It’s been an eventful sporting weekend thanks to the NBA and NHL drafts, and there were some interesting tidbits in the gaming world as well.

Halo:  Reach Could Use Natal Technology?
According to an interview in The Seattle Times Bungie Studios own Harold Ryan noted that the upcoming Bungie project could be compatible with Project Natal.  While Ryan speculated that it certainly could happen, he never said that it would or that any plans to do so were in the works.  He merely made the comment while praising the Natal technology.  FPS fans should try to talk themselves off the ledge.  The idea that Bungie would release a shooter with any kind of motion control seems like folly given their loyal online community.

Xbox 360 Pro Could Vanish?

The rumor mill atTeamxbox.com is hard at work, speculating that the “Pro” SKU could disappear this summer and be replaced by a lower-priced Elite. This seems to me like a win-win for gamers and MS. Gamers get the Elite and it’s 120-GB drive (along with what seems to be sturdier hardware in general) for the same price while Microsoft lowers their number of different SKUs by 1, which should help their manufacturing costs.

Minnesota Drafts Rubio #5, Flynn #6

This is probably more fanfare than even the biggest Jonny Flynn fans would expect surrounding his selection, thanks to the fact that the Timberwolves selected Spanish point guard Ricky Rubio one pick before the Syracuse floor general.  This is puzzling because neither are big enough to guard two-guards in the NBA, nor are either of them the kind of outside shooting threat that can stretch a defense.  And we’re supposed to think they can play together successfully?  Sorry David Kahn.  Not buying it.  I’m not drinking the Rubio Kool-Aid the way most are, and if they can get a couple of nice pieces for him I’d deal him in a heartbeat.  I would expect him to end up elsewhere before he plays an NBA game.  Whenever that may be.

Islanders Make The Smart Pick

Kudos to the New York Islanders, who might just have saved their franchise by picking John Tavares with the #1 pick in the NHL Draft.  A franchise on the rocks in recent years, the Isles at least saved themselves from the scorn of their remaining faithful.  The pick was wildly applauded and rightly so.  That’s not a slight on Victor Hedman or Matt Duchene either.  Both have the potential to be phenomenal players.  I simply believe that Tavares is a cut above the same way that Crosby and Ovechkin have been in recent years.  Remember, Evgeni Malkin went #2 the year Ovechkin went #1.  A draft isn’t limited to one superstar.

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Every friday I will muse on stuff that for whatever reason, never became it’s own full-fledged post.  Here I will collect my random thoughts about gaming and sports and also comment about other stuff out there if I feel so inclined.   Starting… now.

Fight Night Round 4 Demo Impressions

Now, I haven’t really played a boxing game in a long time.  Fight Night 2004 is the last one I played for more than five minutes, so I’m hardly an expert on the genre.  That said, I found Fight Night Round 4 to be really enjoyable.  They’ve done a nice job honing the control scheme over the years, and it gives you a really natural feel when you’re in the ring.  The demo allows you to play three rounds as either Ricky Hatton or Manny Pacquiao which gives you just enough of a taste to want more.  Thankfully you can quickly select the “Rematch” option and keep boxing, rather than being kicked out to the menu every time. 

The gameplay itself feels silky smooth, and offers a mix of arcade and realism.  You’re not going to consistently land haymakers on your opponent but if you stun them you can wallop them with a signature punch using B.  That adds a certain theatrical element to things, as does the act of recovering from a knock down.  I would liken it to shooting free throws in the older NBA Live games with the sliders… only much more difficult.  At least on first glance.  I struggled to answer the count on more than one occasion, coming oh-so-close only to tweak the stick the wrong way and rubber-leg my way back to the mat.

EA has brought a substantial roster of boxers to the table, snatching greats such as Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson and George Foreman out of their prime and rendering pixel-perfect recreations.  They also seem to have addressed complaints about a lack of depth with the Legacy Mode, allowing you to create and train up your own fighter.    This is a title I’m excited about and will probably pick up after it comes out at the end of June.

Activision Parting Ways With Sony?

To me this sounds crazy, but Activision CEO Bobby Kotick came out and made several comments that indicate the publisher may do just that.  He expressed concern about the development costs and time investments with the PS3 as opposed to the 360 and Wii as well as Sony’s refusal to do a price-cut and high royalties fees topping $500 million in 2008.

Losing Activision titles including favorites such as the Call of Duty and Guitar Hero series would be a serious blow to the PS3 which already has issues with it’s rate of software attachment.  They simply can’t afford to lose those kind of broad-appeal titles.

My gut tells me this is posturing from Activision due to their displeasure with Sony’s strategies.  Most likely they have expressed their concerns privately and had them fall on deaf ears.  As a result, you get public criticism.  I would be extremely surprised if this actually happened.

Think Before You Speak?

Microsoft might want to invest in muzzles.  Especially if high-level MS figures are going to keep coming out and talking about a “new console” coming out in 2010.  Twice this week word broke that MS was developing a new console for 2010, based around a “natural interface” which was believed to be the Project:  Natal device that was revealed at E3 recently.

Both times Microsoft had to come out and state that they were in fact not working on a new console and they believe that the 360 isn’t even at the halfway point of it’s life cycle.  Natal will be “an important part of this platform”, but not it’s own seperate hardware as was suggested by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer earlier this week.  This is good news for gamers who were ready to start firebombing the MS front offices.  Surely a company this large can figure out that while they have made huge progress in the console wars this generation, their lead is fragile at best.

You get the feeling that people who don’t actually grasp the difference between a new bundle and a new console entirely are speaking out of turn here, although Microsoft is expanding internal memory from 256 MB to 510 MB on the newer Arcade units.

One day after announcing the release date, Treyarch has released the second Map Pack for Call of Duty: World at War.  The announcement yesterday was a pleasant surprise, and I find myself eagerly downloaded said map pack in the wee hours of the morning.  As a result of this inability to sleep, I’m also posting an early review.

The new pack consists of three new competitive multiplayer maps for traditional matchmaking, as well as another level expanding the Zombies experience.

Sub Pens

Marines vs. Imperial Army.  The atmosphere provided by the rain is outstanding.  It looks somewhat open when you spawn in, but as you move around you can see that there are a lot of little rooms, nooks and crannies.  I think it offers some things that aren’t really provided by any map previously in multiplayer for WaW.  While it was compared to Dome during the demo on the XBLA, it feels nothing like Dome to me.  It is of a similar size in that you can run straight from one end of the map to the other in around 15 seconds, but it offers a great deal more cover than Dome’s environment does.  While there are shooting lanes available, there are also many ways to move around without crossing open spaces.  I can invision a lot of hairy close-combat situations and a lot of trap scenarios on this board.

Corrosion

Wehrmacht vs. Red Army.  A somewhat long but not especially wide map.  I’d classify it as a mid-sized level.  It felt very large to me at first but as I moved around and learned the layout, it no longer felt quite as expansive.   One thing you will definitely find here more than other WaW maps is a level of vertical combat.  While this is offered on some maps such as Nightfire, Corrosion has a second level that sprawls across most of the map and will definitely be a factor in how the map plays.  Be ready for those moments of frustration as you die from an unseen adversary.  It’s going to happen on this map more than once.  While the environment offers enough cover to move around, this isn’t a map where you can run wild and free without fear of snipers and riflemen.

Banzai

Imperial Army vs. Marines.  This map has some of the most varied terrain and environments in WaW.  One portion of the map is dedicated to a series of underground caves along with a pair of waterfalls that feed into the river splitting the map into two sides.  You can cross the map via the caves and the man-made tunnels they connect to, or you can cross the large bridge.  Additionally there are a number of structures on both sides of the stream that will remind players of Knee Deep or Makin.  These buildings are mainly constructed of thin wood and metal, although you will find an old Japanese shrine in one corner.  This is definitely the largest of the three maps, providing a number of combat scenarios.  Snipers will love to pick off bridge-crossers while those who prefer to lurk in the shadows will enjoy the caves.  There are also plenty of opportunities for gunfights between the various buildings.  You can even fight it out along the stream under the bridge if you wish.

Shi No Numa

More Zombie madness.  This time with Imperial Japanese Zombies rather than Nazis.  Oh yeah and Hell Hounds.  Those are great fun (except not really).  They appear at random between rounds of zombies and will simply materialize out of thin air and charge at you.  I’m a pretty crummy Zombies player solo, so I couldn’t get deep enough by myself to run into anything new.  However once we got some four-player cooperative teams running in the afternoon today, business picked up.  There’s a large central building where you start on the second story.  The lower story holds the random weapon chest.  It also has four exit doors that will take you to each of the four outlying shacks.  Each shack contains different weapons and has different pluses and minuses with regards to defending it.  Each also has a perk machine, but the perks are random.  You never know what will appear where.

As we got deeper into the rounds, we found that it was more and more difficult to defend the outlying structures.  Especially given the lack of weapon options once you’re out there as you only have whatever one weapons spawns in each building.  There is another treat to be pulled out of the weapon randomizer, the Wunderwaffe DG-2 or as I call it “The Lightning Gun”.  It essentially shoots an electrical charge at the nearest zombie, and that charge then spreads to all other zombies nearby.  It can be a powerful equalizer when being overrun, but unlike the Ray Gun it’s a complimentary weapon rather than a primary killing tool as you have a small clip, limited rounds and it’s a real pain to use in close quarters.  All in all I think this might be the most challenging Zombies map yet.  It definitely presents some unique challenges.

Double XP

Looking to Prestige?  Now’s the time.  There’s an extended Double XP Weekend that is running through Tuesday to celebrate the new maps.  Treyarch has also unleashed the usual new maps playlists.

The Evolution of DLC

I think we’ve all come to accept that DLC (downloadable content) is a standard part of gaming here in 2009.  It certainly wasn’t always the case.  If you told me 10 years ago or even 5 years ago that I was going to be paying for add-ons to games I’d purchased I would have looked at you like you told me to eat a shit sandwich.  Even in the early stages of the DLC rollout I wasn’t an enthusiastic participate.  Why?  Well who wants to pay for things like alternate jerseys for their sports teams?  I’m looking at you EA.  Much of the early DLC consisted of things I had no interest in whatsoever.  I dismissed it as a gimmick.

Then they got me.  The first Halo 2 map pack came out.  Half of the maps were free, but you had to pay if you wanted the Killtacular Map Pack which consisted of Turf and Sanctuary.  With a 5.99 price tag it wasn’t exactly breaking the bank, but it did pop my DLC cherry.  It was the first DLC I shelled out for but it definitely wouldn’t be the last.  Since then I’ve shelled out for content added for a variety of games including Halo 2 and 3, Bioshock, Mass Effect, Skate 2 and Call of Duty:  World at War.  Not to mention a handful of Premium Themes.

So here were are in 2009.  Game companies are beginning to acknowledge more openly that they are withholding content that could be included at the release point in order to release it in episodic form later on as DLC.  Needless to say, this can be pretty frustrating as a gamer.  Take Halo 3 for example.  The first installment of the Mythic Map Pack hit the streets in April of 2009, but thanks to an achievement leak in the fall prior it’s easy to speculate that said maps were completed as much as eight months prior to their release.  After all, Assembly was a finished product at PAX 2008 in late August.  It’s unlikely that achievements for an item would be determined on an unfinished product, much less published to Microsoft’s website.  Microsoft set a release schedule for the DLC for whatever reason, and that was that.  Despite the fact that Halo went a full calendar year without any DLC content, an unheard of length of time for a major shooter.

Then you have games like Tomb Raider:  Underworld or Halo Wars where DLC was developed alongside the standalone game itself.  I think this is something that will be pretty commonplace in the next few years.  Afterall, it’s a great revenue stream for the development houses and the publishers alike.  It also helps them battle against one of their least favorite things; the used game market.   The hatred of used game sales by the gaming industry is pretty well known.  I can understand their point of view but I think they approach the issue all wrong.  They should be embracing second-hand game sales as a way to get older product into the hands of new players.

Where It Could Go From Here

While we will never see game companies distributing second-hand copies of their marquee titles, I think there is an area where the gaming industry could make some inroads.  A DLC exchange system of sorts.

Here’s an example.  I bought Skate 2.  I proceeded to spend 1400 points on Skate 2 DLC.  That’s around 20 bucks out of my pocket, and I have no problem with that.  I enjoyed the additional content.  I feel like I got my money’s worth from the game.  But what happens when Skate 3 comes out?  My Skate 2 will most likely get sold or traded in either for Skate 3, or another of the many superb games coming up for the 360.  Then what?  Well then I’ve got a bunch of DLC that is completely useless to me sitting on my hard drive.  I think this is an opportunity for both the gaming industry and the gaming community to get something positive from this orphaned DLC.

Here’s how it would work:  Microsoft (or Sony, if you’re on PSN) would offer a service where you could de-license your now unwanted DLC.  Thus removing it from your 360.  In return, you would gain a percentage of the original Microsoft Points that you paid for the item to use towards future DLC purchases.  So say I cash in my 1400 points worth of Skate 2 DLC in exchange for 20 percent of the original cost.  That would net me 280 points.  Your typical 400 point DLC purchase would net you 80 points in return.  It might sound like a small number, but to those who use the Marketplace frequently it isn’t.

Think of all the themes, arcade games and full Xbox titles you have on your hard drive.  Wouldn’t you consider cashing those in if you could gain credit towards new DLC purchases?  I certainly would.  Especially with the new Premium Themes rendering all my old themes completely useless.

So what do game companies get out of this deal?  They get two things.  First they get an increase in goodwill towards DLC.  This is something they could certainly use, given the view of many that DLC is a nickle-and-dime game used to extort additional money for the same amount of content.  The second thing they get is more DLC sales than they would otherwise see.  Even factoring in the MS points redeemed by de-licensing old DLC, you would see people purchasing items that they normally would never purchase.  How many gaming websites have we been on where we’ve seen someone lamenting the 800 points they need for a map pack, or the 240 points they need for a new theme?  Many gamers might refuse to spend that amount.  But when you’re talking about spending half as much that same DLC suddenly looks like a bargain.  You feel as though you’re getting more value for your hard-earned money.  Given the current fiscal climate I think that’s a point that all three gaming consoles and their various backers should consider.