Thursday, May 30, 2013

Zack and Wiki: Quest for Barbaros' Treasure

Ahh...Zack and Wiki. I still fondly remember the look my wife gave me when I received this title one Christmas. Sadly, one of the best hardcore Wii games ever made suffered from a terrible name and a deceptively childish cover art. Judging this game by its cover alone would likely lead you to an assumption similar to my wife's reaction.  It looks like a cartoon about pirates. Certainly it's riddled with fetch quests, boring collectables, and snooze-inducing gameplay? This couldn't be further from the truth.

Zack and Wiki is certainly cartoonish in style, yet the core gameplay is designed solely for the thoughtful gamer. As a point-and-click adventure, you control Zack solely with the Wii remote (no nunhuck required). Each level is laid out entirely before you begin and you're tasked with reaching a lone treasure chest, which houses a piece of Barbaros himself.

Former IGN editors Matt Casamassina and Mark Bozon spoke of this title throughout its development. I know many gamers have those two to thank for giving Zack and Wiki the attention it deserved. Casamassina awarded the title with an outstanding score of 9.0/10 and posted the review with a simple tagline: "But it. Now."

Sadly, Zack and Wiki didn't sell well enough to warrant a sequel. Even so, it's never too late to go back and revisit such a classic. Here are just a few reasons IGN, myself, and others loved Zack and Wiki so much.

-Incredible puzzles
-Multiple ways to solve certain puzzles
-Excellent pacing w/ steady increase in difficulty
-Varied level design
-Beautiful cel-shading
-Replay value thanks to the high scores
-Solid controls that work well
-Appropriate gestures that almost always make sense

Not only did Zack and Wiki live up to my expectations, it won my wife over as well. She too was enamored by the clever puzzles. I'll never forget one particular glorious moment of realization when she helped solve a difficult puzzle just by shouting "snakes eat frogs!" If you somehow missed this title and are looking for something to enjoy on your old Wii (or new Wii U), pick it up on the cheap and enjoy an experience you and your whole family can enjoy.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

So...Did The Xbox Event Win Me Over?

In a word, no. Not even close. Let's take a look at my list from yesterday's blog post, which detailed five ways Microsoft could sway the Sony faithful.

1.) Quality, New Exclusives? least not yet.

A new Forza game was announced, but aside from that, the few games they did discuss were EA Sports titles and the new Call of Duty, both of which I can play on a PS4 just as easily. Microsoft spent very little time discussing games at all. Their focus is clearly on entertainment as a whole. We did get a promise that a number of new IPs are coming from Microsoft Studios.

2.) Powerful and Affordable-

The specs are decent, but clearly out powered by the PS4. Casual consumers see they both have 8GB of RAM. What they don't see is PS4 has the much faster GDDR5 RAM compared to Xbox One's (yes, that's really the name) more common DDR3 RAM. The PS4 also has a GPU roughly 33% more powerful.

As to how this will matter when it actually comes to games? It all depends on which platform third parties utilize as the so-called, lead platform. If they design the game for Xbox One and port up to PS4, then the difference won't be very noticeable. However, if they design it for PS4 or PC and then port down to the Xbox One, PS4 will have a fairly noticeable edge. First party titles will most likely look excellent on either system, but again, a slight edge to the PS4.

They didn't announce a price.

3.) Free On-line-
Unknown...but unlikely.

Again, they didn't officially announce this, but after a barrage of other anti-consumer announcements, I think it's safe to say they will continue charging a monthly fee for Xbox Live.

4.) More Open Xbox Live Arcade (XBLA)-

Nothing reported yesterday leads anyone to believe it will be easier for indie developers to get their titles on XBLA. In fact, reports surfaced claiming Microsoft will not allow self-publishing, while earlier reports have indicated the PS4 will allow it.

5.) Don't make it "always online"-

Here we have yet another murky issue and Microsoft is struggling to give an adequate explanation. To the question, does my console ALWAYS have to be online, even for single player games? The answer is no. The one significant caveat is the report that you're Xbox One must have access to the internet at least once every 24 hours to check-in. So what happens if you're without internet for more than 24 hours? That question remains unanswered at this point.

And while I didn't include it on my initial list, I honestly never believed Microsoft would completely block used games. In some ways, the news is worse than we imagined. We've seen a series of bungled statements from top-level management at Microsoft, websites have written and re-written stories, and even Gamestop's CEO is throwing quotes out there and thus, adding to the confusion.

In short, Microsoft is attempting to make significant changes to the way we buy and sell games. This much is confirmed; you WILL be able to sell and trade-in games, yet used games will require you pay a fee to access the game...a fee that is reportedly the full price of the game. Sound confusing? It is.

What's most disappointing is Microsoft seemed totally inept and even a little caught off guard by the questions every gamer is asking. Statements should have been prepared with clear, concise responses. Rather than saying, "we're not ready to talk about that yet," Microsoft should have made a strong push to effectively squash the rumors surrounding Xbox One.

If those rumors are true, and it seems they are at least in part, Microsoft should have attempted to soften that message through clarity and explanation. Yesterday was supposed to be the celebration of a new console generation; instead, we now know for certain gamers just aren't Microsoft's focus anymore.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Can The Xbox Event Sway Sony Fanboys?

In case you haven't heard, Microsoft will finally lift the curtain on their next generation system in a matter of hours. A fellow gamer asked me yesterday, "you excited about tomorrow?" Honestly? I'd completely forgotten about the event today. Full disclosure here: I've never owned a Microsoft console, yet I've owned seven between Nintendo and Sony. So as a self-proclaimed Sony Fanboy, is there anything at all Microsoft can show today that will win me over?

It certainly won't be easy as I've enjoyed my PS3 immensely and love what I've seen thus far about the PS4...but I'm entering today with an open mind. I've never been one to shy away from "jumping ship" across generations or even being a multi-console owner. Growing up, I could only purchase one system and it had to be an appropriately priced system. Now as an adult, my chief concern when I purchase a console is all about the games.

Rumors leading up to the Xbox event suggest Microsoft's "Project Durango" will likely focus more on being an entertainment box that happens to play games, rather than a gaming machine that also features useful applications. Such a move may actually propel Microsoft to the front of the pack this generation as they seek to expand the market and draw in more casual gamers.

On the surface (pardon the Microsoft pun), that strategy seems likely to yield enormous profits; however, I'm not so sure. Microsoft could be on the verge of alienating its core base: the gamer. It's crucial they never lose site of who made an Xbox 360 possible. Gamers made it possible, both through their support of the original Xbox and their early support of the 360.

To win over a Sony fanboy, Microsoft must show a focus on the gamer and the games. It's completely understandable to pursue other audiences by offering entertainment options, but the core focus should be about games. Here's a list I've put together on how Microsoft could win me over today and at least pique my interest in purchasing the next-generation Xbox.

  1. Quality, New Exclusives- Regardless of which console you own, there's really no doubt that Sony dominated with exclusives this generation. Xbox had mega hits in both Gears of War and Halo, yet Sony offered a more diverse and unique range of titles such as Uncharted, Heavy Rain, Infamous, Journey, and of course, God of War. Gamers need to see a new commitment from Microsoft to focus on quality first-party titles. I'm not talking timed-exclusive Call of Duty DLC; there needs to be more. Now that Bungie has gone multi-platform, what will be the next Xbox's must-have title? A Gears of War game would certainly sell to the Xbox faithful, I don't know that it would do much to sway a dedicated PlayStation gamer. I need to see something refreshing, new, and innovative.
  2. Powerful and Affordable- Again, early rumors suggest the Xbox will be underpowered in comparison to the PS4 as Microsoft seeks to create a more affordable console. Sony even surprised developers when they revealed the PS4 would come packed with 8GB of GDDR5 RAM. Many expected only 4GB and while rumors indicate the new Xbox will have 8GB of RAM as well, it seems Microsoft is sticking with the slower, but more common DDR3 RAM. I'm not saying it needs to out-power the PS4 in every aspect, but I do think it needs to be close enough that the difference is negligible.  
  3. Free On-line- With the success of Xbox Live and its monthly fee, I find it highly unlikely Microsoft will make this a reality. That still doesn't mean it's the right decision. For years, fanboys argued the premium price resulted in a better experience over Sony's (free) PlayStation Network. Sure, the 360 had a great interface, but I could perform every single feature on the PS3...all for free. I already pay for an internet connection, I pay for the game, and I pay for a console...why should I be forced to pay again just to play that game online? If you're going to charge a monthly fee, there must be something more than just granting permission to play a game online. There must tangible extras that present a significant benefit, such as Sony's PlayStation Plus program, rather than just saying "it runs better."
  4. More Open Xbox Live Arcade- Indie developers consistently cite Microsoft as the most difficult to deal with in terms of publishing an indie title. As we shift further toward an all-digital future, it's imperative Microsofts works to repair these relationships. The gap in quality between a digital release and a full-fledged retail release simply doesn't exist any more. Just scroll through a list of last year's Game of the Year announcements where you'll find Journey recognized as the overall game of the year by several outlets. 
  5. Don't make it "always online"- Yet another incessant rumor leading up to today's event has been whether or not Microsoft will require an Internet connection for the next Xbox. Look, I have a reliable internet why do I have a problem with this? First, there are so many parts of the world that don't have access to the type of connection the next Xbox would require. On a more personal level, there are times I take my console away from home to visit with friends or family who don't have as strong a connection as I do at home, or don't even have a connection at all. Would these scenarios literally prevent me from playing a game on the Xbox? I can't imagine Microsoft would go down the route of making a console completely dependent on an internet connection. And let's face it, no matter how reliable your internet connection, it's always going to go down at some point. 
I can't wait to see what Microsoft has in store as it will undoubtedly play a significant role in shaping the games industry for the next decade. As for whether or not Microsoft can win over this Sony fanboy, we'll just have to wait and see. 

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