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The Skillz to Pay the Billz, Brotha

If you're a regular GameSpot UK user, you probably know about their video show Start/Select. The latest episode has a particuarly awesome interview featuring Luke Anderson talking to "the sh*tc$&k guy" from Haze. It just might be my favorite video preview ever. Look for it during the second segment of the show (about 9 minutes, 50 seconds in).

What all game previews from here on out need: "mad skills", random cursing, and Greco-Roman wrestling.

Tales of Rock Band Support

I was all set to rip the EA/Rock Band support a new one on yesterday's HotSpot.

Okay, let me back up a bit. You see, like many Rock Band players, I've had problems with my hardware--specifically my guitar (bad strum bar) and my drums (unresponsive pads). A few weeks back, I decided to send them back and get replacement hardware. As you might know, there's two methods for sending hardware back for replacement:

1) The Rock Band folks send you an empty in which you send back your defective equipment, then wait for a new hardware item to be shipped back to you. OR

2) You can have a new hardware unit sent to you immediately, along with an emtpy shipping box in which you can ship back your busted unit. This method is obviously the preferable one, except that EA puts a (pretty hefty) charge on your credit card, which is then refunded once the defective item is received.

Now, for my particular screwed-up drums and my guitar, I used both methods. Figuring I could hold off on drums for a while, I sent out for the emtpy box to send them back in. But, because I'm a fan of the Rock Band Strat (when it works), I wanted a new guitar right away, so I requested a replacement axe and let them charge my card.

Things started out easily enough. The new guitar and boxes to send back the defective equipment came quickly and, within a week or so, I had a new guitar and my old equipment sent back to EA for replacement. As an aside, the packing instructions for the drums were nearly impossible to understand and it took me a half hour to figure out how to get them in the box properly. I also packed in my bass drum pedal into the box--which would turn out to be a mistake. But more on that in a bit.

The replacement guitar has held up pretty well so far, even though there's something rattling in its innards when I move it around, and the star power tilt doesn't really work that well. I suspect I'll be sending this one back at some point but, as long as the strum bar continues to work, I'll hold on to it.

Because I received the guitar so quickly, I began to wonder just when my new drums would arrive. It took longer than I hoped--I received the new kit yesterday, nearly a month after I began the RMA process. Coincidentally, I also received an e-mail from EA support yesterday, indicating that they hadn't yet received my guitar that I had sent out with my defective drums. Wait, what? How is it that they received my defective drums and sent out a replacement, yet hadn't received my guitar, which I sent out simultaneously?

Hot under the collar (and all prepared to let loose on them on the HotSpot) I first made my first call to the EA Rock Band support number and explained my situation. The pleasant voice on the other end explained to me that the message I received was automated and that they had indeed received my guitar. That was a relief, but I wish they'd do a better job of keeping you informed during the RMA process with e-mails.

So, with my new drums here, I ran home last night and unpacked the new kit and... well, remember when I said above that I had packed my original bass drum pedal with my defective drums? As you might expect, the replacement drum kit they sent did not include a replacement bass drum pedal. When you think about it, it makes sense. After all, it was my drum pads that were experiencing problems, not my kick drum pedal. So sending the pedal back was definitely my mistake.

Completely pissed at my own stupidity, I called Rock Band support back and talked to the friendly support person (and make no mistake, these people are friendly. Halfway during the call, I wanted to get her thoughts on The Wire finale and felt like asking her if she was reading any good books). After meekly explaining to her my mistake, she set me up to send a new bass drum pedal my way, no questions asked. I hung up the phone with a huge smile on my face.

I consider this entire experience a lesson learned. After years of putting up with bad service for everything from cable service to PC help, I think we're pre-disposed to impatience and anger when dealing with phone support. But, despite the occasional quibble in process, the Rock Band/EA system, at least from my point of view, is a model of how an expensive product should be supported.

So, how has your experience with Rock Band customer support been?

Road Game: NFL Combine and Head Coach 09

Road Game is a periodic on-the-road feature, bringing you behind-the-scenes coverage of some of the world's biggest sporting events.

Sorry for the blurry image but the above is a picture of a press pass for the 2008 NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. Want to know what it will get you?

Jack squat.

Okay, that's not exactly true. As I found out during my trip this week to Indy for the Combine, as a member of the press, you're more than welcome to walk around the hallways of the Indianapolis Conference Center, located next door to the RCA Dome where the Combine took place. You can check out the NFL media center; basically a big open space with tons of sports writers pecking away on laptops; you walk by the Sirius Satellite Radio booth and check out the NFL show that was recorded on-site (heck, I brushed shoulders with Cowboys' coach Wade Phillips who was heading to an interview with the Sirius folks); and that's about it. No media, other than those from the NFL Network, are allowed anywhere near the field, it seems.

Of course, that didn't stop me from donning my press pass and walking directly for the RCA Dome field like I owned the place, only to be stopped by a number of perturbed-looking Convention Center security staff who turned me right around and sent me on my way. And they almost did it politely. So, consider that one a lesson learned.

Still, my time in Indy was by no means a waste. I got to see the new NFL Head Coach 09 from EA Sports, a game that seems to be coming along well. Of course by "coming along well" I mean two things: A) It's way too early to tell, because we've only seen one aspect of the game (check out the preview here) and B) that said, the developers behind the game are completely willing to cop to the original game's faults, particularly with regard to the game's confusing interface and sub-par AI.

It gives me hope to hear lead designer Josh Looman talk about Head Coach 09 with as much or more passion than practically anyone I've ever heard talk about the Madden series. Which is a good thing. And the work that's already been put into the game's interface--which still presents you with a tremendous amount of information, only in a way that makes sense this time--looks to make the tedium of running the nuts and bolts of a team that much easier. One thing I didn't write about in the preview that bears mention: you have a great deal of control over what you can control (or even see) in Head Coach's interface. Not interested in dealing with free agents or scouting players? You can turn them off and on at will and let the computer AI handle things for you.

With a long way to go before the game is released this fall, there's still a ton of questions to go for NFL Head Coach 09. Beyond the basics--how will the on-field coaching work? How will your coach and players progress over time?--my main point of focus will be looking at how this game adapts to the power of this generation's consoles. Producers pointed out repeatedly that NFL Head Coach 09 needs to be a next-gen game. If that's the case, it needs to have next gen featuresl; things like enhanced online play (tournaments and leagues for a start, and it will be a shame if this game doesn't have some sort of tie in to Madden NFL 09 (or NCAA 09 for that matter). EA Sports has had the NFL exclusive license long enough to plan for this kind of thing; so here's hoping that gamers can benefit from some interesting cross-pollination between the two titles. We all know EA can make a football management sim; the test in this console generation will be to take that to the next level and put all that power to good use.

So, what do you think of what you've seen of NFL Head Coach 09 so far?

P.S. -- While there wasn't much for a game hack like me to discover at the NFL Combine, that doesn't mean it can't be a learning experience for some...

Racing at GDC 08

A quick-hit look at a few interesting racing accessories seen on the show floor of the 2008 Game Developers Conference.

Logitech Driving Force GT
Game: Gran Turismo 5 Prologue
Release: May 2008
Price: $149.00

The Pitch: Logitech's latest Gran Turismo-themed wheel, the Driving Force GT has been designed by Logitech with the help of GT-developer Polyphony Digital specifically for the release of Gran Turismo 5 Prologue this April. Highlights include a dial that will let you adjust a number of car settings such as front and rear brake, traction control, and anti-lock braking (among others) on the fly.

Verdict: Another solid-feeling wheel from Logitech, one that's not as hardcore as the G25 (no metal pedals? Bummer...) but certainly more affordable. The 900 degree rotation is an added bonus and the on-the-fly settings adjustments will be perfect for tweaking car settings while turning laps without having to back out to a game menu.

Question Mark: The Dual Shock 3's R3 and L3 functionality have been moved to face buttons on the front of the wheel. No word yet on what they will control, though it appears that Polyphony Digital has plans for them.

S3 Graphics/Xsight Systems
Game: rFactor F1 mod
Release: Available now (assuming you can afford it)
Price: Lots and lots of dollars

The Pitch: The most intense racing experience at GDC 08 is certainly to be found at the S3 Graphics booth. An F1 mod of the ubiquitous rFactor is running on a custom made, hydraulic-powered racing rig complete with gleaming LEDs running along the side, and a Sparco racing seat complete with a three-strap, center-buckled seat belt. Three screens in front of the driver give you a larger field of view than normal, which is a good thing considering the absurd speeds this game runs at.

Verdict: The allotted five minutes in this amazing set-up just wasn't enough. The jostling and jarring of car's movements makes those seatbelts a necessity and the game's sense of speed--powered by S3's graphics cards--make for perhaps the most intense, immersive racing PC racing experience I've ever had. If success is determined by how much I sweat during a race, consider this racing rig a big winner.

Question Mark: The rig, designed by Chris Stevenson of Hayward, CA-based Xsight Systems, was customized to the point of being ludicrously expensive. Who could afford such a thing?

D-Box GP Pro-200
Game: rFactor dirt-racing mod
Release: Available Now
Price: TBD

The Pitch: Found at the Voodoo PC booth, this was another gaming chair, complete with adjustable racing seat and steering wheel and hydraulic motion that let you feel every bump and crash of the rFactor mod running on the Voodoo PC rig. Speakers mounted on the "dash" in front of you help bring the roar of the engine close to you.

Verdict: The GP Pro-200 is clearly a well-designed and comfortable chair. Unfortunately the experience was hampered by the cheap-looking and frustrating rFactor mod it was running, which featured dune buggies running over a bumpy dirt course. To to the chair's credit, every one of those huge jumps and hard landings was clearly conveyed. Unfortunately overly-floaty physics made it all too easy to flip your vehicle onto its hood; a buzz-killer for a racing game even as respected as rFactor.

Question Mark: Again, the price of course. Only the hardest of hardcore racing fans will have room for this kind of thing in their home (financially or otherwise).

A few other things were found on the show floor--including the now-ubiquitous trade-show Formula One car--but nothing else topped these three. Then again, perhaps I'm just waiting for the racing game that will let me control my car with my mind.

OMGWant: Sackboy for Real

Saw this today on the official blog of Media Molecule (the mad geniuses behind LittleBigPlanet):

I want.

Seriously. Now.

This was apparently made by the mother of an MM artist. Go check out the blog to see a few more pics of it, including one in a dragon costume. If they ever start producing these, I don't think I'll ever be able to stop buying them.

Blizzard Cancellations

Here's an item from this week's D.I.C.E. summit that really got me thinking...

Beyond the surprise showing of footage from Namco's upcoming Afro Samurai, the biggest surprise for me from D.I.C.E. was the list of cancelled games that came out of the Blizzard session on Thursday morning. As a centerpiece for the session's central theme of "gameplay first", the long list of canned projects was a clear-cut reminder of Blizzard's cut-and-dry approach to development: If it's a good idea and it's impeccably executed, we'll sell it. If it's not, we'll toss it.

The names alone stoke the imagination of what those games could have been, and the few pieces of art that accompanied the list were even more evocative, promising worlds that we almost got to enjoy... almost, but not quite. Looking at the list for the past couple of days, I wondered what those games might have turned out to be had they eventually made their way through to store shelves. WARNING: Idle speculation ahead...

Crixa -- Blizzard's first entry into the puzzle genre, Crixa was based around stone pieces containing pictographs which, when configured in different ways, gave the player powers he could use against various enemies.

Shattered Nations -- Yet another RTS in the vein of Warcraft and Starcraft, only this one with a decidedly historical angle, dealing with conflicts from the beginning of the 20th century up through the first Gulf War. Realistic weaponry and an intricate balance of politics and espionage made this a bit too esoteric for the Zerg rush fans.

Warcraft Adventures -- This one we actually know something about, as it was accompanied by a humorous painting of what looked to be a two-headed ogre squatting on the ground and contemplating something on the ground in front of them (a crown? I couldn't tell from my vantage point). Was the ogre an enemy, or the hero of this cancelled game? I suppose we'll never know.

Nomad -- Another game with tantalizing art; this looked like a steampunk-inspired sci-fi game--Tim Powers crossed with Ben Bova. The huge starships shown in the concept art, trailing huge tails of deep black smoke spoke of a world where humans face an even more contentious relationship with technology than in the real world, as they travel the stars looking for... what? Salvation? Revenge? Redemption?

These four were just a few of the games on the list, which rounded out with Denizen, Raiko, Pax Imperia, and the distinctly casual sounding Games People Play. Curiously missing from that list was StarCraft: Ghost which I suppose means that game is only mostly cancelled.

Mechberg Initiated

The Mechberg continues to spread throughout the Internets. Its latest appearance?

A lovely, robotic place where all my non-gaming blogging can happen. Stop by and say hello, won't you?

Cameras and More

The latest in my personal gaming-related news. Let's start off with what I've purchased lately:

- Xbox Live Vision camera. I was a bit skeptical about this accessory before I played the retail version of Burnout Paradise. Ten minutes into the game, however, and I was convinced that the camera is a must-have accessory for this game. Playing with a bunch of folks from work is fun enough; seeing the stupid faces they make during takedowns is that much better; and hastily grabbing terrible DVDs to put in front of the camera for snapshots ("I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry", "Wild Wild West", "Failure to Launch", anything with Jean Claude Van Damme) is the icing on the cake.

- In related news, I just dropped the hammer on the Eye of Judgment Biolith Rebellion (what does that mean!?!?) bundle that includes the PlayStation Eye camera. Not becuase I'm particularly interested in the game--though I'll probably give it a whirl--but for no other reason than I want a camera for my PS3. And hey! Anything that gives me a reason to push the "on" button on my PS3 is a good thing... right? Anyone out there playing Eye of Judgment and want to school me online?

- I've got Burnout Paradise and Advance Wars: Days of Ruin out from GameFly right now. I'm obviously loving the former and, as for the latter, I'm torn on it. The combat portion of the game is just as compelling as the others in the series--though this one has really ramped up the difficutly level. As for the tone and writing of the game, I'm not as down on it.

I initially missed the happy-go-lucky tone of the characters in the first two games--"Hey Black Hole just unloaded redundant rocket arrays on our asses! We're screwed! Yay!" but it seems to me--and I'm only a few hours in--that the vibe in Days of Ruin isn't that far off. I mean, yeah, emo-kid moping about in the beginning is painful, and the flower disease is creepy, but characters like the ludicrously wise-cracking doctor, and the overall sense of boundless optimism and righteous militaristic duty on behalf of Brenner seems to cancel that out. In all, I'm enjoying it, though I suspect I'll never get close to finishing this one.

- Played Rock Band at Aaron's yesterday for the first time in a few weeks. Played bass on "Limelight", sang "Interstate Love Song" and played drums on "Foreplay/Long Time", which is still my favorite drum track in the game. The difference between hard (which I can beat) and expert (which I'm nowhere close to good enough to finish) are stark on that song. The triplet figures in the instrumental intro for that song are far beyond my drumming abilities, which is a shame because, once you get to the singing part, the song is completely playable.

- I got really, really close to buying this game yesterday:

And I still might buy it, for reasons that may or may not become clear in the near future. Stay tuned...

- I've been brewing ideas for Voices in the Box #003 lately. And by "brewing ideas", I mean talking to myself in the car while driving until I say something that makes me laugh. This inevitably makes my wife angry.

MechBerg Winner Revealed

Thanks to everyone who induldged me by entering the "Build a MechBerg" contest from last week. Here's some highlights of the entries:

Kori911 started us off strong:


Putzwapputzen had an entirely different take:


edubucanner did too:


DazzHardy apparently is 'Still Alive':


bukkookkub believes MechBerg is remote controlled (and has a young, handsome twin):


And finally, my personal favorite and contest winner, DiGiTaL_SiNs' creation:

This MechBerg looks patriotic and suitably badass, despite not being upgraded with the latest-model poison-tipped, cyanide-spitting, face-melting X-29 nuclear beard. Well done, sir! U R WNR!