Monday, 26 October 2009

Moan, Moan, Moan... and Moan

By Morgan

I’ve recently been trying to write an article regarding the current Infinity Ward Dedicated Server malarkey, however I find myself struggling to provide anything other than what’s already been said. Therefore during this article I’m going to moan about Activision.

Robert Kotick can’t seem to get enough of controversy at the minute. Here is a man at the head of one of the top gaming publishers in the world, a man who is in charge of so much responsibility and a man who for his own reasons, seems to hate the gaming world.

First he announced the rise in pricing for Modern Warfare 2 with copies reaching up to the dizzy heights of around £55 per console copy of the game. This was shortly followed by a complete contradiction of his former views claiming that due to the high price of the Playstation 3 and its accessories, Activision didn’t feel it was a profitable platform to produce games for. All of this coming from the man who watches Guitar Hero (a game with a plastic guitar) sell millions of units with each going for up to £100 in the United Kingdom on release. Seemingly not content with angering the console and pc crowds, Kotick recently made a speech at the 2009 Deutsche Bank Securities Technology Conference in which he claimed the future of video games (more specifically, game development) was one “without fun”; a nice choice of words there from one of the most powerful men in gaming.

Kotick doesn’t seem to realise that the games industry is an entertainment one, built on the foundations of fun. Imagine if he was in charge of cinema and film distribution. Would every film be a low budget, art house piece of crap where we sit and watch a girl drink, smoke and cry for 5 minutes whilst a man pats her on the shoulder? Probably, but heh, if we take out the fun all we’re left with is mind numbing boredom and drawn out references to social problems (for those wondering about the above, it’s probably daddy issues). The problem is that if said film sells out he’ll be encouraged to make more (unless he’s Uwe Boll, in which case he will just make more...).

As the industry grew it was always likely that management types such as this would take an interest and it’s a shame to say that we as gamers may have brought this upon ourselves. Who else remembers the days of demo’s, shareware and (dare I say it) free games! It was a time in which people were just expected to have fun and nothing else. Nowadays it’s all about addicting the consumer to a concept, rather than allowing them to just enjoy something.

Games such as World of Warcraft rake in millions ever year and although enjoyed by gamers, one has to ask what exactly it gives people over other games? An epic story? Great characters? An amazing setting? Endless replayability? You could probably tick some boxes however a lot of questions remain. Endgame raiding for example just screams endless repetition to me and can it really be called replay value when you’re paying money for the game each month? Sure fans may love it, but for me, the growing price of the game over time does not make it a worthwhile investment. Compare this with a game such as Dead Space that cost a maximum of £40 on release (Around 3-4 months of World of Warcraft, not including the price of the boxed media), a game that attempted (and succeeded) to revitalise the horror genre. Despite its great reviews, the game encountered poor sales EA and had apparently considered scrapping the brand until they saw the cult following it had developed. Companies seem to be in favour of scrapping innovation in return for a profit, and it’s something people like Kotick are really pushing for. The problem is that shareholders and investors are seeking profits and are likely to agree with him, thus forcing the industry down a very bad road.

Before someone says it, piracy is NOT the answer. But neither is shelling out large amounts of money on games that are using their name to generate interest. Just look at FarCry 2, what a crock of shit that was. Look for innovation, look for fun and through buying these games we can hope to show the industry that fun is the way forward, that fun is what the consumer wants when they’re spending their money.

Maybe a Modern Warfare 2 article next week. Maybe...

Uncharted 2: A new era of gaming

The Critical Alien

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

I've never actually said this before about a game. Uncharted 2 has blurred the line for me between film and game. Finally, after years of gaming highs and lows, a game hits that does pretty much every single thing right. There isn't any issue with the game. There isn't any blemish that erodes its greatness. This, my friends, is as good as gaming gets.

Whenever I play Uncharted 2, which I've completed twice now, my reaction is always the same. It plays like a movie. Ever since the first 3d titles, games have attempted to mimic and recreate film. Set pieces have always been an attempt to portray cinematic moments. As far as I'm concerned, gaming has, since its infancy, been on a journey of catch up with film as a narrative medium.

I guess Half Life 2 was perhaps the first example of this boundary dissolution between the two. In that, characters were lifelike and there was never a differentiation between cut scene and game. Steven Spielberg, the CoD4 whore, even commented on this and believed this was where games needed to be heading in order to reach the next level. Uncharted 2 is surely the first game ever to cross this boundary. Personally, I think GTA IV was close but didn't quite make that jump.

Beyond the characters and dialogue Uncharted 2 is simply an excellent game. The level design is homed and never overly fleshed out. The action is tight too. The cover system is perfect, and works online, as is the cool melee system and climbing mechanic. Even the enemy A.I seems flawless. They make an effort to flank you, use cover effectively, hurl grenades, and even retreat.

I honestly have tried to find flaws here. If I was being picky, I'd say that perhaps the last level lacked the sheer wow factor of mid-game stages. This is such a straw man though. Perhaps the only thing that can be said about Uncharted 2 is that it could do with even more co-op levels. The co-op isn't linked to the single player, a good thing, but with only three levels to play through with mates you soon plough through it. However, more are likely on the way in the form of DLC.

The multiplayer is generally excellent. Matchmaking is here but works well for this sort of game (not for stuff like... oh MW2 on PC). There are also other co-op modes for up to three players such as a fun and unique gold rush mode and standard survival. This game has also opened up the Playstation Network to new great things that Xbox Live users have grown accustomed to. Now all we need is cross game chat ;)

I don't want to go on about Uncharted 2 too much for fear of coming across like a fanboy. I don't care what console this game is on, nor do I care if it could or couldn't potentially run on an Xbox 360. All I know is that Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is one of the best games I've ever played on any format.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Infinity Ward and the PC Community

My Photo


Well, as a new contributor to the site my first post will be on a topic that's quite big right now in the PC community. Namely Infinity Ward's decision to take away dedicated server support for their new title Modern Warfare 2 (you may have heard of it).

Now before I get flamed by the console crowd be aware that I do own all the current gen consoles and handhelds bar the DS Lite cos I sold that a while back. I chose to play many of the multi-plat games on the PC and if it was a console only game the PS3/360. I do not play FPS on the consoles if I can help it, mainly due to the control scheme but also due to the match-making. As a matter of fact I choose to play my FPS and most other games on my PC because I find p2p match-making botched and very often laggy - something which dedicated servers alleviate.

Personally I don't know why Infinity Ward decided to get rid of the dedicated servers instead of having both match-making and dedicated servers. It's not like they're mutually exclusive methods of getting into a game. Also I cannot understand why they did not go for a 'master server' which EA did with Battlefield 2142 where there were stat tracking and had a log-in system in order to prevent pirated copies playing online. This worked fairly well in my opinion and whilst not perfect (stat-padding etc.) it still supported dedicated servers which many PC gamers prefer.

Of course I know many console gamers don't know nor care why the PC gamer crowd (or most of them from what I can see) are so uptight about this change Infinity Ward has made to Modern Warfare 2 but for me it's simply this: they've taken away the online advantages of playing online with the PC which hinges around those dedicated servers and lag-free gaming. That and now that the player cap has been reduced from 32 players to 16 to account for the p2p connection which in my eyes means less fun with more players in games. Some may not see it that way but the value proposition of the game has suddenly plunged four-fold so far.

The fact that Infinity Ward says that these changes were made to cater to the 'casual' and 'moderate' COD4 player is somewhat of an oxymoron. Such players either do not mind the server browser or don't exist. Those that found PC COD4 intimidating have either moved past the difficulty curve of choosing a server (which, let's be honest, if you can install a game on a PC and configure it you won't have much trouble at all) or have moved on to the console scene. I do not think that COD4 nor MW2 will ever be a 'casual' game by any stretch of the imagination and therefore saying that such a gamer exists on the PC is both an ice-thin argument and laughable.

It is a sad state of affairs overall in the PC community and I can't see this getting any better anytime soon. There were other avenues Infinity Ward could have taken to combat piracy (which will always be a problem on both the PC and 360) but the lack of choice of method is one I cannot accept. On a deeper level I do not like the fact that they have waited until now to announce these changes to the PC community. One could say they knew that there would be backlash and wanted to quietly slide this under our noses so near to release, especially if the claim that they have invested a lot of time and money into this new system. Surely one would think they'd want to shout about it from the rooftops if they honestly had believed that IW.NET would be a resounding success?

As many I don't think I will be buying this game and have instead pre-ordered Borderlands which I had not before since I had assumed all my gaming time would've been taken up by playing MW2. It's sad to think that within two years Infinity Ward has changed it's tune so drastically regarding the PC community; from their stance on supporting modders and dedicated servers (see here for an interview with Grant Collier) to the poor excuse of catering for players that either do not exist or are the distinct minority of PC gamers. That and the lack of information about IW.NET this close to release does not alleviate my concerns for the tone Infinity Ward are taking towards PC gaming in general.

For all those who are interested, please sign the petition here and show your support. As of writing it has reached 156744 signitures. If anything it will show Infinity Ward how many people's toes they are treading on with this decision.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Clash of the mil-sims: A dragon is rising

I'm not even convinced there is such a genre as the mil-sim. There is really only one true fully fledged military simulation game and that is Operation Flashpoint and the Arma series. There isn't anything else out there that is even remotely comparable to those Bohemia titles. However, it is clear that the tubes speak of the mil-sim nowadays like it is a defined category of game. The reality is that most realistic war games are closer to tactical FPSs. The mil-sim is something more than just that. It is a sandbox open world where a multitude of military vehicles, small arms, and disciplines can be played, tested, driven, and destroyed.

I was going to talk about Arma2. My review of it didn't quite finalise what I had to say. However, Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising has now hit and I've decided to combine my opinion on this new game with what I have to say about Arma2.

The reception Dragon Rising has received seems to be pretty negative from the perspective of the community yet rather positive on the reviews front. This is because no matter how hardcore a games reviewer is, writing for a well known website or magazine, they are not in the same obsessive league as those true mil-sim aficionados who will spend hours arguing on youtube over whether or not the Chinese fire green tracers or not.

Dragon Rising is all about accessibility. Arma2 is more a toolkit for smart people. Dragon Rising aims to bring the mil-sim (or in other words the original Flashpoint template) to the masses. In my opinion, this has been achieved. Console players seem to like the game. It is easy to learn but not so easy to master. Arma2, on the other hand, is hard to learn and hard to master. It is just hard. I love Arma2 though. But I also love Codemaster's new take on the mil-sim.

Sadly, most of my gaming buddies don't do sneaking around in the bushes with night vision goggles on. They're too busy grinding in caves or surviving onslaughts of the undead. I did manage to get one pal onboard for my tour of DR though. Using neat virtual LAN software to get over the problems with the game's influxed master server, we hit some co-op. We aren't yet close to completion but I've seen enough to know that DR is a quality game.

DR is alot like the original Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon before Red Storm Entertainment got shafted and Ubisoft borked the franchise in the GRAW series. You can't muck about. Enemies will catch you out and cleverly flank you. The key is in applying realistic doctrines to your assaults and behaviours in game. This is why I like DR: because using real world tactics actually achieves outcomes. Even Arma2 sometimes fails to achieve authenticity when it comes to stuff like this. Enemies won't be pinned down by suppression for example whereas in DR they will be suppressed if you sustain enough covering fire on a position. They also run away and even play dead. Gunfights are dirty affairs but when things go to plan it feels oh so great.

It all reminds me of Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway. This was a vastly underrated game that adopted the same system as DR. This is squad based combat and it is homed for that. Co-op for up to four players is what DR is all about although the A.I is workable.

Arma2 is a different sort of experience to this because Arma2 is realistic in ways no other game attempts to realise. If DR is hollywood realism then Arma2 is just realism. Hardcore mil-simmers want full realism. Most gamers want a mixture. Me, it depends on my mood and that's why I have both games on PC.

The editor that ships with DR for PC is simply incredible. It's probably more sophisticated than Arma2's one and is certainly much easier to learn. However, CM made a pretty big mistake with regards to hosting your mission files. In order to play them with people, you must manually send them the files first. Not a big issue but I personally loved showing random players in Arma2 my crazy attempts at a mission.

There is also a 64 object limit for the editor in DR. Clever people will overcome this (CM are sure of it) but it requires proper scripting knowledge in the LUA language. This means that DR's accessibility doesn't quite put a lid on the complex ambitions of mission makers out there.

There is no denying that Arma2 is the real Operation Flashpoint sequel. It is also a far more ambitious game. However, DR is still a good game though. It isn't as good as Hell's Highway (and if that game had co-op I'd be in heaven) and it really feels like a console game but it's sound, tactical stuff. It also achieves a greater sense of immersion than Arma2. This does fall short with classic console coding limitations though, such as enemy bodies vanishing after 30 seconds.

In summary then. What I'm saying here is that it isn't that Arma2 is a mil-sim. It's that Arma2, and other Bohemia titles, are the only mil-sims. Dragon Rising is a tactical FPS and a rather good one. Ultimately then, there is no clash going on here. Personally, after all is said and done, I'm left wondering what could have been if Codemasters and Bohemia had never parted company. As a fan of the original Flashpoint from 2001, I still feel that the polish of Codemasters as publisher combined with the genius of Bohemia as developer is what both these games ultimately lack in order to be classed as truly great games.