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Monday, Mar 31, 2008
In this week's edition of Banana Pepper Martinis, L.B. Jeffries takes a look at the use of academia in the discussion of video games.


A growing trend in game criticism is to shoehorn academic disciplines like Marxism or Freudianism into video game analysis. A good example would be the blatant mother figure tones from Cortana in Halo and the fact that Master Chief seems dead set on winning her affections. Another would be going on about the mis-en-scene of Bioshock, which is just a fancy way of saying the game makes you feel claustrophobic. Typical reactions to these kinds of exchanges vary from “It’s a fucking game” to “Dude…seriously, it’s a game.” Which is fair enough, but how exactly are we supposed to talk about video games with people beyond “I luv teh gamez”? There is only one logical conversation after that: the experience itself. This is actually what academia really is when it applies to a game, varying ways to explain and analyze with great depth and magnitude the precise nature of that game’s experience.


This wouldn’t be a proper defense of academia without some game analysis though, so I’m going to take this through a very gentle, easy going run down of Starcraft (after the jump).


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Monday, Mar 31, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-03-31...

Wow.  When the DS only has two releases for the week, you know things are slowing down.


Somehow, March was a tremendous release month, with a whole pile of huge names and little sleepers to keep things lively throughout the month.  April, on the other hand, looks to be one long wait for Grand Theft Auto IV.


Still, that’s not to say (entirely) that there’s nothing of note coming out this week.  Anyone who still hasn’t tried Call of Duty 4 is officially out of excuses.  Look—I know it was a hugely popular game, but I also know that the WWII-Shooter subgenre is utterly uninteresting to a large segment of people.  Generally, I am one of those people.  As such, I don’t know if it’s the removal of the brand from WWII or whether the drama and execution of the game is just that good, but…I had two days with Call of Duty 4 before I sent it out for review, and I swear to you, I could not stop talking about it for a solid week, until I actually picked it up.  It’s an incredible game, even if the genre is not one that you care to dabble in on a regular basis.


Even so, a few new maps does not a Game of the Week make, and thus, I must bestow the honor on Overclocked: A History of Violence for the PC.  A few of us here in PopMatters Multimedia drool like idiots whenever a point-and-click adventure game comes along, and Overclocked is just such an adventure.  Not only that, but it’s an adventure that may actually appeal to the survival horror crowd as well.


Here’s an excerpt from the press release:


...step into the world of Overclocked as former army psychiatrist, David McNamara. You are called to the Staten Island Forensic Hospital in New York City to consult on a case that requires your expertise in forensic psychiatry. Tasked with exploring the minds of five young men and women who were found scared, screaming, and without memory, you make alarming discoveries as you begin to cautiously probe the psyches of your young patients…


Sounds interesting, right?  If the game can pull off the dread and moodiness that the description inspires, it’ll be fantastic.  Of course, that’s a big if. 


Are you looking forward to any of this week’s releases?  Check ‘em out after the jump.



The only Overclocked trailer we could find



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Thursday, Mar 27, 2008
Yesterday, Rockstar Games announced the Rockstar Social Club, which sounds like a good idea despite the fact that there's nothing "social", really, about it.

Shh…did you feel that?  That little tremor, underneath your feet, did you feel it?


That was the hype train, embarking on its latest journey through mass media city, blog village, and all points in between.  Its passenger for the next month will be Grand Theft Auto IV, set to claim the title of most hotly hyped release of 2008 now that the buildup to Super Smash Bros. Brawl has passed us by.  GTA4‘s seat is likely saved until at least mid-May, when it will likely have to step aside for the adventures of Geriatric Snake in Metal Gear Solid 4.


The sparkplug that’s starting the train’s journey to April 29th, then, is the announcement of this:


That’s right, folks, the Rockstar Social Club will be opening on the same day as GTAIV‘s release, complete with all of the seedy connotations and orange neon you can handle. 


Before you start thinking that Rockstar’s games are going to turn into a dark, irreverent version of Second Life, one thing should be clear: There is nothing, at least according to the press release that showed up in my e-mailbox yesterday, “social” about the Rockstar Social Club.  It is an online leaderboard with a fancy name, which requires only a PlayStation Network ID or an Xbox Live Gamertag as admission to enter.  Offer up one or both of those things, and you get to measure yourself against the legion of other Grand Theft Auto junkies out there in a number of different ways.


That said, as far as leaderboards go, the Rockstar Social Club sounds pretty snazzy.  It’ll be keeping track of the race to get to 100%, and the first 10 insomniacs to do so will get an extra-special trinket of some sort that they will undoubtedly be able to Ebay for big bucks.  It’ll have a map keeping track of every recorded crime committed in Liberty City.  The bit that sticks out most, however, is the following:


The Liberty City Marathon—A ranking of special physical milestones achieved in the game - from the amount of miles walked, driven, or swam - to the number of bullets fired and stunt-jumps jumped.  There will be additional special marathon-based competitions in the future from this area as well.


I’m a huge fan of the achievement system, given that achievements can serve as suggestions, prompting ways to play games that one might never have tried had Gamerscore points not been attached, thus extending the life of a game beyond its immediate goals.  Still, there’s something more than a little humorous about the idea of keeping track of, say, who swam the most in a game called Grand Theft Auto.  You just know that there are going to be a few poor souls whose ultimate goal is to top the distance-swam leaderboard, and watching that race as it happens is going to be a little bit hilarious in a sad sort of way.  Still, kudos to Rockstar for finding ways, more than a month before the game is even released, to extend the play experience of a game destined to eat hundreds of hours of our time anyway. 


The full press release is after the jump, and the latest trailer is sitting below.  Looking forward to GTAIV?  Couldn’t care less?  Let us know in the comments, and enjoy your weekend.



Grand Theft Auto IV Trailer: “Good Lord, What Are You Doing?”



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Thursday, Mar 27, 2008
In this edition of Checkpoints, we blast off with Rocketmen: Axis of Evil.

Right around the time that Mutant Storm Empire hit, I thought that maybe, just maybe, I need to separate myself from the whole top-down 360-degree shooter thing.  I mean, there is not a game in this genre that I haven’t enjoyed, to some extent.  Smash TV was and is a hoot, Geometry Wars is one of the most addicting, infuriating games ever made, Undertow does neat strategic sorts of things with the genre, and Mutant Storm Empire, well…it didn’t do anything new, really, except offer an insanely high level of difficulty for those who fancied themselves skilled enough to take it on.  And yet, I loved it.  Honestly, other than Guitar Hero III, there’s not a single game I played more in the last few months of last year.  This, of course, probably means I have a problem.


As such, going into a new game in the whole “use one analog stick to move, use the other one to shoot” shoot ‘em up genre was filled with a sort of trepidation.  Is Rocketmen: Axis of Evil, Capcom’s latest Xbox Live Arcade offering, going to be another timesink the way that Mutant Storm Empire was?  Am I going to find myself addicted again?  Am I ever going to be able to look at a game in this genre with a subjective eye?


Interestingly, the answer to all three turned out to be “yes”.


Rocketmen does a lot of things right, and the core gameplay elements that make other games in the genre so appealing are all present.  It’s one little dude (or dudette—you get to control a highly customizable character, which is a nice little touch) against a whole bunch of bad dudes (and conspicuously few dudettes), armed with only a pathetic little pistol to start.  As needs to be the case with a game in this genre, there are copious power-ups spread throughout each level, as our hero can pick up all manner of guns, missiles, proximity bombs, and whatnot in the interest of clearing his way through wave after wave of enemies.  The environments are colorful and varied (if occasionally confusing, what with the number of see-through floors that there seem to be in space), and the play is hectic but never all that overwhelming.  In addition to blowing away the baddies, there are other missions to be undertaken as well, most of which involve running up to trigger points and, as the game so humorously puts it, “pounding on the ‘A’ button”.  It’s all pretty basic, but any member of this genre almost needs to be.


Still, there are problems that exist in Rocketmen that simply don’t exist in other games of the genre.  Namely, it feels really odd for a game like this to be on pseudo-rails.  The camera sort of scrolls where it wants, and while you have to walk into certain places to convince it that, yes, now would be a good time to continue the process of scrolling, it’s not always clear when or where you can do this.  Worse, you sometimes have to run right up to the edge of the screen to convince the game to let you proceed, and when the camera then starts moving, enemies are waiting just past that forced horizon waiting to shoot you into oblivion.  So not fair!  Most egregious of all is the fact that the secondary goals are impossible to revisit once you’ve passed the point in the level where they occur; you’ll just have to start over to achieve them.  When you’re talking about levels that last longer than a half an hour, this becomes annoying very, very quickly.


There are other issues with Rocketmen: Axis of Evil as well; for one, the cutscene art style is just…odd.  Static three-dimensional hand-drawn-looking people converse with one another through speech bubbles and voiceovers; a little more animation in these cutscenes would have been appreciated; even if there wasn’t room for such animation given Xbox Live Arcade’s restrictions on the size of the game, the art style could have been changed to make it look a little more comic book-like (see Joe, Viewtiful) and less awkward.  The leveling-up process takes an awfully long time as well, and I have to admit, genre constraint or not, I am getting tired of blowing up random boxes and barrels for money/experience/titanium.


Still, the multiplayer portion of the game is addicting and hilariously hectic when four people get involved, and the single player certainly isn’t bad enough to keep someone like me from coming back.  If you think that overhead shmups are the bees’ knees, then you’ll do just fine with a $10 download of Rocketmen.  If you’ve been thinking since the first paragraph that I’m just this side of nuts, well, Rocketmen isn’t going to help my case with you.  It really is for diehard fans of the genre, but those fans will likely have a blast.


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Wednesday, Mar 26, 2008
As gamers get older, more and more emphasis is being placed on revisiting the past. ROM CHECK FAIL is a freeware PC release that may just snuff your urge to do so for a long time.

As gamers get older, their focus changes.  Gaming becomes a little bit less about competition, about winning at all costs, and a little bit more about the joy of being able to play at all.  Gaming is one of the few things that we can bring with us from childhood that happens to be a little bit socially acceptable—heck, Guitar Hero and Rock Band are becoming staples of the bar scene, cutting into karaoke nights everywhere, and the recent popularity of casual and multiplayer gaming is upping the emphasis of the social aspects of gaming.


As a part of that set, I’m all for the recent rash of retro-gaming that has graced the console and portable set of late.  Arcade ports?  For it.  Atari 2600 remakes?  I’m cool with that.  Sega Genesis compilations?  Yep.  The Wii Virtual Console?  I’m addicted.  As much as we love finding new ways to be drawn into our televisions with controllers in our palms, it’s almost as exciting to be reminded of what made gaming an interest/hobby in the first place.


After playing ROM CHECK FAIL, the latest offering from the up-and-coming indie developer known only as Farbs, I may not need to be reminded for a while.


The experience that comes most readily to mind when playing ROM CHECK FAIL is that of A Clockwork Orange, specifically the scene in which he is sitting with those metal things prying his eyes open, as he watches violent scene after violent scene, supposedly on his way to being cured of an addiction to violence.  ROM CHECK FAIL is like that, except that instead of violence, we get retro hit after retro hit, and instead of being forced to stare, we simply cannot turn away.


If you played video games at all in the ‘80s, there’s a good chance that on some level, conscious or unconscious, you will recognize every single thing in this game.  What makes it interesting is that you have never seen the juxtapositions of those things the way that they’re presented here.  By pulling sprites and tiles from the classic games we recognize, we are presented with something familiar but not; say, we could have Mario jumping on the ghosts of Gauntlet.  Pac-Man could be chomping on space invaders after turning them into blue ghosts with a power pellet, and he could be doing it in a level straight out of Bomberman.


No matter which control scheme you start with, however, don’t get used to it.  It’ll change in a matter of seconds.  This is what makes ROM CHECK FAIL so disorienting—every character you remember is saddled with all of the advantages and limitations you remember, but once you get used to the scheme behind whatever character you’re playing as, you need to adjust to a new one.  No sooner are you used to driving as the Spy Hunter car and shooting straight up than you turn into Mario, fall to whatever platform is directly underneath you, and accidentally jump into whatever it was you were shooting at.  It’s maddening, in the best possible way.


It’s so worth it once you get to the end, though.


Pictures cannot do this game justice.  The YouTube vid below is not even close to an accurate depiction of the maniacal action that the game offers.  You really have to play it.  It’s free, and it’s fun as hell, if not all that hard once you get the hang of it.  Give it a go, and you might not need to scratch that retro itch again for a long, long time.


Thanks go out to the IndieGames.com Blog for this one.


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