Sunday, July 26, 2009

Standing Out: In History And Amongst The Pack

We're almost into the month of August, which, in turn, means that in a couple of months we will be entering the holiday season rush of games that is now standard for the industry each year.

Every year we are inundated with releases, all of them vying for our attention through huge marketing budgets, pre-release hype and our own expectations. Every year we are overwhelmed with quality titles, making our decisions of what to play first extremely hard, something made worse by our general desire (whether we realise it or not) to keep up with everyone else. It's why we move onto the next big thing within moments of a game's release and it is also why we see a lot of games, even ones we enjoy immensely, fall out of our memories so quickly. This consistent quality -- the fact that the majority of the games released each year are actually fairly decent -- is surprising, but is also something for another post. Here's an example list of the games we will most likely all be playing come October/November later this year;

  • Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
  • Assassin's Creed 2
  • Brutal Legend
  • Halo: ODST
  • Forza 3
  • Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
  • Borderlands
  • Splinter Cell: Conviction
  • New Super Mario Bros. Wii
  • Scribblenauts
  • Saboteur
  • Rock Band: Beatles
  • Dragon Age: Origins

That's not including downloadable titles on the various online services nor any anticipated titles from 2010, some delayed from this year's bunch, some still a while off and likely to be in next year's holiday season. Now here's a list of games that a lot of us have played in the last couple of years;

  • Portal
  • BioShock
  • Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
  • Halo 3
  • Burnout Paradise
  • Grand Theft Auto IV
  • Braid
  • Metal Gear Solid IV
  • Uncharted: Drake's Fortune
  • LittleBigPlanet
  • Fallout 3
  • Fable II
  • Assassin's Creed
  • Mass Effect
  • Prince of Persia
  • Far Cry 2
  • Left 4 Dead

Combine the lists and you get a lot of games, leading to a massive amount of hours spent playing, exploring and writing about them. Depending on individual taste and even with intentionally leaving a few out, by the end of 2009 we will have played approximately 30 games in a short period of two-three years. Thirty games! That is just incredible and it's no wonder we drop games so suddenly in order to play the next big thing. If we don't, we will fall behind and be unable to participate in the overall conversation of the industry yet, ironically, it's inevitable that we will miss some of that discourse too. It's impossible for us to play everything we may want to, even if we own it, within such a short period of time and furthermore, it's inevitable that we must pass up on some titles as well, be it due to financial reasons or because we're unaware that we may enjoy a particular game. This focus on 'keeping up with the Joneses' that the gaming community at large relentlessly pursues is baffling and yet year in, year out we do it regardless of how silly it is. If we don't, then who is going to care about our opinion on Game A when everyone is playing Game J?

Alas, I've already covered the result I usually experience in these periods and don't plan on doing so again. Instead I want to remind you of the 'good old days', where certain games stand out to you among the rest, your perception defining their importance to you and your gaming history whilst also suggesting that everything else was relatively average.

I think it is fair to say that every gamer who has been playing games for a long time, will have certain games that stand out to them as defining reasons for why they play games today. Usually these games will also be regarded as favourites though this is not always the case. Reasons for why they stand out will, of course, vary and could include examples such as outside influences (people, culture, etc.) or just simply the amount of hours spent with a particular title. Financial capacity is also a defining factor with a lot of us playing these games over and over again due the fact we just couldn't afford anything else. I'd also argue that the majority of us found ourselves in this situation due to the simple fact that we were kids; we were growing up and it wasn't uncommon for our games to be purchased by our parents/family or to be received as presents for events like Christmas and our birthdays.

Think about it for a second: What are the games that stand out to you over the course of your gaming career? Certain titles stand out don't they? Now compare and contrast it with the current crop of games we are inundated with each year. Hardly any of them stand out, do they?

That's not to say that they don't or can't stand out. I would actually say that in the most recent years we've been blessed with titles that do stand out -- games worthy of our utmost praise and attention and, more importantly, games that are worth standing on the pedestal alongside our favourites from years gone by -- but generally speaking, most of them don't. There are many reasons for this but I think one of the main ones, and the point of this post, is that we are just far too busy dabbling in various titles or being distracted by the next big thing. While it's fun at the time, surely trying to mix 'n' match so much is actually hurting our gaming career and more importantly, our enjoyment of individual titles? When are we going to hit the point where we've played too much, get burned out because of it and then find the medium not interesting anymore? If and when that does happens, will that be the industry's fault or our own? I'm sure you will agree they are interesting questions to think about.

With all that said and done, some games do receive some serious attention -- some are discussed thoroughly and perhaps as a result, will stand out in our memories just like the classics we already love do now. Games like BioShock, Fallout 3 and Portal are all favourites, generally speaking, among the gaming community and I have no doubt in my mind there will be plenty more to come. I just hope games that are of the same quality of those three mentioned above in the future, don't end up flying under the radar because of this hasty mentality that everyone seems so intent on following. That would just be unfortunate and disappointing. Unfortunately for me, I can't help but shake the feeling that we've already allowed some titles to pass us by and when I think about that, I find that disappointing. Such is the industry though, I suppose.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Handheld Love

The majority of my gaming time these days is dedicated to the consoles. It doesn't matter if it's the current generation or an older one such as the Nintendo 64, if I am playing a game then it will usually be on a TV with a controller in hand. In the past I've dabbled with PC gaming but as I don't have a decent PC of my own, I seldom get the chance to think about the range of games available for the platform. That's disappointing but something I have grown to accept over the years. When I was younger, I also used a few handhelds for my gaming with the Pokemon franchise in particular receiving a lot of play time. This declined as I grew up, eventually leading to a serious neglect of my first Nintendo DS.

When I purchased it I got five games: Mario Kart DS, Animal Crossing: Wild World, Nintendogs, Metroid Prime: Hunters and Tetris DS. I played all of them often with Animal Crossing being a daily ritual for almost eight months.

Then, suddenly, I just stopped. I had no interest in playing the DS and ignored any new releases in favour of being able to afford the games I wanted on the consoles. As I had nothing new to play, I also lost interest in handheld gaming as a whole.

A couple of years later, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars appeared in one of Nintendo's E3 conferences. Being a massive GTA fan, I just knew I had to check it out, especially as I couldn't imagine what a Grand Theft Auto title would look like on a handheld platform. Once the game was released I gave in to temptation and purchased a second DS (the other one broke courtesy of my little sister) and a copy of the game.

At first, my disinterest in handheld gaming dictated my approach to the new game. Instead of giving it the time of day, I'd play it briefly before feeling compelled to stop and fire up the PS3 or Xbox 360 instead. Without even realising it, my attitude towards handheld gaming became negative and I, for whatever reason, viewed spending time on the consoles as a superior option. The more I played Chinatown Wars however, the more this began to change. It managed to suck me in and as a result, it reinvigorated my love of handheld gaming. This happened a couple of months ago and you can see what I think of the game here.

Lately another handheld game has been on my mind, one completely different to the action found in Liberty City and one that I absolutely adore. That game? Professor Layton And The Curious Village. I purchased it on a recommendation from a friend and I've been unable to put it down ever since I began playing. It's a great pick up and play title (puzzles) yet it can also hold my interest over longer periods of time (the story). The characters are interesting, the puzzles challenging and I also love the music and gorgeous visuals. So far I can't fault the game and I fully recommend it to anyone who owns a DS and wants a unique experience. I'll have a more in-depth post on Professor Layton in the near future, but for now I just wanted to take the time to say that my desire to play handheld games has returned and I'm loving every minute of it.

On a side note, once Professor Layton is finished I will be playing Zelda: Phantom Hourglass. Beyond that I don't have any other games to play so if you have a recommendation then please, by all means, let me know via the comments. It's about time I flesh out my library.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

On The Edge Of Control

Mirror's Edge is a game that polarized people. Gamers either loved it or hated it, and the result was a game that was spoken about on blogs and in forums for many different reasons. Understandably so, too; it's unique and quite different when compared to what we're currently used to in the industry. Despite the reactions on both sides of the spectrum, I'm glad developers DICE and publishing big-boys EA decided to take a risk with the concept. The game is also, as many people have pointed out, flawed, with the general consensus seeming to be that combat was largely unnecessary but otherwise it was a decent game with an interesting concept that has potential. For me, I don't sit on either end of the spectrum but rather directly in the middle; I absolutely love Mirror's Edge and I'm really glad I got the chance to play it, but at the same time I find it incredibly frustrating.

The thing that stands out to me is the game's controls, mostly when it comes to using them in the time trial mode. You may remember I recently spoke about time trials in racing games, mostly praising the mode for challenging players to be as precise and efficient as possible. Mirror's Edge is no different and uses time trials to challenge players to find the fastest possible route throughout a level. Obtaining a star from the mode's 3-star rating (per level) quickly becomes difficult as the faster time requirements essentially force you to analyse the rooftops in order to overcome the many obstacles surrounding a level. By stripping down the game's core mechanic -- that of free-running or parkour -- and focusing on the speed, flow and idea of seeing levels in the way that Faith does, the time trials are, arguably, the game's best asset. There's no bells and whistles to distract the player, it's just you experimenting with the mechanic and then taking advantage of what you have learned to achieve the best possible outcome, a flawless run and time. Only problem is, it's nearly impossible to achieve a flawless run.

As a completionist, I have been trying to obtain a three-star rating on all of the levels recently and I have found it to be frustrating. Part of that frustration is my own fault. As you would expect, some time trial runs are harder than others and as such, achieving an ideal time is going to be more difficult than my skill level may allow. It's only natural that I'd find the repeated trial and error on the way to success annoying. However, I also believe that the frustration stems from the game's controls and their inconsistency. Relying on context sensitivity and timing, it's quite common to see Faith do a maneuver that you weren't expecting or didn't intend to do, messing up your run. This can be both the player's and the game's fault. As you learn what Faith is capable of, it is then up to you to memorise her moves and time them correctly when you intend to use them. In theory, doing a maneuver that you weren't intending is, or should, be your fault. In reality, it's not always the case; more often than not Faith will do a move that you were not expecting regardless of when you timed it, again ruining your run. As this happens time and time again (combined with your own mistakes), the frustration sets in and it is very easy to lose your temper with the game. On some of the time trial levels, it's absolutely critical that you nail your intended moves while traversing the various obstacles, otherwise you miss out on that elusive third star and will need to retry. The unpredictable and inconsistent controls are an unnecessary factor that the player shouldn't need to think about. When pressing a button you expect the game to respond, so of course it will be annoying when it fails to do so. I think that the controls are inconsistent in this way because of the fact that most of Faith's moves are tied to the same buttons: the left bumper (360 controller) controls her jumping, wall-climbing, wall-running and vaulting; the left trigger controls her ducking and sliding and the right bumper allows you to quickly switch direction 180 degrees. By having the majority of her moves tied to these buttons, I believe the game can at times confuse your intended maneuver, a problem that could be fixed if some moves were located under another button altogether. I understand why DICE chose to use this control scheme but it does need refinement, something I hope we see in the sequel. In the meantime, obtaining the stars in the time trials is harder than is necessary and that's something that bothers me.

The other issue I have with Mirror's Edge is the conflict between the narrative and the game's levels. Don't get me wrong, I believe the narrative has potential, something I'll elaborate on in my other post. What I'm referring to here is how, because Mirror's Edge has a narrative, the game doesn't allow the player to study or discover the ideal routes throughout the twelve or so levels like they can in the time trial mode. This is because of the constant agency the story requires and the sense of urgency that surrounds the player while being chased by the game's enemies. By keeping you on the move, the game expects you to plan out your route on the fly and while this is aided by the 'Runner Vision' colour scheme, the speed in which you traverse the levels means you don't get to fully appreciate them. This is a disappointment because in my view, they are designed really well. There are heaps of ways to tackle the rooftops and the game can be astounding when you realise just how many potential routes there are. Not being able to study them and discover these paths because you're constantly being pushed along by the story is unfortunate and is something I hope to see rectified in the future.

Those are Mirror's Edge's flaws as I see it. Despite them causing frustration time and time again, I still keep coming back for more, both because of my completion desires and also because I really like the game. I'll be back in the next few days to explain why I find it so enjoyable and fresh to play.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Finally, Wii Can Play

Okay sorry, Wii puns are old. I didn't mean to remind everyone of something that was popular, and overused, over two years ago. It's just that, I live under a rock and have only just recently gotten my hands on a Wii so I hope you'll forgive me for not being able to resist the temptation to use a pun on the console's name. It won't happen again, I promise.

Yes it's true, I got my hands on Nintendo's popular console this week, completing my current generation collection and allowing me access to games that I have been wanting for a few years now. These include the expected titles like Mario Kart and Super Mario Galaxy, but it also includes the lesser known gems that I've had my eye on after reading about them such as de Blob and World Of Goo. The most important game I want to get my hands on though is Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, a game I have been craving ever since it was announced. I have no shame in admitting that I am a massive Metroid fanboy and as such, playing through another of Samus' adventures is one hell of an enticing prospect. Surprisingly, I have been able to contain my desire to play it quite well, mostly because I viewed the game as irrelevant to me while I didn't own the console. I do now, so as soon as I can afford it you can guarantee the game will have another purchase.

Moving along, my impressions of the console are brief. Including Wii Sports with the console is a no-brainer and I'm glad Nintendo chose to, as it is the best introduction to the Wii Remote and how to use it. Wii Sports demonstrates to you how fun it can be to mimic the on-screen action using motion, but more importantly it hints towards the potential that the Wii Remote can be used for -- some of which people have already seen, some of which is on the horizon using peripherals like Wii MotionPlus. For me, I get to start at the beginning, experiencing things that others have already forgotten about for the first time and finally getting to understand where and why they have gained their views on the various games out there. I look forward to it.

The most important thing to come from my short time with the console, I think, is something that doesn't involve me. The simplicity that the motion controls, coupled with a game like Wii Sports can provide means it's very easy for anyone to pick up and play the Wii. Everyone knows this already, but even so I found it very exciting to watch other people play it. One person in particular, my four year old sister, was very interesting to watch. As she is such a young age, she has no history with the medium like I do -- she doesn't know the difference between a PS3 or Wii and she certainly doesn't know the difference between 'normal' controls and motion controls. Naturally, her view is going to be different to mine and won't be influenced by the history and knowledge of the medium that I have, and so it was when she played it for the first time. Her reaction? A simple "WOW!" as she realised she was in control of the pointer on the screen and then subsequently the tennis racquet, baseball bat, bowling ball and golf club. Her elation as she experimented with the motion and hit the ball back across the court in tennis is something that I can't even describe. Instead of analyzing the experience like her older brother would (and did), she was instead just simply content to enjoy Wii Sports for what it was, a simple and fun video game.

Watching that right there, was what showed me what the Wii is about and I instantly understood why Nintendo chose to pursue the direction they have. While I was right to assume that motion controls or the direction they took wasn't going to interest me for too long, I am very glad that Nintendo chose to pursue it anyway. The result is, as we've now seen, an expanded audience but more importantly it is also a console that really can be played by anyone. How is that not a brilliant thing for this industry?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Progressive Victory

I have been playing Polyphony Digital's Gran Turismo 5: Prologue recently and, as you'd expect from someone who is a massive fan of the franchise, I have enjoyed it immensely.

Returning to the series is like riding a bicycle; it wasn't long until I was comfortable with the controls and completely immersed in the racing I was doing. As an experienced fan, I was paying attention to the new features such as Gran Turismo TV or the online play, as well as more aesthetic features like which cars were included (nice to finally see Ferrari) and of course those stunning graphics.

Making my way through the game's series of events, I came across a race that was quite hard. Not in the frustrating or annoying sense, just difficult in achieving the gold medal in the time required for the event. It was three laps around Fuji Speedway with the goal being to finish first after starting at the back of the grid. Conveniently opponent cars got in the way through some corners, impeding and slowing progress that ultimately hurt when it came to catching and then passing first place. It took multiple retries before I was successful and while attempting it, a thought came across my mind -- why do racing games always expect the player to win, in order to progress?

Now I could have easily settled for second or third place. The game would have given me the respective medal, classed the event as passed and I could have continued on into the next one. Most games have a similar system where a podium finish is enough to pass an event, but these are video games we're talking about, we're meant to win if we are to claim that we have successfully beaten a racing game.

That's fine, race drivers in real life all aim to win and it's a goal we as players should be happy to strive for, but the thing is, it's easy to strive for victory but it's another thing entirely to actually achieve it in the real world. It is literally impossible for someone to win every single race they participate in due to the random and unpredictable nature of motorsport. Drivers could be involved in a crash, a race could be canceled, a mechanical failure could mean that a particular driver's race is over or, more likely, your opposition could surprise you and be better than you on the day, be it due to skill, luck, or the fact that his team had the better car setup suited to that particular track. It's just the way it is in Motorsport.

Which is precisely why it strikes me as a little odd that racing games, particularly ones designed to simulate real life and/or the various official championships out there, rely on the idea that every race must be won in order for that game to be completed 100%. It is both a good and bad thing. It's good because as much as they are representing the real world, these games are not real life and outside of your own expectations with a given title no one else is going to care whether you have successfully obtained every Gold medal or whether you only nabbed half of them. On the other hand, it's bad because they are representing the real world; they are designed to provide players with the chance to race cars from their favourite manufacturers or Motorsport categories, around their favourite real life circuits and to enjoy it since, obviously, the majority of people won't get to do such a thing in real life. If the intention behind these games is to provide players with that experience, then surely the ideal goal of winning everything is a misguided one since it would be easy to assume that someone interested in such an experience would already be aware of the fact that winning every race is impossible? Most of these games already feature a championship mode of some sort so using it and structuring player progress with other, more realistic and clearly defined goals over the course of a given championship seems like a better option to pursue than the 'win everything' mentality that racing games currently follow. It could even be combined with another prominent mode in these games, the career mode. Generally, these are designed to loosely simulate how a driver rises up in the ranks, starting out in the lower categories with cars that are usually slower and gradually progressing into the faster, more popular cars as they gain experience and reputation. Combining the two could see a driver (IE: the player) climbing the ranks as (s)he completes multiple championships, their reputation and invitations to drive in new and different categories based on how they have performed over an entire championship rather than by the fact they won one or all of the races. Instead of the goal to win everything, have more realistic goals such as finish in 5th place or better in the overall championship standings with the player being able to progress if this is successfully achieved. If not, then it wouldn't be such a bad thing to have them compete in the championship(s) again as it's quite common in the real world for drivers to compete in a championship multiple years in succession until they have achieved their individual goals or because they enjoy the particular category. This would further add to the realism that these games are trying to portray, hopefully in turn providing players with a more enjoyable experience.

Of course, it's a fine line to manage -- what should and should not be included to provide a simulated experience but one that is also enjoyable, both to the intended audience and also to one that may decide on a whim to try it out. Too much realism can alienate potential audiences, putting them off the game, the franchise and even the genre. Not enough realism alienates the core audience and leaves them feeling unsatisfied. This reliance on victory to dictate a player's progress throughout a racing game seems like a move that would only further alienate players and their enjoyment, which is why I believe it's time for developers to find other ways to effectively show a player's progress whilst not imposing unrealistic expectations upon them. The example above is just one possible direction, I'm sure there are plenty of others and I hope to see them one day in future racing titles.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Festival Of Fun

It's dark. The sun is rising. The dark orange glow glistens over the desert, making it look mildly serene yet eerily daunting too. In the distance multiple rock formations of varying heights and sizes are towering into the sky. This is Monument Valley, a vast expanse of desert with little to no life to be seen anywhere, just dirt, mud and gravel as far as the eye can see. The sun continues to rise, revealing the rock formations in their majestic, gigantic beauty. Down on the ground a dirt bike and a buggy are speeding along a dirt track below, weaving in and out of a few camper vans. More rock formations pass by as our helicopter flies above and then over them. Then, it hits you; flags, flashing lights, cars parked down below, crowds surrounding a stage, crowds watching cars circle around small dirt tracks as well as watching bikes performing jumps and stunts -- there's clearly an event happening here, deep in the desert and boy is it packed.

Welcome to MotorStorm.

The above paragraph is a rough description of the opening clip of Evolution Studios' PlayStation 3 launch title and is, quite possibly, one of the best introductions to a game I have ever seen. It begins with a slow and subtle tour of a largely desolate, yet awe-inspiring stretch of desert with wondrous rock formations towering all over the lifeless ground below. It ends with the complete opposite, a loud and proud convergence of man, machine and spectacle. It hints that something is happening before ramming it in your face and you know what? It instantly puts you in the mood to play. This continues as you reach the main menu where, over a PA system you hear someone yell "Welcome to MotorStorm" followed by the sound of the crowd cheering. Immediately afterwards one of the game's licensed songs begins to play -- in my case Slipknot's Before I Forget and then Pendulum's Slam -- coinciding with further footage in the background of cars racing, tumbling down a hill, bikes going over jumps, people walking between tents, crowds cheering for a band playing live and even a damaged car being towed. It's an overwhelming introduction but within minutes you are motivated to play, inspired to race and have a desire to be part of this spectacle of an event.

The fact the introduction can get you excited to play is significant -- How many games can get you into the mood to play them within minutes, hell, seconds of you putting the disc into the drive? It's a good feeling.

This continues as you start playing, with the racing in MotorStorm being thoroughly enjoyable and even strategic as you realise that the game's various tracks contain multiple routes, each suited to certain types of vehicle. Speaking of which, there's a good variety of them ranging from bikes and rally cars to racing trucks and big rigs, each handling differently and being a joy to drive. There are jumps, pools of mud, ditches, car junkyards and other obstacles all over the tracks, some of which are set high on mesas with their routes running parallel to the cliff side, the sharp drop and expansive desert totally visible below. It's thrilling, intense stuff and an absolute blast to play. I enjoy all my racing games for various reasons, but it's not every day that I enjoy one simply because it is fun. The last time that happened was with Burnout Paradise and that came out in the beginning of 2008.

It may be a launch title, it may have a sequel set elsewhere and it may not be as popular as other well-known racing franchises, but MotorStorm is a fantastic arcade racing game that is really fun to play. If you like arcade racers and you own a PS3, it comes fully recommended from me. I will be back soon to delve deeper into why it's so fun to play as well as discuss other elements not mentioned here, but for now please excuse me. I have a date with the desert to attend to.