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.

Friday, 25 July 2008

E3 Preview: Borderlands

Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: Gearbox Software
Formats: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC
Release Date: Q1/Q2 2009

Borderlands is a game that quickly shot to the forefront of everybody’s conscience when it was announced at the Leipzig games convention in August 2007. Mixing RPG elements within FPS parameters, Borderlands was something strikingly different with its promises of 500,000 weapon combinations and a Mad Max influenced open world setting. Supporting its own hype with a nice selection of screenshots, concept art and rhetoric, Borderlands was set to become one of 2008’s most talked about games.
However almost a year on and aside from the occasional screenshot here and a cryptic trailer there, the only notable thing about Gearbox Software’s newest project was its ominous release push backs. Frankly with Gears of War 2 and Fable 2 on the horizon, Borderlands had somewhat dropped off the radar and much of those early promises were beginning to look like worrisome gimmicks.
Those that did keep the faith were rewarded come E3. Corralling some serious screen time, Gearbox Software, noted primarily for their Brother’s in Arms series, were able to present a meaty 11 minute demo which covered an extensive range of the gameplay elements we can expect to see come launch time.
For those not in the know, Borderlands is set on a planet named Pandora located in the farthest regions of humanities space colonies. With vast mineral riches said to be found, Pandora became the scene of a futuristic gold rush. However the settlers soon discovered the planet was a vast, barren dustbowl with nothing to offer. Lawlessness and banditry quickly overcame the penniless unable to leave and that was the least of their worries. Owing to a slow orbit, Pandora’s seasons run decades in length. Having been colonized for seven Earth years, its ragtag population experienced the passing of winter into spring. Spring is the time when hibernation ends for Pandora’s wildlife and it is not cute little hedgehogs immerging from the ground. Suffice to say slithering aliens with more tendrils than you can fire half a million guns at is the order of the day.
Increasingly setout as yet another online co-operative shooter, Borderlands promises 2-4 player co-op with players being able to drop in and drop out of their own, and friends games whilst maintaining their own XP. This was evidenced at the 2K booth as two Gearbox staff made their way through a previously unseen backdrop called the “Barrens.” As suggested the Barrens is a less-than-verdant landscape pot marked with jagged outcrops and pipelines. Necessitated by the vast openness of Pandora, vehicles will be a major part of the game and this was shown early in the demo with the two players entering a nimble buggy with a fixed gun turret and what seemed to be boosters for hill climbing. Utilizing the co-operative gameplay, one takes on the driving duties whilst the other acts as gunner. A particularly neat aspect shown in the presentation was the ability for the two players to switch positions in the buggy during lengthy drives.
Another reason to commandeer vehicles is the swarming wildlife that has awoken in Pandora’s spring. Whilst the towns act as heavily armored sanctuaries, out in the Borderlands dog like creatures called “Skags” roam the wilderness. The minions are small and dangerous, particularly if you’re on foot but they are frightened by vehicles and easily run over; the daddies however dubbed “Alpha’s” are considerably fiercer. Looking a bit like the Ant Lion Guards seen in Half Life 2, Alpha’s are significantly bigger than the other Skags and required some taking down.
Lucky then that you have plenty of weapons at your disposal. Now bumped up to 650,000, this has become the undeniable selling point for Borderlands. Described as being “Procedurally Generated,” built in software actually creates weapons using parameters to fulfill the ultimate gaming arsenal and provides an unending set of artillery options when entering into battle. Still the demonstration contained your usual suspects, sniper rifles, shotguns, pistols, magnums and a deluge of machine guns as well as a grenade type reminiscent of the cluster bomb in Worms. Nevertheless, these are not just minute variations on a theme. Instead the guns and explosives are colour coded with some having electronic, poison or acidic effects aside from the searing impact of a bullet. Weaponry will also be available for sale, upgrade or customization so you can simply beef up your favorites from the many hundreds of thousands to choose from and ship out the dross for some much needed dough.
Also touched upon was the various RPG elements Gearbox are trying to thrust into their FPS world. Players will begin by selecting a character class and this will shape your approach to combat in the same way as Mass Effect or Oblivion. As you make your way through the story, players will be able to level up in the various weapons categories earning XP through kills and gunmanship. Furthermore, Borderlands systemic nature will see each player’s individual evolution of character suggesting the leveling up mechanic will take some other form than just weaponry skills. Side quests will be widely available in what Gearbox describes as a grand adventure and the general layout of the narrative has a distinct air of Mass Effect about it in its current guise.
Indeed, partaking in one of the games hopefully many optional missions, the demonstration saw our two heroes make their way into Iridium Mines to seek out alien technologies. Alien technologies have become the major source of what little wealth Pandora has to offer and the various brigands running amok in the Borderlands have taken to hoarding these commodities having left the towns in search of food and fuel. Entering into the Mines one could be reminded of the various caves and dungeons seen in Oblivion, only with guns and considerable gore. During the presentation many an unfortunate bandit found himself exploded by some brutally powerful hardware.
Considering that the demonstration code was still pre alpha, Borderlands has certainly shaped up better than many had expected. With upwards of eight months of development expected before anywhere near complete, Gearbox has time to cure a few of the kinks in its early build such as the dopey AI which seemed more like fodder than foe.
Running unexpectedly smoothly at such an early stage the game, built up from a heavily modified Unreal 3 engine, is already looking pretty smart and with added spit and polish should look great. There is still a concern whether Gearbox can pull of a complete planet whilst still keeping it entertaining; with huge barren landscapes being the order of the day, one can only hope there is sufficient gun totting enjoyment to be found out in the wastes. In the meantime, Borderlands still strikes a pose as one of the most interesting looking games in development. Whilst not innately unique, as a sum of its parts, Borderlands could be something special when it arrives on our shores in Q1 of 2009.