Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Playstation Home Review (PS3)

What an epic tale Sony makes for. Here's a company that was the undisputed king of consoles during the last generation that has been doing everything it can to sabotage its own success since the release of the PS3. Like Hamlet, Sony's strategy regarding its latest console seems to involve the death of everything associated with it, followed by flirtations with suicide. The latest player in this Shakespearean drama is none other than the greatly anticipated Home, touted as a virtual nexus of sorts for all of the PS3 denizens to gather, play games, watch streaming content, and design their own homes. Sort of a "Second Life" for the console crowd. Have two years of development and God knows how many millions of dollars invested been worth it?

Following a relatively brief initial download you have to go through a standard EUA and then you're prompted to create an avatar. The process is surprisingly limited in terms of options. There are several base models you can pick to represent your virtual self, but the options for fine-tuning those selections are relatively weak. You can manipulate a few specific parts of your anatomy such as your jaw, lips, etc., but in the age of the Sims and Second Life, to name a few, I honestly expected greater degrees of customization. I wasn't even able to create an avatar that looked remotely like myself, and I'm a decidedly average looking guy. Even worse are the options for hairstyles (bald, anime, goth, and punk are the only real options), and as far as facial hair goes you're out of luck unless you want a mustache that makes your avatar look like a 1900s villain who ties damsels to railroad tracks.

After you create your virtual self you're dumped into your own little studio apartment overlooking the ocean and a marina. To be fair, the graphics live up to a healthy standard. Everything looks like it should on a next-gen console, though the animations are a little stiff. For some reason in the dystopian world of Home the sun never sets, but unlike the British Empire this phenomenon is quite literal. Perhaps the world of Home is set in one of those small regions of the Earth where it's always daytime for six months, but it'd also probably be bitterly cold, and none of the avatars seem particularly well dressed for that kind of climate. After wandering around my tiny apartment for a bit the tutorial prompted me to visit the central meeting point for Home users, a nexus that connects the populace to a mall, a theater, and a bowling alley. Not one to want to disappoint the tutorial gods, I followed instructions dutifully, and was then prompted to download the nexus which took a good 10 minutes. What the hell? I just installed the damn program and all it provided me with was my own apartment? But whatever, we'll roll with it. After the lengthy download, I then had to load the actual nexus, which took another minute or two, but finally, I thought, now my patience will be rewarded.

After loading into the central meeting point I wandered around some more (detecting a theme here?), occasionally bumping into a crowd of equally perplexed Home citizens. This could be my fault, but I was unable to figure out how to get into the theater, but I recovered from that stinging defeat and managed to wander into the mall... after another download and loading session. After bumping into a few more avatars I went to the virtual clothing store and browsed a bit, eventually stumbling across an ugly cowboy hat that I could purchase for $0.49. And then it hit me... Home is entirely about micro-transactions. You can leave your tiny studio apartment and purchase a summer home for five bucks, and then pay $20 or so to furnish it. When browsing the furniture and nick-knacks store I noticed that a tiny model airplane decoration cost another fifty cents of real money. Who the hell pays for this shit? I'd be ashamed to show off my well-furnished house in Home that probably cost me tens of dollars to my friends - it'd be like having a neon sign nailed to my forehead that says, "I'm a consumer tool. Will you be my friend?"

Speaking of friends, during my jaunt at the mall I only noticed two people attempting to have a conversation, and it must have been using hunt-and-peck text entry through the controller, because the conversations looked more like text-messages fired back and forth through cell phones, "u r hot." There were a few dance troupes engaging in an informal breakout session, their virtual bodies tearing up the mall floor to the ambient, easy-listening-esque elevator music that flowed through the mall's invisible speakers. Off in a corner there were a few male avatars simulating oral sex with each other. This was truly worth the wait.

I can just picture the execs at Sony:

"Hey, I have a great idea - let's create a free virtual world for people, ala Second Life, only there'll be no user-created content and we'll soak the users with a Mississippi River of micro-transactions to do anything remotely fun."

"That sounds good - but we should have fun, free activities for users too. Throw in some arcade game ports and bowling."

"Ok, but only on the condition that we make the users stand in a virtual line before they can play."

"Done. Now how long will this take to develop?"

"Oh, about two years."

"Excellent. How much will it cost?"

"Millions and millions of dollars."

"Run with it."

This is what Sony has been working on? Not making a competent online service that can compete with Xbox Live? Not improving XMB functionality? Not working on across-the-board PS2 emulation? Every day it seems more and more that Sony is doing everything they can to lose this generation's console war, and I honestly hope that they don't lose it to the extent that they get out of the console business, because frankly the only reason the Xbox 360 exists and is in as solid shape as it is today is due to competition with Sony, and it'll be a sad, gloomy day when there's only one console left on the market - but I'll be damned if I help support Sony with an endless deluge of Home micro-transactions.

And then there's the inevitable comparison to Linden Labs' Second Life. For all the flack Second Life takes in gaming circles, the beauty of it is that you really can do whatever you want. Sure, this leads to a vocal minority of pervs and furries, etc., but that's what they are, a minority. Sometimes it's fun to just find an ocean area in SL, whip out a schooner or a yacht, and go sailing with real wind physics and day-night cycles. Sometimes it's fun to work on building additions to your house while chatting it up with some friends, and for the more entrepreneurial, you can make serious real life cash in SL by designing and selling items. I'm not being a SL evangelical here, but the point I'm making is that Home is just Second Life with none of the freedom while constantly being elbowed toward paying fifty cents for a cowboy hat.

Oh, and finally, some people may criticize the harshness of this review using the excuse "But it's only a beta!" To which I say "tish-tosh." It's an open beta, and the reason it's subject to my ridicule is that it was released purely so Sony wouldn't miss another release date and thus approach the three year mark of Home's development. Desperate to get Home out the door to the unwashed masses before the end of 2008, Sony opens Home up to critique.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Fallout 3 Review (360, PS3, PC)

Fallout 3 is a game that's been a long time in the making. The original designers of the series have since bowed out of license, with the task falling to Bethesda Studios, best known for their work on the Elder Scrolls series of RPGs, and this is apparent at the very beginning of the game. The world of Fallout is a post-apocalyptic future where mankind has fled to the safety of a series of underground vaults throughout the United States to protect themselves from nuclear war and the harsh and radiated life thereafter. The player begins the game as a denizen of one of these vaults, and makes the usual RPGish selections of facial geometry, statistics, et al. through a short sequence depicting the protagonist's development from birth to adulthood. Eventually the player is released from the confines of the vault and left to explore the wasteland of Washington D.C. on a quest to find his father. On a presentation level, the game soars. It's absolutely beautiful, but this is somewhat blunted by the fact that you'll be spending 95% of your time either in a brown, flat, deserted wasteland, or in a grungy subway tunnel. This is an inherent limitation of the genre, and not necessarily a total fault of the developer. After all, a wasteland is a wasteland, and the developers only had so much to work with. It isn't bad, per se, but expect to see a lot of muted grays and browns.

A comparison with Bethesda's last RPG, Oblivion, is inevitable, so let's get that out of the way right now. Fallout 3 is very, very Oblivion-like, with some of the same issues such as NPC pathing, but it's improved in several areas. The visuals are more detailed than Oblivion which is saying a lot as Oblivion was one of the most gorgeous games to ever grace a console or PC back in 2006, but the most dramatic improvement is in the voice acting. Oblivion was lacking in that respect, and it always sounded like Bethesda grabbed three random people, tossed them in a sound studio, and forced them to recite endless lines of dialogue in an attempt to populate an entire world with a variety of voices. In other words, it fell flat. Fallout 3, however, is populated with a rich cast of characters with voices that seldom sound similar and this goes a long way toward extending the credibility of the world.

Fallout 3 is a game with guns. Lots of guns. What it's not is a first person shooter. Though you can aim and fire a gun as if you were playing Call of Duty 4, the results are all tied to statistics and skills, which only create the illusion of active participation in combat. This isn't a bad thing, as long as you know what to expect. A more popular way of playing through combat is by using Fallout 3's VATS system. VATS allows you to pause the game and use "action points" to target specific parts of an enemy's body with varying chances of success depending on factors such as distance and appropriate skills. As you progress throughout the wasteland, complete quests, and fell mutants and raiders, you'll gain experience which allows you to level up. With each level comes a number of benefits: You can increase your skills, and select a perk which grants you various effects such as bonuses to damage, more dialogue options in specific contexts, and increases to primary attributes. It's a simple system that works very well in contrast to Oblivion's arcane leveling scheme that requires a lot of forethought if you want to min-max your character.

Is the game fun, though? In many ways, yes. But the fun tends to come from random side-quests and odds and ends that you stumble across through exploration rather than by following the main story arc. For example, during one of my wanderings I came across a small settlement with the unlikely name of "The Republic of Dave." This guy Dave has declared this tiny town (population 5, plus children) its own sovereign nation. Apparently it used to be the Kingdom of Tom, who was Dave's father, but Dave decided to change the system of government to be more progressive once he inherited the kingdom. In this settlement, the dialogue options are hilarious, and you can attempt to rig an upcoming election and toss Dave out on his ear. Or you can walk through the Republic with an automatic shotgun cutting down its inhabitants like wheat (on a side note, if you make your intentions to take over the Republic clear, the person you're talking to will run away screaming "Communist! Help! He's a communist!!" Classic).

This is but one example of the quality of writing and black humor that's sprinkled throughout this massive world, and this makes the design decisions regarding the main quest even more perplexing. After a few side-quests I decided to follow the main story arc for awhile, and before I knew it I'd come to the end, and the kicker is that once you finish the game and the credits roll, regardless of what final decision you make at the end of the game, you can't keep playing. This is an incredibly poor design decision given that over 90% of the areas and quests in the game have absolutely nothing to do with the main story arc and can be completely missed unless actively sought out. This means that if you want the complete experience you have to force yourself to ignore the main story until the very end. It would have made much more sense to simply allow you to continue playing after you complete the main story arc like in Oblivion.

Morality plays a role in Fallout 3, and you're usually able to choose a "good" or "evil" solution to most of the challenges you face. While in most cases this doesn't have a significant impact on the world, in others it can change the world dramatically, and sometimes even the landscape itself. There's definitely a joy in being able to gun down virtually anyone you come across, and admittedly I spent a good hour reloading the Republic of Dave and murdering its population in hilarious ways just for my own amusement. This brings me to the combat: It's pleasantly gory. Limbs rip off from their sockets and fly across the room from the impact of bullets and explosions, and bits of bone protrude from muscle tissue. While it's a very satisfying experience, it's certainly not for children.

In summary, Fallout 3 is an exceptional game with a variety of flaws that detract from but don't ruin the experience as a whole. There are a lot of things I'd have done differently, but it's a solid game that should be experienced regardless of what system you play it on. Party faithfuls of the original Fallout games will no doubt complain that Fallout 3 is more like "Oblivion with Guns" than a true successor, but Bethesda treats the series with respect, and does a good job overall of blending the atmosphere and systems of the original games with its own RPG engine. I played both the 360 and PC versions, and if you have a rig that can run the game, I highly recommend the PC version for its faster loading times and potential modding possibilities if Bethesda ever releases an editor, but failing that the game is nearly identical on consoles and still provides a fun experience.


So... one of the things about pet projects is forging the discipline to keep them going after the initial enthusiasm wears off. This is something I've obviously failed at over the past few months. I can only use the start of the fall semester and increasing demands on my personal time as a partial excuse, but I'm going to use those reasons anyway. So no, the site isn't dead, it's just, well, scattershot at the moment.

I'll be making updates and doing reviews, but honestly I need a staff member or two to keep up with the deluge of review-worthy games that have come out in the past few months. It's a hard task for one man to handle on his own. So, that said, if anyone is interested in becoming a contributor, submit a sample review to me and I'll give it a once-over. Until then, patience!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Mercenaries 2 Review (360, PS3, PC, PS2)

Mercenaries 2 is a somewhat-anticipated sequel to the original game that appeared on last-gen consoles four years ago. Like its predecessor it bills itself as an "open world" game, and obviously it'll be compared against the mother of all open world series, Grand Theft Auto. While that's definitely a burden it must shoulder, Mercenaries 2 is different enough so one can justifiably cry "apples and oranges," to an extent. The plot revolves around a mercenary (you) who's been contracted by a Venezuelan oil baron to kick ass and take names, paving the way for his ascendancy to becoming the President of said country. This baron double-crosses you, fails to pay you, and shoots you in the ass to boot, and of course you can't take that lying down (or sitting). Apparently the developers flipped through the New York Times and discovered that the U.S. really doesn't like this "Hugo" character, whoever he is, and thought they'd make a game out of it.

I'm being harsh, though. The game is beautiful with its stunning vistas, wide range of sight, and gorgeously rendered jungle environments that contrast well with large urban cities. The highlight of the game is that you can play co-op online with a buddy, and honestly, this is the way the game was meant to be played. That, combined with the game's other back-of-the-box feature, the fact that every single building in the game is destructible, makes for hours of mindless fun. As you play through the game on your road to revenge you'll encounter various factions, from Jamaican pirates to soulless Texas-based oil conglomerates and beyond. All of these factions have contracts for you to do, and unique equipment you can purchase from them. Of course, when you do a job for one faction it usually involves pissing off another faction, so you have to balance your relationships and decide who you want your friends to be and who can go pound sand.

The game is incredibly buggy, though. Sometimes contracts wouldn't pay the amount advertised, sometimes missions would glitch, and there's lots and lots of pop-in. The experience can feel a little disjointed at times too, as it's easy to get lost and not know what to do next. When I was playing it, I couldn't help but draw comparisons to Just Cause (or as I prefer to call it "Just 'Cause"), but in fairness, even though Mercenaries 2 can be a bumpy ride from time to time, the sheer amount of pure, mindless fun it provides makes the myriad of bugs and glitches forgivable. It's a game that's certainly lacking in the polish factor, but somehow that seems to be less of an issue when you can order a Mi-21 Hind delivered to your location, jump in it with a friend, and proceed to level every building in a three block radius. You can also order in air strikes and artillery bombardments on positions that lay waste to the landscape and are almost erotic to watch.

The game is filled with several "Oh Snap!" multiplayer moments. Like the time I fired a grappling gun onto an enemy helicopter and was reeling myself in 300 feet above the ground when my buddy thought it'd be a good idea to fire a stinger missile at the chopper, blowing it up, and sending me hurtling ass over teakettle to the jungle floor below. And then there was the time a routine foray into a city to complete a simple mission turned into an epic half-hour firefight with Universal Petrolium's mercenary crew that leveled half the city before we finally escaped to safety. Mark my words, you can do some crazy, crazy things in Mercenaries 2. It's also a very forgiving game, in that you can take an absurd amount of damage before you finally buy the farm, and if you're playing co-op all your buddy has to do is swing by and give you the standard tap on the shoulder to bring you back to the land of the living again. It's very over the top, but in the context of the game it works.

If you're an anti-social type, or prefer playing games alone, Mercenaries 2 is a forgettable experience - but if you strap in with a friend, it's worth every penny of gorgeous, technicolor, bunker-buster destruction.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Can I get a WAAAGH?

Well the Warhammer Online preview weekend has come and gone. Wow (bad pun intended), I was having so much fun I completely neglected any of those normal responsibilities of being a human being. Cleaning, laundry, dishes, proper hygiene, all that stuff were secondary after around 6pm on Friday.

Let’s get the bad out of the way right off. Yes, it is a bit buggy in places but for the most part the game is quite stable. I believe most of the crashes were caused less by the game and more by running it on a laptop which overheats after a while. My major quibble is with mob pathing and line-of-sight, when a mob gets stuck in something and freaks out it is a bit annoying. Let’s see, other major flaws.... nope, that’s about it.

So the good stuff, open world RvR is sweet beyond belief, even with wholly uncoordinated pick-up groups. My best experience of the weekend was when I joined an open warband and we tore through all three of the middle-lower level RvR zones. Sixteen of us at the peak and time and again the forces of Order tried to stop us and failed. The only shame was that the third tier was locked out or we would have gone for that too.

Second best experience can be summed up in two words: Boiling Oil. One click and four kills? Oh yes, oh yes.

Another great thing was I was playing a healing class, spec’d for healing and took out two Order players who jumped me. That isn’t supposed to happen.

The time wasn’t entirely spent killing hapless stumpies and keeblers though. I did spend much time in the PvE and Public Quest parts of the game as well. Which I found to be well-rounded, clear and worth doing, it helps your realm take over zones and you get useful rewards. PQ’s are good practice for some of the RvR aspects anyway, some of the same mechanics are used.

Another thing, the “open party” system is so brilliant you have to wonder why it isn’t in every MMO. Yes, party leaders can make it closed if they want but hey, more people working towards the same goal just speeds things up.

There are many different MMO’s with different strengths and weaknesses and different styles of play. Take the obvious comparison, WoW. To level you pretty much have to do quests or grind and in the endgame you either have to raid to progress or do battlegrounds.

What WAR offers is options. Do you like grinding? PQ’s, Kill Collectors and Tome unlocks are there for you with bonus XP. PvE with a rich storyline? Heaps of quests and instances, you never have to kill another player if you don’t want to. Though if you do want to kill everyone you come across, oh man, the RvR is insanely fun and purposeful. Even if you are just bumming around in the city there are things to do to advance your character.

Essentially it feels like they’ve got their bases covered to keep players happy, both casual and hardcore.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Steam in the street

Hello, obligatory introductory post here from a frequently frustrated PC gamer. I’m a Mac user, in my line of work it is practically a necessity. Design and prepress in a print environment? You’d be a fool to use anything else. You’d also be a fool to attempt it if you are colorblind but that is a different story for a different time. Anyway, I don’t expect much in the way of native gaming (meaning at best is Blizzard, at worst is anything not Blizzard… and Bungie? They can just go to hell).

With Boot Camp, I can also be a native Windows user, where my gaming expectations drastically change.

What is so painful is to know, inside and out, the beast that is Xbox live. That is such a revolutionary step forward in gaming as a social experience. Old friends, whose early years were often spent sitting in-front of a convex CRT for some very late nights could keep that tradition alive despite the distances that inevitably separate us.

Then you look at Games for Windows. Okay, you are already in league with these publishers and developers for the Xbox versions, you know the games inside and out. Then you try to run it in Windows and everything goes to hell. You end up with little a hint of marketing on the packaging along with SecureROM and Starforce. Yes, pirating on a PC is far easier than on a 360 but with a little soldering skill and a decent external hard drive there is little difference. Both types of piracy are, for most “AAA” developers, absolutely useless for anything online, typically locked to single-player only. So where is the API for Games for Windows as there is for Xbox Live?

One can argue hardware but the Xbox dashboard is not really the greatest drain on the system and could be adapted to the endless hardware variation that exists with modern PCs. Its brilliance lies in the simplicity. If a friend comes online, no matter what you are doing, it lets you know. You can invite them to whatever game you are playing, they can do the same and there’s a standardized VOIP. That’s it, all it takes for everything to just work the way it should.

So there is Steam, which is far from perfect but has a good go at it, yet it comes across as a rather watered-down version of Xbox Live. Some chat, maybe voice chat, maybe an in-game friends list. The primary draw of Steam is that you don’t have to drive to a mall to buy a game. It is still missing that simplicity that a unified Windows Live framework could provide across any game.

Yes, I’m calling for more Microsoft consolidation and the only justification is because it worked so well on the 360.