Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Highs And Lows Of Gaming

Assassin's Creed 2 and Modern Warfare 2 are just some of the big titles coming out this holiday season.

So it's the end of October and we are currently in the midst of the end of year rush of titles we see every holiday season. 2009 is a little different to previous years in that, a lot of the expected titles were pushed back into 2010, but even so we have already seen some pretty big names and more are on the way in November. From the likes of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves and Borderlands to Assassin's Creed 2, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and New Super Mario Bros. Wii, there's plenty of titles to be had and a massive amount of gaming to sink our teeth into. A wonderful time to be a gamer then, no?

Well, yes and no.

With so many potentially awesome games around, deciding what to play is a burden that we don't necessarily mind, but there are people out there who are forced to decide between the games that they want, or worse, they can't afford any of them for various reasons. These less fortunate gamers are inundated non-stop with news, reviews and opinions about the games they might not be able to play, and I can only imagine how they would feel while everyone devours the latest and greatest game. When you stop to consider the fact that these gamers share our immense passion for the industry and the progression of the medium, you begin to realise it's a shame that developers and publishers alike feel the need to release all of their products within the same time-frame.

Usually when this onslaught of titles each year is discussed, it's for more personal reasons; one gamer may complain about it because they are struggling to manage their time efficiently across each title they have purchased -- I know I certainly struggled with last year's bunch and I'm still, almost 12 months later, recovering from it -- while another gamer may wish for releases to be spread out more just so he or she has something to do across the entire year. Whatever the case, it is not important and it's, dare I say it, trivial when you consider how lucky we are to be able to afford what we want as it is released. These less fortunate gamers who have to hear about these new, awesome videogames may get a nice impression of whether they'll end up liking them or not, but once that's out of the way it's just mockery as they watch everyone else enjoy the new titles. That's not to say that they don't have games waiting to be played, or that they are not going to enjoy themselves in the meantime, it's just that when so many people are discussing games that are new, it's surely not easy to have to constantly hear about how brilliant everything is. Feeling left out, or behind in this fast-moving, arguably over-saturated market is not a feeling any gamer should feel, so the fact that (I assume) many out there do is a damn shame and again, it makes me seriously wish games were spread out more. Not only would it make way for potentially more sales due to less competition (see: Batman: Arkham Asylum, InFamous, etc.), it would also allow these gamers the chance to share in the highs of our industry a lot more frequently -- surely a good thing for all involved.

With the surprising amount of delays we have seen this year, things are slightly different and games have been spread out a little bit more. Unfortunately, however, those delays then impact on the way 2010 will pan out, a year which was already looking incredibly packed and now has even more titles to think about. The unbelievable thing is, that's before E3 arrives where no doubt even more games will be announced. Come this time next year, our wallets are looking likely to hurt more than ever before, but in the meantime spare a thought for those out there who don't get the privilege of disposable income, multiple consoles and access to whatever they want. These people are gamers too -- imagine how they are feeling as we head into 2010. It's not pretty.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Gaming Made Me (Part 2)

On the weekend I listed three games that I believe were significant influences in how I play, approach and appreciate videogames today. I briefly explained how each title left their mark on me and now I present to you the other three games that I believe have also influenced my gaming habits in one way or another.

Final Fantasy VIII

It is said that the Final Fantasy game that introduces someone to the series will likely end up being that person's favourite, and as far as I am concerned, this is entirely true. While everyone was citing Final Fantasy VII as their favourite, and rightly so I might add, I was the odd one out with my nomination of Final Fantasy VIII. It was my introduction to the series but more importantly, it demonstrated to me just how immersive, involving and even emotional a videogame story could be. From the musical score to the more realistic aesthetic to the range of characters; I resonated with Final Fantasy VIII and its tale of orphaned children and it will forever remain in my memories as one of the most enjoyable, engaging and compelling stories I have ever had the pleasure of participating in. No matter what installment you choose to look at, you can always expect a level of polish and commitment in a Final Fantasy that you just don't get anywhere else, but it was Squall's adventures that grabbed hold of my attention and never let go, and it is something I will never, ever forget.

Perfect Dark

I may have dabbled in multiplayer gaming before Perfect Dark (see Super Mario Kart from my last post), but it was Rare's magnum opus that showed me the joys of multiplayer -- both competitive and co-operative -- and the importance of what it is like to share such experiences with your friends. From co-operatively finishing the game's campaign, to killing each other time and time again in the various modes of Deathmatch, there was always something my friends and I could do in Perfect Dark and as a result, it did not leave my Nintendo 64 for years. Throw in a fantastically made first person shooter with an interesting story and compelling characters; great levels; awesome, futuristic weapons and gadgets; a rocking soundtrack; and a campaign that changed depending on difficulty, or indeed a friend trying to stop your progression, and what you end up with is a game that was well and truly ahead of its time. The fact it worked (albeit, not smoothly) is a miracle and because of this, in my mind, it is one of the best first person shooters I have ever played.

Metroid Prime

Last we have Retro Studios' first foray into Nintendo's often forgotten yet popular franchise, and a game that is, without a doubt, my favourite gaming experience ever. Introducing me to Metroid for the first time, Metroid Prime delivered something so unique, so incredible, that still to this day it sits at the very peak of my list. While I did go on to become a fan(boy) of every other Metroid game, it is Retro's title that will forever stick with me, and the reason for that is due to the level of immersion it delivers while playing it. Gorgeous art direction, a beautiful soundtrack and a sense of isolation and mystery all combine to provide a very atmospheric title, leading to an extremely enjoyable experience. Come back in a few weeks for more on how I feel about Metroid Prime, as I will be revisiting it (and the two sequels: Echoes and Corruption) once I get my hands on the Metroid Prime Trilogy.

So there you have it, the six games I believe have made a significant impact on my gaming career and the ones which continue to influence my gaming habits today. Looking back, it's interesting to see the omission of a Legend Of Zelda title or a traditional Mario game; most people would have at least one of these titles, if not more, in their own lists and for good reason too as both franchises have delivered titles that are easily some of the best games of all time. They are however, not as important to my own experiences as the six games I have mentioned and that is why they aren't included. I hope you enjoyed this brief insight into the games that have defined my tastes in videogames over the years.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Gaming Made Me (Part 1)

I missed the boat with this series, originally found at Rock, Paper, Shotgun, then in various other places of the blogosphere. It is better to be late than never, I suppose. The great thing about doing this series is that it provides insight into an author's background, revealing how they may have come to hold a certain opinion, or where their influences have come from. The result is, or should be, a better comprehension of the author's gaming history for the readers (and indeed the author as well). With this in mind, here is part one of my own Gaming Made Me series.

Donkey Kong Country (series)

While none of the three games in Rareware's (now known as just Rare) series were my introduction to playing games, they were my introduction into just how damn fun, addictive and incredible they could be. The colourful graphics delivered by the Mode 7 technique combined with things like interesting levels, a wide range of collectibles, and characters and animals that were filled with personality to create a series of games that I was happy to play at any time. They were simple enough to play for a few quick levels, but were also challenging and compelling enough to play for hours and hours over the course of a weekend or during school holidays. The series also inspired something that has stuck with me ever since, that of my desire to complete everything. The games' collectible bananas, DK tokens, lives and secret bonus levels led me to a compulsion where I would not be content until each game was fully completed. It's trivial now, but seeing the percentage counter go beyond 100% in the two sequels was a very rewarding experience back in the day, and I will never forget the feelings that came over me when I achieved it for the first time. Over the years I've returned to and finished all three games countless times and I still enjoy them today, despite their dated design and my realisation that really, they weren't that special. I would still like to see a Donkey Kong Country 4 some day, perhaps on the DS, but unfortunately I don't see Nintendo revisiting the franchise any time soon. Still, I can dream, can't I?

Super Mario Kart

Regular readers of this blog would be well aware of my love of the racing game genre and now they know where it came from. While it's easy to assume I would have fallen for the genre anyway due to my passion for Motorsport in real life, Super Mario Kart's delivery of a familiar set of characters, locations and items into a unique perspective on racing gave birth to a game that was played almost daily by yours truly for a whole year. Time and time again I would go for golds in the game's various cups or verse the ghosts in time trials in an attempt to improve my times, and the entire time I was having an absolute blast. It definitely paved the way for my love of the genre now and looking back, it brings a smile to my face to know that everything I enjoy within the genre was not only prevalent back then, but in a package that set the benchmark for years to come. In true Nintendo fashion Super Mario Kart was an accessible, easy to play game that took the familiarity of Mario, the Mushroom Kingdom and a variety of friends and foes and unleashed them on a race track in a fun, yet strongly competitive environment that is still thoroughly entertaining to play today. Good times, good times.

Gran Turismo

If Super Mario Kart paved the way for my love of the genre, then Gran Turismo was when I arrived at the destination. Finally there was a game that was seemingly made for me, one that emphasised the importance of patience, careful control (in throttle application, braking and steering) and one which allowed me to get a feel for what it would be like to drive on an actual race track. While future installments or competitors may have refined or reinvigorated the simulation racing genre by adding more cars, tracks and more types of racing (rally, drift), it was the original Gran Turismo that started it all in my eyes and for that reason alone it will always be close to my heart.

Stay tuned for part two in the coming days.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Inconsistencies Of Australian Videogame Classification

Note: This post is the first of hopefully many in which I respond to something I've read that has been thought-provoking, intriguing or just generally interesting. I read a lot of articles about games, both in magazines and on blogs, so naturally there are times where I read something and form a response to it in my head. Most of the time though, I never get to make that response anywhere. I don't like this and, using this post, here is my attempt to change that.

No doubt by now you are well aware of Left 4 Dead 2's banning in Australia. Much has already been said about this particular banning, as well as the many previous ones this country has seen over the years. This post isn't about the latest game to be refused classification specifically, but rather the inconsistencies made apparent over the various games that have been banned.

Like most of the bans we've had previously, I'm not too concerned or affected by Left 4 Dead 2 being refused classification. Sure, it sucks, and now Australians will probably end up with some edited version of the game, but even so it doesn't bother me all that much. What does bother me is the inconsistency of our classification board (previously known as the OFLC) and how, ironically, they are confusing the general public with the refusal of certain videogames. Allow me to explain by breaking it up into three categories: excessive violence and gore, illegal products such as drugs, and, of course, sex and nudity.

Violence/Excessive Gore

Apparently Left 4 Dead 2 was banned due to the excessive violence contained within, particularly to do with the use of melee weapons. While I haven't played the game or seen its content, it still baffles me how the ratings board can refuse a game like Left 4 Dead 2 when the original game passed through fine and, more pertinently to my point, franchises like Gears Of War and Ninja Gaiden are currently sitting on Australian retail shelves. I'm curious as to how Left 4 Dead 2 can receive a ban when the Gears Of War series contains excessive violence and gore, including the fact that you can chainsaw someone in half, with the blood and remains staying on the ground thereafter for all to see. In interviews conducted with the classification board in the past, I've heard explanations that these games get through to retail shelves because the more horrific violence being inflicted is usually against alien species, zombies (hello irony!) or other, more surreal enemy types -- thus being completely fictional and "non-realistic". Yet, in a simple counter point, the aforementioned chainsawing in Gears Of War doesn't just apply to the Locust species found in the game, it also applies to the COG -- or, in other words, the humans. This can be done either by the Locust in the main campaign or by other humans in competitive multiplayer (such as Wingman in Gears 2) -- meaning that the explanation about non-human enemies loses its merit and doesn't justify the inconsistency that we've seen. Other games such as Ninja Gaiden and God Of War depict violence and extreme gore as well and while yes, the context they are viewed in is different to that of Left 4 Dead 2, the overall content isn't really all that different. For someone like me who follows the industry closely, I might judge a game's content individually because I'm aware of how the game(s) might compare to others, but for the average consumer out there who bought Left 4 Dead and Gears Of War 2 last year and who now wants to buy Valve's sequel this year, the specifics of the ban don't make sense and is confusing as a result.


Drugs and, to a lesser extent, alcohol are another common concern, as you'd imagine, and yes, there are inconsistencies seen here too. The middle of last year saw the wonderful Fallout 3 banned briefly due to its inclusion of the drug Morphine. Once the drug's name was changed to Med-X, the game received the MA 15+ rating (Australia's highest rating) and we got to enjoy it like the rest of the world. This happened fairly quickly so really, what's the problem? Well, as a matter of principle, the game shouldn't have been refused classification over a name. Not when other games containing drugs have passed through fine. The most recent and arguably best example is Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars on the Nintendo DS. Aside from exploring Liberty City and participating in Huang Lee's story, the main thing players would be doing in GTA: Chinatown Wars was drug trafficking; buying and selling various drugs all over Liberty City in order to make a profit. The issue here is the simple fact that these drugs didn't contain fictional names: they were named exactly as they are in real life. From Cocaine to Meth to Heroin -- it was all present and accounted for, and the game was released in Australia without a fuss. Intriguingly enough, previews of the game in the media even assumed the addition of drugs would cause controversy, bringing the issue into focus regularly if not aiding the potential backlash a possible ban would have caused. This potential ban didn't eventuate though and the game was released without any dramas. There was no controversy (here, at least), and furthermore, there was barely any hype surrounding the game despite raving reviews. The game didn't sell as well as expected and now developers Rockstar are releasing it on the PlayStation Portable and the iPhone in an attempt to muster a few more sales. It will be interesting to see whether those releases also fly under the radar or indeed spark the controversy that everyone was expecting. As you can see, Fallout 3's ban was rather ridiculous. The fact it got edited quickly is beside the point; it is simply unfair for one game to be banned over a name while other games pass through fine.

Nudity/Sex Scenes

Nudity and sex in videogames is also a regular concern when it comes to our ratings system here in Australia, but personally I feel the issue is a little more controversial overseas than it is here. Take, for example, the drama that surrounded BioWare's Mass Effect and the mild sex scene contained within. A fuss was made over its depiction of sex, and questions of whether it was suitable for videogames or not were asked. The reason I feel that sex is more of a point of contention overseas is because of some games that have been released here. Quantic Dream's game Fahrenheit was released here in Australia containing both sex and nudity and not once was it spoken about. Meanwhile the American version, Indigo Prophecy, had the scenes edited out, for reasons unknown. It could be argued that the inclusion of sex in the game was ignored because it flew under the radar a bit, but even so the inconsistency still applies and the contrast between a fully-fledged sex scene and one that is mild and shows nothing is significant, if not worrisome. Preview footage of Quantic Dream's next game, Heavy Rain, also shows nudity and it wouldn't be hard to assume that a sex scene of some sort will also feature somewhere, due to Quantic Dream's attempts to tell a realistic, mature and adult story. It will be interesting to see the reactions to the game after its release sometime next year.

When Australia's classification board refuses to classify a game, for whatever reason, it doesn't just confuse Australian consumers; the industry gets confused as well. With each ban the line is blurred a little more, and by association, the moral standards of what should and should not be allowed in videogames are increasingly unclear. Even more so when a country renowned for being strict compared to the rest of the world allows content to pass through fine when such content poses a problem in a usually more lenient country. The ramifications for this are serious and new standards really need to be set so that developers, publishers and indeed, consumers alike are clear on what videogames are allowed to portray; but when big name companies like Rockstar feel the need to submit edited versions of their games (in this case, Grand Theft Auto IV) for classification in order to ensure their games are available everywhere, the future looks unfortunately hazy. A shame, then.