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Let the Year of “B-Games” Begin!!

A couple weeks ago I posted about how I just don’t have the time in my life anymore to play games as much as I’d like to. As a result, I’m buying fewer games, but spending more time with those games, trying to get as much out of the experience as I can. One of the byproducts of this approach is that it has largely freed me from the “new release” cycle of gaming, where I needed to play all the new games when everyone else was playing them, just to feel connected to the conversations of the moment. Now I pick and choose, buying games that I am really interested in, and often buying them months after release, when the price has dropped, or picking them up during digital sales on Steam, PSN or XBox Live.

One of the things I’ve noticed recently is that my gaming tastes have changed over the past few years as well, and they now resemble my taste in movies more than ever. Specifically, I find myself more interested in low-budget and overlooked games than in big budget, AAA releases. And I’m not necessarily talking about indie games. I’m talking about console games that, if they were movies, would be put in the “B-Movie” category. They could fall into this category for a variety of reasons. The most common reason is that they were made on a small budget compared to their more high-profile brethren. But, they also could have had a rocky development cycle, or a really short development cycle (as a lot of licensed games have). Or maybe they’re a port of a game that was put out on another platform. Whatever the reason, I want to play these games.

But wait, you might say, you don’t even have time to play all the “good” games. Why would you spend time with games that are, in many cases, not very good at all?

I will answer that by going back to my movie analogy. My favorite genre is low-budget horror movies. The reason I love these movies so much is that I’m always fascinated to see what the director, the cast, and the special effects team do with the limitations they have. Do they set the movie in one location? Do they overly rely on digital effects, or do they invest in practical effects at the cost of something else? What things does the movie prioritize, and what does it compromise? Does the story rely on a bunch of tropes, or really try to do something different? And if it does use tropes, how well does it execute on them?

I think the same way about low-budget or “B-category” games. What did the devs decide to prioritize versus compromise? Does the game have some really interesting systems but really bad visuals? Is the story the strong point, but the mechanics are bad? What’s the game’s strongest quality? What did the developer decide to build around? What are the interesting qualities of this game, despite the fact that it might not be very good overall?

In many ways, as someone who enjoys thinking about the process behind the product, “B-games” are so much more interesting to play than most big-budget games.

Don’t get me wrong, I still play a lot of big-budget games, and many of them are awesome and very interesting. But there is something about those mid to lower-tier games that fascinates me. And the reasons I’ve been thinking about this issue now are twofold. First, I am fascinated by the discussion around Aliens: Colonial Marines, and I will be grabbing it as soon as it drops in price. Second, since we are entering the end of this console generation, there is a whole library of games that are available on the cheap. Games you would never think of paying $60 for can be gotten for under $10 in most cases.

So, over the next year I’m going to revisit some of the “B-games” I’ve played, trying to finish the ones I can and figure out why I left the ones I didn’t finish. I’m looking forward to writing about them.

I’m sure everyone out there has their own definition of a “B-game,” but here’s a list of some that I’ve played that fit my definition:

Velvet Assassin                                                          The Saboteur
Legendary                                                                   Alone in the Dark
Alpha Protocol                                                            Dark Sector
Binary Domain                                                            Brink
Clive Barker’s Jericho                                                 Damnation
Deadly Premonition                                                    Far Cry Vengeance (Wii)
GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra                                          Hellboy: The Science of Evil
X-Blades                                                                     Rise of Nightmares
Section 8: Prejudice                                                   Shadowrun
Two Worlds I & II                                                        The Conduit
Wanted: Weapons of Fate                                         Wet
Raven Squad: Operation Hidden Dagger                   The Club

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How Will Microsoft Counter Sony’s Social Strategy?

So the PS4 was announced last week, and it’s clear that Sony’s strategy with their new console revolves around the social aspects of gaming. From the dedicated “Share” button on the controller, to the partnership with UStream for video sharing, to the ability to let your friends assume control of your game from afar, Sony has built social aspects into every part of the new PlayStation experience.

Now, as we await Microsoft’s big announcement, I have to wonder what the central theme of their new strategy will be . Whatever it is, they will need to include social features in their new console as well, and there are plenty of possibilities out there.

This is just me spitballing, but I would love to see Microsoft enter into a partnership with Google to use Google Plus and YouTube as the main social sharing features of the next XBox. Google Plus already includes a strong video conferencing suite with Hangouts, and allowing users to post videos directly to YouTube would trump Sony’s UStream partnership.

The main challenge I see to something like this is Bing. Microsoft’s search engine is gaining popularity and is in direct competition with Google. That rivalry may make a partnership around the new XBox difficult. But, if Google could stomach Bing being the XBox search engine, it stands to gain a lot of new Google Plus users.

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Celebrate Valentine’s Day With an Extra-Large Episode of Co-Op Critics!

In this marathon episode of Co-Op Critics, Brian and Dan are joined by Christina Grenhart and Erik Haltson to talk about the current culture of gaming, from online interactions to how games are covered by the enthusiast press.

You can either listen to the episode here on the enbedded player to the right, or download it here.

You can follow Brian on Twitter @BrianLeTendre and check out his blog at www.seebrianwrite.com.

Dan Evans can be found on Twitter @Sk8j

You can find Christina’s amazing blog “Bioware According to Mom” at biowareaccordingtomom.tumblr.com, and you can follow her on twitter at @clgrenhart

You can find Erik Haltson on Twitter @Erik_Haltson, and he will also be posting on Co-Op Critics blog in the future.

For more gaming discussion, head over to www.co-opcritics.com!

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Video Games New York–Love at First Sight

When I was in NY for New York Comic Con this past October, I visited an amazing game store that I’ve been meaning to post about for some time now. Video Games New York is a store in the East Village that is exactly the type of place that every gamer wishes they had in their own neighborhood.

From the Mario statue out front, to the shelves full of cartridges, to the console-filled display cabinets, Video Games New York feels like a shop and a museum at the same time. Not only do they have every console known to man, but they have tons of imports, rare collectibles, old store displays, standups and everything else you could imagine.

Check out the pics below, and if you’re ever in the East Village, you have to stop by Video Games New York.

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Gaming Stories: Awesome Games Done Quick 2013

I can’t remember the last time I turned on my Xbox 360 to play video games. The backlog remains, but I haven’t made any attempts in months to clear it. Most of my play takes place on my iPad these days, and the actual experience of gaming feels very disposable these days. More than anything else, though, I seem to be spending a lot of time watching other people play. Whether it’s archived Let’s Play videos, Bazza87’s Video Game Championship Wrestling stream, or various videos on GiantBomb, my gaming experience these days seems to be composed of vicarious thrills lately.

For me, the original and purest source of vicarious gaming thrills is still the Speed Demos Archive, the repository of speedrun videos since 2004. In my previous post about the New Game Masters, I stated that the participants in the Penny Arcade Expo’s Omegathon and players like Ray “Stallion83” Cox carry the spirit of masterful play, adaptability, and comfort with all kinds of games and systems that players on Video Power and in the Nintendo World Championship Series had, but I neglected to talk about speedrunners who conquer games as quickly as possible. Their speedruns show old games like Jackal and Metroid in new ways that I would not have considered. Without speedrunners, I wouldn’t have thought about sequence-breaking in games like Super Metroid, where Power Bombs could be collected before the Grapple Beam, and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, where items from all temples can be collected before finishing the first temple.

Speedrunners are perfectionists, players who patiently explore every facet of the games that they play to discover any secret that might lower their playtimes by seconds. In my experience, this can be done either through relentless experimentation achieved through playing the same game over and over or by browsing into the game’s actual code. They approach games like they’re puzzles waiting to be deconstructed, and like the players who post Let’s Play videos, they speedrun through games because they love them.

Speedrunning records confuse my eyes every time I read them, even though I’ve watched enough speedrunning videos at this point that I could understand on a basic level how they can be done. As with many other things in life, context is everything. For example, I have the achievement for completing the XBLA version of Contra in under 12 minutes. I played through the game often enough to memorize enemy placements and platform patterns. I knew when I could pick up the Spread Gun power-up and which enemies had to be fought and which could be avoided. So when I watched David Heidman, Jr.’s run of the NES version of Contra in 10 minutes and 11 seconds, I can understand on a fundamental level how he did it, which adds to my admiration of his skill and respect for his accomplishment.

From January 6 to January 12, the speedrunning community will be participating in Awesome Games Done Quick 2013, Speed Demos Archive’s charity marathon to raise funds for the Prevent Cancer Foundation. Certain scheduled speedruns, such as Aftermath’s attempt to complete Darksiders in 1 hour and 50 minutes and TheEnglishMan’s attempt to complete God of War 2 in 1 hour and 40 minutes, stand out because I devoted dozens of hours to each game, and the idea of beating either game so quickly is astounding. Other scheduled speedruns, such as Mike Uyama’s attempt to complete Earnest Evans in 20 minutes, intrigue me because I haven’t played those games, and I’m willing to dedicate some time to watch others navigate through them masterfully.

So, please visit Speed Demos Archive’s site for Awesome Games Done Quick 2013, join me and watch some of the new game masters apply their craft, and donate to the Prevent Cancer Foundation.

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Rise of Nightmares–Kinect’s Most Underrated Game

If you’re an XBox 360 owner, do you have a Kinect? Maybe you bought into the hype around the Kinect when it first came out, and thought there would be a ton of games for it, so you picked it up. Maybe you just got one for Christmas. Or maybe, like me, you’re a parent who traded in the Wii and got the Kinect figuring you could have your regular gaming experiences and have some fun with the family all with one console now. In any case, there certainly hasn’t been a ton of great Kinect games since the peripheral launched, and it’s now been re-branded as more of a navigation tool and an augmentation to other games, rather than a platform for games specifically designed for it.

There have been some pretty cool games to come along for Kinect though, and one in particular I was reminded of recently. If you didn’t read Kim Wong’s House of the Dead 2 post from a couple weeks ago, you really need to, as it’s a great game and he’s got a great story to go along with it.

Anyway, Kim’s post got me thinking about Rise of Nightmares, the Kinect game that SEGA released a little over a year ago. The game was pretty much dismissed by critics, and never really got a lot of coverage. That’s a shame, because it was a blast to play, and anyone who has a Kinect and liked the HotD series should absolutely check it out. Rather than reprint the whole review that I did over on Secret Identity last year, here’s a snippet:

“Combat is where Rise of Nightmares shines. Without a weapon, you can punch and kick zombies into submission, and the Kinect does a fine job of recognizing your panicked, flailing movements. Weapons are more fun however, and there’s a lot of them in Rise of Nightmares. Pipes, machetes, throwing knives and chainsaws are some of the instruments of destruction you get to wield. Most of the weapons feel pretty unique when you use them–the pipe feels like a bludgeoning weapon, while you “guide” the chainsaw through the decaying meat of the zombies’ bodies (that never gets old).”

You can read the full review over on Secret Identity, and you can check out a couple of great trailers for Rise of Nightmares below. You can grab the game for less than $20 now, and it’s absolutely worth your time.

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Gaming Stories: Halo: Reach – Firefight

The face of easy credits.

I haven’t played Halo 4 yet. I’ll probably get to it at some point; “the Taking of Scarabs 1, 2, Boom” is one of my favorite gaming memories, and I would rank Halo 3: ODST as one of the best games I’ve ever played.  I have faith that 343 Industries will have done an acceptable job of creating a good Halo game. For me, Halo 4 would have to compare against the most recent Halo game I’ve played, Halo: Reach.

Bungie implemented a level progression system in Halo: Reach tied to credits that players could earn in the campaign, in multiplayer games, and in Firefight, which could be played with others or solo. To incentivize the player to buy into this progression system, Bungie tied avatar customization options, such as helmets and armor, and a number of achievements to the credits and the progression system.

As always, where there is a system, there will be ways to exploit it. I remember when someone on Xbox360Achievement.org’s Halo: Reach message board pointed to a strategy in the Gruntpocalypse game type in Halo: Reach‘s Firefight mode that players could use to make credit farming in Halo: Reach a breeze. That turned out to be an understatement. At my peak, I could farm 10,000 credits in about 10 minutes of play, which reduced Halo: Reach into a daily yet very disposable experience for me.

Hooray credits!

While the strategy was relatively simple, it took skill to execute. The key was to kill the Grunts as quickly as possibly with headshots using the DMR battle rifle. The credits rolled in as long as I could maintain the streak of headshots; inevitably, a Grunt would tag me with a plasma grenade, which would end the streak and the possibility that I could continue to earn credits at a rapid pace. By that point, it was time to move on and count my haul for the day.

The tools of the professional.

As always, people may decry that credit farming strategies demean a game. I contend that implementing these strategies requires a deep understanding of how the game works. To farm for credits in Gruntpocalypse effectively, I had to know the preferred Firefight map, Corvette, intimately. I knew the Grunts’ spawn points, and I knew how long it would be between each Grunt’s spawn. I knew the angles from each spot on the raised platforms. I knew the timing to run back to my spawn point to reload my DMR. I knew how much splash damage I could expect if a Grunt launched a rocket from his Fuel Rod Cannon or threw a plasma grenade at me. I knew the map well enough that I could play when I was tired from a long day of work and life or when I was still sleepy because I had just woken up. I was in that stage for at least 10 minutes a day every day for more than a month. There may have been times where I knew that map better than I knew how my apartment was laid out.

Strangely enough, it never occurred to my friends or me to actually play regular, actual Firefight in Halo: Reach even though we were obsessed with the Firefight mode in Halo 3: ODST. By allowing players to customize their Firefight experiences in Halo: Reach, I think it took away from the common stories that Halo 3: ODST‘s Firefight maps would help create. My friends and I could compare notes about how we handled the snipers that would spawn in the map “Crater” or how we would roll together in a Warthog to take down the Wraith tanks on the map “Lost Platoon” in Halo 3: ODST‘s Firefight maps. It’s possible that Bungie opened too much of the experience to the player’s control; with the ability to customize, our common points of reference for our Firefight stories were gone.

I suppose that I’ll always have my credits from Halo: Reach‘s Gruntpocalypse mode and the wonderful cyborg arm it bought my avatar.

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Getting Methodical With ‘Halo 4’

Between listening to gaming podcasts and reading different articles about Halo 4, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the game’s combat and encounter design, and what makes it different from other shooters out there. I hear people praise the combat in Halo 4 a lot, and much of that praise surrounds the enemy AI, and how the AI and mix of enemy types create a robust combat experience. That’s certainly true, but I think the reason Halo’s combat really clicks for me is that it’s design is a perfect match for how I like to approach combat in any game–methodically.

A lot of shooters are designed to push you forward as a player. Call of Duty is the most obvious example of this. You are not expected to stop and think, you are expected to run and shoot. You are most successful when you can charge in and take enemies out as quickly as possible. In some cases, enemies will continue to spawn until you do charge past a certain point. This type of design creates tension by evoking a “seat of your pants” type of experience, where you are constantly in danger of losing control, but also feel like a superhero at the same time.

For me, Halo feels the exact opposite. You are frequently encountering scenarios where you are tremendously outnumbered, and often outgunned as well. Charging in will often result in a swift death, and wasting ammo early in an encounter can create a near-impossible situation later on. A methodical approach is usually rewarded, as even on the higher difficulties, there are multiple ways to tackle an encounter, and there are enough resources to get you through, if you manage them appropriately.

[Minor Spoilers Ahead]

One of the encounters in Halo 4 that provides a shining example of rewarding a methodical approach is the end of the very first mission. You have to battle Covenant forces on the exterior of the UNSC ship Forward Unto Dawn. Covenant dropships are flying in reinforcements, and your job is to get to a control room where you can fire one of the FoD’s missiles. It’s a huge, open area, and there are enemies on three sides of you (in front and on both flanks), almost all of whom you must go through to get to the control room. Once you actually hit the launch button, a malfunction forces you back outside to manually open the launch hatch, which is protected by more waves of enemies.

I’ve played through this battle several times now, and it never gets old. As you step out on the exterior of the ship, a battle rifle is floating by that is a must-have. With it, you can address the Jackal snipers that are pinning you down, and either take out several Grunts, or a few Elites before running out of ammo. I came into the battle with a grenade launcher, but the limited ammo meant I could not waste any shots, especially if I hadn’t used the battle rifle on the Elites yet. If I hadn’t cleared a path down the left flank of the ship yet, I had to circle all the way around to the right, where I could grab a Covenant Carbine for some mid-range sniping, but the Elites would usually require me to get closer, as they are more likely to dodge long-range attacks. Even when I used the battle rifle effectively, and made my grenades count, I usually ended up low on ammo as I climbed the ramp to the missile control room. After the launch malfunction, I would have to scrounge for weapons in order to take out the last waves of Covenant and launch the missile, before completing the encounter.

Each time I didn’t take a thoughtful approach to the encounter, I ended up in the meat grinder. I tried to bull rush my way up the left flank a few times, and got as far as the ramp before the crossfire killed me. I got sloppy with the battle rifle a few times and the snipers I left standing kept me pinned down until I ran out of ammo. Wasted grenade launcher shots made for some ugly melee battles (and losses) with Elites. But every time I died, I knew exactly why, and it almost always came down to not thinking things through.

That emphasis on a methodical approach appeals to the RPG-lover in me, and it’s how I pretty much play every game, no matter the genre. In a lot of games, that style goes against the design of the game, and I usually make the game more difficult for myself by trying to stick to my playstyle. This is especially true of shooters, which is why there aren’t many to be found on my “all-time favorite games” list. But the Halo series, particularly in its campaigns, is a great fit for my preferred style.

Ironically, I spend almost no time with the multiplayer components of Halo games, because that methodical aspect of the gameplay goes out the window in those modes. That’s when I switch over to Call of Duty, as high-octane, panic-inducing multiplayer is what they do best. In fact, many of my friends prefer that series, as they find Halo’s gameplay too slow, even boring at times. When it comes to single player however, for me, Halo’s combat design cannot be beat.

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Gaming Stories: Borderlands 2 vs. My TV

We don’t review games here, so what I write below is not intended to indict Borderlands 2 as a bad game. Indeed, it would be difficult for me to render judgment on Borderlands 2 at all since I can’t play the game. My Xbox 360 hasn’t been marked by the scarlet ring (“Ring-a-round Jay Allard/A pocket full of space bucks/Marcus Fenix/We all fall down”?), and the controller is charged. Instead, it’s impossible to play Borderlands 2 when the game looks on my television like someone had spread mayonnaise and petroleum jelly on it:

Almost none of this would be legible on my TV.

For the first time, text in a current generation game was completely unreadable, which makes deciphering mission criteria (though I assume that if the missions in Borderlands 2 are like those in Borderlands, it can be summed up as “kill everything and collect something”), weapons stats, locations, and skill descriptions near impossible. I fiddled as much with my TV’s settings as I could to try to solve the problem, but nothing worked. So, my Borderlands 2 playthrough, for now, concluded right after I was allowed to leave the beginning town. I now can empathize with the complaints about how Dead Rising was unplayable on certain televisions.

Yes, it’s very pretty, but I wouldn’t be able to read any of the text on my television.

Between my inability to even play the game and the fact that Gearbox Software has (so far, successfully) supported Borderlands 2 well with downloadable content, similar to how Borderlands was well supported, I find myself in a strange position of actually regret buying what is turning out to be a very good game. I wish that I had just waited until the inevitable Game of the Year edition of Borderlands 2 that would probably be out in time for Christmas 2013 and would collect currently available and any likely future downloadable content. It almost seems like I would be punishing Gearbox Software of supporting its game well, which points to a larger economic problem in the market today.

One lesson I’ve drawn from The Year With No New Games has been that, more often than not, I can successfully gamble that a game that has a season pass will likely have a special edition that will collect almost all of its downloadable content. The gamble can be extended to almost any game with significant amounts of downloadable content. The theory has held so far for Oblivion: Game of the Year EditionFallout 3: Game of the Year Edition, Gears of War 2 Game of the Year EditionBorderlands: Game of the Year EditionFallout: New Vegas Ultimate Edition, Dead Island: Game of the Year EditionUncharted 2: Among Thieves – Game of the Year EditionUncharted 3 Game of the Year Edition, Dragon Age Origins: Ultimate Edition, Red Dead Redemption Game of the Year Edition, Batman: Arkham City Game of the Year Edition, Resident Evil 5: Gold Edition, LittleBigPlanet – Game of the Year Edition, Grand Theft Auto IV & Episodes from Liberty City: The Complete Edition, Mortal Kombat: Komplete EditionL.A. Noire: The Complete Edition, to just name a few. My backlog is large enough that I can wait until these collected editions are released, and I can choose to spend my time and money on less publicized games, like Binary Domain or Spec Ops: The Line, instead. The market now has incentives for me to just wait, defeating the “Day 1” purchasing craze that publishers cultivate.

Ironically, if I could have read Borderlands 2‘s text on my television, I wouldn’t have had a chance to see how the market actually is and how my purchasing behavior has now been incentivized to wait.

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This Holiday Gaming Season, It’s All About the Handhelds for Me

As I was scouring the internet looking at Black Friday game deals, a thought occurred to me–this is the first year I can remember where there are more handheld games I want to play than console/PC ones.

For the purposes of this post, let’s call the holiday gaming season September 2012 to February 2013.

Just off the top of my head, here’s the list of current and upcoming (in the next month or two) console/PC games I’m playing/interested in right now (as well as my preferred platform):

Halo 4 (XBox 360)
CoD: Black Ops 2 (XBox 360)
Borderlands 2 (XBox 360)
Dishonored (PS3)
Hawken (PC)
ZombiU (even though I don’t have a WiiU yet)
Black Mesa Source (PC)
Star Wars: The Old Republic (PC)
Crysis 3 (Xbox 360)
Deadly Premonition: Director’s Cut (PS3)
Dead Space 3 (PS3)
Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance (PS3)

Here’s the handheld list:

Pokemon Black/White Version 2 (3DS)
Silent Hill: Book of Memories (PS Vita)
LEGO Lord of the Rings (3DS)
LEGO Batman 2: DC Super Heroes (3DS)
Little Big Planet Vita (PS Vita)
Kingdom Hearts 3D (3DS)
Adventure Time: Hey Ice King, Why’d You Steal Our Garbage? (3DS)
Assassin’s Creed: Liberation (PS Vita)
Paper Mario: Sticker Star (3DS)
Epic Mickey: Power of Illusion (3DS)
Playstation All-Stars: Battle Royale (PS Vita)
Persona 4 Golden (PS Vita)
Retro City Rampage (PS Vita)
Ratchet & Clank: Full Frontal Assault (PS Vita)
Uncharted: Fight for Fortune (PS Vita)
Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon (3DS)
Castlevania Lords of Shadow: Mirror of Fate (3DS)
Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time (PS Vita)

What’s more interesting to me as I look over that list is that there are games I would rather play on handheld than on console/PC. Retro City Rampage, Sly Cooper, Assassin’s Creed, Ratchet & Clank and the LEGO games are all ones that I would prefer on either the 3DS or Vita instead of on the larger platforms. In fact, the only games I can definitively say i’d rather not play on a handheld are first-person shooters and larger RPGs that just could not be done on a handheld.

I’m not exactly sure why I feel this way, but I suspect it’s because I no longer have time in my life for the marathon gaming sessions of even a few years ago. I get 1-2 hour increments at the most, and I squeeze them in wherever I can. So, I tend to want my games in a format that is easily accessible and consumable in bite-size chunks. But I also still want a meatier experience than most iOS and Android games can provide at this point. when it comes to console and PC now, I reserve that precious time for experiences that I can’t get on a handheld.

I think a lot of my friends are still finding the time to play console and PC games on a more regular basis than me, and their preferences are now the opposite of mine. They have little interest in either the 3DS or the Vita, whereas I find myself gravitating toward them more and more.