Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Arcades Find a New Home

Although physical arcades have pretty much gone the way of the dodo (Boomers, GameWorks, and mini-golf places are just about the only arcade hot-spots in North America that I can think of), those quick, "pick up and play" experiences have pretty much shifted to handheld systems and Downloadable Content (DLC). I'm here to elaborate on the latter method of gaming.

Historically, downloadable games have been around for a long time on PCs. Back in the 90's, "shareware" was a new concept for letting people try out a game with the intention of purchasing the remaining two-thirds if they really enjoyed it. Today, companies like Popcap Games make flash versions of their games available for free, and offer downloadable deluxe versions for sale. Now, this business model is making it's way to the consoles in a big way, with each company taking their own unique direction towards dominance of this new market.

Can you even tell what's going on in this Geometry Wars screenshot?

Microsoft's XBox Live Arcade, a carry over from the original XBox, offers a creative canvas for smaller, independent developers to create $5 - $15 gaming experiences, while also providing revisions to nostalgic classics like Frogger and Street Fighter II. This double dose of content offers a nice balance of alternate gaming experiences like the addicting Geometry Wars, while fleshing out the library with high-def remakes like Caslevania Symphony of the Night, Ikaruga, and Alien Hominid. Also look for some new upcoming titles such as Boom Boom Rocket (from the makers of Geometry Wars), Castle Crashers, and Mutant Storm Empire.

PS3 owners were treated to Gran Turismo HD for free.

Sony's Playstation Network (PSN) takes the downloadable games concept in a whole new direction with their "Download Initiative." In addition to offering smaller independently made games like the revamped flash game flOw, Sony has assigned many of its key first-party development studios to make slightly meatier download-only games. David Jaffe of SCE (God of War fame) is working on fun new title called Calling All Cars. Recently, Sony also released Tekken 5: Dark Resurrection and the concept game Gran Turismo HD as download initiative titles. With talk of the new Warhawk game possibly being download-only, the Playstation Network could provide a new avenue for game companies to push scaled-down versions of troubled products for less than half the price of store bought games. If anything, it gives the PS3 a way to distinguish itself from its competitors.

Cult classic Alien Hominid is coming to Xbox Live Arcade in high def.

Finally, Nintendo, although not fully embracing online yet in the traditional sense, has their own system of offering downloadable games. By offering titles, via the Virtual Console, from their own immense back catalog of software, along with games from Sega Genesis, Turbo Graffix 16, and Neo Geo, it seems Nintendo has potentially the strongest collection of classic games. The fact that they only debut between 1 - 4 games a week (every Monday) only works to keep up demand and anticipation for these titles you probably already own. Though they don't yet support original downloadable content, I feel this is a space they will soon occupy. Who wouldn't want to create a small, yet clever new way to use the Wii-mote?

This is yet another example of why the 3 way competition (or console war, if you prefer) works. If you were to take one of these away, you'd really be missing something. The third wheel in this race is just as essential as the other two, plain and simple.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Naruto Drinking Game

After watching the first 3 episodes of the new Naruto Shippuuden series, I thought I'd create a Naruto drinking game, to celebrate the end of crappy filler storylines. So raise your preferred beverage of choice... And here's to a new season!

Take a drink if...

- Naruto proclaims that he will "definitely become Hokage."

- During the middle of an episode, we see a flashback of a scene that has already been shown before.

- The flashback depicts the scene where Naruto and Sasuke attack each other with their signature finishing moves while Sakura tries to stop them. (take 2 drinks)

- Anyone makes a perverted remark towards women.

- Naruto shouts to world that he "definitely won't lose."

- Any ninja attacks another ninja, only to find out they used the Replacement Technique to escape, leaving behind a log in their place.

- Naruto eats his favorite food, ramen.

- Another never before seen method of using Chakra is demonstrated.

- A new Intro or Outro song and segment are introduced. (take 3 drinks!)

Friday, February 23, 2007

Crackdown is Here...

And the flavor of the month is... Crackdown!

Created by Realtime Worlds (founded by David Jones, creator of Grand Theft Auto and Lemmings), Crackdown is basically a sandbox GTA-type game with super hero-like abilities which make it a blast to play. Jumping from building to building is incredibly satisfying. The whole "skills-for-kills" aspect of leveling up your character by fighting the enemy gangs in specific ways is great RPG convention that I think you'll see most games will adopt or continue to use going forward. The cell-shaded graphics are refreshing and much better looking in the actual gameplay. I also can't wait to try out some more creative things in the Live Co-op mode.

However, the missions are a little repetitive, with most dissolving into the generic "kill this guy and all his minions" goal. Since I'm only at the second island (out of three), hopefully I'll see a little more variety in mission objectives later on. The targeting systems seems a little unpolished, sometimes locking onto a dead corpse instead of an attacking enemy. Still, I think this game has so much potential. I am really looking forward to seeing what free additional content they will add in the near future (the game only ships with 900 achievement points).

I've still got a ways to go in the single player and my guy is only about 40% leveled up, so I still haven't seen everything yet. But this game could definitely use some additional side quest activities. Other than scaling buildings, buffing your character and taking on car/rooftop races, there's not much else to do. I'd like to maybe see some "kill frenzy" challenges (a la Grand Theft Auto 2) or maybe some other interesting and useful collectibles added via downloadable content.

As a Side Note: Building scaling (and searching for agility orbs) has become one of the most enjoyable parts of this game for me. I actually just got the achievement for climbing the tallest building in the game and then another for jumping into a tiny pool of water beneath it. Seriously, I think this is the first time I've ever experienced a real sense of vertigo in a videogame before... and it was awesome!

Oh yeah, and it does come with the Halo 3 beta.. but that's just icing on the cake!

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Double Your Viewing Pleasure

No, that's not really a picture of my desktop setup. But that would be awesome. You see, I recently bought a 19" LCD display, despite the fact that my current Viewsonic 17" CRT hardware is working perfectly fine. Now granted, I'm not usually much of an impulse buyer, but the President's Day deal at Microcenter was just too good to pass up. So what's the solution, you might ask? A dual-display setup. You know it!

But since the monitors are different sizes, it might seem odd to stick them side-by-side. The beauty in this setup is that the 19" LCD is widescreen (1440 x 900), so they're actually both about the same height. Still.. why two monitors??

Though I'm still figuring out creative ways to utilize this, here are a few things you can do w/ a dual display setup.

1. Dedicate one monitor for the web (ie: the secondary monitor on the right). This way you can watch movies/tv shows on the other screen, while simultaneously looking up stuff or checking email. Keep in mind, in each of these scenarios you can set either display as the primary monitor, whichever is more convenient for you.

2. Keep one monitor for gaming. In truth, I have yet to find a fullscreen game that allows effortless display switching once the game is running. I have found that you usually have to alt-tab out of the game to access your web browser on the other screen. This doesn't mean you can't open a read-only gamefaq webpage or word document on the other screen.

3. Multi-task. Multi-task. Multi-task. This one is pretty obvious, but worth pointing out. The main reason for doubling your desktop area is to increase your amount of simultaneous applications running. Turning your head a few degrees is often much faster than tediously alt-tabbing to get to the other programs you're using, and especially more efficient than shuffling taskbar items around.

4. Two is better than one! What's better than one beautiful display?? Well.. having two displays, obviously. Now I know you're gonna eventually get diminishing marginal returns. Much like the damn "Mach 3" razor blades and ridiculous quad-core CPUs coming out. I know, it's quality over quantity, but c'mon, I'm sure you could use it for something. If nothing else, you can enjoy watching the Windows defrag screen on that second screen.

On a side note, I was disappointed to immediately find a "stuck pixel" on my brand new LCD screen. In the past, I've been lucky enough to never encounter this problem, but now I was faced with how to fix said pixel. First though, I'd like to clarify that there's a difference between a "dead pixel," a "hot pixel," and a "stuck pixel". A dead pixel is defective and always appears black, a hot pixel is always lit and appears white, while a stuck pixel means that one or more of the sub-pixels (red, blue, green) are permanently turned on. In my case, I had one tiny pixel that was always blue, which was only noticeable in an all black screen.

I was able to fix this quite easily through some of the links on the Stuck Pixel Wikipedia entry. Using a special video file of flashing red, green and blue, the stuck pixel was gone rather effortlessly. I ran the video, found on this website (linked here), directly over the pixel for about half and hour and that was it.

In addition, I also found a great third-party application called UltraMon (Windows only) for extending the taskbar over to the second screen, not to mention several other great features. So check it out if you've got a dual setup for Windows.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

2007 = Gaming Bliss

It's 2007 and it is great to be a gamer! With so many major release slated to come out this year, 2007 is looking like a golden Renaissance for gaming.

On the XBox360 front, we're going to see AAA titles like Mass Effect, Halo 3, Bioshock, Grand Theft Auto IV, Forza Motorsport 2, Assassin's Creed, Too Human, Alan Wake, Unreal Tournament 3, and Virtua Fighter 5. We'll also definitely get some incredible new and original Xbox Live Arcade games from smaller developers, while the first party studios will continue to release heavy hitting AAA titles. Also look for Microsoft to launch their "Live Anywhere" service which will add Xbox Live features to Windows Vista and mobile communicators.

On the Wii side of things, you can look forward to Super Mario Galaxy, Metroid Prime 3, Super Smash Bros Brawl, and Super Paper Mario. Hopefully, Nintendo will finally announce plans for original game content on the Virtual Console and keep us busy with plenty of classic VC releases and some interesting new Wii Channels. And let's not forget about the "money-printing" DS , which is sure to continue breaking records with titles like Pokemon Diamond, Dragon Quest IX, and hopefully, Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass.

Looking over the to PS3, we've got Virtua Fighter 5, MotorStorm, Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Lair, Heavenly Sword, Killzone 2, GTA IV, Assassin's Creed, UT 3, and, should the video game gods smile us, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. The Playstation Network is also aggressively pushing their "Download Initiative", to release major titles for download only, such as the recent Tekken 5: Dark Resurrection. However, the PS3 is not alone, because unlike Sony's competitors, they have not ditched their previous gen system and don't plan to any time soon. The PS2 may still have a bit of life it in, with the monster that is God of War II coming out this March.

Finally, the PC will make a strong showing this year, with the simultaneous launch of Windows Vista and DirectX 10 video cards. And although the next-gen systems are still brand new, these new graphics cards will rival anything seen on the PS3 and XBox360. Look for games like Crysis to take full advantage of this new technology. Command and Conquer III will bring the series back to its roots, while others like Supreme Commander, Quake Wars, S.T.A.L.K.E.R., and expansion Oblivion: Shivering Isles will keep your gaming rigs useful. And the gaming event 5 years in the making.. Spore, will likely see its way into your Sims-obsessed lives. There are also a slew of newMMORPGs out there, but don't count on anyone overtaking the King that is WoW any time soon.

If you have any of these systems this year, you are gonna be one happy camper. But know that delays will occur. It's inevitable. Don't be surprised if Metal Gear Solid 4 slips to next year. Also, considering that we have heard zero information fromRockstar since E3 2006, I wouldn't be shocked to hear of GTA IV being delayed. And fans of the Final Fantasy series will probably have to wait until 2008 to see the XIII franchise emerge, but a demo may be in store for this year.

Keeping all that in mind, there are titles that I think their platforms will greatly depend on this year. These are titles that could potentially cripple the system if they don't make it in 2007. For starters, Halo 3 needs to ship, as promised, in Fall 2007. Microsoft is depending on Bungie, just as the XBox 1 ("Halo Box") did. Sony also desperately needs a monster title to hit the PS3 this year, and that title should be Metal Gear Solid 4, but who knows, maybe something else will come along. Whether Kojima will make this happen remains to be seen. Lastly, the Wii needs its mascot to make a triumphant return in Super Mario Galaxy. Where are the awesome first-party titles we've been promised that will set this system apart from the Gamecube??

However, games are only going to be half the battle. If this year is to be successful, the Big 3 will need to get their supply lines in order and ship units. Sony and Microsoft will also need to give new gamers an incentive to buy with a price drop this year. Regardless, 2007 is guaranteed to be a landmark year for the industry. No matter who wins this console war, the true winners will ultimately be the gamers.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Lost S03E07 Not in Portland

Well, the 3-month 'Lost' hiatus ended last night and it brought the season back with a bang! Lots of jaw dropping moments, some great insight into our first 'Other' back story, and yes, lots of Jack, Kate, and Sawyer. I won't discuss the entire episode, since Lost is better watched than read. However, I do want to delve into some of the reveals from this episode.

I think the most intriguing reveals actually centered around Juliet. Judging from the brief appearances of Ethan Rom (aka "Other Man") it seems like he could be some sort of recruiter for Dharma. We'll definitely see more of him in future flashbacks. One of the bigger reveals came via Jack's continued insistence in knowing what Ben had said to her in the operating room. I think most of us had assumed that Juliet was one of the more notable members of the Others. She's always seemed bent on overthrowing Ben, and now we understand why (assuming she's not outright lying to Jack). Simply put, she just wants to get off the island. If this is true, then she's not much different than the our Lostaways.

This also changes our perspective on many of the events of the past 6 episodes. In the opening scene of Season 3, her breakdown during the song "Downtown" might have been attributed to her longing to get off the island. The same could be said about her continued resistance to the Others and to Ben. Maybe her plot to have Ben killed at the hands of surgeon Jack was really what she wanted after all. When all is said and done, she's just doing what is necessary to break free of her imprisonment and get back the life she once had. Here's to hoping for a Michael-like betrayal in the near future.

What's got me puzzled is why Dharma/Hanso Foundation would need a fertility doctor with her research knowledge. Could it be that the Others are sterile? Or are they messing with scientific experiments that cross the ethical boundaries no man was meant to cross? Something can certainly be said about their questionable recruitment practices, however. I mean, you can already see the extent they are willing to go to get people on this island (or pair of islands). This really reinforces my previous theory that all the survivors on the island were influenced in finding their way on the island somehow.

And how about the fact that Ben is Alex's father (most likely surrogate). Does she even know about her French Mom, Rousseau? Well, at least she'll be a more regular character moving forward. On the other hand, her boyfriend Karl has definitely had his fair share of brainwashing ('Clockwork Orange' anyone?). It's kinda disturbing to think, but could the kidnapped children from the tail section have received this same treatment as well? Or are they off marching the island like the Lost boys of Peter Pan, hiding in holes in the ground like Alexandra? I think the "Two groups of Others" theory works well in this case. Perhaps the children are with Cindy (the flight attendant) and her group of Others. Maybe the "Tale of Two Cites" references these two Others groups and their constant conflicts.

At any rate, there's so much more to uncover this season. We haven't even seen our beach-dwelling Lostaways since the Fall pod of episodes. Will Locke and company "look North" and find answers?? Where are Sayid, Sun, and Jin?? And what's the deal with Desmond's newly uncovered mystic ability??