Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 Games of the Year

A Tradition Unlike Any Other: Spending my New Year's Eve writing the Top 10 instead of partying, getting drunk, or sleeping. I feel the need to get this in before the next year rolls around in three hours and change. Principles, I has them.

We're not going to spend a whole lot on hating what didn't go right in 2013, because there was a bit. Instead, we'll dive right on in and talk about what did go right in the last 364 days, 20 hours, and 40 minutes, because there was a lot. 

This year's top ten was pretty unanimous at the top, but diverse near the bottom. There were quite a few good games that came out this year (though not many from the next gen consoles -- I'll give that a free pass, though). 


5005571.jpg (190×270)10. SAINTS ROW IV (Multi)

This game is fucking ridiculous in every way that makes it awesome. The series decided to say fuck it we're going to take this franchise from a Grand Theft Auto ripoff/homage to elevate things to the insane. The result? Insane fun. We're not going to get Keith David to voice a character, we're just going to get Keith David. When the game thinks purple dildos were going to be too outrageous, they just decide to make it longer, more wobbly and more pleasurable.

5006190.jpg (190×169)9. ZELDA: A LINK BETWEEN WORLDS (3DS)

from EGM: "A Link Between Worlds recognizes that it’s not tacked-on stealth segments or waggling a controller to roll bombs that makes Zelda tick—it’s the unbounded exploration and freedom found in the NES original, and it’s finally back in full force here. Every Zelda fan needs to play this game."

5006721.jpg (480×685)8. BROTHERS: A TALE OF TWO SONS (PC)

from Lord Bling: "I started to type a synopsis of what this game is about, and then I deleted it. Just play it. Take some time to get used to the 'two player co-op on one controller' setup, and let it draw you in. You won't regret it. The comparisons to 'Ico' and 'Journey' are valid in a lot of ways, and the last 30 minutes are some of the best in any game I've ever played."

5005637.jpg (480×685)7. BATTLEFIELD 4 (Multi)

This is the like the high school kid drafted into the NBA purely on Potential. He has no real jump shot, he can't get to the basket but he has out of this world athleticism! Battlefield can be one of the best shooters of the next generation. However, the game is pretty busted on Xbox One, not great on PC, but I can manage to get a few games in before crashing on PS4. This is still a better multiplayer experience than Call of Duty Ghosts, but until EA/DICE can focus on making the game stable, this may still toil in the D-League.

Rent Animal Crossing: New Leaf for 3DS6. ANIMAL CROSSING: NEW LEAF (3DS)

I can't really fully explain the addictability (just made up that word and it works) of this game. This is the first Animal Crossing game I've played in any great detail, but it is something I can both play with my 7 year old daughter and my 33 year old co-worker. The game changes with you as you play, and gives you the ability to be Urban Planner, Interior Designer, Bell (the game's currency) farmer, Hedge Fund Manager.

Rent Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag for PS45. ASSASSIN'S CREED IV (Multi)

from Lord Bling: "A major improvement over the last installment. They took what was best about part 3 (the boats!), removed all of the nagging tutorials, and just hand you the keys and say 'Have fun!' I have minor complaints about some scripting and bugs in some missions, but it's nothing that we haven't dealt with in previous games in the series. I can't wait to get back on the seas and start pillaging again."

Rent Grand Theft Auto V for Xbox 3604. GRAND THEFT AUTO V (Xbox 360)

from Lord Bling: "This is what a very talented group of developers can do when they have access to an almost unlimited amount of time and resources. Was it worth the wait? From a technical standpoint, yes. It's massive, and runs as stable as any open-world game on a console to date. However, we get three playable characters, yet not one of them is even remotely sympathetic. Each is a step back from Nico in part IV, and I found myself not wanting to spend time with any of them. Also, the online mode was hugely ambitious, but by the time they got it working properly, I'd moved on to something else."

Rent Tomb Raider for Xbox 3603. TOMB RAIDER (Multi)

The Franchise may be 15 years old, but this reboot is as good as ever. Visceral, engaging, and gorgeous, we get to see the humble, violent, beginnings of Lara Croft's transformation into Tomb Raiding bad-ass, even if there isn't a lot of... Tomb Raiding. Crystal Dynamics didn't just use the reboot to set us up for future endeavors, they made the iconic character all her own.

Rent BioShock Infinite for Xbox 3602. BIOSHOCK INFINITE (Multi)

Taken into the air from Rapture, the latest installment is storytelling at it's best. One of those things where you go through to the and am like "WHAT". The ride is fantastic, thrilling, challenging, and thought provoking.

Rent The Last of Us for PS3

This was the Unanimous Game of the Year by not only every contributor, but pretty much every gaming site everywhere. If you haven't played this game already, do so; it isn't too late.

The Last of Us is a step in to then descent that goes with loss, and among utter devastation, when one slowly and abruptly one loses their sense of humanity, how one thing is worth holding onto, fighting to the death for, and even making decisions that make for water cooler discussions and rationalizations.

Naughty Dog doesn't usually fail to meet expectations, so the bar had already been set pretty high. However, from the opening sequence, you are thrust into an immersive environment with incredible visuals and virtual voice and movement performances that are worthy of live acting recognition.

This game is a must play for everyone and not only the best of 2013, but one of the best games of this console generation. 

Sunday, December 29, 2013

2013 Year in Review begins with E3 Impressions, Part II: Six Months Later

There seems to be a recurring pattern here: Revive, Re-brand, Re-publish, Renew, Retire. I got this stunning urge and inspiration to write on the flight back from LA, and then that wonderful thing called life, job, career, kids, happen and then *poof!* we're two days from the new year and I'm like 'Holy Shit; I haven't put virtual pen to virtual paper in forever'.

This time, it is a little different. It isn't like I've been playing games non-stop and am just too lazy to write about them. This time, I started a new career, something more demanding, time intensive and not very friendly to an off peak video gaming lifestyle. While I tried to dedicate some time this year to playing through some games, it was severely diminished; something I hope to rectify in 2014.

This year featured the launch of the oft talked about next generation of consoles, Playstation 4 and Xbox One. I found myself in the fortunate position to be able to acquire both systems at launch, and after 6 weeks I find myself underwhelmed. I don't want to get caught up in this "which is better" nonsense because the capabilities themselves are essentially the same, but when I look back to what I thought at E3 in June and where they are now.

The talk of the show in the Summer was that Playstation 4 was the clear winner. Lower priced, no DRM locks, used game friendly, good lineup. My personal straw poll saw the PS4 was going to be the console of choice among those that were Xbox Loyalists; something that only confirmed to me of Microsoft's huge misstep. Microsoft figured brand loyalty would just let them coast into their standing lead among the big three in terms of install base with their new console. However, it seemed that everything they would announce for their new system would just piss people off. Back in June, I mentioned that Microsoft had five months to make their people happy, and to their credit, they tried.

Now that the smoke has cleared from the launch, I'm kind of back to where I was right after the Sony Conference; the Playstation 4 is the game console of choice for the new generation right now, though right now the game console of choice is still the Xbox 360.

None of these launches were bungled in any great way, but the selection of games is kind of lacking. No game that was exclusive to either next gen console made our top 10 of the year. I found a lot of the Xbox One's features to be frustrating. Setting up a party chat is a pain in the ass, and never really worked. There is too much going on at the dashboard. It as is if the interface was developed by someone who wanted to cater to the ADD Generation. I cannot force quit out of a game when it hangs up (which if you play Battlefield 4, you'll need that feature a lot).

Obviously there is a lot to be determined, here. Interfaces can be tweaked, there are better games coming on the horizon, and I think there will be some better support for Indie titles. However, now that we're looking forward to 2014, there is a hope that there is going to be a lot more in store in order for these consoles to live up to their four and five hundred dollar potentials.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

E3 2013 Impressions, Part I: Sony wins the show before it even begins.

It happened around 10:00am local time on Monday, June 10th. Microsoft was wrapping up its keynote press conference showing off an impressive lineup of games, explaining the features of their new console, the Xbox One, and overall putting on a decent show. They didn’t directly address the biggest gripes among the gaming press and public at large; it has to be connected to the internet at nearly all times, trading games was in a defacto state of not being allowed, and Kinect was integrated in the system. Out of sight, out of mind….

…well then came the price tag: $500.

Many of the industry people I spoke with (not associated with Microsoft) the night before the press conference was guessing the system would launch with a $400 price point. It made sense due to the face that Microsoft could afford staking a loss on each console, if they made up with it in games and other parts of the company.

Sony’s presser was yet 6 hours away, so they had sometime to plan a response. Sony was worried, however, that even though Xbox had run through some negative press in the three weeks since the Xbox One was announced, they could save themselves and swoop in with a low price and kill off any planned momentum Sony could get this time around.

Instead, Microsoft handed Sony a gift. $499 gave Sony the perfect opportunity to speak directly concerning the gamers’ gripes and slide in at a lower price point.

I was lucky enough to be in attendance for the Sony Press Conference. On the bus ride over to USC, there were some media people behind me reciting the IGN story that there were going to be three PS4 SKU’s with tiered pricing going from $399-599. There wouldn’t be any announcement about DRM because there were going to be some DRM policies in place, and that we may not even see the console that night. Even when I was seated, the talk was still about what can Sony do to win the day. “Well, they can’t possibly be cheaper than Xbox so they’re going to have to show some killer games”.

The conference started out talking about Vita games and games currently slated for Playstation 3. Now, I’m a Vita owner and really enjoy playing it, but I honestly was tuned out for that part, because everyone wanted to see what the PS4 looked like – even most of the Sony people I spoke with hadn’t even seen it.

The PS4 reveal was done poorly, in my opinion. They showed this short video that showed the console at the wrong angles; it honestly looked like an Xbox with a blue ring. It was also presented from the side, which made it look like a rhombus as opposed to the front resembling a blade. The air was kind of sucked out of the room, as people wasn’t sure what to think.

The Walking Dead on Vita. See, it isn't that difficult.
As the conference chugged on, (and I’m trying to be polite—but it chugged), we saw some of the video features that no one seemed to care about (Flixter), we saw some indie developers, which was impressive, but I’m still of the opinion that ALL INDIE GAMES SHOULD BE ON THE VITA. Other than Jack Tretton, there really weren’t many dynamic speakers on stage, and I could sense that there was a serious lull in the air, especially when the Assassin’s Creed IV Demo froze up and got cut off.

However, they really did save the best for last; a 5-10 minute live Multiplayer demo of Destiny (which looks amazing), followed by the announcement of the price. Before that, Jack wanted to take a second to cater to the audience – PS4 would not restrict game sharing. It would not have to be constantly connected to the internet. They would support rental and used games (much to Gamefly and Gamestop’s joy). And, they would retail at $399.

Boom. Mic dropped. Don’t forget to tip the waitress. Try the veal.

Those that were following the action on twitter, media, went nuts. Applauses erupted from the arena. I thought the guys sitting next to me were going to start crying. The rallying cry on Social Media was “cancel your XBONE preorder; go with Playstation 4”.

Microsoft is fucked. They don’t understand why, and I don’t understand that at all.

There is a fierce loyalty among the gaming community and I think Xbox and Sony took that for granted; the problem is that Sony learned that the hard way last time around and made up for it; Microsoft is just now learning that lesson within the last 48 hours. Gamers don’t want to hear what you can’t do with your “All in One” uber console. I don’t trade games in, I have my Xbox connected to the internet at nearly all times. I’ve been a faithful Xbox guy for the last 10 years, despite dealing with a few hardware failures. However, when you go out of your way to lock people out of playing games or acquiring games the way they want to play or buy, you are alienating the consumer. You especially look bad when your biggest competitor swoops right in and tells the gamers “Do what you want and do it for 80% of the price”.

At that point, your loyalty means nothing.

I get a lot of my games from either Amazon or Gamefly. If I can’t use Gamefly, I either have to dump them or dump Xbox One. Many other gamers are in my shoes—they rent games, buy them used, or trade new games in. They are going to jump like rats off the ship if Microsoft doesn’t do something.

What is more disturbing is they should have seen this coming. I saw it coming and I don’t work for Microsoft. They should have known that Sony would be willing to undercut them. Having Titanfall be an Xbox Exclusive isn’t going to drive people in droves to the console the way Halo did in 2001. These consoles are virtually the same—they pretty much do the same thing. Microsoft thinks that the integration of Kinect, along with a strong exclusive game lineup would be that which the gaming public was looking for….

It isn’t.

Microsoft should have ditched Kinect completely. While the concept has potential, it isn’t new. It is also costing Xbox because its mandatory inclusion in the system is driving the price.  Developers aren’t falling over themselves to include Kinect in their games, and  many of the hard core gamers find it irrelevant now and will be a bigger nuisance when they have to (HAVE TO) set it up with their new system.

Team Xbox has five months to sort this out. They can roll back their DRM policies and their always online connectivity. They can reduce the price of the console and sell it at a loss. However, they don’t seem to be getting it--in light of the last two days, have come out and said “if you can’t have your Xbox One connected at all times, just buy a 360”. These statements just insult the intelligence of the consumers and are only driving them into the arms of their biggest competitor, who are more than willing to accept them and their market share.

You just made Jack Tretton a man of the people, Microsoft. Think about that. The ball is now in your court. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

An Outsider’s Guide to E3 2013.

Every June, the gaming world descends on one central locale (usually Los Angeles) for the Electronic Entertainment Expo. While, an industry trade show among many throughout the year, E3 seems to be the placeholder as the premier event for breaking gaming news, premier announcements, and industry mingling. The show is usually covered by a cable outlet (in years past it was G4, but now it is Spike TV), and every major gaming publication/website. Gamers around the world tune in to check out the latest news on upcoming games, behind the scenes, and sneak previews.

For as much attention this E3 gets, there has always been this thing about actually attending the event; unless you work in the game industry or game media, you can’t do it.  Bob who sells insurance and plays games can’t go. Dave with his start up commentary blog can’t go, and even Jim who has a blog with some provable credibility can’t go unless he is willing to shell out big time coin for a pass, hotel, accommodations.  The peasants among the devoted gaming collective are reduced to seeing Morgan Webb, Jessica Chobot, Major Nelson, et. al indirectly rubbing your face in the fact that they are at the premier gaming event of the year, and you’re not.

I have never worked directly in the gaming industry; I worked in retail for a few years at a Mom-and-Pop video game store, a toy store that sold games, and a Brick and Mortar store that sells games both new and used games. That is the breadth of my industry involvement, and that was 9 years ago. Since then I’ve been involved in Community Non-Profit, and this year just started in the Mortgage Industry…

…and for the last two years, I’ve attended E3. 

This may come off as a humble brag, but I’ve been fortunate enough to attend E3 and not be subtle about my posing as an outsider. Multiple times I fielded questions like “so what do you do at Sony?”, “How long have you been at Sega?”, “Are you an Amazon buyer, too?”. Each time, I have to sheepishly explain that I’m not of their ilk and they kind of nod and politely head off into another conversation’s direction.

So how do I pull of going to the most widely covered gaming event in the country when I wasn’t invited? Well, what I’m about to tell you are some observations on the show, how I managed to get in to it, and what goes on a bit behind the scenes. There will be no names associated with this, because these people while they should be recognized for their genuine kindness, also went out on a limb to give me a chance to share in the experience.

How does one get into E3? Simple: have some really fucking cool friends. I am fortunate to have friends that work in the industry; first party (Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft), third party (Accessory companies, Sega, Warner Interactive). I met them initially through working at the retail level, but grew my friendships through gaming, networking, and knowing associations. This was one time a year all of them would be in the same place; and both years one of them were able to pull strings and get me an affiliate pass; which meant I was put on a list as being credentialed, and given access to attend the show. These people are first rate; I was able to stay one a hotel room with one of them, they were kind enough to pick up my meals and drinks, and they were able to give me some behind the scenes access to VIP areas. E3 is a work trip for them; they meet with buyers, and retailers, developers, engineers, and producers. They have a passion for games – and for putting out good games. I’m really fortunate to get the opportunity to spend some quality time with them all in one place.

Now that I’ve stroked their egos plenty, here’s a little info about the show itself. First off, you’d think there was this Jets vs. Sharks routine between the heavy hitters – Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo. At the highest level, there is extreme competition; however, beyond the executive levels, everyone is pretty friendly. All three major companies shared the same hotel – The JW Marriott at LA Live in Downtown Los Angeles. The lower bar and lounge area was frequently packed with people from all different companies, talking light shop, but more importantly, trying to determine whose tab they were going to tie their drinks onto.

There is also an interesting dichotomy among those that work at these companies. The higher you go up the ladder, the less it seems that these guys actually care about the games. They seem to be more interested in how to maximize returns on investment. I get that to a certain extent; if gamers ran game companies, they would all go out of business. Even some of the buyers I met didn’t seem to be that interested in gaming; some of them didn’t really know much about them other than through sales forecasts and previous year numbers.

I saw the most passion was among those that were testers, creative directors, producers, and sales guys. I was able to have dinner with a group of people from Microsoft my first night in town along with a Senior Producer at a company that does mobile games. These people were the front line workers of the show; giving demos, answering questions, promoting their products. They loved to play; all throughout our three-hour dinner, I was able to sit back and observe them talk about past projects, current projects, and what they were looking forward to at the show. They had the job that all gamers wanted but few understood the actual work involved in the process. They weren’t programmers or coders, or mo cap models, or voice actors.

E3 itself, while an industry only event (save for a few posers), could really stand to be more selective about its attendees. The LA Convention Center is huge, but the place is still very claustrophobic when 75,000 of the unwashed masses descend upon the two exhibition halls. All badges aren’t alike; there are badges for Media only, there are some for VIP media, which allows you access outside of the show hours (which is Tuesday--noon-6pm, Wednesday – 10am-6pm, Thursday—10am-5pm), Exhibitors badges which also allow access outside of show floor times, and Exhibits only badges which only allow access during floor times.

The majority of attendees have either the Exhibits only or Media badges, which create a bit of a mess when the doors open for the day. Everyone masses in front of the main doors to each respective hall, while the pros seek out the side entrances with minimal lines. One the
show floor opens, people immediately rush to the games either they want to see the most, or whatever booth is giving out free stuff. If you give out a T-shirt, automatic 2 hour line. If you’re a hot game doing a live demo—automatic 3 hour line. If you’re Disney and you’re giving out a one of a kind trinket—FOUR. HOUR. LINE.

Look, I’m a sucker as much as the next guy for free shit, but nothing is worth waiting in excess of 2 hours to see/play/get a free shirt. My advice is first day, see everything; day two, be willing to wait for something only if it is really cool, and you’re able to play it. Be prepared to be let down for a lot of companies (Bethesda) like to show things behind closed doors only to VIP media or buyers. Don’t waste your day looking at a 20 minute trailer of Destiny. You’re going to buy the game, regardless, and you’ll be able to buy a Tshirt somewhere down the road.
Another tip is that you’ll want to dress comfortable. Those that are there for work will wear a sport coat, button up shirt, nice jeans or slacks, and dress shoes. You’re going to be on your feet for 5-7 hours – wear nice shoes. Also, I don’t know if you’re familiar with the concept of Los Angeles weather, but wear shorts and a light shirt. The convention halls are kept at a pretty cool temperature, but you’re still going to sweat.

Pack light; there really is no reason to be toting around your tablet, laptop, sleeping back, 3DS, etc. The wifi at the LACC sucks, and you’re only going to be weighed down. Nice camera, phone, that’s it. Speaking of phones…

…bring multiple batteries, or a mobile charger. This is a shameless plug (no pun intended), but this iSound portable charger was a savior last year and this year for those who have Android phones that don’t like to last long snapping pictures and uploading them to Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, etc.

It is okay to wear an ironic shirt or video game shirt, but try to be unique. I went with my N7 shirt yesterday thinking I was going to be all cool; well it isn’t cool once you’ve passed the 300th person wearing something N7. Today I went with a shirt featuring Pam Poovey from Archer (via Teefury), and that was a much better decision. If you’re going out at night, then you can change into a collared shirt. During the show, keep it casual -- just don’t be a furry. If you attend E3 and you’re dressed as some kind of elf or Pokemon character, or for God’s sake wear something Brony related, you will draw my ire and immediately not be taken seriously.

Food wise, food trucks are the way to go as the sandwiches and drinks inside will run you a small fortune. There are quite a few food trucks camped out in the side entrances between the South and West halls. Don’t spend 45 minutes waiting at Starbucks. If you need a drink, hit a vending machine.

Make sure you’re getting sleep. I live in the Midwest, therefore my body is 2 hours ahead of local time, therefore I was always mega tired. You don’t want to be that guy that taps out at 10:30 because you’ve been on your feet all day, your eating schedule is all fucked up, and it is 12:30am in your internal chronometer, so try and get plenty of rest.

I am really not the world’s biggest drinker. I’ve had to pace myself at the bars and lounges at night. Usually, someone has an open tab going and people just attach their drinks to that tab. I’d love to see the faces of the accounts people at Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo when they are try to reconcile $25,000 (that’s a VERY conservative estimate) in alcohol and food expenses over three days among their staff members. Drinks costs at the JW Marriott were obscene. I saw three drinks – a mixed drink, a glass of champagne, and a beer—go for $45. You can try and be courteous and order a soda to temper costs and your impending hangover, but it will be met with some ridicule. Still, go easy on the drinks for yourself and your friends.

One cheesy thing I’ve done the last two years is to buy an E3 logo’d T-shirt. This year’s selection wasn’t as good as last year’s but it is something cool to bring back and show your friends that yes, you were that guy that got to go to E3 and they weren’t. You are the guy that has the good friends willing to hook you up, and all they have are you willing to tell them what they were missing out on. Maybe, one day, they can be that cool, too.

Lord Bling's Ouya Unboxing Video

He shut up and gave them his money. Let's see how it pays off.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

This is what Battlefield 3 has been reduced to...

Ok, let's backtrack a bit.

A few months ago, I took a new job. Total career change, total commute change, total leap of faith. I went from being in an office 30 hours or so a week to 50 hours a week. Naturally, that allocation of time and energy meant less time for goofing around on the video game console.

There are a lot of things coming up in the next few weeks. E3 is on the immediate horizon, which should at least reveal a lot of questions we have about the two new consoles coming this fall/winter. There should be new games to explore and new technologies to embrace, but let us look back at one of the games of yesteryear that occupied most of our time:

Battlefield 3.

This game is a conundrum; we have a love/hate relationship with it. Love because it is probably the best shooter of its kind currently out there and hate because it should have been a lot better and better designed. A few months back, bored of the repetitive malaise of bullet lag, hiding through walls, and over powered weapons, we decided to keep things interesting by attempting stunts. Below is what came of that night:

Desperate to re-create that, we tried it again last night, only it took quite a while to re-create that allure of fun and humor through repetitive failure. There are a few other stunts we tried other than the one seen above, but that just didn't quite live up to it. As Sgt. Angry put it; "we tried to recreate the epic party, which evolved organically, and now we're just making shit".

Eventually we went back to the well and tried this again, with everyone in party pulling off the stunt (yours truly making it on my last attempt, after all the capture devices were turned off). However, if this is really the only way we can squeeze a few ounces of fun out of one of the better games of the past year, then I'm not sure how much optimism I should have for the games of the immediate future.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Welcome to Columbia

Bioshock Infinite showed up in the mail last night and I decided to give it a whirl. I will have a full review in a few weeks, but so far... well I'm going to let the video below give you an idea of how immersive this world seems to be at the start. Very much nails the feeling of the first Bioshock game without the creepiness:

More to come...

Monday, March 11, 2013

Lord Bling's Let's Play -- Tomb Raider

The first 45 minutes of Single Player campaign of Tomb Raider, which released last Tuesday. I'll have a review later this week, but here is a sneak preview: it's good.