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Monthly Archives: September 2006

The RRP ripoff

We’ve had the current helping of next-gen consoles for almost a year now and in that time the 360 has ushered in hi-def gaming as standard, brought us a fantastic experience online and also the gory wonder that is Dead Rising. However, not all is rosy in this generation as its advent has also brought in a recommended retail price (RRP) of £50.

The worrying thing, coming from someone looking from the inside out, is that this is so way above an impulse-buy price point that I think that a lot of people can talk themselves out of wanting to buy your game, especially for the now ubiquitous casual gamer. Trying to explain to your significant other, or your own wallet for that matter, that spending half-a-ton on a shiny disk is a worthwhile investment is getting harder and harder.

Obviously prices must go up due to inflation and the rising cost of development associated with the transition to more powerful machines, and I don’t mind paying for a damn good experience such as GRAW or Oblivion where you can so obviously gain value for money, but what does rile me is that publishers feel they can charge this inflated price for multi-platform products.

For a brief comparison, before I get to the meat, at launch this £50 RRP was 25% more than original Xbox titles and now, with those same original Xbox titles dropping to an RRP of £30, 66% more.

As evidence I present Game A: Just Cause; a game so obviously developed for multiple platforms and yet 360 owners get stung. Moving along we have Game B: Lego Star Wars II; not quite so bad with only a £40 RRP but yet again those with newer machines are getting charged more.

Of course the RRP is not a hard and fast value, as these examples have shown, but I do feel that next-gen consoles owners, and PS3 will be included too, are being taken for a ride unnecessarily by publishers who have artificially created this inflated price in certain cases. I’d love them to show me exactly where on their development budget the extra £10 I’m spending on Lego Star Wars went; is there a column for that on the financials? Why are we being charged more for exactly the same?

The fact is that there has already been a “budget” release on the Xbox 360 that has proved to be a major hit and yet showed no sign of corner cutting or lack of quality. Rockstar’s Table Tennis wasn’t even a multi-platform title, they produced it exclusively for Microsoft’s console and upon its release earlier this year copies flew off the shelves with a great number of those buying it purely interested in a cheaper Xbox 360 title.

Blockbuster titles are not going to be released as this lower price point for obvious reasons but multi-platform games (Tomb Raider, Lego Star Wars, Just Cause), ridiculously short games (King Kong) or just plain bad title (*cough* Bomberman *cough*) should think about lowering their price tags at least in line with the other platforms if they are seriously going to make people consider purchasing them over alternative formats… especially when those formats are already backwards compatible.

Subsidies

Since the announcement of the Wii’s launch details (8th December, £179) one thing has amazed me about people’s reactions and that has been the seemingly large number who believe that it is their given right to be given subsidised hardware by the console manufacturers. Why do people believe that a multi-national corporation should buddy up to them and give you a “mate’s rates” deal on a piece of technology?

Well, if truth be told there are a few reasons but Nintendo don’t fall into any of these categories.

Firstly, and most importantly, a console will be given a helping hand by its producer if its actual value would simply put it at a price point where no one would buy it. Take the Playstation 3, for example; it is already over £400 and yet Sony is still losing money on every console they produce, the same with Microsoft’s and its Xboxes.

This being so, if Nintendo can produce a console for less than half the retails cost of a PS3 why should they sell it at a loss? It already has the beating of both the PS3 and the 360 on that front, and so as the market leader in price the onus is on the others to force its hand.

Secondly, one way a console manufacturer makes money is by licensing the ability to create games for its system. This is how Sony can afford to take such a hit to its bottom line with the production of their Playstations initially as they know that tens of millions of people will buy not only the console but the games that go with it and with each one that goes through the till a portion of that sale goes into Sony’s coffers.

Whereas Sony sold tens of millions of the PS2, Nintendo sold nearer to the ten million with their Gamecube. This installed user base was obviously not as vast and so the potential to recoup money from games sales was not as great, not only that, though, the actual flow of new games was lousy as people chose to shun the Gamecube because of the potential market. An almost cyclical problem: why buy a console that doesn’t have the games and why make a game for a console that hasn’t had that many sales?

The situation got to a point where Nintendo came to the decision to drop all licensing fees for the Gamecube, i.e. made no money off third party sales, in a bid to boost the consoles chances. It is a good chance that their business model is based around this possibility happening again and so if you’re not making money off your Singstar sales or don’t have the deep pockets of Bill Gates then you’re going to need some balance sheet stability upfront.

Finally, Nintendo have never, ever released a console at a loss. It is something that the Japanese giant has never been willing to do and so why start now with such a risky system? Tradition is something that is strong in Nintendo and to prove it every home console that they have launched in Japan has came out at exactly the same price, including the Wii.

In summation, Nintendo are, and I hate to break this to you, a company that wants to make money. As much as they may seem like your friend that passes out toys come your birthday they basically want your cash and if you want them to be around for a few years longer then they are going to have to make some profit from their Wii venture. If selling the machine at a price that doesn’t have the accountants taking the elevator to the highest floor for a peer over the edge then so be it.

Getting away from my defence, I am quit happy to pay £180 for the Wii. I was predicting nearer £150 but the fact we get the bundled Wii sports is a pleasant surprise, mainly because I was going to get it anyway. What does concern me, though, is the high price that we’re paying for the extra controllers as combined it is a £45 RRP for a Wii-mote/nunchuck combo. Hopefully this will drop quickly otherwise those classy E3 trailers showing the family playing together may be nothing more than a pipe dream for Miyamto and co.

Just Cause

Gimmicks are the life blood of Just Cause. That word may sound a little harsh but when you consider the gimmicks involve car surfing, base jumping, vehicles armed with projectile explosives and a seeming immunity to enemy bullets, then you can’t help but welcome them onto your Xbox.

This slice of gaming craziness sees you play a special agent, who has more than a passing resemblance to Anthonio Banderas in Desperado, charged with helping a revolution unfold in a fictional Latin American country.  The demo attempts to give you a taster for the story ahead but as per most game stories it simply boils down to taking out generals and bringing down an oppressive regime… or something decidedly similar.

The demo itself has quite a start and sees you free-falling from a helicopter over a convoy of military leaders. As the ground screams into sharp focus you are given the choice of either opening your parachute and gliding over your target or continuing your speedy descent with a view to landing in a car surfing position on the lead vehicle. There is a third option of course, you could always do what I did and miss all of the on screen help. This sees your avatar splat face first into the earth but I don’t recommend this.

This opening act sets the scene for the rest of the demo as it tries to reward your play with some very pleasing encounters and opportunity. To play out the above scenario, you could simply land in front of the convoy and shoot your respective targets ala any old third-person shooter, but then there’s no fun in this; it’s far better to parachute onto the car, hijack your victim and drive him off a cliff safe in the knowledge that you can glide stylishly to safety.

As soon as you’ve used the parachute once you just want to use it again and again, not only to show off but catch to your enemies unaware. It’s so easy to get yourself airborne, too; speed towards your intended destination in a car, jump on the roof using your stunt button and deploy your chute to bring rise smoothly into the air. The simplicity of this system is fabulous as it allows you to reproduce one of the coolest aspects of the game over and over at your bidding – Just Cause gives you the facility to live out James Bond-esque moments that other games just can’t give you.

Controlling your character whilst in midair is very simple and responsive, right up until the point where you pull a gun. From there on in the controls are far too sensitive when and this is disappointing considering the possibilities this action could bring. On foot things are far more responsive and you should have no trouble laying waste to the soldiers that face you, partly because of your huge arsenal and partly because of the ridiculous amount of health you seem to possess. That being said, the party piece of the ground gun-based combat has to be the ability to shoot grenades in mid air, an act that can be devastatingly effective against a infantry and vehicles alike.

Every vehicle you find, as long as you refrain from blowing it up, can be hijacked and brought into your struggle against the state. Rocket toting helicopters and armoured jeeps can be used alongside fighter jets and pimped-out speed boats. All but the jets are available in the demo and there is a tremendous movie-like quality about speeding along a mountain road, blowing up on-rushing cars and then driving through the ensuing explosion.

If you take time to look past all the bells and whistle, though, you can see that some of Just Cause’s beauty is very much skin deep. As good as the set piece encounters and objective based missions are, should you wish to roam around and make your own fun you may find yourself walking for quite some way. The island is very sparsely populated and even the built-up areas are soulless whilst simultaneously being impossible to interact with; building sites are roped off, pedestrians are few and it is only the police who seem to be able to track you down, no matter where you are. Both Mercenaries and GTA do the sandbox aspect of the game so much better so be warned those of you who like to stray off the beaten path.

For an immediate comparison it seems like a cousin of a James Bond film crossed with the Mercenary series, itself a hybrid of GTA and Battlefield. It definitely has its problems and limitations but on the whole what it does it does reasonably competently and with massive potential, even if it is that is restricted to the main quest.

At the moment I’m non-plus about Just Cause as it is very arcadey and I worry about the longevity of such a title. On the flip side, though, I can quote Eikzilla: “Best. Game. Ever.”

Ninety Nine Nights

Well, I’m back and feeling a lot better thanks to the power of hot Ribena. It was nothing serious at all, just a head cold but it meant that I couldn’t type straight even if I’d wanted to.

During my week of mugginess one thing kept me going; one solitary Xbox 360 game that unhelpfully kept me up until the small hours; a game that I swore I would beat before it beat me: I speak of Ninety Nine Nights.

N3, as it likes to be known, is a classic hack-and-slash set in a mystical land that throws you into the middle of literally hundreds of enemies and then expects you to cut a swathe of destruction through them to make good your escape and progress the storyline. This storyline is promoted as the second major selling point of N3 as you get to play through the main plot with eight separate characters seeing different aspects of the story-arc each time you do so.

At first I disliked N3; it was far too simplistic and you could cope with anything it threw at you by just repeatedly hammering the basic attack button, X. Every character you play with has a collection of combo moves you can string together using the face buttons but at the low levels these are few and weak so mashing the pad seem to suffice. Hordes of Goblins were falling foul of my cheap combat tactics and the game was at serious risk of being returned to its box never to return.

I stuck with it, though, and I’m glad I did as not too long after I had bemoaned the lack of variety I levelled up and opened up a series of very useful moves. Looking back on it, hammering X to clear your path did the job but it wasn’t the safest or cleverest way to do things; these new combos enabled me to clear much need space when things were getting too tight, perform powerful on-the-spot attacks to take down bosses and move quickly from one mob to another to keep my combo-strings ticking over. There’s the easy way to do things and there’s the right way to do things.

Once the game had opened up and I had an array of moves to call upon it started turning into a rather brutal version of Strictly Come Dancing; you no longer really treated many of the enemies as a threat and instead you used them as something you could be creative with as you tried to pull off stylish combo after stylish combo. To give you some idea of the sheer volume that N3 tries to throw at you it’s not uncommon for you to have a kill count of over twelve-hundred and a two-thousand-plus combo by the end of a level, anything less and you should be disappointed.

It is at this point, unfortunately, I run out of good things to say about the free-form killing canvas that is Ninety Nine Nights. At its heart there is a game I really enjoyed playing but the more I played it the more the game showed its cracks and it grew more to be a frustration than an enjoyment, primarily because of the practically nonexistent save system.

Missions in N3 can take anywhere up to 45 minutes to complete, longer if you go exploring, and at no point through this agonising time period do you have chance to backup your progress. If you die, you die – no second chances, no checkpoints, you’re booted back to the beginning to trudge through the level again.

What tends to make this harder to swallow is that it is only very rarely that the grunts and foot-soldiers causes your demise, it is more likely to be the end of level boss that does that; a boss that it several thousand times more effective that his troops and seems impervious to several of your highly powerful “shard” (read “special”) attacks.

N3 seems like two games in this respect: you cut like a hot knife through butter for the vast majority of the level as you flatten buildings and devastate armies but as soon as you come to a mini-boss some moves are effectively removed from your arsenal, your block can be arbitrarily cancelled by certain attacks and always hanging over you is the threat of having to redo the last forty-minutes work just to reface this git if he does best you.

I have no qualms with games that like to ramp up the difficulty level or gives their players a challenge but I think it should always be within the scope of the game that players have experienced up until that point. N3 goes against all of this and seems to throw in new rules and exceptions solely to create a misjudged difficulty spike. I might have forgiven it if there was a restart point directly before the boss.

Add to this the lack of any real AI other than “mob” within enemy units, the equal stupidity of your own troops, the dubious block button and a palette that ranges from mud to dirt and what initially seemed like a promising title quickly went down hill the longer I persisted with it.

I tried, I really did, to like N3 and I must have played through my “last” level for three-hours continually before eventually succumbing to the rage that I had built up within me. It wouldn’t have been so bad if the block button actually blocked when you asked it to!

In conclusion, the only people I can recommend Ninety Nine Nights to are those who either truly love the hack-and-slash genre or those that are blessed with the patience of a saint.

6/10