Thoughts on Assassin's Creed

by Samm Bennett
I just finished playing Assassin's Creed (or, at least I think I did, more on that later) on XBox 360. At the moment, the thing that sticks out the most is the drastic change in core gameplay leading up to the end of the game.

While the game welcomes users to use stealth and strategy while playing, in general it's not always required. To some extent, I would actually say this was detrimental to the game, as I would occasionally make a mistake in the execution of an assassination, and then just swing my sword around to finish the missions. Not nearly as cool as jumping from the shadows, but I digress. The point which I am trying to expand upon is that, although Assassin's Creed expects some stealth, there are many opportunities to be a bumbling brunt and just battle hordes of guards. However, the emphasis is obviously placed on using stealth and crowds to sneak about on missions, and actually running away in order to avoid combat when caught.

Yet, for some reason, the last two assassinations actually force the user to just hack away at enemies - no alternative options are provided in which the user can use stealth. It is as if the user was playing a completely different game entirely. And while the crowd fighting can be entertaining, it is still buggy and not the reason I'm playing the game. And while I'm on the topic, I really hope to see sequels allow the user to manipulate enemies a bit more during fights. With such an emphasis on crowds, I very much expect to be able to push guards into each other.

Another aspect of the game I found disappointing was the use of beggars. Instead of providing a potentially useful ally (beggars assist you if you are kind to them) or attempting to teach some sort of useful social message, Ubisoft just presented an annoyance to users. I suppose that the developers actually did the opposite of the latter suggestion, as beggars did nothing good for me and I always had to shove them about. The worst part is that the user isn't presented with an option - the beggars want money, but Altair carries no currency. What's the point?

And now the biggest question with Assassin's Creed - what the hell happened at the "end"? I really must put in end in quotes there, as the only way I knew I had arrived at that point was when I researched my latest achievement. While I am usually a fan of stories where the audience must draw their own conclusion, the game offered nothing even approaching closure. At least in Matrix Reloaded I had a screen saying "To be continued." The ending offered was more on par with something I would see before a season finale - not quite so good when I'm expected to shell out another $50 in two years and dedicate another twelve hours.

I don't mean to be overly critical here, though. I think Assassin's Creed had many amazing technical feats: the large cities, massive crowds, and so many climbable surfaces are just a few. The game was also pure fun too, even with the frequent annoyances such as misguided throwing knives and a character who refuses to arm himself in combat. Yet, I feel the game could have been so much more if the dev team met it's promise of a city which responded to your choices. As for the game's story, I'm still not sure how I feel about the almost cliched approach it took. The betrayal of the master was obvious quite quickly, and so the conspiracy felt almost half-baked (although if there is causation there I cannot be sure). Here's hoping the sequel can patch up these issues.

Psychonauts on GameTap!

by Samm Bennett
Majesco games have been added to GameTap, including Psychonauts! I think GameTap is a pretty cool service and would probably use it pretty often if I had the time. So now that GameTap offers Psychonauts, I would encourage anyone that hasn't played the game to give it a shot through GameTap. It's a pretty good deal, because for nine to eight bucks a month for a gold subscription you get access to a lot of awesome games, including Psychonauts, Beyond Good & Evil, Tomb Raider: Legends, Sam & Max episodes, etc. There's a free service, which is what I use since they don't have many Mac games, which allows access to some free games (including TR: Legends).

My apologies if this sounded too much like a plug, I just see a rather cheap way to play great titles that were sleeper hits for cheap. Now if only these games worked on a Mac :(

Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan 2

by Samm Bennett
I woke up today to a shiny new email from Play-Asia saying that Moero! Nekketsu Rhythm Damashii Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan 2 has shipped. For those unfamiliar, it's Japanese music game for the Nintendo DS that requires user input in the same beat of the music. This is the sequel to Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan, which was released in the US as Elite Beat Agents (EBA was of course modified for it's audience and used American pop music and "agents" instead of "male cheerleaders"). The gameplay is similar to Dance Dance Revolution or Guitar Hero, only modified to work for the DS.

The original (both the American and the Japanese version) was extremely fun, and I'm definitely looking forward to receiving this new edition.

Playstation 3: Failure to Launch

by Samm Bennett
Despite the hype, the long lines and the violence, the launch of the PlayStation 3 has been the most lackluster since that of the Sega Saturn (which was barely marketed). The reason for this is quite obvious, as the system is nigh impossible to find. Sony's "worldwide" launch landed an estimate of 200,000 consoles in the United States, which was promised 400,000, and around 80,000 consoles in Japan, which was promised 100,000. The lack of consoles can be blamed on manufacturing difficulties due to a shortage of the diodes used for the system's Blu-ray drive.

While Sony did create an impressive machine that they are selling for a hefty $500 to $600 (depending on the configuration), one might be inclined to wonder if such a model is a good idea. The complexity of the machine caused a fairly botched launch, allowing the easier-to-find Wii and Xbox 360 to bask in the next-gen hype. Furthermore, the high price of even the low-end version of the PS3 places it out of many consumers' reach.

There are several strategies that Sony has focused on with the PS3. Primarily, they want users to bring home a powerful machine. Unfortunately, power does not mean everything. Both the Xbox and the GameCube were architecturally superior to the PlayStation 2, and both consoles lost in the last console war. Sony has lost many of its exclusive third-party titles, claiming people care most about first-party titles such as Gran Turismo. While GT4 may have sold more copies, the popularity of the Grand Theft Auto series should not be taken lightly. The system promises cutting-edge, high-definition video via Blu-ray, a Sony-backed video format. For reference, in the past Sony has backed Betamax, MiniDisc and the UMD.

The real reason why the PlayStation 3 uses Blu-ray is that Sony hopes the market penetration will provide them with a Trojan Horse to win the format war. Sony is banking on the success of the PlayStation 3; if it fails, the company very well may fall apart. Such news isn't really surprising, as the company has been living in a public relations nightmare for the past few years. In 2005, Sony had to deal with the fallout from releasing CDs that automatically installed rootkits on PCs to protect the music from digital piracy, and in 2006, the company recalled millions of potentially exploding batteries. Playstation fans have also been hurt; at the 2005 Electronics Entertainment Expo, they were promised odd PS3 features such as two HDMI outputs, seven-controller support and three Ethernet ports. The PlayStation 3's new controller also lacks the rumble effect, which Sony has claimed is due to an engineering problem. Given that the Nintendo Wii's controllers provide similar functionality and rumble support, one would be more inclined to pass the blame to Sony's legal loss against Immersion Corp. in a suit regarding Sony's DualShock controllers infringing on Immersion's patent on rumble technology. In other words, Sony doesn't want to have to pay for using technology that is owned by Immersion.

The number of units sold ultimately determines the winner of each iteration of the console wars. As such, Sony is in last place, and is likely to be in that place for quite some time due to low production rates and a high price tag. If Sony wants to pull off a hat trick, they're going to have to take their competition a bit more seriously.

Originally published in The Triangle Newspaper.

Will the Wii be more than a party console?

by Samm Bennett
Holidays tend to be a big time for me to play games, as it's quite infrequent that I have a day off with nothing that needs to get done. With the release of the Nintendo Wii, I fully intended to focus my days on clearing through the new Zelda and a few other games. Ultimately, I didn't even touch Zelda and the reason is clearly the fault of Nintendo. Due to the high accessibility of games like Wii Sports, I was unable to pry my Wii away from the hands of relatives during the many family gatherings. I'm not referring to teenage cousins though, I'm speak of my forty something aunt, my parents, and my two-year old nephew.

Despite my support for Nintendo's direction, I had been skeptical of the machine's capabilities until coming home to see my family playing with my Wii. To put this into perspective, my mother can barely use a computer and the last game my dad really played was Doom in the early 1990s. Yet there they were, bowling with the Wii. At that point I realized that Nintendo will succeed, at least in getting their consoles sold. But the question that comes to my mind is this: will these purchases result in dedicated gamers, or a crowd that just plays Wii Sports on a rainy day?

If this is the case, then a large install base won't really do Nintendo much good, and in fact could cause a disaster for Nintendo's hardcore gaming market (excluding fanboys). While the system is still in its infancy with very few titles available, it doesn't take a genius to deduce the system will have a huge number of party games to try to take advantage of the new gaming market. What happens then, when the novelty wears off and there's an over saturation of games simulating real life events that no one actually wants to do?

For the most part I'm fine with having a large amount of party games available (in fact I'm looking forward to drunken WarioWare); however, I am curious if the expected influx of new gamer's might take attention away from the creation of games not typically reserved for the casual market. Will we ever see the system's full potential in other game genres, such as survival horror, espionage, and platformers? If Hideo Kojima (producer and director for the Metal Gear Solid games) does get his own Wii project, can we expect something along the lines of his popular franchise (with an emphasis on story), a mutated Metal Gear Solid with tacked on Wii controls, or perhaps just another party game?

The Wii's ability to survive in the hardcore gaming space ultimately relies on how much effort third party publishers are willing to invest in making the controls impact gameplay. This does not necessarily emphasise intuitive controls or ease of use. Developers need to leverage the system's unique control methods to enhance the immersion of the game; otherwise these gamers will flock to the Playstation 3 or XBox 360 to increase the immersion via visuals and an enhanced online experience. Why spend hours trying to coerce a character on screen to do something with minimalistic graphics when instead four person, online coop is available with amazing graphics? This is exactly why I own Marvel Ultimate Alliance for the 360 and not the Wii.

Despite the pessimistic outlook, I have high hopes for the Wii. Nintendo has the opportunity to once again revolutionize what video games are, how they are played, and how they are perceived. That little white box has the potential to create games and applications (via the Wii channels) that we can't even fathom. Just about every develop wants to develop a game for the system, and all that's left for the audience is to wait and see if the Wii becomes more than a party console.


Originally published by The Triangle Newspaper.

Elite Beat Agents Review

by Samm Bennett
In short, Elite Beat Agents is the Nintendo DS equivalent to Dance Dance Revolution (DDR). The game requires users to tap, slide, and spin the DS' stylus across the screen in time with a song's beat to progress throughout the game. The design will be quite familiar to anyone who has played the Japanese import Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan (Go! Fight! Cheer Squad), as Elite Beat Agents is the western equivalent of the game - complete with different songs, stories, and cheerleaders.

Yes, cheerleaders is correct. The game consists of the Elite Beat Agents cheering on people in oddly amusing situations. It's during these scenarios that the player must tap the DS screen in sync with one of the game's 19 songs, which include "Material Girl," "Makes No Difference," "The Anthem," "Rock This Town" and "Jumpin' Jack Flash." The game includes 4 player multi-player coop and versus, available through download play in case someone doesn't own a cartridge.

With four total settings (2 need to be unlocked), the game's difficulty tends to increases linearly; however, certain points in the game will jump drastically (certainly to many user's frustations). These points are really the defining points of the game, as they present true, old school style addictive gameplay - repeatedly tapping the stylus to retry a song in that 5 minute window you have before the bus station comes in view. This situation can be quite common, as the game is not nearly as forgiving as DDR or other such rhythm based games, and a few missed notes could cause the end for an otherwise record score.

To be honest, I'm rather surprised at how frequently I came back to Elite Beat Agents to try to progress, despite its playlist. I sincerely can't stand most of the game's songs, yet I love playing them in the game. It's only in this area that I find the Japanese version to be more satisfying, as I find the J-Pop songs to be of a faster beat and more enjoyable (although I've never been much of a fan of J-pop either). This isn't to Elite Beat Agent's discredit, as the game is very enjoyable with easily accessible, addictive gameplay that anyone could enjoy. Since Elite Beat Agents is it's own game and not just a localization of Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan, I would also recommend a fan of one to check out the other for the additional songs.

Trogdor...in Guitar Hero 2?!

by Samm Bennett
I found this out while reading Kotaku:

I have to give props to the Destructoid guys for finding this official thread on the Guitar Hero forums spilling perhaps the most awesome gaming extra of all time: Trogdor the Burninator is an unlockable bonus song in Guitar Hero II.

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That is amazing. Nice job Harmonics!

Important Notice: Lik-Sang.com Out of Business due to Multiple Sony Lawsuits

by Samm Bennett
I received an email today from Lik-sang regarding my Wii preorder. Check out the highlights:

"Dear valued customer,

unfortunately, Lik Sang is forced to close its virtual doors for good. This comes as a consequence of the several legal actions brought on us by Sony."

Yup, as a result of several lawsuits against Sony, Lik-sang.com, probably the best place to go to for imports, will be going out of business. Granted, the major problem here is that the UK had laws in place that allowed Sony to win a case over the legality of importing consoles; however, I feel completely justified in venting against Sony. Here's the link rom Lik-Sang further explaining what happened:
Important Notice: Lik-Sang.com Out of Business due to Multiple Sony Lawsuits

I love this part:

"Furthermore, Sony have failed to disclose to the London High Court that not only the world wide gaming community in more than 100 countries relied on Lik-Sang for their gaming needs, but also Sony Europe's very own top directors repeatedly got their Sony PSP hard or software imports in nicely packed Lik-Sang parcels with free Lik-Sang Mugs or Lik-Sang Badge Holders, starting just two days after Japan's official release, as early as 14th of December 2004 (more than nine months earlier than the legal action). The list of PSP related Sony Europe orders reads like the who's who of the videogames industry, and includes Ray Maguire (Managing Director, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe Ltd), Alan Duncan (UK Marketing Director, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe Ltd), Chris Sorrell (Creative Director, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe Ltd), Rob Parkin (Development Director, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe Limited), just to name a few."

Sony really needs to die. After the root-kits, the lying about rumble capability, the facade at E3 2005 (2 HDMI ports??), the price of the PS3, the complete screwjob to Japan (100,000 PS3s?), and all the other BS from Sony, the world needs to tell Sony they're tired of all of it. The company has grown way too proud. Hell, when they "apologized" for their exploding batteries that affected almost ever laptop maker/consumer, the top execs sat down while they gave a half-assed bow. The company thinks they can rape everyone with the PS3 and win without a problem. The company needs to go.