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Steel Diver: Sub Wars in Review

Steel-Diver-Sub-Wars

Nintendo’s new Steel Diver: Sub Wars, a freemium 3DS release, is one of the best and most unique games I’ve played in a while. In contrast to the original Steel Diver, which was a quiet, molasses-slow 2D vehicle shooter, the new game is a quiet, molasses-slow 3D vehicle shooter. There are a smattering of single-player, objective based missions with multiple difficulties and medals for performance but the four-on-four team multiplayer submarine battles are the main attraction. Don’t think this is another deathmatch. This game doesn’t care about how fast your twitch reflexes are and there’s not a thousand variations of a machine gun to put in your loadout and there are no killperks or whatever to choose from. What this game prioritizes are patience, suspense, nerve and sheer cunning.

The controls are fussy and sometimes even agonizing. Piloting the game’s well-rendered submarines gives you a sense of weight, mass and the physics of pushing a huge, steel vessel through water. You’re faster on the surface than in the water, but there’s more mobility- and less visibility- beneath. Check the map for the areas where there are ships. Ping the sonar. Use the periscope to look port and starboard. You actually hunt in this game. You can pull the throttle back for a full stop and you won’t be detected by enemy sonar so you can actually sit and watch that murky shape in the distance, judging how much of a lead you need to fire a slow-moving torpedo. Or you can get a lock and fire one of your limited homing torpedoes that will pursue the target- if they don’t switch on their masking device. Fans of 688 Attack Sub or Silent Service might be disappointed that the game skews more arcade than simulation, but the details are meaningful.

It’s all about getting into the right angle at the right deflection and timing your shots- ideally without the enemy ever even seeing you. In the game’s best moments, you’ll find yourself in tense situations where the cat and mouse roles flip-flop a few times before somebody is sunk. Your sub is damaged and your command screen is cracked, red lights flashing and klaxons sounding. Suddenly, you’re at an advantage and you fire. There’s a sense of relief when you get the message that your torpedo scored a hit. There are no headshots. These subs can take a beating. There are no respawns, but there are occasional repair kits that can keep you in the game if you can maneuver into them. Each match is three to five minutes long, which is correct for a handheld device. The big number on your sub is your current streak of won games, a cool touch.

I’ve had a lot of fun with the multiplayer- there is definitely a learning curve and at first it doesn’t seem like there’s much to it and it feels way too slow. That should weed out the Call of Duty crowd nicely. Once you get the hang of piloting something that does not move like a shark on rollerblades (in contrast to most modern first-person games), the strategic possibilities start to emerge. And when you’re in matches with other players that clearly know what they’re doing, you’ll find that there is a lot you can do with the limitations imposed on movement, shooting and visibility. Even team communication is under a compelling limitation- you can only contact your team with Morse code. I haven’t seen anyone bothering to tap out racial slurs or other abusive language.

The single player game is fun as well, although I’ve only played the two missions included in the freemium package. There are seven total, and each has three variations of increasing challenge so there’s really 21 total missions to run. One is a ring-run with some opposition that’s quite challenging since it’s focused on maneuver. The other is a simple “blow up the fleet” sortie where bombers will show up if you stay on the surface too long. Like many of Nintendo’s best titles, the focus is on replayability and challenge. You’ll want to go back to these missions to earn the top medals.

There are a ton of subs to unlock through these medals and levelling up in the multiplayer. There are paint patterns- all customizable in terms of color- and hidden crew members you can rescue. The crew add bonuses to your sub’s stats, and some of the higher level subs let you take on more sailors. The freemium hit is that many of the unlockables are not available unless you pay the very modest $9.99 entry fee. The multiplayer is totally free, as long as you’re OK with playing with just the first two subs. And you might just be.

I think it’s no small coincidence that Peppy O’Hare, the rabbit from Star Fox, shows up in the game to help promote the $9.99 freemium package. Because Steel Diver: Sub Wars in many ways feels like some long-lost game from the Nintendo 64 era. Or possibly even the late SNES era. There is that unmistakable sense of Nintendo charm, even though it’s nowhere near as highly polished as some of the company’s best output. Rather than polish, it has a sense of daring. It’s a very uncommon concept-a “contemplative shooter” as Iwata-san called in last week’s Nintendo Direct. Smart money would never bet on such a game to succeed as a retail, $40 retail release but it’s wisely free try and cheap to buy. I’d love to see more like this and I’ll happily support this fine release with ten bucks the next time I pick up the 3DS.

The Great Pokemon Extinction Event

Pokemon Black/White 2 comes out on Sunday and while I will most likely pick it up, I fear that it will confirm something that I’ve known for quite some time now, namely that I don’t really give a crap about handheld gaming any more.

It’s a difficult realization to come to. Handheld gaming has been a big part of my life for years now, but over the past 18 months or so, things have shifted and I find myself less and less enthused about the hobby’s diminutive offerings. Pokemon Black/White 2 may end up being the last handheld game I ever buy.

Cue the hyperbole machine!

I’ve gone to two E3s now where I have been absolutely and completely unimpressed with the handheld offerings for the 3DS. The first E3 that showed off 3DS games displayed mostly remakes of existing N64 titles, with a smattering of new games that still haven’t seen the light of day. Luigi’s Mansion 2, I’m looking at you. Hell, this past E3, they didn’t even have a set place to see 3DS games. You had to flag down a Nintendo rep and play the 3DS attached to her belt. Let me tell you how much that’s not going to happen.

Sony’s booth fared much better when it came to presenting Vita games, but at the same time, did I see anything there that really made me get excited for the platform? Not really. Sure, Sly 4 looks cool, and the cross play feature is a nice sell, but nice enough to hold on to the unit, especially after Barnes put that bug in my ear about selling it? Probably not.

Sure, you can blame the iPad, my go to source for mobile gaming at the moment, but just like in any situation, if you point one finger at something, there are four fingers pointing back at you. Only in this case, the four fingers are pointing back at Sony and Nintendo. Yes, iPad games look better than the 3DS, but they’re not better than the Vita. Sure, they’re cheaper, but sometimes, wading through which games are actually cheaper and which ones are just cheap storefronts for in-app purchases makes the cost comparison moot.

The reality is this: the latest and future offerings for both handheld systems interest me only barely. Pokemon Black/White 2 is a slam dunk, as is the new Professor Layton, but what beyond that? Assassins Creed: Liberation could be good, but good enough to pay $40 for? I doubt it. What beyond that? I read the list of upcoming games for both platforms and not only do I not see anything that strikes my fancy, but I’m not really bothered by the fact, something which speaks more to my state of mind than anything else.

There was a time where I would look forward to the upcoming handheld releases, planning out my time with the games so that I always had something to play. Nintendo and Sony both saw to making that impossible, with such a cruddy trickle of releases for both systems, and as a result, I stopped playing and stopped caring. Now, I couldn’t tell you when things are coming out and furthermore, I have on interest in looking. Hell, it took me by surprise that Pokemon Black/White 2 comes out on Sunday.

In the space vacated by Nintendo and Sony, I find myself playing games on my iPad, reading digital comics and, surprise of surprises, playing games on my PC. I don’t see the PC replacing my 3DS or Vita to the same degree that my iPad has, simply because of the portability factor, but more often these days, when I want something to play at night, I turn to Steam and the small collection of inexpensive, indie RPGs and adventure games I’ve amassed over the past few months. Hell, I’m seriously considering buying Torchlight 2, with the excessive heat generated by my laptop as the only limiting factor. $20 may be a lot for a game I’m not sure of (although I’m finding the demo to be delightful) but it’s half the price of games for the Vita or the 3DS and it’s on a platform that isn’t going anywhere.

It’s possible that things will change, but I would be surprised if they did. I think I’ve been away from traditional handhelds too long and as a result, I can no longer see the wisdom in paying $40 for something that isn’t that much better than games to be had at a fraction of the price. I’m still looking forward to revisiting Unova and playing the new Layton later in the fall, but these games may end up being the final notes of a song that’s been over a decade in the making. They look to be pretty good games to go out to, but at the same time, I can’t help but be a little sad. It’s been a long, great relationship. I just wish Sony and Nintendo had been as interested in keeping it going as I was.

The Ubiquity of Sexism

The game over screen from the iOS mobile game Flight Control

For her sixth birthday, my eldest daughter has decided she wants a 3DS. And being a doting gamer dad, who am I to argue? But when I had a look at some of the games available for the system, I was struck by the fact that she’d actually never played what you might call an escalating difficulty game before. We take this model for granted: games that become progressively more complex and demanding as you play through them. But if you’re five, going on six, and the only video games you’ve ever played are flash inserts on kids’ TV websites and iPad activities that let you bake cookies or poke aliens in the eye, it’s a new and problematic paradigm. And if you end up falling at that first hurdle, it could put you off video games for life.

Of course there are good games like Nintendogs that don’t entirely fit this model but they’re very rare. So I had a think about how I could discover whether or not she was ready for more challenging games and I hit on the idea of having her play Flight Control on the iPad on the (very easy) easiest settings. You’ll have played some variation of Flight Control before – you guide some form of public transportation to a variety of destinations without having them crash into one another. In Flight Control it’s planes and the touch screen implementation is smooth and very natural – perfect for a child. And it worked, she loved the game, accepted the increasing difficulty, started to climb the challenge curve, which made me very happy. And then at the end she saw the screen you always see at the end, which is pictured above for you, and she asked “Daddy, who’s that lady?”

So I told her it was a lady who worked on an aeroplane. But I was perturbed by the fact that I’d never asked myself the same question. I was particularly perturbed that I’d never asked related questions like why she was blonde, or why she was always striking a sexy pose in a variety of mildly provocative outfits.

This has nothing to do with prudery: I’m entirely in favour of anyone being allowed to post pictures of other sexy and/or naked people wherever, within reason, they like. Rather I was struck by how commonplace and acceptable it’s become in games, so much so in fact that I’d ceased to notice it. In TV and magazines and other media, it’s quite common now to post alluring pictures of either sex to advertise something, and it’s often done in a creative manner to help you sit up and take notice. If I’d seen something so old-fashioned, so tiresomely unoriginal and so obviously one-sided (where’s the handsome cabin steward?) I’d have rolled my eyes and wondered for the thousandth time why western civilization hasn’t got over this particular hangup yet. But in a game, it took an innocent comment from my daughter to wake me up to the fact I was seeing the same thing all over again.

For this blame not only my lack of observational skills, but the sheer ubiquity of it in the medium. You can see it in the arguments over FemShep. You can see it in the fact that Aris Bakhtanians felt it was okay to try and excuse his repulsive, loathsome behaviour with anything other than a humble apology. You can see it in Lara Croft’s curves, in the comments made during multi-player matches involving female gamers, in the outfit of Ivy from Soul Calibur. None of this is new, or surprising of course and these points have been made frequently and rather more eloquently many times in the past. The point of this post is that I thought I knew how to spot this stuff, and that I was on the “right” side of interpreting it as sexism, and I wasn’t. I was just on the “right” side of the more extreme examples. I hate and despise the way that a lot of the fairly stories, especially the older ones and the Disney ones, that I end up reading to my little girls carry a variety of subliminal messages about women only being validated by the love and attention of a man. I try and steer them away from these stories toward ones with more proactive female protagonists, but I can’t ban them, that would be draconian and only create more desire for the banned thing. But I really didn’t think I’d have to do the same thing when they got old enough to engage with mainstream, family oriented video games. I’m very sad that I’ve been proved wrong.

Calendar Man Week of 2/27

Happy SSX week! If this were a just and kind world, the SSX release day would be a national holiday and we’d all get to stay at home and play SSX all day. Also, pie. Unfortunately this isn’t the case, and while I can certainly make a pie for Tuesday, a government sanctioned pie would be so much better. Mmmm, tastes like lies and wasteful spending.

This week also has the release of Binary Domain, a new Shin Megami Tensei game for the DS and, oh, who the hell cares? SSX baby!

New Releases
If it isn’t already apparent from my unbridled enthusiasm, I am quite excited for tomorrow’s launch of SSX (360 , PS3 ). My hope is that all of the events are open from the start, or at lease easily obtainable as my snowboarding skills are roughly on par with my arcade racing skills, namely not very high. This is a game that I can reasonably expect to get 200 to 300 achievements points in and that’s about it. I will certainly try for more but there comes a time when one has to recognize one’s limitations and work within them. Maybe I can get gold on a few events, but if the demo is any indication, I’m a long way off of getting gold on half of the events, much less all of them. No matter! It’s SSX!

When I saw Binary Domain (360 , 360 ) at E3, I liked the way that the robots would keep coming after you as you shot them, and how a head shot would cause them to go crazy and shoot their squad mates. After all, these are robots. They don’t get scared and run away, nor do they give up. They keep working towards their mission objectives until they’re successful or they’re destroyed. I wasn’t too keen on the setting and the conversation stuff seemed like it could end up being a big mess. I’m glad to see it reviewing well as I left the game thinking it was something I’d want to play if it turned out well, however that seemed like a pretty big “if”. I’m not saying I’m going to run out and buy this on Tuesday, but I will be adding to the list of games to play during the slow times.

Deep Black: Reloaded features both terrestrial and underwater combat and is widescreen certified, whatever that means. I had no idea you had to get certified for such a thing. I thought you just played games on a wide screen. Oh the things you learn!

Nexuiz, an arena based FPS releases on XBox Live Arcade this week, with a dynamic mutator system that allows players to change aspects of the match while playing. It also has “hostile environments bleeding with hatred” as opposed to most Xbox Live shooters which are bleeding with kindness.

WAKFU comes out of beta and launches this week, big headed MMORPG goodness in tow.

Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2 comes out this week for the DS and if you listen really, really closely, you can hear Brian’s twitchings of excitement. I’ve always wanted to get into these games, but they seem too complicated for my ever deteriorating brain. Also, I know me and I will soon go down a rabbit hole of demon collecting and fusing, never returning to the main story. On a side note, how much does Nintendo wish this was coming out for the 3DS? So, so much.

7554 a shooter made by a Emobi Games, is the first video game to come out of Vietnam. The title refers to May 7th, 1954, the day the French ended occupation of the Indochinese colonies. The game places you in the shoes of a Vietnamese soldier fighting for Vietnamese independence. Unfortunately, the game’s main site is entirely in Vietnamese, so instead, feel free to read up on the game in this Ars Technica story from a few months ago.

If Marvel vs Capcom and now, Mortal Kombat are teaching us anything, it’s to not buy new fighting games at release and instead wait for the version with all of the characters made available in DLC. Mortal Kombat Komplete (360 , PS3) has new fatalities and new characters including everyone’s favorite pedophile, Freddy Krueger.

If you’ve ever watched the Thomas Crown Affair and thought that it was good but it needed more dancing then Rhythm Thief and the Emperor’s Treasure may be for you. I’m not sure why this guy would steal stuff just to return it three days later, but I’m assuming that will be the least of my narrative concerns.

Hyperdimension Neptunia Mk2 is the sequel to that JRPG where video game consoles were represented as combat ready anime ladies. The sequel has even more references to the video game industry which means there’s a girl dressed like a Vita who spends the entire game wondering why she can’t get anyone to stop hanging out with the less intelligent, uglier girl who represents the 3DS.

Deals
Toys R Us – Get a free $25 gift card with purchase of an Xbox 360 4GB Kinect bundle. Get a 12 month subscription to Xbox Live for $39.99. Get a Kinect sensor for $99.99.

Target – Buy an Xbox 360 4GB console (non Kinect) and for $179.99 and get a free $25 gift card.

Best Buy – Get the following games for $19.99: Lego Pirates of the Caribbean, Cars 2, Lego Harry Potter Years 5-7, Red Faction: Armageddon, Homefront. Get the following games for $29.99: Disney Universe, Just Dance 3, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Dead Island, Warhammer 4000: Space Marine. Get the following games for $39.99: Soul Calibur V, NBA 2K12, Saints Row the Third, WWE 12, Gears of War 3. Get the following games for $49.99: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, Final Fantasy XIII-2, The Darkness II, Rocksmith, Kinect Disneyland Adventures. Buy an Xbox 360 4GB Kinect bundle and get a free copy of Zumba: Fitness Rush. Get a 12 month subscription to Xbox Live for $39.99.

Kmart – Buy an Xbox 360 4GB Kinect bundle and get a free copy of Zumba: Fitness Rush.