The Farce Awakens

Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released on Blu-Ray and DVD today. Naturally, I stopped by my local Target to pick up a copy for myself.

Immediately upon entering Target you are assured that THIS is the place to scratch your Star Wars itch. If a product even bears passing resemblance to something (anything!) in the Star Wars Universe it has received a Force Awakens treatment. For example, Target will happily sell you C3PO coffee creamer and BB8 oranges.

Nevermind that, after this particular orange has been removed from its clever packaging (BB8 is cute, round, and orange… just like an orange!) it’s just an ordinary piece of citrus fruit. Unless you plan to drag that netted bag around with you – proudly displaying your on-trend styles – what you’ve got is an everyday, run of the mill, coated with food-grade lac-resin based wax, naval orange. Just like all those poor schlubs who bought the unhip non-licensed fruit.

On that note I will segue into the real topic of today’s blog entry.

Target is currently offering two versions of the Force Awakens Blu-Ray.

The model on the left will set you back twenty dollars; while the option on the right sells for $25. The difference? The packaging.

In truth, in addition to this “exclusive collectible package” Target’s version of the Blu-Ray claims to have “Over twenty minutes of bonus content”… which was already available on the [free] Star Wars mobile phone app. If these interviews and making-of featurettes aren’t already all over YouTube – be patient – they will be (likely before you can rush home and watch/re-watch this summer’s biggest blockbuster with your ultra-chic BB8 orange at your side).

By all means, feel free to spend an extra $5 on 20 minutes of video you weren’t going to watch anyway. When comparing the price-per-minute seeing the entire movie opening day in IMAX 3D cost less but don’t let that stop you.

And I’m totally sure you had HUGE plans for that exclusive collectible package – like, you were going to have it framed (behind archival UV-resistant glass) so you could properly show it off. There’s no way you were going to shove that box to the back of your entertainment center or let it gather dust on a media tower. Who even has those anymore, anyway?! Um, 1992 called and it wants its nestable disc organizer back. No, you’re hip and forward thinking. You plan on downloading the movie to your networked media server and safely storing (ie: shoving in a box under the stairs) the physical disc as a back-up in the unlikely event your entertainment drive would fail.

Either way – let’s face it – you’re never looking at that Blu-Ray clamshell ever again.

And I take particular offense with Target’s desperate use of the word collectible. These Blu-Rays are just about as collectible as the glut of comic books released during mid-90s. When everyone owns something the perceived value falls – because you can obtain another one literally anywhere. If these discs were numbered and limited to a very small print run (like Disney’s Treasures DVD sets) that would be one thing, but they’re not; making Target’s “exclusive” package the equivalent of DC’s Death of Superman. Worthless.

Target’s not the only retailer offering “exclusive” versions of this highly anticipated Blu-Ray. Best Buy, Walmart, and Disney all have their own over-priced versions… but Target is the only retailer offering extra content on the disc (the aforementioned 20 minutes).

Please, don’t let the hype fool you into paying extra for worthless extras.


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!

2013 Book List

It’s that time of year! Here’s the list of what I’ve read over the course of 2013 (recommended titles are marked with an asterisk). If you’ve read anything over the last 12 months that you’d like to recommend, please let me know. I’m always looking for that next good read.

And speaking of Good Reads, if you haven’t had a chance to check out that particular social network (and you happen to love to read), I suggest you direct your browser to today. I’ve discovered a good number of books using that site and welcome you to connect with me (just click the link) so we can trade recommendations.

    • Island of the Lost by Joan Druett  (carried over from December 2012)*
    • Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan*
    • The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle by Arthur Conan Doyle
    • Masters of Doom by David Kushner
    • The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
    • 14 by Peter Clines*
    • Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
    • Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
    • Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde
    • The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
    • Inferno by Dan Brown
    • Reclaiming History by Vincent Bugliosi*
    • Star Wars: Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn
    • Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand*
    • Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America by Jeff Ryan
    • Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schlosser*
    • Star Wars: Dark Force Rising by Timothy Zahn
    • 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
    • The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg*
  • Dream It! Do It! by Marty Sklar
  • Last of the Blue and Gray: Old Men, Stolen Glory, and the Mystery That Outlived the Civil War by Richard A. Serrano
  • The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

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.

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?

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?

PS3 Owner, At Last!

I’ve been telling my wife that as soon as I get home from California I would be buying a PlayStation 3.  No joke, I bought it on the ride home from the airport.

Something worth mentioning: no one makes a simple console anymore. This is a minor annoyance. Remember when buying a console meant never having to check the side of the game box to see if your computer was beefy enough to handle the software? While it’s not quite that bad (yet) I can see it getting there. What ever happened to “pop the game in and play”? Now it’s more like, “pop the game in, install it, download updates, restart console, update patches, restart game, configure auto-save game function, watch 4 minute intro video, wait, wait some more, play!”.

Who knew I had to disable media sharing before I could get the wireless function of my PS3 to work?  I didn’t, and ended up online searching for “why won’t my PSN network stay logged in?”.

It’s frustrating.

However, once you get it working… it’s really pretty amazing.

We currently own four games. Truth be told, I bought Metal Gear Solid 4 many months ago… maybe even a year ago (how sad is that?) but was able to play it for the first time this last Saturday.  I’m a huge fan of the entire series (which my wife lovingly refers to as the Man Soap Opera). MGS4 has a steep learning curve! Enemy AI is scary-smart.  It’s super immersive and the graphics are off the chart. I have a feeling I will be blogging about this game in the near future.

I bought Little Big Planet.  Because.

My wife wanted one of those dancing games… so, I bought the PS3 Move Bundle; which comes with something called Everybody Dance.  I suppose it’s cool.  It has a good enough soundtrack – plus you can always download more music from the PlayStation Network store.  I’ll likely never play it.

I also had to pick up a copy of the PlayStation Move sports disc; mainly because I found it at Game Stop for less than $5.  It’s a lot like the game disc that comes with the wii (archery, frisby, bowling, etc) except it’s for the PS3 – so it’s in 1080p HD.  Best part?  Combat.  Apparently combat is considered a “sport” by the people at Sony.  This thing works just like Tekken or Soul Caliber… except you’re actually swinging the axe/hammer/club/sword/etc.  Truly amazing!  So, there I was in my family room beating the living crap outta some big-haired dude named “Dallas” in front of my wife and kids.

Pure awesome.