Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Star Wars on Blu-Ray


Yes, the Blu-Rays are coming. And to everyone's disappointment and no one's surprise, the original theatrical versions of the original trilogy will not be included.

Why? Here's
Lucas's answer:

“You have to go through and do a whole restoration on it, and you have to do that digitally. It’s a very, very expensive process to do it. So when we did the transfer to digital, we only transferred really the upgraded version.”

OK. It's expensive. But what kind of numbers are we talking about here, Mr. Estimated-Net-Worth-of-Three-Billion-Dollars? A few million dollars? More? Less? Can it anyway seriously cut into the profits of the Blu-Ray release, which will no doubt be huge?

As to the last question, I think it can hurt the potential success of the Blu-Rays, but not in the way Lucas imagines. Personally, I'm going to wait for the inevitable double-dip with the theatrical versions included. I'm sure I won't be the only serious fan to not rush out and buy these films yet again.

Of course, Mr. Lucas, all you have to do is fix that damn Greedo bit and no one will care which version of Star Wars they're buying.

I'm just saying..

Friday, August 13, 2010

Bioshock Infinite (Announcement)


First off, I'm pleased that Irrational Games is again, in fact, Irrational games. Their sudden name change to 2K Boston/2K Australia just prior to the original Bioshock's release came off as an attempt on publisher 2K's part to grab some of the critical glory for that game. It's not worth getting into too much of a tizzy about, though: 2K clearly gave Irrational the creative freedom required to make a game like Bioshock. The end result seemed, from the outside looking in, like a win-win for all involved.

But still, give credit where credit is due -- and that goes to the people who were and are again Irrational Games. I'm sure it wasn't a hard fight to get their name back, since 2K stands to make a killing off of Bioshock Infinite and probably wants to keep the talent happy.

And do I mean talent. The first video is quite simply stunning. Needless to say, drooling and various other embarrassing biological functions occurred while watching this video. The floating city of Columbia has the potential to be just as involving as Rapture, quite possibly the most fully realized setting in videogame history. The only real impediment to reaching this goal is that comparisons to Rapture are inevitable -- both cities are failed utopias with physical barriers that isolate them from the world, with the player thrust into the middle of a battle between warring factions and ideologies.

Still, Irrational has borrowed elements from their back catalog before and improved upon it. The only big complaint I have with the original Bioshock is how little its story deviated from System Shock 2's -- including the same exact plot twist that comes at almost the same time in each story. But the twist that was merely clever in System Shock 2 is flat out stunning, even thought-provoking in Bioshock.

And Columbia could improve upon Rapture. One of Infinite's biggest changes is that the player character now has a name and a history -- instead of the blank slate found in all previous Shock titles -- who will be interacting with a city that is much more alive and diverse. The game demo shown to reporters featured the PC walking into a bar full of patrons that builds to a reveal of who in the bar is and is not your enemy. This is an absolutely huge change compared to Rapture, where there was almost no one left except the ghosts and the monsters.

Lastly, let me close on the subtitle "Infinite." I don't like it. Some stupid, literal part of my mind is just as bugged by this title as it is by The Neverending Story. Weird, I know -- but it's there. Bioshock: Project Icarus or Bioshock: Columbia both sound like better titles to me. Unless, of course, Infinite has a meaning past the diverse tactics and story directions one can experience in the game, which I would not put past Irrational.

And just what the hell are they going to call any future sequels? Infinite +1?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Mafia II Demo


Though it's certainly a minor classic, the original Mafia was a bit of a mixed bag. The visuals were gorgeous, the story strong and mature (and not in that "lots of swears and boobies" way), and the action segments remain unique and exciting to this day.

Unfortunately, you spent most of the game driving sluggish, unresponsive cars from the 30's around a sandbox city that looked pretty but offered nothing more than just a pretty view, since the game was actually straightforward and linear. The gun fights felt like a reward for slogging through the driving sections.

But, man, the gun fights...

The easiest analogy I can make to Mafia's shoot outs is the final set piece in Kevin Costner's Open Range. Both stories are a single step past realistic, allowing each experience to be comfortably viewed as entertainment -- yet neither forgets how truly devastating a firearm can be. No other shooter I can recall, save the absolutely frustrating early installments of the Rainbow Six franchise, so deeply instilled the notion that getting shot was not something you wanted to have happen to you.

This may sound silly -- an obvious notion -- to those who don't play shooters, but the character you played could be killed by only a few bullets or a single shotgun blast, forcing you to move tactically from one piece of cover to another and shoot your attacker before he shoots you. Even cooler: you lost any bullets in a half-full clip if you reloaded early, adding another level of realism and strategy to the game. It all added up to one of the most unique experiences in gaming, one that has truly not been recreated since Mafia's release in 2002.

The Mafia II demo definitely shows some changes from the original game while keeping the spirit of the original intact. The demo wisely keeps the driving to a minimum -- it only takes a minute or two to get to the destination of the demo's single mission. And like the Crackdown 2 demo, there's a time limit to freely exploring the city. The cars still feel a bit sluggish but are much more responsive, feeling just right for a game set in the 50's. The fact that you're still driving a steel behemoth is not lost -- but it didn't feel anywhere as frustrating as the original game.

Most of the half-hour demo shows off the new shooting mechanics, which are solid but disappointing to someone so enamored with the first game. Mafia II is another step or two further away from realism. Bullets remaining in a partially used clip are no longer lost and health is now fully regenerated by taking cover and waiting a few seconds. The latter change is huge, completely changing the core gameplay mechanic of the first game: don't get shot.

Your character can't take a lot of punishment and checkpoints are few and far between, but it fails to match the same levels of tension and exhilaration as its predecessor, simply because your character can shake off a slug or two merely by taking a few deep breaths.

Don't get me wrong, the demo was still damn fun. I will definitely be picking it up when it comes out. My early guess is that it will be a very enjoyable but much more traditional experience.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Starcraft II (Week One)


If you like the RTS genre at all -- particularly Blizzard's past games -- you're going to get your money's worth. Starcraft II has, hands down, the best single-player campaign I've played in an RTS game. The mission objectives are always creative and unique (besides, of course, the mandatory "defend your base" missions). From robbing trains, to exploding suns that slowly scorch everything on the battlefield, to fighting Zerg-infested humans who only -- and always, instead of the usual mostly -- come out at night on a planet with incredibly fast day and night cycles, the next mission always provides something new and exciting.

Nor is the campaign short -- something I feared after hearing that Starcraft II's story would be broken up over three releases (one for each race). I'd guess it took me between fifteen and twenty hours to complete on normal difficulty. And achievement whores like myself will have a lot fun/misery completing the game on hard to pick up the more challenging achievements.

So, is the game that different from the original?

Yes and no. The most simple answer I can give is that what's featured isn't that different -- most of the units and structures for each faction return, with a few deletions and additions -- but how everything works feels overhauled, tweaked, refined. I spent a few hours with the first Starcraft after beating Starcraft II's campaign, and the experience felt very, very cumbersome in comparison to its successor.

The single biggest -- and most welcome -- change is the removal of a unit cap on each hotkey. Your entire army can be controlled with only one hotkey. The A.I. for your units has been drastically improved to accommodate for this: the units place themselves where you want them to go with a lot less effort on your part, without it feeling like the game is doing all the work for you. And thank the Maker that science vessels will no longer charge blindly ahead of slower units -- and they're finally smart enough to effectively retreat from enemy fire. That alone is worth sixty bucks.

Having one big army assigned to a single hotkey might not make for the most effective army, but for people like me who can't keep up with the pace of each round's endgame, it's an incredibly helpful option.

Going to get back to the game. Possible updates to come.