Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Compassion, thy name is ME!

I am here in Orlando, FL, on business. This morning, while getting ready for the day, I am listening to the news. One report is of an armed robbery, where the staff was forced at gun point into the freezer (no one hurt) here in Orlando, at a drive through restaurant called Checkers. My reaction to this?


My compassion knows no bounds....

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Uncharted Legend of Orange Box : Guitar Band Galaxy 3...

Sometimes as Gamers we are neglected. Nintendo is notorious for long droughts with no 1st party titles, no 2nd party titles, and very few AAA 3rd part titles. Square-Enix and Valve and Rare are known for enormous gaps between the releases of their titles. There are also times when as Gamers, we are deluged in a flood of AAA titles all at once, making it impossible to experience all of the big games all at once when they are released. A few years back we had the Hal02 vs Metroid Prime 2 vs GTA: San Andreas vs Resident Evil 4 vs 10 other lesser known great titles that no one played because of the big 4. This year, we have, in no particular order, Super Mario Galaxy, Mass Effect, Rock Band, Assassin's Creed, Halo 3, Call of Duty 4, Crysis, Guitar Hero 3, Phantom Hourglass, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, Orange Box, and Metroid Prime 3 and Bioshock opening the flood gates back in the early fall. That is 13 games just off the top of my head in the past 3 months. If you never felt thankful about game delays (Haze, Super Mario Kart for Wii and Super Smash Bros. Brawl) this is the time to be thankful.

So what have I been playing? You know about Metroid Prime 3, Eternal Sonata, and I toyed around with Orange Box a few weeks back. I would have written about Portal, but there was so much being written about the game, all I would have felt comfortable doing is putting up a bunch of links and telling you all to just play the damn game already. Beautiful Katamari was a big disappointment, mainly caused by a oddly high difficulty level and lack of anything original. Skate was... unique... good for the first 2 hours, but then the sudden level of perfect precision required to get ANYTHING done destroyed any chance of fun. Have I mentioned yet I am starting to get sick of sandbox style games? More on that later.

Most recently, I have spent my time waving my arms around like an idiot (more than usual) and having my forearms throb in pain, (yet become more toned than before. Damn sexy). The big three for me this holiday season are Super Mario Galaxy, Rock Band, and Guitar Hero 3. And over the 4 day holiday, that is what I did. I played 3 of this years biggest titles ad nauseum (literally in Galaxy) over the past week, and felt I would pass along my impressions.

Super Mario Galaxy: A lot has been written about SMG, and I am not in the mood to repeat myself. I am in the mood for Cain's though... mmmm.... While a great game, SMG is not my favorite game of all time, and not even my favorite Mario game of all time. It does come in 3rd behind Super Mario 64 and Super Mario World in the "Best Mario Game EVHAR!" list, but it is still just another Mario game, and not truly revolutionary in my mind. I don't mean to sound negative. It is the most fun I have had with a platformer in a long long time. The nearly perfect controls (still not a fan of the waggle), clever level design (even if 1 level is literally mirrored, and many are rather small), and constant fan service (fire flower returns, along with other power-ups, and lots of old SMB3 music) make this a real gem. A warning to the fairer sex, SMG has caused vertigo in every woman that has played or watched. Not being sexist, just a warning to those who do not enjoy vomit. Strangely enough, one of my favorite parts of SMG is the star bit collecting. Simply point your Wii-mote at the screen, and Mario will collect chunks of stars that fall to the ground and lay around the level. Taking the place of coins (they are still there too), the star bit system is a quirky little addition that is a lot of fun. I have 16 stars left to collect before I get 100%, and the later levels can be challenging. Not groundbreaking, not astounding, but perfectly executed: that is Super Mario Galaxy. Where do I see Mario going next? Despite growing tired of the idea of every game heading down this path, I would like to see a sandbox style Mario game, similar to a Metroid or GTA.

Guitar Hero 3: Yes, I already posted about this one already. After spending almost a month with this gem, I have a few more things to add, and a few things to brag about as well. Guitar Hero 3 is easily the best guitar game out on the market. After replaying a lot of Guitar Hero 1 and 2, and spending time with Rock Band, the guitar experience in Guitar Hero 3 is 2nd to none. Between the blazing difficulty, the simple online gameplay, the fantastic use of hammer-ons and pull-offs, there is no comparison. Neversoft not only did a good job, they improved in a lot of ways over what Harmonix put into place. Some of my recent GH3 highlights including beating one of the developers in an online match (coolest Achievement ever!), getting 100% on The Pretender (go DLC!), FINALLY completing Through the Fire and Flames, and actually getting through about 30% of the game on Hard (Hard is harder than hard was before). For the best solo experience around, Guitar Hero 3 is the best choice available.

Rock Band: So how does Rock Band compare to the Guitar Hero games? In this case, it is best not to compare. Rock Band is pretty damn boring in the single player guitar campaign. There are far fewer notes to play, and in first time playing through all the songs, I got 100% on 32 songs, and no less than 97% on any other on the Medium difficulty. In comparison, I have 100% on 14 songs in Guitar Hero 3. In Rock Band, I would accidentally strum where there were NO notes, even though the guitar in the song would strum 2 or 3 more times. Reptilia should be removed from the game for this specifically. While on the negative comparison track:
-There isn't an obvious Overdrive indicator (star power), and getting Overdrive with the drums can make the orange notes disappear.
-The fret board is translucent, and can be distracting, along with wild strobing and color effects.
-The individual parts, on all instruments except the mic, aren't any louder than the other parts, where Guitar Hero blasted the guitar parts so they could easily stand out.
-Hammer-ons and Pull-Offs are very hard to see and also used rarely. When there are 3 tracks up on screen (guitar, drums, bass) and the frets are even smaller, they can be nearly impossible to see, even on my 36" HD set.
-The guitar itself is less than stellar. The strum bar itself is flimsy and makes no clicking sound, the buttons are stiff and clicky, making it very hard to "roll" your fingers on the frets, and the whammy bar is far too high and too long, making it difficult to use. I will continue to use my GH3 wireless guitar, thank you very much.

Things do get better with the drums, aka the reason 75% of people who own this game bought it in the first place. The drums are damn challenging, specifically, the foot peddle. While I can breeze through any guitar part on Medium, I am barely making it through the songs with the drums. I am finally mastering Easy, getting around 95% on most songs, but as soon as I kick it up to Medium, I am only getting about 60-75% on any song. The foot peddle (the orange button for the drums, literally and metaphorically) takes a lot of getting used to, and I still have yet to find a comfortable sitting position to use in conjunction with the peddle. When you mess up, it takes a long time to get back into the rhythm, so even if I only missed 1 note, I then miss 3 or 4 more just getting back into the rhythm. The challenge so far is what makes the drums more fun than the solo guitar parts. Once I get good at the drums (I will, I hope) the single player experience will hopefully still remain fun, as the drums are a more authentic experience in Rock Band than the guitar. The drums in Rock Band are as good as the guitar in Guitar Hero 3. Physically, the drum kit is big and not as sturdy as I would like. My only real issue with them so far is that there are many dings and dents on the rims of the drum pads from when everyone first learned to play them.

However, I know what it is about Rock Band's single player mode that makes it pale in comparison to Guitar Hero, other than the nit-picking above. Guitar Hero uses songs that are guitar songs. Rock Band uses songs that are band songs. Playing these parts alone can be some fun, but is a much better single player experience with Guitar Hero, because Rock Band is about working together, and the songs are designed to work best when multiple parts are involved. No one part is the main track like in Guitar Hero, each is balanced together. Individually, the parts seem weak because they are MADE to work best when combined, which is where this games rocks, pun intended.

Playing in a band is a completely separate experience in Rock Band. Hmmm, maybe that is why they named it that... When playing as a band, everything falls into place. The easier guitar part is purposeful, because now you can pay attention to the other members of your band, bring them back if they fail out of the song, and during the breaks in the guitar parts, look over at your band mates and watch them play, just like you do in a real band. The drummer is the key member here, as someone with a less than steady beat will make it harder for the others in the band to play along because even with the TV loud, the drums themselves make a good amount of noise. The bass is still lacking, with some songs having too long of a break, or just lots of long notes instead of guitar style strumming. And there is nothing special about the singing parts, it is exactly what it sounds like, no pun intended this time. Singing on Expert is harder than I would expect, with me yet to 100% a song with singing, even on Creep or Say it Ain't So, 2 songs I know as well as my ABCs.

When all of these parts are combined, a unique experience is created. There is no other game that can create the feeling brought out by Rock Band. Unlike Guitar Hero 2 and 3's co-op modes, which is fun yet unsatisfying (the bass being the culprit), the full Rock Band experience is wild and fun, with a true sense of harmony and working-togetherness being generated. Sub par on the single player side, but incomparable to anything else available without actually learning to play an instrument. If you can find the game, afford it (nearly $200 after tax) and definitely have people in your life that will want to play with you, Rock Band is a one of a kind game.

Now my only problem will be choosing between the DLC for Rock Band and Guitar Hero if the same songs come for both....

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Some dreams never end...

It's hard to write a "review" for a game that I have such mixed feelings about. Actually, it is hard to write a review for any game, but that is besides the point. Eternal Sonata for the XBox360 was released on September 17th here in the US, and it is the reason I bought a 360 when I did. The game is a traditional Japanese RPG, and I emphasize the traditional there. Eternal Sonata is a combination of a lot of other existing RPGs, namely the Tales series from Namco and smaller parts the Dragon Quest/Warrior series from Square-Enix, Final Fantasy series and Xenosaga and Xenogears.

The gameplay is traditional RPG fare, with towns and dungeons mixed together, a turn based battle system and epic story. But each of these main elements features major flaws that prevent the game from being truly great. Battles are action based, like the Tales series, but with a few twists, namely the amount of time you have to act, and how long each action takes. As you progress through the game, your team as a whole goes up a level at predetermined times, and this changes certain battle elements, such as how long you have to attack, how much time you have to make a strategy for your turn, and if you can link special attacks together. This is a great system that slowly ramps up the difficulty, while also opening up new battle elements. The battles are always fun, and figuring out a strategy for each enemy type is lots of fun.

Visually, the game is jaw-droppingly stunning, the best looking game I have ever played. Graphical touches like butterflies and lizards crawling around, nearly on par with atmosphere set by Metroid Prime 3. Everything from the towns to the characters is imaculately detailed, even the character's pockets and shoes have a higher level of detail than I have ever seen. This looks even better in HD, and the vibrant colors are stunning. While somewhat cartoony or anime inspired, the graphics are phenomenal, fun, and fantastic. However, the good ends there.

The story is my biggest issue with the game. Without getting into details, the game world takes place in Frederic Chopin's mind as he lays on his death bed. He is one of the charcters IN the game, and knows its a dream world. You start the game with the goal of getting to the capital to discuss taxes on certain items in the world with the king. This never happens. The story takes 2 sharp turns every third of the way through, and completely changes the pace of the game. You start on a quest to talk to the king about taxes, then you want to prevent a war, then you need to stop a monster in an alternate parallel dimension. No single main plot point is ever actually resolved, making your quest seem pointless for the most part. The ending resolves nothing, and actually causes even more questions to be asked (who did Polka love, and who loved her for example) and the final quarter of the game has absolutely no story to be found whatsoever. Admittedly, the ending has a great little time-travel twist halfway through the final 45 minute cut scene, a cool "aha!" moment, but other than there, I never felt resolved with the story or characters.

The negatives don't stop there:
-Towns and dungeons are real, almost too real. No map or markers to show the entrances and exits or doors, so you may accidentally miss a room or treasure, or an entire area of the game.
-When first entering battle, you can't always see the enemies, and have to move the camera. This is annoying, especially when forced to start attacking immediately by the end of the game. This is balanced by having the same exact 2 or 3 enemies in every group in the same 1 or 2 positions in every battle. Very little variation on enemies, and by the final third of the game, there is no reason to switch characters once you have found a good strategy for your 3 favorites.
-LOOONG cutscenes, but the voice acting and visuals are so good, that sometimes it doesn't matter. Sometimes....
-The piano piece minigame is largely flawed. You can collect +-30 musical scores, and play them with random NPCs, however, there is no way of knowing WHICH piece to play unless you have a musical degree from Julliard. I have taken musical theory and can easily read music, but not even I could discern which score should be played with which character.
-Chopin takes a back seat in the story after the first few hours and just pops back up at the end. He is supposed to be the main character, but after the 2nd chapter (out of 7) he has nothing to do in the story.
-The two main side quests, or only side quests, can't really be completed until you play the game a 2nd time. You could theoretically finish the hidden dungeon your first play through, but the level of enemies ramp up so fast, it's not even fun. Also, the hidden dungeon is boring and almost feels like a random assortment of screens, where 5 floors in, you already feel lost and are no longer having fun.

Despite all of these complaints, the game is a lot of fun, especially the battles. If you don't mind being bored for the story portion, and just in general don't care about the character you will meet (of which there are too many playable for a 3 party system, another complaint) then play away. The game is fun, has a great battle engine, and is visually astonishing. Forget the story elements, or at least try not to invest too much into the outcome, and you will have a good time. Gun to my head, I would give it 3.5 stars out of 5.

Image courtesy Namco Bandai

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Once More, Once Again

Certain events stand out in people's lives. Weddings. Funerals. Births. We look back on these moments and remember, the details permanently etched into our minds. Graduation. First date. First kiss. Sometimes, these events are so powerful, they effect the way you live your life. The moon landing. Tearing down the Berlin wall. The original airing of the Buffy episode Once More With Feeling.

Ok, so some events are bigger than others. But when it comes to the greatest piece of entertainment ever created, be it theater, TV, movie or music, you will always remember the first time you experienced it. Once More With Feeling was that experience for me.

Once More With Feeling was the seventh episode of the sixth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It aired on November 6th, 2001, on UPN. It ran for an amazing 50 minutes, 8 minutes longer than the average 1 hour TV series is allowed for air time. If there was ever any doubt that UPN wanted to give Joss Whedon anything he wanted, those extra 8 minutes are proof. Compare that to what Fox did.

There is so much good in OMWF, I can't even get into it. From the flawless music and lyrics, to the deep and meaningful metaphor, everything is as close to perfection as I could ever expect to find. Some of the most powerful imagery, from the opening Going Through the Motions scene (perfect ironic lyrics mixed with dusted vamps and demons) to Walk Through The Fire (the firetruck passing by is the best moment in TV history (and I felt an immense fan-boy moment when Joss himself admitted it was his favorite moment from the series) makes this the best 3000 seconds ever produced. Go and watch it already!

Thursday, November 1, 2007

The best thing to happen on Halloween, EVHAR!

I will use as few words as possible here in order to convey my excitement, because there are too many words swirling through my head to put down on paper... or on a digital form through a keyboard... whatever. Here is the news folks: Joss Whedeon will be returning to TV, and he is bringing actress/producer Eliza Dushku and writer/producer Tim Minear along with him!

The show will be on Fox (the bad news in this story) and will be called Dollhouse. The long and short of Dollhouse is that Echo (Eliza) is one of many individuals kept in a secure laboratory. She and the others have no memories. When important or rich people need someone to fulfill a fantasy or goal, Echo and cohorts and injected with talents and memories, and thrown into the field, but remember nothing about the adventures. Echo starts remembering though, and wants to find out more.

Looks like the writers strike will make this one not come out until next fall, unless it's a short strike (extremely doubtful) and it will show up as a mid-season replacement.

E! has the full story (looks like an exclusive so far) and you can check it out by CLICKING HERE!

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go run through the streets screaming elated overtures, and join Numfar in the dance of joy.