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masterpinky2000 Blog

On the Playstation Move

Playstation's glorified Wii-Mote.

Early Impressions

Last summer, I wrote a piece about the future of the console wars. At the time, I was particularly caustic in my evaluation of the prospects for Playstation's wand -- now dubbed the Move -- and Microsoft's Project Natal (whose official brand name has not yet been revealed). This is what I said then:

"I'm more than a little disappointed that Sony has chosen to emulate the Wii. And I'm even more aghast at Microsoft's attempt to do the same, since they seemed to comprehend the strategy of focusing on the core gaming audience much better than their rivals. In the end, I believe both the PS3's wand and the 360's Natal will end up being stillborn (couldn't resist the pun!).

The reasons for this are many and varied. First and foremost is the fundamental issue that plagues Nintendo. You're trying to sell game consoles to non-gamers, and even if you realize short-term gains, it's a questionable strategy in the long run. Secondly, and more importantly, they're doing it way too late — and with way too much baggage. If you ever make a 360 or PS3 game that necessitates motion controls, you alienate a huge percentage of your base that owns the console but not the additional accessory. So, inevitably, you can only incorporate these controls as an option and hence cannot make them play a central role in the game's design. In other words, you can never make the more than a gimmick.

Do you think game developers are really thrilled by the Natal? The Epic guys have already dismissed its inclusion in the 360's best new IP, Gears of War. Bioware has been enthusiastic about it in interviews, but if your read into their statements, they're not including it in their known upcoming titles and believe "to really make use of it you'd want to design a game from the ground up with Natal in mind."

But the incentive structure isn't set up to encourage Natal-only development. If any developer came up with a brilliant design for motion-sensing, why would they bring it to the 360? The majority of the install base wouldn't be able to play it. Instead, the logical course of action would be to rework that concept and bring it to the Wii, whose install base is larger and more excited about motion-sensing anyways. Because of this, it makes virtually no business sense to sink significant resources into Natal games. This reasoning applies equally well to the PS3's new motion controls as well."

Feeling Unmoved

After seeing videos of the underwhelming Playstation Move demonstration at the 2010 Game Developers' Conference, I have no reason to change my original conclusions. There seems to be very minimal innovation to differentiate the Playstation's new controller from the existing technology on the Wii. Of course, perhaps this is precisely the idea behind the Move -- they want to court Wii-to-Playstation ports that have proven hugely popular. EA is already doing this to some extent with their upcoming motion-controlled games.

The games shown during the presentation looked extremely bland, which is deeply disappointing. Motion Fighters looks like a knockoff of Fight Night, and it apparently doesn't control very well according to IGN.

Motion Fighters

Another mediocre Move title.

It astonishes me that Sony either could not or would not develop a killer app for this new peripheral. If you're trying to convince people to drop around $100 on this new tech, on top of a $299 console, then you need to show them either an established AAA franchise -- Killzone 3, anyone? -- or an entirely new, AAA-quality IP that makes full ues of the Move. Instead, we get games whose graphics look worse than most PSN and Xbox Live Arcade titles, with extremely simplistic gameplay and little discernable narrative.

Fixing the Situation

The stakes for Sony's E3 2010 presentation have just grown distinctly higher. Its core gaming audience wants to see gameplay from some of the console's mysterious but highly anticipated titles -- The Last Guardian, Final Fantasy Versus XIII, and Agent, to name a few. They want announcements for sequels like Killzone 3, Uncharted 3, inFamous 2, and Resistance 3. And now they're going to be asking an additional question: why in God's name should we sink $100 into the Move instead of picking up two of those AAA titles this holiday season?

The solution isn't spin (and it certainly isn't that ping-pong game they showed off this week). The only thing that can really redeem this peripheral at this point is a major, bombshell announcement. Quite frankly, the only way I'm going to buy the Move is if Sony announces at E3 that they are partnering with Bungie Studios on an original IP that will be built from the ground-up for the new controller. It's really going to take something that big. And, unfortunately for Sony, I think that's a highly unlikely proposition.

Dragon Age - Odyssey's Swan Song?

It is incredibly shocking when one thinks about these two dates: November 3, 2009 and January 26, 2010. Those are the release dates for Bioware's two recent critically acclaimed RPGs, Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect 2. But to be quite honest, it seems as if three years, rather than three months, separates these two games. Dragon Age plays more like Knights of the Old Republic, with its similar turn-based combat system and its use of the Odyssey engine (albeit a highly modified and improved version). Mass Effect, in case anyone has forgotten, came out in 2007 -- and moved toward real-time combat and improved graphics with the licensing of Unreal 3.0.

By no means am I saying that Dragon Age is a bad game: I've played about 10 hours so far, and I'm as addicted as I've been to all the Bioware games I've ever played. They really are masters of their craft. Nonetheless, I can't shake the feeling that I'm playing a blast from the past -- a game that is the exemplar of certain design decisions and gameplay mechanics that may be on the way out for the genre.

A screenshot from Dragon Age: Origins (2009)

Thane Krios from Mass Effect 2 (2010)

Above: Dragon Age: Origins; Below: Mass Effect 2. The latter screenshot looks like it comes from the future -- in more ways than one.

I'm hoping to post a full review of Dragon Age within the next two weeks, but I feel I've already done the game a disservice by playing it after completing and falling in love with Mass Effect 2. Compared to that title, the conversation engine of Dragon Age is laughably dated: your main character's lines are written verbatim on the screen, rather than the paraphrase conversation wheel used in Mass Effect, and the lines themselves aren't even spoken. On the combat side, the lack of aiming and the turn-based system (complete with the need to apply constant potions and buffs to your party) also strike me as slightly anachronistic.

Of course, none of this has hurt Dragon Age's sales. I really wonder what's going to happen with the inevitable Dragon Age 2, which some news sources are pegging for early 2011. That would be a turnaround of only a year and a half, and only a year after Dragon Age: Origins - Awakening, the major expansion pack slated for release a week or so from now. I don't know if this is fan service or a rush job, but it clearly indicates one thing: they aren't going to move the franchise over to a more advanced engine. This may prove to be a mistake in the long run; the narrative possibilities opened up by the heavily modified Unreal platform that Bioware utilized in Mass Effect are numerous and could strengthen a very promising original IP.

Can Apple Revolutionize Gaming?

Can Apple Revolutionize Gaming?

The Past

Most people are familiar with the story of Apple's entry into the music business. It's the late 90's, and the industry is in trouble. People have begun to digitize music and then illegally distribute it. This costs them nothing. When compared to a $15 CD, free MP3's look pretty darn good. But how do you play these songs on the go? You can burn them onto CDs and use your current Walkman, but that's a bit cumbersome, and you still have to lug around a huge case if you want all of your music to come with you. You can buy some of the new MP3 players on the market, but they have tiny storage capacities and bad user interfaces.

Enter the iPod. The game was basically over after that. Today, Apple owns the lion's share of the portable music business through a combination of the iPod and its successors (such as the iPhone, iPod Touch, and now the iPad) and its digital music store, iTunes, which created an entirely new paradigm for selling music.

The greatest line of music players ever: iPod.

Apple's business model for music has not necessarily been the best for artists or record companies, however. They did not begin from the assumption that they and the record companies had perfectly aligned interests. If anything, illegal downloading has helped the iPod -- people might not feel the need to upgrade their model every year and opt for ever larger storage sizes if they had to actually pay for the 10,000 songs in their music collection. Apple's business model doesn't rely on profits from "software" (that is, the music itself) -- they instead reap huge margins on every iPod they sell, perhaps as large as 50 percent, if estimates of manufacturing cost are reliable.

The Rumor

Despite having little foundation to go on, people have been speculating about an Apple Console ever since the introduction of the iPhone. The iPhone was the first viable Apple platform for gaming in ages, since the company's computers have never managed to encourage significant game development to migrate from Windows. And it's been tremendously successful in that regard, since the phone has become a huge seller, and a lot of those people enjoy quick gaming sessions on the way to work.

Zen Bound, a top-rated iPhone game.

But does it make any sense for Apple to get into the gaming market? Apparently Michael Pachter thinks so, for whatever that's worth.

The Apple Revolution?

Apple's success in its music venture has provided it with a paradigm for how to attack new markets. The central pillars of their products are (1) aesthetic design and (2) functional streamlining. But the success of their products from a business perspective has come from their radical revision of the money-making model of that particular industry. Rather than Sony selling Walkmen so that people would then buy Sony music, Apple allows people to buy music (or illegally download it) so that the company can sell them iPods. This is much the same way they approached the cell phone industry. Traditionally, service providers love giving away phones for free, because their money comes from the service contract. Apple, on the other hand, saw an opportunity to make money on the hardware itself -- they don't pocket any money from your service contract, and they don't care one jot about that.

But does this make any sense in the gaming realm? Nowadays, most console manufacturers launch a new console by selling it at a loss (this was the case with the 360 and the PS3, as it was the case with the PS2 and Xbox in the previous generation). They recoup the loss by selling games. In other words, gaming's traditional business model is the way the music industry used to work. You want to sell hardware as a way of selling software. It's a natural leap to say that Apple can apply its successful paradigm to this area as well.

But this is a fundamentally faulty way to view the issue. For one thing, the existing business model has solid reasoning behind it. To get people excited about the jump from one generation to another, you have to show them stunning graphics or gameplay options not possible on their current console. That means stuffing a lot of cutting-edge technology into the box, and that costs a ton of money. The music player differs in several essential respects: (1) it's cheap to make, as it is essentially just a hard drive and an extremely basic processor; (2) it is something you use in public, and thus almost qualifies as a fashion accessory. (2) is particularly important, because an arbitrary price markup for an iPod doesn't hurt its sales; like designer clothing, its expensive price actually increases its desirability. For most of the iPod's lifetime, music players from other manufacturers have been cheaper.

Unfortunately, game consoles are not items one can show off in public the same way that a phone or music player can be. So while Apple could charge a premium for its iPods and iPhones because they look gorgeous, and because people want to be seen holding them in the metro or at school, the same aesthetic principle does not apply to consoles. And as discussed earlier, it's not possible to build the hardware itself cheaply; we're talking a powerful (multi-core) processor, a graphics card, and a lot of memory and hard drive space.

Worst of all, someone else has already struck upon this business model. You may have heard of a little company called Nintendo, and some console called the Wii. From the very beginning, the Wii hardware itself has turned a profit on every unit sold. Not surprisingly, the Wii is also the console with the most uneven software development support; while Nintendo has stellar in-house studios, third parties have made very few AAA titles for the Wii, and almost no multiplatform titles have migrated to the console without radical changes (usually simplifications and degradations) thanks to its inferior technology. But that's the whole point of the iPod paradigm -- you give people enough incentive on the software side to buy the hardware, and then make money off of that end.

All of this is compounded by the fact that Apple has no relationships with the lifeblood of the gaming industry: developers. They own no in-house studios and don't have any ties with third parties. At least when Microsoft decided to enter into the market, they had decades of experience with gaming through their Windows PCs. If Pachter's speculations are correct, Apple doesn't even plan to gobble up studios and bring them in-house as first-party developers. It wants to rely on third-party developers.

Let's be clear: this is simply absurd. People buy one console over another because of exclusives. Why would anyone want to make a third-party exclusive for Apple's new console? It would probably start off with a smaller market share than any of the Big Three, which all have devoted and loyal fan-bases. And to the extent that its architecture was similar enough to one of the Big Three's consoles, the best they could hope for would be a multiplatform port. Nothing adds up, at least what I've heard so far.

So the big question everyone is already asking is: Will Apple enter into the gaming industry? But the more important question, in my mind, is: Do they have any idea what they're doing?

Bioshock 2 - Early Impressions

Uh-oh.

This isn't rationally based on anything, really, because I've just started playing the game and am less than an hour into it, but...I'm not feeling the new Bioshock 2 (PS3). It's not because the graphics are inferior to the 360 version (at least, in my eyes, it looks noticeably worse than even Bioshock, which came out in 2007). At least, I'd like to convince myself it isn't that. But there's something lacking in its feel, and I think it's that mystery and excitement that propelled me forward in the original.

Now I have noticed the combat is a bit smoother thanks to the dual-wielding (plasmid with left hand, guns and such with the right). But so far I just haven't felt any urgency or intensity at all in the combat; part of it is being extremely strong now that you're a Big Daddy, but to be honest, the Vita-Chamber thing is starting to get to my play style. I'm just charging forward, and either I wipe out the whole room of splicers, or they get me and I get revived (this has only happened once, it seems almost hard to die, so I just don't feel the tension yet).

It's probably stupid to worry about this so early in the game, but the intuitive "feel" of a game is really pretty important to me. Very few games have managed to absorb me without that feeling of connection right at the beginning, with Mass Effect being perhaps the only exception in my recent memory. Will Bioshock 2 eventually enrapture me? Here's hoping...

Where's the Love?

Where is the Love?

Gaming's Blind Spot


Recently, I completed Bioware's latest masterpiece, Mass Effect 2. I haven't enjoyed an RPG this much since Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, another landmark title from the same developer and my favorite game of the last console generation. At the time it was released in 2003, the game revolutionized the way that characters and parties interacted in western RPGs -- a trend that was continued in the sequel developed by Obsidian. Your main character did not simply forge relationships of convenience with fellow party members -- the game offered a glimpse of genuine friendship and something even more profound. At least in the seminal Star Wars tradition, where deep romantic feelings can only be forged in the heat of battle and over the time it takes to complete a galaxy-spanning quest.

Of course, those games had some fundamental flaws. You only had a few dialogue choices, and it was fairly easy and mechanical to make another character "fall in love" with you. Hell, you could read guides on the internet that guided you smoothly from your initial meeting to the culmination of your relationship. This wooden determinism undermined the game's attempt to portray one of the most complex, most central, and most enduring concepts that has captured the attention of every artistic medium: love.

Recent reviews of Bioware's two most recent releases, Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect 2, show just how little has changed. Dragon Age's romances are awkward enough to warrant negative points in some evaluations, and based on personal experience, I found Mass Effect 2's forays into love unconvincing.

Miranda and Shepard stand back to back in a firefight.

Above: He'll have to earn my trust.

Even after Shepard "romances" Miranda through various conversations, I didn't get a sense of genuine connection between the two of them. From everything we've seen, they barely know anything about each other (other than what they've read in each other's crew personnel files, presumably). We get some details of Miranda's personal life, and her loyalty mission, but these "big" events aren't necessarily what it means to know a person. What about her quirks -- particular likes and dislikes, what she does in her free time (other than update the Normandy's supply requisitions and shipping logs)? By the end of the game, I felt no more fondness for Miranda than I did at the beginning, and I don't really see why she liked Shepard either. He either offers her platitudes or talks to her about the mission. Is that what a romance really looks like?

Naughty Dog's remarkable Uncharted 2: Among Thieves has one of the more heartwarming couples of recent memory in Elena Fisher and Nathan Drake. They remind me, incidentally, of Han Solo and Leia Organa from the original Star Wars trilogy. Unfortunately, that game suffers from a decidedly different problem from Mass Effect 2: your character has to fall in love with Elena. This seems like a missed opportunity, especially since the game has an entirely different love interest who tantalizes you throughout the main story. You can't even choose who you like more (and I'm sure a lot of gamers were more intrigued by bad girl Chloe than goody two-shoes Elena)! Considering love more than anything else is a matter of taste, the forced romance with Elena may disrupt many gamers' personal conception of what either they would do or what Drake would do in that situation.

Elena and Drake in another one of their ****c confrontations.

Above: Why can't we just get along?

This is a serious concern for the medium if it wants to vie for acknowledgment as an artistic medium, one that deserves to be grouped with film, writing, music, and the visual and plastic arts. One theme universally explored by anything we consider art is erotic love -- in fact, one could make the argument that it is the dominant thematic interest of art as a whole (rivaled in my mind by only a few other concerns, such as death and time, violence and morality, memory and subjective experience). Certainly not all examples of those other arts do a good job of depicting love, either. I've seen enough romantic comedies in my day to know that film can be remarkably crude and unsatisfying in this regard. But film has its exemplars as well: Casablanca, for instance, or Pan's Labyrinth. In comparison, gaming still bears the mark of a recreational activity, something meant to divert the attention or teach motor skills. It doesn't address those serious topics very well, and it does the worst when it comes to love.

Advances in technology and the maturation of the artists working in gaming have brought us face to face with many of the other issues. Bioshock, for all its critics, is a really interesting take on social/moral concerns, particularly the rivalry between individualism and collectivism. Mass Effect does an good job with a variety of tough issues in that realm as well, taking on medical ethics (the Krogan genophage) and racism (the aliens' attitude towards humans, for instance). And quite a few games have worked with dreams and subjective experience, of which my personal favorite might be Max Payne's drug-induced nightmare sequence. But no game has ever conquered or even seriously attempted to address love.

Are these inherent limitations of the medium or our current genres? Love is not built through activities we normally portray in games -- after all, courtship conventionally occurs over a series of meals we call dates, and it's no coincidence that games consistently elide aspects of life such as eating and sleeping (with some exceptions, of course, such as Fable or The Elder Scrolls). Most of all, it depends on conversations, and games cannot come close to replicating the flow of real speech. Mass Effect comes tantalizingly close in many respects, making confrontations and inquisitions seem much more organic and natural than anything before seen. But its awkward attempt at handling romance indicates just how far we are from seeing a full-fledged treatment of love in gaming.

Heavy Rain - does it provide a glimpse into the future?

Above: Will a video game ever make us cry?

By all accounts, the forthcoming Heavy Rain is one of the most ambitious attempts to strike this fundamental cord of human experience. The story focuses on a father's love for his son. And unlike most games, it will delve into the minutiae of daily life, those little things people have to do that are normally omitted from games because they aren't fun to "play" -- pouring orange juice or making a snack, for instance. Is this the key to unlocking realistic depictions of love in video games? Perhaps. I'm looking forward to it, and the industry as a whole desperately needs it.

When, and How, Should Games Be Hard?

By now, most of us have seen that Gamespot's Game of the Year for 2009 is Demon's Souls. Not Killzone 2, the most beautiful console first-person shooter of all time, and arguably the graphical equal of a certain PC juggernaut from 2007. Not Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, the year's highest-rated game and a stunning achievement of storytelling that (in my opinion) will set the standard for years to come. And not one of half a dozen other titles that defined the year in gaming, such as the 900-pound gorilla that goes by the name Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.

Take that, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2!

A lot of us are scratching our heads. Personally, I have to suspend judgment, since I haven't played Demon's Souls and can't say for myself whether or not it is better than all other games that came out this year. One factor that seemed to favor it—both in its stellar reviews and in Gamespot's award—was that the game is, by all accounts, hellacious and unrelenting in its difficulty. There's an excellent essay on Crispy Gamer right now about how this unforgiving nature renders Demon's Souls distinct in a medium that increasingly tends towards making things easier on us. And after reading that essay, I couldn't help but ask: when, and how, should games be hard?

It's not an easy question. As a kid, I remember playing Mortal Kombat on the Super Nintendo and thinking it was extremely difficult. I probably fought Goro a few dozen times before I took him down, and it felt wonderful when I did. That's the advantage of creating a difficult game (or level, sequence, boss, etc.). When the gamer overcomes that obstacle, it feels like an achievement—and not the arbitrary kind that involves a trophy or Gamerscore points. There is also a tactical element to it; tough challenges force us to think outside the box, review our chosen strategies and behaviors, and adjust. If you played as Scorpion and relied on the harpoon the whole time, you were in a world of hurt during the endgame.

I still have nightmares about this guy.

The downside to difficulty is frustration. It's not entertaining to be mercilessly beaten again and again (well, unless you fall into certain groups of people, but let's not go there today). It's not entertaining to feel like a loser after dying in the same impossible jumping sequence in a platformer dozens of times. And it's not entertaining when you want to progress through a title's captivating story only to find yourself stuck on a brutal boss battle.

The question of difficulty—and the trend toward less-difficult games—reflects the maturation of gaming as a narrative medium. Narrative depends on a broad array of elements to affect its audience, including sympathetic characters, universal or relatable themes, and intriguing settings. And on a technical level, narrative demands proper pacing and forward motion. Difficulty can (and usually does) detract from all of these, particularly the technical aspects. I would argue, for instance, that playing Uncharted 2 on normal difficulty is a purer way to experience the game than playing it on crushing, where your tactics become less natural and the gaps between narrative-propelling moments grow longer as you struggle to win the intense firefights. The pace of the game just doesn't feel quite right when played more slowly—as most gamers must, when faced with higher difficulty.

Interestingly enough, the narrative desires of video games do not resemble those of theater or the novel, which tend to occupy the loftiest positions on the scale of narrative media. Of course, much of what novels do—introspective character study and poetic mastery of language—is virtually impossible in video games. In many ways, game designers aspire to meet artistic standards taken not from the "high" art forms but from film. It's a natural influence, given that film is (arguably) our culture's predominant form of multimedia entertainment, one that has (re-)defined culture since its introduction. And it's even more explicable when one considers the fact that, unlike the novel, both film and game are inherently visual media. The Brainy Gamer has quite a brilliant take on the Metal Gear Solid 4 and Hideo Kojima's fraught relationship with the film medium here.

Uncharted 2 -- there's a reason everyone compares it so favorably to Indiana Jones.

The original Tomb Raider.

It's not a coincidence that these guys sort of look alike and do similar things.

For this discussion, however, the salient point is that film—at least the Big Hollywood Film—is a medium practically shorn of all difficulty. The viewer does not do anything, and therefore does not struggle in any sense with the material. The hero on the screen either escapes the villains, if it's a triumphant movie, or dies valiantly, if it's a tragedy. This decision has been predetermined and has nothing to do with the passive audience. Tension in films is created by suspense (in other words, by pacing), by not knowing what happens next. This too is a form of passivity, for the audience lags behind the film, waiting to see what happens.

Contrast this with gaming, which is inherently an (inter-)active form of entertainment. The paradox is that the medium, despite this deep-seated schism with film, wants to be like the greatest films—it wants to be a storytelling medium. Of course, the more something tells you a story, the less it allows you to write your own.

It's worth considering that interactive entertainment did not and does not have to evolve this way. Board games, for instance, do not have narratives; chess, perhaps the paradigmatic example, has no aspirations to storytelling. Its brilliance lies in its depth—which is to say, its difficulty. A person could play it for a thousand years and never master all its nuances. The most difficult games today are our modern-day chess matches, titles like FIFA Soccer or Madden NFL that have boundless tactical variety to learn, manipulate, and master. For such games, difficulty is not only beneficial to their entertainment value; in a profound sense, difficulty is essential.

I wonder whether this is truly an either/or situation: either you have compelling stories, or you have challenging, rewarding gameplay. Ultimately, the most difficult question of all is whether it is possible to author a game that has both a strong narrative and a high degree of difficulty.

Farewell to 2009, a Great Year for Gaming

To think that the year began with Obama's first babysteps in office and ended with Tiger Woods mired in a sex scandal that seems alternately hilarious and sad: 2009 has certainly been eventful. In the past 12 months, we have dealt with the aftershocks of the world's financial meltdown (it still boggles the mind that, a year after government rescue, at least some banks are back to business as usual) and attempted to reform the health care system in a political struggle that has become emblematic of Washington deadlock and Washington compromise (definition - a solution that satisfies no one). In such an absurd and interesting world, who needs video games?

Myself, for one.

I too experienced a dramatic shift throughout the year (in no small part because I graduated from college, but let's focus on the gaming side here). After taking the first six months off without any playtime, I reintroduced myself to my Xbox 360 this summer and had a blast. Part of my hiatus was because of personal preference and necessity, but part of it was probably also because there was a serious dearth of good, new games available early this year. Thankfully, the last six months of 2009 have probably been the greatest gaming months of this generation. And--given the glut of AAA titles that were pushed into early 2010--we're far from done.

As a celebration of the year that was, I'd like to tick down a few of my own favorite gaming moments from this year. They aren't necessarily all '09 games, either--I spent quite a bit of my time this year playing catch-up with old titles I'd missed from previous years. Needless to say, some spoilers are coming up.

Assassinating William de Montferrat

Nothing is true, everything is permitted.

I'm pretty sure I liked the Assassin's Creed series the first time I got my hands on the free-running mechanics and intuitive combat system. But I fell in love with the game during this spectacular sequence, in which Altair goes to the Rich District of Acre to kill one of King Richard's truculent subordinates. While other kills were more unique in terms of setting or chase sequences, this one really brought the allure and power of the assassin to the forefront. Not only does Altair kill one of the most powerful men in the Kingdom of Heaven--he does it in that man's own fortress, in front of dozens of his soldiers.

Thankfully for me, I played Assassin's Creed this summer and had to wait only five months to experience Assassin's Creed II, a superb sequel and also one of 2009's best games.

The Nine-Man Gang Tackle

Four Ravens gang up on a poor Pittsburgh Steeler. Champs have it hard.

Madden NFL has a special place in any football lover's heart, and this year the series took a quantum leap forward. By adding dynamic animation technology, the series vastly improved the feel of the running game. While it's certainly frustrating to manually control a safety, get into the backfield for the tackle, and then be brutally trucked by a big guy like Brandon Jacobs, you can't deny that it brings an entirely new dimension to a series that was starting to get a little stale. And when you're the one controlling Jacobs...pure gridiron bliss.

The Landing in Killzone 2

Where is the air support?

Video game graphics don't stun me all that often. I remember the early levels of Gears of War being one long jawdrop, and before that, the beach landing in Halo: Combat Evolved. Both those games came out at the start of a new generation of consoles, and brought home the fact that gaming had evolved. But Killzone 2 is something different--a game that comes out two or three years after the debut of its platform doesn't normally revolutionize how we see that platform's capabilities. But Guerrilla did that for the Playstation 3.

"The Cake is a Lie"

The greatness that is Portal.

Yes, I'm actually this far behind in gaming. If anyone else is as hopelessly backlogged as I am, take heed: The Orange Box should move immediately to the top of your "to-play" list. And if you don't have time for the entire Half-Life saga, make time for the three-hour gem that is Portal. It's the most fun I've ever had while playing a game. It's almost inconceivable that a short add-on, and a puzzler at that, could have an engaging story, memorable characters and dialogue, innovative gameplay mechanics, and a sense of frantic action. But somehow Portal more than manages.

The Train Sequence...scratch that, all of Uncharted 2

The legendary train sequence from Uncharted 2.

Yes, it's crazy when you jump from Chloe's car onto a moving train. Yes, it's awesome as you start battling your way forward, flinging bad guys off the sides while trees and bridges whiz by at heartpounding speed. And yes, it's edge-of-your-seat insane when a helicoptor gunship begins hounding you as you run forward, until you jump in a tank and give it a taste of its own high-caliber medicine.

But then again, that really defines the entirety of Uncharted 2's experience, doesn't it? The train sequence is one of a half-dozen set pieces that would be the jewel in any other game's crown. The helicoptor sequence in Nepal was already the most action-packed gaming I'd experienced in 2009, though while playing it I hardly could have realized it would be outdone several times by the end of the game.

For me, at least, Uncharted 2 is engrossing, entertaining, exciting, and the unchallenged Game of the Year. More than any other title, it defined not just 2009 but this entire generation. It pretty much killed Indiana Jones--why watch something when you can play a more exciting version of the same thing? I can only hope that games of the future will rise to Naughty Dog's gold standard.

Those are the moments that stick out to me most. Of course, I haven't played quite a few of this year's acclaimed titles, so if I left something out, it's probably because I haven't gotten there yet. I'm working through Batman: Arkham Asylum now, and inFamous, Demons' Souls, and Dragon Age: Origins are all on my to-do list.

With that in mind, what are your most memorable gaming moments of the great year of 2009?

Too Old for Games - Time to Walk Away?

This is old news by now, but I was shocked when I saw that article claiming that the average gamer was "35, fat and bummed." Who doesn't remember this guy from the famed South Park episode "Make Love, Not Warcraft"?

The overweight, Warcraft-obsessed gaming villian from South Park. Will this be us in fifteen years?

There are a lot of reasons to take that report with a grain of salt, but one thing that does seem undeniable is that the average gamer is getting older. When I was growing up, video games seemed like they were the domain of kids -- or, at the most, teenagers. Super Mario World and Mortal Kombat are incredible fun as an eight-year old, but not exactly the kind of deep, sophisticated franchises we have today that cater to, and arguably can only be appreciated by, older gamers. The most important video games of the new millenium usually tend to be "Mature" titles -- Grand Theft Auto and its successors, the Halo or Gears of War shooter franchises, or the serious-minded Metal Gear Solid and Splinter Cell espionage-themed games.

A parallel social trend is the tendency towards an extended adolescence of period of "emerging adulthood." Interestingly enough, this was a hot topic during the last recession, and it may be rearing its head again now that we're in an even deeper one. The basic idea is that people are finding permanent careers at a later age, marrying and having children later, and generally spending their 20's in a way not significantly different from the way they spent their teens -- by thrill-seeking and having fun. Is it any wonder, then, that gamers stay passionate about the hobby for longer than ever before?

Too Old for Games

Yet by and large the default assumption remains that sooner or later, we're supposed to "grow up" or "grow out" of games: "Isn't he (or she) a little too old for that?"

I've started asking myself this question lately. I'm 22, and the vast majority of my friends play video games far more infrequently than I do. I'm not a huge player by any means -- on an average day I'll put in an hour or two. It's definitely a hobby of mine, but one which I've found is more of a solitary rather than a social pursuit. When I'm playing video games, they tend to be of the single-player variety, and I usually do it when burned out of work or extracurriculars for the day. When I want social interaction, I put the video game controller down rather than picking it up, and go out to a bar or call up some friends and watch a movie.

I've also started thinking about it more because real-world responsibilities are looming large. I'm currently in law school, and we just hit the season to begin hunting for summer jobs. With all these simultaneous obligations to juggle, gaming's definitely going to be taking a back seat for the next few months.

Robert de Niro's character in Heat has a pretty ruthless philosophy: don't do something unless you can walk out on it in 30 seconds flat (when you feel the heat coming around the corner). Now, admittedly, he thinks this because he's a world-famous criminal, and you'd better be willing to run away from the cops if you want to survive in that business. But it seems oddly applicable to my attitude towards gaming nowadays: I enjoy games, but I can rarely afford to let myself become immersed in them the way I could at 12, or 16, or even 20. I can't help but nostalgically remember the year when Knights of the Old Republic came out -- I think I put in eight hours a day into that game for the first week or so I had it. I was completely enthralled by Bioware's masterpiece; now, if I pick up a game like Dragon Age: Origins, it might not finish it before next spring. And it's hard to be absorbed by a game knowing you have to be ready to walk out on it at the drop of a hat.

The Maturation of a Medium

Of course, I'm not the only one growing up. The video game industry is as well. From my childhood to the present, gaming has grown into a bigger business than film (by raw revenue numbers). Where once the huge summer blockbusters were unmatched entertainment events, now the launch of the next Halo game is the biggest multimedia debut of any year. And as gaming has grown astronomically more popular and more lucrative, it has matured from a fun diversion into a more serious medium, one which delivers its share of meditative, socially conscious experiences.

Perhaps that's why it's so hard for me to simply cut myself off from video games. Quite often, I find they provoke my thought or hold my attention more than the average page-turner on the New York Times best-seller list, or the random film debuting on any particular weekend. Certainly I'd rather spend a weekend being dazzled by Uncharted 2 than watching studio drivel like Michael Jackson's "This is It." In the battle for an adult's increasingly limited entertainment time, games -- rather than movies, television, or books -- may be the last to go.

Why are zombies so darn popular?

I hate zombies. I get really annoyed with them in almost any media, but - like a zombie infestation - it seems that the zombie as a trope is impossible to exterminate. And just when it seems like I've escaped pop culture's attempt to force-feed me some more zombie flicks, they come roaring right back. At that's when I admit defeat: our culture is obsessed with zombies.

The big box office hit from last weekend? Zombieland, a zombedy (zombie comedy) that reminds us that zombies are actually as funny as they are terrifying. In that respect, it reminds me a lot of Shaun of the Dead, a movie even I have to admit I loved.

Shaun of the Dead - Zombies

The big Xbox 360 exclusive on the horizon? Left 4 Dead 2, a quick and dirty sequel to an addictive but simplistic zombie-survival game that earned rave reviews in its first iteration.

Then I look on Xbox Live Arcade or Playstation Network: Burn Zombie Burn! is only one of the many examples of downloadables that have happily taken up residence in this tried-and-true genre.

Get me out of here.

You Must Have Zombies

Disclaimer: I'm probably going to spoil a few games' plotlines here, so please avert your eyes if you don't want to hear about the plotlines of Halo, Half-Life 2, or Uncharted.

My big complaint with zombies in games and movies isn't that people overuse the premise. They do overuse the premise, but at least I can avoid it. Dead Rising, Left 4 Dead, and Resident Evil 5 are theoretically on my "to-play" list. But somehow, they keep getting bumped down the queue by newer releases. To be honest, I just can't muster enthusiasm to run out and get a game when I know that the next 8-10 hours will be spent shooting enemies who mindlessly stumble forward and attempt to claw at you. Looking at the RE5 videos, it seems they made the zombies so stupid because they were too lazy to add run-and-aim functionality to the game. Somehow, that sort of reliance on old-school mechanics just emphasizes to me how little innovation and creativity you have to put in to a zombie game (or movie, or book, etc.).

What you can't avoid, however, is the fact that a ton of epic releases seem to have zombies or zombie-like creatures. What else are the Flood in Halo except a crude space-age imitation of zombies - a parasitic organism that takes over every organism and renders them into mindless, savage beasts? And Halo itself can be accused of ripping off of the Half-Life series, whose headcrabs and headcrabbed soldiers are clearly the inspiration for certain types of Flood.

Headcrab Plush Toy

The worst, however, hit me recently while playing Uncharted. I just got the game a few days ago and have been really digging the combination of third-person combat and third-person platforming. When everyone says it's Tomb Raider meets Gears of War, they're right. Unfortunately, they forgot to mention that it also mixes in some 28 Days Later (or, in the case of the ultra-short Uncharted, about 6 Hours Later, when the zombies start popping up).

Zombies Are Lazy

I don't mean that they themselves are lazy. Who knows, maybe there's a strong Protestant work ethic lurking behind their relentless attempts to pursue and infect the untainted human. No, when I say zombies are lazy, I mean that developers are lazy for resorting to them.

Does every "horror" twist two-thirds of the way through a story have to involve the introduction of some sort of virus or parasite that renders your previously intelligent enemies mindless? I swear it's just a way to create a "new" enemy type that doesn't need new or improved AI. The Flood pretty much had one AI routine in Halo: Forward, forward, forward! No flanking, though there was a big of leaping from the agile ones. It's the same with the Uncharted zombies - they rush forward, swipe you once or jump on you, and then race back in a circle. It's pretty ridiculous after awhile, and you realize that they only stop attacking because the game would be unbalanced (against you) if they didn't. After all, two swipes in a row pretty much kill you.

When developers are writing weak AI like this, it becomes somewhat annoying. Granted, Uncharted overcomes this problem by just throwing the enemies at you. My heart was pounding incredibly hard while I was in the level where the zombies are introduced. But in the end, I couldn't shake the niggling sensation that all I got were some cheap thrills.

Zombies Are Dumb (These Days)

The strange thing is that zombies - or rather the "undead" or "revenant" - have a pretty interesting place in literary and cultural history. Without elaborating on it too much, it's worth thinking about the fact that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein (the Romantic figure we've now reduced to a hulking green monstrosity with less brains than coordination) as a profoundly philosophical figure. And we can look even further back into the past, to Christian tradition and the stories of Lazarus and Easter in the New Testament (and even further back into other mythologies and traditions), to see a fascination with the concept. The idea of the undead has historically cropped up as an attempt to deal with some persistent literary "Big Ideas" - death, alienation, sacrifice, the limits or meaning of being "human." Somehow, we went from that to the purple-face people-eaters that you see twice a year in the cinema today.

Original Engraving from Shelley's Frankenstein

Rethinking Game Reviews

The review system that the vast majority of gaming websites use right now is broken. Attaching a number to a game is quick and easy, but too often it misses the mark. What does the "score" at the end of all these reviews mean for me? When a game gets a 90, should I construe that as an indication that the game in question is in the top 10 percent of titles in its genre? Or should I think of it as an A in a class or on a test, a standard of excellence that obtains regardless of percentile? In either case, is it worth playing a game rated 80? What about 75?

Game reviews can be hugely important to the sales of a title, since we usually have access to critics' opinions before most (or even any) of our friends have purchased and tried out a game. Take the case of Batman: Arkham Asylum. The game was not marketed or hyped as an AAA title until very close to its release date, when late previews and early reviews made it clear we had a phenomenal game on our hands. If Arkham Asylum had gotten a 75 average on Metacritic or Gamerankings, would it have sold 2 million copies? I sincerely doubt it.

The scoring scale has also led to an unhealthy obsession with reviews in some gamers (check out some of the System Wars threads on this board). Flagship titles that don't score 9.0 or above are "flops," even if they get solid scores like Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, which earned an 8.0 here on Gamespot. Right now, one of the big debates seems to be whether Uncharted 2: Among Thieves will outscore Halo 3: ODST. But does it really matter? By all accounts, owners of the Playstation 3 and the Xbox 360 are going to get two great exclusives this fall. How important is it that Metacritic deems the former superior to the latter?

Meanwhile, on the other side of the equation, games that are great fun but don't necessarily stand out from the pack often get 7's. Gamers reading sites like this might easily dismiss such titles as mediocre and elect not to buy them when they would otherwise enjoy playing them.

This brings me to my big question:

What do we want from game reviews?

It's a simple question, really. What does (or should) a gamer want to see in a review for a game? One way to get at the issue might be to explore what we don't get right now. Here are some glaring negatives in the current system:

1) Genre difference and preference usually vastly outweighs a game's score in terms of how much an individual gamer can enjoy a given game. People who hate racing games won't swoon after getting a chance to play Gran Turismo 5, despite the fact that it seems likely to attain a 9.0+ rating at almost all gaming sites. The score simply can't account for these different preferences.

2) How do you compare scores through time? A 9.0 shooter like Quake III in 1999 might be a 6.0 today, given how outdated some of the foundational gameplay mechanics of that decade seem to us. But then think about a game like Starcraft, which was rated around 9.0 at its release and yet is now considered to be the greatest real-time strategy game of all time. How is it that Starcraft, even today, would be rated by those playing it in the same range as its original review score?

3) False objectivity comes with review scores. When people give opinions, they normally don't attach numbers to them as an acknowledgment of their subjectivity. Yet bizarrely, the opinion of a game critic (or those in film) only seems official when a number or letter grade comes attached. And we take that number far too seriously at times. Super Mario Galaxy is the best game of this generation, people can argue, based on review scores. But can you really say that to a guy (or gal) whose favorite game is Gears of War? Does it make sense to say that these numbers represent an objective truth such that Super Mario Galaxy is 97/94 times better than Gears of War (based on Metacritic aggregate scores)?

Of course, it's pretty simple to discern what gamers want from their reviews. Fundamentally, we just want to know whether we'll like a game or not. Going off of review scores, I've bought at least a half-dozen games in the last few years that have just completely flopped in my eyes. I literally can't bring myself to play them to completion. These include Viva Pinata, Project Gotham Racing 3, and Grand Theft Auto IV – one of the highest-rated games of all time!

Beyond the score

Game reviews can never do away with subjectivity problems on both the part of the reviewer and the reader, so they're never going to be perfect. But they could be improved a lot if a few elements were included. Right now, reviews focus almost entirely on three major aspects: story, gameplay, and presentation. I'm not saying we shouldn't value these (see my previous blog), but there are a few more things I'd like to see.

First, all reviews should have a brief run-down of similar titles and the reviewer's take on how those games compare. Interestingly enough, Gamesradar did something like this in their Uncharted 2 review, which you can see here. It's called "Is it Better than…" and compares Uncharted 2 to Tomb Raider, Gears of War 2, and Batman: Arkham Asylum. I thought it was brilliant, but of course they aren't extending this to other reviews on the site.

Secondly, reviewers should have a section specifically evaluating the game's appeal. Halo, for instance, is a mass-appeal shooter in the sense that even non-twitch-trigger players can get into the franchise and enjoy it. It's a bit more forgiving than other first-person shooters in terms of aiming, movement, and even battlefield tactics – at least until you get to Legendary difficulty. On the other hand, a game like Gran Turismo 5 might only appeal to racing fans, even if it is the greatest racing simulation ever built.

These two sections are definitely present in some reviews, but they don't seem as obligatory as the holy trinity of story, gameplay, and presentation that I mentioned earlier. But this attitude should change, since comparability and appeal get us much closer to knowing whether we'll like a game.

As for scores…I admit I'm a bit reluctant to cut them out entirely. Numerical scores have their advantages as well, and I definitely don't want to assert that they are worthless. Here's a possible compromise going back to my point above: give us two scores, one for gamers in general and one for devoted fans of the genre.

This sounds a bit stupid at first, but it can be quite beneficial. Many of the epic Japanese RPGs released this generation have fizzled out with mediocre reviews in the 6.5-7.5 range. But I see a ton of people on the boards who claim that Lost Odyssey, or Infinite Undiscovery, or (fill in title here) is the most underrated title of this generation. To them this may well be true, but if you give an average gamer those titles, their opinion may be much more closely aligned with the professional reviewers. This gap seems to occur most frequently in specialized genres, where its fans might love a game that just doesn't have broad appeal.

Hopefully, we see more comprehensive game reviews in the future. And hopefully I don't trick myself (again) into buying a title that garners universal acclaim, only to remember after playing it for a few minutes that I don't really like racing games all that much. Ah, Project Gotham!