Friday, October 24, 2008

Demo impression: Valkyria Chronicles

While most of us expected nothing big over at the PlayStation Store this weekend, Sega has released the demo for its relatively low-profile PS3 exclusive Valkyria Chronicles which debuted in Japan earlier this year. Don't let the marketing crickets fool you: this game is looking to be one of its home platform's best releases of the holidays if the rest of the game is as good as the demo suggests.

If you haven't checked the demo section of the PlayStation Store in the past 24 hours, make a dash for your console now and download the demo because this one just might be the biggest sleeper hit of the season.

Tactical RPGs have never really been the biggest draw In the console market. For all the critical acclaim that IPs such as Final Fantasy Tactics, Disgaea, and Fire Emblem have garnered, the genre is a niche at best and has thrived better on handhelds where they seem to have racked up more sales. Ergo, big props go to Sega for risking sales figures for the sake of quality with a TRPG on the PS3 and coming out with something that seeks to resucitate the genre in the big hardware field.

The first thing you'll notice with Valkyria Chronicles is how different its graphics look from everything else today. Sega's implementation of its proprietary CANVAS graphics technology has resulted in what could be considered a step forward from cel-shading. The cut scenes and the in-game graphics look like they're straight out of a well-drawn anime when they're still, but once they start to move you'll notice that the motion happens in true 3D fashion. You'll have to see it to really understand how cool this innovation by Sega is. For your convenience, here are some screenshots.

You can start the demo either by going through a brief tutorial that teaches you the basics of deploying, moving, and shooting. In the tutorial, you'll be controlling a single unit assigned to take out three enemy troopers. It's pretty simple stuff and you'll be guided through the whole ordeal.

Initially, the interface looks similar to other tactical RPGs where you move your units across a map and take on enemies positioned there. The difference becomes apparent once combat starts as you'll discover that this is not a typical menu-driven TRPG where you give commands and wait for the animations to start. Instead of just selecting basic attack, heal, and move orders, you'll take on a more active role in the movement and shooting itself.

After giving your unit a position to move into, the view descends right into the battlefield and gives you a third-person shooter perspectve. Like any shooter, you'll move your unit with the analog stick. Once enemies are spotted, you can use the shoulder buttons to get into a firing position. A targeting cursor appears and you can give orders to fire anytime you want. Just don't take too long because enemies will fire back at you even when it isn't theur turn.

When your turn is done, the enemy will move and act like you did on the first turn. As they do, your unit will automatically fire at them. It would really help to be in safe spots behind trees or sandbags while you're on the defensive.

When you're done with the tutorial, you can jump in to the bulk of the demo. Here, you'll take control of a squad that includes a tank. Yes, this game will not be limited to infantry combat as Sega seems to have included various rides to play around with. There will be more enemies to deal with, and they'll be sheltered in defensive positions this time, but it shouldn't be too hard an affair with your panzer blasting everything that moves.

As fresh as the graphical design of Valkyria Chronicles is, what's most striking about it is how it blends two separates genres in one cohesive package. We've seen a lot of action games refer to themselves as "tactical shooters" this generation but none of them took the "tactical" aspect this far. Matter of fact, it's really a tough call on how to categorize this game. In my opininon, it's still a TRPG but my view is as good as anyone else's.

Overall, Valkyria Chronicles is a great prospect for PS3 owners who are onthe lookout for omething new. It's a great statement from Sega that says they still have a lot left in them other than weird Sonic spin-offs. Get it now and see what I mean.

Also see: Mastery Academy

Friday, October 17, 2008

So what if MS "steals" PS3 games?

I'm sure a lot of you read DarkPower's "Does Microsoft's 'Stealing' Sony Franchises Hurt Their Own Credibility?" post and found it to be a good read. I certainly did, but that doesn't mean I agree with every argument the fellow had to dish out. Unlike DarkPower, I'm a self-admitted Sony fanboy through and through, the difference being, I consider myself a very level-headed one.

Like many fanboys, I'd hate to see old exclusive Sony IPs go exclusive to rival platforms, but will I say all these MS "heists" are hurting the Xbox 360's credibility? The short answer is no. A longer version of the response is OH HELL NO.

Here, then, is my point-by-point rebuttal of DarkPower's article:
  • MS is not hurting its credibility by buying IPs. We've seen it do that same doozie with Windows software for years. Did anyone mind? Just sourgraping execs who can't take the heat of competition. MS will always get flamed for releasing buggy software and faulty hardware, but drumming up third-party support is a completely different thing.
  • Did DarkPower miss on reading dev interviews where game makers openly state that it's easier to develop games for the Xbox 360 than the PS3? That's a good reason in itself for third-parties to come to MS without much persuasion. Just ask Gabe Newell.
  • So what if Microsoft is paying off third-party developers? That's free trade for you right there. If you want to win, you have to compete. The burden is on Sony to respond by either matching offers or by presenting developers incentives in other forms.
  • Third-party developers exist not for loyalty but for profit. These are major investments who are pressured to rake in the green. Development costs are on the rise and the bad economy isn't helping either, so they have to go multiplatform to boost sales in order to survive. Multiplatform releases are better than risking having devs run out of business and gamers being left with no games.
  • The absence of a single, dominant platform where third-party games can make big revenues in a single release is forcing their hands to push the multiplatform button. Yes, there's the Wii these days but it's not a playing field which is as level as the original PS and the PS2. The Wii is dominated by first-party titles while the PS2 was perceived as a home for all niches.
  • DarkPower has forgotten how the PlayStation 2 also benefitted from snagging exclusives from other platforms. Ever heard about a little thing called Resident Evil 4? How about the once-Xbox exclusive Splinter Cell franchise? Oh, and let's not get started about picking the bones of Sega IPs after the Dreamcast tanked. Did Sony lose credibility? History would say no, and a lot of gamers benefitted from this just as it will benefit Xbox 360 owners of today.
  • Building a robust third-party library around an already solid first-party roster makes perfect business sense. I'm not sure why anyone would call this a sign of weakness on the part of MS rather than a sign of commitment to their user base. Heck, I don't even know where DarkPower is coming from by writing that MS "really didn't have anything this gen" considering you have the Halo, Gears of War, and Fable franchises to name a few.
  • The statement "It (Microsoft)'s more inclined on beating Sony to a miserable pulp instead of just giving us good games to play and giving us a good system to play them on" is just weord. Sure, the Xbox got beat last generation, but I don't believe any sane business exec would let grudges drive a company's campaign when billions are at stake. This is business, not some schoolyard fight.
  • DarkPower thinks that the commonality in third-party games will make people wonder what's unique with each system. That won't happen for too long even for the non techy crowd. Just wait for them to check the price tags and the difference becomes clear immediately. This is also where first-party games come in to make the decision easier for buyers.
  • "Gamers are not stupid and they will catch on (to what Microsoft is doing)" writes DarkPower. Sure they will, but will that affect their choices in which system to buy? I don't think so. Not when MS has a bigger library, a significantly lower price point, and has the same quality of software as the PS3. As loyal as some are to Sony, the Xbox 360 will be very hard to resist because it brings in a lot of goodies to the table.
  • Finally, DarkPower harps about how MS "ties the hands" of third-party developers. That can't be farther from the truth. Development companies enter agreements and contracts at thei free will because MS offers them incentives. Is that a bad thing? Not in an advanced liberal democracy like the US which has an economy founded on capitalism and the value of competition.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

How to survive the holidays with a PS3 and $200

It's a bittersweet holiday season this year if you're a PlayStation 3 owner in the US. With pump prices still staggeringly high and the economy in a house of pain, the average gamer won't be able to afford as many games as he'd like this season. In these tough times, a budgeted selection is the best way to go about shopping.

While that's not as cool as running to Gamestop and plucking titles off shelves at a whim, it'll save a lot of us from overspending. I've set a budget of $200 for games this fall, and I thought this would be the best picks my lean wallet can buy:


1. LittleBigPlanet (59.99)- LBP is arguably the quintessential game release this season barring no platforms. Media Molecule and Sony have been building up some serious hype by showcasing the potential of the platformer's level creation tools through the beta and the results have come out amazing most of the time. This is one has the capacity to be the PS3's lightning in a bottle and launch date couldn't come soon enough. If the LBP's PR people can step up on letting the rest of the world know what the fuss is about, there's no telling what it can do for PS3 hardware sales.

Resistance 2

2. Resistance 2 ($59.99)- It's just so sad that there's a gang of nice FPS releases in the months to come and a lot of us have limited budgets. Picking just one is a tough, tough choice to make, but if pressed I'd have to go with Insomniac's alien-infested alternate history blaster.

Don't get me wrong, I lost some serious sleep deciding beween Resistance 2, SOCOM: US Navy SEALS Confrontation, and Call of Duty: World at War. All three look like premium titles, but I'm leaning towards Resistance 2 because of the sheer production value and the reputation of its developers.

Resistance 2 just seems like a really big deal right now. Visuals are a stunning as the best in the genre, the scale of the big enemies look overwhelming in an HDTV, and the gameplay footages we've seen suggest that the action will be intense. The story ain't too shabby either as Nathan Hale comes back with a few hours to live and some mean toys at his disposal.

After finishing the single player campaign, I figured that the game will spend more crazy hours in my PS3 if the promised 60-player matches plays as nicely as they sound. What looks like a solid multiplayer aspect for Resistance 2 was the biggest reason why I decided to hold off on SOCOM Confrontation and its cool Bluetooth headset for now.

As for Call of Duty: World at War, let's just say Treyarch will have to prove that this one is more than just a time killer before Call of Duty 5 comes along. If it was Infinity Ward who developed World at War, I probably would have given the game more consideration. For now, I'll stick with Insomniac and their knack for coming up with amazing creations.

Dead Space

3. Dead Space (59.99)- a lot of PS3 owners may have scoffed at this one and labeled it as "just another EA game" a few months ago, but EA Redwood has proven it to be anything but a mediocre title. Dead Space has saved the day for the survival horror genre after Silent Hill: Homecoming stunk out the joint, giving fans of the dark side plenty of reasons to be happy (and scared) this fall.

If you haven't heard, Dead Space puts you in the suit of Isaac Clarke, a space engineer in the distant future working in a giant mining vessel that scours planets for ore. After receiving a distress call from another ship, Clarke meets up with the other human vessel only to find out that the crew has been wiped out by strange, hostile aliens. You must then guide Clarke into surving horrors the horrors of cold, drak, and deep space.

Dead Space is graphically stunning and plays similar to Resident Evil 4 in the sense that it uses a third-person, over the shoulder view. Reviewers have attested that the gameplay is superb and it wouldn't be a surprise if this one spawns a long and successful series. Dead Space should keep survival horror hotrods chillin' until Resident Evil 5 drops.

WipeOut HD

4. WipEout HD ($20)- with only a little over 20 bucks left in the wallet, I'll advise everyone to get outta the game store and head on over to the PlayStation Store. The reason? The last item in this shopping list happens to be WipEout HD!

Conceding that Motorstorm: Pacific Rift is looking awesome, I thought it was something that could wait a while unless I was a diehard follower of the original Motorstorm. Being a regular guy who feels the need for high-speed thrills in my PS3 only once in a while, I figured we could have a solid and cheap substitute with WipEout HD.

This futuristic hovercraft racer is simply the best looking downloadable game to date. The sweetest elements of WipEout Pure and WipEout Pulse for the PSP have been combined and given the HD treatment in WipEout HD to create a compelling bargain. The frame rate is awesome, the gameplay is as frantic as ever, and best of all it's worth only $20!

That leaves us with three cents which will buy us nothing that I can think of right now. So, how would you spend your $200 this season?