Monday, September 6, 2010

Quantity Over Quality: The Plight of DLC

Before five days ago, I had been planning this entry for months and months with a very distinct tone swirling around in my noggin: I was going to attack game developers and publishers for trying to nickel and dime consumers as a ploy to try and recoup some of their losses pertaining to their increased, unpaid hours as a result of the corporate greed above them. Still following? Good. That was five days ago, and like any open-minded person, one fell swoop can completely alter a state of mind. Yeah, I’m referring to Dead Rising 2: Case Zero, the new Downloadable “episode” from Capcom.

Dead Rising 2: Case Zero works as a prequel to the upcoming sequel, released one month between one another, introducing the main character and his once-bitten little daughter as they trek across the Nevada desert in search for a lasting cure to her infection.

The “demo” teaches you the basics regarding the changes in the game’s computer AI when hauling survivors from one location to the next, the emphasis on searching for a temporary solution for zombification in Zombrex--a hot commodity that will keep the protagonist’s daughter from turning into the walking dead--and an introduction to a handful of weapon combinations to showcase one of the retail title’s selling points. (A kayak paddle with two chainsaws strapped on both ends? Uh, hell yes?)

On top of all of this, your stats and bonuses carry over into the full game. What is not advertised, however, is how cleverly this so-called demo sets you up—and more importantly, pumps you up—to play the full-fledged retail game. I’m practically bouncing on my hands in anticipation to get my hands on the full game; if this game truly is a demo instead of a separate experience, it works better than any demo before it.

Let’s argue why Case Zero is not a demo. Well, that’s the easiest argument in this entire entry: it’s not a demo because it is a separate piece of gaming from Dead Rising 2. It’s a full area that you cannot access in that game, full of characters that you will (likely) not see in that game. Where Dead Rising 2 takes place in Las Vegas, Case Zero takes place in the tiny Route 66-esque town of Still Creek. There are twelve unique achievements tied to this so-called demo, complete with its own boss encounter. This, readers, is Downloadable Content, a game add-on like you would normally purchase after the fact.

Now, you can make an argument regarding whether or not this can be considered nickel and diming considering the game that the DLC has reached the open market prior to the retail game’s launch. “If it’s done a full month before the game comes out, why isn’t it on the disc?” some may wonder. This is, of course, in the eye of the beholder.

For instance, I have grown stale of demos. I usually find myself wasting time playing a semi-polished portion of a game that I will have to stroll through again once the game arrives on store shelves, like some strange déjà vu experience. Due to this, demos seem like a waste of my precious time, like I’m watching the first 15 minutes of a movie three weeks before it hits theaters. I would rather experience the complete film at once rather than broken into pieces.

Keiji Inafune feels the same, telling IGN in a recent interview he “didn't want to go down the boring route of cutting out a part of the game and letting players play for free, and then, if they like it and buy the game, they have to play through that bit again as well. I think that business model is really boring.” I feel the same way, so kudos to Inafune-san for understanding the plight of the current market.

In the case of Case Zero, it showcases everything that it needs to, sans gorgeous visuals, without repeating itself on launch day. Furthermore, I don’t feel like I’m wasting time since I’m working towards gaining levels and collectible Combo and Scratch Cards for unique weapon combinations. Case Zero successfully sold me on Dead Rising 2, cranking my excitement from a 7 to a 9, in a matter of hours.

Where Mass Effect 2's DLC mostly felt like leftovers, Case Zero is a tasty appetizer entirely unique to the main course, whetting the appetite for the delicious brains to be unveiled later in the month. You could say that aforementioned one fell swoop was me falling in love with the concept of DLC once more.

Pessimists, however, would say that fall was one from grace, and I’m falling right into the pocket of Capcom in their “latest catastrophe” of “charging for demos.” If they’re adamant about it, they likely will see the game through rage-soaked glasses, purposefully ignoring the good qualities something like this can provide just to remain solidified on their side of the debate.

Case Zero is an interesting experiment in its own right, and a unique case, indeed. I’m a little afraid that developers will make a great discovery for the DLC concept only to have it misconstrued and transformed into something sinister by their publishers; there’s no doubt that this is not the next evolution of gaming, as demos have been around for the longest time now, but it could be that next big thing that gets warped into something demented by those bigwigs gripping at thin air for dollars.

But within this mini-review, I’m here to explain why my stance on Downloadable Content has shifted slightly, providing a neutral stance while tight-roping the fine line between corporate greed and consumerist exceptionalism.

My time with Downloadable Content has been a bit of a rollercoaster. The beginnings of the movement had the potential to bring full new worlds to life; a developer could launch a long-anticipated game and work on additional content for, seemingly, years to come. This could provide a long-lasting relationship between the consumer and the developer, especially for cases such as Halo, Call of Duty and Gears of War—in other words, games that deserve the continued support of their creators, as the fans will keep playing those games continually enough to make them mainstays in Xbox Live’s Top 10 for online activity.

Much like politics, when the potential seems genuine and promising, the reality soon settles in underneath the good intentions and well-meanings, those sweet fruits of labor seem to all turn into bitter lemons.

One of the first pieces of DLC to hit the Marketplace was Horse Armor to protect your steed in Oblivion, a not-so-carefully disguised ploy to make gamers a little bit better at the game, folks who wanted instant gratification without all of the grinding. It was the first of a series of appalling acts within the industry to change the potential of DLC from the promise of prolonging a favorite game to a valve that pumps blood into the heart of corporate swindle.

Soon after, we saw thousands of Microsoft Points worth the costumes in the wrestling game Rumble Roses XX. No longer could you merely unlock an alternate costume by playing a game inside-out, you had to outright purchase it. In order to purchase all of these costumes, you would have to spend 6960 Microsoft Points—nearly $90 in digital currency.

Namco intentionally “locked out” a handful of stages in their Xbox 360 iteration of the Katamari series, Beautiful Katamari. After purchasing around $20 in stages, an instant-click download would occur, meaning the stages were already on the disc and intentionally withheld from the consumer. These are two of the best examples of the “nickel and diming” that many on the anti-DLC side can point to.

On the side of unlockables, I believe there can be a fair balance with two tiers of unlockables: one half that requires the utmost skill, and the other half, which can be unlocked via determination or the optional digital currency payoff. Frankly, if I see a player decked out in tough unlockable garb, I know that guy has earned it; at the same time, the lower-tier unlockables can be picked by folks like me with lesser talent at games or outright bought by the saps who are even worse than I--if they even exist in the first place.

This would be a good balance and keep everyone (mostly) satisfied. The same concept could be blended into the mix for stage unlocks and the like. Thankfully, the experiences with publisher have been few and far between ever since early 2008 with this sort of stuff, but new issues have risen.

In Madden 2010, you cannot create a stellar player without paying real money to unlock the ability to concoct a Pro Bowl-type football star. On the opposite end, Sony’s MLB the Show ’10 has read my mind and offered players the ability to plow through way through the minor leagues or outright purchase attribute points, giving two paths to a single destination. EA, take note: this is the proper way to nickel and dime. I can eventually have an All-Star third baseman in MLB the Show ’10 without ever dropping a cent into the game, so my back is not against the wall with aggressive--and frankly, revolting--money-grubbing schemes.

But is this a new concept? For years, players have bought and sold high-level accounts in online games such as Diablo II and World of Warcraft, complete with the best armor and weaponry that the game has crafted, on online auction sites such as eBay. Is this not the same concept that games such as MLB the Show ’10 are now providing, a shortcut to being a great player for a price? The only difference is the people who have their hands in the creation of the game are the ones receiving the money instead of the twentysomething kid with no other means of income.

No, this is not the DLC that has plagued my level of interest in the industry’s buckling trend, as it seems like no game can be socially accepted these days without the promise of support after release; it’s almost becoming a taboo in the industry to not support add-on expansions for every game your development team dips their hands into.

This is not a new concept in the gaming industry, as popular IPs such as The Sims, Elder Scrolls, and Diablo are a short list of large titles to support expansion packs in the past. But this begs the question, is every game worthy of downloadable episodes or add-ons? The sad fact is that I spent just as much money on DLC in the past nine months as I have retail games, with the entire Fallout DLC package running at the suggested retail price of a brand new game altogether upon its release.

All of this said, there are definitely positive applicable uses of DLC in the spectrum; a game like Little Big Planet benefits from having additional building packages themed from other IPs, such as their Metal Gear Solid package containing stickers and themed-building blocks. Why is this such a good use of DLC? Because only a small percentage of Little Big Planet players actually build enough stages to warrant the optional purchase of more tools to use when crafting their imagination’s playhouse.

With the upcoming and previously talked about Mortal Kombat due in 2011, the developers will have the option of crafting all-new characters to drop into the mold of the game long after they’ve finished the product, catering to the hardcore fans of the series without sacrificing roster space for the casuals who purchase the game. So long as those new fighters can be used against players who have not purchased them, this is a viable exploration of downloadable endeavors. Another interesting twist could be if the ESRB clips some of the more brutal Fatalities from the game, they could eventually pop up in DLC down the line.

Most developers are big supporters of providing DLC to their titles. Noteworthy standouts for games due over the course of the next 16 months include NetherRealm Studios, the team putting together the latest iteration of Mortal Kombat, and Dave Jaffe, the creator of Twisted Metal and God of War, who plans to aggressively support DLC upon the release of the next Twisted Metal entry.

Jaffe, in particular, spears through the heart of the opposition of downloadable goods. He has stated many times on his Twitter account (DavidScottJaffe) that he believes the consumer should not feel nickel and dimed so long as they feel they’ve gotten their money’s worth out of their $59.99 retail purchase. Of course, Jaffe also believes most Pixar movies are ho-hum visual spectacles, so we can take his opinions with a grain of salt (I kid, of course).

The man brings up a good point, albeit one that is incredibly tough to judge; just where is this tiniest of thin lines where it becomes a half-baked attempt by a developer and/or publisher to get a few extra bucks, and where does it tread over into a bunch of complaining, greedy gamers endlessly chanting for more, more, more?

I feel this isn’t the main problem in the first place, though I will more often than not side with the developer in these cases; DLC is optional, and at the heart of my argument, just not as good as the games it is supposed to complement. To delve into my general problem with DLC is to look at games such as Borderlands and Mass Effect 2, two very good, albeit different, games that offer a long-lasting, 20+ hour adventure where you feel as if you’ve, as Jaffe put it, gotten your money’s worth.

Being a big fan of Mass Effect 2, I blindly downloaded the first two DLC add-ons released for each one. To quote one of the developers of the new Mortal Kombat, from his Blogspot account, “[DLC] lets those of us who really enjoyed a game get even MORE of the game without having to wait years for a sequel.” I initially agreed with this statement. Seeing as how I have agreed with both cited developers in the past two paragraphs, how could I disagree at this point?

What I soon learned after downloading and playing the first two Mass Effect 2 add-on packs was that there’s a reason I think of that game as the frontrunner for Game of the Year: it was meticulously worked on day in and day out for several years. The amount of polish in the storytelling, presentation, and the subtle nuances such as random dialogue between your party members of choice makes the game feel above the competition in even the best years of gaming. All of this, however, is lacking in the DLC.

Upon coaxing gamers into buying the title brand new instead of used, EA promised consumers free downloadable content on a continued basis for Mass Effect 2. Since then, we’ve seen around three times the amount of pay content by comparison of the free stuff—a new character completely lacking the communication function and a sad excuse for a Mako replacement.

Even the good Mass Effect 2 download content has its glaring faults; the minimal dialogue issued by Commander Shepard and zero dialogue uttered by your mimes... pardon me, support characters, is about the most obvious omission in a game as character development-heavy as Mass Effect.

Certainly, I adore Mass Effect 2. I’ve played games professionally long enough to understand that when a game like it comes along, it’s solidified top shelf honors at the Game of the Year roundtables in the industry. So why tarnish something so noteworthy by releasing something so insignificant to prolong it? Has DLC really become the re-releases of the Star Wars Trilogy? Adding additional scenes for the sake of adding them, with minimal quality control to grasp the situation?

My biggest problem with DLC is the fact that, more often than not, it fails to live up to what is on the disc, likely due to the rat race of getting additional content out there for the sake of saying you support the DLC platform itself instead of the game you’re supposed to represent. If there’s one thing I cannot stand, it’s inconsistency—especially when it’s such a stark contrast from the Mass Effect 2 disc content to the downloadable content.

Of course, it looks like what I have to say in this matter is but a whisper in a crowded convention center full of gaming executives, producers, developers, and above all, consumers who disagree with my assessment. Huh, so that’s what it feels like to be deemed insignificant. Maybe—just maybe--this 2800 word blog entry will melt the icy heart of an economic growth-devouring executive... or be used as their toilet tissue.


Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Quarter for the Queue

In the heat of the St. Louis summer, your choices of running from the sticky humidity have always been slim; this is a city that always has and always will thrive on baseball, one of the most grueling experiences a person can partake in when the heat index tips 122 degrees Fahrenheit. But these days, the option of escaping to an illuminated cavern of entertainment throughout most of the Midwest is limited to the movie theater. Oh, how you kids missed a truly great spectacle of entertainment.

Brace yourself, kiddos: Grandpa’s about to tell a story.

When I was your age, we got our kicks in the arcade. We also paid for music and danced to the Macarena, but that’s not the point. We’d flock to the mall, another dying concept in today’s economy, and we’d have a ten-spot in-tow, which we would have slammed down on the counter at Babbage’s or Software, Etc. to pre-order whatever the latest iteration of Street Fighter II they were passing time with instead of making a full-fledged sequel—if pre-ordering existed back then. Don’t worry, we didn’t ride horses to the mall… but if you had power windows in your car, you were bourgeoisie.

No, no, instead we used that ten bucks to head over to the nearest arcade—in my instance, the Tilt—and feed it into a wondrous money-devouring machine, which spit out magical golden tokens that could be fed to an voodoo box powered by electricity!

But seriously, we’d blow all of our allowance on a game that we couldn’t even own—and play in short bursts, no less, sometimes going through a dollar in a matter of three minutes if we were unlucky enough to go up against the dreaded older teenager: a God amongst novices with his hand-scribbled list of moves in numerous players’ handwriting, a testament of his previous losses at the hands of those more knowledgeable, visible like the scars of a prized fighter; with every loss came the techniques, combos and, of course, finishing moves of the victor. Sometimes, losing is worth the spoils.

Looking back, I plunked hundreds of dollars into arcade cabinets throughout my life, mostly on the fighting game frenzy of the early- to mid-‘90s, with seemingly nothing to show for my hundred dollar exploits. Killer Instinct saw me at my best, winning a competition and doing well enough in other tournaments. Street Fighter II and all of its still-beating-heart incarnations found me dumping a lot of dollars and quickly leaving with my head down in defeat at every cabinet in the region. But Mortal Kombat was my middle-ground, and somehow my favorite series to feed money to, and the memories I gained were enough to justify breaking all those bills I could really use right now.

I can tell you the exact location of every noteworthy moment I’ve experienced with the Granddaddy of Gore. The Pizza Hut near my house, where Sub-Zero ripped the spine out of Liu Kang in the original Mortal Kombat. Finding a row of what seemed like tens of Mortal Kombat II cabinets in the underground arcade up in North County. Beating the crap out of a guy so bad at Mortal Kombat 3 with Nightwolf that he physically smacked my hands while I was playing to prevent me from doing as well—and I still won. Watching as Ermac was unlocked in Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 in utter disbelief of the legend being included in the game.

Mortal Kombat evolved as it went along, if ever so slightly. The original was as standard as they come, in terms of the gameplay itself: clunky movements and stiff animations provided a slow experience with a big pay-off, if you managed to pull off a Fatality to cap off the Flawless Victory. The second installment increased the speed of the series, as well as complemented the pace with fluid animations. Mortal Kombat II had bright, colorful backgrounds, an intertwining storyline still yet-to-be toppled in the genre and, of course, brutal Fatalities.

My favorite entry into the series, however, was Mortal Kombat 3 and its “Super” upgrade, Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3. U/MK3 added another level of speed to the combat, making everything seem more over-the-top and hectic. A Run button was adding, allowing the Kombatant to sprint in, screaming his or her head off like a lunatic as they assaulted their opponent with a series of dial-in combos pulled off without mercy via a succession of button combinations.

I mastered the art of Cyber Smoke, mixing the best abilities of Sektor, with his teleportation uppercut to juggle the enemy, and Scorpion with a pull-in spear to grab them before they hit the ground. This, to me, was Mortal Kombat perfected: fast, improvised combos mixed with the dial-in material and some of the bloodiest, most ridiculous finishing moves ever seen—even to this date.

The Mortal Kombat series lost a lot of its luster with its fourth entry into the series at the height of the 3D-plane craze within the fighting game industry. Still a fine game, 3D gaming never really took hold with me, especially with Mortal Kombat. The first reboot of the series did a fair enough job, quite the improvement over Mortal Kombat 4, but the series once again fell a bit with each successive release after Deadly Alliance. Projectiles became simple inconveniences for the opponent with the ability to sidestep them; key components to a fighter’s arsenal could now be easily bypassed as the years progressed. Scorpion’s spear? Press up to avoid it altogether and charge in from the side of the skeletal fiend, all while the ninja is still in the animation of his once-deadly special move. This sums up how the series slowed down: an iconic figure’s signature maneuver reduced to a mere nuisance instead of the set-up to a barrage of incoming chaos.

Unintentionally aligned with the release of the independent movie trailer for the reimagining of the series on film, Ed Boon and the folks at NetherRealm Studios in Chicago unleashed a pre-E3 trailer bringing back everything I loved about the series: colorful, robust design, small dial-in combos that can lead into gravity-defying aerial assaults, unmatched speed to keep the Kombat as frantic as ever, and of course, the most brutal Fatalities known to man.

Finally, Mortal Kombat is returning to what made it a household name in the first place. One of the reasons that the series, while still a critical and commercial success, became less like Mortal Kombat was the great chase to follow the next great evolution in the fighting genre. After all these years of trying to cross over into the Z-axis plane of fighting, Ed Boon has realized that the simpler the fundamentals of the basic Kombat, the easier it is to get to the meat of the game itself—the delicious, blood-soaked meat, still hanging off the bone.

After all, Mortal Kombat was a trendsetter for the fighting game genre in many ways; once it began following the trends of the wavering public is when the series became less like itself and more like the Soul Calibur-types surrounding it. By going back to their earlier years in a way similar to that of the story’s canon of time-travel, they’re erasing the injustice of not following up Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 with a sequel using a similar, tweaked engine. Now we can reap the rewards of a development team comprised of die-hard fans of the first 3.5 games in the series, dedicated to releasing a product that they themselves are excited about.

The biggest question is, can the arcade atmosphere transcend through wireless Internet? In the heydays of Mortal Kombat, the Internet wasn’t even available to print lists of special moves, let alone gaming without the presence of another human being nearby. The atmosphere at the arcade was mostly friendly (though I’d like to see how badly I would’ve wounded ol’ smack-hands without him being there to throw off my combos with his real-life fists of fury), offering an insightful experience where you make friends at the throw of a Johnny Cage, for if you acted inappropriately toward another player, his Dad might kick your ass. Can that experience really exist in the highly-competitive non-community of online gaming?

At a packed arcade with one cabinet and two joysticks, we built a culture from the ground-up where prospective players lined their quarters along the bottom of the monitor, signifying your entry into Mortal Kombat. Fourth quarter in line of change? That was your place in line. The anxiety that built with every passing round, watching the guy playing as Jax dominating every opponent who crossed his path, figuring out his every move and weakness, studying him like a hawk… only to have the newcomer sweep him out from under you without notice. You’re up next, and your strategies for the now-defunct enemy are out the window while the newcomer awaits. Gulp, indeed.

This, I feel, is an experience unlike any other in gaming, as do the folks at NetherRealm Studios—that’s why they’re tacking on a Winner Stays online mode, where spectators line up with their figurative quarters lined up as they wait for their turn to tackle the beast of a competitor with the ongoing winning streak—a welcomed addition to the console fighting genre for old school arcaders such as myself, but in the day and age of hopping into a Halo Deathmatch in a matter of seconds, will this feature hold the attention span of our ADD-culture? In a land where instant gratification runs rampant, with instant-streaming Netflix and quick matches being the norm, will this novelty build a significant enough community to actually enjoy the slow tension that builds when you’ve been waiting 10 minutes for what seems like a gladiator bout? Oh, how I hope so.

Since retiring from my arcade days (or should I say they retired on me?), the fighting genre has largely escaped me. Fighting games these days are more about defensive tactics and counter-attacks than being on the offensive, something that has largely put me off to the concept. Super meters that lead to unstoppable, game-ending devastation have left me on the wrong end of a Hadouken on more than one occasion. With the smallest of timing windows opening up the biggest of opportunities, I feel like a hamster trying to comprehend quantum physics. By the time I feel confident enough to go online and spam the basic moves the game has taught me in a tutorial, I attempt them only to find them blocked and countered with something I didn’t even think was possible to do.

Fighting game enthusiasts insist that this genre is much easier to master than Call of Duty or Gears of War, and that is likely true. I also feel just as lost when playing most games with massive communities, largely to the fact that some games require months of gaming in order to feel comfortable with the weight of each weapon and the like. What do these games and the fighting genre have in common? They both teach you the bare essentials to understand what you’re doing, but lack the depth to explain why you’re doing it, or teach you the smaller things in return, like situations in which to take a defensive stance.

While playing Street Fighter IV, I would go through the ins and outs of each training segment, learning how to do each move but lacking the instructions on exactly why I should be doing them. Seeing these moves in the way they’re presented feels more like reading an instruction manual than being taught about the game. The conundrum with this type of learning system is the lack of direction given after the lesson, as you still have to learn how to play the game beyond the Hadoukens and Sonic Booms. The main problem is the online opponents already know what they’re doing, thus the learning curve is about as steep as they come; I compare it to rookie Little Leaguers trying to win a game of baseball against the New York Yankees.

NetherRealm Studios is claiming to make this a priority, in providing the player with more than just a list of moves, but a series of situations to run through to gain the knowledge of not simply how to randomly go on the offensive, but how to take a defensive stand against those with more experience under their belts. How well they pull this off will mean more than just how much staying power this title will have, as it could alter the course of the fighting genre altogether—I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they raise the bar and bring in many newcomers along the way, opening up an opportunity for fighters like BlazBlue to follow suit.

So go make another historic change for the fighting genre, NetherRealm, and allow people like me to learn all of the new situations that will be presented along the way with the inclusion of the super meter, complete with advanced tutorials on the feel and weight of each character so we can better understand the timing for every Kombatant. You know, that way I don’t look like an idiot when I finally get the bravery to step online.

I’ll wind down this incredibly longwinded entry with my personal favorite Mortal Kombat story…

My favorite memory at the arcades, and one I’ve taken out of chronology to emphasize its impact on me as a person and as a gamer took place at the movie theater at the premiere mall, the Galleria, where I first saw Mortal Kombat II with a two hour demonstration by an incredibly kind, obviously-a-drug-dealer twentysomething Hispanic guy whose beeper would go off with every uppercut, who took the time out to not only show me Fatalities with seven different characters (including Liu Kang’s dragon bite) and their endings, but even let me play on five dollars of his money. I couldn’t pull off the air-lift Fatality with Baraka that he taught me ever-so patiently, but he praised me, nonetheless.

In a day and age where racist cretins run rampant on Xbox Live and PSN, I’m not certain we will see such a display of utter kindness and compassion for a random little kid—I was still in the single-digits, I’m certain—ever again. Every time I’m in a game with a little kid on Xbox Live, either someone is reciting homophobic slurs in his direction or he’s the one dishing out the language reserved for use by ignorant folks in the South. But when the new Mortal Kombat launches next year, I’ll surely try to pass down some lessons of my own… let’s just hope that tutorial is good enough to teach me the tricks of the trade in the first place.


Settling In...

Now that I have moved, as previously assumed in the blog, I'll be a little more active here. Enjoy the bi-weekly updates as they flow.


Thursday, January 28, 2010

iPossibilities in the Sky...

Let's set the scene: It is 1:14am on a Thursday morning. I'm working the night shift once again--more specifically, the night section of a series of sixteen hour shifts. Knock out one eight hour shift, eat dinner, begin the other portion. Seeing as these random spurts of work ethic begin on a Sunday, I'm usually dead by Wednesday morning, but I've held out. My eyes look like that of a bloodshot electric orb novelty gift you'd find at Spencer's on clearance, but dammit, I'm still awake and pounding on the keyboard like the good, professional monkey I am.

It's not so much the lack of sleep that's frying my brain as it is the lack of stimulation, so I figure it's a good time for a break. Just got an iPhone last week, so I spent $15 on a few apps here and there--why not try some out to give my brain a rest from office monkey-dom? Mahjong sure is a traditional hoot. CauseWorld's a great invention. Paper Toss, what a nice five minute distraction. So far, so good: little bursts of being distracted by my cell phone. Just what the doctor ordered.

1:27am. I figure I will try one more app, and one that I actually clunked down 99 cents for: Pocket God. Browsed the Paid apps and thought the description looked cute, but without a free trial waiting in the wings, I had to decide: McDonald's "hot" fudge sundae, or Pocket God. Maybe if the fudge was actually hot instead of, you know, frozen. May this be a lesson to you, McDonald's.

From the second I booted the game up, even my taste buds knew I made the proper decision. Pocket God can be many things for the person playing; more than likely, it will be a five to ten minute getaway from all things stressful. The game gives you control over a series of tiny islands where a tribe of indigenous people reside. As their overseer, you get to decide their fate, but no matter what the choice is, it's never pretty... for them, at least.

Fed to sharks. Crushed by boulders. Thrown into the volcano. Speared with a harpoon. Buried alive, and subsequently turned into a zombie. Eaten alive by said zombie. Eaten alive by a gigantic spider. Eaten alive by a gigantic dinosaur. Drowned in the ocean. Swept up in a hurricane. Shook off the face of the Earth in an earthquake. Burned alive via magnifying glass. Scared to death by ghosts. No, these are no Cannibal Corpse lyrics, these are just a fraction of the many ways to kill these poor savage people.

And that's essentially the game: kill off the pygmies in any way you please, and spawn a few more by hitting the plus icon in the upper left of the screen. Well, that's how some folks play the game; when I play, it's not so much as "spawning a few" as it is "pumped out of the sky faster Budweiser bottles through the bottling plant before the Super Bowl."

"Yeah, take that little guy. Oh, you're so cute! I bet you'd look even cuter if you were hit by lightning! BLAM! Off the face of the Earth! Alright, let's get rid of that thunderstorm with a wave of the finger across the sky and... how about we summon a vampire bat to feast on this last guy? Yeeeah, that'll do the trick. Okay, just one more... oops, accidentally knocked him into the water. I better spawn three more just in case I do that again. Swoosh! Hurricane for the big finish! ...but wait, I really should end on a grander finalé than just a tiny hurricane. I mean, I've already murdered twelve of them with that before..."

Wait, what just happened? Did I really burn two hours on an iPhone game? What kind of gamer am I? Was I really looking for an excuse to get away from work to the point that I'd fiddle with a touch-and-play iPhone game for that long? Did I really just want to kill e-people all night to take out revenge for my long hours this week?

It is now 3:45am. Indeed, I did burn two full hours by toying around with new ways to murder the pygmies. Work hours, no less. Hey, I'll gain those hours back in no time tomorrow--those poor saps being crushed by a glacier monster won't ever get those hours back.

The trick with Pocket God is that it does what it sets out to do very well: be the be-all, end-all of time wasters. It's the perfect game to introduce someone leery of cell phone games to the iPhone, as it utilizes the touch screen extremely well, and more importantly, the ability to jump in and out of an important phone call without losing some daunting amount of progress in the game you're enraptured by.

Let's give an example of the touch screen controls: tap the plus icon five times to spawn five more cutesy natives onto the isle. Let's say we want to cause a tsunami to wipe out these guys from their home and take them under the sea. Simply wave your finger across the tide to flood the land, and poof: you're underwater. Place your finger to align several pygmies in a row, then tap the spear gun to shoot the harpoon through the chest of three in a row. Mmm, shish kabob. Hit the bucket of fish to bring out a... shark with a laser on its head? Awesome. Use the motion controls on the iPhone to align the laser to a pygmy, and tap the shoot icon to blast off. Mmm, toasty.

This scenario and scenes like it are the key drawing point to the game, which features regular free updates to add new features and, more importantly, new death traps. The world of Pocket God is certainly one where your imagination and fingers frolick, if you're sadistic enough. Ultimately, Pocket God saves itself from being a bit too brutal by offering such warm visuals; nothing we seem to do to these poor things makes us feel bad, because it just so happens that they look adorable when being launched into a volcano.

For some, this is plenty. I dove into the game for under a buck expecting ten minutes of entertainment, and I certainly got that. Others will see the touch screen as gimmicky, considering the chuckles you'll get from the wit of the developer's ideas is technically the most satisfying part of the title ("Oh man, if I swirl my fingers in circles, it creates a wind funnel!"). Some people will expect a bit more game for their buck, and they'd be justified in that claim, as there's little actual game in Pocket God; the closest thing the game gets to being traditional in its roots is the optional boss battles. To those gamers, I say "Hey, it's a dollar. You're getting something to showcase your iPhone or iPod Touch for 99 cents. Sure, it's not filet mignon, but you can't complain over a T-bone steak for a buck."

Has the iPhone reached the pinnacle of gaming with Pocket God, or become a gaming machine due to it? Of course not. Simply put, we're too far off for the iPhone to become a premiere portable gaming device, but because of games like Pocket God, with its innovative and unique take on the technology, we're one step closer to playing great games on the next generation of cell phones, and as the market is now, Pocket God is the perfect companion piece for the device.

Verdict: A great game to show off what your iPhone or Touch is capable of. You'll catch yourself smiling at the imagination of the two creative minds behind the title with every accidental gameplay discovery. 8/10


Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Market of Familiarity

In January 2005, I had just moved into my first apartment. It was and still is today something out of a Tyler Perry drama; to outsiders, I live in an old 1930s complex that looks like a druglord's roost, the projects that the wealthy forgot. To me, it's not quite home, but comfortable enough to lay my head and drink my drink in its confides. We never truly retrieve home after we've left it; even to go back, it is not the same as it once was, it's a place all too familiar, yet your heart is no longer invested in it. It remains, it is your ties to the location that have separated.

Leaving home is also a bittersweet affair, with the loose living arrangements and "I can do for myself" freedoms clashing with your leaving-the-nest instincts coded into your DNA. You're in a strange place with all of the things that are familiar to you, but the location is different. Your computer no longer sits next to the window where you peered out as a teenager in curiosity of what it would feel like to live in this very moment you're in now; as it turns out, this moment is terrifying. And your computer is nowhere near a window, much less the one from your childhood.

Right on cue, panic sets in. You want out, the deal was a bust, it's time to pack your bags and head home to where it's safe, to where it's familiar. "Familiar" is a good feeling when you feel alone. You want familiar things to ease you into the process of leaving the nest and spreading your wings; this includes being surrounded by family and friends, if only by phone calls. This is step one in a three step process. Step two: stray from your new reality by leaving your new surroundings in substitution of familiar restaurants and locales--you've got to feel safe somewhere. This step is harder to execute if you're new to a town or city. Finally, step three: surround yourself in familiar media.

Steps one and two were gracefully executed for me. Step three? Seemingly. I watched Aqua Teen Hunger Force continuously, wording every line as it was delivered. I watched the Shining ad nauseam. I cranked Ben Folds MP3s from my crappy computer speakers as I arranged my furniture to my liking.

Gaming, however, seemed to have been lost in the knee-deep snow that January.

My gaming decision? I was to try something new, but something I could count on for being familiar: Resident Evil 4. Yes, I had read that things were a little different this time around, such as a new camera system with the cam over the shoulder of Leon S. Kennedy, the star of my favorite game in the series, Resident Evil 2. It was the first time Leon was to appear in a Resident Evil title since the award-winning second installment. He was a familiar face. I could tolerate that unfamiliar camera.

As I began to play the game, my hopes remained high and my anxiety stayed at bay; this was Resident Evil, not some action game. I was certain that the first sequence was there simply to introduce a new element in the game: persistent enemies who would crowd you by the dozen in a fit of Los Angeles-riot-induced-rage. This was what they were doing to grab some new fans, to convince them that these small spurts of new, insane combat were just the right amount of a steroid injection to hook their Crank-obsessed, testosterone-craving egos into getting scared a little. "It won't turn your boy-parts into lady-bits to shriek a li'l bit, guys! It's fun!"

I was wrong.

Chapters faded into the distance. The familiarity wore off. I was playing a new game in a new series with new characters who had familiar names. As old loves change over time into people you do not know, these characters I loved, these characters I was so familiar with, had changed as well. Names that lose their significance to you are no longer names, but merely words, and just as people change, my beloved, familiar game series was something new, something different, right when I needed it the most.

So what did I do? I kept playing it. This deceit I held for the title was still apparent, and completely justified--or at least I made myself believe. "Is the game great?" "Yeah... if you like mindless shooters." I made sure to understand and appreciate the game for what it was, a blockbuster movie experience made into an interactive marvel the likes of which gaming had not seen up to that point (but since seen numerous times, and much better). But it wasn't the same.

And so Resident Evil 4 provided not what I wanted, but what I needed. I encountered an immersive experience that transported me away from my coddling anxieties and into a different world I was not familiar with. "The game tricked me! Why I oughta..." It was not what I wanted when I started it, as I craved such familiarity to get me over the hump of living out on my own, but it was what I ultimately needed, the effort to throw me into the water instead of tip-toeing into the shallow end.

As much as I appreciated Resident Evil 4 and the things it did for my emotional state back then, I miss the classic style that only Resident Evil had. Tacky acting, distinctive style in level design and enemy isolation. The enemies were so scarce in the original Resident Evil on the PlayStation that you'd be taken aback and startled when you actually encountered one; by constrast, you were surprised when only two enemies were in a section of a map in Resident Evil 4. The change was drastic, and I craved the old cut 'n' paste mentality that ultimately led to "old school" Resident Evil's demise. Fact is, gamers are a fickle bunch with pseudo-ADD; if you do the same trick a few times too many, they crave differentiation, regardless of how tried and true--familiar--a formula is.

So imagine my surprise when gamers and critics alike revolted at the release of Resident Evil 5 in March of 2009. Bored of the non-stop action sequences in the brisk daylight? Already? Sure, we saw several re-releases of Resident Evil 4 across three platforms over the years leading up to the fifth installment, but this is technically the sequel to the mega-ultra-blockbuster that folks praised and revered just a mere four years prior. The old formula lasted through four core releases, two online installments, director's cuts, revisions and more before gamers finally grew stale of the fixed camera angles and tank controls. This time around, the correct answer is one? A single release?

For those unaware, the differences between the fourth and fifth installments in the franchise are about as noteworthy as the differences between the first and second back in the mid to late '90s: a tweak here, a tweak there, a slightly new setting that feels familiar, and viola! A recipe for success, or at least one decade ago. In the day and age of download content, where 18 maps in a multiplayer game is never enough for the insatiable boredom of today's gamer, there need to be groundbreaking innovations with every entry into a triple A series.

But is Resident Evil actually a series on par with the likes of Mario and the Legend of Zelda? It's certainly a huge franchise, but the survival horror genre as a whole was always niche, reserved in the corner--not necessarily the shadows--for a few million hardcore fans who craved what the developers were good at: setting a scene and making you feel isolated.

My proposition to come back into the fold of pleasing everyone and releasing a Game of the Year-esque title? Blend the two. Start from scratch. Drop the characters, who now yawn at the sight of a zombie due to overexposure, and go the route of someone experienced in stress-related combat and tactics, yet not in flesh-craving monstrosities. This allows for seamless pace increases and decreases, where aggressive attackers group together to give you an adrenaline rush and then dead silence afterwards.

The key problem with Capcom's choosing to rush the player with twenty to forty zombies per sector is overexposure. You will never feel truly terrified or the slightest bit of panic if this is what the game consists of from the cover to the credits. Drop atmosphere into this gameplay core, and instantly you have a starting point for creating a title everyone can agree on, meanwhile winning back the fans of the genre you have previously betrayed.

I came up with this blueprint in my then-new apartment five years ago. I knew if they released another Resident Evil like the fourth entry, it would be met with mixed results. Why? You can do the same thing over and over again when you're in a niche market because there's a small handful of titles to choose from; once you enter the mainstream, gun-toting gamer's land, you have literally thousands of shooters with better core mechanics and better atmosphere. One game in a sea of tens, one game in a sea of thousands... It's easy to understand why the game was pulled under by critics and fans alike.

Finally, however, it looks like Capcom is getting my drift.

This downloadable content, coming out February 17, 2010, looks like be on the right path. Spooky HD mansion? Looks brilliant. Sets a good atmosphere with experienced characters. This is the Resident Evil I wanted to play ever since I saw the cut-scenes throughout Resident Evil 5. "Why can't I play that game? That's the game I want to play, not this one!" I'd scream to my co-op partner, regardless of who it was, every time those cut-scenes would appear. I felt like a Dickensian ragamuffin, longingly staring through the window of a candy store with a dribble of saliva dangling from my lower lip. This is what I wanted--no, what I needed.

I'm on the verge of moving in the coming month, so I'll need something to keep my sanity as I adjust to another chapter of my life... preferably something familiar. Thanks, Capcom.


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Dante's War: God of Inferno

I have a tendency to download everything humanly possible when it comes to Xbox Live now that I'm equipped with my 120 gig harddrive, so long as it's free. This usually leads me to download every single demo that hits the Marketplace, both so I may try everything that the cool kids are buying into and, at least as an excuse, play games I'm looking forward to a month or so earlier than their launch date. I never really end up playing the latter as I like to have a fresh first-time experience with something I know I will enjoy, but I'm an American, dammit, I have to consume bandwidth with my hands free for fast food and Chinese plastic products.

It seemed only natural to reach for the demo of Dante's Inferno, the upcoming game from critically acclaimed developer Visceral Games. As some of you know, I hold Dead Space in the highest regard of this generation, citing it to be up there with the likes of action juggernauts Gears of War and BioShock as one of the finest examples of cinematic action experiences in gaming this decade. With Visceral behind the project, we're bound to see something interesting with such a premise, right?

...Where have I seen this before?

...Oh yeah. It's God of War.

And that's what it all boils down to. The game IS God of War. You play an otherworldly badass who stitches the Templar flag onto his chest for shits 'n' giggles, who defeats hordes of skeletons with his sharpened weaponry and rips the spine out of demons who come to take him to the underworld. How do you defeat said demons? By using an aerial assault of somehow-I-am-floating-in-air-as-if-I-am-so-insane-that-I-can-cease-gravity's-existence-on-command Samuel L. Jackson-itude, mixed in with "Press the X button, press the O button" sequences.

It's God of War.

According to PlayStation: The Official Magazine, the writer, producer, and director for Dante’s Inferno, Jonathan Knight, had this to say about the similarities: "We never get sick of hearing it because it's the greatest compliment we can be paid. We hope to be worthy of that. Those guys are at the top of their game and there's no question God of War III is going to be spectacular. I'll be the first in line to get it. I hope those comparisons are being made because of our combat system and is just as responsive - the control over the character is very immediate, it's very fast-paced, you can branch out of moves very easily, you feel very powerful and overall is a very fun game to play."

Oh Jonathan, people make the comparisons because you lifted the engine and characters directly from Sony's blockbuster franchise. My best friend played the demo for a staggering five minutes before dropping the controller. His response? "If I'm going to play God of War, I at least want to wait a month later and grab God of War III."

Ultimately, this is what consumers will assume; Dante's Inferno comes out February 9, 2010. God of War III drops on March 16, 2010. If this was meant as an homage, why, from a fiscal standpoint, release it one month before the juggernaut franchise's third entry? The EA series is a brand new IP, meaning it has not won over the average gamer yet, and will cost the same amount as God of War III. Is their assumption that people are so stoked for the third Kratos encounter that they will blow sixty bucks on a knock-off a mere five weeks before it drops?

Fact is, Jonathan, people are making the comparison because it feels cheap, and your team of developers is much better than this. To the casual observer, it's a developer riding on the coattails of someone else's success, like a wannabe pop starlet covering a Lennon/McCartney song and claiming to have a similarity in place with the original songwriters. To me, it feels like I was duped into buying tickets to a Pixies concert only to have them pull out a setlist of Bee Gees covers instead of what they're good at. At least Jonathan took the homage route, instead of pulling the "ours is different because the characters' names aren't the same" Vanilla Ice-on-Queen defense.

I try not to judge a book by its cover, but it's hard not to when the lettering is in big, bold print. If you're listening, I advise your team to put away the Sgt. Pepper ensemble and create your own beat. I'm not judging the game itself until I play the final product, but with minds as bright as those who work at Visceral Games, it's sad to see creativity spurned for the sake of copying a winning formula; that, in itself, is the greatest defeat of all.

I'm still anxious to try it, if for no other reason than to get the achievement for slaying ten unbaptized babies. Hey, if I've got it in real life, I figure I should have it on my gamercard.



Being a Z-list celebrity of the Internet, something I've come to cherish over the years, I feel that there's little room left to conquer here in cyberspace-land. I'm technically one Kathy Griffin heart attack away from stealing a spot on Celebrity Death Camp Island next season, so what glory is left to chip away at?

Much like Garth Brooks became Chris Gaines, there's little explanation as to exactly why I'm doing this, but I am. I suppose I need an outlet to distribute the things I like about gaming and to call out the things that I cringe at. Hopefully you will agree with the majority of these things. I intend to run a consistent blog full of ideas to shape the industry the way it should be constructed. Will it make a difference? Of course not. But we can dream.

I'll do running reviews of games. I want to turn this into a first for the industry, where you can follow-up my review with thoughts of your own and a dialogue with me about the things you liked or disliked about the game and my review of it. Too often in this industry, you'll read a professional review and instantly question something the author says in a paragraph, requiring elaboration. I want this to be an interactive experience; if you disagree with something I say, bring it up. Let's debate it. What you will not find on this blog is a printed review that acts as scripture carved in stone; I am but one man with nothing to back my opinion up beyond my words, and that is how I hope to win you over, with nothing but what I know, what I have seen, what I have experienced. Where other reviews are a one-way connection to the reader, I hope to open a dialogue with all of you about these things, as you would ask a friend "Hey, how's that game?" and expect a trusted response.

We'll have fun in the coming months. Also, please donate to for Haiti relief. Thanks.