Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Problem with Xbox Live

Everything's online today. Once upon a time, it was enough just to be able to whup the butt of the guy playing next to you, but gamers were soon enamored by the prospect of whupping butt cross-country. Being able to take on a real, live human opponent any time and anywhere was very enticing; it still is. So enticing in fact, that modern hardware manufacturers have endeavored to make it a key part of their console strategies. This hardware generation marks the first in which an online component isn't some random add-on peripheral that you can buy if you want. No, this cycle has made it part of the equation for all three systems, and we will most likely never again go back to that world of standing in line to play against someone.

There's a problem though, at least something that I consider to be one, and I'm referring specifically to Xbox Live. While gamers the world over look at upcoming titles and wonder about their online components, this fervor and anticipation doesn't last as long as you'd think. Unless you're looking at a major release, such as Halo 3, Rock Band, or Gears of War; the online lobbies tend to taper off in use mere weeks after a game's release. Come back a year later, and they're practically dead. That's a serious paradox there folks, and it's one that game developers are no doubt taking seriously when they're considering investing the time and money needed to bring a title online. Why incorporate an online component if no one is going to stick with it?

I first noticed this phenomenon back with the original Xbox. Everyone was playing Mech Assault, and full games were not a problem to find. That is, until about five or six months later, when everyone had moved on to the next big release. The same thing happened to me with OutRun 2. People played feverishly for a while, and then poof - they lost interest and started playing something else. About the only original Xbox title with which I had no trouble finding people to play was Project Gotham Racing 2, which most likely had to do with just how incredible it was... and the fact that there wasn't anything really like it online.

This problem hasn't just manifested itself on the Xbox 360, it's grown and multiplied like a virus. Just this past week, I tried to find someone online to play Overlord's survival mode with me. My search came back empty. Pillage? Nothing. Slaughter? Zilch. Curious to see if this was the case with some other titles, I popped in Kameo to see if someone was online. I still have those co-op achievements to get! It was a wasteland as well. I got the same results with Splinter Cell: Double Agent. Where has everyone gone?

No, I know the answer to that one. Just a glimpse of my friends list tells me all I need to know. GTA IV is number one right now, but many are still online with Halo 3 and Gears of War, and... nothing else. I see some sporadic Guitar Hero III and Rock Band in there sometimes, but these three are the only ones consistently played online. And by "online," I'm not just referring to the player being signed in to Live; I mean that an online mode is actually being played.

Xbox Live Arcade titles are even more susceptible to this, as their window to shine is usually about seven days (unless you have a week when MS releases two sure-fire soon-to-be-delisted titles like this one, with Warlords and Suduku). Ever see anyone playing Gauntlet in co-op? How about Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles? The latter is an interesting mention, because I can remember how everyone was dying, DYING to play it in four-player co-op. That frothing demand lasted about two weeks.

Why does this happen? Is it because Xbox 360 gamers are ADD-riddled and have too much cash to spend? Partially, perhaps. I think there are a few other mitigating factors contributing to this quick disinterest in all things online:
  • Too Many Games to Play. How many people are still playing Stranglehold online? Not very many, judging by my fruitless attempts to find someone. It's only been eight months since the game was released, and the lobbies are dead most of the time. With a solid online component, I'm sure Midway thought it would ride the top of the Live charts for months, instead of sinking off like a virtual Titanic. Is it the game's fault? Hardly. Who played anything in November that wasn't Halo 3? A lot of titles got their Live walking papers when Bungie's monster hit, and most haven't recovered. Even the mighty Halo itself was staggered by Call of Duty 4, which in turn was toppled by GTA IV. It's almost as if gamers have to embark on a playing frenzy to milk their investment of as much playtime as possible before it's overtaken by the next big thing.
  • Crappy Online Implementation. The most obvious reason, it alone has the power to kill anyone's desire to play online. No one sticks around for a game that has issues connecting to a lobby, disconnects constantly, or lags like a frame-by-frame examination of the Zepruder film. The XBLA games I mentioned are notorious for this. All the games I mentioned above had horribly laggy online play, some to the point of being unplayable. TMNT was especially heart-breaking, because I had more than enough friends willing to help me kick Shredder's ass, but the Foot Clan apparently hacked into Microsoft's server, thus disabling any attempt on my part to save Splinter. Damn ninjas, always so arrogant with their shurikens and hacking skills...
  • Lazy Developers. Ooh, that's right, I said it. Half-ass online play excites no one, yet we continue to see it happen. A game where you're part of a squad loses its luster when said squad always has to be A.I. Even worse are when developers add only a few modes to games that literally scream for full online co-op. GTA IV is a perfect example of this. I wanted to cruise Liberty City with friends and do the missions with them. Impossible, since the campaign is Niko's story, and co-op play would ruin the deep and thought-provoking narrative of one man's journey from one repetitive drop off mission and fetch quest to the next.
Rainbow Six: Vegas 2 used a similarly lame excuse for reducing campaign online co-op from four players to two. "We wanted to enhance the graphics in multi-player," Ubi Soft explained, and by doing so, it crippled the gameplay. If so grand was its desire for software excellence, then could someone explain to me why I never got the achievement for beating the game on Realistic difficulty, even after Ubi Soft patched the game to allow it?

Sierra's upcoming Ghostbusters game did the same thing, adding online play for only "special" missions in a mode separate from the main game. Developer Terminal Reality has stated that it believes that playing co-op would disrupt the narrative of the story. Ok, seeing that the game is being penned by the original writers and features the voices and likenesses of all the Ghostbusters, I can understand that. What I don't understand is why, in this day and age, they simply can't do like the original Rainbow Six: Vegas did. When you played the story by yourself, you got all the juicy narrative and the whole plot. In co-op mode, you didn't, but you got to kill terrorists with three pals.

Anyone who wants to play this new Ghostbusters game (which is probably everyone) is going to play through the story, so why not motivate them to do it both ways? Offer achievements for beating stages alone and in co-op mode, so they have to do it more than once. My friend playing as Egon isn't going to "ruin" the experience for me, because I'll most likely have beaten the game solo already. This is just a poor excuse.

These factors give lower profile releases virtually no online life to speak of. Overshadowed by the major apps and without the hype of the media to generate interest, they fade into obscurity, leaving many gamers unable to enjoy those games that did online right. One simply cannot be expected to play everything released on launch day, and I'm sure that many gamers don't try out certain titles until they've come down in price. Something's gotta give, as they say.

Despite this sad trend, some games manage to avoid this situation simply because of how different they are from everything else. For example, you can always find people playing Uno, and I'm sure there are more than a few titles (Forza 2 and Project Gotham Racing 4 come to mind) that will endure. For the majority of online games however, their time to shine is severely limited, and once they're gone, they're gone for good.

Anyone up for some Phantom Dust?

Monday, May 26, 2008

Welcome Back Dr. Jones

It's finally here. After almost two decades of anticipation, we finally got a new Indiana Jones movie. As a major fan (who isn't?), I've spent years hoping that this would happen, and it was almost surreal to see that it's finally a reality. After it all sank in though, and the initial euphoria wore off, I began to wonder if Phantom Menace Syndrome (PMS) would strike this sequel as well. In my case, I have a clean bill of health, but unfortunately for some people, it seems it has.

For those not in the know, PMS is a condition where the victim spends years, perhaps even decades building up their expectations of what the next installment of their favorite movie series will be like, until they reach a level so unattainable that nothing possibly put to print could ever satisfy them. The syndrome gets its name from the insane amount of anticipation and hype generated for the first new Star Wars film in over two decades, a film which while bad, could never have sated the hunger for that mind-shattering, wet pants-inducing experience the audience had been waiting so long for, no matter how good it was.

See, PMS is vicious in that it attacks the part of the mind that deals with nostalgia and all those warm and fuzzy memories of days gone by. Recent victims of the disease include Transformers and Live Free or Die Hard. Neither lived up to what a lot of people wanted, even though they were both solid films. They say you can't go home again, and this seems to ring most true when it comes to childhood memories.

I do like the term "Phantom Menace Syndrome" though. I like it because its initials are the same as that other condition that induces unwarranted bitchiness and anger. In fact, I like the term so much that I'm going to trademark it.

Phantom Menace Syndrome™

There. Feel free to use it if you like, but please be sure to credit the author!

I guess you could say that I had mixed emotions going into the fourth chapter of the Indiana Jones saga. The build up and electricity this movie has generated is more than enough to make even the most fervent fan a little nervous about its quality. Still, I always wanted another chance to see one of these films on the big screen, so off I went. After finally pushing my way through massive theater lines and sitting through the worst selection of trailers one could imagine being tied to such a major release, I was finally able to partake in Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Quite a long title, to be sure, and I was apprehensive that it was symbolic of what this movie was doing: needlessly stretching things out.

I've heard a lot of people talk about how this film wasn't needed, and that the title of The Last Crusade referred to the curtain being drawn on the major film use of the Jones character, as well as the hunt for the Holy Grail (despite Ford, Lucas, and Spielberg saying the opposite for years after the third film was released). They say Kingdom shouldn't have been made, and that the famous trio should have left well enough alone. Needless to say, it got my mind working as I stood in line for my ticket. Almost twenty years had passed since Last Crusade, and as someone who grew up with Indy, would this new movie stomp all over my childhood memories? Was I making a mistake? Would my image of the character be shattered if this film stunk? By then, it was too late. I was already approaching the box office window.
Two hours later I emerged from the theater a relieved man, but let me say this straight off. Kingdom isn't as good as Raiders of the Lost Ark or The Last Crusade, though I'd put it about on the same level as Temple of Doom. Now, some people hate Temple, but that's their loss. I like it a lot and consider it a nice change of pace from the "stop the Nazis from taking yet another supernatural artifact" storyline of the other two films. Kingdom, with its extra terrestrial-centered plot, fits in there nicely, and it serves as a fitting bookend to Indy's film and TV adventures.

And perhaps the term "bookend" is the best way to describe this movie. Sure, it didn't have to be made, but it's nice that it was. I loved the way they tied it in to the other installments, giving it its proper place in the Indy timeline. All the films offer a year at the beginning, but none of them affect the others chronologically. Kingdom changes this by obviously connecting itself into Raiders of the Lost Ark by re-introducing Marion Ravenwood, Indy's old flame and the daughter of his mentor. Abner. However, it goes further into the other parts of the Indy mythos by explaining why Sir Sean Connery and Denholm Elliot aren't present, as well linking itself to the Young Indiana Chronicles by referencing the episode Curse of the Jackal and Indy's adventure with Pancho Villa. It was a nice touch, and it helps bring the old man's life full circle. Furthermore, it sets up Mutt Williams (Shai LeBeouf's character) for future adventures. For example, when Mutt asks Indy how old he was when he rode with Villa, the old archeologist replies "about your age." Very cool.

Characterization aside, many people have expressed disappointment with the acting in the film. In this regard, I'm forced to agree. Ford doesn't seem to be on his best day, which is odd considering how eager he'd always said he was to get another shot at playing Indy. Karen Allen is pretty rusty as well, and LeBeouf is the only one who comes across as generally sincere. The others seem to just be going through the motions most of the time. That's not to say that vintage Indy doesn't rear his head. He does and quite well at that. The warehouse scene is great, albeit too short, and Ford looks and moves incredibly well for a man who's just reached Social Security age.
That has to be my only gripe with the movie, aside from a Tarzan-like vine-swinging display from Williams in Peru. I liked the special effects - a hallmark of the series - and never found the use of CG to be excessive, though I'm sure that there are those out there who cringe every time it's used. For them, I have no pity, as they walked into a LucasFilm product knowing full well what to expect. It seems that they need to touch the hot stove with each and every one of his movies before they realize the burn danger is real. The fact that just about every action and adventure movie today uses CG means that its detractors have a dwindling amount of options for their viewing pleasures. Get used to it folks, CG is here to stay.

I'm thankful to say that PMS didn't afflict me, and I'm feeling fine in regards to the condition of the elderly Dr. Jones. I liked the plot. I liked old Indy. I liked Mutt Williams. Dare I say I'd be eager to see him wear the Fedora and continue in Ford's footsteps? Yes, yes I would.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Let It Go People... Let It Go...

For some reason, there are still people out there who think Sega should take another stab at the hardware market. As provocative as this sounds, it's not very viable financially. Everyone knows the terrible shape Sega was in financially for almost a decade after it released the Saturn, and it's only been in the last few years that the company has reached any type of solvency at all. That's why re-entering the hardware market now would sound the death knell for Sega, especially with three solid and successful consoles already in the public's consciousness.

This isn't the mid '80s anymore, when a virtually unknown company in the U.S. could launch a new console and revive the home market. Remember when the NES debuted? How many people could identify the Nintendo brand at merely a glance? As the story goes, former NOA chairman Howard Lincoln couldn't get anyone to give the NES (then called the AVS, or Advanced Video System) a second look when it debuted at the January 1984 Consumer Electronics Show. No, today, everyone knows what a "Wii" is, and the terms "Xbox" and "Playstation" have been firmly entrenched in the public's mind. For Sega to even consider entering such hostile territory, it would take either the greatest software push and creativity ever seen in video gaming, and quite possibly the world's biggest death wish.

Which is why I find it odd that someone, a games journalist at that, would publish an article proposing that Sega do exactly that. C|Net's Don Reisinger wrote a lengthy piece last week entitled Why Sega Should Release a New Console. In it, Mr. Reisinger lays out what he thinks could be a winning formula for Sega to get back into the game and reverse its economic fortunes. Unfortunately, the article contradicts itself a few times and Reisinger comes off as not really knowing his history. Let's take a look at some of his major points:
  • The company incurred a loss $501 million during its 2008 fiscal year and its video games division lost about $56.3 million.
Those numbers look frightening, don't they? $56 million is enough to keep anyone up at night. But when you compare it with the overall amount of Sega/Sammy's losses - the overwhelming majority of which came from its sagging Pachinko business - it's not so bad. Add to that that Sega has seen the gaming side of its business become solid over the past three or four years, and you realize that the monetary misfortunes the company is facing stem from the Sammy side of things.

Sega began to turn things around as early as 1992, not even two years after relieving itself of the albatross around its neck that was the Dreamcast. The House of Sonic is confident that things will turn around next year, thanks to its software side making up for Sammy's failings. With game sales picking up overseas and the success of titles like Yakuza 3 in Japan, it's obvious that the game maker isn't responsible for the problems the overall group is facing.

True, Sega is still being dragged downward by Sammy's Pachinko woes, and while I don't think it will be able to overcome those losses just by its game sales alone, I also think that the games division is on an upswing that has put it in a better position than it ever was as a hardware maker. Consider that Sega incurred $398 million in debt in 1998, the year before it released the Dreamcast. That's $342 million more than this year's loss. Yes, the company is losing money. But when you compare it to how it was bleeding cash for years while pushing failing hardware formats, the loss has been substantially reduced.
  • Sega's Sonic franchise is floundering.
In terms of quality, definitely. In terms of sales, no. Just look at the numbers. Sonic Heroes: over a million units sold. Shadow the Hedghog: over a million units sold. Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games: over five million units sold. Even Sonic & the Secret Rings was a best seller for its respective debut month, and has reportedly gone on to sell over a million units as well (I can't confirm this though). Does this look like a series that's in decline to you?

Just a year ago, Sega/Sammy reported losses for the third straight year but saw a 32% increase in software sales, prompted by the famous hedgehog. Sonic has two upcoming releases, Sonic Unleashed and Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood, both of which are highly anticipated. Sonic has consistently been a big seller, regardless of diminishing quality, and this consistency goes back to his first third party outing, Sonic Adventure 2 Battle on the GameCube. We as gamers are lamenting the decline in quality of the franchise, but the sales numbers do not lie, and Sega's foremost concern is with sales. As long as the games sell well, no one will shake this hedgehog's tree, so to say that the franchise is "floundering" isn't just exaggerating; it's plain wrong.
  • Depending on the study you read, the average gamer is anywhere between 30-35 years old. Because of that, it's safe to assume that the vast majority of gamers remember the days of Sega console gaming and there is still a huge group of Sega zealots in the wild that long for another Dreamcast.
The average gamer Mr. Reisinger refers to are the same ones that snubbed the Saturn in favor of a Playstation and ignored the Dreamcast in anticipation of the Playstation 2. These older gamers still remember the money they spent on their 32X and Sega CD attachments, and just the mention of either add-on is enough to release years of pent-up angst. Why on Earth would this particular demographic buy another Sega console after such a long and storied history with the company? After more than half a decade with their Xboxes and firmly enjoying their Wiis and Playstation 3s, why would they add another console into mix now?

If anything, this should be the target audience Sega should avoid. They most likely aren't the ones who bought Mario & Sonic or any of the other new releases, and we've seen just how far the support of older gamers goes with Sega with such massive flops as Panzer Dragoon Orta, both Otogi titles, as well as recent flops like Sega Superstars Tennis, which dropped to $20 about a month after its release. All of these are excellent games that should be in everyone's libraries but were largely ignored by the very audience Reisinger says Sega should pursue.
  • There's no debating the fact that Sega has been a relative failure in the software space. Since its decision to drop out of the hardware game, the company has had a few minor hits, but nothing has been developed that we can classify as a blockbuster.
Once more, the sales numbers for the Sonic franchise soundly contest this, but he may be right about the rest of Sega's line up since going third party. Of course, how he thinks this will magically change because of new hardware is beyond me, and I believe Sega already launched a new console with an amazing library of original and creative games that was totally crushed in the market. It was called the Dreamcast.
  • In order for Sega to truly keep its game division afloat, it'll need to develop hardware that's both forward-thinking and inexorably tied to the online space. Beyond that, it'll need to repair the issues it may still have with retailers and some other developers and endeavor to build a console that can compete on the same level with the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3.
Sega did a good job of repairing its relationship with retailers when the Dreamcast debuted. Remember how Kay-Bee Games refused to stock anything Saturn-related because of Sega's suprise launch in May of 1995? They stocked Dreamcast games and systems. However, Reisinger's assertion that the new hardware would have to be online has been tried before, again by the Dreamcast. He must have forgotten that Sega couldn't get people to play it online even when it gave the console away just for signing up for SegaNet. Why would it be more successful now? Furthermore, how would Sega fund such an endeavor, when Reisinger opens his article citing how much money the company has lost? It cost Microsoft over a billion dollars just to get Xbox Live up and running, and Sega hasn't seen that much cash since the Genesis was still its product. It's just not possible for Sega to even consider such an investment, especially - as Reisinger so poignantly illustrates - the company has been losing money for four consecutive years.
  • Third-parties are having trouble selling games on the Wii and if they believe that they can turn an even greater profit by selling games on three consoles, the deals should start to build up.
Has Resinger even been playing games for the last three years? Third parties are using the Wii to farm easy cash with quick ports and shovelware, and you know what? They're making money. How else could you explain crap like Carnival Games selling almost a million copies? I should also remind Reisinger of the success Capcom has had with Resident Evil 4 and Ubi Soft's massive sales of Red Steel and Rayman Raving Rabbids. And companies are already turning greater profits by selling games on multiple platforms. Again, Capcom reaped the rewards of this strategy with Devil May Cry 4, and Ubi Soft cleaned up with TMNT. Companies are doing just fine, and while another console could mean more potential copies to sell, but it wouldn't be a major attraction to a new Sega console, especially one with zero user base, considering how well the big companies are already doing.
  • After forming the deals with developers, Sega will need to build the hype machine up as much as possible. Instead of following the faulty plan of years ago, it needs to show off a console that's both more powerful than anything available, offers a Blu-ray drive, and has the kind of online component we're only seeing in the Xbox 360. The company also needs to play by the rules: it shouldn't announce the console and release it on the same day and it should take as much time as it needs to ensure all of its ducks are in a row before it launches it.
Again, where is Sega supposed to get the cash to do this? How is a company that's posted four straight yearly losses supposed to secure the capital for a machine more powerful than the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3? And how would it sell it for a reasonable price? People complained of the current consoles pricing of $400 and $500, and Sega would definitely have to target the higher end of the price spectrum to avoid losing its shirt. Factor in the news that a price drop is most likely coming this year for the two next gen consoles (yeah, I went there), and Reisinger's argument collapses completely.

Look, I agree that it would rock to have Sega back making consoles. As one of those older gamers Reisinger refers to, it still feels odd to me to not have a Sega system in the market after almost two decades of buying its hardware. Unfortunately, the reality of the situation does not favor such a move by the company, and it's likely that we'll never see another Sega console again. It's nice to dream, but if Reisinger is serious in his contention that Sega could and should return to making hardware, then he's not living in the same reality as Sega.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Thank You Mr. Postman!

I just received my copy of Ayrton Senna's Super Monaco GP for the Genesis from the mailman. I've been looking for this one for quite some time, and it's been harder than you'd think to find a complete copy for a decent price. After months of searching, I finally found one, and for a mere $1.99 to boot!

I haven't really sat down with it yet, but I definitely plan to put plenty of time into it. I want to go back and play the first Super Monaco GP first and then review it for Sega-16, and then I'll dive headfirst into the sequel. From what I've seen though, Senna's game (which he had a direct hand in making) seems like it's leaps and bounds over the already-solid original.

Impressions forthcoming! In the meantime, just check out the video in case you haven't seen this game before.

Friday, May 16, 2008

OMG, It's Still Growing!

... my Genesis collection, that is.

When I originally began to reacquire it back in 2000, I never really thought how far I would go with it. I had no plans for a website at the time, and I was still new to the world of emulation. Back then, I felt - as I still do today - that actual hardware is the best way to experience games (emulation is invaluable for demoing and documentation), so I wanted to grab as many Genesis games as I could. I was lucky, because you practically couldn't give the darn things away at the time, and I managed to snag a few gems like M.U.S.H.A. and Shining Force really cheap.

Fast forward eight years, and I'm still buying games. Mine's a modest collection compared to many others out there ( 220 boxed games, only 2 missing their manuals), but I love it. I love the hunt, and I love the anticipation of getting a new game in the mail. I still don't have a limit of how many titles I plan to buy, and I'm even more lax now with which games I consider worth purchasing. For instance, a few years ago I never would have considered buying any sports title, believing them to be too dated to retain my interest. That's changed, and I recently got copies of World Series Baseball and NBA Jam T.E. A fun game is a fun game, and who cares if three quarters of the roster retired already?

Currently, I just snagged Super Baseball 2020 (look for a review soon!) and Bubba 'N Stix, and I still have a copy of Aryton Senna's Super Monaco GP 2 on the way. My biggest problem is where to house my collection. I'm going to have a custom bookcase made when my new gameroom is completed sometime before the next millennium arrives, but as it is now, I'm pretty tight on space!

Not that a lack of space will stop my from buying more games... Curse you eBay!

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Thoughts on 1st Gears of War 2 Gameplay Video

So the video went up last night, and my eager little fingers clicked enthusiastically to load it. Bufferring can be sweet, sweet agony, and when it finally loaded, I was treated to Cliffy B giving the rundown on how the game picks up after the original. Things then cut to an awesome scene of Phoenix and the other Cogs fighting Locusts in an outdoor on-rails stage on some kind of mobile battle platform. The battle took place in the third chapter of the first act, dubbed "Assault," a fittingly-named Locust attack on a Cog convoy, and there was much carnage involved. The action starts out with Phoenix and another Cog taking out a group of airborne Reavers, and then Phoenix unloads his Lancer into a sea of rushing Locusts that are assailing the convoy.

A great addition to the already solid gameplay is that Phoenix can now use an enemy as a human shield (which he dispatches afterward by snapping its neck and kicking it overboard), and there are now chainsaw duels! Someone comes at you with a chainsaw, what do you do? You rev yours up and block! Mash the B button madly and you end up slicing the baddie in two. There was also a scene where Phoenix seemed to impale a Locust with his chainsaw. Gruesome but oh so satisfying! My favorite part had to be when all the Cogs concentrated their fire on this massive two-legged beast that sported a back-mounted cannon. When it was on its last legs, they rammed it with their vehicle, knocking it dead to the side of the road.

The visuals look a lot like the original game, but they've apparently been tweaked and enhanced. The first Gears is simply gorgeous, so there isn't much need to improve, in my opinion, but I can honestly say that this footage looked awesome. This is going to rock hard folks, and November just can't come soon enough. Check out these screen grabs to whet your appetite, and then follow the link and see the glory for yourselves.

Friday, May 9, 2008

First Gameplay Video of Gears of War 2 Tonight on Xbox Live!

Joystiq is reporting that the very first actual gameplay of the eagerly awaited Gears of War 2 will go up on Xbox Live tonight at 11:00 p.m. PST. 1up will have the footage a whole half hour earlier, so there's no excuse to not see this! I loved the first (single-player and online co-op, not big on adversarial), so I will be all over this. I'll also be back tomorrow night with some impressions of the video, which I will undoubtedly watch a billion times. November can't come soon enough!

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Thoughts on GTA IV

By now, everyone and his brother has a copy of Grand Theft Auto IV nestled warmly in their Xbox 360s or Playstation 3s, and I'm sure they all agree that it's the bee's knees. I concur, for the most part, as the game has done what the series is famous for much better than other installments did. That doesn't mean it's infallible, though. In fact, there are some things about it that downright piss me off.

Driving sucks. I've heard countless people tell me that I should "get" the new driving controls after a while and that they're "more realistic." As far as gaming goes, whenever anyone tells me I need to "get" something, it usually means that said thing sucks. I had to "get" Rez and Space Giraffe, and now I'm supposed to "get" something as simple as driving. This is bullshit, plain and simple. The fact that anyone can argue realism in a game where I can kill multiple people without consequences, run around the city brandishing all sorts of firearms without anyone caring, and simply outrun police after a crime until they simply forget what I've done has no moral ground to argue in favor of realistic driving controls.

I don't want the cars to control like those in a racing game; I want them to control well. What's next, customizing suspension and tires? The fact that so many people are even bringing this up as an issue means that it was something that wasn't meant to be tinkered with. No other GTA game had the need for more realistic driving controls, and this holds true for part four. And don't even get me started on helicopters...

Melee combat sucks. Fighting someone in close quarters is an exercise in frustration, as the button combos aren't intuitive at all. And if you're using the auto-aim feature, then forget it. Which brings me to the next issue...

Aiming still sucks
. It's much, MUCH better than before, but I guess Rockstar's Xbox 360 red ringed just as they were getting to know the aiming dynamic in Saints Row. That game fixed the whole issue completely, and I'm shocked that Rockstar still couldn't get this right for their game - which was released an entire year later. Auto-aim makes gun fights impossible, and taking it off is better but too slow sometimes. But in retrospect, I guess anything's an improvement over previous games in the series.

No mid-mission checkpoints
. I start a mission where I'm supposed to follow a drug dealer clear across town to a warehouse where he's meeting other drug dealers. We finally get there, he goes inside and I follow, a gunfight ensues, and I die. I click on the "replay" option on my cellphone, and now have to start all the way back at the fucking beginning of the mission? What. The. Hell. Why can't I just restart at the point before I enter the warehouse? Now I have to redo that tedious-as-hell drive across town again. Did I mention that several missions have you following people like this?

So yeah, GTA IV isn't perfect, and I know that I shouldn't be expecting perfection from this series at all. However, the fact that this is the sixth installment with this type of gameplay and some problems have never been fixed (I'm not even mentioning game-crashing bugs and glitches) is unforgivable. Moreover, some stuff that never was a problem before now is, and I still find the competition - Saints Row - doing stuff better a whole year earlier. Part two of that franchise is coming this summer, and it features full online campaign co-op, so I will definitely be watching it to see how it compares to Rockstar's magnum opus.

Anyway, I still love GTA, and the storytelling is incredible. Niko's the man, and Little Jacob is hilarious. Good show Rockstar. Not perfect, but good show.