Friday, January 30, 2009

don't ignore player success

In the Call of Duty: World at War single-player/co-op campaign, enemies spawn in an infinite stream until the player pushes forward to seize the objective. That means that how many you kill is irrelevant. They keep coming until your player stands in the targeted location.

Medal of Honor: Airborne does it differently. If you stand in one place and keep shooting enemies, they'll continue to spawn for a while, prolonging the experience. But the game eventually rewards you for your kills by ceasing to spawn new enemies for that location.

These are different kinds of games -- one involves pushing forward on a linear path, while the other lets the player parachute onto any location of the battlefield and approach objectives from many angles. But regardless of that difference, I'd say Airborne's spawn method is better. Even if reaching locations or destroying AA guns (or whatever) is the main goal, kills should be rewarded.

Every activity central to gameplay should be rewarded. No accomplishment should be completed overshadowed by another.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

buy fewer games

It's a shame that I have to offer this advice, because I believe this year, like last year, will be a great year for games. But I care about you guys, so I'm going to say it.

Buy fewer games this year. Start saving more money.

Reports are coming out that the American Treasury has been printing currency these past months on a scale far beyond anything it has done in our nation's history. Printing was already unusually high over the past 10 years, but now it's skyrocketing at a dangerous pace. As a result, the American economy is very likely to suffer record-setting inflation. The dollar's value is about to plummet.

I'm sure there are many exaggerations floating around right now, but this is undeniably a very serious situation. For a certainty, the money you're already saving is not going to buy as much as it normally would. Most of us are already saving more money than usual because of the troubled economy. I'm saying this is an almost-certain indicator that things are going to get worse before they get better.

So take care of yourself. Be more frugal. Spend less money than you normally would. Unfortunately, that means letting some good games slip through the cracks this year. Hopefully, you'll be able to pick them up to enjoy later.

preview XBL premium themes

Why doesn't Microsoft let you preview premium themes for you 360 dashboard, either on XBL or on the web? Idiocy, plain and simple.

There's simply no excuse, and the strangest part is that more people would buy premium themes if they could see what they were getting. Everyone expects to be able to preview, and Microsoft would make more money if they offered previews, yet they don't. So, like I said, idiocy.

Anyway, after 10-15 minutes of failed searching on Google and the Xbox Live Marketplace, I finally ran across a thread on the forums in which someone (not a Microsoft rep, of course) pointed out this site that lets you preview the premium themes. A huge thank you to whoever created the site.

I'm still using the free Christmas *cough* Holiday theme for now, but the premium themes I like the most are Tomb Raider: Underworld [1] and Halo Wars. The Forza 2 theme is awesome for racing fans.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

gear on the fly

I picked up Call of Duty: World at War yesterday. After only an hour or so of playing, I joined a friend in the multiplayer mode that involves fighting zombies from a boarded up house. There are a number of things that make it a lot of fun with friends, but one element in particular has me wondering if it could be applied to campaign gameplay.

The player gains points for killing zombies and repairing defenses. Headshots and melee kills award more points than regular kills. You spend these points on weapons during gameplay.

It struck me as a relatively novel system. First, you're purchasing aid while enemies are still coming at you, during brief moments of respite between attacks. Unlike in Bioshock or in other games, events are not paused as you purchase help. And second, you're earning the credits for these purchases constantly and automatically (not in the form of pick-ups or something similar). Combined, this makes for a fun and unique experience.

I'd love to see a similar system used in single-player or co-op campaigns. It could make a game wonderfully dynamic.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

hopes of 2009

I've been unable to think of anything fresh these past couple of days, so I'm just going to list the games I'm watching in 2009 and give some brief thoughts on each. I haven't heard or read anything about some of these in a while. I'm not certain about any of them, but they all have my hopeful.

I'm hoping to have a copy of this in the coming weeks. The first Godfather game is fun, but lacks depth. The sequel seems to have far more dynamics, including rival gangs that will try to take your territories while you're taking theirs. Those dynamics should add some replayability and personalized gameplay. We'll see.

Finally, someone's trying to put the physical dynamics and unpredictability of real American football into a video game. Finally, you can take pleasure in some hits being harder than others. And the developers are obviously trying to shake up other elements of the game as well. I haven't seen any updates in a while, but I have high hopes for this one.

James Bond (007) on one side, John McClane (Die Hard) on the other. True FPS action and over-the-top, straight-faced silliness. This seems to be an MMO that drops a lot of the baggage that usually defines MMOs. It looks to be a lot of fun, and perhaps might even show the industry how to make games rather than rat mazes.

I hadn't heard of this game until a few days ago. Players can drop onto any spot of the battlefield, a feature Medal of Honor: Airborne proved can be a lot of fun and adds replayability. Bots are provided for both offline and online fragfests. Multiplayer matches include the possibility of missions which coax players out of their usual routines. And the game seems to include a number of dynamics to spice things up. It's caught my interest.

Round 3 is great, but Round 4 sounds like it will require more tactical thinking from the player. This could be a nice upgrade to a great series.

A Mad Max setting with RPG-like advancement and a Diablo-esque loot system. Little has been shown yet, but I always love the combination of guns and cars. Placed in an open world, and my interest is peaked.

... or whatever you want to call it. Call of Duty 4 is a monumental game -- a fun, intense single-player mode and the first multiplayer fragfest that I've thoroughly enjoyed since the original Perfect Dark. The customization and leveling in multiplayer was pure genius. Hopefully, Infinity Ward will push the genre, but not so much that they abandon what made their previous work great.

Honestly, I know nothing about this one, except that it's based on a unique and brutal boardgame that I loved as a kid. Fast, brutal action and brazen silliness work so well together when artfully combined.

Co-op dogfights in modern jets? Count me in. The game looks fun, but I'm left to wonder about replayability. Clear, concise missions can be fun, but I wouldn't buy the game unless there was something to do after I've completed all those missions. If HAWX includes enough dynamics and customization of gameplay, then this one could be a blast. It would be great if they'd allow players to select a vehicle for each single-player mission, the way MoH: Airborne allows players to select weapons.

Yes, St. Anger sucked, and I don't much care for the new stuff either. But as a rocker raised on songs like "Don't Tread On Me", "Battery", and "Harvester of Sorrow", I can't wait to blare it through my TV and play along. These music games really are a unique and fun way to enjoy your favorite music. It doesn't hurt that Corrosion of Conformity, Children of Bodom, and other great bands have some tunes in this game.

Alright, so this one could be just a typically shallow and linear Hollywood hackjob. But hey, it's Ghostbusters! Coming from a film IP, it would be easy for the writers to prioritize a linear plot over interaction and personalization, but here's hoping it will turn out well. I'm glad the actors are all involved.

I half expect this to be mediocre, but it would be nice to play a Diablo-type game on a console for a change. I know they've been on consoles before, but this will be my first (not counting Too Human, which really isn't the same).

I almost forgot this one! Brutal Legend is a tribute to the music that made my childhood. With many favorite musicians on board with development, and a comedic actor who has already dedicated many works to the subject (Jack Black), it's looking good. Once again, action mixed with comedy and over-the-top scenarios. As my old band's singer used to always say, "you better axe somebody!"

What have I forgotten? Halo Wars and Aliens: Colonial Marines could be cool, but I'm expecting them to be merely alright.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

grand finale in multiplayer

One thing most multiplayer modes seem to be lacking is a grand finale. In deathmatch, capture the flag, king of the hill, and control points modes, tension does rise as one team nears the necessary score or time is running out. But the game ends with no special event. Whether by holding a control point or getting the last headshot, the end feels basically like the beginning.

I enjoy those traditional modes, but I'd like to see a mode or two in which each match ends with a bang. I'm sure there are countless ways it could be done, but I'll try to offer a quick example.

The first scenario that pops into mind is teams of players racing and fighting to reach and fully control a bomb shelter, then nuking the other team.

Unlike Left 4 Dead, all members of a team must be present in the shelter and all members of the other team must be expelled from the shelter before the doors can be shut and the nuke detonated. Both teams would begin away from the compound, each with various spawn points on all sides of the map which are close to enemy spawn points. That splits the mode's goal into two: (1) reach and enter the compound, (2) defend the compound until all allies are in and expel all enemies. I don't doubt that the latter concept would need to be adjusted significantly during the prototype phase of design.

Since I love dynamics, I'd add plenty of environmental factors: neutral NPCs (aggressive or territorial), traps, etc.

The game ends with the shelter doors being quickly sealed. The nuke detonation wouldn't be a cutscene or long, but it would not be instantaneous either. That way, the teams have time to savor and dread the moment. It would look something like the detonation scene in The Sum of All Fears:

See what I mean?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

motion sensing gameplay

To be honest, I don't know much about Wii games. My sister has a Wii, but all I've played so far is Wii Sports, Wii Play, and Mario Kart. That said, the videos I've seen of other games lead me to believe that there's still a lot of untapped potential for the Wii's motion-sensing technology.

Running off Keira's post, I’d like to see games that don’t just give the player a small set of actions to use exclusively throughout the entire game. Instead, if the programming is simple enough, fill the game with interactions that will be intuitive but are specific to one or a few parts of the game.

If the arms and hands are very basically represented in a game, then simply directing those hands in intuitive motions could accomplish any number of tasks.

If the player sees a ladder, it would be intuitive to simply place a hand on one rung, then the other hand on the next rung, and back and forth as the character moves up or down. Any object could be grabbed by moving the hand over an object and closing the hand.

Even the relatively rudimentary motion-sensing technology of current consoles could be used to make open-ended, explorative gameplay in this way.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

in favor of gore and violence

I have mixed feelings about graphic violence in war games.

On the one hand, if you intend for a war game to be educational and didactic, then your depiction of war should be as realistically graphic as possible. There's a limit to how much reality most game consumers will take, of course. The full horrors of our world are not shown even in schools or on TV because relatively few people are willing to face absolutely everything. But the more education that can be sneaked in, the better.

On the other hand, it's easy and wrong to relish the gore too much. Some enjoyment is benign, I think. Young boys cross-culturally play war games (not speaking of video games), and enjoyment of violence goes hand-in-hand with that instinct. A thrill from battle is natural, including gory signs of victory. But that, like any instinctual desire, has a proper place and manner. The appetite for violence can and should be directed, moderated, and bloodlust (gore) with it.

Enjoyment of gore is founded in a taste for victory, I believe. When you see the head of your sniper's victim explode like a watermelon, it can be more satisfying feedback than simply seeing the victim fall down. When your battleaxe hits home and you hear a pained cry mixed with the sound of flesh tearing and bone shattering, that's a taste of competitive success.

I have great respect for films in which bullet wounds are intentionally invisible or merely red stains (like John Wayne films, or The Hunt for Red October). Gore can be good feedback or good education, even integral to storytelling, but subtlety can also be good. The absence of gore can better focus the audience's attention on other elements. Game designers should always ask which way better suits their particular game.

Anyway! As usual, I'm getting off track.

That article made me think of the irony that the game restrictions intended to honor social concerns are very often in the way of serving those values.

For example, children cannot be killed in games. Children in games like Neverwinter Nights, Fable 2, and Fallout 3 are invulnerable (yes, it's sad that I know this). Bioshock allows the player to kill the child-like "Little Sisters", but the screen fades out when this happens. Truth-conscious war games have yet to represent the reality that combatants are commonly children (often teenagers, sometimes younger) or even include them as bystanders. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is getting a sequel, but what are the chances it will have kids with assault rifles, militants residing with their families, or terrorists stationing supplies and soldiers in schools and churches?

Yet what would push home the nature of urban combat to gamers better than having to face women and children with guns?

Rather than forbid gore and uncomfortable scenarios, those interested in socially productive gaming should encourage developers to include such things and provide intuitive commentary.

Intuitive commentary means unspoken commentary; gameworld consequences and reactions beyond dialogue. Soldiers visibly shaken by the deaths of their comrades. Non-player combatants being crippled, rather than slain. The dead abandoned, their corpses stripped by poor locals and nibbled on by crows and dogs. Wailing mothers and grandmothers. Lost, crying children.

Intuitive commentary means reward and punishment. Save an ally and he might watch your back a little more closely. Spare what enemies you can and you might receive valuable information, face softer resistance from noncombatants, or even make a friend. Kill too many noncombatants and your allies will turn against you (the game ends... restart). Kill some kid who's aiming a gun at you and expect the family to seek revenge. Place a landmine, and don't expect to be able to control who dies by it.

As I said earlier, I acknowledge that there is a limit to what consumers of entertainment are willing to endure. Films like Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, and Black Hawk Down have demonstrated that the average consumer will endure a great deal if the presentation of that uncomfortable content is artful and meaningful. Games, being interactive, can probably not push quite as far, but are still capable of much more than the industry has generally been willing to explore as of yet.

I'm not saying all war games should be seriously toned and educational. I'm just saying that if you're making a serious game, gore and other nasty elements can be used toward noble ends. They don't have to be about feeding immoderate impulses. The industry is currently bound by certain social restrictions, but designers will have more and more room to explore mature content if they can demonstrate to society how it might be done tastefully and productively.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

LOTR: Conquest -- lesson in frustration

Dynamic games usually get better over time. But the more I play LOTR: Conquest, the more I want to smash something. I've never cursed at my television so much.

Conquest is mediocre, bordering on bad (I originally said "it sucks", but that was probably overly harsh). Like Too Human, the concept had great potential, but the actuality falls very short. Some of that potential is lost to ridiculously obvious flaws, some to failure to go as far as its predecessors (Star Wars: Battlefront 1 & 2, by the same studio) went years ago.

The most obvious difference between LOTR: Conquest and the Star Wars: Battlefront games is that Conquest involves melee combat. That alone has a huge impact on gameplay, because it means half the classes are not nearly as dependent on aiming. That's not necessarily bad, but it led to some feature decisions which annoy me and every other player I've spoken with to no end. For one, you will often be knocked down and then attacked while you're helpless on the ground (getting back up isn't immediate). Melee also involves combos, and players seem to be just as helpless while being attacked by a combo chain... particularly while being attacked by multiple foes.

is not a fun feeling in an action game, but it's rampant in LOTR: Conquest. Expect to spend a lot of time on the ground or unable to block or attack as your hacked to pieces by a warrior. This problem alone undermines the game's good elements almost entirely.

Expect to unpredictably fall off ledges and see your allies diving to their deaths. I usually play as a scout or archer. The scout is a lot of fun, but the animation for backstabbing both moves and turns the player's character. You can't backstab anyone near a ledge, because the animation's likely to take you right into the chasm. Sometimes you'll think you're far enough away, but you're not. I've also found my scout sliding into corners or enemies during the backstab animation, if my scout is on sloped ground. AI allies are constantly falling over edges as they charge into enemies or turn from a fight.

Whereas SW:B has five classes per faction and four factions, Conquest has only four per faction and two factions. Going with four classes isn't technically an omission, since Conquest is a separate IP, but you'll feel the absence of the former's variety. It's an exponential effect -- one class isn't just one experience; how it combines with each other class, playing as and against, is a separate experience.

SW: Battlefront
also gave each faction unique classes -- flying jet troopers, wookiees, engineers with bolt blasters, rolling and shielded droidekas, pilots with mortar launchers, super battle droids, etc. Pandemic apparently chose "safe" over "interesting" this time around, and the game is weaker for it. That said, the four classes provided are fairly well-designed, but there are significant problems.

One of those problems is the mage's shield spell. I can accept that it makes the mage invulnerable from ranged attacks, considering that he can't attack while shielding. What I can't accept is how often mage shields blind everyone to what's going on around them, especially on particular maps like Pelennor Fields. When mages are shielding, archers are shooting poison and fire arrows, and scouts are tossing fire bombs all in the same area, good luck trying to tell who's an enemy and who's an ally when they're not right in your face.

Horses and wargs are not much fun, in my opinion. Expect to be knocked off quickly. Oliphants can be fun as lumbering giants until you try to turn more than slightly; how to do so is not intuitive, if manageable. Trolls and Ents are fun. You can be taken down quickly if someone sneaks up behind you and climbs up your back (a very simple quick-time event), so you have to remember to swing around frequently, but that's a well-deserved balance. It can sometimes be hard to see what you're fighting.

Don't expect any neutral characters, like the Tusken Raiders in SW:B, or monsters. But one great dynamic I have noticed is a lever to temporarily drop a bridge on the Moria map. It lets you drop the bridge from beneath enemy players if you time it right, though I haven't seen it used to that effect yet.

Some heroes are more fun than others, but all are disappointing. Most are basically regular classes with more damage. Sarumon feels like a hero; less so Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas. Sauron is ridiculously similar to Aragorn and other warriors, which completely saps the thrill of playing with him. The mode in which all players are heroes is fun, though it would be more so if there were AI soldier regulars alongside. With the limited number of characters in the battle, it's common for players to be singled out by everyone and ganged up on. Trolls, ents, the Balrog, and such are more fun. I found a sitting troll once or twice that I was able to press RB to become, but most trolls and ents seem to be uncontrollable.

The maps often feel too big for the number of combatants. The battles simply are not as intense as in SW:B 1 & 2. This might be due to the layout of the maps, but I think the problem is that Pandemic made the maps bigger than in previous games without also increasing the number of combatants. Are there even as many combatants? There are usually enemies around, but I see fewer crowds than in the old games. Of course, the maps being big doesn't prevent the game from occasionally respawning you right in the thick of battle, so you die before you realize what's going on.

More than a few times, I've died by running off the battefield. Star Wars: Battlefront made it clear where the battlefield ends. But knowing where it ends on a map like Pelennor Fields is not so clear. It's easy to charge your oliphant or warg headlong into an instant and needless death. You'll see combat off the battlefield that's purely animation. And if you're fighitng in the fields in front of Isengard, isn't it natural to think you can go right up to the city's gates, even if you can't enter? You'd eventually learn, of course. Anyway, why not just warp players back to a checkpoint, or forcibly turn the player?

This reviewer sums up the AI nicely: "I get it, the game was obviously built with multiplayer in mind, but seriously half the time it may as well be you versus every orc in Mordor." The AI seems meant only to tread water until the player completes his objectives. And it is common to press forward and find that nobody came with you. Just as importantly, single-player battles don't allow you to get lost in the thick of chaos, which was much of the thrill of previous battlefield games. Being the only major force in the battle makes it a very different kind of game (which isn't necessarily bad, but seems so in this case). In fact, the AI seems programmed to focus on the player whenever he or she is near. Run into a crowd, and all eyes turn toward you, regardless of how many allies are nearby. And NPCs like to jump off cliffs, as I mentioned before.

The graphics look better in screenshots than in actual gameplay. That's not due to framerate issues or any technical issue. It's a design issue. There might be a number of differences between its art and SW:B's, but ultimately Conquest isn't much prettier (if at all) than that game released back in 2004.

There's isn't much story, since this is an action game, but I do like actor Hugo Weaving's narrated introductions and commentary (Elrond). Since this is a game based on a popular literary and film IP, the use of such scenes to inspire the player makes good sense.

Right now, I feel much like many Metallica fans felt when the St. Anger album was released -- I'm stunned to get such garbage from a consistently good team. I consider Star Wars: Battlefront to be one of the greatest action games of all time. It was so dynamic, so well paced, so well balanced. This game makes me want to throw something at my TV. The potential was there... and now it's gone.

LOTR: Conquest will never be a great game now, but perhaps it could still be made into a good game. Here are some changes that could be made via a patch:
  • Decrease the knockdown duration. Being unable to recover quickly from knockdowns, which happen all the time, is one of the main elements that's frustrating players.
  • Improve the AI. They shouldn't charge into chasms. They shouldn't be obsessed with the player alone. And give us more AI characters per battle, if possible, including in multiplayer. The original Star Wars: Battlefront seemed to have more characters per battle.
  • In single-player mode, allow the player to put hero opportunities on hold. If the player rejects the opportunity to play a hero, then allow the hero to be selected at any point in the battle thereafter, until used. I don't understand why it was made otherwise.
  • When an opportunity to play as a hero is offered, don't limit the selection to one hero. Different players will prefer different heroes. You've already deviated from the LOTR lore by making mages ubiquitous, so that aspect shouldn't be a concern.
  • Add more dynamics. If the game's sales justify an add-on, new classes would be best. Neutral NPCs are another possibility.
  • For God's sake, make Sauron more like Sauron in the single-player campaign! Give the Witchking back his huge, slow flail. All the heroes should be less like regular soldiers. And make the Balrog and oliphants easier to turn.
Can anyone else think of a change that could be patched in?


If you never played either of the Star Wars: Battlefront games, you'll probably be much more satisfied with the game than I am. Pandemic mysteriously failed to repeat many great elements of their past battlefield games, and it's hard for someone who played them to see Conquest with fresh eyes.

The game does have its moments. Seeing player-controlled ents and trolls go head-to-head is awesome. Interrupting would-be attackers with my warg in Capture the Ring mode is another memorable moment. Sneaking up to backstab someone or landing a nice headshot while zooming with the bow are a lot of fun. It's just the excessive frustration in between fun moments and certain lackluster elements (like relatively few combatants per map) that make the game mediocre.

It could certainly be improved via patches or DLC.

Six months ago, the game still included two multiplayer modes which have disappeared: Stronghold and Ring Bearer. The latter was like a game of Tag that involves Nazgul chasing Frodo for the One Ring. Stronghold was fashioned after the ingenius Galactic Conquest mode of Star Wars: Battlefront, which strings battles together into a continuous war (thereby making the battles more meaningful). Whereas I can imagine balance issues with the Ring Bearer mode, I can't imagine why Stronghold would be removed unless Pandemic plans to release it later on. Afterall, if you simply remove map bonuses as Galactic Conquest had, then there's no balance necessary -- simply provide a basic screen that shows players which territories they currently control, how the war is going.

In fact, the game seems to have been somewhat misrepresented over the past year. Watch this interview from August of last year. All of the scenes shown include more combatants than are in the final version of the game. The scenes with dozens of characters are merely showing non-interactive animations included in the maps. You will not fight massive battles at Helm's Deep or Pelennor Fields. The massive groups of soldiers in the video are purely for show, though there are considerably more combatants and more spectacular events in the campaign mode.

It took me a while to figure out how to climb the oliphants to kill them. There's no RB prompt when behind them or by the trunk; you have to be on the outside of a front leg. As for "You get to push the massive siege towers" There are towers in the game, but I've only seen them moved by NPCs in the campaign mode.

One scene in that video is definitely true (about a minute in): note how long it takes for Aragorn to stand back up after he's knocked down by the orcs. Now, the interview was showing a work in progress, but I think you can see what I mean.

Anyway, I've updated my original statement to say the game is merely mediocre, not completely awful. I find myself still interested in playing it from time to time... but, in the words of Gamespot's Chris Watters, the game is "as exasperating as it is exhilarating".

Friday, January 16, 2009

taking plot to the player

I was thinking about unclear goals and wandering in games. Like a lot of players, I enjoy just wandering and exploring. In a game like Fallout 3, I like to just head east and see what happens. True adventure always involves events which are unplanned and unexpected.

But if you wander too long, if you're always chasing minor goals and don't have one or more great conflicts to tie it all together, then the experiences start to feel shallow. The grand conflict frames the smaller events, reveals order and meaning.

Most games which offer content far beyond a scripted plot, like Fallout 3 or Saints Row 2, merely leave an invitation with the player to jump back on the narrative highway whenever fancy strikes. Either the player is forced into the game's narrative heart from time to time, or the player is given a map to find it whenever.

There is an alternative, though I don't pretend it would be easy. The alternative is for the main conflict to enter smaller conflicts in the form of overt events.

In The Godfather III, there's an important scene where Michael Corleone realizes he can't escape his past:

He walked away from conflict, and conflict hunted him down. He was able to have meaningful experiences apart from that old war, but eventually it always finds a way to interrupt or mix into those experiences.

Let players chase those smaller conflicts and experiences. And let them choose when to fully engage with the main conflict. But don't just leave a sign, post reminders, or tie everything to the plot through passive crossovers (side-quest choices which relate to the primary plot but cannot affect its progression). Occasionally bring the main conflict to wherever the player has wandered, with force and with consequences.

Remember, adventures isn't chosen. It's responded to.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

when two make one

I remember being fascinated when it was first pointed out to me that "fist" is both a noun and a verb. A fist is a hand clenching. Likewise, you can sometimes put two or more objects together and they become one object, even if they are still acting independently.

I thought about this as I was playing Fallout 3 the other day and saw a small herd of cattle roaming down a street. Until that moment, I had played the game for over 40 hours and had never seen a cow grouped with another. Merely by grouping four or five together on a casual journey through a ruined city, Bethesda's developers created a new and memorable experience for me.

The point is that developers don't always have to create new visual assets or even tweak existing assets to produce new content. Sometimes all you have to do is arrange old content in a new and meaningful way.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

thoughts on Fallout 3

If I ever give Fallout 3 a full, structured review, it will probably be many months from now. It's a big game and there are too many others to play, too many other things to do. But here are some random impressions.

I've been focusing on exploration and side quests. I've only recently blown up the town of Megaton and haven't yet been to downtown DC.

First off, this is not a game for quick and casual consumption. Sure, you might boot it up every once in a while just to make someone's head explode like a watermelon, but the game really shines after you've played it a long while. In fact, I'd say odds are that the more you play it, the more you'll enjoy it. That's how it's been with me. When I first got the game, I wasn't very excited by it. Now, after what probably amounts to somewhere over 40 hours of play, I can't wait to continue my game.

And I can't wait to start new characters! The perk system is really impressive. Every time you level up, you choose another perk. And the order in which you choose perks has almost as great an effect on your game experience as which perks you choose.

For example, I only started applying skill points and perks for Science at level 16, so I've only been able to a few of the many computer terminals I've run across. I also put off the Sandman perk until now, which lets me kill NPCs in their sleep for great xp. On the other hand, I've devoted many skill points and perks to Small Guns (conventional weapons -- rifle, handgun, uzi, shotgun, etc), so combat has gone much smoother than it probably would have otherwise. Early on, I chose a perk which lets me scavenge more ammo than usual, making ammo less of a factor in gameplay.

My character also has low charisma and no perks for Speech or Barter. Only rarely have I been given a special speech option during dialog. The next character I'm going to try will focus on charisma and unarmed combat. In a world full of people with guns, that should be interesting.

The game seems to have a ton of replayability. Playing through familiar quests is never as fun as the first time, but many quests in Fallout 3 have consequences for dialog choices that go far beyond NPCs merely liking you or disliking you, positive and negative reactions. For example, I stole money from a vendor's safe yesterday, as I had stolen from countless other vendors. None of the others said a word about it. This one not only complained about the theft, but closed up shop and left the settlement! It was only after I had stolen from her that I realized she would leave and that she's the only vendor who sells room decorations for my apartment. Players must also choose whether or not to blow up Megaton, whether or not to help the ghouls (people distorted by radiation), whether to help the slaves or the slavers... and also more subtle decisions like which vendors to aid, who to believe, and how blunt or polite to be in conversations.

The need to repair weapons seems more annoying than immersive. The limited ammo encourages players to explore different weapons, so repair isn't needed for that aim. I had a good amount of strength and have always carried many weapons, so perhaps repair matters more when you carry only a few. But I'm not convinced the Repair skill improves gameplay significantly. That said, it's not a big deal.

I run across bugs from time to time. Bugs are to be expected in PC games, since PCs vary so much from person to person, but they're a bigger problem in console games. I play the game on the 360. My Sneak status occasionally gets stuck as "Caution" (meaning someone's aware I'm around and is searching for me) when nothing is near. The more common, and more annoying, bug is a graphical glitch that stretches a surface or pixel across the screen when I turn. Oblivion has a similarly huge world and has never given me that problem. In fact, no other 360 game has.

Some of the voice-acting is superb, but most of it is mediocre or worse. For a game with so much dialogue, this is a big problem. After playing Oblivion, I quickly learned to ignore it.

The world design is impressive. The bleak landscape wears thin after a while. The limited color palette fits the setting, but it certainly hurts the replayability and freshness of each play-session. The Alaska DLC will be a very welcome addition. Still, the gameworld feels carefully crafted and arranged. If I could take screenshots on my 360 version, I would be doing it all the time. I've been using my map a lot this time through, but it would probably be more immersive to just use the compass and landmarks. Despite the many broken bridges, destroyed homes and such, I rarely confuse one place with another. The variety of creatures seems small for so large a world, but they are well-designed.

Overall, I'm loving Fallout 3. I didn't in the beginning, but it's steadily growing on me.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Netflix update

I rejoined Netflix late last week, and their partnership with Microsoft is definitely a much better deal than I expected.

As I said before, my trial of Netflix last August left me with low expectations for the online service that would reach Xbox Live. Little of the streamable content was worthwhile, most of it being decades-old B movies or worse. Since then, Netflix has signed a deal with Starz, which adds plenty of films that are actually good and well-produced: Goodfellas, No Country for Old Men, Enchanted, etc.

They also seem to have made more TV series available for streaming. Some, like NewsRadio (Phil Hartman is hilarious!) and The A-Team, are available on Hulu for free. But now Netflix also has many seasons of Law & Order, CSI, Dead Like Me, and other popular shows.

I watched many movies and TV episodes over the weekend and had no problems with stream quality. Keep in mind, though, that I have an old CRT television and cable-quality internet. If you have an HD-TV or slow/choppy connection, I suppose your stream quality could be worse. Regardless of how often the current streaming strategy works, it seems nonsensical that users are not allowed to forego live streaming and instead choose heavy buffering for better resolution.

It's also disappointing that so many triple-A films which can be purchased for download elsewhere (i.e., are already available in a disc-less format) are not available for streaming, but I can only assume that's due to the film publishers.

But the benefits outweigh the shortcomings. I now have over a hundred films and TV shows in my queu. All of them are on-demand content with DVD-like controls and no commercial interruptions. As long as I'm a member of Netflix, I can take all of that content with me when I travel. It's a sweet deal.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

3-D gaming

It will probably be a long time before 3-D gaming becomes mainstream. I doubt that news to you, because this new wave of 3-D tech and research is only beginning.

Every major Hollywood film publisher has at least one or two 3-D films in the works, and some reputable studios (like Spielberg's Dreamworks) have even spoke of making nothing but 3-D films soon. As Andrew Oliver at Blitz Games pointed out, it seems logical for game adaptations of 3-D films to also be 3-D. While such games might not be the next big thing, they are definitely coming.

Modern 3-D technology is far superior to the old tech. So it's unsurprising that a lot of people I've spoken to about it over the past couple years are not really excited about this movement among Hollywood directors. It's a technology that can be used poorly to make shoddy work, a tech that requires wisdom and imagination, so there are doubtlessly bad 3-D movies on the horizon. Some great directors believe all films will be 3-D eventually, but I think that's very debatable at this point.

Games. Yes, I know. I'm getting there slowly.

How many of you have been to an IMAX theater? I've been to several IMAX movies. They're impressive, but many people have trouble viewing them. IMAX presentations begin with a warning about nausea and point out the theater exits. People who are prone to motion sickness are especially vulnerable, but even people with stronger dispositions have trouble looking down into a canyon with startling scope and clarity.

So, finally, the point. The same problems will arise with 3-D games. The experience will be too intense for many gamers. Poor use of the technology by some will make 3-D a hard sell for better designers. But even when it's used masterfully, there will be questions of health, not to mention a whole new wave of concerns about interactive violence and mature content.

Anyway. What experiences have you had with 3-D technology? Did you enjoy it? Do the glasses bother you? Do you get disoriented? I'm looking forward to the 3-D shift, but I expect it will be many years before it hits television broadcasting or TV sales, despite Hollywood's apparent interests.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

WWII in America

It's been a while since I tossed out a game idea. Here's one I came up with a few weeks ago.

My grandma worked for the Corp of Engineers in Mobile back during WWII, so she was one of the few people who knew at the time that German U-boats were in the Gulf of Mexico. One was even spotted in Mobile Bay! She had to keep that info to herself.

The fact that the Germans had attack ships along our shores, were sinking our merchant ships, and that we had mandatory blackouts all along the Gulf Coast is an almost forgotten piece of history. I had no idea the war had come so close to home until I read Torpedoes in the Gulf for a college history class. Few people of my generation seem to know much about it.

Anyway, the game idea is a "what if' scenario. What if U-boats were secretly landing on the American Gulf Coast during early WWII?

The tale could be told from the perspective of a Cajun in the rural Louisiana swampland. He notices the Germans landing in his area and sneaking through. The man (player's character) decides to take matters into his own hands and uses his knowledge of the area to find, track, and capture or kill the Germans.

There's no better environment for a mysterious, edgy game than Southern swampland -- an environment which hasn't been seen much, if at all, in games. Something can get right up next to you in the swamp water without you realizing it. And the adventure could pass through other charismatic and potentially unsettling areas, like the wards of New Orleans, the Mobile docks, and the Everglades. Victorian architecture, aristocratic politics, extravagant hospitality, colorful language... the Deep South has a lot of flavor to make it a unique and attractive setting.

The game's swamps and bayous would be dangerous and dynamic. Cajuns are hunters, and a hunting rifle and shotgun are the perfect weapons to start the player with. The protagonist would start out hunting soldiers and avoiding local wildlife Turok-style -- gators, panthers, bobcats, etc. He would also be warning locals, enlisting aid, and gaining motivation through tragic interactions. Later, he would be tracking spies through the cities. Much of the South was populated by Germans, so it wouldn't be hard for German spies to mimick a Southern dialect and infiltrate our bureacracies. The game might even allow the players to kill or capture the wrong people, and suffer the consequences.

Anyway, the South is a great setting for a game that I don't recall ever being used. I would only ask that the designers enlist real Southerners for the voice-overs, so we wouldn't have to endure the terrible impressions Hollywood likes to use. And WWII could feel fresh if the setting was here in the States and the player wasn't playing as a conventional soldier.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Netflix-360 better than expected?

Frankly, I'm surprised how many people have said over the past month or two that they love Netflix on the 360. In theory, it always looked like a sweet deal. But my PC experience with Netflix streaming left much to be desired in terms of movie and show selection.

It's possible Netflix made improvements to their selection in anticipation of the 360 deal. TGD says they have 30 Rock on there, and I don't recall any recent shows like that being available for streaming when I was a member.

Color me skeptical, but I'm going to give Netflix another try. How has it worked for you?

Friday, January 02, 2009

new appreciation

I'm still recovering from the holidays, and still have family visiting... and there's SEC teams playing bowl games today, so I don't have much to say today. But here are some short thoughts.

I was given Guitar Hero: World Tour for Christmas, with just the guitar and another. It's my first music game, ironically enough, and I'm loving it. After some nagging from my visiting sisters, I bought Rock Band 2 as well so I could have drums and a mic. Rock Band seems to have a hell of a lot more DLC, and great stuff ("Electric Crown" by Testament, "Dr. Feelgood" by Motley Crue, old Metallica, etc), but so far (it's still early) World Tour feels better and is more challenging. I'm loving both.

I'm looking forward to experimenting with World Tour's recording studio. As a songwriter for over 15 years, I'm hoping to create all sorts of stuff. I'm not sure how versatile or effective it is yet.

These music games have me enjoying songs in a whole new way. I wonder how games can help us to appreciate other things, like literature, in new ways. The main barrier to good translation of literature is still dialogue, for which AI remains insufficient. But perhaps designers can compensate elsewhere.

There's a LOTR: Conquest multiplayer demo on XBL today! It will be a while before I can try it out, but I recommend it to anyone. It's fashioned after Star Wars: Battlefront, and I consider that one of the best games of all-time; so much replayability and so much variety. I look forward to stomping on you all with my oliphant.