Best Games of 2006

Posted on December 31st, 2006 in Video Games by andrija

My pick for the best game of 2006 is –

Final Fantasy VIII.

Yes, you read that right.  My criteria is “best game new to me that I played this year”.  Final Fantasy 8 was a great game and has left a great impression on me.  Were it the first Final Fantasy I played, it would have probably become my favourite.  As it is, that place still belongs to Final Fantasy 10.

Oh, I suppose I could spend some time debating whether to grant the title to Gears of War or Elder Scrolls: Oblivion.  However, as great as production values were for these two games, they both had some rather nasty issues that severely diminished my enjoyment.  Graphics and sound alone are not enough to make a good game.  Alas, gameplay was rather problematic in both of them – I mentioned it for Oblivion before in this long post but I never talked about Gears of War.  Well, Gears of War is a great game until you let an enemy get close by.  At that point, thanks to very frustrating 3rd person camera view, you are pretty much screwed.  It will be very difficult for you to save yourself as you will be flailing your weapon and firing wildly and usually missing – because you’ll have no idea where are you aiming, exactly.  You’re probably supposed to be using the chainsaw bayonet on your rifle, but this weapon is next to useless.  I recently found out why – people say that if you get shot, it will turn off (it needs to be revved up to be useful).  Well, gee, isn’t that useful?  The enemy is rushing you, you can’t see where it is thanks to the stupid camera so you can’t shoot it back, and you hope to use the chainsaw which has a bit of homing, but – it’s shooting at you.  Duh, if the enemy is attacking by shooting as they approach, you’ll stand very little chance of getting your chainsaw ready by the time they’re close enough to go for a kill (they, not you – they tend to punch you to death).  Gee, thanks, Epic.  This fact made the game a frustration fest, especially as it was progressing.  I’m planning on replaying on easier difficulty, but the game ended up not being fun.  Yet another potentially great game screwed up by gameplay issues.  Oh well.

If I had to actually choose a game of the year, I might choose something unexpected, as there were almost no games I truly enjoyed.  I might choose… LocoRoco!!

Well, let’s try to list notable games of this year by platform:

1. PC – Oblivion, Company of Heroes, Dreamfall, Prey, Half-Life 2 Episode 1.  Company of Heroes was probably the best PC game this year, all in all.
2. PS2 – Xenosaga 3, Final Fantasy 12.  Nothing that blew me away though!
3. GameCube – none (ok, Zelda Twilight Princess, but I haven’t played it)
4. PSP – LocoRoco, Daxter (Daxter taking honours, but LocoRoco is the best game to play in transit that I’ve ever seen)
5. DS – uhm, none that blew me away.  Even Metroid Prime Hunters wasn’t amazingly good, but it was fairly decent I suppose.
6. Xbox – well, isn’t this platform dead?
7. Xbox360 – Gears of War, Oblivion – but also plenty of good games I haven’t played yet (Call of Duty 3, Dead Rising, Prey).

Overall platform of the year – Xbox360, closely followed by – PSP!  Interestingly, despite all these claims how there’s lots of great games for DS and how they’re all so cool and all, in reality DS games were only so-so.  Perhaps I’m a graphics whore, but you know what, a game like Daxter and LocoRoco show that there’s great gameplay to be found, and if it’s packaged well, so much for the better.

I was very impressed with technical aspects of Xbox360 and what Microsoft did with it.  A triple core symmetrical processor makes much more sense than an assymetrical 1+6 one, without losing any power.  A built-in scaler was a great decision, and the HD-DVD addon a very cool, must-have accessory.  One problem with their approach is that the system itself is badly engineered, in too many pieces, loud and power hungry.  I suppose this was the price to pay to bring it to market early, and as much as I don’t like practical aspects of it, I do believe they made the right choice.  However, despite pushing for media center dominance, I don’t think anyone who wants a real home theater will use their solution, for exactly those practical shortcomings.

On the other hand, PS3 was trying to do everything right, but before the technology was ready.  Therefore they are overpriced, a year late and full of glitches.  A lot of design decisions are turning out to be negatives, despite being cutting edge – no IR (Bluetooth for remote control is pointless at this time despite being the right thing to do in theory), no scaler (there’s not enough power for 1080p, not everyone has it, and allowing multiple rendering resolutions will lead to inconsistent framerates and gaming experience = bad all around), problems with Bluetooth controller connectivity, and so on.

PS3 Becoming Easier to Find

Posted on December 30th, 2006 in Electronics,Vancouver by andrija

I was in Best Buy today to take advantage of Boxing Week sales (lots of Xbox360 games for $20 – which is pretty cheap by the way!) and I saw someone at the exchange desk with a PS3.  And that’s on top of yesterday event when while browsing around Best Buy website,  I went to PS3’s 60G page out of pure curiosity (I often go to Future Shop brick and mortar store just to browse, so I usually know prices by heart and can therefore spot a deal or a sale immediately) and found that they had PS3’s in stock online!  Which was strange since it was not announced anywhere – as one could witness by observing the movement of the stock; it took 15 minutes to sell only one of 65 they had in stock at that time.  Even several hours later there were plenty left; only in the morning they were finally gone.  I guess very few people were expecting them to be available, especially since it was not announced even on their website.  It was almost as if having PS3 in stock was “business as usual”.

Combined with Christmas Day sale in Future Shop and quite frequent stories from the US about PS3’s being in stock and people not caring, I would estimate that by mid-January we should be able to see PS3’s when we walk into stores.  Not everywhere and not all the time, just like with Xbox360 same time last year – but with a little legwork it should not be too hard to find one next month.

Of course, the real question is would you want to?  If I wasn’t a technology freak, I certainly wouldn’t get one.  And if I was asked, I would not recommend anyone to get one right now, unless they need a BluRay player.  There are two good games (Resistance and Ridge Racer) and a few sports games that are also good if you’re a fan of that genre (2k7 series in particular).  Also, if you own a PSP, then a PS3 can be quite useful in certain cases.  Otherwise, it’s an expensive piece of electronics that won’t get much use… yet.  And press reviews aren’t too positive either.  Probably because Sony is a much-hated company right now, plus the amount of hype we were all exposed to was just too much.  There’s a backlash, to be sure.  It is not even inconceivable that PS3 could fail.

What a Crazy Month

Posted on December 28th, 2006 in Electronics,Hardware & Software,Video Games by andrija

Well, this has been one crazy month (and a half). I ended up joining hordes of North Americans and contributed more than my fair share towards Christmas and Boxing Day sales. I’ll be paying interest for a few months to come, so that I can (could) enjoy new stuff during my time off in December (of which I had a fair amount of).

Now, almost all of the stuff I bought I got some kind of a deal on. It began with Xbox360 on the PS3 launch day. I couldn’t get PS3 (not then, at least) but Future Shop had a crazy deal where you could get $50 off (consoles are never on sale, except very rare special circumstances) – and get two games for free (bringing total of free games to 4). Now, this wasn’t a bad purchase for a hardcore gamer. As I found out, one year in the field yielded quite a few fairly good games, many of which I already completed.

Of course, it wouldn’t be me if I didn’t purchase another big thing – a 46″ large screen LCD TV by Sharp. A very good one. Now this is what I’ll be paying off till spring; compared to it, the rest are small potatoes, really. And I kind of took a gamble with it, which paid off. To a point, at least. This TV is known to have some nasty issues, but my luck was good and my set is ok for the most part (given that no sets are perfect and no brand is perfect at this time either, this was the best I could hope for).

Now, with those two together I did have a blast with many good Xbox360 games, and some of the best are still to come in these cold winter days. And as you might imagine, these would spark plenty of accessory purchases. Such as universal remote controls, rechargeable batteries, extra controllers when friends come over (which they never do, to play games that is, but did that stop me? No!). Oh, and games. Plenty of games.

Now, I negotiated the TV price down. And even during Boxing Day sales over a month later, the price is still better than in stores. I got a great deal on Xbox360. I didn’t pay full price on any of the games I got for it. Not a single one, including ones that just came out. But still, it all adds up.

Naturally, given the 1080p resolution, I needed a new movie source. A HD-DVD add-on from Microsoft, launched just in time, obliged. I did pay full price for it – but I still got a deal, since Future Shop gave away a copy of King Kong game with it (not to mention that the movie with the same name is included for the limited time with the add-on).

With so much electronics on the shelf, a new true universal remote was needed, and
so I got the Logitech 659, the cheapest of Logitech’s universal remotes. It works well, but you know what, there’s the little matter of Boxing Day, and the higher end model, which usually retails for $300 was now on sale for $100! That’s less than what I paid for my bottom of the line, discontinued model. So now I need to wait for it to get shipped to me so I can return the old one for refund. Or I could sell the new one on Ebay for profit. No kidding. Believe me, you had to spend an hour clicking on Christmas Even to get this one.

And, I got two more benchmark DVDs, since it’s pointless to shell out big bucks and then watch a TV which isn’t properly calibrated. No self-respecting enthusiast is going to ignore a proper set up of their new toy. In fact, that is half of the fun. I build my own PCs and tweak the hell out of everything because that’s what I love to do. And believe me, the amount of issues that you run into with any technology is not small. If you want to watch anime on this or any other TV, you will be running into some nasty picture quality issues unless you are prepared to deal with them. This is a story for another time, and more on that later.

But the craziest thing came on Christmas Day itself, while I was chatting with a friend. We were discussing of going to Future Shop on the Boxing Day to see what we can see. Then he told me to take a look at the website. And there, there was a sale of 1000 PlayStation 3’s. You can probably imagine the rest… Today I went to Wall-Mart to find the only game worth playing on that console, which I did find, for $10 off of course.

The fun never ends. Oh wait… it does. Because the money runs out. And even if it doesn’t, there just won’t be so much stuff to tempt me in the near future – because the last half of the year was very unusual in the gaming and electronics industry, with many new technologies being released.

CBC said that Canadians will spend 2.9 billion dollars on Boxing Day. Most of it on clothing (I did make company to a friend who spent over three thousand dollars on clothes on that day), and then the electronics (to which I contributed, well, you add – PlayStation 3, a Blu-Ray movie, a high end remote control and a wireless keyboard/mouse set (only $20 though)). Between two of us, we certainly managed to “fit in”.

I won’t go into reasons for the shopping spree. But if I were to guess, I’d say that I decided to spend and enjoy while the going is good, because experience tells me that times will change to bad again. And when that happens, even if I can afford to purchase new big shiny stuff, I won’t be able to fully enjoy them.

Dirge of Cerberus – the Lamest of all Final Fantasy Games

Posted on December 28th, 2006 in Video Games by andrija

It’s very rare for me to give up on a game. Even if it’s bad or hard, I feel strangely compelled to finish them all. It may be some kind of obsessive-compulsive behaviour, but no matter how much I scream at the monitor or TV or how many controllers or keyboards I break, or how much bored I am, I just don’t give up. Usually, that is.

So, I rarely give up playing a bad, hard or boring game. But it’s even rarer for me to give up playing a game because of it’s storyline. I can’t even remember the last time it happened – oh wait, I can. It was Baten Kaitos, the RPG for GameCube. At some point the game appeared complete… but it just kept going on for some reason. Then I kept running into some never-before seen bosses that were just too tough to take on (plus the gameplay was getting way too intense, as much as it sounds strange given that it’s a battle card game!). A quick look at a walkthrough showed me that there’s still almost a third of the game left! At that point I gave up for the day, though I had intention of continuing later, after some leveling up. I never did.

The story is different with this Dirge of Cerberus – supposedly a Final Fantasy VII spin-off. The game itself is bad – plain graphics, annoying camera, uneven difficulty, repetitive levels, awful graphics. But then there’s the storyline. It’s predictable, it’s lame, it’s infuriating (in a bad way), it’s naive, it’s stupid. I played until I completed level 6 (about half of the game), but every time there was a cutscene I kept yelling at the screen “come on already, enough of this, give me the game back to play”. After this chapter, however, I had enough. I have never seen a more stupid cutscene in my life, and I’ve seen plenty. Utterly incomprehensive, lame, and stupid. Keep reviving dead bosses, will you? Right in the headquarters which they overrun prior to you dispatching them. And have the enemy storm the headquarters again (uhm, hello, we’ve seen this already?!). And that on top of previous chapter’s ending, where another boss which was supposed to be dead came back… and managed to get some sort of revenge, despite of our hero being able to dodge that same particular attack just a few chapters earlier.

Wow. Now, Final Fantasy VII had the worst story of all Final Fantasy games I’ve played, and this kind of fits right in. But the degree of badness is just so high, the game’s story stinks so badly, that I decided to give up. Too bad I paid full price for this… piece of crap. Shame on Square Enix. I don’t think I have any desire left to watch or play anything related to Final Fantasy VII in the future. I’ll give back the unwatched Advent Children DVD that a friend lent me – I’ve seen 20 minutes into it and other than headache at flashy motorcycle sequences that are impossible to make out without slow motion, I don’t think it’s going to fare any better. I guess Square Enix is capable of screwing up. And when they screw up, the stink eclipses the lamest of the lame games any seedy studio can come up with. What a shame.