Sunday, 30 March 2008

Bad News Day



As a videogame fan, I proudly despise my country.

Reason 1

Reason 2

The Pixel Diaries - Gran Turismo 5 Prologue Edition



I’ve already stated my thoughts on the issues surrounding the direction of the Gran Turismo series in a previous post, so I’ll focus mainly on my actual play experience here. I’m not quite finished with it yet, but have a good 80% of the races complete. I’ve found my hours with the game enjoyable, if a little lacking in something.

For my first hour of playtime it was pretty easy to figure out what wasn’t there. Any form of actual gameplay. I had to work through a twenty odd minute install, followed by an equally lengthy system update which was required to access any of the online modes. Even then I had to download an update in-game to get everything working, which failed on the first three attempts but eventually followed through to completion. I miss the old days where I could just insert a disk and play. It’s this kind of thing that puts me of PC gaming.

Anyway, the graphics, perhaps the biggest advancement in this franchise update, are of course pretty damn impressive. The in-car view is essential for a truly immersive experience, and I’m going to struggle without the option in other racing games. There are plenty of jaggies mind, much more than any screenshots would have you believe, but they’re widely ignorable, especially if viewing in higher resolutions (I’m personally playing in 1080i).

The racing is very smooth, and even with full simulation settings it’s easily controllable and accessible (I told you it wasn’t a simulator…) However, I felt things get a little dull after a while, which is strange when it’s frankly very addictive. I can’t put my finger on why I feel this way. Maybe things are a little slow. Maybe the presentation is just too clinical after playing something like Burnout Paradise. Perhaps it ties in with my previous statement of it not being arcade enough to be as fun as PGR, or realistic enough to trump Forza. Or maybe it’s just down to the fact that it’s a teaser, and simply lacks the options I’m used to.

Other things to note are the great car selection, with all the latest wave of Japanese imports available, from the award winning Nissan GTR to the refined Mitsubishi Evo X, and of course the series first ever Ferraris. I also have to mention how useless the AI is at times. There’s typically a few cars at the front of the 16 strong pack that pose a serious challenge, but I’ve encountered situations where at least half a dozen opponents have misjudged the same corner and resulted in dust flying in so many directions it feels like a sandstorm. It’s like playing online.

Despite the craziness, I’m glad I purchased it and it’s nice to see what modern technology can do with a classic franchise. I’ve yet to take it online proper, so expect a final update to appear below this text soonish.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

The Pixel Diaries - Resistance: Fall of Man Edition



Another PlayStation 3 game finished; another unspectacular 12 hour campaign to be forgotten about. I’m seriously a little tired of putting in so much time for so little reward in the long term. Well, what can I say? ‘Resistance’ is a good game. It doesn’t crash, it doesn’t play badly, it looks quite impressive in places, it mixes things up with vehicle sections and has a fair good amount of enemy types to keep you on your toes. Would I recommend fighting through it to experience all of these features? Not really. It’s just another passable shooter, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but if the aftershocks of any of last years FPS titans are still buzzing round in you’re head you’re only going to notice what isn’t there.

I felt no atmosphere. This could be blamed on the repetitive environments, or maybe the generic appearance of the aliens, or the terribly dull soundtrack, or the dry story, or the lack of any particular stand out missions. It lacks the humour, the spine chilling score and the random moments of hilarious havoc of 'Halo'. It lacks the creativity, suspense, mood and exceptional level design of 'BioShock'. It shows no signs of the vastness, believability and sheer immersion of 'Half-Life 2'. It’s a shooter as generic as they come. Is there any reason to play it at all? I guess some of the weapons are interesting, like a rifle that shoots through walls forcing you to constantly dodge bullets, even when in another room from the action. There’s also a moment when a giant mechanical mole machine blasts through one wall and into the next right in front of your nose. That was pretty cool I guess, but it’s almost halfway through the game and proberbly isn't worth the effort.

So a generally disappointing title, but my lack of enjoyment stems from interesting reasons. I think I may replay all of those mentioned modern-classic shooters, pick a particular ten minute highlight from each, and map out why they work so well. It would be interesting to see if there are any reoccurring factors that provide a key to shooter success. In the meantime 'GTA IV' is going to supply a much needed booster injection to my gamer veins and hopefully get me all happy and excited about picking up the controller again.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Game Consoles, the Third Parent




Here’s a thought. Children grow up playing games from a very young age these days, and proberbly spend more time playing than they do listening to their parents. Due to the existence of different consoles, and the common limitation amongst children of only having the choice of owning one for a five year-odd period, is it possible that the console may effect their upbringing like a third parent?

I have a friend who primarily grew up with Nintendo consoles. Nowadays he wants to become a graphics designer, wears brightly coloured clothes, has an overwhelmingly positive personality, still watches cartoons and seems essentially allergic to cursing. Meanwhile I grew up with the PlayStation brand, and as such often display a more bleak perception on life, wearing black shirts and grey jeans, possessing an obsession with Scorsese pictures, swearing quite fucking often to be honest, and seeing the idea of getting shot at a young age as a pretty damn cool way to go. Essentially, when he thinks Italian, he thinks Mario. When I think Italian, I think Tommy DeVitto.

My mother proberbly wouldn’t approve.

Monday, 24 March 2008

Trouble in the Pits?



‘Gran Turismo’ is a classic racing franchise, the best selling racing series in the world, and a name that triggers fond memories in the hearts of virtually anyone who simultaneously has a slight interest in cars and videogames, a demographic I firmly count myself a member of. Come this Friday, I’ll be able to buy ‘Gran Turismo 5: Prologue’ for the PS3, an oversized demo / undersized game that will provide a taster for what to expect from developers Polyphony Digital next year, and I’m looking forwards to picking it up. But this time I think they’ve struck upon a problem, and although it's unlikely to effect their sales figures, (‘Prologue’ has already turned platinum from pre-orders alone), it may leave some of the more thoughtful of racing fans a little confused.

What is ‘Gran Turismo’ in the year 2008? Back with the first installments release in 1997 the question would be easy to answer. “It’s ‘the real driving simulator’ you nitwit”, people would have proclaimed, and it would have been hard to argue against. There was nothing that could touch the ‘Gran Turismo’ games in terms of depth and realism on home consoles for many years. But today with the option of ‘Forza Motorsport 2’, with its more detailed physics system and car damage, and PC alternatives like the GTR series which offer even greater hardcore simulations of motorsport, GT has fallen somewhat behind. Truth be told it doesn’t feel much different from earlier games on past consoles. Visually it’s on top of the world, but when it comes down to the race its simply outclassed. Okay, so then it’s an arcade game right? Not really. I can hardly see the ‘Burnout’ crowd finding much relation between the two. I personally think the franchises new opposition is the ‘Project Gotham Racing’ series, a point directly in between the barriers of arcade and simulator. It’s just Polyphony don’t know it yet, or just won’t admit it.

The thing is they’ll have to make a decision between the two if they want the golden crown. ‘PGR’ knows it’s a semi-arcade/simulator, and let’s itself exaggerate elements of the driving experience that a straight up sim could never get away with, like for example encouraging you to drive sideways. Do that in ‘Forza’ and you’re in the tires and at the back of the pack. ‘Gran Turismo’ has the sterility of the simulation but with the wall-bouncing, dodgem-bumping and premature down-shifting of its arcade counterparts. Is it Keira knightly with glasses, or Hillary Clinton in fish nets? It’s jarring whatever way you look at it.

Polyphony Digital CEO Kazunori Yamauchi once said he doesn’t play other racing games. I believe this could be his biggest mistake. Does he want GT to be known as "the 'Real' Driving Simulator" or a "My First Driving Simulator"? I guess it'll sell millions either way, though I personally find myself pre-ordering for the visuals rather than the gameplay. Maybe I'm on my own here, but that's the impression I have this console generation. Nonetheless I’ll be admiring the steering wheel stitching by the end of the week, and posting up my impressions within the days that follow. And for arguments sake, here’s a side by side comparison of ‘Prologue’ and ‘PGR4’. I won’t say anything, but leave you to decide how much difference there is between the two.


Gran Turismo 5: Prologue




Project Gotham Racing 4

Sunday, 16 March 2008

‘Telling Them How It’s Done’, Inc.



Our videogame entertainment industry is going through an unsure period of change and expansion. The Nintendo Wii and DS have opened our once predominantly hardcore audience to reach the ‘casual’ and ‘non-gamer’ demographic. The birth of digital distribution on home consoles has opened up the possibilities of small scale projects for cheap download on such sub-platforms as PlayStation Network and the recently launched WiiWare service. On the other hand, the largest of publishers are joining hands in industry domination, such as with the Activision-Blizzard merge and the recent Take Two takeover attempts from Electronic Arts. PC gaming is both dead and on the cusp of total domination, according to who you listen to. Independent games have reached fame and attention previously unheard of, but is it just a temporal popularity faze, or a looming revolution waiting to pounce at any moment? The near future is uncertain for us gamers. That’s the only thing that seems to be a guarantee.

It got me thinking, how could everything work out? What interests me most is the small game / large game invisible war, and how / if the two can co-exist in harmony. I’m not a games developer, and nor am I a reliable industry annalist, but here’s a little structural idea for how things could perhaps run smoothly, in the form of a naïve description of a non existent game company.

Lets give this company a name, something nice sounding and pleasant on the tongue. [Sits swirling his hands around while making swishy lip movements.] Erm, how about…Genie Rivara. Like a river of genies, but the word river made to sound more…Greek. Okay, this company has, say, 150 employees, divided into four key teams. Two teams consist of 50 developers each. They work in separate but parallel offices, and work on large budget releases for multiple platforms. They also bring in the most cash, and use the most up. Although the two projects are separate, ideas and tech are shared between the two. You could see this as similar to how Insomniac and Naughty Dog used to help each other out despite being completely independent from one another. Both of these two teams are led by a creative luminary, you know, one of those admired chaps who have lots of cool ideas, like Miyamoto or Kojima or Molyneux. They’re excellent at keeping everyone together and making a consistent finished product.

The remaining 50 guys (and gals) are divided in two again, maybe even quartered depending on the product. These small scale teams make small budget releases for download, like the PixelJunk guys for PSN. The important thing here is that they are not used commercially, but purely for experimentation. The big releases bring in the cash, securing the smaller teams with as much money as they’ll ever need for completing their projects. They’re encouraged to be as wild and creative as they possibly can, in a completely risk free development model. Occasionally, they’ll strike on something really great, something similar to a ‘Portal’ or an ‘AudioSurf’, which may even make a little money. But the important thing is that these innovations in game design are fed up into the larger teams across the hall, which can now incorporate these creative ideas into a larger budget product without the chance of it being unpopular. Finally, big budget games can incorporate crazy and experimental ideas without so much of a risk of screwing up their sales. If Valve were to make ‘Portal’ into a full priced, big budget, 20 hour game, it would no doubt sell. We can assume this because of the popularity of the original ‘Portal’, a small-scale release by a bunch of students who didn’t need to make millions of clams to cover the costs of development.

The company runs this creative cycle year after year, self publishing its games, maybe through its own independent download service (like Steam). These offices are also really nice to work in, with a private cinema room for late night screenings of French New Wave and other arthouse works to inspire new ideas. They’ll also be a games lounge with a roof that slides open during the summer for ‘outside gaming’, so as to keep people breezy and stuff. Let’s not forget the gym, and perhaps some weekly open debates on game design. Jonathan Blow would be invited to teach them of how to do things in new and progressive ways. Maybe I’m getting carried away now.

Still, it kinda works, doesn’t it? I’d happily work at Genie Rivara any day. And that name was my idea, remember?

Friday, 14 March 2008

The Pixel Diaries - Ratchet & Clank Future Edition



This one took a little while longer that I would have liked, seeing as I got caught up with work for most of last week, but alas, the game is now done. My impressions of this are very similar to my previous impressions of Uncharted (is that really the last game I played before this? Oh my), which can generally be summed up as a great looking and perfectly constructed game, but lacking in anything new or special that makes it at all a memorable experience. Each planet, which there are 20 of, are unique in their design and take around 30 well paced minutes to work through, but none really stand out as particularly wowing or spectacular, nor did any provide a real challenge, though I can’t be bothered with getting stuck when I’m trying to play PS3 catch up here.

But, as I said of Uncharted, ‘Ratchet Future’ provides a great introduction to ‘the power of PS3’. In fact I even went as far as to load up the original ‘Ratchet & Clank’ on the PS2 and switch between the two games with my remote, and let me tell you, it crushes any debate over whether this generation has really advanced in visual terms. They’re a world apart, to the point where it becomes almost unimaginable as to how you could ever stand to play a PS2 ‘Ratchet’ game at all. On the other hand, they control exactly the same. I gave the first level of ‘Ratchet & Clank’ a quick blast through right after completing ‘Tools of Destruction’, and the most noticeable difference in gameplay is a lack of a strafe button. Everything else plays and stays exactly the same, which isn’t particularly reassuring when you consider that this is the fifth game in the series. Then again, Insomniac pretty much mastered platform gaming back in the ‘Spyro’ days.

I generally did enjoy playing through it, even though it provided nothing new, and I certainly don’t count it as a waste of time. But as with Naughty Dog, I just hope they do something more special in the future. Personally I think it’s time for a new direction. ‘Spyro’ ruled the PlayStation era, ‘Ratchet’ only got better through the next, but now is time for new characters and a new world to explore. In the meantime, the next on my list is Insomniac’s other game, ‘Resistance: Fall of Man’, which I’ll hopefully have rounded off within a week from now.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

The Year of Playing Dangerously




As I’m sure most people are quite aware, the fourth addition in the Grand Theft Auto series is due to hit stores worldwide by April 29 after its most out of character delay several months ago. The series has become undoubtedly the main event of the second half of my gamer years, and so this is a pretty damn important event for me. I’m imagining that a lot of people reading this, who I suspect (hope) are from the more intelligent side of the gaming crowd, have proberbly got a few bad words to say of my beloved franchise, and you know what? I proberbly agree with them all. But no matter how “shallow” or “scrappy” or “dumb” past games may have been, I have to admit that some of my most intimate and emotionally immersive experiences I’ve ever come across have occurred within the realms of GTA. In fact, I fail to be able to think of a real life place that brings back as much nostalgia and good memories as happy old Vice City. I was barely alive in the 80’s, yet through that game I now have a very personal connection with everything that decade stood for.

But enough of the past. The latest GTA aims to fix everything that past games did wrong. The “quantity over quality” attitude has been reversed, and the gameplay and details are predicted to be as refined as they come, and all wrapped up in a damn fine looking engine. As per normal in the build up to a GTA, I tend to “prepare” myself for the countless hours I’ll be in company with the game world by doing a little background research and leaching off every info leak I can get my hands on. Seeing as this title seems to focus on the Eastern European crime scene, I’ve already done some reading into the Russian Mafia and aim to get hold of a few of Sam Houser’s named influences, including last years Eastern Promises. I’ll be memorising the names of the characters and streets revealed so far, as well as the names of the cars and guns that’ll be helping me along in Niko’s pursuit of the American dream. Expect the Xbox 360 to be sealed off a week in advance to avoid any cursed Red Ring of Death moments (my last console died on me two weeks before Halo 3), and the PS2 to get a quick encore while I familiarise myself with the series history.

I love these times in gaming. I’ve looked forwards to a lot of films and music over the years, but nothing can quite have the hands shaking in anticipation like a good old sequel to an aggressively marketed videogame franchise. To think that in a couple of month’s time I’ll have an entire map of a virtual city permanently indented into my memory banks, and all from the comfort of my own chair. Yet again, I seriously cannot wait.

Friday, 7 March 2008

Uncomfortable Viewing




The other day I visited the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) as part of a film studies trip in London. For those unaware they’re the guys who caused the 'Manhunt 2' kerfuffle last year, resulting in the game being band in the UK. They didn’t say much about it, seeing as we were there for the films, but some things did strike me. Firstly they mentioned how they only ban things that break the law. Secondly that they only banned two works last year, the other being a foreign film about toddlers killing people. Okay, the toddler massacre thing may have broken a few rules on the treatment and wellbeing of child actors, but what law was 'Manhunt 2' breaking? The lady giving the presentation (who was very friendly, like an old librarian, but not afraid of saying several “fucks” when covering the ‘language’ section), didn’t say much on the game other than it was very bleak, and was only about killing. Still not breaking any laws though. Bah, we ain’t missing much anyway.

Other than that she mostly showed clips that had been cut out of various releases due to their inappropriate content, which was kind of cool, and ironic. I also nearly exploded from needing a piss. We got the train down and didn’t stop walking till we arrived there, where the presentation hastily began, so no chance for a toilet break. It was one of those times where it’s so bad you actually nearly cripple yourself, stomach and back tense, hands shaking, struggling for breath. I sneaked out half way through after discovering there wasn’t going to be a designated break for another hour, and ended up standing over the urinal for close to five minutes. When I returned I found myself strolling to my chair with a swagger, overwrought with confidence and pride as if I’d just slaughtered a giant bear. Total prick…

It’s also worth mentioning that the presentation was filmed to be put on the official BBFC website, so there’ll be me, struggling and squirming away at the back, smiling politely. What was interesting, and equally non game-related, was that (awesome Korean film) 'Oldboy' was apparently edited by the BBFC to remove the scene where he eats a live (actual live) octopus, due to animal rights and what not. However, my DVD of the film at home, which was purchased in a leading British entertainment store, has the scene included. I considered pointing it out to her, but duly decided against it in case it got people into trouble. Oh, I also saw one of those life-sized Big Daddy models in an electronics store hidden round the back. And I got kissed simultaneously on either cheek by two young Indian looking girls while waiting outside a Subway. Yup, still got the magic … or aids.

Error: Epiphany





I was recently thinking about this little blog, and found myself wondering if a) ‘Is this the right approach?’ and b) ‘Is there any point to this?’ The first question was easy. No. The second was less simple. This is meant to be a game criticism blog, a strange subgenre of gaming blogs that I enjoy reading but ultimately have doubts as to whether any serve much greater purpose. We complain, we compare, we invent, we love on and we hate on. Will it change anything? Unlikely. Will it eventually stumble upon the key to the perfect game? I find it doubtful. So what do ‘I’ and others alike get out of reading and making them?

I guess it has on some levels given me a greater appreciation of videogames as a medium, although I often feel we’re reading into things that aren’t there. I’ve been introduced to more overlooked games that I wouldn’t have stumbled upon otherwise, and I’ve learnt a lot of little gameplay ideas which, not being a games developer, are kind of useless for me to know about anyway. So okay, it feels a little hopeless, this isn’t a professional blog, and nor do I want it to be. My true interest lies in the world of film and directing anyway, not games development or journalism. But maybe this’ll work if I look at answers to the first question, my approach.

I don’t think I’m being personal enough. This is a blog, not a commercial site, but I’ve gotten in the habit of writing in a way that is reminiscent to that style. This post is proberbly the first where I’m just rambling from my mind rather than structuring as if creating a school essay. I also find this place sterile, lacking in humour. Maybe that links in with the ‘personal voice’ thing, with me previously deeming jokes not appropriate for ‘serious game criticism’. I hate that term too! I feel like too many of these blogs focus only on ‘criticism’ and leave out the ‘appreciation’. Games are meant to be fun, and that’s why we play them. Maybe we only start complaining about ‘lack of emotional depth’ and ‘shallow stories’ when we forget about that. Let the films and books do that side of things, which they’ve mastered so well. Perhaps we should keep the games purposely shallow and devoid of intellectual merit, treat them as entertainment, not art.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this, but expect things to change a little from here on. I’ll try and be more personal, more casual, and funny. I'll try and talk more about the good things and less of the bad. And gone are the times where I force myself to sit down and think of something to say. If nothing comes to mind, then no updates. I also want this place to open up to what’s happening in the game world more, rather than essentially talking out of any context as to what’s going on out there. I don’t want to give up with this, not because there’s exactly anyone who’s gonna be let down, but because I think it could be enjoyable if I can get the hang of it. And it looks pretty.

I’ve already got a list of game blog writers who I generally respect, and I look forwards to what they’ve got to say. Starting this place has given me more of an appreciation for what they do. It’s a nice little online community that I wouldn’t want to leave behind so soon, so I’ll see how things turn out.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

A Life in Silhouette

It’s been a while since I last posted due to a build up of work suppressing my thinking and writing time. I haven’t had the time to write anything significant, but I decided I wanted to get something out there nonetheless. This year I’ve been paying more attention to the growing indie side of game design, and have come across some truly incredible works. I still consider myself very new to the scene, but the following is a small selection of unreleased independent games I’ve really grown excited about. I can guarantee there’s plenty more upcoming games that’ll blow my mind which I haven’t stumbled upon in the indie blogs yet, but for now, this is what’s seriously impressed me so far.

Love




Eskil Steenberg
PC
Website

‘Love’ is a “first person not so massively multi player online procedural adventure game”. I have to admit, I’ve not played one of those before. It’s a game where it’s impossible to describe until something more significant is shown, but the website gives the impression of a small scale MMO where the player has control over the form of the environments around them. It seems personal, with an emphasis on ‘love’ instead of ‘combat’ (although who knows what the final game may include?) What makes it stand out is how stunning the world looks. That isn’t concept art above, that’s in game.

Braid

Jonathan Blow
Xbox Live Arcade
Blog

Blow had done enough on his time-bending side-scrolling platform puzzle game two years ago to secure himself the ‘Innovation in Game Design’ award at IGF, but has since been fine tuning his creation to perfection. He describes his game as “filler-free”, and after listening to hours of his various public lectures I don’t doubt his word at all. He really seems like a man who has an insurmountable knowledge of game design down to the smallest of details. What’s more, the art is done by David Hellman, famous for his work on the critically acclaimed and visually incredible webcomic, ‘A Lesson is Learned but the Damage is Irreversible’. That’s a partnership!

Lila Dreams

Creatrix Games
PC
Website

Creatrix Games is a three man team who aim to make a two dimensional MMO platformer set in the mind of an eleven year old girl named Lila. It’s these kinds of ideas that make the independent scene so compelling to me. Stepping past the genre clichés of level grinding, magic spells, dungeon rats and orcs, this Flash based game incorporates more original ideas than I can care to list. Check out their useful blog that has already detailed much of how the game will work. Nothing has been shown yet apart from concept art, so stick with their site for updates as they come.

Night Game


Nifflas
PC
Website

Nifflas became one of the most cherished independent developers with the creation of ‘Knytt’ and ‘Within a Deep Forest’. I’ve spent some good time with ‘Knytt’ follow up, ‘Knytt Stories’, and came away with a deep appreciation of the teams talent with art and music. ‘Night Game’ is there mysterious latest project. Not much has been shown yet, but we do know it’s set in a 2D world and is physics based with the player controlling a ball. Judging by the two screenshots released, Nifflas only seem to be improving on what they’ve accomplished so far.

Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet


Michel Gagné
PC
Blog

Michel Gagné is a cartoonist, and has been involved in several films for Pixar and Disney over the years. One of his latest projects is this fantastically titled side scrolling shooter. It’s by far the most ‘traditional’ game on this list, but also potentially one of the most impressive. I suggest you take a look at the short trailer found on the official blog to see how much a creative art direction can do for classic gameplay.

Flower


ThatGameCompany
PlayStation Network
Website

After ‘Cloud’ and ‘flOw’ comes ‘Flower’, the game where you apparently play as … a flower. Little has been demonstrated since its announcement at 2007’s Tokyo Game Show, but I’d imagine it’ll be more of the minimalist gameplay style found in the team’s previous and excellent work. It reminds me of the ill fated ‘Pollen Sonata’ that almost made it to Wii before everything collapsed in on itself and the project was cancelled. Don’t expect this to fall down the same route. There ‘will’ be a flower/adventure genre by the end of this year.

Limbo


Arnt Jensen
PC
Website

There really isn’t anything I can say about this, other than the teaser on the site looks incredible. It’s been compared to 'Ico', and it has the same highly stylized silhouette look of several other games on this list, which seems to be a trend I’m not going to complain about. As far as I know the game has been in development for a couple of years and nothing else has been said or shown since its birth. In fact, I have no reason to believe the game is still in development. Nice if it is though.