Author Archive | Jared Newman

Prince of Persia: A Touching Tale of Two Characters

Prince of PersiaSometimes, even the best games don’t reach out and touch me. The Halos, Half-Lifes and Grand Theft Autos of this medium provide an interesting window on the world, but their characters are often mere reflections of the player. For that reason, those games have a hard time conveying raw, emotional impact.

That’s why Prince of Persia–Ubisoft’s new reimagining of a venerable gaming franchise for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC–is so refreshing. The game carries quite a few flaws and frustrations, but it’s the rare title that offers a little feeling along the way.

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TIME’s Games of the Year: Some Shockers from the Mainstream Media

timegamingTIME magazine has delivered its top 10 list for Games of the Year, and I’m not the only one who’s surprised.

The indie darling Braid ranked second,  beating out big budget sequels to Rock Band and Gears of War. There’s also an iPhone Game (Fieldrunners) and a Flash game (Hunted Forever) in the mix.  If you’re curious, Grand Theft Auto IV was picked as the winner.

Overall, this year’s choices look smarter than 2007’s snoozer of a list, and Cole Stryker at 61 Frames Per Second rightly suggests that this represents “a meaningful shift in the way media evaluates games.”

It reminds me of a personal anecdote from a few months ago. A representative from The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric sent me an e-mail saying they were about to air a series on video games, and would I mind posting about it on my personal blog. Now, the Mainstream Media has a reputation for being unkind in their portrayal of video games and gamer culture, so my first reaction, without reading the rest of the e-mail, was to get on the defensive.

But when I read about the stories this rep was peddling, I found them to be fairly tame, and certainly pro-gamer in their coverage. One story discussed gaming’s  positive effects on children. Another talked about Spore, and the third featured Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry’s thoughts on how Rock Band 2 helped him bond with his son. Behind the curve? Sure, but it was a far cry from the usual “video games will eat your children” angle.

It gave the distinct whiff of an olive branch. After all, gamers had staged a massive backlash less than a year ago against a television pundit, who blasted one of 2007’s best games without playing it. Mass Effect gained notoriety for including a sex scene with partial nudity, and when Cooper Lawrence appeared on Fox News to decry the game, the result was an Amazon Bomb — a barrage of zero-star ratings for Lawrence’s latest book. She later apologized, telling the New York Times that she “misspoke’ about the game.

Since then, we’ve seen a terrific profile of Gears of War 2 designer Cliff Bleszinski in the New Yorker, this series of stories from Katie Couric’s program and now Time’s top 10 list. Sure, there was some hysteria over Grand Theft Auto IV, but that’s just tradition at this point.

I’d like to think there is a change in mainstream games coverage on the horizon, and less as a result of threats from angry gamers and more from a desire to participate in thoughtful reporting and criticism. Either way, it’d be great to see even more of it.

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Survey Says Gaming Isn’t Just For the Nerdy. Or Is It?

Did you think computer and video games were just a hobby for geeky Otakus and adolescent boys? A new study from from the Pew Internet and American Life Project suggests otherwise, claiming that more than half of American adults play.

Here’s how the AP paints the picture:

After a day of dirty diapers and “Dora the Explorer,” of laundry and homework time, when her four kids are finally asleep, Sarah Ninesling begins roaming the ruins of a post-apocalyptic Washington, D.C., fighting mutants to help save the survivors of a nuclear war.

It turns out this stay-at-home mom plays Fallout 3, World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online to blow off steam. But this anecdote is deceptive, as most gamers aren’t so hardcore.

We’ve seen studies like this before, showing how games are a hobby enjoyed by many. Industry advocates like the Entertainment Consumers Association love touting these stats when defending the medium. But the side of gaming that looks ugly in the eyes of concerned parents, politicians, and Jack Thompson remains a niche, despite what Pew tells you.

Writing for VentureBeat, Chris Morrison said that your Halo and World of Warcraft players are roughly 20 million strong. By comparison, the contingent of gamers that prefer simpler entertainments such as Bejeweled, Diner Dash, and Solitaire is comprised of 200 million people, and the “casual games” industry that makes the latter titles contends that their audience is even larger.

Certainly, the games you choose add nuance to statistics on play, but how often you enjoy them also has a role. A survey of online gamers from 2006 by Parks Associates found that the “power gamers” that account for 30 percent of retail revenue are just 11 percent of the online gaming population. The majority are “social, liesure and dormant” gamers.

I should still be happy with Pew’s study, as it suggests games are relevant to people of all ages.  But then again, we knew that already. No one stops playing chess when they get older, and the same should be true for timeless digital diversions like Tetris and Solitaire. But the inference that most people slay dragons and shoot radioactive mutants in their spare time? That’s just misleading.

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IPhone Game Gets a More G-Rated Name

iphone2For reasons unexplained, an upcoming iPhone game once known as Drug Lords will have its name changed to the more innocuous Underworld, according to the British Web site Pocket Gamer.

Honestly, the original name seems like more of an eye-catcher, reminding me of “Drug Wars” for the TI-83 calculator, my premiere method of slacking off in high school. You started as a small-time hustler, selling ludes, trading up for weed and slowly working your way to glory as a smack dealer. This was way better than calculus.

But I digress. The meat of the issue arose on Wednesday, when Edge Magazine pinged Apple on the news and got a typical nonresponse. The company said it “does not discuss its internal strategies as we prefer to focus on our products and services.”

Oh, Apple. The internal strategies are the interesting part. We want to know what’s acceptable when it comes to easily accessible digital storefronts like the App Store. At this point, it’s pretty confusing. First, you allowed us drop $1,000 on a vanity application. Then, you denied us the God-given ability to pass gas. Now, we can sell drugs, but you’re reluctant to tell us up front.

I’m all for games that tackle mature themes, so I love the fact that Apple gave this game the go-ahead, but why the name change?

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Xbox Games by Xbox Users

xbox360In theory, the concept of Xbox Live Community Games is pretty great. For $100, anyone with a bit of programming knowledge gets access to a development kit and can start making games for the Xbox 360. After a bit of peer review, garage developers can send their creations out to the open market and name their own price (forfeiting a cut of the profits to Microsoft, of course).

We’ve given Microsoft a solid couple of weeks to bulk up its selection of games (See also our coverage of Netflix for Xbox 360 and the New Xbox Live Experience). Prices range from the Gamerpoint equivalent of $2.50 to $10, but honestly I’m too cheap to buy them all for the sake of this post. Fortunately, all the games have timed trials, giving a pretty good idea of what’s worth your money to keep playing. After the jump, a rundown of some of my favorites, plus a few thoughts.

In The Pit: One of the most interesting selections available, this adaptation of an existing PC game contains no graphics. Players control a blind monster who feeds off humans that fall into its sunken lair. The screen is black; only sound and the vibration feedback of the Xbox 360 controller can guide you in the hunt. Headphones are recommended.

Aaron’s Ping Pong: Yes, it’s Pong. Unsurprisingly, it’s one of the most popular Community Games of the moment. The trial version is long enough to carry out an entire game, so don’t fret if you just can’t bear to purchase one of the oldest games of all time on one of the newest consoles.

Snake360: Another retro clone, the classic Snake game is revived here with over 200 levels, cooperative play, a battle mode and several special challenges. Its inspiration has endured through the years next to Spider Solitaire and Snood as the perfect time waster, and this one will likely eat up a good amount of hours as well.

sin(Surfing): There’s little to this game except for its coolness. Your avatar skates happily along on a constantly shifting sin wave, with only the goal of performing elaborate tricks while sailing over each crest. As you build up speed, the rocking-yet-ethereal soundtrack rises in pitch, only to come warbling down if you goof up and crash into the waves. Worth the $2.50 just to support the idea itself.

The most successful Community Games either innovate beyond the professional selections of Xbox Live Arcade or offer retro, familiar play that those other games are too proud to touch. There’s a decent amount of polish on some games, such as the Contra-inspired shooter Weapon of Choice and the cartoon fighter Funky Punch XL, but they do little to distinguish themselves from the games that Microsoft picks for its Arcade catalogue. Community Games will have to find a niche to sustain itself, and right now the trend is toward both obscure titles and shameless clones of proven ideas.

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Sorry, Video Game Critics: Nobody’s Listening

Sony Little Big PlanetBad news for those of us who like unique video games: In its fourth week on the U.S. market, the Playstation 3 exclusive LittleBigPlanet has fallen out of the top 20 in weekly sales. This is despite a Metacritic score of 95 percent and quite a few perfect ratings from noteworthy review outlets.

Obviously, there’s going to be some trepidation over new game franchises, and it doesn’t help that the Playstation 3 has a relatively small install base compared to the Wii and Xbox 360. But a recent survey by Ad-Ology Media Influence on Consumer Choice suggests a  more surprising reason for LittleBigPlanet’s commercial failure: Compared to television advertisements and online videos, gamers just don’t listen to us critics that much.

The survey found that 70 percent of game and console purchasers based their decisions at least partly on TV ads, and 54 percent were influenced by online videos. Only 38 percent of those surveyed were significantly influenced by online reviews. In the golden 18-24 demographic, a staggering 84.9 percent said commercials and other information from TV affected their purchases. Our egos aside, seeing a fine game like LittleBigPlanet slip through the cracks is discouraging.

So how did LittleBigPlanet advertise itself? In Europe, TV spots focused on the game’s hallmark level creation tools. As cool as they are, I’ve got to wonder how many non-hardcore consumers will be sold on the idea in 30 seconds. On our side of the pond, we heard about how you could dress the characters up as heroes from another Playstation brand, and we got a spiel about the nature of fun while some gameplay in the background goes unexplained. It’s hardly the stuff that sends you running out to GameSpot.

Compare LittleBigPlanet’s ads to the delicate mix of guns, explosions and gallows humor in the Call of Duty: World at War commercials and you can see why the latter game is effortlessly stomping the charts this week, despite being a simple rehash of last year’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.

An optimist might say original games aren’t necessarily doomed, they just needs better marketing. But I believe the advertising problem is inherent to these kinds of games. LittleBigPlanet, while simple in its evolved approach to the classic platforming genre, is tough to explain in a short TV spot. I actually had no idea what the game was about until I started reading reviews. The problem is, most people don’t do that.


Netflix on the Xbox 360: Not What It Could Be or Should Be

xbox360When I first heard about Microsoft bringing the Netflix’s streaming movie service to the Xbox 360, I pictured myself not in the usual hunched gamer stance on the couch, but just laying there, wireless controller in hand, 12,000 movies at my fingertips. That’s what technology is about, right? It’s connectivity with all the things you want, making life easier.

It was not to be. Xbox 360’s Netflix service is crippled by the inability to browse and select movies directly from the console. Instead, you have to search Netflix’s Web site on a computer and add movies to your queue from there. And this is after you download the Netflix program on the Xbox, register an account on your computer, go back to the Xbox for an activation code, then return once more to the computer to enter the code.

Do I sound lazy? Maybe, but think of the possibilities. You’re at home with some friends. They want to watch a movie but don’t want to go to Blockbuster. It’d be great to turn on the Xbox and choose a film by committee. Or maybe you’re entertaining a significant other, trying to rationalize your nerdy gaming box with a library of instantly available flicks. You get the idea.

To make things worse, Netflix’s online browser is already broken. Searching the service’s database is only possible for hard copy rentals. The instant-watch selections can only be searched alphabetically or by category. Good luck finding that one movie you wanted to see among 11,999 other titles.

In fairness, the streaming itself is great. Watching Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (don’t ask) on a 64-inch, standard definition television, I momentarily forgot the Internet was involved. I also had no problem loading up the streaming queue with over 50 movies, preventing quite a few tedious trips back to the computer. Still, there’s no denying how great it would be to have it all.

Microsoft has kept mum on this issue. A spokesman told me that there are no announcements on future Netflix queue management. Let’s hope that changes.


The New Xbox Experience Makes Life Easier, Sells Things

xbox360Xbox 360 users got a thorough reskinning of their console’s dashboard this week. The one conclusive opinion I can offer is that “The New Xbox Experience” is markedly smoother and shinier than the old one. Other than that, I’m still debating whether this is actually a slicker way to navigate my console of choice or a veiled attempt to sell me more downloadable content. After the jump, a breakdown of the new features.

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Gears of War 2: A Sterling Sequel for Xbox

If video games are the modern-day incarnation of sci-fi and action films, Gears of War 2 is a true blockbuster. Two Christmases ago, Gears of War became the de facto Xbox 360 system seller when Halo 3 didn’t pan out for a holiday launch. This year, pre-orders for the sequel surpassed those for the original, making Gears of War 2 the one of the biggest video game releases of the season.

Unlike a movie, which delivers a two-hour adrenaline rush, a white-knuckle action game is obligated to stay thrilling through 10 or 15 hours of play. With a sequel comes the added challenge of avoiding rehashes and finding new sources of “wow.” Gears of War 2, predictably, has its saggy spots, but it genuinely tries to keep you entertained throughout.

Marcus Fenix in Gears of War 2

You play Marcus Fenix, a futuristic soldier defined by his unrealistically grizzled voice and unwavering support for his army’s mission. The plot picks up several months after the first game’s conclusion, when the humans of Sera appeared to blow up the underground home of the oppressive Locust race. Naturally, this only riled the enemy, and Gears of War 2 finds the humans on the ropes but staging a desperate offensive.

Gears of War 2, like the last game, has a way of marginalizing its plot. The characters embark on hours-long missions based on what seems like the slightest whim or scrap of intel. By the game’s conclusion, you might still wonder what exactly you’re doing besides shooting things, but this is likely the byproduct of a story that doesn’t linger long before yielding to the action. Like the best Stallone or Schwarzenegger flick, the plot is secondary to the spectacle of guns and gore.

The hallmark of Gears of War is its use of cover. With one button press, Fenix clings to any nearby flat surface, allowing him to hide from walls of enemy gunfire. One trigger button on the Xbox 360 controller makes him pop out of cover to take aim, and the other trigger, obviously, shoots.

The result is a game of territories, in which you’re always scrambling for the best vantage point against your enemies. Fenix’s arsenal hasn’t changed much since the last game, combining standard weapons—rifle, pistol, shotgun, sniper rifle and rocket launcher—with more exotic selections, such as an exploding crossbow and a satellite-guided laser beam. In close quarters, you can slap a grenade on your opponent’s back or slice him in half with a bayonet-mounted chainsaw. The one new feature of combat allows players grab downed foes by the neck and use them as “meat shields.” Parents, take note of the “M for Mature” rating.

As a foundation, Gears’ duck-and-cover action is solid. But even the best game mechanics grate after 12 hours of play. Fortunately, the game is littered with special sequences that defy the series’ famed shootouts. You’ll ride on various vehicles and living creatures, explore the innards of a subway-sized monster, uncover a secret laboratory guarded by long-forgotten security drones and do battle with a beast that strangely resembles the Predator. Indeed, there are times where you’ll even miss blasting Locust grunts.

A Locust Outpost in Gears of War 2

As for those typical shootouts, they do drag in some spots. The first few chapters in particular seem uninspired, causing the game to actually pick up speed toward the middle acts. The same is true with some later chapters, in which you’ll shoot your way through an unusually lengthy Locust stronghold.

It makes you wonder whether a shorter campaign would better serve Gears of War 2’s many other diversions. Online multiplayer isn’t much different this time around, but it’s just as addictive, with teams of five tangling in deathmatch or new objective games. A “horde” mode offers instant action, pitting you against waves of Locust. And you can always bring a friend, online or at home, into the campaign mode, picking up from where you left off on your own. We’ve previously lamented the death of split-screen multiplayer, but Gears of War 2 remains a shining example of how it can still be done. Your best kills and the sweetest action sequences are even better when shared with someone else.

I approached this game with skepticism. Sequels have scorned me before, promising the world but delivering more of the same. In a sense, Gears of War 2 can’t avoid that trap. Despite all the fun I had, the game didn’t floor me like the original. True, it has shinier graphics and epic environments, but neither awakened me to the next console generation in the way the first game did.

But, admittedly, that’s a pitfall in any sequel. At least this one’s a winner.

Sinkhole in Gears of War 2


Game Companies in Trouble? That Isn’t Necessarily Bad News For Games

It’s been a rough couple of weeks for the video game industry, once touted as recession-proof.

The carnage began last Thursday, when Electronic Arts announced a 14 percent drop in stock, followed by a cut of 500 to 600 jobs–6 percent of the workforce. THQ followed suit by sending pink slips to a third of the staff from one studio and shutting down at least four others entirely.

I have a soul, so let me first say that it’s terrible when people lose their jobs, especially at a time like this. But on the bright side, the overall quality of video games themselves aren’t likely to suffer as a result.

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