I was lucky enough for Atari to fly me out to their Atari spotlight event last week in Las Vegas to preview some of their upcoming titles and meet with some of Atari’s executives. Listening to the opening presentation it’s clear that Atari is changing corporate gears and even admitting that some of the games they had developed were a little half-baked. It’s also clear that this is a brand new Atari from a corporate perspective as most of the senior management has been with the company for less than 14 months and that the new goal of the company is to produce high quality games rather than the mediocre games that the company has been putting on shelves recently.
To do that, they are focusing on producing games by other developers rather than developing the games internally. They feel that the company does a better job of managing the projects of others rather than developing their own titles. For more information about the company’s restructuring you can listen to this interview I conducted with Atari Vice President of Sales and Marketing Nique Farors.
Once we were done with the executive overview we were given the chance to play some of their upcoming games and here are my impressions in somewhat random order.
Pat Sajack’s Lucky Letters (PC)–Pat Sajak’s name conjures images of spinning and letters and this game will just reinforce those notions. Instead of a wheel and a board jumble the game is actually more of what would happen if Pat’s Day job had a one night stand with a crossword puzzle. At the beginning of the game you get selected a number of letters which you think may appear in the puzzle and then begin the turns of playing though the game. At the beginning of a turn the player hits a button and is randomly given one of the clue to solve one of the words in a crossword like structure. You can also view the clue for the corresponding vertical or horizontal words to see if that helps you solve the puzzle. To help you solve the puzzle you are given the letters that are in the solution as well as a few extras to make it more of a challenge. After a certain number of turns you compete in the lighting round where you have to complete the puzzle in certain amount of time.
Much like the New York Times Crossword puzzle the game features five levels of difficulty based on the days of the week and when you complete five puzzles in a row you can play for a major championship. The game features 600 puzzles and over 30,000 clues but should take users quite a bit of time before they start seeing the same puzzles twice. While the game is only available on the PC right now I could see it making a small killing as a downloadable game on Xbox Live and whatever Sony and Nintendo have cooking for their consoles.
HOT PXL (PSP) – The best way to describe HOT PXL is to think of the game as Mario Ware for the PSP mixed one helping of European skateboard and digital cultures and then mixed with a hit of acid or two. The majority of the games last only eight seconds long so if you don’t like something you just have to wait a bit before something new comes along. The exception to the eight second rule is the “boss levels” which take a little longer but not much to complete. Examples of some levels include spraying a decal onto a shoe, tracing a tattoo on a woman’s back, and playing a custom version of breakout on the side of a sky scraper.
While the format of having users play large quantities of short mini-games is nothing new where HOT PXL breaks new ground is in its online component. The game will ship with 150 games on the UMD and another 50 games will be available for download the day the game ships. HOT PXL will also allow users to download new games, wallpapers, and podcasts to support the game. They game will ship with a PC tool that will allow gamers to sort and create playlists of their favorite games as well as manage the downloading of new content for the game. PSP owners will also be delighted to know that the game features very short load times.
The games themselves are a mix of re-makes of old Atari games like Breakout and Zaxxon as well as other new short form games. These aren’t full versions of the game but rather gameplay elements from them like bumping a block up to knock something loose or moving a ship along a 2.5 plane. The other mini-games are also interesting as they don’t come with directions and you’ll have to figure out how to use them. The team behind the game has already started to put some content online which you can check out here. The game is expected to hit store shelves in February 07.
NeverWinter Nights 2 (PC) The gameis coming along well and looks to make it’s release date this October. The team is shoring up last minute issues and the game looks fantastic. Outside of the new interface controls (which are a huge upgrade over the old radial system) one of the big things in sequel is the addition of two new cameras types to the game. The first is a World or Warcraft style camera which sits just above and to the right of your shoulder as you walk through the world while the second is more of a Baldur’s Gate style camera that allows you to switch between your various party members without having the camera flip back as you switch between team members. The game is certainly going to be a big hit with people who love the series and barring any further delays the game will be out in October.
Dungeons and Dragons Tactics (PSP) – Atari’s second D&D franchise is probably going to help sell a lot of PSP’s as developer Kuju is really pushing the PSP to it’s technical limits. The best description they have for the game is that the game is a basically X-Com with the Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 rule set. The game features some amazing lighting effects and graphics as well as the most complete interpretation of the current ruleset. For those of you who aren’t as versed in the current D&D rule set the game does have a mode where the non hard core D&D player can get the most out of the game.
Besides the 100 or so hours you can spend in the single player campaign the game also features co-op an adversarial multiplayer modes. The head to head modes include your standard last man standing deathmatch modes along with a treasure hunt mode and a gladiatorial mode. The fun part about the second two is that you can employ a little evil strategy in them by waiting until your opponent is either engaged in combat with a monster or carrying a ton of treasure and then attack them while they least expect it. The game looks really strong and the developers at Kuju are rightfully proud of their game which should be on shelves in February 2007.
Earthworm Jim (PSP)- Earthworm Jim is probably one of the more beloved yet forgotten platforming heroes but Atari is looking to correct that with the first all new Earthworm Jim adventure in years. While I didn’t get to spend a lot of time with the game I think fans of the original series are going to dig the game as te developers seemed to have captured the sense of humor of the first game as well as a good look and feel for the game. Throw in the games multiplayer competition mode and this could be yet another reason to get Sony’s handheld platform. The game is expected to ship in February of 2007.
Bulletwitch (Xbox 360) – Set in a post apocalyptic world, humanity isn’t having the best of days. Besides a plague and war that’s ravaged humanity the Earth is now being invaded by demons and it’s up to you to stop them. You play Alicia, a bulletwitch who carries around an upgradable gun-rod and can cast spells who’s there to kick demon ass and chew bubble gum and she’s all out of gum. The game is played in the third person and features some pretty decent looking graphics. The environment can be used as a weapon as I was able to knock an empty water tower unit off the top of a building onto a few demons below. The demons take quite a few hits to take down so you are going to be constantly moving and firing. Alicia’s spells are what make the game interesting and the demo showed off two of them rather well. The first summoned a spirit wall that she could take cover behind (she slowly regenerated health) and the second literally brought down the power of the lighting down upon a group of enemies (think Storm in the third X-Men movie). It’s a pretty cool effect but I wonder if some people might get tired of the constant running and gunning (although the same thing could be said of Dead Rising and people seem to be digging that game). The game does look great and there is certainly a target market for this kind of game when it comes out in the second quarter of 2007.
Age of Pirates: Caribbean Tales (PC) – Pirates are certainly hot right now and this spiritual successor to the Sea Dogs games should help continue that trend. You start out as a scurvy pirate and must work your way up to controlling all of the islands in the Caribbean. You do this by earning money by plunder, trade, and swashbuckling your way through the merchants and militaries in the area. The game looks great with some of the best water effects I’ve seen in a game which is important given that a good chunk of the game takes place in the ocean.
As captain you are responsible for managing the crew of your ship and eventually your fleet with each person having specific responsibilities on your ship. There’s also an RPG element so your character will grow with you as you progress through the game. This is important as you’ll need the extra skills to capture the big ships you’ll need to capture the various islands as you’re not only responsible for taking down other ships with cannons but boarding the ship and fighting it out with the crew and captain as well.
Arthur and the Invisibles (PS2,PC, PSP,DS,GBA,DS) – Movie tie-in games, you usually can’t live with them and you never want to pass up the opportunity to make a little extra cash. Well, maybe that’s just the jaded side of me but this game based on the upcoming Luc Besson movie actually does look to be one of the games that might actually do pretty well. The game is being developed in conjunction with the movie and will ship with the movies release in January of next year. You will control Arthur and two of his friends as they try and save Arthur’s house and Minimoy’s habitat. Each character you control has different abilities and you’ll need to switch back and forth between the three of them in order to get through the game. This is especially true when you fight the boss monsters in the game. The game does feature a few of the God of War style button press puzzles where you have to hit the buttons in a certain sequence to complete a puzzle (although you won’t be decapitating anything or ripping the eyes out of any of the monsters). I got a chance to see the PS2 version and they are really pushing the capability of the machine. While I don’t think older gamers will get a kick out of it I do think younger gamers will be eating it up by the spoonful.
For me, one of the biggest things at Atari spotlight was something that they hinted at but didn’t give any real information on and that was that they are looking to start releasing old Atari games on Xbox Live Arcade. I tried to get a few specific titles out of the Atari execs but all they said was that everything in the Atari library from the 2600 to the Jaguar was on the table and that we could expect to see the first games by this year’s holiday season. Atari will be selling the games individually so don’t plan on seeing any kind of package deal on Xbox Live Arcade. I just hope Atari prices them right because multiplayer combat over Xbox Live Arcade sounds really cool but paying more than $5 for that experience isn’t.
You may have noticed that I left out Atari’s upcoming Test Drive Unlimited from the list and that’s because I’ll be putting up a full preview later on this week. To keep it short I really dug the game and I think Atari could have a big hit on their hands if people “get” the game. This really isn’t a hardcore racing game but much more of a mellow race around the island and do challenges kind of thing. Check back later this week for more details.
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