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.