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.