Friday, April 18, 2014

PAX East 2014 Preview: Defense Grid 2

Tucked away at PAX East was a booth for Defense Grid 2, a sequel to the well-loved Defense Grid: The Awakening which to me defined the tower defense genre with its tight action, wit and customizable experience. Despite being a terrific game and a solid seller the first title did not put its developer Hidden Path in a position to fund a sequel and they did not want to go the traditional publisher route. That left Kickstarter, which they approached it in an interesting way: If they got a certain amount they would release an expansion to the original game, while if they achieved their top goal a sequel would be released.
They missed their top goal, but a mystery backer topped up their funding and work was started. They released their expansion last year and then eventually reached out to 505 games for publishing support and are well on their way to releasing the full sequel later this year.
click to view larger imageI had played a great deal of Defense Grid: The Awakening on PC and noticed when I got to the booth that they had an Xbox One version playable as well so I took that for a spin. The point of the Defense Grid series is to fight off hordes of monsters that are trying to steal your power cores. The action takes place on set maps with multiple paths and you have the ability to direct the monsters by placing towers at blocking points. You win if no more monsters are left and you still have cores; you get a perfect game if none are stolen. One of the neat things about the series is that the monsters have to walk back with the cores to steal them, so you have a chance on the return path to finish the hordes off, but cores return to base slowly so care is needed.
Off the bat I could see there were some subtle differences that will improve playability.  First off, the top of the screen has a host of information such as what monsters are queued; the core, shield and resource numbers; and a graph showing your progress and mapping any previous attempts. The monsters now have a health bar, which makes a big difference when gauging how you are doing. Hidden Path also eliminated flying creatures as they were too chaotic and could easily ruin a perfect run; this allowed the developer to come up with many more interesting monster variants. Finally, they added a lot of dynamic content within the maps – towers that move and land masses that rise and fall, for example – which changes the battlefield.
click to view larger imageControl was easy on the Xbox One, with the left stick controlling general movement and the right stick intuitively zooming with up and down movements and shifting viewing angles with left and right. The bumpers are used to speed and slow down the monster movement, and placement/upgrades is controlled with the A button. It worked pretty well, movement was responsive and the system was very lenient when you were hovering on a build point – it would build in the most likely spot.
Despite the controls being a little different I was pulled in right away and enjoyed a round of the new title (winning a perfect match, I may add). The game in its current state did not have any of the story elements in place, but I was assured that the charming AI narrator from the first game (Jim Ward) would be back along with a number of new characters. The company’s goal is to refine and deepen the story and the tidbits I was given have me excited to play through the game’s main story mode.
While the core gameplay of Defense Grid has been tweaked more than revolutionized, the sequel will offer additional modes that will lengthen the life and enjoyment of the title. It will be released across multiple platforms (PS4, Xbox One and PC), but the PC version will have a leg up with Mod support. Tools will be provided with the full version for people to create their own themed maps and voiceovers. This could be a really cool way to get some iconic scenes or scenarios as well as plenty of unique content into Defense Grid 2.
click to view larger imageI was told the game will also have two-player co-op and competitive MP modes. Players can work with or against other players to evolve strategies. Co-op mode allows a player to work with a friend to build towers and defend power cores. Competitive mode allows players to compete and modify each other’s gameplay experience while interacting. That last competitive mode is the one I am really looking forward to as it was described as similar to the old multiplayer Tetris on the Gameboy – as you eliminate monsters on your side, some spawn to the other player.
Defense Grid 2 is shaping up really well on all platforms, but having checked out both the PC and Next Gen console versions I can say that the PC version has a clear edge. The textures were crisper and better shaded, and movement is far more intuitive on a mouse and keyboard than with a controller. This is not to say that the Xbox One and PS4 versions are bad, they just don’t quite measure up to the PC version. With some time left before release we could see the gulf shrink, but if you have a choice go for the PC version first.
Being a big fan of the original I was looking forward to Defense Grid 2 and my anticipation level has just risen further now that I have tried out the game first-hand.  The gameplay tweaks, expanded storyline and solid multiplayer additions make this the one Tower Defense game to look out for when it is released this Fall for Xbox One, PS4, and PC/Linux/Mac.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

The PAX East Exprience

Unlike a certain author from a major publication, I attend PAX East to experience the culture and games, not to view it as a sociological experiment. The culture, games, and the people are what PAX is all about, these are not people to look at in a mocking or degrading fashion, instead these are people who fuel an industry that is now larger than the movie business. PAX East is very much the people's gaming convention and the experience is one that is full of amazing moments that far outweigh the few tedious ones.

Before I begin, a description of PAX is necessary, but instead of paraphrasing or making up my own, it just makes sense to give the official line:  

"PAX is a three-day game festival for tabletop, videogame, and PC gamers. We call it a festival because in addition to dedicated tournaments and freeplay areas we've got nerdcore concerts, panel discussions, the weekend-long Omegathon event, and an exhibitor hall filled with booths displaying the latest from top game publishers and developers. Even with all this amazing content the best part of PAX is hanging out with other people who know their shit when it comes to games."

The Preparation

Going to PAX East isn't something you just decide to do, well unless you live in Boston of course. Being from Ottawa, Canada I have to pre-plan a great deal every year for the event. Thanks to Blogcritics I can apply for a Media pass, but I am not guaranteed one. The application involves sending story samples, getting a letter from your editor and your personal credentials (business card, ID, etc). Once the application is sent you just pray it is accepted because three day passes sold out by January 9th, a full four months before the event!

Travel and hotels are stressful enough, but the real challenge of PAX east preparation is the schedule. Not only are there dozens of very interesting panels everyday, there are literally hundreds of games of the digital and tabletop variety to check out. Attending as media, I also have the opportunity to have meetings with various companies that range from quick demos to extended play sessions and interviews.

Pouring over the schedule and e-mails from media contacts, I ended up with a schedule that is nearly impossible for a human to complete. From start to finish, the first two nights I have something slotted for nearly every hour (including events before the show even starts on the Friday). Sunday is a shorter day (till 6PM), but every hour is occupied there as well. At times there are two - three panels at the same time worth attending and a tough choice has to be made. The breadth of content is amazing and these decisions are great ones to be forced to make.

Flight and Hotel dealt with far in advance, day job vacation booked and kids re-arranged during my absence I am ready to head to Boston. The last preparation is figuring out subway travel and confirming the last appointments which change the entire schedule around.

I highly recommend that any out of towners who attend PAX East try and come early and leave late. Because we arrived a couple of nights early, were able to attend the highly enjoyable PokeCrawl, a charity based pub crawl with a Pok√©mon theme, perfect for PAX East. It was the night before PAX started and while that may not have been the smartest of choices the next day, it was very fun at the time.

The Event

If anyone has been to a world class convention before you know what to expect. Hordes of people, a cacophony of sights and sounds and more ways then is right to spend all your money and then some. The event is in the Boston Convention and Exhibition centre and it is a huge sprawling beast of a facility that is completely overtaken by the spectacle that is PAX East.

It is usually  hard to decide what to do first when you arrive at PAX East, for me this year it was a little easier. We had picked up our badges the day before (which saves hours) and media has access to an hour in the exhibit hall before the doors open. An hour may seem like a lot, but with 10s of thousands of square feet of space and hundreds of exhibitors, the time is precious. We ended up seeing Aliens: Colonial MarinesThe Behemoth booth and took a walk through the Microsoft booth.

Once the hour was up, we had to hustle up to the main theatre for the keynote by the legendary Jordan Mechner. This is where the dice rolling at PAX East begins. With so many people (70-80,000 people walk through the doors over the three days) getting into key panels are a combination of luck and the perseverance to line-up for hours in advance. Media access means nothing in regards to the panels, you either get in or not, media rows are not reserved at the conference for panels, no matter how prominent you are.

We were able to get into Jordan Mechner's excellent keynote and this kicked of an incredibly busy day that involved some but not all the panels I wanted to hit. We were able to attend the first Penny Arcade Q&A as well as a gaming and Mental Health panel. But the huge line-ups prevented us from seeing panels by Bioware and Naughty Dog for their landmark games. Foiled but not demoralized, we filled our time by hitting the tabletop section of the exhibit hall, checking out the Nintendo and Ubisoft booth and falling exhaustively onto Sumo beanbags in the handheld lounge.

The day ended with a late appointment at the Warner Brothers booth where we checked out the crazy and fun Lollipop Chainsaw and the Xbox 360 version of the Witcher 2. I was also lucky enough to have a chat with Suda 51 about Lollipop Chainsaw, it was a real treat meeting him as he is dynamic and passionate individual.

The rest of the three day event followed a very similar pattern. I tried (and was sporadically successfully) in attending a number of panels looking at varied topics like Hitman: Absolution; Penny Arcade: Make a Strip; Dragonlance; and Real RPGs: Sexuality, religion, and race in design and play. I also had the pleasure of meeting with a number of developers looking at games such as Sleeping DogsQuantum ConundrumPenny Arcade's On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3Max Payne 3, and Borderlands 2 among others. All of the games made a great impression and when the lights came up at the end of the Omegathon I was surprised that PAX East was over.

The Experience

PAX East is something that needs to be experienced if you have any interest in the video game or table top world or just the culture itself. The moment you step into the convention centre you are, as Wil Wheaton said in the inaugural show, Home.

Outside of the games and the panels and rock concerts, the real meat of PAX is the people. Everywhere you walk there is a huge array of personalities and cultures and they are all there for the same reason. I never saw fights; I never saw blatantly rude behaviour; instead I saw people meeting, talking, playing, laughing, and just enjoying their passion whether it be Magic: The GatheringPokemon or the latest Call of Duty.

One of the perfect examples of what the experience of PAX is like comes from an encounter I had on the subway on the way to the show. A guy dressed as Nathan Drake stopped me to chat, turns out he is a random person I met while waiting in line at the first PAX East. We were really bored in that line and I had just bought some new dice so I asked the guys if they wanted to join an impromptu roleplay session. As we had no books I made up a scenario based roughly in the D&D 3.5 world and did a 45 minute session with four random strangers. This person on the subway told me that he remembers that and tells people about it as one of the coolest things he had ever experienced. It was one of the things that made his PAX experience that year and locked him and many of his friends in to the show from that point on.

PAX is not just a group of geeks and nerds gathering to talk about children's hobbies and act weird as some outside folks would lead you to believe. It is a community of strangers who reach out to each other with their common passions and ideals and become family.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Playstation Plus is the best investment you can make if you own a PS3

While it has faded a bit over time I have to confess I am still a Sony fanboy.  Aside from Bethesda games (which run like shit on PS3 due to lack of skill on that platform) and the Mass Effect series if a game is multi-platform I get it on PS3.  I am currently on my second PS3 and my fourth Xbox 360.  To add context to the disparity on replacing hardware I bought an Xbox nearly 18 months AFTER I got my PS3.  So in 6 years of owning a PS3 it was replaced once and in 4 and a half years I went through 4 Xbox consoles.  Presumably I now have the uber stable Xbox 360 design so I should be good, but still my confidence in the hardware is not terribly high.

When my PS3 died, it was a catastrophic death, the dreaded Yellow light of death.  Because I had the original phat 60Gb system with backwards compatibility I was loathe to give it up.  So I got a local repair guy to fix it, he warned me it would be temporary, but it was worth it to get backups started on my PS3.  You see I had 4 1/2 years of saves on the system, probably in excess of 400 hours of gameplay that would have been lost.  Once I had my PS3 back home I started a rigorous backup schedule and when it inevitably failed I bought a PS3 Slim, restored my backups and discovered that not all games work on the backup system.

I had looked at Playstation Plus in the past, it offered some bonuses in the form of initially bland free games, but the key at the time for me was the cloud based saves and automatic updates.  Nothing is more annoying on the PS3 then putting a game in and waiting 30 minutes for updates to be applied.  With PS Plus these updates (Game and PS3 core) are applied overnight so your system is always up to date.  Cloud saves is another key, all important games are stored to the cloud meaning I will always have a backup of my saves.  I subscribed immediately and as the months went by it became more and more worth it.  The free games and perks such as discounts became deeper every month and at current count I have gotten the following games for free:

-Comet Crash
-All the Magic Orbz expansions
-Sonic the Hedgehog 2
-Crash Team Racing
-Crash Bandicoot 2
-Hydrophobia: Prophecy
-Entire Jurassic Park the Game
-Entire Back to the Future the Game
-Marvel Pinball
-Spyro: Year of the Dragon
-Syphon Filter 2
-Final Fantasy V
-Far Cry 2
-Battle Fantasia
-The Simpsons Arcade game
-Fatal Inertia EX
-Mahjong tales
-Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars
-UmJammer Lammy
-Splinter Cell Essentials
-Shank 2
-Betas for Starhawk and Ghost Recon Future Warrior
-Plus heavy discounts on Final Fantasy games and tons of dynamic themes.

Many of these games are truly excellent and this month it gets even better with the following being given free:

-Trine 2
-Rock of Ages
-Castlevania SOTN and Chrinicles

I mean this is almost ridiculous.  So many free games and services that actually improve the experience.  Compare this to my Xbox Live account that gets sporadic and not very good discounts and online play.  I get that for free on PlayStation already.  I won't knock the Xbox live experience, it is stable, and cross game chat is amazing, but $50/year amazing?  No.

I will gladly pay $50 per year for PlayStation plus for the games, discounts and features.  My Xbox 360 gold account lapses every month and I wait till offer me live for a month at $1, that is how little the service means to me.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Lollipop Chainsaw

PAX East was full of games that were mainstream, indy, or just plain crazy. Lollipop Chainsaw is a game that doesn't innovate or break new ground, but it is a fun, crazy, and over the top sexy game that is worth checking out once it releases in June for Xbox 360PS3, and PC.

The setting should have prepared me for the game, in the Warner Bros. booth there was a short school bus that had been decorated and built just to demo the game. There was also a very authentic model named Jessica Nigri cosplaying as Juliet Starling who caused some waves (and controversy) in her revealing outfits. The fact that the enigmatic and brilliant Goichi Suda, better known as Suda 5,1 was there made the experience that much weirder and more wonderful.

Lollipop Chainsaw is the newest endeavour from Suda 51's Grasshopper Manufacture and it is one he is very passionate about. The game revolves around Juliet Starling, who has many of the traits of a stereotypical blonde cheerleader but is also from a long line of zombie hunters. When a major zombie outbreak occurs and her boyfriend is attacked, she casts a spell to keep his head alive and sets out with her magical chainsaw and pom-poms to destroy the zombies and set things right.

I asked Suda 51 why he switched to a female lead after having such masculine leads for No More Heroes and Shadows of the Damned and he was very passionate about his reasons:

"We had a thought to have a normal girl as the hero and as we started designing her all the components came together in perfect ways. She is strong, sexy, and has such a great personality that comes through on the screen"

Suda also mentioned that as the character of Juliet started coalescing everybody at Grasshopper and Warner Bros. fell in love with her and could envision her as the next Lara Croft. She is certainly an attractive character and effective on screen. She is armed with a chainsaw that can be used in light and strong attacks, as well her pom-pom attacks can stun enemies making them easier to kill.

The weapons and attacks are used effectively throughout the game. At certain points you need to use your chainsaw to cut barricades and there are fun mini-games to perform that action in a visceral way. During combat if you stun enemies and kill three or more at once you get a glitter attack that generates bonuses and a really cool effect and animation sequences. The combat is quick, brutal, and frankly a lot of fun.

As this is a Grasshopper Manufacture game there is of course some crazy off the wall gameplay mechanics and your severed head boyfriend is at the heart of many of them. At key moments you can place his head on various zombie bodies (once you decapitate them of course) and a rhythm mini-game is triggered. With Juliet cheering, you progress through a QTE (Quick Time Event) to make him dance until he reaches the end goal, which may be a point he has to chuck Juliet over or a barricade that needs destroying. The sequences are so crazy and funny that I actually got over my normal hatred of QTE's and enjoyed playing it. Seeing zombies dance never gets old.

I asked Suda about the severed head and if there were any things that were simply too crazy to add to the game:

"We originally had some really crazy things you could do with your boyfriend's head, most are in the game but one was not allowed. We had Juliet setting up zombies like bowling pins and you putting your hand into the head and throwing it like a bowling ball making them explode. It was a little over the top and we took it out. But there are many more crazy things you can do with the head that you will be surprised and happy to see."

Lollipop Chainsaw also features coin drops that you can use to earn weapons, outfits, and moves within the game. This makes the experience of killing zombies in creative ways that much better as there are rewards to deepen the experience.

The main character itself is a very sexualized character playing to all the stereotypes of the typical American Cheerleader and I asked Suda how she came about and if Buffy the Vampire Slayer was an inspiration:

"She [Buffy] was definitely someone that we thought of as the character developed, but the idea of Juliet has been with me for a while and I was excited to design her. She is a typical high school cheerleader but she also has all these cool powers and weapons and kicks butt. We are really hopeful for this character and the game and excited for it to come out. The team is working very hard and I am proud of our work."
Playing the game myself I have to say that I am looking forward to it as well. The action is fast and furious and the characters and scenarios are so over the top that I couldn't help but grin as I tore my way through waves of zombies. Suda 51 told me that he thinks this will be their biggest game yet, looking at the inherent mass appeal and quality of the game itself I am inclined to agree!

Everything in this description for the new Batman cartoon makes me want to barf, I have highlighted the worst pieces...

cool, new take on the classic Dark Knight franchise, Beware the Batman incorporates Batman's core characters with a rogues gallery of new villains not previously seen in animated form. Along with backup from ex-secret agent Alfred and lethal swordstress Katana, the Dark Knight faces the twisted machinations of Gotham City's criminal underworld led by the likes of Anarky, Professor Pyg, Mister Toad and Magpie. Produced by Warner Bros. Animation, this action-packed detective thriller deftly redefines what we have come to know as a "Batman show." Featuring cutting-edge CGI visuals to match the intricate twists and turns of the narrative, Batman steps out of the shadows and into the spotlight for an entirely new generation of fans. With WBA's Sam Register executive producing, and Batman Beyond's Glen Murakami and Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated's Mitch Watson producing, Beware the Batman, based on characters from DC Comics, is coming soon to Cartoon Network!

And then there is the art style, triple Barf, people need to be fired, both for the look of Batman, the affront that is Alfred firing twin pistols and the villains...what the hell are they thinking.  This is hurting my brain and soul...

I mean look at this crap!  They are going to make one of the most iconic and cool superheroes of all time fight someone named Proffessor Pyg (nice spelling) and Mister Toad (why not Toed)?  Really?  This series needs to die a slow death.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Long overdue post!

After having not posting anything here in many months it is kind of funny that I am posting a look at my private abode. I am moving soon and took some pictures of my apartment so my landlord could post an ad looking for a new tenant. I am trying to get out with 30 days notice so I am doing all I can to help.

I took a picture of my living room and though nothing of it, when I looked at the apartment ad today I realized that the shot of that room is almost a window into my tech soul. That living room is my sanctuary, where I go after the kids are in bed, where I sit when I am have a day to myself and have gaming marathons. It is a reflection of my geek collector self and a portrayal of my habits and likes.

It is funny to say that a picture of an environment reflects a person, but this one really does reflect who I am in many ways:

Thursday, September 22, 2011

In a move that is being called a coincidence, but is totally not a coincidence Marvel is rebooting their Ultimate Universe at around the same time DC is rebooting their entire line of comics. Of course there are some changeups in the world, but the most stupid, lazy and just plain moronic change is that there is a new Ultimate Wolverine. It is Wolverine’s son, he has the same powers but he also has organic metal on his claws and skeleton.
This is one of the stupidest moves I have ever seen in a comic book. period. But Michael, you ask, what about the new Spider-Man, he is now a half hispanic/half black kid that has nothing to do with Peter Parker? Yes that is stupid, yes that makes no sense canon wise, but at least I understand why they did it. It is a pathetically obvious ploy to garner media attention by doing something so ‘outrageous’ as to have an ethnic Spider-man. But Marvel, if you want to have a strong ethnic character why not actually pay homage to the dozens you already have? Make Luke Cage a game changing character, or Cloak, or Forge, or Deathlok (love Deathlok), or Bishop, or any of the others you could choose from.
No my nerd rage over the new Spider-Man is different, it is a rage against the stupidity of suits in a company who think up stuff like this simply to garner press. My nerd rage over the new Ultimate Wolverine is due to the fact that the move is pointless and simply lazy. There is no need for a new Wolverine, no one would step into that characters shoes, nor does the world need it.

In the case of other fallen heroes there is a need for a replacement. When Superman died four replacements stepped up to fill his red boots. Superman is an icon, a symbol and a beacon of hope for the world. There was a void when he disappeared that had to be filled. Captain America is much the same. When he quit being Captain America due to differences in policy they needed a replacement because he is a symbol to America and one that is needed for the people. When his replacement did not do the uniform justice they made a deal and Steve Rogers came back. When he died much the same happened, Bucky/Winter Soldier had to step in, the world NEEDS Captain America.
In a same but different way when Batman had his back broken (and when he died) a new Batman needed to take his place. First Azrael took his place during Knightfall and then Dick Grayson when he died. He is not as much a symbol of hope, but a symbol of justice in a place that has none. Gotham city needs Batman and the world needs his realistic approach to crimefighting. There is grey in the world and the Batman recognizes that.
In the case of the Ultimate Wolverine, I am sure he will be back as there is still an arm left from him (and he can regenerate every part of himself) when he was vaporized (long story). But in the meantime we have his son Jimmy Hudson who has Wolverine’s powers of regeneration, has claws but also organic metal that coats then and his bones. makes me think that perhaps Colossus joined in and donated his sperm to this weird kid? Frankly this is just plain infuriating. Wolverine is not an icon, he is not a hero, he tried to kill cyclops for a girl, he betrayed his friends numerous times and is a dick. The world does not need a Wolverine like it needs a Captain America or Superman. This new Wolverine serves no purpose and him assuming his fathers mantle is a lazy and amateurish move by Marvel.
This new ‘Wolverine’ dons his father’s identity, but for what reason? There is no unfinished legacy, there is no iconic purpose, in fact it serves to hinder him. Much like the new Batman’s and Captain Americas people will wonder why he is different. But unlike those replacements of fallen icons he has really no reason for doing it. He doesn’t have Wolverine’s history, his anger, his long years of wisdom. He is just a kid with imitation powers and he is there for no reason, plus he looks like a neutered wolverine (see picture at top again). Please Marvel, kill off this kid, have the real Wolverine regenerate and return quickly and never, ever do this again.