Thursday, May 24, 2007

Online only did you know?

There's been a rumor floating around recently that Traveller's Tales has been working on Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga, a next-gen compilation of both LSW games. This rumor kind of intrigued me as I rather enjoyed Lego Star Wars II on 360 but have never played the original title (the one based on the movies with Jar Jar and E.T.). Would I really want to shell out full price for a compilation when I already played through one of the games? How would the achievements work? Would the Lego Star Wars II portion get all new achievements or would they pick half from the original game and recycle them (please, no!)?

Well, the game is rumor no more as it was officially announced today for 360, PS3, and Wii. The best part is, the 360 and PS3 versions will feature drop-in, drop-out online co-op play, a la Gears of War. For those keeping score that's 2 games in 2 days I've become interested in due to co-op play. It was a major feature missing from LSWII, since the game had local co-op, but restraints on where you could move resulted in the mode being largely unusable. Online co-op would fix that problem since everyone would have their own screen. That is assuming, of course, it doesn't play like Marvel Ultimate Alliance where, even online, you all had to stay on the same screen.

In any case, it's nice to see more and more developers making online co-op a standard feature in their games, and in some cases making it the focus of the entire game. Even better, with co-op play now destined for Lego Star Wars, it's pretty likely Lego Batman will feature it as well.

I really do hope that they don't reuse any of the achievements from LSWII though, particularly the "Finish Level X without dying" ones.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Future is Hazy with the Frustrations of Exclusivity

According to a Gamespot report, Free-Radical developed FPS, Haze, originally scheduled to be released on 360, Ps3, and PC this Fall will now only be appearing on least in 2007.

I had originally intended to write about yesterday's revelation that Haze would feature four player online co-op through the story mode of the game, an announcement that instantly raised my interest from ambivalence to "now please". No sooner did I become interested in the game than Sony swoops in wielding bags of cash and builds a fort of gold ingots around it. Which now brings us to a diatribe on the stupidity and ensuing frustrations of console exclusives. And who can resist a good diatribe?

I own a PS3, I own a 360, I own a Wii. I own pretty much everything that a game can be played on, from this generation on back to the NES days. Exclusives don't apply to me and never have. But this gen is different. With the advent of Xbox Live, peer pressure is now part of the equation. Since playing through Haze with my brothers and/or my friends is the major draw of the game for me, the PS3 version is not an option, even though I have the means to play it. Why is that? Because I don't know a single person who owns a PlayStation 3. Actually, scratch that, I do know one single person who owns a PS3. One. I did know two people but the other one sold it so he could buy an HDTV to play his 360 on. No joke.

My point here is that even though I own a PS3, my buying habits are most certainly being affected as a result of what my friends and family own, especially in the case of online titles. I could get Haze on PS3 but I'd be playing it by myself. In that case, Haze may as well not even be online and that brings me back to ambivalent level interest.

Sony is paying through the nose for limited exclusivity on a title that isn't going to get them much more sales than if it launched simultaneously on 360. People who only own a PS3 would buy Haze for PS3 anyway, people who only own a 360 aren't going to go buy a PS3 to play it when they know it's coming later. People who own both are more likely to wait for the 360 version to come out since Sony's online service pales in comparison. Even if 75% of people who own both systems bought the PS3 version, how many people are there who own both? The term negligible comes to mind. And let's face it, for people who own neither system, Haze isn't going to convince them to buy a PS3 over a 360 with Halo 3.

Ubisoft is the big winner here because Sony is basically paying them to not have their game be overshadowed by Halo 3 on the 360. They get a chunk of change for NOT putting the game on 360 for a little while and then they can release it in Spring '08, after Halo fever is long past. So once again, we the consumers lose out. Or do we?

In a way, I feel like I should be thanking Sony. By making Haze a PS3 exclusive, that's one less game coming out at a time when there are WAY too many games coming out. So long as Ubisoft takes the extra time it now has to make the 360 version even better, Haze will be the perfect game for the slower Spring period next year.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Shock and Corruption the week of Aug. 19th

No, it's not a new US military offensive, it's Microsoft and Nintendo's covert operation to keep gamers indoors as the summer begins to come to an end and kick off the annual flood of Holiday titles a month early.

Irrational Software's Bioshock is without a doubt my most anticipated game of the year. They played a horrible, horrible joke earlier this year when they laid down the carpet of a June release date and then promptly pulled it out from under me, revealing an open grave with a tombstone marked August 22nd. So it goes.

Not to be outdone, Nintendo had promised Metroid Prime 3: Corruption would be a launch title for the Wii. Shortly before November 19th it suddenly became a "launch window" title, the release designation that is the bane of console launches and gamers everywhere. The time period that could even remotely be considered the "launch window" came and went with no news from Nintendo, outside of a "read my lips" promise from NOA Prez Reggie Fils-Aime that there would be no Wii drought. Now, months into the Wii Drought of 2007 Nintendo has finally announced a final release date for Corruption: August 20th.

Yes, that's right, my 2 most anticipated games of the year, after seeing more than their share of delays will now be released 2 days apart. In a perfect world I would've been done with Metroid Prime 3 months ago and be gearing up for Bioshock right now.

This is not a perfect world, ladies and gentlemen. It is a cruel world. A sick world. One which makes you choose between Bioshock and Metroid Prime 3, and also between sleep, food, and a life.

Ahh, who am I kidding, Bioshock wins, I know what to expect from Metroid, Bioshock looks to be one of the most original games in years. I'll save Prime 3 for the inevitable Wii Drought of 2008. Assuming Mario Galaxy makes it out in 2007 (my prediction? Galaxy this Fall, Smash Bros... Someday.) that adds up to a grand total of one other must-play Wii title for me.

via 1up

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Digital Distribution strikes again...

If you're a PC gamer your purchasing options for the upcoming bundled release of Half Life 2: Episode Two, Team Fortress 2, and Portal just got smaller.

Publisher/Developer Valve recently announced that the $39.99 "Black Box" version of the game, which would've contained only the three aforementioned titles and was geared towards those who already own Half Life 2 and Episode I -arguably the majority of those who would be interested in Episode Two- has been canceled. That leaves only the $49.99 Orange Box package which also throws in the original Half Life 2 and Episode One. This release was obviously geared towards that handful of people who don't already own Half Life 2 and Episode I but at this juncture have suddenly become interested.

What that means for Half Life 2 fans is that they are now going to be forced to purchase 2 titles they already own in order to get Episode II. As it was, many Half Life fans might not have any interest in Team Fortress II or Portal but would have to shell out $40 for the Black Box just to get Episode Two. What started out as a simple $20 expansion to Half Life 2 has somehow transformed into a $50 bundle full of stuff you may or may not want, or even worse, already own.

Don't get me wrong, the Orange Box is a tremendous value, for an extra $10 you're getting Half Life 2 and Episode I. But that's only a value if you hadn't already shelled out $60 and $20 for them previously.

So where does digital distribution fit into this scheme, you ask? Valve of course, with their Steam service, is one of the biggest proponents of the digital distribution of video games. For them, this is a way to squeeze more money out of their customers no matter how they purchase the game. If you want to buy it in the store and get a box, manual, disc etc. you're going to pay the extra $10 for the stuff you already own. If you want to save yourself the $10 you'll still be able to get just the Black Box titles, but only as a download through Steam, which Valve sees more profit from since there are significantly fewer costs associated with downloads than there are with physical packages. Either way, Valve wins and customers lose.

As I've previously written, my biggest beef with digital distribution is when customers are charged the same price for a download (or more!) as they would be for a physical package. It's fine to offer a download as an alternative but why should you pay more as a customer when you are getting less? If the Black Box was to be sold for $40 in stores why not offer it as a download for $30 or even $35? Valve is also aware of this problem and it is exactly why the Black Box was eliminated as a retail SKU. Who would pay $40 for a download when they can get a tangible product in the store for the same price? With no retail alternative they are free to charge $40 for it online.

Look at HL2: Episode One. It was released as a $20 download on Steam back in 2006, at the same time, it was also released in stores with a $20 MSRP but, as is often the case with PC games it was discounted widely, with some stores selling it for as little as $10 and most no more than $17-$18. Now picture if it had only been released online. Everyone would pay $20, no exceptions, and that $20 is going directly into Valve's pockets. There's every benefit for them and absolutely none for the consumer who, now, doesn't even actually "own" the game.

Publishers desperately want digital distribution to become the norm because it means more money for them and tight control over their customers. Now, I have no problem with Valve increasing their profits, I'd much rather see all the money go to the creators of the game as opposed to Gamestop or Best Buy. But charging people a premium for downloads or forcing them to buy stuff they don't need is not the way to endear yourself to your customers. The whole point of digital distribution from a customer standpoint is that it's supposed to be cheaper and more convenient. The way Valve is pushing things, it is neither, and is only going to encourage people to stay away from digitally distributed games.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Newish Riddick game coming to PS3/360.

UK based games portal CVG is reporting that a next-gen remake of Xbox sleeper hit, The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay, is making its way to both the 360 and PS3 later this year. Boasting the equally wordy moniker of Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena, the game will allegedly include an expanded single player campaign comprised of roughly 40% more rusty hallways. But where they're really going to get you is with this:

"[W]ord is one of the main attractions of Dark Athena will be a superb multiplayer mode, with visceral hand-to-hand combat and shiny shiv action featuring heavily if it follows the course of the original game."

I have to confess to being a little underwhelmed about 40% new content for a game that was only maybe 6-8 hours long to begin with (despite being an excellent 8 hours) especially since Riddick is only 3 years old and still holds up as one of the original Xbox's finest looking titles. But on the bright side it lets them focus on making the multiplayer something special. Also, if it turns out to be successful, we can be assured of a future full fledged sequel.

With Halo 3, Half Life 2 Orange Box (featuring the incredible looking Team Fortress 2), Call of Duty 4 and who knows what else also hitting this fall though, Riddick's multiplayer is going to have to be REALLY unique though.

Well, at least no one has to worry about Butcher Bay becoming backwards compatible now...

-via CVG

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Gamer's Days are Everywhere

Gamer days, gamer days, who needs E3 when you’ve got Gamer Days!

Mid-May is always that special time of year when gamers are inundated with new game announcements, and game journalists forego sleep to bring us impressions, videos, screenshots, thoughts, speculation, consternation and sometimes a little joy. But this year was expected to be different, what with E3 having been taken out back and, well, you know…

Publishers, however, are in no big rush to forego the time honored tradition of marking the midway point in the gamer’s calendar with more gaming news in one week than you’ll see for the rest of the year. It’s a digital solstice, if you will, and its sacred rites are not to be so quickly abandoned due to so trivial an obstacle as the event which it all revolves around imploding. SquareEnix, Midway, Sega, Capcom, Tecmo and Sony are just a few of the publishers who are making up for a lack of E3 by throwing themselves giant parties, showing off new games (or in Square’s case, showing off 37 new Final Fantasy games), giving away free stuff and parading scantily clad women around. E3 is alive and well, only the convention hall is now Planet Earth and the booths are spread far and wide. For us armchair quarterbacks, not much has changed. For the game journalists it's a whole different beast. With events scattered all over the four corners of the globe, staffs are spread thin and there's a lot more travel involved.

The last week (really, the last month) has seen so many major announcements you’ve got to wonder: What major news will actually come out of the rescheduled and downsized E3 in July? Are publishers saving even bigger news for E3 or will there just be more info on previously announced projects?

Nintendo in particular is playing their cards close to the chest, as usual. They insist Smash Bros., Mario AND Metroid will all be available by the end of 2007. This event has been determined to be less likely than the planets all aligning, Mercury being struck by a meteor and a resulting billiards-esque collision sending Pluto into a black hole. But nonetheless, Nintendo maintains this to be the case. The real question is, “OK, then what comes after that?” Those three major titles make up the bulging mass of Nintendo fans desires. Surely something must be revealed beyond what gamers will be playing in 6 months? Animal Crossing? A new Zelda created for the Wii from the ground up? An honest-to-God Pokemon title? Pikmin 3? Will there be a 2D Metroid for DS? New Super Mario Bros. 2? Maybe they’ll surprise everyone and do something new for a change.

One thing is certain, there will always be way more games than there is time to play them…

Monday, May 14, 2007

Eternal Sonata Demo Impressions

A fully localized playable demo of Eternal Sonata showed up on the Japanese Xbox Live Marketplace today, much to the delight of RPG fans everywhere and so far it looks like a winner.

I used to be a big RPG fan but have long grown tired of the random, turn based battles which make up the vast bulk of gameplay and discourage exploration. I never liked the feeling of wanting to know what was down a particular hallway or tunnel but then realizing I didn't care enough to fight a battle every three steps all the way there and back. Especially when nine times out of ten it's just a dead end or a treasure chest with some throwaway item. That one time you find the "Fierce Sword of Ass Kicking" or "Platinum Halberd of Reprognification" just doesn't seem worth it. I'll just stick it out with the Satisfactory Rapier of Spanking and the Armor of Adequate Defense, thank you very much.

While Eternal Sonata's battles are still turn based they are done in a fast paced way that feels more like an action RPG. Monsters can be seen, and easily avoided, but they'll give chase if they get wind of you. This allows you to fight when you want to and explore when you want to.

Once in battle, which takes place on a separate battlefield, each character has a certain amount of time on their turn to get into position and pound the crap out of the enemy. Melee characters for example will need to run over to an enemy and then jam on the A button. Ranged fighters can shoot from a distance and therefore spend less of their turn running. When their time is up, control switches to the next character until it is the enemy's turn.

Things can get quite hectic in a battle with multiple enemies, but the real time system makes it much more fun to play than simply selecting "Fight" from a menu. Also, while limited in the demo, it appears that there will be multiple ways to adjust how battles play out, depending on your play style.

Load times going into and coming out of a battle are quick and painless, another important part of keeping the game moving and not making battle something to dread.

What really stands out about Eternal Sonata is the graphics. It is simply beautiful in HD, particularly the characters. It never looks "cel-shaded", it just looks like a cartoon. The attention to detail is admirable and gives you the impression of exploring a story book.

One minor issue is that the game periodically hiccups when running around outside of battle. You'll be moving along and it's almost like the game pauses for a split second. It happens frequently enough to be annoying, so hopefully it will be fixed in the final version. The US version is currently scheduled for a September release so they still have plenty of time. Eternal Sonata looks to be a nice alternative to the uber-hyped Blue Dragon, which is supposed to be as traditional a Japanese RPG as they come.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Exclusive Star Wars Battlefront hitting PSP this fall

The next installment of the popular Star Wars Battlefront series was announced today, not for 360 as had previously been rumored but rather, as a PSP exclusive.

Personally I don't see this as a new direction for the franchise, as IGN implies, but more likely just a pit stop while the next gen Battlefront III stays under wraps a little longer. Battlefront III has already been confirmed to be in development at Free Radical, creators of the TimeSplitters series, so this is clearly not that game.

Star Wars Battlefront: Renegade Squadron will feature both single player and online multiplayer when it hits stores this September.

via IGN

Hobos beware: Condemned 2: Bloodshot announced

At today's Sega's Gamer Day, the house that Sonic built announced that a sequel to one of the Xbox 360's best games, Condemned, will be hitting the PS3 and 360. Outside of the subtitle, "Bloodshot", no other details were revealed.

With any luck we'll all be whacking crazed hobos with 2 x 4's by the end of the year...

via Kotaku

Friday, May 4, 2007

Why Digital Delivery is Bad for Gamers

For years we've been hearing about how digital distribution is the future of gaming (and music, and movies etc.). After all, it's a win-win for both publishers and consumers. Publishers save a ton of money by taking retailers out of the equation and not having to produce a physical product which has to be packaged, stored and shipped. Consumers, in theory at least, get cheaper games as well as the "convenience" of being able to download a game directly to their console of choice without ever leaving their house.

I say in theory, because in practice, the exact opposite has been true. Far from passing savings on to consumers, digitally distributed games typically cost the same as or more than their retail counterparts.

Take the recent Oblivion expansion pack, Shivering Isles, for example. Both the 360 and PC versions were released with an SRP of $29.99, regardless of whether you were purchasing the downloadable-only 360 version or the disc-based PC version. So right off the bat the savings to someone downloading instead of buying a physical product, with all the costs associated with it, is absolutely nothing. This is made worse by the fact that the PC expansion can easily be obtained on sale for under $20. Circuit City has it regularly for $18. Digitally distributed content on the Xbox Live Marketplace doesn't go on sale because there is no competition. If you want Shivering Isles, it's the Marketplace or nothing.

You can see how, in reality, this business model benefits only the publisher, while the consumer is firmly held by the balls.

The recent song packs for the 360 version of Guitar Hero II are another demonstration of how consumers are being raked over the coals with digital distribution. At the price being charged for them (over $2 per track) it would cost a customer over $100 to download all 47 Guitar Hero I tracks. Now, keep in mind, all you're getting is songs. You already paid for the game separately. How is it reasonable in the least bit that those 47 tracks can be sold on PS2 for $40 along with the game itself, pressed on a disc with a manual, case etc. but just the data for the songs, distributed digitally at much less cost to the publisher, will run you almost three times that?

If Guitar Hero I were to be released as a standalone game for 360 they couldn't get away with selling it for more than $60, and yet, because it is being digitally distributed, the price is inflated tremendously.

The worst part of digital delivery came smacking many 360 owners in the face this week with the release of the new Elite model. Fans who chose to upgrade to the new machine discovered that content downloaded to their old unit is forever tied to it due to Digital Rights Management (DRM). What that means is any previously purchased XBLA games, TV shows or expansion content will only work on your shiny new Elite's while signed into Xbox Live with the GamerTag that purchased them, so Microsoft can verify that you are in fact entitled to play them.

So, not only are you paying a premium for downloaded content, you don't even actually own it.

While it is unlikely digital distribution will replace physical media-based distribution any time soon, simply due to bandwidth and storage limitations, the emergence of networks controlled by the console manufacturers (PS Store, Live Marketplace, Wii Shop) is already giving rise to some shady practices such as the aforementioned DRM and gripping of balls.

I dread the day widespread digital delivery becomes prevalent because there is absolutely no benefit to the consumer. The publisher saves a fortune on production and associated retail costs, eliminates the middle man and the possibility of lost sales to secondhand copies, and can maintain a high price point for much longer because they're essentially the only store in town. You can either choose to play by their rules or find a new hobby.