The Backlog: Finally, a Reason to be Proud of the Ducks edition

For the first time in 117 years of University of Oregon football programs, the Ducks are AP-ranked #1 in the nation. What the hell?

I'm not a dedicated football man, but I'm able to put aside my indifference in times like these. Truly, I'm elated that my alma mater is getting the sports recognition it deserves, aside from the obsession with our track-and-field pedigree. Best of all, there's a good chance that the Ducks' excessively disgusting uniform changes over the past five years might be forgotten in light of their current top-dog status.

But all this sports talk has nothing to do with video games; unless, if things keep going well, quarterback Darron Thomas is put on the cover of NCAA 2012.

Doug can probably correct me on that presumption, or anything else I've written above. In fact, I welcome it. Like I mentioned: no hablo fútbol americano.

Doug:

Holy shit. We joke often about games being addictive, or compare them to addictive narcotics. Lord knows I've felt this way about a number of games, including PES 2010, Words with Friends, and others.

Nothing compares to recently released iPhone game Game Dev Story. The idea is simple: You run a game development studio, managing your employees and the direction of your games. Seems simple, right? It plays kind of like a Tycoon game or any other management simulation game, but with some serious RPG elements — you level up your staff, train them to increase stats, make adjustments to your company's development direction and buy and use items (including advertising to increase your fan base).

Simple descriptions of the game don't do it justice. I spent four hours straight Monday morning hooked to the game and tearing through my iPhone battery; I felt like I was in an opium den. Development of games goes so quickly, it can catch you with the "just-one-more-game" factor that all the most addictive video games maintain. Game Dev Story has simple yet catching graphics and music, plucked straight out of the 16-bit generation. Even better is the writing in the game; the 20-year campaign follows the arc of video game history, so you know not to invest in developing games for the Intendro Virtual Kid because it's probably not going to sell terribly well.

And did I mention it's addictive? Good lord it's addictive. You can New Game+ to start with accumulated stats, too. It can become kind of rote, pumping out puzzle games or dating sims to fuel your company's growth, but the freedom to choose your games and then, eventually, develop your own console creates an amazing little experience. I think this one will be wearing my iPhone battery down for a long while to come.

Nick:

You'll forgive me if I keep this short, right? I'm still recovering from a long day of driving, sitting, and yelling. I'm not a legitimate sports fan, but man, bearing witness to the Ducks' first game as the #1 team in the nation -- and getting to see UCLA go down in flames -- was awesome.

I played a few great iPhone games this week, including current top-seller Cut the Rope and Trainyard, an independently developed puzzle game. All I'll say is that they're each a dollar and totally worth checking out if you own an iOS device. But I wanted to make sure I took the time to discuss another new game in depth in this week's backlog because I don't think I'll end up reviewing it, but I still think it's important to talk about.

The first DJ Hero did pretty well for an original title with its own plastic peripheral in a time when most people's closets were already overflowing with discarded Guitar Hero controllers. Being the resident music-game aficionado at the Sasquatch, I picked up a copy soon after its release last fall, not knowing what to expect. But after a few minutes with the game, I was absolutely floored: DJ Hero somehow managed to be a fun and innovative experience in an already oversaturated market. But what was even more shocking to me was that it was published by Activision, the company perhaps most directly responsible for the nosedive into mediocrity and obsolescence that has plagued the Guitar Hero series since Harmonix and RedOctane split ways.

If DJ Hero was as innovative as Guitar Hero (and I'm tempted to say that's a fair comparison, given that they both have roots in archaic Konami arcade games,) then DJ Hero 2 is the series' Guitar Hero 2. It features a brilliant and diverse song list and a much-needed revamped user interface that make the experience even more inviting. And the mix-'n-scratch gameplay itself has been redesigned, giving the player more freedom with special freestyle crossfade and scratch sections that allow the player to improvise their own beats on the fly. It's reminiscent of what Harmonix did with Frequency and Amplitude's freestyle sections, but the effect is far more impressive when you're manipulating tracks in a realistic way.

The only major problem is that one of its key features, Empire Mode, falls far short of expectations. Intended to serve as a new and creative approach to the typical music game campaign mode — essentially, to prevent the game from feeling like a linear setlist-crawl — Empire Mode simply takes the same sets of songs and lays them out in a two-dimensional array broken down by individual venues instead of the simple list from DJ Hero. It's disappointing, especially when you compare it to the relative depth and openness of the Rock Band series' World Tour mode.

But that said, there's enough cool stuff happening here that it stands as an acceptable, significantly improved sequel to an already great game. For instance: The first time I plunged into a three-song set, I was shocked to see one mix seamlessly flow into the next with no loading screen and no break in the audio. It felt natural in a way I'd never experienced in a music game before. It's those little details that FreeStyleGames bring to this series that make it special. This is definitely a series that's worth a second look even if you passed over the first game.

Aaron:

This is the lush fall bounty of games I tried, started or beat this week: Uncharted 1 and 2, Heavenly Sword, Costume Quest and Fallout: New Vegas.

The biggest surprise has been Costume Quest, the first attempt by Double Fine at crafting a downloadable console network title. It's a clever RPG, razor-sharp with wit and charm, which comes as no surprise being from the studio that Tim Schafer built. What makes me love Costume Quest is how accurately it captures the feeling of being a kid on Halloween, when you were so excited to beg door to door for pounds of teeth-rotting, stomach-upsetting candy.

The characters even transform into realistic Godzilla-sized versions of their costumes during the battle sequences, which are a wink and a nod to classic turn-based RPGs. I can't count how many times I imagined my Ghostbusters, Batman or Dracula costumes made me into the real deal, always ready to ignite, fight or bite the bad guys prowling about on All Hallows' Eve.

Costume Quest isn't a difficult game, but it's an experience that will make almost anyone happy. Collecting candy to purchase ability-enhancing battle stamps, trading grotesque fake candy cards to complete the set, piecing together costume bits to become a unicorn, ninja or the Statue of Liberty -- every aspect of this $15 game makes me laugh, smile or reminisce. Costume Quest is more proof that not all games need to be "AAA," Unreal Engine-powered blockbusters to remind us why we like gaming in the first place. At its best, playing video games lets our imagination free, and can even make us happy while being entertained.

Now bear with me, but I need to make a parting comment or three on the Uncharted series before I close my contribution to this week's Backlog.

Uncharted and its sequel are amazing games that compound Naughty Dog's expertise for beautiful level design and tight platforming with savvy, humorous writing and Hollywood summer popcorn flick sensibilities. I beat Uncharted 2: Among Thieves this week. Afterward, I started Uncharted: Drake's Fortune.

I've been told that Uncharted 2 was a monumental improvement over the first. Unfortunately, I don't see it. I'm hard-pressed to even call it evolutionary.

While I've enjoyed the hell out of both games, my perspective is unique: I'm playing the original after finishing the sequel -- to me, the differences (or lack thereof) are much more noticeable.

The start menu graphics and music are the same -- not a big deal, but I still noticed it. The gunplay is a bit more tight in Uncharted 2, and thankfully Sixaxis support was dropped after 1, but my least favorite part of the Uncharted series still feels unnautral. The shooting is too loose, and tells me that Naughty Dog's attempts at making a satisfying shooting mechanic haven't improved much since Jak II.

However, the graphics are much better in Uncharted 2, and are perhaps the most notable improvement over the first game. Additionally, both titles' exploration and platforming elements are still the best reasons to play the Uncharted series.

While I accept that my pickiness regarding two of the most highly rated titles of the last console generation will rub some the wrong way, I'm at least being honest. The difference between Uncharted 1 and 2 is about as drastic, or interesting, as Police Academy and Police Academy 2: You know what you're getting into, and will enjoy the experiences both have to offer (yes, I do like the Police Academy movies), but arguing that some sequels are unprecedented achievements over the originals is falling into a nostalgia pit.