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Excitebike 3D Both Exciting and Free

No High Scores

When the 3DS’ much anticipated eStore, or whatever the hell they’re calling it, drops, Nintendo doesn’t want you to ignore the firmware that brings it. I honestly have no idea who wouldn’t want the ability to buy games digitally, or the free web browser that will also come with the update, but Nintendo is so worried you’ll throw your 3DS down in disgust and smash it with a hammer lest it be infected by more ones and zeroes that they’re going to give you a free 3D version of Excitebike to go with your firmware update. Right now, this offer has only been confirmed for Japan, so it’s possible those of us not in Japan will get a big bowl of nothing along with our free eShop and free web browser, but hopefully Nintendo will remember that there are people on this side of the ocean that want to play 20 year old games in stomach churning 3D.

3D Excitebike is the first in a line of 3D Classics Nintendo will be releasing, all of which are classic Nintendo games 3D-afied, in case the title isn’t clear enough. I’m all for nostalgia, but come on. 3D Ocarina, 3D Excitebike, 3D Nintendogs, 3D StarFox. The only new 3D game Nintendo has put out is Steel Diver and it sucked. I don’t want old, good games made in 3D, I want new, good games made in 3D. Here’s hoping Kid Icarus brings the new 3D thunder.

Red Faction: Armageddon Demo Next Week

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I’ve said before that I have no idea what to expect from Red Faction: Armageddon. One thing I can expect is that I won’t be playing it on my gamertag. Two difficulty based achievements? Thanks but, no thanks Volition. Luckily, if you’re in the dark about the game like I am, we can have the light of truth blasted into our faces next week thanks to a demo of the game. The demo will hit both the 360 and the PS3 on May 3rd, provided Sony can get it’s PSN stuff together by then. No word on a PC demo despite the PC version releasing the same day as the other platforms, something that is both silly and strange. By that I mean that the lack of a PC demo is both silly and strange, not that releasing on the same day is silly and strange. I’ll be quiet now.

Team Assault: Baptism of Fire Announced

Time for a little turn based tactical gameplay, even if it is, yet again, World War II. I swear those Germans are one tough nut to crack. This looks right up my alley and is set for a summer 2011 release.

PR Ahead:

Matrix Games (www.matrixgames.com), Slitherine (www.slitherine.com), and Zeal (www.teamassault-game.com) are thrilled to announce Team Assault: Baptism of Fire – a beautifully crafted 3D turn-based tactical game set during World War II.

Team Assault: Baptism of Fire is a 3D turn-based tactical game where players take command of infantry squads to engage the enemy in intense close combat. Using an objective-control system, players must use wits and the geography around them to secure tactically important points and dominate the enemy. Although the combat system is turn-based, the game play can be as fast paced and dynamic as you’d like. Dynamic turns, counter actions and continual feedback keep you constantly engaged while still giving you enough time to make important decisions to change the course of battle.

Team Assault boasts an in-depth (a) combat system that both favors realism and exciting gameplay. Weapon accuracy and penetration, cover versus weapon penetration, recoil, encumbrance and wounded soldiers are only some of the included features. Also included are near limitless customization options. The included map editor and force creator will allow you to design finely tuned squads that perfectly suit your needs and command styles. A map editor is also included so constructing all new tactical puzzles and environments is possible as well!

Get more information on Team Assault: Baptism of Fire from its official product page here: http://slitherine.com/games/TA_BoF

PlayStation Tablets Incoming

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Not one to be left out in the portable computing space, Sony announced today that they’ll be bringing not one, but two tablets to the market in the fall of 2011. Both tablets will run Android, both will have WiFi and 3G/4G coverage and both will be PlayStation Certified which means they’ll be able to play all of the PlayStation games currently available to Sony’s newest mobile darling the Experia Play.

The tablets come in two different flavors with one a more traditional tablet, although with an off center design resembling a magazine that’s been folder back on itself. Called the S1, it sports a single 9.4 inch screen with both front and rear facing cameras.The S2 sports two 5.5 inch screens positioned one atop the other in a clamshell design.

Currently there’s no information on pricing or when the tablets will be available past the fantastically vague “fall” label.

Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword Has Gone Gold

With Fire & Sword is officially ready for public consumption and will be released on May 3rd for $15. We’ll have much more on it soon, as I continue killing bandits.

PR Ahead:

Paradox Interactive today announced that Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword has officially gone gold. With Fire & Sword will be released on May 3, 2011. Become a mercenary or join one of five battling factions, to conquer, destroy or create empires. In this open sandbox world you choose your allies and enemies, what provinces to conquer, which castles to siege and what quests to embark on.

With Fire and Sword builds and expands upon the highly regarded combat system from Mount & Blade: Warband. Firearms and battle formations based off real-world military strategies have been introduced to the battlefield. Also, muskets and pistols can now be used as sidearms in hand-to-hand combat to quickly drop your foes. In addition to the single player mode, Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword also provides a host of original multiplayer content including the new game mode: Captain, where up to 16 players can command a squad of solders.

Key new features include:

Introduces firearms and grenades
Multiple endings for high replay-ability
Enhanced siege mechanics: storm the castle, blow up the wall, bribe an officer or poison the well/food to get past the defenses!
7 new multiplayer maps: Nomad Camp, Moscow Kremlin, Moscow Fortress, Novgorod Fortress, Swedish Castle, Teutonic Castle, Field by the River
A setting based off the cult novel “With Fire and Sword” (1884) by Nobel- prize winner Henry Sienkiewicz
Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword is now available to preorder at several digital download portals for $14.99 and will release at all digital platforms on May 3, 2011.

The retail release will follow shortly thereafter.

Mortal Kombat: Legacy Episode Three – Cage Match!

It’s Tuesday morning, so have some live action Mortal Kombat fun. No one puts Johnny in a corner!

Fallout: New Vegas Gets a New Patch

No High Scores

I’m among the lucky few who had relatively few problems getting through Fallout: New Vegas, but for those that did, there’s a new patch on offer. In addition to the usual “optimizations and stability improvements,” there’s a host of balance changes made to the game’s weapons that, on the surface at least, look like they should improve the experience of shooting desert critters and gangsters…

Guns:
- Automatic Guns – SMGs, the Assault Carbine, and the LMG are more accurate across the board. They’re also more durable. 12.7mm SMG mag capacity increased to 21.
- Shotguns – Buckshot has received a x1.2 inherent DAM mod. This slightly incentivizes using buckshot over slugs when enemy armor is not an issue. Magnum buckshot has a x1.3 DAM mod and a small amount of DT bypass. Spread for many shotguns has been lowered.
- Hunting Rifle, Anti-Materiel Rifle – Hunting Rifle and AMR now have the lowest spread of all rifles. Hunting Rifle RoF increased, Crit Chance set to x2. Anti-Materiel Rifle’s Crit DAM has been raised from 80 to 110 to make it more viable when compared to the Gobi.
- Sniper Rifle, Gobi Campaign Scout Rifle – Sniper Rifle and Gobi now have a higher RoF and lower AP cost. Both have x2 Crit Chance. Gobi has increased DAM and much higher Crit DAM over the Sniper Rifle.
- That Gun – That Gun is now a slow-firing hand cannon that does huge DAM firing 5.56mm out of a short barrel.
- Hunting Revolver – Rate of Fire increased.
- Service Rifle – DAM slightly lowered, firing animation changed to the one used by Marksman Carbine, RoF dramatically increased. Spread decreased.
- Silenced .22 Pistol, SMG – Crit DAM and Crit Chance significantly increased.
- 5mm Ammo – Base ammo has 10 points of DT bypass. AP variants have 25 points of DT bypass. This affects the Assault Carbine, Minigun, and CZ57 Avenger.
- .308 JSP – DAM mult reduced from x1.5 to x1.3. x2 CND degradation effect added.
- Lever-Action Rifles – Cowboy Repeater, Trail Carbine, Brush Gun – RoF has been slightly reduced, AP costs have been significantly increased, and spread has been slightly increased. Cowboy Repeater Custom Action RoF increase has been reduced. La Longue Carabine spread has been significantly lowered.

Explosives:
- Dynamite – Larger explosion radius.
- Frag and Plasma Grenades – DAM increased.
- 25mm Grenades – Slightly increased DAM on the explosion.
- 40mm Grenades – Significantly higher DAM on the explosion.
- Missile Launcher / Fat Man – Now have much better zoom FoV and good accuracy. Missile and Fat Man projectiles (not the explosion) have a large base DAM. Both are extremely effective on direct hits, but still potent even if a direct hit is not scored. N.B.: Listed DAM on weapons assumes a direct hit!

Energy Weapons:
- Gatling Laser – Base DAM is higher. Against heavily armored targets, this is still a poor weapon. Against lightly armored targets, especially with Over Charge or Max Charge ECPs + Focus Optics + Laser Commander, it has extraordinary DPS.
- Tesla Cannon, Tesla-Beaton Prototype – These now consume far less ammo per shot and can be fired several times before a reload. DAM is beefy with an additional 2 second DoT.
- Pew-Pew – Lower ammo capacity, consumes far fewer ECs per shot. Still a two-shot weapon.

Melee and Unarmed:
- Ripper, Chainsaw, Thermic Lance – DAM lowered, all ignore DR/DT.
- Bladed Gauntlet, Mantis Gauntlet – Ignore DR/DT flags removed (were not supposed to be marked as such). Mantis Gauntlet animation/sound fixed.

Perks:
- Splash Damage – Functions properly.
- The Professional – 10mm Pistol, SMG added to perk list.

EA Sports: The Subscription!

No High Scores

That exclamation point in the post title, if you’re keeping score at home, is sarcastic. Picture Yogurt shouting, “Spaceballs, the flame-thrower!” I’m just not sure the kids will love the idea of EA trying to gin up another new revenue stream for a wide swath of their games. This time, coming via Pasta Padre (top of the ladder sports game guru), it looks like EA Sport is planning to introduce a new subscription service for their sports games. This service, potentially, would offer the following “perks” for a bargain rate rumored to fall between $14.99 and $34.99 a year:

- Discounts on downloadable content
- Downloadable versions of participating titles before they appear in stores
- Membership badges! (See above regarding the exclamation point.)
- Transfer paid content for a title to a future version of it
- “Free and exclusive opportunities to extend your EA Sports experience to PC and Web.”
- “Free and exclusive” DLC for participating titles

So here’s my thoughts…

First of all, stop using the word “free” in conjunction with a paid for service. If you’re charging somebody for something then whatever you get as a part of it is not free. To claim otherwise is just flat out disingenuous, but I’ll leave the nomenclature nitpicking at that.

Let’s talk DLC, which in most sports games constitutes either stuff you can live without (alternate jerseys, “ultimate” rosters, etc.) or significant gouging for content that in the past would have shipped with the game (half the courses in a Tiger Woods game). I’m not entirely unsympathetic to the DLC thing and the notion of buying yourself cheaper DLC because of the subscription makes a certain amount of sense. It’s the whole, if you know you’re going to buy a ton anyway, then just get this and you’ll pay less thing. There’s fairness in that. But that transfer bullet irritates me. If content I bought for your football game last year is still usable with the content for this year’s edition, you’re really planning to charge me for it again unless I buy an annual subscription service? Yes, I realize maybe it needs updating too, but you do realize I’m already buying your game multiple times, right? That’s the very essence of gouging. Frankly, it borders on low-level extortion.

As for the that second to last bullet, it’s not entirely clear what it implies, although there’s more detail on one of the other screens at Pasta Padre’s site. Based on what’s said there, I’m willing to bet money the team management browser-based features we first saw NCAA and Madden ’10 are no longer going to be a free part of the package. If you’re not familiar, NCAA 10 let you run some of your dynasty tasks -most notably, recruiting- via your web browser. Given what a miserable experience team management is on a console UI, I thought this was a marvelous idea that I do hope is expanded and brought into its full potential this year.

This is where we get to the difference between something that is a part of the package and something left out specifically so the publisher can charge extra. Guys, your franchise/dynasty management on consoles sucks. It always has. And it’s not all your fault. It’s hard to manage a franchise with a game controller. I get it. That’s why the browser-based interface makes sense. You’re addressing a problem. Bravo! But to say you’re going to offer this better option, via a browser, does not equal offering premium bonus content. You’re addressing a flaw and then charging extra for it. That’s low. And I don’t want to hear about server costs. You’re displaying web pages and tying them into our accounts for games that we are buying year over year for $60. A challenge? Sure. But so is coming up with a convincing slapshot animation and (so far) you haven’t asked anyone to pay extra for that. I’ll tell you this, there certainly better be a whole lot more you can do with the online features this year, and they darn well better work flawlessly from day one (which couldn’t be said about last year’s go ’round).

Then there’s just the whole notion of subscription fatigue. Raise your hand if you’re tired of being prodded into paying monthly and annual subscriptions just to keep pursuing your hobby when all you really want to do is buy your game, take it home, and get the play experience you paid for and deserve. Somewhere there’s a fair line to be drawn between offering people significant extra value for providing their extra dollars and just flat out gouging them for every cent in their pocket. All the big publishers are flirting with that line and doing so for obvious reasons, but EA in particular seems to be tap-dancing across it with increasing regularity. We have much more to learn about this program, of course, but at first-glance this looks like it’s going a bridge too far my tastes… And my wallet’s.

Oh, and because you deserve it:

No High Scores

(For the record, I tried to embed the actual scene, but some killjoy told YouTube not to make it embeddable. I have helpfully linked the image to the video, however. Go forth and brighten your day.)

A Missive From The End Of Genre: How Brink Works

Gamasutra has a great read today about Brink, and general game design theory. There’s quotes from various developers about genre and gamer taste as well as a ton, obviously, about Brink. It’s worth reading.

Much of the article talks about the “divide” between gamers who ignore the solo game experience and jump right into multiplayer.

An interesting quote from Rex Dickson, the lead level designer for Homefront. He’s talking specifically about FPS games by the way.

“A single player game’s big draw is that it makes us feel like the hero, the absolute center of the experience. Everything in the world revolves around our actions. [There] is something really appealing about that to people and is a lot harder to achieve in a multiplayer experience, if at all. I don’t want to go so far as to say that divide is irresolvable, but I do think it represents a significant design challenge.”

This little snap doesn’t have anything to do, really, with the entire three page article, but why does it have to be that way? Why does the single player experience always have to place you at the center of attention and the center of the story? I mean part of that is impossible to avoid, to an extent, but should we always have to “play the hero”? The guy/gal who kills thousands to save the World/Humanity/Girl.

Why? Would it be boring to play a cog rather than the entire machine?

Anyway, read the whole piece, it’s good stuff.

Portal 2 in Review

Be warned, this is the only negative review of Portal 2 you will read on the internet. At least the only one where all the words are spelled correctly and the grammar is at or above a 6th grade level. This is potentially dangerous stuff, and I’m already nervously looking out the window and anticipating hordes of nerds wearing “The Cake is a Lie” shirts converging on my yard, wielding pitchforks and torches. I swear I just heard someone outside yell “you monster”. Read more, if you dare.

Portal was an OK game.

I didn’t play it until a year or so after its release and after reading so much effusive, doe-eyed praise of it, I was quite underwhelmed by its simple but definitely clever puzzles. It felt like a proof-of-concept trial more than a fully realized game. I didn’t think it got very interesting until the last act, but when the credits rolled over that terrible song that sounds like a mash-up of Weird Al Yankovic and a bad show tune sung by a robot, I had my fill of it. It was a cute game, that’s all. Nothing really all that special other than a couple of good gameplay ideas and some really lame nerd jokes that I never cracked a single smile at. It was quirky and singular, and that’s about the best I can say for it.

Now, Portal 2 is here and everyone on the Internet is flipping out over what is essentially the exact same game except with enough extra material to justify a full $60 retail price, a couple of visual design and story elements cribbed from Bioshock, and a de rigueur co-op mode. But now, there’s an all-new terrible song to close it out and the stupid, unfunny cake jokes are replaced stupid, unfunny potato jokes. It also explains away some of its more interestingly enigmatic elements to pad out its running time and provide a larger context for its ruthlessly linear levels and lockstep progression. This game is more strictly regimented than a Call of Duty game, and that’s without assessing the single-solution puzzles that occur between hallways.

Gameplay is essentially the same right down to the hidden areas behind panels, but it’s tough to fault Valve for following the “if it ain’t broke” axiom. Portal wasn’t broke, but I also felt like it wasn’t complete. Valve’s response to make this game feel more fleshed out is to add a couple of new mechanics including some fun environmental elements such as a catapult and three different flavors of physics-altering goo that can be sprayed all over the place. But it really is more of the same, right down to the “test chamber” format that gets repeated three times over the course of the game. By the third set, I had a couple of unsavory places in mind where “testing” could be archived for future reference.

There are more non-testing environments as Chell (who is more of a floating portal gun than an actual character) moves through several generations of Aperture Science architecture. Once again the Source engine’s ability to render rusty catwalks, steam pipes, featureless offices, and other boring industrial areas that would be roundly criticized and mocked in a non-Valve title is in full display complete with the same crude platforming that has been around since the first Half-Life. There are a couple of neat and sometimes awe-inspiring moments when levels alter or shift unexpectedly, and there’s some foliage in some parts that at least break up the alternating monotony of brown industrial and gray minimalism.

Puzzles are easy and very disappointingly so considering they’re the main attraction. The design of them is outstanding from an instructional design perspective. Objectives and solutions are almost always clear (if not glaringly obvious), and it doesn’t take a degree from MIT to sort out how to solve any of them with a minute or two of observation. But I’d like to feel at least a little challenged rather than instructed at some point, and the only time that I felt so was when a puzzle would require searching all over the area for a tiny piece of portal-able wall space. But that’s more “Where’s Waldo” than clever, brain-teasing puzzle design. There were a handful of situations where I nearly went to YouTube just to figure out where to look, not necessarily how to solve the problem.

Part of the charm of the game, I think, is that it makes players feel smart. Many games make the player feel empowered in terms of physical ability, but fewer make the player feel brilliant. And I can totally see where this is one of the reasons why these games are as popular and well-liked as they are. But for my part, it’s just not enough to carry the game, particularly when there’s barely any challenge in surmounting its obstacles.

Narrative is another void from the original game that Valve sought to fill, and this time there’s at least a little more story. It’s undeniably well-written and the three voice actors do some absolutely top-flight work with the material. Some of it is genuinely funny such as GLaDOS berating Chell for being too fat, but more often than not the “nerd joke” humor and forced attempts at cultish, meme-generating lines become grating and obnoxious. If you think hearing the voice of the guy at the airport telling you not to leave your bags unattended talk about the apocalypse would be hilarious, then this might be your thing. It’s the exact same joke as hearing a homicidal robot talk about cake. I don’t find ironic juxtaposition all that funny. Some do. It doesn’t help its case in my book that no one in the game ever shuts up, particularly an irritating robot straight out of a Douglas Adams novel. I’m not too crazy about the comic turrets that talk and sound just like the Battle Droids from the bad Star Wars film either.

It’s also disappointing that the back story of Aperture Science turns out to be a variant of the Andrew Ryan/Rapture story from Bioshock. Cave Johnson might not be the idealist utopian and his character trajectory isn’t the same, but there are cloying similarities that observant players will pick up on. It doesn’t help that there’s similar faux-old time graphic design collateral all over the walls, or that Cave Johnson talks at you the whole time via recorded messages, sounding almost like a Simpsons caricature. You’re in caves this time (hence the name, get it?) rather than under water, but the idea of an optimistic, scientific utopia gone to seed is obviously similar.

There is an interesting and quite compelling subtext that I liked a lot that presents Aperture Science in an interesting arc that moves through the futurism and can-do spirit of the 1950s and early 1960s on through cynicism and scientific stagnation in the 1970s and virtual corporate tyranny and disappointment in the 1980s. Black Mesa figures into the story, which is also a subtle reflection of the effects of capitalism, business, and government on scientific progress.

It’s smart stuff and it’s told with a light, inferring touch. The more sophisticated storytelling is totally at odds with other silly narrative events such as an unbelievably silly turn of events involving GLaDOS or the disappointment of learning her origin. It’s not quite as bad as finding out that The Force is just some kind of magical blood cells or whatever, but it does point out that Valve did that whole explain-away-the-mystery thing with this game. I was totally OK with what I knew about the characters, setting, and environment of the first game. I didn’t need any more. Now, it’s bulked up and filled out and it isn’t really anything special, enigmatic, or particularly interesting.

By the time I reached the end (which does have, I admit, an amazingly cool turn of events that would be criminal to reveal), I was so completely done with anything Portal that I couldn’t take the disc out of the PS3 and into an envelope bound for a Half.com buyer fast enough. It may still be warm by the time they get it. It was one thing when Portal was a cute game that lasted a couple of hours. It’s another when it goes on for eight to ten hours, and that doesn’t include the co-op. The co-op option is interesting- probably much more so than the single-player game- but it really requires that you play with a friend. I tried it a couple of times with random people on PSN before the Great PSN Explosion of ’11 and I just felt really stupid. I think one guy I was playing with pinged a place to put a portal like fifty times before I finally got to it. I’m not even remotely interested in user-created levels at this point, although I’m sure something more interesting and compelling can be done with the tool set.

Let me be clear about it. Portal 2 is hardly a “terrible” game, and in fact I’d call it a good game that just isn’t to my particular liking. It’s undoubtedly a highly polished, well-put together package of content that obviously has an audience. Production quality is uniformly high, and there is definitely plenty to appeal to fans of Valve’s products. It’s a spectacularly designed and packaged piece of software.

With that said, I can’t help but feel that there are particular elements of this universally praised game that are getting a free pass simply because it’s Valve and not Electronic Arts or Activision. As I stated previously, the game is strictly linear with almost zero replay value once you’ve beaten both core modes- but I’m sure paid DLC featuring new levels or modes is incoming. The cardinal sins of day one costume downloads and preorder bonuses are also present, they’re just not as advertised as they are in other games. And for all of the outcry against other sequels that did little but reiterate successful formula, I’m not quite sure how this game is excused from the complaint. Dated graphics, boring environments, and a sub-8 hour campaign are other red flags that indicate some serious critical double standards going on. Had Activision or EA gone out with that whole potato sack scheme, no one would have been OK with it whether or not indie developers were involved or not. But Valve are practically folk heroes for what amounts to an elaborate marketing gimmick.

I’d better wrap this up because I’m due to be burned at the stake out on the lawn. I think I hear Gabe Newell bellowing out in the yard. Oh my god. Where did they get a tank?