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12:44 PM on 04.14.2014

The Sorry State of the Racing Genre

If you've read my posts in these blogs before, you'll probably know I'm a big fan of racing games. Outside of gaming I'm a bit of a car guy too, so I love being able to indulge in both of these hobbies in one place. But as I've been looking at the state of the racing game genre recently, things have been looking pretty grim, and not very encouraging for the future either.

Although things have only been looking bad for the past year or so, this downturn in the genre actually first started quite a while ago, at the start of the 7th generation of consoles. At that time the Need for Speed series was at its peak. It had exploded in popularity several years earlier when it reinvented itself with Underground. With the sequel to that game it cemented its position as among the greatest in the genre. Then they did it again with the next iteration in the series, the original Most Wanted, which stands as just as much of a classic now. This was also the first NFS games on the 7th gen. machines.

Then after that things started to go sour very fast. The next game in the series after Most Wanted, Carbon, was still a good game, but one that had obvious flaws. Tell-tale signs of the stress the series was under and an omen of the direction it was heading. After that the series saw its worst iterations, and the developer was changed several times to try and bring back the quality of the series. Yet each new entry still felt rushed and half-baked, often hampered by poor controls. Since then there hasn't been a single entry anywhere near the quality of those which made NFS a series to pay attention to. Even though some entries do seem to show potential, none of them have been able to fulfil it, and the series is pretty much dead at this point in terms of quality.

Not a terrible game, but a harbinger of things to come.

The death of another of the best franchises in the genre, and one of the best developers in the industry, could arguably be attributed to this too. That being the death of Burnout and Criterion. Things seemed to start off well in the last generation for the series. Although it took a while to arrive, Burnout Paradise still stands as one of the best games of the generation, regardless of genre. But then EA put Criterion on NFS after the previous developer, Black Box, was taken off. They also failed to bring the series back to its former glory, and  in the process were completely gutted. They were cut down to a skeleton crew, and the founders of the studio left at the start of this year. With that I think it's fair to say that we probably won't be getting another Burnout again for a long time, if at all. And if we do get one, it will probably only be “Burnout” in name.

There have been a number of notable disappointing releases in the genre more recently too. Both of the latest entries in the big console exclusive simulation franchises have been less than encouraging. Now, I'm a big Forza fan. I adore the series, and it was hugely influential in how I played games in general over the past generation. Both Forza 3 and 4 were towering achievements, and Horizon, which saw out the 360, was a very successful blending of the unparalleled driving mechanics of the series with an open world structure and generally more casual tone.

Forza 5 though, was a big misstep for the series, and one I'm not particularly confident it will be able to recover from. While the physics engine and driving mechanics became much more sophisticated, and the graphics saw a leap, the game lacked an enormous amount of content and features from previous games in the series, and contained incredibly aggressive microtransactions and DLC implementation as an insult to add to the injury. While overall the game isn't exactly bad per se, it feels like a massive step down in terms of scope, while at the same time feeling like it's trying to antagonise the player.

This is from a game released in 2013.

Gran Turismo 6 is in a similar position, but for reasons that are opposite of Forza 5 in many ways. Again, it's not exactly a bad game, it has much improved physics too, but it feels like the result of a broken development process. Most of the car models look like PS2 models (a criticism I do not make lightly), shadows are often hideous, and the audio of the game is equally poor. Many of the features of the game feel like they were thrown in for the sake of it, without a plan for how it would all fit together or proper quality control. Like they were added in because they had all the assets lying around and felt they were obligated to include them, but there's so much of it that there just wasn't enough time or resources to make sure any of it was really up to proper standards.

The events that lead to both of these games becoming what they are are reminiscent of what the NFS series went through, which is why I'm worried that these series may not be able to reclaim their past greatness either. It's all the result of a series failing to make the transition to a new generation and the increase in effort needed to bring them up to the level expected from the new hardware. That being the 7th gen. for GT, and the 8th for Forza, both with their 5th iterations. This forced both Forza and GT to make compromises. To choose between quality and quantity, while before they could afford both. Forza went for quality, and GT went for quantity. Putting these series on tight development schedules exacerbates the problem too. It becomes a cycle of always having to play catch-up to make up for what was lacking last time.

Another notable disappointment from recent times has been GRID 2. The first game is another of my favourites of the generation, but the sequel fell flat. Again, it's not exactly a bad game, but it felt very uninspired and soulless. It also seemed confused in what it wanted to be. It presented itself as being a somewhat realistic depiction of professional racing, yet most of the vehicles in the game are road cars.

The VW Golf just screams "global level motorsport".

So that brings us up to now. A time where all of the biggest and best names in the racing genre are dead, or are in serious danger of following their fallen comrades. And when we look to the future, there doesn't seem to be much there waiting to take their place.

Because of the misgivings I've had about Forza 5, I've been looking for another game that could potentially scratch my simulation itch in the future, and I'm not seeing anything that fits the bill. Most upcoming games in the genre are PC only, something which isn't really an option for me, or much more limited in scope than Forza, as games in this genre usually are.

Right now the best candidate seems to be Project Cars, from Slightly Mad Studios, the creators of the Shift games from the NFS franchise. Those games are examples from the series that could have been good if they had more time in development to realise their potential. They were attempting to be simulators, like Forza, but they had an interesting character to them. They took on the more modern style of performance-focused tuning that you might be familiar with if you are aware of the car culture blog Speedhunters. In fact, there was quite a lot of cross-promotion between the blog and the games at the time.

Could have been so much more than it was.

From what we've seen of Project Cars, it seems that the DNA of the Shift games have bled over in to it. The driving model looks similar, but far more evolved. The graphics look to also be a refinement of that style. But it seems to be lacking that modern tuner aesthetic to it, being a very strict simulation, that at this point seems to lack scope. It's apparently going to change and grow as time goes on, even post-release, but at this point I'm not expecting it to be able to even come close to what I'm looking for. It's a shame in a way. I would be really excited to play a version of Shift 2 that was fully fleshed out and much more polished in terms of controls.

If we turn away from the simulation focus, and look at what the future hold for more arcade style games, things seem worrying to me there as well. Right now the two big games in this space are DriveClub and The Crew.

When DriveClub was first announced, it looked pretty interesting to me. A next gen. open world racer with a lot of social/multiplayer features. But as time went on I began getting more and more deflated about the idea of the game. Gameplay looked very dull and uninteresting, and then the game got delayed several times. My interest in the game was completely killed from what they showed, and now the game seems like it may be stuck in development hell. Although I suppose there is a chance that when they show the game next it might reinvigorate my interest, seeing as how they said the reason for the delay was that they wanted to “go back to the drawing board”. Only time can tell though, and at this point, I'm not too keen on the idea of the game.

"Coming... eventually... maybe."

The Crew on the other hand, has been continuing to impress me since the initial reveal. It seems like it'll take a lot of what I loved about the old NFS games when they were still good, but taking it to a whole new level. And then on top of that they're putting it in a Test Drive Unlimited style open world that'll dwarf anything that's come before. It sounded like I had found a new obsession.

But then a few days ago we started seeing the first previews of the game since the début at E3 last year, and there were some things that really worried me. Firstly, it turns out the game will require a constant online connection, even when you're playing single player. Any time your connection cuts out, you'll be instantly booted to the start screen, no matter what you were doing. But what offended me more was the revelation that the game will feature microtransactions. Not even just to buy cars and accelerate your progression like in Forza 5, but for the ability to unlock performance parts. Basically paying to unlock better stuff in the game instead of actually progressing like everyone else. Buying power, in other words. I don't think I need to tell you how disgusting that is, especially in a full priced game.

"Zynga and EA have the right idea!"

I'm still interested and optimistic about the game, but this is such an exasperating and infuriating turn of events. Ubisoft must have known that those would be some very unpopular decisions, yet they did them anyway.

It just leaves me feeling hopeless for the future of the genre. Is this what we have to look forward to now? Sims that can't afford to be anything other than the most specialised thing for small, niche audiences, or games which are nothing more than a farce designed to get you to cough up more cash? Things are looking really grim, and I don't see anything on the horizon that can save the genre.   read

4:03 PM on 12.06.2013

Gran Turismo 6 vs. Forza Motorsport 5 – Second Opinion

Earlier today Dale North put up an article comparing the various pros and cons of the newly released Gran Turismo 6 and Forza Motorsport 5. The two big console exclusive racing sims that are currently going head-to-head. It's a pretty great article. Go read it, you incompetent nerf-herder. But since I share a passion for this genre too, I quickly felt the urge to write my own comparison too, sounding off on my take on each of Dale's points.

Although, usually I hate the mere mention of this topic. But then again, it's usually discussed by random idiotic fanboys on the internet. I may be just another random idiot on the internet, but I'm definitely not a fanboy of either series. Although I have my preferences, I enjoy both games. It doesn't matter to me what logo is on the cover, I just want to play a great game. But I will say that I've only played GT6 for a day so far, so this is only based on my first impressions of that game right now. I've been playing Forza 5 since release, not that it's been out for much longer, mind you.

Cars: Tie

The cars in Forza 5 are absolutely gorgeous. They look far better than the cars in GT6, and they certainly sound better too. One reason why I've always loved cars in Forza games is because of what you can do to them, and Forza 5 has loads to do to cars as well. They've blown things out of the water with how many different paint options you can have, and there's a bunch of new crazy engine and drivetrain swaps for cars. Aero customisation options are also far better in Forza than GT. While some cars have unfortunately lost some kits, most still remain. Hardly any cars in GT have kits at all. It seems none of the non-premium cars have them. Forza also has its brilliant livery editor tool, which GT lacks.

But the size of the car list in Forza 5 is a real disappointment. So many favourites are gone. Even though GT has always had more cars, there was still always more than enough in Forza to feel like you could explore a new car any time you wanted. You had a great range to pick from too. Not any more. While the variety and selection is still good, the low number overall really takes away from that feeling of having a sandbox of dream cars to explore and play around with.[/left]

Forza 5 only has one of these, but you can do a lot to it.

Then again, the sheer number of cars in GT6 doesn't necessarily make them a better experience. Most cars are still non-premium, which is a bit of a let-down. It makes the car list feel like it's much more focused on quantity over quality. Like they played favourites, and if your personal favourite didn't get the treatment it deserved, then you're just stuck with this ugly thing which you can't do as much to as with the other cars. And there are way too many duplicates. It's way beyond unnecessary. For example, there are 22 versions of a single generation of the Mazda RX-7. That's not even counting race car or tuner shop variants. I like RX-7s as much as the next guy, but no-one needs 22 versions of the exact same car.[/left]
But, on the other hand, GT6 has some pretty cool cars in its list that you would just never see in Forza. Things like crazy concept cars that would never actually be made, or obscure little curios you never knew existed. It's cool to see and drive stuff like that.

Tracks: GT6

My opinions on this one don't differ much from Dale's. Forza's tracks may look nicer and be more lively, but there simply isn't enough of them. It feels like you're driving the same tracks again and again in every single tournament. GT6 on the other hand, has a multitude of tracks with an insane variety. I just drove on the moon this afternoon, for crying out loud! Although I do want to point out that the shadows on tracks can look pretty ugly in GT6. When you're seeing it from a driver's perspective, as you actually race, you don't really notice it. But once you watch a replay, especially one which has a long zoomed in shot, you can see how hideous shadows look from a distance. But apart from that, the tracks in GT6 are far from bad. They're in very nice locales, and they're nicely laid out. Good fun to drive around too. It's a brilliant selection.

Graphics: Forza 5

Again, there isn't much to say here that Dale didn't. Although GT6 looks good, and is quite an achievement for the PS3, it can't stand up to Forza 5. Everything looks so smooth and gorgeous in that game, and the way light bounces off all the different materials on the cars is sublime. I must also add I've noticed a few minor graphical glitches in GT6. One of which made all the polygons of my car fly out like something out of a Vinesauce video. It only happened for a split second at the start of a race, but it still happened.[/left]

Imagine this is a Ford Mustang.

Control: Forza 5

This is the point which I have to differ with Dale the most though. The feeling of the cars has always been the major reason that I've always preferred Forza over GT. It has been much improved in GT6, and it does feel pretty great, but Forza 5 has also improved a lot over its predecessors. Dale spoke about how Forza 5 feels like there is much more going on under the hood, and he's certainly right. It feels much more sophisticated than GT6, or any other Forza up until now. And that really does improve the experience of playing. Cars feel much more alive and dynamic, and you feel much more connected to them. The rumble in the triggers is also fantastic. I usually don't even have rumble on when I play any game, but here it adds to much that I feel that I have to have it on. It greatly strengthens that feeling of connection to the car. You can feel the stresses you are putting it under in your fingers. It's unlike any other racing game I've played, and it's amazing.

The controller is also a big issue for GT6. Although the feel of control is a lot better than in previous games, playing it through a Dualshock 3 really hampers what could be a much better experience on a superior controller. The spongy triggers are no good for your accelerator and brake, leaving the face buttons the only real option. But face buttons will never be anywhere near as good as a properly weighted trigger with decent travel.[/left]

(Obligatory flavour text)

But since I'm talking about controllers here, I'll roll in the controller support point in to this one as well. Dale mentions that while the controller feels great with Forza 5, that's your only option for the game, while GT6 supports several wheels. While this is true, Forza 5 will shortly have wheels released for it. A Thrustmaster and Madcatz wheel are both on the way in the near future.

I should also mention, as I expect is obvious by now, that I've only played both games with a controller. Perhaps Dale plays with a wheel most of the time, with that being a large factor in why he prefers GT over Forza in this respect. But based on what I have access to, I have to go with Forza.

Career: GT6

This is a bit of a tentative selection for me, as I haven't had much opportunity to dig deep in to both games' career, but from what I have experienced so far, GT is making a much better impression. Much of my reasoning behind this decision is linked to the tracks. As I mentioned earlier, in Forza it feels like you're driving the same few tracks over and over. I do really like the freedom of choice it offers, but the options you're given are exactly very varied. The thing that changes most through the career in Forza is the type of car you choose to drive. Apart from that it's mostly races on the same few tracks over and over, with a few extra mini-game events thrown in which aren't very fun.

GT6 is mostly straightforward races as well, but the breadth of tracks makes it feel much more varied. And the mini-games are actually pretty fun too. There are the aforementioned moon missions, and a Goodwood hill climb event, for example. It is a bit annoying that future events are locked until you meet a certain criteria though. Having a strict, linear progression through the events can seem like a bit of a grind sometimes. Although, I haven't yet had a problem with the licence tests. I could see them becoming a drag later down the line though, as they have been in previous GT games. But these complaints are minor compared to the lack of variety in Forza 5.

It's like Prague is already my home away from home...

A.I.: Forza 5

This is a bit of a tough one. I'm not exactly crazy on the A.I. for either game, but I think out of the two, Forza probably comes out on top. So far, the A.I. in GT6 doesn't seem like anything exceptional. Maybe I'll appreciate it more once I've played the game more and had more time to observe, but from what I can see it's just the usual business. Opponent cars drive relatively close to the perfect line all the time, and rarely battle with each other, and never make any significant mistakes. That doesn't mean it can't be fun to drive against. You can get a good challenge out of it if you want, and opponents... don't do some of the things they do in Forza.

The A.I. system in Forza is pretty interesting. It is unlike anything else I've played, and it can make for some interesting scenarios, and the A.I. opponents do race among themselves quite a bit. They do feel much more like real people than just dumb robots scripted to drive around at a certain speed. The problem is, real people usually drive like total dicks. Forza replicates that pretty well. Racing through a pack can often be really frustrating, as you get rammed by overly aggressive opponents, or blocked by four cars trying to go for the same apex at the same time. Often I just lose patience and fight back, and ungracefully barge my way through, since that's what everyone's doing anyway. The rewind feature does do some to alleviate the frustration of the randomness though, but I always feel like that's kind of cheating.

Much more orderly than Forza, for better or worse.

Maybe as this system learns as time goes on, or on higher levels of difficulty, the A.I. doesn't behave this way too much. But I'm already driving against opponents that are supposedly “highly skilled”, and if everyone else is just barging through traffic like I am, then that means that everyone's Drivatar will be trained to continue this sort of behaviour, turning it in to a vicious circle of bad sportsmanship.

This isn't what all races are like though. Sometimes it can make for some really intense battles that you only previously got against other humans, and the driving feel is still fantastic throughout all of this. It's just very hit-and-miss whether your race is going to be a clusterfuck, or brilliant. On balance, I think it just edges in front of GT6. Even if it's annoying, it's a whole lot more interesting.

Online: Inconclusive

Can't say much on this since I haven't raced at all online in GT6 yet, and haven't done much in Forza 5 either. But again, the amount and variety of content in both games comes in to play here. But I will add that you are required to get your first few licences in GT6 before you're even allowed to go online. Maybe that's a good thing, in stopping the utterly incompetent from going online, or just annoying in that it's locked off at the start. After all, the type of people who want to ruin other people's fun over the internet are often the most dedicated at doing so. Having to pass a few tests probably won't stop them.

But Forza has its problems too. Unlike Forza 4, you do not have the ability to create a custom lobby that's open for anyone to join. You can only choose your own track and rules in a private match. This feature was a huge boon to Forza 2 and 4, and its omission is sorely missed.

Microtransactions: GT6

Again, this will be a short one. The microtransactions in Forza are horrible. They're everywhere. I think it's too early to tell if Turn10 have purposefully tried to make progress in the game tedious to coerce people in to buying in to them, but it's still really annoying at how pushy they are with them throughout the game. It really cheapens the experience.

"£32.50 please."

I haven't even noticed them in GT6 though. I probably wouldn't even know the game had them if it hadn't been officially announced. While it's also far too early to tell if they have resulted in the design of the game progression being compromised, their visibility in the game is far, far less obnoxious.

Loading Times: Neither

Dale isn't wrong on this one. They're both atrocious. But they're both awful in slightly different ways. While they both simply have the issue of taking forever to load, each game has its own little annoying quirk with how it chooses to load things. In Forza, as you're progressing through a tournament, you are given no option to quit back to the garage after you've finished a race. You have to progress to the next event and wait until the next track has loaded, and only once you reach the pre-race menu of that event can you leave. It means you're sitting around for ages for something you don't even want when you just want to leave. It's a big pain.

GT6 on the other hand, has this odd habit of taking a while to load after you select the “start race” option on the pre-race screen. You'd expect after all that loading earlier that you would be able to jump right in and start when you select “start”, but nope. You have to sit there again for a while before things actually get going. It doesn't take anywhere near as long as waiting for Forza to load an entire track you don't want to race on, but having to wait at that moment, after you've already sat through another long loading sequence isn't much better.

(More obligatory flavour text)


Like Dale, I think both games are pretty good. Despite both having problems, they both have their own values. But for me, Forza is the place I go to both race and drive. But I have a sneaking suspicion that Forza 5 may lose its appeal for me much sooner than previous games in the series have. By then, GT6 will probably continue to have appeal in its automotive toy box. Or maybe I'll be playing Forza Horizon 2, since that's probably coming. Or maybe Forza 4, because everyone else will still be playing that.

If I was to pick between GT6 and Forza 5 on a desert island, I would probably agree with Dale and pick GT6 though, because of its greater breadth of content. But if I had the choice, I'd probably pick Forza 4 over both of those.[/left]

P.S. Sorry about all the "left" stuff. Every time I tried to fix it, it just made it worse.

9:19 AM on 07.07.2013

Castlevania: LoS - A Close Look at a Flawed Gem

I recently finished Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. It was a very interesting game, and I found it gave me a lot to talk about. While this could be taken as a review, I'm approaching this more as an in depth critique, covering everything I think is worth mentioning, both good and bad, in much depth.

Let me start this by saying that I am not a Castlevania fan. My experience with the series is limited, although I still have respect for it. The only traditional Castlevania game I have played is Symphony of the Night, and as of yet I haven't really been able to get hooked on it. I am, however, a big fan of technical action games, so that is the perspective I'm approaching this game from.

Although I've had interest in Lords of Shadow since its release, I didn't actually buy the game myself until relatively recently. Although it somewhat spoiled the first game for me, seeing the E3 trailer for Lords of Shadow 2 is what spurred me to finally dive in to this one. I have been pretty impressed with what I have found, but the game is by no means perfect. It has some rather big problems, but a lot of great positives too.

Taking down the first Lord.

I'll start off by talking about the negatives. There's quite a lot to mention, and I have a tendency to be quite critical and negative, even towards things I hold an appreciation for. So I'm just going to get this out of the way first so I don't end this on a sour note.

The first problem I noticed with the game is a pretty big one for one of this genre; the frame rate. The game runs at 30fps, and while that's not a significant problem in itself, since I've played good action games that run at that frame rate before, it's not a steady 30fps. It tends to drop down quite frequently. Most of the time it's fine during combat, but it does noticeably drop when things get a bit too chaotic. It's not enough to ruin the game, but it does make the game feel a little less fluid on occasion, and makes higher difficulty levels more frustrating than they need to be. In cutscenes though, the frames can drop rather dramatically, especially when there are weather effects involved. I have been playing on the 360 version, where the problem is worse. According to Digital Foundry, it can drop to even half the normal rate at some points. Because of this I intend to opt for the PS3 version of the sequel.

It does look pretty though.

Another major problem with the game is only apparent when you get further in to the game. That being the puzzles, which are mostly focused around some kind of logical problem to open the path forward. I don't have a problem with puzzles in action games in principle, they can be a good way to mix up the pacing, but here they are done badly. While some of the puzzles are okay, mostly nearer the beginning of the game and therefore easier, most of them are frustrating and just not fun at all. They end up bringing the pacing of the game to a grinding halt. They often aren't explained very well either. Sometimes it's not clear how you even interact with certain puzzles. There is an option with each puzzle to simply have the answer given to you, in doing so forfeiting an experience point bonus, but sometimes even those are not enough to help you. Through the entire game those forfeited points can actually build to quite a large amount, so it can potentially stunt your character progression. Thankfully, I didn't find that a problem.

I even somewhat take issue with the fact that they felt the need to include those solutions in the game at all. If you feel that it's necessary to include a way for players to circumvent such a large part of the mechanics of your game, then you're doing it wrong. Either make it better, or remove it completely. Preferably the former. I don't really like the idea of telling the creators of a game that something that's such a big part of it simply shouldn't be there, but that's another topic.

One of the less irritating puzzles.

Most other issues are relatively minor. One thing that I noticed more near the beginning of the game was inconsistent audio design. I don't know if I simply got used to it later, or it really did improve, but I did notice that some of the sound effects seemed badly mixed and felt kind of weak when they were things that didn't happen in normal gameplay. Things like the sound of a galloping horse, or certain things that happen in cutscenes that don't happen anywhere else. The audio design for the majority of the game is actually pretty good, but that's something I'll get on to later.

There are also problems with some aspects of the story. Like the game overall, it's a mixed bag, so I'll have some good things to say about it later too, but there are some parts of it that I found to be lacking. Gabriel himself has almost no character development. He's not really relatable. You barely hear him talk himself, and what the narrator tells you about him gets very repetitive and boring. Although his character is somewhat redeemed within the last few minutes of the game, as you finally get to see him do some talking and portraying some emotions in reaction to the finale, for the most part all we get is Zobek telling us over and over how he's really angry and doesn't sleep. Sometimes he doesn't eat either! Shocking!

Naturally, there are plenty of castles.

There is also one confrontation nearer the end which just doesn't make any sense in the narrative. This one had me shouting at the screen at how stupid it was. This character also takes away your magic abilities, saying that I apparently “need” to fight without them, but as the battle progresses, they then gives them back to you. Also apparently, because you “need” them. There was no reason for that character to fight you, no reason for them to take you abilities away, and no reason for them to be given back mid-fight either. The game just acts like it all has to happen, even when that means it's totally contradicting itself within seconds.

And speaking of having your abilities taken away, there is one particular enemy who has absolutely no worth in the game other than to waste your time; the Chupacabra. They take away those same magic abilities, and you have to chase them down to get them back. They don't pose any threat to you, just annoyance. All they do is take you on a pointless detour that gives you nothing, while they mock you with their irritating voices. This is definitely one aspect of the game that I would have no problem with completely removing.

Kill it with fire!

Another aspect of the game that feels like it could probably be removed is the precision platforming. While most of the platforming in the game is in the modern style emulating Uncharted and the like that almost every other game seems to do now, there are some occasions where you are required to skilfully jump across certain areas, sometimes on to moving platforms. But the jumping in this game is horrific. There is hardly any sense of momentum in the air, and trying to predict where you will land is very frustrating. It's inconsistent, and when you land you usually slide forward a bit too, leading to many falls after you have already landed where you were supposed to. This is also sometimes used as a part of certain puzzles in the game, making them controller smashingly infuriating.

Lastly, we have the Titans. I like them in concept, and I think the general fan reaction to them has been a little too harsh, but I can see why they are criticised. The Titans are colossal, ancient stone creatures who act as bosses throughout various points in the game. Although you fight only two actual Titans, there is one other equally huge boss near the end of the game that you fight in a similar way. Visually, they look stunning. Their design is brilliant, especially so with the third non-Titan. The game does a great job of really selling their size too. With the way they move and how the camera frames them, they really feel massive, and like actual creatures instead of just set pieces standing there waiting for you to kill them, like how most similarly sized bosses do in other games.

Presenting: The Dracolich.

But actually fighting them is a bit dull, and kind of frustrating. You don't so much “fight” them, as you do climb over them and spam “X” when you get to the weak spots. Going up against them feels like trial-and-error. All you really have to do is follow the single, linear path up them, using the same somewhat clunky Uncharted style platforming mechanic. It takes the tension right out of it, and slows the pacing down too. Huge bosses can be done in an exciting way, many games have proven this, but this game doesn't really do that. The Titans have some value, but a lot of missed potential too.

But enough with the complaining. Overall, I really like this game and I'm excited for the sequel. I'm even considering getting a 3DS so I can play the spin-off game that bridges the two as well, because there is a lot to like here.

Since I've already said some positive things about the Titans, I'll start off with the other bosses too. Almost all of them are very well designed, visually at least. Although they may not be the most original in terms of how you actually fight most of them, they all feel like an event. They each pose a nice challenge, and some have some very interesting backstories to them. While I'll go in to that in more depth later, I will give some examples of the kind of things you go up against. There are the aforementioned Titans, as well as the Lords of Shadow themselves, and some of the other less important foes, in terms of their story significance.

Another Titan.

For example there is one boss who is a crow witch, who has a very imposing and menacing presence, and who you battle on the top of the tower where she lives. Her story is that she attempted to commit suicide by throwing herself off the tower, but survived, only to be pecked apart by crows. But she also fed on the crows herself, and as she regained her strength she became the monstrous creatures you fight in the game.

Enemy design in general across the whole game is pretty impressive too. While earlier enemies are fairly generic (lycanthropes, giant spiders, goblins), later examples are very interesting. For example later on you come across some zombie-like creatures who have no legs and crawl across the floor, except some of these inhabit coffins and spread out root-like appendages for limbs. Another that stand out are the Scarecrows. While in concept they may not seem very exotic, their imagining is very interesting. They look like strange skeletons, with elongated limbs that are partly made of dry, dead wood. Their bodies are engulfed in flame and their eyes have a menacing glow. They also carry a long scythe in each hand, which they sometimes use to walk on as they bend over backwards and crawl around on all fours. It looks very twisted, in a very “Guillermo del Toro” kind of way. In fact, the influence of his style is apparent through much of the game.

The nightmarish Scarecrow.

Fighting these enemies is fun too. This game does a commendable job with what is the most important aspect of any action game; the fundamental combat mechanics. At the start of the game, the mechanic seems a little sparse, with not much options in how you fight, but it grows throughout the game and becomes something very respectable. Although you only have a single major weapon through the game, the whip-like Combat Cross, you do gain other equipment that generously bolsters your move set. As well as some minor items you have at your disposal, such as thrown daggers and holy water, you get a gauntlet that allows you to do strong punching moves, some boots that allow you to sprint, and some magical wings that allow you to double jump. The magical abilities mentioned earlier also allow access to some special moves, as well as adding special effects to other weapons that certain enemies may have a particular strength or weakness against. You have Light Magic that allows you to drain the health of enemies as you hit them, and Dark Magic that boosts your attack power. By the time you have unlocked a significant amount of these upgrades, the combat mechanic opens up quite a lot. It's admittedly not on the level of some other games in the genre, but it's still more than enough for a satisfying experience.

It's all very well designed kinaesthetically too. Although the running and jumping animations are a bit goofy and feel like they lack a little momentum to them, all the animations and accompanying sound and visual effects for combat are great. They are very fluid and acrobatic, and give a real nice sense of impact when you use the stronger moves. It's done in a unique way too. Some people have said the game is just a God of War rip-off because of the similar way the chain weapons works, but the way they have done the animations and audio in this game is very distinct from God of War, and it has its own personality to it. It's a significantly different experience.

One of my favourite moves.

The audio/visual design of the game as a whole is very impressive and unique too. The graphics of this game are utterly gorgeous, both from an aesthetic and fidelity sense. This might somewhat be the reason for the problems with the frame rate, but what they have managed to create is spectacular. Everything is so highly detailed. Lighting and texture effects are consistently great. Sometimes it's hard to believe it's running on current generation hardware.

What they have rendered with such detail has a really strong sense of style to it as well. The game is full of highly detailed Gothic architecture, as well as lush forests, and twisted, demonic realms, among other environments. They are scaled and framed in such a brilliant way too. There are so many moments which take your breath away, like when you turn a corner and see the majestic and imposing castle you are approaching, or making your way across the ancient ruined bridge at the end of the forest, its crumbled pillars standing defiantly skyward. Often in even the most beautiful games, it can seem like there has been something lost in translation between the concept art and the final product. Not so here. It looks stunning.

Yet another magnificent castle.

Adding to this, the music is fantastic. The Castlevania series has a reputation for great music, and I know people have been disappointed by the music of this game for straying away from the usual sound of the games. It may not have the strong, bombastic melodies that get you hyped to “have at” some vampires, but I think what they have done instead is just as stirring in its own way. I'm usually someone who appreciates a strong melody in music, and I don't care much for soundtracks that are supposed to be there only to set a mood and not really be memorable on their own, but in this case I must make an exception. Even though the songs don't really have a catchy tune to them, they are wonderfully arranged. They do much more than just set a background mood. You can't help but notice them, and they do a brilliant job of giving character to a certain place or moment, and give the game its overall tone. It's not just “combat music” or “peaceful music”, it has so much more nuance than that, and it works together with the visuals to give the game a unique identity.

And at last, I want to come back to the story. While I mentioned the problems with it before, there were parts to it that I really enjoyed too. It should go without saying, that Patrick Stewart's voice as the narrating character is wonderful to listen to. Even when he's saying things that are redundant in the larger plot, just listening to his delivery is a joy. Robert Carlyle as Gabriel is pretty good too. While he doesn't get to say much, when he's given something to work with he does a pretty good job.

There's some lush foliage too.

And as I mentioned before, some of the bosses have some interesting stories to them. In particular, the Lords themselves. While saying anything more would be too spoilery, I have to say that they are some really interesting characters, and how they came to be is a cool story and one of the many exciting twists of the narrative. And talking of twists, the ending is fantastic. I thought that seeing the trailer for the sequel would have totally spoiled it for me. I was wrong. Although there were some vague clues through the game, I was genuinely surprised by the reveal at the end. It was very well handled. It also included some of the best moments for Gabriel himself.

Overall I really enjoyed the game. There were some frustrating parts, and aspects of the story could be much improved, but the game got it right where it counted. It also created a beautiful and intriguing world that I'm eager to jump back in to. Lords of Shadow is a prime example of a flawed gem.   read

10:44 AM on 05.24.2013

Forza 5 vs. Xbox One

The announcement of the Xbox One, or "Xbone" as some people are calling it (it's a better name at least), has put me in the most conflicted position I've ever been in regarding games. I've never had any love for the Xbox itself. It's been Forza that has been the biggest factor in how much I play the system, and if the games were on any other console I would have no objection to playing them there instead. Forza is one of my favourite game series ever and certainly the one I've spent most time with. Several thousand hours in fact. I'm excited for Forza 5 and even though we haven't seen much of it yet, I'm already impressed. It should be a no-brainer to get it, but it's not.

The Xbone looks terrible, and Microsoft are out of their minds. Almost everything that has been revealed about it either leaves me completely cold or actively pushes me away from the idea of getting one. Even if we look at its positive features, there is nothing there that I want. I don't care about sports or TV, and I don't have any digital TV subscription, nor do I ever intend on getting one. Not that I would even be able to use half the features advertised at the announcement conference, being a UK resident. A lot of the stuff they showed probably won't be available for me.

A chance to show off some of my "Forzatography"

Then there's Kinect. Again, I really don't care about it. Spending however much it will cost (a lot in all likeliness) to wave my hands around or talk to a machine instead of pressing a simple button is utterly useless. And the "snap" feature sounds pointless too. Maybe I'm in the minority here, but when I'm using my Xbox for any particular thing, that's what I actually want to do with it. I don't want to also be Skyping, or surfing the internet, or watching a trailer for something. I just want to do what I came there to do. 

And let's not forget the cost of all this too. The price of the thing will probably be pretty high because of inflation and all the worthless features. There has been no mention of XBL Gold memberships being changed (in fact I remember reading somewhere that they announced they will stay the same), and to use all these TV features I also have to buy another subscription, when that subscription cost includes a box to begin with! The cost of used games will either skyrocket, or they will be completely eradicated. While it's currently not clear exactly how the DRM will work surrounding used games, it's clear there will be a fee somewhere in the equation, meaning that used games will inevitably become far more expensive, if not die out altogether. MS's money grubbing is absolutely shameless.

The TopGear studio has great lighting

And while we're on the topic of money grubbing, MS's approach to indie games is just as draconian and backwards as it's always been, which is absurd when compared to the approach Nintendo and Sony are taking now. The attitude of MS is absolutely contemptible. They're trying to squeeze money out of every single action that they do. Charging everyone to do anything with them, even if what they are trying to do is help MS make money!

So overall the Xbone is looking like something which is going to be extremely expensive, charging at every single opportunity, but while offering nothing that I want, and nothing that I don't already have easy access to. And just to top it off, MS has revealed that their hubris has officially tipped over into insanity. They announced that they expect this machine to sell one billion units. One billion. Think about that for a second. They are expecting one in seven of the entire human population is going to buy this thing. The 360 hasn't even sold 1/10th of that. Even if the Xbone was the greatest console of all time, that number is just unbelievably absurd. 

Though my personal favourite is this place

But I love Forza, and I want Forza 5 so much. For me each Forza release is a huge event and something I always look forward to. It's one of the very few games where I get so excited that I end up hating that I have to wait those few last weeks. I just want to play it! No Forza game has yet disappointed me either. Getting each installment right on day one (or earlier if I'm lucky) is almost obligatory to me. But with how awful the Xbone looks, I'm really hesitating. I hate that I am, but it's actually got me considering giving up on what has been one of my favourite things for almost a decade now. That's how bad it is. I know there are supposed to be lots of games coming at E3, but I'm finding it really hard to believe that they will be able to make up for we've seen so far. If I'm even second-guessing Forza 5, how can they possibly show something that will put my mind at ease? How can they make all the other stuff seem "worth it"?

That's my message to Microsoft, and Turn10 to a certain degree too. You're making me hate the fact that I love Forza. You're making me consider giving up that love. I don't want it to be like this. I want to give you my money, but instead you're making it look like you just want to ruin everything I enjoy, either by forcing me to give up on it, or by making it such a horrible experience that I will wish that I did.   read

1:26 PM on 04.14.2013

Games are Terrible at Telling Stories

Since I've hopefully grabbed your attention with my wildly sensationalised and misleading title, I perhaps owe it to you to explain what I mean.

I don't actually mean that games are terrible at telling stories outright, but I think there is a lot about their nature that can greatly negatively affect their ability to tell traditional stories, especially from the perspective of someone who isn't used to games.

A problem that often arises with games and their attempts to tell meaningful stories is the problem of ludonarrative dissonance. The idea that what happens in the story is contradictory to what happens in gameplay. But I think this problem has an even deeper level to it. The fact that there is a separation between story and gameplay at all.

"I'm not your errand boy", except you totally are.

As gamers, we're used to having story delivered to us via non-interactive sections of a game that are completely separate from actual gameplay, but therein lies the problem. These two aspects are split apart and have a totally different pace and tone. If we look at the game as a method of storytelling in a holistic way, it completely screws with traditional storytelling pacing. After all, when we take control of a character in a gameplay sequence, is it not technically also part of the story? Most games are not like Braid or Catherine, where what you actually play has very little to do with the narrative being delivered, rather it's all part of a constant sequence of events. When Booker DeWitt and Elizabeth stop yapping at each other and people start shooting at them, it isn't suddenly a completely different piece of entertainment, the characters have simply come across other minor characters in the story that want them dead.

Consider what that means over the entire story of the game. It means that for most of the actual story is spent covering extremely drawn out and mostly inconsequential action sequences. Imagine if the balance between action and character moments of your average shooter or action game was translated in to a book or a film. In a book there would be pages and pages of nothing but tedious details, like whether the protagonist was able to shoot a certain enemy, and every occasion that he had to reload, or take cover, etc. It would take up the vast majority of the book too, and most people would call it terrible. The same is true for film. People would get tired out and bored with the constant action, most of it with utterly no meaning. If we decided to add the camera angle usage of games in to film too, things would be made even worse. People would not stand for it.

This is why I think a lot of people who are not familiar with the medium struggle to understand it and take it seriously, in at least a narrative sense. To them something in which you spend the vast majority of your time trying to overcome some kind of test of skill that has absolutely no significance in the actual plot severely damages the impact of said plot. It would be like if The Big Lebowski was 10 hours long, 9 of which filled with nothing but The Dude just bowling.

This guy is the final boss.

This doesn't mean that games are awful at storytelling though. Of course not. There are many games that do a brilliant job. But our medium is still young and I think a lot of games try to stick to this traditional method of storytelling when a different method is probably better suited. Some of these games that do it this way have actually delivered brilliant stories, but I still often can't shake the feeling that it's an unfitting method. That the separation results in the feeling that little bits of movie are being forced in to a game, thus accentuating how separate story and gameplay is in many games, and how much gameplay simply as an entity in and of itself is detrimental to this storytelling method.

That's not to say that gameplay is bad, or that story should take precedence over it. On the contrary, gameplay should always be the most important aspect of our medium. It's just the method many games use to tell stories creates an abrasion between the two. As experienced gamers, this does not tend to faze us, but to those who are not comfortable with the notion of gameplay, this drastic dichotomy is much more readily apparent. Thus they find it much harder to reconcile these two separate aspects of the game as being part of a singular, coherent experience.   read

9:02 AM on 04.06.2013

Musings on the Gameplay of Bioshock Infinite

This morning I realised something about Infinite that I think is actually a pretty big flaw, especially compared to the previous games of the series.

I was listening to the Gamestation podcast yesterday and they were talking about Infinite, and there was mention of how the gun variation in the game isn't very good. So I thought about it myself, and they're totally right. You have various generic machine guns and rifles, a couple of standard handguns, and an RPG launcher. The only gun that's slightly out of the ordinary is the heater, which I personally find unwieldy to use anyway. It's miles away from the stuff in previous games. Things like the chemical thrower from the original and the various different Big Daddy weapons in the second for example. Not only that, but you have the special ammo types as well. They don't just do damage differently to each other, but they behave differently as well. You have the electrocuting and exploding buck for the shotgun, the electric and freezing gel with the chemical thrower, the homing rockets and proximity mines for the rocket launcher, etc, etc. But in Infinite all the guns pretty much just do the same thing. Just shoot normal bullets or exploding things. Not very interesting.

Then there are some things I noticed myself. The movement speed being slower in Infinite really changes how the game plays, and not for the better. While in the original games firefights felt really frantic, fast, and kinetic. You felt like you had a lot of mobility and a good ability to dodge incoming fire. Fights could move a whole lot too. Where you started firing at an enemy could very often be somewhere completely different to where you finally put them down. In Infinite you don't have that at all. You feel weighed down and like you can't really avoid incoming fire. And the lack of movement in the battles make the fights feel much more like shooting galleries. You often only stay in one place, and you can't really move much even if you wanted to because if you come out of cover you'll get shot down without being able to return fire if you're sprinting. While fighting from the skylines has you moving faster, it's impractical. The speed you move and the wonkiness of the controls means you can't really get your aiming right, so it's a waste of time to even try. In the older games, although the aiming was still a bit janky, shooting while moving wasn't really a problem since you were the one controlling the direction, so you could predict and compensate for it. Or at least, that's how it is on consoles. Maybe it isn't a problem with mouse controls.

The limitation of how many weapons you can carry is a problem too. It's not as big of a problem as the stuff I've already mentioned, but it adds yet more to the feeling of constriction in combat. In the previous games you could experiment much more, and gameplay felt more varied in being able to choose whatever crazy weapon you had at any time. I really can't see any reason why they took that away. It doesn't make any sense at all. It means I'm just falling back on the same few weapons, not that using the others really makes much difference anyway.

And continuing on the topic of varied gameplay, the lack of different mini-games is sorely missed too. Hacking and taking photos may not have been the best aspects of the older games, but totally taking them out without replacing them with anything was a bad move. The already stationary and generic gunfights can really start to drag on when there's nothing else between them apart from conversation. The story and characters are great, but it feels like whenever I'm not doing that, I'm either scouring environments for supplies and such, but being slowed down by the reduced run speed, or I have gunfights which are completely unspectacular. Even the Handyman and Motorized Patriot don't really do much to change things up. Although I have to say I really like the design of the latter of those two examples. The way he spouts out nationalistic rhetoric while raining down gunfire on you is a pretty interesting thing to behold, and I really like the way that when he steps he makes bell noises. But it's little compared to all the different splicers, Big Daddies, and robotic enemies from the older games.

But all this doesn't mean that the gameplay is bad. It's simply okay. Mediocre. It's pretty disappointing considering how much better it could have been. The previous games showed that was possible, even without the tightest controls. Also I'm noticing what all these problems have in common. They've all resulted from the game becoming more generic. It's more homogenised, and the changes are quite obviously from the biggest shooters around. But they've done nothing but constrict the game. It's really weird to see a Bioshock game fall foul of this mistake. It's so depressing. Maybe it's because of pressure from the publisher to appeal to a wider audience. That was, after all, the reason behind the dreadfully boring box art. Maybe they thought they had to dumb the game down to have wider appeal. If so, then you have really disappointed me Ken Levine. You're supposed to be an auteur, not a bitch to the publisher.

So this leads me to something else that was discussed on the aforementioned podcast. They said that the game didn't really deserve the review scores it got. While I tend to hold the position that nothing, or almost nothing, should ever get a 10/10 (nothing is perfect), I was kind of resistant to the idea that the game was overrated. But upon pondering this, I think it actually was. No matter how great a game does story and characters, and no matter how wonderful the setting is, when you have this many problems with the gameplay, there is no way that the game could be worth plenty of the scores it was given. Gameplay is king, and, as they saying goes, boring is worse than bad. Not that it was bad in the older games, but it was definitely a whole lot more interesting. Another thing that they brought up is that perhaps it got such great scores because reviewers were in a rush to write up their review, so they did it right after finishing the game. Thus they were doing so when the ending of the game was still fresh in their minds, and they were too excited over that to really take their time on giving a fair and holistic critique. I haven't finished the game, so I don't know if that's the case, but I think it reasonably could be.   read

3:53 AM on 02.14.2013

It's Not a Game, But That's Okay

There have been a lot of games recently that have been getting a lot of attention for their unique and untraditional approach, often focusing around narrative or atmosphere instead of action or a test of skill. Games like Proteus, The Walking Dead, and Dear Esther for example. Because of their unusual methods some people have been protesting at calling these “games”. You see people saying things like they shouldn't be winning “game of the year” awards, or that they shouldn't be sold as games, or that they shouldn't even be covered by the gaming press. These comments are usually said with a scornful tone, as if because these things aren't games, they are somehow lesser and undeserving of our attention.

Because of this people often try to skirt around the issue. Saying that it's irrelevant and a waste of time to talk about, and we should just try to appreciate these games on their own merit, rather than worrying about whether we should be paying attention to them.

But the way I see it, both sides of this issue are right and wrong.

As videogames as a medium has evolved it has become apparent that the way designate genres has become maladaptive. The term “RPG” has little to do with the actual appeal of the genre, for example, and it could be argued that the idea that it is even a genre of its own has become obsolete, with almost every type of game including “RPG elements” now. We designate genres by their camera angles and country of origin instead of their mechanics and themes, we group games together simply because their game worlds have a superficially similar structure, and the terms “action” and “adventure” have become so widely used that they have become almost meaningless. We don't know how to categorise our medium any more, and I think it's time we cleaned things up.

I also think that this muddying of the waters has lead us to categorise things as games when we shouldn't do. Figuring out what game should fit in to what genre is one problem, but first we need to work out exactly what a videogame is. That means some things that we currently call “games” may have to be thrown out, but this isn't a bad thing at all.

From here on out, I'll be referring to these things that I don't think are games as “not-games”, since I currently don't have a good name to call them as this point. Perhaps they may even fall in to several different categories, but for the purposes of this editorial, I'm focusing on whether or not they count as games.

So what is a game? Games have been defined as being unnecessary tasks we set ourselves simply for entertainment, or merely a set of interesting choices, but I like to be more specific than that. There are several things I find that are common to all games, video or otherwise. Firstly, their purpose is to give you an objective to achieve, and achieving that objective counts as a win state, such as defeating an enemy or winning a race. It may even be something more arbitrary, like finishing all tasks required on the “critical path” towards finishing a story. Secondly, there are mechanics. These are the tools you are given that allow you to interact with the game world for the purpose of achieving the objective, like your weaponry or move set. Lastly, you have the rules. These tell you what things that you are restricted from doing in a game, but in a videogame they are incorporated in to the mechanics, because the game is not able to allow you to commit an action which it has not specifically laid out for you. You can't make an illegal move, because that move simply does not exist. Failing to correctly utilise your mechanics or pay attention to the rules will result in you finding yourself in a lose state, from which the win state is impossible. These restrictions are what give the game challenge, and are in theory what makes games as a concept entertaining.

Now if we look at some of these not-games, we can see that they don't fit this definition. On the surface they may appear to show similar traits to games, like a similar perspective and control input, which is why I think people erroneously think of these as games, but on closer examination we can see that they're not.

In Proteus there is no objective, no win or lose state, and no mechanics that are designed to be used as tools to achieve an objective. You simply have the ability to walk. Movement can sometimes be a mechanic in a game, such as in platformers, but in Proteus it is not used as a tool that requires skill to be used towards any goal.

Dear Esther shows similar traits. There are no mechanics allowing you to interact with anything, and movement is even more restricted than in Proteus. You simply walk down a path and at certain points a piece of narration is triggered. Sometimes the path diverges slightly, but it has no baring on anything that would resemble success or failure.

The Walking Dead is a much less clear cut case. Personally, with this one I'm not sure I would go so far as to say it's not a game, but it certainly shares a lot of features with these not-games. It's kind of halfway between the two, and perhaps shows how this topic is more nuanced than the simple dichotomy of “is it a game or is it not”.

The main feature of the “game” is the story and conversation system. Your main focus of interactivity is around how you choose to treat other characters, and certain choices that alter the story somewhat. These choices result in characters treating you differently, or minor alterations of events in the story, which are usually relatively inconsequential in the overall plot. But almost none of these choices ultimately end in a “win” or “lose” state. It's hard to see the ability to choose dialogue as a mechanic either, at least in the sense of it being a “game”. Your only level of interactivity is choosing from a list of responses, but they often aren't consistent. They're not like the “Paragon” or “Renegade” dialogue choices in Mass Effect, for example. They are a lot less clear cut and less binary than that. This is part of the reason why the game has such great writing, but what it definitely doesn't represent a solid and consistent tool set or rule set. But as I mentioned before, sometimes simply reaching the end of the sequence of events that conclude the story can be considered a win state, although in The Walking Dead you can't really “fail” at the “mechanic” of conversations that lead you towards that.

There are also other aspects of the “game” which are much more game-like; the puzzle segments. These are much more like the mechanics of a traditional adventure game, which are focused around having a set number of actions you can perform, and you have to work out what actions you use with what item/character/object to progress. In The Walking Dead the mechanic is so simplified that it's barely a mechanic at all. For the most part, you don't have to figure anything out. You usually don't have many options for what you can do in any given puzzle scenario, you basically just have to pick up the right item before using it on the thing it's meant for. Sometimes it's more complicated than that, like in the stealth sequence when you first reach the motel, or in one of the various shooting sequences, but are these really enough for them to be called a “mechanic” rather than simply being QTEs or busywork used to progress the plot? I'm unsure on this myself, which is why I'm not confident putting it in the same category as Proteus or Dear Esther, but it's not quite a game either.

“So what if these aren't games?”, I hear you cry. “That doesn't mean they're not fun or I shouldn't be allowed to enjoy them.”, and you would be right. But if we want to get the most out of whatever medium they are, then we should be clear on exactly what medium they are not. They should be free of the shackled of the definition of games, and all the misplaces expectations that brings. Calling these things games would be like grouping graphic novels in with Charles Dickens' works, or calling a quad bike a car. They may have some similarities, but if we judge the merit of one by the standards of other, then we will be doing it a disservice. To be sloppy and too loose with the definition just devalues it and adds confusion. To be stricter with definition improves the vision of what a medium is and what it is trying to achieve, allowing for a clearer progression towards greater heights in each field. Distinguishing one from the other doesn't make it worse, it just allows us to understand better what we are describing. Just because Watchmen is a graphic novel doesn't mean it's any worse than David Copperfield, and a quad bike isn't worse than an Audi A6 because it's not a car, they're just for a different purpose, and their definitions reflect that.

Nor does this mean that experimentation is bad and that we must only ever stick to things that we know we can define. If that was the case I wouldn't have anything to write this piece about. I think it's fantastic that we're starting to see these new and utterly unique experiences that make us question what a “game” really is. But since they're posing the question, surely we should be attempting to deliver an answer. We should be taking this as a chance to acknowledge the birth of an entire new medium of computerised interactive entertainment, not looking down our noses at it as pretentious and worthless, or ignoring the issue because we are afraid or unsure of what this discussion may entail. Even though videogames are still a relatively young medium, they are already branching out thanks to the exponential advancement of technology, and we should be embracing that and all the mind-expanding experiences it can bring.   read

5:33 PM on 02.10.2013

Zone of the Enders HD Review: Unique and Exhilarating

[Preface: So this is my first contribution to the c-blogs. This isn't what I was expecting my first submission to be, but I thought it was worth sharing. In the future I may do more reviews, but it's more likely I'll be doing something more in the style of an editorial or analysis.]

I personally was unaware of this series until shortly before this HD collection was announced. I had never seen anything quite like it before, but after first seeing it my interest was piqued. When I got my hands on the games myself I was not disappointed.

These games are unlike most other mecha based games, and probably have more in common with something like Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden. They're incredibly hectic and fast paced action games. Gameplay mostly consists of you piloting a very cool and stylised looking mech (called an "Orbital Frame"), as you fight your way through levels against other mechs. Most of them are un-piloted and relatively weak compared the player, but their numbers and speed can make for challenging fights. There are also plenty of boss fights where you go up against what are usually piloted mechs which are of much more comparable power to the player's. Your basic weapons consist of close range melee attacks with a laser sword, and long ranged laser guns. You can also charge your attacks to do special moves with these weapons, but in general they are relatively simple to use. There is also a myriad of sub-weapons which have special effects which add a decent amount of variation, some of which are required to beat certain enemies.

The challenge and fun of the gameplay comes from figuring out how to use these properly, while also paying attention to the frantic and incredibly fast paced action happening around you. Bosses also tend to require some thought in terms of strategy. They can sometimes seem impossible until you work out exactly what the method is. While it lacks a focus on complicated combos like DMC of Ninja Gaiden, there is more of an emphasis on keeping mobile and being aware of movement and position. But the pace of combat and the satisfaction it brings is similar. Skilfully and stylishly despatching your enemies is incredibly exciting and rewarding.

There are a few points though that take the focus of the gameplay away from the combat towards other things that seem rather baffling. It left me confused as to how the designers decided that these sections were even fun, let alone good enough to be put in the game. There is also a very limited local multiplayer mode. It basically just puts two players up against each other in various mechs featured throughout the games, and that's pretty much it.

Graphically, these games look brilliant considering they were built for the PS2. It can sometimes be easy to forget that it's an HD port. The graphical style is very clean and futuristic, with a lot of shiny metal and glowing neon lights, and with fantastic aesthetic design. The second game in particular looks very nice. It has a pseudo-cel shaded look to it, fit to compliment the anime style cutscenes, which also look brilliant. There are some flaws though. Levels are generally pretty small in size, and in the first game low draw distance can be an issue. In the second game there is a mission where you are put in the midst of a battle, with a ridiculous number of enemies and allies on the screen at one time. The frame rate does noticeably drop, but not to a level at which it becomes unplayable. It's still one of the most exciting missions in the game. But in general the brilliant aesthetic and the top-notch animation elevate it above the flaws.

The music of the games is also very good. It mostly consists of futuristic sounding techno, with lots of synthesizers and a thumping beat. It fits the mood of the game very nicely, and keeps the blood pumping. There are also a few tracks which feature Japanese vocals with instrumental aspects to them as well. They are very different from the rest of the music, but they somehow fit. They retain a kind of futuristic and alien feel to them.

The stories however, are pretty poor. These games are set in a future where human kind has spread out across the Solar System, and the extra terrestrial colonies are rebelling against oppressive Earth rule. Although through both games you find yourself fighting against one of these rebel groups that come from Mars, you are not necessarily aligned with Earth either. The reason for this is because the group you are fighting has some kind of evil plot which involves the use of a powerful energy source, called Metatron, which is being mined from the moons of Jupiter. Metatron is also key to the power of the mechs that feature throughout the series, and has some apparently magical properties, which are very poorly defined. Despite the badly explained exposition and obvious plot device of Metatron, I found the setting to be kind of interesting. There's a lot of potential for depth and commentary in there, it's just mostly squandered.

Although the setting for the series is pretty confusing, the narratives of the actual games are comparatively simple. They basically boil down to "defeat the bad guys because they're bad". In the first game you are defending a space colony from the aforementioned rebel group, for no other reason than they are attacking civilian areas. There is an attempt at some kind of pseudo-pacifist message about the morality of violence, and questioning whether ends can justify means, but it's delivered by a protagonist who is insufferably petulant and annoying.

The second game doesn't seem to try to have a message behind it, and focuses more on character development and fleshing out their backstories. Although it's less irritating, and more competent at what it tries than the first game because of its narrower focus, it's still far from good. You get a better idea of who characters are and what their relationships are, but that's about it. Attempts at developing characters fall flat on their face, and hearing about the past of characters does next to nothing to help this.

It's not helped by the fact in both games the voice acting is pretty terrible. If the tone isn't completely flat, it's completely wrong, and translation is awful in places. Although, in some cases that can lead to a chuckle, but that's probably not a good thing. At least the cutscenes that deliver the story in the second game look great. They're done in a very clean and nicely animated anime style, although most of the in-game video calls have little more animation than a mouth opening and closing. It's still far better than the first game though. There are no video calls at all, just audio, and the cutscenes are done using really badly dated CG.

Both games are also pretty short, lasting between 6 and 8 hours. But for the excitement they offer they don't feel like they are too short, or don't deliver on their promise. The second game is also built around replayability, with a new game plus mode which allows you to keep all your weapons, and adds secret bonus boss fights through the story, which unlock extra characters for multiplayer.

For the asking price these games are pretty great. In the current state of the industry, they're incredibly refreshing and bring back memories of a time when games were designed differently. In a lot of cases that's for the better. They're very focused around creating an exciting and unique experience, and nothing else. Sometimes that can be for the worse. Stories are ham-fisted and presentation is lacking in some places. But in the places that matter, these games do a lot right.   read

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