Friday, April 30, 2010

Split/Second Demo Impressions

Earlier this week the demo for Black Rock Studios' upcoming racing game Split/Second was released, and after running it through its paces I thought I'd offer you some impressions on it.

Within moments of loading the demo I was impressed by its subtle, minimalist presentation; the shards of glass floating across the game's menu screen effective in conveying a sleek yet destructive appearance that I would soon go on to discover is prevalent in the gameplay, too. Split/Second looks nice, its graphics on par with what you'd expect from a current generation racing game though they will mostly go on to be ignored due to the sheer speed you will be traveling at and the countless explosions happening on screen. The HUD is implemented subtly, with it appearing at the back of your car as opposed to the corners of the screen like in most racing games. Displaying your position, current lap and whether you have any 'Power Plays' (I'll get to that in a second), it communicates crucial information to you discreetly and it's not long before you don't even notice that it's there.

The game feels exactly like Burnout does in the Takedown or Revenge style, straight down to the (optional -- you press a button if you want to see them) replays highlighting the destruction you have caused by using a Power Play, the main mechanic of Split/Second. Obtained by performing maneuvers such as drafting and drifting (again like Burnout) and filling up a bar at the back of your car, a Power Play allows you to open up a shortcut or attack your opponents with an object around the track, such as causing a petrol station to explode or blowing out a piece of wall. The bar has three sections, two blue and one red, each representing the status of your Power Plays. The blue sections represent tier 1, reserved for the short and less powerful actions described above as well as for shortcuts, while tier 2 is more powerful and allows you to cause absolute mayhem. Ranging from blowing up a building and having it fall on the track to a plane crashing right down onto your opponents (and you if you're not careful), tier 2 is where the most fun of this main mechanic comes from and is, as you would expect, longer and harder to obtain. Tier 2 has another ability though, as it allows you to alter the route of the track, opening up new obstacles and corners to deal with, and more potential Power Play moments for your disposal. Combined with the opponent's own Power Plays, the end result is a crazy, fun experience where the explosions are seemingly ubiquitous and there is always something cool to see.

I can, however, see it getting old, the track in the demo fully exploited by yours truly within just three races. I saw every attack, shortcut, change of route and scripted setpiece it had to offer, and the fact that this happened so quickly leaves me curious to know if it will apply to the remaining tracks in the full game. It's a small criticism yes, but perhaps one that will go on to drag down the overall game if there isn't more variety over its tracks. Overall it's a game I definitely intend to get but since it releases around the same time as certain other games, it has to wait for now.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Preview Power: Red Dead Redemption

[Part of a series of smaller posts that I'll be doing about various upcoming games. I don't jump on board the hype train too often, but when I do I like to think that there's a pretty significant reason for why, and in this series I will attempt to explain my anticipation.]

Excitement for upcoming releases varies between all of us, with certain genres or types of games piquing our curiosity depending on what we have played before. Throw in the power of the hype train -- its almost infectious ability to instill in our minds a desire for a particular game -- and it’s little to no wonder that the majority of our attention is always looking ahead, always looking forward for the next big release. I will be the first to admit that I’m quite ambivalent to this constant focus towards the future, its grip on our mentalities preventing us from appreciating what we already have, but even I can’t deny the fact that I look forward to the next game almost as much as most people do. Like everyone, I have particular games that take my fancy when announced and throughout the course of their development I keep a strong eye on how its faring, what new additions have been revealed and then, of course, I get it when it finally releases. Honestly I don’t think it’s possible to ignore this phenomenon completely, even if we may want to, so I allow myself to do it but at a more relaxed, slower pace. This allows me to focus on the games I do have, return to ones I thoroughly enjoyed and would like to experience again, and also try out some games I may not have otherwise considered. I haven’t found the right balance yet, and believe it or not, I’m still slightly overwhelmed from the massive onslaught of games I got in 2008, but overall I’m enjoying and ultimately preferring this approach to my gaming. That said, there are a few games due for release in 2010 that I’m eager to get my hands on, and this series will briefly elaborate on why. It begins with Red Dead Redemption.

If you have been reading this blog for a while you would know that I’m quite a fan of Rockstar’s games, with each one that I’ve played -- from all of their studios -- entertaining me in ways that no others can. Red Dead Redemption looks to be no different, and the various preview videos they have released in the lead up to the game’s release next month have shown me some of the fun and interesting things I’ll be able to get up to. A popular one was the reveal of the game’s multiplayer, which does look like it will be a blast but it’s not my main reason for wanting to play. Instead, my main reason for wanting to play is just to exist in the world they have created. It’s no secret that I enjoy being immersed in the worlds (or spaces) of various games and this one looks like it will be one of the most immersive and compelling yet. I’m interested in it thematically -- I’ve never really had a look at the Western genre in film and it’s still a mostly untapped market in gaming -- so I’m curious as to whether life in the wild west will be interesting to me or not, but I’m also interested to see what Rockstar have achieved with it technically. After the still awe-inspiring GTA IV, I can’t wait to see the size of this sprawling, vast expanse of land and how they have populated it with towns, people, flora, fauna and whatever else besides. It’s not as dense as Liberty City was, so it will be interesting to see if this means an emptier space or one that is packed, but in a different way. Perhaps it will be similar to Fallout 3, with a big stretch of land filled with small and intriguing distractions, with bigger towns and maybe even small cities to visit as well.

Whatever the case, I’m expecting yet another big game that I’ll be playing for months as opposed to days, and I look forward to exploring every nook and cranny and just being in this massive world Rockstar have created. Told you these posts would be brief (compared to some of my other stuff); next up, Mafia II.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Got Mud?

Before I shift my attention to MotorStorm: Pacific Rift here on the blog, I thought I would take some time to reflect on my experience with the original game. As my post about the game’s introduction sequence alluded to, I thoroughly enjoyed MotorStorm and became quite addicted to its arcade racing thrills. Sure, the dirty and muddy terrain that featured so prominently in the game’s tracks became repetitive after a while, and there were probably too many events to beat in order to reach completion, but overall the core experience was enjoyable, addictive and exciting: a good formula that -- believe it or not coming from a fan of the genre -- isn’t found enough in racing games.

A cross between DiRT and Burnout, MotorStorm appears to be a lot like Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune: an amalgamation of genres that somehow seems to meld together quite effectively, but ultimately leaves the final product with a feeling that something is missing, that it lacks a soul and doesn’t have its own identity.* This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and what is there is a pleasure to play, but it definitely feels like more could have been done with it. More modes, a better variety of tracks, and vehicles that didn’t feel so similar to each other are just some of the things I would have liked to see, while racing on this kind of terrain -- the dust bellowing out from below a vehicle’s tyres, mud impeding the progress of lightweight vehicles while bigger ones storm on through, and tyre tracks that affect handling -- isn’t new and has been done, arguably better, before. The strong emphasis on the spectacle of crashing -- replaying it in slow motion to demonstrate the destruction and brutality of your collisions -- is overplayed and nowhere near as interesting or exciting as the crashes found in Burnout. With more time in development I’m sure the game could have been excellent, but as a launch title the restrictions such a status imposes on it means that it’s a good game when it could have been so much more. Naturally, leaving the game with such an impression can only lead to disappointment.

Continuing the comparisons to other franchises, an intriguing observation I had during my time with MotorStorm was how it was scratching the itches that Ridge Racer is usually reserved for: the desire for a relaxing racing game where it’s easy enough to just pick up and play, allowing me to zone out, yet challenging enough that my skills can be tested.

A few years ago I gradually made my way through Ridge Racer 6. Anyone who has played that game would know that it is absolutely huge, with a multitude of events to go through in the main career and challenges such as no crash victories and no nitrous victories. This all occurs over a limited selection of tracks that, like Mario Kart, are reversed to extend the length of the game and to add a little bit more variety. When referenced like that, it’s easy to assume that the game would get repetitive after a while and as a result, boring, with the idea of reaching full completion sounding like a chore. This is probably true for a lot of people but for me, not so. Despite playing the same tracks over and over again, using the same cars in each class and hearing the same tunes in the background, Ridge Racer 6 never got boring. I spent well over 150 hours in the game -- more if you include the races I had to do in multiplayer for even more completion -- and not once did I loathe my time with it. Admittedly, working on completion was a gradual process mixed in with other games, but despite that I can sincerely say that I loved every minute I spent with Ridge Racer 6, and the same applies to any other installment I’ve played. There’s just something about it that keeps me coming back for more, perhaps in the same way that people always return to the likes of Peggle or Geometry Wars: it might be hard to articulate why we do, but is that really necessary when we’re having so much fun?

MotorStorm is exactly like this for me. On paper it sounds repetitive and tedious as a result but my time with the game is the complete opposite: there was never a moment where I was bored with the game and I thoroughly enjoyed working my way to completion. It may have been on the same few tracks with the same cars in the same classes, with the same music playing in the background and indeed the same inconsistent AI, but were it any different things just wouldn’t be the same, and I wouldn’t have kept on playing. There’s something strangely compelling about MotorStorm’s core gameplay that, while nothing significant when compared to other racing franchises, is still worth the time and effort for me. And that’s what I will take away most from the game: that my time playing was justified and the effort rewarding. If that’s not the sign of a successful game, I’m not sure what else is.

*For the record, Uncharted did eventually go on to find its own identity. As for MotorStorm, well I’ll answer that in a future post.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Amongst The Stars: Super Mario Galaxy

I have a confession to make, one that I imagine a fair few of you will be quite displeased with: I am not a true Mario fan like most Nintendo loyalists are. I never have been, I never will be.

It's not as if I dislike the Italian plumber or the adventures to save the Princess that he finds himself embarking on, it's just... I prefer other franchises. It's not exclusive to the Mario series, either; I'm also not fond of Zelda like most others appear to be (and there goes the rest of my audience). Instead, my loyalty lies solely with a bounty hunter, one who is a known identity but doesn't receive anywhere near the recognition that those dressed in either blue and red overalls or a green tunic do. Samus Aran's adventures across the galaxy captivate me like no other series of games can, the immense isolation and solitary exploration resonating with me in a far stronger way than anything the Mushroom Kingdom or Hyrule can provide. But despite my allegiance to the Metroid series, I still do enjoy Nintendo's bigger, more popular franchises, and it's an adventure through another galaxy that has recently caught my attention in a way I wasn't expecting.

Super Mario Galaxy is absolutely brilliant. Everyone who has played it is well aware of this, and regarding it as the best Mario game ever would be a hard thing to argue with. I don't know where it sits for me personally and frankly, I don't think it matters. What does is the absolute joy this game brings to those who play it, and below are just some of the things that stood out to me while playing Mario's most recent adventure. *

A Galaxy Of Delights

Super Mario Galaxy is filled with delightful moments that really demonstrate why the Mario franchise is so popular, and undoubtedly Nintendo's best. Even being aware of some of the game's little pleasures before playing didn't detract from their overall impression on my experience, and the enjoyment that comes from it. The first time I became Bee Mario was amazing; wall-jumping to the top of waterfalls as Ice Mario was a basic yet empowering moment; stumbling upon the mushroom that allowed me to fly around the environment at my leisure for brief periods was wonderfully relaxing; and discovering Luigi's presence in the game was a neat -- if expected -- distraction, his acquisition of stars to help me in my quest a pleasant surprise that actually gave the man a purpose, a welcome change from previous games. It doesn't really matter what Mario was doing or which galaxy he was exploring, everywhere I looked was yet another moment of delight, and each session I had with the game left me with a smile on my face. The thing that intrigues me the most about my time with Super Mario Galaxy, however, is that despite all of these delightful distractions the feature that stands out more than any other is the change of perspective that we're introduced to within moments of first playing the game. It is easy to look back and take it for granted now, but damn if it wasn't a special moment that very first time we saw it in motion on our TVs, the Wiimote and Nunchuk in our hands ready for an unpredictable adventure in a familiar, yet unknown setting. It was one of those rare gaming moments that capture the essence of why I -- and I'm sure most of you -- play videogames, and it's an experience I will never forget.

Frustrating Fun

Despite the immense pleasure I had as described above, I'd be lying if I didn't admit that Super Mario Galaxy frustrated the hell out of me at times. There were countless situations where Mario would die because of something really silly -- such as being knocked over by an enemy and falling off the edge of a platform as a result, or not being able to recover in time once I had fallen into some lava** -- and my reaction to these moments was impatience and, in some cases, enough anger to cause me to turn the Wii off completely. But on reflection I would always forgive the game, realising that my frustration was usually my own fault. That's the beauty of Super Mario Galaxy and indeed, most Nintendo games: no matter how annoying they can sometimes be, the good most certainly outweighs the bad, and the bad stems from the player's own issues rather than from the games'. If something is difficult, it's because the player isn't concentrating enough, or taking advantage of a set of skills taught in previous areas of the game. Furthermore, whatever may be posing a challenge is always possible -- nothing is unobtainable, no challenge unbeatable and every single player can achieve the desired outcome if they focus and strive to overcome their moment of difficulty. It's the simplicity of Mario games that makes them a joy to play and definitely why he is gaming's most prominent (not to mention prolific) and recognisable identity around the world. And besides, without a challenge the Mario franchise wouldn't be so rewarding, and we can't have that, can we?

Looking over what I have said above, I've almost made a love letter to Super Mario Galaxy. And indeed, if that's what I've done, then I couldn't think of any other game that deserves it. The sheer fun and irresistible charm that permeates the game is overwhelmingly compelling, and having such a unique change of pace for the Mario franchise be filled with familiar characters, items, locations and remixed tunes is the icing on the already incredible, not to mention tasty, cake. I may not be the biggest Mario fan around, and I'm certainly not a champion of his games like most are, but even I can't deny the excellence that resides within Super Mario Galaxy. It's a ride I will never forget, and if you haven't played it I assure you that when you do, the experience will last with you forever.

*I know New Super Mario Bros. Wii released last year, but I think it's fair to say that the game -- despite it's fantastic, devilish fun -- wasn't a true installment like Galaxy was.

**And what's with Mario only having three bars of health this time? I know there's a mushroom that doubles it, but it still seems to be a strange design decision.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Origami Collection: Maturing The Medium

[Note: This post contains mild spoilers]

I think it’s fair to say that, regardless of personal opinion, Heavy Rain had to happen. Its attempt to move the medium of videogames forward is notable, and regardless of whether its lofty ambitions were successful or not are irrelevant. By attempting to tell a mature tale featuring characters grounded in reality and whom were easy to relate with, Heavy Rain proves that videogames don’t always have to be about fun, escapism or fantasy.

Focusing so heavily on mature themes, however, presents a conundrum: these themes are still relatively new to videogames and as such, implementing them effectively is difficult. The medium’s inexperience with such subjects means that mistakes will be made, and you only need to look at the mixed reception Heavy Rain is receiving to find an example of that.

It’s fairly obvious by now that I’m a massive fan of the game, but even so I found some of its focus on maturity daunting. Before I elaborate, here’s a list of just some of the themes the game tries to explore;
  • Fatherhood
  • Marriage, and then separation
  • Loss of a loved one (Jason)
  • Introversion -- Through the loss above and the distance Shaun creates with father Ethan
  • Prostitution
  • Female abuse and sexual assault
  • Asthma attacks
  • Over-dosing on drugs (Triptocaine)
  • Insomnia
  • Kidnapping
  • Murder
  • Police evasion
  • Possible Schizophrenia
  • Crowd Phobia
  • Religion
  • Attempted suicide
  • Aiding and abetting
  • The effects of alcohol (abusive father)
  • Amnesia (Ann Sheppard)
  • Sexism and the objectification of women
That’s a pretty extensive list of themes to explore in a very short time frame. Most games would struggle to deal with just three of these issues, let alone the twenty I listed there. The fact that Quantic Dream tried to explore such morally ambiguous and generally unfortunate themes is commendable, and I have no doubt that what they’ve achieved with Heavy Rain will do as intended and move the medium forward -- if not through their own efforts than through inspiration for other developers to follow suit -- but that doesn’t necessarily mean that what Heavy Rain presents thematically was a success. In fact, a lot of what they tried ended up rather cheesy.

Take for example, the awkward (and it has to be said, implied) sex scene. Not only is it terribly animated (the kissing in particular), it happens at an inopportune time and doesn’t make sense within the context of the events that have transpired. Yes, Ethan and Madison are getting closer through turmoil, but the scene seems to be more of an excuse to show off a largely unnecessary sexual encounter that barely shows anything anyway -- a step back from how intercourse was presented in Quantic Dream’s previous game Fahrenheit. It’s nice that they tried to feature sex in a relatively mature way, allowing for a relationship to follow if the outcome of your story went that way, but the approach to this little distraction was at best hasty and at worst a waste of time, as it didn’t really add anything to the overall experience. Call it character development if you want, but in my opinion it could have been better, and has been done better in other games.*

Another example could be the scene where Scott Shelby, the playable private detective character, has to deal with a crying baby. The baby’s unstable mother has just attempted suicide as a reaction to the unbearable loss of her son to the Origami Killer, and as such when Scott arrives on the scene she is in no condition to look after her infant child. During this scene the baby needs to be fed and have its diaper changed, eventually leading to gentle rocking to help it fall asleep. Now don’t get me wrong here, I actually think it’s neat that such a scene has been included in a videogame because it’s not one we’d usually associate with our medium -- and the mundane nature of such a normal, daily affair really hammers home the realism that such a situation would convey in reality -- but even so the way it’s presented and the animations and sound that goes with it comes across as cheesy, as if Quantic Dream were trying too hard, and that’s a common issue that occurs throughout Heavy Rain.

Whether it’s playing with your kids out in the backyard, dancing erotically to attract someone’s attention or playing the moral high ground when it comes to interrogating someone, there are too many moments in Heavy Rain where I appreciated what they were trying to do but found myself baulking at the moment, my immersion breaking as I realise that this is indeed a videogame. I understand why they chose to have this scene or that, and I respect the fact that they tried, but unfortunately not all of their intentions for Heavy Rain’s mature themes was successful, and that’s disappointing.

When a game is trying to be mature or trying to present a morally ambiguous situation that has no clear outcome -- such as Modern Warfare 2’s No Russian mission, or the binary good or evil conundrum found in most games that deal with morality -- then they open themselves up to failure by trying too hard. When games don’t distract themselves with trying to be something and just are what they are, the potential for mature themes and moral situations to succeed is greater, meaning that the medium we know and love moves forward, as well as delivers us an experience that resonates (a nice example for this could be the moment in The Darkness where main character Jackie can sit and watch a movie with his girlfriend). Getting to that point will be difficult, and the fact that we are trying means that there will be successes and failures along the way, but if Heavy Rain and other recent games are anything to go by, we will get there eventually. And when we do? Well, won’t all the hard work have been worth it?

*I’ll have more thoughts on each character and how they’re developed throughout the game in an upcoming post.