Tuesday, June 22, 2010

E3 Postmortems Round 1: Microsoft - Resting on casual laurels ?

Sitting comfortably from their second place perch, Microsoft is booming, a bit high on their own success. Exclusives here, pre-emptive releases there, it's funny watching them now, 5 years into the current generation, in a position no one expected them to be in the first place. They've spent the previous years capatializing on their competitors mistakes to great effect, but now things are starting to get interesting. In the face of Sony's strongest year so far, and Nintendo's slow and steady caterings to the hardcore, MS now needs to prove that they can still hold their ground.

Did they? Highlights and thoughts on the jump.

Practically solidifying the annnoying stigma that the Xbox is the console of choice for all shooting men in the face enhusiasts everywhere, they kicked off the conference with a bit of Call of Duty: Black Ops, and I'm not gonna lie, what I saw was indeed impressive. I'm not a fan of ANY of the Treyarch developed Call of Duty games (I don't own ONE.), but what was here was impressively cinematic, intense, and looks to be the first CoD game they've made with some soul. The pervasive explosions and muted rock music blaring in the background may be the crow I eat for giving them this muc credit over a 5 minute demo...but if the campaign can keep up this level of polish, I won't mind breaking tradition.

Later came an announcement that all the DLC for the forthcoming years will be released first on 360, with other consoles to follow whenever they get around to it. Nice, but not world shattering. Shooter console stigma bolstered.

Kojima took the stage next, and it's something that still surprises me. They have such a good relationship now, if you'd told anyone at Sony that a new Metal Gear game would debut at Microsoft's conference before theirs, you might've been met with bouts of laughter. Now, for the second year in a row, Metal Gear Solid: Rising takes the stage, and I'm tempted to say, this was the most exciting trailer of their show.

He really did cut an Astro in half! While I have no doubt that this will look nothing short of amazing, I hope they can keep up the gameplay end of the deal. MGS4 had notoriously complex controls, and if they can dial that back for this game and make this extremely intuitive (looking) cutting mechanic simple and fun to use, I'm there on day one.

Some dude calling himself uh..Cliff Blez-

Cliff Bleh-


..So CliffyB took the stage, and we already know what that means.GEARS OF WAR 3. Arguably more Halo this generation than Halo has been (in terms of relevance), Epic's trailblazing action title shows no sign of slowing down in terms of intensity or spectacle, which looks to push this system to its limits, vast improvements to the core combat (bayonet rush?!?) and 4-player co-op notwithstanding--

What can be said, really? This game is going to be ridiculous. New, grotesque enemies, impressive sense of scale, RIDICULOUS graphics..it's going to rock. This isn't hyperbole, either. Epic always executes with an extreme level of polish, and even when they falter slightly with choices we may not agree with (GoW2's multiplayer, looking 'atcha.) you can't ever accuse their games of being unplayable. This is one I'll follow closely.

..Peter Molyneux even came out and talked about Fable III...but my brain shut off as soon as I saw his face. Yeah, it looks cool, but I'll eat my own hat** before I indulge his grandiose empty promises again.

Then the Kinect rolled out, and I stood up.

But don't let the obviously focus-tested shenanigans at play fool you. This video is corny, yes, but it's a good representation of what they were able to show off. Impressively lithe, and functional in ways that neither the Playstation Move or a Wii Remote can match, any non-believers in Microsoft's motion control answer were quickly converted once the software came into play. No, it isn't entirely perfect at this early stage, but it was impressively so, down to its seamless integration of controlling the dashboard, Minority Report style. The Kinect's full body tracking camera also lends itself to an entire suite of possibilities game wise, and if standout titles like Dance Central, Kinectimals, and Your Shape: Fitness Evolved were any indication, we're in for a REAL treat come November 4th.

(Well, aside from the slimmer, cooler, more functional 360 upgrade that followed its announcement. 802.11 N WiFi built in, 250 gb HDD, 5 USB ports, Built-in Kinect port, and all for the same price as the existing Elite, with a $50 price drop for all existing models? Available NOW? Nice. Very.)

The big question remains though...was I blown away by this year's keynote?

Not really. While I'm all for promoting the Xbox 360 as a massive social networking and home entertainment device, I think things may have gotten out of hand. While bonuses like an improved Netflix, and full ESPN integration into the console are nice, they have nothing to do with the console's core strength; why we chose to play in the first place -- the games. Don't get me wrong, there were some nice titles on display, but I couldn't shake the notion. This year saw an increased focus on the Kinect and the system function and less on the games, and it gave this show a bit of a foul air for me. I really like the Kinect and what it represents for our gaming future, but it also points to a more casual, non-gamer audience that the Wii has seen fit to attract for the past four years. I've said it before, but believe me when I say the future isn't heading in that direction, and with this year's show, I walked away impressed, but also wondering what exactly the 360 has in store this year for the hardcore audience, if anything substantial at all.

I don't think I've ever felt like that before.

**I don't wear hats. Haven't in nearly a decade. Exactly.

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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Groovy!.....IN HD.

I have fond memories of the original Earthworm Jim. In a Sega Genesis-laden childhood formerly dominated by the Sonics and Disney characters, EWJ was a breath of fresh air. Featuring quirkky, odd characters, a strangely disjointed yet bizarrely cohesive collection of worlds, and a difficulty level that I struggled to keep up with as my friends fell prey to it one by one, I'd found my new favorite game. As someone who doesn't regularly play favorites, this is significant to me. I've played the original Earthworm Jim so much, I practically know it backwards, and welcome any opportunity to play it again.

So when an iPhone version was released, I was there, and was blown away by what developer Gameloft had done; this wasn't just a quick and dirty port, this was a redrawn from scratch, enhanced, high definition version of the game I'd grown up loving. Imagine my surprise when I heard it wouldn't stop there, and that a fully HD version would be released for the home consoles. Moreover, I'd heard that not only would it be based on the most amazing version of the game (Special Edition - Sega CD), but that it would not only have extra stages, but multiplayer!

How could I resist?


Earthworm Jim HD
For: Xbox 360, PS3 (PS3 Release: tentative, July)
Price: 800 MS Points, $9.99 PSN
Released: 6/9/2010 (Xbox 360)

I'll get the obvious out of the way first, I enjoyed Earthworm Jim HD. Was it the definitive, ultimate version of the game I was hoping for? No, that title still goes to the original Sega CD version. Is it a painstakingly remastered, remixed, content filled version of the game I know and love that isn't perfect, but will draw in a load of new fans? Most definitely.

The story hasn't changed any, and in a very welcome change to the original, moments after pressing start, you're treated to a redrawn version of the original Earthworm Jim origin comic as an intro movie. While it never really did provide context for the world hopping madness that is Jim's quest to rescue Princess-What's-Her-Name, it's a welcome setup for the rest of the game, which is remarkably intact for the most part. I say for the most part, because while the game does feature many things from the Sega CD version, two levels; "Big Bruty" and the secret "Who Turned Out The Light" are surprisingly absent. It isn't a dealbreaker, as the game still retains its trademark schizophrenic approach to platforming--one minute, you're navigating an underwater maze in a pod created by a fish, the next, you're bungie battling a booger--, but it's a loss that will sorely be missed, as the latter level was one of the most unique ones in the game.

What won't be missed however, is the original game's resolution. Seemingly not content to just upscale the game and throw a blurry filter on top, Gameloft actually redrew the game from the ground up, and it shows. Not only do the stages look sharp and crisp, but they found time to add new details as well; New Junk city has a light fog tracking the ground, Down The Tubes has bubbles and several schools of fish swimming around (look for a VERY special cameo!) and Andy Asteroids wouldn't look out of place in a 3D game. Unfortunately, some of the remastered animations aren't as well done as others, and you can tell some corners were cut, likely because the original was SO well animated, it would've been too massive an undertaking to redo every single frame in HD. People new to the series won't notice, but fans of the original definitely will, and it has the unfortunate side effect of occasionally making the game look unpolished, because some of the original frames ARE intact. (Giant Hamster, I'm looking STRAIGHT at you)

Sound was paid a similar amount of care as well. A ton of new sound effects and added voice work were added to the game, and in some respects it makes the game funnier. Strangely, some iconic ones have been lost (where's Jim's high pitched scream?) or replaced (PLASMA! instead of WHAM!). Tommy Tallarico's fantastic score also remains mostly intact, though some liberties were taken with some of the older tracks (title screen) and similarly what's been done with the new tracks sometimes stick out like a sore thumb. This isn't to say they're bad, but it's more a testament to the original score and how strong it was that the new tracks actually throw things off a bit. Music can really make or break atmosphere, and a few of the new songs actually throw off the psuedo-serious and dark, yet lighthearted humor of the original, making things just a bit goofier (Read: The EWJ2 humor problem**).

Control however remains flawless, and feels surprisingly tight, even on an HDTV. Weapon switch from the SNES version was also added, making the game even more fun to play, as managing your plasmas actually becomes a possibility, opening the game up to new strategies. Jim's helicopter no longer requires a thousand button presses, and the whip swing is faster too. These changes are not only well recieved, but welcome because even though new difficulty levels were added, the original's brutal difficulty is still a selectable option.

Multiplayer was also a pleasant surprise, and while the initial reaction would be to hiss at the fact that yet ANOTHER game has had multi shoehorned into it, it's actually pretty well done. With support for up to 4 players, and redesigned levels from the single player game featuring all sorts of clever co-op puzzles and situations that force teamwork, it's a real hoot. It's a real shame that hardly any people are playing it over live, but local is a blast, and definitely will distract for an hour or two.

Many of my comments on this game keep going back and forth, similarly praising and criticizing each aspect of the game, making it sound like a mixed bag, but it isn't as polarizing as seems. Overall, I was satisfied with EWJ HD. The high definition upgrade makes an artistically great game even better, the updated sound effects and voiceovers add a ton of personality to a title already brimming with it, and even though it wasn't necessary, the multiplayer is an absolute hoot and extends an already great title. I can't recommend it enough to fans of the original, and for new ones, I hope they're prepared to play one of the most challenging, personable platformers around.

**The EWJ2 humor problem is simple to explain. The original Earthworm Jim, and part of its charm was being a game that didn't take itself too seriously, though it's intimidating boxart would've had you thinking otherwise.

The game starts with Jim's pants falling as he showboats for the camera, and moments after you've pressed start, he's on-screen sporting the angriest "GET TO THE CHOPPA" look you could ever possibly imagine on an annelid. But this was the balance--for every clever 'serious' red herring the game threw you, there was a clever joke waiting not too far away. Jim fights his way through a rabid junkyard, then he's in hell listening to elevator music. One second he's working his way through an underwater labyrinth constructed by a fish, then he's caught up in a freefall battle with a robot chicken. The best part was, Jim for the most part did it stone faced, and carried himself like a champion, like he was embarking on the greatest rescue mission ever, and like he was going to succeed...somehow.

Then in the second, it seemed as if it were all about the punchline. Gone was the deathly serious Jim surrounded by absurdity, he was now consistently bug-eyed and jogging in place. The levels were clever, but one huge punchline. The enemies were punchlines. The puzzles, onscreen words--everything seemed like a setup for a joke bigger than the next, and while it's fine in the grand scheme for a character like Jim to occupy the role of Jester--it was the fact that he wasn't in the original that made his quest so endearing. He was ridiculous--but not as ridiculous as what was going on around him, and that's why the humor worked so well. The second felt juvenile and undercooked by comparison.

(This article's also on CLgamer.com!)

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Wednesday, June 9, 2010

I've waited for this..

Do the words "Pirate Baby" or "Kings of Power 4 Billion" instantly bring a telling, self-indulgent nerd grin to your face? If so, then you're already well acquainted with Paul Robertson, creator of both aformentioned (and critically acclaimed) sprite movies.

However, he doesn't make 'actual' games.

Anyone who has seen his movies can all unanimously come to a conclusion: That they would be AWESOME as actual games. His art style and execution reek of Metal Slug, Contra, Final Fight, River City Ransom and even Guardian Heroes. Over the top, impeccably animated, and showing an attention to detail and personality to even make SNK blush, it isn't hard to imagine that Robertson himself is an avid fan of videogames, being that it shows in every inch of his work.

The same can be said for Bryan Lee O' Malley's Scott Pilgrim comics. Drawn in an endearing Americanime style and filled to the brim with videogame inside jokes and references cleverly woven into its narrative, with an upcoming movie that seems like it will do the film (great) justice, surely a game tie-in is inevitable.

Oh to hell with it. Paul Robertson's doing it.

I'll pause for a second. Let that digest. Yes. There is a game coming out to coincide with the release of the Scott Pilgrim movie, and it's being made with Paul Robertson's artwork! Game Informer has the scoop on what looks like it's shaping to be an awesome beat-em up of awesome awesomeness. (see what I did there?) Masquerading around as a beat-em-up (perfect!), sporting a delicious old-school look and booming with chiptunes by Anamanaguchi (!!!!), I think we're all in for a treat come August on the PSN and 360 Live Arcade.

For now, I have no footage, only a shaky cam video of the intro, and a few screenshots, courtesy of the Fort 90 blog..Be amazed!

I'm crossing my fingers for more info post-E3. Stay tuned!

And really...if you haven't seen these by now, you need to. BOTH of his movies in easily digestible form. Watch and daydream about how great this is going to be.

Pirate Baby's Cabana Battle Street Fight 2006

Kings of Power 4 Billion%

I'll be back for the pieces of your skull that are surely all over the floor.

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Thursday, June 3, 2010

Impressive Visuals = No Local?..

It isn't the craziest notion, in fact, it's one I had gathered while going over the new releases this and last year.

Nearly every time we've had a graphically impressive title with multiplayer potential, it's been lacking a major component : local multiplayer. Online multiplayer is usually included, sometimes even LAN, but it can't replace the simple fun of sitting next to a friend (or significant other) and playing the afternoon away. There are also other factors: Not everyone has internet, or are willing to deal with the lag, glitches, screaming and service fees that can associated with online multiplayer. Everyone I'm acquainted with unanimously agrees that playing offline is the superior experience, from the reasons above to the overall atmosphere.

But why give that up? The arcade experience is massive and can be "simulated" to a point online, but nothing can replace the interpersonal experience that is the small gathering of 2-4 friends.

I honestly just explained it away with logic; of course, it's a given, as graphics tech gets more advanced and games become more visually dense, the prospect of running two simultaneous instances of one is very low. Seeing a game as graphically impressive as Grid, or Midnight Club: Los Angeles cements this notion; in single player alone, these games can hang with the best, regardless of genre. They already look like they're pushing the console with only one screen; asking for two screens of it simultaneously is absurd, unreasonable even. At least, from a developers' perspective.

But why not make concessions? Last generation, and even the one before that, it wasn't uncommon for a game to pair down its graphics for multiplayer. A reduction in resolution here, a framerate slash there, but it was a sacrifice players were willing to make in order to punch each other in the arms over a botched win, or a clutch victory. It isn't like anyone cared either -- dare I say, we understood that it needed to happen. Now, we're so inundated with online, and so frightened of breaching the uncanny valley that we've accepted the copout over XBL or PSN.

Now, traditions like the triumphant stand, the Crushing Controller Fling(tm), all of our victory celebrations and heated rivalries have fallen by the wayside because of this trend. Sure, they still exist, but now they're confined to our lonesome. Before the advent of the internet, programmers had to figure out how to make multiplayer work by any means necessary. Now that you can have a single screen to yourself, the concern has fallen by the wayside.

It bothers me a great deal. I'm not the biggest multiplayer gamer around, but I'm starting to feel that as graphics improve, the push to online instead of local multiplayer due to technical constraints will only continue. Something like Killzone 2 begs to be played locally, and I've seen many a person pass it up because it's lacking this feature. Need for Speed: Shift is an excellent racer...but as a series, NFS has been missing local since Prostreet, again, much to the chagrin of the audience. The only games that seem to eternally retain this feature are the ones that literally cannot do without it; namely fighters and sports titles. How long will it be before we (or devs) decide we don't need to play those in the same room either?

There may be light at the end of the tunnel yet, as some companies still see the value of this dying form, no matter how graphically impressive their titles are. Games like Lost Planet 2 cleverly get around the issue with some strategic cropping in split screen, and others like Blur are simply programmed so well, the disparity in visual quality is something you have to squint at in order to notice. I don't think it's too much to ask to have games as well prepared for local multi as your average Nintendo title, and more devs need to take cues from them among others before it's too late. I'd hate to see local multi go the way of the dodo due to a lack of effort, and while It's fine that the graphical landscape is changing, good looking games aren't exactly hard to come by anymore.

Our excuses for leaving the house are becoming so.

(This article's also on CLgamer.com!)

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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Shaq Fu 2010

I have nothing. There's a joke here, but great editing already beat me to it. While I think it's hilarious that Shaq was even let near another fighting game (or any other game lacking a basketball), I can't in good conscience hate on him when he makes Brock Lesnar and Kimbo Slice look puny. Well played, THQ. You've successfully revived Shaq Fu.

MMA is still going to be better.

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