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GameCritics.com Podcast Episode 1

Welcome to the premiere episode of the GameCritics.com Podcast!
This week's topics include:

  • Reviews of Saints Row 2 and Art Style: Cubello
  • Why game criticism matters to us
  • Can games make us cry?

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Please send questions for a future mailbag segment to podcast (at) gamecritics (dot) com.

The terrible secret of my GTA IV review!

When I gave Grand Theft Auto IV the insultingly low score of 85%, quite a few people suggested that I had some kind of a secret grudge against the game that kept me from giving it the glowing adoration that it so obviously deserved. Well, I'm finally ready to admit that yes, I did have a secret predjudice against the game, one that I'll reveal through the medium of crudely-edited video:

I doubt I can be much clearer than that.

Video: Playing Guitar Hero 3 one-handed with pedal controller

Via AbleGamers.com

This video shows a Guitar Hero pedal controller in action. Designed by console-hacker guru Benjamin Heckendorn specifically for a customer, it allows someone to play Guitar Hero 3 one-handed:

Mega Man 9 Review

The 8-Bit Blue Bomber is Back!

Read review of Mega Man 9

HIGH Playing a game that was designed correctly to be a true challenge.

LOW I miss the slide feature of later Mega Man games (and a downloadable character does not count!)

WTF Finally figuring out how to use the Black Hole Bomb correctly! It took me way too long...

Mega Man 9

Game Description: This latest Mega Man title brings the series back to its old-school roots with retro action platforming gameplay and classic 8-bit graphics and sound. Relive the Mega Man experience with classically inspired bosses, each with their own unique weapons and weaknesses.

On the Download: Is $15 too much for arcade downloads?

 

With the resounding success (on any platform) of the download model, publishers and developers are now starting to cash in as the price for electronic delivery creeps up.

Although $10 had been originally thought to be the sweet spot for consumers (I agree), more and more titles are now sporting a $15 price tag.

Enough with the freakin' trilogies already

Mirror's Edge Screenshot 

Last year when Crysis came out, I think all of us who played it were a little disappointed in the abrupt, cliffhanger ending. It felt like the ending of Halo 2, where you think you're about to get the biggest, baddest level of the game, and then the credits roll. Crytek's reason for such a lame ending? "It's a trilogy". What? Why didn't anybody say anything before? Are they sure they didn't just run out of time to put in all the levels they wanted?

Today, EA announced that Mirror's Edge will be the first part of a trilogy. What? The first one isn't even out yet. We don't know if it will be any good or if it will sell worth a spit. Need I remind everyone what happened with Too Human?

Microsoft takes second step towards casual gamers

The first step was of course the recent price drop of the Xbox 360 Arcade. Still, this next move is so counter to what the typical Xbox 360 owner wants that you wonder if Microsoft is willing to endure any kind of backlash just so it can grab some dollars from the Wii crowd. The transitioning period that Microsoft talks about is bound to be even longer than necessary since there wasn't a media onslaught similar to what Nintendo did for the Wii. As it is, Microsoft is expecting core gamers to just deal with it when this new "Xbox Live Experience" (and a recent price drop) tempts casual gamers to come play with the hardcore crowd.

Xbox Live Experience

"Dubbed the new "Xbox Live Experience," this re-launched service...really does seem to have something for everyone: an easy-to-use graphical interface complete with deeply customizable avatars that casual players will enjoy, and all kinds of new functionality that will actually reward the dedication of the hard-core Xbox player. Microsoft readily admits that there may be a bit of a transition period for those core players--a time during which a lot of griping might be heard--but the company fully expects a gradual realization on the part of those players that the new service takes the existing Xbox Live and adds all kinds of new community and interactive functions to it."

Piracy on the PC: Where do we go from here?

Just a sampling of the news this month in PC gaming:

  • Epic says that Gears of War 2 will not come to the PC, citing piracy as a primary reason.
  • EndWar creative director Michael de Plater asserts that the PC port of the game (which, incidentally, has not been officially confirmed to be in development) is delayed because of piracy.
  • Bionic Commando, the remake of the 80's hit, is coming to the PC a little later than the console version, again being delayed over piracy fears.
  • Fallout 3 has gone gold, and the XBox 360 version has already been leaked on to torrents. How long before the PC version, too, is leaked?
  • The Witcher developer CDProjekt is struggling to gain publusher support for its DRM-free classic-game service Good Old Games (gog.com).
  • A class-action lawsuit has been filed against EA for its use of SecuROM protection in Spore.

There's little disputing that piracy is a serious problem on the PC. It's also a problem for consoles, but it's certainly more prevalent on the PC. Unfortunately though, there's no real solid data to give us a clear picture just how big of a financial impact piracy really has. A study in 2004 found that music piracy, long blamed by the music industry for a decline in CD sales, was mostly unrelated to the decline. It's difficult to say whether this holds true for the PC as well; most piracy happens in Asia and Eastern Europe, so it's unclear whether game makers are really losing customers to piracy en masse.

But whether or not piracy is actually harming companies' bottom lines, it's clearly having a strong effect on their perception of the viability of the PC market. It's not unlike a bear market, where anxiety over stock viability creates a buying freeze. In other words, developers like Epic, Ubisoft, Capcom and id may be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy by relegated the PC to a second-class market.

At the same time, whether data supports them or not, developers are quick to blame piracy for any perceived lost sales. Epic, for example, dropped the ball last year with the PC port of Gears of War. The game was released a year late at full price with sparse new content, was not available through any of the many popular digital distribution channels such as Steam and Direct2Drive, and received bad word of mouth due to numerous game-breaking bugs resulting from a sloppy implementation of Games for Windows Live which, to add insult to injury, required a paid subscription to access all the online features. And yet Epic seems all too willing to ignore these factors and just blame piracy. I'm not singling out Epic—similar comments have come from Crytek, Infinity Ward, and many others. While piracy may indeed be an issue, the perception of piracy is clearly just as serious a problem, one that may prevent developers and publishers from addressing more immediate problems in their business models.

The response from developers and publishers to this possibly real, but unquestionably perceived threat of piracy has been to lace their games with more and more stringent DRM restrictions. When I wrote a blog chiding gamers for blowing DRM out of proportion, I was heavily criticized for failing to recognize that DRM really does create problems for a lot of users and, so say many, it just makes piracy worse. In retrospect, I was wrong to understate the impact DRM has on users, as well as wrong to overstate its efficacy. Clearly no DRM scheme does much of anything to prevent piracy—even the most heavily protected games are leaked very quickly; and clearly many legitimate users are inconvenienced by increasingly draconian DRM schemes—I've been there myself recently.

And yet, it's not clear to what extent DRM is hurting PC game sales if at all, or whether it makes piracy worse as some suggest—though both are valid possibilities. Again looking at music sales, some data suggests that Apple's DRM-free iTunes Plus may spur greater sales, and Amazon.com has seen great success with their DRM-free music service.

I applaud CDProjekt for their ambitious DRM-free Good Old Games service, and I applaud Bethesda for sticking with a simple CD check for Fallout 3. Ultimately the success or failure of DRM-free software will determine whether frustrated developers will continue to get away with blaming piracy for their woes, and whether DRM use continues to be prevalent. Regardless, it's time developers and publishers take a more critical eye toward their perception of piracy's true impact on their business, and start treating their customers a little better. As long as developers treat PC gaming as a second-class market, that's exactly what it will be.

Ars Technica tackles games with serious issues

Ars Technica closely examines some recent games that raise controversial themes and issues.

On Super Columbine Massacre RPG!:

Essentially, SCMRPG! is a psychological examination of Harris and Klebold. It attempts to put the player into their mindset, exploring how and why they came to do what they did. The subject matter itself questions what a game is meant to be. Though people normally play video games for sheer enjoyment, there is none to be found in SCMRPG! Instead, I found myself actively dreading entering the game world, unwilling to perform the actions necessary to progress.

On Metal Gear Solid 4:

In the world of MGS4, war has become a business, and PMCs are in the center of it. The new war economy means that the world is in a constant state of battle, locked in perpetual proxy wars fought for business purposes. But while this is an interesting concept to contemplate, unfortunately it is not covered with real depth.

As a Kojima game, MGS4 spends much more time tackling strange philosophical debates than it does real world issues like PMCs. And given the fact that the existence of these corporations only came to light recently, it's a topic that is at the forefront of many people's minds. The game is wonderful, but the opportunity for a serious look at the subject was squandered.

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