Thursday, December 13, 2007

Bioshock

When Bioshock was released, it promised three things: a mixture of RPG and FPS elements, the ability for players to solve situations in a variety of different ways, and meaningful moral choices which influence the story.

They were probably getting confused and talking about Mass Effect, because Bioshock doesn't so much fail to deliver those promises as it does lock them in a cupboard for 14 years and beat them occasionally with a shovel. Nevertheless, it's still a hell of a game.

For those of you who've had your fingers in your ears for going on six months now, Bioshock tells the story of Rapture - an Ayn Rand-inspired objectivist dystopia located, of all places, at the bottom of the sea. The player takes the role of an interloper who is drawn into Rapture's madness when his plane crashes in the nearby ocean.

Admittedly underwater objectivist dystopias aren't exactly a concept that's been run into the ground, but philosophical speculation aside you'll find that the game plays like pretty much every other FPS since the dawn of time. You'll basically be running through a variety of corridors and large rooms, collecting power-ups, and pumping ammo into everything that moves.

The game's biggest gameplay weaknesses are where it strays from the normal FPS formula. For instance, you can "hack" most anything electrical in the game to make it work for you, including vending machines, security cameras, and killer attack robots. This basically involves playing an irritating version of Pipe Dream, where you're rerouting a device's internal plumbing (!) while nearby enemies patiently wait for news of your success or otherwise. It's pretty stupid and it badly breaks up the game pacing, especially as you're going to feel compelled by the nature of the game to hack most everything you see. Later you'll be purchasing expensive autohack tools just to avoid interacting with the silly timewaster.

The game also includes a mechanism where you can take photographs of enemies for "research" purposes - take enough photos of a given type of enemy and you'll get a (often totally unrelated) power-up. You have to put away your normal weapon to get out your camera, so you'll regularly be sitting there fiddling with the shutter while crazed mutants are bearing down on you with murderous intent. The interface is a little less awkward than the photographic bits of Dead Rising, but the minigame as a whole is correspondingly shallower and mostly just irritating.

As a result of the above two distractions, you're likely to take a lot of totally unnecessary damage from enemies, which will bring into sharp focus another of the game's flaws - the enemies aren't actually very scary. Even on the hardest setting most foes don't have a lot of grunt to them. Moreover, if you die, you'll be reconstituted at a nearby "Vita-Chamber" free of charge with a full health bar and all the kit you were carrying when you kicked the bucket. Nearby enemies retain damage you did to them, so you can just charge back out and pick up where you left off, ad nauseum. This at first seems like a progressive approach to making a game that players of all skills can enjoy, but in practice it does nearly terminal damage to your suspension of disbelief. It's no coincidence that the recently released patch for Bioshock includes an option allowing you to disable Vita-Chambers.

One of the game's most memorable features is its use of plasmids and tonics. Plasmids are special genetic enhancements which work like magic spells, allowing you to throw lightning or fire from your hands or use telekinesis or, for some reason, summon a swarm of bees. They sound great but the majority of them are either useless or redundant so you'll probably complete about 90% of the game using only 10% of the plasmids. For example, being able to freeze someone solid sounds great in principle, but the lightning power stuns enemies for about the same duration and is extra effective against machines, so there's really no good reason to ever pull out the freeze effect. That's all compounded by the fact that you can only equip a handful of these plasmids at once, so there's little incentive to experiment with new tactics.

You also get tonics, which are your standard passive power ups. Again, you can only equip a limited number but in practice the list of things you have equipped will be longer than what's on the sidelines, and as with the plasmids, there's a fairly high ratio of things you just won't get any benefit from.

Bioshock originally promised that you could solve situations in a number of ways. You could use overwhelming firepower, stealth, creative use of plasmids, hacked electrical appliances, or the nearby environment to overcome any particular situation. That's great, but in practice you'll actually just use all of the above at once, all the time. Except stealth, which, as with most every game ever, is boring, poorly implemented, and unhelpful.

You may have heard about the "moral choices" in Bioshock. This boils down to what you do about the Little Sisters. These are little girls, brainwashed and mutated to become ghoulish revenants who collect ADAM, the genetic lifeblood of Rapture. Each Little Sister is defended by a Big Daddy (the pressure-suit wearing monstrosities that appear on the game's promotional material) and after a reasonably tough fight you'll get the chance to "deal with" the Little Sister. You can "harvest" her, which kills her but gives you a huge dose of ADAM (which you can use later to buy plasmids and tonics), or you can "rescue her", which removes the genetic damage to her and leaves her alive, but gives you less ADAM.

It ultimately doesn't really matter which you choose. If you rescue Little Sisters, they'll occasionally give you presents of tonics and plasmids, which mostly offset the lost ADAM. The game plays out exactly the same way, and at the end of the game you get one of two brutally short and highly lame "endings" which depend on whether you rescued the Sisters or harvested them. In this regard YouTube, as always, is your friend.

The above criticisms aside, Bioshock is still an amazing game. The graphics are both artistically and technically excellent. Voice acting is generally outstanding, and the characters usually have something to say that's worth listening to. The world of Rapture is deeply atmospheric, and well realised through a large amount of backstory. Plus there's a lot of bonus points to be awarded just for trying to intelligently criticise Atlas Shrugged in the context of a first-person shooter. The core gameplay is well implemented, satisfying, and rarely repetitive, and the story is engaging, well told, and of a high quality all round.

It's worth mentioning that I've played both the PC and 360 versions of Bioshock and I have to say that if you have the choice you should probably go with the 360 one. On any but the highest end machines, PC performance is spotty, and on two separate systems I've seen it repeatedly crash at inconvenient times. By contrast, the 360 has absolutely no stability issues, loses little in the way of graphical fidelity, provides easy and intuitive control via the gamepad, and as a bonus you can earn Achievements while playing.

If you have any sort of liking for first-person shooters then Bioshock should be on your must-play list. It's almost certainly about to garner all sorts of Game of the Year awards and come out in some kind of cheap "platinum" edition so keep your eyes peeled because this is an experience you absolutely shouldn't miss.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Huzzah for Python

Once again xkcd proves entirely topical to my life, as I just started coding Python this week.



Coding in Python really is that simple, and that fun. Although it would be nice if it had a built in getchar() function.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Beowulf (The Movie)

Beowulf is a computer animated 3D movie, which itself is presented in 3D. That makes the movie, by my maths, nine dimensional, which is at least four more dimensions than the human mind is equipped to cope with.

I spent the first quarter-hour or so of the movie unable to process the 3D effect; then something clicked, and I rather enjoyed the rest. It gets full credit for actually staying true to the format of a 1500-year old Danish epic; it's unapologetic about its narrative asides, over-the-top embellishment, and carnal focus. By the same token, as a modern audience you'll likely feel a little odd about its utter unwillingness to see the majority of its characters develop, grow, overcome obstacles, of find narrative closure.

Plus there's a lot of nudity. A LOT of nudity. You have to remember that back in those days clothes were nests for ticks and other parasites and it was actually more convenient to take them off prior to ruling your kingdom, going to war, fighting a troll, or humiliating enemy prisoners. Historical fact, honest.

All round, it's worth seeing. Director Robert Zemeckis is generally a purveyor of cinema which falls short of art but easily delivers fun, and Beowulf is no exception. Don't expect the world, and you'll be pleasantly surprised by what you get instead.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Gaming In 60 Seconds, Again

There's a whole bunch of games I've played over the last few months that I haven't had a chance to do detailed reviews for, so here's the short versions:

Mario Strikers Charged Football (Wii): Some absolutely crazy four-player multiplayer makes up a for a plethora of sins in this Nintendo-themed extreme soccer game. The single player game is high on repetition and low on quality opponent AI, but the ability to body-check Princess Peach into an electric fence adequately compensates. There's an online mode, but the general shoddiness of the Wii matchmaking support will likely dissuade you from getting a lot of use out of it. Best enjoyed with three friends and some beer.

Phoenix Wright: Justice For All (DS): Phoenix Wright's second courtroom adventure in the English-speaking world serves up more of the same as the first time around, but once again the quality of writing, zany humour, and tight pacing make for a satisfying and memorable experience recommendable to all DS owners.

Drawn to Life (DS): Not only is this game apparently raking in a fair wad of cash down here in Australia, but it's also actually worth playing, which is unusual in such a heavily kid-oriented title. A backbone of lackluster generic platforming is made highly entertaining by a central mechanic whereby you draw the key graphics in the game yourself. The fun of designing your avatar to be an evil skeleton or a killer robot is only enhanced by the way the game saturates you with an endearingly innocent sense of charm.

Dead Rising (XBox 360): I'll probably be coming back to this one, but my initial verdict is that no matter how much fun mutilating hordes of zombies with a blunt object may be, it can't compensate for the bloodyminded awfulness of the save system, or the fact that most of the boss battles are built around the game's distinctly subpar gunplay mechanics instead of the core zombie-mashing action. The gamers likely to get the most mileage out of Dead Rising are the ones with a high tolerance for frustration.

Halo 3 (XBox 360): Master Chief's third serving of first-person-shooter antics may have sold a bucketload of copies but it's still better suited to series fans than virgin punters. It's brutally short, it's incredibly derivative, and once again the narrative is disjointed and unsatisfying, but if you've ever enjoyed anything about Halo this one is undoubtedly the finest in the trilogy. The fantastic musical score and high production values will help alleviate a lot of the downsides. Furthermore, if you're the sort of person who's likely to spend time with the online multiplayer components it becomes an exponentially more attractive proposition. Unlikely to win over new players, though.

Geometry Wars (XBox 360 Live Arcade): A game that probably could have been easily delivered on a Commodore 64, Bizarre Creations' Geometry Wars is nevertheless definitely the best game that Live Arcade has to offer, and could be considered to be the game that reinvigorated the top-down duel stick shooter genre. Featuring simple gameplay which is endlessly addictive and brutally challenging, the game combines aspects of classic games such as Asteroids and Robotron to produce something significantly greater than the sum of its parts. This should be the first game downloaded by any new 360 owner.

Paper Mario (Wii Virtual Console / N64): There is nothing about Paper Mario that fails to please. Mario and friends make their (second?) RPG outing, which features gameplay, pacing and controls tuned to near-perfection. Brilliant level design and consistently entertaining game mechanics provide a solid foundation for a game filled with charm, humour, and a surprisingly large amount of solid characterisation, all within the context of a storybook where all the characters are represented as 2D paper cut-outs exploring a 3D paper world. The only weak spots are some extended fetch-quests, and Princess Peach, who once again proves unable to escape from the equivalent of a wet paper bag.

Everyone Hates Space Giraffe

Jeff Minter, indy creator of games such as Llamatron, recently went a little crazy over on his LiveJournal, regarding the success (or lack thereof) of his latest game Space Giraffe, released exclusively on XBox Live Arcade last August.
"[N]ot seeing a lot of reason to continue even trying to make games, at this point, when a remake of Frogger, one of the worst games in the history of old arcade games, can outsell Space Giraffe that we put so much love and effort into, by more than ten to one, in one week. OK, we get the message. All you want on that channel is remakes of old, shite arcade games and crap you vaguely remember playing on your Amiga. We'll shut up trying to do anything new then. Sorry for even trying."
The internet reaction to this has been fairly unanimous and unsurprising in its lack of care factor.

As someone who loved Llamatron and paid to download the full version of Space Giraffe, can I say only that when you deliberately go out of your way to make a old school shooter, pack it with seizure-inducing graphics that mostly obscure the action, give it an offbeat non-descriptive name, fill it with in-jokes and obscure references, and release it solely by digital download, you can't then go on to complain about it not becoming a mainstream hit. Take your cult status and enjoy it, dude.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Plush Heartless

By the way, I saw this little fellow at Swancon 2007 but didn't have a usable photo until now. Unfortunately its talented creator could not be persuaded by love or money to make me one; I guess that's what I get for not being the chosen bearer of a keyblade. Dagnabbit.

Thanks to Julia for the photo.

The Simpsons Game

The Simpsons Game is funny. Sometimes it's even ha-ha funny. But to enjoy those good-time laffs you're going to have to wade through a whole heapin' helpin' of awful, awful game design.

I played the XBox 360 version, and it's fair to say that The Simpsons Game is a good looking game. It looks, more or less, just like the series, making smart use of cell shading to produce artwork that would fit perfectly in the TV show. The game's take on Springfield may not be quite as large as in the excellent Simpsons Hit & Run but it's still entirely convincing.

The sound quality is likewise excellent. All voices are provided by the TV show's voice cast - and there's a lot of voice work in the game, including level and location specific comments for each character and a hefty swag of cutscenes. The music is exactly what you'd expect from something bearing the Simpsons label.

The game alleges that it features work by "the writers of the TV show". That's a writing credit so vague as to possibly denote any combination of up to several dozen different individuals, but there's no denying that it does feel like something recent seasons of the TV show might come up with. Which is to say, a contrived and awkward plot that stumbles through a succession of comedic misses in order to occasionally achieve some brilliant laugh-out-loud hits.

You'll be so convinced that this is the authentic Simpsons experience that you'll be absolutely unable to avoid realising how stupid it is to waste such a great licence on a lame platforming game.

Which, in case subtext is not your thing, is what this game is. If you've ever run, double jumped, and collected your way through a brightly coloured mascot game before, then you'll feel right at home with the Simpsons. Presuming, of course, that your home makes you regularly scream with homicidal rage. The Simpsons are in fact so-ill fitted to this type of game that some kind of monster shoehorn must have been used in its creation.

The game sees Bart discovering a manual to "The Simpsons Game" in an alleyway, which informs him that he and his family members in fact have a range of super powers. Bart can turn into Bartman in order to glide, grappel, and use a slingshot. Homer can turn into a giant ball capable of obtaining some pretty high velocities. Lisa can interact with statues at key points in each level to use the "Hand of Buddha", effectively turning the game temporarily into a god-sim and letting you pick up and move around nearby objects from above. Marge can use a loudspeaker to recruit nearby locals Pikmin-style, as well as deploy Maggie to infiltrate all manner of ventilation ducts.

Marge's set of powers are actually rather cool and could easily have formed the basis for a complete game; they also fit in nicely with her existing character without coming across as silly. The voice acting for her command-issuing function is some of the best in the game; she starts out as her usual conservative self but gets more and more involved as the game goes on. Hearing her incite Ralph Wiggum and Rod and Todd Flanders to "drink the enemies' blood!" is priceless (Todd: "Just like Cain killed Abel!" Ralph: "Murder makes me level up!").

The other "unique upgradeable powers" the characters get are, for lack of better words, just plain stupid. They're one of the grossest concessions to gameplay over atmosphere you're likely to see in a game, and it's all the more grating for the fact that the resulting gameplay is still rather poor. While suspension of disbelief has never exactly been a driving goal of The Simpsons, Homer's transformations into a rolling ball of lard are nothing but weird, and "Bartman" looks out of place every time you use him.

The basic gameplay is generic platforming - fight some enemies, do some jumps, solve some puzzles, find some collectibles. Fighting enemies mostly just involves mashing the same buttons repeatedly until the enemies fall down. Sometimes the enemies have hilarious banter while you're fighting. (Orc-Moe, during the "Neverquest" level: "Help me out - am I chaotic neutral or neutral evil? Anybody?"). Sometimes, however, their scripted lines are so inane or uninspired as to make you want to avoid enemies so as to not have to listen to them.

Jumps are often tricky, but not because of good level design or challenging gameplay. Mostly it's just the awful camera perspectives, which rarely let you line up the camera either behind or directly above your character, and quite often lock off the perspective to some horrible three-quarter view. You've got infinite lives and fairly frequent checkpoints, but still, falling to your death because a fixed camera doesn't let you accurately estimate distance isn't a challenge, it's a bug, which should have been ironed out in playtesting.

In fact, you'll get the strong impression that there actually wasn't much playtesting of the game, period. For example, the final boss fight on the XBox 360 features a sequence that forces you to use the controller's d-pad instead of the analog sticks, to input a series of "left, right, up"-style keypresses. The 360 d-pad unfortunately isn't designed for that level of accuracy, and if you're like me you'll regularly fail what should be a droolingly easy scene just because the game thinks you're pressing "up-left" when you're only pressing "left". There's nothing like a poorly playtested and artificially hard final level to take the fun out of finishing a game. (*cough* Halo *cough*).

Speaking of which, the ending of the game is rubbish.

So with all this hideous gameplay, why would you play the game? Well, because it's The Simpsons. Because it features a cameo by game designer Will Wright, who gets to say the line "I'm Will Wright, bitch." Because you can take on Matt Groening in a boss fight, where he's defended by Futurama's Bender and Zoidberg. Because it features Milhouse dressed as The King of All Cosmos from Katamari Damacy. Because it'll throw a reference to LonelyGirl 13 at you when you're least expecting it. Because you can kick the crap out of "those guys from Madden", and rescue Sonic the Hedgehog and Mario from being enslaved by evil game developers.

Because the game is absolutely packed to the brim with gaming humour, and getting to see The Simpsons turn their trademark wit at your favourite hobby with the highest level of their clever dialogue, spot-on timing, and pop-culture savvy is a thing worth sitting through a few hours of sub-par level design in order to see.

I don't regret buying it. But I do regret that The Simpsons as a video game property has yet to really reach above the sub-par genre clones that it's been dragged through to date, and it's left me wishing for just that little bit more.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Viva Pinata

Viva Pinata is an absolute must-have game for anyone who's ever experienced the guilty thrill of beating their pets to death with a shovel. And really, isn't that all of us?

There's an animated series that goes with this game. I haven't seen the series. I don't intend to see the series. I have the definite suspicion that the series does not focus on breeding adorable animals, dressing them up in a variety of accessories, giving them lovable names, and then beating them savagely with shovels until their sweet candy-flavoured brains spew forth onto the soil.

Which, really, is a shame, because the whole shovel-beating thing is gameplay gold.

I think Viva Pinata was conceived as something for kids. I don't mean baby goats, but instead those little mewly human-things that come out of pregnant women. Some executive somewhere saw a wiggly dirt-child playing with a pinata and decided that this should be the basis for a cheap Pokemon knock-off.

This executive, who we shall call "Winston", went out and got some art assets drawn up, and recruited what he laughingly referred to as "voice talent", and had some hideously grating music prepared, and then turned the whole thing over to a game developer.

It is to the good fortune of shovel-wielding pet-lovers everywhere that the developer in question was Rare.

In my imagination, which is a wonderful place filled with leprechauns, Rare sat down with Winston's material, and tried to fashion it into the saccharine money-pig that had been intended. Oh, how they tried. Their brain meats strained mightily. But they failed. These kings among developers, these hallowed perpetrators of Conker's Bad Fur Day, just couldn't find it in themselves to make the pastel monstrosity they had been tasked with.

And so they made a different game. And that game is Viva Pinata.

Sit your kids down with Viva Pinata. They'll love it. You can test whether they love it by buying them a kitten. Kids who have learned the correct lessons from Viva Pinata will give their kitten a name, a humorous hat, and a house, and then make it mercilessly breed non-stop with other kittens in order to produce kitten-babies that can be fed to other, more valuable animals, such as magpies or crocodiles, so as to invite these crocodiles and suchlike to live in your garden. That's experience that you just can't learn in schools, people.

Also, baby animals should occasionally be randomly beaten with a shovel. Just in case it makes them "evolve". You have to check for that; it'd be criminal not to, really.

In Viva Pinata I find myself regularly naming my baby kittens "Winston".

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Doom and the 360

Doom is a game about shooting demons in the face with a shotgun. When it first came out in the early 90s, that premise was every bit as fun as it sounds.

Last month, straight off the back of finishing Half-Life: Episode 2, I downloaded Doom through XBox Live Arcade to find out exactly how the classic action had aged. It turns out shooting demons in the face with a shotgun never gets old.

Right in the face. With a shotgun. It's like the demon AI has been scripted to present you with maximum shotgun-to-face coverage at every stage of the game. You can't even look up or down; your view is locked with neck-brace-intensity at demon face level for the entire head-pulping experience.

Oh, man, if only they made 'em like this today.

With a shotgun.

You'll be looking for keycards. Looking for keycards is always gaming gold. What do the keycards unlock? Demons. And/or shotguns. Pure gold.

This is what is called in the industry "laser-like focus on core gameplay". I think John Romero tripped over it in a stairwell somewhere and accidentally installed it in his latest software project; thus Doom was born. Later, to the sound of much laughter, he attempted to make us his bitch.

The 360's Live Arcade adaptation is a fairly faithful port, although it features "upscaled music" (which translates to "incentive to use your own MP3s instead"). Pulling the right trigger to fire feels a whole lot more natural than stabbing a key on the keyboard. And it has Achievements, which are like sweet, sweet gaming candy. Can you believe it? You get to shoot demons in the face with a shotgun and earn achievements for it. This is why we said no to communism, people. Under communism the State would have shot the demons for us and then shared the achievement points with our unskilled younger siblings.

So in short, every game that has been made since Doom is a waste of time and you should return to playing this classic shooter immediately.

Man. Right in the face.

Updates

Haven't posted in a while, but I'm still alive. I will be in Perth from Xmas through New Year's. Some gaming related updates:

* I have an XBox 360. I now understand that when it's said that this console is a next-gen console, that's not a reference to its graphics, processing power, or controls, but rather a statement about its online implementation, which is so evolutionary as to bring tears to my eyes. You can incidentally find me on Live under the gamertag "GregT 314".

* Guitar Hero III is probably the best iteration of the franchise so far; unfortunately it's blisteringly difficult even compared to the already quite eye-watering GH2. I play the previous games on Expert without the need for too many tears; I'm going to be quite significantly challenged to finish this one on Hard, though. For those who've taken the time to learn hammer-ons and pull-offs you'll be happy to discover songs that you can play for upwards of thirty seconds without strumming thanks to stupidly extended shredding sections.

* The Wii is currently not much in use. I'm waiting for Super Smash Bros Brawl. Wake me when I can use Solid Snake to exterminate Pikachu. I read a report recently that it's not that there's a shortage of games for the system, it's that the massive glut of games that are being made can't get pressed at the factory quickly enough. It's Nintendo; they wouldn't lie to me about something like that. I wait hopefully for the forthcoming Candy Mountain of games.

* Portal is the greatest game ever. But then you have been exposed to the internet in some way during the last month, so you already know this. If you haven't played Portal yet, shoot your grandmother, and then play Portal. Or just play Portal, whichever. Anyone who gets me a plush Companion Cube for Xmas wins bonus points.

* Much to my surprise, you can find me on Facebook. Along with, apparently, the entire cast and crew of my primary school, who appear to be largely alive and not face down in gutters.

That's all for now. Keep doing those things that you do, in that place. You know what I'm talking about.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

In Perth

I'm in Perth from today (4 October) to about noon on Monday (8 October). If you want to catch up and you haven't already got in touch with me, you can attempt to cut into my busy schedule by ringing or SMSing me. If you don't have those numbers, I'm staying with Wuffie and you can probably contact me through her. I won't be checking this blog or my email. See you soon!

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Checkers Solved

If you've played Tic-Tac-Toe for any length of time you've probably reached the stage where you can win or draw any game simply because you can envisage every possible combination of moves, and pick the move which is best not in a subjective sense, but in an absolute sense.

Now with the aid of brute force computing the same situation has been reached for Checkers. An electronic solution has been found which can win or tie any game.

It's good to know that modern technology has successfully trivialised a rather banal game that I've never really liked. If you ever play it and win again, just remember it's not because you played well, it's because your opponent played sub-optimally.

Full story here, courtesty of BBC News.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Assorted Stuff

Yes, it's time for assorted stuff. Everyone likes stuff, right?

* In case you've missed it in the last two weeks, for all you Dynasty Warriors fans who aren't already over the moon about Dynasty Warriors Gundam, there's also word of Warriors Orochi, which is basically just a new Dynasty Warriors game featuring the entire cast of the Dynasty Warriors franchise plus the crew from Samurai Warriors, united at last. Plus if you read this article in the right way you can interpret it as meaning there'll be three-player co-op. Awesome.

* My favourite developer that nobody loves, Quantic Dream, are not only following up their fantastic PS2 title Fahrenheit (aka Indigo Prophecy) with a PS3 release called Heavy Rain (old news), but they're also for some reason doing a PS3-exclusive sequel to their unanimously reviled Dreamcast relic Omikron: The Nomad Soul. That's great; while they're at it maybe they can get the rights to Phantasmagoria off Sierra and release a few more redundant iterations of that franchise too.

* I'm working my way through F.E.A.R (again at least a good year behind the hype), and I absolutely can't believe how you can pour as much raw talent and technical genius into a game as has obviously made its way into F.E.A.R. and still produce such a charmless and unmemorable end product. I'd be writing it off completely, if only it weren't so darned fun unloading my shotgun into those Replicas. The completely-tacked-on attempts at scariness just make me wish I had a new Silent Hill game to play.

* And in case you weren't excited about Rock Band yet, here's another big helping of huzzah.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Transformers

Having seen the trailers, it seemed to me that Transformers was likely to be much like the recent butchering of War of the Worlds with the added attraction of it molesting my childhood. (The chances of Autobots coming from Mars / were a million to one, they said.)

Now that I've seen the film, I'm happy to say it's nothing at all like War of the Worlds, and is instead an awful lot like Pearl Harbour.

The Transformers themselves make it through the movie with a surprising amount of dignity left intact. I got the strong impression that these were the real, actual Transformers of my early years, torn from their animated universe and deposited whole and intact in a kind of Michael Bay-themed cinematic wasteland. They spend the majority of the movie struggling gamely to continue their noble mission in the face of hideous dialogue, horrible plot, and a complete contempt for the most basic attention to scientific detail.

Optimus Prime in particular carries a kind of beleaguered, puzzled air about him that suggests he's wondering where all the energon cubes went and why he's suddenly surrounded by lens flares, poorly scripted teenagers and an unfeasibly large portion of the United States military. It's definitely Optimus Prime, though - that voice acting goes a long way.

Incidentally, never has there been so much product placement in a movie, but given the history of the Transformers franchise it's a little difficult to complain.

Anyway, all said, this is an apallingly unapologetic fiasco of a movie that should be avoided at all costs. But it doesn't retroactively go back and ruin the 80s animated Transformers, and in that category at least it's a step above Beast Wars and Armada, so if you look at it with squinty eyes you can almost imagine that there's something in it to be grateful for.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Back From Play!

Actually we got back Sunday afternoon but I'm a slack blogger.

Play! was amazing. The renditions of the Halo score and Akira Yamaoka's "Theme of Laura" from Silent Hill 2 were both a little disappointing, but on the other hand the full choir performance of Nobuo Uematsu's "One-Winged Angel" from Final Fantasy VII and (surprisingly) the Castlevania suite were both outstanding. More impressive yet, the "Metal Gear Solid Main Theme" received a standing ovation.

Other notable moments included Jeremy Soule's fantastic score to Oblivion, and a suite of music from World of Warcraft. I've actually thought the WoW score was competent but totally derivative of Howard Shore's Lord of the Rings themes, but the audience seemed to love it, so what do I know?

I understand that the tour isn't surfacing again until a January performance in Fort Worth, but if you do hear of it coming near you it's well worth the time and money to see.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Play!

Offline this weekend; the housemates and I, plus others, are piling into some sort of motor vehicle to trundle off to Sydney, where we'll be seeing Play! - music from videogames as performed by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

I've just discovered that Silent Hill composer Akira Yamaoka was at the 19 and 20 June concerts playing guitar live on stage, which makes it just suck that I'm going to today's one. But still, themes from Halo, Kingdom Hearts and Metal Gear Solid performed live by a full orchestra? Awesome.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Addressing Your Questions

Some people visit The Dust Forms Words from Google. And when they do, I get to see their search terms. It worries me that not all of these people have their questions answered by my site, so I'm going to take a quick moment to even the balance by solving your search-text problems.

reason for atlantica level in kh2
Square-Enix likes to cause you pain. No really, that's the reason. They found that hideous actress who they used for Ariel, listened to her screech out a few tracks, and just couldn't resist the temptation to use her on someone, like a small child with a powerful handgun.

ghostbuster commodore 64 walkthrough
Sweet Jeebers, man, how can you need a walkthrough to finish that game? You can fly through that thing like a 747 through a World Trade Center. But if you absolutely can't stand to take the time to have fun with possibly the greatest C64 game ever, then you're likely to be well served by GameFAQs.

ccg warcraft
Yeah, it's rubbish.

real live girls to marry dragon to kill and treasure to win, and dungeons to explore. free rpg games
That sounds like some game you're after there, Slim. Grinding and prostitution at a low low price is what I call a World of Warcraft killer. If they serve whiskey then it's the closest thing we're going to get to a MMOGing heaven. Let me know how that works out for you. Alternatively, you might just be looking for a copy of Seth Able's contemporary masterpiece Legend of the Red Dragon, in which case let's all take a minute to mourn the death of the BBS door game and its ilk. Violet, we miss ye.

how did king krichevskoy die
He didn't; at the end of the game in the Good Ending it's strongly hinted that he is alive, and is in fact Vyers. (Spoilers - oops, too late.) I know that doesn't make a lick of sense but in the context of the rest of Disgaea's plot it's the most lucid thing ever written. If you're not a fan of that theory, then the game initially tells you he died eating a black pretzel, but Etna's diary later reveals that his "death" occurred while sealing away Baal. Puzzle solved.

four feet more pereyda
Yeah, her blog used to be here; now it's gone. Once again the magic of the Wayback Machine saves the day. You too can experience just how dreary her writing style really was.

canisters lego star wars 2 through jungle land wastes
Jundland, dude, it's Jundland. Get it right. And I'm once again going to direct you to GameFAQs. How can anyone not yet have discovered the magic of that site?

why eledees
Why not? Although seriously it's almost certainly because "Elebits" was a registered trademark or copyrighted in Latveria or some obscure European third-world backwater and they decided to just stick the whole greater Eurostralian region with the dud name rather than manufacture two PAL boxes. Thanks, Konami.

Hope those pearls of wisdom enliven your life. Keep hitting my site with nonsense search terms, and I'll keep boring you to tears with what I laughingly refer to as my "wit".

Excite Truck Post-Mortem

Excite Truck is a racing game where you don’t have to worry about crashing, winning, or, for that matter, gravity. It throws all that rubbish out the window in order to get right down to making monster trucks fly through the air like poorly controlled rockets. It’s a formula that worked when I was five years old and it’s just as crazy-good today on the Wii.

The secret to Excite Truck’s success is twofold. Firstly, your success isn’t really decided by where you place at the end of a race – what’s more important is how crazy your trip through the course was. To “win” each race you have to finish within a fairly generous time limit, and you have to accumulate a certain amount of stars. You get a modicum of stars for placing first, second or third, but you’ll pick up the majority for maintaining high speeds, engaging in crazy drifts, ramming other trucks, and flying stupid distances through the air (preferably through a series of rings while turning multiple aerial 360s). If you crash or otherwise go badly off the track you’ll be placed right back on the road with your motor running, and if you screw up in a spectacular enough fashion you’ll even be awarded stars for your “mistake”.

The second aspect of Excite Truck’s awesomeness is the control scheme. You hold the wiimote sideways, like a pair of handlebars, and tilt left to go left and right to go right. Pressing on the D-pad engages your turbo (which is unlimited subject only to your truck overheating). Boosting just after you hit a jump will send you flying through the air; wiggling the handlebar left and right in mid-air will deliver some unlikely aerial doughnuts. You can also tilt forward or back in midair to control the length of your jumps and ensure that you hit the ground with all wheels squarely on the ground. That’s pretty much the extent of the controls, but they’re largely intuitive, they’re satisfying, and they tie right in to the sandbox sense of the fun that the game delivers.

The courses are simple but perfect for the action. You’ll be blasting through a rainbow of off-road terrain that ranges from the moors of Scotland and the fjords of Norway through to the mesas of Mexico and, if you’re very skilled, ultimately the eye-twisting surface of an alien planet. The basic format of each course offers a range of jumps, some straights to power down, and the occasional puddle or river to drive through (which cool down your truck and let you use more turbo). Trees commonly line the course, but if you want to go crazy and attempt to weave between them for a valuable shortcut then the game will reward you with stars based on exactly how crazy your tree-weaving turns out to be. Or you can just pick up one of the valuable boost power-ups hidden on the track which will let you just smash down any trees you hit. You can also set off a number of “geo-morphs” which have the effect of altering nearby terrain. Flat ground will deform into mammoth jump ramps, hills will turn into lakes, and valuable star-scoring air rings will appear tantalizingly overhead. Any trucks caught up in all this earthshaking will be appropriately tossed around in the air, which just makes all the existing aerial shenanigans even more insane.

The basic gameplay in Excite Truck is so good that you’ll be inclined to overlook that the graphics and audio were more than a little rushed in order to get the game out for the Wii launch window. The levels are easy on the eyes but nothing you’ll want to exclaim out loud about, and lots of motion blur is used to cover some of the lack of detail. The sound effects are very decent, including some that will be pumped out of the wiimote, but as with Twilight Princess it’s frustrating that you can’t set or mute the wiimote volume. The soundtrack is actually quite awful, consisting of a brutally short list of electric guitar tracks which would shame even Dynasty Warriors with their glaring inappropriateness. You can in theory make a custom soundtrack out of music stored on an SD card, but I confess that I haven’t ended up getting to try this – I just mute the music most of the time.

The game offers a split-screen two-player race mode which is absolutely as fun as you could possibly hope for. Unfortunately there’s no support for three or four players, and there’s no online play, all of which seem like disappointing omissions, particularly as it’s the sort of game where everyone who sees you play it will want to have a go.

Excite Truck is a racing game for people who don’t like racing games. It’s fun, it’s visceral, and it’s equally rewarding whether you’re a driving veteran or a first-time gamer. It’s something that could only have worked with the Wii control scheme, and given that quality titles on the Wii are still few and far between it’s something that all owners of the system owe it to themselves to try.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Gotta Catch 'Em All - Again

The plan is to be getting Pokemon: Diamond today, if it releases on schedule in Australia like it's supposed to. If I can indeed port over my GBA Pokemon then you can prepare to cower in fear before my mighty maxed-out Sceptile.

I guess this means I'm going to have to set things up so my DS can get online again, for the trading and bludgeoning and suchlike. More details to follow.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Elite Beat Agents Post-Mortem

If there’s one group of people in the world who know how to get funky on a dance floor, I’m sure we can all agree that it’s shadowy government organizations.

It only stands to reason. What would be the point in training elite federal assassins in gunplay, interrogation and infiltration if we didn’t also fully outfit them with some world-class powers of groove?

Luckily, you too can now live out the glamorous life of one of these disco agents provocateur through the surprisingly good medium of Elite Beat Agents for the DS. It’s the western adaptation of the wonderful Japanese title Osu! Tatake! Ouendan! and despite some dubious English-language design decisions it retains all of the original’s addictive gameplay and quirky charm.

Elite Beat Agents will see you leading a team of crack beatmasters into a range of harrowing international incidents with the aim of protecting democracy and overcoming terrorism. By “crack beatmasters” I mean the Elite Beat Agents themselves, who, Japanese version to the contrary, are absolutely not male cheerleaders – the fact that they aim to raise morale through synchronized dance just shows how elite they really are. “Harrowing international incidents” turn out be tasks such as helping a lost dog return home or aiding a salty sea dog in uncovering pirate treasure. And “protecting democracy and overcoming terrorism” mostly boils down to tapping coloured circles on the DS screen in time to the music. Actually, I lie, the game really has nothing to do with democracy or terrorism, although it does have a reasonable facsimile of the Hilton sisters, who in my mind are probably worth invading Afghanistan in order to bring to justice.

Each level will see you engaged in an improbable scenario and tasked with using sharp dance routines and popular music to save the day. There are 20 songs in the game, including titles such as “YMCA”, “Material Girl”, “Sk8er Boi” and “Jumping Jack Flash”, with the mix skewed sharply towards party classics and teen pop instead of hard rock or indy anthems. That’s a short jukebox compared to what the Dance Dance Revolution and Guitar Hero franchises offer, but it’s still enough to offer you a reasonably lengthy play experience.

Each level starts with a short sequence introducing the story for the level, whether it be prompting a girl to get together with the boy of her dreams or helping a cat to save a baby from a dangerous construction site. Then you’ll be dumped into the song. Coloured dots will appear on the screen, surrounded by a rapidly closing-in circle. The trick is to tap the dots just as the circle hits them, which coincidentally will also match a beat in the song. Succeed, and your agents will bust some moves on the top screen, and the hero of the level’s scenario will meet with fate and fortune. Fail, and you’ll be tripping over your own toes while the story takes a sharp turn south.

The basic beat-tapping gameplay is both fun and addictive, and is further mixed up by the addition of slides that you must follow with your stylus and wheels that you need to spin in a circular motion. The easier difficulties are fairly tame, with only a small minority of beats requiring action, but as you move up to the hard and expert (Hard Rock) difficulties you’ll start hammering out some pretty insane rhythms. It’s unfortunate that in order to attempt hard you first need to defeat the normal difficulty, and to try expert you’ll need to beat hard. This means that a difficulty with a single song can keep a lot of the game’s content locked away from you, but ultimately the game is good enough that it’s worth persevering.

The stories that frame each level are delivered with a wealth of humour and charm. They’re told in the same manga-esque style as the Japanese version, and have the same kind of goofball logic. Many of the stories have different endings based on your performance, which makes replaying the same levels again and again (which you’ll be doing a lot of) much less irritating.

Multiplayer in Elite Beat Agents is well managed. Up to four players can take part in a session, with or without individual game cards. (Sessions that include at least one player without a card are limited to a choice of only five songs.) You can then divide up into two teams for versus play, or work together for a co-operative session. Co-op plays much like the versus in the original Guitar Hero, with the beats being divided up between the players. Versus gives everyone the same beats, but adds the option to unleash a devastating combo attack that leaves your opponent’s screen shaking and their targets shrunk to miniscule size. These modes aren’t perfect, but they provide a strong framework for enjoying Elite Beat Agents with friends, or for demonstrating it to those who haven’t played it yet.

It’s worth mentioning a frustration that I’ve experienced on the harder levels of the game, which I’m apparently not alone in experiencing. As the beats gets faster and the targets get smaller, the game seems to develop recognition problems in the lower right quadrant of the game screen. Occasionally taps which should be dead on target will just be ignored. At first I was worried this was a problem with my DS, but it’s turned up on multiple systems and on other people’s copies of the game. This makes some of the songs on Expert a lot more frustrating than they should be, but it’s unlikely to worry the majority of players the majority of the time.

If you’ve played, or even heard about, Osu! Tatake! Ouendan! and are wondering how the westernization stacks up, the answer is “pretty well”. The most noticeable change is the difficulty – Elite Beat Agents is significantly easier than Ouendan!. The music, obviously, now has an American bias, but in practice the tracks aren’t anywhere near as annoying as you may think, and many will leave you humming them for days. In terms of graphics and gameplay, Elite Beat Agents is actually a little better than its source. The agents do specific dances for specific songs (most notably for YMCA), and generally look a little more polished than the boys from Ouendan!. The beats seem generally better matched to the songs (although the sequence for “Canned Heat” is notably horrible), and all the bells and whistles from Ouendan! are present, right down to the Elite Beat Divas you’ll unlock for reaching the Hard Rock difficulty. Elite Beat Agents also throws in three bonus unlockable songs, which give you just that much more incentive to reach the higher difficulties.

All in all, Elite Beat Agents is not only one of the better DS titles available, it’s one of the better rhythm games on the market generally. If you think it sounds even remotely entertaining then it’s not to be missed, and like all good rhythm games you’ll find yourself returning to it again and again long after you think you’ve finished with it.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Okami Post-Mortem

Okami is absolutely the best Zelda-clone ever made about a sun-goddess inhabiting the body of a wolf statue and using the magic power of calligraphy to beautify the natural envronment. Hands down.

I mean, there's no question. Even if you're a fan of one of those other goddess-wolf-calligraphy games that we see so many of these days, you're going to be forced to concede that Okami delivers far more than its competitors just in the realm of art style before you start getting into any of its gameplay innovations.

Nothing else looks like Okami. Where other games push for photorealism, Okami decides that the appropriate look for a videogame should be a mix of shadow-puppetry and traditional Japanese woodcuts. And then renders the whole thing in a kind of hallucinogenic cell-shaded 3D. Things don't appear as what they are so much as icons of what they are. People are vague suggestive shapes; scenery is rendered in the manner of flowing brushstrokes; monsters are malformed malevolent scribbles. The hand of the artist is visible in each and every image on screen.

All this artistic eccentricity flows right into the gameplay. You'll play as the sun goddess Amaterasu, who has taken command of a statue of legendarily heroic wolf Shiranui in order to combat an evil darkness spreading across Nippon. Amaterasu can use all of Shiranui's wolfy abilities, including sprinting, hole-digging and the rending of flesh, but more relevantly she also has the power of the Celestial Brush at her command.

By holding down a shoulder button, you can stop time, and turn the scene in front of you into a hand-drawn parchment. Then you can draw on it. For example, executing a straight horizontal-ish line across the scene will deliver a devastating slash which will overcome monsters, topple trees, and cleave stones. Drawing a circle in the air will bring forth the sun and turn day to night; the same circle on a plant will bring it into bloom; and if you add an extra line to the circle reminiscent of a fuse then you'll summon into being a mighty explosive to break down barriers and devastate your opponents.

Okami overcomes the bane of many games that use a drawing system - the symbols you'll be drawing are easy to handle and the game is intelligent in interpreting them. It matters not if your circle is drawn clockwise or anti-clockwise, or whether you start at the top or the bottom; slashes can be made on pretty much any plane except straight vertical and can go left-to-right or right-to-left, et cetera. (The bloom power is occasionally a little frustrating, but you'll rarely have any time pressure when using that one.) The fact that time stops when you're drawing is a huge help.

You don't start with all the brush techniques at once. Instead, you pick them up from various celestial beings as you go about your travels. In this way, the game is very similar to The Legend of Zelda, as you'll be picking up a new ability, using it to overcome a challenge, and then getting a new ability as a reward (rinse, repeat).

Your quest will regularly take you into caves and dungeons, but the developers seem not to have understood that the very best bit about what they've created lies on the overworld. Each new section of overworld you encounter is initially possessed by a creeping darkness that has turned the land into a barren wasteland. As you use your powers to perform various tasks in each section, the wasteland will be driven back until eventually the area is a paradise once more.

Your first task is usally to bring into bloom a sacred tree in each area, which sends a wave of rejuvenation running across the land, making the blight retreat to select pockets of nastiness. This all by itself is an incredibly cool and satisfying cutscene, as flowers and greenery rush across the landscape like an unstoppable tide.

Once you've made the area vaguely safe to traverse, you can then seek out the individual trouble points and use your abilities to fix them. Blighted grass can be healed by colouring it over with your rejuvenation power. Water can be made to flow by linking clean rivers to empty or blackened ones with lines of your brush. Animals can be fed with a variety of foodstuffs. Dead trees can be brought back to life with a touch of your brush. This gameplay is simple but deeply rewarding, as the results of your actions are instantly and integrally reflected in the landscape, which you'll be moving back and forth across as you complete your quest. Every item around you is a reminder of your challenges and successes.

The game would ultimately be a better game if it had stuck entirely to this overworld-rejuvenation gameplay, because the dungeons are ultimately deeply derivative of The Legend of Zelda and more than a little dull. They're reasonably well executed for what they are, but you'll be left feeling like you've played them a million times already in other games, where they were done better. Each one predictably culminates in a boss fight, which are at least rather well executed, if a little easy.

The plot is pretty poorly paced. The game opens promisingly, with an excellent narrative that binds your fate to that of the village drunkard on a quest to defeat the evil serpent-demon Orochi. However, twelve hours or so later, when you've defeated Orochi, you'll be thinking that that's a reasonably good place for the game to end, with most plot threads tied up - but you'll be wrong. The game springs a "but that's not all!" on you, and immediately flings you off on another quest just when you were thinking that you'd probably had enough of Okami. Myself, I was a bit disenchanted with all the dungeon crawling, and frustrated by the plot bait-and-switch, so as of this writing I haven't progressed very far into the second quest, and it's possible I never will.

If you love the 3D Legend of Zelda games and want more of the same gameplay in a very different-looking package, then Okami will be like a wonderful gift from the heavens. Even if you're not, you have to see this game to understand just how wonderful it looks. But if the Zelda gameplay wearies you, then you'll be disappointed that Okami didn't trust in its own innovation enough to abandon the rather tired Zelda formula.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Sega Skeptical About Wii Prospects

Sega marketing VP Scott Steinberg riled Nintendo fanboys worldwide today when he told Reuters that he is "a little concerned about the creative depth of the Wii pool." He went on to add, "The Wii will start to look really dated in a couple years when developers get more value from the 360 and learn more and more about the PlayStation 3. [...] How much value can developers and creative folks get out of this wrist motion two years from now, or 5 years from now, or 10 years from now? How can they design products that aren't too derivative of what's already out there?"

It's a question that really betrays more about the speaker than it does about the topic. Sega's premium release list for the Wii currently checks in at a grand total of six games, only two of which are currently out. Sonic and the Secret Rings is the latest entry in a decade-and-a-half-old franchise, in which a poor Wii control scheme is the perfect companion to gameplay that betrays a complete lack of understanding of the concept of "fun". Nights: Journey of Dreams is the latest entry in a decade-and-a-half-old franchise, the controls and gameplay of which we're yet to hear much about.

Ghost Squad, you'll be happy to hear, is an original title (or at least a port of an original arcade title), but Alien Syndrome returns true to form by being (wait for it) the latest entry in a decade-and-a-half-old franchise. Super Monkey Ball Banana Blitz, despite all indications, was actually rather fun, though not exactly original, but their last title, The Golden Compass, is a movie license, so its badness is a mostly foregone conclusion.

I think when Sega asks how developers can create Wii titles that aren't derivative of what's already out there, it's not a rhetorical question. They'd really like to know. Can somebody help them out?

On The Way: Dynasty Warriors Gundam

Is it just me, or does Dynasty Warriors: Gundam sound like the greatest idea in the history of gaming, ever? It's like some kind of horrible curse that game developers keep creating reasons for me to buy an XBox 360. Damn you, game developers! Damn your eyes!

Thursday, June 14, 2007

A Tale of Souls and Swords

My favourite fighting franchise makes its way to the next generation.

Someone must have felt that Ivy's wardrobe was too restrained last time around, because that's some totally ludicrous fashion that she's almost wearing. In any other case I'd suggest that it was a bit silly, but this is Soulcalibur, the franchise which can do no wrong. Dagnabbit, it looks like I'm going to have to buy a next-gen system that's not the Wii. By which I mean, of course, an XBox 360.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Stupid Feed

I've just realised that when I update old posts to fix their tags, Blogger re-publishes them to my Atom feed. If you read The Dust Forms Words via a feed, you should know that the last post before this one should have been The Sic-Bo Problem.

Does anyone know how I can fix this? Can I turn off my feed prior to editing and turn it back on, or does that cause even bigger problems?

Monday, June 11, 2007

The Sic-Bo Problem

So here's a puzzle:

Last night we went to the Melbourne Crown Casino, which is a labyrinth of neon madness the likes of which mankind was not meant to comprehend.

In the midst of the roulette, blackjack, pontoon and far-too-many poker machines, there is a little game that the Crown likes to call "Sic-Bo". The rules of Sic-Bo are simple - three six-sided dice are rolled, and you bet on what the result will be.

There are all sorts of complex bets you can make, but relevantly to our problem the bottom area of the betting table allows you to bet on the results of single dice. The numbers one through six are shown, and you can place your chips on any of these numbers.

If you bet on a number, and that number appears on any of the dice, the game pays 1 to 1. (That is, your $5 bet wins you a further $5.) If the number comes up on two dice, it pays 2 to 1 ($10 for your $5). And if all three dice show the number you bet on, it pays 12 to 1 ($5 yields $60).

This, I have to say, initially confused us. Those are good odds. I believe the phrase "money farm" was used. As we saw it, this was guaranteed returns, such that everything we knew and understood about casinos was turned upside down.

Here's how our reasoning went. If you place a $5 bet on each and every one of the six numbers, you couldn't lose money. In a case where all three of the dice show different numbers, you'd lose on half the numbers and win 1 to 1 on the others, thereby breaking even. Where you got a double and a single, that was the same total win as singles, so you were even. And on in the 1 in 36 occasions on which triples came up, you pocketed a profit. Rinse and repeat; increase your stake to make the money come in faster. There is no dice result on which the house doesn't pay out; cocked dice results in bets off but no loss to the player.

Using this logic we started doing all sorts of interesting maths that suggested we should immediately quit our jobs and just work the Sic-Bo tables 24/7, happily raking in buckets of cash while the other players looked on in an intoxicating mixture of awe and admiration.

So I have two questions. The first, which we have now solved, is in the case where we bet evenly on all six numbers, how does the house make its money? And the second question, which we haven't finished the numbers on yet, is does it make a difference if you instead just bet continually on a single number?

Sunday, June 10, 2007

At Convergence

So I'm at Convergence 2007, and I guess it's a pretty good convention. I mean, I haven't really been to any of the panels, or any of the scheduled programming, but my hotel room is nice. If by nice I mean "carpeted". Because it has carpet.

It's not the fault of the panels. Really, it's me. If I was publishing a book, or, um, publishing a book, then every last panel would be hitting right on target, and it would be like I was in some kind of book-publishing heaven where sweet nectar flows from every faucet. The wish to engage with science fiction on a level beyond "how to write it" is clearly a defect in my personality that can only be cured through the judicious application of electricity.

Non-concession entry at the gate was $260, which it is pleasing to know has funded free alcohol at each of several book launches. There's no gaming stream or media stream or masquerade, but I do have the distinct pleasure of standing around at these launches and picturing how much fun I would be having if I enjoyed champagne. In my mind I'm drinking champagne while surrounded by fine ladies and dancing a saucy jig. Yes sir, it sure is a noteworthy jig.

It turns out that bringing my DS was a good plan. (That's the only system I brought; as always, VG Cats turns out to be topical in this regard.) Getting to the Hard Rock difficulty in Elite Beat Agents unlocks not only the Elite Beat Divas but also this character who has the head of a cat, which I've been deploying in multiplayer to pwn fellow Elite Beaters right in the face. Good times.

Tonight I'm off to the Crown Casino in company. I'm making tentative enquiries as to exactly how much money one has to spend at the roulette table to unlock bonus content or at least some kind of Pokemon but as yet replies are slow in forthcoming.

Regular gaming related bloggings will resume once I'm off this merry-go-round of gambling and sub-par convention programming. Keep your RSS readers tuned for further details.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Little Birdy Live At The Venue

I just saw Little Birdy tonight live at The Venue, Erindale. Absolutely fantastic. They opened with After Dark (video below) which was totally made to be performed live (vastly better than the clip), and followed through with most every song from the Hollywood album plus some of their earlier stuff.



Support act Utility were incredible and worth the price of admission all by themselves (especially the drummer). They have a rather dodgy Myspace page, for those interested, which features all the things you despise Myspace for, including auto-loading music. Praise them for their art and forgive them for their near-terminal netiquette-illiteracy.

There was another support act, Gilf, whose pub-rock stylings didn't greatly enthuse me, but my escort for the night was impressed enough to buy an album. Go figure.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Custom Robo Arena Post-Mortem

As juvenile as it seems, consistently replacing the words "custom robo" with "penis" really does make Custom Robo Arena a better game.

In the world of Custom Robo Arena, "custom robos" are a big thing. They're odd-looking and they fit in your pocket, although they get larger when called into action. Anyone who's anyone has one, and those without are really nothing more than second class citizens suitable only for cooking and the raising of children.

Luckily, the sullen red-headed stepchild that you'll be playing is part of the custom robo crowd. Havingly only just hit puberty, you haven't been operating your custom robo for long, but it turns out that you're preternaturally good at swinging your custom robo up and down virtually any holosseum you care to name. It's no surprise that on your first day at a new school you quickly makes friends with the first people you'll meet - a boy named Daniel and a girl named Liv.

Daniel suffers from something of an insecurity complex and is disproportionately impressed by your custom-robo-related prowess. He has a custom robo of his own, of course, but he's not particularly good with it, and in any case yours is larger and capable of tricky maneuvers. Liv, being a girl, does not have a custom robo, but it turns out she's full of useful suggestions for how you can use yours.

Before long you'll be deploying your custom robo in a range of unlikely situations, ranging from winning local tournaments to fighting evil crime syndicates. You'll be constantly plied with custom robo advice from authority figures such as your dad, your friends, and discarded adult reading material. Even the local teacher lends a hand, despite being regularly reprimanded by his wife for playing with his custom robo in front of the schoolchildren.

Using your custom robo is a pretty repetitive process; one custom robo engagement is much like another. Luckily the basic gameplay is fairly enjoyable and any given scenario normally ends with a satisfying finish. It probably won't take you long, though, to get tired of the game's one-track mind. Most any problem in the game can ultimately be solved with a prolonged session of custom robo waggling.

Between matches it's important to keep your custom robo clean and shiny. The game will provide you with a polishing cloth for just this purpose, which you can apply using the DS touch screen. If you don't regularly give your custom robo a good rub-down, you'll find that its battle readiness will quickly decrease, leading to sub-optimal performance and premature weapon misfires.

You can buy a large variety of customisations and accessories for your custom robo, but there's not much incentive to get any of them, because your custom robo works just fine straight out of the packaging. When it comes down to a custom-robo face off, it really isn't what you have equipped, but how you use it.

Between the unchanging gameplay and the lack of incentive to upgrade, you'll probably get quickly tired of the casual custom robo scene. That's when it's time to start moving in new social circles, and luckily if there's one thing the internet was made for, it's servicing your custom robo. A quick trip into cyberspace through the magic of Nintendo Wi-Fi will quickly connect you to a worldwide network of custom-robo enthusiasts, all of whom are eager to see what you're made of. Real life partners are significantly more exciting than computer generated ones, and it's here that you'll really get to demonstrate just what you can do with your custom robo.

Ultimately, Custom Robo Arena is quite obviously trying to be Pokemon-with-guns, but despite translating Pokemon's turn-based action into a real-time format, it never really succeeds in capturing any of the charm or addictiveness of its inspiration. There are many, many better DS games available, so if you're going to buy this, you'd better really, really love your custom robo.

Convergence 2007, Melbourne

By the way, I'll be part of the non-writer's-guild Canberra posse attending this year's national science fiction convention in Melbourne this coming weekend. I fly in Friday early afternoon and leave late Monday, and I'm staying at the Rydges for the intervening period. Guests include Megatokyo's Fred Gallagher, writer Isobel Carmody, and... well, me. (Note: I am not an officially sanctioned guest. Possibly because the organisers thought they couldn't get me.)

It's all taking place over the Greg's Birthday Long Weekend, a public holiday which I happen to share with Her Majesty the Queen. Celebrations will occur at some point on the weekend, likely accompanied by alcohol.

If you're also attending, drop me a comment.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Eledees Post-Mortem

If you've played Wii Sports, you've mastered Zelda, you're done with Excite Truck, and you're looking for something new to show off the potential of the Wii, then Eledees is DEFINITELY for you.

Eledees (known as Elebits in the US) is a game I got to see demonstrated at last year's Tokyo Game Show. I watched the Konami booth girls using the Wii remote to fling around heavy furniture, construction machinery, and the occasional house, and then went home to tell all and sundry how I'd just seen "Katamari with guns".

And I wasn't far wrong. Eledees takes most of the gameplay elements that worked so well in Katamari Damacy and its sequels and puts them into the context of a light-gun game. Some unfortunate design decisions and a lack of last-minute polish mean that it's ultimately not as good as any of the Katamari games, but as a novel and tactile use of the Wii control system it's definitely worth your time and money.

Eledees, for those not aware, are the nun-punchingly cute critters that live inside our electrical devices and make them work. Arriving on Earth from some kind of space-lightning-meteor many moons ago, Eledees have lived in harmony with humans for lo these many years. Unfortunately, something terribly vague has now happened, causing Eledees to strike en mass and hide under your couches, wardrobes and fine china instead of generating power like the subordinate slave race that they are.

It's (apparently) up to one exceptionally whiny kid named Kai to whip the no-good Eledees back into line with the aid of a trusty Capture Gun pilfered from his science-loving parents. The Capture Gun works a lot like the gravity gun from Half-Life 2, in that you'll be using it to pick up, rotate, shake, and otherwise zap the bejeezus out of absolutely anything that isn't nailed down (and some things that are).

Each stage is set within a fairly familiar domestic environment, starting with Kai's bedroom and ultimately working into the backyard, the city streets, and eventually a fairly over-the-top amusement park. You're given a time limit and tasked with capturing the heck out of the sundry Eledees hiding in the vicinity. Some Eledees are right there in plain sight, sound asleep and snoring gently, and you can zap 'em right there and then with your capture gun to add them to your collection. The majority, though, are hiding under or inside nearby items, so you'll be using your gun to pick up objects, shake them down for spare change, and eventually flick them out of your way with fairly explosive force.

Eledees come basically in two flavours. Some Eledees give you raw wattage when captured. Wattage counts towards the point total that you need to clear the level, so it's pretty valuable. Also, when your wattage reaches certain levels, items in the vicinity will power up, starting with the area's overhead lighting, and then moving on to things like microwaves, televisions and lawnmowers. You can switch on these powered items to trigger a flood of extra Eledees, which you'll want to quickly round up to add to your pool.

The other sort of Eledees will give you gun power. Your gun starts out at a pretty pathetic power quota each stage, but as you suck up power Eledees it levels up, giving you the ability to pick up progressively heavier items. Where at first you'll be straining to lift pizza boxes, it won't be long before you're shifting pianos, flipping bulldozers, and ultimately mucking about with the orbit of the moon.

The controls are mapped to a combination of the Wiimote and the nunchuk. You'll use the Wiimote like a light gun, hitting either button A or B to unleash your lightning-like capture stream. Zapping Eledees will add them to your captured collection, while hitting a movable object will lock the beam to the object. You can continue holding down A or B once you've locked onto an object to use the Wiimote to move the object around.

The Nunchuk uses the directional stick to facilitate your movement - up and down are forward and back, and left and right strafe. You can turn by aiming the Wiimote at the edges of the screen, which (by the way) works vastly better here than it ever did in Red Steel, although you'll still have some flaky moments. The nunchuk "shoulder buttons" let you crouch low to go toe-to-toe with ground-based Eledees, or stretch up to see over barriers and into drawers.

The basic gameplay of Eledees is fantastically good. Shooting Eledees and throwing around giant objects are visceral and rewarding experiences, and you'll be wanting more of both long after you've finished the game's 30 levels. Unfortunatley, Eledees throws some complications into the mix which work against many of its strong points.

For starters, some missions will arbitrarily challenge you to complete missions "quietly" or "without breaking things". These really amount to the same sort of gameplay - it means don't throw things around. Instead of cutting loose like some sort of gravity-gun-equipped-bull in a china shop, you'll have to gently lift items and then set them back into place. Luckily there aren't too many missions like this, because not only does it take the fun out of the best parts of the game design, but it's also ill suited to the controls.

Picking things up and throwing them around is easy, but you can also (in theory) rotate things by twisting the Wiimote left or right. In practice, you can really only turn things about forty degrees each way, because that's about as far as your wrist will go before your bones snap. As you have to pick things up in order to rotate them, and then put them down to allow your wrist to return to its normal position, rotating things in practice doesn't really work. It's fine for situations where the game asks you to turn doorknobs and taps, but when you need to turn a bin upside down to shake Eledees out it's just a pain.

Also, when you lock onto an object, the object will always remain as far away from you as it was when you zapped it, meaning if you want to bring an object closer to you you'll either have to back up, put it down, and walk forward again, or engage in some haphazard item-juggling with the Wiimote. The game blithely ignores this limitation by regularly tasking you to put one item inside another, or on top of another, or otherwise do something made difficult by the imprecise controls. When you hit the late-game level made almost entirely of these annoying puzzles you'll probably have a "Hulk smash" moment and end up just ripping the scenery apart with your grossly overpowered capture gun. What makes it doubly annoying is that it would have been very easy to set the D-pad on the Wiimote to allow you to draw in and push out captured objects.

The game ships with both a multiplayer mode and a level editor, which both seem initially promising but don't really pan out. The multiplayer mode lets up to four players share the same screen while competing to capture Eledees, but only Player 1 will get to control the camera angle and movement so it's not really a particularly fair fight. After a brief taste you'll probably wish that the possibilities of a split screen mode had been more thoroughly explored.

The level editor lets you play with a reasonably large number of objects, save levels, and share them with friends via WiiConnect, but ultimately the interface is fairly poor, and in any case the levels already included in the game are deep enough that you're unlikely to feel the need for additional challenges.

And the levels are deep - there's a staggering amount of different objects to toss around, about a zillion Eledees to find and capture, and a good number of bonus goals and objectives to complete, from finishing the occasionally devilishly hard Challenge missions to finding the three Pink Eledees hiding in each level.

Between levels you're shown what the developers laughingly refer to as a "story", involving Kai's quest to hunt the Eledees. The European release (redubbed to use the word Eledees instead of the US Elebits) features voice acting so awful that it will make you long for the masterful artistic talent of mid-80s anime dubs. Kai's voice in particular grates like nails on a chalkboard. The best bet is to skip these hideous outings and dive right into the gameplay.

Overall, Eledees is not without its faults (of which there are many), but as far as shooting-gallery-gravity-gun-sandbox games go, it's the clear leader in a field of one. It's a fantastic use of the potential of the Wii control system, and it's the sort of game that will leave all your friends wanting to have a go. As Wii releases continue to be more or less average for the foreseeable future, there's no good excuse to buy anything else for the system until you own this.

Friday, June 01, 2007

On The Way: Blue Charlie

I'm still working on writing up Blue Charlie into some sort of replicable format, but in the mean time here's a hastily improvised trailer to keep your appetite sharp.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

On The Way: Pattern Recognition

Somehow until now I've managed to miss the news that a cinema adaptation of Pattern Recognition is on the way. Based on William Gibson's novel about mysterious film footage on the internet. To be directed by Peter Weir (Picnic at Hanging Rock, Dead Poet's Society, The Truman Show) with a screenplay by David Arata (Brokedown Palace, Children of Men) - which is already a far better creative team than I'd generally expect to be attached to something like this.

Looks promising.

Monday, May 28, 2007

10 Underappreciated Games

Doing my post-mortem of Obscure yesterday has got me thinking. It's a game that got receptions from review sites that ranged from lukewarm to downright insulting, and yet it's without a doubt thoroughly unique in both its genre (teen horror) and gameplay (co-op survival horror). It escapes me why such a competent and memorable game hasn't picked up a cult audience. Certainly developer Hydravision has faith in the brand as a sequel is now on the way.

So in the spirit of games which deserve more attention, I'm happy to bring you 10 underappreciated games which you can play on consoles you own today.

1) Sprung (Nintendo DS)
In the rash of DS launch games, somehow the world failed to notice Sprung, a dating game from the studios of Ubisoft. Rather than treading the path of Japanese hentai games, with cheap vicarious thrills motivating the player to slug through repetetive gameplay, Sprung instead opts for an engaging character-driven art style and genuinely witty dialogue. The majority of gameplay consists of working your way through branching conversation trees reminiscent of The Secret of Monkey Island in an attempt to accomplish a variety of goals, most of which are tangentially related to dating. Although packed with adult references, the game stays tasteful and non-explicit and is a genuine joy even for those not normally inclined to the genre.

2) Fahrenheit (aka Indigo Prophecy) (PlayStation 2)
I can't talk enough about how good Fahrenheit is, and yet it seems barely anyone has played it. No other game has blended narrative, gameplay and cinematic direction as seamlessly as Fahrenheit, and although the plot takes something of a left turn near the end it still stands out as one of the most memorable games you're ever likely to play. You still have time to get in on the ground floor before developer Quantic Dream releases their follow-up, Heavy Rain, on the PS3.

3) Azure Dreams (PlayStation)
Don't confuse the PlayStation version of Azure Dreams with its inferior GameBoy port. Konami mixes the best elements of Rogue, Pokemon and Harvest Moon in this fantastic RPG. Trawl through a massive randomly generated tower full of monsters and mayhem, seeking out monster eggs which hatch into minions who'll fight for you and level up, and then use the treasure you'll find to expand your home town, decorate your house, and woo the fine ladies you'll encounter. Fanastically addictive and unfortunately all too hard to find copies of. If you see one in a PAL format I'll pay you good money.

4) DefJam: Fight for NY (PlayStation 2)
Don't be put off by the DefJam branding; this is a solid and unique wrestling-slash-brawling game. The mechanics behind the satisfyingly brutal pitfights are only enhanced by the fact you'll be using a surprisingly large array of real-life hip-hop artists and celebrities to fight them. Trust me, nothing beats throwing Snoop Dogg in front of a subway train, or beating Ice T senseless with a metal pipe. A decent create-a-fighter mode is the icing on the cake.

5) Zone of the Enders (PlayStation 2)
In all the Metal Gear fan-stampede that goes on, it's easy to forget that Hideo Kojima made another series about giant mechs. Zone of the Enders features a tight character-driven plot, an absolutely stellar soundtrack, and more importantly it's one of the few mech-based games ever released which is remotely playable. It's short enough that you can finish it in a single day, but you'll regard that day as exceptionally well spent.

6) Loco Roco (PSP)
I've spoken in depth about Loco Roco previously, but it's worth pointing out again how absolutely unique this little gem is. It doesn't seem to have flown off the shelves with quite the celerity I'd hoped for, so the chances are there's a copy sitting in a bargain bin near you. Do yourself a favour and play what's probably the squishiest platformer ever to come out for a portable system.

7) ActRaiser (Super Nintendo)
It's available on the Virtual Console right now, people - you have no excuse. This is Squaresoft's once and only foray into the madness of crossing hardcore platforming action with a god sim. Trust me that the levels where you play as an arrow-shooting angel watching over the development of a small civilisation more than make up for the absolutely brutal side-scrolling interludes. If you can't hack the difficulty on your Wii, then try it on your PC with an emulator to make the going easier.

8) Clock Tower (PlayStation)
No one has ever claimed the Clock Tower series was perfect. In fact, a number of people have gone to considerable length to convince the world of the exact opposite. But there's no question it's absolutely unique. It's survival horror where you won't find a single weapon - when serial killer Scissorman shows up, the best you can hope for is to hide or to temporarily stun him with such handy nearby objects as fire extinguishers. It's absolutely criminal that this basic concept was never developed into something that reached beyond Clock Tower's small cult following.

9) Star Control 2 (PC)
It's like some sort of demonic injustice that there are still people in this world who haven't played Star Control 2. It somehow fell mostly under the radar when it was originally released, and to this day there are unenlightened cave-dwellers who haven't heard its name. This is possibly the greatest game ever made, and I don't use that phrase lightly. Absolutely first class non-linear plot, fantastic dialogue ranging from side-splittingly funny through to deeply creepy, scads of alien races, dynamic spheres of political influence, real-time 2D ship-to-ship combat, resource management, exploration, and a soundtrack that will make you want to punch people who haven't played the game right in the face. With all sorts of remakes and emulations floating around on the net, if you can't be bothered to go and play Star Control 2 right this minute then you, sir, are worse than Hitler.

10) ToeJam and Earl (Sega Megadrive/Genesis)
Another Virtual Console option, if you fire up ToeJam and Earl on your Wii I think you'll find it's one of the cleverest two-player co-operative games ever envisioned. Despite (or perhaps because of) its garishly loud graphics, it creates the perfect mix of cooperation and competition as two aliens attempt to reconstruct their damaged space ship and escape this crazy planet called "Earth". Isometric exploration-based gameplay has never looked so good.

And lastly I'm giving the honourable mention to Metal Gear Ghost Babel for the GameBoy Colour, also known as just Metal Gear. Though not really something you can play on a current generation system, it's just a terrible shame that this game was dismissed as an inferior port of the Metal Gear Solid titles. Packing in all of the deep plot, memorable boss fights, and surprise twists that made the PlayStation titles stand out, it manages to render an exciting and engaging Metal Gear experience on a portable platform, which I hasten to add is something that Metal Gear Acid never managed to achieve.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Robbie The Rabbit in Eledees

I'm about halfway through Eledees for the Wii (Elebits in the United States), and I'm amused to note that in what is otherwise an aggressively child-oriented title, Konami has seen fit to throw in a brief visual reference to Silent Hill. In the process of exploring Eledees, the player encounters an amusement park. Displayed prominently on statues and park maps is none other than Robbie the Rabbit, the terrifying creepy mascot of the Lakeside Amusement Park who appears in Silent Hill 3 and 4. In Silent Hill he's first encountered drenched in what appears to be blood. In Eledees he's shown holding a delicious hot dog, and the descriptive text reads, "He loves ketchup. (That's not blood.)".

Awesome.

Obscure Post-Mortem

Obscure is a game that lives up to its title. Developed by French studio Hydravision in 2004 and released in the Euro-Australian market long before it made its way to the US, the game never really made much of a splash. Which is a shame, because if you're into old-school survival horror, Obscure serves up a unique, if derivative, experience.

Obscure's really like a trip back in time to late 90s teen horror flicks. The first character you control meets a hideous fate before the opening credits roll, and then you'll find yourself leading a group of teens out to investigate their missing schoolmate. You'll end up traipsing the length and breadth of an American high school while simultaneously fighting off waves of darkness-spewing plant mutants.

Your team of groovy mystery solvers starts out with just three members, but you'll soon pick up some friends to round out the posse to an even five. Each character has a special ability, although none of the abilities are ever absolutely necessary. Stan, for example, can pick locks quickly and without needing to use the length of wire that everyone else requires. Shannon can advise you of where you'll need to go next to progress, while Kenny can run a little faster than anyone else. You can play as any character in your party, and you can take a second character with you as backup. The remainder of your group remain at a central "meeting point", which you can return to in order to swap people in and out of your expeditionary party.

It would be polite to say that Obscure references Robert Rodriguez's 1998 sci-fi teen horror romp The Faculty, but it would be more accurate to say that it steals from it wholesale. Entire level designs are taken straight from the film, along with large chunks of the plot, and the character model for Stan looks so much like actor Josh Hartnett that you'll be surprised to hear someone else's voice reading his lines. What it doesn't take from The Faculty it draws from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, including a very familiar school courtyard and foyer, and a principal who bears an uncanny resemblance in appearance and character to Armin Shimmerman's portrayal of Principal Snyder.

The single player action isn't particularly inspiring. The game borrows gameplay elements from Resident Evil and Silent Hill, without really surpassing either of those classic franchises. You'll be moving through the interiors of school buildings, gathering ammunition and health items, duking it out with nasty critters, and solving simple puzzles. The two main innovations come from the use of light, and the second character.

It seems the monsters in Obscure are mutants created from a rare light-hating plant. Seeing as ammunition is brutally scarce even on the easiest difficulty, you'll be doing everything you can to pour light onto your enemies before finishing them up with a well placed bullet. Early on in the game, while the sun's still up, this involves smashing in windows to let the evening sunlight pour into classrooms. Some particularly tense scenes involve you working your way around the outside of rooms, near the windows, avoiding nasties waiting in the room's centre. Later, once the sun goes down, things become more problematic, but luckily the game lets you acquire flashlights, which can be sticky-taped to the barrels of your firearms.

The real genius, though, comes from the second character. In a single player game, your ally will support you with firepower, lighting, and the occasional bit of advice. You can switch between your active characters on the fly at the press of a button, and the two characters can even use healing items on each other to create healing support during combat.

But if you have a second controller sitting around, the game really begins to shine. Drop-in drop-out co-operative gameplay means that a friend can take control of that second character and turn an otherwise average survival horror-game into a fairly strategic social experience. The second player adds a whole new element to the game, allowing you to lay down covering fire, have one person providing light while another explores, or just have someone watch your back while you're working on a particularly tricky puzzle or door lock.

As far as I'm aware Obscure is the only modern survival horror featuring two-player co-op on a single console, and it's an absolutely fantastic idea. Everyone knows that horror movies are better when watched with friends, so why have we been consigned to playing survival horror alone?

The graphics are largely adequate to the job, although not special. The game makes extensive use of darkness, to the point where it occasionally becomes difficult to find your way around simple environments. Luckily a quick brightness adjustment on your TV will fix the problem.

The sound effects for monsters, weapons and suchlike are unexceptional, but the game makes fantastic use of ambient sounds including distant screams and breaking windows to suggest terrifying mayhem in progress just out of sight.

The music is even better than the ambient sound. In fact, it's absolutely fantastic. Opening music by Sum 41 and closing music by Span set up the teen-horror atmosphere, and the in-game themes feature rousing orchestral instrumentals and the creepy tones of a children's choir. You'll frequently want to stop and just bathe in how awesome the soundtrack is.

Is Obscure scary? Not in the same way as Silent Hill. The game makes use of very few scripted sequences, instead relying largely on the game's inherent difficulty and atmosphere to keep you on the edge of your seat. It's effective, but if you're looking for cat-in-the-locker or haunted-funhouse sequences you might be disappointed.

Arkem and I slogged through the easy mode beginning-to-end last night in about five hours, so it's not a particularly long game. There's a New Game Plus-type option which gives you access to new costumes and weapons, but none of that is very enticing. Even easy mode is pretty unforgiving, though - we did a lot of saving and loading - and normal might be a challenge for even survival horror veterans. When your characters die, they stay dead, and the game just teleports you back to the meeting place for you to continue on with whatever surviving teenagers you have left. There's also one bitterly stupid sequence involving a collapsing floor that can take several reloads if you're unlucky, but it's thankfully quite brief.

If you enjoy the survival horror genre, you should absolutely grab a friend check out Obscure, if only via rental, as a pleasant change from the genre kings. Or at least to tide you over until Silent Hill Origins finally makes its way onto store shelves.