Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Brief Look At LittleBigPlanet

I am not sure why but before I purchased my Playstation 3 LittleBigPlanet was not a game on my radar. Like all of the PS3 games, it just seemed irrelevant to me at the time and because of that I didn't pay attention to previews or get on board the hype express. I am pleased to report that I was pleasantly surprised the first time I played the game, coming away from it impressed by the game's charm and in a very happy mood.

Unfortunately for me I got the game at the wrong time and it was not long before both LittleBigPlanet and the PS3 were neglected in favour of the many other games I had to play, with the holiday rush of titles overwhelming me and a feeling of disappointment in myself for neglecting a newly purchased console. As much as I would like to play every single game I want at once, it is simply impossible. Why else would I be writing about all the games I have lately two or three months after their release?

All was not lost however as my lovely girlfriend took to the game's charm not too long after seeing me play and she has been playing it regularly ever since. She has finished all the game's levels, played a great deal many more created by other users and is even attempting to build her own level. Her interest in the game doesn't surprise me because she is a gamer as well, but I can't deny the fact that I was expecting to take to the game more than she did. I don't think it is a matter of not taking to the game though; I've certainly loved what I have played so far and have an extreme desire to continue playing it in the future, I just haven't been able to yet due to playing everything else. Maybe it wasn't just time management issues that I had late last year, maybe I also failed to prioritise the things I wanted to do. It doesn't matter though as I have played it a little, watched my girlfriend play it a lot and formed an opinion of the game. One of the things I liked immediately was the simplicity of it. It is very easy to pick up and play yet maintains a level of depth for the times when I may be craving it. I appreciate this a lot as it's a nice contrast to some of the more intense games I have been playing lately. It has also taught me a little about level design, especially after seeing how people have created their levels and watching my girlfriend build hers. I love checking out other people's creations, admiring their creativity and enjoying the different experiences the user-generated levels already contain. To put it simply, the game makes me happy when I play and any game that does that will always have my respect.

That's all I can really say for now as I feel that I need to play it a whole lot more before I can form my final opinion and look at the game in more depth. I also am curious to know if watching my better half play it has influenced my opinion in any way. Now that I don't have as much to play, I look forward to spending more time with it and discussing the game on here. Until then, happy gaming.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A Brief Look At Gears Of War 2

Mindless entertainment. I could use those two words only as my post today as it describes my thoughts on Gears Of War 2 quite nicely. It wouldn't be much of a post though so allow me to offer some thoughts on the game.

Gears Of War 2 was exactly what I expected a sequel to the original to be. It didn't evolve too far beyond Gears Of War with only slight improvements to the gameplay, graphics and narrative. It didn't really need to evolve though, as the core experience that the series provides remains in tact and that is fine by me. As I mentioned before, I see the games as mindless entertainment - the series I can go to when I want to see massive amounts of gore or satisfy any sadistic urges I have to kill something. I mean, I can't help but smile when I hear the satisfying pop of a Locust's head as it gets sniped from afar, nor can I resist a smirk when I chainsaw one of the ugly monsters in half. It's a guilty pleasure, what can I say?

Interestingly enough I haven't played it as much as I did the original so I wonder if that is because the Achievements were easier this time around or because I am getting tired of how the game actually plays. I stand by my opinion that Gears Of War's multiplayer is more enjoyable for me than other games out there, but then I also can't help but think of all of the bad experiences I have had while playing the series online as well. Perhaps the easier Achievements this time around were a blessing because I didn't have to play the game online as much, keeping me away from the possibility of getting into a frustrating match or having to listen to anonymous idiots and their foul-mouths? Another reason could be simply that getting the game finished faster allowed me to play the many other games I have been playing lately? Who knows, who cares? What I do know is that the game was a good enough sequel to me and gives me the mindless fun that I crave sometimes. Nothing wrong with that, is there?

Monday, February 23, 2009

A Brief Look At Gran Turismo 5: Prologue

I am cheating with this post in a way as this little mini-series was meant to be about games from the holiday rush of last year, not games I only got a couple of days ago. I can't help myself though with Gran Turismo 5: Prologue on my mind after a long Saturday afternoon spent with it.

I have always been a fan of the Gran Turismo franchise with each game in the series being 100% completed (and beyond - Gran Turismo 2 went to 105% if I recall correctly) and thousands of races under my belt. The franchise has taught me more about cars in general, allowed me to drive some of my favourite cars around some of my favourite tracks and also continued to impress me with its visuals with every new release.

Gran Turismo 5: Prologue is no different and I was amazed with how beautiful the cars, scenery and even the menus looked. Taking a Mazda RX8 for a spin around the Suzuka track, I was instantly back in my element with my experience with the track and of course the franchise easing me straight back in. I was blown away when I tried the in-car view for the first time, as it was animated a lot better than I expected. I have mentioned on this blog before how I try to make my racing games as realistic as they can possibly be and using an in-car camera view is one of the ways I can make this possible. Other things I found impressive include Gran Turismo TV, a service that provides car related videos such as the famous BBC show Top Gear. I also imagine that playing Gran Turismo online would be quite fun though I haven't been able to try it just yet.

It is essentially a demo though, so naturally it isn't as good as it could (or will?) be. Handling has improved since Gran Turismo 4 but still feels, well, Gran Turismo. After playing Forza 2 for the past two years it feels like a step back to be playing with a system that hasn't evolved all that much. That is something I will look at in an upcoming post, though. There is still no damage modeling in the game nor any dynamic weather effects or things like that. As a long-time Gran Turismo fan, it is disappointing but Polyphony Digital are known to be perfectionists so it still remains to be seen as to whether they will be in the full game or not. Track selection feels limited with only six tracks to choose from and it's another thing that feels like a step back. I can overlook it though as Gran Turismo 5: Prologue is, after all, just a taste of what is to come and after enjoying my time with the game so far, all I can say is bring on the full game!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

EA: So misunderstood

People like to hate on EA. The gaming media stuck a target on their back some time in the last generation and the public have been taking shots ever since. "They're taking over the world!" "They're amassing an unstoppable gaming army!" "They're gonna release a console!" We've all heard these ludicrous claims from gamers we know and love, and I'm sure we've all nodded along without really thinking about it; why would we? Everyone else agrees - EA are the devil.

Here's a thought - what if they're not? What if EA have actually been kicking ass all over this generation?

Here's another thought - if it wasn't for the tireless perfection of Rockstar's development teams, Electronic Arts, with all their labels and studios, would be my favourite gaming company of all time. And I'll explain why; but first, the hate. The needless hate. Let's think where it all began.
I'd like to state at this point that I'm not an employee of EA, nor is this advertising, I'm merely explaining how I, as a dedicated hardcore gamer, have come to love EA.

It's hard to disagree that EA are primarily known amongst gamers both hardcore and casual as a producer. They've produced big titles for developers such as Crytek Studios, Harmonix, Valve and many more, gaining notoriety for essentially sticking their logos over other people's games. Or so people think. I stayed away from using Black Box, Criterion, or DICE as examples, as these are a few of the many studios which EA have bought but not absorbed. Assumedly as part of the deal when buying these companies, sometimes they will keep their original names, as Criterion have, sometimes they will be partially changed, as Digital Illusions CE became EA Digital Illusions CE, and sometimes they will be entirely renamed, seeing DreamWorks Interactive become EA Los Angeles. The example of the latter sets a precedent for the others; when EA absorbs a studio, they become EA. Whether it's them being kind enough to allow them to keep their name or a stipulation in the contracts that allows for the confusion, it seems to be irrelevant to the fact that EA mostly publishes their own games. This clears up what tends to be the #1 gripe people have with EA; sticking their logos and advertising all over other companies' games, because more often than not, they're publishing games they themselves developed.

What seems to spawn from this, however, is the idea that EA are taking over; more specifically, that they're running previously successful companies into the ground. This is a point I can understand and sympathise with, though it's not objectively true. The most common example is the spiraling downfall of the Need for Speed series, with people criticising that EA are churning them out year after year with an attitude of quantity over quality. In a nutshell, this gripe is with EA functioning like a business and it's something the hardcore gaming community aren't used to. We're used to developers spending years perfectly crafting their games like artwork, to be released to high acclaim, thriving sales and eternal love from the fans; this is rapidly changing. Perhaps thanks to Nintendo's efforts, the casual market has become increasingly more financially appealing since the very start of this generation and hardcore gamers are being neglected. We don't like how Wii Sports outsells No More Heroes, how Nintendogs sees more play than Ouendan, or how the call for gimmicky, pick-up-and-play gameplay is now more popular than an engrossing story, but what we forget is that we are now the minority, and we're just no longer the primary interest of the big, big businesses. I can't hold it against EA that they should seek to exploit the casual market, because it's simply the evolution of gaming, and I feel I have to step aside and think, okay, we've lost a couple of good franchises, but we're gaining force as an entertainment medium, we're being taken more seriously, and companies are getting more funding for future projects. The way I see it, EA has killed Need for Speed to allow for the growth of Skate; they've killed The Sims to allow for Spore, and I believe this to be the correct way to do things, as opposed to, for example, picking on Nintendo again, using the collective money from killing their core market to produce a third DS SKU costing 50% more with 50% less functionality (though this may be a topic for another time). EA's armada of studios strengthens the company as a whole, and we have to remember they have more fans than just those who want to see a stream of original IPs or generally detailed projects; there are millions of people who are blindly screaming "MORE!" and throwing their money around, which EA will take advantage of, and we'd be hypocrites to claim we'd act any different.

Before moving onto my justification of the good points, I will say I'm not a blinkered fan. I share a hate with many of you who enjoy a good anti-EA rant; I'll be countering your points until you bring up EA Trax, where I just have to concede. For a company with such experience in entertainment to create such irksome soundtracks confounds me. Burnout Paradise's selection of music is perhaps the one shining example amongst the quagmire of coarse, grating nonsense the Black Box studio seems to think is appropriate for a Need for Speed audience, though it's far from perfect; it's simply beyond me why they saw fit to include one emo track and one pop-punk track, and one single example from other genres just to pathetically pander to their respective audiences who have to wade through a 90+ list of mostly culturally-irrelevant music for a 4 minute respite of enjoyable tunes, which is then likely to either have DJ Atomica talking over it, be susceptible to various volume drop-outs due to crashes, or accidentally be skipped with an unintentional hit of the R1/RB button. EA's confidence in the Trax system is perhaps the most blind arrogance in the business these days, in that they don't provide a custom soundtrack option. 360 gamers at least have the option to mute the music and play some HDD tracks through the dashboard, but spare a thought for the poor PS3 gamers who have no choice but to rush through the streets of Paradise City with Avril Lavigne and Killswitch Engage blaring. And this was the most favourable example.

Claiming that EA are one of the world's greatest developers is not something that can be backed up by simply discrediting the negative points - I'm very well aware I have to bring something to the table. Exhibit 1: EA Sports. "Really?" I hear you say, "the ace up your sleeve is their sports games?!" Well, yes, it is, with very good reason. EA Sports is a label of EA dedicated, believe it or not, to developing and producing sports games. Their company motto is, "If it's in the game, it's in the game." EA Sports games are of the sports simulation genre, which is a very critical point: these games are developed for sports fans. The Fifa series is for football fans, the NHL series is for hockey fans, the NBA series is for basketball fans. They're not casual games for casual gamers, nor are they hardcore games for hardcore gamers; they're simulation games for sports gamers. The majority of criticisms over the label are due to them releasing games each year with, and I quote, "nothing but an updated list of players." To gamers, this is a valid point, we're used to sequels really adding to games, perhaps even changing the gameplay or engines and adding a brand new story to keep us hooked. For sports fans, this is an absurd idea. Between NFL 07 and NFL 08, the league didn't change the gameplay, they didn't decide to use bats and dress the players in leotards, it's still the same sport the fans have loved for years; all they need is the new players, the new subtle rule changes and the slight changes that are made to improve gameplay, usually in the form of more customisation and management options, or a more realistic AI, for next year's game to be worth a purchase. Up to the 08 series of the EA Sports franchises, this was perhaps an understandable gripe from the gaming community. Now, with the introduction of the 09 series, the point is simply moot. The gameplay mechanics of every sport have been significantly overhauled to provide the most realistic simulation to date, along with intelligent AI systems installed to have the opponent teams learn from your own personal gameplay style. Extensive new modes, top-of-the-line graphics and in-depth online play with individual player control has seen the entire genre improve more than any other over the course of this generation. The best example of this, certainly for me personally, is NHL 09; IGN voted it the best Xbox 360 sports game of 2008, Gamespot, GameTrailers and Spike TV voted it the best overall sports game of 2008, and it currently sits on Metacritic in the #1 and #2 spots for best sports game of this generation. Interestingly enough, the top 10 (and possibly more) sports games of this generation are all EA Sports titles, the top 4 of which are 09 series franchises, the other being Fifa 09 sitting just below NHL, and NHL 08 featuring twice in 7th and 10th. Now while some of that information is more generally regarding their success this generation, it's plain to see that EA's latest series of sports games have revolutionised a genre in a way that not many other developers have ever managed to achieve; Polyphony Digital did it with Gran Turismo, Epic Games with Unreal Tournament and with fanboy alarms ringing, Rockstar with Grand Theft Auto. I would class the new level of immersive realism and true simulation that EA Sports have provided sports fans across the world above and beyond these feats of revolutionisation, to a level where I can but urge, nay dare any naysayers to play NFL 08, then NFL 09 and tell me it's not one giant leap for gaming-kind, whether the hardcore gamers out there are willing to admit it or not.

EA are more than just their sports franchises of course. Their other major company label, EA Games,  invites you to challenge everything - well, challenged we were in 2008, bringing me nicely to Exhibit 2: EA's exceptional fourth quarter, 2008. The last few months before 2009 came rolling around brought a veritable avalanche of games, with the majority of killer titles coming from EA. To drop some names, here is what we saw, amongst plentiful offerings from Ubisoft and Activision-Blizzard, in such a short space of time: Skate It, Need for Speed Undercover, Command and Conquer: Red Alert 3, Mirror's Edge, Dead Space, BioShock (PS3) and Spore. Three brand new IPs, two continuations of series', one spin-off and one port, all in the space of 3 to 4 months. If this is the result of EA buying out companies around the world, then I hope they buy them all, because this cluster of concentrated Christmas awesome was an absolute gaming paradise. This isn't at all to say they burned out in time for the present-giving masses, as 2009 has so far seen the release of Lord of the Rings: Conquest, Skate 2, SimAnimals and the Burnout Paradise Ultimate Box, with plenty more to come. What we see here is a company so perfectly structured and organised, that we have studios within labels releasing games at such a quick-fire rate, without having to be rushed, due to the sheer number of people working on each project. This driving force of raw talent spearheaded by one financial body is intent on serving the public with what they want; what we wanted in 2008 was a body of quality gaming on which to sail into the new year with the knowledge that all is well in the industry, after months of accusations of dumbing down and pandering to casual markets, and this is exactly what EA gave us.

Now, not only are EA continuing their current output, and not only are they constantly throwing brand new IPs at us, but they're offering a level of online support unparalleled by any other developer. Exhibit 3: EA Online. Aside from the initial frameworks of the Playstation Network and Xbox Live, EA's online community is the brightest-shining example of exactly how to tackle console<->internet connectivity. A gamer playing a skating game can pull off an insane trick they never even thought possible and be astounded for as long as the memory remains. A gamer playing Skate can pull off the same trick, pause the game, check the replay, edit the video, save it to the HD, upload it to an online community where other players can comment on and rate your skills. Is this not exactly what we want from our consoles being online during our single player escapades? This level of connectivity is not as common as it should be, but EA is setting the standard with the skate.reel, the name given to the aforementioned community. Likewise with EA Sports, they have managed to create an environment wherein a sports gamer who may own NHL 09, NFL 09 and NBA 09 can check their overall statistics, season records, game summaries and so on, for each individual game in one single space, as the game uploads your results on-the-fly as you play. This is surely the pinnacle of seamless interactivity between one single player and the gaming community; it adds an entirely new dimension to the games when you're able to look through your virtual sports career recorded to fine detail. It enhances the simulation to a point where, when combined with the Be A Pro mode modelled to your face and statistics, you become one with the games. It's a level of interactivity so far unparalleled in the industry. As if this wasn't enough, EA continue to be one of the most active developers in terms of offering patches and downloadable content, bridging the gap between the developers and their fans. If we shout loud enough, they listen and they change. The best example is most definitely Burnout Paradise. It was criticised for being a bit too small, with the likes of GTA and Saints Row offering detailed environments on much larger scales; they respond with upcoming DLC of a brand new island. Criticisms of "samey" cars being too much alike rang out after release; they respond by constantly offering diverse new cars, including the recently released Legendary Pack featuring famous cars from films. People said it's too dark, they brighten it; people said they want a restart option, they put in a restart option. Evidence enough that EA care not only about their games but also the people who play them, they want to make sure we're satisfied. They don't release a groundbreaking game such as Paradise and stand arrogantly proud when the stellar reviews roll in, they continue to look for improvements and tweaks to make it that much better. EA's service to the fans is an incredibly commendable trait, particularly for such a huge company.

Which brings me to my conclusion really. I can see how aspects of what I've talked about come across as simple advertising, or apparent fanboyism, but honestly, if you told me this time last year I'd be praising EA's work I'd never have believed you. Their tireless efforts to provide gamers with some serious quality over 2008 caused me to look very closely at what they'd done; beyond the press' ideas, beyond the lies and beyond the cheap shots, what I've discovered is an undeniable truth. Even amongst EA haters, surely the releases of Spore, Dead Space and Mirror's Edge, three Game of the Year contenders that won many awards between them; the endless online support, both in terms of community projects and continued DLC; the torrent of this generation's quality sports simulations constantly being tweaked to perfection, all correct past wrongs. Whatever EA may or may not have done in the past, they have more than made up for it now and shown themselves to be a company for everyone, dedicated equally to casual, hardcore and sports gamers alike. They have bought themselves not power, not international fame, but a platform from which to serve gamers till the end of time. I'll be challenging everything 'till the day I die, because, well, it really is in the game.

A Brief Look At Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts And Bolts

I couldn't hide my excitement when the original trailer for Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts And Bolts was first unleashed into the wild, with my face being covered in one big massive grin. I watched the very short trailer five times in a row because of this excitement, but in hindsight I also wonder if it was because I couldn't believe it was happening. A new Banjo, two generations on from the last game Banjo-Tooie? Yes, please.

That trailer just announced the game though and no actual information about it was revealed. As more trailers, previews and the like came to fruition, people started to get an idea of how the game would play and well, a lot of them were disappointed. As soon as the vehicle-based gameplay was revealed people immediately jumped to conclusions and became very skeptical of it, having their interest and anticipation in the game wane while they complained on forums about it not being "Banjo". Perhaps they were right to do this, perhaps not, but I refused to get involved and decided to take a step back from it all and wait until I had played the game before deciding what I thought of the new direction.

The decision was a good one, with the game being a lot better than the vocal community would have had you believe on the lead up to its release. It was different, yes, but it still retained the old Banjo humour and charm that was present in the two predecessors. I actually believe that while flawed, the new vehicle direction the game took was a good move on developer Rare's behalf because if they released a game similar to those before it I dare say it would have gotten stale fast. I have my reasons why I feel this way and will outline them in a future post, but for now let me just say that I am definitely pleased with Rare's decision to go down this path.

Catchy tunes including remixed versions of tracks taken from the previous games; vibrant and colourful graphics and the aforementioned Banjo humour all combine to make a game that is laid-back in nature but can be quite complex if a player wants it to be. Unfortunately it can be frustrating, especially with a reliance on building vehicles to suit a particular challenge but the good far outweighs the bad.

Wow, so much for brief impressions. As is obvious from this post, I am quite the Banjo-Kazooie fan so I suppose it is no surprise that this post ended up being longer than I originally planned. As with my previous two posts, more in-depth thoughts of Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts And Bolts is on the way so stay tuned for those and for tomorrow's post on another game I have been playing recently.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Brief Look At Mirror's Edge

I took a brief look at Midnight Club: LA yesterday offering some small thoughts on the game. Today I continue with a brief look at Mirror's Edge.

The first word that comes to mind when I think of Mirror's Edge is, well, different. The reason for that I think is fairly obvious too; it is different. Whether it is the game mechanics, graphics or even just the concept of the game; it is unlike anything we have seen before. It redefines what can be done with the first person perspective and for that alone the game's developer, DICE, deserve to be commended.

Nevermind all that though, what is important here is what I thought of the game. I am happy to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it. It has its flaws, naturally, but even with those I still thought it was an exhilarating game and an awesome first attempt at a Parkour title. It is however, something you need to engage with as its best elements -- finding the best path through a series of obstacles -- are almost hidden within the game. Not until you learn the levels and play through the Time Trials watching a ghost from another player, will you learn how to spot alternate routes and the ability to see them on the run. Enemies only pose more of a distraction from spotting these routes and it is those kinds of things that makes the game frustrating unnecessarily. On the first run through you will find yourself in situations where you don't know where to go next or where you need to take out enemies and to me, it just contrasts with what the game should be about.

Everyone else has made these criticisms before though so what I will say is that the game was certainly a lot better than I was expecting it to be. Before release people were anticipating it, but were also skeptical and I believe that influenced how I approached it. After playing I came away thinking that the game provided me a new experience and was entertaining. What can I say? I loved it and really hope that DICE can learn from their first attempt and improve upon it for the inevitable sequel.

Again, these are just some brief impressions of the game. I have more in-depth thoughts on the way. Stay tuned in the next couple of days for a brief look at another game.

Friday, February 20, 2009

A Brief Look At Midnight Club: LA

For a couple of months now I have been mentioning my intent to take a look at all the games I have been playing recently. As you are already aware, this has not happened due to my poor time management skills of late last year, the fact I was playing all these games and that I had not finished them yet. Things are different now with some games being finished and progress being made on the ones that are not. I still fully intend on taking an in-depth look but for now I thought I would take a brief glimpse at some of them..

It begins with Rockstar's racing game Midnight Club: LA. Despite being such a big racing fan, this is the first game in the Midnight Club franchise that I have been able to play and well, it was not surprising at all when I realised that I loved the game. Say what you will about all their controversial stuff but Rockstar certainly know how to make a fun game and Midnight Club: LA is no different. The handling took a while to get used to and I didn't like it at first, but the more I drove around LA the more it grew on me and now I think the handling is exactly what you would want for a game like this. It's Arcade, of course, but has subtle hints of realism that makes it feel like you are driving a car instead of floating around on nothing. Visual aids help this cause with things like the in-car camera view adding to the experience. I'm pedantic about making my racing games as realistic as they can be (within their context, of course) so as soon as I found out about the in-car view I refused to use any other. This applies to manual transmission as well which is also something I try to use if it is available. Other graphical things that impressed me were the full day and night cycle and the weather effects. The former because it was great to be racing down one of the freeways and see the sun rising up over a mountain, the latter because I love rain and wish it was in other games.

Around the time of release a lot of people were claiming that the game was hard but I didn't think it was. Sure, some races were and the AI punished you if you made a mistake, but I didn't have too many hassles progressing through the career or finishing the many (there's 72 in total) Goal Attacks. I was surprised at how long the career actually was too, though I never found it to be repetitive or annoying. There's a decent selection of tracks across the city that sees you having variety while also the ability to learn their layouts. It made for a nice balance. Online is a blast too with all of the various modes providing decent fun with friends, though the most fun I had was definitely just cruising around the city in whatever car I wanted with them.

Well, that's a brief look at my thoughts on Midnight Club: LA. As I mentioned before, more in-depth thoughts are on the way but for now, stay tuned for tomorrow's post on another game I have been playing recently.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Always Connected: Racing Games

Always Connected is a series of posts about online gameplay with today's post taking a look at my time with some racing games.

Last week I took a look at my time playing both Gears of War games online and detailed how I was disappointed in the community that surrounds the two games for generally being disrespectful and inconsiderate of you as a player. Whenever I compare that experience with the other games I have played online, specifically the various racing games, I always find myself confused and curious as to why they have been so different.

It's not always different though as bad multiplayer sessions can happen in any game. Naturally it depends on who you end up versing, something that you have no control over when using a game's matchmaking system. The racing games that come to mind when I think about my bad racing experiences are the Project Gotham Racing series. I have been playing the series online for as long as it has been offered, beginning with Project Gotham Racing 2 and finishing with the last game to be released Project Gotham Racing 4.

I can't say I am surprised when I think about the bad times I have had with the game, because the more Arcade nature of the handling system and racing means that it is easier to be an idiot and crash into people on the track, with no repercussions to penalise the players who do it. Braking for corners can result in eager players behind you smashing into you to use you as their brake, with the end result seeing you slamming into the wall while they pass for the position and carry on to do it to the next unlucky person. Racing side-by-side with someone may see them purposefully swerve into you with the aim to make you spin out. Hell, some people even drive around the track the wrong way with the sole intention to slam head-on into whoever they see first. Like Gears of War before it, it's disappointing but you have to expect it with any game really. I won't deny that across all the racing games I have played online, the PGR series has been the most prolific with bad multiplayer sessions but despite that I still firmly believe that it is one of the most fun games I have ever had the pleasure of playing against other people. With perhaps a touch of irony, I would argue that the reason is again because of the more Arcade-like nature that the game has allowing it to be more accessible to a wide variety of players with different levels of skill. Car damage is cosmetic, it doesn't affect the performance of the vehicle at all and means that if a player was to crash they wouldn't suffer too badly in a race and may only lose a few positions rather than be forced to retire. This is a good thing because it means less players get frustrated if they aren't doing so well and have a desire to press on due to the unpredictability that comes with racing. Combine that with the reward of Kudos (points) for pulling off daring maneuvers like power-sliding around the corners and getting up on two-wheels and you just have a damn fun racing game.

Another racing game I have played online heaps is Forza Motorsport 2. With it being a simulation game and therefore a more serious racer, I was expecting it to be another game where players act like fools, only worse due to the game featuring damage that can affect your car's performance to a point where a snail would be moving faster or that I would be forced to retire. Much to my surprise I found the game was fantastic to play online with the community surrounding it being open to all levels of skill and more importantly being respectful of other drivers. Apologies were offered over the in-game chat if someone caused an accident unintentionally; people helped out with car setups if players were struggling; offered tips for people who couldn't take a particular corner right and it was just generally warm and welcoming. Now I'm no slouch when it comes to racing games and didn't need the help being offered but I still observed it happening and was definitely impressed. Of course there were still some races that weren't as fun as they could be which is again due to the nature of being matched up with randoms, but my time with Forza 2 was very pleasant. I even met a group of people who I'm now friends with in the game who also happened to be on par with my skill level, something that made it even more fun for me as the racing was close, competitive and a real blast to participate in. To put it simply, there is nothing like sharing a common interest (cars, racing) with a group of people who are also on the same page as you and who are happy to race just to have a race. I can only hope that other people that are into racing games can find a similar experience to share because it has certainly influenced my opinion of playing games online.

Moving onto some other racing games, the Burnout franchise has been another great series to play online although I can't really offer any comments about playing it with anonymous people because I have only played with friends. Each of the three games that offer online play in the series (Burnout 3: Takedown, Burnout Revenge and Burnout Paradise) have been great fun to play online and each offer a different experience. The recent Midnight Club: Los Angeles is also quite fun to play online with it reminding me of an old favourite, Test Drive Unlimited. Both games allow you to just simply cruise around their locations (LA for Midnight Club, Oahu for TDU) and as you would expect that can be fun when chilling with your mates.

As you can see my time playing various racing games online has been a positive one both with friends and people I don't know. It's nice to be able to say that because anonymous people are unpredictable and I can only hope that the positive experiences continue to happen in the future. Whether it is Arcade games like Project Gotham Racing or Burnout, or a more serious racer such as Forza 2, it is nice to be able to fire up a racing game and enjoy some races online. Simbin's first console game Race Pro is next on my agenda and it comes out next week. Here's hoping that playing it online is also something I end up enjoying.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Through The Tubes

The good side of downloadable content...

In the recent months downloadable content has become a much more popular thing for developers to use to extend the life of their games. In the first couple of years of this generation the balance of content was nice with some games receiving new content and others not, with developers instead choosing to focus on their next game. In recent months however, downloadable content has become more prolific across most games and as a result I am starting to feel a bit exhausted from it all.

Some of that exhaustion comes from the fact that the games receiving the content are the very same games I felt pressured to play, leading me to feel continually overwhelmed with it all and desiring a much slower pace with which to play everything. The rest of it comes from the fact that, well, the content is coming rather soon after the games' releases and despite loving the games, I would like the chance to play something else as well.

This means that I have mixed thoughts about downloadable content now and I am a little worried with where the concept will head in the future. I have always appreciated the idea of having incentive to return to games thanks to new content and I still do, but I feel that if more and more content gets released to keep players playing, the more it will inspire developers to take advantage of the idea. There have already been examples of developers adding quick and easy content to games to make a few extra dollars, with Oblivion's infamous horse armor coming to mind as well as unlocking content in a game like Need for Speed: Carbon - content that can be unlocked in the game if a player actually played it in the first place. Hearing about this stuff annoys me but it goes even further than that. Now I am one of the first to admit that I am an Achievement (and now Trophy) whore, with my reason for chasing them being the fact that I am a completionist. Already there are examples out there of developers adding Achievements/Trophies to their downloadable content to try and gain a few more sales. While I like the idea of having new in-game accomplishments to go after, the more it happens the more I can see developers putting together a lazy list of things to achieve or obtain with easy scores just so the people out there who like increasing their Gamerscores can get a few extra points. It's a win-win situation for both the people who enjoy boosting their scores and the developers who make money out of the idea. Even I am guilty of it, playing games like Dash of Destruction (although granted it was free) from the Xbox Live Arcade to quickly increase my score despite claiming to obtain Achievements because of my desire to complete everything. Basically, my fear is that if downloadable content continues to become more popular then we will see consumers be taken advantage of.

... and the bad.

It also excites me, bringing the other side of my mixed thoughts to mind and indeed this blog post. As I mentioned above, I appreciate the idea of having new incentives to return to an old game and play it some more. Games like Burnout Paradise and Grand Theft Auto IV -- both with upcoming content -- are providing decent reasons to play these games again and I look forward to racing around Big Surf Island and getting a new, biker's perspective on Liberty City. I also look forward to playing Operation Anchorage in Fallout 3, having new Time Trial events in Mirror's Edge and visiting Knothole Island in Fable II. No doubt when I finally get around to playing a game like the new Prince of Persia, I will also be interested in playing its upcoming DLC once I am finished with the main game.

This is all well and good, but we are also lucky so far that the content -- both released or upcoming -- has remained decent enough to justify a purchase. How long will the consistent quality (that is of course, subjective) of downloadable content last? More importantly, is the concept something that can evolve and really do some interesting things for the medium as a whole? Can episodic content change and evolve because regular downloadable content might? It's an interesting subject to ponder and good or bad, I look forward to seeing where we go next.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Always Connected: Gears Of War

Always Connected is a series of posts focused on online gameplay. Today I take a look at my time with Gears of War.

The Gears of War series can be great fun to play online but unfortunately also one of the worst, with a community comprised of people who are more interested in ruining your experience than playing the game for fun. A generalised view perhaps but one that I feel is necessary after the time I have spent playing the series.

Looking at the original game first, my time with Gears of War has been a mixed affair. In the first few months I was able to cooperatively beat the game's hardest difficulty setting, Insane, as well as play a lot of Warzone multiplayer matches with a group of my friends. I really like the way Gears of War plays as a multiplayer title, with the game's matches feeling much more up close and personal than a game like Halo 2. Eventually my completionist side took over though and as a result, I begun to play Ranked matches so I could work towards the multiplayer Achievements. It was there that my perception of the game changed.

At first playing the Ranked matches was okay. I was doing it with a couple of friends and it wasn't too long before we found out that there was a particular search criteria we could use to get into Australian matches and eliminate the lag. Playing with Aussies was great but then something changed and the matches against them were not fun anymore. These same Australians had a sudden change of attitude and turned into the sort of people that give a bad name to the rest of us. They became the type of people who verbally abused you if you killed them, used glitches such as the infamous Crab-Walk to make the matches unfair and just generally became arseholes. I apologise for the language but it is an apt way to describe their attitudes. It ruined the game for me and made the quest for Seriously, an Achievement obtained by killing 10,000 people in Ranked matches, much harder than it should have been.

Moving onto the second game, I found it to be a much better experience than the first. Partly because the Achievements for the new game don't require much online play but also because of the new Horde mode. Horde in Gears of War 2 is a cooperative mode where a group of up to five players get to take on an onslaught of Locust, with difficulty increasing after every wave of Locust that is defeated. It is immensely fun to play and working together with other players -- friends or randoms -- means that there is no competition between players. This suggests that cooperative play is always going to be more enjoyable than competitive, but even if that is true I still wish that playing a game like Gears of War online could be fun regardless of whether it is with friends or not.

I can only speak from my own experiences so perhaps someone else has found their time with the game's multiplayer to be more enjoyable than my own. I also had a choice to stop playing the original at any time but instead allowed my desire to complete everything take control, something that is entirely my fault. I'm aware of that but even so it disappoints me that a community of players who clearly enjoy both games can take pleasure in ruining the game for everyone else.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Geometric War, Again

Ah Geometry Wars. It doesn't matter whether it is the first or the second game, all I have been playing in the past few days is the series that still remains my most played on the Xbox 360.

Sometimes I will spontaneously fire up either game for a few quick sessions here or there, usually when I am unable to decide what game to play but this time it is different. This time, my addiction has returned and to be honest I would not have it any other way. I am not sure what triggered the desire to play these games so much again nor do I really care, just playing them has been entertaining and exactly what I have needed after focusing so hard on trying to manage so many games at once and failing.

I am, in a word, rusty at the game. It has been a few months since I last played Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2 and the lack of play has definitely seen my skills go and hide on me. That is okay though because it has sparked a desire to reach my peak with the game again, a nice simple challenge that I can commit to while also slowly finishing the other games that have been on rotation recently. High scores factor into this of course, with personal goals to beat both my original scores and the two people who have now overtaken those. Working on the scores of these friends will see a reasonable increase for my scores but for me, that is not good enough. In the original game for example, I have a score in the early two million range. I aim to have a new score of six million (or higher) in the game and because I am confident I can do it, I won't stop playing until that score is mine. The sequel's scores are a bit different due to it having six different modes so I am uncertain about what the goal for the game should be, but I will figure it out as I continue to play and reach my overall skill level again.

So in a nutshell, the Geometry Wars series has overtaken my gaming habits for the foreseeable future and it shall be interesting to see how long this current addiction will last. Chewing my food has turned into having a second helping of something I have enjoyed before. Nothing wrong with that though right?