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Warming the Bench: Treyarch August 29, 2008

Posted by Mike in Articles, Console, Games.
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Treyarch is the Diego Forlan of videogame developers. More on this later.

There’s something of a glass ceiling in the industry. For every developer creating the latest high-budget blockbuster, there are ten more working on quickly developed movie licenses or Wii minigame compendiums, many of them either folded into, or on long-term publishing deals with, the big publishers. The aim for these devs is to work their apprenticeship on the bread and butter games that allow them to make a living, and then emerge into the public consciousness, either by making their own breakout independent IP, or managing to do a really good job on a licensed release that sells bazillions. But there are many devs that never manage to approach the upper echelons of the industry.

Treyarch is interesting because it smashed this glass ceiling and then fell back down again, which is an intriguing conundrum simply because of the circumstances of the developer’s existence. A part of Activision since its acquisition in 2001, there is little danger of it going bust, and it has two highly critically acclaimed titles to its name: Spiderman and its cunningly titled sequel, Spiderman 2. Released in 2002 and 2004 respectively, they were not only big hits, but good games to boot. Surely, after years of working on minor sports games and licenses, Treyarch had broken through. Surely now the only way was up. With budget and a successful franchise, with word of more on the way, what could possibly go wrong?

But Treyarch never managed to hit the lofty heights of Spiderman 2 again. What made it widely regarded as a fair-to-middling developer, simply plodding along at the behest of a huge publisher was, ironically, something that should have launched it into the stratosphere. Another Activision developer, Grey Matter Interactive, was merged into Treyarch in 2005, and along with it came the Call of Duty spinoff – Big Red One – that GMI was working on at the time, having already released one successful COD expansion pack for PC. Big Red One went on to be released under the Treyarch name, and was a solid if unspectacular game. It appeared to be lucky timing, though, as Call of Duty was subsequently to become one of the biggest franchises in gaming with the release of the second “proper” game at the launch of Xbox 360. With Treyarch now assigned by Activision to provide sequels for the non-Infinity Ward years based on its work with Big Red One, it seemed that future success was assured.

The wheels were already starting to fall off the Treyarch wagon before this, however, as its rapid expansion and quick turnaround time for development affected its output. In short, projects weren’t turning out well. Ultimate Spiderman was widely seen as disappointing compared to its prequels, despite a patchily solid critical reception, and the subsequent Spiderman 3 for next generation consoles was panned by all and sundry. That particular videogame franchise is now pretty much dead in the water, with Web of Shadows, the new game due out in the next few months, not expected to make many waves. Another title, a survival horror called Dead Rush, was seen briefly at E3 in 2004, positively previewed by various websites, and subsequently quietly cancelled. And then, the biggie that solidified Treyarch’s fall from grace and saw it become known as the “substitute developer”: the much-anticipated Call of Duty 3 was seen as an inferior game to 2 because of its buggy and seemingly rushed singleplayer mode, despite an impressive multiplayer suite of options.

All of this contributed to the collective groan across the Internet when it was announced that Treyarch was making the forthcoming Call of Duty: World At War. This was compounded by the revelation that the game was to be set in the much-mined World War II as opposed to the extremely popular modern setting of the Infinity Ward developed best-selling (and highly acclaimed) Call of Duty 4. Treyarch had become the Diego Forlan of videogames: warming the bench until Infinity Ward got tired, at which time it would come onto the pitch, look pretty, and completely fail to score.

But, luckily for Treyarch, the story of Forlan doesn’t end with his ill-fated three seasons at Manchester United. After he transferred to Villareal in August 2004 he started banging in the goals, finishing as top scorer for the season – an almost unbelievable turnaround. Treyarch may be on the verge of something similarly spectacular, having been revitalised by the addition of two important things that weren’t present before: time, and a spirit of real defiance.

Activision has given it an extra year to work on Call of Duty: World At War than it had for 3, and the clear subtext of recent interviews is that the development team is tired of being compared unfavourably to Infinity Ward. They really want to show that they’re not just the guys who get assigned a project by Activision, rush it through, and make something that’s “okay”. This change of mindset is rather compelling. There’s a new confidence about them. Even bearing in mind the WWII factor, COD:WAW looks like it could be the first Treyarch game since Spiderman 2 that’s not just a stop-gap release while you wait for something better. And furthermore, having been shown faith by Activision in being handed the keys to the lucrative James Bond franchise, the resulting videogame – Quantum of Solace – also looks like it’s going to be well worth a look.

Diego Forlan ended up sharing the European Golden Boot award with Thierry Henry in 2005, and it’s not completely beyond the realms of possibility to think that Treyarch, the under-achievers of the development world in recent years, and the long-time boot-cleaners of Infinity Ward, could well be similarly feted come the end of 2008. It’s a funny old game.

Shouting Galaga Laga Laga Laga August 28, 2008

Posted by Chris in Console, Games, Reviews.
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The retro revamp is not a new phenomenon in the world of videogames, but of late old-school revivals have been particularly common, with Space Invaders and Pac-Man both receiving excellent updates. Galaga Legions (from the folks behind the recent Championship Edition version of the latter) isn’t quite the same as the aforementioned lovingly-crafted tributes, mainly because if it didn’t have Galaga in the name, you’d never know it was Namco’s seminal blaster being remade.

Waves of increasingly tough enemies and the action taking place across a single screen are about the only similarities Legions shares with the 1981 coin-op, with a host of embellishments making this Galaga a very different beast.  For starters, you’ve gained two handy satellites, which you can position using the right analogue stick, setting them in place individually to shoot up, down or to either side. No diagonals, though – some things are determinedly old-school, not least the fearsome challenge the game offers. The game throws enormous swarms of enemy ships at you right from the outset, and from all directions – it’s a good job you can move from the bottom of the screen this time round. You’re given little visual clues, not only to the entry points of the Galaga enemies (small orange boxes pop up, like a particularly bad case of malware), but also to their projected flight path (a series of blue lines, often interlocking). Though these are intended to help the player, they more often than not simply induce a sense of rising panic, as you desperately guide your ship to a potential safe spot, before realising with a sinking heart that many of your foes shoot bullets too. Occasionally, you’ll encounter a strange type of enemy craft which, when destroyed, sucks all the other onscreen ships into a vortex, creating a barricade of tiny drones which afford you further protection – though inevitably that lasts about thirty seconds before things get back to gloriously hectic ‘normality’.

With all the notifications and the enormous heaving masses of enemy ships, Legions gets a little too busy a little too often, occasionally resulting in slightly unfair deaths. Yet it offers a substantial challenge across its seemingly meagre selection of modes (two) and stages (five), ranking it alongside Ikaruga as one of the most enjoyably hardcore – and surprisingly long-lasting – downloads on the Live Arcade service.

Norse Code – the riddle of Too Human August 26, 2008

Posted by Chris in Console, Games, Impressions.
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I received a copy of Silicon Knights’ much-derided Too Human through the post today. Well, at least if you believe half the stuff you read on internet gaming forums, you’d think it was much-derided. In fact, Too Human currently sits on a Metacritic average of 68 – hardly something to rival Bioshock or Halo 3, but not quite subject to the critical lambasting some were expecting.

Yet has there been any kind of marketing blitz for this key first-party release? Hardly. Then surely a special edition – the likes of which Fable 2 and the forthcoming Gears of War are being treated to? Not a sausage. Even the game’s manual seems a little flimsy and nondescript – neatly laid out and printed, sure, but that paper doesn’t smell very expensive.

Start the game, and you’ll likely feel equally unimpressed – production values are hardly sky-high, while the lack of both visual and technical polish (stuttering characters, clipping, enemies dying in mid-air and staying there) betray the game’s troubled development. Whatever your opinion on Microsoft Game Studios’ output this generation, few can suggest its games haven’t felt like they’ve had a thorough going over, with the sort of tiny, niggly flaws seen here all but airbrushed out. Yet Too Human’s blemishes and flabby bits are there for all to see.

Yet these eccentricities seem to add a little character to this curious game – there’s something fascinating about how such a strange title came to be. The story seems to take itself almost laughably seriously, but then there are comments in the manual that can’t be anything but tongue-in-cheek. And the equipment names are almost certain to inspire the odd chuckle – I’m particularly fond of my Willful Conformal Pauldrons of Havoc at the moment. The game is hardly an easy sell – it’s a Diablo-esque dungeon crawler with a combat system that seems to posit itself as an RPG version of Devil May Cry, as your hero Baldur slashes away with swords, juggling enemy mechs and shooting them with twin pistols as they fall. And, weirdly, all this is accomplished by holding and flicking the right analogue stick, the camera controls taken entirely out of the user’s hands. Yet it remains curiously compelling – defiantly its own beast, somehow Too Human mixes Norse mythology and nanomachines, fast-paced hackandslash action and messy menu-fiddling, and just about makes it all cohesive. And it’s addictive enough to make me want to continue playing after the first couple of dungeons, so it must be doing something right.

In some ways it’s little wonder Microsoft is refusing to start a fanfare for Too Human, but this plucky outsider seems plenty capable of blowing its own trumpet – if, admittedly, to a smaller, more cult-sized audience than its publisher usually attracts.

Changing the game: High score chasing in Geometry Wars 2 August 25, 2008

Posted by Mike in Articles, Console, Games.
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It’s such a simple idea, but aren’t they always the best ones?

Geometry Wars 2 has singlehandedly changed the visibility of high score chasing, accomplishing this via the use of one exceedingly clever gaming device: putting the online leaderboards front and centre in the game.  Every time you’re in the single player menu, your friends’ high scores for each of the six game modes are there staring at you.  When you start a new game, the score that’s one higher in the list than your own is up in the top-right hand corner, daring you to beat it.  There’s no need to back out to extraneous menus to see this information, which is a revelation.

The sense of competition between online friends on this game is a step beyond what I’ve seen before, and it’s all because of that next score laughing at your inadequate skill level, and the heat of the people behind you slowly getting closer to your own markers.  An intended five minute session on the game quickly turns into a two hour marathon as a result.  I personally have to beat at least one score before I feel able to turn GW2 off, otherwise I know that the names up in lights would still be there while I was sleeping, mocking me for my continuing failure.  The addition of special GW2 Gamercard sigs for online forums on MyGamercard.net, which links to people’s live scores for each of the modes, makes the race to the top of your friends list to remain in the mind even when away from the game itself.  It becomes an addiction.

Every developer of a title where high scores are important is going to copy the idea.  It’s undeniably evil, yet ridiculously compelling.  It’s the three-letter scoreboards from ancient Pacman and Space Invaders machines transported into the modern age: no longer just rivalries within one arcade, but accessible to the entire world, with no one involved able to tear themselves away from the continuing competition.

High score chasing lives, and we never knew how much we missed it until now.  Thank you, simplicity.

Open Goals #1: Daytona USA August 25, 2008

Posted by Mike in Articles, Console, Games.
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A new series of articles in which we discuss games that developers should be making, reimagining or sequelling, and urge them to take the plunge…

“Daytona! Let’s go away!”  Prophetic words from Daytona USA’s title song, as it happens.  After one solitary (and inferior) arcade sequel, the racing series, much beloved of gamers of a certain age, has remained on ice for ten years, save for indifferent home console translations.  But following the successes of recent reimaginings such as Bionic Commando and Pacman, shouldn’t Sega’s arcade classic be given another chance?

Daytona USA was the undoubted poster child of Sega’s Model 2 arcade hardware at the time, a graphically phenomenal racing beast far beyond what was possible on consoles at the time of its UK release in 1994.  Its first course, the simple Three Seven Speedway, is the arcade memory of my mid-teens.  Starting off in fortieth place in the race (yes, there were forty cars racing at the same time!  Incredible, or so I thought at the time!), eight intense laps of an oval circuit followed.  The sense of speed, coupled with the force feedback of the arcade steering wheel, gave the player a feeling of immersion that had never previously been achieved in a racing game, and the visceral rush of adrenaline as you fought to negotiate the tight final corner into the finishing straight was almost tangible.

When you added to this the evil AI of the leading computer opponents, and the glorious sight of Sonic the Hedgehog carved into the rock face in a Rushmore-esque manner, it was an experience like no other.  And this was only in single player – the game was even more compelling when played with human opponents.  Up to eight arcade cabinets could be linked together, and whenever I was able to go to London I would seek out The Trocadero arcade, which had exactly that setup.  Racing there had the unabashed glee of an early LAN party, with spirited but friendly competition.  Hard-earned paper round pounds were thrown around like confetti in the wake of Daytona’s just-one-more-go factor.

When I think of the success on Live Arcade of bog-standard arcade ports such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, it seems baffling that Sega haven’t looked to update Daytona USA for 2008 for the service.  The idea of sixteen player online racing on Three Seven Speedway is one that has me grinning from ear to ear, and even if it turned out that rose tinted glasses were hiding the flaws of the original game, the popularity of imperfect classics such as the aforementioned TMNT shows that consumers are prepared to go the extra mile to own a nostalgic slice of their childhood.  It would only take a general texture upgrade and the addition of Xbox Live racing to proceedings to make Daytona USA quite possibly the most popular game on Live Arcade ever released, and that’s no exaggeration.  It would even be a welcome inclusion to the lineup if it was a relatively “vanilla” release.

But how about a proper reimagining?  Take the courses from the arcade sequel, and the Championship Circuit Edition on the Saturn (that corrected many of the flaws from the original Saturn conversion), and maybe even the tracks from Scud Race, and deliver it all with a lovely 720p visual upgrade.  Et voila: a Live Arcade racing thriller.  Online championships, leagues… the possibilities for a vibrant community are mouth-watering.  Hell, with that amount of content, Sega could even look at a full retail release.

So, instead of continuing to defecate and piss all over the Sonic series’ decaying corpse, perhaps Sega should get back to what it’s good at.  Sumo Digital would be an ideal developer for the project, given its already fruitful relationship with handling the wares of Sega’s old AM2 division (Outrun 2, Outrun 2006: Coast 2 Coast), and a new, reimagined, or simply converted Daytona would be an ideal tonic to start to recover some of Sega’s currently faltering reputation with the gaming public.

Here’s hoping that Sega doesn’t continue to Ronnie Rosenthal this gaping open goal.  My message is simple: “Let’s go away”?  No, let’s have it back.

Samba Wii Maracas August 22, 2008

Posted by Chris in Console, Games, News.
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If you like rhythm games which have about twelve songs with ‘mambo’ in the title, then chances are you’re probably looking forward to Sega’s Wii remake of its DreamCast classic Samba de Amigo. Recent previews have suggested that the controls DO indeed work, and now it looks like it’s going to be even more faithful to the original with the release of these maraca shells from Amazon.com.

Here’s hoping there’s another set of shells for those wanting to play with two remotes, as that’s almost certainly likely to provide a more authentic Samba experience. And you’ve no chance of accidentally whacking yourself in the nose with the nunchuk wire when you strike a pose, too.

Company of Heroes – A Belated Review August 21, 2008

Posted by Jevan Moss in Games, gaming, PC, Reviews.
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The summer drought is always a good time to catch up with underplayed games, and as usual I seem to have built up an embarrassingly large back-catalogue. Thanks to our extended hiatus though, it’s the perfect excuse to review some of the games we missed, starting with the rather excellent Company of Heroes. (more…)

Absolute Kaoss: The story of Mike and his Korg DS-10 (Part Two) August 20, 2008

Posted by Mike in Console, Games, Impressions.
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Everyone occasionally feels that the world hates them.  Such was the case today when I found out that my Dell desktop has a known problem with Line-In recording.  As in: it’s claimed that Dell likes to disable it on many of its Vista machines due to some kind of piracy concerns, but actually I know it’s a conspiracy to screw me over, the one time I actually want to use the bloody thing.

So unfortunately, even though I have one tune ready to upload that is the zenith of analogue synth achievement (or a borderline C grade in GCSE music coursework, one or the other), it has to remain confined to my DS for now, repetitively going through its sixteen patterns, wondering when it’s finally going to make its bow in front of an audience.

When you left me at the end of my last piece, I was contemplating my wishes to make music, and the Korg DS-10’s possible shouts of “I am the Holy Grail” to this immortal quest.  But the initial post on PSO was light on detail about how the program actually works, and since then I’ve at least partly got my head around it.

The first feeling when you make your way across the various screens in the DS-10 is one of mild horror, as you can see so many knobs that you think you must have accidentally found your way into a Paul Danan Fan Club convention.  However, the way the program works is surprisingly simple – it’s just the intricacies of creating the sound you want from each synth that baffle, but also reward experimentation.

You can create sixteen separate musical “patterns” to make up a song.  Each of these is made up of two analogue synth parts, plus four drum parts.  Each pattern can be in a sequence of up to sixteen beats, and these are either laid down live in a virtual keyboard controlled by the stylus, or at your leisure on a matrix grid set up to represent the notes and the timings, or (where the drums are concerned) live on the four touch-sensitive drum pads.  This is the easy end of the spectrum.  Simply create a tune on Pattern 1, copy it to Pattern 2, and then change an element – for example, increase the drum frequency to make it sound like the track is starting to build up – and as you carry on throughout the sixteen patterns, you can make something that sounds coherent, but which probably isn’t very exciting.

This is where the other stuff comes into play.  Finding out exactly which turn of which knob or slightly different setting will produce weird and wonderful sounds was part and parcel of the myth of the original MS-10 synth, and this is also very much the case with the DS-10.  There really is something magical about finding a sound you had no idea existed, and then realising with a heavy heart that it’s so good you’re going to have to retcon it back through all the patterns you’ve already created.

But that’s nothing compared to the Kaoss pads.

Once a particular synth pattern has been laid down, it can be modified in real-time (and the recording updated, if you wish) on the virtual, touch-sensitive Kaoss pads.  These are configurable to enable many different note-altering variables to be selected, and just one pattern is perfectly capable of being noodled with on the touch screen for absolutely ages.  It’s easy improvisation – ridiculously enjoyable solo noodling – and a lovely extra that wasn’t on the original MS-10 synth.  It’s one of the things that, when locked onto a particular pattern, can either turn a song to genius, or mess it up completely.  I love it.  Musical maths theorists out there can also adjust the Kaoss pads in whatever pre-set grid arrangement they wish in the advanced sections of the sequence controls.

This is the genius of the DS-10.  It’s simple enough to enable the easy creation of a tune, yet the options available are very deep for a piece of software that’s much cheaper than a “real” synthesiser/sequencer.  For example, remember how I said you can have two analogue synths plus four drums per pattern?  Why not try sacrificing a drum track in order to load up another synth and treat it as a drum, configuring notes for it as you would for a synth, which enables a three-on-three combination?  And how about ditching the pre-set song patterns, and using the patterns screen plus D-pad shortcuts to the various effects options to play your tunes live?  The patterns screen allows you to mute various parts or play one single track on its own, meaning that instead of having to use three or four patterns to build up the beat of a track, you can play it live and build up a particular line yourself in just one, enabling you to free up more pattern memory for creativity.

In many ways the DS-10 reminds me of the SID chip on the Commodore 64, which is interesting because, just as with the programmers who worked on that computer, the trick to producing something potentially memorable is to improvise your way around the memory issues.  The sixteen pattern memory per song really isn’t that much once you get going, but after you learn a few of the ways in which you can stretch this out using the tools available, you start to realise that, while the DS-10 is never going to be better than a $300 program on a PC, you are only ever going to be bound by your own ingenuity up to a certain point.  And, for me, the challenge of learning to reach and then push that boundary is rather compelling.

Next time: More skirting around the issue of what the various knobs do.  And, hopefully, a song link.

Heavy Rain – the uneducated verdict August 20, 2008

Posted by Chris in Comment, Console, Games.
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David Cage (Fahrenheit) has been busy today, unveiling his forthcoming PS3 title, Heavy Rain. Already the subject of much hyperbole mainly thanks to a very short (but admittedly impressive) tech-demo-cum-trailer, the internet kicked into overdrive when the first real footage of the game was showcased today.

Essentially, you fall into one of two camps after you’ve watched the latest vid (actually, there’s a third, but for the sake of argument let’s pretend it doesn’t exist for the moment). You either think that it’s the most amazing thing you’ve ever seen, proclaim Quantic Dream to be the new Team ICO and fap yourself stupid over the realistic visuals and animation. Or you think it looks little more than Dragon’s Lair but with super-lifelike characters. The reality – as is always the case in these situations – is something in between.

The former group can be excused for now, as it really does look stunning. But the latter has a point about the controls – not a great one as it turns out, but a reasonable initial observation nonetheless. You see, interaction is slightly more limited than you might expect – your character Madison advances when you hold the R2 trigger, and turns her head with the left analogue stick. Meanwhile, button commands appear at context-sensitive spots. This has naturally led group 2 to yell “QTE!” with all the disgust of a Chinese reporter interviewing a bronze medal athlete – except the T in the acronym should give everyone a clue that this simply isn’t the case. You might have to make the odd snap decision (and in easily the worst control idea shown yet, you tilt your Sixaxis towards the right answer) but it’s not like you’re punished as such for making the ‘wrong’ choice. As Gamespot put it – “You could have killed the villain in various ways; you could have stayed hidden and called the police. Madison could also be killed, and the fascinating part is that the game would not be over.”

So essentially we’re talking about a fully-branching narrative, and presumably the option to play as one of the other characters should the protagonist pop her clogs. I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds bloody exciting. And it’s this we should be focussing on rather than complaining about unusual controls. I suppose the automatic reaction for some people to something different from the norm is to instantly dismiss it, while others are just as quick to hail it revolutionary.

I’m in group 3 – I’m intrigued to see exactly how it plays before I decide that it’s a genuine advancement in the way we interact with games. For now, I’m cautiously optimistic – mindful that Fahrenheit was a brave experiment that only partially paid off, but aware that this could finally be the closest thing we have to a genuine ‘interactive movie’. And while it might not turn out to be a perfect game, it certainly looks like one hell of an experience.

Gaming merchandise (why do we never get the good stuff?) August 19, 2008

Posted by Chris in Console, Merchandise.
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Two pieces of gaming-related merchandise which caught my eye today. The first (pictured above) is a limited edition version of PSP strategy role-player Yggrda Union – a sort of Fire Emblem/Advance Wars on E-numbers which appeared on the GBA a while back and was busy, complex but really quite excellent. It’s available only from US store GameStop, and is reserved for those preordering the game. The soundtrack on the original game was really quite good, so that’s a neat little freebie for American gamers.

Meanwhile, Japan continues to get the best deal when it comes to gaming tat, with this set of RockMan/MegaMan magnets released to commemorate the helmeted one’s 20th Anniversary. Nice.

The odd ‘limited’ edition tin (which is usually more plentiful than vanilla boxed copies for most games) aside, why do we never get any quality gaming merchandise in the UK? I think we should be told.