Star Wars: Battlefraud

Let’s cut right to the chase: my PS4 arrived last Saturday.

I had been saving up my pennies (I literally had a mason jar full of pocket change at one point) as well as Amazon Gift Cards I’d received as gifts in order to purchase my new toy. When it arrived I was neck deep in a basement bathroom project I’ve been working on but finally found time in the evening to set everything up.

The bundle I purchased came with a code to download Star Wars: Battlefront (and four other “classic” Star Wars titles). After the brief set-up I proceeded to download my new game… a staggering 25GB file. Because we still have [are stuck with] CenturyLink DSL as our ISP Saturday evening internet speeds tend to reside somewhere between elderly motorist and caffeinated sloth… so, I ended up going to bed and letting it download overnight. Early the next morning I was seated in front of my TV happily slaying rebels in beautiful HiDef. I even grinned in wide geekish delight when I realized the front of my PS4 controller would glow red when I was playing as Darth Vader.

That said, I’m somewhat torn on this game. It’s fun – and really beautifully detailed (especially Endor) – but what-the-actual-crap is going on with the micro transactions?! It is not an exaggeration to claim that 75% of this game is locked down until you’re willing to pay extra. In fact, the term “micro” transaction may be a bit of a stretch because the absolute minimum you’re going to pay is $15.

Electronic Arts will argue that the Season Pass is available for $50; allowing gamers to buy all current and future Expansion Packs right now and never pay again. First, that’s pretty dang presumptive. Sure, dropping a fifty up-front sounds like we’d all be saving $10… but that’s assuming everyone agrees that these unseen expansions are worth $15 each. Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeros was hardly worth it’s full price.

Second… um, hold the bus… are we all okay with paying $110 for video games now? Is that the new normal?

No, actually it isn’t because (wait for it) it’ll actually cost you MORE than that. While this came as no surprise to the Xbox faithful it was a bit like a bucket of cold water to us PlayStation fans: if you want to play online you must have a PlayStation PLUS membership; which will cost you $45 per year.

For those not already doing the math in your head the disc costs $60. For that price we get some training missions and something I’ll refer to as “Arcade Mode” which allows you to fight off endless waves of Stormtroopers (or rebels, depending on which side you choose, but let’s be honest it’s still the same experience) across four different maps. FOUR.

If you want to play online where the vast majority of the gaming modes and maps are available – arguably the reason you bought the game – you’re in for another $45.

If you want to have access to the most amount of weapons, maps, skins, “emotes” (which is super lame), and anything else you don’t even realize you’re missing out on it’s another $50.

All totaled, that’s $155 for an online third-person shooter. Holy. Crap.

That seems excessive.

But, yeah, it’s beautiful and sounds great and what’s playable out of the box is totes fun.

Oh, and they guy who designed the Goazon Badlands map needs a new title like “Honorary Jedi Master” or something. Amazingly good level design!

PS4 vs. Xbox One

Sony needed to come back strong – and they certainly have. In a big way.

But before we wade into this week’s big announcements from E3 let’s take a short trip down memory lane. Specifically, I’d like to refute the claim that MicroSoft was the clear victor from the seventh generation of console wars. One could certainly argue that there are many different ways to crunch the numbers. Bear with me for a moment while we briefly compare the recent history of these two competing giants.

As 2012 came to a close the numbers indicate that MicroSoft’s Xbox 360 officially has more units installed than Sony’s PlayStation 3 (by a mere 250,000 units); but the 360 was released one full year ahead of the PS3. Had they been released at the same time (as the PS4 and Xbox One will be) how might these numbers have differed?

Interesting, and certainly worth noting, Sony actually had two consoles out during the seventh generation – the PS3 and the PSP. Both sold about the same total number of units. Combined units sold (between 2006 and 2012) easily bests the sales of Microsoft’s last two home consoles combined (sold between 2001 and 2012).

Arguably, the PlayStation 3’s technical specs could run circles around the Xbox 360… but, since MicroSoft’s machine was so much easier to code games for the difference in graphic quality was rarely seen. In this case, Microsoft was the winner – but only by a bizarre technicality involving the opinions of developers and release schedules. When the production company releases a press statement that your game will be available on a certain date… you just don’t have time to figure out complex technology. Sony is well aware that inferior technology just wins sometimes.

But, honestly, it all comes down to games. Your particular machine could boast the most impressive technical specs and features. It could have the most intuitive controller and be available in nine different colors. It might even slice, dice, and make jullian fries… but if no one’s making any good games for it… who would want it?

MicroSoft’s top three best-selling titles were as follows (excluding pack-in titles):

1). Halo 3 – 14 million units

2). Call of Duty: Black Ops – 12 million units

3). Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 – 7.5 million units

Sony’s top three best-selling titles were as follows (excluding pack-in titles):

1). Gran Turismo 5 – 16 million units

2). God of War III – 10.4 million units

3). Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 – 8.6 million units

(I think we can both agree that, even though Sony comes out marginally on top here, the numbers shown above clearly indicate the obvious winner of the most recent console war was Activision).

Regardless of all the facts stated above the vast majority of the public believes Sony was way behind and needed a strong comeback.

Since the PS2 Sony has declared their console would become the “center of you home entertainment”. The PS2 was a miss and the PS3, while closer to that lofty goal, still didn’t really catch. It would appear that, with the PS4, Sony has decided to drop that business model and has instead re-geared their new product as a gaming machine first.

That’s a very wise move.

On the other hand, someone at MicroSoft must have decided they can do what Sony was never able to do (be the nexus of home entertainment). I’d say that’s a risky and foolhardy move. It also appears most gaming fans agree.

Another good move for Sony is finally embracing other company’s technology. It’s almost like, before now, they felt if it wasn’t 100% proprietary tech it wasn’t truly a Sony machine. I get it – Sony’s a hardware company… but so is Apple, and they don’t seem to have any issue with sharing the wealth with their competition (ie: Intel and Motorola). I’m thrilled Sony has decided to use “off-the-shelf” hardware to power the PS4.

Finally, the price.

.

All I have to say is that $499 isn’t an outrageous price for new tech. Besides being the cost on the new Xbox One is is also the cost of a new iPad. It could also get you a cheap laptop computer. Or a PlayStation 4 and a couple of games.

Time will tell, but the future is certainly looking bright for Sony right now. I couldn’t be happier.

Metal Gear Rising Review

Let me begin by stating that this review will be horribly slanted. I have been a fan of the Metal Gear series since the original [heavily modified version of the superior Japanese title] premiered on the Nintendo back in 1987. I didn’t play the game until 1992 – and even though I was frustrated with the difficult gameplay I was mightily impressed by story.

Metal Gear – 1987

Six years later Metal Gear Solid was released for the PlayStation. For me, this is still the pinnacle of the series. The story and gameplay were both well thought out and clearly developed hand-in-hand. For instance, all of the items exist for a specific purpose. There’s not a single weapon in the game that doesn’t require you to use it at some point.

Metal Gear Solid – 1998

The same cannot be said for Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. While this is easily my second favorite in the series the game loses a few points in design due to unnecessary inventory items. One could argue that this makes for a more open-ended experience. The gamer is allowed the freedom to choose how to play the game; rather than being steered in a certain direction. You can conquer the entire game using only the M9 tranquilizer gun… or you can employ an entire arsenal of firepower. Or, like me, play somewhere in-between.

Metal Gear Solid: Sons of Liberty – 2001

This review wouldn’t be complete without pointing out the gaming communities outright hatred toward the Raiden character. Some felt they were cheated out of a true Metal Gear Solid experience because Snake was the playable character for only 20-25% of the gameplay. Others felt Raiden was weak and whiney (my wife included). To be honest, Raiden didn’t bother me all that much. I was back in the Metal Gear universe battling vaguely familiar foes in a vastly improved graphical environment. I could certainly agree that Raiden was a weaker main character but wrote it off as being an important aspect of the storyline (how society passes along information to younger generations).

Metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater – 2004

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater was interesting because of how much back-story was explained… but the difficulty! With the loss of the Soliton RADAR it felt like we had stepped back to 1987 all over again. The series has consistently made improvements to gameplay with each new release. The Soliton RADAR was added to Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake (a title not released in America) way back in 1990. Removing it from the latest title was nothing more than an exercise in frustration. People argue that it had to be removed because, in game continuity, the Soliton had not yet been invented (Metal Gear 2 takes place in 1999 while Snake Eater takes place in 1964). While that makes sense I tend to believe that the RADAR was removed in order to make the game harder and last longer. I also found the story to become overly corny at times. Hideo Kojima repeatedly claimed that he was attempting to channel James Bond’s spirit. He missed and got Matt Helm, instead.

Metal Gear Solid: Guns of the Patriots – 2008

Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots was a solid multi-faceted game. It gave the fans what they were hoping for – more Solid Snake. More tactical action. More government conspiracy story arc. Most importantly, closure and a finality that offers explanations to a sometimes convoluted story.

Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance – 2013

Which brings us to the newest Metal Gear title: Metal Gear Rising – which is a bit of a departure for the series. All previous titles were about a one-man army being sent in to rescue hostages and secure data relating to terrorist actions that often point to government involvement. The new game is about a cyborg ninja.

More specifically, Raiden the cyborg ninja (yes, that Raiden).

To say Rising takes the series in a new direction would be an understatement. For some Rising is outright blasphemy. For others it’s a chance to revisit a universe full of rich characters and story. Once again, I reside somewhere in the middle.

For those looking for stealthy cat and mouse gameplay you won’t find it here. Raiden moves around with all the stealth of a steam roller; albeit a very fast and angst-ridden steam roller. For anyone who ever wanted the chance to play the lightning fast cyborg ninjas from the previous Metal Gear titles – here’s your chance. He doesn’t have the depth of Grey Fox or the passion of Olga Gurlukovich. Instead, Raiden rips through his enemies with the same panache as he did as a non-playable character in Metal gear Solid 4; like a one-man wrecking machine. A wrecking machine that whines and complains and tries to sound tough but really comes off more like… annoying.

Fact: guys like to have friends that are dumber than they are. With that established it should come as no surprise that every guy has known a Raiden. He’s that guy we all knew in high school who tried a little too hard to fit in and be cool. The guy that, in an attempt to sound awesome, blurts out some string of words so completely bizzare and intense that all anyone can do is look around to see if everyone else heard it the same way. No one laughs. You just kind of nod and say, “…yeah, sure…” (which I’m sure encourages poor kid).

THAT’s Raiden!

Some of the dialog is so over the top that it’s laughable. Fortunately, the visuals are so stunning that it sort of makes up for the dork in the robot suit. The gameplay is, to quote the cover of the box, lightning bolt action (you’ve got to hand it to them for truth in advertising). The action is slick and stylized. More other than not I found myself grinning like an idiot over another “ah, cool!” moment. However, some of the gameplay is so fast it’s hard to tell what’s going on. Where previous Metal Gear games were all about striking at the precise moment, Rising is about moving the left analog stick as fast as you can. There are also some timed button mashing moments to change-up the game play.

The core game play is fun but this is not your father’s Metal Gear. If you’re able to trade in Harry Gregson-Williams’ score for some Rage Against the Machine this may just be your game.

In fact, maybe that sentence sums up this game the most. Where Solid Snake’s world of Metal Gear was a sly and slippery fox Raiden’s is a heavy metal death machine. The game’s are just that different – and if you can come to grips with that you might just enjoy this game.

If not, you may want to wait for Metal Gear: Ground Zeros.

Sports

I stated, in a previous blog entry, that I’m not much of a sports fan. Let’s delve a bit deeper into that facet of my personality with these examples.

Earlier this year I received four tickets to a Minnesota Twins game. These were extraordinary seats – the kind that require you to prove to various members of the stadium staff that you should be allowed to be seated so close to the field. Seats so close that, after practice, one of the athletes (I knew he was one of the players because he had stubble and was definitely wearing a jersey and cleats) tossed me a ball; which I caught!

(As an aside, it’s a true testament to the age in which we live when you realize that they actually print the word “Practice” on these balls).

These seats were truly incredible. As we descended the cement stairs, searching for the seats that matched our tickets, we just kept getting closer and closer to the grass. We had reached a section where fellow spectators weren’t wearing baseball gloves as some sort of fashion statement… they wore them as protection. From this area our children could actually overhear chatter on the field and in the dugout – and learn new vocabulary. We would have to be practically seated on the field to be any closer.

Honestly, I can not recall a single moment from that game.

My highlights reel consists of me taking our youngest child out for a root beer float, and then buying my wife a ball cap. Giving our oldest child money to pay a vendor for cotton candy (or whatever else she wanted) and watching her face contort into disgust as she passed beers to the couple seated down the row. I also remember staring out at the field – during an inning of actual game play – and thinking, “wow, they drain-tiled this whole field”.

I tried paying attention to the game. Really, I did. I just found myself constantly getting distracted by the most mundane things. For instance, let’s use the practice ball as an example. I’d be sitting there, so very close to the action, telling myself to pay attention to the game. Our middle child asks me to hold the ball and suddenly my mind begins to wander:

“I wonder what would happen if they completely ran out of regulation game balls. Would they send a guy to Wal-Mart to buy more or would they be forced to use the practice balls? And if that happened… and then someone hit a home run… and a spectator caught the ball… and years later that spectator brought that ball to a baseball fan event… and tried to get the ball signed… but they didn’t believe his story because the ball said “Practice” right on it… but the fan had an almanac that chronicled the “Game Played with Practice Balls” (because you know someone records crap like that)… so, reluctantly, the ball gets signed… but it gets signed by someone who wasn’t on active roster…”

CRACK!

I’m snapped back to reality to find the crowd on its feet – clapping and cheering – and I have no idea why.

No offense to the Baseball fans reading this blog. I have the same reaction to all sports. I can only pay attention for so long!

Yesterday afternoon, after lunch, our youngest (now two years old) was approaching that cranky time of day. I could tell my wife was nearing the point of exasperation (after unsuccessfully attempting to interest the child in a nap) so I stepped in.

Our youngest is very much a “Daddy’s Girl”; eager to be with me regardless what I’m doing. Knowing this – and understanding that I also wanted a nap – I optioned going downstairs to watch football.

“Foof Fall?”

“No, honey, Foot Ball. Wanna go with dad?”

“Uh huh, foof fall!”

Down we went, into the basement home theater, where it was cool and dimly lit. She climbed up onto the couch and wedged herself into one of the corners while I grabbed the remote and a blanket. We snuggled up together and began developing our new armchair-sports personas. She was the color commentator and I was the play-by-play analyst.

“Ohhhh! He fall down”, she’d say.

“Yeah, he was tackled. He wants to run across the field and the other guys want to stop him”, I would explain.

I truly thought she was starting to understand the basic rules of “Foof Fall”; as it was completely holding her interest. That is, until twenty minutes into the game when she must have suddenly become aware of what was going on. Excitedly, she pointed at the TV, and declared, “Hey! A ball!”

That’s my girl.

It wasn’t much later that I could feel her leaning into me – her tiny body getting heavier and heavier. I swung my legs up onto the couch and laid down; positioning her next to me in the crook of my arm. Once she realized we were getting into a nap-like posture she half-heartedly fought me off. She’d kick the blanket off and I’d cover her back up (we finally reached an agreement with the blanket only covering her feet).

My wife and I have decided to reserve the Nuk only for nap time; so I retrieved it from my pocket and offered it to her. She accepted it, eagerly, and let out a heavy sigh. Reaching up, she wrapped an arm around my hand and brought it down upon her chest where she could hold me tight and I could feel her breathing deeply.

Ten minutes later we were both out.

We successfully made it through the third quarter and dozed off during the fourth. That’s my idea of how to properly watch sports.

The Biggest Change for Nintendo’s Wii U

Nintendo marketed the original wii as the console that got kids up off their rear-ends and got them moving. However, children are both smart and interminably lazy. It wasn’t long before kids discovered that the games didn’t really require them to put the wii controller in their pocket and jog around the basement – they could just lay on the couch and flick their wrist. So how does Nintendo fix this? They make a nine pound controller.

Notice how the Nintendo rep has his elbows in tight close to his body like you’re supposed to do for bicep curls. That’s because Nintendo’s Wii U means strength conditioning while you get your game on.

This picture makes me wonder if they made that poor guy stand directly in front of the giant display screen in an effort to make the controller appear smaller (forced perspective).

And apparently it needs some sort of life-support system. I mean, take a look at that awesome hose accessory! Unless… is it possible Nintendo will release a Ghostbusters-stlye Trap device that connects to the Wii U controller? Imagine how that might improve the tired Pokemon franchise!

I wonder if the Wii U controller will also double as the Wii U Fit Plus balance board. If so, Nintendo marketing could say, “Nintendo engineers had to think small. To create the Wii U controller they reduced the size of the original Wii Fit balance board by 30%”.

Oh! Wouldn’t it be cool if the Wii U controller came with some sort of defibrillator app (edit: “channel”); because you already know what kind of batteries this thing uses. Come to think of it… maybe that’s what the giant extension cord is for.

Curiously, when you compare the product to the rumors, a few pieces are missing. For instance: where are the back-pack straps; and wasn’t there a tripod mount on the prototype? More importantly, what happened to the See-and-Say® pull handle?

Gaming as a Social Event

A friend recently told me, “Introverts tend to prefer cooperation over competition”, and I have found that to be very true.

I remember growing up and playing Monopoly during family game night. Regardless of the fact I would likely lose I always looked forward to the game. Each and every game ended in tears. Not because I simply lost – but because it was at the hand of my family. I felt I had been turned on, used, and set-up by someone I trusted. Someone smarter than me; who used my naivety as an angle.

Those marathon family game nights likely molded how I choose to play games still today.

I currently play a turn-based strategy game on the iPod/iPhone/iPad called Hero Academy.  I’m not excellent at it (I have about a 40% success ratio) but I play with some people who are truly awesome. Recently, one of these friends made a point to stop me while I was talking to someone else and say, “maybe someday I’ll let you actually beat me”.

Since then I’ve really been searching for the reason why I felt so offended by his comment. It’s taken some time and self-searching but I believe I know the reason: he plays to dominate other people and I play to connect with other people. Also, it’s hard to connect with someone who’s main goal is to defeat you.

I don’t feel the need to completely obliterate my opponent to have a good time. Maybe that means I’m not a serious enough gamer to this person. I’m totally okay with not winning. It’s not like I play to lose – I just don’t play to decimate, blot out, and/or slaughter my fellow players (all in the name of fun).

Persona – Geek Out

In a case of true serendipity I found that one of my most favorite, and obscure, series of video games is coming to PS3!

Japan has ten times more video games than any other country. Some of these games are really fantastic and developers immediately localize them for American and European markets. Other games take a while before someone convinces enough people to snatch up the rights and import them. Guitar Freaks and Beat Mania, for example, were originally released into the Japanese market in 1998; but weren’t brought to American audiences until RedOctane and Harmonix produced Guitar Hero in 2005 and Rockband in 2007.

Sometimes other titles, often deemed too Japanese for western audiences, amazingly get a green-light for English localization.

In 2009, Red Entertainment licensed Sakura Wars V (a Sega developed, Nippon Ichi Software title); releasing it in North America as Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love. The game can best be described as a tactical role-playing game that’s also a dating simulator. It’s set in an alternate, steam-punk, reality of 1920’s New York City. You play as a Japanese naval officer who fights alongside (and attempts to woo) beautiful American female warriors who also pilot giant robots but disguise themselves as a musical troupe. It was actually a lot of fun! It was short, for an RPG, but it had a lot of replay-ability due to how building different relationships changed the story.

Atlus USA is an American company that specializes in importing and localizing these niche Japanese games – obscure games that larger (read: safer) game companies steer clear of (read: avoid). In 2007 they released a one-year old Japanese RPG titled Persona 3 – which received generally favorable reviews. The story involves a group of students investigating something called the Dark Hour; which turns out to be the brief period of time between one day and the next. During the Dark Hour, one can enter a parallel universe which is populated with creatures that feed on the minds of humans. In order to defeat the creatures the player is able to summon a manifestation of their inner self (a Persona) by firing a gun-like object (called an Evoker) at their head. How Atlus convinced the ESRB that this particular Japanese title would be safe for the fragile American teenager… I’ll never know.

In 2009, Atlus released the critically acclaimed Persona 4which was actually the first Persona title that I played. This game centers around a student who moves to the small town of Inaba for one year. During this time he becomes involved in investigating mysterious murders that involve people getting sucked into their television sets via the Midnight Chanel – but only on foggy nights. I don’t want to give too much away… but through some clever twists and turns the story ends up being about a Japanese folklore, mythological goddess, attempting to obliterate the world.

The Persona games had well designed characters that were both fun and powerful… and now they’re going head-to-head in something called Persona 4 Arena.

As if the concept of this fighting game wasn’t cool enough I found out the game is being co-developed by Atlus and Arc Systems (the team behind the spectacular Guilty Gear series).

Total. Geek. Moment.

With the singular exception of Tecmo’s DOA games, I’ve never been very good at this genre – and that’s putting it mildly. Either I can’t master or memorize all the move combinations or I can’t keep up with the lightning-fast game play. Regardless, I would buy this game. In a heartbeat.

August 7 is when this comes out. Anybody else as excited as me?