Saturday, April 28, 2007

Blow me.

I was idly flicking through MCV the other day (it makes great toilet reading at work, since technically you're doing industry research and not wasting time, and also if you piss yourself laughing at the letters indie retailers write in every week then at least you're in the right place), and I stumbled across an advert for Logitech's new PS3 controller - the ChillStream. Its USP seems to be that it has tiny holes in the grips, allowing your brutishly large simian gamer hands to receive a constant flow of cooling air.

Such an awesome idea targetted at sweaty-fisted gamers hunched over in poorly ventillated rooms had to have been done before, I thought, and after a bit of digging around I found that Nyko released a very similar PC controller ages ago.

Though I suspect B. A. Provan "gameman" might be a Nyko employee. Who else could claim that blowing air on your hands was a technology that had "changed the face of console gaming"? I also liked his suggestion that it was sweaty hands that previously stopped you from playing games for "as long as you want", and not things like hunger, or toilet breaks.

Quite a toilet-centric update this. Sorry, mum!

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Make a note in your diaries.

What? No! They've got to be kidding. They can't release three great and involving games on the same day. What the hell are they playing at?

Seriously though - either Play's telling porkies and these aren't all coming out on June 1st, or someone somewhere needs kicking in the head for scheduling three sure-to-be-great games against each other. One way or another there's something rotten here.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Set-piece action.

In a break from my usual pop-culture entertainment choices of TV, movies, and video games, I recently went to see a musical.

While I was sat there in the dark, trying to hear what the actors were saying over the rustling of sweet wrappers (I'm sure someone behind me had bought a packet of pass the parcel sweets, since they took ages unwrapping them, and also helpfully waited until after the loud musical numbers had finished and the quieter dialogue sections were going on before stuffing their inconsiderate faces. But anywhere, where was I? ... ) I got to thinking about whether a game structured as a play could work.

And by that I'm not talking story, I'm thinking of set and gameplay.

Set-wise it's pretty interesting. The stage had a basic structure that all of the sets had to fit in to (fairly obviously, I mean, if they went outside for a scene it's not like the audience could go with them), with chunks that slot in to the various places around the edge, and furniture that fills in the space in the middle. The sets tend to be slightly abstract and stylised as well - larger block shapes and a lack of fine details.

The up side of this construction is that all of the locations the script contains fit into one space, and that there is a fair amount of set re-use (both in terms of the same location revisited, and also in terms of some sets being mainly composites of other sets' bits and pieces). The down side is that the sets don't stand up to the kind of prolonged close scrutiny you're able to give most game locations, and also that scripts are limited in the number of locations they can use.

In a play the audience's attention is drawn away from that first negative point by clever use of lighting and pace, which focus your eyes more on the characters. Lighting systems are pretty good in modern engines though, so I'm sure that with proper set direction this aspect would be transferable, and with fewer polys used on the sets, very high quality character models could be used. The pacing is slightly more difficult though.

The main problem I've had while thinking through this idea is - how would the gameplay work? What do you actually do in the game? The obvious answer would be some sort of point-and-click adventure game, but I think the simplicity and restricted nature of the sets might interfere with that - plus each character's location on stage doesn't happen by accident, they're where they are because it works best visually and for the story. Allowing a player free reign to wander around would no longer ensure the best lighting for them, and would spoil the illusion of the set.

Adventure games are famed for their inventories too, which would require a large number of props on the sets, which may not be best for their simple nature (though it could work nicely in gameplay terms since interactive elements would stand out more - no more trawling the mouse around the screen to find an item only a few pixels big).

The dialogue in adventure games tends to be choice-heavy too, usually halting completely as the player gets to choice their next response, which would completely ruin the pacing of scenes. A few games have gotten around this (I think Mass Effect is going to have a go too) by giving the player a limited time to respond, tightening up the pacing of conversations and making it more interesting.

So overall, I'm still not sure if it could be made to work. But I think it would be interesting. It might even be art! Imagine!

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Just Cause (360)

You know, I've been playing it for hours now (according to the in-game tally, well over 24), and I still can't work out if I actually enjoy Just Cause or not. I can't even work out if I think it's a good game or not. I'm just totally divided on it.

On one hand, it's very pretty. The foliage has a nice feeling of density about it, even more-so than Far Cry, and the water and clouds and sun are all lovely - you'll see some incredible sunsets during your playing time, and it'll make you long for a nice sunny beach holiday.

The game's main gameplay hook - the stunts - are also pretty well done, for the most part. Once you get the grappling hook (early on in the story) they get even better, but even from the off you have a lovely set of options when it comes to getting in and out of vehicles, and making your way around the game world. Stealing an aircraft, flying above the clouds, then free-falling for what could be a couple of minutes, before popping open your parachute and guiding yourself gently down to the next mission trigger, is a fantastic James Bond feeling.

The map is huge, but really generic. I understand this is probably largely to do with the setting. In order to make it feel like a tropical archipelago (spelt right first time, go me!) it needs a lot of forest and mountain, and not so much man-made stuff. But it just feels featureless. Every now and then you'll stumble on a nice bit - a destroyed bridge, a large city, a monument, a power plant - but they're so far apart you'll be hard pushed to find them again. And the missions don't make full use of all f the space they're given either, often reusing the same stretches and areas. If the map had been a quarter of the size it would have had more diversity without losing anything.

The real problem with the game is that the mission content is so bland and has a real 'half finished' feel to it. Unless I'm missing something some of the side missions are impossible to complete - I'm told to "Destroy the silo", but the silo has no collision and I can't seem to damage it at all.

The story missions are equally boring for the most part, and are totally devoid of any little details that might make you think effort has been poured in to them. Except for the finale, that is - the last three missions are really nice, and you end up using your stunts as a way to complete them, rather than just as a way of getting around the island, as you tend to in other missions.

I could go on, and originally I was going to. The list of charmless and half-arsed bits in Just Cause is as long as a field: the achievement for completing the 7th mission happens when you have 8 story missions on your in-game stats; the cut-scenes look terrible, and feature generic characters; the vehicle handling feels very off; helicopters aren't any fun; enemy tanks can fire at you quickly enough that although their weapon isn't one shot kill, your guy's recoil animation stops you from being able to escape the fatal second hit; the police are ineffectual outside of missions.

But it does have a kind of charm all of its own. Apparently a sequel is under development - I hope that now the tech is working they focus their efforts much more on the scripted content, and really polish that until it shines. And please, do all of your cut-scenes in-engine, with higher poly characters (since not many people feature in them).

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

To deal, or not to deal.

I was reading a forum post yesterday about casual games, and complexity. Basically, should casual games be simple? I'd say a simple interface is desirable (possibly even essential, off the top of my head I can't think of a 'casual game' success that's had a complicated interface), but the game itself should be quite deep (or at least offer the depth to players who want it).

A evidence that the casual gaming audience isn't put off by complexity, I offer quiz shows on TV. There are some shows with quite a convoluted set of rules, that still manage to be popular (enough that comedians are writing sketches about them).

Then it hit me - with the rise in interactive services, TV on demand, and IPTV, it would be possible for production companies to record ten minute "tutorial" programmes for quiz shows. A brief run through each round, telling you the rules and what the hell is going on, that you can watch before you waste half an hour with a confused look on your face. At the very least it might me understand what the hell is going on in Deal or No Deal.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Confessions of a games developer.

Not, as you might expect, an update detailing all of the times that I've been merrily scripting away at work, then accidentally slipped, had my trousers fall off, and land on top of a naked lady - with hilarious consequences.

No, this is the start of my list of slightly embarrassing or otherwise unpopular opinions about games. I've mentioned some of these in passing in previous updates, so if they seem familiar, that might be why. Or because I'm trying to ride the cool hate train.

(Please don't hate me.)

  1. I got bored of Half-Life 2 over and over again. Each section had its own game-play element (a vehicle, some team-mates, or a unique weapon for example), which made it feel new and fresh when you started. But each section also went on far too long, to the point that I was completely bored of that element long before I got to the next bit.

  2. I don't like Metroid games. Having to wander about and backtrack each time I'm given new equipment, in the hope of stumbling across where I'm meant to be going next doesn't appeal to me. I like my free-roaming games to have some direction.

  3. I didn't like System Shock 2. It's set in the future, but the weapons fall apart after a couple of shots. Combined with re-spawning enemies it just felt like a very artificial way of trying to make sure I was on the back-foot all the time.

  4. I thought Deus Ex's story was terrible. Generic tinfoil hattery told by generic sci-fi badasses. And at the end of it all, it meant nothing - you could change the outcome in any way you liked in the final mission.

  5. I found Shadow of the Colossus boring. I didn't get emotionally attached to it at all. Really, those big bumbling fucks were asking for it, they were stood between me and my girl. And I didn't find long rides through barren landscapes to be entertaining.

  6. I may never play Okami past the opening section. I had a go of a colleague's copy at work, skipping as fast as I could through the intro sequence. 21 minutes of unskippable cut-scene before I reach the first save point? Holy shit, what on earth were they thinking? Any game that requires me to draw a circle using the PS2's god-awful analogue sticks in order to progress is just going to annoy.

  7. I liked the King Kong game quite a lot. It wasn't awesome or anything, but I felt it had quite a nice sense of scale, and mixed first person shooter with the survival horror feeling of not having enough ammo for the situation you're in. The Kong bits where shit, though.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Retro schmetro.

I'm not really a big fan of retro gaming. Partly it's because of the scene - everyone who's really in to it seems to be a bit of a moron, preaching on about how 3d games ruined everything and how old games were a lot more fun. Partly it's because I'm an unapologetic graphics whore, and so many retro games look like pap these days. And partly it's because most of the fondly-remembered games I've gone back to have turned out to be rubbish.

Now, this usually raises the heckles of a dedicated retro gamer. "How can that be? Surely if a game used to be fun, then it should still be fun today?"

My off-the cuff answer tends to be that, once upon a time I found the shiny square on Baby's First Activity Center to be pretty entertaining, but I've moved on now (okay, you dragged it out of me - I was 26).

If they don't get put off by my flippant response and keep asking, I'll go for something along the lines of the following...

What usually makes a game fun to me is mainly the interactivity, but also the combination of that with the audiovisuals (graphics whore, remember?).

I might have enjoyed an olden days game (calling them that tends to annoy retro people too) years ago because, although the gameplay was fairly weak, I found the AVs really impressive. Those games I wouldn't find fun any more, because their flashy crutch is rubbish by today's standards. Something like Resident Evil would fit into this line-up.

On the other end, I might have found a retro game great because of its at-the-time unheard of interactivity and scope. Unfortunately the genre that particular game sits in has moved on now to provide much more finely tuned or expansive experiences, making the game feel shallow or clunky in comparison. I would put all of the Tomb Raiders up to Legends here (how on earth did they manage to keep that going all of those years?).

There's some cross over between these two categories as well, wherein both the ground-breaking interaction, and awesome AVs have dated badly. Hello, Carmageddon!

The thing is, I have to point out at about this time that I don't think all old games are shit, or look like steaming dog mess. There are plenty of old games that are still fun. Some because their AVs haven't dated so heavily (for someone who turns their nose up at retro, you might be surprised to know I have a couple of books on pixel art - done well it's timeless). And some still feel as well-tuned and deep as their current genre-mates (or moreso, but "LOL dumbing down" is a different kettle of gamer morons).

But if Xbox Live Arcade, Wii's Virtual Console, and Sony's eDist (though I'm led to believe this isn't full of Digital Eclipse shovelware. Yet) should have taught you anything, it's that old games aren't all as much fun as they used to be. And they certainly aren't worth paying £2 for (two pounds?!? I remember when all of the new releases were two pounds, not like games these days costing forty quid. Sorry, what did you say about Street Fighter 2 on the SNES, I wasn't listening? etc. Fade to black).

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Is there anything wrong with the PSP?

An interesting article on Gamasutra, asking this question of a few of the industry's top people (that last bit was sarcasm by the way, I've never heard of any of them or their companies, but I'm sure they are all very important people - they must be good since for the most part I agree with them).

I find it interesting anyway, since I've spent a fair bit of time with Sony's handheld, and done my own haphazard research into what people do and don't like about it. Most of the points raised in the article I agree with, but this is one I often see brought up.

the market is showing that you must develop a game specifically for the portable platform and not just repurpose console [i.e. PS1] games
It's just not really true. The biggest selling games on the PSP are, for want of a better phrase, 'repurposed' console games (crueler people would say ports, but those people are talking out of their arses). What Konami released a Metal Gear game that was pitched towards being a handheld title, the fans went mental, demanding a 'proper' Metal Gear game be released (which it was, in the end).

A lot of the detractors don't really seem to grasp that there are more uses for a handheld console than just when you're on the move. Most people only have one television in their living room, and quite a few spend a lot of time away from home for work. These people (or at least the ones that play games) would like to play exactly the same games as they do on their PS2 when they're at home (or when their partner isn't using the TV to watch Soapstars Dancing on Ice).

So what do I think about the PSP? I honestly think it's a great piece of kit. The UMD drive was a bit of a misstep, since it's the seek time that causes most of the bad loading times for which the PSP is infamous (though I'm not sure what else they could have done - even now it would be crazy to make a download-only handheld, let alone a couple of years ago, and cartridges would be very expensive if you're going to fit a whole UMD's worth of stuff on). I think it would be nice if the games were a bit cheaper (no matter how much work goes into a title, in people's minds it's still "only a handheld game", so by definition not worth as much as console software). And I wish Sony would get their arses into gear with the online store so that I can download PS1 games without a PS3.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Games I wish someone would do a new version of ... Knights of the Sky

Next on the GIWSWDANVO list is this fantastic flight sim by Microprose.

To me, flight sims are kind of boring. I point the blame more at the advances of modern aviation than at the developers, though. Autopilots mean that you can point and click at a destination and expect the plane to get you there without any nasty mountains getting in the way. Even when you want to fly yourself the plane still has enough brains to not let you do anything terribly stupid - after all, they cost a fortune, so it's in everyone's interests that you don't just nosedive into the floor. And things like heat seeking missiles that can pick out a target, shoot off, and destroy it, all long before your puny human eyes have worked out that there's a slightly darker bit in those clouds over there, take the fun out of dog fights.

Which is why historical flight sims should be great (let's forget about Blazing Angels for now, because it was bobbins). Fun dogfighting, planes that are glorified biscuit tins, held together by string, and (this is the most important part) masses of Biggles-style atmosphere.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Kameo (360)

Continuing my need to mine the back catalogue of 360 titles while I'm waiting for something cool and new to come out (especially since MS won't confirm Mass Effect's date), I got myself a copy of Kameo.

I think Kameo was one of the first 360 games I ever played - in the demo machine at a popular high-street electrical retailer. Looking back with what I know now, I can tell it was the first level, where the game pretty much throws you in at the deep end, with a selection of characters and a horde of trolls to fight. I thought it was awful and it helped reaffirm my thoughts that I didn't really need or want a 360 for five months. They probably could have picked a better demo game, to be fair.

After I got my 360 another demo became available, showing a wider range of the game-play available, and I warmed to it. The fairy forest place seemed more interesting, and the horseback fights against huge numbers of trolls suggested a nice variety of things to do. So now that it's on the greatest hits, or platinum, or whatever the budget re-release thing is called, I thought I'd give it a go.

The graphics are nice, but in a strange and over-detailed way. It's kind of like the difference between modern Disney cartoons that go for a stylised look, and Sword in the Stone, where they were clearly showing off how detailed they could make animated movies. I don't think the art style really works that well - it feels like it doesn't really know what it wants to be. It's a shame - I get the feeling they were pushed in this direction as an attempt to show off what the new hardware is capable of.

The other very noticeable thing is that the guy who wrote their particle system must have been the toast of the art department. There isn't a single location that isn't swimming in glowing dust or billowing clouds, and it makes some of the areas more difficult to navigate than they should be (and also a fair bit uglier).

The character designs are a bit of a let-down too. Generic-looking elves and trolls are the staple, but the "elemental warriors" that the game revolves around are also a fairly uninspired bunch. I think the problem here is that there are ten of them, and each has roughly one unique ability that level progression and puzzles might use. And since there are only 5 elements (fire, water, earth, ice, and plants) you get two characters for each (I actually had to check this just now, since I'd forgotten some of the warriors I'd unlocked - that's how memorable they are). Why not just make 5 warriors, making each of them twice as useful and more unique? It'd cut down on the "rescue X from the shadow troll" battle repetition too.

The controls aren't too bad - combat moves are all on the shoulder buttons, which makes them easy to access no matter what you're doing (though usually it will be fighting, since that's what the majority of the game is about) - though often your character will decide to 'lock on' to an enemy you're actually running away from, which makes you character judder as they try and point one way, and you try and get them to go the exact opposite direction.

My main gripe is that they were obviously quite proud of their spherical collision physics. There are a lot of puzzles in the game that are based around you pushing a globe-shaped object around, and two (I think) of the characters you can be travel using balls. Since these sections rely entirely on the physics engine they suffer the same quirks as any physics-based games do - sometimes you can have the right idea, but will fail just because there isn't enough "give" in the event. So after failing a few times with that approach, you'll think you're doing it wrong, and try something else. It can be very frustrating.

Overall I'd have a hard time recommending Kameo to anyone who wasn't a) quite hungry for a platform adventure type game, or b) a bit bored. It's cheap, and not just in the cost department.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Arcade round-up (360)

Yeah yeah, I know almost all of my updates that are actually about games are for the 360. Look, when they start releasing a steady stream of things I want to play on other consoles, I'll write about those too, okay?

Anyway, quite a few new things have been plopping out onto Live Arcade recently, so I thought I'd do a quick round-up of what I think about them (if you don't care then I really don't really understand why you would still be reading this blog).

Worms: I can't believe that 13 years after they first released a Worms game, they still haven't fixed the AI. It basically picks between "fearsomely accurate, can fire against the wind across the whole map and still land the shot perfectly" and "completely ineffective, shooting off the edge of the screen". How about calculating the great shot, then messing it up a little? That at least would look more believable.

Alien Hominid: Punishingly difficult, but very nice looking, shoot 'em up. Personally I find the gameplay awful, but then I was never really in to the Metal Slug games either. I'm a wuss when it comes to hard games.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: It turns out that without the rose-tinted specs, this is a really plain, boring beat 'em up. I recently discovered the same thing about the Golden Axe games, but they at least had magic and things to ride in order to offer some variation. What's the point in having co-op in something if the players never have to interact?

Assault Heroes: A good shoot 'em up, but the levels go on for so long that I ended up getting bored and deliberately lost on the second level.

Castlevania: Not getting into console games until later in life (when I had the money to buy them, since they were far too expensive for my parents to let me buy, quite sensibly in retrospect) means that I'd never really come into contact with any of these games before. I'd read about them, but the combination of Metroid-ish platform exploration and RPG stat increases sounded a bit ... well shit, really (I'll also confess here that I'm not a big Metroid fan either. At some point I should start a list of games that I don't like, but I'm always a bit afraid of it coming across as trying too hard to be edgy and cool). Anyway, I played the demo of this, and it seemed quite nice, so I may well give it a go if I run out of other stuff to play. I mean, what other Arcade platform game could I play - Cloning Clyde? No.

Jetpac Refuelled: Played the demo, thought it was pretty boring.

So, to summarise - Hexic is still the best game on Live Arcade.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Good news!

The awful Datel Trash Talk is not selling well, despite being available at half price. Thank fuck for that.

This is not an April Fool's joke, this is genuine cause for a sigh of relief.