Saturday, December 19, 2009


I can't believe it took me this long to work it out, but I've finally cracked the mystery of why ArmA 2's terrain, while being nearly photorealistic, feels unnatural.

There's no dead ground.

I'm not talking about huge valleys or sprawling basins, because as we all know, there's no shortage of those. No, what I'm talking about is the smaller-scale stuff - the stuff yours truly would seek refuge in with his mates in a contact. Drainage canals, creekbeds, culverts along the sides of the road, berms, craters, fissures, erosion channels... the list goes on. Nowhere in the entire game world - and now I think about it, nowhere in that of the first game, either - do I recall seeing any of these. Considering that ArmA 2 is regarded a sim rather than a shooter, and also considering the heavy emphasis on infantry combat, wouldn't you think that the infanteer's favourite forms of cover would be included from the outset?

I'd gladly sacrifice a few forests, truck-sized boulders, and locked buildings to see these included in ArmA 2. Don't even start me on the gates and doors, though.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


Over the past few days, I've been gaming hard. I'm leaving very shortly to go to basic training, where I will remain for four weeks (or so I hope); few things bother me more than to leave a story unfinished, so I was intent on completing Borderlands before my departure.

At first, I wasn't sure what to think. The effort put into the game's intro sequence alone was pretty impressive; however once I embarked upon my journey, it began to feel a lot like I imagine Fallout 3 would have if Bethesda had left out a lot of the extraneous bullshit. Don't get me wrong, I like the sheer amount of features in that game; VATS makes up for the awful manual aiming (although I would rather they fixed that instead), and I wasted no time in setting about rescuing every teddy I could find from the horrors of the Capital Wasteland. The ability to just mess about doing things like this was kind of entertaining, but at the same time it diverted me away from the main story time and time again; I'd take on one side mission and end up trying to complete ten all at once. While Borderlands presented me with a lot of the same issues - particularly the one where I would have a small nervous breakdown trying to work out which areas to explore, for fear of forgetting to look somewhere else - it did it a lot less often and the side quests were generally fairly short, which was nice.

The game started out at a rather leisurely pace; in fact, it remained that way for most of its duration, again echoing the things about Fallout 3 which irritated me. Forgive me for comparing the two almost exclusively, but it's for reasons of simplicity, not a belief that Borderlands is any attempt at a copy of that game. Fallout 3 is the most recent game I've played which I can really compare Borderlands to at all. To get back on track, the reasons for this were twofold: slow-paced missions, or plenty of missions. As the game progressed, the number of quests available skyrocketed and it took me about two days to get through the New Haven phase of the game alone. That said, I was enjoying myself. While a lot of the side objectives tended to repeat themselves - searching for objects scattered either locally or over an entire map segment being the worst offenders, followed by elimination challenges - they usually coincided fairly nicely with my more important tasks or even each other, allowing me to wrap up anything from two to six all at once. I'm not entirely sure how, but Gearbox have somehow managed to stop this from boring me to death, like it would in most games. Gearbox have also managed to reference a variety of absolutely brilliant movies without making things seem cheesy, and I got a good laugh out of spotting these. At times things became a little tedious, but never enough for me to quit the game for days, weeks or months on end like I generally do; I took breaks every few hours, but then I was right back into the game.

I think that the sheer uniqueness of the game's art style played a large part in appealing to me. It's something I haven't seen for a long time, and it's always nice when a dev decides to fly completely in the face of the current trends, even when there's no real guarantee that the gamble will pay off. Originally, Borderlands subscribed to the same gritty over-realistic, Hollywood-esque style that many recent titles have used; although it still featured far more colour than most of those games, there wasn't much else to distinguish it visually. In changing to a completely unrealistic, almost cartoony art style, Gearbox not only managed to make it stand out from the crowd, but they also proved that you don't have to follow everyone else's lead to produce a popular game. Even in the absence of the usual long cinematic sequences or rooted-to-the-spot exposition dialogues, I found it relatively easy to lose myself in the world of Pandora; I developed an almost parental over-protectiveness of Claptraps, and took great glee in mowing down any who I found near a hurt one. I developed something of a 'feel' for the characters' personalities, usually spotting a betrayal or a helping gesture before it came. Most importantly, I felt the kind of drive to reach the Vault while keeping Lilith as safe as possible that I needed to finish the game (despite there being no real penalty for dying). Even though no real backstory was provided for the characters ingame and scant details were all I had seen elsewhere, it was fairly easy to work out what made Lilith (who is an absolute force to be reckoned with in good hands) tick. That said, I would've liked the chance to actually learn more about each character at some point in the game; like L4D, vague details and subjective guesswork are all that are available.

Returning to the gameplay itself, once again, the Fallout 3 comparison rears its ugly, desolate head. Both games featured a slow lead-up to a tipping point after which no amount of willing the game to slow down would help. That's it, really; the story just hit its climax and ran away wildly, like a kid tyre-rolling down a hill. In the case of Fallout 3, I actually went back and loaded an earlier save before buggering off and setting out to explore the remaining two-thirds of the game world, abandoning the final quest as it neared its close. I genuinely hadn't expected things to take off so fast, and as I'd finished the game, I knew how I would end it. To this day, Fallout 3 appears confused as to whether I've finished the main quest or not, evidenced by the mixed news updates on GNR. This is essentially the same problem I had with Borderlands; I had a few side quests I was partway through, and whole areas of the game world I had only given a cursory glance to. In particular, the latter areas of the game were all but unexplored to me, as I'd been so single-mindedly intent on reaching the Vault. I'm trying to keep this relatively spoiler-free, so I won't go into specifics; however, Thor was the tipping point, and from there on I didn't stop for hell nor high water. I did stop for hurt Claptraps, but I digress.

Once the inevitable had happened, and I had finished the game - the ending of which, by the way, felt like a bit of a slap in the face - I sat and watched the credits roll, and began the inevitable comedown that follows a long binge on a game which has managed to really draw me in. You can imagine my surprise, then, when the credits stopped rolling and I found myself standing alone in the snow, a single objective marked on my HUD.

Borderlands isn't quite done with me yet, and in a way, I'm kind of glad. While the actual main story was incredibly short and wonkily paced, much like Fallout 3's, I wasn't ready to just leave Pandora, or Lilith, to gather proverbial dust. In conclusion - because I have to end this barely-coherent mess of thoughts somewhere - Borderlands is something like a donut to me: thoroughly enjoyable, but leaving you wanting more. Gearbox is already working on DLC which will add new areas, enemies, and quests, but in this gamer's mind, a more filled-out main story would be worth more than all the DLC in the world. Borderlands will probably suffer somewhat upon my return as I'll no doubt binge on MW2 and L4D2, but it can certainly rest assured that I won't be able to leave it alone for any longer than necessary.

Like a hurt Claptrap, really.

Edit - and this does contain something of a spoiler - I should probably make one final note, which is that my disappointment with regards to the ending was due to the speed at which it arrived, not what it entailed. A lot of people seem upset that they couldn't do what they expected to do; well, you can't always get what you want. If anything, it's nice to see a game which leaves the player feeling well and truly stitched up and wondering if anything they'd experienced was what it seemed to be. Nearly every game I've ever played ended well for the player; this is a welcome change.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Brown Brown Brown (Red Blue Green)

Over the past few days, I've been playing two games in particular: Mirror's Edge and Borderlands. Here, though, we have two very different ways of avoiding the 'brown problem'.

Let's start with the former. Mirror's Edge makes use of white like most games make use of brown. The buildings, streets, drainage canals, walkways, AC units... virtually everything in the city is pure, eye-burningly stark white, right down to the cardboard boxes and benches and other detritus that you encounter during the course of the game. Obviously, this is as much a device to tell the player they're in a sterile, utopian society as it is a design choice; accents of orange, green, blue, pink, and various other vivid colours are used to draw the player's attention to where they're meant to go, or to detail an area. In places, even the lighting and shade are coloured. This is the all-out, dead-opposite approach to what we're becoming used to, as brown usually represents something dirty or old.

Perhaps the credit for the more interesting of the two approaches, though, goes to Borderlands. While the game itself is largely brown by necessity (Pandora, of course, being one giant wasteland), the player's weapons - the things they will see every second they are playing the game, in the bottom right corner of their screen - are so vividly coloured they put even the Halo series to shame. Kill a lot of enemies in one area, and you will find a veritable rainbow of weapons lying on the dusty ground. The fact that Gearbox found a way to add some colour to a game which takes place on a dustbowl planet is impressive; the fact that they did so without hurting the atmosphere is even more so. If only more developers would try to inject some variety into the sea of brown... as even deserts have colour.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

L4D2, and Atkinson and the OFLC; round two.

I played the Left 4 Dead 2 demo for the first time today. I then went on to play it several more times, record a machete run and upload it to Youtube for shits and giggles, and advise numerous frustrated Australian gamers of the wonderful loopholes of Steam's gift system. I enjoyed it thoroughly, although it certainly does have a different 'feel' to the first game. Obvious differences in characters, environments, infected, and weapons nonwithstanding, I found L4D2 to be more confusing and cluttered; while I commend the effort they've put into the game, perhaps Valve have given us too much choice. Although it could be due to my lack of experience with the new game and my intimate knowledge of the original, it seems that the level design in the former has moved away from the simple (yet effective) formula that made L4D so fun to play. There were plenty of places you could get slowed down or even stopped, but most of the time that bogging down could be attributed to the set-pieces or horde intervention. The map itself presented you with a clear and relatively uncluttered path, while still convincingly portraying the intended environment.

In L4D2, I found myself getting hung up on walls or disoriented a lot. Sometimes this is good as it can add tension to the game, but in this case it was more annoying than anything else. From what little the demo shows, it seems that Valve has moved away from the original game's level design theory somewhat, following the more recent example, Crash Course. Compared to the retail campaigns, Crash Course was a lot more open and a lot less simple to navigate; it offered wide alleys, courtyards, and warehouse floors, as well as a number of shortcuts and backtracks. The impact on gameplay was immediately apparent. Teams used to the constricted but intuitive layout of the first four campaigns found themselves being drawn apart by the wide expanses and shortcuts; players were running far ahead of the rest of their team, sometimes without even realising it. This new environment certainly provided an interesting new set of problems which players needed to adapt to, but it was severely mismatched from the rest of the game. Instead of narrow, linear hallways dominating each campaign with some open (yet still ultimately linear) areas here and there, players were faced with the polar opposite.

This brings me to L4D2. From the first two segments of The Parish, it seems Valve have opted for medium-sized spaces this time... except they're filled with clutter. Unlike the original levels, which typically had a sort of 'clutter-free zone' through the most likely route to be used, The Parish breaks up this zone with hedges, columns, armco rails, fences, and all manners of detritus. The result is a game which feels as constricted as the original - if not more so - yet is more liberal with open space. I'm honestly not sure what to think of this yet, other than it being interesting that Valve have decided to change even the most basic of the game's rules. Similarly, the vast array of weapons, the new ammunition types, the new special infected, and the use of movement panic areas rather than 'hold until relieved' panic areas (the CEDA quarantine point versus the drain bridge or construction yard) have complicated what was an incredibly simple (gameplay-wise) game. L4D's simplicity is one of the things I liked most; I could jump straight in and have a few hours of fun, but not especially taxing, gameplay with friends. So far, L4D2 seems like an information overload - but whether this means it'll be less enjoyable as a casual game but more so as a serious one remains to be seen. I'll reserve final judgement for when I finally get to play the full game in mid-December, as I won't be around for the release.

With the game itself out of the way, the obvious major issue surrounding the demo's release is just how badly censored the Australian version is. Anyone who keeps track of the OFLC's decisions will know just how inconsistent they are, but I think I can safely say that a new low has been reached. Thankfully, I have the US version; however, a lot of fellow Australian gamers pre-ordered without realising what was coming, and are now incredibly annoyed. I don't blame them. The Australian version lacks any kind of dismemberment, blood sprays, dead bodies (they fade instantly, before they even hit the ground), and even the intro movie has been censored. Whenever someone fires, the camera pans up to their face. When Coach frees Ellis from the Smoker's tongue in the elevator with a chainsaw, it doesn't show the effect on the common infected in the way. If I'd been lumped with such a watered-down version of the game, I'd be pretty mad, too. As if that's not enough of an insult to the gaming community, the game still carries the MA15+ rating, which is the highest available for games in this country (R18+ applies to movies, but not games, thanks to Michael Atkinson's stubborn ignorance and holier-than-thou disregard for gamers). Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway, Left 4 Dead, Fallout 3, the recently-approved and released Borderlands, and countless other games were not banned or censored with regards to violence by the OFLC, despite all featuring blood, dismemberment, and in some cases extremely violent cinematic sequences. In fact, the only one of those games named which the OFLC disputed at all was Fallout 3, and that was due to the game using the name 'morphine' for what is known in our version as a 'stim pack'.

Once again, an entire nation's gaming community has been colossally flipped-off by a ratings board which panders to the demands of irresponsible or overprotective parents and bad scientists. According to the kinds of people who force these insane decisions through, the responsibility for raising their children lies squarely on the shoulders of the community, the government, the games industry - anyone but themselves. It seems they have better things to do than educate their children properly about violence, much less trust their children not to copy what they see in movies, read in books, or do in games. Of course, games are the rock and roll of the early 21st Century; they have some kind of evil hold over the adolescent mind, while books, movies, and music do not. Ironically more people seem inspired to commit violence due to their parents' ridiculous, ignorant views than they are due to games.

Naturally, anyone who argues against violent games will have stopped reading this article long ago, since I dared to disagree with their unsupported opinions. Anyone can claim games cause real-world violence, and anyone can construct a study which is an absolute affront to proper experimental methods to prove their statement true. The fact of the matter is that every person thinks differently. Some (especially twins) think almost exactly alike, but the word 'almost' isn't there for no reason; many people are polar opposites. Each person will have their own reaction to violent media, be it games, movies, or books. Give me an obscenely violent game, and I'll probably laugh hysterically at just how many pieces I can hack someone's body into. Show me a photograph of an actual, mutilated human being, and I might crack a joke to try and keep myself from thinking about it on any deep level (probably a valuable asset in my part-time line of work). Give me a machete and tell me to hack somebody - stranger, family, worst enemy - to pieces with it for any reason short of defence of self or loved ones, and I'll be escorting you to the nearest mental hospital. The way any anti-gaming campaigner will take great pleasure in listing off every death threat sent to them seems extremely ironic, considering that in a similar situation, their reactions probably wouldn't be much different. Does anyone know what Michael Atkinson's favourite past-time is? If you do, maybe you should persuade a politician in an appropriate position to heavily restrict it or even ban it outright, then get on the telly and make a mockery of him for all the paranoid parents and retirees watching Today Tonight. Let's see just how different you are from us, Mr. Atkinson, when the playing field is actually equal.

See, no matter how depraved, desensitised, and hateful the media portray us as being, or the out-of-touch, ignorant parents, politicians, and bureaucrats alike want us to be, that's just not true. Looking back, it's plain to see that society has chosen something new, something whose following is relatively harmless, and branded it that generation's great evil. Exposed skin, rock and roll... unfortunately for us gamers, we're the fall guys for now. It's up to us to try and prove the ignorant wrong at every turn, but until we can do so on such a level that even they can't ignore or deny, it looks like we'll just have to wait until we're the out-of-touch, overly conservative desk jockeys who make the rules. I can only hope we don't end up being as foolish as those before us.

So get writing to the OFLC (sensibly). Meet up with your friends, your local fellow gamers. If your parents are as open-minded as mine, then get them in on it, too. Organise petitions, organise massed complaints, organise protests, strikes, whatever you like - just do something. Nobody ever got what was right by sitting around picking their noses all day.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Boycotts, forum raids, and people getting really mad in general

It seems that with its recent decisions regarding Modern Warfare 2's multiplayer arrangements, Infinity Ward has caused a stir to rival that of Valve's first announcement that there would be a new Left 4 Dead game, purchased separately from the original.

Of course, there will always be those who suffer uncontainable kneejerk reactions to even the slightest change to their favourite series. However, the L4D2 boycott, the Healers Against Halos episode, and now the spreading idea of a MW2 boycott have all flared up within such a short timespan that it's nigh impossible to speak to a fellow gamer without them suspiciously questioning your stance with regards to Valve and Infinity Ward. Naturally, being blessed with a short temper and irrepressible need to try and rationalise everything that happens around me, I've wasted no time telling my friends (any anyone else who will listen) my thoughts. I'll tell you, too, and I hope you do take note - rather than argue for any given party, I speak for myself.

I've always bought story-driven games for the story first, and the multiplayer (usually a very distant) second - with the obvious exception of those games intended primarily for online play, such as L4D. In my book, the fact IW are adding new features to the franchise to keep it interesting after so many years and so many games more than offsets the removal of superfluous features. Matchmaking doesn't really bother me, and nor does it instill horrific images of the PC being pushed aside by the console in my mind; it by no means prevents me playing with friends, and it saves me trawling through the myriad of servers looking for one which is actually worth playing on. There are concerns that it will affect competitive play, but I've never been one for that; I have a general distrust and plain dislike for competitive gamers born of many leaving me with distinctly bad impressions. In any case, matchmaking-based games have often had better competitive features, and this has been the case for years. Why MW2 would be any different is beyond me.

Yet despite all this, self-professed IW worshippers are stopping short of no extreme to tell the world just how wrong this is. Because a few relatively pointless online features were docked (how many of you actually browse for servers in L4D? I sure don't), they're cancelling their pre-orders, geting angsty over how much they spent on their Modern Warfare 2 computer, and generally making a mess of IW's forums. This kind of behaviour might be marginally more understandable if the game was primarily intended for multiplayer, but it wasn't; none of the 'true' Call of Duty games were, either, nor Halo for that matter. Initially, multiplayer was simply something added on so you could take the gameplay style and content you enjoy online. It seems that these days, however, it's the story which takes the back seat.

If there's one positive outcome of this absolute first-order shitstorm, though, it's that I'll have a lot less whiners to deal with when I do decide to hit the online mode - provided, that is, that they don't make a policy backflip and become just as rabid for the game upon release as they were a few short weeks ago.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Broken Records

One thing which has troubled me for a while is the fact that the vast majority of developers focus on one of two time periods when creating an FPS: WWII, or the modern era. The Call of Duty series is a shining example of this. I must cut Infinity Ward, who I recognise as the only legitimate developer of the series, some slack here; publisher Activision wanted more of the same following the second installment, and when those crazy, crazy IW devs decided they'd had enough, Treyarch was ready to step up to the plate with yet another WWII shooter, and then another following the extremely successful Modern Warfare from IW. It seems that even Infinity Ward itself can't get far enough away from the legacy of the Treyarch releases, dropping the Call of Duty title from Modern Warfare 2.

As good as it's looking, though, I can't help but feel a pang of disappointment. They finally got away from WWII... and caught up with every other dev, portraying modern warfare instead. While I must give them serious points for making the Generic Middle-Eastern Nation™ merely a sideshow rather than the chief bad guy, it's still just a modern war being fought with modern weapons by modern soldiers in various locations around the world. Don't get me wrong, I'll be all over MW2 when it goes up for pre-order, but I just feel let down that once again, a whole array of other conflicts have been passed over.

My pet hope is that one day, somebody will make a game set during the Falklands War. It was an exceptionally hard fight in an extremely inhospitable environment; elite British troops of the Royal Marines and the Paras were pitted against a vastly larger force of Argentine conscripts, as well as a small contingent of Argentine Special Forces. An Argentine Exocet hit and sank the Atlantic Conveyer, sending the bulk of the British force's transport to the bottom of the South Atlantic; the soldiers were forced to march over rock-strewn peat bogs and dense scrub, up steep mountains and through heavy fire by day and by night. As can be expected from the South Atlantic, the weather was absolutely vile at best, and as a result, losses on both sides were more or less equal (not counting the 300-odd Argentine sailors lost when HMS Conqueror torpedoed the General Belgrano). The terrain and the distances involved meant that both sides' soldiers had very little in the name of support. It would be hard to even imagine up a harder conflict.

So with that in mind, this is my challenge to any current or hopeful future developers who may be reading:

Give us something we haven't had hundreds of iterations of already. Give us something interesting. Give us something that many people either haven't heard of, or are at risk of forgetting.

Give us a Falklands title.

Royal Marines putting their boots to good use, due to a chronic lack of helicopters

Paras pose for a victory snap after the battle of Goose Green


Sunday, September 27, 2009

Too Many Chiefs

One of the biggest problems for any developer is trying to predict or influence the way a team game will play out, as every player will have their own ideas as to which is the best course of action and just how much they should listen to other players' advice or requests. Similarly, a lack of decent teamwork can be immensely frustrating and can cause even the most (individually) skilled team to lose badly to inexperienced players. The amount of team play present in a game depends largely on its dominant demographic; games aimed at special interest groups or older gamers (mostly simulators, but also some of the more challenging shooters like Insurgency and Red Orchestra) are often quite full of team players. Conversely, mainstream games which offer little to no incentive to coordinate efforts (Counter-Strike, Call of Duty) don't seem far removed from free-for-all - the only difference being that you can't (or shouldn't) attack your own team. Each player goes off and does their own thing, and very rarely will they band together, even in small groups.

In my three years of playing Red Orchestra, I've seen the effects that poor teamwork can have. I've also seen some games where it seemed the players were all operating under the control of some greater entity, utilising them all with perfect efficiency and sublime results. One of my favourite gaming moments was during the final twenty minutes of a round on Kriegstadt, where we (the Axis) had to hold the final control point with our backs to the wall, so to speak. There was nowhere to fall back to, only one of our PaK-43 guns would actually fire, and within minutes there were several tanks and scores of infantry advancing across the Moltke Brigde, at the near end of which lay the final objective. The bridge formed a natural bottleneck and was extremely hazardous to cross, with too many obstacles for armoured vehicles but too little cover for infantry. At our end, it was overlooked by the Ministy of the Interior, a wedge-shaped, three-storey building; at the opposite end and some 200 yards distant, the Soviets held a long row of multi-storey apartments and hotels. A large open area of road divided these from a park, far on our right. Assorted tanks and guns were pushing up the main street towards the bridge, stopping short enough to avoid any adventurous Germans with Panzerfausts or satchel charges. Our PaK knocked a few out, but they kept coming; before too long, it was destroyed itself. With every fresh wave of reinforcements, ten, twenty or thirty Russians at a time would run from the apartments and descend upon the bridge, with their remaining comrades firing upon us from the windows and their tanks putting round after round of high explosives through our own.

For twenty minutes, we had to endure this. There was little we could do about the tanks except duck when their shells began to find their mark. Every machine-gunner we had was firing at the hordes of enemy footsoldiers, hacking them down two or three at a time. The roar of some ten MG42s was near-deafening (not least because I had the volume cranked all the way up). Without any communication at all, it seemed every man knew what to do. When an MG42 fell silent, a nearby soldier would run ammunition to it. When one was silenced, the nearest rifleman would immediately throw his rifle down and snatch up the machine gun, continuing the deadly streams of fire which rained down upon the advancing enemy. Nobody remained idle and every single player on the team picked a target, fired, and moved on to the next target as rapidly as they could.

The Soviet team never stood a chance. Despite pushing us back at a blistering pace at first, they were halted dead in their tracks once we were forced to make a last stand from a strong position. Not one of them set foot beyond the middle of the bridge (flying limbs excepted). Not one person on our team had a score below 50 points and most of us were in the hundreds. For that last twenty minutes, I really felt the team spirit. It was like I was on autopilot, doing everything that was required of me without even thinking. That seemingly telepathic link, the way some players just 'click' and absolutely destroy all and sundry that gets in their way, is my favourite thing about online gaming.

Of course, this doesn't happen all the time. In fact - even in games like RO - it's not really the norm, either. Several games have taken steps to try and increase the frequency of this happening; for one, the aforementioned displays only total score achieved through kills and objectives completed, not kills, deaths, or any other information usually associated with FPS scoring. Some games offer minor or even major advantages to players who stay close to their team, or who make a habit of resupplying, healing, or protecting others. Even the achievement systems incorporated into many newer games are sometimes used as a subtle way of encouraging players to coordinate. Sometimes, all that's needed to turn a motley group of individuals into a proper, organised team is a few simple instructions delivered forcefully - but not rudely or aggressively - by a natural leader. Sometimes, teams are just beyond help.

So please, next time you play a team-oriented gametype - be it in ArmA, Call of Duty, or even Counter-Strike - think just how much more you could achieve with a little cooperation. Even if you lose, you may just gain something a little more special than a single victory.

Player 2: Now with more bad grammar!

Well, I figured I'd continue this now that I finished what I was doing today and have time to write again. In my first post I rambled a bit about games that focus more on storytelling than mowing down hordes of enemies as well as providing a strong atmosphere for the player to experience. I think for a truly original and successful game to come out, it would actually take a collaboration of companies rather than one company. You look at companies like Epic Games (Unreal & Gears of War) who can provide heavily on the action but sometimes have a little bit of trouble on making a truly amazing story that immerses you. Then you look at companies like Black Isle Studios (Fallout & Planescape: Torment) who deliver detailed stories that immerse you in the atmosphere but some of the action aspects are little lacking. Apples to Oranges? Sure, but the fact still remains that you have companies who can do one thing good and companies that can do another thing good.

My ideal game is probably what most everyone wants; a game that has amazing atmosphere and story with breathtaking environments and innovative game mechanics that are a boon rather than a bogdown like most "innovative" elements tend to be. The graphics don't need to be spectacular, but they should provide enough detail to paint the picture properly. Music should be fitting without being quaint or on the other end of the spectrum; bombastic. The music needs to fit the situation and preferably be a very ambient thing so that you know it's there but not having it drowning out the world around you. Ross has already made a post regarding movement and such so I find my own commentary on it somewhat redundant.

Annnnnnd- my train of thought just derailed so I'll post again later when it rerails itself...

Realism: Atmosphere vs. Gameplay

This question was brought up on the Tripwire Interactive forums with regards to Red Orchestra: Ostfront and the upcoming Heroes of Stalingrad; a thread requesting a field of view decrease while using ironsights evolved into heated debate, with both sides bringing up interesting points. For the most part, the dispute was more concerned with the fact that either atmospheric or gameplay realism could be achieved, but not both at once - it was taken as agreed from early on that decreasing the player's field of view to create a zooming effect was the closest possible method of replicating real-life perceptions of object scale when aiming through ironsights.

When you're faced with two mutually exclusive options like this, what do you do? Red Orchestra refrained from introducing sight zoom, turning even relatively short-ranged engagements into a nightmarish game of 'pixel-hunting'. Beyond a hundred yards, even the largest monitors at the highest resolutions would fail to effectively tell the player what they were aiming at, and whether it was likely to shoot back. Some would argue that visually, this was more realistic or immersive (personally I barely notice the change in games which use it sensibly), but there is little doubt that it made long-range shooting or even target identification hellishly difficult, especially in a game where one stray bullet or random artillery shell could mean a five-minute walk back to the front, sometimes far more. With this taken into consideration, I would be far more inclined to side with the gameplay camp. But what if it was something drastic, something which is very noticeable? What do you do when you want to make an immersive and realistic game, but you have to choose between the two?

Naturally, the answer would differ from game to game, with the end goal being a precarious balancing act. If the game's a simulator (ArmA), obviously realism is the concern. If it's a shooter, though, I would say that atmosphere would usually be the primary concern. If a game feels right, then it will be rewarding even if some aspects are not entirely realistic. Despite the necessity of going pixel-hunting in Red Orchestra, it remains one of my favourite games because it certainly does feel right to me. At the end of the day, that's what brings me back.

Thanks to Matty Dienhoff for taking this matter up with me earlier today, and linking me to the relevant thread.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Player 2 has joined the game.

Hello there, gentlemen (and ladies who may or may not read this.)

Ross allowed me to bless this fine blog of his with my own thoughts since we tend to agree and share similar thoughts on many matters we discuss (while making fun of each other no less.) We've known each other since an encounter on a community that will remain unnamed since I'm sure Ross would blow an anus out if I mentioned it in his sanctuary of thoughts. Anyways, I'm someone who thinks in an esoteric manner so expect my posts to digress off the main topic at times to detail something else that may or may not be relevant. JUST BEAR WITH IT, it's okay, you'll get used to it. There, with that out of the way let's talk games, more importantly: Shooting or Storytelling?

Recently I played a couple modifications for Half-Life 2 (Source Engine) called Dear Esther and Korsakovia. Both were very interesting in the sense that combat or straight forward objectives were not the emphasis of the games content but rather exploration and storytelling. The former takes place on a deserted island with a man narrating various aspects as you explored the areas, leaving a somewhat dynamic and not-so-linear gameplay aspect to it. The latter takes place in a psychiatric ward as you experience it through an insane man's perspective, the environment disturbing and demented by his own mind's perception of it. Korsakovia has a little bit of combat but it's not an intense focus on it, more an afterthought or simple roadblock you need to get over to continune in the developing story. Dear Esther has no combat what so ever and focuses more on you exploring the environment you've been placed. The music scores for both are very fitting and well done as well as the voice acting and I urge anyone who hasn't played them yet to go look them up, simply search for them at

Now before I get too far and lose my train of thought here, these games sparked a lot of thoughts in my mind. I've found a lot of games nowadays to be rather shallow or just simply undeveloped enough in their stories regardless of how expansive they are. Either being simple rehashes of past stories, a developer's take on another story or idea, nothing that truly screams of originality. The gaming industry is starting to develop a syndrome similar to Hollywood: Remakes and Spin-Offs. Halo is a prominent series so we'll use that as an example, it was a trilogy. The story started in the first game, built up over the second, and reached its conclusion in the third. This is all fine and dandy, but what happens afterwards? Halo Wars and Halo:ODST, we've seen the trailers perhaps even played the game, but what are they? Spin-offs of the original idea. Say what you want about the Halo series, that you love it or think it's overrated, but my point still stands.

I have no problem with making follow-ups or sequels to a game, sometimes you need to because you couldn't fit everything into the first game, but in most cases it's unwarranted and sequels tend to be the death of a game. This isn't always the case, games like Half-Life got better with their sequels, but largely because they were not a full continuation of the last game but rather an advancement on the plot, the general timeline having advanced approximately 20 years since the events of Half-Life 1 and the events of Half-Life 2. Half-Life 1 and Half-Life 2 have the same general background; theoretical physicist turned commando Gordon Freeman has to fight off the nasty aliens, but the reasons vary between the two slightly. The former being the start of it, the second being a sort of aftermath that you're brought out of stasis to alter. You go from claustrophic hallways of some secret government laboratory to this dystopian city and the areas surrounding it. Half-Life is still one of the best games on the market nowadays for its story and gameplay that relies on problem solving and combat rather than just cutting through hordes of scripted AI enemies.

I've ventured out onto a tangent again, as I stated my trains of thought are esoteric so I'll swing this back around.

My original thought was, what's more important in a game? Storytelling or Action? The answer to me is both are very important, the story elaborates on your character's motivation for their actions while the action gives players something to do instead of playing an interactive DVD movie. The problem is nowadays, the stories tend to be subpar and just enough to rationalize your character's homicidal rampage and focus more on creating cool tricks and features to make it easier (or harder in some cases) to get through your goal of badguy genocide. RPGs tend to have better stories but the combat engines always suffer in most cases due to clunkiness or desire to make it interesting but only if you have X amount of points in skill Y to get result Z. Shooter's tend to have the most exciting combat but the stories are typically shallow and just enough to make it seem less like MAIM! KILL! BURN! Some companies get close to hitting this virtual nirvana by creating a story I can actually find myself getting into while giving me enough interesting bits to play around with to suit a certain style of play I find enjoyable with the situation. I- well, I'll continue in another post since something just came up and Ross doesn't want me making too huge a wall of text and scare you guys off (what a weenie.)

Team Effort

My good mate Gurne is now able to publish articles here too; just a heads-up.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Get with the times, Atkinson!

Having played violent games since I was 14, I don't see why games should be prevented from reaching sale in this country on the flawed assumption that violent games will automatically inspire violent behaviour. There is no conclusive evidence to back this view; it is highly disputed, and with good reason. With proper parenting and education, as well as a lack of psychological problems, I don't believe games inspire violence at all - I've thrown about two punches in my entire life, and only ever after being attacked myself. I'm 19 years old, and an Army Reservist; apparently I'm mature enough to handle a rifle, grenades, claymores, and a whole array of other weapons, but not a game?

Virtually the only reason L4D2 has been refused classification (a nice little euphemism for 'banned') in Australia is SA Attorney-General Michael Atkinson, who seems totally opposed to even considering an R18+ rating for games. Movies, sure; we've had it for a long time. When it comes to games though? MA15+ is the highest it goes. We lack an equivalent not only to the ESRB's AO rating, but also to its M17+ rating. The OFLC, while extremely inconsistent, can't really be blamed when they're forced to ban anything that would be deemed unsuitable for a 15-year-old. While the introduction of the R18+ rating for games has been on the table for quite some time, without Atkinson's go-ahead and the resultant unanimous decision, we won't be getting it.

Personally, I'd like to know why he thinks games are any less deserving of an R18+ rating. Perhaps he thinks those evil gamers will go on killing sprees once they're finished with their murder simulators, no matter whether they're nine or ninety? I recall catching the last few minutes of a television programme covering the issue once as I went channel-surfing; he was up on a soapbox smugly proclaiming just how many threatening letters he'd received, and how they proved him right. I suppose that if he tuned in to the news once in a while and heard about the various attacks by extremists around the world, he'd also come to the conclusion that the Islamic faith turns people into killers? Doesn't seem much of a leap, does it? Simply throwing every gamer into the same basket is little more than discrimination, yet he's allowed to get away with it. If he had arrived at the aforementioned conclusion instead, he'd be out of a job and publicly disgraced. Why, then, is it perfectly alright to bash gamers and deny them equal rights to movie connoisseurs? Why are gamers the only group against which outlandish generalisations are perfectly acceptable?

Of course, the fact that the media will immediately call out an actual killer for playing some GTA or Halo at some point in their lives - and then make it out to be the cause - doesn't help. It's undeniable that some gamers are absolute headcases, but so are some businessmen, suburban mothers, and even politicians. No matter what group you decide to look at, there will always be some who are on a hair trigger, yet time after time us gamers are the 'fall guys'. Because games are interactive, they somehow inspire us to kill while movies like Saw or exceedingly violent books don't. We are treated like some unstable, already partly unhinged, and paranoid children without the mental capacity to tell the difference between a game world and the real world.

Here's some news for you: we're not stupid. Most people have no trouble telling the difference, most before they even reach the age of 10. In the cases where a child (or even adult) is unstable enough to be affected by a game (or a movie or book), then it's simple - their parents or friends should do something about it, not a branch of the government. Stop trying to raise peoples' children for them. All it does is breed lazy (synonymous with terrible, in my book) parents and kids who resent authority. If you want to see an increase in violence, then keep on going the way you are, interfering with decisions that cannot be made based on a mythical figure like 'the average Australian child' or 'the average Australian gamer'. These decisions should be made per case, and not by you.

I'd also like to make a very large point of the fact that violent games are a very good way to blow off steam; rather than going around whacking people in real life, I can shoot up computer-generated zombies with my friends and forget all about whatever made me angry beforehand. I don't know about you, but I'd say that sounds like a pretty good way to reduce violent crime.

I'm 19. I'm responsible. Now give me my damn game, please.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Sticking With the Old Ways

Following on somewhat from my previous post regarding movement in games, one of my most major gripes is the way developers seem to stick so doggedly to the old ways of doing things. I understand in some instances it's due to engine, time, or budget constraints, but there are plenty of devs out there with the time and the money to try something new. So why don't they?

After movement, the way weapons behave is probably the most important (yet most neglected) aspect of a shooter. Yeah, yeah, your game features accurate recoil and perhaps even ballistics because your coders spent a day out on the range firing the real things - but where does the projectile originate from? In the overwhelming majority of shooters, it's the mystical camera, that thing which seems to be of paramount importance in dictating gameplay mechanics. Why does the player's viewpoint control everything? Why doesn't the player's body control the camera, or the player's rifle control the projectile it supposedly fires? Using Insurgency as an example, the former system can be a real nightmare to work with, especially when aiming for realism. Until a patch was released several weeks after the first release, Insurgency players found that while their crosshair could be directly on the target, their bullet would hit the wall, ground, or windowsill in front of them. This isn't limited to the Source engine; Red Orchestra has the same problem at times. Sure, you can adjust the camera height or the projectile origin in relation to the camera, but wouldn't it just be a better idea to change the entire system and make the game that much better?

Think about it. If your body and weapons are in control, wouldn't things be a lot easier? Wouldn't they make a lot more sense? If your weapon's muzzle is colliding with something, your bullet will strike the obstruction. If your weapon is clear of any obstructions, then your bullet will fly forth and kill whatever gets in its way. Instead of relying on a simple cone of randomised trajectories to reduce the effectiveness of firing on the move, the round will fly in a predictable trajectory... from the muzzle of your weapon, wherever it's pointing. If you're sprinting, that could be at the ground. It could be into your teammate beside you. It could be into your own foot. Breathing hard? Your rifle is moving with you, and anything fired from it will be affected by this. ArmA had this system, and with a few exceptions, it worked quite well. It wasn't entirely foolproof, but it was a tremendous improvement.

Perhaps it's time developers waved a fond farewell to the fixed-camera-centric shooter, and welcomed a new system into their studios - a system where the player's avatar is the most important thing.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Quest for Perfection: Movement

As this is my first entry, let me begin this blog by offering my thanks to both Robert Briscoe and Jack Monahan for inspiring me to finally dump all of my many gripes, musings, and ambitions regarding gaming's past, present and future in one convenient place. I recommend you head over to their respective sites and take a good look.

Movement is, perhaps, my biggest complaint when it comes to gaming. It seems that no game can get it 'just right'; their player movement is either too unnatural, with little difference to the games of old where there was no better option (Half-Life 2 and many of the mods spawned from the Source engine fall into this category), or it's realistic but far too clunky to control reliably (Cryostasis, ArmA). Some games have managed to fall closer to the proverbial sweet spot, but as of yet, I have neither seen nor played one which has actually hit it. Call of Duty 4, for example, combined the fixed-camera, constrained player of the last several generations with smooth, fluid movement (facilitated by excellent animation work and camera movement).

Obviously there is a whole host of problems associated with bridging this divide: to what extent should control be handled automatically, so as to allow for fluid gameplay without jumping aboard the fixed camera train? ArmA's player movement may be extremely realistic, but it's equally frustrating. On many occasions, the player's body doesn't go where it's told, deciding instead to lag behind the input or to respond selectively to it. Trying to move around a cramped environment while switching constantly between walking and running is nothing short of a nightmare, and requires so much work that it can really kill the immersion. Having a lot of key commands for the player to use is one thing; forcing the player to use four or five at a time is just annoying.

At the other end of the scale, we have the games which subscribe to the old system, where the player only has a few keys to worry about but has very little fine motor control. For some games, this is fine. I would be quite worried if Valve suddenly decided to bring Team Fortress 2's movement more into line with ArmA's. On the other hand, I wouldn't complain if they rethought the player's movement for HL2 Episode Three. That's just it: single-player games rely on the inbuilt immersion to keep a player interested, as opposed to most multiplayer titles. Even as atmospheric a game as S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl, which is positively overflowing with a depressing sense of decay, paranoia and isolation, can be let down by overly 'gamey' movement. Why is this core element of every shooter overlooked? Many developers will labour endlessly to make sure level progression is perfect and that the colour palette conveys their intended feelings, but the most basic element of the modern shooter is something the player literally cannot go without. Doesn't this, then, deserve as much attention as the colour of the player's sleeves, or the design of the weapons they will be using?