Monday, June 20, 2011

Free Games for the PlayStation 3: A Compendium

Gamers in the know will no doubt remember when, a few weeks back, Sony's servers were hacked, exposing their customers' credit card numbers and other precious booty to roving internet pirates.  It was an event of such magnitude that it has its own wikipedia page, under the name PlayStation Network Outrage.  Being an enormous, amoral corporation, Sony of course handled the crisis in the noblest way possible, by withholding embarrassing information as long as possible and completely shutting down service for three weeks.  As of last week's E3 press conference, they are reportedly very sorry.

Ever since Sony got pwnt by teh haxxors, it seems like every company in the industry has been on the receiving end of similar attacks.  To my knowledge, none of the other companies have garnered the same ill will from customers as a result.  In any case, Sony has offered its customers a generous compensation package as a result: free downloads for two PlayStation 3 games, two PSP games, and a thirty day membership to PlayStation Plus.

Now it took me a while to remember this, but I actually am a PlayStation 3 owner, and I happen to have a PlayStation Network account.  Thankfully, my credit card seems to be safe from the pirate menace, but I am nonetheless eligible for some of Sony's largesse.  With that in mind, I took them for all they were worth: downloading not only the two free PS3 games, but ALSO an extra three from my free PlayStation Plus account.  Here's some quick reviews of those games, should you also decide to take advantage of the deal:

Super Stardust HD
Developer: Housemarque

A bullet hell shooter that harkens back to the classic Asteroids, as well as the proud tradition of instantly making any game seem more fun by putting "Super" in the title.  The game allows you to channel your pent up rage through the bright and noisy destruction of inanimate objects, all the while risking your own bright and noisy destruction if you should crash into one.  This is distressingly easy to do, especially if you suck at this kind of games as badly as I do.  But playing a game like this isn't really about excelling, as much as it is about dancing with the devil and becoming constantly amazed at what you can get away with.

The globe-shaped playing area gives a sense of infinite motion through a relatively small space, and the Sci-Fi/pop soundtrack is a boon to attention deficient gamers everywhere.  Video arcades may be dead, but the quarter-popping spirit lives on with Super Stardust HD, trafficking in multicolored delights while breaking players' spirits with escalating difficulty and cheap deaths.  And I love every second of it.

There isn't really more to this game than that: it's candy, pure and simple.  It demands lightning-quick reflexes and a modicum of strategy, but with nothing at stake beyond unlocking new planets, you don't ever feel bad about playing poorly.  You just go as far as you can until you die in a glorious fireball, and then you do it again.

Here's a video from some enthusiastic fan:

Rating: You should totally get it, dude!

Dead Nation
Developer: Housemarque

There is a certain breed of gamer who loves nothing better than walking through a dark corridor, only to be assaulted by a flesh-reaving zombie.  Having absolutely lost my shit after only an hour of playing the Resident Evil remake on the Gamecube, I can assure you that I am not one of them.

Dead Nation is sort of a combination of the survival horror genre with the mechanics of a dungeon crawler like Gauntlet.  To that end, it sort of diffuses the visceral impact of the "horror," placing you far above any danger and leaving your tiny onscreen avatar to face the unspeakable terrors of the viral apocalypse.  That's all well and good for a sissy like me, but a horror game really ought to be scarier, shouldn't it?

The game is still pretty fun to play through, though I do have some complaints.  Since the setting is so dark, you have to rely on your character's pathetic little flashlight to see anything in the environment clearly.  I know that's really the point of this sort of game (how's the zombie supposed to get the jump on you if you can see him coming?), but it seems like a waste that video games in general are wasting the visual prowess of modern consoles on overly dark environments.  As far as mechanics goes, the lack of a lock-on function makes survival unnecessarily tough, particularly if you play like me, spraying bullets in wide arcs at every sudden movement.

In the end, it's basically a poor man's Left 4 Dead (it even has a co op mode), but the production values are still suitably high, particularly in the visuals.  There's a story, but it's a fairly generic zombie tale, and the voice acting is unimpressive.  The opening montage tells you pretty much all you need to know, with its live action footage of urban chaos and biological terror.  As for the sound, it basically boils down to gunshots and the grunts of the zombies as they shuffle through the night, looking for some innocent flesh to reave.  What else do you need?

Here's another fan's video:

Rating: It's pretty good!

Incidentally, I'd like to wag my finger at Google's spellchecker for not recognizing the legitimacy of the word "reave."  No, it is not interchangeable with "reeve." 

Magic: The Gathering - Duels of the Planeswalkers
Developer: Stainless Games

I'm a nerd: this is not up for debate.  I am reviewing five fairly obscure video games at once, after all.  Yet despite my ample nerd cred, I managed to grow up with minimal exposure to games like Magic or Dungeons and Dragons.  I'd have glimpses of that lifestyle from time to time (a few Pokemon cards, a friend's Warhammer guidebook), but the complicated rules and high cost of entry always put me off: video games were much easier for me to wrap my head around.  I probably wouldn't have downloaded this game if it weren't for my friends Mike and Bau, but I have, and now you're going to hear about it.

The kernel of this game is essentially playing Magic as you would in real life: the advantage of the video game is that you can play online, or a campaign mode against a series of AI players.  The music is mostly insubstantial, inconsequential, and safely in the background, but the visuals show off the intricate, fantastical art work that Magic cards are known for.  Since the game consists largely of looking at those same cards, this really goes without saying.

Lacking any meaningful experience, I opted for the AI campaign, beginning with the tutorial.  After the game held my hand to victory in my first ever match, I felt like I had a grasp on the basic mechanics of the game.  My first match without the training wheels, however, ended in complete and utter catastrophe.  You don't need a detailed understanding of Magic to understand why; when your opponent manages to take all twenty of your hit points, and you manage to knock off three of hers, you are clearly doing something very wrong.

Real live Magic seems like it would be a fairly good time for many people.  The mechanics are intimidating, but not absurdly complicated, and it's easy to see the appeal of the world behind the cards.  Beside the illustrations, the text on many cards hints at a world of colorful drama and humor.  There is a deep level of strategy to be seen at play in high-level games.  But unless your nerdy friends have all moved away and you're desperate to play online, it's hard for me to see what the special appeal of Duels of the Planeswalkers is.

Here's another player's video for illustrative purposes (that digital voice isn't a part of the game.  I guess this guy just doesn't like the sound of his own voice):

Rating: Don't pay for it.

Streets of Rage 2
Developer: Sega

This is the oldest game in our compendium, a classic brawler for the Genesis from waaay back in 1992.  Historians will note that in 1992, street gangs dressed like extras in hair metal music videos and roamed the streets with switchblades and katanas.  Or maybe that was just in Japan.

There's something very basic about a brawler like this, and that isn't necessarily a bad thing.  Scott Pilgrim vs the World: The Game proved you can combine old school pixel-graphics with the classic brawler formula (fight guys, move right, fight more guys) for a modern, exciting experience that still holds that very basic appeal.  The Streets of Rage series is a mostly standard genre exercise, with a fairly quick pace of new enemies and environments to remind you that you're (apparently) in some rather serious business with whatever mohawk-based crime syndicate rules these streets.

Apart from a few sentimental favorites, however, I can't get too excited about most classic brawlers.  The game play has a tendency to be fun in sporadic bursts, when you deliver a dramatic beating to some bad guys, and then tedious as you try to move around without the ability to run.  I never understood why most brawlers don't allow you to move fast, and I still don't like it.  I also don't like the limited arsenal of fighting moves, particularly when it isn't very clear how I've executed them most of the time.

I've heard it called a classic, but it just doesn't make a very strong impression on me.  The music is unremarkable, the setting is quaint, and the game play is tedious, especially when you're playing by yourself.  Maybe I shouldn't be playing it by myself.

Here's another video:

Rating: Maybe get it if you really liked it back in the day.

The 2D Adventures of Rotating Octopus Character
Developer: Dakko Dakko

Video games are mainstream now, penetrating deep into society's iPhones and gobbling up free time like so many Pac-man pellets.  Hardcore gamers often resent this development, not to mention the games that represent it, for cheapening what was previously an exclusive experience.  Many of these games, however, deserve credit for reviving old styles that the current market, with its love for high technology, has mostly ignored.

Apart from its ridiculously wordy title, The 2D Adventures of Rotating Octopus Character has very little text.  The premise is very simple and is conveyed succinctly with a few pictures and some key words: rescue the baby octopuses and don't bump into anyone else.  The game presents a series of puzzles and platforming challenges to that effect, becoming progressively harder in classic fashion, while delivering bright and cheerful animations that look fine on screens of any size.

Rotating Octopus is a perfectly accessible game, so whether you like it or not will likely depend on your tolerance for cartoon whimsy and joy.  If you are entirely lacking in joy, you will probably find it off-putting, or seek more dramatic, visually overwhelming stimuli.  I just don't know what we'd have to talk about at that point.

Here's a whimsically joyful video:

Rating: Well, I like it.

In summation, Sony, thank you for this largely entertaining pack of free games.  But could you maybe try and work on your security a bit so I don't find that I've "paid for" these in some unpleasant way?

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