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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