Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Nintendo and its crazy controls

For two years now we have been enjoying Wiimote waggling with the Wii, and for four years the screen pokery of the DS. Both have introduced new ways to control games that go against the tried and tested button pressing of every console since time began. The results of this can sometimes offer a truly unique and pleasant experience, but other times it makes you replace the stylus/Wiimote with a hammer, and go to town on the fiddly little consoles. There are also those games that sit in the middle of public opinion along with Marmite and Bill Oddie, where everyone decides if they love it or hate it. Zelda: The Phantom Hour Glass for example is entirely motion controlled. Nintendo decided that the conveniently placed d-pad should not be used like they are in every game ever to move the character, but instead pointing the stylus was the way to go. In fact, touching the screen controls pretty much everything in the game.

Whilst things like this are innovative and fairly original concepts, it does keep you on your toes about what those who are mad enough to build their dreams at Nintendo have in store for us next. Will we in the future see some kind of combination of waggle stick and touch screen? Lord knows how something like this would come about or be feasible unless we all suddenly mutate to have more limbs, but the real question is, will Nintendo ever go back to button mashing, joystick waggling games?

A hybrid touch/motion control scheme for a game might actually be possible, but not in the way that would combine the current Wiimote and stylus waving. Such a device would be unwieldy and has the potential to cause psychosis and cripple unwary beta testers. As this guy has proven, it is possible to set the Wiimote up to track your individual finger movements on a screen in a similar fashion to those cool monitors we all wish we had that feature in Minority Report. If such a system could be implemented in a game, it could lead to many interesting possibilities.

With a system like this, we could have a much more sensitive and responsive version of Wii boxing. Fight not going your way? Poke your opponent in the eyes, go for a cheeky hair pull or maybe even disrobe him (if you are that way inclined). It could also be implemented well in a real time strategy game. Just imagine selecting units with your finger tips and pointing at the screen telling the where to go. Perhaps certain hand gestures could be used to suggest actions like movement, attack, bombard, flay, burn, eat, massage…. well, maybe not that one, unless we have another Leisure Suit Larry forced upon us. Another idea is that instead of having your God’s hand as a cursor in Black & White, you actually use the hand on the end of your wrist to throw villagers and stroke animals, just nothing below the belt.

Unique control schemes are a bit of a mixed bag. The NES power glove for example was basically a standard controller with a calculator interface mounted on a cleaning glove that gave you as much control as a Segway piloted by a worm farm. You can not really tell how well something will work until it is in your hands. The latest idea for a way to control games is using the Neural Impulse Actuator which reads the spongy mass inside your skull and somehow translates this to the game. This creates many more interesting ideas for games, not to mention a very worrying thought of what happens if they bring out another Leisure Suit Larry with this in mind…

Note – To anyone who may frequent this enough to notice if I miss a Wednesday (thank you by the way!), there may or may not be an entry next week due to a two week work placement at PC Zone. I will update with my happenings on this venture if I am allowed to do more than make tea.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

An open world

Arguably, the Grand Theft Auto series can be seen as the series that inspired a lot of the games where a big sprawling environment is a key feature. A player thrown into a new place is like a child being placed in the centre of an Amazon rain forest. You feel disorientated, overwhelmed and there are a lot of unpleasant ways to meet your demise. Whether this happens by speeding trains, bullets or malaria is very often down to the player as to a lot of extents, these games give a tremendous feeling of freedom.

As mentioned earlier, Grand Theft Auto was one of the first cases that gave us a big city to explore. The top down view had its limitations, but to make up for this there were roads that would seemingly go on forever, and a huge city that offered a lot of space to complete missions or cause havoc. It was with the series’ evolution however, that really opened up a whole new world to roam, reap and ravage. You could stand on top of buildings and see as far as the game could render until it turned into a murky fog. You could completely forget about the central plot and just burn and pillage all of those who were indecent enough to wake up that morning and come within a mile of you. There really was a lot of stuff that you could do that gave the sense that it was a living world that functioned without you even playing out the events of the game.

With the latest instalment, Grand Theft Auto IV, it made the open, sprawling world to the next level. You could see far in to the distance and not have your view obscured by the rendering fog. The city functioned even more realistically, with bin men appearing on the back of their trucks in the very early hours of the morning. There was an even bigger population for you to mutilate with car bumpers and an assortment of weaponry. The open world sandbox just got a lot more sand tipped into it, enough to fill an Olympic sized swimming pool that would make the beaches of Weston look even more terrible than they already are.

A lot of other games have drawn ideas from open ended worlds and took them in new directions. Others have taken the idea that Grand Theft Auto introduced and then made a carbon copy of it with a different label slapped on the case. These days, an open world that offers insane amounts of freedom is nothing new. There are so many Grand Theft Auto clones out there wearing different suits, it is untrue. Unfortunately, these different suits are usually made out of tramp blankets and road kill, and they do not accomplish anything near the scale of what Grand Theft Auto has done. There are a few games out there though that have changed the formula and made some very fun additions to it.

Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction for example was a PS2 and XBOX game that was amazing fun to play. Forget nice cars, bikes and speed boats. This was Grand Theft War Zone. It was an open game that put you in the shoes of a Mercenary who could pick when to do missions for the various military factions that had set up camp in North Korea. Instead of trying to steal the fastest car from some business man with more money than sense, you will often be on the hunt for passing tanks or even helicopters (that are in flight) to steal for your dastardly deeds. You can also call in a very vast amount of support ranging from an airlifted jeep to a bunker buster bomb that can completely level the biggest buildings in a single strike. The unique thing about using weapons like this is that once a building is dead, it stays that way, so going postal like you would in the GTA series is not something you want to do here, if you intend on saving the game afterwards.

Mafia applied the open ended world to a linear story line and it worked very well. There was similar freedom, as in choosing when to do missions for people, and being able to play about in the city when you choose. The story however, is much more central to Mafia, with there being only one place to get missions from, and no other way to get through the game without following the main story arc. This meant that there was a very well done combination of open world freedom, but tight and to the point story telling.

Massively multiplayer online games such as World of Warcraft and my favourite, EVE Online, also have these wide open worlds with few limits. This is however a necessity for these kinds of games as a linear start location going to an end location would clearly not work in these sprawling worlds, where the players make the game more than anything.

Open world games can be very fun, but these days, trying to emulate Grand Theft Auto is a bad idea, as trying to match the mastery of the series is a very hard task to attempt. Unless something different is done to the formula, then the critics will compare the game to the GTA series, and from here it could well get crucified, ripped down before it is dead, flogged with trees and then burned to a crisp.