Categories
culture Freeware PC

Planetside 2 (PC)

Planetside 2 wallpaper
Planetside 2

I was very excited about Planetside 2. The promise of planet-scale warfare with thousands of other players is something no other game has. It’s enough to make a thirty four year old gamer’s mind spin. It’s inspiring.

After only a couple of hours with the game, I uninstalled it. The reason is not its gameplay, which works fine, even if it’s very disorienting to a newcomer. I had no performance issues, either. What it came down to was art.

How is it that the developers of the game do not seem excited about the promise of Planetside 2? The game is just bland – so bland I found out I have no interest in playing it anymore.

There’s two sides to this and both are big issues in games.

One is technical art quality. If you can’t run the game on “high” settings, it looks very bad.  The “low” settings are reminiscent of bad Playstation 2 titles. This is something many PC games have been suffering from lately. The engines running the games no longer scale properly. Gone are the days when you could be sure that the game would look nice, and it was a matter of how much extra candy you could layer on top. I think this is also the domain of art direction – you should think about how the majority of your players are going to play the game and make sure it’s something you’re happy with.

If you can crank everything up, things do improve. It’s flashy enough and the scale of the game offsets a lot of the problems. What it doesn’t help with is (and this is the second issue) art direction in terms of identity. Not only should you be able to conjure a look that’s your own, you should evoke something that’s worthy of tens and hundreds of hours of play.

Planetside 2’s visual design is not based on anything. It’s cheap Saturday morning cartoon science fiction meets 90s PC gaming – cheap in terms of textures and polygons, lazy in terms of imagination and structure. There is no reason a shooter couldn’t look beyond make-believe ray guns. Aliens is the building block of most Western scifi because it’s so plausible – functional and based on what we know works in today’s world. Star Wars (IV-VI) are so powerful visually because of the believable, used and worn and lived-in look of its whole universe. Even places like the Death Star feel like something that could exist. You can go as far as basing your shooter on art deco like Bioshock did: it doesn’t matter that nobody in your audience knows what art deco is, but they know a consistent, unique, cool look when they see it.

The non-existent basis of the art leads to problems you don’t have when you’re dealing with reality. Even in something completely non-imaginative like Battlefield 3 or Ghost Recon Online, I care more about my avatars because I understand soldiers. I don’t understand these weird classes of Planetside 2 that don’t seem to exist anywhere. An interesting comparison is Tribes Ascend which is directly based on 90s shooters. It doesn’t make any more sense, but there is a stronger (visual) identity present and thus it makes me care.

Even on a purely functional level, there’s a lot the art should address. It’s very hard to tell apart the various guns, gadgets and classes in Planetside 2. It’s hard to even tell apart the fighting sides. Vehicle and building silhouettes don’t evoke anything. It’s just… stuff.

Normally I eat up concept art because it’s so evocative, even when it ends up normalized and weak in-game. In the case of Planetside 2, even the concept art is just as uninteresting. They don’t seem to care, and neither do I. I was insulted by seeing the first enemy tank that killed me. Surely nothing so lazy and worthless should be able to kill me!

Another big budget title that baffles me with its uninteresting art is The Elder Scrolls Online. When it should be evocative and exciting, it comes across as matter of factly and bland, like something directly descended from the “it’s just a game” identity of Everquest.  Compare that to World Of Warcraft or Guild Wars 2, which both have visual identities so strong they make people play them on their looks alone. And this is a world with titles as breathtaking as Morrowind and Skyrim in it! It’s not enough to just present art as a quantity anymore. You need soul in it to stand out.

Categories
culture Freeware PC

Hawken (PC)

Hawken screenshot
Hawken. It’s really pretty.

Every artist in the studio knew when that trailer hit. Hawken became a household name overnight. It took a while to register for a larger audience, but if you attended any game tradeshow over the past year or so, you couldn’t miss Hawken. This tiny team out of nowhere was seriously competing with the triple-A productions.

It’s still something of a mystery how they do it. They’re punching so much above their weight it’s like the rules and the laws just don’t apply.

When the previews started hitting, it was obvious Hawken was going to be big. It reaches that place where you’re effectively above casual criticism – you’re great and everybody wants to love you.

It’s now in open beta. I wasn’t too impressed by my time in the closed beta, but hey – happy to be proven wrong! It’s come a long way since, being much more responsive, looking the part, and performing a ways better. There is no way I’m not going to play this a lot in the immediate future. It’s a fast-moving shooter in a super-cool, original world with its own language and mood. It’s free to play and very simple to pick up and run and gun, so go ahead and see if you like it. For me it hits a nice spot between Mechwarrior Online’s slow pace and the too-fast-for-me modern shooters like Call Of Duty.

All of that’s beside the point, because what’s interesting to me is the fact that this phenomenon of a free to play title is a… mecha title through and through. That’s not supposed to be marketable.

Science fiction in general is not supposed to sell – even though, hello, Gears Of War, Halo, Mass Effect – and come on, giant robots. Like anybody gives a toss about those! Today’s marketplace is all about serious soldiers. Mechwarrior was the one somewhat big name way back when, but in the west, there hasn’t been a giant robot IP that did well since.

I was talking to someone who deals with giant robots and markets and he was really surprised to hear that Hawken was a mecha title. “But giant robots and the west don’t mix!” I tried to explain why he had the view that he did and why this could be changed, but did a poor job of it. Here’s a better take on it.

It’s true that there haven’t been very many successful mecha titles in the west since Battletech/Mechwarrior. That franchise enjoys a die-hard reputation among old-time PC geeks, but nobody outside of that group really knows it. It’s so old and clunky, it’s like comparing a 1950s car to whatever the kids want to drive these days. You can’t draw too many conclusions from Battletech.

Myself, I’ve always been all over the mecha designs of the east. I never cared for any of the series they came from. The few games that have found some fans in the west are Armored Core and Front Mission. They are both far too obscure and hardcore for their own good, not built for mainstream audiences, much as I adore them. It doesn’t matter if they were built in the east or the west: this kind of game will never reach a big audience (a dedicated, super faithful hardcore audience? Sure!).

The notable omission from Japanese mainstays is the complete lack of Gundam. The impression is that the western audience doesn’t care for Gundam, but as far as I know, they never really attempted to make it popular over here. I don’t actually know if any of the Gundam shows or game series are any good – the only one I ever played was the decent 2D brawler (SNES, I believe). I just worship the art and design of the machines.

Based on what I’ve seen of Gundam games, I don’t really believe they could be popular in the west. They seem like they’re too much fan service, simplistic gameplay, token fandom. You can’t build them for the fans if you want to grab a western audience that knows next to nothing about your world. As an example, I reviewed one of the recent Naruto games. It was actually really good (much to my surprise, I admit), but I didn’t understand anything that was going on. It was hard to care when I was so painfully obviously not the target audience. I suspect there’s a similar problem with the Gundam games.

So I don’t believe the west care about giant robots per se. You need to have a good game and a world we’re welcome to enter.

That’s what Hawken is doing. It’s a bona fide mecha property, all about the machines, built from the ground up. Everybody is exploring it at the same time, starting with zero knowledge. It’s got a lot that you know: even though you’re customizing a walking tank, it’s not that different from customizing a tank in World Of Tanks. Yeah, it’s gorgeous mecha blowing each other to bits, but it’s the domination gameplay you know from Battlefield. The action is straight out of slowed down Unreal Tournament or even Counter-Strike. It’s a great shooter – just with a cool world and unique looks.

It can compete with anything you care to throw at it. Plus it’s got these cool giant robots.

Hawken has only surprised me once, but it’s oozing quality. Everything they put in there is just shining. The single surprise was my new starter mech, the one that looks like a walking microwave oven or CRT monitor with legs? It’s funny and sympathetic. Pulling that off in a supposedly serious military-themed shooter is a grand feat.

Oh and Transformers? That’s no giant robot series. Watch the trailer for Pacific Rim – though the mecha designs are uninspired, all the mecha tropes are there, straight out of Neon Genesis Evangelion. That’s a giant robot movie.

Categories
culture technology Xbox 360

Rocksmith (Xbox 360)

Rocksmith Xbox 360 PAL cover
Rocksmith. The guitar is what it’s all about.

Rocksmith’s appeal is entirely up to your background. Mine follows: when Rock Band came out in Europe in January 2008, I first picked up a plastic guitar controller. (I’ve had four since.) Two years ago I picked up a real guitar, all thanks to the game. I’ve been noodling with it once a week. It’s just not enough practice to really progress in the art, but I do have the basics of picking and chords and tuning down. I realize that I need way more practice, and it’s just not happening. I would need either friends to play with or lessons to motivate myself. Rocksmith sounded like just the thing – and the cheapest option, to boot! (“Friends” option would also mean getting a practice space.) It’s been a frustrating year, waiting for it to come out in Europe.

Rocksmith is basically Guitar Hero played with a real instrument. The skills you build can be transferred as-is to the real world. Just plug into an amp instead of your console (or PC).

The first and lasting revelation comes right in the first loading screen. You’re plugged in and during loading you can play whatever. The game and your AV system works as a  virtual amp. Just with the default settings – which you can mess around with much as you please – you sound great. The tools do matter. The game is doing some magic to mask your noise (unwanted sound you’re producing), but really just the right effects, guitar sound and amplifier make you sound so much better than through your likely cheap home amp, it motivates you to no end. I’ve been thinking about getting a virtual amp and right now I see no reason to.

Moving on to the game proper, it works like all music games do. You’re presented with songs to master and you tackle them one by one, playing virtual gigs to virtual venues. Here lie the game’s problems – it probably would be better off not calling itself a game. Games are supposed to be rewarding. Learning to play an instrument is rewarding… in the long term, but in the short term it demands patience. The way the game constantly ups the difficulty as you’re making progress, all the time keeping right out of reach of your abilities, is great for learning, but makes for poor gameplay. When you’re missing notes, you’re not “making mistakes” or losing points, you’re learning. The game does not reprimand you for mistakes, rather just politely pointing you at the right way, rather like a teacher would. It’s only a problem of perception.

The mini-games are designed to teach you basic skills like positioning. Can’t say how long I’ll play them, simple as they are, but as warm-ups they work. I’m more confident in some of my core skills already (finding the blasted 10th fret).

The way the game makes you learn everything through playing actual songs at real speeds does wonders to your sense of rhythm. It forces you to start reading with your fingers, because at real speeds you just don’t have the time to check both your hands. Compared to how I’ve been training by myself, this is nothing short of a revolution. Playing on your own, it’s so easy to play just a tad slower to keep up.

As a teaching aid, Rocksmith has just one problem and another potential one. The real problem is that the game’s Guitar Hero-y way of displaying the songs you play does not correspond to any real world way of noting music. You won’t be able to read songs based on your time with the game. That’s something you need to learn the hard way.

The potential problem is that maybe you’re not keen on the game’s selection of mostly classic rock. I’m fine with it – I don’t actually care all that much what I’m playing, as long as I’m making music. There’s plenty more options available on the download store, too. It’s nowhere near Rock Band levels of choice, but it’s choice.

The way you start from single notes, upping the amount of strings and notes as you go, moving on to chords and eventually combinations, allows you to practice at a level that’s most useful to you. Even the single note versions do sounds like music, when played correctly.

There’s been talk of lag. Can’t say it’s a problem. I did switch out the HDMI for component cables as instructed and used an analogue cable to my stereo. Apparently the loading times grate some folks, too. Again, can’t say it’s a problem. Maybe if this were a party game, but to me it’s something you fire up instead of grabbing a sheaf of tabs and plugging into my amp. You can play through the virtual amp as it’s loading. The user interface is a bit of a laugh, especially compared to Rock Band 3, but it gets the job done while looking cool enough.

Likely if you already can play a number of songs at full speed, Rocksmith won’t be anything beyond a way to master a few more songs to you. It’s been made for guys like me, who just need a little more kick to keep playing. If you were to pick up your first guitar with the game, I think you’d do okay. The game does cover the basics of tuning and holding a pick and so forth.

All told, Rocksmith is everything I wanted it to be, and more. I am psyched to get back on the guitar tonight.

Categories
culture PC

Deus Ex: Human Revolution (PC)

Deus Ex Human Revolution cover
Deus Ex: Human Revolution

I recently re-watched Blade Runner for something in the region of twentieth time and as always, was blown away by the world building and production design. It simply does not feel like it’s way back from 1982, and you totally buy the future world you’re experiencing.

The prequel to Deus Ex, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, attempts the same sort of effect, and almost hits it. Its shortcomings are issues of technology and game design and serve to highlight some of the differences between filmmaking and digital games.

Stepping into the game world, the craftmanship and care lavished everywhere you look is humbling. If it’s sometimes hard to see why games would be worth the 60 EUR retail price, work such as this totally validates it. From furniture to clothing to architecture, Deus Ex has been designed and crafted impeccably. Not a detail is out of place, if you can accept the game-isms of frequent sewer and ventilation duct crawls, and the ever-present yellow paint cans.

Where the production design doesn’t work is stuff that Blade Runner excels at: the street scene. It is impossible to accept the game’s futuristic Detroit as anything but a videogame set, sprinkled with a handful of non-player characters. There is no crowd, no society you’re a part of. Perhaps it would’ve been a more efficient solution to not let you wander around on the streets, but rather imply the crowd and gloss over interacting with it.

Whenever you go into spaces you likely wouldn’t see in a movie – non-descript, indentikit apartment complex hallways and back alleys, typically just passing through – it’s so generic it’s hard to buy into it. Apartments look like no one has spent a minute in them. The fake apartments and rooms they have in Ikea are more believable. Skyrim did a much better job of this. As it is, you have to understand it’s a game first, and look past it, but it feels like a disappointment.

As a game it really works. It is unmistakably Deus Ex, and while the protagonist is too hip and cool to give a shit about, characters are well written and you do want to find out what’s going on.

I recognize it’s part of Deus Ex to have numerous side quests and objectives at any time, but the criss-crossing odd jobs and NPCs that are there just as quest automatons require you to look at the game as a game. There is no effort made to make you feel like it’s a drama.

If you ever loved Deus Ex, there is no way you wouldn’t love this wonderful update. But if you hoped the game’s sumptuous budget and care for world building would extend to a bold new vision of experiencing the future, look elsewhere. In many ways Deus Ex: Human Revolution feels like taking videogames in their current form as far as you can, doing everything as well as you humanly can, and ultimately hitting a number of walls that keep it from going further. Some of those walls are there by design, and I’m not saying they even should be torn down. But it does make you wonder what could be. Isn’t that the mark of something great?

Categories
culture Games

Girls

Kung Fu Master (C64)
Kung Fu Master (C64) has probably the first videogame woman I ever saw. Couldn't find a picture of her to use here. Just to break the norm on stories about females in games, this is the only image in this story.

I can’t believe I haven’t written about women as characters in games before, certainly I’ve talked about them quite a bit. Inspiration to finally do a piece on this was this article, where the Bitmob community attempted to collectively write about good female characters in games, ones not created just as damsels in distress or there to titillate men. The turnover was really poor. This is what I might have submitted.

I don’t think it’s important to focus on female characters that kick ass. I think it’s important to focus on characters period. As an industry we do horrible things to characters and arguably females get the worst of it. So here as an inspiration is a bunch of characters done correctly.

Uncharted series: Elena Fisher and Chloe Frazer

The Uncharted character drama and love interests have been really interesting just because of a couple of basic things they do. For one thing, every character (except for the lame bad guys… doing bad guys right is difficult, granted) feels like they’re standing on their own feet. They are not there just for the protagonist Nathan Drake to reflect off. You can imagine them going about their own business and having their own ambitions. You can’t predict what’s going to come out of their mouths.

But in terms of drama, the one key thing is that there’s tension in Uncharted. The way Nathan and Elena meet is that Nathan leaves her standing on a pier, intentionally screwing her over. Not a typical video game set up for a love story! In the second game, Nathan can’t make up his mind between Elena and Chloe. Much like Indiana Jones, Nathan Drake is not a perfect nice guy hero – he’s flawed, and all the better for it.

In addition to the character drama written correctly, both Elena and Chloe kick all kinds of ass during the games. They’re very much on the same level in terms of script importance and role activity level as Nathan’s mentor Victor Sullivan – except as females, they’re suitable for heterosexual Nathan’s romantic interests. Also, crucially, it feels like the romance flows both ways. Again, there’s tension. Tension’s good.

Heavenly Sword: Nariko

Nariko’s strength comes from the story – her fate is sealed the moment she decides to pick up the Heavenly Sword, a god-like weapon which sucks the life out of its wielder. Tragedy is something games don’t do enough. She does not have much in the way of character and there is next to no character drama going on, the individuals lost in the grand sweep of epic (literal sense) events. Just being the strong-willed, doomed star of this powerful, simple story is enough. Her visual design is very strong without being hyper-sexual about it.

There’s also a minor character in the game called Kai, who’s just a really cool rogue type girl who could’ve had more screen time in the game.

Portal: Chell and GLaDOS

While being unremarkable is rarely the sign of a strong character, the protagonist of Portal is just that for a long while in the game. Silent like her stablemate Gordon Freeman, her face and body remain unseen, save for fleeting glimpses. You get curious about her. Who are you? Why are you there? Chell’s circumstances and capabilities define her, as they more often should in videogames.

Then there’s the conflict with GladOS. She starts out as another insane rogue AI, but quickly develops more personality. The conflict adds to Chell’s signifigance, too, adding dramatic weight to her plight, and emotional consequences to player agency. At its climax the confrontation brings to mind Ripley vs Alien Queen, a touch of the far too little used motherhood theme creeping in.

Mirror’s Edge: Faith

Faith doesn’t have a lot of personality and her story isn’t very interesting, but the visual design alone is arresting. One of the most striking visual themes of past years is here carried effortlessly over to the protagonist. The other characters have none of the same flair, making Faith stand out even more. Plus she’s just a nice guy, of course you want to hang out with her on the sun-soaked roofs. It bothers me that likely most players made her pick up a gun at some point. I love it that I was given a choice not to.

Categories
culture Xbox 360

Skyrim (Xbox 360)

Skyrim wallpaper
Skyrim. Hot damn they've improved from Oblivion's tasteless fantasy tropes

My wife got me Ready Player One for Christmas. It’s pretty good for a kid born in the 70s, and its themes of virtual worlds and their relation to the real world gels really well with a science fiction thing I’ve been working on. Then I started playing Skyrim and any of my doubts about where we’re going were swept away.

Forget virtual and real.

When I started walking in Skyrim, immediately after exiting the introductory dungeon, instinctually knowing where to look for specific plants, how to fight, and what kind of moons to look for in the night sky – it’s a (real) place I’d stepped into. This is the third game I’ve played in this world, having spent hundreds of hours in Morrowind and Oblivion, and that’s really the thing for me: it’s not so much a game series as a world, a place, to me. The world in Skyrim is just as I remember it from my previous adventures, only prettier, up to today’s standards. In the case of many other games, I would say lack of progress and feeling of familiarity are negatives, but in this case it’s a major pull for me.

There will be ever more of these virtual worlds with so much personal and cultural relevance – be it through Minecraft or World of Warcraft or Elder Scrolls – that they really do transcend being “games”. When it feels like you’re logging on or booting up to be somewhere else, to meet people and go about your own ambitions instead of a traditional single player storyline, that’s a place, a world we’re talking about.

I don’t think it needs to be an MMO to do this. Guys talking about Skyrim never talk about the storyline – they talk about their own ideas of how to play the game. I’ve spent hours crafting jewelry and armor, really proud of my work and figuring out stuff on my own.

I think the key is giving the player enough freedom to find their own way and view the world from their own perspective.

I’m still trying to get around my general distaste for sandbox experiences. The thing about the Elder Scrolls series may be that they go to an awful lot of trouble to make it feel like a cohesive place instead of a virtual playground (think GTA, Saint’s Row, Mercenaries).

Categories
culture roleplaying tabletop games

D&D Essentials

Dungeons & Dragons Red Box coverI’ve been playing in a delightfully bonkers Dungeons & Dragons 4E campaign for a while now and really had a super good time with it. So much so, in fact, that I’ve been craving to run some D&D myself. The problem is that the game is very intimidating. Whenever we’re leveling up our characters, we need (I believe) five books and a computer software to do it. Whenever playing the game, some of us have five pages of powers they have to handle.

When a veteran Dungeon Master said that he had no way of knowing whether his players were just making shit up as they went along, I can totally relate.

“I long gave up trying to figure out what abilities and combinations the PCs had or how they worked. […] People would say things like “deep rumble strike” and then hit an invisible monster for 130 damage. Another would say something “astral wintersgate” and then negate an entire monster’s round of damage. There wasn’t a way in hell I could tell if they had a real power or were just making up nonsense words and then doing whatever they wanted to do.” – Mike Shea on Critical-Hits.com

So I’ve held off for fear of never actually getting to play the game as it would be too cumbersome to set up and maintain. Just enjoy playing the thing and have others worry about all them books, right?

Then the Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter Set AKA Red Box came out and I wanted it because it was just like my first actual RPG, the original D&D Red Box (although mine was Finnish). It works like the old set, offering a starter into D&D, except with the up to date rules. It was cheap enough for me to pick up on a whim, happening upon this token of the familiar in a sea of unknown, being alone in a big nerdy comic book store, waiting for an 8-bit gig to begin in Los Angeles.

I was aware of the “D&D Essentials” books, but browsing them at our DM’s table, I got the feeling they were like condensed reference editions for über players. It turns out that this new Red Box is the first Essentials product and the idea is that together, the Essentials form an easier to get into product line of D&D. And indeed, the box is very easy to get into. It lays down the path very easily – once you’re through the content here, get this one box for the DM and two more books (one for characters, one for rules) and you’re set for another 28 levels.

It uses the same rules as vanilla 4E, but streamlines things quite a bit. Unnecessary combat maneuvers are not touched upon nor missed and most importantly, the character builds are simpler. You still get lots of powers even on the first level, but it’s nowhere as unwieldy. Why you get by with just one book instead of five is that character creation options have been streamlined with a broadsword. You get fighter, rogue, wizard, cleric, and that’s it. You know, there was a time when that was plenty! If you really need a bit more options, there’s another Essentials book with druids, paladins, rangers and warlocks. That already feels like filler to me.

It really is all about the very basic stereotypes and if you think about it, pretty much everything else is just a variation of these purest of forms.

The justification for this is that the vast majority of D&D campaigns are vanilla fantasy with no need for all the options. Our ongoing D&D doesn’t have any straightforward characters – I guess my warlord comes the closest – and the Essentials would not work for this kind of “expert” campaign. And that’s fine.

I think I will be running through this Red Box this summer, and after that, perhaps getting that other box and the two books, too. Straight-up Dungeons & Dragons is what got me into the hobby in the first place and not a year goes by without a fond look back to those days.

Categories
culture

E3 2011

E3 logo

This year’s E3 was a personal milestone for me. I got to present the game I’ve been working on to the media, meeting some legendary journalists and all-round cool people while doing it. The reception to Ridge Racer Unbounded was good. Not many things in life have felt as good as reading on Twitter that we were someone’s favorite thing at the show.

Realizing this dream meant being locked up in a 2,5 x 2,5 meter dark cubicle for three days, as we were doing hands-off, behind closed doors demos by appointment only. I didn’t get to see many games and played even fewer, but this is what stood out to me.

Oh and also? I don’t hate LA anymore, thanks to a super-nerdy night out at Meltdown Comics out in West Hollywood, right on Sunset Boulevard. The Gameboy gig ruled, sweaty dancing and awesome artists. The 8-bit rendition of Closer was too much!

DEAD ISLAND

Dead Island is known for its standout trailer and I wasn’t really expecting anything from the actual game, having already had my firstperson zombie needs fulfilled more than adequately by Left 4 Dead. It was surprising to see the game draw crowds next to the sexy Deus Ex Human Revolution pods.

The game looks like a lot of fun. It has a horrible HUD getting in the way and the combat lacks all feedback – you’re in firstperson melee combat and can’t really tell whether anything has hit anything – but it’s got this eastern European thing going for it. It reminded me of Stalker. There are a lot of mechanics going on. Weapons wear down with use, you’re getting experience for every single hit you land on the undead, you’re unlocking abilities as you go and picking up weapons left and right.

But the thing that really sold it to me was how lovingly the island resort was rendered. It really put forth an intriguing, believable “what if you were on holiday and the dead rose from their graves” scenario, something I’m a sucker for. All the game mechanics layered on top did not take away from the naturalistic appeal of the situation.

Finally, shee-it! It’s been four years since I first heard and wrote about this game.

EARTH DEFENSE FORCE INSECT ARMAGEDDON

I looked at Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon being played for, oh, perhaps six hours in total, sitting right across from it, waiting for appointments to come in. It says a lot that I didn’t grow bored. It looks AWESOME. I was worried about the new developer (ironic considering my own situation with Ridge Racer), but it really feels like they totally get the “B” appeal of EDF. It’s suitably better looking than the previous game, but not so much as to take away from the charm.

It drew a lot of people, too, many coming back for more rounds and many sitting in to play it through multiple times. I didn’t get to play it much, just enough to find the shotgun I picked woefully underdelivering against a hundred or so giant space ants. One for the shopping list, if you have a comrade in arms to defend Earth with.

(Full disclosure: it’s a Namco game. I had a Namco badge at the show.)

ACE COMBAT ASSAULT HORIZON

All the changes to the Ace Combat formula had me intrigued. I’ve enjoyed the previous titles in the series. The problem with Ace Combat is that it’s air combat. Essentially what you’re doing is lining up triangles until they change color, then tapping a button to loose heat-seeking missiles at your foe, rarely even seen because the distances are so long. I like that, but it does get samey over an entire game, and it’s easy to see why the series hasn’t reached a wider audience.

Assault Horizon changes all that and makes air combat as in your face and immediate as I can imagine. You’re changing modes all the time, from straight up missile shooting gallery to close-up dogfights (kind of like a rail-shooter – you finally get to use your guns) to piloting helicopters. It looks spectacular. I can imagine that they’ve gone for a “Modern Warfare of the skies” approach, and very much achieved that.

I felt that the controls were too twitchy, and the helicopter had a dodge move I found too cartoony to have a place in somewhat serious (if outrageous) military action. A must buy, for me.

(Full disclosure: it’s a Namco game. I had a Namco badge at the show.)

RESIDENT EVIL OPERATION RACCOON CITY

Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City is essentially Left 4 Dead in third person, except you’re playing as a squad of the Resident Evil series bad guys, Umbrella corporation’s commandos, hunting for surviving police officers in Raccoon City. The zombies feel kind of like a terrain feature, something that’s occasionally in the way, but not really every threatening. I’m interested because it’s co-op and Resident Evil, but mostly because of the funky inverted scenario.

Also, another one of those cases where a western studio is given over development duties in a long-standing Japanese series.

Categories
culture

Catering vs nurturing

Die Hard

Everybody loves a binary argument, especially online. And why not – compromise is never as much fun, not as entertaining. The media’s role is often to entertain, and the role of the creator to play a part in that entertainment. There is nothing wrong with this, and I revel in my part. Now that we’re all smiles, let’s take a moment to talk about the actual issue at hand. Likely in a less entertaining fashion.

I am looking at this from the perspective of a passionate developer being exposed to the gaming media for the first time. Full disclosure: I’ve written game reviews for money, gotten free copies of games, blogged for quite a while as a fan, and I really like good journalists. (More than I like most developers, who are often quite track-minded, supremely focused on what they do. I am more of a wanderer.) Now I make games for a living.

Something I said in an interview about depth versus spectacle in games was prime fodder for comment and link bait, and has generated more discussion than anything else aside from the initial shock of a new kind of Ridge Racer. It was not meant as such. I don’t disapprove of the coverage, although it saddens me that anyone would not buy my game because of something that’s wrongfully attributed to it. It looked like I wanted games to be more difficult, because that’s the way they used to be. That was never my intention.

I make action entertainment. I have come to accept and indeed champion the value of a nice gas explosion. It’s pick up and play high-speed fun first, everything else second. But shouldn’t there be something more?

If I was making some other kind of game, I would be trying very hard to put some more meaning into the game. But that doesn’t apply here in the same sense, I think. What does apply is the worth of gameplay. Lately I’ve seen discussion along the lines of “gamers don’t care about game design” and designers designing for designers, hardcore features “nobody cares about” and so on. It feels to me like we as an industry are becoming stupid. Since when did great gameplay go out of style?

Of course it hasn’t. I think it’s the studios and developers that are not Infinity Ward or Rockstar knee-jerking about their options. We should be brave and not cry about our inability to match their budget or marketing.

When looking at the current AAA top dogs, making the most mainstream of gaming blockbusters, we need to remember where they came from. Infinity Ward made shooters which placed the player in new kinds of scenarios. It was bombastic and scripted, yes, but it was the new and uncompromising which attracted us. And even though the modern military shooters are so identikit I struggle to tell them apart from screenshots, those leading studios are still all about new stuff and making no compromises. Attempts to copy what they do have failed, and I believe it’s because an attempt has been made to copy the spectacle, without seeing what made them great in the first place. And that was great gameplay.

I don’t mean gameplay just in the sense of how the moving and shooting feels. I mean the whole experience, how the game should maintain your interest with more than just relentless explosions and shouting. In a great blockbuster you have those elements (and indeed you need them), but they are not the point.

It’s not just videogames suffering from this. Hollywood has been struggling to produce great action movies to rival titles like Die Hard, Robocop and The Terminator. I think the problem is precisely the same. In a movie you need a great story and great characters wrapped around a great script… and then you add all the cool bits the kids talk about.

The problem is that while the kids talk about the explosions and set pieces and just how badass the T-800 is, the reason they talk about those movies at all and remember them for years to come is all the stuff they don’t realize they like. Much of the audience is just not equipped to analyze why Die Hard’s script is so good and why Robocop doesn’t have a single shot you could take away without making it a lesser movie. This does not make them immune to why they work so well.

Even if quality action entertainment is going out of style because it’s attracting more money and taking less risks and the everyman quality of the internet lowering the standards of coverage, making the spectacle seem like it matters more, it doesn’t change the fact that craftsmanship and passion never go out of style.

That’s what I meant with gameplay depth. It’s not about making the game more difficult, it’s about nurturing an audience. Even if we have to cater to our common lowest denominator while doing it, in many cases being a beautiful gas explosion.

Categories
culture PC

Why I’m not enamored with Dragon Age

Dragon Age screenshot
It rarely looks this exciting

Initially Dragon Age got its hooks in me proper deep. I mean, a new fantasy land to discover – not entirely too familiar, but still familiar enough to get into without a lifetime to burn – tactical (hard!) fighting, a party to assemble and get to know, Bioware characters. It’s all good, right? That kept me going for perhaps 20 hours.

There were some things that rubbed me the wrong way from the beginning. The art is not inspired. The world is not interesting visually. The characters look unappealing. There are lots of minor issues with the user interface and game design. The problem is that these initially minor problems have become more pronounced as the game has progressed – it hasn’t risen above them, quite the contrary.

There is too much copy-pasted content – I almost stopped playing in the tower of the mages with its endless, cramped corridors and mobs of uninteresting enemies waiting behind closed doors. There are longs bits of just bad content (the dream world – I can’t believe how ill-judged that was), forgivable if it was a fraction of its size. There is lots of boring talk which could’ve been condensed or skipped altogether.

It all feels to me like the studio would’ve needed a dedicated editor, mercilessly cutting content until only the good bits remain, in their proper place.

But that’s not all. Dragon Age is a spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate. If you think back to Baldur’s Gate and especially its sequel, those were expansive, beautiful games. I had a hard time putting my finger on it beyond “it’s not beautiful”, but this exchange of letters about revisiting Final Fantasy VII nails it. Dragon Age’s problem is that the world is uninteresting, devoid of detail that would bring it to life, lacking all of those small things I ate up in its 2D predecessors. Icewind Dale was all dungeons and fighting, but man, they were beautiful dungeons and I couldn’t stop playing. This 3D fantasy rendition is all scale and no character. That even goes for the actual characters, unfortunately. Give me fewer and better instead of more.

Interestingly, the Flash version of the same game world, Dragon Age Legends, feeds my imagination and thus interest much better than the “full” version does, leaving more for interpretation. Is it a pointless task to try and depict a fantasy world in glorious 3D with endless detail? I’m not sure and we’ll see how Skyrim fares, but this was precisely Oblivion’s problem, which Morrowind didn’t have, in part because it was graphically more abstracted, but also much more imaginative in general. Fallout 3 suffered from this, as well, as it was difficult to find unique, interesting places or encounters in the expansive atomic wastes, whereas the 2D predecessor was full of character and colour, in spite of its drab colour palette.

Perhaps it does come back to the fact that I would be scared of a Final Fantasy VII remake. The game worked in very large part thanks to the generous abstraction going on. If you take that away by rendering everything in pain-stakingly detailed 3D, you take away my imagination. How can anything measure up to imagination? I am not saying we should go back to PS1-era graphics, but maybe it’s high time that world builders start thinking about game worlds as more than just collections of assets. As an example of this done right, look at Bioshock or GTA IV. It’s the storytelling going on beyond the graphical assets that brings these worlds to life, and fuel my imagination.