From the Armchair: Forced to Quit

ArmchairWhat ho, chums!

There has been a fair old gap since my last communique, but of course this is only to be expected as we approach the zenith of the summer season, and thoughts turn from computer screens to outdoor recreational activities (I speak of course for myself and not for my winter-locked, Antipodean co-author Sir Gaulian). One such activity took the form of a highly entertaining outing to Longleat Safari Park, where Ms. D and I drove in stately procession around some impressive grounds while monkeys ripped off all non-essential trimmings from our motor vehicle. It was a highly entertaining day.

As well as coming face to face with our nefarious simian cousins, I have been joyously blasting and romancing my way through Mass Effect 3, and even Ms. D has been getting into this most magnificent of gaming series. Well, I’m not entirely sure whether she’s enjoying it or whether she’s so used to the sight of me playing the game that it has become a part of daily life which it would be unthinkable to be without, even if one doesn’t have a trace of interest in it – like listening to The Archers on Radio 4. At any rate, she says it’s “comforting” to see me saving the universe one species at a time.

Mass Effect continues to be my game of the moment, but I also worked my way to the end of Batman: Arkham Origins: Blackgate: One More Subtitle for Good Luck on the 3DS. I say ‘worked’ because it really did start to feel like a chore at the end, which is a shame because otherwise it was a very entertaining game in the Metroidvania style. Two things let it down: a dreadful map and frustrating boss fights. The former meant that one of the game’s main pleasures – hunting out secrets – was ruined because it was impossible to work out how to get anywhere. The game itself was 2.5D, meaning the controls are 2D but Batman sometimes moves into the screen, yet the map is top down, and doesn’t show levels below you. Either the map should have been in 3D or the game should have been ‘proper’ 2D, but the current combo makes for eventual frustration.

And speaking of frustration, it was the final boss that made me give up entirely on the game in annoyance – what I call a ‘force quit’. I was right near the end, but the ludicrously precise timing needed to finish the game meant that all fun was sucked out from the experience, which is usually my signal for putting the kibosh on a game. Batman: Arkham Origins: Blackgate: Subtitleacular is by no means the only game that’s elicited a full-on force quit recently: here are a few more that have been cast aside, never to be revisited.

Outlandscreen1OutlandSir Gaulian loved this game, and I too found it highly entertaining, particularly the joyously intuitive control system and stylish graphics. Sadly, one of the later bosses – a giant flying dragon – proved just too irritating with its ‘bullet hell’ attacks, prompting a force quit.

Kid Icarus 3d ClassicsKid Icarus 3D Classics – I’m just about old enough to remember when the original Kid Icarus came out, although I never played it at the time. I got the 3D Classics remake as a freebie download for my 3DS, so I was looking forward to sampling this classic game, but I was baffled by how hard it was. After dozens of attempts, I couldn’t even get past the first level. Apparently the game gets a lot better, but the frustration just isn’t worth it – I dread to think how long it would take to finish.

castlevania-nes-ingame-41834Castlevania – I’ve written about the ludicrous difficulty of this NES game before, and in the end it proved too much for me. I eventually managed to get past Frankenstein’s monster and his leaping pal Igor, but not much further.

Liberation MaidenLiberation Maiden – This wasn’t so much a force quit as a gradual waning of interest. The fact that the game is by Most Agreeable Pastime favourite Goichi Suda was what initially made me buy it, and the story is brilliantly bizarre – the female president defends her country by hopping in a spaceship and blasting everything in sight. But after a few goes I found it quite repetitive, and I simply couldn’t muster up any enthusiasm for a return visit.

Trauma Center New BloodTrauma Center: New Blood – This is a brilliant game, but it’s hamstrung by its obscene difficulty. I really enjoyed the first few levels, but this zany surgery simulator gets rock hard extremely quickly, even on ‘easy’. A shame, because it’s a fun – and funny – game otherwise.

So over to you – are there any games you’ve been forced to quit?

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Sexism in the games industry starts at home

MetroidSamusGrowing up I had no idea that video games were viewed as a ‘boy thing’.  I was surrounded by girls that played video games – from my sister who would physically fight me or my brother for time on the the home Amiga 500, to girls at school who would trade the latest pirated games with their friends.  Now perhaps its the innocence of youth or my ignorance around gender roles, but games to me were always something everyone of my age group loved.  I lost to as many girls at Street Fighter II as I did boys at the local arcade, and my sister had as many high scores on Pinball Dreams and Pinball Fantasies as I did.  I now have a fiancée that plays as many if not more games than me.  So it came as a bit of a shock once the world was opened up at the onset of the internet, that they were exclusively the realm of boys and men.  It’s also a shame that we inadvertently perpetuate that perception.

Lucius wrote an incredible piece titled Why We Need Women In Video Games which discusses the very real issues of both the representation of females in videogames, and the lack of women making them.  If you haven’t read it I encourage you to do so.  There was also a discussion of the representation of women in video games journalism on the DLC podcast.  Both of those are serious issues that we as a community, and the wider industry, need to address. But this innate sexism starts at home and the way we talk about females playing video games has a serious impact on how the wider community views them.  They are more than just “wives and girlfriends” in need of a “girlfriend mode”.

You see the treatment of women by commentators is that of bystanders that have an inherent ignorance about the hobby.  “She just walked into the room and said ‘what ARE you playing’ before going to cook dinner”.  It is the equivalent of a 1950′s view of women that just wouldn’t be accepted in any other industry.  They may as well “Move along dear and put the baby to bed”.

It’s a problem that the video game industry is one that is dominated by a western male voice, but the bigger problem is that the collective “we” lock women out of the industry by pushing an old-fashioned stereotype – worse still – one that from my experience was never true.  When the games media talk about casual gamers, easy modes and accessibility, they’re talking about, amongst other groups, women.  It’s a narrative about women in the gaming community as second-class citizens – as laypeople – the begins at home.

But there are plenty of women who love games and love talking about games.  At home without my fiancée I wouldn’t have played Mass Effect.  I wouldn’t have played Dragon Age.  I would have never even played The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time.  While the mainstream may struggle to either attract, retain, or perhaps boost the profile of women as intelligent and knowledgeable members of the video game community, beneath the surface is a plethora of intelligent and insightful women who love to play games  and love to share their views and opinions (the Very Very Gaming Show is a good example).  So while the mainstream gaming sites’ voice may continue to grow via carbon copies of themselves (as articulated by Samantha Allen), as consumers of the media, we have a say in how women are treated in the industry into the future. We can change the narrative by promoting women as active and equal members of our community – as people who know as much if not more than us.  Just as the sexism starts at home, we can end it the same way.

Oh and speaking of gender roles and stereotypes and how ridiculous they are – I owned a Barbie as a young boy and I turned out fine.

Barbie

 

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From Prince of Persia to Assassin’s Creed: the curse of overly complex level design & traversal

For me 2004′s reboot of the Prince of Persia series, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, was the equivalent of a gameplay revolution.  It moved with such fluidity, combining elements of disparate genres into one massively impressive package that – quite frankly – was miles ahead of its competition, and its time.  I could talk about how fantastic the combat was, or how mind-blowing the rewind feature was, but while Sands of Time was great for all those reasons (and more), it was the Prince’s amazingly free-form and athletic traversal of the stunning persian environments that made the game stand out from the crowd.  We’d had games focusing on exploration and feats of athleticism before, with Tomb Raider being the most obvious, but we’d never seen one pull off the sensation that the world was your playground.

Ubisoft knew that its levels and mechanics were the star of the show and kept the Prince, for the most part, silent.  The world was the main character of Sands of Time and traversing it was the plot twist.  It was clear that the focus was on making the player feel like the very best Cirque Du Soleil performer, able to push the limits of physics and human ability to the very limit, but still managing to look beautiful and elegant while doing so.  The levels were immaculately designed, almost resembling mazes, as they twist and turn in every direction.  There is a straight path but it is perfectly and organically woven into the aesthetic design of the levels, making every move the Prince makes feel superhuman.  He isn’t traversing an artificial obstacle course that has been designed to be overcome, he is traversing a world that he just shouldn’t be able to.  And so the free-running video game revolution began, and with that revolution and increased use of free-running traversal mechanics by developers of all shapes and colours, came an increasing level of complexity in level design.

SandsofTime

The problem is that with all of these complicated levels designed around multidimensional traversal mechanics it usually isn’t clear where you need to go – or worse – how to get there.  And so I found myself drawn out of the intricately developed world put in place by very clever level designers as I stumble from one place to another, following the pre-determined path without ever really knowing in advance how to get there.  Sure it all looks pretty, with the swinging and the wall-running and the (in some cases) smashing through brick walls to find conveniently located secret passages or alternative paths – but there is usually no coordination, thought, or planning required to progress – you just move from ledge to ledge, platform to platform, with no real idea how to get to your destination; only that eventually you’ll get there.  If you can reach it that’s probably the way to go becomes your ethos, and so you stumble through levels until you find the correct ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’ the developers have set out for you. It simply becomes a matter of blind traversal. Comparing across mediums, it is the equivalent of Indiana Jones accidentally stumbling into the grail knight’s tomb at the Biblioteca di San Barnaba in Venice, without referring to his little brown book.  It just doesn’t make sense.

Of course fast forward to Ubisoft’s successor Assassin’s Creed and all of these problems for the most part disappear with the freedom given to players, where there more often than not isn’t only one way to get to your destination.  It was a change in game design sentiment that focused more on the movement than on the environments, and so while the environment was designed to accommodate free movement of the player, it wasn’t constrained by a greater linear level design, in turn alleviating the blind traversal issues found in early free-running inspired games.  While it is easy to be sad for what we’ve lost – namely the perfectly planned and executed level designs found in Prince of Persia games – it is easy to see what we’ve gained.  The Prince of Persia reboot and its sequels were (and are still) great games, but they were Ubisoft’s stepping stone toward the more fluid and open traversal mechanics we see today in the Assassin’s Creed series.  Ubisoft Montreal weren’t just evolutionary, they were revolutionaries – twice over.

AC Altair

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Why Formula One games need to get personal

LotusCarIf you’ve been living under a rock for the last few months (or simply don’t care) you wouldn’t know that this Formula One season has breathed new life into the greatest motorsport on Earth.  In a similar fashion, Formula One games over the last few years have been given a fresh set of legs by the consistently great Codemasters once they started making annualised entries in the franchise from 2010 onwards, culminating in the excellent homage to racing nostalgia that was F1 2013: Classic Edition.

But despite this amazing revitalisation of video game representation of the sport, largely as a result of the fresh set of eyes Codies brought to the franchise, really nothing has changed to make the games appeal to all but the most feverous of Formula One fans.  It is an extremely complicated and technical sport done justice by extremely difficult and technical games.  The developers have perfected the exhilaration driving in excess of 300 km/h, but if you’re not a fan of high speed circuit racing, well tough titties, these games just aren’t for you.

That really is a shame because as documentaries and films like Senna and Rush respectively show, Formula One as a sport is as much about the off-track rivalries as the racing itself.  Whether it be Senna and Prost, Lauder and Hunt or Hamilton and Alonso, the personalities and feuds are a big part of what makes Formula One so exciting to follow. The great shame though is that Formula video games, although flirting with the idea, haven’t really paid that much attention to building in mechanics that try and replicate the thrill and excitement that rivalries bring to the sport.

There is hope though, and certainly precedent for broadening the scope for what it means to be a sports game.  Football games for example have evolved to incorporate simulations of teamwork and team chemistry, player morale, and team management more broadly.  You could have two of the best team in the world on paper, but if they’re all selfish ball-hogs, you’ll likely never achieve the greatness that theoretically you should.  In some ways it’s about adding a regimented level of randomness to games that otherwise just about having the highest numbers.  Now this is nothing we haven’t seen before, after all Football Manager (and even Player Manager before that) has done this for years.  But incorporating it into a genre that has traditionally hasn’t been able to – or perhaps just hasn’t – left room for it is an exciting prospect that opens up new and exciting ways to infuse aspects real life into video game representations of our favourite sports.

F12013Classic

But there is something a little more personal about Formula One than other sports.  When Sebastian Vettel disobeyed team orders to overtake teammate Mark Webber at the Malaysian Grand Prix in Season 2013, it was the result of of tension built up over a number of races, across a number of years.  With the often larger-than-life personalities that populate the Formula One is ripe for the picking to experiment with incorporating aspects of relationship simulation.  Imagine if tensions between teammates led to erratic behaviour on track or overly aggressive entry into a corner, or the politics off-track had a tangible impact on your on-track performance.  What if the competition between engineering teams led to mistakes being made, or advantages being gained?  The implementation of post-race interviews in the series thus far has left a lot to be desired, but by integrating them into a wider ‘social-link’ system, they could form an integral and indispensable part of your pathway through the game.

All of this could lead to something bigger and more grand than just the thrills of the rubber meeting the road.  Just like the unique relationship aspects of the Persona and Fire Emblem series opened up those genres to a wider audience, by rethinking how players progress through the career mode Formula One games, the stewards of the Formula One licence could grow its player base into more of a mainstream hit, and certainly beyond those that religiously follow the sport.

Formula One has always been the chess of the racing world, with races being won or lost on tyre choice and pit strategy, and the precision of the drivers of these mechanical marvels.  On the surface F1 is the greatest test of human ingenuity and athleticism.  But behind the curtain it is a soap opera soaked in testosterone and petrol.  And in some ways that’s what makes Formula One so intriguing.  It’s time for game developers to capture that magic and open the world of Formula One up to a brand new audience that can’t see beyond the motorsport label.   That wouldn’t just be great for Codemasters, it would be great for a sport that over the past decade or so has waned in popularity.

F12013screen

 

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Mass Effect 2: A Masterpiece

mass-effect-2-xbox-360After nearly 55 hours of shooting, exploring and chatting up aliens, I’ve finally finished Mass Effect 2. I could have finished it a lot quicker, but I was having so much damn fun that I dawdled to discover everything it had to offer. What a game.

With a few rare exceptions, such as Minerva’s Den for Bioshock 2, I don’t tend to bother with downloadable content: a statement that I’m sure will appall most game publishers. But I became so enthralled with the depth and breadth of the Mass Effect universe that I hungrily downloaded all the extra content on offer (except of course for the pointless alternative outfits, more on those in a sec). And as soon as I’d finished the game, I happily bought all the DLC for Mass Effect 3 too. Yep EA, you got me good this time.

It’s difficult to over-emphasise how much of an improvement Mass Effect 2 is over its prequel. I came away from Mass Effect 1 feeling frustrated: genuinely interesting stories and characters were buried beneath shoddy game mechanics and dull missions. So all credit to BioWare for taking the criticisms on board and completely overhauling the game for the sequel – every mission now feels meaningful, the combat is ten times better, the galaxy feels like a place worth exploring, the finnicky inventory system has been simplified… I could go on an on. And most important of all, the choices you make in the first game carry over to the second one, directly affecting the characters you meet and the stories that play out. This decision is a stroke of genius because it makes every choice meaningful – make a bad decision and you’re forced to live with the consequence of your actions. If a key character dies, they stay dead for the whole trilogy (I’m thankful to report that I managed to make it through the game with all characters and crew intact: phew).

The graphics and combat mechanics have been massively improved.

The graphics and combat mechanics have been massively improved.

The one thing that drove my enjoyment of the game above all else was the excellent character development. The crew roster has been greatly expanded, and it was a real joy to track down characters from the previous game and see how they’re getting on. Every character has a long and detailed back story, and I could happily spend hours running around the decks of the Normandy, simply chatting to the crew. Particularly Mordin Solus, who has quickly become my favourite character, partly due to his spirited rendition of the Pirates of Penzance. And then there’s Shepard’s complicated love life, which is practically a metagame in itself. At one point I broke things off with Jack, and now she just bellows “F**K OFF!” every time I enter the room. I think I’m better off with Tali anyway.

The only criticism I’d level at the game is that they went a little bit too far when it came to simplifying the inventory. Now Shepard and co. are limited to just one set of armour each, with an unlockable alternative colour scheme, and the array of weapons is similarly slim. Extra weapons and armour are available via downloads… but for a price, of course. This is a step too far for me: I don’t mind paying for extra missions that add story content to the game, but I draw the line at buying a few bits of clothing that should have been in the main game to start with. Very cheeky.

Otherwise, I thoroughly enjoyed Mass Effect 2, which is easily one of the best games of the generation. Now onto number three…

Mordin: legend.

Mordin: legend.

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From The Armchair: Goodbye Airtight

ArmchairWhat ho, chums.

I’ve recently returned from the mayhem that is the Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts, and three days on I’m still not fully recovered from the madness, a stubborn cold being the legacy of my dalliance with chaos. Needless to say, video games have been my salve in times of snot-filled hopelessness, with Mass Effect 2 continuing to act like a soothing balm. Albeit a balm dotted with awkward alien love triangles.

What with my battles through the Glastonbury mud and my extended aimless wanderings in Mass Effect, there’s little to report on the home gaming front, and the fact that it’s actually sunny outside for once means that gaming has necessarily been pushed down the agenda. Nevertheless, I’ve been keeping a restless eye on the gaming news, and I was saddened to read today of the closure of Airtight Games, developer of the recently released Murdered: Soul Suspect.

Looking back through the list of games released by Airtight, it’s fair to say that none reached blockbuster heights. If anything I’d class them as the ‘flawed gem’ studio: they produced a series of highly original games, but their products often had rough edges or poor implementation that stopped them from becoming truly great. Murdered is a case in point: while their contemporaries were churning out first-person shooters, Airtight decided to make a unique point and click adventure where you control a detective’s ghost. A brilliant idea (as Eurogamer said, “it feels a lot like the best game Dario Argento never made”), but the final product received mixed reviews thanks to some crude and frustrating implementation.

Murdered-Logo

I have a big soft spot for Airtight’s first game, Dark Void. It received fairly scathing reviews when it was released, but I actually found it a lot of fun. It takes place in an alternative 1930s and is very reminiscent of one of my favourite childhood movies, The Rocketeer, featuring a square-jawed comic-book hero with a jetpack. At the time, Airtight were keen to promote the game’s ‘vertical cover system’ (a cover system… but vertical), but frankly this was just a gimmick. The real joy in the game was the variable scale – flying through huge canyons, engaging in dog fights with your jetpack, then dropping seamlessly into a building and carrying on the fight hand to hand. It was that same sense of seamless transition that everyone got excited about in the No Man’s Sky trailer, but this was in 2010.

Sadly this sense of variable scale was only present on a couple of levels, and the whole game was a bit of a mixed bag with some glaring bugs. The rushed ending indicated that the studio’s ambition had vastly outstripped their time and resources, but nevertheless it was a fun game that left me thinking how truly astonishing it could have been with a bit of polish. The perfect definition of a flawed gem

I’m sad to see Airtight go – there aren’t that many studios who can point to such a varied and original roster of games. But I fear that studios such as Airtight are a dying breed – with the launch of the next-gen systems, the market is polarising between mega-studios producing safe, triple A games with ever bigger teams and tiny indie studios turning out cheap, novel games. The mid-range market is disappearing, and I for one will be sad to see it go.

Dark Void

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Who wants a prototype Playstation 3?

Want a prototype Playstation 3?  You know the one with the infamous ‘batarang controller’ announced by Sony at E3 2005?  Well I know where to get one.  At least according to the Australian Retailer Wow Sight and Sound’s website, you can get one there!  The screen grab from the website is right on the front page advertising a HUGE COLLECTION OF ITEMS – complete with an image of the prototype PS3 controller.

With the Playstation 3 so cheap these days you’d be crazy not to buy one.  Just don’t expect it to look like that when it arrives.

 

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