Microsoft….does the right thing?!?!

Microsoft introduced a point system for purchases when they introduced the xbox (or 360? I forget when it began), a system that was mostly reviled by gamers. They announced over a year ago that they were ending that system in favor of straight cash purchases for their online stores, just like most everyone else uses (ie Amazon, Apple, Google Play, etc).

Both Sony and Microsoft sell debit cards at retail for making purchases in their online stores, so kids without credit cards can buy games online. Retailers periodically run specials on those cards, especially around the holidays, so you can get $50 for $40 or whatever.

Several Christmases ago, I stocked up on these cards when Target ran a $50 for $30 sale or something along those lines. I added those credits to my respective accounts, and then my Xbox 360 promptly died. My $50 of Microsoft credit has been sitting in limbo ever since, as I had no plans to replace the 360. Imagine me shaking my fist in irritation at Microsoft. Then imagine me bemused to receive an email from Microsoft letting me know that my points have been converted back to actual cash $$$ – I’m now sitting on $49.15 in credit for Microsoft’s stores. Bully for them for doing the right thing and me for getting my funds back.

Next, imagine me shaking my fist in mild irritation again when I discover I can only spend these funds in the Windows 8 and Windows Mobile stores, which I do no business with.   :-/

Just my luck: no functioning consoles

So my primary hobby is gaming, and I spend a fair amount of time and money on it. What are the odds that in the same timeframe Sony Playstation’s PSN service would go down for a month+ due to being hacked, and my just over 3 year old (read: just out of warranty) xbox 360 would Red Ring of Death? 100% likely as it turns out. Just a couple of days after the PSN network blew up, my Xbox died as I sat down to watch a movie on it. I’m especially pissed about the xbox because I intentionally held off buying one for several years because the RROD issue became well known and I decided to hold off for a hardware revision, assuming Microsoft would address the issue. They didn’t. Supposedly it’s addressed in the newest ‘slim’ models (I bought an Elite shortly after they came out), but at this point, having had my first generation xbox die and now my 360 die, I’m not so sure I want to buy back into the platform. It’s a real dilemma though, because I have literally dozens of games for the thing, as well as many peripherals (the controllers alone go for $50/pop and I have 4 of them), and selling everything off will earn me pennies on the dollar. Plus, I’m figuring my soon-to-be toddler would enjoy the Kinect motion control stuff MS is pushing these days.

So…what to do. I can’t decide. I’m sitting pat for now. E3, the biggest gaming industry trade show, is next month, and I’m going to see what comes out of that before doing anything.  I should note that while the PS3 still works, mostly, aside from multiplayer, I’m worried trophies won’t sync correctly when the network comes back up, so I’ve been staying off of it. Meantime, it’s back to gaming on the PC primarily.

Game finished: 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand

50 Cent: Blood on the Sand
Image via Wikipedia

Continuing my trawl through games I started then set aside, last weekend I completed 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand. This is a dumb, fun, 3rd person cover based shooter. It’s a riff on the same gameplay mechanics in Gears of War 1 and 2 with an over the top plot and mixed production values. The story follows the adventures of 50 cent and his crew in the middle east. They get ripped off by a concert promoter who offers them a jewel encrusted skull in lieu of payment. This also gets ripped off and 50 cent and his buddies spend the rest of the game shooting and cussing their way through various middle eastern locales in their quest to retrieve the skull. This game has no pretensions of grandeur – it’s the videogame equivalent of a B-movie and it pretty much delivers. The graphics, models, and audio are all middle of the road, but the feel is solid and the game isn’t long enough to wear out its welcome. It has a bit of arcade scoring in the mix, where stringing together insults and combos raise a score multiplier, but for the most part I just ignored this and blew through the levels. I only busted out a curse/combo now and then as I unlocked new curses, for the laughs rather than to help with the score.

You can find this game for under $20 new and often for under $10, and it’s worth it for the laughs at under $10. It won’t win any awards for originality but it’s a fun ride while it lasts.

Video below of some gameplay and cutscenes to give you a sense of it. I finished it on the xbox 360, it’s available for the PS3 as well. It’s got an average of ~72 over on metacritic, and that feels about right to me.

Game Finished: Gears of War 2

Gears of War
Image via Wikipedia

I’m still on a roll, finishing games at a rapid clip. Susan was out of town for several days at a conference which also helped.

It’s clear Gears of War 2 was written for 15 year old males, and for the most part I hated it. I disliked the first one and traded it in before finishing it, and ended up with the sequel because of a buy 2 get 1 free sale at Gamestop. I’d heard the sequel was an improvement on the original, and it probably is on a technical level, but the abysmally stupid plot, awful dialog, and mediocre game mechanics all drag the thing down into ‘don’t bother playing this dog’ territory. The script writers are channeling braindead hollywood action flicks from the 80s, think, say ‘Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando‘ level dumb dialog. Lots of folks loved this game (it’s got a 93 rating over on metacritic for example) – I guess I’m just not in the target audience for this one. My appreciation for it wasn’t helped by the fact that I played it right after Halo ODST, a game with a refined combat and gameplay aesthetic that Gears of War 2 compares very poorly to. The one positive thing I can say is that the game does have some imaginative settings with impressive scope, especially when you venture underground into vast cavernous areas with ancient temples, sunken cities, and a giant worm out to get you – that part was a visual treat. Everything else…I disliked.

The clip below plays some of the cutscenes from the game and gives a pretty good idea of why I disliked the game. Video quality’s not that great but the audio is really the point. Don’t play this with other people around, it’s definitely NSFW.

Game finished: Halo O.D.S.T.

Halo 3 - Master Chief
Image by Ricardo Saramago via Flickr

I finished Halo O.D.S.T. (aka Orbital Drop Ship Troopers), the 4th game in the Halo series (or like the 8th, if you count the Marathon games as the spiritual predecessors they were) over the weekend. I ended up enjoying it a lot more than I expected. I’ve solved all the Halo games at this point, including 2 of them in coop, and I figured I had seen everything the Halo games had to see at this point, plus Halo 3 concludes the Master Chief‘s story arc, and I sort of figured without the Master Chief I wouldn’t be interested.

I only ended up getting the game because Toys R Us had a buy 2 get 1 free sale after Thanksgiving and I couldn’t find anything else I was interested in. My first session with the game seemed to confirm my suspicion – been there, done that, I thought, and I quickly set the game aside for others. One of my New Year’s resolutions was to clear out my game backlog before buying any new games though, and I love buying new games, so I returned to it and warmed up to it as I played.

The Halo series does a pretty good job with their basic combat mechanics, and their level design focuses on setting up repeated ‘situations’ or skirmishes that require tactical thinking, skill, and sometimes a little luck. The same skirmish can play out wildly differently each time you approach it after a failure too, which helps enormously with enjoyment. In terms of what ODST brings to the party this time around…well, not much new. Some tweaks to the weapons, graphics, vehicles, a lack of the more resilient Master Chief, and that’s about it. The relatively short plot follows the misadventures of a squad of soldiers on a mission in a city under siege by alien invaders. It’s told non-linearly, and while in the end it’s not that exciting, by the standards of most first person shooters it’s actually pretty solid. I played on normal difficulty and either the game is fairly easy or I’ve played enough Halo games to do really well at them, because I mostly found it pretty easy.

The one new thing that ODST does bring to the table is a multiplayer mode called Firefight that’s pretty fun – it’s basically the human players versus increasingly powerful waves of AI characters in skirmish battles. It’s tough, frantic, and a good deal of fun. The rest of the multiplayer is basically what you see in Halo 3 with a bunch of additional maps included, including some which were DLC for Halo 3.

So – would I recommend it? Qualified yes – if you’ve played Halo games and really enjoyed them, no question, you should pick it up. If you’re a singleplayer only player, well, it’s a tougher call. The single player is fun and well designed and has an above average story for the genre, but it’s also fairly short. If you’re a Halo 3 multiplayer fan, it’s probably worth picking up just for the Firefight mode alone.

Game finished: Call of Duty 3

I’ve played most of the Call of Duty games at this point, including the various console ports. I’ve played through 2 on the PS2, and 2 on the PC (three if you count one of the expansion paks for the original game) and I played through 4 on the xbox 360 right after Christmas. I enjoyed that so much I went out and got COD3 for the Xbox 360, and played it through over the last couple of weeks. It’s nowhere near as good as 4 was, but it’s decent at what it is – a formulaic WWII console FPS. What novelty it has you can tell was tacked on because of the WII and PS3 motion sensing bits in the controllers, because there are these interactive sequences like ‘plant this bomb on the anti-aircraft gun’ which require sequences of button presses and twists, which on the wii or PS3 would have been actual motions with the controllers. They’re weak on the 360 because they feel contrived and because you can exploit them for a limited invulnerability by sprinting for the objective and initiating the sequence, which mostly keeps the AI from shooting at you so you can charge into insane situations and survive. The other new addition to the formula is scripted moments where you get jumped from around corners by enemy soldiers, which starts a ‘quicktime event’ style melee combat where you have to press the right buttons at the right time and speed. It’s basically as weak as it sounds, made worse by the fact that each of them requires whacking on the shoulder buttons, which it’s not easy to do quickly. There are also driving sequences and sequences where you control tanks or other heavy weaponry. These are just ok, and not as good as the ones in COD2, but they’re not bad either.

I didn’t try the multiplayer, because I already have the superb COD4 for that, not to mention Team Fortress 2 on the pc, so I figured why bother.

You can score the game for under $20 for the PS3 and the 360 if you shop carefully. At that price it’s worth it if you’re a fan of the genre, and who isn’t – after all, shooting nazis never gets old 😉