July 29, 2008

In-game XMB works great, but in-movie XMB? Not so much . . .

The 2.40 (I mean, 2.41) PS3 Firmware Update which added trophies and in-game XMB access has been working swell.  Sure, the games I own do not support trophies yet, but it is good to know it is there (I guess).  In-game XMB access has been very helpful.  Unfortunately, there is no XMB access while watching a dvd or bluray disc.  I spend a good 50% of the time using my PS3 for dvds/bluray watching, so I find this disappointing.  The 360 lets you access the Guide regardless of what you are doing, so I was hoping for the same functionality from this firmware update.
It is still a step in the right direction, I am just saying . . .

July 24, 2008

I guess you can teach an old dog new tricks . . .

A word of advice for anyone picking up Hot Shots Golf: Out of Bounds.  Especially those who are fans of the series.
Use the new Advance Shot Method.
I resisted it at first.  Why learn a whole new control scheme when the traditional 3-click system has been solid for over 10 years now?  Plus, I felt I had mastered it well enough to hold my own.
Well, the game seems to urge you to try the new method.  There are a few challenge events that you can only participate in if you use the new method.  Plus, you have more overall power with the new method, since the game handicaps the 3 clickers by reducing their max drive length.  So I caved and jumped into practice mode to give it a try.
Surprisingly, I warmed up to a lot faster than I thought I would.  After just 3 holes I was beginning to feel comfortable and after finishing an 18 hole round at -16 using the new method it is safe to assume that I feel really comfortable with it.
It has actually increased my enjoyment of the game; and I was already enjoying it!  So, for those who shy away from change (me), please give it a try.  It is well worth it.

July 22, 2008

Hot Shots Golf: Out of Bounds

In between viewings of TDK and Hellboy, I managed to pick up Hot Shots Golf: Out of Bounds for the PS3. I played the hell out of the original Hot Shots Golf on the PS1, but I never played any of the sequels (maybe I played part 2, I don't recall). Strange because I loved the original. If not for Gabe picking up the PS3 version, I probably would have skipped it as well.

The Out of Bounds demo was fun and rekindled my interest in the series, plus the thought of playing a few rounds online with Gabe sounded like a blast. And I was right. After a few initial bumps trying to connect online (pretty long update needed to install) and Gabe and I fumbling with the lobby interface and how to get into a match together, we eventually figured it out and had a lot of fun. The game is completely lag-free, which is very important in a game like this where precision timing is needed.

Even though I only had about a day of experience with the title and Gabe has owned it for over a month now, I gave him a pretty good whooping in the two rounds we played. The first one was close, but I think he still has sores from the second game. I'm ready for that rematch anytime Gabe! =)

From what I can tell, not much has changed in the series. Graphics are better, controls are tighter, and there are a few more modes to play, but this is still Hot Shots Golf. Since it has been so long since I've played this series, I am really enjoying the game. I get the feeling though that if I would have stuck with it and played every iteration, I'd be complaining about the lack of innovation right now. I can tell by the average review scores that many reviewers feel that way.

Either way, I am glad I picked it up. I'll continue to polish my golfing skills and continue to beat-up on Gabe online.

TDK and Hellboy II

I had an entertainment filled weekend.

To kick start it all, I had tickets to see The Dark Knight on Friday night. The movie was great! I love the direction Christopher Nolan has taken this franchise. After Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, the series was in the gutter, getting away from the darker theme Tim Burton established in his previous two efforts and heading towards the cheesy, campy fare of the 60's tv show. Arnold Schwarzeneggar as Mr. Freeze? That has to be up there as the worst casting choice in movie history!

But Nolan has brought the series back to where it belongs. He has taken Burton's darker version of Batman and injected it with a heavy dose of reality. He has tried to keep the series as plausible as possible and the results have been stellar. The Dark Knight is even better than the excellent Batman Begins. The Joker, played brilliantly by the late Heath Ledger, is a much more terrifying adversary than what Batman has faced in previous movies. In fact, the Joker as portrayed in this movie might be the best villain in a comic book film ever. Much has been said about Ledger's interpretation of the character and the final results are spectacular. In fact, in some ways, Joker is the star of the show. I do not know if it is because he shared practically equal screen time with the Capped Crusader, or just the fact that you look forward to his scenes more than any other character, but he carried this flick much the same way that Jack Sparrow carried Pirates of the Carribean. The movie just wouldn't have been the same (or as good) without Heath's Joker.

The rest of the supporting cast was also stellar. As is expected. The "supporting" cast usually receives top billing in other movies. Michael Cain, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman . . . that is A-list material right there folks. Maggie Gyllenhaal takes over for Katie Holmes and I felt she did a bang-up job (Jeanette disagrees). Aaron Eckhart also did great as the new D.A., Harvey Dent.

Christian Bale once again is a fantastic Bruce Wayne. In fact, I feel he is a better Wayne than he is Batman. Just like in the first movie, I REALLY don't like his Batman "voice". It is too raspy and it seems forced. I thought it would grow on me by now, but it hasn't. In fact, in one of the finals scenes, in which he is speaking with the Joker, his voice is so bad I can't believe Christopher Nolan didn't yell "cut" and consulted with Christian on his performance, "Cut! Hey Christian, great job, just, umm, regarding the voice, maybe tone it down just a bit?"

Other nitpicks can include the movie being a tad too long. 2 ½ hours is a long time and I think some of that could have been shaved off. I also felt that maybe Harvey's turn to the "darkside" was a bit too fast and not fully believable, considering how his character was portrayed to that point in the film. That wasn't a spoiler right? I mean, everyone knows that Harvey Dent is Two-Face right? Hope so . . .

Overall, the movie was great and a giant step forward for comic book adaptations. In fact, I see it as the staple to which all future adaptations will be measured against.

All that and I managed to go back to the movies for a second time this weekend, something I have not done in years. On Sunday I saw Hellboy II and it was fantastic! Once again Guillermo Del Toro shows that he is extremely comfortable handling the fantasy genre and pulls no punches while taking the audience on a roller-coaster ride through his imagination. For a movie about a big red demon who thinks he's just "one of the guys" and goes around with his team of other-than-human teammates fighting other nasty creatures, I was completely sold on the premise and never once began to question how far fetched it all really is. Del Toro executes it all perfectly.

Ron Perlman again carries the movie with his absolutely fantastic portrayal of Hellboy. He is as likable a character as you'll see on-screen, never mind the fact that he is big, red, has a tail, a giant stone arm and shaves down the horns protruding from his forehead. You just want to hang out with him and have a beer. The special effects are spot on and I applaud Del Toro for again sticking with plenty of tradition animatronics and make-up effects, rather than just taking the easy way out and making all the creatures CG (I'm looking at you Mr. Lucas!). The scene of the Troll Market would not have been as visually engaging if instead of top-of-the-line prosthetics and make-up you would have had dull, lifeless, CG creatures. Good job Guillermo.

The movie was also extremely funny. One scene in particular, which I do not want to spoil here, had me in stitches. All I will say is: Barry Manilow.

Overall, I had an ear-to-ear smile for 85% of Hellboy II. It was just a fun, fun time. I really hope it picks up in the box office (why some idiot studio execs decided to release this on the eve of The Dark Knight is beyond me), because I want it to make a ton of dough so that we can see a Hellboy III. Pretty please!!!

2008 is now officially the year of the comic book movie. With Iron Man (great!), The Incredible Hulk (heard it was great), The Dark Knight (fantastic!) and Hellboy II (stellar!), I don't think a comic book fan can ask for much more.

July 18, 2008

Random E3 thoughts . . .

- With all the changes done to E3, it does not look like we'll be seeing any of the big surprises or announcements from years past. The biggest news probably came from Microsoft's camp, with the redesign of the Dashboard (not sure I like it), the addition of Avatars, a Netflix partnership and the announcement that the 360 will be getting Final Fantasy XIII on day one (not a big deal to me since I own both systems and I have not cared for FF since part VII). Nintendo announced their controller doohickey attachment that makes the Wiimote more accurate and a GTA game for the DS. And Sony showed their new video store. Everything else we basically already knew about.

- Gears of War 2 is looking nice. Gameplay seems like more of the same, which can be good and bad. I hope they emphasize the story aspects of the game better this time around and I hope they open up the gameplay a bit to make it less linear and more dynamic. I'd prefer less of the, advance, enter a pre-planned skirmish (with enemies arriving at a pre-determined time), battle, then move on to next section in which enemies appear. All the while the world closes in behind you preventing back-tracking and ushering you forward. I would prefer more open levels, multiple paths (that I don't want a menu to choose my course, let me just choose while playing) and battles that feel fresh each time you replay them (like in Halo). Technically though the game is showing all the improvements done to the Unreal III Engine. I just hope there are no refrigerators with N64 textures this time around.

- I enjoyed the Resistance 2 demo during the Sony Press Conference. Battling that huge creature was pretty impressive and it looked like a lot of fun. I hope the game is full of memorable encounters like that. I never finished the first Resistance (I borrowed it from a friend initially) so I'm not sure how the previous game ended. Don't think that will affect my experience with part 2, but I now wish I would have finished it.

- Resident Evil 5 looks very impressive visually, but I have a big problem with it. Technically, it looks absolutely gorgeous. But the gameplay looks like a carbon copy of part 4. Resident Evil 4 was superb, but times have changed and its controls and general gameplay feel a bit dated. In an interview with one the producers they mentioned that they are aware of this and are working on implementing addition control schemes, but one of them better include strafing and having more control of your movement. Another problem I have, which adds to the "I've been there" feeling, is that a lot of the animation seems to have been borrowed from RE4. The way the enemies approach you holding their weapons above their heads, the way they stagger when you shoot them, the way Chris reloads the sniper rifle, it seems to have been pulled straight from the previous game and it really kills it for me. I do not like recycled animations! Especially when jumping to a whole new console generation for the sequel!!!

- Wii Music did not interest me at all. Watching everybody "performing" on stage, playing their "air" instruments looked dreadfully boring. I do not think any of them were really enjoying themselves, because it did not look like fun at all. The main reason that Guitar Hero and Rock Band are as big as they are is because the instrument controllers give immediate feedback and really emulate the feeling of playing an instrument. I seriously doubt banging on an invisible drum generates the same satisfaction.

- I was really happy they had a teaser for God of War III. The game is probably a long way off and I knew it was being worked on, but just having that "official" confirmation was a relief. I hope it makes a Fall 2009 release!

- Little Big Planet cannot come out soon enough.

- I'm hearing good things about Flower for the PS3. FlOw was interesting, so I'm keeping and eye on this one.

- Fable 2 looks alright. According to Peter it is completed and they are just tweaking and fixing bugs. That is good. I heard a report that the main quest is only about 12 - 15 hours long! That is dreadfully short for an RPG! I understand there is a lot to do besides the main quests, but those side-missions are never as interesting as the main quest. I was hoping for something around 30 hours at least this time around. Especially since you start the game off as a kid, grow up, can get married and even have kids of your own. I'd think more time is needed to really develop that. Oh well. From what I have seen this title is still not a day 1 purchase for me. I did enjoy the 1st one though, despite it falling well short of what was promised.

- I watched a live demo of Left 4 Dead and I was pretty impressed. The game looks like it has potential. Well, any game with zombies has potential in my opinion.

- The new Prince of Persia is looking great. The cell shaded art style looks phenomenal, making the game look like a painting, rather than a cartoon (which is the norm for cell shaded games).

- One game that is quickly rising to the top of my "most anticipated release" list is Mirror's Edge. We've only been given snippets of this game, but it looks fantastic! The two trailers available, which claim to be made up of in-game footage, are absolutely gorgeous! This one has a lot of potential.

- The new James Bond game also had some pretty nifty visuals. Some of the environments I saw were really, really, impressive. Bond himself, modeled after Daniel Craig, looked a bit robotic though, but the textures and lighting were of really high quality. Gameplay looked like a mix of 1st Person Shooting and 3rd person combat similar to the recently released Bourne Identity game (read: fast, cinematic, hand-to-hand combat with timed button presses).

- Did I mention that Little Big Plant looks and sounds great? Just checking . . .

- Seems like Microsoft decided to pull Bungie's announcement of their new Halo game from the Press Conference because they wanted to keep it under 90 minutes. Well, that was freakin' stupid. Umm, I'd think a new Halo game from Bungie is pretty big news . . . but maybe that is just me.

- If Brother's in Arms: Hell's Highway doesn't come out soon I am going to lose all interest in the game. I remember the developers talking about this title before the 360 even came out, comparing its technology to the then about-to-be-released CoD2 and claiming how much more advanced their game was. Well, that was 3 freakin' years ago! Initial glimpses of the game were insanely impressive, but as more time has gone by and other great looking games have come out, Hell's Highway is looking more and more average. I am still looking forward to the tactical gameplay, but I think this game should have been out over a year ago. Graphically, it now looks a bit dated. I'm giving it until September, after that, I might not care anymore. Shame, this was in my top 5 . . . two years ago!

That's all for now, if I think of any other games that caught my eye I'll mention them in a follow-up post.

July 10, 2008

GTA IV Update

In a previous post I mentioned how one of my biggest problems with the GTA series is that despite its open world nature, the game does a whole lot of hand holding during the actual missions. It tells you exactly where to go, what to do, all you have to do is follow the magic arrows.

I just completed a mission that was the perfect example of this and how it actually hinders the immersion and overall experience.

Your mission: whack some guy in his apartment. When you get there, the game "tells" you that you have to go into the building across the street and climb to the roof. Once on the roof, an arrow tells you exactly where you have to stand. Once you stand there, it triggers a cinematic showing you the guy through his window across the street, etc. Once the cinematic is over and you regain control, you do not have a clear shot because he is sitting down watching tv. Your only view is of the tv and his telephone next to it. His number is clearly displayed on the phone. The person that hired you tells you to look around for a way to get him off the couch. After the previous cut-scene, it was pretty obvious what I had to do. Call his home number to get him off the couch.

Off the bat, I already have a few problems with the mission. I don't want to be told how to whack the guy. Sniping him from across the street is great, I like it, but I just want that to be one option. One that you can figure out by trying. I would have also liked to have just been able to walk up to his apartment, shoot out the lock, and go in guns blazing. Hell, I wanted to be able to toss grenades into his window from street-level. What I don't want is to be limited and shown exactly how it must be done.

Another thing that bothers me are those short cinematics that break up the flow of the game. Fine, the game tells you to go to the roof across the street. Let me go there and not have to stand on any "hot spot" to trigger a cut-scene showing me exactly where the apartment is. Let me walk up there, take out my sniper-rifle, and search for him myself. Stop holding my hand so much!!! If after a minute of standing on the roof I haven't figured it out, THEN have the game trigger a phone call from your employer giving you a hint.

That is a typical example on how this series can feel so limited at times, even though it promises a "sandbox" experience. Sure, you can do whatever you want, but really only while messing around on your own. The missions themselves are very linear with a ton of hand-holding. If that is a result of trying to appeal to a bigger crowd (the casuals), then it should be an option you can disable.

Alright, GTA rant over.

P.S. - That mission reminded me of one of my favorite gaming moments. It was a level in Hitman 2 where you had to assassinate someone from a building across the street. The game tells you which building your target is in and which one you should go to for the hit, but it let you choose your spot. Best of all, you did not know exactly who your target was going to be. You had a picture, but it was hard to pick him out (a large meeting was being held and he was one of many sitting in a large conference table). Your assistant would begin to tell you things about him to help you determine who your target was (such as him being "left-handed"). You had a limited amount of time to do the hit (before the meeting finished) and you had to actually "think" and observe to pick your target. It was tense, fresh, and insanely fun.

That same mission in the GTA series would have had your target with a big red arrow above his head. Gee, fun. :p

July 07, 2008

Weekend notes

Had a great three day weekend.  On Friday Jeanette and I went over to my sister's house to hang out and light some fire works. The weather was crappy but that didn't stop us from having a good time.  Beer and fireworks are a great combination (although a possibly dangerous one.  lol.)
On Saturday we went out to eat at Michael's Genuine Food & Drink. The food was fantastic!  Very unique menu with creative dishes.  Some of the items might sound off, but believe me, the flavors come together perfectly.
On Sunday we went diving for the first time this year.  The weather was questionable when we were heading out, and the waters were incredibly choppy (half the boat got seasick) but the two dives we did were fantastic.  The water was exceptionally clear and under the surface you do not experience any of the conditions above.  It was tranquil and beautiful beneath the surface.  One of our dives was at the Neptune Memorial ReefCheck out that hyperlink for some pics (note, those are the official site pics, not me).  It was even more impressive in person (obviously), but largely because the water was so clear that the visibility was a lot better than when the pics on that site were taken.  It is a pretty surreal experience, like if you've stumbled upon remnants of Atlantis.  The reef is fairly new and is only in about 35 feet of water.  I hope it manages to survive any future hurricanes that may pass over it, because it is pretty shallow considering.  I look forward to revisiting this spot in the future.
On the gaming front, believe it or not. I somehow even managed to do some gaming this weekend.
Early last week I had to travel to Tallahassee and Jacksonville for work.  I took my PSP and started playing Final Fantasy Tactics again.  I've been putting in at least ½ an hour into that game every night before going to bed for a week now.  So damn addicting.
While bored in my hotel room one of the nights I played through the God of War PSP demo again and it gave me the urge to play a GoW game.  Since I have been too lazy to go to Best Buy and pick up the PSP game, I decided to pop in GoW 2 again.  I spent a good chunk of this weekend playing through it again on Hard.  Man, this game is a lot of fun and like I mentioned during my earlier impressions, the sense of scale in this game is fantastic!  Some sections are jaw-droopingly amazing!  Even with the PS2's limitations.  GoW 3 should be a treat!
I also played a bit of GTA IV again (finally).  I think I am getting back into it.  The game has its flaws but it is still lots of fun at times.  Maybe I'll beat it sometime this year  :)
I came close to buying Hotshots Golf for the PS3.  Gabe has it and I would love to play with him.  The demo was a lot of fun too.  I may cave and get it soon.
Lastly, there is a new video/trailer for Killzone 2 on the PS Store.  Wow, the game is looking fantastic!!  Still not on par with the CG teaser vid they debuted the game with, but it is getting very close in overall atmosphere.  I really hope Guerilla pulls it off.