Best Game Ever: Streets of Rage 2

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.

Streets of Rage 2.

Released for the Sega Genesis back in 1992, Streets of Rage 2 was the follow up to the popular Streets of Rage. Very much a product of the early 1990s when beat ’em ups were a dime a dozen, Streets of Rage 2 still managed to stand out in an insanely crowded genre.  Like many brawlers of the era, Streets of Rage 2 suffered from generic names (Mr. X, Max Thunder, etc.), repetitive enemy types, and a world right out of the beat ’em up template set; but these couldn’t drag down the addictive and enjoyable gameplay offered. In a big improvement over the original Streets of Rage, each character in the sequel had their own unique set of moves and special attacks. The different play styles offered by each character lends to repeat plays through the game, especially in multiplayer.

The music in Streets of Rage 2 was also quite good for the beat ’em up genre. Rather than simple loops, we were treated with varied and fancy beats. One of the first things always mentioned when Streets of Rage 2 is brought up is that the soundtrack was one of the best on the Genesis. Obviously, I would agree.

If you were ever a fan of the beat ’em up genre, and you want something more than Final Fight or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Streets of Rage 2 is a great way to get your fix.

For these reasons, Streets of Rage 2 is the Best. Game. Ever.

The Sony NGP (PSP 2) was unveiled

Late last night for us North Americans Sony unveiled the successor to the PlayStation Portable. As of right now, it’s being called the Sony NGP, rather than PSP 2. NGP stands for Next Generation Portable. While it’s odd that they’re dropping the PSP brand name, maybe it’s a good idea to start a new legacy as the PSP has had some issues in recent years. Below are some photos of the device. It certainly looks like a powerhouse with its 5″ OLED touchscreen, rear touch pads, dual analog sticks, and raw processing power. With the official product shots, I’ve included a size comparison image, courtesty of Gawker Media. It sure looks nice. Click on image thumbnails to enlarge.

I’ll have more detailed reaction on the podcast tonight, but here’s my first reaction after the unveiling. I think the handheld looks great, but I do have a few worries. Let’s start with the worries so we can end on a high note. First of all, it’s a bit big. I know it has to be big given the 5″ screen, but that’s pushing it for a handheld. I like the move to cartridges, but that kills the UMD format completely. No going forward with your library, whereas the 3DS can play all DS games. The d-pad looks really close to the edge of the handheld, and I wonder if it’s going to be like the current PSP and cause hand cramps. It just doesn’t seem like they addressed the form factor issues at all. Lastly, and most importantly, almost everything shown was a mere tech demo. At this point Sony needs to be showing actual and announced games for this thing. Just about all that was shown was ported PSP or PS3 games as a tech demo. That’s a troubling sign. Also, the GUI on that thing is horrible, hopefully lots of tweaking is left to be done there.

Now, for what I did like about the Sony NGP. The screen is gorgeous! OLED technology is amazing and anybody who has seen a cell phone using an OLED screen will agree. I also like how thin the device is and how cool the idea of the touch pads on the back are. There has to be tons of great ways to use the three touch inputs on this. The dual analogs are nice, and some have said that they feel more like true sticks than a slider nub. I think everybody can be happy about that.

Nothing has been said of price, but this thing is probably not going to be cheap. For Sony’s sake, this thing better not go over $300 or we’re probably going to see a repeat of the PSP/DS war. Handhelds need to be priced noticeably lower than consoles.

We’ll have more details and reactions on the upcoming podcast, so check that out.

2010 Top Selling Games (disc sales only)

Here are the top 10 best selling games from 2010 at retail. Download sales are not including in this data, but more than likely the rankings would hold about the same. Looking at the list, Halo: Reach was right up there, but you can see how the extra platforms helped to propel Black Ops into better positioning. It will be really interesting to see how Bungie’s next project fares. The Wii had the most exclusive titles in the top 10 with 3, while the 360 had one. The PS3 didn’t have any exclusives in there, though I imagine God of War III had to be close.

  1. Call of Duty: Black Ops (360, PS3, Wii, PC, DS)
  2. Madden NFL 11 (360, PS3, Wii, PS2, PSP)
  3. Halo: Reach (360)
  4. New Super Mario Bros. Wii (Wii)
  5. Red Dead Redemption (360, PS3)
  6. Wii Fit Plus (Wii)
  7. Just Dance 2 (Wii)
  8. Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (360, PS3, PC)
  9. Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood (360, PS3)
  10. NBA 2K11 (360, PS3, PS2, PSP, Wii, PC)

Note: All games listed included their combined SKU numbers. For example, Call of Duty: Black Ops includes all standard, limited, and collector’s edition.

2010 Game Awards and Overall Game of the Year

My list comes out a little later than others, mostly because I had some catching up to do on a few 2010 titles before I made my picks. A few games didn’t end up getting enough play for serious consideration, but I guess that’s just due to other games being engaging enough to keep me glued to them. I hesitated as to whether or not to do a top 10, and I’m still deciding, so for now enjoy the category-based awards. 2010 was a fantastic year for gaming, this wasn’t easy to put together!

Best Graphics of 2010

Winner – God of War III

Runners Up – Mass Effect 2, Heavy Rain

This was a tough pick, because one could argue that God of War III is just a really shiny and higher poly God of War II, but that would be ignoring the massive scale of the game and the rock solid framerate and overall fluidity of the visuals. Simply put, few games really have pushed a console so hard this generation as God of War III.

Best Audio of 2010

Winner – Battlefield: Bad Company 2

Runners Up – Mass Effect 2, Red Dead Redemption

Mass Effect 2 and Red Dead Redemption challenged for the title based on the strength of their soundtracks, but it would be really hard to deny Bad Company 2 this year. The gunshots are incredible in this game, as are the booming explosions and crunchy sounds of vehicles rolling over debris and vegetation. Whether the sounds are close up or the muted sounds of a distant skirmish, Bad Company 2 really showed how a battle should sound.

Best Story of 2010

Winner – Red Dead Redemption

Runners Up – StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty, Mass Effect 2

Both the method of delivering the story and the progression of the storyline were bright spots in the overall experience Red Dead Redemption offered. When you reach the end of the game (the true ending, not the first one), it’s a powerful moment and one that will pry a fist pump out of even the most unemotional gamer. Red Dead Redemption isn’t just a great story for a video game, it’s just great for any medium.

Best New Character of 2010

Winner – Bayonetta

Runners Up – John Marston, Legion

It was hard not to give this to John Marston, but as great as he was he sort of fell into the typical Rockstar main character trappings of being made to serve fate. Bayonetta was just something so insane and crazy that I had to give her the nod when she managed to pull it off. The hyper-sexualized heroine was something that is sure to spawn horrific fan art and cosplay costumes, but hopefully great sequels as well. In the end, Bayonetta will have the longer impact on the gaming industry than any other new characters of 2010.

Best Online Multiplayer of 2010

Winner – Battlefield: Bad Company 2

Runners Up: StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty, Halo: Reach, Call of Duty: Black Ops

Call me crazy, but Bad Company 2 easily provided the best online multiplayer for me this year. The way that the game rewards team play but also allows for lone wolves to do their thing is truly admirable. With the different classes, gamers can play how they want and still contribute to the team’s success. While it lacks the audience and stat tracking of Halo: Reach, Bad Company 2 is more accessible to newcomers and fosters a greater importance of teamwork. StarCraft 2 could have taken this award if it was more friendly to new players, but the game can be quite daunting even for those that put many hours into the campaign.

Best Sequel of 2010

Winner – Super Mario Galaxy 2

Runners Up – StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty, Mass Effect 2, Battlefield: Bad Company 2

Not an easy award to settle on with such a big year for sequels, but Super Mario Galaxy 2 took the award because Nintendo basically perfected the 3D platformer genre with this year’s effort. Galaxy 2 doesn’t just give us more of what we liked in Galaxy 1, but it does so with so much more imagination and polish than we could have expected. Mass Effect 2 could have taken this award if the game didn’t wrap up so quickly after assembling the team. It seems like as soon as you have everybody on board, it’s time to go up against that final boss, who was a pretty ridiculous boss if you really think about it.

Best New Franchise

Winner – Bayonetta

Runners Up: Angry Birds, Vanquish

Platinum Games had a great year. They gave us two franchises that I think have some solid staying power. Bayonetta, in its first effort, put Capcom and Team Ninja on notice. There have been some great action games this generation, but I feel that Bayonetta stands above them all; and that’s quite impressive for a first effort.

Best Xbox 360 Exclusive of 2010

Winner – Halo: Reach

Runner Up: Alan Wake

Halo: Reach was a fitting curtain call for Bungie under Microsoft care. While it might be feeling a bit familiar at this point, the game still stood out above all other exclusive releases on the Xbox 360. Alan Wake could have made a more serious threat to win the award, but the repetition and ho-hum combat held it back.

Best PlayStation 3 Exclusive of 2010

Winner – God of War III

Runner Up – Heavy Rain

This was an easy pick for me. God of War III is a fantastic first entry for the franchise and it offered up strong action, amazing graphics, and a varied experience that keeps you engaged from start to finish. Heavy Rain, while really disappointing from a story resolution standpoint, needs to be commended for its bold approach to both storytelling and gameplay techniques. The impact Heavy Rain will have going forward will be noticeable, but I can’t shake how unsatisfying the reveal of the villain ended up being.

Best Wii Exclusive of 2010

Winner – Super Mario Galaxy 2

Runner Up – Kirby’s Epic Yarn

It’s hard to top Mario when he’s on his game, and he really was in 2010. Kirby’s Epic Yarn might be the most imaginative effort from Nintendo for a while, but Super Mario Galaxy 2 is no slouch in that regard and the gameplay is unmatched on the Wii for 2010. It remains to be seen if there will be a Galaxy 3 or if Mario will change up his formula once more, but I’d be happy for more spherical planetoids and funky gravity at some point.

Best PC Exclusive of 2010

Winner – StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty

Runner Up – Civilization V

I probably spent more time on Civ V than any other game this year, but it didn’t quite provide the same balanced experience as StarCraft 2 did. Besides, how many other games foster such a large e-sports scene that is as much fun to watch as it is to take part in? Especially in the past few months, if I’m not playing StarCraft 2 at my PC, I’m probably watching match replays or reading up on emerging strategies. Few games were as exciting in 2010 as StarCraft 2 on a global level, and even fewer will remain as exciting going forward.

Best Multiplatform Game of 2010

Winner – Red Dead Redemption

Runners Up – Mass Effect 2, Battlefield: Bad Company 2

For its incredible story, delivery of plot, and cohesive and immersive world, it’s tough to deny Red Dead Redemption the top spot here. I’m a documented critic of Rockstar, and the Grand Theft Auto franchise in general, but I was blown away by their effort with Red Dead Redemption. My favorite story moment of 2010 was when the Red Dead Redemption title card flashed up as the game’s true ending took place. It was satisfying and true to the Western genre. Mass Effect 2 was no slouch, but the recycled plot, only with a less cool enemy force than ME1, was just enough to drop it down to runner up status.

Best Game of 2010

Winner – StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty

Runners Up – Mass Effect 2, Red Dead Redemption, Super Mario Galaxy 2

Honorable Mentions – Civilization V, Battlefield: Bad Company 2

This was one of the most hotly contested years in gaming history. 1998 is often pointed to as the best year in gaming, but 2010 wasn’t too far behind. In fact, 2010 might have provided a higher volume of quality titles, though it wasn’t as top heavy. StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty leads the 2010 pack because of its strong showing on both the single player and multiplayer sides of things. The single player is fantastic for gamers of any skill, and multiplayer offers an amount strategic depth and balance of depth that’s nearly unmatched. Furthermore, the StarCraft 2 community is among the most healthy that any game in history has ever enjoyed, with heavy competition taking place around the world. If you haven’t looked into the emergence of e-sports, take a look at the competitive StarCraft 2 scene for an eye-opening look into the future of competitive gaming. For its overall impact on the industry, quality of experience, and longevity, StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty wins 2010’s award for best game of the year.

Review: Sid Meier’s Civilization V

Note: This review will also appear on Gamer Theory when it launches later this year.

When intsalling a game like Sid Meier’s Civilization V (Civ V) to your PC, you better know what you’re getting yourself into. There are games that come by once in a while that will grab you, fascinate you, and then refuse to let you go. After days worth of game time logged, I can safely say that Civ V is definitely one of those games. Firaxis Games has enjoyed a loyal following and huge success with the Civilization series, but they’ve never been averse to allowing the series to evolve with each release. Civ V makes some rather significant leaps forward in regards to presentation, pacing, and unit management among others. The result is a game that’s more approachable yet more challenging and nuanced at the same time.

For newcomers to the series, Civ V is easily the best place to get started. While there is a massive amount od depth to the strategy in the game, Firaxis Games has done a very effective job at implementing a great tutorial and a very helpful tips system to keep players from feeling overwhelmed. Also, at the easier levels the AI aggressiveness is toned down to the point where novice mistakes aren’t punished too harshly. While earlier Civilization titles are available on the cheap these days, Civ V really is the best place for a newcomer to get into the series.

For the experts out there, Civ V introduces a few new features that will make the game feel familiar, yet fresh at the same time. One of the biggest changes made to the game include the transition from square to hex tiles for the world map. This change seems minor at first thought, but it really makes movement around the world a more fluid and natural undetraking for units. Cities also expand in a much more organic way as well with the hexes breaking up the tiles in a more complex pattern. You can see clearly how the hexes work below.

Another big change is that units are no longer able to stack up on tiles with the exception of a single military unit sharing space with a worker. In the past players could stack multiple military units on a single tile, which often lead to nasty bottlenecks where a player or AI had decided to stack units for defensive purposes. This change is a welcome one as it forces you to manage your military units more carefully and always be concious of where you’ve left each unit.

All the changes made make Civ V a more tactical experience in all aspects of the game. Winning via science, military, diplomatic, or culture will take a very deliberate approach that demands that the player adapts to ever changing conditions. Quite often I would start the game with the idea to win under one condition, only to have to aim for a different one due to the AI’s agenda not jiving well with my own. This makes the game very replayable, even if multiplayer isn’t something that interests you.

The game isn’t without its flaws, but Firaxis Games and 2K has been working to improve the game via updates and patches. As of now, however, the AI could use some additional tweaking and improvement. The AI is tuned to constantly exploit advantages, but often times it flies in the face of logical behavior. If you get too powerful or too large, at times the AI will just flat out refuse to cooperate with you, even if it would benefit their civilization greatly. At other times the AI will engage in trade agreements that are quite obviously skewed in your favor. These inconsistencies should be addressed over time, but as of the time I wrote tihs review it was an issue.

AI oddness aside, Civ V is a fantastic PC gaming experience that is engrossing, addictive, and different each time you approach it. Between this, StarCraft 2, and the upcoming World of Warcraft expansion, it has been a strong year for PC releases.

5 Stars out of 5

Gaming 9 to 5 and still working full time

Uh oh…I have a serious problem. It seems that I have two nine to five occupations. I work at a web design firm, called i4 Solutions where I do search engine optimization and manage pay per click marketing campaigns for a variety of clients. I’m happy there and I put in my 40 hours a week. Well, I guess one occupation wasn’t enough, because I’ve taken up a second nine to five activity.

I installed Civilization V over the weekend, and I “one more turn” extended my play sessions Friday and Saturday night from 9:00 pm to past 5:00 am. Yes, I put in over 8 hours a night on this game. The game is just addictive, and I’ve got no power over myself to quit at a decent hour once I start my quest at world domination. Aside from Civilization Revolution on the DS, I hadn’t really played a proper Civ game since Civ II. I always wanted to give Civ III and Civ IV some attention, but I never found the time to do so. To be honest, I really don’t have the time for Civ V, but the allure was too strong this time around and I found myself on Friday evening downloading the game via Steam.

So what now? I guess I’m going to have to go part time on one of these occupations, because my body isn’t going to handle it. Unfortunately for me, I’m pretty sure I’ll have to cut my world domination hours down to part time status with the occasional overtime hours.

For those that haven’t really played any of the Civ games, Civ V is an excellent starting point. For you veterans of the series, I’m sure picking up Civ V is already in your plans if you don’t have it already. Just know that few games will sap away your time like Civ V will.

Check back soon for the full review.

Xbox Live price increase is an insult

Microsoft announced today that there would be a price increase coming to Xbox Live Gold. Here in the United States it will be an extra $10 per year for Xbox Live Gold, making it $59.99 each time it renews. While it is common for the price of products to increase over time in many instances, there’s really no excuse for Microsoft to do it here, and it’s highly dubious given their statements back at E3 that ESPN would be coming to Xbox Live and that it would be free for Xbox Live Gold subscribers. Well now, ESPN hasn’t even hit yet and Microsoft is upping the price by $10 per year. Doesn’t it seem like we are indeed paying for ESPN, just through the back door rather than upfront?

What do we pay for when it comes to Xbox Live anyway? Let’s break it down.

Playing Games Online

When it comes to playing multiplayer games online, Xbox Live is nothing more than a matchmaking service. When you log into Xbox Live and go to play a FPS game or a racer, you’re not connecting to Microsoft servers, you’re actually being paired with other players and one of the gamers in your session will host the game on his Xbox. All the bandwidth during multiplayer gaming is being shouldered by the gamers through their own Internet connections, nothing passes through a Microsoft server. The expense for this part of the service isn’t even remotely near what we pay for Xbox Live.

Social Networks

You can use Twitter, Last.FM, and Facebook on you Xbox 360, but why should these be costing any money to either Microsoft or the end user? All three of those services are free ANYWHERE ELSE YOU CHOOSE TO USE THEM. I have all three on my cell phone, netbook, laptop, and desktop and I’ve never paid a cent for any of them. If these are part of the “value” Microsoft touts when talking about Xbox Live, the US Government should be talking about how much value they provide in the way of breathable oxygen in the atmosphere.

Access to Game Demos

Yeah, downloading these does use bandwidth on Microsoft’s end, but each one is basically a sales pitch to the gamer. The cost to Microsoft in bandwidth for a game demo is so minimal that if only 1 in 1,000 people that downloaded a demo bought the game, they still come out very much ahead in licensing fees to the 3rd party developer. You should not have to pay to be advertised to.

Netflix and ESPN (ESPN is coming soon)

Netflix on Xbox 360 is still using yours and Netflix’s bandwidth to stream the videos to you. Microsoft’s role is to act as a 3rd party application to browse videos, and it’s not even the full catalog! If Microsoft is factoring this into the cost of XBL, it’s another ridiculous claim as you get a lesser experience on the 360 than you do on the Netflix.com site. You also still have to pay for your Netflix subscription independently from the Xbox Live Gold account. Like the PS3, Netflix should be free to use for all 360 owners. ESPN on the 360 is the same thing you can get for free online right now at ESPN3.com. Also, that will be limited to the same people who can already use it now. Check ESPN3.com to see if you can already use it. Again, this isn’t anything that should be costing Microsoft much, if anything.

Friends Lists and Profile Management

This is basically all Xbox Live does for you that they’re not actually making you do for yourself. Yes, Microsoft maintains space for your profile and your friends list, but that’s such minimal content that it’s silly to think that it costs them anything worth passing along to the consumer.

Add up everything there and it doesn’t really make any sense why Microsoft charges the $50 they do for Live and why they need to up it to $60. Also, Microsoft serves up advertisements to subscribers that can’t be filtered out, so despite adopting a paid subscription model, you still get nagged with ads that generate money for Microsoft. It’s a shame that PSN is so far behind in regards to overall quality of experience, because Xbox Live’s pricing is out of control. It was always bad, but we’ve dealt with it. At this point I am extremely dissatisfied with the “value” of Xbox Live and really hope that going forward Sony and Nintendo (fat chance) can catch up in their online support and force Microsoft to reevaluate their pricing scam, er, scheme.

The Best Game Ever: F-Zero GX

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.

F-Zero GX. Fast. Brutal. Amazing.

F-Zero GX released for the GameCube back in 2003 and brought a sense of speed that the GameCube had never seen before and that it would never see again. Developed by Amusement Vision (Sega), F-Zero GX is absolutely everything the series has always tried to be since it made its debut on the Super Nintendo. The tracks are well designed, the sense of speed is unmatched, the AI is ultra competitive, the graphics and sound are top notch, and the controls are tight and responsive. In my honest opinion, I don’t think there’s a better futuristic racer available anywhere.

So what made F-Zero GX so good? Was it just a case of the GameCube starving for a good racing experience? Before writing up this post I went back and put a couple of hours into the game to make sure I wasn’t viewing it through nostalgia goggles. After being humbled quite heavily by the computer for the first 20 minutes or so, I got my touch back and I started doing well and before I knew it I had invested the majority of my evening into the game.  In fact, it confirmed my opinion that the title is still tops in its genre; bettering even more recent titles such as WipEout HD.

The game sold well enough to be profitable, but it was in no way a big hit. Miyamoto went as far as to call the performance disappointing, but those that game the game a chance were quite happy with overall experience. In the end, Sega and Nintendo gave gamers a present that is definitely worth revisiting from time to time. I don’t know of any plans, but it would be fantastic to see this franchise get some sort of revitalization. To me, the 3DS is a no-brainer for an F-Zero game, but I’ll take it wherever I can get it at this point.

If you’ve never played F-Zero GX, you can pick it up used for under $10 online with shipping included, so there’s no excuse to not give the game a try. Be warned, however, the game is brutally difficult on harder difficulties and will take some commitment to mastery. Don’t blame me for any broken Wavebirds…

For these reasons, F-Zero GX is the Best. Game. Ever.

The Best Game Ever: River City Ransom

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.

River City Ransom.

The NES saw many beat ’em up titles, but in my opinion not one of them was better than River City Ransom. Yes, I’m quite comfortable saying that RCR (as it’s known by it’s hip fans) is better than Double Dragon, the Ninja Turtles titles, and anything else released for Nintendo’s first home console. River City Ransom is quite unique, and incorporated features that wouldn’t become standards for years later. The game featured RPG elements, the ability to backtrack, upgrades to individual moves and character attributes, and the ability to continue playing through areas that have been previously completed.

Aside from the cool blend of RPG and beat ’em up elements, River City Ransom also offered some pretty quirky and funny dialog. Upon defeating enemies they’ll often yell out, “barf!” before dropping money for you to spend on upgrades to your attack, defense, or health attributes. Somehow this never, ever gets old.

River City Ransom really is hard to describe, but it’s easily found in a variety of formats, including Nintendo’s Virtual Console service on the Wii. If you like beat ’em games or if you’re just looking for a good co-op experience, River City Ransom is an easy pick. For these reasons, River City Ransom is the best game ever.