2K Sports to the Rest of the Industry: “If You’re Having Executive Producer Problems, I feel Bad for you Son…”

Apparently rap mogul Jay-Z just can’t resist the hard knock life, as he looks to start a new endeavor to add to his 99 problems, and feed his empire state of mind.

I’ll stop now.

But there’s no stopping Jay-Z these days, as evidenced by his recent partnership with 2K Games on their next basketball game,” NBA 2K13.” According to reports, Jay-Z will work on the game in an executive producer capacity. What this means, exactly, no one knows, as executive producer is about the vaguest job title there is in the entertainment industry. In this case, though, it’s probably safe to assume that he won’t be handling the programming duties, or reshaping the foundations of the popular series with exciting, and fresh gameplay concepts and artistic directions. Of course, considering that the last two NBA 2K games make a strong case for being some of the greatest sports or basketball titles of all time, the promotional and soundtrack work Jay-Z will more likely be involved in is probably going to be enough in the way of contributions to insure that this celebrity involvement doesn’t disenfranchise any of the series regular fans.

Of course, a Jay-Z hidden character “NBA Jam” style wouldn’t be out of the question either. I’m also not ruling out the possibility that the Brooklyn Nets (of which Jay-Z is part owner) are probably going to be slightly better than necessary in “NBA 2K13.” Like Michael Vick in “Madden 2004,” or Brock Lesnar in “Smackdown: Here Comes the Pain,” unnecessarily good.

Still though, I wish that just once we could get a celebrity tie in to video games that actually generates excitement. Like Alan Moore working on “Fallout 4,” or Quentin Tarantino producing “GTA: V.”

Or, better yet, Bill Murray.

 

Nerdiest and Greatest Marriage Proposal Ever

I have cynicism running through my veins like a pessimistic parasite on a mission.

But even I have to admit that sometimes, things so incredible happen that you are forced to stupidly smirk at them no matter what your disposition in life may be.

Such is the case when it comes to the matter of the marriage proposal of one John Zekind to his girlfriend Kara Richter.

John actually contacted Jellyvision Games and asked them if they would help him program the proposal in their game. Since these were the guys that worked on “You Don’t Know Jack” for Facebook, they were of course awesome, and complied. After a short questionnaire to help them determine the best way to handle the proposal, Jellyvision gave John access to his special proposal for Kara to log onto and play. After a few of the usual questions, she got hit with the big question. Natually, she clicked yes, and turned to find her ring bearing fiance.

Of course, as a huge “You Don’t Know Jack” fan, and noted cynic, I kind of want to hear the response to one of the no questions the team no doubt had prepared.

Insta Poker app helps you improve your game

I’m addicted to my iPad, particularly when I’m on the treadmill or in airplanes. I mostly use it to watch TV series like “The Wire” or “Sons of Anarchy,” but I also love the apps and games as well.

There’s an app for practically everything now, so we shouldn’t be surprised to see a new app for poker games. There’s a new instructional poker game for the iPhone, iPod and iPad called “Insta Poker.” As you’re playing the game and make a decision, text comments from a pro pop up to give you immediate feedback, letting you know if you made the right or wrong move, and why. The feedback comes from pros like Antonio Esfandiari and Huck Seed. So now you can kill time on a plane with a game that might actually make you money, unlike complete time-wasters like Angry Birds.

Interestingly, the hands in the game are real hands track real events, like hands that took place in televised tournaments or at other high-stakes poker games. The key to this app is teaching you strategy as you’re playing which is critical if you want to develop into an effective poker player.

The game packs for the app cost 99 cents to $6.99, with the most expensive ones having around 15 hands, so the game isn’t cheap. But when you consider how much money you can win in your poker future, or at least how much less money you can lose, then the cost is really a drop in the bucket, or at least comparable to that turkey sandwich you’re ordering at the casino while justifying several more hours at the poker table.

Video Game Documentary “Critical///Path” Looks to Examine the Art of Gaming

In 1954, director François Truffaut wrote a piece called “A Certain Tendency in French Cinema.” It was there he posed the ground-breaking theory that a film director could become an auteur. Essentially, Truffaut was trying to tell people that a true director created a film with complete artistic control, much in the same way that an author creates their stories. If this doesn’t sound mind blowing, you must remember that the film industry at this point was still largely under the thumb of the studio system. It was still strictly show business, and there was little mention regarding the higher idea of the art of filmmaking. Truffant openly challenged this idea with an essay, and then spent a career backing it up with works like the film “Breathless,” a movie so dynamic in its presentation and style, that those who “got” it, didn’t hesitate to call it art.

Of course, Truffaut wasn’t the first director to create auteur works of film. Instead, he was just the one to really stand back and look at this ability that a director had over his work, and lend a name to it. Jean Renoir, for example, had been creating “ahead of their time” works of auteur filmmaking all throughout the ’30s. Furthermore, Truffaut certainly wasn’t the last auteur as men like Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, and countless others since proved that a good director really does craft a film, and is able to transcend the idea of movies as mere industry in doing so.

I mention this because the truth is that up until this point, there are very few people who openly use the word auteur when talking about game developers. Fortunately, for anyone truly interested in the gaming industry, filmmaker David Grabias does use that word. Specifically, he says, “There are plenty of people who are known, but they aren’t necessarily known as auteurs. Within every studio there’s always one or two people who are really visionaries.”

Even more fortunate is that David is currently working on a series that looks to express and exhibit that very belief called “Critical///Path.”

Details are slowly emerging about the project, which has apparently been in the works for two years and is a culmination of over 30 hours worth of interviews with some of the leading minds in the gaming industry. Produced by Artifact Studios, “Critical///Path” will feature interviews with gaming developers that include Cliff Bleszinski, John Carmack, Hideo Kojima, Sid Meir, Will Wright and more. Each installment will showcase individual developers covering topics that range from industry specific subjects such as “First-Person vs Third-Person” to broader ideas like “Bonding Through Adversity.” Style-wise, the series is being compared by some to “Inside the Actor’s Studio.”

I love this concept, and the roll call of talent on hand so far is pretty incredible. What I especially love is that, unlike other video game documentaries and similar works, this isn’t a defense of the industry as much as it’s a celebration and exploration of it. When people like the developers mentioned are approached to defend the gaming industry (which happens far too often), they are naturally going to let their passion overwhelm them and come out with closed fists and defensive minds. An open forum like this instead allows them to take that same passion and come out with open arms, allowing anyone with a true interest into the artistic side of gaming, an unprecedented chance to gain an honest look at the processes and ideas that fuel it.

Besides, of course, providing these developers their deserved levels of exposure, that’s the other function I hope this series will ultimately serve. Because much like the film industry at the time of “A Certain Tendency in French Cinema,” the seeds for a true artistic evolution in gaming are well sewn. Really all we need is for everyone in the industry, from developers to fans, to enter the mindset that such a revolution is possible, because it’s already happening.

Why the Number 3 Isn’t Taboo in Video Games

I probably don’t need to tell you, as there is a good chance most of you have seen it at least once already, but the third installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise, “The Dark Knight Rises,” hit theaters this weekend, and is attempting to bring the series full circle by pulling off the rare cinematic feat of releasing a third movie that equals, or even surpasses, the quality of the two that came before it.

The history of movies is plagued with bad third installments (“The Godfather Part 3,” “X-Men: The Last Stand,” “Spider-Man 3” to name a few) and very few successes. While this can be attributed to a number of factors, the fact remains that a complete movie trilogy usually falls apart at number three. What’s odd is that video games do not share this problem. In fact, the history of video games has shown that the third installment can sometimes yield a truly great game, if not the greatest of the series.

Don’t believe me? Then take a look at some of the greatest third games of all time.

“Tekken 3″

 

The “Tekken” series hasn’t quite disappeared off the face of the earth, but the series’ heyday has long passed. “Tekken 3” was the pinnacle of the series’ excellence, and to this day remains one of the most perfectly designed fighting games of all time. “Tekken’s” established gameplay style reached absolute excellence, and did so with one of the greatest roster of fighters ever assembled. “Tekken 3″ also added a couple of very fun game modes in Ball Mode (a competitive beach ball contest) and Force Mode (a “Final Fight“style brawler), that were so entertaining in their own rights, it seemed like Namco had finally resorted to rubbing it in other fighting game developers faces.

“Tekken 3″ remains the 8th highest rated video game of all time on Game Rankings.com, and more importantly is still fun to play today. The first two “Tekken” games were good, but thanks to “Tekken 3″ they are also largely irrelevant.

“Grand Theft Auto 3″

I dreaded writing this list, because I knew I’d have to include this game. The truth is that I have nothing more to say about “Grand Theft Auto 3.” Over the years I’ve exhausted every single combination of words to describe how “GTA III” is one of the greatest and most revolutionary games of all time, and how its overnight release changed the entire video game industry. I simply can’t go on anymore about its amazing gameplay that is bested only by its mature storytelling, which is further overshadowed by the incredible little design decisions that permeate the entire game. I’m also sick of mentioning “GTA III’s” classic line up of characters, and those unforgettable radio stations that lent “GTA III” one of the greatest game soundtracks of all time.

And of course, I can’t fathom bringing up one more time how this, the third release in an otherwise previously non-noteworthy series, completely stunned everyone who never saw it coming and changed this franchise from cult hit at best to worldwide phenomenon considered both the most popular in its field at the time, and the most artistically sound as well essentially making it “The Beatles” of video game series.

Yup, I’ve just got nothing more to say about “GTA III.”

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GAME REVIEW: Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD

“Distance not only gives nostalgia, but perspective, and maybe objectivity.”Robert Morgan

I recently did a list of video games you just had to be there for and featured “Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater” on it. My reason was simple: For a brief moment, “THPS” took over the world, and if you weren’t there to experience it, you could never truly understand the effect. Well, developer Robomodo is on a mission to prove me wrong by suggesting that you can in fact go home again with their upcoming release of “Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD.” It’s a remake of the original title, with some of the superior “Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2” thrown in to provide a little more bang for your buck. Of course, as Robert Morgan said, my distance away from the original title has indeed provided nostalgia, perspective, and plenty of objectivity.

First off, the game’s controls and basic objectives remain unchanged from the original, so there isn’t much to go into there. I’ll just say that control and concept-wise, “THPS” is one of the most well-rounded series ever made, and that mostly holds true here. Instead, most of the changes in this remake revolve around the graphics, which are actually quite good. Rather than just slap a fresh coat of paint on the original game, Robomodo has instead carefully tweaked each level to accommodate the new look in many subtle (and not so subtle) ways. The effort is as noticeable as it is appreciated. The visual upgrade actually made me remember how well designed the original game’s levels were, and lent a whole new level of nostalgia I’d previously taken for granted. For old school fans, the tweaks make the levels feel appropriately fresh, and for any first timers should help assure that this doesn’t feel like a remake of a game over a decade old. I’m also happy to report that the majority of the game’s soundtrack, one of its best features, is thankfully intact. While a few tracks didn’t make the cut, what did sneak into the game is certainly admirable and lends the desired effect.

From there, though, the rest of the changes to the game are hit and miss. While new multiplayer modes like Hawkman (trick-based coin collection) and Big Head Survival (complete combos before your head explodes…seriously) are welcome additions to go along with classics like HORSE, sadly, the game only offers online multiplayer, joining a disturbing trend of games that are under the impression people no longer play competitively in the same room — a rumor I’d hoped the success of the Wii had squashed. Also, it’s unfortunate that most of the roster wasn’t retained from the original. While it’s great that Rodney Mullen and some other vets made the cut, if you’re a hardcore fan of the original, it’s going to be hard to play as some of the new breed and not feel like you’re missing out.

While those are mostly pardonable flaws, there are a couple of sins in this remake I can’t forgive. The biggest one has to do with some of the game’s available content. As I mentioned earlier, levels, characters and songs from the far superior “THPS 2″ made the cut for this edition to go along with the original’s material. Thankfully, so did the essential manual feature from that game that allows you to string together some serious street trick combos. However, if you want “THPS 3″’s revert ability (or any of the other content from that game), then you’re going to have to download the first DLC available for this title that will feature the third game’s content. While that’s cheap enough, what’s inexcusable is that the revert feature is only available for the content from “THPS 3,” even after the download. It’s a skill that’s as essential as the manual to the franchise, and not including it from the outset makes this feel like an incomplete title and rates as a petty move on the developer’s part. Also, there’s just something wrong with the feel of the game. I can’t explain it unless you’ve played a lot of “THPS” on the PlayStation, but this one just feels more grounded and lacks some of that wild arcade style of the original. It’s probably something that won’t bother first timers, but once you notice it, there is no way to forget about it.

I remember that Siskel and Ebert used to comment on their show that studios should remake bad movies, and not good ones. It’s an interesting theory, and I can’t help but feel it’s one that applies here. See, “THPS” and “THPS 2″ are two of the greatest games of all time.  Naturally, then, there’s a lot to like about “Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD,” as it admirably recreates the better parts of those games. However, there’s no denying that for the most part, the thrill is gone. Robomodo put forth a hell of an effort with this release and, a couple of flaws non-withstanding, they did the best job they could with it. However, you can only polish a gem so much before it just refuses to shine as bright. If you never played the original Tony Hawk games, give this a shot. However, for everyone else, be warned this game’s longevity may be worth nothing more than an afternoon stroll down memory lane.

“Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD” is available 7/18 for Xbox 360 and is due later this year for PS3 and PC.

The Summer Steam Sale is Here????

Oh joy of joys, oh bliss, sweet bliss — the annual Steam Summer Sale is back again. As if Steam wasn’t glorious enough, once a year (well twice if you count the holiday sale) they run wild on their deep catalog of downloads and slash prices to insane degrees.

The sale runs until July 22nd and kicks off today with such deals as “Portal 2″ for $4.99, “CoD Modern Warfare 3″ for $29.99, and entire developer collections like Rockstar, Ubisoft and friggin Bethesda for severely reduced prices on complete collections and individual titles. That means you can buy “Skyrim,” “Fallout: New Vegas” (plus all the expansions), and “Brink” and “Hunted” thrown in for the hell of it for $49.99. It’s such an unbelievable deal, it should have an infomercial at 3 A.M.

Apparently, though, not everyone shares my enthusiasm over this epic event. Particularly, a rep from EA named David Demartini, who heads up the direct download service Origin. According to David, the Steam sale represents a desperate act that will ultimately hurt the industry by making gamers believe that there is no need to buy a game immediately if the same title is going to be available later at incredibly reduced prices. He even goes so far as to compare Steam to Target stores saying, “We’re not trying to be Target. We’re trying to be Nordstrom.”

Valve, being awesome, responds to this with the usual, saying that first day, first week, and even first month sales are all bigger than they have been in a while, and even remind Mr. Demartini that they offer their own titles on sale too, saying, “If we thought having a 75 per cent sale on ‘Portal 2′ would cheapen ‘Portal 2,’ we wouldn’t do it. We know there are all kinds of ways customers consume things, get value, come back, build franchises. We think lots of those things strengthen it.”

The thing is, of course, is that EA is right. If companies wanted to make more bottom line money, they would follow EA’s strategy. But that’s not the point, is it? This sale isn’t done for Valve’s benefit, or the benefit of the industry at large, but rather is ten measly days out of the year they set aside to do something just for gamers. As far as EA’s theory that they are trying to be Nordstrom, and Steam is Target, it doesn’t really hold water when you consider they are selling the same quality products. Also, doesn’t Nordstrom offer sales also?

But hey, picking on EA is like criticizing a Michael Bay movie. Too easy, and a little sad. No, instead, let’s continue to ignore the fact that EA has a stream service at all and focus on this incredible Steam Summer Sale, of which right now I would recommend jumping on the “Walking Dead Season Collection” and the almost unbelievable 24-game Valve complete pack. To quote Ferris Bueller: “It is so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.”

GAME REVIEW: Spec Ops: The Line

War games are a dime a dozen these days, and with the likes of “Gears of War” and “Call of Duty” dominating the genre, it really takes something special to stand out from the pack. Though 2K Games’ “Spec Ops: The Line” doesn’t necessarily have that certain X factor, it’s still one of the better third-person shooters to come out over the last few years. Set in Dubai six months after a massive sandstorm has buried the city under a pile of sand and destruction, the game follows a trio of Delta Force soldiers as they’re sent in to locate and evacuate survivors, only to discover that the city is under the tyrannical command of U.S. Colonel John Konrad.

The name is clearly a reference to Joseph Conrad, the author of “Heart of Darkness,” whose famous novel was in turn adapted into Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.” And it becomes increasingly obvious as you make your way through the first few chapters of the game that the Vietnam War film had a big influence on its development, from the striking parallels between the stories, to the heavy focus on the psychological dangers of warfare. In fact, the campaign mode gets so dark at times that I wouldn’t recommend it to real-life soldiers on the off-chance that it makes their PTSD even worse.

Though I encountered a few annoying bugs throughout the game (the most prevalent of which was the habit of briefly losing control of my player while changing direction), the gameplay is enjoyable enough that most people shouldn’t have trouble overlooking them. “Spec Ops: The Line” doesn’t offer much innovation in the way of combat mechanics, but it takes the best parts of similar titles (namely the “Gears of War” and “Ghost Recon” series) to create a relatively solid experience. It’s a little disappointing that multiplayer isn’t as much fun (and quite frankly, it feels like a last-minute addition), but while “Spec Ops: The Line” isn’t going to wow anyone, it’s a more than serviceable military shooter with a unique narrative that asks some interesting questions of its audience.

Surprise Video Game Successes

We’re really starting to hit that horrible lull in the year when it comes to video game releases. I don’t know what the complete logic behind it is, but for some reason, game development companies do not see fit to release big titles during the summer months, and instead prefer to back up the holiday season with every title in their arsenals, Triple-A release or otherwise. It’s not fair for gamers who would like to stretch their funds and time instead of trying to invest everything they have into a two-month period at the end of the year.

It’s this time of year that you have to hope for a good surprise to come along and really blow you away. While everyone enjoys riding the hype wave of a major release, and enjoying the fruits of your patience on a game’s release date, there is no feeling that is comparable to that experience when you go into a title with zero expectations only for it to send chills down your spine with just how good it is.

To prove this theory, and maybe generate some positive vibes so a sleeper hit will come our way again, here’s a small sampling of some of the greatest surprise hits of all time.

“Minecraft”

It’s fitting that a game all about building also represents the typical building blocks of a surprise hit. It had no hype, no budget, a no-name developer, and no real precedent as far as its concept.

I don’t remember when “Minecraft” took the world by storm, but it wasn’t quite after its 2009 beta release. Instead, it was sometime after that when people’s creations started appearing online, and when every game site in the world ran a 200 word feature piece about some novelty game called “Minecraft” that was gaining steam. Slowly, as the unlimited potential the game’s engine possessed became more and more clear, gamers everywhere divided themselves into two groups. Those who “got” “Minecraft,” and those who didn’t.

Of course, going off sales figures, those who got it would seem to make up the majority. By 2011, “Minecraft” surpassed 10 million registered users on the PC, and its release on the Xbox 360 broke the XBLA sales record. Keep in mind that through all of that, the game has still never had any real commercial advertising. While many would say that should be impossible in this day and age, “Minecraft” appropriately continues to thrive in a world it’s built for itself.

“Katamari Damacy”

It’s usually fairly easy to tell when a game developed in Japan is going to make it to American store shelves. If it’s the new “Final Fantas,y” it’s probably a pretty good bet you’ll see it stateside. If it’s a mech-noir dating simulator, chances are slimmer.

So it’s still something of a mystery, then, how a game that features a deformed space prince rolling up a perpetually growing ball of objects to replace the various cosmos his father, the King of the Cosmos, accidentally destroyed would end up a smash hit. There’s little doubt that the concept of “Katamari Damacy” is what got gamers to give it a try, but from there it was the game’s simple controls and creative and addicting gameplay that really started moving titles off the shelves in earnest.

It’s odd that the very concept of “Katamari Damacy” both alienated it to start, and made it irresistible thereafter. It just goes to prove that the occasional chance against all odds, can result in a success story worth more than all the failures that led there.

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Wii U, Xbox 720, PS4…Ouya?

Originally, I wasn’t sure whether or not to report on the Ouya, mostly because I feel like I met my quota on farfetched console rumors with that Xbox 720 report leak. However, between the underwhelming Wii U unveiling at E3, and Microsoft and Sony remaining mum on their future plans, 720 leaks aside, it’s getting harder and harder to get properly hyped up for the next generation of consoles based on mere official information. So here I am, reporting on another console that may or may not exist.

Cynicism aside, the truth is that there are a lot of reasons to be excited about the Ouya. Because Ouya isn’t just a vaguely dirty-sounding word, but is instead a rumored new entrant into the console wars that has the backing of veterans like Ed Fries (Xbox) and CEO Julie Uhram (IGN).

Now, obviously, anybody trying to make a successful new console has to have an ace up their sleeve to separate themselves from the industry giants. The Ouya’s trump card, as first reported by The Verge, is its Android-powered core, which will supposedly help the console double as a development kit. Essentially, the Ouya is “hacker friendly” and allows for gamers that buy it to create their own titles. Even more appealing is the consoles alleged price tag, which is said to be set at $99, and will feature completely free games.

While there is apparently more information about the Ouya set to break in the coming days, what we have now is tantalizing enough. The idea of a major release system encouraging a lassez faire attitude towards its consumers concerning security policies and publishing rights is an interesting one, and brings consoles closer toward their seemingly inevitable assimilation with some of the finer points of PC gaming. In fact, there is a lot about the Ouya that reflects the recent evolutionary trends in gaming. It combines a little bit of mobile app gaming, the explosion of the indie development market, and is supposedly set to offer the whole package to you for a foundation-shattering price point.

It’s a console based around the concepts of freedom and independence, making the 4th of July the perfect day to consider its potential impact. Because honestly, whether or not the Ouya bucks the trend of previous cinderella entrants into the console market and actually makes it is, at this time, largely irrelevant. As the “Madden” franchise has shown, when there is a lack of real competition in a market, it’s hard for your product to not become stale. And if even half of the information about the Ouya turns out be accurate, it is at least an exciting idea that may hopefully force the major players to consider the benefits of its more appealing ideas.

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