Animal CrossingThis is "Burnout Paradise" Vs. Mode Round Two and we're about to go off the rails.

In Round One, I admitted to Newsweek's N'Gai Croal that I was a tad mistaken about "Burnout Paradise," which I had loved, kind of loved, kind of loathed and then changed my mind about again.

He pointed out he had been on board all along and sang the virtues of a proper sequel-making.

None of that was too crazy. But now comes Round Two, in which I basically say that "Burnout Paradise" is a better "Animal Crossing" than "Animal Crossing."

And N'Gai backs me up!

Read on to see how we got to that point. And really, can you disagree?

(These exchanges are mirrored on N’Gai’s “Level Up” bog.)

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For the first time in 2008, Newsweek's N'Gai Croal and I are locking horns for one of our Vs. Modes. For the unitiatied, these are unapologetically long debates between me and N'Gai about major video games.

The game up for debate this time is "Burnout Paradise."

When we signed up for this exchange we had two very different views on the game. As I state in my kick-off to today's Round One:

Over the last month, you have been identified as N'Gai Croal, champion of "Paradise." You have been declared as someone who gets it by none other than head "Burnout" developer Alex Ward in a worldwide pre-Christmas address to "Paradise" demo fans and skeptics: "'OMG The Crash Mode suXXors," Ward parroted his demo's critics as saying, before countering, "Hmm, again, none of you have played it yet. N'Gai Croal at Level Up seems to like it."

I am Stephen Totilo, enemy of "Paradise" ...

Reaction to the game has been sharply divided. So not surprisingly, we had some things to hash out. But there's a big twist in this first round.

Read on to see how this one starts out.

Or just scan down to the very last paragraph to read N'Gai take a shot at me. Round Two will be published later this week.

(These exchanges are mirrored on N’Gai’s “Level Up” bog.)

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Call Of Duty 4It is over. Another Vs. Mode. Well, unofficially a Vs. Mode. Throughout the week Slate.com posted an exchange between four gaming reporters, myself included, about the year in video games.

And they posted a 20-minute podcast, which I'm really happy with.

Participants of the 12-part written exchange and the podcast were:

Slate's Chris Suellentrop:

I hope that "Wii Play" does not become an Important Game that other companies copy. It's a fun enough little game, but its minigames don't have the exhilarating "virtual reality" feel of "Wii Sports," a game in which you actually feel like you're playing tennis, golf, and bowling. I haven't touched a Wii title that's lived up to the promise of "Wii Sports."

The New York Times' Seth Schiesel:

For pure adrenaline, nothing this year compared to my first solo battle against another player in "Eve Online." So there I was, minding my own business, flying my Rupture-class cruiser in a low-security star system called Klogori. All of a sudden, a Thorax blastership flown by a pilot from the then-powerful RISE alliance appears on my heads-up display. His railguns rip into my shields as I fumble to launch my attack drones and target my autocannons. We circle one another, dodging the asteroids tumbling about, as my ship's Nosferatu modules relentlessly suck away the energy stored in his ship's batteries and add it to mine. Soon, he can no longer power his repair systems, and I blow the Thorax to high-tech splinters. And none too soon. A few more seconds and it would have been me waking up in a cloning station.

Newsweek's N'Gai Croal (who?):

We agreed that it was difficult because of the amount of time that it takes to play a game as compared with watching a movie, not to mention the fact that games also require a certain amount of skill to progress. That's why the DS and the PSP have been a godsend for us New Yorkers. I would probably never have made it through all but the last level of Rockstar's disappointing "Manhunt 2"—sheepishly tilting the screen away from underage subway seatmates, of course—if there hadn't been a PSP version.

And me, Multiplayer's Stephen Something-or-other:

So, how odd am I for spending 18 hours playing through "BioShock" this year? For going through "Metroid Prime 3" in 15? For spending far more than four hours each finishing "Ratchet & Clank Future," "God of War II," "Heavenly Sword," "Call of Duty 4," "Lair," "Super Paper Mario"? How far into the frontier am I? And are the people who got turned on to games this year by quick-play champs such as "Wii Sports," "Guitar Hero," and, yes, "Desktop Tower Defense" ever going to get to these hinterlands with me?

All of the above is excerpted from the full Slate exchange. Plus, there's the podcast, which will auto play at the link or can be downloaded through this one.

Wow, do these guys ever shut up?

BioShockSince Newsweek's N'Gai Croal is altogether incapable of defeating me in our Vs. Mode exchanges, he is now bringing along some friends: Chris Suellentrop of Slate and Seth Schiesel of the New York Times.

Well, kind of.

He and I are taking a month off from Vs. Mode in order to accept the flattering offer to participate in Slate.com's first-ever end-of-year Gaming Club. Over at Slate you can read the beginnings of a weeklong debate/discussion about the year's best video games (and "God Hand"). In year's past they've done this for movies, inviting the biggest names of movie reviewing to talk about the year in film. Now they're doing the same for games.

Suellentrop kicks off, declaring that "BioShock is not just the best game I played in 2007. I think it's the best game I've ever played." He cites developer Clint Hocking, stating that the game might not be the medium's Citizen Kane, but at least a good step toward it.

Then there's me, once again touting the virtues of "Desktop Tower Defense":

My critics would be right to point out that there isn't much of a story in "Desktop Tower Defense." There is no grandeur. And there is no apparent philosophical critique. "Desktop Tower Defense" does nothing to propel the medium toward a video game Citizen Kane. It simply presents sport. Let's find room to praise games like that. Has the medium produced a Citizen Kane or a Schindler's List or even a Jaws? Maybe not. Maybe never. But it sure has created its own basketballs, footballs, and baseballs.

Plenty more where that came from, today and throughout the week, over at Slate.

Enjoy! Count the number of references to Jonathan Blow. And cheer for me to win. That's the point of a critical exchange, right?

ZeldaBack in October Newsweek's N'Gai Croal and I waged a four-round debate about "The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass."

This turned out to be an unusual installment of our critically-complimented (it's true!) Vs. Mode series. It included a transcript of a conversation he and I recorded right after I had him play the big to N64 "Zelda"s for the first time.

The full exchange is below, a veritable mountain of reading for your (possible) Thanksgiving holiday or, if you're anywhere else in the world, for the remainder of your week.

N'Gai and I had planned this Vs. Mode for a long time. He had never played a "Zelda" game at length before, and I never let him hear the end of it. I was excited to show him what was great about the series.

Surprise, surprise. I wound up expressing some of the most anguished things I've ever written or spoken about video games, stuff like this:

I'm the one at the more dire crossroads than you. You simply get a chance to decide whether or not "Zelda" is a blind spot in your gaming career to be embarrassed about or to feel vindicated that you could afford to skip it, but for me I'm at this crossroads where I'm like, "Am I correct in feeling that 'Zelda,' that the world has had enough 'Zelda' and am I correct in having the hubris to say that I know that Nintendo should move on?" Or am I a victim of my old age and, is it the case that when I say, "Oh, this 'Phantom Hourglass' doesn't have as good dungeons as the 'Zelda' in my day," am I onto something or not? You've now played "Phantom Hourglass" dungeons, therefore you've played 21st century "Zelda" dungeons and you played 1998 "Zelda" dungeons and the Deku Tree. Were they the same?

So if you've ever felt you got too old for some aspect of gaming you used to love... if you've ever felt a series has gone too long ... if ever you wondered if the problem was you or the people who made the game you struggled to enjoy or something else altogether... then this Vs. Mode is for you.

(These exchanges are mirrored on N'Gai's "Level Up" bog.)

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Breaking all previously established rules N'Gai and I are completing out "Portal" Vs Mode in overtime.

Today's installment appears one week after the first, bringing this sordid saga to a close -- though the arguments we bring up conclude absolutely nothing.

In Round 1, I listed three things that the critically hailed "Portal" does well and explained why I thought few game companies would rip them off. N'Gai offered his own minimalist take on what "Portal" gets right.

In Round 2, I affirm that "Portal"'s story and characters moved me. N'Gai then told me the game doesn't have a story and that the person I was controlling wasn't a character.

In today's Final Round we further the story and character debate. I explain why I think "Portal" represents game storytelling at its possible finest. N'Gai presents a great analysis of what a player in a game really means, in terms of the characters you play/control/identify-with.

Excerpts:

Totilo: I couldn't cast I/Chell in a movie, that's for sure. But I can tell you some things: she's a she; she's a test subject; she's willing to follow orders only to a point; she doesn't get tired when she runs; she has 20/20 vision; she cared about a companion cube; she was willing to kill her boss/captor. Were these all traits programmed into her by Valve? Were some of these brought into the equation by me? Well, sort of. Did I really bring my concern for the companion cube to the game myself? Or did Valve cull that out of me, essentially grafting certain actions and reactions onto me, puppeteer-ing me? Where exactly, in the spectrum between "Chell"-ness and Stephen-ness, is the character I control defined? And if it's somewhere in the middle, is that not possibly a proof of how a character in a video game is defined differently than one written about in a page or displayed on a TV screen?

Croal: I don't have this entirely figured out yet, but it should help explain my skepticism about your insistence that Chell is in fact a character, even by the lower different standards of videogames. Take "Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty." Solid is a grizzled, cynical, war-and-world-weary black ops veteran, while Raiden is an eager, impetuous, somewhat naive rookie agent. I know these things because they are depicted in the game. Can you tell me anything similar about Chell--anything besides restating either the premise of the game or simply recounting your actions during the game? You say, "she's a she; she's a test subject...she doesn't get tired when she runs; she has 20/20 vision." I say, given GLaDOS's references to "android hell" in Portal, how can you be certain that she isn't actually an "it"? You say, "she's only willing to follow orders to a point" and " she was willing to kill her boss/captor." I say you're mistaking game progression for character development. You say "she cared about a companion cube." I say, where's the evidence? I didn't see any tears or hear anything approaching remorse. In fact, didn't GlaDOS say that you/we/Chell terminated the companion cube faster than any other test subject?

You can read the rest of the exchange below (and, as always, it will be mirrored over at N'Gai's blog).

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(Warning: "Portal" spoilers throughout this post)

Round 1 of the latest Vs. Mode was tame. I told Newsweek's N'Gai Croal why I thought game companies would be hesitant to rip off "Portal" even though I then listed three things it did splendidly.

He praised the game's minimalism.

In today's Round 2 I take up N'Gai's offer to talk about bosses but do so by stubbornly talking about the game's story and characters.

N'Gai then lets me have it, explaining that I've talked right past him. In the process he tells me just what he thinks of the game's story and characters, or lack thereof.

If you like it when people argue, this round's for you.

Excerpts:

Totilo: I will tell you what I liked most about that boss battle: the fact that I wanted it. Did you ever get to Bowser at the end of "Super Mario Sunshine"? Or that whiny guy's dad at the end of "Final Fantasy X"? I was miserable when I got to those boss battles. I was mad that they were in there. They were roadblocks and they killed my gaming flow. And did I really care about taking out Bowser in his giant bath tub? Or evil dad at the edge of some wrecked roadway? No sir. But I wanted to hunt GLaDOS down, confront her for her lies, and break free of her clutches. I wanted this boss battle. I don't know if I ever have wanted a boss battle before. The narrative, slight as it was, suckered me in. The level design vaulted me forward. I cared to take a boss down, and never throught I was desiring this clash because I was being told to. I desired it. How rare is that? How odd is it that it's so rare?

Croal: you still haven't managed to convince me that there's a story in Portal. The only thing that we know is true is what Chell we did--GLaDOS, after all, is far too unreliable to trust anything she says--so if that amounts to "Portal" having a story, what then of "Tetris," "Bejewelled" and "Lumines"? As for the cake being real, that certainly wasn't Chell's our POV. Who are you going to trust--GLaDOS or your lying eyes?

Read on for the whole thing.

(This entry is mirrored at N'Gai's excellent "Level Up" blog.)
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portalvs1.jpgLet's not waste too much time here. Hot on the heels of last month's "Zelda" edition of the N'Gai-Stephen Vs. Mode exchanges, we're launching a week-long discussion of "Portal."

If you've played the game, I think you may already be hooked. Why is this game so important? What should other developers copy from it? What's the likelihood that they will? What are the three lessons I think the game can teach the industry? What is the single best quality N'Gai has found in the game? Which of us finds a way to compare "Portal" to "True Crime"?

Read on below (or, if you want to view it in a different layout, go read it at N'Gai's "Level Up" blog). Be forewarned: THERE ARE "Portal" SPOILERS THROUGHOUT THIS POST

Some highlights:

Totilo: At the end of 2007, the accountants and the titans of the industry will look back and everyone outside of Take Two will say, "We need a… 'BioShock.'" They won't say they need a "Portal." Why?

Croal: Forget "American Gangster"; I wish that videogames had a sufficiently visible cultural profile that Jay-Z would create an entire album inspired by "Portal".

Come back to Multiplayer later in the week for Round Two.

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My Zelda My N64Here we go, folks... this is the post I've been reluctant to publish.

It is Round 3 of this week's "Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass" Vs. Mode, a series that has filled my inbox with letters from people who say I'm rejecting a beauty of a game.

In Round 1 Newsweek's N'Gai Croal praised the game's controls and described his experience as a "Zelda" neophytye. I then explained why "Phantom Hourglass," my 12th "Zelda," wasn't doing it for me.

In Round 2 N'Gai took me up on an offer to get a crash course in the two wonderful Nintendo 64 "Zelda" games, "The Ocarina of Time" and "Majora's Mask." I explained why "Phantom Hourglass," my 12th "Zelda," wasn't doing it for me.

Today, Round 3 continues the previous round's experimental approach (a transcript of a chat N'Gai and I had after the N64) crash course. I explain why "Phantom Hourglass," my 12th "Zelda," wasn't doing it for me.

I'm being hard on myself. I'm not that much of a broken record, but I really felt stuck in this Vs. Mode. As I say in this round:

It’s kind of weird for me to proselytizing about "Zelda" for so long and then when we finally have a "Zelda" conversation to be the big "Zelda" doubter. Maybe it’s because I’m always going to be contrary about everything, but I think it really is that I got surprised by this crossroads that I found myself walking into.

The more I read what we talked about, the more conscious I am of just how anguished I sound in all of this. I've been a big "Zelda" fan for years, and the prospect that the series is either going south or that I have played too many "Zelda"s to appreciate them has unsettled me. I don't want to be over "Zelda."

Well, read on and see what you think. N'Gai talks about his issues with the "Zelda" gameplay formula, and how they relate to his feelings on "The Sims," "GTA," "Little Big Planet," "Metal Gear" and "Halo 3"'s Forge.

I play my same sad tune. Here's one comment from me -- slightly rambling -- that I wanted to highlight, because it speaks to my developing thoughts about the value of video game remakes as well as my long-time concerns about how hard it is for great game experiences I had in the past to be appreciated by gamers that come after me:

Totilo: ... with "Madden" what I view EA as having done and the other football game developers, is they’ve essentially been able to work off of an ideal, which is real football and year after year after year try to come close to that. And really once they’ve reached that ideal and they’ve got football as realistically rendered or as successfully rendered as it needs to be for a video game that at that point there’s no need to make, to remake the engine, remake the graphics or remake anything other than to keep the rosters up to date, keep the uniforms up to date and so on. And you can see a lot of people saying that that’s all they’re seeing from some of the football company game developers anyway.

"Zelda" — it peaked. It’s been great already. It’s like the ideal "Zelda"s exist. They’re already out there. And in other forms of entertainment, once the ideal exists and companies have found a way to make money off of just re-releasing that ideal, finding a way to make that ideal relevant even if it means transferring it from VHS to DVD to downloadable or whatnot. And so, you know, clearly where I’m at is at a spot where I’m just saying, "Look, I’ve played the ideal 'Zelda.'" I was able to play it in 1998 when, at the time, it was running on technology that blew my mind so my memory of that "Zelda" will always be a bit as an ultimate experience. Your memory of "Ocarina" will probably always be that, "hey this was a really good game." That was an interesting artifact of history that you played in the year 2007 right after seeing "Ratchet and Clank [Future]," you know, HD quality graphics on my standard definition set. And so you probably actually haven’t experienced the ideal "Zelda" experience.

Read on. And check in later this week for Round 4, which will return to the original format and in which I will finally say some nice things about "Phantom Hourglass." Hopefully I'll have beaten the game by then. I'm at the final dungeon.

(These exchanges are mirrored on N’Gai’s “Level Up” bog.)

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Phantom HourglassIn yesterday's Round 1 of this week's "Zelda: Phantom Hourglass" Vs. Mode, Newsweek's N'Gai Croal admitted that he's a "Zelda" newcomer and I grumpily huffed and puffed about how the series was showing its age.

In today's Round 2, we do what Nintendo has been largely unwilling to do with "Zelda." We alter our tried-and-true formula. Instead of the standard exchange of e-mails, this round and the next are a full transcript of a conversation between the two of us about the "Zelda." See, what happened is that I ended the last round inviting N'Gai to get a crash course on the two N64 "Zelda" games, "Ocarina of Time" and "Majora's Mask."

On Saturday, October 20, he agreed and stopped by my Brooklyn apartment for several hours of N64 gaming goodness. I walked him through some of "Majora's" and then had him play "Ocarina." How did the Ivan Drago of video games journalism manage the experience?

In the exchange I ask him the following about "Ocarina":

You spent one hour going from the opening of the game to the beginning of the first dungeon--which basically required you to get the sword and the shield. And then you spent I think two hours in the first dungeon, Deku Tree Dungeon, which I said at the end of the first round of our exchange was what I felt epitomized all that's great about Zelda and Dungeons and in fact I think is the best Zelda Dungeon.

So I gave it a lot of build up, did I oversell it? What did you think?

The full exchange, which, admittedly has some crazy-long sentences -- such is the nature of a transcribed, informal dialogue -- now follows. It will wrap up in tomorrow's Round 3 and then this session was close with a more customary Round 4.

(These exchanges are mirrored on N'Gai's "Level Up" bog.)

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