Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Recession - the best thing for the games industry?

OK, time to get into some controversy. Is a recession the best thing for the games industry at the moment? We've seen the stats that show that industry sales are going against the traditional recessional downturns for luxuries, but will this last once things actually do get really tight?

I'll put this out straight away - I haven't had any formal training in economics for a few years and even then, I really haven't specialised in it to any great extent. But then again, it seems that having zero ability to understand economics is a prerequisite for world leaders nowadays, so it's not like I'd be talking out of turn.

The conventional thinking has always been that as money becomes tighter for people they would shrink away from spending on luxuries, something that seems to be defied by the recent stats. But I ask the question - how conventional are the people who are spending the most money? I know that my gaming budget is quite high - I try and budget to get at least one game a fortnight, usually at full price. Many others will also partake in such buying habits. In fact, I would wager that a goodly proportion of the income of gaming industry comes from those of us who work full time, probably don't have children and may or may not have a spouse/partner. In other words - those with plenty of disposable income. We are the ones who are more likely to purchase a game at full price in a launch window. Sure, there are the nagging kids who use their pocket money - but they will certainly be more immediately effected by the tightening family budget. And even then - a parent in that tightening budget scenario is likely to encourage trade-ins, purchasing of second hand games and rentals above purchasing a brand new copy.

Thus I would put forward that those who have the greatest real purchasing power in the games economy are the ones who are least likely to really feel the pinch of a recessional economy. But this isn't really my point.

I am certain that if things continue going the way which they have been trending we will see a definite change in the overall turnover in the games industry. The hardware sales will likely be the first to take a hit given the significant costs involved in purchasing the hardware (and just as often the HDTV to go with it), and consequently we will likely see a plateauing in software sales as there will no longer be the rapidly expanding market to sell into. Should these trends continue, it would rapidly reach a point where the potential market for a game is going to be small enough that break-evens are no longer certain. So what would this mean for the industry, and why would it be a good thing?

My hope would be, given this situation, that we'd see a change away from the Hollywood "one blockbuster covers our losses on all the other crap" model which the games industry is moving towards. Instead, my hope would be that we'd see a lot of the filth dredged out of the bottom of the meme pool. How would shovelware cope with a recessional market? With the declining sales base, and consumers likely to become increasingly selective in the application of their hard-earned, shovelware may face a dark future. It is likely that reviews of games would become critical (possibly leading to the creation of that mythical "new games journalism" which those "respectable" writers at places like Rolling Stone always crap on about), for the outlay for a fullpriced game would become such a significant financial event that people would want to be damned sure of the quality of their purchase. The downside of this is we would likely see many repeats of the Gamespot/Eidos debacle and the Ziff Davis/Ubisoft tantrum where negative press is greeted with indignance and infantile outbursts.

But the main change which I would anticipate in the move away from the blockbuster model is towards sustainable development costs for all titles. What if you were to be buying a new game for your 360 or PS3 at a pricepoint significantly below the current full price? And I'll use Bully as a demonstration here - what if it was an excellent game, but with graphical standards well below the current gen? Would you accept that - a sacrifice of graphical fidelity on the altar of affordability? Where else could fat be trimmed from the development process - would people accept "speech bubbles" instead of voice acting? How about relying on user-soundtracks instead of licensed/original music for the most part? All of these things could help trim those development costs to allow games to be made for less and, in theory, retail for less. After all - not every game has to be GTAIV with tens of hours of content, amazing graphics, sound and writing with a price tag to match.

I think that the key here is developing an understanding with the publishers and probably moreover with the game buying public that not every game needs to be a full-priced Michael Bay inspired masterpiece. People are willing to get less when they pay less and perhaps that "mid range" is what they should aim for to keep themselves in the black in the face of the "R-word".

I must say that EA and some other publishing houses are very prescient in this respect with the move towards free-to-play with pay-for-bonus games coming in on the horizon with an additional ad supported model incorporated. Hopefully things like Battlefield: Heroes and the proposed re-model of Company of Heroes into a free-to-play game will lead the charge here. If Sony and Microsoft were prepared to investigate new methods of dealing with these concepts through their stores and online services it could be a way for them to guarantee themselves a massive revenue stream and player base through the darker economic times. Just imagine something like Battlefield: Heroes on 360 or PS3 as a free game. The pay-for-bonus system can be worked in through Marketplace or PS Store, but having a free game like that to appeal to the player base would give either console a great boost.

In relation to Marketplace and PS Store, I would definitely envision that DLC would reprice itslef into oblivion. After all, in a recessional economy people who are paying full price for a game are going to be less than pleased that they would have to pay to get what should have been in there to start with in some cases. Perhaps we may even see something remarkable happen with sequels becoming available for download via these venues for released games. Look at Tomb Raider Legend and the DLC packs for Anniversary. Look at how Vegas 2 could well have been a big update pack for Vegas 1. This kind of electronically distributed expansion pack is the first step towards the creation of an on disc engine and resource pack for DLC games. That kind of future is pretty out there, but it is something that I think we are moving towards, especially as the budgetary belt is pulled tighter and tighter.

The essence of my ramble here has been to point out a number of ways in which I think a recession could really help the game industry pull itself back into shape. Whether its a remodel of the distribution and sales models, or a fundamental shift in the approach to development - if even some of my hopes (masquerading as predictions) come through then we will likely come out the other side with a much better model. After all, look at what the thirties did for Hollywood.

Monday, April 7, 2008

That un-fulfilling feeling.

I'm sure anyone who plays games as a way of debriefing, relaxing or otherwise escaping the drudgery of the day-to-day grind that is the fate of so many of us will be of a similar opinion to me, in that they hold a belief that a game needs to be fun. Now, I don't want to devolve into a discussion on difficulty levels, length of games or even the casual/normal/hardcore gaming "genres" that have plagued these discussions in the past. What I want to get to is the feeling of playing a game and afterwards feeling good about the time you spent playing it.

Everyone has done it at some point, be it that game of Civ that went on just too long, grinding through to a conclusion in a game you'd stopped enjoying or finally quitting in frustration far too late after countless attempts to defeat the same segment. All of these (and many more) can lead you to that point where you ask yourself: "What was the point of all that?"

I'm more that willing to debate (at length) the merits of gaming and more importantly the validity of gaming as a hobby and also a medium (again - I don't really want to get into that here). And this is where I must say that at times I've "burnt out" on gaming. I reach a point where I just say: "That's enough." Then for several weeks I'll be in a state of malaise where I just can't play any game for more than a few minutes (even seconds sometimes) without a sense of "I really can't be bothered with this" setting in.

I'm thankful for these periods of downtime - it lets you sit back and get some perspective where you may have previously been lacking it. It gives you an excellent opportunity to catch up with other hobbies that you may have been slacking off in. And finally - when the bug finally bites you again, you have a renewed passion and can come back into gaming with a vengeance.

However these attacks of CBF syndrome are usually associated with that un-fulfilling feeling which I mentioned earlier. What makes something un-fulfilling? For me it is usually when something stops being fun and starts being a chore. It's why MMO's have never appealed and aside from very brief but intense dalliances with Diablo 2 and Titan Quest, grinding RPGs remain something which I hold no small degree of disdain for. But I can get fulfillment out of some intense grinding too - because sometimes to get that feeling you just have to overcome something. Finally beating that boss or level or even the game after so many failed attempts can give you that rush (however mild).

For many non-gamers this can be hard to quantify. The most frequent question I'm called upon to answer is: "but what do you get out of it?" The best retort to these people is usually: "what do you get out of reading a book or watching a film or completing that sudoku challenge or finally seeing that plant you've been raising flower?" Because that's what this can be. The book and films analogies are obvious - because entertainment across many mediums from reading the highest levels of academics literature to partaking in a lap-dance can be a fulfilling experience. Completing the sudoku puzzle is also obvious - you have a concrete sense of achievement in what you've done. And thus we lead into the plant, you can experience this victory across many senses, smell it, see it, touch it, in some cases taste it, you have a prize to show for your struggle.

Sadly, this is where I must give credit where credit is due and praise Microsoft for leading the charge with achievements. Even mindless grinding is rewarded with these, and having that little bar flash up at the bottom of the screen is often enough to bump up my feeling of fulfillment to a point where I'm happy that I've just spent an hour trying to get my car to flip just so in Burnout Paradise, despite all the frustration that I've felt in the meantime. If I'd quit at any time up to that point, that game would have been back on my gameshelf and gathering dust for the next few months, but with that feeling of achievement and that quantifiable object to show for that time spent it somehow all seems somehow worthwhile. Until your wife cracks the dirts with you for not helping hang up the washing.

Am I saying that having achievements makes crappy gameplay excusable? Hell no. What I'm saying is that achievements, live scoreboards, taunting e-mails (damn you Audiosurf) and things like ranks in CoD4 and Vegas all give you something to show for that time spent gaming. And even that tiniest bit of justification can make all those hours of gaming feel that little bit less like time ill-spent.

On the recurring issues of clown car terrorists and the effects of teleportation on counter-revolutionary warfare operations.

Given that most of my friends list seems to have been playing it a fair bit I can assume that most people are aware that Rainbow 6: Vegas 2 is out and it is actually quite a lot of fun. But my most closely clutched pet peeve has returnd to inflict untold aggravation upon me. That peeve is spawning enemies, or more correctly: inappropriately spawning enemies.

In my comments on the original R6:V I questioned the ability of literally thousands of mercenaries, terrorists and other no-good-niks to descend on the city while remaining completely off the collective radars of every single intelligence and law enforcement agency in the US. Vegas 2 addresses this somewhat by showing that there was some investigation into the presence of smugglers, but seriously - how the hell did they miss the fact that this "covert warehouse exchange" contained what had to be close to, if not more than one hundred armed goons? We know for a fact that thermal scanning was available. The sheer ridiculousness of the entire premise of the Vegas games was, and remains, atrocious.

But we have been given at least one good reason why the massed hordes of bad guys weren't present to be counted by thermal surveillance. And that is because they could be teleported into an area with precise efficiency and timing. Whether this was through scientific or occult measures is yet to be determined. What is clear though is that Rainbow have absolutely no countermeasures for this kind of technology, meaning that your pathetically undersized team of 3 gets to run into ambushes over and over and over.

I will say something now that should be a mantra for anyone developing any kind of tactical or "realistic" game:

If it has jarring, pointless or otherwise obvious spawning of enemies then you are doing it wrong.

How the hell can I plan a room takedown when the enemies don't spawn until I cross the threshold of the door? At least Vegas has the good graces to occassionally conceal the obviousness of the spawning by having people rappel through skylights and windows.

Sure, sometimes the enemies will be in place and patrolling the room when you peek in via camera, but when you sprint in and they just appear in your field of vision? That's sloppy, sloppy work. True, this occurs in Terrorist Hunt more often than in singleplayer, but the fact it happens at all is a terrible indictment of your game's quality.

I'll try and break it down for those still struggling with the idea.

Blatant spawning appropriate:
Fighting minions of hell or other supernatural entity.
Battling against immensely technologically superior aliens.
Games that don't take themselves seriously and pride themselves on "realism".

Blatant spawning inappropriate:
Any game not featuring supernatural/hell themes or involving aliens set before the year X (where X is the year in which reliable human teleportation becomes possible).

So, besides the crap spawning and enemy spam to artificially inflate the difficulty - oh and the sudden decision in the refinery level to move the distance between the checkpoints and really ramp up the encounter difficulty as well as removing AI companions in what can only be described as a last ditch attempt to make the single-player campaign that little bit longer (I'm still yet to finish, mainly because that refinery is ridiculous) - how does the game hold up?

Fairly well. Playing dress-ups like a 8 year old girl with a gun fetish is as much fun as it should be. And the fact that they've integrated the experience points and levelling system into every facet of the game is the single biggest improvement in my book. Is that enough to redeem the shoddy, cheap gameplay decisions though?

Sure they've added "penetration physics", but I should remind everyone that SWAT 3, back in 2000 had the most detailed penetration model I've ever seen in a game. And it wasn't until Call of Duty 4 last year that anyone really decided to follow up on it. And even then, it's still not as what was available 8 fucking years ago.

The core gameplay is pretty much unchanged. Move forward until enemies spawn, then do the "stop and pop" thing until everyone is dead. Repeat ad infinitum. Though at least they've made your team mates into mere morons rather than terminally retarded apes with a suicide compulsion. The ongoing direction of the gameplay does mean however that the game continues to move further and further from the series original concept. Perhaps they can finally cut the cord and rebrand it "Tom Clancy's: Vegas: X" for future iterations and return to making the pure tactical games that I preferred.

My limited exposure thus far to the adversarial side of it convinces me that it is largely unchanged. If you like hyperactive morons with no concept of teamwork or tactics or keeping their festering gobs SHUT, you'll love it. Otherwise, avoid like the plague and only play with friends.

Overall - given that this is nothing more than a glorified (and full price) patch/expansion pack, I find it hard to be generous with any given facet of the game. The fact that I was actually hoping to get some resolution to the goddamn cliff hanger at the end of R6:V was about the only reason I picked it up. That and my slowly dwindling support for the rapidly eroding "Tom Clancy's" brand name. I won't say it's not a good game, because that's a lie. What I will say is that it's an excellent piece of DLC that's about $80 too expensive.

It's better than:
Rainbow 6: Vegas
It's worse than:
Rainbow 6: Rogue Spear
Try it if you like: Army of Two, Gears of War, SWAT 4
Best played... without thinking about the fact that this totally should have been DLC.

Monday, March 17, 2008

This Army of Two is not Army Strong.

This will be the first of my "reviews" here. And I use that term as sparingly as possible given my tendency towards hyperbole, exaggeration and even outright lies. The aim isn't to give you a "fair and balanced" (that phrase has no meaning since Fox News hijacked it) indication as to the quality of the game, but instead to say whether it is enjoyable or not.

For those with no knowledge of my gaming habits and feelings you can read much of my previous work on my Gamespot user page. But I'll give you a quick summary of it.

I have limited gaming time and thus a low-threshold for bullshit, wastes of time, filler and anti-fun. This can include stuff like crappy save systems such as Ninja Gaiden, Grand Theft Auto and any other games that don't allow me to save when I damn well need to. Not want, but need - after all, unlike the pre-teen emotional retards to whom most game developers seem to pander, I can't commit to fifteen hour gameplay marathons where I may only see a single checkpoint. At least give me regular checkpoints like those which Call of Duty 2 introduced, where even a compulsive quick-saver like myself felt at home. I hope to hell that GTA4 has a decent mid-mission checkpoint system so that I can at least resume from a point within the mission rather than heading back to get the briefing and starting from scratch all over again, otherwise that game is going to find itself shelved quicker than you can say: "Mayor Bloomberg is going to sue somebody."

Similarly, I don't want filler or crap. I don't care that your game has eighty fucking hours of gameplay if seventy-eight of it is going to spent backtracking through every area that I've visited previously because you think that needless padding is good. Same goes for pointless "cut-and-paste" level design to extend your games length. For examples of this, see Zelda (in fact, every goddamn JRPG ever), Halo and my personal whipping-boy: World of Warcraft (what - you want me to play the same goddamn thing over and over and over in the hope of getting some "phat lewt"? Fuck no).

Finally, I ask that the game be fun. This "fun" of which I speak is a difficult thing to define. My personal taste for fun varies wildly from day to day. Some days I feel like playing a very realistic sim, other days even the most bombastically over-the-top arcade game will still be too little to keep me engaged. Really, fun for me is that mystic quantity that makes me want to play the game. Fun is essential to me as gaming is a hobby, it is one of the things I do for enjoyment. A perfect example of how seriously I take "fun" can be seen in the fact that I play (and have played many more) miniature based war-games. But assembling and painting all those things never really rated that highly on my list of priorities. It was all about the play experience. So what if my Fallschirmjager company or High Elf army or Goblin Blood Bowl team or Norse Mordheim warband or Eldar Aspect Warrior army or Orlock Necromunda gang or Assault Gun company were very poorly or even unpainted, it wasn't that which I was in the hobby for. It was for the game - not for the craft.

Any how, back to the topic at hand, which happens to be Army of Two. Not that you would have guessed it from the story so far.

Army of Two is of course, the recent "topical social commentary" from EA. And it shouldn't have been. Because I want to get straight down to the problem with this game. It takes itself too seriously. And I must ask: "How did this happen?" This game has all the cliches - the mismatched "buddies" from every cop movie ever, the hilariously low grade plot (more on that to come), villains who munch on the scenery more than Dennis Hopper and lets not forget the fact that you can make your weapons into something worthy of being displayed next to a Fabergé egg.

So how did any of this end up as "serious social commentary"? I have no idea. Someone at EA obviously developed Jane Fonda syndrome about mid way through the script writing process, because it goes from perfect Team America style piss-take on the entire "War on Terror" to this ridiculous thriller that even Tom Clancy's current team of chained to the word-processor ghost-writers wouldn't want to take credit for.

Seriously, how do we move from a super-stylised Somalian warlord soliloquising on American Imperialism (in the precise manner that the enemy in a 1980s Chuck Norris movie would) and the chemical weapons obsessed Al'Qaeda leader to suddenly having "I'm being serious, can't you hear how I've lowered my voice an octave and altered my tone?" discussions of US domestic and foreign policy? Oh, and saying "Conspiracy theory" about 40 times per dialogue certainly doesn't help matters. If the game had kept the ridiculously over-the-top, moustache twirling villainy throughout, then it would have been a much better game.

Thankfully the switch in tone only occurs when there is about two hours left in the game. Which places it about halfway through. Which brings me to my next point. It's short. Like four hours short. Thankfully, it is a joy to replay, as long as you have someone to play co-op with. But still - that is damn short. Especially considering the monster delay.

And it's not like the delay did much, in fact, one thing that seemed to happen in the delay is that a lot of the stuff that was in the game was taken out. Really, much of what this game was allegedly about was cut. The co-op stuff is there as a way of ensuring that you don't separate too much, and even if you do, the occasional mandatory "snap you both to the same location" sequence will occur. On the bright side, it doesn't have quick-time events.\

The weapon customisation is kind of fun, and really the only incentive to keep playing, in order to unlock it all. But by the same measure, the actual customisations look like the concepts were done by a angry 13 year old who was scribbling school massacre fantasies in the back of his Home Economics text book. And with every bit of hateful disrespect intended, I say this to you, whoever you are: "Your designs look like shit." Some are better than others (for example I love the .44 and its upgrades) but the overall quality of them is bad. And their implementation is worse, as a friend pointed out, it's like a shoddily made mod for something, they just whack another model and skin over the top and damned if it's not noticeable when suddenly a texture alters, or hideous overlaps are evident. As for outfit customisation, you have a choice of Light, Medium and Heavy armour and about twelve equally crappy masks. Again, these look like the results of the same 13 year old's sketches. Why not give us a little toolset like Need For Speed (I won't mention Forza as NFS has what I want and it's a goddamn EA product) to allow us to customise our masks and armour? If I can carry a diamond encrusted Stinger missile, then please explain why I cannot put some sweet designs on my face mask and armoured shoulder pads? I'm assuming that a few hours of airbrush work by someone is well within my budget. This applies in single player only though. In multi-player it's a much bigger criticism, there is no customisation beyond choosing a character model and at some point during the round purchasing a new weapon package. You can't even mix-and-match beyond swapping with your partner. It's a poor design choice given the depth of options in single player.

So, how does it play? Pretty well overall. I'm assuming that you've played Gears of War? It's like that, but the controls aren't quite as tight, and there are some terrible button placement decisions. Putting every action on the "A" button? Not a good start and leads to some unfortunate events. Having melee and ranged attacks on the same trigger as well as putting on "slap your team-mate upsides the head" on that trigger too? Let me just say that I was forced to replay a segment several times after a furious gun-battle ended with my parter and I both dead after we head-butted each other into oblivion while the enemy who we were trying to kill blasted us with impunity from three fucking inches away.. Campaign mode is alright for a run-through by yourself, but for any prolonged play, you really want a friend to play with. Adversarial is quite a lot of fun, being that it is just like co-op, but it actually has things like drivable vehicles and all these other bits that were meant to be in the single-player originally (and I'm not counting the hovercraft sequences in China and Miami, because it's crap).

Of course, the problem with the multiplayer is that at any given moment you have a nine-in-ten chance of being suddenly and violently disconnected. This has happened too many times to too many people that I've spoken to for it to be isolated cases. But then again, we're all in Australia and I doubt that EA squandered any money in putting a server here for us to connect through, so that's probably at least half of our troubles.

Finally, I'll put in one last criticism - the Miami level stinks to high heaven. It's lazy design and writing at it's worst. For a game that wanted so badly to be "serious social commentary" by that point, it missed the boat completely. What could have been a beautiful take on the mismanagement of Hurricane Katrina and the profiteering by certain groups in its aftermath is instead reduced to nothing but a level in which to play. The fact that the city is 6' underwater is never even mentioned. It's just like that so you have to use your hovercraft. It's this kind of laziness that really epitomises Army of Two.

Now, because some readers are lazy oafs who can't be bothered digesting such a solid block of text as that above, I will provide a quick summary for you (this will be the way I end reviews, with a hefty dose of thanks to PCPP for the great concept)

It's better than: Conflict: Denied Ops
It's worse than:
Gears of War
Try it if you like: Gears of War, Kane & Lynch, Brothers In Arms
Best played... with other humans, preferably those who realise that the entire game should not be taken seriously and that the characters are not, in fact cool.