StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm screenshots emerge

A Dutch website, www.insidegamer.nl has posted a big batch of screenshots for StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm, which is part 2 of 3 of the StarCraft 2 story arc. All of the screens come from the single player portion of the game and they contain heavy spoilers in them for the Wings of Liberty campaign. If you haven’t finished Wings of Liberty, it would be a good idea to hold off checking out these screens. If you have finished the Wings of Liberty campaign, the spoilers in the screens are very minor. Check ’em out in the gallery below. (Click on individual images to enlarge.)

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The original image post on Inside Gamer is found here: http://www.insidegamer.nl/pc/starcraftiiheartoftheswarm/screenshots

EGMi app available on iPad, Android soon

It’s no secret that print media is struggling. EGM disappeared for a while before Steve Harris revived the magazine and changed the focus. The reboot of the magazine has been successful, even if the circulation is more limited than what EGM has seen in the past. To bring something different to the EGM experience, EGMi was introduced that allowed subscribers to access additional and exclusive content online. There has also been lots of free content available online, including video clips, screenshots, audio interviews, and interactive features. Given the success of Apple’s iPad and iPad 2, making EGMi into an app just made perfect sense.

Right now the EGMi app is free to download, and it’s updated weekly with new content. There is still additional content available for those that subscribe to the print version or buy the current issue, but the amount of free content is quite impressive.

I emailed Steve Harris to get more info about the app and ask about Android support, and Steve responded to confirm that indeed an Android version of the application is in the works and will be announced very soon. If you have an iPad, check it out, it’s one of the nicer ways to read up on news and check out reviews with developers.

Also, to check out the desktop version, visit http://www.egmnow.com/

The decline of Sonic the Hedgehog and his hope for new glory

It’s no secret that Sega has struggled to put out quality Sonic titles. They occasionally come out with a decent effort, but your average Sonic the Hedgehog game is disappointing these days. What once was Sega’s flagship mascot that drove the sales of millions of consoles is now the butt of many jokes by gamers, journalists, and analysts. Why does Sega struggle so mightily to get things right? Is the problem on Sega’s side, or does the issue lie with Sonic himself?

Sonic the Hedgehog released in 1991 for the Sega Genesis. For all intents and purposes, he was intended to be Sega’s version of Mario; and for a while, he was doing his job well. Sonic helped push the Sega Genesis into a position of market leadership for 16-bit consoles in 1992, placing Nintendo is 2nd place for the first time since 1985. Sonic the Hedgehog arrived with a deafening boom. And that’s the kind of entrance you needed to make in the early 1990s. You had to show up in extreme fashion for anybody to take notice. In an era of neon shorts, MTV, Hulkmania, Ninja Turtles, and the Bigfoot pizza, loud and flashy is how we wanted our entertainment. Sonic the Hedgehog was built for the early 1990s.

Sonic the Hedgehog box art
Fast and full of that '90s attitude.

Sonic burst onto the scene, allowing Sega to create their “blast processing” buzzword and usher in their newfound in your face attitude. As long as extreme was cool, Sonic had no trouble pleasing Sega fans. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and Sonic CD followed quickly after the first release, and sales were strong for Sonic 2, which saw over 6 million copies sold. Sonic CD managed to buoy the Sega CD for longer than it deserved to be around, but it wouldn’t be long before Sonic’s appeal would begin to falter. Sonic the Hedgehog 3 would release to favorable reviews, but would only sell 1.8 million copies compared to Sonic the Hedgehog 2’s 6.3 million. While still no slouch, Sonic was seeing a decline. With Sonic and Knuckles, reviews remained positive, but grumblings about Sonic’s originality were starting to surface among journalists and gamers alike.

Sega continued producing Sonic games for their consoles with mixed results until the launch of the Dreamcast when Sonic Adventure came out. Again, Sonic was back on top with reviewers and fans excited by Sega’s latest effort. The game had been successfully brought into the 3D realm, despite some glitches and unsure feelings regarding Sonic’s new friends. It wouldn’t take long for that unsure feeling to grow. Sonic’s look also got a makeover, losing his pot belly and gaining some height, longer hair, and a bigger capacity for sarcasm. In the days of waning extremism, Sega dialed up his extreme attitude a few notches.

Sonic Generations
Sonic of the early 90s (right) alongside the more modern Sonic (left).

Sonic Adventure 2 still saw favorable reviews,  but Sega did little to correct some of the issues Sonic Adventure had (camera problems, odd glitches, unwelcome extra friends). In the end, Sonic Adventure 2 would become the signpost for the series, where the sign it bears reads, “CAUTION: BUMPY ROAD AHEAD.”

I remember being at E3 2003 and seeing Sonic Heroes. I got some good time with the game on the show floor, and I left hoping that what I had just played was just severely lacking polish and that it would be cleaned up by release. The gameplay seemed interesting, but it was a technical mess. Upon release, I found that most of those technical issues were still in the game, making it a big disappointment and a an obvious misstep.

Nostalgia and good will couldn’t keep up with Sonic’s slide into the downward spiral going forward; especially when 2005 saw the release of Shadow the Hedgehog. While Sega did a good job capturing the early 1990’s in your face attitude, their attempt to get in on the mid-00’s angst and “mature gaming” movement was a misfire of epic proportions. Forcing themes of maturity into one of gaming’s most lighthearted franchises didn’t spur on new fans, it only alienated fans more.

Subsequent releases in the mainline Sonic the Hedgehog series have continued to disappoint. 2006’s Sonic the Hedgehog and 2008’s Sonic Unleashed both turned Sonic into a sad joke. Any word of a new Sonic game has since been met with derision, mockery, and downright bitterness from once Sonic supporters and fans. I personally handled the review for Sonic Unleashed, and it was at that point that I resolved to avoid any Sonic games until they were both proven through solid reviews and the lens of time.

The Werehog did far more harm than good for the Sonic franchise

So why did Sonic falter when Mario was able to continue to flourish under Nintendo’s watch? Well, while Sonic himself was changed to fit the evolving fads of the 1990s and 2000s, Mario never needed changing as a character, simply because he wasn’t created as a reaction to what was hot in marketing. Both characters appeared in product-of-their-times titles, but only Sonic changed noticeably as a character. Mario could afford the occasional misstep, but everybody learned to blame that individual game, and not the Mario character himself. Additionally, Nintendo has been far more reserved in mainline Mario releases while Sega has been fairly liberal in their project green lighting. Nintendo refused to repeat mistakes between their releases, while Sega often repeated and magnified their bad decisions.

So is their hope for Sonic? Well, if you’ve been paying attention to the handheld space, you’ve known that Sonic has actually done quite well with his mainline titles on the GBA and DS. Additionally, Sonic Colors was well received on the Wii, even if many people refused to believe it. It just feels as if Sega is going to have to roll out multiple solid efforts before fans are going to fully trust again.

And what of Sonic Generations? For those that don’t know, Sonic Generations looks to be offering a mix of the old-school Sonic we all loved in the 1990s and mashes his up with the current era Sonic. The game will visit 20 years worth of Sonic levels, allowing the player to control either the classic Sonic in 2D side-scrolling action or the current era Sonic with 3D action. Early buzz is positive, and E3 2011 will be the make or break moment for the game. The concept is great, and it just might be what Sega needs to get the series back on track again.

Sega hopes that Sonic Generations will please Sonic fans from both eras.

Personally, I feel that Sonic is a relic of a bygone era. The 1990s ended, and with them so did Sonic’s heyday. Any attempts that Sega has made to modernize Sonic have irritated longtime fans, while his 1990s-based roots continue to shine through and deter those that don’t carry nostalgic feelings. It’s not to say that Sonic won’t see any quality games, but Sonic will never again be looking down at Mario unless Nintendo loses its collective mind. The Sonic name still carries decent weight in the industry, but if Sonic Generations is a flop, the damage just might be irreparable.

In one week I’ll be down in Los Angeles, attending the E3 expo. Among all the huge titles that are sure to be at the show, I hope Sonic shows well. A well-received Sonic can only help this industry when far too many games are based on space marines and bro-fist military squads.

StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm teaser trailer

Update 2: The trailer is back up. It’s different than the last one, but still good. When the dust settles and the embargo ninjas get scarce, I’ll post the original trailer once more as I have a copy of it. The description below the video describes the original trailer that leaked.

Update: The video was taken down. I’ve embedded a YouTube video for now, but we’ll see how long that lasts.

Earlier this week select journalists and StarCraft community members were shown Heart of the Swarm and today a teaser trailer was released. I’ve embedded the trailer below. For those that haven’t finished Wings of Liberty, there are some big time spoilers in the video and in my reaction below the video.

In the trailer we see Nova leading a team of Ghosts against Raynor in an attempt to either capture or kill Kerrigan. Kerrigan appears to be back in her old Ghost duds and possibly preparing to do battle alongside Raynor or possibly she’s just finished a battle of her own as Raynor finds her standing alone in a room that’s just taken significant damage.

Thinking about what’s in the trailer, it seems that Raynor is back on the run with Nova coming after him and Kerrigan. It’s possible that the Dominion has deemed Kerrigan too dangerous to leave alive, or that they want her for testing and intelligence purposes. Either way, Raynor and his team are back on the run and I would guess they’ll be looking for help either from the Protoss or other rogue Terran groups. It remains to be seen if we’ll be doing missions that involve Raynor at all in Heart of the Swarm, but at least we can see that their stories will advance significantly.

We do know that Heart of the Swarm will focus much more heavily on the Zerg, as their campaign will play out here. I was pretty surprised the trailer was devoid of Zerg. Blizzard still hasn’t committed to a release date for Heart of the Swarm, but I’m eager to find out those details.

The E3 2011 hype train is out of control

Best ever. Will blow your mind. Insane lineup. Tons of surprises. No holding back. Biggest ever. Gargantuan. Best ever.

Those are just some of the descriptors spilling out of the various journalists that have already been through their pre-E3 weeks. At first I was taking it all in as hyperbole, but it’s quite impressive to see how many respected journalists that have seen advance looks at games are selling the hype for E3 2011. All this hype excludes the surprises that the big 3 have in store as well. I’ll be attending E3 2011 and it sounds like it’s going to be one of the more crazy shows I’ve been to. Thinking about what we know, here’s what I’m expecting to be some of the big buzz makers at the show:

  • Modern Warfare 3
  • The Last Guardian
  • Battlefield 3
  • Uncharted 3
  • Project Cafe (Wii successor)
  • BioShock Infinite
  • Sony NGP
  • Mass Effect 3
  • Rage
  • Elder Scrolls: Skyrim
  • Deus Ex: Human Revolution
  • Gears of War 3
  • Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
  • Batman Arkham City
  • Mario Kart 3DS
  • Super Mario Bros. 3DS
  • The rumored Halo project
It’s a pretty long list, and that’s just basing things off of what we already know. I’m really hoping that Pikmin 3 makes a showing for Nintendo, that the Kinect and Move find ways of proving their worth, and that the NGP proves to be more valuable of a gaming platform than the PSP. It’s going to be a huge show and we’ll be previewing it in our next podcast. What are you looking forward to at E3 2011?

The Stupid Gamer Podcast #58

Episode 58 is here and as E3 approaches news is starting to dry up. We talk about the continued PSN issues, L.A. Noire causing headaches for both PS3 and 360 owners, and what we’ve been playing for the past week. Eat your Wheaties, listen to the podcast, and be successful.

Latest PS3 and 360 updates causing issues with older systems

Update: It now appears that the culprit for the freezes, lockups, and overheating is actually L.A. Noire itself. Sony’s update seems to be safe, and any consoles having issues after that update seem to be coincidental at this point. Rockstar has admitted that L.A. Noire is having issues jiving with some 360 and PS3 consoles.

Both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 have seen system updates lately, and it seems that both updates are somewhat problematic for older versions of the consoles. In the case of the PlayStation 3, the newest update is to address the issues with the PSN security breach, and the update is required to regain access to your PSN account. The problem, however, is that people are reporting that after updating their consoles that they’re starting to have random console shutdowns or lockups. Rockstar has posted in their support FAQ the following in response to people complaining about freezes or shutdowns during L.A. Noire play sessions:

Question: My PS3 turns itself off when I am playing L.A. Noire. What can I do?

Answer: We have received some reports of PS3s overheating while playing L.A. Noire or beeping three times before shutting down/turning themselves off, mostly on older 60GB and 80GB fat models.
Primary reports seem to be that updating to firmware 3.61 will cause PlayStations to overheat. There have been various reports of this on a few different games now, all reporting their PS3s turning off or “Red Lighting” after having installed 3.61. This can range from games randomly freezing to PS3s turning off anywhere between 30 mins use to 2 hours. We have confirmed locally that multiple games (Rockstar and non-Rockstar) overheat or freeze only when 3.61 is installed.
At this time we are recommending contacting Sony directly to report the overheating issue. However, this is not the end of our support; we are continuing to test L.A. Noire on all firmware versions and hardware models to isolate the issues and see what can be done. As always, we will update this article as soon as we have updates.

So Rockstar seems to have internally found that it’s the older 60GB and 80GB models that are having issues, but it doesn’t sound entirely limited to them. Obviously overheating is a dangerous thing for your console to experience, so if you have problems after the update, don’t continue to play or else you risk damaging your console. I have a 60GB launch system and I don’t plan on updating until I know it’s 100% safe to do so.

As for the Xbox 360, the latest update seems to be equally problematic, if not worse. After updating with the newest update, many Xbox 360 consoles have been unable to read discs. At all. Microsoft has already responded and is now sending replacement consoles to anybody affected by the issue, but there’s no denying that it’s a major hassle and inconvenience to have to wait for your new console to arrive.

These updates are necessary, but it’s crazy that they can get into the wild with such crippling side effects. It seems to me that the console makers need to include a rollback option on these firmware updates, though I understand that often times the updates exist to plug security holes with the previous version. At least you’d still be able to play your console until they fixed the latest release, however.

The PSN outage is harming developers and publishers

Update: Some aspects of the PSN are back online, but not in all regions, and the PSN Store is still offline.

Imagine you owned a business where you made a nice product. Also imagine that you were incapable of selling directly to your consumers, so you partnered with a store to carry your products for you. This store promised that they’d be open 24 hours a day and that they’d be helping you promote your product to millions of  potential customers each day. Like most stores, you’d have to share your space with the competition, but whenever you released a new product, it would get a featured placement in the store for a little while. Now, imagine that you were happy enough with the arrangement that you committed your products solely to that store and never partnered with anybody else to sell your product. What if the lights suddenly went out in the store with no indication of when they’d be back on?

For many developers, they’re facing some serious problems with the PSN Store being down. As the PSN limps back online, the storefront is still closed and a few developers and publishers have begun to comment on it a bit. While it’s not good practice to come out and say how many estimated losses they’re dealing with at this time, the losses do appear to be significant for some. The PixelJunk team has publicly stated that the outage is hurting them and have encouraged fans to buy some PixelJunk swag, such as t-shirts to support the team. Ubisoft has said that their losses have been noticeable but that they have the Xbox Marketplace to buffer the effects. Really though, the larger publishers still have disc-based sales and other platforms as revenue streams, it’s the smaller developers that are in danger.

For some of these developers, it has been nearly a month with no revenue stream. Nothing has been said in public as to whether or not Sony plans on subsidizing publishers and developers for lost revenue, but they have no legal obligation to do so. No employees have broken ranks to speak out as to whether or not their pay has been affected, but if the outage continues companies are going to have to start taking measures to stay afloat.

So aside from the PSN Store coming back online, what can PSN-exclusive publishers do? Unfortunately, there’s not much that can be done. It might come as a hard lesson that going exclusive these days is a risky move unless there is some subsidizing that is taking place from the hardware maker. I’m wondering if this will make publishers think twice about putting their games exclusively on a single platform. While this security breach only brought down the PSN, it could have definitely happened to other services as well.

It’s hard to say what the ultimate fallout will be for smaller developers and publishers that are locked into PSN exclusivity, but they’ve definitely taken one pretty hard on the chin in this process. Not only do they lose revenue that can’t be recovered, but their games have aged. In this industry it’s very rare for games to see a sales surge after the first month or two from launch. Sony has said that they’ll be accelerating PSN updates in the short term to make up for the outage, which means stuff that launched before the store went down are about to get buried in a deluge of new content.

If you are waiting for the new PSN Store to come back up to 100% functionality, don’t forget about the games that launched just ahead of the outage and give them a fair shot.

Best Game Ever: Chrono Trigger

Note: Best Game Ever is a series of posts I’ll be doing dedicated to the best games ever made. Each game I profile will be a game I’d accept as someone’s answer to the question, “what do you think the best game ever is?” So please, do not email me and tell me I’m stupid for posting about game X when game Y is clearly superior. And you never know, game Y might be the next game profiled. For more in the series, check out the “best game ever” category in the side bar.

Chrono Trigger. Back in the heyday of the 16-bit era, RPGs were one of the most popular genres and Japan was producing nearly all of the top titles. Square was one of the top companies during the era, producing the illustrious Final Fantasy series and other popular RPGs. Among those big hits was the fan favorite, Chrono Trigger, originally released for the Super Nintendo.

Chrono Trigger stood out for several reasons. First, the story was very engaging and the storyline could be altered depending on how you played the game. There were several possible endings to see, and some items could only be collected at the sacrifice of missing out on others. It was a fantastic game to discuss with friends to find out how your ending or order of events played out.

Another big reason that Chrono Trigger was so popular was due to its fantastic battle system. The game didn’t have random encounters, so you could skip fights if you wanted, but once you got into fights, they were tons of fun. Chrono Trigger allowed you to combine character attacks, and those attacks varied based on what characters you were combining. Most of the rest of the battle system was pretty standard, but each character was quite unique and it allowed for lots of experimentation and fun. As far as the standard JRPGs go, Chrono Trigger is still a game that provides an enjoyable battle system under the modern lens.

Finally, the other big memorable aspect of Chrono Trigger is its music. From its joyous victory fanfare to its moody and slower tracks, just about any old-school RPG fan can recall multiple musical selections from the game easily.

Luckily, Chrono Trigger is available widely these days. There are re-releases for the DS, the Virtual Console, PSN, and some older consoles. The game holds up very well, and it’s a game I seem to go back to at least once a year for a revisit. There was a sequel released for the PSOne, called Chrono Cross, but it didn’t quite have the same magic as its predecessor despite being a very good game in its own regard.

For these reasons and more not stated, Chrono Trigger is the best game ever.