September 2009

As has become their custom, Microsoft announced today that the Xbox 360 will be sold with two of this year’s best reviewed (under T-rated) games. This year, the Xbox 360 Elite bundle includes Pure, an off-road racing game from Black Rock Studios, and Lego Batman, the newest Lego themed adventure game from Tt Games. 

Microsoft also announced a bundle for their wireless controllers. READ MORE

Sony is releasing the PSP Go on Thursday, October 1st. For those gamers who are interested in picking it up, Sony has announced that there will be 225 downloadable games available for it in day 1. That total includes both PSP games and PS1 Classics. Since there are 61 PS1 Classics right now, it can be assumed that there will be roughly 140 PSP games available for download on October 1st. Sony has yet to release a full list of games that will be available, but we have compiled a list after the break of the top games that are available (or will be by Thursday). READ MORE

Bioware is looking to recruit a large number of beta testers for the closed beta of their much anticipated MMORPG, The Old Republic, at the official site.

Fans of the Knights of the Old Republic games have been loudly decrying Bioware’s production of The Old Republic, a MMORPG instead of an action RPG similar to the KotOR games. Bioware has repeatedly replied that The Old Republic will be larger in scope and story than ten KotOR games. READ MORE

I have to wonder, how much does a game story play into how fun the game actually is? I’m pretty strong when it comes to my beliefs about the most important elements in games, which is the actual gameplay, but what about a game’s story? Video games are becoming more and more story driven, and although a lot of games fall flat on their face when trying to tell a compelling story, some manage to make the game’s story so good, it makes us overlook any gameplay faults just because of us wanting to get to the next cutscene.

I’ll use Metal Gear Solid 4 as an example, as it is the latest in a series of games well known for a complex, but amazing story and very lengthy cutscenes. People often joke about it being a “movie,” but it’s such a cinematic experience, I think Kojima should accept it more as a complement than an insult. With the game, he and his team were truly able to blend cinematics and truly gripping game design together perfectly to create what I consider one of the best gaming experiences in a long time. 

Many games focus on cutscenes to tell their story, but what about games that don’t? You can have a game like Half-Life 2 or BioShock, with both having practically no cinematics, and rather having the story told around the player. You can listen to audio diaries in BioShock, but you are never forced to. You can stand around and listen as the people around you talk to you and your other NPCs, but again, you can walk away and wait for the next chance to get back into the action. In cases like these, I think it’s mostly true, where you can perfectly blend a compelling story into the game, and keep the players compelled.

I guarantee a good chunk of gamers don’t care much at all about stories. They may skip most, or maybe all, of the cutscenes, and just keep playing the game. With an approach like the one in BioShock, the game generally isn’t forcing you to pay attention, with the exception of a couple of scenes placed here and there in the game. Of course, giving the player the choice is the ultimate way for them to care. Most players who feel like they are totally immersed in this world will care about the story, instead of being brought out of gameplay completely by a non-interactive cutscene.

So, this goes back to my original point. Does the story make the game more fun? More compelling? Help you overlook the negatives of the gameplay? It could possibly happen like that. A lot more people remember Portal more for GLaDOS and her often hilarious dialog than the puzzles themselves. I guarantee most people who played the game can’t accurately describe a single puzzle in the game off the top of their head. But what can they describe? Some of the funny things said by GLaDOS. This is by no means a bad thing, but it makes the game more enjoyable, even for those who are not puzzle game fans. You want to progress just to continue the simplistic, but very enjoyable story and dialog.

This could be the case for a game with cutscenes, yes, but I guarantee it’s more true when the story happens around the player. When you feel like you’re truly apart of the story, you will most likely pay more attention to it, and there is a greater chance of enjoying the game overall. For me, a story in a video game doesn’t make any difference to me, but if it’s a good and compelling story, it will encompass the gameplay and make the game more fun to play and a more rewarding experience.

For many board game enthusiasts, Uwe Rosenberg’s Agricola (published in the US by Z-Man Games) was the top game released in 2008, if not of all time; currently it is the Number One rated game on Agricola offers several levels of play that accommodate from one to five players, including a basic Family Game that doesn’t use any additional cards, but the central mechanics remain consistent across all variations.

At its core, Agricola is a worker-placement game that offers an increasing number of options during each of its fourteen rounds of play; those fourteen rounds are divided into six “stages”, with specific subsets of options appearing consistently at some point in a specific stage. Each player begins with a mostly-empty farm board containing a two-room wooden house and a pair of farmers, plus some food in their supply. Everything else must be acquired by using one of your farmers on one of the available actions.

The board contains several base actions that are available from the outset; there are more options for more players. Each round, an additional option is placed on the board. Players place one of their farmers on an unclaimed action, performing it as they do so. These actions include acquiring materials and goods for their supply, using those materials for various improvements (including planting crops), or even adding a new member to a player’s family for additional actions in future rounds. However, additional bodies also have additional mouths. At the end of each stage there is a Harvest, at which point crops are harvested, livestock potentially reproduce, and each member of your family must be fed two food or else you lose three points for each food you are short. This is an incredibly stiff penalty, so the first priority of most skilled players is to establish some sort of “food engine”.

After the final harvest, scores are tallied. Most categories score from one to four points based on how much of that category you possess, and most carry a one-point penalty for not having any. With a set cap on points in each category (not to mention the penalty for neglecting one), it pays to diversify. Additional points are earned for upgrading your house from wood to clay or stone, family members, and other miscellaneous sources; finally, be aware that you are also penalized a point per empty space on your farm board.

Beyond the Family Game, Agricola offers three different decks of cards that include both Minor Improvements and Occupations (some occupations aren’t used with fewer players). The decks are labeled “E”asy, “I”nteractive, and “K”omplex (from the original German) and can be combined for additional play if desired. Each player is dealt seven cards of each type at the start of the game and there is no way to receive more. Minor improvements are typically played as bonuses to other actions; Occupations must be played as their own action and will cost you food to play (except for your first, depending on the action space used) but are often quite powerful.

Agricola offers deep strategy (including a fun but brutal solitaire variant) for those who are able to overcome its two main obstacles. The first is an overwhelming sense of complexity; your first few sessions will consume several hours as you come to grips with the wealth of options at your disposal, especially if you forego the stripped-down Family Game and jump right into one of the decks. Even without the cards there is still a ton of wooden bits moving all over the place. Secondly, the game itself usually retails for $70, which is much more than most European-style board games; all of the various cards and bits don’t come cheap, and the surprising heft of the box on the shelf should reassure you that you are definitely getting your $70’s worth, but the “sticker shock” is still there. Fortunately, you don’t need to actually own the game in order to play it, so try it out first if you can.