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Gaming Stories: X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter

“Transfer laser power to shields and double rear shields. I’m going to take the one behind us out, and then I’m going to try to hit the other one with missiles.”

“Wait, damn it, don’t close the S-foils! Power to shields, not power from shields! Argh! I am never letting you co-pilot again!”

All things considered, X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter was a victim of expectations. My friends and I jumped became attached to LucasArts’ series of space sims with TIE Fighter when we passed a set of floppy disks around to install onto our computers. Then one of us got the CD-ROM edition of TIE Fighter, and we passed that around too. We still talk fondly about TIE Fighter and wonder why no one’s produced another Star Wars space sim like TIE Fighter.

At some point, one of us will inevitably remember that X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter came out and that we played it together one summer. Only one of us had a joystick and an air-conditioned room, so we would get together at his place. One of us would prefer to use keyboard and mouse, while another would prefer joystick. My preference was always keyboard and joystick, but that’s a lot of buttons to manage. So, I would normally ask one of friends to act as co-pilot. My reasoning was that Luke Skywalker had R2-D2; why couldn’t I have someone to help me pilot this fighter?

Of course, I didn’t take into account then was that my friends wouldn’t always follow directions or even act in our mutual best interest.

In vanilla X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter, our options were limited to arena battles, called “Furballs,” and we would compete to see who could down the most enemy fighters in a given amount of time. So, we would pass the keyboard, joystick, or mouse to each other and try to pull off the best and flashiest kills. The details escape me, but my lasting memory was cursing my friend’s name after he sabotaged our fighter as my round was running out. My friends couldn’t stop laughing; I couldn’t start laughing until weeks later when I got my revenge by shutting his fighter’s engines down so the computer-controlled fighters could easily pick him off. Good times.

Gaming Stories: Civilization Revolution

December 31, 2076

And with my last move, I nuked Calcutta and wiped Gandhi from the planet, completing our absolute domination of this world. That is justice for all the little nagging wars that Gandhi would start beginning when we first encountered his envoys in 111 A.D. or the several times he tried to hold our settlers hostage, forcing us to pay exorbitant fees to have them safely returned. Before we conquered Athens and subjugated Alexander and his Greek nation to the unstoppable American way of life, we had paid them to occupy the Gandhi’s attention by starting a border war. Unfortunately, like other previous allies, Alexander did nothing with the funds we supplied him. And in an ultimate show of disrespect and what would ultimately prove to be his undoing, three turns after we gave him money to start the war with Gandhi, Alexander turns around and declares war on me because my economy is booming. So we had to steer a portion of my forces away from the Indian/American border so we can bring the Greeks to an understanding, rebuild their cities, occupy their lands so that we may resume our good war with Gandhi.

The history of the world started out so well too. I founded Washington, my capital, on an ocean coastline with access to bountiful plains and productive mountains. I built the first buildings in Washington with my bare hands. We sent my warriors to survey the land, and they encountered friendly peoples who supplied our fledgling nation with soldiers, trade caravans, and persons with unique intelligence skills. Some of them even offered to join our nation, which brought pride and, more importantly, resources. We encountered some barbarian nations and clarified to them that the new world order had no place for them. As they fell, they gifted us gold and a ship with which we could begin to explore this world.

Let us remember the brave Pikemen who defended Boston.

Our view of the world expanded when we encountered envoys of Bismark of the Germans. There was some tension when our settlers founded Boston near the German border, but we ignored their demands for technology. Providence ensured that we found an advanced war machine, called a Sherman Tank, and we used it to smite the warriors and catapults that the Germans sent to conquer Boston. Sufficiently impressed with American might, Bismark sued for peace, which I gladly gave them. To ensure Boston’s continued success, we settled Plato there. I will never forget the look on Bismark’s face when his people in the city of Hannover chose to join the American nation. This was the sweetest victory of all, an act of self-determination made because of how appealing the American culture and the booming American economy were, not at the tip of a spear or the receiving end of a big rock. Perhaps that is why the German declaration of war in 1970 A.D. seemed so half-hearted; after Hannover defected, they knew that they had already lost. I gladly accepted the German nation into the American melting pot in 1993 A.D., when they joined the English and Japanese nations under the American banner.

Because of Boston’s location, the Germans were effectively bottled in their archipelago, which allowed me to continue to expand. American cities are, by design, founded on coasts to utilize economic and military advantages. This was critical when our little ship, which was a prize won from barbarians, was sunk without provocation by the Japanese navy in 1780 A.D. That steered our powerful research and development academies to uncover the secrets of steam power. Cruisers carried our riflemen and cannons to the Japanese islands, and we engaged in a protracted island-hopping campaign that led us to their capital, Kyoto. Emperor Tokugawa sued us for a ceasefire, and our government faced a moment of crisis when Congress vetoed my rejection of this plea. I argued that to stop now would mean that the Japanese nation would have an opportunity to rebuild and threaten our nation once more. Furthermore, the continued existence of a separate Japanese sovereignty would trouble the Japanese citizens who already voluntarily joined the American nation as they recognized and approved of America’s Manifest Destiny. With a heavy heart, I suspended that Congressional session, dismissed the Senators and Representatives, and continued the campaign to ensure American safety against future Japanese aggression. I continue to intend to restore Congress; I take no joy from claims that I am the Mad King Lincoln. As always, I work to better the American nation and its dependent peoples. This is why I build aqueducts and granaries in every city to ensure that my people are fed. This is why I install courthouses in every city to ensure that justice is not forgotten. This is why I limit the production of arms to only certain cities.

Though I regret the crisis that the war against Japan brought us to, I believe that we are stronger for it. That crucible forged the American nation into a nation capable of facing all obstacles, particularly those presented by the insidious English culture. Their religious fundamentalism threatened modernity, and I was not surprised that they violently opposed the values that we projected. We tried to engage them in trade, but they seized our trade caravans at every opportunity. There were moments when I thought the English people would reject their trajectory; I had high hopes when they threw down the religious fanatics from power and chose to create a democracy. I regret that we did not do enough to support their blossoming democracy before it fell to religious fanatics again. For the safety of the American people, I had no choice but to take them under the American banner. It was a humanitarian act.

America’s greatest minds led to our victory.

Our nation faced its greatest trial when Gandhi uncovered a trove of advanced technology and threatened us with tanks and advanced artillery. I marshaled our resources to uncover these secrets as well, constructing the Oxford University in order to gather our finest minds to lead the way. Providence again guided us; for all of the Indian nation’s might, they could not break through the stalwart defense posed by our veteran riflemen. They were the rock, and the Indian tanks and artillery were the wave. Eventually, we were able to unleash the full power of the American economy and manufactured tanks, artillery, and bombers. We also discovered Leonardo’s Workshop, which allowed us to quickly upgrade our existing soldiers’ equipment. The unconquerable veteran riflemen replaced their rifles with machine guns. That was the turning point of this protracted war.

Our hope for the future.

But I am tired of war. Now that Gandhi has joined Bismark, Elizabeth, Tokugawa, and petty barbarian lords in the realm of the unenlightened, we have a chance to ensure to improve our world. With global safety assured, I believe that unrest in the former Japanese, English, German, Indian cities will be relieved by expanding education, by building more universities, by ensuring that they have easy access to food and good jobs. One day, we will be able to disband our rapid reaction force and send those veterans home to the heroes’ welcome that they have earned. But most of all, I hope that our colony ship successfully finds a new world where we could start fresh and leave the mistakes of this world and its history behind.

America’s humble servant,
Abraham Lincoln

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PlayStation Plus Could Turn the Vita’s Fortunes Around

As one of the early adopters of the PlayStation Vita, I’ve experienced a good amount of buyer’s remorse since picking it up in February. The Vita had a pretty great launch lineup, including Hot Shots Golf: World Invitational, Wipeout 2048, Uncharted: Golden Abyss, ModNation Racers: Road Trip and Super StarDust Delta. A few weeks later, MLB 12: The Show launched, which was the first game where you could share a season between the PS3 and Vita versions of the game, one of the highly touted features of the Vita leading up to its launch.

After the launch however, things pretty much dropped off cliff. After The Show in the beginning of March, there was pretty much nothing until the end of May, when Resistance: Burning Skies was released, and it wasn’t good. The next solid Vita release was Gravity Rush in June, and that was the last really good game until the amazing Sound Shapes came along in August. So far this Fall, Little Big Planet Vita is the only thing resembling a top-tier game that has come out for the console. Almost everything else released for the Vita since its launch has been a port, a remastered collection or a stripped down version of a console franchise.

For me, the biggest gripe I had about the Vita was the lack of PlayStation One support at launch. This was something that Sony has talked about over and over before launch, and we didn’t get the feature until late August, over six months after the North American launch.

Sales of the Vita have been unimpressive so far, and by refusing to cut the price of the Vita, Sony wasn’t doing anything to help themselves. Media outlets and many gamers have been talking about the Vita as if its already dead, and they may be right. But I think Sony finally understands just how bad of a position they are in with the Vita, because they have finally stepped up and provided one very compelling reason to own a Vita–PlayStation Plus.

I’ve raved about how great PlayStation Plus has become over the past year and a half. On the PS3, it’s essentially become a Netflix for games, as each month subscribers are getting access to great games for free. In the past several months I’ve downloaded InFamous 2, Just Cause 2, Assassin’s Creed 2, Ratchet & Clank: All 4 OneSaints Row 2, Resident Evil 5 and a bunch of PSN games. There are also tons of discounts on newer games–this month is Portal 2 for $13.99, for example. Bottom line is, for $50 a year, I’m getting a huge amount of value out of the service, and now it’s coming to Vita.

On November 19th, the PS Plus service will be available on the Vita, and six games will be available at launch–Uncharted: Golden Abyss, Wipeout 2048, Gravity Rush, Jet Set Radio, Mutant Blobs Attack and the PSP game Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions. That’s an amazing group of games. And since I’m already a PS Plus subscriber on PS3, that subscription transfers over to my Vita as well.

PlayStation Plus reinvigorated the PS3 when Sony started giving away free games through the service. A couple weeks ago, Sony reported that the past two quarters have been the most profitable in the six-year history of the PlayStation Network. Sony has fine tuned the PS Plus Service on the PS3, and now the Vita will benefit from what they’ve learned.

So let’s say you go out and buy the PS Vita Assassin’s Creed: Liberation bundle. For $250, you get the new white PS Vita , AC: Liberation (a $40 game) and a 4GB memory card. If you grab a 3-month PS Plus membership for $18, you get immediate access to $150 worth of other games that will provide you with months of gaming. Not a bad deal.

I’ve no doubt that this move could turn around the fortunes of the Vita, but it all depends on how well Sony does in getting the word out about it. I’d like to see a holiday bundle that comes with a year subscription to PS Plus and a decent size memory card (at least 8GB). There are rumors of $200 Black Friday bundles featuring some of the current big titles, so that’s a step in the right direction for the short-term. Of course, Sony will need to keep the games coming each month to PS Plus on Vita, as they have with the PS3 service.

It’s about to be a great time to be a Vita owner. Kind of makes me wish I’d waited to get mine.

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Gaming Stories: Spelunky

Six hundred and twenty-one plays, six hundred and twenty-one deaths, zero wins. I’ve never been so happy with such futility.

I’ve been poking at Spelunky since about 2010, but I didn’t make a concerted effort to finish the game until this summer after the Xbox Live Arcade port was released. To this day, I still haven’t played that version. Instead, I’ve continued to try to conquer the original freeware PC version, where, despite my futility so far, I feel like I’m near a breakthrough.

I wonder how many of those deaths are intentional suicides after I took an early hit in first couple of stages. If I can feel the game going poorly, I’ll find the nearest enemy, spikes, or large fall, kill my avatar, and start again.

The pressure for a perfect run used to define my explorations of Spelunky, but for now, I just want to make it from the first stage to the fourth stage in one piece so I can unlock the tunnel to the fourth stage. When I pursued the perfect run, I would rage at the cheap hits from bats and snakes, curse the spiders, and curse myself for walking into yet another arrow trap that knocked me off a cliff, taking me from full life to death in a matter of seconds. I would boil because I was too close to an exploding space ship in the third stage or because I was caught in a damage loop from the snow monsters in the third stage. I would curse the spiders and frogs who seemed to be able to impossibly adjust their jumps so they land right on my head.

Try again. 

I tend not to play many video games around my toddler, but Spelunky, for whatever reason, is one of the first video games to which I’ve exposed him. He calls it the “try again” game. In a way, I guess it’s teaching him good-nature perseverance.

Update: while finishing this post, I gave it another try. Six hundred and twenty-two plays, six hundred and twenty-two deaths, zero wins. Let’s try it again.

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Finally! A New Co-Op Critics Podcast!

After much too long of an absence, Co-Op Critics has returned!

In this episode, our good friend Max Saltonstall stopped by to talk AnonyCon and a bunch of games both he and I have been playing. We also have two interviews–the first with Fernando Bustamante of D3 about the new Adventure Time game, and the second with our good friend Antony Johnston, writer of the upcoming WiiU launch title ZombiU. Here’s the show notes for the episode:

Games Rundown with Brian and Max

AnonyCon (www.anonycon.com)
Niantic Project (www.nianticproject.com)
Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn
Silent Hill: Book of Memories
Knights of Pen & Paper
Team Fortress 2 / Left 4 Dead 2
Angry Birds Star Wars

Interview: Fernando Bustamante–D3 Publisher
Brian spoke with the Senior Marketing Manager of D3 about the upcoming 3DS game Adventure Time: Hey Ice King, Why’d You Steal Our Garbage? The game arrives on November 20, 2012, and you can find out more about it at www.d3p.us.

Interview: Antony Johnston (www.antonyjohnston.com)
Brian spoke with the writer of ZombiU at NYCC 2012. ZombiU will launch alongside the new WiiU on November 18, 2012. You can find out more about the game at zombiu.ubi.com.

You can find the episode here, or just click on the player for the episode on the right sidebar of the page.

Enjoy!

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Gaming Stories: Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (Game Gear)

I’ve mentioned that I was on Sega’s side during the great 16-bit console war. That’s not to say that my backpack was emblazoned with a patch declaring Genesis does what Nintendon’t or that I declared my schoolmates who had Game Boys to be heretics that needed to be smitten. However, I did own a Sega Game Gear, rather proudly at the time, and that’s probably a heavier burden than carrying a great crusade against Captain N and the N Team because the Game Gear was a bulky, battery-consuming handheld gaming device.

The size and weight of the Game Gear doesn’t strike you until you compare it against something more familiar. Maybe that’s why I was partial to the PlayStation Portable for so long; it reminded me of the Game Gear.

Of course, the Game Gear always felt like a paper tiger. For all its size and hunger for electricity, it always felt strangely fragile. The black plastic casing never felt like it could withstand a fall of more than a foot, and the screen didn’t seem that much bigger than a Game Boy’s screen, even if it could show color.

The Game Gear’s need for power meant that I rarely played it during long childhood car rides. I didn’t have a car adapter, so I couldn’t rely on the Game Gear lasting the duration of those car rides. And if the Game Gear died, my entertainment options were limited to staring at passing scenery and traffic. This meant that I usually played the Game Gear at home, where it could be comfortably hooked to a wall outlet via AC adapter, an ignoble fate for an intriguing device.

My enduring memory of the Game Gear is directly connected to one of the most infuriating gaming experiences from my childhood: Sonic the Hedgehog 2. I loved the cases for Game Gear cartridges, and the cartridges had a nice little grip for ease of entry and removal.

To this day, I have not finished Sonic the Hedgehog 2 for the Game Gear. I’ve watched Let’s Play walkthrough videos on YouTube, so I know what lay beyond stage 2, the Sky High Zone, but I can’t claim the satisfaction of beating the game. Sometimes, I would get stuck at the first boss. Sometimes I wouldn’t make it through that damned hang-gliding section in Sky High Zone’s second act, at which point I would have to stop myself from (spin)dashing the Game Gear upon the floor in anger. It was particularly galling to discover that stage 3 was called the Green Hill Zone. Why would they name the third stage of the game after the first stage of every other Sonic the Hedgehog game? Why couldn’t I handle the hang-glider well enough to make it through that section? The system for operating that hang-glider made no sense to me when I was a child, and the gusts of wind that would have carried me upward from the oblivion of the screen’s bottom never seemed to come in time to save me.

I’ve been tempted to hunt down a secondhand Game Gear and a copy of Sonic the Hedgehog 2. I’ve even been tempted to just download an emulator and the Sonic the Hedgehog 2 ROM. But what would I gain from beating it now? What would happen if my gaming skills have eroded to the point where I can’t beat it? The cost of the possibility of failure might outweigh the possible gain of shedding this anchor to childhood memories. For now, Sonic and Tails still stand unconquered, sometimes wagging his index finger at me, sometimes giving me a thumbs up sign.

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Gaming Stories: Streets of Rage 2

Pounding electronica is playing. Enter stage left, but I’m facing right. Turn around and walk left. Pick up the hidden extra life behind the mailbox. Punk in blue jeans and blue vest approaches. Jab-jab-vertical kick. Three more punks approach. Jab-jab-Grand Uppercut/Bare Knuckle. Two more punks approach from behind. Backfist. Punk with mohawk and a yellow jacket approaches. Knee press-jab-jab-Grand Uppercut/Bare Knuckle. The punks have now gathered into a tight group. Knee press-jab-jab-grapple-knee flurry 1-knee flurry 2-back throw. Knee press-jab-jab-grapple-knee flurry 1-knee flurry 2-vault over opponent-body slam. Surrounded by punks. Dragon Wing. Go straight.

When all else fails, spam Grand Uppercut/Bare Knuckle.

That might seem like gibberish to you, but that’s how I think of the very beginning of Streets of Rage 2. When I close my eyes, I can see the first punk in blue approach. I can play out exactly how I would attack him and remember how long I had before his comrades joined him. I know the exact timing window for each attack sequence and how each enemy would react to my attacks. Don’t jump against the bald, shirtless enemies because they’ll uppercut me unless they’re holding lead pipes. Don’t get in too close against the enemies with the mohawk and the brightly colored jackets because they’ll find an opening to throw me.

Every time I play Streets of Rage 2, I react to the same sequence of enemies with the same moves. It’s like our actions are scripted for us. I walk left to pick up the hidden extra life. The first group of punks try to ambush me from the right. I turn around and hit B-B-C-B on the Genesis controller to chain jab-jab-vertical kick. I press the advantage and hit B-B-double tap right on the directional pad-B to chain jab-jab-Grand Uppercut. The second group of punks try to ambush me from the left this time. Hit C-B simultaneously to use the backfist. The punk in the yellow jacket is here, so I hit C-down-B to make Axel yell something incoherent and jump into the punk in the yellow jacket to start the combo. Time passes, but the attack sequence at the beginning of Streets of Rage 2 is eternal.

This box survived multiple moves.

In the grand 16-bit console war, I was on the Sega Genesis side. One Christmas, my parents unveiled a brand new Sega Genesis Fighting System, which had Streets of Rage 2 as the pack-in game. I delicately removed every piece from the box (for a while, I still had the exterior cardboard box, the interior Styrofoam casing, and all the twist ties and plastic bags that came in the package) and hooked it up to the TV. I would get a few other games over the years (Sonic the Hedgehog 3, Columns and Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine for my mother), but Streets of Rage 2 was my faithful companion for years.

There are four playable characters in Streets of Rage 2, but my memory is only attached to Axel, and it’s probably for an almost trivial reason: the first player’s selection defaults to Axel in the character selection screen.

There are multiple ports of Streets of Rage 2, but my muscle memory needs the original three-button Genesis gamepad to realize its full potential. The round directional pad would click in just right, and the B-button was ground into just the right groove from my presses. I’ve tried the XBLA version and the version included in Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection, but they don’t feel right to me. Maybe it’s controller latency or how the directional pad on the Xbox 360 controller feels. Or maybe my muscle memory is so strongly tied to the Genesis controller that my hands refuse to recognize any other way of interacting with Streets of Rage 2.

One final thought: Streets of Rage 2 rules, Final Fight drools. Only one of the two games allows the player to build combos like the ones I described above, and it’s not the game by Capcom.

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Gaming Stories: Halo 3

We all have anecdotes about our games, and the power of single-player video games lies in the games’ ability to bind us with shared moments. If I know that you’ve also played Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, I can reasonably assume that you too faced the disappointing final boss in an empty and anti-climactic mansion. It’s a common touchpoint, and communities are built on sharing our experiences.

So, from now until the end of the year, I’m going to try to share one of my gaming stories a day. The goal is not to recap the game’s events but to tell my story of that moment, almost like building my personal gaming memoir.  
Since Halo 4 was released last week, let’s revisit my favorite moment from Halo 3, which I’ve titled “The Taking of Scarabs 1, 2, Boom.”

For as large the scope of the Halo series has been, it’s a surprisingly solitary experience. Humanity is losing an intergalactic war, but the chapter “The Covenant” in Halo 3 was the first time that I felt like I was a part of a great war. The fiction places the Master Chief as a monumental figure, the demon of death feared by humanity’s enemies, but he is usually a solitary operator in the field. The space battle taking place above Earth outside Cairo Station at the beginning of Halo 2 was nice to observe, but ships blowing up in the distance didn’t convey to me the feeling of being part of something grander. So, when cutscene that opened “The Covenant” showed seven dropships in formation ready to conduct a coordinated strike on enemy bases, I sensed that this chapter would be different. 
Once the combat started, however, the game’s scope narrowed again. With our forces divided to hit the enemy in three simultaneous blows, I was alone to face the opposition in my tower. I remained alone even when I flew over to another tower to rectify the botched mission there.
Once the three towers were under friendly control, and I boarded a Scorpion tank in silence. As part of the metagame between the developers and the player, I knew that I would not have been given control of a tank unless I was going to face a challenge that required it. We moved from a vibrant and sunny shore through a tunnel to snowy mountains that were lit by a weak sun. The lonely piano at the beginning of “One Final Effort” is almost wistful, one set of notes repeating the other in a different octave, and I saw the snowy plain where the battle would take place. The strings have joined the piano, but I’ve lost a passenger on my Scorpion tank. The strings are have become more energetic, and I’m struggling to navigate the snowy cliffs in my unwieldy tank while fighting a combination of enemy Ghosts, Wraiths, Prowlers, and turrets. 
“Hornets in-bound!”
Even the piano had picked up the pace by now to join the strings’ energy. A Scorpion tank and Hornets? Something wasn’t right. We used the Hornet earlier in the chapter to escort a dropship and engaged in dogfights against Banshees, but we’ve been on the ground since then. The passengers on my tank have all perished, and the tank itself is on fire.  
Two Scarabs! Repeat, two Scarabs!

“I count two Scarabs. Repeat, two Scarabs!”

Well, now I knew why the developers have given me all this firepower. 
The air started swarming with Hornets and Banshees, joined by the pounding music. I had to choose how to solve this combat puzzle. We had taken out a Scarab in Halo 2 on foot and a Scarab earlier in Halo 3‘s chapter, “The Storm,” on a Mongoose. Should I use the Scorpion or the Gauss Warthog to knock the Scarab down so I can board it to destroy it? Should I just use the Scorpion’s cannon to fire directly on the Scarabs’ engines to trigger their destruction? I could, but enemy Ghosts scampered to and fro, almost vibrating in their enthusiasm to stop me. Should I use the Hornet to destroy the Scarabs from the air? I could, but enemy Banshees vied with friendly Hornets and a friendly Pelican dropship for air superiority. 
I made my choice. I would take to the skies. I weaved in between enemy fire, and I was methodical in my assault. I destroyed the enemy Banshees. I wrecked the Scarabs’ main guns and bombarded the troops who dared to show themselves on the Scarabs’ decks. I stripped the Scarabs’ of their armor. And then I directed those rockets into the Scarabs’ engines to trigger their destruction. I had felt like the god of death and destruction that the Covenant’s Grunts ran in fear from before, but this was on a greater scale than ever before. The music swelled, the Scarabs’ engines finally went critical, and there was a satisfying “Boom.” 
“Both Scarabs down. Well done.”
Thanks, Cortana. I like to take pride in my work.
“Kill the stragglers.”
Oh. That’s a bit bloodthirsty of you, but what’s a few aliens more? The music is positively triumphant, almost inspirational, as I did what Cortana asked.
“Calamity! If we only had more time.” 
As I crossed the bridge to my next mission objective, the strings faded away to one sustained note, and the melancholy piano returned. I agreed with 343 Guilty Spark. That was the series’s finest moment, the perfect melding of music and player control in a combat puzzle, and this was the closest the Halo games came to matching the scope that it tried to present. This near perfect moment was all too brief, and replaying the section would be nothing more than chasing that high to diminishing returns. I secured that memory and moved on to slay some more aliens.
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Force Test–Part 0: Ready for Launch

I’ve been waiting for this.

Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR) Lead Designer Damion Schubert announced in a dev blog the other day that SWTOR will be free to play as of mid-November.

I wrote a post on my own blog a while back when Bioware was considering transitioning Star Wars: The Old Republic to a free-to-play (F2P) model and how it was an inevitability. Subscription-based MMOs are no longer a long-term business model.

In my mind, there are basically two models that have risen from the ashes of the old: (1) Free-to-play at launch; and (2) Early adopter subscription-driven with a transition to free-to-play. Both are supported by getting some users to pay for additional content or features. Some, like Guild Wars, offer expansions for additional cost, while many others offer microtransactions for additional content, character slots, short-term bonuses, etc.

SWTOR falls into that second category. For the better part of a year, SWTOR has cashed in on hardcore MMO and Star Wars fans that felt compelled to play the game when it first launched. Once that surge of income began to dry up, the move to F2P was on. As many other MMOs have proven over the past few years (D&D Online, DC Universe Online, Lord of the Rings Online), the F2P model can be very successful if implemented properly.

When I was working for CBR, I had a few conversations with the DC Universe Online devs prior to that game launching, and it was clear to me they knew the game would eventually go free-to-play. At the time, I didn’t understand why they would even try a subscription-based model in the first place, but it makes perfect sense when you think about it. In the short-term, there is a lot of money to be made from the early adopters. In fact, publishers can almost use that subscription-based period as another beta test while they ready their F2P model. They can see the game in action, and figure out where microtransactions would best fit in based on how people play the game, how long average sessions last, etc.

I firmly believe that this was the plan for SWTOR all along. The only thing that Bioware and EA didn’t foresee is that they would need to make the switch to F2P this quickly. The game launched in December of last year, and I bet they figured they’d get two years out of the subscription-based model before needing to switch over. In comparison, both DDO (2006) and LOTRO (2007) lasted about 3.5 years apiece before switching, while DC Universe Online (2011) and SWTOR (2011) lasted less than one year. What that tells me is that even early adopters are balking at the idea of a subscription-based model, and F2P will soon become the primary model for all MMOs moving forward (some might argue it has already).

So given that the switch to F2P has come a little early for the folks behind SWTOR, it will be interesting to see how their version of a free-to-play model is implemented. Already, there seem to be some odd choices in terms of restrictions (F2P players not being able to equip rarer weapons and items, limited number of PvP events per week), but at least it looks like all classes and experience levels will be accessible from the get go.

I will be diving into Star Wars: The Old Republic when it goes F2P, and in the Force Test series of posts, I’ll be writing about my experience with the game and my thoughts on how the F2P model has been implemented.

Stay tuned!

Halo4forwarduntodawn

‘Forward Unto Dawn’ Brought Me Back to Halo

As I write this, it’s Halo 4 launch day, and I just picked up my copy of the game. Two days ago however, I hadn’t even planned on picking up Halo 4 at launch, as I was only planning on picking up one shooter this holiday season, and had made the decision that I’d be getting Call of Duty: Black Ops II instead.

But a funny thing happened over the past couple of days–I came to realize that the Halo franchise is really the only first-person shooter series I’ve been consistently interested in this console generation (and the one prior). Watching the excellent Forward Unto Dawn web series drove home that realization, and after watching the first couple episodes, I preordered the game in the eleventh hour.

When I say that I’ve been consistently interested in the franchise, what I mean is that I’ve played all of the Halo games, and I’ve completed the campaigns in each one. As I thought about it, I realized that the Halo series is the only FPS series that I have completed all of the campaigns in. In Call of Duty, the last campaign I finished was World at War. For Resistance, I didn’t even play the third game. Same for Gears of War. But the combination of story and setting in the Halo games kept me interested in the universe enough to complete all of the games, and it’s what’s brought me back for the latest installment.

I realize that for a lot of people, this is the opposite of why they play Halo. For many, it’s the multiplayer component that brings them back each time. And while multiplayer has always been executed very well in the Halo series, I’ve never been a big fan of it (probably because I’m not very good at it). I usually a handful of hours with the multiplayer of each game, and then move on to other shooters I fare better at. The last time I played a Halo game, it was the multiplayer mode for Reach, and my apathy for that part of the game is why I wasn’t overly excited about Halo 4. So much of the media coverage dedicated to the game is focused on multiplayer, that it’s easy to forget about the campaign.

But the campaigns have always been great in my mind (even Halo 2), and Reach’s was fantastic. The last moments of that campaign provided one of the most emotionally powerful experiences that I’ve ever had in a game. Seeing Forward unto Dawn made me realize that I am excited about the return of Master Chief, and I want to learn more about the Forerunners, and what happens to Cortana’s sanity as the end of her life draws closer.

My interest in Halo over other shooters makes sense to me when I think about my gaming preferences as a whole. I’m an RPG nerd–I need a world I can get immersed in. Story, setting and characters trump gameplay for me. When compared to other shooter series, there’s a lot more to explore in the Halo universe.

So, while Forward Unto Dawn was primarily designed to introduce new players to the series, it has served to bring me back and remind me why I became of fan of the universe in the first place.