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8:55 AM on 08.21.2013

Thoughts: Killzone Mercenary Public Beta

"Just give it two sticks, please for the love of god just give it two sticks!"  That's what everyone said leading up to the reveal of the PSP's successor, the mysterious NGP.  That plea has now been fulfilled by the Vita, but sadly its implicit tagline has yet to follow suit; "Give it two sticks, and some good games!"  

This point is obviously a bit hyperbolic; the Vita has plenty of great games for you to enjoy, particularly if you like your Indies served up on a gorgeous OLED screen.  But for all its strengths in the zippy 2-D department, the Vita's catalogue of games still bears a glaring hole in a shape a standout triple A first person shooter.  The FPS genre is the exponent of dual stick controls, it's the bread and butter of the most competitive online experiences (on consoles anyways).  The Vita has attempted to deliver a proper FPS experience twice now with "Resistence: Burning Skies" and "COD:BLOPS Declasified", but both games were disappointing to say the least.  The graphics where underwhelming, the gameplay was bland as three day old porridge, and the stories felt like they were written by a programmer on his lunch breaks.  But here comes "Killzone: Mercenary", Sony's third shot at boiling down a console shooter into the portable format.  Is third time the charm, or should the Vita just stick with indie sidescrollers and stop embarrassing itself?

Short answer, the game is awesome.  Long answer, it's awesome, but we'll have to wait for the full release to find just how awesome.  All I've gotten to play so far is a very limited multiplayer beta with only one game type (Warzone, which is actually 5 smaller types in one), one map, and no access to the single player campaign.  This has however given me a feel for the game's controls, technical performance, and basic multiplayer systems.  And let me tell you, what I've played thus far has been enough to move KZM from the bottom to the top of my list of most anticipated Vita games.

The controls made an impression on me as soon as I jumped into my first game.  They immediately felt tight and weighty, almost exactly the way KZ3's controls did.  The movement is hefty, but the aiming is smooth and responsive as a well oiled machine, with none of the infamous lag that plagued KZ2.  It still isn't a twitch shooter like COD or CS thought, and as it always has Killzone favors players who align themselves with their lines of fire at all times, as opposed to those who try to snap into position in the blink of an eye.  That's not to say the game doesn't reward lightning hand-eye coordination, the controls are robust enough that players with thumbs of fury can still pick off slower opponents with a snap headshot.  But if you're not thinking about where your cursor needs to be before you round a corner you'll fall prey to more diligent players more often than not.

The next thing I noticed after the controls was the game's impressive graphics.  Lighting is vibrant, models are clear, and animations are solid.  There are a few muddy environmental textures, but on the whole KZM is nearly indistinguishable from its PS3 cousins.  But what's really important for multiplayer is how well it all holds together, and I'm pleased to say that I rarely encountered frame drops or glitch outs or any other debilitating hiccups that could hinder competitive gameplay.  It's not perfect, the frame rate will drop to what feels like about 25 FPS when things get really hectic, but that rarely happens and it's never enough to really hinder you.

Perhaps my favorite thing about the game is the way it was crafted to fit the Vita.  Sony has always said that the console is meant to bring the home console experience to the inside of your pocket, or the bench of the bus stop, but many Vita games don't seem to know how to do this.  The visual design isn't easily readable on a 5 inch screen, the touch controls are lazy and mostly useless, etc.  

KZM doesn't fall into any of these traps.  Touch buttons for switching weapons or activating bonuses are positioned on the edge of the screen right next to where your thumbs naturally want to rest, making them easily accessible and genuinely useful.  Of course if you don't want to use touch controls you don't have to, as all those functions are also mapped to the physical d-pad.  The only thing that you need to use the touch screen for are some combat and hacking mini games, but even when they're mandatory the touch controls feel at home and justified.  The visual design works well too.  The flashing lights along players bodies(red for Helghast blue for ISA) are easily discernible from even great distances on the Vita's OLED screen, and text is clear and legible.  It's everything that every developer should be doing for the Vita.

The actual structure of the gameplay is very enjoyable as well.  You respawn almost instantly, there are always engaging objectives to be fulfilled, and you're rewarded handsomely for playing well.  A new addition to the KZ formula is the Valor system, which allows you to pick up fallen players Valor cards for bonus points, with the type of card each player has depending on their play style.  There are a few other notable features, but this blog has already grown far too long, so I won't list them off ad nauseam.  Suffice it to say the game is every bit the shooter it's predecessors where- in fact, I may even like it slightly better than the PS3 outings.  I was a bit burned out on the series after KZ3, but after playing this beta I'm super eager to plunk down $35 bucks when the game launches early next month and explore what else it has to offer.   read

8:33 PM on 08.05.2013

What I Want: A God of War Spiritual Successor

Sony seems to take the shotgun approach to creating memorable franchises, throwing a billion ideas at the wall in a blitz of creativity and hoping a few of them prove to be stickers.  God of War was one of those stickers, and boy does Sony know it.  Since the genesis of the series in 2005, there have been six games in the core franchise (seven if you count the spin off mobile game, Betrayal).  Most of those games have been exceptional, and GOW2 is easily one of the best hack-n-slash games of all time.  But for me personally, the shine's kind've gone off the gore-encrusted apple.  The four games split between the PS2 and the PSP were damn near perfect, but the other two on the PS3?  Not so much.  GOW3 felt like it was lacking something deep down, and Ascension felt like squeezing blood from a stone (although admittedly, if anyone could make a stone bleed it would be Kratos).  The series still has enough cred with me to warrant getting excited over, but if Sony announces another Kratos themed prequel I'm going to puke.  In fact, I think I'd like a break from Kratos in general, maybe even from Greek mythology entirely.  Blasphemous as that may sound, I think the ground around GOW's roots has gone fallow, having been sucked dry by successive generations of prequels and sequels scrapping the bottom of the barrel for further mythical entities for Kratos to eviscerate.  The GOW series needs a fresh coat of blood, and I think a Bioshock Infinite style spiritual successor that preserves the core elements of the franchise while exploring new characters, new mechanics, and new mythology would do the trick quite nicely.

First off, let me clarify what I mean by a "Bioshock Infinite" style spiritual successor.  The original Bioshock was an exceptionally original game, rich with literary themes and storytelling.  The gameplay was exciting as well, seasoning tried and true FPS model with the morbidly engaging plasmids, which when combined with the game's devilish AI and unique character design delivered some of the most memorable gameplay moments of the last generation.  Irrational knew that it had struck a vein with Bioshock, but they were also aware of the danger of spoiling the formula by over exploiting the world of Rapture.  Bioshock owed a large part of its success to its originality, to its daring to invest a videogame with the kind of thoughtful, educated world building usually reserved for serious literature.  So Irrational didn't just strip-mine the mythology they'd created for Rapture, pumping out sequel after sequel year after year, cobbling together increasingly strained "backstories" for every little bit of mystery until we were all sick to death of that which we once loved; instead, they did something much more exciting and artistically wholesome.  They took the core experience of their game- augmented gunplay, thought provoking characters and storytelling, enthralling world building- and they did it all over again.  Instead of playing it safe and sticking with what they knew worked, Irrational had the balls to make a second attempt at capturing lightning in a bottle.  And it was good for everyone.

That is, in essence, what I want for the GOW series.  Now, of course, it's not so simple as "do it like those Bioshock guys did it".  Bioshock was a one off game (actually, Bioshock itself was a spiritual successor to System Shock, but whatever), not whole series of games, meaning that Irrational didn't have to worry about legacy as much as Sony does.  It's not clear that GOW can survive outside of Greek mythology, or without Kratos.  But if Sony were to make an attempt at creating a spiritual successor to GOW, I think their best bet would be to hit these three bullet points:

1)[u] Bring Hack-N-Slash To the Next Level[/u]:  GOW did something special for the hack-n-slash genre.  It wasn't as technical as the other heavy hitters of the time, like DMC or Ninja Gaiden, but it did have that "je ne sais quoi" of an instant classic.  The chain blades, the Greek asthetic, and the iconic character of Kratos all came together into something truly memorable.  And now, GOW is really the last great hack-n-slash left standing.  Ninja Gaiden has fallen from grace since Tomonobu Itagaki stopped working on the series, and DMC... well, lets talk about what happened with DMC, because it's actually a great template for what NOT to do when rebooting GOW.
Earlier this year, Capcom released a punky, angsty reboot of DMC (cheekily titled DmC), and needless to say, it wasn't exactly a smash hit.  Despite a respectable metacritic score of 85, the game posted awful sales and received a boatload of backlash from long term fans of the series.  Where did Capcom go wrong?  Well, having been one of the few people who actually bought the game (I like the dev, Ninja Theory), I feel what DmC was really lacking was worthwhile gameplay.  Ninja Theory is known for their cinematic storytelling and direction, but the combat in their other games has always seemed lacking to me, and pattern holds with DmC.  While the game had some interesting systems and actually controlled pretty well, it never the less ended up feeling slightly repetitive and shallow.  There just weren't enough combos, not enough enemies that actually forced you to be creative.  I was hooked for the first two hours, but the shine soon wore off and I quickly became bored.  That, coupled with the fact that the writing in the reboot wasn't really any better than anything from the original series, left the game feeling underwhelming and not really worth the $60 price tag, ergo the poor sales.  
If DmC had had great gameplay the story could have been forgiven, as has been shown with the series in the past.  But without the gameplay there really wasn't much to the game, aside from some interesting visual design that, like the combat, eventually looses its luster.  That's where GOW's reboot has to do better.  Story is good, visuals are nice, but gameplay is the most essential component to a video game.  But it can't just be any old gameplay, I want something that feels as fresh and exciting as the first time I laid my thumbs on the Blades of Chaos.  What should that new gameplay be?  I don't know, I don't make games for a living (yet), but it's the dev's job to surprise us with something new and exciting.  You can't lay a template for innovation, all you can do is see what people want, and what they don't want, and it's pretty clear that what people don't want is another DmC.

2) [u]Remix the Revenge Story:[/u] I think I speak for everyone when I say that I'm sick to death of Kratos whining on and on about his dead family and the "terrible things" he's done.  It was good for, like, 2.5 games, but after six games I've had enough of a psychopathic killing machine whining about his feelings.  Thing is though, that revenge narrative is an integral part of the GOW franchise, it justifies a character who never runs out of things to stab nor the will to stab them.  Plus, revenge does well as a big, melodramatic motivation, which is exactly what GOW needs.  Hephaestus was interesting enough in GOW3, but his heartfelt plight seemed out of place in a game that lets you tear out cyclop's eyes with your bare hands.  And don't even get me started on Pandora, her plaintive mewing about "hope" was utterly unbearable.  If there are going to be people in the game who berate the protagonist for being a bad person, then you should be able to burn them alive or smash their faces into books like you could in the first two games.  By no means do I want a beat for beat repeat of past games, but the new story should definitely explore the idea of a man (or woman, totally!) seeking revenge against the gods who keep him under their thumb and abuse him like a pawn.  

3) Steep it in Lore:  I think it goes without saying that anything even tangentially related to GOW should be steeped in religious lore.  Does it have to be religious lore, can it just be any old fantasy lore, or something that the devs make up themselves?  Hell no, gotta be the genuine fake shit.  There was something extremely cool about playing a game that had so many references to all the random facts you learned about dead religions in middle school social studies.  "Oh sweet, a gorgon, I'm going to tear it's head off and scare people to stone with it!"  "Awesome, I'm stabbing a minotaur in the face!"  New lore can be great, but GOW was always about exploring the old myths and legends, exploring them in the face with huge pointy swords and magical energy bolts.
So what lore should the reboot explore?  Norse lore, Hindu lore, Mormonism?  Personally, I think it should go full American Gods and mix it all together into a great big bloody stew and throw the player right in the middle.  The creator of GOW David Jaffe has said that if he had got to write the script for GOW3 (he wasn't working at Sony SM at the time) he would have gone the multiple mythologies route, and what's good enough for Jaffe is good enough for me

There are of course 1 trillion more things that need to go into a game in order to make it a success, and you could probably and a million more things to this game as its an attempt to revitalize such a beloved property.  That doesn't however mean that it's impossible, or even improbable.  Cory Balrog, creative director for GOW2, has just announced that he's back at Sony SM, and that the project he's on is "something huge".  Balrog has said that they're putting together an all-star team of creative types for this next project, and it's been know for awhile that Battlestar Galactica writer Michael Angeli has been working with Sony SM.  Could this mysterious project be a GOW game?  A GOW reboot?  Something totally new?  Who knows!  But all this activity over in Santa Monica has got me excited for what's coming up, so lets keep our fingers crossed for more awesome games to come.   read

5:38 PM on 07.11.2013

Hey, So, What Happened to Insomniac?

Is it just me, or is Insomniac just not "with it" anymore?  This thought comes after Insomniac's latest game announcement, Ratchet and Clank: Into the Nexus.  You can 
check out the trailer below.

The game is set to be an epilogue to the Future ark that has composed the R&C games on PS3.  But unlike the other Future titles, Into the Nexus is not a full length game.  Instead, it's yet another smaller R&C title, like the acceptable R&C: Quest for Booty, and the underwhelming R&C:Full Frontal Assault.  No word yet on how it'll actually compare in terms of size to previous games, but we're told it'll be priced at $30, and will be available both digitally on PSN and physically at retail.   Yippe.

I've been a fan of Insomniac's work for ages, but that only makes it harder for me to admit that I just can't get excited for this latest announcement.  A new R&C game promising "new weapons" and "crazy enemies" was interesting at the beginning of this generation, when it was exciting to think about the places the franchise could go on a new set of hardware.  But this is the fifth R&C game to come out this generation (not counting the PSP games), and the excitment has kind've worn thin.  If only there were new platforms on the way for them to take advantage of, to actually do something interesting with the franchise and push it in a fresh direction.  And I mean, it's not like if there were new consoles on the way they would leave fans of the R&C games with a quick, under-sized conclusion on old hardware, so that they could focus development on a new exclusive IP for a different companies' platform.  Oh wait.

That doesn't sound bitter, does it?  Ok, it sounds really bitter.  But seriously, what the hell Insomniac?  Into the Nexus is the second pint-sized R&C we've gotten in a row.  There hasn't been a proper game in the series since 2009's excellent R&C: A Crack in Time, and for what?  Fuse?  Resistance 3?  Yeah, not worth it.  

But it's not just an issue of Insomniac not focussing on what I want them to.  It would be only slightly irritating if they didn't do what I wanted them to, yet still made awesome games, because even if I didn't get my way I would still get awesome games.  But their games as of late have not been awesome.  R3 was a disaster (in my opinion the worst in the series, but I think I'm in a minority on that one), and the less said about Fuse the better.  Even their last R&C game was nothing to write home about, and that's supposed to be their bread and butter.  And this trailer for the new game doesn't do anything to assuage my worries.  New "gravity" gameplay?  Big, scripted set pieces ?  A gun that shoots green blobs?  You're gonna have to do better than that.  

This move to stuff the franchise with smaller, less high profile games seems odd to me in the light of the recent announcement of a full-sized R&C movie.  Not that I know anything about what Insomniac should be doing with its franchises, but wouldn't you want to focus more of your efforts on the one that you plan to go multi-media with?
I don't know, I'm just kind've disappointed with the trajectory Insomniac seems to be on.  First they wanted prove that they could be all grown up and stuff and make "gritty" games, then they split themselves up into two studios (a move to which I attribute their recent drop in quality), and now it seems like they're just milking their best franchise for all it's worth, without even bothering to invest much effort in the act.

Maybe I'm just being cynical.  I mean the new game does look really good, presentation wise, and while Full Frontal Assault was a bit disappointing it still wasn't as bad a Fuse *shudder*.  I just remember back in the day when I would eagerly await the release of a new episode of Insomniac's now defunct "Full Moon Podcast", hungry for more details on their next game, enamored by the charm of their games and their people.  I miss those days.   read

8:49 PM on 04.20.2013

Choice in Games: Wait isn't that the whole point?

The push for "choice" in games seems somewhat silly to me, because hey, isn't that what games are all about in the first place? You're constantly making choices in games, you've always been making choices in games, the fact that you're choosing to play a game means that you're making about a million choices to not do a million other things in your real life. Why does a narrative choice, like "Chose one; she lives, or she dies" seem to mean more than a ludonarrative choice, (that is, a gameplay choice), like "Chose one; Sawblade launchenator or Teddybear rage-inducer". What about all the choices you make during the gameplay itself, like to take cover or to charge up your weapon? Putting points in talent trees doesn't count as choice? I didn't realize that the most sophisticated way to trick people into thinking that they have control over their play experience was to give them a dual-colored sliding scale between "baddie" and "goodie". As far as I can tell, all the best games that have ever been made (HL2, Zelda, etc) were strictly linear narratives that didn't fracture character motivations or multiply developer workload just so someone whose ass has grown into the fibers of his couch can make a story "his own".

Phew, now that the opening paragraph is out of the way, I can disect this issue a little be more fairly. Now as near as I can tell, the whole idea of giving people "choice" in games is so they have the illusion of doing something significant. There are all kinds of ways this can happen, from choosing what class to start with in an RPG, to customizing your gear in a first person shooter, to selecting between narrative pathways in an action adventure title. To my mind, the kind of "choice" that draws the most attention is the kind that allows you to make a significant impact on the narrative of the story that you're experiencing. The ability to interact with the narrative lends the game an organic feel, like it's interacting with you on a personal level and allowing your actions to generate meaningful results. It brings you deeper into the story, saying "you're not just experiencing these characters, you're interacting with them". Interaction within narrative is probably the most powerful tool for immersion (which, despite its buzzword status, I do not hold as the ultimate goal of a game or any art), at least after you've got good storytelling, good character, and good verisimilitude nailed down. If a story connects with you, if it can look you in the eye and wink, you're never going to want to put it down.

But wait, is that what we're really trying to get here? Not to sound like a dad here, but is being enthralled to the point of vegitude by the flashing dots on our television screens really what we're going for? Not that you can't have great interactive fiction without becoming a total sloth, but isn't that the idden agenda here? Or are we just going for greater depth in our stories, maximizing the density of interactions until we get to some kind of satisfying virtual reality? Because you can say that all you want is to have better stories, but it's not such a small step from there to wanting something that will continue to hold your intrest after hours upon hours of gameplay. But then again people get that already in games that don't really have any story elements at all, like multiplayer shooters or MMO's (those can have stories, but from my experience they're mostly just filler text to give some BS justification for why you have to collect fifteen frog eyes). So then what is the point of interaction within narrative?

Back to my original point, the idea that games need more choice seems just silly to me, because games really are nothing but choice. You're choosing to react to enemies, you're choosing to explore for hidden items, you're choosing to do just about everything in a game. But does that kind of choice even matter to people anymore? In our push for better stories in videogames, have we reduced the importance of gameplay choice to the importance of turning a page in a novel? David Cage would probably like to think so, but people around here don't seem to like him much.

What do y'all think? I can gross about stories all day, but I've never done this blogging thing before, so I apologize if this is a "fail blog". Do should we just draw a line between ludonarrative choices and narrative choices and say "there, now leave it alone", or can we do more than that?   read

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