Monday, August 27, 2007

And You're Gonna Boogie Oogie Oogie 'Til You Just Can't Stand it No More!

So EA puts out this game called Boogie - a new entry in the follow-directions music game genre started by Dance Dance Revolution, and bulked up by the vastly overrated Guitar Hero games (sorry folks, it's just DDR with your fingers, NOT anything like playing guitar).

Boogie takes the dancing from DDR but places the control into your hands rather than your feet. While one could theoretically play DDR with a controller instead of a dance pad just by pushing directional buttons, Boogie uses the Wiimote's motion sensors to let you control your dancer much like a victim of the Imperius Curse (!) is controlled by wand point - totally subject to your whim, but following your directions with jerky motions and a certain creepiness.

When I first read about Boogie, one of the key selling points for me was that EA had made a decision to allow freeform "dancing" rather than only giving you points for following a specific dance route ala DDR or Guitar Hero. This sounded awesome to me because I've been trying to find some Wii games that my daughter can play to have fun, without having to worry much about winning or losing. Now, EA did deliver on the freeform idea - you only have to follow directions for certain special moves - but they failed to make the game FUN to such a degree I wonder if it was on purpose.

Don't get me wrong, my daughter actually likes the game, but she's 4 years old, and Boogie is supposed to be for ages 10+! For me, the dancing portion of Boogie is abysmally simplistic, and changing the difficulty only makes it harder to earn medals and adds absolutely nothing to the gameplay itself.

You can flick your Wiimote up, down, left, or right to make your dancer dance. Diagonals do nothing, so far as I can tell. Each of those directions has one or two dance moves your dancer will execute. If you do the same direction over and over in perfect rhythm, your dancer will start to do a more flashy move....over and over and over and over until you choose a new direction. You can use the nunchuck joystick to move your character around on the stage. This is useful for collecting bonus points that appear randomly on the stage, and probably adds something to the video playback feature, but does nothing in terms of gameplay and, in fact, probably costs you points because you aren't dancing while you move. Finally, if you jump through the hoops long enough, you can execute super-moves, which do require you to follow a pattern in rhythm, but score lots of bonus points.

So the actual movements you do are a bit dull, and the movements your character does in response are duller yet. That's still not SO bad, because a game like this really is what you make of it. I could play Wii Baseball while sitting down and using one arm to mimic a pseudo-swing, but that's no fun. Similarly, I can sit or stand still and flick the Wiimote to the song rhythm, or I can get into the spirit and move my feet a little.

No, where Boogie utterly failed me is in its critique of RHYTHM. I can't make my dancer look even marginally competent (do flashy moves) unless I stick to the beat, but the beat that Boogie forces me into is HORRIBLE for dancing! Just because a song is written in - let's say - 4/4 time doesn't mean you're moving your feet/arms/legs/head on those exact beats. That's great for ballroom dancing, perhaps, but quite by definition the exact opposite of the rhythm you'd feel when dancing to a disco song full of syncopated beats! I started playing music when I was about 3 years old; I KNOW I have a good sense of rhythm, and I KNOW that if Boogie tells me otherwise, Boogie is - simply - full of crap. Scoring a lot of points means sacrificing myself to the metronomed beat exuding from the Wiimote's speaker, and it is positively maddening!

On the up side, dancing isn't all Boogie is made to do. Boogie comes with a USB microphone and a Karaoke feature that actually isn't bad! I've read reviews about the karaoke that discredit it, saying that it doesn't care what words you sing if words at all, so long as you get the notes right. And yes, that seems to be true - I could "Moo" my way through a song and still rack up the points if my Moos are on pitch. Is that a bad thing, though? If I go to real life karaoke, I care a very little if the singer gets every word right so long as we're having fun, and having fun at karaoke is often best exhibited by a lack of aural bleeding. This is, similarly, why I have a pretty low tolerance for The Singing Bee's contestants ;)

From a game-for-my-child perspective, the colorful characters and their customizable outfits are a plus.

And when it comes to pluses, that's about it, I'm afraid. I'm *OK* with my Boogie purchase because I have a small child who thinks it's fun. If not for that, I'd probably not have bought it in the first place, but if for some reason I did, I'd be a very unhappy customer. There's better Wii party-style games to be had, so if that's all you're looking for, skip this one!

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Legends of Norrath - First Week Thoughts

Well, I've got to say, I'm impressed. When I learned about Legends of Norrath at the recent Vegas Fan Faire, I was, frankly, kinda ticked. I haven't played a collectible trading card game in probably around a decade, and I hadn't been missing it. Not that TCGs were always bad - the strategy aspect is very appealing to me - but they got awfully expensive back in my college days, and they never seemed worth getting back into.

Now we have this new wave of ONLINE TCGs. Online? What the hell? This isn't like solitaire, where I'm playing with the same "deck" over and over, and at worst the computer version keeps me honest. This isn't like video poker, where once the deck is "shuffled" via randomization, the play-the-odds aspect is exactly the same as regular poker.

No, the idea behind a trading card game, and one of the defining aspects that made it so much fun to begin with, was the rush of opening a pack of cards and seeing what's inside. You take your cards, file them away, and they're collectible, so maybe you take the rare ones you don't absolutely need and place them in protective sleeves to retain their value - like a baseball card collection only geekier. So to collect virtual cards in this same manner seems....wrong. To me.

I can't say I necessarily would have given LoN a fair shake had I not attended the Fan Faire. But since I get to try it early, free (optionally), and - even if the game turned out to suck - got some chances at making server item discoveries (of which I amazingly have ZERO, despite playing EQ2 non-stop since beta), I figured I should take advantage of the offer :)

I always said about EQ2 that the graphics were great, but had nothing to do with why I have yet to find a game to take me away from it. The gameplay is what's most important! LoN gets major kudos in a similar regard: I may not like the notion of an online TCG, but so far I'm very impressed with the gameplay!

LoN offers a really interesting dynamic that I never got out of TCGs a decade ago. Magic: the Gathering, for instance, was all about building an army and slaughtering the other guy. Star Trek's TCG had combat between cards you laid down, but winning was focused on completing missions. (It was also terrible - just the fact that the Red Alert mechanic ever existed means someone should be shot)

LoN offers you a choice of paths: Try to slaughter the other guy, represented by an avatar with personalized stats (unlike MtG, where everyone starts with 20 health points and no stats), or be the first to complete 4 quests of increasing difficulty. You can choose to build a deck focused on one tactic or the other, or make a balanced deck that can flexibly take either path.

I spent most of the last week on tutorials and scenarios. The scenarios are a sort of short, single-player campaign not unlike other computer strategy games, wherein you must use the resources available to you to tackle opponents who have various themes, tactics, challenges, and special abilities.

A few of the scenarios are amazing, while others are amazingly frustrating. Droon was the first such bastard. ANY fight he gets into, he gets 4 points of damage absorption, which makes him extremely hard to EVER hurt (doing more than 4 damage in a combat is tough), and nearly impossible to kill. Beating him by questing isn't impossible by any means, but you still have to build an army to hold his army at bay, so you can't just go with a 100% questing deck. The best thing I can say about Droon is that he made me learn all the ins-and-outs of the deck builder utility!

There were some other tricky scenarios, some more fun in their challenges than others, but the worst has to be the last one. Ok ok, the last scenario in a campaign SHOULD be the hardest - I'm aware of that - but Miragul's ability to resurrect (at no cost) ANY unit out of his graveyard once per turn makes him just god-awful. It isn't hard to start the game accelerating faster than Miragul and get a couple quests under your belt, but once he gets up to 6 power and lays down Mayong Mistmoore, there's pretty much no stopping him. I'm going to have to try making an all-combat deck of extremely cheap creatures and see if I can just out-attrition him.

Frustrating as some scenarios may be, however, they really are fun, and definitely help get your brain buffed-up for when you take on other humans.

Speaking of humans...I finally played against another human last night. Good times! I managed to win, but it was close - both our avatars were down to 1 hitpoint when I finished him off with a Kick, for which I felt kinda cheap. I'm very much looking forward to more matches, and especially some tournament action. I hope there'll be a test of the tournament system near the end of beta, too, so we can see how it works (and maybe win a sweet carpet? ;)

So, what are the downsides of Legends of Norrath? Well, as I said, the gameplay is very engaging, and of course there's bugs, but bugs get fixed. The only thing that really bothers me about LoN is tangibility. I accept that, at this point, I'm just some old coot who only looks back fondly on how things were "back in my day." That said, it still bugs me!

I think it's the way the cards are marketed and "packaged" more than anything. The Legends of Norrath store (link here***) shows booster packs in little tear-open plastic sleeves and starter decks in colorful, art-laden boxes. But that's not even that bad compared to the "case of booster packs' you can buy. There's actually a little picture of a store display box full of booster packs, and you get a small discount for buying 36 at once. ($2.75 per pack instead of $3)

I used to pay $3 per booster pack for Magic cards, Star Wars cards, and any other TCG I once fiddled with. But had I kept those cards, I could still go to them 20 years from now and they'll be there, waiting for me to get nostalgic. I could invest hundreds of dollars into LoN, and 20 years from now they'll be so much digitized dust in the wind.

Simply put, $3 per booster feels like way too much for virtual property, and what makes me REALLY mad is that I like the game enough to have already bought a few anyway. Grrrrrr.

There'll be free boosters that drop off of mobs in EQ1 and EQ2, but we won't know how rare they'll be until LoN goes live. Mayyyyybe it'll turn out that they aren't terribly rare, and perhaps even that LoN will prove to be a dandy, lower-profit marketing tool to get more EQ subscribers rather than the other way around. I'd LOVE that, frankly. IF, in fact, those dropped boosters aren't very rare after all, I'll quit my bitching about the price for purchasing extras, I promise ;)

*** (might have to be logged into a Station account to view this page)

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

SOE Fan Faire Part 4 (Sunday)

Seriously? This is it? You advertise a four day event, but day four's "event" is "check-out?"



Not that I didn't know in advance that Sunday's schedule was essentially empty, but the total lack of ANYTHING interesting was a real let down. Next time, just advertise it as a Thursday-Saturday event, or better yet, Friday-Sunday.


SOE Fan Faire Part 3 (Saturday Night)

No more panels, which makes me very sad. I do love picking dev brains! Time for the banquet, however, and by then I was getting pretty hungry.

We met up with a couple more friends who don't currently play SOE games, but were long-time EQ1ers. One of them is a Vegas local, one the other is dating a SWG dev, so she came along just for fun. It was nice to see them again, and we were able to get a table all together. Permafrost had two tables reserved, but only about 8 registered attendees according to the website, so it seemed OK to use the extra space.

I'm torn about the dinner. On one hand, it was very tasty, filling, and meaty. Take away the bread and it was an Atkins dieter's wet dream :P However, it was also burgers and hot dogs.

To repeat: A "banquet" of burgers and hot dogs.

I've no doubt that budgetary concerns played a role in that, but it was still pretty sad. The one and only other Fan Faire I've been to had much better food. I can't quite remember what that food was anymore, but I know for sure it was many culinary steps up from a glorified cookout.

Ah well, I still stuffed myself silly and that was nice. There were various prize giveaways that I didn't pay much attention to. Then came....the wedding.

Does getting married at an SOE Fan Faire bring you to new heights of dorkishness? Yes. Is it beyond-weird to do a costumed medieval wedding while having Darth Vader and Stormtroopers lead the processional? Oh hell yeah.

Is it still a legitimate wedding, deserving of at least a modicum of respect and decency? Absolutely, and to the little prick bastard 12-year-old-looking Crushbone pussy in the camouflage hat who couldn't hold his booze worth a damn: You have NO IDEA how close you were to getting your head stomped in by a bunch of angry Permafrostians (and others) around you. Eat a bag of death.

...ANNNNNYWAY, it was a good time besides him. Watching big fat guys cram themselves into tiny pink shirts was scary, but I was a long distance away so that helped.

Brasse won the costume contest, of course, because she rules! She says she's going to keep making costumes but not enter the contests anymore. I suppose I'd feel similarly if I was in her shoes, because it's nice to let someone else win and she's awful hard to beat, but it still seems a bit of a shame that the best of the best won't be strutting her stuff on stage in the future.

More swag was given out at the dinner, too. SOE employees were trying very hard to give away a bunch of t-shirts with product ads on them. I was just glad that the dinner-swag was something useful, and not more copies of The Matrix Online (*cough*BlockParty*cough*)

My little group didn't wind up sticking around for the party afterwards. So far as I could tell, there was neither open bar nor karaoke, so my interest was minimal ;) Wound up back in the hotel room watching TV and relaxing. When the kiddie is with Grandma, kicking back and relaxing is a darn fine thing!

SOE Fan Faire Part 2 (Saturday Day)

Saturday morning's big task? GET BADGES AND SWAG!

The swag bag was kinda lacking, actually, because we were too late for t-shirts that fit. There were two choices when we got there: Small and double-wide camping tent. We chose neither, but I think SOE is planning on emailing us replacement shirts when they get the right sizes in...and figure out how to scan them.

We did get beta keys for Gods & Heroes and Pirates of the Burning Sea, though, so that was a bit of a morale boost.

After wandering a bit in the exhibit hall, and meeting one SOE employee who had one of the highly limited-edition Billy dolls (only 6 ever made, and Kushi has one of 'em!), our first major stop was the Q&A panel for the new game that SOE was announcing at the Fan Faire.

What we didn't realize when we showed up super-early to reserve seats was that the game itself had already been announced on Friday afternoon! Here I was sitting with my friends chatting about how much I hoped SOE would finally be unveiling the DC Heroes MMO, totally clueless that the cat was out of the bag.

The room filled, a bunch of SOE-ites showed up (including Scott Hartsman, which I thought was odd since he was an EQ2 guy, and EQ2 is hardly a new product), and again, with me and mine totally clueless, someone says "any questions?" and a bunch of hands go up.

After a couple questions regarding something about "cards," I wanted to raise MY hand and ask, "hey, how's about you actually tell us what the new game IS?!?!" But I didn't...I waited patiently and put together the pieces of the puzzle until it was clear that the new game was an Norrath-based online collectable card game.

At first I was really annoyed that we'd camped out seats for this crap, but I started warming to the idea over the hour-long Q&A session. I used to be a big offline TCG fan, but got out of it YEARS ago and sold all my Magic cards that were worth anything (not sure what happened to my Star Wars TCG cards).

I love a good turn-based strategy game, and TCGs fill that nook. I also love the lore behind Norrath, so a game that ties together turn-based strategy (as opposed to Lords of Everquest *gag*) and Norrath lore AND has some neat potential bonus items I can get in EQ2....well, they had me sold :)

But more on that in another post...

Anyway, the Q&A for Legends of Norrath was decent once I figured out what was going on. Next after that was an ATTEMPT at getting some news and info for the Vanguard branch of Circle of Shadows, but the "Vanguard Adventuring Classes" panel was cancelled, so I instead went to the Breaking into the Industry panel.

For the most part, the panel was interesting from a storytelling perspective, but most of the meat wasn't anything new. Still, even if I pretty much knew what the panelists were saying already, it was nice to have certain things confirmed from real industry people:

  1. Game design degrees are mostly worthless - talent and passion is what counts
  2. I can't afford to try to break into the game industry, because I need a much higher income than what a gamemaster makes (that's where most people start!)
  3. If I DID want to try to get a foot in the door, my best bet would be a job in the Midwest, where the poor pay would be partially offset by a sane cost of living that simply doesn't exist in SoCal

Maybe when I'm 65 I can "retire" into a gaming job ;)

Next up was the Rising Into Kunark panel. I was in the front row for that one, and I got to meet (via sitting next to) Allakhazam's Calthine, who was very nice and even asked a question for me despite having lost most of her voice (hard to get called on twice with so many folks wanting to ask their own questions). Still, I can't believe I had to push for that 2nd question - how could NO ONE in that entire room besides me be wondering what the Sarnak racial powers would be?? Shameful!

The final panel of the day was EQ2: Into the Future. Though it certainly needed a MUCH bigger room, the panel itself was awwwwesome. It's going to be a long, painful 9-12 months while I wait for the guild houses to go live, but I'm SO excited to know that they're finally being made! Lots of other cool news out there too, but I don't need to re-post all that here (since I already posted panel write-ups here). Here is where I simply give a big thumbs-up!

Next post: The banquet

SOE Fan Faire Part 1 (Friday)

Had a real good time at the Fan Faire!

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to make it for the whole run. I had just started a new job at the beginning of that very week, and that left a big 'ol gap in my available time off.

So my wife ("Kushi") and I left SoCal at 1:00 on Friday afternoon to head through the desert to Vegas. Too bad so many other jerks had the same plan! Traffic SUCKED, and we didn't get to The Rio until nearly 7:00!

Check-in at the hotel took quite a while, then we threw down our bags and went to go find the Fan Faire check-in/registration area so we could have our passes in time for the party. And what did we find? An empty check-in area!!!

Actually, it wasn't quite empty...after wandering around a bit looking for ANY open rooms in the convention area, a trip back past the registration desks led us to a couple girls who seemed to know more about where they were than we did. I asked if they were with Sony and they said yes, so I explained our situation of needing to check in. They sympathized, but were unable to help because they weren't Sony employees, but rather models trying to find the costumes they were to be wearing at the party tonight.

That was a bust, so Kushi and I went over to where the party was going to be held, and at this point was just about to begin. I found an SOE employee and asked how we could get our badges so we could attend the party tonight. He left to investigate, and came back to tell us that he couldn't get us our badges, but he would let us into the party anyway.

Later on, when two friends/guildmates got to town halfway into the party, we had to do more begging and cajoling to find a way to get them in without having their pre-paid, pre-registered badges.

It seems to me that when you're dealing with a primarily adult population, there should be more planning put around the fact that people have jobs and can't always get there when it's most convenient. Be prepared for the late arrivals, even if it means having the security guards watch a box of registration materials at the door to the party, and having an SOE employee come over to check in the occasional stray. For those that had to deal with the much lengthier hassles of one-offing the latecomers, I hope they'd agree that having the badges accessible would have been a bit of a time saver.

The party itself was great, and I didn't even dance OR swim ;) The open bar really helped relieve the stress from driving through a desert traffic jam, and we met a fellow Permafrostian and had a nice time getting to know him. The live band was pretty slick with their karaoke setup, and they were about 8000 times more talented than the group at the previous week's SOE Block Party.

After a couple drinks, I decided I'd give the Karaoke a try, and when I went up to the table to find the song list, I met BRASSE! I knew her (if only a little) from a time when we were both working on the same panel that was putting together Prima guides for EQ2's original release and the Kingdom of Sky expansion. Her maps are positively phenomenal! (give her a job, SOE!) We planned out a Billy Idol rock block, but though we were told we would simply have to wait about an hour to get up there, but the band got tired and went home before we got our chance :(

I drowned my sorrows in a giant omelet, and then went back to the room for a nice, alcohol-aided slumber.

By the way...we never did see any costumed-models show up at the party. They could still be sitting there - at the Fan Faire registration desk - to this very day, waiting for costumes that will never come...