December 11, 2006


Killography (and pinatography) roundup

For my own part in the War on Christmas, my non-denominatinoal holiday gifts to myself were finally getting a decent television (32" widescreen LCD HDTV--compared to what I had before it, namely nothing, it's infinitely better) and an Xbox 360 to take advantage of that HD part, since cable just ain't on the agenda.

I'm also not clear on how this constituted a blow in the War, but I figure it's the intention that counts.

For those in my vast readership who now, or someday might have, a Live membership as well, my 'gamertag' is "Gar Drastic" and if you need to be told "...but without the quotes" then telling you probably won't help.

Various related ramblings follow right

The console itself is more impressive than I expected it to be in and of itself. The ability to turn the whole shebang off and on via the wireless controller is one of those little things that I knew about beforehand, but only in use saw the full genius of. Now, freed of having to get up from the couch, I can start working on joining that obesity epidemic I've heard so much about!

Although that doesn't help for changing games about. Which brings me to one of my big dislikes about the hardware: the eject button is metal. This might be fine in a humidified room with no carpet whose occupant never wears clothes, but otherwise, can you say zap, boys and girls? I might have to start using a finglonger.

Aside from that, though, it's pretty slick. Having never seen Live on the original Xbox, perhaps it's making it all the more impressive, but I'm impressed by it. Being able to download demos at will in the background is nifty. Live Arcade has some neat games on there; Geometry Wars in particular is a standout as a trippy, chaotic abstract arcade shooter. Also, Uno has become my just-before-bedtime game of choice, inasmuch as it's very relaxing, what with the almost no thought or reaction time or coordination required.

You can stream media to it from your pc. Videowise is officially limited to wmv files, and furthermore, they're now desperately trying to flog their doomed Zune player thing ("I've got an idea! Let's compete with the iPod by making something that doesn't cost any less, has just as many restrictions, and has less ease of use! It'll FLY OFF THE SHELVES!" Then that executive got a huge bonus. Such is the way of the world, fallen from a state of grace as it is.) by "requiring" that you install the Zune software in order to stream stuff. Nevermind that you can do the same with Windows Media Player 11 simply by turning on sharing.

Or, if you're like me, you find a program called TVersity that promises to--when it's fully cooked--stream absolutely anything, by transcoding things on the fly. Most useful for me is the ability to stream divx files. I've also tracked down the directshow filter needed to enable it to stream ogg vorbis, which most of my music library is ripped to, so I effectively have all my own music available in-game without ripping anything separately to the 360's own hard drive.

TVersity itself, as mentioned, isn't fully cooked; there's a known bug that causes divx video files to sometimes prematurely end about a minute before they should. That's slated for the next build.

Mind you, if Microsoft was smart, they'd have made their own stuff able to do this kind of thing from the get-go, thus torpedoing such projects from ever being. But then again, in that better world, the Zune itself would be a DRM-less, multi-codec device, so there you go. But I'm digressing.

Actual games:

Dead Rising: A brawler, set in a mall infested with thousands and thousands of the hungry living dead. Almost everything can be used as a weapon, from your straightforward baseball bats and 2x4's to your stacks of CDs, soccer balls, and park benches. The boss fights are sometimes irritating interruptions in the general zombie-smashing mayhem (due in large part that the first one requires gunplay, and the aim controls are very much inferior to the brawling controls), and the save system is annoying (one slot only, widely-spaced save points), but the zombie carnage makes all such sins forgivable. The save system is further somewhat softened by retaining experience and levels gained--more attack power, greater health and inventory, more melee feats, and so on--when you die and don't choose to reload, and carrying them over to a new game.

Viva Pinata - Pinata Island is (I'm theorizing on this part) fairly close to Monster Island, only with animated paper-machie instead of latex kaiju. There, wild pinatas are tamed by properly landscaped gardens, breed and live with the dream of being sent round the world to parties. They get to these parties by being shot out of a huge cannon whose ballistics can propel the shipping crates to suborbital paths.

I submit that this kind of backstory is more horrific than any zombie apocalypse ever could be, when you really stop and think about it.

The game itself is a surprisingly deep strategic juggling act that's falsely masquerading as a kids' game. A lot of variables to balance against each other, for all that they're kept masked by colorful fleco instead of put outright on the screen. Trying to describe it briefly is pretty much impossible beyond saying the Sims crashes headlong into Harvest Moon without all the rpg bits. Oddly bizarre and charming, and good for tone-whiplash in switching between games. In the 360's library as a whole, it really nails the "one of these things is not like the others" award.

Rainbow Six: Vegas - the success of Halo left me baffled, and even moreso after I played it on a friend's console back when it was the new hotness. It was okay, sure, and the controls worked again okay, but it still cried out plaintively for mouselook. It cemented my opinion that I just wasn't much interested in shooters on console.

Two-three years two after that, a little title named Mercenaries softened that opinion to, "well, first-person shooters, then. Third works okay." (Incidentally, it's one of the titles that is apparently not backwards-compatible on the 360, which is irritating, as I think it was one of the top ones on the platform.)

Well, Rainbow Six Vegas has changed my opinion. Part of the reason is that it's not really a run-and-gun style shooter--of the sort demanding a lot of circle-strafing and bunnyhopping and rocketjumping and assorted other crazy moon-language references to in-game maneuvering tactics that, frankly, look utterly retarded to anyone watching and not actively playing at the time. Instead, the game's very much about intense firefights that make use of cover, and brilliantly so. Move up to a wall, a car, whatever, squeeze the left trigger, and you flatten up against it, freely able to blindfire past it, or quickly popping up to get bearings, squeeze off a few return shots, etc.

Your computer-controlled squadmates in the singleplayer are generally not completely brain-dead, too. Directing them is quick and easy; they take cover surprisingly intelligently, and they're also effective. Their covering fire actually covers, and frequently they'll drop tangos faster than I can acquire them.

The cover isn't a hundred-percent effective, like the implementation in something like Full Spectrum Warrior, to pick something it's somewhat reminded me of--it feels more dynamic, in that sometimes the angles of protection aren't the best. Enemies will often try to flank, even ducked behind will sometimes leave you exposed to lines of fire, and there will be times when you need to make a dash for other, better-located pieces. It does a great job of making it not have the more puzzle-solving feel that FSW has to it.

The only knocks I really have against it so far is that checkpoints could be more generous. Also, I find it nailbitingly tense to play. That's really not a negative, though, just emphatically not a relax-with choice.

Saints Row - Grand Theft Auto 3, and elements of San Andreas, polished till it shines. It has the expected goofy "street" vibe, played so earnestly straight-faced it crosses over into comedy even more effectively than San Andreas' own me-so-gangsta thing (which really only got tolerable there as the plot unfolded and then spasmed into an out-of-control sprawling silly crime-spree unfocused mess)--the intro, included in the demo, sets the tone as three gangs cross each others path and they take patient, orderly turns killing each other. Witnessing this in the crossfire, your own character avatar does the sensible thing, namely joining the Saints, the fourth gang and city underdog. For now.

So the plot is dumb, but the gameplay itself was seriously tightened. The developers clearly looked closely at GTA and asked themselves "okay...what are the really annoying clumsy bits?" and focused on that (instead of Rockstar, who mostly just seemed to ask, "Good enough! Now what additional stuff can we add?"). Lots of slick little touches.

For instance: the map. You can set a destination waypoint on it, and the minimap will give you route guidance all the way there, so high-speed chases and basic getting here-to-there aren't interrupted by constantly pausing to bring up the overall map till you memorize the layouts. A little but brilliant thing--you're still rewarded for learning shortcuts and such, but aren't actively punished up to the point that you do. More carrot, less stick.

Part of the pause menu is your cellphone. Need an ambulance? Dial 911 and one zips right to you. Apparently you can also dial other numbers in game, from billboards and such. You unlock helpers you can also summon to you--thus far I can call upon a pimp I helped out, as well as a driver who'll drive for me--nice if you want to just cross the city while getting a sandwich.

Shooting was a big part of the GTA3's, which was a pity as it was also deeply annoying on the console versions--the PC ports with the helpfulness of mouse made it tolerable. But on the playstation 2, it was mostly a lot of toggling lock-ons and blasting away while staying mostly stationary. The control scheme in Saints Row reminds me most of Mercenaries, mentioned up yonder--responsive with just the right amount of forgiving autoaim tweaking, and rewarding staying mobile.

There's umpty side-missions scattered around. Again, like GTA, but polished with much of the annoying sanded away. Street races, special driving challenges, and so forth. Stealing ho's from abusive pimps for friendly ones, evading vanfuls of paparazzi as they chase you and the VIP you're chauferring, getting in horrible-appearing car crashes and diving through the windshield in order to commit insurance fraud. You know, the usual. (I love the Insurance Fraud side missions, by the way. Just something highly amusing about ragdolling through shattering windshields to the strains of classical music. Plus, completing the whole set gives you resistance to all damage types!) These occur in levels--level one is a cakewalk, and growing more and more difficult as you progress.

In GTA, say you're doing the firefighter side-mission to get its little reward benny (you turned fireproof once you completed the highest level of it; handy, especially as the last mission in San Andreas took place in large part in a building filled with fire). You could get to the very last difficulty level, then suffer an accident--take a corner wrong and get your vehicle stuck, accidentally get a wanted level and have a cop ram you off a cliff, whatever. Start over at the very beginning, after resisting the urge to throw your controller through the screen.

Not so in the Row. Once you complete, say, level 5 of Insurance Fraud, even if you get flattened by a runaway truck immediately upon starting level 6, when you return to try the activity again, you start at level 6. I can't tell you how much blood pressure this has saved.

The same kind of forgiveness applies to play in general. While you enter the gameworld at only specified map locations, you don't have to trek out to them to save--you can save your progress at any point. When you die or get arrested, you only lose a percentage of your money as hospital/legal fees--but you keep your hard-earned arsenal, especially important at the beginning phases before the money starts rolling in. Again, that's one of those simple little polishings that stands in stark contrast to GTA's "lose everything" consequence--it was really only a bad consequence at the start of the game, and little more than a brief blip of annoyance later on due to cashflow. It's as if Volition had the brainflash, why make the beginning punishing?

Health regenerates on its own if you manage to stay clear of incoming bullets/cars/etc. for a few moments of breathing space. Further, you can carry up to four healing items with you to use if you can't get that breathing space. (Fast food from the gloriously-named "Freckle Bitch's," you see.) Also, when your helpers die, you can revive them by pouring a 40 oz over their corpse, which is one of those great Venn Diagram intersections between "genius," "totally retarded," and "insane." (It's a tiny area of the graph that many games aim at and miss.)

The game also returns to Grand Theft Auto 3's mode of your character being a totally mute cipher instead of an actual character--which I preferred far more than Vice City's and San Andreas' insistence on making you play some dude with his own story going on. I think it's pretty clear I'm guiding a Jason Voorhees-style retarded and practically-unkillable sociopath around, don't try to cutscene me otherwise.

As unrepentantly slavish clones go, it outdoes what it's copying. I take it for granted that Rockstar has a GTA 4 in development; if they're smart they'll sit up and take notice of just how much Volition polished and tightened.

It also makes me hope that the same team next slavishly copies Dead Rising.

posted by Gar @ 3:29 PM
Viva Pinata is also a kid's television show on FOX. It is disturbing and Jay claims it has BDSM overtones since the pinata's dream is to go to a kid's party and be beaten to death.
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