Thursday, February 26, 2009

Not Some Experimental Indie-Darling

Indie-ish darling Juno
James Parker is a games writer and former colleague who I've briefly mentioned before. His blog is always good reading, and I thought this recent article was particularly interesting. Here's a chunk...

You can't go anywhere on the internet where they are talking about game stories without some enthusiastic comment poster presenting their incredible and unique vision of the future where games provide a truly interactive storytelling experience. "Not just branching plotlines", they continue, "but genuine non-linear storytelling!" and the world is rocked to its very core!

But I would argue that there already exists a genre that presents exactly the kind of non-linear storytelling that their visionary eye can predict, and not only that, but that it has done so for a number of years, although it isn't necessarily the first place you’d look – it’s not some experimental indie-darling, it's not a text-based adventure from a veteran of the industry...
Go and read the full article to see which game he's talking about.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Games and games and games and games

Viking Battle for Asgard
I've got nothing specific to write about this week, so I've gone for the tried and tested route of rambling half-coherently about a bunch of games that I have been playing.

First up is Viva Pinata: Trouble in Paradise. Two years and three days ago I wrote about the interface to Viva Pinata. I played the first game a lot (980 points, gamerscore fans!) and though I'd got used to the annoyances (the loading delays, the odd pauses, the haphazard layout) I couldn't understand how they had made it into the finished game.

I also thought it was fairly obvious where the weaknesses were, so for a sequel it should have been quite an easy job to fix. It's not like there's a lot else different, so some staff could spend the full development time making it, if not a joy to use, at least not a chore.

Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the crap interface is back. There are some minor improvements (some shortcutting to the seed menu, for example), but they are far outweighed by the sheer stupidity of one addition.

Question: how do you take the horribly unintuitive, complicated, slow interface from Viva Pinata, and make it worse?

Answer: by adding randomly flashing elements that serve no purpose but to confuse people.

I'm not even kidding. Watch this Youtube video, and skip to around the 30 second mark. Can you see the little coloured tabs with symbols on that are flipping in and out around the dialogue box? That happens all over the place, and it's horribly distracting and confusing. Especially during the tutorials, where the game is trying to bring your attention to something else, and there are randomly blinking elements animating all over the place.

Speaking of the tutorial, they've got that wrong again too. It's entirely overwhelming (keep in mind I played the first game a huge amount two years ago, and I was lost following it) because the game runs normally in the background. So while it's slowly trying to take you through things step by step, it's constantly being interrupted by cutscenes to show new Pinata arriving, or messages about you levelling up, or something else that doesn't matter at all at the time, but that the game can't help itself but pop in your face.

Not only is it distracting, but it's a lesson in false cause and effect. Did the new Pinata arrive because of what I was just doing, or because of some other random occurrence? You end up battling to work out what elements are a direct consequence of your most recent action, and which just coincidentally fired off at the exact time you did what the tutorial was telling you.

And then once the fairly short tutorial has finished, you're just left on your own. No gentle diminishing of the hand holding. It's just there, leading you through each step, then suddenly not there at all.

I feel slightly ashamed that I'm this baffled by a game that's aimed at a younger audience. Are my synapses really past it?

Anyway, that's enough Pinata bashing. I doubt I'll bother to fire it up again.

The other game that's been getting a lot of play time is Viking: Battle for Asgard. It's a you-vs-insurmountable-odds hack n slash, where you spend the majority of the time wandering around the huge open maps hunting out trapped vikings.

The demon forces of Hel have captured them all you see (most are in cages, but some are just tied to sticks), so you need to free them in order to build an army big enough to trigger the level's climactic assault on a demon stronghold.

Though it's mostly a button basher, there's some strategy to be had - you can pick off some enemies with stealth attacks, if you hide along their patrol route, and most enemy camps have multiple ways in. Though you can always just Rambo it through the front door if you're a double hard viking bastard. Throwing axes and molotov-style fire pots add another level of options as you progress, too.

Not many people I know have picked this up, but I'd definitely recommend it. It's pretty, it's gory, it's fairly non-strenuous. How Eurogamer thought it only justified a 5/10 I'll never work out.

Some other quick thoughts on some demos I've played:

Killzone 2 - Doesn't set the world on fire with ingenuity, but it's a solid shooter. Annoyingly short demo. Will pick up the full game.

FEAR 2 - Predictable "scares", fuzzy controls, doesn't seem to be much different from the original that I found painfully dull. Pass.

HAWX - I'm pretty sure being able to see what direction I'm flying in is quite important when you're in control of a jet plane. The cinematic mode camera is very far out too, giving you boring shots of two very small planes against a big blue background.

Halo Wars - Eventually someone's bound to stumble upon the magic control set that makes RTS games work on consoles. I'm sure this will be good if you're one of the odd people who think Halo has a gripping and interesting back story.

PS - This is the first post I've written entirely on my new laptop (a Dell Studio 17). I like it a lot. Their courier company (Walsh Western) leaves a lot to be desired though, as do the Dell customer support who blatantly lied to me on the phone.

PPS - Also starting to see "the point" in Twitter. It turns out a version of Facebook that just has status updates is what I wanted. Starting to filter out the people who I'd initially followed but who I don't really want to read about, and adding more people who are interesting.

PPPS - It's good to see a lot of positive press about our last game when it hit the NY Comic Con too. People saying nice things about 25 months of your hard work is very gratifying.

Monday, February 09, 2009

The Tomb Raiding Prince of Persia

Over the past couple of months I've been playing both the new Prince of Persia game by Ubisoft, and also Tomb Raider underworld by Crystal Dynamics. The two games are very similar, both recent takes on the 3d platforming genre. But which one is better? There's only one way to find out, as Harry Hill would say ... fight!

Tomb Raider doesn't look bad (you can almost feel the spray from some of the ocean bits), but the settings are fairly generic, and the art style is the same as ever. But it's clearly an early lead for Prince of Persia here. In motion the game looks lovely, but when you stand still it is just gorgeous.

Underworld continues the tale from Tomb Raider Legend, with Lara still searching for her mum, while being set back by the white haired Amanda. It's no epic, but it does its job of carrying you around the various world locations. PoP's story is something about an ancient evil being unleashed, and a magical princess who must defeat it. I don't think either game scores points in this category.

Thankfully TR keeps interaction with anyone who isn't Lara to a minimum, the extended cast of Legends either dropped or kept very much to the sidelines. They seem to have decided that Lara is now the sort of person who will not only fill endangered wildlife full of lead, but will also happily kick priceless ancient vases to pieces, in search of whatever trinkets she can find.

PoP, unfortunately, forces you to spend the entire duration of the game in the company of two unlikable forgetables. The prince is some generic thief with a heart - basically Disney's Aladdin. The princess is ... actually, aside from glowing blue, I can't remember anything in particular about her.

Tomb Raider gets a point, by a whisker.

Both games set out to do different things here. PoP's idea is to take the motion of free running, and make it easy to pull off. You spot a point you want to get to, and with a series of simple button presses and some visually impressive acrobatics, you'll be there in a few moments.

Underworld gives Lara a similarly accomplished set of moves, but they're performed more deliberately, and with less speed. The paths through levels are much less obvious (though just as linear once you get going), and the result is a game where you spend a lot more time working out your route.

To me, TR's approach is much better. I felt a sense of achievement after working my way through a section, as if I was exploring it, instead of just passing through.

Combat in Tomb Raider: Hold down lock-on button; hold down fire button; jump about to avoid being hit; wait for enemy to die. Combat in Prince of Persia: Hold down block button; follow on-screen button prompts; wait for enemy to die. No points awarded either way.

Anything Else?
Tomb Raider has a nice series of difficulty setting options, and also has a nice in-game hint system. You can get a hint about either your general goal at the time ("I need to get that door open"), or the specific task ("I should try the switch over by the door").

PoP has some utterly hateful yellow "special move" pads that make me think of turning the game off every time I have to use one.

The Ronseal Test
Tomb Raider Underworld - You raid some tombs, and explore the underworld of Norse legend. Prince of Persia - He's not a prince in this one, and it isn't set in Persia. Pretty conclusive, that.

To sum up, if you're after a 3d platforming game to play, get Tomb Raider. If you want someone else to play while you watch something pretty, get Prince of Persia.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Social Whirlwind

For anyone that's interested, I've joined Twitter, and the minutiae of my day can be read (or how about experienced?) at

At the moment I'm struggling to see the point in a version of what seems to be a Facebook that only has status updates on it, but I'm expecting that eventually a breakthrough will occur and it'll all become clear as day.

On the plus side, there are a lot of other games industry people on there (you can find a lot of them through the listings on Game Industry Tweet). And a fair amount of them seem to post more interesting or funny tweets* than me.

* Why do all new social networking things insist on inventing their own stupid terminology that makes you sound like a fool?

Monday, February 02, 2009

It's my game and I'll cheat if I want to

About a week ago, EA announced that there would be some downloadable content for Skate 2 that, if bought, would unlock everything in the game.

This seemed to kick up quite a fuss online, with the usual cries that EA were ruining everything.

Personally, I don't really see what the problem is with this DLC.

Now, just to make clear - this isn't unlocking stuff that without the DLC is unobtainable. This is unlocking the things that anyone with enough time and skill could get on their own.

From a game design point of view - if a player wants to unlock everything from the start, that's up to them. Usually games use unlockable content as a series of carrots to lead you through a game, but honestly, if a game needs that to keep players interested then it has serious problems anyway. And from everything I've heard Skate 2 is a good enough game anyway. Players having the best weapon, all available outfits, or the fastest skateboard at the start of the game shouldn't break your game design. At worst it should unbalance it, but anything more serious is a cock-up on your part.

From a business point of view the DLC obviously makes a lot of sense, getting some extra money for little extra work.

From a customer point of view, I can see it's a little muddier. But plenty of games, both contemporary and retro, contain no cheats at all to unlock all of the content. Saints Row 2, for example, has a wealth of missions, weapons, upgrades, and clothes. But no cheat code to unlock them all. So someone who has bought that game will be required to play for however many hours to access all of the content.

The thing is, what if they don't have the time? Why should a player who has a lot of spare time or skill get access to more of a game, when they have paid the same amount for it?

In short, what is wrong with money rich, time poor, players accessing the whole game?

PS - I have eventually buckled, and bought a copy of Left 4 Dead that wasn't in a sale. So if, like me, you were waiting, it'll probably turn up in a 2 for £20 offer any day now. If you already have a copy though, hit me up when I'm on Live, and I'll play at shooting zombies with you. If you weren't even thinking about buying it - why the hell not? It is very good indeed.