Where I talk about Asura’s Wrath with “Wammo” Williams

It’s Tuesday (or Chewsday as I like to call it sometime when I’m feeling in a particularly good mood), the day that I chat games with Glenn “Wammo” Williams on Kiwi FM.

Today we talked about Asura’s Wrath, an anime-style action game from Capcom that I really, really liked but don’t know whether I’d want to pay full price for how much game  play there is: essentially it’s a little bit of combat during each episode and a fair amount of quick time events (where you have to press the right button at the right time, or move the thumb sticks in the right direction, at the right time) when you’re about to finish off an enemy. I’d rent it: no problem but would I pay full price for it? Probably not.

I enjoyed the story a lot: Asura, a great super being, is framed by some other great super beings for the murder of the Emperor.  His wife is murdered and his young daughter captured by one of the super beings, Deus, and Asura is banished. Naturally, Asura gets really, really angry (he shouts a lot) and goes on a rampage, exacting his revenge against the other great super beings. Along the way he’ll face off against deities that are bigger than a planet, fight on the moon (yes, the moon) and get skewered by a sword  that stretches all the way to Earth. It’s pretty impressive, actually, and each confrontation is done like an episode of an anime TV show, with “To be continued” at the end of each episode and a brief preview of the following one.

I talk about a few more things in the review and ultimately, while it’s not up to me to tell people whether they should spend their money on a game or not, I can just tell them whether I think it’s worth it or not. I think Asura’s Wrath is a great game but I’m just not sure it’s worth $NZ120 for the number of hours it’ll take to finish the main story (that said, people pay $120+ for games like Modern Warfare 3, and Asura’s Wrath was more fun that MW3 so, maybe I’m talking out of my arse and will shut up now.)

*Adding to that: when you finish the game there’s a hidden ending that you can unlock if you play through the game again, getting a better score card for each section. That might make it more worthwhile to people. You be the judge.

The Tuesday usual: game talk with Radio Wammo

Before we launch into the “It’s the Tuesday usual (but on a Wednesday)” direct your attention to the photo on the right. Yes, that one. The one with the writing all in caps.

I know we all make mistakes.  Heck, sometimes even I, a journalist of many years experience and hugely respected around my own home (mostly), makes the odd one in my writing (but just ignore them until nasty people constantly point one out then I shift my feet nervously a little, look to the ceiling and hope that they forget about it and go away) but after the Resident Evil Revelations typo on some 3DS boxes recently, I thought Capcom might have paid more attention to what gets printed on its boxes.

It doesn’t look like it, if the photo of a review copy of Azura’s Wrath is anything to go by. I took the photo after my 12-year-old son noticed this on the back of an Xbox 360 copy of the game:  “RELENTLESS ACTION AND NEAR IMPOSSIBLE CHANLLENGES”.  Impossible chanllenges? I guess they’re much harder than normal challenges.

Anyway, I thought it was kind of funny. IMPOSSIBLE CHANLLENGES.

OK, yesterday was Tuesday (but I’m filing this on a Wednesday as I attended a PS Vita launch in Auckland last night) and that’s the day I chat with Glenn “Wammo” Williams about games, games and more games. Yesterday, we chatted about Uncharted Golden Abyss, a launch title for Sony’s PS Vita which gets released in New Zealand tomorrow.

Also, on Tuesday night I attended the New Zealand launch party of Sony PS Vita handheld, which goes on sale here tomorrow and tonight I downloaded some social networking apps for it (Four Square, Facebook and Twitter). The Twitter app is quite cool, and it’s incredibly easy to read on the big screen, but the one thing that bugged me was that it recorded that I’d made a tweet 59 minutes ago – but it was more like 59 seconds. Mmmm, not sure what’s going on there.

PS Vita: the new player on the scene

Here’s the story that I ran in The Press today. after a few days hands on with Sony’s PS Vita. Since writing this I’ve just about completed launch title Uncharted: Golden Abyss and then will start on Wipeout 2048. Enjoy.

To say PlayStation NZ was treating the few PS Vita units it handed out to gaming media last month with high security is an understatement.eip

When my review unit arrived for a few days hands-on, it came in a large briefcase carried with military precision by two burly security guards with name badges reading “Colin” and “Brian”.

Brian, the more gruff of the two, removed his dark sunglasses and grunted what sounded like “Gidday, sign this” as he thrust a PlayStation-branded paper on a clipboard towards me. Colin just eyed me suspiciously.

I signed the document and then Colin unlocked the handcuff on his left wrist, Brian the handcuff on his right one and, together, they handed me the case. “Don’t drop it or we’ll stop being so friendly,” muttered Brian, giving me what I assume was a smile. Then they left. In a small van.

OK, I made the bit up about the two security guards but the Vita did arrive in a large metallic briefcase with a combination lock. In fact, when I opened the thing, the interior was so cavernous that I’m sure I heard the Vita complain of loneliness.

Sony’s latest handheld  the successor to the PSPGo, which itself was the successor to the original PlayStation Portable  is sleeker and bigger than the original PSP but it’s a tad lighter and roughly the same thickness. It will come in two flavours: Wi-fi only (RRP $449) or Wi-fi/3G (RRP $549). I tested the Wi-Fi-only model

Gone are the UMDs (Universal Media Discs) of the old PSP, replaced with a new proprietary flash memory card called the PS Vita card. Memory cards range in size from 4Gb to 32Gb. Checking a handful of sites for memory card prices revealed that the RRP for a 16Gb “official” PS Vita memory card, which will fit between four and eight full games, is around $85, so it might pay to shop around.

Designwise, the Vita (it’s Italian for Life) improves on the original PSP in just about every way: It has two cameras (one forward facing, one rear facing, 0.3MP, 640 x 480 resolution), two thumb sticks  and they’re proper thumb sticks not the “nub” type found on the original PSP  two shoulder buttons, the PlayStation circle, square, X and triangle buttons, motion sensors, a D-pad and a PS Home button.

The most noticeable feature, though, is the 5-inch OLED capacitive touch screen  and it’s a beauty: It’s bright, clear and responsive. There’s also a touch-sensitive pad at the back.

The user interface has changed, too. Gone is the cross media bar user interface used by the PSP and on the PlayStation 3, instead replaced with a series of bubble icons that wobble gently when you flick through each menu page. It’s surprisingly pleasant to look at and more organic than the more clinical-looking cross media menu system used on the PS3.

While it’s not a smartphone, the PS Vita is embracing social media aspects, too, with a group messaging application that lets you instant message people on your PlayStation Network friends list, as well as an application called Near which lets you locate any other Vitas nearby  obviously, I couldn’t test that function. Pressing the PS Home button takes you to a tabs page that shows all open applications. Press it again and you’re back at the menu screen with the application “bubbles”.

The Vita is a gaming machine and while the demo unit didn’t come with any full games (just demos), late last week I got access to some full titles, including Uncharted: Golden Abyss, Wipeout 2048,ModNation Racers and Unit 13, so look out for full reviews soon. Of the demos, Escape Plan, looks interesting but perhaps the most innovative is Gravity Rush. You’ll be able to buy full games at retail stores or download them off Sony’s online network, weighing in at between 500Mb and 1Gb in size, although Uncharted Golden Abyss is around 3.5Gb in size.

Perhaps the most high profile game is Uncharted: Golden Abyss, which sees hero Nathan Drake in his first portable outing, this time adventuring in the ruins and jungles of South America with a rogue general after his blood. It’s Naughty Dog’s PlayStation 3 series Uncharted gone mobile.

I’m about 60 per cent of the way through the game so far and I have to say I’m incredibly impressed. While it might not always look as good as its PS3 counterpart, it really does capture the feel of the Uncharted series and shows just what the Vita is capable of in terms of visuals. Even my non-gamer wife was impressed.

Having a second thumb stick means you can control the camera  a huge benefit in an action game  and the game makes the most of the front touch screen, too, letting you mimic on-screen prompts to do things like slash through cloth or bamboos using a machete or save Drake from a perilous fall. You can also use the touch screen to solve puzzles and the rear pad to climb ropes and paddle a canoe. Golden Abyss brings a love interest, the return of an old friend, shoot-outs, punch-ups and lots and lots of climbing, complete with crumbling handhelds.

Wipeout 2048 is the classic PlayStation series given a visual makeover and it manages to capture the speed and thrill of previous versions nicely and Escape Plan is a black-and-white game where you have to guide a stick-figure as he tries to escape a labyrinthine facility.

For me, gravity Rush is the game that intrigued me the most and the one that seems the most innovative on the Vita.

It’s a gravity-bending action game featuring a female heroine, Kat, who has lost her memory, and a magical cat that gives her powers to manipulate the laws of gravity.

Press the right shoulder button and our heroine floats above the ground. Point in the direction you want her to head, then press the shoulder button again and she’ll plummet to wherever she is pointed at. She can also hover mid-fall, walk up walls and perform flying attacks on enemies.

I’m excited about the PS Vita: It’s an amazing piece of kit that really is a portable PlayStation built for playing games but Sony needs to market it right and convince today’s gamers that in an age of smartphones and i-devices where you can buy games for a handful of dollars, that a dedicated handheld gaming device is still warranted.

If Sony can do that, and provide a must-have experience, then the Vita has a bright future indeed.

Sony’s PS Vita launches in New Zealand on February 23.

The Tuesday chat: we speak PS Vita and Tim Schafer’s crowd-sourced initiative

If you watch today’s segment with Glenn “Wammo” Williams and I sound a bit clearer and crisper than usual it’s because I was trialing a new headset/mic: Turtle Beach’s PX3 wireless headset. I’m pretty sure Glenn said I sounded sexy using the headphones/mic – he’s probably right, but I took it as a compliment!

I’ve been using the PX3 set-up for the past week or so and I’m impressed: they hook up easily to my PC and Xbox 360 using a USB-connected receiver and provide excellent sound, especially when I’m playing a game with the volume turned up and my wife is watching TV in the other room! I’m considering buying myself a set as they’re much more comfortable than my usual Microsoft-branded headset and mic.

Anyway, today on the segment we talked about Sony’s PS Vita, which launches in New Zealand on February 23 but embargoes on the hardware and reviews lifted for journalists today, and we also talked about Tim Schafer’s incredible Kickstarter drive last week to raise funds for his next game. I haven’t checked for a bit but I understand it’s around the $US1.7 million mark already.

One thing: I think I told Wammo the wrong prices for the Vita in NZ: I think I said it was $349 for the Wi-Fi model and $449 for the Wi-Fi/3G. I’ve checked my write up from today (which I’ll post later) and the price is actually $449 for the Wi-Fi model and $549 for the 3G/Wi-Fi. Sorry about that.

Sorry, but I don’t want to have a dance off with Darth Vader

Update: It’s amazing the difference a day makes, huh? Today, Tim Schafer announced that if he can raise $400.000 through the Kickstarter fundraising programme by March 13 he’ll make a “brand new downloadable point and click graphic adventure for the modern age”.

Well, he’s going to have no problem raising that amount: as of 8.15pm tonight, almost $US270,000 had been raised – after less than one day of making the announcement. That’s crazy.

Why did Schafer decide to go down the Kickstarter route? “Big games cost big money,” he says.”  Even something as “simple” as an Xbox LIVE Arcade title can cost upwards of two or three million dollars.  For disc-based games, it can be over ten times that amount.  To finance the production, promotion, and distribution of these massive undertakings, companies like Double Fine have to rely on external sources like publishers, investment firms, or loans.  And while they fulfill an important role in the process, their involvement also comes with significant strings attached that can pull the game in the wrong directions or even cancel its production altogether.”

“Crowd-sourced fundraising sites like Kickstarter have been an incredible boon to the independent development community.  They democratize the process by allowing consumers to support the games they want to see developed and give the developers the freedom to experiment, take risks, and design without anyone else compromising their vision.”

Schafer has made a number of donation options available, which you can find here, but as an example if you donate $15 you get a free copy of the game when it’s available (estimated in October this year); if you donate $30 you get an HD download of the documentary being made of the project, a digital copy of the soundtrack and a copy of the game; if you pledge $1000 or more you get a mini portrait of yourself drawn by a Double Fine artist plus the other rewards. 

I’m seriously thinking about donating $15 to the project  but it’s amazing seeing thousands of people pledging money to a person they don’t even know: I guess that shows just how much faith people have in Tim Schafer and what he’s doing. Good luck to him and I’m looking forward to the final game. 

In my eyes, Lucasarts used to be a great game developer, back when it made games like Grim Fandango, Full Throttle, Day of the Tentacle,  X-wing vs Tie Fighter, Dark Forces  and the Jedi Knight series.

I couldn’t tell you how many hours I lost pretending I was Kyle Katarn in Jedi Knight or Manny Calavera in Grim Fandango, but it was a lot. In fact, I like Grim Fandango so much that I’m replaying it now on my Windows 7 PC – and you know what? The humour is just as witty now as it was then. It was a gaming masterpiece from a gaming genius, Tim Schafer.

Incidentally, talking about Grim Fandango, I read today that Minecraft creator Markus “Notch” Perrson has offered, on Twitter to Grim Fandango creator Tim Schafer to fund development of  Psychonauts 2, which would be a sequel to one of the greatest games of all time,  Psychonauts (which I still have for the original Xbox console). Word is that Schafer has been trying to pitch Psychonauts 2 for some time but has had no luck but I think the time is right: he’s been making more casual titles such as Trenched, Stacked, Costume Quest and Once Upon a Monster (for Kinect).  I hope it happens.

Actually, Tim, if you’re reading this, I’d really like you to do a remake of Grim Fandango. Not Grim Fandango 2 as I’m not sure a sequel could capture the magic of the original but a reimagining, like how The Secret of Monkey Island was handled on Xbox Live Arcade. I loved that at the press of a button the modern graphics reverted to how things were in the original game. Of course, Grim Fandango’s graphics were a lot more impressive than Monkey Island’s but still, a remake of Grim Fandango would just be plain awesome. I’d buy if for sure. What do you think, Tim? Is it doable?

OK, back to Lucasarts.

You’ll probably have noticed how I said that Lucasarts used to be a great game developer. It saddens me to say that I don’t think it’s a great developer any more. The company faced its toughest times in 2010 when the company laid off a third of its staff and its creative director on The Force Unleashed unexpectedly quit and personally, I think the company has lost its way (in fact, I think the whole Star Wars series has lost its way, but that’s another story) – and it’s down to games like Kinect Star Wars and its Galactic Dance Off mode.

Yes, you heard that: Galactic Dance Off mode where you’ll be able to (and I’m quoting an official press release here) “battle Darth Vader on the dance floor or bust a move ‘Solo’ style”. I swear I did not make that up.

Galactic Dance Off mode will be  “loaded with Star Wars-themed pop tunes”. I don’t know about you but I couldn’t imagine anything worse. In fact, yes I could:  seeing Darth Vader on-screen pulling some break dancing moves. Sorry but I just don’t think Darth Vader, the man who can choke people using just the power of his mind, would hit a dance floor in a dancing game.

I’ve seen Kinect Star Wars in action and while it looks entertaining it’s not blowing my socks off. In fact, the last trailer I saw for it didn’t show any game play at all. It had some American comedian re-enacting the Darth Vader/Ben Kenobi lightsabre battle in Star Wars. Not having game play footage in a trailer doesn’t fill me with enthusiasm.

For Lucasarts to become a great company again it needs to return to making the types of games that made it great all those years ago. Games like X-wing vs Tie Fighter and the Jedi Knight series. Games like Full Throttle and Grim Fandango. Those are the games that captured the imaginations of gamers the world over.

For Lucasarts to capture the hearts of gamers again it needs to stop making games like Kinect Star Wars and The Force Unleashed and start making quality games again. Games that people want to play.

Perhaps they could hook up with Tim Schafer and start with a remake of Grim Fandango. It’s a start, right?

Spec Ops: The Line – my impressions

As promised, here’s my impression of my time last week with 2K’s Spec Ops: The Line. Thanks to Ross Purdy, of 2K in Australia, for the two-hour hands-on session. Enjoy.

Sand is full of surprises.

Pack it together tightly in a bucket and children can turn it into sandcastles with moats and towers. Pack tonnes of it up against a floor-to-ceiling window in a luxurious Dubai hotel, though, as Yager Developments has done in 2K’s Spec Ops: The Line, and it’s a means of escape: an escape plan consisting of millions of tiny golden particles.

In Spec Ops: The Line sand is the unknown quantity.

Players take the role of Captain Martin Walker, a special forces soldier sent to investigate the disappearance of soldiers from the 33rd Division after a devastating sand storm hits Dubai, dumping thousands of tonnes of sand on the futuristic city of glass and steel on the edge of the Arabian desert.

Walker is voiced by veteran voice actor Nolan North (who brought life to Nathan Drake in the Uncharted series) but this is North as you’ve never heard him before: gruff, uncompromising, swearing …

After two uninterrupted hours with the Xbox 360 build of The Line  four chapters   I’m impressed with the mostly third-person action game.

My experience opened with Walker on an army helicopter swooping between the glass and steel buildings of Dubai. Several smaller attack helicopters buzz about, attacking Walker and his crew, who fend them off with a mounted mini-gun.

Glass and steel shatters as rounds rip through the buildings. An enemy chopper splutters flame from its tail rotor before spiralling out of control and hitting a building, engulfing the structure in an orange fireball. Walker’s helicopter is hit and goes down.

Along for the ride with Walker are two other Delta Squad soldiers: Adams and Lugo. “What happens in Dubai, stays in Dubai,” one of them mutters as they wander among abandoned vehicles. The trio pass a passenger bus, its luggage doors wide open, suitcases spilling out onto the golden sands. A crumpled shirt lies next to an open suitcase.

Walker, Adams and Lugo are searching for the distress beacon activated by the presumed missing American soldiers but on finding the beacon they also find bodies of American soldiers and a tattered American flag, flapping in the breeze. The body of a dead soldier falls from an abandoned Hummer.

Suddenly three Arabs appear on the deck of a truck and a firefight ensues. By holding the right bumper Walker can order squad mates to take out the enemy. Lugo snipes a foe hiding on a sign overhanging the road.

Walker can also perform brutal melee attacks (by pressing the B button), hitting an enemy to the ground with such force that it knocks him unconscious.

Pressing B again performs an execution, either smashing the enemy in the face with the butt of a rifle, punching him or shooting them. If you don’t execute a wounded enemy he gets back up and rejoins the battle. No-one said war wasn’t brutal.

Wikipedia informs me that The Line has already been banned from sale in the United Arab Emirates as it apparently paints Dubai in a bad light.

Approaching a downed plane, Walker quietly takes out two enemies, using his pistol’s silencer, but there’s a hostage situation at the front of the plane: Alpha Squad members are being held captive. The action goes slo-mo as Walker takes out four terrorists.

In the next chapter (not necessarily chronological) Walker and his colleagues approach what looks like an abandoned TV station. “You guys hear music?” one of them asks.

Deep Purple’s Hush, Hush is blasting from loudspeakers. It seems strangely appropriate as they assault the building. The glass frontage of a building shatters as Walker peppers it with shells.

Gun turrets that can be flipped over, letting Walker fire on advancing enemies, and he can also crouch while using a turret, affording more protection.

The next chapter takes place in an underground camp: thousands of small candles illuminate the gloom. Boards, corrugated iron and flapping cloth form makeshift homes. A handwritten sign proclaims: “No weapons in this camp”.

Walker uncovers what appears to be a CIA safe room after they locate one of the soldiers they are tasked with finding. Flak jackets with “Press” emblazoned across the front hang in a side room of the safe room. There’s a firefight with what appear to be American soldiers as Walker, Lugo and Adams wind their way down stairs. Walker clings on to life  the screen draining of colour after he is ambushed.

Suddenly, there’s nowhere to go. There’s a huge window and conveniently placed caches of dynamite. Instinctively, I shoot the dynamite using a mounted turret, causing the glass to implode on itself, pouring thousands of tonnes of golden sand into the room, engulfing the enemy soldiers. See?

There’s that escape route I was talking about earlier.

Walker is starting to suspect something is up. Have the soldiers from the 33rd gone rogue?

There’s a moral choice when Walker has to decide whether to take out the general they suspect has gone rogue or rescue civilian hostages. True to character, I decide to save the hostages and the rogue officer escapes. Heavily armoured soldiers wielding shotguns appear. Later, Walker sees civilians on fire, writhing on the ground.

The final chapter of the hands-on is called The Battle, which starts with Walker and his squad mates trapped inside the lobby of a hotel, all pastel-shades and luxury. “There’s eight miles of open desert between us and safety,” he says before shooting out another huge window. Sand cascades in. There’s that escape route again.

The bodies of American soldiers hang gruesomely from lamp-posts as Walker and his friends wander the streets. They reach a balcony overlooking a detachment of soldiers: the rogue 33rd? There’s a mortar with phosphorous rounds nearby.

The game view switches to top-down and Walker rains phosphorous hell on the troops and vehicles below.

Surveying the carnage  burned and charred bodies, injured and dying soldiers crawling on badly mauled limbs  Walker stops. “We were helping,” a badly burned soldier whispers before dying.

All is not what it seems in Spec Ops: The Line.

Spec Ops: The Line will be released this year on Windows PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3

I’m in a Final Fantasy state of mind

I’ve got two games sitting on my computer desk waiting to be played – The Darkness 2 and Soul Caliber V – but they’re not getting a look in. Another game is eating up all my game time: that game is Final Fantasy XIII-2. I just can’t get enough of it.

Actually, it’s Soul Caliber V that’s not getting much of a look as I’ve played some of The Darkness 2 – I’m up to the first  boss battle and I’ll  continue with the game this week – but FFXIII-2 just keeps drawing me in. I didn’t like FFXIII: I couldn’t put my finger on it but there was just something about it that just didn’t gel for me. Really,  I don’t know what it was but XIII-2 is different: every time I turn my Xbox 360 on I can’t help myself but play some more adventures of Noel and Serah.

It’s a given that XIII-2 looks fantastic, and it does,  featuring extremely big and powerful monsters, and it’s an epic, epic story that looks like it’ll be many, many hours until I get to the end but at times the dialogue is melodramatic (especially with one early character) and sometimes I wonder how do monsters suddenly materialise in front of Noel and Serah as they’re just idly minding their own business?

Last week, I had to sign a “no spoilers please” document from SquareEnix – the company obviously doesn’t want over zealous game reviewers to spoil things for people who haven’t played the game yet – but the game doesn’t have an embargo on it, as I mentioned in this post yesterday, so I’m free to write my review as soon as I want. The “no-spoilers please”  document was  one of several documents that I signed last week for games I’ve seen:  the other two embargoes for 2K’s Spec Ops: The Line, which I’m really looking forward to after spending hands-on time with it last week, and the aforementioned Darkness 2.

I’ve  read today that The Line has been delayed to between March and September this year, and that’s a shame because what I saw with my two-hour hands-on session last Wednesday actually impressed me: it’s a third-person shooter that is trying something a little different especially when … oh, gotta stop: the embargo doesn’t lift until Tuesday, February 7, 1am.

My preview of  Spec Ops: The Line is all done and dusted and appearing in the paper I write for next Tuesday so I’ll give you my impressions next week.

I’m heading back to Final Fantasy XIII-2. Goodnight.