Monday, 30 May 2016

The Vampire Magician

I've really been enjoying the latest Hitman game, and wanted to share this hilarious video about it, but unless I supply a little context, it won't make sense to those unfamiliar with the game.

The game involves piloting your square-jawed, bald hitman, naturally enough, through assassination missions (the game story gives you good justification of what bad people your targets are, to make the setting somewhat less gruesome), but it is not an action shooter. Your targets are in highly guarded locations and simply pulling out a gun in the open is usually enough to fail a mission. Instead, the game boils down to stealth, creativity, and disguises.

You observe, you eavesdrop, and when the opportunity strikes to sneak up on a waiter or security guard without being seen, you can knock them out, and put on their outfit, granting you access to areas you previously couldn't enter without attracting suspicion. The environments are very interactive, and the best assassins will manage to off their target without ever alerting the guards, and in such a way that the death appears accidental. You then disappear into the night, with no one ever the wiser.

At least, that's how it's supposed to go. But for those looking for an extra challenge, the developers have added an unusual twist in the form of a disguise hidden in a hard-to-access attic.

The vampire magician.

Whereas most disguises lower your suspicion in different areas (dress like a cook to blend in the kitchen, where you might poison the food being prepared, or dress like a security guard to access the security monitors and turn off a camera), there is nowhere on earth you can go where being dressed like a "vampire magician" will not arouse suspicion! The video below shows some of the hilarious reactions that you can arouse when wearing this ridiculous outfit. (It also gives you an idea of how elaborate this game is; if there's this much dialogue for a costume most people will never find, you can imagine how vast this game is.)

If you're interested in a more in-depth look at what this game is like Giant Bomb's videos on it are very entertaining (explicit language warning).

Posted by jon at 7:00 PM in Gaming 
 

Thursday, 7 November 2013

The PS Vita, Two Months in


Two months have passed since I got a PS Vita, the handheld system from Sony that, despite an impressive technical specification, initially saw slow sales in the face of competition from smartphones and tablets.

Typically, when a hardware product flops, there's nothing to be done for it, except perhaps learn some lessons and address them in the next model, hoping it will be a big enough hit to make up for it. I was fascinated to see Sony embark on a different strategy: breathing new life into the Vita platform, and doing it successfully enough that the picture in 2014 really does look far better for the system than it did in 2012.



For background, the new energy comes primarily from a big price drop on the outgoing hardware version (which is actually the version to get, because of the OLED screen), coupled with a strategy that will couple the Vita more closely to the already successful Playstation brand: every game on the upcoming PS4 will be playable using the Vita as a controller, or as a second screen (so I'll be able to play my PS4 game even if my wife has requisitioned the TV to watch Castle), something that was only optional for games on the PS3, and not widely implemented. Even better, and already available to PS3 owners, are the "Cross-buy" and "Cross-play" initiatives, which let you buy a game once on the Playstation network and simultaneously get the Vita version (in the former case), or for an owner of both games to transfer their save from one to the other and progress simultaneously in both (for the latter).

So that's what's made the Vita exciting again. (It was already pretty exciting as pure hardware: dual analog sticks, an amazing OLED display, front and back touchscreens, and front and back cameras...) In this article, I want to address how, two months in, the gadget has found its place in my own digital lifestyle—which for context means as someone who already has an iPhone and an iPad, as well as a PS3 to play games on. Is it a case of "three's a crowd", adding a third portable touchscreen device into such a mix, or does the Vita really add something?


Vita vs. iOS: apps

While the Vita does share some abilities with the iPhone (camera, Facebook, Twitter, a web browser), the Vita implementation is usually far less satisfactory, so the iPhone is still unquestionably the device of choice for these uses. The lone exception is YouTube: if I'm watching YouTube videos on a portable device, the Vita is my preferred option over both the iPhone and the iPad, due to its beautiful display*, and its much lighter weight compared to the iPad.

(*Regarding the display, the Vita's is better for video, but Apple's retina displays are far better for text. This is because of the different display technologies, coupled with the fact that streaming video is already at a much lower resolution than the retina display to begin with. Honestly, though, as a videophile I'm just psyched to own a consumer OLED display, and be contributing indirectly to pushing this very cool technology forward.)

All in all, though, the app situation on the Vita is honestly pretty poor, with only a handful of apps available, most of which are less carefully maintained than their iOS counterparts.

That said, there is one very interesting, free Vita app that I would recommend to any new user, if only to sample for a day or two. It's called Wake Up Club, and as the name implies it is essentially a social alarm clock: you set the time you want to wake up, and the app puts you in a "club" with eight other people getting up at the same time.

When the time comes, the Vita starts ringing, and things appear on the screen that you must touch in the right order in order to 'prove' that you are really awake. Others in your club can 'encourage' the slow risers, and once everyone is awake you are presented with the individual ranking, the overall team score, and lots of confetti and happy Japanese music. It's worth checking out, on its originality alone.

Vita vs. iOS: Games


I play games on my iPhone and iPad. Mostly they are traditional games (97% of my iOS gaming can probably be distributed between Go/Weiqi/Baduk, Bridge, Chess, Backgammon, and Koi-Koi), though I have dabbled in more elaborate games, like Sword & Sworcery, Hunters, and Rolando 1 & 2.

The Vita is on a completely different planet. Like I said in the apps section, the Vita is better to watch movies on than iOS, and in the same vein, the games that are best on the Vita are of a more cinematic variety that simply doesn't exist on iOS.



It's a two-way street, though: the types of games that are enjoyable on the Vita (emersive cinematic games like Uncharted: Golden Abyss or Assassin's Creed III: Liberation) would be unthinkable on iOS, but I wouldn't really want to play bridge or weiqi on the Vita, either.

I suppose many people hesitate on the Vita, wondering if it has a large enough games library. Slow sales and a focus on digital distribution have combined to give the platform minimal shelf space in gaming stores—but there is no need to worry, especially if, like me, you were never a PSP owner.

First, regarding Vita-only games, the key is that most of them are downloadable. I've been playing Guacamelee!, Spelunky, and Divekick (all of which, incidentally, were cross-buys with the PS3 version) just as much as I've been playing Uncharted—something I didn't even expect, as I thought I would use the system primarily the way I used the DS: as a role-playing game system. I definitely recommend that the new Vita user get on to the Playstation Store and start downloading demos; there are a lot of options out there. (That said, if I can get a physical copy of a large game, I prefer to do so, since the memory cards on Vita are expensive.)

RPGs shine on hand-helds, and there are great options on the Vita. Persona 4 Golden is the flagship, and I haven't even got around to buying that yet! (Besides, Christmas is coming…) I'm also looking forward to the Final Fantasy X & X-2 HD Remaster and Ys: Memories of Celceta. But beyond that are a treasure-trove of PSP RPGs, which I'm just starting to scratch the surface of, with Ys Seven.



Conclusion


What I take away, then, is that one should use one's Vita in a fundamentally different way from a smartphone or tablet. It's for cinematic experiences: movies and immersive, narrative-based video games (with action based video games, like pinball or nifty platformers like Guacamelee! or Spelunkee, as an added bonus—such games do not do well on iOS due to the restrictions of touch controls, but are fun time-wasters on Vita). Text-based activities, like Twitter, web browsing, and touch-based games are simply better on iOS.

Basically, for anyone who has a reason to want to play immersive games or watch video on a portable device, then, the Vita is a device I would definitely recommend. On the other hand, if one is facing an either/or choice between an iOS device and Vita, I would definitely prioritise iOS (or even Android)—the Vita is a cool piece of kit, but it's scope is much more limited. What it does well, it does better than the other platforms, but that's in large part due to the fact that it simply doesn't do as many things well.

Fortunately, delivering a great gaming experience is one of those things.

Posted by jon at 12:05 AM in Gaming 
 

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

On mind games

Lately I've been getting into 围棋 (usually called Go in English, but I prefer to use the Chinese name weiqi, since recent experience has taught me that it's essentially impossible to google anything on the game using "go" in the query). It's a game I was always aware of, but didn't tend to think of as an interesting pursuit until recently. I'll probably write more about it at some point but I wanted initially to go over where it 'fits in', for me, among the great mind games, which in turn will explain how I decided to take it up.

Chess


Chess is a brilliant game, certainly the one I've played the longest and, of the three I'm discussing here, the one I play the best (even though the days when I knew from memory how to respond to the Sicilian defense with the Yugoslav attack are long gone). I still do love the game, but while it is good at what it does, it doesn't do everything. The point of a strategy game is to help you think strategically, which is useful in life, so you get to have fun with a purpose. Chess develops the ability to devise and execute a plan, to make brilliant tactical moves, etc., in ways that apply to situations where tactics are important, or strategic situations in which the goal is clear.

But real-life situations often aren't like that. Sometimes you are not equally matched. Sometimes deciding what your goal should be is as central to the strategy as the strategy itself. Sometimes you have to make decisions when you don't have all the information about the situation that you would like to have. Sometimes sacrificing everything to win that "checkmate" (in real life) leaves you worse off than you thought it would. Chess doesn't help you develop a strong strategic sense in these cases. But bridge does.

Contract bridge


This is what makes bridge so appealing to me. It poses strategy problems that have a lot in common with real life. How do you get the most out of the hand you're dealt? How do you deal with imperfect information? How do you work in a partnership? I'm not surprised that Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are passionate about the game; in most situations, it has much more in common with business strategy than chess does.

The problem with bridge is that it is damn hard to learn. I've tried off and on for years, and learned and forgotten the basic bidding system (five card majors and Stayman) probably three times by now. So while I respect the game a great deal, and do enjoy occasionally playing it on my phone, I couldn't show up in a bridge club and play a game (without making a fool out of myself, anyway). Writing this I just looked up online Standard English Acol, for example, (which is probably most popular among the members of my club in London) and there's 25 pages worth of stuff to memorise before you're ready to pick up your cards! That's pretty burdensome, though of course the sheer complexity of bridge is part of the attraction too. (At higher levels there's a lot of memorisation in chess and 围棋 too, to be fair—and in all three cases the content follows guiding principles that make connecting it all easier—it's not rote memorisation by any means—but still, you don't have to memorise the entire Ruy Lopez to sit down at the chess board.)

There's probably something wrong in my approach, I'm sure, and I can always enjoy a casual game of rubber bridge, but by and large I consider "real" bridge to be too hard for me (and I usually like to think of myself as a pretty clever guy). But it's still fun to dabble.

围棋


围棋 (I'll just go on writing it like that and let you read it as weiqi, go, or baduk as you please, even though the characters are different) is a very different kind of strategy game than chess, even though like it and unlike bridge the players are evenly matched and have perfect information. The oft-repeated maxim that chess is like a battle, while 围棋 is like a war is certainly true.

One thing I like about 围棋 is the permanence of actions. You have to deal with the consequences of what you've done before, which may technically be true in chess too, but you don't have it set out in front of you the same way: in 围棋 you can see all the moves you've made at the same time (captured stones notwithstanding). Something about that is a good reminder of the importance of every one of our actions in real life, too.

While 围棋 is also extremely hard to play well, learning to play, formally, can take as little as a minute. My five-year old son is fascinated by the game, and he can barely keep the rules straight in checkers (draughts).


What really got me interested in 围棋, though, was something far more basic: there's a built in and simple handicap system, which allows two players of differing strength to have a competitive and interesting game. This gives me high hopes that I'll be able to play a lot more 围棋 in real life, something that is too rare in chess and may never happen for me in contract bridge. The ability for players at different levels of strength to still enjoy a game together is a real "competitive advantage" for this game over the two others.

When I teach my son chess in a year or two, I expect I'll be pushing around a king and eight pawns for the first dozen games, while he gets a handle on his pieces and learns how checkmating works. I am eager to see him discover the game, but those teaching games are going to be pretty dull in and of themselves for me, and who knows whether we'll ever be competitive with each other at equal strength. In 围棋, we can already have fairly competitive matches, not only because we're both learning at the same time, but because by spotting him enough stones I can give myself a real challenge too.

So that in a nutshell is what brought me to add another strategy game to my repertoire, instead of concentrating on improving in chess or bridge: I'll be able to play more games in real life, have another fun father-son activity (including plans to read ヒカルの碁 together), and beyond that, the strategic questions it poses should open up a new horizon for me and make me a more well-rounded strategic thinker overall.

At this stage I'm honestly not convinced that 围棋's approach will necessarily impress me as much as bridge does, as far as having real-world strategy implications—but it does have a 2,500 year legacy of great minds recommending it, so I will not be surprised at all if I end up eating those words in the future! As it stands now, I think all three games have their place, though for the time being I need to focus on figuring out what I'm doing in 围棋, ideally working my way up to a single-digit kyu.

Posted by jon at 8:00 PM in Gaming 
 

Friday, 25 November 2011

The New 52

One of the most impressive applications of the iPad, and the one that sold me on the tablet format the most when the device came out, was the digital comics application developed by Comixology (which also appears as single-brand apps under the Marvel, DC, etc. names). Being able to buy comics digitally was immediately interesting to me as an expatriate, and the similar form factor of the iPad made the reading experience feel largely the same—better, in fact, since the vibrant colours of the screen are richer than the newsprint of actual comic books.

I read a few comics when I got my iPad, but nothing really gripped me to an extent that I stayed with any series, and with the MBA going on last year I hardly had any spare time for such frivolities anyway.

This September, however, DC comics took the radical step of restarting all of their books—Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, you name it, 52 titles in all, in a massive initiative dubbed "The New 52". At around the same time, I began listening to a comics podcast called The Comics Conspiracy, sister podcast to another podcast (The Geekbox), that I had long listened to. The combination of their enthusiasm for comic books, and the new jumping in point provided by the new 52 initiative, has seen me return to the world of comic books, for the first time since I was a teenager.

From Marvel to DC

Back then, like the majority of comic readers, I was a Marvel fan. Listening to the podcast, I learned that it was common for people to start out preferring Marvel comic books in adolescence, only to move to DC when they become adults. This struck me as odd, but their justification made sense: Marvel books tend to feature characters dealing with real-world problems (Peter Parker, the bullied nerd, the X-Men, coming of age coping with the things that make them different from other people). Adolescents identify readily with these characters.

Adults, on the other hand, especially the ones who might still indulge in reading comic books, are more likely to feel like they have enough of the real world in their own lives. Picking up a comic book is an act of nostalgia—and an act of escapism. Escapism is where DC books come into their own—the Green Lantern, participating in interplanetary intrigues, Aquaman vying for control of the throne of Atlantis. Even the gritty Batman is a billionaire with essentially unlimited resources at his disposal. He doesn't struggle with the same problems the rest of us do. To one audience, that might make him seem more remote; to another, it is precisely what makes him interesting.

Another factor seems to be that Marvel books have been of lower quality of late then when I used to read them in the 90s—crossover and event fatigue has left many fans abandoning books, even when they prefer the characters. (This is all hearsay, but it's a view I've heard from more than one quarter.) Between that and the DC universe making a new start, I have jumped onto the New 52, and share below my impressions from the books I decided to pick up.

Titles

Justice League

This is a great book for introducing readers to the whole DC universe, and is well-drawn, funny, and well-written, too. The heroes are meeting for the first time (most of them shocked to discover that Batman is real), so there's really no background knowledge required to enjoy the book. It makes for an exciting read, gives you a lot of super-hero bang for you buck, and yet requires none of the background knowledge ensemble super hero titles usually do—you get the best of both worlds.

I'll definitely keep reading this one as it is the best way to get to know the DC universe, which I am keen on getting to know as well as I know that of the X-Men or the Avengers.

Action Comics

This is another one with no background required. Superman has just started appearing around Metropolis, and no one knows who or what he really is. He's a bit more like the Golden Age Superman, in terms of powers (if a tank shoots him in the stomach, he will get the wind knocked out of him, and go down). He's fighting city corruption, not intergalactic menaces, and the whole book has its feet on the ground a lot more than I necessarily expect from a Superman title.

I bought this title fully expecting to only read the first book, but I'm actually really enjoying it, and think I'll stay subscribed to this one too. It's much better than I thought it was going to be.

Detective Comics

I'm planning on sticking with this one, too, as I feel I should at least give it a few full story arcs before deciding on whether it's for me. Detective Comics, as its name implies, is a more involved book, and I don't think it's fair to judge it based on only a few issues. The first story arc is off to a great start, though—an intriguing new case involving the Joker. There's no reboot, here: characters like Batman, Alfred, Gordon, and the Joker are all already here, but the title does take the time to characterise each one, so that even if some are new to you, you are told who they are straight away. This is a far darker, gorier title than the first two, though, which are more family-friendly fare. The main Batman title has been getting rave reviews too, but I haven't seen it yet.

Batman and Robin

Robin now is Bruce Wayne's son, with whom he was only recently re-united, and with whom he has a somewhat strained relationship. (The original Robin is now called Nightwing, and stars in his own book.) This takes away the... questionableness of Batman and Robin's old relationship, and replaces it with one that, as a father, I can identify with right away. With so many Batman titles to chose from, one needs some kind of selection criteria to help decide which ones to read, and my interest in the father-son dynamic decided me for this one.

So this book had my interest piqued, and I thought the first issue was great. But in the second, Robin comes across as a bit too warped—and I have no comprehension of what's going on with this villain we keep seeing. So, I'm putting this book on probation, but I hope it lives up to its potential.

Aquaman

I heard a lot of great things about this after the launch, so I decided to give it a read. I am by no means an Aquaman fan, but part of the point of the book is that Aquaman is nobody's favourite super-hero. When he surprises a group of machine-gun toting bank robbers, once they realise it's Aquaman they burst out laughing: what's the guy who's power is talking to fish going to do to them? (Answer: kick their asses.)

So this book is setting out to make Aquaman cool again, and that is interesting enough of a challenge for me to want to read it. I don't expect that I'll still be reading Aquaman two years from now, but for now, it's an interesting book with excellent artwork.

Justice League: Dark

One of the interesting thing about the new 52 is that, despite what I've described so far here, there are lots of titles that have nothing to do with superheros. Titles like All Star Western, Men of War, Swamp Thing, I, Vampire, and many others show that comic books are a great medium for science fiction, horror, suspense, war stories, and westerns as well. I think that this is pretty cool, and like to think that my tastes are more varied than just wanting to read about men in tights, but for one reason or another none of the 'alternative' titles really jumped out at me.

Justice League: Dark is a magic and supernatural-oriented spinoff of the Justice League, committed to fighting evils of a demonic or esoteric origin (things that can't be overcome by Superman's strength alone, is the idea, although I think it's pretty clear that the "Justice League" bit was tagged onto this title in order to encourage a broader audience to try it out.) I think it should be good as a change-of-pace title, but the first issue didn't sway me one way or the other. It's clearly introducing a big world, so I'll give it time to see whether it will turn out to be all I am imagining. In any event, I really like the art in this book (don't judge it by its cover!)—in fact I'd say it's my favourite looking book of all the titles I read, so it will be no hardship to stick with the title for a while.

Others?

Clearly, my selections only scratched the surface of the 52 titles that are available. The others I decided against for various reasons, but I thought I should at least mention the most notable omissions. Wonder Woman had great critical reception, and I'm fascinated by the character, whom, it turns out, I really know nothing about. But I don't like the art style of the book at all (especially in contrast to how gorgeous she looks in Justice League), so I passed on it.

Animal Man also got rave reviews, but it seems a little dark for my tastes. Swamp Thing, similarly, is also supposed to be good, but I was afraid it would be too involved for a new reader to follow what's going on.

I was very interested in picking up a military-themed book, too, but I didn't hear enough buzz about either Blackhawks or Men of War to really believe that they would be worth my time. I may still crack and buy one or both, though, just because I think a good military series would be a great change of pace. In much the same vein, I'd be interested in All Star Western, but the fact that it takes place in Gotham City, on the East coast, seems pretty out-of-place to me.

____________

So, those are my impressions. One thing I have discovered about reading comics again is how the format really lends itself to reading each issue more than once. Yes, you can blaze through an issue in only a few minutes, and at first feel like you've blown your money on something that was way too short, but in one's hurry to zip through the story, one misses a lot of the impact of the artwork the first time through. A second, slower, reading, preferably the next day, allows the atmosphere and storytelling of the book to unfold in a new and different way, as the visual art exerts more influence on the second reading.

It's a medium I'm happy to have rediscovered, and I'm happy that modern technology is helping readers to find the best comics to read, and obtain them digitally, to read in a pristine format.

Posted by jon at 7:55 PM in Gaming 
 

Monday, 25 September 2006

Carcassonne, Serenity and other weekend stuff

This weekend Emilie and I tried out a new board game I'd heard a lot about and bought a few days earlier, Carcassonne. (There are three board games I've kept hearing good things about: Carcassonne, Settlers of Catan, and Ticket to Ride. But Carcasonne is supposed to be very well suited to two players, which is usually what we have.)

Anyway, I add my voice to the chorus of those who highly recommend it. It's similar in some ways to Lost Cities, but whereas that game ends with a very math-heavy round of adding and multiplying points to see who won, in Carcassonne you can score most of your points as you play, which makes scoring the game feel like less of a chore. It's also fun in that you place tiles and build a mediaeval map as you play, so it's visually very appealing.

Saturday Emilie had to get some work done (today is her first day with her students) and I worked on my Pai Gow video game. The game itself is playable in text mode so now I'm on to the artwork and animation, which is a lot more tedious for me. But the finished product should be neat.

On Sunday we spent the day in Cambrai with friends, the weather was great and we ate on the balcony and then took an afternoon walk around the city. Oh, and Saturday evening I finally saw the Serenity movie, that I somehow missed in the theatre and only got around to renting now. That was a great sci-fi movie; I was already familiar with the setting from the TV show but I don't think that it's necessary to enjoy the film. This is grittier sci-fi than Star Wars so some may find the movie a little too dark, but it has a bigger point to get accross than emptier gory sci-fi like Aliens.

All in all a very good weekend, but too short as always.

Posted by jon at 8:39 AM in Gaming 
 

Friday, 13 November 2009

DJ Hero Impressions

Generally speaking, there is nothing in my taste in music that would suggest that I would have any interest in DJ Hero. I have long enjoyed Eric Prydz's "Call on me" remix—although in that case it admittedly has more to do with the video! But all in all, I have very little interest in or knowledge of hip-hop, and only a passing awareness of dance and techno.

If I may be allowed a small digression here, I should say a bit about my taste in music. To a lot of people, my musical library, which is composed primarily of classical, opera, and jazz, would be considered 'snobbish'. I don't see it that way. To me, the crucial factor is of musical talent. Thus, I favour genres where the musician actually plays his or her music—the less studio remixing, autotune, or other artificiality involved, the better. Beyond that, I also like music that is technically impressive and interesting, which is why classical and jazz float to the top.

This is why, although new country is probably the musical genre I hate the most, two of the last five albums I bought were bluegrass—hardly a musical genre one would call 'snobbish', but one which showcases some of the most impressive, real musicianship in the world.

End digression. So, given my attitudes towards music, what on earth could have persuaded me to buy DJ Hero, and think I might enjoy it? In part, it was precisely because I knew so little about the music and about DJing as an art form, and was hoping that playing through this game would allow me both to widen my horizons and to gain an appreciation for DJing—something which up until now, I had considered to be nothing more than cutting and pasting sound samples on a workstation, and hardly a performance art.

That is not to say that I was going into this completely blind, though. I have listened to plenty of Fatboy Slim, Moby, and Eric Prydz before. And the second album I ever bought (on vinyl!) was He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. While we see enough of Will Smith nowadays, the chance to play through a DJ Jazzy Jeff setlist in DJ Hero somehow felt like an appropriate way to give him his due :-)

What really sealed my willingness to be open to this game, though, was the fact that my go-to "coding music" is in fact a 31-minute long live mix by Japanese DJs Denki Groove (the opening of which can be seen here). Having watched this, and listened to it often, was the only real evidence I had going in that live DJing was a real thing.

So, I was somewhat open to DJ Hero, and hoping that it would widen my horizons. That would not be enough to make me buy the game, though. What really pushed me over the edge was just seeing it—being played in the video game store. The controller is a nice piece of kit—significantly nicer than the very fisher-price Guitar Hero controller. The game looked fun (and it is fun), and that is as important as the music.

So, what do I think? This is best music game I've played since Guitar Hero III—and I sunk a lot of hours into that one. I'll be doing the same with this one, as well. It is fun, and it does help gain an appreciation for DJing, although I think it is necessary to do some outside research as well (since the game is more of a game than a realistic representation of what a DJ does). But the game helps inspire you to look into the real thing (I've spent a lot of time on the Korg and Roland websites in the last few days.) I am still not ready to put DJs on the same level as the instrumental musicians that I primarily listen to and admire. But I am less dismissive of their music, and do appreciate dance and hip-hop more now (for what they are), than I did before.

Posted by jon at 12:55 PM in Gaming 
 

Friday, 12 June 2009

E3 Impressions

Thanks to excellent coverage by podcasts and video game sites, I've been able to track closely all the goings on at E3 2009 last week. As an owner of a Wii, DS, and PS3, the announcements at this show about what games were upcoming were very interesting to me, as I dream about what I might be playing in a year's time. (And Microsoft's announcements were interesting too, inasmuch as they allow me to weigh what I'm going to be missing out on in a year's time!)

All of this is just one man's impressions; for more complete coverage outlets like 1up, Giant Bomb, and the excellent video podcast Co-Op are the places to go. But I thought I could organise my thoughts here by sharing what games E3 has led me to put on my "definitely going to buy" list, my "definitely now interested" list, and my more disappointed "questioning" list.

Definitely Looking Forward To

The biggest surprise for me was that there is a Wii game I am definitely intending to buy this year, happily proving my Wii's Last Stand? concerns to be ill-founded. The New Super Mario Brothers Wii game looks fantastic—it should be a blast to play with my wife and friends. Prior to E3 I had no expectations for any new Wii games, now this one is looking like a sure thing, and two more feature below on my "excited" list.

On the PS3 side, Uncharted 2 is looking better and better, and Uncharted was one of my favourite games on the PS3 already (I've played through it twice, which is saying something). The sequel looks to have a lot going for it, I really liked the trailer, and so I am sure this will be one of my surest purchases when it comes out.

Also on the PS3, Final Fantasy XIII—which was always an automatic day-and-date buy for me—finally has a date to go with it (early 2010), something I'm very happy about. The E3 trailers also raised my hopes that the story will not disappoint, and the English voice acting should be up to Squeenix standards as well.

Definitely Excited About

These are the games that now have my interest after this E3, but I'm still unsure whether I personally will buy them when they come out, wait until they can be had for cheaper, or simply pass on. But I am now paying attention.

Two more Wii titles, contrary to expectations, are on this list: Super Mario Galaxy 2's trailer looked excellent. I enjoyed the first game a lot, but at the same time I have never replayed it, nor did I go for 100% of the stars, even though I still could. So I wonder if I really ought to get this game or not. There's no justification for it but for some reason PS3 Trophies make me much more eager to play long single-player games on that system, rather than 'lose time' on the Wii (but that's my problem, not this game's).

The new Metroid game is also something I'm very happy to see announced—although not quite so happy as these guys! But I won't know whether I personally want to play the game until I hear a lot more about it. I'll be paying careful attention, though.

Final Fantasy XIV was the best surprise announcement of the show for me. I've never seriously gotten into a MMO before, but I may well give this one a shot, though like with Metroid I'll need to know a lot more about how the game turns out before I can say for sure.

Disappointments

Heavy Rain, which I have been getting hyped for, did not look as good at E3 as I had expected it to. Not only that, but the Alan Wake gameplay demonstration looked a lot better than I expected that game to. I'm certainly not writing this game off yet, but I had expected it to be a day-and-date purchase, and now I'm definitely going to wait to read some reviews of what the game actually is like to play before I decide whether it's for me.

Honourable Mention

Scribblenauts, of which an astonishing impromptu demonstration can be found in this episode of Co-Op, is pretty amazing, although I don't know enough about how it works as a game to know whether it's worth getting or not:

Dishonourable Mention

Activision suing to prevent the release of Brutal Legend is really low. EA's lawyer put it best saying it was "like a husband abandoning his family and then suing after his wife meets a better looking guy". I may pass on Modern Warfare 2 because of this (I was on the fence for that game anyway), and it certainly makes me more likely to buy an EA-published Brutal Legend. The surrounding context of the story is probably too inside baseball for most people to care much, but it is petty and mean enough that it is going to have an influence on who I buy games from.


All in all though, I'm excited about the future: this show has got me interested in a lot more upcoming games than I thought I would be paying attention to—the year ahead is looking very promising indeed.

Posted by jon at 7:22 AM in Gaming 
 

Friday, 9 January 2009

EGM, 1UP: R.I.P.

My iPod is in mourning this week as most of the people behind many of my favourite podcasts (including what had been my current number one favourite, "1up Yours"), were laid off yesterday as Hearst Corporation bought the 1up Network from the long-struggling Ziff-Davis.

Along with the podcasts, also axed was the illustrious video game magazine Electronic Gaming Monthly—although I cannot mourn it in the same way that I mourn the podcasts' passing. This is not because I am without nostalgia—in fact I'm probably one of the few gamers still around who can say that I bought Electronic Gaming Monthly Issue #1 (with the Mega-Man 2 cover) from the newstand. But print media, especially an enthusiast magazine focused on a multi-media realm such as video gaming, has long had a bleak outlook. Like most gamers nowadays, I have long gotten my gaming information through the internet. In fact the only times I've bought EGM in recent years were when I was in an airport, and that isn't often enough to feel too bad about the magazine going away.

If print is the past, though, the things 1up was doing in terms of online media were clearly the future. I subscribed to four of their regular podcasts (Broken Pixels and Review Crew were a bit too irregular for me to include them with the rest): The 1up Show, 1up Yours, 1up FM, and Sports Anomaly. Of these, the video podcast the 1up Show was produced at a standard that exceeds most television programs, and it deservedly got top billing on the iTunes store. In terms of new media, that is a coveted achievement.

Even so, one can see from a business perspective, that the 1up Show took a lot of people to make, and that is very expensive. In the face of that, and the few advertisements they were able to include, I am willing to admit the possibility that they might not have been able to continue with the 1up Show. (Although I should think that they could have done a better job in including advertisers—enthusiast-oriented programs like this are great for advertisers, where the topical ads are more interesting and less annoying to viewers, so it seems to me that there was a lot of untapped opportunity there.) But the audio podcasts were cheap to produce and cheaper to host—and they also had almost no advertising. I definitely feel that their potential was untapped by Ziff Davis—but for Hearst to axe them means that they have let go of the best part of the property that they bought. These shows made their contributers celebrities among gamers—who then read the articles on the website chiefly because they were written by these personalities. With no personalities and no shows left, Hearst is missing out on a lot of potential value.

One of the other "enthusiast" (in a way) podcasts I listen to, is the Wall Street-oriented "The Real Story" from theStreet.com. It never ceases to amaze me how consistently they are able to get advertisers—often ones like BP that are not even directly related to the show topic. Revision3 and TWiT may have to work harder to find sponsors, but they have been able to do so. This is why, despite not being on the business side, I cannot believe that such widely circulated and respected gaming podcasts—who have an obvious bank of potential sponsors in the game publishers and console manufacturers—could not be more succesful from a business standpoint.

But I digress. Although I take some solace in the fact that (podcasts being so easy to produce), most of my other favourite enthusiast podcasts ("The Java Posse", "Geeks On", and "The HDTV Podcast") are run by enthusiasts as hobbies, with no thought of monetary return. From this, and from the encouraging Twitter posts by the fired 1up-ers (the first episode of "Rebel FM" is already up!), I am confident that more podcasts will still be coming.

But, with the personalities that make these shows what they are being scattered to the four winds, I do worry about how long this will be able to continue, as they progressively find jobs elsewhere. Some may be able to continue, as John Davison continued to appear on 1up Yours even after leaving the company to found whatTheyPlay.com, but others, like past greats Shawn Elliott or Mark MacDonald, will not. The prospect of so many leaving at once makes me worry for the future, and while I look forward to listening to what they put out, the end of 1up as we know it is a very sad thing.

Mielke's blog of EGM's final day is a must-read if you've ever followed this magazine or its podcasts before.

Posted by jon at 12:05 AM in Gaming 
 

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Folklore Impressions

Folklore is a solid game that I don't think got enough credit in the gaming press. I may be generous towards this game because I love the style and atmosphere, but in a game like this that is half the battle. If you haven't heard of Folklore, this video review gives the basic rundown:



To me a good RPG needs two things: first, a setting (and characters) that you like—you spend a lot of time in their world, so it needs to be a world you are drawn to. And second, a battle system that is engaging and fun. The gameplay needs to be able to stand up as a game that's fun to play for it to capture your interest.

On the first criterion, then, Folklore has me sold: it has a Hotel Dusk style murder mystery set in a seaside Irish town, framing excursions into a Netherworld that is beautiful and intriguing. People have criticised the graphic-novel style cutscenes (instead of voice acting like one would expect nowadays), but to me that's just not relevant to the core value of the game.

On the second criterion, though, Folklore really knocks it out of the park. There is no physical combat in the game; you capture ids from the monsters you defeat and use their attacks in battle. You spend a lot of time configuring which face buttons you want to go with which attack, but the overall feeling is that you are a real badass powerful wizard who can unleash a gigantic beast or dragon on his foes at whim. That super-powered feeling is for me one of the joys of video games, and this game really gives it to you.

So, no, it's not necessarily the game to win over converts to the genre, and the lack of much voice acting is disappointing in a PS3 game, though the presentation is otherwise good, if a little old-fashioned. There are moments of incredible HD graphics, but all-in-all the game feels like a a PS2 or Dreamcast game. (That doesn't bother me though: after all, I'm also playing Mega Man II!) On the measures that matter, Folklore is a solid RPG that I am looking forward to playing the rest of the way through. And it makes an excellent change of pace from shooters and war games.

Posted by jon at 10:48 PM in Gaming 
 

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Katamari Forever Impressions

Katamari Damacy was one of those games that won me over from the opening title sequence. As it turns out, my son had the same experience with Katamari Forever, its sequel on the PS3: every time we start the game he goes nuts, pointing and shouting, and applauds when it ends. Consequently, we watch the opening sequence nearly every time :-) James also enjoys the "Royal Rainbow" effect, which is also accompanied by frantic pointing and squeals of "REGARDE!" <look>.

The game itself is primarily a compilation of levels from other Katamari sequels—which is not a bad thing, if only because I, like nearly everyone else, hasn't played any of these sequels since the original. The review on Giant Bomb does a good job of evaluating the title, so I won't say much more about it here, other than to say that I agree with that assessment.

I will just underline what an incredible value this game turned out to be. I bought it for Emilie, but I was really impressed with what a put-together title it was. There are a ton of levels, and multiple game modes, plus cousin collection and present collection side-quests to do in the levels. It adds up to tens of hours of gameplay—more than most PS3 games—for a very low price. If you like Katamari Damacy, this game is an excellent buy.

Posted by jon at 9:29 PM in Gaming 
 

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Killzone 2 Impressions

If there is any genre in video games today that is overdone, it is the first-person shooter—and the most clichéd sub-genre of this most clichéd of genres is the bald space marine type of first-person shooter, in which realistic battles are fought in a sci-fi setting. Just as in the 80s space shoot-'em-ups cloning everything from Space Invaders to Galaga formed a glut of mediocrity in arcades, today, faced an increasing number of mediocre Halo clones, a first-person shooter has a lot of resistence to overcome if it is going to merit atteniton.

And yet, from early on Killzone 2 (in which the protagonist space marine, to be fair, sports a military haircut rather than being bald) held my interest in spite of my all-too-apparent reticience to play this kind of game, because the programmer in me just had to see what has long been acknowledged as a supreme technical achievement. In terms of raw graphical beauty, Killzone 2 currently sits atop the PS3, and is without reservation the best first-person shooter I have played.

That's not to say that it has won me over to the genre, though. And not because I don't like war games on principal: Metal Gear Solid 4 in fact is my favourite video game of all time. But that game tackles the moral questions surrounding war in a thought-prevoking way, even while putting together an awesome action tale. Killzone 2 has no such pretensions—but it compensates through faster gameplay and more intense action. In "video-gameyness", that probably counts for more for most people than a thought-provoking plot, though, so my preferences may be in the minority.

This really comes to the fore in online play, where teams of 16 players confront each other in a variety of missions. These battles are a lot of fun—and definitely a game, not a serious war story like the single-player campaign (you respawn after eight seconds, after all). In online play, it is the scoreboard that matters, not who prevails in the science fiction saga of the invasion of planet Helghan. Both the single-player and especially the online modes have a ton of replay value as well, so Killzone 2 provides a huge value for entertainment: I definitely prefer it to Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and since owning one realistic first-person soldiering game is enough for me, it is Killzone 2 that I would recommend.

All in all, then, I would not hesitate to recommend this game as a core element of anyone's PS3 library, especially for those who are more predisposed to first-person shooters and war games than I am personally.

Posted by jon at 7:02 AM in Gaming 
 

Monday, 17 September 2007

Latest happenings

This weekend we had my mother- and brother-in-law over for dinner on Saturday night, and went out with four generations of my paternal inlaws on Sunday. We went to a restaurant and then back to Emilie's grandparents for poker and trivial pursuit (I won the latter!). The occassion was to celebrate September birthdays so mine was included, and I got some nice presents (a couple books on gardening and a model train, among others).

Besides family visits, a large part of our week-end was taken up in Super Paper Mario, which just came out in Europe for the Wii, and which Emilie and I are both enjoying. Before this she was replaying through New Super Mario Bros. to retrieve every single star coin in the game—I've been telling her that she's been playing so much since she's pregnant that we'll have to name the child Mario if it's a boy!

The rugby world cup has been fun to watch so far, although France's opening loss to Argentina was a disappointment. (I would've hoped the USA could've beaten Tonga too, but the fact is we just aren't a rugby union playing country.) Still, no matter who's playing it's an exciting game to watch, and some of South Africa's tries against England on Friday night were downright amazing. If France doesn't make it to the end I'll be rooting for the Springboks, although the conventional wisdom is that nothing can stop the All Blacks this year, curse or no curse.

Posted by jon at 7:36 AM in Gaming 
 

Sunday, 25 January 2009

LittleBigPlanet Impressions

When I bought my Playstation 3, I bought four games, Metal Gear Solid 4, Grand Theft Auto 4, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, and Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. All of these games have something in common: they are realistic, movie-like adventures filled with guns, explosions, and plot twists and turns. They also have violence and language that make them inappropriate for children.

LittleBigPlanet is something completely different for the PS3. It's as cute and fun as it looks, but rather than try to drum up some florid prose, I'd rather just embed a video to give you the idea:

With that out of the way, there are three points that I would like to comment on here: the controls, the sound, and the appeal of LittleBigPlanet.

Whenever an exclusive-to-PS3 game comes out, message board trolls who are 360 fans will come out and try to lower the game's reputation by harping on some minor flaw until it seems as though it were a major flaw. With LittleBigPlanet, these internet troglodytes love to harp on the 'floaty' controls. All I can say is that if that is the best criticism you can come up with about LittleBigPlanet, there must not be much to complain about. The controls are great. (A precision-based level like the ninja training one would be no fun otherwise—whereas in fact it happens to be my favourite out of the single player game)

Another thing which one does not necessarily pick up on right away when reading about this game, is just how amazing the sound track is. LittleBigPlanet has one of the best video game soundtracks ever, and although that is not in itself a reason to buy the game, it does mean that the game is great on a level beyond what you can see at first glance.

Finally, I want to say a word about the impact LittleBigPlanet has had on our house. Up until now, my wife has never touched the Playstation 3 controller. Not only did LittleBigPlanet draw her in, though: now she won't put the thing down. From having LittleBigPlanet dreams to complaining that she can't get the music out of her head in the morning, she has LittleBigPlanet on the brain! Best of all for her as well as for me, we can play together, cooperatively at the same time. So early on, when she was still coming to grips with the controls, I was able to help her get through difficult levels she wouldn't have been able to do on her own (although I must admit that she now has more stickers collected than me!). It's a huge hit in our house. (For context, this is not the first time that a video game has captivated her to such an extent—but the only other time I ever saw it happen was with New Super Mario Bros., so it is in some very good company!)

It is no coincidence that when you beat the single-player game, the trophy you receive is a silver—not a gold—and that its name is "Just Beginning". Some of the user-created levels (hundreds of thousands of new levels that people create that you can play online for free) are amazing—some are as good if not better than the ones that come on the disk. Others are creative masterpieces that you can't believe someone actually made using LittleBigPlanet. At the end of the day, LittleBigPlanet is not just a game, it's a platform, and its possibilities are something we will be exploring for years to come.

Posted by jon at 10:47 PM in Gaming 
 

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots Impressions

Metal Gear Solid 4 spent the last year as the Playstation 3's flagship game. When I bought my PS3, this was the game that came with every PS3 you could buy. In a lot of ways, it's an odd choice: First, it only really speaks to people who played the earlier Metal Gear games in the franchise, which pretty much excludes the larger public in favour of 'hardcore gamers'. Much of the plot involves tying together loose ends from the previous games, which are constantly alluded to. And the game is very complex, taking time to learn how to play—potentially a lot of time for someone who hasn't played a Metal Gear Solid game before. So why include this title with the system?

At the same time, MGS4 was an inevitable choice as a pack-in title, since no other title so supremely shows off the incredible power of the PS3. The battlefield in MGS4 is so realistic that if it weren't for the heads-up display you could easily be fooled into thinking you're watching a DVD, it's that good. (The screenshot above is what the game actually looks like while you're playing it.) The cutscenes are also gorgeous, all while managing to avoid falling into the 'uncanny valley'. And the gameplay, plot, and voice acting are all on a par with the graphics. In a lot of ways, Metal Gear Solid 4 is the best game I've ever played. It is, without question, a masterpiece.

The gameplay, as I said, almost requires you to already be familiar with the Metal Gear series, which is based on 80's action movies, most obviously Escape from New York. This is not just another shooter: Metal Gear is all about stealth-based gameplay. While you do have weapons, there is only one of you, infiltrating enemy bases with countless soldiers, so while you may have to fight your way out of a jam, going head-to-head with the enemies means certain death. Instead, you have to hide (in lockers, under tables, etc.—there are countless possibilities), create distractions (leaving a Playboy on the ground to trick sentries into bending over to pick it up, throwing an ammo clip across the room to create a noise elsewhere), and use techniques like choke attacks to render enemies unconscious without making noise—making sure to sneak up from behind so they don't have time to raise the alarm! There is a lot of depth to this: if you choke out one sentry, for example, you'd better hide his body somewhere before his partner comes along, or else that one will raise the alarm. All of this is what makes the game fun and unique—you're constantly finding new ways your character can hide, or tricks you can try—but it is also takes a lot to master.

All this sneaking creates a lot of tension, so the game balances things out by interspersing a lot of cut scenes, which bring the plot along and give you a chance to recover after the stressfulness of infiltrating another level. I like this a lot, it makes playing the game a lot more relaxing, and the plot of MGS4, which centres on private military corporations (rather like Blackwater), is at times quite thought provoking. At other times it's quite hokey, but it wouldn't be a proper hommage to 80's action movies if it wasn't!

Some of these scenes are fantastically epic and memorable; some of the gameplay levels vary the standard stealth in ways that not only add variety but make it even more fun, from tracking a trail through the forest on one act to tailing an unsuspecting spy through the streets of an Eastern European city under curfew in another. The bar is high to learn this game and its universe in order to get the most out of it, but the rewards are amazing.

When I bought my Wii, it came with Wii Sports in the box. The contrast between the PS3 coming with MGS4 and the Wii with Wii Sports could not be starker: one is easy for anyone to pick up and play from children to grandparents, even though no effort at all went into its graphics and depth. MGS4 is so hard to figure out how to play to the uninitiated that months went by before I really sat down and started trying to play it (and I had played MGS Twin Snakes before), and even then I had to acclimate on "easy mode" (which gives you a lot more weapons and makes the enemies fewer and stupider). Yet the graphics are so good that it can be mistaken for a DVD, and the amount of depth, both in the plot and the gameplay, exceeds anything that has come before it in the history of video games. The execution is flawless. I am so glad to have played MGS4, but at the same time I have no problem understanding why it is the Wii that is outselling the PS3 by a more than 2-to-1 margin. Five stars. It deserves them, even if it isn't a game for everybody.

Posted by jon at 12:10 AM in Gaming 
 

Saturday, 14 April 2007

New milestone reached

I am proud to announce that I have at last cracked the 10,000,000 point barrier in Metroid Prime Pinball. It so happens that all these months I'd been playing without having figured out how to use bombs or do the wall jump correctly, and that turns out to make a big difference!
Posted by jon at 8:18 PM in Gaming 
 
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Non enim id agimus ut exerceatur vox, sed ut exerceat.