Archive for category Video Games

Retrospective: The Last of Us

Ellie & Joel

Courtesy of justpushstart.com

Initially, I had doubts Naughty Dog would be able to break away from the framework they established with the ‘Uncharted‘ series. Although the series is a massive success, it was  becoming old hat. But their latest entry, ‘The Last of Us‘, showcases an amazing depth of what Naughty Dog can deliver. What Naughty Dog crafted here is, hands down, one of the best gaming experiences this generation. Everything from the character and level design, UX/UI interface, story presentation, and so on just shines. But most of the chatter around this game circles around one major aspect, the ending. If you completed the game, then you know know it  was nothing short of shocking. As a forewarning, this post will contain heavy spoilers though out. Do NOT read any further if you have not completed the game.

Courtesy of Videsor.com

Courtesy of Videsor.com

I appreciate and love that Naught Dog did not give us game built entirely on conventional themes or cookie cutter characters. This is a look at an early dystopia and there no heroes or bad guys. There are no happy endings. For all loses, Joel is clearly not a ‘good’ man. He’s not even close to being a disgraced or fallen hero. Even at the onset of the game, he’s shown to be a very selfish individual. In the very beginning while driving through town, they see a family trying to flag them down for help. But Joel forcefully insists that his brotherTommy keep driving and leave them. Even his daughter Sarah makes a minor quibble about this. After surviving an ambush, Ellie asks Joel how he knew they entered an ambush and if he killed any ‘innocent’ people. Dryly, Joel responds he’s been on both sides of the situation regarding her former question and leaves it up to her decided regarding the latter. Most of his motivations are shown to be in his own self-interests, even to the very end. In another instance, Joel and Ellie partner up with another lone wolf and cub duo by the names, Henry and Sam.  During a pursuit by some hunters, Joel is suddenly cut off from the group. A flustered Henry hesitates, but fails to see any immediate solution. Henry then leaves Joel and Ellie to fend for themselves. This example is played out many times throughout the game. Regardless of who these people were in the old world has little relevance here, what matters is survival. In short: ‘good’ people are sometimes forced to make ‘bad’ decisions given the situations they’re put in.

This game is just chockfull of these kind of humanistic moments.There’s one touching scene between Ellie and Sam where she gives me a toy robot he had to leave behind. This is off set by the next morning where it’s revealed Sam is infected and is by by his brother, Henry.  The grief of which drives him to commit suicide right there. I call out this scene for a few reason.  One, this is a perfect example of how well Naughty Dog is able to convey human emotions and moments flawlessly. And second, they display a keen attention to detail. Before this event occurs, your group is in a toy store where Ellie will stand next to the robot. Proceed to the next section but don’t go through the door just yet. Turn around and look at Ellie, the toy robot will be gone. This kind of attention to detail and continuity is what makes this game memorable. If there were any protagonists in the game, it would be Ellie. Despite seeing the world fall into madness, Ellie still maintains an air ‘innocence’ (and I say that ever so slightly). Her teen sensibilities and child-like nature provides the perfect balance to Joel’s gruff nature.  But unfortunately, she’s never really given a true moment to be the “hero” of the game aside from saving a dying Joel. Who, arguably, may not be worth saving in the first place.

The Final Confrontation

Courtesy of Kotaku

But that’s the real question: who’s worth saving in the first place? Joel and Henry briefly discuss how quickly people turned on each other when the infected begin to spread. On one hand, it’s easy to empathize with Marlene’s perspective. The key to humanity’s survival potentially lies with Ellie (more specifically, within her brain). We learn that Marlene has essentially raised Ellie from a young age after the death of her biological mother. And the choice to sacrifice her does not come lightly but she believes it is for the greater good. In contrast, Joel has never quite come to terms with the death of his own daughter Sarah. But the journey with Ellie, has softened him into viewing her as his adoptive ‘daughter’. There was no way Joel could endure that kind of loss again, humanity be damned. It’s interesting how both Joel and Marlene are surrogate parents to Ellie; yet they both have their own agendas in mind. There’s also some eerily Messianic ties in this dynamic.  Would you sacrifice your only ‘child’ for the greater good of man no matter how far they’ve fallen? For Marlene, begrudgingly Yes. For Joel, Hell No! Ultimately, it was not a decision for either of them to make. It should have been Ellie’s choice.  Granted, laying the fate of humanity at the feet of a child is extremely messed up in itself. But it’s still a decision that belonged to Ellie, not her ‘parents’. Joel was right about one thing: Marlene would never stop hunting them. Obviously, that’s no sound justification for killing her, but it is a fairly accurate assumption given Marlene’s demeanor.  In the end, it’s clear Ellie knows something doesn’t add up with Joel’s explanation of what happened. Part of me even believes that Ellie realized later on that she was going die to help develop a cure, but played along as a comfort to Joel. What is clear is their relationship going forward is standing on some serious rocky ground.

In closing, a big round of applause and bravo to Naughty Dog for delivering such an outstanding masterpiece. I love this game so much that I truly hope they opt NOT to make a sequel. I’d welcome the planned DLC, but the game itself is perfect as a stand alone title, moral ambiguity and all. What do you think?

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XBox Done!? Is Microsoft Losing Focus or Over-Reaching?

ps4vsxb1

Courtesy of Stevivor.com

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Extra Life 2012: The Final Push & Tattoo Poll

Hello family and friends,

This Saturday, October 20th, will mark my second time participating in Extra Life.  I’ll be gaming this weekend to raise money for Seattle Children’s Hospital.  All proceeds go directly to the hospital to help sick children.  Last year Extra Life raised over $1.2 million, we want to break that record.  I also pledged I would get a tattoo if I reached my goal.  And I did.  This year, I’ll be doing the same thing: but you get to choose this time.

Shameless plugs aside, this is a charity that is near and dear to me.  And bottom line: this is all for the children.  I have had the fortune of having a relatively great life without any major illnesses or injuries.  Most of these kids aren’t so lucky.  But with your help, you’re helping support and build towards a better life for them.  I wouldn’t be offering to mark my body permanently if this wasn’t important.  Anything you can donate will help.  It all starts by going here: Extra Life 2012.

Like last year, I’ll get a tattoo if I raise my goal of $500.  However, you get to choose what it will be.  As a further incentive, if I raise more than $500, I’ll provide video snippets of when I go get that tattoo as well.  I have selected a few tattoos to choose from.  Let me know what you think. Just to clarify, you DO NOT have to take part of the poll.  The main important thing is to GET INVOLVED, and if you can, DONATE.  The voting poll is at the bottom.

Extra Life Charity Logo


Option 1
: The Extra Life Logo

This is most likely the most appropriate choice. And it’d compliment my tattoo from last year.

 

 

 

Portal Falling


Option 2
: Portal Logo

I love the HL series, but I’m especially a big fan of Portal.  If you haven’t played it, do yourself a favor and head to Steam now.

 

 

 

 

Gear Mock Up

Option 3: Gears of War

I’m also a big Gears of war fan and have wanted some Gears ink for awhile. This isn’t exactly how I would get it. I want the Lancers (the chainsaw guns) in the background; but the skull would be more in line with the authentic one.

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Video Game Budgets: What’s Going On?

A few weeks back, I read an article with EA head honcho, Frank Gibeau. And one statement especially jumped out to me:

“In general we’re thinking about how we make this a more broadly appealing franchise, because ultimately you need to get to audience sizes of around five million to really continue to invest in an IP like Dead Space. Anything less than that and it becomes quite difficult financially given how expensive it is to make games and market them. We feel good about that growth but we have to be very paranoid about making sure we don’t change the experience so much that we lose the fanbase.”

This strikes me as odd and flat out preposterous.  I’ve always been curious about video game budgets.  They just keep growing and growing.   I’ve tried poking around for a few detailed breakdowns with no avail.  But something is not adding up.  These budgets run more than many Hollywood movies.  That alone is crazy.  Once all the costs for licensing, royalty fees, art, QA, post release support and all that is factored in, you’re already looking at pretty chunk of change.  And don’t forget marketing / PR, that alone is sometimes more than the cost of the game itself.  Talk about outrageous, but we’ll save that topic for another time.  In the end, the budget for a standard console/PC game shouldn’t run more than a few million.  So where are they coming up with these inane figures like $25-$100 million?  And what kind of metrics ans analysis are they doing that indicates the need for so many buyers to justify a franchise.  In fact, I’d really like to see a case study detailing video game production costs & sales in contrast to other industries particularly movies and other technologies (laptop, mobiles, etc.).   I realize that sometimes there is a price to be paid for quality; but worth 500 million users?  I highly doubt that.   Again, something is NOT adding up.

The sad but current state of video game budgets

And is it really necessary?  The need to appeal to a broader audience is just a systemic of business in general.  But many franchises, and games in general, are starting to suffer with dwindling sales month over month.  Typically these days, a standard AAA game starts out as a first person shooter (FPS) built on an Unreal Engine with a tacked on gimmicky multiplayer mode.  And now it seems, they’ll be more co-op.  I, personally, love co-op mode; but it seems that co-op today translate more into action shooter.   That aside, including all these features quickly add up to a pretty penny.  But do these companies even considered if it’s germane to the business or the final product itself ?  Why does a game such as Dead Space and Assassin’s Creed need MP modes?  TellTale is already making a phenomenal Walking Dead game, is it really necessary for Activision to make one as well (which, surprise surprise, will be a FPS)?  To me, it seems like a massive waste time and resources  when they would be better off capitalizing on different markets. Do they really think they’re gonna capture that many more gamers with such a such a commonplace format?  I’m not saying they should ignore these kind of opportunities.  You never know what could happen.  Case in point, I thought adding MP to Mass Effect 3 would be a colossal failure.  But it turned out to be a massive success.  So I’m all for trying new ideas, just maybe in a different manner.  In fact, I’d love to see the numbers around these figures.  It may be worth holding off some new features as optional DLC only to be included in future installments based on a scale of their popularity.

But even if that were the case, it still doesn’t account for the absorbent budgets.  Countless indie developers have found marginal to great success producing games on a shoestring budget.  Why don’t major publishers release smaller titles in a similar manner more often?  Everyone wants to produce the next biggest hit, but wouldn’t it be more prudent to release a string of lower budget titles to help back bigger releases?  Movie studios release generic romcoms (romantic comedies) and other low budget clunkers all the time.  That’s possible because studios know there’s a market out there willing watch them.  Even though movies and games are two different monsters, studios should know there’s a similar (huge) contingent of gamers that’d like low budget title.  Low budget titles doesn’t mean low quality.  If you need proof of that, look no further than the countless indie developers and other standard titles that have found great success with not even a 1% of the budget.  Just like mindless popcorn flicks, sometimes all a gamer wants is just a regular game, not an over-produced blockbuster.  But game studios are very risk adverse.  The common excuse is that the physical production and release costs is not worth it, especially if it flops.  That and they’re pushing gaming more to the digital front.  Regardless of the chosen avenue, companies are missing out on a sizable potential market.  They already have a dedicated segment of gamers on lock (and potentially more).  Gamers like me aren’t going anywhere.  This is no excuse for developers to become complacent and produce cookie cutter crap.  But it could allow studios and developers more opportunities to take new risks.

All said and done, something needs to happen with the heavy imbalance between budgets and the decreasing sales.  I sure as hell don’t have all the answers but based on declining sales, the business aren’t just as clueless in some ways.  Right now, there are more than a few lucrative opportunities and markets the game industry capitalize on they’re just ignoring or frankly how no clue how to.  But I just hate seeing the traditional console market suffer from their inability to stick to basics and not take advantage of an already, dedicated fan base.  Like the saying goes: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.   And right now, there’s too much fixing going on.

What do you think people?

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Inked Up (or My First Tattoo)

Logo for Extra Life 2011

This post is long overdue. Back in October I participated in a charity event to help support my local Children’s Miracle Network Hospital: Extra Life. As an effort to raise money, I promised that I’d get a tattoo if I reached my goal. With just a few hours left, I surpassed my goal thankfully. And true to my word, the following week I went out and got this…

This is slightly more detailed version of the Extra Life 2011 logo courtesy of Lucky Devil Tattoo Parlor here in Seattle. I was one of those people that always wanted a tattoo but wasn’t sure what to get. But this choice seems fitting: it portrays my passion for gaming. At the same time it’s not for entirely selfish reasons. It’s also a reminder to me that there’s people out there who need more help than I ever would; as such, I should really be grateful for what I have in this fleeting life.

I can’t wait for Extra Life 2012. I’ll definitely be participating again. And I’m definitely considering getting another tattoo if I reach my goal. But this time, I may leave the decision to my sponsors as to what I’ll get. Stay tuned.

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The Psychic Costs of Today’s Gamer

As much as I love gaming, I’ve noticed my buying habits have taken somewhat of a gradual decline.  I’ve become extremely more sensitive to what I’ll spend my money on.  Up until a few years ago, I had a massive collection of video games.  Seriously, I had a closet packed with boxes full of gaming nostalgia.  Each box dedicated to specific system followed by genre sitting in pristine condition.  But today?  Looking at my collection, I estimate about 30 games across all three major platforms.  That’s still a sizable amount or more than your average casual gamer. But it’s nowhere near the pack rat status I had before.  One day I’m sitting on a quintessential library of video games throughout the generations.  But now I’ve scaled back to the bare minimum.  So what the hell happened?  Despite brief stints of unemployment, social / relationship issues, age, and whatnot; that still doesn’t account for the drop-off in my purchasing habits when life is on the up and up.  

A few months back, renowned author, Malcolm Gladwell, wrote a piece regarding the NBA lockout: the psychic benefits of owning a sports team. Basically, the gist is that most (NBA) owners derive a greater value / pleasure from owning items (in this case, teams) more than what they’re actually worth from a market valuation standpoint.  The whole notion of psychic benefits is to evaluate the level of stress involved when considering a transaction or facing a dilemma.  It’s the reason why stores offer rebates or attractive discounts on extra accessories when you’re contemplating buying that pricey, new laptop.  It’s the reason companies and recruiters offer lucrative signing (or referral) bonuses when scouting new talent.  All of this is to help alleviate the psychic cost (i.e. stress) of the situation.  Naturally, I began to wonder how this would relate to the gaming industry.  And it seems to apply just as well.

Same cost, Diminishing Value
Video game MSRP’s (Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price) have remained relatively steady throughout the generations.  However, I do believe that the majority of today’s releases are grossly overpriced given the quality of their content, especially for single player games. Granted, the criteria for what qualifies as a $60 game is debatable in itself. What can’t be disputed is the production quality of a game. Case in point, there’s no way in hell a titles such as Hunted: The Demon Forge, Spider-Man: Edge of Time, or even Thor contain the same level of attention and detail as say, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Fortune or even a lesser known gem, El Shaddai.  But I would be more inclined to buying games if they were released at a more reasonable price point.  The problem I face buying games today is twofold:

  1. I feel like I’m overpaying for a half-baked product (see Homefront)
  2. If there’s a generic multiplayer (MP) mode is tacked on, I feel like I’d only get half the value since I’m not a fan MP modes. This is the main reason why I skipped out on the latest released Call of Duty: MW3 & BattleField 3.

This is where the industry is failing.  So much energy and money is dedicated to hyping up AAA titlesm most of which are similar to each other where many of them fall into familiar territory too easily.  It’s no wonder they turn into massive flops (anyone still even playing Brink or Rage).  To me, it’s not worth wasting money on cookie cutter games I’ve already played for the past decade.  My buying influence is furthered weakened when a generic multiplayer mode is needlessly shoehorned in (see Dead Space, Assassin’s Creed, etc).  I’d rather play something that’s a bit more fresh (or shorter). As such, the psychic benefits I used to gain from most games has gradually diminished as a result of all of this.

Lately I’ve come to enjoy bargain bin titles more than many mainstream hits.  They’re short (5-10 hours), relatively simple to pickup and play, and they’re just as fun.  There’s this flawed conception that “cheap” games are bad games.  This is an area where the industry could really make a bigger impact.  These smaller, single player games could yield a larger return with a few tweaks the current model.  Think about it: cheaper production costs would allow developers to explore new ideas / gimmicks in smaller samplings instead of hedging their bets on expensive blockbusters.  Furthermore, it’d free up more capital to actually to market these “standard” titles. Plus, marketing a base of “standard” titles would allow people to move on to other games faster.  It would be even more awesome if these games were initially released digitally, not 3-6 months later when they’re well forgotten. Not to mention, more resources could be delegated to promoting commercially viable games from independent developers. This is another area that the industry continues to fail capitalizing on.  This year alone I’ve spent a fair amount of money and time playing indie titles that could make a commercial impact had the right parties taken notice. I’m not saying the large, AAA hits need to go away.  We still need those; I love those!  But we also need to broaden our focus and recognize what the community outside the majors have to offer.

Peter Pan No More…
Yep, I’m getting older.  The allure of having a mountain of games, midnight game releases, and trumped-up special edition releases just aren’t worth the hassle (or money) as I get older.  I’ll always be a nerdy gamer and I’m glad to help the culture evolve.  But as mentioned above, my priorities are shifting as I slowly become an adult.  There’s a silver lining to be found here in that gaming has transformed from being a mere “kid’s hobby” to a hobby people of all ages enjoy (whether they want to admit it or not) or even productivity applications (see Gamifcation).

I’m pretty confident I’m not alone in sentiments. But the gaming landscape is changing and expanding at an incredible rate.  Casual & mobile games are taking off and console gaming is starting to shrink sales wise.  If the industry wants to stay competitive and retain & grow market demographics, it will need to adjust their brand offerings & pricing model accordingly.  Soon enough you’ll find more gamers such as myself skipping out on even more games and transitioning to more suitable options.

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2011: The Year of Underperformers & Neglect

As 2011 wraps up, let’s take this moment to take a look at the plethora of games to come out this year.  How many of those games really jumped out and grabbed you?  This year was rife with mediocre titles that quickly feel to the way side.  And that’s fine, not every game needs to be a AAA smash hit.  The problem though is that a majority of 2011’s AAA titles were flash-in-the-pain hits that didn’t really merit their hype.  The disappointment spread even further with the lack of pereipheral hits / supports.  Anyone care for Rise of  Nightmares?  What was the last Nintendo Wii title  anyone played before Zelda Skyward Sword came along?  Maybe publishers were playing it safe due to the global economic downturn, who knows.  That aside, this year did yield a few gems.  Since I’m not an industry insider, my gaming opportunities are limited but I’ve played more than my fair share of titles.  So let’s get to it.  


Best Game of the Year:

  • Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception: – I kind of waffled on this one.  Personally, I would have put this as the number one game of the year due to it’s tight succinct story and fully fleshed-out multi-player mode.  But decide again it considering how chockfull of adventure you will find in Skyrim (which will provide you with gameplay for days, if not months on end).  Personally, I prefer more straight forward titles, but it’s hard to argue with a game that provides you with 200+ hours of gameplay.  But Uncharted plays out like a modern day Indiana Jones adventure.  The presentation is so well crafted, i’ve had people just watch me play just to experience the story.  And it definitely is an experience that shouldn’t be missed by anyone.
  • Skyrim: I have a strong love / hate relationship with this game.  Furthermore, it doesn’t even rank as one of my personal top 10 games of the year.  It’s loaded with a load of quests breaking glitches, an incredibly infuriating user interface / menu system, and the carte blanche setting makes no sense.  I’m actually aiming to make an entirely separate post about this in a few days.  That said, I am able to keep an objective perspective and appreciate the game for all the other things it does right, and that’s content!  Skyrim is the game that keeps on giving.  While completing one quest; you can expect to pick up 4-5 separate quests along the way.  The value packed in this game more than it’s MSRP price and can easily keep you occupied for quite some time, if not a full year.
  • Runner-up #1: L.A. Noire – I wrote a piece on this earlier in the year, you can find here. This game has been in development for quite sometime.  Thankfully, the wait was worth it.  A really smart story, interesting characters with depth, and top notch production all in one seamless package.  This game hit many high points and raised the bar to a new level.  Despite all this, the game does fall into familiar GTA territory in it’s mission structure at times (i.e. go here & kill ‘X’, wash, rinse, and repeat).  I have high hopes for this series.  Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait as long.

Worst Game of the Year:

  • Duke Nukem Forever: Oh how the mighty have fallen.  Jesus, I don’t even know where to begin with this shit pile.  After being in developmental hell for nearly two decades, we were finally treated to one of the worst, trivial gaming experiences ever created.  There is seriously not one redeeming quality to be found here.  And to add further insult to injury, Bulletstorm came out just a few months earlier and fully captured everything this game should have been. AVOID AT ALL COST!

Sleeper Game of the Year:

  • El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron: This was a quirky little title.  There’s no way to describe this game without it sounding like some generic platformmer.  But the mix of visuals along with its style of combat give it an unique flare.  In many ways it reminds me of a toned down version of Okami (another title I’m sure none of you played).  I know all that doesn’t give it the more glowing endorsement, but it is worth playing and presents a nice change of pace form the typical dreck that’s been  churned out this year.
  • Runner-up: War of the Worlds: This will be a polarizing title due to its style of play.  If you;re an old school gamer familiar with titles such as Out of the World and Flashback, you’ll fall in love with how much this game emulates the old school presentation and gameplay with a modern facelift. But new generation gamers will balk at how finicky the controls are and the unforgiving style of play.  Personally I think it’s a welcome addition to an age where game are so pussified that they practically play themselves.  Plus, it’s fairly cheap, but will worth the money.

Diamond in the Rough :

  • NOTHING: That’s how lame this year was.  The majority of title were either just good enough,that they really didn’t have much of an interesting base to build on.  I would love to have a more positive outlook but this year’s offerings really were tepid.  Very few risks and very little awesome.

Biggest Surprise of the Year:

  • WWE Allstars: Yea, Im surprised as you that a wrestling game would top my list as one of the best games games I’ve played this year.  Admittedly, I do have some bias since I grew up idolizing these characters, but this game really is that fun and worthwhile.  Not to mention it has a much fresh take than the standard WWE games on the market.  It’s pure arcade style goodness.

Wall of Shame:
Admittedly, I haven’t played all this year’s major titles. Here are some those titles:

  • Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 / Battlefield 3: Yep, I’ve said it earlier before but I am thoroughly burnt out on FPS and as such have chose to avoid both of these titles. But considering the turnout, this lame little rivalry fizzled out into a whimpering stalemate with no clear winner.  Given the massive build up, I would have expected more.  based on reviews and videos, they turned out to be more of the same riffraff from their previous incarnations.
  • Rage
  • Brink
  • Alice Madness Returns
  • Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
  • Shadow of the Damned
  • Infamous 2
  • Killzone 3
  • Yakuza 4
  • MLB 11: The Show
  • Twisted Metal
  • Little Big Planet 2

Personal Top Ten Games of 2011:
My personal favorite titles from 2011. Though I’ve missed some reputable titles, I’ve played enough for a solid definitive list:

1. Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception
2. Gears of War 3
3. Batman: Arkham City
4. Dead Space 2
5. L.A. Noire
6. Portal 2
7. Assassin’s Creed: Revelation
8. Saint’s Row the Third
9. Deus Ex: Human Evolution
10. Bulletstorm

There isn’t much else to be said.  2011 just flat out reeked of mediocrity and laziness that I’m afraid of what’s to come in 2012, especially considering we’re right at the point where a new iteration of consoles are right around the corner.  Even worse, there was a total lack of peripheral support.  Nintendo barely released 3 titles worth mentioning, not to mention that horrid DS launch.  Microsoft didn’t do any better with the small scattering of Kinect games released, many of which were garbage.  Surprisingly, Sony came through with some pretty surpassing exclusives, though most of them were HD remakes.  But I don’t like being such a debbie downer, I do have hope.  There have been new exciting developments from the indie scene that is yearning to be recognized.  Whatever happens, let’s just hope that gaming continues to maintain its true essence: being fun!

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