Metal Gear Online Sucks Because I’m a Halo-Playing Philistine


Metal Gear Online is going to be a tough sell for the typical online shooter crowd. From my brief time with the game, it was clear that it was from a Japanese developer emulating Western shooters without straying too far from Japanese sensibilities. It may have been the demo environment, which consisted of two team deathmatch rounds. There are a ton of ways to play MGO, including a “Solid Snake vs. Everyone Else” mode that honestly sounds really fun. However, if what was on display at Comic Con is an indication of the core gameplay, I’m not sure how much MGO will offer for those weaned on Team Fortress 2 and Halo.

While games like Halo slowed down the pace for console players, Metal Gear brings it to a grinding halt. It’s telling that the game has an autoaim option, yet I was continually caught with my pants down. Switching equipment requires you to bring up the standard Metal Gear wheel menus, which in the single player games paused the action, but here just leaves you completely vulnerable. Throwing grenades, hopping in your cardboard box, or using the stun knife all require you to stand still and flip through a menu. While it’s true that everyone in the matches are limited by these constraints, fairness does not always equal fun.

For a few rounds I tried my hand at free aiming, and found the movement of the analog stick to be far too sensitive and drifty, while still limited to the turning ability of a tank. Auto-aim worked a little better, but the best players will probably want to avoid it so they can get those quick headshots.

For Metal Gear fans and Japanese gamers, MGO may be the perfect complement to MGS4. It’s certainly faithful to the series, and the controls hold true to many of the Japanese conventions that many of us over here just don’t understand. While the shooter market on 360 is oversaturated, the PS3 market is somewhat lacking. MGO may have an audience on the PS3, even over here, but PC or Xbox 360 owners aren’t going to find much here for them.

Gears of War 2 to be Bigger, Better, More Badass


When president of Epic Games, Michael Capps says that Gears of War 2 will be “bigger, better, more badass,” you have to believe him. Epic has a track record of games which can only be described as awesome and rad, so it will be no surprise if Gears 2 follows suit. At Comic Con, Epic ran a panel to discuss Gears 2. While the trailer shown at the beginning of the panel was the same as the one shown at GDC, it was a good reminder that Gears of War 2 is going to be extremely badass. Everyone was surprised, even skeptical, that Epic was planning for a sequel that would be bigger and better than its predecessor. However, watching Marcus chainsaw a Locust soldier surely made most of us believers.

After the badass teaser, the developers jumped right into Q&A. The Comic Con attendees stepped up to the plate with hard hitting questions. Capps let the audience in on several secrets about the game, including some of the game’s badass, cool, and great mechanics and storyline. The sequel to the 2006 game of the year will have awesome shooting, badass chainsaw fights, and sweet online play. The story will be epic, badass, and bigger than the original.

A lot of people had questions about the gripping story from the original game and wanted to know how they’d expand on it for the sequel. Josh Ortega, the writer for the new game, assured us it was going to be amazing and better.

Lastly, when asked whether Gears of War 2 would be awesome, Michael Capps responded, “Absolutely.”

Late to the Party, but the Candy is Oh So Sweet


While it may be a year old, I doubt anyone at Rare is complaining about another Viva Piñata review. Positive or not, any exposure to Microsoft’s 2006 flagship failure is going to be good at this point. Viva Piñata was billed as the premiere family title for the Xbox 360 in holiday ’06, set up alongside Gears of War (of all things) in their first-party lineup. It previewed poorly in the months before its release, with poor frame rates and oddball gameplay making it a hard sell. Despite great reviews and some brilliant advertising, it was a market disaster. The next year, a separate developer slapped together Viva Piñata Party Animals, a Wii-esque shovelware party game that more than likely sealed the coffin on the VP license forever.

We all know the 360 is a mancrafted piece of manliness. Especially in that year when almost everyone played Gears of War, a game about shooting your way through grey town and brown town and chainsawing monsters in half. I was guilty of matching the 18-24-year-old Shooter McBulletsmith demographic as well. Nearly everyone with a 360 was enamored with Epic’s lowest common denominator adventure. Don’t get me wrong, Gears was fun, but it was stupid, it lacked art direction, storytelling, and a third of the five-hour campaign was abysmal. And now when I look back, having played both, it puts some perspective on how unfortunate Viva Piñata’s failure was.

A year later, the 360 hasn’t expanded it’s demographic. Now, rather than shoot ugly grey mole people, we shoot terrorists and purple aliens. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, as some of the bigger games of 2007 pushed different genres (Mass Effect), told real stories (Bioshock), or even just added a few colors beyond grey and brown to the shooter palette (Halo 3). However, Microsoft has yet to come back to the family demographic in the same way it did with VP. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that there hasn’t been anything like Viva Piñata this console generation.

So what is it? Well, that’s where this review gets difficult. I can go on and on about its market failings, and how unfortunate it is that this gem got cast aside, but the reality is the game is hard to quantify. Not only that, but at first glance it looks fucking dumb. Everyone in the game journalism community seemed to take it at that basic face value until it came out. When the pessimistic previews ceased and the glowing reviews started coming in, it was already too late; the real coverage died out, and no one was willing to admit they were wrong.

The only reason I have the game is because when my Xbox self-destructed for the sixth goddamn time, Microsoft was kind enough to offer me a free game. My options were Project Gotham Racing 3 (I already owned PGR4), Kameo (Rare’s mediocre 360 launch platformer, and another reason to pre-hate VP) and Viva Piñata. When I chose Viva, John Smith from India told me, “You know that’s a kid’s game, right?” You can’t even outsource to fucking South Asia without coming across nay-sayers. But I suppose when the building they work in was constructed out of unsold copies of the game, they’re encouraged to turn people away.

Okay, so I still haven’t said what the game is, so let’s get into it. Viva Piñata combines the cultivation and development aspects of life simulators like The Sims or Rollercoaster Tycoon with the discovery and collection elements of Pokemon, a dab of RPG-style questing/leveling, and brilliantly colorful, clean, timeless graphics. It’s all of these things, or it’s only some of them. You start with a small junkyard, and after the tutorial section in which you clean it up and start your garden, the game is what you make of it.

As you develop your garden, it becomes an inviting area for the various piñata species in the area. In this game, you play the role of the omnipresent cursor that, armed with a shovel, watering can, and bag of seeds, sets out to become the best gardener on Piñata Island. There’s more to the story, which you unlock over time through a storybook, but the lore of VP is ancillary, and I mostly ignored it. The real plot is your experiences and what you take away from it.

Now, if I haven’t lost you already on that last paragraph, I understand I’m probably not selling many of you. Understand that, while there’s truly mass appeal in this game, it is a family game, after all. If Pixar movies make you cringe, then I’d probably just go back to Call of Duty 4. That’s not to say Viva Piñata isn’t without its own brand of irreverence. Most of the basic gameplay is tame; breeding piñatas is referred to as “romancing,” and the actual sex is nothing more than a simple minigame and a video of two piñatas dancing (after which an egg is delivered by a weird fat lady). However, I doubt I’ve got many parents reading this, so I’ll let you in on how far down the Bunnycomb hole goes.

The helper characters are where the game presents much of the humor that will fly well over most kid’s heads. While your garden is filled with innocent and colorful piñatas, the shops are full of dirty humans. A woman named Costolot runs the item shop, and as her name states, she is a greedy, chocolate coin-hungry wench. She’s also suggestive. One of her recurring lines as you enter the shop is, “Are you looking for something seedy? Oh, I didn’t mean like that.” You know there’s some “romancing” going on in that store after hours.

Willy Builder is the shop owner in charge of building the various sex shacks you need to get your piñata breeding mill running. He’s a drunk who shows up to work late, overcharges, and only eats bacon sandwiches. He’s basically the stereotypical construction worker, except he nurses pints of milk.

Leafos, the first of the humans you come across, seems innocent enough. However even she falls prey to typical human weakness, spreading gossip and false rumors and leading you down dead ends. What does it all mean? There’s definitely a bit of social commentary going on here.

All the while your innocent stable of piñatas go about their predictable daily lives. One of the great things about the game is that while there are many complicated aspects to the piñatas, they’re consistent. A BarkBark is always going to start a fight with a KittyFloss, a Lickatoad is going to eat a Taffly, and an Elephanilla will accidentally trample smaller piñatas. Part of my hatred of The Sims was that it was hard to gauge what made them happy or why bad things were happening. What Viva Piñata lacks in random unwanted bullshit happening constantly it makes up for in sheer content.

From the opening tutorial to my last five-hour marathon session, Viva Piñata consistently doled out new content. Each step of progression is awarded with another layer of gameplay or new piñata species. Depending on your pace, I’d say there’s between 30 and 50 hours of refreshing content, and if you attempt to accomplish every goal the game throws at you, you’re looking at hundreds of hours. Again, it all comes down to how you play. One person may choose to focus on a small number of piñatas, naming and accessorizing them, sending them away to parties, and evolving them into new forms. Another may set up elaborate breeding camps, detaching themselves from these virtual pets and breeding as many as they can to sell off and reach the level of “master romancer.”

Yet, possibly the most brilliant aspect of Viva Piñata is that, as cold and calculated as you may choose to play it, not only will it stay consistently fun, but it’s also going to get you at some point. In my case, I’d finished breeding Fudgehogs and reached master level for that species. I sold off all of them but my first one, and decided to name it and dress it up in a pirate hat and hand cuffs. (The accessories are out there.) But Sonic the Fudgehog wasn’t happy, and eventually no amount of joy candy could cheer him up. He became so depressed that he stormed out of my garden singing Dashboard Confessional, and I never saw him again. It was a depressing moment, but it also amazed me that I’d grown somewhat attached to this virtual creature.

Viva Piñata may be a hard sell, but I think anyone can get hooked on it. I had it for a few months before I even bothered to open it, and over a year after its release, it feels refreshing and brand new. I can’t recommend it enough. Tracking down a copy shouldn’t be hard, and you should be able to find it for a mere $10-20. I’d easily have paid full price for Rare’s masterpiece, and I honestly wish I’d bought it back then and never gave Gears of War a passing glance.

Big Willy Shatner Saves the Galaxy


Mass Effect is the new(ish) RPG from Bioware, in the vein of their previous game Knights of the Old Republic. Much like that game, it offers a massive plot spanning a large world where the decisions you make actually matter. The difference here is that it all happens in a new universe created by Bioware. While KOTOR had the benefit of six movies, a million supermarket novels, and a truckload of existing Star Wars games backing up its plot, Mass Effect is a completely unfamiliar world.

Well, not completely unfamiliar. Mass Effect employs the kitchen sink mentality, throwing in a little bit of every sci-fi story ever. It has its own version of the force, cylons, forerunners, faster than light travel, muppets, and lots and lots of synth. However it rarely comes off as derivative. Mostly it’s because there’s so much there. The story is rich, and by rich I mean you may actually drown in information in the first few hours. Bring a swimming buddy.

This encyclopedic detail to the world is both the games strongest and weakest point. Games can’t always be paced the way you want. There’s no rewind button and sometimes you can’t even pause. So when a novel’s worth of information is forced on you like a download in The Matrix you may feel the need to unplug. I know I did. After some time reading the codex, a literal encyclopedia of Mass Effect tucked away in the pause menus, it started to click. Once you understand the difference between a Quarian and Salarian, you’ll be set.

The good thing about this presentation is that everyone’s motives are clear, and the overall plot is extremely solid and well defined. My only issue is the occasionally and inappropriately stilted dialogue. It’s hard to fault the game for this, since it’s about forty hours long with fully voiced dialogue, several branching conversation paths, and different replies based not only on your actions, but your character’s sex and upbringing. However, when the romance plotline comes off like a Power Point presentation, it’s a little awkward:

“Hypothesis: I am falling in love with you Shepard.”

“I’ve classified similar feelings in myself.”

“Let’s fuck.”

In general, the dialogue is fine though. The only other hiccup in the plot is how the technology of the game tends to detract from the cutscenes. Built on Unreal Engine 3, Mass Effect suffers from many of the problems inherent in an engine apparently only capable of making space marines fight each other. The graphics are constantly caught with their pants down, textures pop in, and models gain detail before your eyes. It’s incredibly jarring to watch someone go from Play-Doh to uncanny valley in a few seconds. The graphical issues carry over to the gameplay too, with long loading times and slideshow framerates breaking up the action.

While we’re squarely in complaint territory, let me whine about the inventory system for a minute. If I had to nail it down for you, I’d say it’s kind of like Microsoft Office. Do I need to go on?

To be honest, there’s really a lot wrong with Mass Effect. I could probably go on for a while about the laundry list of poor design decisions. Most games would be easy review fodder if they had the number of issues ME has. None of it matters though, because what it does get right completely overshadows all of it. I can’t even bring myself to poke fun as much as I originally wanted because nearly every moment playing this game put a smile on my face. After all the hours I spent on it I’m already dying to finish up this review and go back for more.

Why Do They Call it a Woofer?


If you’re an Xbox owner like me then you’ve probably warmed up to the idea of high definition. At first maybe the 720p’s and 1080i’s were scary, the 5.1’s unnecessary, and you had a perfectly fine CRT from 1994. Sooner or later though, a game came along that demanded HD. Whether it was the tumors you developed sitting three inches away from the TV trying to read the text in Dead Rising, or the desire to get the most out of Gears of War’s vibrant grey and brown color palette, your eyes demanded HD lovin’ and proceeded to sodomize your wallet.

Everything is better in HD except porn, unless razor burns are a turn on for you. It’s only logical then, that everything is better in 5.1 surround sound too. But again if you’re like me you’re either stuck in a shared apartment or your parent’s house, and while shuddering your house down to its very foundation because of an awesome explosion will put hair on your balls, other people around you may be less appreciative.

Back when 5.1 Headphones first came about, they were over $500. They probably also sucked. Xbox 360 owners should be familiar with the benefits of cutting edge technology. You get to spend excessive amounts of money to be the first kid on the block with a plastic box full of circuits and metal, and all it does is make a fancy red light pattern and sputter a bit. Unfortunately, years of new designs and advancements don’t always change things.

Enter the AX360 5.1 Surround Sound Headphones by Tritton. Enter, trip and fall, and go running back to mom. Maybe they’ll come back in 3-5 business days…

That sums up my introduction to these headphones. Well, they actually did make it to my noggin, and offered some thrilling surround sound. Unfortunately, after a few minutes it occured to me that something was amiss. While I was experiencing thundering explosions in front of me and rich sound effects, anything going on behind me sounded like it was being broadcast over HAM radio. It turns out the designers of the AX360s took the concept of having a 5.1 system on your head quite literally. Every speaker is accounted for, shrunk down to bite-size, and jammed into each earpiece. Unfortunately, it sounded like the rear channels came from a thrift store.

Armed with my experience on Xbox customer service I prepared myself for a battle against automated voices and John Smith from India. Luckily, it turns out Tritton is a small company with small company values, at least that’s the impression I got – they bend over backwards for their customers. In the end, I had two working pairs of headphones for the price of one, so I’m not really complaining.

After using them for a few weeks I can say that they work quite well. You do have to tinker with all the volume controls, and sometimes this can be on a game to game basis. After a particularly bumpin’ round of Rez I switched to Virtua Fighter 5 and nearly had my ears blown out by cheesy dialogue. There are also a lot of wires, but I’m assuming they wouldn’t pack the punch they do without all those wires. The bass is usually really impressive, and it’s complemented by an awesome but mild vibration.

The 360 part of the AX360s doesn’t mean they won’t work elsewhere. Tritton packs enough cables to hook them up to just about anything. The main advantage of these over a standard home theater pair is that they double as an Xbox Live headset.

Overall I’m a bit hesitant to recommend the AX360s. They’re an excellent pair of headphones, but I imagine better sets will come out down the line. If you have the means to set up a normal home theater, I suggest doing that, but if you don’t mind a bit of tinkering and you need to keep things quiet, they’re certainly not a bad choice.

Tentacle Rape Monster Sim 2007


The Darkness for Xbox 360 is a mediocre game pretending to be an excellent one. Despite the fact that I’m completely aware of this, I still can’t decide which side I land on. It’s kind of like how George Bush is so obviously a bad guy, and yet, he gets by well enough on some sort of dopey charm. The Darkness was developed by Starbreeze, creators of the best thing Vin Diesel ever starred in: Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay for the original Xbox. There are some similarities to be found here: the concrete-to-everything-else ratio is still 10:1, the most unsuspecting weirdos all seem to need your help with something, and there are a ton of collectables – this time it’s in the form of phone numbers which you call at payphones to unlock concept art and full issues of the original comic.

Yes, The Darkness is based on the comic series of the same name. I’d never read it before, but the fact that I could barely read the text at 1080p tells me the developers did, and decided it was best to spare us. The story of the game itself is interesting enough, though, despite the fact I normally champion stories that have grey areas and questionable heroes, the plot here is a bit overbearing.

You play as Jackie Estacado, a 21-year-old gangster who was brought up by a New York City Mafia boss. He looks like half the attendees at I-Con if they had less Mountain Dew and more HGH in their diet. Unfortunately for Jackie, he is suddenly possessed by Mike Patton in the form of a demonic tentacle monster with a horrible case of bronchitis. Throughout the adventure you meet dirty cops, dirty gangsters, and even dirty undead Nazis. Aside from a particularly poignant scene in which Jackie watches To Kill a Mockingbird with his girlfriend, the entire game is about as bright as Don Corleone’s asshole.

The gameplay is standard first-person shooter fare with evil demon powers thrown in for good measure. You spend a lot of time helping out random folks in the subway with various problems that usually involve killing people. However, at one point a batshit-insane old lady had me collecting quarters she dropped in front of an oncoming train. Imagine the scene: you, waiting on the tracks so this crazy geezer can toss a handful of quarters and watch you scramble wildly for her own sadistic pleasure. All told, she spent about five dollars watching me attempt this feat, and all I got out of it was another unreadable comic book.

When I wasn’t being harassed by subway kooks, I was shooting people or raping them with slimy black tentacles. More often than not, I went the rape-route, as I found the shooting mechanics to be about as fun as threading a needle, not to mention swinging a big black cock around is a concept I hadn’t experienced in a game before. They’re usually white, and small, and Japanese.

When I investigated the cause of my aiming troubles, I came across an entire suite of tools for modifying my sensitivity. No less than four sliders allowed me to adjust a host of values I didn’t completely understand nor were documented in the instruction manual. If I wanted to mess with this stuff, I would have applied for a job at Starbreeze.

The questionable design choices don’t end there. A weird cover system exists in The Darkness which, if I were the developer, I’d give some fancy name like “Procedural Weapon/Noggin Concealment” and slap on the back of the box. In reality, it means that half the time you peak over an object to shoot someone, Jackie reaches over with his guns-and the other time he simply peaks his head out like an innocent groundhog. I found that armed gangsters weren’t phased by my attempts to stare them down, and they typically took the opportunity to play Jackie-mole with my exposed head.

These glitches and control issues were persistent, but I quickly found ways around them. One of your powers allows you to detach one of your slithering sausage monsters and perform remote kills safely from a distance. By the end of the game, I’d dispatched half the population of New York City with the little guy. Nothing like the hero cowering behind trash cans the entire game.

Despite all the awkwardness, I have to say I enjoyed my 10-12 hours of time with The Darkness. There were enough clever little moments to keep things interesting, especially if you can grab it for $20 or so. Just don’t touch the multiplayer modes. Online play feels like a practical joke, with characters barely animating, a complete lack of responsiveness, and everyone I played with wondering what they’d gotten themselves into. If you’re into story-driven shooters with a dark tone, you can look past all the silly gameplay quirks, and if you’ve already played the far-superior Riddick, I’d say The Darkness is a good rental or cheap buy.

Through the Looking Glass of Shit


LOST: Via Domus is the new game for Xbox 360, PS3, and PC based on the ABC TV series. The first thing I will say is that if you’ve never watched LOST, you can take this opportunity to think about what you’ll do with that money you save by not buying or even renting this game. You can also think about what to do for the 3-7 hours you’ll have not playing this game, or the 5 minutes you may have spent reading this. Seriously, move on–this game isn’t for you.

In Via Domus, you take control of a new character, a man suffering amnesia and premature graying who was on Oceanic 815 with the rest of the survivors. Right from the start, we have the most canned plotline in the history of story telling. Luckily, the plot improves as you learn more, but the first twenty minutes or so will most likely turn off anyone who isn’t suffering buyer’s remorse.

The lack of genuine voice actors for many of the characters makes for some unfortunately hilarious lines. Michael exclaiming, “WALT!” while staring lifelessly into the distance with creepy bug eyes is as much unnerving as it is tear-enducing-ly funny. Fortunately, the characters who are most pivotal to the story either have competent stand-ins or are voiced by the real deal. That is, all but John Locke, who sounds like an Indian chief trying to sell used cars (“Brand spankin’ new!”).

Even if you are a diehard LOST fan who engraves cryptic messages in your pencils and backs out of the driveway at a bearing of 325, you’re probably going to take issue at some of the liberties this game takes. It never explicitly contradicts the source material, but when the writers of the show tell us it’s not canonical, the whole experience comes off as a multi-million dollar piece of fan fiction. It’s really too bad, because I have to say I liked most of the story, including the well timed ending that coincided with the episode which aired the same week.

A good story with some entertaining twists is great, but ultimately this is a game. That’s where things go terribly, terribly wrong. Besides a few completely nonsensical fuse-box puzzles reminiscent of the hacking puzzles in last year’s Bioshock, LOST’s gameplay relies on frustrating trial and error. Apparently, the developers felt it would be clever to include several timed 15-20 second sequences where if you don’t take a picture at just the right time it would loop endlessly until you got it. From what bargain bin did this professional photo-journalist get a camera that can’t even auto-focus? The fun continues when you feel around in the dark for bottomless pits or get jumped in the randomly-timed smoke monster insta-kills.

It gets better, though, as I simply must share one of the most absurd logic puzzles of all time. It’s not quite as bad as catching cat hairs to make a moustache, but it’s a good reminder of why the adventure game genre is all but dead. I shall change the names of the characters to avoid spoiling anything.

At one point, two ninjas have kidnapped the president and his daughter and have taken them aboard a pirate ship. As the bad dude, I had to stop them with the pistol I’d fired about three times in the entire game. My first idea was to shoot the ninja immediately in front of me, as any bad dude should always go for the quickest and bloodiest resolution. Unfortunately, the other ninja killed the president’s daughter when I did this. In my second attempt, I shot the other ninja, surprised to find that it resulted in the president getting shot by the first ninja. On my third try, I noted a stick of dynamite on a box and immediately shot it, which stopped the two ninjas but also blew up the daughter. Going against everything in my small bad dude mind, I tried leaving and was immediately stricken with a deadly case of guilt. At last, I concluded that a bad dude would simply absorb the dynamite explosion in his manly chest hairs, knocking out the ninjas but blocking the president’s daughter from harm.

No one would ever, ever think to do that on the first try, and it’s this absurd kind of design that is ultimately LOST‘s downfall. Well, that and the fact that you spend most of a scant five hours running around barren yet beautifully designed set pieces, begging the game to give you something to do. The story is nice, but the actual game, the whole point of programming all of this rather than just airing it as an episode, is horridly flawed. It’s a rental for any LOST fan who was excited about it, and that’s as far as I can recommend it. It seems one thing will never change, and if I ever get Desmond’s time travel sickness, crappy licensed games will be my constant.

Game & Film Opinion by Joe Donato