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