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Jason Evangelho

First impressions: Killzone 3 Open Beta

Has the Call of Duty killer finally arrived?

It would be both lazy and a gross understatement to define “Killzone 3” as a highly anticipated sequel. In a multi-platform world where the almighty exclusive faces extinction, Guerilla‘s Killzone franchise has an overwhelming burden. This third installment is responsible for demonstrating the fidelity of Sony’s Move controller to its core audience, further pushing Sony’s aggressive 3D strategy, and of course being one more compelling reason to own a Playstation 3.

We won’t pass judgment just yet on the Move functionality or 3D presentation. However, if the recently released Multiplayer Open Beta is any indication, “Killzone 3” is poised to not only surpass “Killzone 2” in technical achievement and presentation, but also completely win over FPS fans under-whelmed by the responsive but considerably weighted control scheme of “Killzone 2.”

Killzone’s heavy feel isn’t unintentional, nor should it be interpreted as input lag. It’s one of the franchise’s signatures, meant to instill a sense of weight and realism. After all, waging war against the Helghast Empire isn’t supposed to be a cakewalk. Call of Duty veterans may cry foul, but Activision’s monster FPS has always felt too arcadey – and too buggy – for my taste. Still, for all of Guerilla’s stunning presentation and impeccable sound design, “Killzone 2” felt too weighted down when it counted. Turning felt laborious even with controller sensitivity cranked up.

Without question, Guerilla Games found its perfect groove with “Killzone 3.” Aiming and accelerating is snappier while movement still feels properly weighted. Reload animations – realistically lengthy as they are – remain a pleasure to observe. From our considerable time with the Beta’s Frozen Dam level, it’s undeniable that “Killzone 3” has experienced another surge forward in graphical fidelity, even though it has only been two years since the last installment.

Most impressive is the feedback system. Each squeeze of the trigger feels impactful on both ends of the barrel, and visual cues clearly and quickly alert you of kills and assists. Once again the sound design is flawless and the sense of immersion when rocking 5.1 surround is breathtaking.

The redesigned class system and the now-requisite level progression has also been tweaked to offer skill rewards and upgrades at just the right intervals, and ensures that both newbies and veterans will be salivating to start the next round.

One more vital component deserves mention: Although we had trouble connecting to matches (expected Beta behavior), once the mayhem started there wasn’t an ounce of lag present. This is a factor that distinguishes “Killzone 3” from its competition.

We’ll have a much more detailed look at multiplayer as well as the single player campaign when our review lands later this month. But if first impressions are everything, consider us duly impressed.

Sony unveils highly anticipated PSP2 system

Code-named Next Generation Portable, the new handheld is a technological leap forward

Technology blogs, forums and school kids alike have been crafting their own fantastic visions of the Playstation Portable (PSP) successor. Well, before Sony’s PSPgo was even released. Mockups ranging from pencil drawn disasters to highly believable (and drool-worthy) artist renderings have tickled our imagination. Predictions of the technology bundled inside Sony’s newest handheld have been equally entertaining.

Recently, several reputable (but anonymous) sources from inside the industry have claimed the PSP2 would rival the Playstation 3 in graphical prowess and give developers the means to provide gamers with a seamless transition between portable and home versions of the same game. Would it boast touch and motion sensitive controls? Would it trump the iPhone and 3DS under the hood?

After several agonizing months of rumors, speculation and daydreaming, Sony has pulled back the curtain on the highly anticipated PSP2 handheld system, now sporting the codename NGP (Next Generation Portable). During a lengthy press conference attended by members of the global press, the company finally put rumors to rest. Sony’s next handheld system represents a massive technological leap forward. Without further delay, here are the initial tech specs and first official images:

-5 inch OLED featuring 960×544 resolution
-3G plus Wifi (B/G/N) means constant connectivity
-ARM cortex A9 core CPU
-Bluetooth 2.1
-Front and rear touch pads which enable “touch, grab, trace, push or pull”
-Six-axis motion control capabilities
-Front and rear cameras, with microphone
-Dual “micro-analog” sticks designed to resemble dual shock controller
-4x the resolution of the PSP
-Similar in general design to the PSP 3000
-“Live Area” incorporates Xbox Live and Facebook-style features into the system’s UI
-New, flash based game medium
-Releases this holiday in Japan

Review: Plants vs Zombies DS

Infectious tower defense game “Plants vs. Zombies” arrives for Nintendo’s DS handheld

PopCap has a unique grip on the video game industry. Titles like “Bejeweled”, “Zuma” and “Peggle” are staples among the casual crowd but are equally capable of hypnotizing core players for hours on end. This is because every game PopCap produces is built on the foundation Tetris established: Games are simple to learn, difficult to master and translate well to multiple platforms. This is especially true for “Plants vs. Zombies”, one of the most engaging and engrossing tower defense games in history.

“Plants vs. Zombies” (PvZ) is the latest PopCap title to be transferred to the Nintendo DS (see also: “Bookworm”, “Bejeweled Twist” and “Peggle”) and it’s brimming with personality. For the uninitiated (where have you been hiding?) PvZ lets you plant dozens of charming yet deadly perennials in a bid to protect your house (and your brains) from an onslaught of 26 humorous, specialized zombies. In true PopCap fashion, each level you complete rewards you with a new ability or plant to add to your arsenal, adding a new layer of depth and difficulty literally every few minutes. Will you wall up early for a late-game offensive, or take it to the zombies with the awesome fireball/threepeater combo? How will you deal with that sneaky underwater zombie? The foundation of the game, especially to tower defense nuts, is magnetic. With a couple minor exceptions, this is a fantastic tower defense experience and an excellent port priced to move($19.99). The DS version also packs a few exclusive features and is arguably easier to control than its console cousins; the stylus is a natural fit for any game in this genre.

Q&A with Magic: The Gathering – Tactics Producer Mark Tuttle

College News gets tactical and magical with Sony Online’s executive producer

Picture this scenario: You’re a Penn State graduate with a newly acquired graduate degree in combinatorial mathematics. Shortly after becoming a professor of mathematics at Whitman College in 1993, you set your sights on the future and ponder your next move. If your name is Dr. Richard Garfield, you settle on finalizing and releasing “Magic: The Gathering,” which becomes the most popular and addictive collectible trading card game on the planet.

Eighteen years later, there are a staggering six million “Magic: The Gathering” players across 70 countries, and the game has been a towering success for Dungeons and Dragons publisher Wizards of the Coast. This week, a new – and most importantly free – way to play the game has been released for PC gamers everywhere thanks to a partnership between Sony Online Entertainment and Wizards of the Coast. With the game’s hundreds of spells and limitless combos, will “Magic: The Gathering – Tactics” appeal to hardcore veterans of the paper card game and be accessible to newcomers alike?

College News recently chatted with Mark Tuttle, Executive Producer of “Magic: The Gathering – Tactics”, to get a bit more insight into this digital incarnation. First let’s get you up to speed with a developer diary Mark recently recorded.

CN: From an outsider looking in, what the heck is “Magic: The Gathering – Tactics”?

Mark Tuttle: The other digital incarnations of Magic (“Duels of the Planeswalkers,” “Magic Online”) are basically just translations of the card game. Tactics is an online, 3D tactics game, kind of perpendicular to the card game. We’re taking familiar gameplay, familiar characters, familiar themes and spells and putting them on a 3D battleground. You’re a planeswalker – a powerful magician – casting spells and summoning creatures to defeat your opponent. Your avatar will grow with you as you increase your spell book and your abilities.

CN: Since this is a Sony gig, are there any plans for a PlayStation 3 version?

Mark Tuttle: Definitely, it’s coming sometime in 2011.

CN: So this would be a free to play title on the PlayStation Network? Will it adopt the same model as the PC version with optional micro-transactions?

Mark Tuttle: That’s the current plan, the goal is to make it as close to the PC version as possible. Unfortunately there won’t be any cross-platform play. I’d certainly like to see that though.

CN: Popular PC games like “StarCraft 2” match up multiplayer opponents based on skills. How are online matches determined for Tactics? Are players matched up evenly?

Mark Tuttle: If you wander into a tourney you’ll pretty much get paired with whoever else happens to be in the tournament, whether it’s constructed, booster draft or open tournaments. It’s no different than walking into a shop or larger event. You’re going to be playing against whatever skill level is sitting across from you. There are a lot of games online where noobs just get destroyed. We do have a mode called Casual Play. The way that works is you’ll be paired up with somebody who has a similar score, of fairly equal skill level, to try to preserve that good game experience. It’s based on your Player vs Player(PVP) play.

CN: One of the drawbacks of free-to-play games is that cash-crazy players can buy a competitive advantage. Any risk of that happening here?

Mark Tuttle: I know guys who will spend a ton of money on a new release (of the card game). They’ve got four of everything, but they’re not that good. Then there are people who make a very targeted deck who are very good players and stay very competitive without spending lots of money. I don’t think how much you spend is a reflection of how competitive you are or aren’t in this game. If you don’t want to spend a lot of money you’ll probably have to work harder at it, but you’re still going to have a lot of fun.

CN: You guys recently held a beta test for members of the press. Did your developers have any revelations or notice anything to change at the last minute?

Mark Tuttle: Absolutely, that’s the beauty of these games. We can test and test and test, but because our spells can be chained together, you get things that are completely unexpected. We play test as hard as we can.  Then on the day of release somebody finds something and we slap our heads and go “oh, God.!” We’re constantly balancing, constantly changing. In 10 years we hope to be here still tuning the game and churning out sets.

CN: I participated in the Beta, and couldn’t stop drooling over the possibility of managing and building my spellbooks on an iPad…

Mark Tuttle: I have a lot of fantasies about having an iPad and writing it off on my taxes (laughs). But it’s the kind of thing where anything is possible. There are no plans for that right now but I wouldn’t rule anything out.

As a commanding Planeswalker in “Magic: The Gathering – Tactics”, players cast devastating spells such as Fireball, Doom Blade, Pacifism and Lightning Bolt, and control incredible creatures like Serra Angel, Lord of the Pit, Colossus of Sardia or Raya Dawnbringer. Look for this fellow Magic junkie online under the Station ID killyourfm. Download the free-to-play game at http://www.magicthegatheringtactics.com/

Hardcore Magic junkies should check out this website, which details literally every card in the game.

Kingdom Hearts Re:coded review

The popular Disney/Final Fantasy crossover gets the review treatment

Stick with us here: “Kingdom Hearts Re:coded” is a remake of the Japanese-only episodic cell phone release “Kingdom Hearts Coded,” itself a vague re-telling of the original “Kingdom Hearts” game on PlayStation 2. But it’s also a sequel to “Kingdom Hearts II”, not to be confused with 2009’s “358/2 Days” which exists as an interquel bridging the events of “Kingdom Hearts” (the first game) and “Kingdom Hearts II” (which is actually the third game). If the logic center of your brain just exploded, rest assured we’ll skip the pop quiz.

Since the inspired marriage of iconic Disney characters and “Final Fantasy” heroes in 2002’s “Kingdom Hearts,” a total of nine games have been released in the Action/RPG series across consoles, portables and mobile phones. The looming question is whether or not “Kingdom Hearts Re:coded” has enough twists to make this latest DS installment compelling for series veterans and a blast for gamers new to “Kingdom Hearts.”

Here’s the simple version: King Mickey and the gang get themselves Tron-ified and it’s up to a digital version of Sora to squash the bugs and prevent a trio of Disney villains from blotting out the world with a horde of Heartless. The thin storytelling and infrequent cut scenes won’t win any awards, but Re:coded does serve up a refreshingly upbeat tone compared to previous Kingdom Hearts entries – even with Cloud Strife appearing briefly to inject a touch of emo to the proceedings.

On paper, Re:coded’s gameplay should be a disaster. Here is a Nintendo DS game drawing its substance from a puzzle-centric mobile phone game while implementing the Command Deck system for real-time combat of “Birth by Sleep” (PSP) . Not only does it work, but combat is a joy. In the latter half of the game, Sora starts flexing his ever-increasing range of magic and melee attacks while fighting off a challenging stable of Heartless and Disney villains. The battles do get a bit long in the tooth during the Floor Challenges (where Sora enters mini-levels reminiscent of Matrix code in order to reveal hidden doors), but overall the combat is excellent, even with the DS’s somewhat imprecise controls.

The compliment to satisfying combat is a robust RPG element, and it’s here that Re:coded gets a burst of originality. Rather than watching passively as your character gains new abilities with experience, Sora’s fate is put directly in your hands with the Stat Matrix. Think of this as a motherboard with branching circuitry, multiple CPUs, sockets and ways to “overclock” your gameplay. Using some clever wordplay inspired by the games’ techie focus, this circuit board lets you place stat chips (earned in combat and available for purchase) in 100s of slots, directly controlling your growth during your 13-15 hour journey. Along the way you’ll unlock Dual Processing (doubling your existing stats), accessory expansions and even “cheat tuners” which give you direct control of loot drops, provided you’re willing to sacrifice a few things like hit points along the way. It’s creative but not cumbersome. Players will grasp its nuances quickly without succumbing to stat management hell.

Veteran “Kingdom Hearts” fans will appreciate the new ideas, because the actual worlds they’re traversing are ripped from 2002’s debut “Kingdom Hearts release.” They will have already seen Wonderland, Agrabah, Traverse Town, Hollow Bastion and Olympus Coliseum. What saves Re:coded are several gameplay twists. For example, the entirety of Olympus Coliseum comprises surprisingly solid turn-based combat. The final stages of Wonderland find Sora hurtling Space-Harrier style toward Heartless and the gangly boss. Traverse Town concludes with some tense side-scrolling platform levels.  You’ll even dabble in squad-based combat when Sora’s Keyblade is destroyed and Donald and Goofy come to your aid in battle. These constant twists on standard “Kingdom Hearts” gameplay are executed well and keep the entire experience feeling fresh despite the recycled worlds.

The only serious knock against Re:coded is the misbehaving camera, which thankfully isn’t a persistent problem. The final stage of the Jafar boss fight, however, combines twitch combat with very cramped platforming resulting in more than a few blind jumps and subsequent deaths.

THE BOTTOM LINE:
“Kingdom Hearts Re:coded” will delight fans new to the series, even if it isn’t the ideal entry point in the series’ canon. Longtime devotees to this Disney “Final Fantasy” universe should appreciate the variety in gameplay and the subtle hints at what could be in store for “Kingdom Hearts III” — although we’d love to see the formula turned on its head, with Disney characters entering the “Final Fantasy” universe. Even as the lifecycle of the DS comes to a close and the “Kingdom Hearts” series risks over-saturation, Re:coded is still an adventure worth buying.

Capcom's MaXplosion: Inspired iteration or stolen game?

Capcom’s new iPhone platformer eerily similar to Twisted Pixel’s ‘Splosion Man

Capcom’s recent App Store release of “pick up and play platformer” MaXplosion has turned a few heads at indie developer Twisted Pixel, creators of the popular 2009 Xbox Live Arcade title ‘Splosion Man.

In addition to the similar sounding name, Capcom’s iDevice game borrows much of the same gameplay mechanics from Twisted Pixel’s 2009 release, including “the ability to explode at will allowing you to bounce off surfaces and reach far flung locations.” Beyond that, MaXplosion’s bouncy soundtrack evokes similar moods, and the main character Max maniacally utters the same kind of hyper, nonsensical sounds as he jumps and explodes. Even some of the futuristic level design, right down to the towering walls, is eerily reminiscent of ‘Splosion Man.

Mike Henry, a programmer at Twisted Pixel, has publicly expressed his anger and disappointment via his Twitter account. In a conversation with Destructoid’s Jim Sterling, he commented “never thought I’d see the day when the ‘exploding man’ genre was overcrowded…” Hours later Henry also tweeted “tomorrow, Capcom Mobile announces Super Bacon Child, Castle Smashers, Graphic Novel Leaper and Gumbo.”

Is this the overreaction of a passionate developer or a very legitimate complaint? After all, Rolando borrowed liberally from Sony’s Loco Roco. The entire App Store landscape is littered with imitation and plagiarism, both unintentional and deliberate.

They do say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but could spite be a motivating factor? According to a tweet from Twisted Pixel CEO Michael Wilford, the developers actually pitched ‘Splosion Man to Capcom and were rejected. We wanted to dig deeper, so we contacted Mr. Wilford directly and were pleased to get this response:

“We pitched Splosion Man to Capcom USA in 2008.  They were looking for new concepts for downloadable console, but ‘Splosion Man wasn’t quite what they were looking for at that time so they passed.  The guys we talked to over there are good dudes that were doing some great things at Capcom, but they were smart and got out of there before things started turning really sour so I’m sure they had nothing to do with MaXplosion. If I had to guess, I think Capcom Europe just came to their own conclusion that it was a good idea to clone ‘Splosion Man.”

Surely Capcom could – and should – have a lot to answer for. The popular opinion (and surely the law) must favor Twisted Pixel given the circumstances, right? Amusingly, the answer is no. Copyright and patent law — relatively infantile in the realm of video games — actually does not protect ideas, nor does it protect game mechanics. If it did, the landscape of this industry we dig could be strikingly different. Imagine if early game developers had patented and protected things like the double jump or the regenerating shield. It would be a world devoid of variety, iteration and innovation. Copyright law protects the blatant theft of, say, game programming code or specific characters, meaning that although Capcom Europe may have done something a bit unethical, it wasn’t illegal.

That being said, we couldn’t help but laugh at Wilford’s final comment in our email discussion:

“If they want to apologize by letting us make ‘Mega Mang’ or ‘Super Alley Fighter IV Turbo’, I’d take that.”

Compare the MaXplosion gameplay video below with the ‘Splosion Man trailer and judge for yourself. Does copyright law need to be tweaked to prevent things like this from happening? Sound off in the comments.

Gaming on a college budget: Part 1

Turn that extra coin into hours of entertainment with part 1 of our gaming guide for budget-conscious students

Let’s face it: College is a perpetual state of being broke. There are those lucky few who get fantastic jobs or have a trust fund, but most of us are barely scraping by. When you’re grappling with the decision of buying food for a couple of weeks or the newest “Call of Duty,” food (normally) will win. Fear not all you cash-poor college gamers. There are multitudes of ways you can take those meager left-over pennies after paying the pizza guy and turn them into a worthwhile gaming experience. Part 1 of our gaming on a budget series,  according to Samantha Bigger, a gaming blogger,  is all about getting your game on for as few dollars as possible.

Rent or Trade, Don’t Buy
Most new console games cost about $60. That translates into about two tanks of gas, 12 $5 Dollar Hot-n-Ready Pizzas from Little Caesar’s, or one (cheap) wild night out on the town. Unless the game has an online multiplayer, it isn’t likely you’re going to play it more than once. Why shell out all those Jacksons for about 12 hours of enjoyment? Renting from your local video store – before it goes extinct – can at least give you an idea what the game is like for a few dollars. 

GameFly is another strong alternative for game rentals, and fans of Netflix will feel right at home. For $15.95 per month, the service allows cash-strapped gamers to rent one game at a time, for an unlimited duration. You’re able to queue up anticipated releases months ahead of time, and the newest games are normally available within the first month of their release. Even if you cycled through only one game per month (perfect for RPG’s and single player adventures), GameFly is still a substantial saving compared to having to ante up $60 per title.

Another option is to trade your games with other people. You could do it among your friends or in the dorm, but there is a professional game trading community out there called Goozex , and it destroys your local Gamestop in terms of value. Trading at Goozex is accomplished by a software algorithm matching buyers and sellers. Buyers request games with varying conditions (complete box, disc-only, etc) and are then matched to sellers through a queue system. The cost per trade is only $1 plus shipping, and receiving games on your wish list only requires Goozex points, accumulated by trading out your software. This is where the site trumps outfits like Gamestop in terms of value. Games like “Final Fantasy XIII” or “Call of Duty: Black Ops” retain their full-priced value for several months. Put simply, this means that instead of that measly $20 credit from Gamestop, you’re getting the Goozex-points-equivalent of full price. (1000 points = $60.) If the math sounds fuzzy, just head over to Goozex and sign up. Yours truly has used it for years, and you’ll be impressed by the service.

Libraries
Libraries aren’t just for books anymore. Today’s library, especially in larger cities, is a complete multimedia experience. Best of all, library cards cost nothing if you live within the library’s district. Your library may or may not lend games, but it’s worth finding out. Ones that do may charge a nominal fee for renting a video game. Even if your local library can’t afford to buy video games for a circulating collection, they still want to lure gamers into the bowels of the library. Watch for library-hosted gaming days and tournaments.

Campus Sponsored Slacking
Universities have noticed the influx of gamers onto their campuses and are responding accordingly, not by limiting bandwidth and banning video games, but by encouraging gamers (and non-gamers) with campus-sponsored gaming centers and events. In the Union at the University of Michigan, for example, is the Billiards and Game Room, which houses all sorts of gaming (board, billiards and video).

A new trend springing up in universities all over the U.S. is the integration of video games into the scholarly aspect of the “college” experience. No longer left to just student life, the cultural phenomenon that is the video game industry is taken up by professors and librarians, who are are grabbing hold and running with it. University libraries have taken it upon themselves to help preserve a huge part of recent history that, for the most part, was ignored by modern historians and other libraries and museums. The Computer and Video Game Archive at the University of Michigan and University of Texas’s Videogame Archive are at the forefront of this movement. Normally, students are allowed to come in and use the facilities for recreation. So if you’ve been yearning for a little retro N64 action or even the original Frogger, these are the places to hit. Yes, your time may be limited here, but for a chance to play something that you haven’t seen in years, it’s worth it.

Coming up in Part 2
After you’ve checked out the rental and trade scenes and explored your own campus for inexpensive gaming options, come back later this week for Part 2 of our budget-conscious special. We’ll tell you how to get the most from Xbox Live Arcade, Steam and the Playstation Network. We’ll even explore high-definition gaming without the need for a high-end PC or video game console.