Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Loss of a Legend: Michael Jackson 1958-2009

As all of you probably know by now, the world has lost a king. The great Michael Jackson passed away today due to cardiac arrest. He was rushed to the UCLA Medical Facility, where his death was officially announced.
Despite his strange behavior in recent years, you cannot deny the impact this man had on the music industry as well as American culture. His work defined a generation and there are millions around the world with memories of his music. Personally, I remember sitting in my cousin's apartment in China as the "Black and White" music video played on TV. My dad used to tell me that when he first came to America, he worked as a construction worker and they would listen to the radio play Michael Jackson all the time. I can also recall the first time I saw the "Thriller" music video and being astounded at what this man was capable of.
Like him or not, Michael Jackson was a man of great talent and will be greatly missed. He was preparing for a great comeback this July in London and it's a shame that people will never be able to experience the magic that Jackson was known for bringing to his shows. He will be greatly missed.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Album Review: Far - Regina Spektor

Last summer, I went through a phase where I would listen to nothing but Regina Spektor's Soviet Kitsch album. Her style seemed so unorthodox yet so carefully engineered that it creates the perfect blend of innovation and classical poise. But when Begin to Hope dropped, it showed that Regina was starting to stray towards the pop scene. While this was not necessarily a bad thing, I did feel myself wishing I had more of the jazz singer side of Regina Spektor. The song that I listened to most off Begin to Hope was her tribute to the great Billy Holiday, "Lady". I remember listening to that song and thinking "This is what I love about Regina Spektor." So when I heard that she was coming out with a new album this summer, I had my fingers crossed that I might get more of the old Regina back. This did not happen. Far is even a further deviation from her classic style into the realm of pop music. Now, I must stress again, this isn't a bad thing. There are a few tracks like "The Calculation" and "Eet" where it works nicely for her, but feels like she's becoming more of a Yael Naim or a Sara Bareilles. "Blue Lips" is a little darker in tone but feels too orchestrated that it puts off the balance so it doesn't really feel like her stuff. Then we get to her juvenile songs, "Folding Chair" and "Machine", where in the former, bubbly melody and improvised dolphin sounds take the reins, and in the latter, Regina pretends to be a robot with a mechanized dark sound that just feels out of place on the album. The single of the album comes next, "Laughing With", which talks about how much of a bummer life can be sometimes. This is more fitting on the album but once again, it feels more like a Yael Naim song. The rest of the songs on the album seem so cookie-cutter piano-pop that I don't even feel like mentioning them. That is except for the song "Genius Next Door". With this song, Regina gave me one little ray of hope that she had not forgotten of the days of Soviet Kitsch and Eleven Eleven. This is the clearly the "Lady" of this album. The piano is absolutely beautiful while the lyrics portray a boy and the solitude he finds in this lake. In the special edition of the album, Regina gives another song that's reminiscent of the older albums with "The Sword and The Pen". It's a beautiful song about the fear of a loved one embracing death. It's songs like these that remind me that Regina Spektor has the ability to put out mature songs that tug at the heartstrings.

Score: 5.5/10
Key Songs: "Eet", "Laughing With", "Genius Next Door", "The Sword and The Pen"


Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Day 2 of E3 09: Sony

Oh Sony, where do I even begin with you? Having what seemed to be one of the longest presentations this year, Sony had a lot of announcements for E3 09. Not being a PS3 owner, it was hard for me to really get excited for most of these announcement, but Sony did keep me entertained during the 2+ hours they had the stage.
Once again, CEO Jack Tretton came on stage saying that 2009 is going to be the best year ever for Sony. According to Tretton, there are 364 games set for Playstation platforms this year. He went on to name some big titles set for PS3 and claim that Sony will remain committed to the PS2 as long as there is consumer interest in the product.
This first game shown in Sony's press conference was Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. The first Uncharted was known for it's gorgeous visuals and Uncharted 2 remains committed to the same cinematic quality. A demo of the single player game was shown, where the main character climbed buildings and engaged in combat with a helicopter.
Last year, Sony announced their 256 player game, MAG (Massive Action Game). No real in-game footage of the game was seen until today, when the developers showed off a real live 256 player skirmish. Players are divided into platoons and squads, and each squad has a leader. The leader can assign objectives and look at a top-down tactical map to see where the squad should move for best tactical advantage. With such a large amount of players in game, you can expect that the maps are massive in size. The game also has an XP system similar to that of the latest Call of Duty games, where kills and successful objective are rewarded. Expect to see MAG in stores this fall exclusively for PS3.
Prior to E3, a lot of rumors of possible Sony announcements were leaked out online. One of which, the PSP Go, was confirmed today by Sony. Called "the worst kept secret of E3", the PSP Go centers around digital distribution of content and eliminates the need for physical UMDs. It's 50% smaller and 40% lighter than the original PSP, slides up to reveal all the same buttons and nub (singular), carries 16GB of internal flash memory, has built in wi-fi, and allows bluetooth and memory stick integration. The PSP Go will not, however, replace the PSP 3000, as Sony understands that there are gamers who prefer having tangible software in their hands. PSP Go will be released October 1 in North America and Europe, priced at $249.99. Sony also announced Media Go, a program that will allow faster, intuitive download and transfer of content from PC to PSP. The PSP will also be able to download apps like SenseMe, which will analyze your personal music library on PSP and create playlists according to moods.
Going along with the confirmation of PSP Go, 2 new PSP games were announced: Gran Turismo PSP and Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker. Gran Turismo is a full GT game with 800 different cars, 35 tracks, and 60 different layouts of those tracks. The game runs at 60 frames per second, making it look like the best driving simulator on handheld consoles so far. It will also allow players to trade cars between garages and supports adhoc multiplayer with up to four players. It's set to release along side the PSP Go on October 1st. Hideo Kojima came on stage to talk about the new PSP game Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker. Set 10 years after the events of Metal Gear Solid 3, Kojima promises that this is not just another spin off or side story, but another step in the Metal Gear saga entirely. It's being developed by Kojima himself along with the MGS4 team. Expect Peace Walker to appear in 2010.
Tretton came back on stage to give a glimpse of the PSP lineup of 2009. Some highlights seen include LittleBigPlanet, Jak & Daxter, Dissidia, Soul Calibur, and Motorstorm. Tretton also announced that Final Fantasy VII will be on sale on the PSN Store starting today. After boasting some stats and another montage of PS3 games, Tretton announced the PS3-exclusive Rockstar title, Agent. Set in the 1970s, Agent will bring forth the world of espionage and assassination of the time. No footage or screenshots were shown.
The people from Ubisoft came on stage to show off a demo of Assassins Creed 2. Why they didn't do this during their own press conference, I don't know, but the game looks beautiful. It stars another ancestor of Desmond, Ezio. As mentioned in the Ubisoft conference, it's set in Renaissance Italy. Shown in the demo, Ezio befriends Leonardo Da Vinci, who provides Ezio with upgrades, gadgets, and inventions. For example, Ezio was shown utilizing Da Vinci's flying machine to swoop from the skies. The game will have more assassination techniques and 30 different weapons (with a bonus 6 if integrated with the Assassin's Creed Bloodlines game on PSP). It will be on shelves this holiday season.
Another trailer for Final Fantasy XIII was then shown, this time showing a little more gameplay footage but still focusing on the cinematic quality of the game. Afterwards, Tretton announced that the SquareEnix people have prepared a video of Final Fantasy XIV to show the audience. Not only that, but the game will be released in 2010, the same year as the release of Final Fantasy XIII. After the video, it became clear that Final Fantasy XIV will be another online RPG, thus reducing the amount of shock of it being released so close to FFXIII.
Keeping up with it's competitors, Sony announced that it has been hard at work in developing a motion controller. They came on to demonstrate their prototype, which appeared to be a microphone-looking device along with a Playstation Eye camera. Keeping in mind that the controller is still in development, what was shown was somewhat impressive. The controller does have buttons, such as a trigger button for integration with shooters. It's motion detection is amazingly precise and it will be interesting to see which company will end up having the superior motion controller.
Expanding on the motto of LittleBigPlanet (Play. Create. Share.), Sony showed a demo of the new kart racer, ModNation Racers. The characters are customizable, so each player can create a racer to fit their personality. The game will supposedly harness the full power of the PS3, graphics and physics-wise. It contains a track creator mode, which appears to be very user-friendly; the demonstrators created a fully-playable track within 5 minutes. Look for it around 2010.
Sony officially announced the next game from the Ico team, although it was leaked weeks earlier. The game is called The Last Guardian. If you haven't already seen the trailer, I suggest you look it up as the game looks gorgeous (most of this team's work is). The game is a PS3 exclusive; no release date yet. Next up was a trailer for Gran Turismo 5. Not much to say about it other than it's still the same hardcore driving simulator.
To close the show, a demo of the God of War III gameplay was shown. This game will be the last of the trilogy, as Kratos attempts to gain revenge on Zeus and the gods of Mount Olympus. The demo showed the brutal executions that all God of War fans are familiar with. Kratos also has some new weapons, such as gauntlets which he can pound the ground with. The final chapter is set for a March 2010 release.
Sony's presentation showed some really cool games and innovations. It's a shame that some of their shock value was reduced due to press leaks. Overall, Sony gets a B+ from me this year. I will agree with CEO Jack Tretton in that 2009 looks great for Sony.


Day 2 of E3 09: Nintendo

Last year, Nintendo left us questioning the historic game maker as we were sorely disappointed with a lack of strong announcements. The presentation was laden with big numbers, "paradigm shifts", and unexcitable casual games that left the hardcore audience with their tail between their legs. This year, Nintendo attempted to fix all of that.
They kicked off the presentation with what seemed to be a huge announcement; a new Mario game for the Wii. This time, Mario reenters the 2D side-scrolling platforming genre with New Super Mario Bros. for Wii. Looking very much like the same game released on the DS years earlier, the Wii adaptation has enhanced graphics, boasts new items and enemies, and supports up to 4-person multiplayer. While somewhat interesting, the game seemed to lack real depth and appeared to be fun for a couple of minutes here and there. It's set to launch this holiday season.
Building upon the success of Wii Fit and the balance board, Nintendo upped the ante on competing fitness games with Wii Fit Plus. Being more of an expansion on the first Wii Fit, Plus adds new exercises, new minigames, and a choice of where players want to focus their workout. It's set to release this fall as a bundle with the balance board and as a standalone game.
Last year, Nintendo also gave a glimpse of their new addon, Wii MotionPlus. This tiny cube attaches to the bottom of the Wiimote and provides enhanced precision control. To help demonstrate this, Nintendo gave a further look into Wii Sports Resort, which was also shown briefly last year. This year, archery and basketball were displayed on stage. President of Nintendo America Reggie Fils-Aime also shared that third party developers like EA, Sega, and Ubisoft were also working with the MotionPlus technology.
Nintendo brought out some videos of upcoming RPGs from SquareEnix, including Final Fantasy: The Crystal Bearers for the Wii and Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days. Final Fantasy wasn't much to talk about but Kingdom Hearts seems to bring the action RPG to the portable DS, instead of the card-based action seen previously in Chain of Memories for the GBA. Nintendo also displayed their own contender in the RPG genre, Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story. In this branch of the Mario & Luigi saga, the dynamic duo go inside the Koopa King himself. Currently out for the Japan, Bowser's Inside Story will hit North American shores this fall. Nintendo then announced that they were reviving another RPG name in their arsenal, one that hasn't been heard from in years. While most people, like myself, were expecting this to be a new Earthbound game or at least a Mother 3 port, the game they were talking about was Golden Sun DS. Although somewhat of a disappointment, I did enjoy the Golden Sun games for GBA and am excited to see what the game brings to the DS.
From here, the show started to go downhill. Nintendo tried to show off their diversity in games pandering to different target markets; Women's Murder Club, C.O.P: The Recuit, and Style Savvy. They talked about some upcoming downloadable programs for the new DSi. Some interesting things shown include FlipNote Studio (a mini-animation program available this summer) and WarioWare DIY (create your own minigames in true WarioWare fashion). This summer, DSi owners will also be able to upload their edited photos taken with the DSi to their Facebook profiles. Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks was also mentioned, but no new information was distributed.
CEO of Nintendo, Satoru Iwata came out to talk about Nintendo's goal in further expanding their gamer population. And just as I predicted, he had another new peripheral to show off. This time, he brought out the Wii Vitality Sensor. What this essentially does is measure the pulse from your finger and it can tell how nervous you are, your focus level, etc. Iwata's goal with this device is to help gamers achieve greater relaxation, but he failed to show the device in action or any games that would utilize such a device.
Nintendo had another trick up their sleeves this year. They unveiled yet another new Mario game; Super Mario Galaxy 2. The game builds upon the first game, but adds new levels and everyone's favorite little green dinosaur, Yoshi.
Reggie attempted to get the audience pumped about the future third-party games in development for the Wii by showing off Sega's sci-fi shooter The Conduit, Capcom's Resident Evil: Dark Side Chronicles, and EA's Dead Space: Extraction. Yet no one seemed too intrigued since these games have already been revealed earlier.
To wrap it all up, Nintendo came out with a big announcement. Teaming up with Team Ninja (Ninja Gaiden, Dead or Alive), Nintendo announced Metroid: Other M. The new Metroid game returns to the 3rd person, something we haven't seen on consoles since the SNES. It's set for a 2010 release. Great ending that I'm sure not many in the audience were expecting.
Overall, Nintendo's press conference this year gets a C+. Though they did have some exciting new announcements (Metroid: Other M, new Mario games, and Golden Sun DS), the lackluster games overwhelmed the extraordinary. I will commend Nintendo on at least attempting to satisfy hardcore gamers while still concentrating on the casual gamer market, but the process of achieving a perfect balance between the two has yet to be perfected.


Monday, June 1, 2009

Day 1 of E3 '09: Ubisoft

Day 1 of E3 2009 ends with Ubisoft's press conference, which was laden with French accents. To start, CEO Yves Guillermot announced the UPlay service that comes bundled in Ubisoft games; it's basically an XBox dashboard but exclusively for Ubisoft games. They talked for a long time what they're doing to advance in the media realm to become more than a game developer. From here, they transferred to introducing film director James Cameron, who talked for what seemed to be an eternity about his new movie Avatar (not based on the nickelodeon show, but his own creation) in great detail. Once everyone woke up, they finally brought out the games, starting with Red Steel 2. This time, the game is set in a Samurai Western setting. The first game had serious problems with controls but this time, they're utilizing the Motion Plus Wiimote addon. Hopefully, this will fix the problems that made the first game so unplayable for me. From there, they went on to the sports games in their arsenal which include Shaun White Snowboarding: World Stage and Academy of Champions, which is an arcade soccer game introduced by the great Pele. After sports, the men behind Splinter Cell: Conviction came out to show off what Sam Fisher has gotten into now. The game boasts a fully interactive environment for interrogation, Mark & Execute (Sam is able to target an enemy and stealthily assassinate them, allowing for quick execution of multiple enemies), and Last Known Position (shows where enemies think Sam is so he can gain tactical positioning). The game has revived my interest in the series as it comes with an aesthetically appealing design (the game turns into a B&W filter when you are hidden and objectives are projected onto the environment).
A little known project teased during the presentation was the touch based RTS Ruse. From what they showed, units are moved by hand movements on a touch screen table, although I think the table will be replaced by the iPhone/iTouch.
Then, a few statistics were shared. Ubisoft claims the biggest selling IP in 2008 was their Imagine (yeah right) and that the biggest growing genre is fitness games. Supposedly, Ubisoft is making big steps in ensuring that tween girls have plenty to play as well as weight-conscious people. They announced their contender in the fitness genre, Your Shape for Wii, which will come bundled with a camera that will track all movements.
Other games shown include Rabbids Go Home for Wii, which is basically Ubisoft does Katamari Damacy, and the TMNT Smash-Up, basically another Super Smash Brothers clone.
Ubisoft closed the evening with the Assassins Creed 2 trailer. Set in Renaissance Italy, the game looks like more Assassins Creed but with more weapons and assassination possibilities. It's set for a November 17 release date.
Ubisoft started off the evening very slow and though they did gain a little momentum later on, they failed to really get me excited for Ubisoft games. A couple final questions for Ubisoft: No Beyond Good & Evil 2? And no Jade Raymond?


Day 1 of E3 '09: Electronic Arts

EA started off big, showing a trailer for the God-Of-War-esque Dante's Inferno. Following the book of the Divine Comedy, the game follows Dante (is it just me or is it weird having another protagonist named Dante?) as he journeys through the depths of hell. Very ultra-violent and in no way putting down the remarks of it being a God of War clone. Out of nowhere, EA pulled a complete turn going from the bloodbath of Dante's Inferno to Littlest Pet Shop and Charm Girls Club, leaving everyone with a confused look on their faces. They also talked a little about the upcoming Sims 3, which carries several upgrades but all in all just looks like more Sims. From there, they switched gears to Need for Speed: Shift, which has stunning visuals along with an interesting take on the racing genre that seems to mix the more simulation aspects of Forza to the arcade-like gameplay of Burnout. The people of EA Sports came out with a multitude of new games including Fight Night Round 4, a MMA game to rival the recent UFC game from THQ, NCAA Football and Madden 10 which both carry integration with the EA Sports website (NCAA allows you to build your own team, while Madden will allow you to manage an online franchise), EA Active for the Wii, and Grand Slam Tennis (with Pete Sampras showing his moves with the Wiimote). Tim Schaefer came out to talk a little about his new game Brutal Legend, a game starring the voices of metalheads like Jack Black, Lemmy Kilmister, and Ozzy Osbourne. EA closed their set by showing their two MMOs in the works, Realtime Studios' All Points Bulletin and BioWare/LucasArts' Star Wars: The Old Republic. All Points Bulletin is an open world city in which players can choose how to achieve their rise to fame; either by crime or by upholding the law. Gameplay looked very Saints Row and all in all was not very appealing to my tastes. On the otherhand, LucasArts came on with an entourage of Jedis and Sith Lords to debut the first cinematic trailer of Star Wars: The Old Republic. Being a recovering WoW addict, Star Wars: The Old Republic may just be my new drug of choice.


Day 1 of E3 '09: Microsoft

Wow, this year my Microsoft predictions weren't as accurate as a I thought they would be. It seems as though Microsoft knew what people were expecting (motion controller, avatar stuff, etc.) and went a step further with it.
In response to the motion controller rumors, they showed off Project Natal with Steven Spielberg, which is a camera that detects faces and motion and responds to voice commands as well. They demoed the new camera by showing several games as well as Peter Molyneux (Fable, Black & White) showing off Milo, an interactive character that responds to real-life actions through Natal.
As far as avatars go, they will be upgraded with the ability to earn awards and props that allow you to further customize your avatar. They will also be further integrated into the NXE; both games and interface-wise.
Microsoft made, in my opinion, a great move when they announced that the 360 will support, Facebook, and Twitter. will allow Gold members to use the free listening/music discovery service. No word on whether you will be able to use it while in-game. The Facebook integration allows users to take game snapshots and automatically upload them to their profile. Users will also be able to update statuses and view photos and friends via Facebook Xbox. Twitter allows the same twitter service to be used on Xbox. Nothing too special there.
More importantly, Microsoft gave an excellent view of what games they have lined up for the upcoming year. First off, they had a diverse cast of celebrities come up to help present what Microsoft has to offer. They started out with Rock Band: The Beatles, where the families of John Lennon and George Harrison as well as Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr came on stage. This was followed by Tony Hawk showing off the new Tony Hawk Ride game, which is controlled by a skateboard deck peripheral. The Square Enix people gave a glimpse of FFXII running on the 360. Shooters shown include Left 4 Dead 2 and Modern Warfare 2, both looking badass as expected, as well as Halo: ODST and the announcement of Halo: Reach, which is a prequel to the first Halo. A sequel to Crackdown was announced for 2010, supporting both competitive and co-op multiplayer. Finally, following on the heels of the FFXIII announcement of last year, this year's shocker was the appearance of Hideo Kojima who announced that the Metal Gear Solid franchise would be coming to XBox 360 with Metal Gear Solid: Rising. It stars Raiden from MGS2 and MGS4 fame.
Overall, great press conference from Microsoft this year. I give it a B+ on the grounds that they do have some great games lined up and some great ideas, but how well those ideas will be executed in the mass market is debatable. Also, no price changes or even possible bundles were announced for the upcoming year. While the MGS announcement came as a bit of a shocker to some, it is not the first time the franchise has come to Microsoft consoles as MGS2 was released for the first XBox. Microsoft has certainly set the bar for Sony and Nintendo and it will be interesting to see if they'll be able to compete.