This Fortnight’s Releases (May 1-12, 2006)

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Weeks thirty-eight-and-nine of my ongoing, irreverent news column; originally posted at Next Generation

Game of Early May:

SiN Episodes: Emergence – Episode 1

It’s kind of weird; back in mid-1998, everyone was waiting for SiN – then the very day it arrived, Half-Life sprang out of nowhere, and took all the attention. That didn’t stop SiN from becoming a cult hit; it’s just hard to escape such a poor case of timing. Over the past eight years, the game has built up a reputation as perhaps the pinnacle of the old “Duke Nukem“-style FPS, before Half-Life changed everything. Traditional genre fans, who just like to charge forward and shoot stuff, have been waiting a long time for a sequel – and here it comes, via the Half-Life 2 engine, via Steam, and via the episodic template that Valve has set out.

This first episode brings back all the major characters from the 1998 original, to do much the same business as before: run forward and shoot. The difference is in the method; aside from the obvious enhancements in physics and envionmental interaction allowed by the Source engine (and the consequences thereof), the game now automatically adjusts itself to the player’s skill level and playing tendencies. If you get good at head shots, apparently, enemies might start wearing helmets. According to Ritual, the game will take experts about as long as new players to play through.

Emergence, being only one of at least nine planned episodes, will only last about six to eight hours; on the other hand, it only costs about eighteen bucks. Something tells me this episodic download thing is going to take off. It’s almost like a revised take on the early-’90s Shareware scene. The difference with shareware was that people got a whole episode for free, then typically had to pay full price for another several episodes. Now you pay pocket cash up-front for each episode. Same thing; just reorganized for efficiency on both ends. Tie in Steam, and you’ve even got the return of online distribution. It’s obvious, in retrospect.

Now if only we’d come up with this ten years ago – if we’d just adapted and kept up with the Internet – just imagine where the PC development scene would be today.

Rest of Early May:

Desperados 2: Cooper’s Revenge
Out Now

Desperados: Dead or Alive billed itself as a mix between a strategy game and a graphical adventure; GameSpy calls it an obvious “tribute” to Pyro Studios’ Commandos series, except with a Wild West theme in place of the WWII setting. Whatever; it looks like Fallout with ten gallon hats, to me. Maybe more action-oriented. The sequel is basically the same, though now it’s rendered all in rather appealing (if blocky) 3D. You’ve got either the traditional isometric perspective or your third-person “butt cam”. You can play from the perspective of a few new characters. Though no one’s really talking about the game, what few scraps of information there are seem pretty positive in tone. The original game got over an 80% average in the ratings mill. So. Yeah. This looks like maybe a nice little game. I think the only real advantage it has on the shelf, though, is that there’s nothing much else coming out these couple of weeks.

Gallop Racer 2006
Out Now

I think there’s a reason why no one’s really bothered bringing too many Japanese horse-racing sims over here. Regardless, this is the sixth in the Gallop Racer series to see US release. Maybe it’s got more to do with Tecmo than the inherent market for these things in the States. Hey, they’ve gotta sell something between Team Ninja and Monster Rancher releases. Though the game’s been out almost a week now, the only place that’s reviewed it is Maxim; they joke about how they’re not making “Italian Stallion” jokes (and in the process make them anyway), and they use the phrase “Oh, Snap!”. So that’s informative. One thing I can say: this edition has the best cover art in the entire series.

NBA Ballers: Rebound
PlayStation Portable

Ballers” is sort of a ghettoed-up version of Midway’s arcadey NBA Showtime series. There’s a storyline where you take some street nobody and bring him up through the ranks until he gets to play alongside selected NBA celebrities. The big difference in the PSP version is a beefed-up character creation system, that allows players to tweak their avatar’s technical attributes and skills as well as pretty much every aspect of his appearance. GameSpot seems in love with the game; other publications are kind of shrugging.

Over the Hedge

Why is Over the Hedge, of all comic strips, getting a 3D animated movie? It’s like a low-rent Calvin & Hobbes, and isn’t even carried in most of the papers I’ve seen. It hasn’t been around all that long, either. Or maybe I’m just getting old. Anyway, 3D animated movie equals licensed game. This time it’s by Activision instead of THQ; perhaps not coincidentally, advance press is rather positive. It appears the console versions incorporate a strong focus on co-op gameplay, and IGN gives the DS version (the only one reviewed, as of this writing) an 8.2, calling it a “furry Metal Gear Solid“. “The license is sure to scare people away, but let it be said: if you’re a true gamer, give these little furry guys a spin on the portable.” Neat!

Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends
Big Huge Games/Microsoft Game Studios

In 2003, GameSpot chose Brian Reynolds’ historical strategy game Rise of Nations as its PC game of the year. Rise of Nations is, in a nutshell, a real-time Civilization. (That is, er, real player-time.) Though I’ve not played it, that sounds fair enough; Brian Reynolds is the mind behind several of Sid Meier’s most significant games. Rise of Legends, now, is his long-awaited sequel. Thing is, it’s… a little different from what people might be expecting. If Rise of Nations is Civilization, then Rise of Legends would be Alpha Centauri. It’s basically the same idea, except transported sideways into sci-fantasy. Where before you had real, historical nations, now you have a triumvate of philosophical propositions: a nation based on science; one based on magic, and one based on science so advanced it might as well be magic. It’s totally like whoa. It also should be entertaining. I hope people notice it. At this stage in the company’s development, Big Huge should make more of a big deal about Brian Reynolds’ name.

Runestone Games
Out Now

This last year appears to be the age of the indie MMORPG – and curiously enough, many of them seem intent to shatter the conventions that the mainstream games continue to propogate. Seed, for instance, does away with fighting. And “character classes”. Cue the gasps of horror from RPG purists. Actually, Seed is one of the more well-conceived games I’ve come across in a while. The premise is that Earth shot a “pod ship” out into space to seek out and terraform barren planets; the ship went haywire, and upon landing focused all its attention on keeping its own systems operational rather than on making the planet livable. It keeps growing more and more humans in its vats, to staff the ship and maintain it (rather than to colonize the planet). The vat babies are completely innocent to any other way of life; their purpose is to keep the ship in shape. Players spend their time fixing and polishing the ship, and learning skills to help them do so; the ship leaves players to find their own methods toward doing so, leading to inevitable social conflict amongst the workers – eventually to all kinds of strange political nonsense. Indeed, most of the game’s structure revolves around player skills and social interaction. Players teach each other skills, or don’t, so as to help or hinder each other in meeting daily tasks. It’s all really interesting. It’s also really low-profile. I believe you can only get it from Runestone’s website, right now – and not many publications are covering it. Go check it out, if you’ve the time. Not every day you come across a game with ideas of its own.

Top Gun
InterActive Vision/Mastiff
Nintendo DS
Out Now

You know how some developers really love to press the system hardware and make it do things it wasn’t supposed to, and they’re so interested in the technical elements that they forget to actually make a videogame? That’s kind of what the Blades of Thunder games for GBA and DS were like. They’re behind-the-helicopter shooting games, not unlike Sega’s Thunderblade. I never heard of them until I went to research this paragraph. They didn’t get reviewed too well. As Thunderblade is to AfterBurner, so Top Gun is to Blades of Thunder. Again, the critics are giving the game hell, and some people are questioning if it has actually has anything to do with the movie or if the license was just applied after the fact. I’d not bet against it! Technically it seems kind of neat, though, in that Captain Skyhawk way.

Author: Azure

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