Back in 2010, when Sony announced that it was moving its PlayStation Store updates to Tuesdays from Thursdays, it seemed like a good idea. While the company claimed that the move had nothing to do with getting ahead of the Wednesday updates that the Xbox LIVE Marketplace has, beating Microsoft to the punch wasn’t a bad by-product. Getting releases before the 360 does can get impatient consumers to buy earlier on the PlayStation Store instead of waiting the 12-18 hours to get it on the 360.
Unfortunately, there’s still a very large obstacle that Sony still hasn’t managed to overcome after all this time: its inconsistency in its update time for the Store. Sometimes it’s early afternoon here on the East Coast. Sometimes it’s around dinnertime. Still other times, it’s later at night after many have retired for the evening. Compare this inconsistency to Microsoft’s clockwork in updating the Xbox LIVE Marketplace. Every Wednesday morning between 3-6am Eastern, the Marketplace updates… without fail.
It’s unacceptable. It’s also indefensible.
Add monthly PSN maintenance to the equation, including half a day’s worth on Monday 4/15 and more maintenance during Tuesday night, 4/16. Maintenance after maintenance, which then led to still more maintenance in the overnight period between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. What the heck happened to damage the network that was supposedly being serviced during most of April 15th? Worst of all, publishers missed out on a solid 8-12+ hours of sales for their digital games and add-ons because of Sony’s problems. Perhaps the update goes through overnight, but it’s more likely to be up after Microsoft has already done the same for its Marketplace. Advantage lost. Well done.
Not that Xbox LIVE is immune to downtime– the service took a digger on the 13th and was problematic for some users into the 14th, which basically killed at least half a weekend of play. However, there’s no denying that Xbox LIVE is functioning more often than PSN is. There’s no monthly scheduled maintenance to speak of, where users are required to log in beforehand or else be locked out of the service until the maintenance ends. Even as a Free XBL user, my access to leaderboards and to the Marketplace is rarely affected. Certainly not monthly or even bi-monthly, as PSN is. And, again, the Marketplace updates in the same overnight window every Wednesday. No delays. No excuses. It just happens.
With as much as people are hyping Sony for a big comeback this generation with the PlayStation 4, I sure hope that the company works out and eliminates this need for constant maintenance and figures out how to properly and consistently update its digital marketplace. It’s not 2008 anymore. It’s 2013. Somebody needs to identify what the issues are, correct them, and position the service as a value and not a technical hindrance as the new platforms step forward later this year. It can’t be that hard. Microsoft and Nintendo both update their digital marketplaces consistently and promptly. There are no valid excuses to explain why Sony cannot do the same.
Pinball Arcade is a very good explanation of why Farsight Studios– the team behind the excellent Pinball Hall of Fame series– has been out of the spotlight for quite some time. Rather than producing a new disc-based experience with several tables to choose from, Farsight has borrowed a page from Zen Studios and has delivered an experience that is very open-ended with more tables expected in the coming months. The overall Pinball Arcade package doesn’t have the bells and whistles that Pinball FX2 has, but it does deliver realism with proper ball and table physics and actual tables straight out of the arcade.
Pinball Arcade costs 800 Microsoft Points via Xbox LIVE Arcade, or $9.99 on the PlayStation Store. The purchase entitles players immediate access to four tables: Tales of the Arabian Nights, Black Hole, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, and Theatre of Magic. The first two tables should sound familiar to those of you who have played the two Pinball Hall of Fame games. Arabian Nights was part of the Williams Collection and Black Hole was found on the lesser-known Gottlieb Collection. The other two tables are completely new, and they’re quite good. Two more tables, Medieval Madness (a returning table from the Williams Collection) and Bride of Pinbot (a new table) will be the first DLC tables available, likely arriving in May.
Of the four initial tables offered in Pinball Arcade, Theatre of Magic is the most attractive and most accessible to all skill levels. Scores are high, flippers are long, and the table objectives are pretty straightforward. Racking up a billion points or more can be a common occurrence once you learn the ins and outs of the table, and there are some neat secrets to unlock. Ripley’s Believe It Or Not is another very good table, although it’s not nearly as easy to learn. It does have a rather interesting sense of humor and a jewel collection system that can open up some nice bonuses, such as double scoring, Super Jackpot shots, a Million Plus shot, and more. Black Hole, for the uninitiated, is highlighted by a separate lower playfield that is basically played upside down. Flippers are at the top and having the ball drain without opening the right outlane gate (via drop targets) beforehand leads to disaster. Finally, Tales of the Arabian Nights challenges players to collect jewels and save a princess from an evil genie. A spinning lamp shot in the upper middle of the playfield is key to earning big end-of-ball bonuses and learning the timing for specific ramp shots is vital to mounting a run at a high score.
One fact needs to be understood when talking about Pinball Arcade: It’s not Pinball FX2, Marvel Pinball, or Zen Pinball.
Zen Studios has made very impressive strides in delivering quality pinball experiences, but Zen’s strength has been making pinball accessible to everyone and very social. If you try Pinball Arcade after having spent many hours playing Zen’s pinball games, you’re going to probably get rather angry. Balls tend to be lost a lot quicker. Scores tend to be lower on at least three of the four current tables. The social element has been replaced by a crude user interface that doesn’t really promote a community. At the same time, for those players out there who have had experience with actual pinball machines, Pinball Arcade is very close to the real deal and a fair amount of skill is required to score well.
The ball physics in Pinball Arcade are slower than what we’ve seen from Zen Studios. It will take time to adapt to the slower speed and calculate shots accordingly. Some players may prefer Zen’s faster pace, but faster and lighter physics aren’t realistic. If you’ve had a chance to hold a pinball before, you’d know that they’re quite heavy. Heavier objects tend to move slower. It’s not impossible for ball speeds to increase, especially when it’s been affected by bumpers or gaining speed off of a ramp, but speeds on actual pinball machines tend to be a bit slower than what we’ve seen in most pinball simulations.
The physics engine in Pinball Arcade is excellent, but the game isn’t without its problems. Some players may have a hard time finding a camera angle that is comfortable. Varying camera angles for plunger skill shots are missing, for whatever reason. This leads to a lot of trial and error when trying to execute them. There are also some bugs that can affect the game, such as balls hopping over flippers. So far, these haven’t been anything more than an annoyance; however, until a patch resolves bugs like these, it’s important to note that they do exist.
Each table is accurately modeled after its real-life counterpart. You’ll notice little visual touches like light reflections and moving parts on certain playfields. In my experience, the frame rate has been very consistent, even in multiball situations. There have been times when the action will stop for a moment, especially when balls are being launched into multiball play. This has thrown off my concentration at times, but it hasn’t been a game-breaking problem. The in-game scoreboard has been smoothed for high-definition. I tend to prefer the option of keeping it more pixelated, but no such option exists here. This is a minor stylistic quibble, but one that I was nonetheless surprised to see.
The sound and music for each of the four tables is accurate and authentic. Aside from Black Hole, the other tables all have great music and voice work to hear. The mechanical sounds aren’t quite as crisp as we’ve been hearing in the last few tables from Zen Studios, but this isn’t a dealbreaker by any means. It is worth noting that Black Hole has a very droning, robotic sound that plays repeatedly in the background. It probably will drive many to turn the volume down before long, but it’s certainly authentic.
I realize that Pinball Arcade isn’t perfect, but its flaws don’t prevent a recommendation from me. It’s realistic, authentic, and makes players work hard for their leaderboard spots. It doesn’t have the social or community feel that Zen Studios has worked hard to implement for its pinball experiences, but Farsight Studios does have a solid foundation in place with actual tables and the most realistic physics engine around. Whether you’re an old-school arcade rat like me, or if you’re just a fan of pinball in general, Pinball Arcade is worthy of your 40 quarters.
Note: Playing time was spent on the Xbox 360 version, which was self-purchased on April 4th. The PlayStation 3 version is available now.
With a revamp of Zen Pinball due in a few months on the PlayStation 3 and the impending release of Pinball Arcade from Farsight Studios around the same time, Creat Studios has thrown its own set of flippers into the pinball arena with Pinballistik. Creat has some interesting ideas at work here, but the execution is unfortunately a step backwards for the genre with poor ball physics and vague table objectives that kill any semblance of table and scoring progression.
Buying Pinballistik ($4 on the PlayStation Store) includes only one table, called Circle The Wagons. The table has a Wild West theme and has its share of ramps, drop targets, and capture holes. There are several table goals that players can accomplish, but it’s not always clear how to do so. Some are obvious; for example, the Royal Flush mode is triggered by lighting all of the spinners and then hitting the Saloon ramp shot to get the ball to a smaller upper playfield where a series of drop targets guards a capture hole. Others, like the Revolver Multiball mode, aren’t at all intuitive and almost require players to read the instructions to figure them out. This was a problem with some of Zen Studios‘ early pinball tables, as well. Unfortunately, Creat didn’t do their homework when working on table design, and it shows.
Ball physics are a major problem in Pinballistik. The ball feels like it has very little weight to it, which leads to rates of speed that you just don’t see on an authentic pinball table. It’s more difficult than it should be to line up or plan shots, and even when your positioning is right, the ball sometimes doesn’t carry the momentum it should into ramp shots. There are also too many instances of the ball jumping off of the table or strangely kicking back into play from the outhole back through an outlane. Worst of all, the frequency of balls shooting down the middle or down through an outlane to the drain seems a bit high. Pacing is almost punitive, like a pinball machine at the local arcade that wasn’t level and seemed to steer balls down the side.
The poor physics model is exacerbated when playing Pinballistik‘s Battle Mode. In this mode, two players face off on an extended variation of the table at the same time. One player controls the flippers on the left side, and the other player gets the flippers on the right. It’s a big challenge to track what’s going on, as balls fly all over the table– and sometimes from your side to the opponent’s side, or vice-versa. It’s chaotic, which might be what Creat was going for. Unfortunately, with floaty physics and so much going on at once, it feels like a battle of attrition rather than a challenge to score well. Having a ball drain can take points away from your score, and when it’s out of your control, the experience just feels unfair.
Speaking of scoring, don’t expect very high scores when playing Pinballistik. Unlike Zen Pinball or Marvel Pinball, you won’t see scores in the billions here. My scores average between 2-3 million, and considering my averages in just about every other pinball game available, that’s low. This isn’t necessarily a fault. High Speed and Pinbot, two popular pinball tables from the ’80s, routinely had high scores average less than 10 million. It is, however, a problem when the low scores result from a lack of directed scoring opportunities. It’s possible to just keep the ball alive with flippers and randomly hit things to rack up scores, but the best pinball tables have clear scoring opportunities… and Pinballistik simply doesn’t have these unless you do a pretty intense read on each table’s feature sets and how to do things. It doesn’t feel intuitive at all, and that’s not fun.
There are two other DLC tables that you can add to Pinballistik for $3 each, but neither one is a marked improvement over Circle the Wagons. In fact, they’re arguably worse. Sector X is a dull sci-fi table that has even more vague objectives than Circle the Wagons. Made of Money is a table all about glitz and cash, with a somewhat interesting lower playfield that breaks up traditional play when triggered. Sadly, neither table fixes the pacing as balls drain far too quickly. The Battle Mode for the Made of Money table has a “Change Sides” sequence which can take you by surprise, but with so much going on, it seems that all you can do is keep tapping the flipper buttons and hope for the best.
Visually, the tables look decent enough. The level of detail isn’t on par with the other pinball games available, but the themes are varied and the tables are colorful. There are several camera angles to choose from, and the animated dot-matrix scoreboard is authentic with different animations that occur based on actions from the table. There’s no slowdown to speak of, including during multiball situations. One detractor is that there are some playfield effects that can sometimes interfere with keeping tabs on the ball. On the Circle of Wagons table, for example, a dust storm that can be triggered completely obscures the middle of the table and can hide the ball. This can make for late reactions as the ball shoots down towards the flippers and can be costly. Target overlays, like UFOs, mounds of cash, or Can-Can girls, don’t always work well and can redirect the ball in a negative way.
The sound is probably the best part of the package, surprisingly. The music for the Circle the Wagons table feels like it could have been pulled from a Wild ARMs game, which is not a bad thing. Table sounds like flippers, bumpers, and drop targets are generally authentic. There’s some sporadic voice work, and a few familiar sound samples for those with a discerning ear… such as a sound effect lifted from Nick Arcade on the Made of Money table or a sample of Offenbach‘s Infernal Galop (from Orpheus in the Underworld) for the Can-Can mode on the Circle the Wagons table.
If Pinballistik had come out before Zen Pinball, it might have been perceived as a better experience. It’s far from unplayable, but it’s also a giant step in the wrong direction when compared to the other pinball options available. Even with some unique modes of play like the flawed Battle Mode or setting timed or score goals to change up the usual “lose all of your balls and it’s game over” mentality, the game’s flaws win out. Unless you’ve tired of Zen Pinball, Marvel Pinball, and Pinball Hall of Fame and just have to have a new pinball game to satisfy your steel ball cravings, your quarters are better spent elsewhere.
Looking at the calendar, we’re less than two weeks away from what will be one of the most important E3 events in recent memory when it comes to what I call the Hardware Trinity– that is Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft. Each of the three companies have issues to address. Nintendo is facing lackluster 3DS hardware sales and the lame-duck status of the Wii until its new platform is launched. Sony has to deal with the aftereffects of one of the largest online security breaches in history and major losses in the last year. Microsoft may seem bulletproof, but the stagnant nature of the Kinect sensor and a slow trickle of software for it call into question the viability of the technology.
Here are some expectations as to what each company will deliver in their press events in order for each to bring its “A” game (in order of occurrence):
At first glance, Microsoft should be able to break out of the gate at 9am on the morning of June 6th with guns blazing. I’m fairly certain that Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 will be one of the first things shown. Microsoft is going to work with Activision to push Modern Warfare 3 very hard for the next 5 months, and Activision should be more than happy to take the stage for the company that’s currently got all of the sales momentum going for it. Obviously, Gears of War 3 will play a major role in the press event as well. There will be other “core” games shown; I believe that Microsoft learned its lesson after last year’s event skewed almost exclusively away from the “core” crowd and felt eerily similar to Nintendo’s 2008 E3 presser that felt almost one-sided (Vitality Sensor, anyone?). No Halo presence at E3, despite the importance of the IP to Microsoft, doesn’t seem likely. The question is… in what form will we hear about it? New game? HD remake of the original? We will see.
The one thing that Microsoft must do is to re-ignite interest in the Kinect sensor. More games are needed– and more quality games are needed, to be more specific. Games that come off as Wii ports are not going to hold anyone’s interest, especially when you consider that the Wii is almost at the end of its lifespan. More original software, including games that are going to interest more than just the passing game player, has to not only be announced… but shown and available for demonstration. It’s true that Microsoft wisely marketed the Kinect and it sold a ton of units; however, what was the last genuine killer app for it? Dance Central is now 6 months old, as is Kinect Sports. As time marches on and new games continue to appear at a snail’s pace, the relevance of Kinect will gradually ebb. Consumer confidence and excitement in the Kinect peripheral must be restored, and quickly.
One last thing to be on the lookout for is some kind of new hardware announcement. Rumors have been flying lately, ranging from a full-on successor to the Xbox 360 to another Xbox 360 hardware revision that adds 3D support. While the exact nature of the rumors has been scattered, the theme has been the same. The other thing that has me leaning in the direction of some sort of new hardware announcement is the extremely limited attendance list for the press event. This makes me think that something big is going to go down that Monday morning, and it wouldn’t shock me at all if it was hardware-related. Stay tuned.
To say that Sony has had a rough past six weeks or so is an understatement. Granted, PlayStation 3 hardware sales for April were promising– thanks to Mortal Kombat, Portal 2, and SOCOM 4– but having no online network for nearly a month and still being without the PlayStation Store (and its associated revenue) is damaging on many levels. Sony has become an easy target for the press and has spawned doubt from its userbase. Sony is hoping that its showing at E3 will wipe the slate clean and set focus on games. There will almost certainly be a segment of the press event that serves as an apology for what happened, but will quickly move forward from that… and it’s the right move.
I’m still expecting a $50 price drop for at least the 160GB PlayStation 3 SKU. Some believe that Sony can’t afford it after recent events, but I think it’s a necessity. The PS3 platform– despite its quality software exclusives and free-to-play online service– needs a kickstart to renew consumer confidence and enthusiasm. I’m not sure that other SKUs will follow suit, but I’ve been calling for this drop over the last few months and E3 is the perfect backdrop for price cut announcements.
The press event should revolve around three main topics: PSN, PS3 software (especially exclusives), and NGP. I’m not sure of the order, but all three of these are major facets of Sony’s business plan for the rest of 2011 and beyond. Sony will rally behind the re-opening of the PlayStation Store with news of some kind of exclusives there. PlayStation 3 retail software exclusives, like Twisted Metal, Uncharted 3, Resistance 3, and others, will be talked up and demonstrated or shown. As for NGP, there are lots of variables at play. Release date, pricing, and launch software are all likely to be covered. Price is the variable that concerns me the most; if the 3DS is struggling at $250, it stands to reason that a $300 NGP will do the same in a challenging economy… even if the software lineup is good. Despite my concerns, I think that $300 to as much as $350 is where the NGP will launch. Timing is less certain to me. Will Sony have enough software in the chute to realistically launch this year? I’m not sure. My gut is leaning towards an NGP launch in 2012, but I will not be shocked if a late November/early December launch window is announced.
After the incredible runs of success that the Wii and legacy DS platforms had, saying that Nintendo is “in trouble” is a silly statement; however, Nintendo is now facing a period of uncertainty that hasn’t been seen in some time. The Wii lovefest is over, even in the face of price cuts for hardware and software. The 3DS has stumbled after a quick start. As we await the unveiling of Nintendo’s next platform, what the company announces for the next 6 months will be very important. Will more titles be added to Nintendo’s budget line of Wii software? Will Nintendo announce price drops for the DSi platforms? Where are the 3DS games that will convince consumers to part with $250, which amounts to being the most expensive Nintendo portable in the company’s history?
What Nintendo announces for specifics when it comes to its new console will be incredibly important. At this point, I am predicting that the price will be at least $300. In fact, my prediction is $349.99 for the hardware. This would be a gamble in several respects. For starters, it would be the most expensive hardware that Nintendo has ever released. It would also, despite being the newest console on the block, be the most expensive one on the market. Perhaps the power of the hardware will justify the price, but anything over $300 is unprecedented for Nintendo. As for the launch date, 2011 doesn’t seem likely at this point. March 2012 seems to be the earliest launch date for the hardware, but that’s atypical of Nintendo’s console launch strategy. Many of Nintendo’s consoles have launched either late Q3 or sometime in Q4. If Nintendo sticks to that schedule, 2012 could be far too late given that the Wii continues to sink in hardware sales with each passing month. Even a title like The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword isn’t a definite system-seller for a console that’s clearly on its way out… but more on that shortly. As with the NGP, I won’t be shocked if Nintendo’s new console hits this November… but I don’t see it happening. Launch software is anyone’s guess.
While it’s certainly way too early to dismiss the 3DS platform, it’s painfully obvious that Nintendo is going to need to take a fair amount of time during its press event to show the audience that new software is coming– and soon. Yes, Ocarina of Time is coming in a few short weeks. More remakes are following, too. And then? Aside from the Resident Evil and Metal Gear Solid IPs, what else do we have? A new Mario game is certainly important, and Kid Icarus will likely wow the crowd (again), but the real problem is consistency. The conveyor belt of new releases needs to be running more consistently to fire interest. I think that this will happen, but Nintendo must hammer this point home and show a stronger commitment to the platform than it has so far.
That leaves the future of the Wii, and honestly, there shouldn’t be much of an expectation. Whether it’s due to market saturation or the expiration of a fad, the Wii seems to have run its course at retail… at least in terms of hardware sales. The result of price cuts to $150 remains to be seen, but there were cuts in April and yet the Wii finished behind the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. This indicates to me that sales will continue to be flat. Wii Play Motion may sell well, but won’t move hardware. The release of Skyward Sword is still very much up in the air; in fact, I still believe that there’s a better than even chance that the game won’t make it to the Wii at all. Nintendo has promised some Wii news, and absolutely must deliver that news by way of compelling software and not trumpeting more movie-licensed games since that’s about all that can be seen on Coming Soon lists for the platform. If Nintendo isn’t launching its new console this year, the company is in danger of losing consumers to Sony or Microsoft without good reasons to buy or keep the Wii.
The E3 press events set the stage for the actual show. They’re where most of the news and announcements come from. They set the expectation level and get people and press buzzing. Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo will each have a chance to bring their “A” games. The time for preparation is almost over. Starting on June 6th, we’ll all be keeping score.
As the PlayStation Network enters its third consecutive week of downtime, there are some signs damaged relations between Sony and PlayStation 3 software publishers and developers… as well as with consumers. It’s a battle that is being fought on multiple fronts, and the casualties mount with each passing day.
Damage to the relationship between Sony and PlayStation 3 owners is the most obvious. There are more questions than answers as to when the PlayStation Network is going to come back online, and consumers are losing their patience despite promises of free games and free trials of premium services. Anecdotal reports of PlayStation 3 systems getting traded in towards Xbox 360 units are gradually increasing in number. Message boards and news articles are becoming populated with more and more vitriol towards Sony’s handling of the whole situation. Consumers are unhappy with being unable to redeem preorder bonus codes, and this may turn into a nightmare when L.A. Noire hits stores next week with its preorder DLC. The scales are tipping more towards angry reaction with each passing day, and it’s certainly possible that Sony won’t be able to win consumers back even after service is restored.
Sony may also have to deal with damaged relationships with developers and publishers. Representatives from Capcom and THQ went on record this week mentioning that PlayStation Network downtime has cost their respective companies at least some revenue. Q-Games‘ Dylan Cuthbert (of PixelJunk fame) went on record with IndustryGamers to suggest that Sony may risk losing developer support if they don’t do something to help offset the loss of revenue caused by the extended downtime period. Several notable software releases have been adversely affected by the downtime; Mortal Kombat, Portal 2, and Brink all boast significant online multiplayer components that have been rendered effectively useless with the PlayStation Network. So far in the public eye, developers and publishers are generally taking the high road; however, it’s not a stretch to think that there’s more than a little tension going on behind the scenes as alternate revenue streams have dried up thanks to the suspension on PlayStation Store operations. Until that service is restored, consumers cannot purchase downloadable games or DLC add-ons… and that’s potential revenue that might never be recovered.
There’s also the retail angle to consider. Edge reported that trade-ins of PlayStation 3 units are on the rise and that Xbox 360 software sales are up. Call of Duty: Black Ops is the prime example being used in the article, and the numbers are eye-opening. Look at these sales splits for Black Ops in the UK before the PSN downtime and then afterwards:
- Week ending March 16th: Xbox 360 49%, PlayStation 3 37%
- Week ending March 23rd: PlayStation 3 52%, Xbox 360 40%
- Week ending April 30th: Xbox 360 59%, PlayStation 3 30% (1st week of downtime)
- Week ending May 6th: Xbox 360 66%, PlayStation 3 24% (2nd week of downtime)
VG247‘s rumor piece on PSN Premium info coming out at E3 next month should not surprise anyone. We’ve been hearing rumblings about this for months, dating back to last November. Now is not the time to be indignant or surprised about Sony deciding to jump on the “Let’s get paid!” bandwagon.
If we are to take the rumor piece at face value, here’s what we know about PSN Premium:
- Less than $50/year
- Streaming music app (like Spotify)
- One “free” PSN game per month (limited choices)
Obviously, there are plenty of blanks that need to be filled in here. As it stands, these perks don’t necessarily warrant paying a certain amount of cash per year. Even if the streaming music application can be played while in the middle of a game, not everyone wants to have music playing over what’s going on in-game. Also, the “free” PSN game perk is vague; is it a rental-type service where it’s free to play for a month and then automatically deactivates? What about the choices, especially if they’re not all that fetching in a given month? There surely has to be something else here. Perhaps something with the Video section of the PlayStation Store? Maybe a complimentary subscription to Qore? Special PlayStation Home goodies? Advance demos?
There’s certainly going to be a lot of speculation going forward until we hear from Sony next month.
The price is going to be the big question mark. Of course it will be less than $50… that’s what Microsoft is charging (at regular price) for its yearly Xbox LIVE subscriptions. I’m thinking somewhere between $30-$40 per year. If the price is closer to $40, Sony is going to have to do some serious selling and deliver a laundry list of features that will grab lots of attention… plus Microsoft could easily match that price point and the comparison would be a lot tougher. $30 seems like the sweet spot for an annual subscription as long as Sony is able to sweeten the deal with more than the two perks seen above.As far as monthly subscription pricing goes– if that’s even going to be an option– those guesses could be all over the map. I don’t, however, see any price higher than $10 working here… and that’s on the high side. The idea of monthly subs is to get people interested enough that they want to upgrade to the annual plan. $5 a month would probably work fine, given that monthly users could likely wind up paying as much as double what the yearly rate is if they stick with that plan.
Now that Sony is jumping on board the online revenue bandwagon and with Shigeru Miyamoto saying that Nintendo may be looking into the same thing, it’s only a matter of time before online play will see some sort of charge or subscription universally. Sony can claim all they want that online play will remain free, but Sony’s continuing losses indicate to me that online fees are inevitable. PSN Premium is the first step towords this inevitability. The truth is that the gaming community has come to accept the higher costs of gaming and the industry has no reason to change course. If PSN became pay-to-play, do you honestly see millions of people just selling off their consoles? Nope. They’ll whine and complain and compose worthless online petitions, but they’ll begrudgingly accept subscription costs. They’ve accepted higher game prices. They’ve accepted DLC and digital distribution.
This won’t be any different.
I talked last week about something called an HD Tax, which is what I define as the extra $10 that Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 owners are paying for software versus what consumers paid for games a generation ago. This extra cost tends to accumulate over time, so if you average buying one new game per month, you wind up spending an additional $120 over this time five years ago. While some games have arguably “earned” the right to charge this premium, many others (take the recent disaster Iron Man 2, for example) don’t. While this tax/premium seemed like a more reasonable idea at the start of this console generation, times have also changed since then. Unemployment is hovering near 10% nationwide, the cost of living has increased, and disposable income is decreasing. This partially explains why some consumers look to buy used, as it’s money saved and still allows for the ability to play newer or recent games at a lower price point. I know that I’ve gone over this argument a few times here, but it’s a prelude to a related topic that’s at the center of today’s opinion.
Inexplicably, we’re seeing the average price of downloadable titles marching higher. Both of last week’s Xbox LIVE Arcade releases– Zeno Clash: Ultimate Edition and RayStorm HD– were priced at 1200 Microsoft Points, or $15. These examples are the most recent evidence that the $15 mark is the new standard for these games, after $10 (or 800 Microsoft Points) was the standard for a majority of the Xbox 360′s life span. In fact, in the platform’s infancy, there was a decent split between $5 retro/arcade titles and $10 original releases… but titles like Braid and Shadow Complex broke the previous $10 barrier and sold for $15. We’re not only seeing the new $15 price point become more prevalent, but we’re seeing that the quality of these apparent premium releases is arguable at best.
While I’ve not yet played Braid, reviews and impressions that I’ve read seem to indicate that the game is worthy of the premium price point. Shadow Complex was a fantastic game with decent length and options that certainly earned the $15 that I spent on it. Conversely, releases like 0 Day Attack on Earth, NBA Unrivaled, Invincible Tiger, and Fret Nice don’t come anywhere close to deserving a $15 premium. Other games in the $15 range, like RayStorm HD and Scrap Metal, are questionable at best. Of the 21 XBLA titles released so far in 2010, 9 of them are $15 titles– that’s 43%. Compare that with 24% of XBLA games released in 2009 (21 out of 91) that were more than $10, and you see a significant increase. Almost double, in fact.
The price point for RayStorm HD was quite unsettling to me, as the cosmetic changes are not all that drastic and that the new modes of play really don’t break any new ground. Considering that you can buy Taito Legends 2 for the PlayStation 2 for less than $10 new and that RayStorm is but one of 39 total games included on the disc… $15 is rather steep. Yes, it’s got Achievements and Leaderboards, but are the additions made to the original arcade version of RayStorm that significant? I don’t think so. 0 Day Attack on Earth is another example of fleecing; it’s short, repetitive, and relies on expensive paid DLC to extend the experience… and you’re still expected to pay $15 for the base game. Where’s the precedent here? Is it because the game uses satellite imagery of actual cities for background visuals? I certainly hope not. There’s just no rhyme or reason to what qualifies as a $15 game anymore. It used to be the exception, based on a variety of factors. Now it seems to be more of the norm, a 33% increase over what XBLA consumers have generally been accustomed to paying for quite some time now.
Speaking of paid DLC for XBLA games, it’s getting ridiculous. Square-Enix is getting a reputatiion for gutting content from their XBLA releases in order to resell that content as DLC shortly after launch. Many of these games are Taito offerings, like Bubble Bobble, Arkanoid, and Qix. This is not to say that paid DLC has not existed previously for XBLA games, but these examples are the most egregious ones. The base games may sell for $10, but the DLC is $5 or more in order to make the game complete. Capcom’s DLC releases for Mega Man 9 and Mega Man 10 are clear revenue builders and arguably should have been part of the original releases as space was never an issue. For publishers, these are great ideas… but unsuspecting consumers are getting fleeced, and there’s no end in sight to this trend.
I’ve always been a proponent of downloadable games for services like Xbox LIVE Arcade or the PlayStation Store. These can be impulse purchases and some of these games can really be impressive, like Battlefield 1943 or Shadow Complex. As prices begin to creep up to the $15 range, however, the danger exists that there will be less impulse and more caution on the part of consumers. Downloadable games are not refundable and you can’t trade them in or sell them, so you’re basically stuck with what you buy. Dropping $5 or even $10 impulsively on a game and walking away less than impressed stings a bit less than dropping $15 on a stinker like 0 Day Attack on Earth or NBA Unrivaled that you inevitably either wind up deleting or just forgetting about… and consumers won’t forget after they’ve been burned. If $15 is going to become the new standard, then the level of quality needs to be higher. Something has to give.
As prices go up, it becomes harder for me to be an impulse buyer. The same situation applies to the HD taxed disc-based games and to downloadable titles… in fact, it applies more strongly for downloadable games in my case. Unlike the price of gasoline breaking through psychological barriers like $3 and $4, $15 downloadable games aren’t necessities. I’ll simply learn to play what I have and wait for the right title to come and earn my $15. Killing off the impulse in consumers has the potential to hurt the market in the long run, but the industry will continue to be to self-centered to notice until it’s too late.
Flight combat games have been somewhat lacking during this console generation. Yes, we got Ace Combat 6 for the Xbox 360 and Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X. for both the PlayStation 3 and the 360… but those have been the most notable in an otherwise unremarkable few titles that represent the genre.
Until now, that is.
Afterburner Climax is a conversion of a SEGA arcade game that loses almost nothing in its trip from the arcade to the home. There are no in-depth stories and no characters to identify with here; it’s you, your plane, and swarms of enemies out to shoot you down and sign those checks that your body can’t cash. The game itself is rather short and may seem limited, but unlockable medals and options and an ever-changing leaderboard add enough replay value to justify the $10 asking price. While fans of the classic SEGA arcade game (and SEGA Genesis sequel) likely won’t need any additional motivation to buy Climax, gamers that are new to the series will also have plenty to be impressed with here.
Unlike Ace Combat 6 or H.A.W.X., Afterburner Climax is purposely fast and extremely busy. Dogfighting isn’t the idea behind this game; it’s more of a rail shooter. That means that there are plenty of targets to take down including jets, choppers, SAMs, flak guns, and more. Most of the action comes at you, so you must be quick on the trigger in order to shoot the enemies down before they do the same to you. As you lock on to enemies, you can fire salvos of missiles to blast them from the skies or to incinerate ground targets. In addition, large groups of enemies can be locked onto at once by activating Climax Mode, which dramatically increases the missile lock reticle and can help to eliminate mass threats with extreme prejudice. This mode can only be used sparingly and must be recharged over time once it’s deployed. Defensively, having missiles fired directly at you means that deft maneuvering is required to avoid getting killed out there in the unfriendly skies. Virtual pilots have to ability to roll their craft (by moving either left or right and then steering hard in the opposite direction) and can speed up or slow down in brief bursts as needed. Some stages also demand precision steering to avoid collisions with the environment.
Afterburner Climax has multiple modes of play. Arcade Mode is exactly what it sounds like, as players attempt to clear all of the stages of the game just like in the arcade. This mode has limited continues, but the difficulty level can be tweaked to suit the player’s level of experience. As progress is made in the Arcade Mode, special customization options open up. These EX Options become unlocked as various milestones are established; for example, getting the Game Over screen enough times allows you to set the number of continues– or available credits– higher. Other EX Options include the ability to have your machine guns fire automatically and for your craft to travel at its fastest rate of speed at all times. Unlocking and then adjusting these options can make the Arcade Mode an entirely different experience than when you first play it, and the game’s branching pathways make for a unique experience for the first few playthroughs.
These EX Options, however, have no bearing on the other mode of play in Afterburner Climax: the Score Attack Mode. Score Attack has a preset difficulty and unlimited lives, so unless you give up, you will beat the game every time. Beating the game isn’t the goal of Score Attack, though. It’s all about getting the highest score possible and earning bragging rights via the worldwide leaderboard. Although there are infinite lives here, Score Attack is far from easy. Extra objectives, known as Emergency Orders, must be completed to earn the highest scores, and these are not easy at all to achieve. One such mission has you trying to shoot down a speedy enemy prototype plane before it escapes, while another requires you to shoot down a fleeing stealth bomber using nothing but your guns. Figuring out which of the branching pathways can lead to higher scores is also a key element in charting well, meaning that a few runs in Score Attack are necessary to achieve the best results. Depending on how you fare, different medals can be won and added to your collection. This criteria includes how well you are graded afer each stage, how many enemies are shot down, how much you use Climax Mode, and so on.
Visually, Afterburner Climax is quite impressive– especially for a downloadable title. The game’s framerate is a solid 60 frames per second, and that’s in spite of multiple planes, missiles, and various particle effects that are all on-screen at the same time. Driving rainstorms, volcanic areas, enemy bases, and nighttime skies over a bustling city are just a few of the theaters of operation that you’ll be flying in.The explosions are violently beautiful to behold, and details such as missile trails and damaged planes are easy to miss while playing but will catch the eye of even the most casual observer. In the sound department, pilot chatter and the concussive sounds of explosions and ammunition are accompanied by one of two soundtracks which includes a remix of the Afterburner II OST.
There’s a lot to like about Afterburner Climax. It is the arcade game, minus the interactive cabinet with moving parts. Playing through the game is a thrill ride, and setting new high scores in Score Attack is a notable accomplishment. The game also has a fair number of Achievements / Trophies to unlock, and range from easy (such as pulling off your first roll) to hard (ranking AAA in Arcade Mode). Don’t be deceived by the relatively short length of the game during a playthrough; it’s repeated play and improving skills that unlock some of the game’s cooler features and customizations, and that leads to even more replay value. Following hot on the heels of Capcom’s Final Fight: Double Impact offering, Afterburner Climax successfully brings the arcade home once again, with no quarters or tokens required other than the $10 cover charge.
Final Fight and Magic Sword are two classic coin-ops in Capcom’s library. Final Fight is one of the most well-known side-scrolling beat-’em-ups, while Magic Sword is a lesser-known side-scrolling action game with a fantasy tilt to it. Both games are now available to gamers with quarters not required in one package, called Final Fight: Double Impact. Double Impact will run you $10, which isn’t bad for two arcade games; in fact, $5 apiece has generally been the going rate for coin-op conversions, aside from the $3 asking cost for games within Microsoft’s Game Room application. As with most coin-op conversions, judging the value of games like these revolves around how well they hold up today, how faithful they are to the original coin-ops, and whether there are significant extras to keep generating interest.
Final Fight is the headliner here, and it’s the better of the two games in Double Impact. It remains as fun to play today as it was 20 years ago. Pounding seemingly endless streams of enemies into submission is easy to accomplish, thanks to the game’s simple two-button control scheme. Guy, Cody, and Haggar each sport their own attacks and Street Fighter Alpha fans will recognize Rolento and Sodom in this game, as both appear as bosses here. It’s easy to pick up and play Final Fight, even if you’ve somehow never had a chance to experience it. There are times when enemies can be overwhelming, or even cheap, but when you recall that arcade games were meant to keep players pumping in quarters or tokens to keep playing, it’s easier to understand why this is. Capcom and development team Proper Games have added a series of in-game achievements in order to extend Final Fight‘s replay value. Nailing down these achievements unlocks certain types of extra media, from Street Fighter fan art and game concept artwork to music tracks to videos. It’s not unlike what Capcom did with their two Classic Collection titles, although there are more achievements to shoot for here, covering criteria like time spent, lives lost, and high scores. Proper Games also added several different visual options, including HD visuals or the choice to render the original graphics from the coin-op. A new remixed soundtrack is also available to accompany players on their butt-kicking adventures, although I really wasn’t impressed with it and quickly went back to the original music.
Magic Sword isn’t as well-known as Final Fight, and the game clearly takes a back seat to Final Fight in Double Impact as well. Perhaps the game’s biggest asset is its fantasy setting as mages, dragons, and other mystical creatures are the opposition here as you attempt to scale all of the floors in Drokmar‘s tower to ultimately defeat him. Players use keys to unlock doors (which sounds a lot like Gauntlet) and unlock allies, find treasure, and ascend floors. Boss battles await on each floor, and either allies or a second player are usually keys to success. Magic Sword is not a bad game, but the decision to package it with Final Fight is a curious one; Knights of the Round was a more similar game to Final Fight and also was set in a fantasy world, plus the game had an RPG feel to it for player advancement. Interestingly enough, the number of in-game achievements for Magic Sword is less than the amount seen for Final Fight. In fact, the Xbox LIVE Achievements and PSN Trophies are skewed more towards Final Fight, as well. Magic Sword does, however, have the same kind of music and graphics customization options as Final Fight, so you can create your own experience.
One feature of both games is online co-op play. Much like being in an arcade, a stranger can jump into your game at any time to help you out. There is an option to turn this off, but having a pool of potential players to help you through potentially tough game situations is never a bad thing. Co-op play makes both games a bit easier, plus there are both in-game and network achievements that can only be earned by playing co-op games. While I personally have yet to play online, the general consensus has been that it’s a lag-free experience.
If you’re a fan of both Final Fight and Magic Sword, then Final Fight: Double Impact is a winner. Both games are faithful emulations, both games sport achievements and online play to boost replay value, and both games have various customization options that can either recreate the arcade experience or can make them more acceptable by current-day standards. The potential difficulty in recommending Double Impact comes if there are mixed feelings about Magic Sword. It’s certainly not my favorite game, and fewer achievements and unlockables doesn’t help to generate interest… but it’s still worth some playing time at least. Both games do suffer from being currently available elsewhere as copies of both volumes of the Capcom Classics Collection for the PlayStation 2 and the Xbox are still relatively easy to find and offer more games to play for a slightly higher price tag. As these are both arcade games, there may not really be a lot of impetus to double-dip aside from the new achievements and online co-op play.
For a mere $10, though, you’re getting one of the best beat-’em-ups of all time and a fun fantasy-base action side-scroller… and Double Impact gets my recommendation. Save Jessica from the Mad Gear Gang, defeat Drokmar, and get a double dose of what we used to play in arcades twenty years ago.
Once again, I am seriously considering a decision as to whether I should part ways with my PlayStation 3 console.
Earlier in the year, I’d considered doing so in order to help make the purchase on an Xbox 360 more affordable… but my tax return was more than I expected and I’d decided that I wanted to keep the PS3 for music games, like Guitar Hero and Rock Band, since I’d spent so much money in DLC for those IPs. I’d also taken into consideration the fact that the PS3 is an excellent Blu-Ray player– so, even if I didn’t use the PS3 for games, it would be a great movie player.
Now that I’ve had time with my 360, however, the PS3 has seen little playing time. The 360′s Gamerscore/Achievement system extends to every game on the console, whereas the PS3′s Trophy system is a me-too addition and doesn’t come into play on many of the PS3′s games. There’s also a noticeable lack of required game installations on the 360, although some games do run better after being installed. The PS3 has an increasing amount of software that requires some installation to the hard drive, which also requires an extended wait time before being able to play a game for the first time and also eventually takes a toll on the free space on the hard drive… in fact, it tends to resemble the storage space situation on the Wii where you have to “clean your fridge” and determine what games you want to be playing.
Multiplatform game purchases now are automatic 360 purchases, despite my relative dislike of the 360 controller’s D-pad. I just recently picked up Street Fighter IV and Soul Calibur IV for the 360, so we’ll see how those games handle. All of these games add to Gamerscore and I have a larger pool of potential online opponents to play against, should I decide to do so. Games like Grand Theft Auto IV and Fallout 3 have 360-exclusive DLC, which adds replayability and depth to these experiences… while the PS3 versions of these games don’t really offer any advantages.
I’m really down to PS3 exclusives now. So far, this has had no bearing on my PS3 time. I have MLB 09: The Show, but am more content playing MLB 2K7. Metal Gear Solid 4 is awaiting a possible replay, but it’s a shame that Konami isn’t entertaining a patch for Trophy support to give me some impetus. Uncharted 2 is on the horizon, but the addition of multiplayer and co-op has tempered my enthusiasm somewhat. inFamous isn’t really on my radar, nor is MAG.
There are more questions.
Do I want or need another console other than the 360? I don’t know. My free time is more limited during the warmer months, and I seem to be getting my fill of console gaming goodness from Microsoft’s box at the moment. In addition to the 360, I still have plenty of last-gen options with the PlayStation 2 and Xbox… should I decide to change things up. (I just recently picked up both Katamari games for the PS2.) The other end of this question would be that I might have a more difficult time getting back into writing should I drop down to one console. More sites seem to need PS3-based writers than 360 writers.
What about the money spent on PSN downloads? This question is still a big one. Like XBLA, I have over 50 PSN games that I’ve purchased since I bought the machine a little over a year ago. There is a notable expansion to PAIN– one of my self-admitted guilty pleasures– coming in couple of weeks. There have been recent expansions to Magic Ball and Mahjong Tales. Then there are the music downloads, which I would have to rebuy for the 360.
It’s a tough decision once again. I’m really torn this time.
I’ll be sure to let you know what happens.