UAH Library LAN Party – 8/30/07 from 3-11pm

We’re still in the early planning phases, but on August 30th we’ll be holding our first LAN party at work! It’s part of our “fall frolic” series of events. The party will sort of be two separate events – an organized PC gaming tournament (exact game TBA), and a collection of console games – DDR, Guitar Hero, and various Wii games are the top candidates so far. Plus we’re hoping for a lot of pick-up DS gaming 🙂

As we get more planning done, we’ll have online registration for the tournament. Our space is a bit limited due to the building’s electrical limitations, so be sure to register. We’ll provide food and prizes. And this isn’t limited to just UAH students either! All are welcome.

Here’s the Facebook event:

Review: Lost Planet (Xbox 360)

(In the interest of full disclosure: I was given a copy of this game to review by M80, a marketing company who works for Capcom. They emphasized that they wanted me to be honest in my evaluation, and I will be.)

I’ve had my eye on Lost Planet for a while. The downloadable demo was the first thing I played after plugging in my Xbox 360 last fall, and I was hooked right away. This third person shooter puts you in the shoes of Wayne, an amnesiac soldier on a barren, icy planet full of giant hostile bugs known as Akrid. Fighting through the snow covered plains (either on foot or in any number of giant walking robot ‘vital suits’), Wayne seeks both revenge against and an explanation from those responsible for his father’s death. Being an ice planet, players must constantly seek out new sources of heat to avoid freezing to death. Enemies consist of both Akrid and the human “snow pirates”.

Yes, snow pirates. OK, so the story won’t win any awards. In fact, it gets more and more nonsensical as the game progresses – and the situation isn’t helped by some truly awful dialogue. Thankfully, the gameplay isn’t held back by this limitation. I always try to ask myself one question in particular when reviewing a game: Is it fun? Lost Planet absolutely is.

There is a certain simple joy in climbing into a robot battle suit, picking up a rocket launcher, and duking it out with a giant alien bug the size of a small skyscraper. And I’m not exaggerating – some of the enemies you’ll face really are that huge. Click on the thumbnail above for an example (that giant worm is only about halfway out of the ground). Visually, this all occurs in some of the most impressive graphics I’ve ever seen. Whoever did work on Lost Planet’s explosions and smoke effects deserves some kind of award. Most battles in the game involve many instances of both, and they just make blowing something up that much more fun.

Control-wise, Lost Planet has a bit of a learning curve. Each vital suit has it’s own special button scheme, which is only displayed the first time you sit down in one. Find the same model again later, and it’s up to you to both determine which model it is and remember which button does what. And you’ll be switching suits a lot, constantly picking up new ones as your current ride runs out of armor (the possibility exists, of course, that I’m just really bad at the game). A cheat sheet located in the pause menu would really come in handy. Controlling Wayne on foot is thankfully easier to get the hang of, and the ability to zip around a level with his grappling hook is a nice touch.

Unfortunately, there is one major problem with how controlling Wayne is handled. If knocked down by an explosion, the animation as Wayne scrambles back to his feet takes about three seconds. During this time he does not respond to any commands. Three seconds is an eternity in a firefight, as rockets and bugs continue to stream at him. On multiple occasions I found myself simply unable to react: Wayne gets knocked down, spends ages getting back up, gets hit by enemies who have run up to him in the meantime, gets knocked down again, etc. If this happens while you’re backed into a corner, you might as well just restart the level. Wayne won’t be long for this world anyway. Having absolutely no control over this process is extremely frustrating, and I found myself trying to sidestep as many close encounters with enemies as possible as a result.

This is a game I would love to play in surround sound. But as I don’t have such a system, I was limited to stereo. I was still impressed, effects are realistic and even useful. Each gun has such a distinctive sound that it becomes a simple matter to determine exactly what Wayne is under attack by without even spotting the assailants.

The single player mode took me about 8 hours to finish, which feels just about right. I personally prefer games of about this length. They’re meaty enough to be worth playing, but not so involved as to keep me from other things. There’s also a significant amount of replay value in returning to earlier levels, both in optional secondary bosses to fight and hidden items to search out.

The online multiplayer mode is not something I plan on spending a lot of time with. As in any online game with voice chat, there’s a large number of players present with a questionable vocabulary and attitude. If my friends had this game I would gladly play against them. But they don’t, and getting constantly insulted isn’t how I want to unwind after work. I also find the interface and lobby for setting up a game to be confusing, much of which will be clarified in an upcoming patch. I didn’t spend enough time in online play to feel qualified to comment on it any further.

Lost Planet truly shows off the technical capabilities of the Xbox 360. Gorgeous graphics and sound complement solid gameplay. It’s just really too bad that the story wasn’t given more attention.

Wiik in Wiiview

My Xbox 360 and WiiForgive me, I can’t resist a bad pun. Translation: Week in Review.

A little over a week ago I stood in line very early on a cold rainy morning outside Circuit City, and managed to buy one of the thirteen Nintendo Wiis they got in stock that day. Now that I’ve had some serious playtime, here’s my impressions:

Put simply, I love this system. The novel motion sensitive controller works just as advertised – playing tennis feels like tennis, bowling like bowling, etc. Being able to point at the screen to select options makes it much easier to enter text and set options than on previous generations of controllers. The game it comes with, Wii Sports, is an excellent introduction to the Wii. It’s a package of five games: Bowling, Tennis, Boxing, Baseball, and Golf. I haven’t managed to figure out the right timing to hit the baseball reliably, but the other four all work just as advertised. Most game types even let you pass one or two controllers around among players, instead of having to buy more. Boxing is by far the most physically intensive of the five, and can be quite a workout depending on how much you allow yourself to get into it. The Wii controller can be used with multiple intensities – a flick of the wrist, for example, will return a serve just as well as a full arm swing. It’s up to you how you want to play.

The interface of the Wii’s main menu is extremely well laid out. Finding options and starting programs is easy – there are freely downloadable ‘channels’ that let you browse the world’s weather or new by rotating a globe, and another that provides a basic version of the Opera web browser. The console also comes with the ‘Mii Channel’, which is where you design your cartoony avatar. This avatar then shows up in a number of games, primarily as your player in Wii Sports.

Games from previous generations of video game systems are also available to purchase and download (NES, SNES, N64, Sega Genesis, and Turbografix 16 games are all represented). I take a bit of an issue with Nintendo’s pricing on these games – A Super Nintendo game costs $8, and an N64 title is a whopping $10. I won’t buy very many games at these prices. But if they were cut in half, I could convince myself to make the smaller purchase more repeatedly. Logical? Maybe not, but that’s how I feel. As it is, I broke down and bought the original Sonic the Hedgehog. Even after all these years, I still feel surreal playing a Sega game on a Nintendo system. My 10 year old self would never have predicted this day.

Here’s a couple blurbs on the other games I’ve tried:

Rayman: Raving Rabbids

This collection of minigames is the best thing on the Wii so far. There’s something like 75 games available, usually lasting a minute or two to play. Each uses the controller in a novel way – a whack-a-mole style game, swinging a cow over your head before throwing it, and keeping rhythm using the controller like drumsticks are three that come to mind immediately. The single player game is relatively short-lived, but has a very entertaining bizarre sense of humor, and is necessary to unlock the games for multiplayer use anyway. And multiplayer games is where Rayman really shines. Anybody can pick up the controller and play almost instantly. The games are short enough to get everyone in a large group involved, yet still long enough to have some substance.

WarioWare: Smooth Moves

Another collection of minigames, but this time I wasn’t quite so impressed. WarioWare comes up with some more novel ways to use the controller (like holding it to your nose and manipulating an elephant’s trunk), but never really reaches the full potential that Rayman did. Each Wario game can be as short as less than one second, and usually only requires one quick movement of the controller. This makes some of the games frustratingly rely on what feels like blind luck to complete them successfully. It’s fun in the short term, but I managed to complete the single player mode in less than two hours of play over a weekend. Again, like Rayman there’s some extension of the game’s life in multiplayer modes, and WarioWare is definitely worth playing. But something didn’t click for me, and I’m glad I only rented it.

In the end, the success of minigame compilations like WarioWare and Rayman are also the Wii’s biggest weakness. Game developers are still figuring out how to work motion sensing elements into longer, story driven games. With the exception of Zelda (which I have not yet played), none of the attempts so far have been reviewed very well. But the innovation is there, and that’s the key factor. The potential is here, now games just have to follow through. Given time, I have faith that will happen.

The highest praise I have for the Wii is that it has me excited about finding a chance to play the newest version of Madden. Players hike and throw the football with semi-realistic motions, which has me intrigued. And I can’t remember the last time I looked forward to a sports game. I think the last one I bought was for the Playstation 1. Nintendo’s plan to reach out to new groups of gamers just might work.

P.S. If anyone has a chance, give the Huntsville Circuit City some business. The manager on duty brought us a big bag of Sausage McMuffins while waiting outside in the rain at 7AM, just because she thought we looked hungry.

Xbox 360 Review

A little over a year ago, I ranted and raved against the Xbox 360. Well, I’ll admit I was wrong.

Yes, I finally broke down and bought one recently. Gamestop was offering trade-in bonus credit on the original Xboxen (my new favorite fake plural form of a word) that was simply too good to pass up. I happened to have an extra box sitting around from my experiments with creating Xbox Media Centers, so off it went!

One of my early complaints about the Xbox 360 when it was released last year was the lack of compelling games. Content is still king in the gaming arena. Now that there’s been time for developers to really take advantage of the 360’s offerings, there were simply too many good games to pass up. Dead Rising tipped the scale for me – who wouldn’t want to play an open world “sandbox” style game set in a mall full of zombies? Gears of War has the best cooperative online play I’ve ever seen, and Chromehounds is fun as well.

But I feel like the games themselves are almost tangential to my love of the 360. Microsoft’s killer app for the console is the online Xbox Live service. I can download game demos, video clips, etc, almost always for free. Even if I hadn’t bought a single game, I would still have hours of demos to play through. Then there’s games with online cooperative play. Fighting through a warzone with a friend at your side is always a fun experience. It can elevate even mediocre games to much higher status. And the interface holding all this together is an absolute joy. The menus are easy to navigate, and almost everything Just Works. Even potentially problematic features like video chat are seamless.

Starting next week, Microsoft will begin selling TV shows and movie rentals through Xbox Live. Some of the movie rentals will even be in HD! Now instead of buying an expensive HD-DVD player and movie, 360 owners can rent a movie in the same image quality for a reasonable price. Of course, I don’t have an HDTV to take advantage of this (yet). But I’m still excited about the possibilities.

I do still have a few complaints about some of the games for the 360. In many cases, developers have chosen to shrink text on the screen way down to unreadable font sizes. There is never any option to enlarge the text, which causes a lot of squinting and eye fatigue on anything but the largest televisions. There’s no reason I can tell for this shrinking to take place – there’s still plenty of screen real estate available. Another issue is that not all original Xbox games will work on the 360. I was able to keep an Xbox around to handle this issue, but not everyone has that luxury when upgrading.

In the end I never would have bought the Xbox 360 if I didn’t have friends to play the online games with. Sure I could play against random others, but frankly what many online gamers consider socially acceptable actions and language grates on me. Profanity and casual racism run wild. But I have a group of 15-20 friends I play with semi-regularly, and that makes all the difference. Some of the best times I’ve had on the console so far were simply playing a game of online Uno with three friends while video chatting.

It’s all about community. The Xbox 360 lets me connect with friends, and that’s by far the best feature.

(Plus, I didn’t have to camp out for a week and brave shortage-driven riots like the PS3 purchasers did!)

Review: Nintendo DS Lite

IMG_0674Today I treated myself to a Nintendo DS Lite. I’ve been a huge fan of the DS ever since I picked one up last September, and still highly recommend it. But the new DS Lite is even better!

I have the two units side by side here. The DS Lite is on the left, and the older standard DS on the right. Note how the Lite nearly blinds my camera. That’s the major feature improvement – a much brighter screen. You can even play it in direct sunlight, something the original DS could never handle. I never thought the original’s screen was bad, but the colors really pop out at you on the improved version. I don’t think I could go back. The battery life is also extended, overall size is decreased, and the whole design is much more stylish (it looks quite at home next to my iPod).

Nintendo even went out of their way to make wirelessly transfering your online gaming settings from the old DS to the new one a snap.

I don’t have a lot to say about the system that I didn’t the first time around, but I still really like it 🙂

The DS Lite does have one minor disadvantage: Due to its smaller size, Large older Game Boy cartridges like Warioware: Twisted look more than slightly ridiculous hanging out the bottom.

ALA 2006 – Exploring the tech of gaming

Speakers were Eli Neiburger, Matt Gullett, Kevin Ferst, and Beth Gallaway.

Eli spoke for the bulk of the session, and was really fascinating. He pointed out that video gaming is not really new, it has been around for about thirty years now. And the calls that it will be the downfall of civilization as we know it are “just another part of the generational churn.” Movies, music, and even novels have all held that spot at some point or another. Media coverage of hyper-violent games is overblown. I didn’t catch the exact statistic, but something like only 12% of all games sold last year were rated M (Mature), and even they are intended for ages 17 and up. In the same way that you wouldn’t take a first grader to an R movie, they shouldn’t be playing M rated games. Parents need to be educated about the rating system to understand this.
Eli runs amazingly successful gaming events at the Ann Arbor District Library system. He points out that they are about the only programs to draw in large numbers of teenage boys to the library.

I was in awe the entire time, just listening to Eli speak. He’s truly passionate about gaming in libraries, and can justify it in ways I can’t even begin to list. I think he won over most of the audience.

The other speakers had less time, but were still interesting and relevant. Matt Gullett pointed out that you shouldn’t make programs to create games, which he has run, too much like school or you’ll lose the kids. Instead, the sessions can be places to create and interact socially.

Kevin Ferst brought an interesting perspective, in that he isn’t a hardcore gamer himself but still has successfully run sessions at the library. You don’t have to be an expert!

Beth Gallaway pointed out that teens do need structure and boundaries, which libraries can provide in these programs like any others. And what about teaching ‘mashup’ classes at the library? Kids love to take game footage and sync it up with their favorite music, creating quick music videos. Use it as an opportunity to teach them some tools, as well as a quick copyright/fair use lesson (record companies are starting to sue kids over these videos).

I admit that I find it hard to apply a lot of what was covered in an academic library environment. But the study of gaming, and how it impacts the students we receive in colleges, is still very relevant. And what would be so wrong with hosting a gaming night for incoming freshmen? 🙂

Next Generation Gaming

I was recently asked about my take on the next-gen console wars. Now that the annual E3 trade show has come and gone, things are going to heat up quickly.

There are three main competitors in the console gaming race: Microsoft’s Xbox 360 (available now), Sony’s Playstation 3 (available in November), and the Nintendo Wii (available fourth quarter this year sometime). I’ll comment on each in order.

The 360’s main advantage is that by the time the other two consoles hit the public, Microsoft will have been on the market for a full year already. In gaming time, a year is an awfully long time to withhold the newest games from oneself. But really, there just aren’t any games that make me want to buy a 360. Sure, there’s World War II shooters that look pretty interesting, and racing games that look really pretty (ok, really really pretty). But take away the upgraded graphics, and the games are not much better than what I can get for my existing Xbox. The difference is certainly not enough to justify $400 out of my budget for the 360. But this said, when Halo 3 is released for the 360 (next year sometime) I will finally break down and buy the console. I just love that series too much! And by that point, I’m hoping the price of the system will have dropped a bit.

I have zero interest in obtaining a Playstation 3 – the price turned me off entirely. $600 will get you the higher end system, and $500 the lower end (missing a lengthy list of features). There is simply no way I will ever pay more than my monthly rent for a video game console. And there isn’t even a game like Halo 3 to get me excited. Everyone was buzzing at E3, wondering what the PS3 controller would look like. Well, it looks exactly like the current PS2 controller. But silver. The only two new features are an extra button in the center (stolen from the 360’s design) and a degree of motion sensitivity (stolen from the Nintendo Wii’s design). Plus, a feature of the PS2 controller has actually been removed: rumble force feedback.

Microsoft and Sony are both heavily pushing the fact that their consoles fully support gaming in high definition. What I think they’re forgetting is that the average consumer does not have an HDTV yet. Even I, who normally fits an early adopter profile, don’t plan on getting one in the next few years.

Which brings me to the final entry: the Nintendo Wii. Putting the strange name aside,
I really can’t wait for this one. The controller is fully motion sensitive, and many games will take full advantage of that fact. For example, play a tennis game: you swing the controller as if it were a racket. A racing game: you hold it like a steering wheel. Nintendo is aiming at both the existing gamer market and the vast group of those who have never owned a console. By simplifying the controller, they hope to remove an intimidation barrier and broaden the system’s overall appeal. Sure, the system will be missing some features (like true HD images – again I don’t have a TV to use that anyway), but the rumored price point of $200-$250 is the best thing Nintendo has going for them. The Wii is the only system of the three I plan to buy at launch day.

For me, Nintendo is the obvious winner. I mean come on, they’ve even managed to get me excited about a tennis game! And I can understand why many will still be drawn to the Xbox 360. But the Playstation 3? I can’t fathom how it can be successful. It will be overpriced, unoriginal, bulky, and perhaps most importantly – very few of their game previews at E3 made anybody sit up and say ‘wow’.
Anyway, that’s my two cents.

Unimaginable features for the Wii

If you don’t follow gaming news regularly, you might have missed that Nintendo recently officially named its next video game system: “Wii”. (It’s pronounced ‘wee’, and yes the internet has been ablaze with puns!)

Previously code-named the Revolution, the system has the potential to be just that for console gaming. For example: the controller is fully motion-sensitive, meaning you can do things like play tennis games as if you were holding a real racket.

Anyway, to my point. Time magazine recently got some hands-on time with the new system. The article isn’t available on their website yet, but it is in Lexis Nexis (“A Game For All Ages”, by Lev Grossman, in the 5/15/06 issue). This quote was particularly illuminating to me: (the italics are my emphasis)

“But the name Wii not wii-thstanding, Nintendo has grasped two important notions that have eluded its competitors. The first is, Don’t listen to your customers. The hard-core gaming community is extremely vocal–they blog a lot–but if Nintendo kept listening to them, hard-core gamers would be the only audience it ever had. “[Wii] was unimaginable for them,” Iwata says. “And because it was unimaginable, they could not say that they wanted it. If you are simply listening to requests from the customer, you can satisfy their needs, but you can never surprise them.”

I think that advice can be applied to any profession, including libraries.

Review: Beyond Good & Evil (PS2)

Beyond Good & Evil

Year: 2003

Platform: Other

Category: Game

Rating: 5 out of 5

Beyond Good and Evil is the best video game I’ve played this year so far.

This is especially impressive given its original release date: two and a half years ago.

BG&E is a third-person sci-fi adventure. You play as Jade, a female photojournalist on the war-torn planet Hyllis. An alien race called the Dom’z (aliens do so love their apostrophies) launches almost daily attacks, kidnapping more and more citizens for purposes unknown. The local army, the Alpha Section, is tasked with the planet’s defense. But something isn’t quite right about their behavior.

Jade’s early missions are simple point and shoot adventures. But not with a gun – your goal is to take pictures of every life form on the planet to aid a science center’s research. This objective continues as a side quest throughout the game. Eventually Jade and her allies get sucked in to a plot of intrigue and deception. She links up with a rebel organization and puts her camera to a new use – exposing the truth. Later missions involve infiltrating enemy bases, snapping evidence of the Truth, and publishing it to the world. Of course there is some martial-arts style fighting involved, but that is really a small percentage of the gameplay. More often than not your objective is to avoid direct confrontation at all costs.

BG&E hits on all four crucial gaming cylinders: Gameplay, Graphics, Characters, and Plot.

Gameplay controls are simple and effective – few buttons are actually used, and they change to the appropriate function given a scene’s situation. The graphics are gorgeous, especially given their age. The game’s visual style is actractively stylized with touches of detailed realism. Talking pig/human hybrids feel right at home. The characters and plot are of the highest grade imaginable! I connected emotionally with Jade and her crew on a level very few games accomplish. While the
ending is left open for a sequel (which unfortunately looks like it won’t ever get made), there’s enough of a finale to still be satisfying.

The attention to immersive detail is really what sells the game. For example, the pictures you snap as Jade are woven into the game’s cinema scenes – used as examples by the characters and broadcast to the public.

I finished BG&E after about fourteen hours of gameplay, spread over a few months, and there’s no extras to motivate me to immediately play it again. For some, this might be too short. But I’ll take fourteen hours of high quality over forty hours of mediocre any day! And really, for the price I paid ($9.99 for a used copy) there’s no reason to complain.

Beyond Good and Evil is an absolute joy to play. If you’re looking for a game with depth beyond blowing up everything in sight, with characters who genuinely develop, and an interesting plot with a few hidden twists, give it a try. It’s the best game nobody has heard of!

(Note: BG&E was released for the Playstation 2, Xbox, Gamecube, and PC. But comparatively few Gamecube copies were made, so that version is much harder to come by and commands a higher resale price.)

Second Life Library

The Second Life Library 2.0 initiative really fascinates me. Second Life is a free online role playing game. Unlike most games of this type, there are very few limitations on what you can do in the game world. The official site does a much better job of explaining the concept than I can.

So what is the Second Life Library 2.0? A bunch of librarians and organizations like OPAL and the Alliance Library System are building a library inside the game world. They play on offering reference service, instruction programs, and pretty much anything else possible in the game.

There’s a couple of reasons I love this idea. It definitely accomplishes outreach to an unserved population. At the same time, there’s a definite Cool Factor that libraries can sometimes lack. Thumbs up to all involved!

I really want to help out with this project, but unfortunately Second Life will not run on my aging computer. I’m hoping to get a new system later this year, so maybe I’ll join up after that event.