Monday, June 29, 2009

musical variety

If you watch many films, you'll be exposed to a broad range of music. Films vary tremendously in musical accompaniment, including within any single film genre.

Sometimes it's the oddest combinations of visuals and music that have the most thrilling effect. Producers of the original Star Wars rejected generations of sci-fi tradition by choosing the classical, symphonic style of composer John Williams to accompany the story. Now, who could imagine the Star Wars saga without it?

Likewise, I believe one of the features which set Diablo 2 apart from the crowd was Matt Uelmen's free-flowing classical score. And who can even categorize Koji Kondo's brilliant Mario Bros theme?

There have been many great musical scores for games. But how much variety have we seen? Any type of music you can imagine has been used in films, but I can think of many types of music I've never heard in games. Why?

Thursday, June 25, 2009


I've been playing Fallout 3 recently, and it strikes me how often missions and characters relate. A character from one city wants me to kill or capture a character in another city. I'm already on a mission from the second person, and I won't be able to finish it if I accept the new mission. I can only choose one mission or the other, one person or the other.

In that scenario, I can see the choice and at least vaguely know the possible consequences. That's different from choices in other games.

In this interview with Daniel Erickson and James Ohlen from Bioware's Star Wars: The Old Republic team, there's one point in which Erickson says this:
So you killed the captain. If you had spared the captain, you know the pods that come ripping through the walls? He knows about those. He’s not some junior officer. You don’t go down that path at all if you spare the captain.

As soon as those pods come, he’s like, “Oh those are terrible, get away from those, we’re going to do this…” the whole adventure goes on a different track.

But you can’t reload and find that out.
In that scenario, the player doesn't know the possible consequences of a choice. In fact, the player might not even realize a choice with significant consequences has been made. You might kill the captain, get hurt by the pods, and never consider that the captain could have been aware of the danger and warned you.

Is that a problem? If the player doesn't know a significant choice has been made, is there any thrill to be had from making that choice? Yes and no.

An invisible choice still acts as a dynamic... as a variable which improves replayability and offers the player a unique, personal adventure. And by not presenting possible consequences with a choice, that choice is more likely to be a natural act of personality (real or pretend) than a calculated attempt by the player to direct events. Think of it like acting versus directing in a film; you can either experience and respond to events or you can script them.

But there's certainly a thrill in knowing the choice you're about to make is important or realizing a past choice had a significant effect.

Of course, in online multiplayer games, a player might be made aware of any or all possible consequences by fellow players. It's important to recognize that such spoilers needn't be solicited to be received. MMO players are always dropping spoilers in public chat channels. Friends often drop spoilers in private conversations without realizing they've done so or realizing you didn't want them to. This, I believe, will be one of Bioware's major hurdles in their work on SW:TOR.

Anyway, what are your thoughts on choice in games? Do you prefer invisible choices, overt choices, or a mix? Is one type more appropriate in some games than others?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

stupid computers!

I joked to a friend that computers, cars, and women are alike because they're all sure to break down and require maintenance from time to time. ;)

In this case, that's an understatement. My video card is dead. May it burn in h... i mean, may it rest in peace.

Since my hard drive has occasionally clicked for over a year, threatening to go on strike (I have, of course, seen my share of blue screens of death), and because my computer is at least six years old, I figure it's probably time to just poney up for a whole new computer. One of the reasons I've been avoiding buying PC games in the past year or two is my PC's age.

Anyway, I'm just letting y'all know that my posts might be sporadic for the next week or two. But I'll post when I can.

hopes for Mass Effect 2

While reading this Bioware interview, I thought of how important character moods are to stories.

I love the idea of party members in a game responding to my actions in ways that fit their individual personalities. If an NPC companion accepted or rejected a series of player actions in a dramatic way, like leaving the party, that would be an impressive story event. But it seems games up to this point have relied purely on dialog to lead up to such events.

It would be so much more effective and emotionally moving if each character's grade of approval or disapproval was represented in realistic ways... like facial expressions, movements, and tone-of-voice.

Anyway, that got me thinking about my hopes for Mass Effect 2.

Bioware seems to have addressed some of the issues of the first game, such as the time spent in inventory management. I'm looking forward to experiencing the adjusted combat.

I still believe it's important that not all conversations adhere to a single pace. Excited and heated conversations should be quicker than relaxed ones. That means shorter pauses in between lines of dialog and terser language.

I also think Alpha Protocol's team has improved Mass Effect's dialog system by limiting time for players to choose a dialog response. There can be a good argument for leaving it unlimited. But limiting time has the benefits of making dialog flow more naturally and also mimicking the impulsiveness of real conversation.

As I wrote at Write the Game long ago:
Mass Effect steps so close to realistic decision-making that the occasional frustration the player feels from being limited to only a handful of potential dialogue responses can be significantly greater than in past games, such as Bioware’s own Neverwinter Nights.

For example. An NPC once requested that I do something unethical to achieve a good goal. I was hoping for a dialogue option that would let me say that I approved of the goal but not the method. Instead, my only way of refusing the NPC’s request was to say the goal wasn’t worth my time.

Mass Effect enables the player to define Shepard’s personality to an unprecedented extent, but it may corner the player into acting in violation of that same personality at times. The game suffers from its own prowess.
Unfortunately, this problem will almost certainly reappear in Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age: Origins, because games can't perfectly simulate the creativity and individuality involved in real human conversation. That said, Bioware can probably avoid the most disappointing conflicts by having many testers play each dialog tree to discover various persons' expectations.

Of course, my main concern and doubt is exploration. Will planet exploration be just as crude and boring as it was in the first Mass Effect? As an exploration-focused gamer, the first game was a huge disappointment for me. Bioware led gamers to expect a variety of solar systems and planets that could be explored apart from the main storyline. The sad reality was very basic and sparse content copied onto every planet, and every planet being only a slight variation of the same bleak and empty landscape.

Since Bioware hasn't discussed this problem in interviews or trailers, I'm inclined to think planet exploration will be just as uninspired in Mass Effect 2. But one can hope.

A less severe issue is that many of us who played the first Mass Effect -- especially those who had multiple characters making different choices -- will have forgotten what happened and what choices we made. And there's no way to review. We could only replay the original (start over) to refresh our memories. If Bioware could design some sort of flashback at the beginning of each sequel, it would be immensely helpful. The idea is that the player sees or hears a montage of the most important moments and decisions from the previous game.

Then, of course, there's the Mako controls. Halo 3's controls for tanks were much more intuitive for me. I don't know if most gamers feel the same way, though I did hear others complaining about the Mako.

Anyway, Mass Effect 2 isn't at the top of my list, but I do look forward to playing it. I expect exploration will disappoint again and I'll be annoyed by the lack of some dialog options, but the adventure and combat should be fun.

Are there other issues from the first game you hope have been addressed? Have your expectations changed since the first Mass Effect?

Monday, June 22, 2009

blog compensation and the FTC

Apparently, the Federal Trade Commission has decided to start policing bloggers.

Companies increasingly include bloggers in their marketing drives. The FTC is concerned that not all bloggers reveal their relationships with these companies while consumers turn to the blogs for product reviews. Basically, the FTC believes consumers have a right to full disclosure when receiving product advice.

If the guidelines are approved, bloggers would have to back up claims and disclose if they're being compensated — the FTC doesn't currently plan to specify how. The FTC could order violators to stop and pay restitution to customers, and it could ask the Justice Department to sue for civil penalties.

Any type of blog could be scrutinized, not just ones that specialize in reviews.

.... the guidelines also would cover the broader and common practice of affiliate marketing, in which bloggers and other sites get a commission when someone clicks on a link that leads to a purchase at a retailer.

I'm generally not a fan of government regulatory agencies, but the FTC proposal certainly makes sense under current law. It's more a clarification of how existing laws apply to blogs than a creation of new rules. There's ample room for regulatory abuse, but I expect it will generally be business as usual.

In any case, this seems like a good time to talk about my own site's company relationships. I've spoken about them with fellow bloggers from time to time, but never explicitly discussed it on here.

First, you've probably noticed the "Partners" section in my sidebar. I used to have it labeled as something else, though I don't recall the label. For five or six months now, I've received a small amount of revenue in the form of monthly payments for including hypertext ads in that section for various companies and organizations -- enough money to buy one or two games each month. The advertisers are found through a middleman company, and I accept only ads that I think are somewhat relevant to my site.

When I started this blog years ago, I never dreamed I'd be able to make any money or derive any benefits from it. Now that I do, I'm a little stricter with myself about posting almost every weekday, but you can peruse my archives and see that the content is basically the same. I have had to consider how commercial I'll let the site become, though.

I think my priorities are pretty clear. If money was my top priority, I'd be spamming and posting all over the internet, writing more about news, writing many articles per day, etc. But money is not my top priority for this site, nor will ever be. That's why most my articles are still philosophical and niche, why I only write one article per day, and why I rarely mention my site apart from POTD (Post of the Day) links on Twitter.

Over the years, I've been given beta access directly by developers, given interview opportunities, given products and prizes to give away in contests, and have even received a few review copies of games. On a few occasions, I've been solicited for design advice by developers; and I briefly worked for a European developer (primarily as a reviewer). I continue to link to CrosuS, a product which I contributed to in a small way, but more because it is unique and respectable than because I have any affiliation with it (my contribution to CrosuS was negligible).

Most relations I've had with marketers have been brief, but I've been an EA Contact for months now. EA has given me exclusive screenshots, interview opportunities, a heads-up on new web content, and a few free review copies. In return, I offer to review particular games and help games I like gain exposure... usually by incorporating details of the game into a philosophical discussion typical of Anyway Games. I only review and market games I'm truly interested in. I've rejected offers concerning many games, from EA and others, such as THQ's Dragonica Online.

Have these relationships affected the honesty of my reviews and comments? I don't believe so. You might note that, while I gave Dead Space and Spore good reviews and have praised many EA games (just look at their present list of upcoming titles -- impressive), my reviews were not so kind to other of the publisher's games, like The Godfather II (which I received a review copy of) and Mass Effect. In fact, I am one of the few who have been very critical of Mass Effect, despite acknowledging that it's a good game overall (I'll be writing about hopes for the sequel this week).

Pandemic is responsible for one of my favorite games of all time, Star Wars: Battlefront. Recently, I've been helping them to advertise The Saboteur because it looks like a potentially awesome game. But I wrote a rather scathing review of another Pandemic title, LOTR: Conquest.

The point is that I am a brutally, compulsively honest person. I have Asperger Syndrome and am a reasoned Catholic. Put those two together, and the result is an extremely stubborn commitment to truth and morality. I care more about truth, God and my fellow human beings than profit and rewards. And I reject the common notion that moral rules change depending on whether one is acting in or outside of business. I certainly am not always right or accurate, but I try very hard to be honest with myself and others.

I also try to be open. So I've added a note in this site's heading for readers who don't communicate with me regularly. I try to make my biases plain, but please feel free to ask me if ever you'd like to know where I'm coming from.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Natal and TV viewing

I suggested on Geoff Keighley's blog that Microsoft should advertise Project Natal, when they release it, alongside their Netflix and on-demand movie services. Hopefully, they'll also have live TV deals by then, like they made in Britain with Sky.

People who play games infrequently, and even not at all, are already attracted to the Netflix service. I have two non-gaming relatives who use Xbox 360s exclusively for Netflix and renting movies in high definition. Consumers who own or are interested in the Wii will be attracted to Natal games. But it's a combination of both Natal gaming and cheap, on-demand movie/TV services in 360 advertising that will convert Wii owners and tap into the irregular-gamer/non-gamer market.

This leads me to a point made my Peter Molyneux about Project Natal. The new hardware, Molyneux argues, opens up possibilities beyond traditional genres and applications.

What about TV interaction? Microsoft could position their next console to become as universal as DVD players if it enables TV viewers to interact with average, non-gaming TV shows somehow.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

classes in war sims

As I said the other day on Twitter, I'd like to see a class system like that of Neverwinter Nights combined with a war sim in the vein of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.

In Neverwinter Nights, each class represented a unique playstyle. Despite having very few dynamics in story and combat scenarios, I replayed that game many times just to play around with the classes. Based on D&D rules, the game let players choose which skills to invest in each level, as well as character aptitudes and other customizations. Ultimately, the player's character was unique within a class as much as because of that class.

First-person war sims tend to either fixate on one class of character or have the player constantly changing class. An example of the latter is Sniper Elite. An example of the former is Modern Warfare, in which each level starts the player in a different role and the player is usually able to switch weapons during the level.

My suggestion is to make the player pick a class of soldier at the beginning of the game, stick to that class and develop it throughout the campaign, and then replay the entire campaign as different classes. So the player might go through the entire campaign first as a sniper, then replay as commando or engineer.

Levels could be tackled from any angle, but the difficulty of each level would depend on the player's class and choices. So a scenario that was easy the first time through could be difficult the next time through. The other option is to make it an open world game. That's rare for war sims, but I'm not sure there's anything that makes it more difficult than for other genres. In any case, such a game would have to have more dynamics in setting and story than Neverwinter Nights had.

I'm not saying this is a better way than normal war games. I'm just suggesting it as a fun possibility. What do you think?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

arch enemies

I might be mistaken, but it seems game series rarely include specific, perpetual antagonists... an enemy leader or rival who is always working against the player's character, though other enemies rise and fall.

Lex Luthor is a clear example. Even when Superman manages to catch the criminal mastermind and deliver him to prison, Luthor inevitably escapes and wreaks havoc again. The Joker is another (and my favorite) example. Though Batman faces many enemies, The Joker is a sort of polar opposite and has a way of turning up again after being defeated.

An arch enemy might work from hiding, like the Sith Lord does in the first episodes of Star Wars. Or the character might be revealed early on but is never seen in any overt action, as in LOTR with Sauron.

In games series, it seems antagonists continue on only in generalities. In Halo, it's the Covenant and the Flood. In Gears of War, it's the Locust army. There's no specific figure for the player to focus their emotions and opposition on. The opposition is national or ideological, rather than personal. I'm sure there are exceptions.

Observing that the four IPs with arch enemies listed above are some of the most popular stories in modern history, this seems to be a story and gameplay element worth considering.

Friday, June 12, 2009

fear and power

To be honest, I have mixed feelings about the upcoming Dante's Inferno:

It's made by a lot of the same guys who made Dead Space, now called Visceral Games, so I have little doubt that they're aiming for high quality and they have the skills and drive to achieve it. Actual gameplay hasn't been shown yet, but the general idea of melee action through monsters and areas fashioned after Dante's dream of Hell is definitely exciting. My guess is it's going to be pretty sweet.

But, though I'm sure the game will be creepy, Visceral seems to be inherently dampening fear of Dante's demons by making them all mortal. When you give a character power over a threat, that threat is less intimidating.

Of course, perception is everything. Perceived power is more important than actual power when trying to instill fear. A perfect example is the fight between Sam and Shelob, the giant spider, in LOTR: The Return of the King. It seems as though Sam is hopelessly outmatched, and that is what makes the encounter frightening.

If Sam immediately demonstrated some success, the scene would be less thrilling. If his success was predictable, if it was more the result of careful planning than of impulsive decisions and quick reflexes, we would fear less for Sam.

The biggest hurdle for a game designer trying to instill fear is certainty of victory. If a player knows he must defeat an enemy to progress in the game, then he immediately knows that victory is possible.

Books and movies have been killing off supernatural foes like demons and spirits for millennia. But I've always thought the ghostly tales predating the French Revolution and its cultural aftershocks are the better frights. Authors often played with the Christian understanding of demons, angels and souls; a perception that spirits could not be killed and human beings have no physical capacity to oppose them. People could only mentally resist and call upon God's effortless protection. Folktales preceding Christianity also involved struggles between humans and spirits in which humans used only their wits to escape, capture, or banish the spirits... rather than to destroy them.

Anyway, so here are some recommendations I would make to the Dante's Inferno team.

Don't make every enemy effectively mortal. Instead, provide non-lethal ways for the player to defeat the most terrifying beings. For example: a particular demon might be bound to a certain area, so the player could escape the demon by crossing some threshold (with that demon, and others, actively impeding progress and giving chase).

Satan in particular should not be killed. If it were my choice, I'd end the game by letting the player seemingly make headway in a battle against Satan, then proving the devil to be far superior in might and, in the end, apparently victorious. When the player seems defeated, that's when God reaches into Hell to deliver him. This ensures Satan, the game's final enemy, is as terrifying as possible. It also respects Dante Alighieri's belief, clearly represented in his tale, that he is saved by God and not himself. It would be a fresh game experience for most players. And finally, it could make for an exceptionally powerful story experience. In fact, I would have the player rescued by cherubs or children. In Christian theology (Dante's theology), the youngest and most innocent child could not be touched by Satan himself so long as God protects the child. That's a powerful image: a fearless, smiling young child ignores the demonic ruler of Hell as he or she takes the hand of the player's character and leads the player up a white stairway to Heaven.

For those epic enemies which are mortal, ensure the player must make use of more than strategy to win. Obviously, you don't want to stack the deck too heavily against the player, but ensure that the encounter retains some unpredictability even after the player gains an understanding of what that particular enemy's strengths and habits are.

Introduce "enemies" which can neither harm nor be harmed by the player. A malicious ghost beyond one's ability to affect is a frightening experience.

Remember that Satan is known as The Deceiver. Undermine the player's trust in dialog, in companions, and even in basic senses. For example: spiders might suddenly spill out from Dante's armor and crawl across his body, causing Dante to react in panic... and then the spiders are suddenly gone (they were just an illusion). Or a damned soul might rest still while calling out to the player in a pathetic tone with words of remorse and a plea for aid, then transform and attack the player if he gets too close.

Obviously, I could go on for days, so I'll stop here. :)

Thursday, June 11, 2009

starting with the specific

I've never respected doing things differently only to be different; loving new things only because they're new. Traditions usually have some purpose that's only fully recognized when they're absent. But, occasionally, it can be good to take things completely back to the beginning and start anew.

Backbreaker seems to be a good example:

Whether or not this game turns out well or not, I admire the aim. Football games have traditionally focused on strategy, with few possible exceptions (like Super High Impact on the SNES). Backbreaker, on other hand, takes the camera down to ground level and exaggerrates the violence, thereby sacrificing some strategy to focus more on the visceral experiences of individual runningbacks, receivers, and linebackers.

I've heard many suggest, and I agree, that the initial step in designing a game should be defining the game in terms of individual experiences. It's not enough to outline the game in broad terms. You should begin by imagining examples of specific experiences in as much detail as possible. Those experiences symbolize the essence of the game and help guide consideration of gameplay structures and elements.

The essence of Backbreaker is the violence and frequent surprise of tackles. As Natural Motion's first video says: "Imagine a football game in where every tackle is different every time." Granted, the company's main objective is probably to advertise their physics technology, since they're primarily a tech company. But Backbreaker is a good example of letting desires for specific experiences guide design.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Project Natal controls

Microsoft has sent Project Natal to its developers. I believe we can expect quality Natal game as early as next year, both in the form of small games, ala Wii Sports, and big titles. I can't help but wonder what games I would make with the technology. Over the next few weeks, I'll be dropping some ideas.

A core strength of Natal is its intuitiveness. It allows players to perform actions with the exact physical motions they would use in real life. Today, I'm going to ask: Which natural actions would be easy to mimic and which might be problematic?

By problematic, I don't mean that these character actions can't be translated into player actions. I mean that there's not a 1:1 relationship; the character action requires something less than completely intuitive from the player. In some cases, designing control movements could be tricky.

Walking, for example, requires that the player do something other than walk to create the action in the game. Having the player lean forward and back is a possible command action, but there are potential issues with that. Though that's a command the player could pick up quickly through simple experimentation, I expect many players would occasionally give the command without meaning to. Aside from the fact that most people don't have perfect posture, many people have an instinctive tendency to lean forward when interested in what they're seeing.

Incidentally, posture could be the basis of a fun mini-game or two. Imagine players competing at walking tightropes by only controlling the posture of their bodies. A game could also be designed for the expressed purpose of exercising the abdominal muscles by making a game of bending (though some players might throw their backs out).

Anyway, another problematic action is turning around. What's an intuitive command for turning? Well, turning the shoulders is a possibility, but that raises the question of degree. How could the player control how quickly and how much he or she turns?

Pete suggested shooting might be a problem. I don't think so. For a pistol, it would be natural to cup the right hand in the left hand (for a right-handed person). Though the trigger finger is probably too small and obscured motion to be reliably recognized by Natal's cameras, jerking the trigger hand back would work... especially since jerking the hand back moves the arm. With a rifle, the hands might be separated, but the same basic method works. An alternative, and one that would work better for machine guns, is for the player to raise the thumb of the trigger hand.

What others actions might be difficult to translate into Natal commands? If you identify them for me, I'll try to respond with possible solutions.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

our motion-control future

In response to Pete's article here:

I bet Sony and Microsoft will have more quality motion-control games than Nintendo within a year or so of releasing their new systems.

It has nothing to do with the motion control. Nintendo's game libraries have shrunk with each generation, and each library has had a worse ratio of great games to mediocre ones. Microsoft, on the other hand, has attracted many quality games for the 360 and has many more on the way. Sony took a while to get going, but the PS3's got a lot of quality stuff coming out as well. The Wii has some great games, but the other companies are attracting more quality design, for whatever reason.

The Milo demonstration was heavily scripted and controlled, but Molyneux has said that Milo wasn't just made for E3. That's a part of Lionhead's full game project, and Molyneux demonstrated with Fable 2 that he's learned to control expectations. Not all of that demo will show up as true gameplay, I'm sure, but Molyneux seems to believe that most of it is representative of his future game's honest potential.

The two most important parts of Molyneux's demonstration were when the player reaches down to catch what Milo throws (I have no doubt most people would reach down) and the passing of the paper from the player to the virtual character.

Project Natal is brilliant and has enormous potential. EA will be able to pump out a dozen fun mini-games, ala Wii Sports, in the first year. If they made an air hockey game, a fitness game, and a fighting game, people will buy 360s just for that. Yes, dueling with a lightsaber with nothing in your hand would feel weird, but no more so than having just the short Sony or Nintendo controller in your hand -- and Natal could allow you to grab any stick-shaped object from your house, or include a styrofoam saber, to complete the experience.

Sony's system also blows the Wii away. As I've said before, all they have to do is make one action-RPG using the sword and archery combat from their demo and I would go into debt to buy a PS3... as would hundreds, if not thousands, of other gamers. People who don't normally game would buy a PS3 for that, and similar experiences. The fast-tracking and accuracy is great, and Sony has enough quality-focused developers in affiliation to produce many good motion control games.

November of next year at the earliest, perhaps summer of 2011, gaming will be taken to a whole new level.

Monday, June 08, 2009

multiple trailers

It's a good idea to make one short trailer just to catch interest, and a second trailer to deliver the actual information once interest is caught.

Case in point: Global Agenda's new trailer. Seeing that trailer inspired me to watch the also-new interview video.

Just make sure the info you want to advertise is immediately obvious and doesn't have to be searched for. It's even better if the hook and the game features explanation reference each other.

selling game assets

I've unlocked most of the regions in FUEL now. It's a massive gameworld. And, since the developers used satellite imagery to guide its design, it feels pretty real.

I enjoy the races and offroad roaming the game offers, but the expansive setting keeps me wishing I had a gun too.

What if game developers sometimes sold their game assets to be used in other games? For example, what if Codemasters sold its great world from FUEL to be used in a shooter-RPG?

At first, I was thinking it would be cool if other types of gameplay could be incorporated into the same game, but there's only so much any platform can process before you have to start sacrificing things like field-of-view. The next best thing is to use the same setting for different, separate gameplay.

Selling game assets (objects, scripts, etc), rather than just graphics engines, would help offset costs for the producing developer. It could also shave off production time for the buyers and perhaps help them focus on their strengths.

There are some downsides, of course. Having a unique visual style, for example, definitely helps in marketing. But can't the sale of game assets at least be a feasible option?

Friday, June 05, 2009

Borderlands preview

If there's one game I was hoping to hear more about at E3, it's Borderlands. Gearbox is combining so many things I love: First-Person Shooter combat, Diablo-style loot, a vast open world, vehicles, monsters, dynamic enemies, RPG classes with skill customization, choice in story, etc. This gives every indication of being an awesome, long-lasting game that offers players surprising and personal experiences.

I strongly recommend this site called E3 Feed for finding E3 news on the games you're interested in. I've used it to comb through all the previews and interviews I could find on Borderlands, and I'm going to try to consolidate that information here so that you can see why I'm excited about this one.

The game's tone is both serious and silly. There can be spiders leaping at your face, and then there's fishing by grenade. The revamped art style has apparently helped to allow more lighthearted gameplay.

Borderlands is set on a planet called Pandora, where a massive treasure hold called The Vault has long been rumored to exist. The player chooses between one of four mercenaries who have just arrived on Pandora to find this treasure. The locals don't like you, and neither does the wildlife. Gameplay is mostly about going around killing stuff with unique weapons and chosen skills in search of more unique weapons and new encounters.

The characters you can choose between are Brick the bruiser, Roland the soldier, Lilith the siren, and Mordecai the hunter. Brick is a brawler. Gearbox's Randy Pitchford compares Roland to the Master Chief from Halo, and says he can deploy a shield with a turret on it. Lilith can "phase walk", making her invisible until she appears in the heart of enemies to release an explosion. And Mordecai is a "master sniper" with a big falcon-like creature he can send at enemies. Whichever character you select, you will level that character up RPG-style, selecting skills to develop him or her as you wish. Though I'm not 100% certain, it seems aiming is unaffected by statistics and is entirely based on player skill.

Weapons variation is similar to that in Diablo 2, with the game generating items on the fly. Even the developers are surprised by some of the weapons the players will use (that video is from January, by the way). You'll see things in this game you've never seen, like healing turrets and even healing sniper shots. Imagine your group's medic healing from far outside the firefight.

Gearbox is trying to make enemies dynamic as well. For example, that ShackNews article points out that some spiders will leap at you while others will roll toward you. There will be especially powerful versions of creatures, like the "hero" mobs of Diablo 2. From the Gamespot preview:
Groups of enemies, like loot drops, are procedurally generated, so you never know quite what you're going to get. You could get a timid pack of pup skags with a few adults escorting them. Or you could run afoul of a fierce pack of adults with a spitter thrown in for good measure. The pack we saw was headed up by a "Badass Fire Skag." Yes, that is what it is actually called.
The game also includes vehicles, which can be customized. And yes, you can fight in those vehicles:

This game is as much about exploration as it is about action and achievement. And, like Oblivion, the world repopulates itself with creatures and other enemies as you kill them. From GameSpy:
One mission we saw involved a team of players cooperatively taking over a factory yard filled with bandits in order to detonate a pipeline, with frantic gunfire flying everywhere. In a nod to one of Borderlands' other inspirations, World of Warcraft, raid scenarios like this can be replayed infinitely as a nice diversion from the main story's progression.
Borderlands will supposedly offer the sort of co-op gamers had hoped to find in games like Fable 2. You will be able to take your single-player mode character into another player's campaign. That's the complete open world with all of your character customizations and loot. And because the action is FPS, a level 1 character can group with a level 20 and still have fun. Up to four players can play together online, and two offline. You'll decide for yourself how to divide loot.

Borderlands is coming to the Xbox 360, PC, and PS3... this year, the devs expect. I think you understand now why this game is so high on my list. Not many games offer many months' worth of fresh gameplay, but Borderlands looks like it might do just that. Here's hoping Gearbox succeeds.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Sony at E3 '09

Sony had a great conference. I didn't think anyone would match Microsoft's, but Sony's was just as jaw-dropping.

Sony introduced an upgraded version of the PSP. From my perspective, that doesn't sound like a big announcement, but I don't own a PSP and don't know what PSP owners have been wanting.

MAG was demonstrated with the full 256 players in one huge multiplayer match. Unfortunately, the demo didn't show a battle with nearly that many players engaged in direct combat. Instead, you see how players are grouped into squads, which act independently to secure different objectives. In this stage of the battle, gameplay did not look much different from Frontlines: Fuels of War. It was not said how many different battle scenarios are offered in MAG.

The Metal Gear Solid franchise will continue on the PS3. Microsoft has a MGS game in the works as well, but apparently the two consoles will have different games. It was also announced that a new Final Fantasy will be exclusive to the PS3.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
looks awesome. The visuals are top-notch, the dialog is very natural and entertaining, and the combat seems thrilling. The PS3 will definitely have its share of exclusive blockbusters this year.

Mod Nation Racers looks great. It follows the spirit of Little Big Planet by allowing players to customize their character and vehicles, and enabling players to create their own tracks and share.

Of course, the game everyone wanted to see was God of War III. There's plenty of demo footage for those interested. The visuals are amazing. I'm not a fan of quick-time events, but this game's certainly a joy to watch.

There were other good games shown, but those are some of the best exclusives.

Like with Microsoft's conference, the pivotal moment in Sony's conference was the demonstration of motion control. Sony's method uses controllers, though the ones used in this demo are just a prototype. I was very impressed by the speed and accuracy. But what blew me away was seeing a fantasy combat application.

To say I'm ecstatic watching that would be an understatement. If Sony ever publishes an RPG with combat like that, I'll go into debt to buy a PS3. Quite simply, that demonstration embodies every boy's fantasy: full body, dynamic and creative war games.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Ubisoft at E3 '09

Ubisoft had a good conference.

The highlight was Avatar. The game adaptation of James Cameron's upcoming 3-D film will be an experiment in 3-D gaming. No details were revealed other than that the game is a separate story. Cameron apparently shares my opinion that such games should focus on setting and not try to follow the film's plot and characters.

What particularly interested me was when the Cameron talked about the filmmakers and game designers sharing software assets. Apparently, we have reached a point where Hollywood directors use game engines. What's more, Cameron doesn't want the game to be a spin-off, but rather an equally respectable part of the IP universe.

Red Steel 2 was demonstrated. As I said before, it looks like it could be fun, but the action seems more hack-and-slash than finessed swordplay.

Splinter Cell: Conviction looks great. The designers have worked all directions and plot elements into actual gameplay. You don't have to pause gameplay to see your objectives. You don't have to watch a movie to see backstory.

And, last but not least, Assassin's Creed 2. I'm always talking about the importance of dynamics, and that is how Ubisoft is improving the original game. There will be "over 30 different weapons" in AC2, as well as more enemy types, more bystander variation, more setting variation, etc. Ubisoft has recognized the staleness of the original game, and seems to have taken sufficient steps to make the sequel infinitely more enjoyable. I traded in AC1. I doubt I'll trade in AC2.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

EA at E3 '09

EA gave a good conference yesterday, mostly showing old news.

Some of the trailers are interesting but reveal little. The trailers for Dante's Inferno and Charm Girls Club (aimed at teenage girls) were apparently designed only to create name recognition, because gameplay is left to the viewer's imagination. The Sims 3 was mentioned, and GameTrailers released their review today.

Need For Speed: Shift sounds interesting. There's apparently a character progression system in which the game recognizes (or you choose?) your playstle, precise or aggressive, and you level up. A "reward system" was mentioned, but not shown. The game is played exclusively from an inside view, which should make it feel more visceral than other racing games but also more difficult.

Bioware was present with Dragon Age: Origins, Mass Effect 2, and Star Wars: The Old Republic -- a lot to show from one developer. I'm still waiting to be impressed by Origins. The graphics are ugly, and Bioware only reiterated the feature of moral choices and the game's brutality. It was also restated that a player's decisions made in the first Mass Effect will have consequences in the sequel, which is something cool to look forward to. Bioware spent more time talking about their attempts to make combat more engaging in the sequel, but they didn't offer details. As for SW:TOR, it was announced that all dialog in the game will be voiced. That's an incredible feat, though many question if it's a wise decision.

Fight Night: Round 4 offers an incredible boxing experience. I've played the demo, and the learning curve is steep. There are many moves and only an instant to react. But if you have the patience to really learn the controls, it seems like a deep, dynamic, immersive game. EA also announced a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) game, but there are no details yet.

Crysis 2 and APB could be cool, but little has been shown. More has been revealed of Brütal Legend and The Saboteur. Each of those looks awesome in its own way. Both are open world games.

Brütal Legend seems to have some dynamics, but its foundation is comical tributes to metal. Tim Schafer announced that Ozzy will be joining Halford, Lita Ford, and Lemmy in the game, which is huge news.

The Saboteur is a more serious game, but seems to offer more variety and compelling action. Tom French and his team released a great trailer that demonstrates the game's concept of "quiet in, loud out" action.

Overall, it was a good presentation for EA, though it had the misfortune of coming between Microsoft's and Sony's stellar shows. I'm sure we'll learn more about these games throughout the week.

Nintendo at E3 '09

The Nintendo conference was impressive on the handheld front, but less so concerning the Wii.

Wii Sports Resort looks cool, but not much more fun than the original Wii Sports. The new Mario and Metroid games look great. Those and Dead Space: Extraction are all that will save the Wii with regular gamers.

Red Steel 2 takes more advantage of the Wii Motion Plus, but the swordfighting I saw in Ubisoft's demonstration the other day was hardly nuanced. It was more a full body equivalent of button-mashing; whack-a-mole action.

The Wii Fit Plus will sell well, but I doubt it greatly excites even the people interested in buying it. It's a mild evolution of the original product.

Overall, the Wii's future looks basically the same as their history. Great games are few and far between. The system has a lot of potential, but most of what's designed for it is mediocre. I expect the Motion Plus will greatly help in that regard, but it will likely be at least another year before we start seeing that bear fruit.

Though I've never had much interest in the Nintendo DS, I respect what Nintendo has done in that area. Allowing players to design Mario levels on a handheld is impressive, as is the drawing software. The COP game looks great.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Microsoft at E3 '09

The Microsoft press conference was top-notch. They showed a slew of great upcoming games, improvements of their Netflix and movies services, more social networking with Facebook and Twitter, the introduction of to Xbox Live, and Project Natal has mind-blowing potential. And they stole a franchise from Sony to boot. I don't see how Sony or Nintendo could match Microsoft's conference.

As I thought they might, Microsoft showed the actual gameplay footage of Alan Wake and advertised a sequel to Left 4 Dead. The former looks good enough that its previous hype will regenerate enthusiasm with many gamers, though I don't see it as a great evolution in horror games at this point. The figured a Left 4 Dead sequel was likely, since all Valve needed to do for another bestseller was to create new levels. Well, it looks like the new tale starts in the city of my birth, New Orleans, and will include melee weapons. So laissez les bons temps rouler!

Borderlands was a no show at the presentation, unfortunately, as was Huxley, but I was very impressed by gameplay footage of Splinter Cell: Conviction. And I'm ecstatic that Crackdown is getting a sequel. ODST looks interesting, and Halo: Reach was announced, but it's hard for me to get that excited about another Halo game. I started watching the conference online, so lag prevented me from seeing much of Modern Warfare 2. You can bet your mother I'll be watching those videos online, though.

I said Microsoft needs to do more with avatars, and they are. Aside from incorporating them into Facebook, which is huge, they're releasing a free-to-play track racing game called JoyRide.

But of course the biggest news is Project Natal, which you have to see to understand.

Peter Molyneux stole the show with his Lionhead's 3-month experiment with Project Natal. I didn't think I could be more impressed until I saw the player's reflection in the game. Simply jaw-dropping.

Great job, Microsoft.

I'll offer only one bit of advice. Try to lower the programming expertise needed to design Project Natal games as much as possible. If Community Games and Arcade designers could design for that technology and regularly spit out small, cheap games for it, it would indeed revolutionize gaming.