Monday, 29 March 2010

Well done - have a cookie

Despite having owned Modern Warfare 2 since the drunken, hazy memory of Christmas, I have only just started dipping my toes into the sludge pit of its delightful online gaming scene. Just up to rank 11, I have been yelled at for being a ‘no0000ob’, been killed by air strikes and have found a new kind of hatred for harrier jets, but there’s one thing this game seems to love rubbing in my face. How totally and completely wicked awesome I am at it.

Especially when starting out, I found it very hard to do anything without some kind of rock guitar anthem accompanying an achievement graphic on screen telling me I’ve killed several people with a gun, jogged around a sufficient distance in game or managed to survive something.

I know the same thing happened in the first Modern Warfare, but it seems the sequel has even more of this ‘pat on the back’ mentality for doing anything. Are gamers really such a precious bunch that they need constant reassurance that they can be good at things? Are Activision trying to train us like dogs, giving us a biscuit when we do good?

Apparently they aren’t doing it very well because you can also be rewarded for clumsiness, such as when you fall off a particularly high building by accident and nearly perish, before getting a reward for being a base jumper (rather than a dopey tit).

Getting achievements is one thing, but making such a dramatic event out of every single one, especially when there are exactly 70 billion (citation needed) of the damn things just seems a bit excessive. Do gamers really need this level of emotional support to keep them engaged? I’ve yet to play a match where I haven’t had a guitar blare at me for doing something which appeared simple, but according to the game required recognition.

If you’re going to include it in a game, at least make these so called achievements actually something that you need to strive to achieve. Running one mile with a perk that lets you run forever is surely just a consequence of playing the game, rather than something that you should be proud of.

Is this all spawning from the whole Gamertag, achievement whoring mentality that the world seems to have adopted? Surely the best way to show someone you are good at a game is to play with them, competitively or co-operatively in a fun gaming session, rather than comparing cold hard statistics to determine who the master is.

Achievements in most games don’t bother me that much really, but the amount of things that Modern Warfare 2 seems to congratulate me for just cheapens the whole experience in my opinion. I don’t feel the need to be given a guitar riff of appreciation every five minutes. It’s starting to do my head in deeper than the underground parking structures in hell.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Autumn for real time strategies

Real time strategy games seem to be entering some kind autumn period where they are shedding all of the leaves that made everyone appreciate them, to become a rather bare bones structure of what they used to be. These new non leafy entities can themselves be very beautiful, but it does make us miss when they were big, bushy and bristling with life.

I suppose this is a rather odd metaphor that may or may not work as well as I think it does, but the point I am trying to make is that RTSs now seem to be moving their focus towards the current trend of streamlining. I don’t know if I like it or not.

Whenever playing real time strategy titles, I used to enjoy more than anything to create a big impenetrable bubble that could repel anything and enclose my soft sensitive bits to build up an army in relative peace. There is nothing more satisfying than watching a mighty force fall apart at your doorstep, before they try scampering away with significantly fewer eyes, limbs and things that they though might have made more of a dent.

In the last year however, three of my favourite RTS titles have decided to do away with turtling and instead put the emphasis more on the minions that were birthed from a base, rather than the imposing doom fortress itself.

Command and Conquer 4, Dawn of War II and Supreme Commander II all went back on the base options in their predecessors and changed the formula. I will accept that Supreme Commander II hasn’t done this too drastically, but I miss my economy breaking as my base slowly grew up into a state of awesome. It meant I could do other things whist everything I had spent a few minutes planning just happened by itself.

Large scale bases are absent from DoW2 and C&C4 however, and I’m not sure how much I like it. A lot of people argue that they are advancing the genre, but I don’t necessarily want it to completely advance in this direction. I’m happy to branch off and test the water a bit perhaps, but I don’t want to stick my head in and drown myself to sleep.

To begin with, I really liked the new direction DoW2 was taking, but with C&C4 following suit, I really hope it doesn’t become too much of a fashion. I’ve never really been one for micromanaging on a small scale. If I were a surgeon, I wouldn’t be using a scalpel, instead opting for something like a sledgehammer and chisel, making big sweeping movements to correct obstacles to a bloody pulp.

I am very fond of my little commando teams getting through defences and causing havoc, but they usually do this before I then steam roll everything with an army bigger than Christopher Biggins’ charisma. The missions I really liked in Red Alert 3 often involved using a smaller scouting party to clear the way before a base arrives that you can setup to finish everything off with.

Having a base to launch various attacks from gives you a myriad of different options, such as land, sea, air, zerg rush, massive tank assault, air raid, bear raid, artillery and just about anything else, the list is endless. In comparison, whereas DoW2 nicely gives us a bit of variety with RPG like war gear drops, it has nowhere near the same level of strategic variety, and very often just means racing squads between cover when jumping the melee troops into a crowd ahead of them.

I feel that RTSs are starting to branch into a completely new genre that is a bit friendlier to a slightly strategy shy audience. Where I have absolutely no problem with trying to simplify things, please don’t continue to drop everything that made it such a staple genre on the PC. I really like DoW2, but that doesn’t mean I want another RTS that does the same things. It was a breath of fresh air, but now I want to go back to having a bajillion units being sprouted from a base packed denser than London traffic after a road accident.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Settling in with Bad Company

Re-creating war in videogames is a bit of a minefield when it comes to the fun to realism factor. In a first person shooter we all expect it to be fast paced, balls nailed to the wall style action that leaves death and destruction on the scale of genocide in its wake.

Of course the reality of war is that two or more opposing sides take pot shots at each other for hours at a time until someone gets the business end of an air strike tearing up their rectum. Such engagements don’t generally make for interesting gameplay material and so a lot of artistic license is used when portraying the horrors and boredom of war.

This leads very nicely to my current flavour of the week, Battlefield Bad Company 2, EA DICE’s latest foray into the world of tanks, guns and explosions, lots of explosions.

Adrenaline pumping, edge of your seat, bowel loosening action seems to be at the top of the agenda, as the feeling of war is really brought alive all around you because everything can be blown to bits at a seconds notice. It’s this arcade sense of war that has been introduced for ages in shooters such as Modern Warfare and Ghost Recon, but with the chaotic situation-o-metre cranked up to 11.

My gentleman bits have been shuffled around so much by all of the random destruction that I have re-entered puberty at least five or six times since March 5. Trees falling down, walls turning to concrete mist and showers of brick and mortar are so commonplace that it often feels like people are actively trying to bring on the apocalypse themselves.

With nowhere being safe to hide it means you actually get a very dynamic battlefield with most camping hotspots being rather blow-up-able. Of course you’ll still get the cheeky scamps lining up on the hills with sniper rifles, but they stick out like sore thumbs at an uninjured hand convention.

DICE has completely nailed the formula here as at no point do you generally feel a sense of downtime in a fight. With the walls around what you are trying to defend exploding, gunshots cracking overhead as all of the near misses ring in your ears and the beautifully crafted sounds of war simmering in the distance, it really feels like you are up the creek without a boat, much less a paddle. It feels brilliant.

It’s a real breath of fresh air from what I feel is starting to become a bit of a stale genre. I love online shooters, but they are all starting to feel quite samey these days. I tend to expect more than just the basic run around and shoot each other in the face style gameplay that has been around for so long. It’s part of the reason why I absolutely hated the BioShock 2 multiplayer. It was really boring and offered nothing new.

The random destruction that Bad Company 2 throws at you really makes for some interesting split second gameplay decisions that I think we need to have more of in online deathmatch arenas. Let’s start abandoning the tried and tested formulas that are now becoming the same peddled bolt-ons for existing games. I want new stuff.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Just blow on it

With the recent cock up of older PS3 units thinking we had a leap year, and Sony’s savoury consumer advice of ‘don’t turn it on for now’, it makes me think back to a simpler time when blowing on things was usually enough to solve the problem.

I’m ashamed to say that I arrived relatively late to the console party, with my lovely Nintendo 64 being the cherry popper that first put a game pad in my hands. I was always a PC player before this as for some reason my parents decided I wasn’t going to have a games console, until one day it happened anyway. But that’s a whole different story filled with tiny violins and tears that is now being sealed in my Pandora’s wall safe.

The absolutely brilliant thing about the N64 was how seemingly easy the thing was to maintain. Today the news is full of red ring of death this, Playstation clock exploding that, and this is just from normal playing conditions. I’m actually afraid to keep my Xbox on for more than two hours at a time in case it does throw a wobbly and abruptly decides to smother itself, demanding a return to the mothership for some CPR.

My N64 was dropped, sprayed with water, tripped over, pulled on to the floor via the controller trip wire effect and it still works today. I don’t know if I am lucky, or if my particular console is protected by voodoo, but I do know that if this treatment was given to the 360 or PS3, it would be a much different story.

This might be as much as anything that the machines are now a lot weightier and therefore have more things in them to break. A fall that the relatively small N64 would have just bounced back from with no interruption might be enough to reduce today’s machines to a small pile of circuitry rubble. More components also means more things that can overheat or cause various other problems.

The biggest technical advantage of the N64 however comes when the games themselves stop working. If you were unlucky enough to encounter a black screen when trying to play a game, just take the cartridge out and blow into the connector slot at the bottom.

It didn’t always work the first time, but after multiple goes, 99 times out of 100 it would play as good as new. I like to think that the blowing technique helped a little in this process, as when blustering like you were a hurricane didn’t work, my mind immediately decided that you had to treat it more sensually, and tickle the protruding piece of circuit board with a light whisper of air. Whatever volume of air was blasted or teased in, it always seemed to work.

Fast forward to now, and somehow I don’t think that blowing on an Xbox would do anything to prevent it red ringing. If anything you’d be blowing the hot air back in and making the problem even worse, making you feel terrible as it would just be something else in your life that you flirted with, only to be treated to a show of no affection and a break from happiness.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

The dying art of the game manual

“If all else fails, read the instructions” – the mantra of a true DIY god. I find that the same line of thought applies to games as well, usually after ten minutes, three finger nails and a couple of accidental suicides when trying to find how to toss a grenade.

I remember the golden age of game manuals, when I was a younger lad being brought home from the shops, eagerly fondling the game box to try and get it open. Of course on the car journey you can barely enjoy the game disc itself beyond the roundness and the smell, so a pre-emptive flick through the instructions was always in order.

The Command & Conquer series has always given me a warming sensation in my eyes when it comes to their game manuals. The way that once the technical stuff, that probably warrants more of a read than I allow is out of the way, each of the game’s structures and units are laid out like an Argos catalogue for my eyes to peruse.

The original had a 3D rendered mock up of what each building and unit would look like if it wasn’t so pixelated by the now dated graphics, with some of the infantry units even having an actor posing for the profile shot. Just flicking through the 15 year old manual now brings up nostalgic treats, and an interesting scandal, where the GDI grenadier and NOD rocket infantryman are actually modelled by the same person. Where do his loyalties lie?

Jumping forward more than a decade and a quick flick through Red Alert 3’s manual shows that there are still unit descriptions there, which is a nice tradition that the series seems to be holding on to. It’s nice when you can see that some effort has gone in to a game manual as it gives you something to read as a game installs, or loads for the first time.

What I can not forgive however is manual like Modern Warfare 2’s, a piece of game literature that has been treated with the same respect as a goldfish’s lavatory burial. It is nine pages long, with four of them being legal-ese, one being the contents page, and the remaining leaves listing controls and menu functions.

Fair enough, it still kind of fills the role of an instructions manual, but it’s about as appealing to read as the obituaries section of your local paper. There was absolutely no attempt to dress it up, flesh it out or make it remotely interesting. It might as well have been scrawled on a paper napkin and tucked inside the game box, at least then it would double up as a hanky.

I realise that this might not be the most pressing issue in the world, but occasionally it is nice to flick through a game manual and learn something new, such as a basic function that you missed out in the tutorial, or where your trusty fictional battle rifle was cobbled together, and the wars in which it changed the outcome.

Can we just please try to avoid game manuals turning in to nothing more than a calculator instruction pamphlet look a like. I wouldn’t go as far as calling it an art (well, actually I did), but at least try and sex it up a bit, even if you just stain the pages with a tea bag to make it reflect the old fashioned setting of a game, or have a corrugated metal border design around the edges to represent the future. A bit of extra padding to the fiction wouldn’t go a miss either.