Will the real superhero please stand up?

The news early this week that Blizzard had secured two million subscribers for their incredibly popular massively multiplayer game World of Warcraft came as no surprise, particularly to those who've given up a significant portion of their waking life to Azeroth since its release earlier this year. For Sony Online's buyers, however, it must have been like striking a match in a gas filled room. On Friday, the gaming world felt the explosion reverberate across the Internet. Sony had announced the purchase of MMO The Matrix Online and, wait for it... the rights to develop a DC Comics MMO for PC and next-generation consoles, featuring classic DC characters such as Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and the Sandman.

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Who isn't playing this game?

And it would have been oh so improbable just half a year ago. Prior to the World of Warcraft, the Western MMO was seen as something of a niche genre - high maintenance and high costs. The only redeeming feature was a regular revenue stream from paying subscribers. Post WOW, everything's changed.

Pre WOW, nobody thought gamers would devote themselves to a daily grind on such a large scale. I remember speaking to a Blizzard developer last year who told me they had reserved hopes for the game in Europe. Sony already had perhaps the most popular Western MMO around in Everquest, and its penetration was seen as the pinnacle for the genre. But that pales into insignificance when compared to the mainstream success Blizzard's epic has enjoyed. Blizzard didn't revolutionise the genre, they simply refined it and made it more accessible. And the tills rang louder than the wedding bells of a Royal wedding.

Game publishers now see MMOs, driven by increased broadband take up, as less of a burden and more of an opportunity - and a money making opportunity at that. Two million times £8 every month would make the eyes of even the most hardened game accountant water. Now Blizzard are taking WOW to the East, and look set to make more money than a Russian billionaire with a barrel of oil.

And so, Sony pick up The Matrix Online, which up to this point hasn't set the world on fire, and have announced an MMO based on DC superheroes for a winter 2007 release. Why? Because WOW has proven the mainstream viability of the genre to the West. Of course, the game will have to be improved to increase its user base - and the DC MMO will have to be significantly better than its direct rival, City of Heroes, if it is to succeed.

Such has been the progress made by these types of games that they are now being mooted on the next-generation consoles. This week, rumours of console based versions of World of Warcraft emerged on the Internet. Whatever the future brings, we are now witnessing the emergence of the most exciting videogame genre since the platform game moved to 3D with Mario 64.

Style over substance

As a regular customer of London's tube, I'm on the cusp (wallowing at the bottom) of fashion, style and trends. As the very breath is squeezed out of my lungs, I can hear faint beats and heady rock over the sound of my own ribs cracking. Everywhere I look, young, intelligent twenty-somethings display their technological cool on this underground metal catwalk. What do they have in common? They all brandish a horrible, white, plastic covered speaker that juts out of flesh enveloped cartilage on the side of their heads. To this day, I can't understand how Apple made it fashionable to wear white earphones.

But this week, Microsoft announced plans to challenge the mighty iPod. Chief Xbox officer Robbie Bach will take control of the company's digital music business, and he's intent on destroying Apple's iTunes with not so much as a hint of mercy. Although Bach is pretty much tied up at the moment, what with the little matter of a next-generation console launch in a few months, he will now be overlooking Microsoft's digital music interests. Right now, it looks like a tough job: the iPod and iTunes sit atop a king's throne in the digital music kingdom, and Microsoft is the digital jester.

But one thing Robbie has that Mr. Apple doesn't is a next-generation console that promises to provide all the entertainment a fashion conscious techno-junkie could want. The 360 could well provide access to MSN Music, which he hopes will start to gain some ground on iTunes.

But once again, that iPod comes back to haunt. Microsoft's alternatives currently survive on the scraps left in Apple's wake. Then there's upcoming competition from Sony's PS3. What we're seeing here is the extension of the next-generation battle as the publishers look beyond gaming for revenue streams. Digital music is just the first step - come 2006, expect an electronic entertainment war of epic proportions - and gaming won't be the only battleground.

When will their balls drop?

Having traded in my PC for a laptop recently, I have taken to filling the short vacuum of space between the time when the laptop arrived and my purchase of a mouse (try playing WOW with a laptop touchpad - I nearly broke two fingers) with Halo 2 on Xbox Live. This was a game I played religiously when it was released in Europe last year, but I've since dropped my plasma pistol for a Thrash Blade in the world of Azeroth.

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Some people have superhuman gaming ability

So, after I dusted off my Controller S and downloaded the patch and new maps, I entered the seedy world of Halo 2 and found my skills woefully inadequate to even merit finishing last in the average rumple pit match. In fact, I'm embarrassed to finish last.

Put it down to rustiness. Put it down to the fact that since the ratings reset you never know what skill of player you get in a match. Put it down to whatever you want - there are players of this game that are so good I can't believe what my eyes are showing me.

And so, when the news emerged this week that a Dutch gamer had walked away with $1,500 and a big flat-screen TV after being crowned Halo 2 world champion, the thought occurred to me that this person was probably some kind of cyborg, plugged into the Xbox Live network like D.A.R.Y.L and the US Defence Service.

The guy's tag is King Tuur. He beat over 50,000 players on Xbox Live to win the bloody thing. To think how much skill was evident in the final boggles my mind. The best of the best will have entered. I would have loved to be there, eyes agog, jaw dropped, looking, listening and learning.

But a thought flashed across my mind as another bloody grenade propels me into the upper stratosphere of some god-forsaken map: how do you get that good? I play a lot, so practice is a factor, but it's not determining. I can kill a guy with two shots when I have the plasma pistol and battle rifle. But these guys, King Tuur and the lvl 20s who float around matchmaking, seem to be able to predict my every move before the very electronic pulse has left my brain, fumbling down my nervous system to its ultimate goal of moving my thumb. I just can't understand it.

Which leads me down only one logical path of redemption. These guys (and girls: I've had my arse fragged by many a PMS member on my travels) are born with the innate ability to play FPS's better than anyone else. When God was dishing out his list of special talents, the one thing you can do better than anyone else, he gave these people the FPS skill. They, as they say, are born with it. I, unfortunately, am not. Like Wayne Rooney lining up a pile driver of a volley from twenty-five yards out, there's only so much you can teach - the magic has to be in you in the first place.

So, it's not my fault that I'm not as good at games as other people are - than the people who can win thousands of dollars for playing a videogame. I can breath easy. All I have to do now is find the genre God gave me a special skill for. Edutainment anyone?

So that's why you get high lvl characters who can't play the game!

This week, an interesting tit-bit of gaming quirkiness flashed across my bow. I say interesting because it's presented me with more than a slight moral conundrum. You can now rent a high level MMO character from a choice of 14 different games from GamePal for $199.99 a month. That's right - $199.99 a month! Has the world gone mad?

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Fancy a high level character without the effort?

But then, if you're rich enough to be able to afford it, then why not? For many, World of Warcraft doesn't get interesting until you get above level 40 and you can buy a mount, allowing travel at a much faster rate than on foot. Then, when you approach level 60, most areas are accessible, high level instances become a realistic proposition, amazing weapons and armour make themselves available and player-versus-player combat evolves into epic clashes between titanic warriors and shadow priests.

It's the grinding (constantly killing computer controlled enemies to gain experience) that is perhaps the most boring part of any MMO, and this is what that $199.99 a month saves you. Make no mistake, it takes serious time to get to level 60, a big investment on the part of the gamer. Those who wish to skip all that and dip right into the saucy dessert of a fantasy-based world can now indulge.

But, as a gamer who has invested all this time and effort to get to the point where the very whisper of his name induces fear in the enemy, should I be upset that anyone with a credit card and a mouse can start playing an MMO with weapons, skills, spells and armour that I myself have slaved over a hundred hours to obtain?

The answer is, of course, yes. But alas, as long as gold sells on eBay, as long as Chinese people kill friends over virtual swords, as long as rich Australians pay thousands of dollars for in-game property, the demand will be there. And where there is demand, there is supply. I guess I'm just jealous someone isn't paying me £100 a month for the use of my 52 priest as we speak.

This week's new releases

This week sees the release of two pretty average games that are probably going to shift a lot of copies. Both Medal of Honor: European Assualt and Juiced have been fortunate enough to be backed by large advertising campaigns. Medal of Honor on the consoles has never been all that great, but the casual PlayStation 2 owner laps them up, seemingly oblivious to what else there is available to them - perhaps PlayStation 2 owners don't actually have all that much to choose from in this genre, but that isn't the point. We'll be reviewing both games next week, but don't expect any stunning high scores.

The only other game of note is the videogame version of one of this summer's biggest movies. Batman Begins (The actual movie) has been receiving rave reviews, but the same can't be said for the videogame. A quick look at a number of US sites reveals some rather shockingly low scores. No doubt little Jimmy will want the game after seeing the movie, and this will probably make the game enter very near the top of next week's chart, but it is a shame that what appears to be a great movie couldn't have a great game to go with it.

  • Batman Begins (PS2, Xbox, Cube, GBA)
  • Conspiracy: Weapons of Mass Destruction (PS2)
  • Dragonball Advanced Adventure (GBA)
  • Juiced (PS2, Xbox, PC)
  • Medal of Honor: European Assault (PS2, Xbox, Cube)
  • Space Rangers (PC)
  • The Bard's Tale (PC)
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