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Not Even Close: A Year I Can't Review

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A year(ish) ago I made my first ever public New Year's resolution, to play more games (specifically anything scoring 8.5 or higher on GameSpot). Twelve of the best months in gaming for a long time later, and I'm not surprised to report I have fallen woefully short. I started off strong, but it all started to go downhill when Pokemon Diamond got a high enough score to mean I had to play it. I just really couldn't bring myself to play a Pokemon game. Partially because it's Pokemon and, you know, Pokemon, but mostly because I don't ever want to be able to talk with any level of expertise about Pokemon, a man's got to have some standards after all. Pokemon Diamond, of course, was not one of the games of the year so I might be able to let it slide. Not really, let's have a quick run through the GOTY nominees to see how many good games I missed out on this year.

Bioshock - I played the demo when it came out on Xbox Live, but that's it. My excuse? Absolutely none whatsoever. I wanted to play it, had the opportunity and time to play it, but just never played it. Chalk up another game for me to play when it gets a price drop.

Call of Duty 4 - Played through the single player on PC, yet to get into the multiplayer. Very good game, but I felt that the relentless forward motion normally required in Call of Duty games didn't sit so well in a modern setting. Nevertheless the Chernobyl and AC-130 missions are two of the best individual levels I have played for a long time.

Crysis - I have purchased, installed and started playing Crysis. I also spent nigh on $3000 buying a new PC to play it on, including SLI 8800GTs. Just to let you know, that's not enough, you still have to mess around with the settings an awful lot to get the framerate at an acceptable number. Besides that, I haven't played enough of it to form a serious opinion of the game, except to say that the first hour or so is pretty underwhelming.

Forza 2 - Haven't been near it, not interested. I really don't do racing games.

God of War 2 - I've given my thoughts on God of War 2 previously, but here's a summary: Bigger and more impressive than the first, with some truly epic boss fights. The story and atmosphere of the sequel, however, is a long way short of the original. Probably one of the best games to come out on the PS2.

Halo 3 - I've played through the single player campaign in co-op about one and a half times. To be honest, I lost track of the Halo story about halfway through Halo 2, so I have nothing to say about it as a concluding chapter. I also think that changing the primary enemy from elites to brutes changed the dynamic of the game for the worse. Because the brutes do not have recharging shields the player is no longer required to play in a run-and-gun style, which turns Halo 3 into a much more standard shooter in which you sit behind cover taking pot shots at enemies until they die. Multiplayer-wise, Bungie continue to set the mark for online community features with the replay features, improved stat-tracking and so forth. Regardless of whether or not you like Halo's multiplayer, the quality of the features surrounding it is unmatched.

Rock Band - Wouldn't know, it's not out in Australia yet, and in fact it still doesn't even have a solid release date here.

Super Mario Galaxy - I've played a fair amount of Galaxy and I have to say that it hasn't impressed me a whole lot. Rather than repeat someone else's words, check out the Zero Punctuation review of the game. It's worth noting that this was definitely the best Wii game to come out in 2007, but that's really a feat on the order of winning a fist fight against Stephen Hawking.

The Orange Box - From a GOTY perspective, we have to ignore Half-Life 2 and Episode 1, which just leaves Episode 2, Team Fortress 2 and Portal. For my money, Portal is close to being a GOTY contender by itself. Add in Team Fortress 2, which I haven't played but has caused sleepless nights among quite a few people at my work, and you need a very good reason to not make The Orange Box Game of The Year.

World In Conflict - I have bought this game, but not yet played it, so that's probably all I can say about that.

So of the nine nominees, I've played 3 enough that I feel fully qualified to talk about them, and another 3 a bit. Maybe I'll do better next year. It's probably best not to bother with a resolution though, try and keep the amount of self-inflicted failures for the year to a minium.

On an entirely unrelated note, I spent a few days over the Christmas break coding and putting up a blog at http://stripeshop.metagnome.net mostly as a coding project because that's the kind of totally not-nerdy-at-all thing I do when I'm on holiday. Anyway, it's going to be serving as a place for my musings on more esoteric and technical game design stuff, including board games, card games, any games I can get my hands on really and whatever I get up to with the XNA toolkit. GameSpot is staying as my usual outlet for rants and comments on computer gamery and other random stuff, but if you don't get enough metagnome with my sporadic GameSpot updates, feel free to check out the Stripe Shop.

Best New Nemesis: Activision

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Let me start by saying I have never before had so much trouble leaving certain four letter words out of a piece of writing. So, a little while ago I wrote a post explaining my slight irritation at Activision for holding off on announcing the Steam version of Call of Duty 4 after the retail release, meaning I paid close to double the price for the game (Australia->US exchange rate being close to 1:1 these days). Today Activision fixed the problem. By changing the Steam price of CoD4 from $US49 to $US88, for Australia only (and possibly NZ).

Imagine if Kratos (if you don't know Kratos shame on you, but replace with the world's angriest man on PCP after a three day bender listening to Rage Against the Machine on repeat) went a whole night without sleep after a day in the sun, so he was tired an badly sunburnt. Now imagine some annoying tool crept up behind him and slapped the burnt skin on the top of his head with an open palm. And then laughed. That's about how angry I am about this. No excuses about exchange rates can help, no shipping costs, no luxury taxes, nothing. The simple fact is that Activision get twice as much money from people in Australia, simply because they live in Australia.

And in anticipation of the comments, yes I know you live in the US and you don't care, or you sympathise but I should just deal with it, stop and think about this. I can buy Call of Duty 4 for ten bucks less than you can buy Call of Duty 4 AND the Orange Box. Now, Activision are the first publisher to indulge in this abhorrent price-gouging, although THQ did simply pull their products from Steam in Australia, but it's surely only a matter of time before other publishers realise they can get twice the profit for no extra work out of regions that are still paying prices that represented a reasonable exchange rate back in 1990.

I tell you, depending on which way the election goes this weekend, I might just pack up and leave the country, it would probably save me the cost of the airfare.

Before The Horse Bolts

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I was going to title this post Shortal, but decided against it, a wise decision I have ruined by mentioning the fact. Ahem. Portal is short. In fact, it's so short that short is a misleading term. Most people who read that would assume that it's 6-8 hours' worth of gameplay. In point of fact, Portal would rate more as a long movie, at give or take 3 and a half hours to play it through start to finish for the first time.

Turns out for me, the length of Portal is one of its shining lights. Not because I don't have the time any more to play long games (a common complaint), but rather because I think that a game needs to know how long it can play for. I've lost count of the number of quite good games I've got about three quarters of the way through and simply got bored and stopped playing for the same reason. Games are repetitive. They have to be, after all if you weren't doing the same thing over and over again then there would be no gameplay mechanics. What a game needs to do is realise exactly how long the repetitive actions it uses are entertaining for and then make the game about ten minutes shorter.

Even if this was an exact science, you are of course stymied by the fact that everybody has a different boredom threshold. Mine is clearly quite low, unless everybody else doesn't bother finishing games and developers are wasting their budgets on final cutscenes. Off the top of my head, the following games I rate as great have been criticised for being too short: Max Payne 2, Gears of War, Portal, Fable. I finished each of those games and at the end wished they were a little bit longer. But only a little bit, and not so much that I would have preferred to get that sinking feeling you get when you press the button to go to the third storey in the Library in Halo. A game that is too long can easily ruin your perception of it, because memories of the good parts will be overshadowed by the frustration and boredom of unnecessarily extended levels, jumping puzzles and thrice-damned escort missions.

Think of any game you've played that you've spent more than, say, 20 hours on. Chances are there was at least one section that seemed to go on for a little too long, or there was some grinding in the middle to get the appropriate level or item or whatever. Stop and think about that for a second. You were spending time doing something that you pay money voluntarily for, that you do for fun, and you were bored. Your chosen form of entertainment bored you. You can be bored for free (staring at a wall, talking to some old person on a bus), or even get paid to be bored (work), why pay for it?

Back to Portal. Over the course of the game, the creators go through every fun puzzle they can come up with involving the portal gun, and then they stop. There's not seven or eight moving platform over lava puzzles, there's one. Now obviously, there are a lot more factors that make Portal a gem of a game, but if it lasted another three hours, I think you'd see a lot of reviews saying "original idea, but feels overplayed by the end." Now, Portal has the advantage of being a part of a package that is frankly ridiculously good value, and barring a fairly large shift in the way AAA titles are priced and marketed, I don't think 3 hour games are going to become the norm. Nevertheless, it's worth thinking about whether a game you thought was too short was in fact exactly the right length.

Angry, Angry Hippos

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I've had a few things of late that made me incredibly frustrated, so I thought I'd collect them together in a single post just to get it all of my chest. To ruin the suspense, there is absolutely nothing whatsoever in this post to do with hippos, sorry for the misleading title.

Like a lot of Australians, I love Steam. Steam gives me stuff for close to half the price I'd have to pay in the store. I applaud Valve for what they've done with it, and I pray that the Big 3 take some cues from Steam come the next console cycle (of course, they'll regionalise the prices, and I'll end up right back where I was). My love of Steam professed, allow me a second to get angry at the publishers who use it.

First, THQ. I was recently playing some Dawn of War, and the person I was playing against wanted to get Dark Crusade (I already own the expansion packs). Never fear, head over to Steam and download it. Oh wait, THQ have locked out Australia and NZ from purchasing their games over Steam. Why? I don't know, they didn't announce anything, they just locked the games. So, now Australians can go the shop, pay twice as much as they should if, and I do mean if, any shop has them in stock. I can only assume it's something to do with THQ Australia's bottom line, but who knows? And frankly, who cares? There was no need from the point of view of the consumer to do it, and it raises the hideous spectre of regionalised content on the PC.

Next up, Activision. I pre-ordered Call of Duty 4 about three weeks ago, and paid $87 ($80 US) for it. I was slightly worried at the time that it might come out on Steam, but eventually decided that the difference is normally a couple of months and I wasn't prepared to wait that long. So, then the day after retail release, it gets a November 12 release date on Steam for $49 US (that's $55, or about 60% of the price). Well, I took a chance, and it didn't pay off, more fool me, right? Not quite. I imagine that Activision didn't make the decision to release CoD4 on Steam on a whim the day after release. My guess is that they didn't want Steam detracting from their NPD numbers. No sales figures take Steam into account, so their sales might look disappointing if they didn't get all those eager first day buyers.

Steam aside, I'm angry at Conan. I'm on the final boss, and it's ridiculous. A quick GameFaqs search revealed to me that I'm stuck on phase 4 of 7. I don't care enough about the storyline to push through a boss fight that annoying, I'm probably going to have to come back to it in a month or so. I guess some people like boss fights, and some people don't. I don't, with a few exceptions. I spend 90% of the time in a game mastering the mechanics, only to find I can't finish the game until I master some incredibly punishing new mechanic that has nothing to do with the rest of the game. I've spent thousands of points of experience on moves I wasn't able to use in the entire last 2 levels. Spend most of the game learning the parry and throw mechanics, spend your precious red runes on moves that end in various types of dismemberment, and then you're forced back to the same combos you had at the start of the game for the entire end game. It's one of the worst pieces of game design I've experienced since, well only since Stranglehold to be honest.

To end on a positive note, Portal was totally awesome. If you haven't played it yet, do.

A Sad Sunday Haiku

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Turn on three sixty
Three lights flash, and they are red
No more games today

TopSpot, something new for Gamespot

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I noticed a while ago that a lot of people seem to enjoy posting their opinions on the top x games of some type, and a number of Soapbox articles on just such topics were posted a couple of months back. I got to thinking that it would be kind of cool if one of the things in a user profile was a page showing your own personal top five lists on platforms, genres, greatest games of al time, and so on. Following fairly hot on the heels of this thought was another one that culminated in a couple of weeks' effort in my spare time and my first Firefox add-on: TopSpot.

For those of you who can't be bothered clicking on the link yet, let me explain. TopSpot is an add-on for Firefox (sorry IE users) that adds the functionality to add Top 5 lists to your user profile, and view Top 5 lists that other users have created. To give you some idea of what to expect, check out the screenshot below (thanks to weemadando for testing it out for me):

quick demo

On any user's profile page, you'll see a new tab called TopSpot, click on it and you'll see the new functionality this add-on provided. On other people's profiles, you'll see a list of all the top 5's that the user has created, and just click on the top 5 title to see the full list and reasons. On your own profile page you'll get an add/edit button that allows you to add your own lists, and if there's a Top 5 category missing then I can add it in, no trouble.

So, if you're interested head over to http://topspot.metagnome.net and download the add-on, that's all you need to do. TopSpot will figure out your username based on your GameSpot username when you start using it, so there's no signing up or anything. There are a couple of things you should be aware of before you start adding games, so check the help page, but it's fairly straightforward.

If it turns out that people want to use it, I was thinking of adding some stats on the TopSpot home page about most popular overall games, that kind of stuff.

Anyways, that's pretty much it, I'm not terribly good at shameless self-promotion

Unprintable: The Gentle Art of Talking Smack

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The game is delicately poised, with Mario just managing to edge out Bowser as the racers come into the last straight. Some distance away in third, Yoshi watches helplessly until he suddenly notices a blue shell go flying past. A second or two passes, there's the dull thump of an explosion, nearby two players begin screaming and cursing, and Yoshi crosses the line first. Pop quiz: which of the following is the appropriate response of the player controlling Yoshi?
a) Say nothing, and just enjoy the win
b) Talk to the other players and admit that without the luck of the guy who was coming last getting a blue, he never would have won the race
c) calmly point out that Mario and/or Browser are still winning the overall Grand Prix.
d) Stand up, start doing pelvic thrusts, throwing the horns and shouting "that's what you get! In your face. In. Your. Face"
If you're in my group of gaming friends, the answer is d. Smacktalk is one of the most important parts of multiplayer gaming when everybody is in the same room. Now, obviously it's important that there's no actual malice behind the smacktalking because otherwise you end up with a geekfight, and nobody wants that. Besides that, it's no holds barred. Originally I was only going to talk about the justification for smacktalk, but I've decided to summarize that in a few sentences and then give some useful advice on identifying, creating and responding to smacktalk (sidenote: I normally refer to it a talking **** but in an effort to do my part to alleviate the world asterisk shortage I'm going to use smacktalk instead).

So, justification. What possible reason do you have to call a good friend a retarded monkey who might do better in a poop flinging contest than in a game of Soul Calibur? Well, basically three reasons. Firstly, it's entirely possible that me and my friends are not very nice people, and gaming just exacerbates the problem. Secondly, I like to think that my defeat is something my opponents value, and something they want to celebrate. Don't give me that "gracious in victory" crap, when you beat someone who normally beats you, the first thing you want to do is rub their face in it, admit it. Go on, you'll feel better if you do. See, wasn't that fun? Thirdly, I personally prefer people who jump up and down and continually replay the KO in a game of Fight Night than someone who smirks quietly. It's like they feel bad about feeling good about winning (that sentence could possibly be better constructed I suppose). I bet they play light side characters in Kotor as well.

Core Smacktalk Moves
As with the use of the word smacktalk, I'll be substituting words like crap, rubbish, trash and awful for words that normally get printed in comics using the shift and number keys in combination. Feel free to replace such words with your preferred profanity.

The Judgement Call
The Judgement Call is really the bread and butter of the smacktalk world. When you can't think of anything more amusing or original, a simple "Sweet baby Jesus, I am awesome." or "Wow, you are trash at this game." can go a long way. I especially like to use the Judgment Call when it is completely unjustifiable, say when you've just snapped a ten match losing streak in a given game.
Optional extra: This can always be reframed as a question, hence making it more likely to get a rise from the target by changing it to "Wow, how is possible to be so trash at this game?"

The Feigned Surprise
The key element of this move is to ask a leading question, which you then answer yourself, being shocked that the answer is the best possible outcome for yourself or the worst for the butt of the smacktalk. For example, when playing Unreal Tournament you might say "Who just got that running riot?" Brief pause, "Oh, was that ME?".
Optional extra: You may choose to rub the Feigned Surprise in a little more with a simple Judgement Call like so: "Who ran over that banana skin? Oh, it was you? I guess that's because you're crap."

Scoreboard
This is a smacktalk that really has its roots in the world of professional sport, but can be used in almost any context. When someone pulls a Judgement Call or similar when they get one win after you've just beaten them ten times in a row, the time is ripe for a Scoreboard. The traditional execution of this move is to put on your voice that best mimics the sound of fifty thousand drunk football fans and start chanting "Score - Board. Score - Board" Obviously this works best in team based games, but it can still be used effectively by a single person if you really commit. Variations on the scoreboard include the Dismissal ("Oh, were you taking that round seriously? I thought we stopped caring at 25-0") and the ever dependable Diminution ("I never really noticed how much bigger twenty was than three, but when they put it up on the screen like that, it really puts it in perspective").

The Obscenity
I normally reserve this for when I lose in the most unbelievable and frustrating ways: rockets fired ten seconds ago in Halo, ring-outs when I was going to get a perfect in Soul Calibur, that kind of thing. The obscenity is probably the only kind of smacktalk that I normally feel bad about using shortly afterwards, and normally involves various perversions, people's mothers, inappropriate activities involving small mammals, that kind of thing. The less said about it, the better, I think.

Ridiculous Comparison
This is a type of smacktalk that either needs fast thinking or planning. I prefer the fast thinking, because I'm not willing to put in the pre-game effort that planning requires, but if you need to think about it beforehand, feel free to do so. Also be sure to take into account the areas of knowledge and depth of knowledge of the group, otherwise your brilliant "I could have proved the Riemann Hypothesis in less time than it took you to finish that lap" call might go unappreciated. The Ridiculous Comparison is the most likely to result in someone saying "Woah, not cool," but also the most likely to cause genuine laughter. Best left to the experts, but don't be afraid to give it a try. This is different to the Obscenity in that it could potentially be used in polite company and relies on the unexpectedness of the comparison rather than on the shock value of being obscene.

The Cough
Everybody knows this, finds it annoying, but nevertheless occasionally uses it. It's not really a method of smacktalk so much as it is a method in which most types of other smack can be delivered. In it's simplest form the cough consists of raising the fist to the mouth a coughing while saying something quick and derogatory like "cough tool cough".

Curse With The Lot
Best used in a game like Counterstrike or Capture the Flag where there is a long wait between respawns, the Curse With the Lot is normally directed at the world in general rather than a specific person, and requires you to basically use as many socially unacceptable words as possible in a five to ten second period. Bonus points are awarded if you manage to string the words together in some meaningful (if obscene or physiologically unlikely) way.

The Expletive-Noun
This is not really a recognized technique, but rather the kind of thing that gets said in the heat of a fast-paced game when the brain doesn't have sufficient time to come up with something long-winded, witty, or indeed sensible. It works like this: say the first expletive that comes into your head (probably an f or s based word) and follow it immediately with the first noun that you can think of (if you're having trouble coming up with a noun, just glance quickly around the room and say the first thing you see). If you're somewhere it's safe to, practice this technique out loud a few times a day, just to get into the groove. That way you won't find yourself spluttering inarticulately when an opportunity presents itself. This method has spawned the well-known expletives like asshat, but has also created more bizarre phrases like "you are a total s***-carpet." or "damn, I am a total f***-table."

I'm sure I've missed a couple, but there's enough listed above to let you get involved in some proper smacktalking with your friends, and get the neighbours to complain about the noise and foul language at least once. And remember, gaming is always more fun when everybody's shouting at the top of their lungs. If they're swearing, even better.

One final note: I don't behave like this when playing online unless I know everybody on the server. Being a total douchebag around a group of people who regard it as the expected form of behaviour and an integral part of an enjoyable game is entirely different to being a total douchebag to strangers (Live users, I'm looking at you).

War pigs vs war gods, or, the value of narrative

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Six weeks ago I got Guitar Hero 2 on the 360. It was my first exposure to the Guitar Hero games and my initial reaction was "meh, a rhythm game." My opinion has changed somewhat. Rocking out on a little plastic guitar is stupidly more fun than it should be. Probably there is little nerdier in the world than throwing up the horns after five starring Killing In The Name Of on medium (I'm actually not very good at Guitar Hero, but I still enjoy it) while your console reassures you that you do, in fact, rock. I don't honestly know how long I've spent playing it, but it's been quite a long time and my enjoyment doesn't seem to be showing any signs of letting up.

If there is one thing that all developers and gamers seem to agree on when they sit down and start waxing lyrical about their job/hobby, it's that one of the problems with the game industry is the lack of mature content and compelling and believable storylines. Quick side note, by mature I don't mean more guts and more nudity, I mean something that would make serious looking short, fat men with immaculately manicured beards do things like steeple their fingers or nod condescendingly at an interviewer and say "that's a good question. I believe the real cultural value of..." or some such crap. If only we had these games, maybe the world would take us seriously and there could be a Nobel prize for games that nobody would play but felt really good that they existed. Oh look, here comes an example:

I got God of War 2 a couple of weeks back and played through it in about two days. It was really, really good. I didn't think it was quite as good as the first one, it lacked the strength of vision of the original, but it was fun, brutal and had one of those story things. Now I'm done with it. I might load it up again when I finally get a PS3 (I don't plan on getting a PS3, but I'm weak, so weak) to see how it looks and make up for the fact that there's nothing better to play. So, one of the AAA titles, almost certainly going to win a slew of PS2 Game of the Year awards, and I'm done with it within a weekend of buying it. Now, depending on your poison you might get more longevity out of single player games. If you play Square games for example, you can grind through a hundred hours or more of uninspiring group combat to see all the overblown cutscenes (okay, okay, that's my last Final Fantasy vent, promise) before you put it away to gather dust.

So, is Guitar Hero 2 a better game than God of War 2? My first answer is of course not. No matter how fun GH2 is, it's still just a rhythm game, and it really doesn't have that much content when all's said and done. God of War 2 had script writers and story boards and an orchestra in London and a choir in Prague recording the soundtrack. Prague, people, Prague. That is a city with some credibility. European music must make God of War 2 a superior game. Well, no, not necessarily. It makes it bigger, and more impressive to the critics. And that's it, really. What makes a game good? Is it something we can point at and say "look, that embodies what game developers as artists strive to achieve" or is it something you play until your hand cramps up and find yourself playing in your head whenever a decent guitar riff starts playing on the radio?

Why, when everybody is talking about making games more compelling narrative experiences and creating games that make you cry, do multiplayer-heavy games, rhythm games and the annual sports franchises sell so well? Because gaming is like any other medium, we say we want caviar, but in the end we want popcorn.

Ok, note to self: next time I write a post about a game, try not to end up surveying the world from my high horse. 

Time You Can't Get Back

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It was a throw away question my housemate asked me about a week ago, but I've been thinking about it all week: what five games have you spent the most time playing? My first instinct was to think about my favourite my games that I played a lot. This is where games like Half-Life and Sacrifice came into it, but I soon realised that the games I have spent playing the most over the years has little to do with the games that I liked the most. Most of these games I spent a lot of time playing because they were good/very good (but not necessarily great) and either games I could actually play multiplayer, or the only game I had available to play. The list would read slightly differently if you counted the Fifa franchise as a single game. By slightly differently, I mean that Fifa would probably be on the list. So, brief introduction aside, and in no particular order, my list:

Doom 2 (PC)

This was the first game I spent serious time playing multiplayer. Initially it was over the modem, back in the days when you still had to worry about connection commands because you had some stupid no-name modem that didn't use any of the standard protocols. Some time later, one of my friends got a laptop and a parallel cable (oh, yeah, that's the big fat one that printers used before they were all USB) that we could play games over. I'm not sure how many hours in total I would have spent playing the game, but two or three hours straight playing level 1 in deathmatch 1 was some of the most fun I've ever had gaming. To this day, I don't think a shooter has matched the frenetic pace and quality weapons of Doom 2.

Halo (XBOX)

I played through this game 3 times in a row on co-op with my brother, to get all of the badges on all of the levels. I have, since then, probably played through the single player another two or three times in co-op with other people. There have also been uncounted hours spent playing multiplayer, primarily because I was able to fairly regularly get together two or three TVs and Xboxes to get the 6-8 player Halo going. I personally far prefer the original to Halo 2. The pistol may be horribly unbalanced, but I find most of Halo 2 multiplayer kind of underpowered, especially the grenades.

Soul Calibur 2 (XBOX)

I love me some fighting games. It has long been my contention that fighting games are the most pure form of 1 on 1 fast-paced multiplayer in existence. And Soul Calibur 2 is the fighting game that I can get the most other people to play. My preference would be to get a bunch of people who got familiar with VF4 so I could unleash my mediocre Lion skills on them, but I know more Xbox owners than PS2 owners. As it is, Soul Calibur 2 is a lot of fun, and I know a few people willing to play it a lot, so it's the fighting game of choice. For what it's worth, I play Talim, and mostly I win.

Civilization (PC)

This was the first PC game I played (excluding Duck Tales and Monkey Island on an old laptop my dad used to bring home from work), and I played it a lot. I never really got into the later Civ games, although I have played all of them a bit. The first copy I got I didn't have the manual for (yes, dirty piracy was the reason for this) so I had to learn the tech tree by trial and error to actually play beyond turn 30 or whatever the cut-off point was. I honestly don't know how many times I played this through, but nothing really came close until I got a copy of Colonization (damn that game deserves a sequel).

Goldeneye (N64)

For my first year of university, me an two of my friends spent most Friday afternoons/nights playing Goldeneye on the 64. The stack, licensed to kill, pistols only was the rules set of choice, but we'd mix it up from time to time. I've only played the first two or three levels in single player, but I've spent so much time playing on the stack that I'm pretty sure I still know the spawn point order, and I haven't played the game in five years.

Other games that would definitely have made the top ten, but didn't quite make the top five:

Secret of Mana 2 - I played this game, translated from Japanes by fans, on a Super Nintendo emulator on a Pentium 75 I had in my room. I played it a lot. In fact I played it through 4 and half times, the half because the computer I had it on had a catastrophic hard drive failure while I was halfway through the fifth time. I rate this game at least as good as, if not better than, A Link To The Past.

Mario Kart 64 - When we got bored of playing Goldeneye, we'd play Mario Kart 64. Plus I've played it with almost every group of people I've known who had a N64. Mario Kart seems to be one of those franchises that everyone can agree on. Don't like shooters? Everyone likes Mario Kart. Strategy games not your thing? Everyone loves Mario Kart.

Call of Duty - Aside from the fact I've played through the game a few times, this was a mainstay LAN game for several months, one of the few shooters that everyone could agree was good (or at least not too lame to play).

CounterStrike - For about the first year I was going to LANs, the only thing anyone ever wanted to play was CS. I'm not, and never have been, a huge fan of the game, but it's undeniably a well-balanced shooter. We got another few months playtime out of it when the Warcraft 3 mod came out for it, because it gave the people who were crap (ie, me) some chance to get a kill. The only reason I don't think it's in my top five is that I normally got bored and quit several hours before everyone else switched games.

I don't know if many games will ever overtake the five above, because I don't play games for that long any more. I either have new games every few weeks, or everyone else wants to keep playing the older games (at least until a new Soul Calibur game comes out). So, are the games you've spent the most time playing your favourite games, or are they two separate lists?

Eye of Judgement: Opportunity Missed?

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I just read the preview for Eye of Judgement on the PS3, and while I appreciate the fact that it's being developed as a showcase (or more likely gimmick) for the Playstation Eye, I think that Sony may have missed a golden opportunity. Not with the whole camera thing, I honestly don't see that ever getting past the "amusing distraction" phase, but with the whole CCG thing. So here's how I would make a CCG for next-gen consoles. I'm going to talk in terms of the 360, because I don't have a PS3 and Nintendo's online is so far away from being able to do it that it doesn't bear thinking about.

Firstly, it has to be first party. Microsoft could publish as a really cheap Live Arcade game, say a couple of hundred points, or even just give it away for free; the money is in the cards anyway. In fact make the game and a starter deck free so people have no reason to not give it a try. The reason it has to be first party is that it would allow Microsoft to make the following suggestions either encouraged or compulsory for games in the same way achievement points are.

The game itself could play exactly like Magic, or Legend of the Five Rings, or Yu-Gi-Oh or whatever, it just has to be a decently balanced generic card trading game, of which there are dozens, if not hundreds. Then you add in some shiny graphics with attack animations, let players save their custom decks and enable voice chat to make it a bit more next-gen. What you would then do is sell booster packs for a price people would be willing to pay (say 50 points for ten cards, 100 points for a premium booster pack, something like that).

To start off with you'd make generic power and action cards, and then cards themed with various MS first and second party properties like Halo, Viva Pinata, Gears of War, and so on. The point of this would be to have a nice solid base of cards for players to build decks from. Then new 360 games form 3rd party developers could unlock the ability for the player to buy cards themed with whatever that game might be (say, Crackdown booster decks, for example). In addition, you could pack in special cards with limited editions packs, or tie the ability to get specific cards in a booster to unlocking achievements in a game, so maybe the Gears booster packs wouldn't have a chance of containing the "General RAAM" card until you've finished the game in hardcore. This would let players make decks themed on their favourite games, and answer important questions about whether Master Chief or Marcus Fenix is more of a badass.

The cards themselves wouldn't be physical, obviously, which is why they would have to be cheaper than real CCG cards. But there's no reason developers couldn't bundle in concept art, or minigames or something with special cards to make them that little bit more special. 

The next important thing is setting up a trading system (maybe like the one in this year's FIFA Champion's League game, which I haven't played) for players to swap cards, see what the most in demand cards are, what the most common cards are, and whatever stats would be interesting. This would have to be set up to make it as easy as possible to place bids for trades of people who are currently offline, or put up counter-offers that can be accepted while you are offline. I'd personally make it so that you could only trade cards for cards, you don't want some in-game currency that people would confuse with the actual money they spend to get boosters. As a part of the trading system, it should be possible to peruse your friends' card collections, have a look through their decks (if they'll let you see them of course), and see their game stats in addition to all of the standard matchmaking and friend list stuff that is in live.

The final part of the game would be tournaments, which could be sponsored by regular sponsors, or Microsoft, or developers promoting their new game. The prizes could vary from free games, to Microsoft points, to practically any loot or achievement points people could come up with. After all, everybody loves loot.

So, that's what I'd do if somebody asked me to design a next-gen CCG. MS gets to nickel and dime people like they want to, but it's in a way that people are already used to, it gives people another reason to buy and/or play games they otherwise wouldn't (for special cards, etc) and it would give the whole online service a unified game that everyone can play and talk about.

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