Monday, 28 November 2011

Four years of Player One Start

Today is a happy day as Player One Start is now four years old. What started as my personal playground of writing fun on the Internet has, well, not really changed. It was never meant to be more than my own space in this mental digital age we live in. But it has persevered and stayed updated whereas so many other blogs have ended up neglected and abandoned in the cyber-cold. That’s something to be happy about.

So what’s happened in four years? Well, the world has been collapsing economically and some unlikeable politicians have been replaced by more unlikeable politicians. But as far as games are concerned there have been some big developments.

There have been some cracking titles released in the last four years, including Grand Theft Auto 4, Metal Gear Solid 4, Portal 2, Red Dead Redemption, Mass Effect 2, Uncharted 2 and Splinter Cell: Conviction (well I liked it). Of course, the worrying trend here is that all of these critical successes are sequels, although in their defence, the original Uncharted, Portal and Mass Effect only just miss this four year window by a few weeks as all were released around this time in 2007.

The point is I’m struggling to think of an original, break through title that has enjoyed the same level of critical acclaim over the life of this blog. The one that springs to mind is Batman: Arkham Asylum, which really took the world of Batman and applied it successfully to a game. At the moment we are in a climate where new ideas are serious risks, especially when you can re-tread old ground with an established IP and find success. It’s a real shame that Bulletstorm didn’t sell well because that was a great game with a new setting and character set. Possibly not the most original idea in the world, but it was still brave enough to try and be different.

Call of Duty has crumbled for me over the life of this blog. I loved Call of Duty 4, a brilliant game with fresh ideas and incredible set pieces. Then came World at War, not quite as good, but it had a flame thrower and Kiefer Sutherland. Modern Warfare 2 had the appeal of a microwave meal being reheated after its initial zap and Black Ops lost me completely. I try not to hold grudges, but a regurgitated Modern Warfare just doesn’t interest me.

But oh well, I’ll stay optimistic for the future. I’m already planning what sequels I’m picking up next year, such as Prototype 2 and Mass Effect 3. Until then I’ll still blog, trying to ask and answer all of the great questions out there, such as “Will Hitman Absolution be good?” “Does Half-life 2 Episode 3 exist?” And “What does the soldier on the cover of Battlefield 3 have in his left pocket that is so hot it has caused him to smoulder?”

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Mass Effect 3 - Too good for multiplayer?

Mass Effect 2 was more addictive than cigarettes and sweets when it first landed in my disc tray. It must have stayed in my console for about two or three weeks straight as I battled to complete it. Most of my free time was eaten up by the captivating campaign. I was even allowing my Xbox to shut down for 15 minutes every two hours, just to ensure it didn’t cook its components and red ring on me.

This leads me to assume that Mass Effect 3’s single player portion will do exactly the same, as it ends Shepard’s tale and hopefully leaves the universe that little bit safer. In an attempt to keep up with the crowed and expand the game’s replayability, Bioware are also adding a multiplayer component for the third game in the series. I can’t help but think how this might interfere with the main game.

Assuring us that the multiplayer isn’t just a bolted on afterthought, Bioware has said that it will contribute towards the single player campaign in some way. A galactic control system records your progress in multiplayer and adds to your galactic war readiness rating in the game’s single player campaign, but apparently you can still achieve the game’s best endings without the multiplayer. That being said, this means the system must be balanced so that overplaying the multiplayer doesn’t just make the single player campaign’s best outcomes easy to attain.

My concern grows out of one of my biggest and possibly worst gaming habits. I like to complete the single player portion before I move onto the multiplayer. To get the most out of Mass Effect 3, it sounds like I’ll have to break this convention.

Unfortunately, if the game is just as compelling as the last two entries in the series, I’m going to find it very hard to break away from the campaign and hit the co-op arena to ensure the galaxy is as ready as it can be for all-out war. My fear is that I’ll get to the tipping point, eager to push the story forward, only for my completion senses to kick me in the brain and force me to play the multiplayer component for hours.

This may turn out to be a very welcome and fun break from the main game, but on the other hand the suspense could just as easily hold me by the balls and slowly squeeze until I can no longer bear the dull ache.

So my chief concern is that Mass Effect 3’s campaign will be so good that the multiplayer component will be pointless, at least on the first play through. Hopefully the multiplayer will be implemented in a way that makes it just as compelling as the main story. One way to do that will be to allow access to the online co-op features through the main game, and not a lifeless menu option. Making it a seamless transaction like that will help blend the two modes together and really make it something special.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Gaming when you're not gaming

I generally disapprove of Facebook games. They look too cutesy, encourage you to spam your friends with virtual crap and usually want you to exchange real money for virtual funds that give you a significant edge over non-paying players. However, I do have one guilty Facebook secret that has had me hooked on a daily basis for two years.

MouseHunt does fall prey to being slightly cutesy, but it has its own unique, hand-drawn art style that immediately separates it from the plastic looking, copy-and-paste-a-like anime visuals that companies like Zynga seem to be pumping out. What initially drew me to MouseHunt was that it looked different from everything else I’d seen on the out of control social network monstrosity. It didn’t look like a dress-up doll simulator, or one of the millions of Flash games I’ve played over the years. But visual individuality does not make a game good. It was the gameplay that really intrigued me.

As the name suggests, you hunt for mice in MouseHunt. You set a trap, arm it with cheese and then wait for a mouse to come along. The mice have a degree of obsessive compulsive disorder and will check out your trap every hour. Sometimes you will catch the mouse and sometimes you won’t. Mice caught give gold and points which are used to buy new equipment and level up.

The concept is really simple and may sound quite boring. The maximum interaction you can exert is commencing a manual hunt for mice every 15 minutes, and this is just a single mouse click. As such, the game cannot eat up hours of your time in big chunks. The true genius behind the game is that it lets you play it completely passively.

I think passive gaming is a brilliant concept as it allows you to enjoy reward based gameplay without actually playing. Sure, you’ll make progress quicker by keeping a very close eye on it, but you don’t have to be super active to get far.

The only other example of passive gaming I can think of is the brilliant skill system in MMO Eve Online. You don’t earn new abilities by blowing up spaceships for hours on end, but instead you simply wait for a skill to finish. If a particular ability takes one hour to learn, you can tell your character to start learning it, and then leave the game for an hour. Your character will have learned the skill upon your return.

Passive gaming is an excellent way to keep up a gaming addiction without actually having to play a game. It might sound like the gaming equivalent of taking methadone to tackle a moreish heroin habit, but it works really well. Making progress in a game without actually playing still gives you the rewarding buzz of knowing that the next level or new piece of gear is just around the corner.

Or maybe I’m just a bit mental and enjoy hunting pretend mice over Facebook a little too much.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

The Battlefield 3 campaign train

The thing I like about rail journeys is that they usually get me where I need to go with the least amount of hassle and effort on my part. You just get to sit back and enjoy the ride until you eventually get off and then continue with life. On-rail shoot ‘em ups are typically like train journeys designed to entertain. You wave a plastic gun at pixels on the screen and have a great time pretending you’re John McClane or Rambo.

Time Crisis arcade cabinets and home console editions are classic examples of this done right. They walk the player through an action intensive environment and ask you to shoot the pop-up gallery style villains using a fun peripheral. Unfortunately, not all on-rail shooters can capture the feeling adequately, especially when they don’t intend to be on-rail shooters.

I don’t understand why Battlefield 3’s campaign got as much praise as it did. Don’t get me wrong, I love the multiplayer and have managed to play a little bit every night since its launch weekend. It’s just the campaign seems so funnelled and guided. You might as well be following a track through each linear mission. Battlefield 3’s campaign mode is a dull corridor shooter.

Okay, the corridors are riddled with some of the best graphics seen in games and are mostly disguised as wide-open areas, but there is only one route through each mission which will periodically throw bad guys at you in all the obvious places. I was not pleasantly surprised once going through the campaign and found it very disappointing.

Modern Warfare 2 is guilty of exactly the same thing, but I had already dismissed that in my head. I had the hope that DICE was going to try something different in Battlefield 3, which since its announcement has been widely hyped as the Call of Duty killer. However, the campaign had gone down the exact same route as the Modern Warfare series, only keeping everything that bit more dull, clich├ęd and realistic.

You might as well be pushed around the levels in Battlefield 3 as there is only one way to go at any opportunity. The only level that offered any freedom was ‘Rock and a Hard Place’, and even straying too far from the determined path in this area would most likely get you killed. I don’t understand how early reviews of Battlefield 3, which were mainly based on the game’s campaign, scored so highly. The campaign is boring, short-lived and unimaginative.

Like a train journey, it just felt like you got on, travelled through several areas and finally disembarked at the other side. It had no excitement, no element of exploration and felt quite clinical in its execution. You didn’t even get a plastic gun to wave at the screen.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Guerrilla Gaming

We all find ourselves moving about more than we’d like at times. Visiting loved ones can really eat into your ‘free’ hours. Perhaps rotating shifts at work are messing with your natural man-clock and preferred hours of gaming. Or maybe there is housework to do after your neglect of the hoover has resulted in dusty smog clouds being jettisoned from your carpet with every footstep. Whatever the reason, sometimes it just isn’t practical to sit down and play Uncharted for five hours or commence a genocidal frenzy in Call of Duty.

Fortunately, the rise of indie games has finally given us an amazing selection of bite-size titles that can provide five or ten minutes of entertainment when only a small window of play time presents itself. A few years ago I might have turned to a slightly naff flash game to try and find a quick gaming fix, but now I just need to have a gander at my Steam game’s list and pick one of the many brilliant mini titles on there.

AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! – A Reckless Disregard for Gravity is one of my favourite examples of a quick fix game. For those who have no idea what it is, AaAaaA! (I won’t enter the rest of the ‘A’ characters to prevent eye strain), is a deceptively basic and trippy base jumping game full of obstacles that you need to fly close to in order to score points. Each course can usually be completed in under a minute and it is very replayable when chasing high scores.

It sounds like the kind of thing that might entertain you for 45 minutes in total, yet according to Steam I’ve managed to sink 18 hours into it. I don’t know how many times I’ve booted it up, or the number of machines from which I have played it, but it’s a tiny game (251 MB) you can take with you and play anywhere.

Another effective and enjoyable time sink I have found is Braid, the time manipulating puzzle platform game. It’s not quite as easy to play Braid in small chunks, but it fits the other criteria of guerrilla gaming well. It will run on most semi-modern typewriter grade laptops (that I’ve tried at least) and can keep you enthralled for hours. However, each level segment is quite short, so you won’t lose much progress should you need to pull out mid game.

I was quite sceptical when the slew of indie titles first started to appear, and couldn’t quite comprehend why people would buy them over ‘proper’ games. I think I’ve finally found where they lie in my life and now really applaud the dedicated teams behind some of these gems. Whilst indie titles may face financial, man power and distribution restrictions not encountered by most major publishers, many turn these problems into innovation.

A lot of people say that PC gaming is dying, but I think it is merely changing. One and two man indie development teams are really producing excellent results. It’s almost like a throwback to the Amiga days of garage based game devs, which is definitely a great thing.

If you want to get into the indie gaming scene then there is a lot of choice out there, but I’d particular recommend you keep an eye on the Humble Bundle website, which often offers fantastic collections of indie titles on a pay what you want basis. Some of the money (or all if you want it to) goes to the Child’s Play and Electronic Frontier Foundation charities. Knowing you have helped a charity definitely makes playing the games feel like less of a guilty habit. Everybody wins.