Thursday, April 10, 2008

This Blog is Now Closed

This blog is now closed. To read more about consumer technology visit the Future Shop Community Forum.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Xbox LIVE Arcade games to play

A couple of days ago, I started a list of PS2 games that are still worth playing, even in this era of "next-gen" gaming platforms.

kapital asked if I knew of any Xbox LIVE Arcade games that might be worth playing. They had some extra points left over after getting the downloadable Mass Effect module, "Bring Down the Sky" - great choice, btw - and wanted to know where they might spend those points.

Well, after taking a look at the games in my XBL Arcade library, I've found some patterns.

Of the games available from XBL I seem to prefer the puzzlers. I think it's because I can easily get into those games and don't need to play them for a long time, so if I've only got 15 minutes and want to get lost in a game these work great.

Of the true puzzlers, Bejeweled and Hexic are my favourites. They are similar games in that they provide you with a container and you have to rotate pieces in the container to make matches.

Zuma and Luxor are more arcade-style puzzlers. They present you with a row of balls, and you have to aim and shoot other balls into the chain to make sets of three. If the chain of balls advances into your "house" before you make them all disappear, you lose. Amazingly simple to play, amazingly compelling, too.

Of the shooter-type games, Geometry Wars and Rez HD (the same game I mentioned in the PS2 list, but ported for Xbox Live) are my favourites. Crystal Quest is similar to these, but rather than being a pure shooter, you have to pick up crystals while avoiding the enemy ships and mines. It's tricky.

A more recent game I've tried and quite liked is Omega Five, which is a traditional 2D arcade game in which you play a warrior with a big gun, shooting at things that come at you as you move across the screen.

And if you're older, and nostalgic for arcades of the past, you can always go for the old stand-bys: Galaga, Joust, Dig Dug, and Tron have all brought back memories for me.

Most of them good.

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Sunday, March 30, 2008

E3 2007 blogroll

Last summer, I was in Santa Monica, Cali., covering the E3 Media & Business Summit from Tuesday, July 9 through Friday, July 13. I’m loading my posts from the show here, for posterity, y’know?

Saturday, July 14, 9:00 a.m.

Friday was the last day of E3 2007, but it was a full day for me.

I started off visiting Eidos, where I had full demonstration of a new massively multiplayer online game based on Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian. Titled Age of Conan, the PC version of this rich game is coming for the end of October. An Xbox 360 version will follow in 2008. I also had a chance to check out Kane & Lynch: Dead Men, which was inspired by crime dramas such as Dog Day Afternoon and Heat, in which two anti-heroes try to get themselves out of another mess.

Ubisoft has some great games coming out in the next while, the best of which is Assassin's Creed, which is a beautiful game set in what we now call the Middle East during the Third Crusade, in the year 1191. The demonstration I witnessed showed a historically-accurate Jerusalem, and the environments created by the Montreal development studio are simply breathtaking. With a unique movement and combat system, this game could change the way some action adventure titles are built in the future. I also took a look at Naruto: Rise of the Ninja, developed for the Xbox 360. Based on the biggest thing in Japanese anime in some time, this smooth, cell-shaded animated game combines platform-type gameplay with 3D fighting gameplay, all set in an open, sandbox environment.

Sierra, a division of Vivendi Games, picked up the rights to Timeshift, which was going to be coming from Atari. Senior producer and creative Kyle Peschel walked me through his reinvention of first-person shooting games, in which you have complete control over time. The attention to detail in this game is amazing, and it comes with a deep and robust story. Also from Sierra are a sequel to The Legend of Spyro and an expansion pack to the exhilarating F.E.A.R. I also checked out the Battlestar Galactica game being created by Sierra Online. It makes you a pilot and lets you play through the first three seasons of the television show. It is coming to Xbox LIVE Arcade and PC for download this fall.

Two of Midway's biggest titles for the fall are BlackSite: Area 51 and Stranglehold. BlackSite is an action shooter in which you play as a combat veteran in Iraq who encounters an alien and is ordered to keep it to himself. Years later, you're deployed to Nevada, where alien life forms are wreaking havoc. Susan O'Connor, who was a writer on Gears of War, is also writing BlackSite. That's a good sign. Stranglehold is a project being developed in collaboration with Hong Kong filmmaker John Woo, and starring Chow Yun-Fat as Inspector Yuen - Tequila - who was immortalized in the 1992 film Hard Boiled. It's an extreme and hyper-real game that has the spirit of Woo's cop films. The PS3 version of the game will ship with the Hard Boiled film on the Blu-ray Disc.

Warner Bros. Interactive are reinventing their Looney Tunes franchise for themselves (in the past, they had licensed their characters to other developers, with mediocre results). The first two games, Acme Arsenal for the PS2, Wii and Xbox 360 and Duck Amuck for the DS, are both cute, clever games that really embody the spirit of the classic cartoons. They're going to be fun.

THQ were showing off a number of new titles, including a Conan game of their own, a Wii version of the Destroy All Humans! game called Big Willy Unleashed, a sequel to the Cars video game (that was itself based on the animated film), and a clever puzzle game called De Blob, for Wii and DS, in which you paint a world that's been drained of colour. They were also showing off Darksides: Wrath of War, which won't be on shelves until fall 2008, but already looks great. You play War, of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and after the destruction of Earth, you are betrayed, and left to survive on the husk of the Earth, while angels and demons fight over what will happen next. It's a great concept.

But the game of the show for me, and for many other media and video game biz folks, was Bethesda Softworks' Fallout 3. The images here are screen shots from the E3 demonstration. Fans of the earlier Fallout games may not approve of how executive producer Todd Howard and his team have decided to reinvent the franchise, but they cannot deny that what Howard and crew have come up with is breathtaking. From the production design to the attention to detail to the complexity of the story and the world in which it is set, Fallout 3 promises to be the kind of game that will have gamers calling in sick because they've been up all night playing.

The game maintains the post-apocalyptic theme established by the earlier titles, and starts with your birth in Vault 101, at which point you create your character. The game will flash forward through your life, and really starts when you've reached early adulthood. It's being told in first-person, but you have the option of switching to an over-the-shoulder third-person perspective if you choose.

"You're born in Vault 101. You'll die in Vault 101," says Ron Perlman, in the narration that precedes the game. You do escape the vault and into the distressed and degenerated world above, but it won't be easy.

That's it for me for this year's E3. We've heard rumours that the E3 powers-that-be may decide to alter the format or venue for next year. Time will tell.

Thanks for listening.

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E3 2007 blogroll

Last summer, I was in Santa Monica, Cali., covering the E3 Media & Business Summit from Tuesday, July 9 through Friday, July 13. I’m loading my posts from the show here, for posterity, y’know?

Friday, July 13, 11:00 a.m.

Microsoft has taken over an entire hotel here in Santa Monica.

It's a very stylish thing for the stylish company to do. The Viceroy, on Ocean, is one of those stately old hotels that has undergone a boutique transormation. It almost seems as though the refurbishment was done at the bequest of Microsoft, so at home does the Xbox team seem here.

I was here yesterday to talk with Ryan Bidan from Xbox Canada and to see a demonstration of Bioware's upcoming Mass Effect game (which is so going to kick ass), but today I was back at the Viceroy to get a more complete look at Halo 3.

The video game, which is scheduled for a September 25 release, is perhaps the most eagerly anticipated game of the year (although there are many developers and publishers who would contest that).

I was underwhelmed by the multiplayer beta that was made available earlier in the summer, but that's in part because I've never had much fun getting killed so quickly and so often. I prefer my shooting and action video games to have some story to them, which is one reason I am such a Halo geek.

The demonstration I sat in on played the first part of the introductory level to Halo 3, minus the opening cinematics, because Bungie doesn't want the story leaking out. In that first mission, Sierra 117, you - playing as Master Chief - is with a group of marines, moving through a forest, battling the Covenant forces.

The first thing I noticed was the dialogue chatter from the other marines, which is a nice addition given that so much of the first two games were so solitary. But I noticed that there was too much chatter, which distracted from the eerie atmosphere soundtrack that I liked so much in the first two games.

The second thing I noticed was that the Arbiter appeared to be a character fighting on the side of Master Chief.

The Arbiter, a Covenant warrior, became a playable character in Halo 2. It was a brilliant stroke, forcing gamers to play as the enemy, and gave the entire story a moral gray that seemed fitting, given the epic, operatic tale being told.

I've been wondering how the Arbiter might be used in Halo 3, and it appears that he joins the Master Chief in the final game. In fact, it may be that the co-operative play, which Halo has had since the beginning, allows two players to play as Master Chief and the Arbiter together. It may even be that playing the solo campaign mode, you can switch back and forth between Master Chief and the Arbiter.

This is all speculation on my part, because Microsoft and Bungie representatives were mum when I asked.

The very talent that Bungie has shown for storytelling is enough for me to be excited in anticipation of the final chapter of the Master Chief's tale.

Maybe I should book some holiday time near the end of September.

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E3 2007 blogroll

Last summer, I was in Santa Monica, Cali., covering the E3 Media & Business Summit from Tuesday, July 9 through Friday, July 13. I’m loading my posts from the show here, for posterity, y’know?

Friday, July 13, 8:00 a.m.

Have I mentioned how nice it is to be in Santa Monica, and not the cement fields of downtown L.A.?

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E3 2007 blogroll

Last summer, I was in Santa Monica, Cali., covering the E3 Media & Business Summit from Tuesday, July 9 through Friday, July 13. I’m loading my posts from the show here, for posterity, y’know?

Thursday, July 12, 7:00 p.m.

On Wednesday afternoon and Thursday, the focus of my exposure here at E3 shifted from hardware and the 'Big 3' to the video game developers and publishers.

Konami thrilled with their announcement of Metal Gear Solid 4 (for the PS3) that creator Hideo Kojima says will be the definitive end to the franchise. Also pending from Konami are new versions of their popular Dance Dance Revolution games for all platforms. They also screened a trailer for Silent Hill V, which was suitably creepy and looks to bring the horror franchise into the high-definition world.

Today, I started off at Electronic Arts, where I was shown the revamped Need for Speed Pro Street game from Vancouver's EA Black Box studio. Producer Mike Mann said that they "wanted to make it faster and more violent". Army of Two comes from EA's new Montreal studio, and is an aggressive shooter that truly invokes co-operative gameplay. You cannot succeed in the game without your partner; if you don't have any friends, the computer AI will help you out. But the most exciting games - as far as I'm concerned - coming from EA are two that I mentioned last night: EA Playground, from EA's Burnaby campus, and Boogie, from Montreal, both of which were created for the Nintendo Wii. EA Playground is "for kids and the kid in all of us," explained EA's David Tinson. He gets the award for best soundbite of the show, by the way.

2K Games were showing of Civilization: Revolution, the first true version of the strategy game for consoles, which provides all of the fun of the PC game, with simplified controls. More fun, less frustration. Bioshock, also from 2K Games, is a frantic, frenetic, futuristic thriller in which you need to put a stop to the diabolical plans of a megalomaniacal rich genius. It's a first-person action game with whacked-out weapons, the walking dead and psychokinetic powers.

Sony was showing off lots today, including the online-only Warhawk, which has morphed into a massive battle game and Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, which has the spirit of Indiana Jones with a little bit of Apocalypse Now thrown in. Two games for their PlayStation Network download service caught my eye: Pain, in which your objective is to cause as much physical harm to yourself and the environment as possible, and Everyday Shooter, a collection of levels inspired by various shooter games, accompanied by a ripping guitar rock soundtrack. Little Big Planet is also reason to be excited about your PS3. Just Google it.

Microsoft has two big reasons to be excited this fall: Halo 3 and Mass Effect. The first will wrap up the story of Master Chief, and stands to become the biggest selling video game of all time. The second, developed by Edmonton's BioWare, is perhaps the deepest, richest role-playing game ever created. You'll be in command of a starship, and every action you take, every decision you make will affect the story you play.

More reasons that you should start saving your pennies so you can buy games this fall:

  • Beautiful Katamari (Namco Bandai)

  • Soulcalibur Legends (Namco Bandai)

  • Turok (Touchstone/Disney Interactive)

  • Club (Sega)

  • Nights (Sega)

  • The Golden Compass (Sega)

  • Devil May Cry 4 (Capcom)

  • Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles (Capcom)

  • Dark Sector (D3 Publisher)

  • Dragon Blade (D3 Publisher)

On Friday, I start meetings with video game publishers at 9:00 a.m., and do not stop until 5:00 p.m. I don't even have room in my schedule for a bathroom break.

But I'll file a final report after it's done, to let you know what I see tomorrow. There are even more reasons to get excited.

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E3 2007 blogroll

Last summer, I was in Santa Monica, Cali., covering the E3 Media & Business Summit from Tuesday, July 9 through Friday, July 13. I’m loading my posts from the show here, for posterity, y’know?

Thursday, July 12, 4:00 p.m.

As you can tell by the pictures here, attending a trade show in Santa Monica is far more pleasant than hanging out in a convention centre.

Overall, the 'new' E3 has been good. Cutting the crowd from 60,000 to about 3,000 means I'm able to move around like I couldn't at previous events. Getting from one hotel room to another in time to meet my back-to-back appointments has been tricky at times, and I've been a few minutes late regularly. But I lucked out in that most of my meetings ended up being clustered in one location or another. Subconsciously I must have known something when I booked my schedule.

I haven't actually made it down to the beach; there's been too much going on, too many things to see.

Maybe it's enough to have seen the beach from a distance.

Maybe not.

Oh, I should mention one other thing. If you are visiting Santa Monica for any reason at all, don't jaywalk. Just don't do it.

Trust me.

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E3 2007 blogroll

Last summer, I was in Santa Monica, Cali., covering the E3 Media & Business Summit from Tuesday, July 9 through Friday, July 13. I’m loading my posts from the show here, for posterity, y’know?

Thursday, July 12, 1:00 p.m.

Now that the big console manufacturers have had their moments, it's time to find out what the game developers are up to.

On Wednesday afternoon, I crammed into a hotel ballroom with other media from around the world, for the press conferences for a few of the major video game publishers.

Electronic Arts led off with a presentation by Kathy Vrabeck, a veteran of the industry who was recently hired to head the new EA Casual Entertainment division.

Her division wants to "bring interactive entertainment truly to the masses," which is a sentiment that's been echoed by everyone here at E3.

EA has an interesting year ahead of them, as they have committed to getting off the sequel bandwagon by creating new gaming experiences and new franchises. In the biz these are called IP, for intellectual property.

In particular, EA has a couple of Wii titles that I'm very intrigued with: Boogie, a singing and dancing game with the Wii remote and nunchuk translating your body's grooving into on-screen action, and EA Playground, with the charm of Wii Sports and the attitude of Bratz, in which schoolyard games have been mashed up and reinvented for the fun of it.

Said Vrabeck of the EA Casual mandate: "Easy, quick to the fun and incredibly addicting."

More on EA's offerings later today after I have some meetings with them.

By far the best briefing of yesterday, though, was Activision, who had the foresight to enlist comedian Jamie Kennedy to host their press conference.

Although he came across as having had a few too many Red Bull and vodkas with lunch, he was funny and had an ease with the stage he was on that contrasted sharply with the many vice presidents of marketing that had been reading press releases from the podium.

Kennedy interviewed the developers of Activision's games on stage in a talk-show format, even bringing out special guests Tony Hawk (Tony Hawk Proving Ground) and Slash (Guitar Hero III), from Velvet Revolver and Guns n' Roses.

Activision, like Microsoft, know the benefit of celebrity.

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E3 2007 blogroll

Last summer, I was in Santa Monica, Cali., covering the E3 Media & Business Summit from Tuesday, July 9 through Friday, July 13. I’m loading my posts from the show here, for posterity, y’know?

Wednesday, July 11, 7:00 p.m.

Sony is behind the 8-ball.

Sales of their PlayStation 3 video game console are, like, half that of their competitors, and they've got some ground to make up.

Which is why they announced, late last week, a $100 price cut to the 60GB version of the hardware. It's an attempt to jump start sales that have been, frankly, lagging.

Unfortunately, their press briefing, held at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, only served to establish - for me anyway - how lackluster things are. Jack Tretton, president of Sony Computer Entertainment America, hosted the event. While Tretton may be a fine executive, he's not much of a presenter, and he stumbled his way through the press conference.

In previous years, the effusive Kaz Hirai had hosted the PlayStation briefings, but his promotion, to president and COO of Sony Computer Entertainment, meant that Hirai felt he needed to step back from the event.

Too bad, because Hirai had a talent for getting audiences excited with the sheer force of his personality.

Hirai did put in an appearance, to unveil a new PlayStation Portable. Lighter and slimmer, with a longer battery life, the new PSP will be available in piano black and ice silver. A special edition Star Wars Battlefront edition, white with a stencil of Darth Vader's helmet on it, was presented by none other than Chewbacca.

Phil Harrison, president of Sony's Worldwide Studios, was also on hand to show off some of the company's upcoming titles.

Notable are Killzone 2, Little Big Planet, Echochrome and Pain.

Sony claims they'll have 140 titles for the PlayStation 3 available by the end of the year. They need them. A price cut is not enough to get people purchasing the units.

Now it really is all about the games.

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E3 2007 blogroll

Last summer, I was in Santa Monica, Cali., covering the E3 Media & Business Summit from Tuesday, July 9 through Friday, July 13. I’m loading my posts from the show here, for posterity, y’know?

Tuesday, July 10, 11:30 p.m.

I shouldn't have been surprised that Santa Monica High School has a 1,000 seat outdoor amphitheatre.

Nor should I have been surprised that the hipsters at Microsoft Xbox would have selected the location as a venue for their 2007 E3 press briefing.

Twilight was just upon us as the people crowded in to the auditorium, and as the dark descended, the entire crowd was bathed in the eerie green light that is the trademark Xbox colour.

Last week, Microsoft formally acknowledged that the failure rate of their Xbox 360 console was unreasonably high. More than a third of 360s have been stricken with the "red circle of death" since the gaming hardware was launched in November 2005.

To quell the furor, Microsoft's Peter Moore, corporate vice president of the Interactive Entertainment Business in the Entertainment and Devices Division at Microsoft, announced an extension of the Xbox 360 warranty to three years. The move is likely to cost Microsoft more than $1 billion USD.

Obviously, Microsoft wanted to get that bad news out of the way before this week, so they could focus on the positives and not spend this week being grilled about hardware issues.

So what did they have in store? Nothing too dramatic, I'm afraid.

"Xbox 360 is driving the [video game] industry," said Moore, onstage at the E3 briefing. "And this holiday we're shifting into high gear."

There certainly are a host of excellent games coming to the platform this fall, from Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed to Bioware's Mass Effect, from Rock Band to Viva Pinata: Party Animals.

But the big story for Microsoft's gaming division and the Xbox 360 this fall is the September 25 release of Halo 3. Despite the building hype around the game, there wasn't much of it on show in this press conference.

The press conference opened with a live rendition of the Halo theme music played by Corporeal, a group of five Halo fans from Illinois that Microsoft discovered online, and closed with a new trailer promoting the game. Aside from that, there wasn't much Halo surprise.

Moore revealed that there will be a special Halo edition Xbox 360 console released in September, but that announcement got little attention from the crowd.

Shane Kim, corporate vice president and head of Microsoft Game Studios revealed that the game Peter Jackson is developing for Xbox 360 is set in the Halo universe, but that was announced some time ago.

The only truly interesting Halo moment was a screening of a short, artsy, live-action Halo film by Neill Blomkamp, who was Jackson's choice to direct the Halo film, which is in limbo since Universal and Fox, who were to co-finance the film, pulled out. It was a thinly-veiled attempt to show what Blomkamp can (or can't) do with the subject matter, right in the backyard of the Hollywood studios that effectively pulled the plug on the movie.

You can get Microsoft's take on their press conference over here.

More from me tomorrow after the Nintendo and Sony press briefings.

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E3 2007 blogroll

Last summer, I was in Santa Monica, Cali., covering the E3 Media & Business Summit from Tuesday, July 9 through Friday, July 13. I’m loading my posts from the show here, for posterity, y’know?

Monday, July 9, 9:30 a.m.

The traditional, annual Electronic Entertainment Expo has been replaced by the new E3 Media & Business Summit.

What that means is that instead of 50,000 gaming fanatics running around downtown Los Angeles in May, 3,000 video game journalists will be swaggering down the Santa Monica boardwalk in July.

And I get to be one of them.

Since I'm such a sharing guy, I'll be sharing my E3 2007 experience with you here. I'll be attending the press briefings staged by Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony, and have meetings with the major video game publishers from around the world.

What I discover I will pass along to you.

While the average fan won't be able to get in on the action this year, you will be able to get a sense of what Microsoft Xbox is up to in California, though, courtesy of Xbox LIVE.

Starting on July 10, you can access E3: Bringing it Home, which offers downloads of Microsoft content from the show, including trailers, gamer pictures, and demos from upcoming games such as Assassin's Creed, BioShock, Guitar Hero III, and Lost Odyssey.

They'll also be providing access to video updates directly from the show.

If you're kicking around online, you can also visit E3 Insider, produced by GameTrailers. They'll have all game trailers released at the show in addition to interviews with "top industry players".

But for a real insider's peek at the E3 action, stay tuned to this blog for regular updates on what the video game developers and publishers have planned for you in the next year. I'll be updating regularly starting with the Xbox press briefing on Tuesday, July 10.

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

PS2 games worth playing

As a follow-up question to yesterday's answer, rawbean is asking what PS2 games might be worth checking out.

Which brings up a great point: the PS2 is a great gaming system, even in light of the PS3 and Xbox 360.

Plus, you can get a new PS2 for just over $100 these days and you can find a plethora of used games available for cheap - online and at various trading locations. In fact, it seems to me that the Ps2 is still the most popular gaming system in the world.

So, given that, let's start working on a list of PS2 games that newbies might want to pick up, or that the rest of us might want to keep in our library.

I've already said that Katamari Damacy belongs on that list, but here are some others.

Okami is a beautiful and engaging game in which you play a wolf and must rejuvenate the environment by painting it.

Rez is a modern-day shooter - think Asteroids all grown up - with an incredible musical soundtrack that is generated by your play.

Ico is an action-adventure in which players take on the role of a young boy who must save a princess from some ominous, shadowy figures.

Shadow of the Colossus, created by the same developer that brought us Ico, which seems to be a sequel of sorts. Beautiful and, yes, emotional.

God of War is more of a hardcore game that requires quick responses and some coordination in pushing buttons, but the storyline - set in the world of Greek mythology - is second to none, and playing it will spike your adrenaline nicely.

Add your PS2 game suggestions in the comments.

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The evolution of first-person shooters

Last year wasn’t significant because of the number of first-person-shooter games released. For a few years now, this has been a popular niche for developers and publishers since it caters to the hard-core gamers who are the bread and butter of the video-game industry.

The reason 2007 stands out is the variety and excellence of the first-person shooters that were released, due in part to the processing power of the next-generation PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, and to the increasing emphasis that developers are placing on story and character development.

Halo 3 (Microsoft Game Studios; Xbox 360; rated mature) This game’s single-player story mode is exactly what it needed to be: more of what the first two games gave us. Where there was innovation in Halo 3 was in the multiplayer options available for FPS gamers. With the ability for 16 people to go after each other, or for four players to cooperate on playing through the story, Halo 3 made a plural out of the FPS genre.

Bioshock (2K Games; Xbox 360; rated mature) Bioshock was groundbreaking for two reasons. First, the art direction and singular vision behind the game make it a complete and entirely believable world, despite its madness. The second reason involves the debate as to whether FPS games should construct the protagonist as a blank slate. The idea is that individual gamers are better able to “become” the character if that character is vague. This is why nobody knows what Halo’s Master Chief looks like. In Bioshock, the character you play has no identity at all, and this becomes critical to how the story plays out. The clever game designers took a philosophical argument and made it a plot point.

Jericho (Codemasters; Xbox 360; rated mature) It’s the talented storytelling of Clive Barker that causes Jericho to stand out. He’s crafted a horror game that is gory, weird, and tinged with religion, basing the story on gnostic texts. You are the commander of a seven-person military unit trained in conventional and occult warfare. Each squad member has some kind of occult power, and you can move from team member to team member, making strategic use of each one’s talents. This ability, compared to switching from one gun to another, is a great game-play mechanic.

The Orange Box (Valve; PC, PS3, Xbox 360; rated teen and mature) You’ll use surprisingly few weapons in the Half-Life games, of which three are included in The Orange Box. The protagonist, Gordon Freeman, isn’t a soldier, super or otherwise. He’s a scientist, and his primary weapon is a gravity gun, a device that allows him to pick up and move heavy objects. Admittedly, such objects can crush enemies, especially when flung at high speed. Unlike so many games that beat you over the head with explanations, Half-Life is refreshingly vague about what you are supposed to do. At times, trying to solve the puzzle of “How do I get across this room?” becomes maddening because of the lack of clues, but most gamers appreciate being left to figure things out.

BlackSite: Area 51 (Midway; PC, PS3, Xbox 360; rated teen) BlackSite is built on mystery. You play as a U.S. soldier caught up in a conspiracy, starting the game by looking for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but instead stumbling across some bizarre and dangerous creatures. Imagine your surprise when you encounter the same creatures in the desert around Rachel, Nevada, the closest town to the rumoured American military base at Groom Lake—Area 51. No shock, then, to discover that the enemies you fight in BlackSite are aliens. I was able to overlook some of the technical problems with this game, and instead enjoy the sly subversiveness of the game’s story, which is a pointed commentary on U.S. involvement in Iraq.

Crysis (Electronic Arts; rated mature) Crysis was developed to push the limits of PC gaming systems, and would be fairly standard first-person-shooter fare if it weren’t so visually stunning. You are a member of a special-forces squad sent in to secure an archaeological site, but there’s something on the island that’s making meat out of all the soldiers. The flowing imagery of Crysis hasn’t been achieved before, and it sets a new standard for visual fidelity. To really make the most of this game, you’ll need a topnotch system running Windows Vista. You can play the game on lesser computers, but you’ll miss out on what makes it so special.

[originally published in the Georgia Straight]

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

You've got questions? We've got answers

rawbean asks:
I have a PS2 but only have two games: Katamari and a disc (disc?) of old arcade games like PacMan. I have played a total of 20 minutes since receiving the PS2. What should I do now? PS I also like the sims.

Well, rawbean, Katamari is still one of the most fun, most clever video games ever made. There is a new version of the game - which is essentially the same as that first one - for the "next-gen" Xbox 360.

But if you say you haven't played the PS2, you might not realise how much fun there is in a session of Katamari Damacy.

I believe that everybody is a gamer. What differs is the type of game people prefer and the degree to which they like playing. Even paper-and-pencil Sudoku puzzles are games. So are crosswords.

Monopoly? Texas Hold 'Em? Fetch with your dog?

All games.

In terms of video games, though, they have come a long way, to the point where they are truly interactive entertainment.

Both Xbox 360 and Sony's PlayStation 3 will give you access to game demos, so you can try some new games to see if you like them.

Xbox LIVE, which is the online marketplace for the Xbox 360, has a wealth of arcade and casual games for people to download and play without having to commit 80 hours or $80.

And the PS3 is still the best Blu-ray player on the market, so if you are thinking about upgrading your DVD player, the PS3 is cheaper than other players, it's a better player than the others, and you get the option of playing games if you want, too.

Does that help?

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Lego Portal in stop-motion

Quick! What do you get when you cross Lego, Harryhausen, and Portal?

This video, created by Nick Larsen.

Inspired by the best video game of 2007, Larsen's stop-motion video is set to the Portal closing theme song, "Still Alive," composed by Jonathan Coulton.

It shows what appears to be a number of different subjects navigating through the environment controlled by GLaDOS. Not all of them survive. Some fall victim to misplaced portals, others to the perils of the puzzles, and still others just can't resist the offer of cake.

Take a few moments from your day to watch Larsen's vid. And browse some of his other stop-motion Lego creations, which are just as fun.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Getting extreme with Dark Sector

Dark Sector is a new video game developed by London, Ontario's Digital Extremes (co-creator of Unreal) and published by D3Publisher, and it shipped to retailers today.

It's a dark, mature-themed game (seriously: this game is not for kids) set in a "decaying Eastern European city". You'll play as Hayden Tenno, an elite black-ops agent who is attacked and wakes to find that he has been, well, altered.

Look closely at the image here and you'll see that Tenno is armed with what can only be described as the Glaive from Krull. Nice weapon.

It'll be on shelves in the next week or so, and is available for PS3 and Xbox 360.

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Exclusive, one-of-a-kind Xbox 360

Here's a strange but interesting juxtaposition: high fasion and video gaming.

As part of their Toronto Fashion Week event, design group Kidrobot included a fundraising project for War Child Canada. They enlisted top Canadian designers to come up with 18" vinyl dolls they call MUNNYs.

Xbox Canada commissioned Nelson, B.C. artist Patrick Thompson, who came up with a MUNNY design of fashion icon Karl Lagerfeld and paired it with a similarly painted Xbox 360.

You can bid for the MUNNY and Xbox 360 - as well as other MUNNYs created for the fundraiser - at this eBay auction.

Remember, all proceeds benefit War Child Canada.

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Radiohead's digital distribution experiment

For all the hype around Radiohead’s decision to release its 2007 album In Rainbows as a pay-what-you-want digital download, the experiment wasn’t all that groundbreaking, and ultimately amounted to nothing more than a big publicity stunt.

The band’s last album with record label EMI was 2003’s Hail to the Thief. Although it was offered multimillion-dollar contracts with other major labels, Radiohead decided to stay independent. The decision to distribute its next album digitally was intended to subvert the music industry’s promotion and marketing machine. In numerous interviews, including one conducted by David Byrne for Wired, Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke explained that the plan was to let fans preview the new album themselves, instead of the songs being filtered through journalists.

Radiohead’s managers, Bryce Edge and Chris Hufford, suggested the band could take this a step further by letting fans determine how much they were willing to pay for the album. So In Rainbows was released to the public on October 10 in the form of MP3 files, and people paid what they thought the download privilege was worth.

About a million copies of the album were downloaded in the first month it was available. According to comScore Inc., which reports Internet traffic statistics, about 40 percent of those downloads were paid for, resulting in an average price per download of US$2.26. Compared to what Radiohead would have been paid by a record label—at a generous royalty rate of 15 percent—the band made more on its own. Radiohead isn’t confirming any numbers, but the band had likely made in excess of US$3 million by the time the download offer ended on December 10.

However, by asking people to pay even a small amount you give them basic consumer rights. So when fans realized that the files they had paid for and downloaded were low quality, many felt they had been cheated. The MP3 files that were released were encoded at a bit rate of 128 kilobits per second. If you were to convert a CD without losing any sound quality, your files would be at a bit rate of 320 kilobits per second. If the download had been a free preview, which was the original plan, nobody would have complained, but some fans spent up to $200 as a show of support for Radiohead, only to find that the quality of their digital download was substandard.

Radiohead’s announcement that In Rainbows would be released on CD by independent label ATO on January 1 rubbed salt in the wound. It’s now being sold everywhere.

Hufford told the New York Times in December that he and Edge suggested that the band release only the digital album and a deluxe collector’s edition that would include an In Rainbows CD, a bonus CD, a vinyl version of the album, and limited-edition artwork. But the band overruled them and chose to release a stand-alone CD as well, believing that there would be a demand for it. Nielsen SoundScan reported that in the first week it was available, 122,000 copies of the CD version of In Rainbows were sold in North America.

Artists using the Internet to distribute their music isn’t a new thing. Toronto’s Jane Siberry, who now performs as Issa, moved the sales for her personal label, Sheeba, on-line in 1996, and adopted self-determined pricing for digital downloads in 2005. Last year, Canadian indie band Stars released In Our Bedroom After the War to digital retailers a full two months before the CD was released in stores.

Vancouver’s Nettwerk Records advocated the use of digital technology as a distribution enabler before anyone else, and music released by Nettwerk is open-source (there are no restrictions on the use or sharing of the music), in order to “encourage fans to share it with others and promote our Artists”, according to the company Web site. On his blog, cofounder and CEO Terry McBride writes that Nettwerk is in part a branding company where the artists are the brand. Fans of the artists, he suggests, are the promotion, marketing, and sales team.

Other forms of digitally distributing music include subscription models such as Rhapsody and advertising models like Spiral Frog. The most intriguing model, though, is demand-based pricing, like that used by Amie Street. When songs are first made available, they are free. The more popular a song becomes, as measured by the number of times it’s downloaded, the higher its price (to a maximum of 98 cents US).

This model seems best for emerging artists, and rewards early-adopting fans. Listeners can take a chance on something new without risking anything. As well, for recommending songs to the community, they receive credit that they can use to purchase music. The artists who are making music that people want to hear then benefit as their popularity grows. This system should really help the cream rise to the top.

In the Wired interview, Yorke explains that the download experiment worked because Radiohead has a strong fan base, which isn’t the case for all artists. Yorke’s note of caution to emerging artists was that if they are looking to sign a deal with a label, they shouldn’t give away their digital rights. Artists who do get no share of digital-download revenues, and everything points to that being the most important channel in the future.

[originally published in the Georgia Straight]

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Friday, March 21, 2008

Dead Space feature film in the works

Electronic Arts is adding another medium to its Dead Space project.

The survival horror game - inspired by films such as Alien, Event Horizon, and The Thing - is slated for release this Halloween for PS3 and Xbox 360.

Dead Space is a new intellectual property developed at EA, and the game is preceded by a six-part original comic book series written by Antony Johnston (the excellent Wasteland) and inked by Ben Templesmith (the equally excellent 30 Days of Night). The first issue is now available.

EA has also teamed up with Starz Media to develop an animated feature film that will bridge the plots of the comic series and the game. Starz plans to license the feature for television broadcast as well as release the project on DVD. The film is expected to be released at the same time as the game.

It's looking to be a very cinematic - and very creepy - project.

It's about a parasitic alien race that inhabits the bodies of other species. Like humans. Nice.

Remember the tag line for Alien? "In space, no one can hear you scream."

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