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.