Archive for May, 2008

30
May
08

Naruto: RPG Style! Believe it!

I’m not one to beat around the bush. In fact, I’ll get straight to the point in 3…2..1..

I’m a Naruto fan.

Yeah, I said it. I’m 28 and I like me some good Naruto. It all started a little over a year ago when I was assigned the book for Naruto Ninja Council 3. Being a good lil’ author I decided that if I was going to do the book well and do right by the Naruto franchise, that I’d at least need to know what Naruto was all about. I went out and  bought the Naruto Uncut Season 1 dvd box set, a few ramen cups, and a headband (ok, I didn’t buy the headband.) and made a bee-line to my couch with a short stop by my microwave for 2-3 minutes. I was surprised at how much I actually liked the anime. I’d never been a big fan of anime, but somehow this one got through.

Promptly after watching all of Season 1, I was back at BestBuy purchasing Seasons 2 and 3. Needless to say, I was hooked. Now I’ve got seasons 1-7 with 8 pre-ordered AND I’ve got my grubby little hands on Naruto: Path of the Ninja 2 for the Nintendo DS.

So far, I’m thoroughly enamored with the game. It’s an old-school RPG (Think old-school SNES Final Fantasy games and you’re on the right track) and has all the charm a Naruto fan could want. My only gripe is that in order to record my footage I have to play it on a Nintendo DS debug unit that is the equivalent of a clipper ship’s anchor, so I can’t play it on my couch and am, quite literally, anchored to my office desk.

Every now and then, I have to stop and wonder. How exactly did I end up with Naruto manga on my bookshelf, Naruto dvds in my Xbox 360, a Naruto figure over each of my three monitors, and an addiction to Ramen???

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29
May
08

Two of Five

2. Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar

I suppose it had to happen.

I’d played Star Wars Galaxies in order to write the guide for it, but didn’t stick with it after it launched. I avoided Dark Age of Camelot, Everquest, City of Heroes (surprisingly, given my eternal love of comic books that borders on obsession), and even stayed away from World of Warcraft despite it’s black-hole pull on most of my gaming friends. MMO’s were not on my radar. Mainly due to my exceedingly frugal nature.

I just couldn’t see any point to paying $15 a month ($180 a year!) to play a video game. Sure, I’d spent much more than that in one session of Smash TV, the weight of the quarters nearly taking my pants down to my knees, but I couldn’t justify the expense. Actually, truth be told, I was using the expense as a cover for my true fear. The worry that if I should ever dip into an MMO for pleasure I would be consumed. I would not surface for years.

Luckily, none of them actually grabbed my attention. Until, that is, I logged into the LotRO beta. The lush environments, the highly detailed clothing, the weaponry with scroll work etched into every surface. But most of all the familiar locations from the novels.

In the first week I met Aragorn and entered Tom Bombadiel’s house. I ran through the fields of the Shire, jumped fences in the Bree-fields, and met Butterbar, the proprietor of the Prancing Pony.

Even now, so many game-play hours later, I still marvel at the water effects and the trees. I can be engaged just watching a river or staring at grass…grass!

This is not obsession. I am still able to pay attention to my wife and friends. I can appreciate the play of real wind through the trees. But the sheer joy of being a Hunter, bow taut and arrows flying, in the lands of Middle-earth have made me realize…

I’m a damn geek.

28
May
08

loreology: orcs

If you’ve got a memory like an elephant, the old saying goes, then your noggin’s in good shape. Mine, when challenged under the gun, tends to shoot blanks. I’m a research kind of guy, not a living, breathing almanac…. Each week “Loreology” will unravel the mysteries behind something in gaming that I may have known once and completely forgot, or something that I should probably know and cram up into my nearly full brain cavity.

This Week: Tolkien’s Tough Guys

If you haven’t seen an orc in your fantasy travels you’ve been living in a well-protected fortress all your life or you started gaming back in 1912 before J.R.R. Tolkien ever put pen to paper. It was Tolkien who brought the word orc into the popular fantasy lingo. In Tolkien’s Middle-earth, orcs are the larger cousins to the goblins. Orcs thrive in places like the Mines of Moria, and are sure to play a prominent role in this fall’s upcoming Lord of the Rings Online expansion.

Tolkien derived his word orc from the Old English word for “demon.” It certainly made an impact because now “traditional” fantasy includes the orc as a common race. Some video games stick to the well-known Tolkien orcs–any Dungeons & Dragons game, like the Baldur’s Gate series comes to mind–while others take them to wild places. In Lineage II orcs are a race attuned to fire, Might and Magic gives us orange orcs and there are even online generators that morph headshots into what you would look like as an orc.

All this trivia probably won’t help me the next time I’m chugging through the Burning Steppes and a WoW orc wants to play the bongos on my brain. Then again, maybe it will if I can pull a Sauron and figure out how to get them to make gunpowder for me.

27
May
08

Destruction in Bad Company

In case you were wondering where the Tuesday blog has been, I apologize. I have been out on assignment in Eastern Europe working with B-Company (aka Bad Company) looking to find all of the gold bars. I am proud to report all have been found and you can get the full report complete with locations in the Battlefield: Bad Company strategy guide along with the locations of all collectible weapons. (Okay, I wasn’t really in Eastern Europe physically, but the game takes place there.)

 

For those who did not get in on the Bad Company beta, the demo will be out June 5th. If you pre-ordered through certain retailers, you can get a code to download the beta on May 29th. No matter when you can get your hands on the demo, give it a shot. One of the cool new features is the ability to destroy buildings and other forms of cover. This provides a whole new way of playing a first person shooter. If you have played the Rainbow Six Vegas games, you know how dangerous doorways can be. In Battlefield: Bad Company, just use a grenade or rocket launcher to blow a hole in a wall and bam, you have a new entrance. Someone hiding behind sandbags, blow them away and you will usually take out the person behind them as well.

 

The key to success is a destruction mindset. Even if you don’t have grenades or other explosives, the maps have lots of fuel drums or explosive crates that blow up real nice with a couple of shots from your weapon. Therefore, if you are having trouble taking out a machine gun position, aim for the red crate near the gun and shoot it to blow up the gunner and gun alike. The game also includes some very powerful gadgets which allow you to call in mortar strikes or even guide an airdropped bomb right onto the target of your choice. Forget about blowing a hole in a wall. How about taking out all the walls of a building as well as the roof!

 

Don’t forget to check out the demo and see just how destructive you can be!

26
May
08

Doom and Gloom

Before I went through my time playing Mario Kart Wii at Nintendo, I prattled on about taking risks as a video game developer; where the God of War team spent millions of Sony’s dollars, and still had doubts about the sheer awesomeness of Kratos’ bladed ballet of blood. But the “no risk, no reward” tactics are all part of the rich tapestry woven into the industry. Well, unless you’re making a sequel, or your company’s marketing department is making all of the gameplay decisions. And at a risk of over-utilizing this inapt medieval metaphor to a teeth-clenchingly trite conclusion, you need to thread your own needle if you’re hoping to join those working on, or parasitically feeding off (in the case of video game reviewers) the latest and greatest video games.

 

I tumbled into the video game industry just after finishing a University degree in History, in Sheffield; a town famous as the setting for the movie The Full Monty. As no-one was particularly eager to see my flabby torso or other flappy bits, I used my very first credit card, and imported one of the very first PlayStations available in Japan. It cost me $2,000. And that’s with the wrong video cables, no power adapter, and without Ridge Racer or Battle Arena Toshinden. I imported, and played Ridge Racer – unfortunately in black-and-white – until my hands cramped, my eyes turned a strange shade of pink, and my thesis was two months’ late. I then hooked up my PC to a serial cable, and played Deathmatch Doom with my housemate, who’s now the Editorial Director at GameSpy. At this point, I’d like to give thanks to Ken Kutaragi and John Carmack for planting the embryonic alien in my brain that hatched, and piloted me into my first video game job.

 

 

  • PlayStation + Ridge Racer + Battle Arena Toshinden in 1995:
  •          $2,200 in student loans.
  • PlayStation + Ridge Racer + Battle Arena Toshinden in 2008:
  •         $30 if you’re lucky.

 

After somehow managing to obtain a History degree, I realized that my aimless wandering towards a teaching job could be circumvented into writing about the second wave of video games on the PlayStation and Sega Saturn. I made a Doom map that was published in PC Zone, a feat far less impressive than it sounds as it was bundled with 299 other maps, and stuck to the front of the magazine to be peeled off and stolen from newsstands. Back in my parents’ house, I realized I needed to get my particular brand of waffling prose into the hands of a video game magazine editor. So I wrote a fanzine. On paper. With screenshots scanned from imported copies of GameFan magazine “A what?” you might be thinking. But this was back when the internet was wowing us with Ascii characters and the latest in MUD text adventures; there were no blogs. I created the fanzine entirely in Microsoft Word, called it “PlayStation Frenzy”, a name that still causes douche chills each time I think about it, and sent it to every publisher in the world.

 

Nowadays, a career in the video game industry is a lot more straightforward; you can send links to your hilarious and satirical video blog, and start making millions the Zero Punctuation way. Or you can go to college and (as I recommend in my Video Game Careers book, which I’m hawking incessantly over the forthcoming months) choose a pertinent degree, parlaying that into a career in video games. Me? I got rejected dozens of times, until one man; an Editor in Chief called Richard Leadbetter, summoned me to his London Doom Base one dark and overcast September day, and offered me a chance to work on my first magazine. My hapless exploits at this magazine, showcasing more difficulties of breaking into this industry, will be revealed next time.

 

 

Just finished: A couple of chapters on creating some of the most fearsome Spore creatures the galaxy has ever seen.

Currently: Leafing through my copy of the Mario Kart Wii Guide. On sale now!

About to: Check on all the various Phases of the Spore game, and model a critter on Great Cthulhu, if my tentacle allocation allows.

 

25
May
08

spring update blues

Late last week Xbox Live manager Marc Whitten announced there will be no Spring dashboard update this year. Instead, the team plans to focus their resources on boosting Live’s infrastructure, hopefully remedying some of the stability issues that have crept up in the last few months. Of course, most Xbox fanboys were severely disappointed by this news, especially given the enticing rumors of soon-to-be implemented features posted over a week ago. Sure, I’m a bit disappointed too, but it’s not exactly the end of the world. Why? Well, I guess I’m quite content with the dashboard’s current state. Let’s face it. It still blows away the competition. And the free Indiana Jones theme looks sweet!

Still, I wouldn’t mind seeing some greater functionality in the future. At the top of my list would be an option to install a game to the console’s hard disk drive; this was one of the rumored updates. The PS3 has offered this option on several titles (including GTA IV) allowing for quicker load times. This would be great in games like Dead Rising or Assassin’s Creed where the action frequently comes to an abrupt halt while new areas are loaded. I’d also like to see a more elaborate friend list system. Currently, I have lots of friends in my list, many of whom I haven’t played with in over a year. But I’m not quite ready to ditch them either. It would be cool if you could sort your friends into different groups. Some sort of clan tab would be useful too, so you can see when other members are online without adding dozens of people to your friend list.

I’d be shocked if the Xbox Live team hasn’t already taken these ideas into consideration. And maybe at some point we’ll see them implemented…maybe in the Fall? But for now we’ve got our good ol’ dashboard for the Summer. And that’ll be just fine for me.

22
May
08

Three of Five

3. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

Before we get into my love of carjacking and slaughtering my way up the criminal food-chain of a fictional Los Angeles/San Francisco/Las Vegas tri-city area, I feel that Civilization II is owed a mention. Sid Meier’s siren song was nearly too much for me, luring my younger self into late nights and “just one more turns” that lasted through entire weekends. I wouldn’t call it a love affair, though, so much as an addiction. I wasn’t drawn to it, seduced and enraptured, I was compelled to play it due to some chemical need that somehow leaked into my veins from the computer screen. And so it doesn’t quite belong on this list but does deserve a nod.

GTA: San Andreas, however, was love.

Guilty, guilty love at the start. I resisted for over a year after it was released before dropping the shiny disc into my PS2. Within two days I was feverishly driving, climbing, flying, and swimming through every nook and cranny of the superbly crafted world Rockstar games had created. I languidly made my way through the missions, savoring the plot lines and marveling at how well they flowed together. Considering the amount of freedom a player has in choosing the order in which they play the missions, GTA: SA (and it’s cousins and siblings) has a surprisingly cohesive narrative. A bit of chop here and there, but overall astoundingly well written.

Yeah, yeah, I know. The only words you really hear coming out of people’s mouths when a Grand Theft Auto game comes around are “violence,” “guns,” “sex,” “coffee,” and “won’t someone please think of the children!?” But hardly ever do we see reviews that comment on the sheer craftsmanship that goes into these games. From the scripts to the environments…

OK, I admit it, when you get to the gameplay controls and squirrely driving mechanics GTA doesn’t rank near the top of the list. But where else are you going to find an ersatz Las Vegas that feels so much like the real thing?

I grew up in L.A. and lived for years in S.F. When playing San Andreas I would be tooling around the video neighborhoods and I could tell what areas they were aping. Not just obvious landmarks like the Capitol Records Building, but the actual feel of the architecture and style of real city streets were imitated with uncanny accuracy.

I would have CJ buzzing around downtown San Andreas and be struck by a sense of familiarity so strong I would stop and look around to see if I could pick out the elements that trapped the flavor of the city. This alone kept my attention for months. I scoured the game world for every pick-up, collected every car, and made sure I finished each and every mission. All the while examining the street scenes to see if I could recognize the real-world counterpart. I found the GTA Noe Valley, Compton, West Hollywood, Castro, and dozens of other swaths of L.A. and S.F. that had been homaged in the game.

I’m playing GTA 4 now and it is very good. I like the characters better then those in SA and the writing is even more sophisticated. But I don’t think it’ll manage to grab me like that extended stay in Rockstar’s fake West Coast. I was consumed by and swaddled in its digital embrace, my thirst for narrative was rocked gently and my appreciation for design was kissed sweetly on the head.

And then I would antagonize a rival gang until they came after me with automatic weapons.

Love hurts.