Wednesday, March 31, 2010

WAA - Sid Meier's Civilization Revolution

I was out of town last weekend, so posting has been sparse. But the gaming has still been going strong, as evidenced by my KICKASS new Gamerscore. Six digits? Oh hell yeah!

This week's WAA honor the finest iteration of the long-revered Civilization series to ever grace a console, Civilization Revolution!

The "One With Combat"Award: "Napalm in the Morning"
Take your first Warrior unit, explore the map, find a barbarian hut, and attack it. Presto…Achievement!

The "Mile High Club" Award: "That We May Live in Peace"
You have to beat the game before 1000AD on King difficulty or higher. This one is quite tricky, and pretty much requires a Domination victory (defeat all other Civs). I suggest using a military based Civilization that peaks early (Mongols or Aztecs) and pumping out military units as fast as you can. If you're lucky, you'll overwhelm a couple nearby competitors before they can get their defenses together. Then focus all your energies on building a massive army and unleash your horde!

The "Seriously..." Award: "Here’s Looking at You Kid"
For this one, you need to unlock every Great Person (famous people from history), which is annoying because there’s a lot of them and they appear pretty much randomly. You’ll get many of them in your first few games, but there will often be a straggler or two that never seems to show up for you. Try to concentrate on Culture as much as possible because it gives you more Great People and improves your chances of getting whoever you're missing.

The "Little Rocket Man" Award: "Absolute Power is Kind of Neat"
Win the game on King level or higher without changing government once in the game. Okay, so I’m a dictator. But I’m a BENEVOLANT dictator!

The Scientist Gone Gamer Award: "A Great Wind is Blowing"
If Russia’s great leader had actually looked like that, they would have called her “Catherine the Hottie”.

Achievement Set Rating - 4
The leaders aside, most of the icons are pretty crappy. Besides that, there's way too much emphasis on beating the game with all the different Civilizations and not enough on thinking up creative victory conditions. It's not a terrible set but it could have been much better.

Achievement Difficulty Rating - 3
Most of the Achievements can be earned on the lowest difficulty settings, although there are definitely a few tricky ones hidden among the others. You'll likely be searching for a specific Great Person to fill your roster for far longer than you'd prefer.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

WAA - NCAA March Madness 07

Where does the time go? It's already time for WAA!

In honor of the NCAA basketball tournament, which has been in full swing for a week now, let's give some awards to one of the first college basketball games on the 360 - NCAA March Madness 07. It's not a particularly good game (or a particularly good Achievement set), but I every game gets its turn eventually.

Here are the awards:

The "One With Combat"Award: "Floor General Play"
You need to call a "Floor General Play" (more generally known as While on offense, hit any direction on the digital pad to call a play and grab this Achievement.

The "Mile High Club" Award: "100% Free Throws"
This one is tough because it has to be done on the highest difficult (All American). You need to make a minimum of 10 free throws in one game without missing any, and the timing can be a bit screwy. To make free throws on All American, pull down on the right stick and then push back up in a straight line BEFORE the ball reaches your player's forehead. You can make this Achievement even easier by setting the Free Throw Difficulty bar to the minimum.

The "Seriously..." Award: "51 Rebounds"
No grinding with this Achievement set, though it will take a while to accumulate 51 boards with one player. Try shooting from midcourt to increase the number of bricks you can rebound.

The "Little Rocket Man" Award: "All-American Victory"
Show off your mastery of basketball skills by beating the computer on the highest difficult with default settings. No cheating by gimping the computer on this one! Though if you want to use a great team against a terrible one, we won't tell...

The Scientist Gone Gamer Award: "All-American Hero"
The icons in this game are pretty lame, which is sadly typical of sports titles. I like the use of the star here to denote an All American Hero, though why you'd earn that title for winning a game without shooting a 3-point shot is unclear.

Achievement Set Rating - 3
The icon art is lame and really boring. The Achievements themselves are largely derivative. No awards for winning March Madness, a conference tournament, or anything else related to career mode? Unimpressive...though I give some credit for not saddling the game with a bunch of repetitive online Achievements.

Achievement Difficulty Rating - 3
Slightly more difficult than your typical sports game, but still pretty easy if you abuse game sliders and make yourself an elite team.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Spectral Force 3 - Review

Last time I talked about a niche genre (hunting games) that isn't really my cup of tea. Today I'll review a title from a niche genre that I love - tactics games. I've been working through Spectral Force 3 (twice!) for the last few weeks. The short review is that I liked it quite a bit. That in itself might surprise some because the game got absolutely terrible reviews. Most of the big game sites panned it. I'm not 100% sure why, though I suspect it has a lot to do with reviewers not really loving this particular style of game.

In a tactics game, you deploy troops from your army onto an isometric map and then attempt to use them strategically to defeat your opponents or accomplish some objective. It's all turn based, meaning that victory is decided not by skill with the controller but by making wise decisions on the battlefield. My favorite aspect of these games is that between battles you can upgrade your troops and outfit them for specific purposes. In many ways, you win or lose the battle before you ever step onto the field.

However, I concede that this style of game is not for everyone. If you want fast paced action, you will not find it in tactics games, and definitely not in Spectral Force 3. It's a slow paced game that rewards careful movement around the map. It's imperative to keep your troops grouped together so you can engage small groups of enemies with your full force rather than getting scattered around the board. Losing even a single character from a battle can often spell defeat, either immediately due to failing a battle condition or later in the map if you need one of their special abilities.

SF3 actually has quite a bit going for it compared to many tactics games. There's a huge variety of enemy types, including a massive roster of enemy bosses, most with their own voice work and special attacks. As the game progresses, you can recruit many of those bosses into your own army for use in subsequent battles. Many tactics games make the mistake of having new characters join at severely reduced levels compared to your other troops, creating very little incentive to use any of the new people. In SF3, newly recruited characters are usually ABOVE your level and bring new abilities to the table, so I constantly found myself weighing new additions against old favorites.

The game is also appropriately difficult, with easy battles to start and tougher enemies as you progress. The computer will gang up on characters to eliminate them from a fight, and will happily target your healers and mages if you leave them exposed. Correctly positioning your troops on the battlefield is a critical aspect of the game and is just as important as doing damage to the enemy.

SF3 does have some deficiencies that need to be mentioned, unfortunately. The main story arc needs some work, for one. You control a group of mercenaries during a major war that has engulfed the entire continent. There are around 10 factions on the map, and you can work for any of them as they each attempt to conquer the others and take control of the land. This aspect works pretty well, but there's a side thread about chasing down destructive demons that are terrorizing innocent people. It's supposed to be the main story arc of the game, but it comes in fits and spurts, seemingly at random times, which keeps it from gaining any real momentum as the game progresses. It's also often unclear what you need to do to advance the story, as the game has a hidden meter tracking the number of side quests you've completed and won't let you progress until you've filled it. I'd have preferred to see the meter so I could track my progress rather than wondering why I have to play the same few missions over and over.

Graphically, SF3 is adequate for a tactics game. It's visuals aren't terribly impressive, but the environments are sufficiently varied and there are some nicely animated cutscenes when characters use their signature attacks. Voice work is pretty well done, which is a plus, although some of the sounds seem odd (swords don't really sound like swords for example).

However, the biggest negative is a major issue for me - the game is buggy. There's a bug with the audio track that can cause the game to crash if you try to advance cutscenes too quickly (and they can be quite slow). It only cropped up three times for me in two playthroughs of the game (twice on the same map), but battles in this game can last upwards of half an hour and it's VERY annoying to have the game crash after successfully completing a map. If I was handing out scores here, that would be a big point deduction, particularly since adequate play-testing would have easily caught that bug.

Of course, the ultimate question is: Do I recommend SF3? If you're a fan of tactics games, it's the best one on the 360 that I've played yet, and has a lot of interesting features that are unique to the genre. So for tactics fans, yes I definitely recommend Spectral Force 3. If you've tried games like this in the past and not cared for them, then SF3 will definitely not change your mind.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Cabela's Dangerous Hunts 2009

Let me preface this review by saying that I have no ethical problem with hunting, but don't participate in the hobby myself. Again, it's not that I think shooting a deer is morally wrong, but because it seems really dull to me. It mostly seems like sitting around in the woods waiting for the off chance that a deer will walk by...not the most stimulating activity for me.

Cabela's Dangerous Hunts 2009 isn't like that at all. Rather, the game portrays a version of hunting that I'm guessing most people who engage in the hobby would like to imagine. CDH 2009 exists in a fantasy world where heroic hunters take down entire packs of wild hyenas with practiced ease, save innocent victims from lion attacks, and fight grizzly bears with their bare (see what I did there?) hands. In other words, it's a bunch of bullshit. But then, so is space marines fighting aliens on a faraway planet, so there's no reason that should be a deal breaker.

Gameplay primarily consists of walking around a small area within some exotic locale while completing objectives that lead up to hunting and killing a dangerous animal of some kind. Over the course of the campaign, I killed some lions in Tanzania, wolves in Russia, and water buffalo (these are apparently quite dangerous) in Congo, just to name a few. It all sounds pretty advanced, until you realize that all the animals within a specific size class act pretty much the same. So for example, wolves and hyenas have the exact same attack patterns and behaviors, so only the graphic of the animal is changed.

The designers also eliminated the boring "wait for an animal to show up" part of hunting and skipped straight to the action. Most of the animals you're hunting are conveniently marked on your map, and the ones that aren't can be coaxed out with bait (instantly). It may not be realistic, but I certainly appreciate not having to wait!

However, there isn't really much game here. The core experience is really shallow, and within the first couple missions you'll have experienced just about everything there is to see (although a river ride through the Congo added something fresh). There are also some weird aspects to the game, like the snakes that never move from their position (they reminded me of hissing, poisonous land mines) or the elephants that will chase you for miles through thick underbrush. Oh, and the game is riddled with quick-time events (yuck!) to give the illusion of action when you're just playing a really easy game of Simon Says.

I mentioned in this week's WAA that I might be turning into a graphics snob, so take the next comment with a grain of salt - this game is BUTT UGLY. I realize the designers probably weren't working with a huge budget, but this was a sub-par effort by any standards. The environments are grainy and pixelated, while the animations of your prey are downright comical. It's a major waste, because one of the few ways they could have made this a more compelling experience is to treat it like a travelogue (kill exotic beasts in faraway lands!) but they couldn't even get that right.

I just can't recommend this game to anyone, not even hunting enthusiasts. The designers purposely made it very dissimilar to actual hunting, putting an emphasis on action that the gameplay couldn't really sustain. With the huge number of great shooters available for the 360, there's really no need to waste time with this ugly, dull effort.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

WAA - Sonic the Hedgehog 2

I've done too many easy games for WAA lately, so it's time to step it up a notch. I also haven't done an Arcade game in a while. Enter Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Sega's classic Genesis title remastered for Xbox Live.

If you don't know Sonic, it's a platformer in the same vein as Super Mario Brothers. Sonic's shtick is that he runs really fast, an ability that doesn't seem that useful to me when navigating precarious ledges and death pits.

Like most Live Arcade titles, Sonic 2 has 12 Achievements for a total of 200 points. It's a well made classic title that still holds up in the gameplay department today. Just prepare yourself for the low-res graphics, which are stunningly poor (I never realized what a graphics snob I was turning into...).

Here are the awards:

The "One With Combat"Award: "Emerald Hill"
Earned for finishing the first level of the game, which you can do with little more effort than walking forward in a straight line. Trust me, they get tougher.

The "Mile High Club" Award: "Conquering Time"
Now we're talking...this one is tough. You have to beat the whole game in less than one hour, and it isn't a terribly short game. On the plus side, you can save and reload at any point, so if you make mistakes or take too long in a level, you can try again. On the minus side, you need to complete the first dozen levels or more in less than two minutes each (preferably much less for a couple) so that you'll have enough time for the longer levels at the end.

The "Seriously..." Award: "Xbox Live Racer"
This one is your classic "We're throwing this in to justify the online component" Achievement. You have to find opponents on Live and win 10 vs. zones, which involve beating levels or collecting coins more quickly than the other guy. It's boring, and the Live community is not exactly crowded, so you'll be best off trading wins with a buddy for this award.

The "Little Rocket Man" Award: "Fast Emerald"
The true purpose of Sonic, and another tough one. You need to finish the first level again, but this time in under 35 seconds. That is NOT much time. I don't have any advice beyond using your super dash and memorizing the level so you know when you're approaching jumps. Bumping into even one enemy could easily cost you too much time to succeed.

The Scientist Gone Gamer Award: "Super Sonic"
The icons are decidedly mediocre (common for Arcade games), but at least it's a picture of the title character. Sega has done far worse in the past.

Achievement Set Rating - 7
The crappy online Achievement aside, this is a very solid set. You get a couple level progress awards, one for beating the game, a few awards for collecting chaos emeralds, and time trials which get to the heart of Sonic (speed!). Beating the game in under an hour was a solid challenge.

Achievement Difficulty Rating - 5
This would be FAR higher without the ability to save and reload. Still, unless you're a Sonic ace it will take some time to master speeding through the game. I give the designers credit for balancing the set out with some easy Achievements though.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

How difficult should video games be?

A while back, Rachel asked a question in our joint review of Assassin's Creed 2 about whether I thought the game was too easy. I answered specifically for AC2, but I think it hints at a broader question about video game difficulty in general. Should developers make games hard to challenge the player, or easy so they're more likely to succeed?

I think that games can be separated into two broad categories: skill games and scenery games. In "skill games", the objective is to develop a set of skills that are then used by the player to overcome increasingly difficult challenges. The fun comes from seeing yourself improve, as evidenced by succeeding at a challenge that once would have been too much for you to handle. Examples of this include Tony Hawk titles, music/rhythm games like Rock Band, and fighting games like Soul Caliber.

On the other hand of the spectrum, you have "scenery games". Now, don't mistake my point here to mean that scenery games don't require skill. It's just that in these games, the FOCUS isn't so much on improving your skill as it is exploring the game world itself. Scenery games might tell a great story. They might have interesting new locales to visit. They might allow the player to explore detailed environments freely. For example, think Assassin's Creed, most RPG's, or Resident Evil 4.

The key difference between these two types of games is: What motivates the player to continue? You don't play Rock Band thinking, "I wonder what happens after I beat this super-difficult song on Expert?" because you already know the answer - NOTHING. They just give you another, more difficult song to play. Your satisfaction must be derived from the accomplishment itself. Conversely, I doubt many people think, "I hope this next mission in Assassin's Creed 2 is CRAZY difficult and I fail a bunch of times. That'd be far more interesting than seeing where the story goes."

And that brings me full circle to the topic of this post. All games should start out pretty easy (even sequels...some people might not have played the original). That gives you a chance to learn the controls and adjust to the game. But from there, skill games should have increasingly ramping difficulty culminating in very difficult challenges, while scenery games should have much milder challenges to prevent the player from getting hopelessly stuck. I think the biggest mistake that developers make (looking at you Grand Theft Auto!) is taking a scenery game and cramming it full of immensely difficult challenges. Consider a game like Resident Evil 4. Some people complained that it was too easy, but is repeated death conducive to enjoying that game? If something scary happens, forcing you to frantically fight for your life, but you succeed, then you stay immersed in the gameworld and remain primed for the next scare. But if the difficulty is dialed up so that every scary event comes complete with multiple failures and do-overs, then the game becomes a tedious grind filled with barriers to progress.

Of course, the best possible situation is variable difficulty that allows new players and veterans to choose the amount of challenge they want to face. Some games do this well, and others not so much. But barring that, I'd rather see a game like Assassin's Creed 2 be a little too easy than too difficult, since with the former I still get to see everything the game has to offer, while the latter is just a recipe for frustration.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

WAA - Backyard Football '10

Backyard Football '10 is a pitiful attempt at a video game. It's supposed to be a sports game aimed at kids, so it has a bunch of "wacky" features, like being able to play at a carnival, or super moves that allow the ball carrier to spin around in circles. But remove the lame trappings and it's just a grossly dumbed-down version of football that pales in comparison to other established titles.

Backyard Football isn't really worth a full review itself, but I will highlight one particularly excruciating aspect of the game before I get to the WAA. The announcers in Backyard Football are supposed to be kids, and they spout "funny" lines (note: quotes are NOT accidental) as you play. It's not just that their comments are PAINFULLY unfunny. The real issue is that it doesn't even sound like something that young kids would find amusing. It's as if a bunch of corporate suits sat around in a board room and brainstormed about what children would find funny. Granted, some kids might laugh at these failed attempts at humor...the dumb ones anyway. But most kids will recognize this stuff for the tripe that it is.

Don't buy Backyard Football for your kids unless you hate them.

Here are the awards:

The "One With Combat"Award: "Hands"
Much like last week, there are no difficult Achievements in Backyard Football '10. "Hands" is particularly easy, as you just need 100 yards receiving with any player. Considering that the computer doesn't bother to play any defense, that shouldn't be tough.

The "Mile High Club" Award: "Tackler"
This is as close to a difficult Achievement as I could find. You need 8 tackles with one player, which just involves a lot of chasing your opponent around while on defense.

The "Seriously..." Award: N/A
None of these Achievements come close to qualifying as a grind. In fact, you can do all of them in a single game.

The "Little Rocket Man" Award: "Sacker"
Make a mad dash for the QB and bring him (or her) down!

The Scientist Gone Gamer Award: N/A
All the Achievements share the same logo, which is a pretty good indication of how sloppy this effort was. At least it's a decent icon.

Achievement Set Rating - 2
I gave this one a marginally higher score than last week's game (College Basketball 2K6) because there are 10 Achievements instead of 5. Beyond that, it's the same easy tasks and crappy icons. Note to self: do a more interesting game next week...

Achievement Difficulty Rating - 1
Set the halves to 15 minutes and you can do all of these in one game. 1000 points in less than an hour? Too easy!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Dante's Inferno - NOT for the sensitive souls

Not very long after finishing Assassin's Creed 2, I started up Dante's Inferno (a b-day present from Rachel). It's a lot of fun. It's also so over-the-top batshit insane that I worry it's warping my very psyche. This is coming from a guy that has played through any number of Call of Duty/Grand Theft Auto/"insert crazy death and mayhem title here" games. But Dante's Inferno is so far beyond any of those, I find myself coming up with buffer activities before bed just so I don't have dreams inspired by this f'd up game.

NOTE: If you are easily offended, stop reading this post. Seriously. Maybe tomorrow I'll talk about something more uplifting. There's always WAA in a couple days. Heck, even if you're fairly difficult to offend, I'm still not sure you should continue.

What really strikes me about Dante's Inferno is how cavalier it is about human suffering. Granted, the game takes place in Hell. As in the place where the damned go to suffer eternally. So it's only natural that things should be a bit on the bleak side. But how about a big spiky metal pole with human beings impaled on it, writhing and moaning in agony? And that's not even an object with which you can's just a piece of scenery. This game is not bashful in the slightest with its depiction of human torture, and the sounds in particular drive the point home a bit too convincingly for my comfort.

The suffering isn't reserved for humans, as Dante metes out a fair bit of hyper-violent punishment to the minions of the Underworld. Lots of blood and guts in this title, as well as enemies getting torn apart, strangled, decapitated, and other forms of violence I lack the vocabulary to describe.

If you like a heaping helping of sex with your violence, then Dante's Inferno is definitely the game for you. There's quite a bit of nudity, bare breasts in particular. In fact, this is the first game I've played with female nudity (search the archives if you want to hear about my first brush with male-full frontal in a video game). Now, I'm not one of these Quaker types that thinks there's anything inherently immoral about the human form "au naturale". Breasts are just breasts, after all. But how about 50 foot tall breasts with giant, convex (???) nipples that waggle what appear to be tongues (double ???) at you? It's a sight that's more than a little disturbing.

But the craziest thing I've encountered so far in this game are the babies with knives for hands. Yeah, you read that right...babies. Tiny infants that attempt to stalk and murder you. And you have to fight them, including the tearing apart deaths and such. The game explains that these are unbaptized babies that never had a chance to find the "one true religion".'s justified then? I'm not sure I get it. Shall I assume that Buddhist babies become knife-wielding maniacs?

To be fair, I get the impression that Dante's Inferno is taking the piss out of hardcore Christian theology (especially Catholicism) in many places. One could conclude that the whole game is a meditation on the hypocrisy of a religious system that give power and wealth to those who claim to hold the keys to salvation, which is meant for all but doled out to the privileged few. But then I get an Achievement like this one and it makes me wonder:

"Bad Nanny" - 10pts
Kill 20 unbaptized babies

No matter how you spin it (and Penny Arcade has tried), that's pretty messed up...

Friday, March 5, 2010

Assassin's Creed 2 - Closing Thoughts

So in Rachel's last post, she spilled the beans - we finished the game last weekend. The ending came abruptly, to say the least. There were some major reveals, but a ton of loose ends were still out there, questions left unanswered, and suddenly the credits were rolling.

I won't reproduce her post here, but definitely check it out if you want to know how we felt about the end (my feelings mirror hers, but with fewer expletives). Instead, I'll close this series on my end by talking about how this series has progressed between AC1 and AC2.

So much of our perception of a sequel is directly tied to the quality of the original. For example, I've heard a lot of lukewarm comments about the newly released Bioshock 2. A lot of people seem to think that while it's a high quality game, it's also JUST a game, while the original was more of an "experience". It strikes me how difficult it must be to even make a follow-up to a game like Bioshock. It had some great gameplay innovations, one of the most immersive environments I've ever seen, and an absorbing story with a strong philosophical undercurrent. How do you match that experience, let alone surpass it? Bioshock wasn't could fix some of the gameplay issues here and there. But that's not really enough to justify a sequel. And the story wasn't really begging for additional material, either. Maybe that's why Bioware can make a successful game like KOTOR or Jade Empire and then walk away (KOTOR 2 was made by a different developer)...they realize that those stories have been told and it's better to leave them that way.

In contrast, the original Assassin's Creed was an annoying game with deeply flawed structure that sucked all the fun out of the experience. But it also had some good ideas and technical innovations that laid the groundwork for a better game in the future. The question with AC2 is, how much of that promise did they realize? And I think it's fair to say that while some of the annoyances remained intact in AC2, this game is a much stronger effort than the first one. Thus we come to a somewhat counter intuitive conclusion: it might be possible that it's better to make a sequel of a game that I hated (but that had some promise) than a game I loved (but had realized most of the potential it could have ever had).

Why is AC2 a better game than AC1? It has better mission structure. No more traipsing down from the mountain tops at the beginning of every mission. The tasks to be completed are more varied. There are better set pieces to break up the more ordinary missions. No more sword fights with a hundred guards after every assassination. A lot of the petty annoyances have been eliminated, like guards who start chasing you for no reason (though the minstrels fill in where the beggars left off in the original). You get a wider variety of weapons and skills. There are little trappings, like improving the villa and hunting down glyphs, that will entertain some and be ignored by others (the perfect format for side quests). Ezio is just a better character than Altair, because more time was spent thinking about who he is and what his motivations are.

There are other reasons too, but you get the idea. AC2 is a better game than AC1. But it's not perfect...indeed it still has glaring flaws. The plot is too scattershot. The villains are not well characterized, so it's difficult to get invested in foiling their plans. Too many of the assassinations still boil down to chasing after a target through the streets of the city and pouncing on his back from behind (not very assassin-like). Tons of plot threads come and go with no resolution.

But as crazy as it sounds, I'm kind of looking forward to AC3. Yes, even though the ending was terrible. And even after all my (and Rachel's) complaints. Because the foundation for a great game is still there, and Ubisoft took a big leap from AC1 to AC2. If they can do the same for AC3, particularly by focusing the story and defining the characters (on both sides of the battle) in a way that gets the player invested, I think they have a chance to produce something really memorable.

That's it for me on AC2 (at least, until it's time for WAA), but keep an eye on Rachel's blog for her final post on the game.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

WAA - College Hoops 2K6

Ready to pad your gamer score with 1000 easy points? Then welcome to College Hoops 2K6, this week's featured game for WAA!

Before I delve into these, a few quick points so you can understand just how easy these Achievements can be.

- You can put the game on any difficulty level, including the easiest, and still get the awards.
- You can adjust all the sliders in the game to favor the players and gimp the computer.
- You can push the game clock to the maximum, giving yourself plenty of time to accumulate the necessary totals.
- You can turn off any rules that might get in your way, like goaltending, fouls, backcourt violations, and the like.
- You can adjust your individual players to max their stats, while doing the opposite to your opponent.

Combine all of these, and you're looking at some of the easiest Achievements ever made.

The "One With Combat"Award: "Score 40 Pts With Any Player"
Pts is points in case you can't tell. So after you've messed around with all the settings and matched up your supermen against a bunch of weaklings, every shot you take that's closer than midcourt range will go in. You'll be able to amass 40 points before the first half is even close to done, let alone the game.

The "Mile High Club" Award: "Get 6 Blocks With Any Player"
This one is only difficult because it counts on the computer to get a shot away, which is pretty tough considering the frequency with which they turn the ball over. To facilitate this award (and for the sake of comedy) I adjusted my opponents so they were all 4 foot 6 and my own players were all well over 7 feet tall. The blocks came fast and easy after that.

The "Seriously..." Award: "Get 45 Rebounds With Any Team"
These Achievements are so crazy easy that none could be described as a grind. I guess the rebounding one comes the closest though. If you're using your superteam, then heave up midcourt shots so that you can rack up offensive rebounds.

The "Little Rocket Man" Award: "Make 15 3-Ptrs In One Game"
The fun here comes from seeing how far you can get from the basket and still make your 3-pointers. HINT: with max stats, it's REALLY far!

The Scientist Gone Gamer Award: "Get 20 Steals With Any Team"
Sega decided to go with hyper-literal icons and titles for these Achievements. At the very least, you'll never be confused as to how you get these awards.

Achievement Set Rating - 1
Five total Achievements. All of them are earned for accumulating stats. Nothing for winning a championship (or even a game!). Super boring icons and titles. A set really can't get much worse than this.

Achievement Difficulty Rating - 1
Again, with the proper settings this set is a piece of cake. You're looking at all five Achievements and 1000 points in about an hour.

Assassin's Creed 2 - The Shit is About to Hit the Fan

No, not here. I'll just be doing a nice normal post responding to Rachel's last set of questions. But we did play some Assassin's Creed 2 last night. Stuff happened. A face was made by Rachel. Words were shouted at the heavens. So yeah, let's just say if you're a fan of the occasional outburst, you might want to be monitoring Rachel's site for the next couple days. A storm is BREWING...

Here's Rachel's last post, with questions for me at the end. If you've already read it, skip down to JEFF RESPONDS to get my angle.

Title: Assassin's Creed II
Publisher: Ubisoft (2010)

Scientists' Stats -
Time Played: 16hrs 8min
Last Achievement Earned: Podesta of Monteriggioni

Last Significant Event: Collected last of the 6 Assassin's Seals

In Jeff's last post he commented on some specific game features and one of the side quests. He left off with: "And back to Rachel. It seems like the story is still too nebulous for you (I don't disagree). Maybe it's missing a character to give it some cohesion. What character would help? A sidekick? Love interest? A better defined villain?

Also, let's say Ubisoft greenlights Assassin's Creed 3 (pretty much a lock). They come to you and say, "Rachel, you're our biggest fan. It's your pick - where and when is AC3 set?" What's your choice. Bear in mind that the general parameters of the game (running around a few cities, climbing buildings, assassinating targets) will be the same. A place or time that works well with conspiracy theories would also be a plus."

Oooh, excellent questions! I think you've hit the nail on the head with the nebulous thing and I think it's the villain that's dropping the ball here. Or villains in this case since it's the Knights Templar and it is a group. Anyway, it would be better if the group was better defined. As it is you just hop around from place to place being told whom to kill and that they are Knights Templar. But they don't have much to do with each other and it's mostly about oppressing local merchants. Now, I'm all for relieving oppression but we're supposed to be going after a super powerful weapon and I would enjoy it a bit more if the villains acted like they were trying to cover up a conspiracy rather than just control all trade in the region. Ok, sure, boo monopolies but, really, something that could be discussed in a Senate committee does not always make for fascinating video game fodder. And I know I've already said it but I sure would like to see other Assassins. As far as I can tell Ezio has three contacts and not one of them is an Assassin. Where the fuck are my compatriots? What if I need advice or tips on how to be stealthy (and holy shitballs does Ezio ever need advice on how to be stealthy!)?

I think a sidekick would be a bad idea but I would venture to say there's already a love interest. Our Ezio he likes his women and he's got this irrepressible boyish charm. Yes, that's right, the phrase "irrepressible boyish charm" does in fact describe our ruthless assassin. I'm glad he hasn't let his job change him. Anyway, the love interest. While I feel Ezio is more than happy to share his love far and wide he does have some good chemistry going with Rosa. She doesn't show up a lot but, really, he's busy with all the stabby so I can see how she's not around a lot. But when she is I definitely think there's something there and I like their chemistry. I don't think this decreases the nebulous factor (sticking with the villains on that one) but it is a fun part of the game.

I thought a lot about the locale for ACIII and, at first, I thought it'd be cool if it was set in France when the Knights Templar were hunted. I figured it'd be really easy to incorporate an Assassins story there but it turns out ACII is set after the dissolution of the Knights Templar (poss why the group seems so scattered and aimless??? or, more likely, the AC series is maybe not the place to go for accurate history:). So instead I'm going with Istanbul (Constantinople). The political backdrop would be the Ottoman Empire. So much can be done with that and there's even a lot more city possibilities so it would not only have to be Istanbul. It makes sense to me that the Assassins group would remain more to the East since they originate in the Middle East and the architecture possibilities (as we saw in ACI) are fantastic and endless for the free running. I'd also like Ubisoft to take another crack at getting the hero right. It's nice that Desmond Miles isn't all WASPy looking and it's great that Ezio appears to be from his time period. Altair, on the other hand, was a major visual/audio fail in ACI. Of course, he had the awesome outfit but he didn't look and sound as he should have to be from where he was from (Prince of Persia fail anyone????).

So we're at the point that comes in almost every game that bores me. It's the part between the set-up and the finale when you get to go round doing quests, collecting crap and every once in a while performing a mission. As that is the case I'm going to leave comments regarding that stuff more to Jeff since it's his area of expertise. For my part, I'm going to focus on the lighter side of the game. Our villa kicks all kinds of ass! We've done all the improvements and it's making florins like we've got money trees stashed in the corner. I love the routine: arrive home, check the books that Sis is keeping and collect money, go talk to your architect and look at the villa model and pick improvements. Huzzah! But you know what's the icing on the cake? The art gallery! We've got a fantabulous gallery! All the regions that Ezio explores (kills in) are full of art merchants and you can buy all the paintings and they hang in the gallery at his villa. It's super sweet and they're real paintings. I've actually seen some of them in person when traveling so it's really cool to see them appear in the gallery.

Another freaking awesome cosmetic feature of the game is Carnival. Ezio is in Venice during Carnival (what we from Louisiana call Mardi Gras) and it's a party in the street. Everyone is in costume and there are tons of celebrations and even fire breathers! It's super sweet. Conveniently, Ezio can avoid notoriety by donning a mask. He's still in his uber-awesome, uber-conspicuous outfit (totally tripped out with weapons) but one tiny mask that you can hardly see under his hood makes everyone mistake him for someone else. Mind you, this is the same guy that, in that outfit, spent the first 10 hours of the game shouting, "I am Ezio Auditore!" after every kill. Ah well, most people at Carnival are drunk anyway so maybe that explains it.

And now let's send out some questions for the gamer. Jeff, what do you think about the high-brow puzzles, artwork, artifacts, and that you're best buds with DaVinci? What did you think about the flying machine? Interesting or useless addition to the game mechanics/missions? Also, do you think the missions are too easy? What do you think of my Rosa comments? And finally, what is your favorite cosmetic aspect of the game?


Before I get into my response, I just want to say that (1) Rachel's comments about a stronger villain are spot-on and (2) I'd definitely play a third game if it was set in Turkey.

Regarding the high brow puzzles, allow me to explain how this works. Hidden on historical landmarks throughout the city, you can find glyphs. These glyphs represent gateways to hidden information embedded in the Animus. A prior subject (pre-Desmond Miles) found some secrets and left a trail of breadcrumbs for you to follow, knowing that only an assassin (not a Templar) would be able to unravel the mystery. Then he went insane. Actually, considering the state he's in as he talks to you in these hidden memories, I'd say it was an ongoing process.

Anyway, you find the glyphs, you solve a little "mental challenge", and then you get a piece of video that shows the secret. Is it effective? Well, finding the glyphs means crawling around on famous architecture like a monkey, which is pretty much the best part of AC, so that's good. The mental challenges? They're sort of all over the map. Sometimes they show you a bunch of famous pieces of art and then want you to pick the ones that have a common feature. That's pretty cool. But other times they want you to click on a specific spot, maybe while a little beeping noise is playing "Hot and Cold" with you. That's not so great. Finally, the videos. They're REALLY short, like a second each at the most. The idea is that eventually they'll stitch together into something amazing and provocative, I guess. Since I haven't finished them, I couldn't say yet. Just know that there's 20 of them, which seems like a lot of repetition. I could have done with around six of these or so. Once you hit 20, the payoff better be great to go to that much trouble.

DaVinci is cool, but he's mostly just there. He's the smart science/math guy. Like in one of those ensemble cast caper movies where there's the smooth talker, the guy who's good with disguises, the big strong guy, etc. And there's always a guy who's good with computers and can hack anything in seconds or decode encrypted messages. That's DaVinci. I don't think they go into any strong characterization there.

The flying machine is a nice little set piece, but ultimately it's there and gone pretty quickly. You never see it again. The best I can say is that I thought the controls were going to be annoying to learn, but I completed that sequence on my third try, so that's not too bad.

Too easy? Well, in the first one every mission concluded with a giant clusterfuck...sort of a mosh pit populated by Altair and 20 or so guards that you needed to kill one by one. Which sucked, both because it was dull and it wasn't much like being an assassin. With this one, you can get away a lot easier after performing an assassination. In one mission, I took out an evil-doer on a boat surrounded by a horde of soldiers. Then I just hopped into the canal (this was in Venice) and swam to freedom. Apparently nobody thought to station some of those guards near the water. "Stop him...he's SLOWLY swimming away!" I have more lengthy thoughts on the game's difficulty, but I'll save that for another post.

Rosa is great...they really did a good job of creating some romantic tension there. Best cosmetic aspect? Definitely the villa (including the art) which Rachel already outlined. I also like the armor upgrades, though some of them look a little odd paired with Ezio's robes. And I like the fact that you can get historical information about people and places as you explore the game. It lends a sense of context to the proceedings.

This is where I ask some questions back at Rachel, but I think I'll just decline and cede the floor to my cohort. Then I'll flee the premises as quickly as possible to avoid getting caught in the cross-fire. Rachel, do you have any thoughts you'd like to share about our last play session? ;)

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Guitar Hero: Aerosmith

Coming off a near week long rant about Infinite Undiscovery, it feels like I should switch to talking about a game I liked. Sadly, that isn't going to be the case today. A while back I rented Guitar Hero: Aerosmith and never got a chance to submit my two cents about it. I guess now's the time.

But first, a short history lesson. After Guitar Hero 1 and 2 took the world by storm, the publishers and developers parted ways, supposedly over creative differences about where the series was headed. Harmonix left to make Rock Band, while Red Octane was brought in to make Guitar Hero 3. I played them both and they each have some things to offer - Rock Band is more of a party game with the singing and drumming, while GH3 is for the intense (plastic) guitar enthusiast who wants to develop his or her skills. For whatever reason, Rock Band was pretty much the big winner in the battle for music/rhythm game supremacy, so Red Octane scrambled to make Guitar Hero 4, a carbon copy of Rock Band. In the meantime though, they pumped out a couple "band specific" GH games to make some dough.

That brings us to the BIG problem with GH: Aerosmith - it feels like a cheap cash-in. Understand that it's a full price retail game, so anyone buying it should reasonably expect to get the same value as other retail titles. Further, GH3 (like Rock Band) allows users to purchase new songs online, thus adding to their experience. Thus if Red Octane wanted to give fans some Aerosmith songs to play in GH, there was no need to make a specific game for the band. Just put the songs online and let people who enjoy the band download them for a fee.

I can only think of two legitimate reasons for this game to get made:
1. It introduces new game mechanics above and beyond GH3, making it a new experience and worthy of full price.
2. It's meant to cater to Aerosmith fans, and is therefore the ULTIMATE Aerosmith experience.

Reason #1 flies out the window in a matter of seconds. Remember that Red Octane was scrambling to catch up to Harmonix's title even as they were busy claiming that the fans preferred their game. (It was a little like if Pepsi spent half their budget making commercials claiming that cola drinkers preferred their flavor to Coke, and the other half sending spies to steal the Coke formula so they could copy it.) These guys didn't have time to make new game mechanics for GH: Aerosmith, and it's obvious from the menu screen.

In fact, said menu screen looks suspiciously identical to the one in GH3. As does the career mode ladder, the loading screens, the song selection screen, the online menus, and, of course, the game itself. In fact, the tutorial is 100% identical to GH3. Anyone hoping to pick up some tips from Joe Perry is going to be disappointed!

The bottom line is that there are no innovations in GH:A. It's the same game as GH3, reskinned with some Aerosmith fan service. Which brings me to reason #2 - is it the ULTIMATE Aerosmith experience?

Well, there are 41 songs in total. Not great, but not terrible. If you downloaded 41 songs, it would cost about the same as a new game, plus you wouldn't get a case, disc, manual, etc. (Of course, then your songs would all be associated with one game so you wouldn't have to switch discs to match various people's tastes.) Admittedly, 41 songs is a lot of Aerosmith...BUT WAIT! Actually, only 25 of those songs are by Aerosmith, including two versions of "Walk This Way" (one with and one without Run D.M.C.). There's also four songs from Joe Perry's solo career, and 12 songs from bands that...Aerosmith really likes? I couldn't really tell. If it's Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, then why am I playing "Cat Scratch Fever" by Ted Nugent? Rock Band fans should also note that some of the songs have already been available for download in that game (for example, "Hard to Handle" by the Black Crowes) so there's a good chance you already own a couple of these.

And what about the song selections? Well, there's "Dream On". "Sweet Emotion". "Love in an Elevator". "Rag Doll" is pretty good. But there's a lot of chaff to go with the wheat here. "Kings and Queens" was a commercial flop, for example. Are there a bunch of fans of "Combination" and "Rats in the Cellar" out there? I didn't realize. And what about the songs that are missing? Aerosmith had 21 songs make the Billboard top 40. Now, musical taste is highly subjective, but if you're making the ULTIMATE Aerosmith experience, then they should all be on there, right? After all you're paying full price for a disc that's supposed to focus on just one band...their most popular stuff has to be on there! Well, of those 21 hit singles, only 8 are present while a whopping 13 (!!!) are MIA. So this game is supposed to be a tribute to Aerosmith and their fans, but it's missing over HALF of their greatest hits???

Again, musical preference is subjective. Maybe someone at Red Octane hated the movie Armageddon and didn't want "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing" on there. So be it. And "Come Together" is a cover of a Beatles song, so the rights were probably tricky on that one. But no "Angel"? "Amazing"? For cripe's sake, no "Janie's Got a Gun"??? Some of these seem like no brainers to me.

As far as positives go, the developers spent some time motion-capturing the band and it shows in their on screen animations as you play (not that you'll notice since you'll be busy focusing on the notes). For better or worse, the onscreen avatars look eerily similar to the real Steven Tyler et al. And there are little interview blurbs between tiers in the career mode, though they appear to be stitched together from existing material.

So I guess if you consider yourself a hardcore Aerosmith fan (so hardcore that you obsessively followed Joe Perry's solo career, which puts you in rare company) and you don't already own GH3, then Guitar Hero: Aerosmith represents pretty solid value for you. For the other 99% of us, sticking with broader musical titles is probably the way to go.