Friday, January 14, 2011

REVIEW: GoldenEye 007 for Wii

In 1997, GoldenEye for the Nintendo 64 brought the first-person shooter experience to console systems. Up until then, the FPS had largely been the province of PC games. GoldenEye changed that, creating a gripping console action game with superb design and multiplayer deathmatch that would set the pattern for years to come. It was a best-seller and remains one of the most highly regarded videogames of all time.

Reinventing a classic such as this for a new system could have led to all sorts of unfortunate results: it could have been a mere rehash, a pale imitation of the original, or a relic of a time when FPS design was quite different. GoldenEye 007 for the Wii is none of those things. In fact, it’s rather startling reboot not only of the original game, but the original film as well, creating a contemporary shooter that honors the original while offering something all its own.

The original GoldenEye had the odds stacked against it, since movie tie-in games were of notoriously low quality and it shipped a couple years after the movie’s release. The film, however, had introduced Pierce Brosnan as a strong new James Bond for the 1990s, rejuvenating a series that had slipped during the final years of Roger Moore and the misbegotten tenure of Timothy Dalton. In retrospect, it’s one of the strongest films in the series, and the game set a standard for subsequent 007 games that, by and large, has been maintained for the past 13 years.

First-person shooters have evolved a great deal since 1997. Health and armor packs have been replaced with the ability to recover health by staying out of the line of fire for a few seconds. The use of covering terrain has become commonplace, along with the ability to pop-up and fire off a few shots before returning to cover. Multiplayer has become far more sophisticated, with multiple play modes and online matchmaking over high-speed internet connections. Level design is more elaborate, and the ability of consoles to show larger spaces and longer distances has led to more lavish visuals. 

All of these changes are reflected in GoldenEye, making it a true game of 2011 and not a retro blast back to 1997. Activision hasn’t abandoned the fans entirely, however. There’s a special difficulty level that returns the health packs and the pacing of the original, and it’s actually quite hard to play. The game also offers three control schemes: original N64, GameCube, and the Wii-mote/Nunchuk combo.

I tried to make it work with the Wii-mote, really I did. I stuck with it for several levels, and then just gave up and went with the GameCube controller. Although some people have adjusted to the point-and-shoot nature of the Wii controller, I’m not one of them. It simply lacks the speed and responsiveness I need for a game like this.

The first transformation for the new GoldenEye is the rather unceremonious replacement of former Bond Pierce Brosnan with the voice and likeness new Bond Daniel Craig. This affects the entire tone of the game, making it more gritty and intense, in keeping with Craig’s two outings as Bond. Dame Judi Dench returns as M (a role she took over starting with GoldenEye), but the rest of the original film’s cast has also been replaced, and their characters updated or eliminated altogether.

It’s actually rather intriguing to see how GoldenEye is reimagined for Craig’s more brutal, less debonair Bond and a more high-tech age, complete with cell phones and digital photography. The plot remains largely the same, hitting most of the major action set-pieces of the film as Bond deals with the betrayal of a former MI6 agent and the threat from a new EMP weapon. But the whole thing feels very different due to the changes and updates.

The gameplay itself is a nice mixture of stealth and gunplay, and you control which to emphasize. If you play it quiet and slow and stay out of the line of cameras and guards, you can get through many levels with minimal shooting. Or, you can charge in guns a’blazin’ and just shoot the heck out of everything. There are plenty of secondary tasks and puzzle-like challenges that require the use of Bond’s multipurpose cell phone, as well as a couple of driving sequences. Altogether, it offers a satisfying mix of gameplay styles and a solid 10-12 hours of solo play.

The multiplayer remains outstanding, and it’s a real treat to be able to take GoldenEye online at last. Multiplayer includes a huge roster of Bond characters and villains to choose from, and some have special powers, such as Oddjob’s killer bowler. If you’re a fan of the series, it’s going to be a real treat facing off against Rosa Klebb or Jaws, or entering Nick-Nack mode, in which everyone is Herve Villechaize-sized. There are several new types of play, including Golden Gun mode, in which people vie for control of the one-shot/one-kill golden gun.

It’s good to have GoldenEye back for a new generation, and with so many new features and novel elements. Is it as good as the original? Well, since it preserves what made the original good and expands upon it, then yes: in fact, it’s better. The original is fondly remember because it was new and different. The remake isn’t new or different, but by any measure of quality it’s a better game.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

"Playing is Good for Children" says the New York Times UPDATED

Well, that's a relief.

Also ... "Studies Show Water is Wet," and "Scientists Agree: Puppies are Cuddly."

I don't know whether to be pleased or mystified by "Effort to Restore Children’s Play Gains Momentum," a story in the Home & Garden section of the New York Times. Like so much from the Times, it reads like a dispatch written by and about alien life-forms. In this case, people have recently discovered that these strange small beings known as HU-MAN CHIL-DREN enjoy peculiar rituals called "PRETENDING" and "PLAYING," and that these rituals may now be safely classified as "GOOD" due to the opinions of Designated Experts.

What kind of Type-A, OCD, careerist, whack-job parents do Times writers generally associate with that they think a mom who lets the kids play in the house--even if it gets a little bit messy!--is somehow news? They even manage to find some chin-tugging expert to say, “Play is just a natural thing that animals do and humans do, but somehow we’ve driven it out of kids.”

Speak for yourself, lady. I teach kids, I volunteer with kids, and I live with kids, and I have never encountered one who has had the play "driven out" of him. I do the "play" thing professionally, and kids know how to play just fine.

I'm not always sure that parents know how to parent, however. If the story were merely a lament about the over-scheduling of the average American child, then I'd agree, but that hardly means that children have "forgotten" how to play. They merely have parents who think a child's every waking moment must be filled with some kind of self-improving busywork. I heard one parent justify this kind of intense parenting by saying "If we don't have our kids keep up, then the Chinese will beat us." I'm not sure what exactly they think the Chinese are going to beat us at. Long division? State capitols? Ping-pong?

My family is hardly typical--my wife and I both work at home and our kids don't do sports--but I know plenty of "typical" families, and none of the kids have what one "expert" actually calls a "play deficit."

The Times story ends with excerpts from a 75-page instruction manual on how to play, including such gems as these:
“Climb on the couch with your friends and pretend you are sailing on a ship to a distant land,” reads one idea. Another, from the section on construction play: “Lay a toy on the floor and figure out how to build a bridge going over the toy with blocks.”
“Make paper doll cutouts from old newspapers and magazines,” a third suggests, “and let your imagination fly!”
I don't mean to sound judgmental (wait a second: yes I do), but if your kids need instructions like these, then you have royally screwed up the whole parenting thing, and almost certainly screwed up your kids.

We play a lot here at Casa McD: certainly more than the average household. Part of that has to do with the constant flow of games coming into the house for my job, but part of it also has to do with the rules we laid down. TV watching and screen-based games are limited to a few hours spread over Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and sometimes on days with heavy weather. That's always been the rule, so the kids have learned how to play on their own. I've had parents marvel at this. How do you do it? My kids would never stand for it! they say.

I never understood this response. You're the parent! You make the rules. You shape your child's world through the decisions you make. And if your child doesn't know how to play because he's staring into a screen all the time, or because she's bouncing from ballet to soccer to Mandarin lessons to yoga, then you made the wrong choices somewhere along the line.

Take away the DS, turn off the computer, cancel the stupid lessons, quit the team, and dump a pile of Lego in the middle of a table, get a stack of paper and a new box of Crayolas, or break out a board game. If you want to give your kids the best, then give them time to just be kids.

UPDATE: Some people wanted to know if I'd read this story about Chinese parenting. Yes I had, and if it's accurate, then it's a rather chilling portrait of a nation of psychopaths. I find the entire drive to "get ahead" at any cost utterly nauseating, whether it's from Eastern or Western parents. What are we trying to get ahead of? Why must professional, academic, or even personal achievement (more correctly, over-achievement) be the defining measure of a life, rather than love or joy? Perhaps certain children are happy being driven to misery so they can play a nice little piano piece and make mamma proud at the recital, but I'd say those children are definitely in the minority.

I'm not saying that kids don't need to be pushed and made to understand that hard work is needed to master anything, but the "Chinese mother" techniques described in the story cross the line into brutality. I agree that rote memorization and drilling is a huge benefit to kids, and I spend summer break tutoring my kids in Latin, history, literature, math and other subjects in order to keep their minds sharp and extend their range of learning. Every parent has to push their kids to learn math, study science, and practice instruments, but the vast majority manage to do so without turning it into some kind of cruel psychodrama.

Perhaps this drive to create "superchildren" is a byproduct of China's monstrous single-child policy, with incredible pressure brought to bear on that one child to fulfill all his or her parents' dreams and expectations. In any case, I'll put American independence, empathy, high spirits, freedom, and inventiveness against obsessive Chinese parenting any day of the week, and twice on Sunday.

"Postings of a Troubled Mind"

The Wall Street Journal has a detailed article about the Tucson shooter and his activities in an online gaming forum. The story, "Postings of a Troubled Mind," depict a deeply disturbed young man who alarmed everyone whose path he crossed. The shooter was a time bomb, but the search for a trigger is the work of political and journalistic hacks. I have close, personal experience with mentally ill people, and I can tell you this much: anything can be a trigger.

The forums frequented by the shooter are for a browser-based game called Earth Empires, about which I know nothing. It appears to be a standard global conquest strategy game without the kind of grotesquely violent elements that tend to alarm non-gamers. It's about to get very famous, very fast.

Even in the notoriously wild world of game forums and chat rooms, the comments of the killer were remarkably bizarre. They show an obsession with conspiracy theories about education and grammar, contain copious references to violence and even cannibalism, and veer into inexplicable non-sequiturs. It seems as though everyone who encountered him thought the same thing: this man is dangerous, and one day he's going to snap.

Now that the media and politicians have embarrassed themselves by trying to tie this horrific crime to Sarah Palin and the Tea Party movement without the tiniest bit of evidence, they will now move on to blaming games as well. This is SOP. I've written different versions of this story for most of my career, and the political and media reaction is as predictable as the sunrise.

Just to be clear: I like Sarah Palin, although I'm not certain she's presidential material; and I support the limited-government goals of the Tea Party movement. Neither Palin nor the Tea Party bear any responsibility in this tragedy, and I find it deeply hypocritical that the same people urging conservatives to "tone down the rhetoric" are simultaneously accusing us of complicity in mass murder. Talk about your irony impairment.

By and large, mainstream journalists don't have particularly sophisticated minds. They manipulate a few well-worn (usually inaccurate) narrative tropes and assumptions, and rarely dig deeply into unfamiliar territory. (And, yes, I say this as a professional journalist with extensive newspaper experience.) The mind of a mass murderer is a wild and unruly place, and journalists feel this need to Explain It All in 1200 words by a 3:00 deadline. Reality doesn't actually work that way. Reality doesn't fit itself into the five Ws and an inverted pyramid style, with a 20 word lede and a three-line nut graph.

In keeping with my standard policy, the name of the shooter will not appear in any of my writing or anywhere on this site.  Spree killers and assassins are fame whores, and their crimes are only fed by a media culture which rewards them with the recognition they so desperately crave. Only six names matter: Christina-Taylor Green, Gabe Zimmerman, John M. Roll, Dorwin Stoddard, Phyllis Schneck, and Dorothy Morris. Remember them. Pray for them and their families, as well as for Rep. Giffords and the other wounded.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Cargo Noir, Coming From Days of Wonder This March

The next game from Days of Wonder is Cargo Noir, designed by Serge Laget, co-designer of Mystery Express and Shadows Over Camelot.  I'll let the official press release fill in the details:
Cargo Noir is a game of illicit trading in which players run "families" who traffic in smuggled goods. The game takes place in the thrilling and evocative setting of 1950's film noir.
Game play in Cargo Noir revolves around a changing set of notorious smuggling ports – Hong Kong, Bombay, Rotterdam, Panama, Tanger, Rio, Cape Town, New York and Macao – that are filled with various types and quantities of contraband. Players dispatch cargo ships loaded with gold to the ports that hold cargo they desire – hoping that it will be enough to snatch the goods away from any opponents. The acquired goods are then stored in the player’s warehouses until enough is accumulated to create valuable combinations to trade away for Victory Spoils.
"Everything in Cargo Noir grew from a core auction mechanism that is simple and trivial to explain - you can only bid up, and the last bidder standing gets the goods," says designer Serge Laget. "After that game development focused on three areas: fine-tuning the balance so there were always multiple paths to victory; making sure the game shines with two players as well as with five; and finding a theme that would be evocative with a feel that is very different from most other auction or trading games – a Sheep for two Woods it ain’t!"

More pictures after the jump:

Resources For Young Game Designers

Ask the average modern American boy what he wants to be when he grows up, and the chances are fairly high that he'll say, "I want to make video games." It's what my own son would say, and based on the emails and questions I get from readers and acquaintances, I know other parents are finding the same thing. 

A reader recently wrote asking me if I could put his nephew in touch with someone in the video game business, in order to provide some direction and encouragement. I've received similar requests before, but oddly enough I really don't know many designers any more. I stopped doing features and previews years ago, which limits my coverage to pure opinion journalism. This means I really don't interact with designers like I used to. That was a deliberate choice, because I found my friendships with designers occasionally interfered with my ability to cover their work. Now I just deal with PR people, and that's probably for the best.

But it also means that I didn't have any concrete connections to offer this gentleman, or others who have asked similar questions. What I would like to offer, however, are a few resources and words of advice for parents who have children with an interest in this industry.

Don't discourage them. There are more aspirants than jobs at this point, but the jobs are there and growing, particularly in the area of mobile and web-based game development. (Rovio, makers of Angry Birds, is advertising for 8 new positions.) I was discouraged from becoming a filmmaker when I was young, even though I had displayed a natural aptitude for it. I pushed ahead anyway, went to NYU film school, and worked in TV and film production for a little while (until I realized that writing was a lot easier and less time consuming). I hated the fact that adults kept trying to steer me towards a more "sensible" profession. To hell with that. Let the kids dream big and, if they fail, they fail. At least they took the shot.

There are a lot of things that can help a teenage get a sense of the profession and give them a head start if they ultimately decide to pursue it. The most important thing is to just do it. It's a pretty simple thing for an 11 or 12 year old to get started making games, if only small ones that will show them the process, which can be dull and frustrating, but also quite rewarding.

Towards that end, I recommend The Game Maker's Apprentice, which provides a step-by-step guide for making a variety of little games using the Game Maker software from YoYo Games. (Game Maker can be downloaded for free, and is also included in a disc bound with the book.) There's also a sequel, The Game Maker's Companion, which picks up where the first leaves off.

Visual Basic Game Programming For Teens is a decent next step, although I wouldn't spring it on a middle school student. Game Programming for Teens also has some good parts, although the BlitzMax software it uses is not without problems. Experienced developers may scoff at the idea of making real games with the tools described in either of these books, but that's not really the point. It's simply important that kids get a sense of the process of designing, programming, and troubleshooting. If there are better tools, tutorials, or programs out there, by all means use the comboxes to recommend them. I'm always looking for new things.

It's more important for a young person to get some experience and perhaps build a portfolio than it is for them to make a viable, marketable game. Some colleges even open their game programming classes to high school students, which could provide a structured program for learning the basics.

We also just gave my son Anime Studio Debut 7, and animation software that's very easy to use, yet very powerful. Computer animation in a natural companion for game design, and Anime Studio is a great way to learn the basics and make nice little films.

As a parent, I'm encouraging my son to pursue his interest in making games by using these tools. He may find that the reality of "making games" is less enticing than the fantasy, and turn his attention to something else, thus   preventing a false career start later in life. Or he may find that he loves the process and has a natural aptitude for it, and thus have a head start on the hard work of learning how to do it. 

Right now, he's partway through Game Maker's Apprentice, and the jury is still out. He has a natural aptitude for this kind of thing, partly due to his high intelligence, and partly due to the peculiar wiring of the Asperger brain, which tends to be heavily biased towards interacting with and understanding machines and technology. Right now, I'm just encouraging him to explore the process. He'll decide for himself whether it's something he wants to pursue in the future.

Windows 7

The cause for the radio silence since early yesterday was the arrival of Windows 7, and my decision to take the plunge and convert to it right away. I spent the day doing a massive backup, and then a nuke & pave (hard drive reformatting and fresh install of the OS and all base software), followed by drive imaging and general Windows tinkering.

Short verdict: all my problems have disappeared. I often use the laptop for gaming, and it had started crashing every 15 minutes under Vista. That has now stopped under Windows 7. I also had persistent audio driver problems, and one day my wireless mouse just decided to go on vacation. These problems are also gone.

The indexing seems to be taking forever, and I'm not certain I'll even leave it on after it's complete. Indexing tends to slow down a system, and it's usually the first thing to go when I start suffering speed degradation. On the other hand, I'm a little bit intrigued by the rapid searching and library features. Indexing might finally be worth the overhead.

Right off that bat, I can tell you that the Snipping Tool is a weird and wonderful little option. I have no idea why Microsoft put it in there, but the simplification of desktop screen caps is a welcome feature for any tech writer. Back in the DOS days, we had to keep a variety of memory-resident screen capture utilities in order to do game reviews, and it was a real pain the neck. This is a great little addition.

I wasn't as big a Vista-hater as some, but there was no denying that it was an epic fail. My experiences only got catastrophic over time, as one by one various things stopped functioning. Windows 7 seems to be working pretty well so far, but it's still been a time sump making the change-over, and will probably continue to be.

Oh, I also lost the last three months of emails in the transfer. If you wrote to me and I haven't answered yet, I no longer have your mail.

Breaking News

I'll let the photo do the talking:

Monday, January 10, 2011

App O' The Mornin': Puzzle Quest 2 Review

Grade: A (for gameplay), D (for app programming)
Price: $10

In a moment, I will praise Puzzle Quest 2 for its clever gameplay, improvements upon the original, and vast amount of content. All of these compliments will be sincere, since I like the game a lot and return to it often.

First, however, I need to address a comment directly to Namco, Infinite Interactive, and SparkPlug Games, specifically: What the hell were you thinking? A 1.2 GB app? For Puzzle Freaking Quest? Infinity Blade is 331 MB. Rage is 537 MB. Angry Birds has made a bazillion gazillion dollars on less than 17 MB.

And I need another 1.5 GB free if I want to update it!?

I understand this is a port, and ports have their own challenges. I get that. But there is no reason on earth that the content of Puzzle Quest 2 needs to take up that much real estate on a device that already has limited available space.

I'm not even sure why it takes up so much space. The download is only 574 MB, which is about the same size as the PC version. Yet the drive usage balloons to 1.2 GB on the device, and it wouldn't let me update until I'd cleared 1.5 GB of space. I didn't think apps decompressed during install. If someone knows something I don't, please let me know and I'll update this review.

Also: load times are excessive. Even with full free memory, I've had a couple of 1 minute transitions from one small, basic location screen to the next.

Okay, end of rant: onto the gameplay.

When the first Puzzle Quest crossed my desk about 3 years ago, my first reaction was: Dumbest idea ever. An RPG in which you're dropped into a version of Bejeweled every time you fought with an enemy? As I began the game, I was still thinking this has got to be the stupidest-

[Tom spends spends a couple hours utterly engrossed in the original Puzzle Quest.]

Okay, scratch that: that has got the be the greatest idea ever.

I don't know why it works. I'm a game guy, so I should be able to get a handle on the whys and wherefores of game design effectiveness, but where Puzzle Quest is concerned, I'm not sure I can. It shouldn't work. This isn't "You got your chocolate in my peanut butter." This is "You got your Bejeweled in my Ultima." Those are two experiences I really don't need in the same place, like showering and origami, yet the design is so good and the gameplay works so perfectly that you realize you're playing something new and wonderful.

Puzzle Quest 2 improves on the original in every way possible. The adventuring element is heavily pumped up, with a great use of isometric landscapes, narrative, questing, and NPCs. There's a real landscape to explore, with multiple locations, people, treasures, and challenges. Character development is deeper, and the whole games benefits from more of everything. The match-3-driven combat sequences remain the highlight, retaining their oddly addictive quality while adding depth to all aspects of combat.

For those who aren't familiar with the way Puzzle Quest works, it's actually quite simple. When you encounter a foe, your drop into a single screen combat interface. At the center are gems of different colors, which each side matches to fuel spells and special attacks. There are also skull "gems" (pure damage) and "fist" gems (which power weapon strikes).  Skills, stats, weapons, armor, and other bonuses combine with the match-3 (or more) mechanic to make for a truly novel and engaging combat system.

In addition to the size problems, PQ2 suffers from some shrinking pains on an iPhone/iPod Touch. Some of the buttons don't register input consistently, and they're just too close together. Interactive text should be a little larger and more spread out. I'd rather have a button or text obscuring the screen than have to keep poking at it to make it register.

Really, though, this is just a good game. Due to its size and cost, I'm not sure I can recommend it without reservations, but I can certainly recommend it as an utterly engrossing and entertaining twist on the RPG formula.

Email Fail

I know at least two people have sent me emails yesterday, and those have vanished before I got the chance read them. It seems to be some kind of syncing error between my iOS email and PC email. If you've sent anything recently, go ahead and resend it.