Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Anticipated Disappointment

2009 is passing by at an extremely fast rate. E3 has just passed giving us a look at what we will be playing later in the year (and beyond) while gamers around the world are currently playing games like inFamous and Prototype. Others again are playing older games such as Resident Evil 5, Halo Wars and even Flower. I'm in this latter category, playing games in my collection that either come from the holiday rush of last year, or, from years previous that the industry has quickly forgotten. We move on fast in this industry and before we know it, we'll be in the holiday season once more where, despite caution to prioritise games this year, I still expect to be overwhelmed with the amount to play. This industry loves seeing the next big thing and while the future is bright, the past is colourful so it's disappointing that we don't spend more time focusing on it. But, we move on this way because we're habitual creatures and can't resist the hype. The discussion stemming from E3 alone proves this, and will continue to do so each and every year.

This is a good thing, though. The convention's insight into the future brought surprises, spectacle and excitement, and information on games we were already anticipating. For me, three games in particular cannot come soon enough: Assassin's Creed 2, Mass Effect 2 and, of course, BioShock 2. I loved the original games and can't wait to see their stories continued in the sequels. Like any fan would be, I'm eagerly awaiting the release of these games and jump at any piece of information I can find referencing them. I can't help it, it's how I've been brought up by the industry.

But it's the other occupants of this industry, the other fans of various franchises, that have been on my mind recently and whom are the subject of this post. These people are following the exact same trend I am and are anticipating whatever upcoming titles take their fancy. There is nothing wrong with it and I am glad they have something to look forward to. I see a problem, however, with the audience's anticipation for certain games and what their reaction to them will be. It just so happens that these particular games also happen to be the ones I've mentioned above.

All three franchises are pretty big names these days, but none more so than the inspiration for this blog's name, BioShock. The original game set in the underwater city of Rapture was both critically and commercially acclaimed, with fans enjoying multiple aspects including the experimentation with Plasmids and weapons; the exploration of the city; the implied history and the narrative. Naturally anticipation for BioShock 2 is high with everyone eager to return to Rapture, to see what is new while revisiting the familiar; as a fanboy of the game I too share this desire to get my hands on the sequel. But what I think separates me from a lot of these other people is that I'm looking forward to it realistically.

Speculation is rife about what will happen in the game, with people discussing how what has already been revealed will relate to what was experienced in the original. This discussion is fostering an excitement and level of expectation for BioShock 2 that, I think, will eventually end up in massive disappointment and perhaps as a result, backlash and maybe even hatred towards the game. This is an unfortunate, yet expected by-product of the insane hype that surrounds big-name titles before release. So why am I writing about it? Well, I think people are expecting BioShock 2 to be as impactful and effective as the original was by providing a story that continues on with the brilliance of the first game, giving new locations within Rapture to explore and fall in love with as well as new Plasmids, weapons, enemies and unexpected surprises around every corner. Arguably this is an understandable expectation, but to me this will only lead to disappointment for those who have such high expecations.

To be blunt, unless 2k Marin end up pulling something special off, BioShock 2 will be a disappointment. I'm not saying it won't be a great game because I'm sure it will be, but it won't be what everyone wants it to be and it's this that will unfortunately see BioShock 2's reputation be mixed, resulting in what will essentially be a love/hate game. I am, on the other hand, anticipating BioShock 2 with more realistic expectations. Sure, I want the game to be everything it can be and as good as the first game, if not better, but I have set myself up so that if this is not the case, then I won't be as disappointed as others will be. To put it simply, all I want from BioShock 2 is for it to engage and immerse me in the same way the original did; for me to be drawn right back into the allure of Rapture, to be entertained with the continuation of the story regardless of how much it relies on predictable, or not-so predictable plot twists and for me to still enjoy the experimental gameplay the series is (or should be) known for. If it can achieve this, then I do not care if it doesn't contain the "OMG" moments, or whether it's as successful as the original in terms of advancing the medium or whatever.

Basically, I want to return to Rapture and revisit a place that feels like home, a place that feels part of me and one I've missed ever since leaving in late 2007. What's the harm in that?

On a side note: it'll be interesting to revisit this post once BioShock 2 is released in late October.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Replay Value

Lately, I have been pondering a question that I can't seem to shake -- Should we play through games multiple times, in order to fully understand the experience and points they are trying to convey?

Playing through a game once is usually enough for us to know what we think about it. Genre or what takes place during the game does not matter; we'll know whether we liked or disliked it, and we'll know whether we found it frustrating, relaxing, intense, atmospheric, compelling or any other adjectives that could be used to describe the particular game we've just finished. So why then, would we need to play through it again if we are already aware of such thoughts?

Well, we wouldn't, but in my experience I have always gained a better sense and understanding of my thoughts on a particular game with a subsequent playthrough, and it seems I'm not the only one. By playing through a game for a second or perhaps even third time, I'm allowing myself to enjoy it again, but more importantly, I'm also opening myself to potential elements, mechanics or features that I may have neglected the first time around. I may notice how the game's combat helps or hinders the overall experience, or, I may see a subtle addition to a room that adds context to the narrative or a certain character, giving me a better understanding of who or what they are.

Usually if we play a game more than once, it's because we really enjoyed the title and want to experience it again, reliving a memory or seeing a story and characters again because they resonated with us. If, however, we can discover something new in a subsequent playthrough, or appreciate the game with a fresh perspective, then how is that a bad thing? It could provide a deeper context for us to enjoy these titles, whilst also allowing us to understand what may or may not work in the intended experience. For the more critically inclined out there, myself included, I can only see this as a good thing as our analysis of a title or exploration of a particular point can be more fully-realised than before.

As an industry we spend so much time focusing on the next big thing, to the point where we either move on within a week of release or get overwhelmed with everything we can play. In doing so, we're so distracted by the current that we have no time to spend enjoying the (even recent) past. For your average title this might seem okay, but for the truly great games, the classics, surely this is a bad thing? Especially when the level of respect we have for these titles could be deeper, better defined and better understood? On second thought, subsequent playthroughs of the average and mediocre titles out there wouldn't be such a bad thing to do, either, as it would allow us to communicate why these titles are mediocre with a more informed perspective than the first (and only) playthrough would.

Don't get me wrong, I realise that playing games more than once takes away time from playing other games we may want to, or from enjoying games that we absolutely love and want to play again, but at the same time I think it's an interesting thing to consider. Would playing through games more than once allow us to justify our opinions through a deeper understanding of an intended experience? And if yes, should we then play through more than once in order to critically evaluate it properly?

If you have an answer to these questions, or something to add, then feel free to have your say via the comments. In the meantime I will be experimenting with this possibility with a game I'm playing at the moment, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune and will post the results in the future.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Cross Blog Dialogue: GTA: Chinatown Wars #4 (Conclusion)

Well, it took longer than expected but Daniel and I finally finished our experiment of posts discussing GTA: Chinatown Wars. It was a fun ride and I'm really glad I was able to take part. I believe I have learned a lot over the course of this discussion and I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Daniel for joining me for it. Be sure to check out his blog for more great discussion. Hopefully you enjoyed reading the series as much as I did writing it and who knows, maybe something similar will happen in the future. For now though, here's the final exchange, enjoy.

Need a refresher?
Cross Blog Dialogue: GTA: Chinatown Wars #1
Cross Blog Dialogue: GTA: Chinatown Wars #2
Cross Blog Dialogue: GTA: Chinatown Wars #3
Daniel: That’s a great summary of Chinatown Wars, very fitting. It is this stop gap in the franchise that sucks everything together and spits it out in a new and interesting way. Chinatown Wars also seems like the ideal title in the series for any newbie looking to become acquainted with the franchise as a whole. The gun club is just opposite the airport (far right hand side of the map) by the main road.

The end game is actually quite good, there’s a series of missions that build up to an exciting conclusion and the story actually ends on a positive note; the bastards get what’s coming to them - all of them. Huang gets a lead and proceeds to chase down the suspects, once he narrows it down, the game features a series of set pieces that act as boss battles. Kicks the game off on a high note. So I was rather impressed with how the game concluded.

GTA: Chinatown Wars is a contemporary incarnation of previous games and plays accordingly. It’d be fair to speculate that the framework for the original titles was built to avoid rendering the large city in 3D, if that’s the case, Chinatown Wars realizes this design and retools it. Having the city rendered in 3D makes the game feel relateable to GTAIII onwards, yet since the camera remains overhead, the feel of the original games is also present. It’s an game that balances the feel of both varieties in limbo, metaphorically represented by the camera both is halfway between overhead and low. The latter allowing the 3D models to stand out, the former to give a pseudo 2D appearance. As we’ve discussed, it’s likewise for the mechanics; a mix and match of previous titles.

What the game does differently or completely new from the previous games is what gives the title a unique identity and strengthens it as a whole. The flashy graphical style is the epitome of all this. It’s a style of it’s own that is unique to this installment. The driving mechanics are tweaked and feel inspired by other games but unique in it’s own right due to the slight assistance it provides. The narrative too, it’s lite and full of jokes yet presented in a series of transitioning renders with text. Finally, the DS interface is what marries it all together and individualizes the title more than anything else.

The feeling is therefore a combination of those from the prior games. The game feels like a huge world of mayhem contained within such a concentrated space. The new graphical flair makes the on-screen drama visually stunning, it’s a greater feast to the eyes giving the intensity of chase sequences a unique exuberance. The camera allows you to witness everything in close proximity, emphasizing the contained feel of the game. The camera locks the player away from the action. This feels a little constricting but serves to remind the player that this is indeed a portable title and there are restraints imposed. It’s not a bad thing, but it comes with the property and instills any feelings attributed to the hardware. Overall, GTA: Chinatown Wars feels like a culmination of clever concepts wrapped in a visually attractive package uniquely geared for portable play. What’s your final take?


: My final take is a fairly obvious one given the things I have said in our previous exchanges; GTA: Chinatown Wars is an impressive game both in the technical achievements Rockstar Leeds managed, as well as how fun and exciting it can be given the completely different platform it is on. Before playing it, I did not think a Grand Theft Auto title could work on the DS and it was nice to be proven wrong. Before playing it, I didn’t know what to expect and as a result, I had no expectations going into the title. I came out of it surprised, impressed and with an even deeper level of respect for Rockstar as a whole for doing what they did with the game.

Chinatown Wars is to me, as I’ve mentioned before, a summary of the entire franchise, with Rockstar using it to make a clear and concise example of what they believe GTA is about. They mixed and matched various elements of the series to demonstrate the core of the franchise whilst also proving that it had legs, that it was open to experimentation. You could almost call it Grand Theft Auto: Greatest Hits.

Sure, not everything was as enjoyable as it could have been, with my main gripe being the story and how irrelevant it was. Characters were boring, their dialogue more so and all they were useful for was providing my next mission. Even the end of the game, while fun to play, wasn’t all that compelling (I guess we disagree there). The ending was predictable and I totally saw it coming. The story just didn’t seem to be a priority this time around, which is disappointing for me after seeing what they attempted with GTA IV. That said, it does not detract from the experience at all. Sure, it may be disappointing, but you soon forget about it once the actual missions start thanks to the unique and varied objectives we’ve already alluded to. Taking full advantage of the DS’s features proved to be beneficial to the game overall and I sincerely hope that from now on, all GTA games contain the same level of variety that Chinatown Wars does.

Overall, I am happy to have played this game and I’m eager to see where Rockstar take the franchise next. It begins with the second downloadable episode for GTA IV, The Ballad of Gay Tony, and no doubt I will have some opinions on it once I’ve played it. Beyond that, I’m keen to know if they keep offering different perspectives within Liberty City, or whether they choose to go in another direction again. I’d also like to see another DS game in the future, though after the lack of buzz surrounding the title and the lackluster sales, I’d understand if that wish doesn’t come true. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank you for participating in this exchange as well as sharing the experience with me. It was fun and I hope you enjoyed it too. Hopefully we can do it again sometime.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Catching Up After E3

Well, it has been almost a fortnight since my last post. My apologies for that. My reasoning is, of course, the week of E3. Whilst I didn't attend (that would be the day), I couldn't resist reading anything and everything to do with the show. I stayed up to watch the three press conferences, viewed countless trailers and read all the hands-on previews I could to ensure that I was aware of everything that came from the show. It is something I do every year and 2009 was not going to be any different, however I wonder if perhaps I focused on it too much because I fell behind on the things I'd usually do such as reading blogs and, of course, writing on this one.

Enter this current week which is basically over. I spent the majority of it trying to catch up after E3 and that is why I've been quiet. I am still not entirely caught up with everything, but what is left will have to wait while I get back into my routine. Expect some incoming posts on the games I have been playing recently including Dead Space, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune and Gran Turismo 5: Prologue. I also have the final post in my series about Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars on the way and I may do an in-depth post on Just Cause if I feel like it warrants it.

Returning to E3, what an awesome return to form for the show that was! I'm not one to try and decide which company 'won' the show because that would be selling myself short. So instead allow me to cheat and claim that all three 'won', because I certainly felt that way after seeing what they had to offer. For years now I have been wanting to see three games in particular: Alan Wake, Heavy Rain and Team ICO's next game -- now known as The Last Guardian -- and this year delivered. Admittedly it wasn't in the way I was expecting, with both Heavy Rain and The Last Guardian being shown (leaked or otherwise) prior to the show, but even so it was great to finally see them. Beyond those titles, I was keen on seeing more of games like Assassin's Creed 2, Mass Effect 2, and of course BioShock 2 and I was also pleasantly surprised to see unexpected announcements as well. Crackdown 2, Forza 3, Golden Sun 3, Metroid: Other M and Gran Turismo PSP were all surprises, as were Microsoft and Sony's motion control reveals, both of which show a lot of potential.

Another game that I was not expecting but I'm happy to see is the spiritual successor, of sorts, to LittleBigPlanet: ModNation Racers. This little game was revealed during Sony's conference and is basically the racing genre's version of Media Molecule's awesome platformer. That alone piques my interest but seeing a race track created in quite extensive detail within a five minute presentation was amazing and I really can't wait to see more of that game in the future. Too bad it seemed to fly under the radar while the bigger titles hogged the spotlight.

Anyway, another E3 is done and dusted and once again I have a bucketload of titles that I am interested in, with the games mentioned above only just a few of them. Thankfully a lot of them seem to be 2010 titles, which hopefully means I won't be as overwhelmed as I was last year. I'm still recovering from that, some 8 months later. With that look into the future done for another year, it's now time to return to the present and enjoy the games I have now. Regular programming will resume with the next post. :)