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Friday, January 06, 2006

Shadow of the Katamari

I've been alternating between We Heart Katamari and Shadow of the Colossus lately, which is a truly fascinating experience. To help illustrate that, I'm going to now review both games at the same time.

This game is astounding not just in it's unique graphic style, but by the fact that it revels in it's wild controls. There are times I just want to throw that Prince onto a ledge since all he seems to want to do is beat his head against it ... but it's not the kind of rabid frustration you find with, say a shooter that won't let you aim anywhere. I'm running my ass off across this vast landscape and while completely lost in the fact that not everything is under my control I'm enjoying every bit of it.

There should be some kind of award for game design where playing the game outweighs the fun of trying to finish it. I'm in no mad rush here to complete every objective or uncover every stone. This is almost not a game, it's a ride. Everything is a boss fight. Everything is a boss fight, which means that instead of hitting a treadmill every day to beat some crazy obstacle an annoyed level designer put in at three in the morning because hey, every damn game needs a jumping puzzle anyway, you are treated to a feast of events usually reserved for the end of the meal. It's all dessert with this game. It's a guilty pleasure, but it's one that you want to tell all your friends about. The game is pratically counter-culture in this day and age. It's not forty hours of gameplay because a company spent millions on assets but rather because you're likely to slow down, take your time, replay things over and over again. This is a game that found it's core and stuck with it.

Fans of the original can see the heritage shine through here but the game really manages to stand on it's own surprisingly well. It would have been easy to rely on all the same old tricks that made these developers famous in the first place ... but instead this game shows an amazing level of versatility from it's heritage. The breadth of different landscapes is interesting and invigorating and the new methods of gameplay are completely welcome.

One can only hope the developers keep this up, because this game shows that the earlier success was definately not a fluke.

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Thursday, January 05, 2006

Frosty Carnival Of Gamers

Is up over at Kill Ten Rats...

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Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Doom: The Boardgame

As indicated by the earlier Apokalyptica posts, The Girl and I sat down with some serious time playing Fantasy Flight's Doom: The Boardgame. We made up to and almost halfway up to the last scenario that comes with the game in just about three days. This is a feat not, repeated, not recommended for childrend under the age of six. They are likely to just plain go insane from lack of sleep.

Playing a boardgame translation of a video game franchise is somewhat bizarre. It takes the Doom III rendition of designs and "story", which isn't the worse thing since that update did at least provide some interesting high poly concepts of the original sprites from the game. The production value is quite high. You can tell even from holding the box, which has a rough sheen to the outside and is heavy, pardon the pun, as hell. The plastic models are excellent recreations from the game, especially the impressively massive cyberdemon.

Setup can be a bit daunting. For one thing, plan on lots of table space. Each player is going to need some room to hold on to tokens, reference sheets and cards. The board itself is laid out in sections which jigsaw together. Twice we had to dismantle earlier portions of a map to accomodate the board on The Girl's very large dining table. Most of the pieces can be punched out and ready to go in quick order, although the stands for the doors have a little to be desired as they are so tight we used a butterknife to pry them in an effort to not rip the cardboard.

Once you have your pieces, it's time to comb through the rules. All players should take a couple of passes at the main rule set and then keep the manual handy. This is essentially strategy lite, but it's not without nuances. Even up to the end we found ourselves debating the ins and outs of various rulings.

The game plays out with one Invader player taking on the other Marine players. Marines have a variety of movement options which range from simply standing and unloading into enemies or sprinting across the room. The Invader gets a handful of cards which contains various events to throw at the players and also controls the monsters in the game. Two marines can take out nearly any single baddie without much trouble, but the Invader is encouraged to throw as much force as possible and pull out dirty tricks whenever possible. The game is essentially a war of attrition. Invaders are constantly wearing down the marines with attacks. During the first scenario, it took two of us about an hour to get through the first couple hallways.

Which is another point. Experienced players might be able to make it through a scenario in a couple of hours. For the everyone else, schedule plenty of time and pack a lunch.

Course the big question is ... is it fun?

The simple answer is ... hell yes. Sorry, I'll try to stop using the word hell. I think my favorite moment was when I was low on health, low on ammo and surrounded by an imp, archvile and a zombie. Not an ideal situation. But I had a decent amount of armor, so I simply dropped a grenade on my spot ... took a hit ... but blew the hell (sorry) out of everything around me. Doom's rules are fairly easy to follow but allow for a decent range of strategy. The combat is fairly relentless but never feels redundant. A marine can choose to cautiously move through a room and take slow aimed shots ... or rush headlong with a chainsaw. One strategy isn't always better than the other, it just depends on the situation.

The biggest problem with the game is that an inexperienced Invader can easily wipe out a team of inexperienced Marines. The Girl was playing The Invader and by book rules would have won about twelve times over. Ammo is a constant concern for marines, an issue so prevalent that even the designer of the game admits that giving ammo pickups with weapon pickups is a worthy "mod" (one thing about the videogame conversion is all the parlance that carries over ... fans will call house rules "mods" and errata updates "patches). Some of the Invader event cards are particularly cruel, especially when used all at once (cards can be played at anytime depending on their conditions). Take a Dud card, which removes one ammo token, Trap In someone (jams the door behind them), and then pop a Darkness card so they can't see as far ... and you likely have one dead marine.

A couple times one night I was just running around because I had no ammo and could find no ammo and didn't have much luck against the Hell Knight using my fist.

However, while this can produced some early frustration it's also still plenty of fun. As the marines master the rules a little better, they get a feel for how to survive and not constantly burn their ammo supply. An expansion pack is due out with new monsters, deathmatch rules, and new scenarios ... and we're kinda eyeing it. If you have a group of 3 or 4 people which might be into some tabletop fragging, you probably don't need to look much further than this game.

Some tips:

- Invaders should read the whole scenario they are about to play a couple of times, to get down any odd intracies like teleporters or key cards.

- Marines can use the Ready move, place an Aim order and immeadiately discard it for an unmoved aimed attack ... or as I started calling it "Ready, Aim, Fire". Aimed attacks allow for rerolls and are extremely handy for keeping that last ammo token around longer.

- Fists and chainsaws are far more useful than they might seem.

- Both the event cards and marine cards (which add character abilities) are best used in conjunction, so keep an eye out for where they complement each other.

- Sometimes it's better to soften up a dark room with some kind of incendiary device.

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Tuesday, January 03, 2006

TUAW on Mac Mini Console

Apparently another blogger thinks the Mac Mini could get it's game on in the living room, just like I've suggested. The Unofficial Apple Weblog picked up the idea and then proceeded to bash it:

Interesting speculation, but I think it's just wrong. Apple hasn't been interested in being in the gaming console market for more than a decade. For the vast majority of game manufacturers, making their games run on Macs is an afterthought if ever at all. Already they must consider four versions of their games: Xbox, PS2, GameCube, and PC, and as most gamers know, some games never make even to the four major platforms. And now....if this speculation is correct, they'd have to consider a very small 5th platform? It's just not going to happen, even if the new Mac mini can run PC games natively (Wine-like execution layer, Windows-native OS, etc.). Furthermore, Microsoft has been buying their way into the gaming market for years, taking a loss on every Xbox ever sold (to the tune of $300 on each Xbox 360) and they're still not "killing" their competitors Sony and Nintendo.

Apple doesn't need to be in the gaming console market to succeed in creating a successful media center product. Simply creating a product that's attractive and easy-to-use--perhaps incorporating a nice programmable remote control--product to play media content from our PCs and from the iTunes Store will be enough to make it successful.
-- Mac Mini as Gaming Console?

So let me step on their logic for a little bit.

1. Apple is not interested in games
Well, I don't think anyone expected Apple to be interested in MP3 players a little while ago. While that's clearly an unfair example since the two products don't even marginally resemble each other in terms of market possibilities, it's valid in the sense that it's not easy to guess what Apple is going to do next based on it's history.

So simply because the Pippin failed isn't validation that Apple doesn't have it's eye on the game industry.

2. Nobody wants to port to a fourth platform
This is kind of an odd theory based on three reasons.

Number one, it's been widely crowed in Apple circles that the Intel switch will greatly aid the ability for progammers to code cross-platform for OS X.

Number two, currently most developers aren't willing to port for two platforms, let alone four ... otherwise we'd see a lot of PC only titles on the Mac.

Number three, Nintendo relies heavily on it's first party development team with a close relationship with second and third party groups. Rarely do port sell terribly well on the GameCube and previously ports were almost non-existent on the Nintendo 64. Consoles don't require ports to succeed.

3. If Microsoft can't "kill", Apple can't "wound"
I've talked about this before, but let me try putting it a different way.

In deciding on a strategy to try and beat Sony to the living room, Microsoft seems to have adopted Sony's own strategy against Nintendo. Burn cash early in attempt to gain marketshare and hope to regain profitability down the road. Sony took more of a Kodak approach, losing on the hardware but making it up with value add items (i.e. games and controllers instead of film and development), but Microsoft took a more generational look at the problem. Microsoft lost big on the original Xbox with the hopes of using it to gain profit years down the road.

It's not a bad strategy. Some have called it genius, I think that's a bit too much. Actually, I think it's way too much. It's essentially taking an existing plan and adding really deep pockets. It's pretty unoriginal and uninventive. But it's not ineffective.

It's also, as Nintendo has shown, not the only strategy. You don't have to have deep pockets to play the game. An existing brand name helps. Added or perceived value missing from the competitors works. Having a compeletely different price point, particularly a profitable one, also makes for worthy competition.

And I'll hit on those points again in a second. Right now, let's ask the compelling reasons why Apple can't afford to ignore the gaming market.

1. I spent all this money and it won't even play games
The 360 presents a pretty serious problem to Apple's intrusion into the living room. It's a media based machine which networks quite easily to the Internet and a user's local machines. It's an elegant and user friendly design in terms of both software and hardware. It can talk to iPods. It can play some serious games.

In other words, it's the Mac of the Microsoft world. Except ... it plays games. Oh, and it costs less.

2. Living rooms are multi-function areas
The iPod and the Mac have very different challenges. The iPod is a specific device for a specific task. The Mac is a multi-function device. If I'm going to place this thing next to my television, it's going to have to do the things I need in the living room. Play music, archive videos ... and increasingly one of the things people do in their living room is playing games.

3. OS X attracts a younger demographic
OS X is still a relatively new OS and is far more attuned to the thirtysomething crowd than the forty or fiftysomething. The importance of this generation gap is simple. The computer users of tomorrow are far more likely to be gamers than the users of today. Apple is missing out on a key component of their main demographic if they take a blind eye to the gaming industry.

So now ... back to those points. Could Apple adopt a Nintendo style strategy for the living room? Of course.

Existing brand name? Check.
Perceived value add? Check.
Affordable yet profitable price point? Check.

And Apple has shown all of those with the iPod. It's a similar strategy that Apple has proven capable of using time and time again. They don't need to make a big E3 splash or spend millions on advertising. The missing part is a strong first party development dedicated to making valuable entertainment commodities solely for Apple's hardware. Nintendo doesn't rely on ports because they take the charge themselves and put Mario, Samus, Donkey Kong, Zelda and the rest of the Mario Party crew out on the front lines.

I spent about four hours on Friday playing Mario Kart DS. Nintendo still makes some of the best games on the planet and as long they continue to do so ... they'll have a presence in the living room. If Apple isn't willing to try the same, they may well be forsaking the next empty spot next to someone's television to the companies capable of spending the money to get there instead.

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Sunday, January 01, 2006

Apokalyptica Update

The Girl and I stayed in last night, quite the rarity for a New Year's for us. Normally we're the first in, last out, types. Tragically, The Girl was feeling quite miserable and I'm still waiting for my allergy meds to kick in, so we decided best to take a pass this year.

Most of our last two days has been spent with Doom: The Boardgame, which makes for quite the Apokalyptica celebration. It took us some time to get it all setup and understand it on Friday night, but it's been quite the fest since then. I'll post a longer review later, but the short version is: extremely high production values, lots of fun possibilities, addictive gameplay but terribly unbalanced. While I've read reports that the game designer defends his setup because he can win any scenario on either side. Well, OK. But even the lucky beginner can sometimes win at Monopoly on their first outing. Last night, the "Invader" player (think Dungeon Master with a serious grudge and attitude problem) had to give up several freebies to keep the game going.

Course, the game is still fun. Which is probably an even better defense of the game. We'll be picking up on the third scenario once we get out Apokalyptica pancakes off the table.

Last night's Apokalyptica movie was Big Trouble In Little China. The movie doesn't rate high on the Apoklayptica scale since the threat of world domination by Lo Pan is pretty well down-played. But as Jack Burton always says, what the hell.

Donnie Darko, the more I think of it, may be the best Apokalyptica movie out there.

Tonight is probably either Army of Darkness or Resident Evil.

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