Cathode Tan - Games, Media and Geek Stuff
logo design by man bytes blog

Friday, June 10, 2011

Armchair E3 2011: Sony

Sony deserves, I think, credit for at least being the company with enough muscle to trail Nintendo as the #2 handheld gaming platform. That might sound like a back handed complement, but the path leading up to the Gameboy, DS and 3DS is littered with technology which really couldn't even be considered a runner-up.

Having the Vita their big push now seems a bit like a product plan set in place years ago that nobody forgot to cancel. It's not the Vita is bad - in fact it looks like might actually be the most awesome handheld gaming device ever created by man. Someone has clearly been taking notes on the flaws of the PSP, PSP Go, etc. But even Nintendo is having a hard time keeping handheld gaming in their mighty grasp, with the 3DS falling behind the DS in sales and having little sign of picking up anytime soon. The cheaper DS still clobbered the 3DS last month (though the 3DS cremated the PSP, so...).

If this was last year, I could understand Nintendo and Sony's not having an appropriate response to the onslaught of smartphones and tablets coming out earlier this year. What's odd is that the Sony Experia, with PlayStation certification and a little title called Minecraft, seems a more intelligent response to the current mobile scene than the Vita.

However, all hope for the Vita is I think not lost. The PSP might not have the same size demographic as the DS, but Sony's mobile gamers are quite loyal and since the Vita is well designed ... Sony might be able to hit sales goals if they've been made rational and not overly optimistic. And Sony seems to have potentially outflanked Nintendo, whether it was intentional or not.

And it could be crippling to Nintendo.

I'll have more on the Wii U later, but let's assume Sony pushes harder for the kind of continous client, tight integration that the Vita has with the Ruin demo for the PS3. PSP tethering with the PS3 is already in the bag, and one has to wonder how hard it would be for Sony to replicate some of the Wii U's thunder. It would take what ... some fancy custom VNC software to play my Vita games on my HDTV with my PS3 as an intermediary? OK, so it would have to be some pretty fancy VNC ... but if Sony could steal some of Nintendo's features and position them as value adds for the Vita? That would be a serious win for Sony and potentially a serious blow to Nintendo.

Sony gets high points for showing off new games with new ideas as well. Microsoft's Kinect push is solid, but doesn't show much new innovation for the game. Sony demo'd several games I'm really looking forward to trying out, and much of it feels fresh and new.

But letting Microsoft walk away with a Minecraft exclusive? With Kinect? After all that ballywho about it being on the Experia? That's just embarrassing.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Armchair E3 2011: Microsoft

Not only is this totally armchair E3 in that I've never been to an E3, but I'm not even a 360 user. And hence some might think that I would easily find fault with Microsoft's offering...

But that's really not the case. In fact, I think Microsoft might have the smartest strategy this year. Microsoft managed to sell more units of Kinect than, well most anyone has sold anything and their E3 keynote seems to appropriately position to match that success. The worst thing Microsoft could do is to ride off into the sunset assuming that was the end of the story while planning on the Xbox 360++/720/Full Circle Squared.

Microsoft is, instead, riding on the safe bet that their are several Kinect users out there waiting for new games. There might not be anything particularly bullish going on here, especially since it seems that the non-Kinect announcements include such complete non-surprises as a more Call of Duty (shock!), more Gears of War (no way!) and more Halo (wow! really?).

Short version: if you're a 360 user, and especially a Kinect user, expect more of the same with some additional bells and whistles. There's no need to knock this strategy in general, it worked well for Nintendo for years (another Zelda?? OMG!) and I think Kinect users should be happy that the big M is throwing support behind the product instead of simply cashing the checks.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Hunted: The Demon's Forge

Hunted: The Demon's Forge is the very definition of a mixed bag. It's been described as a fantasy setting version of Gears, though Army of Two is probably a better analogy in the fact that the game is deeply rooted in co-op play, even when you're just in the single player mode.

It's difficult to know where to start with a title like Hunted, since it is such a tangled knot of good and bad. I suppose we could begin with the average stuff, which isn't much. It uses the Unreal 3 engine to good, though not great, effect. The character design and world setting is fairly cookie cutter fantasy stuff, with the story being told through a combination of unlocked movies and stories told by the deceased via the in-game deathstone. There's a very heavy use of buddy gates to insure that you and your partner stay together and the loot mechanics are designed as such that there's never a question to splitting things up.

On the good front, Hunted offers up some tight combat mechanics, including melee - which isn't the easiest thing to do with an FPS based engine ike Unreal. Sniping with either the crossbow or bow is entertaining as well, and when you start combining the fights with magic, there is some truly great fun to be had. Having one player lift enemies up, and then the other freeze them - it's very gratifying to watch them shatter. There's actual strategy and teamwork to be had here, and working together feels the way a coop game should feel.

However, if the core of this game is based on solid mechanics - the entirety of that core is constantly challenged by flaws, bugs and quirks which kick the game in the knees and quite often in the head. These start from the very first moment the post-tutorial game kicks off, with a serious disconnect between the player and basics of the game and the level of difficulty the game starts out with. Be ready to get killed repeatedly for a while, especially at any level above Casual, before truly getting the hang of using cover, utilizing magic, being decent at melee, sniping head shots, etc. There seems to be an assumption, design wise, that the tutorial level should properly prepare players for the game - and it simply is not the case.

The difficulty level is often quite brutal, even on Casual mode. This is especially true early on when the characters aren't leveled up enough to hold multiple potions to revive and heal as needed. Most of the enemies can cut health away quite quickly, and so having to manage that single health potion gets annoying and hoping your partner still has the ability to revive you can be an early indicator that all the combat fun may be coming to a quick end.

Worse, however, is Hunted's completely inane concept of checkpoints. Checkpoints are reserved only for the start of major portions of the map and so a sudden ambush can send you and your partner back about a half hour or so of gameplay. Worse is that real save points are even more reserved, and there's no clear indication as to which is which - meaning that knowing when it's safe to quit a session is utter guesswork. Secret/side portions of the map are sometimes not counted as their own checkpoint, which means you can find yourself repeating large portions of the game.

And speaking of the map, I had originally thought to give the game some props for level design in general, but any good there is tossed out around the midgame where you will find yourself enveloped in complete darkness frequently - no matter what gamma setting you might chose. This happens so often that I have to wonder if inXile was afraid how their dungeon was appearing and so simply decided to just make it completely black in places. You can use flaming arrows and/or certain spells as a light source - but this feels like an accidental effect and not an intentional design choice.

Gameplay bugs crop up more frequently than one would like. At one point, we had explored an area where you need to collect runes only to find the game had forgotten to actually place the runes. Another spot had us stuck completely on the map and hence requiring another annoying long checkpoint restart.

Perhaps in a culmination of the above, we're currently stuck on a boss scene where we have to run frantically across a dimly lit area and apparently any misstep will cause us to be squashed and we have to try again.

Truth is, we're such coop nuts that we've actually been enjoying our time with Hunted despite many of the flaws, but it is at best a very close call. I can't safely recommend the game in the current state, though I would love to see either a patch or DLC perhaps be able to overcome the problems.