Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Sports Thread.

 Before I delve in, I'm going to gloat a bit:


Ok, that's done. So...

Sports and Video Games are pretty much all pre-teen boys immerse their lives around until they discover girls, then they hang on to them because they are one aspect of live that they understand (sorry, ladies).

Right now, we are pretty much at an epicenter of sports activity: The NHL season just concluded (see the picture left to wonder as to who won), the NBA finals are in progress, Baseball is hitting its full stride, NFL training camps are around the corner, college football realignment is changing the landscape of the BCS, and today is the first day of the World Cup, which is a big deal when you live in every country not the United States.

While I've been heavy  into Red Dead Redemption (which will have a semblance of a review sometime soon), I wanted to take a few moments and talk about some of the Sports games I've been playing and give a quick breakdown of the game, TL;DR style, as well as some other insights.

2010 FIFA World Cup (Xbox 360) - Soccer is now what golf used to be for me. I'd rather watch paint dry if it were on TV, but in an interactive game form, it's pretty good. I began enjoying Soccer video games my freshman year of college, when I began at a school that didn't have (American) Football and many of my friends were on the school's soccer team. They played International Superstar Soccer on Nintendo 64 like it was going out of style. (Sorry, I don't know why I feel the need to explain why I like Soccer games)

I held out on FIFA 10 so I could play the World Cup version, but I kind of wished it was just all inclusive in FIFA 10. You would have had your MLS teams, your international club teams and your world cup teams all in one game. Would it have been that hard to re-skin the players, stats, add a few more stadiums in Jo-berg? That is my only gripe about this game. Oh, that and I royally suck at it. But it kind of says something where you can be totally bad at a game and still enjoy it, and the carry over of everything that's good about FIFA 10 is in this game. Presentation is nice, the control scheme can allow for a two-button or more complex approach (which I really like), and its fun.

On a serious note, Friday in 180+ minutes of soccer, TWO goals were scored. Then yesterday, England and the United States battled for a 1-1 tie. I seriously cannot hold my attention for that long, nor can I be satisfied with a tie equaling a victory. But serious, England; didn't you guys invent the modern game? Weak.

NHL 10 (Xbox 360) - By the way, did I mention the Blackhawks just won the Stanley Cup? Oh hai, lookie there, Patrick Kane is on the cover of the game.
Ok, so this game came out last year, but since the Playoffs practically began then too, I've been putting in some moderate time in the game.

Before I begin, can we all pretty much agree that the greatest sports game of all time is NHL '94 for Sega Genesis? That game ruined hockey video games for me for the next 15 years. This year's version has brought me back, and no, its not because of Kaner here.

NHL 10 has all the practice modes, franchise, playoffs, everything that can keep the most hardcore hockey fan satisfied. I'm kind of pissed that EA's last roster update was right before the playoffs, and that they are racist for making Dustin Byfuglien white, but other than that, its fun, fast paced and very customizable to your hockey needs. Also I didn't take the Kings to the cup with the offsides off. Also, I miss Hartford. Breakfasts come and go, but Hartford, "the Whale," they only beat Vancouver once, maybe twice in a lifetime. 

Tiger Woods PGA Tour 10 (PSP) - I know that the newest iteration of this game just came out, but this game is practically just as good and its less than $20 at Gamestop (also, I don't think there is a PSP version of TW11).

Golf games are best for me when you can play them on the road, and they are one game that the PSP can't screw up. I do play this and Hot Shots Golf regularly but sometimes I prefer to play the big boy courses.

Tiger Woods 10 offers a variety of modes like Wi-fi vs. mode, some challenge modes, and "pick out the hottest blonde in the gallery and give her your hotel keys" mode. Wait, no? Well, they should have put that in the game. I think it would have been more challenging to start out in 'Be a Pro' mode, and try to pick up women at the clubhouse, then you evolve to Ben Roethlisberger status, then you evolve into full fledged Tiger both on the course and off. Make sure you turn off the nine-digit divorce mode off.

MLB 10 The Show (PS3) - I picked this up the other week, because even though baseball is pretty much irrelevant right now (at least it is if you live in my market), I've read a lot of kool-aid drinkers say this is the best game on the market, and maybe the best baseball game in a few years. 

MLB 2k9 was a disaster, so compared to that, this is the best baseball game in the last few years. However, MLB10:TS shined against all other predecessors, even its own. Some of the slow motion animations are a bit clunky, but the game play and environments are amazing. The game has a very deep franchise mode, as well as other entertaining competitive modes. They have a lot of the players' batting stances, and pitching motions down very well, with every at bat being a bit of a chess match. You have to try and figure out the CPU's pitching patters as to whether they like to throw in the zone on the first pitch, what pitches they throw, and their tendencies. It took me about 4 strikeouts to realize that Chris Carpenter likes to go fastball, fastball, curve for the out pitch. When I adapted, he adapted. Very good. 

In other news, the landscape of College Athletics is about to change. In 1996, the Texas contingent of the Southwest Conference merged with the  old Big 8 conference to form the Big 12 (see Big 10? We can actually COUNT). 

Anyway, in the Big 12, revenues from TV contracts were not spread out evenly. The University of Texas, University of Oklahoma, and Nebraska get larger cuts of the pie, which makes sense because their athletic budgets are bigger, Texas' market is bigger, and their football program generates more cash. For 14 years, this worked relatively peacefully. However, the garbage Big 12 TV contract is about to expire and given the current economic climate, I don't think the lesser schools were content letting UT and OU get a bigger piece of the pot.

A few months ago, there was speculation that the Big 11 Ten was looking at expansion, and they were going to look both East and West. Notre Dame, which practically plays a Big 10 football schedule was an obvious target. Other schools being considered were Pitt, Rutgers, Syracuse, Nebraska and Missouri. All of these options were in a large market (Syracuse and Rutgers for the New York markets) or catered to a large, money spending fanbase (ever been in Lincoln, NE for game day?).

This flirtation with the two Big 12 schools ruffled some feathers down in the Republic of Texas. All of a sudden there was blood in the water and other conferences were ready to pounce on the soon to be entrails of the Big 12. The Pacific 10 conference, seemingly dormant in the conference expansion conversation off of a sudden wanted Colorado, Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, OU, and Oklahoma State. Instead of being proactive and looking to either appease its member schools or look to expand into adding schools, the Commissioner of the Conference pretty much sat in his bunker tower and played a fiddle, as every other conference in the country sat ready to poach from the Big 12. 

On Thursday, the University of Colorado decided to leave the Big 12 for the Pac-10. That was a bit of a slap in the face to Texas because Texas had been tied at the hip to Baylor when the Big 12 was formed, and the assumption would be that wherever Texas went, Baylor had to go as well. I think the Pac-10 sent the message of "you don't tell us what to do, UT, we'll take who we want first". On Friday, the University of Nebraska announced they would leave for the Big 10 11 12 Ten. This, in effect, has killed the Big 12. Missouri, which was the talk about leaving around my neck of the woods, is out in the cold, as well as Kansas State, Iowa State, and my alma mater, the University of Kansas. 

I'm not sure we'll ever see a major power conference in college athletics cannibalized like this. Right now, the Big 12 is getting ready to be poached by the Pac 10, the SEC, The Mountain West conference, the Big 10, and the Big East. My school, KU does not boast much of a football legacy but is one of the top 4 basketball schools in the country, with a large alumni fanbase, and national appeal. The problem will be if we are tied to Kansas State and have to bring little brother along wherever we go, and will that turn off a lot of prospective offers.

On Tuesday, the Texas Board of Regents will gather and likely put a stake in the heart of the Big 12 forever. No one knows where they will go and what that means to the rest of the schools and college athletics, but one thing I do know is...

TL;DR- ... Dan Beebe is a stooge. Also check out the other games I highlighted at top. Also Blackhawks.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Because the Mayans Say the World Will End Before Diablo III is Released....

Anyone who knows me knows I can't play FPS games. Most of them make me want to spew the copious amounts of Mountain Dew and junk food I consume while gaming. So this leaves me to playing 3rd person view games.

So, RTS games, turn based games and games such as Diablo II tend to feed my gaming addiction. And like everyone else I've been endlessly waiting for any sort of indication as to a credible time-line for the release of Diablo III. I'm fairly certain I may not see it before Quetzalcoatl comes down from the heavens and reigns a fiery end to the Earth as we know it on December 21, 2012.

So on the suggestion of a friend I checked out Torchlight. I was pretty much hooked instantly. If this is not built on the engine for Diablo II then I'd say Blizzard might have some legs for a lawsuit. Everything about the game plays like Diablo 2. The Hotkeys, magic items, the fact that there are 3 character type (a melee brute, ranged specialist, and mage type akin to the D2 Barbarian, Amazon, and Necro).

The graphics are better than D2's though a bit more cartoonish. It boasts over 100 dungeon levels with randomized dungeons so re-playability is good. At only 20 bones, it doesn't break the wallet for hours of Diabloesque fun. I purchased the game through Steam which has over 60 different in-game accomplishment to achieve, adding to the playability. Steam has had it on sale in the past for only $10, so you might be able to hold out for even cheaper fun.

Only real drag is that it's single player only. So if you don't mind the fact that you are clobbering PC controlled monsters and not some character controlled by a prepubescent zit-ridden 13 year old with nothing better to do with their life... then this game might just be be for you.


Tuesday, June 1, 2010

REVIEW: Alpha Protocol

Sega does this sometimes. They take a chance into unproven territory with some of their games and hardware. The VMU. Madworld. Shadow the Hedgehog. Unfortunately, being that guy who says "I'm going to do something different" usually means that different doesn't either sell or it just sucks.

When I first heard about Alpha Protocol, my mind immediately (and probably unfairly) thought Jason Bourne meets Mass Effect; an espionage action RPG. Obsidian, who made the follow-up to Bioware's Knights of the Old Republic and is now working on Fallout New Vegas would be developing the game, so good pedigree there. I was very intrigued, and excited, but also hesitant as to how this all would work together and play out. What I got when playing through Alpha Protocol was two feelings: 1.) this game has a lot of potential with a lot of great elements and 2.) Some people really have it out for Sega. Today's review will focus heavily on the first feeling, and then I will touch upon some of the (recklessly undue) haterade in the internet land.

You play as Michael Thorton, the quintessential new guy: discredited from his super-secret agency, goes rogue, tries to clear his name, possibly expose an evil corporation and save the country. The game actually plays out in flashback, as you are sitting with the head of Haliburton Halbech discussing how you managed to go through these missions, not get yourself killed, but also 'fail to see the big picture'. You will start out getting the feel for the game in Saudi Arabia, which as a n00b, you will not be very good at anything such as sneaking around and shooting. At that point, the game feels kind of clunky-- but as you move past that mission, you get to choose your next destination between Moscow, Rome and Taipei, things begin to open up, as well as the gameplay mechanics.

Just like in past games of Obsidian/Bioware's ilk, the dialogue drives the story, and you actually can dictate the direction you go by how you react in each coversation. To keep the pace moving, you aren't given specific lines to choose from, but more of a reaction like "frustrated", "flirtatious", "sarcastic", just as examples. This keeps the conversations moving at a seemless pace. Characters in the game will react differently to each style you choose and will either like you (and will provide bonuses and be more cooperative) or they will hate you. How they react and deal with you really does give the gamer a unique experience.  I was playing the game at the same time as a friend of mine and we would talk about a conversation, or email response option and sometimes my friend would have a similar experience, and sometimes he would be like "that didn't happen for me at all."

Some of the conversations that take place had me laugh out loud pretty easily, not because they were cheesy, but because they were well written and funny. You can be Mr. All-About-the-Mission or you can be a sarcastic jackass. Some situations will actually dictate your mood. When trying to romance a photojournalist, you can be mister mysterious and suave. With Steven Heck, the tinfoil hat wearing "bug out guy", its best to not to be a total prick, but some sarcastic options will lead you to plenty of humorous moments. I can't think of a character in the game that I could have done without, or thought was totally out of place.

Your playstyle is customizable as well. You are given skill points that you can put into certain abilities such as stealth, weapon proficiencies, tech, health, and melee. Each time you put a point in a category, it will unlock either and active or passive ability that will help you in missions. You can be Sam Fisher, Jr. Sneaking around taking people out by stealth, going 99% non-lethal by tranquilizing people, avoiding cameras. You can also be Arnold, Jr. just buzzsawing your way though missions leaving nothing but carnage in your wake.

During missions, you get a few hacking minigames that are both unique and challenging. Picking locks require you to push pressure sensitive pins to a certain point, and unlocking each pin to crack the lock. This is pretty easy with a three pin lock, pretty hard with a five pin. You bypass keycodes with a board in which you have to connect a numbered circuit in the correct order. The computer hacking mini-game makes you match up two numbered key codes within the grid where other numbers are cycling except for the passphrase. The code resets once within the time frame given, and sometimes I can find one key code, but have to wait for the reset to match the next one.

The combat is a bit of a mixed bag. I like the controls; you can duck in and out of cover, sneak up behind people and take them out quietly. I kind of wish the camera was pulled back about five feet; sometimes if a bad guy charges up on you, you kind of lose him because the camera will zoom into the back of your head. At the beginning, you won't be able to shoot for shit. Your weapon proficiencies aren't developed so you are going to spray bullets all over the yard. Alpha Protocol's mechanics are that there is a mathematical formula that will determine whether you can score a hit, depending on your weapon stats and your stats. That's a bit of a turn off for some people, but it worked for me. I ended up putting most of my points into Assault Rifle and Pistol, if I were to pick up an SMG or Shotgun in which I had no formal "training", I shouldn't be expected to hit a whole lot with precision, especially at range.

One other thing Alpha Protocol left me with, was a desire to see more things in a potential sequel. I want to be on record as saying I had a lot of fun with this game, and think it has a solid foundation, but I think there are some things that Obsidian/Sega can tighten up if we progress through a potential franchise:

- I would like to have the environment be a tad more interactive (save the exploding barrel or propane tank). Not to go all Splinter Cell, but I would like to be able to shoot out a light and move in the cover of darkness. There were times where I felt I was kind of backed into a corner stealthing around, and because I couldn't move to a better location because of the lighting, well, here we go with guns blazing.

- I would like the game to be longer. You will essentially go to four places, but I would like to have explored more cities, gained more contacts, etc. As it sits now, Alpha Protocol is about 15 hours or so... I could have easily been game for another 10.

- Tighten up the animation and gameplay just a bit. Things kind of do a 'slow render', and there are random spots that the game will pause to load (usually while I'm about to go through a door or up a ladder). Also Mike's "crouch walk" is a little humorous. I didn't mind the level design although its not spectacular, but I'm being pessimistic here.

Those are just a bit off my personal wishlist for the game. But now, I want to get into a bit of the critical reaction. The game has been scoring around a high 6 (out of ten) to a low 7. I think this a tad bit low, as a lot of attention has been paid to the technical aspects of the game (mechanics, gameplay, graphics) and not to the over all story. IF I were to score this game, I would put it in the mid to high 7's, maybe a low 8, depending on how a second playthrough went, and how it I liked the progression and variety of that second experience.  For anyone who likes a good spy game, a good action RPG, this is definitely a game you'd want to check out, for rent, buy, or buy on sale.

But then, there is Destructoid's review. I don't have a problem with a game getting a bad review, even if its deserved. But Destructoid gave Alpha Protocol a 2. Out of Ten. That is, quite frankly, irresponsible. One common complaint about the game is that it is buggy. I get that, there are a few animation glitches, but a game has to be unplayably buggy to warrant a score that low. I got through the game with no such bugs or glitches. Also, I don't think that any conversation was forced or "rambling" at all. Even so, each conversation would have to be Zero Wing in quality in order for me to be so dismissive that I would be like "God, this sucks".

I thought to myself, maybe the reviewer just had a bad experience and is sending a bit of hyperbolic message, so I checked out Splinter Cell Conviction's review on the site: a game that is somewhat similar in concept and execution, but a game I enjoyed way less than Alpha Protocol. Sure enough: 9. Not to go Steven Heck on anyone, but this is absolutely ridiculous. That is like saying Conviction is Star Wars and Alpha Protocol is Wing Commander (the movie); when at best, both movies are Attack of the Clones. I'm not going to go so far to say that the reviewer or Destructoid has it out for Sega, but its possible that they have it out for Sega.

As a reviewer, you want to present the game, and interject what worked for you and what didn't. Subjectivity is unavoidable, but  you don't want to get extreme. So when your review is 2, and average reader and critic scores are around 7, then you are either not seeing something the right way, played some half ass alpha version, or are just a straight up hater. I've quite frankly have no time for that, and you shouldn't either.

TL;DR- You should, however, have some time for Alpha Protocol. You'll enjoy it.