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Polish Hill
9:08 PM on 09.25.2009

(Note: Please be gentle, this is my video game automobile racing diary and although it only began with Automobili Lamborghini and Beetle Adventure Racing I truly do love racing and the games it takes form in and this is my abridged diary.)

I'm sure most of us aren't quite as exaggerated as this. But that isn't to say that just like any normal person some of us don't have a bit of a temper. I get quite angry when the Nittany Lions or Steelers don't perform up to expectations, which unrealistically is almost always a respective championship. So when I take control of the team or vessel that has potential to be criticized, all hell has potential to break loose.

I didn't adopt the racing genre until I'd nearly finished high school so my early commitment to the Xbox meant I'd been forced into Forza and Project Gotham Racing. By Forza 2 I was brainwashed that this American upstart was poised to overtake the Japanese giant Gran Turismo. And although its a point of major contention, the two series are frighteningly close although vastly different in numerous areas.

After I'd rigorously played through the early stages of Forza 2's career I was ready for the next step. Endurance races. I'd heard mumblings of their existence from friends who owned Gran Turismo. But now was my turn. Tsukuba Circuit wasn't a long or difficult track and the class of cars its event invited was low. Perfect for my experiment. I never was quite good enough at Forza that I could avoid a mistake or two in the best cars the game had to offer. Sadly, or perhaps mercifully, I wasn't given the ability to handle racing cars and I was struck with the curse to only deal with the majority of production vehicles. I set off on a preliminary expedition to merely discover when I should pit to replace tires and fuel. To some this might seem rudimentary but for me it was a necessity for the upcoming challenge. Like studying game film or examining how Billy Mitchell works Pac-Man.

My race on Tsukuba turned out to be less than memorable. I can't even recall the car, likely a Mazda or Mitsubishi that performed admirably under my less than proficient commands. But I won the race without much fanfare, a gaudy nearly hour long race that exemplified commitment and skill. At that point of my video game racing career I was convinced, racing was simply a practice in avoiding the big mistake. For me it meant slower lap times due to earlier braking and later acceleration but as long as that meant I didn't have to reset a twenty lap race I was okay. And then GRID came along.

The wonderful thing about GRID is that it reminded me of one of my favorite experiences in racing, Apex. Apex ignored the bland, generally accepted idea that racing games should be about coming in first always and forever. It emphasized placing for the sole reason that you were advancing your young start up car company. Sadly the concept seems laughable now, the game was made in only 2003, but a new car company would be scoffed at by any onlooker. And sure the choices of car were extremely limited but the idea was fresh and exciting as if you had a hand in crafting an exciting future for the company that you made.

When I eventually stumbled upon GRID it was completely by accident. I'd removed myself from most racing games after Forza 2 when my disc eventually broke. But the allure of racing finally called to me again after intensely playing some Colin Mcrae Rally 2005. That game may have been ancient when I finally picked it up but GRID offered something fresh and new. A rewind system meant that those pesky mistakes that typically lead to a fresh meeting with the restart race option would happen much less frequently.

The option to rewind occasionally meant finishing the game wasn't intimidating even on the highest levels. The normally problematic extremely intense series of a half dozen cars flying around the track at 200 miles an hour plus became less intimidating when you had two chances to fix mistakes even in an endurance race. Sure Le Mans might go from night to day but I can move the sun back for just a bit if I have to. That fact is very powerful in my mind.

The implications of GRID would have never have meant much to me if I would have never decided to rent the new Prince of Persia. I wasn't overwhelmed by much of anything the game did. But the fact was that all anyone could talk about was how easy it was because you "couldn't die". The thought was laughable. Prince of Persia games had been annoyingly frustrating to me so the change was completely welcome. In fact I was perfectly happy for other games to welcome the idea. I just never thought that racing would be the next logical step.

Sure adjustable difficulty exists all over but who would have thought a simulation racing game would decide that unlimited resets made sense? At first I balked at the idea. I've driven endurance races God damnit! What is Turn 10 thinking! But the more I ponder and deliberate the more it makes sense. In reality we're all just looking for that perfect game. Whether its ninety minutes on a soccer field (pitch), a minute or two on that Pac-Man level, or a lap on Laguna Seca it all is the same thing. Sure there are purists that will debate the authenticity of it but last I checked you couldn't use rewind on online multiplayer matches or times so the grumblings are unfounded. So use those unlimited resets were unexpected but completely welcome Turn 10. We'd all like to be perfect but aren't quite talented to be. So we need those rewinds, that help to retry what we foolishly failed the first go. So while it may not be clean or pure it still is. And no matter how many rewinds it takes that lap time will always be impressive.

After about a dozen plays of the Fight Night Round 4 preorder bonus demo I've decided to examine how it measures up against the young contender UFC Undisputed. First off let me explain that while the argument can be made that the two sports are different that doesn't change the fact that many gamers will choose to purchase only one of the two. Similar to someone choosing Burnout Paradise over Forza 2, while the two aren't the same they share enough to be competitors. So let's take a look.

Its been clear from the beginning how vastly different the stature of the two products is. EA's product has been shrouded in mystery with the marketing department slowly releasing information while fans chomped at the bit. Yuke's on the other hand has unleashed a torrent of info and screenshots, leaving little to the imagination. Some of this has to do with the earlier release date of UFC but also the fact that it needs to show what it has to offer to compensate for the lack of reputation.

The UFC demo does a number of things great. It allows the user to change difficulty, slowly increasing their confidence and challenge and getting a real feel for what the game offers. It also provides a similar experience to what the actual game will have. The demo includes three rounds while most fights will be three or five in the full game. There's a sense of tension since a flash knockout could occur at any moment ending the match as early as two seconds in. (There's a video of this on youtube, how impressive is that?) A few problems exist though and shouldn't be overlooked. The menu system irks me, why must everything be slanted is it simply more ultimate that way? The collision detection also shows some flaws as a few knockdown or knockout punches don't even seem to connect in replays. Lastly, the tutorial while relatively comprehensive is just too damn long for a demo. I haven't clocked it but it can easily eat up twenty minutes of your time which is just a bit too daunting for a demo regardless of the complexity of the game. But the whole experience is outstanding. Fights can end abruptly and the numerous layers of combat mean even a dozen fights between the same two guys could end a different way each time. For a product I was apprehensive about initially it did a great job of selling me.

Fight Night has a much different situation than its competitor. Boxing isn't as compressed as MMA due to shorter rounds and more of them. This means the nature of the very game isn't as suited for a demo. But preorder it and you are granted two weeks early access to a preliminary taste of what's to come. A few things become evident from the get go. The tutorial is much more approachable and clocks in under five minutes, letting you jump right into the action. It also shows how drastically things have changed from Round 3. Punches have been sped up and the changes to the corner game should certainly lead to some impressive strategies in the future. While the demo is certainly a fun experience and a godsend for any anxious fan though it still raises some concerns, though not all about the game but rather some of EA's decisions. While the dev team has assured fans that a number of things will be changed (ratings of boxers for example) it still leaves me curious about others. For example, one major point for the career mode is uploading your custom music for ring walks. But in the demo each fighter gets almost 15 seconds, hardly enough time to even comprehend which tune is playing in the arena. And the way the decision is announced is laughable. The camera pans to the victor, he smiles, and then his arm is raised by the referee. Very suspenseful stuff there guys. Another problem is the choice of rounds provided. While EA would be hard pressed to give a full twelve rounds to players it still seems odd that we've only been provided with three. In many of my fights I've preferred to avoid slugfests and actually just boxed but its met with only an anticlimatic decision and no knockdowns. So this leads to a rematch where my friends and I rabidly go for haymakers in the hope of a round finisher.

EA was likely taken by surprise when UFC's demo dropped to almost universal praise. But rather than squelch many of the fears of their biggest fans they released a product that only raised more concerns. While many rants and raves are coming from those who pick the tiniest of nits it can't be ignored that EA made a mistake with this opportunity. No difficulty options or button configurations have turned more people off than they've soothed. So while I'll likely be picking them both up when they drop I do think FNR4 only scored a glancing blow while UFC Undisputed submitted its opposition. Like I could avoid a fighting pun this whole blog.

When this month's theme was announced I was quick to call to mind a few ideas, but sadly none about game principles themselves. It was mostly bile towards game developers, topics such as promises (Fable 1, Fallout 3's 200+ endings) and satisfying endings (Prince of Persia and Fallout 3). But as a huge racing game fan I decided to direct my bile towards the most recent offender, Need For Speed: Undercover.

A fundamental theory behind the Need for Speed theory has been police pursuits. Although only a portion of the games use it, many fans have their fondest memory with thoughts of hot pursuits. And realistically can anything be much more destructive than a police chase?

The Need For Speed series is arcade oriented and allows for outstanding high speed thrills in certain titles. When the first few trailers appeared for Undercover I was skeptical but excited. The concept seemed simple enough, get in with a street racing gang with ulterior motives (a la The Fast and The Furious) and then half way through the game you switch to the police side and round up all your former enemies and allies. Obviously that was just a guess but it would make sense and allow developers to add playability by reusing all of the roads.

Well the game is out now and every hope I had has been crushed, stepped on, and destroyed. The framerate is bad, the graphics are mediocre, the difficulty is almost nonexistent, the exploration is pointless, and the story is laughable. The characters are undeveloped, wafer thin and the dialogue almost always includes the phrase 'dawg'. I understand that no one comes to a racing game with hopes of a gripping storyline but can't a game give us a reason to race? Didn't Apex (Xbox) show us anything? I should disclose the fact that I love strong characterization and plot is very important to me. So when I saw nearly all of Red Alert 3's cinematics I chuckled because it was clear the writers and actors knew the whole thing was a joke. But in NFS:U the writers and actors get confused. It's like at some point the writers wanted to make a feasible plot but then EA told them they needed this many cutscenes and everything got tossed into a blender and wound up flavorless. And the actors only seem like they care for a portion of the time. As an East Coast nobody it seems like the acting hierarchy goes something like Movies-Television-Commercials-Independent Films-Documentaries-Video Games. And here you can tell.

(spoilers, probably, but it doesn't matter because this game is terrible)

By the time I got to a race with Rose Somethingorother (a woman with red lipstick and a dozen tattoos so obviously she's gangster material) I faced the game's first and likely last glimpse of innovation. In the last 10 seconds of the race, where I essentially couldn't lose my lead, the phrase 'Brake Failure' popped up. I was racing with a gangster's girlfriend so we were essentially having premarital sex. The only solution was for him to cut my brake lines. Understandable. I let off the gas as I drew close to a hairpin (because in this game its almost as effective as the brakes) and unceremoniously slammed into one of the last corners. Due to the lack of difficulty I still won the race but my car seemed to flip and meet a horrible fate after the You Won! screen popped up. I was slightly concerned by this revelation.

After the race I was met with a laughable cutscene. My boss or contact or superior or whatever was talking with a colleague. They were both "surprised" I was alive. Apparently after my brakes died I somehow went over a cliff that didn't seem to exist on the map. This seemed problematic. Here was an opportunity to immerse me in the experience. Destroy my car damnit. I worked hard to get up the money to upgrade the engine, suspension, brakes, and tires. If I went off a cliff and barely survived surely my car is certainly a box of carbon fiber. I'll not only be furious at the perpetrator but I'll have a reason to race him and ram him into traffic. Surely this is the next step.

And there it is, my car, pristine as the day it left the factory. Now is the time to destroy the bullshit lack of devotion developers have with their product. NFS:U could have been improved by a serviceable plot that excluded the live cast, the extra cash going to adding race types or civilians into the three cities to increase difficulty. Would anyone be happy to see a car that they've spend hours improving disappear? No, but in a game that fails at so much it seems like one of the few bright spots that could have been achieved but was ignored because someone at EA was either too stupid to think of it or though it might damage a teenager's psyche. And for that I weep a thousand elephant tears because we as gamers deserve better.

I'll come right out and say it now. I've had too many alcoholic beverages, too many unrealistic dreams of grandeur, and thoughts of day trading success. So when I was finally confronted with a finance 420 class that required actual investing knowledge I was quickly crushed after the first test. I think I got a 67 percent, close to the worst test score I've ever received. But you don't care about my test score so let me explain how Wall Street can be a game.

One of the graded portions of my investments class is stocktrak, essentially a game invented by an online company. As you can see in my first screen shot I dominated the first week. I took a chance in Euro futures and made out like a thief, I quickly shot up to the top 10 (6th spot to be exact) and laughed at how skilled I was. You can actually see my peak in this screenshot, how gloriously disastrous.

Obviously things have gone poorly since my early success as a Euro currency day trader. Well soon after I sold my futures in Euros I purchased Canadian and then pork belly futures. Sadly, these purchases did not serve me well as you can see below in the next screenie. :(

Let me explain, in this scenario each student is given $500,000 and can put $125,000 into whatever they please (a restriction so you don't spend all your money on Microsoft stock before they lose to Bluray :( ). So you can't bet all your money on a Halo 4 announcement but if your mildly crazy like me you can put a large portion on the success of Super Smash in Japan[url] and make a sizable profit.

So I made a little bit (sadly very little after[/url] broker costs) on the release of an enormous game. But don't think you can ride on the hype of industry games. Technology is a very dangerous industry to play with and you can lose or gain a great deal of money. I know I've had a great deal of ups and downs with the tech and futures industry and that can be shown from my early prominence in the top 5 of my class and well my poor showing as revealed below...

Keep in mind that's from an initial 500,000 after a month and consider the highest returns are up around $760,000 or 52%, so just like a game you can lose or gain a great deal. Essentially a great deal of research and good luck can garner you a huge return on your money but you have to know what your doing with your money.

But even after reading some of this article a lot of you will ignore the tips I give you such as not putting too many eggs in one basket or holding onto a stock for too long. So here's a NASDAQ quote on the largest companies and how you can keep an eye on them. I didn't put this together so don't give me the praise or insults but use it efficiently.


Now I refuse to leave you with such poor advice so I will tell you to please go out and test some of your theories. Perhaps a site such as http://vse.marketwatch.com/Game/Homepage.aspx. Anyhow, be very careful if you are investing real money and remember that long positions are much safer than short positions (which require you to buy at the right time and then sell at the right time) So let me know all about your opinions and how you would treat the market if you have real money or even fake money in it. We're all learning from each other so voice off and let us all know, even if your strategy involves investing in straight T-bills.

Perhaps developers want to make it a trend, final levels that differ largely from the preceding gameplay in an attempt to deliver a last burst of joy to the player. Numerous games have done it and follow it up with a cutscene to distract the player from what just happened.

When I think about the concept it reminds me of a horrific hour long LA car chase. Finally the hatchback pulls into a suburban cul-de-sac and the helicopter gets a great view. But rather than the perp hopping out and then being wrestled to the ground by police, dozens of clowns flow out and proceed to make a mockery of the whole thing. It's unexpected, confusing, and a little hilarious.

Let's begin on a blunder, the wrong way to do an epic final level. Halo ended with a driving scene in a warthog and although a little strange considering the game is well, a shooter, it still worked on a grand scale. Halo 2 was so...well it was a decent game I just don't even remember how it ended. So naturally I expected Halo 3 to blow me out of the water. Perhaps give me something to remember as fondly as I did the original Halo?

But unfortunately the devs at Bungie had grown so tired of working on the series they decided to spit in our eye, sucker punch us, and steal our girlfriends. You are provided a warthog and *gasp* must escape an unfinished Death Sta...Halo via extreme jumping. That'd be well and good but it's the same thing as the original! Not to mention that even though you are committing vehicular homicide through much of the game it is still primarily an FPS. Don't worry an ambiguous cutscene will replace that strange feeling with confusion. Halo has a Marathon connection?! What?

Regardless of your affection or lack thereof for the franchise you have to be a little disappointed with that final level. The game is built on being a cinematic, innovative, larger than life experience and it winds up running out of ideas. Some might have had fun with it but I was so sick of wallowing in another rehashed level I just wanted it to end. If Halo 4 ever gets made, and my declining American dollar says it will, I expect a much better epic final level than Beetle Adventure Racing on steroids.

Now we move to a much more enjoyable, albeit removed from the core of the game, ending. Psychonauts is an amazing game chock full of the kind of humor most Portal fans would love and filled with some of the most artistic stuff I've seen since Jet Set Radio Future. So when I reached the end of the game, an act known as "Meat Circus", I was prepared for the best stuff imagination could produce.

Well Meat Circus is one of the most frustrating levels of a game I've ever played. But after an hour of fury and mouse crushing anger you reach the final boss battle. You've just been through the most grueling part of the game using all the skill you've acquired and now you'll certainly be faced with a supreme challenge. At this point you just want it to end, hopefully you'll be shooting mind lasers and end the whole ordeal quickly. Or...you'll spend half the battle being Godzilla with boxing gloves and the other half running for your life.

This bout of fisticuffs of mammoth proportions isn't exactly fresh but for a psychic game it was hardly expected. After fighting larger than life foes for much of the game you finally get to be giant for brief moments and wail on your nightmares. The battle isn't a pushover but you rarely feel endangered. Overall, the ordeal is quite satisfying. We get a new flavor of play from the game, a good ending, and we don't feel as though the game should have had another few months in production.

Its very interesting how a lot of games feel it necessary to give us a final level greatly different from the others but it does help in making them memorable. Hopefully when games in the future decide to use epic final levels they make them innovative and extremely fun. Because even the best games can be tainted or ruined by a poor conclusion.

If someone were to suggest to me that I could acquire, by legal and legitimate means, games such as Psychonauts, Street Fighter 2: Championship Edition, Sensible Soccer, and Hitman 2 for free I would scoff at them. It would be a hearty and insulting scoff, very nearly the definition of scoff.

And then I would find out that all that mockery was for naught because this shit does exist, and for free! Now I've always been skeptical of Gamefly and Gametap but I logged onto Gametap just to see how much a month or two subscription would set me back. I was lured in by the promise of free games, certain I would be playing E.T. and Barbie's Ponytail Adventures. But alas, the standalone software was small (around 30 MB) and the free games were actually not terrible.

You can grab yourself some Metal Slug, Joust, Defender, Root Beer Tapper, Samurai Showdown, and Tomb Raider. It seems ideal to have a usb controller and I was fortunate to have my 360 wired controller waiting at the ready. So far it seems controls are completely remappable. Also, I got myself a Tap ID which I believe will allow me to play against others online, still for free.

Hopefully this entices some of you to take a look and get some free gaming action. It looks like all these games don't expire until December 31st so I mean that's like a year. I'm off to Hadouken my way to the top so let me know if this is news to you.