Happy 50th (Podcast) Anniversary to Played!

Come what may, my two co-hosts and I managed to record 50 podcast episodes of Played over the last few years. The anniversary episode went live last night if you're interested in listening to some geeks talk about video games.

It’s a entertaining episode where we announce the winners of the Haiku contest we ran last month. Included is a fun little ditty my co-hosts, Chris Remo, wrote which is comprised of all three winnings submissions. We also chat at length about Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War II, Killzone 2, King’s Bounty: The Legend, Fable 2 and Microsoft’s claim that gaming is health for kids (in the UK).

I imagine that it's probably a bit tacky to link to it here on my own blog, but it’s something I’m pretty proud of so please do check it out.


Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazzard

Within minutes of starting Eat Lead you will learn that Matt Hazzard was a big celebrity back in the 80s where he starred in a string of very successful video games. Since then he has unfortunately plummeted off the charts (due to making a Mario Kart type game) and been out of work. Destined for a comeback he is commissioned by "Wally" Wellesley to star in a new, next-generation video game. But not all is as well as it seems—Wally really wants to destroy him.

Allow me to explain: When Wally was a kid he bested every video game he played except for one—Matt Hazzards. Taken as a whole it is actually an intriguing idea for a video game as it leads to an unusual take on breaking the 4th wall.

For instance kicking off the voluntary tutorial leads to Matt Hazzard exclaiming, "Great--an in-game tutorial. God I hate these things!" and “Yeah Yeah! I know how to shoot a damn gun!”

During the beginning of one particular level--in habitual third-person/first-person fashion—the objectives start to appear in the upper right-hand corner. As they pile on they begin to cover the protagonist making him exclaim “Ok! Ok! Can we summarize this or something?” This prompts the list to be consolidated to “Shoot stuff that moves”.

It gets even more clever.

In one particular instance Matt Hazzard has to fight some of the enemies from his first game and they are literally 2-D sprites running around shooting at you. The real clever part is they purposefully become more difficult to hit by turning to their sides, thinning themselves.

But all this great material is simply overshadowed by the real issue--the gameplay. Though it replicates Gears of War in this regard, it fails to be engaging. The weapons have little-to-no kickback and lack any sort of originality. The AI is nonexistent and possibly inferior to the PB&J sandwich I had for lunch today. The quick-time events are slow and far too crude to be entertaining. The game is so unbalanced I completed 75% of a level using melee attacks that—when performed at the right moment--seemingly render you invincible.

It would be a bit trite for me to even mention to the readers of this blog that most video games expect you to slip into the boots of their protagonist. But in Eat Lead it’s just too difficult to do because the games foundation is so weak. It leaves Matt Hazzard to be possibly the most apologetic video game character ever. He consistently looks back at you winking and nudging his way through the levels in hopes that he will distract you from the real issues at hand.

No More Heroes is a similar game in that it’s self-aware (but to a much more mild extent). One of the glaring differences is the protagonist--Travis Touchdown. He is self-assured, hilarious and backed by an extremely robust gameplay model. In contrast I imagine Matt Hazzard would rather crawl out from the TV, sit next to you on the couch and entertain you with his knee-slapping humor. It ultimately makes for an awkward gaming experience that eventually falls prey to the same ridiculous paradigms it sets out to mocks.


King's Bounty: The Legend

Killzone 2 will astonish you with its deferred rendering engine that utilizes multi-sampled anti-aliasing to produce unbelievable graphical fidelity for a home console. Burnout Paradise will have you sweating at a blistering 60 frames-per-second as you soar over skyscrapers crashing through billboards (queue 80s rock DJ!) Madworlds protagonist, Jack, wants to violently seduce you as he chainsaws his way throughout a blood-spattered--Frank Miller enthused--world justly confirming that it really is a mad mad Madworld he lives in. But recently I was plucked out of the hardcore gaming stratosphere to be reminded that gaming isn’t always about boiling your blood with crazy gameplay antics or pumping your adrenaline over its procedural merit.

King’s Bounty: The Legend is here to say it is ok to slip back to a more classic style of gameplay and focus on strategy while having a good time. It's ironic that I initially found King's Bounty: The Legend to be precisely the game I wasn’t looking for. For the last two years I've been feverishly pushing forward at 180 mph playing everything I can get my hands on. To name a few, I've played through to completion F.E.A.R. 2, Mass Effect (five times), Far Cry 2, Fallout 3 (twice), Dead Space, Metal Gear Solid 4, Grand theft Auto 4 (twice), leveled a Priest to 80 in Warcraft obtaining 4/5 of my Tier 7 gear, and really just about everything else imaginable. I consume games and love every minute of it (hence the name of this blog). But after spending some times with the game I realized I almost missed out on something special and now I'm here to inform my fellow gamers they might be too.

King's Bounty will be instantly familiar to anyone who's played the Hero's of Might and Magic series. That is to say it's a turn-based tactical RPG that takes place in a fantasy setting. You control one of three character classes (Fighter, Paladin or Mage) in real-time, traversing a map overflowing with treasures, monsters, and NPCs. These NPC bestow quests upon you which push you farther and farther into the recesses of the world. Sometimes you'll just fall into a wacky situation--I once chatted up a stump only to discover he ailed of distraught and was in dire need of help. How could one resist!

As you progress through the game your character will gain new abilities through the now ubiquitous skill tree, obtain new weapons and armor from merchants and treasure chests, and venture off to new lands. These lands are segmented by portals that whisk you to-and-fro consisting of super-green grasslands, dank mines, eerie swamps, chilly ice-lands, gloomy forests and scorching dungeons.

The turn-based warfare takes place in a completely separate battle-screen that essentially resembles a chessboard. Though this might sound a bit dowdy, the board is modified throughout the game to vary movement strategies.

I do not remember the last time I played a game that possessed such a vibrant, colorful, hand-drawn palette. When I saw the menu screen for the first time I just sat there staring at the beautifully drawn image analyzing its absurd level of detail. Unfortunately, once in the game, the game loses that level of impressiveness and moves to something more similar to the Warcraft series. But that’s not to say it isn’t a good looking game. Although clearly inspired by Blizzard’s work, there does seem to be just enough of a departure from it to tell the two apart. Overall it is a very visually appealing game.

If there is going to be a downside to King’s Bounty it will probably be that it really does nothing new in this particular genre, and some might perceive it as borrowing heavily from the above mentioned Heroes of Might and Magic series. The interesting twist is that the original King’s Bounty came out in 1991—four years before the Heroes of Might and Magic series. For me personally this was never an issue, but I suspect that this will be a source of contention for some.

The dialog that carries the story can be a bit monotonous at times as its standard fantasy fare. It’s worth noting that the Russian developer, Katauri Interactive, tried to inject some comedic value into the dialog to liven things up.

With King Bounty I realized I was letting a small portion of the gamer in me miss out on something special just because I was caught up in the mix of things. If you’re looking for something to change that up you should give this game a chance--it’s worth your $30.


GTA Phone Calls Have Me Lost and Damned Damned Damned!

On the whole I would say that the GTAIV: Lost and Damned DLC is a triumph. It offers a respectable amount of debauchery, hog ride'n, Arm Westle'n, F-bomb drop’n and even brings a new-fangled episode of Republican Space Rangers for all of us to enjoy.

Unfortunately there still remains one absurd design choice that drives me to shouting at my TV in I hopes that Sam Houser will take notice--scripted phone calls.

They have got to stop.

Actually the calls wouldn’t be so bad if Niko or Johnny didnt stop running to answer these intrusions. But in regards to this game in particular, I don’t know of anything else more frustrating than the inevitable phone call once you've completed a mission. The likelihood that one is involved in a car chase in GTA involving a insane amount of munitions had got to be high. Not only are there bound to be 37 cop cars hot on your trail, but you are most likely going to be running from your burning charriot thereafter. To have the protagonist suddenly stop running while trying to get away is maddening. It got to the point where I would try to find an alley to run and hide in so Mr Turtle wouldnt get killed. It wouldnt be so bad if the save system was a little more logical, but after a long tedious mission this is the last thing we want to have happen.

I understand Rockstar wants to slow things down a bit so you can focus in on the narratives progression, but there has got to be a better way of handling this.

what's more is the run ability is shared with the hang-up button? How many of you have hanged up on a caller while mashing the run button trying to get away from a burning vehicle?