Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Spin off games

'Spin off', in the movie or indeed the game industry can very often put a look of worry and uncertainty on people's faces. 'Spin off' can often be found a few words away from 'cheap' and 'knock off' which quite a lot of the time can be true. In the movie industry, it can be a brand new adventure featuring a lesser known character from a movie we all loved, who just happened to be played by an actor who can be payed vastly less. In the gaming world however, 'spin off' can open a whole new ungodly can of worms which should probably have been left at the bait shop.

You can take a dull idea that has been done to death and blatantly nicked from an amazing title that debuted years before the next gen systems were even dreamt of, and then just stick a happy well known character on the front expecting people to buy it. This seems to be the mentality of the spin off creators. The game I had in mind whilst writing that was Crash Team Racing for the good old Playstation. To me, it seemed like a blatant rip off of Mario Kart, but with Crash and co. slapped on the front. It did not offer anything new that was worthwhile or ground breaking, and just seemed to be something to convince people that Crash could compete with the portly plumber. The excuse that I can see for it is the fact that Mario and Crash graced different platforms, and so this could be forgiven, just about... maybe.

I do not feel negative about all spin offs however, its just some companies do it much better than others. I have never played the game Daxter, but the idea of the lovable sidekick that fans did not just want to euthanise at the first opportunity (that was highly unlikely to ever appear), having his own adventure sounded cool. You get to explore another side to a character that would normally just tag along for the ride, and make generally unhelpful but hilarious comments.

A game that did not do this so good was Final Fantasy VII: Dirge of Cerberus. Now, Final Fantasy VII was an epic game, and my favourite of the series which seems to be spewing out random characters and situation with each incremental numeral. Why, oh why then do you release a spin off game that has one of the least popular, unloved and optional (that's right, its very easy not to discover this character, and not such a disaster if you miss him) characters in a cast of immense brilliance. We all wanted to play as cloud, wielding his comically large buster sword, or Barret an armless hard man with a gun grafted onto his stump. An expansion to Final Fantasy VII would have gone down a storm with the fan base. This meant that the game developers went for the obvious and natural choice of creating a mediocre third person shooting clone, but with a familiar face.

To end this on a slightly more positive note though, there is one game series that has so many spin offs, it is difficult to think of what they have not done. He has been a doctor, a golfer, a tennis player, dinosaur hunter and monopoly piece. He is of course, Mario (and to a lesser extent, all of his forever expanding cast of chums).

It is hard to believe what has spawned from the side scrolling plumber who kills monsters by planting his feet in their head. Mario Kart is the best known, being arguably some of the finest games on any of Nintendo's systems, but this not where it has stopped. The Virtual Boy or 'migraine master' saw the first incarnation of Mario Tennis, where as Dr. Mario came to the NES. The man in the red cap has also tried his hand at football lately on the Gamecube and even more recently on the Wii. The vast majority of the Mario spin off series are brilliant, as each one is carefully crafted with the Big N's love. It has tried stretching to many different audiences, with titles such as Mario Party being able to appeal to just about anyone who wants a bit of fun.

It is a mine field out there when it comes to spin off games. Quite often they are spawned because developers want something that can guarantee a few sales at the cost of being original. Others are amazing takes on the varying genres and well worth a look.

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Are hardcore games still around?

When I first started gaming, it was often looked down upon by some people. Computer games were for sweaty fat guys who had nothing better to do, other than de-steam their glasses when the action got too intense. Video games were never cool to those who did not understand them. Heck, they weren't that cool too a lot of people who played them. It was for an elite niche of people, who played far too many games through the day and the night at the expense of their lives, that games were tailored for. Back in these days, games were challenging, and took more than a long weekend to complete on normal mode. They were serious business.

Nowadays we live in a world where games are reaching out to touch everyone. The casual game has been born, introducing millions to the simple pleasures of pong and tetris. Whilst this can be a good thing, has the need to appeal for everyone meant that those of us wanting hours of challenging gameplay that will keep us at a game for months have been shafted? I know what I want in games when it comes to the choice between Nintendogs and a cereberal bore, and I'll tell you now, the puppy does not win.

Is a rather fatty and saturated market of computer games flooded with lesser titles that do not appeal to the hardcore gamers that started it all?

Too many times these days I am picking up games and completing them much sooner than I should be. Recent examples include the Halflife 2 series and Bioshock. These can be finished within hours. It took me a weekend to finish these, and that just is not right. They do look amazing, and were truly great to play, but £30 for seven to eight hours of game time are not right (even less for the Halflife 2 pisodes).

Whilst I did find them challenging in places, they were easy enough to get through in a few sittings. If I wait with anxious anticipation for something that has been in the works for years, it feels a bit insulting to be half way through on my first sitting. This is exactly what happened whilst strolling through the generic, terrorist riddled, middle east land in Call of Duty 4. Yes it was fun, but if it were a movie, you'd go to the toilet, and come back to find the hero had saved the day twice and had all the girls. It just that 'epic' games are now starting to feel a lot less epic. Epic does not only mean 'super awesome', but 'super awesome for a very long time'.

Can this trend in slightly easier, shorter games be blamed on the birth of casual gaming culture? Some games are a lot of money to pick up and play for a few hours before finishing them. I've heard people say that the short length of games these days is why they download rather than purchase. Games are not cheap, especially if they are all over too quickly. Whilst it might just be an excuse to justify their pirating actions, it is quite possible to see their side of the arguement.

The original Halflife, that you could call epic by itself. It took ages to complete and threw just about everything at you, from psycotic marines, to a creepy man wearing a suspicously nice suit who tempts you into a train car. The Legend of Zelda games, each one, epic. They boast many hours of gameplay, and each dungeon has something different in it (in the form of a new weapon or item that often does cool stuff). It took me a heck of a long amount of time to complete either of these. Many a night and day were wasted.

As much as I can complain about this though, it is a fact that I will have to live with. Not everyone can spend an entire day exploring underwater cities, or ant lion colonies. Some can spare the occassional half hour or so to devote to games, and then get on with a hobby, prosperous career or many beautiful women. Perhaps the rules of what makes a serious gamer have changed, or maybe the concept never existed at all. I just know that most consoles before the Wii never advertised themselves by having grannies flail their arms at a screen in the name of fun.

I know that games are meant to be fun, and perhaps that 'serious' was not the best word to describe how I feel about games these days. It just seems that there are more versions of tamagotchi's and crossword puzzles diluting a game pool that shooters and fighting games used to rule. All I am saying is that the games market needs a lot less 'The Sims: Pet Delouser' and a bit more 'Chuck Norris: the kicking crusade'. If you have not agreed with me to this point, I pull one last punch, Hello Kitty Online. See what I'm saying?

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Changing the formula

Many a game franchise these days seem to be going through the occasional metamorphasis into something different. A break away from the series playing style, context or timeline. Some are much more dramatic than others, whilst some simply switch the location in which a character visitis. On the more extreme end, it can revive a dying beast, or be the final nail in the coffin for something that should be euthanised. For better or for worst, they have been happening for a while, but the idea of change seems to be spreading fast.

The first extreme change that I can personally remember was the constant shifting of the command and conquer universe. The series has now spanned three different time periods. We have seen an alternate cold war timeline in which Albert Einstein builds a time machine, and history goes mad, a war fought between the good guys and terrorists over control of the fictional mineral Tiberium, and a poorly timed venture into the territory of America vs. China vs. extremist middle eastern terrorist group. It has all been a barrel of laughs so far, but the first major change for the series appeared in 2002 when it went through a traumatic genre change.

Command and Conquer: Renegade took the original game's setting, and placed the player into the eyes of a Global Defence Initiative commando named Nick Havoc. It was a first person shooter, that the critics were not too happy with. Personally, I thought the single player was alright, but the multiplayer aspect of the game was phenomenal. It introduced real time strategy elements into a soldiers perspective on the ground. You could buy vehicles to use, or upgrade your character to a better class by using the money generated by an AI controlled tiberium harvester. It was such an extreme change for the series which could be the reason why many hardcore C&C fans did not like it. I thought it was a fun game, but the whole 'one man army' Rambo approach was not what Command and Conquer was like at all.

A one man army that most people know and love has also been through at least one dramatic change. Metal Gear Solid shocked fans in 2004 when it took the 'back to basics' route, and made a prequel for the series. Gone were the super high tec gadgets, gone were the bumbling baddies, and gone was the incredibly useful radar that showed the enemies field of vision. It was metal gear, but stripped down to its basics in order to promote the survival aspect. Snake no longer felt anywhere near as invincible as he seemed to be in the previous games. Using your wits and the brand new camoflage system (which prompted more clothing changes than a Spice Girls stage show), you had to out manouvere and get around your enemies. Mindlessly killing them was no longer the easy route. If you were spooted, you were screwed. Being the evil little guy that I am, I would tranqualise an entire area of enemies, and then go back later to headshot the unconscious bodies, just to make sure that they would not wake up and give chase. This came back to haunt me later in the game though, when a certain event throws every enemy you have killed in the game at you in the form of slow moving ghost zombies, cornering you in a corridor.

The change was received sceptically at first. The metal Gear Solid we all knew and loved featured bi-pedal nuclear robots in the near future, not an animal snacking, cold war, hiding in a ditch simulation. The new setting worked though, and gave a lot of background knowledge and a different angle to the other games. The controls were the same, but the way you played snake in MGS3 and MGS2 was vastly different. This difference made what could have easily been an easy copy and paste job, into a gaming masterpiece. In Snake's next outing he seems to be back in the future, but an incredibly old and decrepid dying man. I remain very sceptical of this new looking Metal Gear game, but it is still likely to surprise me yet.

A final drastic change to a game series that is coming up soon is the brand new Splinter Cell game, Conviction. This looks to be a MASSIVE over haul of what we are useful. Sam Fisher is no longer a bondage geared secret agent, but is now a grizilled hobo. The game is due to feature wide open urban spaces, sprawling with civillian life. A huge leap from enemy infested missile silos then! He has no supplied weapons or gadgets, but relies on what he finds (apparently Ubisoft Montreal took eight months to make almost every item in game usable). Does this mean that we will have the worlds first terrorist busting womble? Stealth is also affected drastically, borrowing the crowed hiding option a la Assassins Creed Style. Sam also now appears to be a lot more hands on, getting into fisty cuff sessions with a lot of people, as can be seen in the trailer here.

Change is always welcome with a careful glance, and should be treated like a volatile liquid by the devlopers. If you annoy the loyal fan base that you have raised with previous games, unleashing a radical new idea that is not very well recieved could mean the death of a series. People don't always like the idea of change. They know what they like, and quite often expect more of it.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Games that fail

I'm a man of many years worth of experience in the big world of video games. There are some really amazing titles and series out there. The Legend of Zelda, Mario and Metal Gear Solid spring to mind. Unfortunately though, there are many out there which are the complete opposite of 'epic', and I can not understand how such things get released.

First of all, I will make it clear, I have no idea how much effort is put into making a video game. I am sure that there are many thousands of man hours put into every game that finds it to the shelves. I also understand that they are tested by the developers and also specialised game testers as well. If such time is spent developing them and testing them though, how do really duff games still make it through the net?

The chief inspiration for this rant comes from my latest acquisition for my Wii, Ninjabread man. It was a gift bought for my birthday, and to the person buying it, it sounded brilliant. Holding the box in my hand, I also thought that the idea of a gingerbread man donning a bandana and seeking revenge sounded like one of the best things to put in a game. The concept had so much potential! I can not think of another platform game where the central character is disgruntled confectionary, wielding throwing stars and a sword.

I really tried to like this game, I wanted to, but it was so repetitive and dull. Each mission requires you to scour a level high and low for these battery like things. With each one you collect, it opens a lock on a teleporter. When you find them all you can use the teleporter to get to the next area of battery collecting pain. Rinse and repeat the process four times and you have Ninjabread man! It is such a dull and unfulfilling experience. I hunted down ten battery things only to be rewarded with a treasure hunt to find another ten. This seemed like a chore, and at the point where games become anything like work is the point I stop caring for them.

On top of this was the control of the character. Swinging the Wiimote to activate sword attacks worked so well in Twilight Princess. Surely that would transfer to this game? It did not. For one thing, swinging your sword makes you stop dead in your tracks, quite irritating for attacking enemies on the move. Also, the sword swing motion is quite sensitive until you stand next to an enemy cake, at which point the Ninjabread man decides to try giving peace ago, and not attack the bad guy trying to kill him. In the end, the best way to kill enemies was to use the unlimited number of throwing stars, which turns it into more of a point and click adventure game, rather than the sweety slashing, candy commando simulation I was hoping for.

At the end of an hour, I decided that I had given the game ample time to try and prove itself to me. I was not impressed, and I would really like to know if the developers were happy with what they had unleashed on the shelves? Even if it is designed to be a children's game, in my experience, children have a lot less patience than I do, and so the amount of Wiimotes finding themselves embedded in television screens is likely to go up. It will be an interesting endurance race to see who can stay and complete the four levels of gameplay, and who will use the game disc as a coaster after ten minutes.

This grind of collecting things is often found in RPGs, but the grind there is rewarded in the long run. Here, the reward is to do it again! How did anyone testing this game whilst it was in development think it was fun? I really do wonder how things like this get released. Surely there is some kind of quality control? This game has been absolutely slammed by the critics, with websites such as IGN giving it 1.5 out of 10, earning it the rating of 'abysmal'.

Is it because games companies do not care about the quality of some of their games? Do they lose concentration, faith and interest in projects soon after they start? The concept is so amazing, it is a real shame to see it wasted on something like this, where it is clear the end product was not intensively scanned for any sign of fun.