Need for Speed: The Run Review

February 6th, 2012

The Need for Speed (NFS) game series needs no introduction, as it’s been around since 1994 and sold well over 100 million copies, introducing an entire generation to the racing game genre where players take various model cars out for a spin on famous tracks around the world. In all the NFS games players can compete in single or multi-player mode and must unlock special achievements that give them access to faster cars and certain racecourses and tracks. Echoing popular movies such as The Fast and the Furious, more recent NFS titles are set in urban settings, letting players show off their street racing skills

Need for Speed: the Run is the latest release in the NFS franchise, facing tall shoes to fill as its predecessor Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit was a critical and commercial success, reviving the franchise and selling 8.5 million copies. Available for PCs as well as Xbox 360, PS3, and Wii gaming consoles, Need for Speed: the Run was a bit of a disappointment to many but has still gotten solid reviews and has plenty to offer NFS fans and those who enjoy racing games in general. The setting for the game is a return of sorts to NFS roots, with players embarking on a cross-country street race in the US that takes players through a wide range of cities and landscapes.

You play the character Jack Rourke, a racer who’d gotten into deep water with the mob and must take down a huge payday by winning a cross-county race. With a bit of the usual requisite storytelling and plot turns, you’re finally behind the wheel and racing across the country, with a minimum of plot interruptions after the early going. You’ll be driving a variety of cars, all with their own strengths and weaknesses, with many of the twists and turns requiring you to mix speed and control, so this isn’t a game that you can simply mash the accelerator and go fast. You’ll need t manage braking and racing lines, as well as dealing with the fact that you can only change cars at certain locations in the game, so you may find yourself stuck with a muscle car in a twisty, curvy stretch where you really need a better handling car.

You’ll also need to not just stay ahead of your competition but meet certain objectives as well as you drive through areas such as San Francisco, Yosemite National Park, Las Vegas, New York, and Chicago. As far as negatives, the game is frustrating slow to load at times when it resets after you run off the road or wreck your car, and once you complete the game there’s not a lot left to unlock or explore as you’re unable to jump to individual points and must instead play an entire series of races.

Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Review

January 24th, 2012

Gamers had been eagerly awaiting the release of Elder Scrolls V:Skyrim for years, with the last edition in the Elder Scrolls franchise appearing all the way back in 2007. Bethesda Game Studios didn’t disappoint when they rolled out Skyrim in November 2011, with the game getting nearly universal high praise from reviews at sites such as IGN, Wired, and GameSpot. The game was an immediate hit as far as sales as well, with 3.5 million copies sold within 48 hours of its release.

Available for PC, PlayStation3, and Xbox 360, Skyrim’s plot tasks the player with creating a character and defeating Alduin, a Dragon god who is prophesied to destroy the world. Set two hundred years after Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, the game takes place in the province of Skyrim, located on the planet Nirn. The trademark open world gameplay of the Elder Scrolls series is back in Skyrim, with the player given the option to explore the world at their own pace — and even ignoring the main quests and goals entirely if they choose to do so. The quests built into the game also allow for many hours of gameplay, with some players completing the game but still enjoying it for many hours as they loop back and discover new quests and items.

The deep gameplay and attention to detail sets Skyrim apart, especially with the larger trend among game developers to make things simple and straightforward (and accessible via Facebook) such as casino online games or clones or knock-offs of existing games. Much of the appeal of the Elder Scrolls franchise is that it offers a very different experience for gamers, as far as slower-paced more thoughtful action that lets the gamer control the experience and adventures that unfold instead of being forced to follow a rigid plot or spend most of their time blazing away and blasting opponents to bits.

It’s hard to find much to complain about in Skyrim, with the only real complaints coming from PC gamers struggling with game controls that were more designed with game controllers in mind, as the keyboard-mouse combination can be difficult to use for some fairly common in-game tasks and commands. Other technical issues that cropped up after release — including slow frame rate speeds, crashes, and texture display issues — have largely been addressed in patches released in November 2011 and December 2011.

Hoyle Casino 2012 Review

January 13th, 2012

The Hoyle Casino series is a trusted standby for many gambling fans, offering the chance to play the best casino games at home without having to venture out to the casino. Hoyle Casino 2012 won’t break your personal bank (priced at $19.99) and gives you instant access any time of the day or night to hundreds of the most popular casino games, including slots, baccarat, Pai Gow, blackjack, poker, craps, and roulette.

Slots fans have a lot to enjoy, as the game offers over 100 unique slots of various themes and types, including multi-line and progressive video slots. Whether you’re taking a break from online play at some of the top sites listed here or just killing time with some slots play before your next big Vegas trip, you’ll find plenty of different exciting options with fast gameplay and well-designed graphics and bonus features to keep things fun.

Unlike some casino games that are just geared towards slots, Hoyle Casino 2012 offers hundreds of other games, including poker tournaments where you can test out your Texas Hold’em skills. There is also an instructional mode for many games that will offer you tips and pointers as you make your bets, giving you a chance to enjoy the thrill of gambling and try your luck as you learn at the same time.

Games such as Hoyle Casino 2012 can be an excellent way to learn the best casino games before a trip to the casino, as it’s a low-pressure way to learn the ropes without risking even a penny of real money. It can be intimidating to try to learn to play more complicated games like craps for the first time at a casino but playing on your computer removes all those barriers, as no one is around to rush you or get upset if you take your time when figuring out all the betting possibilities and options.

Success! Brown v EMA Swings in Our Favor

June 27th, 2011

For those of you who have not been following the videogame news, there was a proposed law in California that would criminalize the sale of violent video games to minors. Many such laws have been attempted, but none have ever been passed because of the sort of case that they constructed. Essentially, all previous ones hinged on games being obscenities, meaning they objectively have no value–something that simply isn’t the case. However, this new bill went a different route by suggesting that violent games actually do damage to young players. If the law went through, it would set the precedent that games are held to the same standard of free speech as all other art, which would be extremely unpleasant for both those who make games as well as those who enjoy them. On that note, I am happy to report that today the Supreme Court deemed that such a law would be unconstitutional in a 7 to 2 ruling. This will undoubtedly be the last time that people try to infringe on our rights, but we can rest a little easier knowing that our place as enthusiasts of a legitimate medium is a touch more secure.

Free to Play Games Come to Steam

June 14th, 2011

This seems like it could be kind of important for the PC gaming community. Today, Valve helped deploy 5 Free to Play titles through its Steam distribution service, something that previously could not be done because the infrastructure to support microtransactions for games outside of the ones they manage directly (most notably Team Fortress 2). However, it would seem as if they are leveraging the much toted TF2 hat technology in order to support in-game payments across a multitude of Free to Play titles. I think that consolidating the fairly fragmented F2P market within the Steam ecosystem is a move that will further bolster the PC market in the end, if only from a business standpoint. The current Free to Play games available on Steam are Spiral Knights (a fun little zelda/diablo like game with a great visual aesthetic), Forsaken World (a high fantasy free World of Warcraft clone), Global Agenda: Free Agent (a class-based shooter/pseudo-MMO hybrid in a similar vein as Tribes), Champions Online (superheroes hooray!) and Alliance of Valiant Arms (I have no sense at all of what this game is, give it a try and let me know). Presumably, more will be coming down the line but they seemed to get a good variety genre-wise for the initial deployment. The prospect excites me.

Thought’s on Nintendo’s E3 Press Conference

June 7th, 2011

If Nintendo’s press conference was any indication, the company is in a pretty unusual place. The recent launch of their new flagship handheld, the 3DS, had lackluster success. Additionally, they are spearheading the charge into what we might call the next console generation with their formerly titled Project Cafe (revealed this morning to be named Wii U), but it is too far away from the platform’s 2012 launch to divulge too many hard details on it. As a result, Nintendo’s press event came off as fairly vague but some truly interesting ideas were relayed. The tone of the whole thing seemed almost apologetic to “core gamers” (I really hate that term) for the alienation that some of us have felt at Nintendo’s hand for the past few years. Iwata-san suggested during the event that they are looking for ways to extend their market in both directions–to the casual gamer and veteran alike, and I think this statement kind of defines the tone that pervaded the conference.

Several of the games discussed for the 3DS we had heard about in the past, except for Luigi’s Mansion 2. I always thought that game looked cute, but never played the original. As per usual, these five games (MarioKart, Super Mario, Luigi’s Mansion, Kid Icarus, and StarFox) had a trailer of edited together gameplay footage played for each and afterwards Reggie Fils-Aime said a few back-of-the-box type bullet points for them. Most seem like natural extensions of their predecessors, built for the new platform. For instance, StarFox can employ normal button controls or use the on board gyroscope and tilt controls. Reggie also said that StarFox would use the front facing camera in multiplayer, so that players can see the expression on the face of the people who they gun down. MarioKart seemed to have a fair amount of kart customization (for a MarioKart game), with a snippet of the video showing a player selecting a chassis and wheels irrespective of one another. Also, Kid Icarus has a 3 v. 3 multiplayer mode (and seemingly might make use of the AR cards that come with the 3DS, but the exact application was not stated outright). Third party development support for the platform was also heavily touted, with a montage of several games coming to the platform (e.g. Resident Evil, Metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater, Cave Story, etc.).

Of course, the big question hanging over this event concerned the reveal of Nintendo’s new platform. Stories have varied wildly about what this thing is and what it can do, and it seems like most of the rumors are actually true. Most of the latter parts of the conference dealt with the application of the Wii U’s controller. In spite of how ridiculous the name is, conceptually it is pretty awesome. The controller has 2 analog sticks, a d-pad and face buttons (though they’re under the analog sticks–I wonder what that will do to comfort/ease of use), shoulder triggers, a 6.2 inch touch display, a microphone, speakers, a camera, a gyroscope, and an accelerometer. It seems like a theme this E3 is cramming as many modes of control as possible into whatever piece of hardware is being shown off, and this particular device looked enormous. Some of the applications discussed were the possibility of continuing to play a game on the controller alone after the television has been turned off (it wirelessly streams data from the console to the controller), and asymmetrical play experiences where some players are doing one thing on the television and others are doing something else on the controller. The platform will be backwards compatible with Wii hardware. They did not have any games playing on the platform in real time at the show, but Reggie did state that some tech demos were available to be experienced at their booth. One tech demo explicating the graphical capability of the platform was shown–so yes, it is in high definition. I’m actually very excited about where this platform can go. I immediately thought about PC games like Savage and Natural Selection that task one player to be a battlefield commander (playing the game like an RTS) while others play his/her soldiers from a first person perspective. This sort of experience would be equally possible and seamless with the sort of tech that Nintendo was showing off today, and I have to say I’m interested.

Reggie made an effort to point out that they’ve had a large amount of 3rd party support for the platform, showing a montage of games that will presumably get a simultaneous X360, PS3, PC, Wii U release and inviting EA’s CEO John Riccitiello onto the stage to talk about his excitement quotient. The Wii U is set for deployment after March 31st 2012.

Final thoughts: Bewildered. This was a good example of how Nintendo does these events. They often feel a lot more cohesive than Sony’s or Microsoft’s, as Nintendo traditionally has not had a ton of 3rd party support that they need to include in their presentation. They also always seem confident in the fact that you will buy what they are selling, which is why they do not need to belabor any one game or point too long. For instance, Iwata-san tangentially announced a new Smash Bros. game with presumed Wii U/3DS connectivity. He basically said “This exists, but we’re not gonna talk about it” and the response from the crowd was something like “W00TYEEEAHH!!” if I was to put it to words. That said, the Wii U seems like a strange piece of hardware but something that could prove to be very exciting nonetheless if developers handle it well. Still too early to tell definitively though.

Thoughts on EA’s E3 Press Conference

June 6th, 2011

Some bits of this conference sort of passed over me. Since I don’t really watch (or understand, or care about) sports for the most part, I didn’t get the import of EA Sports’ portion of it. Just keep that in mind
However, there was a decent mix of stuff that kind of looked neat, things that looked like silly design choices, and not-gameplay that I think I can talk for a bit about everything else. Also Battlefield 3.

The conference opened with Mass Effect 3, and I have to say what they showed looked exponentially more action-y than the last 2. I mean that from a design perspective–the Mass Effect games are role-playing/shooter hybrids, but the segment that Casey Hudson showed wasn’t even trying to pretend that it might’ve been a role-playing game. I think that it appeared this way due to a segment at the end where Commander Shepard was mounting a gun emplacement on a moving platform being chased by and shooting at a walking Reaper. These sorts of on-rails set-piece sequences typically exist so that the designers can more effectively present players with what they want players to see, typically in the form of lots of stuff blowing up nice. This mentality, however, runs counter to a lot of what role-playing games exist to achieve (e.g. allowing players to pursue the goals that they want). Of course, the latter design mentality has never been a part of the way Mass Effect operates on the whole, but the whole demo seemed like it didn’t effectively capture why I should be excited about this game, except for the giant reaper which was really cool to see. For me, that game will hinge on the story and the character interactions therein, which is obviously impossible to show a this sort of industry event. They did promise that this game will finally see the ramifications of all of Shepard’s decisions come to fruition, so that’s exciting.

Next up was Need for Speed: The Run. It is being built on Frostbite 2, a factoid that I didn’t know. The game will leverage and expand upon the functionality that AutoLog allowed for in the recent Hot Pursuit, integrating it directly into the story. This game seems weird. They were mostly focusing on story stuff, which is absolutely ridiculous by the looks of it (for instance, police officers were flying over the player’s avatar in helicopters at one point raining gunfire down on him). I think how successful it is will hinge on how ironic it is willing to be. There will be scripted on-foot sequences which seem to be comprised entirely of Quick Time Event-powered parkour (though there may be some variety that simply wasn’t shown). The driving bits looked physically similar to the previous NFS title, though it wasn’t made entirely clear how players are going to progress through the story. They did mention that players were on a cross-country race from California to New York, though the reasons and progression details were not mentioned. Ultimately, it looks kind of silly.

Dr. Greg Zeschuck made a pretty pleasant speech about how immense Star Wars: The Old Republic will be. I kind of wish I was interested in this game, but I’m not really. They showed another trailer that was basically an amalgamation of all other trailers for that game with dueling voice overs (the Republic and the Sith both talking about how they’re going to win the war). As a general rule, MMOs do not show well at trade events, because it is impossible to get a complete feel for the game and its world in such a little span of time. The trailer was pretty though :-)

A Sims Facebook game (The Sims Social) is in development. They only showed a trailer, but that made it seem like a shared virtual environment sort of akin to PlayStation Home. No real information about how it will all work was provided. Hopefully it will do better than the ill-fated Sims Online.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning continues to look cool. If that game can be Oblivion with a more fluid combat system (as the trailers seem to promise) I will be very very happy.

Insomniac also showed a reveal trailer for their new game, which is titled Overstrike. It looks to be a squad-based action game with some fairly insane weapons and tools, kind of in the vain of Ratchet and Clank. The trailer exuded a fair amount of personality and the art was exaggerated, but not overly so. As a general rule I trust Insomniac with giving me a good time, so this one shows promise. Too bad we couldn’t see any gameplay yet.

The conference finished with Battlefield 3. Visually, that game is stunning. The Frostbite 2 engine has some crazy new animation smoothing and rendering tech in it that make some of the most unimaginably realistic environments and characters I’ve yet seen. I’m typically not a huge proponent of realistic graphics, but when they are this flawless it’s hard not to be amazed. DICE showed some clips of multiplayer games, but not enough to really allow me to get a handle on what the game’s like. It looked like Battlefield multiplayer, but gorgeous. They are employing a new social connectivity feature called BattleLog (presumably derived from its cousin AutoLog) that will provide advanced social tools and stat tracking free of charge. They made a point of emphasizing this I suppose as a jab at Activision and their Call of Duty Elite program. The level they demoed was fairly vacant. The player was a tank gunner, though it was a while before anything actually started happening. The vehicular combat seems like it feels right with all the graphical tricks you’d expect. However, I was uncertain as to the player’s role in the level. I was not sure if they were only shooting or driving as well. At one point, the player dropped an air strike on an enemy base and again I couldn’t tell if they were prompted to do this (e.g. it was something that was hardwired into the mission) or decided to of their own volition. In any case, the weird feel of this level didn’t do anything to hurt my excitement for the game.

Final thoughts: Confused. A lot of the games they showed did not seem to demo great, or they picked weird parts to show off. In addition, some of the choices they’ve made with (for instance) Mass Effect and Need for Speed seem strange. I think that Overstrike seems like potentially the most intriguing game showed at this conference, but I can’t say for certain since there was no actual gameplay. But whatever, Battlefield 3.

Thoughts on Microsoft’s E3 Press Conference

June 6th, 2011

I’m going to try to be as objective as possible during this post, but don’t blame me if it doesn’t entirely come off as such. I feel like someone needs to get Microsoft a dictionary. Sequels that look almost exactly like their predecessors do not amount to innovation, in spite of what the Xbox representatives that took the stage today might believe.

They started off the show with a demonstration of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. It still totally looks like Call of Duty complete with a slow-motion room breach, no real surprise there. The section Infinity Ward was showing started underwater in what looks like a flooded section of the New York subway system. It wasn’t really evident if a player was in control and how much they possessed. It seemed strangely placid for the former portion (as the player was simply swimming through this tunnel with his team), but then a submarine was boarded and plenty of firefighting in tight corridors ensued. Epitomal Call of Duty. The technology powering it looks nice enough, especially the water textures once they were above water, but I didn’t get the sense that this game was terribly different than those that came before it. I doubt that will matter for the people who are going to play this game though. Oddly, the presenters made no mention of the multiplayer–arguably the part that draws most of Call of Duty’s player base. This isn’t entirely a surprise, as I doubt that they want to stray too far from the formula that their fans love. The demo in its entirety was not terribly compelling for me–the shooting looks alright but it looks all too familiar. The game is set for release on November 8th of this year.

Next, some of the fellows from Crystal Dynamics took the stage showing off their new rendition of Tomb Raider. This actually piqued my interest. I’ve never been a huge fan of Tomb Raider or its progressively terrible iterations, but this new direction that they’re going with the series looks interesting and the tone seems pretty spot on. The demo began in medias res with a bloodied and dirty Lara Croft tied upside down. After freeing herself and dropping onto the stone floor below (which looked super painful), she proceeded to attempt to find her way out of the cave. There were dead bodied chained to the wall and what looked like ritual altars and stuff all about it. The camera moved with an uneven bob, almost simulating a shaky-cam effect (though not as frenetic) and Lara moved with a sporadic gate, suggesting she was pretty badly hurt. It had a very cool looking fire simulation as well, though that seemed purely cosmetic. The rest was a bit of environmental puzzle solving coupled with some running and platforming. I didn’t get the best sense of the actual gameplay from this little demo, but if the puzzles are designed well it might be something kind of special. In any case, it had pretty wonderful visuals.

This was basically the last game that got a reasonable amount of stage time. The myriad other ones they fired through pretty quickly. A lot of what was shown off seemed pretty weird to me.

Peter Moore talked a bit about EA Sports and Kinect integration. The games he mentioned were Madden, Fifa, Tiger Woods, and one other one yet to be disclosed. No actual gameplay or specifics about how this will work was detailed.

Then, Doctor Ray Muzyka came on to talk a bit about Kinect connectivity with Mass Effect 3. This was kind of neat, but also pretty strange to watch. Fundamentally, there seem to be two main ways that Kinect voice recognition will work for the game. Players will be able to issue squad commands by pointing the cursor to a location and saying something like “Character X go here and do this”. This seems like a logical application of the technology, but the other thing they showed off struck me as strange. Voice recognition will also tie into the conversation system, so a player can say the dialog option they want out loud in order to select it. However, as we know in Mass Effect the selectable option and what the character actually says are different. Players are supposed to be selecting the intent of what they say, rather than what they actually say. But here, players speak the former and the character speaks the latter, which came off as slightly weird. As far as actual information about the game,
Morden, Liara, and Garrus were in Dr. Ray’s party, suggesting that characters from previous stories will return as opposed to players needing to assemble (yet another) new team.

Ubisoft had some neat things to show off regarding Ghost Recon: Future Soldier. They showed a negligible amount of actual gameplay (most of the demo focused on Kinect integration), but they showed that players can completely disassemble and customize their guns to an extent that I’ve never seen before. Basically every part can be interchanged or replaced. They claimed something like 20 million unique combinations are possible in the game, but time will tell if this actually changes gameplay at all. I mean, unless you’re having guns that do crazy effects like freeze dudes or create temporal singularities, I think this level of customization will be lost to all but gun-nuts. I still appreciate that it exists though.

Marc Whitten exhibited some new non-game related television functionality for Xbox Live. They seek to make the system something of an intelligent media aggregator but neglected to really get into how it worked. They are also bringing live television to XBL, apparently with many partnerships coming down the pipeline. In addition, Youtube and Bing are coming to XBL, the latter of which will be able to scrub content providers for means to get the content you want. All of this will be voice-activatable. They also briefly mentioned that UFC fights will be airing on XBL, with some manner of augmented-reality-like interactivity. It looked like people could bet on fights for some kind of points, but again they did not delve into much detail.

Next up was Cliff Bleszinski and….Ice T (wat). They demoed Gears of War 3, which looked like…Gears of War 2. Okay I guess that’s kind of mean of me. The thing that they were fighting was some kind of massive tentacle monster the likes of which i haven’t seen in a Gears game before. It was really huge and impressively detailed, but gameplay-wise the game was a 3rd person cover-based shooter.

A trailer for Crytek’s new game, entitled Ryse, was shown with no gameplay. It looks a bit like a Kinect-gesture based brawler with an ancient Roman setting. It was a pretty neat trailer though. Cannot form an opinion yet, but conceptually it seemed cool. The Crytek guys are known for interesting technology so I believe they could make an interesting Kinect game that is also a game.

Oh, and apparently they’re remaking the original Halo because I guess people like that game :-P

Also, Lionhead is working on…a rail shooter set in the Fable universe. This confused the hell out of me because it seemed completely antithetical to everything Fable is about. I was just wondering all throughout the demo “why is this a Fable game?” Which is unfortunate, because some of the gesture-based magic that they showed off seemed to be a pretty cool application of the technology. I just wish they had tried it with something that isn’t known for being a free roaming open world RPG. But I guess business is business and new franchises have a worse chance of selling.

There were some other Kinect-based applications and games shown off, like an experimental Kinect project repository entitled Fun Labs that Kudo Tsunoda that went live today and Tim Shaffer’s Sesame Street game (that man is one of the most charismatic I’ve ever seen. And he somehow manages to make demos with children in them NOT seem excessively creepy). Most of it seemed skewed towards a younger audience as the games fundamentally seemed to lack complexity. The conference ended with the reveal of Halo 4 which I suppose was inevitable–though no further information was given on it besides “it exists.”

Final thoughts: Disappointed. Some of the media aggregation stuff seems like it could be cool, but all of the actual games demoed lackluster at best. I think what got to me the most was the overwhelming sense of same-ness that surrounded almost all of the games shown. For these conferences, I’m never looking for any huge reveals or anything, I just want to see things that look different enough. And none of the software they showed convinced me to want to get a Kinect. Some of it seemed neat, but (in spite of what the presenters want me to think) the bits that I care about can all be achieved through a controller also. I hope that the coming months can prove me wrong on these points though.

PlayStation Store Online

June 2nd, 2011

I just accessed the PlayStation Store for the first time in about a month. It is indeed back online, which is basically the last system that needed restoring after the PlayStation Network was disemboweled a month ago. The free stuff promised as part of Sony’s Welcome Back promotion is not live yet, but they say that it is in the final stages of testing and will be available for download soon. In addition, the store has been updated with new content. For a full list, see the most recent PlayStation Blog post.

Some Neat Information About A Game You Might Not Have Heard Of

June 2nd, 2011

Have any of you played Desktop Dungeons? If you haven’t, it’s really worth a look. Its a freeware dungeon crawling RPG for PC and Mac that can be played in about 15 minutes a session. It stands as a testament to good design–the short game time does not detract from the experience at all. The developers (QCF Designs) are working on building a new version of the game in Unity–which for my money is one of the best engines out there for indie developers–which will be more elaborate and come with content absent in its free counterpart. A recent blog post states that preorders for the paid version are now open, and those who preorder the game will gain access to the closed beta when it becomes available. In addition a new version of the freeware us being deployed. It is totally worth a look.