Monday, October 29, 2007

Guitar Hero III quick hits

Rather than writing a long and possibly sucky review, I'll just go with the important points. (I got the 360 version, if it matters to you.)

High fives

  • The new wireless guitar controller is a big improvement. Yes, wireless is always better, but this baby has a more solid feel to it and a stout, thick neck that is actually a reasonable facsimile of a real Les Paul (one of which I happen to own). Much more comfortable to play and hold, and connects to the 360 with zero problems.
  • Track list is well-rounded. There's something for everybody, and the bonus songs aren't writeoffs.
  • It looks really good in HD.
Turn your head and cough:
  • Battle mode is fucking retarded. You can throw powerdowns at the other player that you earn by hitting Star Power-like streaks. They range in effectiveness from mildly annoying (upping the difficulty level of the song) to bullshit and cheese sandwiches (double note, lefty flip, etc.) The game randomly picks which powerdown you get, introducing a very unwelcome element of luck into the nice pure game of skill. To make things even better, the three battles you're forced to do in career mode interrupt the flow; the AI never misses notes unless it's suffering a powerdown, and it always seems to know when to hit you with one. Frustrating as hell and zero fun. Fuck you, Neversoft.
  • Art direction. There's a lot of color in this game. A LOT. Venues are bigger but not better; blinding wouldn't be a bad description. The character art ranges from silly to ridiculous, and not in the fun way. A new Japanese girl rocker wears eye-hurting shades of intense pink or green. Judy Nails has been turned into some kind of ugly-ass goth wannabe. Casey's now an anorexic Lindsay Lohan lookalike. Lars' spikes and shoulder pads are now bigger than he is. While Harmonix knew how to design for humor and silliness while still retaining a subtle sense of taste, Neversoft has adopted "louder is better" and thrown any sense of proportion to the winds. It's just lame.
  • Co-op career is a nice touch, but why the hell can't we do it online?
  • We're on Guitar Hero game #4, and pausing STILL split-second freezes in the middle of the song? Who thought this was a good idea? It makes pausing worthless, since you're forced to miss notes unless you're in a dead spot in the song. Would it kill them to give you a two-count back in or something? Of all the shit Neversoft chose to fuck with, they decided to leave in this idiocy.
  • Is it really necessary to throw big wiggly "50 Note Streak!" and "100 Note Streak!" text at us while we're playing? All it does is distract you. Basic rule of interface here, people: a popup is designed to interrupt the workflow and get the user's attention. This is a GAME -- his attention needs to be on the note chart and should not be interfered with. If the user wants to know what his streak is, he can see it under his score. The popups don't need to be there.
  • The approach is starting to get a bit old. The next game needs some serious rethinking. Maybe Rock Band is going to be that game, but since Guitar Hero is now a cash cow, Activision's interest in tweaking the game (and possibly annoying the legions of Don't-Change-It-Ever) is probably close to zero.
Well, who am I kidding really? When I'm not yelling at the screen for fucking with me in another battle, I'm enjoying the hell out of this game. If you're a Guitar Hero fan, it's a no-brainer purchase. If you're not one yet, it's hard to argue against this purchase, especially if you want a good controller to start with.

**** (4/5, irritating flaws and lack of anything really new remove perfection from its desperate clutch)

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Shameless plug

I recently managed to maneuver Commons Email 1.1 through the release gauntlet, and since it's the first thing at Apache that I've taken all the way to the finish, I feel the need to announce it here. P.R. is best when it comes from completely compromised sources.

If you've ever wanted to do anything with email in Java, you owe it to yourselves to check it out and see if it helps. Bugs, feature requests, angry letters, and invitations to box socials are all welcome.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

I just can't let it go.

Yahtzee's latest Zero Punctuation, to no one's surprise, takes aim at Halo 3. While it's gratifying to see that someone who actually gets paid to blather about video games takes a stance quite similar to mine, it also reinforces the lonely realization that the determined few of us who dare to question the orthodoxy of Halo 3's Supreme Greatness are not going to be seen as the cold-blooded geniuses we are for some time, if ever.

Aside from the world-against-us feeling, which is always invigorating, what do I care if some basement-dwelling fanboys rip anyone who suggests Halo 3 has not been the best game ever conceived and delivered to the sweaty hands of man?

Part of the problem is that 3's multiplayer, which apparently was what I was supposed to buy and use nonstop, has become an excuse for the shortcomings of the singleplayer campaign. This annoys the hell out of me. Several people have tried to explain this away in a few different tacks:

  • "Oh, come on, Halo's really about the multiplayer anyway. No one cares about the singleplayer". Funny, that's not what the pre-release hype was all about. Anybody remember "Finish the Fight"?
  • "You have to understand the backstory from the first two games in order to really appreciate what happens in the third". Weak. This is the first Halo game on the 360, and there are going to be people who haven't played 1 or 2 that want to try 3 just to see what all the fuss is about. Are we really expecting those people to play 20 hours' worth of backstory before we pronounce them ready to enjoy the current game? Why not craft a compelling story that can stand on its own but also rewards longtime fans? Valve does this with Half-Life, Bethesda does it with Elder Scrolls, and even Bungie did it with Halo 2 (a game that has been retroactively rising in my esteem these days). This argument smacks too much of navel-gazing comic book nerds who yell at you if you don't read all your comics in chronological order, and it deserves no more respect.
  • "At least they tried to do a story, unlike some other games that don't even pretend to". They damn well better have a story, since Bungie has always had decent stories with their games (going back to Marathon and Durandal). They spent a lot of time in 2 developing characters, story arcs, and deepening considerably our understanding of the Covenant, the Arbiter, the Marines, and the Flood. Fanboy reaction to this was admittedly negative, so Bungie seems to have decided that time spent on the story was wasted since gamers specifically rejected that part of 2 while embracing the multiplayer. No, Bungie doesn't get points for trying here; they took the safe route and tried not to piss anyone off. When you do that, you get lackluster, uninspired gaming, no matter how pretty it looks.
Some game companies *coughidcough* have in the past succumbed to the temptation to write a multiplayer game, stick some bots into the multiplayer levels, and call the result a singleplayer game. This is the degenerate case of a singleplayer game -- a quick and dirty hack on top of the multiplayer that exists solely that the publisher can check off the "Features single player"/"No Internet connection required" bullet point on the Blockbuster Game Feature List™. Other examples include Unreal 2004; it's one of my favorite shooters, but it made little pretense of being a compelling singleplayer experience. Halo 1, by contrast, was specifically NOT about being a multiplayer game. In the days before Xbox Live, multiplayer was confined to splitscreen on usually tiny standard-def TVs. While it was fun for a group of friends in the same room, it sure wasn't any kind of "new standard" for other games.

Finally, I guess I'm just personally disappointed. I preordered 3 months in advance, I went to the store before midnight to get it, I took the day off work -- hell, Bungie (who all else aside are really awesome people who love their fans and try their damnedest to make them happy) came out in a party bus to sign autographs, shake hands, and dodge questions about Halo 4. I have to say it was one of, if not the best, experiences I've ever had at a public video game event. It's sad that the final product didn't live up to my expectations, but if the game makes $170 million in one day and scores dozens of perfect reviews from otherwise legitimate game sites, making me happy has got to be at the bottom of anyone's list.

P.S. I'm not ending on a "poor lil ol' me" kick here; it's my problem, I'm dealing with it, and video games are ultimately a stupid and pointless waste of time anyway. I may be emo over this, but I haven't lost touch with reality just yet. (Unlike those dumb bastards who forked over US$130 for the Super-Special Legendary Collector's Edition With Cat-Sized Helmet and Worthless Bonus Discs. HA-ha!)