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My blog... en Espanol!

Thanks to a cruel twist of fate (but mostly poor planning), I'm left without a TV just as the flood of holiday releases has reached its apex. Chalk it up to moving from a house with a 46 inch HDTV that I do not own, to an apartment with many things I do own, but none of them taking the form of a 46 inch HDTV. Or any TV.

So in the meantime, I've made do with the slightly smaller screen on my DS. For laughs, I decided to try out Ubisoft's My Spanish Coach. So far, I've noticed two things wrong with the game. One: it thinks I'm great at Spanish. Two: I'm terrible at Spanish.

Looking back, I blame the "placement test" the game gives you right after creating a profile. There's about fifty multiple choice questions they throw your way, each with four options to choose from. Apparently, if you've studied any of the other romance languages in the past -- and possess the slightest bit of deductive logic -- you're screwed.

The four options per question are pretty distinct from each other, so you'll often get by with picking the one that sounds like the version found in your romance language of choice. For me, my mind went something like this for most questions: "Well, I don't know the Spanish word for Friday, but Option B looks pretty close to the French word. Option A doesn't look at all similar, C is just a random string of numbers, and D is a picture of a cat with a pancake on its head. I'll go with... B. Correct!"

Okay, maybe it isn't completely like that, but it is awfully close. So when the game deemed me an expert practicioner of the Spanish language, the lessons it started me with reflected this designation. Needless to say, my fraudulent ways caught up with me with these first few lessons. Phrases I couldn't possibly remember were hurled at me in rapid succession, and even the simple minigames used to teach you words and phrases had the difficulty ramped up beyond playablity. Whac-a-mole should be easy, right? Not necessarily! Especially when you're not actually whacking moles, but instead phrases along the lines of "It will be rainy next Tuesday so please bring your coat" as they pop up so quickly it could be argued whether they actually popped up at all.

But I think it's my fault. I'll just have to take the test over and bomb it so that I can start from the beginning. I'm actually pretty intrigued by the idea of learning another language on my DS, so I'll definitely give it an honest shot. Until I get a real TV, that is.

More modern than you think

Warning! Heavy dose of Call of Duty 4 spoilers and general rambling to follow.

For those who are turned off by World War II franchises, there's a certain temptation to dismiss Call of Duty 4 as the same game spiced up with fancy weapons. And really, how can they be blamed for that? The Call of Duty series rose to fame under the worn out backdrop of Nazi-occupied Europe that we've seen dozens of times before. And in many ways, this is the Call of Duty of old: linear paths, scripted events and a handful of shifting perspectives. But the move to present times has also given Infinity Ward the creative legroom to explore the uncertainties of today's conflicts with an incredible campaign that manages to impress with its technical prowess, but stun you with its heartbraking portrayal of 'Modern Warfare'.

World War II has been such a popular setting in part because of how clearly defined everything is. The line between good guys and bad guys is stark and clear. You know who you're fighting, you know why you're fighting them and you know your ultimate goal is to defeat their army. Things aren't so clear in modern combat. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, America hasn't really had a definite enemy. Instead they're fighitng abstact concepts, like terrorism. When the enemy fights for a shifting set of ideas, not a country or an all-powerful leader, those lines and goals that were so clear in WWII are a lot more blurred. And when you don't necessarily know the enemy, achieving a tangible 'victory' becomes much more difficult.

This ambiguity is played out brilliantly in Call of Duty 4. The game keeps your emotions on a string, never afraid to yank you back down to earth when you think you've won. The most obvious example comes at the point when you've just completed a Black Hawk Down style rescue of a helicopter pilot. You're warned not to attempt this resuce because a nuclear bomb nearby may soon go off, but the crew does so anyway out of a commitment to brotherhood and loyalty. The heroic rescue is completed, but as your helicopter is making its escape, the bomb goes off and sends you tumbling back down to earth.

At this point, the perspective is changed dramatically. The players vision is blurry and movements are extremely slow. You turn around to see a dead pilot, then crawl through the hatch at the end of the helicopter. Outside the sky is blood-red and the wind is absolutely howling. With bodies strewn all about, it seems like you're the only one left alive. You're truly stuck in the shadown of a nuclear explosion. But you're still alive, so there's hope -- for a few moments. Just when you think you might be able to crawl to safety, your character dies. The reward you're given for loyalty and brotherhood is seeing the acronym 'KIA' flashed next to your name. In short, just when you think you've won, everything changes as the game twists and ravages your expectations with a devestating death sequence.

Another way the lines become more blurred is with the use of advanced technology. One very unique mission in the game has you flying in a C-130 Hercules aircraft miles above the ground. As the plane's gunner, you're given a top-down view of the battlefield in grainy, black-and-white night vision, and told to take out a string of enemies that appear as nothing more than small blips on your screen. What's striking about this level is just how removed from the battle you are. In contrast to previous fights where you can see your enemy's face, here it almost feels like you're character is playing a retro videogame, some sort of top-down shooter in the mold of Galaga. It's a testament to Infinity Ward's ability to immserse you in the overall experience that this feeling of playing a videogame is actually a second-hand one: you're playing a game of a real soldier playing a game.

On top of this, the radio chatter is alarmingly casual. Your commander doesn't bark out targets, he calmly points them out with the confidence of knowing that these targets don't stand a chance against the advanced weaponry at your disposal. You hear phrases like "Ooh, there's a kill" and "One running through the field--got 'em" spoken in an easy, monotone voice that contrasts heavily with the fact that you're actually killing dozens of people at a time. For many, this might be the most uncomfortable mission in the game. You could plainly see your enemies in the old WWII setting -- and since they're villainized Nazis, you don't feel as bad killing them -- but now you're taking out de-humanized blips in a stunningly casual way. Miles above the ground, how can you be so sure that these targets need to be eliminated? You don't, and that's what adds the extra moral conflict of modern battles.

Finally, there's the ending sequence. This is the very definition of a pyrrhic victory, one that's so devestating that it has you questioning the entire campaign as a whole. You've just saved the entire Eastern Coast of the United States from a devestating series of nuclear blasts by infiltrating the enemy base, emotions are riding high, and you've got to escape in a jeep with truckload after truckload of enemies trailing you. Just when you think you've made the escape, a bridge collapses and you hit a roadblock in the form of a massive wave of enemies. Your character is knocked to the ground, and from your distressed position you see your three closest buddies throughout entire campaign quickly, casually and mercilessly killed, as if they didn't matter at all.

Thankfully, just before your commander dies, he slides you a gun that lets you take out the game's final target, one that you've been searching for throughout the entire campaign. 'Objective Completed' flashes across the screen in bittersweet white text, inevitably leading you to wonder whether or not it was all worth it with all the losses you've suffered. Again, the game manages to take the rigidly defined concept of a traditional wartime victory and dillute it with moral uncertainties to the point where whether or not it counts as an actual victory is entirely open to interpretation.

There are so many more examples of how Call of Duty 4 embraces the uncertainties of post-WWII / post-Cold War battle, but I've already spoiled too much of the game for you. If you're tired of the World War II setting, you owe it to yourself to see Infinity Ward's new take on the series. For as rich and compelling as the history of WWII has been in modern re-tellings, Call of Duty 4 somehow manages to be just as compelling while branching out into an era that requires developers to take more chances.

Note: Absolutely none of the above should be taken as a position on current conflicts involving the American or British militaries, either for or against. It's simply an analysis of how Infinity Ward has been able to succesfully reflect the difficulty of modern warfare in its latest Call of Duty game. Thank you.

What I've been playing

This week, as you may know, marks the release Call of Duty 4 and Mario Galaxy. This pair of games couldn't look any more different on the surface, but they're really quite similar in one important area: each is sure to consume a lot of my time in the next few weeks. So now that you know what I will be playing, I figure I'd fill you fine folks in on what I have been playing.

Manhunt 2 - Wii
The little gorefest that could has finally made it to store shelves and... it's hard to see what the fuss was about. Gameplay-wise, it falls somewhere between okay and a notch above okay. But even that C-plus gameplay is tough to enjoy when you more scared by the atrocious camera than any of the game's depraved executions. Though in fairness to the camera, those executions really aren't that scary. In what must have been a sacrificial offering to the ESRB gods, Rockstar made these scenes almost impossible to see. The screen goes dark and grainy as the game prompts you to jerk the Wii remote in a set of directions ostensibly intended to kill your enemy. But I'm still not sure. I just got done with one scene where I might have smashed a dude's head with the lid to the back of a toilet, but the screen was so tough to see that I haven't ruled out the possility that I was actually feeding the guy a giant sub sandwich and now he's just napping it off.

The Orange Box - 360
If you haven't played Portal yet, all you need to know is that the game isn't as good as everyone on the Internet has been claiming. It's better. Words simply can't do this game justice. Like a demented cross between Monty Python and an M.C. Escher sketch, this game will have you laughing and questioning the bounds of reality at the same time. Team Fortress 2 took me a bit of time to get into, mostly because developing a good understanding of the yin and yang of every class takes some patience. But boy is it worth it. TF2 has now overtaken Halo 3 on my go-to online shooter of choice. And Half-Life 2.... well, it's Half-Life 2. Valve is simply in a league of their own.

Skate - 360
Yes, still Skate. You may remember from a few weeks ago, I made a blog post listing all the reasons the game is promising but far from perfect. And yet I'm still playing it. It's not that I've discovered any new folds to the gameplay that have kept my interest sparked, but rather the sheer size and variety of the game's setting, San Vanelona, that keeps me coming back for more. I'm constantly discovering all these little hidden spots to skate. A ledge here, a hidden backyard pool there -- the city has a mysterious way of rationing its locations so that you'll keep running into areas you haven't seen yet, but simply must set a marker and tear up. It's just such a believable city in terms of design and architecture (though the suburbs area is still quite boring) that I can't wait to see what type of locale the developers are working on for the next one.

Baseball... Paper... Baseball... Paper...

Life is all about tough decisions, and last night was a perfect example. Would I continue to watch game two of the World Series, or switch to the latest episode of the Office? A decision I wouldn't put on my worst enemy. But it had to be made. Unfortunately, I made the wrong decision.

I decided to keep watching the World Series. At that point, my team of choice was up by a score of 1-0. You may know them as the Rockies, but I prefer to call them Anybody But the Red Sox, my second favorite team after the Mariners. See, when you spend your entire life rooting for a mediocre franchise, you begin to develop irrational hatred for the teams who play consistently well, make smart business decisions and build up a huge, insufferably arrogant fanbase. (Don't take it personally, Red Sox fans. I also can't stand the Yankees and Angels for the same reason.)

So, needless to say, I was pretty excited to see Anybody But the Red Sox up that late in the game. It seemed like they had a good chance to steal one before returning back home to Denver. But this was not to last. The Red Sox, being the Red Sox, managed to squeeze out a few runs before bringing in their insane but annoyingly likeable closer, Jon Papelbon, to end the game. All this and I missed The Office's return to actually being funny, a scientific phenomenon that I predicted using a carefully crafted theory which I shall illustrate...

Here. See, the Office has been showing hour-long episodes since the latest season kicked off about a month ago. The Office + hour episodes = way too much filler to be watchable. I'm almost entirely certain the writers write as if it were a standard 30 minute show, but add enough extra bits to stretch it to the full length. These unnecessary add-ons include five straight minutes of Dwight weeping at his desk, or three and a half minutes of Jim and Pam playing the "I love you more. No I love *you* more!" game. There's comedy to be found in this protracted format, but you have to sit through so much filler that it's like you're not even watching the same show.

With last night's episode, the show returned to the half-hour format. Sure enough, it was the best one all season. I was laughing consistently throughout the 30 minutes of the show. The Second Life cameo seemed a little out of place, but fortunately the entire process of writing, filming and screening the Dunder Mifflin commercial was hilarious.

I'm pretty excited that my favorite show is actually watchable again. As much as I loved the UK version of the Office, I think the US version has actually managed to be funnier at its peak. A lot of that is due to the fact that there's just been so many more episodes of the American show, so they can swing for the fences once in a while and take a lot of chances. A lot of the times it works, but at others, like with the first month of this season, it doesn't. Thankfully, now I know The Office's best days aren't behind it.

But at least life's tough decisions are a little easier when NBC.com streams full episodes of their shows the next day. I guess that helps.

Secrets! Terrible secrets

For the past few weeks, I've been living with the great shame of having abandoned BioShock about two-thirds of the way through. It wasn't done on purpose. I was enjoying every bit of it until Skate came along and stole away my attention. By the time my interest in Skate waned to normal human levels, Halo 3 reared its ugly head and kept me from finishing the (undersea) fight.

But yesterday, I managed to plow through those last six hours and finally do this great game justice by completing its story. Now I feel tempted to start it over so I can do a better job of absorbing the narrative without an embarassing month-long gap to rob me of my appreciation for its finer details. Tempted, of course, is the key word here, because I know there's zero chance of me actually doing this until January. I've got Eternal Sonata sitting atop my stack of games waiting to be played, and I'm sure it won't be more than a few days before I pick up the Orange Box. After that, well, you know how many good games are left to be played this season. (That's even including the new version of Mass Effect with all characters voiced by John Madden.)

So I'll look forward to 2008 when I can experience Rapture again and really take my time exploring it. In the mean time, I've got to figure out what the hell happened to my entire library of recently played Halo 3 films. They just vanished. Could the video game gods be punishing me for my less than strategic use of the elephants on the sand trap level? Well, if spicing up the game by parking the red flag right next to the blue flag is wrong, I don't wanna be right.

Learn from a beginner's Quake Wars mistakes

Games like Enemy Territory: Quake Wars aren't the easiest to just jump right into. All those vehicles, classes and chatter going on make for a pretty intimidating experience for a beginner like myself. What's that, SirPwnsAlot? You need suppressing fire at 73N 43W? I'm on it! Wait, is that by the tree? I'm by a tree.

Ahh, but if only my first few minutes of the game were that uneventful. I'd be perfectly happy to adjust to the game's learning curve in the privacy of my own secluded fortress, but nope! Whenever I try to get into a big team-based game like ETQW, I always go through my growing pains in the most hilariously public ways. Here's a few choice moments from my first twenty minutes of the game:

- I'm trying to get into a humvee, but I can't figure out the 'enter vehicle' key. In a fit of frustration, I shoot the door with my shotgun. Nothing a few tax dollars can't fix, right? Well, except for the now-dead teammate sitting in the car that I didn't notice, sure! I just hope team-killing complaints aren't as powerful as those shotguns.

- After discovering the beauty of being able to switch weapons, I quickly become obsessed with those defibrillators the Human medics are equpped with. In my drive to atone for my previous team-killing mistake, I go around reviving every fallen comrade I can find. I'm making some pretty good progress until I mistakenly zap a perfectly healthy sniper lying in the prone position. Apparently defibrillators + live person = death! Well, the good news is you can just revive him right back to life. But the stigma of being a medic who can't seem to tell the living from the dead, well, that goes on.

- And finally, I'm wandering through the level looking for the action when I hear gunshots and notice I'm taking damage. In a split second decision, I make the choice to seek refuge in the GIANT SWIRLING VORTEX I see ten feet to my right. This decision? Probably not one of the better ones I've ever made. See, because it's not just a GIANT SWIRLING VORTEX, it's GIANT SWIRLING VORTEX OF DEATH. That must have made the day of the person who shooting me. Alright I got a few shots in him, let me just reload and finish the--oh no, there he goes. Ran straight into the death vortex Yeah, that'll get ya.

So there you have it: my first twenty minutes of Quake Wars. Try not to be too impressed.

Skate 2 and 3 and 4 and...

I can't help but feel a twinge of irony every time I think about the potential of a Skate sequel. After all, the reason I've been enjoying it so much is because it offers exactly what the later generation of Tony Hawk games don't: realism, subtlety and a sense of accomplishment. As the Tony Hawk franchise grew, they sacrificed all that in favor of increasingly bizarre storylines and over-the-top goals. How can we know Skate won't follow that same path?

We can't, really. But remember, they've been making Tony Hawk games since, oh, the Nixon administration. At least Neversoft managed to squeeze out 4 or 5 great skating games before sinking into irrelevance. While it's almost inevitable Skate heads down the route of diminishing returns (Hi, John Madden!), at least we can expect a handful of awesome sequels coming our way in the next few years.

With that in mind, I wanted to share a few of the ideas I've been stewing over on how the Black Box team can improve their new baby:

Gameplay

As fun as the control scheme is, you're pretty much out of luck if you're looking to do anything besides grind and fliptrick with any real level of precision. Skating half-pipes and bowls is pretty awkward. It feels like you're either struggling to gain enough speed, or flying out of the bowl and onto the platform because you've got too much speed. Actually staying in and keeping a good flow is really hard. The same goes for lip tricks. These seem to happen almost entirely at random, but they never fail to look totally awesome. It would be nice to be able to pull these off consistently.

Of course, that would take some serious work on the physics and control scheme. One simple improvement to the game would be the ability to get off your board. One of the game's greatest strengths is this massive world you're put in, a place that's both fun to skate and entirely believable as a real-world city. You can't go ten seconds without noticing some neat little ledge or stairway you want to hit up, but so often you're forced to skate your way around a building in order to get where you're aiming to go. It would be so much easier to just hop off the board and stroll to the top of a stairway. I really can't see this feature not making it to the first sequel, but it would come in so handy that it bears mentioning.

Presentation

And then there's my biggest complaint with the game: the hit-or-miss bail animations. They look fantastic when you're flinging yourself off the X-Games mega ramp and make the mistake of landing sideways. Your body skids along the wooden ramp with arms flailing every which way, after which the camera pans above your face to reveal a pained grimace. That? That's poetry. But the ragdoll bail physics look terrible when you wreck on a small rail or curb and your body goes totally limp without making anything resembling an effort to brace yourself for impact. Giving the player the impression that your character isn't a depressed nihilist who's ready to give up on life as soon as the smallest thing goes wrong would go a long way to add to the game's already stunning sense of realism.

Saved film editing system

For as many cool effects you can do with your replays, the one thing I've been thirsting for is a decided step backward in video technology: a camera, that you place somewhere, and just films. In other words, static positioning. Grinding huge handrails would be so much more dramatic if you could place a static camera at the bottom of the stair set and watch as your character pops into view, hits the rail, and sails out of sight.

Beyond that, there's the obvious next step forward in being able to splice lots of different clips together into one large video, preferrably accompanied by a song from the game's soundtrack, or -- better yet! -- a song you've placed on the 360's hard drive. Or, you know, the PS3 hard drive. Because people own those. Really!

But then again, any replay system that allows me to record footage of my character being brutally attacked by an elderly woman in self-defense mode can't be all bad.

First Week

Have we met yet? Hi, my name's Shaun McInnis. I'm the new guy around these parts. As far as job titles go, you can call me the Community Coordinator, but I much prefer to go by... Community Coordinator. Okay, so I've yet to think of a catchy alternate title for my new job. Can you blame me? It's only been a week.

But what a week it's been! I'll admit there were some nerves on the first day. Despite coming over from another pretty well-known gaming site, I was completely awe-struck by the size of the GameSpot offices. It felt a bit like that first day of high school when you show up to a huge new place and don't know a single person. But everyone I've met this week has been incredibly kind and welcoming, and more than willing to answer any and all questions I've had. The exception to that being the office's afternoon Mario Kart break where anything remotely resembling mercy is thrown out the window in favor of trash-talking and generous amounts of post-victory gloating. But really -- is Mario Kart meant to be played any other way?

I'm really excited to see what the upcoming weeks and months will offer. Most of my time this week has been spent familiarizing myself with the site's community aspects like the forums, blogs and chats, but soon we're going to be entering tournament season. The Community team's job is to make sure these events offer as much excitement as physically possible, while still making sure everything flows as smoothly as can be. I'm ready to jump in and do just that.

Well, I should probably get going. In the next few days I'll be sure to offer up a few thoughts on the game I've been playing the most lately, Skate. And after that? Who knows! Tournament reports, office banter, casserole recipes... we'll find out soon enough. Thanks for reading!