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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