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.