Multiplayer Archive: Week Eleven

Multiplayer: One Shelf To Hold Them All

Storing games isn't as easy as you might think.

02.02.07

The back of the shelf is for keepers. The front of the shelf is for games I still need to try and ones that might someday be keepers only if I ruthlessly evict a game from the back.

The shelf I'm talking about is about 2 feet wide, 1 foot deep. It's in my apartment and holds my games. And if you remember science class — in which you're taught that solids hold their own shape, liquids conform to the shape of a container and gases expand to fill a container — then you should know that the perfect 21st century gaming collection, no matter what, will fit 27 inches x 12 inches.

Because of this, I undertake a fierce review of my personal collection every few months. I force myself to chuck old favorites because of a bizarre credence I put in the wisdom of some furniture maker who probably designed my shelf to hold Judy Blume or Tolstoy volumes instead.

For the last four years, I've stashed my personal collection of games on a single wooden shelf, telling myself all the while that only the games I consider true keepers should and will be able to fit. Until recently, the collection ran just across the back of the shelf, nice and neat, lined up like posts in a fence. I kept some PS2 favorites like "Rez" and "Ratchet & Clank: Up Your Arsenal"; the Xbox's "Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic"; and the GameCube's "Zelda"s, "Metroid"s and "Pikmin 2."

Things were going nicely and games were fitting well. I even had room for games I thought were more important than fun. For example, I held onto the GameCube's "Killer 7," which I beat, didn't overly enjoy but thought had an art style worth giving another look someday. I held onto the Xbox's "Yourself Fitness" so I'd always have a point of reference for unconventional fitness programs designed for game consoles. I even kept a Japanese GameCube game I've since purchased — and shelved — because I think it has the best box art of all time. (Don't believe me? See the artwork right here.)

All was going well — and the decisions of which games to boot weren't that hard — until about two years ago, when the DS came out and started clogging up the right side of the shelf. The Xbox 360 forced me to go two rows deep. The PSP, the Wii and the PS3 pushed things more. Today I have 22 American GameCube games, 21 PS2 games, three Xbox games, eight 360 games, 37 DS games, three PS3 games, eight Wii games and 14 PSP titles bursting on the shelf. (My few Nintendo 64 and older games are boxed up elsewhere.) The DS stack is in store for some serious pruning, as it's stuffed with curiosities that I've barely tried yet.

During my latest review of my collection I decided to say goodbye to "Yakuza," a PS2 title that received mixed reviews but high compliments from some folks whose opinions I trust. I played it a bunch and shelved it for a later return. But now the rules of shelf dictate that with no room left for any future games, I must can an older one. Out the game goes. I've decided to jettison "Just Cause," which I wrote about earlier this week as well.

Every time I try to thin my collection, I run the risk of losing a game I will someday want again. This would have been a bigger fear back in my college days, when I didn't have the money to make up for such mistakes. I traded in my Super Nintendo and most of my games for that system to get the N64. These days I could probably get "Just Cause" back if I really, really need to play it. So I can afford to be heartlessly discriminating. And I can chase the dream: one shelf. One row of games. One set of classics. No room for half-favorites. Everything else must go.

— Stephen Totilo

Multiplayer: Which Piñata Should Die?

Despite appearances, 'Viva Piñata' is much more than a cutesy kids' game.

02.01.07

I think I'm one of the people who gets it. I'm one of those, mocked by many, who likes the Xbox 360's main kid-friendly game, "Viva Piñata." And I'm one of the people struggling to explain it to others. My attempt: "Pokémon" meets "Sophie's Choice" meets "The Sims."

Serious, hard-core gamers aren't supposed to care about "Piñata." Microsoft told me so. Last fall the company brought a two-tent, two-day promotional circus to town. Not until I got to my appointment did I discover that I'd opted only for the "naughty" day, when games such as "Gears of War," "Call of Duty 3" and "Crackdown" were being showcased. Apparently there was a whole other event for the "nice" games, of which "Viva Piñata" was one. So thanks to the cleverness of Microsoft's PR team, I missed the game. I also missed a shot at playing it at E3 when I had to cancel an afternoon of Xbox 360 appointments because of crushing computer problems (see "Multiplayer: The Year's Darkest Moments Of Video Game Reporting").

That left "Viva Piñata" as one of the very few games I never even saw being played until it was released and I popped it into my 360. Even then, I didn't get to the November-released game until last week.

But it's a good thing I didn't let this game slip through the cracks. First of all, it's one of the naughtiest nice games I've played. Sure, it's basically a gardening simulator: You clear a plot of land and plant grass and fruit trees, piñata-style animals buzz and scamper in, you build houses for the animals and then keep tweaking everything to get new piñata to show up. All of this happens in a world ruthlessly ordered by the game's food chain. Resign yourself to the fact that your Mousemallows will get eaten by your Syrupents. And your Syrupents are going to get pounced by any Macaraccoons.

See, some games do cute. "Viva Piñata" does cute eating cute. Because you are the gardener, you could prevent the viciousness of the natural order. You could fence your Mousemallows to safety. You could shoo the Syrupents away. But you do want the Macaraccoons to show up, don't you? You do want to be a good gamer and collect them all.

Who will live and who will die — it's not a question that hits hard in many video games, and certainly not one that I judged by its cover simply to be a bright, colorful, graphically impressive kids' game. But I've been taken in. And I'm not the only one. Even the paragon of Xbox 360 machismo, the chainsaw-gun game designer Cliff Bleszinski himself — who was stationed with his game "Gears of War" at that "naughty" event, naturally — has confessed a weakness for the game. On his CliffyB.com blog he recently wrote about the peer pressure he's under to give up this so-called cutesy game: "I can't deal with the judgement at work," he wrote. "Co-workers who are busy coding exploding heads walk by in the hall and go, 'So how's Pinata treating you there buddy?' If only they knew how upsetting this day-glow world is they'd understand how hardcore I think I am."

I think he should keep at it. "Viva Piñata" isn't really a nice game. It's just misunderstood.

— 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: 239

» Last three games to arrive: "Lunar Knights" (Nintendo DS), "Diddy Kong Racing DS" (Nintendo DS), "MVP 07: NCAA Baseball" (PS2)

» Last system to arrive: PS3

» Last swag to arrive: Pack of Big Red gum, bag of Cheetos and a half-gallon "Gorilla Gulp" plastic cup (apparently all to support a junk-food-at-the-racetrack theme for Nintendo's "Diddy Kong Racing DS")

Multiplayer: Who Do You Want To Be?

In the gaming world, our expert typically opts to be himself.

01.31.07

In the video game worlds where I can theoretically be anyone I want to be and do anything I could ever dream of doing, I usually decide to just be me. Who's with me?

I'm sure it says something about me that, when a game gives me the option, I make my character a brown-haired white guy, kind of short, skinny — like I am in real life. I did that when I made a Stephen Mii on the Nintendo Wii. I could have created just about any alter ego for myself. People have sent me Miis with upside-down heads. People sent me the Ramones and Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz. But I wanted my Mii to look like me.

My "Second Life" avatar looks more or less like me. When I create a character in "Fight Night" boxing, he fits my profile (with a better physique, of course). During the few hours I've played "World of Warcraft," I've opted to play as a male character — albeit a bull-like Tauren druid. I could have played as a woman. A couple of years ago I even found out from "WoW" demographics expert Nick Yee that more than half of the female characters in that game were played by guys (see "Gender-Bending Online Gamers Bending Rules In 'Warcraft' "). But I was never tempted to experiment.

There's a whole genre devoted to role-playing games. Taking those words at face value, those games would seem to be inviting players to put on some new clothes, try some new tasks. I can meet those games halfway. I'll gladly take a try at role-playing as a dragon hunter or a Star Wars Jedi. I've just never taken the option to be a girl. I know some guys will play a game as a hot female character because they prefer to look at (dare I also say control?) an attractive woman for 25 hours. They'd rather be stuck with her than some beefy guy. That hasn't compelled me either.

I've also never chosen to be black. It's not that I wasn't happy to play through "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" or spend the last few days messing with the new "Crackdown," whose heroes are both men of color. I'm just always playing as close to me as I can. When I played "Fable" on the Xbox, I don't remember taking advantage of the option to interrupt my mass-marrying of townswomen to hook up with a guy.

If ever there's been a safe forum to try being someone else, it's video games. So what makes me so conservative? I'm not sure. In offline gaming worlds, it never seemed like the consequences of being someone other than me would be very interesting. It's not like being black or Latino in a game that offers a choice of skin tones would have led me to experience different game-life experiences — discrimination or different friendships, for example. It's not like hooking up with a guy in "Fable" changes the adventure of that game. So maybe the lack of consequences is what keeps me uncompelled.

In online worlds I could be somebody else and maybe even trick people into thinking I am what my character appears to be. I've just never been moved to try it. Maybe I enjoy being more like myself because it helps ground the game. It provides a dose of something I can relate to in otherwise otherworldly experiences.

Maybe I should dabble. What could it hurt? When you play, who do you want to be?

— Stephen Totilo

Multiplayer: The Big Tease

Some carrots are worth chasing — but others just aren't.

01.30.07

I like to be led on. I like chasing the carrot at the end of the stick.

I pride myself on being the guy who actually finishes games (see "Multiplayer: How Many Games Did You Finish This Year?"). But as for the games I've embarked on lately, I mostly don't expect to finish them. I've started "Lost Planet," "Ninety-Nine Nights," "Just Cause" and a handful of others, not expecting to get hooked. I just wanted to sample them — fight aliens in the snow, sword-slash 50 enemies at once or parachute onto a helicopter, as those games allowed me to do — and didn't think they would win me over for a long-term commitment. And they didn't, though it's not like they couldn't have. Any game, with the proper tease, can keep me going.

So what do those games lack? Allow me to describe an early moment of the 2003 Ubisoft game "Beyond Good & Evil." The player is shown early on that the lead character, Jade, is a photographer. She'll have to fight aliens to progress in the game, but at heart, she likes snapping pictures. When you first survey the fantastic future city Jade inhabits, you notice that little onscreen overlays label every little thing — particularly all the animals scurrying around. You might also look up at the stars and notice that they get labels too. I initially found that to be a bit odd. Who cares which stars are up there? Then Jade gets a hovercraft and her first stop winds up being at a parts shop.

The shop has several rooms, each with a couple of display cases housing hovercraft upgrades. While at first you don't have the money to buy most of the upgrades, it's clear that you'll eventually have the funds. And you just know that these upgrades will help Jade save the city. That's how video games work. Here's the hook: As you explore the hovercraft equipment store, you may notice a room all the way in the back. It has a really big display case and a really big, expensive item on it: a booster jet for travel into outer space. That's when you realize the reason they labeled those stars: Once you near the end of the game, you'll go to them. Now that is the kind of tease that will make me play to the end.

Another compelling early-game tease: At the end of the first chapter of "Gears of War," a beastly enemy leader does something so heinous to one of hero Marcus Fenix's friends that I just needed to play to what I knew would be Fenix's game-concluding revenge. The "Metroid Prime" games both gave me cool-enough abilities right at the start, then took them away, then brought me to places I knew I'd have a great time exploring if and when I recovered my lost techniques. That kept me going.

Some games don't offer a game-opening tease. Some provide a weak one. "Just Cause" started me in a South American jungle with a mission to overthrow the local government but didn't give me a morsel that made me want to finish the meal and enjoy a just dessert. There's fun in the game, but I don't feel like I've got to get to the end. "Lost Planet" offered a tease: A lumbering monster in the prologue seemingly kills the player/hero's dad, an event that clearly points toward game-concluding revenge. I just didn't think that big monster who crushed Dad would be fun to fight later. Plus I didn't really think the dad was dead. So I don't plan to play to the game's conclusion.

Like game endings, early-game teases don't get talked about much in game reviews and on message boards. I'm not sure why. It's an age-old acting question: What's my motivation? As gamers, we're players. We're actors following a script full of action. Shouldn't we be asking the same?

— Stephen Totilo

Multiplayer: Hawaii Could Use More People

Our gaming expert finally finds a racing game he likes — but can he compete?

01.29.2007

Virtual Hawaii needs more people, though I'd prefer they not be the kind of people who drive Lamborghinis.

Over the weekend, I tried "Test Drive: Unlimited" on my Xbox 360. The game was released in September from developer Eden Studios and publisher Atari. One racing game blurs into another, but "Test Drive" stands out with two novel features. Instead of race tracks, the game's driving surface is the full road map of the island of Oahu. Anyone playing the game on an Xbox Live-connected 360 will see other players' cars driving the roads, open to challenges, as if the game were a "World of Warcraft"-style massively multiplayer game.

I'd first heard about these ideas about a year ago. I was curious but skeptical. Atari hasn't been a reliably high-quality publisher in a while. More importantly, I'm not much of a racing-game fan, never having become obsessed with the several versions of the very popular "Super Mario Kart," "Gran Turismo," "Project Gotham Racing" or "Need for Speed" series. The short list of racing games that hooked me consists entirely of "F-Zero 64," "F-Zero GX," "Burnout 3: Takedown," "Wave Race 64," "Excitebike 64" and — if they even count — "1080 Snowboarding" and "SSX 3." Note that only one of the games I liked even involves normal cars. "Test Drive" wasn't a likely favorite.

What doesn't hook me about a racing game, clearly, is realism. The trend these days is toward licensed cars and an obsessive attention to car customization: Pick the shocks, the spoiler, the tread of the tire, and — I'm making an educated guess here — whether fuzzy dice will dangle from the rear-view mirror. So when I started "Test Drive" on Sunday, I figured I'd drive around this MapQuest-accurate virtual Oahu, appreciate the technical feat and log right back out. My stay turned out to be short, but not because of that.

What I discovered is that I like a racing game set on real roads. I've been to Oahu twice, once as a kid and once for an overnight stay before visiting my brother on an aircraft carrier. I didn't drive either time. Nevertheless, when I steered through them with a game controller, the roads of the island felt familiar. They're laid out like normal roads, with plenty of intersections and highways, stop signs and stoplights. The suburban side roads and the city avenues all rang bells. The road out of the rental lot near the airport feels like every other road out of a rental lot that I've been on. The only difference was that in "Test Drive" I could scream down these roads at top speed with a Hawaii horizon outside my windshield. That's a kind of near-fantasy I can relate to. The roads matter to me, not the cars.

For all my joy of driving, I didn't play "Test Drive" for long. The "Test Drive" online gimmick let me drive past other players and race anyone else using the game at the same time I was. It's a great concept, only at a moment when lots of people are playing. But the prime moment for "Test Drive" may have come and gone. On Sunday, there weren't many other players driving around virtual Oahu. I tried competing against one of the few, and he smoked me with his top-line Lamborghini. I found another race and got dusted by five other players who I think were speaking German. I futilely tried finding other cars in my class, other players of my skill. No one else was on the road. I wanted to stick around; I wanted to get better. I liked the whole concept, but I knew lingering would result in continued humiliation. For my sake I logged out.

Better late than never? I discovered a game on Sunday I should have played three months ago. Now I know the kind of racing game I could like, but I don't have a Lamborghini. I can't hang. So I give up. Maybe there'll be a sequel and I'll catch on then.

— 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.