Thursday, November 30, 2006

A Scanner Darkly

Just saw A Scanner Darkly, and I'm of mixed opinions.

On the one hand, director Richard Linklater delivers a suprisingly faithful adaptation of Phillip K Dick's story of near future drug dystopia. A cast including Keanu Reaves, Winona Ryder, Woody Harrelson and Robert Downey Jr deliver some excellent performances, and the film's unique rotoscoped visual style is unique and impressive.

On the other hand, though, Linklater appears to have no real feel for pacing or story continuity, and doesn't really achieve either a coherent science-fiction conspiracy story or Dick's mind-warping tale of drug abuse and its consequences.

The strongest parts of the film are the drug-warped Tarantino-esque conversations, and some of the very satisfying plot-twist reveals. The characters are well drawn and visually compelling. However, the film never really capitalises on any of these strengths, seeming almost scared of developing intensity and momentum. A very sedate and understated musical score contributes to a sense of aimlessness throughout the movie.

The film also ends on something of a turgid note. The transcendant monologues and images that conclude Phillip Dick's original book translate poorly to the screen under Linklater's authorship, and the movie finishes with a thoroughly butchered and near-incomprehensible text paraphrasing of the powerful author's note from the final pages of A Scanner Darkly.

As far as adaptations go, it unobjectionably translates the source material into a visual medium. But ultimately it adds nothing new to the work and suffers from a lack of real inspiration which means it's unlikely to convert new fans to Dick's writing.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

So You Want To Be A Casual Gamer

The good Sir Juffles has recently directed me to a post by LiveJournal user CricketK, which was apparently made after CricketK was shown the Guitar Hero 2 videos in my last post.

Last night I found out that a game called 'Guitar Hero' exists. It looks like something I would actually enjoy playing! In fact - I even want to have a go. I don't really mind how crap this makes me look in the world of games. I've spent pretty much my entire life thinking that games were all first-person shooters or RPGs, or really, really long (like the Sims), none of which I am the least bit interested in. Are there other games out there like this? Non-violent, ranging in difficulty levels, short and kind of self-mocking? The only other thing I've tried that looked like this much fun is the one where you dance around in front of the camera waving your arms to burst the little balloons.

[See original post here]
I know that a lot of people who read my blog aren't gamers, and occasionally feel a little left out by all the games talk. I also know that a disturbing amount of non-gamers who've played Guitar Hero love it to bits. So if you're the sort of person who's looking for games which are short, non-violent, and don't have an off-putting difficulty level, I thought I'd do a post just for you.

Here's the good news: you're living at the dawn of a new era for this type of game. You are squarely in the target market for Nintendo's new generation console (the Wii) and handheld (the DS). You're also a demographic being massively catered to by developers of mobile phone games and web based applet games. There's a lot of choices out there for you.

So I've made a short list of games below, for a range of different systems, that you might enjoy. Every game on this list is (a) easy to learn, (b) can be played in sessions of ten minutes or less, (c) is non-violent, (d) is easily available for purchase in Australia, and (e) comes highly recommended by myself. Here we go.

Guitar Hero & Guitar Hero 2 (PlayStation 2)
These are doing great business in Australia and internationally. These rhythmn-based games let you play air guitar to a variety of classic songs. They come with a custom guitar controller. They're challenging, but their easiest difficulties are perfect for non-gamers, and playing them is incredibly satisfying. You can play two-player if you have two guitars. Check out what I've had to say, what game review site Gamespot has to say, or watch some gameplay on Youtube.

We Love Katamari (PlayStation 2) and Me and My Katamari (PlayStation Portable)
The off-beat Katamari games see you playing a tiny space alien on a mission to roll up a variety of Katamari. Katamari are giant balls of... stuff. Katamari get bigger as you roll stuff up in them, and if your Katamari is big enough you can roll up pretty much anything. You might start off mouse-sized on a carpet, rolling up paperclips and pencil sharpeners, and move on to tennis balls, books, pot plants, chairs, tables, bushes, people, trees, houses and finally national monuments, continents, and planets. Crazy fun and ideal for any level of skill. Read my thoughts, Gamespot's review, or some gameplay.

Animal Crossing (GameCube) & Animal Crossing: Wild World (Nintendo DS)
The world of Animal Crossing sees you as a human child arriving in a town populated by (mostly) friendly anthropomorphic animals. You wander around the town harvesting fruit, catching fish and bugs, digging up fossils, socialising with animals, buying and collecting furniture and clothes, redecorating your house, and gardening like there's no tomorrow. It's totally laid back with no time limits, dangers, or particularly difficult challenges, and it's a surprisingly large amount of fun. It responds to real-world time signals to show night and day, and celebrates your birthday, New Year's, and other occasions. The Nintendo DS version lets you visit the towns of other people who own a copy of the game, and hang out with their characters. I've never got round to posting my thoughts, but suffice to say I love it, as does Gamespot. Check out some gameplay, too.

Nintendogs (Nintendo DS)
Basically a puppy simulator, Nintendogs lets you get your hands on up to three virtual puppies, of a large variety of possible breeds, and care for them, train them, and play with them. It makes use of the DS microphone and touchpad - you can call your dogs by name to make them walk over to the screen, rub the touchscreen to scratch and pet them, provide them with food and toys, and take them for walks. They can be trained to do tricks on voice command, entered in competitions, and when you have more than one puppy they'll play with each other and compete over toys. It's ultimately a little shallow on the "game" side of things but if you've ever enjoyed a Tamagotchi or just like dogs it's probably right up your alley. Don't worry - your dogs never get sick or die! You can also check out a Gamespot review or some hilarious gameplay footage.

Puzzle Pirates (PC)
Okay, I actually haven't played this one myself, but I hear good things. It's an online game where you play a pirate, in a world filled with other pirates (who are all played by other players). Pretty much every task in the world, from repairing a ship to cooking up food, is represented by a classic puzzle game in the tradition of Tetris, Bejeweled, Atomica or suchlike. It's apparently a load of swashbuckling fun. Check out the official website, the Gamespot review, or some (silent) footage.

There's a bunch more but this post is getting kind of long. What, you say, no XBox or XBox 360 games? Sorry, you're kind of not their target market. Plus, I don't own those systems and tend to ignore a lot of what comes out for them. In final recommendations I'd just add that Dance Dance Revolution is of course excellent but nearly impossible to get hold of in Australia; your options are pretty much just the inferior Dancing Stage series, which feature significantly less interesting song lists. If you don't mind a game based largely around surgery then Trauma Center for the Nintendo DS might be worth a look, which sees you as a surgeon. Brain Training is another DS title which combines a "mental fitness" regimine of puzzles and tests with an impressively large library of sudoku problems. And Nintendo's new console the strangely named Wii will ship with a title called Wii Sports which sees you playing tennis, ten-pin bowling, golf and other games using a motion sensitive controller, where you make the physical actions of bowling or golfing with your hands to cause the appropriate action on screen.

Hope some of these tickle your interest, and keep reading The Dust Forms Words for more news about interesting titles for all gaming systems!

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Freebird on Expert

To disguise my complete lack of content over the last few days, I present to you the following video of some guy's 4-star run on Guitar Hero 2's "Freebird" (as made famous by Lynyrd Skynyrd), on Expert difficulty.

If you're not familiar with the track, stick with it, and watch what happens after the final lyric "and this bird you cannot change". It makes my fingers bleed just watching. Some believe that this may just be the hardest 9 minutes and 41 seconds of gaming ever created.

They'd be wrong of course, because they've clearly never seen this. Played, er, three and a bit times.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Animal Crossing: The Movie

Thanks to The Angriest:

Only in Japan.

Also, that damned raccoon DOES have all the gold tools! I knew the little bastard was holding out on me! Catch one of every fish my shiny metal ass! Grrr....

Friday, November 24, 2006

The Death of the Board Game, Part 2

My post The Death of the Board Game from last week has raised a fair bit of commentary and attention, so I thought I'd go back and flesh it out a little more.

The hypothesis I put was that:
  • (a) board games are already a highly marginalised area of the gaming world
  • (b) that a large part of the traditional market of board games has been taken over by video games
  • (c) that those who still play board games rather than video games do so because they are (i) social, (ii) tactile, (iii) less threatening than video games, and (iv) require no console or system buy-in
  • (d) that video games are likely to overcome all four of those obstacles within the next seven years.

To support point (d), I provided the following points:

  • (i) Many people currently do play video games in the physical proximity of others; this will only become more common as gaming devices become smaller, cheaper, and more portable. In any case, audio and videoconferencing hardware and software is becoming cheaper, more reliable and more effective.
  • (ii) A variety of innovations including the Nintendo DS, Nintendo Wii, and force-feedback touchscreens are continuing to make gaming a more tactile and physical experience.
  • (iii) As videogaming moves into the mainstream, you can expect that within 7 years over 90% of people will be engaged in a game-like digital space at least once a fortnight. Whether this be a traditional videogame, an avatar-enabled multi-user desktop, or a chess game via mobile phone, gaming will be something that a majority of people are familiar with. Also, design of both software and hardware will continue to improve and lower the entry barrier to game spaces for the casual user.
  • (iv) Convergence will likely mean that you will buy a gaming device in the next seven years without meaning to. This is likely to be either a mobile phone/gaming system, a media disc player/gaming system, a portable music player/gaming system, or a pocket PC/organiser/gaming system. It's likely that within seven years the number of people who own a gaming system will be comparable to mobile phone ownership.

All this seems fairly logical to me. It's touched nerves with a lot of people, though, who (rightly) feel that all this in some way threatens their beloved hobby. I'm one of them. I'm a board gamer. I don't want to stop. But I will.

The arguments put by the naysayers amount to the following:

  • (a) No matter what market share video games gain, there will always be some people still playing board games.
  • (b) No video gaming system can replace the social and tactile elements of board games, no matter how advanced.
  • (c) Video games are just inherently less flexible than board games.

All these are true to some extent. But I think the premise is faulty. The people making these arguments are suggesting that as long as they are correct to any extent, the board game will survive. And that's just not the case. There's an extinction threshold.

The board game, as you know it, in the form of an illustrated box containing a heavy card board, printed cards, and manufactured pieces, just cannot survive. To make a game on this level takes money. It takes money to print and manufacture, to advertise, and to stock in stores. It requires stores which are willing to stock it. All of this only turns a profit in a market where there is a certain threshold of consumer interest. And from everything I understand about the market, that threshold is only barely there at the moment.

If videogames continue to advance and capture even another 25% of the board game market, it's going to make it very hard on gaming companies to keep publishing their products. And believe me, that 25% will happen, and it's a conservatie estimate. It's not a 25% that's going to come out of the Settlers of Catan end of the market, it's a 25% that's going to come out from the market of Monopoly and Connect 4 and Guess Who?. It's a 25% that represents a new generation of parents who are comfortable playing video games with their children. It's a 25% that sees traditional family activities moving into digital spaces.

And these games are the bread and butter of boardgaming. They're the games that teach children to like board games; those children then grow up and become the purchasers of Settlers of Catan or Carcassonne. Digital gaming over the next seven years is going to erode that entry level platform, and that's really what's going to move the gamer threshold into the unprofitable area.

On the point of whether videogaming can replace the tactile elements of boardgaming, I honestly don't see why not, but let's revisit that point when everyone involved has had the chance to try out the Wii and maybe some force feedback technology.

There's no doubt that board gaming is a social activity. And I'm sure that everyone who board games can relate to the hassle of trying to round up four to six people for a decent game. It's hard. It's likely that in your mind you have a subset of your acquaintances marked "people who are up for a good board game". If you're lucky, you have a good six or seven people in that folder.

Within seven years, those six or seven people will become two or three.

It's another extinction-level phenomenon. One of those people you know is going to spend less time with board games as a personal choice. One of those people will be video gaming more because that's what their partner, child, or close friend is doing. After that point, you'll lose another two because they just start getting sick of how hard it is to get people together for a game.

Gaming is about stories. You can't spend time with a gamer of any persuasion without hearing them tell a game story. If they're a roleplayer, they'll tell you about that one time when their halfling cleric was fighting a grey ooze. If they're a boardgamer, they'll tell you about that game of Diplomacy where they did this amazing thing playing as Germany. And if they're a video gamer, they'll have a story about what their night elf was up to last night.

Trust me, you're going to be hearing a lot more about that night elf. And if you want to be able to meaningfully interact, you're going to want to have a night elf too.

I'm not talking just the hardcore gamers here. Within the next two years, you're going to have a conversation at work about video games. Within three years, a digital game-like space will be a regular topic of chat at your work environment. Within four years, if you're not gaming you'll be missing pop culture references in your favourite shows.

They're going to leave you behind.

Lastly, there's the issue of whether video games are inherently less flexible than board games. And we're talking here about the ability to use house rules, to cheat, to cut the new player a break, to take a handicap, and so forth. And - well, video games are less flexible. They can only do the things the programmers thought fit to include. But they don't have to be as flexible to squeeze board games out. They only have to be close enough.

Sure, there'll probably always be a couple of tiny niche markets for board games which are either (a) Cheapass Games affairs where you make most of the pieces yourself, or (b) luxury collector's pieces at insane prices. But for board games to continue being viable as well-produced, affordable, tactile, family experiences, there needs to be a certain number of people willing to buy them. And within seven years, that number just won't be there.

You can count on it.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Thursday Movies - December

We'll, we're almost at the end of the November program for Thursday movies, and there's been mixed success. Thanks to the big group who came to see The Prestige, the two or three who checked out The Wrong Man, and the just me who saw The Descent (you missed out!).

If you're interested, here's the schedule for the next month. As always, always Thursday nights, always Hoyts Belconnen, always $11, and always the closest session to 6.30.

November 30 - A Scanner Darkly
Richard Linklater's rotoscoped adaptation of Phil Dick's sci-fi drug odyssey. Starring Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Robert Downey Jr and Woody Harrelson.
December 7 - Casino Royale
A new James Bond, a new more gritty take on the franchise, but plenty of the old huge explosions, fast cars, and loose women. Stars Daniel Craig and Judi Dench.
December 14 - Eragon
A putrid-looking high fantasy tale of swords and dragons that fancies itself the next Lord of the Rings. Let's all go along and have a good laugh. Stars Jeremy Irons, obviously not yet tired of wading through chainmail-bikini muck.

On the 20th I'll be off to Perth, so movies are then postponed until January, but if you're interested in my picks for the intervening weeks, I'd recommend:

December 21 - Flushed Away
Aardman (creators of Wallace and Grommit) present their take on the town mouse and the country mouse via 3D animated feature. The only talking animal movie this holiday season that doesn't look like it will make me want to kill children.
December 26 - The Queen
Helen Mirren stars in a look into the British Royal Family in the wake of Princess Diana's death. Significantly better than the off-kilter premise might sound.
January 4 - The Return
For the first week in January we have Leonardo DiCaprio doing more "serious acting" in Blood Diamond, or Sylvester Stallone milking a dead cow with Rocky Balboa, but honestly I'd rather just go with this middle-of-the-road supernatural horror title starring Sarah Michelle Gellar.

Hit me up for more details closer to the dates.

The Descent

I saw The Descent tonight, and I highly recommend it to everyone. It's easily the best horror movie of the year (or of last year, if you're not Australian), and the only real problem with the film is that some may find the ending unsatisfying.

The film follows six women on a caving trip in the Appalachian mountains. Among the women are Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), whose husband and child were killed a year ago in a car accident, and her friend Juno (Natalie Mendoza).

Things begin going wrong when a cave-in collapses a tunnel behind them, and Juno reveals she has deceptively brought them to an unexplored cave system. Soon the six are suffering from injuries, running out of equipment, and beginning to hallucinate. That's when they discover that they're not alone in the cave system - that something deadly lived down here long before they arrived. The real horror begins, though, when they find that whatever's down in the caves is far less frightening than what the women brought along with them.

It's a strong film, mixing a Hollywood sensibility for horror with a British feel for reality and for character. It's frequently derivative of genre classics such as The Shining and Aliens and yet at the same time it seems determined to break as many horror conventions as it can manage.

It's frequently frightening, and it achieves this not with fake-outs and sudden surprises, but with an honestly disturbing underpinning. I found the early parts of movie featuring the women crawling through narrow caves uncomfortable to watch (as an admitted cave-claustrophobe myself) and the scene involving the setting of a splintered bone is similarly like to cause averted eyes.

This is a movie filled with strong female characters. Despite being a horror movie about six women in an extreme situation, the film never resorts to gratuitous nudity, convenient bisexuality, or any use of stereotypes. The characters are strong, intelligent, resourceful people in a genuinely terrifying situation. Protagonists Sarah and Juno in particular are two of the most gripping female characters I've encountered in the last year of film. Juno comes off very much like Vin Diesel in Pitch Black, only better, while Shauna Macdonald as Sarah manages to carry much of a very offbeat ending solely on the strength of her presence and acting.

The direction and cinematography are both praiseworthy, though not world-shattering. The film's visual style uses stark, stylised shots that still retain a very storyboarded look. It makes use of the uncommon lighting angles and colours inherent in a caving expedition to turn very simple sets and props into incredible artistic achievements. Top-notch costuming and makeup do a great deal of the film's characterisation work, and this is one of the few films where you're really likely to notice these elements carrying the production.

The film's sound design is understated but effective. You'll rarely have cause to notice the soundtrack or the effects, but they complement and support the action perfectly. You won't walk away wanting a copy of the soundtrack, but it would certainly be a poorer film without some of the tense music used.

This is a film which will alternately fill and defy your expectations - one moment you'll be chafing at the film's constant homages to its predecessors, and the next a plot twist will have you whispering in amazement to the person next to you. If you're a horror fan, you definitely need to see this film, and if you're a less dedicated horror watcher, there's definitely worse things you could spend your ticket money on.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

PSOne Games for PSP require PS3

That's a lot of uses of "PS" in the post-title. Huh.

Anyway, some time ago Sony promised us we'd be able to download and play original Playstation games on the PSP. The word is now in that (as I feared) the games can't be downloaded direct to the PSP - you have to obtain them through the Playstation 3 online service.

That's right, you have to own a Playstation 3 AND a PSP to download and play the games. Oh, and they could cost anywhere from $10 AUD to $30 AUD, depending on how much Sony feels like ripping us off. Plus, if you don't already have a memory stick for the PSP that holds at least 600 meg, you'll need to get one of those too.

If I wasn't enjoying the PSP port of Tales of Eternia so much right now I'd be tempted to call it a useless piece-of-#$!& doorstop. Dagnabbit.

Full story here via Gamespot.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Capcom Classics Collection Remixed Post-Mortem

I picked up the PSP Capcom Classics Collection Remixed for two reasons. One, because I understood that David Sirlin had had a hand in it and was curious to see the results, and two, because I was really hanging out for some portable shoot-em-up action. It turned out to be an almost perfect anthology title, ruined by two nearly unforgiveable flaws.

This is a collection of Capcom's 80s and early 90s arcade hits. Note "arcade" - these are all the cabinet versions, not the console ports. You get 1941, Avengers, Bionic Commando, Black Tiger, Block Block, Captain Commando, Final Fight, Forgotten Worlds, Last Duel, Legendary Wings, Magic Sword, Mega Twins, Quiz & Dragons, Section Z, Side Arms, The Speed Rumbler, Street Fighter, Strider, Three Wonders, and Varth.

As best I can tell, they're all fairly accurate ports of the originals. The exception is the boardgame-esque trivia title Quiz & Dragons, which has had its mid 80s list of questions replaced with a new set more appropriate to the 21st century. (It's an improvement, trust me.)

There's bound to be some nostalgia in there for just about anyone who's over 20. The personal favourite for me is the short but charming Three Wonders, or possibly top-scrolling shoot-em-up Varth. Old-school brawler Final Fight is also a gem (as is any game featuring Metro City mayor Mike Haggar).

Each game comes with a couple of pages of in-game text describing the game and its history. You can also unlock some very relevant tips, cabinet and concept art, and music for each game by achieving some fairly easy in-game goals. There's also the option to play each game in a variety of visual modes, including a widescreen version to fit the PSP screen, a 90-degree rotated mode where you turn the PSP sideways to replicate an original cabinet display, and a remix mode which presents the original game in its original aspect ratio in the center of the screen, except with the HUD info shuffled off to the right.

Theoretically, the game supports multiplayer, and supports it quite well. Anyone running the game near you can tag in mid-game, exactly like at an arcade cabinet, and tag out just as easily when their "credits" run out. (The games all feature unlimited continues, by the way.) This would be an absolutely fantastic way to play these games, except that there's no download play - each player needs their own copy of the game.

I don't know about you, but it's a very rare occasion when I find another person who owns a PSP and even one of the same A-list games that I do I think the only non-download play I've ever got up and running has been Liberty City Stories. The chances of encountering another player who owns this game outside of some kind of Capcom fan convention I'd have to rate at zero to none.

I don't know whether the lack of a download option was a technical constraint or not, but I can't imagine that these games are too big to download individually via wi-fi. It just seems like a horrible oversight to not let you serve the game out from a single PSP.

The other crippling flaw with Capcom Classics Collection Remixed is the lack of any form of save game. You can't save your progress inside any of the games, which means if you want to finish one, you have to do it in a single sitting, just like in ye olde-timey arcade. I can't even begin to talk about how hideously inappropriate that is in the age of prolific arcade emulators like MAME, let alone how out of place it is on a portable system. Games in this collection can take anywhere up to four or five hours to get through (I say after finally clocking Quiz & Dragons) and I absolutely cannot believe that no one thought that was a problem.

Anyway, if you absolutely must own these games in a legal portable format, then Capcom Classics Collection Remixed is definitely your best bet. It'll work even better if you can con a friend into doing the same thing. But if you're just as happy to play them at home, then stick with emulators, because you'll get a better experience out of it.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Do They Know It's Christmas In The Barrens?

My World of Warcraft guild and I are running something of a charity drive. Well, actually, it's less of a charity drive and more of a caper. You should definitely get involved. You'll find the full details at the caper's newly established blog, Do They Know It's Christmas In The Barrens?

Please, give generously this holiday season.

Guitar Hero 2 Post-Mortem

Guitar Hero 2 is a lot of fun, and features some excellent design aspects, but the extreme difficulty and song selection may exclude some new players.

Guitar Hero 2 largely follows the same format as the original game. In fact, if you've played the first you'll be able to jump right in and barely notice the changes. Coloured notes move down the screen towards you, in time with a musical track, and you have to hold the matching fret buttons on a novelty guitar controller and strum at the appropriate time. There's a whammy bar to make those long notes interesting, and you can tilt the guitar upright to deploy "star power" and start the audience cheering and clapping along.

If you've bought both this game and the original, you'll end up with two guitars, so it's a good thing that Guitar Hero 2 includes some new multiplayer modes. "Face Off" makes a return from the original game, which sees each song divided up between the two players, with Player 1 taking a riff, then Player 2, and so forth, with both players joining in on the chorus and ending. There's also "Pro Face Off", which lets both players play the entire song at the same time.

The most interesting new mode, though, is "Co-operative". Here, one player plays the song's lead guitar track in its entirety, while the other player takes the rhythmn or bass track (depending on the song). Players share a single score, star power meter, and rock meter. The effectiveness of this mode really varies from song to song - Killing In The Name Of and John The Fisherman, for example, have killer basslines, where you can really tell if your bass player screws up. On some others, though, the lead guitarist may as well be playing alone, as you can barely hear the other player's efforts. When it works, though, it's a lot of fun.

The sound balance as a whole throughout the game is fairly sub-par. The lead guitar is nice and loud, but the vocals are often barely audible, the rythmn and bass lines vary in quality, and the crowd cheers and special effects are often loud enough to drown out the drum track and leave you struggling to find the beat. You can mess with the audio settings to some extent, but you can't isolate the guitar tracks individually or separate the vocals from the rest of the band, so it's hard to get a satsifactory result.

The track listing isn't quite as great as the first time around either. Guitar Hero 2 has an unremitting focus on metal and hard rock. Despite the inclusion of songs like Rock This City and Heart Shaped Box, the sequel just doesn't have the same generation-spanning appeal as the original game. Metal fans will likely love it, but those who enjoyed the first game for tracks like More Than A Feeling or Killer Queen might feel a little left out.

It also doesn't help that most of the songs are covers, and some of those covers are outright appalling. Killing In The Name Of, You Really Got Me and Misirlou are all particularly nasty, bearing little if any resemblance to the versions you know and love. On the other hand, Primus apparently provided the gold masters of John The Fisherman, so you can hear that one in whatever original glory it can be said to possess.

The bonus songs are great, though. Guitar Hero 2 follows the tradition of its predecessor by including a bunch of indie and lesser known artists as optional extras, including some fantastic tracks like Buckethead's Jordan. Plus you can play Thunderhorse by Dethklok from the Adult Swim cartoon Metalocalypse, and the extended version of Homestar Runner's Trogdor.

Probably the most controversial aspect of Guitar Hero 2 is the difficulty. It should be said straight up that Guitar Hero 2 has one of the best tutorial schemes ever used in a game. It's short and to the point. I've seen maybe a half dozen people use it now, and it does a fantastic job of not only teaching you the basics but also building your confidence and inducting you into the atmosphere of the game. The tutorials are followed up by supplementary tips on loading screens prompting players to try out techniques they may not have attempted before, or explaining the game mechanics in more depths.

All that teaching will go to good use, because Guitar Hero 2 is vastly more difficult than its predecessor. Easy mode is still fairly easy, and works fine as a "party" difficulty. Medium, though, is more akin to the original game's Hard mode, and Hard is exponentially harder again, throwing five frets, three-note chords, and long complicated rhythm passages at you until you want to cry. It's likely that a lot of players will just hit a brick wall at the end of Medium and not be able to progress further, which is more than a little disappointing.

For all the difficulty, when you do manage to make the skill jumps necessary to conquer previously impossible songs, it's incredibly satisfying. The game doesn't need to reward you - the mere consciousness of the insane fingering you just pulled off is deeply motivating. Very few games have ever motivated me as much to keep improving merely for the sense of mastering the skills.

There's a practice mode this time around, that lets you slow down songs to learn the fingering, or play (for example) just the chorus, or just the solo. I haven't actually found it very useful - I prefer to just keep repeating the song - but I'm sure some people will get a lot out of it.

Guitar Hero 2 still holds up well as a party game. The difficulty and song selection mean it's less suitable for non-gamers than the original, but on the other hand the wider variety of multiplayer modes compensate.

Thanks to Sim for coming down from Sydney for a marathon two-day Guitar Hero session. It turns out she's a fiend on a bass guitar and I wouldn't have been able to unlock all the extra bass guitars without her.

Friday, November 17, 2006

World of Warcraft CCG

For those who were remotely curious about the World of Warcraft collectible card game, here's the rundown:

1) It's pretty much just Upper Deck's putrid Versus system wrapped up in a new box. That is to say, Magic: The Gathering with none of the charm and frenetic pace.

2) The "loot cards" that you get in each pack are each redeemable for 100 loot points. Loot points can be spent to get "a range of items". In practice this translates to (a) desktop wallpaper, (b) screensavers, (c) sleeves for your card deck, (d) tabards for your WoW character, and (e) a trinket that lets your WoW character turn into an ogre at will. Tabards cost 2,000 points (20 booster packs of the CCG). The ogre trinket costs 25,000 points (250 booster packs). So, in short, don't get excited about the loot

3) The one cool thing about the game is the multiplayer. They're releasing "raid decks" soon, where basically (as I understand it) one player runs this overpowered pre-made raid deck, and a bunch of other players team up to take them down. Sounds interesting, but not worth buying into the game for.

Short review: the World of Warcraft card game isn't worth your time, even if you're a WoW fan. Avoid as though it were made of zombies.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Wanted: Guitar Hero Australia

While I'm on the subject of Guitar Hero II, is anyone else secretly wishing they'd release a Guitar Hero Australia? Think of the possibilities: Powderfinger, Jebediah, Something for Kate, Magic Dirt, Jimmy Barnes, Icehouse, Hunters and Collectors, maybe some Silverchair... the list goes on.

It doesn't help that the tune-up noise in Guitar Hero II that plays when you change menus sounds an awful lot like the start of Holy Grail.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Guitar Hero II - First Impressions

Guitar Hero II came out in Australia today, and I have my copy. It comes complete with new guitar, which I have obligingly adorned with a zombie teddybear sticker from one of the large selection of decals provided with the game.

The first thing that jumps out at you is that it's hard. In the original game, I could beat No One Knows on Expert, and have a pretty good stab at Bark at the Moon on Hard. In Guitar Hero II I'm being severely challenged by the game's third song (Surrender) on the default difficulty. It's insane.

Also, the cover artists blow. A bunch of songs that should be instant classics are butchered by some horrible cover vocals. I think the developers realised this, too, because the default audio settings have the vocals turned way down so you can hardly hear them. That's not too big a fault, because after all, the guitar's the star here, but if you're a fan of tracks like You Really Got Me or Who Was In My Room Last Night then you'll be ready to use your shiny new guitar to bludgeon someone to death.

That aside, it's great. Moments after firing up a rendition of Mother you'll be strutting around and jamming the whammy bar like there's no tomorrow. It's really a blast.

I haven't had a chance to try the multiplayer yet, but having bought both games I now have two guitars, so some axe-grinding showdowns are in store for the future.

Also, in case you haven't been exposed to the interblog for the last month and have thus been coccooned from news like some kind of contagious leper-baby, the game features both Deathklok and Trogdor.

Because the Trogdor comes in the NI-IGHT!

The Death of the Board Game

I have a copy of the Warcraft board game. It's a fairly decent game, certainly not one of the worst I've ever purchased. It's got attractively designed pieces, an understandable instruction manual, and you can get into a game without too much set-up. It does a fantastic job of capturing the original computer game's dynamic of base building, resource management, and strategic troop deployment.

It does such a good job, in fact, that you'll find yourself wishing you were just playing the original game.

People still play board games. A fairly large number of people. And there are some fantastic board games still being made. My friends and I still get a bunch of fun out of Betrayal at House on the Hill even on the twentieth or thirtieth game of the thing.

But to some extent computer gaming has made board gaming redundant. It's now possible to engage in a multiplayer strategic game over the internet. Better still, in a computer game there's no set-up, there's no packing away to be done when it's over, and all the dice rolling and inconvenient maths is done for you. Plus there's sound, graphics, and a potentially much faster pace.

Are the reasons people still play board games anything more than a lacuna of technology's advance? Will there still be a market in a future where (1) everyone owns a handheld gaming device (possibly incorporating a mobile phone), (2) everyone is comfortable using gaming technology, and (3) such devices are capable of reliably networking with other devices globally or locally from any location?

I asked Steve Jackson of Steve Jackson Games this question when I met him at Conflux this year; his reply was that he felt there'd always be a place for social, tactile gaming. As far as social gaming, I don't disagree. I think people will want to bring their gaming devices together in one place even when they could play the same game from remote locations. It already happens in the culture of LAN parties, and I think it would happen more often if top-end gaming rigs were inherently more portable.

But tactile gaming? It's an attraction to physically hold the pieces, but when it's the last and only attraction that board games still have, I don't know that it'll be enough.

Given current trends in the design of both handhelds and mobile phones, it seems likely that within five years a majority of the western world will own a gaming device capable of playing wirelessly networked games. And within seven years, there will be multiplayer high-quality multiplayer games available for that platform which reach a casual mainstream audience.

And at that point, I think we'll be witnessing the death of the board game.

Monday, November 13, 2006

The Endless Legions

I hate games where enemies endlessly respawn.

Well, okay, that's a lie. In the context of an RPG it's not only acceptable, it's desirable. If the enemies don't respawn, then where will you harvest your precious, precious XP?

And in survival horror games, used intelligently and in moderation, it puts a little bite of desperation into the proceedings, and forces the player to keep moving, instead of just vegetating in their comfort zone.

But why in the holy name of Miyamoto would you include unstoppable rampaging respawning armies in what is allegedly an all-ages exploration-based platformer? And I'm talking here, of course, about Lego Star Wars II.

I've got a post mortem of this game coming. Short version: it's great, but it bollockses up everything that was clever about the first one. High on my list of criticisms will be the fact that almost every screen of the damn game, and particularly the early levels, is filled with an endless onslaught of stormtroopers. Forget exploration, puzzle solving, and free-roaming goodness - you'll be too bogged down clearing white-helmeted nazis off your back every three seconds to enjoy any of those things. It's a mark of shame that the game only really becomes fun once you've unlocked the invincibility power-up.

Can I just put a fervent plea out there, to all those game designers who might be reading? Please, please don't add unlimited supplies of enemies to your game unless you have a really, really good reason for it. There's no shame in your game being too easy. There is shame in your game being stupidly annoying.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

In Space No One Can Hear You Whine

Big news.

1) CCP, creator of the MMOG Eve Online, have bought out pen-and-paper RPG maker White Wolf.

2) CCP have announced a forthcoming MMOG based on White Wolf's World of Darkness line of RPGs.

World of Darkness is the extremely successful collection of RPG titles which includes Vampire: The Masquerade and Werewolf: The Apocalypse. Known for their angst-ridden world setting and the endless infighting between the game's supernatural factions, they're one of the few systems or settings to ever give Dungeons & Dragons / D20 a run for its money.

I'd just like to say that I've had experience with the Camarilla, the international White Wolf live-play society, and as much as I loved World of Darkness in its time, the thought of playing a game simultaneously in a social setting with thousands of its fans fills me with nothing but the deepest terror and disgust.

Which is to say, if CCP can make something half as good as Eve Online, this game has the potential to be really, really big

Oh, and White Wolf will be doing an Eve Online collectible card game. Because, after all, up to date they've never produced anything but gold in the card gaming realm. (That's sarcasm folks. Play Jihad aka The Eternal Struggle. No, really, play it.)

Full story via Gamasutra here.


I just had the pleasure of seeing the first four episodes of Torchwood, the new Doctor Who spin-off. It sees Captain Jack Harkness heading up the Cardiff branch of the Torchwood Institute, an extra-governmental agency charged with neutralising alien threats and collecting and investigating alien technology.

The first four episodes are all extremely strong. The show's main danger was coming off as a cheap knockoff of Doctor Who, Angel, The X-Files, or all three at once, and it avoids this trap with ease, immediately demonstrating a strong and unique identity.

As anyone who saw Captain Jack's run on Who might expect, the show's got an in-your-face sexual vibe, which is something that's certainly new to the realm of TV sci-fi. The sexuality of both of the leads are questioned within the first two episodes - are they straight or not? - to which Harkness replies, "You 21st century folks and your categories!"

The lead characters of Jack (John Barrowman) and Gwen (Eve Myles) regularly steal the show, but they're backed by a great supporting cast. The show is well written and well directed, and moves from horror to romance to mystery with grace and aplomb. It's an inescapably British show, but packed with a Hollywood sense of action and timing.

In the realm of service to its parent show, it toes the line well. The first episode has an oblique reference to the TARDIS and the Doctor; continuity from the new Doctor Who is maintained, particularly with regards to the events of The Christmas Invasion and Doomsday, and episode four features a no-holds-barred Cyberman. And yet the theme and tone of the show are a thousand miles from that of Who, and you could happily jump in without having the slightest clue what a Time Lord is.

This isn't your typical sci-fi, and it's not going to be for everyone. But any weaknesses it has are more in the audience than in the show, and it's definitely worth a look to make your mind up for yourself.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

WoW and Median Gamer Theory

Kill Ten Rats, which has been a bit light & fluffy for the past couple of months, has apparently been saving up all its energies for two excellent articles about why World of Warcraft is so successful.

"After the first two hot dog stands are on the beach, the best place for the next one is…actually, still next to the other two. Now you get that ~49% of the beach, the guy on the far side gets ~50%, and the poor schmuck stuck between you gets virtually no one unless there is a line. This explains why, despite EQ and its many clones, WoW and EQ2 set up in a very similar space. Guess where Vanguard and Crusade are aiming for? Is City of Heroes essentially EQ in tights? We have also seen EQ in space, and let’s not even talk about the Korean MMO market."
The articles are called Median Gamer Theory and Network Effects, both by Zubon, and are worth five minutes of your time if you're remotely interested in MMOGs.

Friday, November 10, 2006

The Citizen Kane of Games

"Where is the Citizen Kane of games?"

Run around the interblog long enough and you're bound to run into the old much-vexed question of "are games art?" And dig deep enough in that topic and you'll find someone asking, "Where is the Citizen Kane of games?"

By this they mean, where is the game that shows us that the medium of games can be used to produce serious work.

Which is, I think, misunderstanding the importance of Citizen Kane.

Citizen Kane is, essentially, a 1941 melodrama about an unhappy rich man. Produced and co-written by Orson Welles, and starring Welles in the title role, it is a post-mortem exploration of the life and times of eccentric billionnaire Charles Foster Kane, and a search for the meaning of his final utterance - "Rosebud".

There is nothing particularly unique about Citizen Kane's plot, acting, theme, or soundtrack. The power of Citizen Kane lies in its mastery of cinematographic technique. In Citizen Kane, Welles takes the technical tools of film-making - lighting, framing, editing, angle - and treats them not merely as a way to record a story, but as part of the story themselves. They are not the limits of the medium - they are the medium.

Over the course of Citizen Kane, Welles makes use of jump cuts, extreme low angles, extremes of light and shadow, deep focus, in-camera effects, and montages, as well as pushing makeup and special effects past what had previously been done. Never had this combination of techniques been used together in one movie, and never had they been used to produce such powerful results.

So where is the Citizen Kane of games? And how will we know it when we see it?

We may not even recognise it.

The person who makes the Citizen Kane of games will be someone with a firm grasp of the technical aspects of game design, both as it relates to the hardware and software aspects, and to the art of game design itself. He or she will know not only a wide range of game mechanics, but also have a keen appreciation for what kind of play they promote, and how they influence the player.

For example, they'll know how to work their reward schedules. They'll understand the relative strengths and weaknesses of paidic and ludic gameplay. They'll be able to deliver a social experience as easily as a horrific one, and they'll know how to balance gameplay conventions against the desire for immersion.

The Citizen Kane of games will not use all the rules all the time. It will be context sensitive, and use gameplay to promote mood, atmosphere, plot, and characterisation. It may extend beyond the limits of the software or it may be tightly focused and self-contained. It's possible it will be entirely unconcerned with whether or not it's "fun", but will probably end up being fun anyway.

The Blogs of the Round Table this month is on the topic of "the grammar of games". This left me a little cold to begin with - it's something that Chris over at Only A Game talks about a lot, but it's a somewhat academic subject, and I've never been really convinced that it's the worth the time it takes to think about. What's a "grammar of games"? Grammar's a concept of language; games are not language, in as much language is a symbolic code, not a medium. The grammar of games is the syntax of Java or of C++. It's like talking about the "taste of theatre" or the "Picasso of punk rock".

It's a little like talking about the Citizen Kane of games.

But if you use a little philosophical licence, and allow as to how "the grammar of games" may be a way of saying "the art and science of using games as a medium of communication", then maybe it's possible to work with the topic a little.

That's where Citizen Kane was genius - the combination and mastery of the art and science of using film as a medium of communication. Every aspect of every shot was chosen, was planned, was intended, and was used to speak to, inform, and manipulate the audience. An extreme low-angle doesn't just look kind of cool - it denotes the subject both as a person of subjective power, and at the same time alienates that subject. Important parts of the frame don't just fall on the one-third lines by chance - they go there because that's where the eye instinctively looks first. The use of special effects to enhance the perceived size of areas and crowds isn't just clever - it conveys by association a sense of grandeur and epicness to the entire proceedings.

Creating the Citizen Kane of games will be about doing things not just because you can, or because it's new, or because it will look good. It will be about making conscious technical and stylistic decisions with the aim of producing a specific describable effect, and about understanding your art to the point that such decisions can be reduced to the level of scientific cause and effect - I use X gameplay, and so the player has Y response.

And we're still a long way off from that. We're still in an industry that doesn't always distinguish between technical excellence and artistic excellence. We're still in a place where the difference between good gameplay and bad gameplay is not always well understood. We're still seeing relatively few games that can be said to be the artistic product of a single person's vision.

Are people trying? Yes. For all its narrative and gameplay faults, 2003's Fahrenheit from Quantic Dream and director David Cage was a fantastic attempt to move in this direction, with context sensitive gameplay, an emphasis on the merger of gameplay and storytelling, and a cohesive mood and theme to the entire proceedings. I'm really hoping their forthcoming PS3 title Heavy Rain keeps up this tradition.

Likewise the much more successful God of War did a great job of putting a AAA budget to work, again making use of context sensitive commands to broaden the scope of gameplay, and utilising specific sequences to emphasise the emotional content of the narrative.

But neither one is the Citizen Kane of games.

They're more like the Birth of a Nation of games, except, y'know, without the racism.

Samurai Warriors 2 Post-Mortem

Samurai Warriors 2 for the PS2 continues Koei's franchise of Dynasty Warriors and Samurai Warriors games, and despite only marginal changes from the last edition, is probably the best game they've made yet.

The Dynasty Warriors series put the player in the role of a legendary warrior in the era of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and charged them with cutting a swathe across sprawling 3D battlefields packed with literally thousands of enemy soldiers. The Samurai Warriors series transposes this premise to feudal Japan. Samurai Warriors 2 loosely follows Japanese history from the rise of Nobunaga Oda through to the assumption of power by Ieyasu Tokugawa.

The game has some 26 playable characters, ranging from Nobunaga and Ieyasu through to master swordsman Musashi Miyamoto and ninja Hanzo Hattori. Each of these characters is significantly more... extreme... than history might indicate. Nobunaga, for example, apparently commands all manner of demonic magics. Kotaro Fuma can throw fireballs. Ieyasu Tokugawa carries an honest-to-god cannon around the battlefield, which seems to ignore all rules of recoil and reload times.

When you take these characters to the battlefield, you'll basically be turned loose on a vast army and left more or less free to decimate them as you see fit. Generally, you'll have an army of your own backing you up, with a general at the head who you have to protect or risk losing the battle. As you wander around slaughtering your foe, you'll hear the chatter of generals on both sides of the battle discussing their changing fortunes, ordering ambushes, taunting their rivals, and announcing charges and counter-charges. Generally, you'll want to pay attention to this chatter, as not only do you have the opportunity to become involved in their schemes by co-ordinating or thwarting their stragems, but it is in some cases fairly vital. You'll need to capture fortresses, defend cannon emplacements, prevent assassinations, escort spies, and achieve a whole bunch of other objectives.

These in-battle objectives have been tightened up a lot from previous games in the series. Firstly, they're greater in both number and variety than previously. There's usually at least two things you can be doing at any given time, which is great for two-player games as the second player will always have something meaningful to do. Secondly, they're more important. Where previously you could largely ignore the general chatter and just kill stuff, now you'll generally have to finish at least a couple of sub-goals in order to win a battle. This is a change for the better, as it lends each battle a distinctive character, breaks up the repetition, and gives the feeling that you're actually making strategic decisions which influence the course of the battle. And you're still largely free to do your own thing most of the time.

As you win battles, your character will level up in a variety of ways. This, too, is handled better than previous installments in the series. Firstly, levelling up is well matched to the progress of the plot, so you'll rarely need to repeat a level to gain XP - you can just play straight through. Your stats rise as you gain levels, which is a much better system than Dynasty Warriors, which saw you farming levels for rare stat-up items.

You'll also gain gold as you play, from defeating officers, accomplishing sub-goals, and just winning battles. Gold can be spent to buy new mounts, new bodyguards, upgrade your weapons, and most importantly to buy skills. Skills provide passive bonuses on the battlefield, including raising your basic stats, giving you increased effect from healing items, and strengthening your apocalyptic "True Musou" attack. Skills can also be randomly "stolen" from defeated enemy officers.

The game's Story Mode features a unique story for each character, detailing their place in Japanese history over five or six stages of battle. These are reasonably historically accurate, and you'll likely learn a fact or two as you play, although there's a decent amount of "what if" speculation for some of the minor characters or characters who died before achieving their dreams. Notably, there's been significant licence taken with the assassination of Nobunaga Oda.

There's also a Free Mode, letting you play any stage with any character, and a Survival Mode. Survival Mode challenges you to fight your way through 100 floors of a giant castle. Every five floors you have the opportunity to pick a mission, which will then play out over the next five floors. If you complete missions successfully, you earn bonus gold, and occasionally unlock new mounts, skills, or characters. It's a lot more fun than the Survival Modes of previous games in the franchise.

You can play Story Mode or Free mode co-operatively with a second player. Actually, the missions are so hectic you'll often feel like you need a second player just to stay in control of the fairly large battlefields. Two-player mode works in splitscreen, which involves some graphical compromises but is perfectly workable and a lot of fun. There's also a Monopoly-esque boardgame called Sugoroku which can be played with up to four players using a multi-tap. Sugoroku is fun, and worth a couple of tries, but is unlikely to hold your attention in the long term.

The main criticism levelled at the Dynasty and Samurai Warriors games is that they're repetitive, and that's an accusation fairly made. But, it could be said, Tetris is repetitive. It doesn't really matter that gameplay is repetitive when that gameplay is inherently entertaining. And, at least for me, going through battalions of soldiers like a hot knife through butter never gets old. No other game delivers an experience quite like Samurai Warriors, and it's an experience you'll either tire of in minutes, or be happy repeating for uncounted hours.

It's also true that Samurai Warriors 2 is effectively the same game as the original Samurai Warriors, and is very similar to pretty much all the Dynasty Warriors games. Like a sports franchise, Koei releases a new Warriors game every year with little more than a roster update and some new arenas. It may be the case that if you already have Samurai Warriors it's not worth your money to purchase the sequel. But on the other hand, Samurai Warriors 2 is a remarkably fun game, and for whatever reason the original Samurai Warriors was never released in Australia.

Graphically, Samurai Warriors looks good, but not great. The models are reasonably detailed, but some compromises have been made in order to depict the throngs of enemies that the game demands. The fog-of-war is still present and unfortunately close, but never really impinges on your awareness. The game overall looks about as good as Samurai Warriors or Dynasty Warriors 5. I'd love to see it on the XBox 360, as I can only assume the graphics are significantly better. Artistically, it's nothing special - less ugly than some of its ancestors, and sporting some great character design, but still plagued by some pretty bland battlefields and enemy troops.

The sound is similarly middle-of-the-road. Character voices are considerably better acted than the earlier games, but are still by no means particularly good. The best that can be said is that they're rarely irritating. The music combines traditional Japanese motifs with hard electric-guitar rock, and again is neither irritating nor memorable. The sound effects are probably the best part of the bag, with a great mix of screams, yells, horse hoofbeats, weapon swings, musket fires, and suchlike. They're still probably not going to win awards, though.

For my money, Samurai Warriors 2 is the best Warriors game yet. The level design is exemplary, with missions that are tight and focused without straight-jacketing the player. Levelling up is natural and free from the grind that plagued earlier versions. The character stories are strong, and the Japanese setting seems to suit the flavour of the game better than the Chinese one ever did. All in all, this is not only a must-have for existing fans of the series, but an ideal point to jump on board if you've never played a Warriors game before.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Sony's Dave Karraker vs Gamasutra

Sony's new senior director of corporate communications, Dave Karraker, is talking to Gamasutra. They really take a piece out of him, too, pretty much calling him a liar to his face a couple of times. It's worth reading for the following reasons:

(a) To count how many well-remembered games he name-checks in the opening paragraph.
(b) The admission that he was hired in part due to his strengths in "crisis communications".
(c) The first signs of a turnaround in the PS3, back to it being about gamers, not media consumers.
(d) He describes Ken Kutaragi's comments about the PS3 at TGS as "technically right", and as something that needs to be "interpreted".

All nice to hear. If he's not quite Sony's answer to the Regginator, he's a step in the right direction, and probably something they could do with a lot more of. Which is all by way of warming you up for the bombshell - probably the most important news for Australians:
GS: I know that the PS3 is essentially region free – will the downloadable content also be available worldwide, or region specific?
DK: All of the online stores are region-specific, so that’ll dictate where you can download the games.
Which is to say, the PS3 online marketplace will be subject to the same Gestapo-like censorship, epic localisation delays and inane release decisions which plague our storefront retail market. So that's another thing to not look forward to. I guess my hopes of playing a legal copy of Chrono Cross or the original Parasite Eve have just been rudely dashed once again.

Back In Azeroth

Did I mention that I'm playing World of Warcraft again? I'm logging on when RL friends are on, and we're hoping to start a small guild down the track, so now's a great time to roll Horde on the underpopulated Oceanic server of Dath'Remar. My main's a troll priest called Skordi. If you know me in real life, or knew Ukulkos from Mortal Wombats on Khaz'goroth, or just read this blog, drop in and say hi some time.

But I'm not on anywhere near as much as I used to, because (a) I've done it all before, (b) addiction sucks, and (c) Marvel Ultimate Alliance calls to me in a sweet siren song.

Melbourne House Sells Out

Melbourne House got bought out by Krome Studios this week. I don't really know how I feel about that. On the one hand, Melbourne House were one of Australia's oldest development studios, and back in the early 80s they turned out some half-decent titles, including the text-adventure version of The Hobbit.

On the other hand, since at least the mid 90s, they've produced nothing but licensed C-grade crap. (Men In Black II: Alien Escape, anyone?)

Now they've been purchased by Brisbane based Krome Studios, whose crap is at least B-minus-grade. (Ty the Tasmanian Tiger.) Is this a good thing for Australian game development? Has Krome saved Melbourne House from a Gizmondo-like descent into embezzlement and car theft? Or are we witnessing yet another great Australian icon being brought down by the sting-rays of financial reality?

Full article here, via Gamespot.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Tori Amos - Fade To Red

In a quick nod to one of my other fan addictions that I don't blog much about, I'd just like to say that I'm extremely happy to have acquired a copy of Fade To Red - The Tori Amos Video Collection. It claims to contain all the Tori videoclips from 1992 to 2005, which is just a plain lie, as the following clip isn't on the DVD.

Tori Amos - Strange Little Girl - from the album "Strange Little Girls", which (awesome cover photography and Neil Gaiman quotes notwithstanding) I still think is the "bad album". For the record, Glory of the 80s also seems to be missing, but it looks like the rest of the clips have made it.

The Devil Wears Prada

The Devil Wears Prada isn't the sort of film I'd normally see, inasmuch as it's a female-oriented comedy-drama about fashion. The reason I did is largely because of the trailer.

Where most movies of this sort attempt to sell themselves as "oddball heartwarmers" with trailers composed of snippets of clever dialogue and goofy situations, The Devil Wears Prada took a different path. Its trailer comprised the entire first scene of the movie. I was so impressed by the honesty and respect for the audience shown by the trailer that I decided on the spot that I had to see the movie.

I'm glad I did. Anne Hathaway plays a talented but allegedly unglamorous student journalist looking to find work with a major news publication. To this end, she takes a job as an assistant to a venomous fashion editor (played by Meryl Streep) for the resume benefits the position will bring. She soon finds herself making unpleasant decisions and life changes, which eventually force her to choose between her personal life and her career.

It's a story that's been done to death, but The Devil Wears Prada executes it professionally and entertainingly. Once you swallow the film's initial assertion that it's possible for Anne Hathaway to look un-glamorous or overweight in any costume whatsoever, the film is well written, excellently performed, and never insults your intelligence.

Meryl Streep steals the show as the uncompromising Miranda Priestly, editor-in-chief of the fictitious Runway magazine, who a friend assures me is modeled on real life Vogue editor Anna Wintour. Yet despite the over-the-top nature of Streep's character, the film resolutely avoids making use of either caricature or stereotype. It also is reluctant to relinquish the narrative to Streep, and stays clearly focused on Hathaway's character.

Hathaway delivers a comptent performance, but will be mostly remembered for looking gorgeous in a ridiculously large selection of designer outfits and hairstyles. Stanley Tucci supports ably as the catty but lovable Nigel. I'm also told that there's a large number of cameos from fashion industry personalities, if you're able to appreciate that sort of thing.

The Devil Wears Prada manages to transcend its marketing as a "chick flick" and become simply quality entertainment for any audience. I'm happy to recommend it to anyone.

More Of The Same

How is it that I can be thoroughly enjoying Samurai Warriors 2, the seventh functionally identical installment in that franchise that I've played, and yet the release of Vice City Stories for the PSP just has me sighing and saying, "I guess I'll play it, some day"?

I just feel tired of the Grand Theft Auto formula. The often tortured plotlines, the implausible characters, the occasional frustratingly difficult missions that just make me want to throw my PS2 or PSP out a window. It's not doing it for me any more. Vice City Stories will probably end up being the fifth time I've completed an ambulance R3 mission, and I can sense already that it'll have some idiotic and nigh-on impossible motorcycle checkpoint stunt challenge.

There's only so many times I can build a bloated criminal empire, Rockstar. Can't you give me something new?

I have Bully aka Canis Canem Edit aka Grand Theft Schoolyard sitting by my TV waiting for me to play it, and it's good and all, I suppose. The main character looks and acts like an asshat, which is a turn off. I'm fundamentally left feeling that I've already done four years in a private school, and I'm not really sure I want to go back under the guise of gaming. Plus, that whole "jocks vs nerds vs greasers vs rich kids" thing has been done to death. Watching The Breakfast Club only takes a couple of hours, and it has Molly Ringwald and Judd Nelson in it.

Lego Star Wars II is next on my gaming list after Samurai Warriors. Maybe it'll set me straight.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Children of Men

Children of Men may be based on the book of the same name by P D James, but it nevertheless could have gotten a lot of benefit from a more appropriate title.

The movie posits a world of the near future, where for unexplained reasons the entire human race has fallen simultaneously sterile. No children have been born for 19 years. Torn by rioting, terrorism, suicide, religious extremism and war, most of the rest of the world has fallen into chaos. Britain, however, continues on. Refugees flooding to Britain's shores are locked in Auschwitz-like concentration camps, and extremist groups of various persuasions are poised on the brink of civil insurrection.

Clive Owen plays a government worker who is thrown into the midst of this chaos when he is approached by his ex-wife (now wanted by the government) to ferry a refugee woman called Kee from London to the coast to meet with a secret scientific organisation known as the Human Project. What begins as a simple plan rapidly spins out of control, as Kee is pregnant with the first child since the disaster, and is being hunted by both the government and a violent pro-refugee group called the Fish.

Don't let the babies-and-sterility plotline fool you. This is not a movie about babies. It is a movie about immigration. It's a story about a future that is scarily near at hand, particularly for Australians, where immigration pressure is ramped up by an exponential level, and the government responds with exponentially more extreme policies. It's a future that could happen, and if there's one element where the film doesn't ring true, it's that the film's setting of the year 2027 isn't close enough.

Children of Men is directed by Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), and you can't help but be struck by exactly how good a job he has done. The film employs a level of visual storytelling approaching genius. It uses few quick cuts, instead preferring to let the often violent and disturbing themes of the movie be played out by the movement of actors and objects through the field of vision of the camera. Mini-stories are told through the view out a bus window, from a car windshield, or the view from a fourth-story apartment. A great many single-take extended camera movements are used.

Cuaron also has an aptitude for transforming the magical into the mundane, and the mundane into the magical. Using the same skill with which he made the grounds of Hogwarts feel at once a fantasy land, and yet part of the English countryside, in Children of Men he blends the politics and technology of a near future Britain seamlessly into our present-day memories and expectations. Much of the film feels less like a staged production than it does modern-day newsreel footage.

Children of Men is a visually engaging, powerful, and thought provoking movie. It's probably the best science fiction movie of the year (although sadly it doesn't have much competition) and it absolutely deserves to be seen on the big screen. If you haven't already been, go now, while it's still showing.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Dynasty Warriors BB (No Luck)

By the way, last week I tried that Dynasty Warriors BB demo that I got given at Tokyo Game Show. It installed fine, and I got treated to some very nice cinematics of assorted Chinese-esque warriors going toe to toe with series mascot Lu Bu. And then I got to the point where I'd have to log in, and realised that unfortunately the game only works for subscribers to one of Japan's BB networks (hence the name), such as Yahoo! BB.

As I understand it, what differentiates the BB networks from other broadband service providers is that they go at a speed of about 12 megabits per second, which is an order of magnitude faster than most of the rest of the world gets. I'm unsure if Dynasty Warriors BB actually needs all that crazy speed, or whether it's just some sort of exclusivity deal, but in any case it's off-limits to us gaijin for the time being. Sigh.

For those who don't know, Dynasty Warriors BB is a PC-based massively multiplayer installment of Koei's successful console franchise, which sees players controlling single exemplary warriors on large semi-historical battlefields. The player is the proverbial "one warrior worth a thousand", and has the ability to go through literally thousands of enemies like a hot knife through butter.

Gauntlet: Dark Legacy Post-Mortem

I've previously alluded to exactly how rubbish the GameCube version of Gauntlet: Dark Legacy is, but today I'm going to spell out the problems in particular detail.

The lack of effort involved in the creation of Gauntlet: Dark Legacy is a story in and of itself. The game is a GameCube port of the PlayStation 2 expansion of the Dreamcast port of the PlayStation 1 port of the 1998 arcade machine Gauntlet Legends. That makes it, as of this writing, effectively an eight-year old game, and four years old when it was released for the Cube in 2002.

Dark Legacy allegedly contains all the original content of the PlayStation version of this game, plus new material including new levels and character classes. If you loved Gauntlet Legends, goes the logic, then Dark Legacy will be even better.

The logic is bad for a couple of reasons. Firstly, no one loved Gauntlet Legends. While the arcade machine was a decent way to lose a few dollars, it was never a particularly wonderful game, and its booming announcer voices and chunky but brightly-coloured graphics didn't look quite so novel when brought to the home console.

Secondly, almost all of the allegedly "new" material in Dark Legacy is available as bonus unlockables in the Dreamcast version of Legends. Admittedly Dreamcasts are now in the realm of collector pieces and aren't exactly a viable platform to get your daily gaming on, but still, it's a bit rich to slap a new name on the game and suggest it has something that previous versions didn't. Only Hideo Kojima can get away with that kind of tomfoolery.

Thirdly, the GameCube version of Dark Legacy is visually unappealing, has poor controls, a poor interface, is repetitive, sounds awful, is unchallenging, and is riddled with game-crashing bugs.

The gameplay follows the standard for the Gauntlet series. Between one and four players pick from a variety of theoretically different classes, and then begin to proceed through a series of mazes. Along the way they'll defeat monsters, flip switches, unlock gates, and pillage treasure chests. Every so often, there's a boss monster. And that's really all there is to it.

There's a fairly large range of classes available to choose from, including Jesters, Knights, Archers and Dwarves and the old stalwarts of Valkyrie, Warrior and Wizard. There's also a bucketload of extra classes to unlock as you progress through the game. Inexplicably, though, the original game's Elf is nowhere to be seen. In any case, it won't worry you, as all of the classes are for most intents and purposes identical. They play pretty much the same, which is to say you move around and spam the attack button and pretty much ignore the remainder of the special attacks and magics the characters theoretically possess.

There's a plot of sorts, in which some land somewhere is overrun by a generic evil with the appropriately menacing name of Skorne. You're tasked with finding a bunch of shards, and a bunch of runestones, which will unlock the doorway to Wherever, which you can pass through to Defeat Evil in some fasion. The shards are easy enough, as you get one from each boss, but the runestones are a little trickier, as they're hidden in some (but not all) of the ordinary levels. Missing one will mean you need to repeat the level to look for it again, prompting cries of pain and occasionally the consumption of strychnine.

As you journey you'll come across many incredibly varied items, which allow you to do things ranging from breathing fire to transforming into a chicken. Upon finding these items, you'll promptly completely ignore them and never use them, because activating them requires using an asinine control scheme involving the D-pad and involves standing still while enemies are hitting you to scroll through an unordered list of the hundreds of items you have, displayed one at a time at the bottom of the screen. Which is a shame, as those items could have really broken up the monotony of the experience.

The main problem with the game is the core gameplay is unappealing and shallow. Monsters spawn endlessly from monster-generator-things, and you have to use your ranged attack (which all characters have) to kill them off in such numbers that you can shut down the generators. Then you move forward through the maze, and repeat the process. Both monsters and characters make horrible ear-rending sounds in response to the flow of battle, and despite the allegedly large variety of monsters in the game, they all play pretty much identically. There's chests around to be opened, but they mostly contain those items that you weren't going to use anyway, so they're largely an optional feature.

Every few levels you'll get a boss fight. These are far and away the best bits of the game, largely because (a) they occasionally require a small amount of strategy, and (b) you don't have to move forward, open chests, or unlock gates. Seeing as bosses also reward you with the most XP and treasure, you'll likely find yourself repeating these sections a number of times to level up before progressing.

I'd like to say that sharing this experience with three friends makes the game a lot of fun, but that would be a lie. It makes the game bearable, and even that is mostly because you can have a conversation while playing to take your mind off the gameplay.

Speaking of playing with friends, you'll soon be frustrated by the save process. There's no autosave - you have to do it manually, after each level. What's more, you have to save for each character individually. Player 1 saves, then Player 2, et cetera. And it's not a quick process. It goes up there with Ico and Dead Rising as one of the most bizarrely bad save systems I've ever encountered in a game.

The game isn't hard, by the way. Sure, you'll lose a lot of health, and you don't always have enough money to buy it all back, but there's plenty of cheap cash available just by repeatedly thwarting the first boss, so at worst you'll have to repeat some levels. In any case, getting hurt never feels like a punishment for bad play so much as it resembles something that happens regularly, randomly and unavoidably.

I've mentioned that the game looks awful. This isn't just a matter of it being technologically dated. It's that the game has no art in its soul. It has visual design that feels like it was created by particularly unimaginative programmers. Levels are mostly picked out in grungy shades of brown and green, with confusing layouts. Important items or enemies are often concealed by the terrain, and it's easy to get lost as one area looks pretty much like another.

The sound is similarly hideous, especially in the voice work for the characters, who are prone to shouting camp one-liners whenever they acquire treasure, eat food, or generally just feel like being a jerk. Special effort has been gone to in order to make all the women sound like particularly cheap hookers, which probably deserves some kind of award. The monsters likewise make a variety of sounds, mostly derived from the "fingernails on blackboard" school of sound design. Some enemies have death-squeals so ear-gougingly painful that you'll find yourself going out of your way to NOT kill them.

My friends and I finished Dark Legacy as an exercise in masochism, but to everyone else out there, don't play this game. You'll regret it. The only value it holds whatsoever is as a case study of how not to make a video game. It does almost everything wrong that can be done, with a kind of flatulent gusto that will make you want to murder Midway employees, screaming, "Hah! Who needs food badly NOW, bitch?"

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Quick Thoughts

Can I just say how happy I am that the Wii virtual console launch lineup will include Toejam & Earl? Possibly the greatest two-player co-operative game ever made? I am so going to be bugging everyone who knows me in Canberra to play this with me. Who knows, it might even be playable over the interweb in some fashion. Although it's $8 US, maybe $12 AUD, which is a little steeper than might have been ideal for such a dated game.

Also, I got shanghaied into seeing Children of Men last night, so that's no longer happening tomorrow. (There wasn't much interest in that one in any case.) But the rest of the Good Movie Thursday schedule is still intact. Review of Children of Men forthcoming. Short version - it's bloody brilliant.