Monthly Archives: September 2010

Review: Instant Jam (Facebook)

courtesy of some MMO site.

For a long time, I had thought to myself that I could never get into the plastic instrument music game genre. Cost was the main factor, as well as me going through a phase where I was listening to nothing but film scores and NES tunes. But in early 2009, I had gotten the chance of a lifetime: A copy of Guitar Hero: Aerosmith for $10, which came with a free guitar controller. That was when I started getting into the genre; now I own several Guitar Hero games, as well as games of competitor Rock Band.

Despite Activision’s idea last year that “more Guitar Hero games = more profit,” — leading to oversaturation as a result — the genre is still going strong, and developer InstantAction decided to do their own version of it: Instant Jam. The game is an online Facebook application playable from your web browser, with only an installation of Java required. The game is currently in beta as I write this review.

What’s Instant Jam’s advantage compared to Rock Band or Guitar Hero? The answer is simple: the game’s set list is your MP3 collection. Sick of begging for Muse in Rock Band? You can play songs by Muse and a myriad of other bands previously unseen in those other games in Instant Jam. You can also play songs by bands that aren’t rock-focused as well. Ever wanted to play Daft Punk or Pet Shop Boys in those games? You can in Instant Jam. I was even able to play Haddaway’s “What is Love?” in the game, which was an amusing novelty considering its cult status for being that song used in a Saturday Night Live sketch.

Once you have your set list, you choose a song and one of four difficulties: Casual (like “Easy” in Guitar Hero or Rock Band), Normal (“Medium”), Hard, or Expert. The problem here is that some charts only have Casual or Normal difficulties, others only have Expert charts. Only a few of the songs actually have all four difficulties from what I saw. I also had problems where songs didn’t want to play, dumping me with a mysterious error that ran in an infinite loop until I hit refresh on my web browser.

image courtesy of Eurogamer

For those unfamiliar with the genre, it’s relatively simple: Hit buttons in time to a music track to score points. Some notes will glow a different color and give the player energy that when activated, doubles the score multiplier. After the song is complete, you’re given stars to determine how well you did. Instant Jam does the same features that those games have: Five notes in the respective green-red-yellow-blue-orange colors, their equivalent of Star Power called “Jam Power,” and lightning bolts replacing stars. You can use the keyboard to play the game, or plug in a USB-powered Guitar controller, which works perfectly fine for playing the game. I used my Gibson Xplorer guitar controller for the Xbox 360 and I could play and strum just fine, which is a big plus.

For Instant Jam to have song tracks to play in the game, the game has to scan your entire computer for MP3s. Now I have MP3s scattered all over my PC, and it will pull its playlist from whatever songs that match their charts. But even when it doesn’t have an Instant Jam chart, the MP3 will play in the game’s menu while choosing songs, messing with the shop, or fiddling with other options. I’ve had film scores, video game music, and former GFW editor Jeff Green yelling at Anthony Gallegos play in the background. It would be nice to limit it to whatever songs are in the “my songs” category, and it baffles me why they designed it that way. If you don’t have a song that Instant Jam has charts for, you can buy them off Amazon or iTunes and have them work in the game. The problem is that I had songs that have IJ charts, only to find the the game does not detect them. You can play them with the MP3s that you have, but all this does is lead to charts not syncing properly with the music most of the time. Other times I had songs disappear from my songs list, mysteriously not being detected by the program despite being detected and playable when I last played it. Overall, their song detection seriously needs work.

The biggest problem I had with Instant Jam is how the songs are charted. At times, the game made me play keyboard sections instead of guitar (Caesars’ “Jerk It Out,” Huey Lewis and the News’ “The Power of Love”), or switch awkwardly between the guitar and bass (Cake’s “The Distance”). The overall charting seems really awkward. I didn’t think InstantAction could rival Guitar Hero III-era Neversoft in really awkward charting. Of course, this may be nitpicking on my part, but unless there’s no playable guitar track, I should be playing the guitar from beginning to end, not switching between various instruments for the sake of variety.

Instant Jam limits the numbers of songs you can play to three a day, unless you level up, where your play count resets. Every time you finish songs, you unlock credits to buy new guitars, new backgrounds, and new notes on the fretboard. Some don’t unlock until you reach higher levels, others don’t unlock unless you pay money, which is something I really don’t like. I feel that this type of subscription model leads to “nickeling and diming” your audience, but due to the popularity of other online mediums doing the same thing — exchanging real cash for in-game goods — I’m not surprised InstantAction decided to adopt the same business model.

Outside of the gameplay, there are more issues in this beta. Settings not being saved, screens mysteriously shrinking before the main menu loads, even times where the game absolutely refused to load on my various web browsers. Coupled with the problems I already mentioned earlier, it makes the game look like an inconsistent buggy mess.

Now, I can forgive these guys slightly since it’s a game in a beta state. But right now as I write this review, the concept is solid, but the execution is awful. Since there are a lot of Facebook users these days, Instant Jam could be massively popular to the casual crowd if it is well designed and properly marketed. But right now, I can’t recommend that anybody should play this. This non-recommendation is not just for music game diehards, Facebook users and casual gamers in general should also stay away from this. In fact, I’d suggest that you try Frets on Fire instead, which is a free PC game that essentially does the same thing as Instant Jam does, but without all the bugs. Here is hoping that in six months time, they polish the product considerably, because this looks promising.



My PAX 2010 experience.

A day late (and many dollars short), but I am slowly and steadily recovering from the 2010 Penny Arcade Expo. It being my second PAX, it was a different and more sociable experience than it was before. I got to met various gamers and games writers, even if it was being near them and not greeting them (Sorry, Dan Amrich, Frank Cifaldi and Karen Chu), I also got to play video games. But I’ll save that for later.

First, I make crappy choices when it comes to choosing hotels to the event. Last year, I took a hotel near the airport. This year, near the University of Washington. Granted, Silver Cloud Inn is a great hotel, but I should’ve chosen somewhere closer. Third time’s the charm for next year? But anyway.

I went to a bunch of panels during all three days. The first one I went to was the Rock Band 3 panel because I love Rock Band. I also love Guitar Hero and even the bastard offspring of similar plastic instrument music games (Rock Revolution, PowerGig). While there wasn’t anything mind-blowing at the panel, it did bring me insight on how they do games like that. Funny enough, they showed an early version of the Rock Band 3 “pro” guitar trainer, which was literally drawn out step-by-step as if a person is too dumb to understand how a guitar works. It was kinda hilarious in that respect.

Later into the day, I went to a panel called “Memoirs of a Triple Agent,” a panel hosted by Greg Kasavin, a former editor at GameSpot and now a producer on a small development company called Super Giant Games. I talked to him after the show and we both agreed: Doom 3 was an utter disappointment. And it was funny, he mentioned that (at the time, anyway), his was the lowest out of all the review scores for the game.

The last panel I went to Friday was for Giant Bombcast Live, since I love the guys at Giant Bomb so much. It was the typical funny and insightful Bombcast, complete with guest appearances by some game developers, and even a brief transition to a small podcast segment with analyst Michael Pachter, former GFW and EA writer Jeff Green, and former PC Gamer editor/writer of The Book of Eli, Gary Whitta. No Rich Gallup this year, though, which was disappointing.

Later that night, I tried to shoehorn myself into the 1UP/Deus Ex event, but I just talked with a bunch of gamers and heard from various games writers about stuff. I left somewhat dejected, but that went away by the time I went back to Seattle on Saturday.

On Saturday morning, the first panel I went to was for Destructoid Live, a crazy live panel consisting of a few famous “Dtoid” personalities. I’ve been periodically writing blogs for the site, and I have lambasted the site before here and on Dtoid itself. But then I had an epiphany: Before, I had partially written the site off because the quality of the writing on sites like those were usually below average. By the time I had asked a question, I had understood Destructoid’s MO: It is meant simply as a quirky, eccentric way into the world of video games by gamers who don’t take things seriously. That is something I can appreciate, and am willing to accept. Telling them that they’re better than Kotaku by a longshot was good enough too.

Later that day, I poked my head in for GameTrailers’ Bonus Round Live, which featured a panel of Warren Spector, Ed Boon and somebody from 5th Cell whose name I forgot. It was basically about the philosophy of design between the three developers. Stupid fact: Spector’s been a designer on some games that he eventually took his name off. Which ones those are we’ll probably never know, but it was an interesting segment. By the time we got to the Q&A though, I got somewhat bored and left early, the only panel I did that on. Nothing against GT or Geoff Keighley, it just felt kinda boilerplate like most other panels by then.

I had considered going to a panel that was sponsored by The Geekbox and Rebel FM, but by then I was somewhat worn out and was disinterested. Nothing against those guys as those panels are unique for having different ideals, but it was 6PM by then. I wanted to play some more games at the Exhibition Hall before it closed, only to find out it closes at 6PM.

After PAX was winding down for Saturday night, I went to the Destructoid meetup at The Chapel Bar and Grill and met some Dtoiders there, including one I’ve known way back before I went to Dtoid, which was a real treat. I got tipsy drunk! I got to talk to random dudes and see hot chicks put on a Destructoid headmask! But then I left early to head back to my hotel.

Sunday was a one-panel affair: Seeing Idle Thumbs cast its final pod at PAX. It was an interesting event considering of people talking about board games involving wine and host/editor Chris Remo sing us acoustic versions of The Wizard and Space Asshole. I snagged a few posters from there, and I had asked a question about Far Cry 2 that I didn’t get a clear answer to. I hated the game, but they were surprised when they found out I actually had finished the game and they hadn’t. Whoops.

Other than that, it was me playing a few more games before the show ended, then went to the last Destructoid meetup at Rock Bottom Bar and Grill, meeting more random Dtoiders and even a few staffers, which was pretty sweet.

After that, it was time to pack and get ready to head home. It didn’t set in that it was over until I left for the airport. I had done a lot of things, met a lot of people, and played games. It was a wonderful experience, and it was a nice change of pace. It also gave me a different outlook on things: I have anxiety problems where I’m reluctant to talk with people, but that became something I had to abandon if I didn’t want to be some social outcast who does some dramatic suicide pact that appears on the 11PM news. And I feel grateful for it. I didn’t get the opportunity to say hi to everyone, or see everything, but that’s okay. I feel good for what I did see.

So if you’re wondering if PAX is worth it. I say this: Go to PAX. Live on the East Coast? Go to PAX East. Live outside the US? You have no excuse, I met various gamers from Europe and Canada. You will have a blast that you will always remember. Hell, after last year’s PAX I was still remembering it almost every day until this year’s PAX, and I expect it will be the same until next year.

Lastly, I will say this: Make sure you know your video game characters when you ask to take photos of them. I accidentally called a Crimson Viper cosplayer “Bayonetta.” Whoops.

It’s September 3rd, 2010 and there’s always time for PAX.

(Hooray for me twisting around an old game slogan from 1989.)

So as I write this, it’s 6AM in Seattle, Washington. I’m sitting a hotel listening to random music as I write this. PAX starts in a few hours. And yes, I intend to document this event in crazy detail by taking lots of pictures and meeting various dudes from around the internet.

I got into Seattle yesterday, and got to go to two pre-PAX events. One was a PlayStation/IGN sponsored event where they had games like God of War: Ghost of Sparta, EyePet, Split/Second for the PSP, and a few others. I got to try out Split/Second and it was the same game as the PS3/360 versions. Complete with using the Airline level as the demo stage. The others I didn’t get to try.

Since it was a co-sponsored event, not only were there people from the PlayStation blog (Sid Shuman, Rey Guitierrez, et al), there were also IGN staff there like Greg Miller and Anthony Gallegos. Also, whenever “Greggy” (that is his nickname and I am not kidding) talked, everybody shouted “BEYOND!” He even had a Beyond shirt. It took me a while to realize that’s a name of some dumb IGN podcast thing that he hosts. Unfortunately I’m not one to care for much of IGN’s content, so I didn’t get the jokes.

When I left Top Pot Donuts, I had an IGN sweatrag t-shirt, a PlayStation Move poster featuring Sony advertising mascot Kevin Butler, some IGN stickers, a God of War PSP chain — something I already have at home, and an early copy of the Ghost of Sparta demo.

Afterwards, I stumbled around downtown Seattle at 9PM and found Jillian’s, where Harmonix was having a pre-PAX Rock Band 3 event. Rock Band (and its competitor Guitar Hero) have been frequently played titles in my house, so I was pumped to see it. They had the keyboard and cymbals needed for pro drums, but no pro guitar action, which is a bit unsettling. I got to play one song: Roxette’s The Look, and most of the videos played were of the 83 songs already in Rock Band 3, although they did dabble into the DLC, playing Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance at one point, and wrapping up the set with Don’t Stop Believin’ by Journey. All in all, good fun.

Also, gonna put this out: John Drake kinda acts like a dick. I bet he’s nice but he’s got an air of smugness in his attitude. Maybe it’ll be different when I see him more in person at PAX. I even got video of the RB3 event:

(I also got video of people playing Whitesnake’s Here I Go Again, of which I got a minor copyright warning. It’s still up as I post this.)

So yeah, if you’re at PAX, say hi. I’ll be trying to see and film everything and try to be all amateur games journalist and such. Watch my Youtubes, you might see more videos in the coming days.