Monday, June 30, 2008

The Selfish Gamer

But what can they do for me?

Probably the hardest thing about creating likeable characters in videogames is answering this question. What can they do for me?

Characters who are defined by their need to be helped are rarely likeable. There's a whole quest-giving escort-requiring tribe of these layabouts out there, with Mario's passive-aggressive taskmistress Peach at their head.

On the other hand, powerful characters can be just as problematic. If an NPC can do what the player does, only better, they risk trivialising the player's experience. Characters who give out benefits as if they were candy become little more than glorified vending machines.

One answer is to divorce characters from the game mechanics; have them neither help nor hinder the player, but merely talk. If your characters are more hated than Hitler due to their poor AI and complete inability to defend themselves from the most low-level goblins then you might be well-served by this possibility. But for everyone else, it's a cop out.

Players can be friends with characters; they can even do this when characters interface with gameplay. Ico did it reasonably well. The World Ends With You did it very well. And Wing Commander did it perfectly.

I love Wing Commander. It's almost entirely beyond criticism, as are its first two sequels and all of their expansions. The space dogfighing action is very good, especially considering the technical limitations of the time. But what makes it excellent are the wingmen.

You can't think of Wing Commander without thinking of Paladin, Maniac, Angel, Bossman, and the other pilots of the TCS Tiger's Claw. Each has their own backstory, their own relationship with the main character, and their own unique flying style. Between missions they talk about their hopes and expectations, and in battle they back you up to varying degrees.

One of the reasons that Wing Commander's wingmen work so well is that they didn't ask for the assignment. They haven't "tagged along" or imposed themselves on you. In many cases they'd rather be flying solo. They don't want to have to rescue you any more than you want to rescue them.

Another factor is that they don't need to excel to be useful. They're helpful just by being there. Flying with a wingman means that you're taking half as much enemy fire, and enemies are much easier to shoot down when they're chasing someone other than you. If your wingman happens to make a kill, that's icing on the cake.

But probably what works best of all is that they're all annoying in different ways. If you're frustrated that Angel can't hit the broad side of a barn, you'll at least be grateful that she doesn't abandon the mission to chase every enemy she sees. If you're ready to throttle Maniac for completely ignoring your orders, you'll at least be impressed by his above-average kill count. And the wingmen don't try to pretend that they're perfect; the crew of the Tiger's Claw are more than aware of each other's faults, and won't hesitate to bitch about them.

If all that's not enough for you, you're welcome to let the wingmen get killed off. They'll get a moving funeral sequence, they'll vanish from the break room, and any future missions you would have flown with them you'll instead be working solo. But each time they survive, it's another story you can tell. The next time you fly with them, you'll be thinking, "I remember the last time I flew with this guy."

So the selfish gamer asks what can they do for me? The answer is simple; they provide company. They work well because they're such fully realised characters. When you can look out of your cockpit, see only one other ship in all the darkness of space, and know the name of the person behind the stick, it makes all the difference in the world.

Please visit the Round Table's Main Hall for links to all entries.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Gears of War

Gears of War is innovative, visually stunning and tightly executed, but it lacks that certain something that would make it truly immortal.

By now, pretty much everyone alive has already played Gears of War. Those who haven't are probably huddled under a log somewhere in the depths of the third world, possibly wishing they'd bought a 360 instead of a PlayStation 3.

So I probably don't need to tell you that Gears of War is a third-person shooter developed by Epic Games for the XBox 360 and PC, most notable for its gritty visual aesthetic, its warzone-style shaky camerawork and its snap-to-cover mechanics and squad-based combat.

It's a game that's received a lot of bowing and scraping, and for good reason. The gameplay, graphics, and level design are all first-class. This is clearly a game at the top of its genre.

But it's missing that special something. I have revered games like Half-Life and Max Payne long after I first played them, but I doubt that I'm going to include Gears of War in their ranks. I think it's the Hollywood factor. Half-Life and Max Payne were interactive narratives; Gears of War is merely an immersive one.

In Gears of War it feels like the player is being swept along by the flow of events. There's really only one way to play the game, and only one pace to play it at. It's a hell of a way, and a hell of a pace, but it's always clear that you're having a story told to you, rather than helping to tell a story.

Max Payne, by contrast, let you dictate whether you had a shallow or deep experience. You controlled much of the pacing. You could blast through area after area in a hail of bullets, or stop to watch the television segments and explore the environment for hidden content. Half-Life and its sequel let you pick and choose what areas to fight in, what weapons to fight with, and to what extent to rely on the environment. There were extra conversations to hear, extra sights to see, and humerous consequences for unexpected actions. The game could as easily be a black comedy as an action spectacular.

In Gears of War every player will have almost exactly the same experience. Achieving that in a game of this complexity is actually an amazing technical and game design accomplishment, but it's probably an accomplishment that shouldn't have been aimed for.

It's also a little disappointing that there's a fairly large chunk of the plot missing from the XBox 360 version, which would have sat at the start of the game's final act. I understand this chunk has been put back in to the PC version, but it's disappointing for console players who'll likely be left in the dark as to exactly how the fairly lackluster story concludes.

While the storyline may be weak and the ending unsatisfying, the moment-to-moment dialogue is first class. The four main characters really come alive through their squad-based banter, and the voice actors are absolutely beyond criticism. This chatter does a great job of adding life and character to levels that would otherwise consist of a lot of repetitive run-and-gun gameplay.

Minor complaints aside, this is a phenomenal game that any dedicated gamer simply has to play. Experiencing it now will leave you well-placed for the arrival of the sequel this November.

Diablo 3 Announced

The series of teasers on Blizzard's website over the last few days has culminated in the announcement of the long-awaited Diablo 3.

The official site appeared to be having some problems when I visited but hopefully those will clear up shortly. Exactly how the game will continue from Diablo 2 is unclear, given that the Diablo world was destroyed at the end of the Lord of Destruction expansion.

Revealed character classes include the Barbarian and Witchdoctor. The town of Tristram will make a return appearance, as apparently will the sage Cain.

Presumably more details will be revealed over coming days.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Shellshock 2 Banned In Australia

Atari's Vietnam War shooter Shellshock 2: Blood Trails has been refused classification by the Australian Office of Film and Literature Classification. This has the effect under state and territory law of banning the sale or advertising of the game within Australia.

Shellshock 2 joins a long line of videogames banned within Australia, including titles such as Manhunt, Manhunt 2, Mark Ecko's Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure, Reservoir Dogs and recently Dark Sector.

The highest rating for videogames in Australia is M15+. While films classified by the OFLC can receive ratings of R18+ and X, games that are deemed unsuitable for persons under the age of 18 receive no rating at all. OFLC guidelines also provide that material which would be classified M15+ in a film may receive a higher rating in a videogame by dint of being interactive.

By all accounts Shellshock 2 is a rather mediocre game, which comes as no surprise when you learn that Atari is behind the wheel. Unfortunately, as a result of the OFLC's decision and current censorship law, Australians won't get the opportunity to decide for themselves.

If you want to see change in Australian censorship law:
* write to your Federal Member or Senator to request an R18+ classification for videogames.
* contact your local member of your state or territory government to request a change to state sale and advertising laws.

Thanks to Kotaku for the tip-off.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Warning: Don't Buy Guitar Hero DS Just Yet!

Any number of my friends were desperate to buy a copy of Guitar Hero: On Tour for the DS. Their lust for the game has been completely untempered by reason or practicality, even after it was mentioned that neither RedOctane nor Neversoft were in any way involved with the thing.

I haven't had a chance to play On Tour yet, but in the interests of possibly saving people some money and disappointment, you might want to check out the heavily negative reviews:

Gamespot: "Cumbersome controls and several other shortcomings make this guitar permanently out of tune." 6 out of 10.

IGN AU: "A compromised version of Guitar Hero that is really only an adequate first draft." 6.5 out of 10.

Gamesradar: "Tour cancelled due to broken wrists. [...] There's no sense of stardom, no wish fulfillment, just a series of colored notes that you have to hit." 6 out of 10.

Having been busily predicting that this wasn't going to be the portable sex-replacement that everyone seemed to be expecting, this comes as no particular surprise to me, and I don't intend to shell out money for the thing. However, if anyone who has any real experience with the console Guitar Hero games has played the DS version and wants to give a contrary opinion, please feel free.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Awful, Awful Licensed Games

If you've got a really mediocre game and you want to give it an extra push to make sure it really lands face-first in the fail puddle, all you have to do is slap a licensed property on it, right? I mean, in the long evolution of games based on television, movies, or books, pretty much every iteration has been some kind of apalling two-headed mutant. The fact that there's a handful of exceptions whose names include the words "Lego" or "Star Wars" is really only a gaming proof of the monkeys-with-typewriters principle.

So really all I have to do is to mention that the following games are on their way (really - I'm not joking) to give you an idea of how they're almost certainly going to be unmitigated rubbish.

Asterix Brain Trainer (DS): Replace the disembodied head of Professor Kawashima with the poorly animated visage of Getafix and you've got a sure-fire success, right? Right? Apparently it's packed with entertaining mini-games! October 2008.

Bratz Ponyz 2 (DS): I think it's the "2" that cracks me up here. I mean, I have no doubt that these things sell like they're made from a particularly addictive form of methampethamine, but Sweet Jeebers, would anyone who's played the original honestly be masochistic enough to come back for a sequel? This version apparently boasts more ponyz and more minigames, which has certainly never been a recipe for disaster. September 2008.

Rubik's Classic (DS): You might be tempted to think that this is a particularly lame DS version of Erno Rubik's famous Cube, but what you're probably not aware of is that Mr Rubik has been working for some years as a video game developer and is almost certainly personally involved in whatever this game is. I'm still pegging it as lame, though. 3rd Quarter 2008.

TNA Impact! (XBox 360, PS3, Wii): Pro-wrestling franchise TNA understandably wants to get in on the phenomenal success of games such as THQ's Smackdown vs Raw lineup. Unfortunately they've picked Midway as their developer, so we can all prepare ourselves for a game that'll fall somewhere between "comically bad" and "trauma-inducing". August 2008.

The Sims 2: Ikea Home Stuff (PC): Seriously. Ikea. This expansion to The Sims 2 contains Ikea furniture and is more expensive than "free". That seems like a bad trade. Out this week.

It goes without saying that upcoming games based on Wall-E, Kung Fu Panda, and Space Chimps are going to be terrible. And finally, I was going to finish up this article by taking a cheap shot at Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, which for some reason does not feature "Janie's Got A Gun". So I will.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Left 4 Dead Trailer

I've talked about this before but I think not on the blog. Left 4 Dead is a survival horror title featuring co-operative gameplay for up to four players, procedurally generated pacing, lighting and music, and lots and lots of zombies. Oh, and it's by Valve.

I would describe my mood as "cautiously optimistic". Also, I want to have this game's man-babies. Look for it in November.

Heavy Rain: Where Is It?

News out of Paris GDC is that French developer Quantic Dream is still working on their PS3 exclusive Heavy Rain, which prompts the question: when will it be done?

These are the people who made Fahrenheit / Indigo Prophecy and as far as I'm concerned they can't release a new game fast enough. Lead developer David Cage is still involved in Heavy Rain, so it's almost certain to be a game worth seeing.

The game debuted with an impressive tech demo at E3 2006 which famously featured an uncanny-valley-esque lead actress. Quantic reported that same year that they'd halted production on their sequel to Omikron: The Nomad Soul in order to focus exclusively on Heavy Rain.

Between this and Alan Wake, it's seeming like all the games I'm most excited about are stuck in development limbo.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Videogaming and Crime Victimisation

This graph seems like it's rooted more in propaganda and wishful thinking than hard data. It also makes a mockery of any number of theories of social deviance. But I've spent the best part of two hours trying to pull it apart and I've yet to find a significant chink in its armour.

The numbers come from a US Bureau of Justice survey of violent crime in the United States between 1973 and 2005. The survey targets a "nationally representative sample" of around 77,000 households and asks questions about the experiences of individuals with crime (so this is based on victim perception of crime, rather than police reports, prosecutions or convictions).

It's more or less corroborated by the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Program, which gives numbers for reported crime.

The turning point in both sets of data appears to be 1993. It's possibly significant that the US Bureau of Justice made some major changes to their data collection in 1993 but if anything those changes should have raised the numbers rather than lowering them. Correctional data for the period is suggestive but doesn't seem to provide the answer.

Does anyone out there have any insight into what's really responsible for these dramatic statistics?

Thanks to Hibikiryouga for drawing my attention to the graph.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

"The Birds" Barbie

Via Wonderland:

It's an authentic Mattel Barbie, modelled after Alfred Hitchcock's the Birds. Really.

Or so Entertainment Earth says. I don't pretend to understand the mysterious ways of Barbie, but shouldn't or know something about it? They don't seem to.

But if that doesn't stop you enjoying some terminally surreal pop-culturage you might also be interested in some upcoming Barbies themed on Grease.

UPDATE: Seriously, she's getting attacked by frikkin' birds. And it's Barbie. It's like aliens visited Earth and used their superior alien technology to show us what awesome looks like when you view it from space.

Guitar Hero 3 Downloads Work With GH World Tour

Via Kotaku:

Apparently all those downloadable songs you purchased for Guitar Hero 3 are going to work just fine with the upcoming Guitar Hero World Tour (aka Guitar Hero 4). But not, apparently, with the rather redundant Guitar Hero Aerosmith.

Guitar Hero World Tour will copy competitor Rock Band by including drums and vocals as playable instruments. Presumably the Guitar Hero 3 content will be guitar-only when you import it into the new game. That's still pretty awesome, though.

Level 30 WoW Mounts

I was just discussing with a friend the other day how grim the climb from level 30 to level 40 in World of Warcraft can be.

Good news, then, in the public test realm patch notes:
Mounts at 30?! Yes, it's true: Apprentice Riding and mounts are now available at level 30. Training costs 35 gold.
This might go a long way to making Stranglethorn Vale lose its reputation as Chump Central.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Pink Heart DS

Check it out! Friend Juri's self-modded DS is featured on DS Fanboy! She's traded off the traditional svelte DS profile in favour of a profusion of girly hearts and roses but the overall effect is pretty impressive.

While you're at it, also check out Lehni's home-made game case, which is a use of sewing that I can really get behind.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Nothing To Blog

Short on blogging topics. Pretend there's a long paragraph here about how a well-regarded game mechanic needs to be fundamentally reimagined.

In other news, Gears of War is perfectly enjoyable without being special. Also in that category is Super Paper Mario, which is probably going to prompt a post about how games that are boring are functionally identical to non-boring games which encourage you to play in a boring way.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Rock Band DLC

I'm a little confused. Rock Band is still not out in Australia, and there's no way to play copies of Rock Band on unmodded Aussie 360s, even if you import.

And yet, XBox Live Australia is advertising Rock Band downloadable songs on the Marketplace blade, specifically Maximo Park and the MTV2 Pack. Clicking the ad results in a "content not available" message.

Sounds like somebody's advertising dollars are not being well spent.

Diablo II Patch 1.12

Blizzard just patched Diablo II, removing the CD check.

Which is awesome. Anyone up for some D2 LAN gaming?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Nintendo Cereal System

Last one of these for a little while, I promise. I absolutely love these ridiculous 80s print ads - they'd typically run in gaming magazines or comic books, printed on really crappy paper, and they'd always make whatever they were advertising seem like the ultimate gaming challenge. Including, in this case, breakfast.

The copy reads:
Introducing a winning combination for breakfast.

Link: We rescued breakfast!
Mario: This tastes super!

Introducing the Nintendo Cereal System (TM).

Nintendo is for breakfast now. Nintendo is two cereals in one. Wow! Super Mario Bros (TM) and Zelda (TM), too.

Mix 'em, match 'em, crunch 'em, you just can't lose! Fruit flavoured Marios, Mushrooms and Goombas. Berry flavoured Links, Hearts and Shields. Nintendo is breakfast news!

Nintendo Cereal System.

If you can't beat 'em, eat 'em.
Pure gold.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Power of He-Man

I never played this game, for which I suppose I should be thankful. It came out in 1983 for the Intellivision and Atari 2600, so as you can imagine there were only a couple of "levels", one of which was a side-scrolling shooter and the other being some kind of land based thing where you were chasing down Skeletor.

The ad copy reads:
THE POWER OF HE-MAN (TM)* for Intellivision(R) and Atari(R)2600. It's the first Masters of the Universe (TM)* video game, but it could be the last for He-Man (TM)*. Because even if he survives thirty treacherous miles in his Wind Raider (TM)* he still has to battle Skeletor (TM)* in the mysterious Castle Grayskull (TM)*!
Sorry, Castle Grayskull (TM)*? What's Skeletor (TM)* doing there? Shouldn't it be Snake Mountain (TM)*?

Well, whatever. The screenshots lead me to believe that the Intellivision version looked quite good for the era. In fact, it was the first game to use something called "Super Graphics", which I can only imagine to have been impressive. However, by all accounts the Atari 2600 version did not measure up.

Anyway, the mere fact that I've never heard of the game is a pretty damning indictment. I suspect that only two stages featuring a mish-mash of gameplay was as poor an idea in 1983 as it is today. Apparently if you completed the game it took you back to the beginning with a different background colour.

Great Moments In Gaming History #2: R-Type

The answer to the above question is "no". R-Type is one of the most nun-punchingly hard games ever released for any system, ever. Not only will you not survive, but you'll be pathetically grateful just to outlast the first level.

R-Type swaggered into arcades in 1987 and immediately began to savagely molest the previous genre kings, Gradius (1985) and Darius (1986). I love Gradius in the way that a Catholic priest loves his altar boy, but there is no question that R-Type is the better game. The opening screen challenges you to "Blast off and attack the evil Bydo empire!" and by golly that's exactly what you do.

It's R-Type that's responsible for introducing or popularising nearly everything that we expect today from shoot-em-ups. Customisable weapons, a semi-controllable option pod known as the "Force", and a chargeable beam shot are all core elements of the R-Type experience. For the first time gamers were called upon to not just epileptically flail around the screen dodging bullets (although there's plenty of that) but also to consider the placement of their Force pod and develop a long-term strategy.

The graphics are attractive even by today's standards, stuffed full of chibi mecha and Giger-esque monstrosities. Environments are colourful and bosses are appropriately intimidating. The game's a pleasure to watch, although you'll likely be watching the same section again and again as you struggly manfully to not solve the ridicuously hard level design with a hammer and blowtorch.

Eventually most home consoles saw ports of R-Type; the TurboGrafx-16 version is available today through the Wii Virtual Console. Despite the game only being eight levels long, the original TurboGrafx release was split across two cartridges which were sold separately at full price. The Japanese Virtual Console shop preserves this format, requiring two downloads, but luckily Western gamers can get the whole thing as a single reasonably-priced purchase.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Incredible Hulk

The Incredible Hulk is a competent film, and it's a heroic improvement over the 2003 Ang Lee version, but it still falls short of being truly special.

This version assumes that by now you know who Bruce Banner, the Hulk, Thunderbolt Ross and Betty Ross are. A seventy-minute origin sequence was filmed, but it's been ripped out and replaced with a two minute montage that plays behind the opening credits. The story opens with Banner on the run and trying to control his Hulk problem, while General Ross organises a violent pursuit.

This isn't a sequel to the last movie; it throws Ang Lee's misguided creation onto the scrap heap and starts afresh. The story hinges around Banner's search for a cure. Banner is played by Edward Norton (Fight Club, American History X), who also had a hand in the final script. William Hurt is Thunderbolt Ross, and Liv Tyler is Betty. Tim Roth gives a scene-stealing performance as Emil Blonsky, a soldier under General Ross' command who eventually transforms into the monstrous Abomination.

The bulk of the movie is a direct answer to Ang Lee's 2003 Hulk. The moral greys and soul searching are gone, replaced by sequence after sequence where the Hulk shrugs off bullets and pulverises vehicles. It's like they took the amount of "Hulk smash" in the last movie and then subjected it to gamma radiation until it tripled in size and developed an attitude problem. The few occasions when smashing isn't occurring are used to show Norton and Tyler angsting at each other.

This is undeniably the Hulk of the comic books. Norton's portrayal of Banner (and indeed much of the plot) is drawn straight from Bruce Jones' recent run as writer of the comic book. The Hulk himself falls short of being incredible but is at least recognisable. Ultimately, to say that the film is hit-and-miss is really only to say that it's true to its four-colour roots.

It's all reasonably entertaining, but it's let down in the end on three fronts. Firstly, the characterisation just isn't there. The General Ross of the comics is famous for being a man who is not evil, merely misguidesd. William Hurt is well cast as Ross, and does his best given the material, but is ultimately tarred by the script as a fairly one-dimensional villain. Likewise, although the relationship between Bruce and Betty is front-and-centre there's absolutely no exploration of why these two people are even attracted to each other, let alone invested in saving each others' lives.

Secondly, the CGI isn't up to the task. The Hulk just isn't believable on screen. You won't believe he's really in the same physical location as the live-action actors, and in certain key scenes you'll swear that he's made with claymation. Even worse, the CGI Hulk is utterly charmless, devoid of any real emotion or personality. You won't love him, you won't fear him, you won't even really believe that he's pissed off, let alone the angriest one there is. The same to a lesser extent goes for the implementation of the Abomination during the final battle sequence.

Finally, the movie misses the mark thematically. Marvel is famous for the pathos and resonance of its heroes, but there's none of that here. Bruce Banner's heroism comes too easily, and he never really has to make any sacrifices or overcome any obstacles. He has his girlfriend, his self-respect and a potential cure all handed to him on a plate; he never works for any of it, and he throws himself into battle without any real moral struggle.

I'm particularly upset on this last point, so let me say it a little clearer. The Hulk should not get into dilemmas merely because he happens to be the star of the movie. The final battle of The Incredible Hulk could have been resolved just as neatly by Spider-Man or the X-Men. What makes the Hulk franchise memorable is that the Hulk is an archetypal force; he is the embodiment of rage. He stands when we are told to sit, he roars when we are told to be silent, and when all others are tired of fighting he is only just beginning to tap the depths of his fury. He is the Last Angry Man.

Furthermore, the very powers that enable Bruce Banner to be a hero are a curse to him. In The Incredible Hulk, Banner comes very near to a cure, but the plotline is deeply misplayed, as Banner uses the cure, finds it to be not totally effective, and then goes on to save the day. The absolute core of the Hulk is that Banner can either do the right thing, or be happy, but not both. The film should have had Banner forced to choose between either being cured, or defending others.

For all these reasons, this isn't the Hulk movie that fans have been waiting for, but it's a perfectly reasonable stopgap to fill the time while we wait for another iteration. If you're only going to see one superhero film this year, make it Iron Man, and if you have time for two then I suspect The Dark Knight will be next. But if you're a dedicated fan or an inveterate cinema-goer then it's fair to say you won't feel cheated by The Incredible Hulk.

UPDATE: I've just realised that these are almost the exact same criticisms I made of the Ang Lee version a couple of years ago. So at least I'm consistent.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Upcoming Movies

I'm seeing The Incredible Hulk tomorrow, but in the process of finding a time I discovered a bunch of movies coming over the next 24 months that I'd forgotten were on their way.

Persepolis, an animated adaptation of Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical graphic novel about her childhood in Iran. Satrapi apparently is the director. Definitely not a film I ever expected to get green-lit. Actually this came out in 2007 and got nominated for an Oscar that year, but it's only just now making its way to Australia.

Australia, the next film from director Baz Luhrman. This is the man who did Strictly Ballroom and Moulin Rouge, and while by all accounts this is really honest-to-Jeebers a sweeping outback period drama, I'm not going to be able to watch the thing without expecting a disco ball to descend from the heavens and the cast to break out in a campy jukebox musical number. Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman star. November 2008.

Ashecliffe, directed by Martin Scorsese and based on the book Shutter Island. It's a thriller based around an isolated insane asylum, and Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo star. Scorsese's last attempt at a psychological thriller was his Cape Fear remake, which was damn near unwatchable, but I hold out hope that everyone conerned has learned from their mistakes. October 2009.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars, an animated film that looks visually similar to Genndy Tartakovsky's 2003 series but is otherwise unrelated. Obi-Wan and Anakin set out on a quest to rescure Jabba the Hutt's son, for some reason. It's really hard to stuff up a trailer for a Star Wars movie but the publicity completely fails to excite me. The thing is supposed to lead into a new animated series so the whole mess is probably going to be even more kiddy-friendly than the already bland prequel trilogy. August 2008.

Zombie Strippers aims to be "so bad it's good" although probably it will fall short and end up in the "just bad" pile. When stripper Kat (Jenna Jameson) is bitten by a zombie and becomes one of the living dead, she unexpectedly becomes better at her job and more popular with customers. One by one her colleagues also become zombies, driven by the urge to compete. Robert "Freddy Krueger" Englund stars as the strip club manager. Already been and gone in the US but coming to Australia in August.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Speed Racer

I enjoyed The Blair Witch Project, and I enjoyed Speed Racer.

I enjoyed Speed Racer, but you might not.

This is not your typical Hollywood almost-but-not-quite. This is a movie filled with real genius. It's clever, it's innovative, and it's driven by a totally lucid vision which remains uncompromised from first reel to last.

It's also heir to all the faults of its source material, including wafer-thin supporting characters, an aggressively child-friendly tone, and a tendency towards wince-inducing slapstick.

Speed Racer is wonderful, and it is awful, and its magic is that those two things don't cancel each other out but instead stand face to face, equally proud and locked in a kind of apocalyptic showdown.

This is a film directed by the Wachowski Brothers, and it's got the same kind of bipolar blues as their work on The Matrix Reloaded. One minute it's reminding you why you loved being eight years old, and the next it's making you glad you've grown up. It's based on the Japanese animated series of the same name, and it's hard to say that the movie isn't true to its roots.

Emile Hirsch (Lords of Dogtown) plays Speed Racer, a talented race driver on the speedways of a futuristic Earth. Haunted by the legacy of his deceased brother Rex, and targeted by an evil mega-corporation for elimination, Speed fights for the safety of his family through a series of increasingly high-stakes races.

Hirsch is competent as Speed Racer, but the show is stolen by John Goodman (Roseanne, The West Wing) as Speed's father, with a reasonably entertaining Christina Ricci (Sleepy Hollow) in the role of Trixie. Matthew Fox (Lost) struggles manfully to keep a straight face playing the enigmatic Racer X.

If Speed Racer had claimed to be based on a prominent racing videogame, I would have said it was the greatest game adaptation ever made. The movie shamelessly models its racetrack aesthetic on the best of history's high-tech racers; when you see the swooping midair courses festooned with cliffhanger drops and death-defying jumps you'll swear that you're watching F-Zero or Wipeout. Everything that makes those games awesome is on screen, and the car-related shenanigans displayed here cheerfully spend two hours kicking the laws of physics in the goolies in the most entertaining way you can possibly imagine.

The film is visually amazing. The special effects are very strong, and the Wachowskis make use of a layering technique which results not only in individual scenes being heavily composited, but in multiple scenes being stacked over each other. Action in one location can happen in the foreground while events elsewhere play out in the background; wipe transitions are accompanied by speaking characters sliding across the screen; televisions and mirrors frequently allow narratives to collide.

This layered style is bold, unique, and mostly successful. It gives the movie a sense of keen immediacy, which is backed up by a non-sequential narrative which slides back and forth between relatively slow backstory and thrilling race scenes.

By the way, if you're hoping that the movie will feature the classic Speed Racer theme, rest assured that it's here in spades, reworked through a score by composer Michael Giacchino (Lost, Cloverfield).

The movie's biggest problem is that it doesn't know who it's aiming at. The tone is built from the ground up to be suitable for pre-teens, which admittedly brings it into line with the original cartoon. However, only those old enough to remember watching on TV are going to appreciate what the Wachowskis are aiming for here, and they'll probably be put off by elements like a dung-flinging chimpanzee and a candy-obsessed fat kid.

Speed Racer isn't a love it or hate it movie. It's a hate it or enjoy it movie. It's got a lot of charm, backed by the kind of thrilling climax that you'd expect from the Wachowskis. It's also got a lot of problems. All I can say is that if you go in expecting nothing, you'll probably come out grinning from ear to ear.


I think there's really only three things that we can agree on when it comes to meaningful character choices within videogames.
* We want more of them.
* Knights of the Old Republic got it right.
* Fable got it wrong.

I'm playing Knights of the Old Republic right now, and one of the things that strikes me is that there's really one only choice - do you embrace the light side of the force, or the dark side? All of the lesser choices in the game are really only aspects of that larger choice.

That's of course been done elsewhere, and done poorly. Often when games give players the choice between being "good" and "evil", it's ultimately a fairly shallow choice, where the end result is that you're exposed to one of two alternate endings. Bioshock is an example of a game that handles these kind of morality choices badly.

The reason why that kind of choice is unsatisfying is to do with the nature of stories. Stories have a force and direction that is not entirely within the control of the author. They follow a pattern of covenant, terms and closure.

The first act of a story establishes a covenant with the audience; the story makes a promise about its scope and direction. The covenant lets the audience know when the story will end, and who will be instrumental in its conclusion. The first act asks a question; it is the desire to see that question answered that motivates the audience to continue their participation, and it is the answering of that question which will eventually close the story.

The second act sets out the terms of the covenant; the second act defines what is at stake in the story, both in terms of the plot and the theme. It narrows the ways in which the plot can be happily resolved, creating an illusion that there are no positive outcomes remaining while keeping a doozy of a finale up its sleeve. (In tragedy, the second act offers the hope of a miracle solution which the third act will snatch away.)

For any given first and second act, there is only one appropriate third act. There is only one ending which is the natural and powerful result of what has gone before. While you can create alternative conclusions, there will unfailingly be a "better" one.

That's why alternate endings in games are often unsatisfying; one ending will feel like the "real" ending while the others will come across as suggesting the player has failed in some way. In worst case scenarios (Bioshock) both endings can feel equally wrong.

The way that Knights of the Old Republic handles the dilemma is simple - it changes the second act. The first act tells you that this is the story of the clash between your character and the evil Darth Malak, but the second act varies depending on your actions in the early game. If you're playing a "good guy", everything in the plot starts hinting that this is going to be a tale of redemption and free will. If you're slaughtering innocents left and right then you'll find yourself embroiled in the tragic tale of your corruption and fall.

Either way, the plot feels as though it's the plot you were intended to experience. You don't feel like you're bucking the narrative, and you don't feel like the game's desperately struggling to make sense of your actions. And the conclusion, naturally, will be the inevitable result of the first and second acts.

This is what we need more of in games - not alternate endings, but alternate middles.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Gummi Battle of Pelennor Fields

Kill Ten Rats has backhandedly drawn my attention to these folks, who have recreated Tolkien's Battle of Pelennor Fields using candy, including a bitching licorice Minas Tirith. Check it out.

The World Ends With You

Plenty of good games come along, but it's only every now and then that you find something really special.

The World Ends With You, developed by Square-Enix for the Nintendo DS, is just that kind of special. This is a game that has been thought about, and carefully, and which makes going one-better its quiet religion. It's not as immediately visceral as Devil May Cry or as jaw-droppingly spectacular as Gears of War but it is a game with a masterful and brilliant plan which it executes flawlessly.

You play as Neku, a modern-day teenager with an attitude problem and some intimacy issues. The game begins with Neku waking up in the midst of Tokyo's Shibuya shopping district with no memories and a mysterious black pin. He soon finds that he's invisible to most people, and has been enlisted to fight in something called the Reaper's Game. Played over seven days, the Game offers miraculous rewards to those who win, but the losers are erased from existence.

The game is played in pairs; to complete the missions and fight the vicious "Noise" which stalk Shibuya's streets, competitors must form a "pact" with another player. That's no easy ask for Neku, what with his trust issues, and the dilemma of enforced teamwork is the thematic spine of the game.

The game takes place over the terrain of real-life Shibuya. The world is divided into a couple of dozen areas, each themed around a major Shibuya landmark, and you can walk back and forth across it more or less at will. The narrative of the game is divided into "days"; on any given day only certain portions of the Shibuya are accessible, but luckily after you beat the game you can revisit the days in any order at will.

The black pin that Neku receives at the start of the game gives him the power to "scan" areas, which firstly allows you to read the minds of nearby citizens for hints, backstory, and amusing anecdotes. Scanning also reveals the presence of the aforementioned "Noise", animal-themed monsters intent on erasing players from the Game.

Tapping on Noise initiates combat, which is handled by a separate screen. Noise have to be simultaneously defeated in two different "zones", which equate to the top and the bottom screens. Neku fights on the bottom screen, and attacks using "psyches" granted to him by pins that you collect throughout the game. Each psyche corresponds to a specific stylus gesture, such as drawing a line through an enemy, tapping empty space, or energetically rubbing the entire screen. Successfully activating a psyche can result in anything from meteors raining from the heavens through to a flurry of devastating melee attacks.

At the same time as Neku is scrapping on the bottom screen, your partner will be under attack on the top screen. You control your partner by means of the D-pad. Each directional press deals damage to an enemy, and by navigating through a "combo tree" using a series of these presses you can unleash a powerful finishing move.

Fighting on both screens at once can be initially confusing, but like most games it's a skill you can acquire over time and ends up being quite satisfying once you've mastered it. To help you out, the game by default will take control of your partner if you get distracted, and can in fact completely run the top screen to a fairly adequate standard. Also, on the default difficulty, battles are almost laughably easy, so pretty much any player should be able to make it through to the end.

Actually, the game's difficulty settings are an important part of the core gameplay. The basic settings make most fights a pushover, and give you full use of your abilities, but you can choose to deliberately up the difficulty and/or take a handicap to your health bar in order to make battles yield rarer and more valuable loot. I played through most of the game at the "hard" difficulty with about a 50% level handicap and found that to be pretty much ideal; your individual comfort zone may vary. You can adjust this difficulty at any time during combat, and if you do happen to lose a fight you can instantly retry the fight at either the same difficulty or with your characters made practically invincible.

The dual-screen combat is quite clever from a story perspective. Noise can only be fought in pairs; if you don't have a partner, you're completely helpless. Considering that the narrative thrust of the game is about Neku's relationship with other people, it's a stroke of genius.

A major part of the game is fashion; other than your pins, the only equippable items in the game are clothes, which must be purchased from one of a range of major fashion labels throughout Shibuya. Different clothes have different benefits; by and large one set of threads isn't better than another, only different, so the fashion system is more about customisation than it is about power-levelling. Each area of Shibuya keeps a table showing which brands are hot and which brands are not; simply by wearing a brand onto the streets you'll raise its cool-factor, which is important as psyche-pins from unfashionable brands are significantly gimped in combat.

Theoretically, any character can wear any clothing, and there's benefits to be gained from engaging in a little gender-bending when it comes to your equipment. However, every character has a "Bravery" stat, which is pretty slow to increase, and each piece of clothing has a minimum Bravery required before you can wear it. Female characters tend to start with more Bravery and women's clothing has a higher Bravery requirement.

All that dressing-up might put some people off, but don't be fooled - this isn't just an attempt to cash in on a new demographic. The whole fashion component weaves masterfully into the game's plot and theme. It's hard to say how without giving out spoilers, but the fashion system is one of the most brilliant examples of game mechanics supporting narrative ever to appear in a video game. It's absolutely inspired. The World Ends With You absolutely could not be the game it is without the fashion system, and it turns out to have something really worth saying on the subject.

The soundtrack to the game is phenomenal, consisting mostly of J-Pop, techno and Japanese hip-hop, and the DS speakers don't do it justice. You'll want to spend some time listening to the tunes over the headphones - they're that good.

Also noteworthy is the translation. This is the best translation of a Japanese game I have ever seen - it's a work of minor literary genius in itself. This was obviously going to be an issue for such a Tokyo-centric game, but the dialogue retains the flavour and culture of Shibuya perfectly, including a bunch of sly gaming references and satires of otaku culture. The end product is perfectly understandable and palatable to a Western audience, but still feels savvy and doesn't for a moment allow itself to be dumbed down.

The World Ends With You is great as a game. It's also an amazing piece of fantasy tourism; I defy you to play without wanting to visit the real Shibuya. But beyond all of that, it's an excellent story, with powerfully realised characters, and the whole thing's wrapped within layer after layer of stunningly insightful teen-angst metaphor.

There's a hundred hours of gameplay in this thing easily, and if you're like me the first couple of hours may not make the strongest impression on you. But stick with it, because this is easily the best game of the year so far, and may well be one of the best JRPGs ever developed.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

In Lieu Of A Real Blog Post

Can we aim higher?

Can we say, "it can be done"?

Can we remember those imaginings which in our childhood excited us, and make of them digital reality?

Can we channel every time we have said "they should have" and "I wish they'd" and distill them?

Technology is not the limitation we think it is. People are not the fools we take them for. That which is high can also be mighty.

Just a thought.

Blazing Lazers

I think we can all agree that in any given situation a Blazing Lazer is 100% more awesome than its regular non-Blazing counterpart.

That's the maxim by which Compile developed the shoot-em-up Blazing Lazers for the TurboGrafx in 1989, and it's a concept which is just as full of win now as it was then. Blazing Lazers (known in Japan as Gunhed) is available through the Wii Virtual Console or at a TurboGrafx emulator near you.

If you're a gamer of any credibility you're familiar with the concept of a shoot-em-up. You pilot a vessel (usually a spaceship), which moves in a single direction (usually up or to the right) and you variously dodge and blast your way through wave after wave of enemies. Key entries in the genre include classics such as 1942, Gradius and R-Type.

It turns out, though, that all those beloved icons had it wrong. The developers of those games seemed to think that merely because you were one ship against a near-infinite armada that you should be remotely killable. That was a silly idea, and Blazing Lazers discards it like the rubbish it is.

In any given game of Blazing Lazers, somewhere between 30 and 80 percent of the screen is filled by your weapons. Your ship vomits an unstoppable avalanche of fiery death which obliterates bad guys long before they appear on screen. Where other games make you choose whether your weapons should be penetrating, homing, or multi-pronged, Blazing Lazers is quite happy to let you have all three at once, with a side-order of smart bombs and satellite ships to boot.

Your weapons come in four basic flavours: a regular bullet shot, a sonic wave-gun, a death-dealing orbiting shield, and the titular blazing lazers. You change weapons by collecting the appropriate power-up from defeated enemies; collecting several of the same power-up in a row upgrades your weapons, while changing to a new type will set you back at the bottom of the power tree. You also have subweapons, which change the impact of your primary weapon. For instance, while using the lazer, the Homing subweapon will add a spread of missiles to your lazer-tastic death rays, while Multibodies will add additional lazers and Full Fire will focus your lazers into a single enemy-annihlating homing flame-beam of death.

It's a little unfortunate (if predictable) that in almost all circumstances the lazers are far better than the other choices; in fact, a lot of the game strategy involves avoiding non-lazer power-ups as though they were ebola. Also, like most games of this ilk, getting killed sets you back to your basic lazerless gimp-ship, which makes it exponentially more difficult to stay alive long enough to power back up.

There's also unfortunately no two-player mode. I suspect its omission is due to the limitations of the TurboGrafx rather than any real malice, but it's still a shame. Releasing a game like this with no co-op is an affront against humanity.

Still, it's all worth it for those prolonged sessions of enemy-torching which make the game so memorable. Blazing Lazers is everything which is awesome about shoot-em-ups distilled into one potent brew. It's one of those rare Virtual Console titles which is as enjoyable today as it was when it first debuted and if you haven't downloaded it yet there should probably be special jails just for people like you.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

C64 Games On The Virtual Console

I have three questions.

One: Why did no one tell me that Europe has been getting Commodore 64 games on the Wii Virtual Console for the past couple of months, including but not limited to the excellent Paradroid?

Two: When does Australia get on this magical sparkle train to happiness?

Three: Does this mean we're about to be given the keys to such gems of gaming history as Ghostbusters, Lords of Midnight, M.U.L.E, and Dizzy?

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

Those who know me will recall I was not impressed by the first Narnia film. Yesterday I was delighted to discover that Prince Caspian, although derivative and occasionally awkward, is worlds better than its gormless predecessor.

In Caspian the four Pevensie children return to Narnia to find that a thousand years have passed since their reign as Kings and Queens. Caer Paravel is reduced to ruins and the Narnians have been hunted to the brink of extinction by the vicious Telmarines. The children unite with the exiled Prince Caspian to reawaken the Narnians, defeat the Telmarines and return Aslan to his people.

Those expecting a faithful adaptation of the book will be disappointed; the movie gleefully dances around CS Lewis' plot, totally ignoring key aspects while liberally interjecting epic battles. That's fine by me; Prince Caspian was always the dud book in the Chronicles by my estimation, and that the movie wrings a watchable story from the tripe therein is little short of genius.

More to the point, Prince Caspian skillfully identifies the key themes of the book and puts them front and centre. Where the first film glossed over a lot of the Christian symbolism, Caspian makes it abundantly clear that Aslan is a surrogate Jesus, and most of the character arcs are really about faith and innocence. The fact that the movie embraces its source material allows the Narnia magic to really start flowing, and in the end the religious themes are no more offensive than Zeus turning up in a Hercules movie.

Anna Popplewell as Susan is by far the best of the lead actors, with Ben Barnes as Caspian and Peter Dinklage as Trumpkin running a distant second. The CGI characters are handled adequately, although the mouse Reepicheep (voiced by Eddie Izzard) isn't quite the triumph fans might have wanted. The Harry Gregson-Williams musical score is perfectly adequate but not exactly his best work.

Probably the most disappointing aspect of the movie is that it never finds a unique visual style. There's nothing here that you haven't already seen in Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter; in fact, certain scenes seem like shot-for-shot homage. It's like Walden Media chose not to hire their own concept artist, and instead just got their crew to rewatch a bunch of genre classics.

Prince Caspian is not the best fantasy movie ever made, but it's an entire exponential better than I was expecting, and ends up being pretty recommendable. The next Narnia book, Voyage of the Dawn Treader, is my favourite of the bunch, so if they can keep up this level of quality for at least one more film I'll be a very happy filmgoer.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Sonic and the Secret Rings

Sonic's been coasting on his past successes ever since 1993, and in Sonic and the Secret Rings for the Nintendo Wii the little blue bludger has once again turned in a game that only a myopic and brain-damaged mother could love.

In Secret Rings, Sonic is tasked with venturing into the 1001 Arabian Nights to defeat an evil force who's tearing the classic storybook to pieces. The plot is told via still-picture cutscenes between levels, narrated by a hideously annoying voiceover. (Changing the voices to Japanese at the main menu makes the voice acting tolerable.)

The 1001 Nights turn out to be a bit more varied than you might have thought; while you'll naturally visit some deserts and crumbling ruins, there's also dinosaurs and pirates involved, if you can stand to play long enough to see them.

Each level plays a little like a rail shooter - Sonic runs at full-tilt down a fixed 3D path, and your interaction is limited to making him sway to the side, jump, and do his Sonic-spinball thing into the evil craniums of the various enemies.

There's a couple of things the game does right. For a start, Secret Rings looks gorgeous. It's over a year old now and it's still one of the most visually attractive Wii games available. Secondly, there's really a sense of speed here. You'll once again believe that Sonic is the World's Fastest Hedgehog. He zips around the place like a hummingbird on amphetamines.

Now that we've dealt with both of the game's strong points, it's time to move on to the nearly endless list of crippling flaws.

For example, the controls. Oh sweet Jeebers, the controls. You steer Sonic by tilting the Wiimote left and right. That was pure gold in Excite Truck but here it's like you're trapped in a horrible motion-sensitive nightmare. You jump with the A button - a small tap results in a miniscule hop, while holding it down to "charge" your jumps results in more height. Charging makes Sonic run slower. In midair you can thrust the remote forward like you're having a seizure in order to get more distance. This is also the same motion used for attacking enemies, but you can only do that when you're both locked on and in midair, and seeing as you're always moving forward and you have to charge to jump, that lock-on window can at times be frustratingly tiny.

Nothing in the control scheme is intuitive, except maybe the steering, and it's particularly frustrating considering that some of the concepts involved would have been reasonably decent with a few changes. Jumping should have been "tap A for a small jump, hold A for a large jump" without the charging nonsense. Extending jumps and attacking enemies should have been mapped to the other face buttons. It's exactly what a lot of people were afraid of when they heard the Wii would have motion sensitive controls, but thankfully the abundance of games which use the Wiimote well make it clear that this is just Sega's incompetence rather than any intrinsic property of the system.

Another annoyance is that the game frequently swings the camera around on you in pursuit of a "cinematic" feel. Trying to steer left or right while the camera is also moving is clumsy, and makes you feel like your input is redundant. Sometimes this can result in you running straight into an obstacle . Actually, the whole game is significantly more entertaining to watch than it is to play.

The game compensates for its comparatively smalll number of levels by making you run the same levels again and again, with different goals. Most of these goals are of the "one mistake and you fail" variety, such as courses where you have to avoid colliding with even one clay jar. Failure means restarting the course from the beginning, which gets old pretty fast. These levels should have let you continue to the end while counting how many times you've "failed", and then challenged you to beat your record. In fact, the game actually does hand out bronze, silver and gold medals for each course but they're based on completion times, which isn't very handy when you're struggling just to finish.

There's also a whole system of looking for hidden "fire souls" in levels, and acquiring "special skills" which level up as you finish courses, but enjoying either of those mechanics would require you to actually be masochistic enough to play for more than a couple of hours, which seems unlikely.

Don't be fooled by the appealing visuals of Secret Rings; this whole thing is just a trap laid by Sega to lure you into a Sonic-themed torture chamber where drills will be applied to your internal organs. Sonic and the Secret Rings is just another in a long list of hedgehog-flavoured disappointments, and all-up I'd say barricading your doors in order to keep it out of your house is probably not an overreaction.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Gaming News In Brief

A few bits and pieces:

* The Bioshock movie, to be directed by Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean), is still in the works with John Logan (The Aviator) writing the screenplay, but don't hold your breath for it - the anticipated release date is 2012, to coincide with a possible Bioshock 3. (Bioshock 2 is making its way to shelves in third-quarter 2009.) (Read more)

* SoulCalibur IV will feature The Secret Apprentice (the protagonist of the upcoming Star Wars: Force Unleashed) as a playable character, alongside Yoda on the XBox 360 and Darth Vader on the PS3. (Read more)

* Developer Goichi Suda (No More Heroes, killer7) is working on something called "Project S", which is apparently a resurrection of Hideo Kojima's Snatcher franchise. Actually, that news dates back to April but the awesome keeps it fresh. The first part of the program is, for some reason, a radio drama (not a game), but if we're lucky a re-release of the original game might feature somewhere. Snatcher has previously only seen store shelves in PAL regions in the form of a Mega-CD game in 1994; the US had it slightly better with PlayStation and Saturn versions. (Read more)

* The Sci-Fi Channel says they're running some kind of TV show / MMO hybrid in the near future, with the actions of the one affecting the other and vice versa. It sounds a lot like what NBC tried (rather ham-fistedly) with its Heroes ARG, but I remain hopeful that this won't be the embarassing debacle that it sounds like. (Read more)

TV Show King

TV Show King, available for the Wii through the Wiiware download service, is so middle-of-the-road it makes lane dividers look extreme.

This sort of product is exactly the reason that "quiz games" and "bargain bin" are synonymous. Admittedly, this is a bargain-priced title, but that's no excuse for it being bafflingly bad.

The problem is not in the questions, which are numerous and reasonably competent. Each question is a four-answer multiple choice, and the available choices are usually intelligent enough to make you think for a moment.

Neither is the devil in the presentation. The game takes the form of a quiz show, introduced by a grinning presenter with some worrying eyebrows, and each player is depicted by a Mii, which is awesome.

It's the gameplay which is thoroughly saturated with awful. The developers seems absolutely determined to make sure that small children can regularly beat adults. There are two aspects to this. Firstly, you select your answer to each question by pointing at it with the Wiimote and clicking. It's obvious to everyone else what answer you've selected, so if someone looks like they know the answer then the other players can just piggyback on their genius. The first player to answer correctly gets more points, but not a lot more points.

And secondly, between every round there's this ridiculous "wheel of fortune" thing, where you can spin the wheel to gain or lose points. The wheel on average will grant or deduct as many points as you would gain from playing a perfect round, with a couple of extreme options thrown in which remove all your points or give you more points than you could possibly score in a game. When you play two perfect rounds and then see the chump who didn't know the capital of France take first place it's like your fun just got sharply kicked in the groin.

Admittedly it's not like there's a lot of high-quality quiz games out there to prefer over this, but TV Show King is still a pretty bottom rung choice and is certainly not the best advertisement for the new Wiiware service. I won't flat out say to avoid it at all costs, but I will heavily imply it.

Thursday, June 05, 2008


Pandemic is a boardgame from Z-Man Games (Grave Robbers From Outer Space) in which 2 to 4 players co-operate to fight a global disease apocalypse.

Despite some B-grade box art this is actually an excellent game. It's hard, which is what you want from a co-op boardgame - you'll feel lucky to win one in three games. And it's fast - setup is about three minutes and games finish in around half an hour, so the best response to one of your inevitable defeats is simply to play again.

The aim is to find cures to four diseases ravaging the Earth before they wipe out the human race. Each player takes one of five roles. The medic can treat infections more effectively, while the scientist finds it easier to develop cures. Other roles include a researcher, a dispatcher and an operations manager.

Infections are depicted on the board using coloured cubes. At the end of each player's turn, more cubes are added to the board, and if more than three cubes build up in a single city an outbreak occurs, causing infection to spill over into neighbouring cities. A total of eight outbreaks over the course of the game results in defeat, and as outbreaks can cascade it's possible to lose the game in a single turn.

The game's roughly the same difficulty and length with any number of players, which is great, and while a lot of the setup is random you never really feel like you've experienced an unusually hard or easy configuration.

There's really no other games out there quite like Pandemic, and the combination of uniqueness and quality makes it a worthy addition to anyone's collection.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Flogging A Dead Horse

Sony's unabashed commitment to obsolete and sub-par technology continues. Gamasutra is reporting that Sony Japan are about to launch a new "cinnabar red" PS2, a "metallic blue" PSP, and an EyeToy peripheral for the PS3.

New skins for the PS2 isn't the greatest commitment to the ongoing success of the PS3. And admittedly the PSP is outselling the PS3 by a massive margin, but that thing needs a redesign a lot more than it needs a new SKU.

As for the EyeToy, unless they've improved on the PS2 version a lot, then I really can't see why anyone would possibly want one of these suckers.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

The new Indy is better than Temple of Doom. Just.

It actually leaps a whole bunch of hurdles. This is definitely Indiana Jones; despite a geriatric Harrison Ford there is no question this film is cut from the same cloth as its predecessors. And there are a lot of fun moments to justify your cost of entry.

But the plot's a bit of a muddle. It's a mystery why it's called Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, especially as there's no kingdom to be seen. A better name would have been Indiana Jones and the City of Gold, or Indiana Jones and the Saucer-Men From Mars. Or even Indiana Jones and the Retroactively Misnamed Third Movie.

Actually, they could have called it Indiana Jones and the Neverending Car Chase. The film starts with a drag race, moves swiftly to some shenanigans with cars in a warehouse, and segues neatly into a daring motorcylce escape. After that there's a protracted jeep chase featuring swordfighting, vine-swinging and a bazooka, and the whole thing caps off with Indy and crew going over a bunch of waterfalls. In a car. Man, those are some fantastic chases, but it would have been nice if sometimes Indy had done something on foot.

Cate Blanchett plays a generic Communist on the hunt for the titular Crystal Skull. She's clearly supposed to evoke the monocle-wearing Belloq from Raiders, but she never manages to emote any real evil, and after a while it just feels like Indy and his friends have developed a thing for punching women.

Ultimately there's two audiences who will end up seeing Crystal Skull. For one audience, they could have walked into a cinema and stared at a blank screen for two hours while the Indy theme music played and called it brilliance. I'm more or less in that crowd. The rest of the world, who were hoping for some sort of Indiana Jones Casino Royale, will likely be disappointed by this muddled tale of Aztecs and aliens.

Marcus Kemp

Marcus Kemp was born Monday 2 June at 4.52 pm to Julia Burns and Matt Kemp.

Having been at the hospital most of yesterday, there was hence no blogging. Regular service to resume shortly.

UPDATE: xkcd is always creepily topical.