Wednesday, June 28, 2006

New games! Well, demos, actually

Amped 3 is one of my personal biggest letdowns ever. I've played Amped 2 to bits, it's one of my all-time favorite games. The next-gen sequel absolutely ruins it. It's disgusting. I can sort of get the humor (not quite, but sort of), but it handles horribly, the camera is awful (what's with the jumping? Huh?) and it even doesn't look considerably better than its predecessor - I would've expected decent shadows and some proper snow. In a word, I'm shattered. I deleted the demo after a couple of runs. My wife was equally disgusted. What a shame! And I was so looking forward to this.

Speaking of letdowns, Blazing Angles didn't do anything for me, either. One of the most boring tutorials I've had to endure, lazy gameplay, visuals didn't much impress. Pass. Top Spin 2 and the latest Tiger Woods also did not impress. Boring, boring. Might've been better with real company, maybe.

The new Tomb Raider is decent. Nothing fancy, but it looks good and plays well. Might be on the buy list from the used or budget bin, one day.

I'm getting better in Geometry Wars. I'm in the top 33K now on the global leaderboard (for some reason, 22K according to, having pushed myself up a good 30K positions this night with a good run.

The Chromehounds demo is up. I'm downloading it now, but first impressions are extremely weak. I would've expected at least some customization and multiplayer, not two slow-moving single player missions. Still, I remain a fan of From Software, so here's to hoping it's all good anyway. And multiplayer's clearly where it's at with a title like this.

Update: I played a round of the Chromehounds demo. Sadly, it's almost impossible to get excited about it. It moves very slowly - travel is tedious. Weapons don't feel powerful, accurate, weighty or adequate. The scale isn't there. The graphics are all right, except for lackluster effects. Combat is... dull. You just stand there, firing inaccurate, underpowered weapons at faraway targets, incapable of dodging return fire. The HUD is nonexistent - you feel like you're piloting a WWI-era tank. Still, the highly customizable multiplayer might be another thing entirely, but I find my hopes considerably lowered.

Update 2: Apparently the Chromehounds demo is from the retail game's training missions. According to first reviews, the game indeed does open up very slowly, but one you've got the customization options available and an online group going on missions together, it's all good. Hmm, will have to see if it attracts a dedicated community or not. If it does, this could be sweet indeed, singleplayer drudgery or not. And, hey, Famitsu liked it.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Need For... killing time online

Yesterday I was nursing a hangover and once mandatary work was out of the way, I had to get my mind off my sorry state. Seemed like the perfect time to learn the ropes with Rainbow Six 3 on Live. I played a small warehouse level for so long that I learned it adequately. To my surprise, I did manage myself after some time. It still does take a lot of lead to take down a Tom Clancy trooper, which explains why fragmentation grenades are the order of the day.

With the 360's headset I finally got to sample Rainbow Six 3's single player with the voice command system. Ordering flashbangs and regroups and so on is great fun, but I'll be damned if I can get the boys to move where I want to. I tried some dozen pronunciation variations of "go to" and didn't find one that would've worked twice in a row. A bit frustrating, yes, but maybe I'll feel less like a fool pointing the ground and repeating "go to" all the time (and instead just pressing A).

Oh, and I also tried out the famed Halo 2 multiplayer. Seemed a lot like Unreal Tournament without the craziness, which I'm not sure is a good thing. It was smooth and fun, but kinda been there - done that. Can't see myself playing that a lot, although I have to say the match I was given via the "optimatch" system was pants. Something team-oriented with vehicles might be another thing entirely.

Moving on to more contemporary pursuits, the Need For Speed: Most Wanted demo on Live Marketplace totally surprised me. I was so let down by Burnout Revenge that I certainly didn't have my hopes up. I've played Need For Speed: Underground a lot, but the shoddy framerate, weird handling model and unforgiving gameplay finally put me off it (Xbox version). Seeing that Most Wanted is basically an up-specced Underground (with cops), it is weird to admit that it's actually all good.

As next-gen games go, Most Wanted looks stunning. It is only let down by a disappointing framerate. It's not unplayable by any means, but I do expect better from a 360 driving game. In this respect only, Burnout leaves it choking.

The scenery is just beautiful. The fall setting, with a small-town mentality, falling leaves, flocks of birds and sunsets to die for make this one driving game setting I'd like to live in. The only problem is that the town's deserted; there are no people and so little traffic you'd think the area was quarantined. The cars are, of course, lovingly crafted. Bloom and speed blur are used with care.

What really puts this one over Burnout (based on demo versions, now) are the tracks. In Most Wanted, they're wide enough for racing. You can see the bends and forks. In Burnout I kept hugging the walls all the time. This was never an issue with my long-time loved one, Burnout 3.

The Most Wanted demo is hefty. There are plenty of tracks, game modes and cars to check out. The police chase is great fun, and speedtrap checkpoint racing is all good, too. You can even opt to disable the elastic AI, which slows down cars ahead of you and speeds them up when they're behind you - this is what made Underground so frustrating: in later levels you couldn't make a single, tiny mistake or the opposition (which you could never lose) would zoom right past you to the finish line. It was nerve-wrecking. By the by, Burnout 3 did elastic AI very well, and I never had qualms with it.

I even like the slow motion super power they've given you. It enables you to make very tight corners and generally give you a second to gather your wits in a tight situation.

This one goes on the shopping list, pronto-like.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Looking back

I tried out the Xbox 360 backwards compatibility (BC) with the original Xbox this morning. I threw in Rainbow Six 3 and watched the console patch itself, again - actually it downloaded an emulator. Then I quickly checked out the singleplayer, which worked fine. Although it has to be said that having played next-gen graphics, albeit on a STD TV and only for a couple of days, the last-gen graphics seemed pretty much extinct.

So on to Live! At this point I got a last-gen notice screen and a prompt to download more patches. This took considerably longer. One that was out of the way, games were found quickly. As this was the first time I ever player R6 on Live, I got my ass handed to me repeatedly. I did get into actual firefights, but it seems awfully hard to kill a guy with an assault rifle on fully automatic fire at the range of less than five meters. I mean, I emptied a whole clip at center mass (I think), to no visible effect, at least twice. Some warping was evident, too, but it din't really bother me.

All of the players were decent (and better than me), although there was quite a bit of cursing pouring from the headset.

The game looked and felt exactly like it did on the original Xbox. The comparison with the 360's offerings, say the new Ghost Recon, are horribly unfavourable to the last-gen stuff. I didn't really expect to be this shellshocked by it, but it's hard to go back. Of course, right now I'm just content to play on Live, but it seems inevitable that there won't be very much of going back to the history for me.

Other titles I'm going to check out are Dead Or Alive Ultimate, Halo 2, Crimson Skies (if there are still players out there), Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow and Burnout 3.

Monday, June 19, 2006

...and more demos

I'm just going to go over my impressions of a couple more 360 demos.

Burnout Revenge was something of a surprise. I didn't like it very much, although I played Burnout 3 to bits. It's prettier, yes, but it feels very chaotic. The graphics are much too dark, at least on my TV: it's mostly just black cars on black roads against black backdrops. Anything that's hit by sunlight is glaring so that you can't see it clearly. I take it this is because the game's been designed to look good on back-lit LCD screens, but it's a major problem.

Related to visibility problems, many of the games are nigh-unplayable because of way too small onscreen typeface. I literally can't read the instructions on kicking a teamkilling player in Battlefield 2. Burnout recognizes that it's being run on a STD TV in 4:3, and doesn't display in widescreen format, so there are no problems there, but many others insist on widescreen format. Maybe this is just a problem of the demo versions.

Battlefield 2: Modern Combat has an excellent multiplayer demo. I haven't played the Battlefield games before, but they've always sounded like a blast. The vehicular warfare moves very fast and is good fun. The 16 players in the demo servers feel like enough, although certainly there's room for more. This is going very near the top of my shopping list.

Special kudos to Battlefield for having an option to display the HUD in colorblind-friendly mode. Way too little attention is paid to make games accessible, when in reality a lot could be done with very little effort. It is very odd indeed that they've gone to the trouble of taking the colorblind into consideration, but haven't given an option to double (at least!) the size of the typeface.

Electronic Arts could bring about a change with a simple checklist for designers: make it playable to colorblinds, deaf and lefthanders, at least. Not to mention people with normal TVs.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

The 360 demos

First a general observation on the demos downloadable on Xbox Live: it feels counter-intuitive that you can't download full versions of full-size games. Yes, you couldn't fit too many on the 20GB HD, but it would be a natural thing to do after the Marketplace having taught us to do so in the case of, well, smaller games. And I do understand that the retailers wouldn't much like it. Still, it's fairly easy to say that fully downloadable console games are certainly the future. I wouldn't be surprised if Microsoft released a bigger HD and the possibility of downloading at least their firstparty titles - during the life cycle of the 360.

Next: it is great to download playable demos of the expensive games you're thinking about buying. The demos are hosted on very fast servers and you don't have to eye the expensive official magazines just for demo discs. I only have one full 360 game bought, yet I've played hours and hours of new stuff and made several decisions to purchase while doing so.

So what sort of impact did the demos make? Basically, they're better than I expected. Only one let me down in any way and for the most part I was blown away by the visuals. Gameplay's all right, too, but Ghost Recon is always Ghost Recon and Burnout is always Burnout. You know what you like; a generation shift isn't going to make you like a genre.

The biggest graphical treat is clearly Fight Night Round 3. I don't care about boxing, but it's just hard to fathom that you're looking at a videogame. There are so few breaks to the illusion - mostly the upperbody stance shifts while blocking. The perfect title to show that your loud box is better than your old box. I need to play the demo more, as I'm not sure if I'm into the gameplay or not.

Experience-wise I was enthralled by Lost Planet. It's very basic third person run and gun, but the graphics are really something else and the gameplay feels very solid. In the demo's parking lot you can witness quite likely the best explosions seen in a videogame to date. Extra points for making the protagonist's feet always touch ground in a most convincing way. No rotating on an invisible disc when looking behind your back, here. Also, I'm a sucker for mecha, and Lost Planet features very tasty walkers. Which can step on aliens. Definitely on the shopping list.

Moving on to even more traditional ground, Call Of Duty 2 is a World War II first-person shooter. I haven't played any WWII shooters at any length (really!), so it feels like a fresh experience to me. I remember cringing at the jagged outlines at a 360 demopod, but I can't see them in my CRT TV. Looks very good, sounds very good, plays very well... I can imagine buying this at a good price, sometime. Probably low on replay value, though.

Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter was on the top of my want list initially, but the demo feels like very common business, being a Ghost Recon veteran, myself. It does look splendid and plays well, but I reckon the meat would be in the multiplayer. It's like Ghost Recon with lots of make-up; familiar, but still good.

I was always very interested in Climax's official MotoGP franchise, but I never got around to playing it. The MotoGP 06 demo is intriguing. It doesn't look nearly as good as the titles above, but it does play well. Presentation-wise the MotoGP feel isn't quite there, at least in the demo. I'm not sure if I'm up to the challenge; just staying on the track feels very tricky, let alone winning anything. I played some 20 rounds and the best I could manage was seventh. I have yet to try out the multiplayer, which could very well be addictive.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

The Next Generation

Last night I hooked up an Xbox 360. It worked on my DSL router automagically. Signing up for Live (Silver) was a pain, though, must've taken over an hour with all the patching and already reserved Gamertags and whatnot.

The console downloaded three patches and Oblivion installed one before we could get down to business. We had to restart once, because it wouldn't install a downloaded patch.

I've now played a couple of hours of Oblivion. It really is so cool, truly "nextgen". I played a lot of Morrowind some years ago, and Oblivion is precisely the game I dreamed about back then.

On the whole, the 360 really feels like the entertainment of tomorrow, compared to the old Xbox. The wireless pad is just a pleasure to use, so much better than the old, fine Controller S. The Xbox dashboard, available straight from any game, any time, is a tad confusing to use, but aesthetically pleasing and it's just so convenient to be able to download demos, queue downloads and so on.

I was thrilled to download and play Geometry Wars - Retro Evolved (and am going to buy the full version for sure): tried and true arcade action with absolutely killer presentation, which wouldn't've been achievable on the hardware of yesterday.

As for bad stuff, the Live headset feels and looks cheap. The DVD drive makes a hell of a lot of noise. I had one dirty disc error (crash) half an hour into Oblivion. The hard drive ought to be larger: it's 20 GB, but I've downloaded one demo (and the GRAW MP demo is small) and I'm already down to 12 GB. The power brick is humongous, rather ugly and handily hidden behind the TV. It reminds me of the C=64's ol' radiator.

I played some Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter multiplayer demo, too. I got spawncamped around 30 times, otherwise killed 10+ times and managed 3 kills myself. Average life expectancy 11 seconds. That was a tad frustrating, yes. Teams weren't balanced, either. Maybe I'll do better once I get some singleplayer GRAW under my belt and, for instance, learn the controls.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006


I just placed an order for an Xbox 360. The complete edition, thank you very much. I really don't see who's buying the Core System edition, seeing that you don't get the wireless pad, the headset, the proper A/V cable, or the hard drive and you still need something to save your games on. No patches, no downloadable content, no Live Arcade - where's the next generation in that? Some more polygons? No thank you. It just bugs me out that we have to suffer through increased loading times compared to the original Xbox, which just baffles me. And the Core System buyers are getting a raw deal anyhow, since the bundled goodies in the complete ("premium", "pro", whatever they're calling it) set are dirt cheap, but very expensive to buy separately.

Live seems to be the big revolution to me. I never got into the original Xbox Live, but online rankings, plenty of downloadable demos and trailers without a monthly fee sounds like a desirable thing. I do think I'll be getting the paid-for Live membership to be able to play online, though.

I believe that XBLA will be the venue for tiny-budget games in the future, what with stuff like Geometry Wars and Mutant Storm already available, and Introversion's guys negotiating about the release of their upcoming nuclear game. Small developers like Jeff Minter must see this for the goldmine it is - provided that Microsoft keeps a tight leash on quality control, as they have done up to this day. I'd like the micropayments to be lower still: around 10€ is real money, not micromoney. The difference of course being that I think twice about spending a tenner and not at all about spending, say, two euro. Anyway, all of this makes this an exciting time to jump on the Live bandwagon.

I haven't been enthusiastic about the HD generation before. Fact is, I still am not. We're going to plug the 360 into our old standard-definition 28" CRT. I reckon I'll be happy anyway, if the games are good. As a matter of fact, we're buying the thing mainly because my wife wants to play Oblivion. I'm more interested in Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter and XBLA. I am interested to check out how the 360 would look on a 19" CRT monitor, though. Ought to be crisp.

This is the first console I've bought at launch - well, at least going by how Microsoft defines the launch window. I wasn't that interested in the 360 initially, but Microsoft have been doing things well over the past half a year and things are looking good. Certainly moreso than in Sony's camp, where the PS3 is looking bleaker day by day.

In game journal news, I've kept at Advance Wars Dual Strike despite finishing the campaign. Last weekend I played two long sessions of Jade Empire, which is absolutely ace. It's actually much better than my previous RPG favorite Knights Of The Old Republic, from the same team. Jade Empire always leaves you wanting more, never stretching the content past its welcome. In contrast, I've played maybe one fifth of KOTOR II: The Sith Lords. It's a good game, but there's a lot of backtracking and tedious corridor shootouts, which never seem to go anywhere. If I ever finish it, it's because I'm bored with other stuff, not because I feel an urge to see what's next. Jade Empire excels in this, among other things. It's also lovely to look at and mostly a joy to play. Needless to say, I'm excited about Bioware's next console RPG, Mass Effect (on the 360).

Monday, June 05, 2006

Rated E for Everyone

I've been reading Gamers With Jobs' Pass The Press lately. They picked up a recent Penny Arcade topic, regarding ESRB, the Entertainment Software Rating Board.

I was considered an adult by the time a ratings system for videogames reached Finland, so it never really affected me. I've been thinking about the issue over the years, seeing more and more anti-videogames stories in mainstream media.

Fact: Grand Theft Auto or the Hitman series are not meant for children. Fact: they are played by children. Most parents don't seem to care, yet are eager to join in on the blame game.

My parents did check out what kinds of games I played and I had to explain what I was doing in them and why (yes, my mother was interested in my alter-ego's motivation). They also said when they disapproved and explained why, although I was never banned from playing a game. Then again, this was back in the 8-bit days, the Commodore 64 being my platform of choice (well, C=128D, to be specific). I reckon that if I was a kid these days, I wouldn't be allowed to play Hitman or the like, with highly realistic violence.

Most gamers seem to not understand why the ESRB is targeting gamers via the Penny Arcade campaign. It looks like the ESRB has sort of given up on the parents. Grownups seem to be either of the "anything goes" or the "ban the sick filth" school of moderation. Maybe if the little gamers themselves (say, under 16 years of age) understood that the ratings are there to protect them, their parents would also get it.

I firmly believe that a child shouldn't play Counter-Strike all day. It makes you obsessive and aggressive. Kids shouldn't discuss the best way to murder an unwitting man (or how to achieve it with a golf club). But this is just common sense. The ratings absolutely cannot achieve this, no matter how strictly implemented they are at the retail level. Parents must take an interest in what their children are playing - and why, and how. Better yet, they should play the games with their children.

The ratings are there just to inform the parents of the general level of, say, harmfulness of a game so that they can easily make a decision to purchase or not. They should understand that buying their kids a kid-safe game is not a permit for them to not care what their kids are playing. They should care, if only because the games are important to the children and thus they should be of interest to their parents.

Rest and relaxation

It's been a hard couple of weeks at work. I haven't had time to play games, really, and I've been so tired that the brain hadn't really worked for the last day at work. However, I took last weekend out of the schedule and just laid down on the sofa for two days, watching bad movies and playing videogames. It was sweet.

I played some single-player Flatout, Halo 2, Gladius and Advance Wars DS. I completed the Advance Wars campaign. I can't applaud the game enough, it's very good indeed. The difficulty was just about perfect, even though the AI does not convince. I don't see how I could've beaten some of the harder missions against a human player.

I've mentioned Flatout before, but now I got down to playing it solo. It's just very enjoyable, although the difficulty is a bit too high. Not devastatingly so, but enough to probably frustrate quite a few people. I'd prefer all games to be like Burnout 3, where any beginner with a pad can complete the races, but it takes effort to score well. Still, the physics-powered racing with beat-up cars in really atmospheric, run-down tracks is something of a unique experience. Much of it is down to the handling model, which differs considerably from the car game norm, but I'd say it's for the best.

I haven't played Halo 2's singleplayer campaign until now. I played it in co-op for a couple of days, which didn't quite convince me to buy the game. The single-player fares a little better, but I'm afraid it just doesn't get up to the sublime levels of the original game. Part of it is down to the inconsistent technical quality: there's pop-up, flickering, disappearing models, missing textures, shaky physics and so on. Bumpmaps are overused. Then there's level design: the environments are somewhat cluttered. They don't feel like the finely crafted arenas of the first game. Then there's the story - while I'm nowhere near finished with it, I really dislike its dual-nature, especially regarding the protagonist.

Regardless, it's a blast, but not as much as Halo was. The third instalment is eagerly awaited, make no mistake, and there have been plenty of really standout moments already. The actual grind of the moment-to-moment gameplay just doesn't feel as satisfactory.

The weekend's real champion comes in the guise of Gladius. It was little noted when it came out, despite scoring a respectable 80% on Metacritic. I'm into tactical battles and Gladius really rubs me in a good way. Good production values don't hurt, and it looks like the game also puts up a fight. Still, progress could be faster; now it feels like an hour's worth of playing doesn't do much to your fighter school's progress. The 3D models, animation and texturing aren't anything noteworthy, but it's all solid and the overall feel is elevated greatly by the careful animation of the character's faces. The actual combat is a little slow and the menus are cumbersome. Otherwise a great experience so far, and highly recommended to all attracted to, well, turn-based gladiatorial combat! I know it grabbed my wife for the whole of Sunday. She hasn't gamed six hours straight since last summer. I'm not sure if that's a bad thing or not, but it was great to see her really get into a game.