Scouting Report – The Games of May

After sitting through far too many rounds of the NFL Draft over the weekend, I got to thinking: If sports reporters can analyze players that haven’t gone pro yet, why not try to make an assessment of games that haven’t gone live yet?  So here is my scouting report on some big releases of May, including just how I think they will fare when they hit the big time.

Max Payne 3


Scouting Report

The wait for this game has had many fans feel what it’s like to be stuck in Max’s signature slowdown bullet time mode. Original developer Remedy did an amazing job with the first “Max Payne” when it came to capturing that particular brand of Hong Kong cinema gunplay, popularized by the likes of “Hard Boiled” and “The Killer“, while infusing it with some old fashioned American film noir style. It resulted in one of the most revolutionary and unique shooters ever made. For the sequel, “Max Payne 2“, they managed to blow nearly everyone’s expectations away by retaining the essentially the same gameplay of the first, but then smothering the entire experience with unbelievable amount of style, emphasized by some of the best level design ever in a game and some perfect ragdoll physics, to create what is one of my personal favorite games of all time.

But now it’s Rockstar’s turn to take the reins (and why not as that iconic R logo on the first two led many to believe it was one of their developments anyway), as they attempt to bring Max back into the limelight. So far, from the numerous preview trailers, it looks like the emphasis is on refinement of the system and not starting a revolution….as least in the single player. Yes for the first time ever, Max is going multiplayer in what Rockstar is hoping is going to be a unique attempt at that eternal question. How do you make bullet time work in multiplayer?

Prospects

I have zero doubt this game is going to be good. I have some questions though on whether or not it will be great.

It’s obvious from everything we’ve seen so far that Rockstar is not looking to stray from the established gameplay of the first two, and merely tweak it with some very welcome additions (mostly cosmetic). But at this point, many fans want the game to be more than “just fun”, and to pull that off, Rockstar is going to have to match the numerous little X-factors that Remedy populated the first two games with. As this installment is moving away from its previous Noir style roots, they’re going to have to find a way to make the new “Man on Fire”-style world and plot shine as bright and feel as unique. Failing that, it’s going to come down to the multiplayer to be what makes this game stand out in a busy market (even for a returning legend).

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GAME REVIEW: Bloodforge

It’s pretty depressing to see a game as visually striking as “Bloodforge” turn out to be so terrible, especially when you consider all the hard work that was put into making it. But that’s exactly the case with this “God of War” wannabe, which is completely undone by some simple gameplay mechanics. You play as Crom, a Celtic warrior who’s given up his life of violence to live peacefully with his wife. When he returns home from hunting one day to find his village being attacked by savages, however, Crom is tricked by some cruel gods into murdering her during the ensuing battle, and now he’s exacting revenge.

For as weak as the story may be, though, it’s nothing compared to the myriad of other problems that plague the game. Though developer Climax tries to disguise these issues by wowing players with ultraviolent deaths and gratuitous amounts of blood (which serves a dual role in the game as a combat amplifier and form of currency), it doesn’t work. The hack-and-slash combat is repetitive; the variety of enemies is shockingly poor; and the jerky camera is so bad that you might want to pop a few Dramamine if you plan on playing for more than a few minutes. Those that can handle the throbbing headaches you’re bound to suffer along the way might find “Bloodforge” a little more bearable, but in an industry flooded with new games vying for your attention every week, I’d much rather spend my time on something that doesn’t actually hurt to look at.

Five Potential Wreck-It Ralph Cameos

If you haven’t heard already, Disney has a movie coming out this November called “Wreck-It Ralph.” It follows the journey of fictional video game villain (the aforementioned Ralph, voiced by John C. Reilly) who becomes jealous of the fame and love his hero nemesis Felix (Jack McBrayer) receives, and decides to try to turn over a new leaf and become good.

While not an entirely original idea, the video game setting definitely makes it somewhat novel. What makes the whole project genuinely exciting, though, is the news coming out of CinemaCon that the film will contain cameos from famous video game characters from various developers. Already the footage has shown Zangief and M. Bison, Clyde the “Pac-Man” ghost, Bowser, Kano from “Mortal Kombat”, Dr. Robotnik and others all pleading with Ralph, via a villian support group, that he should be proud to be a villain and not be ashamed of it. (Think the “fish are friends, not food” sharks from “Finding Nemo.”)

While that’s a pretty cool start, I hope they’ve only scratched the surface of what we can expect to see appearance wise. So in anticipation of the movie’s November opening, here are five video game characters that I hope make it to the big screen.
 

Dirk The Daring – The hero of the arcade hit “Dragon’s Lair” would fit right into this world. As “Dragon’s Lair” was essentially a movie that’s only interaction was some simple “choose your path” moments, I somehow always pictured Dirk to be a bit…dim. It’d be great if he were portrayed as a vacant movie star type, who’s all show and no daring. After all, this is the villain’s story.

 

Guybrush Threepwood – In a fair world, the awesome protagonist of the “Monkey Island “series would have had his own movie or TV series by now. In lieu of that, a cameo in “Wreck-It Ralph” would be incredible. Maybe he could appear as a trainer to Ralph as he learns the ways of good. It doesn’t really matter as long as we get some of that great Monty Python-style dialog like, “You fight like a dairy farmer!” (Followed by the classic retort, “How appropriate. You fight like a cow.”)

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Calvin Johnson wins vote to be on Madden NFL 13 cover

Calvin Johnson. UPI/A.J. Sisco

Will the Madden cover jinx hit again? Last year, Peyton Hillis was the surprise winner of the fan voting for the Madden NFL cover, and he suffered through injuries and a miserable season.

This year Megatron, Calvin Johnson, gets the nod, and Detroit Lions fans are holding their breath.

Video games can help with depression

Here’s an interesting tidbit you might want to keep in mind the next time your parents or girlfriend gives you grief about playing video games. A new study finds that playing video games can be helpful with treating depression.

“Video games are more often regarded as causes of mental illness than as cures, but in a new study, a specially designed fantasy game helped teens conquer depression just as well as — if not better than — usual counseling.

Depression can be devastating among youths, yet fewer than 1 in 5 depressed teens are treated, in part because they are reluctant to seek a therapist’s help. So researchers in New Zealand created the SPARX videogame as a way to deliver cognitive behavioral therapy, packaged in a fun and appealing way. The acronym stands for “smart, positive, active, realistic and x-factor thoughts,” strategies designed to fight depression.”

This is great news for teens, but it’s also great ammunition for die-hard gamers. Now, it won’t help you justify playing games online for 18 hours per day. Don’t get greedy, and if you do that you won’t have a girlfriend anyways. But if you enjoy a healthy dose of video games, or you like to search around to see sites that have the best online casino games, or you just love fantasy football, this new study can help you deal with all those people who love to criticize your game obsession. It’s healthy!

Also, for parents, you should read about this study to help you craft a responsible approach towards your kids and games. If done in moderation, gaming can be the best option sometimes, assuming of course you also get them outside to run around a bit!

GAME REVIEW: Fez

It seems like every year there’s at least one standout XBLA title released that is simply too good to ignore (“Braid” and “Limbo” come to mind), and this year, that game is “Fez.” But while the long-in-development indie platformer has been showered in just as much critical praise as those other titles, there’s something about “Fez” that makes it a lot more memorable, more addictive and more deserving of the recognition. Perhaps it’s because the game never stops surprising you, continuously growing both in scope and in the mind-bending difficulty of its puzzles, which in turn will make you equally frustrated and intrigued – a dangerous recipe for any gamer who refuses to call it quits.

You play as Gomez, a little white creature that lives in a 2D world; or so he thinks. After receiving a letter from a fellow villager asking to meet him one morning, Gomez comes into contact with a powerful artifact that grants him the ability to navigate the universe in three dimensions using the titular fez hat. But when a rift in space threatens to destroy Gomez’s world, the pint-sized hero must embark on a mission to collect all 32 of the golden cubes that make up the powerful hexahedron (most of which have been shattered into eight smaller cube bits) before time runs out.

The catch, however, is that although Gomez’s world is in 3D (comprised of four flat sides that can be rotated on an axis), he can still only move two-dimensionally. That means that players must constantly switch perspective using the left and right trigger buttons in order to maneuver around each level and solve puzzles. And because there are no enemies to fight or penalties for dying (if Gomez falls from a ledge, he’s promptly brought back to life), the emphasis is instead placed on exploration and discovery, of which there is enough to keep you busy for several days.

“Fez” is both incredibly simplistic and maddeningly complex, but how much time you choose to invest in the game is completely up to you, as there are many secrets to unlock, some of which can’t even be solved on your first playthrough. The game’s success doesn’t just hinge on the clever design and gameplay mechanics, though, but also on a more basic level as a giant love letter to 8-bit gaming, with visual and musical references to “Tetris” and “The Legend of Zelda,” and a fantastically nostalgic soundtrack by Disasterpiece that’s simply the icing on the cake. Though the game is plagued by a surprising number of bugs for a title that’s been in development as long as it has, “Fez” is so damn unique and charming in just about every way that they’re pretty easy to ignore.

Angry Birds in space . . . and in China

Angry Birds are heading to space. iPad sales are going through the roof and more people are buying smartphones, particularly kids who are addicted to games. Have you seen how many kids under the age of ten now have these phones, or maybe an iPod Touch, where they can download tons of free games or games that cost just a couple of dollars? The entire gaming industry is being affected by the mobile explosion as addictive games are now at our fingertips 24/7.

Of course, console games and multiplayer interactive games will still command big numbers of fans. People still spend a ton of time on these systems, purchase games and also go on the web for all sorts of games in order to play chess or play free bingo online. There’s also stuff like fantasy football that people play on a daily basis. But something as simple as birds on a slingshot can captivate millions of people! The entire gaming pie is getting bigger and that’s having a ripple effect across other businesses and around the world.

For example, this exponential growth is now moving to China. The creator of Angry Birds, Rovio Entertainment, has recorded more than 100 million downloads for the game in China, helped by demand from users of Android phones, iPhones and iPads. Now Rovio says it’s in talks with Chinese companies including Baidu Inc. and Sohu.com Inc. to drive even more downloads in the world’s biggest Web market.

The possibilities are endless, as the company turned down an acquisition offer recently in the $2 billion range. Who can blame them if they’re just scratching the surface in the largest country on the planet. Merchandising is a big part of the overall strategy as well, with plans for stores in China to move millions of stuffed toys and other themed products. Games have the potential to be one of the great unifying cultural trends across the world. It will be fascinating to see how this plays out.

GAME REVIEW: The Splatters

It’s difficult to imagine a game like “The Splatters” existing without the runaway success of “Angry Birds.” Although it shares some DNA with a few other games as well (namely, the “Worms” series), SpikySnail’s physics-driven puzzler owes a lot to the Rovio action-strategy game. Both titles are pretty similar in style, only instead of flinging birds at green pigs, you’re launching candy-colored blobs across the screen in an attempt to disarm bombs. The liquid that bursts out of the Splatters when they explode must match the same color of the bombs in order to be successful, with an assortment of unlockable moves at your disposal to maneuver around obstacles, reach strategically placed bombs and increase your score through combos.

Though “The Splatters” would probably be more suitable on a mobile device, there’s more than enough content (including three game modes and a feature called Splatter TV that lets you share clips with your friends) to warrant its inclusion on Xbox Live Arcade. But while “The Splatters” is a lot of fun to play at first, it eventually becomes a little monotonous as the challenges and uninspired maps start to bleed into one another. You probably wouldn’t notice it as much if you were just playing a few levels on your phone, but in its current form, that lack of variety is the crucial difference between a good game and a great one.

GAME REVIEW: Kinect Star Wars

When Kinect was announced for the Xbox 360 a few years ago, one of the first questions on nearly everyone’s mind was whether we might finally get a “Star Wars” game that would let fans act out their fantasies of being real-life Jedi Knights. The device’s motion sensor controls seemed tailor-made for the “Star Wars” universe, so it didn’t come as much of a shock that Microsoft already had a game in the works. Now that “Kinect Star Wars” is finally here, though, some fans might be upset to discover that it didn’t turn out the way they imagined. Although you do get to wield a lightsaber and toss enemies around like ragdolls using the Force in Jedi Destiny – a short but enjoyable story mode where players assume the role of a Padawan on a mission against the Empire – it’s only one of many different modes available.

Jedi Destiny is without a doubt the most fleshed-out of the bunch, but while it certainly delivers on the wish fulfillment aspect of the game (there’s nothing quite like taking down an entire army of droids with a swift swipe of the hand), the controls aren’t always precise, leading to a number of frustrating moments. Still, it fares a lot better than Duels of Fate, the only other lightsaber-related minigame on the disc, which is essentially a stripped-down version of the campaign-based combat that follows the same repetitive formula of blocking, battling for position, and attacking your opponent until he’s defeated. Also included is a solid Podracing game that’s only real downside is that it’ll make your arms feel like Jell-O after just a few laps, and a shallow but fun twist on the arcade classic “Rampage” where you take control of a Rancor and wreak havoc on popular locales like Mos Eisely in virtually every way possible.

The final piece in the “Kinect Star Wars” puzzle is also the strangest: a gonzo version of “Dance Central” called Galactic Dance Off that features “Star Wars” characters busting a move to spoofs of popular songs like Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” (“Hologram Girl”) and Jason Durelo’s “Ridin’ Solo” (“I’m Han Solo”). It sounds like a bad April Fool’s joke or something you might see on an episode of “Robot Chicken,” but it’s actually quite amusing in a weird sort of way. Though it’ll likely receive plenty of backlash from fans still complaining about Jar Jar Binks or who shot first, the dance mode adds to the whole party game experience; and for better or worse, that’s what “Kinect Star Wars” aims to deliver. It might not have the replay value to warrant a purchase, but there’s enough here to keep you and your friends entertained for the weekend.

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