Wednesday, June 30

Value Added

So I've been a Playstation Plus subscriber for one day, and not much has changed. Sure I'm 70 dollars poorer, but I don't feel cheated, or overly special for that matter. I have read many any an article and forum post decrying or praising the subscription service; but no opinion, on either end of the scale, seems to adequately appropriate how I view this transaction.

The most puzzling of the critiques levelled at Playstation Plus was that posted by Kotaku Australia's David Wildgoose. Essentially he states that he will not subscribe to the service because he is only aware of the benefits on offer for the first two months the service is offered, and that everything past that point is essentially a lucky dip. He continues by arguing that with Xbox Live Gold, you know exactly what you get and for that reason, he will be happy to continue subscribing to Microsoft's service while rejecting Sony's. I posted comments on his article arguing the following:
  • Comparing connection quality in games played over the Playstation Network and Xbox Live, I have noticed no great difference in the amount of lag encountered. Therefore, it makes no sense to pay for one service just to play games online when the other is of comparable quality and allows me to play for free.
  • A 12 month Xbox Live subscription costs $79.95. This allows me to purchase games included in the Deals of the Week promotion. This means that on top of the subscription fee, I get to pay slightly less for downloadable games if and when Microsoft decides to include desired titles in the promotion.
  • I don't understand why so many people want Cross-game chat functionality. Why would you want to speak to anyone who is not playing with you (especially in a competitive, team-based game)? Add to that, the fact that I don't have enough friends on XBL to use Xbox Live Party functionality.  
  • With Playstation Plus you pay $5.83 a month to participate in the "lucky dip." I am sure that I would find enough content of interest to cover the initial $69.95 investment. The last time I bought a lucky dip was in 1992 at the St. Kevin's Primary School fete and it cost me 2 dollars (I picked out a small, plastic Brontosaurus). Taking inflation into account, $5.83 or what would be less than 400 Microsoft Points ($6.60) for (potentially) 4 games a month is a steal. To illustrate the point (and this was not included in my comments on Kotaku): Yes, I have already purchased Wipeout HD, but I have not purchased Fieldrunners (which I have learnt today is an awesome Tower Defence romp) and Destruction Derby. Further to that, as a bonus for subscribing within the first month of offer, I can download LittleBigPlanet. My access to LBP won't expire if I discontinue my subscription to Playstation Plus. 1 day in and I have downloaded $66.85 worth of content.
  • Subscribing to Playstation Plus will entitle you to donwload 48 games a year. Once again, I am sure (now proven) that I will find enough content to justify the asking price.
I am yet to find a title to utilise the Full Game Trial function with yet. If I was subscribing to the US service, I would have logged an hour on Infamous; but the choices this month are Shatter and Savage Moon, which I already own. I am also yet to see priority access to any demos or betas, but in time I am sure those benefits will become apparent. One aspect of the service, that I have so far found to be bitterly disappointing is the implementation of discounts. I was hoping it would be a blanket rate applied to all content on the store, with certain items being placed on promotion. What you get instead is about 20 percent off a small range of pretty undersirable stuff.

I know there is comfort in predictability, but I am more than happy to take a 6 dollar punt every month. It looks like I'm on a winner.

Who is or isn't subscribing to Playstation Plus? Care to share your rationale?  

Monday, June 28

Gears of Yaw

I first purchased Dark Void in April for just over 20 bucks. Astonishing, considering that the game was released in January of this year. I had played the demo before purchase and was unimpressed by the clunky flight controls and repetitive looking enemy combatants. All things considered, the price seemed right and I can't refuse the bargain bin at the best (worst?) of times. One of the first casualties of this year's packed release schedule, Dark Void sat in my game collection for a few weeks, unplayed. When I had read that I could trade it in to receive more than what I had paid in trade value, I rushed to my local retailer to pay off part of a Capcom game that I would definitely find myself playing (no points for guessing the title).

Turns out it was my loss. Last week I picked up Dark Void for 12 dollars, and finally found the time to feed the disc into my Playstation 3.

Firstly the bad news. This game has plenty of problems: bland environments, technically deficient graphics, a forgettable story, derivative shooting (on-foot) mechanics and awkward flight controls. The Unreal 3 engine can be used well, or just well enough to have a functioning game. Dark Void more often than not, falls into the latter category. There was one instance where I plunged from a high point to get the drop on an enemy and I swear the frame rate dropped to 3 (frames) per second. It was laughable. About half-way through the game, I'm still having trouble remembering the main character's name. I think it's Jim, or Bill or Nathan. This might have something to do with the fact that he is voiced (competently) by Nolan North. It is hard to think of a 3rd-person action game from the last 12 months where he has not been cast in a leading role, and now Drake, Desmond, and Darkvoidheroman (?, I'll consult the manual, it's Will... so close) are all starting to blur together. The on-foot action at the beginning of the game is entirely reminiscent of cover shooters like Gears of War and Uncharted. This isn't a bad thing, but even the concept of "vertical cover," adds very little to the formula. The melee attacks are particularly uninspired (and overpowered). When you finally leave terra firma and take to the skies, things take a turn for the worse, as it's hard to get yourself in the position to shoot enemy fighters. This is often because you're flying too fast and overshoot (speed and distance wise) your target. You can brake of course, but you can't incrementally decrease your speed. It's woe or go, and nothing in between. After all that, I'm guessing it sounds bad, almost irredeemable. You'd be wrong.

The game did more than enough to justify the sub 20 dollar asking price. Some of the set pieces are truly exceptional. Two stand out sections include: a firefight at the entrance of a temple with enemies occupying all levels of nearby structures and all visible airspace; and the defence of a settlement against two hefty troop transports. Using your jetpack (in both situations there are varying levels of functionality) to soar to vantage points or escape from choke points, the fun in Dark Void comes from experimentation with the various modes of flight. This game has also managed to do the escort mission right. For those who don't know, I hate escort missions, so much so that they can prematurely end my time with any game that employs them too frequently (like Resident Evil 5, that game is just one big freaking escort mission). Back on point, the AI of my companion was poor, he ran into enemy fire, rarely taking cover. What he didn't do was die regularly. Each time you reach a checkpoint, the health of the combatant in your care recovers completely. It was refreshing to say the least, and if any games in future don't employ a similar system then know that they have fallen below the benchmark. Dark Void may not be the most original game out there, but it does do enough right to warrant investigation, especially given the price point.

If the idea of an alternate history (which isn't really elaborated upon), massive alien spaceships and jetpacks appeal to you, I would sincerely suggest you acquire Dark Void. Not for the full retail price mind you! Keep an eye out and you will be sure to find it for under 30 dollars (which is just about acceptable).

What has everyone been playing this weekend?

Friday, June 25

Red Letter Days

You'll have to forgive me, but the last few days haven't been conducive to hours of gameplay. With the glass ceiling well and truly being shattered, and some promising World Cup developments, I found myself glued to the TV for different reasons.

The most exciting development of course, is that the Italian diving competition has come to a spectacular, and what some would say, premature close. I'm not going to pretend that I know anything about soccer, and I'm not going to pretend that I watch it at any time other than the World Cup, but I was hoping to see that diving would be policed, just slightly, after Australia's farcical exit from the 2006 tournament. I'm not saying that Italy is the only team guilty of it (even my beloved Oranje have tried to win a few extra kicks with unscrupulous tactics), but they are, if anything, the most prolifically reported divers at this year's fixtures. With the Socceroos and the All Whites failing to proceed to the Round of 16, my eyes are fixed squarely on the battle between Slovakia and the Nederlions.

Now to politics. What a crazy day yesterday was in Australia's history. The first, first-term Prime Minister to be deposed by his own party and the first female Prime Minister to be sworn in to office. Canvassing colleagues, friends and family, the disparate opinions on each occurrence were equally fascinating. Some felt sorry for Kevin Rudd, others were excited at the prospect of the mining tax advertisement campaign being brought to a swift end. Regardless of how you viewed these historic events, the political landscape of the nation has been invariably changed. Congratulations to the Honourable Ms Gillard, commiserations to the Honourable Mr Rudd.

As for this weekend, I am sure to get my game back on. I'm travelling to Brisbane, so that will inevitably mean that I will be turning to the PSP. Currently I am addicted to Tekken 6, most specifically Ghost Battle. Believe it or not, the controls are actually more responsive on the PSP(go) as opposed to the Playstation 3. A Phoenix Smasher requires an almost half-circle on the Sixaxis (or Dualshock 3), where as a quarter circle is adequate (as it very well should be) on the portable console. If I find the time I will resume the Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker campaign. Much like Portable Ops before it, there are too many opportunities to become side-tracked.

A few questions for you guys. Who plays a portable, whether it be PSP, DS or iPhone? What were your thoughts on the historic ascension of Julia Gillard (please keep the chauvinistic trolling to a minimum)? Who do you want to win the World Cup (go the Dutch!!!)? Has anyone had the pleasure of participating in the Medal of Honour beta?

Have a good weekend loyal readers.

Wednesday, June 23

Help me help you (Maguire's Lament)

I'm going to be 100 percent honest with you: I think I have a problem. I have become addicted to these bat-shit crazy, mid-year gaming sales, and my collection is expanding at an alarming rate. When I say alarming, I mean that my collection has almost doubled in just over a fortnight. While the coffers may be nearly empty, I must admit that I am happy (read: ecstatic) with the prospect of playing through a variety of titles which have either been praised, maligned or a combination of the two.

You may have read about some of my exploits already, specifically with regards to Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing and Mass Effect 2. I'm expecting Massive Action Game (MAG) and White Knight Chronicles in the mail, while Metro 2033, Fear 2: Project Origin and WWE Smackdown VS Raw 2010 have already arrived. I have had some experience with Fear 2 which was mostly positive, it just wasn't compelling enough for me to want to complete the game. I am however, keen to revisit the title, especially given the paltry $12 asking price. I had play-tested SVR2010 extensively last year and traded it in. I've invited it back into the fold because it is a good multiplayer title (local only, don't you do dare try and take it online), which is great to have on hand when you have right-minded company. There are more mind you, I'm just ashamed to go into the particulars as it will cement my reputation as the leading hypocrite in gaming (in so far as obscure Australian blogs are concerned).

In an attempt to curb my enthusiasm for cut-price gaming (so far acquisition as opposed to actual play), I am asking you, my loyal readers to provide me with some direction. What content do you like to see on the blog? Do you like reviews as a guide, to assist with purchase decisions? Do you like less structured, general impressions of titles? Are you interested in hearing more about any of my more recent acquisitions?

I should also mention that the demo for Crackdown 2 was released on Xbox Live this week. After a full play through I can advise that if you weren't a fan of the first game, odds are you won't find anything that you will like here. With that said though, I loved the original and this bite-sized demo was a refreshing change in tone, and pace from titles like Mass Effect 2 and Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker.

Not to say there haven't been additions made to the formula, it's just that they are not appearing to be worthy of the development time that has so far been afforded to them. As mentioned in the video above, Ruffian takes their commitment to verticality seriously by allowing players to explore underneath Pacific City (sigh). These sections aren't as frantic or panic-inducing as I believe the developers had intended. Sure you have hordes of gun-toting, UV sensitive zombies (WTF?) gunning for you and your light bomb/beacon, but in the end, these sequences feel very uninspired and completely unecessary. Especially considering that indoor sections of Sandbox environments are usually prone to camera quirks (Crackdown 2 is no exception), the underground freak sieges seem to be an insincere attempt to capitalise on the whole zombie/vampire/ fad that is gripping the globe. Maybe with some well written story these questionable additions will seem justified, but in the context of the previous game's narrative, it so far doesn't make much sense. There are other questionable inclusions, such as renegade driving orbs (Seriously WTF?) that serve to increase your driving ability if you collide with them. Another gripe is the lock-on function (L Trigger) which is unlikely to receive refinement so close to the retail release. I often found myself targeting explosive barrels or cars with no one in them, when all I wanted to do was shoot back at the large pack of criminals that were just to the left of screen.

Frivolous new features aside, the demo is definitely worth a download. Given that you can earn (but not unlock) up to 100 Gamerscore points by playing the demo, there is even some intrinsic incentive for those achievement whores out there. FYI, the Gamerscore points are unlocked upon booting the retail version.

Has anybody found some wallet-emptying specials worth sharing?

Sunday, June 20

Petition for the Establishment of a Sub-Genre

Amongst the throng of mid year sales, which have so far seen Game of the Year quality titles going for a song, I picked Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing with the lowest of expectations. Sure the kart racer had enjoyed generally favourable reviews, but my short time with the demo was not overly promising. I couldn't get my blue sparks on, because unlike most good demos, the mechanics and controls were not properly explained. The best you could hope for was a vague hint during a load screen. Things changed with the retail release however. Upon booting up the game you are offered the opportunity to test drive Sonic's sweet ride (not that he needs it anyway, lazy bastard). The game's basic controls and drifting mechanics were then imparted upon me, and before long I was pulling off level 3 drift boosts and owning the track. I am finding myself thoroughly enamoured with this title, and after reading through the majority of critical opinion regarding it, I am not satisfied that it's victories and failures have been accurately catalogued. I think the quantitative judgements are about right, but the justification behind these assessments is completely unacceptable.

From what I can see, this game failed to attain better write-ups due to the following factors:
  • It's derivative (specifically, a rip-off of Mario Kart)
  • It is a kart racer that does not feature Mario, or characters from the Super Mario franchise
  • Mario Kart was released before S&SASR
Normally I would be content to think that reviews are subjective, and if I like the game, who cares what the majority of critics think? But this is bordering on discrimination. Every single review of this game I can find heavily references Mario Kart, and how this game has in some way stolen from it. The same can not be said for another recently released title in the genre, Modnation Racers. Sure some reviewers have made the comparison, but never go so far as to say that it is derivative (probably due to the track editor). Don't get me wrong, I can see the similarities, I can see from where the inspiration has been taken. I think that this however has more to do with the fact that these games fit into a particular sub-genre of arcade racing games (racing games even): kart racing games. They can not be compared with the Gran Turismos or the Forzas, as while their objectives may be similar (that being: go fast and come first), they are completely different monsters. I have no interest in playing, nor do I possess any great skill level in racing simulators. I would also wager that most rev-heads have no interest in flinging red shells up the track in a bid to gain a few places.

If you take my point, and kart racers are a sub-genre of racing games, then it would be accepted that there would be some common features to games of this genre (or sub-genre as it were):
  • A cast of characters, usually related to a particular franchise (not usually racers themselves)
  • Vehicles that reflect particular aesthetic and/or physical characteristics of cast members
  • An arsenal of weapons, passive items and power-ups that are intended to balance the race in relation to each competitors place (meaning the further behind you are, the better weapons/abilities you receive)  
  • Tracks that feature hazards independent of the weapons/items/abilities that competitors can obtain during the race. These tracks are usually inspired by levels or locations specific to a cast member's source game.  
Both Mario Kart and S&SASR (and save for the source franchise references, Modnation Racers)  have these features in common and therefore I would argue that both games are kart racers and not that one borrows from the other. I loved Mario Kart: Double Dash, but when playing through the single player campaign I was often reduced to fits of controller throwing rage due to the cheap AI, overpowered weapons and the precise movements required to activate blue sparks. In S&SASR the AI is competitive (but not to the point of being cheap), the weapons (save for the All-Star powers) are well balanced and the control input required to activate a drift boost is much more intuitive. Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing is fast, fun and features bright, technically impressive visuals; a balanced (for the most part) cast of characters that SEGA fans should have some attachment to, or knowledge of; as well as some truly brilliant examples of track design.

The criticisms I am prepared to level at Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing are:
  • You can not play through Grand Prix with more than one player (split screen or online)
  • There are no mirror tracks
  • The majority of weapons and power-ups fail to draw inspiration from the source material: The most obvious example, players can obtain a shield that protects them from one hit/hazard. The designers could have used the bubble from the Sonic series (which protected players from one hit/hazard).
  • The All-Star Powers have severe balance issues: Jacky Bryant's All-Star Power is essentially turbo auto-pilot for as much as half a lap. By comparison, Beat's ability obscures the view of your competitors but doesn't offer any noticeable boost in speed.  
  • Seriously, they include Big the Cat and Amy but no Shinobi or Wonder Boy?: Casting fail
I'm not saying that this is a Game of the Year contender, but this a great kart racer with plenty of charm as well as modes, characters and tracks to play through/with. Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing is one those games that does not belong at the bottom of the bargain bin, and I would strongly recommend that you grab it and call up four good friends and enjoy some split screen racing action with some old favourites.

Dutch note: The end of financial year games sales are hitting their straps now. For any of you who were waiting for Lost Planet 2 to get cheaper, EBGames is now selling the Collector's Edition (with an adorable Akrid figurine) for half price. The latest Prince of Persia game has also been reduced to half price. I don't know when those specials expire so if that interests you, be sure to check it out. The GAME website (and stores according to a friend) also had a fire sale last Friday which I was lucky enough to pick up on. Keep your eyes peeled people, there are plenty of bargains out there for gamers on a budget (even those of us who can't adhere to a budget).

Friday, June 18

Peace Circle

I have a busy weekend approaching, and it looks as though that recently downloaded copy of Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker will (for the most part) lay dormant on my PSPgo's hard drive. Billed as Metal Gear Solid 5, I am dying to play through the next chapter in the Solid/Naked/Liquid Snake saga.

I wasn't the the biggest fan of the previous portable installment, Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops as the game relied heavily on backtracking and various other repetitive mechanics. Recruitment was probably the most baffling process, tranquilizing enemy combatants and dragging them back to your truck (suspect!). Due to the PSP's lack of a second analogue stick, combat was also very clunky. So clunky in fact that it managed to recapture the frustration of previous installments (as far back as the original), where being discovered was more often than not, equal to death (or at the very best, a reload). The Gameboy Colour installment (also titled: Metal Gear Solid) and MGS:PO are the only MGS games that I have failed to complete at least once.

Having played Peace Walker for about an hour today (and as per usual with MGS, when I say play, I mean watch), I am desperately hungry for more. Already the narrative has blown out to World War 3 proportions, with Cold War tensions at their height, and the KGB looking to set up in America's backyard. Considering how Big Boss has evolved throughout the MGS series, I'm also keenly interested to see how he is finally portrayed. From voiceless villain to self-sacrificing hero, will Peace Walker complete the circle and leave Big Boss as some smug, unsuspecting terrorist (a la MGS1) or will we finally see Outer Haven and the Militaires San Frontiers in a different light (as hinted in MGS3 and 4)?

Summarising both my play today, and my experience with the demo, you should know that using the Shooter-Type controls is a revolution. Similar to what the PSP Syphon Filter games demonstrated, shooters can work on the PSP. The soundtrack and voice-acting (especially when you consider this is a portable game) are of an incredibly high standard. Few games manage to capture the aural magic of Hollywood blockbusters as well as the MGS series, and thankfully, this assertion is also true for PW. The visuals for the gameplay itself are technically and artistically impressive, and truly live up to the standard set by previous iterations. The comic inspired cut-scenes from Portable Ops make a return for Peace Walker and are just as compelling then as they are now. If you have a PSP, you have to at the very least download the demo to see what you are missing.

In somewhat related news, I have now set up wireless internet at my house and can now take the PSP online. With this in mind, if there are any of you out there interested in playing through Peace Walker's co-operative component I would love to hear from you. With that being said though, I would love to hear from any of my readers regardless! What are you guys playing this weekend?

Wednesday, June 16

E3 2010: A Matter of Inches

I wasn't flown to Los Angeles to witness the Electronic Entertainment Expo this year, I couldn't fit it into the budget. All I can do is comment on what is being published in websites across the world. It looks as though none of the Big 3 (Microsoft, Sony or Nintendo) managed to steal the show, however at least in my opinion and as far as the press conferences go, Sony has emerged as the winner for this year. You could also argue that Nintendo was the winner, now that their shiny, High Definition touting competitors, who never gave the Wii a chance, have all brought their own spin on motion control to the table. Big picture comparisons aside, there were some genuinely exciting announcements to keep the industry buzzing for months to come.
The 3DS is a mystery machine. With Nintendo's current stranglehold on the portable market, I'd be interested to see how many people are willing to upgrade. You could generalise and say that Japanese consumers will buy it by the barrel-full, but with Nintendo DS, DS Lite, DSi and DSi LL(XL), the market could potentially have reached saturation point. The EBGames website currently lists the 3DS with an estimated RRP of $348, which if true would be fantastic for gamers as well as being a reasonably competitive price point. Would I buy it? I don't know, I would have to see what games are available at launch (read: I need to wait until my next pay to pre-order).

I can't find any videos of the 3DS in action (not that you would be able capture the magic of 3D in a 2D video), but I am itching to see the quality of visuals it is capable of conjuring. There were rumours that this machine would have the capabilities of current generation consoles, but from what I have seen this must not be the case. This may have something to do with the console needing to produce the same picture twice, in order to create stereoscopic 3D visual effects. Screenshots can't really be used as an indicator, with Mario Kart looking somewhat underwhelming and the Metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater tech demo looking promising, but far from current generation quality. Despite this, Kotaku have confirmed that when the technology works as intended, it is truly a sight to behold.

While the Sony conference featured no new pieces of hardware, there were an array of announcements that captured my interest. We've heard plenty about the Playstation Move, so that part of the presentation was not really my cup of tea, save for the announcement of a new Time Crisis game (!!!). I'm more interested in Playstation Network Plus. Subscribers will be entitled to discounts on content sold via the Playstation Network Store and will also receive free games each month. The subscription service will also allow players to download full retail games and trial them for one hour. If you follow through with a purchase, any progress and trophies you achieved in the trial will be unlocked. That sounds great for two reasons:
    1. The Playstation 3 should now have a service to rival Games on Demand. Further to that, it actually sounds like a stronger alternative, as this will potentially save gamers a lot of money.
    2. For gamers who appreciate intrinsic reward schemes (such as trophies, like me!), this means that they won't have to waste time replaying gameplay segments usually featured in demos.
There are limitations to this of course, with players only able to trial 2 games a month and pricing for both the subscription and full games yet to be confirmed for Australia.

It was also encouraging to read that Dead Space Extraction and Medal of Honor Frontline will be included, free of charge, with PS3 copies of Dead Space 2 and Medal of Honour respectively. Light-gun shooter Dead Space: Extraction was voted Gamespot's Wii Game of the Year and Medal of Honour: Frontline was a PS2 classic with a metarating of 88. Better news, the Medal of Honor multiplayer beta starts on June 21 and it looks brutal and hectic. I hope you choose to get involved, whether it be on the 360, PS3 or PC.

Last but not least, Portal 2 was announced for PS3 by Gabe Newell himself. Steamworks support has also been confirmed, meaning that the game will continue to be supported after release. This should go some distance to winning back Playstation 3 owners burned by the technically deficient port of The Orange Box.

The Microsoft conference was disappointing to say the least. It looks as though the Xbox 360's emulation of the Wii has come full circle, with both the new Dashboard and Kinect being fully detailed. The software lineup anounced for the launch of Kinetic is as derivative as one would expect; with a fitness title, a casual sports game, a racer, a (more competent) version of Eyepet, and a dancing game. Bundle this together with the already available Avatars, and the Xbox 360 is soon to become a HD Wii.

To add to the disappointment, no compelling new titles were revealed for the Microsoft console. There was nothing new or surprising revealed about Fable 3, Halo: Reach, or even Gears of War 3 (which I am genuinely looking forward to). The announcement of the Xbox 360 Slim was a massive kick in the pants. Wi-fi enabled, and packing a 250gb hard drive, the Slim (out July 1) is a bitter pill to swallow for anyone who has recently bought a 360. Imagine if you had just bought an Xbox 360 Arcade. With the cost of the system, the hard drive and a wireless network adaptor you would need to spend $650 to bring it up to speed with the new model which only costs $449.

While the 3DS has piqued my interest, (for me) there was enough new, and further elaborated upon products at the Sony conference to swing the battle of E3 in favour of the Playstation family. Have their been any announcements at E3 which are sure to steal your hard-earned dollars? What has you excited?

Monday, June 14

Left Behind (What is Burn Notice?)

After some hard work, a few rums and a little help from my friends (ha! Beatles reference), I have actually started to get the hang of the UFC Undisputed games. Before those of you in the know chime in, I am not in anyway implying that I have any great level of skill, however I did pull a few wins out of the hat. I even managed to make someone tap out. Despite these small victories, I should still note that my main criticisims of the series' fighting system are still valid. Knock-outs still occur seamingly at random and the ground game is exceedingly convoluted.

Having played both the last year's and the current iteration over the weekend, I no longer consider these games a complete waste of time and money. If you had to choose between them, you would have to go with UFC 2009 because it is considerably cheaper and there are not that many noticable improvements in the new version (at least from an Exhibition Match persepctive). UFC 2010 does feature improved visuals, and venerable backyard scrapper, Kimbo Slice; but in all honesty if you're only playing these games against your friends you couldn't tell them apart. I have read about the career mode featured in UFC 2010, however I don't believe that I would be able to engage with it if I were to purchase the game, as I never had any childhood dreams of becoming a brawler. A professional wrestler, yes; as there is a sense of showmanship and narrative to their battles. UFC combatants however, if the matches I've seen are any indication, just bump fists and then to proceed to beat the snot out of each other. There's no meaningful context or sense of purpose. If it weren't for the fact that there are match officials, most of these bouts would be fights to the death.

Once again, thanks to my friends, I logged some time both playing and witnessing the example of Valve's disdain for Australian consumers that is Left 4 Dead 2. To say it has been censored is an understatement. Upon being felled, zombies disappear from the playing field. No blood, no corpses, nothing. Bludgeoning the living dead with baseball bats and other dull instruments leads to similarly disappointing graphical effects. It starts to get silly when you set your enemies on fire. If you throw a molotov cocktail, or shoot a fuel canister near a group of zombies and you won't find any visual indication that they have been set on fire. What you do see, are zombies running around, screaming and patting their heads in a fashion similar to Dustin Hoffman as Rain Man.

The only salvation for this mess, was a good friend playing as the survivor Nick. Due to his fashioable white suit, the character had been renamed "Burn Notice," and he was more dangerous than the protagonist from the show of the same name. After travelling with the main group for about 20 minutes, Burn Notice became enraged when he couldn't find a baseball bat to flog the infected hordes. Not content to carry on without the melee weapon, Burn Notice remembered he had seen one at the starting point of the campaign. He bravely abandoned his colleagues, and ventured back to the point of origin to procure his weapon of choice; not fearing for his own safety (or that of his fellow survivors). Bat in hand, Burn Notice swung for the fences and led the group to victory (read: death).

Despite the mediocre gaming experiences on offer, I had a great weekend playing with some old friends. You will have to excuse me though, the Dutch are playing and I nearly missed their first goal. An own goal by Denmark is still a goal! Nederlands FTW!!!

Friday, June 11


Today is 6 months to the day I get married. There are many reasons why I love my fiance, however her insistence on learning to love videogames has helped our relationship to grow. At first she was a spectator, watching on as I battled waves of Ganados in Resident Evil 4. Not content to passively engage with the medium, Carly first picked up a control to play Burnout 3: Takedown, and her skill blossomed to the point where I refused to compete with her in any mode other than Road Rage. Even in Crash Mode, she had the co-ordination and vision to compile multi-million dollar scores. Despite her dominance, I was happy that she was starting to take an interest in my passion. I even picked up Burnout Legends for the PSP so she could subject the AI racers to merciless beatings, and I was no longer the fodder for her peerless racing lines.

We then proceeded to enjoy many titles on the Gamecube, particularly the Mario spin-offs. Mario Kart got hours of play, and either of us failed to create a point of difference as far as skill was concerned. You could argue that this had a lot to with Blue Shells and other cheap weapons, but we had fun regardless. Mario Golf is the second best golf game I've ever played (Tiger Woods 05 FTW), however as a co-operative experience (as in hole for hole) it has few rivals. Finally there was Mario Power Tennis, and Carly, as a tennis devotee, always took the losses hard. This was in spite of the fact that real-life tennis players are rarely haunted by ghosts mid-match, let alone able to hit the ball so it traces out a perfect L shape.

The less said about Carly's dominance of the rhythm game genre, the better. As I fumbled through the first Guitar Hero's setlist on easy difficulty, my sweet was mastering the challenging "No One Knows," on normal. Just as I had ventured into playing songs on Normal, she was attaining 5 star ratings for every song on hard. This trend continued throughout future iterations of the Guitar Hero franchise and even lingered into The Beatles: Rock Band (although you would expect as much considering she is a huge fan of the Fab 4's back catalogue). This is one genre where Carly has effectively emasculated almost all of the gamers I know.

Now I'm glad to say that while Carly and I still play with (and against) each other, she has found some games she will happily pursue of her own accord. Steam tells me that she has accumulated approximately 60 hours of playtime on the super-addictive Peggle. Further to that, Carls recently shelled out 1200MSP to download Burnout 3: Takedown from the Xbox Live Marketplace. She even supports my gaming endeavours, showering me with anything from bluetooth headsets to new release titles.

To my loyal readers, please forgive the schmaltz, however: I love you Carly, and thank you for taking an interest in something that I have, and always will care deeply about. December 11th can't arrive fast enough!

Wednesday, June 9

The Prodigal Son Returns

I swear to you, I am good at Street Fighter IV. When I stopped playing online I had a win rate of over 60% in nearly 200 fights. In my opinion that is somewhat respectable. Naturally I had expected that my skill level would translate somewhat faithfully into the upgraded Super Steet Fighter IV. Well I was wrong. On my way to 100 fights online I have achieved the disgraceful success rate of just over 27%. I try my best to compete with the speed and strategy of my opponents and almost always come up short. Have I gotten worse? I honestly don't think so. I'm employing the same tactics, and I can pull off most moves (except for full circles and double angle charges) when required. From what I can see, two things have changed:

1) Logistics
As previously discussed, the matchmaking system employed by SSFIV pairs you up with local combatants unless you insist on taking the fights to other regions. Now I find myself participating in fights without any hitches in connection and fighting a different breed of opponents. The increase (not exponential, but noticable) in the fidelity of the connection for almost all of the battles I have fought in has taken away any breathing space afforded by lag.

2) Changing attitudes, evolving strategies
I've been playing Street Fighter for nearly twenty years now, and each iteration has had it's own quirks and exploits. Further to that, my contemporaries have always employed similar (if not identical) tactics to my own. In Street Fighter II, it was all about heavy (fierce) hits and projectiles. If you weren't throwing hadoukens across the screen, you weren't winning. In Alpha 2 and 3, my eldest brother discovered medium strength attacks and the game changed somewhat, with an emphasis on speed. While special moves and heavies continued to rule, the smart player could engage in fast, close-quarters combat to try and even out the life bars after copping a super combo. In the VS series (X-Men VS Street Fighter, Marvel VS Capcom), success depended on your ability to super jump, land chains of light hits and build up your hyper combo meter. In one of the last 2D fighters I had the privilege to enjoy religiously with company, Capcom VS SNK 2 asked my fellow players and I to make several meaningful choices before we even got to lay our hands on each other. Choosing the amount of characters to fight with, and how powerful they would be (ratio) and then the gauge system you would fight with. Forcing your opponents into corners was a solid strategy which would often result in victory. Timing was also a key factor in any successful bout, with Dramatic KOs being the order of the day. In Street Fighter IV, I earned many wins by pinning opponents to the ground with projectiles. Aiming to have players land on hadoukens after jumping, or colliding with them after they rose from the floor (after being knocked down).

With Super Street Fighter IV, players have taken to the following: (what I have dubbed) ultra juggles, throws (so many throws), light hits and light special moves. An ultra juggle happens when a player knocks me off my feet, forcing me into the air slightly, then unleashing an ultra combo. It's a usually a light special (such as a shoryuken) which forces me up, and then I will have a nice, big projectile waiting for me on the way down. I am often a victim of throw spamming (I know, I'm a bad sport). Its not like I am turtling though. For those of you who don't know, to turtle is to block for the majority of a bout. I could be midway through a Sumo Headbutt, only to be intercepted and thrown. It completely destroys my momentum and my enthusiasm. Finally, the reason why players are using light hits is obvious: they're fast, you are less vulnerable to counterattack and light hits get priority over a great many moves. I can't adapt though, I'm playing just as I did when I played Street Fighter IV. It is a different game, and my usual tactics just do not work anymore.

The only saving grace is hitting with a Metsu Shoryuken, it is the most visually stunning super move in the franchises storied history. It is animated so well, and the sound of your opponents jaw crumbling is enough sweetness to help swallow those bitter defeats.

What is your favourite fighting game? Have you ever found that your strategies don't carry over to a sequel?

Sunday, June 6

Learn to Fly

By 2PM on Saturday afternoon, I was convinced that I could not move on from Red Dead Redemption. Even though I had tied up the loose ends of the narrative, I was thinking that I would be happy not to touch another game until I had killed every buffalo, helped every stranger and found every township. After having dwelled on my conundrum for another hour, I thought to myself that it may be time to move on. If only to see that I wasn't missing much if I was to leave the Great Plains.

The first disc loaded was King of Fighters XII. I paid 19 dollars for the Collector's Edition, which included a detailed statue of SNK stalwart, Terry Bogard and it still felt like a monumental rip-off. This is the most shallow, uninspiring fighting game I have ever had the displeasure of playing. The arcade most consists of 5 fights using the usual 3 versus 3 KoF formula. No boss fight. No noticeable rise in difficulty across fights. The aim of arcade mode is to have completed all 5 fights in an overall time which is faster than your opponents. This time attack slant on the franchise could have been interesting if it weren't for the fact that the computer-controlled opponents are only able to manage a time of 59:59:59. In my first of two playthroughs, I completed in just over 6 minutes and didn't lose a single round. While the achievement whore in me was happy enough, I felt robbed. Robbed, as there was no final confrontation, no real test of skill. I thought I could satiate my thirst for a challenge by taking the fight online. How wrong I was. For the few players still accepting matches online are a class of player worse than the achievement whore; they are achievement vultures. Still trying desperately to attain that last bit of gamerscore for participating in 300 matches. I don't think the two players I came across were interested in winning as they both appeared to have put the A button on autofire while I proceeded to smash them with Joe Higashi's Hurricane Upper. Once again, I snagged a few achievements but I was far from satisfied. To further spoil the deal, KoF XII is one ugly duckling with heavily pixelated (I will concede however, rather large) sprites, a handful of arenas and frame rate hitches when anything resembling modern visual effects appears on screen. The only bright side to this grim tale is the responsiveness of the 360 controller in this 2D fighter. I could pull off any maneuvers I desired after 2 attempts, which for anyone who has played Street Fighter IV on a 360 controller would know, is impressive. Avoid at all costs dear readers, you have been warned.

After this bitter affair I felt guilty, and thought that I should return to the streets of Blackwater and repent after my unfaithful behaviour. I booted up my PS3 to find a friend had invited me to play Lost Planet 2. Could I really do this to old Red twice in one day? Well, it had been two weeks since I had played Lost Planet 2, and a veneer of dust had begun to accumulate on the brutally difficult action game's case. It couldn't hurt. Headset equipped, I ventured into the dense jungles of EDN III to battle a band of snow pirates (?) who appear to enjoy bondage play and have an affinity for large tribal tattoos and revealing clothing. The results were highly favourable. With the difficulty set to easy, I was able to forgive my lack of skill (in normal difficulty at least), and finally best the evil tattooed biker bondage pirates and fight another day.

Could I really enjoy something that wasn't Red Dead Redemption?

Moving away from RDR again, I booted up Mass Effect 2 for the first time today. I'm only about 3 hours in and it looks as though Rockstar's Wild West masterpiece will enjoy some rest for the next few weeks. The opening sequence aboard the crumbling starship, Normandy was truly something to behold. Further to that, Bioware's mastery of chatter and consequence has sucked me in again. The gunplay and visuals have also been significantly improved over it's predecessor.

So the answer is: Life carries on, even outside of the greater South-West. What games were you all playing over the weekend?

Friday, June 4

In case you haven't played it: Red Dead Redemption Review (PS3)

Red Dead Redemption is the tragic tale of how the West was finally conquered. John Marston and the outlaw brothers he is now forced to apprehend, are the last of a dying breed. Noble criminals who at their best, looked to feed the needy with the excess of the wealthy in an unforgiving land. As the political and social landscape of the United States changed, they turned on themselves, dividing what was left of the America they knew and holding it to ransom. Marston is forced out of the game after being left for dead. Almost happy to oblige, he attempts to make an honest living with his wife and son. The US government then grows tired of waiting for these fearsome bandits to die, and force the anti-hero to take on his former brothers-in-arms to complete the spread of civilization to the nation's borders.

The Good
Sound Design - For the majority of the single player adventure, Red Dead Redemption features an authentic score that wouldn't sound out of place in any classic western movie. Bereft, for the most part, of the licensed music for which Rockstar titles are usually renowned (via Grand Theft Auto and Midnight Club titles), RDR is a refreshing change of pace from the usual fare. When third party songs are employed on two occasions, they are used to such great effect that I was almost brought to tears. The first time you hear lyrics (Jose Gonzalez, Far Away) is at a time when Marston (and by extension, the player), ventures into a foreign land. Cheated, frustrated and lost. By the time the song fades out and you ride into Chuparosa, you're left with an experience that won't fade from memory anytime soon. On the second occasion (Compass, Jamie Lidell), you can imagine the feelings rushing through Marston's head, and it captures the drama so brilliantly that you will be whipping your horse relentlessy until you reach your destination. Apart from what is, in my opinion, the best videogame soundtrack in recent memory, you'll find the realistic din of firearms, carriages, steam trains, horses and native fauna. This in concert with the exceptional voice acting from central characters, strangers and townspeople really does create the illusion of a living, breathing world for players to explore.

The Landscape - I've explored this previously in the post, Deep Red Bells, so I won't dwell on this too long. If you're travelling with no particular objective you will notice some truly fascinating events that you would be unlikely to see in any other game. You may be riding a horse across Mexico and witness a man being mauled by a pack of wolves. You may be riding though Thieves' Landing and witness a kidnapping or a robbery. As mentioned above, you are walking/riding through a living, breathing representation of the Wild West.

The Story (The beginning and the end) - RDR starts off strong, introducing the MacFarlanes, Marshall Johnson and the town of Armadillo. The early missions quickly acquaint you with all of the game's mechanics and before long you'll confidently accompany companions on horseback; hunt animals and forage for herbs and flowers; and activate and effectively use Dead Eye. Characters like Bonnie MacFarlane and Landon Ricketts are particularly engaging. The final chapter in Blackwater introduces some genuinely funny side characters as well as the main villain, Dutch (!). The conclusion is poignant and cements John Marston's position as one of the great videogame characters.

Everything on the side - The in-game economy, the wealth of ambient tasks and mini-games will absorb hours of your time. There is quite a bit of game to be enjoyed, and while some activities like horseshoe throwing may not tickle your fancy, odds are you will find something peripheral to the main quest that will distract you.

Multiplayer - For impressions please see my previous posts, Draw and Wild Horses. Not content to only provide players with an extensive single player game, Rockstar has provided a comprehensive multiplayer suite which allows you to party (posse) up with friends and traverse the entire map from the single player game in Free Roam mode. You can raid gang hideouts, complete ambient tasks and visit lobbies to participate in more traditional multiplayer match variants such as Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch and Capture-the-Flag (Bag).

The Bad
The Story (Mexico) - The second third of the tale takes part in Mexico and served only to muddle my perception of the Marston character. When I first left Austin I felt as though he was a good man (I played as an honourable outlaw) with a bit of a mean streak. This is further enforced in the first few missions with Landon Ricketts. The honeymoon ends after your travels with Ricketts however, as you then fight on both sides on the Mexican revolutionary war. The main proponents of this war are obviously corrupt, and they string Marston along with the promise of the men he needs to bring down. After completing so many tasks for so many villains with no return for such a long time, you start to doubt Marston's resolve and his motives.

The Villains - The relationship between Dutch, Escuella, Bill Williamson and Marston is not effectively explored over the course of the game. It would have been interesting if the game incorporated some flashback missions which would have served to develop these characters and an understanding of their past relationship. The original Red Dead Revolver (for better or worse) switched to the perspectives of different characters so frequently, but in Red Dead Redemption the narrative rarely jumps to a different point of view.

A little too easy - The game's default targeting system features an auto-aim system which centres on enemies when you pop out from cover. It drains a great deal of the challenge from the game's many firefights. The auto-aim system also makes the transition to the multiplayer game and leads to some cheap deaths. Further to that, RDR employs a forgiving checkpoint system that also serves to discount the level of skill required to progress through the game. The game features a regenerating health system, but you can also purchase items to heal yourself. Considering that you heal pretty quickly, there was no real need for these recovery items (read: I never used one).

The Ugly
Mission Design - The game borrows too heavily from Rockstar heavyweight, Grand Theft Auto. Considering that horses are not as fast as Porsches (or their GTA equivalents), you should not be required to travel for miles (and miles) in almost every mission. I found this especially painful during my time in Mexico, and it really took some shine off the overall experience.

A mountain of various visual glitches - I rode invisible horses, textures disappeared from NPCs, and the amount of pop-in was at times horrendous. The worst glitch occurred after a cutscene, when a character duplicated. I had two sprites of the same character standing side-by-side and this obviously didn't help immerse me in the game world.

9.5/10 - Red Dead Redemption is an essential experience despite it's flaws. This is a great value package containing a campaign that can absorb 20+ hours and an extensive suite of multiplayer activities that can be enjoyed on your own or with a posse of friends.

Wednesday, June 2

Catch Up

For the next month, the Australian release schedule is essentially clear of any must-have releases. The only exception to this broad statement is the late arrival of Demon's Souls on our shores. Demon's Souls was released in 2009 to a surprising amount of acclaim, even taking Gamespot's Game of the Year award. While the credibility of the aforementioned website has been in question since the dismissal of senior contributor (and soul of Gamespot), Jeff Gerstmann (now of Giant Bomb); the accolade forced me take notice of this brutally difficult, action RPG. I clamoured through Australian game retailers' websites and the responses of their ignorant staff in a vain effort to ascertain the Australian release date. I considered importing, but to add to the amount of money I was spending on videogames in the 2009 holiday season seemed to be a gross misappropriation of resources at the time. So I waited and here we are: 30 days from local release.

This lull provides ample opportunity for me to catch up on those titles I haven't yet shown as much love as I could have. First on the list is (and this may be a surprise) Super Street Fighter IV. While I gave it a hearty amount of time upon purchase, I must admit that I have been saving it for a dramatic battle against two friendly combatants which is fast approaching. Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 will also get some quality time. I've only played through the first two levels, but for any of you trophy whores out there, the game doles them (trophies) out at a rapid pace. To put it in perspective, I just finished the single player portion of Red Dead Redemption and after 22 hours of play (across both single and multi player modes) I have earned 21 percent of all available trophies. For Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2, I have also earned 21 percent of available trophies for far less (about 2 hours total) play time. It's a half decent game, difficult and aesthetically pleasing, however the platforming sections feel forced and have led to much frustration. Finally there is Mass Effect 2, which I have acquired for half the retail price. I'm very much looking forward to continuing the adventures of Dutch Shepard, a battle-hardened paragon who looks as good he fights (in case you're wondering, that's pretty damn good!).

As mentioned previously, I have just completed Red Dead Redemption and a review will be forthcoming soon. The final chapters of the story have rescued the narrative from the brink, after the hazardous trip to Mexico. You really do need to play this game, as the conclusion is genuinely touching, if predictable. The sound design above all, is exemplary and ensures that certain moments will become ingrained in your memory. It's a flawed, epic tale of redemption (obviously) and the death of the Wild West.

Has anyone picked up any bargains at the half-yearly sales?

Dutch note: RIP Steph, the world is a lesser place without you.