Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Eidos Purchase - a hyperbolic perspective.

What follows is my visionary and cautionary tale of what will come to pass as Square Enix takes over the reins on some of gaming's most beloved franchises.

Hitman 5: Penultimate Zeigeist of Kings
We join Number 47 in his latest adventures, his trademark black suit now features many chains, buckles and pouches. Jesper Kyd is replaced by Nobuo Uematsu on soundtrack duties. The opening cutscene is 12 hours long and features at least 8 hours of longing staring by 47 at love interest. His first mission is given: "Assassinate John Smith, local drug lord", you attempt it but fail miserably as you get defeated time and time again by the first guard you encounter. You try and try and try again, each time being doomed to a half hour cutscene showing your pitiful demise to swelling orchestral chords. A hint box pops up: "If you are having trouble, try levelling up before the fight." You spend the next 12 hours hunting rats for XP. Then, once you have enough levels to face off against the boss safely, you try once more and as soon as you come face to face with the boss the game goes to a cutscene and you die of sleep deprivation before it is over. And that's just the first level.

Deus Ex 3: Crystalline Dreams of Oepdipal Schadenfraude in the Sky
JC Denton returns in this thrilling turn based RPG. Progress through more than 2000 hours of content, of which only 2 are actually relevant! Watch as JC Denton's hair becomes blonder, taller and more outrageous in style with each level gained! Thrill to canned combat animations featuring a sword 5 times taller than Sears Tower! Remain disengaged and impassive for hours on end as you watch cutscenes! Go and make a cup of tea - they're still going! Walk the dog too - this might be a while, he's still crying about that girl, you know, the one who got ganked by that guy who was totally evil, but JC Denton was obilivious to. Actually, you should probably get some sleep now, we lost enough people with the first boss cutscene in Hitman. It's OK, by the time you wake up and get back from work tomorrow, he'll almost be done crying. Sure there's nano-tech and the ability to restore her to perfect health using technology, but don't question the writers - she's dead. She was stabbed in the middle of the hospital ER by the badguy and she's dead. Now stop poking holes in our plot and watch more cutscenes because you're asking too many questions.

Thief X-12.2[b]s9 (paragraph 4)
Garrett travels through time to help popular Disney characters defeat the evil ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. Innovative and revolutionary new controls for the series mean that you can only move in one axis at any given time! This changes the entire dynamic of the genre as the controls suddenly become another layer of depth which you need to conquer in order to become the new spirit of Christmas.

Tomb Raider: Underworld
Lara Croft battles her way through yet another adventure, coming face to face with her arch-nemesis - herself. The pseudo-mysticism kicks up a notch as she battles her doppelganger for . . . Wait a minute, that was the last Tomb Raider game.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

A time for skill

It's one of the things that inevitably comes up every time I talk about playing games:I have a lack of time in which to play them. But I still try and play as often as I can and as great a variety of games as I can. Which naturally leads to my time being spread a little thinly amongst them all. Directly related to this is my hate for unnecessary padding and the usual grind and dissatisfaction it incurs.

These issues are perfectly addressed by many games, which offer skills based gaming. That is, a gameplay experience which rewards skill rather than time. It's one of the reasons I've been enjoying Skate 2 so much. Right from the very start you have available to you every trick and the ability to do it, your skater will never level up, or unlock new abilities. It is purely up to you as a player to make it work.

This means that when I fail a challenge I know that it is on me. I failed because I couldn't find the right line, or fucked up in some way. Not because I haven't levelled up my skater enough and need to go and play for another few hours to get the points to unlock a new level of skills or get a better board. That way, when I do finally nail a trick, kill a spot or win a competition, there is a real sense of achievement to it. I know that I got that outcome because of my skills or because I figured out where a better line was. Sure, there is some time aspect to it - as time goes on I've learnt more and more little tricks to get better and better at the game. The fact remains though, that the game is not artificially limiting me because I haven't spent enough time with it yet.

Where I've encountered the most issues to do with this split between games that reward time vs skill is in unlockable stuff - why do I have to play through story mode in a fighting game 20 goddamn times to fully unlock the main roster of characters when I've already bought the game? Why do I have to put 20 hours into Call of Duty 4 or World at War to unlock all the weapons and perks. Certainly I have no problem with having bonus characters and special items as unlockables in fighting games. In the CoD games - having some unlockables is fine but can we please speed up the advancement curve or give me a better selection to begin with?

I've recently gotten back into Team Fortress 2 (a by-product of finally having a gaming PC again) and it has become very apparent to me that I am far behind the curve there. Previously, I had been able to drop in occasionally and enjoy the game - but now, because I'm not playing every night and whoring achievements every time a new release is made, I'm feeling left behind. I don't have a lot of the alternate weapons and items which most players seem to be using and that certainly seem to be just plain better than the basic stuff. What was a skills based game has now been tainted for me by the inclusion of such unlockable items.

If I am already behind the curve on a game where time spent is not the core mechanic, as I am in Team Fortress 2, then I am already naturally disadvantaged as I am not familiar with many class and map related tactics. To increase the gap between casual players like myself and the dedicated players by then adding unlockable items seems more like punishment for not playing often, rather than an incentive to keep playing. This isn't World of Warcraft where at a glance I can see that the player over there is way above me in levels and likely to be able to eliminate me with a single strike and is pimped to the max with items. Frequently the first you know of an alternate item being used in play is when you get killed and it shows you the special stats on what killed you.

Perhaps my problem here isn't so much that there are unlockables - but that the requirements to unlock them are so high. It is patently ridiculous to expect a casual player (or even anyone who doesn't fall into the hopelessly addicted category) to obtain some of those achievements which are critical to unlocking items. I can see myself slowly inching towards these unlocks, but the fact is that I know I will never actually get there. I might get the first tier for one or two classes, but that's it.

I will credit EA's intentions, but not their implementation of the "Time is Money" DLC for Skate 2. I didn't purchase it, because Skate 2 isn't the kind of game where unlocks are critical to my enjoyment. But if Valve offered me the chance to pay $5 in Steam to unlock all the new items - then I would do so without a moments hesitation as it would drastically improve my game experience.

There are certain games and genres in which I avoid in their entirety due to the central gameplay mechanic being "Spend time playing to advance". Hence, JRPGs and MMORPGs are off the table for me. Sure, every game requires a commitment of time, but for me at least, being the cranky gamer-with-a-job that I am, any game that rewards time played over skill or thinking is not worth my time to start with.