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We like… sound design November 13, 2008

Posted by Mike in Articles, Console, Games, gaming, Miscellaneous.

There’s little doubt that the often overlooked area of sound design has come of age in this console generation, with the current poster child being EA’s fantastic Dead Space.

Turn off the lights and crank up that surround, as immersion is the game’s trump card. Stop dead in the middle of a corridor and take it all in: the creaks of the USG Ishimura’s walls, the low drone of engines and air purifiers, the far-off wails of… something. Take a step forward… just one… then one more… BAM! A discordant orchestral stab blasts the speakers around you, making you jump, as a hideously deformed monstrosity bursts out of a vent in front of you, screaming. You cry out in terror, moving backwards, firing wildly in panic, hoping to kill the thing before it leaps on top of you and rips you to a bloody pulp. One of its arms blows off under your fire… then a leg… finally it falls to the floor, your shots echoing loudly as the creature gurgles its last. You breathe again, your heart rate slowly returning to something approaching normality. But never normal. Not while playing this game.

This is what good sound design can do. In Dead Space it adds a new level to survival horror, working in tandem with the horribly beautiful visuals and lighting to make you feel like you really are on that doomed spaceship. Alone. Knowing that every step could be your last. All the tiny details convincing you that the moment is about to come.


The Fun Factor November 1, 2008

Posted by Chris in Articles, Console, Games.
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The excellent IGN UK review for Disaster: Day of Crisis prompted me to think about how often we gamers – and, indeed, videogame critics – often lose sight of exactly what games should be. We frequently crow about how important immersion and atmosphere is, we bang on about impressive sound design and how Dead Space sounds amazing through our surround setup. We talk about longevity, about replay value, about the importance of multiplayer modes. We wax lyrical about graphics – about screen tearing, jaggies, textures, pop-up, draw distance.

But we often forget to mention the one thing that’s most important about games, and the one real reason we play them – the fun factor.

The reason that IGN review made me think about this was that it seemed surprised at how enjoyable Disaster: Day of Crisis is, explaining away its flaws with an almost apologetic shrug, telling us how its problems aren’t such a big issue because…well, because it’s just really good fun.

Day of Crisis, by any ordinary critical standards, isn’t really an 8/10 game. It’s never a bad game, but really not one of its constituent parts would really stand up to close scrutiny. But that’s the beauty of the game – it never stays in one place for long enough, moving from third-person rescues through lightgun-shooting sections to waggle-based disaster escapes and brief driving interludes. Its script is hysterical at times, seemingly hell-bent on including every possible disaster movie cliche while robbing lines and themes from 24, Armageddon and Independence Day. Its gratuitous – albeit fairly mild – swearing offers plenty of unintentional laughs. Its graphics vary from the reasonably impressive to the sub-PS2, while its voice acting once again offers accidental amusement. But does any of that really matter?

Arriving in the same month as immersive open-world non-linear epics like Fallout 3 and Far Cry 2, Disaster faced a rough ride from some critics, many feeling it compared unfavourably to many of the big games released this silly season. It’s good to see that some people can recognise it for exactly what it is – a big, dumb, loveable game that has no pretensions towards art but merely wants to entertain.

It’s nice to think that there’s still room for games like that in this curious, transitional period for the industry, and hopefully we can all recognise that a game doesn’t need to be anything other than fun to succeed.

LittleBigCockUp October 17, 2008

Posted by Mike in Articles, Console, Games, News.
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An Edge 10, a rapturous Beta reception… what could possibly go wrong? Well, in the case of classic-in-waiting LittleBigPlanet, it’s religion. Careful launch plans have been scuppered, and the game will now not be released on Friday October 24, following a surprising worldwide recall of the title this afternoon.

According to an official Sony statement: “LittleBigPlanet will be remastered in order to remove a track from the game that contained two expressions found in the Qur’an. Whilst shorter expressions from the Qur’an are sometimes used in Nasheeds, we are aware that the mixing of musical instruments with recognisable extracts from the Qur’an is offensive to Muslims. Therefore, we have taken immediate action to rectify this. We will confirm a new launch date shortly.”

While Sony’s swift action here is commendable, strangely it seems that the furore began because of a single user posting on a couple of forums, including here

That a single forum post can inspire such wild panic is not only pretty unprecedented in the videogames industry, but also rather controversial. As a result of Sony’s actions, certain videogame forums are already awash with posts full of unpleasant racist overtones directed towards Muslims.

Hopefully the delay to LittleBigPlanet’s release will be small, but this incident will no doubt cause the industry to further look at its practices regarding its relationship with religion. I personally find it rather ironic that an industry that has always railed against censorship of any kind is now falling over itself to remove a game that may be offensive to a small group of people. I find it unlikely that the vast majority of Muslim players will either notice the said music track in the game, or be offended by it.

I suppose that, where religion is concerned, Sony have to be seen to tread very carefully, as so many other companies across the world in varous fields have in the past few years. The music track in question’s existence on iTunes, however, suggests that who is offended by what, and with what consequence, is far more open to interpretation than Sony’s swift action to withdraw the current version of the game from worldwide markets might make us believe.

And please spare a thought for Media Molecule, whose triumphant development of LittleBigPlanet is in danger of being overshadowed by a truism that may leave many people shifting uncomfortably in their seats in the 21st Century: religion still equals power.

UPDATE – Media Molecule has said the following: “We learnt yesterday that there is a lyric in one of the licensed tracks which some people may find offensive, and which slipped through the usual screening processes. Obviously MM and Sony together took this very seriously. LBP should be enjoyable by all. So within 12 hours of hearing about this issue involving a lyric (in Somalian, I believe!), we prepared an automatic day 0 patch and had a new disk image ready; however a decision was made within Sony that the right thing to do for quality and support of people with no on-line was to replace existing disks. They assure us that they are doing everything in their power to get things straightened out as fast as possible, and will announce dates soon.”

Putting the band back together: Guitar Hero World Tour preview October 17, 2008

Posted by Mike in Articles, Console, Games, Impressions.

I’m onstage in the Camden Electric Ballroom… yes, that Camden Electric Ballroom, preparing to murder Bon Jovi. Only figuratively, of course: he’s a lovely man, and I’d be happy to say that to any policeman. Lights above me are whizzing about. The sound system, I’m reliably informed, has been cranked up to eleven.

Tom from Eurogamer is next to me, a figure of intense concentration, clutching his guitar as if he was born to do this. Andy from IncGamers is sat on a stool staring at the drums below him, memorising the positions of the pads, ready to unleash his best impression of a gorilla doing an impression of Phil Collins. Chris, my fellow PSO scribe, coolly stands with his bass in hand, waiting for a decent analogy. And Leon from the Official Playstation Magazine hovers off stage, tapping his feet, itching to get on. Yes, we’ve got people in reserve. We’re that good.

The song starts with the famous bass line and I wait nervously, hoping that all those years in the junior school choir will finally come to fruition. Soon, I’m off and running: “Tommy used to work on the do-o-ocks…” A verse, then the lead-in to the chorus, and finally I’m there with the money shot: “Whoaaaaah, we’re halfway there. WHOAH-OH… LIVIN’ ON A PRAY-ER!” The crowd goes wild. This is, quite possibly, the most ridiculously awesome gaming experience ever.

Of course, we didn’t have an adoring audience (unless you count the lovely PR folk). We didn’t have proper instruments, either, just a couple of becoming-less-like-Fisher-Price-every-year guitars, an electronic drum kit, and a microphone. But for those four minutes, and many more over the course of the day, we felt like rock stars anyway. This is the power of music. This is the power of a mid-life crisis.

Guitar Hero: World Tour is Activision’s answer to Rock Band (though we’re careful to call EA’s series “The Scottish Play” within earshot of the PR people whenever possible), and the need for comparisons is higher than ever. Both games feature the same combination of instruments. Both games offer a large tracklist of hits, as well as ongoing downloadable content. So what’s going to separate them? GHWT has a couple of big things going for it in that regard: the quality of its instruments, and the music studio mode.

The instruments are a long way ahead of the original Rock Band’s. The drums are extremely sturdy, velocity sensitive with more bouncebackability than Iain Dowie could ever dream of, and feature a pedal that doesn’t snap in two if you breathe on it. From a hundred yards away. With chronic asthma. Even Eurogamer Tom’s patented “stamping test” didn’t manage to break the thing. The drums are made up of three pads, with two cymbal pads above them. For veterans of The Scottish Play, it takes a track or two to adjust to the new layout, but going back to “another” drum kit soon becomes unthinkable. The GHWT one just feels a lot nicer.

The guitar, meanwhile, has the familiar green-red-blue-yellow-orange button combination, but sports a redesigned neck, a nicer finish, and a longer whammy bar, as well as a less clicky strum bar, and even a button to activate Star Power for those people who get distracted from the song every time they tilt the neck up. The drums and guitars are wireless, with the microphone being a standard wired USB jobbie. So far, so good, then. Red Octane’s peripheral vision becomes increasingly impressive with each passing year.

The music studio was demonstrated to us briefly, but I didn’t get enough of a look at it to pass any real judgement yet. However, from what I did see, it’s impressively deep. Profound, huh? (More incisive news on this potentially fantastic USP for the game soon, once I’ve had the time to fully delve into my review copy.) A streamlined profiles system makes it much easier to start up a full band game than Rock Band (although we occasionally still had some trouble, probably due to videogames journo ineptitude rather than the game itself), and so for Quickplay purposes, GHWT proves to be far less hassle. Again, there will be more on the proper career modes in the review.

On, then, to what everyone wants to know about regarding the gameplay: the note charts. These deceptively important elements – regarded by many as the main weakness of Guitar Hero III’s gameplay compared to Rock Band’s – are much improved over last year’s version. There are no longer strange note progressions on the guitar parts, and in my time playing tracks on the Hard difficulty level, I only spotted an isolated few of the hated three-note chords. From what I understand, the boss battles from GHIII are out. Hallelujah! (Jeff Buckley.) The drum tracks are well laid out too, and the singing recognition is forgiving enough not to humiliate those who struggle to carry a tune.

The only potential Ringo in The Beatles is that the tracklisting isn’t as mainstream as Rock Band 2’s. This isn’t a problem for the guitar parts – after all, coming across a song you don’t know, and learning to absolutely love the shit out of its riffs, is a big part of the Guitar Hero experience – but it remains to be seen how not knowing many of the songs will affect full band potential when it comes to vocals. We’ll see. There are also questions about how the downloadable content will compare to Rock Band’s, given different strategies about albums, three track downloads, and single track releases.

But those potential niggles aside, which I’ll be able to fully address after I’ve sunk many more hours into the game, GHWT looks like a winner. The full band play is a real match for that of its rival, with better instruments enhancing the experience, and when you consider the music studio mode and the potential for amazing stuff coming out of the community, it’s clear that developer Neversoft has made a giant leap forward in its second year in the saddle. Whether it’s enough to beat Rock Band 2 is still unclear, but it’s certainly going to be a closer and more interesting scrap than Noel vs audience guy.

Huge thanks to Simon and Anna from Barrington Harvey for setting the day up for us, and for their overly kind words about my guitar + vocals rendition of “Shiver”.

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.

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.

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.

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

Posted by Mike in Articles, Console, Games.

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.

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.