Some musings on All-Pro Football 2K8

I’ve been binging on both All-Pro Football 2K8 and NCAA Football 08 for the past couple of weeks, sandwiching review time for Vampire Rain in between. Both games have a lot to offer, but many eyes are on All-Pro, seeing as how it’s the first alternative to the Madden goliath we’ve had in a couple of years. I’m thinking our sports department might want reviews for the games, but in the meantime, I thought I’d empty out some of my thoughts here.

First thing’s first:

All-Pro Football 2K8 — It’s like learning a new language. Before I started writing about games as a job, I’d been weaned mostly on the ‘Madden’ brand of virtual football. The pace and tone of 2K football takes some getting used to if you’re not ready for it. But at the risk of sounding spacey, it’s a more organic football experience, especially when it comes to running the football. You have to really concentrate on reading your blocks, seeing the field and even trying to anticipate what holes and creases are going to be there when you make your cuts. I like how you can actually pick and slide past blockers when you’re running between the tackles, which in real life, is where most teams focus their running attacks. That’s something that I haven’t gotten from EA in a while — the true feeling of smashmouth, pad-popping, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust football.

The problems occur with the mulititude of animations that overwhelm the playing experience, especially when you’re trying to air it out. Let me make this clear — if you try to institute the 15-step drop like some people try to do in Madden, you are toast. If you don’t allow a half-second for the QB to set his feet (which means you have to let go of the stick), your throw will be off. You also need to factor in the time it takes from pushing the button to actually throwing the football. I was able to get used to all this, but it felt like I was “steering” the QB as opposed to fully controlling him on more than a few series.

I eventually got used to that, as well as the time it takes for your receivers to run their patterns. They’re a little too slow coming out of their breaks in my opinion, but once you get into a rhythm, playing a little pitch-and-catch can be a visual treat — especially with all the animations the receivers have. I saw diving grabs, kneeling catches, coming back to the ball, the one-handed grabs (an Anthony Carter special), and straight-up solid catching fundamentals. I also like how reiievers blocked in the running game, instead of the run-and-judo-chop method in the EA games of the past.

Visually, the game looks sharper than the last time I saw it, but that doesn’t mean it’s the graphical messiah a lot of 2K fans were hoping for. I still see jaggies all over the place, and there’s still a general lack of polish. There’s also an overall dearth of game modes. I enjoyed the ability to customize my own team and take it online, but I didn’t like only having Season mode available. There’s no franchise or dynasty-type mode (though I’m not sure how you would handle trades), and I really hate not being able to add more “gold” star legends or slots to my team. Let me explain.

When the game starts, it asks you to build your own team by filling 11 spots. The game breaks down its legends into three categories — gold, silver and bronze. Gold is obviously the highest status of player, reserved for guys like Dan Marino or Walter Payton. You could literally spend hours trying to find the perfect 11-man stable to start your team. When you’re done, the game fills out the rest of your team with non-star (scrub) players. You can choose what your scrubs can specialize in (run support, coverage, etc.) to compliment the rest of your lineup.

Instead of number ratings, players have a list of special abilities tailored from how the actual legend played in his day. For instance, Marino is blessed with a “quick release” as well as a “rocket arm.” Rice is known as a “route god,” with “soft hands.” Payton has a multitude of gifts, such as “finesse and power” along with the scissor kick and the “goaline dive.” In a nice touch of detail, Payton even carries the ball with two hands, just like when he ran the rock for the Bears.

What I don’t get is why I can only have, say, two gold star players when some other teams can have three or four. And it appears I have NO way to change that, no matter how well I do in the field. That bothers me — I have no way of improving my team, which is something every wannabe GM likes to do, legends or not.

Something else that bugs me: The scrubs. They’re horrible. The “possession receivers” have great hands, but the speed of someone in quicksand, while the “deep threats” can run like the wind, but catch like Edward Scissorhands. Why does it have to be that way? This madness happens on defense, too — you could have Jack Tatum or Ronnie Lott at safety, but be prepared to watch your corners get the Joan of Arc treatment from the other team’s star receiver.

Here’s the strange thing — the more I play it, the more I like it. Jaggies and lack of game modes be damned, this is certainly one of those experiences that grows on you. Perhaps it’s the football caveman in me that enjoys the ability to bleed the clock dry by shoving Earl Campbell down the throat of an opponent’s front seven. Sure, there’s a lot of animations that can bog down the experience, but nothing quite matches the rush of truly planting someone with a Sweetness stiff arm or spinning past someone with Barry Sanders in the open field.

So, I’m going to take my 2K8 ball (as flawed as it is) and go home. To play, of course. I’ll be back with my thoughts on NCAA 08 upon my return.

From Comic-Con ’07: Iron Man

I should mention that I’m not actually AT Comic-Con (despite the geekfest that it is, I’m not as into comics, anime and such to call it my “thing”), but they DO have some game content there. They showed footage from the upcoming Iron Man movie, and now we get an eyeful of the game. Take a look.

I have to say, for a superhero title, I’m intrigued — at least more than I was with Superman. But where the hell are these missiles coming from? It’s like he’s plucking them out of nowhere. You’ll see what I mean.

Heavenly Sword demo for PS3 cometh

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Ah, I just saw on Joystiq that the demo for Heavenly Sword is coming out for the PS3 on Thursday, at least for Europe. By now, you’ve heard all the “Goddess of War” jokes. I got to play through the demo a few times at E3, and I have to say — it’s not exactly like God of War, but I think Naruko and Kratos may shared some notes over lunch.

OK, aside from the fact the main character is a flaming-hot Asian redhead, Heavenly Sword also boasted some other things that attempted to separate it from that other game with a blade-swinging badass. The fighting system focused a lot on “stances.” Naruko uses a combination sword, which can break up into separate blades (normal), become one giant broadsword (power), or become a chain with blades on it (range). Defense is handled not by blocking, but by countering and evading. The counter system is built on visual cues of color. When someone takes a swing at you, you’ll get either a blue or yellow blur around their weapon, with blue signifying a normal attack and yellow standing for power — this tells you what stance and counter would work best. Naruko, depending on the stance she’s using, also has blue and yellow blurs around her weapon. You use the triangle button to counter — if you’re timing’s right and you’re in the correct stance, then you’ve got a successful counter.

While this sounds great in theory, the execution felt a little too simple. For instance, I countered a lot of attacks simply by mashing away on the triangle button, especially when I was surrounded by enemies. Even the guy that played it before me said, “Yeah, when I get in trouble, I just hit triangle like crazy.” We’ll see if that’s still the case when the game comes out.

Visually, this was one of my favorites at the show. I ended up almost screwing up an interactive cutscene (yes, it functioned like God of War) where Naruko is running down a giant rope to engage the enemy — mainly because I was staring at how everything looked and moved. I even thought the rope was awesome.

Aside from some of the button-mashiness that was prevalent in the demo, I also thought it was a little weird that I couldn’t jump. Naruko, despite her appearance to the contrary, didn’t feel particularly agile as a fighter. Oh sure, she LOOKED flashy when she was fighting, but she’s not in the league of Kratos or Dante — yet — when it comes to movement. Still rough. One thing that stood out was the “power move,” where Naruko knocked some guy down on his back and brought the full sword down on his groin — good times.

Hopefully, this’ll give PS3 owners something to talk about. A lot is riding on this game in terms of perception … this’ll be the first original IP since Resistance, so perhaps the comparisons to God of War aren’t a bad thing. As we’ve learned, people kinda liked that game.

Even more reflections of E3

Time to empty my mental notebook on the week that was E3, in the hopes that what you read will provide some shelter from any boring moments in your day. Here we go again:

Day 1 randomness

– Started off with the Sony press conference, which felt loaded with gimmicks. There was Jack Tretton and Kaz Hirai hanging out in PS3 Home, working the virtual “grill” and then gracing us with their very real presence at Sony’s Culver City studios. Like the Microsoft press conference, there was a lot of focus on their games for the PS2, PS3, PSP. At the end, there was Killzone 2, which was looking pretty solid from where I was sitting. Before the conference, Sony kept us media well-fed and hydrated. Perhaps that was with the hope the ensuing food coma would help us ignore the fact that freakin’ Chewbacca was going to walk onstage and hold an actual conversation with Jack Tretton. Now, this cheese-laced moment wasn’t quite up there with the Jade Raymond “it’s-a-trap”/floating dead body combo platter from the MS conference, but it just felt wrong. I don’t really want the Darth Vader PSP now. Coolest game of the event was Echochrome, though I’m sure there’s absolutely no way I’m going to be good at it. It’s not possible. I feel mentally inferior just looking at it.

– I headed over to Capcom at the Shutters Hotel, mostly for a full dose of Devil May Cry 4. I’ve played the previous DMCs before, so I was able to jump right in and make use of Nero’s (that’s the hero) “demon arm” — I did some Bionic Commando-type stuff with it, swinging from ceiling and balconies, as well as grab onto some opponents for some Scorpion-style “get over heeerrre!” combos. It took a minute to get used to Nero’s single pistol, which you can charge up for some extra powerful single-shot action. As far as Nero’s sword goes, you can actually “rev-it-up” like a motorcycle and swing away for flashier combos. I actually didn’t find myself doing it that much, and it wasn’t that satisfying when it happened. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the saw in Gears. Overall, it was a solid experience. One thing bothered me … some of the PR folks were a little surprised that I was “good” at the game. I died at the Berial boss battle — I thought I sucked. It makes me think … who the hell was on BEFORE me that was allegedly “bad”? Anyway, one of them pwned me in Puzzle Fighter, so my playing mojo was apparently used up for DMC. It happens.

- One game out of the Capcom camp that took me by surprise (and others as well) was Zack and Wiki for the Wii. It’s a really cartoony-looking game, but it has the chance to really take control of the motion-sensing nature of the Wiimote and Nunchuk. Simple shakes and wiggles didn’t seem to do it for this game — you actually had to “turn keys” and “pull” things toward you. And Wiki, the magical monkey sidekick, was just too damn cute. It made me smile … as it stands now, I’d take this over Viva Pinata any day.

- Trucked over to Microsoft at the Viceroy hotel for both Mass Effect and Halo 3, 30-minute appointments each. Mass Effect was visually pleasing, but what attracted me to the title was how the story was into every decision you have to make as the main character. The pick-your-response dialogue was outstanding in one conversation (but it’s a spoiler, so I won’t share), reflecting some of the life-or-death choices players are going to face. We also got to see a bit of the multi-layered galaxy map, where you can visit (or at least examine) a multitude of different worlds for side quests and backstory. Planets that are key to the story are highlighted, so don’t worry about floating around the galaxy for days. Combat looked solid — there are squad commands, different mods for weapons, a cover system, a Gears-like roadie run — it didn’t seem contrived or forced. Casey Hudson, the project director for the game, really stressed the depth of the story and how it could “span the whole galaxy.” It’s part of a trilogy, where you can theoretically take your fully loaded character from one game to the next. Anyone who got to see Mass Effect also got a free Mass Effect novel as a literary appetizer for the game.

-As far as Halo 3, it looked much sharper this time around than in the multiplayer beta, which should surprise no one. The highlight of this meeting was the added functionality of the saved movies. You can now control the camera as if you were checking out instant replay in a sports game — you can pick any angle, any zoom, any player (if you wish). There’s a cool slo-motion feature you can add to your movies, so you can add a little more panache to those times when someone gets blown out of their Warthog. Players on Live can also recommend films from both campaign and multiplayer, and I also noticed a TiVo-style bar that will help you pinpoint certain moments in battle. I also got a look at the Brute Chopper, a motorcycle that features two Brute Shots and a massive, death-dealing front wheel that lays waste to any vehicle (or person) that gets caught in front of it. Ramming speed ftw.

Day 2 random madness

– Kicked off the morning with Ubisoft for some Haze and Assassin’s Creed. I liked Haze in terms of concept — you’re a soldier who ends up fighting on both sides of a war between a massive private military corporation and rebel forces. Much of the fighting centers around the use of battle medications called “nectar,” which is supposed to enhance your abilities — kinda like steroids for war. However, like any drug, there are side effects, the main one being something that screws with your vision to the point where you can’t tell friend or foe. You also lose control of your motor skills, so you run the risk of just blasting everyone in sight. You can actually OD on nectar, so you have to pick and choose what times you want to roid out. There are different sets of abilities depending on what side you play on — the corporate guys have the “nectar boost” and “nectar foresight”, which functions like Spidey sense in terms of detecting danger (like a grenade). The rebels can play dead, steal weapons from enemies, scavenge for ammo and make use of the “nectar grenade” — which causes corporate soldiers to go nuts and shoot each other (or themselves).

– Then there’s Assassin’s Creed, which I needed to see after the debacle at the Microsoft press event. I essentially played through the same demo we saw the other night, but was free to approach my target in another fashion — kinda like Hitman. Instead of tossing some dude off the roof to attract the attention of the guards at the door, I just blended in (there’s a “blend” feature) with a bunch of monks dressed in white and walked right in. The act of actually having to push my way through the crowd felt a little awkward, because if you mess up, you just bump into them — and that attracts attention. Your life meter actually hinges on how stealthy you are. The free-running aspect of the game is cool, especially if you’re chasing down your mark, but the combat system felt very strange. I just sat in a defensive stance, waited for someone to attack me, and then countered them to death. Rinse and repeat, enemies dead.

– I also played Stranglehold today. That’s getting its own entry. It wasn’t the best game at the show or anything … but, my god. What fun.

– After Ubisoft, I essentially spent the rest of the day at the Barker Hangar, which was the closest thing to a old-school E3 show floor you could get to. Some of the games I got to play and/or check out included: Call of Duty 4, Heavenly Sword, God of War: Chains of Olympus, Ratchet & Clank: Tools of Destruction, Madden ’08, Wii Fit, Uncharted, Folklore, Blacksite: Area 51, Stranglehold (again), Contra 4, Silent Hill: Origins, World in Conflict, Timeshift, Hellboy and some others I can’t name right now, since my notebook isn’t in front of me.

Oops. I just looked that the time, and I need to stop. I’ll share my thoughts on the above games as well as Day 3 when the opportunity presents itself. If you’ve made it this far, congratulations — hopefully, it was somewhat worth it. Until then, see you when I see you. I’m also going to slap some pictures up as well.

E3 2007 reflections: more conferences

The MS conference ended up setting the tone for the rest of the week — if you wanted to hear something earth-shattering, you probably weren’t going to hear it. Within minutes of the previous night’s MS event at Santa Monica High, you could already hear some grousing about how MS concentrated on the immediate future and not more of 2008. There was also no announcement of a price drop, which is what a lot of people wanted to hear.

Sony’s press conference felt the same way to me — not too much in the way of life-changing news, rather a better look at their upcoming lineup. It was a little gimmicky — Jack Tretton dedicated small chunks of his presentation in Home, with Kaz Hirai making a cameo to show off how the PSP and PS3 are going to interact when it comes to movies. One moment that burned itself into my head was the appearance of Chewbacca — and Tretton having a real conversation with him. It was a moment layered with theme-park cheese. Chewy was there to show off the new Star Wars PSP that had Darth Vader on it. I’m still trying to block it out.

To me, one of the bigger highlights of the event was the introduction of Echochrome, which has been described as an M.C. Escher painting. It’s a complete mind-screw of a concept, where you have to literally think in a visual, 3D sense to play of the levels effectively. Probably the most innovative game I witnessed all show, though the chances of me sucking at it are extremely high. I got some shots after the jump — it’s a downloadable PS3 game.

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E3: The wrapup odyssey begins

I don’t even know where to start. You never do, really, when you get to see so many games that could shape the face of the industry in the immediate future. I’m going to be spending the next few posts catching up — I’d have love to have done daily updates during the show, but I elected to stack my day full of appointments, so I didn’t really have the time to write anything cohesive. I also wanted to take some time to mentally digest the events of the week, so that I’m not firing off random impressions — just to write something contradictory later on.

There are going to be a lot of mixed thoughts on how E3 went this year. Some people loved the fact that they didn’t have to wade through an ocean of idiot fanboys to get within sniffing distance of Rock Band. Other loathed the nomadic wandering from hotel to hotel, paying parking fees and riding shuttles to make the next appointment. Others took every opportunity to party and drink themselves stupid.

Personally, I enjoyed it. I live about an hour away from Santa Monica, which was blessed with outstanding weather the whole week. I got to see most of the games I wanted to see, and I got some really good playtime in to balance out some of the standard watch-me-play demos. I ate free food and even went to a mock funeral at the end. I’ll catch you guys up on all that stuff during the week.

Until then, go play something.

E3 2007 — thoughts about the MS press conference

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So begins the debut of the smaller E3 — I just came back from the MS press conference, and I’m dying of fatigue — so I will make this as short as possible.

If you were looking to be overwhelmed by the Microsoft press conference, it didn’t happen. And that’s the way they wanted it. Instead of promising a sparkling, idyllic future to the folks assembled at Santa Monica High School (the picture you see is from the school amphitheater — yeah, I know. My school didn’t have one of those, either) Ms decided it would concentrate on what’s coming out this year. As Peter Moore said near the end, “Our cards are on the table — this is who we are.”

We basically got a re-rundown of what’s coming to us over the holidays. Moore called it one of the greatest holiday lineups ever. Mass Effect, Halo 3, Bioshock, Call of Duty 4, Lost Odyssey, Blue Dragon … it’s a hell of a list. Perhaps MS didn’t feel the need to announce anything extraordinary this year.

I don’t want to bore you too much (plus, I’m tired), so I’m breaking down this entry into a mixtape of thoughts/highlights.

– I liked the intro. An actual band from Illinois (some would say “Illinoise”) played the actual theme from the “Halo” series, including one girl who tore it up with the violin. I’m almost scared to ask how many gamers asked her out after that.

– They played “Rock Band” at the early of the conference, with Peter Moore playing the guitar … and failing badly. Hey, I’ll give the man props for willing to perish on a grand stage, but I don’t even think the Turkish Princess failed a song quite like that. The game was also paused at least twice in mid-song. Other than that, everything went without a hitch.

– The hybrid RPG Mass Effect is coming out in November, and it’s looking more and more like a must-have game, regardless of what genre you’re into. Plus, it’s got Keith David’s voice in it. I’m ready for this, playa. It’s really shaping up to be a true space epic, and I can’t wait to see it in person.

– Jeff Bell, the VP of global marketing, got pwned by Reggie Bush in an impromptu game of Madden 08, with Bush scoring on a long TD run after flattening a defender. This would mark the first time I’ve seen Bush flatten anyone — I expected Bell to get juked out of his socks.

– Hey, Sonic, Golden Axe and Track & Field are coming out on Xbox Live! Apparently, Live also has 7 million members and MS hopes to have 10 million by 2008.

– Not really into racing games, but PGR 4 looks tight, especially with the introduction of bikes into the fray. We took a ride through Shanghai and got to see the trailer. We also got a peek at Lost Odyssey, which should help make a lot of starving RPG fans happy.

– Cliffy B showed off Gears of War for the PC. There are new single- and multiplayer modes, and you can actually fight the Brumak in this iteration of the game. Cliffy shot off both of the Brumak’s arm cannons before stopping the game in the interests of not ruining anything.

– Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare looks outstanding. We got a demo that featured snipers in camouflage — your partner pops up in front of you, and you don’t even see him coming — the camo was that good. Remember the sniper in “Clear and Present Danger” who was ridiculously adept at hiding? That’s you. Everything from the grass to the way the soldiers move feels very natural — almost organic. The demo ended with you and your friend crawling in the grass with an enemy patrol just a few feet away. Awesome stuff.

– Ooh, saw a quick teaser trailer for “Resident Evil 5.” It looks like it takes place in an African setting.

– We got an extended look at Assassin’s Creed. Um … yeah. I’m a little worried. The game didn’t look nearly as clean or crisp as I thought it would (especially in comparison to some of the other demos we saw), and it’s due out in November. You had a floating dead body, some herky-jerky movement, and a fight demo where a group of enemies did the Bruce Lee thing of attacking the hero one-by-one. There was some free-running stuff that was cool, but the game as a whole seemed to lack a lot of polish. Granted, it’s only July, but I just got a weird vibe — perhaps that’ll change when I see Ubisoft this week.

– The night ended with a larger trailer for “Halo 3.” It looked nice, but I can’t shake the feeling that “Halo” is on the verge of jumping the shark. Once again, it’s just a feeling, and something that could totally be changed by the end of the week. Tomorrow, I’ve got the Sony press conference, Capcom, and looks at Halo 3 and Mass Effect. The next time you hear from me, I’ll have thoughts. Cheers.