Spartacus Legends

legends_logo_215x120Spartacus Legends is a free-to-play fighting game from Ubisoft that hit XBLA and PSN recently. It’s based on the Starz gladiator series. Already all kinds of alarm bells should be going off in your head, right? A F2P game based on a TV show!? Yegads.

I’m not sure why I downloaded it but I did and tonight I fired it up and surprise! It’s actually not too bad. The core here is a gladiator fighting game, with all the gore you’d expect, plus plenty of salty language just in case we were confused about whether or not a game where you can slice your enemy’s face off their head is meant for children.

The fighting engine… well listen, I’m not a fighting game guy. I can’t remember combos and when I can remember them I don’t have the dexterity to pull them off. But I can play Spartacus Legends, which probably means if you’re serious about fighting games than this is going to be way too basic for you. But for this kind of game/audience, going a bit more casual was probably the right move. Your face buttons are light attack, heavy attack, a block breaker and a grab. Left shoulder button is block, right shoulder button, along with analog stick, let’s you roll. There are combos here if you can figure them out. I felt like after a while my fingers had figured out a few without my brain really parsing what they were.

What I like about Spartacus Legends is the strategy/rpg wrapper around the fighting game. You’re trying to build up your stable of gladiators to make your house/school/ludus famous once again. You start with one poor bastard armed with a piece of junk sword, a busted up shield and a loin cloth. As you win fights you’ll gain both coin and fame. You use coin to buy better armor and weapons, additional gladiators and cells for them to sleep in (more cells = more potential gladiators).

As you gain fame, you (you as in the faceless guy/gal running the ludus) can access more and more lucrative (and dangerous) venues to have your gladiators fight in. I just dipped my toe in the second area after an evening’s play. Early battles are non-lethal (through the magic of Hollywood I guess) but as you advance the “Lethality Meter” increases. It’s probably going to suck when one of my favorite gladiators gets killed. πŸ™

Your gladiators also earn Perks for winning battles. One of the earliest for instance is “Hard Headed” which gives that Gladiator +10 defense.

Of course things get expensive pretty fast, and that’s where the F2P stuff comes in. Instead of earning coin you can just buy it with real money. Gold coins, in particular, are pretty hard to earn and some of the better gear can only be purchased with gold coins. Also each Gladiator has a finite number of Perk Slots (1 to start) and replacing a Perk with a new one costs Gold coins.

There’s an Online Battle component that I stayed far away from. With a game where real $$ can get you the best gear I don’t want to have anything to do with PvP. But if you stick to the PvE side of the game, you can have a pretty good time without spending any money. I may buy some Gold Coins just to support Ubisoft if I play for much longer.

Spartacus Legends isn’t going to win any game of the year awards or anything, but it’s worth downloading some evening when you just feel like something a little different. And gory. And foul-mouthed.

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Overlooked at E3: IndiePub’s Storm

There were a hell of a lot of games at E3, and the big names got plenty of coverage. I like to poke around the virtual corners of game coverage and uncover interesting looking titles that didn’t get a huge amount of coverage. Storm is one of those titles. All I found is this trailer, which makes the game look like the love child of ThatGameCompany’s Flower and Q Games’ Pixel Junk Shooter. Hey, a game could have uglier parents!

Storm will be released on PSN in the not-too-distant future.

Clearing up the Sony FUD

OK listen, it sucks that some thieves stole your name, address and hashed passwords. I get that. Sony should be held accountable on some level, though I’d say the thieves more so.

But I’m so SICK and TIRED of the professional game bloggers making everything look so much worse than it is, spinning things to make it seem like Sony all but rolled out the red carpet for the thieves. I’ve seen it on Destructoid (though to their credit, they went back and updated the post later), Kotaku, Joystiq, Gamespot, Massively… all saying some variety of “Experts say that Sony had unpatched servers and no firewall, and knew about it.”

This is all coming from Dr. Gene Spafford, from Purdue University. Or so the spun stories will tell you. Most of these stories even link to the written testimonial. Which actually says:

In the Sony case, the majority of the victims are likely young people whose sense of risk, privacy and
consequence are not yet fully developed, and thus they may also not understand the full
ramifications of what has happened. Presumably, both companies are large enough that they
could have afforded to spend an appropriate amount on security and privacy protections of
their data; I have no information about what protections they had in place, although some
news reports indicate that Sony was running software that was badly out of date, and had
been warned about that risk.

(emphasis mine)

Most of the testimony is really basic stuff about how bad having data stolen is and what “phishing” means and other stuff that 99.99% of the people reading this blog already understand. As for the spoken testimonial, here that is:

There’s your expert and you can hear it for yourself. Basically he read a mailing list where someone claims to know that Sony had an out of date version of Apache (no details on how out of date) and no firewall (this is clearly bullshit…there’s no way they didn’t have a load balancer in place to distribute 77 million users across their servers, and pretty much every load balancer is also a firewall; between the apache servers and the application servers there needs to be some kind of firewall to handle NAT or something…unless all of Sony’s servers were on public facing machines, which is very very VERY hard to imagine) and claims that Sony reads the same mailing list and knew all about it.

That’s not exactly compelling testimony to me… people say all kinds of random shit on mailing lists and forums. Also note that in his written testimony he refers to news reports, leading me to wonder if he even reads the mailing lists in question.

Now whatever security measures Sony had in place, they were clearly not up to the task at hand, and shame on them for not having beefier security. We’re all paying the price for that mistake. But there’s a big difference between “not enough security” and what this expert is saying, which is essentially “there was no security at all.”

Add to that the fact that Sony says the breach occurred via an application server, not a web server, and with all the security people looking over their shoulders, the FBI involved and the intense scrutiny they’re under, I find it a stretch to think they’re going to try to pull off a lie right now.

And yet.. every one of these posts have commenters nodding their heads and dragging out the pitchforks and torches and assuming that yup, everything this old gentleman has to say must be 100% true.

I’ve never been more ashamed of the community of professional bloggers out there.

Two nights with Dungeon Hunter: Alliance (PS3)

Gameloft’s Dungeon Hunter: Alliance hit the Playstation Store on Tuesday. It was exactly the kind of game I needed. I’ve been really itching for an action-RPG dungeon crawler and although a bunch are headed our way (Daggerdale, LOTR: War in the North, Hunted: The Demon’s Forge and Dungeon Siege III, all off the top of my head) none of them are here now, when I needed them!

It didn’t hurt that Dungeon Hunter: Alliance cost me less than $10 ($12.99 for plebes, $9.74 for us elite Playstation Plus members).

I played for a few hours Tuesday night, single player using a traditional PS3 controller. Then on Wednesday Angela and I did some couch co-op using a pair of Playstation Move controllers. Here’re my thoughts so far.

Let’s start with what DH:A isn’t.

First of all, it isn’t a $60 game so I didn’t have $60 worth of expectations. I was looking for a few nights of amusement and that’s what I got.

Second, it isn’t customizable. You pick a class (Mage, Warrior, Rogue) and you get a character. You can name your character (they’re all male) and then you’re done customizing.

Third, it isn’t fast loading. Level loading takes forever, but once you get into a dungeon you can play for a long time without another loading screen. Early on there’re a few of them and they can make a bad first impression. I don’t mind a long loading screen if it comes once an hour, but when they come 5 minutes apart they can really put you off.

Fourth, it isn’t original. It’s a port of a Gameloft mobile title (Dungeon Hunter) that I played a bit of on the iPad. The story, such that it is, seems the same, the dungeons seem to be the same. And frankly, the original wasn’t very original to begin with. It’s all familiar terrain to anyone who has played Diablo or any other hack & slash 3rd person isometric dungeon crawler. That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun, though.

The worst aspect of it being a port is the inventory system, which must’ve been designed for iPhones or other tiny screens. Instead of a “Paperdoll” and a backpack, the inventory system here shows you each “slot” as a separate screen. So there’s a Left Hand screen and a Right Hand screen and a Chest screen and a Gloves screen, etc, etc. Each of these screens shows the inventory items you have that go with that slot. It all works, but it can be kind of tedious flipping through all these screens. It is, however, quite compact so probably worked well on a phone’s screen. But my 52″ TV isn’t a phone and a new inventory system would’ve been welcome. Happily there’s an “Auto-Equip” feature that will choose the ‘best’ bit of gear for each slot, if you don’t want to be bothered.

So that’s my grumping out of the way.

On the first night, as I said, I played alone. Using the Dual-Shock controller means you have direct control over your character. I picked a Warrior and with almost no thought started playing. That’s one of the upsides of it being not-original: you already know how to play this game. As I leveled up I put points in Strength since I was a Warrior (Rogues get Dex, Mages gets Energry, then there’s a Vitality or Endurance or something that gives you hit points). Most of your gear is class-limited via these stats. So it isn’t that a Mage can’t use a big-assed 2-handed axe, but in order to do so he’d have to put a lot of points into Strength that he’d probably really need in Energy.

DH:A has a gear and stat system that we don’t see often enough, and I’m going to illustrate it with an example. Say you’re a warrior who wants to use a bow as a backup weapon, but the bow requires 12 dex and you only have 10 dex. Since this is a backup weapon you don’t want to spend attribute points on dex. If you can find a pair of +1 dex rings and put them on, you’ll have your 12 dex and you can then equip your bow. Once the bow is equipped, you can swap out those rings for more appropriate Warrior-type rings (strength or extra HP or whatever). You can still use the bow, as long as you never unequip it. This sounds subtle but as anyone who played Anarchy Online can tell you, it adds a neat dimension to gear collecting.

The graphics are cartoon-ish rather than realistic, but I really like them. My Warrior’s sword swinging animation felt right. I could see how heavy that two-handed sword was. The controls can feel a little laggy at times but they still feel right. You need to get a kind of cadence going with your melee attacks. I’m not sure if this lag is by design or not, frankly, but I feel like it really adds to the game. As an enemy charges you, you need to anticipate by a heartbeat and get that big iron swinging at the baddie ahead of time. The first levels have you fighting goblins and you’ll seem them climbing down chains that hang over head or scaling up walls from some undetermined pit that you’ll never visit. You can’t hit them until they’re on the floor, but you can wind-up to meet them with cold steel the second they get there. There’s no blood or gore but melee combat still felt satisfying. [Update: Doh! I was playing tonight and realized there *is* blood but it fades away very quickly.]

In addition to stat points, you get skill points as you level up. You spend these in a fairly typical skill tree manner. You assign these skills to the face buttons and I’m not sure what happens when you get more than three (a basic attack and a skill for each of the other 3 buttons). By the end of the night I had a strong attack, a sweeping attack that knocked back a bunch of baddies, and a charge attack.

You also get a fairy companion who has an attack of her own. That gives everyone some magic. Her attack has a fairly long cooldown so its kind of your “Oh shit!” action.

Potions restore both health and mana and are bound to one of the shoulder buttons. You have have 2 sets of weapons and toggle between them via another shoulder button.

Let me cut this short (?) and say the damned game had me up until 12:30am that first night. I was very pleasantly surprised.

On to night 2. Playing co-op and with the Move controller felt like a totally different game. I chose a Rogue and she a Mage. Playing co-op wasn’t as immersive for me, but it was a ton of fun in a different way. Loot (did I mention loot? There’s a ton of loot in this game) is color-coded to let you know who can pick up what. Coins are a free for all and I’m not sure if they were split or not. You can trade loot back and forth. We probably should’ve had a tank since the game scales difficulty according to the number of players and we were both kind of squishy.

Using the Move controller is similar to using a mouse. You kind of point and click to move. There’re all kinds of gesture controls, like twisting the Move will switch between weapon sets, and shaking it will trigger your fairy’s attack. Angela picked up on it really quickly but I must confess I found myself struggling with it. I *think* that you can mix and match controllers though, so if we play again I’ll use the Dual Shock and let her enjoy the Move controls.

We got to the final boss of the first big quest line and wiped 3 or 4 times before we packed it in for the night. My solo Warrior took this guy down on the first try. I’ll have to play more to see if this was about class, about numbers of players, or about me sucking with the Move controller!! πŸ™‚

For $10-$13, I’m finding this to be an awesome value. In fact I feel like I’ve already got my money’s worth out of it, and Angela claims she had fun. (I’m constantly trying to get her to play games with me on the PS3!) As long as you come into it with reasonable expectations (and a bagful of patience for when dealing with the inventory screen) I’d say this one is well worth the cost of entry.

Sony considering an iPad app for PSN digital comics?

I just was asked to take a survey about my experience with digital comics from the PlayStation Network (currently for reading on the PSP). Reading between the lines, so to speak, it sounds like Sony is judging user interest towards accessing their digital comics on other hardware besides the PSP. Specifically mentioned were a PC, the PS3, and the iPad/tablet computers.

There’re already several digital comics sellers who’ve set up house on the iPad so it might be a tough nut for Sony to crack, but I’d love to be able to buy a digital comic and read it on my PSP or my iPad, depending on what was handy.

Again, this was just a survey so there’s no telling how seriously they’re considering the idea. I just found it interesting that they’d even think about jumping to Apple hardware.

Shatter (PSN)

Sidhe’s Shatter came to the Playstation Network yesterday, at a very reasonable price of $7.99. I wasted no time grabbing a copy.

At its most basic, Shatter is a Breakout clone: you move a paddle back and forth in order to bounce a “ball” into the play field where it will smash blocks. But Shatter adds some new twists and gameplay elements that make it different from every Breakout-style game that I, at least, have played.

First, when the break a block, it smashed into Fragments. You collect these Fragments in order to build up a power bar. How do you collect Fragments? By Sucking them in to your paddle. At any time you can pull one of the left shoulder buttons to Suck. And conversely, the right shoulder buttons Blow.

So it is Breakout with Sucking and Blowing. I pity the marketing team.

What makes this interesting is that when you Suck or Blow, it affects everything. The Fragments, the ball and (some of) the blocks. By using Suck & Blow, you can curve the ball’s trajectory (little hint marks on the edge of the playfield help with this). Basic blocks are fixed in place, but there are some special blocks that kind of ‘float’. Generally these are trapped by basic blocks at the start of a level, but once those ‘fence blocks’ are gone the floaters drift. If they drift into you, you lose a life.

So you need to use Suck to pull in the Fragments for energy, but not use so much of it that you start sucking all these floating blocks towards your paddle.

What’s energy for? Well, you do have a Shield that will protect you from incoming floating blocks, and that requires energy. But once your energy meter gets full, you can unleash a torrent of laser fire at the blocks. When you do this, everything slows down in a kind of laser bullet-time.

Shatter also has all kinds of power-ups dropping out of busted blocks, and a wide range of block types, from the basic and floaters I mentioned, to ‘rocket’ blocks, blocks that spawn other blocks, explosive blocks, and so on. The playing field is sometimes rectangular, sometimes circular. In the latter, about three fourths of the field will be surrounded by a fence that things rebound off of, and the last quarter is where your paddle roams, following the curve of the level.

Every few levels there’s a boss battle, which is kind of a new twist for Breakout games. Oh, and you can release as many balls as you want (well, up to the number of lives you have). But every time you lose a ball, you lose a life.

Shatter has PSN Trophies and Leaderboards for you Achiever types.

I’m no where near done with it, nor have I seen everything it has to offer. But for a mere $8 I feel justified in recommending it to anyone that’s enjoyed any kind of Breakout-like game in the past.

Here’s a video of the game in action (not mine). Skip the first 2 minutes or so to get to the actual gameplay. You can see the Sucking and Blowing as concentric arcs moving towards or away from the paddle. Notice how the ball trajectory curves in response to this. Since this is world 1, you won’t see a huge variety of blocks, unfortunately.

Sony gets in bed with its enemies

Here’s irony for you.

Shortly after the Sony PSP launched, industrious hackers started figuring out how to run homebrew apps on it. From then until now, Sony kept patching the firmware to lock out the homebrewers, and the hackers kept working around the patches. Sony’s message was clear, if ineffectual: thou shalt not homebrew.

Today, the Playstation Blog breathlessly announces that No Gravity: The Plague of Mind will be coming to the PSN tomorrow. In a very ernest attempt to part us from our dollars, the blog says, without a hint of hypocrisy, [No Gravity] hit the headlines for the first time in 2007 as a β€œhomebrew” game for the PSP. It was acclaimed as a game that β€œputs tons of retail games to shame with its incredible polish.”

So apparently homebrew is evil and vile… unless suddenly Sony has a chance to make a buck off it.

Fat Thursday at PSN

Wow, huge PSN update today. We’ve got Wipeout HD for $20, Megaman 9 for $10, GEON Emotions also for $10, and Burnout Paradise for $30. Plus the usual assortment of add-on content (for Buzz! & Soul Calibur this week) and Rock Band songs, game videos, demos of NBA 09 and Megaman. Just a huge update.

I finally pulled the trigger on Burnout Paradise. When the game first came out I played the demo and liked it, but I didn’t like it $60 worth. When it hit $40 on sale I was really tempted but still held out. Now, for $30, and all the additional content they’ve released for is since release, and no need to scrabble around looking for a game disk when I get the urge to play, I figured it was time.

Unfortunately the PSN network isn’t ever superfast for me, and tonight it’s seeming extra special slow. I started the download but don’t expect it’ll be done before bedtime tonight. Oh well. Guess I’ll have to log in to WAR! πŸ™‚

Surprise of the week: Fatal Inertia EX (PS3)

Anyone who played Fatal Inertia on the XBox 360 will tell you that the game was not very good. So of course I was expecting it to be not very good on the PS3, but after trying the demo, I have to say that it isn’t too bad. In fact it was pretty fun. It looks great, the controls are nice, I found some shot-cuts, fired off some cool weapons…

In fact at this point the only bad thing about it is the price of the full game. Are they really asking $30 for it? I need to actually check the store because that just seems too steep. At $20 I’d definitely pull the trigger, but $30 is a bit too high.