June 2009 Archives

Rocking the Paradise

I don't like racing games. They bore me, whether they're on the table or on the television. There are exceptions-- Daytona 500's system is very clever, and Project Gotham Racing's kudos system, focusing on jumps, drifts, and tricks, gave me a really fun way to avoid the whole "racing" angle. "Serious" or "pure" racing games, like the Forza series or even Formula De, leave me cold. So I wasn't expecting to have any interest in Burnout Paradise, a driving game on the 360. Even after friends bought the game and told me how awesome it was, I remained unmoved. I tried the demo, but wasn't sold.

Then we started using Burnout Paradise as a demo for Project Natal, and I played quite a bit of it as we tuned the experience. I was surprised by how much fun I was having, even when we switched Natal off and I used a controller. Eventually I took home the team's copy, and I've been hooked ever since.

It's a brilliant piece of game design. Instead of a series of racing circuits, Burnout Paradise drops you into Paradise City and its environs, a sprawling network of highways, dirt roads, railroad tracks, city streets, and back alleys that you're free to drive through however you like. Sprinkled-- no, poured-- throughout the map are various flavors of collectibles: billboards to break, fences to drive through, and jumps to land. You could spend dozens of hours just finding all of them, and in many cases figuring out how to actually collect them. And collecting them feels good. Flying off a ramp and through a billboard is yee-ha thrilling thanks to the game's breezy controls and forgiving driving model.

If you want some more structure, just pull up to a traffic light. Every single one in the game hosts an event you can opt into. They come in a few different flavors-- straightforward races, Marked Man races where you need to reach a destination before enemy cars run you off the road, Stunt Runs, and timed runs. My favorite is Road Rage, where there is no destination, merely a goal-- run the required number of cars off the road before they do the same to you. There are records for the fastest time on each stretch of road, and Showtime mode lets you set up absurd chains of point-gathering crashes anywhere, anytime.

Crashes in Burnout, whether your own or your victims', are spectacular affairs rendered in slow motion so you can appreciate every shard of twisted, broken metal. Cars fly through the air, tumble end over end, and shatter in viscerally satisfying ferrotechnic displays.

As you complete events, new car models get released into the city. If you take them down (run them off the road), you gain possession of them and can drive them yourself. As you play deeper into the game, the cars become faster, stronger, and more performant. The game keeps rewarding you and dangling more carrots in front of you.

Burnout Paradise is bursting with cool places to drive, whether it's over the top of a railroad trestle, around the bowl of a rock quarry, careening through hidden tunnels or jumping over the dam. You can complete events to collect cars, or you can drive at your own pace to find all the fences and billboards. You can beat the fastest times on every road in Paradise. You can perform other fun tricks for achievements.

And then... you can go online.

Last night I played multiplayer for the first time with 3 friends, and we spent hours playing through a bunch of 4-player challenges. The game offers 500 challenges for 2-8 players, ranging from "everyone meet up at the wind farm" to "collectively drive against the flow of traffic for 10000 yards at the same time" to "collide in mid-air at the drawbridge". Tackling those challenges cooperatively was a blast. If one of you is forced off the road by another player, the camera takes your picture and sends it to the driver that beat you-- a great opportunity for funny moments. There was a lot of laughter. If the other players in the group hadn't had more willpower than I and signed off in favor of sleeping, I'd have played through the night.

Burnout makes getting into a multiplayer game super-easy. You don't need to use the klunky default 360 invitation system-- instead, they built a custom interface directly into the game that lets you invite friends without plucking you out of the driving experience. Every element of the game has been polished to a glistening shine.

A sequel is inevitable, and I'll be lining up to play it.

Comments (6) | last by Peter, Jul 27, 6:36 PM

As part of Marvel Comics' 70th anniversary celebration, they ran a customer poll to determine the 70 greatest Marvel covers of all time. When I heard about this, one cover instantly leapt to mind. When I went to their site to see the winners, I was pleased to see that very issue was voted #3. Number two is iconic, I'll grant you, but if removed from its historical context I really don't think it's anything special. Number one is OK, but not something I'd put in the top ten. I agree with the high marks for #4 and #10, but there are covers later in the list-- notably many of the paintings-- that are much better than some of the ones that precede them.

Fun to browse.

Comments (2) | last by Damon, Jun 22, 10:32 AM

A judge today ruled that crunchberries are not, in fact, fruit. More accurately, he ruled that your average consumer would not be misled by Cap'n Crunch's packaging into believing that the product contained actual berries.

He did not rule on whether or not an average consumer would be misled into believing that the cereal contains actual nutritional value.

Comments (2) | last by sports gaming, Jan 27, 4:25 PM

Natal

Since we announced it today at E3, I can finally talk about what I've been working on for the past few months. Code-named Natal (rhymes with fatale, as in femme fatale), it's a peripheral for the 360 that brings full 3-D motion control and voice recognition to the 360 without requiring any controller in your hand. You just stand in front of the TV, get recognized, and control gameplay with your body. Your avatar mimics your body motion with real-time motion capture. Scratch your nose, your avatar scratches his. Do the moonwalk, your avatar does it with you. Every movement is tracked, analyzed, and processed.

The net effect is the most accessible gaming device ever. You don't have to explain to someone that they need to use the A button, a thumbstick, a trigger. They just get into the game and play the way they expect to play. Our team's demos at E3 showed two activities: Ricochet, a full-body Breakout game, and Paint Party, where you can free your inner Jackson Pollock by throwing paint at a canvas and creating stencils with your body.

I can tell you that Ricochet is super fun to play. You just get up and move your body. You can slam the ball with your hand, or you can just step into its path and have it bounce off your body. You can butt it with your head, spin a roundhouse kick, move in or out, etc. No controls to learn-- when you move your arm, your avatar moves his. It doesn't get more intuitive.

People are also floored by the simplicity and whimsy of Paint Party. This is a painting activity that isn't about creating the next great work of art. It's not about fine control and accurate rendering-- it's about the freedom to fling paint without worrying about the mess. It's about the fun of unbridled exuberance and expression. It's about the visceral satisfaction of flinging paint in a wide swath across a blank canvas. It's about the simple joy you had with fingerpaint as a child, before you were told to stay within the lines. And to play it, all you need to do is call out the colors and fling your arms.

Gamers frequently complain that motion control isn't for them. They're wrong. I think we're going to see some mind-blowing, innovative games developed for this platform that gamers will poop their pants for. Just imagine, for instance, what a great development team could do with the Star Wars license on Natal.

The big win, though, isn't with the gamers. It's with their families. There are a lot of people out there who are intimidated by game controllers. The Wii remote is certainly friendlier than most, but it's still something new to learn. Natal bypasses all of that. There doesn't even have to be a game to suck people in-- you'd be amazed how compelling and fun it is to just stand in front of the device and puppeteer your avatar. Everyone who uses Natal for the first time does some kind of silly dance or martial arts moves, just to watch their avatar mimic them. With your focus on your avatar, you feel free to experiment with your body in ways that you don't in front of a mirror. The fundamental functionality of the device is fun out of the box, before "game design" even enters the picture. And a lot of people who have never picked up a controller in their lives will get sucked in by Natal and have fun with a gaming console.

You can see the vision video shown at E3 here. Haven't found any online video of just the Natal E3 presentation yet, but our demos can be seen here.

Various news sources:

Time
Wall Street Journal
Yahoo
CNet
ABC

Update: complete footage of the Natal E3 presentation (albeit, sadly, without the elephant reveal) is here.

Comments (5) | last by Jack, Jun 3, 9:16 AM

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