About Gameview

Hi there, my name is Mark and it's my ambition to become a games journalist. So in aid of that goal i've decided to write as much as I can. This blog is basically somewhere I can put all my thoughts about games. It contains reviews of games i've played from all platforms and then my thoughts on the general subject of video gaming.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Smallworld: It really is a small world after all!

I recently went back and re-read the Neptune's Pride diary that I wrote back in May and it spurred me on to write a summary of the Smallworld game we played in Alans. In a lot of ways Smallworld is very similar to Neptune's Pride. Like NP the combat mechanic is simple and so players cannot rely at simply fighting well to win, they need help from other players in the game. No matter how good you are at planning your attacks, at the end of the day you're going to lose if your opponent has more units than you, this is true for both NP and Smallworld.   With that said, I was very much aware that I'd need help in this game if I was going to win it. The number one thing I learned from Neptune's Pride is that I can't dip my finger in too many pies. I went into Neptune’s pride far too overconfident and immediately started Machiavellian-esque tactics right from the beginning. But what ended up happening was that I tried to do it to too many people and just ended up annoying everyone from the get go. This meant any diplomatic manoeuvrings I tried throughout the game failed because people read my messages with a hostile attitude.   I knew that if I tried the same tactics in Smallworld I’d just draw attention to myself which would probably end up on the other 3 players turning on me. So the aim of the game was to try and blind myself to the whole board and just focus on my immediate surroundings. My game plan had two points to it. 1) Don’t anger the whole board & 2) have at least one ally for the majority of the game. This plan (especially point 1) was bolstered by the fact that I picked the Ratmen with the bonus points for swamp zones. It meant that with my greater numbers I could expand rapidly and I would be harvesting more VPs than anyone right from the start, doubly so because I was getting extra points for the swamp zones.   With the headstart I got with my Race + Trait combo, it became immediately apparent to me that if I could just stick to my area and hold my own, I’d be in with a strong chance of winning the game. However, Smallworld’s board is quite small which inevitably leads to conflict. So in order for my plan of splendid isolation to work, I’d need a friend. At the beginning Alan started looking for allies so I hopped on that opportunity. Alan showed with Neptune's Pride that he's good at these types of games and I thought with him at my side he could protect me while I farmed Victory Points. That never came to a head though because Alan was swayed by the others not to side with me. I was surprised by Alan's play all game to be honest; he constantly jumped from one plan to the next every turn. But when I looked back at his Neptune's Pride game it made sense. He was completely isolated all game, penned in by Gus & I. He fought extremely well, effectively holding off the two of us, but he was never called on for much diplomacy at all. He had to weather the storm against myself and Gus and then once he broke us, he went on to fight the rest of the map. The one time I actually trusted him he broke a ceasefire we had both agreed on once he saw I was weak. So it's actually not that surprising that he flip-flopped so much in this game.   In place of Alan I found an ally in Dippi after about 3 turns. I was absolutely delighted with this. Dippi started off with an incredibly aggressive combo of Amazons & The Dragon and in my opinion he could have beaten anyone in the game at that point. The funny thing was, he never had to. He was left completely alone for the whole game with a lot of free land to expand into. Expanding on this; now would be a good time to talk about how we all set up in the beginning. The board is a rectangle and I assume in a four player game the idea is that each player occupies a corner and then eventually expands into each other. However, when we started to deploy this never actually happened. Alan & Dippi fought for the top right, leaving the bottom right relatively untouched. I think what brought this on was Alan's flying power which he felt he had to utilise right from the off. But really all it did was spread him too thin and ultimately resulted in him occupying the bottom left with Gus.   So really the layout for a large portion of the game was me in the top left, Jason in the top right, no one in the bottom right and Alan & Gus in the bottom left. This was great for Jason, good/bad for me, but disastrous for Alan & Gus. For Jason it meant that instead of expanding into a player for territory he could expand into neutral ground. For me, while it meant I now had 2 players to my south, it also meant I could trust Jason because the obvious route for him was south and not into me. For Gus & Alan it meant that they occupied the same territory and were constantly clashing with each other. This meant that they were constantly hamstringing each other all game.   So once the board positions started to settle I had to adapt. I gained Jason as an ally which was huge. In terms of military strength he was the strongest player by a country mile. If he decided to expand into me I would have been screwed. But gaining him as an ally meant not only could I focus on Alan & Gus but I had a voice to back me up in every debate we had and that was perhaps even more crucial. My number one goal for the rest of the game was to stop Alan & Gus uniting and pushing against me. If they kept fighting each other and Jason just expanded south I believed I'd win the game since I was harvesting victory points at a furious rate. This was something Gus spotted right at the beginning, but unfortunately for him he couldn't convince either Jason or Alan to do anything about it. Jason himself believed he was winning the race against me and wouldn't have to risk a war to win, and Alan was too easily swayed by the joint voices of Jason & I.   So what ended up happening was perfect for me. I was left pretty much alone for the entire game. Alan and Gus just kept fighting each other. It was strange, both players kept identifying the need to join forces and go for me but every turn they'd turn on each other. I lost count the amount of times they’d broker a peace only to go back to taking a territory or two off each other the very next turn. What this ended up doing was effectively putting them both out of the running for the game and leaving myself and Jason to race each other. Both of us thought we were ahead on Victory Points. I think what swung it for me was that I got a much better start than him. I had the highest number of units at the beginning which meant I got more territory and I also had a perk that doubled the victory points of swamps. That perk lasted for a good 5 or 6 turns so even when Jason overtook me in territory held I was still generating more Victory points than him.   In the last 3 or so turns it became very apparent that it was going to boil down to a race between myself and Jason. This led to some tension between us that came to a head in the redeployment turns of Gus and Jason. Fergus had brought a new race into play and placed them in the bottom right corner of the map (the space Jason was expanding into). The problem here was that Gus had the diplomacy trait which meant he could effectively stop Jason's movement south. This was around the time that Jason decided to also bring a new race into the game. When he brought them in he had a choice, he could deploy them back in his old position but be trapped between his ally (me) and Gus who was immune to him, or he could deploy in the bottom left hand side of the map which was essentially the map’s war zone all game. He chose to deploy in his old spot and that scared the hell out of me.   After his choice to redeploy up by me I started preparing for a war. Since it was a race between me and Jason, every Victory Point was crucial. Every turn I played I was expanding into new zones, whether it be filling out the neutral zones left around my area or into the war zone where Gus and Alan had been beating the crap out of each other all game in. The point is, I was taking zones every turn, which translated into even more victory points. Jason however was stifled. He couldn't move into Gus because of the diplomacy trait so the only place he could move into was west and into me. When he deployed his troops near my border I was sure he was going to attack. I didn't think he thought he was far enough ahead to just sit on what he had and wait for the end. But that's what ended up happening.   In the end I think four factors won the game for me. The first, and biggest factor, is that despite Alan & Gus wanting to attack me all game, I was only attacked once...on the last turn. Even when they had a chance to bring in new races and deploy into me, they still chose to fight each other. The second factor was having Jason as a permanent ally. This didn't so much help me in a military sense (we never fought together in an actual battle) but it helped me focus on just one area. It actually makes an interesting comparison to the Neptune's Pride game. Myself and Gus wanted to expand west into Alan and split his territory before focusing on everyone else, but I was too scared of Jason, on my right, to commit fully. What ended up happening was I split my forces and fought a war on two fronts, eventually letting Alan back into the game and of course he went on to win it. With this game I never once worried about Jason until the very end which allowed me to fully focus on Gus & Alan.   The third factor was my race+trait combo. I had ratmen and bonus swamp points at the beginning, which as previously discussed allowed me to build up the masses of victory points. But then I picked the Sorcerer + Heroic trait. Because Sorcerers can effectively boost their numbers in a battle it meant that at the end game I probably had the strongest army which I think deterred Gus & Alan from deciding to attack me.   Finally Jason's decision to honour our agreement in the final three turns. If Jason attacked me when he redeployed his new race of giants I don't know what would have happened. I think it would have been a lot closer certainly and Alan & Gus would have had a lot more to say.   In regards to the other players I think Alan played a lot like I played in Neptune's Pride. He was loud, tried too many things, flip-flopped a lot which inevitably ended up with him in constant war. Gus was the opposite, he saw how it was but wasn't loud enough to sway the opinions of anyone else. This was unfortunate for him because Alan chose his territory to redeploy in. I reckon had he done that to either myself or Jason we would have eventually convinced him to side with us. Gus was just never able to do that. Jason's game was very similar to mine; we both had a very easy ride. I mean, he didn't lose a single territory and I lost one. But the difference in it was I just had the better start. I am unsure what I would have done in his position. When Gus with his diplomacy redeployed into the bottom right hand corner of the map it effectively meant Jason had to betray me or lose the game. I think had he known I was so far ahead things might have gone differently, but he thought he was close enough that he could both honour his agreement and win the game. Comparing the Smallworld and Neptune’s Pride I think Alan definitely comes off the worst in terms of trust. In Neptune’s Pride he backstabbed me mercilessly when I was down and in this game he was constantly switching plans and going back on agreements. He won Neptune’s Pride because he fought the battles exceptionally well, but he never really had that opportunity in this game because right from the beginning he was on the back foot. Jason has proved to be a pretty solid ally and good diplomat. In Neptune’s Pride he looked out of the game when myself and Gerry were attacking him on two fronts, but he managed to turn the tides by agreeing a ceasefire with Gerry which ended up screwing me. This effectively flipped him from losing the game to becoming relevant right up to the end. In this game he was a staunch ally and I’d definitely trust him again. I still don’t know what to make of Gus. In Neptune’s Pride he got off to a horrific start because he didn’t realise the game had begun and by the time he had I had taken most of his planets. Similarly in this game he was hamstrung by the constant battle he had with Alan. I think I need to see him play a game where he doesn’t get off to such a bad start in order to properly give my opinion. In terms of myself I think two things really helped me in this game. Firstly I was dealing with reasonable people. There were heated debates sure, but everyone listened to everyone else and there was no enmity. This was in stark contrast to the Neptune’s Pride game which had John & Flav who are about as angry and hostile as anyone you’d meet on the internet. This meant that anytime I tried to talk I was angrily shot down which effectively stopped a lot of my communication with the East. In Smallworld I was constantly able to influence people and was never shot down. Secondly, I never had to actually fight a proper battle. In Neptune’s Pride Alan outplayed me on the strategic front. Despite having Gus attacking him from the North, I was never able to get the best of him. In Smallworld my battle strategy was never actually tested. I spent the whole game conquering neutral zones. The only battle I had to fight was one of words. It would have been interesting to see how I fared if Gus and Alan actually united, or Jason betrayed me.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A Few Thoughts On: Two Worlds 2

I sat down to play the original Two Worlds in the summer of 2007. At that time, my love for the RPG had once again been ignited by the Shivering Isles expansion earlier that year and Two Worlds was, in theory, supposed to ease the anxiety of waiting for The Witcher and Mass Effect which were to be released in the last quarter. After about an hour of laughably bad writing, combat and voice acting I put the game down in disgust never to touch it again. Unfortunately Two Worlds wasn’t the anaesthetic I had hoped for. After that experience the announcement of a sequel didn’t move me to any emotion past perhaps the initial shock that developers Reality Pump got the green light for a sequel, but I was happy to let it pass me by. However to my dubious surprise Two Worlds 2 was received relatively well, both by critics and peers of whose opinions I respect. Since I was already avoiding Dragon Age 2 and the sequel to The Witcher was still a bit away I decided to give Reality Pump another chance, and picked up Two Worlds 2.

It’s probably best to put a disclaimer right at the start of this. If you are only into RPGs, or just games in general because of the quality of story or characters then Two Worlds 2 might not be the game for you. The writing in Two Worlds 2 is not good, this becomes apparent after about 10 minutes and it does not get any better. Every character in the game is there as a quest giver, nothing more than a mechanical feature of the game, they might
as well just be a notice board. The story is about as clich├ęd as you can get and the voice acting ranges from dull to poor to just downright strange. At first the writing made me laugh in an “it’s so bad it’s enjoyable” kind of way, but once I was properly into the game I just skimmed through it, trying to end the conversation before the voice acting would kick in. It’s important to say however, that this criticism of the game doesn’t change much. Two Worlds 2 isn't about the story or the characters, they’re just a method to put you in this world they’ve

created and give you something to do. As bad as the writing is, it’s hard to condemn Two Worlds 2 for it because that wasn’t their focus, it would be like knocking 20% off Diablo because it had a bad story. Good writing in a game is fantastic and extremely important, but it isn’t essential if the game doesn’t depend on it, and that’s the case with Two Worlds 2.

So what does it depend on then? Well, character progression for one. Reality Pump have gone to a lot of effort with the itemization in Two Worlds 2, there is an amazing array of items in the game and plenty of different graphics to each of them. To actually see your character become more visually impressive as he equips higher level armour is a great way for a game to give the player an aesthetic impression of how his/her character is progressing, and it is a nice breakaway from the more mundane armour sets of Dragon Age, Mass Effect or any of Bethesda’s games. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the quests in Two Worlds 2. There is a genuine effort to create some interesting quests, and although they’re poorly delivered by the NPCs and there are some go kill x amount of x tasks, a lot of the quests can be excellent. There were times when I expected a simple go and kill quest and then was caught off guard as it took an unexpected and much appreciated turn. More than anything else in this game, the quests are an absolute far cry away from the mind-numbingly dull ones in the first game.

The world they’ve created can be a bit hot and cold at times. It doesn’t help that the area the first chapter is set in, is a sparse desert which has a Fallout-esque bleakness to it, especially when the tutorial island is this lush jungle surrounded with a lovely green only broken by the blue of the rivers. The second chapter does a much better job though. The one massive advantage an open world game has over a linear one is obviously exploration, yet I never felt the urge to explore in Two Worlds 2. Even when I did all I came across were droves of angry ostriches and a literal metropolis of Varn (wolf-like bad guys) camps. Following the story takes you to all the interesting places the islands have to offer anyway, and I feel that Reality Pump really missed out on this opportunity. It does look very pretty though, there is a point in the game where you are sent to a lighthouse and as I was about to descend I stopped and just looked out over the sea which boarded a nearby fishing village. The sun was setting and it really was a lovely sight, it’s just a pity that when I got to the village it was just yet another boring location which was only there to hold a few quest givers. It reminds me of the time I was playing World of Warcraft and I was in my favourite area, Redridge. Again, I stopped to admire the nice, albeit cartoony sights, and all I could do was lament the fact that this village was just another quest hub only designed to progress you from level 15-20, that’s how I feel about the world in Two Worlds 2.

The combat is also hot and cold. The magic system Reality Pump have come up with is nothing short of innovative. It’s system where you can have fun with a combat mechanic without even engaging in combat. The experimentation is key and is quite similar to Magicka in the sense that you don’t know quite what you’re doing, but the end result is usually going to be something to make you smile. I haven’t had this much fun with a mage in an RPG since the glass cannons of Baldur’s Gate and if Reality Pump have gotten one thing right with Two Worlds 2 it is definitely this. Unfortunately the other combat options don’t offer anywhere near the same amount of detail or enjoyment. The ranged combat is extremely disengaging, you don’t feel like you’re actually in combat as you easily pick monsters off from range as they struggle to reach you. There’s no feel to it at all, I may as well just be clicking on an enemy and watching his health drop. I had to change after the first boss battle which I won by just repeatedly firing arrows at him which would knock him back enough so that he’d never reach me if I kept firing.

There are three types of melee combat, two handed, sword and shield and dual-wielding. Dual-wielding feels clunky and unresponsive, the shield sometimes bugs out and starts twisting my arm in strange and painful ways, thankfully the two handed style works quite well and I’d find it hard to imagine anyone finishing the game who hasn’t just switched to the two handed style altogether, abandoning any notions of a second weapon or shield. The combat itself is extremely basic, and while it starts off interesting enough as soon as you level your block breaking ability enough, fights then just break into a constant spamming of said ability. The enemies also bug out quite often, I’ve had fights where I’ve been completely ignored by nine out of the ten monsters surrounding me, sometimes monsters become invulnerable for a short space of time, and then there’s the odd time a monster has just said “sod it” and walked away from me mid fight, turning on his invulnerability shield in the process. The bugs aren’t just limited to combat either, there are still some quests that you can’t complete and I’ve had the odd quest giver who just wouldn’t talk to me.

I enjoyed my time with Two Worlds 2, it’s not the best RPG in the world but then again I never expected it would be. In the great scheme of things Two Worlds 2 won’t really be remembered, but that at least is a step up from its original, which is remembered for all the wrong reasons. Reality Pump have definitely improved on Two Worlds, which is cause enough to celebrate. Part of me suspects that this hyperbole surrounding Two Worlds 2 has a lot to do with this improvement, but even still, if Two Worlds 3 makes a similar sized jump in quality then we could be on to a genuinely great game.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Removing the “Role-Playing” from Combat in FPSRPGs

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is the game on everyone’s lips at the moment. Creating a successor to one of the most critically acclaimed games of all time is quite a difficult feat, and it will of course mean that everyone will nitpick at every detail to the nth degree. But while everyone is screaming bloody murder over the highlighted objects or the cut scene takedowns, what got my attention was the combat. It wasn’t the fancy augmented moves Jensen can perform, or the flashy graphics, what struck me is that this is an FPSRPG that finally shoots like a First Person Shooter.

Deus Ex along with System Shock was one of the first commercially successful games to create this new genre, a hybrid of the behind the screens number game of the RPG and the incessant clicking of the FPS. But for all Deus Ex’s strengths, and there are plenty, it can’t count the combat as one of them. Even diehard Deus Ex fans will tell you to just pick up a rifle and sneak through the whole game, because combat simply isn’t that much fun. Deus Ex can’t shrug off those criticisms by hiding behind its release date either, even games pre-dating it had much better combat on display, Half-Life being a good example.

The weakness of Deus Ex’s combat came from the other half of this new genre, the RPG. Now that stats were put into everything, guns had to adhere to their numbers game, rather than any form of logic. The combat in Deus Ex was burdened by having to invest points into being able to shoot effectively. If you didn’t put enough points into your rifle skill then you had to riddle an enemy full of bullets before he would eventually collapse. While the inclusion of RPG elements obviously offered a lot more depth to Deus Ex than any other pure FPS had brought to the table, in some ways it crippled the game.

The FPS/RPG is now a well known genre, however despite the fact System Shock and Deus ex created this genre over ten years ago, developers have been falling into the same pitfalls over and over again. Bloodlines, Borderlands, Fallout 3 and New Vegas all integrate the RPG part into their combat and they all suffer for it. Bloodlines was fantastic up until the sewers where the combat really kicks in and I’m sick of throwing grenades at enemies in Fallout only to see nothing happen to them because my explosive skill wasn’t high enough.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want pure shooters to take over again. The RPG part in all these games keeps them fresh, it’s no surprise the playtime of Fallout 3 for example is over thirty hours where pure shooters like Modern Warfare or Bulletstorm only reach about six. But the RPG part has to only be used in places where it’s
applicable. To generalise for a moment, FPS’ usually have the better combat and RPG’s will have the better story, characters and dialogue, of course there are examples to prove this rule wrong, but generally it’s true. So why can’t FPSRPG’s take up that model? Instead of merging everything together, use each genre to its strengths. Keep combat purely FPS driven, no gun stats, no behind the screen dice rolls to see if I actually shot my enemy in the head, just keep it pure and simple. Then the RPG parts can be used outside of combat. Skills like lock picking, speech, bartering, hacking, we’ve seen them all before, and we’ve all had to neglect one or two because picking up a skill in how to shoot was, unfortunately, more important.

So far from what we've seen of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, it seems as if Eidos have picked up on this. Fighting looks action packed and most importantly fun. Some will baulk at the idea of removing the RPGness from combat, but they’ll eventually get past it when they find that the RPG part of the FPSRPG shines when people aren’t firing guns.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

5 Reasons: Why Portal is a great game.

Portal, the dark horse included in the Orange box, has achieved universal acclaim since its release in 2007. The internet is now full of cake jokes and “Still alive” is probably the most recognisable song in a video game to date. In this article I’m going to try and list five reasons, not just why it’s such a successful game, but also what its success can teach gaming as a whole.

1.      Even my mom has finished Portal: I’ll be the first to admit I’m awful when it comes to puzzle solving in games. While everyone else was having fun with Guybrush Threepwood and his chums, I was stuck trying to figure out how to open the door with a carrot and some marbles. I couldn’t even blow out pretentious hot air with the rest of my forum buddies over Braid because I was too busy being mocked by that last jigsaw piece on World 2. But I finished Portal... and so did my mother, and my girlfriend, neither of whom touch games and repeatedly scold me for my hobby.
We’ve all finished Portal because Portal is accessible. Most of the game is basically a tutorial, but we either don’t notice or care because playing through it is so much fun. Valve have found a way to gradually lead us through these puzzles at exactly the right pace, where you can be challenged in a way that’ll make you stop and think, but crucially not for too long. In my first play-through I never felt that familiar feeling of inadequacy and frustration I usually get from trying to solve puzzles, but at the same time I got the elation when I finished it. That sort of level design is top notch and extremely difficult to do. 
2.      A short game is not a bad game: When people talked about the more negative aspects of Portal, one phrase was trotted out again and again, “It’s such a pity it was so short”. This isn’t a criticism reserved for Portal alone either, any game that doesn’t span past the 10 hour mark will be admonished for it. RPG’s tended to be the only game that could span a campaign over a long period of time, but with the ever increasing amount of game categories, (open world games, sandbox games, multiplayer games), gamers these days expect playtime to reach upwards of 15 hours.
But there is a lot to be said for the short game. Portal has a play time of about 3-5 hours which is exceptionally short for a game, even an FPS these days spans about 8 hours and they usually include multi-player too, which increased the play time ten- fold. But because of Portal’s short play-time it is absolutely packed with gold. At the risk of drooling on to my keyboard, each minute is lovingly crafted and the style, humour and challenge of the game never wanes for a second. A game that lasts upwards of 30 hours is bound to have some sections that drag, and is going to include part that are merely more than filler, (Orzammar caverns anyone?). If Portal went on for another five hours, GLaDOS’ pitch black humour could have lost its edge, the challenges may have become boring and most crucially it mightn’t have had people begging for more. Portal 2 comes out later this year and Valve have said it’s going to be four times as long. I would be extremely surprised if they manage to stretch the gold over a period that long.
3.      But they need to be priced right: Aha, nearly got you there! Of course when you talk about the length of a game the price has to be integrated within that. Creating a fantastic three hour long game that’s priced equally to Bethesda’s latest 70 hour epic is going to earn you quite a lot of ire. Portal was originally released with the Orange Box which included Half-Life 2 along with its two episodes, and Team Fortress 2, all at the price of about 40 quid. That means Portal itself was priced at about eight Euros. I have no problem paying for shorter games if they’re priced accordingly. Eight Euros is cheaper than your average cinema ticket and they tend to be only two hours long.

Portal bore the brunt of most of the criticism over shorter games, but it began to pave the way for cheaper, shorter games to be sold digitally. We now have a host of games (mainly indie) that cost a tiny amount and while the play time isn’t massive the time you do spend with the game is excellent. We need to rid ourselves of the notion that games need to be a set length of time and start embracing games of varying length and price.

4.      Valve can write....pretty well: The amount of quotes, meme’s, jokes and nerd references that have come out of Portal is staggering. Just try and Google “The cake is a lie” and watch the thousands of sites pop up. In the first point I mentioned how Valve have mastered level design in this game, but the way Portal actually plays only makes it half the game, if that. The writing in Portal is sublime, in terms of writing in games it surpasses the fantastic narrative of the Half-Life series and should be put right up there with Planescape: Torment.
GLaDOS is possibly the funniest character to appear in a video game and the Companion Cube has managed to endear players worldwide without actually having any lines of dialogue. The writers in Valve managed to create GLaDOS without any proper conversation, the only lines written for it are one way and  are quite sparse up until the end. 50­+ hour long RPGs have mountains of dialogue and histories written about their characters yet most of them don’t have anywhere near the amount of appeal that this psychotic robot does. The Companion Cube is even more impressive. Despite being no more than just a crate coloured differently, the Companion Cube is loved by gamers everywhere. It has no lines, makes only a brief appearance in the game and...well, it’s a crate, yet anyone who’s played the game will harbour this inexplicable affection for it. Valve could have just given you a normal crate but they didn’t, and turning an inanimate object into something that is now a top marketing product, is writing at its finest. The writing in Portal serves an important lesson for all those other developers out there. Writing is crucial to a game; it’s not just an extra layer. People have this insane notion that only RPG’s need to have good writing and for every other genre it’s just a bonus. Portal, a puzzle game, lasted in people’s hearts and minds because Valve made a massive attempt to write something genuinely funny and, without that, Portal would not have succeeded to the extent that it did.

5.      There’s hope for us all: Portal is the spiritual successor to a game called Narbacular Drop, an independent game released in 2005 by the students of DigiPen Institute of Technology. Valve liked the idea and so hired the ten creators of the game and put them to work on Portal. This is a pretty heart-warming success story, yes, but it’s also important in the greater scheme of things. There are people out there creating some amazing games and the only thing that’s holding them back is their budget. Thanks to a few varying factors the last few years has seen a huge flourish in the indie market. Games like Minecraft, Braid and Sleep is Death to name a few are expanding the horizons of games past generic shooter #102 and that’s fantastic, but it can go further.
Valve have the right idea in picking these people up and giving them a budget to aid them in making their ideas real. Incidentally Valve didn’t just stop with Portal, this also happened to Turtle Rock with Left 4 Dead and Icefrog with Defence of the Ancients 2. Some smelly hippies will tell you that big name companies should leave indie developers alone, but as fantastic as these indie games are they could be even better with a budget behind them. Nerbacular Drop is probably great, I don’t know because I haven’t played it, but Portal is fantastic. I’m sure the students of DigiPen will tell you their original idea wasn’t hampered massively and Valve brought more to the table then they took away. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Few Thoughts On: Bulletstorm

A few months before the release of Bulletstorm a small demo emerged onto the internet called “Duty Calls”. Throughout the five minutes or so of game time the demo steadily mocked the Call of Duty franchise for its “boring” combat, predictable storyline and overly serious attitude. It ended in ridiculous fashion when you retrieved the “Nuclear Missile Bomb” from “The Leader Enemy Boss”, and then proceed to give the thumbs up while the American flag sprouts from your fingers. It was all very funny and well done, but why was this released on to the internet? The next caption read “Putting the Fun back into Gun, BulletStorm: Kill with Skill” and it all made sense. Just like the soldiers you play in the game, Epic Games and People May Fly weren’t afraid to piss off the bigger competitors and give them the finger while doing it.
In the campaign you play the foul-mouthed and seemingly indestructible Grayson Hunt. Betrayed by Sarrano his former commander, the ex-soldier dedicates his life to finding and killing said Commander. Ten years after the betrayal he runs into Sarrano’s ship in space and in a suicidal stunt manages to bring both ships down into the planet Stygia, a planet seemingly solely populated by people wanting to kill you.  The main, (some would say only) focus in Bulletstorm is its combat. The game throws a ridiculous amount of enemies at you and hands you even more ridiculous tools in which to dispose of them. Each weapon brings its own flavour to the combat and are each lethal in their own way. Alongside those weapons you have a leash on your arm with which you can drag enemies over to you in a Scorpion-esque fashion and a kick which would put Chuck Norris to shame. On top of that, every weapon has a “charge” function which brings even more destruction to the table. For example the pistol can take a man’s head clean off, but the charge function will turn it into a flare gun which you can fire into a charging enemy and watch as he spirals into his friends and turns them all into burning, screaming bags of points.
Ah yes, points, they’re what the game comes down to. In Bulletstorm simply killing everything in front of you to complete the mission isn’t enough. As the caption says, you have to do it with skill. All your kills have points attached to them; a simple kill will net you a measly ten points, but wrap and enemy in a chain bomb and kick him into a group of enemies who happen to be standing next to a bomb and watch your points soar. Each kill has its own “skillshot” attached to it and with 135 skillshots in the game you’ll have a hard time repeating kills over and over again. The game has a list of every skillshot and how to get them, but the fun is in experimenting yourself, I have tried 75% of the skillshots in game and I’ve probably looked up on five of them. Bulletstorm goes out of its way to pat you on the head for your killing and the moments where you truly pull off something fantastic and watch all the numbers fly over head can be quite exhilarating.
While you can have a lot of fun trimming the hoards of Stygia the actual set pieces in the game are lacking. Anytime something big came around, the game would invert itself and suddenly Grayson would take control of me. Most of the games set-pieces boil down to you pressing a single button and watching as the action unfolds, in a game that prides itself on making you look cool as you fight, the fact it takes that ability away from you in the most dramatic moments is both galling and extremely frustrating. When someone wants to play a video game, they want to do exactly that, play it. If the player was given full control over those set pieces, what they would lack in visual impressiveness they would vastly make up in excitement and immersion. Simply pressing “x” does not kill the most basic of enemies so it should not kill the biggest and baddest Bulletstorm has to offer.
A lot has been made of the humour in Bulletstorm and for the most part it is a funny game. It is crude and tickles the lowest part of your funny bone, but it’s in tone with the whole over the top nature of the game so it works. What doesn’t work quite so well is when the story tries to put the ridiculousness of the game on pause and gets serious. It’s hard to get into the moment when Grayson gets philosophical with his old ex-soldier buddy Ishi, since not two minutes ago he was shouting “Eat this dick-tits” as he threw an enemy strapped with explosives into another group of enemies to attain the skillshot “Gang-bang”. For the most part the story fits well and provides a few chuckles, but these moments of seriousness (more frequent towards the end) jerks you out of your point-gaining fervour and feels very much out of place.
Fun is a word we’ve probably lost sight of while reviewing games, but it is brought into the fore in Bulletstorm. Killing enemies is fun, listening to the crude jokes is fun, the guns are fun and gaining new skillshots is fun. Bulletstorm isn’t a game that attempts to further the genre in any way; it’s not a game we’ll all look back on as something that changed the nature of the FPS. But for all the fantastic narrative devices in the Half-life series or the exploration in the Stalker series none of those games achieve the same amount of pure joy you get from the combat in Bulletstorm.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

A Few Thoughts On: Magicka

When I heard of Magicka my first thought was one of dismissal, I didn’t really need another Diablo clone so close to the actual Diablo III release date, especially when I have a barely touched Torchlight sitting in my Steam account. My second thought was to maybe read up a little about it before I passed judgement, and thankfully I did. Magicka is a top down “Magic ‘em Up” developed by Arrowhead Studios, a small time Swedish company. In Magicka you’re given eight spells from eight different elements, and with these spells you have five slots in which to combine them. So for instance, while channelling fire five times nets me a relatively weak fire spray, substituting two of those slots for say earth gives me a nice powerful fireball. This is just the tip of the iceberg and the amount of combinations you have at your disposal are mouth-watering. 
The first thing that struck me about the game was its humour. Comedy and love are two elements that I’ve always felt games have struggled with. But when a game can successfully deliver comedy, it, as a whole will flourish from it. Portal while technically excellent wouldn’t have been half the game if GLaDOS was simply “The Bad Guy.” From cult references to the excellent “Vlad” (not a vampire), Magicka has humour in abundance and while you may curse quite a lot, you’ll also laugh.
It’s quite a long game too for the price of ten Euros. It took me about ten and a half hours to complete the single-player and there is also the multi-player and various challenges to try. You’re given the eight spells right at the start of the game and without changing anything but your staff and sword those spells are to last you eleven hours and beyond. You do find spell books along the way, unlocking new combinations for special spells such as Thunderstorm and Teleport, but since all of your spells are unlocked at the beginning there is the worry of boredom setting in as you fall into a routine. To be quite honest I did sort of settle into a routine, I had one combination which saw me through most of my killing but not all of it. Arrow-head studios were clearly aware of this problem and threw teleporting dwarves, Ogres with hand-held mortars and other sorts of mythical beasts at me to rock me out of my routine, and it worked! There is no one spell that will see you through every fight and learning what works well in what situation is one of the fundamental joys of Magicka.  I’m struggling to remember the last game where I could visibly see myself getting better that didn’t use a levelling system.
But for all its ‘sploady fun Magicka does have its downsides. I still have to get a multiplayer game working properly, which is a shame because from what I’ve seen the game looks like it’ll become even better playing with friends. The single-player has its issues also, the inability to save in between levels and the widely spread checkpoints are the source of much frustration. While I criticised Bioshock for having its respawning system I think Magicka has gone past hard and into frustrating at times. I’m a firm believer that while a game like this shouldn’t be easy, it also shouldn’t have you cursing in frustration as a boulder randomly blasts you into lava setting you back another 10 minutes of progress.
That said, Magicka is a breath of fresh air. As I mentioned before, when I looked at Magicka I immediately thought “Diablo clone” which just shows what sort of mind-frame all these rehashes have put me in. But no, Magicka is genuinely innovative and above all just a lot of fun. Arrowhead studios looked at what Diablo had done and instead of copying it like everyone else, they created their own take on it and subsequently gave us a fantastic combat system we’ve never seen before and I’m genuinely delighted they’re getting success with this title.

Friday, February 4, 2011

MMOs and the WoW model.

When someone mentions the Massive Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game (MMO) genre, grinding quests and enemies to level up, gaining new items through killing bosses in dungeons and repeatedly killing eachother in PvP will usually spring to mind. MMOs now have defined gameplay mechanics. But, back when the first MMOs were released these mechanics we all take for granted now weren’t there. Since there was no mould, MMOs at that time took all shapes and sizes. Games like Ultima online, The Legend of Mir and Lineage all had mechanics that we don’t see today. The Legend of Mir had guild run territories, Lineage had player driven politics and Ultima online famously had its non-combatant classes. All three games were also brutally hard on the newer player with open world PvP and free for all looting. These are all aspects that are looked back on with fond nostalgia for many gamers who regard the modern MMO as a disappointment. However it’s important to note that these games weren’t perfect, they were hugely complex, extremely rough around the edges and most importantly focused on grinding experience.

In 1999 a game called EverQuest was released and its mechanics would shape the future of MMOs. Bringing in a 3D world and focusing on group centric experience gaining, it was a massive hit. EverQuest had begun the mould which would lead on to define MMOs as we now know them. The trend in MMOs to accept a dominant mould and follow in it began here, games like Dark Age of Camelot, Asherons Call, Anarchy Online, Ragnarok Online and Star Wars Galaxies all based their mechanics off EverQuest. However this mould wasn’t perfect, it still hadn’t tackled the problem of the boring grind for experience, and there was little to no endgame. 

In 2003 Eve Online was released, and was a revelation to the MMO genre. Completely disregarding the conventional mechanics set up by EverQuest, it did away with the traditional levelling system and instead let people pursue different areas of the game. To this day it stands apart from the traditional MMOs and flourishes because of it. A year later another MMO was released that went back to the EverQuest model, but instead of tweaking it slightly to create its own niche, World of Warcraft (WoW) decided to take on the model and improve it. The launch of WoW was as unstable as every other MMO (something many of us have forgotten), however its launch was a success thanks to the low specs it required, the fact that it had a fan base off the back of the strategy games, and also the relative failure of EverQuest 2. Due to all these reasons WoW survived the trickiest part of creating an MMO, retaining a player base after the launch. It now went about its ultimate goal of improving on the EverQuest model. 

The main change was focusing on the end game, rather than the levelling that preceded it. Now when you had reached the level cap you had a multitude of bosses with all sorts of different combat mechanics that required group cohesion to defeat them. In essence it took the focus on the group that made EverQuest so popular, but instead of using that group to level, it took it to the endgame. This proved to be a massive success and introduced the idea of competitive PvE’ing where guilds would race eachother to boss kills. Another massive success was lessening the harshness of levelling. Now because the focus was at the level cap, the process of levelling was made easier, with less experience grinding, a wide spread quest based system and a focus on solo levelling. Mechanics such as losing experience points on death, or massively long corpse runs were also cut in favour of a more casual experience. All this made for a much friendlier approach to levelling and it was a roaring success, breaking all sorts of records for subscribers.

All of these changes effectively meant WoW had improved on EverQuests model enough to consider it their own. Over the years WoW has polished this model to a mirror shine, and it now is pretty much a perfect model for MMO games. Unlike EverQuest it is so polished and perfect that now when other companies try and make their own games off the model by tweaking it slightly to create a niche, they usually fail because these small changes aren’t enough to drag players away from WoW. What does this mean then? Blizzards titan has gone as far as this model can go and any attempt to follow it will at best only result in a player base just able to turn a profit. It’s time developers changed their thinking on MMOs, the EverQuest/WoW model cannot be improved any more. WoW now has five years of development time added onto it and it’s just not possible for a new MMO to challenge that amount of polish. 

If a company wants to create something to best WoW it has to do it by creating something different. The heavy focus on PvP that Warhammer Online had, or the way Bioware will try and use story to enhance The Old Republic are not big enough changes. Developers need to change the core of this model, changes like ripping out the levelling system, or creating a player driven world will attract a player base it just needs to be done well. Some people claim that WoW has taken the MMO as far as it can go, but that’s a narrow way of looking at it, they have taken a model that the MMO has subscribed to for a long time as far as it can go, but the genre itself has many possibilities.