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.
When my rather scathing opinion piece about the PlayStation 3 was recently syndicated on Game Critics, some rather hyper-defensive comments resulted. I’m going to address these people en masse, directly and firmly:
My piece was never meant to be one of persuasion or of taking sides in some console war that some people are still fighting for some ridiculous reason. It’s all well and good that some of you are taking up your verbal swords and shields in Sony’s honor here, defending your purchases and console preferences. Your opinions are noted, your objections are on the record. Good for you that you’re happy with your PlayStation 3 experiences.
As a consumer, I’m disappointed and stand by my criticism. Unless Sony proves to me that its next console will be a different and personally more acceptable experience, I’m not buying it. For the record, I’m still disinterested in the Wii U and have skepticism about Microsoft’s new platform. There’s a good chance that I don’t buy any of the next-generation hardware and decide to go completely retro. But let’s address the complaints…
“Your Xbox 360 broke. How is that better than your still-working PS3?”
You’re right. My Xbox 360 did break after 42 months. I’m aware of the lack of hardware reliability. I’m not at all happy about losing more than 170 downloaded games. At the same time, when the 360 did work, it was a really good experience for me. It hit on all of the key points that I wanted in a console: I preferred the Achievement/Gamerscore system over the Trophy system, there are a lot more arcade/coin-op conversions via Xbox LIVE Arcade than there are via the PlayStation Store, and multiplatform games run better on the Xbox 360 hardware (which I’ll come back to below).
The Multiplatform Mess
I don’t care honestly who is at fault for substandard multiplatform games on the PlayStation 3 console. My experience remains that a majority of these multiplatform titles are worse than their Xbox 360 counterparts. Your mileage may vary, but to me, it’s been average to awful. That sets a scary precedent for the next console generation; if third-party publishers choose to stick with Microsoft as a lead platform, then it’s not at all out of the realm of possibility for the Sony versions to run worse. As a consumer, this is not what I want. I want the platform that runs the majority of games best. Right now, unless Sony proves otherwise, that’s likely to be Microsoft. Sorry, Sony fans. If you want to blame Bethesda and Treyarch for poor versions of games, go right ahead; they deserve it. That changes nothing for me, however, because these awful versions are still what the PS3 experience includes, and it’s a turn-off.
Mandatory Installations? “Go make a sandwich.”
I will continue to harp on the mandatory installation issue. Save your “replace your hard drive” or “make a sandwich” excuses, because I’m not hearing them. If disc-swapping means that I save spending extra money that I would spend on a game instead on a new hard drive which I have to install myself and could potentially damage my hardware if I err, then I’d rather do that. That’s my prerogative as a consumer. I don’t feel that extra charges on top of the money I already paid for my hardware and that I pay in games should be necessary. If you have the money, ability, and tools to do a hard drive replacement… all power to you. I’d much rather not break my hardware, and I’d less rather have to sink even more money into the console when 120GB really should be more than enough when I’m talking about disc-based games.
“What do you mean PlayStation 3 exclusives aren’t good?” (Insert list here)
In terms of PS3 exclusives, I again remind you that your mileage may vary. You may like them, and that’s fine. They did very little for me over the course of the PS3 lifespan. Metal Gear Solid 4 and the Yakuza games are the extent of the PS3 exclusives that got my attention. Even if the 360 had fewer console exclusives that attracted me, the fact that it runs multiplatform games better– which accounts for the vast majority of software– tips the scale away from the PS3 for me. I’ve already listed the games that interested me; if others interested you, that’s fine. It’s irrelevant. I don’t want to or need to be converted.
“Trophies and Achievements are stupid.”
Same idea goes with the poorly implemented Trophy system. Good for you if you feel that Achievements or Trophies shouldn’t matter. I won’t try to change your mind, because you have a right to feel that way. The idea of earning Achievements and Trophies to me promotes replayability and entices me to try all kinds of games. The Trophy system is cumbersome (always syncing) and to me isn’t as organized as the Gamerscore and Achievement systems that Microsoft has set up. Some older PS3 games don’t even support the Trophy system, whereas all Xbox 360 games do. That’s a selling point for me. If you like the Trophy system, good. I don’t. Sorry.
Here are a couple of parting shots for the Sony Defense Force:
- When making a list of PS3 exclusives, don’t include The Last Guardian until it’s got a release date at the very least. Citing one of the biggest instances of vaporware over the course of this console generation isn’t going to help your case one bit.
- Learn to accept that, just because certain instances don’t happen to you or affect you, other people may have dissimilar experiences. Skyrim on PS3 never had problems for some and yet others had serious problems, for example. Think before invalidating anyone’s testimony.
The funny thing about all of this is that I used to be such a stalwart Sony supporter. I still adore the PlayStation and PlayStation 2 platforms. And yet now that I’m disappointed and unhappy with the PlayStation 3, I’m termed a “fanboy” by self-deputized members of a company defense force. Reaction without research or even knowing who you’re picking a fight with is such a silly thing, and for what? Because one person prefers another console over yours?
Apparently, yes… and that’s too bad.
Since becoming a PlayStation 3-only owner, after my Xbox 360 tanked on me last month, it’s become apparent how much that at least some PS3 versions of multiplatform games are sub-standard. Frame rates falter, some visual effects don’t look quite right, and a smattering of other issues put these games a notch below their Xbox 360 counterparts. There are notorious examples of PS3 sub-standard offerings, such as the ill-fated version of Skyrim. There’s growing chatter that Black Ops II has notable issues with crashing and with online connectivity.
All of these things leave me to question whether buying into whatever follow-up console that Sony decides to offer when the next generation arrives. As a consumer, Sony has managed to damage my trust and confidence several times over the course of this console generation. The Trophy system never compared to what Microsoft initiated with its Achievement system, and felt more forced than useful. Forced installs of on-disc software continue to force me to decide what to delete in order to make room for new things. Monthly (or more) firmware updates and surprise patches mean that there’s often a waiting minigame to be played before getting to enjoy the real game you want to play. The PSN hack of 2011 and its associated outage still cast a specter over the online experience. On top of all that, many multiplatform offerings are clearly “second class” versions of games that run better on the Xbox 360.
I had chosen to dump the PS3 back in February of 2009, when I got my Xbox 360. I didn’t feel that there were enough reasons to own both consoles. Aside from Metal Gear Solid 4, the exclusive offerings weren’t strong enough for me and I was more interested in what the 360 had to offer. There were more arcade games, for example, on the 360. I liked the idea of Gamerscore and being able to track Achievements for all games, rather than the select few that supported Trophies for the PS3 at the time. Games like Bioshock and Dead Space ran better on the 360, too.
But in 2010, I got a new PS3 as a birthday gift from family. There was newfound momentum with exclusives like God of War III and improving versions of MLB: The Show. After a year away from the PS3, I was happy to give it another chance and see how Sony would fare given that sales had bounced back somewhat after a mid-year price cut in 2009. It was nice that I got my previously-bought digital games back, too. I used the PS3 primarily as a console for exclusives, leaving multiplatform games to the Xbox 360. That worked for awhile, until my 360 began failing early this year. I began getting more multiplatform games for the PS3, and I tried to get used to the difference in quality.
I haven’t been able to do it.
There are exceptions to the lower quality rule, thankfully. Zen Pinball 2 is on par with (or even slightly better than) Pinball FX2 on the Xbox 360. Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage and Dynasty Warriors 7 both run better on the PS3 than the Xbox 360. Many downloadable titles run pretty much the same on both platforms. Unfortunately, retail releases– notably the AAA ones– suffer in performance and quality, and the excuses aren’t acceptable to me.
Obviously it’s too late to expect changes now, but if you ask me which of the next-generation consoles that I would buy, it would have to be whatever Microsoft offers. That’s kind of a shame, considering how much of a supporter and fan that I was of PlayStation platforms for 10 years. Both the original PlayStation and the PlayStation 2 are great platforms. I’ve amassed hundreds of games for both as part of my current collection. The PlayStation 3, on the other hand, has been more disappointment than it has been great. I’ve been underwhelmed by it, and that leads to my consumer vote of no confidence when Sony finally announces that its new platform is ready.
I’m sure that others will disagree with this sentiment, considering it too harsh or making judgments before we really know what Sony will offer. Some will offer the same excuses that I’ve heard for years, about how the PlayStation 3 is harder to program for or that developers aren’t putting enough of an effort in to make the multiplatform versions comparable. I’m not speaking for an entire community. I’m speaking for myself, as one person. Sony has lost me, as a valued customer, unless it can prove unequivocally that the next generation will be different… because they have underperformed in all phases during this generation to the point that the PlayStation 3 is a “second class” platform that could never realistically compete with either the Wii or the Xbox 360.
I decided to have a little bit of fun with my projections for the fourth quarter of this year.
Some colleagues have told me that my numbers are generally too high, with their projections being down as much as 50% YOY in some cases (read: Xbox 360). I’m not sure that I buy into the gloom scenario just yet. There’s talk of a decent bundle from Microsoft for the holidays, plus the company is in prime position to surprise with a price cut if it so chooses. Obviously another year like last year with over 3.8 million Xbox 360 units being sold is not in the cards… but below 2 million? With Halo 4 and Black Ops 2? I can’t pull the trigger on such low numbers. Not yet.
One thing to definitely keep an eye on will be WiiU allocations. My gut tells me that Nintendo is looking to ship between 600,000 and 700,000 units in November and in December, probably leaning towards the lower end of that range. I do think that my projection of 1.1 million units makes sense. It could be a bit more than that, but realistically not as high as the 1.5 million I was thinking about earlier this month. I do think that tight supply could potentially lead to hazardous situations at retail, with increased risk for robberies both in-store and in parking lots. Resale prices for WiiU could be huge if supply is super-tight, so they’re perfect targets for criminals.
Lastly, I know that I’ve come down hard on the PlayStation 3. It’s not that I don’t like (or want to like) the platform, because I do. I own one, I use it considerably more than my Xbox 360, and I think that PlayStation Plus is a fantastic program. Unfortunately, while I understand the pricing strategy for PlayStation 3 in Q4, I think that it’s a wasted opportunity to build penetration even at this very late stage of the console generation. $200 would have great. An even lower price would have been better. Neither of those things happened, and there simply isn’t a major selling point for the PlayStation 3 this season. The WiiU will be the main attraction as the new hardware platform and will be difficult to find. The Xbox 360 will almost certainly be the best-selling platform this season with a strong software lineup and continued brand recognition. The PlayStation 3 has neither of these advantages, and unimpressive sales will be the result instead of a resurgence during the busiest period of the year.
I hope that you’ll check out the piece. Feel free to tell me what you think, either here or via the comments section over at Popzara.
Look for more new content here next week, too.
Popzara Press recently published two articles of mine that I wrote in order to get the E3 ball rolling there.
The first one is from an analyst perspective, breaking down each of the three hardware companies: Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo. Microsoft was the easiest of the three to talk about, though I found it interesting that early fears of a strong focus on non-game entertainment seem to have cooled with word of several big third-party game announcements during the Monday morning presser. I think that we might be surprised with what Microsoft brings to the table, but I’m not sure whether it makes a difference in terms of hardware sales for 2012 given the saturation status of the platform. Sony’s event could be the most intriguing, as there are several possible storylines. How will Sony address the Vita situation? What of this rumored cloud-based gaming acquisition that we’ve been hearing about? Is a revamp of PlayStation Plus in the cards? I’m personally very interested in what comes from that event Monday night. Finally, Nintendo’s true unveiling of the WiiU is extremely important. Nintendo needs to start selling the world on what WiiU is, and this is the company’s first big chance to do that. Launch date and pricing won’t be revealed, but games and hardware capability will be center stage.
My other piece has to do with some downloadable games that I’m looking to see on the show floor. I named three in particular. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD is a personal selection. I hold this series in very high regard and am excited to see the work that Josh Tsui and his team at Robomodo have put so much effort into. I’ve been following the progress of THPSHD since it was announced last December; from what I’ve seen, this has the potential to be one of this summer’s bigger releases. Zen Pinball 2 is another game that I’m looking forward to seeing. If you know me, you know I’m a bit of a pinball freak… and it’s great that the PlayStation 3 is finally getting its own Pinball FX2 kind of upgrade from Zen Pinball. Hopefully I’ll get a peek at the new Avengers tables, too. Finally, Double Dragon: NEON is an appointment that I set up because of my arcade roots. WayForward has done some great things with arcade IP in the past (Contra 4, anyone?) and I’m eager to see what they’ve done with Double Dragon here.
I hope that you’ll take a look at both pieces, and I invite you to comment on either or both.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that most of my writing for the next couple of weeks will be for Popzara Press. I’m not sure how much extra writing time I’ll have during the event, and I’m going to be playing catch-up for another week or so after I return from Los Angeles. I will post some more personal stories and content from the trip here as time allows, though, and most definitely after my Popzara workload slows down a bit. If you’re interested in more frequent updates from me during E3, I recommend following me on Twitter. You can follow along as I’m terrified during my flight, you can find out what I’m playing and who I’ve met, and it’ll basically be a running diary of my experience.
Although the thought of flying to Los Angeles is still freaking me out, I’m extremely excited to be able to attend E3 this year. It’s going to be a big show and I am even more excited to be able to share my experience with so many people. Some call this work– and it certainly is– but I consider it an honor.
I just finished my analysis of April’s NPD sales data for Popzara Press. To go along with that piece, I have five observations that I’m going to expand upon for you here.
1. Gotta predict ‘em all!
As it turns out, I correctly predicted the ranking order for hardware sales in April: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, 3DS, Wii, then Vita. I came within about 20,000 units of predicting the actual Xbox 360 sales number of 236,000. I overshot it– as I did with the other platforms– but feel pretty good about getting more right than wrong when it comes to predicting hardware. I’ve had a decent record doing this, but predictions are only part of what I’m doing.
2. No Portal Kombat means sliding sales.
Mortal Kombat and Portal 2 combined last April to move well over 1.5 million units. Compare the significance of those two games with Kinect Star Wars, and Prototype 2. You really can’t. Even adding The Witcher 2 to the mix, these games simply don’t have the same kind of selling power as last April’s slate of game releases. Without prominent and captivating game releases, consumers aren’t going to spend money on software… or hardware, for that matter. Perhaps May will bring a better result with two releases potentially coming close to or exceeding a million units sold.
3. What’s wrong with the 3DS?
The 3DS has been a huge hit in Japan in 2012, but here in the US, it’s languishing. Sales of the handheld here in April were less than 150,000 units, which is about half of what it sold in Nintendo’s home territory. Defenders of the platform continue to fall back on the DS comparison and how 3DS is outperforming it within the first year, but most of those sales were in Q4 2011. Lack of significant new software is one possible reason for the malaise, but other factors like consumer moves to iOS/Android need to be considered. Perhaps a spike will come this month with the release of Mario Tennis Open, but Nintendo is going to have to deliver more games for the 3DS and try to encourage more output from its third-party publishing partners. Without games, there’s no reason to spend the $170 on new hardware.
4. “PS Vita is gaining momentum”? No. No, it isn’t.
It’s already difficult enough for those who don’t have access to raw NPD data to have Sony continually refuse to share sales specifics publicly, but it’s worse when Sony’s Corporate Communications arm delivers NPD reaction that uses dozens of words to say nothing at all. The quote above is pulled from Dan Race, Senior Director of Corporate Communications for SCEA. Unfortunately for Mr. Race, leaked NPD data shows that if Vita is “gaining momentum”, it’s not pertaining to unit sales. Vita unit sales tanked in April, falling below 100,000 units after spending its first two NPD reporting periods over 200,000 units. At least in terms of retail sales, software is seemingly non-existent after the initial wave of launch titles. Yes, it’s early, but very few consumers who haven’t already bought a Vita are going to drop $250+ on a device that has very little going for it at this point. Even if E3 delivers promises of new Vita games– which should happen– there’s no reason to buy near-term. There isn’t a killer app out there right now, and until one becomes more than just a “Coming Soon” placeholder, sales of Vita hardware will continue to struggle. Even a speculated price drop may not do much without games to support it. Vita needs to be Sony’s focus at E3, without question.
5. Are we saturated yet?
The Xbox recorded negative YOY hardware sales results for a fifth straight month, so it’s been argued that the hardware is approaching a saturation point. I think that there’s some merit to this argument, given that we’re going to be entering its seventh year on the market and that 2011 sales of Xbox 360 hardware were very impressive. That 2011 success is also a bit of a monkey on Microsoft’s back, since comps are hard to achieve a year later. Is it realistic to expect Xbox 360 sales to remain steady or improve this late in the console cycle? I don’t really think it is. Having said that, I do believe that the negative sales trend will continue and that I’m seeing a parallel to what we saw with the Wii. Waiting too long to act when your current console’s sales begin to fall can be costly. Even with a recommended price drop, I don’t see sales reacting positively for very long. Even when Halo 4 hits in November, can we expect another 1.7 million Xbox 360 units to sell? I’ll answer that question very plainly: No.
Hopefully things will improve this month. Diablo III and Max Payne 3 show promise. Will they be enough to break this losing streak? We’ll find out in a few weeks’ time.
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.
Namco’s Ace Combat series has been one of my personal favorites. I have fond memories of playing Air Combat for the PlayStation just after the console launched back in 1995, but it was Ace Combat 2 that really captured my attention and made me the fan that I am today. Ace Combat 2 was just one of the many quality titles that came out for the PlayStation in 1997. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, PaRappa the Rapper, Rage Racer, Intelligent Cube, Colony Wars, and Final Fantasy VII all competed for playing time back then, but Ace Combat 2 kept drawing me back with its arcade-style gameplay and intense sorties. It was Top Gun without the over-the-top characters and real-world setting, and that suited me just fine.
After a stumble with the US version of Ace Combat 3: Electrosphere on the PlayStation in 2000, Namco then delivered three fantastic Ace Combat games for the PlayStation 2. Ace Combat 04: Shattered Skies landed on the PlayStation 2 in the fall of 2001 and is arguably the best entry in the series. Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War hit three years later in 2004, followed by an Unsung War semi-sequel called Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War in the spring of 2006. The series really came into its own on the PlayStation 2 platform and these three games are among my overall favorites. Namco then pulled a surprise and released Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation for the Xbox 360 (instead of the PlayStation 3) in the fall of 2007. I never completed Ace Combat 6, but the scope of the battles was larger than anything seen in the series before. Finally, last October, Namco released a non-numbered Ace Combat game called Ace Combat: Assault Horizon for the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3. Assault Horizon drew some inspiration from Call of Duty and implemented some new gameplay ideas.
As we prepare to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Ace Combat 2 in May, I’m going to be playing each of these eight games in order and will be posting something about each game individually. These won’t be reviews, but will instead be impressions of my time with each game. I’m looking forward to playing through each of these games over the next few weeks and sharing my experiences with you.
The first sortie takes off with Air Combat this week. It’s time to kick the tires and light the fires.
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.
My analysis of video game sales data and trends for August is now live over at KmartGamer.
I do have a few additional thoughts to share with you, before you head over and check it out:
Microsoft should be pleased with moving another 308,000 Xbox 360 units, especially during a pretty dry month for new game releases. As I mention in the analysis piece, Microsoft will likely interpret this as a signal that a price drop isn’t needed for at least the rest of 2011. That doesn’t mean that the company won’t be offering some interesting deals. Bundle SKUs will be common, especially in Q4, so consumers looking to get an Xbox 360 will have several value choices to make. I haven’t heard anything official about a “holiday bundle” as of yet, but I do believe that one is coming.
Although Sony was the only company to not share its unit sales for last month, I can tell you that the numbers aren’t bad at all. I think that there’s a little bit of disappointment that the PlayStation 3 was unable to pull ahead of the Xbox 360 for the month, but the PS3 was only down less than 5% YOY. In a month where everyone else was off by at least 13%, that’s a good sign. Sales of PSP units were also pretty steady, which is surprising given the lack of software. Sony’s Patrick Seybold did mention that there were some “supply constraints” (again?) for the PS3, but I doubt this played a major role in the closing data.
I know that I talk a lot about the deflation of the Wii bubble, but I do believe it has a lot to do with saturation. The LTD (Life-to-Date) number for the Wii is over 35 million units, and that’s after less than six years. I think that, if the $100 Wii shows up for November or in early 2012, there’s one more spike for console sales in the offing. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is a potentially significant reason to own a Wii, and as Nintendo marks down prices on re-releases going forward as part of its Wii Selects line for $20, the Wii becomes a relatively inexpensive gaming platform with other uses (such as Netflix). I don’t know for sure if we’ll see the $100 Wii here, but it makes sense to me given that the Wii U is still at least 8-14 months away from release. It bears watching.
The lack of Madden in August had a ripple effect that cannot be understated. It precluded potential hardware sales, plus it hurt software sales for Electronic Arts and for each platform. Knowing that Madden is carrying into September, however, the news should turn positive as at least two million-plus sellers should bolster the software market and Electronic Arts should bounce back nicely after a dismal YOY month. The only concern is that putting Madden so close to big sellers like Gears of War 3 and even Dead Island and Resistance 3 can eat into potential sales even though the genres are drastically different. When I receive the numbers for September, it will be interesting to see final numbers for all of these titles as all of them should make it into the Top 10.
It makes a drastic difference to have all of the data (as I now have) to work from when performing analysis. There’s a lot to take in, and while it’s easy for people to pick on Michael Pachter, Jesse Divnich, or other analysts for having easy jobs– it’s still difficult to accurately predict where the industry is going. I now have a better picture of what’s happening and can make more informed opinions and predictions based on these numbers. I can also see why the data is so protected. Not only does it cost tons in employee hours, research, and effort to compile and produce… but making some of the data public could cause lots of conclusion-jumping. It’d be too easy to proclaim that the sky is falling and that the industry is in big trouble if you looked at August’s numbers alone; however, the best analysis is formed by gathering all of the data and looking at trends. August looks like a terrible month, but had Madden 12 hit stores even a week earlier, the damage would have been far more limited.