February 26, 2008

Calm waters

For the first time in many months I am not actively playing any particular game.  I am done with the crazy onslaught from late last year and in all honesty, I am glad it is over.  When I am playing a new game, I am a slave to it.  It is a sickness.  When I am playing 4+ games at one time, it is actually more of a chore than entertaining.
Nowadays, instead of getting home and having the 360 up and running before I even change out of my work clothes, I can relax and do other things.  I continue my Expert drum career on occasion and fire up a few matches of CoD4 multiplayer, but other than that, I am not glued to the tv with a controller in my hand.  In fact, for the most part, the only gaming I have done has been to test out my headphones - since I've popped in almost all my games to see how they sound with them.
And the only game I see in the horizon that interests me is MLB The Show 2008.  The PS3 demo is beyond amazing.  This is the type of graphical jump I expected for this generation (and expected it in last year's game).  The game is just gorgeous.  It is the prettiest sports game I have ever played.  And this is just the demo.  I cannot wait for this to come out!

February 22, 2008


Because I was always bothering Jeanette with my loud gaming sessions while she was trying to sleep, or surf the net, or read a novel, or just enjoy a peaceful, quiet Saturday afternoon, I decided to look into getting a pair of headphones to satisfy my need of being "immersed" in my games. Simply lowering the volume would not do, since the sound is half the experience.

Being the technology whore that I am and following my motto of "quality over quantity", no flimsy pair of headphones would do. I also could not walk into a Best Buy and just buy an expensive pair, since I need to do extensive research before all electronic purchases. Plus, the research is so much fun!

So, I stumbled upon the audiophile headphone market. And that is not good. Gaming was expensive enough and this hobby puts it to shame.

And I am all in baby!

Long story short, a month after I began my search for some "gaming headphones", I now own not one, not two, but three separate sets of cans. One is for Jeanette, a really cool pair of Grado's that she can use with her laptop. They have a great "retro" look to them which is right up her alley. I also own a pair of Ultrasone closed headphones (my favorite of the three), for when I need isolation from all outside sounds (I love these when playing drums in Rock Band since I do not hear myself hitting the pads, all I hear is the music), plus the Ultrasone's sound just fantastic with music (Pink Floyd is an experience with these things on). And then I own a pair of Sennheisers, an open pair which Ihave been using for DVDs and my regular, non-drumming gaming sessions. Since they are open they have a spacious soundfield and suit the bill well. Music does not sound nearly as good on them, but that is what my Ultrasone's are for (or the Grado's, which also sound great with music).

But wait, there is more. In my search I also discovered that for the most part, to get the most out of your headphones you need to drive them with a dedicated headphone amplifier, since most manufactures don't pay much attention to the quality of the headphone-out jacks on their equipment. Laptops in particular come with pretty crappy sound cards and headphone jacks, so I purchased a small portable amp for the laptop (Headroom's Total Bithead). It is a great product because not only does it function as a headphone amp, but connecting it through the laptop's USB port makes it over-ride your laptop's sound card and it receives the digital audio signal directly and uses its own internal DAC to decode the track. Chances are, unless you have a very expensive soundcard, you'll be getting a much better sound using the Bithead as your source. And it sounds great. Whenever I am using the laptop I fire up iTunes, go to their internet radio section, choose this one particular rock station with a high bitrate (when you begin using good headphones you can really notice the difference between poorly recorded/encoded material) and it sounds fantastic!

But of course, I am not done. The laptop is all set-up, but I do 100% of my gaming on my couch, in front of my tv. Using my headphones connected to my a/v receiver sound fine, but the receiver's headphone out is still pretty mediocre compared to the quality I could be getting. So I made a tough decision. Since I have been having an ongoing problem with my receiver (the center speaker stops working at random and I end up having to watch everything in stereo instead of 5.1 surround sound), plus the fact that I live in an apartment and have never been able to crank up my system as loud as I would want to, I decided to pack everything up (the mess of speaker cables spread across the living room was always pretty unsightly) and save my 5.1 experience for when I own a house. It was a good 10 years, but still, it was always a restricted 10 years since I have always lived in an apartment and have never able to take full advantage of my system. In its place I will be adding a dedicated headphone amplifier and a stand-alone DAC. When watching movies with Jeanette or just watching tv, I'll be using the regular tv speakers (which aren't too shabby, my tv has great speakers), but when I'm going to be doing my gaming, or want that extra "boom" when watching a dvd, or when I want to listen to music and enjoy it at levels I never have before (seriously, listening to music through a really good pair of headphones is a unique experience. I have heard things in tracks that I have never heard before. Tracks that I have been listening to basically my entire life), then I'll be using the headphones running out of the amp/DAC combo.

From what I gather, being a headphone enthusiast is a sickness. You get "upgrade-itis" and are always looking to improve your rig. I obviously believe it considering how quiet it has been in my home the last few weeks. When Jeanette is on her laptop listening to her music and I am gaming with my own cans, the neighbors must think we've moved out. I'm sure I am not done with this hobby (I still haven't received my Amp/DAC to replace my receiver and I have my eye on those Sennheisers HD650's . . . oh yeah, one day) but all in due time. For the moment, I am going to dim the lights, put on my Ultrasone's, and enjoy Darkside of the Moon.

February 16, 2008

Excellence Awards for Superior Performance in Achieving . . . uh, Excellence?

2007 was a great year for games. It was also a tough year for gamers, since 90% of the great games were released in a 2 month span (October/November). I know my wallet took a huge hit.

Here are my picks for the best games of 2007. I'll throw in a bunch of random categories and also name my favorite game for each system (that I own). Some games win by default (I only played 1 game for the PS2 & PSP last year), and to be fair to other games, my all-around "Game of the Year" winner is not eligible for the individual systems' "game of the year" awards.

Unlike the Oscars, lets get the drama out of the way and give out the big award first:

2007 Game of the Year:


After all the anticipation - the Best of E3 awards two years running, developer videos, etc. - the fact that Bioshock lived up to all the hype says volumes. Bioshock was the most engaging, atmospheric, and fulfilling game of 2007. The underwater utopia of Rapture is one of the greatest gaming environments ever created and the game's premise, story, visuals and audio come together to create a truly memorable experience.


Call of Duty 4, Rock Band, Portal

360 Game of the Year:

Call of Duty 4

Wow, I was not expecting this. After CoD3, I was burned out on the CoD series. When Modern Warfare was announced I found the premise intriguing, but it was still at the bottom of my list of wanted games. After the spectacular E3 presentation I began to take notice. I participated in the Beta and was blown away by the polished gameplay and super tight controls. After playing the full game I realized that it is one of the best First-Person Shooters I have ever played. The graphics are simply amazing, and the fact that they run at a blistering 60 fps with no drops baffles me. The single-payer campaign might be short, but it is packed with more memorable moments than 6 other games combined. It is a condensed adrenaline filled ride. The story drew me in and the game evoked actual emotion from me at times (the ending is just fantastic!). And the multiplayer, as I will comment on later, is sublime.


Rock Band

Take Guitar Hero, add vocals and drums, and you have gaming nirvana. Playing Rock Band with some friends is some of the most fun you can have. I cannot stress enough how much I enjoy playing the drums. The song selection is fantastic and the downloadable songs have consistently been great as well. World Tour Mode is a blast and this game might have won 360 Game of the Year if that mode would be playable online.


Perfect level design. Perfect difficulty curve. Addictive, thought-provoking gameplay. And the funniest game of the year? Who'd a thunk it? Portal is simply amazing for the entire four or five hours it lasts. Is Valve going to release new levels already? C'mon, I need my fix!!!

PS3 Game of the Years:

Uncharted: Drake's Fortune

Wow, another surprise. During development this game always looked great from a visual standpoint, and I knew Naughty Dog was a talented developer, but I was not expecting to enjoy this game as much as I did. This might be the closest gaming has come to emulating a fun summer movie. The voice acting, cinematics and music might actually be better than most summer flicks. I played most of the game with a smile on my face. A lot of great un-lockables make a 2nd or 3rd play through viable options (as does the fun gameplay and tight controls). If you own a PS3 and haven't picked this one up, what are you waiting for?


MLB: The Show 07

Probably the best sports simulation I have ever played, The Show has come the closest of any other sports game to replicating the sport it emulates. Great animation, the best commentary in any game out there and rock solid presentation make this one a joy to play. Road to the Show mode is addictive fun (the only mode I played actually) and with some tweaks this series will get closer to perfection.

Ninja Gaiden: Sigma

Ok, I'm done writing about Ninja Gaiden. You all know I love the game. Tecmo really did beat this game to the ground though. This third iteration is the best, but it has definitely lost a lot of its charm by now. Still, it makes the list not only because it is still one of the best action games ever made, but because I only played 3 PS3 games this year, so I am covering all three. =) Hey, they were all good, what can I say?

PS2 Game of the Year:

God of War 2

Yes, this game wins by default since I played no other game on the PS2 this year, but that in no way means that GoW 2 is not deserving of this award. Even with all the quality "next gen" games I played this year, GoW 2 is still in my overall top 5 of 2007. That game takes everything established by its predecessor and makes it bigger and better. Graphically, no other game in the PS2's entire library comes close. The game is a technical marvel and left me impressed even after a year of exclusive 360 gaming before me (all it took was a few minutes to adjust to the resolution change). The game's scale is baffling. If this is what this series can do on a PS2 I can't imagine what GoW 3 on the PS3 is going to be like. I can't wait!

PSP Game of the Year:

Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions

Another default winner. Sweet nostalgia. Almost 10 years after I was hopelessly addicted to the original, I get to experience this gem all over again. This game has some of the deepest, most addicting gameplay I have experienced, and its play mechanics do not lose a step after all these years. And man, I love those character designs! All PSP owners need to experience this one.

Miscellaneous Awards:

Best Sports Game:

MLB: The Show 07

As far as baseball goes, this was by far the best title available. It might not have provided the graphical facelift I was expecting in its jump to the PS3, but I am hoping that will be addressed with this year's version (and it looks like it has judging from what I have seen).


All-Pro Football 2k8

Oh how I have missed 2K football. APF was a joy to play. As far as on the field play goes, this game gives Madden a pounding. The idea of building your own team with legendary players was executed very well. The only downside was a severe lack of replay value thanks to no franchise mode, a bare bones season mode, and far too little control over your generic players (which were a bit too generic). If there is another installment (I have my fingers crossed) and they add a beefy player editor, far more depth in the off-the-field stuff and a franchise mode, then I can do without the NFL license for a few more years.

Best Graphics:


Bioshock is the full visual package. Outstanding art direction (Rapture's 1950's art-deco style is genius) matched with technical wizardry equals a true feast for the eyes. The amount of ridiculous detail in the levels is astounding. Every inch of a level is meticulously rendered, leaving no area over looked. The result is a gaming world that feels rich in history. Great job Irrational Games. Err, I mean, 2K Boston.



Again, how can this game run at 60fps? It is gorgeous.

Assassin's Creed

This game gets the award for best draw distance. Standing on a city's highest peak and being able to see everything until the horizon is quite a sight. Altair's character model is also the most impressive I have seen. Great detail. And the animation . . . well, lets leave that to another category . . .

Uncharted: Drake's Fortune

Huge levels and plenty of amazing vistas. The water effects are gorgeous, right up there with Bioshock. Did I mention that your character's clothes actually get wet? I mean, c'mon! This game is beautiful.

God of War 2

How many runners-up am I going to have? I could actually keep going, but I'll restrict myself (a lot of great looking games this year). I had to put GoW2 on this list though. I don't know how the developer managed to get this much out of the aging PS2 hardware, but GoW 2 is truly a graphical masterpiece. It made my jaw drop far more than often many 360 games.

Best Animation

Assassin's Creed

Normally, I would just lump animation in with graphics. But since I feel animation is the most important element in impressive visuals and the fact that there were so many games with great animation this past year, I had to honor them individually. That being said, Altair's animation in Assassin's Creed is the best I have seen for a video game character to date. All the transitions were seamless and I never got tired of watching him roam around and interact with his environment.


Uncharted: Drake's Fortune

If the transitions would have been more seamless this one would have taken the crown. Overall Drake's movements might be even smoother and more life-like than Altair's, but there were always a few transitions that threw me off. That being said I cannot get enough of the animation of Jake vaulting over an object. It looks real!


Speaking of transition animations, this game still needs to work on that, but on a whole, the animation in this game runs laps around Madden. Everything is so life-like, whereas Madden's animations look robotic and completely unnatural.

MLB: The Show 2007

Best animation in a sports game that I have played. Everything looks perfect and natural. The tiny details and nuances of players playing baseball are perfectly captured.

Best Soundtrack

Rock Band

Is this even fair to include on here? Plus it keeps expanding every week!



Fantastic score and great use of music from the period. Hearing "Beyond the Sea" when entering Rapture sets the mood perfectly.


Really great score! Again, movie-quality production values here.


C'mon, I had to add this. The ending song is the best song ever in a game. lol.

Best Sound:


I am running out of adjectives to describe things. As you'll notice, my entries will keep getting smaller. Anyway, no game last year immersed me into its world like Bioshock did and a huge part of that was the fantastic sound design. The city of Rapture is decaying around you and you hear it. Your 5.1 set-up immediately justifies its costs with this game.


While a large part of Bioshock's audio brilliance comes from ambient sound and horrific screams echoing through empty halls, CoD 4 is an atom bomb on your system. From beginning to end your speakers will not stop churning out gun fire, mortal explosions, and total chaos.

The Orange Box

Half-life has always had great sound design. The trend continues with the Orange Box. It has Bioshock's creepy ambience when needed and CoD's mayhem when appropriate.

Best Story

Mass Effect

It was Mass Effect's story that helped me overlook its flaws. The main quest is movie worthy. The final act had me on the edge of my seat. Bravo Bioware, bravo.


Just what happened to this underwater utopia? Just wait and see.


Ok, I am sure you are asking yourself, "CoD4? Best story?! You're crazy!!". And you'd be right. In all honesty, other games deserve this runner-up spot more (Half-Life 2 for example), but compared to past CoD games I was actually drawn into this story and it was some pretty hefty stuff. The single-player campaign is just phenomenal. Great job Infinity Ward.

Biggest Disappointment

Band Wold Tour Mode not online

What a shame. Rock Band's best mode, the one the game seemed to have been built around, is not available online. Talk about a missed opportunity. It is not always possible to have three friends over to play. On top of that, this mode is not available to play solo either (another baffling decision, since it is a lot better than the regular solo career option). I'm still hoping we get a patch to address this. C'mon Harmonix, this would make the game an 11!


APF 2K8's pathetically shallow season mode

Visual Concepts dropped the ball here. An unlicenced football game has a lot of potential for a deep franchise mode. You can create a league history and have rivalries set-up. You can have robust create-a-player options and mold the players to your liking. You can have deep stats and front office options. But APF has none of that. You get a single-season, with nothing interesting in-between games. Boo.

Bioshock's ending

After such an amazing game, the final battle and the ending that follows seemed pretty dull in comparison. The boss battle was out of place and the short CG ending left a lot of be desired.

Madden 2008

I saw a lot of developer interviews in which Tiburon would praise this year's great "branching animation" system and how awesome it was going to be. Maybe it gave players great control, but it essential broke Madden's already weak animation. Player movement was so unrealistic and unnatural that is was actually funny.

Best Multiplayer

Tie! CoD4 & Rock Band

This was a tough one. Any other year, Rock Band would have won this award easily. After all, anyone who has played this game with a full band of friends knows what a great time it is. But I had to include CoD4 because it has gotten me hooked on competitive FPS multiplayer, something I never really enjoyed before. I did all my GRAW and GRAW 2 online gaming in co-op mode. Same goes for R6 (terrorist hunt with friends was a blast). Aside from the occasional Halo 2 match, I just wasn't into death match type of online games. And every time I played Halo I was in a party with some friends, if my friends weren't on I wouldn't play. But I am all over CoD4, whether my friends are on or not. It is the best competitive multiplayer game I have played. The ranking and leveling up system, the perks, it all comes together beautifully. If Infinity Ward can just find a way to improve the latency/killcam discrepancy and add host migration, it would be perfection.


Halo 3

4 player Co-op is great. The other online modes are deep and robust, but I've discovered Halo's play style just ain't for me.

Most wanted Downloadable Content


More levels! More levels! More levels!!!!!

Rock Band

Guns N Roses pack! Or the entire Appetite for Destruction album!!


More levels! More levels! More levels!!!!!

Favorite gaming moments of 2007

In no particular order . . .

CoD4 single player campaign

I would single out a particular moment, but I couldn't decide on just one. The single player campaign has so many memorable "wow" moments it is ridiculous.

Portal's last level

Just when you think you've figured out the structure of the game, Portal's last level throws you a curve ball. Great stuff.

Playing drums in Rock Band

After 2 years of playing with a guitar controller, sitting down and hitting the pads was just a fantastic feeling. Nailing your first tricky section, complete with perfect foot-pedal usage is exhilarating.

Entering Rapture/First little sister

The beginning of Bioshock was just phenomenal. The plane wreckage burning on the water's surface, entering the mysterious lighthouse, descending into Rapture, it was one of my best gaming experiences of the year. A short while later it was followed by another, the first time you rescue/harvest a Little Sister. Wow. Just wow.

Playing 2K football again

Playing a new 2K football game after 3 years of Madden felt great. The gameplay was refreshing, as were the small details in the animation. Here's hoping we see a 2K9.

Mass Effect's finale

The final mission and build up to the final battle was about as exhilarating an experience as you'll find. Great pacing, music, voice-acting, writing, cinematics, everything came together perfectly.

Honorable mention to games I enjoyed last year but didn't win any awards

Lost Planet

It is easy to forget about Lost Planet. It came out way back in January of 2007 and in the wake of all the AAA games, it can get lost. But I really enjoyed it. Great graphics and animation, fantastic mech designs, and HUGE scale enemies and levels.

Halo 3

Wow, if you would have told me at the beginning of last year that Halo 3 would not win any awards from me (it only got a runner-up for multiplayer) I'd think you were lying. But the competition this year, especially on the 360, was just brutal. Funny thing is, I think Halo 3 is probably the best entry in the series. I felt it stumbled a bit in the last two levels and it did not finish with the epic battle I was anticipating, but the game was polished and fun. Gotta give props to Bungie for the 4 player co-op, the saved films, forge, file sharing and the many, many multiplayer options.


GRAW 2 seemed to come and go with little fanfare. It was fun, but was way short. I hope R6 Vegas 2 is more of than just an update. I still had a good time with GRAW 2, but it certainly felt too familiar.

Games I wasn't able to play in 2007 but wanted to

Hopefully I'll pick these up at bargain prices in the future:

The Darkness

From the people that brought us Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. Can't believe I missed it. Looks to be right up my alley too. The demo was cool.

Heavenly Sword

This game always caught my eye. All the behind-the-scenes videos showcased some cool motion-capture work and facial expressions. The demo was fun, although crazy short.

Ratchet & Clank: Tools of Destruction

I have enjoyed all the Rachet & Clank games so I'm pretty sure I'll enjoy this one. The reviews were solid and technically the game is a marvel. And again, the demo was great.


Maybe it is because I am tired of the Tony Hawk series and their over-the-top nature, but I always wanted to play Skate. The realistic take on skateboarding is a good angle and the control scheme seemed pretty intuitive. And one more time . . . the demo was fun.

The whole Nintendo Wii line-up

I have owned every Nintendo system since the NES, yet I do not yet own a Wii. Granted, it is still hard to track one of those puppies down, but back in the day I would have made it happen. It is weird, I really want a Wii and I know I will love it, but it is still not up there in my list of must-have products. I be pumping more money into my new hobby now too (hi-fi headphones and gear . . . don't ask, I'll write about them soon enough), so I probably won't be getting a Wii until the end of this year the earliest. But I really want to play all those great Nintendo games: Zelda, Super Mario Galaxy, Metroid . . .).

And that wraps it up. 2007 was one of the best years I can remember as far as quality game releases. Lets see how 2008 treats us gamers. Hopefully we'll continue to see AAA titles. I just hope publishers decide to spread them out throughout the year and not cram them all into the Oct./Nov. launch window.