RROD’d … again

The Eye was rimmed with fire, but was itself glazed, yellow as a cat’s, watchful and intent, and the black slit of its pupil opened on a pit, a window into nothing.

                                   J.R.R. Tolkien on the Eye of Sauron

Yes, I have now gotten my second Xbox 360 Red Ring of Death in 2010. That horrible red ring, like the Eye of Sauron, is indeed a window into nothing.

My first 360 lasted 5 years under the heavy duty workload of a fulltime professional game reviewer and magazine editor. Microsoft kindly replaced it. The replacement unit lasted … 3 months.

O/T Post: Oliver Cromwell’s Election Day Message

Cromwell Dissolves Parliament

Tomorrow is election day here in the US, and it’s going to be one of our semi-annual “throw the bums out” moments. Good. I’d like to see them all go so we could start over. The body politic needs a regular application of emetics to remain healthy.

Our political situation is not unique. Oliver Cromwell captured heart of the problem in a speech given when he dissolved the English Parliament on April 20, 1653. Now, Cromwell was a deeply wicked man, and no Irishman is allowed to even say his name without crossing himself thricely. But his rant against the Ruling Class (and that is what politicians of both parties have become) echoes down through history to our own day; eternally true, eternally relevant.

It also proves that they really could do insults well in those days. You have to admit that having someone rise to the podium of the House and call the Rt. Honorable Gentleman from the fine state of Wisconsin a “sordid prostitute” who has “no more religion than my horse: gold is your God!” would sound damn spiffy on C-SPAN.

It is high time for me to put an end to your sitting in this place, which you have dishonored by your contempt of all virtue, and defiled by your practice of every vice; ye are a factious crew, and enemies to all good government; ye are a pack of mercenary wretches, and would like Esau sell your country for a mess of pottage, and like Judas betray your God for a few pieces of money.
Is there a single virtue now remaining amongst you? Is there one vice you do not possess? Ye have no more religion than my horse; gold is your God; which of you have not barter’d your conscience for bribes? Is there a man amongst you that has the least care for the good of the Commonwealth?

Ye sordid prostitutes, have you not defil’d this sacred place, and turn’d the Lord’s temple into a den of thieves, by your immoral principles and wicked practices? Ye are grown intolerably odious to the whole nation; you who were deputed here by the people to get grievances redress’d, are yourselves gone! 

So! Take away that shining bauble there, and lock up the doors.

In the name of God, go!

Action Game of the Year: Red Dead Redemption

The decisions that went into choosing Game of the Year and the various “category winners” in the Action, RPG/Adventure, Sports/Driving, Strategy, and App categories were tricky this year. At any given point, some of the category winners could have been Game of the Year.

This is made even more challenging by the fact that Fall titles comprise the big releases for any given year, but we often don’t get these in time for the issue. In order to account for this, I created a category called “Hot Winter Titles,” which are games shipping in 2010 that look good in previews or betas, but aren’t eligible for awards because we don’t have final copy in our hands.

Red Dead Redemption was a finalist for Game of the Year, but it doesn’t quite fit our audience. As it is, I’m glad to finally be able to play a Rockstar game that doesn’t require me to take a shower after each gaming session. If the awards were based on the game I played the longest this year, it would have gone to Battlefield: Bad Company 2, which still managed to net a runner-up slot along with Splint Cell: Conviction.

Pick up the December issue of GAMES Magazine to see what else made the grade

Red Dead Redemption

Formats: 360/PS3 ($60)
Rated: M

The wild west has never been a particularly large wellspring for video games. Except for a few titles such as Outlaw, Gun, and Call of Juarez, there have been precious few forays into the old west, and that seems rather odd. Westerns dominated pulp fiction, movies, radio dramas, and television shows for years, making videogames the only new media of the 20th century that didn’t walk to the beat of spurs and sixguns.

The Call of Juarez games started to turn that around, and now Red Dead Redemption lays out a rich banquet of western wonders that sets a new gold standard for the genre. This is Rockstar Games doing what they do: vast, open environments to explore, plenty to do, and every decision in the hands of the gamer.

Rockstar made their name because of two things. First, they pioneered and developed one of the great “open-world” gameplay systems, offering gamers an entire landscape to explore at will. Make no mistake: they are masters of technology and design. Few are in their league.

Unfortunately, the second element contributing to their fame is the appalling content of many of their games. Grand Theft Auto began as little more than a carjacking simulator, and grew to encompass all manner of deviant behavior.

Red Dead Redemption takes the Grand Theft Auto IV engine and design and transplants in to the old west, and in the process finds a bit of morality. In a surprising change of pace for Rockstar, you play as John Marston, an upright man with a chance to be a noble knight of the west. His quest to capture his former partner in crime takes him to a large (albeit imaginary) swath of border territory called New Austin, where he can help the beautiful rancher’s daughter, rope wild horses, round up the cattle, hunt varmints, bring in wanted desperadoes, and assist the law. The game maps a diverse chunk of this environment, including a piece of Mexico and the plains to the north.

Marston is a good character, and as the drama follows him through the three main acts, you get to steer his growth, allowing him to be a paragon of virtue or just another old west thug. Morality systems—gameplay elements that gauge whether a character is good or bad based upon his actions—are in vogue right now, and Rockstar has done an excellent job of implementing one. Marston can certainly hold up the bank, rob the train, kill the sheriff, ignore the damsel in distress, and shoot the old drunk in the back, but he’ll have an easier time if he doesn’t. An upright man gets discounts in stores and spends less time and money evading the law.

Like the Grand Theft Auto Games, Red Dead Redemption is a series of mini-games stitched into a dynamic universe populated with characters and narrative events. Roping a wild horse, for example, involves lassoing him, then “breaking” him by using a simple balancing mini-game. Gambling opportunities abound, including complete versions of poker, liars dice, “five finger fillet,” and other games of chance. All of these mini-games simply add to the fullness of the experience.

This is still a violent, sometimes absurdly bloody M-rated game. Make no mistake: you’re still killing people, dealing with criminals, and running into ladies of the night. But, for adults, it’s actually a lot of fun. As with all Rockstar Games, you don’t have to follow the story at all. If you prefer to spend all your time hunting for buried treasure, shooting rabbits, or trying to stay on a bucking bronco, that’s just fine. Even in some of these portions, Rockstar has to remind us that, well … they’re Rockstar. To make money has a hunter, you have to skin and animal and then sell the meet, hides, horns, or whatever. The butchering sequences cannot be skipped, and although the camera remains on Marston’s face, the little cut scene is accompanied by gruesome sound effects and great slashes of blood spraying across the screen.

Red Dead Redemption is rated Mature for Blood, Intense Violence, Nudity, Strong Language, Strong Sexual Content, Use of Drugs, and they mean it. The foul language is less than you’ll find in an average episode of Deadwood, but the violence is a major part of the gameplay. That said, there’s something quite appealing about a game that allows you to explore a giant, beautifully realized and populated swath of the old west at your leisure. This is a special achievement in gaming, and it’s fine to see Rockstar finally used their gifts as designers in something with a moral core.

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GAMES Magazine: December Issue

This is the big one. Our December issue every year includes a 30-page supplement called the Games 100. I’ve been contributing to it for about 15 years, and in charge of one half of it for about 12. There are 100 games listed in the Traditional and Electronic categories, for a total of 200 games spanning roughly the last year in gaming.The issue was put to bed in late August, which means some late arrivals are only represented by short preview entries.

I’m going to run through some of my picks for the Electronic Games 100 throughout the week, and talk a bit about how we came to some of these conclusions. I’ll also talk a bit about some of the winners on the board game side of the list. I personally wrote about 11,000 words for this year’s edition, which is just absurd.

The rest of the issue has the usual assortment of puzzles and news, as well as a really long article on gender and competitive gaming.

The cover puzzle is pretty easy, but it looks nice. Each block is a detail from a different letter, upper- or lower-case. You have to identify the letters.

App O’ The Mornin’: Topple 2 Review

Price: free (currently)

Grade: C

Since I wrote about the word game called Topple! last week, this week I’ll make things maximally confusing by reviewing the decidedly less enthusiastic Topple and it’s somewhat annoying sequel, Topple 2.

Topple is a game that actually has a reason for being called Topple since things actually, y’know …. topple. It’s your basic stacking game, and as such it is a very good example of a genre I could completely live without.

Topple and Topple 2 are the mutant offspring born from a wild night of sweet sweet love between Tetris and Jenga. (We always knew those two crazy kids would get together some day.) You have your basic “stack blocks very high” gameplay, which is never, ever fun when played by sober people. Then you have your basic “line up weird shapes to make them fit” gameplay, which was fun for about 15 minutes in 1984. Put ’em together, and you have … well, something I really don’t want to play very long.

The stacking mechanics are fine, but block manipulation is simply awkward. The two-finger block-turning control seems to have been invented for someone with tentacles instead of hands, which makes precise input rather difficult for those of us who are not the spawn of Cthulhu.

The goal of each level is to stack the blocks up to a certain height, and then beyond that to score bonus points. In Topple 2, sometimes you stack “under water,” which means from top to bottom, while other times you need to stack all the way up to an egg, and then destroy the tower slowly in order to bring the egg back down without breaking it. You can also tilt the device left or right to nudge a falling toward back into line.

Topple 2 adds some other new variants, as well as a nice little multiplayer mode. This allows you to play a level, and then send your results to a friend. Your friend can then track how well you did as he tackles the same level.

That’s a nice little feature. Bonus points for multiplayer! But you also have to log in a Plus+ account even if you’re just playing the solo game. Double-super-negative bonus points for mandatory login! I hate forced logins for single player gaming. They always start my icons a-jigglin’.

Topple is a mostly decent little stacking game. The art is excellent, and the quantity and variety of puzzles is quite good. If you like this sort of thing, then I can’t think of an app that does it better. By the same token, I also can’t think of anyone who performs a cover version of “Dancing Queen” better than Abba. Some things just can’t be made any better.