Tag Archives: ps3

Games of 2012: Journey

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2012 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. As I did last year, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2012 posts.

Journey

I was born in 1980. It wasn’t too long after my birth before I could be found playing video games.

I have lived through the Atari age, the Nintendo hey-day, and the 16-bit wars. I have watched the popularity of arcades rise and fall in long cycles. As a song famously states, I was there.

As happy as I am to gripe about the state of the industry, there are positive threads that run counter to the negative ones. And one of the best success stories of those threads is thatgamecompany’s Journey.

Journey 2

Journey is a beautiful but simple game. It resembles a 3D platformer, with a very limited control scheme – I believe there may be two buttons to use. Your goal is to travel to the light you see coming off the mountain in the distance. You may travel alone, or you may happen onto a companion – played by a randomly matched player on the network, who you can’t really communicate with.

When I consider Journey’s existence, this is what strikes me:

Journey came from a relatively small studio, one that started making games for USC game innovation lab research projects.

Journey was initially released digitally only, avoiding the cost and risk that comes with trying to get a title onto a readily shrinking number of retail shelves. (A retail version did come later, but it was a bundle of three games.)

Journey has a friction-free network function – companions drift in and out of the game, without server browsing or firewall reconfiguring or friends requests. It’s less a game with multiplayer and more a game that just involves other people.

Journey has a strange, ambiguous storyline that’s open to interpretation. I’ve read people argue it’s about life, or death, or rebirth, or companionship, or religion, or God. (I have my own opinions but I don’t wish to argue them tonight.)

Journey

Could a game like Journey exist at any other point in the gaming industry’s lifespan than right now? It feels like it could not, like the pitch would’ve been shot down and laughed out of the room by business executives. It needed to wait until the industry changed as much as it has in recent years.

For all the negativity I have about the gaming industry, I have to recognize that titles are emerging unlike anything we’ve seen before. I can only hope the industry keeps evolving, because the world needs more experiences like Journey.

(There are five games left in my Games of 2012 quiver, and all of them (save tomorrow’s game) share a similar pedigree: I can’t imagine them existing in any year other than now.)

Journey is available for the Playstation 3.

Games of 2012: Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2012 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. As I did last year, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2012 posts.

Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale

I come before you tonight to disappoint you. Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale is not the sleeper hit of the century, nor is it a bomb that would deserve a Guy Fieri-style takedown. I can’t remember the last time I felt so middle of the road about a game. (Most of this post will compare the game to the Super Smash Brothers series, which PASBR is widely accused of ripping off.)

The roster? It’s fine. There are some logical choices (Kratos, Nathan Drake, PaRappa, Ratchet); some fun outside choices (Noriko from Heavenly Sword, Spike from Ape Escape, and the feline majesty of Toro); some strange outside choices (Sir Daniel from MediEvil, Colonel Radec from Killzone); and some terrible choices (Dante from DMC, but the new one, not the traditional one; Big Daddy from Bioshock, hardly a Playstation classic). Thing is, if you’re comparing this to Smash Brothers, it’s not significantly different, as that roster follows that same range. There’s this weird belief that Smash is immune to bad characters, but the roster there has plenty of hot garbage. (R.O.B.? Wolf? Pokemon Trainer? Meta Knight? Lucario?)

If you are used to Smash play mechanics, the gameplay will probably feel wrong to you. Rather than piling damage onto your enemies and then smacking them off the level, you build your own energy meter – and then smack enemies off the level. This can feel very backwards, but that passes and eventually feels like a reasonable design decision. The game hinges on the risk/reward decision of triggering your super early or waiting for a later (and better) level. It’s not a better or worse decision, it’s just different.

The title does feel pretty skimpy in terms of content, not helped by a poor menu interface. Story mode, challenges, offline/online play – and that’s about it. Story mode are just straight up fights and no “adventure” levels (which suits me fine, as I didn’t really dig them in Smash); the challenges are in the Street Fighter style of executing on your move list. You can customize characters (via a weird per-character experience point unlocking system), but there’s no sense of history to Playstation past as the capsule toys provide in Smash.

There is one unique feature that PASBR does very well, and that is save syncing. Buying the PS3 copy of the game gets you a downloadable Vita copy for free; the games are identical, save some minor control differences to accomodate the Vita. Given the dual-platform nature, this could have easily become obnoxious, but through some very seamless network syncing of the saves, you can bash through challenges on the Vita version and have all your unlocks on the PS3 side. It just works, and works very well at that. It does help fulfill the promise of “console gaming on the go” that seems to be the only pitch of Sony’s that rings true.

Should PASBR exist? It’s hard to say. Sony has never been a company that’s developed any true mascots of its own, something Nintendo never had a problem with. But there are plenty of recognizable characters, and there’s nothing really wrong with pushing them into a strange fighting game. (I shudder to think what a roster would look like if Microsoft tried to do the same style of game.) PABSR sometimes feels like it’s trying too hard – the battlegrounds mash games up, which is fine until a Metal Gear breaks through on the Locoroco stage for no reason at all. Other times, it feels like it’s not trying hard enough – a game with so many fighting game experts in the credits shouldn’t feel so weirdly unbalanced.

It’s a few steps from being an easy recommendation to buy, but also far enough removed from being something I couldn’t recommend at all. It’s fine. Pick it up when it goes Greatest Hits? Or don’t. It’s cool either way.

Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale is available for PS3 and Vita.

Games of 2012: The Unfinished Swan

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2012 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. As I did last year, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2012 posts.

Today, a friend of mine lashed out on Twitter over a familiar argument bubbling up again:

I don’t blame him. The Internet loves to argue about things that can never truly be settled, and “are games art?” is up there on the list of Never Ending Debates. It gets particularly bad when titles with lofty aspirations and long lead times are nearing release; their game designers make grandiose statements to the press, someone disagrees, and then everyone throws down.

“Are games art?” is a pretty ridiculous question, so very broad in scope. “Is this particular game I’m talking about art?” is slightly less ridiculous, but still an exercise in subjectivity, not logic or reason. The best question I can form, if I’m trying to be introspective, is “Is this particular game doing something interesting with the medium of video games?”

My initial time with The Unfinished Swan was one of the times this year I could answer that with a “yes”. The first moment the game hands control over to you, the screen is completely white. Pressing on the joysticks appears to do nothing. With enough pawing at the controller, you summon and fling a black ball through the air, which splats satisfyingly against a wall. In the inky mess, you get clarity as to what your charge is. You throw more ink, and the world suddenly begins to reveal itself around you. Maze-like walls open up to reveal sloping paths, trees and ponds fill in around you. You’ll see yellow footprints in the distance, your breadcrumbs to help you chase down the titular swan. The game does next to nothing to hold your hand in this stretch – you will have to find your own way.

That sense of discovery and wonder in the beginning is incomparably wonderful. The way the ink splatters across the landscape created a beautiful contrasting landscape. I have deep respect for games that can run with a unique visual style, and The Unfinished Swan had it in spades. It was reminiscent of the opening minutes of Portal, as you gradually learn without the game resorting to signposting or explicit tutorials.

I loved that opening motif so much that I felt let down when the game started to add other visual elements and change the mechanics. Shadows appeared, then colors; my ink blobs changed to water blobs and I was forced to solve some more puzzles. What started as unique quest of discovery turned into a first person puzzler that feel conventional. (It’s somewhat telling that most of the media and marketing descriptions of the game don’t mention this change.) Even as the plot continued to unfold interestingly, I found myself losing interest, and left it unfinished (oh the irony!) despite what I’ve been told is a terribly short running time.

I will probably get back to it later this month and polish it off, but it’s difficult to find the motivation. I know that combination of what is essentially a bedtime story with a video game – with gameplay and visual style so tightly entwined – isn’t what awaits me if I re-enter that world. I don’t care whether or not The Unfinished Swan meets anyone’s definition of art. What I care about is if it’s interesting or unique within the expansive spectrum of video games. The beginning absolutely was; the rest, not so much.

If only there was a way to turn young Monroe around, to stop worrying about that eternally honking swan, and return to that pond I stumbled onto at the beginning.

The Unfinished Swan is available on PSN.

Games of 2011: Yakuza 4

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2011 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. Instead of my usual end-of-year game recommendations, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting one a day until Christmas. See all Games 2011 posts.

I broke out of an island prison for a crime I both did and did not commit, only to wash up ashore at the door of an orphanage run by a retired yakuza chairman.

I honed my fighting style on the roof of a building with a crazed military vet, who shot at me with a machine gun loaded with blanks.

I cared for two kittens that some homeless guys had found, which eventually lead me to find riches in a locker in an underground mall, left to take care of the cats after their caretaker passed away.

I played crane games to win prizes for my girlfriends, warbled karaoke, swung for the fences in batting cages, and played a *lot* of pachinko.

I loaned money to people in need, but rather than charge them interest, I made them demonstrate they were good people. And if they weren’t, I made them pay.

I helped magazine writers find the best restaurants, helped a ramen chef develop a new recipe, and helped an enthusastic foreigner enjoy the local social scene.

I served as a bodyguard, a bouncer, a hostess club promoter, a fill-in for a triple date, and a crime fighting sidekick.

I uncovered a massive web of deceit, brought down corrupt cops, cleared my name, and avenged the deaths of countless friends and family members.


There are plenty of great story driven games in the world, but I can’t think of many that can claim the depth of story, experience, and emotion that Yakuza 4 can.

The plot rotates between four characters – eccentric loan shark Shun Akiyama, gruff convict Taiga Saejima, dirty cop Masayoshi Tanimura, and long standing series hero Kazuma Kiryu. Their plot lines overlap and eventually converge in the final chapter, but for much of the game you’ll just be focused on their own particular domains and relationships across the sprawling city that is Kamurocho.

Let me not underplay the Yakuza world: after four main games and three spinoffs, the [character list](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Characters_of_the_Yakuza_series) is simply massive. The game world is so rich, the game offers players a “Reminisce Mode”, with ten-minute videos that encapsulate the previous games. Spending thirty minutes catching up isn’t necessary, but it certainly helps fill in the gaps.

The series is also notorious for the side activities, both in the form of side missions and just places of business you can frequent. After Yakuza 3 was released in the US with significant missing content, Yakuza 4 was released pretty much complete, and it contains an overwhelming assortment of things to do. The variety of side activities is so great, the main plot often faded into the background for me. Who cares that I can go confront the men who trashed my club? I’d rather help this woman who thinks I’m her fiancee.

Perhaps it comes without surprise that some of the joy of this game gave me came out of my desire to get back to Japan. The city of Kamurocho is somewhat accurately modeled on Shinjuku’s red light district, and feels authentic. The main streets feel busy and vibrant, while the back alleys and underground concourses can have tiny tucked away bars with a few people in them. It’s not without some gaming-induced liberties – there’s almost always someone trying to pick a fight with you – but it operates much you like would expect a real city to.

In that way, it felt like a real solution to my gripes about Saints Row: The Third yesterday. The Yakuza series comes across as unconcerned in appealing to the chaos and carnage crowd. (The breadth of the dialog might cause someone with ADD to give up before the game even starts.) Instead, it is a smart, neatly packaged, intoxicating world, ready to reward those who have the patience and discipline to help right the wrongs that occur there.

Yakuza 4 is available for the PS3.

The Other Shoe Drops: The PS3 Repair Odyssey

In May of 2007, my Xbox 360 suffered from what is commonly referred to as the Red Ring of Death. A series of four posts followed, in which:

* I spent 40 minutes on the phone with Xbox Support to request my “casket”.
* A week later, I received an extremely destroyed box that I was intended to ship my 360 back with.
* Two weeks later, I received a 360 that was not my own back. Because of Microsoft’s DRM, I then had to fight to get my purchases reactivated.
* This fight lasted another ten days, and involved a Better Business Bureau case, a text adventure, and much screaming into the phone.

Last, my launch Playstation 3 began to routinely crash after 30 minutes of use. This, as far as I can tell, is not a widespread problem – the closest parallel that Sony has is the “Yellow Light of Death”.

(Strangely, my RRoD occurred while playing Crackdown, a free-world adventure game where you play as a crime fighter with superhero powers. My PS3 issues occurred while playing inFamous, a free-world adventure game where you play as a crime fighter with superhero powers. I will not be buying Prototype, largely for the safety of my hardware.)

After the frustration I had dealing with Microsoft – a combination of poor materials, shoddy business practices, and a cavalier attitude towards the customer’s experience – I figured it would be worth documenting whatever hell Sony would put me through. Horror stories are easily found regarding service for launch units, include time frames of “months”, due to Sony no longer manufacturing that exact type of hardware. And given the bile that was spilled regarding the 360’s failures, it would only be fair to hold the PS3 up to the same light.

Continue reading The Other Shoe Drops: The PS3 Repair Odyssey

Gaming 2008: The PS3, PS2, and PSP

With my 360 still on life support, and the Wii not meeting my needs, the PS3 remains the *de facto* platform I did much of my “real” gaming in 2008. The PS2 provided my usual fixes (long RPGs and IIDX titles), while the PSP gradually shrank into nothingness.
I still maintain that PSN is the best download service across all the consoles – not just for a lot of compelling, full-blown titles, but because of a good UI, fair DRM principles, and the lack of space bucks-style currency.

## High Points & Surprises

While I can understand the frustration from those wanting a tight platformer, LittleBigPlanet is the best full-blown platforming experience I’ve had since Super Mario World. The community features are just icing on an already delicious cake.

I have bought nearly 100 songs for SingStar. It is one of my fall-back games, something I can always play to unwind.

I’ve only just started it, but kudos to Sega for Valkyria Chronicles. This – along with Disgaea 3– means I have a nearly endless supply of strategy gaming in my future.

My favorite studio this generation is PixelJunk. Every PS3 should come with PixelJunk Monsters and PixelJunk Eden. (And if you’ve played those two but not played Racers, you really should.)

Metal Gear Solid 4‘s campaign was exactly what I wanted it to be. As someone who played through the previous three games multiple times, it had the same level of absurdity and over-the-top story telling I have come to expect from Kojima Productions. It was worth waiting in line for 9 hours for.

Echochrome has the best soundtrack of any downloadable title I played this year. It provides the right contrast to the brain-rupturing puzzles.

I could sit and start at the WipEout HD UI all day. It reminds me of the best of the IIDX themes, only…you know, actually HD.

We imported Sony’s Afrika once the Chinese/English version came out. I can understand why Sony is hesitant to bring it out in the US – but this game pierces me at the core. It is the ultimate photo-geek game. I can only hope I have enough money for a zoom lens soon, because I’m tired of scaring the animals away. (I also hope they patch in an Export To XMB function, so I can upload my photos to Flickr.)

Almost all of my RPG cravings this year were filled by a game that started with the word “Persona“. All of my button pushing/disc spinning cravings were filled by two more IIDX titles. The PS2 is still good for something, I suppose!

Patapon was the sole shining point on my PSP this year.

After 10 years of playing Gran Turismo on a Dual Shock, Gran Turismo 5 Prologue convinced me I needed to buy a wheel. It’s a different – and much better – experience. Now I just need the final version.

Buzz! Quiz TV finally became a reality, and all other quiz games pale in comparison. Having had a handful of parties where I pulled out the controllers, I can only describe this game as a crowd pleaser.

## Low Points & Disappointments

Hey, Konami – way to bog down the Metal Gear Online with a needless registration process and a completely separate store!

After being a huge proponent of the first game, I had high hopes for Resistance 2 – but ended up feeling let down. It’s not bad, it’s just not gripping. It’s very middle-of-the-road and currently lost in my pile.

Had it been released last generation, SOCOM: Confrontation would have been fine. But with the current expectations of the basics for online play, it is broken garbage. Until it gets patched to a working experience – any day now, supposedly – it is the quintessential “shitty peripheral pack-in” title, and indefensible as a standalone release.

Who greenlighted Jeopardy!? Even at the new reduced $9.99 price point, it’s still $20 too expensive given the horrible presentation.

Final Fantasy: Crisis Core was mindless enough to keep me entertained but a little *too* converted for a portable gaming experience. Is it too much to ask for a proper Final Fantasy game? I’d take a remake of FF8 over Crisis Core.

## Open Questions

Does Sony know how to advertise? Buzz! Quiz TV, Singstar, LittleBigPlanet – do non-core gamers know these titles are out and absurdly fun?

Will anyone still be using Home in a year?

Contemplating Home

Contemplating Home

It’s been a strange eighteen months in the private Home beta. It’s hard to believe it’s coming to an end tomorrow.

Sony has announced that yes, tomorrow, December 11th, is the day Home finally goes into Open Beta. The indication I’ve gotten from the in-beta documentation is that we’re looking at a roughly 6PM Eastern launch, with a downtime tomorrow morning so some final housekeeping can be done.

Now, technically, the closed beta doesn’t end until tomorrow at that time, so I perhaps still cannot talk in great detail about the last 18 months. But here’s some things I’ve been mulling over about the service lately:

Gamers who spend a lot of time in a particular title tend to memorize maps. The terrain is always the same, the shopkeepers are always standing in their stores, and the town never changes. But serving 18 months in the Home beta can mess with your brain. Almost all of the areas have undergone multiple overhauls. The “Central Plaza” is on its third or fourth major version. Whatever you may remember from the early demos is probably gone now, so come in with a clean mind.

Home is not the cure to all of Sony’s woes regarding online play. It does not fill in the common holes that people point to when they line PSN up next to Xbox Live Gold. But is it supposed to? Was it ever? I’m not sure. I’m not sure Sony’s sure.

There are two things I’ve seen other fellow testers really get into: spontaneous dance parties, and wall hacks. Expect more of the first than the second as time progresses. R1 opens the Emote menu, and the dance options are at the bottom. They are all pretty awesome. (It is intentionally difficult to see in the picture above, but I am in a position only obtainable through a wall hack. I am explaining this to those who ask as only being possible through “incredible balance”. I’ve only had one person respond with an expletive.)

Above all else, Home is a good encapsulation of what Sony has focused on this generation: a reasonably pleasant user experience, missing a few things you’d probably expect, including a few things you wouldn’t have thought of, and providing a certain je ne sais quoi that makes it a fun place to visit but leaving you unsure if you really want to live there. I’m not sure if I’ll be spending a lot of time in Home, or it’ll just be something to fill the gaps – but it’s nice to know it’s there.

For The Love Of PixelJunk Racers

The first significant pack-in with a video game system was the Atari 2600’s Combat.

Combat is fairly ugly, and has simplistic gameplay. You are a tank (or biplane, or jet). Pressing Up on the joystick moves you forward; pressing Down moves you back; Left and Right turn. The Fire button lives up to its name and fires your cannon. The goal: shoot your opponent before they shoot you.

What made Combat interesting is that it wasn’t merely one game type – which it easily could have been, given the space constraints of the time. Instead, by making slight variations to the rules of the world, Atari crammed twenty-seven different game types in. A mode where bullets reflected off walls, or you had more than one vehicle, or you couldn’t see the walls.

Combat allowed deep variation through slight changes to the environment.

Nearly thirty years later, we arrive at yesterday’s release of PixelJunk Racers, a $6.99 downloadable game on the Playstation Network from PixelJunk.

In a generation full of gorgeous games, PixelJunk Racers is not the prettiest game in the world. IGN dismissed the graphics as “crisp, but unfortunately the backgrounds are horribly bland and static.”

PJR, like *Combat*, has simplistic controls. You are a car. L2 or R2 are the gas. Left and right on the directional pad change lanes. That’s literally it. Most people will pick it up in about thirty seconds.

PJR becomes interesting for the same reason Combat is: slight changes to the environment provide endless gameplay variations. The game features thirty-two game types that are all created through slight variations to the rules and physics. You’re fast, everyone else is slow – pass as many cars as you can. You’re slow, everyone else is faster – don’t get hit. You’re fast, but slowing down – run into someone else for another energy boost. And so on.

Plenty of games offer customization; it’s easy to give a gamer a bunch of sliders and controls and let the gamers figure them out. Combining these rules in interesting ways should be a challenge for the developers first, and the gamers second. Too many games cop-out and provide laundry lists of options. Developers should strive to provide many varied preset combinations of rules – and if you allow users to define their own, let those combinations be saved and, even better, shared between users.

(PJR, interesting, not only combines the rules of the world into different pre-defined game types, but then combines the different gametypes into sets of three to create pre-defined party modes. Result: party games that stay fresher longer.)

Back to PJR: the game is addictive, challenging, and flat-out fun. Yes, ultimately the mechanics are simple. Yes, the game is made up of slot cars. But isn’t that what we’re all supposed to be into these days – simple, easy to pick-up games? Casual games? PJR finds the balance between the simplistic and the complicated, the shallow and the deep, the meh and the addictive. It can appeal to the hardcore gamer who loves to grind high scores as well as the casual gamer who just wants a quick five minute distraction.

With ten tracks, offline multiplayer for up to seven, online leaderboards, and a progressive tournament mode, you’re looking at a pretty robust game for a very small cost. I highly recommend PixelJunk Racers for anyone with a PS3.

If you’re interested in other deep-variation-through-slight-change games, I invite you to investigate the Halo series (specifically the multiplayer), Airburst Extreme (for variations on a theme), and MLB 07 The Show (the “My Sliders” feature).

Friends Rosters Are The Reason For The Season

I hope everyone is having a happy (insert holiday of your choosing/belief system here).

Since it’s one of the few times of year that people are likely to get consoles, I thought that now would be an appropriate time to reitterate my social gaming information. This will help you from hunting and pecking for the appropriate posts.

If you have an Xbox 360, my XBL username is RemyVJA.
If you have a Playstation 3, my PSN username is also RemyVJA.
If you have a Wii, my friends code is 5457 9039 2738 5973.

If you’re adding me this holiday season, please leave me a comment or an email to let me know who you are and your appropriate return user information.