Multiplayer Archive: Week Three

Multiplayer: The First Next-Gen PS3 Surprise?

Pondering whether we recognize the future of video games when we see it.

I think I had my first next-gen moment with the PS3 the other night. But I'm not quite sure.

The next-gen-ness of video games isn't always easy to spot. I didn't have much trouble back in 1996 when I walked into a Toys "R" Us in downtown Manhattan, New York, and dove Mario through three dimensions of water toward a sunken ship in "Super Mario 64." Even a guy I worked with at an after-school job at the time — a guy who just read the Daily News all day and went to lots of strip-clubs at night — came in to the office raving about Mario's swimming. He had found time to go to the toy store.

I thought I found something next-gen for the new era of consoles on the Xbox 360 last spring in "Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter." I'd played the system's launch titles in fall 2005 and didn't experience anything that made a splash like that Mario swim. "Ghost Recon," however, featured two picture-in-picture screens supplementing the main view of the game, an impressive feature that I wrote about (see "New 'Ghost Recon' Title Gives Xbox Users A True 360 View"). Then somebody on gaming blog Kotaku went and posted that the computer game "SWAT 4" did picture-in-picture a year earlier.

In 1964, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said of obscenity, "I know it when I see it." Well, Justice Potter is lucky that he didn't have to decide whether a game is next-gen or not, because, personally, I'm not sure if I know it when I see it.

I might have seen it on the PS3 that other night while I was playing "Resistance: Fall of Man." I had played about a dozen chapters of the game and hadn't encountered anything that felt awfully next-gen. Then I walked my "Resistance" soldier down an alley in alien-infested 1940s Manchester, England. Things were proverbially too quiet. A turn of the corner proved why. In the distance I spotted an alien enemy armed with the same shoots-through-walls super-gun that I had recently found. I think he saw me.

I quickly backed into that alley. And I ran — for some reason — backward. My backpedaling gave me a (maybe?) next-gen sight. The brick wall of the alley lit up with an energy burst, and a beat later a beam crackled through. The now-unseen alien was shooting at me through the walls. As I backed up another step, another beam, this one closer than the last, zapped through. This happened at least five more times as I retreated the length of the alley, each shot tracking my movement.

That whole experience probably last five seconds. In that moment, I got a sense of a game world that felt grander and smarter than the ones I'm used to playing in. Usually, as a player, I only worry about how the characters I can see on my TV screen are reacting to me or attacking me. If there are enemy aliens on the other side of a building or in the next cave, I don't sweat them until they show themselves — not when they're shooting me from the spot, in the real world, where I put a potted plant. Maybe this kind of grander, more alert game world is evidence of next-gen.

Then again, if memory serves, there was a gun that let you shoot through walls back in 2000's "Perfect Dark."

— Stephen Totilo

11.30.06

Multiplayer: When The Going Gets Tough ... Cheat?

The case of the colleague stuck in 'Zelda,' contemplating bringing in the outside pros.

I started playing "The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess" more than a week before MTV News producer C.J. Smith did, but C.J. passed my 30-hour mark a couple of days ago. And for his efforts, he got himself stuck.

Yesterday C.J. gave me a status report: He was trapped in dungeon number five, wandering the same four rooms for three hours. He doesn't know what to do next. He knows he's not at a dead end. He knows he's missing something. And now he's wondering if he should cheat.

C.J. is at a crossroads that many gamers reach during tricky adventure games. When do you stop playing the game — your wits vs. its puzzles — and call in outside help? When do you break down, give up on yourself and crack open a 40,000-word-and-counting online walkthrough of a game and cheat your way to victory? Temptation abounds. People out there provide that stuff for free if you want it (see "Meet The Man Who'll Make You A Smooth Criminal In San Andreas").

The new "Zelda" isn't that hard a game, but it had stopped me once as well, in an underwater dungeon I explored during the mid-teen hours of my adventure. I was left scratching the walls of two rooms, testing for weaknesses, trying every item of my inventory, repeatedly falling short of a leap that may have freed me of my briar patch.

An hour of that and I buckled, went online and read the solution. Then I smacked my head. Of course. Use that item there in that other, third room. Naturally.

Just earlier I had counseled a friend through his own "Zelda" quagmire, gently hinting at where he needed to go next. I was keeping his conscience a bit more clear than mine. He was no "Zelda" cheater. At least, not as much as I was.

Now it's C.J.'s turn to call for help or just keep struggling with the restraints. He's losing faith in his ability to figure it out. He's thinking that maybe he should leave the dungeon and explore the many square miles of the game, hunting some elusive tool that might loosen his bind. Except "Zelda" games don't work that way. If you can get into a dungeon in any game in that series, then you should be able to get through it. It's been that way for 20 years. Will he break?

I've rationalized my own cheating ways. Looking back, the solution to the water dungeon was a curious artifact that I had noticed right before going to bed one night and clearly forgotten when I resumed the game the next day. Had I played through the dungeon all at once, I wouldn't have had to cheat. This is what I've told myself. If C.J. goes and cheats, how will he cleanse his conscience?

When do you cheat in a game, and when don't you? And, C.J., I'm about to explore dungeon number five myself. You'll help me, won't you? Don't make me do it again.

— Stephen Totilo

11.29.06

Multiplayer: A Warning For 'Star Wars' Gamers

Playing sequels at the same time can yield some unusual results.

Don't play a Wii game without a wrist strap. Don't play games if you suffer from seizures. Don't try to re-create the moves featured in games in real life.

These are the warnings that accompany many popular video games.

And here's one that has yet to hit TV screens, even if it should: Don't play this game at the same time as its sequel.

A little over a month ago, I lost myself in "Lego Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy" on the PS2. That would be "lost" in a good way, en route to logging more than 30 hours and unlocking 100 percent of the game. About 10 hours in, I discovered that I could transport any characters I unlocked in the first "Lego Star Wars" (Episodes I to III) into the second, meaning I could enlist Jar Jar Binks or Darth Maul to help blow up Death Stars. I needed an old save file to transfer the characters to the new game, but I didn't have one — I discovered I didn't even have the old game. At some point I'd sold it back to a game shop. Soon enough I was back at a game shop, dropping $8 on a used copy of that first game.

By this point the absurdity of what I planned dawned on me. Jar Jar tangling with Jabba the Hutt might be ridiculous, but swapping discs of two "Lego Star Wars" games released just 12 months apart, level after level, jumping from Episode IV to I to V and so on? It's not wise.

But what it turned out to be is fascinating. Playing the two games on top of each other revealed just how much a development team can improve an idea in a year. Levels in "II" are several times larger than those in the first game. The bonus collectibles are hidden in fun ways in the second — tucked inside a movie theater in a back lot of Tatooine, or in Darth Vader's plant room, for example — instead of hovering over the middle of a road in the first game. One of the most striking improvements is that while both games are made to be funny, only the second actually made me laugh. Though I had started "II" first, I wound up finishing it last. The first "Lego Star Wars" was just a tiny game.

There are many lessons here, and almost all defy the common complaints of "sequelitis" usually leveled at game makers. Yes, these were two games released in rapid succession, each squeezing more out of two well-milked licenses, with the second not really introducing any concepts that weren't in the first. But the second game is, well, better. It's bigger, funnier, less hampered by dull moments. It takes the original's concepts and polishes them so quickly that it nearly makes a game made just last year obsolete.

So next time you're tempted to knock gaming for having too many sequels, try playing these two games back to back. Expect a dizzying experience. You've been warned.

Once a week Multiplayer provides a Stock Report that should give you a sense of what actually is streaming into the office and how companies are trying to grab our attention:

The Stock Report:

» Number of games at MTV HQ: 200

» Last three games to arrive: "Need for Speed Carbon" (Wii), "Blitz: The League" (Xbox 360), "Superman Returns" (Xbox 360)

» Last system to arrive: PS3

» Last swag to arrive: Metal Gear Solid Portable Ops North End soft-shell jacket ($80 retail, now en route to charity)

— Stephen Totilo

11.28.06

Multiplayer: Do Wii Know You? Lost In Our Crowd Of Nintendo Miis

A few days of Nintendo-style socialization has filled our plaza with unidentifiable avatars.

If you're reading this, you might be able to help me out. Just answer me one question: Are you Big Poppa? If not, are you Smokey? Karla? Are you a gray-bearded man who calls himself Tommy Boy?

I set up the Wii at MTV News 18 days ago and immediately roped fellow staff into creating their own Wii avatars, called Miis. The Miis hang out in a plaza that loads from the Wii's main menu. They looked lonely. So I took a Wii controller over to the team at MTV Games, grabbed their Miis from their system and zapped them into our plaza. Then I started exchanging the 16-digit password linked to the MTV News Wii with friends' and colleagues' Wiis. We hooked our consoles onto a WiFi signal, registered each others' passwords and, in theory, any Miis set to "mingle" in their plaza or mine started traveling from machine to machine.

That's when the mysteries began. My Miis were antisocial. Chris Grant from gaming blog Joystiq.com zapped his tall, skinny Chris Mii right over to me. But my crooked-smile Stephen Mii didn't show. He didn't show the first day or the second. Neither did another Mii. It took them both about a week. But Chris did get a Mii called Big Poppa right away and wanted to know if that was mine. No.

People who use IM programs probably have a few mysterious alter egos in their buddy list (who are you, "regdatedbspears," and why don't you log on anymore?). Now Wii owners have their own version of that: Big Poppa came walking into my Wii over the weekend and I don't know who he is either. Did I exchange codes with him? The Miis don't arrive with a whole lot of defining information, just a name, no home address. I've asked around about a plaza-crashing Mii girl named Johnnie who wears sunglasses and a green dress. No one has vouched for her yet either.

The MTV News Mii Plaza currently has 24 Miis milling around, eight women and 16 guys. All are theoretically designed to look like their owners, which reveals a few facts about who we consort with: five wear glasses; the most popular "favorite color," worn on nine dresses and shirts, is dark blue; none of them are overweight. Or so they say.

The Wii is designed to bring people together, Nintendo advertises. At this point I'm not sure if I truly know more about my friends or less. Hey Big Poppa, are you my friend?

— Stephen Totilo

11.27.06

Multiplayer: Four Tests To Make Or Break Our PS3

Does the new system travel well? Make old TVs look brand new? We investigated.

The PS3 commands hundreds of dollars in stores and thousands on eBay, and inspires muggings, heists and panicked purchases of compatible high-end TVs. It is surely a system for the rich and the robbers. But I wanted to believe it could be enjoyed by the everyman. Just before Thanksgiving, I got this 21st-century treasure and submitted it to four key tests.

The first challenge was Suitcase Stuffability. The curved bulk of the 11-pound PS3 and the certain fragility of its high-tech components didn't add up to a device built for transport. In its original box, the machine didn't fit in my Thanksgiving vacation suitcase, a suitcase that tightly squeezes into most airplanes' overhead bins. Out of its box, the shiny-cheeked PS3 nestled comfortably into folded clothes. It survived train and car rides, a few bumps down subway-station stairs and functioned fine. But unlike the Wii and PS2, the PS3, I've concluded, is best suited for a permanent home.

The second tribulation was Console Consolidation. The PS3 plays PS2 games, and a used PS2 can fetch $50 as a GameStop trade-in. So I readied my PS2 for its ditching. Then I discovered that my old PS2 memory cards won't fit the PS3 without the purchase of a $20 adapter. Either you pick that up or you have to start all your old PS2 games from scratch, saving them anew on the PS3 hard drive. I can consolidate, but not as smoothly as hoped.

Test three was unexpected even to me, a spur-of-the-moment Internet Interception investigation. One of the key differences between the $500 and $600 models is that that latter includes WiFi. I have a $600 model, but I also have a wireless router that doesn't seem to agree with my PS3. Thankfully, my neighbor's works better. My PS3 sniffed his or her signal out and my online issues (if not my conscience) were cleared up.

The final trial for my PS3 was the most crucial: an attempt to avoid Old TV Awfulness. The PS3 plays Blu-Ray discs, a new movie format for TVs that can display higher-quality images than what a DVD can hold. It plays games at sky-high definition. I can't deal with any of that. My TV is old and oh-so-standard definition and not getting replaced soon. Would I be able to see the beauty of a PS3 game? I tried the high-def, downloadable PS3 game "Blast Factor" and the marquee first-person shooter "Resistance: Fall of Man." Both look high-end on my five-year-old set, but more of a one small step toward greatness than one giant leap. Then I tried a downloadable demo of the bikes-and-trucks-desert-racing game "MotorStorm." Even on an aged TV, the game's painted desert looks photorealistic, the trucks look showroom sharp down to the detailed chassis. There was the leap. My old TV felt new. Where I thought it would most fail, the PS3 passed.

Someone here at MTV News also suggested testing if the PS3 would float — in water. We'll skip that test. The system's proved itself.

— Stephen Totilo

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About this column: The average gamer doesn't have the time or cash to experience one-tenth of the games that come out every week. Collectively, the MTV News team does — and then some. With games streaming into the office each day, we see a lot, we play a lot and we remember a lot. We want to tell you what we're playing and what's worth caring about it, and we'll do it every day at MTV News: Multiplayer. To follow the column daily, bookmark multiplayer.mtv.com.