Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A Journey Through the Seventh Generation Video Game Consoles

I've been playing video games my whole life. It all started with a Commodore 64 when I was just 3 years old, when my parents saw my love for games and fed my ambitions. So here we are in the new year (2014) and the Eighth Generation consoles are out: Wii U, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo 3DS, PlayStation Vita. They are exciting. They are sleek. They are impressive. But are they worth getting as soon as they come out?

I'm not going to argue with those who want to get them on Launch Day, but the recent launches of the PS4 and Xbox One made me start to believe it might be best to wait until the NEXT next gen consoles come out before purchasing THESE next gen consoles. Reasons? I've got a few.

The first one is obvious: the price tag. While it's not going to cost you an arm & a leg to get one, the price isn't exactly on the cheap side. I remember paying $500 (minus tax) for one of the first PS3's. They were big and bulky but that meant they had super power! It was fun and cool to have one, but it didn't feel more than a year later they were thinner and cheaper. If I could of waited a year, I could of had one for $200 cheaper. Now it's not a big deal to some people, but upon retrospect, I could done some things with that $200. Most likely I would of lost it betting on long shots at the track but still, I missed out on adding another memory to my life! It may not sound like a big deal, but quickly these reasons start to snow ball.

Like the next reason: options for games. When you buy a next gen console on or close to launch day, you don't have many titles to select from. And I certainly can't think of any breakthrough games that came out specifically for that system on launch day. Take the Wii for example. When it came out, you got to play The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess right off the bat. But the difference between the game on the GameCube and the Wii? You got to swing & point your remote on the Wii and the maps were completely opposite. That's it. The graphics were the same, the enemies were the same, Link yelling when swinging his sword was the same. The reason? The game was originally made for the GameCube. When the Wii was coming out, they just added two weak features and that was that. You could make the argument that it was still cool, but when Skyward Sword came out, you could see the capabilities of the Wii come out in full force. Twilight Princess looked like child's play in terms of maximizing the Wii's controls (the game itself actually kicks ass and rivals Ocarina of Time & A Link to the Past in terms of best Zelda games ever in my opinion).

Okay, back to the topic. This is just one of many examples of the types of games coming out on launch day. They mostly are games that are ports from the last generation of systems or games that haven't maximized the new system capabilities. And you don't have that many to choose from. And as you know, video games can sometimes be a dime a dozen and finding gems can take time. You generally have to wait months for a good selection of games to come out and wait even longer to have a good collection of top notch games to choose from.

Going back to when the Wii came out, I was excited about Metroid Prime 3, but after that, what were my choices? Not much. After awhile I just stopped looking and focused only on names I recognized (Super Mario, Donkey Kong, Final Fantasy, Metroid, Zelda, etc.) About 2 weeks ago I went through the titles just for the Wii system and couldn't believe the bevy of games I missed out on! Now it's my fault I didn't pay more attention, but it goes to show how much first impressions can make.

Now let me ask you, are you better at playing games the first time through or the second time? How about the third time? I already know the answer, the more you play, the better you get. This applies to almost everything in life. So why do we expect so much flawlessness on launch day? There were lots of reports of PS4's and Xbox One's not working right out of the box. In terms of percentages it's low you are going to have problems. But what if you do have a problem? Ask all the people who got PS4's on launch day and they didn't work. They had to call Sony, be put on hold because many others are calling on launch day with "issues" such as not being technologically savvy to sync their controller to their console. Then they had to spend an hour going through every possible way to get the PS4 to work. When it doesn't work, they then had to wait for Sony to ship them a box to get it fixed or get a new one, which could take weeks. It was a hassle. So while the odds are you're going to have a good system, this is still a possibility. To me, it feels like it's better to wait it out as the console makers figure out how to perfect getting the console from the factory to your hands with as little issues as possible.

Last but not least, as technology improves, so does the console. But now you have to pay extra, rather than getting it in updated bundles. PlayStation 3 came out with Move. Xbox 360 came out with Kinect. The Wii came out with Motion Plus Controllers. The Nintendo DS came out with a larger screen, 2 cameras and an Online Store. The PSP came out with bigger storage and a microphone. Some things could be added on, some you had to buy a brand new system. The point is, if I would of waited, I wouldn't of had to spend all that money to get all the cool features. Instead, I've just donated tons of money to Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony while I'm salivating and crying at all the new features I can't have unless I want to spend more money.

The bottom line is this: to me, it's better to wait than to buy right away. If I wait for a generation to run it's course, I'll have a ton of great games to play, I can get consoles with all the best features, I can get games and consoles at great prices, to me it's win-win-win. I'm not going to argue with those who want to be on the cutting edge, but for me that time has passed. I've spent too much money being on the cutting edge only to see today's technology get passed by tomorrow's in the blink of the eye. I'm okay with letting new technology get perfected over time, at which point I can enjoy at a cheaper cost.

In the meantime, let's enjoy the great games I, and possibly you, missed out on during the Seventh Generation of consoles! Feel free to come along for the ride!

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Friday, June 20, 2014

Grand Theft Auto V

Well, it's happened. We finally get another Grand Theft Auto after almost six years of waiting. There's a lot to go wrong with a game this big but Rockstar has somehow managed to develop a game that's nearly perfect. That being said, there are some little problems with the overall product that leaves it very close to being one of the best video games of all time.

To call Grand Theft Auto V an ambitious game would be utterly underselling it. This is the first game that actually feels like a living, breathing world. It also implements mechanics that makes games like Call of Duty and even The Sims work so beautifully. Grand Theft Auto V is like the Rome of video games; it melts down the best features of other games and puts them into a bow-tied delicate gameplay package.

One of the big features with Grand Theft Auto V is the new concept of playing as three main characters. This caused some confusion as gamers were worried that the writing wouldn't be as sharp or the game just wouldn't mesh well as a whole. Luckily, all this is completely taken care of and the way you switch between the main characters is both innovative technically and also from a gameplay perspective.

With the three main characters in Grand Theft Auto V, you're getting different experiences. Franklin is the youngest one who focuses on his driving ability and Michael is sort of like a washed up mobster who now lives the family life. Then there's Trevor. Trevor is basically a ticking time bomb whose leash has been completely removed and almost fits into Grand Theft Auto V too well. Think of him as the Joker with a drinking problem, only even more murderous.

The storyline was very eventful and at times it was downright one of the best mission structures I've ever seen in a game before. Not to spoil anything, but you'll be flying helicopters, stealing bulldozers and occasionally flying through windows. With games these days only lasting about 8-10 hours it was great to play a game that was a marathon in length. There were so many character specific missions to partake in other than the actual story- needless to say, this game will keep you busy.

In my opinion there are actually four main characters; the fourth is Los Santos, the city where all of this takes place. Los Santos is based on Los Angeles and tries to replicate the craziest aspects of that area. You'll have beaches to run around in, military bases to infiltrate, upscale mansions to invade and even wildlife to shoot at. The best part of this world is that it will keep going with or without you. For example, I saw a high speed chase and eventually the perpetrator stopped and got out of his car and there was a massive shootout between him and the police. The game is just downright fun.

With a game so large, it would be hard to imagine them focusing on visuals, right? Rockstar is pushing the aging PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360 to their limits. While you're playing, just fly over the ocean and marvel at how gorgeous it is and how the waves come in. It's not all rainbows, though- the graphics do come at a price. There were plenty of times when the framerate would dip down pretty significantly, especially when you're in a highly populated spot full of NPC characters. The worst seemed to be when you were driving in the middle of Michael's upscale neighborhood.

With so many things to do and experience it truly feels like this game doesn't end. Even after beating the game and all the major side quests, I'm still busy with other tasks. For example, I'm trying to run a bar with Michael and even playing the stock market with all my characters. And nothing is more fun than jumping out of your burning airplane and opening up your parachute to enjoy the view. Heck, you can even customize your vehicles and weapons.

It seems the best is still yet to come with Grand Theft Auto V. In October, Rockstar will be launching the online portion of the game titled (of course) Grand Theft Auto Online. This will almost entirely be its own experience and the game is vastly ambitious. If they can pull off all the things they say are possible, we won't ever leave our televisions.

Grand Theft Auto V is the game to get; it's an incredible value for what you're paying for. It's hard to justify spending sixty dollars on anything else after this game. This could even be ported over to the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, so fingers crossed that Rockstar could implement a way to transfer your save information over to the new consoles. Even with its faults such as framerate drop, and sometimes the character switching not living up to its full potential, GTA Vis absolutely one of the best games this generation. You will truly be missing out if you don't at least play this, but you should probably just come in and buy it at your local Slackers today.

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Friday, June 6, 2014

Moral Choices in Video Games: The Problem of Problem Solving

In Star Trek: The Next Generation - "Thine Own Self," ship counselor Deanna Troi decides to take the test for becoming a higher-ranking officer of the starship Enterprise. She is required to solve a simulated disaster that would destroy the entire ship and its hundreds of civilian inhabitants.
The problem is a leak in the warp-plasma shaft, which leads to a devastating explosion when left unfixed. The shaft is flooded with radiation, however; any person who directly patches the leak will have no chance of survival afterwards.

So Deanna assumes there must be some logistical way to bypass the leak. She tries everything she can think of: switching to auxiliary control, modifying the EM power inverter, ejecting antimatter storage containers - each solution leading to the complete destruction of the Enterprise without fail.
Convinced that she is missing something, Deanna studies the ship's manuals for hours, and takes the test three more times. She traps herself in her problem-solving mindset, too afraid to notice that one possibility that nags at her subconscious - sending a crewmate into the shaft.

In Deus Ex: Human Revolution - The Missing Link, player-controlled Adam Jensen finds himself in a facility being flooded with toxic gas. There are two main sections: one contains cells full of oppressed prisoners, while the other contains a small population of scientists - scientists who could provide evidence that would crush an evil corporation.

Jensen climbs down a ladder that leads to a control room, but he can only use it to redirect the gas into one part of the facility - he can save the scientists or the prisoners. So the player finds himself faced with a clear moral choice - he will have to consider which option is best for society, which respects individual life more, which serves the most justice.

But if the player stops this train of thought and climbs back up the ladder, he will notice a network of pipes running throughout the facility. And if he follows the pipes, behind walls and through vents, he will find an obscured entrance. Behind it lies a valve that regulates the flow of the toxic gas - destroying it stops the flow entirely, saving both the prisoners and the scientists.

This is what Deanna is afraid of in "Thine Own Self". Behind the veil of logistics and technical solutions lies a philosophical, moral dilemma - can she kill one person to save hundreds? But what if she starts worrying about that problem too soon? What if during the few minutes that she spends deliberating morality, she misses the one unnoticed factor, hiding away behind a corner - the one piece that could solve the problem and save everyone?

It is a scary reality of making moral decisions - that you could start too early, and miss the solution hiding in front of you. That maybe you should keep problem solving until the very end, even if a moral choice leads to the better outcome.

And it would be nice if more games tapped into this fear. When presenting a moral choice to the player, many games do not leave any flexibility, any way to check untied loose ends. In most cases, the player is pulled from the world entirely - the action pauses, and the two choices get mapped to their respective shoulder buttons.

Even when players are left in control, they rarely get any chance to believe that they missed something, that they need to work with the game's mechanics for just a bit longer before making their choice. Take the infamous Mass Effect 3, where three empty branching paths represent the game's ending decision. The only possible, "non-moral" stone left unturned is spinning Commander Shepard around in circles, or making him shoot at the sky.

Mass Effect 3′s ending and other choices like it are missing the vital hints that make fear of morality real - the freedom to explore unexplored areas on a map, the ability to search for those few missing audio logs, curious leads in the environment, small story issues that were never quite resolved.
"Thine Own Self" shows us why unresolved loose ends and looming, untested possibilities are so important to making moral choices realistic. Because making a moral choice is not only about noticing a moral dilemma, or having one presented to you; it is about having the volition to leave the technical world and accept the decision - to give up on trying to save everyone. As Troi's superior tells her after she passes the test: "you considered all of your options, you tried every alternative, and then you made the hard choice."
Alex Rinaldi is a writer for Think-Entertainment, a website devoted to a thought-driven approach to popular media.

You can read similar pieces about storytelling in films, video games, television, and writing - and its cultural impact - at

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