Like a lot of current-day gamers, I cut my online teeth on developer Jagex's pay-premium title Runescape. The formula was, perhaps, not a new one, but it worked: free access to start with, but you have to pay cash to do anything useful. And I did pay, eventually. I was fourteen and, let's face it, pimpin' ain't easy when you can only wear vendor trash.
Since my Runescape days, the industry has seen the release of plenty of games that live (and thrive) on similar economies: from Japanese mediocrities with no more than 1,500 players a piece and a single server running in a dusty basement, to modest successes like Maple Story, Ragnarok Online, and GunZ. The market of free-to-play is not groundbreaking, and it is a far cry from empty. It operates like the theory of "gateway drugs": offer a new customer something easy to soften their inhibitions, and nudge them not-so-gently towards the premium product. And it is a resounding success.
It's easy to see why: gamers digest commitment only when it's presented as diversion. At least, I do. Several years of experimentation have proved it's legitimacy. A discerning glance at Blizzard's flourishing MMO World of Warcraft peels back to expose this: a variety of landscapes, characters, armours, names, roads, but one basic principle - kill and collect. To some it's drudgery, but because it's costumed as variety, it seems that when subscribers pay the monthly fee, they feel like they're paying for a drastically different product every time.
Who better to confer some dignity to the scheme of the "gateway game" than publishing titan Electronic Arts? The eighteenth-century wit Alexander Pope said, "Be not the first by whom the new are tried," and there's hardly a studio alive that honours that adage more than the loose-lipped and tight-fisted software giant and parent of Battlefield developers DICE.
A few things remain to be said about DICE's newest brainchild, the free-to-play-pay-to-pwn Looney Tunes-styled gorefest Battlefield Heroes. Now, I was a long-time beta player, and while loose lips sink ships, I'm guessing the wide release of the game means my NDA is kaput. So here: this is not a bad game. While it may taste more familiar to players of Valve's 2007 masterpiece Team Fortress 2 than to seasoned veterans of the Battlefield series, it is accessible, efficient, and well-designed. You will have fun (at least in small doses). The mechanics are easy: it is a simple run-and-gunner. But there are a few surprises.
For the sake of simplicity, there are only three classes: the suave, stealthy Commando who totes a combat knife and sniper rifle, and with the power to turn more-or-less invisible until he attacks; the sturdy Gunner, with the ability to carry around tank-busters and heavy machine guns, and lastly, the all-purpose Soldier, the "Mario" of this title, armed with an SMG or shotgun. Like other Battlefield Games, there are vehicles, although with only one weapon a piece their usefulness is cut in halves. Planes (machine gun), tanks (cannon), and jeeps (your front bumper) still survive. No luck if you had your fingers crossed for choppers or boats.
Here's the kicker. During my third game, I leaped into a fearsome-looking British (excuse me, "Royal")l tank and hot-footed it across the map to the German (excuse me, "National") CP. Turning in a wide arc around the easternmost entrance, I aimed at a gaggle of Nazis (Natis?) and fired a shell. All four of them took flight, soared forty feet in the air, crashed into the ground... and ran away.
It's startling to see the Battlefield series - a stalwart friend to realism - turn in the direction of the arcade-y, adorable shooter they've released, but... I don't hate it. I really don't. I enjoyed myself immensely in the several hours I played and while it is disappointing to see your target take a sniper's bullet to the nose and live to (nasally) tell about it, it's a mechanic that presents itself remarkably well.
So, you'll be able to look at it. You'll be able to play it. Will you be able to commit to it? That's where the unlockable weapons and "Risk"-esque metagame come into. The unlockables work to the benefit of everybody: you, the community, and most importantly it seems, Electronic Arts. There's not much variety to them: you've got one SMG, one shotgun, one sniper rifle, one pistol, etceteracetera. They all use the same model, but different names and different strengths and weaknesses; these can be purchased for a limited time with a purse of "Hero Points", which are earned in combat and through the completion of quest-like "Missions".
Likewise, there are only a handful of maps, equally divided between vehicular warfare and hoofin' it. The metagame is as of yet untested, but it promises to be a much more bountiful source of Hero Points than simply "aimin' for the head."
With a fair purchase model, a promising future with EA's continued commitment (provided it's a success, I guess), endearing, tastefully designed visuals and sound, and simple, addictive gameplay, as a game the title plays smoothly and entertainingly. Now the question that endures is this: how about the business of money?
Well, it acquits itself very well. EA intends for it's revenue to be earned through the display of in-game advertisement (not so much billboards as little banners that show during the loading screen and scoreboard) and, infamously, through the sale of bling - temporary pants, shirts, hats, eyepatches, and Wellingtons that are purchased with BattleFunds, acquired through a very discreet (don't judge me!) PayPal procedure.
But herein lies the rub: if the weapons are earned, and the abilities are also earned, and EA isn't hiding more powerful content somewhere on your hard drive waiting to be paid for (a la Battlefield: Bad Company), how do they intend to make money, and if they don't make money, how do they intend to support this game?
Honestly, tell me, how many of you think you'll be buying the cartloads of colourful shoes and battle condoms that EA is praying you will? Not very many, I'd wager. In lieu of consumers paying wheelbarrows of guilder for the clock necklaces and ACE bandages and all, the only out EA is going to have to make money is to advertise more aggressively, which could mean anything from a Exxon billboard next to the vehicle depot to a Pepsi endorsement on the back of your flak jacket, and knowing the volume of advertising they would need to sell to run these servers and pay off dice, THESE are some of the least distasteful possibilities.
But how much commitment EA will offer remains to be seen: maybe, with CEO John Ritticiello's new "direction" for the company, they'll pull something out of their ass and (not) surprise us. Not to judge: but I sincerely wonder.
Firstly, it's been a while since I wrote anything here, and I guess I ought to apologize for that. Not that I have dedicated readers, but it did feel like a sudden desertion. I thought it fitting, though, to pin my return to something that really deserves it. I just finished my first playthrough (hopefully of several) of Bethesda's opus, and I felt inspired in a way that few games really inspire me. Inspired enough - startlingly? - to come back here and write of some of the impressions the game left me with.
That I thought the game was a risky enough investment to split the cost with a friend should be enough of a sign that I wasn't confident in it. I only played the original Fallout less than a week before I bought Fallout 3, so I didn't have the rosy-tinted reverence for it that some of the vets around here do, but I had been extremely impressed by the first game and I wondered how Bethesda - a developer with such a spotty reputation - would do.
Bethesda thinks deer are pretty badass.
Granted, Bethesda's games have been nothing but good... overall. But they have the nasty flaw of fucking up little tiny things about their games, then fixing those and fucking up something else. Morrowind? People hated the rigidity of character progression and how tough the combat system was to deal with. Oblivion? We'll streamline combat, and throw in a little scalable difficulty and conversation pie. So, I didn't really know what to expect from this latest piece.
The biggest worry that I hear is that this would be "Oblivion with guns", and I'm here to allay your fears and tell you that is completely and utterly fucking true. And... it doesn't bother me at all. The combat functions like Oblivion's would, and if you played Oblivion as an archer or spellcaster then you're in for some nasty deja vu[i]. But [i]Oblivion's problems were never really about the combat. They were about much bigger reasons that were much more distasteful, sweeping things like story and characters. And in those departments, it seems Bethesda's finally done us a good turn.
Oblivion and Morrowind were great games, and I loved both of them, but beside the main storyline, the game was largely an exercise in fetch-and-return or kill-quota MMO sidequests, and because the goals and mechanics of the quests were so predictable and uniform, there wasn't a lot of incentive to wander. The quests were shallow, so players stayed in the shallow end. Oblivion's world was huge, but at times all the wandering felt like it was in vain: the world was so dry and sparse that exploration had no goal or focus.
If this was a worry for you, I can tell you that the same mistake hasn't been made here. Fallout not only provides the type of deep diversions that Oblivion was missing, it offers them wrapped in heart and a sense of purpose. Every sidequest that you're offered - though there's probably fewer of them - feels like it only got into the game by being a paragon of good design, every single task feels like it has greater implications than just rewarding or punishing you, and every step in those missions feels like it's put there for a reason.
Best of all, these assignments are often emotionally profound, including saving a town at a young boy's behest after mutant fire ants have burned it - and his parents - to the ground, or to step onto bitter ground, you can capture and sell Wasteland survivors to the slavers in Paradise Falls for profit or reputation.
But by staying so close to the heart, Fallout points out it's own greatest weakness:nothing really resonates in the Wasteland. Maybe the problem sleeps where designers are afraid to go, something fundamental about sandbox games. Maybe they just aren't good storytelling mediums: after all, given a limited palette of animations (etc.) to work with and so much content to finish, nothing can really feel as intimate as if it was carefully scripted. For whatever reason, though, in Fallout, as in GTA or Elder Scrolls or S.T.A.L.K.E.R. or what-have-you, the stories can be as affecting as you please, but nothing hits close to home because it all feels mechanical and alien.
Granted, Fallout's voice acting helps with this problem. Compared to Oblivion's procedural voicing, which sampled from about five actors for a world population of definitely more than five actors, Fallout's voices line up better with the characters, and everyone you meet feels like an individual with desires and backstory that you can dig up from their conversation. But even with that treatment, Fallout is slightly off-putting. Nothing really feels genuine. The scary bits are still scary, the heartfelt bits still heartfelt, but it's so near to sublimity that it's miles and miles away.
Overall, though, I'd still suggest this to anybody who's interested in a game they can sink time into without regret. I spent eight hours in it my first day and didn't feel a lick of self-consciousnes. Compared to any other game I could have bought, this is the one I think I'd have had the least buyer's remorse about. Honestly, there were small segments of this game that packed more emotion and meaning than the entirety of games like Bioshock and Half-Life 2, and the scope and sheer audacity of it certainly help. If you're like me at all, this game will leave you just short of absolute bliss, but short enough so your wallet sleeps happily.
As a medium, games have an unprecedented ability to manipulate. Control isn't a one-way street; with total access to all your unconditioned animal responses, video games are a canvas for truly telling forays into what we are capable of being frightened of. A game that can shock and terrify - not just your Condemned and your Alone in the Dark - delivers something that is carefully crafted, designed to flood your body with chemicals you aren't quite comfortable with. A skilled developer is an entertainer, but he is also a psychologist, with a keen understanding of what thumbscrews trigger what screams, and in games designed to make your reflexes tighten like Workmeng's choice of date and your pulse skyrocket like his lap javelin, effective game design relies on knowing what causes us fear.
Imagine that you're in a movie theatre, watching a horror movie. Not gore porn, but something tense, nerve-wracking, involving. Before an outbreak of violence or a climactic attack, the projection booth turns up the lights and the sound disappears. I think you'll agree: immersion is a key element in fright. Even in books and movies, developers rely on a litany of key devices to immerse you. In the art and science of video games, your sense of involvement hinges on sound, atmosphere, and seamless control. This is the more technical aspect of things. Does the sound not locate right? Is it too hollow, or dry, or cold? Sound technicians in the studios of master developers spend hours and hours cautiously tuning and retuning the equalizers, capturing different ambient sound and effects, tweaking and fixing and placing. Control can just as easily ruin it. Identifying with the protagonist is defined by how well you can control him or her. A jarring control scheme only pulls you from the action. Over this, graphics are a coat of paint applied slowly. Too thick, and the "horror" becomes self-effacing, the monsters almost comically serious. Too thin, the game risks being a run-and-gun shooter, a Serious Sam or Call of Duty reskinned with boils and facial deformities.
The Silent Hill series is an exemplar of this, a team that manages the trifecta of sound, control, and graphics like creators, not comedians. The Silent Hill "old guard", veterans who have been playing the series since its 1999 conception, generally remember it fondly. The sense of immersion, for its time, was spectacular. Though you might recall that the textures didn't have the high-res glory of a current-gen title, the game was still capable of creating anxiety and abject fear, and series mainstays like the rapetastic Pyramid Head still cause a sick fascination among the Silent Hill brass. Managing to call up emotions like that on a now-obsolescent platform like the PlayStation 2 is mighty hefty, and it was managed by recognizing what elements of a horror game make it a horrifying game.
Something that stands out about games that want to scare you is the balance of power; in a military shooter, maybe, you're an agent of a government with license on the most intimidating war machines ever made and the cojones to fire them on anything that looks even marginally darker than a sheet of paper. Or you've got the advantage of intellect, doing battle against henchmen with brains like wet paper towels. To become a classic, horror games have to turn this notion on its head, establishing early on the superiority of the world over the player. You can imagine pretty quickly a game that failed magnificently at this: 2K Boston/Australia's 2007 undersea epic, BioShock. Now, nobody will try to tell you that BioShock is a bad game. What it managed to do, it did well. The story was intriguing, the characters deep, the controls and audio and atmosphere spot-on. But what it did fail to do is make your player feel weak. Between the H-bomb arsenal that lived in your hands, the endless health buffet, and VitaChambers that roamed in packs, BioShock sacrificed tension, stress, and inferiority to mass appeal and accessibility. When reviews were forced to be critical of BioShock it proved to be one of the complaints listed most often. I quote Yahtzee Crowshaw from his review of the game: "When you realize there's no reason to be careful, nothing really poses a threat anymore... the game ceases to be scary or difficult."
Another element that defines horror as a genre is a sense of pace. A movie is only a horror movie until the deaths and scrapes and disembowelment reach just such a pace where it's no longer unusual to see somebody beaten to do with their own nose. Games lean on shock to do this: maybe a long find-the-item "Where's Waldo?" quest that drags its ass over three or four goddamn generations, and hot on the heels of that you get a wrench to the face. It's a matter of expectation. If you expect somebody to be trying to maim you at any given second, it no longer surprises you when they do. Amateur games - mods for every engine under the sun - generally fail at this. Sometimes, in a certain, special zombie mod, it's hard to suppress laughter at the slow, steady trickle of reanimated corpses that is trying turn your cranium into haute cuisine. But professional games do it, as well. A game that doesn't hold any special place in history, Clive Barker's Jericho is just such a game. Not helped at all by the menu of superpowers available to your team - the X-men of the undead - the game had the habit of turning its isolated hallways surprise parties into endless streams of the lumbering undead, a festival of mutilation. This is a mistake that comes from a misunderstanding: in any other genre, "man vs. world" is not entirely unheard of. In conventional FPS, it's even desirable. But horror prides itself on abrupt surprise, jarring you into a reaction instead of dragging it out of you, kicking and screaming, like you had just smelted its father into a bicycle helmet.
The success of a horror game is a precise art, as much as therapy or neuroscience. A game can't survive without being able to demonstrate how well it understands what makes you tick, and even better, what makes you jump. Amateur developers make the mistake almost daily of assuming that what works for shmups and army shooters will work for their ode to the undead. It doesn't. And frankly, as the games that have it all dwindle and become almost collectible, I think we'll start to see horror, as a genre, vanishing from the shelves.
When I walked into your store that fateful Tuesday, I expected only to find a smattering of half-decent titles tucked back there amongst the used 360 games. Instead I found you, surrounded by a beam of light, halfway between Assassin's Creed and Call of Duty 3. Your gorgeous dark hair was radiant in contrast with the rainbow of colors on the deluxe Bioshock behind you. The Game of the Year held no interest for me when I saw you look up and smile, even though both could hold me in Rapture.
You commanded the register when it was my turn to check out with the Orange Box. Yes, I was finally getting to play Portal. Lucky me, you said with the cutest smile. Lucky me, I thought, and then knew you had the Portal to my heart. I could care less if the cake is a lie, I'd still want to share it with you.
Oh GameStop Girl, how you make my heart meter skip a beat. If you were being held captive in a mountain fortress by a ruthless mutant mafia gangboss and I had to fight my way through 16 levels of fire-breathing undead ninjas with swords the size of small ponies, I would find a way, even if, after every level, a small man continued to taunt me by saying that you were in another castle. EVEN IF.
So, yes, GameStop Girl, I want to kill robotic zombie terrorists with you. You can even have the deluxe shotgun with explosive scattershot. I'll just use this knife over here. I'll do anything for you, just for the small, slightest chance that someday - someday - you and me could be a Wii.
Spotted this during one of my late night trips on StumbleUpon. Now, I watched intently and found myself nodding a lot, and up until number one, the only thing I found myself thinking was "Where is 2007?".
With a tremendous amount of anticipation for the coming year, I thought it would be nice to reflect back a little bit on what 2007 meant to you, exactly. Some scenes stayed shyer than others - the RPG scene, I remember, didn't seem to have quite the same amount of satisfaction that bullet junkies were given, with only a couple of hyped releases throughout the year. But, as the video says, I think most people were able to find something that made them almost perversely happy.
Two-aught-eight is gathering up behind the precipice of Q2/Q3, with Starcraft 2, Fallout 3, Gears 2, Alone in the Dark, and the slobber-inducing LittleBigPlanet and even a few more shells salvoed in the coming months. So, the sparkly throne of early nostalgia that we've given 2007 may soon be usurped by the year ahead. But it wouldn't be far-fetched to say that 2007 deserves the praise its been given.
Think even further about the events that hit us so hard in '07: what with the Mass Effect that's-not-sex scandal, Activision's takeover of Blizzard, Riccitiello's return to EA, and the scare over Manhunt 2 on the Wii. What impact have these conflicts and turns of chance had on gaming, and how will they continue to affect it?
Roundtabling this, I think, would be good. We could move it to the forums if that would be more appropriate. I apologize if somebody has already done something to this effect, also. I make the same disclaimer I always make: it's probably been said before.