Which game do you think is the winner of this holiday season?

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

The importance of death...

Peril is a crucial part of most story telling.  Even though we all know that there is very little chance that the protagonist of our favourite stories can fail in their journey, it's very important to believe that they might.  Whether it's Harry Potter at the end of JK Rowling's books or Frodo at the end of the Lord of the Rings, we need to believe they could die..

What's got me thinking about this is the distinct lack of peril in games.  For example, I love Skyrim and have spent around a hundred hours in the remarkable world created by Bethesda.  As my level 50 warrior strolls around clad in Dragon Bone armour with swords and shields suitably enchanted, the chances of me meeting anything that should even begin to bother me is minimal.  However, even early in the game the thought of backing away from a confrontation is virtually zero. Why?  Well, if I should die when charging brainlessly in to battle then I simply reload from a few minutes before and avoid the battle entirely or approach it in a different way.

Anyone who has played a Call of Duty game online is well aware that people charge around like they're Superman, shooting anything that moves for 10 minutes or so and likely get killed by nearly as many people as they kill (everyone would of course tell you their Kill Death Ratio is much better than 1:1 though).

Imagine if you will though, walking across one of Skyrim's beautiful vistas and seeing a dragon circling on the horizon but instead of charging in fearlessly, ducking behind a tree and hoping the majestic beast hasn't seen you.  Why?  Because dying in the game has real consequences.  Perhaps even the permanent death of a character that has seen you through 50-100 hours of gaming.

The joy inherent in this tension has struck me following hours spent playing XCom: Enemy Unknown and indie hit FTL (Faster Than Light).  In both games death can be a genuine consequence of making poor choices.  In XCom my 15 hour, 70 kill, top level Heavy Colonel could be brought to an untimely death through one simple and poor move on my behalf leaving a genuinely somber tone as you imagine poor Colonel Wang's little children.  Recognising this emotion Firaxis have taken a step further with their global Facebook Memorial Wall found here.  The level of feeling attached to what should be virtual cookie-cutter soldiers wouldn't have felt nearly as touching had Firaxis made it easy to keep these characters alive or reload an earlier save.

Now, I'm not stupid of course and realise that most gamers would be put off in an instant by perma-death of a 70 hour RPG character or if death in Call of Duty multiplayer meant a 24 hour lockout of the multiplayer component but perhaps there should be an option or rewards for selecting this most hardcore of hardcore gameplay styles.  I worry that without it games and gaming lack an edge of excitement that they could have.  

The Walking Dead by Telltale games managed to make you fear death throughout its first season and never left you resting on your laurels.  Perhaps this is why the game has garnered such positive reviews and the delight in not knowing who would make it to the next episode kept many playing (and voting it as their game of the year).

I know that this is a post that will mean nothing to most and in fact, death is becoming less and less of an issue in gaming.  From near constant autosaving forcing the loss of a few minutes of game time in most games through to the actually impossible to die 2008 Prince of Persia game (which was excellent), the aim to gather more casual gamers will likely make death more and more unlikely.  I just state for the record, I would like more peril in gaming as it's what makes story-telling exciting.

As always, love to get your comments and thoughts.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Faster Than Light

Thanks to Gamespot.com, I've recently discovered another Indie gem in Subset Games' FTL: Faster Than Light.  The game is a mix of Serenity and Star Trek with your motley band of space farers fighting pirates, collecting scrap and surviving through the battles and text encounters you face.

The game consists of choosing a starting ship, naming it and your crew and setting off with a message of vital importance to the federation.  What the message is, I have no idea, but it's vitally important so me and my crew better get moving.  When you start the game (and in each subsequent system) you are confronted with a collection of stars you can jump to.  Each jump leads to a text based message and often a choice of help, fight or flee as you approach the exit to the next system.  This is combined with a system of upgrading your ship and improving your weaponry and an improving crew which leads to an engaging brand of short burst gameplay.  The graphics are presented in a blocky 16-bit style and most of your time will be spent looking at a plan view of your ship as your crew get to work.

This is a simplistic explanation of a deceptively difficult game.  Death means a restart of the whole journey, not just a return to an earlier save which, whilst frustrating at times, adds tension in a world of infinite respawns and no lose gaming.  An average game lasts anything from 10 minutes to an hour or so and restarts are quick after a long journey through space ending in a terrible disaster because of an angry mercenary or a broken oxygen creator.

The game does at times get a little samey and, in spite of the developers arguments about 25000 lines of text, I found most of the mini-stories basically the same.  This is a little trite though, like saying Tetris was a bit repetitive.  Of course it was but something about the core gameplay is compelling with enough choice and new upgrades to make you feel like a commander of a starship.  

I was driven to think of some of the most enjoyable times I had in Mass Effect whilst simply interacting with my crew (no, not like that you with your dirty mind).  I found the characters in Mass Effect often engaging and enjoyed building the time spend building relationships with the ship and the games cast some of the more engaging sections.  FTL manages to capture much of that heart in an indie way.  Sure your little self-named crew are given less character by the writers as they run around the little ship but the story you can build is an often compelling one.

There is a bit of me that wonders if this sort of gameplay could work in a AAA or perhaps Live Arcade/PSN quality title.  With a bigger team and a few tweaks could this have mass appeal or would it simply be lost in a world of big budget titles.  

I've wanted a game that is more about the journey than the goal for quite some time and FTL manages to go a little way to doing that.  After all, life isn't about where you end up, it's about how you get there.

The Good

  • A bargain price tag of £6.99 (UK) or $9.99 (US)
  • Compelling core gameplay that keeps you coming back for more.
  • No game has made you feel more like Captain Kirk or Mal Reynolds.

The Bad

  • Slightly repetitive scenarios.
  • Would benefit from a bigger storyline or more longer quests.

(Zom)Believe in Steam

In a very short update to an earlier posting about Project Zomboid by The Indie Stone, good news all around as the game has been Greenlit by Steam to launch on the platform.

In a short post on their site, the developers thanked the fans for getting it through the Greenlight scheme and for all their support.  They do warn however, that it's a long road ahead to getting it released on Steam but I'll keep my eyes peeled.

I think the game is clearly an enjoyable and engaging game and look forward to a Steam supported version.

See my earlier write up here.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Deadlight Review

Deadlight Vancouver image

In what is developing in to a zombie based theme (in my gaming or in gaming in general?), I've recently played Xbox Arcade title, Deadlight.

The game is a 2D side-scrolling puzzle, adventure, platformer in a similar vein to previous Xbox Arcade game Shadow Complex or Limbo.  It casts you as the near instantly forgettable, gravel voiced protagonist Randall Wayne in a far less forgettable 1980s Seattle.  The world has been ravaged by some undefined virus and (for a change) people have been turned in to 'shadows' (read zombies of the lumbering George Romero style).  As an aside this game suffers that peculiar zombie game, film and book issue, in so much as they call them shadows not zombies.  We've all known about the idea of zombies for a long time now, why do characters in zombie fiction seem to have so much trouble identifying a name for these humans that rise from the dead and eat flesh?  Anyway, quite enough of that.  If the recent spate of zombie based games hasn't put you off yet then you'll be fine with this.  I still prefer zombies since the Twilight series managed to ruin vampires AND werewolves for all but mid-teenage girls.

As you would expect from a team that includes former employees of Weta Digital (Peter Jackson's studio), the graphics in Deadlight are fantastic and the game looks consistently beautiful.  Looking a little like Limbo with its dark silhouette at the front and drab, well realised vistas behind.  Also, whilst it is a 2D side scroller for the player, the levels do have depth with Shadows approaching from the background and on rare occasion flitting across the foreground to spark a little jump.  The graphics manage to convey a strong atmosphere and the game is mildly nervy and well designed throughout.

Deadlight's story is standard horror film stuff and even the 'shocking' finale doesn't shock quite as much as it thinks it does.  I found it hard to particularly care about the generic protagonist or barely fleshed cast of characters.  There is nothing here that you will remember beyond the end of the game (and you might not particularly remember it whilst you're playing).
The gameplay itself is a mix of platforming and puzzling and both fall a little short of being great.  The gameplay is marred by clunky controls that require slow animations to be completed before carrying out more moves.  This led to often swinging my axe a number of times as the game slowly responded.  It also often led to my death, in particularly when requiring a precise wall jump and Randall didn't respond to my presses in time. 
The puzzles are often fairly simplistic with a clear direction to your jumping and moving of boxes etc...  Any gamer who is even mildly accomplished with this sort of gaming will find nothing too taxing in the move the box/flick the switch based puzzles.

Most deaths in the game are due to a distinctly trial and improvement method.  Perhaps Tequilla Works had taken their 80s setting too seriously and decided that we needed a 20 year throw back in game design to control pad smashing frustration and cheap tricks.  Perhaps games these days are too easy but they generally feel like they're playing fair.  Playing Deadlight did remind me of the frustration of cheap deaths that couldn't be predicted and it wasn't a memory of gaming I particularly wanted to recall.  I guess this replay of sections following an array of cheap deaths does add some length and it's worth noting that this game is short, and I mean VERY short.  My playthrough clocked in at under 2 hours with an 85% completion and secrets found.  At a cost of 1200 MS Points (a little over £10) it's not cheap for such a brief experience.  But even though it was short, I wasn't left craving more.

Sadly it's hard to recommend Deadlight without reservations.  From a combination of shaky controls, a mostly seen it all before story and short campaign Deadlight is a game with a number of problems that fails to live up to some of the previous Summer of Arcade greats like Braid, Trials HD and the earlier mentioned Limbo or Shadow Complex.  There is an experience worth having here though and if you're not put off by the price, length and some likely control irritations then it's probably worth a go in these game starved summer months.  After all, it won't take long.

The Good
  • Beautiful graphics throughout.
  • An enjoyable and underused 1980s, North West American setting.
  • Zombies again.  Yay!
The Bad
  • Very short for it's 1200 MS Points price tag.
  • Unresponsive controls can lead to a number of frustrating deaths.
  • Trial and improvement gameplay.
  • Zombies again. Boo.

Average performer

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

DLC the Future of Gaming

DLC Playstation Store

Recently I have been playing Skyrim: Dawnguard and Civ V: Gods and Kings, both good DLCs in a world of mixed output.  With the advent of online consoles has come one addition to the hobby that is both a blessing and curse.  DLC (downloadable content) began on consoles with the Dreamcast and Xbox but, since the advent of large hard drives and broadband internet on the 360 and PS3 has become a completely necessary income stream for almost all developers.  Gamespot journalist Guy Cocker recently stated that DLC was his worst 'advance' of the current console generation and I have to agree in large.  Here are some of the good and the bad of the DLC history.

The Good

Some meaty DLC has released over the years for a variety of games.  Most of the good DLC is lengthy and adds a large amount of new content.  Adding content that hasn't been possible in the history of gaming is a good thing.

GTA IV's The Lost and the Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony both added lengthy, new stories and new weapons to the excellent 2009 game.  They came in 6 month intervals after the release (timed exclusively to 360, more on that later) and they weighed in at a fairly weighty 1600 MS Points (around £12).  In similar hefty story DLC, Bethesda released the Dawnguard expansion for Skyrim.  Adding a new story, game area and weapons amongst other things to Skyrim it is certainly on the good end of the spectrum but weighing in at 1600 MS Points, my first few hours have been slightly disappointing.  This could be because Skyrim is so incredibly generous with its content (that I doubt many have completely finished) that it's hard to be overly impressed by what is offered.  Also from Rockstar was Red Dead Redemption's Undead Nightmare.  A DLC that offered a whole new story, game areas and completely new play style to the Wild West epic.

Also something positive about the much-maligned EA (really)!  The recent Euro 2012 tournament would normally have brought a full game with a full price tag to UK and European stores.  In an interesting change EA released the Euro 2012 tournament as DLC for last year's Fifa 12.  At a pretty reasonable £15.99 (1800 MS points) added stadiums, kits, commentary, game modes and a Euro 2012 skin to the game.  I have to admit to not having played it but believe it is a reasonable addition that is certainly better than the full retail World Cup games of the past.

The Bad

Most of the bad for me can be summed up in one (long) word - microtransactions.  Games companies, and perhaps gamers, seem to be convinced that spending a small amount on something fairly useless or pointless is quick and impulsive.  It is a system that has worked to great effect on the App Store and iTunes where 69p games are bought in huge quantities.  I'm not writing about whether the business side of it makes sense, I'm wondering whether it is good for gaming. 

From the infamous horse armour to costumes for everything in many games microtransactions exist in most games in some form or another.  A recent piece of work by Gamesradar.com, showed that buying everything for PS3 hit Little Big Planet 2 weights in at an astonishing £304.65.  How much of this content could have (should have) been included in the original game or at a vastly cheaper cost?  Is this purely about monetising and exploiting hardened fans of any series.  The release of map packs has become regular big business for the likes of Call of Duty and Battlefield 3 and the recent influx of 'Elite' season pass systems means charging in excess £35 for an unspecified number of map packs and various other advantages.  Without the access to map packs it can create something of a haves and have nots society on line and for those who want to be included in clans and groups the pressure to buy is large.  The upcoming Fifa 13 is set to trial micro DLC by charging customers to download classic kits amongst other things.  Unnecessary but certainly something that taps in to a fans desires.

On disc 'DLC' is another controversial aspect currently hitting the gaming industry.  Capcom sparked controversy when admitting that 'downloadable' characters were actually included on the disc and unlocked on purchase of a download code.  Whilst the anger around this centred around paying for something that had already been bought, I think people missed the wider problem.  Capcom aren't going to start giving these characters away, they are simply going to not include them on the disc and then release them as genuine DLC in future.  The wider issue is the holding back of finished content to release it at a later date.  Where is the line with this?  Ridge Racer Vita released at a reduced price and you bought the content you wanted.  Buying all of this content meant that the game eventually weighed in at a regular Vita game price (£30.84) and I guess there is an argument for buying the game you want, tailored to your desires.  This is a confusing addition for more casual gamers however and perhaps serves to make gaming more hardcore in an age of more casual games.

The final bad for me is exclusivity of releases.  Again I'm sure that this makes great business sense for Microsoft and Sony but can leave consumers left out.  Many consumers can only afford one console and the idea of timed exclusive content for a game that is out for multiple consoles it does cause me some concern and widen the console divide. 


DLC is here to stay.  It makes too much money for publishers for it to go anwhere and sadly microtransactions and 'freemium' gaming (free game and paid microtransactions) might become an increasingly regular business model. Freemium is already regular on mobile games and Cevat Yerli CEO of Farcry and Crysis developer Crytek, believes that free to play games are the future.  Microtransactions will be necessary to compete in most games.  Will this lead to a total cost that out weighs the current off the shelf cost of games?  If it does, will it be a development that kills the industry as people feel that they can't compete unless they're willing or able to pay lots of money? 

I'm already concerned by the direction single-player, story based gaming is going as online multiplayer becomes a more important business model to combat trade-in.  If companies are able to make huge amounts of money by releasing identikit, microtransaction based games then what will the future hold for single player or offline experiences? 

As always, your thoughts about free to play games would be appreciated and replied to.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Holy Lego Batman 2 Review

With a distinct lack of Vita specific reviews around for this newest release from Traveller's Tales in the Lego series.  The game is obviously a follow up to the first Lego Batman game and let's start by saying it plays exactly like other Lego games I've played.  If you've played Lego Star Wars, Harry Potter or Batman before then you'll know what to expect.

Despite some of the misleading write ups on sales websites (including Amazon), the game does not include an open world Gotham City as the full console versions do. The game is instead based on the PSP and DS build of the game.  This heritage shows itself particularly in the cut scenes that play out in a startlingly low resolution that look truly horrendous on the Vita's beautiful OLED screen.  This is a great shame as the comic story telling is truly a joy in the modern, hyper violent game world.  The dynamic between Batman and Superman is consistently amusing with Robin's idolisation for The Man of Steel only adding to Batman's irritation.  Whilst the resolution is incredibly poor they are still watchable and fun.  One slightly jarring sign that the game is shoehorned together from other ideas is the fact that characters in these cut-scenes will at times be wearing costumes that not only were you not wearing at the end of the stage but that don't even exist in the Vita version of the game.  It's this sort of shoddy work that makes the game seem a little like an insult to Vita gamers.

Instead of the open world the game is played out in continuous stages with a Bat Cave hub accessible at the end of each stage to create characters and enter game modes such as Justice League and Freeplay.  Whilst it is a shame that the game lacks this mode, there is a feeling of, 'If it's not broke, why fix it.' and the level to level gameplay is fun. Without having played the full console version it's impossible for me to say how much of a loss the open world and vehicles etcetera are.

The graphics in the actual game are good and look very close to the console version of the game.  Things have the usual Lego charm all around and the stages are nicely designed with enough density to keep you collecting for some time.

The talking minifigures actually added to the story sections for me and didn't make the game lack charm as many have complained.  Much of the humour is still apparent and the nice dialogue is added to the clever physical comedy that Traveller's Tales Lego games are so famous for.  Sound in general is a little tinny but this is largely a problem with the Vita itself and is cleared up a lot with a good set of headphones plugged in instead of relying on the onboard speakers.  Traveller's Tales have certainly put some effort in to the voice actors including big game voice actor Nolan North and Hollywood 'star' Clancy Brown.

One of the game's strongest points is the fan service that it pays.  I'm broadly a superhero fan and dozens of DC Heroes and Villains show up at some point.  From the expected arrival of the likes of Superman and The Penguin to the slightly more obscure Captain Boomerang and Hawkman the game is littered with heroes and villains.  The opening chapter alone has The Caped Crusader plouging through a large number of villains in quick succession.  The first time Superman arrived gave me a little buzz of joy with the familiar John Williams score and flapping red cape.

Overall this is a lazy port for the Vita.  As it's not Traveller's Tales first Vita release (Harry Potter Years 5-7 is already out), I would have expected a little more effort from the company.  From the low resolution cut-scenes to the lack of any open world it is a great shame that more effort wasn't put in.  The Lego game magic is still here in spades.  It's a fun addition to the Lego series and as a superhero fan it was an enjoyable way to spend some portable time.  I hope that future Lego games (I'm looking at you Lego Lord of the Rings), port the big console version to the extremely powerful Vita and not leave portable gamers with a watered down version.

The Good
  • Great fun gameplay (and replayability) that's good for the whole family.
  • Enjoyable cut scenes.
  • Stacks of great DC Universe characters.
  • Any game worth playing on the Vita is a good thing.
The Bad
  • Lack of the Gotham City open world from the full console version.
  • Terrible resolution on the cut-scenes.
  • Lazy port of PSP/DS version that lacks love and attention.

Must try harder

Monday, 18 June 2012

Do online sales make sense?

Due to the paucity of Vita games at my local major supermarket and my incredible inpatience I took an unprecedented move in my gaming history and last week paid full price for a digital download of Gravity Rush.  The price was pretty reasonable clocking in at £29.99 when the boxed product of the game seen in HMV a few days later was £34.99 without the DLC that was included with the download product but I did immediately suffer a touch of buyers regret. 

The game itself is fantastic (I will post a review in a few days) and the purchase itself isn't what I regretted, it was the digital purchase. 

According to a recent BBC story digital downloads now account for 25% of gaming sales and gamers by their nature are surely one of the first demographics to get on board with this sort of purchase.  PC markets such as Steam are doing very well with convenience and reasonable pricing (particularly during regular sales) but there are several things that don't tally well for me with the way consoles are selling their products.

Firstly, the cost.  Boxed products must be physically created, shipped around the world and sold from stores that demand a cut of the profit.  Why then is the cost of a digital download usually very similar or often more expensive than boxed products, particularly when sold through online retailers.  Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo can obviously take a bigger cut through their own online stores but a quick comparison of best prices found online and Xbox Live or PSN is included here:

The difference is quite striking on this fairly random selection of recent releases and top sellers climbing as high as a ridculous £30 difference.  

Second problem (and the one that should make publishers want me to buy digitally) is the lack of ability to trade in.  For gamers whose income is limited the ability to trade in is surely a must and when digital downloads cost as much or more than boxed products why would people buy them.  My copy of Gravity Rush sits on my memory stick and can't be loaned to friends or traded in.  The money is spent and never to be seen again.  I don't trade in a lot of games these days and have a growing collection of boxed games on all of my home consoles but I know I could trade in any of them if I wanted to.  Pre-owned games is currently big business for high-st retailers, generating billions of pounds worth of revenue worldwide. Money that isn't making it to the games creators or publishers.

The third problem for me is the actual lack of a boxed product.  As a gamer I quite like having the product on my shelf, showing an impressive collection of games.  I also like having the instruction books and 'stuff' that go with buying a boxed product.  Where would I be without my lovely big map of Skyrim or Liberty City to help me find my ways through the early days?

Another issue is the worrying existing of who holds the digitial rights to downloaded games.  Amazon's Kindle faced ownership issues when it digitally deleted two George Orwell books over copyright issues.  Could Microsoft or Sony pull an Amazon and delete or remove a game if an issue becomes a problem?

Finally the actual cost falls to me for providing a storage medium.  This is less and less of an issue but with the cost of a PS Vita memory card costing £25 for an 8 GB card it only takes a couple of games to fill this.  My aging 360 that came with a once adequate 20 GB hard drive is struggling to have room for the DLC I want, let alone full games.

What benefits to digital download? 

It means that I can get the game I want, when I want with very short wait time and without getting off my couch.  Online stores demand a wait for delivery although this is negated slightly by the fact that preorders are often shipped and arrive before or on release date from major online retailers.

The only other benefit I can think of is being able to get difficult to find games.  Vita games are currently very poorly stocked at most stores near me and I live in central London and my 'local' stores are flagship Oxford St outlets of Game and HMV.

Now I understand that PSN or Xbox Live is simply selling at RRP but why are the games manufacturers shackling themselves to a price that other retailers simply do not.

At the moment console manufaturers are slightly beholden to games stores and undercutting them completely is probably not wise but at the moment they're not even competitive.  With the vast difference in boxed prices of games and downloadable games and the actual product that you buy, downloadable games on consoles are a tough sell.  I would doubtlessly be more tempted to make online purchases of big titles more regularly if they were more reasonably or competively priced (I'm as lazy as the next man). 

I do worry about a time when console manufacturers take the choice out of gamers hands.  With the ill-fated PSP Go, Sony ventured in to the digital download only market.  The iPhone and Android devices are proving that games can be sold en-masse to gamers in downloadable form.  What's certain is that games companies are trying to take more control of their own market with the increasing prevalence of extra codes to play games online and the rumours that just won't go away about one use games on next gen-consoles.

If games were noticablly cheaper through PSN or Xbox Live then I would buy more games from them as price is without doubt more important to me than the other issues I've mentioned here.  Let's hope that the future of our industry sees good changes to the way games are sold and pricing.

(*All prices taken on 18/6/12 from PSN, Xbox Live, Shopto.net, game.co.uk and amazon.co.uk)