September 23, 2006

Japan September 11 to 17, 2006 Hardware Sales

- DS Lite: 134,885 21,045 +18.49%
- PS2: 34,189 14,307 +71.96%
- PSP: 26,995 2,146 -7.36%
- GBA SP: 2,330 226 +10.74%
- Game Boy Micro: 1,244 557 -30.93%
- Xbox 360: 928 166 -15.17%
- Gamecube: 630 66 -9.48%
- DS Phat: 478 580 -54.82%
- GBA: 27 14 +107.70%
- Xbox: 7 2 +40.00% Source: Joystiq

The DS Lite and PS2 continue to roll. Xbox 360 not doing so hot again in Japan. So even though Sony is going to through its perception problems in the USA, Japan probably going to love the Playstation 3 when it comes out.

September 22, 2006

Bioshock Preview

Check out IGN's 14 minute preview of Take-Two's Bioshock with developer commentary. The game is damn spooky with amazing graphics, physics, and interactivity.

MTV Networks Buys Harmonix

MTV Networks (Viacom) has acquired Harmonix, the developer of Guitar Hero, for $175 million in cash. The question is who really owns the Guitar Hero intellectual property? Activision acquired the Guitar Hero publisher, RedOctane, not so long ago for about $100 million.

Sony Playstation 3 Price Cut for Japan

Sony has announced that the low-end Playstation 3 in Japan will go for sale at 49800 yen, which is roughly $420. This is decent price cut from the original $499 number. Moreover the low-end will now come with an HDMI video port after an out-cry from gamers that wanted the full 1080p graphics functionality. This is good news for gamers as Sony is responding to the community. I'm still skeptical that the overall package along with online interface will be able to catch up to the Xbox 360 ever-increasing lead.

September 17, 2006

Company of Heroes

Anyone who likes great computer games needs to try Company of Heroes. It is widely acclaimed as the best RTS game of this generation. I have been having a blast with the demo and will probably pick up the game soon. Even if you don't like RTS games, I recommend trying the demo just to be mesmerized by the amazing beautiful in-game cut scenes. Just skip the tutorial and go right to the single player campaign. The Normandy beach invasion has never ever been better rendered on the computer screen. Wow! - Discuss

September 12, 2006

Review: LocoRoco for Sony PSP by Masem

"LocoRoco", developed by Sony for the PSP, is just the same type of quirky game that the system needs, just as Katamari Damacy was to the PS2, cute and entertaining all over, with but a few technical nits. But even that said, it doesn't have quite the same grabbing power that Katamari had despite the numerous similarities.

Story: B
The story is simple - a far off world is populated by creatures known as LocoRocos that take care of the living planet and generally are a happy bunch. But when weird aliens called the Moja Corps arrive to take over the planet, the LocoRocos take charge to find their friends and reawaken the other beings on the planet.

Gameplay: A
The LocoRocos are roundish blobs that have no limbs, and thus the only way they can get around is by rolling and bouncing around the landscape. Though unlike with Katamari Damacy, you actually tilt the landscape using the shoulder buttons to get them to roll, which may also affect other parts of the landscape (hanging vines and water levels for example). Bouncing is done by releasing both shoulder buttons at the same time. Through these, you can get the LocoRocos over hills and safely over dangerous foes.

The LocoRocos also have a special ability. First, by eating special berries through the levels, you can make the LocoRoco grow (the size based on the number of berries eaten). If you've achieved a size of two or more, you can quickly hit the circle button to cause the LocoRoco to split into many smaller versions of itself, which may be necessary to work through small passages and avoid other aspects of the levels. This split may also be forced on you, if the large LocoRoco is pushed against a sharp object on the level. However, you can regroup the LocoRoco back into a single being by holding down the circle button. Generally, you want to keep the LocoRoco as one being - if you lose one of the smaller beings off screen and can't regroup fast enough, a Moja Corps will grab it away from you. Controls are a cinch to get used to and work quite well for the PSP.

The goal of each of the 40 worlds in the game is to safely get the LocoRoco from the start to the end, awakening as many creatures as possible by singing them awake. Most of the creatures require a minimum number of LocoRocos in order to wake them up, so it pays to get as many berries as possible and to avoid losing any LocoRocos to the Mojas. Throughout the worlds are also many pickories that you can collect and use for the mini-games outside of the main game. Little beings called MuiMuis also are hidden through the levels, and if you can rescue them, you'll get a piece for your LocoRoco house (also played outside the game).

The levels are very well done, feeling very organic at times but with many dynamic parts as well. There's lots of various obstacles to get around, platforms to bounce from, and the like, and the variety of the design of the levels is pretty good. At times, they feel like some classic Sonic the Hedgehog runs with sections where you basically don't have much control but fun to watch the speed and action on the screen as you zip by (the sound effects help a lot here too). The game also provides a bit of odd variety that at times, a creature will change the shape of the LocoRoco into a square, or a long rectangle, among other shapes, which don't quite roll as well, and make for some interesting play on physics. The difficulty isn't too hard in getting though - each level's about 5-10 minutes long and while a few late levels have a bit of a challenge to avoiding damage, it's still easy to make it to the end. The key of the game is that there's all the hidden areas that you want to try to find and access in order to get all the berries, LocoRoco house parts, pickories, and MuiMui's scattered about each level in order to fully complete the game. At about 40 levels, the general gameplay remains pretty fresh, and the length is definitely the right length. If you zip through the levels, it's about 5 hours long at most, but getting to 100% completion could easily take up to 20hrs as you figure out all the secrets the levels hold.

Graphics: A
The graphics in the game are done simply as flat, brightly-colored shapes with a lot of fluidity, which allows the game to move at a great speed. The LocoRoco is very amorphous, and gets flattened out, stretched, and deformed throughout the game, which is well rendered by the game. Several parts of the landscape are also deformed by the weight of the LocoRocos as they pass over it as well. The stylings of the characters are consistent throughout the game, looking like children's book characters, but all quite pleasing to the eyes. One of the best parts about the game is how well animated the LocoRocos (when split apart) are when they're idle - the best I can describe them is thinking about a class of pre-school kids that are left alone, but think they are being watched - it's bottled chaos. They'll trying to jump on each other, line up for a short period and count out, then go back to trying to jump up and make towers and pyramids. It's a joy just to watch them in this state.

Audio: A
Where the game shines is the music. There's about 20 different songs used for the game, spanning a similar range of styles as Katamari Damacy's music. However, a big aspect of these songs is that the vocals (all in Japanese) are based on what stage your LocoRoco is at. If it's just one large unit, you'll hear a single voice, but when you split them up, the voice track suddenly becomes a whole chorus, the number of additional voices depending on how large the LocoRoco was. Additionally, there's 6 different LocoRoco types that you can select for a level, each with a different voice, and most of the music is the same irregardless of the voice, thus making the music even more varied. If you sit and watch the individual LocoRocos, you can even see some singing the main parts, others on the backup vocals. Add to the mix that many parts of the world make musical noise when the LocoRocos pass over them, and the game is a treat to one's ears.

Value / Replayability: B+
Outside of the main game, there are 3 mini games - a crane game (which is unlocked from the start), a golf-like game, and a level editor, the last two unlocked by nearing full completion of the game. The crane and golf game use the pickories that you've collected as playing fees but can be used to unlock more parts. The level editor allows you to create levels that can be transferred to other players using numerous parts found in the game. Unfortunately, to unlock these last two items can take a bit more work (you need to work on collecting all the hidden items in the game), and it's a shame the level editor isn't unlocked from the start or at least through the main game completion. One can also build a LocoRoco house from the parts collected in the game, and watch the perpetually moving LocoRocos as they move about it. As with the custom levels, you can also share your house with others. In addition, you can also send demo levels to a friend to let them try out the game.

One thing that I will add that the game has some of the best loading times for a PSP game. Levels load up within a few seconds, and there's only a bit of pause when going between the menu screens.

The only other negative about the game I have is that while it's a great deviation from gameplay we've seen and a unique game, it just don't have the catchiness that Katamari Damacy had. It may be that Katamari Damacy felt more open, with a lot more objects that you could collect and various ways you could do things, while within LocoRoco, you're bound by the path within the game. Even chasing after hidden objects always returns you back to the main parts, and thus you'll always be taking the same routes through the levels each time. It's still great gameplay can be learned quickly, but for some reason, I just don't get the same vibes Katamari had after playing that game once through. It may also be that the freely available demo for the game showcased a level (not included in the main game) which included all the major gameplay, which is a good thing for a demo to be, but the game itself really doesn't add much more that wasn't already found in the demo. In other words, I went through the game looking for new things, and really didn't find too much more. Katamari Damacy lacked this problem because each new challenge introduced a new range of things to pick up and kept the game fresh throughout. This is not to say the game is bad, but it's hard to universally recommend this to everyone as I could with Katamari.

Overall: A-
LocoRoco is a great PSP title and plays well, with a lot of stuff to do before exhausting it. A lot of details were put into the game, particularly on the audio and visuals despite the simple looking appearance. However, it's hard to point a finger at why I can't give this game as much praise as Katamari Damacy - I don't know if it's due to the anticipation I had for it, or the lack of openness Katamari Damacy had. Still, it's definitely a strong title with quirky gameplay that differs from much else out there, and while maybe not a must-buy for PSP owners, will still likely find it's way into their libraries at some point. Permalink - Discuss

September 06, 2006

Top PC Games Sales for Week of August 26th

1. Madden NFL 07 - Electronic Arts
2. World of Warcraft - Blizzard
3. The Sims 2 - Electronic Arts
4. Roller Coaster Tycoon 3: Gold - Atari
5. Nancy Drew: Danger By Design - Her Interactive
6. The Sims 2: Open for Business - Electronic Arts
7. Warcraft III: Battlechest - Blizzard
8. Cars - THQ
9. Civilization IV - 2K Games
10. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion - Bethesda Softworks/2K Games
Source: NPD

Nancy Drew and Sims 2 are in the top 10 still. Sigh.

September 05, 2006

Review: Saint's Row for Xbox 360 by Masem

"Saints Row", created by Volition and published by THQ, is effectively a much improved clone of Grand Theft Auto (GTA3, Vice City, and San Andreas). While the gameplay is not unique, the improvements upon the gameplay from GTA make this title feel challenging yet much easier to play through than GTA3.

Story: B+
In the game, you start as a newcoming into the fictional city of Stillwater which is currently controlled by three rival gangs; The Carnales which are into drugs, the Vice Kings that run most of the 'entertainment' in town, and the Westside Rollerz, who are into illegal street racing. However, a 4th gang, the 3rd Street Saints, is looking to knock out the gangs from their own neighborhood to achieve some peace within the city. When your character is saved from the other gang violence and brought into the folds, he's asked to help out in ridding Stillwater of the gang problems once and for all.

Gameplay: A
Saints Row is effectively GTA3 - an open-ended world with lots to see and do, though your main plot is guided through by various missions. The gameplay is about 75% based on the same elements of GTA3, which some may argue makes this feel like a copycat clone. However, the developers have apparently listened to a lot of complaints that have been around since GTA3 and incorporated into this game, making this version much easier to enjoy (particularly in the late game) than any of the GTA-based games.

Like GTA3, you are asked to do missions throughout the game. Because of the three gangs you're aiming to take out, there's three distinct mission paths you'll follow, one for each gang (there's also a series of post-game missions after the 'first' ending). Typically, the goal of the mission is to complete some task with a high likelihood of making that area of the city under the Saints control - this aspect is very similar to the early and late parts of GTA:SA. For each area you do control, you can pick up more cash at one of your cribs as a daily allowance, though you will have to defend the area at times if there's a 'pushback' by the original gang. There's also gang strongholds that you need to clear in order to claim an area for the Saints. Total, there's 36 missions and 36 areas, or about a total of 50-odd main missions within the game.

However, missions don't work exactly like in GTA. Instead, before you can take a mission, you need to earn respect for yourself in order to be given the mission. Respect can be obtained by doing any number of 'activities' that are scattered about the map. These activities include a few unsurprising parts, such as street racing and'chop shop' car locating, but there's also some very different ones, such as protecting a hippie drug dealer from the Carnales and the police as he makes his rounds, drive a lady of the night and her customer around while avoiding media attention, or trying to earn the most money by faking accidents into high-speed cars at busy intersections. There's about 25 of so of these activity stations scattered about the city, each with multiple levels of difficulty; every level you complete will earn you cash and respect. Completing all the missions for a given spot will unlock a special bonus as well as allow you to tag someone via your cell phone for assistance outside of missions. Generally, for each main mission, you'll need to do 1 to 3 levels of activities in order to get the respect needed to go on the next mission. You can also gain a bit of an extra boost of respect by doing the missions dressed in the Saints' colors (purple). By doing this, the developers have made a way for the player to actually explore the world provided and do a bunch of things that aren't part of the main storyline, but only to help expand the game, something that is lacking in GTA (e.g you never have to complete any of the extra missions to win the game, though it can help with some of the bonuses).

The game is more focused on weaponplay than driving as opposed to GTA, and as such, the interface and controls for getting around is much better in Saints Row. You're limited to 8 weapons (one of each type), but selecting them is similar to Ratchet & Clank in that you bring up a selection wheel and toggle the weapon you want. While on foot, controls are more like a third person shooter, using both analog sticks to move and aim. A reticular is on the screen for any weapon (beyond your fists) which helps with aiming. You can also carry health recovery items, or if you can find a space to take a breather, let health recover after a short time. The minimap also helps to show the various targets you're aiming for, both inside and out. Thus, it's very easy to control and pace out an attack on a gang stronghold, though you do need to be caution at times to avoid getting wiped out. However, very much unlike GTA, if you should die or fail a mission, you have the choice to retry it from where it started (resetting your ammo count and removing anything earned during the mission); if you should actually die or get busted outside of missions (such as during an activity), you'll be at the nearest hospital or police station, short a few dollars, but with all your weapons still intact. This alone made me feel much less cautious about doing missions than compared with GTA, and combined with the much easier way of doing these battles on foot, made the combat part of the game much more satisfying. (Hint to Rockstar - this by part is the largest nit I've got with the current GTA games). Even doing gun fights while driving at high speeds is rather playable, though there are sometimes a few issues with trying to turn, aim, and fire at the same time. The enemy AI isn't bad - typically diving for cover if something is available, but if you can flank them, it's becomes easy to take them out.

An additional help to combat is that as you gain respect and complete missions, you'll be able to have from 1 to 3 'homies' that you can recruit for missions. These soldiers will generally react to things you do - start shooting at a target (friendly or not) and they'll be right there to help, but will also fire upon if shot at themselves. If they should go down, you have 30 seconds to get over to them and help them to recover. While they are expendable, this can help on some of the more firefight heavy gunbattles. Also, take a few out onto the streets while you drive, and some pretty intense on-the-fly gunbattles can break out.

Mission-wise, there's missions that feel straight out of GTA, but others that are more suited to the game, generally those in the latter part of the game. Most involve a combination of driving (if only just to get to a place) followed by some type of gun battle. Missions are generally not overly long - they may last over 2 or 3 scenes, but all generally take under 5 minutes a piece to complete (as compared with the final mission in GTA3). To help with most missions as well as any other time in the game, you can call up the main city map and place a route marker such that while driving, the mini-map will show you what the shortest route is to that location. This is rather good to have in the early part of the game while the city is new to the player, but also helps with some of the late game missions. Overall, none of the missions are extremely unique to SR, but they all tend to fit better to the style of the game, and have a more cohesive feel to them (segregating the activities from missions helps in this regard). Another consideration while doing missions or activities is how much attention you're attracting. Like GTA, you can 'earn' police stars which will indicate how much effort the police will have going after you from a simple single car chase to SWAT teams and helicopters, but the same is also there for the rival gang that you're involved with; take out too many of their crew and you'll find every car with them tailing you and trying to take you out. Fortunately, if you can ditch your tail, you can erode the warning levels (another nice addition - you can see how fast the levels are dropping between stars) as well as find special drive-thru confessionals to fess up and clear it all for a small fee.

The city of Stillwater is about the size of all 3 sections of Liberty City, and includes many different types; you have a downtown, a high-end district, industrial section, suburbia, the red-light zone, and much more. The entire map is available from the start, removing some of the artificial limitations that GTA3 had to put in place. A couple of interurban freeways help to make traveling from one side to the other rather easy. There's lots of stores throughout the city, selling guns, cars, clothes, jewelry, and lots of other goodies to spend your hard-earned cash on. There are no loading screens while going through the city, even transitioning from inside to outside, except right before cutscenes, which makes the game rather smooth to play through. However, there are points that you can tell that you're crossing sections that haven't been fully loaded yet - buildings, cars, and roads may flash and momentarily disappear when you cross these points, a minor visual problem but doesn't take anything away from the game. The city has a day/night cycle as well as various weather conditions (sunny, rainy, and foggy), thus keeping the visuals interesting as you go around. Every vehicle is jackable for your use, and there's a lot of cars in this game which you can further customize at a body shop and keep for yourself. There's also some more exotic vehicles like a front-end bulldozer, tanker trailers, and car-haulers that you can drive as well. There's no other vehicles though (motorcycles, bikes, planes, or boats), a few which I definitely won't miss, but others that seemed to be good fits for this game. Note that if you take a taxi, ambulance, or the like, there aren't side missions like there are in GTA, though if you do get a fast car with a passenger in it, you can initiate a simple 'hostage' mission whereby you simply drive fast to make the passanger pay you.

A huge difference in this game compared to GTA is that you can save anywhere, save during a mission - you don't have to go back to a crib or save point, though if you quit the game and then return later, you'll start at the closest save point to where you saved. This, in addition to retaining weapons and mission restarts, makes playing the game so much more enjoyable. You don't have to run back to a safehouse after a big important mission, and you don't have to worry too much if you forget to save before starting on a big mission either. These aspects don't make the game too easy - it just saves tons of the hassles that I had with GTA.

Value / Replayability: A-
As noted, there's about 50 main missions to complete, plus an additional followup storyline to the game. Between that and the activities, there's at least 30hrs of gameplay in here in main plot alone; 100% completion (which would include completing every activity as well as finding all 100 CDs that are scattered and hidden through the town). There's also the possibility of additional content that can be added to the game later through XBL's marketplace.

Not only is there the main single player game, but there's also online game modes available through XBL or by System Links. Multiplayer games include both team and every-man-for-himself games as well as a couple of 2 player co-op modes. Only small sections of the map are used for the various levels, large enough to make vehicles usable and generally about the right size for 12 players. Some modes are variations of what one would expect such as deathmatch, others unexpected (like a variation on the VIP missions from Counterstrike of old), and others that are unique like both co-op modes that have you and your partner trying to escape an area, or one that you have to "bling" up your ride before the other team can stop you. You can earn cash online that you can use to buy clothes and accessories to improve your player's looks, and the game does have a ranking system to help with matching appropriate skill levels. The online play is a bit fussy - like any networked game with a high ping, the SR online play can suffer from players jumping around and other aspects, though I would expect this to be dependant on when and whom you try to play this.

Graphics: A-
The game's graphic engine is about what you probably would expect for being on the 360 as compared with GTA on the PS2. There's a lot more detail and construction to the buildings, everything has dynamic shadows, lighting, and reflections. cars are more shiny and show a lot of visible damage, ragdoll physics are used throughout the game for people, cars, and whatnot when you run through them, and the weather cycle aspects can give a general spookiness to the game (I was rather impressed with how awesome the main downtown city looked while driving into in the late part of a shower, all ghostly and foggy). However, the game is not excessively detailed as to avoid slowing down the game too much, so things still generally feel boxy like in GTA. There's a few points if you have a large amount of gunbattles going on screen that the game drops a few FPS, but generally runs smooth without major problems. Also, objects seem to reset and/or disappear quickly once they leave your field of view. You may see a car coming at you from down a street with no turnoffs, and turn away, only to turn back and find the car gone. Or during Mayhem activities (where you try to wreck the most destruction on a part of the city), you'll find that you can go down a block, taking out lampposts and fences, and then make a 180 to find all of those objects back in place. It's weird how this works out (faster than similar resets in GTA) but doesn't really hamper gameplay.

Audio: A
The game uses a pretty decent voice cast for the main characters, all pretty much fitting with their roles. The city sounds are done quite well, and like GTA, there's about 12 different radio stations (generally from hard electronica and rock to gangster rap, though there's a few oddities amongst those), all with real music save for a handful of custom songs. After some missions, you'll hear an announcer break through with the news coverage of something that you just did, helping to feel like you are influencing the city. However, it should be noted here that much of the script for the game is definitely Rated R, much more than any of the GTA games, such that this game is definitely not for the young'uns.

I give the game a lot of praise, but there are a couple aspects that are somewhat negative about the game. First, it is a GTA clone, and while there's variations from previous GTA games, some may be sick of GTA after the last three installments to give this a pass. I don't think it's as bad as GTA:Liberty City Stories, in that it's the same missions in the same town you've been in before, but unfortunately, there is some deja vu in certain missions. However, the game is on a new map and focuses more on gunplay, and thus I didn't really have a problem with this aspect. Others may point out that there's nothing really unique about this game from the previous GTAs, which is hard to argue with. However, most of the changes that Volition has done has been to address many of the problems that people have vocally stated about GTA3 and the sequels which Rockstar really never addressed. As such, I would hope that Rockstar does seem how some aspects have been added in SR, and then used and improved upon further in the next GTA game. It's always better to have two games so close in playstyle and genre that both can work off each other and improve to the next level through competition (such as GTA and SR, or something like Gran Turismo and Forza), as opposed to having a single game sit stagnantly through its own sequels without any major improvements *cough*Madden*cough*.

Secondly, SR is much more serious about itself than GTA. If you spend enough time in GTA, you'll hear lots of injokes through the radio programs (just leave it on Chatterbox for example), and through cleverly scripted cutscenes. SR leaves most of that humor behind, though there's still elements of it (some of the shop names and ads that come on, for example). But all in all. SR is a serious game, and thus doesn't quite have the same charm that GTA had. Maybe disappointing to some, but not too much of a letdown - I think it's still an overall good story (with a possible opening for SR2, of course).

Overall: A
Overall, Saints Row is a variation clone on GTA, but fixes many of the issues that people had since GTA3 while added a couple of new and interesting gameplay elements. These fixes (primarily for gun battles, saving progress, and getting around town) make the game much more enjoyable while playing without reducing the difficulty of the game, and thus I felt much more satisfied and entertained while working my way through it than with GTA. It's not a must-have title for the 360 - if you're not into GTA-type games or just bored of the GTA theme, you're not going to find anything here, and the rather violence and swear-word filled script will probably keep the kiddies away. However, if you do like GTA, and are not yet bored with the concept, Saints Row is definitely a game to grab, particularly to keep you tied over until GTA4 comes out. - Permalink - Discuss

September 04, 2006

Wii Gameplay Video

IGN's Weekly has a great piece on Wii gameplay with two simultaneous video streams of the screen and the handling of the controller. It gives you a good idea of what playing Wii games is really all about.