Category Archives: games

What’s happening?

Work is keeping me fairly busy (preparing for a conference in Toulouse), and not that much terribly exciting has happened. I (un-)am patiently waiting for my Mac Pro (having chosen a decent 3D card as well as 802.11 has moved the ETA to mid-September), Rhythm Tengoku (Rhythm Heaven) is great (I am still looking for the song from the festival-stage), and Chromehounds is regularly taking up my evenings.

This game has gotten very unfair reviews, founded on its mediocre single-player mode, but the squad-based persistent online war redeems it (although there still are a number of annoying bugs left to be ironed out by the upcoming patch). The way in which it encourages teamplay is cleverly designed, and it is the main reason I play. There is nothing else like it. If your are looking for a twitch-shooter, stick to Halo 2, but if you’re lusting for something more strategic and substantial (with endless options for building your own mech), this might be for you. Some comments from Penny Arcade might help explain what makes this game good. 🙂

Black (Xbox)

I’ve been playing (and finishing ;)) Black on my Xbox 360, as it is one (if not the only one) of the more recent Xbox games that are backwards-compatible. Technically, it is a very good showcase of what is possible on the Xbox / PS2 (as we are used to from Criterion), although there still are some glitches in the emulator (hanging, black overlay on the screen so can’t see anything (which goes away while you open the guide, incidentally)).

The game plays differently enough to other first person shooters (focus on headshots, nearly every enemy has some form of body armor, blowing stuff up, taking cover, big “Matrix Lobby” shoot-outs), but there is not too much variety; but then the game is rather short (which I didn’t mind). The “story” / video sequences are useless and going back to these indiviual missions (which are set in the same region) after the cohesive single-player campaign of something like GRAW feels jarring.
I found it was quite challenging on Normal, you really have to move fairly slowly, going in guns blazing usually ended with me being dead. No infinitely respawning enemies is a plus, a big minus for reinforcements being teleported in according to the scripted progression, though.

Not worth full-price IMO, but if you find it used / discounted (I bought it for 20 quid from Amazon) and like blowing stuff up, it’s well worth it.

Phoenix Wright – Ace Attorney (Nintendo DS)

Phoenix Wright is a bit an odd title for Western gamers, but I sincerely hope that more niche titles like it make their way over here from Japan. It’s a strongly structured adventure (although some would argue it is not much more than a heavily scripted visual novel), but that is not to its detriment in my opinion.

In your role as defense attorney, you alternatingly look for clues / evidence, and then progress to the actual trial, where you cross-examine witnesses to uncover contradictions in their testimonies. While that may not sound like much, the contradictions become increasingly hard to find and the overall story (as in the crimes themselves with their motivations and their relation to each other) meshes all of that into an interesting narrative.

There are 5 cases altogether, 4 of which are ported from the Japanese GBA game, and a much longer 5th case, which was specifically written for the DS and uses many of the system’s features very well (touch-screen, microphone, 3D graphics). Overall, the game took me about 10-12h to complete, and I very much enjoyed finding clues and contradictions, although as mentioned before, the structure is very rigid and usually there is only one correct way of doing things.

Shadow of the Colossus

Last week, Shadow of the Colossus finally came out in Europe. It’s a PS2 game by the same team which did the excellent ICO, and it shows.

It also is very hard to talk about it objectively, as it is a very subjective experience, but definitely one that you should try (in addition to ICO), as the games seemingly take place in the same world.

Essentially, the game offers you 16 boss battles (and plenty of replay incentives after that). These are sometimes more, sometimes less frantic, but always distinct episodes, separated by calming travels through the gorgeous but largely barren landscapes (which are barren for a reason; also note this does not imply boring) presented entirely without load times.

Beautiful is not a big enough word to describe how the game looks, but it pays for its epic scale with a less than stellar (but never hindering) frame-rate. I’ve entered a cave, where a waterfall falls out from a shadowed ledge into the bright sunlight that’s entering the cave from above. Or the small touches, like the doves near the altar flying off and leaving feathers behind, sea-sawing slowly to the ground, or the beauty of the water, both being below the surface or simply seeing the blurry reflections.
The animation of the main character, his horse (which you really only have to nudge where you want him to go), and the colossi themselves are moving incredibly well, with a precision and connectedness to their environment (via inverse kinematics) that is rarely seen.
Hats off to the artists and directors (not to forget the programmers, who made it all possible on aging hardware); this game has evoked emotion and thought from me on a scale I find hard to believe.

The gameplay probably won’t be to everyone’s taste (best described as a mixture of action and puzzle game), but give it a chance to enchant you. Most highly recommended, both as a game and a story.

Xbox 360

The Xbox 360 has been out for a month (in the US at least), and of course I couldn’t resist picking one up here on the 2nd of December. I got the Premium Pack (the only sensible choice for people playing online) with Kameo, Project Gotham Racing 3 and Perfect Dark Zero.

The Console
Heavy bugger. Size is pretty much the same as the old Xbox (except that that had the power supply installed internally) but the pretty newfangled design makes it look much smaller. Power brick is big, but not huge (slightly bigger than my Mac Mini power brick).
Noise is about the same as my old 1.4 Xbox until you insert a game disc. Then it goes a bit mental. You don’t really notice when playing games, but when the music is off during the loading screen, it’s making a fair bit of ruckus.

Project Gotham 3
Good soundtrack (like a configurable car CD changer with different music styles to choose from). And it looks really nice in motion (the motion blur makes it feel really smooth) and the HDR / exposure is really great. No AA I could discern, and I looked pretty closely. Single player is standard PGR2 with a few new variations (time vs. kudos), which serves me well, but is a bit short overall.
Online is a blast (when driving with non-morons), but what really impressed me is that all of the tracks we were driving felt great, in contrast to PGR2 there seems to plenty of jumps / elevation changes (special mention to the parking garage in Tokyo and the ramp before the sharp right corner in London).
On the handling, it feels very similar to PGR2 to me. I think there’s a bit more sideways action going on, but overall rather similar. That said, I sold PGR2 together with my Xbox about 3 months ago, so I cannot really go back and check.

Best looking launch game from the 3 I’ve got. The first level and the overall attention to detail (character design and animation) is very nice. Yes, you can see they tried to make it colourful. Yes, they tried to cram every effect known to mankind in there (imagine the ICO shadows looking like the Shadow Trolls… O_o). Yes, the variation of some of the “puzzles” isn’t too great, i.e. instead of puzzles there is something which would be a part of the solution of a bigger puzzle (for example in Zelda).
But still, I think it’s a good game all the way through and some of the vistas presented during gameplay are most impressive. And it’s not too easy (having the hints turned off), some bosses (although there aren’t that many) are quite interesting to fight.

Perfect Dark Zero
Finished this on Secret Agent. Controls feel a bit odd, but workable. Most of the levels use specular lighting and metallic surfaces, even in the outdoor levels. It feels very different to Halo, though. What I really like is the feeling of presence of your character (your shadow, or simply the smoothness of animation when going from 1st to 3rd person). Graphics are good, but not as effects-in-your-face as the beginning of Kameo. Then you get from small tunnels and confined rooms, to a huge detailed hangar with 20-30 enemies, some allies, and a lot of spider bots attacking you, and you realize there’s a lot of power under the hood.
The single player campaign is more of a “high score run” arrangement of individual missions than what one traditionally expects in a campaign. The cut-scenes are fairly laughable as well, but the actual levels are quite distinct (ignoring the shinyness) and offer quite a bit of variation.
This also has a fairly large multiplayer offering, but so far I’ve only tried it once, and realized I don’t get on with jet packs at all…

Xbox Live
Ace. Check in-game, what message you got. Ask someone with a voice message to re-invite you. Voice-chat with someone else while playing.
The interface is well done, but a bit jarring at times: One of the metallic overlay blades pops in left, you make a selection, the blade moves out left and another the blade pops in right. Setting up the console felt like watching a tennis match!
Similarly, when the game is calling console internal Live functionality (like “View gamercard” for example), the look changes from whatever the game looks like to the metal blade overlay (or however you have configured it to look).
Overall, a big (!) step forward for Live, in particular the Market Place and Xbox Live Arcade is very well done (buy the excellent “Geometry Wars Evolved”!).
It is amazing, how different online gaming feels simply due to using the (great) wireless controller. For lack of a better term, you feel much more “free” to move around a bit, or sit slightly sideways (which is bad for you neck, though :().

A few backward compatibility remarks
The VGA cable only supports 60Hz. Ergo, only games that support PAL60 can possibly work. Halo 2 does. But not the included Xbox Live Update and Downloader program. So to play online, you need to connect the LoDef cable (well, anything BUT the VGA cable), hope you have a device to display it on, download the updates and maps, reconnect the VGA cable and you’re good to go. Until they decide to update it again… :'(
And everyone that is running 1280×1024 with he VGA cable may have an incorrect aspect-ratio depending on the game, as that resolution was added with a firmware upgrade and some games (e.g. PGR3) haven’t been tested with that mode and thus display incorrectly (for now).

P.N.03 — Redux

After a bit more than two years, I’ve finally got the Papillion Suit. 😀 About three months ago, I accidentally stumbled upon the “Official Brady Games Strategy Guide” for P.N.03 and decided to order it as it was fairly cheap. So all this time I’ve been steadily doing the Trial Missions on Normal (where the strategy guide of course doesn’t help at all as the missions are randomly generated, but now that I spent the money on the guide, I better finish the game properly).
The last few trial missions (i.e. 9-3 to 9-5 and 10-3 to 10-5) are actually quite hard to get a professional ranking on as no-one knows exactly how the ranks are handed out for the trials (it’s not just “No Damage Cleared Rooms” as I’ve obtained “Professional” on 10-4 with only 02 of them).
Anyway, I beat Alraune (the final boss) using only a single continue (compared to ~30 when I first finished the game on normal back all those years).
Although P.N. 03 has found a spiritual successor in the “Mercenaries” mode of Resident Evil 4 (including remixes of the soundtrack), it is not quite the same and I would definitely like to see a proper sequel with the same combo-system and the same feminine graphical style.

The argument

I just saw a good argument for high frame-rates / instant feedback on Charles Bloom’s Rants Page. I think this is one the reasons why Gran Turismo 4 (to me) feels much better than Forza Motorsport:

[T]he response to every action is instantaneous. This is not a minor detail; Joe Ybarra used to love to talk about this with frame rate – the difference between 40 fps and 60 fps, and more exactly, the latency, is not some small numeric difference, it’s not like getting 40 chocolate chips vs. 60 chocolate chips – there’s something dramatic that happens when your interface is smooth and responsive and perceptually instantaneous. Suddenly the device is like an extension of your body & mind – it’s not some external apparatus that you’re fighting with and compensating for, it’s your tool and it’s doing your wishes and it suddenly tickles some loving part of your brain.

This is a lot of truth to that very unscientific statement (and I sincerely hope that next-gen consoles will not raise the details to a level where we are again stuck at <= 30 frames / second).