Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim trailer analysis

The first gameplay footage for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has just been unleashed to the masses with a shiny new trailer. First thing that you want to notice, I know it's hard to see but if you really squint your eyes --you'll notice that this game is gorgeous. Stupid's almost laughable how good this game looks. The sweeping camera angles show beautiful vistas: snowy mountain ranges, abandoned ruins, dense forests, and flowing brooks next to villages. It's really a spectacle, but the gameplay is what people wanted to see. We knew the game was going to look good (it's nice to hear that NPC's are all getting facelifts to make them look more...human), but we just wanted a snippet of the revamped combat system that has been detailed--- not shown. 

Showcased was a icy clash between our protagonist --our so called "Dragonborn" hero-- and the main threat plaguing Skyrim and if not held in check all of the adjacent lands; Dragons. Well we don't get a definitive look at gameplay from an FPS perspective; it looks like it will be quite an advisory, one surely not to be taken lightly. Many smaller enemies are shown throughout: Ogre's or mountain trolls of some sort, wolves and undead/skeleton warriors. But lets be honest, I could see all these enemies just being fodder for my blade...but when I walk out into the open I'm always going to look skyward --cause you never know when a Dragon may swoop down and wish to tangle. It should be an exhilarating feeling, one that keeps you on your toes. 

A few other things are revealed such as the use of left and right hand weaponry: a focus for the combat for Skyrim. Stealth, magic, archery; all are on display. At 1:43 in the video we see what looks like some new finishing blow type of a move: something that was detailed in GameInformer -- when an enemy is weak you can go in and have a more satisfying cinematic killing shot to finish them off. The "Dragon Shout" ability is also shown --which allows you the use of previous slain dragons' abilities. It's hard to see what the "Dragon Shout" actually does in the trailer --besides make the dragon angrier-- but we can see the after-battle absorption of the fallen Dragon and our hero gaining a new ability. 

I really am pumped after seeing this, and I know the hardcore Elder Scrolls fans are too. Can't wait to see more in the coming months. Here's hoping it actually gets released this year.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Joker: the Graphic Novel

For some reason Joker is getting released from Arkham Asylum, and no one knows why. Joker –I know this is going to get confusing with the name of the book simply being called Joker, so I will specify it by italics -- Joker isn’t a tale of reform, or how Joker even managed to be released from Arkham. It’s about him taking back Gotham, the city he thinks is rightfully his. It’s a grim depiction of how corrupt Gotham can be, and how Joker goes almost completely untamed throughout his rampage in the streets.

Joker is a one-off graphic novel that has vastly different depictions for some of Batman’s most iconic villains. The story is narrated from the perspective of a man named Jonny Frost: a naive henchman who just wants to make it big in Gotham.

I've smiled like that before -- upon getting a few extra chicken-wings at a bar!

The real reason to read Joker is simply for the art alone. Everything in Joker has a hard-edged, shadowy overtone to it, and many of the landscapes are beautifully painted. It’s in a word, spectacular. Artist Lee Bermejo overhauls all of Batman’s nefarious foes. Joker himself is much more reminiscent of Heath Ledger from Dark Knight. And other characters like Killer Croc get complete facelifts. Bermejo tries to ground each character into something more believable; the aforementioned Croc is simply a very strong thug…who likes to each rotten food for some reason. Harley Quinn is a stripper—not much can be said there, so I’ll move on. And others are given not just stylistic alterations but personality changes through the story telling by Brian Azzarello. 

That’s where Joker kind of loses steam for me though, and outside of the art there really isn’t anything particular memorable about this story. Does Azzarello expect us to empathize with Jonny Frost; no. Does he truly give a different look at Joker; not really, Joker is insane…we get it! Does the book end with all the weight of The Killing Joke; not on your life!

Really if you strip away the art -- and the narration by Jonny Frost –Joker (the comic, not the guy) doesn’t really advance the villain to a different plane of understanding like The Killing Joke did. Joker doesn’t have a grip on reality so it’s hard to feel anything when you see him lashing out violently; correct me if I’m wrong but that’s what the Joker does, he’s a violent guy…because he is crazy, their doesn’t really have to be a deeper meaning to it. It even seems that towards to end of the book Azzarello was really trying to make readers feel sorry for Joker’s madness. I didn’t really feel anything though. How can you feel sorry for a person who rips the bare skin off a person’s body? – Yeah that sounds cool…but it’s something that I have come to expect from Joker anyways.  

Now you know what you're dealing with Jonny Jonny!

Another problem I have is with the narration. I understand that Jonny Frost’s narration is supposed to give us a deeper look into the Joker’s madness through the eyes of someone who is actually along for the ride. But I just didn’t really think it mattered if Jonny was there or not. There could have just had a disembodied voice narrating the story from the shadows and it would have had the same impact. That’s really what it comes down to, impact. The Killing Joke had an impact on me and how I went about thinking of the Joker. You got a glimpse, even only if it was just a tiny glimpse, into the mind of Batman’s greatest villain. The comic –Joker—just depicts a crazy few days on the town with Joker and his cronies. He believes Gotham is his, and he is going to take it back by any maniacal means possible. La-di-da, no matter what Joker does Batman is still out there, and that’s why I found myself just kind of bored towards the end.

That’s the whole point; Batman is just going to stop Joker in the end. You can see it coming. Batman only appears at the very end of the comic; by which point Joker has completely lost his grip on reality... well, his very, very, very, very lose grip on reality for what it is. You just knew by the end Batman was going to show up. So it’s simple: Joker does some crazy crap (like stuffing people’s bodies in trashcans… that happens!), then Batman shows up and spoils the fun. It’s a standard good vs. evil tail, and outside of the phenomenal art it’s a story that didn’t deserve to take up over 100 pages to tell.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Dragon Age 2 Preview

To be honest I wasn’t a big fan of Dragon Age: Origin’s. It just felt like a step down from what BioWare had already given us with Mass Effect. I still played 60 hours of Dragon Age: Origin’s and there were things to like. I thought the story and characters were intriguing. And the main conflict that had been established in the first few hours was riveting. The addition of being able to select from 3 different races, and a host of different hierarchies in society that determent your role was a nice touch too. But what I didn’t like is what stood out. The combat (on consoles, I didn’t get a chance to play on PC) was just awful. The minute you got into an encounter with an enemy your character would lumber over to them and contemplate whether or not they wanted to attack at that moment. I can’t even count the amount of times that I wanted to attack a specific enemy but I was blocked by another foe or my teammates got in the way. You always had to wrestle with your character in order to position him the right way in order to engage in combat. It was a intrusive combat style that didn’t lend itself well to consoles.

This is where Dragon Age 2 changes directions. The combat in the demo I played just feels more visceral and every blow you land has weight to it; when I want to attack an enemy I don’t need to highlight him then hope that my character engages him properly. I can just jump into combat and when I press one of the face buttons I get feedback from a selected ability or spell (if you’re a Mage) instantaneously. It’s this “immediate attack” style that has some fans worried that Dragon Age 2 will dissolve into a button masher…well in some respects that is true. For example your character will not auto attack unless you continuously press the A button to melee; for some constantly having to push A -- when an auto attack could do the same thing -- may seem unnecessary and monotonous. For me that isn’t the case.

That is because Dragon Age 2 is fast, really fast in fact! Like NASCAR fast. There was rarely a situation where I wasn’t pressing some button corresponding to an ability or spell, and there were always tons of enemies on screen. At first the excessive cluster of action on screen can be jarring and at times distracting. But with any game it just takes some time to get used to. If you’re accustomed to the play-style of Devil May Cry then you’ll feel more at home here…but then add in 4 more character’s to choose from on screen and you can see where things may get a little hectic.

The concept for Hawke

Aside from the overall move feedback to how you input commands, the combat and gameplay in Dragon Age 2 is largely unchanged from its predecessor. You still control a squad of 4 companions (which you can switch between during combat) and character abilities are mapped to the face buttons (pulling the right trigger brings up additional slots to map abilities). And yes combat can still be paused if you wish to micromanage the flow of battle.

One major change is too the dialog system. Gone are the static text descriptions on what your character can or can’t do. Replacing it is a dialog wheel akin to Mass Effect. You have 3 basic choices during a conversation: Good, Neutral (or in some cases a more sarcastic choice), or Bad/Aggressive. Of course which ever choice you make you’re never quite sure the actions Hawke may take. Few of the dialog options that you chose are spoken verbatim in a conversation. And many times Hawke may just speech on his or her own behalf.

Well I do enjoy the additions that make the game play more like Mass Effect there still is just a little something missing. Everything in Dragon Age 2 is still just a step down from Mass Effect, mainly Mass Effect 2. Well the visual’s are much improved from Dragon Age Origins; textures and character models aren’t as detailed as you would expect from a triple-A title. Well I don’t think the game was rushed, I still think that there could have been more of a pass over on some of the finer details. Some Environments look good, others not so much. That’s really Dragon Age 2’s visual’s in a nutshell—you just don’t know what you’re going to see, something good or something bad.

"I'll tell you everything, just don't shave my chest!"

As mentioned before you play as “The Champion of Kirkwall,” the protagonist Hawke. Your story is being narrated by a former follower of Hawke; a Dwarf named Varric. The Chantry is falling apart and Varric is tasked with spilling the beans on Hawke and his many tidings. Mainly how he actually became “The Champion of Kirkwall” in the first place. Well in the demo I played, little of the story was revealed – and this demo is quite long—how the story will play out seems interesting though and from what I have read it will play out over the course of many years detailing Hawke’s rise as Champion.

From what I’ve played I’m excited for Dragon Age 2. But I’m not expecting to be blown away…it’s just not going to happen. The same feeling that I got from playing Dragon Age Origins still remains: that it just isn’t as good as Mass Effect. But I’m okay with that. Not every game should be the same. But when you borrow so many ideas from another game, it’s hard not to be criticized when the final product is not up to par. Still Dragon Age as a franchise has a lot of potential, and if Dragon Age 2 is just a stepping stone, then eventually it can turn into something great.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Killing Joke

I know I’m late, but a good story should stand the test of time, and The Killing Joke should stand the test it this is true. Written by Alan Moore featuring art by Brian Bolland, the Killing Joke tells the origin of the Joker, Batman’s seminal villain. The question is do we need an origin story for Joker? One may ask themselves, “do I really care how Joker was born…I think he fell in some acid, or something. That’s good enough for me!” I had this same thought…until I read the afterthoughts by artist Brian Bolland. Bolland says, “I think of this as just one of a number of possible origin stories manifesting itself in the Joker’s fevered brain.” And you know what? He is right. The Joker is insane, yes? So why wouldn’t he make up a story in his own mind on how he became crazy. Now I’m not insane myself – I think – but it just makes sense that Joker has become so delusional over the years that even he doesn’t know how his crime-villain/ serial killer life came to fruition.

Using the aforementioned thoughts above as a backdrop, I’ve come to appreciate this comic book…or graphic novel, if you want to be prude. And I find that the story (for me at least) is more about the dichotomy between Batman and Joker: what is their relationship, if any?

Batman trying to reason with the Joker -- If such a thing can be done!

Alan Moore gives a new spin on Batman, as more of a confused psychological examiner: he just doesn’t get why the Joker is what he is. Batman even goes as far as to proclaim at the beginning of the comic, “[To Joker] we’re going to kill each other, aren’t we?” The foreshadowing of the end events of a story is something that Alan Moore doesn’t shy away from. And some of the more shocking scenes really land with the weight of a Dinosaur. I won’t spoil anything (mind you this comic is almost as old as I am) but let’s just say you really see the type of conviction, as an officer of the law and human being, that Commissioner Gordon has.

As Joker (having been captured by Batman; subsequently breaking free) is putting his plans in motion, we are shown flash back’s to a supposed earlier time: when Joker, wasn’t the Joker. All the events that precede Joker becoming a psychopath happen in the span of just one day, “just one bad day” the Joker exclaims in some of the later stages of the book. Interjected is even a depiction of Joker donning the “Red Hood” persona that was introduced early in the Batman canon.

One can really see that Chris Nolan drew on inspiration from the Killing Joke in the Dark Knight. As in both film and comic Joker tries to test the limits of human will, and wants to see if all people are capable of snapping. 

Not to be left out is Brian Bolland’s fantastic art style; which I’ll admit at first I wasn’t really vibing on. But it grew on me. People just look real. I know that seems like an odd statement, but Batman looks how he should and Joker intern as he should. It just looks like their classic depictions. Batman’s face is almost always obscured by shadows, and Jokers gaunt and ghostly face, have become the iconic visual styles for each character even to this day. I read the Deluxe re-print that had been colored by Brian Bolland himself (John Higgins did the coloring in the original print) and the overall milieu is at times haunting, as is the case in the Joker’s flash backs. These flashbacks feature minimalistic color, yet still speak volumes and enhance the story.

I will close on these thoughts. That I’m personally a fan of the “ambiguous ending” that is featured in movies, TV, games, etc.  And the Killing Joker is no different. We, as an audience, are left the question, “What did Batman do?” and we have to ask ourselves if we would do the same? Could you hold back?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Fight Night Champion Preview

I was a boxing enthusiast in the early 2000’s – the key being was! With Fight Night Champion EA promises a return to form for the once great sport of Boxing. Well the new Champion mode –that plays out like a feature film-style boxing movie—isn’t available in the demo; you can still jump into the ring and play 3 round’s with 4 different boxers and get a feel for some of the improvements EA has made to the core game.

From the demo available the boxers are Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson in the Heavyweight division, and Manny Pacquiao and Miquel Cotto in the Welterweight division.

I selected Muhammad Ali for my first fight and it was apparent from the outset that the difference in speed between “The Greatest of All Time” and “Iron Mike” was nominal. Instead of choosing between using the face buttons to attack or the full-motion analog controls separately; I chose a combination of both. The left trigger jukes away from punches, which I successfully used to weave from Iron Mike; then I usually came in with a full-motion uppercut; well during the main ring skirmish I tended to lean on the face button for my quick jabs and hooks. Having both the full-motion controls and face buttons as input options for your various punches, and not having to select from either-or is a nice addition to the game.

Needless to say Tyson was quickly overwhelmed by Ali’s speed – it didn’t help that Tyson used up his stamina with his first flurry of punches. Well I didn’t do a rope-a-dope and let Tyson wear himself out, I did wait for an opening and I struck with meticulous punches. I found that as Ali a “poking” style of fighting worked really well. Mind you Iron Mike is a much heavier puncher so he only needed to land a few good hits to bring visible lumps to my beautiful face before the end of the round.

As the 2nd round opened up I began to take the full offensive by using Muhammad Ali’s superior arm length. Having the length advantage over Tyson, and jabbing him from a distance (the right jab was my bread-and-butter punch); keeping Tyson at a distance was my ultimate goal. Unfortunately this didn’t last long. As Tyson began to close in on me, and his superior punching power and strength became too much to handle.A well placed right hook sent me staggering halfway across the ring. Fortunately the bell rang signaling the end of the 2nd round—giving me a needed rest to recover my stamina in the corner and get some advice from my trainer--which was lousy, he simply said "just keep him at a distance and you got this one Champ"--what the hell do you think I've been trying to do?

As the 3rd round approached its crescendo I was being to hit my stride.  I switched my stance with the D-pad and began to fire off punches with blazing speed…until Tyson landed another hook and once again substantially staggered me.

It was a little too late though as Ali won the match in a decision: outscoring Tyson in all but the final round.

Well Tyson and Ali had very distinct body types and fighting styles; Pacquiao and Cotto were much more evenly matched for my second fight. I found that as Welterweights both boxers favored a more strategic fight, at least in the early portion of the first round. Each of us really picked and chose our respective shots. As Cotto blocked I used Pacquiao to fire in punches countering his defense. As I dazed Cotto I closed in with a few power punches – that’s when the fight turned into a full out brawl, with both fighters giving it their all like a real Welterweight Pay-Per-View fight is supposed to be. I found myself trying to play against Cotto and use my right jab as Pacquiao, come in with a quick left, then deliver a strong right. This combo worked beautifully as I knocked Cotto flat on his back in the 3rd round. Well it was only a 5-count knockdown; I knew it was all I needed to win the matched. Pacquiao won the match by unanimous decision.

I definitely like what EA is doing with the pure boxing that is available from this demo. The Legacy/ Career mode wasn’t available, but from the video preview that can be watched from the main menu it looks to be much more robust then what has been offered in previous editions of Fight Night. The Legacy mode will have you rising from the amateur ranks well amassing experience for each fight you win, and spending your xp to customize your boxers’ attributes to make them truly unique. It would have been nice to get a taste of the Legacy mode in the demo, but it seems like that will have to wait for the full release of the game this march.

What proves to be the real show stopper in Fight Night Champion is the Champion Mode. The Champion mode plays out like a Hollywood boxing movie, complete with full voice work and cutscenes; and yes you will have a brother who will be riding your success as you try to make it big. Most boxing movies tend to be action-movie/soap operas, and that is what Champion mode seems to emulate. Once again though all the info gained for this mode is through a video that describes it as opposed to giving you a slice to actually playthrough. Whether or not you can make decisions and form a cohesive narrative story well boxing your way to stardom isn't known.

I look forward to Fight Night Champion. If the Champion mode delivers an experience similar to what we’ve seen on the big screen with The Fighter and Rocky I’ll gladly step into the ring and go a couple of rounds with this game.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Working Robin into Batman: Arkham City

Batman: Arkham City is still months away from release and many burning questions will be speculated upon before it hit’s store shelves.  A recent interview on IGN confirmed that there will be no multiplayer in Batman: Arkham City. Many thought that Catwomen may even be a co-op companion…that still doesn’t entirely rule out a mode where you control Catwomen; i.e. like Joker was a playable character in the PS3 version of Batman: Arkham Asylum.  

What I’m getting at is that there was allot of speculation that Batman: Arkham City would feature a co-style mode with Catwomen and Batman clearing the streets of Gotham. This idea began to stretch out though, and some thought Catwomen as a co-op partner was too farfetched. Instead many thought that Robin would finally make his appearance in the sequel to Arkham Asylum.

Even if Catwomen befriends Batman in certain parts of Batman: Arkham City’s singleplayer; she can’t take the place of Batman’s true partner, Robin.

Robin wasn’t even referenced in Batman: Arkham Asylum – to my personal dismay. Anyone who has read comics in the past decade or so knows that Robin is a much more integral part of who Batman is then feature films have given him credit for. The ’96 Batman & Robin movie turned the character of Robin into a joke; but there were far more problems with that movie then Chris O’Donnell’s stellar acting performance (obvious sarcasm.) Really as a kid I always liked Robin. Yes he was thrown into the Batman universe to appeal more to the child demographic in the early ‘40s Detective comic run. Yet still as time passed Dick Grayson—Robin—became a surrogate son to Bruce Wayne. Completely removing Robin from the Batman universe as if he never existed is neglectful to what Batman is all about; or what he has become since he accepted Robin as his partner.

Now I understand that the Batman universe that Chris Nolan has established with his current run of films may never feasibly be able to introduce Robin as a believable character; but that doesn’t mean that he should be absent from Batman: Arkham City or any Batman game for that matter.

I have some thoughts on how Robin could ultimately work in Batman: Arkham City. In order for Robin to work in the setting that Rocksteady Studios has established with Batman: Arkham Asylum some changes to Robin’s overall look need to be addressed.

First, the red color scheme has to go! Drab things up a bit on Robins costume; even emulate Batman’s traditional color scheme if need be.  Second, it has to be Dick Grayson. Sure Tim Drake has his own qualities that have turned Robin into more of a standalone character than even Dick Grayson did. Yet I don’t think Rocksteady wishes to interject a father and son relationship: which is what you would get with a young Robin, like Tim Drake. Instead Robin needs to be somewhat of a rival to Batman. As Batman is taking down criminals in one part of Gotham; Robin can be tackling foes in another. Let’s say what brings them together is the two of them end up having to cross paths in order to take down a mutual enemy: like Bane or Killer Croc. I’d go as far as to say that Robin should only make brief cameos in certain parts of the game. Say he only shows up 3 times or something. That way he doesn’t become too much of a distraction and other characters (which Batman: Arkham City has a ton of) have their own time in the spotlight. After all the game is called Batman: Arkham City…not Batman & Robin in Arkham City

Ditch this...
for this!

Okay so not everyone wants Robin--I understand the trepidation-- that brings me to a counter-point to the Robin addition—don’t even have Robin at all. Let me explain. Rocksteady has established that the Batman: Arkham Asylum game was in its own space and time in the Batman canon. So why not even have Nightwing instead of Robin. They could essential play the same role. Have Nightwing be someone who helps you throughout one or two boss fights or something similar in various parts of the singleplayer game. Really the only real difference between Nightwing and Robin is Dick Grayson’s age…that’s pretty much it; as an adult Dick Grayson as Nightwing tends to shun some of the methods in which Batman fights crime. 

I'll admit Nightwing looks a hell of a lot cooler than Robin

Hell, even have Robin show up…end then have him killed by the Joker or something! Well I’m not the biggest fan of the premise of Robin’s demise, it would introduce and interesting dynamic to the story. Now instead of Batman just trying to stop Joker, he has personal issues stemming from the loss of his young partner. A revenge sub-plot could be a good half-way point in the singleplayer story; well it’s not really a twist, per se; it still would spice things up towards the end of the game.

In the end, who knows whether Robin is, or isn’t in Batman: Arkham City—we are still months away from its release after all. I’d even like a co-op mode that was separate from the singleplayer: something similar to the Challenge rooms that were in Batman: Arkham Asylum. Whichever route Rocksteady Studios decides to take I have complete faith in what they have already shown with Batman: Arkham Asylum from two years ago. My thoughts are that Robin won’t derail what they have established already in their Batman world – it can only add to it. I mean we all ready have like 10 different characters or something in the game at this point…surely a mainstay character like Robin can be squeezed into the singleplayer someplace.

ESRB Ratings

The symbols corresbonding to each rating provided by the ESRB are provided below:

Early Childhood rating: 6 years of age

Everyone rating

Everyone 10 years of age and older
Teen or 13 and older rating
Mature: 17 or 18 years of age rating
AO: Adults only rating--very rare
Rating Pending: Used when retailers list a game that has yet to be rated by the ESRB. You wont see this on shelves when a game can be "physically" purchased.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Rare, Medium Rare, and Very Well-Done

The good-ol'-days
Seeing a game from the British Developer Rare is just as their name would imply; that it’s certainly rare, indeed! From the mid 90s to early 2000s I was a huge Rare fan – the biggest you could possibly find. Now they’re a company that seems to be in a sort of creative limbo. I’m not saying that they are stuck making Kinect and Avatar products for the Microsoft brand (well maybe they are), but I do think that they’re being held back from developing the great games that we used to know them for.

I became a Rare fan with the release of Donkey Kong Country (I hadn’t even heard of Rare before this), and I was instantly hooked on what they were trying to deliver.  The visuals for Donkey Kong Country were stunning, like nothing I had ever seen before; the gameplay was a hectic take on the Mario-style collection and platformer ideals. Needless to say I was intrigued to see what Rare would do next -- put a new spin on an old Nintendo franchise or come up with a new IP entirely.

It happened to be the former…but I was completely for this. I played Diddy’s Kong Quest, and Donkey Kong 3, and loved them both. Little did I know that Rare as a developer would dominate my gaming 90’s with their torrent of great titles for the Nintendo 64.

An original title [Banjo-Kazooie] was what I had been waiting for since first becoming a Rare fan. Sure the Donkey Kong games were fun; I just wanted to see what Rare could create without needing an established name behind it. I absolutely loved Banjo-Kazooie, and I consider it one of the best platformers even to this day. We continued getting great games from Rare on the N64, and I’d even go as far as to say that Rare made the N64 a much more successful system with their great line-up of titles. Titles like:  GoldenEye, Banjo-Tooie, Jet Force Gemini, Perfect Dark, and Diddy Kong Racing were among some of my favorites.

I was completely ready to follow Rare into the next generation of gaming upon the release of the Nintendo GameCube. Unfortunately this is where Rare began to show its lack of forward thinking and seeming inability to adapt. I was always curious as to what was taking Rare so long during most of the lifespan of the GameCube; I just kept reading and waiting to hear what they were working on. Digging for anything related to Rare one would find that they were working on some game called “Dinosaur Planet”—an original Intellectual Property. I was skeptical, but I thought, “Hey, they must have been working on it forever; it’s got to be good!” Instead we got Star Fox Adventures; a game in which Fox and company have to abandon the space on-rails action, that they were famous for, in order to save Dinosaurs in a Zelda style clone. They game was pretty, but as previously mentioned it was just an uninspired Zelda clone.

I was saddened with what we received from Rare in Star Fox Adventures; yet I had no idea that Rare as a company was going to be sold off, and Microsoft would acquire everything. I personally was shocked. I had grown up with Rare and Nintendo being synonymous with each other. I thought that I was really going to miss out on great titles from my once favorite developer. Instead Xbox owners got games like Grabbed by the Ghoulies and a remake to Conkers Bad Fur Day. Both titles were hardly worth the wait, and I felt somewhat okay having moved onto the Playstation 2 at the time.

As the current generation of gaming rolled around I decide to forgo my Nintendo Wii and instead purchase an Xbox 360. At the time of purchase I had almost completely forgot that Rare was even still developing games for Microsoft’s system. Rumors surfaced that Rare was working on a new Banjo-Kazooie game – soon a trailer would be released to confirm this as true. You better believe that I was excited, but not when I had heard it was going to be based on vehicle creation. I was surprised in the end Banjo-Kazooie Nuts and Bolts, as it was called, was surprisingly fun and imaginative. It wasn’t a simple racing game; and I lovingly build new vehicles every time that I had to complete a new challenge. It was just pure creation, sure there were a little too much racing centric challenges; but not so much that it became stale.

Banjo-Kazooie Nuts and Bolts was just plain gorgeous!
At the time I thought Rare was back on track, and we would start getting an entire barrage of games from the once great developer. Instead Banjo-Kazooie Nuts and Bolts bombed sales wise (I knew it was going to happen, but I had hopes that it would sell well enough) and Rare seems to have just abandoned game development all together. I consider Banjo-Kazooie Nuts and Bolts to be Rare’s last true game. We now know that Rare just focuses on the Xbox Live Avatar brand and various Kinect projects.

Rare is done, well done in fact. I’ve moved on though… Banjo-Kazooie Nuts and Bolts was great and I’m glad that they could develop one last “true” game before seemingly being tucked away in a corner of Microsoft Game Studios. Hey, I’m fine with it; we all have to move on sometime. It’s just somewhat sad to see…but in the end, Rare as I used to know it is dead isn’t it?! It’s my job as a gamer to adapt and move on, something Rare as a developer has no idea how to do.

Monday, February 7, 2011

My Childhood Reflections; Part 2: Star Wars Racer

I think everyone has come to the fact that Star Wars Episode 1 (which I will refer to as just episode 1 while writing this) was garbage. I don’t need to shovel more crap onto a shit-pile; it’s just redundant! What I will say is that there was some good that came out of the film. And that would be Star Wars Episode I: Racer for the Nintendo 64. Let’s keep things in perspective though; at the time when this game was released I didn’t think episode 1 was a complete bastardization of a once proud film franchise. I was a kid, and kids see things differently from adults… Star Wars Episode I: Racer is an exception to this rule. It was a great game then, and now.

Is this really the best cover they could come up with?

 Anakin’s "podracing" scene from episode 1 was the most iconic imagery from the entire film. I don’t think anyone doubts that. So one could easily stand to reason why making a video game out of said scene is a plausible idea. The matter of execution is something else entirely. Yet Podracer really just barrows heavily from games like F-Zero or even Wipeout.

Star Wars Episode I: Racer was all about speed; and an unrelenting style of faced passed reflects driven racing. Of course this speed came at a cost…the Nintendo 64 just couldn’t draw terrain and textures fast enough. Despite the technical limitations of the N64, I loved the adrenaline fueled ride each course presented; even if you couldn’t deduce where you were going half the time! It was nonsensical fun; just like F-Zero before it. Sure many of the characters outside of Anakin were uninteresting and bland (Yes Anakin is still just as annoying, but less so then most of the other aliens), yet we’re talking about episode 1 here, most of the characters from the prequels were all pretty uninspired at best.

Yes it was an ugly game -- visuals aren’t everything though!

Because of the how negatively the prequels are perceived many believe that nothing good came from them at all. Yes that is true in most cases. To be honest there were many Star Wars games released alongside the prequels, all of questionable quality. Even then I still say give Star Wars Racer some slack; yes it’s just a clone of Wipeout or F-Zero, but a clone of good games isn’t always a bad thing. The clones of Jango Fett on the other hand -- lets just say they did eventually hit what they were aiming for; it just took something like 100 shots. In the case of Star Wars Racer, it wasn’t a cloned miss. It was just stupid fast paced racing fun, just shut your brain off and enjoy the ride.

Top 10 artistic albums: Part 2

OutKast – Stankonia: Southern Hip-Hop

OutKast was the first Rap group I ever took interest in as a kid. I was drawn to their unique style. I lived in the various southern states for about 4 years and I feel that OutKast is a direct reflection of that culture. I like to describe it as a down-home, gritty, and just plain funky mix of southern sounds. Lyrically both Big Boi and Andre 3000 approach each song differently. Big Boi tends to be harder and more literal about his rhyming well Andre in turn is more melancholy and at times cerebral. Well both rappers have their own individual sound, stylistically it comes together to make Stankonia a must listen to any self respecting Hip-Hop fan.

Inception- Soundtrack: Music from the motion picture

The soundtrack to Inception is just as heady as the plot of the movie. Few soundtracks (even the largest films) make you feel like they have something to say. The film is actually eclipsed by the soundtrack and I think allot of the tension one may feel during some of the higher profile scenes is because of Hans Zimmer’s score. Hans Zimmer really flexes his imagination and it’s hard to reflect on a scene from the film without the score taking center stage – both go hand in hand in my mind.

Bionic Commando Rearmed Soundtrack: 8-bit/Chiptunes Remix

The NES had a great line up of games that I look back on fondly even to this day. Bionic Commando is no different. Like most 8-bit soundtracks, composers were limited in their extravagance in creating said music. Bionic Commando featured music that used the 8-bit motif and turned into something amazing. Bionic Commando Rearmed was a remake to the classic side scrolling shooter and featured an electronic remix to the classic 8-bit sounds. Stylistically it’s much more bass heavy yet it fits in perfectly with what was already in place with the original score. Well it may be a more “club” sounding vibe, it is still a good album to sit down and listen to in any setting.

Mass Effect OST 1 and 2: Video Game Soundtrack

The soundtrack to Bioware’s epic space franchise Mass Effect is by far the best the video game industry has to offer. I list both Mass Effect 1 and 2s’ soundtracks as one singular compilation since stylistically they are virtually interchangeable in my mind. The end title song for the 80’s film Blade Runner seems to be the base inspiration for Mass Effect’s score. It reflects upon the space-faring atmosphere present throughout both games and gives you a real sense of how grand a scale the developers were going for.

DJ Shadow- Endtroducing: Turntabilism/ Instrumental Hip-Hop

Endtroducing isn’t a simple club DJ’s mix of various songs and hooks. It’s a true amalgamation of different samples from even the most obscure of places. I think DJ Shadow may even be able turn nails on a chalk board into something fun and enjoyable. Every instrument known to man seems to be at play in various songs; be it piano or even organs with each track you never know what you may get. Turntable mixing is a somewhat overlooked form of music yet DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing introduced it to a world as being a true art-form.
Well that’s it, no matter what form of media there is always a soundtrack that stands out from the rest.

Top 10 artistic albums: Part 1

When it comes to music, most self proclaimed “artists’” have very eclectic tastes. I’m no different; these are my top albums from various forms of entertainment. It may be television, film, video game, or just the music industry itself these are the best of the best. I recommend them in any listening fashion – don’t let the genre put you off...give them a listen and you may be surprised!

Tangerine Dream- Tangents (5 CD Box set): Ambient Electronic

By far the largest Album on this list (consisting of 5 separate albums) is Tangerine Dreams’ Tangent box set. The album spans 10 years (1973-1983) of the variable-groups performances. It’s an odd album to put into a specific genre, that may be why it's so enjoyable to listen. Many of the tracks featured are repeats but with a little twist in sound design. The general style stays consistent; with electronic ambience like melodies. It’s one of those particular albums that can make a person lose themselves, if only just for a moment. Listening note: Quite a few tracks on each respective disc stretch into the 10 minute range.

Daft Punk- Tron Legacy: Music from the motion picture

Daft Punk is known for its heart pounding house and techno beats; yet the music for Tron Legacy is much more cinematic and fits the tone of the video game world of Tron well. The quality of the Tron Legacy film is questionable at best, but from beginning to end the soundtrack isn’t. Each track is creative and mixes in seemingly obtuse sounds that by themselves would probably be off-putting. Daft Punk makes it work; it may just be a series of bleeps-and-bloops but heck it’s darn good listening.

Samurai Champloo- Departure: Television Soundtrack

The Samurai Champloo television series was a mixture of modern ideas in a medieval-eastern anime setting. The show featured an uncouth cast—and similarly displayed a very uniquely styled soundtrack that blended Modern Jazz and Hip-hop. The soundtrack is a collaboration between Japanese producer Nujabes aka Jun Seba (who unfortunately passed away recently) and fairly unknown producer Fat Jon. Both producers collaborate well together and produce a truly ambiguous genre of music.

Read Dead isn’t a soundtrack that featured Country music as one may think being that it has a typical Western setting. Yet instead it features a very open guttural and foreboding sound throughout most of the tracks. While some songs are tonally upbeat in tempo; most tend to reflect the main protagonist John Marstons’ struggle to track down a group of outlaws. It's surprising how non-typical the entire album sounds – it truly features a great blend of Western/Mexican/ and Environmental Ambient sounds into a very enjoyable listening experience.

Prodigy - The Fat of the Land: Alternative Electronic

During 1997 Prodigy took the world by storm with their third studio album, The Fat of the Land: maybe more so because of the odd music videos for the singles Firestarter and Breathe. Yet this electric dance album from top-to-bottom is a high adrenaline ride. Many of the songs just make you want to get up and dance! Well the music may seem like it belongs more at a Rave Party then someone’s backyard barbeque; there is no denying that Liam Howlett is a masterful producer.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Video game demos: Help or hurt?

Anticipation for a game is never higher then upon knowing that it’s a mere 2 or 3 months away from its official release. Usually during this time most developers will release a demo of said game to the public. There was a time when you needed access to a gaming magazine like EGM or GamePro(yes I was one of the five people who had a subscription to GamePro) in order to get a preview of an upcoming game; if one was in luck that magazine would contain a demo for a high profile game that many were foaming at the mouth to play. Now with the advent of Xbox Live and the Playstation Network it’s almost common place for developers to release demos for their games to the general public -- If only just to gage a reaction.

Then it is a valid question to ask: do video game demos hurt or help? Two examples come to mind that raise this conundrum. Both game demos released on the same day in-fact: Bulletstorm and Crysis 2.

Bulletstorm is not unlike Duke Nukem -- the classic shooter from the 90’s. Bulletstorm is surprisingly similar. It is all about over-the-top action and a “how can I kill this guy in the awesomest (it’s a word in the Urban Dictionary so I’m going to use it) way possible?” mentality. It’s fun! At least for the first couple of minutes, then you realize that aside from the whip (a weapon that allows you to toss around enemies and perform some of the games more elaborate combos) there really isn’t much to offer that hasn’t been featured in other shooters. I had high hopes for Bulletstorm, yet after playing the game I’m torn. Game demos are supposed to make me want to play the game.  Shooters are a dime-a-dozen; Bulletstorm features little that sets it apart from the pack. Some interesting concepts like the aforementioned energy whip are cool touches but an interesting weapon doesn’t make me jump up and want to cough up 60 bucks. Instead I became less excited about the premise that Bulletstorm offered as a whole. The reaction of discontent I had with the demo isn’t what the developers intended, I’m sure that is safe to say.

Of course a demo isn’t the finished product. Many changes can be made before the release of a game. We don’t even know how long ago this demo was put together, it could have been something cobbled together during the early stages of development. Still the general audience (which is me) may just pass on a game if they don’t get immediate gratification even in the early stages. There are just so many other games out there to spend time on…if a game doesn’t catch my eye right away, I’ll just go onto the next one that does.

The same can be said of Crysis 2: the visually stunning futuristic FPS. The demo that was released was a sample of the multiplayer online component; set to be featured in the final game. Once again demos are supposed to make me want to play the final game…I’ll pass on Crysis as well if the demo is indicative of the final game. You see the multiplayer isn’t without some nice tweaks to the standard formula. We have super-powered soldiers that have abilities ranging from supers-speed, strength, stealth, and armor. The armor abilities are an intriguing wrinkle that livens up seemingly standard shooter fare. I have to say I need more though. The armor options are nice; but in the end Crysis 2 just offers a simple XP and create a class system that has become a staple of many of the online games of recent memory. Call of Duty offers a similar experience; many FPS’s offer the same multiplayer formula as well. I’m not like some, I won’t shell out the money for a car that looks and drives the same, but has a shinier coat of paint.

Then again am I just expecting Crysis to reinvent the proverbial FPS wheel? No, I’m not asking that! What I am asking is why not just release a demo to select members of the public? Such as people who have already preordered the game. Then once the game is close to release allow the public to have access to it. Sure this sounds like a shrewd way of doing business, and the gamer in me hates this idea in truth; but I think developers want to show their games in the best light. A demo 2 or 3 months away from a games release is not the way to illicit a positive reaction in most cases. Heck I think Crysis 2 and Bulletstorm are good examples. Both games will be passes for me upon their respective releases. That doesn’t mean that I’ll never come back to them and play them in the future. It’s just that I’ll probably play them only after I’ve discovered them at the bottom of a bargain-bin! Sad but true!

Note: At the time of writing this article the Crysis 2 demo was still available on Xbox Live; it has since been removed.