Sunday, August 29, 2010

Nier's Done, and I'm In Need of TV and Comic Recommends!  

It's been quite a busy week, though a fairly productive one... well, productive everywhere except this blog. Let's rectify that, shall we?


Games: Finished Nier.

I've got to say, that was one of the most original and exciting titles I've played in a while, mostly thanks to the wide variety of ideas and approaches the developers managed to cram onto one disc. I especially appreciated the time and effort put into fleshing out each of the characters, and I have no doubt that I will be able to clearly remember them years from now. Nier, especially… it's not often that games star a late-middle-aged father who is basically an ugly bastard doing odd jobs to support his family, but that's exactly what's going on here -- and I loved it.

I suppose that I was probably a little more inclined to like the story since I am approaching middle age myself, as well as being a father of two. Many of the themes within the game resonated quite strongly, and it was incredibly refreshing to play something that I felt spoke to something other than the spiky-haired-emo-teen-saves-the-world demographic. If developers branched out like this more often, the entire industry would be in a better place.

I've been discussing the game with a few other critics who've finished it, and it seems that at least one more playthrough will be required before fully grasping the depth of the developers’ vision. As a result, I started a second run last night. This re-start lets players keep their levels and equipment and begins halfway through the game, so I imagine that it will be a pretty rapid completion… ripping through bosses with my upped Axe of Decapitation is like running a hot knife through butter. I'm glad that the developers didn't ask players to start from scratch, though. As interested and as willing as I am to see what else they have to say about the characters, I don't think I would be up for multiple twenty-hour playthroughs.

As much as I enjoyed the game (and really, I did enjoy it – Nier is absolutely going to be on my year-end Top 10) I didn't feel that the second half was quite as strong as the first half. Without trying to spoil anything, the game is clearly split into two parts -- the first part is full of homages and references to other games, and is certainly the more "experimental" section. The second section is still good, but relaxes into a more recognizable JRPG format. I still enjoyed it, but it didn't have the same intense level of creativity and originality that the first half did.

The ending was especially disappointing… it felt very traditional in terms of what I would expect from a ‘concept’ JRPG, and wasn't nearly up to the same standard as some of the other parts. I'm hoping that will change after I see the other three endings, but at this point it seems as though Nier is one of those games that's all about the journey rather than the destination.


Games: FYI: there is no such thing as ‘hurrying up’ to finish a game like Etrian Odyssey III. The review is due in another day or so, and I haven't finished it yet. I've certainly played more than enough to give it a very fair evaluation (over 30 hours so far) but as much as I want to get it wrapped up, this game moves at its own pace and there is simply no changing that. Any shortcuts taken by the player are guaranteed to end in a Game Over, and progress comes in small, hard-won increments. In this particular case, patience is a virtue.


Television: I don't watch a lot of TV, but when I do, I find myself coming back to the same shows. I've got a few favorites, and they are more than enough to occupy any non-game couch time that I may have. At the moment, I've been watching Burn Notice, White Collar, Psych, Warehouse 13, The Soup, and Dr. Who (Season Two – and Tennant is still not winning me over.)

Smug, mumbling bastard.

When the normal network season resumes, I'll go back to The Office and Community. I like Sanctuary too, though I'm not sure when (or if) it’s coming back.

I don't really want to add very many more shows to my regular rotation, but I'm wondering if any of you have other programs you'd like to recommend, based on the viewing profile I've outlined above? If you think of something that might be up my alley, drop me a line and let me know!


Comics: While I'm listing favorites, I'm currently picking up small number of comic books on a regular basis. These include: Invincible, The Walking Dead (of course), Chew, Echo, The Sixth Gun, and Wormwood (when it comes out.)

If you’ve got some favorite monthlies that you think are worth a look, give me a shout. I'm not really reading a lot of straight-up superhero stuff lately, but I'm not opposed to it -- I’ll try any book with strong character work.

As for what I'm avoiding: stories-with-no-end and books that retcon or reboot multiple times in order to keep themselves going. (see: Marvel and DC.)

Oh, and any comic book creator who brings back Devil Dinosaur on a monthly basis will be my hero for life.  Let's make it happen, people.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Podcast News, Dante's Trials, and Nier's Fishing  

Podcast: The last GameCritics podcast recorded live was ridiculously epic in length. With three meaty topics to cover, we just couldn't fit it all in one show. The answer? Cut the damn thing in half. The first segment of the most recent episode is now available on the iTunes and Zune marketplaces, and will also be available for download at GameCritics itself (most likely) tomorrow.

In the meantime, my good friend, witty snarker and all-around brilliant dude Matthew Kaplan did me the great honor of choosing me as the first guest for his podcast, Game In Mind. It's a one-on-one piece that will probably tell you more about me than you ever wanted to know.

In addition, I explain how I came up with the Coffeecola name and chat about some of my more controversial reviews. If you've got time and the interest, check it out HERE. If you like what you hear and you're also on Twitter, you can give Matt a follow at @MattGKaplan. He will entertain you, I guarantee.


Games: I polished off Dante’s Inferno a couple of days ago, and liked it so much that I went back and completed the Gates of Hell survival mode, and I never do that kind of stuff. In fact, I was almost tempted to play through it again in order to max out the Evil side of the skills tree, but common sense got the better of me and I figured that my time should probably go towards something else in my to-play pile.

I dashed out a review last night that will go up sometime in the near future, but I have to say that in a rather unusual turn of events, I think my piece will be much more positive than the norm. You can certainly read it for yourself and let me know what you think, but one thing I find quite puzzling is that I've heard from tons of people that the game ran out of imagination, or took a nosedive at the end. I didn't really feel that way, and when asked for specifics, it's usually the series of arena trials that they point to.

I can understand not liking them since they do stick out from the rest of the levels (and trying to stay airborne for 8 seconds is complete garbage) but to be perfectly frank, I whipped through those so quickly that the segment seemed like a complete non-event compared to how much people were trash-talking it. I'm not trying to say that I'm some kind of super player with better-than-you skills at all, it was just that the entire piece was something like ten minutes long. When compared to the five hours and fifty minutes of pretty damned entertaining gameplay, the reaction to that brief part seems a little overblown to me.


Games: Speaking of overblown reactions (how’s THAT segue?) I started playing Nier yesterday. Although it was the victim of a pretty intense word-of-mouth smear campaign thanks to the infamous fishing segment, nearly every intelligent person that I respect had nothing but good things to say about it. After seeing this consensus, I felt compelled to bump it up to the top of my playlist, and I'm really glad that I did. I'm only about six hours in, but so far it's been a very measured, mature and intriguing game that's a massive step up compared to the kind of work that developer Cavia has previously turned out.

So, about that fishing.

If you were anywhere near the IntArwebz when Nier was released, it was impossible to avoid hearing about how stupidly terrible, atrociously bad, and game-ruining the fishing segment was. I seem to recall at least two reviews where the writer claims to have stopped playing thanks to that particular bit, and there was even a video review making the rounds where the person on camera was having an emotional meltdown while showing the viewer ‘evidence’ of what a nightmare the fishing was.

At this point, I'd like to call bullshit on all of that.

Look, the fact is that the fishing minigame comes off as broken. I certainly admit that. It's not fun and it could use a little tweaking in terms of playability. If nothing else, the developers absolutely should have explained how the mechanics work in much greater detail than they do. However, all that said, the game only requires a player to fish once. Once that's done, it never needs to be revisited.

Reading over some of the complaints again, it seems as though a big problem is that most of the people trying to get through this segment are fishing in the wrong place. If a player has a map of the area (which I bought immediately upon entering the town) then the game displays A BIG GODDAMN RED X where you're supposed to go fishing.

Furthermore, if the player has set the difficulty level to Easy, the game GIVES YOU THE FISH after failing the attempt three or four times. It literally gives you the fish. I got through this section in about four or five minutes --total-- and once that was done, I never looked back.

I absolutely understand that this particular minigame was not as polished as it could've been, but no reviewer with a shred of professionalism or self respect should have overreacted to such a wild degree and dismissed the game as a whole because of it. At worst, a few minutes at GameFAQs could have resolved the issue and then those covering the game would have seen how much more Nier has to offer. If you ask me, this is easily one of the best games I've played this year, and I find it shameful the way it was treated. With all the complaints of inspiration-free sequels and formulaic cash-ins, why were people so quick to give something bucking the trend such a cold shoulder?

If you're the kind of open-minded player who's interested in games that defy convention, offer genre-bending experiences, and explore alternatives in characterization and narrative, you owe it to yourself to at least try Nier. There's really nothing else quite like it.

... Just promise me that you’ll get past the fishing before passing judgment on it.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Etrian Odyssey 3 Tips, The Podcast O' Fun, and Dante's Inferno... Is Good!  

Games: I haven't talked about Etrian Odyssey III for a while, but I'm still playing. I've been putting in a few hours each night while in bed, and if nothing else, this game delivers an extremely healthy amount of content. I thought for sure I'd have polished it off by now, but I'm still chipping away. I'm not complaining though, the game is quite entertaining.

While I'm quite glad to have secured an early copy, one of the downsides of reviewing games before release is that there is often little or no information available online . After all, how can someone write an FAQ before the game’s even released? It's true that there are some walkthroughs out that are based on the Japanese version, but sometimes things change, or it can be hard to figure out the finer details with differences in translation.

Anyway, my point in bringing this up is that now that I'm more than halfway and have finally figured out most of the tricks up the game’s sleeve, I'm sorely tempted to go back to the beginning and rebuild my characters from scratch.


For those of you who intend to play and buy the game (which should be all of you, really) know that there comes a point at which your characters are able to add a sub-class. For example, a starting party might be Gladiator, Monk, Hoplite, Arbalist, Zodiac. After the choice is available, some of those classes might be more attractive as a sub-class instead. The Gladiator can become a Gladiator/Hoplite, and the Monk can become a Monk/Zodiac, for example. I did not know this at the beginning of the game, and if I had, I believe it would have changed which characters I picked.

This is important to know because characters only gain one skill point per level, and earning a level is serious business in Etrian. It takes a long time, and every little bit counts. It's certainly possible to re-configure a character (and the game goes out of its way to provide the player options) but it's infinitely better to start off properly and craft them the way you want from the get-go. I'm somewhere in the ballpark of 30-ish hours last I checked, and that's too much time to just call a wash. I'm pressing on, but the perfectionist inside me is screaming.

One other thing to know -- there are two special classes available only after a certain plot point. Things may change if I get a little further, but as of right now, it appears that only one is accessible per playthrough. The Yggdroid can be selected if you choose to protect, and the Samurai (pretty sure it’s a Samurai, though I may be getting the name wrong) opens up if you choose to attack. You'll know what I mean when you get there.

I've only had the Yggdroid on my team, but so far it seems extremely similar to a Hexer from EO2. This certainly isn't a bad thing, but I'm noticing that it takes a heck of a lot of experience points in order to get all of its systems running properly.

My advice to anyone would be to retire a high-level character (at least 40 or so) before having the ‘droid join your team. I took one on too early, and it was extremely rough going since it was both fragile and weak at the start. It's becoming a killing machine now, but it took quite a bit of effort and patience. I would do it differently next time around.



Games: Tomorrow's podcast is going to feature a new segment where one of the critics suggest a game they like, and then the rest of the crew plays it to see what they think. We then compare and contrast, and I'm sure there will be spirited discussion of some sort. The two games selected were Too Human (Tim’s pick) and any of the Dynasty Warriors games (Chi’s pick).

As I mentioned earlier, I did actually complete Too Human and even went so far as to write a full review. It hasn't gone live yet, but it will shortly. As far as Dynasty Warriors, I ended up going with DW6 on the 360. Not to spoil the podcast or anything, but let's just say that... I didn't finish it.

This is going to be a fun chat.


Games: After doing my due diligence for the show (and noticing that there’s a much-needed lull in current releases) I went to my "play this later" stack and selected Dante’s Inferno. An infamous title for several reasons, I think it's fair to say that I didn't expect anything more than a poorly-conceived God of War clone, but the reality is that it's a much better game than I could have guessed.

To be certain, it draws heavy inspiration from Kratos. That is not in dispute. However, in an odd turn of events, God of War 3 actually sucked a fat one (yes, that's a scientific term) so my recent hack-and-slash jones went unsatisfied. By comparison, Dante’s knows exactly what it's trying to do and does it in very polished fashion.

Aside from the smooth mechanics, one of the things I appreciate most about it is the attention to detail and the imagination on display in each of the hellish realms. The imagery is fantastic, with many interesting interpretations of the underworld and plenty of classic iconography.

In terms of its treatment of the source material, I certainly admit that I was highly dubious (to say the least) of developers appropriating a literary classic, but after having seen the way it was used, I think it was done very smartly.

To start with, I'd be willing to bet that out of everyone who's played the game, only a fraction of a fraction of a fraction have actually read The Inferno. I certainly haven't. I haven't even talked to or heard of anyone who has. However, I don't think the pertinent question is how faithful the game is to literature, as so many in the press seemed to insist.

To me, inspiration can be drawn from any source, so for the developers to say that their muse was Aligheri’s work is certainly fair enough. The real litmus test in my mind is whether or not the game holds up on its own, and it certainly does. The story of Dante’s personal failings and his quest to rescue Beatrice would be more than satisfactory for any random brand-new IP, so I don't see much need to compare it 1-to-1 to the book. It's perfectly obvious that the developers aren't being slavishly faithful, so why all the consternation?

Another thing I appreciate is that there’s almost no dead space or fat that needs trimming. I've long been a fan of any game that knows what it’s about, gets to it, and then ends with dignity. I'm estimating that this playthrough will take me between 5 and 6 hours, and that strikes me as being perfect for something so action-heavy. Anything more would be needless repetition, and that's never welcome.

Finally (and I admit it's really odd to call out) but I'm totally in love with a particular animation sequence. When Dante charges up his crucifix for a power blast, there's just something visually powerful -- almost arresting -- about it. He crouches back, winds up, and a giant explosion of photons slams into whatever’s approaching. I've seen the animation a thousand times, but it never gets old. I don't subscribe to any particular religion so I don't have a special reverence for all of the Christian elements, but seeing this character charge through the gates of hell and blast everything in sight with pure, holy light has a certain potency about it… in terms of pure visuals, it really works. He's kicking ass for the Lord.

... and on that note, I should probably be getting back to it. Beatrice still needs saving, after all.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Book's Done, So's Too Human, and... A Couple Comics  

Writing: My apologies to you if you've clicked here a few times and been disappointed at the lack of updates. By way of explanation, I haven't posted to the blog in a while because I've been putting all my spare time towards wrapping up the final edits on my latest book.

I burnt a small amount of midnight oil last night (actually, it was probably more like 2AM oil) and pushed through to the end -- edits are now complete, and barring any unforeseen feedback from my test readers, I'm calling this thing done.

Massive thanks to everybody that's asked and expressed interest. Your support has been awesome and I am absolutely appreciative, but although I'd love to, I actually can't talk about any details at the moment. There are still a few pieces that need to fall into place, but things are looking good and I expect it to be published and available sometime on or around the end of this year.

More info to come as it becomes available, but for the moment, I will say that it feels pretty spectacular to put the wraps on another big project like this one.


Games: After finishing up the book, I completed another "big project" -- I rolled credits on Too Human (360) in preparation for this weekend's podcast recording.

I won't talk about it too much since that's going to be one of the main topics for the show, but I will say that it wasn't nearly the disaster I expected it to be. That's not to say that it was actually enjoyable, but there certainly were some positive things about it and I could see a lot of potential there.

All told, the game took me about nine hours to complete. Looking back on the experience from start to finish, I'd estimate that there is really only about 3, maybe 3 1/2 hours of decent content to be had. The rest is pure repetition, grinding and tedious. Although I personally got some value out of the game, I certainly wouldn't recommend it to anyone.

Chalk this this one up as a critical learning experience.


Comics: A friend on Twitter recently recommended that I check out The Sword, published by Image and written/drawn by the Luna brothers. I picked up all four volumes (trade paperback) and handed them over to the wife while I was busy with other things. She devoured them and gave the series a solid thumbs-up.

Now that my plate has cleared up a bit, I was finally able to crack the first volume and it seems quite interesting so far. The story's about a handicapped girl who finds a special sword and comes into conflict with three people who are after it. These three murder her family which sets off a chain of events, and the story goes on from there.

I'm still quite early in the tale, but I'm liking what I'm seeing. One quick note, I will say that the level of gore caught me by surprise. Not that gore is a bad thing by any means, it was just… surprising.


I also recently finished up volume 5 of Preacher, from DC’s Vertigo imprint. Although I'm a big, big Garth Ennis fan, I actually hadn't started the series until recently. In a way, I'm glad that I waited because now I can read through it at my own pace instead of waiting for each issue month by month!

For those that aren't familiar, Preacher is about a man named Jesse Custer. He's got a spirit with the power of a god inside him, so he sets out to find *actual* God in order to kick his ass. Of course, the story is a lot more complicated than that and I certainly don't mean to do it a disservice, but that's basically it in a nutshell. Keeping Jesse company are his gun-for-hire girlfriend and an Irish vampire who’s got a serious disdain for vampiric tropes. Hilarity ensues.

It's raw, it's often brutal, and it's certainly shocking on occasion, but Ennis is a fantastic writer and there are very few comics out there quite like this one. If you tried and liked Wormwood (another of my faves) this’ll be right up your alley.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

BioShock Infinite: A Few Quick Thoughts  

Games: Today was a bit of an unusual day in that I was actually near a computer with a few free minutes while a big games reveal was happening. Of course, that game was Irrational’s BioShock Infinite.

(The timing was fairly ironic since I just finished BioShock 2 and turned in a review, but that was sheer coincidence.)

As I was monitoring TweetDeck and seeing people talk about the reveal in real-time, it was actually quite fascinating. It began with a lot of buzzing about what the reveal would actually be, followed by a quick surge of ‘yay, BioShock’, which was itself quickly followed by ‘boo, more BioShock.” After that was, of course, “quit being BioShock haters”…

I have to admit that my gut reaction was probably closer to ‘boo’ than ‘yay’ until I saw the trailer, after which my outlook became significantly more positive. However, my feelings and others' similar ups and downs got me thinking…

1> The name BioShock Infinite is incredibly stupid. Infinite? Really? I can't help but think there are probably somewhere in the neighborhood of thirty-four thousand other names that would sound less cheesy and be a little more descriptive of the actual game.


2>Some of the negative sentiment seems to be about the BioShock name itself. Having set two games underwater, I do think it's understandable that some players would expect more of that same premise, whether it's a good or bad thing.

I actually see Irrational’s new goal of expanding the BioShock IP past Rapture as a brilliant step, but I think the whole thing would've been a bit easier to swallow if the series hadn't gone for a quick buck with BioShock 2.

Don't get me wrong -- I actually liked BioShock 2, and in general, I think I’d even say that I liked it more than the first game. However, looking at it soberly, I'll be the first to admit that it didn't feel like much more than an extended add-on. There were very little changes to the formula, and the straightforward campaign held few surprises. If it had been packaged as DLC, I think everyone would have praised it, but positioning it as a legitimate numbered sequel rang hollow to a lot of people, myself included.

If the IP had used BioShock 2 as a DLC holdover and had reserved using the actual number 2 for Infinite, I think most people would understand more quickly and easily that the BioShock name is now meant to be applied to an entire world concept, rather than solely what was contained under the sea.


3> I haven't seen any videos of actual gameplay, but I did read a fairly descriptive text account of a section that was shown to a group of journalists/reviewers. From what I can gather, the gameplay sounds significantly different than anything that's gone before. In my book, this is the best possible news.

Of course, I don't want or expect Infinite to be a complete departure from things that have already been established, but the thought of another silent protagonist who collects various Plasmids and Tonics while listening to a truckload of audio logs is not something that appeals to me regardless of the new scenery. For the sake of the IP, I sincerely hope that Infinite is a substantial change to the status quo.


While the amount of information available on BioShock Infinite and the future of the series is still quite limited, the tiny bit I’ve seen so far does leave me feeling very hopeful. I'm a fan of the aesthetics and concepts the series has displayed so far, and applying those ideas to a larger, more holistic worldview seems to offer immense potential. If Levine and company can avoid tiresome yearly iterations and the ever-present temptation of cash-in sequelitis, we might just be on the verge of something huge here.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Monday Night Combat, and Too Human...Doesn't Suck. An Open Apology.  

Games: So Monday Night Combat is out. If you haven't taken a look, check out the free demo available on Live.

Despite having one of the longest and most tiring days in recent memory, I was able to get a couple hours in before falling asleep. While I'm usually a solo player, this is definitely a game that benefits from having real teammates, and I was fortunate enough to jump into a group where almost everyone knew each other.

To be sure, the meat of the experience is had in the 6-on-6 Crossfire mode. Having live players to go up against while trying to take out the enemy's money ball was a great time, and although I tend to favor the Tank class, I was having quite a bit of fun with the Sniper. I hope to spend some more time with it this week, but based on my experience this evening, I would really only want to do it with people I knew. I can't imagine it would be half as fun with strangers.

Then again, that's pretty true for just about any game, isn't it?


Games: My review for BioShock 2 is in the can, look for it soon at GameCritics.


Games: In what is likely to be the biggest, most unexpected surprise of the year (for me, anyway) GameCritics podcast host @TimSpaeth finally convinced the rest of us to partake in a group play/discussion on 360’s Too Human for an upcoming episode.

What was the surprising part? I actually liked it.

If you've ever listened to the podcast, you've probably heard Tim talk about Too Human, or at least mention it. In fact, it gets brought up so often that it's basically a running gag on the show.

The rest of us have ribbed him about his love for the title dozens of times, and he's always taken it in good humor. However, I think that we all assumed he was slightly crazy. After all, Too Human took a serious critical beating when it was released, to the point that it was almost an industry punchline. A large part of that had to do with a general reaction to Silicon Knights’ head man Dennis Dyack on a personal level, but it's still common to ask people what they think of the game apart from Dyack and get a negative response. The words “garbage" or "worthless" are descriptors that come up a lot in conversations I've had.

To be perfectly honest, I was dreading having to play the game after hearing so much bad about it. I figured I'd put in a half an hour, vomit in a bucket, and then think up some more jokes at Tim's expense. However, that's not what happened. Not at all.

While the game is certainly unconventional in several ways, I have to say that it didn't have much difficulty grabbing my interest and I was actually quite fascinated with some of the choices on display -- things like the new take on a classic hack-and-slash control scheme, or the way the game has reinterpreted Norse myths into cyberspace metaphors. It's pretty clever, really.

Oh, and the loot? It falls like rain in a monsoon season.

Too Human's a perfect example of a concept that should appeal to a lot of players (Norse myths as cybertech -- in a hack-and-slash!!)  but I can understand how the final, gotta-chew-on-it expression of that concept would catch some people off guard. However, after putting three hours into it, I was actually wondering how so many people who reviewed it ended up being so negative. It's certainly different, but I haven't seen anything that was outright bad or wrong. So far, anyway.

After having said all that, I do feel as though I owe both Too Human and Tim an apology -- I'm definitely a believer in trying things before you talk and I’ve spent my review career giving underdogs the benefit of the doubt, but this is absolutely one time when I was too complacent. In Too Human's case, I was content to trust the consensus and go along with the crowd, and that was wrong. I'm certainly not proud.

Mea culpa.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Tennant Shock, BioShock and Sugar Shock  

TV: Although I realize that most people I speak to say that David Tennant is their favorite Dr. Who from the new series, I have to say that I'm having a little trouble warming up to him. The wife says I just have difficulty acclimating to new things, but I'm not sure that's entirely it.

Granted, we've only seen two episodes of the second season so far, but I find Tennant’s performance to be a little understated compared to the work done by Christopher Eccleston. He’s also shorter and It doesn't help that (to my ear, anyway) his accent seems thicker and his voice quieter. It's harder for my American ears to catch the nuances of what he's saying.

(... In addition, the first two episodes of season two have been pretty dumb as well, so that's probably not helping.)

I realize there's no going back and if I'm going to continue watching the show I had better start getting used to it, but I just can't help it. I miss the old Doctor!!


Games: Thanks to the current lull in big releases (thank goodness!!) I had enough time to start and finish BioShock 2 without putting my review schedule in jeopardy.

If you missed it, here's my review of the original BioShock. As heretical as it may seem to some, I wasn't completely in love with the game. Don't get me wrong -- it was certainly an enjoyable experience that I don't regret, but it didn't impact me or make the same impression that it apparently did for the majority of people who played it. As a result, I didn't have very high expectations for the sequel, and I didn't feel very disappointed when credits rolled.

I think I'm going to actually pen a Second Opinion on it so I won't spill all my thoughts here, but I think in a nutshell it would have been the world’s best DLC if it had been half as long and had increased the role of some of the peripheral characters. Being a Big Daddy was a great idea, but it didn't feel very different from being the main character of the first game. In fact, the game suffers from a feeling of sameness overall, with the few creatively bright spots going mostly unexploited.

It certainly wasn't bad, I just think the developers' sights were set a bit low.


Food: If you're in the Seattle area or you sometimes come down to Ballard, you absolutely must try D’ambrosio’s Gelato.Located at 5339 Ballard Ave NW (the street where the Ballard Sunday Market takes place every week) it serves the best gelato I've ever had.

If you’re a stranger to gelato, it's basically like a softer, creamier form of ice cream that comes in a variety of flavors – there’s the usual Chocolate and Vanilla (each with their own special twist) but also more exotic things like Woman’s Kiss, Variegated Nutella, and Caramel & Fig. The Coconut is delicious, and the Dark Coffee is rich and strong, just the way I like it.

The owner is an extremely nice fellow who is very willing to offer free samples, and never fails to give us a small scoop for the baby, free of charge. The rest of the staff is just as friendly, and the shop is very clean and inviting. The wife and I have often remarked to each other that we're glad the shop is located as far away from our house as it is -- if it was any closer, we'd be there everyday… and weigh 400 pounds.

So. Damn. Good.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Interview with: Uber Entertainment, creators of XBLA's Monday Night Combat  

Games: Next week (8/11) Microsoft’s featured Summer of Arcade game is going to be Monday Night Combat from fledgling studio Uber Entertainment. A team-based shooter with some snazzy graphics and interesting ideas, I have a feeling it's going to do pretty well. While we're all still waiting to get our hands on full versions, the good people of Uber were gracious enough to invite me over to their studio for a sneak peek.

Oh, I also asked them a few questions while I was there…


What can you tell us about Uber Entertainment? Who are you? What's your mission?

Uber Entertainment is an independent game developer. We are a small group of very experienced game developers who aim to build games that are polished, fun to play and move the medium forward. We are also big believers in supporting our games and our community.

How big is your team, and how long have you been working on your current project?

Uber is currently 17 full time employees but we have used some outside contractors for our current project. Monday Night Combat has been in progress for about two years and is now shipping on August 11, 2010 as part of the 2010 Xbox LIVE Summer of Arcade. We spent the first 8-12 months just prototyping our game play because we truly believe in the adage of 'Find the Fun First'. If the game is fun while running around a bunch of white boxes, the game will be fun when it's pretty! After the prototype phase it was getting all the assets in and functional and polishing it as much as we could.

Monday Night Combat. What is it, and why should players give a hoot?

Monday Night Combat is a third person, class and team based shooter set in a world where you battle it out in futuristic arenas for money, fame and endorsements! MNC is a very unique blend of a lot of different game mechanics that we at Uber Entertainment are very proud of. We support two game modes. Blitz is our cooperative mode that can be played solo, split screen or up to four people over Xbox LIVE. Crossfire is our six versus six competitive mode over Xbox LIVE. The game also has deep persistence, keeping track of how much lifetime earnings you've acquired, tons of career statistics, any single game highlights you've accomplished, and over 370 unique ProTags associated with those feats that you can show off to your friends or enemies.

Some people have dismissed MNC as a TF2 one-off. Why are they wrong?

First, I'll say that's it's really a big compliment to get compared to such a great game. The art style is what's striking about the game and what the fans are usually reacting to. We chose this art style because we wanted the art to convey the humor and light hearted nature of the world. That and we were all a little tired of playing our shooters in brown, bombed out cities. When fans finally get their hands on the game they'll be very quick to see that the game has a ton interesting game mechanics that make it a very unique shooter. Monday Night Combat boasts single player and cooperative modes, a competitive six versus six mode and tons of persistence. All that said, we did borrow mechanics from all kinds of games. Mechanics like running, shooting, jumping, automated turrets, robots and even money!

It's clear that multiplier is a big focus of MNC. What kind of experience can a solo player expect?

We built an entire game mode around solo or cooperative play. Blitz mode is a game type that is all about one team defending one money ball against rounds and rounds of robots trying to get to it. The game type supports solo play, two player split screen or up to four players over Xbox LIVE. There are five different challenges at all difficulty levels to test your abilities. The last challenge has infinite rounds and is based on getting to as high of a round as you can. The game really relies on the strategy of turret placement, personal upgrade timing and team make up. It also auto compensates for players coming and going during the game by increasing or decreasing the amount and types of robots spawned. There is great replayability in Blitz because the leaderboards show how much money you earned in the round and what class you did it with so you can challenge your friends, or enemies, to do better.

Why was Live chosen as the service to launch your game, and are there any plans to bring MNC to other competing services?

We chose Live for several reasons. One, Microsoft has been a great partner at bringing our game to the 360. Secondly, we really feel like downloadable games are where we are headed for game delivery and Xbox LIVE Arcade is simply an amazing platform for it. Getting into the Summer of Arcade promotion is just pure gravy. We haven't officially announced any other platforms for Monday Night Combat, we're just focused on our release next week and making sure it goes smoothly... and playing with our fans. We get maybe 24 hours to be better than everyone. Maybe... probably more like 12.

A lot of work has gone into the character design and conceptualization of MNC. Do you have plans to expand the franchise past this initial release?

We do plan on supporting the game and the franchise beyond Monday Night Combat. It's part of our commitment to keeping in touch with our fans and our community. Look for future announcements! There will also be some fun tournaments and purchasable merchandise at PAX Prime this year!

Out of the six available classes, is there any one that your team considers a favorite, for gameplay reasons or otherwise? Were there character types that did not make it into the final build?

Everyone around the office has different favorites. Our cinematics artist loves the Tank's spin move so much that he solely plays that class for that reason. Our animator, AZO, really enjoys playing the Assassin, probably because she pulls off the type of moves he does in his parkour videos. One of our programmers adores the feel of the deployed Gunner with dual miniguns so that's what he does. Uber's test director is so good with the versatility of the Assault that he greatly enjoys going on a tear with him. So, yes, everyone seems to have a favorite, except me. I'm balancing the game so I try really hard not to have a favorite that way I don't inadvertently overpower one class.

There are a great number of weapons and skills that didn't make the final build which are what basically define the classes. The six originally designed classes made the final cut but with many, many iterations.

Now that MNC is about to go live, what will Uber be doing? Have you all booked trips to Disneyland for some R&R, or has work begun on your next project?

Everyone around the office is taking some time off, going on little vacations or just relaxing at home. I've even gotten in a couple of extra rounds of golf. Uberites that are back in the office from our R&R have already begun work on our next projects. What those projects are and what the scope of those projects are is all depending on how the fans react to Monday Night Combat. If people like it and play it, we'll make more! Nothing is more satisfying than knowing something you spent two years of your life working on is bringing enjoyment to so many people.

Three non-Uber games you’re loving right now: titles and reasons why. Go!

Limbo: Wow. Awesome presentation, tone and game. A must play for anyone who loves games.

StarCraft 2: I've worked on a lot of RTS games, SC2 makes me remember why I love the genre and makes me wish I worked on it. It's the RTS game I've been waiting for for a long, long, LONG time.

Assassin's Creed 2: Never played AC1... now wish I would have. Amazing game! Free running rules, they nailed the feeling of being an assassin, and another super polished game.


Infinite thanks to Creative Director John Comes for the interview follow-up, and equal thanks to Art Director Chandana Ekanayake for making it all happen in the first place. I also want to thank the entire Uber team for taking it easy on me for the first 30 seconds of our matches… after which they showed me exactly why it's a bad idea to play against the people who have created the game.

For more information on Monday Night Combat, check out the official website HERE. I also discuss the game on the latest GameCritics.Com podcast, which should be up and ready for download within the next 24 hours. If you like what you see (and hear) then keep your eyes peeled for the release of the full game via Xbox Live Arcade next Wednesday, August 11th.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Prop. 8, God of War Sucks More, Fly Fu, and Trine DLC  

Life: I don't tend to be a very political person and I certainly don't write about the subject very often, but after today's court ruling overturning Prop. 8 in California, I felt like at least a brief mention would be in order -- especially since I don't see it as being a "political" subject. I mean, it's obviously impacting American politics on many, many levels, but the heart of the matter is that it’s not about politics at all -- it's about people's lives.

I believe in fairness, justice, and logic, and no matter how many times I listen to someone try to explain why gay people shouldn't get married, they just can't make the case. No matter how they twist the definitions of words or try to pander to people's fears, there is absolutely no logical justification for why gay, lesbian, or transgendered people can't get married to whoever they choose.

There just isn't.


End of story, stop talking.

What's it to me? I'm not gay. I'm happily married with two kids. Prop. 8 and its implications don't affect me even a bit, but I care about it because equality for all is important to me, and all means ALL.

There would be a firestorm if someone tried to pass a law saying that people in wheelchairs couldn't marry, or if people of different races couldn't either. Half the anime fans in America would march on the capital and burn down the White House if it was illegal to wed Asian girls.

What about fat people? Short people? People who wear glasses? What about gamers? Gamers with their murder simulators and Pokemans definitely shouldn't get married, right?

I doubt that anyone would support a law that prohibited any of the groups I just mentioned from tying the knot, so why should anyone think it would be all right to deny GLBT folk?

When you peel back the top layers of arguments based on religious beliefs or personal biases, the only things underneath are fear, intolerance and hate, and I think any true American would agree that those aren't qualities that our country was built on, nor ones that we should support or abide in any way.

…After all, if it’s acceptable to discriminate against one group of people, you might wake up one day and find out that your own group is next.


Games: Getting back to our regularly-scheduled program, I didn't intend to talk about God of War 3 again, but it ended up being such a terrible experience that I just couldn't resist.

Off the top of my head, I really think that whoever came up with the "wooden crates" concept for the labyrinth was either completely off their rocker or having a giant joke at gamers’ expense. I mean, the balance of power in Olympus was kept by a bunch of rotating brown boxes? Really?

I also found it hilarious that the final matchup between Kratos and Zeus boiled down to being a clunky 2D fighter. Again, was someone at Santa Monica Studios having a laugh?

The in-jokes aside, the writing was just terrible -- worse than either of the previous two games, and it's not like those were known for their scripts. It went so far off the rails by the time credits rolled that I was actually embarrassed that I completed it.

For example, Kratos spends the entire game acting like a giant penis and the writers completely pass up every opportunity to give him a shred of humanity, only to have him get all gushy at the end for Pandora. Why? No clue. Ostensibly it's because he had a daughter once, but I'll be damned if the writers even began to make that case.

Even worse was the endgame. Going from combat to a long sequence of preachy cutscenes was bad, but then the writers spend all that time talking about hope and light and humanity, only to turn around and present the player with a scene of extreme violence as Kratos pounds Zeus in the face until the screen is literally obscured with blood. Thematic contradiction, anyone?

There are tons of other things wrong with the game (a favorite: having a certain wall texture designated as not grab-able, only to have the exact same texture BE grab-able on a different wall!) but I'm not going to waste any more time on it. It's a sub-par, lackluster game that does not match up to the quality of the previous two, or even the PSP iteration.


Games: Didn’t feel like starting anything major tonight, so I spent some time with a couple of quickie downloads.

>Fly Fu (PSP Mini) - I fell in love with this game's graphic style, but it plays like garbage. Basically, players take control of a fly seeking revenge, and control him as he travels from left to right, beating up enemy bugs as he goes.

The attacks seemed to trigger depending on how close and what position enemies are in, but if there's any way to predict which attack is going to happen, I couldn't figure it out. Sometimes a kick, sometimes a punch. Sometimes forward, sometimes back.

I was also not impressed with first level, which asks players to kill a hundred enemies. I'm sorry, but the mash-happy quality of play isn't nearly interesting enough to be able to justify that much repetition, and fighting a boss at the end of it was absurd -- there's not a fighting engine here, just pure mash.

It's cute and fairly clever, but the programmers don't seem to have the faintest idea about what makes a good game and I bailed without getting to the second level. I was willing to take a chance on it after seeing a short clip on YouTube, but if this game had a demo available, I never would've purchased it. AVOID.

> Trine DLC: Path to New Dawn (PS3) - I'm a big fan of Trine and its tripartite body-switching action, and my ears quickly perked up at hearing that there was an additional piece of content available. @Silenthitoshura warned me that it wasn't really all that great, but I decided to take a shot anyway. After all, it was only $1.

It was not worth $1.

The content consists of one level in which characters must ascend vertically. There are tons of falling rocks and exploding barrels to knock players back down, and the platforms used to scale the heights don't feel as though they were placed with much care. Additionally, players cannot import their powered-up characters: the Knight, Wizard and Thief are all upgrade-free regardless of what state they were in when the main game was completed. After getting to the end (about five minutes' work) nothing happens except a classic ‘Thank You!’ from the developers.


As willing as I am to support these guys, I think Silent was right when he said that it felt like an early, aborted attempt at the main campaign's final level. New Dawn doesn't feel like an actual "addition", it’s more like a scrap from a cutting room floor, and asking players to pay even $1 for this was a bad idea. AVOID.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

God of War III and a PAXPrime Tweetup  

Games: The great game of catch-up continues...

After deciding that Bayonetta wasn't worth completing (though I was really in love with the whole guns-on-feet thing) I moved on to God of War III.

While I think my wife is a bigger fan of the series than I am, I certainly enjoyed the last two games. They were pretty close to the top of the PS2 action genre if you ask me, so I was definitely curious to see where the developers would take it on Sony's new machine.

The answer? Nowhere special.

Although I haven't yet completed the game (just got to the scorpion part) it's been a pretty flat experience so far. There have definitely been a few high points like the Escher-esque Labyrinth or the battles with Cronos or Hades, but not nearly as many as I would have expected. Frankly, the bulk of the game feels like it could've easily taken place on the PS2.

I didn't expect this final game to be a major re-envisioning of the series, but the graphics aren't as impressive as I would have thought and it doesn't feel as though any of the gameplay mechanics have been updated. The weapons are different (and that Cestus kicks some ass, doesn’t it?) but basically it's business as usual here. Flip a few switches, kill some dudes, witness environmental architecture on a gargantuan scale. It's the same old God of War on the PS3, no more, no less.

Looking at the plot, it's pretty thin. There were several areas that I felt the writers could have used to enhance and deepen Kratos, but they went unused. Instead, what we get is the Ghost of Sparta constantly acting like a total dick. From a writer's perspective, a plot that keeps the main character on a single note from start to finish is a badly written story.

Perhaps as a way of making up for scripting, the gore factor has been increased to a fairly surprising degree. I'm certainly not squeamish, but there were a few scenes that I felt were unnecessarily over-the-top without adding anything to the experience. Gore for gore’s sake. The obligatory sex minigame was ridiculous as well. With all of these things taken into account, the tone of the experience has shifted away from something that feels legitimately mature and more towards being reaction-hungry.

It's not a terrible game by any means, but I'd be lying if I said it was very exciting. I'll certainly finish it (which puts it ahead of Bayonetta, at least) but there won't be a second playthrough and I doubt I'd recommend it to anyone who asked.


PAX: If you're going to be at PAXPrime in Seattle this year and you haven't completely booked all your evenings, click on over to THIS LINK and take a look.

On the evening of September 3 at 7 PM, a tweetup will be happening at the Cheesecake Factory across the street from the convention center where PAX is taking place.

The first fifty people will get some free swag, the free slices of cheesecake will be first-come first-served, and basically it'll be a good chance to get to meet some people that you might tweet with every day, but have never met in real life.

The likelihood for the event getting crazy is high since the Cheesecake Factory is usually slammed and we've got no idea how many people will swing by, but I'll be there and Chris Poirier (@BetaChris) will be as well, so reserve a spot for yourself via the link above, or just pop in and say hey if you can.