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!

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!

Runic Games' Torchlight – a Review

Torchlight - Vanquisher ScreenshotI finally carved out some more quality time for Torchlight this week.  My one-line take:  this game is nearly everything that any Diablo fan could have wanted.

Still, let us first tackle the oliphaunt in the room – we would have liked multiplayer functionality.  That said, it must be noted that Torchlight was developed from scratch in only 11 months, which in itself seems amazing.

Moreover, Runic Games has a plan.  The single-player Torchlight release constitutes Step One – namely, introducing the Torchlight license to the gaming world, and thereby paving the way for their free-to-play Torchlight MMO (slated for release in 18 to 24 months).

Enough about Runic’s future, though – we’ve got a game to discuss, and what a game it is.  Hold on to your mouse, kids – Torchlight is gorgeous, charming, and most importantly, buckets of fun.

Runic has crafted an extremely-approachable dungeon crawler.  Whether you are an old hat or new to the action RPG genre, this game will likely draw you in.  The premise is familiar:  meet new and interesting monsters, and slay them (grabbing their treasure in the process, of course).  Upgrades to your gear are frequent, and the decision between your own trusty helmet and one recently looted from a slain skeleton is half the fun.  About the time you’re in danger of becoming bored with your current configuration, your character levels up or finds some new equipment, offering new options in combat.

Torchlight - Alchemist FishingEach character class is thoroughly playable;  well-varied talent trees give ranged classes viable melee options, and vice-versa.  All classes are given the choice of a pet dog or cat to fight alongside you, help to carry loot, and even run back to town on their own to hock said booty, saving you a Town Portal scroll and freeing you up for uninterrupted delving!  Moreover, a fun little fishing minigame offers up a variety of weird fishies that, when fed to your pet, transform them into number of powerful monster alter-egos.

From a visual standpoint, Torchlight may be the newest touchstone for action RPG art.  Sure, the basic theme is a tried-and-true fantasy setting, but Runic has woven some cool steampunk elements into their particular tapestry, and it very much works.  The engaging player characters and numerous, varied foes are also crafted in an edgy, cartoonish style with heavy-lined art and vibrant shading, setting the actors apart from the sublime, slightly painted-looking backdrop of the dungeon settings.

Further setting it apart from its predecessors, Torchlight’s environments possess a distinct sense of verticality.  As your character navigates the mines, crypts, and dungeons below torchlight, the view from balconies and suspended walkways reveals glimpses of levels below, complete with their resident brand of creepies crawling about in the gloom, unaware of your impending intrusion.

Torchlight’s sound design is likewise masterful.   From the crisp jingle of your dog’s collar during an idle moment, to the protests of startled dungeon dwellers, the audio is perfectly timed and crafted.  Weapons possess a visceral impact, and the combination of a perfectly-timed audio cue with a subtle screen shake lends a sense of real power to your attacks.  The Vanquisher’s Ricochet shot crashes palpably around corners, scattering hapless Ratlins, and the close melee attack from the Alchemist’s wand connects with a very satisfying bang.

Torchlight - Inventory ScreenshotLikewise, Matt Uelmen’s soundtrack will likely give you nostalgic shivers.  His signature here is unmistakable – atmospheric tracks heavily-laden with echoing guitar work – but the mood is light and upbeat enough to set it apart thematically from his Diablo tracks.  Here’s to hoping Runic deigns to release an official soundtrack!  [clink]

In closing, go play the game!  This is $20 US very gladly spent – the lure of exploring just one more dungeon section in search of ever-improving loot is a siren song.  It may lose you a few hours of sleep, but you will be glad for the experience.  I’m actually looking forward to my business trip next week, as evenings in the hotel will be spent playing Torchlight (with a microbrew or three close at hand, gods willing).  The game is truly a perfect choice for gaming on a less-than-stellar business laptop.

One last comment:  while I had no problem installing and validating the game on my iMac (running Windows 7 RC via BootCamp), I did have some trouble on my Dell Latitude work laptop.  At home, I was unable to connect to the key authenticator either by wifi or wired ethernet, but I reached the authentication server on my first time on my connection at work.  Runic is aware of this problem, and I’m sure they are hard at work to eliminate the issue.

For those interested in Torchlight’s art development, check out this well-written article over at Gamasutra – a very interesting read.

Borderlands: Early Impressions

Borderlands Box Art

I finally got to play a little Borderlands last night.  I’m very pleased with the game, and Gearbox has delivered on the hype.  The game is not perfect, but has attained that nebulous plateau of polish, charm, and great gameplay that earns it the title of Good Game (TM).

Gameplay-wise, Borderlands is a fairly straightforward shooter – even a little retro, a la Quake and its ilk.  However, the engaging setting and art design, coupled with copious gun porn and fantastic co-op play, seal the deal.

Visually, the oft-mentioned “concept art” presentation absolutely must be seen in person.  Screenshots and preview videos simply don’t do it justice.  Gearbox has crafted a living, breathing, interactive comic book – and my Samsung big screen is all the happier for it.

I’m only 10 levels in (currently playing the Soldier class, although I’m Siren-curious), so I’m not yet going to expound and rate.  Suffice it to say the game is as fun as promised.

However, I can’t sign off without mentioning the one factor that is getting under my skin.  Out of context, there is some really goofy, illogical stuff going on regarding the class powers:

  • Soldiers can heal teammates by shooting them.  With bullets.  Wait, what??
  • The Siren can do corrosive damage with her melee attacks.  Well, um, how?  Is there acid continuously dripping from her palms, or what?  Wouldn’t that rust her guns?  Not to mention put a damper on dating…
  • Soldiers have a power where, after dispatching an enemy, their rate of fire increases for a period of time.  Sooo, their guns get all cheered up and enthusiastic for a while?  I don’t get it.

Yes, yes, I know.  Just shut up and enjoy the game, Lance.  Of course, you’re right – it’s all in fun, and lots of it.  It’s still friggin’ goofy though…

Dali's Dilemma

Last night, my wife and I were watching the first season of Battlestar Galactica on DVD. We’d only seen the miniseries prequel so far, and holy cow! This show does *not* disappoint, or pale in any way compared to all the hype. Give me more!

I digress though. While watching said delectable sci-fi goodness, I was working at importing the rest of my music CD’s into iTunes for eventual transfer to my beloved iPod Photo. I’d only had about 1/3 of my library on the iPod to date, and so at work today I had access to a lot of beloved tunes that I hadn’t listened to for a while.

I’ve got to turn you on to one album in particular: Manifesto for Futurism by Dali’s Dilemma. These guys only ever made one album from what I can tell, but *wow* what great stuff. If you like progressive rock – Dream Theater and the like – even a little, I highly encourage you to check this great CD out! Absolutely vibrant tracks, anywhere from blistering to beautiful. Great, great stuff. My good friend Mike had turned me on to them a while back, and so I’m passing on his great recommendation – thanks Mikey!

Here’s a link to the album on Amazon, and another at their label Magna Carta. Both sites contain audio samples that you can check out.