Friday, September 18, 2009

Disappointing Sequels, and a Rock Band Wishlist

I've done just about everything I can do in Beatles: Rock Band without losing my friggin' mind, which is good, because there's other stuff out there that needs to be played.

The good:

DiRT 2

The first DiRT is still one of my favorite driving games, ever. As a confessed graphics whore, it was (and still is) jaw-dropping; it's the game I was playing both before and after I bought my 40" HDTV, and for a long time was the game I put in when I wanted to show off the TV. But that aside, the game was a complete package, oozing with polish; the career mode was well designed, the driving model was fun and accessible, the course design was varied and plentiful... even the menus were interactive and fun to play around with. And the replays... wow.

DiRT 2 has some mighty big shoes to fill, then, as far as I'm concerned. And so even though I've played quite a bit of it over the last few days and I've enjoyed my time with it a great deal, I'm not entirely sure that it fills them. It's not a bad game, by any means; it's still incredibly polished, the graphics are even better, the driving model is still fun.... but the package itself feels a bit... small. I haven't done a count, but it certainly feels like there's a significantly fewer amount of tracks to race on than in the first game, which is a bit of a bummer. With a graphics engine that gorgeous, I want to see more than the same tracks over and over again. The addition of an in-game rewind - in order to correct mistakes that would otherwise cost you the race - is really the biggest change to the game, and it does come in handy although most of the time I still end up just restarting the whole race if something catastrophic happens. The game has an achievement tracker and also keeps track of other statistics that can reward you with extra XP, and that's certainly much appreciated. I'm just... I don't know. Perhaps my expectations were a bit too unreasonable.

Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2

Speaking of sequels with high expectations, I played M:UA2 last night for about 20 minutes and got thoroughly depressed with how shitty it was. I suppose I could've soldiered on, but my gaming time is at a premium these days and I'd rather have a good time instead of slogging through something that ought to be much better. The camera is frequently pulled out way too far, making it hard to see what I'm doing (or even what character I'm playing), and there are certain glitches in the special powers that drove me crazy - there's an Iron Man/Wolverine combo move that I tried using, and each time Wolverine automatically faced the wrong way, resulting in a waste of accumulated power. Right now this is in the running - along with Puzzle Quest: Galactrix - as my biggest disappointment of 2009. Sometimes you only need a few minutes with something before you realize that you're wasting your time.


Was on a forum the other day and the topic du jour was guessing the next band to receive the full deluxe Rock Band treatment. It seemed pretty obvious to everybody that the answer to that question is Led Zeppelin. Having seen now how both Rock Band and Guitar Hero treat their special packages, one would hope that the surviving members of Zep would steer towards Rock Band, but I'm sure it'll ultimately come down to the franchise that pays them more up front. But it got me thinking about what other packages I'd pay money for:
  • U2.
    U2 is the reason why I decided to teach myself how to play guitar in the first place. But leaving my personal preference aside, U2 is still one of the biggest bands in the world, they have a recognizable mythos, they have a vivid and memorable visual style, and they have an incredibly solid catalog of work; I'd easily be able to find 45 U2 songs worth playing.

  • Pink Floyd.
    Another mythic band with beloved albums and distinct visual flair. That said, there's a few things standing in the way - for one thing, I'm not sure that David Gilmour and Roger Waters will ever agree on anything ever again, and for another, a lot of their music is on the mellow side; it might be hard to stand up and play Pink Floyd songs for a few hours, even if you're on the right drugs.
  • The Smiths / The Cure.
    Johnny Marr is one of the most criminally overlooked guitarists of the 20th century, and I would kill to be able to pretend to play his guitar parts, mostly because they're so difficult to play on a real guitar. Morrissey sings out of tune all the time, though, so I'm guessing it might be difficult to score. But whatever - they're the Smiths, they fucking rule. And as long as the 30+ crowd is looking to get nostalgic and depressed via plastic instruments, they might as well go all the way and throw in a bunch of Cure songs as well, to keep both sides of the Atlantic satisfied. I suppose I could be satisfied with a gigantic 20-song DLC package with all the great late 80's / early 90's "college" music, though, so let's just leave it at that.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Beatles: RB Impressions

There was never a doubt in my mind that I wouldn't enjoy every minute I spent with The Beatles: Rock Band; aside from being a big fan of the RB platform, I have been a huge Beatles fan for most of my waking life and I've spent almost every minute since my packages arrived on 9/9 either playing the game or listening to the remastered albums. I plowed through the game's story mode in a few short hours and kept on going, playing each of the game's 45 songs on at least 2 different instruments. (The only thing I haven't done yet is sing, which is usually my last option in regular Rock Band anyway.)

Any concern of mine that this was just an easy cash-in was immediately wiped away; a tremendous amount of love and care went into the crafting of this experience, and it shows. The bass lines are all tremendous, but the guitar experience is just as interesting, especially since there's quite a few songs where there are no discernable guitar parts, so the guitar line is transferred to horns or strings or piano. Even just the sound of clicking on stuff in the menus while holding a guitar put a smile on my face - it's all little samples from "Getting Better." Hearing in-studio chatter while the next song loads might not seem like a big deal to the casual fan but to a die-hard it's so incredibly cool.

But I must admit that I wasn't sure if my wife would care. She's ambivalent towards the Beatles; she doesn't like the super-early stuff but overall she doesn't mind them, even though she doesn't listen to them. She likes Rock Band, though, and she knew that I was going apeshit for the Beatles version, and I suppose my enthusiasm was infectious. Before we started, though, she was a little apprehensive; she didn't think she knew any songs besides the really obvious ones. But she picked up her guitar and began to play, anyway.

You know where this is going, of course. I had the game pick out a random setlist of 7 songs and I'll be damned if she wasn't singing along to all of them. Even she didn't know she knew all those songs. So we picked another random 7 (I'm not sure why 7 was the magic number) and, again, she sang along to all of them, even as she clicked away at the guitar parts.

I'm 33 years old, and I suspect that most people my age have the Beatles hardwired into their DNA whether they know it or not. I don't know that my parents would ever enjoy playing the game, as they'd probably be fighting the controls the whole time, but certainly they might enjoy watching us play it; the game looks fantastic and the music sounds as good as it ever has. I suspect, though, that the game's real coup is how it will introduce little kids to the Beatles. What better way to appreciate the music than to feel like you're playing it?

I was listening to the AV Club's Beatles podcast and they hit on something very true in the show's closing moments - the Beatles might just be the last musical group that 20th and 21st century Americans can all agree upon as being truly great. The game does as much to ensure that the band's legacy will continue to live on, and that's no easy task; look at Activision's gross mishandling of Kurt Cobain's likeness in Guitar Hero 5 as proof that it's very much possible to totally screw it up.

The Beatles: Rock Band is very easy to recommend. Yes, you can bitch that you can't import the Beatles songs into RB2 and vice versa, but that's really just you being lazy and not wanting to get up off the couch and change the disk. It's not an issue for me; I couldn't just play one Beatles song, anyway, without wanting to play the rest.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Calm Before The Ridiculousness

It's 9/8/09, which means that in a little over 24 hours I'm going to be in some sort of Beatles-induced catatonic stupor, and then the wheels totally fly off shortly after that in terms of the fall release calendar. This is probably a good place, then, for me to check in before I check out.

So, then, first things first - please accept my humble apologies for the lack of regular updating. Blame it on the crappy summer release schedule, which coincided perfectly with an absurd uptick in my own personal music-related endeavors.

The last few weeks, though, have yielded both some free time and some really, really good games to be played. Here's some quick impressions:

  • Batman: Arkham Asylum
Without question, a Game of the Year candidate - notwithstanding the fact that 2009 has been a pretty shitty year in terms of quality. But the real question is why. There's a number of things to appreciate about developer Rocksteady's latest effort; they took the hottest comic book/movie license out there and avoided the easy cash-in opportunity. They used the animated series - which is better source material for an interactive experience, anyway - and crafted a remarkable playground in which to explore. I always felt that Sam Fisher would kick the shit out of Solid Snake - and without endless cutscenes to muck it up - but I'm pretty sure that Batman could kick the shit out of both of them, at the same time. The game features fantastic combat mechanics, but doesn't rely on combat to pad the game's length, to the game's tremendous credit. The Riddler's puzzles offer tremendous incentive to explore every nook and cranny of Arkham Island, and the 40 Achievement Points I got for solving every riddle and finding every hidden message were among the most satisfying I've ever accumulated.

  • Shadow Complex
I spent my free time this weekend on my 2nd playthrough, with the objective of finding every hidden item. There were only 2 or 3 that really tried my patience; I'm still not entirely sure how I was able to nab them. (They involved breaking blue boxes, in case you're already familiar with the game and what that means.) I found myself comparing Shadow Complex with Batman:AA more than once; it's true that I played them more or less at the same time, but the two games complement each other in pretty interesting ways, I think - mostly in terms of encouraging exploration and offering incentives for backtracking. I'll put it up there in GOTY territory as well; certainly it's the XBLA's best offering this year.

  • Trials HD
I love Trials HD; I just wish I was better at it. I've managed to finish all the hard levels, but I'll never get beyond a bronze medal in any of them, and my ineptitude at the ultra-hard levels is discouraging. Difficulty aside, though, the game is an absolute blast; it's beautiful, accessible and addictive, which is really all you could ask for in a downloadable title. The game features some of the best leaderboard integration I've ever seen, in any game; it also features the quickest restart of any game I've ever played, which is a big deal since failure is constant in the higher difficulties.

  • Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box
I was a big fan of the first Layton game and very much looked forward to this latest iteration. I'm a bit torn on it, though, to be quite honest, and it's puzzling (ha!) to figure out why. The game's puzzles are much more varied than in the first game; the puzzles even have a bit of context, which makes them feel important (unlike the first game); there's a wonderfully-integrated scratch pad which lets you scribble notes, trace paths and quickly add up sums. So, really, the game ought to be a better experience; and yet, for some reason, I quickly found myself racing through it - sometimes using a walkthrough, which totally defeats the purpose - and the game's ending was utterly preposterous. I'm curious as to why I had such an unfortunate experience with it, but I will say this - as quick as Trials HD is when it comes to restarting a level, Layton 2 is tediously slow when it comes to retrying a puzzle, so much so that I probably resorted to a walkthrough because I didn't feel like waiting 10 seconds if I got something wrong. If nothing else, though, the game did offer up my favorite game-related quote in quite some time:

"As a gentleman, I feel that it is my duty to take one of these balloons."

  • Wolfenstein
I'd forgotten this was on my Gamefly queue. And, well, what do you know - here we are a few weeks later and I'd nearly forgotten I played it for about an hour.


Here's my to-do list for the rest of 2009.

*All titles 360 unless otherwise noted*

Beatles Rock Band
Dirt 2
Scribblenauts (DS)
Mario & Luigi 2 (DS)
Brutal Legend
Uncharted 2 (PS3)
Modern Warfare 2
Dragon Age

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2
Katamari Forever (PS3)
Dead Space Extraction (Wii)
Alpha Protocol
Ratchet & Clank (PS3)
Forza 3
Assassin's Creed 2