Microsoft fails another loyal customer (transcript included)

I've been associated with Microsoft and their creation, the Xbox 360 since its release back in November of 2005. Despite all of its problems, red-rings and all, I've had a great time with it. However, I recently ran into an issue that came up back in 2011, where Xbox 360 consoles wouldn't play certain game discs. After consulting Microsoft on several occasions, they've basically told me that they don't care.

So let's address the problem at hand. Microsoft issued a disc format change to what's called the XGD-3, which holds an additional gigabyte of security. You can see a list of the games utilizing this format right here. While seemingly innocuous, this change of format has rendered certain 360 consoles unable to play the latest games and I guess it started with games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 and Batman: Arkham City.

What's strange is that people affected by this problem were able to play some of these titles for a while before they began to act up. I for one, reviewed Modern Warfare 3 without an issue at all, but as soon as I put Arkham City in my console? Forget it. Two days ago I opened up a new copy of Arkham City and sat down to play it, but immediately as I put the game disc in, things began to go awry.

I've tried everything to make this game work: signing out, starting it, then signing in, playing online/offline, removing the HDD, clearing the cache, every little thing anyone can think of has been done to try and clear this problem, but alas, nothing works. I even tried running every single game in my library and they all work, with the exception of Arkham City. Just for the sake of testing purposes, I even brought the game over to a friend's that had the Xbox 360 slim model and, wouldn't you know, the game works fine over there.

After concluding it wasn't the game disc, that's what prompted me to search for other people having this problem. I remembered something from last year, where people were having this issue and I happened upon a few articles stating my issue exactly. At that time, Microsoft was replacing consoles, but now?

They couldn't care less.

I've had my Xbox Elite for a bit over two years now I'm not asking for a free console, but I am asking for a fix to a problem I didn't cause. Until I get it, I can't play the new games using this disc format which basically metamorphoses my Xbox 360 into a really expensive coaster.

After calling the service center multiple times and chatting with several customer support representatives, every person I spoke to had something different to say, but they all agreed - they couldn't and wouldn't help me. What you'll read below is the transcript of my conversation with one such rep. Butchered English and all:

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(I've emboldened the important bits to make it an easier read)

Please wait for an agent to respond. You are currently '1' in the queue.

Privacy Statement

You are now chatting with '-----'.

Xbox Support: Hi Andrew , thank you for contacting Xbox Support, my name is -----.

Xbox Support: Please give me a few minutes to check on your inquiry.

you: Sure.

Xbox Support: I understand that the game Batman Arkham will not work on your console.

Xbox Support: But that it works on your friends' console.

Xbox Support: Let me quote this one:

Xbox Support: This is happening to consoles randomly to old and new. What happened is that games the were manufactured during the last quarter of 2011 were manucfactured using a new disc technology and that is the XGD-3. XGD-3 is a counterpart of blue ray. What it does is it enhances the video and audio capabilities of a game. As a result of this new technology some consoles are not able to read game in these disc. As an action here in xbox, our engineers have been working on a update to fix this for the mast month. When the update is out, everyone will be notified via xbox live. We do apologize again for the inconvenience.

you: It's the only game that will not work. I just opened it last night and it has no scratches and hasn't been defaced in any way.

you: So I just need to wait for this update to come out then?

Xbox Support: Yes or if not we can have your console repaired.

you: Is there a time-table on when it's going to release? Otherwise I can't use my Xbox until that happens - to play the newest games anyway.

Xbox Support: To see if there is any problem with the optical drive not reading that partiular disc.

you: No thanks. I've already troubleshot and there's nothing wrong with the lens in this particular console.

you: So is there any kind of time-table then?

Xbox Support: To be honest, right now we do not have any information though.

Xbox Support: What we have is that they are working on it.

Xbox Support: But then again there is always an option of sending the console for repair.

you: So then, I can only use this thing to play older games? That's extremely inconvenient.

you: Again, no thank you. All the symptoms point to what you said and that's not going to fix the problem. If the only way to clear it up is to wait for an update then what choice do I have?

you: Would the repairs be free?

Xbox Support: Sorry again.

Xbox Support: If your console is in warranty it will be but if not then you will have to pay $99.00 plus tax on an online repair order.

you: So I have to wait for an update that has no time-table and then even if I sent it in to get repaired for an issue that isn't my fault at all, I'd have to pay for it.

you: This is rather upsetting.

you: In the articles I'm looking at online right now, it said Microsoft would be able to diagnose the issue over Xbox Live.

you: Is there any way you could do that?

Xbox Support: Sorry to keep you waiting.

Xbox Support: Unfortunately Xbox Live can't do nothing about this matter,

Xbox Support: And I know that this could be frustrating on your end, but right now these are the only options that we have.

Xbox Support: If you don't mind what is the serial number of of your console?

you: It's '12-digit number'.

Xbox Support: Right now it shows on the system that the console is out of warranty.

you: Well, yeah.

you: I bought this thing years ago.

Xbox Support: And I have checked with my Tech Lead and was advise, that either wait for the patch or process a repair for the console.

you: This really is unbelievable. I know it's not your fault, obviously, but for something like this to happen is ridiculous. Not to mention telling one of the consumers of the product that they're "just going to have to wait" to be able to play any newer games. It wouldn't be as bad if there was a time-table but there isn't so I could be waiting for longer than a month.

you: Having already been through four red-ringed consoles since the release of the system, this is it for me. Again, it's not YOUR fault, but this is unbelievable. I've been through enough and I don't have the time or patience anymore for this.

you: Thank you for your information, but Microsoft has lost a customer. It might not mean anything to them at this stage, but it should.

you: Thank you again and have a decent rest of your day.

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The rep did put a Team Manager on the line with me, but after a lengthy discussion, they concluded that 'nothing was wrong' with the console itself and therefore the only thing they could offer was a repair - for over $100. When asked about the console replacement program from a while back they had no idea it even existed.

I'm not asking for a free handout, I just want a solution for this problem and apparently I'm too little, too late. For argumentative purposes, I've gone through four Xbox 360 red-ring incidents and still I persisted with my love for the console. Now all I can do is wait for a patch that has no time-table or send in my console for repair when it doesn't need it? For something that isn't my fault and for a price? Being a member of the video game press, it's my job to remain unbiased toward any particular console, but after everything I've gone through with Microsoft and this latest debacle; I'm through.

No one should have to go through this much of a hassle to play games. They're supposed to be an escape, entertainment for the mind and body. Instead, this is a poison with no antidote. If you work two jobs like I do, you simply don't have the time to go through something like this and it's clear that Microsoft doesn't care enough to fix this 'small' issue.

I hope no one has to experience what I've been through and if you've purchased a newer 360 then I guess all is well, but I'm just not going to follow that path this time. The time for my support is long past and with that I'll end this rant by the following statement: While this generation has given us some of the greatest games of all-time and developed new and exciting ways of playing games, the hardware has certainly had its dark times.

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Diablo 3's failures and why Torchlight II can't come soon enough

Over a month ago, this article would have read very differently. With Torchlight II on the horizon and Diablo III releasing to record-breaking sales, it seemed obvious that Runic Games missed the proverbial train and gamers, like myself, were insulted they'd go up against the behemoth that is Diablo.

However, after a botched launch, questionable updates and a significant amount of time spent in Sanctuary, I find myself looking forward to Torchlight II more than ever before. It's not because D3 is a bad game, it's just a perfect example of how time can change even the most primal aspects of game design.

EDITOR'S NOTE: If you haven't played D3 yet and you're concerned with spoilers, please don't read any further.

Before we get into the controversial details, understand that Diablo is a franchise I've loved since the original and poured more hours into than I'd like to admit. The original Torchlight was a fun distraction with some amazing ideas that D3 intelligently absorbed, but it was also a game I never finished because I simply wasn't compelled to. D3, on the other hand is a game I've 'finished' multiple times but, to my dismay, still find myself unsatisfied with.

Blizzard has its hands full right now with a community that's in full riot-mode and we'll get into that soon, but first I'd like to talk about the pieces of the game that I feel have held D3 back from true greatness. I can't think of a title that was more anticipated than D3 that wasn't StarCraft II, which dropped two years ago. Gamers have been waiting 12 solid years for this game (much like StarCraft) and some of my close friends even took a week of vacation to do nothing but play D3. Saying that, the foundation for a successful community and game were already present long before the game released. Despite this 'guaranteed success,' D3 still manages to feel like a game that hasn't seen a proper development cycle.

Starting with its launch on May 15th, players ready for demon-slaying at midnight had to wait as servers were hours late coming online. Players then experienced difficulty logging in, game-breaking bugs and then had to deal with servers that constantly went on and offline throughout the course of the day. Some players lost progress in the game and even lost certain achievements permanently. Blizzard knew they were at fault and publicly apologized as Community Manager, Bashiok commented on the matter:

"As many of you are aware, technical issues occurring within hours after the game's launch led to players experiencing error messages and difficulty logging in. These issues cropped up again last night for the Americas and Europe servers. Despite very aggressive projections, our preparations for the launch of the game did not go far enough."

Great as it was for Blizzard to send its apologies, it still baffles me as to how they couldn't have seen this issue coming. It's been 12 years since the last Diablo and they knew how many people were excited for this game. It's not like this is Blizzard's first huge launch either. Back in 2004 when World of Warcraft first launched, they also experienced huge amounts of server traffic which led to many of the same issues we saw with D3's launch. Being their first MMO, those issues were understandable, but three expansions later and still holding the crown with 11 million subscribers and you'd think they'd be ready for something like this. Sure, D3 now retains the record for day-one PC sales but that's still no excuse for botching the launch of such an anticipated title.

Say what you want, as someone who is a dedicated PC gamer, being restricted to playing online only is sometimes a hassle. Some companies, like Ubisoft, have taken this direction (Assassin's Creed) and I just can't agree with that decision or even the often overlooked omission of LAN support. Diablo has always been a game you can choose to play with or without friends, and while you can still do this, having the requirement of always being on Battle.net is, quite frankly, stupid. For the players that have an unstable connection, you'll never be able to play D3 and that infuriates me.

Bad as the initial taste was for the game, when everything became relatively smooth D3 became a very fun experience. Great as it was for a time, as I got deeper into the mix I began to feel... estranged. If you've never played the previous entries in the series then the feeling will be hard to describe, but let's start with some of the core mechanics changed specifically for D3.

Diablo has always been about crawling through dungeons and looking for gear with your buddies. With several classes and different ways to build your characters, finding that unique piece of armor or weapon was a satisfying feeling - one that no longer exists in D3. One of the major reasons this empty feeling occurs is because the loot table is too diverse. What I mean is, in the first two games, you can play completely alone and within an ample period of time find a multitude of upgrades off of the random drops that don't feel trivial. In D3 this just doesn't happen. At first I thought it was me, but after talking with fellow players, friends and playing more I discovered I wasn't alone on the matter.

No longer can you just play and earn your upgrades by wading through thousands of demons. Technically you still can do that, but finding the items you need will honestly take months and that isn't even for the top-end gear. We're talking just a decent upgrade and you'll be lucky if you find that. Entering Hell, I still hadn't found an acceptable upgrade to my weapon, boots, chest, shoulders or a good ring and I hit a brick wall. Rather than farm mindlessly for eternity, situations like this forces players to use the new auction house. The auction house is a great idea on paper, but it eliminates the satisfaction of finding your own items. By spending a small amount of gold, you can get everything you need and finish an entire act without finding a single upgrade, because you no longer need it.

I have a real issue with this because discovery was always such a big part of Diablo II. Sure, sometimes you had to go back and look for some items, but you were still somewhat effective. By implementing so many useless items, Blizzard has effectively slowed the game down or, in my opinion, MMO-ified the game by superficially increasing the amount of time you need to play to find something worthwhile.

A great example of how anemic items are in D3 is found within the new Legendary weapons (D3's take on uniques). Take, for instance, D2's unique crossbow called the Buriza-Do Kyanon and I'll try and make this as clear as possible. In D2, this crossbow comes with set stats that, in itself, are random. That means you'll always see that enhanced, cold and maximum damage along with some other stats. However, while those stats will always be on the item, each of their properties is completely random. So you might find a Buriza with 200% Enhanced Damage while your friend finds one with 160% Enhanced Damage. This made items worth vastly different amounts when trading in D2 and for a good reason. In D3, every single statistic is completely random on the items, even if it was 'made' for your character.

For the sake of clarity, say you found a new crossbow for your Demon Hunter and it was a Legendary. You'd probably get all excited right? Let's go a step further and say that the crossbow can only be wielded by a Demon Hunter but it had no dexterity on it, which is the Demon Hunter's primary attribute. Even if the crossbow boosted specific skills for the class, having things like intelligence and strength on the item do almost nothing for it. The weapon is for absolutely no one and while there will certainly be trash loot, as there always is, these random stats happening on Legendary items is downright stupid. A friend of mine freaked out when he opened a small chest early on in the game and found his first Legendary in D3's take on the awesome Frostburn Gauntlets of D2. Unfortunately his excitement was dashed when he noticed it literally had every primary stat in the game on it, making it worthless to sell and useless to him. How disappointing.

It's pretty sad when a yellow (rare) is just that much better than a Legendary of the same item level. What's even worse is that picking up all the trash loot and breaking it down in D3's new crafting system is pointless. Having consistently upgraded the blacksmith and broken down practically everything on my way to Hell, a friend of mine asked me why I was bothering. I told him I was building it up to get see about getting some useful gear. Come to find out, D3 doesn't work like that. As a matter of fact, the only equipment in the game that's worth crafting is found off of schematics that drop off of monsters - akin to WoW's system and that's not a good thing.

The last thing I want to do is spend my time creating the same piece of armor over and over in hopes that it'll generate intelligence, vitality and some other useful stats for my Wizard. Why couldn't Blizzard at least make the crafting useful at the earlier stages in the game instead of following the standard MMO approach of making a horde of iron daggers until it doesn't help you anymore? You're better off selling everything to the merchant for gold so you can just use the auction house to buy something worthwhile. Simply put, D3's crafting system is terrible.

Something else that's drastically changed is the leveling and skill system. Usually when you leveled in D2, you'd be given a set amount of points you could distribute between your primary attributes. After reaching a certain threshold, these different attributes allowed you to wield specific armors or weapons. This restriction is gone in D3 as the game allows you to wield any and all types of armors and weapons so long as it isn't class specific. It's a nice touch, but by automatically increasing your innate stats, personal character customization is gone since the only thing players need to worry about is their one primary statistic.

For instance, the Wizard's primary stat is intelligence. Strength and Dexterity are something you completely ignore and I'd go so far as to say that vitality isn't even that important for that class either. On Inferno, D3's new ultra-difficulty level beyond Hell, you get pretty much get one-shot no matter what. Doing what I usually do and try to build against the typical style, I tried to build a tanky Wizard that had loads of life and more close-ranged focus, but at that stage in the game it just doesn't matter. So ostensibly you can build your guy in a specific way, but in the end, all Wizards are going to end up playing in a similar fashion. Mass damage, glass-cannon style.

I liked having that option to wield the Skullder's Ire in D2, which was one of the best Magic Find items in the game. By building up to it, my Sorceress was different than others and that's something you won't really see in D3. More specifically, the skill tree in D2 set classes far and away from one another. Two Necromancers could be completely different by going down the Summoning tree while the other one focused on specialized Curses. Some would argue that you can do this in D3 as well, and early on that's definitely true. In order to have success later on in the game though, you're going to have to forgo the majority of your abilities to find the 'cookie cutter' ones that effectively keep you out of trouble while dishing out the most damage.

I'm not against D3's skill system, which is an evolution off of D2's traditional skill tree. What was hard about D2's version was that every little thing was permanent, mistake or not. Late into the game's life, they integrated a skill reset, but D3 doesn't require one. At any time you can switch your abilities and even augment them with a set of runes that make the moves even more unique. A standard meteor can become several waves of tiny meteorites, a ball of frost or even infused with arcane power. As you level up, more and more skills and runes will become available to you adding to your already diverse set of moves. Great as this sounds, it becomes a huge disappointment later on the in the game when you discover that the majority of runes for your abilities are laughable. Just like your abilities, there's really only a few runes that are acceptable, making the rest completely ignorable.

As far as the story goes, I really don't know what happened to the storytelling over at Blizzard. The original Diablo games and even StarCraft wove tales of intrigue with complicated characters that are full of life and mystery. When StarCraft II came out, I was completely underwhelmed by its predictable narrative and safe direction. D3 follows in the same light by resurrecting characters we haven't seen since the original game and treads across an embarrassingly predictable path. Even more insulting is that Deckard Cain, an iconic character to the series, dies in the opening act and doesn't even get his own cinematic death scene. Instead, his death takes place within an in-game cut-scene devoid of any emotion whatsoever. Awesome.

There's a lot of little things that make D3 feel unfamiliar and I still attribute that feeling directly to being too close to an MMO - specifically WoW. Jay Wilson, D3's director, came from working on WoW, making it further evident that the changes I've discussed have that MMO influence. You've always been that super overpowered character in the Diablo universe, cutting down all obstructing your path, and again, D3 feels like you're moving in slow motion - like an MMO. Loot is less rewarding, enemies take longer to kill, everything is given to you in a drip and that's because Blizzard wants you to commit more time to D3. D2 never felt superficially enhanced like this and that truly makes me sad.

I think the worst part about it is that Blizzard's style of 'enhancing' a game is exactly like patching an MMO. Constant changes to classes, buffs, nerfs, people saying this class is too powerful, now this one's too good, it's annoying. D2 definitely received its share of augmentations but it never felt like this. I get that technology evolves and with it the way developers patch their games, but if you need to see how not to do it go ahead and check out D3's latest patch notes. I can sum it all up in a single sentence:

"Weapon racks will no longer drop weapons 100% of the time."

I don't think I need to proclaim how stupid that statement sounds but it just gets worse with a few other changes:

"Destructible objects no longer have a chance to drop items, and will only have a small chance to drop gold when destroyed."

Apparently Blizzard is so worried about people finding good items that they needed to remove the timeless RPG affair of smashing an inordinate about of pots. Terrible as all this sounds, the number one change people are complaining about is the reduction of all attack speed items by 50%. Think of all your damage and the attacks you dish out, now cut all of that in half. Once again, Blizzard has slowed the game down further making D3 even more of a noticeable grind than before. If you need proof to see how upset the community is about this, look no further than the official Diablo forums. it's a mess over there but I can't blame the crowd.

For all of its faults, and there's a lot more of them, D3 has done a lot right. It's still an enjoyable experience but I remind you that we waited 12 years for this. A 12 year development cycle is insane as most triple-A titles out there don't see more than three. D3 feels like a game that's been rewashed again and again until the color has most assuredly faded from its once bright and illustrious form. Torchlight II, would you hurry up and release already?

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E3 2012: IndieCade interview with Stephanie Barish

Indie games are an important part of the industry, whether you like or not. Titles like Braid, Limbo and Fez all started as an obscure indie title and blew up from there, due to some help brought forth by IndieCade.

Having literally started off in a living-room and now being a veteran of E3 for six years, IndieCade's involvement in the gaming industry cannot be undervalued, but don't let me tell you that - CEO Stephanie Barish will probably make more sense.

Stephanie Barish interview

While we didn't get to see every indie game on the floor, our friends over at Arcen Games participated in the event, showcasing A Valley Without Wind. Other titles like Analogue: A Hate Story and the incredibly fun Binding of Isaac were also present, making it hard to leave to see other games when you just want to go a little further...

Indie games are a passion of mine (you should see the amount I have on Steam) and witnessing a gathering like this of all kinds of indie titles warms my soul. If it strikes you just the same then make sure you're in Culver City, CA October 4 - 7 to catch everything indie!

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E3 2012: Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition interview

To date, Dark Souls remains one of my most treasured titles of all-time. Sure, it has its hiccups and technical deficiencies but hardly any game captures the intensity and atmosphere FromSoftware has injected into it.

For the first time, PC gamers will get to experience the thrills of the game in the new Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition and we were on the floor to talk about it firsthand.

Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition interview

While Dark Souls wasn't playable on the showroom floor, Andrew Davis, associate producer for Namco Bandai was able to answer plenty of our questions while also addressing certain concerns. It's no secret that Dark Souls had a rough launch with the multiplayer literally being broken for a lengthy period of time. There's been some concern over whether the PC will experience similar guffaws and Mr. Davis had this to say about it:

"We learned a lot from the Dark Souls launch... and we are trying to make it a much more smooth launch for the PC version."

The quote might not disclose proper numbers or specific details on the accident, but it does show that they've taken the time to make sure that it doesn't happen to PC users and, most importantly, that they care.

No... sudden... movements...

Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition will contain around four to five brand new boss battles along with two or three completely new zones to die in... explore, I mean. There will be all kinds of new weapons and armor sets as well as optional bosses with bonus unlockables you might not even see your first time through.

For instance, the Darkroot Garden was a zone in the original Dark Souls but there's going to be a new area where it goes into the past. All manner of new traps and monsters will be present, of course and if you can get your way through it the Royal Woods await. We didn't get to see too many of the new bosses but they were showing off the Sanctuary Guardian ripping people to shreds at the booth. It was a bit unsettling, but exciting nonetheless.

It's actually one of the easier bosses. Am I right? Nope.

For some, Dark Souls presented an amazing player-versus-player experience and that's been taking into account for the improved game. There will now be instant multiplayer access along with several modes that can allow for 1v1, 2v2 or even 3v1 battles. Seeing as how certain people take PvP as seriously as they do, adding all this content makes it that much easier to sing Dark Souls' praise. Just don't expect me to show you any mercy online because, well, alright fine... you probably will kill me.

Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition releases August 24th on the PC, followed by a $14.99 update for the PS3 and Xbox 360 at an unannounced date. Make sure you don't disappoint yourself and give this one a shot, if you haven't already. I promise, you'll be miserable.

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E3 2012: A Valley Without Wind interview

We've had the pleasure of covering A Valley Without Wind under various conditions and if you haven't had the chance to check it out, or maybe know nothing of it, then perhaps now is the time to take a look.

With an enormous update en route and talks of its first paid expansion surfacing, there's a lot to be excited for regardless of your player status.

A Valley Without Wind interview

Arcen Games has always taken community feedback seriously and AVWW certainly doesn't forgo this trend. The game has already seen restructuring based on the feedback Arcen has received and there are no signs of it slowing down. Barely two months old, it's rather impressive to see this much change in any kind of title. Just take a quick glance at the Wiki. I dare you.

1.1 is AVWW's first free major update which will include a ridiculous amount of new content. We're talking 160 new interior room maps, 50+ new monsters, 8 new mini-bosses and one new secret mini-boss that everyone's completely silent on. Perhaps it'll resemble the creative monster of Asheron's Call entitled, the lag beast. Remember that thing? Regardless, this amount of content in this update is quite extensive and has me wondering how much an actual expansion would put in.

If there's one thing I can say that defines AVWW it's the design behind it. Erik Johnson said this in regards to continually supporting a game well after it releases:

"We think that it should be completely possible to continue making the game until its potential has really fully been tapped."

That's a bold statement as most games that release are only supported through DLC that requires some form of payment. AVWW has gone through well over 40+ updates that all have added something akin to new monsters, spells, missions, etc and every single one has been free. It just goes to show how passionate some developers are about their games and how invaluable input from their fans are.

He ain't afraid of no ghosts... just Ice Pirates.

While it hasn't officially been announced, AVWW eventually will explore paid expansion content which Erik Johnson speaks about in our interview. Following that perpetual design cycle, it only makes sense for something like a paid expansion to come out. After all, it helps studios like Arcen to stay afloat and besides, I hear that developers need to eat too. Whether it releases in time for our six-month re-review is still in question, but you can bet I'm excited to see exactly how much has changed when that day hits.

If you want to make an impact on a game and its first expansion, you can pick up AVWW on Steam for $14.99 right now.

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E3 2012: Spec Ops: The Line interview

Military shooters are a tough business. Not because they're hard to make or incredibly rare to find - it's quite the opposite. The conflict at hand is that there are so many it's difficult to become seminal in a largely derivative format.

Spec Ops: The Line hopes to destroy that trend being a third-person military shooter with an emphasis on, wait for it... the narrative. Crazy as that might sound, Spec Ops is coming together beautifully and you'd do well to spend some time with it.

Spec Ops: The Line interview

As I stated, the military shooter pool out there has far too many participants doing the exact same thing. Normally I'd do the irrational thing and dismiss a title with a name like Spec Ops: The Line, but I'm happy I didn't make that decision. Spec Ops is a game with a dark story that has a central focus on a squad of characters who've been sent to the ruins of Dubai. Once a beautiful location, it's been ravaged by cataclysmic sandstorms and is now considered no man's land. Stationed in Dubai to assist with the evacuation before the sandstorms hit, an enigmatic figure known as John Conrad has vanished and it's your job to discover what actually happened.

It's important to note that Spec Ops knows the kind of situation its throwing itself into and lead designer, Cory Davis from Yager Development had this to say:

"Those games that are out there in our genre are great games, they do what they do extremely well but they're a lot different than what we are."

Different seems to be the key word to describe this game, but it's not so different as to scare away normal fans of the genre. Spec Ops plays like a conventional third-person shooter with cover, blind-fire and team banter making requisite appearances. The game feels very responsive as you'd expect, but once again, the big difference is the strong emphasis on the personalities of the protagonist, Martin Walker and his squad-mates. The closest game I can think of where you're more intimate with your squad-mates is Gears of War, but that's severely stretching it. You simply don't get that kind of emotion in this type of game, but Spec Ops promises it won't disappoint.

I could be wrong guys, but... that ship is supposed to be in the water, right?

Being a squad-based affair, you'd think co-operative play would be thrown into the mix. While co-op is definitely in, it's coming in a different way (there's that word again). Available for free to anybody that purchases the game, a separate co-operative campaign will be attainable shortly after launch. While it doesn't deal with the characters you'll be playing in the main narrative, the co-op acts as a pseudo prequel that definitely attaches itself to the story.

To further augment the emotion and intensity of the situations you're presented with, Spec Ops will also contain decisions that have a dramatic impact on the story. Speaking about why the co-op mode wasn't thrust into the main game, Cory Davis explains that these decisions would have probably made less of an impact if they went through with it:

"We don't want you tea-bagging your friend while you're making a decision as to whether or not an important character lives or dies."

It's an understandable move and one I can definitely respect. If you don't agree, just think about games such as Halo 3 and Gears of War 3. When you put two or more people together when a scene of significance arises, you just don't get that same emotion as you would if you were playing alone. Some games do this well, but it's something you definitely don't see work often.

You said blind-firing was for pansies, man!

Spec Ops will ship with a multiplayer component, but it will focus on squad-based gameplay and a more intimate experience with your companions. Expect a strong progression system along with a plethora of maps when it ships.

Yager has done a commendable job so far and I'm looking forward to experiencing a game with a strong story that isn't an RPG. Mass Effect 3 was the last action-RPG I played with an incredible narrative and I hope to add Spec Ops to that extremely short list. With co-op slated to come soon after and a multiplayer component to help hold down the game's value, there's little reason why anyone shouldn't bother checking it out. The game ships June 26th for PC, Xbox 360 and Playstation 3.

If anything, you can at least marvel at the game's impressive sand physics because, you know, they're totally worth that retail price.

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E3 2012: Worms Revolution interview

Strange as the Worms games may seem, there's an amount of depth to them that orchestrates unparalleled humor, strategy and pure fun.

Team 17 has been hard at work with the brand new Worms Revolution and, if you're a Worms fan, you'll be happy to know that this new game will return to the roots of the franchise. Even if you have no idea how a Worms game plays, now is the time to dive in as Revolution's newly formed mechanics hopes to help multiply its fan-base.

Worms Revolution interview

According to Team 17's own Nick Clarkson, there hasn't been a Worms game showcased at E3 since 2003. That's a little upsetting for me, but it's obvious Team 17 wants to rekindle that excitement gamers have had for Worms by getting the general public excited about the next game in the series. Revolution will ditch the 3D route the series has taken in order to resurrect the timeless gameplay of the 2D kind. What's even better is that Revolution will feature an engine that was literally built from scratch just for this new game. If that doesn't show Team 17's dedication to making this the best Worms game yet, I don't know what is.

It's organized chaos.

For those that are unaware, Worms is a turn-based strategy game with a multitude of options in fighting your enemies. Of course, Revolution will give plenty of new abilities that will aid in the demolition of your opponents, one of which will be the environment itself. One of the big new environmental changes to the game lies within the water. Now a completely dynamic element of the gameplay, Revolution will allow you to permanently damage the environment so that the elements, like water, can do all the dirty work for you. For instance, if your enemies are on a slope, you can cast a water bomb at them. Upon detonation, the water will collect and fall down the ledge naturally. However, it'll take those worms with it, netting you some easy kills.

Just from glancing at the environments you can certainly appreciate Revolution's style. Worms has always been a colorful game with a whimsical, but semi-serious style; Revolution will be no different. Mr. Clarkson also explained to us that there are random items that are usually left around the environment, each with special properties that could be used against your enemies. Revolution will also be introducing character classes, each with special attributes and gameplay styles. The scout, for example, is fast moving and can jump higher but takes a lot more damage from attacks. The scientists can built things like the Sentry Gun and the heavy is a damage sponge, but moves very slowly. These classes add an interesting dynamic to the mix and allow players to choose how they want to play on an even more personal level.

Water is the bringer of life. Except in this case.

Revolution will contain single-player missions to get you used to how the game is played, but like all Worms games, it's meant to be played with your buddies. Supporting four-player co-operative mayhem, you can bet that's where all the chaos will come into play. Speaking of chaos, Revolution contains 47 weapons and more to come in the impending DLC. We're talking holy hand grenades, sheep that scale mountains and then detonate, water bombs and so much more. For a game that's releasing at $14.99 at the tail end of September, it certainly seems like it's not lacking content.

I'm excited to see Worms come back in a big way and Revolution is looking great. The exaggerated style is always a plus for me and seeing how Team 17 is building everything from the ground up impresses immensely. Come time for its September launch, you can most assuredly count me in.

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E3 2012: Skylanders Giants interview

Parents loathe them, companies love them and you child simply needs them. Welcome to Skylanders, Activision Blizzard's incredible marketing tool that has taken the gaming industry by the throat - in a loving way of course.

Being the sequel, Skylanders Giants is introducing brand new giant models to the fold along with an assortment of other goodies that will undoubtedly send the world into a state of frenzied shock this holiday season.

Skylanders Giants interview

The success of Skylanders cannot be denied and neither can the concept behind them. Having a fully interactive experience with a collection outside of the game is purely genius and this isn't going to slow down with Giants. Looking to introduce eight brand new giant models, one per each element, the things are massive and carry with them brand new abilities that contain very powerful attacks. I mean, when something is named Tree Rex, you wouldn't expect its abilities to be lackluster, would you?

He's a carnivorous plant demon monster. Actually he's just big.

Along with the new giant figures are eight new standard sized Skylander models, also one for each element, and what's known as series two Skylanders. The series two figures are select favourites from the first game that come equipped with additional poses and abilities the older ones never had the pleasure of bearing. There are also new LightCore Skylanders that light up as they get closer to the Portal of Power, which should have your child screaming in delighted terror. It's actually really cool.

Unlike my terrible habit of calling it an expansion in our interview, it's important to note that Giants is a full blown sequel, not an expansion. The visuals have certainly been pumped up, voice actors have been brought on to give each model a more personal touch, new collectibles are being introduced and the level cap is being increased to 15 instead of 10. This means all your older Skylanders cam attain that higher level, grab the new hats and, you know, siphon even more of your life into the game.

Whatever this thing is, you need to run. RUN!

While I haven't personally sunk a huge chunk of time into Skylanders, I can tell you that just witnessing the changes that Giants brings makes a definite difference. It's clear Giants wants to be the definitive version of the mega-popular series and with Tree Rex alone, I think it's a done deal.

Expect the new game to hit around the holiday mark of this year. C'mon, you aren't surprised are you?

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E3 2012: Carrier Command: Gaea Mission interview

Of all the new games and ideas I witnessed at E3 this year, Carrier Command: Gaea Mission struck me as the one most out of place. This isn't because it's a bad or underdeveloped idea, it's because it's one that's trying to rejuvenate something that's been dead a long, long time.

Being the advocate of old-school revivals as I am, witnessing the fully transformed Carrier Command brightened my soul. For such a seminal title to find its way back into the present day mix after all this time, that's surely something that warrants the attention of gamers everywhere.

Carrier Command: Gaea Mission interview

For those that don't know, the original Carrier Command released back in 1988 on the Amiga. It was critically acclaimed for its visuals and sense of scale and it looks like Bohemia Interactive isn't skimping out for this iteration. The game pits two advanced military carriers against each other whose sole intention is to utilise technology to capture a plethora of islands by any means necessary. That means building up resources, constructing units and taking over territory. Also, there is no mercy.

While it's more of a reimagining than a true sequel, think of Gaea Mission as a mixture of Supreme Commander and Battlefield. Not only can you control all your units from a top down, expansive strategic map, you can also assume direct control of a unit and make the fight a little more personal. It sounds complicated and it ostensibly is, but once you get the hang of it, Gaea Mission provides a rich and deep experience that could definitely take you by surprise.

Hey, red leader. RED LEADER! Damn, I forgot no one's driving that thing.

What's probably one of the coolest features in Gaea Mission is the ability to play the game however you want. If you're of a more strategy oriented background, you can bury yourself in the informative mission logs and maps while you send your units from point to point, capturing and destroying what you will them to. If you couldn't care less about maps, flanking and absolute strategy, you can easily possess any one of your units and rip right into the heart of combat, personally stomping your enemies into the soil. When both extremes fail to excite, you can always dabble in a little of both which is the real way to play. Well, for me anyway.

I mentioned constructing things and I know how intimidating an RTS is for some, but I implore you to take a step back. Gaea Mission implements a very thoughtful tutorial by way of, well... the Gaea Mission. Instead of slamming an immense block of concrete over the heads of new players, this mission is a story-driven campaign that slowly introduces the mechanics of the game to the player. Of course, if you don't want to be bothered by it, you can always skip it and get right down to the only business that matters; war.

Hey, kid! I'm a computer!

Gaea Mission contains a crisp and clean interface with a ton of little mechanics that make it stand out. For instance, when you're looking at your map there's a picture-in-picture image at the top-right that shows what your units are doing at that time. It's just one of those cool touches that make your decisions feel like they truly matter as you catch a quick glimpse of your tanks making short work of the enemy installation.

I guess my only issue is that Gaea Mission will not ship with a multiplayer component. In the age of cooperative titles and being able to control so many aspects of the game, I feel Bohemia Interactive is missing a critical selling point here, but it could always find its way into the game later. Even still, a strategy infused game like this is a nice deterrent from the games we're always used to seeing. Expect Gaea Mission to drop in the Fall for the Xbox 360 and PC and if you're as excited about it as I am, you can always pre-order the game and get in on the current beta access.

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E3 2012: Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing Transformed

When was the last time anybody got excited about a cart racing game? For me that was Mario Kart 64 which, in my opinion, has yet to be surpassed.

While I haven't dabbled too deep in the original Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing, after having played its successor I can tell you that my faith might possibly be restored. With what SEGA is doing, Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing Transformed might very well be that mythical cart racer everyone's been looking forward to.

Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing Transformed interview

At first glance, Transformed looks to be no different than all these other cart racers trying so hard to be the next great thing. However, after I sat down to play the game, something magical happened - I actually liked it. Transformed almost immediately reminded me of why I still consider Mario Kart 64 king of all cart racers and, while it's still too early to make that kind of assumption, it could surpass it when it releases this Christmas.

E3 2012 gameplay

Just like the previous game, expect a plethora of characters from all over the SEGA catalog, 27 to be exact. Sure, Sonic and his wide assortment of friends will be there but Gilius Thunderhead from Golden Axe, Vyse from Skies of Arcadia, Joe Musashi from Shinobi and even Danica Patrick will be playable. Yes, Danica Patrick is in the game and I'm glad the game's developer, Sumo Digital, is taking the exaggerated route by making her vehicle literally shoot fire from her tires. That's kind of awesome.

If you've never played a cart racer just know that it's an arcadey endeavor with tons of weapon pick-ups, boosts and colorful levels. Transformed does a great job with its environments and really captures that feeling of a world that's alive, even while you're blazing through to nab that first place trophy. What's unique about Transformed's tracks is that they're modeled after levels from some of SEGA's games. Expect to be knocking dudes around in a Golden Axe inspired stage as well as one from Panzer Dragoon. You might be wondering though, "How does a level from Panzer Dragoon work? Carts can't fly!" Oh, but you're so very wrong.

Think Sonic is also considered the fastest in the air?

One of the main features of Transformed is right there in the name - transforming. As you progress through the stages your cart will change, giving you a whole new perspective on the level you've been normally going through. It puts a whole new spin on the scenarios you encounter and can change the fortunes of a player almost immediately. For instance, I played as Vyse who has horrible turning if you can't drift correctly. But once I turned into a plane, that was all she wrote. I quickly fired back from third to first and maintained the lead to grab the victory.

I think gamers associate titles like this with kids and they aren't wrong. However, Transformed has skill based systems in place that definitely cater to adult players, allowing practically anyone or any skill level to pick up and play the title. For example, drifting and manually firing your weapons is an obvious skill choice, but if you time your moves correctly you can gain free boost by drifting and can even evade special attacks. Someone fired an RC car that tracks a target and I was its first choice. Since I was successful at drifting at the precise time, that RC car grabbed someone else and took them out, allowing me to easily pass them.

The tracks look fantastic and can kill you.

Flashy environments with hazards, special abilities, skill-based attributes, tons of characters to choose from, Transformed is looking rather great. I know it sounds insane to be saying this, but I really do believe that if the level of quality I played in that short amount of time carries over into the actual release of the product, SEGA will have done the impossible. They will have toppled the king of the cart racers in Mario Kart 64 and I surely want to be around when that happens.

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