Archive for the ‘Video Games’ Category.

Hearthstone Arachnid Debrief (crawling with spoilers!)

This review was originally intended for the IHEARTHU.com website. After making some suggested refinements and being assured that the article would be published, I watched the days tick by until the release of the second Naxxramas wing made this review old news. Disappointed to not see it published, I can at least post it here in my blog for consumption by the Intertron.

Manflesh: It's what's for dinner

Does anything ever live up to the hype? Well, now that I think about it, I suppose the Lord of the Rings trilogy accomplished that feat.

Spoiler alert: Peter Jackson and an army of 10,000 CGI Uruk-hai do not await you in the Arachnid Quarter.

I will start positively by saying that this first wing of Naxxramas, like the rest of Hearthstone, has a gorgeous media presentation. [please pause here and wait 10 seconds before reading the next sentence]. I love the new board, the new sound effects, the voice acting, the card art – all of that lives up to the Blizzard standard. [again, please stop reading and stare into space for 10 seconds before moving to the next sentence]. The new cards look like a lot of fun and I think there is great potential to disrupt the current Ranked meta. [one one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand…]

Oh, and there was some lag.

Solo Adventures

While the influx of new cards was sorely needed, my excitement about Hearthstone’s first “solo adventure” stemmed from the new single player mode. Blizzard had stoked my appetite for months with previews and teaser content, leaving me ravenous to dig into the first of the Naxxramas wings. Wings in mind, I carried a plate of them dripping with teriyaki and honey mustard to my desk on the evening of the release. And with my left hand covered in dipping sauce, and my pristine right hand firmly on my trackball, I began to feed.

Normal Mode

In Normal mode you can use any deck to defeat the three enemy heroes offered up in the Arachnid Quarter. This mode shines not because of the gameplay, but because you are transfixed by the sheen of newly minted content. I was so busy clicking around the new board, listening to the enemy emotes, and analyzing the new cards that I blew through Normal mode without much thought to the actual duel. Given how Hearthstone tries to be accessible to everyone, I suppose it makes sense for these enemies to be pushovers. Most Rank 20 decks should plow through the Normal opponents with little difficulty. For the hardcore player, I would recommend turning off your competitive drive and just soaking in the new material.

Class Challenge Mode

The Class Challenge mode was what I had anticipated the most. Here was where I hoped to be solving an innovative series Hearthstone puzzles. Instead I was assigned a hero with a pretty solid pre-built deck, and given the task of dominating a lackluster AI enemy. Clearly these pre-built decks had been designed to give you big combos, but you won’t need them against these sorry opponents.

This was disappointing because a challenge mode has such great potential. For example, the pre-built deck concept could have been made more interesting by giving you incrementally weaker decks. Maybe after the first win, Kel’Thuzad pops up and replaces your Stampeding Kodos with Haunted Creepers. “Can you still win after you’ve been NERFED, mortal?

A checkmate-in-X-moves mode would also have made an interesting challenge. You’re given a starting board scenario, certain cards in your hand, certain draws over the next few turns, and told you have to kill the enemy hero in X turns. But as it was, this mode is rather vanilla and not really much of a “challenge”.

Heroic Mode

Heroic Bosses are extremely difficult

After reading the dire warnings about high degrees of difficulty, I steeled myself for what I assumed would be the Herculean trial of Heroic mode. And here I made a mistake. I analyzed the enemy’s OP hero power, and then quickly matched up the netdeck that would nullify that power. You can summon 4/4’s for 2 mana? Handlock beat Anub’Rekhan on the first try. You can punish me for having cards in my hand? Zoolock rushed the Grand Widow Faerlina down in two tries. You can Sap two minions for free every turn? I ran out of dust when trying to craft the Freeze Mage that would have undoubtedly owned Maexxna. And that was when I realized my mistake:

Netdecking these Heroics just isn’t much fun.

I had a great time customizing a Paladin deck to beat Maexxna, though it only took me two tries. For replay value maybe I’ll go back and make custom decks for the first two enemies as well. If you are a more serious Hearthstone player who wants to enjoy Heroic, I strongly advise shelving the netdecks.

Aside from netdecks being able to crush these Heroics, I was also disappointed in the AI. Maexxna blindly used its hero power every turn, sending my Novice Engineer back to my hand for infinite card draw. Artificial Intelligence is a difficult computing problem, but it speaks to a very weak implementation that can’t figure out that killing the Novice Engineer is better value than returning it to my hand.

Defeating all three Heroics ends unceremoniously with… nothing. You need to do some research to learn that after you defeat all Heroics over the entire course of Naxxramas, then you will receive a card back. That dubious reward plus 150 gold will buy you an Arena run.

Your reward: Jar Jar Binks

Despite my gripes, I enjoyed Heathstone’s new adventure and will certainly have no qualms about spending imaginary gold on the other wings. In terms of meeting the hype, think more along the lines of the Star Wars prequels rather than LOTR. The presentation is great, it’s a fun time, and as an added benefit you don’t have to contend with midi-chlorians or Jar Jar Binks.

Valkyria Chronicles vs Eurogamer

After being amazed by Valkyria Chronicles on the PS3, I was surprised to read this somewhat critical review on Eurogamer. The review starts out promisingly, but ends with a list of grievances about the combat system. Having loved the game so much, I’d like to examine them:

The AI is far from stellar…

The Valkyria Chronicles I played is not about outsmarting the AI, it’s about finding a way to get an “A” score on each mission. Certainly, the AI is a piece of garbage. It’s horrible. But forget the AI – the real challenge in this game is to find a way through the enemy’s larger numbers and stalwart defenses in the fewest number of turns possible.

If you want the game to be about defeating the computer in tactical combat, then yes, you will be very disappointed. The computer isn’t going to defeat anyone despite it’s massive advantages in equipment and personnel. And yes, I was initially disappointed by this. But once you realize that each mission is more of a puzzle, not a battle, you begin to really enjoy yourself.

With absolutely no multiplayer options, experienced strategists will be less than satisfied.

Admittedly, I am disappointed by the lack of multiplayer. A human opponent would certainly give this game an exciting new flavor.

Having an enemy break through your lines because your line of defence was too busy shooting a wall as they ran past is frustratingly common.

In my experience this was certainly not “frustratingly common”. As long as they were facing the right way, my soldiers generally did a decent job with their opportunity attacks while on defense.

And then there’s the strangely inconsistent damage model, with splash damage from explosions proving particularly flaky. Sometimes this works in your favour – magically shielding one of your soldiers from harm – but it’s incredibly annoying to waste both Action and Command Points on a grenade attack that seems to have no effect.

The author might be missing the fact that some enemies with high/enhanced evasion will hit the deck when a grenade explodes. It’s kind of subtle, but you can see them do it sometimes. This might account for the inconsistencies that the reviewer is seeing – I’ve assumed he already took into account that units behind cover have more protection, and Lancers are particularly immune to explosions.

The game often seems too rigidly tied to its rock-paper-scissors attack formula, since a tank shell needs to hit a soldier dead centre to cause any damage purely because it’s meant for other tanks, yet a mortar shell landing in the exact same place can kill several soldiers at once.

This is where I start to see another fundamental difference in the way the author and I view Valkyria Chronicles. To me this game feels like a close translation of a tabletop game with a GURPS-like rule set. The rules are rigidly defined and that can lead to situations that don’t reflect reality.

For example, why can I walk up to an enemy lying in the grass, stop one inch away, empty a machine gun clip into his face, and find that I’ve barely knocked off 1/5 of his life? Well, because whatever defensive bonus he gets from being in the grass happens to outweigh whatever accuracy bonus I get from being right in his face.

In the end, Valkyria Chronicles is more more like a tabletop RPG than a gritty, true-to-life, WWII sim.

Why can’t you duck behind a stone bench, for example? Or that pile of crates? Or that low wall? Or all the other environmental details littering the otherwise well designed levels?

I understand this complaint, but allowing you to duck behind every object in the game would result in all units being in a defensive “crouching” or “crawling” state the entire time. Allowing that defensive boost only in certain contexts creates a more textured experience.

… only the scout class has any real movement range…

The scout and the engineer both have solid movement range. If the other classes had that kind of range, then the game would go out of balance.

This shortlist of fairly fundamental flaws is sadly just enough to prevent the game from reaching the upper echelons of greatness.

Well, either that or one of the best console games I’ve played in a long time. Granted, the story, music, and visuals added a lot for me. I’ll go ahead and give this one 8.5/10.

Tales of Monkey Island: Launch of the Screaming Narwhal

I was very excited when I learned that the Curse of Monkey Island franchise had been given new life by Tellgame Games in the form of the episodic Tales of Monkey Island. My excitement grew when I learned that I could download the first chapter, “Launch of the Screaming Narwhal”, on the Wii for $10 dollars. Then I actually played the game and my excitement stumbled to the erratic rhythm of the game’s poor performance.

I really thought that the Wii would be a perfect fit for Monkey Island‘s vibrant graphics and slow puzzle/adventure pacing. But the game is somewhat choppy with load times that, while not outlandish, seem a little excessive given the content they’re serving up. If you run across the screen, the seams really begin to split open as the video shifts violently and the audio hiccups and repeats. While not a console powerhouse like the PS3 or XBox, the Wii does run Super Mario Galaxy just fine… I would think it should be able to handle the relatively pedestrian needs of Launch of the Screaming Narwhal. My best guess is that the game just isn’t optimized for the Wii; perhaps they wrote the PC version, then used some sort of generic porting utility to get it running on the Wii.

Performance aside, the look and feel of a Monkey Island game is duplicated quite well. The music, characters, Caribbean backdrops, entertaining puzzles, and amusing dialogue are all present – even Dominic Armato is back to voice Guybrush Threepwood, Mighty PirateTM. And yes, annoyingly the TM symbol appears in the dialogue subtitles. The game’s sense of humor wasn’t as good as I remember it, but perhaps I’m just viewing the past with rose-tinted glasses. Though certainly, Launch of the Screaming Narwhal is clever, funny, and includes a few “LOL” moments. Graphically… well, when your non-techie girlfriend says, “These graphics suck, can we play Fallout?”, you know they aren’t exactly brilliant. I thought they were fine, but I did expect them to be a little higher-res.

Quite a lot of complaining for a game that’s only $10, huh? There was enough content there to last me somewhere around 6-10 hours, so the price is well worth it. I definitely intend to purchase the next chapter, and am hoping to see some performance enhancements on the Wii, though I’m not holding my breath for that. Overall, I found Launch of the Screaming Narwhal to be relaxing, lighthearted, and fun – just want you want from the Monkey Island franchise.

BioShock

BioShock is an astounding addition to the top tier single-player FPS’s that I have played (Metroid Prime and Resident Evil 4 come to mind). This post will not contain any spoilers because the story is something that you really need to experience for yourself. Set in a dark Ayn Randian hellscape in a decaying underwater habitat called “Rapture”, BioShock has arguably the eeriest, scariest atmosphere in any video game to date.

And that horrific atmosphere is the reason why I’m glad that I finally beat the game (with the “good” ending). I have always found video gaming to be an immersive experience, and this is especially so when dealing with a high quality of realism and art. The downside is that wandering through a bloody nightmare with twisted creatures jumping out at me isn’t exactly relaxing. Near the beginning of the game, you’re plunged right into the surgery center – I think you can guess what sort of horrors awaited me there. I initially thought that BioShock might be a little too gruesome a pursuit for me.

But like Resident Evil 4, the quality was just so good that I eventually had to pick up the controller and keep going. In the early goings, the enemies were raking me over the coals, but the tables soon turned, especially when I realized that you can effectively pause the game when switching between your weapons or your plasmids (read: magic). As the game progressed, I found myself frustratingly full of ammo and money – no survival horror going on here. My OCD juices began taking over as I carefully scoured and explored each map, hacking every machine, collecting every item, and hunting high and low to leave nothing behind. On the plus side, such behavior lets me see all the details, graphics, and artwork that the BioShock team put together.

Often when I do my “pack rat” routine with video games I wind up being ridiculously over equipped, and this was no exception. I took a cue from some of the tips on the loading screens and started to use my arsenal a little more, but I didn’t have nearly the amount of fun I should have. One of the tips wanted you to toss a proximity mine on the ceiling, then use a cyclone trap to send an enemy skyward into the mine. I guess I was too focused on efficiently killing the enemies to start thinking about setting up contrived death scenes. Though I did enjoy freezing them and then using a shotgun blast to shatter their frozen forms.

One thing I was a little surprised about was that the game would get laggy every now and then. Obviously the PS3 was having some difficulty in keeping up with the action at certain points. The worst was a moment when I was tracking a spider splicer on the ceiling – a security bot I’d hacked was attacking it, and I was blasting the splicer with my shotgun. The game floundered to like, one frame per second, before the splicer finally fell dead to the floor and the regular pacing resumed.

In the end, I was tremendously impressed with this vision of an Ayn Rand society gone bad. The political philosophies of Rapture, the 1950s style ads and decor, the creativity behind constructing this crumbling city beneath the ocean, the voice talent and dialog, the excellent plot complete with genuine surprises… BioShock is quite a production. Take the best and the brightest, and allow them to build a society without restrictions of government and societal convention. Atlas Shrugged, indeed. 9/10.

Online play in Tiger Woods 10: a miserable failure

I picked up two copies of Tiger Woods PGA Tour 10 for the Wii as a Father’s Day gift. The idea was that I could spend some quality online time with Dad by playing a round of golf every now and then. To start with, I dropped by the parents’ house and we played a few rounds in their living room. It was a blast. A little smack talk, admiring the courses, exploring the game mechanics, playing the front nine at Pebble Beach – we had a great time.

Setting our phones on speaker, I figured we could have a similar atmosphere remotely, watching the action online from our respective 50″ plasmas. We started a “Simultaneous Play” game, only to quit in disgust after about two minutes. Desperate for a decent round of golf, I hopped in the car and made the 20-minute burn over to the parents’ place.

Here is what the manual says about simultaneous play:

Play with 2-4 players in a Stroke Play match without having to wait for the other golfers to shoot before hitting your shot. The all-new Simultaneous Play lets you play quickly, as if you were playing by yourself, while each opponent’s shot is indicated with a real-time, uniquely colored shot arc.

If the game is like “playing by yourself”, then what the hell is the point of playing online!? As if that weren’t bad enough, the game throws a 30-second timer on the screen at the start of every shot. Instead of the leisurely, interactive experience I was hoping for, EA Sports has given me a goddamn assembly line. I am not alone in these complaints.

Perhaps when considering this game I should have put more research into how the online component was implemented. From a technical standpoint, I can understand why they chose to go this route; network traffic is probably nil when the only information you’re sending back and forth is a single shot arc every 30 seconds. And you’ll definitely close those network connections in a timely manner when the shot clock is pushing you along. EA seems to have chosen the laziest possible way to create online play – barely one step ahead of playing chess by email.

In the end, EA Sports has produced an online experience that completely eliminates the fun of playing with a live opponent. I thought that perhaps the “10” in the title indicated a level of maturity that would include every feature you could possibly want. While the game itself is awesome, it looks like I’ll have to wait to see if version 11 will provide actual online play.

Nintendo DS roundup II

Continuing from my first roundup, here is another batch of DS game reviews ordered from best to worst:

Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords

How does a Bejeweled clone (albeit with a few extra mechanics) keep me interested for scores of hours?

The answer is: By setting it within a rich RPG backdrop.

Although the core puzzle game and its variations did not have me jumping for joy, the RPG aspect kept me riveted. In a traditional turn-based RPG, each battle is sort of like a puzzle anyway – Puzzle Quest simply replaces the combat with Bejeweled. The ability to damage your opponent and cast spells while playing the puzzle certainly doesn’t hurt. This is certainly one of the finest that the DS has to offer.

Chrono Trigger

Ahhh, at last… this is the RPG I’ve been waiting for on the DS. I didn’t play Chrono Trigger when it originally came out on the SNES so this port was more than welcome. Having loved Chrono Cross on the PS1, I was not disappointed by its predecessor.

I did take an odd path through the game… I wound up boarding the “Black Omen” when it first appeared. For awhile I was hacking through really tough encounters, leveling on almost every battle. I finally had the opportunity to warp off the ship and wound up exploring a lot more of the game. However, the Black Omen battles built my party up to the point where there was little challenge in anything else I faced.

The time travel concept in this game is really cool, and Chrono Trigger is full of interesting characters and fanciful places. I’m not a huge fan of “semi-realtime” combat systems, but I did enjoy hacking my through the game’s many battles. I’m not going to hold my breath for another RPG of this caliber on the DS…

Puzzle Quest: Galactrix

Despite one of the best multimedia presentations I’ve seen on the DS, despite a quality story and RPG component, and despite a wealth of additional gameplay elements compared with the first Puzzle Quest, I really didn’t enjoy this game.

I wish that they would replace the whole “puzzle” mechanic with something closer to traditional RPG battles. Perhaps when it comes down to it, I just didn’t like playing their hexagonal puzzle game.

The other problem was performance. The game is constantly loading and saving, each operation taking agonizing seconds. It was hard to get into a groove with these interruptions. Along a similar vein, the puzzle itself hangs up a little bit following each special action. You click to bolster your shields or something, see your shield points increase, click on a hex to make a move, and nothing happens. You have a pause a beat or two for the game to perform some internal upkeep, and then you are allowed to move.

Galactrix presents itself in such an appealing way… I just wish it were as fun to play as it looks and sounds.

Mario & Luigi Partners in Time

Maybe I’ve spent too much time in the Paper Mario genre because I found this game to be kind of ho-hum. Controlling two characters simultaneously and solving puzzles by switching back and forth between the old and young incarnations of the plumbing heroes was interesting, but kind of gimmicky. In the end there just wasn’t enough to keep me coming back for more.

Lock’s Quest

What an annoying, disappointing game this is. A couple of years ago I spent a few weeks addicted to the Desktop Tower Defense flash game and later played a couple of amusing sessions of Defend Your Castle for the Wii. So when I read about Lock’s Quest I figured that I was looking at a slam dunk. After all, how could you go wrong with what is basically an RPG tower defense game?

Well, here’s how you butcher it:

  • Allow only 2-3 minutes to set up your defenses, with no ability to enhance or modify them once the enemies start pouring in
  • Throw in an obnoxious maintenance aspect that has you running back and forth repairing your walls and turrets with tedious “wax-on” motions on the touch screen
  • Break the tower defense model by adding “traps”. I wound up putting up minimal walls/turrets and just layering the ground with as many poison traps as I could – much more effective than building additional structures
  • Include poor character development and a mostly uninteresting storyline

Lock’s Quest had just introduced flying units (which proved to be of little threat) before I decided to give up on this game. I was intrigued to see that there was a multiplayer mode, but the lack of co-op makes me less inclined to try it out. I know I’m being hard on this game… it does have beautiful graphics and a nice interface. Most gaming sites probably give this one an 8, but that’s just not good enough.

Final Fantasy IV

I figured that Final Fantasy would provide me with wholesome RPG goodness, but I found myself slogging through this one. I don’t have much to say about this… I gave it a few hours and didn’t find anything that held my interest.

Anno 1701

This Sim City-style game didn’t do much more for me. Perhaps I’m not a fan of the genre. Also, it looks like crap on the DS.

On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode One

After getting the game running on 64-bit Linux, I plowed through the first episode of On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness in about 6-8 hours of play. One could probably beat the game much faster than that, but obviously you are supposed to stop and smell the roses. The game is full of Penny Arcade humor and I found myself clicking everywhere I could to absorb all the tasty content.

If I had to describe the game, I would say that it’s like a Penny Arcade-themed episode of Curse of Monkey Island with a somewhat real-time RPG combat system. The constant jokes, the satirical drama, the quality voice acting, the rich cartoon backdrops, and the atmospheric music – all reminded me deeply of the Curse of Monkey Island series. This is fine of course, and it would be hard to think of a better format for a PA game.

I described the combat system as having a “somewhat real-time RPG” style. You could think of it as a compromise between FFX and FFXII. The combatants are lined up like a classic RPG, but the clock is ticking and you have to make decisions in real-time. Additionally, there is a Paper Mario aspect where you can time a spacebar press to block/counterattack your enemies, as well as do extra damage on the special attacks. This made for some hectic battles as you hastily try to give orders to your party while keeping an eye out for enemy onslaughts.

In some ways I wish they had gone with traditional RPG combat, but I don’t think their system was deep enough to make such a thing engaging. As it was, the combat was fun and contained numerous satirical aspects that I found amusing (when I actually had time to read them). Some of the battles were actually challenging, though the game is quite forgiving of mistakes. Death of the party didn’t seem to incur any penalty, you are automatically healed after each battle, and enemies do not respawn.

On the subject of forgiving nature, Precipice of Darkness is nice to you in other ways. Traveling through the different areas is very quick and there are easy shortcuts so that you almost never have to hoof it very far to your destination. Items are found in various containers that do respawn and it’s easy to fill out your inventory. Though I must say that mindlessly smashing stuff to get items did get repetitive after awhile.

Continuing along the complaint vein, the game’s path-finding logic seemed a little bit off. The character would tend to get stuck behind things and you’d have to sort of guide them around sometimes. The minigames in the Pelican Bay area were… well, a real piece of crap, actually. The names of the games were hilarious, but the implementation of them was pretty shoddy – especially the ski ball game. Another issue in Pelican Bay was that all of sudden you were facing pretty strong opponents. I had a stretch when I was leveling up after almost every battle – seemed like there should have been one more stage in between.

In the end, the game is well worth the $20 for a Penny Arcade fan. References to comic strips abound, the off-color, irreverent humor is there in abundance, and Tycho’s rich writing and imagination leave a very distinctive mark. The game had me laughing out loud numerous times and I’ll definitely be purchasing the next episode.

Oh, and the final boss has an attack called “Music of the Spheres”. A deep bow to the architect of this Johannes Kepler (or Hyperion Cantos) reference.

Precipice of Darkness and 64-bit Ubuntu 8.04

I was very excited to see that Penny Arcade‘s new game, On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness (Episode One), was available for Linux. My excitement blossomed further when I found that the game came with an innovative mini-game. The mini-game is called: Get This Working Under a 64-bit OS. I never get tired of this game, and have enjoyed playing it with Adobe’s Flash and the Opera web browser.

Apparently I had most of the necessary packages already installed (I think you need ia32-libs and lib32asound2). The game was actually starting up, but immediately flashed a message about not being able to find a sound driver. Googling around, the solution appeared to be use package alsa-oss. Apparently the game uses the Open Sound System (OSS) instead of ALSA; thus you need to use the aoss command which performs an OSS -> ALSA translation.

The problem then becomes that alsa-oss gives you 64-bit libraries on your 64-bit system. The solution is to use a 32-bit alsa-oss which you can find in this thread. I was a little hesitant to download and install a package from a URL containing the text “deletebox”, but it appears to be provided by an upstanding user. Here is a direct link. Once I had installed that, I can run the game just fine with:

aoss ./RainSlickEp1

One of my cores is completely pegged even with the game on pause, but so far Precipice of Darkness has performed great. Hopefully the next episode will have a 64-bit version…

From Guitar Hero to Rock Band

After manning the Rock Band guitar for a few sessions, I’m much closer to my Guitar Hero III comfort level. Overall the transition from a GH3 Wii guitar to an XBox360 Rock Band guitar isn’t too bad, but there are some differences.

Rock Band guitar is “splashy”

While the GH3 controller has a lot of tactile (and audible) feedback through the clicky buttons and strum bar, the Rock Band “axe” is much less chatty. The first time I picked up a Rock Band guitar it felt like I was trying to play on a blanket or something; you press on the thing and wonder if it had any effect. And if your part doesn’t stand out in the music, then you have to pay close attention to the explosion animation of the notes, especially if you have people singing and slamming on the drums around you.

Rock Band guitar meta-buttons are poorly situated

On my GH3 controller I never go to town on the whammy bar and find that I’ve accidentally paused the game or activated star power; on Rock Band I’ve done both… several times.

Rock Band hammer-ons and pull-offs need more distinction

In GH3, the hammer-ons and pull-offs and very clearly marked by “glowing” notes; Rock Band denotes them by displaying hammer-ons and pull-offs at about half the size of regular notes. Maybe this would be fine if my friend were a good consumer and had a nice 50″ plasma to go with his Rock Band rig. As it is, a 27″ CRT with voice, drums, and guitar crammed on there makes things hard to see.

Rock Band is easier

I won’t go as far as to say that Rock Band’s Hard difficulty level to equivalent to GH3’s Medium, but I’d listen to the argument. The Rock Band difficulty scale is definitely easier than GH3’s. On GH3 I am about a 3 or 4 star Hard player, though I’ve been failing out of the later songs (the “galloping triplets” on that Muse song keep defeating me). In Rock Band I can hit 4 or 5 stars on Hard for almost every song. As my friend says, this makes sense because Rock Band is not a guitar-focused game.

Rock Band does not hide star phrases

I recall running through an Easy or Medium GH3 song, hitting every note, and being confused at seeing that I had not hit every star phrase. The problem is that if you are in star power mode, then GH3 converts all star phrases to regular notes. I’m not sure what the rationale is for this; maybe this would result in situations where you’d be able to stay in star power mode for the entire song? Rock Band does not have this restriction from what I can tell. If memory serves, hitting an SP while in star power mode will simply increase the power you have remaining; I like this better than GH3.

Conclusion

Overall, GH3 is superior to Rock Band in terms of pure guitar game play – makes sense what with the Guitar Hero and all. However, the party atmosphere that Rock Band promotes defines a whole new level of social gaming. As Rock Band improves, I’m not sure that GH will be able to compete. Why buy a guitar simulation game when you can buy an entire band simulation game that includes the guitar aspect? Watching these franchises over the next few years will be interesting.

Nintendo DS roundup

The DS Lite is an impressive bit of engineering and I love playing games on its glowing dual screens. My only complaint is that I have encountered few games that I would describe as captivating. Of course, I might have the same gripe about any platform. Anyway, here is a quick list of the games I have played to date, ordered from best to worst:

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

Part manga and part lawyer/detective sim, the Phoenix Wright series is perfect for the Dual Screen. The dialog and story lines are driving forces in this game, displaying an exuberant, mostly humorous, creativity. The game engine itself is simplistic, yet expressive. I have to give it the top spot here because each game delivers such a large volume of entertaining, wonderfully translated content.

Professor Layton and the Curious Village

Following something of a 7th Guest format, this game gives you an incredible atmosphere as context for solving puzzles. These aren’t King’s Quest (if you’ll forgive another old school reference) adventure puzzles, but rather classical mind games – algebra problems, 3D visualization, pushing tiles around, dividing volumes of water using different-sized measuring cups, chess puzzles, matchstick problems, and so on. The stylus and touchscreen are a great vehicle for serving up these puzzles, though it’s the creative multimedia backdrop of Professor Layton that keeps you fighting through the more frustrating problems. The music, voice acting, extraordinary artwork, and video clips are all of such a high quality that you can’t help becoming immersed in this excellent DS game.

Advance Wars: Dual Strike

Sweeping the goofy and annoying characters into the gutter, this is a pretty solid execution of turn-based strategy. I enjoyed the Advance Wars franchise on the GBA, and was impressed with its showing on the DS. Dual Strike has a great interface, solid game balance, engaging scenarios, and intriguing “extras”. By extras I mean all the features that extend the standard turn-based combat experience, e.g. the generals, having different abilities and modifiers, that you select from a pool to helm your armies during each mission. This is definitely one of the play-worthy games for the DS.

Tony Hawk’s Downhill Jam

This game surprised me by providing a genuine, TH:PS experience. The tricks, gaps, secrets, etc are all there, and the DS apparently has the horsepower to let you flip, roll, and grind at high speed through fairly detailed levels. The “Downhill” aspect is decent, though I think I would have preferred something more like the original game.

Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings

Ahhhhh… turn-based strategy. I played the hell out of this game, not because it was particularly good, but because I’ve always been a junkie for this genre. The dual screen and stylus are used to provide a convenient, pleasant interface, but the game itself is nothing special. They just took the AoE RTS and made it turn-based; Age of Kings doesn’t bring anything new to the table, but provides that addictive RTS feel, one turn at a time.

Kirby: Canvas Curse

This is a slick-looking, innovative game that lost my interest in the first few minutes. The use of the stylus to draw rainbow bridges and control Kirby yields a rich interaction, but I wasn’t interested for some reason – partly because I’m not a big Kirby fan, and partly because I wasn’t interested in getting the OCD juices flowing in a game which was obviously chock full of things to collect and secrets to find.

Super Mario 64 DS

I gave Mario 64 a shot on the DS, trying to recapture the wonder the game elicited on the Nintendo 64. Unfortunately, you can never go back. The game appeared to execute well, and I noticed that some new content/features had been added; however I found that the DS was just too small for me comfortably navigate a complex 3D environment.

Magical Starsign

I keep thinking that the DS would make a great platform for a classical RPG, but even the inflated reviews of gaming sites have not produced a standout in the genre. Magical Starsign had some okay reviews (meaning scores in the 8s) so I decided to give it a shot. After a couple of hours, I realized I was dealing with awful characters, a miserable plot, and what seemed to be a decent combat system. The most enjoyment I got from this game was naming the brash, fire-element guy “douche”.

Trauma Center: Under the Knife

I quickly lost interest in this glorified game of Operation. Using the stylus to select various surgical implements, you then circle, rub, zigzag, etc over various parts of a surgery target. Sure, there’s a whole storyline and some sort of disease menace that has you playing whack-a-mole during surgery, but this game really didn’t do much for me.