Multiplayer Archive: Week Ten

Multiplayer: Which Console Should I Buy?
How does our gaming expert answer his most frequently asked question? By dodging it.

01.26.07

Before you read the rest of today’s entry, please take another look at the photo of the man to the right. Do you know him? As detailed yesterday, the mysterious Satoshi is part of a worldwide puzzle that gamers are trying to solve. See the Thursday entry for more details.

Earlier this week, I wrote about some of the gaming questions people ask me the most. Of all the common queries, the most popular is “Which console is the best?” Translation: “Which console is the best?” or “Did I screw up and buy the wrong machine?” I take people’s few hundred dollars seriously, and I certainly don’t want to talk someone into spending money on a possible dust-collector.

In October I was interviewed for Spike TV’s “Game Head” show, and the host wanted me to say which console I recommend to people torn between the high-end Xbox 360 and PS3. I said what I’ve told many people asking that question: Get a PS2. This did not fly. I was not cooperating.

I wouldn’t name the PS3 or 360 to Spike because neither system is a guaranteed wise long-term investment. Right now, any of the three new consoles could soar or sputter, end up hosting the best game of the next four years or end up not. It’s cliché because it is true that games, not systems, are what ultimately matter. “Grand Theft Auto III,” “Final Fantasy X” and, later, “Guitar Hero” made the PS2. “Halo” was the main reason to own an Xbox. The adventures of Mario, Zelda and whatever else Nintendo’s designers dreamed up justified having a GameCube. With the exception of “Halo” none of the major must-owns for those consoles came out in their machine’s first year. That’s why I don’t feel comfortable telling people to risk the cost of any $250-$600 device if they’re not confident about them on their own.

I also don’t feel comfortable making a suggestion for fear of leaving a better machine out. Each console-maker has a talented roster of developers committed exclusively to their machine. Nintendo has their legendary Japanese teams along with relatively recent additions of their “Metroid Prime” studio Retro. Sony spent the last several years buying or allying with enough studios that they now boast the exclusive services of teams behind “Gran Turismo,” “SOCOM,” “Killzone,” “Shadow of the Colossus,” “God of War,” plus a full run of sports games. Microsoft owns studios responsible for “Halo” and “Perfect Dark” and last year purchased the group run by hall of fame designer Peter Molyneux. These are just the studios these companies own, to say nothing of the many studios they work with on exclusives year after year. So could I rightly recommend any of these machines not to buy? There’s so much a gamer could miss.

During the previous generation of consoles, it was at least safe to dismiss GameCube for those gamers interested in online play or a wide variety of sports and racing games. It also didn’t have “Grand Theft Auto.” This time around, Nintendo’s machine once again is an odd one out. It lacks the graphical power of the other two devices and isn’t likely to get as many of the grittier games made for the high-end consoles that are marketed to older gamers. But this time what makes Nintendo the odd one out — the motion-control remote; the family-friendly stuff like Miis and approachable mini-game compilations — are actually winning widespread praise.

So in lieu of knowing how to tell people to spend their money, I fall back to the PS2. It’s half the price of the cheapest new console and has hundreds of modern classics at around $20 a pop. The PS3 can play all the PS2 games, for sure, but I just don’t want to bet on any of these new horses in the race just yet — not with someone else’s money.

So how do I answer the most frequently asked question people throw at me? I admit it: I dodge.

— Stephen Totilo

Multiplayer: Have You Seen This Man?
Surprise call from top ‘Perplex City’ gamer gets Multiplayer in on the action.

01.25.07

Someday the world’s best “Halo” gamer will call me out of the blue. Someday I’ll get a surprise call from the best “Pokemon” player on the planet. Well, this morning, at around 10 a.m. New York time, I got a call from Marc McKinley.

I didn’t know it was Marc McKinley at first because he didn’t say his name. Even if he did, I wouldn’t have understood the significance because I didn’t know how important Marc McKinley is. All I heard at the start of this call was a man with a British accent asking me — imploring me — to tell him where a photo attached to a gaming story we published nine months ago was taken.

Who was this guy? What was so urgent about an old picture? The article he was asking about was published in April. I had written about Alternate Reality Games, an “Amazing Race”-style of puzzle and scavenger hunt activity that usually sends its players scurrying after clues embedded in Web sites, mysterious phone calls or even skywriting (see “Want To Live With Neo? Alternate Reality Games Might Be Your White Rabbit” ). My article focused on “Perplex City,” a game that launches many of its puzzles through a series of trading cards published by a company called Mind Candy. The story line of the game involves a city from another dimension and a cube buried in our real world. The first players to unearth the cube will win $200,000. I’d spoken to Mind Candy CEO Michael Smith about it last winter for my story. When we ran the story, we included a photo of Smith.

McKinley was trying to crack a new clue, possibly involving a statue and a mysterious passage about “a quadruped” and “its middle leg held proudly forward.” How could I help? Smith’s photo was taken in front of a statue. McKinley thought that statue might be the clue.

Around this time, I finally got McKinley to tell me his name and explain what in the world was going on. He was calling over the Internet phone service Skype from London. Was he a “Perplex City” player? Yes. The players are ranked at PerplexCity.com based on how many puzzles they solve correctly. Was he a particularly skilled player? He chuckled, “I’m the top guy.”

At that moment I realized that I might be part of the game, and in the next moment I decided that was awesome. Michael Smith had picked the location for our shoot (which we also filmed for MTV broadcast). He had suggested Central Park, and he had specified the “Alice in Wonderland” statue. Smith told me the cube had already been buried. Had we been standing on it? I told McKinley all this, but added that I couldn’t remember any middle-legged quadrupeds.

McKinley took all this in. I was worried I’d disappointed him, though by now I suspect he has already found someone to start digging up the park. He asked if we could talk about one more thing. Sure. He told me to go to the Web site FindSatoshi.com. The site was devoted to another “Perplex City” mystery: the identity of a Japanese man pictured on one of the game’s trading cards. (The picture appears at the top right of this page, in case you think you know him.)

McKinley told me that, through theory of “six degrees of separation,” the players of “Perplex City” were supposed to track this very real but anonymous guy down. He didn’t have the cube, but he was said to have a clue. Players were supposed to find him and ask him — nicely. “We’re not allowed to kidnap him or anything,” McKinley said. Some of the game’s players, many of whom team up on puzzles in person and over message boards, had identified the place the photo was shot: Kayserberg, France. Now they just needed to know who this guy is. If you know, McKinley and the gamers at Perplexorum.com will surely be grateful. You can find McKinley there under the username Mac Monkey.

To do my part to help someone else win $200,000, I’ve written this entry and posted Satoshi’s photo. Never before has a top gamer called me for help with his game. Thank you, Marc McKinley. Now someone go help this guy. He sounds eager. And maybe desperate. He ended the call with, “We’re getting fairly close to the end of the game. If you find anything, can you let me know?”

— Stephen Totilo

Multiplayer: Please Trim The Fat
Do games have to go 50-plus hours? Multiplayer says no.

01.24.07

I’m sick of treasure chests and eight-headed snakes. But then again, sometimes I worry I’ve lost perspective.

Because I cover them for a living, I get all my video games for free. And because I get my games for free, I play a lot of them — or at least try to. A stack of games builds up in my office and in my home. These are the games I need to get to. All that stands between me and them is the Game I’m Playing Now. Often, even if I’m having fun, I want that Game to be over so I can get to the next one.

I believe in finishing a good single-player game. I root for the day when more games will compel their players to get to the end. But when you play games the way I do and are fortunate enough to have access to so much, you discover how padded most of these things really are. Case in point: “Okami.” This PS2 title made many Game of the Year 2006 shortlists and kept me engaged for the 52 hours it took to reach the end. But we’re talking 52 hours. With “Gears of War,” “Final Fantasy XII” and a pile of other promising games in my queue, I could have stood for, maybe, a 42-hour version of “Okami.”

I think the designers could have hacked 10 hours out of the game easily without making the game worse. I even think the game could have been better. For instance, there’s a character named Orochi who the player must fight. Orochi is an eight-headed dragon. Killing each head requires a couple of carefully, patiently timed strikes, then all the heads come back to life and have to be slain again. That kills Orochi … for a little while. Later in the game you fight Orochi a second time. And then a third. That’s three fights against eight heads that need to each be knocked out twice each time. Overkill?

The “Okami” designers also littered their game with treasure chests. These chests hold the opposite of treasure. Each contains one of a few dozen unessential items that you can’t do anything with except sell to merchants for yen. You then use that yen to buy weapons or power-ups that you don’t actually need to get through the game. The non-gamer might suggest not wasting time opening the hundreds of chests. If you’re a gamer, however, you’ve been trained to leave no door unopened, no townsperson unspoken to and no treasure chest sealed shut. The designers compel you to do it, and you do, even though you know you’re wasting your time.

Why don’t designers jettison these time-fillers? That’s something I’ll have to investigate. For now, let’s appreciate some svelte games.

In 2005, I played and greatly enjoyed the PS2 game “Shadow of the Colossus.” There were only 16 enemies to fight in that game and barely a treasure chest or door to waste the player’s time. The game was about climbing and slaying giants. Other than having to spend time finding them, that’s all you had to do. Perfect. Now that I’ve gone back to “Gears of War,” I’m reminded how the designers made every moment count. Every firefight is well-staged and distinct from the one before it. There were no treasure chests, no recycled boss battles (not yet — will I eat my words?). From what I hear, I’ll wrap up the game’s campaign in a handful more hours. I couldn’t be happier.

On Monday I received a PS2 RPG called “Rogue Galaxy” in the mail. I like the developer and will try the game. I checked a review on GameSpy.com that gave “Rogue Galaxy’s greatest triumph, the brightest gleam in its eye, is that at 60 hours of play I’ve got another 60 I could easily pour in.” That triumph might spell my defeat. Some may consider it giving gamers their money’s worth. I consider it something else.

I’ve played hundreds of video games. In my opinion, there’s not one that exceeded 10 hours that couldn’t have been shorter. Trim the fat, please.

— Stephen Totilo

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: 230
» Last three games to arrive: “World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade” (PC, collector’s edition), “Hotel Dusk: Room 215″ (Nintendo DS), “Rogue Galaxy” (PS2)
» Last system to arrive: PS3
» Last swag to arrive: NVIDIA e-GeForce 8800 GTX graphics card (part of the press kit for Microsoft’s New York Windows Vista gaming showcase. Amazon price of graphics card: $649.99)

Multiplayer: Frequently Answered Questions
Our gaming expert has the dirt on ‘Grand Theft Auto,’ Mario and more.

01.23.07

I’d be happy to speculate about the future of “Phoenix Wright” and happy to argue that “Jam With the Band” is the best rhythm game you’ve never heard of. But when most people want to talk to me about games, they don’t ask to hear about the even halfway-obscure stuff.

So instead, I’ll address the stuff that most people ask me about: the Frequently Answered Questions.

When’s the next “Grand Theft Auto” coming out?

I get this a lot. People hear that I cover games for a living, and sure enough, this comes up. Since May of last year, the date that’s been penciled in has been October 17 for Xbox 360 and PS3. The game is code-named “Grand Theft Auto IV,” a clear sign that despite the two PS2 games and two PSP games since “GTA III,” the next game is the true next step up. The developers at Rockstar are great at keeping secrets, so there’s been no peep about whether “GTA IV” will expand geographically from the city-based approach of the first two PS2 games to the two-state adventure of “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.” Nor are they hinting at who the main character might be, though I’m hoping they’ll surprise and go with a woman. What has been announced — and what MTV News revealed last year — is that “GTA IV” will use the graphics engine first seen in “Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis” (see “The First Rule Of Ping-Pong Club: Talk About Rockstar’s Table Tennis Game” ). Microsoft has confused some consumers by announcing that the Xbox 360 version will support exclusive downloadable missions. That doesn’t mean “GTA IV” is shipping just for the 360; it’s coming out for the PS3 at the same time.

Isn’t the new Mario game coming out soon?

People finally get their hands on Nintendo Wiis, and then they turn around and ask me this. Nintendo first showed the codenamed “Super Mario Galaxy” at E3 in May. I played it for 10 minutes. It’s still the most enjoyable game I’ve tried on the system. But just because it was playable back then doesn’t mean it’s going to be playable in people’s houses any time soon. Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime told me in November the next big titles for the Wii this year will be “Metroid Prime 3: Corruption” with “Super Mario Galaxy” following any time before the 2007 year-end holidays (see “Nintendo Exec Predicts Wii Future, Chances Of ‘GoldenEye’ On Console” ). I’ve told Wii owners and Mario fans to wait.

But there’s a catch: Last year, Nintendo announced a GameCube game called “Super Paper Mario.” The screenshots depicted a Mario world that could be played as an old-school side-scroller, with bricks to head-butt and turtle shells to kick. Or, if swiveled 90 degrees, the game could be played behind Mario’s back. The graphics looked like pop-up-book cutouts, as they did in earlier “Paper Mario” games, but with even more eccentricities, like Mario-themed math problems written throughout the sky. The game hasn’t been playable at press events and, while still listed as a GameCube title, has been rumored to be moved to the Wii. Yesterday, the Nintendo fan site CodeNameRevolution.com reported that the next issue of Nintendo Power magazine lists “Super Paper Mario” as an April release for the Wii. The magazine will hit newsstands soon enough, so we can soon see if that report is true.

Which system should I get?

This is the big one. Everyone wants tips on which console to buy. I can spend a whole Multiplayer entry on this, and I will … later this week.

If you have gaming questions of your own, let me know through our You Tell Us feature below this article.

— Stephen Totilo

Multiplayer: The Xbox 360 Rubber-Band Trick
Rigging controller can help you rack up Achievements.

01.22.07

Sometimes I stalk my friends on Xbox Live. It’s nothing bad — not really. I just need to be prepared for the sordid things I’m going to find, like one friend’s questionable use of a rubber band.

The Xbox 360 allows me to track the gaming habits of my friends: to see when they were last using their online-connected console, what games they last played and which games they’ve scored Achievements in. I’ve discovered that one friend who I consider a pretty mellow guy has used his 360 solely to play about a dozen war games. I know one guy hasn’t logged on to his 360 in over a month, which is weird since he works in the Xbox division at Microsoft. Last weekend I noticed that my colleague Jason Cipriano at MTV Games was at it again with Electronic Arts’ “Superman Returns.”

I’d noticed Jason playing “Superman” a week earlier and assumed he was just dabbling. I haven’t played it yet, but I hear it’s not a very good game, so I was surprised he was back in virtual Metropolis for more. Monday morning (January 22) I shot him an IM to see what was going on. Why was he playing “Superman” on Sunday? Was the game better than the reviews had indicated?

“No,” he wrote back. “I wasn’t exactly ‘playing.’ That was a rubber band wrapped around my controller to see how long it would take to get the Fly 10,000 Miles Achievement.”

Jason loves Xbox Achievements. Like many of the obsessed Xbox gamers whose progress you can track on sites like Top360Tag.com, he’ll play a game just to score the 1,000 Achievement points embedded in it and every other 360 game sold in game stores. He’d been nearing the end of his “Superman Returns” run. He’d rescued all the game’s kittens, defeated Metallo and most everything else required. He’d already flown Superman for about 3,000 miles. On Sunday he wanted to get the last 7,000.

He turned on his 360, booted up “Superman,” flew the Man of Steel high above Metropolis — clear of any random combat — and wrapped a rubber band around his controller, securing the R-bumper speed-boost button. Then he set the controller down. Superman flew on his own. Jason had plugged the Xbox into his computer monitor, leaving him free to do other things: “Watching TV, making dinner, playing ‘Wario Ware.’ ” But occasionally he’d have to turn his attention back to the fight for truth, justice and the American way. “I had to jiggle the thumb stick every 10-15 minutes to make sure my controller didn’t shut off.”

Jason was gaming the system, of course. It’s unlikely that the definition of “achieve” permits letting a rubber band do something for you. But some might argue that finding a shortcut is the true spirit of being a gamer. Developers surely sanction some of them. How could taking shortcuts be wrong if the developers of “Super Mario Bros.” included warp pipes that let players skip levels and Konami let players gun through “Contra” with unlimited ammo?

So when is the spirit of the game truly being violated? When an MMO player uses a credit card to shop for items they don’t have time to win within the game? When a player uses a guide to solve a maze in an adventure game? What if they leave on “Sim City” overnight to make extra tax money? One can argue that the puzzles and problems in games were not meant to be overcome this way. But then there’s a Japanese man who wins the Coney Island hotdog-eating contest every year but eats the buns separate from the dogs. The officials of that “sport” don’t seem to mind.

Five or six hours into this endeavor on Sunday, Jason checked the game and found that he’d made it. Superman had flown the full 10,000 miles — even a few hundred extra. That leaves Jason with just one more Achievement in the game: “Next is lifting 10,000 tons — which is going to be a pain in the ass.” He’ll do that if his controller can take it. He hasn’t checked yet.

And I’m going to keep snooping on Xbox Live. Strange things keep turning up.

— 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.