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3:47 PM on 03.30.2011

MvC 3 Could Learn a Thing or Two From Mortal Kombat 9

Before I continue, let me first preface this article by saying that much of my knowledge of Mortal Kombat 9 is garnered purely from interviews and videos, and therefore speculative. I won’t know for absolute sure how well the game delivers on its promises or hype until I get a chance to play the full retail release, so take that into consideration before reading. That being said, from the looks of things, the much-anticipated arrival of the next-generation iteration of the venerable Mortal Kombat franchise is shaping up quite nicely, and strangely enough, it looks as though it may actually be able to teach Capcom’s latest frenetic fighter, Marvel vs. Capcom 3, a few things about presentation and polish.

The argument here pulls a few classic examples from the age-old Western vs. Eastern development debate, and depending on which philosophy you subscribe to, you may furiously nod your head in agreement or facepalm based on the following. Before you accuse me of fanboyism (which is a common occurrence when discussing video games in a public space) allow me to point out that I am completely infatuated with Capcom’s latest fighter, despite its numerous shortcomings. Even so, after watching a number of trailers and reading a handful of interviews, Mortal Kombat 9 actually looks like a more complete and polished game than the popular superhero brawler. Here’s why.

An Actual Storyline

To some, a storyline in a fighting game seems completely and totally irrelevant, and in the grand scheme of things, that’s probably correct. However, when developers at least attempt to include some form of narrative in a genre notorious for its routine omission of such a feature, it’s an appreciated gesture and establishes some much-needed fiction to encapsulate the action. It gives each individual fighter depth and personality, which allows players to develop more tangible connections or understandings of their favorite characters. In Marvel vs. Capcom 3, we get a series of six fights that leads to an altogether boring (even on the Very Hard difficulty) final boss fight that concludes with two hand-drawn comic book-style panels, and a handful of meaningless text that doesn’t even make any sense, considering you just fought six random teams with absolutely zero connection to your character.

A lot of commotion was made about bringing Frank Tieri onboard to write for MvC 3, but the only thing that really stands out is the pre-fight banter between characters that have some sort of relevance towards each other. It’s truly a shame that Capcom had the Marvel license to work with and didn’t try to do anything unique or interesting with it whatsoever. It doesn’t hurt the gameplay (which is still fantastic), but it would’ve been enjoyable to see two beloved franchises interacting in some meaningful way. Even though Mortal Kombat’s story is one of the most convoluted and long-winded narratives you’ll find in any video game, it’s there for the fans to explore and enjoy, and that goes an incredibly long way towards fostering brand loyalty and passion. It’s disappointing that we didn’t see an equally ridiculous or nonsensical story in MvC 3, a feeling that’s only exacerbated by the incredible pre-rendered cinematics that hint at some sort of conceptual story that could have been something special.

Ridiculous? Sure, but admit it, it’s also kind of awesome.

Modes That Don’t Suck

The recent updates to Marvel vs. Capcom 3’s ridiculously sparse mode offerings include Shadow Mode, where you spar against AI “personalities” based on real people’s tendencies, and Event Mode, which tasks you with completing predefined tasks to earn titles and Player Points (which are pointless after unlocking the game’s four hidden characters). Mortal Kombat’s announced modes include the insanely awesome Challenge Tower, a 2 vs. 2 Tag-Team mode, The Krypt, and a lobby mode called King of the Hill (basically Endless Battle from Super Street Fighter IV). Ed Boon has stated that there are still a number of secrets to be unveiled in the near future, and DLC characters are in development. What’s more, even the standard fare modes have some additional flair that adds to their effectiveness and enjoyability. Little touches in the Training Mode such as highlighting the correct location to stand when performing a fatality make the game’s finer features immediately accessible and understandable.

In fact, the overall polish of MK9 makes the game appear much more synergistic and complete, and makes the product stand out on its own. Compare that to the half-assed, barebones setup of Marvel vs. Capcom 3, and you’ll begin to feel like there were some huge missed opportunities on Capcom’s end. In MvC 3, we get Player and Ranked Matches (both with some serious matchmaking issues), the aforementioned filler modes, a lobby mode that lacks a spectator option, and Mission/Training Mode, which both do very little to introduce new players to the concepts of a very complicated and flashy game. What blows my mind about this skeletal feature set is that Super Street Fighter IV had some fantastic modes that offered genuinely fresh ways to experience the game, as well as a spectator option and the ability to save replays. How these features never made it into Marvel vs. Capcom 3 is beyond me, but it’s utterly disappointing and slightly insulting to know that these omissions are entirely possible but never included. Spectator mode has been speculated to be patched in at a later date, as it was with the XBLA version of Marvel vs. Capcom 2, but considering we saw similar additions in the retail release of Super Street Fighter IV, I’m not exactly hopeful. Which leads me directly to my next point….

The Challenge Tower is a highlight of the mode offerings in MK9.

Ongoing Support & Keeping the Fanbase in the Loop

This is where the Eastern vs. Western development model argument really comes into play. Typically, Japanese games are finished the second the final build is released to manufacturers (although there are some exceptions), but as American gamers are well aware, that is simply not the case with Western titles. For better or for worse, Western games are almost always followed up by a number of patches and title updates that fix bugs, add content, or mess with balance. Personally, I love the idea of a game constantly evolving past its initial launch, and to be fair, Capcom has released a recent patch that addressed some glitches and significantly altered some characters (namely Sentinel’s vitality being cut, which is a very controversial topic). It’s good to see Capcom paying attention to the game even after launch, but it also failed to publish patch notes (a commonality in Western-developed titles) and we have no idea what the developer is currently working on.

A familiar screen for anyone who has played MvC 3 online.

The closest thing to a general forum for the game is’s community, and considering said community is primarily located in the United States, it’s unlikely that the Japan-based Capcom is paying attention to the numerous complaints and demands that fans are asking for. Sure, we got two new DLC characters (which were already on the disc to begin with) and there are plans for at least two more, but what about the more pressing matters at hand? When is a fix coming for the abysmal matchmaking system (a recurring problem with Capcom fighters)? Is a spectator mode even being worked on? Nobody knows the answers to any of these questions save the developer itself, and we are left to muse whether or not these problems will be addressed in the current version of Marvel vs. Capcom, or if we’ll be seeing a new entry within a year with all these additions firmly in place. On the other hand, NetherRealm Studios knows that they really have to nail every single aspect of MK9 to get their esteemed reputation back, especially after a few recent franchise failures (MK vs. DC Universe was a complete joke). This includes providing tons of fan service, a healthy amount of modes, and reassuring early adopters that the game won’t be abandoned after April 19th rolls around. You can bet that people will make their voices heard if things are wonky at launch, and if a patch is required, we’ll be informed when it’ll be ready and what it will entail, as opposed to updates randomly popping up with mysterious changes that take days or weeks to discover.

Of course, in the end the only thing that truly matters are the gameplay mechanics and how they all fit together, and Marvel vs. Capcom 3 has gameplay down pat. It’s a fast, satisfying, and thrilling fighter that has a combo system with a lot of flexibility and tricks to be learned, but the auxiliary features are lackluster in nearly every imaginable way. While I haven’t had a chance to play Mortal Kombat 9, I’m eager to see if the glimmering polish and meaty modes are not simply matched, but collectively surpassed by outstanding gameplay mechanics that deliver a truly unique fighting experience. Should that happen, Capcom better wake up and pay attention, because a new challenger has appeared.   read

2:32 PM on 03.13.2011

Is graphics technology headed in the wrong direction?

After watching the recently released “Samaritan” GDC tech demo from Epic Games, I couldn’t help but feel as if we have the wrong idea about where graphics technology’s next logical step might be. The ongoing quest to achieve photorealism or artistic perfection is an admirable one to be sure, but as we all know, graphics are not the be-all, end-all feature that defines the quality of a game. While I’m not saying that graphics aren’t important, I do think that it’s worth noting that new technology such as the L.A. Noire facial animation stuff we’ve been seeing lately is far more innovative than Epic’s latest Unreal Engine 3 enhancements. I appreciate the steps developers like Epic are taking towards creating a more immersive experience via the amount of pretty things happening on screen, but I want graphics that serve a predominant gameplay purpose first and foremost.

In case you know nothing of the game, L.A. Noire’s facial animation technology isn’t just for show, it serves a core gameplay function. As Detective Cole Phelps, your job is to solve mysteries and hunt down criminals in the rich setting of 1950’s Los Angeles. Sounds interesting enough, right? Sure, but the real magic occurs when you begin to investigate cases and interview potential suspects and witnesses for information. During these interactive interview segments, your objective is to use previously gathered evidence to catch people in a lie or accuse them of knowing more than they lead on. The facial animations allow you to see the emotions in these people’s faces, captured by a dozen or so little HD cameras in a remarkably creepy room somewhere in Rockstar’s development studio. In the vast majority of today’s games, emotions are conveyed through (occasionally) powerful voice acting alongside limited body language and animations, but L.A. Noire gives each interaction and conversation a much more human element than anything we’ve seen yet. You can truly see a virtual character exhibiting tangible emotions such as barely contained rage or smug defensiveness, which only makes each interrogation or interview process that much more engaging and immersive.

Haven’t seen the impressive tech demo yet? Give it a look-see!

Although the Samaritan demo is absolutely gorgeous and, to be fair, could potentially allow developers to explore new artistic avenues, it’s just more eye candy. It doesn’t do anything particularly unique or special, aside from showcase some fancy technical terms that are probably making Nvidia and ATI drool in anticipation of the amount of cash they’re going to make when the next generation of consoles decides to show up. What do things like ambient occlusion lighting and subsurface scattering mean to the average gamer, or even the hardcore gamer like you or I?

Not much, in all honesty. We get more pretty stuff to look at, but at what cost? Well, for starters, the average budget of a game has skyrocketed dramatically since this generation of consoles began, and if this kind of graphics technology becomes standard, what will happen to the less wealthy studios? We’re already lacking some much-needed innovation in a few genres, but with the major players currently unwilling to take risks (see: Activision and annual Call of Duty releases for the foreseeable future) we could very well see developers begin to let gameplay innovations take a backseat to making explosions blow up real nice. Epic is reducing licensing fees in an attempt to counterbalance this, but ultimately, with triple A titles costing upwards of $20 million to produce these days, it’s hard to anticipate the gesture having much discernible effect. While I’m sure that the technology used in L.A. Noire isn’t cheap or even readily accessible, it’s arguably more practical and effective than showcasing some fancy lighting effects and depth of field variations.

Great summary of my points, plus some fascinating info!

Am I saying that we should be totally happy with the graphics we have now and focus solely on gameplay? Not at all, I’m as big of a sucker for HDR lighting and fluid water physics as the next guy, but ask me which technology impresses me more, and I’ll immediately point to L.A. Noire. I felt the same way when DirectX 11 was being demoed, and they showcased how in-game objects could be rendered with true geometric depth, rather than rely on bump-mapping to create the illusion of actual spatial depth. That’s cool, but why the hell does that matter? The majority of graphically-intensive games are using numerous smoke-and-mirror tricks to make sure the game runs efficiently without sacrificing visual integrity, and for the most part, that works perfectly fine. By making it so that developers are capable of rendering each individual brick in a wall on a three dimensional plane, you’ve effectively launched production values even higher intro orbit, and made it even more difficult for smaller developers to deliver experiences that rival those of the heavy-hitters. In the end, only the hardcore graphics fanatics are satisfied while their triple-SLI, water-cooled PCs purr gently as hundreds of thousands of polygons are being pushed on-screen.

This brings up another interesting point: what about art style? This generation has produced some games that, while not technically brilliant, featured incredible art styles that were much more impressive than anything developers, such as Crytek, have demonstrated this year. That’s not a knock on graphics engines or anything like that (although it definitely sounds like one), but it’s more a testament to the fact that games are an artistic entertainment medium, and require creativity to be apparent in everything from their playstyle to their visual appearance. How many people do you think went to see Tron: Legacy because of the striking visuals, then left the theater wanting their $10 (or $20 if you went to IMAX 3D) back? Probably a whole lot more than you think. The same can be said for games. The original Crysis was an average shooter with some fun, but flawed gameplay mechanics disguised under a gorgeous graphical exterior that absolutely demanded a trip to Fry’s Electronics or for some upgrades to the ol’ rig. For some, shooting trees in half and ogling the impressive water effects was more than worth the price of admission, but for a number of others it was a temporary distraction from what really wasn’t an altogether extraordinary experience. Flash forward to a game like Street Fighter IV, which didn’t use an insane amount of polygons or demonstrate beautiful texture work, but it ran at 60 frames per second and featured a beautiful, Japanese-calligraphy inspired visual flair that resembled the similarly stylish Playstation 2 title, Okami. Street Fighter IV caught my eye much more than Crysis ever did. Other gamers might point to Kirby’s Epic Yarn or maybe even Super Mario Galaxy as additional examples of technically-mediocre, yet artistically beautiful games that defied conventions of photorealism and technical limitations to deliver truly unique experiences. While the art styles didn’t necessarily serve any particular gameplay purpose, they didn’t exactly need to when they stood out from the mold as much as they did.

Pretty, but lacking substance.

If the next-generation of technology is primarily concerned with perfecting parallax lighting and self-shadowing, I can assure you a part of me will be disappointed. I want to see more technology used in games that enhances the gameplay, and helps immerse us in ways that previous generations were incapable of. I want to see the next-generation of consoles use hardware that allows me to experience games in an entirely new way, and engage me on levels that I never even anticipated. But most importantly, I want technology that helps establish video games as interactive experiences that are truly capable of blurring the lines between virtual worlds and real ones. It all starts with one successful venture into this particular realm, and then the floodgates open up. Mark my words, if L.A. Noire sells well (which it should, considering it’s a Rockstar title) we will see games attempt to tell more mature stories and deliver more adult experiences with similar technology, and then (hopefully) progress continues from there.

Check out this tech demo from a game you’ve probably never heard of.

While I love me some pretty boom-booms, or a stunning vista as I crest over a grassy hill, I want the
next-generation of gaming to be all that and more. I want graphics technology that makes my virtual interactions feel like a conversation I might have in real life, or a critical decision to have much more gravitas (Bioware, call up Rockstar for Mass Effect 3!). Because that’s what video games accomplish much more effectively than any other entertainment medium; a sense of personal investment and temporary suspension of disbelief that comes as a result of allowing yourself to become completely immersed in an imaginary world. If the next-generation of gaming can do that, then I’m fully onboard and can’t wait to shell out god-knows-how-much money for the next Xbox or Playstation.

Liked the article? Think I missed something? Leave a comment below!   read

5:19 PM on 03.06.2011

Since when is accessibility a bad thing?

You know, sometimes I really hate gamers. We bitch and moan about some of the most trivial things, and often times we do so with little to no understanding of the subject. One of the most contentious issues in the game industry is the subject of accessibility. You might refer to the term as “noob-friendly”, or perhaps “casual,” or maybe even “shallow.” The truth of the matter is, most games don’t sacrifice depth in order to appeal to a wider audience, and yet, gamers tend to take even the slightest revision or optimization of a control scheme or game mechanic as a “dumbing down” of the source material. Most recently, Marvel vs. Capcom 3 suffered from this misplaced categorization, taking flak from gamers in response to the game’s inclusion of a “simple mode,” which streamlined the game’s control scheme so that complete, absolute beginners could pick up a controller and start throwing fireballs and performing hyper combos. Even the normal control scheme was criticized when it was announced that the classic light and heavy kicks/punches layout would be changed to a streamlined light, medium, and heavy attack scheme. Why do gamers so adamantly oppose design concepts that are created with the sole purpose of removing a barrier to entry?

Anyone can make flashy stuff happen with Simple mode!

Why do terms like “casual” and “noob” carry such negative connotations when in reality, every single one of us was a noob at one point and time?

The common response is that developers who make their games more accessible tend to sacrifice depth in the process. This simply isn’t true, as is evidenced by the recent revival of the fighting genre. Everyone cried about how much slower and less technical Street Fighter IV was going to be before it launched, but when people actually got their hands on it, they discovered all new layers of depth and unforeseen complexities that rivaled or surpassed those of previous entries in the series. Parries were replaced by focus-cancels, option selects were still very much a part of the game, and everyone shut the hell up. The game sold pretty well despite the initial outcries, and both the hardcore and newcomers alike were satisfied.

PC gamers in particular take up arms about any kind of “dumbing down” or (I love this one) “consolization” of their favorite games. While I do think that PC games need to be developed with some special considerations in mind (i.e. server browser, customizable controls, etc.) PC gamers will almost always lament the loss of a particular feature, whether it hindered the game’s inherent flow or not. Crysis 2 is the latest victim of this gamer scorn, and it’s pretty amazing that some people are posting in the forums about how they canceled their preorder due to the streamlining of the nanosuit abilities. Are you fucking kidding me? You really liked switching to Maximum Speed so much in the original Crysis that you’re going to condemn the sequel because it activates that ability automatically when you begin to sprint? Why should it matter if the game decides to put a few processes on autopilot and make your experience less manually-demanding? Do gamers honestly enjoy controls that are needlessly complicated and/or repetitive just for the sake of being more “hardcore”? Give me a break.

No unnecessary abilities wheel?! NO SALE!

Similarly, Microsoft’s Kinect and the Nintendo Wii are frowned upon by the hardcore community, simply because they provide experiences that are immediately understandable and require very little time to acclimate to. I understand the satisfaction that stems from learning new experiences, and sometimes that entire process can be a meta-game in and of itself, but when a game needlessly prolongs the time needed to fully comprehend the mechanics at work, most people get turned off and give up. If someone could make multiple variable calculus or organic chemistry easier to understand, would that make the material any less relevant or potentially impactful? Not at all, it just opens up the floodgates and allows more people access to knowledge that could produce solutions to unresolved problems. The same concept can be applied to video games. Just look at World of Warcraft! MMORPGs are notorious for their clunky menu systems and incredibly steep learning curve (Final Fantasy XIV, I’m looking directly at you) and Blizzard proved that with a little legwork and careful optimization, you can deliver incredibly deep experiences to people that have never even touched an MMORPG and suck them in within an hour or so.

Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely examples of games that have forgone depth in order to appeal to a mass market, but the truth of the matter is that they rest firmly in the minority. There’s no need to abhor developers for wanting to appeal to a broader market, and we certainly shouldn’t be complaining about streamlined experiences. Although many gamers would have you think otherwise, it is very much possible to innovate and accommodate simultaneously. If we want our industry to thrive and to be as successful as the film industry (or more so) then we need to drop the hardcore attitude and start being a little more open-minded to letting more people enjoy our favorite games. So what if your grandma can play Battlefield? Be happy that you can talk to someone else about a franchise you love.

If she can kick your ass, though, that might be a problem.   read

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