you go off course the game resets you back on the track, wasting time so instead of breakneck turns (which might be fun), you end up driving like a sissy to avoid accidents. I will say one thing, though: It has really cool looking menus. Maybe if they spent as much time on the courses as they did on the menus? Just a thought.

* I played some Catan and Hexic as well, just because. I'm working on some progressive Achievements for both games (100+ Victory Points in Catan and 5,000 combos in Hexic) which track activity across all your games. One thing I wish is that games with these types of Achievements would display their internal counter somewhere like in the options. For example, you can easily get 500-600 combos in a single Marathon game of Hexic, but it's been a while since I played so it would be nice to know if I'm looking at another five rounds? Two? Ten? It annoys me that I don't know.

In other news I continued my GameFly pre-played/Goozex fodder scheme by ordering a heavily discounted copy of Prey for 360 from GF (around $13 shipped) not because I have much interest in the game but because I can get around $35 credit for trading it to someone. Considering that I don't have enough credit to get the games I've requested at the moment, it either something like this or actually purchase credits from Goozex and that ain't likely to happen. If I was going to fork over $35 or more, I'd just give it to GameStop or whomever and get some instant gratification. One thing that continues to be a bit disappointing about Goozex (despite my general happiness with the service) is the severe lag time most other traders display in getting their games out.

Meanwhile, as I try to milk the system a bit, I'm getting annoyed with GameFly. I live relatively close to the GF distribution center on the West Coast and it consistently takes me a week to get my games. I only have a one-game plan so when I sit around without a game for a week, its like losing money to the tune of nearly $50 per year (according to my math at least). Yet when I ordered Splinter Cell from them and directly gave them money for it, the game was in my mailbox in a couple of days. I don't understand that. I sent them a complaint but I don't have much hope that they'll do anything about it.

I'm probably not likely to be able to afford another super gaming day any time soon, but this one was pretty darn cool while it lasted. 

A Certain Degree of Disdain

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It's been a sort of uneven week on the gaming front. Observe:

  • Goozex: After finally getting my first game in trade (PGR3), the time elapsed for another game I was scheduled to receive (Call of Duty 3) and I had to inform Goozex that I'd gotten the shaft. What's odd is that when I submitted my feedback there was no "We're sorry, we'll give your trade credit back" or "Hang on while we investigate the problem." Maybe that is forthcomig, but at the moment I'm kind of left hanging without a game or the credits.
  • PGR3: It looks nice and has a very good sense of speed to it. The interface is very clean and the controls are tight. But, in the end, you're just driving a car around a track in one of only a handful of cities that all pretty much look the same because all you have time to see are the guardrails. I guess I'm just not enough of a car geek to appreciate the game and while I do enjoy zipping around a bit, I have a feeling the game will be back on my "Available" list in Goozex within the next two weeks.
  • Gamefly:  I'm a little confused because I used my $5 coupon to purchase a pre-played game (Splinter Cell: Double Agent)--primarily because the Goozex trade credit for that game is worth a heck of a lot more than I ended up paying for it . And Gamefly got the game to me in less than three days. But when they send me my rental games, like the one I'm waiting for now (Battle for Middle-Earth II), it takes a minimum of one week to get to me. What's that about?
  • Splinter Cell: Much like Metal Gear Solid, I loved the first Splinter Cell game and generally disliked the sequels. I don't think I even played the single-player mode in Chaos Theory but got it mostly for the co-op which I ultimately just found kind of frustrating. I did work through a lot of Pandora Tomorrow, but I felt it was a shadow of its predecessor. So I didn't have high hopes for Double Agent (like I said, I got it mostly for the trade value), but I was surprised at how much I enjoyed playing the first mission. Maybe fourth time's the charm?
  • XBLA: I downloaded a bunch of trial games. Sometimes I don't understand developers' strategy with the trial modes. Texas Hold 'Em, for example. Now I enjoy playing poker but I'm not some fanatic about it and when it comes to video poker I can usually enjoy a half hour or so. As far as I can tell, the only thing missing from the trial game is career mode (yawn) and multiplayer. I get that many people are really only going to be interested in multiplayer, but to allow trial downloaders to play the single-player game pretty much as long as they like seems kind of counter-productive. I cannot imagine paying for the full version of that game. I tried Eets which was interesting but not enough to hold my attention for longer than the trial lasted and also Lumines which practically put me to sleep. Boring techno music plus boring puzzle game equals a big pass from me. Aegis Wing I did like but I think I need to read the directions or something because I seem to be missing some key element of the game based on the way people online are talking about it. What's all this about linking ships?
  • Podcasts: I've been listening to some gaming-related podcasts while I do some busy work and it's clear to me that the quality levels of these things vary drastically. Penny Arcade's Downloadable Content podcast is consistently entertaining but inconsistently delivered; 1Up Yours is very good but sometimes they labor over certain points too long; Major Nelson's podcast is alright but it's kind of like a drinking game--every time he lapses into marketing-speak, take a shot. Then there is the XBox 360 Fanboy podcast which had the host yawn right in the middle of it, and loudly. If he can't even keep from boring himself, how am I supposed to keep listening?
  • Gamecube: I've finally decided to retire my Gamecube, which means pulling it out of the entertainment center and finding a place for it in the garage. Goozex has sucked up almost all my remaining GC games (leaving only Metroid Prime which at this point I doubt I could give away) including the disappointing Twilight Princess so it really serves no further purpose. It's kind of sad since I've owned and enjoyed nearly every system Nintendo has released and unless the Wii really starts to evolve into something much more up my alley this may be the first generation I pass on Nintendo's offering.

What XBox Live Arcade Needs

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There's a fairly interesting thread over on the Gamerscore Blog about what XBLA should focus on going forward. Predictably, the responses are varied and in general disagreement although it seems there is quite a bit of support for a continued focus on nostalgia titles and a lot of call for what I can only describe as "buzz games."

The kind of games I'm referring to are things that are commonly cited in online forums or retrospectives as being very highly regarded but which perhaps didn't necessarily enjoy the sort of mainstream success they maybe should have. Thus, they have a lot of buzz--even today--but didn't necessarily make it onto everyone's radar. I'm talking about games like X-Com, Alone in the Dark, System Shock, Marathon, The Longest Journey, Katamari Damacy, Rez and Ikaruga.

To a certain extent these are perhaps critically acclaimed games that never really found their audience or games that did find their niche but it turned out to be smaller than people had hoped for whatever reason. And to a degree there is some hint that this is the kind of thing the folks at XBLA are interested in doing with releases like Castlevania: SOTN and Alien Hominid.

I'm basically on board with these people but I think a lot of those who are suggesting these games for XBLA are maybe those who actually did play the games the first time around. I'd just like to suggest that maybe those of us who missed a lot of these titles might want to get a bit vocal about supporting overlooked gems because it is difficult to find them elsewhere at this time.

I guess that in a broader context I'm sort of hoping for more games that feel full and complete, like Castlevania. Some of the nostalgia titles are fun for a while, but I just can't really get all that excited about paying for Pac Man when I know I can get it in about a zillion different formats, in some cases for free or vastly cheaper than the 400 points MS wants for it. Other games like Catan and Uno I think are important to have on the service but there are plenty of times where there aren't enough people around to get a decent game going and I don't feel like playing against strangers. But games like Marathon or X-Com require a lot more effort to come by than Pac Man and, at least to me, offer a lot more promise of ROI. I like Double Dragon as much as the next guy but my nostalgia can carry me through a good old school game for several hours; objectively mediocre games are worth maybe thirty minutes of flashback fun. I see people in the comments of the article suggesting things like Bad Dudes and I can't help thinking that I could probably barely stomach the free trial of a game like that. If the XBLA team wants to target that kind of audience, I'm sure that's their prerogative but they're likely to see less of my money as a result.

So far I think the balance on XBLA has been pretty good. Not great, because I do think there is a bit of a skew toward mediocre ports of ancient games, but there are some nice indie games on there (Aegis Wing, despite its flaws, is a great example of the kind of thing that XBLA could use more of) and a few really solid ports. I think if the push more with the ports and get a critical mass on the XNA going they'll be just fine.

The only other thing I noticed was a lot of clamor for reduced prices after a certain amount of time. Not only is this wishful thinking but it's pretty foolish to even suggest it. If all games were halved in price after six months as many are suggesting, why would anyone buy on day one? No, if they're going to do price adjustments they need to do so based on demand. Underperforming titles should get incremental cuts until purchases match similar popular games and perhaps super popular games could get eventual price cuts after sales have slowed (akin to the Platinum Hits program). If this were made clear to XBox customers it might even enable people to vote for appropriate pricing by refusing to buy games like Defender at 400 points when something like that is really only worth 150 or 200 points.

What Did I Miss?

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You take a couple days off from teh Internets and come back to find the whole place blew up. I always miss the good stuff.

The key announcement of course is StarCraft II. I must confess that as much as I enjoyed the first game, I really, really sucked at it to the point that I had to use a lot of cheat codes just to muddle through the single-player campaign. Part of it is that I don't have a lot of patience for re-playing missions that take me hours to fail at in the first place. Once I lost a mission after investing a big chunk of time into it I'd get frustrated and punch in the unlimited resources code or whatever and just storm the level. Cheap? Yes. But I enjoyed the plot of the game more than I did the actual gameplay so while I'm curious to know what Blizzard has in store for the campaign story, I'm not really slavering over the actual game itself, as strange as that may sound. I will say that I like the look of the game though, even if it isn't mind-blowing, I think it's got a good sense of design, which sometimes matters more than photo-realism.

In other news, Halo 3 is supposed to include four-player co-op over XBox Live. I thought the lack of Live co-op on Halo 2 was one of its biggest detriments so obviously this is a big deal to me. I love online co-op and I read recently (I've lost the link now) an insightful observation that one of Halo's strengths is that the game works very well in the campaign mode as either a solo game or a co-op game. I believe there was a criticism that made the point that the only problem was the story didn't really accommodate multiple Master Chiefs, but whatever. Perhaps now that co-op is more of a prominent feature the story/cinemas can be adjusted slightly to have co-op games make more sense.

Also I guess they're making a sequel to Deus Ex? Another one? I played through a good chunk of the original before hardware problems forced me to abandon my pursuit of the end sequence and found its premise and execution to be intriguing. I somehow missed Invisible War, probably because I never finished the first. Should this game see the light of day I'd probably check it out even without being caught up on the series; I'd assume that with the gap of time between the last time Deus Ex was on any gamer's radar and the release of this game they'd have to presume no one had an intimate familiarity with the previous games' stories... which works well for me.

And speaking of upcoming games, Evil Avatar has a couple of pages of anticipated XBox games both First Party and Third Party. On the First Party side I'm obviously more than ready for Halo 3 and Mass Effect; I'm still eyeing Blue Dragon but after experiencing Oblivion and drifting away from the Final Fantasy series I wonder if maybe JRPGs aren't really my cup of tea anymore. I did like Dragon Quest VIII, so we'll see. I downloaded the Forza 2 demo and while it looks nice, racing games are really hit or miss with me. I found this one to be a miss. Too Human is a difficult title because it sounds pretty cool but, like Shadowrun, the mere fact of its existence indicates the absence of a game I would prefer to have in production. Namely, Silicon Knights has chosen to do Too Human instead of Eternal Darkness 2. It might be really awesome--and if it is, I won't shun it artificially--but it's still not my ideal.

On the Third Party side the highlights are BioShock, primarily. Culdcept Saga sounded interesting when I read Tycho over at Penny Arcade's description of it, although I have yet to determine if this is a standalone game or an XBLA title (I'm presuming the former based on GameSpot's entry although some material I've read sounds sort of XBLA-ish). Also, Overlord sounds pretty cool.

* * *

I was all set to start griping about Goozex: In theory the idea behind it is sound. If you're going to take your played games to someone with the intention of getting some sort of value out of it to be applied toward a different game that you have not played--let's call it credit--you can do so via an intermediary such as a retail outlet who will take their cut, or, ideally you would do so without that intermediary. Well, perhaps a digital stand-in who will be capable of working more closely with your interests which is to get a fair value for your trades.

The problem is that by removing the middleman you have to rely on the other individual to perform the essential function... that is, transferring the game from themselves to you. Of course, as I began to use this thought to describe the fundamental unreliability of other homo sapiens I get my first traded game in the mail, one Project Gotham Racing 3. This is not the title that was ostensibly shipped to me first (that would be Call of Duty 3 which has now surpassed its target receipt date), but it does indicate that not every transaction will be a tedious and ultimately disappointing prospect.

Almost as an afterthought I'm pretty happy with PGR3 although like it's predecessor for the original XBox I forsee it having a fairly short shelf life. Aside from that I spent plenty of time messing with XBLA titles and demos this weekend; highlights were Aegis Wing which is good but annoying because it denied me two of the Achievements that I could swear I earned (completing a level without dying and completing a level without getting hit) and also the demo to Viva Pinata that I didn't expect to enjoy but did. I don't typically use this word in general conversation but the only way to describe the game is "adorable" and yet that somehow doesn't automatically disqualify it from my library. I actually put it on my Goozex request list, so help me.

Tell no one.

On Losing

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Steven Totilo on MTV.com (MTV covers games? Well, I guess they have to do something since they certainly don't play videos) whines a little about getting spanked in Halo 3's beta and then talks about what could be done to make losing more enjoyable.

I've mentioned before that I'm not an elite video gamer. I would probably enjoy attending PAX, but I'm never going to enter the Omegathon because I'd simply be destroyed and humiliated. For the most part my skill level is sufficient to handle most games on some level; modern games typically have adjustable difficulty levels and most of the time one or another allows me to make acceptable progress. But these cases refer to the challenge against the AI in single-player modes where I'm guessing developers put a decent amount of time into tuning a game for mass market appeal. Brutally challenging games like Alien Hominid or Ikaruga are comparatively rare and often niche titles owing in part to their difficulty level.

When you start playing against other humans, all bets are off. A human opponent isn't going to adjust down to your level to ensure you feel like you got a good deal on a game you paid $50-60 for. They don't care one bit how satisfied you are with your purchase, they just want to win. Now, compared with many, many human gamers my experience has shown me that I'm consistently in the bottom half of the rankings at the end of the match. In pretty much any game. Fortunately, I'm not super obsessed with winning (my distaste for online gaming with strangers has almost nothing to do with getting my butt handed to me regularly and everything to do with my tolerance level for ignorance, racism and annoying morons with whiny voices repeating inanities or griefing).

Part of the problem from my perspective is with games that value certain skills above all others. Deathmatch or even team deathmatch, for example, is basically all about twitch reflex which I lack as measured by number of kills tallied based on who gets in the killing blow. There is little to entice me to play because even though I can have some fun running around and just seeing how well I can do, people are (somewhat) justifiably obsessed in these games with their kill count. But this also leads directly to an obsession with earned kills where people can get very upset if they whittle a foe down to near dead only to have someone else get the killing shot off and thus the coveted tally. This even carries over to team games to some extent (which makes me wonder why kill counts are tallied in non-deathmatch team games like CTF) where even accidentally denying another player one of their precious kills--even if it serves the team's ultimate goal--causes problems.

Totilo's position is that there ought to be more support roles in multiplayer games, which I sort of agree with but I think developers have tried to include this kind of thing such as Battlefield 1942's Medic role among others. The real problem still is that score is kept as an individual number instead of tracking overall team performance. If the only thing that mattered was whether or not you captured the flag or cleared the map or held the checkpoint perhaps people like me who might prefer the support role wouldn't have the stigma of being a) useless or b) a poor teammate due to impacting fellow team member's precious score.

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On a different topic, here's an article about why the Wii is still a force to reckon with. My tepid opinion of the console (as of right now anyway) has been chronicled elsewhere, but one thing that kind of struck me about the article is the bit about gaming moving to the mainstream. This concept keeps getting rolled out as reason why the Wii will rule the world but it kind of conveniently ignores that the mainstreaming of video games happened, or at least began happening, long before these casual, family-friendly games began showing up. I'm sure more accessible games might help accelerate the process and reach otherwise unreachable customers, but they seem to kind of be attributing the phenomenon to the Wii when I think things like Yahoo! Games and the aging population of gamers has a lot more to do with the general acceptance levels of gaming than a console that's been out for six months.

The author also says the strength of the DS is going to help propel the Wii forward but as with anytime people start to mention Wii/DS interoperability the descriptions of what that actually means are sketchy--and that's being very generous. What kind of compatibility are they going to have? Don't both units have unique control schemes as their primary features? How are they supposed to work in tandem? If this is akin to the GBA/GameCube connection which was likewise well touted as "revolutionary" but was, in fact, limp at best and downright pointless at worst.

And in the end the whole article rings false because potential is basically irrelevant. I mean, the GameCube had plenty of potential, but the lack of consistent, compelling titles made it good for only occasional use. Since we've seen nothing worth mentioning since launch for the Wii, the sense of deja vu is growing and the article completely fails to address that except with the first point about the Wii being the lead format. And even then, your examples are a licensed movie-tie in title and a Crash Bandicoot game? They're still making Crash Bandicoot games? Why?

Color me unconvinced.

Okay, NOW I'm Excited

by on

I try to keep my general enthusiasm for the XBox 360 behind a front of measured indifference. My constant qualifying statements of "I'm not a fanboy but..." may or may not ring hollow and I actually couldn't care less. I don't go around trying to convince people that the 360 is inherently superior to other alternatives (though I'm not above explaining why I don't care to buy a Wii or PS3 at the moment) and if people decide to hate on MS' noisy, hot-running white console I think that's just dandy. To echo yesterday's statement on the matter as concluding statement, the extent of my supplication to Redmond's el hefe is that I'm happy with my purchase.

Another marker that may set me apart from the population of slavering 360 disciples is my semi-ambivalence toward Halo 3. The odd thing is that I'm--by and large--a fan of the series thus far. I thought Halo was a pretty good game that got console FPS controls right and though I share the near-universal annoyance for the endless Library/Flood sequence, I walked away from the game thinking, "That was fun." It was only natural then that when Halo 2 arrived I made a point to check it out. I wasn't disappointed because I didn't expect some revolutionary, paradigm-shifting experience: I mainly hoped for more cool alien-busting action and got what I wanted. I even thought the multiplayer was kind of a hoot for a little while there (though my interest in it waned far quicker than many people's).

Now that Halo 3 hype has begun building to its predictable fever pitch I find myself in the curious position of being interested in getting my hands on the game but consistently annoyed by all the mad ninnies who can't go one day without soiling themselves over having to wait a few months before it is released. This, my friends, is how disappointment is bred. Perhaps I was more forgiving of the abrupt cliffhanger ending to Halo 2 than most (although I did find it annoying for about five minutes before promptly Getting Over It) because I hadn't let myself get lathered into a frenzy about just how freakin' awesome the game was going to be. There are times when pessimism has its rewards.

In fact, while I am looking forward to Halo 3, I find other forthcoming titles like Mass Effect, Bioshock and Fable 2 are more earnestly anticipated but somehow I managed to overlook possibly the greatest announcement I could have hoped for: Half-Life 2 Orange Box. I choose at the moment not to dwell on how such news slipped beneath my radar, but now that it has reached my ears, the news will not stop its taunting echo. Being an ardent user of OS X and generally eschewing PCs (other than work-issued laptops which are hardly ever suitable to decent PC gaming), I confine myself mostly to console gaming mostly out of deference to my beautiful spouse who (mostly) tolerates my hobby so long as its pursuit impacts our shared bank accounts mildly and infrequently. A $400 console once every couple of years at most is far more acceptable than a $1,500 gaming rig followed by regular $400 upgrades. The concept may be foreign to many gamers, but our shared pastime is just as foreign to non-gaming spouses and, frankly, they hold a lot of sway since they bear the keys to certain activities I enjoy even more than playing vids.

Ahem. Moving on.

So lacking a suitable PC since the halcyon days of... oh, about 1999, I find myself gritting my teeth against the trauma of being denied access to the sequel to one of my favorite games of all time, Half-Life. The announcement that this oft-coveted title (which I've actively contemplated making a significant hardware investment solely to experience) is soon to be available in a format that seems catered directly to me nearly restores my faith in humanity as a whole. Nearly. Knowing that the package includes such delectable bonus materials as Episodes One and Two, Portal and TF2 threatens to invoke a total alteration to my entire persona not unlike that experienced by one Ebeneezer Scrooge on a fateful night in early winter.

On a completely different topic, I finally received my copy of Bullet Witch from GameFly and had a chance to play it for an hour or so. I can see pretty much every criticism GameSpot's reviewer (Greg Mueller) throws at it and I certainly haven't played it enough to grow weary of it should it become repetitive, but for a rental so far I'm having fun. Unlike Lost Planet which started off by dragging the whole game down with indecipherable exposition, BW sort of dumps you right into the action after a short scenario set-up, which I appreciated. And hey, for the most part it's exactly what I expected: A hot chick with a machine gun mowing down zillions of zombies. Elegance in simplicity? I mean, the jury is still out but they've got a while yet to deliberate.