GameSpotting: Gaiden

Welcome to another edition of GameSpotting, where we all play by our own rules because we're loose cannons who are dangers to ourselves and to those around us--because that's how the GameSpot editors like it.

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Welcome to another edition of GameSpotting, where we all play by our own rules because we're loose cannons who are dangers to ourselves and to those around us--because that's how the GameSpot editors like it. GameSpotting was out of commission last week, thanks to a particularly evil Dual Shock 2-transmitted virus, but now we're back and at 120 percent health, ready to unleash some hellfire on a wide variety of game-related topics. So go ahead and leap into the fray wherever you like. Hop on over to our forums to get your trash-talking fix, or skip to our GuestSpotting FAQ for details on submitting your own GameSpotting column.

Games? Look in the Back, Behind the Dark Curtain
Bob Colayco/Associate Editor
"Imagine what the consequences might be for the industry if Grand Theft Auto 5 and Quake 4 had to compete for shelf space with Penthouse and Hustler."

More Than a Pretty Face
Brad Shoemaker/Associate Editor
"If, by some cruel twist of fate, Final Fantasy XII is horrible, I guarantee it won't be because the main character looks more Jude Law than John Wayne."

For Every PC Game You Buy, You Get a Free Game of Russian Roulette
Greg Kasavin/Executive Editor
"Recently, I realized that the following statement is not my imagination: PC gaming is in a real slump."

Artistic License
Ryan Davis/Associate Producer
"Thematic consistency is of the utmost importance, and it's why the EA Sports Trax program is destined to fail--'cus you can't make a good soundtrack out of singles."

A Price Too High? Or (Are you people high?!)
Ricardo Torres/Senior Associate Editor
"Paying extra for a game you already paid full price for could cross the line into madness."

The PGR2 Joke Book
Justin Calvert/Associate Editor
"I enjoy laughing along with all of you crazy Xbox Live racers just as much as the next guy. I'd just like to hear some new material from time to time."

I've Got a New Drug
Jason Ocampo/Associate Editor
"You can buy thousands of dollars of it, and the feds aren't going to bust down your door. But the more you spend, the worse the addiction gets. You may have heard of it. It's called hardware."

The Frugal Gamer
Talon "Frugal Gamer" Saurn/GuestSpotter
"Last year's top-shelf games are still there, and if you missed them, they're great games for dirt cheap."

Don't Hate the Player
IcebergVegeta79/GuestSpotter
Gamin' ain't easy. You're out there on the streets, just trying to get by one frag at a time, and there's always some senator or parent group throwin' salt in your game. Hit our GuestSpotting FAQ and submit your own column on this gaming lifestyle.

Games? Look in the Back, Behind the Dark Curtain

Two weeks ago, California State Assemblyman Leland Yee held a press conference in San Francisco to announce that he would introduce new legislation aimed at curbing the distribution of violent games to minors. Sounds like a noble goal, doesn't it? Any reasonable person could agree that underage children shouldn't be allowed to get their hands on M-rated games without the consent of a parent or guardian. However, it's worthwhile to dig a little deeper into these matters to find out exactly how Assemblyman Yee intends to achieve his ends.

A visit to the California State Assembly Web site to search for the raw text of the bills yielded nothing. It's possible that the bills have not yet been formally introduced to the legislature, so they're not available for public scrutiny just yet. Since Assemblyman Yee is perfectly happy to grandstand on the issue, we'll have to rely on the content of his own press release, as well as coverage from various news sources like the Sacramento Bee and our own GameSpot news desk.

Will games compete for shelf space in the back, with Playboy?
Will games compete for shelf space in the back, with Playboy?

The proposed legislation consists of two separate bills, one of which involves the display of M-rated video games. If passed into law, the bill would require retailers to stock M-rated games on shelves separate from other games and at least five feet off of the ground. The latter requirement is meant to keep such games out of the sight-lines of small children. It's an interesting stipulation. Does anyone think that the murderers at Columbine or the Tennessee highway snipers were under five feet in height? At their ages? Not real likely. So now we're giving violent games their own shelf, high off of the ground. I guess after the next tragedy occurs, the next logical step would be to force retailers to create a special violent games area in the back of the store, sealed off with a dark curtain and monitored by a surveillance camera. Imagine what the consequences might be for the industry if Grand Theft Auto 5 and Quake 4 had to compete for shelf space with Penthouse and Hustler.

Ok, now I'm really starting to get ridiculous by equating video games with pornography. That's not the point of Assemblyman Yee's legislation, is it? Well, actually, if you examine the details of the second bill a little more closely, you'd see that I'm not too far off the mark. The second bill would expand the definitions of section 313 of the California penal code to criminalize the sale of violent video games to minors that "depict serious injury to human beings in a manner that is especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel" with particular emphasis placed on first-person shooter games. What exactly is section 313? A quick read of the California penal code shows that the law was written to prevent distribution of pornography as harmful matter to minors.

'Harmful matter' means matter, taken as a whole, which to the average person, applying contemporary statewide standards, appeals to the prurient interest, and is matter which, taken as a whole, depicts or describes in a patently offensive way sexual conduct...

Yee's bill would expand the definition of "harmful matter" to include those video games depicting "heinous, atrocious, or cruel" violence. The obvious question raised is: Why is it appropriate to expand the enforcement of a pornography law to include video games? If we were talking about hentai, then the relation makes sense, but, clearly, Yee's aim is to regulate violent games, not sexual games. Who cares where the bill is placed, you say? Let's consider the potential penalties and compare similar laws aimed at curbing juvenile delinquency.

CrimePenaltySource
Providing "harmful matter" to a minorUp to a $2,000 fine and one year in county jail.Section 313.4, California Penal Code
Furnishing alcohol to a minorMinimum $1,000 fine and 24 hours community serviceCalifornia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control
Selling tobacco to a minor$200 fine first offense, $500 and $1,000 fines for second and third offensesCoalition for Responsible Tobacco Retailing

Is it appropriate that the potential penalty for selling certain video games to an underage customer is stiffer than selling that same child a beer or a pack of cigarettes? The potential and immediate danger to the public and the well-being of the child is clear-cut in the case of alcohol and tobacco. The connection between violent video games and violent behavior is not as clear.

When it comes to lawmaking, sometimes less is more.
When it comes to lawmaking, sometimes less is more.

Is it prudent that the state of California should add yet another law to the books that could add even more inmates to the state's prison population of 160,000? Obviously, it's tough to see a judge actually mandating prison time for a clerk who sold his 16-year-old buddy a copy of Grand Theft Auto. But even the principle and potential of it seems particularly "heinous and atrocious" at a time when the state is grappling with a budget crisis, and yearly spending on California prisons exceeds $5 billion.

There are other things that seem wrong about this bill. One is that the emphasis placed on first-person shooters would suggest the exclusion of very graphic games, like Max Payne 2, that use a third-person perspective. Ironically enough, the most often demonized game, Grand Theft Auto, would be excluded because of its third-person perspective. In fact, it's the only game that Yee uses as an example in his own press release. So selling Soldier of Fortune 2 to a kid is a no-no, but the brutal murders depicted in Manhunt are exempt because the game is third-person? Assemblyman Yee might benefit from advisers who are more knowledgeable about the subject matter he's so eager to legislate against.

Then there's the matter of the bill's constitutionality. I'm not a lawyer, but any student who stayed awake in high school civics should have learned that the due process clause of the 14th Amendment invalidates any law that is overly vague in language. The descriptors "heinous, atrocious, and cruel" seem pretty vague from a legal standpoint. What exactly constitutes "heinous, atrocious, or cruel" violence? Strangling someone with piano wire in Hitman 2? That seems pretty clear-cut. But what about a simple gunshot to the chest? Or slamming someone over the head with a chair? We see that type of violence every night on network television. And is every retail clerk required to know the exact type of violence that occurs in each game, as well as make a judgment call about what is or isn't "heinous, atrocious, or cruel"?

While Assemblyman Yee is obviously well-intentioned, the saying goes that "the path to you-know-where is paved with good intentions." I would hope that other legislators in the state will examine the issue with the proper perspective and decide wisely as to whether or not it is prudent to criminalize something so trivial at a time when the state is paralyzed with a serious budget shortfall. The money spent enforcing these laws would be better spent educating parents and retailers about the informative ESRB ratings system that is already in place.

Brad Shoemaker
Associate Editor
Now Playing: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, Advance Wars (yeah, the first one), Knights of the Old Republic

Can't Wait to Play: All the games I missed during the last two months' review flood

More Than a Pretty Face

There's a special version of Christmas that comes to us rank-and-file fanboys roughly every couple of years, courtesy of our friends at Square. This unique holiday brings us lovely art, strange new worlds, a raft of crazy-looking characters, and weird gameplay ideas to speculate on. The hallowed day isn't confined to December; in fact, it's happened at many times of the year. Yes, I'm geeky enough to be talking about the unveiling of a new Final Fantasy game--an event that I and countless other nerds get excited about in our adulthood the way we used to get excited about Christmas when we were still wearing footy jammies and drinking from sippy cups. There's just something about getting a load of the first character designs, environments, and story tidbits for the next Final Fantasy that makes people like me get all misty in the eye.

I don't see the problem here. Vaan's got the same girly, rakish good looks as every Final Fantasy protagonist since 1997.
I don't see the problem here. Vaan's got the same girly, rakish good looks as every Final Fantasy protagonist since 1997.

Recently, after months of jerking us around with delayed release dates and a total lack of info, Square finally threw us a bone with the official unveiling of Final Fantasy XII, the oft-reported but never-seen new project whose principals include director Yasumi Matsuno and character designer Akihiko Yoshida. The two worked together on low-profile but venerable Square games like Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story, both of which went in some pretty new artistic and mechanical directions for the company. As a result of this, we knew straight away that the next Final Fantasy wasn't gonna be cut from the same cloth as past ones. Anyway, when the first wave of info hit, we were all initially stunned by the revelation that FFXII will take place in FFT's world of Ivalice. But as surprised as I was by this detail, I was even more shocked by some of the downright venomous criticism launched by forum denizens at the rather effeminate design of the game's lead character, Vaan.

Okay, I'll admit it--the dude looks a little girly. But then, don't all Final Fantasy leading men these days have that same look of breezy, rakish confidence about them? From the windswept bangs of Squall Leonhart to the spindly little arms of Cloud Strife, these guys don't exactly scream masculinity. Frankly, if you've enjoyed or even tolerated Final Fantasy character designs for the last few years, there's nothing egregiously offensive about Vaan that you haven't already seen before. And for those of you who are saying that FFXII has lazily resorted to the same character archetypes as the last few games, I direct you to the subtle curves and realistic proportions of the game's female protagonist Ashe. After Final Fantasy X-2's busty sexplosion, Ashe looks like a real woman, and I, for one, am all for it.

That's one mean-looking chocobo prepped for war.
That's one mean-looking chocobo prepped for war.

Besides, it's not like the world and story of Final Fantasy XII have gone soft compared to previous games. Au contraire, friends. If anything, I think the plot--what with its bitterly warring nation states and brutal enforcers of the law--sounds decidedly targeted at older tastes. The guys making Final Fantasy XII even said that, unlike the last few games in the series, this one wouldn't have any strong love elements in its story (and I bet we won't get the attendant sappy pop song this time around, either). Granted, the best Final Fantasy storylines (VIII and X, in my opinion) have been love stories at their cores. Since Square's done just about everything it can do with the RPG love story and would just be rehashing past successes if they kept it up, I'm thankful for the thematic shift. Maybe in place of romance we'll see some devious political machinations and a large-scale, all-out war this time around. At the least, that vicious chocobo design sure seems to hint that the game ain't for kids.

So basically, what I'm getting at is this: If you've been whining on Internet forums about how Vaan is too girly and FFXII is gonna suck because of it, shut up. The bottom line is that we've barely seen a shred of what Matsuno and crew are going to do with the Final Fantasy formula, and until you've gotten some more hard facts or, God forbid, played the game, this nay-saying is just pointless. If the game comes out in a year and, by some cruel twist of fate, it's horrible, feel free to laugh at me. But if that happens, I guarantee it won't be because the main character looks more Jude Law than John Wayne.

For Every PC Game You Buy, You Get a Free Game of Russian Roulette

Recently, I realized that the following statement is not my imagination: PC gaming is in a real slump. There are enough people complaining about various things on the Internet to where I came very close to not making a subject out of this unfortunate fact, and for a long time, I couldn't think of a positive way to spin it. But I hope that the obvious observations are all out of the way now and that complaint won't come across as the goal of this article. Let me, instead, concentrate on citing some of the specific problems and solutions.

But first, here's a cover-your-a** clause: Though I've never been exclusively a PC game player, I've always been as interested in playing computer games as I've been in playing games for any other platform. None of this should be taken as me saying "Dude, the Xbox is so much better than the PC" or whatever. I simply want to see PC gaming go back to being a driving force in the gaming industry as a whole--and I think it can, and I think it will. Now, let's move on.

It's a good thing I have access to multiple computers. Otherwise I wouldn't have even been able to play the PC version of Knights of the Old Republic.
It's a good thing I have access to multiple computers. Otherwise I wouldn't have even been able to play the PC version of Knights of the Old Republic.

Problem #1: PC games these days are buggier than they used to be. Compare and contrast, if you please:

Billy, age 16, circa 1998: "I'm pretty sure these Protoss Dragoons aren't quite as strong as they really should be. Nevertheless, Starcraft is the best real-time strategy game ever made."

Billy, age 21, circa 2003: "Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic doesn't run on my new system."

Admittedly, buggy games are nothing new in the world of PC gaming. Some disastrously buggy games emerge every single year, and quite a few of what we consider to be some of the greatest PC games of all time--like Planescape: Torment, Grim Fandango, Myth: The Fallen Lords, EverQuest, and many others--only reached their full potentials after a patch or two. The problem is, the situation with buggy PC game releases seems to be getting worse rather than better. Some of this year's most promising games disappointed many people, exclusively because of their bugs. Take Vietcong, Hidden & Dangerous 2, and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic as a few examples. Meanwhile, some persistent-world games, such as Star Wars Galaxies and PlanetSide, continue getting patched, but exactly to what end? These games should have been better out of the box. The ability to patch PC games should not serve as a get-out-of-jail-free card. If a game is buggy out of the box, it will get bad word-of-mouth and ultimately won't be as successful--regardless of how good it eventually becomes--after a slew of post-release patches. PC game publishers need to get more serious about the testing process. Either that or PC gaming needs some centralized quality control system, much like what can be found on consoles.

It literally took an hour and a half between the time I opened the box for Final Fantasy XI and the time I actually started playing--what with the installation, the patching, and the registration. They do want people to play this game, right?
It literally took an hour and a half between the time I opened the box for Final Fantasy XI and the time I actually started playing--what with the installation, the patching, and the registration. They do want people to play this game, right?

Problem #2: The CD-ROM needs to go the way of the floppy disk. Compare and contrast:

Brian, age 19, circa 1998: "Here, install this copy of Half-Life so that we can play multiplayer."

Brian, age 24, circa 2003: "The stupid install process got corrupted halfway through disc four."

Look at the minimum system requirements for the average PC game these days. 128 megs of RAM, a 64 meg graphics card, a gig and a half of hard disk space--and a 4x CD-ROM drive? What? Is there anyone on Earth who has a system capable of running today's modern games but does not have a DVD-ROM drive? To date, I can think of exactly two DVD-ROM-based PC games: Schizm and Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance. Meanwhile, most games are shipping on two, three, or even four CD-ROMs, each of which multiplies the chances of a disc getting lost, scratched, broken, or what have you, and each of which multiplies the time it takes to install the game in the first place. Here's what I think is a good rule of thumb: If someone is unable to start playing a game within five minutes--OK, let's say seven minutes--of opening the box, then something's wrong.

The PC has suddenly become the home base for console game ports, but frankly, the PC is capable of a lot more than that. We expect more from it than that.
The PC has suddenly become the home base for console game ports, but frankly, the PC is capable of a lot more than that. We expect more from it than that.

Problem #3: The PC is not a hand-me-down store. Compare and contrast:

Will, age 25, circa 1998: "Thief: The Dark Project is probably the coolest game I've ever played, and I own every console."

Will, age 30, circa 2003: "I really have no idea why I bought the PC version of Vice City."

While it's nice that many great PC games are getting ported to consoles, and many great console games are getting ported to the PC, many cross-platform ports--especially where the PC is involved--are lazy. Go to your local game store, and look at the PC game section (which, these days, is probably tucked into the back corner of the store). You'll see that many of the games are actually console ports that were released weeks or months after the original versions, and they probably don't have acceptable control schemes, multiplayer features of any kind, or any of the stuff you'd hope for from a truly first-rate PC game. Rule of thumb: If you release a game much later on another platform, the expectations for that version will be higher.

Designing PC games shouldn't be a losing proposition. As it stands, though, a PC game inherently has a few strikes against it relative to the plug-and-play ease of a console game. It's a very real possibility that the average, new PC game won't run adequately on your system--at least not without some troubleshooting. I'd also say it usually takes 10 to 15 minutes to get started playing the average, new PC game, from the moment you first open the box. For that matter, the box is made out of cheap cardboard, so you can't really store it with your other DVDs. That's because the box contains a bunch of CD-ROMs in loose sleeves, rather than one tightly sealed, dual-layered DVD.

There are plenty of other things that one could complain about, like the fact that most PC games these days have inadequate documentation, since the days of big printed manuals are long gone. Funny how the smaller PC game-box size made the perfect excuse for smaller manuals, yet it hasn't paved the way for a transition to the DVD-ROM format. And, of course, many of this year's most highly anticipated PC games have been delayed until who-knows-when. Meanwhile, many of those that did ship when they were supposed to seemed like they could have used more testing.

The modern PC is by far the most powerful gaming platform available. It's clearly capable of some of the best games possible, but in exchange for that power, PC game designers do need to go the extra mile to ensure that their games can run properly on the huge variety of systems out there. File that one under "easier said than done." But I do believe that all of PC gaming's problems these days can be corrected, and the entire industry would benefit as a result. Good business cannot be rushed.

Artistic License

Growing up in the 'burbs in the mid-90s, I was, as many kids still are today, a little wanna-be punk rocker. Music was a very significant facet of my life--and still is today. It's actually a rare occasion when I don't have some song stuck in my head. (For the record, it's The Faint's "Cars Pass in Cold Blood" right now.) Anyway, video game music had long been something that I could appreciate in the context of the game, but I could never bring myself to get all weird and import Final Fantasy soundtracks or whatever. I honestly never found any of the game music to be as appealing as whatever I had in my Walkman. I think this sort of speaks to the generally niche appeal that video games were enjoying up until pretty recently. Let's be frank: It was music for kids and nerds. Or, in a demographic coup, nerdy kids.

Wipeout XL irreparably changed the way music in video games is perceived.
Wipeout XL irreparably changed the way music in video games is perceived.

And then Wipeout XL came along and totally flipped the script, changing how people perceived music in video games. Random, licensed techno tracks had previously popped up in games like N2O: Nitrous Oxide, Gekido, and Rapid Racer, but XL featured a soundtrack that was nothing but excellent licensed music from the then-hippest electronic acts. The quality of the tunes and the way they fit in with the character of the rest of the game were important factors in why the soundtrack in Wipeout XL worked. Personally, I think that the secret ingredient there was that it was assembled by someone with an opinion--someone with a specific taste--who was able to turn that into an integral part of the game's aesthetic.

Since being awed by Wipeout XL, I've been a big proponent of licensed music in games, but lately my faith in using pop music to elevate a game's attitude has been rattled. Across the board, music licensing has become horribly lazy. Just look at the EA Sports Trax junk for an idea of exactly what publisher's shouldn't be doing with their development monies. This program seems designed to get EA bulk prices on pop music from the record labels, which they can then just toss on a game's soundtrack all willy-nilly. Take Madden 2004, one of the more egregious examples, which hops from the goth-punk stylings of AFI to Jet's retro indie sound and then to OutKast's funky, heady brand of hip-hop. The songs work on their own, so why don't they work in concert? Maybe because they were picked for financial or marketing reasons over their relevance to the game, but either way, the underlying problem is that there isn't a unified theme. Whether you produce your own music or use existing music for your soundtrack, thematic consistency is of the utmost importance, and it's why the EA Sports Trax program is destined to fail--'cus you can't make a good soundtrack out of singles.

Nick Kang may be a snotty jerk, but he's got great taste in music.
Nick Kang may be a snotty jerk, but he's got great taste in music.

So what can game publishers do to fix this trend? Well, short of giving the sound coordinators a bigger budget and total carte blanche as to what goes on a soundtrack, they can take notes from other games that have done licensed music right. One of this year's best examples of a well-made licensed soundtrack was for True Crime: Streets of LA. The game kinda sucked, but the music consisted almost entirely of hardcore West Coast hip-hop and rap and really made you feel like you were listening to LA radio. Activision also took the risk of including all of these songs uncensored, thus adding some extra authenticity and grit to the game.

Granted, Activision spent oodles and oodles of cash on the True Crime soundtrack, which is not a luxury that a lot of developers have. SSX 3 created a really superb soundtrack using lesser-known acts by trading in high-priced singles for songs that would complement each other and complement the game. The SSX 3 soundtrack admittedly suffered a little bit from the EA Sports Trax randomness, but it was still able to achieve a certain level of thematic consistency. But what really made the SSX 3 soundtrack work wasn't so much the music, but the way the music would react to the game. The vocals would cut out when you weren't performing very well, and when you caught air, the song would drop down to a bare percussion track, only to kick back in the split second you hit the snow again. This is the kind of stuff that rhythm games have been doing for years. And games with original soundtracks have used dynamic soundtracks to give extra weight to the action, but SSX 3 proves that this idea can work with licensed music outside music-based games, and it's executed amazingly well.

There isn't anything inherently bad about using licensed music in a video game, but as Rob Gordon says in High Fidelity, "Now, the making of a good compilation tape is a very subtle art. Many do's and don'ts. First of all, you're using someone else's poetry to express how you feel. This is a delicate thing." Instead of thinking about a licensed soundtrack as a "Now That's What I Call Music" Top 40 compilation, they need to be approached like a mix tape. The more thought developers put into why they choose specific songs for their games, the better their games will sound.

A Price Too High? Or (Are you people high?!)

"Paying extra for a game you already paid full price for could cross the line into madness."

Nothing like some extra content to freshen up an older game.
Nothing like some extra content to freshen up an older game.

So the recent announcement of the availability of "premium content" for MechAssault was an interesting development. The first thing that came to my mind was a simple question really: "Are you people high?!" Don't get me wrong. I'm not moaning about paying $5 for some content to freshen up an older game. That's actually kind of a cool idea. I'm more worried about how this is going to work down the road. To charge five bucks for a few extras to add to a game that retails for $19.99 isn't that big of a deal. Now, if we start talking about doing that with a game that's just hit store shelves and is selling for full price--well, that could be a different and somewhat unpleasant story. Every generation of consoles has required a bigger financial commitment, in the form of accessories and game peripherals, but paying extra for a game you already paid full price for could cross the line into madness.

I understand that there are going to be some growing pains as MS and Sony (once Sony finally gets into the downloadable content "swing of things") try to find the best ways to charge for games that will feature downloadable content. So, to help in these trying times, let me offer this helpful tip: Have a separate price point for those games or brace for hate. Asking anyone to throw down more money after spending $50 on a game is crazy. There are only a handful of games that carry the cache to get people to fork out more cash after they've paid full price, but not every game is going to be a Halo 2 or KOTOR. So try to lessen the sting by charging 10 or 15 bucks less for games that will be offering premium downloadable content. And, for the love of God, make sure everyone's on the same page. Hopefully, MS will officially announce or pass out some guidelines behind-the-scenes so that we don't have to endure any Lord of the Flies-style madness, as every publisher does something different with their pricing schemes. I'd say five bucks is about as high as anyone should go without adjusting a game's retail price even more. I have to admit, given how smoothly things have gone thus far in the world of Xbox Live--relatively speaking anyway--it's surprising that this whole premium content deal wasn't rolled out more formally.

I sure hope MS talks to third parties to make sure no one loses their minds when it comes to charging for content.
I sure hope MS talks to third parties to make sure no one loses their minds when it comes to charging for content.

I'll be curious to see how this all pans out in the end. I think the idea of providing content to complement a title is a good one, in theory. The delivery is where it gets sketchy. I know that, in the end, the business is all about making money to keep things going, but I hope value to consumers isn't lost along the way. All I'm hoping for is meaty content--that can justify the charges--and a lower price for games that have this content. Think that's too much to ask?

The PGR2 Joke Book

Since my copy of Project Gotham Racing 2 arrived in the mail a couple of weeks ago, I must admit that I've been playing very little else. I'm not sure if I'd be as addicted if it weren't for its superb Xbox Live functionality, but while I really enjoy both racing against and comparing my challenge times with those of other players, I've found that most PGR2 players seem to be far less talkative than those I've encountered in other Live games. I guess it's because the racing in the game requires a lot of concentration, but what I find more tricky to explain is the fact that almost every time a player opens his or her mouth to do something other than to moan at someone for crashing into them, it's to share a one-liner from what I assume is a PGR2 joke book that wasn't included with my promotional copy of the game. These jokes aren't necessarily bad, when told in the context of a race you understand, but I'd suggest that any newbies exercise caution before using them to break the ice with players who have a Live Kudos rank of more than two, as they'll almost certainly have heard and groaned at these jokes before.

Anyone for the Nürburgring? Chuckle...
Anyone for the Nürburgring? Chuckle...

Two of the most common gags, which I've heard more times than I care to remember, are used exclusively during MINI Cooper races. Players from the United Kingdom, myself included (until I realized that everyone was at it), are especially productive when it comes to making references to The Italian Job and doing poor impersonations of Michael Caine. Players who are eager to demonstrate what they consider a good knowledge of PGR2's unlockable content, on the other hand, find it to hard to get behind the steering wheel of a MINI Cooper (or any of the less powerful cars in the game, for that matter) without suggesting that they use the 13.5-mile long Nürburgring for the next race--which, in case you haven't figured it out yet, would take a long time. That's the joke.

PGR2 players can be crazy, too!
PGR2 players can be crazy, too!

Much of the remaining mirth during online races, at least in my experience, comes at the expense of whichever player is in last place or has inflicted the most damage to his or her car. "How's the weather back there?"; "Is it dark where you are?"; and "What time is it at the back?" are all popular variations on the last-place theme, while pinball machine references are often thrown at players with cars that bear little resemblance to the ones they chose at the start of the race. Here in the UK, we also have a TV advertisement for the Peugeot 206 that crops up from time to time in gags that are directed at players with damaged cars. You can check it out for yourself here. It basically shows a guy who's attempting to turn his old car into a Peugeot 206 by using walls, hammers, and an elephant to remodel its bodywork. The advert is actually rather good; the jokes invariably aren't.

The future of Project Gotham Racing 2--I hope.
The future of Project Gotham Racing 2--I hope.

Please don't think that I'm suggesting that players who tell these jokes during races should be shunned or mocked in any way. I enjoy laughing along with all of you crazy Xbox Live racers just as much as the next guy. I'd just like to hear some new material from time to time. People who do deserve to be, and generally are, shunned--on the other hand--are those who come into a lobby and ask those of us who have spent hours unlocking the bonus cars if we have a cheat they could enter to gain access to all of them without having to play through Bizarre Creations' varied and enjoyable single-player challenge mode. Worse still are the racers who turn up in a TVR Cerbera Speed 12 (the last unlockable car in the game) that they clearly can't drive and which they clearly haven't earned in the way that the developers intended. I even heard one guy come into a lobby and announce proudly that he'd bought a GameShark the same day as his copy of Project Gotham Racing 2 so that he could unlock everything by cheating before even attempting to do things properly. He got booted by our honorable host (who subsequently made it onto my friends list) moments later and was never heard from again.

Project Gotham Racing 2 seems to be one of the more popular Xbox Live games right now, and I, for one, am hoping that it continues to be the game of choice for the majority of the people on my friends list. The only reason I can think of to stop playing, as of right now, will be when I have all of the game's cars parked in my garage (which seems like it isn't too far off, although some of the platinum medals actually still are). Since the car showroom in the game has plenty of room for new downloadable arrivals, I don't think I'll be giving the game up anytime soon. Which cars will be added to the game in the future is anybody's guess right now, although I suspect that Gran Turismo Concept-style deals will mean that manufacturers' latest models and the occasional concept car are favorites. What I'd like to race in, though, are vehicles that I've dreamt of driving since I saw them on TV as a kid. That means The A-Team's van, Starsky & Hutch's striped tomato, anything that's ever been driven by James Bond, The Dukes of Hazzard's General Lee, and, of course, Knight Rider's K.I.T.T. I know that I can already drive most of these in a game of some description, but since most of the games they've appeared in have failed to live up to my expectations, I see no reason why they shouldn't appear on my wish list again. My fingers are crossed.

I've Got a New Drug

They say the first step to recovery is to admit that you have a problem. So here goes: I'm an addict. In terms of drugs, it's incredibly expensive, and it's perfectly legal. You can buy thousands of dollars of it, and the feds aren't going to bust down your door. But the more you spend, the worse the addiction gets. You may have heard of it. It's called hardware.

One of the bane's of being a PC gamer is the fact that you can easily spend thousands on your machine--and then find yourself wanting to spend even more a few weeks later. I recently traded in my banged-up, five-year-old beige tower for a sleek, aluminum small-form factor case that's easily less than half its size. And to satisfy that speed tooth, I also threw in a much faster processor. To save money, I recycled most of my existing components, including my video card.

Now, about a month later, I've got an itch to upgrade these components as well.

It's not as if my current system is a slouch; it's probably faster than 95 percent of the PCs out there. I get pretty good scores running all the benchmarking programs, but the fact that I can't run certain tests because I don't have a DX9-compliant video card rubs me raw. Never mind that there aren't any games that require a DX9 card; the sheer fact that I can't run these tests annoys me for some irrational reason. It's like my machine isn't cutting-edge anymore.

Then there's this crazed desire to upgrade to a gigabyte of RAM--even though I've got a hefty 512MB already--just because I don't like how much virtual memory disk-thrashing goes on after I quit a game. I used to have a gig of RAM on my old machine, and the only time it really made a difference was when I was working on some gigantic Photoshop file. But once again, there's this crazed voice in my head just daring me to buy more memory.

Lately, I've gotten the urge to make my machine as quiet as possible, which means paying extra for fancy silent cooling solutions, silent hard drives, and passively-cooled video cards. All because I've got this almost manic obsession with the noise of my machine. In fact, it's like self-inflicted Chinese water torture.

It's so strange how you justify these expenses. I use my PC as my digital VCR, so like most TiVo owners, my hard drive is full of recorded TV shows that I haven't bothered watching yet. But hey, I need that bigger hard drive so that I can keep all of those episodes of 24 and The West Wing that I'll get around to watching one day!

They don't make it easy on you, either. Walk down the aisles of your local mega-electronic store and you're bombarded with shelves of the latest hardware: DVD burners, serial ATA hard drives, $500 video cards, surround sound speaker systems. It's just so darn tempting.

Maybe it's because the PC has become the hot rod for this generation. While our fathers and grandfathers spent their idle hours working on their cars, we work on our PCs. And you never feel like you've got the fastest rig, because someone somewhere has one faster, and you know all about it thanks to the Internet. Just go to the GameSpot Hardware forum. It's full of guys doing nothing but talking about upgrades and their machines. There's even a whole culture that revolves around case modifications, though I've never really understood the need to put a window in your PC. It's not as if there's anything to actually see, as the only moving parts are the cooling fans. Other than that, it's just circuit boards and cables.

So what's the solution? Short of going completely cold turkey, the only way to deal with it is through incremental upgrades. Instead of buying a new system every few years, buy a system that's easy to upgrade. Save up a little dough so that in a few months, you can upgrade the hard drive. Then a few months later, the memory, followed a few months later by the video card. Keep doing this, and over the course of a year or so, you'll find that you've got an entirely different machine than what you started with. And it'll help satisfy those constant upgrade pangs.

Also, come to grips with the fact that it's not bad settling for second best. The price difference between the fastest CPU and the second fastest is often in the hundreds of dollars. And you don't really need to buy a $500 video card when a $200 one will run all the latest games fast enough for you. Plus, by the time games come out that will challenge that $500 card, you can just buy the latest $200 budget video card and get all the latest hardware features. Most importantly, you've got to keep your ego in check. There's no use trying to build the fastest PC, because it'll get passed by an even faster PC in just a few weeks. Just be happy you've got a solid machine that does everything you need it to do.

You can do all that, or I could just ditch the PC altogether and get a console. But if you're a PC gamer, like me, that's an even worse choice than going cold turkey.

The Frugal Gamer

Ahh, it's that time of year again. Time for us to salivate over the masses of new games that are being released around the holidays, and time to figure out which select few of these games you'll end up spending your hard-earned gaming dollars on. You can find a dozen different reviews for most games with ease, which helps you to figure out which cheap games are bargains and which cheap games are clunkers. I'm going to talk about being frugal--or making your gaming dollars go as far as they can, or getting the most bang for your buck, or pinching pennies--and all that. You get my drift. With most current games going for $40 to $50 and the online price-watching search sites giving you little relief, what's a person with a tight budget to do? Here are some rules that I've found vital in stretching a gaming budget.

Ratchet & Clank, one of the best games of last year, is less than $20 today.
Ratchet & Clank, one of the best games of last year, is less than $20 today.

New Releases
Within the first month of a game's release, you will probably have to cough up the full price, so the best discount you can hope for is free shipping. If you have a membership with certain retailers, you can score a modest discount, but that's about it.

Good as New?
The word "preowned" might sends shivers down many readers' spines. "Buying a preowned game. A used game. A filthy, manhandled game. What is he talking about? Unclean! Unclean!" But if you aim to get the most bang for your buck, going the preowned route is one of the most important aspects of frugal game hunting, and it's one that few people really fully utilize. Let's get the preowned cons out of the way. You might not receive a case and instruction booklet with your game. You might have to return a game that's defective, though this is rare. Fortunately, most places that sell preowned games offer you a guarantee on the condition of the game. With the advent of the Internet and massive hint and FAQ repositories, like GameFAQs, instruction booklets are really no longer that vital. The only real negative is that it will be harder to trade back the game later if you don't end up with instructions and the game box. So what are the pros? You generally get a 10 percent discount right off the top. That's five bucks on a $50 game. It's not too cool, but that's not the end of it. Check out online retailers like Gamestop and EBGames, both of whom regularly offer additional discounts on preowned games. That can knock 15-25 percent off of the price of your preowned game. Now that $50 game is costing your roughly $35.

Retro's masterful first-person action adventure can be yours for about $20--preowned and with proper coupon use.
Retro's masterful first-person action adventure can be yours for about $20--preowned and with proper coupon use.

A Taxing Concern
Now here is something that's really rough to change, but it should be a factor when you shop. Taxes are a big deal and can quickly bloat the price of your game purchase. It's actually one of the bigger reasons I never buy games in actual retail shops anymore. Sales tax is normally between five and 10 percent, but at the moment, it doesn't get charged on out-of-state purchases. It's one of those things you have little control of, and it might limit your online retailer options. For example, Amazon is no longer able to duck the sales tax on games, as everything comes from Toys "R" Us --and they're everywhere.

Ye Old Charmers, Still Shiny
Games of the past--not those greatly loved cart-based classics from your childhood, but the hottest games from last year--that got all 9-plus ratings the last time the snows came, can be found. Last year's top-shelf games are still there, and if you missed them, they're great games for dirt cheap. Many are in the $20 range after a year's time, and, in concert with the cost-cutting tactics I mentioned before, you can get what was a first-rate game for a bargain bin price. Games like Metroid Prime, the first Ratchet & Clank, and even Grand Theft Auto III are all attractively priced now, and they're still as enjoyable as ever. Gaming graphics don't change that radically within a single console cycle, and old classics that stand the test of time are worth a look. Do a search for games with an 8-plus score on your favorite gaming site, and you're likely to find some gems in there.

Some calculations for comparison-shopping:
50 * .9 *.8 = 32.8 (average price of a preowned game through EBgames)
50 * 1.08 = 54 (cost of same game retail with 8 percent sales tax)

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