First Glance: Rock Band 3 Wireless Fender Mustang Pro Guitar Controller

I finally got to spend some time with my new Rock Band 3 Pro Guitar controller last night. While it is certainly not a real guitar, it translates surprisingly well – even for someone who actually plays guitar. 

There are a few little niggling differences. The strings are all the same width, which sometimes makes it hard to find the correct string with one’s strumming hand. The fret buttons are also all identically-shaped (the string-shaped buttons don’t get narrower as they decend), which causes similar left-hand confusion. Lastly, unlike a real guitar, your fret hand can’t feel which strings are vibrating, which also removes a point of orientation.

One other difference from for-reals guitar slinging is that the game uses its own unique notation to display your finger and chord position.  For those more familiar with tablature though, this isn’t such a stretch.  The notation is relatively clear, and admittedly easier to sight-read during a play session.

Still, most of my fumbling is likely due to the fact that I haven’t played much at all for, say, 1.5 decades.  Regardless, I quickly plowed through many sets of lessons, and was already able to learn two songs on Pro Hard difficulty in one evening.   (One step up – Pro Expert difficulty – would be playing the song note-for-note, and I think I could probably have managed Expert on the two tunes I learned as well.)

Pretend-guitar confusion aside, Mad Catz has done a fine job constructing this controller.  Previous to slapping down my plastic, I had been worried about the build quality, but this is actually a fairly sturdy contraption.  For those of you on the fence, I think the unit will be sufficiently durable if treated well.

It’s pretty obvious that there aren’t many folks using the Pro Guitar feature yet, as I’m already in the top 25% of the global leaderboard.  Trust me – I’m not a top-25-percentile kinda guitar player. 

In all, this is a very, very damn fun way to learn some new songs, and a way more fulfilling way to play Rock Band for my dollar.  I’m extremely excited to get my hands on the real RB3 Fender Squier Strat, which ships in early March.

Note that Rock Band 3 also features similar trainers for bass guitar, keyboard, and drums.  There are extensive how-to-play lesson sets for each instrument, plus three coaching sessions for every Pro-enabled song (a list which includes all 83 songs on the RB3 disc and most DLC going forward).   Harmonix actually worked with the Berklee College of Music to develop all the teaching and training scenarios, and the quality shows.

While it may sound like there’s not much tutorial content per my earlier comments, keep in mind that I played guitar for 15 years (before taking a hiatus when Zack was born), and was able to breeze through a lot of it.  You literally could learn to play an instrument using this game.  I keep finding myself saying this, but we really do live in the future, kids!

SCB: A New Chapter

We meet again, reader!

After a short hiatus, I began to miss writing and decided to bring SCB back up on a new (read: free) hosting service.  Hopefully, I’ll have some interesting things to share, and I highly encourage everyone reading to comment and participate!

Please excuse the broken image links in legacy posts.  Many of the images were not captured by my WP export from the old site.

Cheers,

Lance

Aliens vs. Predator: the Marine Campaign Review

Aliens vs Predator screenshot

A stand-up fight, or just another bug hunt?

After finishing Aliens vs. Predator’s Marine story last night, I wanted to post some thoughts.  In a nutshell, die-hard fans of the franchise need not despair at the game’s mediocre critical reception – AvP is solid, playable, and fun.

Rebellion has done a fantastic job with pacing and tension-building, both feigned and (especially just as you finally let your guard down) mortally deserved.  Sound design is the true star of this game, and sets the stage in every way – whether via the faithfully-delivered touchstone AvP sound effects, or through the fantastic usage of surround sound and contextual soundtrack.  My heart literally kept pace with the pulse of my motion tracker, revving up predictably as the rising pitch of the gadget indicated an impending xenomorph rush.

That said, just as I won’t make excuses for the lukewarm A&P franchise sequels, likewise for this new AvP game.  In many ways, the game is a throwback – a reincarnation of Rebellion’s original 1999 shooter, dressed up with (relatively) modern textures and high fidelity sound.  Certainly, the game’s visuals have been the subject of some criticism, but I did not find them terribly lacking.  In the end, the locales that the subject matter demands – cramped industrial compexes, pre-fab colonial structures, sterile research facilities, steaming jungles, and ancient temples – are all here and rendered sufficiently well.  Sure, AvP is no Mass Effect 2, but a strong effort nonetheless and good enough for suspension of disbelief, and that’s what it’s all about, yes?

More pointedly, the game’s control offerings are a bit below the curve as well.  Don’t misunderstand – I had no problems navigating, aiming, selecting weapons, etc.  However, I did find myself groping for many of the conventions we’ve come to take for granted in modern shooters.  Sure, a cover mechanic is not yet ubiquitous, and the lack of said option could certainly be forgiven – if not for my character’s inability to even crouch down behind a crate while taking fire.  Perhaps his knees were damaged in the rough dropship landing during the opening sequence?  I also found myself missing an “iron sights” ability to focus my aim down the length of my weapon, but the zoom function on the scoped rifle did serve as a partial replacement.

Lastly, the difficulty of the game was of a varying consistency.  In places, I found myself almost stymied by a sudden, frenetic rush of xenomorphs in an otherwise nondescript map section, while several of the major setpiece chellenges were easily defeated and almost anticlimactic.  One warning here regarding the game difficulty – Rebellion has not provided us with the option to adjust the game difficulty on the fly.  If you find yourself overwhelmed, you’ll need to restart the entire campaign to bump the difficulty down a notch.

But let’s not point fingers at muddy textures and slightly-clunky game play per se – Dragon Age: Origins was no glamorous looker either, and its queued-up-action gameplay was positively frustrating at times.  Still, DA:O received its laurels largely due to fantastic writing and an engrossing setting.  In the same way, Rebellion’s fierce dedication to evoking the AvP franchise’s distilled essences has left me satisfied and temporarily sated.  More soon as I progress in the Predator and Alien story modes…

Wait, Lance – what do you mean, temporarily sated?  Why, faithful reader, I allude to nothing other than the forthcoming release of Aliens: Colonial Marines, currently in development by Gearbox Software.  Yes, that Gearbox – the talented cats who developed a little shooter-looter called Borderlands.  A:CM is a squad-based shooter with full 4-player story co-op, basted liberally in the juices of James Cameron’s classic film Aliens.  Randy Pitchford and crew, I am drinking the Kool-Aid you’re brewing up!

Aliens vs Predator: Resist the Lure of the Hive Mind!

I came to an epiphany this morning.  (Sure, it was a trivial and geeky epiphany, but don’t be judging on my epiphanies, man!) After reading the mixed critical reviews of Aliens vs Predator last week, I had decided not to purchase the game, or to at least hold off until the price dropped.

I realized that I was getting sucked in by the industry group think.  Sure, an average/mixed review consensus of the typical title might prompt me to hold off, but this is the freaking Alien(s) and Predator franchises, for cripe’s sake!  If there’s a bigger fan of those properties in the Lehigh Valley, I’d be highly surprised.

I had previously played Rebellion’s original 1999 AvP game on PC, as well as the 2001 follow-up by Monolith.  A quick check of Wikipedia shows that the original AvP received 80% scores from the major houses, and AvP2 roughly 60%, and I had a complete blast with both games!

So what the hell was I thinking?  This is a major release involving my favorite movie ever (James Cameron’s Aliens – duh!), and I was going to give it a pass??  I suppose this example serves to illustrate the prodigious mojo that game reviews (let alone the mighty and impersonal Metacritic score) exert over the modern, highly-wired fanbase.

Having recognized that chilling fact, tonight I throw off the chains of the IGN/Gamespot hive mind.  I can already vividly hear the increasingly frenetic ping of the motion tracker, the chatter of my M41A pulse rifle, and the elephantine screams of my inhuman, horrific foe.  So beware, xenomorph queen, and cower in your steamy, dark lair – I come for you tonight!

Mass Effect 2: Class Consciousness

So, here I am, hot new copy of Mass Effect 2 in hand, work day complete, free time carved out, and ready to head home for some sweet, sweet sci fi gaming.  Everything should be awesomesauce for Lance.  Except one little thing – for the life of me, I can’t decide which class I want to play!

I played a Soldier the first time out, and I am leaning that direction again for several reasons. First, the gun nut and paintballer in me likes the idea of access to assault rifles and heavy weapons. Second, I’m thinking it would be cool to perpetuate the most “human” experience.  In other words, playing a “normal” Soldier who’s been thrown into this crazy new world of biotic muties, aliens, and other post-contact nuttiness.

Still, playing a Soldier was an easier choice in the last game, since the ME1 biotic powers pretty ho-hum. Now that they’re super-cool, I’m all bi-(otic)-curious.  I’m just trying to reconcile losing the coolest weapons vs. gaining a few neat space-psychic powers.

If I do take the biotic route, I’ll probably choose Sentinel for the best of all worlds.  Although the Vanguard powers are very, very cool too, and offer access to shotguns.   Ugh, indecision!

I have been able to narrow my choices slightly.  I think the Adept class would be a bit much, and would almost feel like playing a “wizard”, making the game feel less purely sci fi.  Conversely, the Engineer seems a bit too underwhelming, so there’s another elimination.  The ME2 Infiltrator looks supremely cool, but I don’t think I want to go the stealth route.  Perhaps Infiltrator would make cool second playthrough?

Back to the front (as it were), I usually prefer more realistic shooters where the action takes place at fairly long ranges, hence my Soldier leanings. That said, playing a hunter in WoW has taught me that long range classes sometimes miss out on close-ups of all the cool enemy eye candy. So, maybe being restricted to submachineguns and shotguns would actually be a boon in such a visually stunning game?  So that leaves Sentinel.  And Vanguard.

But, assault rifles and the bullet-time Adrenaline power are so cool!  Someone help me decide!!  I guess too many options is a good kind of problem to have…

Happiness is a Sore Thumb

Jak and Daxter: the Precursor Legacy[Insert “Wow, it’s been a long time since I posted” remark here.]

Recently, I tried the demo for Jak and Daxter: the Lost Frontier on my new PSPgo.  (I’ll expound later on that excellent little handheld platform.)  This enjoyable experience lit a tiny fire in my brain.

I have some very fond memories of playing through the first Jak and Daxter game (subtitled The Precursor Legacy) with my son Zack back in 2001/02 – he would have been about 6 at the time.  He hadn’t been quite old enough for the game’s sometimes tricky difficulty level, but had enjoyed sitting with me as I played.

These recollections of time well spent led me to wonder how much these memories were simple nostalgia and how well the game would hold up today.  So, instead of simply grabbing the new J&D installment for my PSPgo, I decided to pick up a copy of the original and give it another whirl.  If I liked what I discovered, I’d continue to play through Jak II and Jak III before finally tackling The Lost Frontier.  (I’d never completed the second two games the first time around.  The series became more serious as it progressed, and I’d thought it a little too gritty for Zack at the time.)

Seeing as Eastern PA was socked by a fairly major snowstorm this weekend, I enjoyed a good deal of free time after knocking out my household obligations.  Luckily, The Precursor legacy has thoroughly lived up to my fond memories.

I’m a little over 60% of the way through the first game, and having a ball.  The game isn’t without its frustrations, but by in large Naughty Dog’s excellent craftsmanship has stood the test of time.  (You may have heard of a little game – game of the year, that is – that Naughty Dog recently released, titled Uncharted 2.)

Jak and Daxter screenshot

I think my enjoyment of The Precurser Legacy has to do largely with the feeling of exploration that it imparts.  Naughty Dog has crafted a very compelling setting, and their level design is masterful.  The game unfolds before you as you progress, revealing new environs, enemies, and gameplay options at the perfect pace.  About the time you’re finally tiring of a new area, you’ve organically completed most of the required tasks, and new locales are made available to Jak and his crazy were-otter-weasel sidekick.

Likewise, the story and game world are actually quite compelling, with the story doled out in both cutscenes and in-game expositions.  The voice acting throughout is fantastic.

I have encountered some frustrations.  The difficulty level is quite challenging at times, and the gameplay certainly old-school.  Miss one jump and you’re dead, Lance – try again!  There’s also a little necessary trial-and-error at times as the player tries to determine exactly what he’s supposed to in a given situation.  Still, you are presented with infinite lives, and you typically respawn relatively close to the site of your untimely demise.  In all, while I’ve become slightly frustrated in places, the sense of accomplishment when I finally overcame a given obstacle has been glass-half-full.

In any case, it’s been quite some time since I showed up to work Monday morning with a noticeable jump-button bruise on my right thumb, but I like it.  It’s a good kind of pain.

There’s something to be said for a 9 year old game that I’m preferentially playing over Dragon Age: Origins and Assassin’s Creed, which are both currently waiting patiently for my return.  They may wait a bit longer – I’m very much looking forward to the slightly different, open-world play of the next two Jak games.