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NBA 2K13 announced with All-Star Weekend pre-order DLC


May 30
// Samit Sarkar
2K Sports has announced that NBA 2K13 is due out for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, Wii, and PSP on October 2, 2012, in North America, and October 5 worldwide. A Wii U version is also in development; it will be released during ...
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Origin to distribute crowd-funded games free for 90 days


May 18
// Samit Sarkar
EA is looking to expand its support of small studios, this time through its Origin digital distribution service, by capitalizing on the indie development wave du jour: Kickstarter. The publishing giant announced today a new i...
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NHL 13 announced, will deliver new AI and skating physics


May 18
// Samit Sarkar
[Update: You can now watch the debut trailer, which focuses on True Performance Skating.]EA Sports has officially announced NHL 13, this year's iteration of its critically acclaimed hockey series. After releasing two teaser ...

Preview: Making FIFA 13 'predictably unpredictable'

May 16 // Samit Sarkar
FIFA 13 (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC, Wii, Vita, 3DS, PSP, PS2, iOS) Developer: EA Canada Publisher: EA Sports Release: Fall 2012 Three of the creative leads behind FIFA 13 delivered a lengthy presentation to members of the press a few weeks ago at EA Canada, located on a sprawling campus in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby. They discussed five major gameplay innovations that are coming in this fall’s new soccer game, but they did not speak of new modes or any other changes, and we didn’t have a chance to play the game. So there’s a lot more to come regarding FIFA 13 -- perhaps at E3, or, more likely, at Gamescom -- but for now, I’ll take you through what gameplay producer Aaron McHardy called “a revolution of game-changing features” for the PS3, 360, and PC versions. Attacking Intelligence lets AI teammates think ahead Dumb AI is a perennial nuisance in team sports games; it’s always frustrating when a scoring opportunity evaporates because a computer-controlled teammate didn’t do something you perceived as natural, lifelike, and/or smart in a particular situation. EA Canada has revamped FIFA’s positioning code, making AI attackers smarter and opening up the field for your offense. FIFA 13’s new Attacking Intelligence feature is felt in a number of ways. Players are now much better capable of analyzing space to go on decisive runs -- they can not only evaluate openings on the pitch and realize they’re in position to make a run, but also can get to valuable space in a manner that creates more scoring chances. This encompasses new behaviors such as stutter-stepping to stay onside, curving runs around defenders, and creating separation from opponents to open up passing lanes, as well as more complex soccer strategy in player positioning and ball movement. The world’s best players have an unparalleled ability to visualize and predict the progress of a play. As McHardy put it, “They’re processing the game at another level,” always thinking ahead to try and gain the upper hand on defenders. Your teammates in FIFA 13 will do the same: they have the intelligence to understand where the ball is likely to go next, and accordingly -- instead of standing around until the play comes to them -- they’ll start moving one or even two passes ahead of time, putting themselves in better position to receive passes and propel the attack forward. McHardy played footage from the studio’s test bed environment, complete with wire-frame players, proving the improvements between FIFA 12 and FIFA 13 to be apparent, significant, and remarkable. Dancing around defenders with Complete Dribbling Last year’s game introduced Precision Dribbling, a setup that suffered from the same problem that has plagued the movement systems in almost every soccer game: players pushed the ball in a direction and turned their body to follow the ball. It made it difficult to get around defenders without using FIFA’s relatively complicated Skill Moves. FIFA 13 brings in an update called Complete Dribbling. McHardy said it’s “way bigger” than Precision Dribbling, with the key element being that EA Canada has finally separated the moving direction from the facing direction. I asked McHardy how important that change is, and he told me it’s “completely liberating.” Until now, he explained, “You couldn’t really face up a player 1v1 and beat him in the way that Messi beats a player 1v1: running straight at him, sidestepping around him, keeping that facing angle forward, and being able to get around the player.” It’s now possible to move laterally while still facing forward, which lets you quickly evade defenders and continue attacking. Complete Dribbling gives you the power to embarrass your opponents, and the freedom and creativity to do it in a variety of ways. Precision Dribbling brought shielding into FIFA, and Complete Dribbling expands on that with the ability to lock a facing-away angle contextually and chain shielding more fluidly with other dribbling moves. In addition, you now have the ability to change direction more quickly in low-speed dribbles, as well as finer control over close touches. Some of these elements came from the dribbling system in FIFA Street, according to Rutter. While Street is an arcade game, the FIFA team felt that “mapping stick control one-to-one with foot movement work[ed] well,” and implemented parts of that setup in FIFA 13. Complete Dribbling also makes advanced dribbling tactics accessible to all players. It’s controlled completely by the left stick, so even novices who can’t pull off Skill Moves will be able to dribble circles around their opponents in FIFA 13. “What we would like is for everyone that plays our game to feel like they have tools to go around defenders,” said line producer Nick Channon. First Touch Control means nobody’s perfect McHardy played footage from a real soccer match in which Ronaldinho perfectly trapped a pass from 50 meters out -- just one gentle tap from his foot, and the ball fell safely into possession. But he’s one of the world’s best footballers, and even he can’t pull that off in every situation. The next clip McHardy showed was from FIFA 12, in which a middling player managed to receive a long pass with perfect touch. That’s simply not realistic, and FIFA 13’s First Touch Control system aims to fix that. This year, the ball isn’t glued to your foot. The new system introduces “contextual trap error,” taking into account a wide variety of factors to determine how easy or difficult it will be for a player to secure the ball. Rain makes it much tougher; a soft pass is easier to gather, unless it’s coming to Earth from way up high; and a well-timed shove from a defender could make all the difference. First Touch Control also accounts for players’ attributes, differentiating the Ronaldinhos of the world from less skilled footballers. Channon made sure to note that it’s “unpredictable, [but] it’s not random, and that’s a very key difference.” EA Canada implemented the system to eliminate perfect control and introduce opportunities for your opponent to take back possession. Playing aggressive passes will make it harder for your teammates to corral them, and it will give the other team chances to pick up balls that bounced away from an attacker’s foot, providing balance to the more offense-minded gameplay changes discussed above. Getting physical on and off the ball with the Player Impact Engine The FIFA team debuted a completely new collision system with the Player Impact Engine last year, and it had its share of glitches. Many of those errors -- the infamous “kiss,” or players’ limbs being forced into biomechanically-impossible-without-tearing-tissue positions -- arose because FIFA 12 didn’t properly model the musculoskeletal structure of its players. Joints now have the proper tension associated with them, and EA Canada has added (and slowed down) animations so players can disentangle themselves without expressing their love for each other. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. “What’s really rewarding this year is building loads of features” on top of FIFA 12’s solid foundation, said Channon. The original Player Impact Engine had a major limitation: it only calculated physics for collisions in which one player already had the ball. Two opponents waiting for a pass to drop, however, had very little interaction. FIFA 13’s evolution of real-time physics allows for players to push and pull each other off the ball, bringing in the crucial element of jockeying for position. “We never really had that concept in our game,” Channon told me, “and I think that’s something we’re very excited about.” This development makes playing defense much more active, and it allows bigger players to use their size and strength to their advantage in preventing attackers from getting to the ball. It’s all about the “battle for the ball,” said Channon, noting that “it’s like any sport, really: if you’ve got good body position, you’ll generally be in a good place.” Tactical Free Kicks provide creative freedom I have limited experience playing FIFA, but even I’ve noticed that free kicks weren’t very exciting -- not nearly as interesting as they are in real life. “Free kicks, in FIFA, have just been kicking the ball over the wall,” admitted Channon. That’s only one element of many in the highly variable setup, and FIFA 13 finally retools the system to give you numerous options, both on offense and defense. The kicking team can now organize up to three players over the ball to play around with fakes, and execute dummy runs to take the ball down the side or to the front. Test bed footage showed two players hopping over the ball, after which the third player sent a pass to the first, who put a shot on goal. You can add to or subtract from the defensive wall, and even creep upward (with the potential for the referees to notice and penalize you). If you mis-time a shot-blocking attempt, you can reform the wall and jump again. More aggressive teams can send a player toward the kickers to intercept passes or block shots. These changes have been “in the making for a while,” Channon told me, “and we felt that this year was the time to do it.” Minor enhancements can have major effects McHardy closed his presentation by discussing additional gameplay improvements. Last year’s iteration of real-time physics made it “infinitely more difficult” for referees to call fouls correctly, so the team has “re-architected” the rules system to work better. They have also humanized the CPU by making it a bit more forgiving, especially on Professional difficulty, which used to be robotically perfect. Lateral defensive containment is a new option, letting defenders cut off passing lanes by moving sideways instead of only toward or away from attackers. On offense, you can take advantage of new pass types, sending lofted through balls or passes that bounce over defenders’ outstretched legs. EA Canada has also added animations for 180-degree shots, off-balance shots, and celebrations. As you can see, EA Canada is doing a lot of work to more accurately simulate soccer. It took Rutter, Channon, and McHardy 90 minutes to cover all the new gameplay features -- that’s how much is changing this year. I heard a few amazed gasps from fellow journalists during the presentation, so it seems like FIFA fans have a lot of stuff to get excited about between now and FIFA 13’s launch this fall.
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The draw of “reality” television is its ostensibly greater degree of unpredictability over scripted shows, the coveted “you can’t make this stuff up” factor. Many simulation videogames better rep...

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The well-received Metal Gear Solid HD Collection is making its way to the PlayStation Vita this summer, sans Peace Walker; the original PSP game can be purchased on the PlayStation Store, although not through the Vita, weird...

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Lions' Calvin Johnson voted onto Madden NFL 13 cover


Apr 26
// Samit Sarkar
EA Sports put the Madden cover to a vote once again this year, and as of last week, the fans had whittled down a bracket of 64 NFL players to just two: Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam "Ace Boogie" Newton (the No. 1 seed) an...
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A 4-week-old Bastion looked ugly but played beautifully


Apr 13
// Samit Sarkar
Videogame development is an iterative process, and games undergo countless changes along the way. In many cases, the final product bears little resemblance to earlier versions, as developers refine their vision and excise fea...

Review: Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13

Apr 03 // Samit Sarkar
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13 (Xbox 360 [reviewed], PlayStation 3) Developer: EA Tiburon Publisher: EA Sports Release: March 27, 2012 (NA) / March 30, 2012 (worldwide) MSRP: $59.99 / $69.99 (The Masters Collector’s Edition) EA Tiburon has made sweeping control changes in PGA Tour 13 that vastly expand shot variety and the effects of user input. Called “Total Swing Control,” the revamped setup is a new paragon of control refinement in sports simulations, presenting a system that’s fundamentally familiar while offering a greater degree of control over shots than in any golf game to date. A golf shot consists of two discrete segments: the setup and the swing. In aiming mode, the D-pad moves the ball’s landing spot, while the right stick controls the position of the ball in your stance (which affects the shot’s trajectory) and how open or closed that stance is (which affects fade and draw, respectively). Having settled on your shot, you address the ball and prepare to swing. Here, you move one analog stick to determine the height of the club’s sweet spot in relation to the ball -- this further affects trajectory, and can also be used to dig a ball out of a bunker or pick it out of the rough -- and swing with the other stick. Once you enter address mode, a white trail that represents the ideal arc of your swing appears around your golfer. PGA Tour 13’s updated animation system works in concert with Total Swing Control to present realistic visual cues to a swing’s potential for success. The game now translates your exact analog-stick motion into a swing: if you pull back and to the left, you’ll notice your golfer’s arms and club follow a red trail that deviates from the white arc. Upon swinging, an on-screen graphic provides feedback on the accuracy, power, and tempo of your flicking motion. Total Swing Control instantly makes every other simulation golf game obsolete. Tiburon has removed the shackles of previous Tiger Woods games, which limited you to certain situational shot types, and the result is astounding in that it lets you do almost anything a real golfer can do. PGA Tour 13 gives you the freedom to succeed or fail, depending solely on your skill with a controller. I’ve recovered from bad lies in the rough or the sand in ways that simply weren’t possible until PGA Tour 13. (Sadly, you still can’t save replays of highlight-reel-worthy shots.) Total Swing Control is a rare innovation, the kind that makes you wonder how you got along all this time without it. I do wish the game did a better job of explaining it, though. One of last year’s new additions was the caddie, who offered shot suggestions based on current conditions. There’s now an option to see your caddie’s advice and go with it or alter your shot in a way that suits you. He usually provides valuable advice, proposing shots that take into account factors you may not have considered. But a lot of his suggestions made me scratch my head -- he tends to over-complicate tee shots with draw and fade, as well as overshoot approach and chip shots. I often found myself ignoring his advice and setting up shots myself; perhaps Tiburon didn’t want players to rely completely on his suggestions. New in PGA Tour 13 is a mode called Tiger Legacy Challenge, in which you follow the arc of Woods’ career from his toddler years all the way through the rest of this decade. You play as Woods at seven different ages in ten eras of his career, reliving some of his most significant golfing milestones and creating some future ones. Each segment of his career includes an audio clip of Woods talking about the challenges he faced and the memories he has of those special moments, and it’s truly endearing to see one man’s passionate, lifelong pursuit of golfing greatness. Legacy Challenge offers 53 events with enough variety to keep things fresh. But some of that variety manifests in odd difficulty spikes. You’ll struggle to keep pace in repeated matches against Woods’ fictional rival, a stoic redheaded kid named Scott Ratchman, but one challenge sees Tiger return to his backyard as a teenager to practice a few straight ten-foot putts. You will have had to sink many much more difficult putts just to reach that point in Legacy Challenge. Road to the PGA Tour, the traditional create-a-golfer career mode, has similar quirks. You start out as an amateur, with the promise of an invitation to The Masters if you can win a regional Amateur Championship. I destroyed the amateur competition in tournaments, once going 14-under while everyone below me was at least a few strokes above par. Yet opponents in one-on-one games such as sponsor challenges kept up with every shot I made. Even so, few videogame thrills compare with the accomplished joy I felt upon winning the Masters’ coveted green jacket as an amateur. The most irritating aspect of the career mode -- and indeed, the entire game -- is the pervasive intrusion of paid content. It’s painfully obvious that EA really wants you to spend money in PGA Tour 13, whether it’s the in-game currency of Coins or real money in the form of Microsoft Points. The disc includes 16 courses, and EA is selling another 16 downloadable courses; the six additional courses exclusive to the Masters Collector’s Edition are not currently available for purchase. Tiburon had the audacity to integrate DLC courses into the career regardless of whether you have access to them, so you’ll occasionally come upon an event that you can’t initially play because you haven’t unlocked or purchased the course at which it’s taking place. (Thankfully, you can at least change the venue to an available course.) This year, you don’t have to buy a DLC course outright (for at least $5 each; less in packs) if you want to play it. You can use your Coins -- which you can earn by playing any mode of PGA Tour 13, or buy with real money (at $5 for 15,000 Coins) -- to purchase rounds on downloadable courses. You can also spend Coins on Pin Packs. Consumable Pins are limited-use items that confer bonuses such as attribute or equipment boosts, while Collectable Pins can be hoarded as a way to unlock courses. Completing all of the objectives to achieve “Gold Mastery” on a particular course is the other way to unlock it for unlimited use. That may sound appealing, but it’s actually insidious. While it’s great that you can try out a DLC course without buying it, you’re better off just paying the $5 to own it if you think you might play it more than once. A single round on a downloadable course costs 6,000 Coins; you get two plays for 9,000, and three tries for 12,000. But you earn Coins at a pitifully slow rate: only about 600 per 18-hole round. And the Gold Mastery unlock is something of a charade: most of the Gold objectives are cumulative goals, like achieving 100 pars or hitting 80 greens in regulation, that are difficult and require numerous rounds to complete. The math just doesn’t work out. And what’s particularly grating is that PGA Tour 13 goes out of its way to remind you at every turn that you’re missing out on content, like by leaving downloadable courses in the course select menu as grayed-out options. The best way to earn Coins more quickly is to join friends in an online Country Club, essentially a clan. You can compare in-game accomplishments with members of your Club and compete for Club Champion titles, or join with your teammates to take on other Clubs and make your way up the leaderboards. It’s a fun setup that encourages each member of the Club to play as well as possible, and since it incorporates offline progress, you can be a social golfer without ever playing online. Thanks to the new swing setup, I’ve had more fun playing Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13 than any previous entry in the series. By putting the onus on you to think like a real golfer and execute every shot, PGA Tour 13 makes successful play more rewarding than ever before and gives you the closest possible feeling to mastering a world-class golf course in real life. EA’s bothersome money-grubbing tactics resemble annoying flies that keep buzzing in your ear, threatening to ruin the golfing experience, until you smack them into oblivion with a perfectly played tee shot.
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If baseball is a game of inches, golf is a game of degrees. The loft of a driver; the slope of a fairway; whether a ball lies above or below your feet; an open or closed club face -- even a few degrees’ variation in any...

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Tim Schafer demoes Double Fine Kinect prototype 'Specs'


Apr 02
// Samit Sarkar
“This thing that I’m going to show you is a really weird thing,” said Tim Schafer, the founder of beloved studio Double Fine Productions, during a recent presentation at New York University. He had come to s...
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EA Sports opens up NHL 13 cover to 60-player fan vote


Mar 29
// Samit Sarkar
EA Sports' Madden cover fan vote has been a massive marketing success, and this year, the publisher is trying to engage hockey fans in the same way by letting them choose the NHL 13 cover athlete. The voting is open right no...
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Round of 32 begins for Madden NFL 13 cover vote


Mar 21
// Samit Sarkar
After a preliminary play-in round with two Madden NFL 13 cover choices from each NFL team, the results are in: the bracket you see above contains the people's top 32 picks for sports gaming's most storied cover. You can cast ...
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Win a Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13 Xbox 360 at Best Buy


Mar 20
// Samit Sarkar
EA Sports' Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13 is the latest game to get the limited-edition Xbox 360 treatment, with a console featuring cover athletes Tiger Woods and Rickie Fowler against the backdrop of a grayscale golf course. ...

Review: MLB 12 The Show

Mar 16 // Samit Sarkar
MLB 12 The Show (PlayStation 3 [reviewed], PlayStation Vita) Developer: SCE San Diego Studio Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment Release: March 6, 2012 MSRP: $59.99 (PS3) / $39.99 (Vita) / $79.99 (both) The Show has excelled at serving many masters, particularly in its broad variety of control schemes. MLB 12 offers ever more choice, with full PlayStation Move support in all game modes headlining the new options. After introducing analog hitting, pitching, and throwing controls last year, Sony SD has added two new control setups, one for the hardcore crowd and the other for less serious fans. Those who found MLB 11’s analog hitting too easy can now aim their bats with the left stick while swinging with the right. I prefer -- and am much better at -- hitting without dual-thumb gymnastics, but your digits may be up to the challenge. Also new this year is Pulse Pitching, in which you aim a pitch and then set its accuracy by correctly timing a circle that throbs around the ball. Either its implementation is flawed, or my timing is off; I simply couldn’t get this control method down pat. It might help if MLB 12 gave some better feedback -- I’d appreciate knowing whether I was tapping X too early or too late. As usual, MLB 12 requires a five-gigabyte hard drive installation. This year, for the first time, you can choose to install an additional 5 GB of data. It takes another ten minutes, and if you can spare the hard drive space, I recommend it. The Show has long suffered from atrocious load times, and the 10 GB installation offers a marked improvement -- for example, it cuts exhibition-game loading almost in half. MLB 12 also benefits from drastically reduced save-game file sizes. Franchise and Road to the Show files previously exceeded 20 MB; now, they’re 1-4 MB, which speeds up saving and loading. Once you load into a game, notable upgrades become evident. Most obvious is MLB 12’s revamped ball physics; the new system gives rise to a much wider and more realistic variety of ball trajectories, whether it’s a high chopper going over a defender’s head or a liner tailing away from a diving outfielder. The ball now spins and bounces properly: a bunt might land foul and slowly roll fair, or a grounder might hit the third-base bag and shoot upward. It’s a subtle change that nonetheless has a tremendous impact on gameplay, delivering an experience that feels as organic and unpredictable as the sport itself. The live ball era has truly arrived in The Show. MLB 12 continues to offer visuals that make you question whether you’re watching a videogame or a baseball broadcast, with logically sequential camera cuts and stadium-specific presentation elements (like Marlins Park’s light-up carnival monstrosity for home runs). Sony SD has finally implemented collision detection, so players almost never ghost through each other anymore. The audio holds up its end, too: I hit a walk-off dinger, and the fans’ raucous cheering nearly drowned out the in-game commentary. Unfortunately, MLB 12’s commentary occasionally makes me wish for continuous background noise to drown it out. It’s alternately terrific and dreadful, more the latter than the former. Franchise games feature some impressively relevant lines, like Dave Campbell mentioning an in-progress hitting streak. Of course, plenty of lines repeat; I almost don’t want to play in Yankee Stadium anymore, because Matt Vasgersian has been talking up “a new home for baseball in the Bronx” since 2009. That’s even understandable to an extent, considering the realities of annualized game development. Worse than repetition is inaccuracy, and I heard many more head-scratchers than last year. In an Arizona Diamondbacks game, the commentators referred to the team as the “defending world champs,” and to my seventh hitter as “the cleanup guy.” I threw a slider at the knees that analyst Eric Karros called “chin-high.” Recording additional, more varied lines wouldn’t fix this glaring issue. MLB 12’s traditional modes -- Franchise, Season, and Road to the Show -- would also benefit from an overhaul. They’ve seen marginal improvements this year: under-the-hood upgrades such as better lineup management and smarter roster AI. The major new selling point is cross-platform cloud saving, which allows you to play the same mode on both PS3 and Vita. It’s geared toward die-hard fans, who are probably the only group who would buy MLB 12 on two platforms. They’re likely also the same people clamoring for more meaningful changes here, so it’s ironic that the constraints of PS3/Vita crosstalk meant that Sony SD couldn’t significantly upgrade the modes this year. Instead, MLB 12 on PS3 gets a brand-new mode called Diamond Dynasty. It has more in common with the NHL franchise’s “EA Sports Ultimate Hockey League” than Madden or FIFA “Ultimate Team.” After creating a team and customizing every detail with a 1,000-layer logo editor -- insignias, caps, helmets, jerseys, cleats, and more -- you’re presented with a card collection of fully editable fake players and a few MLB athletes. If you want spend hours recreating your high-school varsity squad, go right ahead. Players can participate in a limited number of games: for fictional players, the maximum is between 35 and 45, while MLB stars have 10 games (they’re mercenaries used to give your team a quick boost). Each created player comes with a rating of his potential; higher-potential stars cost less to train. In-game money is earned by facing off against MLB franchises or playing head-to-head online games against other Diamond Dynasty teams, and you can use it to train players, buy card packs, or buy single cards from other users at auction. (You can also purchase “credits” on the PlayStation Store, which can only be spent on packs.) Diamond Dynasty is somewhat confusing at first, especially since it brings you straight into the mode once you’ve named your team and picked its colors -- if you don’t then go into the logo editor before playing, your men will be wearing blank jerseys. But it’s also fun and engaging; as with training a single player in Road to the Show, I found myself becoming emotionally as well as fiscally invested in my team. Chasing leaderboard greatness is the chief motivator here: the game rates your team and its individual players with each online game. That’s Diamond Dynasty’s undoing. Online play in The Show, a perennial black mark on an otherwise spectacular game, is still not something I would ever willingly subject myself to. I tried to play a few games for this review, but literally could not complete a single one -- my opponent and I always agreed to a friendly quit in the early innings because the experience was so awful. MLB 12’s online announcements claim, “While visual anomalies exist, the users [sic] input should translate directly to the result.” The first part, at least, is true. Pitches still stutter on the way to the plate, making it nigh-impossible to time swings; lag often throws off the pitching meter’s accuracy; and I once saw halves of two different swing animations chained together (first a standard swing, then a feeble tied-up hack). Even if these “visual anomalies” are lying to you, and the game works as usual underneath, it’s impossible to know for sure because of said visual anomalies. I’ll happily build up my Diamond Dynasty bank account against the CPU, but I’m sad that I won’t be able to take complete advantage of a fully online mode because the network side of the equation doesn’t compute. Diamond Dynasty is a microcosm of MLB 12: a terrific, addictive offline experience marred by frustrating issues that Sony San Diego has failed to address for a while. MLB 12 is a sign of a franchise growing stale, a formerly pristine playing field in need of re-sodding. As enjoyable as it still is to play, important elements of the experience aren’t up to par. The future remains murky for now, with Take-Two’s exclusive third-party license expiring this year (and an apparent lack of desire to renew the contract). Perhaps MLB 13 will see some stiff competition to inspire it to greatness.
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Sony San Diego has consistently produced well-regarded MLB The Show titles that easily outclassed other simulation baseball games. The studio has for years been fighting the stagnation that typically results from a lack of st...

Bringing XCOM: Enemy Unknown to a modern console audience

Mar 06 // Samit Sarkar
"The cool thing about X-COM," Solomon told me, "is that the original game actually wasn't that complicated. It had complex interactions, but it wasn't a complicated game." X-COM's user interface may have been intimidating, but the gameplay boiled down to moving soldiers around and taking shots with them. "That's actually a very easy thing to make accessible to people," said Solomon. Firaxis didn't have a tough time translating that experience to a controller -- in fact, XCOM doesn't even use all of the buttons on an Xbox 360 gamepad or a DualShock 3.Neither the console nor PC version of Enemy Unknown is a port of the other, since Firaxis knows that playing with a controller differs vastly from using a mouse and keyboard. "One is steering and selecting between options, and one is clicking on points of interest. The UI has to be different," Solomon explained. But there's feature parity between the PC and console versions -- you can even play with a controller on the PC -- and Solomon wouldn't call either of them the definitive one.Firaxis isn't making any compromises to bring XCOM to consoles; comparing it to Civilization Revolution doesn't make sense. "When we set out to make that game, we [...] said, 'Alright, we're going to condense Civ down to, like, a three-hour experience,' which is a major shift from what those PC Civs were," Solomon told me. In this case, Firaxis is aiming to deliver the full, unadulterated XCOM experience to console owners as well as PC players. Many fans of the original X-COM praised it for its sense of discovery -- it let players figure out elements like the fog of war and line of sight by themselves -- and that's not lost on Firaxis. But games today have to do a better job of easing players into the experience, with helpful explanations along the way. How do you balance those competing design goals?XCOM is a game that lets players do all kinds of different things, Solomon said. And with that kind of game, he asserted, designers "have a responsibility to at least show [players] what kinds of things they can do, and then [ensure] -- as new elements get introduced, as they gain new abilities -- that they have the right tools to continue to grow with the game." To that end, Enemy Unknown features an extensive tutorial that spans a few missions. Solomon acknowledged that hardcore PC players will likely want to bypass the basics and "drink from the fire hose," so the setup phase is completely optional.Ultimately, XCOM's designers want longtime fans and new players to be able to enjoy the game equally. "Discovery is actually a big part of games like [X-COM]," Solomon noted. "And so it is kind of a fine line: you basically want to show the player how to explore [...] and then turn them loose."Firaxis Games' XCOM: Enemy Unknown is set for release on PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 this fall.
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X-COM: UFO Defense is almost 20 years old, and gaming has changed immeasurably since its release on the PC in 1994. With XCOM: Enemy Unknown, its re-imagining of that strategy title, Firaxis Games has the unenviable task of b...

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Dive into the first XCOM: Enemy Unknown developer diary


Mar 06
// Samit Sarkar
2K Games has released the first in a series of "Deep Dive" developer diaries for Firaxis Games' XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the remake of the 1994 strategy game X-COM: UFO Defense. In the video, which runs for nearly six minutes, a...

Preview: Saving men and mankind in XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Mar 06 // Samit Sarkar
XCOM: Enemy Unknown (PC, Xbox 360 [previewed], PlayStation 3) Developer: Firaxis Games Publisher: 2K Games Release: Fall 2012 Enemy Unknown’s lead designer, Jake Solomon, began a hands-off gameplay demo by praising the X-COM series’ pedigree. “Even today, there’s still no game that combines the epic, world-changing decisions on the strategy layer with the intimate, heart-pounding decisions on the combat layer.” As in the original X-COM, gameplay is split into strategy elements in the XCOM headquarters, and turn-based combat in the field. Of course, videogames have evolved greatly in the past two decades, and Firaxis has made many changes toward modernization and accessibility. “A lot of people consider [accessibility] to be a dirty word when it relates to something that they feel strongly about,” Solomon told me in an interview after the gameplay presentation. “But any designer -- any designer -- has to value accessibility. If you can keep something intact feature-wise and you can make it more accessible,” that’s valuable. To that end, Firaxis removed the time unit; according to Solomon, players had trouble relating that vague number to what they could do in combat. In Enemy Unknown, you can take two actions per soldier in a turn: move and perform an action, or move far. A soldier in the demo made use of an ability called “run and gun,” which allows you to move very far and shoot. This is another update to the X-COM formula. “When we started on this project,” said Solomon, “my first prototype was very similar to the original game.” However, he wanted to implement class specialization, and let players assign abilities to soldiers in addition to moving and shooting. RPG elements like these are meant to give players more options and build a greater connection between them and their soldiers. Seeing your XCOM operatives as individuals fosters that connection; you can customize your male and female soldiers, editing their nicknames, nationalities, armor, weapons, and abilities. Another option Firaxis is discussing is an ‘attitude’ setting. “Maybe soldiers come in as rookies, and they’re very buttoned-up and they’re all straight military talk,” Solomon suggested. “But then you have the ability to [...] turn on attitude, so when they save lives, they use the more crazy, out-there lines.” The dialogue in the demo featured a few clunkers, and Solomon acknowledged that the team is still deciding which lines they will keep. Soldiers spouted quips -- such as “dead as disco,” after a kill -- whose tone seemed at odds with the alien invasion/abduction scenario that Enemy Unknown presents. That’s intentional, said Solomon. “The darker you make your game, the more humor, I think, you have to have,” he told me, “because [...] if you take it too seriously, you really run the risk of losing touch.” XCOM, with its menacing aliens and ominous musical cues, is supposed to feel foreboding. But the dialogue brings levity to the proceedings, and the character models -- the alien design gives clear nods to mid-20th-century Area 51 mythology, while the stylized helmet-less soldiers take after G.I. Joe -- convey a mood that skirts the line between dark humor and camp. And it all comes back to connecting players with every one of their soldiers, which makes the list of fallen heroes in the XCOM base’s Memorial room that much more somber. XCOM’s underground headquarters is presented in a vertical cross-section, a “living diorama” that Firaxis calls the “ant farm.” It’s a microcosm of the XCOM experience, which runs the gamut from a single soldier to all the humans living on Earth. The entire base -- including Mission Control, the Situation Room, the Hangar, and the Armory -- is laid out before you, and you can zoom in to see individual soldiers staying fit on treadmills. Enemy Unknown starts you off with the essentials, letting you decide later on where you will excavate to expand the base. Alien artifacts that you recover during missions can be examined in the Research Labs, and that theory becomes reality in the Engineering area. Soldiers call the Barracks home, and will receive promotions there. Mission Control is where you scan the planet for alien activity. There’s no set sequence of missions in XCOM. It’s nonlinear, but not in a random way: your actions influence the missions that come up. If you put more resources into your satellite network, the game might present you with more aerial combat scenarios. Depending on your relationship with the world’s nations, a country might ask you to investigate strange goings-on within their boundaries. “There are some set-piece missions that are really tied into the story,” said Solomon, but the general missions along the way will vary. Once you’ve found a mission, you deploy your squad into turn-based combat. This is no isometric setup, however; Firaxis has put a lot of effort into the presentation of gameplay, with cinematic shots for actions taken by humans and aliens. As in modern third-person shooters, cover is a key mechanic in XCOM. The gameplay demo exhibited some smart teamwork, with the squad’s heavy weapons expert providing suppressing fire out of cover to pin down a Sectoid -- the quintessential big-headed, glassy-eyed little gray alien -- while an Assault soldier flanked the creature and blew it away with her shotgun. (You’re not actually aiming a reticle; actions are marked with success percentages based on dice rolls.) Sectoids aren’t helpless, though. Two of them mind-merged, strengthening themselves with a purple beam that passed between them, and another engaged the “overwatch” ability, which allowed it to see and shoot at any human that moved. So the Firaxis rep playing the demo used his Sniper’s grapple ability to swing up to the roof of the gas station in the area and line up a clear overhead shot. In the next turn, the Heavy threw a grenade at a Sectoid cowering from suppression; it tried to return fire, but couldn’t hit anybody before an explosion killed it and blew up a gas pump in the process. The next section revealed two more alien races: the green Mutons from the original X-COM, and an intimidating new beast, the Berserker. It smashed a restaurant’s front door and windows to beat down on a soldier, pummeling him to death. Then, the female Assault operative climbed onto the building’s roof, which had previously been blown open, to get behind and take out a Muton that was suppressing the Heavy. Once it was down, the Heavy was free to blow up the Berserker with his rocket launcher. The blast took out the diner’s front wall, showcasing XCOM’s destructible environments. 2K’s announcement of this remake came as a surprise, especially since the company’s president, Christoph Hartmann, declared last year that “strategy games are just not contemporary.” But after seeing a 15-minute demo of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, I understand why they greenlit the project. Firaxis is making smart changes to modernize a beloved game, and hopefully, to bring it to a wider audience. I haven’t been a fan of traditional strategy games, but I’ll be interested to see how this one turns out.
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Most strategy games give players command of massive armies, relegating individual soldiers to the status of faceless grunt. Even when players are micromanaging small units, the components of those groups are usually identical...

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MLB 2K12 supports new playoff format, MLB 12 doesn't yet


Mar 05
// Samit Sarkar
Last Friday, Major League Baseball announced that it will be expanding its playoff format to a ten-team field starting this season: each league's three division champions will get a first-round bye while the four- and five-se...
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Buy MLB 12 The Show on PS3 and Vita together, save $20


Mar 05
// Samit Sarkar
Sony's critically acclaimed MLB The Show series is making its way to the company's shiny new handheld, the PlayStation Vita, this year. The PS3 version of MLB 12 The Show costs $60, as usual, and Sony is charging $40 for the ...

Preview: Swinging away with PS Move in MLB 12 The Show

Mar 05 // Samit Sarkar
[embed]223169:42933[/embed] MLB 12 The Show (PlayStation 3 [previewed], PlayStation Vita) Developer: SCE San Diego Studio Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment Release: March 6, 2012 MSRP: $59.99 (PS3) / $39.99 (PS Vita) Cramm acknowledged that there’s definitely a learning curve for MLB 12’s Move controls, and I can attest to that. Even after he showed me the basics, and after I watched the in-game tutorial videos (starring cover athlete Adrian Gonzalez), it took me a while to get my bearings. But once I had about two innings of hitting, pitching, and fielding under my belt, I felt like I was in the zone -- the fact that I was using Move had almost become an afterthought. Sony San Diego has designed MLB 12’s Move pitching controls to resemble the actual pitching motion. Once you have selected a pitch and moved the wand to aim it, you hold the trigger while pulling the controller backward to set the pitch’s potential power (the further back you go, the closer to 100% power you get). Then you whip the Move wand forward; the speed with which you do so controls the actual power of the pitch, while the point where you release the trigger determines your release point (and thus, accuracy). It feels natural, and although it’s less complicated than the analog-stick controls that Sony SD introduced last year, it has the same effect of making you feel as if you’re skillfully executing your pitches. Move hitting is much more precise than it was last year, and it offers a much greater link between you and your on-screen avatar. MLB 11 only rendered a bat floating in the batter’s box; now you can see the hitter holding his Louisville Slugger. If you actually get up in front of your TV and assume a batting stance before the pitch, which is optional, the wand will vibrate to let you know that it “sees” you. Once it does, the in-game hitter moves the bat exactly as you move the wand. It’s an impressive implementation, forming a unique player-avatar connection that makes you go “whoa” the first time you see it. MLB 12’s Move support is smart enough to distinguish between a contact swing and a power swing based on your own motion. If you quickly swing forward, as if you’re slapping at the ball, the game registers that as a contact swing. But if you move your hands back first, like you’re loading up to drive the ball, it will recognize that as a power swing. In either case, the speed at which you flick the wand forward determines the strength of the swing, so it’s still possible to hit a homer with a contact swing. Move even supports the franchise’s Guess Pitch function -- you hold the trigger and point at a zone. Fielding with Move requires less user input in one sense, but puts more responsibility on you in another. Once a hitter makes contact, the AI takes care of putting your defenders in position to field the ball; Cramm told me that moving fielders with the wand was simply too awkward. But that’s all the CPU will handle. MLB 12 does something that, to my knowledge, no other baseball game has done (except in the case of robbing home runs): it puts the onus on you to make the catch. A circle beneath a fielder changes from red to yellow to green to indicate timing; you pull the trigger to catch the ball when it’s green, and hitting it too early or too late will likely result in an error. Now that fielders don’t automatically scoop balls up, Cramm noted, MLB 12 Move players might actually be surprised by a hot shot to the pitcher or third baseman. “If you don’t hit the trigger fast enough, the ball’s going to hit you in the face,” he said, and I definitely let a few line drives accidentally smash into my fielders. If you do make the catch, you flick right, up, left, or down while releasing the trigger to throw to first, second, third, or home, respectively. Running the bases with Move also brings in an aspect of real-life baseball. You control your baserunners with gestures similar to those used by a third-base coach. Waving the wand in a circular motion advances a runner, while swiping left and right tells him to return to a base. If you hold up the wand horizontally, the baserunner will stop at the next base, and if you hold the trigger while doing so, he’ll stop in his tracks. This aspect of MLB 12’s Move controls took the most time to get down, but I think that was mostly because I had difficulty keeping track of the different gestures. I’m about as hardcore as they come as far as sports games go, and I assumed that MLB 12 wouldn’t be playable with PlayStation Move. But once I gave the motion controls a chance, I found that in addition to being satisfied with the experience, I was enjoying myself. Move might just surprise you, too.
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Sony San Diego experimented with motion controls in MLB 11 The Show last year, implementing basic PlayStation Move support in a fringe game mode, Home Run Derby. The inclusion of Move controls in a casual party game and ...

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EA Sports returning to Live brand: NBA Live 13 this fall


Feb 23
// Samit Sarkar
Above is a smartphone photo of Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving (right) taken a few hours ago. He was playing an early build of the EA Tiburon-developed return of EA Sports' basketball franchise. EA hadn't officia...

Put your body into it: Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13 on Kinect

Feb 23 // Samit Sarkar
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13 (Xbox 360 [previewed], PlayStation 3)Developer: EA TiburonPublisher: EA SportsRelease: March 27, 2012 (NA) / March 30, 2012 (worldwide) Tiburon has been contemplating Kinect support for Tiger Woods PGA Tour since before the peripheral’s debut in November 2010. But a couple of important considerations prevented them from implementing it until this year. For one thing, the studio “wanted to make sure that Microsoft was far enough along in advancing their [Kinect] libraries,” Nielsen explained, referring to the software side of Kinect upon which developers build their games. In addition, Tiburon had to work with a compressed development period for Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12: The Masters; EA had moved up its ship date from the series’ traditional mid-summer release to the end of March, so it would coincide with the Masters Tournament. “We wanted to make sure that we had the full cycle to do the proper R&D, to investigate the different types of things that we wanted to do to capture that golf swing. And we’ve spent basically this entire year working on that,” said Nielsen. The fruits of their labors are impressive: PGA Tour 13 boasts full Kinect support, and in-game voice functionality to boot. The only thing you can’t do without a controller is aim the club’s sweet spot at a specific point on the ball. Otherwise, the whole game is Kinect-enabled, with gestures that mimic a golfer’s actions in ways that I occasionally even found amusing. Unlike the setup on Wii or PlayStation Move, you don’t swing toward your TV; since Kinect has to track your entire body, you stand with your feet pointing ahead, and swing across the screen from right to left (or left to right, if you’re a lefty). Here’s how you might play a hole on Kinect. Before taking your tee shot, you say “aim shot” out loud, then hold your left hand to your brow -- as if to block the sun’s rays while you squint into the distance -- to zoom the camera to the general landing zone. Here, you hold out your open left hand, then close it into a fist to drag the aiming reticle around. Once you’re satisfied with the location, you clasp your hands together around your invisible golf club and swing away. (Psst... If it’s more comfortable, you can actually play the game with a real club in your hands. Microsoft won’t tell you that, since their marketing for Kinect hinges on the device obviating the need for any extra peripherals, but don’t let them stop you.) After your drive lands safely on the fairway, you look to switch to an iron for the approach shot. “Change club, 5-iron,” you tell the game, and proceed to send the ball flying toward the back of the green. But the pin’s near the front, so you point your fist at the bottom of the screen to put backspin on the ball in mid-air. Once the ball’s on the green, you crouch in front of your TV to check the lie of the green. Now you’re ready to putt -- but everything’s riding on a birdie here, so you ask the game for a “putt preview” to check the ball’s path before proceeding. With a smooth, controlled motion, you sink the putt; your only regret is that Kinect doesn’t render your triumphant fist-pump in the game. I found the experience’s fidelity remarkable. On the higher difficulty levels, Kinect translates your entire body’s movement to your on-screen golfer’s swing. Rotating your hips and arms too far will send the ball off course; overextending your backswing or swinging too quickly will add too much power to your swing when you might have been looking for some touch; a herky-jerky, stuttering motion will provide less reliable results than one with a smooth cadence. As you swing, you’ll see the same trail that shows up when you play PGA Tour 13 with a controller -- a visual cue that offers feedback on your motion. The motion controls gave me very little trouble. After a quick tutorial from Nielsen, I followed the copious on-screen prompts and managed to birdie the first hole I played. The aiming mode sometimes held on too long, failing to detect when I had opened my fist to signify that I’d finished moving the cursor. Other than that, the game never felt unresponsive or did anything I didn’t want it to do. According to Nielsen, Kinect’s machine learning technology made that possible. “We [got] six-year-old kids, adults, big, small, tall -- all shapes and sizes -- and we had them record their swings, gestures, putts, chips, [and] full swings,” he told me. The developers tagged that data, and used it to teach Kinect to differentiate between golf swings and other motions. “When we first started doing it,” said Nielsen, “you could do a baseball swing, and it would hit [the ball].” That’s not the case anymore. Golfing isn’t the only place where Kinect comes into play. Tiburon has redesigned the game’s menus for Kinect, taking cues from Harmonix’s Dance Central interface and the PlayStation 3’s XMB, so you almost never have to pick up a controller. You navigate tabs to the left and right, scrolling up and down through options within tabs. A right-hand swipe to the left selects, while a left-hand gesture backs out. I had a modicum of skepticism about the Kinect functionality in PGA Tour 13, but once I played last year’s iteration with PlayStation Move, I figured Tiburon knew what they were doing. After trying Kinect with this game -- the peripheral’s first-ever sports simulation title -- I won’t soon doubt the studio again.
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Most core gamers saw Microsoft’s Kinect sensor and scoffed, dismissing out of hand its potential for use in anything but kids’ games and casual experiences. The people at EA Tiburon, however -- having already impl...

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PGA Tour 13's Tiger Legacy Challenge makes you go 'awww'


Feb 21
// Samit Sarkar
In his 2008 best-seller, Outliers: The Story of Success, journalist Malcolm Gladwell posited a theory that he called the "10,000-Hour Rule." Achieving success in any field, he asserted, depends largely upon amassing 10,000 h...

Make the shot you want in Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13

Feb 21 // Samit Sarkar
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13 (Xbox 360 [previewed], PlayStation 3)Developer: EA TiburonPublisher: EA SportsRelease: March 27, 2012 (NA) / March 30, 2012 (worldwide)Situations like the one I outlined above, along with PGA Tour 13's vastly expanded shot controls (dubbed Total Swing Control), serve to highlight how severely previous games in the franchise limited your shot-making ability. The new mechanics give you full control over a virtual golfer's swing with both analog sticks, opening up the possibilities and putting the onus on you to execute the perfect shot. The left stick, as ever, governs the arc of your swing, while the right stick aims your club at a particular point on the ball.In past Tiger Woods games, you might have flicked the left stick forward as hard as possible, in an effort to add power to your shot. But I'm going to let you in on a little secret, courtesy of Brent Nielsen, the game's Executive Producer at EA Tiburon: all you were doing was wearing down your left stick more quickly. This year, the game translates your exact left-stick motion into a swing, and it provides useful pre- and post-shot feedback to help you fine-tune that swing. An on-screen trail represents the arc your backswing should follow to execute your shot; a notch on the arc signifies the point at which you should begin swinging forward. You can extend your backswing or swing your club forward more quickly for extra power, but that will afford you a smaller margin of error on the accuracy of your follow-through. Tempo is important, too; a smooth back-and-forth motion is your best bet. Note that the arc of your swing will follow your left-stick motion exactly, thanks to new animations. I pulled back on the stick in all kinds of directions, and watched as my golfer changed his motion to reflect the new swing planes. After the shot, the game will tell you how well you executed your shot, providing information about over/underswinging, tempo, and accuracy.The right stick points your club's sweet spot at different spots on the ball; this aspect of the swing will vary with the ball's lie. Until now, sitting in deep sand, for example, only affected a shot's power -- all you had to do was swing harder to send the ball flying farther. "It was a math equation," Nielsen told me, lamenting that you had no fine control over a shot's trajectory. Previous Tiger Woods games compensated for that by offering a variety of shot types, such as punch, flop, and pitch, but they couldn't hide the fact that the short game has always been the weakest part of videogame golf. In PGA Tour 13, hitting the top of the ball will produce a line drive, while aiming low will result in a shot with a high arc. (Of course, you can aim anywhere in between.) On the lower difficulty levels (Amateur and Pro), all you have to do is use the right stick to move the sweet spot cursor to a particular place. But Tour Pro and Tournament require you to hold the right stick in place at that spot while swinging with the left! You can keep the shot even lower -- say, to avoid tree branches -- by moving the ball back in your stance and hitting it from your back foot. The game also lets you open or close your stance to add draw or fade, respectively, to your shot. According to EA, all the permutations provided by Total Swing Control add up to about 62.5 million possible shots.Also new this year is the Tiger Legacy Challenge mode, which lets you relive important milestones in Woods' storied career. You start out practicing in Tiger's backyard as a toddler, whacking balls into a net and aiming for the kiddie pool. The next step for toddler Tiger is a 1978 appearance on The Mike Douglas Show with his father, where he shows off his skills for the host, and guests Bob Hope and Jimmy Stewart. EA Tiburon created seven different models of Woods at various ages, and you play through ten eras over the course of his career. It seems like a charming way to illustrate Woods' path from two-year-old wunderkind to the top of the golfing world. Last year, EA Tiburon redesigned the game around The Masters, delivering an experience like no other in a truncated development cycle. With a full year in the oven, PGA Tour 13 looks like it could provide the franchise's most significant change since the introduction of analog-stick swinging.
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Imagine yourself on Tea Olive, the first hole of the famed Masters course at Augusta National. Trying to avoid the bunker on the right side of the fairway, you aim your tee shot to the left -- but alas, you push it a bit too ...

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Kate Upton demonstrates MLB 2K12 pitching to MLB stars


Feb 20
// Samit Sarkar
David Price, you are a lucky man.Last week, 2K Sports released a second digital short promoting next month's release of MLB 2K12. Called "Finger Mechanics," it features Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue cover model Kate Upton...

Preview: Mixing it up with MLB 2K12

Feb 17 // Samit Sarkar
MLB 2K12 (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [previewed], PC, Wii, PSP, DS, PlayStation 2)Developer: Visual ConceptsPublisher: 2K SportsRelease: March 6, 2012MSRP: $59.99 (PS3, 360) / $69.99 (360 Combo Pack with NBA 2K12)It's unclear at this point whether Take-Two will renew its exclusive licensing agreement with Major League Baseball. But even if this is the last MLB 2K game, the developers at Visual Concepts aren't phoning it in: they're focusing on fixing gameplay instead of buzzword-filled new features, and I give them credit for that. It's not a flashy approach, but if they pull it off, I expect fans to give the game a better reception.Visual Concepts has fixated on the pitcher-batter confrontation, the heart of baseball. Unlike McGilberry in his perfect game, real MLB pitchers constantly mix up their strategies for attacking hitters. That's what separates them from minor-league hurlers: they rarely abuse a pitch or return to a particular location in a certain situation. They have to adapt because they're facing MLB hitters, who got to the big-league level by punishing pitchers who became predictable. If you tend to go with, say, a splitter in the dirt on 0-2, and a shoulder-high fastball on a 1-2 count, hitters in MLB 2K12 will quickly pick up on that habit and learn to lay off. In addition, if the pitcher you're playing with has four or five pitches in his repertoire, and you consistently stick to one or two, batters will come to expect them -- and when a hitter knows what to look for, he's much more dangerous. (The game determines the baseline frequencies for each pitcher -- whether he tends to throw a certain pitch 8% of the time or 28% of the time -- from his Inside Edge scouting data.)MLB 2K12 gives you a good deal of feedback to tip you off to your tendencies. Analyst Steve Phillips might point one out with a comment. The visual feedback is more immediate and noticeable. All of your pitches are lined up on the left side of the screen as circular icons with numerical effectiveness ratings. If you're beginning to overuse a pitch (that is, throwing it too often compared to the Inside Edge data), the icon's background will turn from a neutral teal to yellow. That's a warning that you're becoming too predictable. If you continue to throw that pitch, the background will eventually become red, which lets you know that hitters are starting to look for it above your other options.It's also important to mix up your location and keep hitters on their toes. Going to the down-and-away well too often will cause that corner of the strike zone to turn black, which is a sign that you should go elsewhere. It'll be tougher to hit your spots, though, since Visual Concepts has tweaked breaking balls to be more realistic. You won't get the same sharp break on a 12-6 curveball if you start it above the strike zone as if you start it chest-high. At any time, you can pull up a screen showing exactly how many pitches you've thrown in each area, as well as Inside Edge data that illustrates a pitcher's real-life pitch frequencies. In practice, the adaptive hitting AI indeed made my life miserable when I began to overuse my fastball. A pitch's effectiveness rating also drops when you give up hits with it, and it varies from hitter to hitter. I only spent an hour or so with the game, but I had a couple of long innings because batters began to hammer my outside-corner heater after they learned to expect that pitch in that spot. That was doubly true for Albert Pujols. He smacked my fastball in his first at-bat for a single, and when I faced him again two innings later, I noticed that the fastball's rating had decreased. It appears that MLB 2K12 will really force you to adapt just as real pitchers do.Visual Concepts hasn't neglected hitting, either. Criticisms of past MLB 2K games always mentioned that they lacked hit variety -- it seemed as if you'd keep seeing the same soft liners to infielders. New ball physics this year have greatly improved hit variety and distribution, and it's all tied to the pitch that was thrown and the way the hitter made contact, just as it should be.Throwing in the field has also seen a significant upgrade. The new throw meter dynamically responds to your fielder's position. If you're charging a slow roller and you cue up a throw that your fielder has to make on the run, the green section of the throw meter will be much smaller than it would have been had you allowed him to set his feet before throwing to first. Of course, the meter also depends on the skill of the fielder in question, so someone with a more accurate arm will have a larger "sweet spot" even if someone's upending him with a slide as he's releasing the ball. The one new mode in MLB 2K12 is called MLB Today Season, and it's a spin on the traditional season setups in sports games. It allows you to play along with a real-life team, one game at a time. Let's say you're a Dodgers fan, and they lost the first two games of the 2012 season to the Padres. The MLB Today engine will import the exact scores and statistics from those games into your MLB Today Season, and you can pick up from there with the next game on April 7th and try to alter the course of the Dodgers' season.MLB Today Season forces you to play game-by-game, so you can't play at any pace other than that of your team's real-life counterpart. But by the end of September, the real Dodgers might be languishing in fourth place while your in-game Dodgers are celebrating an NL West crown!My Player has also seen a tweak in the direction of NBA 2K12: you'll select a role for your player that will affect the way your attributes develop. Speedsters won't hit a lot of home runs, but they'll be able to run down balls in the gap and steal a lot of bases. Sluggers, on the other hand, won't be fleet of foot. I'm still not sure that MLB 2K12 will be a legitimate competitor to Sony's MLB 12 The Show. But I liked what I saw, and it appears that the competition will be as close as it's ever been between these two franchises. Here's hoping Visual Concepts finally gets it right.
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This is the third year in a row that 2K Sports is holding its Perfect Game Challenge for its MLB 2K series. They're changing the format this time, but previously, the first person to throw a verified perfect game would win $1...

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MLB/NBA 2K12 Combo Pack due out for $69.99 on Xbox 360


Feb 17
// Samit Sarkar
2K Sports' next baseball game, MLB 2K12, launches on March 6, 2012, for 360, PS3, Wii, PC, PS2, PSP, and DS. It will be the only simulation baseball title available on the Xbox 360, where MLB 2K12 alone will retail for $59.99...
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Warriors Orochi 3 coming to PSN due to Japanese voiceover


Feb 16
// Samit Sarkar
Tecmo Koei's upcoming myth-based hack-n-slash action title, Warriors Orochi 3, will be launching for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 next month, in North America on March 20 and in Europe on March 30. The game will be a full-price...

Preview: Revel in Warriors Orochi 3's absurd fan service

Feb 16 // Samit Sarkar
Warriors Orochi 3 (PlayStation Network [previewed], Xbox 360)Developer: Omega ForcePublisher: Tecmo KoeiRelease: December 22, 2011 (JP) / March 20, 2012 (NA) / March 30, 2012 (EU)After vanquishing the Serpent King (in Warriors Orochi 2), our heroes -- the military leaders from Koei's Dynasty Warriors and Samurai Warriors series -- return to their territorial wars, endlessly clashing with each other for control of ancient China and Japan. Amid this chaos comes a mythical beast, an eight-headed serpent that lays waste to the warlords' homelands. Their ranks decimated by constant conflict, the remaining leaders are too few and too weak to put up much of a fight.When all hope appears to be lost, a "mysterious woman" named Kaguya arrives, bringing one chance at salvation. She explains that the men must travel back in time with her to unite with their former enemies and stand as one against the Hydra. Only then, Kaguya says, will humanity have a chance. Mythology, eh? That's the starting point for the game's Story Mode. The initial setup is reminiscent of Dynasty Warriors 7, except your "town" is the human forces' base camp on the night before the final showdown against the Hydra. Once you've selected three characters (from over 120 choices), you travel back in time to a particular battle. In each battle, you attempt to rewrite history in a way that will help your cause.You can switch between the members of your trio with R2 and L2, so it helps to have a diversified team. When a particular gauge is full, you can all engage in a "True Triple Attack," a devastating special combo. While both the Story Mode and Free Mode support co-op play, it's unfortunately limited to two players, not three. In the mission I played, the enemy trapped us inside a fortress and set it ablaze, leaving us for dead. But in this timeline, a side gate opened up, and we were able to escape and force the demon-warrior Shuten Doji to retreat. The game features an in-depth "bonds" system that has a significant effect on the story. Fighting alongside characters, or interacting with them in camp (by, for example, holding banquets), will strengthen your bond with them. Characters to whom you're bonded strongly will perform better in battle and may unlock special stages and attacks. In addition, your bonds and unlocks will affect which of the three story endings you see: Normal, Good, and True. Aside from co-op play, WO3 offers another online mode: Musou Battlefields. Here, you can edit battlefields from missions you've already completed, changing elements such as voice lines and music. You can also choose how the mission itself will play out, altering the strength and number of the forces themselves, as well as the sequence of events during the fight. Having done all that, the game allows you to upload your masterpiece so other players can attempt to complete your stage.Now that I think about it, the preposterous storylines of the Warriors Orochi games make sense. If you'd been playing Dynasty Warriors and Samurai Warriors titles for years, you were probably desperate for something to come along and break up the monotony. Warriors Orochi 3 looks like it will do that in a spectacular way; it's even bringing in characters from other Tecmo Koei games, like Ryu Hayabusa from Ninja Gaiden and Ayane of Dead or Alive fame. I salute your craziness, Tecmo Koei -- if you're going for madcap insanity, you might as well go all the way, right?
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Koei's Warriors Orochi series has always been about fan service, explained Tecmo Koei's Sean Corcoran during a demo in New York last week. But it seems like developer Omega Force is really taking that ethos to heart this time...

Preview: Conquer China on the go in Dynasty Warriors Next

Feb 15 // Samit Sarkar
Dynasty Warriors Next (PlayStation Vita)Developer: Omega ForcePublisher: Tecmo KoeiRelease: December 17, 2011 (JP) / February 22, 2012 (NA, EU) / February 23, 2012 (AUS)System launch titles usually go out of their way to demonstrate the various features of the platform, and DWN is no different. It's designed specifically for the Vita, taking advantage of seemingly every single one of the handheld's long list of technological talents. A lot of it seemed silly to me, but there's also some genuinely interesting functionality to be found in the package.The standard Campaign Mode lets you choose from 65 characters of various origin (Wu, Wei, Shu, Jin, and Other) and play through an episode pulled from Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the historical novel that spawned this entire franchise. It helps to know the individual stories: the subordinates you pick to bring into battle with you will be more effective if they're actually relevant to the mission. Taking into account the way many people play handhelds -- in short bursts -- Omega Force has compressed battles for the Vita, so even the longest conflicts won't take more than 20 minutes to complete. Conquest Mode is also a single-player affair, but you can interact with friends through the Vita's web- and location-based connectivity. In case the name didn't give it away, your mission in the turn-based mode is to unite all of ancient China's disparate kingdoms under one banner, which is, of course, diplomatic phrasing for "make war on your neighbors until you've bent them all to your will." Conquest is a much more strategic setup than the campaign's set sequence of battles for each character; it resembles a game of Risk, with ancient China -- instead of the whole world -- as your playground.Each territory on the Conquest map has its own level, and in order to be able to invade a nearby region, it must have a lower level than the place from which you're setting forth. (Invasions play out as standard campaign-like battles.) In the mode's economy, territories earn money, which can be spent on items such as buffs for your forces. The spoils of a successful invasion, in addition to increased income, include the ability to force a defeated officer to serve as an ally. Conquest strategy extends to defense, since you have to be vigilant for enemy incursions into your own lands.This mode becomes even more intriguing when taken online. You can play competitively or cooperatively with up to three other friends over Wi-Fi, with additional bonuses through proximity with them (as detected by 3G and GPS). Upon defeating a human opponent, you can offer them a Mission Battle. Here, the two of you compete in one of four mini-games such as Race (tilt the Vita to control a horse and rider through an obstacle course) and Breakthrough (swipe on the screen and shake the Vita to defeat a horde of enemies); the winner earns some extra experience points, not to mention bragging rights, and a better ranking on the Conquest leaderboard. For a perhaps less contentious experience, you can join with friends in the four-player co-op Coalition Mode, which works through the Vita's ad hoc connectivity (that is, your buddies have to be in the vicinity). I didn't get to check out this mode myself, but it includes four different courses designed specifically for co-op play. In the Sentinel game, you have to hold off waves of enemies, while the object of Marauder is to capture all the bases on the map. Blitz tasks you with capturing the main enemy camp as quickly as possible, and Sudden Death is a twist on Marauder in which you'll lose a life if you take one hit. For all its potential to destroy friendships, Coalition offers chances at rare weapons and items.Omega Force has brought touch and gyroscope functionality into gameplay, mostly in ways that seemed like gimmicky contrivances. When you use the new Speed Musou attack, the game will prompt you to swipe on the screen or shake the device to rack up more hits. Occasionally, a "sudden encounter" will arise, and you might be asked to slap away incoming arrows on the touchscreen or target enemies with gyroscope aiming. The new duel setup, which I didn't get to see, also makes use of touch controls.Some changes are welcome. Tapping on the right bumper initiates a charge in any desired direction and keeps your combo meter going for a bit, like manualing between rails in a Tony Hawk game. The new move makes it much easier to maintain long chains of attacks. The life bar is gone -- DWN features the modern "screen turns red when you take damage" health system -- and it's been replaced with the Break Gauge. When that's full, you can unleash a powerful Direct Break attack, which allows you to capture bases in one shot; a base taken with a Direct Break can't be recaptured by the enemy. Although I didn't feel the need for a lot of the functionality that Omega Force implemented, it was easy to see that there's a ton of content in DWN. Heck, the studio has even brought back the fan-favorite Edit Mode, so you can create a character and blaze your own legendary trail. Look for a full review from our resident Dynasty Warriors expert, Jim Sterling, next week.
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I assume I'm not alone in lacking the ability to tell the difference between Dynasty Warriors games (or at least, between the ones of a particular console generation). I've played, or watched friends play, DW6 and DW7, but fr...

Preview: Slicing samurai in Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus

Feb 14 // Samit Sarkar
[embed]221706:42681[/embed] Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus (PlayStation Vita)Developer: Team NinjaPublisher: Tecmo KoeiRelease: February 22, 2012Although it's been eight years since Ninja Gaiden came out on the original Xbox, the source material for this port of a port remains a veritable classic, and an Itagaki-less Team Ninja has achieved a mostly smooth transition to the Vita. The handheld's dual analog sticks are key for a third-person action title; camera control is paramount in a game where ninja frequently sneak up on Ryu from behind. And its snappy face buttons do their job, holding up to the assault from your fingers as you furiously enter combos. I never felt like the device got in the way; success or failure depended only upon my skill, and that's how it should be.You'll need some new skills to do well in Sigma Plus, though. Sigma launched in mid-2007, a time early enough in the PS3's life that developers were still shoehorning motion controls into their games. In that game, you could shake the Sixaxis to make Ninpo (magic) attacks more devastating. As a Vita launch title, Sigma Plus is similarly tasked with exploiting its platform's various abilities. Team Ninja has shifted Ninpo powering to the rear touchpad, while adding gyroscope support for first-person aiming and touchscreen controls for launching projectile weapons. None of this stuff appears in the first chapter, which is all I played, so I can't comment on its implementation. Oh, and it's all optional, thankfully. If you're having trouble with the exacting combat, you now have a couple of options. Practice sessions come in the form of Ninja Trials, 76 bite-size challenges in which you can hone your skills on the go. But in case you want an easier experience overall, feel free to choose the new "Hero Mode" difficulty setting, which automates dodging and provides unlimited Ninpo. Another first is Trophy support, since Sigma came out before PSN Trophies existed.As you can see from the trailer and screenshots here, Sigma Plus is showing its age. It doesn't look bad per se, but it's clearly not up to par with the best that the Vita's launch lineup has to offer. Texture detail is lacking throughout, and environmental effects such as flames look simplistic. Luckily, the game retains its trademark fluidity; I experienced no frame rate issues.If you've already completed Sigma, there may not be a lot for you to do in Sigma Plus. But Team Ninja has designed this port with an eye toward accessibility, so folks who might have been turned off by Ninja Gaiden's renowned difficulty have a reason to check it out. Look for a full review from Dale later this week.
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In case you were wondering, that silver line in the right half of the header image above is Ryu Hayabusa's katana. It's a long samurai sword, and I couldn't fit all of it into the picture. That sleek blade is the last thing t...


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