Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The AvP Conundrum Part II

In part I, I discussed my personal history with the AvP franchise, as as what's right and wrong with it in my eyes. In part II, I'm going to discuss how I think the ideal AvP should be.

General gameplay: Instead of some specific incident seen from three different points of view, thestoryline should evolve organically, similar to GTA IV, with many "side quests". Initially, the playerwill start out with a specific task, then certains events will unfold which leads the player to see a grander scheme, if you will. The latest AvP has a good thing going with the specifics of how you control the three species and I would definitely keep the light attack/heavy attack system. However I think the insta-kill should be much harder to pull off and I would even utilize some quick-time events to give the prey a chance to escape. This way you actually need skill to insta-kill someone and even then, it might not work. Furthermore, you wouldn't be confined to a specific compound or spaceship, rather I would unleash the player onto an entire planet, with a map on the scale of Fallout 3 or Armed Assault. This will cast off the shackles that previous games put on the player. I would also adopt the "landmarks" or "point of interest" concept from Fallout, so you can basically "quick travel" from one place to another once they've been explored. Of course, in a game like this, the planet must be teeming with life, most of which will be hostile. This way, the player won't get bored by lengths of trekking. Speaking of life, AI will be absolutely vital. The game should generate random wildlife, which should interact with the environment and each other. Imagine playing as a Predator, you spot some nasty alien wildlife that is clearly a predator in itself. As you move in for the kill, you can see start to stalk prey of its own. You witness it take down said prey and start feeding. Now that its guard is down, you move in for the kill. Speaking of the Predator...

Predator gameplay: The general theme amongst all three species is they should all play like their movie
Was sneaking off to take a piss worth it? Hmmm?
countparts. For the Predator, imagine being able to stalk and eliminate a combat patrol one by one or
facing off with a large beast in a clash of titans. It hasn't exactly been established how much damage a
Predator can take, but you shouldn't be able to take a squad of guys in a toe-to-toe fight. Therefore you
will have to stalk them, wait for one to break off and take a piss or create a distraction, perhaps by recording their voices and playing it back to them like in the films, to divide and conquer them. To eliminate the urge to pick them off from a distance, there should be an "Honor System" (something similar was featured in the very first AvP for the Jaguar), where you get zero honor for a shoulder cannon attack and maximum honor for close quarters kill. This not only makes the game more interesting, but it is faithful to the source material; Predators don't attack unarmed or harmless prey and they will fight hand-to-hand instead of using their shoulder cannon whenever possible. While you might not get honor for a long range kill, you can still salvage some by sneaking in and stealing the body for a trophy. So you should get bonus honor for taking trophies and/or for performing the classic "skin-your-prey-and-hang-them-upside-down", which maybe you can use as a scare tactic for prey you're stalking. Speaking of scare tactic, human and other prey AI should have a level of "fear" and/or "panic" that varies depending on a range of circumstances. Furthermore, it shouldn't be uniform because, to put it bluntly, some people are braver than others, so they're far less likely to lose their cool. On top of that, human prey should be tricky. Very tricky. For example, after losing some members of their squad, the remaining Marines will realize what's going on, and perhaps set a trap for you. So let's say you're tracking their movement by switching to infrared and looking for warm footprints etc., you're lead into a tripmine booby trap if you're not paying attention, or you're lead into a bottleneck, open for an ambush. Or, perhaps like in the movie, they attempt to snare you, Boy Scouts style. When stalking, the game should be programmed to allow for the squad to escape, basically letting them disappear into the jungle. This way, when you make a kill, they run and disappear and  you'll have to hunt them down. Essentially, when you find a squad, hunting them becomes a "mission" and each kill is a "chapter" in that mission, possibly involving a cutscene between kills to setup their escape. In the end, all this creates a sense of accomplishment when you finally manage to wipe them out. To eliminate any kind of lull between kills, you can take time to hunt other wildlife, this is what would necessitate having an environment teeming with life. For healing, the Predator should have a healing kit just like the film and to heal, the player needs to play a mini-game. The amount you heal correlates to how well you played. In multiplayer, I would replace this with the more traditional means from previous games.
All that said, your overall "goal" would be as simple as "Perform the hunt, your goal is X amount of honor" then let the game unfold from there. The player will get a chance to clash with local fauna (hell, maybe even some nasty flora), humans that might be on the planet, maybe even stumble upon an Alien hive. Specific quests can be picked up which can lead you to other locale such as a military base, caves, a spaceship... anywhere really.

Alien gameplay: For the walking weapon that is the Alien, there should be a healthy mix of teamwork and lone wolf action. The cool thing about the Alien is that it can be realistic (relatively speaking) for one Alien to take out many opponents or for it to take many Aliens to take down one or few opponents. It all depends on the circumstances. Therefore, the Alien campaign should be very story driven. It might first start out as collecting hosts for the hive, then later you stumble onto a Marine base or camp, so the queen commands all Aliens to attack. At that point you'll be part of a swarm, which can play out like a large battle that can be somewhat random but also have some scripted events. So, for example, maybe there's a heavy gun emplacement, might be manned, might not. Maybe the Marines try to evacuate via dropship, maybe they make it, maybe you stop them in time. Maybe they have sentry guns, but, as a scripted event, one of your swarm mates is able destroy the control panel in one of the bunkers, or maybe not and they fend off the attack. Maybe the Marines are prepared and the queen orders a retreat and a new plan. There are dozen of variables in that scenario alone. Imagine dozens of Aliens attacking a Predator camp as seen in the 2010 film "Predators". Maybe you decide you have what it takes to take the camp by yourself, ninja style.
Who IS this poor bald guy!?
Another neat feature of the Alien is the fact that it takes on the features of its host. There is a lot of potential in this arena. Perhaps there can be a system where you can capture some local wildlife, bring it to the hive to be impregnated, then choose to "switch over" to the Alien that's born. New weapons, new opportunity. Now maybe you can attack that Marine camp again as some kind of giant rhino-esque Alien. How about a flying Alien? Wouldn't that be something? Oh, or a burrowing Alien! Additionally, this can add to teamplay by having the RPG-esque roles. Some hosts might birth a "tank" Alien, another a "DPS" Alien, another a "healer" Alien and perhaps another that births some kind of acid-spitting "ranged damage" Alien, as seen in the latest AvP game as well as both Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection.

Marine gameplay: Squad-based, squad-based, squad-based! This is something previous games did completely wrong. The "lone wolf soldier" gimmick was fine in Wolfenstein 3D, but it doesn't work nowadays and it certainly doesn't work in the AvP universe. It's also somewhat of a dicotomy, because, other than the player, the humans are potrayed as fodder, for the most part. So how are we to suspend disbelief when a lone Marine has the ability to take down dozens or hundreds of Aliens and even some Predators when the source material has always indicated otherwise. Sure, one guy did kill the Predator in the films (after the Predator slaughtered many) but that's the exception more than the rule. Since 1986, thousands of fans have dreamt of being in a squad of Colonial Marines and not one game has ever delivered that. That is a crying shame, so it's time to deliver (that said, look out for Gearbox's "Aliens: Colonial Marines" in 2012!) The Marines will need to be in some kind of conflict to have the setting make sense. According to the "Colonial Marines Technical Manual", the US is at war with China. That can easily be worked in. That way, it makes a bit more sense to have Marines patrolling an enemy controlled planet looking for the Chinese as opposed to looking for alien killing machines. Missions can vary as much as they do in real life. So, imagine you're on a patrol and you and your squad are attacked by a pack of Aliens. Besides the usual "bang bang! boom boom!", there needs to be a squad leader screaming orders. Squadmates should be yelling confirmations as well as things like "There more coming this way!" and the like. The Aliens should be fairly easy to kill and should not charge in right away. Why? Because imagine if the Aliens were all running in at full speed, then all of the Marines would run backwards and fire (or die) and it would all turn into a clusterf*ck. They addressed this in the latest AvP game; they had it so the Alien would come at you at a decent pace, not too quick, then leap sideway when it took fire or stumbled back from direct hits. This impeded their progress towards you. I would keep this feature, but make the Aliens more numerous. So, what happens after the attack is over varies wildly depending on what happened. Maybe you one Marine died and you move on, maybe 5 Marines died and you try to head back to base. Maybe just the squad leader died or maybe one member of the squad has some kind of breakdown. There might be some heated dialogue between two or more members of the squad. All these things create a very cinematic experience. You can get emotionally attached  to the different personalities in the squad and be genuinely pissed/saddened when he/she dies.
Yeah! Bald guy gets some payback!
It might sound like you're going to be patrolling a lot, but that's one mission example. Missions can vary as much as they do in real life. You might go on a demolition mission, rescue mission or seek and destroy. What you run into along the way can be different everytime you play. Instead of picking up guns along the way, you can choose your role in the squad which in turn will determine your role in the mission.
Aliens vs. Predator 2's Marine campaign had a very interesting sequence towards the end where you're being stalked by a Predator. You see him pointing his target laser at you, then disappearing. Then a few seconds later, you see him leaping from one rooftop to another up ahead. This is the closest I've ever come to feeling hunted. That needs to replicated, then turned up to 10. As discussed in the Predator gameplay section, the Predator needs to stalk you. So again, you're on a mission. A squad member takes  piss and disappears. You try to contact him via radio... nothing. The Predator took him, so the patrol turns into a search party. At this point you might see the Predator watching you from a tree, performing the "disappearing eyes" then vanishing. Then later you'll see him leaping between two boulders, only for a second. Or is it your eyes playing tricks? Maybe you'll find your missing friend skinned, hanging upside down. This showcases why it's important to have a good AI. The Predator needs to have a sophisticated "stalking" mode. There also would/should be many scripted events, but the overall campaign will be sandbox in that you accomplish objectives however you want and no two playthroughs will be the same. You may encounter certain lifeforms or not, depending on many variables. So, if your squad is going down a hallway, then an Alien pops out of a vent and grabs the guy in the back and tries to pull him in, maybe you make it in time to rescue him via quick time event, or you don't and he's taken. You load your last saved game and try again and  this time, maybe the Alien doesn't pop out at all. The world is your sandbox.

That's it for part II, in part III I'll discuss mulitplayer and other game modes as well some other must-haves.

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Friday, July 29, 2011

The AvP Conundrum Part I

If you take two beloved sci-fi franchises, each one being an absolute brilliant example of science fiction, entertainment and overall a milestone in popular culture, and put them together, you would think that you have a sure fire hit, right? Get Aliens and Predators and put them together on paper, PC, console or a movie screen and it's surely destined for greatness, right?
What the f... weak!
Specifically in the video game world, nobody has really been able to really make an Aliens vs. Predator game that really became great, like to the level of household names like Halo or Gears of War. In fact, nobody has even made a very successful AvP game. Of course, the definition of "successful" is up for debate, but I would say that no AvP game has been able to break through that proverbial glass ceiling that only a handful of franchises have. I find this sad... and a bit pathetic. How can you put together two phenomena so popular and beloved and not be able to smash said ceiling to bits? Let's focus on the three games made from Rebellion (oddly enough, all three have virtually the same name), as they are considered the best ones.
Oh, s**t's goin' down!
In 1994 when I was 9 years old, I practically defecated myself when I saw the article for "Alien vs. Predator" in my "Game Players" magazine (which I still own). The article included screenshots that made me realize it's a first-person shooter, not some crappy side-scrolling beat 'em up like the first two games to carry the AvP moniker. Not only could you be Predators or Aliens, but you could be my heroes: The Colonial Marines! I jumped for joy! Then, my heart was torn to bits when I read it was an exculsive for the Atari Jaguar. I didn't own one and I didn't know anyone that owned one. In fact, nobody owned one, which is why it was such a complete failure. So, despite a good critical reception, this game was doomed to fail financially, just like every other Jaguar exclusive. I ended up playing it several years later in late 90's, when the emulation scene started to flourish. I remember the emulation being less than perfect, but good enough. Maybe from ages 9 to 13 I had mentally built up what Alien vs. Predator could be like, so unsurprisingly I was disappointed. Yeah, it was different and a solid FPS, but ultimately the poor presentation ruined the atmosphere which, in turn, ruined the game. The sprite animations were poor, the sound was terrible, the level design uninspired... it just felt bleh. Maybe I was spoiled by having just finished Half-Life, I don't know. Really, a good AvP game cannot be made with 1994's technology, but at least they tried.
Apparently, in 1994, infrared was a big
orange mess.
Luckily, not long after I found out "Aliens vs. Predator" for the PC was set to be released in 1999. I read any and all gaming magazines to find out as much about the game, that was surely to become my favorite of all time, as possible. At the time, the internet wasn't quite at the point where you could find a plethora of articles and features on any game you typed into Google. In fact, I had never heard of Google in 1999, I believe I was using Lycos. Then, in my issue of Computer Gaming World (notice all the name-dropping?), I read that Aliens vs. Predator will require a 3D accelerator. This was unheard of! Some games recommended them, sure, but required!? Luckily by this point in my life, I had a healthy PC game piracy ring going as I was the only kid that was both a PC gamer and an owner of this deviced called a "CD burner" Ah, simpler times. So, after selling several games at 10 bucks a pop I picked up my 3Dfx Voodoo3 3000 AGP, I was ready to go.
Kudos to you, Rebellion.
I still remember my amazement during my first playthrough. The atmosphere was spot-on; I was terrified to move forward, my heart thumped as I slowly made my way down ridiculously dark corridors, I freaked out at every blip on my motion tracker. The sounds were straight from the movies (mostly) and gameplay was unique. Being able to blow limbs off of aliens and have them come at you was groundbreaking. All three species' campaigns were a blast. The multiplayer was awesome, and although it was a bit unbalanced, it kept me going for years after release. It even had online co-op and was one of the first FPSs (if not the first) to do so. Online forums were getting big at this time, and I was a big participant on AvP forums and on MPlayer. Oh yeah, I was definitely one of those annoying 14 year old kids. Later on, mods would come out and would keep me going even longer. This game was amazing. Unfortunately, it was a bit overshadowed by other games of the day and really wasn't quite the success that it maybe could have been. Additionally, despite my massive fanboydom, I always felt this game wasn't quite "there". It was awesome, but not anywhere near its potential. At the time I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but I just felt this tug in the back of my mind that really kept me (and apparently most gamers) from putting this game up there with Half-Life, Doom and other "name brand" FPSs. I now realize why, and I will get to that in a minute.
So, ten years (and one okay but disappointing non-Rebellion made AvP2) later, "Aliens vs. Predator" was released. Again, the atmosphere was captured pretty well and all three species' campaigns are a blast. The sites and sounds are wonderful. There is also a decent amount of multiplayer game modes. However, this time, the species of Alien, Predator and Colonial Marine are horribly unbalanced, even worse than before. The Aliens and Predators have the ability to "insta-kill" their prey if they can either stun them or get behind them. It's a very cool feature that really adds to the presentation of the game; instead of running up a clawing their opponent to death, for example, the Alien will pick them up and ram their secondary mouth through their skull. Very cool. However, the circumstances that enable the "Press E" command are extremely lenient; I can't tell you how many times I've turned around face to face with an Alien who then does his from-behind insta-kill. Basically, a Predator or Alien player can run around spam the E button and rack up kills fairly quick. The Alien can see players through walls and can run on any surface, so, thanks to level design amongst other factors, they have the greatest advantage. Playing as the Alien takes little to no skill whatsoever, so a skilled Marine player won't be able to outkill even a n00b Alien player. The Preds and Marines aren't just fodder by any means, and really the developers were probably sticking to being faithful to the source material, so it is what it is. Couple this with the fact that everyone spawns all over the map at random, multiplayer can be quite the clusterf*ck. Other multiplayer modes, like Infestation and Predator Hunt, aren't so bad, so I give kudos to Rebellion on their third attempt. Anyway, the game came out to mixed reviews and good sales. Cool, so there's still money in the franchise, which means more AvP games which always makes me a happy boy. Still, even the latest title is not quite "there", just like before. So, what is it? What is this missing attribute that been holding down the franchise?
AvP evolution
The thing that the boys at Rebellion and other dev studios don't seem to realize, is that the concept of both the Alien and the Predator are not conducive to linear gameplay. In other words, it must be free-form! Think along the lines of GTA IV or Crisis. To truely get your head around the experience of being one of these nightmare creatures, you must be free to do what you want and go where you want. You can't be restricted to certain small areas. Yes, it would be a grand undertaking but something as huge (or at least it used to be huge) as Aliens vs. Predator deserves no less. In fact, a great AvP game for the ages must be a grand undertaking because, despite the innumberable disappoints of the past, fans have built up in their minds what an AvP game should be like, just like myself some 17 years ago prior to the release of the first AvP. To meet these huge expectations, a huge game needs to be developed.
How can something like this be done?

In parts II and III, I will discuss general gameplay as well as species specific gameplay. Stay tuned.

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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Retro Respawn: Tyrian 2000

It's possible to consider Tyrian the perfect game. It has a flawless mix of action and humor with excellent replay value. It's also quite possibly the best top-down airplane/spacecraft shooter of all time. Taking place in the distant future, you play as Trent Hawkins, an ace pilot working for a huge, evil corporation. Said corporation kills your best friend and parents, at which point you embark on a lengthy adventure featuring revenge, escapes, twists, backstabbing and stuff blowing up spanning 5 episodes. The plot itself unfolds through transmissions you receive between missions. Following the plot is entirely optional and doesn't affect the gameplay at all. So whether you're a "story guy" or not, you're set. If you DO follow the plot, you will really get an appreciation for this game's humor. Amongst the plot driven transmissions, you will run into ads for silly future products as well as reference to other games from Epic like One Must Fall 2097 and Jazz Jackrabbit.
*pew pew pewwwww*
Odd for this genre, you can actually take some heavy damage before you go down. Your shields, which recharge at a rate depending on the strength of your ship's power source, need to be depleted before you take hull damage. Your shields, power source and hull are upgradable, so later in the game you'll be able to weather some serious punishment. That said, don't expect to fly through (get it? FLY through? Eh? Ehhh??) this game with little effort. Enemies will be able to take (and dish out) heavy damage as well.
Feel free to browse.
Like others in the genre, you can upgrade your ship and its weapons. You have one forward weapon, one rear weapon and two "sidekicks". The sidekicks fly next to you and have limited ammo. They're not firing all the time, however, and have dedicated buttons for firing them (Q and E). They also don't have to be the same as each other; you can purchase left and right sidekicks separately. The weapons and sidekicks can range from mainstays like vulcan cannons and homing missiles to crazy omnidirectional star bursts and flamethrowers. Trying out every weapons combination in one playthrough is near impossible.
There are many game modes, including Arcade Mode which takes out the plot elements and shopping for upgrades with money turns into in-game instant powerups. There aren't as many weapons as story mode and you can't upgrade armor, shields or generator, but in this respect you're outfitted with a decent ship from the beginning. Additionally, the multiplayer (2-player co-op) is a fun, not to mention different, experience. Both players essentially control half of one ship, designated "Dragonwing" and "Dragonhead". Dragonhead is the small and maneuverable, yet fragile ship while Dragonwing is, naturally, the big, slow heavily armored ship. They also have abilities and power-up unique to each other. When joined together, they form "Steel Dragon", where player 1 controls the ship whilst player 2 controls the turret. It's a blast!

Many top-down shooters originated in the arcades, so they're inherently difficult; designed to eat up your coins. Tyrian isn't so hard that you want to rage quit, but it certainly isn't easy. You really feel a sense of accomplishment from completing a level. The fast paced gameplay prevents you from ever using the word "boring". Even by today's standards it's an action-pack title and there really are few things in life as pleasurable as having hoards of enemies mowed down before you by your awesome firepower.

Sure, the *bang bangs* and the *pew pews* are solid, but the music of Tyrian is a defining feature for the title. The effort and passion from the composer is blatantly evident. In most video games, the music nice, but forgettable. Then every once in a while a game comes along where the music becomes part of your life. I mean, who doesn't know the tune to Super Mario Bros? Can you imagine where Contra and Castlevania would be with mediocre music? Tyrian's music is brilliant; something you would listen to even without the game.

By 1995 standards, the visuals were good. By today's standards it's still pretty. The scrolling background is highly detailed, the enemies even more so. Weapons like lasers and flamethrowers look lasery and flamethrowery, respectively. Movement animations inherently don't apply to top-down air/spacecraft shooters and that axiom holds true for Tyrian. Ships move around, deadly things come from them, they have maybe 2 or 3 frames of animations, nothing fancy but not certainly not bad.  The visual style is timeless and the resolution is high enough that even on big, modern monitors it doesn't look too pixelated. 

Between the many game mode, the multiplayer and the plethora of hidden minigames, there is plenty to do. Nowadays, it's all fairly standard in a good game, but for its time, the developers really went out of their way to provide more game content than most titles of the day. You l33t hax0rz out there can even grab the art and source code, because that was made public near the end of the 2000s. Thus, Tyrian has been ported to many platforms.

Given the sheer amount of weaponry and other upgrades in the game, by the time you finish the story mode you usually want to play again just so you can try out more weapon combinations. Challenging yourself to play "Super Tyrian" mode will keep you going for a while and the 2-player co-op is still fun, even by today's' standards. In fact, you can play this classic with a friend over the Internet (although it will take a little research into how). I still find myself play Tyrian 16 years after I first experienced it.

Tyrian is very well rounded, especially for the genre. It's a PC gaming landmark and really, is a legend in its own right. I would recommend this game for any gamer and since it's now freeware you really have nothing to lose. The pick-up-and-play value is incalculable... in fact, I think I'm gonna go play me some Tyrian.

Scoring is done on a scale of 1 to 5, overall score is the average of the first 5 categories. Scores are defined as:
1: Completely horrible.
2: Below Average, doesn't even meet the bar.
3: Average, what you would expect, nothing more nothing less.
4: Above average, developers really went the extra mile.
5: Pretty flawless, little if anything can be improved,

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Sunday, July 17, 2011

East Vs. West

Let's turn the clock back about 13 to 15 years. Back then, there were many now-legendary video game franchises that were involved in both hot competition and cold war. Street Fighter was the king of the fighting franchise, but there were many hardcore followers for SF's competition. The SNK titles like Art of Fighting, Samurai Showdown and the star-laden King of Fighters were huge. Midway's Mortal Kombat series was putting out best-seller after best-seller. Later on, Namco's Tekken series started to take the fighting game world by storm.
3D adventure games like like Crash Bandicoot and Banjo Kazooie were making a big splash with 3D Sonic and Mario titles as well.
Doom and Duke Nukem were the shooters of choice, later on Unreal would join the fray.
As a gamer in the 90's, you had a myriad of awesome franchises to choose from. The dorkier of us would get together in our parents' basements and, between gaming sessions despite the warm sun outside, possibly debate fantasy match-ups.
"Who's better, Mario or Sonic?"
The future...? *Sigh* If only.
"OK, if Doomguy and Duke Nukem fought in an arena, no weapons, who would win?"
"Alright now what if it were an urban setting and they both had their respective full arsenals?"
"Ryu vs. Kyo. Go."
Even today I can get together with any gamer and debate fantasy grudge matches between anything really. Comic book characters, athletes, video game characters, cartoon characters... it's all good.
Thankfully, it seems that some game developers like to do the same. Instead of doing it over a couple of beers, they actually go out and make the games to see our fantasies come true!
We received a small taste of this in the late 90's with X-Men vs. Street Fighter. While both SF and X-Men: Children of the Atom were games made by Capcom, X-Men is a Marvel intellectual property so it was really cool to see these two groups duke it out. Later on, we would get Street Fighter vs. Marvel then the enormously popular and successful Marvel vs. Capcom series.
Still, the series wasn't that much a fantasy match up; it was definitely cool, but not some of the first dream matches we'd want to see. That's why, in the year 2000, it happened. A clash of titans my four-eyed, pocket protecting friends and I had debated and dreamt about. A match up I thought I would never, ever see: Capcom vs. SNK: Millennium Fight 2000

Holy. &*^%ing. Crap.

Up until that point, you never really saw two companies collaborate on a game like of this magnitude, especially two companies that have been fierce rivals for the last decade. Finally, Terry Bogard vs. Ken Masters! Ryu vs. Kyo! Iori vs. Akuma! Yes, even Dan Hibiki vs. Joe Higashi! Well, the game didn't turn out GREAT, some characters were directly ported over and looked horrible and some key characters were missing. They made up for it a little buy releasing 2001's Capcom vs. SNK: Mark of the Millennium 2001. Much better, not the best, but still really good. SNK would develop a couple of their own "SNK vs. Capcom" (notice the name switch) titles which were actually superior in many ways, but still not where many of us geeky fantasy gamers were picturing such a title.
Since then, we've seen Capcom vs. pretty-much-every-freakin'-Japanese-game-company-out-there with more on the way. Which finally leads me to my point.
Whoever thought an Italian plumber and a hedgehog
could be rivals?
All these fantasy fights, all these crazy crossovers, seem to be an almost exclusively Japanese/Eastern thing to do. WHY? How come SNK and Capcom could put aside any possible differences and/or legal obstacles and decide, just this once, "Let's work together."? Sure, SNK was going out of business at the time, but that's completely besides the point.  Even long time rivals Sonic the Hedgehog and Mario from Sega and Nintendo respectively finally got a chance to proverbially throw-down, as it were. In fact, let's take third-party crossovers out of the picture. There are still a lot of first-party crossovers, which is exactly what King of Fighters is... oh, not to mention this little-known gem called Super Smash Brothers.
Now, how many of these do you see from western developers? Yeah okay, there are maybe one or two tongue-in-cheek crossovers like Quake III and Super Meat Boy and there are some crossover elements in games like Team Fortress 2 or cameos like Kratos in the newest Mortal Kombat. In terms of full blown crossovers, there probably aren't even enough to count on one hand. Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe? Eh, they're both owned by Warner Bros. but for the sake of argument... okay that's one. Anymore?
Thanks to titles like "Namco X Capcom", we gamers were able to see epic showdowns like Pac-Man vs. Megaman. So, why are we not seeing head-to-heads like:
Master Chief vs. Marcus Fenix
Sam Fisher vs. Max Payne
Duke Nukem vs. Gordon Freeman
Commander Shephard vs. Niko Bellic
I want to see the Team Fortress guys trying to survive in Left 4 Dead. In fact, let's break down barriers altogether and put together "Mortal Kombat vs. Street Fighter: East & West Collide" OK, maybe that's a little, let's say, incompatible, but you get the picture. Sadly, for now these are all confined to our imaginations. But what is really stopping developers from doing this?
Fans want it: Check.
Make boatloads of cash: Check.
They want to see it as bad as we do: Probably check.
This really makes Japanese developers look like gamers and western developers look like a bunch of bureaucrats.

Can't we all just get along?

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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

DRM and the One-Save format

At least look me in the eye...

In the thousands of years man has been trading currency for goods and services or just out-and-out bartering, a precedent has been set. When you buy (or trade for) something, it is yours. It's your property. You're free to do whatever you want with it: trade it, sell it or keep it. I tend to be of the same school of thought. Gaming companies... not so much. Gaming companies have introduced us all to the wonderful world of DRM.
DRM, or digital rights management, comes in several forms but has the same goal: Preventing software piracy. Sometimes it means you must associate your game with an online account (like Steam) and sometimes it means you have a limited numbers of installs for your game.
Hey, I get it. Gaming companies are a business and businesses need to make money. In the 90's, video games were $50 brand-new. Until about 2010, they were STILL $50 except now the dollar is worth less and video games now have Hollywood-like budgets. So today, even with the $60 dollar price tag, making a profit is harder than ever. But is DRM the answer?
It all started with Spore. Spore may not have been the first game with DRM, but it certainly is the one the brought it unceremoniously into the spotlight. Spore's DRM software, SecuROM, installed a module in the user's computer which connects to the internet and provides authentication every 10 days. What's the big deal? The big deal is there was no mention of SecuROM on the box, manual or software license agreement. Moreover, the aforementioned module potentially left your computer open to software attacks (malware, spyware etc.). To top it off, the SecuROM module stays in your computer even after you uninstall Spore from your hard drive! To further sweeten the deal, SecuROM only allowed your copy to be installed to a maximum of 3 computers. What happens when you upgrade your rig? Or buy a new one? Decide to install it on your laptop? Format your hard drives?
You vile temptress...
Needless to say, there was quite the public outrage. Gamers argued that when we buy a game for $50, we damn well should be free to do whatever we want with it! It's our property! On top of that, it shouldn't be installing things in our computers that we don't know about! "We don't disclose specifically which copy protection or digital rights management system we use [...] because EA typically uses one license agreement for all of its downloadable games, and different EA downloadable games may use different copy protection and digital rights management.” EA argued. Gamers fired back by giving Spore 1 star reviews where ever they could, citing good gameplay but horrible DRM.  Many game review publications followed suit.
At the end of the day, all they were trying to do was prevent piracy, even if that meant punishing legitimate customers by limiting their number of installs. EA did give a little by upping the number of installs from 3 to 5, then giving the ability to de-authorize the copy so you can move installations. Ultimately, about 3 months into this debacle, EA released Spore on Steam with out any install limit.
The saddest part of the story? Spore was the most pirated game of 2008. That's right folks. All the debating, all the posturing, all for nothing. Lose-lose situation on all fronts.
So you'd think the gaming industry would've learned its lesson, but fast forward to today and here we are all over again. While not quite on the same scale as the Spore/EA fiasco, Capcom has introduced us to the "one-save" format in its new handheld title "Resident Evil: Mercenaries 3D". It's not meant to prevent piracy, however; it's made to kill the used game market! It's quite diabolical, games with the one-save feature give you one save slot that cannot be deleted and cannot be overwritten. So that means once you play a game through, get all the unlocks and goodies, you're DONE. You can never go back, you can never start fresh and you can never sell it. It's a 1 playthrough game. Yeah OK, part of me gets it; if a gamer buys a game and returns it, then another gamer buys it, that's 1 sale where there could have been 2. Yeah well, perhaps if the game was good in the first place, the person wouldn't have returned it. Really this one-save system basically gives the developer the wiggle room to slack at developing a quality game. If the fans want the game, they must buy it brand new and will be LOCKED into keeping the game and developers don't have to worry about used sales. In theory, it can work for them. In practice it's a whole different story. It will likely play out 2 ways:
"I know, the one-save system makes me sick too!!"
1) It works and it sells many copies and the owners of the game will get a nice paperweight after they're done with the game. Or 2) all those gamers that mostly rent games won't get this title because... well the game won't even be available for rent, after all you don't want to rent a game that's already complete. Then the ginormous number of gamers that have the "Eh, I'll buy it and if it sucks, I'll return it" mentality will NOT buy the game with the thought process of "I'm not going to risk it" Then another huge chunk of gamers that say "I never buy new, I'll wait until it's used" won't buy it either. Who will buy this game? Hardcore gamers and/or hardcore fans of the Resident Evil franchise. That's it.
Luckily, this system is only possible on cartridge based systems (read: handhelds) so for now, the big home consoles are safe. But who is to say it won't be pirated? Cartridges have been pirated plenty of times in the past. In fact, you can find ROMs for pretty much any cartridge based game in the last 30 years.
So... 2 weeks into this circus, Capcom got the message: “I think it's fair to say there was never quite the malicious intent that the conspiracy theorists out there would have you believe,” Capcom VP Christian Svensson said. “I think it's also fair to say that in light of the controversy it's generated, I don't think you're going to see something like this happening again.” Companies like Capcom really need to realize this one simple fundamental:


That's right, bold, italic and underlined. Don't make me go crazy and use red font! It doesn't matter if there's no DRM, no SecuROM, no one-save, a good game is a good game is a good game. Good games sell. Developers use piracy and used game sales as cop-out, because the industry as a whole has become a myriad of cowardly, unimaginative hacks that constantly play it safe and never, ever try to innovate. Nowadays, you'll see indie developers take the big risks, really think outside the box, then, if the game is popular enough, the big companies see it's safe and make their own watered down, pathetic attempt. All game companies need to realize that you cannot tell us what to do with our games, they are our property that we spent our hard earned money on. It will never work. The precedent has been set, when you buy something, it's yours. Can you imagine if a movie production company put DRM on your Blu-Ray or DVD that only allows you to play it on YOUR media player? Why are video games held to a different standard? Hold on to those old Windows 95 CD-ROMs, they might be the only games left in your collection that actually belong to you.

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Friday, March 11, 2011

GT5 vs. NFS: Shift

Waging war since before the beginning of time...

For years now, the Gran Turismo series has been known as the pinnacle of racing simulation; the technical turns, drafting and tuning. It certainly isn't the most "simmy" in the world but undoubtedly the most popular and comprehensive. The Need For Speed franchise, however, has been known to the be the pinnacle of arcade racing; taking sharp turns at 150mph, bottomless supplies of NOS, etc. Going into this competition, Need For Speed: Shift is the underdog. It's EA's second (after the forgettable NFS: Pro Street) foray into racing simulation. Gran Turismo also has a head start by being able to port over many cars from the previous generation, pumping the roster up to an unprecedented 1,000+ cars.
That said, this is actually a close race (oh yeah, pun definitely intended).
Let's start with Gran Turismo. While GT can tout its huge roster, it's somewhat misleading. Annoyingly, there are about 15 different Mitsubishi Lancers and another 15 Nissan Skylines. They also added cars like the "Daihatsu Midget" as well as Go-Karts. Who is really going use cars like the latter two for more than just a novelty try-out? Plus, there are no Pontiac Firebirds, for example, but they added the Toyota Prius. The Prius? Really?? Additionally, as mentioned, many cars (most, in fact) have been ported over and did not get the "premium treatment" like others did. They lack in detail, some customization options and an in-cockpit view. Supposedly only 200 of the roster received the premium treatment. You can't blame the developer however. With the axiom of "GT = tons of cars" has been set for years and they had to deliver, you can't simply make 1000+ cars from scratch. So it is what it is, just don't expect your favorite car to be as customizable or as good looking as others. At the end of the day, it's still a thousand freakin' cars!
I hate when they don't signal.
Possibly hand-in-hand with this is the audio. The engine noises are somewhat bland and quite, especially when compared to the competition. It really is not a huge deal, but it certainly doesn't help the sense of speed and overall feeling of "Hey! I'm in a race car!" 
Put simply, it struggles to make you feel like you're going fast.
Then there is the actual physics behind the racing. This is essentially what makes the game simulator-like as opposed to "arcadey". You know, for being considered the best sim out there, its actual simulator properties are rather overrated, to be frank. Crashing into other cars and veering off of the track doesn't penalize you as much as you'd think. For example, you can fly into a sharp turn at 100mph, crash into the cars already in the turn, pushing them out of the way and pushing you into position. It's like bumper cars, really. You can completely bully your way through cars, rear end them, and knock them off the road with little consequence. If you crash into a wall at 200mph, you simply stop. There is no disorientation, nothing. You just backup a couple of feet and keep right on racing.
On the other hand, the tuning feature is top notch; you're able to customize brakes, gearing, transmission and suspension among others. The visual customization of your vehicles is quite lacking, but this has never been the strength of the Gran Turismo franchise. Color and rims is pretty much all you get. 
On side note, I think it's silly that you can only paint a car a color that you've unlocked through purchasing a car of that color and it's limited to only one time. So for example, if you want to paint your car black, you must have purchased a black car previously. Then once you use that black, it's gone until you buy another. You can, however, choose any color for your car when you buy it from the new car dealership.  
Need For Speed: Shift's roster isn't quite there at about 75 or so cars. The selection is equally diverse though.  The game uses a tier system to classify the cars as well as a point rating system to determine the class it falls into online. While on paper this approach seems to work, in practice it veers off course, specifically in online play. There are a handful of classes to race in: 
Cars with no higher a rating than 4, 7, 10, 14 and Unlimited. 
But the way the game was designed, you're rick rolled  into using one car for each class. For example, if you want to race in the 10 class, you must use the 1967 Corvette or, quite simply, you'll lose. Of course, driver skill is always a factor, but even an expert can't defeat a decent racer if they're using the wrong car. This really defeats the spirit of this type of racing game. You would think you'd be able to pick your favorite car and fix it up perfectly to fit your driving style and then take it online and actually stand a chance. Sadly, this is not the case. 
All that being said, the driving experience itself is amazing. The visual nuances are excellent, from the feeling of your head bobbing in discord with the car to the tunnel vision of driving at 200mph. Shift does an excellent job of making you feel like you're a racer in a race car. The engines absolutely scream at you, you'll need to turn Ventrilo up for this one, folks! Not only is it loud, but the audio is dead on accurate, whether your car is stock, modified with forced induction or just completely flat out built for the track. This game knows how to make you feel like you're going FAST. It's a rush!
For being the supposedly more "arcadey" racer, Shift's physics and driving experience are a bit more realistic. When you bump another car or scrape a wall, your vision becomes blurry, and even minor fender benders can become rather disorienting. While obviously in real life your visions doesn't get blurry, this is simply meant to simulate the loss of focus from collision. So needless to say, crashing is a big deal. Going off the track becomes an uncontrollable mess as well.
It's not a perfect system though, there are a few physics glitches, like being able to crash into a concave wall at an angle and riding along it at 150mph.
The performance tuning is on par with GT and the visual customization is leaps and bounds ahead of the competition. Everything from decals to body kits to rims to the color of each individual fender is customizable. This has been the spirit of the Need For Speed franchise for close to 10 years. 
It really boils down to personal preference as this one is neck and neck (a-thank you!). I give a very slight edge to Shift for being the more exhilarating and realistic driving experience and better customization ability. Both games have excellent graphics and game play. The 1000+ cars seems be a bit of a transparent, double-edged crutch for GT and Shift's multi player experience is a bit restrictive. You just need to ask yourself what kind of gamer you are.

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