Wednesday, April 28, 2010

WAA - Worms

Let's hit the Arcade for a classic game much deserving of some WAA...Worms! For those who don't know, it's a turn based 2d battle game in which teams of worms use crazy weapons and witty comments in an attempt to eliminate each other. While single player is an available option, Worms really shines as a party game with multiple players.

The "One With Combat"Award: “Barrel Buster”
You get this for exploding 25 barrels, which will happen after a few games whether you’re trying for it or not.

The "Mile High Club" Award: “Challenges”
For this one, you need to complete all 20 single player challenges. As you get deeper into the list, you’ll find that enemies have uncanny aim (because the AI cheats). Don’t be afraid to hide your worms until the match goes into sudden death, where your (hopefully) superior strategy will negate the computer’s advantage.

The "Seriously..." Award: "Gold Damage"
Awarded for doing 20,000 points of damage (cumulatively) to your enemies. Games go pretty quickly, but it will take a while to rack up that hurt on rival worms.

The "Little Rocket Man" Award: "Three Bagger"
Kill three worms with one shot, which sounds difficult but happens more often than you’d think thanks to the crazy chain reactions that often get triggered.

The Scientist Gone Gamer Award: "Shepherd"
My flock of invincible exploding sheep will be grazing…ON YOUR GRAVE!

Achievement Set Rating - 6
The icons are well crafted, accurately capturing the spirit and artistic style of the game. However, the actual requirements for earning the various Achievements are a bit repetitive and could have used a bit more imagination. Points to the developers for only making one single player Achievement as this game is far better multiplayer.

Achievement Difficulty Rating - 2
Beating the single player challenges can be a bit hairy at the highest levels, but for the most part this is a pretty easy set and everything will come with a little time invested.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Borderlands - Review

This one has been a long time coming. I've been playing through Borderlands with a couple friends on a (mostly) once-a-week schedule. Last week we finally finished the game, so now it's review time. I've also played a little single player to try out each character class and get a sense for how the game feels without buddies backing you up all the time.

Borderlands is a sort of FPS/RPG hybrid. I guess one could say the same of Fallout 3, though that title resided more on the RPG end of the continuum while Borderlands is closer to an FPS. However, I don't think it would be right to compare Borderlands to Fallout 3, as it reminded me more of an FPS version of Diablo. In other words, it's less about story and character interaction, and more about slaughtering hoards of baddies to collect ever improving loot (largely in the form of guns).

In fact, progression in the game is almost exclusively driven by weapons. Defeated enemies drop weapons. You find weapons in chests and crates throughout the environment. Completing missions often yields weapons as a reward. It's certainly the case that gaining experience and leveling up through defeating enemies and finishing missions will improve your character. But the bottom line is that finding a powerful gun relative to your current level is easily the most important way to get a leg up in Borderlands. Finding a really powerful weapon that matches your chosen class is an enormous advantage.

There are four classes available in Borderlands: a frontline tank character, a sneaky backstabber, a sniper, and an all around weapons expert that doubles as the primary healer. Each class has its own skill tree, weapon preferences, and special abilities to use, but the four seemed well balanced to me. It's interesting to note though that the classes don't feel nearly as unique when you play the game single player. As an example, building up a great backstabbing character is of limited use when you don't have any teammates to distract the enemies. If you'll be playing by yourself, you'll need to build a more balanced character who can handle close-combat with a lot of enemies in your face. Otherwise, certain sections of the game can be quite difficult.

That's why I recommend Borderlands for people who prefer a multiplayer experience. Played with friends, the game offers a number of team strategies to exploit, and the various classes work together brilliantly. Our team had a tank to distract enemies and absorb damage, a weapons specialist to deal damage and heal the tank, and a sniper to rack up kills from a distance. We struggled a bit early while learning our various roles, but once we had mastered the various available strategies, the rest of the game was comparatively quite easy.

As for the other aspects of the game, plot is not a strong point. It basically boils down to a group of treasure hunters who have come to a wasteland world that may or may not house "The Vault", a secret cache of...something? The intro is intentionally vague and little information is given as you progress about the contents of this vault. I guess we just have to trust the game that there's good stuff to be had. Most of the quests are given through text boxes rather than spoken by the characters. On the other hand, I liked the "wild west on an alien world" feel of Borderlands, with quirky (sometimes batshit insane) NPC's that talk like extras from an episode of "Dukes of Hazzard". It was unique, rather than feeling like every other FPS set on an alien planet.

Of course, what would one of my reviews be without some griping? I felt like the interface for comparing weapons could have been a lot more clear. Every gun has a ridiculous number of statistics to consider, some of which are labeled in your inventory screen and others that aren't. How many bullets does it hold? What's the reload speed? Regular damage? Critical damage? Does it do elemental damage on the side? How much? Does it have a scope so you can zoom in while sniping? Sometimes the game would act like I just found a great weapon, yet it would be unclear to me why it was any better than the normal one I was already carrying.

For all the different guns available in Borderlands, the number of enemies to use them on is shockingly limited. The same enemy types repeat again and again, which can certainly get dull after a while. There's also the option to drive a car so you can get around the map faster, but the driving mechanics are pretty poor. Essentially you have to accelerate/reverse with the left stick while steering the car AND camera with the right stick (and possibly fire weapons with the triggers), which is an unwieldy system to say the least. On top of that, the car seems to snag on nearly invisible environmental objects and, in many cases, feels like it's practically weightless. It should be noted though that one of my friends adapted to the driving controls pretty quickly, so it's possible that I'm just being petty here. My biggest complaint by far is that Borderlands has a really crappy ending...I won't spoil it but I'll simply say that after working our asses off to find the Vault, my friends and I were pretty underwhelmed by the ultimate payoff for our efforts.

Minor annoyances aside, I absolutely recommend Borderlands. It's got enough action to satisfy the twitch game fans and enough statistical min/maxing and questing to satisfy RPG types. If possible, try to recruit some friends so you can enjoy the game the way it was meant to be played. Either way, give it a try...maybe I'll see YOU in the Borderlands!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

WAA - Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

Another Wednesday, another set of awards. This week's game is Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, which will pair nicely with my review from Monday.

The "One With Combat"Award: "Portrait Novice"
This one comes as the story progresses, and it's nearly impossible to miss. Just use a portrait shortcut once to get this award.

The "Mile High Club" Award: "Master of Flying"
The Achievement that focused and intensified my hatred of Quidditch. The basic idea is that you maneuver Harry around the screen on his broom (a little like a flight simulator) and go through gates shaped like stars. At the end you catch the snitch and receive a grade based on how many gates you hit along the way. For this Achievement, you need to finish all eight Quidditch events with a grade of five stars, which requires near perfect flying throughout. That is, no missed gates, as well as hitting most of the gates in the dead center. Unless you're a Quidditch natural, expect to repeat these a few times until you've memorized each course.

The "Seriously..." Award: "Crest Collector 14"
Segueing nicely from one thing I hate (Quidditch) to another thing I hate (widget collecting), this Achievement tasks you with finding every hidden crest in the game. There are 150, so this will take a while. The grind of this Achievement is somewhat mitigated by two facts: (1) there are many crest collecting Achievements along the way, so you don't have to get them all for just one award, and (2) finding crests does make your character stronger and unlock bonus content, so it isn't quite the busywork that some widget collecting Achievements become.

The "Little Rocket Man" Award: "Reflex Badge"
This one goes to the player who can complete a duel without getting hit once. Either go defensive by dodging and using Protego to reflect spells back at your opponent, or press the offense to keep them from getting off a shot.

The Scientist Gone Gamer Award: "Escaped the Cave"
Why do the enemies in the finale look like Gollum?

Achievement Set Rating - 5
This set pretty much defines average. It covers all the activities in the game (good) without really giving any additional challenges (bad). The icons are a mixed bag of character shots (good) and low-res clip art (bad). There are too many collection Achievements (bad), but they do unlock game content and improve your character (good). I guess middle of the road will have to do.

Achievement Difficulty Rating - 4
Getting into the 850-900 range is a piece of cake, but finishing the set is surprisingly challenging. Putting up a five star score for all the potion mixing and Quidditch B.S. takes some practice and skill, while finding every crest is a tedious affair.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Dante's Inferno - Review

Dante's Inferno is one of the more polarizing games to be released lately. Some people have praised its art direction and willingness to meld gameplay with larger philosophical ideas. Others have derided it as a shameless God of War ripoff. Still others have condemned it as another example of the depravity of the gaming industry.

I'm not sure I embody any of those specific positions, but I can certainly give my impressions of the game. As we proceed, it's important to note that I never played God of War, so if you fall into the camp that dismisses Dante's Inferno for being a knock-off, you probably won't find this review very satisfying. Feel free to scream "God of War did it first!" after every sentence in which I praise the game if it will make you feel better.

DI's story loosely follows that of the Divine Comedy, an epic poem written in the 14th century about Dante's tour through Hell, Purgatory, and eventually Heaven. Like most classic works of literature, there's a lot of disagreement about the underlying themes, but most people seem to agree that much of the poem is a metaphor about how humans come to God over the course of their lifetimes, and there seems to be more than a little commentary on the prevailing organized religion of the time.

I didn't read the Divine Comedy, but I found the plot of the game to be reasonably entertaining. Dante returns from the Crusades (where he's been a bit of a naughty boy) to discover that his beloved Beatrice has been killed and (due to Dante's transgressions) has been claimed by the Devil. Unwilling to accept that Beatrice is lost to the darkness for his own failings, Dante chases after the Devil right into Hell itself in an attempt to save her. What follows is Dante kicking demonic ass through the many layers of Hell, occasionally punctuated with shameful memories of his misdeeds.

Man saves his one true love from an unstoppable evil force? Sounds like the plot to Donkey Kong to me. But for a game that seems to revel in violence to an almost disturbing degree, the plot manages to hit some surprisingly subtle and nuanced moments. I won't ruin any of them, but know that Dante's past choices have had great effects on the lives of those around him, and the game reveals over time how those decisions have led to his current trials.

The level design and presentation of DI go hand in hand with the strong story. Each layer of Hell is represented very differently, be it the rivers of gold running through Greed to the fiery lava of Anger. I've mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: this game is NOT for the faint of heart. It is not remotely bashful about depicting human suffering in the afterlife, and this is OLD TESTAMENT style stuff.

My only complaint concerning the story/presentation of DI is that I thought they started running out of ideas about two thirds of the way through the game. Or another possibility is that they were rushing to wrap things up, as it felt like some of the characters towards the end weren't receiving as much attention to their back stories and ultimate fates as ones in the early going. It doesn't bother me that the game is somewhat short (around 10 hours), but it does bother me a bit that it couldn't maintain its pace throughout.

Gameplay is solid and becomes pretty intuitive over time. Dante swings his scythe around using either quick or power attacks and shoots holy power out of his cross. There's some magic to fling about, a rage meter to unleash extra damage for a short time, and an upgrade tree that unlocks new combos and perks over time. It's a fairly deep combat system, especially given that the game isn't so long that you'll have exhausted it when you're done. Indeed, I still had a number of abilities yet to unlock by the time I had finished.

The game also features some very mild platforming, though nothing too terribly difficult. There's a smattering of puzzles, which are pretty much the same old block pushing busywork we've seen in a million other games. I wish that whole gaming chestnut would get retired. The larger issue is the difficulty curve - the first boss battle comes very early in DI and it's really difficult (to the point that I worried the game would be insanely hard), but in general the difficulty at the beginning was exactly the same as the difficulty at the end. There's a couple moments (a jumping puzzle here or a boss battle there) where I had to redo a short section (checkpoints come often - a big plus in favor of the game) but once you've figured out the controls, the game never got any more challenging.

Granted, DI is more story based and I didn't really want it to kill me off over and over. It just would have been nice if the early battles had been a bit easier and the late battles a little tougher so my skills could have developed a little more naturally. In any case, I enjoyed Dante's Inferno quite a bit and would recommend it to anyone who likes both hack-and-slash style games and plots with some interesting points to make. If they make a sequel (Dante chillin' in Purgatory?), I'll definitely give it a shot.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince - Review

First come the books, then come the movies, and then, as inevitably as the tides, come the games. I would have guessed that the whole Harry Potter fad was largely over at this point, but the release of a new movie every other year seems to stir the pot anew.

Half Blood Prince is the second book/movie of the series to get the 360 treatment. I played the previous entry (Order of the Phoenix) and it was a surprisingly decent game (my expectations are always low for licensed titles). That game focused on exploring the school grounds and solving various problems with a little right thumb stick aided magic. It wasn't overly deep and the replay value was essentially nil, but there was enough variety to carry a 10-15 hour adventure game (especially for Harry Potter fans).

This new entry has improved on the previous one in a few ways. Graphically, HBP is sharper and more detailed than OOTP, while the character models have been significantly improved. The school itself looks largely the same, but navigation is a bit easier this time around thanks to a new option to let Nearly Headless Nick guide you to your next objective. The biggest improvement is in the dueling mechanics, in which the slow, labored pace of the previous game is replaced by fast-paced battles with a control scheme that favors rapid spells and counters.

That's good, because dueling is a REALLY common activity in this game. Hogwarts students apparently live more dangerous and troubled lives than kids who attend inner-city high schools, as even the most trivial of disagreements seem to erupt into magical violence. Given the number of fellow students I left crumpled in the dirt on school grounds, it's a wonder I didn't get poor Harry expelled.

So yes, dueling comes up a lot in this game. In fact, the entire experience is built on the three-legged platform of dueling, potion making, and Quidditch. That's pretty much the whole game, so your opinion of the game will be directly related to how much you enjoy those activities. As I previously noted, dueling is great. Potion making involves using the left stick to select ingredients from a table and the right stick to mix them in a cauldron. It can be a surprisingly tricky activity, as many of the potions require a lot of manipulations and the time constraints can be very tight. But the biggest issue is that it's a pretty repetitive activity...once you get the gist of it (which won't take long), it will feel pretty much like doing the same thing over and over.

But by far the worst activity is Quidditch or, as I refer to it, "The Dumbest Game Ever Invented". Sorry, but I have to wander off on a tangent here: has J.K. Rowling ever played or watched a sport before? Imagine watching a great basketball game. LeBron James is on one side and Kobe Bryant is on the other. They're trading baskets, their teammates are playing well, and everyone is on the edge of their seat as they wonder who will prevail. Then suddenly the water boy stumbles across a golden ticket under one of the seats, shows it to the ref, and the game instantly ends with his team the winner. Everything that happened before that? The previous points, the effort, the duel between superstars? Meaningless. They might as well have sat on their asses doing nothing while the waterboys were scouring for the ticket. Wouldn't you think that was a dumb way to decide...ANYTHING? Well, that's how Quidditch works - it's a bunch of people playing one sport (pointlessly) while a couple other people do something totally different that overrides everything else going on.

Without this "Golden Snitch" business, Quidditch is essentially hocky/rugby while flying on brooms, which is pretty sweet. And you'd think that would make for a fun video game. But no, you get to be Harry Potter (it's his game after all) chasing after the snitch while piloting your broom through checkpoints. It's excruciatingly dull, made even worse by the fact that while you go through the motions of chasing the stupid snitch YOU CAN HEAR THE DAMN GAME GOING ON AROUND YOU! Man, that sounds exciting...I wish I could be a part of that instead of flying through these stupid stars. And hey guys, why are you bothering with all the "get the ball through the hoop" bullshit since I'm just going to catch this snitch at the end and win the match single-handedly? The game makes a big deal about picking your Quidditch team and developing Ron into a solid goalkeeper, but what difference does it make?

So ultimately, we've got a three part game with one good part, one mediocre part, and one part involving shitty Quidditch. Added up, I was left disappointed. Half Blood Prince is not a bad game by any stretch, but it isn't terribly compelling and it definitely lacks the charm of the previous title. Ah well, maybe they'll do better when Deathly Hallows comes out...

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

WAA - Catan

We're headed back to the Xbox Live Arcade for another edition of WAA! This week's awards go to Catan, based on the much beloved board game "Settlers of Catan". If you like board games or strategy games, definitely give this one a look!

Anyway, on to the awards!

The "One With Combat"Award: "Settler of Catan"
This Achievement is earned for building your first settlement, which you’ll do in your very first game.

The "Mile High Club" Award: "Professor of Catan"
To get this one, you need to win a single player game of Catan against three cpu opponents set to "Hard" difficulty. The reason this Achievement is tough is that the computer blatantly cheats at the hard setting, trading resources freely among the other three players so that one will win. You'll need a solid strategy and a bit of luck to get this award, and don't expect any trading help from your opponents!

The "Seriously..." Award: "Chancellor of Catan"
You need 1000 total victory points in ranked online matches. If you win every game you play (unlikely), you'll get around 10 points per match. That's 100 games even if you're very skilled and lucky, which seems like a lot of Catan to play against random strangers.

The "Little Rocket Man" Award: "Builder of Catan"
Finish with the longest road 10 times to earn this Achievement. Building crazy roads is one of my favorite parts of the game.

The Scientist Gone Gamer Award: "Merchant of Catan"
None of them really stand out, but this is one of those bags with a dollar sign on it. Every time I’m asked how I want to receive my money (like at a bank or casino), I ask for the dollar sign bag. I’m serious. Never once have they given it to me. The dream lives on…

Achievement Set Rating - 4
The icons are okay for an Arcade game, but the requirements are surprisingly unimaginative. Throw in some fairly ridiculous online requirements and this is a below average set.

Achievement Difficulty Rating - 3
Very few of the Achievements are challenging, but many are time consuming. To finish the set, you'll be plowing through online games for quite a while.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

WAA - Disney's UP

Continuing on yesterday's theme, let's give some WAA to Disney's UP, an easy (and crappy) platformer designed ostensibly for kids.

Bear in mind as we go here that ALL the Achievements are super easy (as is the entire game), so picking the "most difficult" is a highly relative exercise.

The "One With Combat"Award: "Beginner's Wings"
If you have two working thumbs and any semblance of reading comprehension, this award can be yours. When the menu loads at the beginning of the game, simply choose "Multiplayer". That's don't even have to PLAY any multiplayer to get this Achievement.

The "Mile High Club" Award: "Ellie Badge"
For this Achievement, you have to complete all the "Quest Cards" by finding poorly hidden objects and capturing bugs with your insect net. The only reason this is even remotely difficult is that some of the bugs are easy to miss, though you can always go back and replay levels to find them.

The "Seriously..." Award: "Merit Badge Champion"
Collect a mere 6000 merit badges and this one is yours. It's not as bad as it really just need to pummel every breakable object you see and you'll get them all eventually. Again, replaying levels will help here.

The "Little Rocket Man" Award: "Sinkhole Terror"
Without getting into a lot of spoilers, the game does have a couple interesting boss fights that break up the monotony of the rest of your adventure. Beating the boss on level 8 yields this award.

The Scientist Gone Gamer Award: "Rare Statue Badge"
I concede that this is the one cool idea they had for this game. All the icons are little merit badges (since one of the main characters is supposed to be some kind of Cub Scout or something). The developers did a good job of combining the icons with the theme, and the pictures are varied with sufficient detail.

Achievement Set Rating - 2
Play through the game and find all the secret crap we hid throughout the tiny levels. If you're looking for anything imaginative, look elsewhere. But they saved themselves from a 1 rating thanks to the clever use of merit badge icons.

Achievement Difficulty Rating - 1
I can't emphasize enough how easy this game is. Thanks to the ability to replay any level, you don't even have to worry about missing hidden objects. This is five hours of mostly tedious platforming for a simple 1000 points.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Time for some mini-reviews!

My gaming pattern is a bit like a dinner table set for a big meal. I have one or two long-term titles that I'm working through to serve as the main dishes. But I also usually have a few side dishes to munch on as well, represented by shorter retail games or Live Arcade titles. I rarely give these "side dishes" as much mention on the blog, because they come and go pretty quickly (sometimes just in the span of a weekend). Still, it's probably worthwhile to mention some of the smaller games I've played through just so people can get a feel for what's out there.

In that spirit, here are three retail games that I've knocked out in the last couple weeks. I'll have more to say about the main courses (Dante's Inferno and Viking: Battle for Asgard) soon.

Disney's Up
Yes, this game is based on the Pixar film of the same title. I didn't see the movie, but I gathered most of the (very basic) plot from the game. Let's just say that I wasn't exactly inspired to rush out and get my hands on a copy of the DVD. Anyway, Up is a pretty crappy game for all the typical reasons that movie licensed games usually fail.

First of all, it's based on a movie with a lot more spectacle than action, so the designers didn't have a lot on which to base the gameplay. Think of it like this: if you're making a game based on the next Terminator movie, then even if the film stinks the game could be great because they can just make it about blasting Terminators. On the flip side, Shawshank Redemption might be a great movie but there isn't enough action to carry a video game.

So what you get with Up is an uninspired and highly repetitive platformer with very little action. Plus it's crazy short. And they use the whole "aimed at kids" excuse to make it stupidly easy. This one is not even worth a rental, unless you're in it for the easy Achievement points.

LOST: Via Domus
From one crappy licensed game to another, this title is based on the inexplicably popular Lost franchise. I'm not a fan of the show...four episodes was sufficient to recognize that it's one of those programs where the writers think "throw a bunch of random shit into the script and then let the fans guess what it all means" is the moral equivalent of being clever.

And no surprises, the game is basically the same thing. You play as a crash survivor who has amnesia (what a fresh, original concept) and must piece together his own backstory as he tries to cope with challenges on the island. Along the way you'll get to interact with all your favorite characters, including Kate, Hurley, Locke, and Jack (don't forget to remind him that HE HAS CANCER).

Again, this is a show that's about character-driven tension (and random shit), not really about action. Thus, the game is mostly a lot of walking around the island taking pictures of stuff from the show. And be thankful that's the case, because the few action sequences are hideously designed so that they represent more of a chore than actual gameplay. Special mention goes to the section where the stupid smoke monster is stalking you through the woods so you have to jump into bamboo patches every few steps. Man did I enjoy that. But you know what's even better? Unskippable cutscenes that I have to watch over and over every damn time the game decides it'd be fun to insta-kill me.

Fortunately, Lost is mercifully short (well under 5 hours) and there's not one bit of replay value so you can have it in and out of your gaming rotation in a lazy afternoon.

Blitz: The League

Okay, I'm starting to realize why I never mention these side dish games - more often than not, they're awful. Blitz isn't a licensed game, but that doesn't stop it from being the worst of the trio. The basic premise is that Blitz is supposed to represent the seedy underbelly of professional football. It's like The Replacements mixed with Any Given Sunday, then directed by Quentin Tarantino. Players engage in brutal dirty hits, the cheerleaders look like strippers, and steroid use isn't just allowed but encouraged. Note in the picture that the trainer is so unperturbed about his "treatment" methods that he doesn't even mind being filmed for the Jumbotron in front of a packed stadium. Sheesh...

Now, I'm no prude, and I think that done properly the game could have been a lot of fun. You know, some tongue-in-cheek humor mixed with a hard-hitting football engine...that could have worked. But Blitz is a turd, plain and simple. The football engine is just terrible, the AI is completely brain dead, and the whole production is riddled with bugs and glitches. On top of that, the attempts at humor are so juvenile, I can't imagine anyone over the age of 14 enjoying this stuff. Frankly, it's repellent.

There are a number of football games available on the 360...Blitz is not worth a moment of anyone's time. That includes the Achievement fans out there, because it's even pretty brutal in that regard.

Ouch, that was painful. Hopefully I'll have some better games to mention for the next batch of mini-reviews!

Monday, April 5, 2010

More thoughts on game difficulty

Last time I talked about different genres of games and how the style of game relates to how challenging it should be. However, one point I left out is about what's often referred to as the "difficulty curve". The idea is that if you could make a graph with how far you've progressed in the game on the X-axis and the game's relative difficulty on the Y-axis, then ideally you should get a smooth line that starts low and ends high. Thus, the game starts off pretty easy and gets difficult at the end when you've developed your skills.

Unfortunately, a lot of games that would otherwise be pretty enjoyable are hurt by failing to follow the proper difficulty curve. One example I've recently run into is Top Spin 2, a tennis game for the Xbox 360. Top Spin 2 has a fairly robust career mode in which you create a player, assign points to various attributes to customize your playing style, train via mini-games, and select which tournaments you want to compete in during the year. It's a fun system that does a great job of hiding the fact that you're playing a glorified game of Pong.

But while the setup is well executed, I've run into a big problem. I was working through the career mode with a great deal of success, staying away from the big tournaments and focusing on training and lower-tier events to build my abilities and bankroll. Things were proceeding very fledgling player had placed first in a few minor tournaments and it felt like I was getting the hang of the game. Then the computer offered me a special event, in which you play against your rival (assigned by the computer) for a big purse and a boost to your abilities. Since I was progressing nicely, I decided to accept the challenge.

However, the match didn't exactly go as planned. Much like Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, my rival apparently didn't understand that it was supposed to be an exhibition. Not only did I lose, but the computer mopped the virtual court with me. Seriously, I could hardly win a point. After retrying the match several times, I was stumped. I started to think that maybe it was scripted so that you were destined to lose this match, but a quick internet search made it clear that, in fact, winning this challenge was the key to proceeding in the game.

What really struck me was the number of angry posts about Top Spin 2, with titles like "I hate this stupid game" and "*@#$ cheating rival...". Apparently everyone runs into this match and has the same trouble I'm having. Some struggle through, eventually succeed, and go on to beat the game. Others get frustrated and quit. But here's the thing - this could all be avoided if the designers had used their brains and not laid down a challenge vastly beyond what I had faced previously. A bump in difficulty was to be expected, but going from me kicking butt on the court to not being able to win more than a handful of points in an entire match feels arbitrary and unfair. That's not a difficulty curve, it's a difficulty BRICK WALL!

It's amazing how a nice gradual difficulty curve that eases players into a game (think Rock Band) will often greatly improve their opinion of it. Conversely, Top Spin 2 got a lot of very negative feedback despite the fact that, difficulty screw-ups aside, it's a pretty solid tennis title. Developers would be wise to learn a lesson here and give careful consideration to the right way (and WRONG ways) to challenge a player.