Sunday, 25 July 2010

How important are graphics these days?

Pretty colours, shiny textures and looking good are things that games are always striving to be. New art direction, next generation this and high definition that are all buzz words generally used to describe the next big game coming to shelves and internet listings, but how big a part do these factors play nowadays?

It’s funny to think that once upon a time NES, SNES and N64 graphics kept us in total awe, and that Lara Croft’s second adventure had impressive features such as a moving ponytail. It’s understandable that as technology gets better, our expectations continue to peak and then go beyond. Is this still the case nowadays though?

Personally, it has been a very long while since I was completely blown away by the visuals in a game. Environments, atmosphere and design have made my trousers smile recently yes, but the actual technology that is meant to make things pretty seems to have hit a plateau. Graphics are starting to get so good, that a lot of the realistic games especially, are starting to look the same. I just feel that I haven’t been swept off my feet lately.

Perhaps it is that graphics are improving quite gradually now, and so between games it is hard to notice a difference until you start comparing what we had two years ago with the big releases that are coming out over the next few months. Maybe I’m just not as easy to impress anymore, having grown cynical with age and the below average games that I have had to crush underneath my uniform journalist boots.

I still remember reading reviews with checkboxes giving the game a rating based on its graphics. These days, when I review something with a strict word count, I hardly ever mention the graphics of a game unless it is something interesting. If the game’s visuals are refreshingly different and expertly polished, or to the other extreme, as appealing as a daffodil covered in hot, chunky vomit, then I will spray liberal amounts of happiness or bile at the piece as appropriate.

This is the thing though. With in-game graphics of bigger blockbusters all looking fairly decent these days, is it really justifiable to mention it as a selling point in the review? Good graphics these days just simply don’t differentiate you from the pack enough.

At university I wrote a piece about the future of games for a feature writing assignment. I interviewed the editor of the Game Career Guide, the lead writer of PS3 shooter Haze and a video game design student. I was expecting answers to come back about photo realistic graphics making games as life like as possible. Instead, I had three rather distinct answers about broadening the gaming audience, the price of technology lowering to make it more available to game developers, and improvements to make physics more realistic. As far as I can tell, all of these have been spot on so far.

I suppose casual games are another culprit for graphics not being pushed that hard, as the rather simplistic visuals that these games use are ideal for their target audience. You don’t need the drastic, over the top CGI from a Michael Bay film to try and make wiggling your arse to spin a hula hoop more interesting (then again, the prospect of Optimus Prime doing this intrigues me in mysterious and disturbing ways).

So will graphics make a notable leap forward in the future? I don’t know. Industry folk seem to say that consoles still have room to be pushed further, but then again they wouldn’t exactly turn around and say, “Yes, the Xbox 360 cannot do anything else and this is the best it will ever do.” Of course PCs are always getting more power pumped into them, but trying to take their games to consoles as well as desktop power towers does limit how far they can be pushed. Let’s just see what happens, eh?

Monday, 19 July 2010

Goodnight sweet prince, thanks for the fun

Sad times. That’s all I can really say. It looks like Future Publishing has decided to stop PC Zone after 17 years of being one of the funniest bastions of games journalism around. It gave us so many great writers, such as Jon ‘Log’ Blyth, Steve Hogarty and the ever popular Charlie Brooker to name a few.

PC Gamer regularly does the rounds in this household as it’s the one my dad likes, and I’m definitely not saying that I don’t enjoy flicking through it, but PC Zone just felt better, a bit grittier and definitely funnier. I still remember passing a copy of the magazine around because it had one of the funniest game reviews in it that I have ever read. It was a 150 word or so recap review on Little Britain the Game which only mentioned ways to horrifically mutilate yourself that were preferable to playing it.

I’m yet to have found another magazine that does scathing hatred as well or hilariously, and so PC Zone will be sorely missed. The last issue is number 225 released in September and they are looking for readers to contribute their fondest thoughts and memories. Check the details out here if you want to get involved.

Is this tragedy part of the ongoing line of thought that the print industry is folding? The internet has done many great things for us and simplified a lot, but it has also made a hell of a lot of things harder. The two examples that spring to my mind are photography and writing, as now there are so many people able to showcase both, getting your foot on the career ladder in either of these industries is about as easy as fending off two tigers with a pair of left handed safety scissors.

Personally, I would like to think that printed publications have plenty of life left in them. Taking out a laptop out to read on the train or porcelain throne just doesn’t feel the same as being able to hold a slab of finely bound and printed papers. I like being able to read the words off of the glossy pages, rather than committing my eyes to yet more retinal dehydrating screen time.

Unfortunately though I don’t know how long this position can hold. Circulation figures across all printed publications have been dropping for a while, and no one has been able to crack the riddle of how to make money from content online, apart from through advertisements. I can’t really see it ever happening, as everyone has started offering the content for free on various websites; it requires one hell of an en masse dick move to start charging for it all. Even if that does happen, there will be alternate sources that stay free.

Times have been changing for a fair few years now, but the print industry, as much as it pains me to say it, does seem to be a wounded survivor limping through a desert made from broken glass and crushed hope. I find it hard to imagine a completely digital media, but magazines are going to need to try evolving if they want to keep up. Maybe dropping the useless cover disc that I can’t see many people using these days is the way to go. It’ll drop production costs slightly, perhaps making the cover price a bit more attractive. I can’t see it being enough though. Let’s just see what tomorrow brings.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Good ideas that turn sour

I love it when a good idea remains good all the way through production until it ends up on the shelves, remaining the brilliant brain fart that spawned its creation months or even years prior. Half-life, The Legend of Zelda and chainsaw bayonets are all fantastic concepts that made the transition to virtual reality perfectly.

Unfortunately this train of thought, like many others, does have a polar opposite effect that can make me more hateful than a bag full of convicted murderers given time in prison to plot their revenge. When a really good idea goes into the machine beautiful at one end, but comes out the other horrifically warped and covered in hair from multiple donors, it makes me want to scream in anguish.

The latest game I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing was Artificial Mind and Movement’s demented hack and slasher Naughty Bear. I really wanted to like it, but the repetitive gameplay and complete lack of variety made it about as fun as eating a Jammy Dodger that has been trodden into the carpet.

I wrote a very similar blog back in 2008, explaining my dismay at another game that had displayed brilliance in the concept but had an appeal very similar to wrapping a wet towel around your face to see how well you could cope at drowning. Ninjabread Man for the Wii had a great, original idea about a deadly biscuit trained in the ancient art of fighting evil. Why did it have to fail?

Both of these games were ones that I really wanted to love, where I forced myself to play on in an almost sadistic manner, just to see if they could possibly redeem themselves. To give Naughty Bear credit, I did find it genuinely funny, and it kept the smile on my face for a little while, but this just added to the insult that it was a complete flop to play.

I suppose there are many reasons why a game might end up being bad, whether it is time restraints, budget cuts, staff reductions, or perhaps the project simply runs out of spark. I just find it a real shame that such things happen. You can understand if a movie game tie-in seems rushed and half arsed, as it will be able to shift units by the basket load due to the license it’s riding on. These titles which seem completely off the wall and original however stand very little chance of seeing a second attempt if the first one sold as well as belly button fluff chutney.

I can accept that bad games happen, but the last couple of years have felt so sequel heavy within the seasonal blockbusters, possibly due to the safety net of them being ideas that people already know and love. I’m not saying that there haven’t been any truly imaginative gems released either, it just seems that there have been a lot of numbers and new subtitles adorning some very familiar game franchises, and not necessarily completely new casts to fall in love with.

It is simply a statistical fact that not all ideas will take off and be great, but both Ninjabread Man and Naughty Bear were enough to grab my attention with a single sentence description. They were mountains of imagination that turned out to be ice cream cones of sadness. I really hope that the next title to grab me by the gentleman handle with a single line will turn out to be the belter that breaks the trend.