Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Game Publisher Profit & Loss

Via Kotaku, profit and loss margins for the 20 top game publishers. On its face this reflects what might be thought to be common sense; publishers who produce quality make a profit, while publishers that make rubbish pay for it.

It's not quite that simple, of course. The numbers include hardware divisions, so Microsoft shows a large loss representing their ongoing efforts to advance their market share. I seem to recall that Microsoft actually posted their first games division profit last quarter so next year's chart might look very different. Sony, of course, were more focused on launching Blu-Ray than they were on winning the console war this time around so their massive losses are less of a defeat than they are an investment in the company's ongoing future.

EA have recently come out and said they made a mistake by not backing the Wii as the winner in this console generation; their somewhat blinkered focus on the PS3 and 360 hasn't helped them over the last year. Ubisoft, on the other hand, are doing quite well, probably deriving both from their excellent Montreal and Montpellier studios, and from the way they were astoundingly quick to fill the Wii market with shovelware.

Atari, Midway and Sega are all victims of their own poor quality titles. These companies couldn't find quality gaming if you shackled it to their wrist.

My guess on Take 2's dismal performance here is that it's got something to do with their ongoing legal troubles. Take 2 of course includes Rockstar, whose games sell like hotcakes but can't seem to stay out of court. It's probably also worth noting that the chart above caps out before the release of Grand Theft Auto 4 so the profits from that are obviously not included.

Namco, Capcom and Squeenix are all excellent examples of producing good games based on original IP on a regular basis. We like what they make, and we pay them money for it. Everyone's a winner.

Vivendi is of course just another way of saying "Blizzard and Sierra"; most of that profit you see there is World of Warcraft alone. Vivendi's now merged with Activision so it's not unreasonable to expect a monster result next year from the resulting juggernaut.

Konami's interesting in that it feels like it should be down next to Capcom and Namco but instead they're storming the market. It's especially interesting as this chart predates the release of Metal Gear Solid 4. Konami's doing unusually well for a company that's shown such partisan support for this generation's console loser, the PS3. Does anyone have insight as to what's going on here?

Disney comes as a surprise to hardcore gamers; this is mostly just licensed games being made dirt cheap and sold by the truckload. It's a bit depressing that this kind of rubbish is so very profitable. Disney does own a few smaller studios like Lumines creator Q Entertainment, though.

And finally Nintendo tops the chart; they're the only company currently making a profit (and a fairly massive profit at that) on their hardware division, through both the Wii and the DS, but they're also the major developer for both those platforms, and platform-exclusive games like Super Smash Bros Brawl and Super Mario Galaxy spent significant periods of time at the top of sales charts across all consoles. Nintendo was making a profit even during the lame-duck years of the Gamecube, and now that they've actually got quality hardware on the market they're unstoppable.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Mechner To Make New Karateka

Joystiq is reporting from the San Diego Comic-Con that Prince of Persia creator Jordan Mechner is looking to revisit his first ever game, 1984's Karateka.

I loved that game to death, so I'm absolutely thrilled. Modern audiences might not get so much out of the original, though, as it's brutally short. If memory serves (which it often doesn't) you can complete the thing in the time it takes to cook dinner.

The new Karateka project is likely to be reimagined for modern audiences, though. In relation to reviving the brand, Mechner says, "I can safely say it's not going to be in the way you expect."

The original Karateka was what might loosely be termed a brawler, and saw you travelling deep into the heart of a forbidding oriental fortress to rescue a captured princess. Along the way you had to bust loose your martial arts skills in order to overcome an evil warlord and his black-belted goons.

The jump between the original Prince of Persia and Ubisoft's Sands of Time trilogy was nothing short of stunning so I look forward to seeing similar magic worked here.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Super Paper Mario

Sometimes a game can try so hard and still be so very tedious.

Super Paper Mario for the Nintendo Wii has a long and complex family tree. It's the distant descendant of the 1996 Squaresoft-developed Super Mario RPG, which combined traditional Mario jumping action with gameplay elements like equipping items and levelling up.

Super Mario RPG spun out into Paper Mario on the Nintendo, which was an absolutely amazing game that everyone should play. Paper Mario continued the RPG elements, while introducing the conceit that Mario and most of his world were actually constructed out of paper in a wierd scrapbooky kind of way. Paper Mario in turn birthed the Mario & Luigi games, which scaled back much of the RPG in favour of more jumping and platforming.

So that's where Super Paper Mario comes in. Almost all of the RPG content is gone; the two-dimensional star of the game is challenged to a whole bunch of easy, easy platforming action with some unique twists based on the fact that he's wafer-thin.

As far as the roleplaying elements go, you can collect items, which are mostly one-shot deals which heal your characters or hurt the enemy. Also, you get experience and level up, which gives you more health and lets you do more damage. But all of that will happen more or less regardless of your input and there's no meaningful choices for you to make about how your characters grow.

Mario's part of a four-person team this time around. As well as everyone's favourite plumber you'll also control Luigi, Princess Peach and Bowser. You can only use one at a time, though, and swapping characters requires a trip to the menu. In addition, you'll be accompanied at all times by a "Pixl", who are anthopomorphised geometric designs which float along behind you. Each Pixl provides you with one unique ability (such as being able to lay bombs, or to reveal invisible aspects of the level). Again, changing Pixls requires a trip to the menu.

The most innovative part of the game is also its fatal flaw. Early in the game, Mario gains the ability to rotate the world into 3D. The traditional 2D Mario plane becomes a wide pathway, which allows new options of movement. For example, if you come to a giant pillar blocking your progress, you can move into 3D and walk behind or in front of the pillar. The 3D version of the level also holds additional secrets, like coins hidden behind platforms or pipes to secret areas behind stairways.

On its face it's a very clever conceit. However, it absolutely ruins the game's pacing. Only Mario can flip into 3D, and he can only stay there a few seconds without losing health. You'll feel compelled to check every area of every level in 3D (in fact, on occasion you need to do this to proceed) which slows down play as you walk forward a screen, flip into 3D, flip back, walk forward another screen and repeat. It gets even worse when you take into account the Pixl who can reveal invisible objects. Using that Pixl requires pointing your Wiimote at the screen and waving it slowly back and forth to see if anything shows up.

The game uses the Wiimote exclusively, which is good from the point of view of simplicity, but terrible when you consider how desperately it needs a button to let you change characters and Pixls on the fly. A single level can require the abilities of all four characters and many of your Pixls; each time you want to switch you'll need to pause the game and select the change out of a menu.

There's plenty of charm in Super Paper Mario, but being a Mario game the plot's not exactly a work of art. You won't be hooked on the story, and the gameplay is just shallow enough to make it hard to drag yourself back to the game for another session.

Super Paper Mario doesn't live up to its potential or to the standard set by its predecessors. It's not awful, and there's some fun to be had, but it's not a must-buy title and the vastly superior original Paper Mario is still available on the Virtual Console for a quarter of the cost.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Q&A on Game Classification: Bad Questions, Terrifying Answers

The video above is from last night's episode of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Q & A, which allows audience members to pose questions to a panel consisting of politicians, community leaders and the media. This segment deals with the question of games classification, and represents two profound failures: firstly a failure of our leaders to have even the most basic working knowledge of the issues involved here, and secondly of the Australian gaming community to effectively represent itself and its position.

Featured here are Heather Ridout, Chief Executive of the Australian Industy Group; Independent South Australian Senator Nick Xenophon; NSW Labor Senator Mark Arbib; Queensland Nationals Senator Barnaby Joyce; and Christine Jackman, journalist and author.

The discussion in the clip uses the recent example of Besthesda Softworks' Fallout 3, a narrative-driven game in which survivors of a nuclear apocalypse struggle to adapt to The World The Bomb Built. While many details of the unreleased game are still under wraps, it is known that the world of Fallout 3 is a largely lawless one, and that the player is challenged to find their own unique way of interacting with it. As part of the suite of choices available to the player, the player may choose to buy, use, and sell a range of pharmaceutical substances, either as medicine or as stimulants.

The Australian Office of Film and Literature Classification recently refused classification to Fallout 3. This means that the game was deemed too mature to fall into the OFLC's "M15+" rating and has the effect of banning it from sale. Australia has no R18+ rating for games. It is believed that the OFLC's decision was largely related to the game's depiction of drug use.

In the clip above, the audience member is technically accurate when he agrees with the moderator's description of the game. Fallout 3 will offer situations that can be resolved by combat (among other methods), often resulting in the death of other characters in the game. One option in approaching these battles is to use stimulants to get an "edge" in combat. Other ways of overcoming problems in Fallout 3 would include negotation, trade, and avoidance. If Fallout 3 stays true to previous games in the series, these options would for the most part have realistic consequences, with violence damaging the player character's reputation and drug use leading to addiction and ill-health.

It is fairly clear from the clip that neither the panelists nor the moderator have any direct knowledge of Fallout 3. It doesn't stretch belief that in fact none of the panellists have played a videogame of any sort.

There are currently 5.2 million current-generation gaming consoles in Australia. That's one between every five Australians. And that doesn't include multi-purpose tools with gaming functionality including personal computers and mobile phones. This is not a minority. This is not a niche market. This is a gaming Australia. It's an Australia that's completely unrepresented on the political stage.

The range of opinions expressed in the clip above is frankly terrifying. Mark Albib seems happy to take the view that "because it's banned, it must deserve to be banned". Barnaby Joyce doesn't know the term "avatar", confuses it for the title of a game, and then suggests that the classification issue is in some way related to sex crimes. No one present seems to have an understanding of Australia's current classification system and not once is it raised that game censorship is a freedom of speech issue. Nick Xenophon reaches out to a shallow and inconclusive pool of evidence but doesn't quite know what to draw from it.

Christine Jackman fairly reasonably poses the question to the audience member: "Why do you want to play this game?" Said audience member muffs the answer; he begins to cite the merits of the game.

The correct answer is simple: because I want to decide for myself.

Censorship is odious because it removes community choice. Censorship says that the thought is the action; that the common person can't distinguish between depiction and actuality. Censorship says, "I know better than you." Censorship says, "Let me decide who talks."

And games are talking. They're talking very loudly, to a great many people, in strong and clear voices. They're speaking in places that have never read a newspaper and in houses which have never listened to politicians. It's okay to be worried by what games are saying. It's okay to disagree. But it's not okay to stifle those voices. It's not okay to kill the game.

Don't be afraid of ideas. Just present better ones. Engage in the debate.

Classification is about allowing the community to make informed choices about their media exposure. Under our current system, not only has classification been suborned into censorship, but Australians are being deprived of accurate information for deciding what games are suitable for themselves and their family.

Support an R18+ rating for videogames in Australia. Let's hear what games have to say.

Madworld Trailer

There was some discussion down in my E3 post about Madworld, a heavily stylised ultraviolent action title currently in development by Platinum Games. It's not a game that's had a lot of press to date so I thought I'd direct your attention to the official trailer. Never has bowel-churning brutality been so hilarious.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Stairway

There's no such thing as too hard.

I'll say that again: there's no such thing as too hard.

It's perfectly acceptable for a game to require players to have savant-like intellects, superluminal thumbs, and a latent ability to predict the immediate future.

That's the beauty of games. Doing what we never thought was possible. Threading the eye of the storm with perfect lucidity. That's the gaming high, and it's the reason we keep coming back for more.

The catch is this: difficulty must be a stairway. Games must start at the bottom and they must introduce each new concept incrementally. Every escalation in complexity and difficulty must be discrete, and each plateau of challenge must be eminently reachable from the one below it.

If you set the bar low and raise it by slow and unflinching degrees, you'll soon have players vaulting higher than they could ever have imagined.

This is part of the unheralded genius of Guitar Hero. From a beginner's standpoint the songs on Expert difficulty look impossible, but as you play through the game skill sneaks up on you and soon you're ready to go toe to toe with sequences that previously moved too fast for your brain to process. The songs themselves teach you the skills you need; if you haven't learned how to do hammer-ons by the time you hit "Jessica" on Hard, you'll discover an unthreatening environment that trains you in them just in time to put them to use in "Freebird" a couple of sets later. Similarly, your fingers learn simple note progressions in early songs that are repeated faster and longer as you enter the higher tiers.

It's also what made Guitar Hero 3 not quite as good as its predecessors. Note maps are apparently set out with the intention of thwarting players rather than challenging them, and ridiculously hard chokepoints are inserted amongst comparatively forgiving peers. I speak from personal experience when I say it's possible to complete every normal song on the Expert difficulty and still be blocked by the end boss of Hard.

There is no limit to what you can train players to do. Aiming high is the mark of a memorable game. But once you've set those goals, you then have to bring your players to them, and suceeding at that is the hard part.

The ambitious game builds a long and epic stairway. But in the end the good game - and I mean the really good game - walks beside you while you climb it.

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

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

E3 - What Looks Good

This year's Electronics Entertainment Expo (E3) has come and gone, and I understand that I have to make at least a passing reference to it in order to maintain my status as a gaming blog, so here's a round-up of some of the more interesting titles that have caught my attention.

New Pikmin Game: Presumably Pikmin 3, presumably for the Wii although a DS title isn't out of the question. Nintendo didn't have a lot to announce at E3 so Shigeru Miyamoto's vague comment that "We're making Pikmin" was really the most interesting thing coming out of The House That Mario Built.

Animal Crossing: City Folk: Definitely for the Wii. Lots of WiiConnect 24 usage for exploring other cities and receiving special holiday gifts. Those without the internet can download their town onto a DS to take it travelling to Wiis owned by their friends. No retro games to collect this time (which is sad but unsurprising) and for those who care you'll now be able to design shirts which have a front which is different to their sleeves and back. I still don't know why I love these games so much but I'm nevertheless looking forward to once again clashing swords with that no-goodnik raccoon Tom Nook. Oh yes, vengeance will be mine.

Left 4 Dead: I've mentioned this one before. Valve (Half-Life) is involved in the development, it has zombies, and it's got four-player co-op. The playable version at E3 looked reasonably good although I have to admit it's really only Valve's participation that has me trusting the game will make the jump from "average" to "awesome". Coming to PC and 360, I understand.

Portal: Still Alive: While we're on the subject of Valve, there's no Portal sequel until next year at the earliest, but XBox 360 users can tide themselves over with Portal: Still Alive, coming to Live Arcade. It's the original Portal as a standalone game, plus some extra non-plot-related puzzle levels based on the 2D Flash version of the game that did the rounds a few months ago.

Final Fantasy XIII: Did I mention it's coming to the XBox 360? And how I totally called it? I did? Excellent.

New Prince of Persia: I was initially not optimistic about Ubisoft Montreal's new Prince title, but the latest gameplay trailer has sold me on it. It's got storybook-style visuals reminiscent of Okami, it features a new Prince and a new storyline, and it looks like it's got everything you expect from Prince of Persia, with the possible exception of the last trilogy's time-related powers. Coming to XBox 360 and probably some other platforms.

Lego Batman: The fourth of Traveler's Tales' Lego games is based on the Caped Crusader and seems to draw more from the comics and the 90s movies than it does from the recent Christopher Nolan interpretations. I know we all love Lego and we all love Batman but based on the downward trend of this franchise to date I'm going to disappoint you by calling this one in advance as bollocks.

Brothers In Arms: Hell's Highway / Call of Duty: World At War: I don't care what you say: as far as I can tell these are the same frikkin' game. Admittedly there's only so many ways you can portray the nightmarish devastation of the Second World War, and also bits of World at War are set in the Pacific theatre and voiced by Kiefer Sutherland, but to all practical purposes they look interchangeable. Interchangeable, but really, really, good. Both coming to practically every next-gen platform under the sun. (Maybe not the Wii.)

Guitar Hero: World Tour: Big track list, includes drums and vocals.... *yawn* I mean, it'll be great and all, but it still looks kind of like Rock Band Lite. Although there's a good chance that Australians will be seeing it on shelves before the original Rock Band finally gets here. Real versions coming to 360 and PS3; crappy ports heading to Wii and PS2, more than likely.

Rock Band 2: Which looks more awesome than words can describe, but will probably suffer the same fate as it's predecessor and get lost somewhere in the Pacific Ocean on its way Down Under. Again, real versions for 360 and PS3 and cheap knockoffs on other platforms.

Dead Rising Wii: You can't say that Capcom doesn't listen to its fans. Dead Rising is coming to the Wii but it's a completely different game. You've still got the same open world but the time-limit nonsense is done away with in favour of structured missions. Also the rubbishy photography minigame is gone and the save system is fixed. This could well end up being the definitive version of the game.

Braid: It's a platformer based on time-control that's heading to XBox Live Arcade. The achievements are apparently already on the network so it should be out any day now. The visuals look nice enough but the brilliance is apparently in the puzzle design. Somehow the thing's won awards before it's even released, so there's got to be something worthwhile under its hood. I reserve judgement, though, as platformers and I have a long and contentious history and this may end up being another supposedly "clever" timed jumping nightmare a la N+.

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2: Fusion: I loved Ultimate Alliance; it's one of the most thoroughly worthwhile four-player co-op titles I've experienced. It might not have made you feel quite as heroic as Justice League Heroes but it did a pretty excellent job of having each of its 30+ licensed Marvel characters play differently. If the sequel delivers more of the same I'll be a happy man. I'm a little worried, though, about this "fusion" concept which apparently involves giving powers from one character to another. It feels like a watering down of the pure Marvel-ness of the title. I want to play Spider-Man or The Hulk, not some kind of Spider-Hulk. ... actually, that sounds kind of awesome. I have the distinct feeling that we wouldn't like Spider-Hulk when he's angry.

Rune Factory 2: Given how poorly reviewed the first installment of this franchise was I'm surprised they're making a second. Apparently someone out there has an appetite for dungeon-crawling Harvest Moon clones. *shrug*

Bayonetta: Oh man, this has Bullet Witch written all over it and is likely to be just as appalling, but you can't help but be impressed by its moxy. It's from Devil May Cry creator Hideki Kamiya and he's worked out how to go one-up from his own two-guns-and-a-sword DMC formula. How can Devil May Cry possibly be any cooler? Well, what if the protagonist was a hot chick and instead of having guns in her hands she has guns in her hands AND feet and instead of killing things with a sword she instead uses her magical teleporting hair. That's a recipe for awesome right there. Presumably coming to 360 and PS3.

Halo Wars: Yes, it's a Halo real-time strategy, but did you know it has a three-player co-op campaign? No? Well, it's got a three-player co-op campaign. Alright, Bungie, fine, you win, I'm interested in Halo Wars now. Serve me another helping of your derivative and frustrating franchise like the rabid fanboy that I am.

Afro Samurai: The Afro Samurai anime was a tremendous victory of style over substance, and the game appears to be more of the same. It looks gorgeous, with a fantastic cel-shaded aesthetic that you can't help but be enthused by. Plus it's got Samuel L. Jackson reprising his voice acting. But the actual combat, while not awful, seems a little short of what we expect from the games that it's clearly imitating, such as God of War and Devil May Cry. Still, they've got time to improve it, right? Coming, I think, to all next-gen consoles.

Madworld: I want this game to be good so much. It's this ultraviolent black-and-white thing for the Wii which crosses the look of Sin City with the plot of The Running Man. I'm a sucker for anything that stands out of the crowd a little, and this game looks like nothing else out there, but my hopes were dashed to the ground and stomped on when I saw that the developer was Sega. *sigh* Oh well.
UPDATE: According to commenter Matthew, Sega are the publisher, not the developer, and it's instead being created by former Clover Studios staff, now calling themselves Platinum Games. I loved their work on Okami but I was less thrilled with Viewtiful Joe so although I'm doing a happy little jig right now, I'm doing it cautiously.

Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood: Speaking of Sega, it seems like the only way to get a decent Sonic game out of them is to have someone else develop it. The Dark Brotherhood is Mass Effect developer Bioware attempting to do for the World's Fastest Hedgehog what Squaresoft did for Mario with Mario RPG. The Dark Brotherhood is a western-style RPG for the Nintendo DS - featuring blue hedgehogs - and by all accounts it hasn't yet been tempted into a one-way trip down Awful Lane. I'm cautiously optimistic.

That's my off-the-cuff list out of E3. PS3 owners will probably be glad to get another Resistance title too, although I can't quite get excited by it. Plus obviously there's a new Gears of War, but I'd had about enough of that franchise by the time I finished the first one, which was only a month ago, so it'll probably take a while before my enthusiasm for more Gears builds.

What about you? Have you spotted anything coming out of E3 or the surrounding events that got you interested? Leave a comment, let me know.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Lego Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures

It's rage-inducingly frustrating, its comedy is hit-and-miss, and it's packed with gameplay and interface problems that could probably have been fixed by a team of reasonably talented monkeys, but the XBox 360 version of Lego Indiana Jones still manages to be a pretty fun game.

This is the third attempt by developer Traveler's Tales to mix the superficially disparate fields of "Lego" and "Harrison Ford", the first two being Lego Star Wars and its sequel. Lego Star Wars was a heap of fun, largely because it saw "difficulty" and "challenge" as outdated concepts that got in the way of busting up Lego with lightsabers. The second Lego Star Wars was not quite as unexpectedly good, thanks to levels that I'd like to call "bafflingly misguided" but which a layman might describe as "cheap".

Lego Harrison Ford 3 takes everything that was a bad idea from the last game and does more of it. If you're the sort of player that likes unhelpful camera angles, single-hit kills, unintuitive controls, poor targeting, and frustrating jumping sections, then buying this game is going to make you feel like magical pixies have invaded your house and installed platforming heaven in your media centre.

If you're the other sort of player, though, you'll probably feel a little let down. Only a little, though. Because Lego is still awesome. That's a scientifically proven fact.

For those who've never played a Lego Harrison Ford game before, here are the basics: you take control of a little Lego character (in this case Indiana Jones or one of his friends and enemies) and you run through 18 platform-centric levels based on the plot of three movies (in this case the first three Indiana Jones films). In each level the primary task is to reach the end, but along the way you'll fight angry little Lego enemies, bust up a bunch of Lego scenery, build a selection of Lego objects, and perform assorted ancillary tasks like deciphering glyphs, posing as a Nazi, or digging for buried treasure. You can die as many times as you like; the only penalty is that you lose a portion of any Lego "studs" you've collected so far on the level.

At all times you're provided with a companion. In single player games you can switch between the characters on the fly, and indeed you'll need to use both Indy and his sidekick to solve many of the puzzles in the game. Getting to try out a bunch of different characters is one of the high points of the game and it's as fun this time as it was in the Star Wars titles.

You can also play two-player co-op. Multiplayer sounds like an excellent idea in theory but in practice it's a great way to lose friends. There's no way to turn friendly fire off, so you'll regularly be accidentally killing your partner. Both players have to stay on the same screen, so most of the time either the camera will be zoomed so far out you won't be able to see what you're doing, or the camera will "drag" the slower player along behind the faster one, usually into some kind of lethal trap. Also, whereas the computer is capable of performing tricky jumps perfectly every time, with two human players each of the athletic sequences becomes twice as frustrating because a failure by either player will bollocks your attempt.

The story of the three movies is told largely by Lego cutscenes. There's no voice acting so the dialogue is done through Lego-themed mime. These interludes can be cute, but unlike the Star Wars games they're actually rubbish at telling the story. If, like me, you haven't watched Temple of Doom in a while you'll be left scratching your head as to exactly what the heck is going on. That's important, because a lot of the game's "puzzles" are actually less about deduction than they are about remembering what happened in the movie and copying it. The final puzzle of The Last Crusade, for example, is childishly simple if you've seen the movie but nigh-on unsolvable merely by reference to what's present in the level. Still, it's unlikely you'd be keen to buy an Indiana Jones game unless you had at least a passing familiarity with the movies.

While the game may be regularly frustrating, it's never actually hard, and even the most inept player won't find it difficult to reach 100% completion. There's about 12 hours of gameplay all told, which is great because it means you'll see all the content before getting to the end of your attention span.

Finally, many casual players seemed to find the second Lego Star Wars game far less annoying than I did, so it may be that if you're not a frequent gamer you won't even notice the many irritations that plague Lego Indy. If so, you're in luck, because you'll be able to enjoy the fun without wanting to beat the developers with a two-by-four.

Gripes aside, Lego Indiana Jones is a colourful, accessible and entertaining game that's suitable for all ages, and if it's not quite as good as its predecessors then that still leaves it in a better position than most of its competition. I give it a firm rating of "probably fun".

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Greg Tannahill For Canberra

It's been a poorly-kept secret in other forums that I've had something big cooking over recent weeks. Those with eyes and with ears have probably already deduced the relevant facts for themselves.

The time of speculation is at an end. I am incredibly proud to announce that I have received pre-selection as the ACT Democrats candidate for the electorate of Molonglo at the upcoming Australian Capital Territory election this October. I'm campaigning for the ACT Legislative Assembly, with the aim of restoring accountability and democracy to Territory politics and helping to create the better Canberra that its citizens deserve.

Those who regularly visit this site will know that I'm a vocal campaigner when it comes to the politics of video gaming. I've said often that Australia needs action at both Territory and Federal levels to implement an R18+ classification for videogames. I've spoken many times against the poorly-informed and reactive way in which politicians approach the growing gaming community. And I've made it clear that the ACT Government needs to seize opportunities to make Canberra a national leader in an industry that turns over more money than Hollywood.

But beyond all those issues, Canberra is a city I'm very honored to live in, and running for office is my way of standing up for those things I love about my home. Canberra was designed from the ground up to be the City of Tomorrow, but under a long string of lackluster governments it seems that Tomorrow has never really come.

I have to ask: Where is the efficient, affordable housing that we imagined? Where are the state of the art public schools that we were promised? Where is the world-class public transport system that we deserve? From my perspective our politicians have stopped building the future and just settled for the mediocre present.

I would hope that readers here would support me in my campaign. If you live in the Molonglo electorate of the ACT, vote for me in the ungrouped column on October 18, and tell those you know to do likewise. If you're not able to vote for me, then you can still help through word of mouth. Blog about me, link to posts, and join my Facebook group. The key is to let everyone know that this October they don't have to keep digging the same hole, that they don't have to keep accepting more of the same. Let them know they don't have to select from two equally bad columns. To those with eyes and with ears, be vocal. Let them know that there is an alternative.

- Greg Tannahill
O'Connor, ACT

Great Gaming Music

Great games are very often made by great music. Over the past few days I've highlighted some of the best single tracks in the rich history of videogaming. Here, in no better order than the one in which I posted them, are all twenty. Click the links to see the post.

1: Kiss Me Sunlights
From Zone of the Enders

2: Sanctuary
From Kingdom Hearts 2

3: Halo Theme
From Halo

4: One-Winged Angel
From Final Fantasy VII

5: The 7th Guest
From The 7th Guest

6: Metal Gear Solid Main Theme
From Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance

7: Max Payne Theme
From Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne

8: Silent Hill
From Silent Hill

9: The Secret of Monkey Island
From The Secret of Monkey Island

10: Still Alive
From Portal

11: Katamari On The Rocks
From Katamari Damacy

12: Hymn Of The Fayth
From Final Fantasy X

13: Overworld Theme
From The Legend of Zelda

14: Theme 4
From Lemmings

15: World 1-1 Theme
From Super Mario Bros

16: Type A
From Tetris

17: Legacy
From Full Throttle

18: Atom Bomb
From Wipeout XL

19: Bubble Bobble
From Bubble Bobble

20: Hell March
From Command & Conquer: Red Alert

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Great Gaming Music #20: Hell March

As this series of Great Gaming Music posts nears its end, people have not been shy in offering opinions about what classic tunes I've missed out. I was initially prepared to ignore them all and treat you to the main theme from the original Wing Commander but sadly YouTube hasn't been able to come up with the goods.

Therefore I'm instead caving to popular pressure and directing your ears to Frank Klepacki's scores to the Command & Conquer games. Featured here is my personal favourite, "Hell March", which is the opening theme to Command & Conquer: Red Alert. It's a game based on the premise of Hitler being assassinated by a time-travelling Albert Einstein, and Hell March manages to convey the simultaneous ridiculousness and awesomeness of that concept.

Vegas-based Klepacki has produced the score for a number of games by Westwood, its contemporaries and successors, including The Legend of Kyrandia, Dune 2, Blade Runner and Universe at War.

By the way, those under the misconception that "Mechanical Man" is the superior piece of C&C music can find it here, but while they listen to it I'll be quietly scorning them.

FF XIII Coming To 360

News out of E3: Square-Enix flagship title Final Fantasy XIII is coming to the XBox 360, for simultaneous Western-market release with the PlayStation 3 version.

I'd like to point out that I TOTALLY CALLED IT. And not just in an "I own a 360 and not a PS3" kind of way, but with reason and logic. That muffled choking noise you can hear is a forum full of doubters and dissenters eating their collective hats. I hope they remember the bitter taste of headware next time they suggest that my industry analysis may be less than stunningly on-point.

Now, while you all recalibrate your internal calendars to deliver daily reminders that my prescience borders on the paranormal, I'll be quietly basking in the warming glow of my own self-satisfaction. Would anyone care to fetch me a refreshing cocktail?

Great Gaming Music #19: Bubble Bobble

Bubble Bobble may not have the most powerfully moving soundtrack in gaming history, but considering that it storms through a hundred levels using only a single 45-second loop of sound, the fact that it doesn't drive players screaming from their computers is a minor musical miracle. In fact, I often find myself humming this even when not attempting to trap critters in floating bubbles.

Featured above is the theme from Bubble Bobble as it appears in the Amiga version of the game.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Great Gaming Music #18: Atom Bomb

The Wipeout series is known for delivering thrilling high-speed futuristic anti-gravity racing. While superficially similar to Nintendo's F-Zero games, Wipeout distinguishes itself through an extreme sense of speed and a history of trance soundtracks featuring big-name artists, including Orbital, The Chemical Brothers, Underworld, Prodigy and Fluke.

The soundtrack to the Psygnosis-developed Wipeout XL was heavily promoted in partnership with Red Bull Energy Drink. Stations running the game were set up in nightclubs and an extensive marketing campaign was set in motion. The soundtrack album spawned a single, "Atom Bomb" by Fluke (featured above) which reached #20 on the UK charts. "Atom Bomb" also appeared on Fluke's fourth album Risotto and represents one of their most successful creations.

Great Gaming Music #17: Legacy

This is Legacy by the Gone Jackals as featured in the opening to Lucasarts' Full Throttle. The music played an integral part in selling this biker-themed point-'n'-click adventure to a skeptical audience. The hard rock and hillbilly soundtrack helped smooth over the occasional rough patch in the game's pacing and allow players to experience the frequent moments of genius on offer.

The Gone Jackals released three albums between 1990 and 1998; Legacy is featured on their second album, Bone to Pick. Despite attempts in 2000 and 2003, sequel projects to Full Throttle entitled (respectively) Payback and Hell on Wheels have never gotten off the ground and as of today no attempts to continue the franchise are on foot.

Great Gaming Music #16: Tetris Type A

It's hard to believe that a game as widely played and insanely popular as Tetris only shipped with three pieces of music. Thankfully all three were brain-infectingly catchy and able to withstand marathon play sessions without driving players insane.

Featured above is the Type A music from the Game Boy release of Tetris; it's an instrumental arrangement of Russian folk melody Korobeiniki.

Passionate Tetris players may be interested to look at John Brzustowski's thesis on the question of whether one can play Tetris for an indefinite period, entitled Can You Win At Tetris?

Great Gaming Music #15: Super Mario Bros - Level 1-1

There's something of an internet tradition of competing to see who can create the most oddball rendition of the Super Mario Bros theme. Currently my vote goes to the version above, played on wine bottle and remote-controlled car. Second prize, though, would definitely go to this version played on duel Tesla coils.

The Level 1-1 soundtrack from Super Mario Bros is another of the works of Zelda composer Kōji Kondō. It's the definitive Mario theme and is probably the most well-known piece of gaming music ever created.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Great Gaming Music #14: Lemmings - Theme 4

Psygnosis' Lemmings was a fantastic game for any number of reasons, and despite many attempts has never really been replicated. A key element in the fun is the catchy soundtrack, created by Brian Johnston, brother of developer Scott Johnston. (No, not the AC/DC Brian Johnston.)

Due to worries about music copyright, most of the Lemmings songs were either arrangements of existing public domain music or "borrowings" from other Psygnosis games such as Shadow of the Beast. Despite this patchwork design strategy, the finished music retains a unique and memorable flavour.

Great Gaming Music #13: The Legend Of Zelda - Overworld Theme

This iconic track first appeared at the title screen and throughout the overworld of the original Legend of Zelda and has since featured at some point in every Zelda game since, with the notable exception of Ocarina of Time.

It's composed by Kōji Kondō, who has worked on all the Nintendo-developed Zelda games. He is also the chief composer for the Super Mario franchise and is responsible for the beloved Mario theme. Kōji's other works include Duck Hunt and Star Fox 64 (known as Lylat Wars to Australians).

The version of the Zelda Theme above is as performed by Zack Kim on dual guitars. Another very excellent electric guitar arrangement can be heard by clicking here.

Great Gaming Music #12: Hymn Of The Fayth

Final Fantasy X might be called the last great hurrah of the Final Fantasy franchise, before the disappointing outings of X-2, XI and XII. While it's a valid criticism that FFX had an overly linear first and second act, it successfully used that focused early-game experience to flesh out the moody, spiritual world of Spira.

Integral to that experience was Nobuo Uematsu's soundtrack. Featured here is his Hymn of the Fayth, a recurring musical theme throughout both this game and Final Fantasy X-2.

Great Gaming Music #11: Katamari On The Rocks

Naaaa-na-na-na-na-na-na-na, Katamari Damacy.

Yu Miyake's theme to Katamari Damacy is like a particularly tenacious brain weevil, in that you just can't get out of your head. Despite how intensely strange the game is, it's music that nevertheless captures the spirit of the franchise perfectly.

As far as I can tell, the Katamari games are Miyake's only work as a composer, although he has acted as sound director on the Tekken games for Namco.

If, like me, you just can't get enough of Katamari On The Rocks, then you'll probably get a kick out of this somewhat dodgy a capella version of it.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Great Gaming Music #10: Still Alive

Jonathan Coulton's catchy end theme to Portal became an overnight pop culture phenomenon following the game's release last year. The song was so good that, as one YouTube commentor put it, "it makes love to you in your sleep".

Not only was the song excellent, but Portal's short length and forgiving difficulty meant that almost everyone who acquired the title ended up seeing its appearance over the end credits. It achieved the three goals of being good music, being a satisfactory conclusion to the game, and managing to stay in character (it's sung by Ellen McLain, the voice of the game's primary antagonist, GLaDOS).

It's hard not to speculate whether the game would have been quite as crazily successful were it not for this particular piece of soundtrack. Coulton, a self-described geek-rock troubador, is also famous for tracks such as "Code Monkeys" and "Re: Your Brains".

Great Gaming Music #9: The Secret of Monkey Island

The Secret of Monkey Island is one of the greatest games of all time, representing a rare gathering of creative talent including, among others, Ron Gilbert, Tim Schafer, Dave Grossman, Steve Purcell and Orson Scott Card. Included in that number is Michael Land, who composed the game's fantastic Caribbean-influenced theme.

Land went on to collaborate heavily with Lucasarts between 1990 and 2000, working on the scores to the subsequent Monkey Island games, X-Wing, Tie Fighter, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, and The Dig.

The version above is the mt32 MIDI mix of the main theme, as played during the opening sequence of the game. The later CD edition of Monkey Island came with several bonus audio tracks, notably an excellent rock remix of the theme which unfortunately does not seem to have made its way to YouTube.

Great Gaming Music #8: Silent Hill

Akira Yamaoka's music for Silent Hill is the pinnacle of the field of Japanese survival-horror soundtracks. While his Theme of Laura from Silent Hill 2 seems to have become the default franchise mascot, I vastly prefer his creepy musical introduction to the original game, featured here alongside footage from the Silent Hill movie.

I think one of the reasons why Yamaoka's work on Silent Hill is so memorable is the way he avoids a lot of cliches of horror music. He marries up genuinely creepy passages of music with traditional guitar to reflect the juxtaposition of nightmare and normal which is a running theme of the series.

Not only did Yamaoka compose the soundtracks for all four of the original Silent Hill games plus Origins, Homecoming, and the film: he also worked as sound director on the core titles. Wikipedia informs that he recorded over 200 different footstep sounds for use in Silent Hill 2. His music has also been featured heavily throughout Konami's Beatmania IIDX franchise.

Great Gaming Music #7: Max Payne Theme

The haunting main theme for the Max Payne series by Finnish composer Kärtsy Hatakka is a piece of music that still gives me shivers to this day. The player first encounters it at the game's title screen and there are few compositions in gaming history which so ably set the mood for what is to follow.

The version above is the arrangement for strings featured in Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne. Those wishing to hear the piano version from the first game can click here.

Great Gaming Music #6: Metal Gear Solid Main Theme

Harry Gregson-Williams is one of the most talented composers working Hollywood today, and his Metal Gear Solid Main Theme is easily one of his best works. The version shown above is as featured in the opening to Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance, which for my money is the best of the several arrangements showcased throughout the franchise. The music for the Metal Gear Solid games, combined with Hideo Kojima's direction, are responsible for the memorable big-screen cinematic feel of the franchise.

Gregson-Williams has also produced scores for a huge range of big-budget films of the last decade, including but not limited to the two Chronicles of Narnia movies, the Shrek movies, and Kingdom of Heaven. He collaborated with Hans Zimmer on The Rock and will be scoring the upcoming X-Men Origins: Wolverine movie.

Great Gaming Music #5: The 7th Guest

I am disproportionately fond of haunted house stories. I have, for example, a deep and forbidden love for classic Vincent Price B-movie House on Haunted Hill, to the point that I've watched it a good dozen or so times and am still prepared to come back for more.

Likewise, I have a near-endless tolerance for The 7th Guest, a point-'n'-click puzzler from the era of Myst, despite the fact that it is, by nearly any objective measure, Not A Good Game (TM). A huge chunk of that affection comes from the brilliant musical score by George Alistair "The Fat Man" Sanger.

Sanger is a prolific early 90s game composer whose other notable works include Loom, Maniac Mansion, Wing Commander, Ultima Underworld and The 11th Hour. It's fair to say that his compositions are the beginning and end of Western gaming music between 1990 and 1995.

The actual disc that The 7th Guest came on could be played as an audio CD, in the way of many titles of that time, to reveal the complete game soundtrack, including an extended version of the main theme featuring additional vocals. Sadly my trawling of YouTube hasn't yielded a copy of that song to post here, which is a sadness that cannot be described using only pitiful Earth languages.

Great Gaming Music #4: One-Winged Angel

Final Fantasy VII was a generation-defining game which ended with an apocalyptic confrontation between the main characters and the game's arch-villain Sephiroth. Nobuo Uematsu's theme for that fight, One-Winged Angel, is one of the most thrilling and memorable songs in gaming history.

Uematsu is well known as the composer for a large number of Square-Enix and Mistwalker games, including Chrono Trigger, Lost Odyssey, Blue Dragon and all the Final Fantasy titles to date. He is also the creator of the excellent main theme from Super Smash Bros Brawl. His works have been featured in a number of live orchestral concerts and he tours as part of rock band The Black Mages.

The version of One-Winged Angel that appears above is as performed live by the Eminence Symphony Orchestra at the Sydney Town Hall. Those who want to hear the song as it originally appeared on the PlayStation version of FF7 can click here, although they're warned that it doesn't have quite the sound quality they may remember.

Great Gaming Music #3: Halo Theme

Halo is fun, to be sure, but between its repetitive level design and poorly-told story it probably wouldn't have been the hit it was, were it not for the stunning orchestral score.

The rendition above is performed by Martin Leung, aka the Video Game Pianist, playing live at what I think is E3. Purists can find the original version by clicking here.

Composer Martin O'Donnell previously worked on the soundtracks to games such as Oni, Myth: The Fallen Lords and Riven, all of which are terrifying excursions into dullness which you should never play even if threatened at gunpoint. Halo and its sequels have been his first real hit.

Great Gaming Music #2: Sanctuary

Hikaru Utada's compositions for the Kingdom Hearts games are just one of the many reasons these titles became a runaway success story for Square-Enix. Featured here is Sanctuary, the English-language version of her theme to Kingdom Hearts 2. (The Japanese version, entitled Passion, is available here.)

Hikaru is massively popular in Japan and her album First Love became the highest selling album in Japanese history. In the West, she's signed under the DefJam record label, which leads me to wishful thinking about her contributing to forthcoming expansions of the DefJam fighting game franchise.

UPDATE: By the way, how awesome is this Hikaru Utada cover of Boulevard of Broken Dreams?

Great Gaming Music #1: Kiss Me Sunlights

If aliens ever put humanity on trial, the fact that so few of us have played Zone of the Enders will not weigh in our favour. ZOE and its sequel The Second Runner both boast incredible soundtracks; featured here is the ZOE opening theme "Kiss Me Sunlights" as composed and performed by Heart of Air.

Heart of Air also contributed "Blue Flow" to the anime Haibane Renmei (which I love to death). The Heart of Air duo consists of Nanase Hikaru and Itou Masumi. Itou may also be known to anime fans for her work on the soundtracks to Azumanga Daioh, Scrapped Princess and Galaxy Angels, among others.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Max Payne Movie Trailer

We all know that movies based on videogames never, ever go horribly, horribly wrong, so therefore the appropriate response to the upcoming Max Payne movie (starring Mark Walhberg as Max) is obviously unbridled optimism.

Having now seen the trailer above, I have three questions:

(1) Where's Kartsy Hatakka's Theme From Max Payne?

(2) Those winged things are hallucinations or nightmares, right?

And finally,

(3) That chick in the black isn't supposed to be Mona, is it? Is it?

On The Way: Hell's Kitchen

TV-to-game translations are notoriously bad, mainstream ones even more so, but I still can't help but be a little enthused by the forthcoming Hell's Kitchen game starring everyone's favourite foulmouthed cookmeister Gordon Ramsay.

Cooking Mama and Cooking Guide completely failed to please as far as digital cookery goes; I think having the living crap abused out of me by an ill-tempered Brit is probably the ingredient that both those games were missing.

In all seriousness, though, this is almost certainly going to be a piece of bargain-bin shovelware, so don't raise your hopes. It makes me wonder, though, why we can't get some decent Iron Chef shenanigans happening on XBLA or WiiWare?


Aged four years old, I was endlessly amused by taking two toy cars and ramming them together at high speeds. Today, any computer game that can recreate that sense of fun gets two firm thumbs up from me, regardless of how many glaring problems it might otherwise be riddled with.

That's where Novadrome comes in. It is, in almost every respect, a terminally ill-made abomination of a game, which I happen to love dearly because it involves smashing cars into other cars.

You can get this thing via XBox Live Arcade, and nowhere else, which provides a comforting kind of quarantine for Novadrome's trashiness. You can enjoy the guilty thrill of wasting money on a download without worrying that you'll be a bad role model for those impressionable young PS3 gamers.

Novadrome ostensibly has some kind of plot about enslaved humans being forced to compete by killer robots, but you shouldn't let that stop you from getting right down to the core gameplay, which is all about smashing cars into other cars.

The cars in question are improbable futuristic whatsits that bounce all over the place as though they're made from rubber, and handle as if your driver is a small and somewhat slow-witted child. They're capable of shooting ineffectuallyusing an array of pathetic weapons, but if you want to do any real damage you're going to have to slam into things at ridiculously high speeds, which satisfyingly easy to achieve.

Gameplay is broken up into matches, each of which takes place in an appropriately sized arena full of flames, boost-pads, jumps and loop-the-loops. You're squared off against a dozen or so opponents and challenged to come out on top. The main game mode is called "wrecking ball", which is all about turning chumps into wreckage, and is a heap of fun. Unfortunately the game also expects you to play other game modes, which are uniformly awful and tend to emphasise racing over smashing.

The game's scoring system is laughably bad; if it were a person its chief hobbies would include punching nuns squarely in the ovaries. Eliminating any other player, in any game mode, results in you stealing half their points. This means that winning is never harder than killing the leading player just before the round ends with your point total being higher than zero. The computer players realise this, and on all but the easiest settings being in the lead will make you the simultaneous quarry of every other opponent.

Novadrome would probably be best enjoyed in big multiplayer matches. Unfortunately, nobody's playing. Lobbies may as well have tumbleweeds blowing through them while wolves howl in the distance. If you want to play the game as it was meant to be experienced you'll need to talk five to ten friends into buying copies and going game-hunting together. There's no local option, which bites, and as far as I can tell if you do manage to find an opponent there's no option to populate the rest of the match with bots.

So all in all Novadrome is thoroughly unrecommendable. Except, of course, that you get to smash cars into other cars. And really, that's all I'm looking for.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Fallout 3 Banned In Australia

Australia's Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC) has today handed down a decision refusing classification to upcoming next-generation RPG Fallout 3.

Under state and territory law, games refused classification in Australia cannot be sold or advertised. The decision has the effect of banning Fallout 3 from the Australian market.

While the OFLC does not provide reasons for its decisions to the public, speculation is that the ruling is based on the extensive drug use running through the Fallout franchise. In previous games players have had the option to use a variety of pharmaceuticals including morphine, usually with realistic consequences, to negotiate the post-apocalyptic Fallout world. If this is the case, it seems unlikely that the game can be edited for the Australian market so as to fall within classification guidelines.

Previous games banned by the OFLC have by and large not been top-quality titles, including names like Manhunt 2 and Shellshock 2. While censorship in this fashion is unjustifiable wherever it occurs, those games have boasted little in the way of compelling gameplay or artistic merit. However, Fallout 3 was expected to be a top seller, and judging by the history of the franchise and the back catalogue of developer Bethesda it seems likely to have boasted an impressive and relevant plot and a visually breathtaking setting.

The remit of the OFLC is to assist the Australian public in making informed decisions about their media consumption; however, more and more in the realm of gaming they are acting as censors. Not only are Australians prevented from engaging with the thoughts and ideas contained in these games, but they are prevented from deciding for themselves the merits or otherwise of these titles.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

D&D Is Not A Roleplaying Game

Picture a rulebook.

Picture a rulebook for a new ballgame.

The rulebook reads only, "Bring a ball to an open area, in the company of friends. Have fun using the ball. Tip: try throwing the ball, or kicking it with your feet."

That's not a ballgame. It's not rules to a ballgame. It's an activity, involving a ball.

In the same way, Dungeons & Dragons is not a roleplaying game.

A lot of people disagree with this. Among these people are a very small number of highly intelligent insightful individuals, who are in this case wrong in a highly intelligent insightful way. But the rest are simply people that have never played a storytelling game developed after 1990.

Dungeons & Dragons - and I write this while currently involved in no less than three 4th Edition campaigns - is very, very bad at handling roleplaying. It's not a roleplaying game. It may, if you feel charitable, be a roleplaying activity.

The reason I say this is that there is not a single mechanic within the game that supports, enables or encourages roleplaying. Picking any edition of the game from its origins through to today, that statement is true.

But, you say, the rules say the GM may award experience for roleplaying. Which was true, under the rules up to 3rd Edition. The current version of the game doesn't even mention this concept, although it could in some way be worked into the idea of "XP for overcoming encounters". But even under the old systems, a couple of lines indicating that the GM "may" award XP for roleplaying, without any further guidance, are hardly a firm support for roleplaying.

It's even more telling that the vast majority of a D&D character sheet is geared towards combat survivability. Key stats are hit points and armor class. When you're given a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Solving problems by methods other than combat is not only poorly supported by the rules, but actively prevents the player from engaging with the core rules.

To put it more clearly, D&D is a game about resolving combat, collecting loot and avoiding traps. Roleplaying is not part of the game - it is something you do between playing the game. Its function is roughly equivalent to the chat interface in World of Warcraft.

Compare and contrast this to the World of Darkness games, where character creation is based more around how you would like to roleplay your character than it is about your combat potential, and where sinking points into acquiring unique foibles and story hooks could be just as attractive as power maximisation. Often in these games key power gains were tied to your character overcoming certain personal faults such as fears, addictions or preconceptions.

Or 7th Sea and Legend of the Five Rings, which use "drama dice" or "void points" as a reward for strong roleplaying; these tokens can be traded off to allow the player direct influence over the fate of their character and the direction of the plot. Conflict resolution mechanics are drawn directly out of the desired tone and mood of the game, so that the outcomes of die rolls naturally reinforce the implicit genre rules.

I've picked those examples because despite their roleplaying focus they're strongly built around combat and physical danger, much like D&D. But if you go further afield to titles like Primetime Adventures and Amber you'll find systems that see combat as merely a subset of conflict resolution, and conflict resolution as something that should be subservient to the core thrust of the plot. These are real roleplaying games, where the roleplaying is the main play content.

So don't tell me Dungeons & Dragons is a roleplaying game. It's not. It's an excellent tabletop tactical boardgame, which distinguishes itself from titles like Descent and Heroquest by its significant level of character customisation and its encouragement to set the combat and looting gameplay within the context of a larger narrative.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to get back to choosing my level 3 encounter power and speculating as to what feat I'll pick up at level 4.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

SoulCalibur Live Arcade

This week, of course, marked the debut of SoulCalibur on XBox Live Arcade, and it's more or less as awesome as you remember.

The version on sale is allegedly a port of the Dreamcast game. However, it's pretty heavily emasculated. Everything's unlocked from the moment you boot the game, and the available modes have been stripped down to Arcade, Versus, Time Attack, Survival and Museum. So you're getting a pretty basic experience for your $15.

It's also lame that multiplayer is restricted to local matches; getting your game on with players over XBox Live is not an option. Plus you'll be handling the whole thing on, naturally, a 360 controller, also known as "the controller not designed for fighting games".

However, none of that changes the fact that the core gameplay is extremely tight. SoulCalibur is a king among fighting games, and it compares extremely well to contemporaries such as Tekken 3. The controls are responsive, the commands are intuitive, and the results of gutting your opponent with a katana are as satisfying as ever.

Ultimately SoulCalibur is such a good game that paying $15 to buy an amputated clone of it is still an excellent bargain. This is one of the better games on Live Arcade today and worthy of your attention, even if just to tide you over the three weeks until SoulCalibur IV.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Jar Jar, You're A Genius

Darths & Droids would be yet another in a terminally bloated field of unnecessary webcomics, were it not for the fact that it's awesome.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Nobody's Playing

There's a problem with the recent trend to emphasise online multiplayer in games, and it is this: nobody's playing.

On XBox Live today if you want a multiplayer game of Halo 3 or Gears of War, you'll be cocking your weapons within minutes. But if it's The Darkness or Crackdown you're after your chances aren't so good. Heaven help you if you were hoping for a ranked match of Catan or Doom.

Catan, it should be noted, has no local multiplayer. So if you've just shelled out your $10 or whatever on Live Arcade and discovered that all you can do with it is challenge some rather lame AIs you'd probably be right to feel more than a little cheated.

These things have critical mass. If no-one is playing Mario Strikers Charged Football today, then no-one is going to be playing it tomorrow. Waiting in an empty lobby in the hope of someone showing up is not fun; and if no one is willing to wait for an adversary to arrive, then no matches are ever going to be made.

Multiplayer content takes time and money to develop. That's a cost that's explicit, in that it's passed on to the consumer by way of the purchase price, or implicit, in that it diverts time and resources away from the single player experience. When something with a reasonably well fleshed-out online mode like The Darkness simply has no multiplayer following, that's a massive waste.

Multiplayer content also decays. What may have a reasonable community at release may well have no-one less than a year later. While the Halos and Counter-Strikes of the world may stay strong year after year, they're the small minority. Try getting anyone to play The Ship or DefJam Icon. Achievements in these games that require multiplayer action grow more unreachable with every passing day.

One solution is passive matchmaking. This means that matchmaking occurs while players are engaged in other content. In Crackdown it works reasonably well, where you can be on the look-out for players who want a co-op game while you're working your way through the single player story. In World of Warcraft, though, it works poorly, where the Looking for Group interface is badly supported and ignored by the majority of players.

Before committing to developing online multiplayer content, developers should seriously ask themselves who, exactly, will be playing. Where will the boundless hordes of players come from, and why will they keep coming back for more? How will you stop them from having to wait around in empty lobbies? And what will you do, eventually, when it turns out nobody's playing?

On The Way: Elebits DS

There's something of a trend going on right now. It involves developers taking my favourite games of the past few years and gutting them with a rusty knife.

I've previously mentioned the abomination that is Drawn to Life: Spongebob Squarepants Edition. In a similar vein, Konami have announced that the next iteration of Elebits (or Eledees to us Aussies) will be a top-down action RPG for the DS.

Elebits: The Adventures of Kai & Zero appears to pick up where the original Wii version left off, judging from the title. Where the first game was a wonderful sandbox in which you used light-gun style gameplay to lift and throw furniture in the eternal search for "Elebits", the DS version looks a little like Secret of Mana meets Boktai. Which were both great games, but deeply lacking in the "tossing two storey houses as though they were beachballs" department.

Boo. Boo, I say. Poor show, Konami. Make a real Elebits sequel and forget about this DS nonsense.

Saturday, July 05, 2008


While the rest of the world was busily getting to second base with Grand Theft Auto IV, I've been spending some quality time with a much earlier open-world game for the XBox 360 and finding that it's quite possibly the best thing since the invention of sherbet.

And by sherbet, I don't mean that frozen-dessert American nonsense. I'm talking about the sweet, sweet bicarbonate powder that bubbles on your tongue and makes small children twitch with pleasure. Crackdown is full of it.

Those who know me will be aware that I've become a bit blase towards Grand Theft Auto and its ill-begotten spawn. My complaints largely boil down to annoying missions, a poorly told story, and some interface issues. Plus I'd rather gargle nails than complete another set of ambulance side-jobs.

The genius of Crackdown is that it strips out all of that silliness and gets right down to letting you leap from building to building and blow up cars with rocket launchers. Let's face it - the unfettered interaction of rocket launchers with cars was easily the best bit of GTA, and here it's like they've built a theme park around the concept.

In Crackdown you play as, essentially, Supercop. The product of some sort of genetic tomfoolery, you're imbued with the ability to leap dozens of feat in the air, pick up and throw nearly anything that isn't nailed down, and nail criminals from astronomical distances using the most paltry of firearms.

It's awesome that you start the game as this kind of a demigod among men, but as you make your explosive progress through what's on offer you'll get even more ridiculous. Practicing your key skills (read: using them to kill criminals) will improve them, and before you know it you'll be ascending the outside of skyscrapers like a particularly nimble chimpanzee and crushing lawbreakers using their own stolen sports utility vehicles.

The conceit of the game is that your home of Pacific City is overrun by ill-tempered lawbreakers, and it's naturally up to you to dispense some brutal justice. There are three gangs, each with a leader and six underbosses, making for a total of 21 kingpins of the underworld to take down. The bosses are right there in the city from the moment you first enter the game world, and you can theoretically rough them up in any order you wish. Each is shacked up in a reasonably defensible position, like a housing project or a casino, with a small cadre of guards.

The game inserts structure by creating gang dependencies. For instance, one underboss of a gang may be that gang's gun-runner; take him down and you'll find the remainder of the gang is now poorly armed. Another leader might be in charge of recruits - once she's down there'll be less gangbangers on the streets and guards will respawn slower. In this way, the player is encouraged to work up to the well-defended overlords by eliminating flunkies and thereby kneecapping the gang's batttle abilities.

That aside, it's entirely up to the player how and when to tackle the 21 gang bosses. You can hit gang fortresses through the front door with guns blazing, wreak havoc from behind the wheel of a motor vehicle, or take the boss by surprise by leaping over the rank-and-file from the top of a nearby building.

There's a fantastic sense of freedom, but it comes with a price. Where a GTA game might typically clock in at over a hundred hours, you'll be done with Crackdown within twelve. Those are an excellent twelve hours, though. There's a clunky online-only co-op mode available to stretch things out, but that requires finding someone on XBox Live who's actually playing the game, and even then it's not as fun as you might think.

The game's greatest strength is probably its acrobatics gameplay. Leaping from building to building is absolutely thrilling - there's a real sense of height and gravity at work, and phenomenal draw distances mean that you when you're at the top of the city you'll be able to see anything under the horizon. It feels like they could have built the entire game just around this concept, and it's well-showcased by a number of optional "rooftop race" sidequests. As your leaping skill levels up you'll also end up running faster, to the point where you can eventually keep up with most vehicles on foot.

The "lifting-and-throwing" mechanic is potentially interesting; however in practice it's not very useful. The animation for lifting items is annoyingly long, and the way the game handles targeting means it's quite difficult to actually hit a criminal with anything you've lifted. There's really no good reason not to knock criminals off with your firearms, or even just deliver a well-placed kick to the face.

The weakest aspect of Crackdown is the driving. Firstly, it's not terribly useful for taking down gang members, as NPCs are quite adept at diving out of the way of fast moving vehicles. Secondly, the fast running speed that you'll quickly develop means that getting around on foot isn't much of a burden.

Car handling is squirrely at anything except the very highest levels of driving skill. It's almost impossible to stay on the road at any reasonable speed, and accidentally running down civilians will soon have your police-agency buddies out for your blood. What's worse, merely driving the car isn't enough to really advance your skills - to get better at driving you'll have to run criminals down, complete road races, or hit stunt markers. (Road races are often frustratingly long and hard, and most stunt markers are unobtainable without a lot of work setting up ramp-trucks and clearing roads of traffic.)

The whole game is narrated by an authoritarian "police contact", who turns in non-stop commentary on your exploits, praising you for daring maneuvers and amazing acrobatics, while brutally chewing you out when your mistakes lead to civilian deaths. It's an audio conceit that could easily have become annoying but yet somehow works well, partly because the comments on offer are varied, and partly through the high calibre of the voice acting.

Crackdown is a game that didn't get the commmendation it deserved at the time of its release; the most common complaint was "it's not GTA". Now that there's some next-gen GTA action available, I'd say it's time for 360 owners to revisit Crackdown on its own merits and appreciate just how incredibly fun this game can be.

Friday, July 04, 2008

More on Chrono Trigger DS

To follow up on Wednesday's post, Square-Enix has now officially announced Chrono Trigger DS is in the works. The game will be a remake; apparently the graphics will remain the same but new features include dual screen presentation, touch screen functionality, wireless connectivity and a new dungeon.

That means it's probably going to look more like their re-releases of Final Fantasy IV and V than it is their massive redesign of FF3.

The image on the left was retrieved from DSFanboy, who apparently took it from

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Thirty Thousand

Today The Dust Forms Words experienced its 30,000th unique visit since July 2006.

That's small change in internet terms but it's still just a little bit awesome. Thanks to everyone who visits every day, thanks to you people who check in weekly, and a huge shout out to all you folks who can't use Google effectively and came here despite it having nothing to do with your search query.

You guys rock.

Dissidia: Final Fantasy

Not to bomb you with Square-Enix news, but have you noticed that they're working on a Final Fantasy themed game for the PSP called Dissidia: Final Fantasy? The gameplay sounds like a two-player fighting game but apparently it's got a script "double the length of Crisis Core".

This is actually last year's news but somehow I completely missed it, so it's not beyond possibility that you have too. The massive downside, of course, is that you'd have to fire up a PSP in order to play it, but I know some of you out there are masochistic enough to do that so presumably you'll be stoked when Dissidia hits stores.

Yes, Sephiroth is playable.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Chrono Trigger DS

Check it out - Square-Enix has a page up at showing a mysterious image of a clock, with the words "Nintendo DS" next to it.

Clock? A page entitled "CTDS"? It looks like Squeenix's cult hit Chrono Trigger is coming to a dual-screen portable near you! (It's worth noting that the clock's not a countdown - it's showing your local system time.)

I'm not sure which possibility I'm more excited about - the original game, a remake, or a brand new entry in the franchise. They're all filled with win.

All I ask is that they not commission any more art from Dragonball Z creator Akira Toriyama. His character designs make me cry bitter tears of frustration.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008