Sunday, August 30, 2009

Some Thoughts On Peggle

Generally speaking, I always miss the boat when it first arrives in videogame land. When something new and exciting has docked ready to offload its goods, I'm still playing with titles that shipped a year ago. This isn't always the case, I do sometimes get to play the next big thing as it arrives with late last year being a nice example, but for the most part it's true: I'm always behind the times when it comes to new release videogames. It's something I've grown to accept over the years because really, it doesn't matter when I get to play a game so long as I get to eventually, but even so I do sometimes wish I was there to see the new shipment come in.

Peggle is one of the games that I missed out on during its popularity, most likely due to the fact it was on the PC, and as a result I shrugged it off as a game I would not get to play. I did hear the news that it was coming to the 360 via the console's Xbox Live Arcade service, but as I was ignoring the game the news didn't register on my radar. Fast forward to about a fortnight ago when I was idling on the 360 dashboard, unsure of what to play next. I decide to randomly browse the Marketplace and lo and behold, there it was waiting to be purchased. Curious, I downloaded the trial version and gave it a quick go. The fact I'm writing about it now should clue you in as to what happened next.

Peggle is one of those rare games that doesn't seem like it will last long at first but ends up surpassing the time spent with most big-budget releases. Just in the last week alone I've played it more than any other game I'm enjoying combined, which is a testament to just how addictive it can be. The thing I love about it is how it takes advantage of something not too many other games do, simplicity, and uses it to provide an experience that's very accessible whilst also maintaining incredible depth, too. The simple process of shooting a ball towards some pegs is understandable to anyone, and serves as a wonderful entry point to the intentionally joyful experience it provides. Another thing that makes it immediately understandable to players is the pinball influence. Sure, it doesn't look like pinball and it has enough of its own features to provide remarkably different gameplay, but the influence is still there. The obvious comparison is the metal ball used to hit the pegs, the less obvious is dependent on which character you choose to play as: choosing the crab will give you flippers for a limited time while choosing the hamster will give you a second ball. Hitting the purple pegs in each round gives a points bonus, as does lining up various trick shots that take advantage of character-specific power-ups and peg placements. Again, arguably an influence from pinball, but also one that stems from another, perhaps unexpected source: Burnout 3: Takedown. The use of stylish maneuvers and themed Takedowns -- such as ramming an opponent into a bus or off a bridge -- and being rewarded for it made Criterion's game a lot more enjoyable and it's something that developers PopCap wanted to emulate in Peggle.* By adding stylish shots such as the Orange Attack and Extreme Slide, the game constantly rewards you in a minimal but effective way with each shot the player makes. This adds to the pleasure already being derived from the game's uniquely colorful and happy visuals, as well as the cartoon-like characters and joyous music. Put simply, everything Peggle does is designed to make the player feel happy, allowing them to have a good time and to never be frustrated with the experience.

And the wonderful thing is, it succeeds on every level. Whether I play it for ten minutes or for three hours, and regardless of how I perform, Peggle does not frustrate. It's not about aiming for a high score and having a failed attempt feel disheartening, nor is it about competing against hard opposition via the game's AI or of course, other players. While a player can choose to focus on these things, it's not about any one way of playing, it's not even about what actually happens in the game, it's purely just about having a good time and nothing more. How many other games can you say achieves that?

PopCap Games are gaining a reputation in the industry for consistently creating accessible and enjoyable games that end up being a lot more addictive than people may expect. I've heard people describe them as the Rockstar or Valve of the casual (don't get me started on that term) market and after playing Peggle, I can see why. I am extremely happy that I had the opportunity to play this game and I'm definitely eager to check out their other titles in the near future. If you, like me, missed out on this game for whatever reason then I fully recommend you check it out. As soon as you get your first Extreme Fever, you simply won't look back.

*Confirmed by Sukhbir Sidhu, Studio Director at PopCap Games in the 100 Best Games To Play Today feature in issue 200 of Edge magazine.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Demo Round-Up

As is probably obvious from the relative silence that has featured on the blog lately, August has been a busy month for me. As a result I haven't been able to dedicate any time to the things I want to do, including, unfortunately, playing videogames. The bulk of my August play-time has been with digital offerings: downloadable titles and previews that are quick and easy to jump in and out of, and don't require hours upon hours of time to enjoy. I have managed to play Tomb Raider: Legend and make a return to Fallout 3, but generally speaking my game time has been with games of the digital variety. Trials HD, Peggle, WipEout HD, and Super Stardust HD have all been on the menu lately and you can expect some posts on them over the next week or so.

I've also played quite a few recently released demos, here's some brief impressions of them.

Shadow Complex -- I'd own this game if I could afford it but as my wallet is empty (the reason for which you will find out very soon) I had to settle for the trial version. I'm glad I did because it answered a question I already knew the answer to: would my incredible bias towards all things Metroid mean that I'd love Shadow Complex? You bet it would. Favourable reviews, unexpected controversy and my bias aside, what Chair Entertainment and Epic have done with this game is impressive if the trial is anything to go by. It looks great, makes a particular type of game rarely seen these days relevant again and directly appeals to the type of player I am: a completionist and explorer. Definitely looking forward to buying this as soon as my wallet allows it.

Wet -- I decided to download this demo on whim and well, what a pleasant surprise. It's not going to be a classic but then, it doesn't need to be either. The B-movie, grainy aesthetic was done well and while it does look rough, it works for the highly stylised experience it's trying to convey. Really, it's all about the combat and versing the game's enemies was surprisingly enjoyable despite the sometimes floaty-like feeling the controls would deliver. Its use of quick-time events concerns me a little, and the demo's transitioning between the different gameplay elements Wet will provide was blunt, but this latter point is probably irrelevant to the final experience and as such, is nothing worth discussing further. There isn't much else to say as I still don't know too much about it. It was a pleasant surprise and while I won't be buying it on release, I wouldn't say no to it sometime in the future either. Make of that what you will.

Section 8 -- Another game I knew nothing about. It started off well enough, appealing directly to my sci-fi interests with ships up in space, technologically enhanced suits and a very interesting way to drop into battle, but then when I landed on my feet I realised that the demo was playing out like a multiplayer game. In fact, the main portion of the demo seemed to be multiplayer based, with the option to search for matches over Xbox Live being very prevalent in the menu screens. I chose the other option provided, Instant Action, and entered a game against bots instead. For what it was, it was enjoyable with some nifty features like a hover jump included to spice things up a bit, but I can't deny that it wasn't what I expected either. I don't know what I expected, but it wasn't a multiplayer-type game. I'm not sure if it has a single player campaign that plays out differently so I will reserve judgement for now, but if it does then it strikes me as a little odd that they didn't include some portion of it for the demo, because at the moment it seems like a Shadowrun or Unreal Tournament type of game -- in other words, not really my thing.

Mini Ninjas -- My interest in this game piqued after reading an EDGE article about it recently, as well as seeing the gorgeous art direction in the article's pictures. Finally seeing it in motion was nice, but playing the demo was better. I can't quite pin-point why, but the game gave a Zelda or Okami vibe to me while playing it, something totally welcome in my book. The combat was satisfying and seems to have enough depth, especially if you include the other playable characters. That said, it was only a small portion of the game so it remains to be seen if the combat will become repetitive or not. The little bits of included humour seems like a welcome touch and yeah, I'm quite keen on playing this now. It comes across as a title that should be distributed digitally and it's unclear if it will be worth the full retail price, but regardless of that I suspect I will be buying Mini Ninjas at some point in the near future.

Batman: Arkham Asylum -- I have a confession to make, I don't really know much about the Dark Knight other than the basics and as such, have no real interest in the Batman universe. Horrible, I know, but for whatever reason Batman (and most comic book/superheroes) has never really been on my radar. That said, the mild hype surrounding the newly released (as of today) title was enough to sway my decision when it came to checking the demo out and, like Wet above, I was pleasantly surprised. The game does a fantastic job of empowering you as Batman and it feels great to control and play as the character. Combat was accessible yet enjoyable, as was sneaking around and making silent kills. Performing glide kills, using the Batarang and grappling to various objects feels as you would expect a game about Batman would, and by the end of the demo I actually had an interest in chasing the Joker throughout Arkham Asylum. Not a bad impression for someone who isn't invested in that world like many others are. Potential purchase in the future, absolutely.

DiRT 2 -- Day one purchase for me, but that doesn't surprise you does it, given my racing influence? I loved the original DiRT and this latest demo showed me that I will love this game, too. It still looks absolutely gorgeous and the presentation for the menus is impressive as well. Handling took a bit to get used to and felt a bit floaty at first, especially in the point-to-point event, but as I continued to play I realised that it felt very similar to the original game which is not a bad thing. I'm still not sure how I feel about the mix of events included in the main game and suspect that, like the original, the X-Games styled events won't really interest me all that much, but the overall experience should be great fun. I look forward to playing it next month, and I also look forward to seeing how they've offered their tribute to the late Colin McRae, may he rest in peace.

Killzone 2 -- Sony's big blockbuster FPS franchise was, well to be frank, uninteresting. It felt like just another shooter to me, which makes me feel slightly guilty given it's popularity and, of course, the insane hype that surrounded it before release. Don't get me wrong, it looks great, feels like a competant shooter and what I did play in the demo was fun, but yeah, I dunno, maybe I am just over so many shooters these days? I wouldn't say it was generic, but it was familiar and that, I have to say, was disappointing. Won't be buying it, sorry Sony.

There you have it, all the demos I have played recently. Aside from that last one, all were released within a few days and were perfect for the quick and easy gaming that seems to be the only thing I can manage lately. I'm glad I was able to check them out and in doing so, I now have some games on my radar that weren't previously. Can't go wrong with that.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Time For A Holiday?

Tomb Raider: Legend and Uncharted: Drake's Fortune are two very similar games, the latter arguably being inspired by the the former's franchise, and playing them in relative quick succession in the past month has yielded some interesting observations. Legend was a return to form after a few installments in a franchise that was becoming a little stale, while Uncharted was something new and different for developers Naughty Dog after focusing on the Jak series on the PlayStation 2; both are enjoyable games and well worth playing if they interest you.

It's interesting to view both games next to each other, to see what similarities they share, and to see what ends up being different. Take the design approach to their levels or chapters as an example: Tomb Raider breaks its levels into different places of the world, each playing a different part in the overall story while also showing off some impressive locations and puzzles; Uncharted's story on the other hand, continues immediately after the events of the previous chapter, making the experience feel more cohesive as it plays out in real time for main character Nathan Drake. This contrast affects the flow of both games in a relatively subtle way and in turn results in the player approaching their time with each game differently. With Tomb Raider the player may choose to do just one level in a session before moving on into a different game, whereas in Uncharted he or she might instead choose to do a few chapters in one sitting due to their shorter length and the "just one more level" mentality.

Semi-related to this is are the games' approach to their overall experience and what they are trying to convey. If games like Fallout 3 and Grand Theft Auto IV become secondary lifestyles for a while, due to their expansive locations ripe for exploration and side quests, then Tomb Raider and Uncharted sit on the opposite side of the spectrum and provide an experience that is almost like a holiday. Both games take you to exotic locations that are a sight to behold and while their narratives might involve finding ancient artifacts or whatever, the levels in themselves are a good insight into what it would be like to visit these places. Jungles, snowy mountains and underground caves and tombs are nothing new to videogames, sure, but unlike those open-world games they are not places we are likely to often visit, either and as such spending time in these vast, remote locations is an interesting contrast to the city life of GTA IV, or the empty and bleak remains of a fictional post-apocalyptic Washington D.C.

On a superficial level, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune is miles ahead of Tomb Raider: Legend; Graphics, sound and, in my opinion, story are all superior in Naughty Dog's underrated gem while the title also takes advantage of familiar mechanics from games like Gears of War to make the experience feel fresh and unique. Tomb Raider meanwhile feels a bit like a last generation game, which makes sense given the fact it is one. I played it on the Xbox 360 so it looked only slightly better than other versions, but a quick glance on Youtube shows that they also look quite nice. Being released at the end of the last generation meant that, as a game from that time Legend is quite impressive and still holds up nicely, but as an Xbox 360 title it's a little dated and just cannot compare to something like Uncharted. With all this said, it's nice to see that developers Crystal Dynamics took the time and effort to ensure Legend returned the series to its form, making Lara Croft relevant once more and putting the temporary anomaly of the sub-par games behind them.

The last thing I want to briefly discuss is their narratives and range of characters. For me, I found Uncharted's story to be more interesting. I was intrigued by what would happen to Nathan Drake and Elena Fisher, as well as compelled to see where their adventure would take me next. Legend on the other hand was a little dull but that's not necessarily a criticism of the game. Instead, I think it was dull because of my own experiences with the franchise -- The last game in the series I played was Tomb Raider 3 and as that was a long time ago, I've largely forgotten the story. Combine that with not seeing what happens in between that game and Legend, and the lack of information I had resulted in a lack of interest on my behalf for the events that took place. I had no connection with the characters, no knowledge of who they were or why they were associated with Lara and this disconnect affected my enjoyment of the game. Lara is fine, I know who she is, have a rough idea of her background and do have a small connection with her. I respect Lara as a character and would like to continue to see where her adventures take her in the future, but as far as Tomb Raider: Legend is concerned, the game became more about what location I'd be visiting next and what puzzles I would have to solve than it did her story and discovery of what she was looking for. It's interesting to consider, especially if you take the questions I pondered not too long ago about the conditions with which we play our games into account and I definitely feel that it played a part in my overall enjoyment of the game.

Those are just some of the interesting differences between Tomb Raider: Legend and Uncharted: Drake's Fortune that I observed. There were some more but they are mostly minor and don't warrant a mention here. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with both and recommend them if they seem to be something you would like to play. I have some more thoughts I'd like to share, particularly about Uncharted, in the near future so stay tuned for those.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Racing On The Edge

In all of the discussion I have had on the game recently, there's one thing I've neglected to mention in my thoughts about Mirror's Edge: the main reason why I love it so much.

I didn't realise it at first but I believe Mirror's Edge appeals to me because of some common elements it shares with something else dear to my heart, racing games. By featuring a Time Trial mode, the game instantly delivers an experience I'm all too familiar with, but it's not as simple as that either; the important reason why I think Mirror's Edge resonates with me is because it feels like a racing game.

Sounds a bit weird doesn't it? Mirror's Edge has no cars, isn't constrained to the tarmac of a track and has something most racing games don't, a story, so how can it feel like a racing game? For the most part, it doesn't. I think it'd be fair to say that the majority of players who play Mirror's Edge will only see the game's story and this definitely doesn't look, feel or seem like a racing game. The levels are made up of point-to-point affairs that are designed to service the plot and its urgency to get to places quickly, be it because Faith is being chased or because she needs to meet up with someone important. The game's main mechanic, Parkour, works with the story to provide the fresh, unique experience the game is known for and when you consider it on these merits alone, Mirror's Edge is certainly not a racing game.

Some players, however, will continue playing after the story and will test their skills in the game's time trials or speed runs, and it is here that Mirror's Edge feels like a different game. By stripping it down to the essentials -- the running, climbing and jumping -- the time trials change Mirror's Edge into a game that is all about speed, precision and shaving precious tenths of a second off a set time. Downloading a ghost from the game's leaderboards may be valuable in showing you new routes throughout any given run, but it's also the motivating factor when it comes to improving your times. Having that visual representation is important as it's an immediate indication as to how you're progressing on a run. Seeing it ahead of you drives you to try and overcome the obstacles littered throughout a run faster than before and, at times, forces you to analyse the level to find new paths that may help shave off that valuable fraction of a second. This observe and adapt approach works in Mirror's Edge in the exact same way it does racing games and in both situations, it's absolutely critical to your overall time at the end.

The speed runs also use this approach but instead apply it to the game's story levels. Their length as well as the inclusion of enemies and cut-scenes make it much harder to learn the routes, with the lack of a ghost to follow adding to this difficulty. Improving your times will come from repeated runs as you try different routes and get an idea of the levels you're working on in their entirety, instead of just a small portion of them as seen in the time trials. Eventually you will notice the flow of a level and things will start to come together but in the meantime, constantly redoing a level takes far too long and just isn't as enjoyable to play as the time trials. The levels are fine when it comes to conveying the game's plot, but in a mode where the plot and enemies are irrelevant, they're just lengthy affairs that require too much time and effort to learn.

It's intriguing to consider how DICE used the mechanic of Parkour in Mirror's Edge to deliver what is almost two different games. On the one hand it was used to convey a fresh, unique gameplay experience that I believe the industry needed, but on the other hand the mechanic was used to provide an experience that is familiar to anyone who has played a racing game. The contrast stands out when you first notice it, but once you look at it some more you begin to realise that what DICE has done is quite remarkable, particularly when you remember that it's their first attempt. For me, I can appreciate the idea that they wanted to try something different with Mirror's Edge, but once that experience is over it's nice to know that I can return to a style of play I'm used to enjoying but have it take place in an entirely new setting.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

In Good Faith

Electronic Arts took a risk last year when they released Dead Space and Mirror's Edge, and while both divided the gaming community in some interesting ways, one can't argue that the risk wasn't worth taking. In releasing these games EA showed a different side of themselves to the industry, one willing to try something new and one that didn't want to just rely on the library of games we usually see from their stable. Both games were also interesting alternatives to the wide range of sequels that we see every year.

Of the two, DICE's Mirror's Edge stands out to me as the more interesting experiment; it was unlike anything else we had seen before and featured a mechanic seldom explored (though now quite popular) in gaming, that of Parkour. The game featured a mysterious female character who wasn't overtly sexualized and it also had a unique presentation that stood out amongst the rest of the pack. Such a divergence against the norm had the potential to be overwhelming for potential buyers, seeing the game possibly tank at retail and as a result, an EA who wouldn't be so quick to try something unique again in the near future. Thankfully, the game didn't tank and went on to become a reasonable success. It did manage to polarize its audience, but for the most part developer DICE can be proud that it created an experience that was popular enough to make the risk worth it.

It's no secret that I found Mirror's Edge to be incredibly frustrating, but the thing I'm pleased to know is that the problems that annoyed me in the game are mishaps of a developer trying something new and different, perhaps even trying to innovate. They are examples of perhaps trying too hard to stand out and can be easily fixed with some refinement for a sequel. With this in mind, it's easy to forgive DICE for these problems and focus on the positives of the game, of which there are many.

Starting with the obvious, the game's presentation is gorgeous. Relying on a visual aesthetic that intentionally separates it from the crowd, it conveys a sense of wonder and beauty that few other games manage to achieve. The colour scheme, using deep blues, stark whites and vibrant reds makes the game's landscape unique and inviting, resulting in a city that is thoroughly enjoyable to visit. DICE wanted the game to stand out and as such the unique aesthetic wasn't chosen purely for delivering eye candy, it was also chosen to represent the city as seen by the eyes of the game's protagonist, Faith. In her eyes, the city is cold and brutal, the whites and blues demonstrating this almost sterile perspective. The reds show us another perspective; Faith is a runner and as such she must traverse the rooftops in order to deliver messages to and from civilians, the red 'Runner Vision' mechanic showing us routes across the various buildings as Faith spots them. It's an effective mechanic, aiding the player by showing them things they may not have seen beforehand whilst also working with the game's presentation to effectively communicate what it's like to see the city in Faith's eyes.

This convergence isn't just tied with the game's visuals, Mirror's Edge's soundtrack was also carefully selected to represent certain aspects of the game. Still Alive, the main theme song was chosen due to its gentle piano keys and the soft, alluring voice of singer Lisa Miskovsky. The game's chapters on the other hand, use more electronic tunes, complimenting the urgency felt by the player as well as Faith's heightened senses as she escapes from her attackers and chasers. Subtle sound effects such as Faith's paced breathing, the thud as she lands from a jump and the sound of rushed footsteps behind getting closer only further add to this sense of agency, making the experience all the better for it.

Unfortunately DICE also dropped the ball a little with Mirror's Edge. I've already spoken about my frustrations with the controls and I've also mentioned the dissonance seen in the presentation of the game's narrative and gameplay, but these aren't the only flaws. Combat is a common thread of discussion in forums and blogs because it is mostly unnecessary. I can understand why it was included, but it takes away from what the game should be about and its core mechanic, Parkour. While designed with a fight or flight mentality, some sections of Mirror's Edge essentially force you to fight due to their compact, constricted level design and the AI's quick reaction to shoot you on sight. This completely slows you down and makes you separate each enemy so they are easier to take down, as taking them on in a bunch will most likely result in Faith's death. This is the complete opposite to the main idea of the game and it breaks up the flow that is so integral to a game supposedly about Parkour. Whether combat and enemies were implemented incorrectly (having some chase you in later chapters added to the intensity and was quite thrilling) or their inclusion was a mistake remains to be seen, in the meantime it's an aspect of the game that hardly anyone enjoyed and is one of the key things DICE should focus on if they pursue a sequel.

The narrative is another thing that needs work, as I found it to be relatively boring. Don't get me wrong, it starts off decently enough with Faith and the other characters being intriguing and even quite mysterious. Unfortunately this soon disappears in favour of a plot that is quite cliché and predictable, a typical setup and revenge story that we've seen all too often in the past. Rhianna Pratchett's script does the job and mostly allows the game to focus on the important bits, running and jumping, but as it is it's also a massive let down. It has (had?) potential so this is disappointing. Faith and her associates are all interesting, believable characters, who seem real and are therefore easy to relate to, however due to the story being predictable and boring, interest in their lives wanes quickly. This is quite a change from what we're used to seeing in games, the over the top characters and generic stereotypes, so it is a welcome addition, but they're just not explored well enough. We barely get any background information on key characters and we get a brief insight into Faith's past before shifting focus into the present. Later on in the game a few events happen that had the potential to be impactful on the player, but unfortunately due to the lack of exploration of these characters and their personalities these moments don't affect us in any way and are almost meaningless. In a time where narrative possibilities in games are being explored by the likes of BioShock, Portal and Braid, this can only be disappointing, especially when it's easy to see the potential and where the game could have headed. Instead we have a predictable story that we already know the ending to and one we will probably forget about in the years to come.

Thankfully the rest of the game stands out -- from the thrill of Parkour to the fresh and unique visuals -- making Mirror's Edge a game that will be memorable for years to come. It wasn't perfect, but for a first attempt it was worth the effort and thoroughly enjoyable to play. The risk was justified and that can only be a wonderful thing going forward in this industry.