Saturday, May 30, 2009

Timeless Fun

One of the most common elements in racing games are Time Trial modes. It doesn't matter whether the game is simulating the real world or set in a fictional setting with outlandish characters, the mode is a staple of the genre and even expected to be in each racing game that is released. Despite this, the modes of racing games are rarely discussed and people can't seem to clarify why they enjoy playing them so with that in mind, it's time to enter my own thoughts as I explain why I enjoy setting lap times over and over again.

Time Trials are fun due to the precision I alluded to in my previous post about striving for perfection. By being precise, the player is concentrating as hard as possible on ensuring that every single corner is taken perfectly, because in doing so, the reward will be seeing their time be faster than the one that was originally set out to be beaten -- a friend's posted time, an attempt for a position on online leaderboards or their own previous record. When the word precision is used, it's easy to associate the term with realistic (sim) racing games only. They concentrate on providing realistic handling and physics so the benefit of precision is more integrated and important in those types of games. The term can, however, still summarise how a player approaches Time Trials in a fictional racer such as Mario Kart or F-Zero, as despite the tracks in these games featuring unrealistic jumps, obstacles and speed boosters, the fastest times will still come from the laps that were taken precisely. In fact I would say that Time Trials in these fictional games are more fun and interesting, as the addition of those elements ensures players are kept on their toes.

Beyond the precision element, Time Trials are also fun because of the numbers associated with the mode. The notion of beating a time is appealing for two reasons: First, the challenge with testing a player's skills and pushing them to their limits and second, the competition shared with friends or leaderboards. Both reasons are common place in gaming as a whole and have been around for many years, the difference being that instead of trying to beat times, it is usually an attempt to beat a high score. The reason why players aim to beat those scores is the exact same reason why people try to beat times in Time Trials, the end result being success in beating others or a rewarding boost to the ego as you finally improve your skills and result.

The mode in itself isn't necessarily exclusive to racing games either; other genres have implemented Time Trials to various success, adding a nice, different take on the mode as a whole. A conveniently recent example would be Mirror's Edge, which used Time Trials to separate the game's core mechanic -- free running/parkour (whatever you would like to call it) -- from the game's story and other bells and whistles. This allowed players the chance to explore the levels more thoroughly and experiment with different routes and paths across the rooftops, something that couldn't be done in the normal game due to the urgency of a countdown timer or something related to the story. Extending even more on the Time Trials were the Speed Runs, which challenged players to see how fast they could traverse the levels from the story. Including such modes gave players something to do after they completed the main game, as well as exploring the limits of it at their leisure. Being able to explore levels to find the fastest route and then exploit it to set times is a rewarding feeling and it's nice to see other games experimenting with the mode.

In summary the reasons someone like me, a massive fan of motorsport, enjoys doing laps over and over again around a track is because I enjoy aiming at the times and trying to beat them, but more importantly I also enjoy the pressure and satisfaction that comes from trying to be as precise as I possibly can. It can be something as significant as finally getting a corner right, or something as minor as taking a section of the track a fraction faster than previously -- all of it ends with a feeling that I have achieved something and while it might not mean anything in the grand scheme of things, the reward is too hard for me to resist.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Game Diary - May 27, 2009: A Visit To South Central

Downloadable content can be a blessing or a curse, depending on the game and of course the content being released. Not too long after I finished the game, Midnight Club: LA received some DLC in the form of South Central, which added new cars, races, music and also extended the city significantly, giving players a new area to explore.

As both a completionist and fan of the game, it was inevitable that I would download the content and return to LA. I'm glad I did as well as the additional content was really enjoyable and it was nice to be playing again. It extends upon an already awesome racing game and South Central is designed in a really fun way just like the main city of LA.

Unfortunately, there is no real reason to explore South Central as the content is too short. The actual place is fine, but I believe there isn't enough races or things to do within to fully take advantage of the new area and that is disappointing. It felt like every ten minutes I was unlocking another of the game's new Achievements and overall it just passed by in a blur. The races were fairly easy too with only one or two requiring a retry on my part, though I do wonder if the difficulty is dictated by the fact that I had already finished the main game and therefore had access to all the cars, upgrades and so on. I'm mildly intrigued to know how someone who hadn't finished the main game would see South Central's difficulty, but really the issue is trivial and doesn't take away from the overall enjoyment.

South Central comes fully recommended from me if you're a fan of the game, but I also wish there was more to do as an incentive to explore the new area. Midnight Club: LA is officially finished once again so I will be moving on. Hopefully I can return to LA again sometime in the future.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Game Diary - May 21, 2009: Home Alone (Part 1)

Earlier this evening I fired up the PS3 to check out PlayStation Home. I have looked into the service once when I first got my PS3 but back then it had only just released (into Beta) and therefore was a little bare in terms of content.

I returned this evening due to the recent release of the Chamber apartment as I was interested in comparing it to the Harbour Studio one everyone begins with, as well as seeing the newly added spaces such as game-specific ones for Far Cry 2 and Resident Evil 5. Unfortunately I was unable to see the Chamber apartment as either I'm blind and couldn't find how to access it or it's only available in certain countries.

After redownloading the various spaces again, I finally started to mess around with Home to see what I thought and well, like my previous session, I felt like a complete outsider. I mean, part of Home's appeal is to socialise with people but no one that I encountered was doing any talking aside from the brief "Hello, where are you from?". Beyond that everyone was just walking around aimlessly or dancing randomly. I watched a few trailers, an in-Home presentation with the people behind the latest Star Trek movie and played around with the various activities you could do such as Helicopter Hit and Draughts. All of them felt like novelties -- entertaining for the first 10 minutes but beyond that just there for the sake of being there. That's a little disappointing because I believe Home has some great potential and I would like to see Sony implement that in this service.

Due to the aforementioned redownloading of everything, I didn't get the chance to check out the game or company specific areas so I will do be doing that over the weekend. I also organised to experience Home with a friend, so it will be interesting to see if having that social element (even if only mildly) changes the experience and makes it more compelling. Stay tuned for more on Home soon.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Conditioned Gaming

Earlier in the year when Australia's summer was in full effect, there was a week in particular where I lost all motivation to play games due to the insane heat we were having. Temperatures were pushing the 40s (celsius) and it was just too draining for me to bother firing up any games I wanted to play. As a result of this, I used the time to come up with some post ideas for this blog. One in particular is relevant to the heat and allows me to ask the following question.

Do the conditions in which we play games, affect the way we play or how we feel about them?

Asking myself that question, my immediate answer is yes. What about yours?

Of course, the question is vague and can cover a broad variety of topics. The first obvious one for me is the heat issue. Each day I intended to play something, but never did because it was just too hot and I wasn't in the right frame of mind to engage with any game. As this was in a period where I was still overwhelmed with games to play, the lack of time spent making progress in them frustrated me as it felt like a waste of time. In hindsight I probably made the right choice based on how I was feeling at the time, but regardless of that, the situation brought the above question to my attention.

Another example could be one's approach to story-based games such as Fallout 3 and BioShock. I can't play nor focus on any game with a narrative I want to engage with if I know there will be distractions. This could include chatting with friends over Xbox Live, or it could be that someone else in the house may choose to start a conversation with you. It might even be something as simple as the phone ringing. Obviously, things like these break the immersion a player may have with a game and brings them right back to reality. It certainly does for me and as a result I will only play games with interesting narratives when I know that I won't be interrupted. Socialising over Xbox Live has shown to me that some players have no problems multi-tasking, playing games while also chatting with other people. They seem to be able to focus on the important parts of the story and also what is being discussed in conversation, and that is something that intrigues me given my own approach to the situation. Perhaps they aren't as interested in the stories as much as I am? Whatever their situation is, the difference between theirs and mine is something that I find intriguing.

Shifting focus yet again, some games seem better when shared and experienced with friends, with a decent example being the Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises. Both are fun to play on your lonesome but are arguably better when shared with a few friends in the living room, particularly now that they support full bands instead of just the guitar. The addition of friends changes the conditions of play, as well as how the games are approached by the various players and in this instance, makes for a more enjoyable experience.

If conditions affect how we play or approach a game, then is that a good or bad thing? Is our opinion influenced or even defined by these conditions? Can we dislike a game because our sessions with it were interrupted? Can we enjoy a game more because an additional element (friends, lights turned off for a survival horror game, etc.) enriched the experience?

All of the above questions, and many more, come from the original question asked above and each answer will be different based on your own individual experiences. The question I'm most interested in is if conditions do influence our enjoyment of a game, then does that become a topic of importance when considering how we discuss games, or even how we criticise them? Should we be including the way we experienced them in our thoughts or discussion because it could be such an influential and defining aspect of our opinion and if yes, does that then change the nature of the discussion and how other people interpret this opinion?

It's an interesting thing to ponder and I hope to look into these questions sometime in the future.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Game Diary

I'm stealing this concept from one Stephen Totilo and will be using it to briefly speak about any games I have been playing, as well as any completion progress that I may have made. Ideally I would have had another post up this evening but commitments have meant that I've had to push it back a few days. Sorry about that.

I've got an insane amount of games waiting to be played at the moment such as Dead Space and Bully. Unfortunately however they've been put on hold while I still play games like Fallout 3 and Fable II, due to downloadable content or the fact that I haven't finished them yet. Adding on top of all this gaming goodness is about 5-7 games that I've borrowed from friends. One of these games is Just Cause and throughout the week I finally gave it a whirl.

First impressions are good, better than expected in fact, with the game being quite fun to play and looking pretty damn nice considering its age. Driving around the cities and countryside in itself is rather nice on the eye, with lush forests opening up to reveal a sunset over the ocean. It's when you are parachuting out of a plane or helicopter and slowly but surely gliding down towards the Earth below, however, that Just Cause is truly spectacular. Seeing the islands (the game's world is made out of about 6 decently sized islands and multiple smaller ones) spread out into the distance, birds flying next to you in the sky and deciding on one of the many enticing destinations below is quite awe-dropping and arguably Just Cause's best asset. On the negative side of things, Just Cause is perhaps too big and even by plane it can take a good 20 minutes to get from one side of the map to the other. The game's story doesn't engage either, seeming quite generic though admittedly I am still in the early stages. Why? Because I've spent too much time taking in the sights, as well as exploring and finding the game's collectibles.

I've mentioned a few times here before that I consider myself a completionist, always aiming to complete a game to the best of my ability. Things were no different this week when I finally finished Race Pro's career and championship modes. I still have a few championships left to do but they shouldn't take long and once completed, it will just be some easy online Achievements left to obtain. I also finished the story of GTA: Chinatown Wars which had a predictable ending. Progress sits on 59% complete and I will now find the hidden cameras and etc. so I can hit 100% completion.

That's the week in review. As I type this it is early Sunday morning here in Australia so unfortunately I didn't get to do everything I intended to game wise this time around. Still, one day is enough to play some more of Just Cause and also check out Playstation Home again now that it seems to be worth spending time in. More on that in the next few days.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Critical Laps

Recently Michael Abbott of The Brainy Gamer fame pondered a question that many would not: Why don't we talk about sport games? He then goes on to question why the more critically inclined out there don't spend some time focusing on these games, offers up a few potential reasons for the lack of discourse and then attempts to change it in his next post on MLB 09 The Show.

For me the post came out of nowhere and before it, I didn't give sports games or their (lack of) discussion a second thought, but as soon as he mentioned it, it made absolute sense and inspired my own questions about my particular take on the genre. One half of this post is dedicated to my individual situation with the genre, the other shifts focus and turns the attention onto another genre that I feel is neglected in a similar way: Racing games. Recently I have been dedicating some posts to racing games in an attempt to not only summarise my thoughts on them, but also to try and look at them in ways that other, perhaps more casual players of the genre would not. I realise that not many people play the genre the way I do nor do they approach it in the same way and that's okay, everyone has their own tastes and interests, but as someone who enjoys it I can't deny that I would like to read more discussion about it. More on that in a bit.

Whenever I see a game like Fifa or Tiger Woods in the charts, I am not surprised. Sports are popular, we all know that, so to see their virtual counterparts in the top ten games for a week, month or even year isn't shocking and is in some ways to be expected. Add in Nintendo's simplistic yet addictive take on the genre in Wii Sports and it is almost guaranteed there is a sports game on the list somewhere. News that they can also outsell massively anticipated titles like Fallout 3 and Fable II combined does not surprise me either, not in the slightest. What does surprise me is that despite all of these people playing these games, there is next to no discussion (critically or otherwise) on them. Michael approaches it more eloquently than I ever could in his post, but my thoughts echo his own.

Personally I have no problems with sports games and in an ideal world, I would be playing my fair share of them. Unfortunately though I do not have the time nor the finances to dedicate to sports games, especially not when I also have other titles (you know, the ones we do discuss) vying for my attention. Arguably, you could say that I view the sports genre as a lower priority when compared to the other, more commonly played ones. Meaning that while I do maintain an interest in them, they are usually cast aside so I can focus on the games I am even more interested in such as Fallout 3, Forza 2 and, of course, BioShock. This attitude towards the genre means that due to the aforementioned time and money situation, I rarely get to consider purchasing a sports game despite any desires of wanting to. That's just an unfortunate by-product of both the industry and my own life and it is something I have accepted over the years. Lately however, my interest in sport games has increased, particularly with the news of their quality increasing tenfold in recent iterations. To use the most obvious example, Fifa 09 was the first time that football (soccer) fans preferred EA's latest installment over Konami's most recent Pro Evolution title. That was interesting news purely because the Pro Evo series had built a reputation as being the king of football games. From all accounts, other games in the genre such as the latest Madden title are also of an increased quality in recent years and as such, it seems to me that the genre is now worth visiting if you are a fan of any sport.

Continuing my own perspective for just a little longer, two games stand out to me in particular as games that should have been discussed more: Fight Night Round 03 and Rockstar's Table Tennis. Both games were surprisingly enjoyable for me (I'm not really interested in either sport) and yet despite their quality they flew under the radar. That's unfortunate and I can only hope that future quality sport games get their time in the spotlight.

Racing games, while almost as common as First Person Shooters, seem to also be largely ignored by the critically inclined out there. As I mentioned above, I've been trying to change that a little with my own take on the various games out there, but even so I am just one person. Again I realise that not many people would share the experience and attitude towards the genre that I do, but even so surely some people out there are willing to read about and discuss racing games? I have no doubt that people play them (just like sport games) so why is there little to no discussion? In fact the only discussion I can think of in recent times (aside from reviews or interviews) related to racing games is conversation about Burnout Paradise and Criterion Software's incredible support of the game via downloadable content post release. While I appreciate that being discussed (it is respectable after all -- I can only hope other developers follow their lead), it's not really the game being discussed is it? It's Criterion's approach to downloadable content. What annoys me, as a fan of the entire Burnout franchise, is that this discussion only occurred once the DLC started happening; before that if you were going to hear something about the game it was complaints about a lack of a retry feature, or how some players were getting lost as a result of the new, open-world city. Positive and negative comments aside, it makes sense for games like Burnout Paradise and Mario Kart to be discussed as they are both accessible, easy to pick up and play, appeal to a broader audience and don't necessarily require any skill. Compare that to simulation games like Forza 2 and Gran Turismo and it's easy to see why there's no discussion on them. Yet, there is as well; both Gran Turismo and Forza 2 have their own communities (here and here) discussing everything from lap times to car setups to how they painted their car (Forza 2 only for that last one). This is a great start and for fans like me, it's awesome to be able to compare lap times with others around the world, try out someone's car setup or purchase someone's awesome looking car -- it feeds nicely into the car culture that I and many others are already well invested in, be it through an interest in particular manufacturers or motorsport like yours truly. But none of it is in-depth, none of it is critical and as someone who enjoys reading these particular perspectives, it is disappointing to see none of my favourite racing games be discussed in this way.

On a semi-related topic, I have always found it interesting how racing games (particularly licensed ones which, in turn, are usually more on the sim side of things) are classed as their own genre. I understand why, but a lot of them are based around motorsport. See the bold for emphasis. Motorsport is indeed a sport, yet for whatever reason it is never treated as such. An interesting thing to ponder, perhaps.

To conclude, now that Michael has brought it to my attention, I would like to see both genres discussed more often. There's no reason why they don't deserve the same treatment as RPGs or FPSs and I imagine that if people did approach them with a critical eye, some very interesting analysis and discourse would come out of it. I will continue to try and do my part with the racing genre, hopefully everyone else (if they have an interest in either genre) will also start to view these games as worthy of their attention.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Hypnotic Gardens

As I have previously mentioned, PixelJunk Eden has been a pleasant surprise. Interested in trying new things, I downloaded it with no expectations or knowledge of what the game was, aside from the odd comment from friends claiming it as one of the best games on the Playstation 3. Within minutes of my first session with the game, I wholeheartedly agreed.

Obviously I'm still relatively new to Sony's console and as such, don't have the experience with it that many others do. Even so, I firmly believe that PJE (PixelJunk Eden) is an important game to the platform, particularly the Playstation Network. Featuring games like EchoCrome, Flower and PJE is a great thing, not just in what the games themselves offer in content but also because they're unique and form an identity for the platform which separates it from other online services. I think it is telling that by including these games on their service, Sony has attracted people to the PS3 that they wouldn't have with blockbuster titles such as Metal Gear Solid IV or LittleBigPlanet. In fact, I was almost one of these people. As soon as I saw it in motion at one of Sony's E3 conferences, EchoCrome jumped onto my radar and became a reason to buy the console. Like many however, I held off with the purchase due to the console's price, lack of games that I was interested in and even, slightly, Sony's arrogance that the console would sell eventually. I have already detailed my PS3 purchase here, however, so instead I will simply say that the more Sony releases games like this, the more it will form an identity that becomes as much of an important selling point for the console as the included Blu-Ray player. Surely that is no bad thing?

Moving onto the actual game itself, I love playing PixelJunk Eden because I find it relaxing to play. It's a great game for me because it appeals to two different aspects of my gaming habits: on one hand I can fire it up for ten minutes, do whatever takes my fancy and just relax with it after a busy day. On the other, I can play it like I do most games by trying to locate all the Spectra within a level or trying to collect enough pollen to open up every seed. This balance between relaxation and motivated play is a nice one and it's one of the main reasons why I find it so enjoyable to spend time with. As fellow blogger Scott Juster from Experience Points mentions, it is also quite therapeutic, achieving this through rhythmic motions, a minimal yet effective soundtrack and hypnotic visuals.

Speaking of the visuals, they continue to surprise. I have spent many hours with the game and yet just this evening I noticed something different about them. While playing I noticed the backgrounds are essentially just blank sheets (there are of course, some exceptions) which then led me to realise that by collecting pollen and nurturing the plants for growth, we are effectively painting the level onto this backdrop. Obviously this is just an observation and the levels will always be the same with subsequent visits, but noticing this different perspective on the game seems to fit when you consider its presentation is, to quote a friend I showed the game to, quite "artistic". I agree with that description and find it an apt way to describe the visual elegance PixelJunk Eden manages to convey. The cool thing is that this is just one aspect of PJE's overall experience, one which while simplistic to play is also open to interpretation and can be viewed by many different perspectives. I can't wait to play more of this wonderful game and eagerly await what else is to come out of the PixelJunk series.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Striving For Perfection

I have been playing games in the racing genre for as long as I can remember, starting with fantastic games like Super Mario Kart and Unirally on the SNES and continuing until the current day with titles like Midnight Club: LA and Race Pro. If it has two or four wheels and goes fast, I'm running it through its paces out of a simple love for all things cars and by extension, motorsport. Even if the game is fairly average -- which a lot of them are -- chances are I will still enjoy myself anyway. I can't describe this enjoyment nor do I plan to; all I can say is that to me, it's just part of the passion I have for the sport in real life. I can, however, try and communicate what makes the genre tick for me.

When it comes to realistic racing games (read: simulators), there is one thing in particular that I feel is the defining reason as to why I would play them over and over again: precision.

The desire to be precise around a race track comes from a desire to be perfect, the desire to have that one perfect lap or race. Now clearly it's impossible to achieve such a goal as there will always be a corner that could have been taken faster on an otherwise brilliant lap, or a race that could have panned out differently, but this is also beside the point. It is the desire in and of itself which makes racing enjoyable, intense and exhilarating and ultimately what makes striving for perfection so rewarding.

A lot of drivers in the real world will tell you that they race to win. They are in it to win it and anything less is a disappointment. There is a reason they say it too; to win in a race is to achieve the highest possible outcome, to be better than the rest and to get as close as is possible to perfection. When victory doesn't happen, motivation will come from the desire to be on the top of that podium and thus the cycle continues.

Winning isn't everything though. In the real world, most race events are part of a bigger picture, just one small aspect of an entire championship or series of events. Winning one race may be achieving the highest possible outcome, but it's an outcome that is only relevant to that race. There is always more to strive for, be it more race victories or winning the overall championship at the end of the year. Beyond that, there's consecutive championships to win, or a move into another series to measure success there. Throughout the goal always remains the same: to achieve perfection.

Polyphony Digital have a reputation for being perfectionists. Their Gran Turismo series is renowned for constant delays while they strive for perfection, as well as for achieving things in the racing genre that were not only innovative but also imitated the real world as best as possible at a time when technology was only just starting to allow such an option. Billed as 'The Real Driving Simulator', the franchise set out to allow gamers the chance to experience what it was like to drive a wide-range of cars around circuits in a realistic manner. The franchise established the benchmark for realistic racing games and remained unchallenged for many years. Sure, attempts to beat it were made but none were really note-worthy until the release of Turn 10's Forza Motorsport on the original Xbox. Forza copied the best features of Gran Turismo, refined them and then added its own take on what it believed the genre was about, as well as what it needed. Tyre physics in particular was a defining feature of the original Forza with an emphasis on portraying the effects that wheelspin and weight distribution could have on a car's handling. It allowed players to gauge grip level, something that throughout a race (particularly longer ones) would change as the tyres wore out and lost some of their tread. This feedback -- visually (sliding), aurally (tyres screeching) and through the use of the Xbox controller's rumble (feel) -- gave, in my view, players a more realistic representation of what it was like to race, demonstrating how things change over the course of a race as well as the effects these changes would have on how the player approached not only the track, but the way they drove the car as well. This was further refined in Forza 2 and the end result was a game that, in my opinion, took over from Gran Turismo as the king of simulated racing games.

This brings us to the current day where, fortunately, the competition between the two well-established franchises is a casual one. They are rival franchises on rival platforms, but they both share a common goal in providing an experience that many people out there would love to do in the real world. It's this common goal that is seeing both franchises refine what they have already done as well as introduce more in order to achieve that goal. It is also competition that has inspired other developers who share the vision, to strive for the same goal. I may have been a little critical of it in my last post, but I am extremely impressed with SimBin's first attempt at a console simulation game in Race Pro and I seriously cannot wait to see what they do next.

As is probably obvious, I am one of these people who would love to do it in the real world but unfortunately motorsport is extremely expensive and I do not have the financial capacity to pursue it. Naturally, the next best thing is these racing games and I'm very thankful that these developers share a common goal and strive for perfection. By doing so, they give people like me the ability to enjoy their passion in a way that watching it passively cannot and that's a very rewarding feeling. It may not be the real thing, but it will suffice if it means we can aim for victory, aim to be better than the rest and most importantly, strive for that same perfection that our favourite drivers do in real life. If that's not the next best thing, then I don't know what is.