Review: Gemini Rue

One of the encouraging trends brought on by the rise of tablet gaming is the return of the point and click adventure genre. I have fond memories of playing through Grim Fandango with my roommates, and I still think it was one of the greatest games that too few people played.

Gemini Rue is a game in that genre, but it hearkens back to an even earlier time period when characters were splotchy collections of pixels and the use of a floppy disk to represent saving still made sense. On the other hand, the game is fully voice-acted and has a full quality music score.

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Twitch Could Kill Metal Gear Solid

I didn’t know anything about Twitch until news broke that Amazon had purchased the service, but I instantly saw the appeal as soon as I read about it. Like Twitch users, I enjoy watching other people play videogames. The mainstream media has gotten a lot of mileage out of making fun of the concept, but what they don’t get is that a lot of games these days have pretty complex, involving storylines. None of them would qualify as great literature, but I would argue that many of them are at least comparable to Hollywood blockbusters. A number of YouTube channels have drawn millions of subscribers by posting complete playthroughs of various games. If I don’t feel like watching anything currently on my Netflix queue, I will often pull up a playthrough from one of my subscribed YouTube channels.

Here’s the thing, though: after watching a playthrough of many games, I have very little desire to purchase and play those games myself. The most egregious example was Metal Gear Solid 4 which I often joke about by saying, “I played MGS4 on YouTube.” There have been plenty of more recent examples, though. I was watching Lara run through a collapsing tunnel in the latest Tomb Raider game when I realized that the whole thing was almost entirely scripted. Oh sure, the player nominally had control of Lara, but really all he was doing was holding up on the analog stick and watching as stuff dramatically collapsed all around Lara. How much value would I get if I was actually playing that game instead of watching somebody else play it?

A similar phenomenon has happened with the single-player campaigns of recent Call of Duty games. The game all but forces you to walk over to certain locations and then stop and while enemies pop out of pre-determined locations for you to shoot at. Technically you are in control, but really you are just following a script that the developers have laid out for you. How much value are you really losing if you watch someone else play the game for you?

Not all games are like this, of course, and not all Twitch viewers are watching playthroughs just to see a game’s storyline. I would go so far as to say that most premium games are still worth experiencing firsthand. But there are some games which have gotten so tightly scripted that they really only offer the illusion of control on the part of the player. And as Twitch or services like it become more widespread, it’s going to be harder and harder to convince people to shell out for something they could enjoy almost as much by simply watching someone else play it.

Twitch could be the death of Metal Gear Solid as we know it.

Bowser for Mayor!

To be clear, I do not live in Washington DC and I do not endorse any particular candidate. I don’t know enough about the issues or about the candidates.

But one of them is named Muriel Bowser. What videogame blog could resist that name?! Here’s a video of her talking to the Washington Post about her home.

More Sequels We Aren’t Asking For

I understand the business reasons behind Microsoft’s decision to purchase the Gears of War franchise and begin work on a new game. But I have to wonder just how many people are really excited about it.

For one thing, the story is over. The Locust threat was ended with Gears of War 3. The next game in the series had to resort to telling a prequel story which didn’t even involve Marcus Fenix. And given that the story was a foregone conclusion (being a prequel and all), many reasonably wondered why they should care.

For another thing, if the new game comes out next year, it will be the fifth game in 8 years. The Legend of Zelda series took 14 years (over three platforms) to get to its fifth game. Don’t players want something a little new and different these days?

As I said, I understand the business reasons behind the purchase. I don’t know how much money Microsoft forked over for the Gears of War franchise, but the chances are the next game will make enough money to make the deal worthwhile. All the same, I can’t help feeling that the dead-eyed cynicism is going to generate a backlash one of these days. It may not happen with the Gears of War series. Or the Halo series. Or even the next franchise Microsoft milks out. But the trend can’t continue forever.

The Warcraft Movie is Going to Suck

Does anybody even care that the Warcraft movie supposedly started shooting today? I’m not even sure World of Warcraft is a very big deal these days any more (although I admit I’m the wrong person to make such a claim since I never played it).

I don’t know who thought it would be a good idea to make this movie. Warcraft is a bog standard fantasy story with orcs, elves, dwarves, and humans in a pseudo-medieval setting. The only good thing I can see out of this is it seems the internet seems to have realistically subdued expectations about the movie.

Which won’t stop some people from complaining that the movie is unfaithful to the games. Those are times that really test my patience with geeks.

Swipe to Jump

Mike Wehner at TUAW argues that “Nintendo needs to embrace iOS as a games platform.” The idea is that since Nintendo is in trouble these days, they ought to stop trying to push the 3DS and the Wii U and just develop for iOS (and I suppose for Android, but TUAW is an Apple-oriented blog).

These kinds of posts irritate me because they always focus on business plans and financial statements. And while Nintendo certainly cares about those things, there’s one other consideration that nobody ever seems to take into account. It’s one simple question:

How are you going to control Super Mario Bros with a touch screen?

I don’t think I have to get into the difficulties of controlling a precise platformer without buttons. I like iOS. I have both an iPhone and an iPad, and I use both daily. But they don’t have physical controls, and until they do, I suspect Nintendo developing for them is a non-starter.

And when people don’t take that into consideration, they reveal themselves to be very shallow thinkers.

One Red Ring to Rule Them All

The reaction to the Xbox One seems to have been mixed. Looking at this video, I’ve gotten some idea of what seems to rile people up.

I was talking about this with my buddy Jesterspawn who offered his personal theory: the Xbox One is not offering a product to its audience. Instead, the audience it brings is the product. The best way to think of this is to look at television. NBC is not really trying to deliver content to a viewing audience. What NBC is really concerned about is delivering the viewing audience to advertisers which is how they make their money. In similar fashion, Microsoft is looking to use the Xbox One to deliver people to Netflix, the NFL sports network, HBO, and whatever other sources of media it can partner with. Microsoft can then start data mining users to find out TV and movie watching habits, internet surfing habits, game playing habits and so on. Live in-game advertising is probably not far away.

This isn’t a totally novel idea. When you put things this way, the Xbox One actually looks like a competitor not to the PS4 but to Google TV. Google TV is also a system which overlays graphics and information on top of live TV coming through your cable box, satellite dish, or whatever. The main edge of the Xbox One is its interface which combines Kinect with voice controls to switch seamlessly between movies, TV, music, internet, and other media. I’m not sure how much of a selling point that is, to be honest. I can’t say I’ve ever watched a show on TV and thought to myself, “Boy I wish I could switch instantaneously to internet surfing right now.”

Actually, when I do get that urge, I just pick up my iPad.

Which brings us to the central issue with set top boxes like the Xbox One. Every media and electronic corporation wants to sell you one. But there isn’t much evidence that we really want them. Put simply, people have shown that they are perfectly willing to have a videogame console, a Blu-Ray player, and a web browser in separate machines. It’s just not that inconvenient to have multiple machines doing one thing well, and it also avoids giving us features that we don’t need. For example, I am not going to watch TV through the Xbox One because I don’t have cable. I download or stream everything. The smart TV feature on the Xbox One is wasted money for me.

The other issue is that the Xbox One and Google TV are both heavily reliant on underlying infrastructure built by Microsoft or Google. And neither company has the best setup for everything. When it comes to web browsing, I vastly prefer Chrome to Internet Explorer. But if I have an Xbox One, I’m out of luck. If I want to play videogames, I’ll have to use the Xbox One. Google TV has no videogames other than browser-based ones. If I have to find information on the internet, you can be sure that the Xbox One is going to force you to use Bing. Let that sink in for a second.

And that’s just in North America. Netflix streaming on the Xbox One is going to be useless in Asia or many European countries. NFL Sports? Do I even need to point out how little the rest of the world will care about that? Microsoft will have to negotiate deals with media companies all over the world if it hopes to compete on the international stage, and all those separate arrangements are going to be time consuming and fragmented. Meanwhile, many TVs are already coming with built in internet streaming these days.

Microsoft certainly seems to have been smarter about the feature set for the Xbox One than Sony was for the PS3. This may be the closest thing to a set top box we’ll get today, at least in North America. But I can’t shake the feeling that the very concept of a set top box still isn’t all that compelling to consumers.

3rd-Party Wii Titles Get the Shaft Because…

It’s no secret that many popular third-party games (Call of Duty, sports games, fighting games, etc) don’t sell as well on Wii as their HD counterparts. Call of Duty, ever since World at War, has still managed to go on to sell 1 million copies or more.

It’s a wonder though, that they sell at all. Why? Let’s take a look at a recent trip to a local “large chain” game retail outlet (it’s pretty obvious who it is, exactly):

 

WTF? Spryro up front? It's available for EVERY plaform...and why is Zelda at the bottom?
Three Zelda boxes, at the bottom of the wall and out of view. "New Releases" indeed.

 

Notice the “New Releases” wall? This photo was taken yesterday, the eve of a little game called The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword launching in the US. Today, this store will launch the game with the wall looking this way- a game that has already garnered several perfect scores and a wealth of controversy. This is the game to get for that platform this holiday. In this picture, we can barely see two to three display copies of the title at the bottom-right of the wall.   Isn’t slightly odd that a Game of the Year contender is so lightly displayed?

Of course, by contrast, Skyrim, Uncharted 3, Batman: Arkham City, and Battlefield 3 are all over the walls of PS3 and 360, with little room for anything else (never mind the fact that posters for said game are also littering the store). When asked for a copy of the Wii version of Modern Warfare 3, the store employee first looked puzzled, then stared at the wall for a good two minutes.

Then, he looks up, and finds it in this shiny, out of the way spot:

 

Where is Modern Warfare 3? Shouldn't it be front and center?
Where is Modern Warfare 3? Shouldn't it be front and center?

Apparently you have to be seven feet tall as well as 17 years old to play MW3 on Wii :

 

Aha! There you are? Quite a bit different location than the front-center, eye-level PS3/360 walls...
Aha! There you are? Quite a bit different location than the front-center, eye-level PS3/360 walls...

Looking closer, here it finally is. It’s pointless to say that he knew nothing of whether or not this game worked with the Headbanger Headset that they had in-stock (which works perfectly with Black Ops and Conduit 2 on Wii).

It seems even stores are trying their best to tell you that Wii just isn’t a console for hardcore games (in this case, even GOTY nominees made by Nintendo themselves). If mature, serious games can’t even get retail space when it’s clearly available, then it’s no wonder that the average gamer that walks in these stores have no idea that they even exist for Wii.

But you have to wonder: why isn’t Nintendo PR taking care of this, and ensuring that third-parties do also since there are some 45 million potential customers in the US? Why bother making a Wii version if you’re not going to make the effort to ensure that it actually reaches the hands of the hardcore gamers owning these systems?

Do you think this is a good business practice for these stores, and is it a bad call for publishers to allow their games to be shoved out of view like this?

Who’s at fault here, the store manager for portraying a biased display, or the NOA reps that are supposed to do store visits to stop this sort of thing?

Imaginary Range Shows Promise on iPad

The most common tagline associated with any review of Square-Enix’s Imaginary Range is “50% comic, 50% game, 100% awesome.” Actually, it looks like all those reviews might be quoting the same early review and just running with the tagline. Whatever the case, it’s a very high bar to live up to, and while what I’ve seen is promising, it’s way too early to make any pronouncements.

I don’t know exactly how the time is divided up between the two, but Imaginary Range is indeed a combination of comic book storytelling and games. Specifically, Imaginary Range tells an ongoing story in the form of comic-style panels although these differ from traditional comics by incorporating occasional animations, zooms, and pans. There is never anything elaborate, but it does add a little cinematic touch to the proceedings. If you have ever seen the web original series Broken Saints, you will have an idea of what I’m talking about.

From time to time, Imaginary Range will also present mini-games which you must complete in order to move forward. They range from a missile-guiding game resembling Flight Control to simple hidden object searches. Some effort is made to integrate the games into the plot with varying success. For the most part, you probably won’t care. The games are well-done, and some of them are surprisingly addictive. After finishing the main storyline, you can unlock a mode which allows you to replay three of the mini-games to try to get higher scores. My favorite is a vertical shooter in which you must control a laser which can skewer a series of bombs heading toward the buttom of the screen, Space Invaders style, and then set the bombs off to destroy even more bombs. Playing the games also earns you coins which you can use to unlock concept art in the gallery.

The skewered bombs end up looking like martini olives for some reason...

Unfortunately, the story itself is a bit nonsensical. What’s included in the app is basically an introductory chapter, and as such things go it’s pretty substantive. We get a decent introduction to a set of characters, watch them fight off an alien force, and even get a flashback which seems to develop a relationship or some kind of background between two of the characters. It’s far too early for me to get a good idea of where the story is going, but the bigger problem is that what I can tease out about the story makes absolutely no sense. From what I can tell, there are two heroes fighting off an alien invasion of some sort. One of them is carrying a Tablet (yes, it’s capitalized as if it’s a proper name for a product) which can create anything imaginable as long as they draw imaginary energy from objects around them. That imaginary energy comes in the form of…well, random shapes and posters scattered around the pages of the comic. The whole system seems completely arbitrary and suspect. Hopefully we’ll get a fuller explanation in future chapters.

Imaginary Range also has a bad habit of having its characters speak in obtuse, vague language which merely leaves the reader confused. I have to wonder if Square-Enix is having localization problems since they have a history of shaky translations (e.g. Final Fantasy VII). Then again, a lot of the anime I watch also tends to be deliberately obtuse, often to the detriment of our understanding and for no particular reason other than to make us feel smart if we actually can figure out what’s going on. As it is right now, I’m willing to wait for more details, but I have definitely been left feeling rather unmoved so far.

At least the art work is excellent. Character designs are attractive and distinctive, and the action is conveyed clearly (although sometimes you will want to zoom out on the page so that you can see the flow of panels properly). This is also crucial for some of the gameplay since the hidden object puzzles depend heavily on being able to distinguish between what you can interact with and what is merely a background object.

Imaginary Range’s biggest flaw has to do with the implementation of its gallery. I don’t mind the idea of unlockable concept art, but I find it hugely problemmatic when the unlocking mechanism is entirely luck based. As I mentioned before, playing the mini-games earns you coins which are used to unlock gallery art. However, you don’t use the coins to buy unlocked pictures outright. Instead, coins are used to buy scratch-off cards (the type you see in a lottery) which you then scratch off using your finger. Uncover 3 icons under the 9 circles and you unlock a gallery. However, whether or not there are actually 3 icons there to uncover is entirely random, and I spent a lot of time buying cards and scratching them off before I finally got one which unlocked a gallery. It gets tedious after a while, and for the life of me I can’t understand why Square-Enix chose to implement their unlockable gallery this way.

 

Take a look at the number of coins I have in the upper right hand corner...
...compared to how much I had when I finally uncovered three moogle icons. And that was for just one piece of artwork.

 

Of course, I can’t get too annoyed with Imaginary Range’s foibles considering that it’s currently free in the iTunes App Store. I’m sure Square-Enix is using this release as a teaser for paid content to be released in the future. It’s worked on me to the extent that I would be interested enough to buy the next installment, assuming it has a reasonable price. However, Imaginary Range still has a lot to prove before I’m convinced that it’s truly “awesome.” If the story doesn’t get any better and the gallery continues to be unlocked by scratch-off lottery cards, I’ll have to declare it “good” but not “great.”

Sony Needs to Fire their PR Department #62

So suppose your online gaming network was hacked, leaving gamers unable to go online to play anything. Suppose the perpetrator of this crime got away with player information including potentially credit card numbers. How long would it take you to alert the public about this attack? A few hours? A day?

For Sony, it was a week. A week in which all the meanwhile they posted meaningless updates stating that they were “re-building our system to further strengthen our network infrastructure” and other such vague nonsense.

Sony was not haxX0rz the way Shadow Fox was speculating, but they were recently hacked anyway. And their reaction to the incident was the worst possible.

Companies are sometimes targeted by hackers. Sometimes the hackers succeed. There isn’t really that much shame in being successfully hacked. It’s impossible to make any system 100% safe. But trying to pretend nothing is going on while hackers have a whole week to spread and sell vital user information is not only incompetent but dangerous.