Sunday, August 16, 2009

2010 Xbox 360 'only console to show growth this year' according to Microsoft

Dubbing itself "the industry's sole bright spot in 2009," Microsoft has spun some depressing console sale decline numbers from NPD into a self-congratulating piece on the Xbox 360's singular success this year. Through the first seven months of 2009 the console has shown 17 percent growth, despite July's losses for the Big Three's respective slabs of home hardware. Microsoft also points out that the 360 has been the number one platform for third-party sales through the entire year. Of course, this is nothing Sony can't rectify with a bit of dirt cheap PS3 Slim magic, right? Right? Nintendo meanwhile probably can't hear Microsoft's bragging through the thick, cash-lined vaults it's built for itself off the back of ceaseless peripheral sales.
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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

News : Upcoming Xbox 360 Netflix update is still gimped

If you haven't been lucky enough to preview the upcoming Xbox Live dashboard update like we did, there's a good chance you're eagerly awaiting its August 11 release so that you can finally modify your Netflix queue straight from the box. If so, prepare to be disappointed... or, uh, thrilled when you find out that the new experience isn't quite as comprehensive as you might have expected. It restricts users to perusing the Top 50 films in any of a handful of categories, meaning no searching by title and no browsing alphabetically. Why? According to Microsoft's Ben Smith, Director of Program Management for Xbox Live, that's how you want it. He says: "I think when people come to Xbox they're not really looking so much for functional, they really want to have fun, they want to be wowed." We're saying "wow," all right, but for entirely different reasons. There is a morsel of good news, though: if enough people indicate they actually like function and want an honest-to-goodness, full-featured Netflix experience Microsoft is fully prepared to upgrade the service. Again. Eventually.

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Monday, July 27, 2009

First look : James Cameron's Avatar

The Game has been shrouded under a dense layer of secrecy second only to the one that surrounds the movie it's based on. For those that haven't been following the film, Avatar follows the conflict between the denizens of a planet called Pandora, the Na'vi, and mankind who are essentially strip mining their world to disastrous results. The games based on the film basically offer complementary stories that offer a close up look at the conflict. But, outside of a demo of the PS3, Xbox 360 and PC versions at E3 last month and the painfully thin assortment of screenshots released, things have been pretty quiet around the games. Thankfully some noise kicked up at Comic-con which saw the Wii version demoed at a press event. Our hands-off demo followed the game's main character as he sabotaged a military installation, took on an airship, called a Dragon, and made a daring escape. Although the demo of the game (which is an original title and not a port of the other console and PC titles) was short, roughly 7 minutes, it hit on a fair amount of the major gameplay elements.

Who's Making This Game: Ubisoft

What The Game Looks Like: Avatar has a somewhat boxy, but colorful look to it that's a far cry from the eye bleeding detail of the PS3 and Xbox 360 game we saw at E3. However, once you factor in that there's no way the Wii is going to move the same amount of polygons that the other consoles are or offer stereoscopic 3D, the game looks pretty sharp. There's a good amount of detail and, more importantly, a heavy cinematic feel to the presentation. The camera smartly follows the action and favors sweeping views and dramatic camera angles.

What There Is To Do: You'll play as a young Na'Vi hunter looking for revenge after his family tree gets a thorough pruning by human military forces during an attack on his village. As if that wasn't enough motivation, a dam's been built that's depriving locals of much needed water. Your goal is to destroy the dam and get in some payback. While the revenge the young hunter is after can be accomplished solo, the game will feature drop in, drop out cooperative play.

How The Game Is Played: The Wii version of Avatar the game makes use of both the nunchuk and remote to play. In addition, the game features unique support for the Wii motion plus accessory. The game is a third person action title that mixes combat, stealth, some platforming and some puzzle solving. The nunchuk and remote let you race through the natural setting like a pro. The Wii motion plus support in the version of the game we saw let the young hunter summon a wasp the he could precisely control thanks to the peripheral. The fine control was needed to guide the winged critter to take down an electric fence blocking hunter's way. People that don't have the peripheral will be able to take an alternate route around the fence. At the same time the game still has some waggle control for stealth takedowns, which you initiate with a button press and finish up with a controller motion. Melee is fairly straightforward although you'll want to be smart about when you engage mobs of soldiers. Puzzle solving and getting around require you to use your head and, most importantly, the natural world around you. As a both a local and a hunter, your Na'vi has all sorts of natural tricks up his sleeves (metaphorically speaking, since he's light on clothes) to counter the military's technical opposition. Although, as evidenced in the boss fight where he used explosive canisters lying around, he's not opposed to improvising with what's lying around to get the job done. For example, if there are explosive canisters he can use to take down a massive tower which will knock the Dragon airship out of the sky, why not use them? The demo ended with the hunter making a hasty retreat on a brightly colored flying creature that was somewhere between a bat and a pterodactyl.

What They Say: "Players will find themselves thrust into a fight for the heart of a planet and the fate of a civilization."

What We Say: The game looks cool and has us anxious to try it to see how it plays. The gameplay seems solid and the story sounds like it's going to be a strong complement to the film's narrative as it will offer a deeper look at the motivations of the Na'vi and impact man is having on their world. We like that the title is it's own game as opposed to a port of the others. The visuals may not be the kick to the eyeballs the other versions are, but they play to the systems strengths which is key. As movie games go, Avatar looks like a nice change of pace. We reckon the close collaboration between Ubi's developers and the filmmakers will be a good thing for Avatar: The Game. Look for more on the game in the coming months as Ubisoft starts sharing more information.
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Info : Gears of War

It wouldn't be a Gears of War panel without design director of Epic Games, Cliff Bleszinski, who also happens to be the executive producer of the upcoming Gears movie. Other panelists include Joshua Ortega, Gears of War comic book author and scriptwriter for Gears of War 2; Len Wiseman, director of the upcoming Gears of War and Chris Morgan, screenwriter for the Gears of War movie.

What did they talk about: Cliffy B. and Rod Fergusson were the first to be introduced by moderator Adam Sessler. They started talking about Dark Corners, which comes out next week on July 28. For our impressions of the downloadable content, please see Kevin's post in the reviews blog. Available for 1200 Microsoft Points, Bleszinski and Fergusson talked about the deleted scene, "Road to Ruin" which they had initially wanted to put in the game, but pulled it out because it would have disrupted the pacing. In the add-on, stealth is required but Bleszinski wanted to assure fans that there was little stealth and emphasized that it is a very forgiving element.

Fergusson also mentioned that next week on July 31, developers will be playing with members of the community so here's your chance to take out any frustrations. Also, if you play Dark Corners the first week that it's released, you'll also earn double experience points.

The next question moved away from games and into literature. For those who read the Gears of War novels a new book is coming out by Karen Traviss titled, "Jacinto's Remnant," which picks up the story immediately after the last game ends. The conversation went on to talk about collectibles and what's being sold at Comic-Con. The giant screens in the Indigo Ballroom at the Hilton (next to the convention center) also displayed screenshots and artwork throughout the presentation. When a model of a ticker appeared, Bleszinki made a point to call it an "explosive death beaver."

What fans went wild over was the introduction of GOW themed avatar outfits. Two versions were displayed: the COG armor and the Locust armor. We have to admit that they both looked pretty cool, but we are favoring the COG outfit with the helmet though, the locust helmet looks like you're wearing a giant chest plate on your head.

Joshua Ortega came out afterwards to talk about Gears art and the comic books. After displaying several works of art, he showed one of a red-haired female COG, drawn by artist Jim Lee. It looks like it's not just going to be a boys club anymore.

Len Wiseman and Chris Morgan came out next to talk about the movie, which we know very little of. Unfortunately, they didn't reveal anything either and kept reiterating the fact that it's still in the very early stages and they are doing the best they can to bring the spectacle of Gears to the big screen while keeping the drama that holds the story together. Wiseman isn't much of a gamer, but he bought an Xbox 360 to play Gears of War. He found that he'd rather watch it than play it, but was amazed at the detail and knew that it would be a great movie.

Len and Chris talked about the challenges of picking the most important aspects, like the war and the drama and condensing it to 110 pages. The hardest thing to do is to leave cool stuff out, because aspects of a good video game do not always translate into a good movie. Since Bleszinski is playing a large role in the project, he has been bouncing ideas off of Len and vice versa. They agreed that it was important to have a bond as well as trust. Fergusson added later that it's all about making the best movie possible by letting certain things go, instead of trying to make the game into a movie. He said he only had a short list of things not to do, and that included not killing Marcus.

In regards to what kind of focus the movie will take, Wiseman said that "The spectacle is going to be there, it's a huge focus but it's not the first priority. It starts with the story and the characters, you have a character you root for and care about in the end you don't just go wow that's cool, but you want him to survive." Morgan added that, "You don't follow the events in the movie, you follow the characters."

Len dismissed rumors about choosing a pro wrestler for the main roles, and said that he is looking for the best actor for the role and that their build is not the focus. Not much about the movie was revealed during this panel, except that the audience was assured that Emergence Day will be in the movie.

Best audience question: "Will a girl COG be in the movie?" While Bleszinski said it's too early to talk about that, Len did say he was a supporter and would love to see it happen.

Worst audience question: Several people asked about casting. Suggestions included Kate Beckinsdale as Maria, The Cole Train as himself, and John Travolta as Marcus, (please no) but Len said that it was too early to make any decisions. The voice actor of Cole however, was in the audience and stood up to give a "WOOHOO!" to please the crowd.

Random Fact: Carmine means red, and we learned from the panel that anyone that has anything to do with red, whether it be red shirts from Star Trek, or last names, they never survive.

The Takeaway: It sounds like the movie is going to mirror the game, in the sense that beneath the visual splendor, there will be a sappy story to tell as well. We're looking forward to the movie, but we were disappointed that nothing substantial was revealed (we know, early stages) and nothing about future projects were mentioned. Sadly, the most exciting thing that came from this panel was the clothing. You might want to keep an eye out for the Xbox Live avatar outfits, but then again, do you really want to have your avatar look like everyone else for the next few months until something better comes out?
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