Friday, May 30, 2008

Bad Company contest winners!

The time has come for the winners to start blowing stuff up! In the end, there were about 60 entries and a lot of cool ideas. If your idea didn't win, that doesn't mean I don't like it. I had to go through four phases of culling. These are the criteria I used to judge (which, in hindsight, perhaps I should have listed before):

  • FUN: Obviously, this is the most important. Would the inclusion of this weapon/vehicle have players giddy with excitement and shouting triumphantly at the screen? Would players be talking about their experience long after it was over?
  • FRESH: Innovation is appreciated, but I was asking more - Is this something gamers haven't experienced before? Would it feel like only a small spin on an old design or like a new type of gameplay? Remember, I mentioned the Halo sticky grenade as a great weapon, because being able to laugh as your enemy runs around screaming with terror in those seconds is priceless, as is watching that enemy run into a crowd of other players before exploding.
  • BALANCED: Is it too powerful? Is its power offset by its limitation(s)? If there are 20 players on the map and 6 of them choose your weapon over other options, would that disrupt the battle?
  • DYNAMICS: How much depth and variation does the idea offer? All you can do well with a sniper rifle is snipe, right? But finding good sniping positions, sneaking to those positions, combating the gun's unsteady aim, and choosing whether to wait for the headshot or shoot before the enemy moves... these variables surround the weapon and ensure that you can use it repeatedly and still have fresh, unique experiences. You can use the same gun 20 times and have 20 unique experiences. That's a dynamic weapon. Dynamics prolong a game's life, make experiences more memorable, and give players personal stories to share.
  • DIFFICULTY TO IMPLEMENT: So the idea sounds fun... but would it be hell to design and balance? Most developers are willing to put a good bit of elbow grease behind a weapon's inclusion in their game, but some ideas have so many complications or require so much adjustment of the game's other weapons, maps, and other features that the idea just isn't cost-efficient. An idea that developers can implement quickly and easily for relatively great effect is an invaluable contribution, because that clears up their time and money to work on other parts of the game and make the whole product even better.
Looking back at the idea you submitted, perhaps you see how it would score well in one of these five areas and not in others. If the idea you entered isn't listed as a winner below, feel free to share it as a comment here. I'll list just a few of the good ideas that didn't win at the end. Anyway...

Here they are, THE WINNERS! and in no particular order:

Chris suggested a portable mortar. Trajectory-aimed weapons (you have to estimate the angle due to the pull of gravity) are a very unique and fun type of gameplay. This one can be carried and moved on your back, but can only be fired from a stationary position. It can destroy light armored vehicles and infantry. A player could fire it from behind buildings or other visual impediments. Though hidden, the user can be tracked by the following the mortar's trajectory and he would be vulnerable during the launcher's use.

Bryce suggested a gun for hallucinogenic darts. The beauty of this idea is that the hallucination is crippling but not completely incapacitating, but can offer far more dynamics than a flashbang or stun grenade through a variety of possible hallucinations. For example, the affected enemy's screen might temporarily display false damage indicators (shows he's getting hit from somewhere when he really isn't) or a false map. Something might obscure his vision... perhaps even something strange and amusing, as Bryce proposes. The basic concept was proven fun by the tranquilizer dartgun in Perfect Dark 64, and this takes that concept much further.

David suggested a gun with highly magnetic ammo, set by the player to a positive or negative charge, and meant to magnetize other objects. This idea has a lot of possibilities for dynamic use. Deflect or weaken a sniper's shot by spraying metal-repellant rounds between you. Magnetize two heavy objects to bring them together like a massive hammer. Shoot at an enemy above to push him off his perch. Or disrupt a vehicle. There are many possible uses for players to discover, though this one could be tricky to balance.

Luke suggested a G-Force grenade. It's a non-lethal grenade with enough kinetic force to send people flying, disrupt vehicles, clear an area, aid an escape, or help the player leap to a rooftop (like a Halo grenade, but without the damage).

Joseph suggested a gun that causes the shooter and hit enemy to switch places. He knows this weapon needs some restrictions, like limited ammo, and map design would be complicated. Like the other ideas, it opens up many possibilities. I picture a veteran player jumping off a cliff and then shooting an enemy before he falls. :)

Dag dag suggested a gun with the "replay" feature from The Fifth Element. Such a weapon would be dynamic, offer a fresh type of gameplay, and is probably easy to balance by giving it a short range and perhaps tweaking the bullet damage.

Daniel suggested the bouncing betty, a jumping landmine. Dying by mines would be much more dramatic (fun) if they shot two meters into the air before exploding. It also widens the likelihood of being non-fatally injured by shrapnel, and creates the possibility of being injured from across a waist-high wall or other barrier.

Kickflipfreak and darkman both suggested (and both will receive codes for) the CornerShot. It's a real gun that can shoot around corners by bending and offering vision through a camera.

And finally, Tom suggested the Mole Cannon, a user-guided subterranean explosive device. It's powerful but, because guiding it requires the user's whole screen, it leaves the user completely vulnerable during use. In fact, if its trail can be seen like a mole's trail, enemy players can track it; thereby forcing the player to constantly move. It could knock players upwards, over ledges, or even through windows. This seems like basically an improved, more balanced version of the Farsight concept in Perfect Dark 64 (which I'm surprised to mention twice in this post). Like the others, it provides dynamic fun.

Congratulations, all! I'll start emailing your codes right away.

There were five ideas that were each suggested by more than one person. Those popular ideas were an amphibious vehicle, the Corner Shot, a sniper rifle with explosive bullets (take out the cover with the explosive bullet, then kill the enemy with a normal bullet), a weapon or device that lets you permanently tag an enemy so they show up on radar (at least until killed), and (strangely enough) a weapon that changes its ammo or enemies into whatever is sampled from the environment (plastic, wood, metal, etc).

A sample of other good ideas: an APC with blind-firing, a gun-controlled sonic blast, an E-SMAW, a defibrillator, an entrapping but breakable force field, a shrapnel arrow, a wench gun, a SPAS-12, a throwable-retrievable bayonet, and a tag that emits colored smoke only when the enemy is in close proximity with other players (revealing where they're hiding or where the battle is). There were many more cool ideas.

I hope y'all agree with at least some of my choices.

not quite yet

The contest isn't over just yet. I'll still be accepting entries for another half-hour.

I'm just posting now to make clear that I won't be able to finish judging until all the entries are in (I've received 60 so far!), and the winners won't be announced for another hour or so after that. Y'all submitted a lot of good ideas, so it has taken me until now just to widdle the list down to 30 potential winners.

Sadly, there can only be 10.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

signs of life

I'll admit it: I'm easily impressed.

When I played Crackdown recently, I was about to start climbing a building when the light went on in one of the windows. Nothing else happened. There were no shadows of people or even lamps or couches near the glass. But it was cool anyway, because it inspired my imagination to believe there was life on the other side.

Active NPCs generally offer the most powerful impression that a gameworld is alive, but you can use inanimate objects and the simplest of looped events to great effect. Window lights, a trail of paw prints next to a trash can, a chair knocked onto its back, an abandoned car with the hood up, a fire burning where nobody is around, a sign with graffiti over it, etc.

The key is that these simple objects suggest actions; that they let the player invent stories to explain a happening. In contrast, the layout of a room or a building's architecture offer information about culture and personality -- adjectives, rather than verbs. If you start the audience with a verb, any related adjectives are much more interesting. A fort naturally hints at a need to guard against enemies, but a fort with a broken gate and charred arrows still sticking in blackened rooftops hints at a recent battle... which makes the threat of enemies more relevant and interesting.

Players already, without any coaxing, want to believe that your gameworld is depthful and alive. It takes so little to feed their imaginations, so fill your world with little things.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

play Battlefield: Bad Company early!

Much to my surprise, EA has given me 10 codes that unlock the Battlefield: Bad Company demo on Xbox Live and PSN. The demo will be available to everyone on June 5th, but here's your chance to download it and starting blowing stuff up a week early!

I've come up with a little contest. Because of the short notice, I'll simply give the remaining codes away if too few have entered the contest by Friday at 7:00 p.m. (Central time; GMT minus 6 hours for you non-Americans).

To enter the contest
All you have to do is to submit your idea of a cool weapon or vehicle that you've never seen in a game but think could make for some great fun. If you want to point to a real weapon that just hasn't showed up in a game yet (an FSF-1 Sea Fighter, for example), that'll work; but preference will be given to original ideas. The best ideas are things that can single-handedly change gameplay, like the sticky grenades in Halo or the FarSight in Perfect Dark 64. Email your idea (one per entry; one entry per person) to me (Aaron) at On Friday night, the 10 winners will be emailed their codes to unlock the demo and the best weapon/vehicle ideas will be posted here on my site.

Again, this contest is only open until Friday at 7:00 p.m. CST, at which point all of the codes will be awarded. In the case of too few entries, remaining codes will be given away. So, for example, if only eight people enter the contest by Friday night, then those people will automatically win codes and I'll give the other two away.

The demo includes an early look into the single-player quest for Gold with Bad Company and, of course, multiplayer. Multiplayer takes the form of Gold Rush mode on the Oasis map (featuring land, sea, and air vehicles). It includes the ability to reach rank 4 and unlock an exclusive in-game weapon.

In case you've forgotten or haven't been watching it, Battlefield: Bad Company is a game by Dice that allows 24 players online and is all about destructible environments: "Create sniping positions by blowing out a piece of a wall or drive your tank straight through a small house."

War in a sandbox. Blow up the box. :)

Clarification (edit): I'm not a DICE or EA developer. EA was just generous enough to give a simple blogger like me the opportunity to host this contest.

And your weapon/vehicle idea doesn't have to be for Battlefield: Bad Company specifically... just something that a similar war game could use.

RPG intros must have variables

Cameron gives a good ramble on the early levels of Age of Conan in his Player versus Everything column today. Predictably, many of the games shortcomings are typical to MMOs. One mistake, which Cameron mentions, that's made by seemingly all MMOs is a shortage of variables in the early game experience.

Damion Schubert spoke once about how important a player's introductory experience is. The further into the game, the more an MMO player has invested in the game (time, money, friends, work, etc); and so the more likely he is to continue his subscription. Players are most likely to leave in their first month, and are also likely to speak to a friend or on a blog about the game. The introductory experience also sets the tone for the entire game. It shapes how the player will perceive and approach future content.

Damion was talking primarily about quality, but just as important is variation. I'd bet that the vast majority of MMO players either create characters in addition to their main or start over when bored with their main. A significant portion create more than one alternate character, and some players (like me) put a lot of time into those alts. So the early game, more than any other part of the game, must be replayable.

Frankly, the replayability of most MMOs sucks. The main variable is the player's new choice of class and/or race. Games like EQ2, WoW, and CoH offer a choice of starting locales and low-level enemies. And then there's limited choice of gear (limited because there's usually an objectively optimal gearset which most players gravitate to). All of these dynamics are admirable, but they don't add up to a very fresh experience.

Why? The same combat strategy applies to all enemies. The loot is predictable and varies little within an enemy group. Experience points are always rewarded. Weapons and other gear have different numbers, but basically play the same. Locales offer different views, but little else. Nearly all quests are identical in goal and method. All factions work the same way. Every character's basic goals are the same. Level progression, gear progression, area progression, skill progression, faction progression... all progression is completely predictable and generally familiar to the player. There are new elements, but little to be surprised by and get excited about. In short, there's no adventure.

There could be.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


I wrote this on Vanguard's forums years ago. Fishing is included in many MMOs as a bonus; but when it is, it's about as engaging as tying your shoes. It doesn't have to be that way. Anyway, my old post:

I think fishing is an area where some realism could make it a whole lot more fun. Now I haven't done much fresh-water fishing and I've never fly-fished, so I'll leave those to someone else to work out. But I have done saltwater pole fishing and spear fishing, so...

Give us different types of poles, lines, weights, baits, etc. There's only a point to this if you make fishing into something that involves practice and strategy.

When fishing off a saltwater shoreline, you have to monitor the tugging on your line very closely. The trick is that the waves and the current tug at your line too. So you often have to use experience and luck to discern when a fish is nibbling at your bait and you need to yank back on the pole to hook it. Sometimes, you'll mistake a wave or current for a nibble and you reel in your line to see the bait still on your hook. Other times, you reel in your line because it's been sitting there a long time...and sure enough, something stole your bait (damn you!).

A thicker pole won't break on you, but you also lose some of your ability to feel what's going on with your line. Stronger line is always better, just more expensive and often unnecessary. Weights are used to keep your hook and bait from being tossed to the surface by waves and currents. But you don't want to use too heavy a weight or your bait will be sitting in the there's a lot of wisdom and guesswork involved in picking a weight (assuming the strength of waves and currents on that shoreline vary). I can't say I ever used artificial lures (they don't seem to work very well with saltwater fishing).

Baits are a fun part of fishing. You could just use the shrimp, squid, minnows or whatnot you bought at the store. You might use your last catch in hopes of grabbing a bigger fish....perhaps cutting it up into small chunks. There could also be room for experimentation. My cousin, brother and I liked to catch and use sandfleas.....small crustaceans that burrow into the shoreline. In an MMO, it would be very cool if players could experiment by catching creatures like that and using them for bait. Catching sandfleas isn't always easy, so catching bait like this could be it's own mini-game.

Here's where all of this comes together.

Give players some sort of visual and audial means of detecting stress on the pole and line. In real life, I fish most by feeling movement....but in a game, you could watch the pole bend as well as watch a meter that simulates the feel...and you could hear the pole creak I suppose. A series of quick jerks usually means you've got a nibble...though not always. The player would also have to watch how the jerking relates to the waves. When a wave comes in, the part you don't see underneath is going the opposite direction and tugs at your line. So being able to see where your line enters the water is important.

If you put on too much weight, your bait will sit in the mud or get picked up by bottom-feeders (which could be good, if that's what you're fishing for). If you put on too little weight, your bait will pop out of the water or hang near the surface (which, again, can be good for particular fish).

If you use a thicker pole, your feel meter isn't as sensitive and your pole won't bend as much...but it won't break. And vice versa.

Different baits will attract different fish. Also, different baits can withstand different amounts of waves and tides. So if you didn't have wave variations in the game, you could use certain baits over again 3 times while others could be used 5 times, etc. You could have bits of shiny metal as spoons (heck, i imagine they got that name because people used to use real spoons; so why not do that?). With spoons, you're constantly casting and reeling in so the bait stays near the surface (so it can shimmer in the light) and simulates a swimming fish. In deeper waters, catching fish in the same spot for a while might attract sharks from all of the blood when you hook fish, so there's such thing as accidental bait. A funnier example is when people in small boats tie a big fish along the side (because they don't have room in the boat) and a shark will grab it. A Great White did that to some poor folks in the Gulf of Mexico years back and nearly tipped them into the water with it.

Lastly, I'd like to see fisherman catch a lot more than fish in a game. EQ had it so that you might fish out junk fish or just plain junk. In reality, that happens a lot (saltwater catfish, seaweed, driftwood, etc). But you also might catch rays (some sting you, some shock), eels (morays are poisonous, others shock you pretty badly), crabs (the little punks hang onto the line with their claws and let go at the shoreline), starfish and sand-dollars and urchins (no, they don't tug the line), octopi and squid (those suckers can hurt...and some squids have claws in every sucker), sharks (yeah, you're careful taking them off your line, haha) and plenty of other things. Plus, if it's a fantasy game, why not throw in a lot of stuff we've never seen before? Look at prehistoric fish (from the Devonian and Ordovician periods in particular) -- very different from today's sea life and very cool.

And I'd like to see fisherman get stung, bitten, shocked, and such on occasion. Most of the time, it should be nothing serious. Saltwater catfish in the Gulf of Mexico have stingers in their fins filled with a poison that makes it hurt more. It would be funny if something like that or a crab had the chance of hurting a character and making them hop around uncontrollably for a little bit. Other stuff, like highly poisonous fish (moray eels) and shockers could potentially kill you. I think it would be a cool addition if players could (rarely) die from fishing. Wouldn't that be a great tale to hear in the tavern one day?

But before I conclude my book of virtual fishing(TM), let's talk spear-fishing and deep sea fishing.

I haven't done underwater spearfishing (freediving) -- that's a whole other topic. But I have done spearfishing off the shoreline. It would be another cool mini-game. The screen turns into a first-person view, looking straight down into the water (perhaps seeing your bare feet below....different for every race (troll feet are nasty, I imagine). Different fish would move at different speeds across your screen. Plus, the water refracts the light a little bit, so you have to aim a little to the side of where you're seeing the fish (optional feature). If you've ever played the game Amazon Trail, that's basically what I'm talking about and it's very fun.

My cousin once caught a stingray with our spear. It was our first real catch with it, so it took a moment to recover from the shock before we realized the pole was moving out to sea!

As for deep-sea fishing. It would be cool if a game's boats could go trolling. You drag fishing lines behind you and fish bite the moving baits. It's simple and easy, and probably a great way to entertain players while traveling on boats. Some might even do shark-fishing with chum.

Just think... If I was more familiar with fresh-water fishing and fly-fishing, this post would have been twice as long. ;) I think most, if not all, of it can be worked into an MMO to make fishing more fun and create a couple quality mini-games. You'll notice that the pole fishing system in particular introduces personal customization, strategy, and reward for individual experience.

Monday, May 26, 2008

why is AoC so popular?

This isn't a review. I've never played Age of Conan, and haven't even payed much attention to it since I decided I'm not going to play another MMO with great graphics until I have a computer that can do it justice. These are just my guesses (and they are only guesses) at why Age of Conan has become one of the fastest-selling PC games of all time and has done particularly well in the North American market.

First, the combat is fast-paced. Note that the pace in World of Warcraft is also faster than the typical MMO. There's certainly no shortage of gamers interested in turn-based combat. But let's face it... more people watch football than play chess. Not everyone has the reflexes of a tiger, but Americans in particular are generally lovers of action, and patience is not an oft-praised virtue in our culture. Combine that with the MMO industry's dogmatic adherence to queu-form combat, and it's obvious how MMOs with more real-time combat will attract attention.

Second, the setting isn't watered down. Even parents who aren't fascinated by half-naked bodies and blood get tired of watching cartoons with their kids all the time. Nobody watches comedies exclusively. We all long for a little seriousness at times, and Conan provides a cold, stark, and serious setting. Like the fast-paced combat, this sort of setting is rare among MMOs and so immediately attractive as something fresh.

And why has the game done so well in North America in particular?

Western art and Western themes. One might call the art style gritty realism... very unlike Asian aesthetics. The Conan myth was written by a Texan during the Reconstruction period (the time when the victors of the Civil War were making life hard on Southerners) and inspired by European barbarians like the Picts. Asian cultures have their own barbarian ancestors and hard times, of course, but storytelling and thematic focus are immensely different on this side of the Pacific.

Then, of course, there's the Conan books and movies. I don't know how widespread the series is outside the USA, but I expect that it's sold well in Canada and Europe. The game's advertising is certainly helped by beginning from a decades-old and universally recognized IP.

Age of Conan certainly won't halt WoW's momentum, but it I bet it will steal quite a few WoW subscribers since they do share certain aspects. Regardless, it will significantly affect the MMO landscape by injecting some rare elements and exhibiting some post-WoW success for an MMO.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Wii versus 360 and PS3

My friend Darren repeated something often said about this batch of consoles: the Wii is the only truly next-gen console, while the 360 and PS3 are not really very innovative. I disagree.

As I told Darren, he's in good company. Will Wright, my favorite game designer, has made much the same claim. But I think that view is a failure to look beyond the obvious. It fails to recognize that a simple increase in processing and memory can and often does have a huge effect on gameplay -- not just evolutionary change, but also revolutionary change.

I only have experience with the 360, so I'm going to focus exclusively on that console. And let's be clear about something: this is not a fan post. If I had the money to, I'd own all three consoles. This is in no way bashing the Wii. I just want to explain why the 360 and PS3 should not be accused of failing to innovate.

Even the Xbox 360's first batch of games hinted at the new possibilities unlocked by the console's power. Kameo, a game by Rare that reminded me a lot of DonkeyKong 64, proved the different type of fun that could be had from charging through an endless horde of enemies. Gears of Wars 2 will apparently explore that idea further.

Oblivion could not have happened on the Wii. The visuals in that game are not fluff... they're an essential part of the experience. The massive gameworld, which requires a lot of memory, is essential to the experience. Something else that's essential to Oblivion: complex controls. The Wii remote and nunchuk are cool, but they're not capable of as many control options as a single 360 controller with two pressure-sensitive analog sticks and 19 buttons (including being able to click the analog sticks and push the d-pad in 8 directions) aside from the Start button.

Could the lighting and shadows of Dead Space, combined with the game's strategic dismemberment feature and its zero gravity environments, be done on the Wii? Or the water effects of Bioshock? How about the flurry of AI and animations for LOTR: Battle for Middle Earth 2? Or the detailed cities and motion-captured animations of Assassin's Creed?

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed will be released on every console, yet the 360 and PS3 aren't getting the multiplayer component that the other versions get. Why? I don't know, but I think it's probably meant to make up for the better experience the more powerful consoles are able to provide solely due to their power. One of the devs explicitly mentioned that the 360 and PS3 inspired them to make such a game. I'd be willing to bet that there's more than merely a difference in visuals between the game versions (but I could be wrong).

To be clear, the Wii is capable of impressive visuals, physics, and greater things than we've yet seen. But it's indisputably not capable of many specific designs.

One might argue that these new types of gameplay all could have been seen in PC gaming. But so could the Wii's motion controls. There's nothing any of the consoles have done that could not have been developed for the PC.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

AI: beyond logic

Human beings are not logical. Or, rather, we're not only logical. Every one of us makes choices that depart from what we consciously perceive to be the best, most rational options. A person who exhibits no emotion is called robotic, because emotion is also an essential aspect of humanity. Some might even go further and say that the will is neither logic nor emotion, but something else.

My own view is that emotions are based in a sort of logic. Happiness is a response to communion with the things we love; togetherness. Sadness is a response to being apart from those objects. Anger is a response to injustice. And other emotions are generally some mixture of basic emotions like those, filtered through our own personal perceptions of what is truth, what is love, etc.

Regardless of what one theorizes emotions are, we are incapable of completely predicting human behavior. We can't even fully predict the behavior of many lesser animals.

Viewers of horror films often remark that particular characters are unbelievable because those characters act irrationally. I don't think the audience truly expects an absence of impediments to logic, such as fear and anger (or even varying degrees of intelligence). Instead, the audience is responding to the characters being too neatly fashioned... too predictable. Of course, she's just going to hide and cry until she's found and slaughtered! That's what they always do, right? Audiences generally expect characters to have half a brain, but the actions of depthful characters always contain surprises. A truly depthful character is not completely knowable, because no human being is completely knowable.

So where is all of this leading? When depth is a goal, AI should include self-contained variables. A character's actions should not be determined solely by a "personality" type plus environmental circumstances. Within that personality, there should be a variable range.

The same person placed in the same basic circumstance will often respond differently. In reality, this doesn't happen willy-nilly; it's in response to a change in internal circumstances (distraction, drowsiness, recurring thoughts due to individual values, new ideas conflicting with conditioning, etc). But trying to mimic the endless intricacies of a human personality is a lost cause. So a simulation meant to give the illusion of true depth should contain internal dice... doing for personality what the Euphoria engine does for physics, albeit accomplishing that illusion in a very different way.

Minor variables can have big consequences, as I'm sure AI programmers are very aware. If an enemy hesitates in combat for just a second, all sorts of things could happen in that second. The player might gain an advantage. The enemy's companions could arrive and start shooting. The wind or waves could change, pushing a vehicle slightly off its intended course. That moment's hesitation doesn't have to be exactly described by the programmers or animators, because the player's imagination will fill in the blanks. Perhaps it was fear. Perhaps it was a sudden realization. Perhaps it was his back going out of alignment (speaking of simulation... the problems of getting old!).

One thing game developers could learn from old movies (40s and 50s) is the benefits of innuendo and incomplete information. Scenes are most powerful when not everything is spelled out for the audience. That includes combat scenes.

Anyway, I think the future of storytelling in games lies largely in the development of better AIs. This is one way.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

gold farming is criminal trespassing?

Apparently, breaking a site's terms of service might soon be considered criminal trespassing under federal law, as defined by a judge (they're legislators, too, these days). Zubon summed up the news perfectly, but I'd like to add one thing that's often forgotten: a law doesn't have to be reasonable or good to stand for decades in the courts. If the idea that breaking a site's TOS agreement is criminal trespassing sounds ridiculous to you, don't believe for a second that something ridiculous and unreasonable can't be made into law.

I have no idea what the judge will decide or what the response will be, but this is definitely worth keeping an eye on.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

GTA 4: initial impressions

I'm finally back. Sorry for the long hiatus, but I was staying with a 90-year-old and, like most 90-year-olds, she doesn't have internet. Life without internet (or even a computer!)... I could hardly remember what that was like. Really, it's not so bad. Try it sometime. It's like camping. ;)

Anyway, I picked up GTA IV last week and thought I'd offer my initial impression of the game.

I haven't played it in a while. Instead, I've been playing Call of Duty 4. That's partially a testament to how great CoD4 multiplayer is, but it also reflects my relative boredom with GTA IV. Honestly, I'm wondering if I should have bought it or just saved my money for the plethora of other great games being released this year (two of which I've already pre-ordered). If you haven't seen Zero Punctuation's review yet, you might want to watch that before reading further. Like most of his reviews, this one mentioned many of my own thoughts.

I both like and dislike the realism. I certainly love it in the visuals. Driving in the rain or fog is a thrill. I like the gritty story. However, I agree with most of the points Zero Punctuation made.

Being able to go bowling, play darts or play pool with another character is great. For a sandbox-focused game, more options is good. But Rockstar made a mistake by having those characters call Niko on his phone. That makes the world seem more real, but it also deters the player from enjoying the sandbox by constantly turning the player's focus toward the linear content. It's partially a problem of pacing. Sandbox adventures (meaning small series of explorations that the player subconsciously connects into stories) take time to develop, and the player needs time to become immersed in that exploration. The invitations to hang out by Niko's companions disrupt that exploration and prevent the player from connecting happenstance events into personal stories. There's not enough undisrupted time to wander through the sandbox and find one's own crazy series of events.

The TV channels are funny, but why do I have to sit in my apartment to watch? The billiards, darts, and bowling could have been designed so that the player could watch TV between turns. I'm a fan of world-type games, but who wants to roleplay a couch-potato? The TV stations should have been enjoyable while doing other things, as the radio stations are. There was more humor on the airwaves of early GTA games, but the music is still good. It would be nice if the radio turned down/off automatically when Niko answers his cellphone, but that's the sort of attention to detail that's often lacking in GTA IV.

The vehicle handling is awful. In this case, the move toward realism was a very bad idea. There's nothing quite like racing creeping away from cops in second gear because your car can't handle turns at higher speeds. This is how your grandma would evade police. Perhaps Dukes of Hazard -style chases emerge with faster cars later in the game; but if that's the case, shouldn't driving be fun in the beginning of the game, too? Driving in older GTA games was a blast, but not so in this one. And wouldn't it be more fun if passengers responded to wild driving and accidents more like those in the intro scene of The Darkness demo than like old Miss Daisy yelling at you to slow down? This is GTA, afterall -- players should be encouraged to act crazily, not like prim ninnies.

The control scheme for gunfighting on the 360 is strange. There doesn't seem to be any reason the typical FPS setup wouldn't work, except for shooting while driving. And in that case, shooting while driving is a chore as it is, and should have been done differently. Wouldn't it be more fun to let a companion NPC or an AI for Niko handle the driving or shooting controls while I handle the other? Wouldn't a close-camera chase or gunfight like that be more fun anyway than combining the two into less visceral, less fluid experience?

I hate for this early-glimpse (many hours of play) review to all be negative, so let me reiterate that the visuals are impressive, the story is good, and add that pressing "B" while driving to activate a cinematic camera is an awesome idea (too bad Microsoft still stupidly fails to offer Xbox 360 gamers the ability to take screenshots). The bowling, darts, and (especially) pool are all extremely well designed, though I do wish pool and darts included the same swinging use of the thumbstick that bowling does (to add that visceral feel). The physics is great, but more for its applications to animation (pedestrians moving and getting knocked around, vehicles colliding, etc) than applications to gameplay (driving, gunfights, etc).

GTA 2 and Vice City were better games. They let the player off the rails immediately, kept the pace up, allowed wild and silly fun while wandering every which way, and strived to be over-the-top in gameplay more than in libertine shocks (ex: yes, the hookers in GTA IV are funny, but the production time would have been better spent on further dynamics in combat and driving gameplay -- i.e., content that improves the game's lifespan / replayability).

I'll put more hours into GTA IV at some point. But my early impression is that Saints Row is as good, and Saints Row 2 might end up being a better game. Hold out for that one, if you haven't already bought GTA.

I'm looking forward to trying out the game's multiplayer modes. Perhaps that's where GTA IV really shines... though that would be strange, considering that the GTA series has always been about the single-player sandbox.