Thursday, October 28, 2010

Done with Dead Rising 2, and a Castlevania Query  


Games: Finished up my play of Dead Rising 2 tonight. I'm contemplating doing a review, but still undecided. I guess I’ll sleep on it and see how much effort I want to put out in the morning.

After rolling credits for both the main campaign and the Overtime mode that comes after (and really, that's not a spoiler... they did the exact same thing in Dead Rising) my thoughts about the game are basically the same -- it's a note-for-note reproduction of the original with a much gentler difficulty curve and a create-a-weapon mechanic that doesn't feel like a good fit for the schedule-oriented structure of play.

Hmmm... This territory feels REALLY familiar. Better check my GPS.
If I had never played the first game I suppose I would have been much more entertained by DR2 since I wouldn't be so aware of how badly it was recycled.  Seriously, there were only two or three brief segments overall that I thought were fairly inspired, although I admit that the story was sufficient to keep me moving forward. New protag Chuck Greene is definitely okay in my book, though I have to say that I still prefer original hero Frank West by a large margin.

While I certainly appreciate how much easier DR2 is (got the S-Rank ending with very little effort) I think I preferred the original in just about every other way. Better main character, better story, and although it felt vaguely broken in a few places, it was fresh and original at the time. This new iteration isn't bad, but it just doesn't have that spark… all the I’s were dotted and all the T’s crossed, but I'm still kind of struggling to figure out what it was really supposed to bring to the table.

All things considered, I'd say that I had a much better experience with the prologue DLC Dead Rising: Case Zero than I did with the full game offered in DR2. The setting of Zero didn't feel like another mall, the area was much smaller and more compact, and I liked that a perfect run could be done in two hours or so, provided that the player did a few practice restarts beforehand. It was fresh, tidy, and got right to the point. The $5 price tag didn't hurt, either.

"Come on, Chuck... I'll show you how a war journalist does it."
I'm still looking forward to the epilogue DLC titled Dead Rising: Case West for sure, but if Capcom was to greenlight a new Dead Rising 3, I'd say that they would have to retool the thing from top to bottom, re-think the structure completely and fix all of the issues before it would get my attention. If they go for just another minor-upgrade iteration like this one was, I'll pass.


Games: Prior to starting DR2, I put about two hours into Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. Those first few hours didn't leave a very good taste in my mouth, and I postponed it for the time being. However, my wife decided to give it a go, and she's pretty far into the adventure. I've been peeking over her shoulder and keeping tabs on the game, and although there are certain things about it that intrigue me, I see quite a bit that turns me off. As for her, she's plowing ahead like a trooper but has little good to say about it.

To those players who have already been through the game, I would love to get your opinions on it, whether you liked it or you didn't. Tell me what makes it good, or where it went wrong. The two schools of thought on the title appear to have a fairly large gulf between them, and if you've got an opinion, I want to hear it.

I wanna know!


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Volunteering, Dead Rising 2, and Sonic/Psych Bits  


PSA: I recently started volunteering with a boys’ group, and I see them about once a week. It's a pretty minimal commitment, and I'm not really asked to do much except show up and be present as a positive role model – i.e., treat them like human beings, talk to them, answer their questions, and so on.

Like I said, minimal.

Anyway, even though this isn't really high-impact, I like to think that it's had some positive effect on the boys. It's certainly had an effect on me. It's a great reminder that I've got things a hell of a lot better than some people do, and it also reminds me that it's my responsibility as a father to make sure that my own children have the best possible upbringing they can have.

Not trying to be on the soapbox here, but if you’ve got some extra time -- even just an hour a week -- you might want to think about volunteering in some capacity. It helps people who need it, and it may just do something for you, too.


Games: My most recent review just went live at GameCritics. Click HERE to see what I said about Platinum Games’ Vanquish. (And if you're too busy to click, then just know that I loved it.)


Games: After an extended delay, I finally got my hands on a copy of Dead Rising 2. I had a fairly hot-and-cold relationship with the first one, but the recent Case Zero DLC episode got me fired up and I've been pretty eager to see what's going on with Chuck Greene in Fortune City.

Unfortunately, it's not really all that much.

At this point I'm probably a little over halfway through the game, maybe two thirds, and I've got to say that it hasn't lived up to expectations. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that's a bad game by any means, but I guess I'm just surprised at how much it seems like a complete "do-over" of Dead Rising rather than being its own experience. There's just so much of DR2 that comes off as a xerox of what former protag Frank West went through.

For example, the player's home base is another security office inside the service area of a mall. Inside that office is another person with a radio who zaps the player with new missions at regular intervals. Then there's the mall itself, which is almost exactly like the environment from the first game, complete with a wealth of shops, a small "outdoor" area, and an underground tunnel choked thick with the undead. It's all the same. If you want to go further and break things down on a smaller scale, there are dozens of similarities that seem lifted part-and-parcel from the original.

The gameplay formula is nearly identical, as well. Hike back and forth rescuing survivors while waiting for the "core" missions to appear and further the plot.

Again, there's nothing wrong with it, it's just that it feels so incredibly similar to the first game. The flow hasn't changed. The situations haven’t changed. At this point in my playthrough, I haven't found any particularly original encounters or anything that's been significantly dramatic. Even the Psychopaths (the equivalent of boss fights) feel like do-overs. The Motocross boss in the central area… the crazed chef and his meat locker… Haven't we seen iterations of these guys before? There’s no freshness to any of it.

The most notable differences: There are now three save slots instead of one, and that the game in general feels much, much easier. The Psychopath fights have been toned down in difficulty quite a bit, and making your way through hordes of zombies requires nearly no effort at all. The time limits for each mission are extremely generous (so far I've been able to complete every single one, both story and optional) and the survivors Chuck rescues are finally able to hold their own and survive long enough to make it back to the safe house. Hallelujah.

Now, all of these changes are absolutely for the better, but they’re all just corrections to things that were relatively broken the first time around. This isn't new ground Capcom is covering in Dead Rising 2, it's a bunch of fixes... a bug patch on an epic scale.

Oddly enough, the only legitimately "new" thing is the way Chuck can combine items to create new weapons, but I have to say that this hook falls flat. Since weapons break quite frequently, it's a hassle to go out of your way to find some of the more exotic components, not to mention that time is still a concern, even with the more generous mission limits. Add in the fact that inventory space is extremely tight until much later in the game (a life-up, or a useless piece of a weapon to be lugged around? easy choice.) and what's left is a gimmicky add-on that doesn't really fit with Dead Rising’s core identity. Rather than experimenting with combinations, I find myself sticking with the nailbat (which can be created immediately outside of Chuck’s base) and ignoring everything else. There's just no good incentive to do otherwise.

I haven't tried any of the multiplayer modes and I intend to do so, but at this point I have to say that I'm quite disappointed in the singleplayer campaign. Although my opinion may change, everything I've seen so far points to Dead Rising 2 and being a near-identical, more polished version of Dead Rising 1. As much as I may enjoy the subject matter, I definitely expected more.


Games: Everybody and their brother has probably seen this by now, but just in case you haven't… Some hard-core Sonic fans have put together a labor of love remix, and it looks a hell of a lot better than what Sega just released for $15. Take a peek HERE.


Games: A new psychology website got in touch with me and requested that I post THIS LINK. I can't personally vouch for the validity of the claims made at this site, but if this stuff is even halfway true, then it constitutes some interesting food for thought. Basically, these various authors are saying that games are not only not nearly as harmful as some in the media would like us to believe, but there are actually several different types of benefits. Take a look and see what you think.


Saturday, October 23, 2010

BioShock 2: Minerva's Den  


This is the second weekend in a row that the family has been sidelined with sinus issues. It's not bad enough to prevent any of us from going about our daily business Monday through Friday (and it's certainly not bad enough to make me take time off of work) but we haven't really been doing much more than hanging out on the couch under some blankets during our time off.

Whatever germ, bacteria, or virus this is, it needs to go back to the underground super-secret science lab that spawned it and let us all start feeling better.


Games: Just finished the recent BioShock 2 DLC, Minerva’s Den.

In an interesting turn of events, I think the final scenes of this DLC are probably some of the best to be found in the series, and it got me thinking... if there was one thing missing from both of the BioShock games, it was that there was not enough of the human element.

 When constantly on guard, running from hallway to hallway on the alert for attackers, it's hard to really focus on the more cerebral side of Rapture. I've always felt that although it was a visually rich environment, the entire world got short shrift thanks to too much combat and an over-reliance on painfully artificial storytelling mechanics. There are entirely too many “microblogger” audio samples to be found in every corner of the underwater complex, and it's quite rare when a player encounters (much less interacts) with an NPC who isn't a deformed mutant or assault robot. I’ve spoken to many people who swear by the atmosphere and story of BioShock, but it's never really clicked with me until these final scenes in Minerva’s Den.

What made this particular scene so good was that there was no combat, and I had a few moments to reflect on the story and the dramatic elements the developers had created. I didn't have to look over my shoulder for splicers, I wasn't checking every single box in the area for ammo or cash, and I had enough mental space to take a few breaths and chew on what was before me -- and you know what? It was really effective. It really worked. I actually started to feel a bit for what happening in the story, and my immediate next thought was…

"Why couldn't they do this with the rest of BioShock?”

(…And although both BioShock 1 and 2 are guilty of this sort of detached, stilted dramatic side, 2K Marin got it more right than Irrational did, if you ask me.)

While I'm glad I've had the chance to play through everything that's been offered so far and I definitely enjoyed time with the iconic Big Daddies and Little Sisters, it was a little bittersweet to finish with Minerva’s Den. That brief taste of emotion and those extra few minutes spent on the human side of the game put everything else that came before it in a somewhat shallow, unflattering light, and made me wish that the developers of both games had made slightly different choices and strayed a bit further from their formulas.

More importantly, I hope that the good people working on the upcoming BioShock Infinite will take a few moments to retool the 'Shock identity, and not be content to simply take the gameplay ideas from under the sea and relocate them to the skies above.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Meat Boy Winner, Layton v. Wright, Vanquish, and Time-Killers  


To start things off tonight, I’ll announce the winner of a Super Meat Boy code for 360, as promised. Many thanks to everybody who entered, and after randomly drawing from all entries, the winner is:


Congratulations, Jeremy! Please get in touch with me via email and I'll hook you up with your code ASAP.


Games: Phoenix Wright meets Professor Layton. And that's all I'm going to say, apart from directing you to click HERE to watch the announcement video and asking you to pray to the stars above that this game gets a domestic release.


Games: So if you read this blog regularly, you may remember that I commented about the Vanquish demo a while ago. Frankly, I wasn't too high on it at the time. I thought it was sporting some great graphics, but the gameplay just wasn't clicking.

Fast forward six weeks.

I got my hands on a full version and decided to start fresh. Strangely enough, my impressions now are almost completely different than they were back then. The game is totally incredible, and I've been playing it basically non-stop since I started.

I'm going to do a full review of the game soon, but if you (like me) weren’t really impressed with the demo or you got scared off by the claims that the game is only three hours long, let me assure you -- in my view, Vanquish is easily one of the best games released this year.

As far as the length issue goes, I haven't completed the game yet but I've already been playing closer to six or seven hours. Apparently the game counts play time in some weird, funky way so when people post pictures of their "game over" screen, the final run-time tally is not correct. At least, it's not truly reflective of the real-time hours spent by the player. I haven't been keeping a stopwatch by my side, but I'm absolutely sure that the game runs longer than three or four hours.

As for the rest, you have to read my review for the full details… BUT, I will say that the graphics are phenomenal, controls are tight, game design is brilliant, the pace of action remains high from the start (and rarely ever lets up) and there are so many OMGWTFBBQ moments and unbelievable setpieces that Vanquish puts the competition to shame. Crushes the hell out of it, really.

In terms of jaw-dropping Sci-Fi thrill rides, they really don't come better than this. I haven’t completed the game although I'm quite close, but I have no reservations giving Vanquish my highest possible recommendation.


Games: On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, we have Castlevania: Lords of Shadow.

I haven't played very much of the game, but then again, I have to be completely honest in saying that I don't feel particularly motivated or interested to come back to it. However, rather than getting into a discussion of why Castlevania has failed to hold my attention, the real reason I bring it up is that I've had several people tell me things like "it gets better later" , “it's a slow burn", or “things really heat up past the halfway point.”

I can't say whether this is true or not (although I will say that I doubt it) but as someone who has spent so many years playing so many games and who now has a full-time job, a family, and other obligations, asking players to invest in this kind of non-starter title has to stop. Videogaming is the only media where it's deemed acceptable to ask a consumer to sit through several hours (and sometimes more) before the developers get their ducks in a row and finally arrive at "the good part", and this kind of design simply does not fly anywhere else.

As an aspiring author, I’ve received tons of rejection letters that were based on brief sections of my writing. It's seldom an agent or an editor reads more than three chapters, and the norm is something closer to one chapter, or even a one-page synopsis. Regardless of how good the middle or end of the book is, it's the kiss of death to have a slow, non-starting beginning. In fact, I recently judged a writing competition, and it was a bit of an epiphany to be on the other side of the equation. After receiving a stack of submissions, I noticed that if the author didn't grab me within the first few pages, it was extremely unlikely that the rest of the submission would be worth reading. I'm sure that's not always the case, but that's essentially what it boils down to.

Look at television or films. I don't know about you, but when I start watching a brand-new TV show, if the first episode is bad, I’m pretty likely to stop watching and move onto something else. Will I be missing out on a series that really takes off two, four, or ten episodes later? Perhaps, but it's asking a lot for someone to devote time to something that may or may not improve. Same goes for movies. While I'll usually sit through almost anything if I've paid for a ticket in a theater, I don't force myself to sit through slow beginnings at home. If the movie can't give me a reason to keep watching within the first fifteen minutes or so, it's done.

Since games are a time-intensive pastime and require a much more active role from the player than simply sitting on the couch or turning a page, it makes no sense to me for a developer to hide "good stuff" hours into the experience. I'm not saying that games need to lay all their cards on the table up front, but they do need to be exciting, intriguing, or interesting enough to convince me to devote my precious free time to them.

That's right... I went there. 

If the really fun powers of a character don't come into play until 3/4ths of the way through an adventure, that's a problem. If a story languishes with dull characters and irrelevant plot lines until a player gets ten chapters in, that's a problem. If a developer is not able to express the core value of their project within the first HOUR, that's a deadly serious problem.

I like stories with twists and turns, I can appreciate starting with simple mechanics and building them in complexity as an adventure goes along, and I can certainly have patience for things that might take time to unfold, but there has to be some hook; some display of brilliance and promise that gives me reason to push on. I'm no longer willing to sit through drab “filler” levels, and stories that roam over hill and dale before sharing a few juicy bits with the player.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm not saying that games need to be short as a rule. If a developer feels as though they need a hundred hours to deliver the complete experience they’re crafting, I'm absolutely fine with that as long as it's not 90 hours of garbage and a really “killer twist” at the end. However, if you're crafting a game that has six hours of quality content, don't you dare ask me to give you fifteen or twenty hours in order to see it.

No more slow starts. No more making me get halfway through before things pick up. No more pointless crap and asking me to get through tedium in the hopes of finding value later on.

It's called editing and focus, people. Learn it.


Monday, October 18, 2010

A Super Meat Boy Contest, Valkyria Chronicles 2 Disappoints, and A Zombie Con!  


Games: It's the newest indie darling to hit XBLA, it's the game on everyone's lips, and it's the title I've just completed (and submitted) a review for. That's right, it's Super Meat Boy.

I just so happen to have ONE code to give away on 360, and after putting the title through its paces my ownself, I can say with confidence that if you are a player who adores 2D platforming and you're not one to shy away from a stiff challenge, then you NEED this. Seriously, it's pretty fantastic.

What do you have to do to win? Easy... just post a message here and tell me what the most exotic cut of meat you've ever eaten was, how it was prepared (if it was cooked) and whether it was good or bad. Simple, right? The winner will be drawn at random and announced at the next blog update.

That's just a little less than forty-eight hours from now, so if you want a chance to win, don't delay!


Games: After wrapping up Professor Layton and the Unwound Future (which was as good as the Layton games always are) I decided to fire up the ol’ PSP and give Valkyria Chronicles 2 a whirl.

I absolutely adored the first game on PS3, and felt guilty that I didn't play it in time to praise it on my top ten last year. After being reminded by a reader of that particular oversight, I figured I should probably get to the sequel this year to make sure I didn't make the same mistake again.

I'm extremely early in the game so I can't speak on it definitively, but what I've seen so far is quite a mixed bag. The combat is essentially the same as it was before, although levels are smaller and broken up into bite sized pieces. Also, Snipers have been replaced (at least initially) by an Armored class which can fix sandbags and deactivate landmines. This aspect of the game is fine since it's basically unchanged, for the most part.

Look at us! We're so goddamn interesting and unique!!
What's not fine? The cutscenes are done in cheapo-generic anime style, and what I've seen of the story so far comes off as complete garbage. I have very little interest in a bunch of obnoxious kids attending a military academy (read: high school) and the dialogue verges on being physically painful. I can't recall the last time I found a game’s story so insipidly awful that I outright skipped it, but I'm doing that here.

It's just that terrible.

I'm still playing through it since the blend of real-time and turn-based strategy is a tasty mix, but I'm extremely disappointed that Sega took the low road with the characters and dialogue. I've got absolutely no desire to listen to a bunch of morons prattle on about things I don't care about in the slightest, and while the core game is still great, there is no chance whatsoever that Valkyria Chronicles 2 is going to end up on my year-end bests list.



Undead: For those of you who are in the Pacific Northwest (or who'll be here at end of October), you might be interested in checking out the 2010 ZomBcon.

It will be taking place at the Seattle Center from October 29-31 and will feature appearances by world-class guests George Romero and (ZOMG!) Bruce Campbell… for zombie fans, it just doesn't get any better than that. In addition, there'll be some celebrity panels, exhibitors and vendors, movie screenings, and even a Prom Night of the Living Dead.

If you like your entertainment rotten, you won't want to miss out. For more information CLICK HERE, and if you end up going, drop me a line and let me know how it was!!


Friday, October 15, 2010

Links, Lame Demos, Super Meat Boy, and Live-Action Dead Rising 2  

Games: A couple of my latest reviews just went live over at GameCritics. Click HERE to see my breakdown of Enslaved, and click HERE to see what I had to say about the two Alan Wake DLCs, The Signal and The Writer.

While you're doing all this clicking, you can also click HERE to check out the most recent GameCritics Podcast. Starring myself, Richard Naik, Dan Weissenberger and hosted by Tim Spaeth, the focus of the entire show is a deep-dive discussion of Deadly Premonition. If you've been wondering WTF is going on with that game, we give you the full scoop.

(By the way, if you haven't played the game and intend to, you should know that the first 2/3rds of the show is totally spoiler-free. The end of the show is MEGA-SPOILERIFFIC, but we give you plenty of warning before we start in on the juicy stuff.)

Oh, one more thing on the sbject of Deadly Premonition, the Planet Redwood blog has a great video of GameCritics alum Matt Weise giving a talk at MIT about the game's design. Click HERE to check it out, and to read Redwood's summary of the video.


Games: I had a few minutes to kill the other day, so I fired up the demos for Sonic the Hedgehog 4 and Force Unleashed 2. Can't say that either did very much for me.

Sonic 4
Looking at Sonic, the little bit in the demo seemed exactly like the old-school version back on the Genesis, and to be perfectly honest, I was never much of a Sonic fan. Add in the fact that the game’s episodic at $15 a pop, and the decision to delete the demo and move on was pretty easy.

Force Unleashed 2
Moving on to Force Unleashed 2, I was also quick to scrub it off my drive. It doesn’t seem bad, just very gamey in a way that wasn’t interesting. Kill some stormtroopers, move on to the next section, kill a few more, so on and so on. It felt totally artificial and contrived, and seeing the return of lightsaber-resistant stormtroopers was a major eyeroll moment. I liked the first game well enough despite its flaws, but after this demo, TFU2 has been bumped onto my ‘buy it when it’s $20” list.


Games: Got my hands on a pre-release code for Super Meat Boy (XBLA) and I’m loving it.

It’s hard as hell (ridiculously so in some parts) but the quality of the game is tops and the devs have a great sense of humor and style. A nice surprise was that some of the quasi-hidden nods to previous generations are just too awesome for words – hopping through a warp zone and seeing the game translated as if it were being played on the original GameBoy was a real gee-whiz moment. I won’t say much more for now (working on a review as we speak) but you should definitely plan on picking this one up if you’re a fan of 2D platformers and you’ve got nerves of steel.

You really can't tell what's going on here.

(By the way, I remarked about this on Twitter earlier, but does every indie developer have lightning-fast superhuman reflexes? Between Super Meat Boy, VVVVVV, N+, and even Braid in parts, it's pretty clear to see that small-house devs like their games brutally difficult!)


Games: In case you don't know (I sure didn't) there’s an official eight-part live-action Dead Rising 2 video available for download on the XBL marketplace.

My friend @Ind1fference (host of the GameEnthus.Com podcast) hipped me to it, and it's a hoot. The budget must've been about $14 and the dubbing is atrocious, but the wife and I have been enjoying it nonetheless. We got through half of it last night, and I can't wait to see how it turns out.

Download the first couple of episodes and see what you think.


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

I'm Late! I'm Late!  


Games: I just finished my review for Enslaved and submitted it a few minutes ago. It’s not live yet, but should go up pretty soon. I'll post a link here when it's good to go.

Now that I've got that one out of the way, I’m trying to decide what to tackle next… No decisions have been made yet, so I'll probably just try a few random things I've downloaded and then go to bed. However, while on the subject, it does bring up the issue of 2010 -- specifically, that there’s only about eighty days left in it.

I've mentioned several times on my Twitter feed that this is the first year where it genuinely seemed as though there wasn't enough time to play everything that I felt I should as a critic. I mean, I'm no stranger to the traditional fourth-quarter rush, but between the wealth of retail and DL releases, 2010 seemed to have more worthy (if not spectacular) games per month than I could possibly get to.

While I usually have to pack my play schedule a little tighter as each year draws to a close, I just don't see how it's possible to get to all of the ‘must-plays’, let alone the ‘looks interestings’ that are still on my list. The numbers just don't add up, and I have to admit that it feels pretty frustrating.

As an example, I've been comparing GOTY lists with a few people privately, and in each case our picks were almost completely different. I don't think it was necessarily that everyone had a radically diverging opinion, instead I think it had more to do with the fact that each of us had chosen different games due to time constraints and had simply failed to play the others. I really, really can't think of another year when that was the case.

So, what does all this have to do with you? Good question. Since there’s so little time left before the necessity of crafting the traditional end-of-year wrapup, I thought I'd throw it open to all of you and see what the hivemind felt I should definitely play before December 31.

Below is a list of likely candidates, but I'm also totally open to other suggestions. If there’s something you think I absolutely should see, I want to hear about it. Any system except PC is fair game (including DLC or Add-Ons) so dear readers, I ask you: What’s an important critical play?

Potential Candidates for Review before 12/31:

Metro 2033
Dead Rising 2
Cave Story
Bit.Trip Runner
And Yet It Moves
Castlevania: LoS
Valkyria Chronicles 2
Transformers: War for Cybertron
Super Mario Galaxy 2
Fallout: New Vegas



Misc: Alright, I under-estimated the time it would take me to catch up. Tomorrow. Update. I means it.


Monday, October 11, 2010


Misc: Meant to update this weekend, but a couple of emergencies popped up at work and I spent nearly the entire time on the job. Didn't get around to doing much of anything... If I owe you an email or a response to a comment, I'll do my best to clear off my 'to-do list' tomorrow. Stay tuned... and thanks for your patience!


Friday, October 8, 2010

Toy Soldiers, Explosionade, Alice on DS, Enslaved, and why $60 does NOT fit all  


Games: My latest review just went live over at GameCritics. You can click HERE to see what I thought of XBLA’s Toy Soldiers. (Hint: it was really good.) While I'm on the subject, I actually interviewed Max Wagner from that studio a few months before the game actually came out. If you missed it, then click HERE and see what he had to say. I'm currently in the process of trying to arrange a follow-up interview, so if you have any questions or things you'd like me to ask, drop me a line.


Games: Although the release of Explosionade (XBLI) was delayed for a while thanks to some screwy activity on Microsoft's Indie service, the latest from Mommy's Best Games is now available for download at the incredibly reasonable price of one dollar. I purchased my copy on the spot and played through the entirety in one sitting. If you are a fan of old-school platform-shooty action, then you definitely need to check this out. I'll be doing a review of the game in the next couple days, but I'll save you the wait: it's great, and you need to buy it. Like, now.


Games: I've mentioned it before, but I do want to throw out another plug for Alice in Wonderland on the DS. I will probably have finished the game by the time you read this, and although it was a bit slow at times and had a few frustrating parts (mostly due to my own self-inflicted collection-oriented OCD) I really think it's a superior title.

While it essentially follows the same storyline as the Tim Burton film (which was atrocious) the art style is quite dark and moody, and the gameplay can best be described as Ico-lite -- the player controls one of the Wonderland residents and Alice tags along behind.

There's a bit of combat which never gets too interesting, but it's more than made up for by the puzzles. Each of the main characters (White Rabbit, Cheshire Cat, Mad Hatter, Caterpillar) has their own set of powers which can be used to navigate obstacles. For example, the Rabbit can alter the flow of time with his giant pocket watch. The Cat can make things appear and disappear, and the Hatter can see different dimensions of each level.

The developers clearly put a great deal of effort into this project, and it's not at all the movie cash-in that you'd expect. If you're in the market for something tastefully left of center for the DS, I'd say that Alice in Wonderland is certainly worth a look.


Games: On the console front, I'm about three quarters done with Enslaved. I went with the 360 version after playing both 360/PS3 demos because the graphics seemed cleaner and sharper (on my particular setup, anyway) and I'm happy with the choice.

In general, it's a pretty good game. I've mentioned a few times that I was not a fan at all of Heavenly Sword, but developer Ninja Theory has stepped it up and turned out a fast-moving adventure that I think most people would enjoy. The characters are likable and the adventure is well-written for the most part.

In terms of action, it's a bit on the shallow side but the pace moves along at a good clip, and there are plenty of showy setpieces to keep a player's attention.

I'll have more to say when I turn in my full review, but at this point I'm giving it a pretty solid thumbs-up. I don't know that I would necessarily recommend it at full retail price of $60, but it would make a pretty fantastic weekend rental -- which is a good segue to my next point.

Earlier in the week I sent out a tweet saying that retail games need more viable price points. I fully believe that the current industry business models in place are absolutely outdated, and a serious shakeup needs to happen in order for growth and sustenance to be able to happen in a healthy way.

The reason I bring this up while speaking about Enslaved is that (like I said above) it's certainly a good game and I'm enjoying it, but it doesn't feel as though it's worth $60. I mean no disrespect to the developers or the publishers because it's a fine product, but it is a product that I think most players will go through in two or three sittings, and likely never touch again. It's a thrill-ride with cinematic flair, but that type of experience doesn't seem to possess the kind of value that I mentally associate with that much money.

If different price points were available for different kinds of games, I’d feel much better about recommending good ones to my readership.

Staying with Enslaved as the example, it's certainly a fun game and if it was priced at $30, I’d have no problems telling everyone to run out and buy it. At $60, I'm just not comfortable suggesting that the quality-to-quantity ratio is justified. Although it's true that as a critic I do receive plenty of free software to review, I do actually buy plenty of games with my own cash and I work hard to earn the money that goes into my wallet. I haven't lost sight of what it feels like to be a retail consumer.

While I say again that I enjoy Enslaved, it's hard for me to accept that buying a brand-new copy costs the same as it did to buy something like Fallout 3. The one-size fits-all mentality of retail pricing doesn't make any sense, and I think everybody knows it.

I would personally love to see more publishers acknowledge this reality and start experimenting with different price points. To be quite honest, I think it would benefit everyone involved -- consumers would feel as though they got fair value for the money, publishers would sell more since more consumers would be willing to pay lower prices for titles that aren't AAA infinite-replay blockbusters, and all parties would come out ahead.

Can't we give it a try?

Monday, October 4, 2010

Interview with: Brett Norton - Design Director of Section 8: Prejudice  

Games: Although I'm not the biggest fan of First-Person Shooters, I do enjoy them when they have something new to bring to the table. It's even better when they do it right.

2009’s Section 8 (360/PS3/PC) was one such game.

While this quietly innovative title didn't make a huge splash, those who actually give it a try found that it offered several interesting new twists, especially in regard to multiplayer. In fact, I think it's fair to say that Section 8 offered the best multiplayer experience I had that year.

After having such a surprisingly great time with the original title, I was quite excited to hear that a sequel is on the way. Wanting to know more, I got the chance to ask TimeGate Studios’ design director Brett Norton a few questions about the next entry in the Section 8 saga, subtitled Prejudice.

Here's what he had to say.


Thanks for taking the time to talk with me, Brett. To start things off, what is Section 8: Prejudice about, and for those who don't know, is it an add-on to the original game, or a standalone product?

After the defeat of the Arm of Orion at the hands of Section 8, there were still a lot of loose ends for Section 8 to wrap up. The questions the USIF has been struggling to answer are simple: How could a rogue faction construct weapons capable of destroying a USIF warship? Who provided the Arm of Orion with technology that rivals that of Section 8, the vanguard of the USIF’s military? As the main character Alex Corde, and his team round up the last of the Arm and try to answer these questions, plans go awry. It’s a story of betrayal, cover-ups, and of course, prejudice.

As a game, Prejudice is a full-fledged sequel. It’s a major evolution from Section 8, with significant overhauls to the art, engine, and gameplay. The major multiplayer mode, Conquest, focuses on large-scale team combat, allowing 32-player combat on both consoles and PC. We’ve also thrown some additional game modes into the mix this time, such as Swarm, a co-operative mode.

For offline players, not only is there a full campaign component, but we support bots in all game modes. Even if you don’t want to jump online and go up against other players, you can still enjoy every game mode offline against our devious AI. There are a lot of difficulty options for the AI, so even if you’re not a pro gamer, you can still find a fun and fair challenge.

That sounds like a pretty involved story. Should new players track down the original first, or will this sequel provide a fresh starting point for newcomers?

We’ve crafted Prejudice to appeal to both new and returning players. One of our major objectives with Prejudice is to grow the size of the community, and we couldn’t rely on all the new players having seen the original to do that. For that, we developed a whole new single-player campaign for Prejudice, and it’s turned into a great way to get new fans into the game without having played the original.

Let's talk about the first game in the series. After all was said and done, what was the "final verdict" on Section 8? It must have done fairly well in order to warrant a sequel, but did it do as well as you had hoped it would?

We learned a lot from our experiences while developing Section 8, as it was TimeGate’s first original IP shooter. When it was all said and done, there was still a burning desire to use that experience to craft something bigger and better. We were happy to get that opportunity, and with Prejudice we set out to make a sequel that truly shines. We are very committed to and very passionate about the universe.

Comparing the two titles, what worked in Section 8, and what didn't work so well? How did that knowledge inform the development of Section 8: Prejudice?

We’ve always been pleased with the amount of depth and teamwork possible in Section 8, but we wanted to help players learn the ropes faster.

Compared to the original, one area we chose to focus on was building a much more involved single-player campaign. Controls, timing, and pacing were another area of focus, but more of an intangible one. We gathered a lot of feedback both fans and internal testing and made countless small changes. A hundred tiny changes later, on anything ranging from aim sensitivity to character run speeds, we arrived at something that feels incredibly smooth. I’m most happy with the control improvements, as a lot of tweaks went into aiming and vehicle handling. Control improvements just make everything else feel so much better.

There’s much more that is new in Prejudice, just can’t reveal it now.  = )

Will the single player campaign in Prejudice be about the same, shorter, or longer than the one presented in the original Section 8?

Prejudice’s campaign is its own full-fledged experience. We can’t really compare it to Section 8, because it’s a vastly different - being longer and much more highly involved. Based on community feedback, we took a completely different approach this time around.

Section 8’s multiplayer was fantastic. What new features, improvements or changes can fans of the multiplayer expect?

Tons. More than I could possibly cover in one response. But one of the biggest updates is the addition of new co-op game mode called Swarm. We had server options in the original called Swarm and Super Swarm, and they were so much fun, we felt they warranted something bigger and better.

With Prejudice, we rolled out the red carpet for Swarm. Being its own stand-alone game mode, it utilizes custom scoring rules and has a number of unique bosses and mini-bosses. To summarize, it’s you and three squadmates in a co-op experience atop a fortress against an unrelenting swarm of enemies. Yea, sounds familiar, until you factor in Prejudice’s on-the-fly purchasing system and how players can call down deployable turrets anywhere on the map. The enemies come from many sides, so where and when you call down deployabes plays a huge role in determining your team’s success. It’s great to see players go through the same map in a couple of different ways, utilizing different loadouts and different deployables to beat the swarm. Think co-op FPS meets tower defense.

Swarm has a lot of difficulty levels, so even very inexperienced players can jump in and have fun. You can even play offline with bot teammates, continuing our tradition of supporting full offline play for every mode. Veteran players, well gang, have fun with the Insane difficulty setting. We ran our last internal playtest on Swarm, and despite us knowing how it works, we got stomped. It’s definitely winnable, but we don’t expect anyone to show up on day one and beat all the Swarm maps on Insane. You might get lucky and beat one of the easier maps, but others will break you.  = )

In terms of specifics, will it be easier to pull off a ‘death from above’? Also, the Prejudice trailer shows some third-person action that appeared to be different than what was found in the first game. Will the third-person viewpoint see expanded use in Prejudice?

That question has come up a lot on our forums as well, and unfortunately I cannot give the entire spoiler answer now;). All I can say is that dropping is now handled very differently than the original. To a small extent this has made ‘death from above kills’ easier, but they are still very challenging. We didn’t want to make it too easy to obliterate someone for gameplay reasons, but yes, it’s more doable now. We also added some benefits to hitting the ground at fast speeds; the more reckless your landing, the more damage you do to nearby targets. So now there’s a tradeoff; brake sooner for more control, or brake later for more damage.

What systems will Prejudice be available on, and in what format(s)?

We look forward to revealing platform specific information as well as publishing plans in the coming months.

What is TimeGate’s stance towards DLC and continuing community support? Has any thought been given to these areas yet, or is the focus right now solely on the core Prejudice experience?

We’re not going to roll out those specific details just yet. However, I can tell you we have a dedicated ‘live team’ built for the project. Prejudice will be our most heavily supported project, post-release, in our 12 year history.

Infinite thanks to Brett Norton and the rest of TimeGate Studios for taking the time to speak with me, and equally infinite thanks to Luis Levy for helping to make it happen. Best of luck to everyone involved, and look for more information on Section 8: Prejudice soon. In the meantime, check out the official wesbite HERE, and you can see the reveal trailer for Prejudice HERE.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Two Life Messages And A Lot Of Gaming  


Life: While I don't usually spend a lot of time talking about things like politics or social issues, every once in a while I do feel the need to speak up about something. That time is right now.

If you read this blog with any regularity, you probably know that I'm a father of two. Having kids is an incredibly enriching and wonderful experience, and being the best father I can possibly be is something that I think about a daily basis. I don't just roll out of bed and have a random “Day + Kids” everyday, I actively, consciously think about my role and the import it has on my young ones. My actions, their effects, and whether whatever I'm doing at that moment is the best thing for my children.

Last night my wife passed along a link, which I read and then promptly retweeted. If you don't follow me on Twitter, then I definitely suggest that you CLICK HERE and read it now. Essentially, the author has encapsulated my stance on parenting, almost perfectly. If you are a father or have ever entertained the notion of being one, even for a moment, I would say that this is required reading.

Please take it to heart.


Life: No, I'm not done with the soapbox quite yet. If you've been plugged into the news lately, you've likely heard at least a little bit about the student at Rutgers University who killed himself after being videotaped in a homosexual encounter. It's an incredibly tragic story, and even more tragic is that it's not the first time someone has done something incredibly drastic like this.

Dan Savage
Although I can only imagine the kind of heartbreak that person's family is going through right now, I'm sure that they would want to spare other families that same kind of suffering. While I can’t personally do a lot to rectify this particular situation, what I can do is pass along THIS LINK to the It Gets Better project, launched by Dan Savage on YouTube.

Essentially, it's a collection of videos from Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender/Queer people telling their life stories and how incredibly hard they were. However, it's not a pity-party. The message they're trying to get across is that life does get better and there can certainly be light at the end of the tunnel for people who are struggling to find a happy place for themselves in the world. It's about hope.

If this is something that can help you, please take the time to check it out. If you know someone who might benefit from these positive messages, please pass it along.


Games: I've been in a bit of a holding pattern lately. I keep waiting for specific titles for review to show up, and… none of them do. Since I hate putting something on hold when a must-review game arrives, I've been burning through a bunch of random stuff in the hopes that the UPS truck will drop something off sooner rather than later. No such luck yet. In the meantime, here's what I've been doing… RAPID-FIRE STYLE!!!

Deadly Premonition
>My most recent piece just went up at GameCritics. CLICK HERE to check out my Second Opinion of the notorious Deadly Premonition (360). Don't be surprised if you see it end up on my year-end Top 10 list. Seriously.

Sin & Punishment
>I ran through Sin & Punishment: Star Successor on the Wii. I'm not the biggest Treasure fan by any means, but it was fairly enjoyable and I liked much of the visual style. The story was complete nonsense and some of the sections were more difficult than I prefer, but I would definitely recommend it on the cheap, or as a weekend rental.

> I popped in Metroid: Other M… and then promptly popped it right back out. I think I played something like two hours or so, and that was more than enough for me.

The voice acting was atrocious, and the cutscenes are ridiculously absurd. It's no secret that (dev house)Team Ninja has never been a model of gender equality in their designs, but I was quite shocked that Nintendo didn't iron out some of these ‘colorful’ tendencies.

My distaste for the writing aside, the game design just makes no sense. I'm utterly baffled as to why the game uses only the Wiimote when the Nunchuk attachment is so readily available to most players. Using a 2D control scheme to navigate in 3D space? Not exactly the most brilliant idea. Pass.

Toy Soldiers
>I was gifted a copy of Toy Soldiers (XBLA) by an extremely benevolent soul who shall remain nameless, and I'm happy to report that I have at long last finally found a Tower Defense game that doesn't make me want to toss my controller through a window. Really, really enjoying it so far, and the art is fantastic. Totally recommend this to anybody. Plus, the developer (Signal Studios) is local... about 15 minutes from my house -- score one for the home team!

Playing Hydrophobia was torture
>Spent some time with Hydrophobia, although not much. I can hardly think of a less enjoyable beginning to a game than being stuck in dark, complicated corridors with an unreadable mess of a map and an extremely sketchy camera. Add in some pointless Metroid Prime-style environment scanning to drag the pace of everything down, and it’s a recipe for disaster. I have to seriously question some of the early review scores awarding it high marks…

Alice in Wonderland (DS)
>Tried the DS version of Alice in Wonderland thanks to my friend @Zolos, and he wasn't wrong to suggest it. The art is nice and abstract, and the developers have come up with some nifty mechanics to match. I haven't spent a lot of time on it, but I really like what I've seen so far.

Sums it up pretty nicely...
>Played a bit of Left 4 Dead 2 with the wife in online co-op. This is the first time playing it for both of us (we ran through the original L4D together and had a blast) but I have to say that things did not get off to the best start.

The mission we played (the mall) had fairly boring level design until we got to the main area of the shopping center, which went from boring to annoying. The task of collecting thirteen cans of gas for a racecar was a bit insipid to start with, but then our baby woke up before we finished.

Like I said, we were in the online co-op mode. We prefer to look at a full screen -- splitscreen is great to have, but if the option for full-screen is there, we're taking it. Despite the fact that only two people were playing and both of us wanted to pause, we could not pause the game. That was bad enough, but as I was putting the baby back to sleep, the game registered us as ‘inactive’ even though I was only away for a very short time. The server booted us, and we lost all our progress… needless to say, neither one of us was very happy with the game at that moment.

Tonight's events don't really inspire me with confidence, to be honest. Our baby doesn't usually sleep through the night, and if the game is going to boot us off the server every time we have to put him back to sleep, this is going to be an extremely difficult playthrough.

> Last but certainly not least, I got a chance to spend some time with a pre-release version of Explosionade, from Mommy’s Best Games. I can't say a lot about it except that I was enjoying the hell out of what I saw, and with this game launching at the insanely low price of $1.00, there's absolutely no reason in the world for anyone not to buy it. Really, really looking forward to getting my hands on the final version!