Sunday, April 17, 2011

How Bizarre

The closure of Bizarre Creations in February is disappointing on a variety of levels but none more so than the loss it brings: to those who used to work there and now find themselves in need of employment; to the racing genre for losing one of its most consistent and prolific developers; and to the games industry as a whole for losing such strong talent*. Regardless of the reasons behind the closure, Bizarre’s pedigree was unique, diverse and certainly unparalleled. It’s an unfortunate situation that happens all too often in the videogame industry (case in point: see the recent news regarding Guitar Hero) but rather than complain about it or attempt to lay blame where it doesn’t belong** in order to try and feel better about things, I decided to instead celebrate their legacy with this post, a tribute of sorts, looking at some of my favourite gaming moments that came from a developer who spent sixteen years in the industry.

Kudos

The first of these can be found within the Project Gotham Racing series. Defined by its style rather than its speed, PGR was about the fast cars and realistic environments of other racers, but with the added intention to show off inside them. It was about the supercars instead of any car; about how sideways one could get whilst still maintaining insane speeds; and about demonstrating talent behind the wheel as often as possible as opposed to select, usually predetermined moments. The series took us to all the famous cities around the globe and turned them into race tracks, using real city streets as its courses and made sure that popular tourist attractions such as the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Big Ben and the Vegas Strip featured prominently as you sped past. Featuring arcade style handling which could appeal to anyone yet was still realistic enough to satisfy the hardcore racing enthusiasts, it played like a dream with its various stylistic maneuvers easy to pull off, and its cars accelerating, braking and generally performing like you would expect them to in such zany but immensely satisfying antics -- important in terms of fun, and in conveying a sense of believability given its real world locations, real cars and real sensation of speed. The tracks flowed like real street circuits do despite mixing and matching the various streets contained within each city, and it was possible to push a circuit’s limits with precision, accuracy and smooth driving (√† la real track based racing) or bounce and slide, bump and drift and go nuts as the kudos -- the game’s reward system for stylish driving -- continually racked up. It catered to casual racers, the simulation faithful and everyone else in between, and did it with a flair and confidence that no other racing series can match, all while delivering an experience that was endlessly fun, accessible yet challenging , and full of content worth spending time with. It was the forebear for online gaming on consoles (PGR 2); introduced us to the world of geometric war (more on that in a second); gave reason to transition into the now standard high definition era (PGR 3); and also features some of the best weather effects and physics ever done in videogames (PGR 4). To put it simply, the franchise as a whole created trends rather than followed them, paved the way for a new direction in the racing genre, and offered the visceral thrill of speed alongside the impressive displays of skill and style that made up its unique personality, all while its competition jostled over superficial and at times meaningless features that were ultimately forgotten.

Platinum Prowess

For me, Project Gotham Racing was all about the challenge: how fast I could go, how stylish I could do it (to rack up points), and what was required to obtain the difficult Platinum medals. Project Gotham Racing 2 -- still the hardest in the series -- went beyond its beautiful graphics, awesome cars and faithfully recreated cities to become a game that I had to conquer. It’s not every day that a racing game is considered to be challenging for me. I don’t mean that in an arrogant, “I can drive” way, but rather my experience playing many games within the genre means that generally speaking, most don’t really pose a challenge anymore. PGR 2 did and as a result, I fully committed to overcoming that challenge and obtaining every single Platinum medal. The picture above proves that I achieved this and, consequently, the game remains in my memory as one of my favourite racing experiences I have ever had, just like F-Zero GX does. Going beyond its difficulty -- which, I might add, was balanced beautifully -- PGR 2 was also about its online capabilities, introducing me to the idea of playing against strangers over the Internet, as well as how positive such an experience can be. I made friends playing that game online and, eventually, it became a nightly affair. Dry or wet; short tracks or long; Hong Kong or Sydney -- the details didn’t matter because I was having a blast, sharing that enjoyment with my (new found) friends, and celebrating everything that was good about the game: fast cars, style, substance and -- a personal favourite of mine -- street circuits. Move onto the next generation and it became about high definition graphics. This was both a blessing and a curse as far as I am concerned, the cars and tracks in PGR 3 looking absolutely stunning -- I distinctly remember sitting there for hours just admiring them -- but the game as a whole being somewhat of a letdown. It’s not that it wasn’t great or lacked in exciting features, it just wasn’t PGR 2 and that left me feeling a little lost. This was soon forgotten about with the release of PGR 4, however, as that game felt like PGR 2 in the new generation and brought with it what is still, in my eyes, some of the best weather effects gaming has ever produced. The best thing about it, though, was that it wasn’t just a superficial “look at me and what I can do” inclusion: the weather affected the gameplay and completely changed the dynamics of the races. Weather existed in PGR 2 before it, but in Project Gotham Racing 4 the need to avoid puddles on a wet track, be extremely careful on snow and ice, and the visibility issues (playing in the in-car view) these conditions caused provided one intense racing experience, and definitely changed the approach to my driving -- especially when it came to obtaining those Platinum medals. And it is this wonderful weather implementation that gave me my best memory from the series, too: racing along the Nurburgring Nordschl√©ife, the longest track in the world, as it was completely covered in snow. That track, for anyone who knows about it or has driven on it (in real life or in a videogame) knows all too well just how difficult it is to drive in the dry, so to do it on an extremely slippery surface where it was hard to see the racing line, where the apexes were (again, in-car view) and to discover just how cautious you truly needed to be, was the most exhilarating challenge of my racing game life. Obtaining the Platinum medal for that event wasn’t necessarily hard, but the idea of going for it -- of having to drive this circuit as best you can, with such difficult conditions -- put a level of pressure on me that no other racing game had, and only F1 2010 has recently (but even then that’s more because of my approach to the game than any actual challenge it poses). It was incredible, it stands out as one of my all time favourite gaming moments, and it’s the reason why I really wish games would take advantage of weather more often than they do, and not for superficial reasons only. Another fond memory involves cruising around in St. Petersburg while it was cloudy and sleet was falling, with Lupe Fiasco’s song The Instrumental playing on one of the game’s many radio stations. The soundtrack was sublime -- something that can be said for the other games in the series, too -- and, surprisingly, accentuated the moments of bliss that the weather, car variety and gorgeous tracks provided.

Oh and PGR brought us Geometry Wars, too, which I’m now going to talk about.

A Sequence Of Shapes

Completely different to their racing roots, Geometry Wars is Bizarre’s other primary claim to fame, the top-down shooter bringing the joys of retro arcade shooters into the modern day with flashy visuals, a pumping soundtrack and a ‘just one more go’ mentality that so many games strive to obtain, but so few actually achieve. Originally a bonus found in the garages of the PGR franchise, the Geometry Wars series went on to find success as a downloadable title, showing the potential of digital distribution early and helping Microsoft by showing players that their Xbox Live Arcade service was worth a look. Word of mouth and an instantly enjoyable, accessible trial version sold the game to what seemed like, at the time, anyone who owned an Xbox 360, and such success spawned installments on the Wii and DS (Geometry Wars: Galaxies), a sequel and even iterations on mobile platforms. Speaking of the sequel, Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2 took the brilliant gameplay of the original Retro Evolved, refined it and altered the formula by adding new modes and abilities, and ensured competition with friends by placing leaderboards in obvious, prominent locations, continuing the addictive qualities that made it so endearing in the first place. Pacifism was born from an achievement in the original game -- last a minute without dying or shooting a bullet -- and utilised the new addition of gates as a method of survival against the ever increasing, always overwhelming shapes. King offered safety circles, pockets of brief security in which to shoot the enclosing shapes before having to go out once more and fight. Sequence provided various and brief challenges where reflex and quick reactions were even more important than in the ‘main’ game, and had a goal -- a unique difference to the other modes -- of surviving until the very end. All of these amounted to an arcade experience that could be played for five minutes or five hours, and one that reinvigorated the arcade shooter in a medium otherwise obsessed with guns and explosions. It was accessible, fast-paced and insanely crazy, but it was fun the entire time and continues to be today while so many other small gems remain mere memories.

Star Shooter

When Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved hit the Xbox Live Arcade, it was overwhelming because of its intensity, and seemingly impossible to be any good at due to the sheer amount of objects on the screen. What was a pleasant surprise while playing, however, was how easily it was to improve your skills the more you played. Like the learning curve of Guitar Hero and Rock Band, practice was crucial to learning how to play properly and with this experience became a skill level that was not only surprising, initially, but one that I could be confident enough to push. This made obtaining all of the game’s Achievements -- back in the days when those mattered to me, when I hid behind my completionist tendencies as the reason why I tried getting as many as I could -- a reality, changing the game from being one to get better at to one that I absolutely had to conquer (sound familiar?). For weeks on end I sat there, night after night, playing Geometry Wars with the sole intention of surviving for 1 million points, the game’s hardest and most notorious Achievement. Eventually (and perhaps ironically) I did manage this feat and did so while talking to a friend -- not the most ideal conditions for achieving a difficult goal. Absolutely ecstatic, the game changed from being a simple delight to play to being one of the best experiences of my gaming life, and I still feel proud all these years later. More importantly than that, though, was that it inspired me to keep on playing, improve my skills as a player, and work on obtaining higher and higher scores. At first it was about being ahead of all of my friends -- something I already felt like I had achieved when acquiring that Achievement, but something not reflected in terms of high score -- before moving on to beating strangers, and eventually just rising up and up the leaderboards. Interestingly the game’s sequel, Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2, didn’t see the same kind of dedication but it still satisfied my addiction (and continues to today), and acts as the “go to” game whenever I can’t decide what to play, or want an accessible but extremely exciting and enjoyable experience. It’s arcade action at its finest, appeals to the old school gamer inside of me with its high scores, and, when the two games are combined, exists as the series I’ve spent the most time with, on any console. Most critics believe that no game is perfect -- I can safely say that Geometry Wars is.

Lightshow

Bizarre Creations were also known for their experiments, two games in particular attempting new things when so many others were determined to copy what had come before. These games, The Club and Boom Boom Rocket, didn’t appeal to everyone and definitely didn’t see the success that Project Gotham Racing and Geometry Wars did, but both were worth a try and both epitomize what Bizarre is about: arcade thrills mixed in with serious style and a pursuit of fun and pleasure in an industry that, for now at least, seems more interested in war and depression. They took elements of videogame tradition -- such as high scores -- and twisted them in unpredictable ways, and did so because it might be fun to, not because it was something different to try. Boom Boom Rocket combined Geometry Wars’ glitzy visuals with the rhythm matching genre, while The Club took the points system and style of PGR and added it to a third person shooter, the result of both being unique experiences formed by an amalgamation of other elements but made coherent by their commitment to fun and dedication to accessibility. Then we have their Activision titles, Blur and 007: Blood Stone, which flopped commercially -- according to Activision at least, since they closed the studio -- but still remain worth considering for different reasons. Blur has a strong social focus which is unique (though granted, Criterion’s Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit did as well) for a racer, while Blood Stone was seemingly trying to be the next installment in that cross-media franchise, particularly since the next movie was on uncertain ground at the time. Whether these titles are good or not is something I can’t speak to as, out of the four, I’ve only played Boom Boom Rocket (which is awesome!). I do own The Club and Blur, however, and expect to find the same thrills and excitement, the same commitment to sheer fun, and the same flamboyance that Bizarre are known for when I do finally get to play them. As for Blood Stone, their pedigree alone makes me want to investigate the title but I’d be lying if I said I was interested in the Bond franchise.

Overall I loved Bizarre Creations’ games because they loved the medium. Their passion was clear and evident in the products they created, as was their talent and creativity, and this key fact doesn’t just earn my respect, it’s the kind of thing that earns developers the kind of respect that the likes of Valve, Rockstar and Nintendo have -- no mean feat when you consider what that actually means, and what it could have meant were Bizarre to remain alive. The studio is closed, however, meaning that the Liverpool based company remains in the medium’s history and my memory -- and what a memory that is.

To Bizarre Creations: bizarre in name, brilliant in development, beautiful in history.


*If they fail to find positions elsewhere.

**Activision attempting to sell them and eventually closing their doors is confusing; the fact no one jumped at the opportunity to buy them is baffling.

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