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Monday, October 13, 2008 4:09 PM PT Posted by Matt Peckham

Dead Space: Scarier Than Clowns or Invisible Skeletons

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To paraphrase Stephen King, if you find you cannot horrify, you go for the gross-out. EA's third-person "survival horror" game Dead Space (for PC, Xbox 360, and PS3) frequently horrifies and grosses out. It's also ironically produced -- if we're to believe Wikipedia and MobyGames -- by a guy who paints "fantastic sunsets, huge redwoods, snowy mountains and colorful seascapes." Let's just say there are no sunsets, redwoods, mountains, or seascapes in Dead Space, though there are buckets of blood, mangled body parts, mangled body parts protruding from bodies in ways you've perhaps never imagined, and imaginative ways to excise said parts from the skittering, screeching, spine-tingling trunks of creatures you wouldn't want to meet in broad daylight, much less on a derelict space freighter.

Does it matter that you're tethered to a story that trots out Gaming's Top 100 Tropes like it's teaching a freshmen level seminar? Not really. You're here for one purpose: to walk into rooms, have something pop out and go boo, fumble to carve the freakishly nimble mess of flesh into giblets before it eats your face off, then do it again times 11 or 12 hours of Space Hulk meets John Carpenter's The Thing. Did I say "carve"? Dead Space takes the counterintuitive and tactically intriguing tack that shooting off limbs instead of central body parts is how you kill enemies faster.

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Besides, we all know by now that interstellar space distress signals are just Evil Hallmark Invitations to die messily and with a chorus of shrieking violins or guttural whisperers (or both) soundtracking your gurgling, squelching demise. Still, someone's got to go in with a bucket or a bazooka and mop up the mess, so why not a guy like Isaac (Asimov + Arthur C.) Clarke? He's the right name, and more importantly, the right profession: an engineer, which means he's Mister Fixit in a pinch, and this is a game full of pinches: Missing keys, broken widgets, mechanical puzzles, an A-list of malfunctioning hatches and elevators -- you name it and you'll probably have to crawl over half the ship to get it, then half as much again to carry it back to where you started from.

Which is all the excuse the design team at EA Redwood Shores needs to not so much kill the lights, as make them juke and jive while creatures that resemble amped up versions of a Clive Barker action figure lurch and scramble and strike stomach-upending poses. In fact it's the work of minutes, counting the intro, until you're kicking and hacking through snarling squads of creatures called "necromorphs," which just so happens to dovetail with a game design tidbit Bethesda's Todd Howard (Fallout 3) offered Gamasutra's Chris Remo in an interview published today. Explaining the way his own games start, Howard said: "I've always been interested in games that just start, and you play them, [and] the character generation is part of the game."

Scrap the character generation bit (there's some statistical health and weapons augmentation as you locate scattered power-ups, but that's it) and Dead Space fits Howard's bill to a tee, a game that accelerates from zero to 60 to "scared-out-of-your-wits" in the space of minutes (maybe five, tops, if you're a dawdler). If you hate lengthy preambles and interruptive cutscenes where you're standing around while other people blah blah blah, Dead Space is Just the Facts, Ma'am, or at least the facts according to a weapons arsenal that speaks the lingua franca of bolt cutters and stasis fields and other sundry energy weapons.

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Of course there's still a bit of cliche to tromp through, like the part where you're conveniently separated from your crew almost immediately, the series of escalating encounters with pop-up necromorphs in dim lit corridors plagued by steam and tendrils of smoke, the solving one engineering problem after another to open doors that leads to more doors with increasingly complex "solve" states. There's the wonderfully nuanced if altogether familiar soundtrack with its inexplicable and unintelligible whisper sounds accompanied by shivery violins -- screeching string sections that slow to clicking arpeggios like fingers on a chalkboard plucking the ribs of a fishbone -- all keyed to make your nerves jangle (hey, it works!). You've got "found" audio logs that tell the story on the go, pretty well cribbed from System Shock (take note if you thought these originated with BioShock). And who can forget all those crew buddies who, despite occupying a completely different part of the ship, can somehow "see" every move you make, and who frequently chime in to offer clairvoyant advice?

On the other hand, Dead Space gets plenty right. The interface, for instance, is a thing of subtle beauty that carries off a few high wire ideas with watch-for-imitators-to-come aplomb. Game designers are always asking questions like "How do I scrub extraneous information from a heads-up display?" or "How do I keep players focused on the action and not a bunch of peripheral dials and switches?"

Simple. Make you the interface, or in this case, Isaac Clarke.

Take something as straightforward as "health," commonly a bar or dial or derivative of a number between one and 100 running along a corner or panel of the screen. In Dead Space, it's a stack of cylindrical mechanical vertebrae running up the back of Isaac's space suit, an electric blue exo-skeletal spine you can easily and intuitively monitor without feeling like the camera guy tagging along behind the hero (since the game is third-person, you tend to be viewing Clark from behind and slightly off to the right). Other attributes represent as parts of the suit too, like your "stasis" power levels, which feed an ability to momentarily zap a creature or object into slow-mo.

Bravo, person-who-put-all-that-together, and take a bow.

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But enough said for now, because I need to stop typing and go back and finish the darned thing, which I'm masochistically and somewhat regrettably playing on the "kill me, I'm easy" difficulty setting. As it stands now, I'm calling "buy it."

Quick design-y sidenote: Throughout the game, Isaac Clarke doesn't say a word, he just grunts and gasps apprehensively. We're only afforded a glimpse of his face at the outset (and, I'm told, the ending). The trouble with this fairly common approach is that it makes you feel like a child at the outset. People wheel and deal around you, laugh or joke, talk to or tease you, but all you can do is sit or stand in mute repose. As soon as you've boarded the space freighter, you pop on a full-masked helmet, completing the psychological distancing trick that's typically employed to imply that you're the hero, not the third-person avatar you're starting at on screen. Maybe it's that you can see Isaac's avatar as you play here (instead of just a pair of hands, or "floating gun"). Granted it's a subtle, nitpicky thing, and maybe you won't care or even notice, but for some reason Isaac's uncanny silence drew my attention in Dead Space, and made me wish he had more than merely a physical role to play.

Quick tech-y sidenote: If you're thinking about running the PC version and you're wondering how this thing performs, try "amazingly." I've got it running at the highest all around detail settings in Boot Camp mode on a 2.4GHz Macbook Pro with 2GB RAM and a measly NVIDIA 8600M GT w/256MB VRAM and it's smooth as glass while somehow managing to look every bit like something that'd run on dual SLI GPUs in a monster rig.

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Monday, October 13, 2008 7:15 AM PT Posted by Matt Peckham

Will the New MacBook Pros be Decent Gaming PCs?

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The word on the street is that Apple's new high-end MacBook Pro is set to ship with an NVIDIA 9600M GT, arguably the most underwhelming GPU upgrade to Apple's "pro" part in years. Don't quote me on that, but the rumor sites have long speculated that the MacBook Pro, which currently uses NVIDIA's 8600M GT mobile GPU, would transition to the shave-and-a-haircut 9600M GT -- effectively an up-clocked 8600M GT built on a smaller nanometer process -- experiencing the sort of modest performance leap that flatters even single digit percentages.

Why so hard on the 9600M GT? Because there's simply nothing exciting about it. Same number of vertex/pixel shaders as the 8600M GT, same poky 128-bit memory bus, slightly faster clocks, slightly cooler due to its smaller manufacturing process -- a benefit obviously neutralized by its running at said slightly higher clocks.

Let's get one thing straight before I continue slapping the 9600M around: I'm talking about the MacBook Pro here, not the new MacBook. You want the scoop on the MacBook with its rumored Intel-GMA-killing integrated NVIDIA GPU? Have a look at Peter Cohen's "Will the next MacBooks be better gaming systems?"

Okay. Let's have a look at some actual numbers, here compiled by Notebookcheck, a kind of mobile GPU data cube you can slice and dice to find rough analogues between parts, one that offers a crude but durable means of getting a ballpark feel for performance metrics. All detail settings in F.E.A.R. and Doom 3 were cranked to maximum here, and the MacBook Pro's numbers were pulled out of Boot Camp.

MacBook Pro 15" (Intel 2.4GHz T7700, 8600M GT w/512MB)

F.E.A.R. - 37 fps
Doom 3 - 86.5 fps
3DMark 06 - 3900

HP Pavilion dv7-1050eg (Intel 2.53GHz T9400, 9600M GT w/512MB)

F.E.A.R. - 40 fps
Doom 3 - 85 fps
3DMark 06 - 4419

Like I said, great big lung-sucking mouthful of yawn, if in fact I and pretty much everyone else in rumor-ville haven't missed the boat (the dock, the entire body of water) on the 9600M as discrete heir apparent in the high-end Pro parts.

Now you can throw a faster Intel processor into the mix for a sliver of an uptick, argue for a frame here and there out of an integrated NVIDIA mainboard chipset (PC Perspective's Ryan Shrout thinks it's NVIDIA's MCP79), you can boost the memory to 3 or 4 GB, you can tuck a zippy 7200 RPM hard drive in, but in the end, you're still talking performance crumbs that frankly wouldn't feed a mouse, if, say, that mouse was a mainstream/enthusiast gamer.

Of course I realize there's a certain contingent of you who buy the MacBook Pro, then go back a year or two to play all the stuff you haven't yet. Fair enough. There's certainly a galaxy of older PC games out there that run swell as can be on today's MacBook Pros, not a dropped frame or stutter in sight. What's more, lots of you are increasingly looking from your PCs (laptops, desktops, whatever) then over at your Xbox 360s or PS3s and saying "Heck with it, I'll just buy the console version."

But let's talk here and now for a second. What you're not seeing from numbers like the ones above, is anything relevant to what you might want to play on a MacBook Pro in Boot Camp mode today or down the road a bit. Namely: Crysis, Crysis Warhead, Far Cry 2, Fallout 3, Red Alert 3, and Grand Theft Auto IV. Oh, Crysis runs...if you're willing to gag every detail on "low" and drop the resolution (blurry interpolation, hooray!) and, you know, basically eradicate one of the most compelling reasons to play the game at all. Crysis has been out nearly a year now, and while I wouldn't expect an Apple part to jump up and become the definitive experience for that sort of edge-bleeder, I'm well within the bounds of reason to expect a little more intrepidness out of a GPU update to a part we've been living with since July 2007.

There's simply no way to get around the 9600M GT's lackluster numbers without dropping a faster GPU into the matrix. Which GPU? Why not an NVIDIA 9800M GT, which actually shifts the architecture in a manner becoming of a part dubbed "pro"? The 9800M GT has 96 pixel and vertex shaders (versus the 8600's 32) and in a T9400 Intel Core 2 Duo turns in a much more robust 3DMark 06 score of 9228, not to mention a F.E.A.R. score of 118 frames per second.

When it comes to sugar and spice and everything nice, Apple has my vote neatly wrapped and ribboned. I love working in OS X and mostly dig the MacBook Pro's physical layout. But as a mainstream gaming machine... Let's put it this way: If the 9600M GT really is the anointed part and the benchmark differences after everything's said and accounted for look roughly like the ones above, I'm probably through with the MacBook Pro. It'll be down to a MacBook or MacBook Air for me, and back to dedicated PC hardware for PC gaming.

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Friday, October 10, 2008 1:10 PM PT Posted by Matt Peckham

Warhammer Online Approaching One Million Players

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I've yet to lay eyes on Warhammer Online's digitally grim "waagh-ness," and that's looking increasingly like a mistake. "Increasingly," because so many of you have. Laid eyes, that is. And fingers. And cannons, catapults, ballistas, rams, trebuchets, and Nurlge (the chaos god of despair) knows how much boiling oil.

How many subscribers exactly? Just tipping 750,000, says Electronic Arts, the game's publisher. Heady news for Mythic's darkly humorous war-plagued online roleplaying game, set in British-based Games Workshop's vaunted Warhammer Fantasy universe, and a back-clapping feat that brings it closer to achieving roughly one-eleventh of Blizzard's storied success. It's also good news for anyone concerned that Blizzard has the online PC games biz in an inverted facelock camel clutch with intent to sustain indefinitely.

"Thanks to our players, the war between the Realms continues to escalate at an incredible pace," said Mark Jacobs, co-founder and general manager of Mythic Entertainment. "The battlefields are alive with three quarters of a million players fighting for the forces of Order and Destruction in truly epic and unparalleled Realm vs. Realm battles!"

Warhammer Online is only three weeks young, which means the game's averaging about a quarter million subscribers per week. Will it top one million by October 18? Stand by, but even if it doesn't, strong and steady wins this race, and remember that World of Warcraft originally debuted in late 2004. The question is whether we're looking at honeymoon numbers here. Last year's Lord of the Rings Online was reviewed breathlessly by fans and skeptics of MMOs alike, plus it's based on one of the bestselling fantasy trilogies ever, but while no one's got hard numbers, I'm pretty sure designer Turbine's labor of love has yet to break even half a million subs.

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Thursday, October 09, 2008 7:46 AM PT Posted by Matt Peckham

TGS08: Microsoft's 'New Xbox Experience' Arrives November 19th

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Compared to the PS3's snappy X-meets-Y Emmy award-winning "XrossMediaBar" interface, the 360's stylish whooshing tabs comprised of five horizontally swappable blades can seem sluggish and flabby. Wish Microsoft would just ditch the whole thing and start over?

Wish no more, because it's happening on November 19th courtesy of Microsoft's "New Xbox Experience" or NXE. At this year's Tokyo Game Show, which by the way just kicked off, Microsoft VP John Schappert made a lot of folks smile by announcing the NXE was finished and that it'll roll out in 26 countries and 19 language in about five weeks.

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What's this NXE stuff all about? Just look at the pictures, then think Extreme Home Makeover, Xbox 360 Edition (or kinda like going from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95). The biggest change? It's completely reinvented the way you navigate your Xbox 360, borrowing from Vista's Aero task switcher, allowing you to "rolodex" through its various channels, presumably paving the way for these to expand well beyond the current dashboard's five.

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Here's what we know about NXE's features so far.

- It's free, and it'll work on any version of the 360. No surprise there, but it will zap its cache on restarts if you don't have a hard drive.

- Netflix support. Stream over 10,000 movies and TV shows from Netflix direct to your 360. Want to watch with friends? You can, by streaming the movie with up to seven other consoles in a "party" you can also haul around the dashboard, in and out of movies or games. Did I say party? Xbox 360 posse sounds cooler.

- Avatars. Nintendo's Miis -- cartoony caricatures you can customize to sorta-kinda look like you on the Wii -- are cute as a button, but hardly original (how quickly all you whipper-snappers forget 1990s internet forums, IM tools, The Sims, and MMOs over the years). The NXE doesn't look to be breaking any ground here, either, just staking out the usual "face-hair-body-clothes" turf. Enthusiasts will ignorantly cry "Rip off!" while casual players will probably just make open-mouthed "awww" sounds.

- Copy games straight to the hard drive. Coolest Feature Ever, because it'll finally let you play games without having to wear over-the-ear headphones to block out the growly buzz of the 360's atrociously sound-dampened DVD drive.

- Official 16:10 plus 1440x900 and 1680x1050 widescreen VGA and HDMI support. Don't know what that means? Don't worry about it. But if you do, you know it also means those annoying black formatting bars or blurry interpolation issues will finally be history.

- Xbox Live Primetime. Think "party game channel" for Xbox Live members. First up, an adaptation of the game show 1 vs. 100, where one person competes against 100 others for prizes. Additional programs will follow.

- All your existing content will come over. I'm hearing your existing themes too, which will integrate with the new interface seamlessly.

- Ad presence has been reduced, or perhaps I should say reformatted to keep better out of your way without slipping off the radar entirely.

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"Why NXE?" Easy: The 360's sagging dashboard badly needed the facelift, and this ostensibly makes your info a whole lot easier to organize and locate while simultaneously enabling Microsoft to perform more frequent micro-updates to fix glitches, tweak features, and add new ones. A big win-win for everyone, in other words, and a blessing from a marketing standpoint since it dovetails with the holiday season and adds momentum to Microsoft's push to put some distance between the 360 and PS3.

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Also: You'll be able to download the update when it's released, or optionally load it off any game released after or around the time the update hits on November 19th.

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Wednesday, October 08, 2008 12:33 PM PT Posted by Matt Peckham

Told You So: Microsoft Readying Blu-ray Drive for Xbox 360

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The idea Microsoft could somehow stave off the shift to optical-based high-def content by restricting its own solution to video downloads always seemed a little cuckoo, so today's not-surprise is that the Xbox 360 may finally be getting the external Blu-ray option it deserves. Referencing a joint venture between Samsung Electronics and Toshiba Corp., X-bit labs writes today that Toshiba-Samsung "has been contracted to manufacture external Blu-ray disc drives" for the Xbox 360. Rumored cost range: $100-$150.

Assuming it's true, is anyone surprised?

Curiously, X-bit labs says the main reason Microsoft's been reluctant to hop on the Blu-ray bandwagon is that the standard requires supporting BD-J, aka Blu-ray Disc Java.

What's BD-J? Glad you asked. You know all that bonus content you get on DVDs? Think that plus extra-extra, so instead of just some pictures and maybe a few outlier clips and simplistic games, you get stuff like network access, picture-in-picture commentary and interactive PiP, enhanced games, video bookmarking, and a whole lot more.

Microsoft's never been keen on Java, even back when Java was the only serious "write once, run anywhere" game in town. Then again, show me a company that's ever been enthusiastic about something it's didn't think of first.

Regardless, if Microsoft wants to defang criticism from Blu-ray adopters, it has no choice but to offer a Blu-ray option. As you probably know, even the so-called "high-def" content offered for digital download is seriously down-sampled compared to the vastly superior depth and vibrance of a Blu-ray disc.

What am I talking about?

Pay attention to digital-downloading's right-hand ("low bit rates"), even though the left hand ("It's 1280x720 so it must be 720p!") is telling you what you're getting is "high-def." It's not. Not really. That's because if you offered all of Lost Season Three at Blu-ray quality levels for download, you'd stab the internet (and your entire content server farm) through the heart, then twist the knife around a little. Oh digital downloads are fine if you want a quick rental, or to watch Daily Show clips, but if you want your really-truly-1080p LCDTV's money's worth, it's Blu-ray or bust for the next five to 10 years.

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Tuesday, October 07, 2008 1:17 PM PT Posted by Matt Peckham

NIntendo: Digital Distribution Won't Swallow Retail

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Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime says digital downloads may complement the business model for its new storage-centric handheld DSi, but they won't overtake retail sales. That's a big fat "aww shucks" for those of you hoping not to have to mobilize yourself to stroll on down to the local retailer to feed your, err, mobile handheld.

Curiously, the guy some people call the "Regginator" thinks customers "will want an experience that's best delivered through physical goods." At least that's what he told Venture Beat's Dean Takahasi in an interview posted yesterday.

I'd hate to try to second guess Nintendo, and granted it's all going to depend on the size of the DSi's internal flash memory, but I'm not so sure I agree that the sort of consumer demographic buying the DSi (young and even younger) is still saddled with all that older generational "gotta have a hard copy or I'm gonna freak out" baggage. Heck, the DS's games are a pain as-is. They're hard to handle, easy to lose, and tiny enough that I don't know they rightly even count as Fils-Aime's "physical goods," unless he means the case and manual, to which this Gen X'er says "good riddance." I've been hauling my game stash around sans manuals and cases in the very same Case Logic carrier for nearly a decade. Nothing would thrill me more than ditching the hunk of vinyl, too.

Too bad the DSi won't come with some sort of standard-sized flash memory slot (it'll all be internal, presumably to deter casual pirates). I just bought a 2GB Sandisk SD card for my aging Canon PowerShot SD110--goodbye 16MB thirty-some picture coffin, hello 2GB three-thousand picture mega-stadium. Cost? A little less than three bucks.

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Tuesday, October 07, 2008 6:00 AM PT Posted by Matt Peckham

Do Game Industry Luminaries Lean Left?

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Leave it to GamePolitics to tease (if not quite answer) that question by pulling together an ad hoc list of republican and democratic contributors that at first blush looks awfully Obama-friendly. Using publicly available records provided by Newsmeat ("America's Most Popular Campaign Donor Search Engine") GamePolitics typed in various names of game biz notables and compiled a quick comparison between McCain and Obama donors. The results? An Obama landslide.

Of course the results could just look Obama-heavy because of the arbitrary top-of-your-head check method as well as lack of comprehensive sample population contributing. Open a video game manual and scan the credits and you'll find the ratio of Actual People Who Worked On The Game to "headline grabbing bigwigs" in tip-top masthead spots can be anywhere from a dozen through a hundred to one. Without a thorough sampling of all of those, plus some way to address everyone who simply has never donated, there's no meaningful way to generalize these results out to the broader electorate.

The list as of Tuesday, October 7th (with a few modifications):

Republican contributors

Will Wright (Designer, Maxis)
Bobby Kotick (CEO, Activision)
Curt Schilling (Designer, 38 Studios)

Democratic contributors

Strauss Zelnick (Chairman, Take-Two)
Ben Feder (CEO, Take-Two)
Sam Houser (President, Rockstar)
Patricia Vance (President, ESRB)
John Riccitiello (CEO, Electronic Arts)
John Smedley (President, Sony Online Entertainment)
Richard Garriott (CCO, Destination Games)
Alex Rigopulos (CEO, Harmonix)
Kathy Vrabeck (President, EA Casual)
Kenneth Doroshow (General Counsel, ESA)
Gabe Newell (President, Valve)

Have a look at the GamePolitics breakdown to see specific amounts and who these folks contributed to. GP's keeping the list updated as new info drops in. I've removed a few names of people who don't count as current "game industry" proper (Doug Lowenstein, former ESA prez) or others who never really did (George Lucas).

Also, be very careful if you opt to drop names into Newsmeat yourself. Type in 'Tim Cain' for instance (Fallout and Arcanum designer) and you'll get someone with Ash Grove Cement Co. Sales in Arkansas or an attorney in South Carolina. Not everyone's in here, and not everyone's who they seem to be, as GamePolitics discovered for themselves after putting John Carmack on the list (except not the John Carmack, but rather, I'm assuming, this Legacy Bank of Oklahoma Director in Waco, Texas).

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Monday, October 06, 2008 1:36 PM PT Posted by Matt Peckham

Are Video Games Bait for Book Sales?

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In the second in a series entitled "The Future of Reading," New York Times critic Motoko Rich speculates about books pitched with video game tie-ins expressly in mind.

Sound counterintuitive? Shouldn't that be the other way around?

Yes, for the most part, but sometimes no. The line between reading and gaming has always been elusive -- it's more like a fractal than a line, really -- just like the borderland between gaming and music or gaming and movies (and, increasingly, gaming and "reality"). While books and games remain functionally distinctive from a marketing and materials perspective, you're increasingly able to read the equivalent of a novel's worth of text in a game, be it a literal, singular novel, or the sum total of all the things you come across in your experience, interface to iterative labels to interactive dialogue.

NYT's Rich references one or two outlier examples of books written with the idea of moving from the printed word to the digitally illuminated variety expressly in mind, but the history of gaming is already strewn with fictive tie-ins. Legend Entertainment based a whole series of adventures on novels from popular writers like Piers Anthony, Margaret Weis, Tracy Hickman, Terry Brooks, Spider Robinson, and John Saul, and MMOs like The Lord of the Rings Online or Age of Conan certainly owe an inextricable debt to authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard respectively.

And what about games and books that swing the other way, where the imaginary video game world has become popular enough to spawn small piles of paperback tie-ins?

Can't get enough Mass Effect? Try Mass Effect: Ascension or Revelation by Drew Karpyshyn. Halo? Check out The Flood, First Strike, and The Fall of Reach by Eric Nylund. Gears of War? Watch for Aspho Fields, coming end of the month by Karen Traviss.

Sure, those are generally lowbrow advertorial fodder -- cheap entertainments that feed our need to "immerse" and "extend" -- but they speak to a broader trend in all our forms of entertainment. Mediums are merging like swirling, spiral galaxies, slowly and inexorably drawn into each other. We're still in the very early stages of convergence, but when writer Jay Parini says in the piece that he "wouldn't be surprised if, in 10 or 20 years, video games are creating fictional universes which are every bit as complex as the world of fiction of Dickens or Dostoevsky," he's precisely right, and if anything, hugely understating where things are headed.

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Monday, October 06, 2008 7:30 AM PT Posted by Matt Peckham

Lord British to "Ascend" into Orbit Aboard Russian Soyuz Spacecraft

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Did you hear the one about the guy who once sold computer games in plastic Ziploc bags blasting off in a Russian spacecraft on October 12th for a multimillions orbital cruise? Game developer and NASA astronaut offspring Richard Garriott (aka "Lord British") is poised to reach for the stars in just a couple of days, literally. On October 12th, he'll climb onboard a Russian Soyuz-TMA spacecraft, thunder into high orbit, dock with the International Space Station, then loop around the Earth at 17,210 miles per hour for 10 days, just a winking blip to our naked eyes at about 217 miles up.

If you're in your mid-thirties or older and remember what it was like to play 5-1/4" games (real floppy disks!) on bulging green glow-lit monochrome screens, you've probably tried your hand at an Ultima or two. They're some of the best roleplaying games ever designed by my measure, and no one's since topped Quest of the Avatar in terms of its asymmetric, Eastern-influenced, morality-driven framework.

From roleplaying games to real-and-not-playing-around-even-a-little-bit space treks.

Garriott will participate in various experiments during the trip, like spaceflight's effect on the human immune system, his sleeping and waking patterns, and the impact of high and low pressure on human eyes.

"I am enthusiastic to participate in these experiments," said Garriott in a statement emailed to abc-cbnNews.com/Newsbreak. "As my father was a NASA astronaut, it seems fitting that I, as a private astronaut, also assist in their research as a continuation of my family's contribution to the space agency."

A humble entreaty for Lord British, from one of his loyal subjects: When you're back from gallivanting around the globe and doing experiments that, you know, further the cause of science and stuff, would you kindly wrestle the Ultima license back from EA, then see about creating something as metaphysically groundbreaking (relatively speaking) as "Quest of the Avatar"? The genre badly needs it.

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Friday, October 03, 2008 8:53 AM PT Posted by Matt Peckham

Review: Silent Hill Homecoming, Conventional Creepy

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The preamble to Konami's survival horror game Silent Hill: Homecoming for Xbox 360 and PS3 is all swinging lights and latticed shadows, smeary blood splats and walls gone that peculiar glaucous color you find on the underside of unkept boats. A rock ballad pulses and thumps as we see the protagonist Alex Shepherd -- a special forces war vet -- fall through the floorboards of a house, crying for his brother. Flecks of paper mysteriously peel off walls and waft upward. Slow fans whirr in front of fiery, flickering portals. Silhouetted figures struggle with thrashing bodies on hospital stretchers. Nightmare segues into nightmare as reality churns like water poured into and out of a cup.

And that's the best part about Homecoming: It knows what it is and what it has to pull off in an experience where tension trumps all. This is your parents' Silent Hill, through and through, which for those who've never played a Silent Hill, means exploring limited-in-scope locales, reading notes, piecing together inventory items to solve puzzles, chatting up an asylum's worth of crazy people, and bumping knives, pipes, crowbars, and guns with loads of shambling uglies. If you're trawling for a revisionist take on the genre, you want BioShock down the hall, because it's strictly business-as-usual here.

Nothing wrong with playing a safe hand, of course, and the second best thing about Homecoming is that nothing about it feels awkward or fundamentally broken. The visuals -- of arguably heightened criticality in this genre -- are occasionally breathtaking, even if the aesthetic vibe rarely ventures much beyond the grimy, dilapidated haunted house look, married to the diabolical furnace room sequences in Wes Craven's Nightmare on Elm Street. The story's reasonably well paced and sturdily presented, though it's still your average concoction of Lovecraftian tropes touching on secret societies and the consequences of hopelessly wrongheaded adulthood. The main character has off-the-shelf daddy issues, but if there's deeper symbolism than that, it was lost on me.

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After an appropriately baffling introduction loaded with jolt-inducing scares that chambers you like a bullet but doesn't quite fire, you're unceremoniously loosed on the town of Shepherd's Glen, an abandoned assortment of broken-down buildings draped in a sooty miasma that makes it tough to spot your hand in front of your face. Doors abound, but you'll only be able to open a fraction of them as you endure endless "the lock's jammed" messages, ultimately following the design team's stark, singular lines, meeting the town's few remaining inhabitants and puzzling over found items and logic quests. Occasionally everything goes to hell (literally) and you "shift" into a kind of sweltering, volcanic alternative reality caged in bloodied industrial steel, where you have to solve some fundamental puzzle or other before you're able to shift back.

Generally speaking, Homecoming is one of those games that feels like perpetually gazing into a crystal ball. There's the boarded-up gate you'll eventually need the larger weapon to hack open. There's the lock you need the special key for. On the other side of various gates you can't get through are people you'll eventually have to talk to. You're always staring down where you'll eventually be going, in other words, and the gameplay's just about finding ways to shore up the distance.

Thankfully shoring up turns out to be reasonably interesting, pitting you against satisfyingly weird creatures that run the gamut. Spider-like humanoids with limbs that taper to sword points skitter between ceiling and floor. Bilious, throbbing zombies vent clouds of nasty-looking stuff that saps your health. Blank-faced women in nurse's outfits and wielding butcher knives totter deceptively toward you before springing like feral cats. When you encounter any of these, you can execute quick and slow attacks or dodge and counter with special moves. It's only superficially deep, to be fair, but that's all it has to be, since it's more about propelling you on to the next narrative reveal.

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There's a rudimentary logic applied to what you ought to use and when. Weapons like knives work better against nimbler opponents, while axes dismember and dispatch lumbering giants with a few carefully timed whacks. The only downside -- and here it's important to note I played the game on "normal" -- is that some enemies, like the guys toward the end dressed in hazmat suits, are much too easily exploited, to the point you can take down dozens without suffering a scratch. Even the occasional "boss" battles against screen-hogging monstrosities are implausibly simple to win once you've sussed the pattern. I imagine it's tougher on "hard," but if you're a quick study at close quarters combat, you'll find some victories hollow.

In terms of other notable downsides, Homecoming's biggest shortfall is that it's full of too many triggered-events that arbitrarily unlock paths or open doors that previously were closed without offering any real justification. The game simply propels you forward like a dumb animal being herded through a series of gates and pens. You're even subjected to a few mindless "fast-tap" sequences where you just hammer away on your gamepad's buttons, which feel so blandly de rigueur here that I was rolling my eyes toward the end each time one popped up. Tension mechanics like Simon-Says button sequences I get. Hammering monotonously on a button I don't.

So is Homecoming worth its sixty bucks and change? It's certainly not as lengthy or re-playable as your anything-but-average BioShock or Resident Evil 4, but then it's not really trying to be. Put it this way: If you're in the mood for an action flick, something toss-away like Indiana Jones 4 or The X-Files: I Want To Believe might do. If you're in the mood for a survival horror game, Silent Hill Homecoming is like waiting for The Ring or The Grudge to hit home video, then hunkering down for an evening of trashy (but high class trashy) chills.

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