Friday, May 29, 2009

My review of Fable II: See the Future

My review of the Fable II: See the Future expansion pack is posted on Techcetera. If you're a Fable fan -- and I know some of you are -- be sure to check it out!

Leave comments, and I'll give you a free health potion the next time I see your big orb-head walking by me in Albion.

Monday, May 25, 2009

How to make The Perfect Video Game

By Bryan Crowson
Sythbane Squadron leader

There are rumblings in the video gaming press that BioWare's forthcoming role-playing game, Dragon Age: Origins, may be a rip-roaring RPG, bursting with buckets of blood, copious violence, and throbbing with bodice-ripping, high-fantasy sex.

I sure hope it is! That means Dragon Age: Origins might have three or four of my criteria for The Perfect Game.

In my last post about games I'm looking forward to, one of the games is Dragon Age: Origins, which publisher EA says is coming for PC and consoles in the second half of 2009. My high hopes for Dragon Age got me to thinking about the best of all possible games which I hope to play someday.

As much as I loved The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion, I got really annoyed (and bored) by the fact that it included NO romance, no nudity, and only subdued violence. Can't somebody give us a grown-up game, no holds barred? It would sell like crazy! EA's The Godfather 2 made some progress toward this goal of realism by including strippers that were actually topless. (Kudos, EA! The fact that EA now owns BioWare is another hopeful sign.)

But no mainstream Mature-rated game has yet to have any scene that compares with the gloriously beautiful sight of Atia (Polly Walker) walking out of her bath in HBO's epic miniseries Rome. Although a few games such as The Godfather II have broken the brassiere barrier, none that I know of have presented any posteriors -- pretty as Polly's or otherwise. The Mature-rated Oblivion was so prudish that it abandoned all pretense of realism for the medieval fantasy epic and anachronistically clad its female characters in modest, modern bras and granny panties. The ladies might as well have been wearing Nike cross-trainers and iPods, too.

I have a notion of a perfect game in my head. I await the day that somebody makes it, but it hasn't happened yet. David Jaffe came close with God of War, but God of War had too much platforming and not enough role-playing to meet my Perfect Game criteria.

My prescription for the Perfect Game continues to evolve, but here are some of the qualities I'm looking for:

- It will be a role-playing game for consoles, including the Xbox 360. I don't do PC games anymore. I want to relax on my couch, not hunched over a keyboard. And my favorite genre is role-playing, where I inhabit another world for a time. Mass Effect came close to my ideal, but it it had no online element. Could there be a massive multiplayer RPG on Xbox Live someday? I sure hope so. They keep teasing us about the Age of Conan coming to Xbox Live, but I'll believe it when I see it.

Role-playing is the ideal genre for my Perfect Game because it allows for the most creativity by the player. It casts me as the lead role in a story, where I make the decisions for the character like an author would make decisions for a character in a novel.

- RPGs typically also allow for the most customization, which is another trait of my ideal game. I want to be able to customize every facet of my character, as well as other important characters in the game (I couldn't get my spouse to wear the sexy clothes I gave to her in Fable 2! But maybe that was an ironic element of realism.). I want to customize the sex of the character, the face, the body, the clothing, the weapons -- everything! I want to make the story and character mine.

- It will NOT be a platformer or have any platformer gameplay elements. Jumping around is for kids.

- If it is a swords-and-sorcery fantasy story, the imagery will resemble the magnificent battle scenes of 300. Zack Snyder set the standard, until something better comes along.

- If it is a modern story with first-person shooter elements, the level of violence and imagery will resemble Saving Private Ryan and the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers. These have the most gripping, visceral battles scenes ever committed to film, and a game maker would do well to emulate them, regardless if it's modern combat or science-fiction warfare.

- As a mature game, it will not shrink from the realities of life. There will be touches like Peter Molyneux put in Fable 2, such as having a dog. There will be spouses, and children. The problem at the heart of Oblivion was that it had no compelling motivation. There was no romantic interest whatsoever in the story. Love is the greatest motivation for any story, the driving force in almost everything we do. Whether the hero seeks to win a girl, or protect his child like in Taken, the engine for the plot is love.

Apparently, Peter Molyneux is alone among game makers in recognizing this great fact. Mass Effect almost took the plunge into having a romantic interest, but ultimately it shied away from it like a child who put his hand on the stove. The controversial love scene between Commander Shepard and Liara or Ashley was very tame and a huge disappointment. You can see more nudity by flipping through a Redbook magazine in the checkout line at Wal-Mart and scanning the ads.

- As a corollary to not shrinking from life's realities, the game will include nudity and sex at appropriate points in the story. That doesn't mean it would be a series of sex scenes for the sake of sex scenes, like a late-night "skinimax" flick. It means people get naked to bathe and change clothes, and to have sex, and we all have skin under our suits of armor.

HBO has produced shows in which nudity happens naturally with the flow of the story. Rome, Deadwood and True Blood are the best examples I can think of. The tone of the story and the nudity in the Perfect Game will be like this.

These shows are for grown-ups. Various studies keep showing that the majority of gamers are adults, not children. And yet, even Mature games have this lingering guilt, like the developers can't quite get past the notion that they're making toys for kids. Games are labeled Mature just as movies are rated R. Kids have the same access to mature content on television and movies that they would have with games, yet violent or sexy R-rated movies never cause a stir like games that push the Mature-rated envelope. Ultimately, parents must take responsibility for what their children consume.

(This topic gets me on a soapbox. If you're interested, please see two previous posts where it is discussed further: Severed heads, naked breasts and video games, and Naked breasts vs. severed heads, Round 2.) Somebody needs to stand up to the ESRB's cultural tyranny. Grown-ups buy the expensive, $60 games, because we have the money. Is it too much to ask for a game for our own demographic, as grown-ups?

To conclude this rant, I'm not really expecting my Perfect Game to be The Next Big Thing this year. My frame of reference for video games goes back to the days when only the rich kids had Pong. Later, in high school, I started playing Asteroids at the arcade. The technological march of video games continuously amazes me.

Every year, my Perfect Game gets a little closer, but I'm still waiting.

In the meantime, I suppose I'll go play Halo 3 and Bejeweled 2 some more.

Thanks to my geek wingman, Flying Monkey Joe, for suggesting that I chip off this rumination on The Perfect Game from the previous post and make it stand alone. May your little blue malodorous wings bear you safely to the witch's castle!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Gamers ready for the Next Big Thing

By Bryan Crowson
Sythbane Squadron leader

The day has finally come when even the most stalwart shooter fans on my Xbox Live friends list are tired of Call of Duty. Until recently, whenever I got online, most folks were playing Call of Duty: World at War. Now, hardly anybody is playing it regularly. The friends and party list show a variety of games and genres, as people revisit old favorites. Fable 2 has popped up again as people explore some of its new downloadable content, and some have dipped back into Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Vegas 2.

Last night, I joined a lively series of Halo 3 slayer matches with Big Daddy Ogre and several other friends. Playing Halo 3 online against random opponents can be off-putting, because the Halo community is unfortunately burdened with more than its share of mutton-heads. But if you can play Halo online with actual friends, it remains one of the most fun games ever. It's interesting to note that when people tire of everything else, Halo 3 is the fall-back game!

I've also gone back to Fable 2 a bit. I fired it up to try out the See the Future expansion and noticed that my main character had acquired enough cash to buy Fairfax Castle. I did that quest and (possible spoiler alert here!) got to the part with the sex-changing potion. OK, so it did warn that was permanent, but I assumed I could go back to a previous save. I wanted to see if there were any cool animations to the effect, and to see what my character would look like as a woman. I saved the game, so I could revert to my old self if I didn't like my estrogen-enhanced self, and then drank the potion. Blip, and there I stood, a woman in ill-fitting clothes. No fancy animation.

And, aside from the anti-climax of the transformation, I was NOT a pretty woman. You'd think a high-level female fighter would be a sexy, athletic woman like Xena, Red Sonja, Witchblade, or -- a more recent example -- super-hot Aneka of Krod Mandoon and the Flaming Sword of Fire on Comedy Central. I don't know what the folks at Lionhead were thinking, but a female high-level fighter in Fable 2 looks like a male heavyweight wrestler wearing a bra. Haven't any of them ever picked up an issue of Heavy Metal magazine?

I was displeased, so I tried to reload my last saved game, and guess what? Peter Molyneux got the last laugh, because the game saved automatically when I drank the potion. I'm stuck looking like a refrigerator in a dress. This transformation should have been a blessing, not a curse! I got online and searched the message boards and forums for a trick to change back, and it looks like lots of people have done exactly what I did. There apparently is no way to change back. Like many of those folks on the forums, I've gottened annoyed with Fable 2 because of this and set it aside.

Now what? Heads up, game makers!

To be fair, there have been some decent game releases lately, but nothing that seems to be widely embraced as a must-play for everybody. This limbo period, with gamers adrift, looking for something new, is an opportunity for game makers to break this absurd fall holiday season glut of game releases. With new video games at $60 a pop, who can afford to buy all these games? You should be feeding the beast throughout the year! Quit saving so much of the best stuff for fall.

There are a lot of games I'm looking forward to, but I'm having a wait through this period of malaise for too long before I can play them. The longer I wait, the greater my expectations are for the games. Here are some of coming releases that I'm really eager to get my hands on, and some of my hopes for the them:

- Alpha Protocol. I'm really ready to get my hands on another good role-playing game for my Xbox 360. This looks like a Jason Bourne-type character in a Mass Effect type game, which could be awesome. Release date: Oct. 6! Dang it!

- Halo 3: ODST. A fresh take on the Halo universe, playing as an Orbital Drop Shock Trooper, the special forces of the UNSC. How long until this one? The release date is this fall. Doh!

- Red Dead Redemption from Rockstar Games. I don't know much about this one, but I get the impression that it might be a role-playing game like Grand Theft Auto IV, but set in the Old West. The trailer looks fantastic, like a movie. I'm really stoked to try this. I thought the seedy atmosphere of GTA4 was depressing, but I could get into the wide-open spaces of an Old West RPG. Again, the release date is this fall!

- Aliens vs. Predator from Sega. This one makes me giddy. A shooter, with multiplayer as an Alien or a Predator or a Colonial Marine?! Holy face-huggers! Sign me up! How could anybody possibly screw this up, with so much cool source material? And yet, the movies keep screwing up this franchise. Here's my advice: IGNORE the ill-conceived abominations known as Alien 3, Alien 4 and AVP: Requiem. Key the game on Aliens and the original Predator, and it will be a winner. Release date: early 2010. Argh!

- Modern Warfare 2. This one will have everybody tied up, game makers. The 500 pound gorilla will own Xbox Live when it's released Nov. 10, so don't you want to throw us a bone before then?

- Brutal Legend. I am ready to rock.

- Dragon Age: Origins. This swords-and-sorcery RPG from BioWare hints at a mature treatment of the genre, not the namby-pamby Saturday-morning kind of thing we're used to. I say: Bring it on.

Reap the rewards of renting games

By Fartknocckker
Sythbane Squadron contributor

Game rental has always been a money saver. It's different from renting movies, because you need to keep a game longer. That problem was solved with the advent of online rental services such as Gamefly. The promise of one monthly fee for unlimited games delivered to your mailbox -- with no return dates -- seems like the definition of practical.

Since I was one of the early adopters of Netflix, the online movie rental service, I decided to try my hand at Gamefly, the online game rental service. As a new customer I was treated with the highest regard. I received games promptly, in some cases, only a day after release, and I earned rewards as my membership time grew.

After about an eight month span, however, one game remained on my list for six weeks. Another languished for four weeks, and yet another for two weeks. After a friendly but firm e-mail to the company, my six week status game was shipped, but the other two remained in my queue. I realized that this problem was not intentional and probably a result of a company growing too fast to keep adequate inventory.

Before online rental services, most people would go to their local Blockbuster or Hollywood Video stores. The convenience of ordering movies and games online and having them delivered, however, pulled customers away. That left brick and mortar stores with greater inventory. This prompted me to investigate other sources for my game rental.

I walked into Hollywood Video and there on the shelf were four copies of my two-week status game, and two copies of my four-week status game. They also have a program with one monthly payment, unlimited games and movies and no return dates. This program was also a few dollars cheaper than my current combined bill for Netflix and Gamefly. Walking into a store and picking up a game the same day was a far cry from waiting six weeks on another plan.

I want to point out that I have never had a problem with Netflix. Neither is this a stab at Gamefly, because I am sure there are thousands of satisfied customers. Nor is it a promotion for Hollywood Video.

My point is, before you go to an online service, don’t count out the traditional way of renting games and movies. Just because it’s new and convenient doesn’t necessarily make it better. Explore you options. You might be surprised.

Fartknocckker always plays a game like he owns it, regardless if it's rented or purchased.

Friday, May 15, 2009

X-Men Origins: Wolverine reviewed

My review of the X-Men Origins: Wolverine game is up on Techcetera. I had more fun than usual writing this one, so please check it out and leave comments!

Friday, May 1, 2009

A happy headbanger family

Check out the review on Techcetera of Guitar Hero: Metallica.

The primary author is a special member of Sythbane Squadron. Rock on, Fortiscule!