I find myself bedeviled by critical darlings that bore the shit out of me or find some other way to turn me off. One would think that I would've shared my opinions on Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood by now, seeing as how I've had the game since Christmas. Alas, the game's everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to sandbox gameplay (I counted 20 different minigames that the game wanted me to play) seriously shortchanged the dense plotting and great characters I'd come to enjoy in the previous game. So, I turned it off, and looked elsewhere.
"Elsewhere" brought me to Dragon Age: Origins, the highly-regarded heir apparent to Dungeons & Dragons style epic RPGs that everyone else had raved about. However, I found the minutiae of the game world and its "gritty" take on standard fantasy tropes to be exasperating. How smart and creative do I expect a game to be if it contains the usual alliances of humans, elves, and dwarves fighting against a world-threatening evil, but with a perfunctory gloss of minor reinterpretations. (The elves are former slaves! The dwarves are agnostics! Oooooh.) Moving on.
I kept turning my back on these supposedly great games until, last week, it looked like Uncle Sam would shut down and I'd be without a job. I decided to pad the forthcoming mandatory vacation with a game that I'd been meaning to play for awhile but had consistently put off: The Saboteur, a World War II sandbox game by a now-defunct developer I liked that got decent but not great reviews.
After the first day of playing the game, I was considering returning it to GameStop. Three days later, I thought it was the best game I'd played in years.
Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood insisted on being tedious as hell, and Dragon Age: Origins instead on being bland as hell, so I decided to move on to a game that I knew would never, ever be caught within 100 yards of either of those two adjectives.
Frankly, I'm a little irritated that major gaming reviewers seem to have nothing better to do than heap plaudits on blockbusters games and look the other way completely on any of their flaws, so I'm just gonna go to another mini-review list of things I liked and thinks that made me want to saw into my wrists with a grapefruit spoon.
Our friendo Tadhg Kelly, last seen peddling his "games have no inherent value"/"developers should embrace piracy" tripe over at Gamasutra, has now reposted his article at GameSetWatch. I described my exceptionally low opinion of this article in the post below, but this morning I had another idea on the developer versus pirate war.
One of my favorite people in the universe is Ian Malcolm, so of course it's a crying shame that he's a fictional character written by one of my favorite authors. (And yes, that's despite the fact that Crichton became a climate change denialist later on in life.) One of the reasons I love him so much is that, in the book Jurassic Park, Malcolm takes part in a great colliquy on discipline.
1. Not to put too much emphasis on an unscientific sample of the few people that read this blog, but the folks that commented below only managed to name four "unique" video games from the past 5 or 6 years that were also critical and successes: Portal, Mirror's Edge, Wii Fit, and Wii Sports. Of those, Mirror's Edge was a financial bomb, and both Wii games were hand-crafted by Nintendo to show off their latest sensory peripherals.
Oh, and every other game mentioned was a small-scale indie game released by digital distribution. That's kinda scary.
2.This article in Gamasutra by someone justifying game piracy as a response to developers not nurturing a good community for their games is the kind of thing that drives me crazy. His argument is that, since games have no tangible content and, thusly, have no intrinsic value, the prime driver of revenue for a game is how supportive you are of the people playing it. Including, of course, the pirates. Be nice enough to them, and they may be kind enough to give you money.
This makes me want to scream and throw my shit. Of course games have intrinsic value, you dipshit. Just because it isn't solid like a book or DVD doesn't mean that games automatically become only a medium by which you succor fans and get them to give you money for your kindness. No, they're supposed to give you money for access to a copy of the game (digital or otherwise) and the experience they get from playing it! The physical media dodge pisses me off to no end, because the distinction between "physical theft" and "copyright violation" (literally, the "right to copy") covers these exact kinds of situations!
I'm impressed that the dude managed to pretty up the usual bullshit justifications with some sort of artsy, social contract-esque relationship between the developer and the (potential) customer, but it falls apart the moment you realize that developers that place a premium on customer service, like 2D Boy, still take it on the chin. Their World of Goo is an excellent game that was (a) self-published for a low price, and (b) done so without Digital Rights Management (DRM) as steps to entice customers. And still, it had a 90 percent piracy rate. Which means, according to the Gamasutra guy's argument, someone's not keeping up their end of the social bargaaaaaain...
The sad fact of the matter is that PC game developers are working in a market with huge, significant distortions. Piracy is cheap and it's easy, and the complete lack of law enforcement against online piracy allows the crime to occur with absolute impunity. And being as any enforcement would require a revolution in both international law and internet law, I don't expect to see a change anytime soon.
People develop PC games because they love developing games, and the PC represents a large audience and a large (potential) market. They frequently charge money for them not because they hope to sucker people and get rich, but because they love designing games and hope to do it for a living. And they can and should do all sorts of things to entice customer support and loyalty. When I get around to PC development, I for one will do everything in my power to provide a cheap, quality-based, DRM-free experience to both reward and entice my clientele. And even if any hypothetical game of mine has a 90% piracy rate, I hope to hell that the 10% of legitimate customers provide revenue that I'm happy with so that I don't have to worry after the missing 90%.
But let's stop pretending that piracy is anything other than the grinning, leering result of a market distortion, and the albatross around the neck of those developers brave enough to enter that market.
I have a question for you that I'd like your opinions and answers on, which can be added to the Comments section of this post. Hopefully, we can spark a discussion on a subject that's been bugging me for a bit:
"What games have been released in the past 5 or 6 years that are very unique?"
Additional info: Bonus points are added for games that are Unique and Critical Successes. Even more bonus points if the game is Unique, a Critical Success, and a Financial Success (lots of sales). Games in question should be pegged to the current generation of game consoles (Xbox 360, Wii, and PS3) as well as PC releases that came out during the same timeframe.
Background: In the past decade and change, movie studios have learned to maximize their revenue amid dwindling box office returns by over-relying on conventional genre pieces. Furthermore, studios are pretty good at identifying films likely to underperform and burying the film's release (and slashing its ad budget) appropriately, so that the days of major box office bombs (like, say, Waterworld) are actually long gone.
I'd say the video game industry is adopting the same tactics, especially since gamers are even more fickle about what they'll spend $50 or $60 on (rather than a $12 movie ticket). Also, this generation of hardware was incredibly expensive for Microsoft and Sony, who both lost millions of dollars on the Xbox 360 and PS3 respectively and need to recoup it with safe, predictable software sales.
Because of this, I tend to think mainstream developers and publishers are obsessed with playing it safe, retreading well-worn paths that they know gamers will reward them for. So I'm really interested in seeing if anyone has broken this mold in the past half decade and actually made money doing it.
And if we can only think to answer with indie games, then hey, so be it.
Actually, see that title? I'm kinda lying. Well, not really "lying" so much as understating the "mini" part. That's because I have very little to say in an Amnesia "review", per se, as I do about its mechanics.
Here's the review part: this game is fucking scary, and that makes it fucking awesome. It's the scariest game I've ever played, although that probably isn't saying much. It's well-designed, of decent length (my playthrough took 10 hours), and is marvelously paced. Not only that, but it has an incredibly engrossing story that perfectly compliments the scares that the game sends your way. Oh, and did I mention the game is fucking scary? Your character is tasked with descending into the lowest levels of a dark, rundown castle while battling encroaching darkness, diminishing sanity, and some very nasty former servants.
I left my first Christmas purchase in my dust-strewn wake, so let's continue to move quickly.
The gameplay is good but not great. The suppress-and-flank mechanics of the first game haven't been changed significantly, and the addition of bazooka squads and machinegun squads don't really add up to much. The core mechanics aren't actually put to any really interesting use until the very last series of missions, where you get to control three full squads and solve elaborate field problems. They actually got rid of the part in the first game where you could give tanks orders... instead, you control a tank yourself, which is just as insipid as it was in every other Goddamn World War II game.
The graphics range from very good to pretty mediocre. Sunny Holland countrysides look amazing, whereas rainy Holland villages look like crap. The main character looks amazing, but some of his squadmates look like they escaped from games in 2003. Also, with only one or two exceptions? The voice acting is terribad. I know Gearbox has games with good voice acting... so why does it sound like they asked their programmers to moonlight as voice actors and pretend to be this close to reaching puberty?
The plot is hamfisted, to say the least. Why are we muddying up the life-and-death drama of Operation Market Garden with all this existential angst about a cursed pistol? What supporting character in their right mind would sacrifice their life for a girl he met 2 seconds earlier and only spent 1 of those seconds engaging? Why do characters hate other characters for things neither one of them are responsible for? Needless to say, the crappy voice acting doesn't improve matters. Fortunately, by the end of the game - the very end of the game - the characters are showing some degree of growth and manage to credibly deliver a few bits of good writing. Better late than never, hey?
Oh, and did the developers run out of time or funding or something? The game has pretty much no difficulty arc and the last mission doesn't even involve the main character! Things just kind of end.
In summary: very glad I spent $5 on this. Just the right amount for a semi-decent WWII shooter than ranges from whelming to underwhelming.
Next up:Amnesia and me getting the shit scared out of me every three seconds.
It's December, and the aforementioned Xbox Live Indie Games Winter Uprising is under way. More or less... week one of December is coming to a close, but only four of the promised 14 quality XBLIG titles have been released. Oops.
Everyone should've seen this one coming, including the folks at Zeboyd, who recently made a post saying that they actually intended to wrap up development of their latest RPG in a few days. Yet, given the laundry list of shit they have to do - add save points, finish writing the dialog, balance enemy encounters, etc. - the only way I can see that being accomplished in a few days is if a fairly impressive amount of crystal meth is employed.
I'm not sure what I was expecting. As a fairly by-the-numbers edutainment game, it didn't occur to me until now that Around The World doesn't warrant inches upon inches of column space to review. I mean, duh: it has the geographical quiz component, and the unlock/screen saver component. That's kind of it. So, the two reviews I've come across thus far are pretty modest. The first one clocks in at once sentence, the other at one paragraph.
XNPlay gave the one sentence round up, a familiar facet on the site: "Geography quizzes can be fun (this one seems decent enough), but don’t “reward” me with a screen saver!"
NaviFairy at GayGamer.net was a lot more cheerful: "Geography quiz games are nothing new, but this one takes a slightly different approach. Rather than pointing at a location and asking you what it is, Around the World will give you four locations (mapped to the four face buttons on the controller) and asks you to find them. You're awarded points depending on how close to the real location you guess, and then a new city is given for you to find. Because you have four location options at any given time, the game is easier since you can just skip the locations that you don't know. I'll admit that my geography skills are pretty terrible (hurray for the American public education system) so I will always advocate this kind of edutainment title."
The XNPlay one kind of irritated me, as the reviewer used his one sentence to bitch about the game's (optional) Screen Saver system. Turns out the guy was sick and tired, and that I got one of the better reviews on the site this week. But, much obliged to NaviFairy at GayGamer, who got what I was going for with the game.
I've got two more days left in my Sit In The Corner timeout that Microsoft mandates after peer reviewers find a bug in your game, so on June 1 I get to resubmit Around The World. Yay. In the meanwhile, Alpha Protocol is starting to come out, to less-than-rave reviews:
The reviewers seem to be complaining about a lot of things. Bugs seem to be the biggest issue. Shoddy gunplay seems to be coming in a close second.
But a lot of reviewers also seem to be complaining about dated graphics and crappy animations that "aren't on par with modern offerings." That makes me wince a little. Assuming that the art department didn't suffer from poor managerial decisions by developer Obsidian or publisher SEGA (which may have actually contributed), the next likeliest causes of "substandard" art would be limits on the developer's funding or a shallower talent pool to pick from.
Either of those issues would have handicapped Obsidian right out the gate. But, suppose they had managed to deliver a tight, polished game (which they didn't) with the same, relatively-uninspired level of art quality? Would they still be lambasted? It may be that the criticism floodgates were opened by the bugginess and crappy gameplay, and that reviewers groused about the graphics because they were busy grousing about everything... but would Obsidian warrant criticism if they'd released a great game that unfortunately did not approach the visuals of Modern Warfare 2 or Assassin's Creed 2?
As an indie developer, I cringe at the thought of being judged against competitors that have the time or funding to make their graphics really sparkle. I'll always strive to make my graphics look good, but in the end, I am just one dude without a budget. Needless to say, Obsidian has more than one dude and some substantial funding, but will similar developers be criticized in the future if their products don't approach those of mega-developers and mega-publishers? Will not looking the best in your chosen genre count against you in the future? We'll see.
Despite the fact that I'm a big pussy, I have this weird, inexplicable attraction to scary games that crops up very, very rarely. When it does, I tend to get really excitable about them, like with Dark Corners of the Earth. So along comes the exasperatingly-named Alan Wake, and the game is gorgeous, and it's provocative, and it's a horror game, so I am all over this shit.
I'll get into gameplay in some other post (it's awesome, don't worry), but let me wedge my jaw open for a bit about how effing beautiful this game is. Alan Wake uses an in-house engine that not only allows 2 kilometer/1.3 mile view distances, but also does the following (source):
Complete modeling of atmospheric scattering, fully volumetric shadows that are projected through the entire world, full weather modeling, day/night time cycles, ambient occlusion (both SSAO and pre-calculated), normal mapping, high dynamic rendering, bloom, depth of field and loads of different pixel-shader effects.
Somewhere along the line, Alan Wake became both a great survival horror game and a graphical tour-de-force. It looks simply amazing. The daylight scenes are hands down the most realistic I've ever seen in a game.
Today, Gamasutra is featuring a typically-thoughtful blog post about all the death and wanton killing in video games. The author discusses the Manichean view that most game worlds present, with good-as-can-be good guys murdering outright evil bad guys with little in the way of pity or remorse. The author ruminates on how a game would play if it offered some combination of, say, more nuance, non-lethal takedowns, and discussion of killing as a sin.
Those are interesting thoughts to have, considering that I'm hard-pressed to identify an Xbox 360 game on my shelf that doesn't involve killing something. But that leads me to a bigger thought: why don't more games offer enjoyment, major objectives, and interesting content that don't involve killing?
I guess my case in point would be sandbox games. The last three I played that come to mind are Far Cry 2, Grand Theft Auto IV, and Mercenaries 2. Aside from well-worn time wasters like package hunting, those games all revolve around killing people (and blowing things up). In fact, aside from exploration, the very thing that makes those games sandboxy is how you kill people/blow things up. Most of the gameplay's flexibility, if you can call it that, is in choosing where to go and exactly how you wish to dispatch the people you find there. Don't get me wrong, that makes for some pretty fun gameplay, but so much more can be brought to the sandbox genre.
An odd quirk of the advances made in game development and art direction is that players often find themselves visiting locations of untold beauty and blowing them right the hell up. Given how shooting and warfare-oriented most popular games are, it must be a natural extension of the old U.S. Army adage about "going to far-off places, meeting exciting new people, and shooting them." As it happens, I've long since realized that running and gunning my way through various utopian landscapes often saps some of the joy from them.
Take Uncharted 2. The game brings you to gorgeous locations throughout south and southeast Asia, yet for most of the time you're trying to stay alive while fighting hordes of murderous thugs. It's telling how infrequently a game like Uncharted 2 is willing to slow down and let you just enjoy the scenery, given how jarring it is that one level in the game lets you do only that. No shooting, no killing. Just languid exploration and idle chitchat in a Himalayan village. Other reviewers have described this moment as "letting Nathan Drake just be Nathan Drake", and that is accurate. However, that phrase should also read "letting the player just be Nathan Drake", as that point in the game allows a player to well and truly step into Drake's shoes and experience not just the constant gunfighting and ledge grappling that is his life, but also his reverence for beauty and his travels to amazing places.
I'm back from PAX East, which was a complete blast. The combination of the awesome city of Boston with an awesome gaming convention is essentially a match made in heaven. I still have to upload all my pictures from the weekend and whatnot, so all I have at the moment are a few random thoughts:
PAX East needs to be in a bigger convention center. Hynes had a great location, to be sure, but panels were getting cancelled left and right due to what I imagined to be accomodation issues. The end result was fewer panels with higher demand, necessitating 1 to 1.5 hour waits that were not spent exploring PAX.
More developers! I love playing video games (and card games, and board games), but I also love the ideas behind designing them. I know E3 and GDC are more suited to this, but more developer panels would be nice.
The Classic Console section was epic, if only because I got to indulge myself on old school NES and SNES games, but the Classic Arcade section was severely lacking.
The company that provided all those bean bag chairs is godly.
All the niche board games were wondrous to behold. I'd recently acquired Settlers of Catan, and seeing all of the other themes - Agatha Christie, H.P. Lovecraft, etc. - was a pleasant surprise.
This will be a tad esoteric, so it's prefaced by something non-esoteric: screaming. At my TV. Because I died for upteenth time in Bad Company 2 multiplayer thanks to outdated notions of how collision systems are supposed to work.
Every physical object in a game is part of that game's collision system, which determines how solid physical objects behave when they come up against other solid physical objects. Free-standing structures (like houses or shacks) will sit there until destroyed. Grenades will bounce along the ground and eventually explode. And players can run through open terrain and doorways, up steps, and down hills, so long as they don't try to run through walls.
The players' collision rules are usually pretty simple: (a) the player is represented by a roughly 6-foot tall, solid box, (b) this box can only go up steps or mantle over obstacles of a certain height, (c) the box can only go up hills of a certain steepness, and (d) the box can't move through anything solid.
That worked fine in older games, but in newer games, players have to contend with game developers' multi-million dollar art budgets and the fact that heavily-detailed levels are now crammed with all sorts of physical props that the player can bump into, like door frames and debris and small plants and what have you. As games add more and more solid environmental objects, the player's simplistic collision modeling can't keep up. If a shack gets destroyed in BC2, it's not unheard of for the player to get caught on a "solid" piece of debris the size of a small 2x4 just because it's solid and the collision system doesn't recognize it as being passable. In Modern Warfare 2, detailed surfaces (like the inside of a trench) are often misread by the "is this surface too steep?" check and cause the player to ice skate around on the lip of the trench before oddly shooting into midair, visible for all their enemies to see.
Such a simplistic, outdated collision system can't keep up with the environments the player has to navigate. It's also kind of an affront to playing a game where you're (almost always) a virtual human being, as the game thusly ignores the fact that real human beings generally have some sort of sense to not bump into or get stuck on things. Nothing is more infuriating than a player character who fails to respond in a logical way.
I really hope that more developers will look into using Euphoria, which creates animations on the fly so that player characters can respond to their environments in a dynamic fashion. I'm sure it's a bitch to mate with your existing codebase, and it'll drive your art department crazy, but they're the ones represented by your multi-million dollar investment, yes? It's a small price to pay so that I can stop screaming at my TV.
I've been a very bad boy and have done hardly any work on Around The World recently. Partly that's due to the obnoxious urge to move onto other XNA projects, a feeling that always takes hold of me towards the end of a project. Fortunately, I've ignored this feeling. Around The World will be finished, hopefully within a month or so.
But another reason I've done hardly any work is because I've been busy playing Battlefield: Bad Company 2, the game that took my love for Modern Warfare 2 out into the woods and shot it in the head.
Technically, the cloud tag on this post should be "first and last impressions."
I like Zelda. I like Joe Madureira. I like new intellectual properties. And everyone seemed to be gushing about Darksiders, so I decided to give it a try when I noticed the demo for it on Xbox Live.
The demo really, really failed to impress me. In fact, the damned thing got uninstalled after about 10 minutes. Maybe it was the complete lack of introduction or explanation (the demo drops you into a non-tutorial section further in the game), but I was just turned off by the whole affair. It seemed to have the "shoehorn everything in!" controls that bedeviled Prototype. The combat was the same overstylzed crap that makes me continue to ignore all new entrants in the genre. And despite my love of Madureira, the artwork and game world didn't seem particularly inspired.
However, given everyone but me's appreciation of the game, I'm assuming most of my distaste stems from the designers' aggressive application of Generic Grit(tm). Yes! Darksiders is gritty! Oooh! You play as the Horseman War, who's come to Earth to do something against really bad dudes and I really do not fucking care, okay? I stopped playing Prototype because it buried all the excellent Hulk: Ultimate Destruction gameplay under a layer of grit. I resold Gears of War within two weeks because it was just meandering grit and a boring cover system. And just because Kratos likes violently executing his enemies, I will never care a fig for the God of War series.
I don't like Generic Grit. I don't like Generic Rage. I'm 26, and most violence-swearing-and-tits marketing strategies haven't applied to me since I graduated from high school. If your game is gonna be gritty, at least have it make a point or be useful. F.E.A.R. put grittiness to good use. But don't just add grittiness because you think it'll be cool! Everyone and their mom has gritty ideas for games. Someone suprise me with elegance and sophistication in game design! That will catch me off guard.
Apparently critics are quite taken with Heavy Rain. The whole interactive novel/branching storyline thing has intrigued me for quite a while, which is why I bought Indigo Prophecy when I could snag it on the cheap (Heavy Rain and Indigo Prophecy share the same development studio).
Games these days usually resort to either being linear, tightly-scripted affairs, or open sandbox games that explore dynamism in the form of how you accomplish missions as opposed to what those missions' results are. That's because getting a story into a game is difficult enough. Getting multiple stories into a game (and I'm not just talking about alternate endings) is a tremendous feat that requires exponential more game asset development. More recorded dialogue, more artwork for different scenes, more programming for each possible outcome. So any game that does this well, I really want to play.
After watching a friend play through most of Uncharted 2, I thought, "This is the kind of game I wish I could make." It was a somewhat unfortunate thought to have, for many reasons.
Firstly, there's the issue of how relatively uninspired the game is; it's little more than the high water mark of the video game industry's desire to successfully emulate the thrill and presentation of big budget Hollywood movies. "Handsome, funny Indiana Jones analogue partners with sarcastic romantic interest to beat a homicidal mad man to a long-lost treasure" doesn't exactly scream originality. The game was amazing to behold, obviously, but played it safe content-wise. In imagining myself at the helm of a blockbuster video game project, I'm really wishing to faithfully execute some well-worn cliches... just with a grand scope and lots of Triple-A polish.
But, more unfortunately, wishing to make my own Uncharted 2 made me realize that those fantasies lay wholly in the realm of Bigger Is Better. Of going big, or going home. Dreaming is important, and ambition is important, but wanting my name attached to the next Uncharted or the next Assassin's Creed or the next Half-Life is misguided. It's not misguided because I have no chance of reaching those heights, of course. No, it's misguided because it incorrectly conflates my pleasure in playing a world-class game with the pleasure of being responsible for creating such a game.
There's nothing like going back to work on a Friday to make you pine for a snow storm, because there's nothing like a snow storm that'll give you as much free time to just screw around and play video games.
I spent the past week at my girlfriend's house, and her housemate has a PS3, something I've gone this far without needing. Well, after several days of playing Uncharted and watching the housemate play through Uncharted 2, I'm wondering how I ever went without one.
I did what I promised and attempted to convert Latitude and Longitude coordinates into X, Y, and Z coordinates for Around The World. I was surprised to find how close the results came (I'm currently using the position of New York City as a benchmark), but I've made enough changes to the world map so that the projection is now off. But, like I said, it was close. I'm going to keep fiddling and see if I can get it to work.
Around The World's development is moving steadily (if also slowly). I'm currently working on a screen-agnostic HUD and display system. And what does that mean, you pretentious dick? It means that the layout of the HUD and where models are drawn on the screen will automatically adapt to what kind of system (PC or Xbox) and what kind of screen (widescreen or standard) the user has, making sure that none of the important parts of the game are drawn outside of the Title Safe Area. Fun!
Bioshock 2 drops in a month. I guess that gives me an opportunity to fume about the original Bioshock.
The solution to my Around The World shader discrepency continues to elude me. I took a break from my ineffective attempts to solve it and played the Dante's Inferno demo, knowing full well how much ridicule the game's concept has already received.
I wound up deleting the demo within 30 minutes, a little weirded out by the half-assed synthesis of three elements of game design that don't really match.
Work on Around The World is proceeding apace, as I'm coming to terms with the Title Safe Area and also trying to solve a shader discrepency between the game build that runs on my laptop and the one that runs on the Xbox 360. Boring stuff.
I might be slowed down, though, as my art development platform, my beloved desktop PC, is currently on its death bed. Blue Screens of Death in Windows XP are far more handicapping (and frightening) than their erstwhile Windows 98 counterparts, and it looks like I'm in for a painful transition. However, I may just get a new hard drive and Ghost my old hard drive over to see if that will work as a stopgap. However, Christmas was 12 days ago, and I really, really don't feel like spending more money.
I nabbed Indigo Prophecy for, like, 3 bucks on Steam the other night. We can now add that to the list of games I have no time to play, but I've always wanted to see how they handle the "interactive movie" approach to video gaming. And that bizarre plot I keep hearing about.
I'm not in danger of buying a PS3 any time soon (see above for issues of time and money), but my interest is growing. The latest blow to my resolve to not spend more on gaming systems: Tycho from Penny Arcade has an interesting writeup on the PS3-exclusive MAG today. MAG's a 256-player, massively-multiplayer online modern military shooter that epitomizes tactical gameplay and cooperation. Yes please!
I haven't had a good dose of tactical gameplay since Operation Flashpoint (hello, my Game of the Decade), a wildly open military shooter that introduced me to discreet tactics and requisite headset coordination with good friends. (Not to mention, being brutally killed in the middle of nowhere for no discernable reason.) I also dabbled in Battlefield 2, which was usually less tactical but more epic in scope than Flashpoint, and also broke new ground on cooperation systems in the form of squad mechanics (something that we were aiming to do in World at War) and a dedicated Commander role. And, according to Tycho, it seems that these two separate bags of goodies have been combined in MAG. If that's true, then I may have to part with more of my money this year than I previously imagined.
Don't ask me how, but despite the fact that I remembered that Friday was, in fact, January 1, 2010, I forgot that everyone would be going nuts about how this closes out the decade that began with Y2K, of all things. Hence, all the valedictory lists you've been seeing.
I might as well jump on board, right? First, second, and third place only, though. No Top 10 lists. That stuff is for Time Magazine.
Best Mission of the Decade 1st Place: Shalebridge Cradle Thief 3
2nd Place: All Ghillied Up, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
That mission in The Warriors where you have to avoid the cops and rescue your fellow gang members
Michael Crichton was an author of unparalleled stature that I continue to miss. I started reading his books at a very young age, having picked up Jurassic Park when I was only seven or eight. I proceeded to plow through his works over the next two decades, loving the mix of science, technology, and high adventure. I even loved State Of Fear, which, despite its ridiculous anti-climate change ideology and irrational hatred of Martin Sheen, was a pretty compelling techno-spy thriller.
So, basically, I adore Crichton's work. And imagine my surprise when I learned that, after his death, editors found a completed manuscript on Crichton's home computer: Pirate Latitudes!A historical thriller in the vein of Timeline and The Great Train Robbery, and one on 17th century Caribbean piracy to boot! One year after that announcement, I finally got my hands on the book, and tore into it.
Pirate Latitudes, however, proves to be decent but also something of a disappointment. The book was clearly in need of more editing and more effort from Crichton. Unfortunately, fate (and cancer) precluded both. What's there is often entertaining, but the whole ensemble often seems like a framework rather than a good story.
I'm back home in Rhode Island, having escaped from DC prior to the Snowpocalypse. I've been working diligently on Around The World, although not enough cosmetic changes have been made thus far to warrant another Development Diary. I hope to rectify that in the next few days.
I also brought my Xbox 360 with me, and have been indulging in Modern Warfare 2's multiplayer. I was surprised to find that I was still addicted to the damn thing, so much so that I haven't touched Assassin's Creed 2 in about 3 weeks. I was also surprised because I spend so much time being infuriated at MW2. Right now, it's about 2/3 enjoyment, 1/3 fury. That's a pretty high ratio. So why do I keep playing?
I've decided it's because MW2's multiplayer represents the pinnacle of self-absorbed gaming. The way the killstreaks are set up inspires a player to completely abandon cooperation and teamwork in favor of racking up kills. Furthermore, the rewards for said killstreaks almost always favor the player first and their team a distant second. Sure, an AC-130 will shut down much of a map and allow the player's team to mop up, but mopping up isn't nearly as gratifying as calling that AC-130. Which is why everyone else is trying to do the same thing. And the few killstreak rewards with socialized benefits - like, say, the UAV - are abandoned in favor of the more self-absorbed ones that build even higher killstreaks.
It's patently ridiculous, and the game's "Me me me me ME!" atmosphere leaves almost no room for teamwork. In fact, the selfishness of killstreaks is so overpowering that objective gametypes - Search and Destroy, Domination, Headquarters, and what have you - can actually be ended with the Tac Nuke killstreak! Teamwork, cooperation, and fulfilling the gametype's objectives can be completely nullified by a killstreak achieved by a hot shot who hasn't even attempted to complete the objectives! It's often maddening.
But, of course, that same self-absorption is immensely rewarding when you are the player racking up all those kills. And you always hope to be that player, even when you've died five times in a row to an AC-130 you could barely even see. And so I keep playing, knowing how fun it is to get those killstreaks.
But I also play to complete the objectives that the gametype gives me. At some point, I wonder if that will be considered to be some form of protest in MW2's community.
Yes, Monolith, F.E.A.R. is pretty good and you've got this whole Japanese horror thing down pat, I guess. And I admire your commitment to this franchise, but The Ring came out seven Goddamn years ago, so can we drop the scary-schoolgirl obsession and return to No One Lives Forever? Please?
I know pining for one favorite franchise over another franchise reeks of hypocrisy, but bear with me.
I continue to suck at Modern Warfare 2's multiplayer and continue to be adequate at Assassin's Creed 2's singleplayer.
I find both addicting because of a relatively frequent design decision in modern games: collect-athons, the padding of linear gameplay with optional items to collect. Usually, collecting enough of these items conveys some sort of bonus or achievement in the game.
In Modern Warfare 2, the collect-athon is inversed. I'm collecting achievements, and earning items. Accomplishing certain feats in multiplayer unlocks new weaponry and gear. In the first Modern Warfare, that amounted to weapons and perks. In its sequel, however, there is a truly bewildering away of weapons, perks, killstreaks, deathstreaks, callsigns, emblems, ranks, and God knows what else to unlock. It's overwhelming, so I'm doing my best to stick with a few types of weaponry I'm familiar with until I'm better versed in what the game has to offer.
Assassin's Creed 1, meanwhile, was all about the items. For the first game, each city had 100 flags to collect. Their benefit was nebulous and they were ridiculously hard to find, so not many people felt like collecting all of them. Just like MW2, however, AC2 went apeshit with the collectibles. I now have to worry about collecting feathers, Tomb amulets, codex pages, wall glyphs, Roman God figurines, money boxes, and probably a few things I'm forgetting.
And it drives me crazy, because collecting all these things are compelling as hell. In MW2, collect-athons turn me into a murderous badass. In AC2, collect-athons upgrade my villa, earn me upgrades from Leonardo da Vinci, unlock secret weapon and money caches, and - my personal favorite - comfort my grieving mother. It's interesting! Some of the collectibles (the glyphs, in this case) even bring up Da Vinci Code-style puzzles I have to solve to earn bits and pieces of a mysterious movie. Collectibles leading to other collectibles!
I'm enjoying these games, but they drive me fucking crazy because I will never, ever have the time to find all these damned collectibles. All these precious nuggets of gameplay and innovation, mostly out of reach. Dammit.
That means, Unreal Engine 3.0. The whole thing. The development tools. Everything. For you. For free.
At first glance, the pricing appears more competitive than Xbox Live Indy Games or Apple's App Store. Apparently, developers can just go and download this thing and work on their game. When it comes time to release their game, they pay Epic a $99 licensing fee. After that, 100% of the profits go to the developer, until the developer makes $5,000. Once that threshold is hit, Epic takes a 25% cut of all subsequent sales.
The Intertron is working and I'm enjoying my new place, which also means I'm scurrying back and forth between my desktop computer and laptop to polish up the graphics on Around The World. As the last Development Diary showed, I'm really unhappy with how that water looks. The remake of the Secret of Monkey Island pulled it off much better with simple 2D refraction, so I'm experimenting with that right now. More about that soon.
And since I have your attention, here's some more Spoiler-rific rumination on The Lost Symbol:
Stuck in the purgatory that is a full-time job and a half-functional new apartment, free time is hard to come by. Right now, I can reconfigure the free time that is available to me right this second into a mini-review. I'd rather reconfigure it into time spent designing my game, but, hey, my laptop is way over on the other side of the Potomac right now.
With that in mind, here's a mini-review for Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol, which I had time to tackle while I was in Rhode Island last week:
I've been rather slow about updating the Games portfolio on this site to include my past work from Firearms, Firearms: Source, and World at War, all mods for Valve Software's Half-Life 2. In particular, I haven't had time to dig up content from either Firearms mod. As for WaW, I dug up what very few screenshots I'd already taken and uploaded them. Of course, I have other works from WaW that have never seen the light of day, so I figured I'd load up my previously dormant mod and take some new screenies.
I started Half-Life 2/World at War and loaded up a map with the provocative title of "Village." A quick runthrough brought a wealth of issues to my attention, most of them in the form of empty wireframes and pink-and-black checkered surfaces that screamed the unwelcome message, "Hey, dumbass, you're missing some textures."
Hrm, was I missing some textures that belonged to Counter Strike: Source? I'd uninstalled that a few months back. I re-downloaded CS:S, but, nope, the textures were still missing. I did a quick perusal of the WaW directory itself. All the textures seemed to be there.
Eventually, I decided to load up the Hammer level editor to look at the map and manually reassign the textures if need be. Too bad that none of the viewports in Hammer actually worked. Oh sure, all the Tool buttons worked, but the actual most important part of the editor, the part that lets me see what I'm doing, had broken at some point in the past few months. Dead end.
I paid another visit to the Way Back Machine and uploaded an article I wrote about Artificial Intelligence in the shooter genre. The article covers a lot of ground, including why most shooters have terrible A.I. and what changes would be necessary to make good A.I. a key component of a good shooter.
I had never really played Metroid on any other console, my Nintendo delights adequately served by the Mario and Zelda franchises. When I finally played the original Metroid Prime on the GameCube, I was initially impressed but wound up getting bored after a week or so. Yeah, it was really neat when you saw Samus's face reflected in her visor, or when water beaded up on the outside of the visor, or when the visor fogged up from steam (noticing the pattern?), but in the end I just didn't have the requisite memory (or interest) to sustain the whole advance-puzzle-new gear-backtrack thing. By the time I hit the Phazon Mines, where the game abruptly decided to be more like a shooter on the one console that couldn't really support a dual analog shooter (thanks, crappy yellow thumbstick), I was pretty much done.
So why am I thinking longingly about Metroid Prime: Trilogy? I never even bothered with 2 or 3.
Not a whole lot of Wii games make me yearn to own the system. Otherwise, maybe I wouldn't have sold the thing to my brother's girlfriend and bought an Xbox 360 with the proceeds. I guess The Conduit briefly caught my interest, purely due to the fact that it's set in Washington, D.C., but hell, I haven't even gotten around to playing Fallout 3 yet, so that's not a good excuse.
I guess I'm thinking about Metroid Prime: Trilogy because because, now that I'm bored with Mario and no new Zelda game will topple Ocarina of Time from the pedestal upon which I've placed it, it'd be nice to like Nintendo for something else that it's really, really good at. Like, one of its major franchises with a much more competent shooting mechanic.
But hey, my memory still sucks, so I guess I can continue ignoring the Wii for the present.