News bits: ‘Today’ plays Rock Band, Activision drama

Hell yeah. Living on a prayer, indeed. It’s actually not that bad, considering that I’ve seen other players choke with far less people watching.

Other stuff:

- Some ripples and freakouts happened when game publisher Activision dropped a slew of (potentially) sweet games from Vivendi, including Ghostbusters, Brutal Legend and Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena. However, as others have already reported, this does not mean the games are dead. As far as I can discern, they are still being made, they just need to be picked up by another publisher.

Check out the story here. Keep in mind that Activision Publishing made the statement, not Activision Blizzard or Blizzard Entertainment.

- Online game rental house GameFly is pairing up with Xbox Live. Check out the release here.

- If you’ve never heard of Zero Punctuation, it’s never too late to be entertained. Check out the rundown of E3. Brace yourself for language not suited for children.

E3: LittleBigPlanet … magic for the PS3?

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One of the games I really enjoyed over the week of E3 was Sony’s LittleBigPlanet. It was one of those games I’ve read about and seen on the Web, but still hadn’t able to fully grasp what it actually does for players. It’s combines whimsical — and sometimes, comically violent — platforming action while giving gamers the potential to create worlds of their own, complete with traps, vehicles, funky backgrounds, etc. After you create a level, you can share it with others for play. The library of features and customization available to players seems almost boundless. I usually look at most “level creation” modes and get bored within seconds, but LBP has the potential to suck days out of someone’s life.

NCAA Football 09 … really?

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I just got this game, then someone directs me to AOL Fanhouse’s post about its wealth of issues.

I played the game just enough to noticed the screwy kick returns, odd speed model and broken Super Sim. I thought it was strange getting 30 yards of open space in front of me when I caught a punt or kick. I also thought it was odd ripping off three straight breakaway runs with OSU’s Chris Wells against Michigan State. I mean, I like Beanie — Beanie’s awesome — but the long runs came on plays where he was outrunning dudes to the corner and sprinting down the sidelines like Bo Jackson. Just didn’t seem right.

So, I guess it’s time to wait for the patches. Great. More patches. Outstanding. Finished games are overrated anyway, right?

E3 2008: Tomb Raider Underworld

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I wasn’t technically scheduled to check this game out, but it was one of the titles that’s been on my radar since its announcement.

If you haven’t played Tomb Raider Legend I honestly think you’re missing out. It was one of the 360′s earlier titles, but it also signaled the video-game resurrection of one of gaming’s most socially relevant characters. For the uninitiated who only know Lara Croft through the Angelina Jolie movies, know this — Lara was a game character first. The story in Legend was solid, the voice acting was outstanding, and the gameplay that reminded everyone of the contemporary Prince of Persia series lent itself nicely to the newer, streamlined Lara design.

Now comes Tomb Raider Underworld, which focuses a lot on the concept of the “underworlds” of the globe. This isn’t the underworld in the sense of demons and armies of the undead, but rather subterranean civilizations. The demo I checked out started off Lara in the middle of the open sea, where she essentially had to dive down and work her way into some underwater ruins. She’s got full scuba gear, so she can swim to her heart’s content if need be. She’ll also be able to fight sharks and other underwater denizens with her new harpoon gun. Water’s going to be a good chunk of the game, but nowhere near the whole experience. They wouldn’t put a number on it, but other people at the show estimated about 15 percent.

Out of the water, we got to see some puzzle solving regarding ruins that had be overtaken by a giant octopus, whose tentacles were jamming up gears and doors. We got to see how Lara moves differently in this edition, thanks mainly to the fact that see was motion-captured for the first time (they used a gymnast). They figured since Lara is a world-class athlete, she might as well move like one.

I didn’t hear too much about the story, other than it IS going to be loosely connected with Tomb Raider Legend. Your support team from the first game is back, but definitely in a diminished role, which kind of saddens me — I really enjoyed the over-the-headset banter between Lara and her team, so I hope at least some of that is still there. Overall, pretty tight demo.

E3 2008: Resident Evil V

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Under the flag of a new organization, Chris Redfield, one of the heroes from the original Resident Evil and his partner Sheva comes to Africa to investigate some strange things happening. Creepy, bloody action ensues.

Let me get this out of the way. This game is beautiful. I’d have spent more time staring at the wonders of this rendition of Africa if I had more time. At the same time I’m worried — because I could not stand the controls. Most of the pain centered around the way the camera snaps back to center whenever you use the right analog stick to move it. This made fighting a lot less fun than I thought it was going to be, especially with crazed, diseased Africans (and other assorted ethnicities) wildly swinging at me. It made aiming much more arduous (though I still got some nice, splattery headshots) and it also led to confusion when dealing with enemies from all angles.

Sheva is actually pretty clutch, healing you at the right moments as well as dealing out her own helpings of death. The co-op play gives the game more potential to be truly game-of-the-show material, but the controls … gah.

E3 2008 — Tecmo Bowl: Kickoff

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Yeah, that’s right. Harken back to the days of 100-yard passes and action cutscenes, which fly in the face of the ultra-realistic football sims everyone has now. It’s coming out for the DS in late September. I played it a little bit at the Tecmo kiosk, but the build they had was tweaked to show off as many cutscenes as possible — so one occurred practically every play. The cutscenes showed off players’ super moves — stuff called “lightning dodge” (where you elude everyone for a instant burst of yardage) and “pocket pass”, where you’re able to gun the ball hard enough so that it can’t be knocked down by linemen or linebackers.

The one thing you won’t see are NFL players or teams. No license. However, you can customize teams and players, so … leave it to your imagination.

E3 Media Summit nuggets: inFAMOUS and Wii Music

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One of the more impressive games I saw (but not played) was the early look at inFAMOUS, which is coming out in Spring of 2009. It’s an open-world superhero game built from the ground up, where you play a guy who becomes a master of electricity. I wrote a preview for the gaming Web site worthplaying.com and you can check it here. I’m particularly excited about this one, simply because it’s an original title, which means there’s no random movie/TV/comic book person who doesn’t know how to make games poking at the designers to includes stuff that people from above want.

Here, it’s all on Sucker Punch, one of those small-but-extremely-mighty studios that made it’s mark with the Sly Cooper games. I usually get a good feeling with stuff made from smaller, concentrated teams.

I’ve got a good feeling about this one… then again, I had a really good feeling about Dark Sector too. It wasn’t a bad game at all, just not what I thought it was going to be.

By now, you’ve probably heard a variety of takes on Nintendo’s E3 offerings this year, and some of them have not been positive. There’s Wii Speak, Wii Motion-Plus (or as a colleague of mine called it, “the item that makes the damn thing work like it’s supposed to”)

Then, there’s Wii Music.

Almost everyone that I’ve spoken to that got to play it on the show floor has come away slightly angry. That’s bad if your the company wants to bring “smiles” to everyone, as Nintendo stated during their press conference a few days back.

Near the end of that conference, we saw a drummer pound away — I mean go nuts — on the Wii Music drums, making it look like he was hammering away at will because of the motion sensing. Just one problem. That’s not how it works. You pick what drums to hit by holding down buttons and triggers. Nothing to do with serious rhythm or drumming ability. It’s just about the most unnatural thing you can ask anyone who has ever played drums to do. But then again, it’s probably because the game doesn’t seem designed for your typical rhythm game player. Aaron Linde of ShackNews discusses this here.

Time has been short for me this week, but I’ll have more stuff for you. Among the coming attractions: Fallout 3, Street Fighter 4, Bionic Commando, Resident Evil 5, Prince of Persia: Prodigy, H.A.W.X., Lego Batman and others. Cheers.

E3 Media Summit: Microsoft media briefing

First off, let me apologize for being so dormant. New job responsibilities have a way of doing that to a person’s gaming habits.

But once again, I’m checking out the still-shrunken-down E3 Media Summit this year. Monday’s not really a busy day for me, save for the Microsoft Xbox 360 media briefing. I don’t know what Sony’s got in its bag of tricks, but after witnessing what MS just showed us … they better bring it. No ducks or Ridge Racer. That’s all I’m saying. Red ring jokes aside, MS really isn’t screwing around.

Don Mattrick, the senior vice president of MS’ interactive entertainment business, entertainment and devices division, was the main mouthpiece of the event, talking about the power of big-time franchises and the “next wave” of game. He dropped the number of about half-a-billion in projected sales before the segue into the first demo.

Fallout 3: Given that the Xbox 360 audience is no stranger to bloody mist or flying body parts, of course they would lead with this. Todd Howard of Bethesda showed off some of the finer points of this post-nuclear first-person shooter, which reminded me a lot of Bioshock with its retro-creep, technical vibe. I like it already. One feature I enjoyed was an assisted targeting system the lets you focus on a particular body part. Pull the trigger, and you get a cutscene-like sequence where you watch your projectile’s path to the target. Very Stranglehold-ish. The demo closed off with the firing of a weapon called the Fat Man. It’s a nuclear bomb launcher. As in mini-mushroom cloud and flaming death to enemies upon impact. I want one. The game will be out in the fall for PC and 360.

Resident Evil 5: As you probably know, this takes place in Africa, where Chris Redfield (one of the heroes from the first game) is there to check out weird stuff happening … like crazy infected villagers with chainsaws and other horrible instruments of death. Jun Takeuchi, the producer, showed off a short, but very telling demo.

The big thing is that you have online co-op play. That’s a BIG plus. Takeuchi-san showed off a little bit of how this works, with Chris Redfield using sniper fire to cover his new playable ally, the unreasonably hot Sheva. If there’s one thing the gaming industry will show you, it’s that there are no average-looking heroes. Nope. Male and female hotness is a prerequisite. Get used to it. The game is slated for a March 2009 release on Friday the 13th. Cue evil music.

Fable 2: “Fable 2 is finished” were the first words out of Peter Molyneux’s mouth. However, the demo was still pretty short. The big development here was showing how you and other friends on Xbox Live can get together for some co-op wonderment. When you’re in a game, you’ll see glowing orbs, which Molyneux tells us represent other players entrenched in their single-player games. If you want them to join, just walk up to the orb, click a button or two, then boom, they’re in the your game. You can introduce them to your family, they can interact with stuff on their own … all intriguing. This one’s coming in October.

Gears of War 2: Ah, this demo made me lean in a bit. Of course, the game looked outstanding, but what ended up fascinating me more were the new elements of combat. Cliffy B showed us good stuff in the demo, such as being able to snatch a Locust soldier from behind and use him as a human(?) shield. Speaking of shields, there’s an actual shield you can pick up and carry with you. It looked like it could withstand explosive projectiles, and you can also jam it into the ground and use it as cover. We got to see Marcus pick up a flamethrower and use it to bring some Locusts to fiery justice. Another weapon was a minigun which can either be carried or perched on a windowsill (or other type of edge) for some serious attempts at depopulation. All of this took place inside a Locust sinkhole, where Marcus and Dom had to evade a Brumak and kill the pilot. And as a teaser, the demo ended with talk of actually riding the Brumak, with Marcus saying “If they can ride one, so can we.” Cliffy B capped of the presentation by mentioning “Horde,” a 5-player mode where you and a group of buddies try to survive wave after wave of Locust. All this is slated for a Nov. 7 release.

That did it for the big guns. The next thing that followed was some numbers talk, such as $48 billion is expected to be spent of gaming this year — bigger than box office, music and DVD sales. There was also mention of the 360 outselling the PS3, with Mattrick predicting that the trend will continue. He also mentioned that Xbox Live has grown to 12 million users, and that they’ve added more movies (MGM is on board) and TV shows.

Next came John Schappert, the head of Xbox Live, and he showed us a few interesting items. One was “avatars,” which are very similar to the concept of Nintendo’s Miis, but with many more options for customization. For instance, there’s a lot more clothing, as opposed to the Mii “tunic” (my wife’s word) that Wii users are stuck with.

Like the Miis, the avatars will be integrated into several games and services, such as Xbox Live Primetime. That puts you and your avatars into game shows, such as 1 vs 100, where you can win some real-life prizes.

Also, we probably now know why Xbox Live didn’t have a spring update. It’s because of the extreme overhaul that Schappert showed us when he updated the Live dashboard in front of everyone. Gone will be the blades … now you have “channels” as part of a completely redesigned interface that make use of the avatars and allows for a more seamless transition into games. At least, that’s what we’ve been told.

He also showed us the game channel for Xbox Live Arcade titles. We’re going to be getting Geometry Wars 2: Retro Evolved, Galaga Legions (yes, a Galaga sequel — believe it), Portal: Still Alive (yes! more Portal!) and South Park.

After that, we got the announcement of a partnership between Xbox Live and Netflix. Live users will be able have access to Netflix’s huge library, but also be able to share and watch movies with friends online. Nice. Movie night redefined?

Shane Kim steeped up to show us some games for all ages, like Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts, Viva Pinata: Trouble in Paradise as well as Scene It?: Box Office Smash. The original Banjo-Kazooie will be available for download on Xbox Live as well.

One game also displayed was “You’re In The Movies,” where you and friends use the vision cam to “film” various sequences, which are then edited together by the game into an intentionally campy B-movie trailer. I’m guessing some people will really like this concept and have fun with it. Not sure if I’m one of them.

Then we got some presentation on music games. Leading off was Guitar Hero: World Tour, which will let you create and share music with other people on Live. There’s also going to be a wireless drum kit, new guitar and music from REM, Van Halen, The Eagles and Metallica. Yeah, that Metallica. We also got a look at a singing game called Lips, which lets you sing along to music in your iPod or Zune. The presentation was capped off with a performance by a young lady named … Duffy? I’m sorry, I had no idea who she was, just like I didn’t know who Zac Efron was when he showed up at the Halo 3 launch. I think I’ll be OK without that knowledge.

Rock Band 2 came up next, where Harmonix CEO Alex Rigopulos unveiled the massive, 500-song track list for the game. Even more impressive was who they actually got to lend their music — Bob Dylan, new stuff from Guns and Roses … and AC/DC. My god … I hope my neighbors don’t get this.

Finally, Square Enix leader Yoichi Wada (who sounds like he’s come a long way with his English), gave us updates on Infinite Undiscovery, Star Ocean: The Last Hope (due in 2009) and The Last Remnant, which was featured in a short trailer. Mattrick came back up on stage to wrap things up, but was “interrupted” by Wada for one more announcement.

What followed was a bombastic, beautiful trailer, the kind of visual opulence that could only come with Square Enix’s signature series. Yep, we got to see the trailer for Final Fantasy XIII, which ended the morning with a rousing round of applause.

That does it for me for now, aside from the Gears of War 2 reception happening later tonight. Not sure how much I’ll get to see, but hopefully I’ll be able to get in some words with producer Rod Fergusson. If I do, it’ll be up here. Til then.

Review: Metal Gear Solid 4 – Guns of the Patriots

Here’s my review for MGS4 after playing it twice. My only regret is that I didn’t mess with the online play … it didn’t really interest me, and frankly, the single-player was more than enough.

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It’s strange when action heroes get old.

We’ve seen an abnormally huge Rambo depopulate another Third World country. The Terminator is our governor. Then there’s ancient Indiana Jones flailing away at Russians and surviving nuclear explosions in a refrigerator (really?).

And for the gamers, there’s Snake, the super-soldier hero of “Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots.”

Like the others, he’s been around since the late 1980s. But while other heroes seem diminished in their latest runs at glory, Snake’s final mission actually elevates his status as one of the coolest characters in the gaming space.

The rest of the game serves as a culmination of all that made the “MGS” series memorable – layered, intricate storytelling, compelling characters and touches of goofball humor.

Throw in some very good gameplay, and you have a legitimate candidate for game of the year.

Its only flaw? Not everyone will be able to appreciate it.

If you know nothing about the series, just know that Snake comes off as mix of Chuck Norris, Snake Plissken (“Escape from New York/L.A.”), a little bit of James Bond (gadgets and babes), federal ninja Jack Bauer and Rambo.

Dating back 20 years to the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System, Snake’s always been everyone’s last (and only) hope for the world, saving it from imminent nuclear destruction or some other horrible threat.

But what sets him apart from other action heroes is that instead of destroying everyone and everything in front of him, he has to essentially stay invisible until it was time to act. This helped bring forth the genre we now call “stealth action.”

Snake’s popularity among gamers skyrocketed almost a decade ago, when “Metal Gear Solid” for the original Sony PlayStation was released.

In addition to giving Snake a personality, the game also encapsulated director Hideo Kojima’s true vision for the spy-fantasy world he created in the previous titles.

Stealth action was blended with long scenes and winding dialogue, which made gamers feel like they were playing a movie. That style also helped launch Kojima into “rock-star game designer” status.

“MGS” was followed by “Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty” and then a prequel, “Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater,” both for the PlayStation 2. The stories of all three games tie together, leading to this latest title for the PlayStation 3.

So that I don’t spoil anything in the story, let’s just say you take control of Snake once again, except that he’s much older now, and he essentially faces the same threat he faced in the first “MGS” title.

The story is the strongest part of the game, and it’s also the most complex. You learn about everything from Snake’s role in the so-called big picture, why he’s so old, the plans-within-plans of the villains – it would almost be maddening if it wasn’t so intriguing.

However, the problem with such a multifaceted story is that it assumes you’ve played the previous games and have a working knowledge of how everything links together.

In other words, unless you’ve played (and beaten) the last three games, you’ll have no clue what anyone is talking about. This makes it much less welcoming than other mega-sequels that can stand on their own, like “Grand Theft Auto IV” or even “God of War II.”

There’s a learning curve when it comes to gameplay, since this is the franchise’s first foray into full 3D. Not much has changed from the previous control scheme, but Snake now has a gadget called “octocamo.”

If he places himself against a wall or on the ground, the special suit that he wears will change to the color and pattern of whatever he’s up against. It’s a very cool feature, and one that I was able to use to great effect in the game’s five acts.

Other gadgets include the “Solid Eye,” which functions as a radar system, as well as a small, invisible robot on wheels that you can use to scout out areas (and eventually buy weapons). You also gain access to some awesome firepower, like a rail gun. You’ll want the rail gun.

The game does an excellent job of changing up the action. Most of it is still sneaking and shooting, but there will be times where sneaking doesn’t do any good, leaving you to simply blast your way out of trouble.

One highlight is a riveting bike chase sequence in Europe, with Snake acting as the gunner, shielding the driver from trouble (sometimes in Matrix-like slow motion).

There’s a wrenching “crawl” scene, where the player has to keep pushing the button to keep Snake moving agonizingly forward to his goal. A final scene I have to mention is an old-fashioned fight, where Snake has to simply out-pound his opponent.

My favorite part of the game remains the characters. I’ve always enjoyed how Kojima uses the gang-of- freaks approach for his villains, and this group might be the most warped of all. I want to tell you how screwed up they are, but I also want to avoid spoilers. Just know that you have to shoot them when they want a hug.

Then, of course, there’s the game’s unusual humor. Much like Japanese animation, the game has a way of injecting bits of goofiness in dire situations. For instance, gamers have the option to stare at the shapely backside of a boss character as she dies. That’ll rub some people the wrong way, but it’s been a signature of Kojima’s humor for years.

Another thing Kojima has managed to do with the “Metal Gear Solid” series is break that fourth wall and actually acknowledge that you’re playing a game, which leads to some bits of real-world humor. The controller’s lack of rumble and the PS3′s advanced tech are just a few of the things the game mocks.

With all that good stuff said, the game isn’t without its issues.

The controls, while improved, still aren’t as fluid as you’d like. There were a couple of times during boss battles where the flow was hindered because of the awkward way the game handles weapon switching. Hand-to- hand combat, while more diverse in this edition, is also still a little clunky.

Another small nitpick deals more with taste. If you’re the kind of gamer who doesn’t like long scenes and lengthy bits of dialogue, you might steer clear of this title – it’s not for the impatient.

However, if you do choose to spend a lot of time on this game, it’s well worth it. For fans, it’s the worthy, full-circle chapter they’ve been waiting for – and it’s exactly how an old legend should go out.

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Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots
PlayStation 3
Rated M for Mature
Score: 9.5/10