I’ve driven on two NASCAR tracks in my life. And by driven, I mean I’ve sat in a car, pressed my foot to the ground, and went around those ovals as fast as my nerves would let me. The first time was at Richmond Raceway, a high banked oval designed for the fastest race cars in the world, and I was driving a high powered AMG Mercedes coupe capable of 155 mph, courtesy of the local dealership. The second NASCAR track I drove on was Langley Speedway. A small quarter-mile oval that looks like it was paved in someones backyard. And I was driving my own car, a bone stock Crown Victoria LX Sport. Guess which time was more fun.
To call Langley Speedway a ‘Speedway’ is kind of like calling Snookie an ‘actress’. That’s being a little unfair to Langley, but not by much. Unlike it’s heyday in the 70’s and 80’s, where the track was a haven for short track racers on their way to the ‘big leagues’, now it’s mostly used for Late Model and ‘Legends’ races. The term ‘stepping stone’ would be a fitting caption for most of the divisions that run at Langley now. A few times during the summer though, they open the track to anyone with a license and a helmet for what’s called ‘Wacky Wednsday’. That’s where me and the Crown Vic come in.
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a superhero. I wanted a cape and a secret hideout. I wanted to beat up all the bad people in the world and I wanted to fly. I didn’t want to be Batman, because even as a kid, I knew that he wasn’t a real superhero. He didn’t have any powers. He was just a rich guy who was friends with the police commissioner. Living in the projects, I knew that those traits were more out of reach for me than getting the ability to fly. Plus, I had already tried jumping off of the top of a dumpster while holding an umbrella over my head, and the results were nowhere close to the smooth gliding descent that I had seen on Batman's TV show.
In their latest fighting game, Injustice, Gods Among Us, NetherRealm Studios is giving gamers the chance to become their favorite superheros (and villians). Using the well sculptured fighting engine from 2011’s Mortal Kombat, players can battle each other as some of DC’s most iconic characters. And for the first time, it doesn’t feel watered down. Superman punches people into space, Batman runs opponents down with the Batmobile, Aquaman feeds bad guys to sharks. It’s the epitome of comic book wish fulfillment. The list of characters is a good mix of well known standards and fan favorites. Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and Flash are joined by lesser known heroes like Green Arrow, Hawkgirl and Cyborg. Infamous bad guys, Joker, Bane, and Lex Luthor stand beside second stringers Solomon Grundy, Killer Frost, and Black Adam. In all, there are 24 characters in the game with more being added via DLC. Each character has the trademark powers we all know them for. It’s a true feat how the developers managed to balance the gameplay between the esoteric powers of someone like Green Lantern with the more grounded attacks of Deathstroke.
I've always wanted to be Superman. He was a real superhero. He could fly wherever he wanted. Bullets couldn’t hurt him. And he was strong enough to stop anyone from even trying. Superman was my guy. And when my mom dropped me off at the YMCA Boys Club for the first time, I was proudly wearing a freshly washed Superman shirt. In the summer, when there’s no school, some kids would get shipped off to summer camp to give their parents some rest. I've always wanted to be Superman. He was a real superhero.Others spent those off months playing outside in the neighborhood. But when camp is too expensive and your neighborhood is not a good place for a kid to be walking around, you get dropped off at the YMCA Boys Club. Think of it as a daycare center littered with makeshift weapons, filled with boys from 9 to 17 years old and with barely enough adult supervision to satisfy any government regulations. Each morning parents would drop off kids on the way to work, and each evening they’d come pick them up. Hopefully more or less intact. As soon as my mom drove away I was faced with a scene that was a mix between the Lord of the Flies and the Hunger Games. But I wasn’t worried. I was wearing my Superman shirt.
I had managed to map out a schedule to surviving each day. In the morning, before the big kids showed up, I passed the time in the game room, playing pool and foursquare. Once the older kids arrived, it was time to abandon the inside of the building and head for the playground. And once it got too hot to stay outside, I would head for the makeshift library, to spend the rest of the day playing board games and reading in the corner. In the end, the library became my fortress of solitude. But for a while, the playground was my favorite part of the day. Because that’s where I got to practice being a superhero.
Injustice: Gods Among Us has all of the prerequisites for a fighting game, alternate costumes, distinct locations, flashy super moves, etc. Then it takes them a step further. Levels are multi-tiered, with the ability to knock your foe into an entirely new environment. Supermoves go a step further and deliver a cinematic punch worthy of their comic book origins. The single player offerings include the usual versus modes, but there’s also an inventive Star Labs section where the heroes are given different tasks to complete, not always involving fighting. Dodging debris, saving civilians, and breaking barriers are some of the skills you’ll master in Star Labs. Of course, there are still a good deal of ‘Beat up this guy to win’ type of missions, but the occasional change of pace is welcome after years of single player fighting game modes that are simply dumbed down versions of the multiplayer experience.
Swingsets are boring. Sure they’re fun for a few minutes, but day after day, week after week, even a goofy kid like me figured out that I was just going back and forth. That is, until I discovered how to ‘fly’. Here’s how it worked, first, you stand up on the seat. Then by bending your knees, and pushing forward, you get much higher, much faster that you can by sitting down and pumping your legs back and forth. Now, most of the other kids would sit down at some point and then ‘jump’ by sliding off of the front of the swing. That was fun. But it wasn’t flying. Flying was jumping off while you were still standing. Soaring through the air and landing further than anyone thought possible. Thats what I was doing. A lot. I was 12 years old and still invincible. And when some of the other kids began to copy my swingset superheroics, I had to find a way to take it up a notch. It’s not a superpower if everyone is doing it. So I decided to add a level of difficulty.
I stood on the cracked black rubber that passed as the seat of the swing and bent my legs. I pushed my feet forward while pulling back on the chains as hard as I could. For this to work I would need to go higher than I ever had before. Best case scenario, I would land twirling in the grass, armed crossed, looking like a bad ass.</>Soon I was speeding back and forth, the wind whooshing in my ears and the world blurring. The moment of truth was almost here. I couldn’t go any higher and some faint twinge of self preservation told me not to try. But it was just a twinge, and so it failed to stop me from completing the next part of my kryptonian destiny. I jumped. Just like I had dozens of times before. I figured I must have been twenty feet off the ground, no, more like fifty. And this is where I would set myself apart from all the pretenders. In mid-air, I twisted my body to spin around 360 degrees. Best case scenario, I would land twirling in the grass, armed crossed, looking like a bad ass. Worst case scenario...well, kids don’t really consider worst case scenarios. Plus, I saw Superman do it in a movies, so I knew it was possible.
Injustice:Gods Among Us manages to mix casual and hardcore gaming together, so that even if you’re not veteran of fighting games, you still feel like anything is possible. You can hit a guy through a brick wall without memorizing a complete sequence of button presses and thumbstick movements. On screen indicators let you know when you can pick up that helicopter and slam it down on Bane’s head. But at the same time, it never feels crippled by it’s simplicity. It’s just as happy to have you dole out punishment via 20+ hit combos worthy of the best players at EVO or single button supermoves that send your opponent through a subway train.
My own supermove was a near complete success. When I made the leap from the top of the swing’s arc, I heard everyone gasp. When I spun, I heard the appropriate amounts of ‘WHOA!’ . And when I landed I heard the kid who was up next yell ‘Oh my God!’. I also heard someone snap their fingers for some reason. The landing wasn’t perfect. I must have over-rotated because instead of the cool superman pose I had planned on, I was sprawled on the grass with dandelions in my teeth and ears. Not a big problem. I’d do better next time. I didn’t realize that there’d be no next time.
I got up to soak in the adulation of the other kids, but they had already moved on. I decided to sit on the edge of the nearby see-saw in case anyone wanted to come and ask how I managed to fly like that. For some reason, getting from the ground to my would be throne was a lot harder than it should have been. My right foot wasn’t cooperating. In fact, it was screaming for me to stop moving. I hobbled over and sat down as tears welled up in my eyes from the pain. I hobbled over and sat down as tears welled up in my eyes from the pain.I sat there for an hour. Partly trying to figure out why I couldn’t walk but mostly working out how to spin better the next time I jumped off the swing. Some kids yelled that a game of ‘Bombardment’ was about to start in the gym. Bombardment is basically dodgeball on steroids. We all loved it. And if enough of us got there fast enough, we’d be able to avoid the influx of older kids that always signaled the end of ‘fun’. I got up to run to the gym, and was immediately reminded that my foot was still off duty. It should have fixed itself by now. I wasn’t worried though. Superman never stayed hurt for too long, so I was positive that my malfunctioning foot would be better soon. I hopped on one leg to the gym. and each time my right foot even glazed the ground, a bolt of pain shot up my leg. By the time I made it to the gym, any thoughts of dodging rubber projectiles had fled my mind. Instead, I crawled to the top of the bleachers, and pretended to watch while fighting back the urge to cry for help.
Injustice: Gods Among Us succeeds where other superhero games have failed. No one wants to play a game as a superhero only to find out that your character’s powers are diminished for the sake of ‘balance’. It’s not fun to don a costume only to find out that you can be taken down by an average street thug. And it also avoids the traps that other fighting games fall into. It’s easy enough to learn, but not so convoluted that you need a guide book and months of practice to enjoy yourself. NetherRealm has done a fantastic job of allowing anyone the chance to feel how fun it would be to have superpowers, even if it’s only in a game.
By the time my mom was due to pick me up at 5:30pm, I had been in the bleachers for nearly 6 hours. It wouldn’t be until the next day that I would learn the snap I heard on landing was actually my ankle fracturing. I had no idea that I was destined to spend the next 6 weeks in a cast and crutches. I hopped to the car, dragging my useless foot behind me, each step an explosion of spikes slamming into my leg. I got in the car, shaking from the pain, and the first thing I said was ‘Ma, Today I was Superman!’
The best part about video game conventions aren’t the games on the show floor, it’s the parties afterward where a bunch of geeks can hang out and be themselves. Its not like going to the neighborhood bar where the smell of cigarettes and alcohol is outmatched by the cheap cologne of men talking to women with cheaper perfume.
An industry party is different. Mostly you’re just standing around with a drink in your hand talking to someone about how the big name actors like Patrick Stewart are showing up more and more in games. There’s not a lot of cheesy lines or male bravado because to be honest, there’s not a lot of reason for it. The women at a gamer party don’t have a lot to fear from guys who spend a good chunk of time retracing levels to find that one last health gem.
This party was no different. I had come with my friend who just happened to fit the role of a stunningly attractive woman. She may not have officially been my date, but that didn’t stop me from feeling just a little bit good about the approving nod I got from the bouncer at the door. As the night progressed we slowly drifted to opposite sides of the room. Every so often I’d see her out of the cornier of my eye hanging out by a Mrs Pacman machine. Even though I’m deep into a discussion about whether the migration from 2D to 3D in classic remakes is a natural evolution or a just money grab, I can still pick out her laugh across the room amongst the background noise. I looked past the blogger blocking my view and see that she’s talking to a guy we had interviewed earlier that day on the show floor .I also notice that he had ditched the lanyard and controller based accessories he was sporting at the show and swapped them for a shiny dress shirt and jacket topped by a gold chain that would be more at home on an MTV reality show than a bar filled with podcasters. I knew the look on his face from experience. He was on the prowl.
I’ve only been on a golf course once in my life. I’m not talking about the Putt Putt courses with a spinning windmill and an orange ball. I practically used to live at those things. But a real, honest to goodness 18 hole PGA level golf course. That count stands at one.
At the time I was a web programmer. I spent my days sitting in an office, writing the same apps over and over while our salesman convinced local businesses that they really needed a contact page added to the new website he just sold them. Suddenly, I found myself in the passenger seat of Pete the salesman’s convertible BMW, on our way to a golf course in the middle of nowhere. According to Pete, I was there to ‘check out the golf pro’s system’.
HB Studio’s ‘The Golf Club’ on the Xbox One doesn’t boast PGA courses or professional golfers. Instead it offers you the chance to create your own course via the built in, Greg Norman branded, editor. You can share your courses online and have them rated and ranked by other players. I can’t help but think that whatever HB Studios paid for the Greg Norman licence was could have been used elsewhere because the legendary golfer makes no appearances in the game. No helpful tips on what makes a good course, or a critique of your creations, or even a simple audio clip saying ‘Hi I’m Greg Norman’ show up. Instead the only impact I see from the trademark is his Shark logo on the main menu. Your choice of golfer consists of either guy or girl. I admit that I’ve been spoiled by the extensive character creators of other sports titles, but at this point it’s almost a prerequisite.
A major part of The Golf Club is the voice of your golf buddy, John, who gives you tips on certain shots and comments on your play. He has a friendly, ‘one of the guys’ tone but unfortunately, he quickly gets repetitive. Before I had finished 18 holes I was already hearing some of the same remarks over and over again.
When we arrive it’s eerie how close the scene was to the stereotypical golf clubs you’d see on TV and the movies. You’re immediately greeted by beautiful mahogany decor with deep leather furniture carefully placed throughout the sprawling lobby. There was even a chandelier. I quickly asked where the server room was, hoping to be in and out of the building in a few minutes. Pete gave me a quizzical look and informed me that the computer could wait, we were on our way to the dining room to get lunch. As someone who was living on a diet of Subway and Rally’s I was a little out of my depth when the waiter came to our table and asked to show the wine list. I just ordered a chicken salad sandwich.
In The Golf Club, the decor is a bit more sparse. I know that actually hanging out at in the proverbial clubhouse in the game may have been too much to ask for, but John, the disembodied voice keeps bringing it up, making the absence of an (admittedly gratuitous) visual lobby even more noticeable. The game boasts local and online multiplayer, and it also allows you to play against your own best rounds or those of your friends. You may be a little disappointed when you don’t see your opponents on the screen though. I would have enjoyed the feeling of a group of golf buddies on the course together. Instead only their golf balls make an appearance.
We had been there over an hour and I had yet to see anything resembling a computer. Finally, the golf pro appeared and we led us back to his office, overlooking the driving range. After deciphering his non-technical explanation of ‘This computer aint working’ I realized why I was there. Tech support. It turned out that he had ordered a video capture card because he wanted to tape his lessons and sell them online. The problem was, he had no idea what a capture card was and definitely didn’t know how to install one. The next thing I know, Im installing drivers, screwing in video cards and configuring the network adapter.‘Sure I got Internet, but It don’t work’ was translated into ‘I never plugged in the network cable and don’t know if I even have one’.
Controlling your golfer on the XBox One is a very straightforward and intuitive affair. Instead of the standard 3 button-press control scheme for your swing, The Golf Club relies solely on the analog stick. Pulling the stick back winds up your swing and moving it forward completes the motion. It’s the same for driving or putting. It’s a natural feel and easy to get used to. The downside is that you aren’t given much in the way of gauging how much power you’re using. You have to guess how far back a swing you’ll need for a 28 ft putt or a 53 yard chip shot. It’s frustrating and transforms each hole into a difficult series of guessing games. There’s no kinect based control options.
In the middle of downloading drivers for an ancient Creative Labs card, I realize that I’m alone in the office. I look out the window and see Pete practicing his swing and getting a steady supply of tips from the golf pro. I could hear them both in between swings, sometimes talking about how important to bend your knees when on the backswing. And sometimes discussing just how they’d split the commission if the golf pro convinced the Club to ’add this internet stuff’ to the building. And thats when it hit me. I was living a textbook example of how the world works. These two guys, puffing on cigars, playing golf, were deciding how much money they were going to make from the work I was doing. And the numbers being tossed around were way above the hourly rate I was getting. As a matter of fact, my workday was done hours ago, so I wasn’t even being paid for this.
I put down the screwdriver and announce that I’m done. I gave some technobabble excuse as to why the videocard wouldn’t work and that he needed to buy a new one. Maybe it was true, maybe it wasn’t. I honestly don’t remember. But I do remember deciding I wasn’t going to spend another second sweating over some old rich guy’s computer while he squabbled with another old rich guy about how much money they were going to make from me.
The Golf Club is a solid golf game. There’s is no denying that. Unfortunately, it doesn’t go much further. On the XBox One the game looks beautiful in still shots, but in motion, cracks appear under the surface. You can’t help but to notice the trees popping into existence during long drives or the emptiness of the course thats void of any other golfers or even a caddy. The Golf Club is perfect for a simple relaxing game of golf on the XBox One. One of the things HB Studios’ title has over the golf club I was a guest at, is with it’s budget price tag, you won’t feel like some old rich guys are trying to cheat you out of a dollar.
A few weeks ago, while playing through yet another batch of indie games, I realized that I had finally been elevated into ‘grumpy old man’ territory. Because I was looking at all of these great, imaginative, fun to play games and I found myself annoyed. Instead of enjoying the bounty of independent game development in front of me, I could only think, 'What are these idiot kids thinking?'
There are a lot of games today that have embraced ‘pixel art’ as the style of choice. Low color, blocky, detail-less objects on the screen that are often described as ‘retro’. The thing is, it’s not retro, not at all. Back in the good old days of 8bit gaming, game developers worked with what they had, and admittedly, it wasn’t a lot. 4 color sprites built in a 32x32 grid was as good as it got. They did some great work. But gamers and developers both wanted more. Thats why we went from 8bit to 16bit to 32bit and on. Thats why each year consoles got more powerful. Retro shouldn’t mean ‘blocky graphics with good gameplay’ Retro shouldn’t mean ‘blocky graphics with good gameplay’ Retro should mean good gameplay with the best graphics you can squeeze from the machine.
Every game doesn’t need to reach Infamous 2 or Titanfall levels of 3D open world grandeuer. But if you’re going to make a title, it should look as good as you can make it, whatever the genre. If you have a 2D platformer that has less frames of animation than Mickey’s Castle of Illusion on the Sega Genesis, then why? If you have a WW2 dogfighting game that is less graphically impressive than Two Tigers from 1984, then why? I no longer believe that it’s a style choice. And even if it is, it’s a style I’m not willing to pay for. I lived through that time, and I waited patiently for games to claw their way out of the era of eye scorching, gaudy, 8 bit graphics. I have no desire to go back. And it also upsets me to have gameplay used as a scapegoat for poor visuals in a game. It’s not an either/or situation. There isnt a gameplay->graphics slider in a console. Hearing the words ‘we focused on gameplay’ makes me cringe because too often it means ‘It looks pretty bad, but if you can get past that it’s kinda fun’.
And don’t think I haven’t noticed the odd double standard the industry has when it comes to graphics. If you walk into one room and proclaim, ‘Graphics don’t matter! It’s all about Gameplay!’ You’ll get a round of applause. Walk into that same room an hour later and say ‘720p is good enough, we dont need 1080p graphics’ you’ll get booed into submission. There are sites that have spent pages on zooming in on screenshots to see if the anti-aliasing for Ground Zeroes is better on the Xbox One or the PS4. And then those same sites will explain how endearing and detailed the squares are in SuperMeatBoy.It’s enough to make your head spin.
I’ve had this conversation a lot with people and I’m usually told at this point that games like Titanfall and Luftrausers are completely different and have different goals and budgets when it comes to graphics. I know this. My point is that there’s no reason for any game released on hardware as powerful as 99% of the consoles and PC’s available today, not to at least be on the same graphical level as games released 30 years ago on hardware 1000 times less powerful. Thats not an exaggeration. A modern console is exponentially more powerful and easier to develop on than systems of the past. So why am I looking at something that would have been rejected from a Tecmo board meeting? The indie community is filled with talented artists The indie community is filled with talented artists that could use your screen as a virtual canvas if given the chance. Instead their work is reduced to the lowest common denominator and then reduced even more.
Not all indie games fall into this bracket. There are legitimately beautiful titles available that fulfill the goal of ‘retro style’ gameplay while not insulting the player with poor graphics just to make sure you know you’re playing a ‘retro indie’ game. You can find them everywhere from the PC, Ouya, Phones, and even on next gen consoles.
The first saturday in May means one thing, Free Comic Book Day! This year Lawrence Young from the Fantastic Forum, Chip Cella from the B-Team, and Derrick Hopkins from Dead Pixel Live visited two of the best comic shops in Los Angeles to chronical the event. Geoffrey's Comics and Comic Bug were both filled with comic lovers of all ages. Geoffrey's added to the fun with a sale of 25% off of everything in the store and while Comic Bug gave you the chance to meet and greet some comic book royalty. Check out some images from the day below and feel free to share how you spent Free Comic Book Day 2014.
Every year, a couple of the local Mercedes dealerships get together and rent out the Richmond International Speedway. They then spend a full day attempting to convince ‘VIPs’ to buy a new overpriced luxury car. They do this by letting you speed around in an assortment of Mercs on an assortment of courses specifically designed to make you want one right now. And being a VIP just means that they’ve sold you a car in the past or they’re pretty sure they’re gonna sell you one on the next week or so. Today, I was a VIP. So that there’s no suspense, I’ll jump to the end. I didn’t leave that day with a new Mercedes. I’m very happy with my Crown Vic, thank you very much. But I did leave with the knowledge of what it means to love driving.
Dead Pixel Live goes down an alley in this episode. Derrick rants about how E3 reports have ignored the majority of the show and how news about WeTheForce, Hyperkin, USO, etc goes unreported. Hect and Tedakin join in as we discuss the Ouya and why Derrick will probably buy one
There is something extremely satisfying about a well thrown punch. The feeling of contact between your fist and bone. The sharp snap it makes. The tinge of pain in your forearm from the shock of the impact. I'm not talking about justhitting something. I'm describing what happens when you use everything your body has, directed through your fist, in an attempt to destroy whats on the other end. Its addictive and dangerous. Most people never really experience that. But those that do, know exactly what I mean.
When I was younger, I was very familiar with that feeling. Growing up in the projects meant that when someone pushes you, you push back harder. It's a simple rule that worked amazingly well.I didn't get pushed that often, andwhen I did,I made sure it didn't happen again.
That rule changed when we moved to the suburbs, but no one told me. Being one of the few Black kids at Linkhorn Park Elementary School, I got pushed a lot. And I pushed back. Punched back. And when I'd get pulled into the principles office, I couldn't care less what she had to say. She obviously didn't know how things worked. Her rules weren't my rules. Even when Chris, the only other Black kid in the school tried to explain things to me, I ignored him. "Derrick,the kids here are wimps, you can't hit them like that anymore'. He was right, the kids were wimps. A shove on the basketball court was a reason for tears. A kick at the playground was a reason to run to the teacher. Why were they crying? They have 2 parents, nice houses, and didn't have to use a free lunch card in the cafeteria. Wimps.
I finally got the message when my mother was called in for a 'conference'. I waited outside while the teachers recited my crimes to her. When my mom came out of that room, I expected a smack to the head and to be shoved into the back seat of the car. That what was supposed to happen. But it didn't. Instead she refused to look at me and headed for the bathroom.Tears streaming down her face. I had never seen her like that. When the teacher appeared, she looked at my blank expression and accused me, 'You did that to her.You're the most apathetic child I've ever seen, do you know what apathetic means?' I nodded my head. I knew exactly what it meant. It meant 'boy who makes his mother cry'. That's when I decided to change. What beatings, and restrictions, and suspensions failed to do over the years, was accomplished in a split second by the image of a strong woman reduced to tears.
But deciding not to hit other kids doesn't mean the feelings go away. And they needed an outlet. When I saw a new game at the supermarket called Street Fighter 2, I asked my mom for a quarter and played it while she shopped. When another kid joined in, it was a revelation. I could punch him, kick him, throw him to the ground. No punishments. No crying. This was a good thing. Very good.
Over the years other ways to channel those feelings have come and gone, and Street Fighter faded into the background. Each new version seemed to get farther away from allowing me to throw a punch and enjoy it connecting. Instead of an outlet, it turned into a way to watch a combo meter count upward. I just wanted to hit someone.
Street Fighter 4 brings that back. The visceral thud of a punch is conveyed in beautiful images that make the violence seem like a work of art. The controls have been simplified so that I don't have to search online for a 13 page move list to enjoy it. And most importantly, when a punch connects on screen, I feel it. And it feels good.