Friday, June 27, 2008

GTA IV Criticisms

GTA IV is a great game - let me just say that first and foremost. The game world, which is a digital recreation of NYC, is stunningly realized - at first glance. Look a little deeper though, and you may realize that both the game world and the gameplay itself are not quite as fully fleshed out as they could have been. Granted, making a game like GTA IV requires an astronomical amount of work and not everything can make it into the game - not even stuff the developers want to put in. Im sure Rockstar could have put more into the game - why they didnt is a matter of speculation. On one hand, we might theorize that they were under pressure to get the game out on budget and on time, as it had already been delayed numerous times. On the other, pehaps, as any good poker player might, Rockstar chose not to show their complete hand early in the game. That is, they realize GTA IV is the first of several new GTA games, and if they put everything in the first one, there wouldnt be much point in making a sequel. Perhaps its a combination of both factors.

Lets start with the game world itself - an uncanny digital recreation of NYC. Let me say I think the graphics are fantastic in GTA IV - it is visually one of the most stunning games I have ever played. If the colors look flat and the lighting isnt what you wanted - come visit NYC. It wont be what you wanted either. NYC is a grey area - literally. I once stuck my Xbox 360 camera out my window during a match of Uno and umopapisdnpuaq asked me to turn the black and white filter off so he could see the city better. There was no filter on the camera - the city, with all the soot and grime and sleaze stuck to it, just looks very grey. So, they got the look right - but they didnt quite get the feel right.

For starters, there are no tourists in Times Square - or the rest of the city. City residents are portrayed with remarkable accuracy - but the non-residents are perhaps the most notable thing when you go to an area like Midtown. During the summer, its swarming with people in brightly colored clothes, with backpacks, sandals and maps, just staring up at the buildings. There are unkempt people walking around, but nobody sleeping on the streets or crackheads begging for change. Yet we have a plethora of prostitutes - among many women in the game who are portayed as objects to be aquired like ammunition. So we strike on an early theme: the boring, pathetic and visiting people were left out of the city, and the cool, absurd, or sexy people were left in. They edited the roster of NYC street life to suit their Rockstar tastes. Their tastes are in a few words, adolescent and misogynistic. You have people walking down the street shouting out "cheesy vaginas!" Its hard to take the game world seriously when puerile humor is constantly being jammed down your throat. The TV and radio ads, as hilarious and ridiculous as some of them are, detract from the otherwise incredible realism of the game world. Rockstar - and its writers like Dan Houser who wrote GTA IV - still havent grown up. The game still feels jouvenile, even though the look has clearly grown up with new technology - GTA IV is still a joy for the eyes and ears, despite these flaws.

But more troubling is the somewhat empty game world. Sure, there is tons of traffic and pedestrians everywhere. But after playing a game like The Godfather, which was originally a PS2 title mind you, where there are seemingly hundreds of different buildings and busineses the player can enter and interact with, Liberty City feels a bit empty. You can only enter a few dozen structures in the entire game world, and there are only a handful of places to eat in the entire city. At first, I thought I had to discover them first before they appeared on the map. But no, there are just a few eateries in all of NYC, and none in New Jersey (Alderney). Whats worse is that there are many restaurants built into the game world - you just cant interact with them. I can't tell you the number of times I needed health and had to take a taxi to the Time Square chicken place and then another taxi back to Alderney to finish a mission. Later I realized I could call an ambulance for health, but really, its no replacement for more food spots or an item system where I could store a health pack.

Secondly, you cant buy property or extort businesses - which you could do in GTA San Andreas and The Godfather, respectively. As you gained money, you could buy bigger and better properties, and it served to propel the gameplay particularly in GTA:SA after the storyline was done. GTA IV has no such features, and the replay value is hurt substantially by it.

Comparing the single player experience of GTA IV to GTA San Andreas isnt kind to GTA IV. While there were several improvements to the gameplay, most notably a cover system and better aiming, a huge chunk of content that was present in San Andreas doesnt exist in GTA IV. For starters, you cant buy property like you could in San Andreas - or anything besides food, guns or clothes. Sop bascially, the money you earn in GTA IV is pointless. You have so much of it by the end of the game, and so little to spend it on. This was a huge oversight by Rockstar.

There are fewer cars and weapons types in GTA IV than there were in San Andreas. But worse than that, they completely screwed up both the handling and the physics of the vehicles. You should not need to play a game for 20 hours just to learn how to drive. The driving controls are so heavy and counterintuitive, and the cars flip so easily, its amazing that the game is even playable. Imagine how great the game would be if the vehicle controls were actually good. I eventually got used to fighting them and was able to earn the "Genetically Superior" achievement for winning all the single player races - but the learning curve should not be so steep. I know a few people that simply quit playing the game early on because they could just not get a handle on the driving controls, and thats a shame.

In San Andreas, there was a driving school. Although you didnt really need to complete it to be able to drive the cars proficiently, it was really fun to complete anyway. GTA IV desperately needs a driving school, right at the beginning of the game. The "A" button, which is the e-brake, and supposedly helps you make sharp turns, is entirely useless for doing anything other than 180 spins. The only way to take sharp turns in a controlled fashion is to rapidly tap the L trigger (brake) as you approach it. There is no real drifting in the game, just slow down and take the turn like a grandma. Because if you take the turn too sharply, your car will go up onto two wheels and flip over - even in a supercar like the Inferno. Do you know how hard it is to actually flip a Ferarri in reality? Do you know how fast you would have to be going to generate enough force to lift one up on two wheels? Its almost physically impossible. Yet in GTA IV flipping your car is constant. Amazingly, this was Rockstar's attempt to make the driving more realitic. They completely and utterly failed, and in the process made the game much more difficult and much less enjoyable than it could have been.

Cars arent the only things Rockstar messed up in GTA IV. The bikes and helicopters, while handling better than the cars and trucks, arent as much fun to drive in GTA IV. The physics on the bikes was so radically changed that the entire genre of game videos knows as "GTA Stunting" is in jeopardy. There are a few rare people who can still create cool stunts in GTA IV, but GTA San Andreas was GTA Stunting democraticized. Anyone with a bike and a jump truck could create amazing stunts anywhere - flying off buildings, doing multiple flips - and landing it, all for an insane stunt bonus. Thats right, for those who dont remember, you earned cash for landing the unique stunt jumps in San Andreas. Not only were there more jumps built into the map, they were bigger, more badass, and more totally insane. The stunt jumps in GTA IV are weak. There are only a handful of good ones, and stunningly, there are no jumptrucks at all in GTA IV.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the vehicles besides their poor handling is the inability to realistically interact with them. Rockstar made a huge deal about how GTA IV incorporated the Havoc physic engine, and it would allow the game to offer more realistic interaction with vehicles and objects. Not only are the vehicle physics in the game no longer fun, they do not allow for such simple tasks as standing on a moving boat. You cannot stand on moving cars or trucks either - although both of these actions were possible in GTA San Andreas. Whether this was a conscious decision by Rockstar or a byproduct of a useless and overhyped physics engine doesnt matter - its an absolutely unforgivable design decision. I also really, really wanted to be able to grab and hang onto a low hovering helicopter with one hand on have friends take me on a heli-tour, or, if its Blank Void piloting it would be more of a Hell Tour with me getting slammed into bridge and building tops and whatnot. Imagine the possibilities of rocket toting heli-hangers jousting over the skies of Midtown, and you can see why Im so disappointed. Dont even get me started on the lack of BMX bikes, skateboards, or rollerskates. Just imagine the possibilities!

The single player game features the gruff yet charismatic Niko Bellic, though sadly you cant customize him beyond his outfit. GTA:SA allowed players to customize its main character, Carl, with tatoos, different hairstyles, sunglasses, he could work out and become super-buff, or he could eat 500 burgers in a row and become super-fat, etc. Niko has none of these more advanced, RPG style customization elements. Couple these limitations with only a handful of choices throughout the story, and you have a very limited, controlled, linear experience, thats more like a playable action movie than the Adventure-Action-RPG that was GTA San Andreas. Rival gangs roamed the streets of GTA SA and The Godfather, and you could often witness inter-gang fights and gang battles with the police - no such NPC chaos exists in GTA IV. San Andreas was also huge, physically, compared to the size of Liberty City. I remember reading a Rockstar rep saying that Liberty City would be as physically big as SA, but more dense. Lies - Liberty City is smaller and more limited, in every way.

The gameplay in the single player GTA IV experience is suprisingly limited compared to what the player was presented with in GTA SA. Where San Andreas consistenly presented the player with new gameplay elements, GTA IV is content to ram the same four or five mission types down the players throat over and over - almost all involve driving somewhere and shooting something. This isnt a review of GTA San Andreas, as its its such an amazingly deep game that trying to list all of it features would take several more pages. Ill try to be brief then - for starters, the only side missions you get in GTA IV are the police missions, Brucie's races, and Lil' Jacob's weed delivery missions. Those are all really fun side missions and completing them really extended the game experience past the story. Now imagine there were 30 times as many total side missions, spread out over more than 10 different gameplay elements - cause thats what you got in GTA SA: robbery missions, pimping missions, truck and train driving missions requiring players to make deliveries on time, insane driving/flying/boating/biking schools, taxi driver missions, firefighter missions, ambulance missions, police missions, remote-control vehicle missions, boxing missions, gambling, skydiving, basketball, pool, an entire lowrider minigame, and the ability to customize any vehicle with a nitrous boost, rims, and hydrolics. And then there were the planes and the skydiving! GTA SA had all of that, and then some more - thats why it was a 100+ hour game, and GTA IV is a 40+ hour game. There is less than half the single player content in GTA IV than in San Andreas, and there are fewer total story missions. Sadly, you cant play any of the minigames in GTA IV online, another shocking omission.

Another thing I was completely shocked by was how much weaker the cops are in GTA IV, and how much more mayhem you have to cause to get 6 stars, and then how utterly disappointing it is when you finally get them. Getting 6 stars in GTA IV is so hard, and takes so long most people will never get them just playing the story normally, which is a shame. I completed the story without ever getting more than 5 stars - there are no missions, not even the insane 3 Leaf Clover, where you are awarded 6 stars at any time. Its is never necessary to escape from a 6 star wanted level to complete the game. Its hard for me to describe how disappointed I was to find out that the way most people achieve 6 stars is right at the beginning of the game, when they explore one of the other islands before they are "unlocked" - a ridiculous idea if Ive ever heard one. Here Rockstar gives us this massive open world, but, no-no-no, dont go explore it yet. You have to "unlock" it before you are allowed to explore it normally. If you try to explore before the other islands are unlocked, you will get 6 stars. Other than that, its almost impossible to earn them without a substantial effort: it took me a specially planned rampage through Times Square culminating in landing a helicopter on a building, and lobbing grenades and rockets onto SWAT vehicles for half an hour before the 6th star clicked in.

Getting 6 stars in San Andreas wasnt just easy - it happened all the time, and often when you didnt want it! It made the game so much more crazy and fun. When you got 6 stars in GTA SA, the army would come for you. There is no army in GTA IV. There was the army in GTA III, which GTA IV is supposedly the successor to. When I finally got 6 stars and no army came, just a few FBI cars, I knew GTA IV was a flawed game. It is a great game as I said before, but it is flawed - mostly due to lacking content that other prior GTA games had. Most of these flaws are allieviated by the ridiculously fun online modes, because when you are in a car with 3 of your friends, it doesnt quite matter as much that its an FBI car chasing you rather than a Tank. GTA IV is a great game, even a classic, but I cant help but wonder how much more amazing it could have been.

Downtown Northbound

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

America’s Next Chapter

New York Times Op-Ed by Gary Hart, former US Senator

THE novelties of race and gender have largely distracted the nation from the more profound aspect of the 2008 presidential election: This campaign presents the potential for a new cycle of American history.

The idea that American politics moves in cycles is usually associated with the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., but it has an even longer currency. Ralph Waldo Emerson noted the political oscillations between the party of memory and the party of hope, the party of conservatism and the party of innovation. Henry Adams believed that “a period of about 12 years measured the beat of the pendulum” during the era of the founders. Schlesinger, borrowing from his historian father, estimated that the swings between eras of public action and those of private interest were nearer to 30 years.

What matters more than the length of the cycles is that these swings, between what Schlesinger called periods of reform and periods of consolidation, clearly occur. If we somewhat arbitrarily fix the age of Franklin D. Roosevelt as 1932 to 1968 and the era of Ronald Reagan as 1968 to 2008, a new cycle of American political history — a cycle of reform — is due.

The Republican coalition — composed of the religious right on social issues, the radical tax cutters or “supply-siders” on economic issues, and the neoconservatives on foreign policy — has produced only superficial religiosity, a failed war and record deficits. Traditional conservatives, who are dedicated to resistance to government intrusion into private lives, fiscal discipline and caution on military interventions, have yet to re-emerge, and may not. The character of the next Republican Party will result from an intraparty debate that has yet to begin and might occupy a decade or more.

Democrats, meanwhile, have yet to produce a coherent ideological framework to replace the New Deal, despite an eight-year experiment in “triangulation” and an undefined “centrism.” Once elected, Barack Obama would have a rare opportunity to define a new Democratic Party. He could preside over the beginning of a new political cycle that, if relevant to the times, would dominate American politics for three or four decades to come.

Senator Obama has two choices. He can focus on winning the election to the exclusion of all else and, like Robert Redford in “The Candidate,” ask, “What do we do now?” after it is over. Or he can use his campaign as a platform for designing a new political cycle and achieve a mandate for starting it.

Noting the power of “custom and fear,” and “of orthodoxy and of complacency,” Schlesinger believed that “the subversion of old ideas by the changing environment” would give a new leader the best chance to create a new cycle of reform and innovation.

No individual can entirely determine the architecture of a historical cycle. But much of the next one will be defined by how we grapple with a host of new realities, ones that reach beyond jihadist terrorism. They include globalized markets; the expansion of the information revolution into places like China; the emergence of new world powers including India and China; climate deterioration; failing states; the changing nature of war; mass migrations; the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; viral pandemics; and many more.

Senator Obama’s attempt to introduce the next American cycle should include, at minimum, three elements. National security requires a new, expanded, post-cold-war definition. America must transition from a consumer economy to a producing one. And the moral obligations of our stewardship of the planet must become paramount.

These themes and the policies that flow from them, if made the centerpiece of the 2008 election (perhaps along with alternatives that others might suggest), could produce the mandate required to begin a new historical cycle. This post-New Deal, post-Morning in America era would be more in tune with the current century and its realities than the continued political circling that confuses most Americans, who repeatedly and overwhelmingly report that they know America is adrift.

They are right. And they are right because they instinctively realize that old politics, old parties and old policies are increasingly irrelevant to our lives, to our revolutionary times and to our country’s future. The next cycle of American history is as yet unframed, awaiting a national leader who can define a new role for government at home and a new role for America in the world of the 21st century.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Life is a Series of Annoyances Punctuated by Occasional Mundanity

A bad poker session has the remarkable ability to put me in a foul mood for the next couple of days. Life as I see it is a series of annoyances - but most of them dont bother me. There is always some bill to pay, someone whos calling who you dont want to talk to, some family event that you would rather pass on, some traffic jam or clueless clerk slows you down just that much. Im fine with it 99% of the time. But sometimes a bad poker session, and it doesnt even have to be bad, just not good, has the ability to frustrate me like nothing else.

Some scenarios are more frustrating than others. Last night was the classic play perfect for 8 hours, make a couple small mistakes and then take a bad beat in the last hour of "crazy action" which winds up costing me my whole stack. I was sitting on about $300, which had been whittled down from over $400 bit by bit over the last hour, as I had been playing really, really tightly all night, and had given up on a couple pots when faced with a big raise. I was the big blind, and after some weak action in front of me I decided to make it $19 to go with 10-8 offsuit. $7-$10 is the standard preflop raise for our game, $15-20 is usually reserved for premium stuff and bluffs. It was clearly a positional steal move, and it had worked in my favor all night. Most of the time, everyone just folded. I would have raised to that amount with Aces, Kings, Queens, A-K, or just as a positional bet. 10-8 just happened to be what I was looking down at at this juncture. Its a hand I never, ever play, not even to limp in for $2 - the only time I ever get to play this hand is when Im in the big blind. Suprisingly I get a call from The Closer who was stuck, shortstacked, and possibly on tilt. If he had pocket 10s or better he would have reraised me all in. Another player we will refer to as Donkey #1 decided to look me up from one off the button.

The flop came down 10-8-5 with two clubs. The pot was roughly $60. I am a poker genius! I flopped top two pair when I was bluffing. Brilliant! First to act, I led right out with $29 - half the pot. I would do the same bet with Aces, Kings, or Ace King, or as a continuation of my steal attempt. In retrospect, this was too small a bet for a draw heavy board, but regardless, I was 99% sure I had the best hand and I wanted action. Plus the fact that I had flopped top two pair with a hand that I never ever play, completely camouflaged my holding - making it even more valuable. The Closer called rather quickly. Donkey #1 thought briefly before calling. I put The Closer on a club draw or A-10, K-10, and Donkey #1 on A-10, K-10, Q-10, Q-J or J-10, or A-K with one or two of those cards being clubs. If he already had a made hand that beat me like a set he very likely would have reraised in the face of the looming flush draw on the flop.

The turn was a red jack. Bad card for my hand, but really there werent many turn cards that were good for it except for a 2,3, or a 4. Thats the problem with two pair: its very difficult to improve, and easy for other to catch up. There was roughly $150 in the pot. I led out with a bet of $75. The closer quickly called with his last $50 or so, and then Donkey #1 immediately went all in - and he had me covered, as I only had about $175 left. Now I was faced with a tough decision. I have a real hand, Im pretty sure its the best hand but the action suggests it could be second best right now. The pot is absolutely massive: $450 and I only have to call $175. The pot is offering me better than 2-1, so my hand only has to be best here half the time to show a profit. Considering the range I put him on, Im ahead of A-10, K-10, Q-10, A-J, K-J, Q-J, A-K, A-A, K-K, Q-Q. Im behind 10-10, J-10, J-J, 8-8, and Q-9. He could also have K-Q of clubs, for an up and down stright draw with a club draw - and with 1 card to come my two pair is exactly a 2-1 favorite over that hand as well. Of the 16 hands he could reasonably hold here, Im ahead of 11 of them.

But - I just feel like Im beat. The more I think about it, Im almost certain Im behind. The speed with which Donkey #1 went all in after The Closer went all in signals he probably has a monster and I'm probably drawing to 4 outs - the last two 8s and 10s in the deck. With 1 card to come, Im only 10% to make a full house. So we have a classic tough decision. The math is clear - I must call. If Im right half the time I show a profit, and Im ahead of more than two thirds of the hands I put my opponent on. But 2-1 odds arent very attractive when you are drawing to 4 outs - or drawing dead if he just made trip Jacks.

Think, Chronic, think. Think. Think. Im in the tank.

I hate my hand. But I cant lay down again.

"I call." I announce trepidatiously. The math is too compelling.

The river is a club.

The Closer flips over A-4 of clubs for the nuts and the main pot.

Donkey #1 flips over 9-7, for a straight, and rakes all my chips.

Its 4:30 am. The game is over. I am an idiot. A sucker. A fish.

All I can do is shake my head and cash out the winning players. Thats poker. Its no different than losing a close game or Virtua Tennis or Burnout. Sure, there is the money, but unless you are playing high stakes, in poker the money its really just a way of keeping score. Thursday, I will probably go back and have a winning session, and Donkey #1 will go back to being the #1 Donkey, and life will be mundane again. Until then, Im just going to be annoyed by all those little things that never bother me - like my house not being clean, the bills I have to pay, the corner cafe always being sold out of the snacks I want, the endless NYC traffic, losing my N+ and Prince of Persia save games due to a memory card glitch, and the incredibly cheap respawning rocket men that lurk in the dark at the beginning of chapter 9 in Ninja Gaiden 2. I realize, of course, all my annoyances are incomprehensibly trivial compared to what others may be going through around the world. So I guess its times like this I just consider myself really, really lucky to have these things be the biggest annoyances in my life.

I guess thats what I love about poker (and even when I hate it I love it): the game makes you look at things differently - being unlucky at the table can make you realize just how lucky in life you truly are if all your problems are trivial.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Battlefield Bad Company IGN Video Review

I know what you are thinking. "Chronic, if I wanted to watch the IGN video review of BF: BC I would just saunter over to and check it out. Post some original content you lazy bastard!" Well, its true, the blog has been a little bit slim on original content this month. Id like to able to sit down everyday and write something interesting, but it doesnt always work out. Often, Im too lazy or busy. Othertimes, I write something but it turns out to be a giant steaming pile of buffalo excrement. And I only post half of those. Anyway, my feeling is I would rather have people stop by everyday expecting new content, and if they get mechjacked by some copy and paste well at least hopefully it was somewhat relevent or interesting or entertaining. Oh and one last thing: leave comments you bastards! Otherwise I feel like I am writing into a deep black void.....

Now, my thoughts on the Battlefield: Bad Company demo seem to be pretty much confirmed by the IGN review of the full game. After trying and failing twice, once on the original Xbox and once on the 360, D.I.C.E. has finally managed to bring the Battlefield 2 experience to the home consoles for the most part intact and in many ways better than ever. Battlefield 2 is one of my favorite online game ever, when it came out in 2005 I was fully sucked into the rankings system and played online 30 hours a week plus. The main problems with that game were the lack of a friends list, and the lack of a favorite servers list, so it was really difficult to both find a stable, non-laggy match and then almost impossible to get all your friends into the server and onto the same team and then into the same squad. Now, here is where the main differences between BF:2 and BF:BC rear their ugly heads.

Battlefield 2 is a squad based tactical shooter - when you enter a match, get assigned to a team you then have the option of joining a squad or being a lone wolf. The only way to take control points quickly in BF:2 is to have a full squad, with a medic, sniper, assault, support, anti-tank, and engineer units all working together as one super-unit, under the control of the Commander, the one person on each team that directs the attacks and has a full battlefield map with radar and artillery options.

Battlefield: Bad Company has none of that. So, I cant really say its the true Battlefield experience. But its still damn fun online and the fact that it has dedicated 24 person servers that run over Xbox Live makes it by far the most user friendly and accessible BF game ever made. Also, its the best looking BF game yet made. The Frostbite Engine looks fantastic - a full generational step beyond BF:2 on the PC - and the environments are almost completely destructable. The game runs quite well on the 360 with no slowdown or screen tearing and is presented in beautiful full widescreen (BF:2 only supports standard 4x3 resolutions - yuck!). Also, there is voice chat, which BF:2 did not support. This makes the game way more fun to play with your friends as you can hear them cheer when they blow up a tank and then squeal in pain as they die in a hail of helicopter machine gun fire. The lack of a squad system makes the game less tactical and more chaotic, which isnt ideal, but the chaos is somewhat allieviated by the insanely destructable environments and user friendly XBL interface.

If I had to describe the experience in a few words to someone who was only familiar with console games, I would say Battlefield Bad Company feels a bit like Call of Duty 4 crossed with Halo. Im just talking about the multiplayer here - apparently BF:BC will actually feature a single player campaign which is a first for the BF games. So, if you like vehicular combat mixed in with destructable environments and modern military weapons, I think BF:BC certainly deserves a close look. The gameplay isnt quite as polished as something like Halo or Cod4, but it doesnt have to be for the game to still be a lot of fun.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Unreleased NES Game: "The Challenge"

You thought N+ was cheap? Obviously, you've never played The Challenge: Hitlers Revenge, an unreleased game for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Traditionally video games start off somewhat easy, and become progressively more difficult until you reach the end of the game or give up trying. In The Challenge, there is only 1 insanely hard level. The second level, The Leper Colony, was never completed before the game was scrapped by Nintendo midway through development in 1986 due to poor play-tester response. Although the cover art was produced, the cartridge was never released. In the game, you play as an Italian deli owner armed only with a never ending supply of hoagies and a strong right arm. You must make your way through a perilous world of danger to destroy the forces of evil and save the world from Hitler. This bootleg ROM is running on a NES emulator on a Windows XP machine. Check the youtube link for more info on this unreleased masterpiece ;-)

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

EasyBake Xbox 360: S'mores Pop Tarts

What do you do when you have the super-munchies, but you are in the middle of a 4-hour-4-player Worms marathon on Xbox Live? Find that reserve box of S'mores Pop Tarts you've been keeping under your bed since last month and throw em in the toaster. Or, if you are really lazy and your name is Dark G GHOST, you just tear open the package and stick em behind your Xbox 360 while ninja roping a banana bomb over into enemy territory. Nice one G.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Sonic Unleashed Gameplay Video

Tubby Hayes: Parisian Thoroughfare

The song that made Bill Cosby quit jazz drumming - he saw Max Rach perform it and decided to do standup instead. Great song.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Mercenaries 2 Gameplay Video

The entire game can be played coop over Xbox Live.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Death of Hardcore Gaming

The passing of an era, for better and for worse.
by David Clayman and Michael Thomsen


David Clayman Laments the Past

The past few weeks have contained some momentous events for gaming. Tomonobu Itagaki left his long time home at Tecmo over a payment dispute bringing an end to his work on classic franchises like Ninja Gaiden and Dead or Alive. Meanwhile Hideo Kojima sent Snake off into the sunset with Metal Gear Solid 4, his swan song and what is believed to be the last true game in the series. Both of these Japanese developers have been mainstays in the industry almost since its inception, perpetually ready to deliver the next installment to their loyal, and sometimes crazed fan base. Their creations haven't declined in popularity, but they have failed to make a connection with non-gamers. The truth is black and white, the new mass market approach to gaming has no place for the hardcore developer or their patrons.

Two items brought this to my mind earlier this week. One of them was the release of Ninja Gaiden II. Having written a guide for Ninja Gaiden Black I pride myself on mastering the brutal difficulty of Itagaki's games for the same reason people memorize patterns in Ikaruga or post their speed runs to Youtube. I get a rush from knowing that most gamers give up long before they reach my level of skill.
But Ninja Gaiden II has lowered the bar considerably. The regenerating health meter and the dumbed down AI have left me with a sour taste in my mouth. I can still play through the game to unlock the most punishing mode but it's clear that I'm no longer the target demographic: the fans that geek out over every tidbit of game info, have memorized every one of Ryu's costumes. We were going to buy the game anyway and today the market demands a broader audience.

The second indicator of this trend was a television commercial for Metal Gear Solid 4. Kojima often indicates through his work that he's at least as interested in presentation as he is in interaction. The game looks like an action movie, and this makes it intriguing to non-gamers who see it at a glance. But action movies are historically big, dumb, and easy to explain. Describing MGS to a random person can be jolting. What is it? Well it's sort of tactical espionage, action, stealth. You can shoot people, but you're not supposed to and don't get me started on the storyline. It's an overly-long convoluted mess and it's exactly what loyal fans want. Unfortunately, like a real Ninja Gaiden experience, it will never translate to the mass market.

If you don't agree then it's likely your view of the market is outdated. A look at this month's NPD numbers reveal the continuing explosion of titles with mass appeal. The music rhythm game and the quick multiplayer experience are the big sellers. The Wii straddles the line perfectly and it continues to dominate the charts. Does this mean hardcore games disappear entirely? No, but it indicates what publishers will fund in the future. Grand projects with a specific audience like Metal Gear will be scrapped or made to be more inclusive. Titles that have historically catered to a specific audience (top down shooters) will only live on as downloadable content.

Where does that leave me? Other hardcore gamers outside of the industry have shifted right over into the casual category as they get older. They've adopted games they can play with their kids, or enjoy in 10 minute chunks. I have no desire to experience a piece of software that is predictable, repetitious, or sacrifices difficulty for appeal. My only recourse will be to live in the past and look fondly back at the Summer of 2008 when hardcore gaming made its last stand.

Michael Thomsen Cheers the Rise of the Softcore

The Wii killed games. Everybody who's a videogame fan knows it. It opened the floodgates for a future hell composed entirely of mini-game compilations and milquetoast PS2 shovelware. Game fans must surely feel dizzy and nauseous looking at each month's NPD numbers with abysmal "games" like Wii Play, Carnival Games, Wii Fit, and Game Party clotting the best sellers list. With such cheaply produced and disposable titles earning millions of dollars each week, who can blame publishers for betting more and more of their future on baby games that can be played by shaking the Wii remote like a rattle?

But what's really being lost in the process? Were "hardcore" games even worth saving in the first place? It's easy for core gamers to be bitterly dismissive of mini-game collections, but it's been equally easy for everyone with a sense of self-esteem and an aesthetic sensibility evolved beyond anime tropes to be just as cynically dismissive of your average "hardcore" game. The most common definition of a hardcore game has been degree of difficulty, where gamers feel like they've accomplished something by aligning their memories and reflexes with an unforgiving rule system that some yeoman programmer from Team Ninja has set out for them.

It's understandable to see why so many gamers have such fond attachment to the difficult gaming accomplishments they've managed in their life. It must surely feel great to be a part of a small community of people who've managed to do something extraordinarily rare. Likewise, it must be a rare ego-rush to know that you're good at something extremely difficult. Having that experience in a lushly detailed 3D world, designed from the ground up to enable escapism, must be an irresistible virtual opiate for the impulsive and socially disenfranchised among us.

Still, it's awfully hard to argue that Ryu Hayabusa's neo-metal ninja antics really deliver something more meaningful than Nintendo's dreamily hygienic Wii Fit androids. The ultimate value of any art form is not whether or not it makes us feel better about ourselves, but rather it is about the significance of the experience we have while playing it. Games should expand the spectrum of our experiences and consciousness, not pander to our fragile self-esteem. So what if we lose the "hardcore" game with its grueling dominatrix-like demands of gamers? Games that are difficult play away from the most basic strength of the medium in the first place. As interactive experiences, games aren't best experienced as autocratic Simon Says simulations where players eager to be told they are good at something spend hours learning to obey the opaque demands of masochistic game designers. That's not interaction, it's virtual fascism.

The rise of the "softcore" or casual game, while distasteful to those self-flagellating hardcore gamers, gives an opportunity for games to evolve into an even more powerful medium. In the same way that movies slowly evolved from lurid exploitation clips in the early twentieth century into a fully refined visual language capable of expressing an enormous range of emotions and experiences, the casual gaming revolution is really a massive expansion of the gameplay language that has previously been relegated to simple button presses. Before Wii Fit, how many games had ever really delivered the experience of serenity in direct gameplay, not to mention gameplay that was a sensitive analog interpretation of the players entire body position? In the short-term these new gameplay experiences will necessarily take place in simple, circular play environments, but to mistake the aesthetic reduction as a simplification of the entire medium is completely wrong-headed.

Videogames are expanding at an unprecedented rate these days, reaching new kinds of people in startling new ways. Hardcore games won't die out anymore than the exploitation film died out in the 20's when Eisenstein and Hawks began transforming film into an epic narrative medium. Indeed the move towards holistic analog control is only laying the groundwork for more elaborate and demanding hardcore titles in the future. The audience that wants those games haven't disappeared, and there will always be someone ready and willing to sell them content across all platforms. Go get 100% in SSX Blur and see if it's any less difficult than beating Ninja Gaiden or Metal Gear Solid.

The hardcore gamer has been called out, however. Where they once stood as the swaddling focal point for the whole medium, they are now recognizable as the narrow demographic niche that they have always been. It's a significant minority to be sure, there are tens of millions of hardcore gamers out there willing to spend inordinate amounts of time and energy on worlds of ogres, ninja swords, and mind-numbingly complex military ballistics. In a world of billions, however, it's time those aesthetic fixations were put in their rightful place. So three cheers for Carnival Games and Wii Play for throttling the hardcore game. May we never look back.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots - IGN Video Review - A True Perfect 10

From Jeff Haynes IGN review:

"Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots shatters the proverbial bar, becoming a technical, cinematic and gaming standard that future action and stealth titles will be judged by. It's been a long time coming, but this game is a true classic and a masterpiece from Hideo Kojima, Kojima Productions and Konami."

Score: 10/10

Read the Full Review

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Great Seduction

This is the year, 2008, when I will finally pay off my credit cards. Ive said it in past years, but that was merely wishful thinking. This year, Im already halfway there and I can almost taste the end. Im really not sure how 5 figures of credit card debt happens. It certainly wasnt planned out. I have several friends that are in the exact same situation and they sure as hell dont know how they got there, and many of them dont have much of a plan to get out. All of these people are hard working, with good jobs, and if you met them and observed their lifestyles you would not think they are financially irresponsible.

But in NYC, where you need to be worth at least a million dollars to even take a whiff of owning a piece of property, almost everyone I know rents. There is no borrowing against your home to pay off debt like normal people who live in normal places do. Im sick when I think about how if I bought a nice piece of property 8-9 years ago when I started renting, it would be mostly paid off by now. But no, here in NYC you rent. You flush good money down the toilet on living expenses like it came out of a Monopoly box. You are paying $15-25,000+ a year just to have a roof over your head. Then, a pack of cigarretes costs $10, a half gallon of organic milk is $5, a burger is $8.50, a gallon of gas is now $4.50, a baseball ticket is $85, an ounce of the good stuff is $500, and if you pay under $1000 a month in rent you must be living in a closet with 3 roomates or under the subway. Its not quite London, but the cost of living here in NYC is very high.

I can see the light at the end of the tunnel finally, but how did I and many of my friends and a hundred million other Americans all get ourselves into this pickle? I think it has to do with shifting cultural and social values, and not much to do with economics. David Brooks summed it up very nicely in his Op Ed in The New York Times yesterday saying:

"The United States has been an affluent nation since its founding. But the country was, by and large, not corrupted by wealth. For centuries, it remained industrious, ambitious and frugal.

Over the past 30 years, much of that has been shredded. The social norms and institutions that encouraged frugality and spending what you earn have been undermined. The institutions that encourage debt and living for the moment have been strengthened."

Basically, David Brooks is saying that saving isnt cool anymore. Its not hip. Now, our motto is "spend em if you got em." Between 1989 and 2001, credit-card debt nearly tripled, soaring from $238 billion to $692 billion. Everyone started borrowing money that they could not immediately pay back, and the unravelling of our economy began. The current home mortgage lending crisis is just an extension of this phenomena. When you have $25,000 in debt you cant pay off, why not buy a home you cant afford also? We'll combine your high interest payments with the home loan. Heres the paperwork. Sign here, here, and here. Thank you very much. Do you need another credit card?

Sure, the top of the pile, the "haves," the people who make 6 figures and own homes they can afford and are invested in the market have done quite well. But the rest of us, "have nots," who dont have 401ks and financial planners live day to day, moment to moment, bill to bill, one credit card payment to the next. Well, a couple of years ago I decided I had enough of debt and living moment to moment with basically no savings. Of course, closing the doors of my music studio business was tough, but after a good run of a few years it was no longer making enough money to justify its existence, and my other business plans werent working out at all. So, I converted my studio into a poker room, and rented out the space for the off nights. I traded in my G35 for my old '98 Subaru, left my duplex in Williamsburg for a loft way out in Bushwick, and started selling stuff on ebay. I cant really say I have too many regrets. Its unfortunate that well laid plans dont always work out as expected, but you have to move on. I still get to play music here and there as I kept most of the instruments and sold off the recording gear, and a friend has a studio out in D.U.M.B.O. I can use for producing the ocassional recording. But as a full time business its pretty much done. Now, instead of hoping that a major label might pick up my latest production, I hope that Eddy tries to bluff me one more time. I dont have to tell you where I get better odds.

Also, Ive stopped using credit cards all together. They're just evil, and I figure that without health insurance (cost: $6000/year and Im never sick) it might be a good idea to have some wiggle room should something unexpected come up. Ive focused on new small business projects and seen everything start thriving - but Im not letting it get to my head this time. Everything I buy, I now pay for with my bank debit card. If I dont have the $2200 in my bank account for an uber-sweet X-Arcade MAME Machine, Im just gonna pass for now. But when those evil little pieces of plastic are fully paid off and Ive finally saved enough to feel comfortable, I think Im gonna have to find a spot in the poker room for an X-Arcade. Or two. You know, one with a vertical widescreen LCD for vert shmups like Radiant Silvergun, and another with a 4x3 CRT display for for side scrollers and fighting games like Street Fighter 2. I should probably put every penny in savings for a rainy day, but old habits die hard. And man I love arcade games.

I have to admit, I fell for The Great Seduction - in my case it was an endless stream of mail offers when I was broke at college. My first credit card was for $500. I think that lasted about 2 months before I got the limit raised. Where its at now, I cant even say as I havent opened the bills for quite some time. All I know is, now I give them that same intial $500 a month every month automatically from my bank account, and after a while the account should eventually go positive. Positive. Its an interesting concept, a positive credit card balance. Negative credit. Positive debt. Savings. I tried to imagine what that would be like, but Ive strained my brain and need to go lie down for a while.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Friday, June 6, 2008

Aces of The Galaxy Impressions

This fun little "3d space shooter on-rails" hit the Xbox Live Marketplace this past Wednesday and Ive given it a couple of spins. Im not sure how many of you owned an N64, but if you did, you might remember a little game called Star Fox. Aces of The Galaxy clearly takes Star Fox as its main inspiration, for better or worse. All thats missing is Peppy constantly screaming in your headset to "Do A Barrel Roll!" And a barrel roll you will need to do.

The game constantly spawns enemies from all around you, and although its possible to slow down time, you cant slow down your ship or speed it up, you're on rails with no gas or brake, just dodging abilities. This makes for a very hectic experience. You will constantly be swimming right to left while you cycle through your weapons and dodge asteroids, mines, oncoming ships and missles. Sometimes, especially with 2 players on the screen (XBL coop supported), its just too much to keep track of and your ship is lost in the clutter of flashing lights and blurs.

Luckily, you have a health bar and your ship is pretty tough, it can take a head-on collision with an asteroid or a walk through a mine field without losing 50% of its total health. You have 3 weapons, but for the most part the chain gun will be your main squeeze. Oddly, Sierra not choose to include auto-fire for any of the weapons. Thats right, to keep your chain gun going, you will have to constantly tap the A button, which I find to be pretty annoying. Luckily for me, I own a lot of annoying games like this so Ive already invested in an anti-annoyance controller - a Mad Catz 360 Microcon with built in turbo. With turbo set on the A button flying through this game is a breeze, you could just tap A but the game takes long enough that it might draw blood if you dont switch between fingers.

Ryan Geddes in his IGN review of the game says he was surprised by the lack of chain gun auto fire, but that after a while he began cycling through the other weapons enough that it didnt bother him. Well, Im telling you right now there is no way to get a decent score in this game, or even make it to the later levels with all your lives, without spamming that A button. The missles and torpedoes just dont hit enough of the enemies on the screen, they are great against larger ships but most of the game consists of shooting down groups of small ships that spawn from the sides or top of the screen ala Space Invaders, Galaga or 1942.

IGN gave the game an 8.4 and asked the question if it was the best shooter on XBLA. Im here to say no, and its not even close. If Aces of the Galaxy is an 8.4 then Omega 5 and Assault Heroes 2 are 9.8s, and Ikaruga is a 19. While Aces of The Galaxy is fun, its nothing revolutionary and at times it feels cheap, lackluster, and repetitive. There are no boss battles, the level designs are very linear and uninspired, and the story can be summed up with the 3 words "human vs aliens". The main draw is the graphics, which are fantastic for a downloadable game. Ive never been a huge fan of on-rails 3d space shooters aside from Star Fox, and while Aces is probably worth the 800 points, especially if you like coop shooters, its not even close to the top of the pile on XBLA.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Civilization Revolution Demo Hits Xbox Live

It looks like the demo for Sid Meier's Civilization Revolution has hit the Xbox Live Marketplace. If you are not too busy chopping people's heads off in Ninja Gaiden 2, I think its a no brainer to download this demo and give it a look. My initial impression is that the game is pretty much Civ, although it has been significantly streamlined, as you would expect. Workers can be manually assigned to different tasks, but the emphasis seems to be more on exploration and combat than on micromanaging your cities economy and resources. Its pretty rare that a demo has a much depth as is here, Im not sure how many turns you can play between the start and 1250 AD when the demo ends but Ive already conquered my neighboor and settled a few new cities. Even still with the depth thats here its going to be hard for people to get into it without seeing the endgame. Civ just isnt a game that demos well.

For starters, its slow. Civ has always been slow, even for a strategy game, and although the gameplay is faster here on the 360 its still closer to the something like Catan or Carcassone than anything else on the system. Secondly, the graphics just arent up to what the 360 is capable of. I really dont see why this game couldnt have been a downloadable title for 12-1600 points, because I think for a lot of people $60 is going to be too much for a strategy game they know nothing about and takes quite a while to really get into. So overall I can see this being a tough sell to a console crowd that prefers fast games with high end graphics. This is a title thats all about gameplay, and although Im hopeful that some people on my friends list will get it if they dont already have Civ4, I certainly wont be surprised if they dont.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Street Fighter: The Beast Is Unleashed

Is it possible that md's return to Street Fighter 3 and its insane parrying system was inspired by this video? I don't know but every time I watch this 3rd round comeback by Daigo I get goosebumps. This is the way fighting games were meant to be played, in front of a huge, appreciative crowd! My skills arent up to par to battle Daigo so my cats will have to suffice for my audience. OK, now I have to go get the Street Fighter Anniversary Collection off ebay. Its a sickness, but hey its better than crack.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Xbox 360 Games To Check Out In 2008

Sid Meier's Civilization Revolution (DONT rent this game. just go buy it the day it comes out, and you can thank me sometime later down the road, or I refund your money)

Deadliest Catch ("Battle 40-foot waves, storms, ice and a nearly 100-percent crew member injury rate" - I cant believe they made this game. wow, thats sick.)

Mercenaries 2 (the first was really fantastic, its was like GTA set in North Korea. they dont need to do much with the sequel, just more of the same with coop)

Soul Caliber 4 (Yoda's lightsaber took Viagra and he is going to touch you with it)

Golden Axe (I heard a nasty rumour there is no coop, so it may just be a giant $60 Golden Shower and they dont give you a towel afterwards)

Brothers In Arms Hells Highway - (unreal 3 engine WWII shooter that might not suck)

Baja - (THQ's answer to Motorstorm - we'll see if they can pull it off as well)

Left 4 Dead (source engine 4 player coop zombie survival horror game. freaking sweet)

Beijing 2008 (I can hit the A button faster than you can! NoyouCANTyesICanNoyouCANTyesIcan)

Hei$t (any game with a $ symbol in its name garners trepidation. you rob banks and diamond stores and whatnot. maaaaaaaaaaaaybe)

Just Cause 2 (the first one was the best skydiving game ever made, but was kinda shallow beyond that. Plenty of room to improve, lets hope for coop)

Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X. (the x is for extreeeeme!)

Halo Wars (Bungie's 360 RTS in the halo universe. I can has dead bond in halo? sweet)

Guilty Gear Overture (I like beating things up, especially digital versions of Evil Max)

Huxley - (MMO Shooter using the Unreal 3 engine. Ummmmm, yes please?)

Shaun White Snowboarding (EA fell asleep at the switch with their next gen SSX game so lets hope this rocks the snowboarding world like SKATE rocked the skateboarding world)

Bionic Commando (2 games, one is a downloadable remake of the original NES version, the other is a full $60 - Im buying both even if IGN scores them lower than HAZE)

Fable 2 (People like the original Fable, it made me fall asleep. Coffee served with sequel)

Fallout 3 (please dont mess this up...... just please)

Tom Clancy's Endwar (360 exclusive RTS set in the Clancy universe, I gotta try it)

Gears of War 2 (nuff said)

Mirrors edge (A shooter that doesnt rely on shooting, but platforming and broken mirrors. maybe)

Prince of Persia (I've played em all, Im just a PoP crackbaby)

1942 (shoot everything on the screen, while dodging everything else)

Inifinite Undiscovery (some crazy Square developed RPG that Blank Void, Shadownexus, or Darth Mikal will play and tell me about how awesome it is)

Ghostbusters the Videogame (just trust md, at least, thats what he says. all I know is be wary of any game that has the word "VIDEOGAME" in its title)

Alan Wake (I think they spent like $20M making this game, it might be OK)

Ninja Gaiden II (hiya!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! now clean it up)

2 Days To Vegas (I remember hearing about this game in 2004. now? nothing)

This Is Vegas (hmmmm. apparently there is gambling. Im there, if it ever comes out)

Super Street FIghter 2 HD Turbo Remix (nuff said)

Street Fighter 4 (this actually might not suck. if it does, we have SSF2HDTR)

Fracture (ask md, Ive never heard of it)

Prototype (ask md, I'm just copying him at his point)