Reviews

Red Dead: Redemption

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Developer: Rockstar San Diego

Publisher: Rockstar Games

Release Date: May 21st

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Gun slinging and gold mining in the old west seems, on paper, like the perfect, and indeed, most obvious context for a staple video game setting or even an entire genre, yet despite a few admirable attempts in the past, developers have all but failed in creating an animate, engaging world, reminiscent of the classic western flicks which captured the imagination of Hollywood, and continues to do so for the younger generation. So enter Rockstar, who are synonymous with, if not the fathers of sandbox, with Red Dead: Redemption, the sequel to Red Dead: Revolver, but only by name, for the original, purchased from Capcom, was never Rockstar’s game in truth.

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I’ll say this right off the bat: It’s a Rockstar game through and through; in its mission structure, characters, and even HUD, but thankfully, this doesn’t translate to some sort of lazily re-skinned or re-hashed GTA with horses (or should I say, Grand Theft Equine…probably not). No, quite the opposite, because aside from a few noticeable similarities due to sharing the same RAGE engine, RDR creates a much more focused experience, in which all the elements coalesce in an exceptionally satisfying fashion.

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The narrative follows John Marston, a former outlaw, coerced by the government to kill a few of his former gang members, on fear of his family’s lives. And without wishing to be cryptic, it feels as though Marston’s character is familiar yet so unfamiliar. On one hand we’ve got the hardened criminal, resolved to turn his back on his past life whether by choice or circumstance, classic Rockstar character theme, yet on the other, we’re allowed to play this man who respectfully turns down the local prostitutes and endures his often frustrating employers. In essence, our protagonist is relatable, believable and down to earth, and though I cynically predicted that, in due course I would begin to disconnect and lose interest in the character on account of a lack of quirks or flaws, he remained remarkably endearing in manner that allowed me to enjoy the surrounding world without having to justify my character within it.

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John Marston’s exploits occur at a fascinating time in America’s history, past the turn of the century, as civilization with all its advancements and attacks on civil liberty, begins to encroach on what was previously known as the ‘wild west’, with New Austin as the last faltering haven. As such, Rockstar use this evolution as a vehicle for RDR’s overarching plot, allowing them to dip their fingers into all the juicy bits of western clichés, strategically placing all the established action scenes imaginable, from train robberies to saloon shoot-outs, while maintaining a contrasting and fresh edge to proceedings; allowing us to indulge our childhood fantasies without coming across as overly banal. After all, that isn’t their style. But Rockstar have got something to say about more than just America, leading you into chaotic Mexico, where revolution is looming, and the chief contenders aren’t as clear-cut as an ideal world would permit. This type of context is home territory for Rockstar, and they do a good job at presenting us with an interesting subtext, making us go along with the courting of certain individuals and factions, as laid out by the narrative, with an uneasy compliance. So although there’s no particularly avant-garde storytelling here, in content or style, it’s an undeniably fun ride.

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As you may well have expected, New Austin and below the border is replete with many a colourful individual as per Rockstar’s usual outings, with a few of their more eccentric characters providing some welcome comic relief. Unfortunately the appearances of some of the best acquaintances, who truly had me laughing my chaps off, seem to dissipate somewhat during the middle section of the game, which is a shame, but it doesn’t represent a lower quality of script or voice acting. In actuality almost every single character, from our protagonist to your roadside hobo is brilliantly voiced. Each performance captures the nuances and tones of language of the period, and appears to be well researched, at least to my pitiful knowledge. The scripting ranges from pure genius, with the swindling and swinish travelling salesman, West-Dickens, as my personal highlight (and no doubt, others will have their favourites), to perfectly acceptable, and denotes a great accomplishment all round, which really helps to bolster a plot that I wasn’t wholly convinced by to begin with.

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RDR’s basic controls are fairly manageable and anyone who’s played GTA (so everyone and their mum) will find movement and actions natural. My only complaint lies in the weapon selection system, which can prove a little tricky at first, especially when travelling at speed on horseback, with the right analogue stick, which would otherwise direct the horse, needed to select your chosen weapon. Other than this, the more advanced features, lassoing and dead-eye (the slow-motion target placement system) are well balanced as to require enough spur of the moment skill to feel gratifying upon success, yet remain easy enough to pickup after a little practice.

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No longer will you be forced to daydream yourself into a vast wilderness with just your horse for company, as all grown men surely do (right?), because RDR bestows upon you a great landscape to explore, beautifully rendered and lovingly sculpted, without the trappings of modern day civilisation. Crucially, it doesn’t feel unnecessarily large either, meaning you won’t see the same building or ranch every corner you turn: a long-established immersion-breaker some developers can’t seem avoid.

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It’s evident Rockstar have realised that travelling needn’t be some arbitrary barrier put in place to stand in as content, and have consequently made travelling large distances simple through means of stage coach or setting up a camp and travelling to your waypoint. But neither is journeying on horseback tedious. Your given mount has a pre-determined amount of stamina depending on its type, relative loyalty to you and what sort of ground is underneath it, and so pressing A nudges it along, but consumes stamina. If you expend all of it before it recharges, he’ll teach you a ruddy good lesson and throw you off, and thus you have a simple mechanic to control the speed of your horse, for which you’ll swiftly find a comfortable rhythm, that incorporates a degree of interaction so it actually feels like a living creature, and a dynamic for racing, based on how well you can pace yourself.

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The targeting system is adequate, allowing you to lock on with each initial press of your aim button and while the cover system may have you glued to the wrong side of the wall every now and then, it performs the job tolerably bearing in mind you’re in massive world, and not in tight, finicky corridors. The real highlight, in terms of combat however, is the dead-eye system that allows you to place shots in slow-mo and then subsequently reel them off in a gruesomely satisfying manner, perfect for horseback combat and handy in sticky situations. Aside from a duelling system, which is a more than a tad confusing at first, the basic mechanics work well and serve to give the more glitzy features of the game a sturdy support.

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Read Dead openly flirts with RPG elements but has no misplaced aspirations of slipping into that genre, at least not to the excessive and ultimately pointless lengths of San Andreas. An honour and fame meter cause actions to have consequences, altering the way people and shopkeepers react towards you. This means instead of the customary disconnected GTA experience we’re used to, where you’re running pedestrians over like speed bumps one minute, then in some cutscene refusing an assassination on moral grounds, you’re identifying with your character, playing as John Marston all the time, which in turn affords the narrative greater impact.

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General mission structure for the main story doesn’t really deviate a great deal from what you’d expect, but nonetheless, the vast majority of assignments are fun and engaging, employing various set pieces help to keep things fresh. A small but nice little feature, that won’t go unnoticed, is being able to match of the speed of an NPC on horseback during missions, often on the ride out, which is ordinarily bucked up by some filler conversation; I don’t wish to labour the point, but this sort of detail really helps to immerse the player in the world, demonstrating that story and dialogue need not be bound to cutscenes. Also, at the risk of sounding pedantic, actually using a much-anticipated Gatling gun was perhaps the closest I came to be being disappointed in Red Dead, because the experience was more akin to firing some sort of rotten fruit roughly in the direction of my enemies, much more easily dispersed with my own trusty rifle. Nevertheless, the quests and the miscreants they ask you to terminate are just as good as any previous incarnation based on the same game engine.

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Giving PETA aggressive diarrhoea is the ability to hunt, glorious in its simplicity, if not satisfying for its primal appeal. There’s no discrimination either, because New Austin is positively teaming with life, from great eagles to friendly (and soon to be splattered) skunks. Save for a skinning mini-game, that some part of me inexplicably wants, hunting is a basic pleasure that provides you with materials to sell, some more rare than others, along with herb and flower picking, so you can quickly go out and buy a large gun like AR 15 which needs you to carry upper parts for AR-15’s to make up for the manliness lost in floral matters. Now shooting things, homo-sapien or not, is great, but RDR refuses to quit there and gives you the full western experience, if you will, asking you to herd cattle, and capture and break-in horses. You yourself are eased into the process well, and now I come to think it, most of the game features are introduced smoothly and without feeling contrived, which again, helps to realise the world you’re in.

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The central plot and nature trails aren’t the only way to get your kicks though, thanks to a number of ancillary missions and tasks, Rockstar have stretched your playing time generously and made damn sure the west doesn’t feel one bit static or dull. These quests and mini-games come in a number of forms, from a slew of card and chance games with which to fuel your gambling habits, to spontaneous roadside shenanigans and more unique stranger quests, all of which are optional, but feel worthwhile for the fame, honour and of course, hard cash.

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Sometimes it’s easy to take for granted how well balanced and skilfully crafted the game world is. Speeds of travel have to be taken into account, animal population, dynamic missions, NPC road-farers; the list goes on, building layers of increasing complexity, which makes even getting it to function, tricky, let alone enjoyable to play in for long periods. However, despite huge efforts on the developers’ part, it has to be said that this seemingly polished world is crawling with bugs and glitches, a very few of which are most aggravating, necessitating restarts, but most of which are inconsequential, and occasionally chap-slappingly hilarious. Fortunately, it’s an issue most, if not all, will be willing to overlook.

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Gameplay always comes first, and indeed it has done, but by Jove does this game look pretty considering its scope. New Austin and its Mexican neighbourland are shaped beautifully with glorious textures and host numerous different species of plants. And let alone the land, our equine friends are magnificently rendered, and animated equally so. Character models also share this level brilliance in movement and design, floundering only on facial expression, in spite of top-notch lip-syncing, and the acting that goes with it.

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To soundtrack your own wild west wonderings, Bill Elm and Woody Jackson, amongst others, have written a fantastic score, full to the brim with all the eerie chords and bendy notes you could ask for. And although it would have been truly awesome to nab some of the famous film pieces or even imitate them, Read Dead Redemption’s musical accompaniment is a brilliant and fitting achievement that easily measures up to and surpasses GTA’s innovative radio stations.

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It’s an odd feeling when my very brief list of complaints counts ‘so good that you can only help but want even more from it’. But this is the case in a strange way, because each element is handled so well, so that you begin to crave more depth in every system and mechanic once you become more involved in the game, not because it’s lacking, but because it’s difficult to think of anything existing, that needs to be fixed or changed. I found myself beginning all too many sentences with “they should do this or that” knowing, in reality, that what’s there already, has clearly taken a gargantuan effort and budget. So I reel myself back into the realist state of mind I like to inhabit, but I do think they could have just developed the way in which mounts work a little further, because a greater variance in speed, stamina and constitution, and the trade-offs they would demand, would undoubtedly improve upon the already great system in place.

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As if this wealth of content wouldn’t suffice, the game gets the multiplayer it deserves, allowing you to compete with or against your friends online, or just fuck around, incentivized by achievements and rewards in the form of mounts, weapons and characters. I’d go so far as to say the online dimension warrants a good many evenings in itself, as such shoot outs rarely get old, and if they do, waltzing round, harassing anyone who wont join your posse is clean good fun and a great substitute.

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Whatever criticisms you can conjure up about this game, we do have to remember that the market is hardly saturated with wild west cowboy games, and ergo we should consider ourselves lucky they’ve got it so right. It sounds, feels, looks and plays like the great western flicks we know; it’s all there, without feeling like a sterile checklist of old clichés. Red Dead Redemption lays down a stark portrayal of the west in its times, from beginning to end, with cynicism that has painted an unrelenting tale you’ll find difficult to mentally detach from, ensuring this is no spaghetti western. It also boasts an impressive aesthetic, which goes hand in hand with the predominantly realistic gameplay.

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Rockstar are no strangers to ambition, and this time round it’s safe to say they’ve hit bull’s-eye thanks to a cavalcade of gratifying gameplay experiences backed by a great, and brilliantly bountiful narrative. Put simply, if you don’t go out and get this game, you’re doing it wrong.

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June 2nd, 2010
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News

News 25/5/10: “What the dickens happened at the end of Lost?” edition

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Now that I’ve expressed my repressed dismay on the subject of TV’s most eminent cop-out finale, we can get on with some interesting tid-bits of news to let our palettes savour. I’ve been deep in my childhood wild west fantasies for the last few days, which Read Dead: Redemption allows me to indulge, so I should have a review up for that in the next few days, and as you may have noticed, it’s causing quite stir with shortages on PS3, fulfilled expectations of high sales numbers and even Irish newspapers protesting against its loveable Irish drunk. Anywho, I felt it necessary to put something up here while I prepare my review so here’s some information with which you may temporarily satisfy your never ending hunger.

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Pre-3

With the year’s biggest trade show just around the corner, rumours concerning large announcements at E3 are flittering about interwebs unchecked. So to get our heads straight and prepared for this maelstrom of promised-filled gaming news, I’ve decided to roundup what we know, and what we don’t have a clue about.

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So out with big guns first: It was rumoured last week, by MCV that, the PSP 2 would make it’s debut appearance at this year’s E3, but after some digging from the likes of VG247, supposedly reliable sources reveal that they are “99%” sure that it isn’t setup for an E3 reveal, but it is supposed to have 3G capabilities, 2 cameras and a very powerful processor. Word on the street, or rather behind closed developer’s studio doors, is that it’s actually due for an early 2011 launch, as games are currently being developed in the UK as we speak. Either way, it’ll be certainly interesting to see what the fat cats at E3 have to say.

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Also in the journalists’ sights is Capcom, who according to a recent episode of Weekend Confirmed podcast, have a “bombshell” to drop at E3, and speculation points to either a reboot of a classic franchise that will utilise Project Natal or Devil May Cry 5. Personally, I’m crossing my trembling fingers for the former, as Capcom has some truly fantastic franchises in the cupboard, and lets face it, Devil May Cry 4 failed miserably, so I’ve not got high hopes for that white haired buffoon for a 5th outing.

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To add to the hype, EEDAR boss Jesse Divnich, in an interview with Game Informer, predicted that Rockstar would be at least teasing GTA V at E3, for a possible release in 2011. He also noted that it’s unlikely any exclusivity deals would be drawn up this time round because Microsoft’s attempt’s with GTA IV wasn’t particularly successful, and there are other franchises in the market now standing as tall if not taller than GTA, thus an exclusive deal with for the PS3 or Xbox 360 would do much less to affect hardware sales. Although this leans towards dubious and seems to be complete speculation, it’d be foolish to ignore such a man’s predictions, so stay tuned for Grand Theft Auto: Glasgow.

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On The DL

Some believe these digital downloads are the entire future of games, while others call bullshit, but either way, developers of all shapes and sizes are keen to sate your appetite for their franchises with extra content, so here’s what’s worth looking forward to spending your so-easily disposable income on.

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Firstly, the ever-dependable Bioware, via Casey Hudson told us that the alleged “Star Wars of this generation” Mass Effect series would bridge the story gap between 2 and 3 through downloadable missions. We’ve not really seen anyone use DLC as an instrument to advance narrative in any meaningful way, so as long as Bioware continue to deliver the goods at a reasonable price, we may witness the very evolution of the way DLC is to be handled. The Overlord DLC, including an entire new planet for you to prance around in your space boots on, is heading for Xbox Live in June.

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Also very much on my radar, or should I say in my torchlight, is the sharp implement-filled Alan Wake, which is to receive its first DLC July 27th, “The Signal”, cutting Remedy’s development time record by about 500%, with promise of a second instalment on the way, named “The Writer”, thanks to an opportunistic screenshot of a glitch in the Alan Wake online store. Turn all your lights on and keep looking behind you for my exceedingly, but fashionably, late review in the next few weeks.

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Finally the folks, at least the few left, over at Infinity Ward have announced and detailed the second map pack for Modern Warfare 2, Resurgence, at the same price with the same distribution of maps, headed deployment on June 3rd. Resurgence includes Vacant and Strike from CoD 4, and three new maps by the names of Trailer Park, Carnival and Fuel.

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CoD: Black Ops

Now MW2 is all well and good, but most would agree that it’s starting to loose its edge, and along with all the drama concerning Activision, it’s very nice to see Treyarch, the underdog of the Call of Duty licensing deal, produce something pretty kick ass, with the announcement of Call of Duty: Black Ops. The trailer below, put simply, is thunder-fucking awesome, and of course, although we must be rational and remember it’s just a trailer, it seems like Treyarch are doing their best to capitalise on all the bad press over Modern Warfare 2. To put salt on the wound Black Ops will have dedicated servers, an issue which caused a debacle back when it was announced this would not be the case for MW2. It appears Treyarch are putting a lot of effort into a brand new multiplayer class system, new vehicles and even a streamlined matchmaking system amongst other things. More info to be thrown our way in due course; Call of Duty: Black Ops launches on November 9th.

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And Finally…

I’ll leave you with this completely unrelated video, which I can justify posting, purely because it’s so gut-wrenchingly hilarious. Curtains please.

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May 24th, 2010
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News

News 25/2/10

Call of Duty: Nam’?

Well there was speculation and rumours that this year’s inevitable serving of the Call of Duty franchise would be based on that war with most tenuous and controversial of motives, Vietnam, and it seems all but confirmed. A recent LA casting call for Call of Duty-related “voice over/motion capture” for an Activision “video game” and described character, Frank Barnes as being part of an elite Vietnam unit. There appears to be four major characters – a fiercely patriotic veteran, a very physically fit black man, a 30-something white military tactician and a cold, Russian-born, martial arts trained female. So as you can see, the game is already bursting with originality right off the bat; and you can bet your blown off limb that this 7th instalment will be squished to the brim with movie take-offs, clichés and line from any number of Nam epics. Having bashed Treyarch, there’s still a possibility that a further improved multiplayer experience could save the title – I think we can all agree that Infinity Ward’s MW2 just attempted, in many respects, to achieve too much and failed to reconcile and balance all the features. Either way, expect to be flung into a hail of weeping comrades, unnecessary deforestation and hippy-bashing.

CoD 7: Vietnam?

Project 10 Dollar

Sounds cool right? This suave codename actually stands for EA’s new policy to combat loss of sales due to second hand purchases. This directive is the result of a brainstorming session in New York last year headed by EA CEO John Riccitiello and came into effect with Dragon Age and Mass Effect 2, to be used here onward, allowing customers who buy games brand new to benefit from a slew of free content, and charging the thrifty second-handers or anyone late on the scene fairly substantial sums for the DLC. With Dead Space 2, a couple of Need for Speeds and Crysis 2 hitting the shelves this year, along with a promise to provide DLC for every title accordingly, this is a pretty big effort and was no doubt decided upon by Riccitiello ominously looking out on the world from the top of a skyscraper, with his hands behind his back (the name just requires it!). In a climate such as ours now, with the Games Industry increasingly succumbing to the force of recession, I for one admire the strategy – free content for being an enthusiastic gamer? I’ll bite; It’s just another clever use of price discrimination and although some may feel differently, increased first hand purchases can only do the industry good.

Just Be-Cause 2

Square Enix, to the delight of pyromaniacs and Michael bay fans alike, and of course me, released some trailers for Just Cause 2 recently. The series of promos titled Anatomy of a Stunt feature the game’s protagonist, Rico, performing all manner of ridiculous and insane tricks, showing of the improved physics engine. The game boasts in-game video capture as well and is due out in March. I can’t really say anymore, just watch and switch off your brain!



How The West Was Won Made

Red Dead Redemption is shaping up to be a veritable groundbreaker, pushing the boundaries, both literally and figuratively – checkout any of the trailers, and then wipe the salivation off of your keyboard. But, you’d have to have been living under a very heavy, liberal rock to not know Rockstar is no stranger to breaking new ground, whether you believe it best left untrodden or not. In a recent interview with IGN, the co-founder of Rockstar, Dan Houser explained how the simple values of Rockstar made the basis for its hugely successful games, most notably the GTA franchise. With many games in the genre being almost innately described as “like GTA but.” (and usually not up to the same standard) it’ll be interesting to see how Redemption fares, as it’s one of the only games that can proudly and rightly hold the aforementioned description. I’ve no doubt that it will be an achievement of its own though, the voice acting looks phenomenal and the combat looks set to truly capture the intricacies of action which cowboy films made popular.

Houser went on to say how the controversy over certain Rockstar games has been misplaced (we’ve all seen the fox news clip where the douche claims the goal is to fuck a prostitute and then kill her) and that though many claim it has only helped the game in terms of publicity, this was not the case, as gamers don’t go out to buy a game solely because it’s controversial, but because it’s a good game – the only thing that’s happened is ignorant media corporations and parents think they know something about it. There’s a lot more about their philosophy of game creation and some interesting points in the full interview, definitely worth a read. Whatever your view on the company and it’s games, there’s no doubt that it is, at the moment, going from strength to strength, and it appears as though Take-Two, Rockstar’s parent company, believe in them as well, having opened a new publishing HQ in Japan, in a time other publishers are laying-off by the bucket-load, set to publish Episodes from Liberty City as its first release.

Console Yourself

No new hardware, or at least consoles in the “near future”; at least that’s the news from EA chief financial officer, Eric brown who, at a recent conference, said he did not expect “a sharp and distinct console transition like we’ve seen in the past”. It seems fairly logical as well – yes, there’s a huge increase in demand for games compared to the last generation, but people are playing any one game for so much longer due to quality, downloadable content and online multiplayer.  Speaking to shareholders, Brown explained that consumers’ needs are fulfilled by today’s current technology, with nothing considerably better than the HD consoles to upgrade to. Although there’s been no word from the major console companies, hardware such project Natal prove their ambitions lie elsewhere. Just as well, as developers, specifically, Remedy (creators of the soon to come Alan Wake), told GI that they’re in no hurry to make the transition to another generation of consoles, although reportedly (ID CEO Todd Hollenshed told VG247) Microsoft are the best position to make the next move, having had their consoles out for a while with all the costs recouped. Personally I’m happy with what we’ve got; the investments made on copious amounts of games warrant a much longer life on this cycle, and as the innovators of the industry have shown with increasingly technologically impressive titles and hardware accessories.

[UPDATE: Jack Tretton, the CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment America, stated that he is convinced the PS3 will enjoy a ten year life cycle]

Natal Vs. the Arc

SCEA SVP of PR Rob Dyer has confidently claimed that line-up behind Sony’s Arc will beat out Microsoft’s “PR Barrage”. He said “From Sony’s perspective, rather than go out and do a whole PR barrage to give everybody the ‘happy, happy, joy, joy’ news,” said Dyer, “we’re going to show up and have a line-up of products to show people rather than having a lot of great statements to say, ‘This is what’s going to happen.’ This might have some substance if we hadn’t already seen both in working order. Natal is nothing less than groundbreaking if you believe the Microsoft executives or at least, completely original, if you don’t, whereas Sony’s offering seems to just an extension of the Wii’s thang, and possibly worse. Dyer’s argument was that with Natal it means writing games with a whole new codebase to work with the system, but with the Arc you can use the same PS3 code and therefore there will more diversity and innovation. Fair point, but the hardcore gamers who primarily own PS3s and 360s aren’t exactly akin to the idea of motion control anyway, and it they were they’d have a Wii, but where Natal has the edge is in the originality of the whole system. Put it this way, I’m not keen on the whole motion control to start with, so I’m unexcited and unimpressed with the Arc, but at least the Natal’s innovative system has me wondering, and at $25, wanting to give a whirl.

Microsoft’s Aaron Greenberg stated a couple of days ago, that they were going to be careful with what they release for the Natal and doesn’t want to dump everything and anything onto the market. So this kinda confirms that there may be less games out for Natal to start with, but will the quality offset this? The Analyst Michael Pachter certainly thinks so, predicting the Natal to outsell Arc 5 to 1. Either way, those legendary developers at Valve are going to be chuffed, as they recently went on record as saying they hope there’ll be more “shitty party games,” and are keen on using the Natal, and possibly Arc (as they recently said they would try to give the PS3 some loving) to make a real impression and “not [to] make shitty games I wouldn’t want to play if I had to use a joystick.”

Despite the codename of Sony’s motion controller being much cooler, the Natal looks to be undeniably superior – all that’s left now is to hope we can incorporate the word “fail” into the Sony controller’s real name, if it isn’t in fact Arc.

Finally

Here’s an awesomely terrifying presentation given by Carnegie Mellon assistant professor of entertainment and technology, Jesse Schell, at the DICE summit the other week about the evil genius of the casual games, and more importantly the future as a whole…

February 25th, 2010
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