Christmas Haul: 2010

I don't have long to write this as I'm about to head off to a family get-together, so it'll be brief.



 
I really don't deserve such a bounty. This might be the best Christmas I've had in a long time. Thanks, everyone. 


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Black Mesa in Pictures: Or why I still like HL1 more than HL2

 Every year or so, GAF has a "Replay the Half-Life Series" thread. Last year, I played through Half-Life 2 and most of Episode 1. I don't really like Episode 1, but that's another blog post entirely, but needless to say I never made it to Episode 2. This year, I booted up Half-Life 1. I've been holding off replaying it in anticipation for Black Mesa Source, but since it looks like Black Mesa Source will probably miss their 2010 deadline (after also missing their 2009 deadline), I figured it was time I give it a go through again.



I also decided to play the game on Normal difficulty this time. Being sort of a wuss, I used to default to easy mode a lot, but nowadays easy mode has started to feel a little too easy. I've actually found myself craving more challenge - something I never thought I would do - and so I've been making a slow, concerted effort to play more games at harder difficulties. As such, I am used to playing Half-Life and being a one-man-army - blowing through the entire game as an unstoppable harbinger of death. Well, that's partially a lie - I haven't actually played Half-Life to 100% completion in over five years. I start new games a lot, usually make it to around "Blast Pit" (the area with the giant worms) and never get back to it. The added difficulty changed the game up enough that I actually managed to clear the whole thing this time around. When you can't just rush enemies and expect to survive, it's kind of interesting how easily Half-Life lets you play things stealthily. During the "Hazard Course" tutorial area, they specifically teach you that crouching down will make you nearly invisible to enemy detection, and it's shockingly effective. I found myself in quite a few scenarios where I was low on health, and sneaking around while crouched down ended up saving my life.
 
It also reminds me why I love Half-Life 1 more than Half-Life 2. Now, settle down - I don't mean that as a diss on Half-Life 2. HL2 is still an incredible game, one of the best in the industry, but it's also missing a lot of what made HL1 special. There's a genuine sense of action and reaction in Half-Life 1. There's a greater sense that you're part of a larger world - scientists cower when you fire weapons near them, and if you kill one of their buddies (accident or not), other scientists that witness the event will run in fear and refuse to trust you. If you manage not to be a jerk, you can recruit them to your cause so that they follow you around - but they are people, and they will only follow you so far until they become too afraid to continue. Scientists and security guards can be valuable assets, opening locked doors or providing covering fire during an intense shootout. Those things happen in Half-Life 1 because the Player has made a decision that enables them to happen. In Half-Life 2, scenes like that only happen because the storyline requires it. Rebels only follow the player around because they're at that part in the storyline - they automatically join the player when near, and dead comrades are eventually replaced with new ones without any input from the player. Half-Life 2's greater sense of having definable, named characters also removes HL1's sense of chaos. In Half-Life 1, the game's entire plot is relayed through a bunch of people who can only be referred to as "that guy over there". "That guy over there", who is apparently important to telling the story, can be recruited by the player, and can take damage. Most distressingly, he can also die. None of these actions have to happen, but they can (and sometimes do) happen. If a story-related character accidentally dies in Half-Life 2, the game simply fades to black and tells you words to the effect of "Game Over, please try again."
 
And the A.I.!  Perhaps the Combine are technically more intelligent than the soldiers in Half-Life 1, but they're never given a chance to show it. Encounters in Half-Life 1 are set up so that Marines have a tactical advantage over the player. Soldiers actively seek out cover, attempt to flush out camping players with grenades, and organize themselves to flank targets for maximum efficiency. Most Combine soldiers, in comparison, seem relatively stationary - they rarely bother to take cover, and even when they try, there's not usually many available options to safely regroup. Half-Life 1 is full of crates and boxes of monstrous size, offering up plenty of stationary cover. Most of Half-Life 2's crates are generally of small size to make them easy to manage with the gravity gun, and there's not much else that's large enough to be worth hiding behind. As such, most Combine Soldiers have a grand total of two tactical options: Go towards the player or flee further down the same corridor that the player will eventually pass through anyway. Episode 2 tried to rectify this with a sequence where the player is pinned inside of an Inn, giving soldiers clearly defined cover points outside, but up until that moment, there wasn't a whole lot for them to work with.
 
None of this makes Half-Life 2 a bad game, it just makes one that is notably less dynamic than its predecessor. That's not to say HL2 doesn't have some benefits of its own - HL1 ends on a sour note with " Xen", an alien world full of some of the toughest creatures in the game and some absolutely brutal (and seriously out-of-place) platforming challenges. HL2's final Citadel assault is at first incredibly intense firefight before becoming almost tranquil, with an extremely lengthy tour through the ranks of the Combine war machine. HL2's last battle is confusing, until you finally learn the trick to it - unlike HL1's battle with the Nihilanth, which is aggravating and borderlines on being just plain silly. I may have forced myself to play the game on normal difficulty, but when it came time to brave the depths of Xen, I ended up just turning on God Mode for invincibility.
 
With HL1 out of the way, I fully expect Black Mesa Source to finally see release sometime in the next couple of weeks, just to spite me finally breaking down and playing the original game again.
 
Edit: If you're wondering where the models in my screenshots came from, hit up the Half-Life Improvement forums. Half-Life Improvement is a community dedicated to remodeling and retexturing Half-Life, Counter-Strike 1.6, and a handful of older games. All of the models in my screenshots came from there.
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To Developers Porting Old Shooters to New Platforms

So Quake Arena Arcade finally came out on Xbox Live this week. If you weren't aware, Quake Arena Arcade is the XBLA port of Quake 3 Team Arena, and it was quietly announced in 2007. It's languished in development limbo since then, occasionally making playable appearances at locations like PAX. I believe at one point, John Carmack even admitted it had been flat out canceled. It's a serviceable port of Quake 3, with all the features you remember from the original release of Team Arena. The team that ported it, Pi Studios, went the extra mile, though. QAA features updated lighting, a new scoreboard system (that gives out awards for things like being "most dangerous", etc.), and a new scoring system similar to Pinball FX2's "Superscore" system (it adds up all of your lifetime stats in to one overall score for the friends leaderboard). But it was specifically the improved graphics - the addition of lightbloom and what looks to be (to my eyes) a more detailed shadowing system - really made me wonder why more companies who port their old shooters to XBLA don't make an effort to update their graphics.

With companies like id making their old engines open source after a while, often you'll find a group of crazy programmers out there who take it upon themselves to keep those games up to date. Not just functionally, but graphically, as well. Sometimes these packs don't always turn out the best, but when they do, it's actually pretty impressive what has been accomplished. Just look at Doom and Quake:

But the one I think is most impressive is eDuke32 with "HRP" (High-Res Pack) and Duke Plus enabled:

Whenever you see a company re-release one of their old shooters on a modern console, the primary thing that stops me from buying in to them is the fact that you get this kind of stuff on the PC. Dig out that old dusty copy of Duke Nukem 3D: Atomic Edition, and after transplanting it to an updated engine, it almost looks like a brand new game. Why can't developers do this kind of stuff officially? How amazing would it have been if 3D Realms had updated Duke3D to look this awesome? A lot of the work has already been done for them - throw some money at the community, do a little bit of polish work, and publish that. I would re-buy Duke3D for $30 if 3D Realms went through and polished up eDuke's "High-Res Pack" to match professional standards (some of the monster models look pretty funky and could definitely use it).

And the best part about all of these projects is that they're still technically running on top of the original game data. While this means some general benefits (the game controls exactly like you remember), it also means that for purists out there, there is the all important ability to simply turn the new effects off. Or even better: pick and choose which updated effects you want to apply, and which ones you want to ignore.

But no way am I going to spend even $10 on a basic port of a game I already own. Admittedly, Duke 3D did try and include something new - a weird "rewind" feature, and Doom 2 for XBLA has a completely brand-new episode, but I can't help but feel these companies are missing an opportunity by ignoring what the communities centered around their old games have already accomplished.

And so far, Quake Arena Arcade represents the only game to even attempt to update the original's graphics in any shape or form, even if it is just a little lightbloom.

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Let's get nostalgic: "Blazefire Radio"

The internet is wild, an untamed wilderness. There are those who seek to tame it - and sometimes they succeed, and sometimes the Internet ends up biting back. There was a time where anybody and everybody could sign up for an account on Live365 free of charge and start their own internet radio station. For as long as I can remember, I've always been weirdly fascinated by broadcasting. The creation of TV networks and radio stations seemed really cool to me, and as a kid I would set a walkie-talkie next to my tape player and "broadcast" music to my friend across the street. The prospect of starting an internet radio station via Live365 interested me greatly, and I signed up and forged ahead, giving birth to "Blazefire Radio".
 
I never really grew up listening to "normal" music. I mean I guess I did at first, but soon my interest in audio/video equipment took hold and I was setting my Home Alone 2 "Talkboy" next to the TV so I could record music from Sonic 2's sound test mode, enabling me to listen to it later. If I would rent games and they had nice enough music, I would make sure to sit down and tape music from their sound test before returning the cartridge to the video rental store. As I got older, my methods got more advanced, and I learned how to patch game consoles through an old stereo system we had so I could get direct recordings straight from the hardware. While everybody else in Middle School was listening to Rob Zombie and some of Eminem's earliest hits, I was jamming out to hand-made mix tapes of Parappa the Rapper and Jet Moto. It shouldn't come as a surprise then that Blazefire Radio was populated almost exclusively by videogame music. With Earthbound songs over the bumpers, the station developed a tagline: "It's your sanctuary." Its popularity grew and eventually, BFR found itself as part of a collection of similar internet radio stations called the Zone Radio Network (or ZRN for short). ZRN provided hosting to network members, and an (awful) BFR website was established.
 
The Recording Industry Association of America, greedy as they are, didn't like that there were hundreds of people were using Live365 to stream licensed music free of charge (even though most of it was at extremely low bitrates - dial-up internet was still the norm, after all) and lobbied to get internet radio taxed by the same laws that govern over-the-air radio. Play a licensed song, you owe the RIAA xyz amount of dollars. Even though none of Blazefire Radio's music was governed by the RIAA, Live365 enacted sweeping changes that required everybody with a station to start paying subscription fees to stay on the air. ZRN tried to pick up the pieces by running their own, local Shoutcast internet radio broadcasting software, but restrictions on bandwidth and hosting space meant that all ZRN stations shared from the same collective pool of music. Stations in the network were re-tooled to specialize in specific genres of music, leaving little room for Blazefire Radio to sustain a unique identity. 
 
Deep down inside, part of me still wants to relaunch Blazefire Radio, but renting servers for that kind of thing cost exorbitant amounts of money. My Live Halloween Internet radio show, "The Graveyard Shift", was a chance for me to recapture a little bit of that magic, but diminishing returns year-over-year lead me to not even bother doing a show this year - not that I had a server to broadcast from anyway. 
 
Where I'm going with all of this is that I was recently turned on to this website called 8tracks. 8tracks lets you upload music and create a playlist from that music that anyone can listen to. To keep things legal, they have some pretty strict limitations, though. For example, no more than two songs from any given album or musician. There's a handful of others, but I managed to scrape together 108 songs to form a mix titled " Videogame Music Worth Listening To". It's about the closest thing to Blazefire Radio you're going to get today.
 

  

I may upload more music to it one day but I kind of like the idea of stopping at 108 tracks - if only for its relation to the 108 stars of destiny. Besides, I'm pretty sure you're noy supposed to create playlists this long - browsing the site, most of the playlists people have created are, at max, 30 songs in length. But, whatever. 
 
By the way, just so you don't forget, I wrote a Sonic Colors review a couple days ago.
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Sonic Colors (DS) Review

Finished this one up last night but was way too tired to write a blog about it. 
 

If you’re starting out with memories of the Sonic Rush games fresh in mind, Sonic Colors will be immediately disorienting. The game is built upon on the Sonic Rush engine, and though the basics of control remain somewhat familiar, nearly every aspect of how the player interacts with the world has changed. All of the leg stomps, slide kicks and wall jumps from the Wii version of Colors are present, but the biggest change from Sonic Rush is how the player charges up the the boost meter. In the Rush series, boosting not only sent Sonic tearing through levels at untold speeds, but made the player nearly invincible in the process. But in order to use the boost, you were first required to charge it up – done by executing long strings of acrobatic flips and spins via the game’s simplistic trick system. Sonic Colors retains the same basic concept of boosting and boost energy, but makes the player work a bit harder to charge it up. Boost energy is only acquired by picking up Wisp capsules that refill the meter or from destroying enemies. The net effect is that while in Sonic Rush you usually have enough energy to boost everywhere at maximum speed, Colors asks you to take things a little more slowly and conserve your energy – at least, until you figure out where all of the boost refills are located, and from there you can resume running around like a maniac to your heart’s content. This results in a far more gentle pace to ease new players in to the ultra-fast world of recent Sonic games, as the more experienced the player is, the more they discover ways to maintain high speeds for longer periods of time. 
 
Speed is all well and good, but can only take you so far. ( Keep reading...)

 
I actually thought of some supplemental information to attach to this blog in relation to Sonic Colors as I was crawling in to bed last night, but now I have no idea what it was and I didn't bother to write it down! Oops. But yeah, as always, this review will probably make its way to GiantBomb in a couple weeks or so. I really wish I could remember what else I wanted to discuss with this post, though... Hm.
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Games for Windows Live is the worst thing ever conceived by man

So earlier tonight, there was a pricing error on the Games for Windows Live Marketplace. Somebody forgot to carry a zero and Age of Empires III was listed for the low low price of $0.10. Given that I really like Age of Empires, I jumped on the chance. Amusingly enough, since I didn't have a credit card on file, it let me buy the game using Microsoft Points. Sure, 10msp is more money than $0.10 (by about 3 cents), but considering I still have 12,000msp to spend, it's not a big deal. To download AoE3, it asks me to install the GFWL Marketplace. That's fine, I guess - I thought I installed it when I installed FlatOut: Ultimate Carnage, but since I uninstalled FOUC, it must've uninstalled GFWL with it. 
 
The program they give me on the page I bought Age of Empires III from boots up, and once it downloads the data required to install GFWL, it pops up with an error telling me that in order to proceed, I need the Games For Windows Live Redistributable CD. Now, to my knowledge, there is no GFWL Redistributable CD. GFWL is either installed from the web or it installs as part of a game installation. Putting this sort of thing on its own separate disc seems a bit silly. The error, however, was a familiar one. When Ashuku bought me a cheapo copy of Company of Heroes, it too had trouble installing, because at some point, one of the .NET Framework installations had gone awry.  It took me days to clean the bad install out and re-install a fresh, correctly-working copy of .NET Framework, but eventually I did. When it came time to install the first version of Games for Windows Live, .NET Framework pitched a similar fit, and once again, I had to manually correct the installation to get GFWL to work. When it came time to install that copy of FlatOut Ultimate Carnage I was talking about, GFWL attempted to simply update itself from within FlatOut, and surprise surprise, another, similar error. So I was used to this. 
 
Therefore, I went hunting. To fix the GFWL problem I had with FlatOut, it was a simple matter of browsing to the GFWL website and downloading the full GFWL install (this was the solution given by Microsoft themselves in a troubleshooting FAQ). For FlatOut, that worked like a charm. I was a little skeptical here - the GFWL Installer they gave me with my AoE3 purchase was actually from the official GFWL website. But still, I dug around, and found a link to the GFWL Installer from Microsoft.com (rather than gamesforwindowslive.com). The GFWL installer from Microsoft.com was of identical size to the one I was provided with my AoE3 purchase, opened what seemed to be an identical looking program, but managed to complete the install just the same. Hooray! Once completed, it asked me if I would like to launch the GFWL Client, and I obliged. 
 
The window disappears, and I alt tab around, browsing the internet and chatting to my friends. After what had to be at least 3-5 minutes pass, the GFWL login manager finally pops up. It already seems to know my login details (likely from FlatOut), so I tell it to log in.
 
Authentication error. 
 
Oh, that's probably because I changed my password since the last time I used GFWL. But it won't let me enter a new password. As it turns out, I have to uncheck the "Remember Password" box for it to let me enter a new password. I enter my new password. 
 
Authentication error. 
 
I uncheck "Remember my account". I type my Xbox 360 Gamertag instead of my email address. 
 
Authentication error. 
 
I re-enter my email address. I quadruple check my password. I type it one letter at a time, as slow as possible, making sure it is correct. 
 
Authentication error.
 
By now, I have entered every possible combination my account would be stored under. I have absolutely, unquestionably, entered my credentials the correct way. Right below the checkbox for "Remember my account" is a button cryptically labeled "Forget my account". I click that. It erases my email address, my password, and removes my gamerpic. I re-type my email address and password, and hit sign in. It signs me in! 
 
What? 
 
The login manager goes away and the Games for Windows Live Marketplace finally lays itself bare before me. It looks a lot like the Steam Marketplace. Before I have a chance to really browse, though, I notice something has gone awry. The HDD access light on my computer has gone solid red. The computer itself is grinding to a halt. It's the GFWL Marketplace. It is devouring my system whole. I can't do anything. I can't type, I can't switch to any other windows... for all intents and purposes, the computer is frozen. Minutes pass in this state. I get just enough control of my computer to type a message out in the chat room me and my friends hang out in.
 

<BlazeHedgehog> GFW LIVE IS AWFUL


By now, I've been fighting with GFWL for going on 30 solid minutes, just trying to get the program to launch. Sick and tired of it, I CTRL+ALT+DEL to bring up the Task Manager, hit up the Applications Tab, select "GFWL Marketplace" and hit "End Task". Yes, I'm sure I want to force this application to end.  It disappears, closes out, but not before leaving me with one final middle finger: Windows alerts me that in the process of closing, the Games For Windows Live Marketplace has crashed. 
 
Really? I'm shocked.
  
I decide it would probably be a good idea to send the error report to Microsoft. Clearly, there is something wrong with their software, and they should be notified about it. While I relay the story of what just happened to me to my friends, over what must've been at least another ten minutes or more, the Error Reporting software sits there, forever "Gathering information" for the error report it is going to eventually submit. It's bringing my system to its knees, almost to the same degree GFWL Marketplace was.

 As this is happening, Windows pops up with an error. 
 

You are running out of virtual memory! Windows is increasing the limit of your virtual memory paging file. During this process, memory requests for some applications may be denied. For more information, see "Help".

Are you serious? You're serious, aren't you. I cancel the error report and open the task manager again to find that even though I ended the GFWL task, even though the program itself crashed, somehow, some way, the process is still running. This time, no fooling around. I force the process to end, and all related processes. Now completely expunged, its vice grip on my system lifts and things return to normal order. 
 
Needless to say, I'm afraid to open the GFWL Marketplace, now.  I worry that, much like Steam, it's going to start up with my system. What was it doing? Was it scanning for GFWL games I have installed? Shouldn't it have like, notified me it was going to do that beforehand? Should it have really taken that long? Xfire scans my system for every game it supports every time it starts up, and it literally takes seconds and has zero impact on system performance. 
 
Needless to say, I'm unhappy, and I may not ever actually get Age of Empires III installed as a result. 
 

<Doandl_Dukc> Goddamn
<Doandl_Dukc> aren't you glad you didn't pirate.



 
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My Sonic the Hedgehog 4 review for TSSZ

I've been posting reviews here day-and-date with TSSZ, but this is a fairly important review to me, so it's going to be up on TSSZ exclusively for a while. I hope you understand. You can click here to read it, and here's a sampler to whet your appetite: 
 

In theory, using proven concepts should make Sonic the Hedgehog 4 a game that would be difficult to screw up. Unfortunately, it’s lacking in one all-important aspect: the controls. A key, defining factor of the 16-bit Sonic games was the sense of momentum they presented. Running down slopes would help Sonic to accelerate, and running up a slope would cause Sonic to slow down a little. The steeper the slope, the more pronounced the effect, and rolling in to Sonic’s trademark “spinball” form would only increase his slope sensitivity. A well-timed spin would allow Sonic to blow through levels at far faster speeds than he could ever achieve by running on foot. When Sonic transitioned to 3D, the franchise moved away from these concepts in favor of scripted scenes and row after row of booster pads bolted to the floor of ever level. This is where Sonic 4 picks up, and though it makes a half-hearted attempt to re-implement these momentum-based controls, to a Sonic veteran, it’s endlessly disappointing that rolling in to Sonic’s ball form is mostly useless outside of specific scripted scenes where the game automatically forces you to roll, and things get aggravating about the time you reach a pinball-table-styled level like Casino Street and Sonic does not appropriately control the way a pinball should. This is to say nothing of the game’s stiff, sluggish acceleration, which can make even simple platforming puzzles awkward to complete. These are Sonic Rush controls, on a game that you can’t really play like Sonic Rush. ( Keep reading)

 
The review goes on for quite a bit longer than that simple paragraph, because I felt that I needed to go a little more in-depth to get my point across sufficiently. I really expected to like Sonic 4 despite its relative inaccuracies in physics, and when the game started getting 8's and 9's from IGN and such, I honestly got a glimmer of hope. My "It's not like the old games, and that's bad!" stance began to soften considerably and I found myself staying up all night on Tuesday to download and play Sonic 4 the moment it went live on the Xbox Marketplace because I was excited to play it.

In the end, the longer I played Sonic 4, the more frustrated with it I became. Without spoiling too much of the review, it's basically another step in Sega retroactively ruining everybody's memories about the classic Sonic games (See: Brad's "Isn't this how Sonic games have always been?" remarks in the Quicklook), and given the rumor about the upcoming "Sonic Anniversary" game for 2011, it would appear that they aren't going to stop until anything anybody used to love about the Genesis games has been George Lucas'd to death.
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Big Belated Blaze Blog #1

So like two months ago I said I was going to write more blogs. And I didn't. You can blame twitter for that, I guess. It makes it a lot harder to care about writing a blog when I get all of my thoughts out in 140 characters or less, and qualitative discussion about videogames is better served with reviews. I don't even remember what I wanted to write more blogs about - I guess at one point I wanted to write about Starcraft 2, but then my SC2 buddy moved across two states and I don't think either of us has picked the game back up. Not that I could, anyway. I didn't buy SC2, and the guest pass he gave me has undoubtedly expired by now.  I don't even remember what it was that I wanted to say, other than it started with the familiar "I don't really care that much about RTS games, but". But that doesn't mean I don't have a reason to talk about videogames! Because I do.
 

So Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 was finally dated and priced. I don't know that I've ever spoken about Sonic 4 here, or my feelings towards it, which is probably for the best because I am not really sure what I feel. On one hand, the marketing for this game has been borderline comedic. Things started strong enough, with some pretty big hype and lots of supposed community interaction. Things rapidly degraded from there as community involvement very quickly ceased to matter and the protracted march of countdown timer upon countdown timer on the official website just to unveil basic things like concept art wore thin. Then the game was leaked, we all had a good laugh at the horrendous minecart segment, and Sega delayed the game on a promise to "fix" it, with some very specific problems being called out. It was recently revealed that the original minecart level has undergone serious revision (in other words, redesigning the entire stage from the ground up to be completely and entirely different), but not much else has been fixed - including the wonky physics and abundance of scripted speed booster segments, despite promises specifically referencing those two elements as things "to be fixed". On the opposite end of things, the game does not actually look bad - it more or less looks on par with the Sonic Advance and Sonic Rush games, which were actually pretty fun. The problem is that Sonic Advance and Sonic Rush still pale in comparison to the very careful, metered gameplay pace and beautifully abstract art design of the classic Sega Genesis Sonic games. With a name like "Sonic the Hedgehog 4", you're just asking for trouble if you don't make a serious effort to truly replicate what made the 16-bit titles so memorable back in the mid 90's, especially after we've had Sonic games so face-meltingly awful that they've actually retroactively ruined perception of actual good games by relation. And, from what has been shown, Sonic 4 isn't doing enough to deserve its name, leaving the entire product feeling like a hollow bid to cash in on your nostalgia for what the character used to represent. That's only exacerbated by the $15 price tag, for what is essentially a small piece of a larger product. If I didn't have to buy it to write a review for our website, I would probably skip it for that reason alone, because there are much longer, no doubt much more enjoyable games out there on digital download services for under $15.
 
In other, slightly related news, I've been trying to get a review of Ivy the Kiwi written. It's a difficult game to write about, partially because it feels like there's not a whole lot of meat to it. It feels like the kind of game that was targeted at mobile phones (and it probably was), though that may also be because it hearkens back to the old days of super-simple, arcade-style gaming, which makes sense, given it's from Sega-retiree Yuji Naka. Still, finding words to say about it without sounding like I'm being unfair to the game somehow is difficult. Part of me thinks I should just throw down the gauntlets and go for the throat, but puzzle games like this really aren't my style, so I worry about saying something that's out-of-line. It was a bad idea to commit myself to reviewing it, but I'm gonna stick it out. 
 
I suppose it would be easier to talk about games I don't have plans to review, which would be all of the junk I bought on Xbox Live lately with those 32,000 points I won. Out of all of them, I guess there's only one I really want to talk about right now, and that's Rocket Knight. Rocket Knight, not unlike Sonic 4, was more or less met with groans of disappointment upon its reveal. Whereas games like Bionic Commando Rearmed managed to nail a definitive look and feel that captured the spirit of the old NES game while simultaneously bringing it up to date with the current standards of gaming, the first screenshots for Rocket Knight looked like a bad Dreamworks movie with gaudy colors and overbearing depth-of-field blur. Unfortunately, despite effort to clean up the graphics in the final product, Rocket Knight is still an ugly game with poor art direction. Rocket Knight, the wolf enemies he fights against, and the pigs caught in the middle of it all look like they belong in three completely different games. The demo was sort of an odd duck; offering two difficulties ("Normal" and "Hard"), it turned out that the game was agonizingly easy on "Normal" mode, but became challenging enough to be fun once you switched it to "Hard". The problem is, "Hard Mode" has to be earned - every time you face a boss character, there is a "special technique" that can be used to defeat them. It's different for every boss, and if you defeat them with the "special technique", you earn the ability to play the next level on Hard Mode. It's completely ridiculous in a bad way, as it doesn't make much sense to punish players looking for a tougher game by dumping them down to normal mode if they cannot find the "special technique". Maybe it doesn't matter, though, because regardless of what difficulty you're playing the game on, it eventually stops being fun. I stopped playing about the time I got enough game-overs to run out of continues and the game decided because of that, it would be a good idea to basically delete my save file and have me start all over from the beginning again. I can understand committing yourself to making a "retro-styled" game, but that's a little too far for my tastes. I don't have any plans to go back to it.

I suppose that's it for now. One last thing: If any of you remember those "Afraid of Monsters" videos I did for Halloween last year, I'm doing something similar this year over at my Youtube channel, for a Half-Life 2 mod called "Nightmare House 2". Playlist is here, and I just uploaded the first video. I'll be uploading gameplay footage of the whole mod all throughout October, so if you're interested, make sure you check it out. It definitely gets better as the game goes on, too, so if you aren't totally wowed by this first episode, just know that the next one will be better.
 
I will see you hep cats later.
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Three months later...

Hey duders. Have several blogs churning in the ol' noggin that I want to write, but I figured this could be its own separate thing. You may remember back in late May/early June where I was told that I won some stuff? Well it finally came today.

Yep. My "lifetime" of Xbox Live Gold and 32,000 Microsoft points arrived in a big box... full of smaller boxes, containing 30 individually packaged 12-month XBL Gold cards and 8 other cards worth 4000 Microsoft points. What a colossal waste of plastic. Oh well, at least the cards themselves look like cardboard. Still! 38 cards I have to enter one at a time. That's ridiculous.
 
...But in some ways beneficial, too. Despite winning nearly $2,000 worth of points and XBL gold, tons of other stuff has gone wrong around here. You'd swear that luck is some kind of resource that gets stored up over time and I spent all of it winning this sweepstakes, because since getting notified of winning, I've had what feels like nothing but bad luck: I found out that my SNES is dead, my Nintendo DS hinge broke, my internet connection's been turning to garbage, and just last week, my Playstation 2 decided it was no longer important to recognize anything plugged in to its controller ports. I have some money saved up for this kind of stuff, but I think I'm gonna thumb through the rules of the sweepstakes one more time and see if I can't sell off some of these 12 month XBL Gold cards - the service probably won't even be around in 30 years, and selling off 10 cards would be close to $500. Even 20 years of XBL Gold is still probably longer than any human being would need. I'd be almost 50 years old by then.
 
So yeah. That's all, I guess. I've got blogs for StarCraft 2 and my website redesign tumbling around in my head, so stay tuned for those whenever I get around to it. 
 
Oh, and just a heads up: The whole "lol send me some codes!" joke is already extremely played out, so if you could, spare me the eyeroll. ;P
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Knee-Jerk Impressions on Crackdown 2

  


  
So I just downloaded and played the Crackdown 2 demo for the first time. The video you see above was actually me livestreaming the game over at my uStream channel, and it's about 30 minutes long. After having played it once... eh. I don't know that it's as fun as the original Crackdown was. Okay, sure, it still has that awesome power-up system, and yeah, there are plenty of orbs to collect, but...
 
Crackdown 1 was like a Mega Man game, in a way. There were six or eight guys per island and taking them down in specific orders would have an impact on the game world. Take the weapons expert down first, and not only are you given a totally sweet grenade launcher, but everybody else working for that gang will have wussy guns. But, if you choose to take down the weapons expert last? Sure, he'll still have that amazing grenade launcher, but so will all of his guards, and you're going to be exploded in to a fine mist within seconds. The world had a tangible and fairly immediate reaction to the actions you took within it.

Now, Crackdown 2 is like every other open world game except instead of needing to drive to one location and kill all the guys, you need to drive to three locations and kill all the guys. Though you're given the option to go to the three in any order, none of that matters because each of the three locations are nearly identical and what you do at one location has no impact on the other two. It's just more "Cell" rebels to shoot, and more zombies to explode. It feels like I'm grinding in an MMO - but instead of a hobbit telling me he wants three gortusk livers, it's a nebulous Agency voice-over demanding that I activate three sunlight generators (or whatever those things were).
 
And while we're at it, let's talk about the Agency V.O. He was amusing in the original Crackdown, but there's also too much of a good thing. He constantly flaps his gums about every little thing in the world, now. Every turret, every orb, every vehicle, and almost every kill. It's entirely possible that he only does this because it's technically "the beginning" of the game, but it's still kind of annoying. It also doesn't help that the tone in which he speaks is also pretty blatantly menacing. It's not difficult to conjure mental images of a man in silhouette wringing his hands with evil intent every time this guy talks to you, even when the instructions he's giving you are supposedly things that are meant to benefit the city. 
 
Overall... ehhhh. I'll probably go through it a couple more times just to get a feel for it, but so far I am not impressed.

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