Friday, 26 September 2008

Are online deathmatches dying?

The age old pursuit of putting people in enclosed spaces and getting them to pound each other to death with rocks, is strangely absent from our modern day lifestyles. Instead, such contests of strength, bravado and extreme violence amongst your fellow persons are now limited to vast online arenas. It can be in a space station, a castle, on horseback or within the steel belly of a tank, but for a long time, the underlying objective has been to obliterate competitors with no remorse and plenty of smack talk.

Admittedly, such a goal sounds far more interesting than ‘make sure everyone is having a nice time by offering ice cream and complementary hand jobs’ but it is becoming the same old story. The quality of online deathmatch definitely varies from game to game, but they all still have the familiar pains and stale odours. After a while it gets tiring, and the interest fades with each frag. A game needs to offer more these days.

When I played Unreal Tournament 2004, the only mode that kept me entertained long enough for a hamster to complete a revolution of its wheel, was dubbed assault. This was a mission based mode where certain objectives had to be completed by the attacking team in sequence, whilst the defending team made sure that did not happen. The objectives varied from pulling a switch to open a door, planting explosive to blast it open, or fly a spaceship into a hanger to trigger an on foot invasion. This mode was perfect because to win, kill counts actually took a secondary seat to team work and completing goals. There was still more guts on the floor than an abattoir waste bin, but the guy at the top of the leader board, was not there because he was playing solely for himself.

Fast forward three years to Unreal Tournament 3, where the mode was removed, and it just feels like an old dog with no new tricks and Alzheimer's. It has switched to a minimal team-goal orientated gameplay experience, and run of the mill online deathmatch. It was a real shame because this instalment does introduce some nice new gimmicks, but not enough to increase the interest in it beyond a few play sessions. It offers nothing in the way of immersive, goal driven based killing that had worked so well previously in the series.

Deathmatch may not be dead yet, but interest in it is definitely short lived if the experience offers nothing new. Valve has lead a good example in the past with Counter-strike and more recently with Team Fortress 2, delivering a steady stream of updates over the life of the game. This keeps it fresh, and adds to the boring recipe that the deathmatch formula is becoming. If a game is not to be constantly nurtured by a dev team, then it must offer something radical and different, possibly like the upcoming zombie killer, Left 4 Dead. This pits you and three friends up against hordes of AI and human controlled zombies in a cooperative showdown to the end.

Edit – Sorry for the delay, but I have been experiencing a few technical problems.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

The life span of a series

If Sylvester Stallone has taught us anything, unlike wine and whiskey, series' of things do not always improve with age. There are quite a few long running game franchises out there and a lot of them are starting to run out of steam. When a developer tries to breathe new life into it, a lot of people reject the change. On the flipside, if they re-make a similar game, it is seen as a copy and paste job that does nothing new and exciting. It is quite hard to get the balance right.

The first Crash Bandicoot was one of the pioneers of the 3D platforming world. It amazed people with it's level design, quirky humour and decent gameplay that have made it a gem in the Playstation's crown. Then came Crash Bandicoot 2. Not a lot changed, but there were more levels, a new layout to the level selection (meaning you did not have to do each tier of levels in any particular order) and it generally improved a lot of things from the first game. With the arrival of Crash Bandicoot 3, it looked like Naughty Dog could do no wrong. The game itself was alright, but there were quite a few things about it that really did not do Crash any favours. Flying levels were introduced that handled like a very poor flight sim and towards the end of the game, Crash acquires a bazooka meaning that sniping enemies from a far was easier than going in with standard attacks.

It is from this point that the series started to plummet faster than a hammer in the river Thames. It might have had something to do with Traveller's Tales taking over from Naughty Dog, but all of a sudden, there was nothing new and original in the series. Just repetitiveness from the previous games and a gimmick or two that did not work. The latest outing, Crash of the Titans is a complete re-wire of the original Crash Bandicoot that has taken what was a perfect clay model, and moulded it into a disproportionate rabbit. Basically, the series has had its successful run and is now falling over itself, refusing to stop.

An example of a strong series is the Hitman games. Each one has perfected on the last in little ways. The sneaking and disguise system has been getting better and better ever since the original incarnation in 2000. In the latest offering, Hitman: Bloody Money, it all just feels perfect, having gone through the teething pains of it's older siblings, and coming out superior. Even little things, like being able to sedate a sausage to knock out an annoying dog have been implemented making it one of the most flexible and approachable stealth games out there. I am eagerly awaiting the next installment, and am hoping that it follows the, thus far, ever improving trend.

A series that is a bit of a mixed bag is very hard to judge from media reactions. Whenever a Grand Theft Auto game is released, it always seems to score as close to perfect as it can. Whilst I have liked every game in the series, I do think that when compared to each other, the newer outings are not as amazing as they are hyped to be. You could argue that comparing them to each other is similar to comparing Fabergé eggs with one another. They're all covered in sparkly bits and are treasured in your collection. It is in my opinion however, that the last Grand Theft Auto that did anything really amazing and revolutionary for the series was Vice City. San Andreas just gave you a bigger area to roam with a less impressive sound track, and GTA4 just gave everything a nice paint job and slightly improved gunplay.

GTA has been a around for a while, but has it started it's slippery slope? Judging from sales figures, absolutely not. The original games were top down affairs, and GTA3 breathed new life into the series making it a truly revolutionary title that gave birth to the sandbox game on PS2. Knowing Rockstar, they treat their games like their babies, and so want them to have the best in life. GTA probably isn't in danger yet, but it really does beg the question, how long will it last?

How long will any game series last? Mario is proving to be very resilient, but even he has had to fight through a tide of rubbish games that slap the porky plumber on the cover.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Yarr, pirates ahoy

I know that it can't just be me who gets annoyed by the anti piracy ads you now get whenever you attempt to watch a DVD. It always nags me that I would never steal a car or a handbag, or even a movie. This advert knows nothing about me. Maybe I would steal a car, handbag, film or police man's hat. In fact, the advert is so annoying, especially when it can not be skipped, that it might just persuade me to get a pirated version of the film, because at least that one won't insist on telling me how bad I am.

Now, personally, I do not condone piracy. I believe that if something is good enough for me to want it, the producers of the work are entitled to my money. That is how a job works. However, making your game so inaccessible to paying customers to try and stop this big piracy monster, is not the way to go about combating it whilst keeping a loyal fan base. Spore, released last Friday, is protected to the brim with the much hated DRM protection, which only allows the game to be installed three times. This might be enough for the majority of users, but then there are those who are about to switch machines, or who share the game with other family members who have their own computers within the same house. Before you know it, the three install limit becomes a bit of a problem.

This over protective software is bizarrely the reduced security version, meaning that originally it was much worse. The first concept was met by the metaphoric pitch forks and torches of the online world very swiftly. It was initially planned that the game would need an internet connection to activate itself, be limited to three installs, but also it would perform an online check every two weeks, meaning that those without an internet connection would not be able to play an offline game. This was of course absurd, and shot down shortly after the information went public.

It is or should be a well known fact that you can not stop software piracy. There are people who like to take the challenge of cracking security just for the sake of it. Sometimes it is then sold on at a market for example, but in the vast majority of cases, it is distributed free on the internet, and not lining the pockets of terrorists as some anti piracy campaigns might have you believe. The real irony of the situation however, is that a lot of the time, these pirated versions are more user friendly. No more obstructive copy protection to screw over the player, that the paying customers are having to fight through. You could even try supplying every game with an armed guard and hornets nest, the pirates will still find away to crack it, and put a pain free version online.

The best way to fight video game piracy is to simply accept that it will happen. Sins of a Solar Empire, developed by Ironclad Games had no CD protection on it at all. Yes, it was pirated, but it also sold well and topped charts, making the developers money. A lot of self confessed pirates would admit that if they do download a game illegally, if they think it is good enough, they would spend their cash on it. Surely this is a sign that in order to cut piracy down, developers should invest less time in copy protection, and more on making their games good. Quality and piracy do show trends in other industries. Many people justify their habit of downloading songs by saying that they are seeing if the artist/album is any good before they buy.

I will stick stand by my guns and say piracy is bad, and yes, it does cost computer games sales. Developers do need to acknowledge however, that it is not just piracy that would cost them sales, it is the overall quality of the game they make. It is very easy to blame the figurative skull and cross bones for screwing them out of sales, but this seems more of an excuse these days than thought out reasoning.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Co-operating

Whilst I do like gladiatorial style grudge matches with friends in the same room on Super Smash Bros: Brawl, I also like uniting with my fellow peers and blowing stuff up. There's just something about being in the same room, with someone you know, and going through a game, annihilating it together. Maybe it's the camaraderie, and the simple commands that you can give each other without the aid of a microphone. Or perhaps it's the fact that you only need one expensive console and television that are not hooked up to the internet.

Call me old fashioned, but I do not like the amount of games coming out with a solely online co-op mode. The term 'co-op mode' should be a guarantee that you will be playing through a game together, side by side, with a degree of co-operation. Open this environment up to the internet however, and it could very quickly dissolve into being paired with someone who will steam roll the game solo, leaving you to polish your gun, and avoid stepping in left over brain matter. That is not what co-op multiplayer gaming is all about! Not to mention the new levels of griefing it could open up, when you're new found internet best friend decides that dropping a laser designated bunker busting missile on your face is hilarious. The trouble is, this is exactly the kind of thing that I would be tempted to do at least once in a game like Mercenaries 2. Online there is the added incentive to do it because the person I am playing with will never be in the same room as me, ready to acquaint their fist with my gentleman regions.

The influence of today's post could possibly be the fact that the aforementioned Mercenaries 2: World In Flames comes with a solely online co-op multiplayer. I think this is a bit naff as a game like this would be brilliant to play with friends. Instead of being able to open it up to everybody in a beer and gaming evening, you now instead have to be in possession of friends with their own Playstation 3, who have to stay at home to get a game in with you. This is not the case if you are willing to take your PS3 to said mates house and then link it up to the internet over there, fumbling around with an extra TV and more extension chords than a PC World showroom. After all that effort you might as well decide to screw the gaming and have a few beers, because in half an hour you will need to take it down again.

This lack of split screen multiplayer seems to be going against the idea of multiplayer gaming. Instead of gaming in the same room together, drinking and being merry, Pandemic Studios want you all sitting a mile or so apart, getting hammered by yourself and only communicating via microphone. They are very much in the spirit of 'togetherness' it seems.

I do realise that there are sacrifices that need to be made in order to have a split screen game, after all, you need to render the game environment twice. To get around this, some games tone down the graphics a bit. In my mind, this is a worthwhile trade off. Take Army of Two for example. There was a game which was a bit 'so-so' when playing through single player. Get a mate over however, and the gameplay receives a huge boost with tactical decisions and bodies flying in every direction.

Multiplayer seems to be the latest feature that every game needs to have, but driving it all online does rather derive from the original premise of a good night in with mates. Now its all about having an average night in with people you know as 'y0d4 88', who may or may not be an undercover policeman trying to coerce you into indecent situations with minors.