Sunday, May 18, 2008

On Game Informer's insufferable tone and Activision's spiteful behavior

The latest game Informer explains that Guitar Hero 4 will change music games forever, but the whole article seems to be how it's copying Rock Band. Can someone help me with this? I'll give the highlights for those of you who can't be bothered to skim a copy:

On GH4 having drums, bass, vocals, and guitar: [I]"The natural evolution of the game is to add more instruments," observes Neversoft co-founder Joel Jewitt. "It's not like [Harmonix] even invented that. That's been out there for years in the arcades."[/I]
Can someone please link to such a game, where a song is played simultaneously on two different instruments? I've been to arcades from Las Vegas to Kyoto, and never seen such a game.

Then the article goes on to talk about a "Create-a-Rocker" mode like it's going to change the industry forever. Themes like goth and glam? Check. Facial paint/tattoos? Check. Custom designs using the exact same system as Rock Band? Check.

[I]Perhaps sensing that it's folly to fix something that isn't broken, the onscreen HUD for multiplayer is essentially identical to that of Rock Band.[/I] Does this sound like it [I]might be the next great step forward in the genre[/I]?

OK, the addition of Jam Over mode - each fret being tied to a certain note, and the notes following the chord progression, allowing improvisation - sounds pretty cool. But the tone of the article, lavishing praises of talent and originality, on what in the content of the article looks like a big "ME TOO" sticker, just plain pisses me off.

What pisses me off even more is that Activision continues to be obstructive by making sure that RB and GH controllers are mutually exclusive in compatibility. There's barely room in a home for one band set, and now they expect us to get another drum set? Even with cost out of the picture the logistics are daunting.

Not only do I ahve no interest, but for their obstructivism I honestly hope Activision is shooting itself in the foot. Unless they pull a miracle out of their ass (say, a dozen Led Zeppelin songs), I don't see myself caring about GH4 at all.


Friday, April 25, 2008

On Stardock, EA, and Vegas 2

Imagine if heroes were an even bigger part of WarCraft 3.
this article has a brief on Demigod as well as Stardock in general.

I have had a huge appreciation for Stardock since they avoid bullcrap DRM and provide a good digital distribution platform. The recent success of Sins of a Solar Empire commercially gives me some hope that the market in general shares a lot of my own personal sentiments on how and what we enjoy.

I never understood the "pc gaming is dead" thing since a solid 80% of my game purchases have always been for the PC, but I agree with what they say about the industry being fundamentally broken. Like the bureaucracy civic of Civilization 4, the games industry in general but especially PC gaming has grown into an unwieldy beast of corruption and waste. Sadly, there's no one small group to which all the blame can be delivered; fortunately, it seems that the industry is fed up with having gamers migrate to the 360 and is actually starting to do something about it.

In other news, I maintained some small piece of respect for EA, understanding that most of the hatred is just because they're large, and because of the inherent problems with largeness. This has been more or less shattered by the decision to release the creature creator for $10 (or a limited "free" demo thereof). This is detestable.

I've read some commentary and the discussion always migrates to microtransactions, but listen: it's not a microtransaction if you don't get anything. This tool is useless without the full game and it comes bundled with the full game. EA is offering to give you some of the game a few months earlier if you're willing to pay more for the total game. This is a critical distinction from actually getting something new or unique or otherwise different from the standard box. Shame on EA, and shame on any rubes that end up actually supporting it.

What's worse, they want us to use it. They need content generated by a large and diverse team to pack with the game when it ships, to properly populate the galaxy at launch. They're leveraging the internet, using us to help make their game better. And they expect us to pay money to do so.

Screw you EA. For the first time since 3DO went defunct, I'm going to start caring who made the game on those should-I-or-shouldn't-I purchases. Ironically, or perhaps predictably, they were founded by the same person, Trip Hawkins, who last I heard is now making mobile games. But I digress, so let's move onto other matters...

Rainbow Six Vegas 2 for the PC is pretty abominable. For the love of all gamers everywhere, please, people, when you make a port from a console to a PC, don't just remap the controls onto a keyboard. IT DOESN'T WORK. Things that are intuitive on a console controller aren't on a mouse and keyboard and vice versa. Please stop.

Also absurd is the inability to change guns while reloading. If someone is shooting me in the face, I don't give two PSOne memory cards about putting in a new magazine and chambering a round; I'm dropping that mofo and taking out my sidearm.

This wouldn't be a huge problem except that hitting fire with an empty gun makes it reload. This is a great example of decent mechanics not mixing well. No weapon change while reloading? Reasonable, if annoying. Fire to reload when empty? Quite helpful! But both? I'm in the middle of a fire fight, I'm firing my weapon frantically, I don't have time to watch my bullets. I expect to run dry and switch my weapon, not start reloading while I'm still peeking out of cover. The mixture of the two elements simply doesn't functionally make any sense, and I'm ashamed of the oversight.

Furthermore they hacked the XBox LIVE system of online play to the PC, with the individual PC owners as the game hosts. The entire system is laggy and absurd. As I was led to understand that the true joy of Vegas was the multiplayer, for them to completely botch it on the PC port makes me feel like I payed $50 for a $30 game.

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Thursday, December 06, 2007

The rest of PAX

Already December! enough procrastination; I'm going to dump the rest of what I've written here, unformatted, with no photos, for better or worse. This is the rest of PAX:

America's Army: True Soldiers for the XBOX 360 is an UbiSoft title greatly assisted in development (but not financially supported) by the U.S. Army. It promises to be, though not totally realistic (it's a little more forgiving about death than real life), at least the most realistic game I've ever seen.

By realistic, I'm not referring to graphics, but game mechanics; If you want to know what it's like to be in action in the army, you like FPS, or you simply appreciate realism in games, you need to pick this one up. For the truly hardcore, there's even a "Super-Real" mode, which will remove all indicators, maps, and numbers from your display.

Gameplay is squad-based, with the best squad AI I've ever seen; you can't command your squad's movements and YOU DON'T NEED TO. Single-player seems to keep everyone into one fire team, but online or over system link you can play 16-player co-op, and split up however you like. The game features stat development where you can choose which aspects of your solider to upgrade, and it's presented not so much in an RPG-insane-magical-power way but more of a learning-from-your-time-on-the-field way. The training carries over to online play, so you'd probably do well to go single-player first.

Eidos was featuring just one game, but it's a doozy. Kane & Lynch is a 3rd-person shooter in the style of Gears of War, from the health system to the squad-based play to the "revive teammate" mechanic. What it doesn't do, however, is carbon-copy the style of any game you've ever seen. This game mixes ten parts Reservoir Dogs, Three parts Pulp Fiction, and one part Max Payne and drenches the tried-and-true gameplay with an atmosphere of pure badassery. For this reason I'm giving it the "Most Pleasant Surprise" award of PAX 2007.

This game is GORGEOUS. If you think that high-contrast graphics and over-used shaders can only look amazing in environments as fantastical as Quake 4 or Gears of War, you're in for a rude awakening, because walking down the street in a Japanese metropolis, guns blazing, will rock your eyeballs.

Controls are smooth as butter too. The game eschews complicated "hold this then tilt that" controls by assigning one action to each button and automating the rest. Familiar functions in Gears of War like "cover" and "reload" are replaced by squad commands such as "follow" and "attack".

"But wait," I hear you say, "putting all the squad commands into a menu on one button works fine. How can a game work without a reload button?!" Trust me, it does. Having a seperate button for each squad command isn't harder to learn, it's actually easier, since the other buttons don't have yet more crap for you to memorize. I've never had such an easy time giving so many orders to an FPS squad in my life. It works. Reloading works too. When do YOU reload? When you're empty or when there's a lull, right? Well the game does that FOR you. If you're not firing, iron-sighting, or performing some other action that implies combat, your character will put in a fresh magazine so you don't need to worry about a thing. The same goes for combat. If you fire your weapon and then stop firing/iron-sighting or moving, your character ducks behind the nearest object, be it a pillar, dumpster, or car. It works beautifully and you can finally spend more time thinking about how to beat a group of enemies than how to control your maneuvers around cover. Spray-'n'-pray from behind cover seems to not be a complete waste of ammo as well, a nice change from Gears of War.

Harmonix was expected to show off Rock Band, but I doubt anyone was prepared for how it turned out. People were OBSESSED with this game. It was totally impossible for me to play the game without waiting in line for half an hour - something I opted out of, for better or worse.

The songs are UNBELIEVABLE. The one thing above else that turned me off to guitar hero (especially the first) was the music. The covers were terrible, and most of the songs weren't that great to begin with. With Rock Band, the songs aren't known for their interesting guitar, but for being... you know... "good". The few covers there are in the mix also completely blow GH 1 and 2 out of the water in terms of musical quality; you'll truly WANT to rock out to this stuff.

The popularity was so massive that I have to objectively grant this the Best in Show award. What's so amazing about the game is that it doesn't do anything unique or new, but simply perfectly fits together the various pieces of all the other B- and C-list console music games into a complete set.

Nintendo & Jam Sessions

To say Nintendo's booth wasn't exciting might give the wrong impression; rather, from Nintendo, nothing is ever surprising because you always know to expect goods of a very high quality and polish. I wish I had spent more time with the new DS Zelda game, and my apologies to anyone I let down by not writing about it. Erm... you can draw on the minimap, notes and things. That's all I know.

Metroid Prime 3 was such standard fare I similarly was tempted to ignore it. The decision to buy it is a no-brainer, really: if you like the Metroid Prime series, you'll get it, and if you don't, you won't. It looked like a fantastic game, and it'll be on my Christmas list, but there's so little different-looking about it that it, like everything in the Nintendo booth, is hard to write about.

One thing I've never played (but always wanted to) was the Fire Emblem series, and the new one for Wii looks like a good ol' Tactics-genre romp, so I'll probably give in and buy it, if only to say I've played the distinguished series. Everything about the interface was very clean and easy to understand, and at no point was I stuck guessing, "Uh, well I guess that number's my accuracy, or maybe damage," a trait that seems exceedingly rare in the genre.

The only truly shocking things about the booth were that my mother fell in love with brain training, and that the Nintendo reps were obsessed with preventing people from taking video. Bear in mind that this is a public event, with an open booth, and thousands upon thousands of people streaming by. Nothing in these games is exclusive knowledge. MP3, the most hotly guarded, was set to release in mere days. The idea that you can prevent people from taking video would be insulting if it wasn't so ludicrous. After a time of repeatedly stopping my video-taking, they started targeting ME SPECIFICALLY, and I STILL captured plenty of video. In the end all it accomplished was lower my opinion of Nintendo of America, both in their common sense and in the lack of explanation over why video was forbidden (hence why I chose to ignore the restriction).

Jam Sessions, the DS acoustic guitar chord simulator, was not represented by Nintendo, nor even on the exhibition floor; rather, a music stage wandered about, moving each day like an elusive nomad. Part of the UbiSoft crew, I was fortunate enough to have a long interview-style conversation with a knowledgeable person, and here's what I learned:

It's got smooooth controls. You have a down-strum and an up-strum, which with their own sound, and if you strum from a line on the screen right next to your "strum bar", you make a very crisp and short "hit". The guitar tabs provided cover a wide range of good songs, so if you're not much of a writer, there's plenty to work with inside. Something everyone will be pleased to hear, the controls are customizable for either hand and for either way to be "down-strum". Recording of your own songs isn't that terrific, only about 1 minute, so this is more of a live-performance thing.

In summary, I'll try and get jam sessions, as it should prove a far more-convenient (if more-expensive) substitute for my harmonica as far as portable music goes.

Microsoft (mostly hellgate)

Microsoft's booth was mostly about Mass Effect, with Rock Band (yes they were in multiple booths), PC ports of XBox games, and lesser names take up the periphery. I still don't really know anything about mass effect because I completely ignored it in favor of one terminal alone: Flagship's Hellgate: London demo.

For those of you out of the know, Flagship studios is formed of a large chunk of the team that developed Diablo II, and it shows. A spiritual sequel in gameplay mechanics to D2, Hellgate is going to provide players with all the hack-n-slash dungeon-crawling they can handle when it hits shelves on Halloween.

With even simpler skill sets and a daunting inventory system, this game is definitely all about the loot. Basically, if you wasted a month or more of your life spending every evening playing Diablo II, this is a no-brainer. For those who still need to be convinced, I assure you that the game is beautiful and handles very will with keyboard movement in the 3-D world, freeing up your mouse for combat - allowing you to, for example, move backwards while firing your gun FPS-style at a charging demon. Laying the smackdown with a sword is perfectly acceptable of course; The game moves into 3rd-person for melee combat and features different attack motions based on which way you're moving when you attack.

The game will be an up-front priced game like its predecessor, and then also feature free online play with an option subscription. After hearing nothing about what precisely subscription would offer players, I was unhappy to find that the Hellgate reps were equally dodgy. I think they honestly didn't know at PAX-time.

In the end it looks a little too simple for gamers who want a game with more meat on its bones, satisfying a wealth-gaining response in the brain rather than a system-mastery response. Players who are looking for intense adrenaline-pumping battles will be a little hard-pressed, while players who live for the grind will be in heaven when they play Hellgate.

Fury is that type of game that is so esoteric that almost no one will play it and yet so perfect at what it does that every true gaming aficionado will have heard of it. Imagine if you will a game devoted to the PvP of such games as Everquest and World of Warcraft, and a dash of Diablo-2-style loot (that is, an orgy of the stuff), without all that silly xp grinding, re-rolling, and waiting for peak hours before you can find a PvP group. Fury is MMORPG PvP percolated down into its rawest and purest form, right down to taking all the numbers from the game and obsessively calculating your DPS down to 45.8 seconds after the beginning of engagement, resulting in the transposition of two abilities in your attack chain.

There's a massive number of abilities; I'm talking hundreds. Each ability has many levels and you can choose your abilities and levels at will (there's no stone-set classes in the game). Do you take two abilities at level 3 or a single one at level 4? You can spend literally all day at this.

Of course, the game, perfect as it is in its role, is totally, %100 unappealing to those who are unable to spend an idle day in MMORPG PvP and feel satisfaction at bedtime. I myself am among such folk, so while I enjoyed the beta copy I snagged on and off over the course of about 10 days, I was more than happy to let it fall off my desktop when Valve's Team Fortress 2 beta went live, as it was far better at filling my PvP appetite.

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Monday, October 29, 2007

Far Cry 2 & Crysis

One thing I was happy to see was the first glimpse the general public got of Far Cry 2 - No photos, they made damn sure of that. However I took notes as best as one can with literally no light to write by, and I'll try and piece together what I jotted down:

For those of you still confused, Far Cry was created by CryTek and published by UbiSoft, at least that's how I understand it, and then they went their seperate ways. CryTek teamed up with EA to make Crysis, a sci-fi near-future-themed game, and UbiSoft maintained the Far Cry name and is making Far Cry 2, a more realistic take set in Africa.

First off, don't think that Far Cry 2 has suffered from lack of CryTek; the game is still gorgeous. The best part is that there's not a lot of faking, thanks to some clever optimization tricks; the detail fades off quite naturally with distance, as opposed to the various "detail level" distance cutoffs many of us in MMOs suffer through.

The game takes place in Africa, in a 50-square-kilometer space surrounded by desert, with no loading screens as you travel from one corner to the other. As you go back and forth on a quest for vengeance/assassination of a criminal boss figure, you must combat a very advanced AI with mobile stockades/ammo dumps with the help of buddies. Buddies are NPCs with their own looks and personalities, but they're created as necessary by the game. If you murder a buddy senselessly (and shame on you for turning down the help), sure enough by the time the script calls for a buddy, you'll have met someone new. The game tries to do cinematic tricks behind the scenes, like, for example, building up a storm so it might start raining at a particularly dramatic point which you may be approaching.

Speaking of storms, boy howdy, the weather system is a beaut. From wind effects that can tear branches off if they go fast enough to brushfires that follow the wind direction and realistically grow and die, this game doesn't need anything fancy to wow you; the run-of-the-mill stuff like fire is that good.

The AI also seems to be much improved. When the demonstrator fired a sniper rifle at an encampment, hitting a guy in the leg, he dropped to the ground clutching his leg, and everyone else scattered for cover. Halfway back in the darkened room, I almost rolled my eyes; the animations were good, but this was how he was showing off his "amazing" AI? But then after a long moment, maybe 6 seconds, someone rushed out to their comrade - and started dragging his buddy to safety. The demonstrator put one in the head of the would-be rescuer, then one in the head of the bait. The crowd erupted into applause and cheers.

Finally, the game takes realism to a whole new level not just in graphics, but gameplay mechanics as well. Rather than just say, "OK, you're in the gunner's seat now", or "OK, you used a first aid kit", your character actually goes through the motions of swinging out of the driver's seat, or prying a bullet out of your leg with a knife. Catch fire? You'll pat at your sleeve to put it out. Weapon jammed? You gotta fix it. Want a look at your map? Your character literally pulls out a folding paper map and a compass. There's even an option to turn off all HUD indicators for maximum realism. This is UI immersion I've rarely, if ever, witnessed.

Crysis, sadly, didn't make an appearance at PAX. However, the single-player demo is available for download, so if you have a decent PC you can check it out immediately. Sadly the top-end graphics would make for too big a download I guess and aren't available, so people with champion PCs can't open up and see what it can do. Regardless, it's a good deal of fun for such a short demo, but there's a few things you need to know, at least on Normal difficulty and above.

  1. The gunboat can see you. No, it doesn't matter that you have your cloaking device on, are halfway behind a tree, immobile, prone, in tall grass, and was last spotted or did something noticeable 300 meters away. The gunboat can still see you.
  2. Do not ever, ever, ever use strength mode in combat. You will die, and everyone will laugh that you tried to throw a crate or another person at them instead of using your perfectly good guns.
  3. This is still, spiritually, a Far Cry game. Even after you've made a massive debacle of an objective, if you go unseen for a minute or two everyone will assume you probably left. Similarly, if your commanding officer tells you to keep a low profile on an upcoming area, feel free to take off the silencer and go wild, then waltz in while everyone is 100 meters away, investigating the site of your firefight.
  4. No, the gunboat can still see you, it's just not firing because there's 4 feet of solid rock between the two of you. You are not going to sneak away from this thing in the grass, Predator-movie-style. Run.

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Monday, October 15, 2007

Penny Arcade Expo, Part 1: Introduction

PAX is a conference for gamers. And yes, the gamers I said didn't really exist as a demographic. Maybe they do.

At any rate, it's a conference for people who play games: This year it lasted 3 days, filling up the entire Seattle convention center, with not just a convention center but entire floors devoted to console, PC, portable, tabletop, board, and RPG free play, including a rental system for board and video games, as well as tournaments and over 80 overlapping hours of talks, public demonstrations, and concerts. Despite being attended by close to 40,000 people, it was easy for me to feel at home, even though it was the first event of its kind I had ever attended. It's difficult to describe just how friendly everyone was. They were friendly in the spontaneous, "let's play a DS game" way that transcends good manners and is simply impossible without knowing everyone in the building is as passionate about something as you are.

While many players would have (and did) take fully enjoyment of the freeplay areas and the tournaments, most of my weekend was spent in the exhibit hall, where companies like Nintendo, Microsoft, Sony, Wizard of the Coast, UbiSoft, WizKids, and even the U.S. Army were showcasing games, services, merchandise, and peripherals that were either already on sale or hopefully would be before the end of the year. I got to play demos, talk to company reps, and grab the occasional beta key. I also attended many talks on the state of the industry and saw a few exclusive demonstrations - many of the games at PAX had never been shown to the general public previously. Overall, it was - to put it simply - good.

And I'm going to tell you all about it.

Seattle is identical to any big city in the U.S., with the exception that it seems fairly slanted; I was reminded of San Francisco and needed, on occasion, to marvel at the automobile's ability to go up and down these steep inclines every day.

Like any large American city, it's full of shops, malls, offices, and people; similarly, like any large American city, there's no place to eat, nothing's open late at night, and there's nothing worth buying. By the end of the trip I saw Seattle as more of an obstacle, a mission objective that must be overcome to earn the glories and fun packed inside its convention center. The city was beautiful - for a city - and quite clean - for a city - but in the end that's all it was, and it had to be tolerated more than enjoyed.

The convention center itself was 4 stories tall, with the fourth floor actually crossing the street via a "skybridge" - fancy-talk for "this building keeps going beyond the street" - leading to the exhibit and concert halls, where I probably spent more time than even in the hotel room (including sleep). Level 1 was small and was basically just an entrance; level 2 was devoted to tabletop gaming; level 3 to consoles; level 4 to the PC. Scattered across all floors were conference rooms, handheld areas, restaurants, bathrooms, and Penny Arcade comics which had been enlarged, printed on banners, and hung from balcony railings. All in all, the environment of the expo was clean and comfortable.

Sorry to anyone who's into tabletop or card games, because I didn't pay any attention whatsoever.

As far as video games are concerned, there were generally two categories: New, cool stuff and old or rehashed for-the-love-of-God-please-support-our-families stuff. The latter is neither interesting nor were the employees nearly as willing to speak frankly. Gametap, EVE Online, Dell, EA Mythic, and others were relatively easy to ignore, when one wasn't forced into a moment of pity.

The stars of the show, in my opinion, were America's Army, Eidos, Flying Lab Software, Harmonix, Microsoft, NCSoft, Nintendo, and Ubisoft, so I'll be sure to cover them.

Check the bottom of this post for a tour of the exhibition hall just a few minutes after the first people started walking in. I made the film as I entered it for the first time, and I got a few wierd looks; here the place was open for all of two minutes, and some wierdo was walking around filming instead of stopping at the nearest open booth to play a game.

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