Thursday, November 13, 2008

ESRB begins what we've been doing for almost a year

Now, Your Family Games has been on break for a while, and probably will continue to be while I'm studying abroad in Japan. And I know it seems a little pompous and presumptuous to make such a random return to write this kind of article up, but after spotting this article on my daily trawl through Kotaku's latest posts, I just couldn't let this go.

According to this article from Kotaku, the ESRB has recently instituted a new summary system that includes brief synopses of games in order to give a small description of the plot and detail any possible violence, sex, or general non-kid-friendly no-nos.

Essentially, it's Your Family Game's "Family Factor" from our reviews, which has been around since about the beginning of 2008.

Now I'm kicking myself because I could have contacted the ESRB back when I had my personal epiphany about videogame content summaries, and pitched this idea to them. Then Your Family Games could be a fabulously wealthy very informative, well-funded and fleshed-out product, rather than a site that's skulking around on the bottom of Internet obscurity.

Still, it's kind of nice to see an idea you had and agree with implemented on such a public platform.

However, there are a few unknowns about this new summary system:
  • The ESRB's ratings (E, T, M, AO, etc.) will most definitely still be on the game boxes but will the summaries make it on there as well?
  • Who will end up writing the summaries? (ESRB raters are usually volunteers and don't play through the full game; they view a DVD of the game's "pertinent content." This means it's the game publisher's responsibility to disclose all possible controversial content to the ESRB for the ratings process. Unfortunately, some publishers aren't honest, and this has caused some problems in the past)
  • Will there eventually be summaries for older games? (Games before the July 1, 2008 start date) If not, maybe this is something YFG can head that up ^_~
This system applies to all games rated after July 1, 2008. You can search for games through the search box on the front page of the ESRB website.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Grand Theft Auto (Xbox 360)

Review by: Josh Ende

Title: Grand Theft Auto IV
System: Xbox 360, Playstation 3
Price: $59.99
ESRB Rating: M for Mature
Developer: Rockstar North
Publisher: Rockstar Games

Age Range: This is a little tricky. I definitely wouldn’t recommend that anyone under 13 play this game, but anyone under 17 should be “chaperoned” by a parent to dissuade young gamers from doing anything that might be unacceptable.

Buy?: Yes! There’s no way I can keep myself from recommending this game. It may not be suited for all ages, but GTA4 is arguably the best videogame to be released in this decade. Do not pass up on this game. Even if your gamers are a little too young, I suggest buying the game and saving it until they’re mature enough to enjoy it.

Summary: You play as Niko Bellic, an immigrant from Eastern Europe who has come to America to join his cousin, Roman, in what they consider to be the “American Dream.” The whirlwind of crime and drama that ensues is their path to their shared dream.
Difficulty: Average. This entry in the series is a little easier than the previous games, but the gameplay is still geared towards more mature audiences making it challenging, but never unbeatable.
Learning Curve: Another tricky subject! About 40% of the game’s objectives walk you through everything you’ll need to be able to do to complete the game, however nothing you’re doing feels like you need to learn it. The control scheme takes some getting-used-to, but after the 10 minutes that takes, you’ll feel like you are Niko Bellic.

Total hours of play: The main story (roughly 60% of the game) can be finished in 30 hours. Completing the full 100% will take significantly longer and the multiplayer mode will provide endless hours of fun.

Family Factor: Put the kids to bed! Grand Theft Auto IV is not for everyone. This game is full of realistic graphic violence, drug and alcohol use, and the kind of sex content that you can see on late-night pay channels.

By this point it should be easy to figure out how I feel about this game. As I mentioned above, GTA4 is arguably the best video game released so far this millennium. The opening cinematic will immediately pull you into the style and feel of the game which is darker and grittier than any Grand Theft Auto game before it. Niko Bellic, the protagonist, has come to Liberty City to join his cousin, Roman, in their endeavors for a new start. We learn that Niko has a dark past and some bad history back in his home country which is never really named. We also get the impression that Niko has come to America for more than just a new life and those intentions are what get Niko and Roman into the trouble and drama that makes up most of the game’s main story. By the end, Niko will have been involved with no less than three different facets of organized crime and even the government. This is the ultimate story of cops and robbers and no one is left out. I can’t give away much more of the story without feeling like I’m giving something away, but I can assure you that GTA4’s story stands up there with the best crime movies.

How does it play though? The control scheme won’t feel like second nature until you’re about an hour into the game, but you’ll be familiar with it long before that. It’s just not as intuitive as some other games out there. If you’ve played any of the earlier GTA games then you know what to expect, but this time around, Rockstar has made a few additions to the controls to go along with some of the new gameplay that’s been implemented. The new cover system is probably the most prominent of additions and also the most useful. The easier difficulty of GTA4 (compared to earlier games) can arguably be attributed to Niko’s ability to take cover in gunfights opposed to standing out in the open and hoping the body armor lasts. The new cover system is handled decently, but it’s not as smooth as in games like the Rainbow Six Vegas series or even in Gears of War. It’s also accented with a new aiming system that gives the players more freedom and control over where their bullets land.

Vehicles have become more difficult to control, but this is offset by the new ability to hail a cab that will drive you anywhere a car can take you in Liberty City, which is roughly based on New York City. While cabs do cost money, they save time and the frustration of trying to navigate through New York-esque traffic. It’s one of the many ways that Rockstar has added realism to the series. But it’s this realism that also makes the game so much more mature than its earlier iterations.

I can go on and on about why this game should be played, but I’m going to focus now on why this shouldn’t be played. As mentioned above, and along with a new gorgeous graphics engine, GTA4 is full of gritty realism. The violence is always harder to swallow when the victims look more realistic. Rockstar has tried to water this down by letting some victims crawl away after defeat, but most gamers will respond to this by shooting retreating victims in the head since most games have conditioned gamers to shoot any bad guys that move. The language is also very strong. It’s done in a way so that it never sounds or feels out of place, but the vulgarity is definitely something you won’t want younger gamers repeating. In the last Grand Theft Auto game there was a huge controversy over simulated sex scenes. In GTA4 there is still simulated sex, though it’s nowhere near as graphic as what stirred watchdog groups four years ago. Throughout the story, Niko will meet a variety of different girls that he can take out on some interactive and fun dates such as bowling, billiards, or darts. Niko can also try his luck at the end of each date by trying to invite himself in. If he does get lucky then the furthest the game goes is some suggestive sounds and an exterior view of the girl’s home. However, Niko also has the choice to indulge in the occasional prostitute. Once parked in a secluded area the player can choose how much to spend (the higher the price, the more involved the service). The service is then acted out in a very detailed manner yet no clothes are ever removed. It’s not exactly the worst it could be, but it might not be something a child should be exposed to.

I mentioned up above that this game should be played under parental supervision for anyone under 17. Grand Theft Auto IV is a very mature game, but most of the worst aspects of it are purely player controlled and aren’t as likely to be attempted in front of parents. Otherwise the game has a lot of genuine value to it. The story and characters are accessible and interesting enough to captivate anyone even if they aren’t playing the game. And the mature themes and adult situations of the game are likely to put-off any gamers too young to really understand it.

Related games: Previous Grand Theft Auto games (Multiple platforms), Saints Row (Xbox 360), The Godfather (Multiple platforms)

Monday, May 5, 2008

Update (May 5, 2008)

Unfortunately, no new reviews or articles this week.

However, I did stumbled across a browser-based game creator. It's a creation of Microsoft's Popfly development tools, which has a what-you-see-is-what-you-get format that allows less tech-savvy folks bypass learning how to write lines and lines of complicated code and still create a rather professional-looking product.

Popfly does offer other tools such as web design or a multimedia/widget creator, but I focus on the Create a Game tool because it would be great for a kid who wants to be a games designer. I think a lot of gamers pass through the phase where they want to try out making their own games, and this presents a simple, viable way for wannabe designers to do so without dropping lots of dollars on game design software or books. All you need is Mozilla Firefox 2.0 or higher, or Internet Explorer 6.0 or higher, and Microsoft Silverlight to get started.

If you're a student or administrator at a university or college, you can collect on more Microsoft freebies. Through a program called DreamSpark, university students or administrators are allowed to download free, full versions of Microsoft software. All you need is a Windows Live ID and any student login information typically used at your university:
  • Expression Studio
  • Sql Server 2005 Express
  • Sql Server Developer Edition
  • Virtual PC 2007
  • Visual Basic 2005
  • Visual C++ 2005
  • Visual C# 2005
  • Visual J# 2005
  • Visual Studio 2008
  • Visual Web Developer 2005
  • Visual Studio 2005 Professional
  • Windows Server 2003
  • XNA Game Studio
I hate to hawk Microsoft's wares, but when there's free stuff abound on the Internet, it has to be shared.
Next week:
  • Patapon review (PSP)
  • Super Mario Galaxy review (Wii)
  • Assassin's Creed review (Xbox 360)

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