>MGS4 v. GTA4

>Still listening to Giant Bomb’s 2008 Game of the year podcast – hey, it’s 2 hours long – and the second half of the podcast basically finds the Bombers torn between choosing GTA4 and MGS4 as their game of the year.

I made my choice a few weeks ago, and I found it pretty easy to make. But listening to them discuss MGS4 makes me want to re-play MGS4 again. I forget how much fun I had playing that game, and even though it drove me absolutely goddamned crazy at times (my rant about Act 3 still holds*), it was still an incredibly absorbing experience.

But it’s interesting to hear them talk about it because they are long-time MGS fans – or, at least, they are all quite familiar with the fiction that spans the entire series. I am not familiar with the fiction, at all, and I even looked at the downloadable MGS encyclopedia and it meant absolutely nothing to me. And I think that the whole insider-access aspect about MGS is what kept me from being more excited about it. I can forgive the ridiculousness of the storytelling, I guess, if only because it is so incredibly unique in its dedication to being totally ridiculous; the hard-core MGS fans would never accept anything less, and I have to admit that my memories of the insanity of the cutscenes are somewhat more forgiving, now that I’m not actually sitting through them and their excruciating craziness.

If you have a pro-MGS4 stance, I’d love to hear it. Otherwise, HAPPY NEW YEAR!

* I’ve read (and listened to) a lot of discussion about MGS4 this year, and I must say – I’m still somewhat stunned that NOBODY ELSE IN THE WORLD talked about the awfulness of the Big Mama scenes in Act 3. Nobody even talks about Big Mama at all. Am I just an asshole?

>Goodbye 2008

>Some random ramblings as I fill in the idle hours at work on the last day of the year:

Was listening to the Giant Bomb “Game of the Year” podcast on the way into work this morning, and it suddenly hit me – I played (and liked) every game they talked about. In years past, there would always be a few titles that would be totally alien to me, and I felt like I missing out; missing Super Mario Galaxy in 2007 would be a good example of that. But not this year – this year I was on top of everything.

I think I may have completed my Best Games of 2008 entry a bit prematurely – I’ve been playing the hell out of Banjo Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts over the last week or so, and I’m pretty sure I love it. It could be argued that 2008 was really the break-out year for user-generated content, what with Little Big Planet and Spore (oh, yeah, I downloaded Spore because Steam had that stupid holiday sale), but BK:N&B really does it right, in that it gives you some sort of focus and a specific task. Spore’s creature creator is certainly a fun toy to play with, but ultimately the design of your creature doesn’t necessarily have any practical, tangible result (at least not in my somewhat limited experience with it); and on the other hand, Little Big Planet lets you do so much that it’s a bit overwhelming – I’ve barely even touched the tutorials, because I have no idea what I’d want to create. Nuts & Bolts, on the other hand, does a fantastic job of giving you a specific goal, and giving you the tools to achieve it. Whether you build something totally from scratch or if you simply opt to tweak stuff you already have (which is my preferred method right now), it is immensely satisfying to complete a challenge entirely because of your own ingenuity.

Regarding Spore – yeah, I am a whore. Steam’s holiday sale was as good a reason as any to dip my toe into the Spore experience. I’ve only gotten a little bit into the 2nd evolutionary stage – the one where you emerge from the slime and start walking around – so there’s not a tremendous amount for me to discuss. My computer is getting a bit old, too, so I start to get some serious frame rate hitches every once in a while, which is a drag. It’s an interesting enough diversion, at any rate; I’ve yet to see if it really holds together as a game.

I played an awful lot of Fallout 3 over the break, as well; that game continues to astound and amaze. The stories in that game are top-notch, probably second only to GTA4 this year. My only real problem with that game is the engine; talking to NPCs is still just a little bit weird enough to pull me out of the experience, and it was the same thing in Oblivion. I’m about halfway to level 15 right now, though, and I think I might hold off for a bit until some of the DLC arrives and they lift the level cap.

Speaking of RPGs, I’ve also been playing Chrono Trigger before I go to bed lately. It’s a pretty solid game, and I can see why people love it. (I’m a little lost at the moment, though; I kinda rushed through the dialogue at the end of this one section and so now I’m not entirely sure where I’m supposed to be or what I’m supposed to be doing, and there’s no real way (short of a walkthrough) of solving that problem.) But I’m starting to have a problem with calling these sorts of games “role-playing games.” Fallout is a role-playing game; you inhabit your character and you can make choices and design your skillset and really play the way you want to play and have the experience you want to experience. However, in Chrono Trigger – and, indeed, in every JRPG I’ve ever played – all you do is level up and give your dude new and better gear. There’s no real choice involved; the story is linear and your little dude will play the same way at the end of the game as he will in the beginning. We need some new sort of nomenclature.

My wife and I hosted 2 parties this December – my birthday, and Christmas – and Rock Band 2 was featured prominently at both. Goddamn that game is fun. I love watching people figure out how to play the drums almost as much as I love actually playing them; at first they’re overwhelmed with all the information that’s hurtling towards them at breakneck speeds, but then they figure out how to translate all that arcane symbology into recongizable rhythm, and then the whole concept opens up for them like a flower. It’s really quite something to see.

Finally, I did the math, and barring some gaming tonight before the ball drops, I will have accumulated 12,060 Points in 2008. I will make no predictions about my point-whoring desires for 2009, other than I’d like to cross 50,000 in a cool way. I crossed 30K by playing Call of Duty 4 on a hard difficulty level, and I crossed 40K by playing the guitar on expert difficulty in Rock Band 2. Maybe I’ll cross 50K by doing something awesome in Brutal Legend?

>Weekend Recap: pre-Xmas 2008 edition

>Kudos to me for not buying Spore this weekend. I was clearly concerned that my lack of willpower would result in a drunk download and I just don’t have the time or the money (but especially the time) (and also the money) to get into something like Spore, which ended up not being the greatest game ever made.

My weekend was actually pretty busy, gaming-wise; made a brief bit of progress in Fallout 3, played more Rock Band 2 with the wife (who has gotten quite good at guitar and is even doing ok on the drums), got a bit further in Chrono Trigger, went back and rounded up some hidden objects in Little Big Planet, and started to get seriously sucked into Banjo Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts.

Where do I begin with Banjo? I was curious about it until I tried the demo, where I found myself in way over my head. But then Amazon lowered the already-low price by another $10 or so, and I felt compelled to give it another go.

Having the full game is quite a different experience than what the demo offers; all I remember about the demo was that the game was certainly gorgeous, but I didn’t know how to build anything and didn’t have the patience to learn. What’s nice about the full game, then, is that you don’t actually have to build anything, at least not right away; if you fully explore the environments that you have available to you, not only can you procure a number of parts on your own but you can scrounge up enough coin to buy blueprints and parts, thus giving you an advantage in the early competitions. And what’s nice about this – especially for someone like me, who was never mechanically inclined and who never strayed from the cover photos on Lego boxes – is that eventually you will hit a wall and will have to start building, but at least you can start from an already well-designed vehicle and then make tweaks as you see fit.

Case in point: this one particular event is basically a giant ski jump, and I have to get my vechicle to fly/glide to a certain distance in order to get a Jiggy. The catch is that I can’t just use a plane; once I launch from the jump, my engines cut out. At this point in the game I’ve either found or bought around 40 different blueprints, but none of them get me anywhere close to the Jiggy threshold. [Jiggy Threshold – great band name?] And so now I have to start experimenting. Putting wings on a heavy vehicle seems like an obvious solution, except the wings cause my vehicle to start sailing well before the end of the ramp and I end up having zero momentum by the time I really need it. Ultimately I end up putting 5 balloons on a moderately heavy pre-made vehicle and manually inflating them shortly before the jump to create lift, and I’m able to glide into the Jiggy Zone, although I’m still well below Trophy Level. Still, though, I learned several concepts about vehicle design, and I was able to invent a working solution, which felt very satisfying.

I have a feeling, though, that I won’t be smart enough to beat the game at higher levels of difficulty. But that’s why they invented YouTube, so I can look at other people’s blueprints.

>The Wrong Lesson

>There was a time when EA seemed to churn out nothing but Madden, craptastical movie license games and sequels. They were all about parlaying brand recognition into sales, with innovation and quality taking a back seat. But under CEO John Riccitiello, EA has been embracing new IP such as Dead Space, and has published innovative, ground-breaking titles such as Mirror’s Edge.

The result? They’ve lost their shorts. Sales are down. So earnings are down. (You’d almost think the entire world was short on cash.) EA’s shareholders are pissed. “Not to fear!” says EA. “We’re gonna focus our future investments on titles with the greatest ‘hit potential’!”

If you’re like me, you’re worried that focusing on “hit potential” means returning to their old sequel-factory ways. And it may be that leaning back in that direction will result in a healthier balance sheet. But I worry that EA will be too quick to blame innovation and new IP for bad sales rather than another major factor: timing of releases.

I should have bought and played Dead Space and Mirror’s Edge, but I didn’t. But it wasn’t because the words “Star Wars” didn’t appear in their titles. It’s because they came out in the midst of a flood of high profile, AAA titles. Take note EA! I would definitely have bought both Dead Space and Mirror’s Edge had I not already been buried in Fable 2, Fallout 3, LBP and Rock Band 2. Even us gamers with full-time jobs can’t buy everything (‘cept Jervo).

Look at Bioshock. A new IP which certainly tried some things that hadn’t been done in a shooter before. And it was released in August, when it had the whole hype machine all to itself. The result? Mofo sold by the bucketful!

Before EA tosses innovation and new IP over its shoulder, I really hope they’ll at least try releasing a few of its more “experimental” titles in the spring or summer, when gamers actually have dollars in their pockets that aren’t pledged to Gears of War 4.

>Into the SD void

>’Tis the season. To gather with friends and loved ones, to decorate the tree, to light the Menorah, to sip a cup of eggnog before a blazing fireplace, to do the Feats of Strength, and to be dragged kicking and screaming from one’s delicious HD/surround setup to spend two weeks in a realm of cruel, offline, two-speaker, 4:3, 480p squalor.

That’s right. It’s time once again to pack the kids (360, daughter, PS3) in the car to do some Christmasing at the parents’ house in New York, and then off for a rustic New Years’ Eve with the in-laws at their country cottage in Quebec. In both locations, I will be condemned to playing my 360 and PS3 on SD TV’s. In Quebec, I won’t have Internets. Not even French ones.

Now, I’m enough of a hardcore nerd purist that I’m reluctant to play through any new AAA content on these antediluvian “televisions”. So Gears 2, Fallout 3, Fable 2… all off the table. So how best to use the gaming time I do have? What does one play in SD?

I can tell you that there will be a lot of Rock Band 2 going on, since I have a passel of siblings who will be in New York to rock it out. I’ve also concluded that my time in SD purgatory is ideal for going back and trying great older games that I never got around to, and probably wouldn’t otherwise. Better to play them in SD than not at all . Last holiday season, I made my way through COD2 (which was terrific enough that I played it again in HD/surround once I got home), and played through most of Tomb Raider Anniversary (not a game that really flexes the 360’s 1080p muscles anyway).

I’m thinking this year I’ll finish TR: Anniversary, and maybe start Legend if I’m not all Lara’d out. And while I’m in New York, and at least have XBL access, I’ll probably burn a lot of time with Left 4 Dead, because even SD can’t take the sheen off that mofo. And of course, Psychonauts is still sitting on my pile of shame. I got a good ways in on the original Xbox, but never actually finished it. (Don’t tell Jervo.) I guess I can also try to get through some more GTAIV.

Plus Ima pick up Chrono Trigger for the DS.

Okay, so maybe the next two weeks won’t be the fun famine I made it out to be.

>Back To The Apocalypse

>I find it hard to believe that it’s really December 19. The year was already moving pretty fast, and now I look up and see that Christmas is next fucking week. What the hell happened?

In any event, the release calendar madness has finally slowed down, and now I find myself with a bunch of titles that I finally have some time to enjoy.

First and foremost, I’m getting back into Fallout 3. I had put it down a few weeks ago for some reason, and when I heard about the forthcoming packages of DLC – one of which would raise the level cap and make the endgame a bit more productive – I felt like my time with the game would be better spent with all that stuff intact, instead of playing it now, finishing it, and then coming back later. (I had originally meant to talk about this very thing in relation to this particular article from MTV Multiplayer.) And I guess there’s a part of me that still does feel that way; I’d like to be able to seamlessly incorporate this new DLC into my Fallout experience. That said, last night I found myself with an empty apartment and a lot of options, and I found myself missing the Fallout experience.

Goddamn, that game is awesome. I believe I said in my 2008 wrap-up that I thought I might be a little intimidated by it; it’s such a huge world and there’s so much to do and I still haven’t totally figured out how good or evil I want to be, even though I’m level 10 and have put in a considerable amount of hours into it already. I put it in last night and it only took me about 30 seconds to remember how it worked and I was immediately hooked, again. I’m trying to stay away from the main quest, and as a result I’ve found a ton of other things to see and explore. I used to do this thing in Oblivion – if I was walking towards my targeted location, and another random, undiscovered location started to appear in my map, I’d always feel compelled to stray away just far enough to see what it was that I’d found, and I find myself doing the same thing here in Fallout. And it’s really incredible to see what Bethesda has crammed in there. I’m currently on a side mission that’s taken me to some pretty awesome locations, and the level of detail in every room is just staggering, and it boggles my mind to think that if I had only made a left turn in Rivet City instead of a right, I would never have seen any of it. And the thing of it is, I’m already well aware that there’s a ton of stuff that I’ve already missed because I went one way and not the other. Absolutely incredible.

Rock Band 2 continues to be a nightly source of amusement at my house; my wife has finally graduated to “Medium” difficulty on guitar, and we’re getting back into Tour mode again. I made a brief mention of this in the 2008 Year In Music post on my other blog; there’s 2 songs in particular that I found in the store that I’ve totally fallen in love with, and I ended up purchasing those songs in iTunes – Maximo Park’s “Girls Who Play Guitars” and Silversun Pickups’ “Lazy Eye.” They’re both fun as hell to play on drums, but they also just kick a lot of ass in general.

I made a special category in my 2008 Year in Games post so as to congratulate myself for not being a total whore and buying the Strongbad Games, even though I’m a big fan of the cartoon and an even bigger fan of point-and-click adventure games. Then, of course, it was announced just the other day that they were releasing all 5 adventures on Steam, and so OF COURSE I went and downloaded them immediately. Steam was acting a little weird last night, though, and I couldn’t actually open Episode 1. But I did check out the tutorial in Episode 5, just to make sure I knew what I was getting into, and of course I’m totally fucking hooked.

I finally beat the single-player campaign in Little Big Planet, and then I started dabbling in user-created levels, most of which are kinda shitty. (It does sound strange to use the phrase “single-player campaign” for a game like LBP, but to borrow a phrase from Donald Rumsfeld, you use the nomenclature you have.) I’m not sure I’m ready to begin designing my own levels just yet; I may end up going back into the single-player to try and find all the stickers and objects that I didn’t get the first time. I gotta say – even though the controls are awfully floaty and the back-middle-front aspect of it can get terribly screwed up, that game’s charm is absolutely impossible to deny. I am fully on board the Sackboy bandwagon.

Finally, my DS is finally starting to come to life again. I’ve been getting into Chrono Trigger a little more, and I’ve also been enjoying the newest Castlevania game. I find it incredible that Konami has basically been making the same Castlevania game for a million years and yet it still ends up being pretty awesome every single time.

And so what are you playing this weekend?

>VG Symposium

>I’m offering no commentary on this just yet; it’s gigantic, I’m very busy and I’m really just posting here so I don’t forget about it. This looks to be the beginning of a mega-discussion on all sorts of important videogame topics, featuring quite a few heavy hitters, and I’m sure I’ll need to vent my spleen accordingly.

Videogame Symposium Part I – Review Scores

Are reviews primarily a consumer guide, or should they serve another purpose? Do review scores deter intelligent discussion of videogames? Is the presence or absence of a review score the only difference between a reviewer and a critic? What is the role of the reviewer when the Internet is democratizing published opinion? How should reviews and reviewers evolve in light of the emergence and growth of Flash games, small games, indie games and user-generated games?

These questions and more were on the mind of N’Gai Croal, John Davison and Shawn Elliott last summer when they decided to expand their conversation to a number of noted reviewers, writers, bloggers and journalists for a published email symposium on game reviews. (See below for the full list of participants.) The planned list of topics include Review Scores; Review Policy, Practice and Ethics; Reader Backlash; Reviews in the Age of Social media; Reviews in the Mainstream Media; Casual, Indie, and User-Generated Games; Reviews vs. Criticism; and Evolving the Review. Round 1’s topic: Review Scores.

Participants

Leigh Alexander, Gamasutra/Sexy Videogameland/Variety

Harry Allen, Media Assassin

Robert Ashley, freelancer

Tom Chick, freelancer

N’Gai Croal, Level Up/Newsweek

John Davison, What They Play

Shawn Elliott, 2K Boston

Jeff Gerstmann, Giant Bomb

Kieron Gillen, Rock, Paper, Shotgun

Dan Hsu, Sore Thumbs Blog

Francesca Reyes, Official Xbox Magazine

Stephen Totilo, MTV News

>The 2008 VGAs

>Do I really want to do this?

I guess I’m doing it.

It’s 9:25pm EST on Sunday, December 14, 2008, and the VGAs have been on for almost a half hour, and I guess I’m gonna watch it. I’m trying to watch it; I would estimate that about 90% of the TV time has been either commercials, product placements, or LL Cool J. I don’t even know what awards are being given out or who’s nominated.

Herewith: some random ramblings as the bullshit unfolds.

…When Mike Tyson came out on stage, I’m pretty sure everybody in the theater got a little queasy.

…Is it me, or did the very brief look of in-game footage in that God of War 3 trailer look a little… early?

…They gotta stop with these skits.

…The “best independent game” nominees are all amazing; I was fortunate enough to play all of them and I’m very glad to seem them all getting their due. I was not aware of any of them being fueled by Dew, though; that’s good to know. That technical difficulty snafu announcing World of Goo was a little scary.

…I really wish I didn’t have to be embarrassed about watching this show. It’s clear that Spike is really trying to make this award mean something, and I’ll admit that having all these major announcements during the show is a pretty convincing incentive for me to stick it out. But the writing is terrible and the emphasis is everywhere but on the actual game designers, which is unfortunate. I’d be very curious to see what Spike anticipates the target demo for this awards show to be; I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that it doesn’t include me.

…It’s 9:41 and they’ve only announced 2 awards… now they’re giving Kiefer Sutherland an award, and now the All-American Douchebags are playing, for no apparent reason. Are they afraid that the people who watch this show will be bored if they actually showed some games winning awards?

…At this rate, I’m probably turning this off after they do the Brutal Legend video, and I can’t help but feel like that’ll be the last thing they show. Why excatly did they ask Jack Black to host this thing? We’re almost an hour into the show and he’s been on stage for about 5 minutes.

…EA is doing Dante’s Inferno? Really? That could almost be interesting; the brief glimpses of gameplay made it look like a cross between God of War and Dead Space, and that’s actually kind of awesome.

…Will Wright deserves better than that intro. (Nice shout out to Tim Schafer, though! W00t!)

GTA4 DLC preview… That was a pretty bitchin’ trailer. It basically looks like a shorter campaign; I wonder if it loads seperately from the main game. What happens to Niko after you start this DLC? Do you never see him again? If you start as the biker, is the city different?

…I’m so glad to hear that the famous celebrities who got paid enough to show up for this thing “really love videogames.” That makes me feel like these are that much more authentic.

…Best RPG: I’m gonna guess Fallout 3. And I WAS RIGHT. Will they show any video of the upcoming DLC? No.

…Busta Rhymes? OH BOY OH BOY OH BOY. You’re right, Busta – I do hate it when I see a trailer and it turns out to be bullshitty. Uncharted 2 trailer: OK, that was fucking amazing. I am officially on board for Uncharted 2. Also: I think the confetti machine is borked.

Terminator Salvation gets a big fat meh.

Mafia 2‘s music is HORRIBLE. I’m pretty sure those string patches were out of date in 1987. The game itself looks like Martin Scorcese directing GTA.

…Tony Hawk again? 50 Cent? Why?

Watchmen: Alan Moore weeps.

…Weezer announces for best music game, and I’m gonna guess it’s Rock Band 2… although Wii Music looks hott.

…I do like how all the people who accept awards give nice, quick speeches.

…This Kevin James Mall Cop skit is kinda sad. Epsecially if he’s here to announce the award for Studio of the Year. I guess it’s official that these awards don’t mean anything. I have no idea what to guess for this: I’d vote for any of them. But good for Media Molecule. And I meant to say this earlier – why are the Best 360 and Best PS3 categories throw-aways?

….Wait wait wait, they’re doing a MONTAGE for the actual fucking awards? 96 minutes into a 2 hour show? What the fuck is this bullshit? Why did Shooter, RPG and Music Game get stage time and everybody else get shafted like this? Jesus fucking Christ. Brutal Legend had better be fucking awesome.

…From Joystiq’s live blog, which is reading very much like this one:

10:38PM Dear VGAs, until you pretend that these awards are important no one else is going to believe it.

10:37PM Now we blow through all the awards, because watching the actual awards is SOOO much less fun than watching Kevin James put human joy to death live on stage.

Brutal Legend! At 10:44pm. Funny with the flamethrowing; let’s go and show it. SHOW IT. And it was shown. Can’t. Wait.

…Megan Fox announces Game of the Year? Oh I wonder if there’ll be another techincal snafu for this. The silver women in the background look exasperated.

My guess: GTA4. Looking back at all these games again, though, I am reminded just how amazing this year really was. Drumroll: I win. Why aren’t the Houser Bros accepting?

I think this final skit went completely off the rails.

Weezer brings the hot sauce. That applause sounds canned. I’m done.

Spike: you’re getting closer. But you’re still a long fucking way off.

>Just Because It’s Free Doesn’t Mean It Can’t Suck

>Penny Arcade’s Tycho says all that needs to be said about Home.

There’s one line in particular that really stands out:

There is already a growing school of Home apologetics, fostered by the same Order of Perpetual Masochists who lauded the rumble-free Sixaxis at launch and suggested, hilariously, that Lair and Heavenly Sword were videogames. They’re under the impression that because something is free, this places it on some golden dais beyond censure. It’s no virtue to give away something that no-one in their right mind would buy. They have no idea what this world is for, and that ambiguity infuses every simulated millimeter of it. (emphasis added)

There were similar debates going on over all over the place; I saw it first-hand in the comments to Giant Bomb’s article about Home’s impending release earlier this week, at least when I first went over there to check on what people were saying. Tons of fanboys were running to Home’s defense without having actually used it, and when people who had used it (like me) said that it’s pointless, they inevitably retorted “But it’s free! How can you complain about freebies that you never have to use?”

It’s very simple, actually. Home sucks. And I’m never going to use it. And the reason why I’m complaining about it is that I’d very much like to use my PS3 for something other than watching BluRays, and I was hoping that Home would be something cool and useful and offer an invaluable and unique experience that would enhance my enjoyment of both the Playstation and the games I play on it. Sony has been struggling in 3rd place for this entire generation and I’m sure many people were looking to Home as the thing that would help differentiate the PS3 from the 360. I guess, in a way, it has – it’s proven that Sony has absolutely no idea what they’re doing.