Funny news; sad news; Black Ops blues

November 18, 2010 § Leave a comment

Most of this week I’ve been playing Black Ops, or “BLOPs”, but I’ll get to that in a minute. First off, the funny news:

WTF?! No foliage! 6/10. 😦

This, reported from VG247:

“Crytek: ‘You don’t make a 90 plus rated game with a 30 rated bush in the game'”.

‘Let’s say you’re making a 90 plus rated game. Everything you do, every aspect that goes into the game, every person working on it, has to be 90 plus rated, or you don’t get to 90 plus rated.

‘You don’t make a 90 plus rated game with a 30 rated bush in the game. Everything has to reach this quality bar. Every person working on it has to put that kind of effort into it, otherwise you have to do some things that are at 94/95 to pull the average up to 90. This threshold is so difficult to attain. That’s a really difficult task for any developer to accomplish.’

Of course, this is all true. A game that is otherwise excellent can be marked down below the 9/10 mark for having some significant flaw – such as a poor multiplayer mode, for example. A lot of the time a game will hit the 7/10 or 8/10 mark, but it’s rare that they’ll get or go above 9/10. Usually, anything 9/10 or over is “game of the year” (GOTY) material.

I find this funny because it’s true, but also sad. Some publishers and development houses have become obsessed with their metacritic ratings, thinking a 90+ guarantees them blockbuster sales. Again, this very likely has some truth to it, but it must be a tremendous strain on studios to know that if they don’t hit 90 they’ve failed. To believe that one bad review can drag all their hard work into the gutter– that’s pretty harsh.

Second story, a lot less funny and more depressing, is that Activision is looking to find a buyer for Bizarre Creations, and if that doesn’t happen they, Bizarre, will likely face closure (via Gamasutra):

The statement from Activision comes as rumors hit the web that 200 workers were let go from the Liverpool, England-based studio.

But the rep told Gamasutra that all Bizarre staff thus far have only received a 90-day notice that some type of restructuring or closure could take place, in accordance with UK labor laws.

It’s possible that parent Activision could sell off Bizarre as a whole, shut it down, reduce the headcount or sell off its assets, among numerous other possibilities. Activision has yet to make public any firm decision.

Activision also states within the article that:

“Although we made a substantial investment in creating a new IP, Blur, it did not find a commercial audience.”

Very quickly after, tweets were flying about, denouncing Activision as money-grabbing whores, or something to that effect. Really, though, when you look at their recent output, Bizarre hasn’t made any truly great games – with the exception being Geometry Wars, which was a bit of a commercial fluke. Their third-person shooters, including the recent James Bond game, have been crap. Arguably, the only area in which the studio has seen success is in the racing genre, but they lost the right to continue making the Project Gotham series, as that IP belongs to Microsoft Game Studios. And Blur, their supposed return to form, didn’t sell. Sure, there are extenuating circumstances to that. Red Dead Redemption virtually creamed any and all opposition when it appeared on game shelves, seemingly out of nowhere. The fact is, though, Activision is a publisher whose modus operandi is to produce blockbuster-sized games and create mega franchises. High levels of investment; high risk; high reward. And in that equation, failure isn’t an option. While it isn’t particularly charitable, it’s completely in line with how the company is run nowadays. So, can anyone really act surprised over this?

And now… on to Black Ops.

According to Google Image Search, all of BLOPs looks like this.

I am dissapoint.

While the multiplayer is still as addictive as ever, the single player is pretty mediocre, sometimes bad. A lot of this, I think, comes down to a lack of playtesting. At significant points in the game the AI scripting just isn’t good enough and seems to rely way, way too much on the player having taken a certain path or done a certain thing. What’s worse is that it feels even more linear, more contrived, more unfair and less interactive than before. The smoke and mirrors aren’t nearly effective enough this time around, and so, frequently, you are walking into set pieces and having to think in terms of “gaming” the system – working out exactly what it wants you to do so you can progress. It’s a total immersion killer. Because everything’s so tightly scripted, so patently wired to a trigger, nothing is unexpected. Treyarch has overplayed their hand in how many tricks they can throw at the user, and the result is an experience that feels formulaic, predictable and cold.

Multiplayer? Yeah, there’s nothing else out there like it. There are plenty of new maps and game modes. They’re decent without being anything special. Nazi Zombies is also back, which is either a good or bad thing depending on you feel about the original mode in World at War. Apart from the levels, it’s an identical experience – in that it’s still as poorly balanced and dull as the original. I’ve always thought of it as a completely redundant game mode. I haven’t changed my mind.

The final thing I’ll touch on is the implementation of CoD Points in multiplayer. While you do get new weapons as a result of levelling up, almost everything else needs to be bought with these points. I think that having these two systems running alongside each other functions okay, works, but also comes over a little convoluted. It does allow more freedom in what you unlock, but it’s also overwhelming – even to someone who’s played MW2 it’s overwhelming. The interesting thing here, though, is that this is very clearly Activision attempting to monetise the CoD franchise further, and my gut is telling me that you’ll be able to buy additional points, which will be sold as DLC, at a later date.


‘Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days’ Impressions

November 9, 2010 § Leave a comment

I’ve been playing this game a little over the weekend and yesterday, and I’m pretty much done with it now. Sadly, I never got the chance to try out the Undercover Cop or Cops & Robbers modes, as there was no one online playing them. Hell, just trying to get a game together for Fragile Alliance was difficult enough.

The game is super short, but in all honesty I had had enough by the time I finished the main campaign and played some of the arcade mode. Having said that, though, there is a slightly seedy feel to Kane & Lynch 2 that is oddly quite refreshing, and IO Interactive has done a bang-up job of recreating the scuzzier side of Shanghai. Although it’s a little depressing, it feels authentic. Probably its best quality – reinforcing the pulpy, gritty atmosphere – is the way IO has added a graphical filter, special effects and a “shaky-cam” third-person perspective, making it seem like the action before you is being recorded off a digital camera. It’s a clever trick, one which I don’t think has been done before. I can see that it might divide people – that it makes everything look a bit crummy, that the camera bob is nausea-inducing, etc. – but I really think it’s the best thing going for the game.

These are all things that make Kane & Lynch 2 unique and interesting and worth playing. My big problem, though, is that the gunplay and combat, while an improvement on the original, still feels off in this sequel.

They stole his M&Ms. He wants them back.

Specifically, the animations for the character models look weird and jerky, and the AI is substandard, as if everyone’s on speed and doesn’t quite know where they’re going or what they’re doing. Another aspect, the “Down Not Dead” mechanic, where you’ve been knocked back on your ass but are still able to fire while you get back into cover, feels contrived and looks a bit bizarre. Also, I don’t like the way accuracy works in the game, where you can miss even if you have the cursor perfectly centred on an adversary’s face; enemies towards the tail-end of the game are bullet-sponges, taking way too many slugs in the chest before they go down; and cover is strangely ineffective, even when seemingly out of an enemy’s line of sight. Crucially, the gunplay here is substandard, and when you have a weak foundation like that, it tends to bring everything else down with it.

The Story mode, which can also be played in online co-op, is basically the typical deal-gone-wrong plotline out of any number of heist films, and as I mentioned it’s short. The Arcade mode feels like filler content, with very little thought put into it. It’s essentially a version of Fragile Alliance without any of the human elements that make it interesting. Similar to a Horde mode, the player repeats the same map over and over, whereupon entering each new round the AI gets stronger and more aggressive. However, because enemy placements remain the same throughout and the maps are so small it gets tiresome quickly.

The multiplayer version of Fragile Alliance is a lot more interesting for the reason that you’re playing with and against people on your team, not bots. The whole idea of Fragile Alliance – its design – is superb, and it deserves its own game, not to be tacked on like this. With a larger range of expanded maps, more sophisticated AI and placement, and better gameplay, that could be IO’s ticket for success.

As it stands, Kane and Lynch 2 is a mixed bag. It has moments in it of genuine inspiration, but they’re mired by mediocre gameplay and a lack of content.

‘Halo Reach’ Impressions

September 20, 2010 § Leave a comment

[Author’s note: this was actually written as a forum post and has simply been copied over, but I felt it so nicely encapsulated my feelings about the game.]

As far as Halo goes, this is the pinnacle of the series. It is still Halo, though, so if you’ve never cared for it before, this isn’t going to change your mind. The architecture and landscape still have that weird artificial, contrived feel (unlike Half-Life 2’s City 17, for example, or BioShock’s Rapture). Likewise, the characters, while they have a smidge more depth to them here, still don’t amount too much. Also, as someone who has played through Halo 1, 3 and ODST, the plot is relentlessly unforgiving in assuming the audience’s foreknowledge of the fictional universe. To anyone who hasn’t played those games, the story is nigh on incomprehensible, as it was to me in certain segments.

On a special note: I think the soundtrack is absolutely phenomenal and one of the best I’ve ever heard. Without it, Reach wouldn’t have anything near the amount of emotional pull and gravitas it ends up with. As I said, I didn’t quite get the story sometimes, but Halo has always been about painting themes in broad, bombastic strokes, and to that end the soundtrack succeeded in being the metaphorical brush. It takes the best parts of ODST, the bitter-sweet sorrow of sacrifice and hope in the face of insurmountable odds, and incorporates it to fit in a grander scale. It’s an appropriate theme, too, and a poignant one, considering this is Bungie’s last foray into the Halo universe. It is truly their love letter to the series and the fans – their beautiful swan song before they depart for adventures new.

'(500) Days of Summer' (2009) Impressions

March 31, 2010 § Leave a comment

I think it’s very easy to dismiss Days of Summer as being twee, overindulgent, contrived and unoriginal – i.e., worthless. Oh, all those adjectives do suit the film fairly well. (I mean, it is basically the old Annie Hall formula rehashed for a new generation.) However, I laughed at least a couple of times while watching it, and there were some genuinely touching moments. More importantly, when the script didn’t do a downward spiral into indie – “Oh, look how precious, weird and cute I am!” – land, the actors were given the material to make their characters believable. And, on the whole, they were. Both Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel should absolutely feel pleased about their performances.

The problem is, for every scene that’s well-written, there’s another scene that’s stupid and implausible. For every scene you’re engaged and invested in the characters, there’s another where BOOM! We’re back in indie land. For example, the precocious kid thing? I hate that. It’s awful; it needs to stop. It has been done before, like, a million times already – very rarely successfully, because mostly it just looks plain dumb.

So yeah, it’s worth checking out. (Just remember to keep any knives, guns or any potentially lethal weapons out of reach when you do, just in case.)

Mass Effect 2 Dissapointment

February 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

I can’t lie, I am more than a little underwhelmed by Mass Effect 2. But before you all start shouting at me that I’m wrong, let me get this straight: I like Mass Effect 2; it’s a good game; it’s just not a great game – at least, not in my eyes.

At the moment I kind of feel like I must be taking crazy pills, since it appears that everyone else in the world has fallen head over heels for the game. Whatever; everyone has a right to their own opinion. But let me just raise at least one criticism of the game, and that is the conversation/morality system they’ve got going. The problem I have with it can be split threefold:

  1. Conversation reply options are sometimes ambiguous or vague, misleading the player into saying something different from what they thought they were going to. Reading up on Wiki, this appears to be as designed, but it could have been done better. For instance, instead of displaying a sample of dialogue indicating tone, the conversation wheel options could display intentions.
  2. Moral choices are basically divided between being a jerk or being a saint, or whether you put ahead the good of the many over the few. In other words, the dilemmas you’re forced into are boring, simplistic and uninvolving. They do not represent a challenge, and most of them have an obvious “best” solution – usually the compromise solution.
  3. The morality system scores players and aggregates each saintly and dickish action on their own distinct scales. This means you can technically be both a Renegade and a Paragon at the same time. It’s not only the same old good/evil scale; it’s completely incoherent. People are complex, contrary creatures, but they’re rarely schizophrenic.

The first point relates to me wanting an aspect of the game to be better. Simple enough.

The second and third points are more difficult, and it’s here that maybe I expect too much of Mass Effect 2. I think it’s also the same reason I didn’t get into Dragon Age: Origins, and I think what it comes down to is that I’m fed up with these black and white morality axes. What I would prefer is a game that responds to the player purely in terms of the decisions themselves, and not whether it was a “good” or “evil” decision.

I could go on, but James Portnow said it best in his article:

The first step is to back away from thinking of moral choice as a system and start considering individual moral choices. This mindset makes it easier to craft ambiguous moral choices because it lets us build scenarios that have no clear “good”. Ambiguity comes from tradeoffs; it comes from having to decide what is the most good in a situation that is mostly bad.

'Every day the same dream' Impressions

January 16, 2010 § 2 Comments

Every day the same dream is a curious indie Flash game from Molleindustria. It was made in six days for the Experimental Gameplay project and is self-described as a “little art game about alienation and refusal of labour.”

In terms of communicating its message, the game is a resounding success. Every critical aspect of it reinforces the theme of being held in a terrifying, banal, futile existence. The characters and environment are all drawn in a kind of 2D Art Deco style, and, save for a few unique objects, the game world is devoid of colour – bleak and monochrome.  There is very little movement and energy from scene to scene, and the animation is regimented, disciplined, almost machine-like.

As the nondescript husband of the nondescript wife going to his nondescript job and every day waking up to perform the same routine, the player can only move linearly through levels, walking either left or right. There is no ‘run’ toggle, and the only interaction with which you have with the world is through a single button, the space key. The game is cyclical, in that it repeats itself as the player repeats, what seems like, the same day over again each time – or is it that every day is the same as the last? (Strange is it sounds, the phrase “Flashback meets Groundhog Day” comes to mind.)

Special mention must go to Jesse Stiles for his work on the soundtrack. His rhythmic, hypnotic mix of electronic beats, drums and acoustic guitar is fantastic and arguably the best part of the game.

It’s a short, succinct experience, granted, and I admit to getting slightly bored before even “finishing” it, but it’s well worth playing simply for the experience. Though I am reluctant to say that it has much replay value, it is a very clever, creative bit of game design, and it is yet another example showing us that it’s possible for games to be both art and, well, games at the same time.

Weekend Impressions: 'Civilization Revolution'; and The Trouble With Being a PC Gamer

January 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

Spent most of this afternoon installing a new processor, updating the bios, seeing Windows 7 deliver a huge epic fail message upon reboot, then surfing the Internet frantically for a solution.

For those who’re interested in this sort of stuff, updating the bios reset the boot priority on my hard disks, meaning that it was trying to boot the OS from the wrong one. I spent around 2-3 hours attempting to fix or replace the bootmgr file (the file that wasn’t working) before realising my mistake.

Admittedly, it was my fault for being stupid, but you just don’t have to deal with this kind of crap with consoles. Honestly, I was so tired after having got everything working that I didn’t have the energy or inclination to play any PC games. And yet I’m still considering buying an extra gig of RAM just so I can fill out all the DIMM slots. What’s the point?! I can’t even think of more than half a dozen games I want for the PC this year!

The crazed obsessive mentality of a PC gamer, ladies and gentleman.

So, having done all that and checked to see how much faster Dragon Age runs – a game I am likely never to get further in past the prologue – I checked out Civilization Revolution for the 360.

Uh, so it’s Civilization 4 made for a console. It’s a very good, faithful adaption for the most part. In fact, the only things I hold against it are: the incrementally irksome advisors who talk simlish to you; and that micromanaging a global empire towards the end of the game becomes a tedious bore. The first issue is minor; the second issue, actually, is something that’s always been somewhat of a problem in the PC titles. So, really, that’s less about lacking the tools to manage (i.e., the limitations of a joypad) and more to do with the functionality not being there. That’s really a design issue, if anything.

Having played the game, though, I don’t think I’ll be coming back for more. And it’s not anything to do with it being a bad port, because it clearly isn’t that. I just feel like I’ve played enough Civilization over the years to know how every game is going to go down. What it comes down to is that the gameplay hasn’t evolved, and it doesn’t excite me anymore. For me, Total War has stolen the crown away from Civilization, and unless ol’ Sid has something different for number five, he can count me out.

Tomorrow I’ll likely be starting Brutal Legend and seeing what that’s all about. While I’ll be doing that, of course, I’ll be attempting to overclock my processor and graphics card until it starts making funny noises or blows up. Why? Because I’m an idiot, that’s why.

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