video games

Why I Let my Kid Play Assassin’s Creed

Anyone who has been reading this blog for awhile knows that I am pretty liberal about what I let my kids play, watch and read.  That being said we are fairly discriminating about things that are rated for an age group older than our kids.  Video games that glorify violence for violence’s sake (like GTA and Saint’s Row) are big no-nos in our house.  Once in awhile, though, a rated M game comes out that we feel is okay for Nate to play as long as we talk about it and supervise his playing.

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood
Being an Assassin isn’t all rainbows and ponies.

One such example is the Assassin’s Creed franchise from Ubisoft.  Yes, you are an assassin. There is a certain amount of implied violence that comes along with that.  You spend a lot of time in the game skulking around in the shadows and attacking people, and there is pleny of blood.  As a redeeming point, you are an assassin to fight the bad guys. Your motto being “we work in the dark to serve the light”.

The premise is that you are Desmond Miles, a barteneder in the year 2012.  (Okay it gets a little ridiculous here, bear with me).  You are a descedant of Alta├»r ibn La-Ahad, a medieval assassin during the Third Crusade and  Ezio Auditore da Firenze, a young nobleman from 1476 in Florence. Using technology that involves DNA sequencing Desmond is able to relive his descendants’ lives.  The whole point of this ridiculousness is to get information that will lead you to an artifact that is lost in the game’s present and to find it before the bad guys- Templars, of course – do.

There are a couple of things that make this game appealing to me as a parent.  For one, you have to make good desicions.  Killing innocents will cost you life and make you restart the mission.  Yes, you’re killing people, but you’re killing only the bad guys and learning consequences.

Second, the developers at Ubisoft have gone above and beyond when it came to researching the game for historical accuracy. (There is a really long blog article here from Penn State that goes talks about some of the minute details in the first installment of the game that show just how much thought was put into it).  At every point of historical significance  in the game you are presented with an opportunity to read your “database”. The database is essentially an accurate history article about whatever your looking at, providing hundreds of teachable moments during game play. At one point, after finishing the mission part of Assassin’s Creed II Super-Dad decided to become an in-game art collector.  He would send Ezio on missions to make money and then buy art so that he could read the descriptions.  It was pretty cool to learn about famous renaissance paintings while playing a video game.

In Assasssin’s Creed II and in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood Leonardo DiVinci is featured heavily playing Q to Desmod/Ezio’s James Bond.  Intrigued by all of the contraptions that DiVinci provides Ezio, Nate checked out a DiVinci bigoraphy from the library.  He’s spent the past three days telling me about DiVinci’s crazy inventions.  You may disagree with me about the appropriateness of these games, but MarioKart has never inspired my son to do further investigating at the library.

Review of the Kinect, Dance Central and Kinectimals

Review of the Kinect, Dance Central and Kinectimals

When the Kinect peripheral for the Xbox 360 came out in  November, we were intrigued.  We briefly considered buying one until we learned of it’s $150 price tag. After all, that was only slightly less than we paid for our entire Wii system, and that thing and its terrible graphics sits dusty on the entertainment unit.  Still, it was getting pretty amazing reviews, so when Nate and Kitty’s Grandma asked if we would be interested in it as a Christmas gift, we got very excited.

This year we spent Christmas Eve and Christmas morning at the Grandparents’, so opening the Kinect was a bit of a non-event as we didn’t have the Xbox with us to set it up. We got back to our place at 8 PM on Christmas and after fifteen minutes of begging Super-Dad, he reluctantly set it up.  Was it a hit?  The kids stayed up playing until after midnight and then Super-Dad and I continued to play for an hour after they went to bed.

The Kinect comes with “Kinect Adventures”.  The game isn’t spectacular – the graphics aren’t great and we would later discover that other games make even better use of the Kinect sensor – but it was fun. It definitely did its job of showing “yeah, this thing actually works”.  Most importantly, it instantly proved that Microsoft had succeeded at doing what Nintendo tried so desperately to do with Wii but failed, making video gaming a physical activity.  After about 30 minutes of playing Kinect Adventures our heart rates were up and the grown-ups were starting to break a sweat.
After three days of showing off Kinect Adventures to everyone who came into our house, we decided to take some of our Christmas money and invest in a few additional titles.  There were seventeen games available at the Kinect’s launch in November, and over forty by the time we got ours.  According to reviews only a few of those titles really lived up to the potential of the technology.  We narrowed it down to three:  Kinectimals, a virtual pet game geared to kids, Kinect Sports and Dance Central.  We found  a coupon at our local mega-mart for a discount on two games, so we had some decisions to make.

The reviews I read lead me to choose Dance Central.  The game, from the creators of Rock Band and Guitar Hero, had already started showing up on Best of 2010 lists for games in general and was clearly the darling of the Kinect titles.  I didn’t really think of us as a group of dancers, but the reviews were just sooooo positive, that I figured it would at least be a cool way to show off our new technology.
Dance Central
Dance your ass off.
I *still* don’t consider us a group of dancers, we kind of suck, but it has been a blast trying to improve. Dance Central is amazing.  The interface is dynamic, with the “drag and swipe” menu beating the pants off the languid feeling “select and hold” method every other game seems to have.  It’s a great workout, after 10 minutes of playing my heart rate was up and I was sweating, but I didn’t want to stop.  Recognizing its aerobic potential Harmonix included a “Workout Mode” which tracks the calories you’ve burned.  The music is dance music, so if you like that kind of thing, good for you.  I personally was so sick of “Poker Face” after beating it on hard, that I never want to hear it again (okay, I never wanted to hear it in the first place, but whatever.)  There are a couple of gems in there from a purely nostalgic stance; Dancing to “Whoomp There it is” and “Posion” by Bell  Biv DeVoe made me smile and “Funkytown” is super fun.  Look, I’m not saying the music is good, but it’s a dance game and as much as I enjoy Death Cab for Cutie, it just wasn’t going to work out.  As for the lyrical content of the songs: Nate’s ten-year-old sesibilites were totally freaked out by “Hey Mami” by Fannypack in which a voice that sounds like a child sings “Hey Mami/You sexy”.  So…yeah.
It’s not an easy game.  After you nail the “Easy” level the sensor starts getting really picky about how you move.  There’s no “kinda” doing a move and getting away with it, you’d better nail that Jazz Square from head to toe, or you’re going to lose points. The game gives you plenty of chances to “Break it Down” and learn the moves, though the ambiguous instructions from the off-screen choreographer (“dig left, dig right”) don’t always help.  I do appreciate his positive encouragement, though.  Unlike Rock Band you don’t get booed at, and even after Kitty missed every move in a routine he told her not to worry.  Nate felt embarrassed just attempting the moves and got very discouraged when he couldn’t nail them.  Coordination is key here and it’s something some kids (and apparently some adults like me) are just not developmentally able to do.
I wouldn’t recommend buying this game *just* for the kids, but if you have adults who are going to play the kids will enjoy giving it a go, joining in during the “Freestyle” portions and watching the hilarious time-lapsed, sped up montage at the end of each song.  Once you get over the initial shock of watching yourself look like an idiot this is pretty funny. However, if this feature is just too much embarrassment for you to handle you can turn it off.
So sweet your teeth will hurt.
“You will listen to me!”

Kinectimals will have you saying “Oooooh how cute!” about a zillion times.  Seriously, if you don’t think that this game (and watching your child play it) is the cutest thing ever, you have a heart of stone and shouldn’t have procreated.  Kinectimals has a loose story line involving a cat-loving sea captain who mysteriously vanished, but all that comes is in far behind the adorableness that is playing with your virtual cat.  Kitty picked a panther, named it Casey and treats it better than our real cat.  Even at three and a half she was able to play this game with minimal assistance. The on-screen cat/fairy hybrid  guide animal voiced by Invader Zim (really, it’s same voice actor. Try not hearing it now that I’ve told you) helps the little ones with this. Getting started was a little tricky, but after you are signed in and have selected your cat, even small children can navigate this game.  They throw in some mini-games involving teaching your cat tricks, playing fetch, driving RC cars and knocking over targets, but the star here is the interactions with your cat.  This game is probably the most perfect game for kids ever made with both Kitty and Nate enjoying it immensely.  While it has some playability for adults, I got bored pretty fast. The kids fought over whose turn it was and played until I had to pry them away from the screen. If you have the Kinect and you have kids, this game is a must have.

Kinect Sports
For the next time I have an extra $40 bucks lying around.

Kinect Sports was developed by Rare, known for the Viva Pinata and Banjo Kazooie games, both of which my kids love.  It seemed to be the more family friendly option with games like soccer and boxing that would appeal to the kids, to adults who may or may not have been imbibing and to those looking for a workout.  It didn’t make the cut this round, but this is still one of the better reviewed games, made by a company that has made some fantastic family friendly games, and will be the next title we purchase.

So is the Kinect worth it?  I’d say that if you already have an Xbox 360, then absolutely yes.  The technology is truly a game changer (see what I did there? Game changer?! Ha!). The Kinect is going to keep your Xbox experience fresh and may actually give the console the ten year life cycle Microsoft is hoping for.  The kids seem to enjoy it as much as the adults, and unlike the Wii its better graphics and innovative interface make this more appealing to hardcore gamers.  If you were already considering purchasing an Xbox, spend the extra and get the Kinect bundle, which ranges in price from $269 to $400 depending on the hard drive size you get.  If  this whole Kinect thing has made you think of buying a system for the first time, it’s probably not for you. Though if you get a lot of play out of your Wii you may consider upgrading.

Did you get a Kinect for the holidays?  What do you think?  Leave a comment below with your thoughts on the system and games you’ve tried.

Favorite games for young gamers?

My kids love video games, as does Super Dad.  I have to admit though, that the games my kids play are not games made for kids, and we’re pretty liberal about what we allow.  We have frank discussions about reality vs. the video game world and why behavior that is appropriate in an MMO is not necessarily appropriate in real life.  We feel confident in the way we’ve raised Nate to be confident, to understand right from wrong  and to look for non-violent solutions to his problems.  We don’t feel like letting him play more mature games is going to suddenly change character traits we’ve been helping him cultivate since birth.  (I feel that I should clarify that we screen all games he plays before he plays and that there are many titles that – even with his whining and begging – he is not allowed to play.  So no GTA or Left 4 Dead for Nathan….

There are also many age appropriate games Nate loves.  Scribblenauts, Drawn to Life, and anything with Mario are big hits.  So when I was tasked with buying a video game for my nephew’s upcoming tenth birthday I thought I’d have it under control.  It’s turning out to be harder than I thought.

So, dear readers here’s where you come in…what are your favorite video games for kids?  Nephew has a DS and a Wii, would need something that’s no too reading/writing intensive (hence Scribblenauts being out of the running) and is relatively simple to play.  Suggestions?