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Game developers and PR people are always promising us something (some more than others). And those of us that have been around long enough know that a lot of these "next big thing"s either don't happen or get changed around so much they end up being something else entirely. Sometimes they do come through and we get some amazing games. But more often than not these ground breaking features are just full of hot air.

So what promises have been kept? Online play is now an industry standard and is now expected to come with a game as opposed to being a neat little feature. Some advancements in communication with voice chat and in-game commands have gotten better and easier to use. HD and improved graphics are a given and sound quality, along with implementation (Dead Space), have also come a long way in the past few years. Stories and characters have become more complex and have gained emotional attachment by many of us. Control schemes have remained basically the same except the Wii (Power Glove anyone?). It seems that advancements in controller technology only come in slow numbers and only when absolutely necessary.

So with all these promises of "totally awesome" games that are "totally not ripoffs or sequels of other games" where do we stand today? The current environment seems somewhat stagnant; not bad but not moving forward at all. We do have better graphics but the games remain the same and even the Wii is plagued with boring games. Have we reached the pinnacle of gaming innovation?

In some sense yes we have. With processors getting maxed out and graphical achievements becoming harder to notice I think we have reached the furthest we can go with the current state of things. We really are playing games from 10 years ago but with better graphics and gameplay being more refined. Again, I'm not saying it's necessarily a bad thing, it just means the industry isn't moving forward much.

What's needed to truly make the "Next Gen" experience? The Wii was on the right track but got pounded with shovel-ware. Natal looks really lame but could have some potential for the gaming industry later down the road. Sony's push for 3D sounds only like a 1/2 step forward because the controls remain the same and the price for a 3D TV is something I don't even want to think about.

Clearly the best option is to have all of the above (3D and good motion control...Star Trek's Holodeck?) mixed in with the best of what we have today. Simple improvements in rendering, compression techniques and more online features is nice but it's not doing anything to really advance the future of gaming.

What would I like to see in the future? Assuming everything we have now is still around I thin that:
1) More emphasis on smaller studios to encourage originality, outside thinking, independence and innovation.
2) Allow interaction between players and game makers to be encouraged and perhaps directly implemented within games.
3)New ways to control the game and to experience it.

With these 3 simple changes we could truly enter the "Next Gen" age and avoid rehashing games from the lat 90's again.
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Yes that title is correct. It seems like many people are of the opinion that we should strip away these arbitrary number scores placed on games because they don’t really tell us anything. What does an 88.5/100 actually mean? Well I’m here to tell you that these staples of the industry are actually important and we need to keep them, though not for the reasons you might think.

It seems that in the last few years there has been an outcry of gamers to do away with numerical scores. Solutions vary from simply changing to a star or thumb up/down system (both of which still use numbers) all the way to removing them completely and to force people to read/listen to the content of the review rather than jump straight down to the number. This second solution is actually a great idea and I was totally behind it for a long time. But after thinking of ideas for this month’s Monthly Musing I am retracting my previous stance on the issue and here’s why.

The numerical scores placed on games are actually less about the game and more about the reviewer. Having a score attached to a game helps us to understand the person or people reviewing the game. If you think of the number more as “___ out of all-the-games-I-have-ever-played” rather than ___/100 you may start to see where I’m coming from. Offering a number score to accompany the written or video version of a review offers us more general insight into the person reviewing the game.

But why would I want to know more about a reviewer when there are a billion of them? It allows for trust between you and the reviewer. How many times have you read a review and then saw an unexpectedly high/low score compared to what you thought they would’ve given? By sticking with certain reviewers (or more likely a publication or website) you start to understand how they write. Maybe they don’t spend enough time going over the negatives in the written portion and that’s why the score seems out of place. Or perhaps they used the wrong words to illustrate their opinions. But knowing that they tend to underrate/overate games allows you to trust that reviewer. You don’t need to find a reviewer you see eye to eye with, just one you can trust.

Trust in gaming reviews can of course be broken. The pinnacle of this broken trust and seemingly upstart of the removal of scores seems to have stemmed from the Jeff Gerstmann/Gamespot review of Kane & Lynch. I’m sure most of you are familiar with this and are aware of all sides of the story. But still, trust was broken and GS suffered greatly from it. The bias of all their reviews was brought into question (arguably a bit overboard) and I don’t think they have gained back the trust from a majority of the people they lost it from. This was a horrible time for everyone involved but I believe that it was a fairly isolated incident. Perhaps I think the best of people and am a fool for doing so, but I believe that most reviewers are honest and open about their work.

What else can numbers tell us about a game? Sites like Metacritic can help give us a general overview of the gaming community as a whole, or at least the ones who use that site. There are plenty of trolls, fanboys, and non-justifiable game bashing that go on there but now we know that those people make up a significant portion of gamers. Sadly though, knowing that these people abuse the system gives a lot of people justification to not use numerical scores altogether. Most of the time I think that sites like Metacritic do what it’s supposed to do well enough.. It’s only on occasion, usually with a console exclusive title, that the fanboys come out of the woodworks and intentionally lower the score because they don’t favor that system.

So in review; numerical scores given alongside game reviews are a great idea and one that we should try to keep. The score tells us more about the person or people reviewing the game than about the actual game itself. I do believe in keeping the actual content of the review above the score given but that doesn’t mean we should toss aside the number altogether. The system of course can be abused but I think it’s an example of a few bad apples ruining the batch. Understanding who the people reviewing a game are is just as important as what they have to say about the game. By using a numerical score associated with the review it makes trusting the reviewer(s) an easier process.
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Oh tutorial enemies, how I admire you. You appear in almost every game dating back to as far as I can remember. You’re never well respected and most people look down upon you but you deserve much more than this. There are many of you and you all deserve recognition, but these are the three that truly stick out amongst the rest.

The first tutorial enemy that is brought to mind is the initial Goomba in the original Super Mario Brothers game on level 1-1. You are all by yourself, sent ahead to take on Mario; the first of many to succumb to his jumping head-squish of death. You stand little chance of success. Surprisingly though, you are still able to vanquish noobs, outmaneuver drunks and stoners, and irritate the person attempting a speed run. Even I fall for your seemingly childlike skill after coming back to the game after a long break. For your trickery and constant pattern of timed perfection, I salute you!

I would next like to recognize an enemy that appears in most games nowadays and especially in training levels for stealth games: the oblivious standing guard with his back turned to me. Simply standing there you pose no threat and even if you do detect me the level will often restart, denying you of taking my life. Basic kill after basic kill, you rarely die in exciting ways. Clearly your commanders lack any strategy for troop placement or just really hate you. For your eternal understanding and patience for simply standing there and letting me snap your neck in two, I salute you!

Finally I would like to give my respects to all the low level imps, slimes, forest animals, and other lowly creatures in RPG’s. The long road ahead is paved with your lives in order to increase my wealth and power just to end up defeating you masters. Though simple and easy to pick off, you can surprisingly gain the advantage if the wrong party combination is brought forth (four white mages). For constantly being slaughtered in large numbers and still having the cohones to send out more fellow soldiers for me to butcher; I salute you!

Oh tutorial enemies, your numbers grow and grow every year but the war you fight is an unwinnable one. In reality, your mere presence helps us to defeat your comrades and overlords. But the fact that you always return, still wanting the blood of our characters and occasionally are able to catch us off guard, I salute you!
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So there was a Microsoft Zune update (try not to die from a heart attack while laughing at me for owning a Zune) that included a few more games for the device. One of the additions is a shmup titled Space Battle aka Zauri. It’s pretty basic stuff that only offers very little in entertainment. There is an upgrade system with different stats that don’t seem to make a huge impact except in the extreme highs/lows. The controls are horrid. I have one of the older models and the control pad makes doing anything other than going left/right/up/down a pain in the ass. Sound effects are what you would expect.

A description of the game reads as so: “Prepare to save the universe from the evil Zauri armada! Battle through five stages through the Zauri’s solar system and stop their plans for galactic domination. Pick up powerups to increase your firepower and your ship’s abilities.”

This guy seems to be doing pretty good

The main complaint I have about the game is that the incoming fire from the bad guys is a weird color of red. Being slightly color blind makes tracking these things difficult. On the second level (of four), the background is yellow and the enemy ships are also yellow which leads me to make surprise kamikaze attacks (a surprise for me anyways). Do developers not test for colorblindness?

If you’re color blind you can see a picture of me doing your mom last night.

I’ve noticed this with a handful of games in the past, mainly from puzzle games. I haven’t really thought about it much because a majority of games made within the last 10 years either don’t give me much of a problem or I just don’t end up playing the ones that are especially bad. Hexic (which is also on the Zune) gave me some problems in that I had to really concentrate on a specific zone of the board to tell the colors apart. If I looked at the entire board I wouldn’t notice the difference between light colored greens and yellows.

I guess the moral of this story is:
When making a game, please test or account for color blindness because it really sucks when we can’t see vital information on screen. It doesn’t take that much extra effort and if you do it at least nobody will complain.
Don’t buy a Zune

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite Frank Zappa songs which I was listening to while playing Zauri: Watermelon In Easter Hay


3:36 PM on 11.22.2008

4 player co-op? Check
4 vs. 4 balanced multiplayer? Check.
Simple and straight forward gameplay? Check.
Huge gaggles of the living dead? Double check!

Valve seems to have a habit of making great games with balanced multiplayer and it really shows in Left 4 Dead. For anybody living under a rock for the last 10 years, Valve has helped to shape the FPS genre into what it is today with classics like Counter-Strike, Half-Life 1 and 2, Team Fortress, and Portal. They are also known for putting a lot of high quality work into their games and continue to update them for better performance and gameplay. Their latest release, Left 4 Dead, proves that multiplayer co-op is not dead but that many developers have been doing it wrong. It’s simple, easy to pick up, difficult to master, and a hell of a lot of fun.

This game is designed for multiplayer. A single player campaign is present and the AI controlled partners work great (something that Army of Two could’ve learned from) but it just feels empty and lonely. Having other warm bodies playing along with or against you in all videogames just adds a certain something.

Multiplayer is where the key gameplay is at and it comes in 2 types: 4 player co-op and 4 vs. 4. The 4 player co-op speaks for itself. You and 3 other buddies run from one safe room to the next while dispatching waves of zombies in between. There are several boss zombies that have their own special attacks and will usually show up at the worst time possible. Working together is a must because if 1 person wanders off and gets pinned down, it can devastate the rest of the team just to go back and help them. Don’t want to play along with random n00bs but don’t have 3 other friends? You can create a private match and have the excellent AI control any of the empty slots. Sharing of supplies between each person is important (the AI will even help you out) and friendly fire is on at all times which helps to emphasize the need for cooperation.

One aspect that enhances the replay value of Left 4 Dead is the AI Director. The Director is a part of the game that determines when and where enemies, weapons, ammo, and other objects will spawn at. What’s even better is that it will change stuff up in the middle of a game depending on the difficulty level and how well or poor your team is doing. Overall, the Director’s job is to keep things surprising for your team by mixing things up and actually making you work towards your goal. It’s like playing D&D with a crazy DM who likes to throw random stuff at your party to make it challenging and fun.

The second multiplayer mode is 4 vs. 4 and this is where a lot of the replay value will come from. One team is comprised of the 4 survivors getting through each chapter alive. The second team is made up of the boss zombies found in the co-op mode (excluding the Witch). The infected team is tasked with making the survivor’s lives complete hell. It is important to note that the zombie team doesn’t need to kill all 4 of the survivors; they are there to confuse, scare, and incapacitate them. Each of the 4 boss zombies has their own unique abilities and play style. The Director will randomly pick the boss zombie characters for players which helps keep people from hoarding one particular class. Having 2 very different teams for versus mode keeps the game from getting dull and repetitive.

I’ve heard some people argue that:

It’s short. Perhaps too short for some people. On the easiest difficulty you can literally rush through a single chapter within 5-10 minutes.

The weapon selection is a bit small compared to other FPS’s.

Crysis looks better than Left 4 Dead.

Servers on the PC can be wonky at times.

Yes it is short. But the longevity of the game rests within the 4 player co-op and 4 player versus. Much like Rock Band, the game is more entertaining and just all around better when playing with or against other people. On the Easy difficulty you can run through a chapter within a few minutes but on Advanced and Expert it can take upwards of 45 minutes just to get through 1 of the 5 chapters offered in the 4 campaigns. The PC has the potential for some great community made mods and additions as well as DLC in the future from Valve that will most likely be free.

The weapon selection is fairly small but it keeps the game balanced. Everyone starts out with a pistol that has unlimited ammunition and you can usually find a second pistol to dual-wield latter on in the chapter. At each starting point you are offered a choice of what to use as a primary weapon. There are Shotguns, an Assault Rifle, Uzi, and even a scoped rifle. Each gun is unique, useful, and has advantages and disadvantages over the others. There are also Molotov Cocktails and pipe bombs scattered around the levels to help deal with the gynormus waves of zombies. When playing versus, the small selection of weaponry mixed with the specific boss zombie classes offers a very unique and balanced side of gameplay we don’t see much of from other games.

Crysis looks better than pretty much anything else out there. Left 4 Dead runs off of the Source engine which has been around for several years but it looks especially good this time around. The animations, textures, and overall design for the characters and zombies are wonderful and they did a great job of creating the right atmosphere. There is also a color blind option which alters the health bars and crosshairs colors a bit that really helps clear them up for me (being that I’m partially color blind). Music doesn’t play much at all during the game but sound plays a vital role. Each boss zombie gives off a specific sound associated with it. When approaching a Witch, eerie music starts to play and creates great tension. Being on the Source engine also means that you don’t need a $1000 computer to run everything smoothly.

Servers on the PC can act strange at times. When launching a game you have the choice to look for a dedicated server. If a server can’t be found the host will make a server and still be able to play but may be a bit laggy. I did run into the occasional random server boot while playing the demo, but several updates to the retail game since then I have yet to encounter a problem. The system is great for getting a couple friends together or randomly joining some and getting into a game quickly. There is also the standard server selection screen which can be activated through console commands for those who want to use it.

Left 4 Dead is an amazing game that any fan of FPS’s should go and pick up (unless they are under 17, the game is rated M for many reasons). Great multiplayer co-op and versus modes will keep this game going strong for years to come.

*Note, in L4D they use the term ‘infected’ in place of zombie. I just like the word zombie more.
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In the last few weeks I have rented a couple games for my 360 that have both gotten a pretty bad rap: Alone in The Dark and Bully: Scholarship Edition. Both games were plagued with glitches, control issues, and both left a bad taste in my mouth. More specifically, AITD was filled with great concepts and ideas but failed to deliver either. Constant death animations and level restarts/skipping was what the core gameplay was like for me. If I were playing this on the PS2 I would have loaded up the Code Breaker/Game Shark and put in infinite health, allowing me to actually *GASP* enjoy the game!

After failing one mission on Bully over five times in a row, I would have also put in infinite health. There are cheat codes that you can do on a second controller, but I'm too lazy to get a second one and have it on every time I go to play. Other issues aside, I would probably have played this game more if easy-to-use cheat codes were available.

This brings up one of my questions: Are certain games more enjoyable when you are able to cheat?

I am completely against multiplayer cheating (except map exploits, that's ok). But for single player games I'm fine with cheating. And after ditching AITD, I would actually encourage cheating for certain games. When a story for a game is the only reason worth playing it, being able to skip over poor gameplay aspects should be fine. But with achievements, cheating is kept down pretty tight. As for AITD, I might actually look for a copy on the PS2 and fire up the old Game Shark.

Another question is this: Do game reviewers use cheats and if so, what are your thoughts? How much of a game do reviewers play through before making their final judgments?