Robyn Dobson

After months of speculation, and with this week’s E3 baring down on us like a swag-covered freight train, Sony has announced that it has dropped the price of its 60GB PlayStation 3 model by $100 to $499, while simultaneously announcing a new 80GB model at the former’s $599 ($659 Canadian) price point.

The move is no doubt a preemptive strike made to gain market share in the wake of lagging console soles, though it remains to be seen how much impact this price cut and new model will have on the market should Microsoft follow suit with a similar move for its Xbox 360.

The new 80GB PlayStation 3 model will debut in North America this August, and will feature Evolution Studios’ popular racing game Motorstorm as a pack-in. Sony has also noted that it expects to have 120 new first and third-party PS3 titles on North American retail shelves this year, in addition to the more than 40 titles currently available.

“As we move into the next phase of PS3, it’s important that we continue to evaluate our product line, offering consumers the technology and features that meet their growing needs for new forms of media and the way in which it is delivered,” said SCEA president and CEO Jack Tretton.

“The introduction of the 80GB PS3, the new pricing for the current 60GB model, the availability of more than 100 new software titles this fiscal year and, finally, the expansion of services for PlayStation Network, will provide even more options for users and will help bring new consumers into the PS3 fold.”

San Diego based Paleo Entertainment has licensed Crytek’s CryENGINE 2 (Crysis) middleware for an upcoming FPS based on an original IP called Merchants of Brooklyn. Known for its Half Life 2 multiplayer prehistoric mod Paleolithic Revolution, the studio’s latest effort aims to “deliver engaging, fast-paced, futuristic mafia action mixed with Neanderthal vs. Cro-Magnon clones.”

“With this agreement in place,” commented Paleo president Troy Latimer. “we can immediately begin to move forward with prototyping our game, secure in the knowledge the engine will be able to handle everything we need, while the tools will give us the creative freedom to build the kind of next generation game no one has been able to make until now.”

According to Paleo, Merchants of Brooklyn takes place during 3100 A.D, and features a character by the name of Matteo Savio in the lead role. Players will play as the character from a young boy named Matty in Brooklyn to Dr. Savio, PHD – Director of Genetics on Planet Paleo “as he makes his way from day to day MOB life, Scientific Education and Galactic adventures.”

Noted Latimer, “Before licensing the CryENGINE 2 for our new project, we looked carefully at all our options, and concluded no other engine could produce the kind of AAA quality game we were aiming to develop, nor were any other toolsets as advanced or user friendly as the ones delivered with the CryENGINE 2.”

With this year’s hotly anticipated E3 media throw down less than 550,000 seconds away, companies have begun to announce which titles they plan to bring to the shindig, including NCsoft, which just sent over a list that includes the company’s 2008 MMO Aion, as well as the upcoming Guild Wars expansion Eye of the North, and the free to download multiplayer title Dungeon Runners.

The MMO heavy portfolio will also see the latest version of Richard Garriott’s Tabula Rasa, which has been in closed beta testing since May and is set for launch this fall.

The news confirms that neither Lineage II nor City of Heroes/Villains content will play any role in the company’s presence at E3. Nor will Auto Assault, as developer NetDevil announced earlier today that NCsoft has opted to pull the plug on the vehicle based MMO, with the game effectively making its last lap on August 31.

Wrote a brief statement on the Auto Assault website:

“Today NCsoft is announcing that it will be closing down service for Auto Assault at the end of the summer. The service will close at midnight on August 31, 2007. As of today, any player currently in the service with an active billed account will not be billed again. If players have previously purchased time via multi-month billing or time cards that extends their service past July 31, NCsoft will reconcile these accounts appropriately. There will be more announcements coming soon regarding the shut down of Auto Assault and its impact on current accounts.”

Guitar Hero has proven to be a breakout success for the now MTV-owned Cambridge, MA Harmonix studio, with three titles under its belt spanning two consoles, the latest of which made its next-gen debut for the Xbox 360 in April 2007. Since its introduction in 2005, rabid fans have flocked to the franchise, living out adolescent daydreams of hard rocking stardom vicariously through the series’ unique controller fashioned into the shape of an electric guitar.

The latest release, Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s for the PlayStation 2, was first announced in early May by publisher Activision, and while we are not at liberty to talk fully about the game yet, after spending a good deal of time playing a near complete build it is safe to say that those players looking for more of the same from the series will get exactly what they are looking for here. That said, as the fourth title in the franchise, Guitar Hero seems to have found itself painted into a corner, and much like other popular rhythm series, such as Konami’s Dance Dance Revolution, the head banging franchise has in its refusal to evolve begun to feel a bit stale.

This is perhaps why Harmonix opted to unshackle itself from [i]Guitar Hero[/i] following the upcoming July release, instead moving on to develop the recently announced multi-instrument rhythm title Rock Band, which will be published by music powerhouse MTV and distributed and marketed by Electronic Arts. The next as yet unnamed Guitar Hero title instead is being helmed by Tony Hawk developer Neversoft, while the world waits on bated breath to see how exactly the series will fare in the hands of another company.

However, different is not on the ticket with [i]Encore[/i], which instead feels very much like a 30-song expansion to the existing, and admittedly fabulous Guitar Hero II. Dipping into the decade of excess, Encore‘s song selection is fantastic, with flavors of hard rock, hair bands, and pop all mixed together into an exhilarating snapshot of an era that gave us Twisted Sister, Ratt, and even Flock of Seagulls. Even so, while the songs are the real stars of Guitar Hero, this game does seem a bit like a throwaway project, and you cannot help but come away feeling that Encore is the weakest to be counted among the franchise so far.

Where this immediately becomes apparent is in the quality of the covers. In past releases, it at least seemed as if some marked effort was put into making the artists sound like the musicians they were imitating. Granted, this was met with various degrees of success, but there are some tracks in [i]Encore [/i]that sound nothing like the original, and at least in a couple cases the singers even sound a bit bored. Granted what we played was an early build, and changes are always possible, but it seems improbable that songs are destined to be rerecorded at this stage of development.

Thankfully this will become less and less of an issue with the franchise going forward, with master tracks confirmed for many of the songs to be included within Neversoft’s effort, as well as within Harmonix’s Rock Band. But here the series’ originator’s farewell performance stands as a stark reminder as to the important role those master tracks will play in the immersive quality of Guitar Hero‘s subsequent releases.

This wasn’t much of issue when the series was young and we were all testing the waters. However, now with players having mastered the mechanics already, a lack in music quality is much more of a deterrent, and in Encore it seems possible that many players – especially those who appreciate music from the 80s — are going to come away disappointed. That is not to say that all of the songs fail to impress however, as I must confess that many of us at Snackbar couldn’t resist throwing up horns while rocking out to tracks such as Holy Diver and Metal Health.

Mechanically, Guitar Hero‘s latest edition feels identical to past efforts, sporting a selection of progressively more difficult songs that are unlocked by completing the game’s career mode, while competitive and cooperative two-player modes keep the game’s party atmosphere rocking. Also back is the training mode to help ease those players into the experience who may be having trouble or are stepping onto the stage for the first time. Just like everything else in the game, for better or worse, Encore is old hat.

Taken as a whole, the game is perhaps best described as a mixed bag, and maybe that is unavoidable in a game such as this. It will be interesting to see how important this plays in fan reception to the game, however, especially given that at present major online and brick and mortar retailers are listing Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s as carrying a $49.99 price tag. That, you must admit, is a steep price to pay for what amounts to an expansion, even one emblazoned with such a recognized moniker. Look for our full review of the title in July.