A More “Real” VR Experience

“We hope as more people get to see VR, the experience will become more normal. People will then come into the VR experience and just see another game instead of a toy.” – Cindy Miller, Lead Designer at Culture Shock Games.

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I spent my past weekend at PAX East looking at a bunch of “new” games. While I wasn’t entirely impressed with most of the showcase, I did manage to find a few interesting things. One of the more intriguing displays was for an indie game called We Are Chicago.

At first, my friend and I were simply lining up to try VR. We were glancing at the monitor and joking about almost everything in the game world. This older guy and his son were joining in with us as we kept pointing out some of the inconsistencies of the VR experience.

The demo consisted of a scripted conversation about inner-city life and a scene where the player is supposed to set the table. I wanted to get into the demo and start flinging plates around. I wondered how awesome it would be to teleport into a fridge or smack someone in the face. I was hell bent on breaking the game world.

Weird little glitches like disappearing doors and unshapely character models were just adding fuel to the fire. It was like some low budget B-movie with a more interactive twist. Who cares what the people are saying? The real joy is in tearing it apart.

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Just look at that!! How could you resist throwing it?!

As we kept waiting, though, I realized something about my behavior; I was being a real jackass. I won’t claim that every game should be treated as a masterpiece (or even with respect), but it’s hard to fault a small team for trying to break new ground.

The non VR experience of We Are Chicago is substantially better. It still has a way to go before being released, but its ability to convey a story through a slightly interactive medium looks to be taking an already tired genre in some new directions.

“We want people to empathize with how things are,” is what Cindy Miller told me. “We like the fact that we are touching on these topics and we are going to be giving some proceeds from the game to help non-profit organizations.”

That really hit me in the gut. Here I was, joking about how goofy the VR demo looked. When my friend asked the lead programmer, Michael Block, about the intended plotline for the game, I jokingly said, “It’s about a teleporting man who is tasked with setting the dinner table and refuses to.”

I suppose that is the downside to an expo dedicated to “new” things. People want to experience VR, but the show floor is so crowded that dedicating yourself to any one thing is a monumental task. When some indie developer has a quick, accessible demonstration out, you mainly want to fuck around with it to experience the technology.

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Which way did he go, George?

“We like the fact that a lot of people come for the VR and stay for the game. We’re happy that people get to experience it,” Cindy said to me with a bright smile. It doesn’t matter if people think her game is bogus; she is mostly happy to present the idea to the masses.

Thankfully, I’m not the kind of person to shut my mind off. I tinkered with the VR experience on the first day of PAX, but I returned to that booth every other day. The second day was to take another friend over and the third day was to grab some photos and quotes. I wanted to challenge myself with bringing out the better side of this game.

I don’t know if I should explain its plot details or any of the controls. At its best, the game feels like a Telltale adventure game before they began sucking up every contract possible. We Are Chicago is taking the idea of an interactive narrative to its logical conclusion.

We’ve seen games built on making us empathize with protagonists or thrusting us into difficult scenarios, but none of them have truly dealt with real life problems. The abundance of World War II shooters may have all been based on true stories, but none of those felt real.

Most gamers also don’t have to live in a shitty slum. A lot of us have a comfortable life. The worst problem we will ever face is pissing our boss off. None of us know the emotional toll that constantly living in fear brings. None of us need to worry about stray bullets flying through our walls and killing our families.

Cindy and Michael both told me, “Everything that happens in the game is based on real events.” Cindy then added, “Our writer came from Englewood and is bringing his personal experience into the game.” Well, damn. Safe, secure, blissfully happy me gets to go home to white suburbia while these developers have grown up in a crappy reality.

Did the rest of the attendees connect with this game on the same level? I honestly don’t think so. People were so happy to get into a VR headset that the conversations might as well of not happened. You could have put stickmen in place of the character models and no one would bat an eye.

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Half of these people probably never even saw the game. I know Jed didn’t!

I didn’t want to leave the expo and have this game become a distant memory. I didn’t want others to see the low budget and think this game was a joke. VR may be the future, but if it robs a game like this of its narrative punch, then it doesn’t deserve to survive on the market. VR should be opening people to new realities; it shouldn’t be relegated to a simple plaything.

Thankfully, We Are Chicago will be releasing as a standard game first. The VR experience was mostly made for PAX (and was finished in a week), but will become available at an unspecified time after the game is finally out.

I feel that is for the best. I’d rather the discussion start with how dramatic the game is rather than how ridiculous a flying plate looks in VR.

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Cindy Miller (Left), Michael Tisdale (Center), Michael Block (Right)

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Nintendo Preview: E3 Comes Home

E3 has increasingly become less relevant to the common gamer. The show was fantastic when the general public was allowed to attend, but now times are different. While gamers appreciate that journalists write back about their experiences, nothing beats getting hands-on time with a game.

Nintendo wanted to be different this year. Not only did it not hold a press conference, but it partnered with Best Buy to give the regular old gamers a taste of the E3 goodness. While my state isn’t exactly a sprawling metropolis, I still had to wait two hours in line to get my hands on these demos.

I can say this Nintendo experience is the closest I’ve been to an E3-like crowd. The people were friendly and genuinely excited to see Super Mario 3D World. We all cheered when someone succeeded and cried when others failed. It was fantastic.

This also gave me an opportunity to shed some of the doubt I saw from the Nintendo Direct stream. While I knew I’d be getting Mario regardless (stupid blind Nintendo fanboyism) when I wasn’t very optimistic from the videos.

Well, since this is a preview, why don’t I explain what I played?

Super Mario 3D World

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While I can’t claim this is the 3D Mario game we were all dreaming of, 3D World is very fun. The co-op is frustrating, but I suppose that is to be expected. The bubble mechanic from the New Super Mario Bros. games makes an appearance and you can now pop it yourself, so I guess co-op could be easier.

I didn’t get to use the Gamepad at the demo booth, but the Wii Remote controls were decent. Running in a 3D space with a D-pad sucks, but everything is smooth. There isn’t any mandatory pointer action, either. Just running and jumping with a flick acting as a spin-attack.

Getting another game with Peach is fantastic to me. It was also adorable to see a five-year-old come up and practically beg for Peach.  All the characters handle like their Super Mario Bros. 2 counterparts. Luigi and Peach are the obvious choices as they can float. 3D World is a lot faster than the 3DS game, so anyone who thought that game was sluggish won’t have the same complaint this time.

The level I got to play (6-3) had the map converge to one point where the four players had to enter a clear tube. This tube sends you straight forward and around some bends, of which you can control by holding up, down, left or right. The players needed to cooperate to get some keys and unlock a box to proceed. This felt almost like a mini Zelda puzzle and it was fun to see the platforming not be solely running and jumping.

The graphics were very solid. The colors popped and the subtle textures on Mario’s and Luigi’s jeans looked nice. Nothing was too realistic, but the colors were so rich that it just appeared glorious. The camera was a bit wonky, though. There are no controls to change it, either.

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze

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This was the game I was the most looking forward to. I love Donkey Kong Country Returns and thought it was one of the best platformers ever made. I guess striking lightning twice just wasn’t bound to happen.

I’m not sure if it was the graphics that did it, but nothing seemed entirely different. Obviously using the gamepad to control your characters is much nicer than the Wii Remote and waggle, but this game is eerily similar to the Wii game.

The animations are very smooth, though, and the game feels spot on. It runs smoothly and never drops in framerate. Your actions have immediate response and you can carry a few enemies, which leads to improved barrels to attack. Nothing screams HD, though, and I think this was a missed opportunity to sell the system on power.

You now have six hits until you die (other than in co-op where it is three per player). The Nintendo rep said he believes this to be a deliberate change in the game to make it slightly easier. I know the 3DS version had this as an option, so I think he may be confused.

The Nintendo rep did confirm to me that the game would have Wii U Pro Controller support along with the gamepad and Wii Remote control schemes. He wasn’t able to tell me if online co-op was available, but I wouldn’t hold my breath on that.

Mario Kart 8

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While I’ve enjoyed the Mario Kart series at different points in my life, the last two games did nothing for me. Mario Kart Wii is my second least favorite in the series and Mario Kart 7 is barely any better. I figured Nintendo had no gimmicks or creativity left for this series. It was also surprising when Sega nailed it with the Sonic racing games, making me question what could even come next.

Well, Mario Kart 8 plays very nicely. The gamepad can be tilted for steering or swapped on the fly to classic-style controls. There is also Wii U Pro Controller and Wii Remote schemes, so you never have to settle for any decided style of play.

The level designs are also very eye-catching. The zero-G sections look mindblowing with their bending of reality. The game flips upside down and you can ride on walls, all while tossing your weapons wherever you see fit.

Split-screen is also still an option and it works wonderfully in HD. Nintendo hasn’t packed the screen with a useless HUD or cluttered it with too many particle effects. The boxes are huge and offer plenty of real estate for players to see the action.

The graphics also run at an amazing 60 frames-per-second. This is on top of visual detail that looks like a storybook. I am genuinely surprised at how great-looking the game is and how well that translates to speed.

The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD

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My dream come true. I could honestly write that and that would be enough. Still, I will explain a bit.

In terms of game feel, nothing has changed. This plays pretty much like the GameCube version. The camera is a little weird, Link is very quick and the swordplay looks fantastic. The big draw is how the graphics have morphed and they look stunning.

The textures look even more cartoony than before. Link’s face is epic to behold in full HD. The particle effects mesmerize me now, almost to the point of distraction. The smoke clouds and dirt effects are beyond belief. I have no idea how Nintendo worked this kind of magic.

For some reason, though, I feel like the framerate is slower. I even mentioned this to the Nintendo rep, but he kept saying that it was running at 60 fps. I just don’t believe that. The game doesn’t have any laggy inputs, but it does appear to move slower.

The extra Wii U features didn’t really have time to shine in the demo. I noticed that the gamepad screen acts exactly like Ocarina of Time 3D did, so that is very awesome. Inventory is quick and easy to access and you can keep a constant map on the gamepad at all times.

As far was extra content goes, the Nintendo rep told me that everything is essentially the same. No new dungeons are going to be added and no dialog or music will be changed. You just get faster sailing and Miiverse integration directly in the game.

I couldn’t get the Nintendo Rep to confirm if Wii U Pro controller support was available or not. He just said that the demo only allowed for the gamepad, so I’m not sure what that could mean when the final build arrives.

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I love that Nintendo wasn’t content with just throwing up some videos online and expecting the general public to eat them up. Quite honestly, not getting hands-on time with Super Mario 3D World would have nearly dissuaded me from getting the game. This Best Buy experience was a wise decision for the Big N.

It also gave a poor guy like me a chance to feel like I was at E3. I’m always a bit jealous of the journalists who get to play these games and experience the glitz and glamour of the E3 floor. While Best Buy certainly isn’t as big, the Nintendo Experience was definitely very loud.

I urge anyone who is excited from this to get to Best Buy this Saturday. The store will be hosting the event from 1-5 PM. You can get a Luigi hat and flag for participating, too! Nothing beats free swag and early access.

I Love Nintedo!

I am a cold, angry, cynical man. Gaming has felt my wrath. I have outright refused to buy sequels due to a company’s anti-consumer ways and have bashed some of the most highly-regarded games this generation. Very few things make me remember the fun, happy kid I used to be.

Nintendo somehow manages to dodge a lot of my fury. While I can definitely complain about the company itself, its games still produce charm and bring a smile to my face. I love playing Nintendo games and have actual excitement when a new one is announced (even when it is a sequel).

This past weekend, Nintendo World in New York City hosted an Animal Crossing: New Leaf event. There were little events set up around the store that mimicked the things you could do in the game. Things like fishing, fossil-finding and bug-catching were all on display. My inner child came out.

During the nearly two-hour train ride, I concocted ideas in my head of how the store would look. Would there be small houses with animals around the store? Would the fossil hunt have the funny little star shape on the ground? Would I literally be able to dig?

It was probably inevitable that I would be disappointed when I entered the store, but then something dawned on me. I had become engulfed with a fever I haven’t felt since I was 10 years old. I wanted this to be larger than life and began to use my creativity to make the store explode with passion.

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Isn’t this just silly?!

Nintendo was able to make me feel like a child again and I hadn’t even had my hands on the game yet. So, even though I clearly had unrealistic expectations for what Nintendo World would look like, I was filled with childlike glee.

I can tell you that the three-hour wait in line outside the store drove me mad. I really wanted to get in the store and earn my buttons. Never have free trinkets meant so much to me. I don’t even plan on using them; I just “needed” to have them.

Now I’m filled with an Animal Crossing delirium again. I have been stricken with the bug to collect everything in the game. Best Buy is hosting some events for free items and I’m marking my calendar to grab them all. If I find out that Toys’R’Us is doing the same thing, I’ll enter another one of those stores for the first time in five years just to get some, too.

Nintendo somehow manages to bring joy to my heart all the time. I may have to wait an inordinate amount of time, but I am never disappointed. Even when I let the hype flow through my veins and dissolve into blunder, I still end up genuinely liking everything it does.

So I really do not care if New Super Luigi U is the same garbage or if the next Zelda is the worst of the series; I just love Nintendo. The company makes me believe I can be a happy kid again. It usually makes me behave like one, too.

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He’s a Nintendo manchild, too!

Below I have provide a few extra photos from my trip to Nintendo World. I hope these help show how awesome events like this can be.

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Demo Impressions – Dragon Age 2 & Yakuza 4

Dragon Age: Origins was a troublesome game for me. I’m a big fan of BioWare and I’ve always had a blast with their games (well, excluding MDK2. That game aggravated me), but nothing about Dragon Age drew me in. I think I ended my playthrough after 7 hours and I was only in the first town (where you have to pay a toll or kill the bastards at the bridge to get in).

I’m not quite sure what turned me off, but I think it was the lack of polish or the awfully generic storyline (which I hear has a satisfying conclusion). Nothing seemed very new to me and the technology powering the game was terrible to look at. Yeah, it had a grand scale, but it looked worse than Neverwinter Nights (a game that launched seven years prior!).

Still, there were certain aspects that I enjoyed and wished to see fleshed out in an expansion or sequel. When I heard BioWare wasn’t keen on letting their new IP die, I did get excited for the possibilities. Maybe some more action, a better art style, less filler.

While I can’t answer if 2 has any filler or not, I can say that my first few complaints have been rectified. The demo for Dragon Age 2 definitely showcases a much more action packed and engaging opening. The story is still a bit dull, but the demo begins with a bang and keeps going for a good half an hour without losing any intensity.

Much like the PC version of Mass Effect 2, Dragon Age 2 is better optimized on the platform. The menus are slick, if a bit console oriented, and the inventory/skill tree screens are nicely done. While I’m not a fan of the black backgrounds, I do like the text displays and important information being available all at once.

The biggest change is the pacing, though. Combat was a bit boring in the original, but the skill trees seem a bit more thought out this game. I had chosen a generic barbarian type character and his attacks made sense. Shield Bash, Whirlwind and Smash were all accounted for and helped clear out more than one enemy at a time.


All action, all the time!

Switching between characters was simple and worked without much of a hitch. Simply pressing F1, 2, 3 or 4 changed between available party members and the transition wasn’t as jarring as in the first game. The camera quickly focused on the party member and the skill bar updated without a problem.
The only thing I will note is that the lack of the overhead, Icewind Dale style view does make me a little sad. I enjoyed exploring the environments with an old school style, but I suppose it doesn’t matter as far as gameplay is concerned.

The art direction does deserve some commendation. It’s a lot more bright and colorful this time around. The level that the demo gives you is a bit generic in terms of location, but it does feel a lot like the opening to “Fellowship of the Ring,” and recreating something like that is impressive. It’s also a hell of a lot of fun to rip through orcs and grunts.

As for plot, I’m not too sure what to think. The voice acting has improved marginally, but the game is still a bit bland for my tastes. We’ve all heard tales of some mystical and powerful evil invading some secluded land and it still doesn’t feel any more compelling this time. I will admit that I skipped most of the cutscenes after the first, though.

To sum it up, though, Dragon Age 2 is shaping up nicely. I may force myself to finish the first just so I can fully enjoy the sequel, but I’d say that those kinds of measures aren’t required for most gamers. The sequel has definitely been improved in all the right categories to let new fans jump in and feel welcome.

In more console related news, I was going to write a nice blog about the demo for Yakuza 4, but Sega didn’t see fit to really make much of a demo. So my thoughts on that will be limited to a paragraph or two. Yakuza 4 is the continuation of the Yakuza series and follows the plot of not just one character, but four!

As for what the game is about, I have no idea. The demo boots up and you’re given the option to start, which puts you directly in the shoes of the first character and makes you fight. After you finish the battle, you change to the next character and continue until you’re finished with Kazuma Kiryu’s battle (Kazuma being the main character of the previous three games).

It’s nice that the different characters have different styles, but I’m not exactly sure what I’m supposed to take out of this demo. I already loved the battles from the third game and I was eager to get some insight as to what the story might be about. Hell, I would have even liked to see some of the changes to the game’s fictionalized Tokyo.

As it stands, if you haven’t been introduced to the Yakuza series, don’t bother giving this demo a try. It will do nothing for you as it literally does nothing. It lasts about 10 minutes and just occupies 650 mb on your PS3. If you want a real taste of what Yakuza is about, give the demo for 3 a try. That gives you some story and a few substories to complete, as well as letting you walk around a small portion of Tokyo.


Until next time…

DEMOlition – Katamari Forever

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Katamari Forever is a game that a lot of fans have been eagerly waiting for. While already out in Japan, Forever promises to deliver all kinds of nonsensical awesome mixed with the requisite Katamari flair.

Sony has kindly released a playable demo on PSN today and though I have already beaten most of the Japanese import (That’s right, I’m awesome……), I decided to give this demo a try to see what Sony has in store.

The demo has a generic title screen that is essentially the logo and “Press Start,” (along with some strange Notice about taking breaks and not using projection televisions). Once you skip that, you are taken to the main map that looks sort of like a pop-up book. It’s pretty neat, but it definitely gets annoying to navigate. You only have one option (other than Vibration settings) to play with, so once you click there, the mission select screen appears.

Thankfully Sony decided to include levels exclusive to Forever in the demo, so everything you play is brand new content (if you didn’t know, Katamari Forever works like a “Best Of” collection with levels from the first two games mixed with new things). The main level is a generic roll everything until you reach the goal and it definitely isn’t challenging. The goal they set for you is something that the first game had you doing in the 2nd level, meaning a Veteran of the series should have no problem.

The second level is where some of the unique charm of the series comes in (and is sort of inspired by We Love Katamari). You are tasked with rolling your Katamari into some water and then rolling across a desert to water up the place. While it’s not the most difficult thing you will ever do, it’s definitely a fun diversion from just rolling over stuff like a monster.

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The grass is always greener and Katamari proves that.

This desert level, in particular, brings out the best of the 1080p graphics. There is definitely some slow down (which doesn’t hurt as much as you would think), but the textures have a nice filter over them that makes everything seem like watercolor. Now, the final version features 4 different graphical filters, but the demo only lets you tinker with one.

The game’s controls have been literally unchanged from the previous Katamari titles, except that now you can jump. You jump by either using SIXAXIS or just pressing R2 (which definitely makes more sense). It can let you get to higher places in levels so that you can roll more and it even lets you clear some obstacles in your path (allowing you to soar over a pesky zebra or human).

The musical selection for the demo is a little lacking, but you can rest assured that the final title provides enough tracks to keep you satisfied. The demo has remixes for “Katamari on the Rocks” and the main theme, but neither one is really that outstanding. It kind of hinders the experience of Katamari when the songs are a little subpar.

In the end, though, Katamari Forever is definitely a fun little title. I may not be able to call it a classic like the first two, but the demo does give you something to bite into until the game comes out.

If you’re wondering what else the final game has, I will enlighten you a bit. There are about 24 levels of rolling madness that is composed primarily of We Love Katamari. Along with that you get a neat co-op mode that only has 6 levels, though it kind of wears thin after a bit.

The other graphical filters are things like a Wood finish and a Comic Book style and they definitely are a sight to behold in HD. The musical selection takes most of the tracks from We Love Katamari and gives those 2 or 3 remixes each (making for a colossal amount of music).

You also have the different cousins to change between, though there are really not any more than in We Love Katamari (the demo also lets you change, but you get about 7 of them). Along with the cousins, the presents return and let you change your character on 3 different levels (Head, Body and Feet).

So even though the demo is extremely short and lacking in much of a first impression, the final game will provide for fans clamoring for more. Give the demo a shot just to see how Katamari HD looks and maybe to get yourself acquainted if you’ve never tried a Katamari game before.

First Impressions – Beatles: Rock Band

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The Beatles can easily be called one of the greatest bands in history. There is no questioning their impact on the music industry and their quality as a group. But will you be able to say the same thing about the newest Rock Band title, Beatles: Rock Band? Well, let’s take a first look.

The first screen the game gives you is a calibration screen. While my friends and I were using a CRT monitor (therefore no lag), the calibration seems to be equal to the system used in Rock Band 2. I can’t image that anything is terribly off with the system, but it’s nothing new and will probably still cause headaches.

On to the actual gameplay side of the equation. Unwilling to try any of the vocal harmonies out (and down about 2 mics anyway), we decided to keep it straight instrument play. We booted up the game to a screen that allows you to sign in 4 gamer profiles (one for each instrument) and pick a save file for your story progress. This was nifty as 1 person may be complete, yet the second player may still need something extra.

After selecting your save file, the game goes to a screen which has each instrument press a button to enter the game. This system is a little strange as to drop out an instrument requires you to go back to the main menu, which is 2 screens past the actual menu for selecting “Story Mode” or “Challenge.” Still, it’s not that awkward and you eventually get used to it.

Once at the games “real” menu, you can pick “Story” or “Challenge.” While my friends and I thought challenge would be similar to what Guitar Hero 5 had done (with cool little requirements), all the challenges consist of is playing the setlist back to back in the different venues. Anything consisting of “Play X Song hammering on notes” is relegated to the achievements, meaning most people will probably never figure them out.

So even though challenge mode is rather worthless, Story is a bit different. Trying to paint the timeline of the Beatles would be a hard task, but Harmonix seems to have gotten most of their story out there (excluding all the drugs and naked bed displays in Amsterdam). Before you can even pick a song in each setlist, you are treated to an animated movie that mostly just uses visuals and a song to paint the story. It really makes no sense, but you can easily skip them by pressing start.

When you finally do get to start playing a song, you come to one simple realization; this is just another damn rhythm game. While Guitar Hero 5 is certainly the same thing as previous entries, it tried to give you something new with the career mode or party play. Beatles: Rock Band takes the easy way out and just repackages Rock Band with flashy colors and different songs.

To its credit, the selection of songs is stellar. But, if you dislike the Beatles, this game is 100% worthless to you. While I can’t say that making a band related game focus on just the band is a bad thing, it does alienate people from wanting to pick this up if they have no interest in The Beatles.

Well, that aside, I love the Beatles, so I enjoyed what was offered. While I wished for more (there is no reason why 80 songs could not have been offered), Harmonix promises to have full albums available for download soon. This is a feature that both Guitar Hero Aerosmith and Metallica lack (albeit Metallica does have 1 album). This could keep you playing the game for a long time if you really have a hankering for Rock Band and The Beatles.

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While it may look amazing here, imagine this on a blurry, fuzzy, SDTV.

The visuals are pretty ridiculous, but we played on a standard def television. In SD, the graphics are too bright, vibrant and distracting. When activating star power in SD, you suddenly lose track of where Yellow or Orange are coming from. Not only that, but any sustained notes (ones you hold) are too soft to be seen, so you kind of just let go and lose out on points.

Even with losing those points, you will easily be able to 5 star everything in this game if you are an expert Rock Band player. Even with my love for The Beatles, I could not help but feel a little cheated by the lack of difficulty. I may have failed 1 song on drums (one of the earlier, more hard rock songs), but even so it only took me another try to pass it. Even the songs that say “Full Difficulty” for Guitar/Bass/Drums are really just like a tier 5 song in regular Rock Band.

So without any kind of challenge other than achievements/trophies, Beatles: Rock Band is entirely for collector’s or people who are just hooked on the rhythm game craze. I hate to say this, too, but Guitar Hero 5 wins in my book. At least you can get some cool competitive modes or challenges to spice up the gameplay. With Beatles: Rock Band, you either play the songs or don’t. It’s really kind of sad.

I may have to sample the vocal harmonies before I can really give a final verdict on this (and I should probably try out some of the achievements as a few looked insanely hard), but I really don’t think this is worth a buy to the casual fan of Rock Band or even someone who has a waning interest in the genre. Skip this.

First Impressions – Guitar Hero 5

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With every month, Activision seems to be releasing a new Guitar Hero game. In rolls September and Activision has put out the next numbered sequel in their series, Guitar Hero 5. Today I’ll be giving my first impressions of the game and giving g1’s some advice as to whether they think their dollars are best spent on this new title.

Starting off, Guitar Hero 5 has heavily touted a new “Party Mode” all over the internet. This mode supposedly allowed you to use 4 instruments of the same or differing types to play all at once and even change difficulty on the fly and drop out whenever. The mode works just like that, even if it is a little misleading.

See, instead of having an option in the main menu that says “Party,” Activision put a button on the bottom of the screen that says it. So for the first 5 minutes, my friends and I were looking around for this fabled party mode. Once we figured it out, a song almost immediately launched and we found ourselves confused again.

The game gives absolutely no instructions on how to use the actual mode, so we scanned the bottom and top of the screen to figure out just exactly what was going on. We saw a yellow button for joining, so we were able to get 3 guitars going in seconds. The game automatically scrolled the screens and kept the song moving without any hindrance in framerate or even button presses.

Choosing a setlist requires one person to press start and pick “New Playlist.” You also press start to change your difficulty or instrument from Guitar/Bass (since you can’t switch from Drums to Guitar without first unplugging your controller). The menu also lets you drop out, or you can just walk away and let the game do it for you. Once you figure this all out, Party Mode is exactly what Activision said it would be. It works flawlessly and songs load at the end of the previous one, so you never have to wait around with pesky load screens. Once your list finishes, another random song starts and you can just keep playing or quit.

So as flawless as that mode is, the new career mode is definitely something special. While it may not be completely different (i.e. it’s the same thing) from Rock Band 2’s “Challenges,” having some kind of requirement to meet during a song is definitely a fun way to pass time. The only downside to this mode is that you cannot use 4 of the same instrument like in party mode.

Some of the challenges actually require a full band. Things range from “Complete a Song with X Score” to “Have Bass/Guitar perform X Hammer-On’s and Pull-off’s in X Song.” The challenges are definitely well thought out and help provide challenge to expert Guitar Hero players.

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Along with revamping the career mode comes some new character options. While I didn’t tinker with the creation tool, Guitar Hero 5 allows you to use your avatar (on 360 only) as a character. It definitely looks funky with how realistic the graphics are trying to be, but it’s also pretty funny to see your midget of a person strut around on stage.

As for the game’s actual setlist, there are definitely some amazing songs, but most of the list fails. There is a lot of modern and emo music, so if you are not into that, just skip this game. You can import songs from World Tour, but for some reason you are only allowed 35 of them. Your DLC from World Tour will work, but you just need to download a free update, which isn’t bad. That 35 song thing really kills any interest you may have in wanting to import, though.

There really aren’t any new features other than a “Band Moment” mode, but that simply works like Rock Band’s “Band Multiplier.” It works like flames over notes and just ups your points if you hit them. It’s nothing fancy, but it certainly helps in scoring well over 1 million points on some stupidly short songs.

In the end, my first impression of Guitar Hero 5 was generally positive. I may not particularly enjoy the graphics or really find anything innovative with the game, but the revamped career and the ability to play with 4 of your favorite instrument make the game more accessible. And hell, if you suck at drums, now you can just forget them entirely.

I’d say to give this game a shot if you are still interested in rhythm games or are a newbie to the whole fad. If you really have given up hope, this probably will not change your mind, but it never hurts to try.