The sun is high in the sky, birds are chirping and you? You’re sitting on your butt in a dimly-lit room drooling over the latest “Grand Theft Auto.” Yep, must be springtime again, with summer soon to follow, promising endless stretches of sticky, Dorito-scented afternoons spent in the company of treasured loved ones, e.g. Messrs. PS3 and Xbox 360. But with so much to do (pick up the kids, hit the links, return Mom’s answering machine message from 1987), so little time, where to focus your mutant-splattering energies? Easy – any of the following areas, guaranteed to be the talk of the virtual town… At least, that is, until fall hits and the blisteringly-paced interactive entertainment industry’s latest crop of groundbreaking amusements and new ways to play arrive and make you feel like a clueless n00b all over again.
For decades, we’ve waited for Silicon Valley’s answer to the independent film circuit – now, it’s finally here in the form of indie games. Consider the success of titles like “Everyday Shooter” for the PlayStation 3 – built by one twenty-something and downloaded 125,000+ times. Or quirky animated platform-hopper “The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai,” another solo-developed project which scored its creator an Xbox Live Arcade publishing deal. From Introversion’s “DEFCON” and “Multiwinia” for PC to Microsoft’s Community Games initiative (which allows anyone to create and self-publish titles for the Xbox 360 platform) or Nintendo’s just-launched WiiWare distribution platform, homebrew is in. The upside? Back in the day, games used to be developed by starry-eyed bedroom coders who sold their wares in Ziploc bags before $10-20 million, two-year, cookie-cutter, 80-man epics took over. Today, thanks to venues like the Independent Games Festival (IGF) and forward-thinking publishers such as Manifesto Games, renegade hackers (and real creativity) are thriving again.
Just as Hollywood’s hell-bent on shilling summer blockbusters, so too are software publishers eager to capitalize on box office hype, ensuring the tradition of milking cinematic spin-offs remains alive and well in 2008. Happily for once though, several of the season’s most shameless computerized cash-ins are electing to buck the maxim that says all movie-based games must prove the pixilated equivalent of Gigli or 976-EVIL. Which to screen on your living room plasma? Score two thumbs up for “LEGO Indiana Jones” (LucasArts, PC/PS2/PS3/360/Wii), a family-friendly button-masher which humorously reprises the first three films; “The Bourne Conspiracy” (Sierra, PS3/360)’s bone-crunching fistfights; and “Incredible Hulk” (Sega, PC/PS2/PS3/360/Wii), wherein you’ll smash living cityscapes in high-definition sprays of flame and debris. “Wall-E” (THQ, PC/PS2/PS3/360/Wii) and “Kung Fu Panda” (Activision, PC/PS2/PS3/360/Wii) will also keep younger theatergoers entertained, although remember… They’re scant consolation for mentally-scarred Episode I-III fans impatiently waiting on September’s bar-raising “Star Wars: The Force Unleashed.”
More for the Money
The beauty of today’s gaming scene (especially for shoppers relying on recession-atrophied budgets) is that it doesn’t begin and end at a boxed retail product. Proof lies in today’s most sensible interactive trend: Squeezing more out of every purchase. Think user-generated content, e.g. custom-made, Internet-distributable stages you can grab for “Super Smash Bros. Brawl.” Downloadable replay-extending game expansions, a la collectible “Rock Band” song kits or extra “Call of Duty 4” maps. And, of course, amateur-built modifications (aka “mods”) – story-/scene-changing overhauls that completely reshape the range of challenges featured in or cosmetic face of titles like “Unreal Tournament III” and “Neverwinter Nights.” Light on cash? Plenty of free Flash-based diversions can also be found online at sites like InstantAction, Shockwave.com and Kongregate. You can always trade in old titles for credit too, or save money purchasing perfectly sound pre-owned outings, with software vendor GameStop reporting a 20.6% increase in used game sales last year alone.
After years of stalled attempts (Game Xstream, anyone?), digital distribution – support for broadband downloading of new releases and old-school classics straight to PC/console – is here, and all the rage. And with prices averaging $5-$15 for everything from innovative originals (PlayStation Network’s echochrome) to instant crowd-pleasers (Xbox Live Arcade’s Carcassone) and timeless favorites (e.g. the Wii Virtual Console’s Castlevania), what’s not to like? PC owners will further find Steam’s online marketplace or GameTap’s selection of episodic content (Grimm, Sam & Max) and over 1000-strong library of cross-platform gems (121 of which are free to enjoy) solid values too. No lines, no waits, no watching your armpits leak like fountains or pasty white scalp sizzle at the merest hint of UV rays… Just catchy titles that go for a song compared to $60 retail offerings and transfer direct to TV/desktop in under five minutes. And to think they wonder why we never leave the basement…
Getting in the Game
Already #1 in Europe and Japan, Nintendo’s Wii Fit – a balance board peripheral packaged with physical exercise-prompting mini-games – is set to reignite the interactive weight-loss craze Dance Dance Revolution started (Wii Fit launched May 19 at Nintendo’s New York store, and will be available at other retailers on May 21). And just in case you didn’t get the memo, EA Sports has already announced plans to debut a similar sweat-inducing offering, with third-parties also releasing a host of compatible titles, e.g. Namco’s quirky We Ski. Coming on the heels of Sony’s reintroduction of rumble functionality via the DualShock 3 controller, and rumors of Microsoft developing a gesture-tracking device similar to Nintendo’s Wii remote, the message is clear. Immersion no longer stops at 5.1 surround sound and 1080p graphics; today’s player wants to experience the actual feel of waving a giant sword or racking up homers by mimicking swinging a real-life Louisville slugger. Let’s just hope they draw the line at horror-themed epics, i.e. Resident Evil; the last thing we need’s a handheld plastic chainsaw. Oh wait… been there, done that.
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