Digital Blend: Pondering a free-to-play StarCraft 2 and streaming games from your ISP

Welcome back to Digital Blend, our weekly look at the world of downloadable video gaming that exists at the fringes of the mainstream. That means we look at the hottest new mobile game releases, downloadable content drops on consoles and PCs, indie darlings that deserve your love and attention, and the best gaming values under $20.

Keep your comments and feedback coming. We want to hear from you! Did you try something you read about here and enjoy it? Is there a particular game you think we’ve overlooked or news you want to share? Any questions you are dying to ask? Let us know! Your thoughts, feedback, suggestions and (constructive!) criticism are welcome, either in the comments section below or directed at yours truly on Twitter, @geminibros.

Making headlines…

* Electronic Arts added Swedish developer ESN to its lineup of wholly owned studios earlier this week. You might not recognize the company name, but you’re probably familiar with their work. ESN created Battlelog, the stat-tracking service that monitors player performance in Battlefield 3 and the upcoming Medal of Honor: Warfighter, which is coming on October 23, 2012. The acquisition doesn’t change the studio’s focus at all; ESN will continue to work on maintaining and evolving Battlelog. I’m guessing that its work will eventually expand, perhaps to support Autolog or even create new [insert thing] log services for different EA properties. Battlelog is a solid competitor to Activision’s Call of Duty Elite stat-tracking, and this ESN acquisition definitely makes good sense.

EDF for Vita* What’s more fun than killing giant bugs from outer space? How about killing giant bugs from outer space while you’re riding the subway to work in the morning. Soon you’ll be able to do just that, with D3 Publisher officially confirming plans to bring the just-released Japan version of Earth Defense Force 2017 for PlayStation Vita to North America and Europe. There’s little news beyond that to reveal at this point, though a “winter” release is planned.

* Nintendo’s had a lot of troubles with piracy in recent years, particularly on its portable platforms thanks to the existence of “flash carts” for Nintendo DS that allow users to read data directly off of an inserted SD or microSD card. While the potential offered by such things is great in the realm of all things homebrew, these flash carts are frequently used by pirates to play illegally obtained copies of commercially released games. They’re still a threat on the NDS side of things, but Nintendo’s latest 3DS firmware update effectively blocks out many of the available flash carts. This isn’t to say that a workaround won’t be discovered that will allow these card readers to function again, but for now Nintendo seems to have stemmed off one of its biggest piracy threats.

* Time Warner, Comcast, and other cable providers are apparently in the process of exploring the possibilities in the realm of streaming game content, much like the services offered by dedicated providers like OnLive and Gaikai. They’re all at different stages of readiness, but unnamed sources reveal that multiple cable companies could go live with streaming game content as soon as “Early 2013,” with scattered testing kicking off before the end of 2012. The aim in launching these services for many is to offer the sort of AAA gaming experience that you can only find right now on dedicated consoles, high-end PCs, or the OnLive/Gaikai entities of the world. Cable companies have an inherent edge over the streaming competition since they’ve already got the infrastructure in place to support regional data centers.

* Everybody wins when Tokyo Jungle is playable on the PlayStation Vita, and an incoming update aims to do just that. The exceedingly unusual action/RPG that was recently released in North America for PlayStation 3, will soon be updated to allow for Remote Play on Sony’s latest handheld. It’s not going to be truly portable, since the Vita and PS3 both need to be on and running in the same wireless network in order for the feature to function, but now you’ll at least be able to run amok as a dog through post-apocalyptic Tokyo from the comfort of your toilet. You can still enjoy Tokyo Jungle before that happens however; the game is available via PSN as of this week for $15.

* StarCraft 2 is a big deal in the pro gaming scene, especially in Korea where there are several professional leagues dedicated to it, but Blizzard would like to see an expanded audience embrace the popular real-time strategy game. While there’s no plan in place just yet, the developer is tossing around ideas for turning at least the multiplayer portion of the game into a free-to-play offering. The big challenge is monetizing it. StarCraft 2 is known throughout the gaming world for its near-perfect unit balance between the different factions. Watching pros play, you realize that it’s like a complicated game of chess. What this means is that a “pay-per-unit” approach to microtransactions wouldn’t work, since the experience really depends on having full access to the faction you’re playing as. All that said, I could see a free-to-play take on StarCraft 2‘s multiplayer drawing in a lot of news fans, so don’t be surprised if this eventually happens.

Top buys for the week…

Marvel Vs. Capcom Origins :: PS3 / Xbox 360 :: $14.99 / 1,200 MS Points

Two classic games from one low price. Marvel Vs. Capcom Origins gathers together Marvel Super Heroes and Marvel Vs. Capcom: Clash of Super Heroes into a single, downloadable release. Both are direct-from-the-coin-op ports with some added features, including GGPO-powered online play, support for eight-player lobbies, and an HD makeover. Don’t take my word for it; check out our Marvel Vs. Capcom Origins review.

Hell Yeah! Wrath of the Dead Rabbit :: PS3 / Xbox 360 :: $14.99 / 1,200 MS Points

Should you buy Hell Yeah! Wrath of the Dead Rabbit? HELL YEAH! Arkedo Studio has a killer Metroidvania-style 2D platformer here. It’s challenging in an old school sort of way, so expect to play through sections over and over again as you learn each and every jump, enemy, and death pit placement. You won’t mind though, thanks to beautiful, hand-drawn art and a bitingly funny (if juvenile) sense of humor. It’s not quite my pick of the week, but it’s close. Damn close.

Tokyo Jungle :: PS3 :: $14.99

This right here is my pick of the week. Tokyo Jungle has it all: post-apocalypse, open-world exploration, RPG-style progression and unlocks, dogs fighting velociraptors, panda love…. Perhaps I should just stop here. This gloriously quirky action/RPG was finally localized following its Japan-only release. It’s now a PSN-exclusive, which means you’ll have to download it straight to your PS3. It’s worth clearing out some space for though. Look past the obscene level of weirdness and you’ll find a fun, quirky, and occasionally flawed game that allows you to quite literally hoof it around the streets of a post-human Tokyo. Check out our review for more on this original (and weird) new game.

The Last Express :: iOS :: $4.99

Jordan Mechner’s PC adventure game classic has gone mobile. I feel so very, very old. Released in 1997, this narrative-driven adventure from the creator of the Prince of Persia series has players running around the 1914 Orient Express, interacting with various characters and solving puzzles in real-time. The iOS release adds a new hint system that you can turn to when you get really stuck, but none of the charm is lost in this classic game’s move from creaky, old CRT computer monitors to iOS phone and tablet screens. Yet another top recommendation for this week.

God of Blades :: iOS :: $2.99

Full disclosure: I haven’t actually tried God of Blades yet. The game intrigues me though. Mixing hack-and-slash RPG-style gameplay with the “endless runner” genre that is so popular in the mobile space, White Whale Games has come up with a crazy formula that just might work. Remember when Puzzle Quest so successfully mixed RPG progression with match-three puzzle-solving? I see a similarly addicting sort of potential in God of Blades, and for $2.99 I look forward to sampling it.

Bad Piggies :: iPhone / iPad :: $0.99 / $2.99

Bad Piggies driving

How do you follow-up a millions-selling mobile sensation? When you’re Rovio, you simply turn the original idea on its head. Angry Birds has more than left its mark on popular culture, and now Rovio is hoping that the birds’ Bad Piggies arch-nemeses will do the same. The new game, available in separate versions for smartphone and tablet,  focuses on construction rather than destruction. Players are tasked with building vehicles that are meant to carry the titular swine through a series of levels. It’s actually a clever reversal on Angry Birds and is definitely worth a look. Take a peek at our Bad Piggies impressions if you want to know more.

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