Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Baten Kaitos II

1Up has a preview of Baten Kaitos II. I quite like the original. I feel compelled to share my initial thoughts on the revised game system. Thank the heavens for RSS feeds - I would've never seen this story otherwise, since navigating 1Up is too much pain for not enough gain.

What really drove Baten Kaitos was the excellent game system. It really kept things fresh. I saw no real fault with it, which is why I'm skeptical about the changes they've incorporated. It's not all bad, though.

The game is a prequel to BK, being set fifteen years before the first game. The cast is different. I don't care, really: I don't remember much of why I was running around the beautifully rendered world in the first game, either.

They haven't touched the basics of combat, which is good. The way it worked in BK really kept things interesting even in the most mundane battles. There is one change I like right off the bat: no more separate card decks. So you only have to build one deck, which ought to keep things more manageable.

The magic gauge which enables the characters to use their most powerufl attacks is filled by using normal attacks. Hard to tell if this will be a good thing or not. I do think it sounds like a needless element. The original's system of enabling powerful attacks only when you had managed to string together a sizeable combo worked very well. That required forethought and skill, a gauge makes me think of mechanical repetition. At least the gauge is for the whole group.

Then there's the "relay combo system". The idea is that you can combo the characters together so that their attacks flow seamlessly through the party. This sounds good, provided that it isn't too easy to do. Successful relay combos grant you "Tech Points" which are another word for EXP (-erience points). The original's way of upping your level only by finding special cards wasn't satisfactory at all, so this seems like a good idea. And it should award skillful play.

What I'm not sure that I like are the new "equip" cards. They modify attacks and give you defensive properties, but they're in effect over multiple rounds. Also, there are no more defensive rounds, at all! Attack/defense used to bring a nice rhythm to the combat, but admittedly the defensive round was a little hit and miss. So now you don't get to defend: instead, you pick your defense beforehand and hope that it can deal with whatever's incoming. I'm a little worried that this might turn combat into a passive "waiting for my turn" -game, which the original never was.

What I know that I don't like is the way that the sequel lets you combine cards in shops. Combining cards during the battles is what kept things always interesting.

You won't see me complaining over the new quest log. It was a pain keeping tabs on where you'd met people in the game, since the original didn't feature any sort of log.

We know the visual and audio assets are in excellent hands - provided that the same team is working on them - and the less said about the JRPG stories, the better, so all thing told, this is a sequel I'm waiting for.

Although someone could please fire the English dub team.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Eurogamer TV

My gaming site of choice, Eurogamer, has launched an interesting service, dubbed Eurogamer TV. Eurogamer is my favorite because they've kept a check on how much clutter the user can appreciate, because they write well (most of the time, at least), because they're Euro-centric and because there's a good overall feel to the place.

I know the other gaming sites (Gamespot, what have you) also host trailers and the occasional video review. The thing is, Eurogamer TV's layout is easy to read, they've collected all sorts of "specials", such as short developer interviews, and most importantly: they're using just Flash to display the content. No need for downloading video files, no additional plugins, no worries about video formats and players. I'm always interested in viewing game trailers, but I really can't be bothered to hunt them down from various sites, much less lose any sleep over Quicktime not working, again.

I had to add a few games to my waiting list because of Eurogamer TV. Lost Planet's mecha action seems sweet indeed, as does Hellgate London's demon vanquishing.

Update: yes, I know there are alternatives to Apple's own Quicktime player. I can't get the alternatives to work, either.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Deceitful marketing

The British have taken a stance against the deceitful marketing of videogames. According to Edge Online: "After receiving complaints claiming Call of Duty 2 and Big Red One television adverts intentionally portrayed scenes 'superior to that of the game itself,' the Advertising Standards Authority has ordered that Activision pull the ads from air."

I find this questionable. As one of the commenters on the Edge site implies, everybody knows you can't trust marketing. People don't actually believe that the new shampoo would make them look like supermodels. They just like to link themselves emotionally to that idea of a supermodel. It's the same with games, I think. Of course it could be that those unfamiliar with the state of current graphics engines just might think that they would get the level of visual experience that's in the ads that have now been banned, but I do maintain that it's meant to be about the feel of the scene portrayed, not the quality of graphics. I was thrilled by the ad, knowing full well that the game wouldn't be of the same quality visually.

There was a recent Battlefield 2 ad, also shot in first person. It was live footage, using real actors. As the line continues to blur between reality and CGI imagery, when does it become objectionable to use real people to portray a game world in an ad?

Most gamers seem to think it's wrong to use CGI footage in place of in-game footage when displaying a game for demonstration purposes or advertising. How come it's any worse when it's shown from the same angle as the actual game? Once again I'm inclined to think that non-gamers just don't understand the field well enough to make rulings on the things that matter to us.

Not that the hardcore would ever admit that game advertising has any effect on them.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

EA leads the way

According to the industry business site Next Generation, Electronic Arts is slashing the prices of highly anticipated current-gen titles by a considerable 20% in an attempt to fight dwindling software sales. That means a drop to $39 USD from the common $50 USD. This is great news, I think, and about high time, too.

While I am something of a videogame enthusiast, I really can't afford to pay 50-60€ ($58-70 USD) per title, which is what the retailers are asking around here. Which means I buy almost all of my games secondhand or from sales. In the case of secondhand titles, the publisher is getting nothing from my purchase. In the case of sales, the retailer is losing out. Then there is online shopping, which is almost guaranteed to be cheaper, but I really, really like to browse the games and buy them personally.

Now, if the $40 USD would translate to 33€ in Europe, I actually would buy games brand new. Not all the time, but a lot more often. (It's more likely we'll see these new EA titles at around 40-45€, though.) As it stands, I think I've only bought Baten Kaitos, Animal Crossing, Burnout 3 and Morrowind at full price, out of several dozen console games.

Many would think it surprising that EA is coming up with this price drop. It's certainly getting the attention. A while back, Take 2 dropped the price of its 2K Sports line to well below (29€) the EA standard to get a slice of the pie. I don't know how that worked out, but since they've been doing it for some time now, I guess it did the trick.

We'll see how this turns out. EA must believe in this since they're subjecting their heaviest current-gen hitters to this treatment, but don't forget that their next-gen titles are still carrying the hefty $60 USD (64€) price tag.

Update: Play.com seems to carry Black for the usual 49€. Not much improvement there, then.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Doom 3

I very rarely play new games. Most of the time I hunt for bargains (which is also much more exciting than buying new games). Which is why I bought Doom 3 for the Xbox only last night, at an agreeable 15€. There were quite a few other cheap games on the "preowned" shelf, too, but Doom 3's been intriguing me ever since it was announced.

I haven't played the game on the PC, simply because my PC setup is no gaming rig. (Hell, it's barely a Windows rig.) But the game does feel at home on the Xbox. With the lights down, headphone volume up and gaze fixated on the big TV screen, I began a very scary trip to Mars.

I'm no Doom-phile. I've played the original a lot way back when it was released, even completed the shareware Doom on the N-Gage, and I liked the movie adaptation rather a lot. But I had no expectations going in, apart from being entertained.

After the mediocre intro sequence, I was almost floored by the actual in-game graphics. I had no idea the Xbox was capable of sights such as these (no, I haven't played Riddick). The lighting in itself is so much more than in any other game I've seen. In Splinter Cell and Thief, the lighting can be very cool and it's factored strongly into the gameplay, but it doesn't feel real the way it does in Doom. It's like the environment is sculpted from light and shadow. The flashlight feels like your very personal friend, something you're extremely hesitant to ever put down. And then there's something running at you in the pitch-black, only illuminated by your firearm's muzzle flash. Simply because of fearing the dark, I spent roughly half of my game-time standing with my back to the wall, steeling my resolve to approach a T-junction, listening very carefully for any approaching footsteps. I haven't been this scared since System Shock 2.

Apart from lighting, the models all feel solid and convincing. They may not be super-detailed, but they've got polygons where it counts. I haven't seen any illusion-shattering clipping problems or tearing. Much of the setting's weight is gained from the superb way it's bump-mapped. The same technique was used in Thief: Deadly Shadows and Deus Ex: Invisible War, for instance, but it felt really tacked-on in those titles. In Doom, it just works, adding immeasurably to the overall effect.

The presentation, overall, is very slick, down to menu design and ambient audio. There are very fews breaks to the experience and the loading times are short. The game just doesn't let you go. Yes, the PDA (inventory and log) screen does take you away from the action, but even then there's the option to put the PDA down and listen to the audio logs you find while exploring the setting. Even the sound is mixed so that it feels like it's playing from a PDA you're carrying at your side, as opposed to the basic stereo mix of the PDA view playback!

And the details are so rich. The way the monsters throw you around with their physical attacks, the way your flashlight sways a little, the manner in which your aim is thrown off by every shot you fire... it all adds to the experience.

I've only played the game for a couple of hours up to now, but I'm eager to continue as long as I don't play very late at night. I suspect it's a disposable ride, but with rides like this, I'm not complaining.

The one thing that grates me are the lousy weapon sounds. It really doesn't sound at all like you're unleashing destruction at your mortal enemies. Which is kind of odd considering that the rest of the audio design is top-notch.

Update: Whereas the regular weapons have unsatisfactory audio, the plasma gun is pretty much spoiled by weak effects. The visual thrill just isn't there, and it sounds like you're using a kids' toy gun. Weak! Then again, the "Mach 2" chaingun is very cool, as is the obligatory franchise crowd-pleaser, the chainsaw.

Also, the outdoor sections on the surface of Mars are tres neat.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006


It's a shame Neversoft can't make the Tony Hawk's series single player experience anywhere near as fun as the good old "Horse" two-player gamemode. If you're unfamiliar with Horse, it's played by taking turns. The first one up sets a benchmark with a single trick (or more likely, a combo), then the second player tries to beat it. The loser gets a letter, the first one to spell "horse" loses. I played Horse with my brother last evening, it was good fun as always. I was beaten once my challenger learned his way around the Gamecube pad.

Another cool two-player event is the Amped 2 mode in which you claim trick spots (jumps, rails) by landing the best trick on them. The ride is short, the spots are plentiful and you've got time to claim them over and over again.

Speaking of Amped 2, I finally (after over a year of grinding) secured my primary avatar the coveted top-eight position in the game's fake leaderboard. After an hour more fo riding, it's only four more spots to go and I have beaten the game. There was a time I thought I'd never get to top ten, so steep was the challenge after around the 20th position. What's the deal with the blind, 100-meter drops to a two meters wide target area, huh? Regardless, I've played three characters to the mid-20s. It's a really cool game, shame that the sequel on the Xbox 360 doesn't sound like it'd appeal to me.