Wednesday, March 31, 2010

“Still Alive” by a Children’s Choir - Awwwww

I spotted this one at Joystiq earlier today. It’s a children’s choir singing Still Alive, the amazingly wonderful end song from Portal. I can’t say I’m entirely sure about having a choir full of little kids sing these particular lyrics and you have to wonder if most of the parents in the audience had clue one what they were hearing, but none of those questions makes this any less adorable. (Note that it's impossible to see anything in this crappy video. Just listen and enjoy.)

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Wrapping Up: Dragon Age: Origins: Awakening. Yay Colons!

As I’d hoped, I was able to finish Dragon Age: Awakening last night. As I’ve noted in each of the last two podcasts,  my overriding impression with this one is that it’s a solid game but it’s one that seriously lacks some polish. I’ve no idea what sorts of plans Bioware has for the future of this franchise –aside from an insert card in the game packaging referencing something for February of next year- but I get the impression that this product was forced out a mere four months after the release of the main game in order to keep the production schedule rolling for whatever else is coming down the pike.

What I don’t know about game publishing and financials and marketing budgets and particle physics you can just about squeeze into the grand canyon, but I do know when a product diminishes a franchise instead of enhancing it and, unfortunately, Awakening edges perilously close to doing just that, not because there isn’t good stuff here, but because very little of it is executed in a way that meets the standards of the first game.

There were wide swaths when playing this game when I was absolutely enthralled with the story and the action, but there was always something at the end of the rainbow that derailed it. Here are some examples (some moderate spoilers follow):

- Bugs/Errors. The character Sigrun was the last NPC I recruited into my party. When you recruit an NPC in this game you need to return to Vigil’s Keep to have them go through The Joining ritual. Unfortunately, when you complete the last of the game’s three primary quest areas the person you need to speak to about the Joining refuses to talk about it. All you get is, “Do we proceed with X, or do you nee more time?” So, Sigrun never actually becomes a Grey Warden and I never get her companion quest. (Come to think of it, I never got Oghren’s either, although I think that had more to do with his not liking me very much.) You can avoid this scenario by doing the Blackmarsh quest last. Justice (who is a great NPC to have) is sort of already a Grey Warden and doesn’t need to do The Joining.

- Incomplete/Rushed Quests. At the end of the final big boss battle (the only remotely challenging battle in the game, btw) it cuts to a pre-rendered scene in which your character puts his sword through the big bad’s head and walks away. That’s it. Cue text-based epilogues. First of all, I worked hard to get that sword. I’m not leaving it in some creepy boss lady’s head, alright. Secondly, that’s it? Seriously? Where’s the wrap up that shows me, rather than tells me, about the immediate aftermath? I got more satisfaction from the aftermath of defending the city of Amaranthine a couple of hours earlier –-which was awesome-- than I got from the game’s primary ending. Weak.

- The game is just not well-balanced. On the PC DA: Origins was a challenge on Normal difficulty. You needed to use tactics both in positioning and with skill usage. You needed health poultices and injury kits. You needed to think! In this one I barely touched health poultices, only had a couple of character sustain injuries (mostly because I wasn’t even trying to be careful anymore), and I only had one full-party wipe and that was in the final boss battle. It’s like this because your characters level up like crazy, the new specializations and talents are wickedly overpowered, and the Tier 8 and 9 items you can gear up with are insane. I had rings that were giving me +10 to attributes, a maul that offered my two-hander 100% stamina bonus, etc. Yes, leveling up and acquiring new skills is fun, but come on now. There are other ways to develop fun gameplay besides hearing a leveling-ding when you finish off a monster or quest. In fact, by the end  of the game leveling up my characters was actually boring. I already had them maxed out on the skill trees that mattered to me. There is no thrill to bumping up a characters Strength from 60 to 63. It’s absolutely pointless.

There are other things I could pick on as well, but you get the gist. Each of these issues are the sort of things a couple more months in the oven would’ve addressed. A good game expansion gives you more of what’s good in the original game, while enhancing gameplay within the framework of the existing engine. In the case of Dragon Age, that should’ve meant more in-depth character interactions, more intricate quests that have a good payoff, and tactical battles against beasties that aren’t horridly overmatched for your band of renown. (Yes, you can turn the difficulty up, but the difficulty scale was just fine in the original. The only reason this game is so easy on Normal is because they overpowered your party and didn’t do a good job play-balancing.)

And yet, as disappointed as I am with Awakening, I absolutely do not regret playing it. There are some great quests in here. There are some great moments, especially late in the game during the sequence in which you defend (or not) the city of Amaranthine. The consequences of your choices there are fantastic and I’ll be talking about them some on next week’s JtS. I also loved the new NPC characters. Nethaniel, Sigrun, Justice, etc. were all interesting in their own ways and the companion quests that I was able to accomplish were all satisfying, as is getting to play lord over Vigil’s Keep; lots of interesting stuff going on there (some with a quality payoff, some not).

Should you play it? If you liked the original, absolutely. You might wait a bit to see if you can get this cheaper than $40 (PC), but it’s worth playing. It is more Dragon Age and that’s still a good thing. Just go in with measured expectations.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Jumping the Shark #9 – Metro 2033, Awakening, Red Steel 2, and PC Gaming

It’s up and it’s extra tasty crispy this week. (iTunes here.) Bill leads off by telling us he’s going to briefly talk some Metro 2033 and then proceeds to ramble on for a solid 25 minutes. It’s good stuff, though and I’ve gone from being firmly in the “I’ll ignore this game” camp to the, “Hmm. Maybe I should play this,” side of the playground. This section also drops the show’s first official F-bomb and it’s damn funny. Nice, Bill. (At Bill’s request, it’s bleeped so we can avoid the explicit tag.)

Beyond that we’ve got some more chatter about Dragon Age: Awakening and Brandon expresses his deep-seeded love for Red Steel 2. I’m seriously thinking of having a ninja attack him at E3 this year. Just for kicks. Anyone know any?

Finally, we’ve got in some PC gaming discussion in which Danielle quite accurately points out that the consoles won hearts and minds by actually becoming more PC-like. Not one to be happy about anything I lament the lack of care and attention given to PC ports of console games. I know Brandon’s right when he talks about the extra costs and resources involved in tricking out a game for its PC version, but I still say if developers are going to port a game to the PC then port the darn thing to the PC. We’re not talking quantum physics here. Time and money is being spent and you are charging full price for that version, so make enough of an effort that we don’t end up with something like this :

This is both simultaneously hilarious and sad.

Anyway, give the show a listen and, if you’re on Facebook we’ve got a new Facebook Fan Page up as well. Join us! (Just search “Jumping the Shark” and we’re sure to pop up.)

Getting Back in the Saddle

Okay, so it’s been a few days since my last blog post. Okay, a couple months, but seriously, who’s counting? I had actually made a conscious choice to take a week off from blogging here, but it ended up being just a tad longer. What can I say? I suck.

I won’t speak for Bill, who’s off vacationing in sunny Kentucky -- Well, he’s in Kentucky doing whatever it is you do when you’re in Kentucky. Visiting Elizabethtown, maybe? -- but anyway, I’m officially getting back on the whole blogging thing this week. Posts will probably continue to be sporadic, but no more multi-week breaks.

If you’ve been listening to the podcast at all you know I’ve been digging into Dragon Age: Awakening for the past couple weeks. I’m about to finish that up (hopefully tonight) and I’ll get some thoughts thrown up here once I do. I’ve also played through Bioshock 2 and Heavy Rain and may revisit those at some point, since I’ve yet to ramble on about those in this space. At any rate, there will be at least a quasi-consistent stream of activity going here again. At least this week. Next week? Who knows? I may decide to take up Curling and have that eat up all my free time instead. I’m unpredictable.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

New Jumping the Shark and Some Metro

Our latest podcast is live -- and the topic is Co-Op gaming. Another fun show and Danielle is back from her 1-show hiatus.

In addition, I have been slogging through Metro 2033 -- a game I am having a difficult time putting my finger on. It's engrossing, ridiculously cheap in its design to kill you, at times genuinely frightening, and at times mind numbingly silly.

I truly do not know what to make of it.

One moment I'm jumping in my seat from being startled and the next I'm cussing at the fact that the bad guys can somehow see me when I'm hiding behind a stone wall and then take literally 4 head shots before they fall. I know these aren't military rounds of ammo but damn man you'd think a rock fired from a shotgun would pretty much do the trick, no?

Friday, March 12, 2010

Podcast 7 in the books + MLB 2K10 Review

The review is done. Much improved over the past few years but I still can't call it "elite" just yet. Too many holes to fill but this was a huge step forward.

Last night's podcast was a doozie -- we rambled for a little over an hour and a half talking about baseball, Heavy Rain and the subject of the evening: Boardgames and their effect on Xbox Live with special guest Michael Barnes.

I could have talked for hours but everyone was getting tired. (By that I mean Brandon)

Look for it Monday, as usual.

BTW -- Evan Turner for THREE!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Bill's Bullet Point Review of MLB 2K10 Part II: The Franchise

As we continue to take a look at MLB 2K10 in bullet form here's what my notepad has to say about the game's franchise mode. Take it away notepad!

  • Before getting to franchise, on Pro level the CPU never hits home runs. Ever. Well, at least after 10 games. Not one homer.

  • There are no errors in this game. 10 games no errors. At all? Really guys? This is um, kinda important.

  • I like that I can get anal and control every team in franchise mode if the AI is awful (it usually is awful)

  • You can also force trades -- I like that too. Give me 100% control. (same cannot be said for the disabling of achievements...)

  • 40 man rosters, summer drafts, all nice. No arbitration? Weird omission.

  • Wait..I have to get all micromanagey and buy these Inside Edge reports? Ugh so I have no idea what pitches Ben Sheets throws unless I "buy" the A's report? Good lord people this is busywork, not depth.

  • So the game will let me trade 35 year old .270 hitting SS Orlando Cabrera for Andy Pettitte. Haha ok!

  • I can also trade Hernandez (Reds overpaid catcher) for young (and cheap) Oakland catcher Landon Powell. Done! This is comically entertaining.

  • I also trade for Lowe and give up a backup outfielder. Hah.

  • OK rookie draft and the Reds draft six players, all 20-21 years old, all rated in the low 70s. Shit these guys can play on the big league team NOW. a problem. These guys are rated way, way, too high. Maybe I'll make another trade for a 75-80 rated pitcher and get rid of my now REALLY overpriced players because these rooks are ready to play!

  • Reds suffer their first injury and it's late July. Bruised thumb for Rolen. We are made of IRON.

  • The Rangers beat the Giants 4 games to 3 in the series and the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse destroy the entire planet.

  • Stats all look 'ok' -- some outliers like the top 5 league leaders in errors are *all* 1B. Errors are just totally fubar in this game. Only 12 hitters in .300 and above league wide. Very much on the low side.

  • On the whole stats are passable, but do look a bit off ...but not enough to claim foul.
  • Griffey Jr. retired. I feel old.
  • Off season time and everyone on the Reds improves. Wait, what? Scott Rolen got better by 2 points? He's like...old. and he hit .244! How is that possible? The ONE guy who gets worse drops 7 points and it's Johnny Cueto!? What!?

  • The best available Free Agent is Jermaine Dye. Wow. The best pitcher available is a guy I don't know rated a 72 overall. Looks like basically every name FA re-signed with his team. Ugh. This'll be quick...

MLB 2K10 Base Stealing

Ok, so...yeah. I'm the Reds. So what is worse? The fact that I cannot get ANY kind of jump on a stolen base?

Or the fact that the A's 2B missed the tag?

Sorry about the large vid screen, I can't seem to shrink the vid to fit the screen unless I crop out part of the video.

Still. He missed the tag!?

GameShark Podcast Episode 6: Achievement Whoring

Brandon takes center stage this week to talk about the (fine?) art of achievement whoring.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Bill's Bullet Point Review of MLB 2K10 Part I: First Impressions

These bullet points are right from my review notepad as they happen during my early hours with MLB 2K10 on the 360. Some of these observations may end up being wrong the more I play it -- it's just what I noticed at that particular time. This first part is based off the first 5 games on Pro difficulty. And off we go.

  • Starting out on Pro for the first few games to get used to the game again since it has been a couple of years since I last played a 2K baseball game

  • You know, I still really hate the 2K Nav system. It still feels very awkward to me.

  • Right off the bat it's easy to see how pretty the stadiums are. Nice job here.

  • Who is this girl that keeps calling for her daddy? Jesus dad -- your girl is lost or something. Pickup on isle 4.

  • Holy cow infielders seem to get to everything and have rockets attached to their shoulders.

  • Static graphics look fine but holy cow these animations need all sorts of work. Stop/start outfielders, shortstops throwing the ball overhand when hes' 3 feet from the 2nd baseman when turning a double play. Just an easy underhand toss would do, eh?

  • Play by play anecdotes cut off if the ball is put into play. As a result it doesn't flow well at all. A guy gets picked off 2nd and the play by play guy doesn't even mention it. Whoops.

  • I have not seen an error in 5 games. Fluke or cause for concern?

  • 2K seriously -- why disable Achievements and trading cards if you alter the sliders at all? That's just rockheaded.

  • I can draw walks! Like...a lot of walks!

  • I even give UP walks! Even when I don't really want to! Holy shit.

  • And I can strikeout CPU hitters and strikeout myself -- 2K 10 has just passed two of the most important tests a baseball game has -- you HAVE to get this part of the game moderately correct and so far 2K10 has done that. Very nice.

  • CPU will take strikes. Will they continue to do so if I up the difficulty?

  • I like how you can swing at a strike and still miss the pitch.

  • Did my eyes just deceive me or was that a STAND UP double down the line from a player with only moderate speed? Take THAT Sony. Sony's game has never, and I don't care who tries to tell me otherwise, gotten this right. That was a textbook double by Rolen.

  • Rolen scores standing up on a single to right center. Perfect. 2K10 is showing me things I didn't expect.

  • Man on 2nd 1 out, ground ball to 2nd base in the hole -- runner advances to 3rd. Nice. Baseball 101 but it needs to do this.

  • Base running and especially stealing a base in this game is utterly ridiculous. Let me just press a friggin button guys. Why make this so hard?

  • Ohh I love those 1980 Pirates uniforms.

  • I still wish these console games allowed for 100% fictional player leagues. I'm in the minority on that I know.

  • Pro might be getting a tick too easy when pitching.

  • I'd like to use Pro for hitting and All Star for pitching

  • Speaking of hitting I can see the pitch better in this game than I ever have in The Show. In The Show everything looks like a strike to me. Here the speed and the camera and the new batter's eye makes working the count SO much easier.

  • I am really enjoying this...just drew my 4th walk of the game..Pittsburgh starter is done.

  • 5 games on Pro no CPU home runs. Yeah..think I need a difficulty boost on the mound.

  • The lack of a check swing feature with this hit stick is an egregious error.

  • I question how important defensive ability is in this game.

  • With quick play turned on I can get a game in in about 40-45 minutes. Every baseball developer should write in BIG RED MARKER on the first day of team meetings : Baseball games should never take more than 40 minutes start to finish. This was a huge reason for High Heat's success -- with me, anyway.

  • Did I mention how much I hate base running? Can I get an automate base running button, please?

  • Love the MLB Today thing. Cactus League FTW!

  • Five games in and there are definitely some quirks and 2K10 doesn't scream "polish" but I am enjoying this so far much, much more than I thought I would.
Phase 2 coming Monday as we take the difficulty to All Star and play some league games.

Friday, March 5, 2010

MLB 2K10

This is one weird game.

I have taken a 2 year hiatus from 2K (Todd did those reviews) so I admit I was anxious to see what the franchise was like after playing The Show.

After a few games and a quick franchise check...I miss The Show. I'll talk more about this later but there is something I cannot quite put my finger on yet but something about the game is

Maybe it's the herky-jerky speed up/slow down animations or the fact that the ball feels "dead" to me like the game was set in 1906. Maybe it's that I can't figure out how to steal a base, or do a double switch or that the game gave a hitter a base hit on a wild throw to first from the pitcher.

As for franchise mode um...where are the Free Agents? They *all* re-signed? Seriously? Hey I'm all for Reserve Clause baseball but the game should at least tell me up front, eh?

I also *hate* the batting mechanic with the right stick flick because you cannot check swing. Seriously, in what baseball game universe can you not check swing? I think I need to use an old school control scheme or something.

I did walk three times in one game and even walked FOUR batters myself -- that was pretty darn sweet. And hittes do take strikes which was a big complaint Todd had last year.

But this game feels odd.

Of course The Show this year seems to have its own set of weird is as weird does.

Monday, March 1, 2010

New Jumping the Shark Podcast Episode

This week it's all about parenting...and BioShock 2 spoilers...and the fact that I hated Newt in Aliens.

Oh, and Brandon and Todd dissect the early moments of Heavy Rain.

In addition, the MLB 10 The Show Q&A is live. It's much shorter than I wanted, but hey..what can you do?