20 December 2010

The VGAs and a Continued Lack of Self-Respect

It’s the end of the year again! A time to look back, assign everything a category and pick out the best example of each one. Awards are fun for everyone for different reasons: some boast about their clairvoyant ability to know the winners before they are announced, some enjoy entering never-ending arguments with others as to why one ‘thing’ should get the award over another ‘thing’ and Z-list celebrities get an oversized pay check to appear at an event they have no interest in. Of course, the gaming industry needs its own major awards ceremony to solidify its place as a normal, mainstream pastime and at the moment, providing this service is the Spike Video Game Awards. Game of the Year, Character of the Year, Best Downloadble Content, Best Soundtrack, Best Performance by a Human Male and Best Individual Sports Game were some of the many hotly contested categories at the ceremony held on December 11th.

6 December 2010

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood - Review

I believe that ‘mild trepidation’ would be the accurate phrase to summarise the general mentality towards Ubisoft’s latest entry into the popular Assassin’s Creed series. Hastily released only a year after Assassin’s Creed 2 with ostensibly little time to work on a new single player campaign and marketing focused on a new multiplayer mode emphasised our fears. Whilst there may not be the same leaps of innovation compared to the previous games; Brotherhood maintains the strong single-player model with enough tweaks to feel fresh. In addition, it incorporates an original and exhilarating multiplayer component, that in absolutely no way, feels tacked on.

22 November 2010

Super Meat Boy - Review

I wish I had set up a camera to film myself playing Super Meat Boy, capturing every expression of anger, laughter and elation. Alas, I did not but if I had I could have simply posted it right here and be done with the review. In retrospect it seems incredible that such a small game can create such a diverse experience and elicit a wide range of emotions.

20 September 2010

Final Fantasy XIV - Beta Impressions Part II - Combat, Classes and Conclusions

In our previous trip to Eorzea, Zharg Jparx had just arrived in the busy city of Ul'dah. Equipped with nothing but some crappy clothes and the lance on his back, he managed to fend off an escaped beast in the city streets. This was before he was weakened by horrible mouse and keyboard controls and eventually defeated by overburdened login servers. With the initial mad rush to participate in the beta subsiding and now equipped with my own PS3 controller, I decided to take another look at Final Fantasy XIV.

13 September 2010

Final Fantasy XIV - Beta Impressions Part I - Character Creation and Introduction

I've avoided most of the MMO space since I stopped playing WoW about three years ago; mainly because I wanted to prevent the inevitable time sink a new MMO would become. However, being the wannabe video game journalist I am, I keep my eye on the bigger releases. When I discovered that Final Fantasy XIV was scheduled to have an open beta I jumped at the chance to have an early look at the game. In this part of my beta impressions, I take a close look at character creation and the game's introductory moments.

8 September 2010

Dragon Age: Origins - Witch Hunt DLC - Review

Any Dragon Age aficionado would admit that Morrigan was one of the most interesting characters in the game. Her snide and obtuse commentary throughout the original’s epic storyline offered equal moments of hilarity and awkwardness. Leaving the Warden after the battle of Denerim (or before depending on the choice you were asked to make beforehand) with the awfully mysterious demand, ‘Never follow me,’ the prospect of meeting Morrigan again was a tantalising thought. What better way to conclude the run of DLC with such an opportunity? To finally discover the truth behind her abrupt disappearance.

30 August 2010

That Golden Wrench

Undisputed gods of PC gaming, Valve, have been supporting Team Fortress 2 with updates for almost three years now. Players have received everything from new maps to new game modes and class weapons on a fairly regular basis keeping the game fresh for those who have been fragging since day one.

For each of the class specific updates Valve ran unique campaigns in the build up to their eventual releases linked in some way to the lore of Team Fortress 2. The Sniper update was interrupted mid-way through in a hilarious twist by the Spy update, playing on the pair’s rivalry in the game. Everyone who has played Sniper knows that frustration when you are zoomed in and about to pull off an incredible headshot but suddenly a Spy’s butterfly knife finds its way into your spinal cord! Whereas, in the ‘Soldier vs Demoman’ update, whichever class managed to rack up the most kills of the other in game over a few days was rewarded with a unique item. For the Engineer update Valve tried something completely different.

In the build up to the update’s release, players who crafted anything in the game had a small chance of being randomly awarded a Golden Wrench. The item was purely aesthetic and offered no actual improvement from the standard wrench bar some lines of exclusive kill dialogue. The TF2 community, including myself, played tirelessly in an attempt to collect as many items as possible to craft into others for the minute possibility of discovering an Au-coated wonder. However, before we knew it, the 100 Golden Wrench limit was reached and we were left disappointed.

One Golden Wrench owner decided that all of the negative attention he was receiving from owning one was simply not worth the small claim to fame. He decided he was going to destroy his wrench. Not only was he going to destroy it but he would arrange a fundraiser in support of the destruction for the Child’s Play charity; changing a disruptive in-game item into something worthwhile for others. The imminent destruction of what eventually included twelve other Golden Wrenches managed to raise over $30 000 for Child’s Play from nearly 2000 donators. A fantastic achievement for everyone involved in the process. Now if only more attention was paid to events like these by the mainstream press rather than more overblown controversy, our beloved hobby might be seen in a far greater light.

(Whilst donations for this event are no longer being accepted you can still find out more about the event at http://www.toptiertactics.com/golden-charity/).

23 August 2010

Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light - Review

Let's face it, the Tomb Raider games have been suffering from a serious bout of franchise fatigue as of late. While the latest couple of instalments, Legend and Underworld, have been moderately well received and are in fact fairly decent games the formula is beginning to appear slightly stale. Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light takes an interesting approach in an attempt to reinvigorate the franchise by offering an arcade style adventure, on a much smaller scale with co-operative play too.

This time around Lara is in search of 'Artifact McGuffin #2312', the Mirror of Smoke, which according to an ancient legend was used by the Guardian of Light, Totec, to imprison Xolotl, the Keeper of Darkness. Lara finds the mirror but is followed by a local warlord and his band of mercenaries who force Lara to surrender it to them. Ignoring the threat of a potential curse on the mirror the warlord handles it, accidentally freeing Xolotl from his prison. Totec returns to life and warns Lara that Xolotl must be stopped before daybreak and so the pair set out to do so.

Even though we are now controlling Lara (and Totec for the second player) from an isometric viewpoint, the traditional Tomb Raider elements are still utilised to full effect. Your time in each level is split fairly equally between platforming, puzzle solving and combat. The first two retain a close connection to the Tomb Raider games of yore: activating switches; pulling levers; crossing spike pits; dodging traps et cetera but with a co-op twist. For example, Totec has the ability to throw spears into walls to create platforms for Lara to jump onto. He can also use his shield to block incoming attacks and hold it above his head for Lara to jump off to reach higher locales. In turn, Lara can attach the grapple hook to Totec, allowing her to repel down walls.

However, the combat is very different; using a twin stick shooter setup seen in games such as Geometry Wars. Pulling the right trigger readies your equipped weapon and pushing the right stick in a specific direction fires it. These combat mechanics work incredibly well with the arcade style of the game creating intense and challenging firefights. Both characters are given unlimited ammo for their basic weapons but the more powerful ones you find throughout the game utilise a universal ammo bar at varying rates.

Reinforcing the arcade nature of the game is its scoring system, which rewards you with points for finding treasure and defeating enemies. In addition, each level has its own set of challenges, from reaching a specific score to finding a number of hidden collectables. Each of these completed challenges reward you with new weapons and relics (which provide bonuses to your character's abilities), or boosts to your health and ammo meters giving a strong incentive to return to previous levels to finish up the ones you miss.

In the single player mode the game remains much the same except Lara and Totec are separated, only conversing in cut scenes. Puzzles are also slightly reworked in order for Lara to be able to solve them on her own and Totec passes his spear to her at the beginning of the game, which is needed to progress in some areas.

Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is a fantastic XBLA release considering its reasonable price tag for the amount of game time and depth it offers and playing with a friend in co-op is a very satisfying experience as you work together to solve puzzles and overcome challenges. The lack of online co-op at release is a minor disappointment but gives you all the more reason to invite a friend over for some good, old-fashioned local co-op. Nevertheless, the game is also a blast in single-player mode and with the news of upcoming DLC (some free for Xbox owners) this is one of the best value and most enjoyable games on the XBLA.

16 August 2010

Pain for Pleasure

I would consider myself a competent gamer. I've been playing games for over a decade now and whilst there are many reasons why various people game I, like many others, sometimes enjoy the challenge a game can present. Therefore, I usually take advantage of the hardest difficulty a game has available to experience the ultimate level of challenge. Where I must utilise every gaming skill I've trained over that decade and become a master of the mechanics of the game at hand.

However, playing a game on the hardest difficulty is rarely a completely satisfying experience and often incredibly painful to finish. This is because, for the most part, developers are terribly lazy when it comes to creating additional challenge for the player. Generally, enemies will receive increased health and increased damage; the player receives reduced health, reduced damage dealt, less ammunition and increased damage taken. Layering the player with penalties is an incredibly fabricated method of making a game harder. These number tweaks simply result in a great deal of frustration and many, many cheap deaths.

For example, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare's Veteran difficulty follows this pattern of penalties which culminates in irksome gameplay of popping out of cover; killing one enemy; taking a few hits from the ultra accurate AI; cowering behind cover until your health has regenerated; being interrupted by a pinpoint accurate grenade landing on your toes; running to more cover; waiting for health to regenerate and so on! Not so enjoyable in the slightest.

There are certainly examples of where difficulty is legitimately created, even using some of the poorly executed techniques in Call of Duty. Bayonetta's harder difficulties (when unlocked) increase the amount of damage the player takes but this works correctly within the mechanics of the gameplay. As the game's combat is based around avoiding damage, reading the enemies attacks and expertly timing dodges to activate 'Witch Time' (a time slowing ability) the threat of more damage makes it even more vital to perfect this technique. The player then uses the openings created by 'Witch Time' to unleash powerful combos and defeat the enemies without fear of retaliation.

To finish, I would like to look at one game series in detail and how the difficulty levels could be improved to create an enjoyable experience for anyone and a substantial, yet balanced challenge for the enthusiast. That series, is Bioshock. There is no denying that Bioshock is a fantastic game with a rich narrative and strong, tactical combat. The game's difficulty, however, is sabotaged by the generosity of the vita-chambers as with them, death has no penalty. The player could recklessly charge in to every encounter knowing that a vita-chamber would instantly revive them nearby if they should fall in combat. This was fortunately fixed with a later patch and from release in Bioshock 2 by giving the player the option to disable the chambers. Having this option created a far more exciting experience for the challenge seeker. Encounters with Splicers and especially Big Daddies/Sisters had far more tension and encouraged tactical planning with the character's available powers.
That's not to say the vita-chambers should be completely removed from the game, having the option to makes perfect sense. Perhaps the game's difficulty levels could be refined with the chamber's use and effectiveness linked to specific difficulty levels.

Easy - a standard playthrough with less powerful enemies and no penalty vita-chambers; for those who are disinterested in the challenge and more keen to experience other elements. Normal - This time vita-chambers come with a penalty; I had a few ideas floating around my head. For example, each use could deduct a small percentage of the player's ADAM. Probably a harsh punishment and could create some horrible imbalance later on in the game if the player died frequently. Maybe a temporary penalty to overall health and EVE may work but the player could simply wait until the deficit faded, thus returning to the hiding behind cover issue in Call of Duty. A monetary price would be the easiest to implement, it is not a vital commodity and would also be logical in terms of the game world.

Anyway, on to hard - simply, no vita-chambers. Enemies could be tougher with just an overall health boost instead of damage increases and penalties on the player. Increased enemy damage is an issue in Bioshock 2 where being reduced to minimal health from a couple of hits on hard is ludicrous considering the player controls a Big Daddy! With just an enemy health boost, the player is required to find effective methods of defeating enemies quickly and without taking constant damage over time instead of being steamrollered in two or three hits. The player would have to utilise all of the plasmids, weapons, research capabilities and environmental advantages the game offers throughout its world. Thus, they master the mechanics of the game with their competence as a gamer; setting up a complicated series of traps, combined with plasmid powers and specific weapons to overcome tough encounters such as the Big Daddies/Sisters or harvest situations in Bioshock 2.

To summarise, the message I am really trying to push is to orient the levels of difficulty around the mechanics of the game. It is not fun to suffer through a game on the hardest difficulty when simply a number of sliders have been swung in the opposite direction to create an unfair imbalance against the player. Although sometimes, after all the punishment, multiple deaths and controller snapping frustration; when the boss finally dies...or a section is cleared...and the achievement pops...it was always worth it.

12 August 2010

Dragon Age: Origins - Golems of Amgarrak - Review

The steady stream of post release DLC for Dragon Age: Origins continues with Golems of Amgarrak in which the Warden returns to the Deep Roads. In this instalment an exploration team looking for secrets of golem creation enter the lost thaig of Amgarrak. Shortly after the exploration commences the entire team disappears including Jerrik Dace's brother, Brogan. Jerrik calls on the Warden's assistance to enter Amgarrak and search for any evidence of the team's whereabouts.

Before the action begins you have the opportunity to import an existing character from Origins, Awakening or to create a brand new Warden. Unlocking achievements in the DLC unlocks items for your characters in the main game so it makes more sense to import and considering that GoA is advertised as an incredibly challenging quest it is best to pick your strongest Warden!

The lost thaig of Amgarrak is a fairly interesting location to explore similar to other areas of the Deep Roads. Constructed as a giant puzzle, you have to make your way through various zones of the thaig by manipulating stone altars that allow you to pass through different coloured barriers. The whole process is fairly linear however, so there is very little chance of getting lost or missing an altar.

Other elements of the quintessential Dragon Age formula such as a focus of story, characters and conversations are still in effect although they feel slightly watered down. As the Warden is unable to take any party members along, spaces are filled by Jerrik, Brogan and a non-descript Golem. In addition, coming in at around 90-120 minutes there is nowhere near enough time to develop the characters sufficiently and conversations are severely limited. However, with an imported Warden the characters reference some of your prior exploits in the Deep Roads, which is a nice touch.

As far as the difficulty goes the enemies certainly present a harder challenge but sometimes this arises from cheap attacks rather than well crafted combat situations. In one instance four elite golems activate simultaneously and commence hurling boulders at the party - inflicting a knockdown with each hit. Being constantly barraged by these boulders leaves you open to the golems as they slowly amble up to you and pummel you into the ground. Apart from this and a few other instances combat retains its strategic elements including one of the hardest bosses in the whole of Dragon Age that requires faultless planning and execution.

If you are itching for new Dragon Age content then you have probably already decided that you are going to buy this DLC. At only £3 it is hard not to recommend for a short burst of Dragon Age goodness. If you are interested in loot consider this a micro-transaction for some powerful new items. Otherwise, if you've moved on from Dragon Age, there is very little reason for this DLC to draw you back.

9 August 2010

Where's the LAN Party At?

I feel a change of pace is in order this week; my last two posts were fairly heavy on game mechanics, narrative and surprisingly, Russian formalism. My incessant ramblings on these topics will certainly not cease but during an extended session of Team Fortress 2 I had an epiphany. I should just bite the bullet and admit it; sometimes...who cares about the story? Initially, it was a hard pill to swallow but washed down with a grand total of five dominations, it went down smooth enough. My Team Fortress 2 soldier skills aside I am willing to admit there are times when a great deal of satisfaction can be obtained from a game that has perfectly constructed gameplay. The competitive nature of the online FPS and the communities that build from it is what holds them together; a narrative is not necessary. Nevertheless, there is still one element I sorely miss and to find it I had to return to my introduction into online PC gaming.

Of course, at that time, I had very little knowledge of CPUs, GPUs and RAM so my PC was just powerful enough to run DOS games (it also was made by Daewoo...yes, the car manufacturer!). Luckily, there was a small establishment on my town high street named Cyber Realm that offered a whole host of games with fairly decent quality computers to play them on. A LAN centre is what I think they used to be called? It provided my first experiences with many PC games that I would eventually obtain and sink many hours into at home such as Counter Strike 1.6, Red Alert 2, Battlefield 1942 and if I remember correctly, it was where I saw the first glimpse of an MMORPG.

Thinking back it was a fantastic place to be and often hilarious. Going down with a group of friends and having the opportunity to destroy the school’s ‘cool kids’ in CS 1.6. I may have been less than adept at rugby and athletics but they were in my territory now where lightning fast reactions and excellent hand eye co-ordination were vital skills. Screams of ‘Who the f*$% just killed me!?’ and ‘Who the F*%& is username?’ would ring out every so often across the room from their mouths. The only replies were quiet sniggers in the corner. I only wish Team Fortress 2 dominations were around then!

Unfortunately, the fun would never last and Cyber Realm closed sometime many years ago. I never found out why but I imagine it never made enough money to support itself. In addition, as time passed I managed, like many others, to upgrade to a more competent computer able to run all of the centre’s games from home. Now with the wide uptake of computers by more households the need for LAN centres and internet caf├ęs has, more or less, completely diminished. Plus, easily obtainable, fast internet connections and the robust nature of online gaming across multiple platforms ensure the LAN centre remains in the past. Whilst I realise some still do exist they are not in the most convenient of locations for a spontaneous visit.

So there you have it, there is more to me than a prententious, narrative minded formalist. One day I would like to get round to perhaps organising a local LAN if there was enough interest to recreate that atmosphere. For now though, I’ll have to settle for the less entertaining banter over Xbox Live with a group of strangers in another part of the world.

2 August 2010

A Narrative Through Gameplay

After the recent release of Limbo, I’ve dived head first into the indie game ‘scene’. My taste for engaging and original video game content that seeks to achieve a greater level of artistry had been well and truly enticed. Limbo’s foreboding atmosphere; fiendish puzzles; brutal set pieces and subversion of video game norms resonated incredibly well with me and a great many gamers. In addition to this, for me personally, it was also how well the game managed to achieve such a strong connection between the gameplay and its narrative; a feat rarely achieved in video games.

Generally, a developer can utilise a number of different components to present a narrative within their game such as: dialogue, cut scenes, text files, audio logs, gameplay and the environment. Now, think back to the latest game you have played and consider which of those you received the most narrative information through. Consider also any of the major, triple-A releases over the past year and how they presented story information to yourself or the player. The chances are that the game in your mind told most of its narrative through a combination of cut scenes and dialogue, with perhaps some influence through text files and audio logs. Although it is an unquestionably harder task to utilise as an output for the narrative; telling a story through the gameplay or environment is often completely ignored.

Still, I have issues with games that rely so heavily on cut scenes to supply story information and character development. Doing so can create such a disconnect from the actual game thus conflicting the inherent expectations of the experience of playing and destroying the possibilities of exciting storytelling techniques in video games. Trying to involve the player by attaching arbitrary quick-time events is not a suitable fix for the issue and instead frequently results in unnecessary deaths. Thankfully, text files are fading in use with an emphasis on audio logs which at least allow the player to continue playing whilst receiving story details but can be drowned out if the player encounters a combat situation for example (this happened to me regularly in Bioshock). Beyond these relatively easy and direct methods of narrative presentation lie the gameplay and the environment; harbouring the potential of the unique storytelling capabilities of video games.

There are a select few games that have bravely employed the environment as a means for storytelling. A quick look at the games in Valve’s library such as Half Life, Portal and Left 4 Dead have all had a great emphasis on telling a story through the world the player inhabits. Of course the player can completely ignore this information if they wish but at least the opportunity is there for those who wish the discover more. Nevertheless, the connection of story and gameplay is far more elusive and to discuss it I must return to the humble indie game, and to Limbo.

Whilst it is not the first game to implement an engaging story, Limbo does so in such a unique way that requires the player to formulate an overarching interpretation from the narrative information present. I’ll try to describe the following ideas in the quickest way possible as I imagine Russian literary formalism is not on the list of your most exciting subjects to read. However, one concept that I believe can be applied to Limbo to understand its construction and that has also transferred into the study of narrative film is that of the fabula (story) and syuzhet (plot). Essentially, in the example of a film, the fabula refers to the complete chain of events in the narrative and the syuzhet refers to the actual presentation of those events in the film. For instance, the film Memento follows Leonard and his investigation into the murder of his wife. Yet, the narrative is presented in the film in segments that jump from different periods of time or are shown reverse (syuzhet) which the viewer then has to rearrange in their mind to create the overall story (fabula).

Now these terms could be taken and applied fairly easily to a game such as Limbo as it is also not so forthright in the presentation of its narrative. The game itself becomes the syuzhet, providing scraps of story information as we progress through the environment and experience the gameplay. These small cues in the game world are the catalyst for our own fabula construction. We can start to piece together a larger picture of the world of Limbo. How has the Boy arrived there? Why he is there? What are the different puzzles and inhabitants he encounters representations of? What are the fates of the Boy and his Sister?

There are already innumerable theories circulating so shortly after the game’s release which shows the power a well constructed, interpretive narrative can have and that the gaming community is willing to support one as adventurous as this. I do not wish to discuss these for the fear of ruining the experience for someone who is yet to play the game. It is clear though that Playdead have managed to craft a game that manages to tell its narrative, minus the trappings of conventional game storytelling, through simply the gameplay and the environment. I have no doubt that the developers will remain forever silent on the definitive fabula, if indeed they believe there to be one themselves. I would like to think they will leave the gaming community to thrive within this meta-game. It is fantastic proof that to develop a video game with a realised narrative you do not need thirty minute cut scenes or hundreds of hours of dialogue or pages of exposition but gameplay that reflects the purposes of the story and has a direct involvement in conveying it.

For those who are interested in more games that succeed (with varying effectiveness) to harmonise narrative and gameplay I shall list those I have played and also enjoyed below. Play them and decide for yourselves what they mean to you and I would be more than interested in hearing your thoughts. You may discover something completely different to other’s interpretations that will stay with you far longer than the replay value of many other games.

Limbo - XBLA

Braid - XBLA/PC - A gem of a game from Jonathan Blow with interesting mechanics and an incredibly well executed finale.

Every Day The Same Dream - Free/Browser Based - A short yet powerful examination of some aspects of modern society.

The Company of Myself - Free/Browser Based - An excellent experience, masterfully written with cleverly implemented gameplay mechanics.

Edmund - PC Download - A potentially harrowing game yet not as well executed as the others.

If you are still interested in the conflicts between narrative and gameplay and how they can be tackled I recommend that you listen to the following Jonathan Blow lecture. It is very long running at 90 minutes but raises some very interesting points for debate.

26 July 2010

Along for the Ride - Playing a Role in RPGs

Note: This is an article that I pitched to The Escapist which was declined but I decided to write as I feel it raises some interesting points.

‘You can put a 'J' in front of it, but it's not an RPG. You don't make any choices, you don't create a character, you don't live your character... I don't know what those are - adventure games maybe? But they're not RPG's.’ - Daniel Erickson, Writing Director (Bioware).

The RPG is a strange beast, constantly evolving and changing in the current video game climate. Right now, you would be hard pressed to find a game that does not include some form of RPG elements. However, that is a different subject entirely. What Erickson is referring to here is the JRPG genre in general and questioning the validity of calling these games, specifically Final Fantasy XIII, RPGs. In broader terms we could ask essentially; what is an RPG? A far greater question than could be answered here. If I had the time and resources I could trace the history of the role-playing game from its roots in Dungeons and Dragons style RP games, through its developments across console generations and the current elements associated with an RPG game to try and form a solid definition. Instead, I would like to scale the process down a few degrees and take an analytical approach towards Erickson’s statement to see if I can develop his thoughts any further.

In the broadest terms possible, it can be argued that all games are role-playing games. There is no denying at a basic level this seems inherently true. In the majority of video game experiences we are placed in control of a specific character. We take part in their story and see it to its conclusion. Does that necessarily mean that we are playing their role though? I would be inclined to disagree.

First, let’s consider what the term ‘role-playing’ actually suggests from a gaming perspective. I’m not searching for a definition but isolating some key associations. It assumes taking on another persona, one that is often completely different from your own. You assume full control of that created character guiding them through a situation, making choices and responding to others based on your created character’s mental processes. In some cases it may be that you decide to incorporate elements of your own psyche into your character but in those cases you are still playing a role, transferring elements of yourself into a new character in a fantastical situation.

With this is mind it seems that certainly a game such as Final Fantasy XIII, recognised as part of the biggest RPG franchises of all time, is actually contradicting the experience of role-playing. For example, the game offers the player control over six different characters. Only three can be used in battle at once but the story revolves around all six and their struggle to understand and complete their Focus. Yet, our ability to control and role-play these characters in severely limited. Consider Hope, a character that for the majority of the game’s introduction holds a strong grudge against Snow; blaming him for the death of his mother named Nora (this also conveniently turns out to be the acronym used for Snow’s rebel team! Coincidence? I think not. Daft writing? Most definitely). So, for a select few hours or so of the game whilst Hope is paired with Lightning we are told and told again and told again that Hope is really mad at Snow and at the next opportunity Hope will unleash the fury he has built up inside of him and quite possibly kill Snow. Of course, that is not the case. We must suffer by watching more cut scenes and listening to more dialogue with Hope consistently losing confidence at the final hurdle. Until at last, he plucks up the courage to say something and attempts to kill Snow.

Now, whilst I am not here to discuss the tedium of that character development I must ask; what was my role in those events? I certainly was not playing the role of Hope; I moved his avatar through each subsequent level; he was there in my party; I selected actions for him to use in battle; I chose which abilities he would learn on the Crystarium and I upgraded his weapon a number of times. However, none of these actions relate to myself, playing the role of the character. They function on another level, separate from the narrative or hidden away in menus which in turn make them very impersonal aspects of character development. At no point could I select Hope, walk up to Snow and decide at that moment I would attempt murder. At no point could I select Lightning and get her to abandon Hope in the forest because he was infuriating.

This is because in Final Fantasy XIII we have no direct control over the story and characters as they are already set in stone by the developers. No matter what minimal actions we are allowed to take, the end result will always be the same because from a narrative perspective those actions have no consequences. If we die we return to the last checkpoint; if we upgrade a character’s statistics or weapon they only become stronger in battles; if we decide to never use a character in battle they will never abandon us or if we rely on the same party combination throughout the whole game we cannot encourage them to develop stronger relationships. Therefore, I would argue that we do not play the role of the characters. We are relatively subservient guardians over their destinies; guiding them towards it without directly influencing the outcome.

As Erickson’s struggles to define Final Fantasy XIII, so do I. A ‘role-experiencing’ game? Indeed, it does not roll so well off the tongue and is so broad it probably defines every form of character driven fiction but it applies more to the game than ‘role-playing’. Let’s now briefly look to the other side and those games that seem to offer the full role playing experience. A whole host of fantastic games instantly spring to mind such as: Fallout, Elder Scrolls, Mass Effect, Dragon Age and Fable. These games offer that full experience because they place so much emphasis on the player’s control over their character. I’ll narrow things down by taking one game as an example and of course, I am going to use Dragon Age: Origins.

Through the game's foundation in choice and our own imagination we can play the role of our character; choosing how we would act in a specific situation or formulating an in depth personality for our character and choosing how they would react. We can choose which other characters we want our character to develop strong relationships with and in turn, they will receive statistical boosts in battle. Character development, gameplay and narrative are meaningfully tied together instead of awkwardly separated.

In my first play through as Rebecca, a female human noble warrior, I took the second route and forged a completely unique character. She began as a religious sceptic who was kind and compassionate to others but transfixed on avenging the death of her parents. Of course this incorporated some elements of my own personality but when considering dialogue options and some of the game’s significant choices I always considered my character’s mentality first. In addition, I made a number of choices throughout the game for the sole purpose of character development. For example, I decided that the discovery of Andraste's Ashes converted her to a believer in the Maker and her aspiration to see Alistair as king (whom she had formed a close bond with) led to her sacrifice in the defeat of the Archdemon.

In these situations we are offered a true, role-playing experience where we can craft our own original characters; shape the events of the story and become fully immersed within a different world. We are not limited, as in Final Fantasy XIII, to the enclosed path of the story and severely pre arranged stages of character development. In the majority of RPGs and games from other genres we lack a degree of control over the characters. We play their roles no more than when we watch Tony Stark, Frodo Baggins or Michael Corleone. We are given the illusion of role-playing but we are simply there; along for the ride.

29 June 2010

Super Mario Galaxy 2 - Review

This should not be a tough sell. Gaming's biggest mascot plus the high quality of the preceding game surely set the sequel up as a classic? However, with sequels there is always a fear that the game is just rehashing old ideas and slapping a '2' on the end. Super Mario Galaxy 2 avoids this issue completely and in fact, manages to be a better game than the original.

You've heard it fifty times before: Princess Peach is kidnapped by Bowser and Mario has to rescue her, this time by travelling to different galaxies and collecting power stars. For the sequel Mario once again gains the help of the Lumas in his quest who offer him a
ship (oddly in the shape of Mario's head) that requires the power stars to reach distant worlds and eventually Bowser. The universe Mario traverses is set out in a similar fashion to the older S/NES games with each world split into multiple levels, linked together by paths that require you to complete the previous level to continue. Along the way Mario will come across hungry Lumas, that when fed enough star bits will transform into new galaxies.

Yet, what makes Super Mario Galaxy 2 so fantastic is the sheer variety in gameplay that will keep you playing and moving on to the next galaxy...and then the next...and the next. Each galaxy has a number of stars for you to collect, in addition to a 'comet medal' which opens new challenges on certain galaxies. Although this sounds repetitive, there never comes a point where you will be bored with the game as each new galaxy offers so much diversity. Tricky platforming sections, exhilarating boss fights, imaginative power ups, excellent level design, responsive controls and enjoyable mini games all mix together to produce that quintessential Mario formula.

Power ups are a key part of this formula and the majority of them are very enjoyable to use. Some return from the original, such as 'Ghost Mario' and 'Bee Mario' but there are also a number of new additions. 'Cloud Mario' allows you to generate a cloud platform when you spin for reaching distant areas and the 'Drill' allows you to carve through planets even sometimes allowing the exploration of their innards. In addition, Mario can now call upon the help of Yoshi who has the ability to eat enemies, latch on to flowers to swing new locations and devour a number of fruits that then change his own powers. The power ups are spread so well across the game that you will most likely encounter each one before you finish it.

Completing the game is a
fairly easy task to accomplish; a minimal amount of stars are required to reach the final showdown with Bowser but that is certainly not the conclusion of the game. A whole new world becomes available with more galaxies and stars to collect after the credits. From here the game's challenge for the core gamer truly begins. Once all 120 gold stars have been collected, green stars appear on all of the galaxies. These stars do not require you to defeat bosses or reach a galaxy's end but are hidden throughout them. They work as a simple gameplay extension but are fun and challenging to collect as they require you to utilise all of Mario's skills to retrieve them.

Super Mario Galaxy 2 is what all sequels should be; continuing with the aspects of the original that worked well and improving or developing new and interesting ideas. Where Super Mario Galaxy was the training, Mario Galaxy 2 is the live mission offering a comprehensive gaming experience that, even I will admit, does not need a well developed, highly character driven story. Instead, you receive the most satisfying gameplay on any platform that provides enjoyment for the casual and challenge for the core. Forget 25 kill streaks on Call of Duty, this is what gaming is truly all about.

14 March 2010

Mass Effect 2 - Review

Mass Effect 2 opens with an intense introduction scene, essentially resetting the game for newcomers to the series without ruining the consistency for players of the first game. The game then continues two years later as Shepard once again takes up the task of saving humanity; this time from a race of human harvesting insectoid-like creatures, fittingly called, Collectors. Shepard joins with Cerberus, the human equality group seen in passing in the first game under direct control from The Illusive Man. Think of him as Ernst Blofeld meets Alan Sugar. Shepard must bring together a selection of the galaxy’s fiercest fighters, skilled biotics and intelligent technicians to eliminate the Collector threat.

The original Mass Effect was excellent, yet also suffered from a number of flaws. Luckily the majority of these flaws have been addressed in the second instalment. Most notably, the combat. You can instantly feel that you are playing a different and improved game. The controls feel a lot smoother and enemies react differently depending on where your bullets hit. A headshot provides more damage; a shot to the leg will cause them to stumble. In addition, the overheating system has been removed and replaced with standard ammo clips. It may sound like an unimportant difference but the combat experience is greatly improved because of it. There is no more waiting around in cover for the heat to dissipate allowing for more action oriented combat. Although, the combat has kept some tactical elements; you can still direct your squad to specific locations and order them to use specific powers sometimes in combination with your own for devastating effect. Unfortunately, sometimes they decide to charge head first into battle if they are not given any direction, causing some annoying deaths.

Another major improvement is the classes. There is a stronger distinction between classes with each given their own specific ability alongside returning powers from the first game. For example, the ‘vanguard’ class, a mix of combat and biotics, is granted the charge ability. This allows them to...charge towards an enemy dealing damage and sending them flying backwards for an easy kill. This further personalises your own Shepard and encourages multiple playthroughs to try out each class.

The space exploration element has also undergone a major change. Now you pilot a miniature version of the Normandy across galaxies, stopping off at planets to detect anomalies and collect minerals for upgrades. The mineral collection mini-game is quite disappointing however. It simply boils down to moving a scanner across the planet’s surface and firing a probe whenever a mineral is detected. It gets very tedious, very quickly but of course it is completely optional. A little more thought into this area would not have gone amiss. The changes to the exploration emphasise the vastness of space you have to explore which is far more than the original did.

Bioware prides itself on its storytelling and they once again prove they are one of the best at it in the gaming industry. The story is suitably grand for a far reaching space adventure and some of the characters you interact with, whether they can join you or not, are quite remarkable. There are a number of tried and tested archetypes too; however they fit well within the game’s story. Conversations work in exactly the same way as the original allowing you to be good or bad through the use of the ‘renegade’ and ‘paragon’ system. The addition this time around is an interrupt feature during some exchanges. With a pull of the left or right trigger Shepard will take a decisive kind or aggressive action with some of the results being wonderful to witness. You’ll enjoy speaking to most of your fellow team members. Thane is certainly one of the most interesting characters on your team and the stories of his past kept me returning to speak to him.

However, at times though I thought that some characters were far too open too quickly. Arriving on the Normandy and then moments later revealing some of their innermost feelings removed the potential of spending time to get to know the characters like in Dragon Age: Origins. This probably reflects the target audience for Mass Effect 2 rather than the quality of the game’s writing and actually works as a fairly decent metaphor for the game as a whole.

This is because Mass Effect 2 is an incredibly streamlined action-rpg. The cluttered item management menus and extended character development grids have been removed for much simpler and refined options. This does not detract from the experience at all and actually helps to provide the game with a greater focus so you spend more time shooting and conversing and less time micro-managing your equipment and upgrades in clumsy menus.

You know a game is fantastic when after 14 hours of straight play time you finally decide to stop because you can no longer keep your eyes open. Mass Effect 2 shines in every aspect and is only let down in a few minor areas; which in the grand scheme of things do not detract much from the game at all. Offering an epic storyline in an expansive universe; interesting characters; satisfying and exciting combat, Mass Effect 2 is the best game of 2010 so far.

18 February 2010

100%, 10/10, 5 Stars and Two Thumbs Up

I'm sure you are interested in finding out why I am still yet to post the Mass Effect 2 review I promised last month. I have been working on it between playing the game and it is progressing well. However, I am not trying to do something original but at least different in terms of the review itself. I suppose it is quite hard to produce a unique review in a mass of hundreds of others.

The majority of Mass Effect 2 reviews are unanimous in hailing the game an absolute wonder and a (very) early contender for Game of the Year 2010. So, my problem is, one month later, writing a review that can still be considered interesting and not just retreading old ground. I am not in any way attempting to recreate something the likes of a Zero Punctuation video review but would like to divert from the current video game review formula. The majority of video game reviews today I feel focus far too much on two areas; isolating specific elements of a game and numerical scoring. These are the two issues I would like to address here.

The phrase, 'specific elements' could use a better description. By 'specific elements' I mean the sub-headings that are used to isolate certain areas that are involved in the construction of a video game. The graphics, sound, story, gameplay etc. I have a strong issue with games being reviewed in this way and then scored for each section individually to provide an average overall score. In some cases one of the sub-headings may not apply to a particular game, such as 'story' in Rock Band. Instead of retaining a level of consistency the review simply omits the 'story' section. This leads to review scores being averaged by fewer numbers potentially boosting the overall score. This is simply unfair reviewing, the game should be given a one in these situations so every game is scored equally.

Another sub-heading that I find trivial is 'graphics'. I have constant arguments with one of my housemates about graphics in video games. He loves them and whenever he sees a new game the first comment will almost always relate to the graphics; whether they are incredible or terrible. He has even said to me that if a game's graphics are so bad he will be unable to play the game. Where has this ridiculous fixation on graphics arisen from? Discounting so many games because of their bad graphics leads to ignoring so many fantastic games of new and old. It is as foolish as assuming all black and white films are slow and boring. The not so recently released Mega Man 9 is proof that many gamers see graphics as a small aesthetic pleasure rather than a focal point. Therefore in my review of Mass Effect 2 and those to come I will never include sub-headings. I may refer to specific elements of a game but they will be related to the game as a whole and never will they be judged or scored individually.

This leads onto the other of my gripes - numerical (or in some cases alphabetical) scoring in reviews. Reviewers describe to a great extent their thoughts on a game and then attempt to summarise those two-three pages of argument with a numerical conclusion. This of course leads to many gamers who are just in a rush to find out a game's quality jumping straight to the score at the end, potentially missing many important points the reviewer has made. Sites such as Metacritic have not helped this fixation by bringing together all of the scores a game has been given. Yet, many sites use different scoring systems and so they are all adapted to fit with Metacritic's leading to a number of potential mistranslations in the scores.

For example, 1up uses an alphabetised scoring system including pluses and minuses - how is that translated into Metacritic's numerical system? We can see an A+ equals 100%, A equals 95%, A- equals 90% and then continue in that pattern. This is taken from their website:

'1UP rates games on a scale of A+ through F. Anything we score in the A+ through A- range is considered excellent, B+ through B- is good, C+ through C- is average, D+ through D- is bad, and F is terrible.'

A game rated C, which is scaled as average, then achieves 65% according to Metacritic's scale but surely average should be considered as 50%. Currently a bad game is given 50% which is a unfairly favourable translation. In addition, if everything scored A+ through A- is considered excellent; what is the point of having all three if they all mean the same thing? This is creating unnecessary confusion, yet the pluses and minuses are nothing compared to what's next.

Gametrailers.com take the farce of review scoring to the next level with the inclusion of decimals in their scores. What is the point of awarding a game a 8.7 instead of an 8.6!? What aspect/s of the game lead it to being awarded that extra 0.1 of a score? How do these reviewers generate these numbers? In my opinion it is a complete joke.

So, I have more or less ranted for a few paragraphs now without offering any kind of suggestion of improvement. Unfortunately, it looks like numerical scoring is here to stay, especially thanks to Metacritic. The Escapist, an excellent video game website, has decided to include a scoring system on it's reviews now and...has decided to go with a five star system. Fantastic, more confusion! To be fair to The Escapist team they do not appear too happy about using a scoring system and debated extensively before including one. However, as long as I remain independent I will never use numbers, letters, stars, hats, ticks, thumbs or iguanas to score games. Hopefully my opinions will come through well enough in the text so that no number is needed. You can always comment that it, 'sounds like a 7 to me' if you want. I won't mind; I'll just set my Mabari War Hound on you...

25 January 2010

A Quiet Month

It has been a long time since my last post due to a large amount of university work. I have no intention for this post to be a semi-intelligent discussion about video games. Rather, to play to the idea that there are people reading this blog and offer a quick update.

Back on topic, I finally got around to finishing Dragon Age: Origins last week. I have to say it was one of the best games I have ever played. Through the 55 hours of play time I spent with my Human Warrior I became so immersed within the game's fantastically constructed world. Even to the point where at times I felt a strong connection with some of my fellow party members. The game's major choices consistently had significant weight to them and never were the decisions clear cut in being good or bad. I saved the Circle of Magi, uncovered Andraste's Ashes, broke the Werewolf curse, crowned a new king of Orgrimm...Orzammar and learnt more about the Chantry than I know about any real religion.

Playing as a woman, an awkward romance flared up between my character Rebecca and Alistair. Unfortunately, the romance never developed far and was ended in one of the most genuine and emotional moments I have ever experienced in a video game. I played out the game's closing choices in what felt perfect for Rebecca's character arc and the ending was very satisfying. After discussing narrative in video games so heavily, Dragon Age: Origins fit the mould of more or less my own perfect game. The characters were interesting and well developed throughout; the gameplay was challenging and exciting; the story was engaging with enough twists and turns to keep me hooked throughout and the world was fully realised and believable. I would recommend it to anyone who, like me, is interested in video game storytelling.

So, my character's story came to a dramatic end and I'm really looking forward to the expansion but until then, I've started my second playthrough. Plus...Mass Effect 2 is released this Friday. I cannot wait to get my hands on this game. Another that promises a great story, great characters in addition to many improvements from the fantastic original. It may even be the game that takes this blog's review virginity! We shall see after the weekend marathon I have planned with the game.