Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Preview: Fable II

Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Lionhead Studios
Formats: Xbox 360

Release Date: October 2008
Peter Molyneux is a creator of undeniably excellent video games often brimming with unique technologies and advanced gaming ethics. Yet after more than two decades in the industry his name has become synonymous with pre-release hyperbole that constantly flatters to deceive. The result has been wonderful titles that have pushed traditional boundaries but have failed to live up to Molyneux’s expectations and the collective hope of the gaming media. Despite sporting an infectious passion and enthusiasm for the projects he oversees, he has become his own worst enemy, a personality bigger than the games themselves and stunting their ability to wonder by peppering previews with unrealistic promises.

The original Fable was one such example of unrequited rhetoric which culminated in an excellent RPG being lambasted for features technologically beyond the original Xbox. Real time tree growth, branching story paths, NPC’s reacting to your legendary whims and sporting a copycat hairstyle, Molyneux promised us it all in a gaming experience tantamount to Nirvana. What we got was a solid RPG that failed to live up to the expectations of a now increasingly wary public and failed to revolutionize the way in which we approach console games.
Nevertheless, Molyneux seems to have rained himself in for Fable II. Aware that his hype has cast the ire of the gaming public on his previous visionary masterpieces, Molyneux has toned down his outlandish pledges and tried to keep focus on elements he knows can be technologically achieved. Subsequently, whilst Molyneux’s presentations have been disappointingly tempered from his usual bombastic approach, we can begin to conceive what has become of the Fable universe and perhaps become excited again, after all Fable II is complete, or so says Molyneux.
Set five hundred years after the original, Fable II will see players return to ye olde world of Albion, a whimsical, fantasy setting part Dickensian, part Medieval, constructed through an encompassing and stylized gothic art direction. At the beginning you will find yourself playing as a young boy or girl, the choice of sex is your only customization. From here on in, Lionhead Studios, the people behind Peter Molyneux, have kept the details of the story close to their chests. Suffice to say our young protagonist is grossly wronged early on and is embroiled in a quest for revenge.
There is good reason for Lionhead to keep the story under wraps. Like much of Molyneux’s previous CV, Fable intends to be a study in right and wrong, good and bad and a universal sense of real world morality. Where his early God sims such as Populous and Black and White pushed the player to create a benevolent good and bestow bad to the whims of the gamer, the Fable series has intended to capture the minutia of such actions and relay them through precepts of cause and effect. Subsequently, the story of revenge is a mere disposition in asking the question how one wants to go about seeking revenge in a freeform world and how this revenge will be embodied through the life story of your character and the landscapes in his or her wake.

In this way, Fable II suggests we will take the next logical step in gaming development, at least in the sandbox genre. Like a lovechild of Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls: Oblivion and EA’s Sims, Fable II offers up any number of potential character development options, be it through a family life, or that of an infamous hero, that in itself can be internally extended. For instance, a player can engage an NPC of either sex and follow early flirting with marriage and children dictated by such details as protected or unprotected sex. From here you can be the perfect wife or husband, hunter gatherer or negligent oft absent hero. You can perform adultery and catch an STD or come back scarred from battle to the detriment of your traumatized family. With every action will be a reaction and this will be cast upon those NPC’s closest to you and even the most ancillary of bystander perhaps in wonderment of your celebrity or terrified by your eviscerated appearance. In the same respect, you can try and do well and create bad upon yourself or others unintentionally as is the way in real life.

Fable II is subsequently about options, input and output. Put crap in and crap will come out, just crapper. The story is not designed to be a centre piece but the thread that holds the unending options together. That is not to say the game is without its certainties. For the majority of the story you will be joined by your unconditionally loving companion, a dog for which you can name yourself and whose breed will depend upon your own input. As one of many companions that will join you on quests, the dog is ever present and will morph like your own character depending on the things you experience and the varying acts of good and bad you bequeath upon others. This mechanic of cause and effect character models extends into the landscape and townships you will encounter along your way. Make the right decisions and towns will prosper, become cleaner and act as wholesome hubs for family enjoyment. However make a decision of unspeakable evil and the town will become a slum rife with crime and prostitution, dank bars and ne’er-do-wells.

Quests will be the focal point for your characters progression, stand around long enough and an NPC will come to you looking for help. The way you choose to approach these side quests is that of your creation. Be helpful and you will be rewarded as a good person and with XP, laugh at the misfortunate or fart in their general direction and you will be frowned upon. Go about slaughtering the innocent and you could end up in jail, bailing yourself or becoming an outlaw for the rest of your days.

Subsequently advanced AI is set to become a centre piece unto which your experience pivots. With NPC’s set to become an ever more present and sentient quantity in the world of Albion, Lionhead has been tasked with producing NPC’s that remember your past actions and react accordingly. Whilst we have been promised countless times before about revolutionary AI characters, for Fable and its malleable game history and landscape, perfecting an individualistic AI is important in the immersion, not only of the sandbox world, but also the morals it foists upon us. From early tests the AI seems sufficiently ready to hate or love you with equal measures dependent on the way you interact with your living environment.

This level of optional interaction extends into the combat mechanic, a system that has become a byword for the accessibility that belies Fable’s depth from early development. Utilizing the much vaunted one button context sensitive combat engine, battles are actually dictated by a considerably thorough collection of combinations and rhythm based timing mechanisms. With a sword this allows the player to jab with a quick press of the X button, block by holding said button and perform lunges with a hold and then release, executed with appropriate timing and the camera will cut to the now ever popular finishing shot. Players will be able to interchange between melee weaponry and more ranged artillery mid battle with the same simplistic system dictating both options.

This brings us to another of Fable II’s improvements. Where the original offered up a somewhat washy and piecemeal based magic arsenal, Fable II will look to its genre brethren to expand upon your characters magical abilities. Whilst we are unlikely to see the vast inventories of Oblivion, Fable II will perhaps be more intuitive when it comes to exercising your enchanted side. Mapping your magical powers to the B button, each individual power will have five levels of potency. Holding down the B button will bring up a meter, with each increased level the power evolves into something entirely more deadly; from here you can target enemies or opt for a rotating attack.

Nevertheless our abilities to wield weaponry with any level of skill, even inside of the straightforward mechanic, will be reliant on experience. Sure gamers can enter into the preceding Fable Pub Games arcade title to earn pre-release lolly and buy up all the best hardware and spells early in Fable II, but forgoing the actual skill to use such weaponry could be to your own disadvantage. No, in the time honored RPG way, players will be tasked with earning experience, working upon the very skill relevant to level up. Whether the completion of tasks and missions in an evil or good context will alter the ways in which you level up are unclear, but the more you kill the more proficient your character will become at killing and the same applies for any abilities one wishes to master.

Fable II is beginning to come across as a game with unbridled scope. The sheer number of options and innovations tied to the gameplay experience and the abstract concepts of good and evil are startling, not to mention the vast amounts of technology being poured in to make sure it works. This does leave one feeling concerned about how the game will hang together. As proved in the past by such titles as Jericho and Too Human, throw too many ideas into the pot and oftentimes the game becomes incomprehensively varied. It would be a little early to criticize Fable II’s rather short childhood section, the overtly simplified combat mechanics or the occasionally linear approach taken to freeform gaming as demonstrated with the invisible walls of the original Fable. Such shortcomings may well be the margins Lionhead are being forced to obey to produce a title with utterly choice based gameplay. What this explicit attention to detail will produce is tantalizing, throw in the traditional old school British whit and that sense of mysticism you get from watching a Harry Potter movie trailer and the excitement becomes unbearable.

Where Fable fell short of its own hype, the sequel hopes to build on excellent foundations and expand upon the basis of its RPG roots. The end result may well be a more traditional RPG which revolutionizes the genre with, not only its ethics, but the ways in which it makes you face them unwittingly and through the ways such action impact your character, those around him and the universe itself. Fable II is out in October and there is still plenty of time for Molyneux to buff his new toy, lets hope things go a little more realistically this time around.

Monday, 18 August 2008

Feature: Microsoft Loses E3

With all the glitz and glamour stripped away from the once overblown event that was E3, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the bash was no longer gaming’s primary industry event. But despite the lack of booth babes of old and an invitation only attendance, E3 remains a beacon for those involved in the console trade and continues to be the hub for information on upcoming releases and high profile unveilings. Sporting a new business like approach from years of poorly handled indifference, E3 has grown up and refocused from showy presentations of yesteryear to the battle of modern gaming’s big 3. Under this spotlight came an interesting battle of market consolidation as the major players entered into next generation middle age.
With Nintendo’s bargain priced Wii now comprehensively stealing the limelight of a media once typified by narrow demographics, it came as little surprise that the Japanese giants showing was subdued. This could be in part attributed to a medium still commentated upon by hardcore gaming types, or Nintendo’s seeming awareness that it’s casual gaming market will have absolutely no interest in the goings on at a gaming expo in the US. Instead Nintendo seemed more than happy to see the traditional hardcore gaming platforms of Microsoft and Sony duke it out whilst witnessing, with some pomposity, the formers attempt to engage with their own market.
Indeed a casual gaming ethos was the market shift Microsoft were keen to harangue at E3 under a barrage of industry criticism related to their poorly future proofed software catalogue. With Nintendo setting a new bench mark in consumer trends, Microsoft’s one dimensional approach to software had finally begun to draw the ire of their luminaries in a year when the Xbox lurched from one failure to another. Firstly the death of the HD-DVD format cast the blu-ray playing PS3 into the role of front room media hub, once the thrown of the old Xbox, whilst damaging media coverage over Microsoft’s combustible head-start hardware did little to slow Sony’s price cut PS3’s making giant in-roads into Microsoft’s dwindling market share.
Nevertheless casual gaming applications appeared to be the issue Microsoft was most keen to address at E3 2008 in their now idiosyncratically blinkered fashion, unveiling a blitzkrieg of half-baked additions devoid of imagination whilst avoiding mention of such things as external Blu-Ray drives or increased hardware reliability. More succinctly, Microsoft’s key note announcements boiled down to a mandatory update of the now familiar dashboard to integrate the, Wii-Mii-esque, Avatars. In itself an innocent enough announcement, the mid cycle dashboard update appears to be Microsoft’s attempt to introduce itself to a new casual market whilst seemingly forgetting that its current primary user base is not family or child centric. Whilst supporting their dashboard revamp with a raft of other casual applications such as the SingStar clone Lips and Buzz influenced Scene It? follow up, Microsoft’s updated and streamlined dashboard interface appears to underline a company trying to force itself upon a casual market in the face of alienating it’s traditional audience.
As Microsoft wheeled out coloured controllers and other such hardware “updates,” in a feverish attempt to attract the John Doe gamer, you could feel an intense sense of embarrassment overcoming the crowd. With their ham fisted attempts at creating a casual gaming market juxtaposed to a presentation devoid of any major software announcements, these having previously been leaked, the show was further punctuated by a seemingly endless list of major no shows. Alan Wake, Just Cause 2 and Splinter Cell: Conviction to name just a few titles that failed to feature on Microsoft’s behalf.
The big hardware announcement from the Microsoft camp came in the form of a 60GB 360, the introduction of which would see the older 20GB pro units drop to $300 stateside. With memory upgrades the new yearly must have accessory and price reductions an industry staple in fading generations, Sony trumped Microsoft’s upgrade with the unveiling of an 80GB PS3. Whilst one could accuse Sony of considerable one-upmanship, particularly as most gamers will now be settled with their next generation consoles three years into the cycle, the shirt and tie overshadowing limited Microsoft’s big announcements to rip-off casualware, coloured controllers and leaked software unveilings.
On the contrary, old hands Sony knew how to throw an E3 presentation. With both the Xbox and PS3 seemingly admitting defeat to the Wii, the onus was on a streamlined itinerary set about besting Microsoft’s machine. Sony went about this by presenting better hardware updates, fresh and exciting game trailers and utilizing their new found next generation confidence to demonstrate a diverse portfolio of their own creation.
Still Microsoft seemed to be buoyant following its E3 ’08, perhaps confident that its refreshed approach to casual gaming will help consolidate its position in the industry. The reality seems colder, at least to Xbox gamers who are less than happy with the devolved lack of sophistication the new dashboard seems to usher in. Gone will be gamerpics, plate themes and text based dashboards, in their place will be a relatively bland background and iPod influenced slide graphic interface which will help grandstand the Avatar revolution. As a microcosm the design choice seems to demonstrate Microsoft’s desperation to tap into a market with previously tried and tested ideas. Whilst the iPod syncing for Lips offers some salvation, Microsoft are painfully short on recognizing the kind of brand loyalty demonstrated by PlayStation gamers whilst ignoring the marketing push Nintendo have supported their machine with.
Aside from a desperate need to shape up its presenting skills at major industry conventions, there is a feeling that Microsoft would do well to concentrate on its successes. Whilst many would criticize the 360’s male racers and shooters image, its 18+ games catalogue is well linked to considerable gaming trends and established hardcore gaming whilst its ability to stable major exclusives has been second-to-none. In the meantime, Microsoft could create a developmental wing to diversify its casual output with unique, brand specific ideas amid the realization that its overriding public image will not attract a vast casual gaming crowd.
This is unlikely however, having invested a great deal of finance into it’s new casual gaming stance, minus any kind of market research or self realization, forlorn Xbox fanatics can expect to see Microsoft plough this very furrow for some time to come. This of course raises questions over the direction Microsoft may choose to follow in the next generation. Whilst their current casual gaming push will most likely fall flat on its face it demonstrates, in a half hearted way, Microsoft looking to confirm their long term place in the home console market. With Nintendo dangling a considerable carrot over future software development with numbers to support their bluster, will this interest in casual gaming fronted by the Avatars, develop into Microsoft’s renewed family friendly image? History dictates that Microsoft have never been slow to follow a buck and their timing of their product overhaul, at least in respect of the dashboard and gamerpics, suggests Microsoft are testing the waters for furthered family entertainment.
Where this will leave the current atypical 360 gamer is questionable. The 360 has on most levels become the hardcore gamer’s console. With Nintendo extremely unlikely to cater for the traditional gaming market in future hardware and Sony likely to make their home hub consoles all encompassing, Microsoft’s cutesy E3 announcements looks set to endanger the traditional consumer with the market structure set in stone by the Wii.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Review: Race Driver: GRID

Publisher: Codemasters
Developer: Codemasters
Formats: Xbox 360, PC, DS, PS3
Release Date: May 2008

The last two years have seen a proliferation of high profile racers screaming their way onto the 360 after the consoles rather quality free first year. Running a gamut between open world arcade and realistic simulator, petrolheads have been suitably compensated for the initial mediocre offerings.
GRID, none too surprisingly, is the monosyllabic big brother of Codies’ 2007 DIRT and the spiritual successor to the previous generation’s TOCA Race Driver series. All of which gives an inkling to the class held within the rather more polished confines of their new product.
With the TOCA moniker and license dropped, GRID has grown up from the story based racers we saw on the original XBOX into a frenetic driving game that straddles the unforgiving sim of Forza and the overtly arcadey PGR4. With the drunk Scotsman, er… Scotty, a foul-breathed memory of TOCA’s past, newcomers will find themselves guided by a disembodied, sultry voiced business manager and a race manager who is more than happy to throw you in at the deep end. Your career begins in San Francisco, your driving a Dodge Viper and before you know it you’re competing to earn your rookie license. Finishing this one lap, one chance race will give you a feel for the chaotic race day action as well as provide a pre-text for the heart of the one player game, the Grid World career. Here the aim is too work up from your meager beginnings and build into a world beating team. To do this you will have to race for other teams to gain money and reputation, subsequently you will receive new licenses which open up more events. You will eventually be able to create your own team with a teammate, customize your cars with a limited set of decals and earn sponsorship deals to splash over your various motors. It’s no FORZA, but it gives the player a certain level of in game personality.
Unlike it’s predecessor, GRID is considerably more about the race. It isn’t here to weave a story of rookie come world beater and subsequently GRID has become a more focused affair. Heck once you get racing, the career merely becomes the excuse not the aim and you will quickly forget to care how well your team is doing as the season’s role by.
Like in TOCA, your GRID career will see you span the globe; however where the two differ is in application. GRID is set out across three regions, the US, Europe and Japan. Each region has a distinct racing ethos, in the US you will find a propensity for big muscle cars and tight street circuits, Europe is tied to more traditionalist track day pursuits and Japan sees a tendency towards Drift racing and touge, a kind of two part hill-climb-come-rally event. Each region has its own sets of cars suited to the style of event and the game runs the spectrum from back heavy drift cars, juggernaut steering Muscle cars and nippy aerodynamic formula three’s and Le Mans GT’s.
With such a vast difference in steering models you would expect GRID to struggle, especially after the somewhat washy handling experience in DIRT. However Codemasters have come out all guns blazing, cars handle as they should with the various styles being well catered throughout the range. This was probably helped by limiting the game too just 43 playable vehicles and stripping out the kind of pre-race tweaking seen in FORZA Motorsport, subsequently, with so few cars in the roster, many events will run with just a single car option and whilst this may disappoint some its clearly where Codemasters had to cut the corner. Nevertheless what GRID lacks in car selection, it more than makes up for with the considerable diversity in events. One minute you can be competing in a Le Mans race with a car that feels like it has been glued to the track, next you are skating about in a dustbowl in a banged up American sedan trying to complete a demolition derby.
Whilst the handling lacks the rigidity of FORZA, it has developed to become the primary element distinguishing the regions in GRID. The sheer difference in the various handling models is where some of the initial dizzying challenge comes from as you work your way up from a rookie and learn to become a master tamer of track and the car. You will certainly find yourself going cross-country in the early hours of your career, but the learning curve is mercifully short and sharp and there is a certain sense of achievement on earning your first back to back wins when the first race was a Tokyo drift and your next was a race prept’ touring car event.
One thing that did not need any improvement from DIRT was the graphics, with sumptuous bloom lighting and crafted motion blur, DIRT managed to make mud look interesting and this very same graphics engine has been carried through to GRID and renamed “Ego.” Subsequently handling the more diverse vistas from the cluttered surrounds of the San Francisco streets, to the sparseness of Spa Francochamps and the drizzly neon drifting streets of Japan and the Tokyo docklands, Codemasters know how to make a pretty racing game whilst having the time to throw in real time shadows and reflections. In fact, if you have the time, or find yourself parked in pieces under a tree, you will notice the developers have gone to the extent to craft a lighting system that glows through the gaps in trees. These little touches set the bar at a new height for attention to detail in a racing game where you will often find yourself staring at the tarmac and missing the blurred beauty passing you by.
Subsequently it could be argued that the greater care had been implemented in the surroundings and the oh-so smooth menus adopted from DIRT. Whilst the car models are effective and maintain the standards set by other top end racing titles, GRID’s cars never quite reach the purist come swat sheik of FORZA, but then again that is not what the graphics engine was primarily concerned with here. Instead, Codies’ TOCA series was always noted for its damage modeling and GRID is no different. Harnessing the power of the 360, Codemasters driving epic now has the definitive model for driving mishaps. From minute paint scratches borne out of panel rubbing racing to full blown wheels and engine block meets windscreen disasters, GRID knows how to make a replay look especially spectacular for people who enjoy watching car crashes and let’s face it, that’s most of us.
What does differ from real world calamities is the new flashback model GRID has inserted into its racing world. Where traditionally throwing your car into a brick wall is not the prescription for racing success, those displeased with their wheels making tracks 100 feet away from their chassis can now rewind time, up to 10 seconds, and have another shot at not cocking up. Kind of like Timeshift meets PGR, the physics defying feature staves of the need for time consuming race restarting and allows the career to flow without feeling like you have cheated yourself, much.
Pealing away the veneer and the variety, when it comes down to racing GRID provides one of the best balls out experiences without ever feeling like it is camping in the arcade or simulation corners. Instead the racing is chaotic and full blooded but also tempered and balanced. This is aided by an exceptional and schizophrenic AI. One moment placid, the next outright brutal, the AI racers in GRID never feel like they are running on rails but do feel like they are sufferers of a multiple personality disorder. Despite the occasional propensity to catch up suddenly as if to enforce excitement, the computer drivers will block, nudge and spin off in their desperation to beat you and everyone else and it all sums up to grandstand the single player experience.
Said experience is particularly enhanced when the volume is turned up. Where one could be critical of the effort put in to the car modeling, the various audio components help communicate the extreme differences in racing types. You know when you’re in a V8 muscle car in comparison to a whiny single-seater and the general cacophony that surrounds the race events from panel bashings and crowds is well realized and helps thicken up a race game already munching down on its Beefcake 4000.
Bottom-line, GRID more than holds its own amongst the 360’s most stellar racing titles. It doesn’t do this by providing an accurate racing experience or throwing turbo boosts and power ups on every corner. It does it by nailing the thrill of racing and the heart pounding difficulty of beating a thoughtful AI whilst throwing an accessible experience into the mix. And that isn’t GRID’s only selling point. To this day, no other next-gen racer has offered the level of variety in race events that GRID does, it pushes you to know how to win in every event and from extensive playtime I can say that takes an awful long time on Extreme difficulty. But push you will, not just because you want the achievement, but because GRID manages to remain a compelling race experience long after you have opened up your global license. Sure you may have played through all 43 vehicles within a weekend, but GRID doesn’t sell itself as an eye spy book for cars, it’s the variety held within the limited permutations and the consistently accurate handling that wins the day and takes the chequered flag.
Best racer on the 360, meh, it’s a matter of taste but it certainly sits amongst them and it is certainly the best presented.
A standalone racer that offers a little bit of something everybody will like and it will do it with precision and beauty. It maybe light in cars and tracks but it more than makes up for it with captivating and exciting racing.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Feature: Microsoft Play it Hardcore

It could be said that the hardware wars as recently as the last generation was a marketing battleground drawn upon, primarily, the hardcore gamer. As a definition it’s difficult to encapsulate exactly what a hardcore gamer is, but it’s something the general public is not. Commonly speaking, a hardcore gamer is somebody who identifies gaming as a culture and possesses a competitive attitude to gaming as well as a working knowledge of the industry itself. Traditionally the people for whom triple A titles were built, the hardcore gamer was the consumer who powered the old school sub cultural media. What Nintendo have done with their recent design and promotion structure is subverted the traditional hardcore market and demonstrated that there is another, previously unseen consumer who will buy products dubbed “family,” “educational” and “casual.” Furthermore, Nintendo have shown that this new market, with its bewildering demographic, is a very big and very profitable one.
With the DS and Wii streaking ahead in sales in both portable and home console markets, those that had dubbed the Wii and its remote as short termed gimmickry are being forced to eat humble pie. Said analysts are now going as far as to say that this generation is now the Wii and a battle between Playstation and the Xbox as units of cookery and brain training “games” fly off the shelves.
For Microsoft, the trend has become a particular concern. In June 2007 the Xbox 360 owned 45.9% of the three-horse market share in home console sales. Come June 2008 Microsoft had shifted a further 8.7 million units worldwide, however the PS3 had sold to the tune of 9.4 million and the Wii a staggering 18.4 million. What this resulted in was a considerable drop to 32.2% of the market, being pushed into a distant second place against the Wii, with the Blu-Ray playing PS3 making considerable gains.
Naturally this was to be expected, the Xbox had a substantial head start on the other two consoles and this was in partial effect come June 2007. About this time the Xbox’s mechanical problems were coming to light and being splashed about every corner of the media as a host of new, younger gamers began snapping up Wii’s and PS3’s made all the more attractive by significant price cuts. Worse was to follow when Toshiba announced it had dropped its support for the HD-DVD format, rendering the XBOX’s already overpriced and external HD-DVD drive all but obsolete.
This made for bleak reading for Microsoft and with the announcements at the Nordic Game Conference that a variety of continental European retailers were considering delisting the big white box, 2008 was turning out to be a bad year. The reasoning given for the seeming disinterest in Microsoft’s machine outside of the US, Australasia and the UK was that the console was unable to loose its “urban, irreverent adult male feel,” and this sentiment seems to be at the root of Microsoft’s problem. Mainland Europe, particularly France, Portugal and Spain is a casual gaming base. With Microsoft stocking up a software catalogue based solely upon hardcore genres and a multiplayer ethos that is ferociously competitive, the Xbox is beginning to loose traction on its opponents with a last generation attitude to casual gaming trends.
Having seen their efforts to wean casual gamers away from the Nintendo market dubbed “disastrous” by a panel speaking at the Nordic Games conference in May, it was less than surprising to see a raft of new “casual” applications in the developmental pipeline when Microsoft presented at E3 in July.
Nevertheless, Microsoft’s presentation seemed nothing more than begrudging lip-service to an industry it appears to understand less and less. Banding around words like “Family” and “casual,” Microsoft’s promotional push into the bounds of Nintendo’s market appeared lazy and unimaginative, almost depressing to the average onlooker.
Sure Microsoft is pushing its timed exclusive Rock Band with an advertising campaign showing it as a family or friends party game, but with the cost of its peripherals alone totaling more than your average Nintendo DS, Rock Band is unlikely to pull in many undecided gamers. So what of Microsoft’s new wares? Well rumors abound that Xbox Live could be enlightened with digital personas, currently dubbed “Avatars.” Looking ever so slightly like the Wii Mii’s, the new avatars will be available to all Xbox Live members in the place of the frankly more sophisticated gamerpics and are a keen indication of Microsoft trying to pull in pre-teen gamers. Furthermore, online videos have begun demonstrating Microsoft’s new avatar system in what appears to be a dumbed down version of Sony’s as yet unrealized Home system. Coupled with “Lips” a game that will basically be Singstar for the 360 and a Wiimote style motion control peripheral currently being developed by Motus Games and the term “disastrous” could quickly be joined by the term “Copyright Infringement.”
At the end of the day Microsoft know they have to make some inroads into new gaming trends. To ignore what Nintendo have achieved would be corporate suicide and with the installed brand loyalty Playstation achieved with the PS2 and with a new market hungry for a cheap Blu Ray player’s Microsoft have to act fast to secure their position within the hardware market, simple imitation will do nothing but destabilize itself further.
Additionally, Microsoft are a company being increasingly crippled by its hardcore demographic. Now finding itself at a nexus in new gaming ethics, Microsoft could take the casual gaming route at the risk of alienating its already installed user base, or it could continue to concentrate on hardcore gaming genres in the hope that it can siphon off those with nostalgia for old school gaming fashions. However such a summary would be ignorant to the tremendous amounts of money Microsoft and its third party publishers have to throw at next generation blockbusters. Without the support of some casual gamers, often willing to spend on cheap thrills, continued output of triple a games will be limited as evidenced by the considerably more anemic release roster of 2008.
Painful rebellions from Microsoft loyal users aside, the 360 is in desperate need of some innovative tactics to influence front room gamers as a knock on to funding its hardcore gaming ambitions. Sony has realized this with a diverse software catalogue. Admittedly light on console exclusives, those it holds run a complete spectrum of gaming wants coupled with the ability to play next generation movies. Seemingly incapable of learning from successful models, Microsoft has decided to boost their long term casual push with knee jerk and predictable supplements. Touting an upcoming price reduction on its machines and toying with another external drive, this time for Blu-Ray, Microsoft are treading a much worn path at a time of year when hardware manufacturers expect sales slumps.
It’s clear then that Microsoft has one ham-fisted eye on gaming’s big new profit margin without a real grasp on what kind of software it needs to support its bluster. Still those “fanboys” loyal to Xbox will probably relish in the companies decided ineptitude in hauling in new younger players and families, after all the majority of Xbox gamers are traditionalists more than happy to see their chosen brand plow its particular gaming furrow. Only time will tell if Microsoft can turn it round, in reality both Sony and Microsoft seem resigned to losing this generation and for the hardcore gamer this can only be of concern for the future of gaming and the next-next generation.

E3 Preview: Mirror's Edge

Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: DICE Sweden
Formats: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC
Release Date: Novemeber 2008

Once renowned for the continuous output of money raking, low quality franchises, publishers EA have seemingly turned a corner few other big hitters have been willing to take in recent years. With spiraling costs surrounding cinematic next generation expectations, the majority of gaming’s most established producers have clung to tried and tested means to ensure a healthy profit bracket when all the development is said and done. Perhaps because EA have been far from backward in their aggressive consumption of smaller publishers, subsidiary companies and development studios, they are now in a prime position to toy with levels of experimentation, avoided like the plague by their luminaries.
Joining a now wide ranging portfolio, Mirror’s Edge has been a project creating quite a stir since the first screens and concepts were laid down a year ago. Despite this, few had seen anything other than tasters of the revolutionary gameplay that intends to combine platforming, puzzle solving, shooting and parkour into a sophisticated and immersive first person action adventure title.
Headed by Swedish developers DICE, Mirror’s Edge is something of a departure from the fare offered by their now seminal Battlefield series, recently added to by the excellent Battlefield: Bad Company. Powered by the legendary Unreal Engine 3, Mirror’s Edge is set upon a clinical fictitious city of the future. A seeming utopia with its spotless urban vista’s, the sheer sterility of the environment is suffocating and indicative of those who assume power. You play as Faith, an orphan of dissent determined to free your sister from the corrupt totalitarian government who detain her and utilize unprecedented levels of surveillance through communication monitoring to subdue the cities citizens. Owing to the electronic benevolence of the regime, those in opposition to the establishment employ runners to convey messages across the rooftops like human carrier pigeons. Having become a street urchin after her parent’s death, Faith became a runner for criminals and dissidents alike and now finds herself being chased by an Orwellian government intent on her capture and silence.
Fairly sophisticated stuff then and the back-story is supported by an equally sophisticated gaming ethic that promises to “convey the strain and physical contact with the environment.” DICE have achieved this by tying camera movements to the eye level perspective of Faith. In doing so the camera operates within the same parameters as our own virtual viewpoint would when performing jumps, slides and death-defying leaps of Faith, get it? Furthermore arms come flailing out to provide momentum in mid air and if combat is necessary, your Chuck Norris style back-kick will feature your leg moving away from your body as it would do in real life.
Whilst this may sound rather unoriginal on paper, DICE’s ability to capture motion in the context of the first person standpoint is nothing short of amazing and could become the blueprint for the way developers approach first person camera direction in the next, next generation. Whilst games have attempted this dynamic in the past, namely Namco’s Breakdown, what makes DICE’s attempt particularly appealing is the fluidity of the real time physics that make it look all the more organic. Unfortunately trying to convey this in text is like trying to describing colour to a blind person, it really has to be seen to be believed.
Of course, grandstanding one original game design element pre-release often reeks of masked shortcomings and recently journo’s have been quick to brand Mirror’s Edge as little more than a packaged tech demo. Under these assumption’s it was good to see EA begin to flesh out the sheer variety in movement players can come to expect and the various story and gameplay components that will come as some payoff to our motion sickness.
Mirror’s Edge is not an FPS, merely an FPE or First Person Escape. There will be guns in the game and if you have the fortune to mule kick a shotgun out of a government agent’s arm you can continue to use it as long as it is loaded. But don’t expect to find floating boxes of ammo cluttering up the minimalist landscape or Faith retaining her agility whilst carrying heavy arsenals. No, DICE may well have been the brains behind the bulletfest that was the Battlefield series, but the aim in Mirror’s Edge is not to engage in lopsided shootouts with the ominous shades wearing agents, indeed there is an achievement for game completions sans the gunplay. Instead players are expected to utilize Faith’s agility to escape sticky situations and in doing so will be further aided by Faith’s “Runner Vision,” a honed ability to track the best paths through the cluttered rooftops and pitfalls of the skyline. In reality, “Runner Vision” is distinctive red lines marking out the best routes for escape through the bleached landscapes and offers some direction in an immersive, if sterile, world that features no HUD. Whether this feature is optional, or a fixed game breaker waits to be seen, but in its current state it feels a little too much like hand holding on the developer’s part.
Control is set to be simple and fluid in a furthered attempt to suspend reality but practice is likely to be the key with some of the early jumps and balancing elements proving difficult. Still DICE have kitted Faith out with a neat range of abilities borrowed from parkour. Sliding, wall running, wall sliding, beam balancing and beam swinging are to name a few. Think of it as urban gymnastics combined with N+. Further control will extend into combat with the onus on hand to hand, disarmament and sliding takedowns much like a feminine Neil Ruddock and this will be topped out with a finite “bullet time” style ability, allowing Faith to slow time, be it to down an enemy or pull of difficult jumps.
DICE’s decision to create incredibly sparse environments helps to highlight the various in game physics, but the limited color palette could become a little too much and to see a few new levels that utilize a visually differential approach was thankful. What is clear in its pre-release state is the sense of scale and height are mastered extraordinarily well and combine with the perspective to create a believable experience. Still questions arise over how long the physics defying gameplay and purposely limited visual aplomb could hold interest. Sure the free running element will be exciting for a few hours, but unless the game is shorter than Portal, DICE are going to have to throw a little more into the mix to avoid the unique gameplay mechanic buckling under the weight of its own importance.
Furthermore there appears to be some collision detection issues, that or the enemy AI which appeared a little slow in EA’s E3 presentation have the marksmanship prowess of a Bond villain’s henchman. Nevertheless, Mirror’s Edge is slated for a November release and there is time to polish up some of these minor issues and create an optional setting for “Runner Vision.” Hopefully the action will be drawn away from the rooftops and a recent trailer has shown some underground train tracks and a sewer too diversify the aesthetics. There is a lot of interest invested in the industry breaking design on show having picked up the E3 Best Action Game award. Whilst shaping up and looking like a thoroughly unique experience, only time will tell if it is equally rewarding and attention grabbing one.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Feature: Death of the Solo Gamer?

Two and a half years ago Raph Koster and Lars Butler were cheerily contemplating the end of the single player experience. Swept up with the idea that gaming was a social past time, Koster, then chief creative officer for Sony Online Entertainment, dubbed the two previous decades of gaming history “an aberration”. Throwing more hyperbole into the fire, former Vice President of Global Online Operations for EA, Lars Butler, was quoted as saying “linear entertainment in single-player is to media what masturbation is to sex.”
Of course, the vulgar terms under which Koster and Butler were quoted could have boiled down to hard cheese, after all, Koster lasted a mere month at Sony after his comments whilst Butler had already left EA to setup Trion World Network, an entity with ambitions of taking on the World of Warcraft. Indeed looking at their careers it would be very much in their interest for online gaming to take centre stage in this generation of the medium.
Naturally the pair was fuelling arguments with, at the time, few substantiating examples. Both Xbox Live and Playstation Network were coming to the fore and building upon the potential demonstrated in their previous incarnations, whilst online gaming was becoming a boom business with Blizzards MMORPG epic World of Warcraft leading the way. But the single player was always at the fore, at least in the console market, and it was difficult to publicize a game based solely upon its multiplayer features. Arguably Unreal Tournament managed it, perhaps Halo, but the debacle surrounding Shadowrun’s console ambitions demonstrated a need for some kind of narrative and both Live and Network were eons behind the capacity to establish a successful, multi faceted MMORPG.
Some would argue that the PC had established a workable worldwide network for a true multiplayer experience in Koster and Butler’s terms, especially since the advancement of affordable broadband technology. But the PC gaming market was, and still is, seen as small fries to the greater gaming industry and aside from a limited number of truly successful MMORPG’s the general use of PC multiplayer was the usual mix of deathmatches, capture the flags, races and fights seen on your typical gaming console.
Koster and Butler seemed to be referring to something more grand, something the World of Warcraft and all the Mazewar’s and Ultima Online’s had touched upon, but for a wider audience, too all the audience, gamers and gaming period. This would mean all narrative falling into the parameters of multiplayer, where gaming and socializing would interact and operate as one. Nothing would be sacred to the single player.
Indeed the duo commented that a gaming experience would be exponentially enriched if a group of friends were to “live” a story together. What they were alluding to is unsure even rhetorical in current gameplay models. Endless free roam worlds or an explosion of MMORPG’s, they were throwing around vague presumptions thirty months ago with pub-night-meets-PR lingo.
There is one gaming element that has become the must have feature in many recent and upcoming games spanning an entire spectrum of genres. In its infancy, at least online, when Koster and Butler muttered their delinquent comments, co-operative gaming has become the boon developmental mechanic that has arisen from bit part extra to centre stage. It seems an FPS is not a good FPS these days if a developer hasn’t found some way of shoehorning in a co-operative mode.
Of course co-op is not exactly a new idea in the grand history of interactive entertainment having been a feature of side scrolling hack and slash coin-ops like Gauntlet since the mid 80’s. But suggesting two players were truly experiences a real narrative together would be charitable. These were mere forbearers that would highlight the importance of games as a social activity in a workable gaming network some twenty years down the line.
Naturally Co-Operative is not the epitome of a social gaming future, the utopian place where video games and friends collide as one whole virtual existence. But the contemporary comeback of the co-operative gaming trend could spell the end of the single player, or the essence of the single player experience.
Too name a few upcoming titles Gears of War 2, Left 4 Dead, Resident Evil 5, Fable 2 and Borderlands. All see co-operative as a major or central part to the mechanic and promotion of the game. With split screen as fashionable as flared trousers, the onus will be on friends operating within one or the others game to experience the unfolding drama together, online. In comparison the single player mode, by default of the games system, will feel hollow and dictated by an AI whose primary presence will be not as foe, but as friend. Trying too recreate the impossible social element, in essence a constant reminder that your experience is not being enriched, enhanced or expanded.
Co-Operative then, is a step to eradicating the solo gamer. Fable 2 is not a shooter; the basic layout of its free form gameplay in its current guise is nothing short of revolutionary. It maybe the first virtual world in which friends can operate and take effect on their synthesized surroundings and NPC’s together. When there are finally no NPC’s we will have reached the next step in Koster and Butler’s vision, where this will leave the single player is unsure.
Obviously evolution is part of the course for any media, species or entity and for video games this is no different but to paraphrase Lars Butler, gaming without the single player experience, even within linear parameters, will be like forcing sex upon a drunken birthday girl. What do I mean? Well the single player is commonly where a narrative is focused; it is where a game is formed for the experience of one gamer. It’s easier to build up ideas around blocks of single gamers and demographics and develop them from that foundation, after all most of us were solo gamers once. Simply forcing multiplayer down our throats and making it the nexus unto which a game operates purports to two simple generalizations. One, all gamers have online access and chose to be members of an online gaming service at our own cost and two, that we all play games as a means to socialize.
It’s undeniable that with a good, dependable friend of a similar level of skill and available hours will enlighten a co-operative experience, but herein lays the many problems of the multi-player centric game structure in this current generation. Most contemporary gamers are now in their late teens upwards, at least in the demographic which is being targeted by games grandstanding their co-operative functions. Many have families, jobs, stressful lives and limited time and like so many other forms of media, gaming is used to relax and detach. Sure seeing a good film with a bunch of mates can be a great laugh, but when your sticking a DVD on with pizza in hand and a cold beer after a stressful day, the last thing you want to see is the same collection of mates barging into your unwind period.
This extends into the next step of complete virtual experiences, wherein our gaming habits will presumably be dictated by massively multiplayer worlds. Where developers will write stories into these is paradoxical and the only possible example can be the current development of Sony’s Home for the PlayStation Network. Is that a game? Free form world? Or a socializing hub? Where will entertainment meet socializing and narratives? Quests? Mini-Games? Is that a genuine evolution of gaming or a decent into a specialized graphical messaging service where introverted players stalk dark corners waiting for an actual “video game” to come along.
Perhaps I am wrong; perhaps I have misinterpreted Koster and Butler’s concepts however poorly they were formed. In an essence the co-operative revolution is changing gaming, how many times recently have you heard commentators say “the single player isn’t much” or “this will be great with some mates.” But where’s the old soul of the linear shooters? The tremendous stories weaved from the likes of Bioshock? How can this evolve beyond co-operative and remain a game?
Well Koster was quick to expand upon his comments in the swell of uproar they created. Using a model of asymmetry, Koster theorized that prior to video gaming most games were symmetrical, games such as chess, where each player was provided with an equal set of options. The advent of gaming and the necessity for primitive AI required asymmetry, with the player being offered a different set of options and limitations to that of the AI. Thus the linear single player model was borne and Koster speculated that it had remained despite multiple attempts to network all types of gaming platforms because it wasn’t easy to fit more than a single person around a computer monitor and that sentiment had clung to the concept of narrative. Koster went as far to say that the introverted nature of games developers had cause games designs to hinge upon single player as the only legitimate form of gameplay.
To contradict, Koster pointed to research showing gamers to be considerably more sociable than the media stereotype, “The default mode of playing a console game today is with multiple people on a couch." Xbox Live was his example of the connected single player experience with gamers able to observe what other players are playing and competing in a symmetrical fashion to beat out said person’s achievement score in the same way one would want to win a game of chess. He pointed to forums outside of gaming as a social hub, bringing players together from the same experience in the same way as collaborative walkthroughs. An example of participant players, participating through limited means.
Technically Koster’s perspective on the death of the single player was more existential and systemic than read. He was hypothesizing the expansion of the multiplayer, not as a function but as a statement of connectivity brought along by PC’s and adopted by home consoles through services such as Xbox Live. We play connectively and through user based content, internet based content and experience based literature. We will still have stories in Koster’s world but our gamer pics and profiles will throw us open to the world even when we are sat in our pants in front of the TV.
However this does not account for the recent shift in game design trends. The upsurge in co-operative gaming on the console market is equally systemic to Koster’s argument and the ethos of connectivity, but within it lays the power to destroy the single player experience in a devolutionary sense. Harking back to arcade gaming, co-operative is now an essential tool in game building. Where Koster, and less clearly Butler, was speaking of connectivity working as the complete experience of a game from disc to forum, co-operative allows two or more players to experience the game in its essentially complete form as opposed to pre-programmed AI. The recent Lego Indiana Jones games were a perfect example of how designers are increasingly producing gaming elements such as switch/pressure pad style puzzles as a joint co-operative experience.
With the proliferation of co-operative game design we can now see the death of the single player and not in the misquoted terms of Butler and Koster, but in an ageing technology brought back for the connective age of home gaming and of course there is a cynical side to the rebirth of co-op. Where a single player game is a single purchase pay-to-play affair, a game borne out of co-operative gaming ethics provides potential purchase from unwilling parties keen to join in with friends or clans gaming habits. This then opens up the need for company servers and necessitates online gaming subscriptions. Financially co-op is win-win for all parties other than the gamer.
In the meantime those left wanting to play single player, even in the age of multiplayer connectivity are increasingly marginalized. Yet despite this games design has not moved on too successfully harness co-operative in the face of narrative driven single players. Trawling through the rankings of it is not until you reach the sixth highest regarded Xbox 360 title that you find a game with a comprehensive co-operative game mode, this being Gears of War, essentially the first fully co-operative game on Xbox Live. Above it are fine narrative driven titles such as GTA IV, Half Life 2, Bioshock and Oblivion, games designed to be enjoyed by the single player and crafted with fantastic care and innovation. Even Call of Duty 4, a game limited on narrative and ripe for co-operative design chose to utilize multi-player connectivity in the traditional spheres of deathmatch et al and encapsulated a brilliant battlefield experience.
All this seems to highlight co-operative as the cheap thrill cash cow it appears to be, even more brutally a gimmick. Where Koster and Butler ideals on the death of the solo gamer appear, when read into, a relatively innocent commentary on the birth of home console networks, the rise of co-operative game design is an insidious development that can only damage the story driven origins that make the majority of games so appealing and offer an end goal.

Saturday, 26 July 2008

Live Arcade Review: N+

Publisher: Metanet Software
Developer: Slick Entertainment / Metanet Software
Formats: Xbox 360 Live Arcade, PSP, DS
Release Date: February 2008

There is something distinctly mistrustful, sadistic if you will about Slick Entertainment’s new physics based platformer. From unforgiving early difficulty spikes to fiendish mid chapter time guzzling levels, the whole game markets itself as an exercise in frustration. That is not too say it’s a bad exercise, N+ actually comes across as an extremely stylish puzzler bundled with a superb and addictive design ethos.
Picking up from where the original 2005 PC Flash game left it, N+ is a next gen redux with a simple premise. You are a ninja replete with flowing red cape and flares; you have a thirst for gold and a devout belief in the ways of “N” which is the way of the ninja and will come in handy in a world filled with various deathtraps and deranged robots. The game is set out in chapters which each total five levels. In collecting the little gold coins like a ninja Mario, you increase the time which runs down at the top of the screen. The time carries through the levels and throughout the chapter so it’s best to bank as much gold in easy levels so to avoid having to scramble to beat the clock towards the end of chapters. The basic aim is to press a switch and make your way to the door where your lil’ ninja will do a merry jig.
It all sounds extremely straight forward so far, but when you find yourself increasingly swarmed with electrocuting, laser shooting, rocket volleying enemies whilst simultaneously trying to time jumps to avoid mines and other such hazards N+ quickly begins to test the patience.
Furthermore there are no means of defense other than speed, precision and agility. The only actions your ninja can perform are runs and jumps. With good timing these can be used in combo’s to provide wall to wall jumps, an effective means of ascent, wall slides, an effective means of not falling to your death and, when a bouncy block is about, mega jumps across the screen, which is an effective means of watching the ragdoll physics sprawl your poor man across the floor.
Nevertheless you will continue to play, even after you have scored the achievement for a thousand deaths, why? Well N+ is addictive to say the least. That night out you had planned, gone, if your four fifths of a way through a particularly testing chapter and you just know what you have got to do, but your fingers aren’t letting you do it, you’ll push on. Smashed controllers and tears before bedtime, which could be anytime, it all comes into play because N+ constantly challenges you to be a better gamer before throwing something really nasty in your face. However, when you complete it, when you finally see your ninja dancing at that shining open door, you will feel like you have climbed to the top of Everest and planted your very own flag there. Then you will start on the next chapter.
You will quickly forget to notice N+ stylized, minimalist visuals which sum it up as a tidy standalone Live offering. Sure the game looks every bit a Flash big brother but Slick Entertainment have taken the power of the 360 and used it to add a clean crispness to its graphics engine. The levels are well imagined utilizing shades of grey and often offer recognizable images such as controller or the N+ logo as playgrounds for your ninja, whilst the various security bots are simple but effective. The ragdoll physics and continual disembodiment provide hours of fun whilst additions such as particle plume effects when your ninja makes a leap demonstrates an haute cuisine style of class that runs throughout the show.
That’s not to say there are not criticisms with the visuals, a victim of its PC past, the gaudy and unplayable slat grey borders are far from attractive and the ninja model itself could do with a little scale up. The game would suffer with bigger levels but why the game has to be presented in such a small box is baffling.
These are minor gripes however and the audio in N+ sticks to the minimalist theme with sharp electro tunes keeping just the right side of annoying as you reload and reload after many a death. The only real gap in the music is the occasional explosion, electrical zapping or sickening thud of a fall.
Difficulty spikes and frustrating experiences aside however, N+ is above all a tremendously addictive and rewarding arcade title. Easily dubbed one of those games that are easy to play,
difficult to master with over 300 levels spread over 50 plus chapters and leaderboards confirming your total mediocrity, the potential lifespan of N+ is timeless. Just try to avoid developing a physical twitch. As they say, dying is an inevitability of life and bleak adages aside, it is a frequent inevitability of playing N+.
A superb addition to the Live Arcade, which whilst simple to look at and explain, could be the most sense defying, aggravatingly, beautiful-difficult game you ever play.