Horde or Alliance? "Pokémon Diamond" or "Pokémon Pearl"?
The choice of which side to start with in "World of Warcraft" or which "Pokémon" DS game to buy are the types of big questions gamers are sometimes forced to face. And like many gaming decisions, gamers are forced to make them early on, right after they install "WoW," or while they're in the store to buy a "Pokémon" game.
Gaming is full of forced early decisions. Start an action game and don't be surprised to be asked whether you would prefer to play the game as a brawler or a magician. How do you know what's best? Often enough, you don't. You just guess.
On Wednesday a public-relations team from games publisher Activision showed me three versions of the company's movie-based "Transformers" games. The Xbox version (the game will also come to PS3, PS2 and Wii) is single-player and lets a gamer rumble through open environments battling enemy transformers. One flow of missions will focus on Autobot adventures; the other is on Decepticons. The other two games were a pair of DS titles: an Autobot game and a Decepticon title. One publicist at the demonstration likened the DS split to Nintendo's practice of launching the DS hit "Nintendogs" in multiple versions. Nintendo had produced three initial editions of the game, each with a different selection of puppies available at the start.
I could feel the consternation coming on early. If I were buying a "Transformers" game for DS, which would I get? I had enough trouble deciding whether to play "Diamond" or "Pearl."
Both games emulate the console game. They put the player in the midst of an open environment, like a shrunken "Grand Theft Auto" city or battleground of the "Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction," a first for a 3-D game on the DS. The Autobot game stars a noble rookie Transformer. The Decepticon lead character is a surly newcomer not looking for a mentor. In the Decepticon game, players are rewarded for causing damage to the in-game cities. I asked what special behaviors are rewarded in the Autobot edition. The demo team didn't have a clear answer for me at the time. Still, the idea of choosing a version based on choosing the philosophy of play I most enjoy intrigued me. (Extending this concept, should EA release Democratic and Republican versions of "Sim City"?)
The DS games are being made by New York-based Vicarious Visions, a prolific DS studio whose developers have aggressively pushed the processors and unique features of the DS. Not only did Vicarious developer Jesse Booth tell me that his team was proud to make a platform-first 3-D game with an open environment. He said they had toyed with letting players use the DS microphone to record their own "ch-ch-ch" transformation sound effect into the game. That they left out because of how much their game engine already taps the DS' horsepower.
A novel idea they did squeeze in — and which may well affect whether consumers go with the Autobot or Decepticon versions of the game — is an online-enabled feature called All-Spark Wars. This mode will present every owner of the game who connects their DS to a WiFi hub with a specific single-player challenge. All gamers will get a chance to complete it and submit their performance stats to a central server. Whichever faction of owners performs better that day will be rewarded with one of seven All-Spark nodes. So if players who own the Decepticon versions of the game prove more proficient, then Megatron's forces will get the All-Spark. Booth said the Vicarious team expect several advantage changes before one side gains full domination of the All-Spark. He thinks each "war" will last three weeks. This best-laid plan could collapse if better gamers or even just a significantly greater number of them buy one version and not the other, but an Activision rep said Transformers-maker Hasbro reports that the franchise's fanbase has long been split evenly between Autobots and Decepticons.
Booth and the Activison reps said there will be exclusive levels in each version of the DS game, but they downplayed the idea that one version would need to be linked to the other to unlock the full content on either cartridge. That has been the "Pokémon" approach since that series launched as a pair of games on the original Game Boy. The "Transformers" DS editions are more about battling to gain a global upper hand. Which side would you want to be on? Or is this another big gaming decision that is being posed too soon?