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The Dark Side of Paradise: New Burnout DLC impressions September 18, 2008

Posted by Mike in Console, Games, Impressions.
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New offline and online events, a full 24 hour day/night cycle, the addition of motorbikes, and all this for free – it sounds great on paper. And indeed, the latest downloadable content in Burnout Paradise makes quite the first impression, with the novelty of the bikes and their different handling opening up a genuinely new feel to racing through Paradise City.

But while the content is sizeable, there are problems. For one thing, night is NIGHT. Come midnight in the game it’s so dark – pitch-black in places, with only your bike’s weedy headlights pointing out landmarks in the gloom – that you’re forced to rely on the mini-map in the corner of the screen more than ever. This lack of visibility makes perfect sense when racing on the country roads at the west edge of the map, but the near-darkness at the very heart of Paradise City itself (other than the flashing lights that indicate jump positions) somehow just looks lifeless and wrong, and makes night-time racing extremely difficult. The night cycle can’t have been accounted for in the initial design of the game, otherwise Criterion would have put twinkling lights in a number of the buildings to help guide your way, and the lack of some sort of tweaking to make the darkness less of a hindrance is frustrating. Those country roads are rather pretty at night, though, and the day/night cycle is tweakable through a number of settings. These include (among others) a 24 minute cycle, a local time setting tied to your real-world location, and the ability to permanently set the game time to a chosen point. I recommend sunset.

The motorbikes’ lack of boost is an interesting design decision. It arguably makes the racing more “pure” (although the speed differential between the two types of bike initially available will likely make one of them comparatively useless in competitive online play), but Burnout without boost just doesn’t feel like Burnout. The lack of any crash animations at all for a big shunt is disappointing too, but whether this is due to technical constraints or because having riders fly off the bikes would invalidate the game’s age rating is unknown.

All this doesn’t mean that the content is without merit – far from it. Having a new driving license to work for increases the breadth of the single player game (although I have yet to find any races against AI opposition, which is an interesting oversight), and while difficult, the Midnight Runs use their new checkpoint system to great effect. The Freeburn challenges are as compelling an example of social online gaming as you can find on Xbox Live at the moment, and the addition of all new Road Rules leaderboards for bikes for both day and night will reinvigorate those particular bragging rights. Online interaction between bikes brings an extra dimension to a now overly-familiar game world, too.

It seems churlish to complain about a free update – and certainly this DLC is remarkably generous – but given how long it has been in development, the various design foibles are more than curious. Paradise it may be, but this game definitely still has a dark side.

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The Farce Unleashed? First impressions of the new Star Wars game (360) September 18, 2008

Posted by Mike in Console, Games, Impressions.
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Did you know that the name of Darth Vader’s secret Apprentice in Star Wars: The Force Unleashed – “Starkiller” – was the original surname of Luke Skywalker in early drafts of the Star Wars screenplay? Or that Babylon 5 showrunner J. Michael Straczynski paid homage to this fact by giving his own lead character, John Sheridan, the Starkiller moniker as his nickname among the mysterious Minbari? No? Then be assured that I’ve now outlined my sci-fi geek credentials. You’re in safe hands here.

I’ve always ignored the litany of Star Wars expanded universe material. My view is that if a plot isn’t onscreen canon, then balls to it. Therefore the Lucas-approved storyline in Force Unleashed, which fills in the squiggly bits between Episodes III and IV of the Star Wars saga, is the first major draw outside the movies for me personally, for years. Just how did we get from the Jedi being wiped out, to the fledgling Rebel Alliance? And what does the Apprentice – who seemingly exists solely to do Darth Vader’s duplicitously dirty, off-the-books bidding, rather than shouting “That’s what I’m talking abaaaaat!” every five seconds – have to do with it all?

The early story cutscenes are promising. The Apprentice himself is surprisingly likeable and sympathetic rather than brimming with the expected genero-teen-angst evil, and an engaging droid character called Proxy provides the funnies while having more than a little bit of sinister bite behind him. He doesn’t even come across as an HK-47 rip-off, which is refreshing. The only downsides are Darth Vader’s “It’s not really him, is it? Why didn’t you get James Earl Jones, you idiots?” voice and subtly misjudged line-readings, which make you root for man-in-the-suit David Prowse to finally be given the chance to utilise his “The Farrrrce is strang wiv you, moi luvver” vocal talents. The first test, however, is easily passed. Since the story isn’t rubbish, Force Unleashed is automatically better than 99% of narrative-based games.

But the other story here – the gameplay itself – is more troublesome, and Force Unleashed has many of the same problems that crop up again and again in third person action adventures. The major issue is the automatic targeting system, which is, frankly, broken. It selects your target very vaguely based on the direction in which you’re facing, but there badly needs to be an option to switch manually, as in the middle of a fight against multiple enemies, with multiple targetable objects also around you, it’s almost impossible to Force Grip the exact Stormtrooper you really want to fling about.

This leads to the game becoming rather more of a button-masher than it should be. With the targeting woes hampering efforts at precision, the best strategy is to hammer the lightsabre and various Force buttons willy-nilly in order to rid the screen of all opposition. The Euphoria engine (formerly seen in Grand Theft Auto IV) proves itself to be the ideal technical gubbins to depict chaotic uses of The Force here, with the requisite Force Grip and Force Push abilities all present, spangly and correct. The action often looks spectacular onscreen, with enemies flying through the air in multiple directions, and electronics being ripped out of their housings to explode all over the place, but when the button-mashing is compounded by the dreaded QTE sequences that pop up when defeating some of the larger enemies and in boss battles, it often feels that you’re not in complete control of the action. Your inability to move while using The Force, and the swiftly dwindling energy bar for use of the ability (presumably both present for difficulty balancing purposes), are the final nails in the coffin. Having seen Jedis fight in the movies, the Force Unleashed’s control problems and restrictions make the combat more old man Guinness than young pretender McGregor. The game isn’t helped by the level paths’ extreme linearity either, which almost Jedi Mind Tricked me into thinking that N+ was a free-roaming extravaganza.

Still, the art design is absolutely lovely, the music recognisably Star Wars, and general presentation – apart from the screen tearing and some clunky loading times – is everything you’d expect from a big budget game. Certainly the compulsion to get to the next slice of the plot will overcome many of the gameplay problems for Star Wars fans. However, for anyone who has no interest in the story and has been fooled by the hype into expecting combat on the level of a Ninja Gaiden or Devil May Cry, this probably isn’t the game you’re looking for. Darth Vader, everyone’s favourite intergalactic Sir Alan Sugar, certainly shouldn’t fire his Apprentice, but neither should he be rushing to hire him just yet.

Worthy sequels September 11, 2008

Posted by Mike in Articles, Console, Games, Miscellaneous.
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Amazingly for the ordinarily bean-counting videogames industry, a mediocre sales performance for a particular game no longer automatically means that it won’t get a sequel. A game’s Metacritic rating – its average review score across selected online and print sources, as collated by Metacritic.com – is increasingly being worn as a badge of honour by publishers, and finally it seems that being seen to have a roster of compelling titles, rather than just a money-train of financial success no matter what, is fast becoming a key consideration.

The likes of Electronic Arts’ CEO John Riccitiello have openly stated that quality is now king, and the welcome by-product is that critically revered but commercially unsuccessful games that would formerly have died a quiet death, only being mourned by a small band of devoted followers, have been given another chance to show their worth.

The Rare-developed Viva Pinata, for example, was Microsoft’s initial tentative dip into the ocean of casual gaming back in the autumn of 2006. An unfortunate flop on initial release due in part to the so-called “Gears of War demographic” of the Xbox 360’s userbase at that time, this well-regarded gardening game eventually limped via a combination of aggressive discounting and hardware bundling to sell just over a million copies. For a big first-party release, this was hardly a stellar performance. Earlier this year, however, the enhanced sequel Viva Pinata 2: Trouble in Paradise was announced, and found its way into shops last week, once again the recipient of a positive critical reception. Initial sales figures suggest that it may once again fail to trouble the upper echelons of the charts – and the lack of discernible marketing has been disappointing – but the fact it was made at all is a promising development.

An even more surprising forthcoming sequel is Beyond Good and Evil 2 from Ubisoft. The original game was the brainchild of Michel Ancel, one of the few individual developers with a public profile among the gaming community. (Other star names include the likes of Peter Molyneux, Shinji Mikami, Hideo Kojima, and Shigeru Miyamoto, but it is still a relatively unique phenomenon.) Released in 2003 into the packed Christmas market on Playstation 2 as a timed exclusive, and subsequently sneaking out on Xbox and Gamecube early the following year, it was clear that Ubisoft had no idea how to promote the game. It’s hard not to be mildly sympathetic about the company’s plight, however, since BGAE followed the adventures of a green-skinned photo journalist named Jade, and her pig-like uncle Pey’j, through a variety packed mix of stealth, photography, vehicle sections and limited combat – a recipe for high valium expenditure from the Ubi marketing department if ever I saw one.

Widely regarded as a severe commercial flop, with the game’s fans bemoaning both the advertising and the general public’s unwillingness to try something different, a return seemed about as likely as a certain better known Jade going on Celebrity Big Brother again. With that in mind, when the sequel was announced in May this year, it was a bolt from the blue cheered by the videogames community. It remains to be seen whether the title is simply Ubisoft reluctantly indulging the whims of its star developer, or whether it will genuinely try to make the series as successful as it deserves to be. Here’s hoping it’s the latter.

Even EA is getting in on the act these days, with the fantastic (and cruelly underselling) Boom Blox on Wii strongly rumoured to be getting a sequel next year. And, to its credit, EA is even giving critically mauled potential winners more time and another chance – take the karaoke/rhythm action game Boogie, for example, for which a far better looking sequel is out on Wii this autumn and may finally do justice to the concept.

It’s easy to imagine Duncan Bannatyne facing down the trembling executives of Microsoft, Ubisoft and EA in the Dragons’ Den to deliver one of his famous blasts: “Wodja min you dun know the duffrunce between a hut and a muss? This is no’ a biznuss. And for those reasons: a’m ow.” But for those of us who hope to see the videogames industry gain a better balance between its commercial interests and giving developers the time and opportunity to create games worthy of our cash – even if they may not be sure-fire commercial successes – recent events have hinted that a heartening future may well be ahead.

Fuel for the fire: advertising stunts in gaming September 11, 2008

Posted by Mike in Articles, Console, Games, Miscellaneous.
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The videogames industry in 2008 is a multi-billion dollar behemoth, fighting for the same consumer dollar as Hollywood and the music business in economic times that are becoming harder by the day. Recession-proof the industry may turn out to be, but any means of drawing wider mainstream attention to videogames past the so-called “hardcore” remains the Holy Grail for publishers and developers alike. Nintendo is fortunate enough to be in the position where its Wii console is regularly pictured in lifestyle magazines and newspaper supplements, usually being enjoyed by bowling-obsessed energetic grannies, but for almost everyone else, there’s only one sure-fire way to find their game in the papers: controversy.

Whether it’s the original Resident Evil magazine advertisement back in 1996, which featured a blood-splattered bathtub; or the bizarre US competition for Turok: Evolution in 2002, where parents were invited to name their newborn baby after the titular dinosaur hunter in order to win $10,000; or the headline-chasing, MP-baiting level of violence in Manhunt 2, throughout the years it seems that no stunt is too risky if it stands a good chance of granting game-makers the oxygen of extra publicity and the resulting higher sales potential.

Last Friday morning was no exception, when EA’s promotion for Mercenaries 2: World in Flames encouraged motorists to beat the credit crunch by filling their cars up with £40 of free fuel at a petrol station in Finsbury Park, London. What could possibly go wrong, right? The no-Mystic-Meg-required result was rush-hour traffic chaos, screaming matches between vehicle owners, police intervention, the premature abandonment of the whole thing, and then the point of the exercise: feigned ‘outrage’ from politicians and motoring organisations plastered all over the news media. The whole affair was irresponsible, ill-advised and breathtakingly naïve. At the same time, it was an absolutely brilliant marketing wheeze. A £20,000 fuel giveaway versus the amount of advertising spend it would take to gain the same level of media publicity… economically, it’s a no-brainer.

The EA spokesperson, Donald Parrish, claimed that, “Petrol is expensive at the moment and people are having a hard time so we just wanted to do something for them.” There was also an amusing attempt to link the chaos to the economic situation in Venezuela that the game’s setting supposedly satirises, which was a leap worthy of an Olympic long jump world record. I find it hard to believe that nobody considered the possible consequences of such a fuel giveaway, particularly when you consider the petrol price protests in 2000 and the continuing public ire towards the Government’s treatment of motorists. The responsible thing for EA to do in the circumstances would be an internal review to “learn the lessons” of the debacle (this must sound rather familiar to followers of politics out there), but it’s likely that instead of heads being rolled, the clever fellow who came up with the idea will probably be patted on the back. If I was EA, I’d be doing the same, particularly as the media coverage no doubt played a part in securing Mercenaries 2’s entry straight in at number 1 in this week’s software charts.

This won’t be the last videogames related controversy of the year, you can be assured of that. Like that bathtub in the old Resident Evil ad, the videogames industry is a bloody battleground that takes no prisoners in the pursuit of publicity.

F.E.A.R… what’s in a name? September 9, 2008

Posted by Mike in Console, Games, News, PC.
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Genero-game-titles are one of the most exciting features of the current console generation. Call of Medal of Underground Honour In Arms: Frontlines… where will it end? What will be the drabbest name come the End of Days (which is tomorrow, incidentally, if you believe the Hadron Collider conspiracy theorists)?

Monolith ponied up with the clear winner in this particular wall of shame a few months back: Project Origin. The amusing thing about this is that the name was actually chosen as the winner in an online competition to title up the heart-stoppingly exciting unofficial F.E.A.R. sequel. Yes, the imagination of the general public was to blame! It could have been called something brilliant, like “Alma-Getting-Outta-Here”, or my personal favourite, “N.O.L.I.C.E.N.C.E.”

Instead, the painfully average Project Origin was chosen (rather suspiciously, there are lingering rumours that a better name actually won in the polls but corporate shenanigans played a part in the final result) and instantly made any gamers who heard the title fall asleep for a hundred years. As a result, Paul McKenna is currently in therapy with feelings of profound inadequacy.

Thankfully, sanity has prevailed. Monolith today announced that the F.E.A.R. name has been bought from Vivendi’s home of Activision/Blizzard, bringing to an end one of the more bizarre licensing issues of modern times. (As you may recall, upon splitting with Vivendi, Monolith kept the concepts and the world from the original game, while Vivendi got to keep the name.) Give a cookie to the clever fellow who decided to splash the cash. What this development means for the proposed separate Vivendi-developed F.E.A.R. 2 is, at present, uncertain.

The promising Monolith shooter is now entitled F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin and will be released in February 2009 for Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC. The new moniker is hardly perfect, but at least the game itself now stands a chance of being scarier than its name.

Future Imperfect: The 2006 predict-o-rama roundup September 5, 2008

Posted by Mike in Articles, Console.
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I love the new, of course, but I also have a fondness for nostalgia. Every so often, I’ll randomly come across a piece of writing from somewhere a while back that I read again and smile at – or, if it’s one of my own contributions, cringe at the grammatical errors and pisspoor sentence structure. Anyone who says that nostalgia ain’t what it used to be is trying to be clever and failing. You see, it’s actually good.

Today I came across something that never actually went up on PSO back in the day. It was a piece entitled ‘Knights of the Round Table’. A couple of weeks before the last showbiz E3 in May 2006, various PSO luminaries sat on a long MSN conversation with the intention of predicting which way various aspects of the console war would go. You can tell it’s old, as we were still calling the Wii the ‘Revolution’. The transcript was eventually written out and made almost coherent even though it never made it online, so although it’s more than a little self-indulgent, let’s load it up, set the way back machine to its wibbliest-wobbliest setting, and pick out some highlights and lowlights to find out just how many Mystic Megs out of ten we scored…

First, then, to myself. A discussion quickly evolved about the previous generation of consoles, where a question arose about complacency from Sony regarding PS2’s software, given the success of PS1. Everyone agreed that Sony had been far from complacent, and in fact had the broadest range of games across last gen by a long way. I then said the following about the forthcoming generation: “Where the corporation is complacent, I think, is at the top. But in a world where even many game journos are taken in by quite-obviously CGI promo reels, is it any wonder that the top brass still think they can just coast to victory? A word of warning though… treating Europe as a backwater? Getting complacent? Doesn’t that remind anyone else of Nintendo in the mid-90s? It’s a long way down…” Fluke, or reasoned observation? All I do know is that this prediction turned out to be not so far from the truth. A good start.

We continued with a short interlude about the 360 hardware difficulties at that time, which were still an unresolved issue. Me again: “As for the problems with machines breaking down, as this was the first major home console launch where Internet forums are so numerous and so vocal, it remains to be seen whether it was anything out of the ordinary or not.” Note to self: yes it was. Whoops.

Then we talked about Halo 3. Dave thought the following: “The multi-player potential for the title is undoubtedly huge, and Microsoft will surely be looking to it as bait for masses of potential online gamers. 32, even 64 player maps? Different classes, a la Battlefield online? More focused objective gametypes? Yes please.” This didn’t come to pass on the scale that Dave imagined, but apart from the number of players online at once, this strangely resembles what the at-the-time-unannounced Call of Duty 4 became.

Chris had his own views on Halo 3: “I think the 360 has had a decent enough head start for it to not be quite as important as some think. While it’s going to be massive in terms of sales, I’m not convinced it’s a make-or-break release for the 360.” Pretty bang-on. Halo 3 was a massive release for the console, but the series certainly hasn’t had to hold up the 360 as it did the original Xbox, which is an indication of how Microsoft has moved on.

The next question was about the PS3, and what Sony would have to do to really drop the ball. Here was my take on things: “I think that the only danger is a combination of mistakes, rather than one big one. Too high a price, some big games missing launch, launch games not looking as good as Xbox 360 second gen stuff, online service nowhere near as good as LIVE. If there’s 3 out of those 4 then I reckon they’ll have problems. Any less than that, and I can’t see the Sony juggernaut falling off the road any time soon.” Again, this was just my feeling following the E3 2005 show – that Sony had promised more than they could hope to deliver in the early days of PS3. I remain convinced that it was the spectacular 2005 show that laid the groundwork for Sony’s comparative malaise, and that they’re still recovering from it to this day.

The Wii (or Revolution as it was then) had its controller revealed shortly before our conversation, and there was much debate as to how it would be received. Chris had this to say on the subject of it being a potential gimmick: “Not a chance. The Revmote (as I like to call it) is the big difference as far as the Revolution goes. The Nintendo difference, if you like. And, whilst there’s a danger that it will lead to games being shorter and more “arcadey” (it’s difficult to see it being utilised throughout epic 30 hour plus adventure games, mainly thanks to the “knackered arm” aspect) I think they’ve learned from the DS that the method of controller input is vastly important. A simplification like the DS has really attracted a lot of non-gamers. And everyone knows how to use a TV remote, right? So it therefore opens gaming up to people who would be baffled by a standard controller with all the buttons. After all, hasn’t everyone, at some time or another, tried to move their avatar/vehicle, not by moving the analogue stick, but by tilting the controller to aid the turn? Well using the Revmote, now such a movement WILL affect the game. It’s something that could really revitalise old genres too – “new ways to play games” – the ethos has never been more appropriate.” Now that leads me to want to ask Chris what he thinks next week’s Lottery numbers will be. Wiidiculous.

Nintendo’s attitude towards online gaming was next. I had this opinion on the subject: “I think that Nintendo is going to only pay online gaming lip-service to be honest, and only really because it realises it can’t get by without it. I don’t expect a service anything like as comprehensive as LIVE or Sony’s offering. I think it’ll be free and super-easy to set up, which is good. The downside will be that it’ll be very stripped-down like the DS service, and while this may be enough for people who’ve never been online before, and passable for those who want to play the likes of Mario Kart online, for those people used to the functionality of the 360 it may be quite a culture shock.” Okay, so now I’m asking myself serious questions about why I haven’t won the Lottery yet. I seem to keep picking the wrong numbers, clearly on purpose.

Nintendo’s launch strategy for their new console was the last question. What would lead to the best chance of success? Everyone had their own opinion. Chris thought that a still-unrevealed new game would be the lynchpin: “Pilotwings. And I’m really optimistic it IS going to happen. The demo of the toy aeroplane flying around Delfino Plaza shown to select journos by Nintendo themselves has confirmed it for me. I honestly think that could be the killer launch app. Mario will roll out later, I think. TP will be a big draw too.” Sorry, Chris. I really wish you were right. (Note to self: this subject could easily be the basis of an ‘Open Goal’ article.)

Dave completely got what was going to happen with Zelda, though: “Speaking of Twilight Princess, it’ll be interesting to see what effect the Revolution will have on its release. It’d make perfect business sense for Nintendo to release it solely for the new system, but could they get away with such an act after constantly reassuring Gamecube owners they’ll be included in on the act?” Nintendo did indeed end up releasing it on the Cube and Wii, with the bizarre left-becoming-right stuff, like Callaghan to Thatcher.

I, meanwhile, thought this: “I think the smart decision would be to have it Rev-only. A few Cube owners might be annoyed, but they’ll all buy Revs anyway…” Both wrong and unnecessary, as it turned out.

Olly, meanwhile, turned Russell Grant here by predicting a completely new IP. One might even say, Wii Sports. This is probably the best prediction of the bunch: “As much as I’d like to see a new Mario, a new Pilotwings, and a new Metroid and the like on Revolution, I think Nintendo really need to make this a new era and totally define the Revolution as a new way to play games. To do this, they need at least one brand-new Nintendo IP. Something they’ve never done before, and something designed specifically with the Revolution in mind, rather than an existing franchise adapted to the console. Sequels are great and all, but they need to define this as a new beginning, and a brand-new IP from launch would go a long way to doing that.”

To wrap up, I said the following, which was only a theory at the time but has proven to be just as true this time around as it was last gen, perhaps even more so: “It’s interesting, you know. The current gen required you to buy every console to really get a well-rounded gaming experience. I’m wondering whether the same kind of outlay will be required yet again next gen. With the differences between the emphasis, features, and exclusive games between the 3 machines, that seems to be the way it’s headed at the moment.”

Reading all this through, we didn’t really do too badly back in May 2006 in predicting which way things would go. But there’s a lot of mileage still left in this console generation. Things could yet be turned completely on their head. That’s one of the things that makes the videogames industry so exciting: the intense competition between the hardware manufacturers, and the ebb and flow of momentum between them. We’re just starting the latest silly season of software releases, and it’ll be very interesting indeed to see where the land lies at the end of it all.