Saturday, 19 December 2009

Starting Christmas with a bang

Where as a lot of gaming sites may start to be writing about the best of 2009, Christmas and all that jazz, I intend to talk about the next most popular category that has been impacting my life a lot as of late. Grenades being mapped to stupid buttons on controllers.

It has happened to all of us, fully immersed in your mission you move in looking suave and sophisticated, a man on a mission. You get to your objective, something you have been working towards for hours now, and just at the critical moment, you take the opportunity to pull a pin on a grenade and drop it to your feet. Crap…

It has happened to the best of us. “That hostage needs rescuing!”

“Never fear ma’am let me just get up close and, oh God, run!” You manage to get just far enough back to avoid any shrapnel in your fine appendages only to turn around and find that your important VIPs are now decorating the walls.

There’s also the classic wall cover cock up. With cover being mapped to L2 and grenades being mapped to R2, the countless times as I have been learning a game that I have thrown a grenade against the wall instead of leant against it is a bit silly. No matter how much I try, I still manage to play the squash equivalent of Russian roulette with myself in most game sessions.

The thing that I am finding particularly irresponsible and frustrating at the moment lies with the PS3. Developers seem to have a fetish for swapping around the grenade and firing functions on the R1 and R2 buttons between different games. I don’t have a particular preference to which button should be used (surely the trigger one makes sense though) but if it could just be universally accepted that one is shoot and the other is throw, I will not be blowing off my pixelated limbs as much.

Again, I suppose this is another blog to file under ‘rant’, especially after playing The Saboteur and instead of walking in disguise, I threw a grenade and blew up my cover along with a few conveniently placed barrels of petrol.

I’m sure I am not in the minority when it comes to accidentally blowing up the people/things you intend to save/not blow up but is the compromise of risking accidental, hilarious death worth the trade off of an instantly accessible grenade? To be honest I’d probably say yes, as digging through inventories can be frustrating in a gun fight especially if you could have learned to use one button correctly and tossed a potential explosion to the feet of those trying to harm you.

Anyway, to be slightly more topical, I hope everyone has a very Merry Christmas and if I don’t speak on here before then, I hope the inevitable family feuds are at least tolerable this year.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Why Xbox Live doesn't work

I appreciate that arguing how much value for money Xbox Live is can be a very similar experience to convincing dogs that the postman’s arse doesn’t taste nice, but it is starting to get to a point where the matter of money is getting a bit silly.

I know, I know, the likelihood of me changing anyone’s views on Xbox Live is like trying to reason with chickens that cock fighting isn’t such a bad sport, but please hear me out.

Those who pay for their gold subscription status happily do so for all the benefits that come with it, early access to demos, TrueSkill matchmaking and being able to play online with your buddies. Whether you think it is right to pay for something that games on every other gaming platform offer for free is a different argument to this entirely.

The problems that are starting to crop up are subscription services for other games. You know, like MMORPGs that attach direct debit leaches to your bank account that get thirsty every month. Paying one subscription fee to play games online, that’s just about stomach-able. Asking gamers to pay for two though? On your bike, your having a laugh, die in a fire, and so on and so forth.

Playing a subscription based game on a subscription based service is going to cause more than just hiccups when it comes to striking it right with your audience. Okay, some people might be able to afford it, but others might find it almost offensive being asked to pay for two separate services to play just one game.

I can see this hurdle really putting off MMO developers trying to release pay to play games on the Xbox 360 as not all fans will want to pay for the two services. It will make the target demographic for that game even smaller than it has to be and so might not be worth the risk for the developer, who may happily take it to the PS3 and reap the benefits of a little more freedom.

Microsoft are getting really good at squabbling over money and upsetting people as of late, which is a real shame because the Xbox Live service really isn’t too shabby.

A couple of examples that spring to mind include Valve’s L4D Crash Course DLC. PC users got it for free because Valve are lovely people who do not tend to charge for add-on content. Unfortunately Xbox users had to pay because Microsoft didn’t like giving something away for free through their system and so made Valve slap a price tag on it.

The other example happened just this week when the possibility of getting the BBC iPlayer on Xbox Live was suspended “indefinitely”. The upset here was that Microsoft want to restrict the iPlayer to gold only members, where as the it (and everything BBC) is already paid for by everyone in the UK through the license fee, therefore the BBC aren’t allowed to charge anyone for access to it.

As much as I would love it to happen, I can not see Microsoft stopping it’s subscription service for Live. It would cause too many problems, such as upsetting those people who paid for a 12 month contract for the service the day before the announcement it was turning free.

Microsoft just needs to be a bit more reasonable when it comes to other people, who either want to charge through their own subscription model, or even not charge anything at all. It just becomes a real problem, especially when you think that there is no alternative to Xbox Live. It’s their way or the highway (and taking any other route will probably get you banned).

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

The spirit of competition

I appreciate that the name of this blog could quite possibly sound like one of the characters that was tragically cut from A Christmas Carol, but since it is still November, unlike the rest of the world I don’t intend to think of Christmas again for at least a fortnight. Humbuggery.

What I am actually going to talk about is how many selfish dicks there are out there in internet gaming land and how the quality of online games nowadays relies far too much on the people you play with.

It seems silly that the enjoyment of a really well made and put together game can actually be completely hinged on the hope that the people you play the game with, aren’t the kind who shout abuse at old people and stamp on new born chicks at Easter.

I’m finding at the moment in Left 4 Dead 2 that about half the games turn out to be epic, where as the others sort of fizzle out and die, a bit like what happens when you are enjoying a flickering candle, only for someone to come along and piss it out.

The main problems I am encountering are the very lovely breed of rage quitters that seem to turn up in just about every game I start to win. Whilst I don’t win very often, as soon as I have played a successful run as an infected the majority of the enemy who just got trounced will quit. At this point I will say that I have the utmost respect for those of you that stay in the face of defeat, you are a true gamer and I hope that you are spared (somehow) should the world end in flames or meteor showers.

The problem is though that having this stance makes me feel compelled to stay when the shoe is on the other foot and my team mates abandon me, meaning the game becomes one versus four, with the odds of me standing any chance being similar to that of an elephant achieving geo-stationary orbit from a running jump.

It just becomes less fun when people put their ego and in game stats before simply playing the game and having a good time. Of course now I probably sound like a nursery school teacher telling you that winning doesn’t matter and it is taking part that counts.

Whilst I don’t necessarily agree that winning doesn’t matter, the great thing about L4D2 is that even when you are not winning, you get the chance to make the other team go through hell whilst they crawl to victory. I very often hope that the enemy team will recovery from the serious zombie assault just so that they have to face it again in twenty seconds. That may sound far too sadistic and probably borders on cyber bullying, but it is great fun doing it.

Now I know that the mighty podium of an online gaming blog in a darkened corner of the internet, probably tucked just behind an amateur foot fetish gallery isn’t the most prominent place to request a bit more sportsmanship in games, but I will try it anyway.

We play games for fun, and win or lose, they usually still are fun. If the pixelated number on your screen is slightly lower than that of your opponents and it makes you feel angry, just after you quit, please follow this advice. Go to your nearest canal, weight down your legs, and see how long you can walk around the bottom for. You might be surprised what you can achieve once you black out. I wish the most un-christmassy of thoughts to those who rage quit.

Monday, 16 November 2009

What is the future of games retail?

As soon as Steam kicked the door off of my internet and let me download my games as many times as I wanted on to any computer, I started to believe that boxed retail copies would face a similar fate to bees, a slow and mysterious disappearance.

Thinking such things made sense at the time. High street game retailers could not compete with online stores like Amazon and Play, but even they were being trumped in many cases by digital download distributors, such as Steam and Direct 2 Drive.

Then Modern Warfare 2 reared its big chunky brute head and made a lot of people upset with the marked up recommended retail price that the developers thought was justified. You can still just about hear the screams of anguish echoing around the ozone layer of gamers who though such a price hike was unacceptable. Then Sainsbury’s happened.

On the day of release the supermarket giant sold Modern Warfare 2 for the lovely sum of £26, just about trouncing everywhere else in value for money, and caused stampedes not too dissimilar from that of a free JLS concert.

The really sad thing is that high street games retail, the way I see it now lies in the hands of supermarkets who can afford to take the price hits on offering cheap new games. They do this because when people visit them to buy a game, very often the punters will stop and buy other luxury items such as bread and milk, which GAME and HMV do not tend to keep in stock.

Of course this generally means good news for gamers, but not necessarily for traditional games outlets. Supermarkets are starting to catch on that selling games in some of their bigger stores is actually quite a nice piece of business pie that they are eager to stick their massive corporate thumbs in.

Placing games in super markets might also possibly snag a new market of games customers, when you get mum, dad, grandma, granddad, Uncle Bob and Auntie Jane wandering around, who may spot Christmas and birthday presents when trying to find the couscous.

It really got to me though when I realised that the best place for me to buy games locally was ASDA, even though I have a high street full of shops. There was a time when we had a dedicated games shop, as well as a Virgin store and a Woolworths. Unfortunately, my town seems to be the place where shops come to die, with the only things really thriving being greetings card, charity and mobile phone shops these days. Perhaps this is typical of the times?

So who can really say where the future of games retail lies? Digital distribution has the advantage of no box and printing costs, where as supermarkets have the advantage of being dead, emotionless, hollow businesses who will happily stamp on the little guys when it comes to undercutting them. It is up there with the big mysteries of life, like, do yetis exist? Is there a colour we haven’t discovered? And how would Jordan really look if her cosmetics budget was limited to £50?

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Politics meets gaming again

Isn’t it nice when you are sitting at the dock, with everyone calling you a rapist just because you looked at a waitress slightly funny, perhaps inappropriately, but still innocently, when suddenly, a member of the jury stands up and defends you.

This is how I perceive what happened in the House of Commons yesterday when the very worthwhile and justified subject of Modern Warfare 2 was raised in the same place that also creates fundamental rules for the country.

As you have undoubtedly heard by now, there is a bit in Modern Warfare 2 where you shoot up an airport full of innocent people to help maintain your cover within a terrorist group. This prompted the sleeping, noble, giant that wants to protect our children from everything, the Daily Mail, to do the morally right thing and say that games are the root of all evil.

In the house with the plush green seats it was Labour MP Keith Vaz who decided to launch an attack on Infinity Ward’s latest Call of Duty, saying it was irresponsible of them to release such content and that won’t they please think of the children!? Of course in this situation it seems to fly over everybody’s head that games are given strict age ratings and it should really be the parents who should learn how to read, rather than letting their children potentially get scarred and blame it on whatever game they were playing.

It was at this stage though that I decided I have a favourite member in the Labour party, MP Tom Watson, who took this opportunity to stand up for the games industry and completely knock Mr Vaz off of his high horse that was busy sniffing the clouds.

When addressing Mr Vaz’s concerns, he said, “Does the minister agree that it would be better for the members of this house to support the many thousands of games designers and coders, and the many millions of games users rather than collaborating with the Daily Mail to create moral panic over the use of videogames.”

He is even starting to set up a gaming lobbyist group called Gamers’ Voice which is currently finding its roots on the very respected and professional platform that is, a Facebook group.

I must say, it is very refreshing to actually hear some positive words about games coming from the system, which is enough for me at least to not lose complete faith in the people that hold the country together. If only they were all as reasonable and all made an effort to actually know what they were talking about half the time. I must admit though, I do think it is just a little bit silly that an issue about computer games made it that far.

At the end of the day, it comes down to the over used argument that violent games don’t influence violent people, it is there very anti-social tendencies and desire to kill real breathing things that is the problem. The game link is just an unfortunate coincidence. I think we can only really be concerned when we start finding people with big bushy moustaches jumping on turtles, screaming, “Mamma mia!” (and even if that happens I’m sure we could follow the Daily Mail’s mentality and blame it on catchy Abba lyrics).

Thursday, 5 November 2009

What makes a good sequel - zombie edition

Nothing beats the feeling of removing a zombies head with the surgical precision of a shotgun. Well, actually, a roast dinner and glass of wine would top it, or a cooked breakfast with a cup of coffee, and perhaps even eating a Ginster’s pasty in the front seat of a car. To be quite honest there are probably quite a few more joyous things than putting a zombie down with violence, but that is besides the point.

Over the last week I’ve been enjoying Valve’s very brilliant Left 4 Dead 2 demo whilst eagerly awaiting the release of the full thing that should be squeezing itself down your internet pipes in less than two weeks now. Can a sequel to zombie horde culling really add much more to the formula? The short answer is yes.

The longer slightly more interesting answer is yes, it can. Obviously being a sequel to the first game it has to stay firmly tied to its roots. The sceptics out there would possibly say that L4D2 is largely a re-skin of the original. That’s not necessarily a bad thing though, when you take Fern Cotton and turn her into Keira Knightley, there’s nothing to complain about. It’s simply gone from nice to nice. And in the case of L4D2, it appears that Ms Knightley has also brought several new dresses along with her.

Whilst the game experience is instantly familiar there are some pleasant new additions, such as more boss zombies and melee weapons. At first, pummelling everything with a frying pan or guitar is really great fun, but when you come to crank up the difficulty and realise that closing the distance between yourself and the murderous, raging mad men is a bad idea, it can be more appealing to have the pistols that melee weapons replace.

They have also gotten shot of the four original, loveable survivors in favour of four new strangers who at first caused a bit of a stir in the community because their personalities were not leaping out of the still screenshots. This seemed like a bit of a pointless argument as when I look through photos I don’t tend to judge the people before my eyes as boring because they can’t move or speak when immortalised on paper.

Now the demo is out and the new guys are great fun. You have your hick mechanic, the ironically large football coach, a news reporter and a gambler come conman. Just listening to the characters interact with each other during the short demo fills me with confidence that the same effect in the first game will be pulled off here.

Then there’s the opening sequence. The first L4D had a brilliantly done, tension building introduction that nicely explained how our survivors got where they were. It introduced most of the boss zombies you encounter and had quite a climactic finish. The new intro sequence plays more like an action packed movie trailer showing a montage of the game’s different locations played to a rocking sound track. It has everything, guns, zombies, explosions and chainsaws.

All of this adds a huge amount that makes the sequel feel like a lot more than a simple re-skin. Personally I can not wait to see what happens in two weeks when Steam slows down to a halt as it fails to cope with the demands of everyone and their baseball bat trying to get the new game. It’s nice to have a sequel that stays true to the original, but improves on it in everyway.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Console games on PC

I have been a PC gamer for far longer than I have owned consoles. I still remember starting out playing Mario is Missing on MS-DOS, an edutainment game where you play the lanky plumber instead of the fat one. Later on I moved to slightly more adult games with Earthworm Jim and the brilliant Lion King game, both still booted up from DOS.

It all started to snow ball from here with the arm chair generalling of Command & Conquer, the anti social crime sprees of Grand Theft Auto and the murderous historical romps through the Medal of Honour series. All of the above have worked brilliant on PC and have had a fair life on consoles too, but not necessarily living in equality.

Medal of Honour indeed started life on a console, and GTA has migrated to being more of a console game, but Command & Conquer has always been a stickler when it comes to importing it to consoles. The mouse and keyboard control scheme just seem able to hug it a bit more satisfyingly than the malice grip of two joysticks on a pad, bickering with each other on how to tell tank A to strike down man B.

It used to be the case that the PC was generally quite dominant of the strategy and shooter market, but as consoles are now starting to become more mainstream, the delicate balance that has been in place for years is suddenly starting to fade faster than Garry Glitter’s popularity after 1997.

Instead of the PC passing down the nicer franchises it seems to be getting stuck with multi-platform release titles that have clearly been designed for consoles. On one hand it might seem great that the PC gets a share of the action that it might have missed out on, but at the same time, controls that work perfectly on a game pad often transfer quite clunkily over to the mouse and keyboard. At times it can feel like it would actually be easier to poke and prod a console controller with chopsticks rather than using the mouse and keys.

Having recently played the highly acclaimed Dead Space for the first time I have decided that I don’t like it, not because it is necessarily a bad game, but the PC controls feel completely off. The sluggish aim of the bronze suited protagonist just doesn’t fit well with the mouse at all, and seems to be designed for a not so responsive thumb nub joystick to ensure a steadier aim. The inventory screen is a devil to navigate too as you can’t use the mouse to do it because it is still locked in to controlling where your eyes point.

The whole thing just feels like it is designed to be amazing on consoles, but was just shoe horned on to the PC just because it exists. If you ask me it just feels like a wasted opportunity, and instead of a nice refined game that is optimised to most people’s PCs (without game pads), it is a clunky disaster which is as responsive as directing a herd of sheep with a Yorkshire Terrier.

Having recently played Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising on PS3, I can say that it worked very well on the console, but I could see some very frustrating elements if it were the PC version. The radial command menu worked brilliantly with analogue nubs, but on a mouse and keyboard, again, I can see the system being rather clunky and not as fluent as it was clearly designed to be.

Clunky is the word coming across the most here when describing how a lot of PC ports come over, which doesn’t seem right seeing as a mouse is more accurate and responsive than a joystick. I’m a man from the school of thought that if it is worth doing, it is worth doing right.

I just feel that the PC is having games shovelled on to it just because it holds a portion of the market that might not have a console to play on yet. With the multimedia age of consoles that are also DVD and Blu-ray players, a lot of people must have one in their living room, which might just start to be putting them ahead of PCs when it comes to gaming platforms.

I just hope that things start levelling out soon and that more thought and support will get put into PC ports as there really are some great games out there being criminally underdone by shoddy platform transfers.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Nostalgia's an indecisive bitch

I am scared of playing what I think might be my favourite game. I think it’s a great game, and I remember playing through it many times in my childhood and having tremendous fun each time. Then again, I also thought that snorting sherbert at that age was a good idea, and you can imagine how that turned out.

In this instance I am talking about Final Fantasy VII which I remember very fondly, but I have to ask myself, am I only remembering the good bits? Picking my apparently biased memory I can not think of that many flaws with the game which has already set the alarm bells ringing as I know that it is fairly easy to criticise at least something in any game.

The only frustrating bit I can remember is a boss encounter in two lifts moving in parallel on the outside of the Shinra building where only ranged attacks are useful. This is hardly a criticism though, as if games didn’t have frustratingly difficult bits sometimes then it would be a world that is about as entertaining as Gordon Brown giving an after dinner speech on sand.

I just can’t help shake the feeling that I would be disappointed if I were to pick up and play it today though. Too many times have I gone back to a game optimistically thinking it would be as awesome as it was five years ago only to be disappointed.

I think one major problem is as certain game genres evolve, staple features that get introduced, such as cover systems or magical recovering health become so mainstream that not having them feels like you are missing a leg or child. Going back to older games that don’t feature these can be a bit of a pain as you frantically mash the controls assuming that a function you are used to is there but instead end up horrifically dying in the confusion.

It’s a bit like Metal Gear Solid. I honestly do not think that I could go back to the PS1 game and cope as that lack of the ability to aim in first person would not so much leave me feeling like a fish out of water, but more like a bear in a volcano. How are you supposed to take someone out with a headshot when your rifle’s plane of vision is securely bolted at chest level?

I can see FF7 on the PSN store and as my fingers slowly twitch towards the purchase button I keep getting the nagging feeling that it will be nowhere near as good as I remember it.

I keep looking at trailers for FF13 and hope that it might play similar to seven, but I hear that the combat system has been tweaked. In a series gap of about six games that I haven’t played the result is probably some sort of disfigured Frankenstein monster that I will barely recognise, but I will be delightfully happy to be proven wrong.

Maybe it is best leaving games from the past in the past. At least that way it guarantees you won’t be disappointed. Unfortunately applying that logic to the rest of life probably means that you will end up as a very unexciting person who will one day own far too many cats.

Then again, Banjo Kazooie is fairly awesome even by today’s standards so maybe FF7 will follow suit. I suppose there’s only one way to find out. Don’t fail me now childhood memories!

Friday, 2 October 2009

Collateral damage

We all know of the brilliant film cliché, where the hero has blown up half of a city to get back an item that was hopefully more valuable than the damage caused, but what can be said about the gaming equivalent?

If anything, gaming protagonists tend to be even bigger tosspots than the movie action stars that treat other people's cars like stepping stones and explosion magnets. Where as the seemingly random destruction from a movie hero is usually part of some worthwhile goal, gamers tend to destroy things for the sheer hell of it.

Case in point, Resident Evil 4 and 5. You spot a mysterious looking box in the corner of someone else’s house and so naturally, being the good guy and all, you decide that there might be something inside worth taking. Opening the box is far too complex however, so therefore it must be smashed to bits with a knife or gunshot. So, you are not only stealing from the property that doesn’t belong to you, but you are also vandalising it somewhat too.

Was this really necessary? Admittedly the houses you come across in these games tend to be abandoned, and that subtlety and polite manners in apocalyptic zombie situations go out of the window a tiny bit. Having said this though, is smashing open a box which would require a fair bit of arm strength or a 9mm slug really easier than utilising the universal hinge method?

There is also the case of the random explosive barrels left over after a gun fight. No matter what game, what level, how practical, or the amount of ammo you have left, it is gamers’ instinct to shoot anything left over that would create a nice bang. Why is this? Do you not know how valuable something that explodes when nudged probably is? In the times when the planet is running out of oil, our natural resources are dying and we need every drop of fuel we can get, why do you think it is a just cause to blow it up? You bastard (or bitch, I’m not sexist). Think of how many virtual tanks and helicopters could be run from the many virtual barrels you have used to scorch the virtual sky.

Of course it would probably help if virtual oil could be used to power things other than virtual vehicles but it is still setting a bad example. Seeing how the mainstream media likes to portray gaming, it amazes me that they have not thought that gamers destroying virtual fuel resources probably means they definitely will blow up a petrol station at some point.

Something that animal lovers might like to think about is how many virtual animals are killed just because they make a funny noise and fall over quite comically when they die. I still remember scaring a running zebra into a parked car in Far Cry 2, and how it kind of ragdolled like a bag of soft oranges being thrown at a wall. Also chasing the chickens in Zelda until they get angry and attack you is surely inspiration for the next level of cock fighting. Man versus chicken, fight!

All kidding aside though, what is it that makes us destroy random things in games? If it is coded to fall apart or explode it is probably music to a game developer’s ears to hear that we all like to trigger exploding animations just because they look cool. I suppose it is quite fun to be able to sort of summon explosions in the distance, or make things fall down even if it does make the heroic protagonist look like he has a dangerous mental disorder. All I know is, I probably won’t stop blowing things up just because I can. I’d like to see more of it in fact. Make more things fall apart and explode for no apparent reason great gaming world! No more static scenery!

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Classic collectibles in modern gaming

As games are pushing towards more realism and gritty edginess, do levitating, sometimes glowing and possibly rotating bits of bric-a-brac that the player has often been encouraged to collect still have a place in gaming?

Collectibles were always the main goal and aid in most games. Collect this to win, grab that to heal, touch this to spit fire, and so forth. They always stood out as what was needed to be picked up and were the visual representation of an objective for the player. It has been this way for quite some time with a few exceptions, but now it seems to be getting phased out.

The Grand Theft Auto series for example has seen quite a shocking jump in the availability, variety and uses of pickups. The first few games in the series were littered with the usually helpful pickups that often spelled madness and destruction for all of those indecent enough to go about their daily lives. I still remember getting kill frenzies in the first game and chasing down innocent people with a flamethrower, like a demented dragon wearing a yellow t-shirt. All the games right through to San Andreas had some form of floating item that was designed to draw the player’s eye and be hoarded.

This changed in Grand Theft Auto 4 very dramatically. When people were killed, their guns no longer spun in mid air, begging to be collected, but instead fell to the ground next to the crumpled sack of flesh and blood that was just wielding it. Secret packages were now replaced by pigeons that littered the city requiring a bullet lobotomy to officially be collected. The whole system was changed and it seemed to take away from the arcade like feeling that the rest of the series retained.

Resident Evil has always been a moody cow when it came to collectibles. Whenever playing through the series, it is almost instinctive to move along a wall rapidly tapping the action button in the hope that the dim witted zombie magnet you control might find a critical object to open a door/safe/window of interest. Occasionally something might twinkle at you in the distance implying that it should be in your grubby hands but it was still quite subtle. The challenge came in the way that where most games before it liked to flaunt neon red card keys as a reward for fighting through a bajillion baddies, Resi instead would hide it in a drawer in an abandoned mansion.

Off the top of my head, the only genres that still have the traditional style of collectibles are platformers and cartoon racers. Even these are taking a bit of a hit with the likes of Lara Croft and Nathan Drake starting to tread on Mario’s turf when it comes to precision jumping.

As games start pushing the graphical boundaries, collectibles seem to be getting rarer and rarer, at least in their traditional forms. Picking up something that responds to the in game physics engine or that looks casually non-descript in a pile of un-interactive scenery just does not bring with it the same sense of treasure hunt victory that a glowing, whirling star does.

Is it an argument that games are being dumbed down a bit? Is what used to require a major think about how to get the red key out from behind the glass, beyond the river of lava now being replaced with a series of intense gun fights, killing your way to victory? I will admit that the answer to most in game scenarios in our current gaming climate seems to be ‘bring more guns’.

Will this change in the foreseeable future, or are collectibles that bare little logical presence in the context of their reality doomed to the retro archives (seriously, why is there a giant pair of cherries in a maze filled with multicoloured ghosts?) I certainly hope not, but if games continue their current trend, the relevance of classic style pickups will tragically continue to fade even further.

Monday, 7 September 2009

RPG Pet Peeve: Wear and Tear

How frustrating is it when you are having fun eating a meal with your favourite knife when all of a sudden it snaps and becomes unusable because you have cut meat with it too much. The answer is very, but due to it being the real world, it does not tend to happen that much unless you favour eating whole armadillos whilst still following polite eating conventions.

What really frustrates me is when this wear and tear mechanic makes it in to games and quite bluntly decides that anything that is used 50 times must break and require repair. Nobody likes it when what they are having fun with breaks through being physically used too much, and so why such an un-pleasurable misfortune would seep its way into virtual reality is beyond me.

Let’s face it, bad things that happen in real life are generally not that good in games. Okay, some kind of hell portal opening up in the middle of London might be fun in a game and not in real life, but something as mundane as useful equipment wearing out should be kept back in the grim place called reality.

In real life, I accept that a perfectly good sword would have to wear out eventually. Such frustrating things help to keep black smiths and sword salesmen in business. In the game world however, I really could not care if all sword repair workers have to go back to their starving families with no bread for the third day in a row, because it would mean that my never perishing weapon was still keeping me happy.

Fallout 3 really managed to crawl up my nose and kick the frustration centre of my brain when things would wear out. It means that whenever I play through now I always make sure that my repair skills have the lion’s share of the precious attribute points just so I can keep playing with my favourite guns. After a kick in my special place, not much could grind my gears more than for my gun to fall apart as I try to use it.

I will admit now that I am not a World of Warcraft fan, but I still gave it a bit of a play through. I could not work out why as I levelled up, I was taking more damage and dishing out a lot less pain. Then I suddenly noticed that every useful item also had a durability statistic amongst the lists of numbers bolted in to them. They were all at 0 durability and I did not have the money to repair them. I really can not see the point other than to cheese me off even more than is necessary. I could literally hear blizzard laughing at me (or it might have been the giggles of children outside, but for the purpose of my anger, I will assume it was corporate mockery).

Perhaps if equipment durability mechanics were a bit different the system could be made more fun. Maybe that if your item wears out you could find stuff laying about to give your worn out weapon a quirky botch job look to it. Sword no longer sharp enough? Ah look, a pile of rusty nails I can glue on to the blade, that’ll fix it. Axe handle snapped in half? Why don’t I use this spinal column that my fallen enemy no longer needs to make my flail blade a reality.

Maybe I would be happier with the system if it was more fun, but as it seems to stand in most instances durability in gaming seems to be a harsh punishment for using stuff as it is intended to be. I find it irritating enough when my pencil breaks, let alone when my power armour fails mid battle.

Monday, 31 August 2009

Auto saving and why I hate Halo

When circus performers do things perilously high up, most of the time they have the piece of mind in knowing there is a safety net below them. It means that if they fall, instead of dying permanently, only a little piece of them perishes, like their ego or confidence, and a few weeks later, they can get back to juggling lions 80 feet in the air again.

I feel that in the world of gaming auto saves and checkpoints are our safety nets that helps us deal with irritation that bit better. It is so generally wide spread now, that any game that does not have such a safety is usually quite a source of frustration.

My sad tale that sparked the idea for this post in my scary little mind came from the Xbox 360 flagship title Halo 3. I had just had quite an intense stab at the campaign which I am still yet to complete and made some quite decent progress in it. I decided that it was a suitable time to have a break and so got up and switched my console off.

As soon as I did it suddenly hit the back of my mind like an aerodynamic sledge hammer with no air friction. I hadn’t selected the option to save and quit. I immediately booted up Halo 3 again and sure enough, two hours of progress were lost. It made me so angry, it felt like I had died and gone to Swindon.

In a world where we take auto saving for granted, how can somebody leave such a feature out? Why rely on the rather archaic system that relies on the player to think about saving, rather than doing what just about everything else does and do it automatically.

I can understand the lack of an auto save in a game that is not checkpoint based, where you can save at any time your awkward self desires. You would be used to saving the game just before a suspected hard bit, usually when you come across an area full of health and ammo, which is a good indication that an old fashioned sodomising is just round the corner.

Even in games like this though, there is usually an auto save. We as gamers have been spoiled by such a feature for too long now for it to be randomly removed from a main stream title.

If I was a high flying acrobat and Halo 3 was the circus, I would have fallen off the tightrope walk and plummeted to an unexpected and inconvenient death. Who are they to remove my safety net? I only take risks when I know that in the very likely event it all goes wrong, I can do something equally as stupid in about five minutes time.

I just think it is daft that you can play for about two hours and have nothing saved if you don’t quit and save the game first. In the heat of frustration, who really has the time and patience to wait for the level to load again after death so they can open the pause menu just to quit the game. Sane people just go straight for the off button.

I can therefore conclude that Halo 3 campaign mode was beta tested by Buddhist Monks who are not allowed to be that bothered when they forgot to manually save the game before quitting.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Babysitting in games

If you think that looking after children is a pain in the backside, then you have clearly never tried to looking after Ashley Graham, or a scientist, or any other mission central character who is about as useful as a lead buoyancy aid covered in anthrax. I am of course talking about sections in games where you have to defend someone or something from someone or something else intent on killing it.

The really annoying thing about protecting these critical persons is that they never seem to value their own life as much as the player is told to. If there is a situation in a gun fight where you have to stand stationary, then at least try to protect yourself a little bit. Don’t just stand bolt up right and assume that the bodyguard you have assigned to protect you is your guardian angel who can guarantee your safety. At times it would be nice if the character could at least pretend that they valued their life.

Case in point, the aforementioned Ashley Graham. She is the president’s daughter who you have to find and rescue in Resident Evil 4, but when you finally do find her, you would wish the zombies had killed you first. She seems to have some kind of sick voyeuristic fetish of watching you getting mauled by monsters and then getting herself captured. At least, I assume she does, because whenever there is imminent danger in close proximity, she doesn’t make any attempt to preserve herself, but instead stands directly behind you and sometimes even in front of you, right where the bullets come out.

Surely killing her would be natural selection at its finest, but instead, it is game over, making the player look stupid, rather than the ally who starts screaming your name because she stood somewhere long enough to be captured. Okay, I don’t expect her to be Hulk Hogan, but even insects have some sort of instinct to hide from potential danger.

These baby sitting missions as such are never fun because you not only have to worry about your own health, but someone else’s as well. It’s not as if they make any effort to care about you either, they just assume that you are okay with gunning down hordes so that they can complete a menial task. If you die in a game, that is frustrating, but you can get up and try again. If what you are meant to defend dies, it is clearly their fault and they should have made more of an effort to do what they were doing in a more subtle way.

It was one level in Goldeneye on the N64 that I remember with great hatred and bitterness. You and a rather clumpy, pixelated Natalya had just gotten through to a control room that she could use to do something bad to the antagonists. Of course it is a lengthy computer process that she has to do standing right in the open and she does not react to gunfire at all unless she dies from a bullet overdose.

She could have at least crouched down. Or maybe she could have used one of the other five identical terminals that were not necessarily smack in the middle of the room, begging for crossfire incidents.

I know that such things are in place to challenge the player, but personally, I think looking after someone else in a game does not carry the same thrills as self preservation.

When you run down a corridor, bullets flying all around you and you just make it through a door or behind cover by a whisker of health, that is thrilling and exciting. You have usually got there by a series of sporadic movements, pulling a complete fluke and always remembering that section of the game as the difficult one that you might not be able to pull off again on the next run though.

Of course AI buddies in your care do not have such luxuries as free will available to them, usually taking the same path as most of the flying ammunition does. It is because they do this that I believe they are not allowed to be surprised that they are dead, and that removing themselves from the virtual gene pool in such a manner should complete a secondary objective or maybe even give you an achievement.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Do first person shooters need to cover new ground?

It’s amazing how popular a genre has become when all it really is, is a super advanced point and click adventure with very fancy animations and lots of gore on the clickable objects. Breaking it down like that almost makes it seem bizarre how it is one of my favourite genres, but does it need to start learning new tricks?

I still remember how proud my friend was when he ‘made’ a first person shooter in PowerPoint. It was impressive at the time, shooting the targets as they appeared to trigger the next, even though it was only a slideshow with a moving button. As simple as it was though, it could still technically be counted as an FPS. What is it that has made clicking things until they are dead so addictive? Will the addiction last?

I’m not entirely sure about gimmicks in first person shooters. Cover systems made popular by games such as Rainbow Six Vegas are all well and good, and could be seen as a way of trying to push the genre forward. The thing is though, games with vanilla mechanics in comparison, such as Half-Life 2 and Bioshock seem to stick in my mind better. Could it be that a more detailed narrative is the way forward? Do we need a tangible reason why we should be clicking on the bad things to make them disappear, or should we be focussing more effort on what happens when you do click the on screen representations of living things?

This is getting to be quite a ponderous blog with the liberal sprinkling of question marks that have appeared in it so far, but it is interesting to think about the future of FPSs. Can they afford to stay so straight forward, or is a gameplay evolution needed?

Many people seem to argue that the future of games in general is going online, but shooters seemed to have dominated that market long ago. Games like CounterStrike and Unreal Tournament are all fun when you initially try them, but unless you turn in to a die hard fan, eventually the online deathmatch formula gets stale as well.

I just had a play on the open multiplayer beta for Section 8, and I have to say, it is refreshingly different. Spawn points aren’t fixed, but instead you start 15,000 feet above the battlefield and plummet to the ground, landing wherever you choose. Some sites are better than others, with important objectives like capture points being guarded with AA guns.

The winning condition is first team to 1,000, and this can be achieved through killing people, destroying their stuff and completing various objectives that crop up. It is a very fun experience though, a bit like the love child of Unreal Tournament and Tribes. You have a jetpack that can give your jumps a decent boost and an insane sprinting mode that kicks in after holding shift for about 5 seconds, giving the player surprising manoeuvrability. It makes the run and gun style seems a lot fresher than it has been recently.

The great thing is that Section 8 is building on a well established formula that in my eyes has been done to death now. I want more from online shooters than just hunting down the other players and waiting for them to come back to do it again.

I really enjoyed Quake Wars: Enemy Territory, as well as the original Enemy Territory as they gave the player objectives to achieve as a main goal, with the team deathmatch portion being a background set piece. I think that works really well, and gives plenty of tactical options when trying to juggle things like killing and missioning.

Even simple missions like in Team Fortress 2, such as capturing the point, are an improvement over plain deathmatches as it means there is the opportunity to sneak behind enemy lines, and craftiness is involved. I know there are objectives in CounterStrike, but due to the one life per round mechanic, the game is usually won deathmatch style, which I think is a bit of a shame.

Don’t get me wrong, I am still happy with the classic ‘shoot everything until it doesn’t move, then shoot it again for luck’ approach to shooters, but I think so much more can be done with the genre. Developers just need to take a few more risks to try and come up with something a bit different, but this is much easier said than done.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

The silly season is upon us

Apologies one and all for the slight spot of inactivity here. I will admit that my last blog post does smell a lot like a festering rant but I was rather irritated at the time, as I feel quite strongly about DRM software slowly violating legitimate customers in to tomorrow.

Recently I have been doing a spot of writing for gaming website GhostStorm, which will soon be gearing up for a week of retrospective look backs on some of the greatest game series of all time which will definitely be worth keeping an eye out for.

Of course it is now technically summer in between the various bouts of rain we seem to be getting which generally means the great annual game drought has started before the final quarter release schedule flourishes in time for Christmas. It is a time when many of us go back to the great games of last year, just to relive the greatness that they were and see if the test of time has done well for them. It is also when all the great summer cinema block busters churn out a video game spin off, with the optimistic aim that it won’t stink up a bargain bin in the close future.

The ones that fall in to this category that I find interesting are the ones that try and expand on movie franchises, rather than trying to jam a square shaped piece of film in to a giraffe shaped gaming hole. Some film scripts are clearly not suitable to be adapted to games, and so when the direct film to game projects appear, they often have random shoot outs around parts of the movie that you remember to be very calm bits of dialogue.

One example is the beginning of the Quantum of Solace game which starts at the rather dramatic ending of Casino Royale. Bond is standing over the villain looking quite smug and victorious in the film, but of course this does not transfer well to the game. Instead this moment of victory is replaced with a shoot out around the manner grounds which doesn’t really make sense. In the film, the bad guy had no reason to suspect that he would get attacked, so why is there a battalion of well armed body guards pouring out of every single hole in the wall at a luxury summer manor?

I think the best approach for a film tie in was taken with the Playstation 2 hit, Everything or Nothing, another Bond game but this time it was not based around any movie at all. There were no tight restraints on the story line which tied the player to certain locations or actions, and the likeable cast, music and atmosphere were readily available to be shaped in to whatever masterpiece the game developer wanted. It worked because it developed from a good idea, rather than attempting to copy what worked in a cinema.

It needs to be established to publishers that to make great games from movies, they need to add something more to the back story rather than just trying to replay the movie through a mix of shooting galleries. Unfortunately, movie tie ins are always guaranteed to get a few sales regardless of the quality just because the franchise name is slapped across the box. There are still a lot of people out there, like parents treating their children to games that go along the train of thought that the movie was good, so the game must be surely.

There is also the case that many game developers are probably given movie tie in games as bread and butter work when they are not working on more original titles. The deadlines for these projects will be stricter as they really need to be released at the same time as the movie. For this reason corners might get cut, content not finished 100% and a general hash up of a game is released.

There are also factors like not knowing what to do with a franchise when you get one. The Hannah Montana game for example would probably have worked much better as a karaoke style game similar to Lips, rather than the abortion of a platformer it turned out as.

Maybe one day we will see a surge in quality when film tie ins start getting it right, but in the mean time we just need to accept that the current formula does not work very well. Sure there might be a few laughs to be had in a few of the games that pass as playable, but nothing that can really rank along side the gaming monsters of Call of Duty, Gears of War and Zelda.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Castrating copy protection, again

I have now come to the definitive conclusion that copy protection is not designed by people who plays games, but instead by people who simply do not fit in to social circles because they drown new born puppies in raw sewage.

The case that has finally threw me completely over the edge was an experience that my girlfriend’s dad has just had. He is a fan of EA and Maxis’ game Spore and so has bought the full game, Creepy and Cute parts pack and the latest expansion, Galactic Adventures. He has given them money to enjoy the game as and when he pleases, completing the widely accepted concept of trading money for goods and services.

Unfortunately a hard drive on his machine half melted in between gaming sessions, but luckily it had nothing critical or more importantly Spore related on there. It of course came as a very odd surprise that the Galactic Adventures expansion stopped working after he had removed the faulty device. Being particularly computer savvy, he checked every possible solution and decided he was stumped until he tried putting the duff hard drive back in. Miraculously the game worked again, and all he needs to do to keep it functioning is to keep a broken device hooked up to his machine, taking up valuable space and power. Alternatively, he could just download a crack carefree and be done with the hassle.

The problem was that because he altered the hardware on his machine, Spore decided it was trying to be played on another computer, and so rather rationally decided to swallow its brain and never work again. Of course this won’t happen to most people because not many computers are designed to be modular, with the idea in mind to upgrade and replace hardware every so often. Oh wait…

Limited installs have been used as copy protection in a few instances now and are never popular. It really doesn’t help that the software can not tell the difference between a new computer and a modified one. They do clearly work as an effective means of digital rights management however, and the fact that Spore became the most pirated game in the history of everything is purely coincidence.

The sad truth is that piracy can never actually be beaten, as there are always people willing to dedicate themselves to cracking the toughest codes. It is now becoming a war of principles more than anything as games companies need to be shown that legitimate customers will not be pushed around. Why should paying customers have to jump through ever more ridiculous hoops that the pirates can simply work around?

Such hardware scanning digital rights management software will only really stops people sharing individual copies of the game rather than fighting the mass distributors on the internet that seems to be turning in to the 21st century Wild West.

I am in no way condoning piracy here, but I am condemning the anti-piracy measures which cause more problems to paying customers than to the bandwidth bandits. Piracy is harming the game industry, but turning on the consumers surely hurts it even more. Games like Sins of a Solar Empire, which carried no protection on it at all certainly did not make headlines for being mass pirated.

At this stage, finding a viable solution to stop software piracy is about as easy as teaching a snail construction and carpentry skills, and so we all just need to learn to live with it for now.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Playing online: a right or a privilege?

Most of us now take for granted that games we buy will have an online feature letting us connect to the wonderful internet and hear the screams of ten year olds beating each other to death with pixels. It almost seems to be a pre-requisite these days, and with online cooperative modes now seeming to be the flavour of the year, whether you want to compete or work alongside other people, we are all being targeted to make the leap to playing online.

Being a PC gamer longer than anything else, the concept is not entirely new to me. I remember waiting until off peak hours so the 56k connection would not cost so much as I played Counterstrike 1.5 over the World Opponent Network (WON). This was pre-broadband popularisation and pre-Steam.

When broadband and Steam were at my finger tips though, there was so much fun to be had. With no monetary restrictions on gaming time, and a still developing but relatively good online gaming service, I was set, and the rest, as old people say, is history. Roll on seven years and here we are, with popular games such as Team Fortress 2, Left 4 Dead and Counterstrike: Source all free to play (once bought of course) over Steam, and many more games using similar systems, I find myself asking one question. Why should Xbox 360 owners have to pay for such services?

It just puzzles me how Xbox Live Gold is so popular considering that players have to pay for something that all other systems can do for free. If everyone on earth was me, there would be riots about such a thing, Xbox effigies would be burned and cars tipped over. In fact, it really is a good thing that there is just one of me.

I can see an attraction to Xbox Live itself, with persistent stat tracking, achievements, friends lists, a reputation system and gamerscores, which help to show what some people value most in life. In fact, as far as I can tell, it offers a very similar service to Steam. I’m not saying that the system isn’t good, I’m just not entirely sure why it should be paid for. At the end of the day, it is the only service around on the 360 that lets you play online, and so there is no alternative but to pay it for the privilege. In fact, I might try and bring a new saying in to use; “Life’s not fair, just look at Xbox Live”.

The service, as you may or mayn’t, be aware costs £10 for three months or about £35 for a year, which is a saving of about £5 if you do buy it annually. Maybe the price is not that unreasonable, considering what you get, but £35 is enough for a new game, and Steam is free. I suppose it is just the principle that irks at me the most.

At the end of the day though, are most of us happy to pay that amount just because we have to, or is the difference in quality so noticeable that £35 a year is justified? Maybe it is just the way companies run. Valve has a history of amazing bargains, with offers such as the Orange Box that offered Team Fortress 2, Portal and the three games from the Halflife 2 saga for £25. So Steam being free comes as no surprise, where as Microsoft has more than enough critics that would insist they are money grabbing, but unfortunately that battle has tainted numbers due to the ever long fan boy console war.

For £35 a year, you could argue that you are increasing the replay value of every online enabled game you play by at least 50%, which isn’t bad really. Will this trend catch on though? Have us PS3, Wii and PC gamers been spoiled for too long? I certainly hope not, and such a move could drive a limit on the number of consoles people own. I can’t imagine many multi system owners would be happy to subscribe for online play on four different machines.

This post can also be found on GhostStorm.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Enemies that aren't fun to fight

Do you ever sit there being painfully inconvenienced by a heat wave, trying to find a little bit of relief in an ice cold drink, only to discover that a wasp has decided to give swimming a go in the bottom half of your coke? It gets very frustrating. A similar equivalent to this in the gaming world is when you are knee deep in a euphoric massacre of enemies that you enjoy lopping in half, right up until you reach the half way point in the adventure and get confronted with an enemy that is as much fun to fight as a trip to the dentist with Hitler.

A lot of games have the tendency of throwing a brand new enemy at you, perhaps when you get to another region or point in the story, but they are not always that fun to fight. They are usually quite difficult to reflect the expected ramp up in difficulty, but in doing this, they occasionally impact on the point of a computer game, and abruptly decide that beyond this point, combat will be a struggle, not fun.

There are a few games like this that have really struck the wrong chord on a personal level and have caused me to memorise many a level as ‘that bastard hard one that made me break my lamp.’

In Resident Evil 5 for example, all was going swimmingly. Random villager after random villager was falling to my feet, and even though it sometimes did get a bit claustrophobic, it was still a fun experience to fight them. Then came the Ndipaya tribe. The politically correct bunch of African zombies complete with war paint, masks and spear chuckery all designed to make your day worse.

As a rule, I appreciate that zombies are supposed to be relatively stubborn when it comes to dying, but these guys took bullet after sodomising bullet and it seemed to have very little detrimental effect. Even when they fell down, allowing you to do the merciful thing and stamp on their head, they would jump right back up again like every actor in a kung fu movie would, somehow springing off of their back instantly. It just felt like hard work trying to cut them all down. Like scrubbing a wall that never gets clean, it was difficult to see my efforts make a dent in their relentless attacks. After the first one or two encounters, needless to say, I was frustrated that there would probably be more.

It is not that I do not appreciate a more challenging enemy, I just feel there should be more to it than just needing to pump them full of more bullets/arrows/hammers. Challenges should come from things like taking on the Scarab Tanks in Halo. They are huge, towering enemies that need to be boarded and killed from the inside out. They introduce a variation to gameplay that made the monolithic slog a more unique experience than just covering up the regular bad guys with more armour.

A similar problem happens halfway through Crysis when the aliens arrive. Sneaking around and taking out Korean bases as a one man army was fantastic fun, but then the aliens arrive and ruin it all. You were no longer the most unstoppable force on the island and the majority of your suit functions (the most defining features of the game) are utterly useless when fighting them. Being able to kill a man by throwing a chicken at him with great force is fun, but doing such a thing to the super flying alien is off the cards. They were just fast flying targets that needed to soak up a lot of bullets before they died. Hardly an innovative way to end the game with a challenge like that.

Finally I will give a quick mention to The Flood in Halo, as they are quite frankly irritating. There is nothing fun in fighting them, and they seem to go on forever without easing up. Battling parasites is generally not considered a fun activity, and this bunch are no exception. Their sole tactic is to rush at the player until there is nothing left to rush at, which might seem surprising at first, but it gets tedious shortly after. If I could choose to nuke any enemy from orbit, put the remains the box and nuke it again, it’d be those guys.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

The impracticalities of the gory weapon

Ultra violence is one of those pleasures in life that we can sadistically enjoy when it is in a movie, or being pumped out of a gaming machine, rather than through real life experiences. After viscously chainsawing through my tenth Locust infantryman of the day in Gears of War 2, a thought suddenly struck my mind at how such a chainsaw oriented thing probably wouldn’t be implemented into a military regime.

Okay, it would be the most horrific experience imaginable in mid battle to saw someone in half from their shoulder, with blood spurting out everywhere, as you stand triumphantly over a twitching meat fountain. Also, I am not too familiar with the Geneva Convention, but mounting chainsaw bayonets for such acts of inefficient horror (not exactly a quick or subtle kill), might not be the act of a peacekeeping force.

The Lancer in Gears of War 2, if you weren’t already aware has such a thing mounted on its underside, ready to chew through obstacles, crates and anything squishy enough to erupt like a claret volcano. It is also one of the most fun weapons that I have ever come across in a game, and often encourages those wielding it to brave the flying hot lead for the opportunity to rip limbs off in an act of suicidal lunacy.

Such a weapon that encourages the user to break away from their cover for a start is not the best of all ideas. Neither is a close quarter combat tool that actually requires revving up, the best idea in a spur of the moment situation that such ‘in your face’ encounters are. Also, half of the hand to hand combat situations arise, I imagine, in an attempt to be at least a tiny bit subtle. The roar of a chainsaw and the grotesque splatter marks it will leave behind might get you noticed a tiny bit.

Of course the main thing to consider when thinking of it practically, is that chainsaws are actually designed to be useful tools for men (or women, maybe) to cut trees down with. If you start using such things for the unintended use of making bad things go away forever, just think how long it will be before you need to start picking the bits out. The chain would jam far too easily, and so instead of being an intimidating giant, wielding a device of doom and horror, you will in fact just be a 100% screwed dim wit with a stopped, dripping paperweight of doom and horror.

I can imagine that frozen marzipan would be implemented before chainsaws in any modern military power. It would definitely be easier to conceal.

Of course, as much as an accurate military simulation that Gears of War 2 is, I am very sure that the developers were not necessarily thinking about how such a thing would work in the real world. Guns in games aren’t meant to work in the real world, and that is probably what makes them more fun to use than the ones that are modelled on actual firearms.

If we were constrained by realism, then we wouldn’t have been given so many gaming gems over the years, such as the Land Shark Gun, BFG 9000 and bottomless pockets to carry six of each, plus ten first aid kits. Let’s just hope that innovative weaponry keeps turning up in virtual worlds, rather than the now overused MP5s, M4A1s and AK47s.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Metal Gear: Real Life?

Okay, I’m not necessary talking about giant, bi-pedal nuclear robots that spell our doom (but…) but rather the way that soldiers are trained using VR missions. For those who do not know, in the Metal Gear Solid series, some soldiers are trained through virtual reality missions, basically, war as a video game.

The British Army has started an interesting project on their army jobs website titled, 'Start Thinking Soldier'. It is basically a flash game designed to test your common sense and decision making skills to give you an indication of whether or not you are cut out for army life.

The two levels so far test things such as how you would proceed in investigating a potential bomb factory (my choice of an air strike was not received well), memorising instructions, how to deal with a suspicious vehicle and more, everyday military tasks.

I doubt that it is intended as a serious training tool, but it is bound to rope in some arm chair army men who will play the game, get 95% of it right, and decide that they are the real Solid Snake. It is put together quite well, with the 'gamey' bits spliced in nicely with footage of military personel.

Thinking morally for a second, is it right to sell army life as a videogame? The fact that this is on the army jobs website for a start is an indication that this is to help people decide if they are army material or not. Where's the bit that tells you to get off your comfy computer chair and run three miles, do 50 press ups and throw up on your hands before doing it again?

Games and war are starting to get a tiny bit closer than just Call of Duty these days. The US army has started using modified XBOX 360 controllers to control some of their unmanned drones. This could have been done for the convenience of not having to design their own universal controller, or maybe Microsoft offered them a good deal. Maybe even the drone control training software is run on a 360? It does make sense to have something as familiar as a game controller to help today's generation of soldier in the field, but does it also sell war as a game itself? It isn't quite that extreme, but it is a push in that direction.

Some war games are now starting to strive for ultra realism and military precision. Just look at Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising, where you don't have a health bar, but instead can bleed to death from a wound that most other games would shrug off, as long as you duck behind cover, and only leave when your vision isn't grey or blurry.

I think that games or virtual simulations could possibly be of use to the military in some aspects, such as tactical descision training, like mortar placement (also asked of you in Start Thinking Soldier). I just think that it might be a bit of a dodgy line to tread if you intergrate it too far.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Nintendo at E3, too little too late?

With the LA convention centre now being 97% less sweaty than it has been for the previous three days, it is a clear indication that the brand new, old E3 that gaming was treated to this year has come to an end. It was definitely a show that walked up to its 2008 sibling and showed it how things were done, and why gaming is good.

I think everyone will also agree that Nintendo put up a good fight, completely stamping on what it did in last years show (although the bar was set very low). Was it enough to completely redeem them though? To be completely honest, I am not entirely sure that it was.

For many people, their biggest proper announcement would have been Super Mario Galaxy 2, the fat plumber’s return to space and gravity confusion. Whilst it looked every bit as good as the first game, that is also where I see it falling at the first hurdle. Apart from the presence of Yoshi in the trailers, I can not actually see anything that is noticeably different in this outing.

Okay, there might be a few extra environments and maybe the odd ability, but at the end of the day, it strikes me as being very similar to putting a hat on. Yes, it has added something, but at the end of the day, it is still a hat. There looks to be no changes to the gameplay that can define this as a different game. It looks a bit too samey for my liking, and shows that the series is not progressing, but bloating instead.

I also feel that the Wii’s major ace in the hole is now being threatened in a very serious way, now that the other major gaming platforms are introducing motion control technology. It was a great innovation from Nintendo in 2006, but now the competition has caught up and possibly even beaten Nintendo at its own game.

The 360’s Project Natal motion sensing camera, and the PS3’s motion capturing wands seem to do the job a lot better than the Wiimote ever did. Project Natal allows game control with your full body, a bit like a super Eye Toy, where as Sony’s Wiimote wannabes offer the true 1:1 movement ratio that we all hoped the Wii would utilise upon its launch. Maybe the Wii Motion Plus will help give Nintendo the boost it needs, but at the moment, it looks to be in danger of losing at its own game.

So what advantage does the Wii have over the other consoles as far as the core gamer is concerned? Motion controls are out of the picture now, so the Wii must rely on its other tricks, such as low cost (including the built in wifi that the 360 lacks) and potential library. Mario and Zelda are both very strong licenses, guaranteed to shift units, but you have to be careful not to play around with your key fan base too much.

A glint on the horizon, for me anyway, is the promise of a new Wii exclusive Zelda game that is in the works. So far, the one clue we have is a single picture, showing a matured link with no sword and a Zora. It is futile to try and figure out anything about the game at this early stage, but Miyamoto (creator of Mario and Zelda) tells us that it will be something a bit different to before. As much as I like change in games, I hope that it will still cling on to bits of the formula that have made the series so successful.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Battling bosses

Bosses in games tend to be the big, burly characters that like to hang back and have the arrogance to think that they can take you out in a one on one fight in a deserted room, away from the main conflict.

It is very surprising to think that given your ability to slaughter hundreds of un-named soldiers, and then this boss’ equally powerful boss friends, that he would think that he would actually pose that much of a threat. Surely it would make more sense for him to wait around a corner and smack you around the back of the head with a plank of wood, before feeding your unconscious self in to a wood chipper. That’s how I would take care of Mario anyway.

Some boss characters however do play it very cool, and do make me very thankful that they have secured an arena to fight them in, purely because it is so fun to do so. Let’s face it, boss battles tend to be the very memorable set pieces from gaming. Whether it is fighting bipedal nuclear robots underground or throwing spiny dinosaurs into conveniently place bombs, they linger in your mind like nicotine on a curtain.

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask may not necessarily have been quite as good as Ocarina of Time, but the boss fight in the second dungeon is the most memorable thing about it for me. The ‘Masked Mechanical Monster’, Goht, or an evil robot bull to you and me is the guardian to the second temple in the game. What’s more is that he starts off set in ice that you very helpfully thaw him from. In payment he decides to set off on a violent rampage around the circular arena.

Now the fun bit, you get to turn in to a Goron (huggable rock monster), curl up into a ball and roll around after him, trying to shunt his hind legs off. This was such good fun as it was a real refreshing change from *shoot arrow in weak spot, approach and slash* that most of the game’s larger enemies need to have done to them be taken down. Also, the rolling mechanic was fun to play with as well, and this was the perfect place to use it as an offensive capability, where you can reach F Zero like speeds.

Another boss that springs to mind is more of a general type of boss than the actual character itself as it does rely on a game mechanic more than anything else. The Scarab tanks from Halo are great fun to take down as generally you are required to buckle its legs allowing you to board it and take it down from the inside. This is really good fun, especially if you are still on board trying to take it down when it has recovered and is going back to murderising your fellow man.

This idea of mounting big things and travelling to their weak points was fully opened up in Shadow of the Colossus, a game which I sadly never played. The aim of the game here was to take down the 16 giant Colossi, massive hulking beasts that very often you would need to climb upon as they moved and slowly inch your way towards their weak areas whilst holding on for dear life, battling their every movement.

Such boss fights are great fun as it is not a case of shooting back at the big guy shooting you, but getting close enough, utilising cover, running and climbing abilities. The reward seems a lot better as well when crumpled at your feet is not a person two foot taller than you, but something that would have made king kong cower in fear, and wish that he was still in his mother monkey’s womb.

The final boss I will vaguely mention is encountered many times throughout a play session and can be a really bother during the zombie apocalypse. The Tank from Left 4 Dead is a real pain, especially on expert mode where the damn thing refuses to die. The best way to take one down is to set it on fire and then run, but this is not always a practical solution.

His main weapon seems to be the panic he can spread amongst a group, charging at each member individually, effectively splitting them up for the smaller hordes to deal with. That, and his massive tree like fists, that doctors recommend you keep away from your eyes and children.

There are many great bosses out there, but I seem to think these days they are getting a tiny bit thinly spread across games. With all of the Modern Warfare style battlegrounds, and everything striving for ultra realism, suddenly placing a giant man tank with robotic crab claws and rail guns in the mix might be a tiny bit off putting.

Never the less, boss battles can serve as fantastic crescendos and climactic moments, whether it is a tense sniper battle in the jungle with an OAP, or battling a big operatic poo.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

How game music has lost its charm

Once upon a time, games were generally recognisable at a distance from their charming 8-bit bleeping and the simple chirps making relatively complex melodies with very few resources to work with. A bit like what would happen if Bear Grylls was a composer.

Nowadays however, games are getting harder to tell apart from movies or day trips to Afghanistan and I feel like this is taking away some of the charm. Of course, you would expect that with near life like pictures and physics, near life like noises and music would not be far behind. Metal Gear Solid 4 would not be the same if you had a monotone grind for every pixel that you snuck forward, or if Gears of War’s mighty roaring chainsaw bayonet screams were replaced with a high pitched tickle.

Even though this is the case though, the simplicity of music in games from yesteryear has definitely etched itself as the standard gaming noise. For example, play a sound of Mario jumping in Super Mario Galaxy, and apart from his optimistic yell from exerting effort, there is just the dull thud of his feet impacting. Compare this with a game like Super Mario Bros 3, and each jump has a delightfully high pitched “whooooom” noise to it which makes it instantly recognisable as a jump from a game, as opposed to a scramble of feet from something, somewhere.

I am not saying that games should not have the sounds that they do now, nor do I not appreciate being able to hear the altering screams of pain when individual limbs are shot off. It just seems that the games of today have lost their charm a bit.

One of the last games that I can remember that completely charmed the pants off of me with its music was Banjo Kazooie on the Nintendo 64. The opening song was brilliantly done, and whilst not quite as retro as what I am really referring to, the system still had the limitations of not being pitch perfect and cinematic with sound, which seems to be the bench mark today.

I am yet to come across a game that has been released in the last few years that has charmed me in quite the same way. Of course I have not played every game released lately so there could possibly be something, but possibly not very mainstream.

However, whilst not a commercial game, Gang Garrison 2, the 8-bit de-make of Team Fortress 2 comes complete with a sound track to match the blocky un-touch which sounds amazing. Check it out.

The word that has been used more than any other in this post has been ‘charm’ and variations of it. I really do like a lot of game music, but as much as I can commando roll with a plastic gun and enjoy the scores of MGS4, it fails to touch me. It fails to capture my heart and head, and make me think of the cheeping and beeping machines that made gaming what it is today.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

What flavour zombie is that?

Evolution is a fantastic thing that we can see all around us. The people next door, the animals outside and even the abnormal growths on your back side are all based on many years of experience and change. Something a bit more on topic that has seen a huge amount of flux, especially in recent times have been the ever so playful and brain lusting, shuffling masses that are known as zombies.

The big zombie boom in gaming really started with Resident Evil, when infection was spread through zombie bites, generally leading to a slow death and inconvenient revival of your fellow man. They mumbled, lurched and struggled to die properly, often absorbing a lot of your hard to come by ammunition in the process.

Half-life had a similar strain of slow moving zombie, only this time it was brought on by a case of too much alien parasite sucking on your face. Whilst being called zombies, they were not the typical breed who were after your delicious brain matter and exposed flesh, a trend which seems to have continued in to today’s representation of the videogame zombie.

For quite a while, it was only the survival horror series Resident Evil (or Biohazard in Japan) that had a sole focus on dead things being reanimated for sinister purposes. The series spans about 20 games at this time of writing, from the original survival horror titles, to on rail shooters. They have graced everything from all the Playstation consoles, to the Wii, Xbox 360, PC, Gamecube, Nintendo 64, Dreamcast, Sega Saturn, Game Boy Colour, Nintendo DS and even mobile phones.

In recent times however, more and more zombies have been breaking in to other games with many variations that take away from the stereotypical, bumbling, clumsy, dead, flesh lickers that we have all grown to know, love and want dead again.

It was Half-life 2 that first drew my intention to something that often terrifies me in games. The fast zombie. These things, as well as been uncharacteristically nimble, could bound over roof tops, climb up buildings and appear seemingly from no where to instantly create a future dry cleaning bill for your trousers. To top it off, they also seemed to have a similar resistance to bullets that their stumbling brethren have, making them a pain to take down.

Left 4 Dead took an interesting angle on the zombies, and took inspiration from the running, screaming mental variety that 28 Days Later pictured. Instead of being quite immune to gun fire and beatings, they would go down with little effort, but the issues arise when you see a horde of 50 charging at you with murderous intent every 30 seconds.

Whilst Resident Evil’s bullet sponge zombies were fun in their time, the satisfaction of mowing down crowds of things is just too good to revert back to small groups of super zombies. Dead Rising and the recently announced sequel are also good for crowd control fantasies.

With the power of current generation game machines, technology means that zombies can come in packs of 100, as opposed to the smaller groups we were seeing ten years ago.

At the end of the day, carving a path through a crowd of zombies with machine gun, chainsaw or moose head will always be a more satisfying experience than downing one or two with the same amount of effort.

This may take away from the tension of survival horror, but it can also add a lot more frantic moments and excitement.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Games and brains

Well, for the past month I have certainly failed at the ‘regular’ criteria of maintaining a regular blog. Not that I am turning this in to an irregular piece of written mind explosion, but the frequency of my contributions has been abysmal. Hopefully this is about to change.

As I sometimes make all too painfully aware, I am very often the ‘intimate shower friend’ to university deadlines which can get the better of me and cramp my extra writing. The latest project has been the most fun though, as I wrote and designed a games magazine. Not that I can post all the articles I have written here due to university assessment reasons, but I can certainly expand on them.

One such article was about controlling games with electronic impulses that are picked up by sensors on a headset that is placed (funnily enough) upon your head. The particular device looked at is called the Neural Impulse Actuator, but there are others in development. Rather than being a very stylish hat, it allows a lot of common game commands to be executed with a spark from your brain, rather than a button press or jaunty Wii wiggle.

It works by detecting electrical potentials at the forehead which can originate from anywhere, such as your brain or muscles, and then digitising this information to be applied on screen. It is not quite the mind control you may fantasise it might be however.

It is not a case of thinking ‘walk forward’ and then your character doing so, but rather intensely staring at the screen until something happens. It can take somewhere between five and twenty minutes, but eventually the character in the game might inexplicable jut forward. It is then a case of trying to do it again until you can work out what it is that you did to make that happen. Eventually you will find a few of these inputs and you will be well on your way.

This might mean that for the first few minutes of play you may appear to be stumbling around drunk, but I have been assured that within twenty minutes you can learn to have decent control over your actions.

Whilst controlling games solely with the power of your mind is interesting, I think the best idea to come of this will be using something like the Neural Impulse Actuator to complement a game pad or mouse and keyboard. Being able to map ten simple functions to the headset and leave the rest at your finger tips will make games with a lot of different hotkeys, such as flight simulators, a lot easier and intuitive to control.

Instead of having to scroll through a mouse wheel to bring up items and weapons, why not map the item short cut directly to your brain? This would be incredibly useful in a game such as Left 4 Dead, when scrolling to get to a med pack or pain pills can cost you valuable seconds when trying not to be ripped apart and bludgeoned to death with your own leg.

The technology is still quite young and only just reaching the market now, but in the future it could possibly become another widely accepted input device that is expected to be alongside a mouse and keyboard. This definitely sounds like it will offer more to gaming than things such as touch screen technology. Just imagine some of the other things you can do whilst gaming hands free? *Insert smutty joke*

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Inactivity apology and streaming games

If I were to compare my life to a computer game character at this moment in time, it would probably be Sonic. Not that I am fast, agile or a hedgehog, but I seem to be going after a lot of gold rings in a metaphorical sense at present. I could also perhaps compare myself to Max Payne, not that I have a depressing life or kill people, but there is currently a lot on my mind, as I imagine there probably is on his. University work is always fun, but it does seem to eat up blogging time, so I am sorry for my slight inactivity.

Anyway, back on to the meat portion of this entire blog, gaming.

Recently a brand new digital game service has been showcased at the Game Developers Conference which promised to stream games directly to your computer, requiring no download or install.

Streaming video games in theory could revolutionise the games industry in the way that YouTube revolutionised copyright infringing film footage and unfunny home videos that nobody cares about. Of course it could just as easily go the other way and be as useful as a chocolate teapot in a radiator factory situated on the sun.

The first thing that struck me when I browsed to the OnLive website was that my relatively decent computer and broadband had a bit of difficulty streaming the introductory video on the homepage. If it struggled sending this information to the user, how will it cope with sending thousands of games to thousands of people all at once?

The tech demos that have been given so far have all looked quite impressive, but they are not being influenced by the potential other hundreds of thousands of people that might want to stream games when the service goes live this winter.

The games themselves are hosted on the OnLive servers which means that you are sending each game command and click through the vastness of the internet in the hope that it will get to your game at the critical moment you need it to. This seems a little bit far fetched at present, seeing as how a lot of people get lag when playing online, even when the content is all hosted locally.

An advantage to the games being hosted elsewhere does put less demand on the users PCs which should hopefully broaden the audience of many games that would usually require a very high spec machine to play. This could of course, again, go the other way and affect the quality of some games graphically.

I personally remain to be convinced to see if this will work, as it will really need to be something truly special to de-rail the victory train made of gold and unicorns that Valve’s Steam is currently riding.

Replacing locally installed games and forcing everyone online will be a very difficult thing to do, as even now, a lot of people put up a fuss with having to play games like Dawn of War 2 through Steam.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Violent games are taxing

I can understand why things such as alcohol and cigarettes would have extra tax on them. They have proven negative effects on people’s health and pleasantries. I do not necessarily agree with taxes on them 100%, but I do see the arguments behind it.

On the other hand however, I do not see the reasoning behind taxing violent videogames, as was suggested earlier in the week. The genius thought behind this one is that if violent games were a little dearer, those who might be tempted to buy the game, like it too much, and kill their family with a hammer, might be put off.

I know this is a major bit of dead equine floggery, but violent games do not kill people. It’s the few crazies that slip off the edge that carry out unspeakable acts and then when they have no where to go, might blame the games, if the jury doesn’t first.

I do not mean to sound insensitive, but blaming games for society’s ills really is stupid. In a similarly stupid vein, so is suggesting that a high tax will help curb the alleged problem.

The main argument for putting a tax on violent games is that they are turning our sweet innocent youth of society into hoody wearing, knife toting muggers and rapists. So if the games are more expensive they will have less access, helping communities live together in a little more harmony.

Has it struck them that making games cost more could go in the completely wrong direction, and so instead of just thugs, we will have thugs who are more desperate because they spent all their money on games.

Surely the best thing to do is to try and treat games retail a bit more like alcohol sales and enforce a stricter challenge 25 out look to it?

On a slightly different note, Mad World comes out soon and if reviews are anything to go by, it is fun but a little short (around six hours apparently). Is this still regarded as short nowadays? I only ask because to me it seems that this is becoming the average, which is a huge shame.

From the videos I have seen, the game’s protagonist, Jack, has an arm mounted chainsaw that is put to a rather gloriously violent use. I think that that he may have over looked the lucrative aspects of selling such a device to lumber jacks who are always on the move. A retractable chainsaw would make equipment management so much simpler for them.

Friday, 6 March 2009

The RTS is starting to mutate

I have been hopelessly addicted to Dawn of War II for the past two weeks. It has been my safe room away from the hordes of university assignments that seem to be charging at me fists first, attempting to pummel my free time into the ground so far it might strike oil.

DOW2 is a real breath of fresh air in a genre of game that was starting to go stale. The game is a real-time strategy, but it has been gutted of so many elements that we are familiar with, it is amazing that it can still walk. To replace some of the stuff it has lost, various RPG elements have been welded on to the sides to make some kind of hybrid monster that is very pretty.

For a start, the removal of base building means that you are immediately thrown into the fierce melee of battle, using a cover system similar to Company of Heroes’ in the gritty universe of Warhammer 40,000.

In the single player campaign you have four squads to nurse and maintain, and when one dies, the squad commander lies on the floor waiting to be revived, meaning that your units never really die. Immediately this is screaming RPG and that’s even before I mention the new weapons, armour and items that can be looted from missions.

This really is a leap and a bound away from the Command & Conquer style of games that can be argued set a mainstream precedent for the genre of click this, then click that to kill stuff.

Is it a welcome change though? I must admit, I really did like Supreme Commander in the way that I could build my impenetrable fortresses of doom that would make a tortoise so ashamed that it would try and think its way out of existence.

The concept of building the biggest stick to hit the enemy with is now near enough gone, even though you can build units in DOW2 multiplayer, they are too resource intensive to create vast armies.

Personally, I am very happy with the change that DOW2 has brought to the game, but I am unsure if it will become the norm for the genre. It is a fun style to play, but base building and horde management have just been such oversized staples in the genre for so long, that they will be there for a long time.

Just look at Starcraft II for instance. That is sticking to its roots like a house to its foundations caught in a light breeze.

DOW2 revolutionised the series that is for sure, but I am not certain if anybody outside of Relic will try and develop this idea any further. Not for the time being in any case.