Saturday, 25 June 2011

I am more drunk, but I am less angry

Evis T has posted his thoughts on Nintendo, the 3DS, and their new game schedule post-E3... or rather, their lack of it. It's an excellent piece which raises a lot of points, and I encourage you to go and check it out.

Then once you're done that, I encourage you to come back here and read this riposte.

Ninty's E3 lineup was not exactly awash with new and exciting things. To be fair, neither was anyone else's. This seems very much to be a year of resting on laurels, with sequels occupying those small parts of the landscape not dominated by old games reimagined for new technology. Nintendo bucked the trend slightly by announcing games which were actual honest-to-god reworkings of old games and not mere ports. New versions of most of their staple series abound: Super Mario, Mario Kart, Mario Party, Paper Mario, Mario of Duty, StarFox, Kirby, Animal Crossing and, of course, the new Zelda game Skyward Sword, in addition to a new edition of Ocarina of Time.

There's actually a fair bit of new content there - but how new is it really? As Evis notes, a new Kirby or Mario Party is rarely going to be functionally any different to any old Kirby or Mario Party. The new Zelda will have the wood dungeon, the fire dungeon, the water dungeon. It will have the ice cave and the big mountain. It will have the hook shot and the bombs and the boomerang. It will have stalfos and peahats and moblin.

But isn't that just gaming? The new Gears of War will have locust and chainsaws and glowing yellow stuff. The new Civilization will have workers and animal husbandry and press B to build a base here. The new FIFA will have footballs. It's not gaming, in fact; it's culture and media in general. TV sitcoms always have the same stock characters. Pop rock songs always have the same variation on ADE. Shakespeare tragedies always have the same ending. The human brain is hardwired to both seek and create patterns, elements we know we can rely upon. Comfort food is called comfort food for a reason.

Likewise, a classic game is a classic game. Can there be any realistic argument against Nintendo being the greatest development house in gaming history? No other studio has produced as many grade A titles over the course of their lifespan. I'd still rather play Ocarina of Time than anything put out nowadays by Bioware or Square-Enix. Good gameplay doesn't age, but current audiences put off by technical limitations of older games might be unwilling to give them a try. ROMs are illegal, so why shouldn't Nintendo update and resell their old games to a new generation?

In my opinion, the problem isn't that these remakes and rereleases exist. On balance, I like that they exist. The problem is, as Evis notes, being expected to pay for a new edition of Ocarina of Time EVERY time a new minor variation on their current console comes out. Hey guess what Nintendo, you can download classic games straight onto home consoles now! In fact you guys started the trend, remember? No? It was quite popular. So popular that Microsoft and Sony copied it - although I suppose you've grown numb to that by now, so much so that you forget what was originally your idea. Admittedly, there are no reliable virtual arcades for handheld consoles, but anyone with a Wii can get Ocarina of Time whenever they want.

The real problem for me is that, year on year, Nintendo's output is built ever more about remakes and rereleases of classic games. To put it bluntly: it's not that they do it, it's that it's all they do. Didn't the sixteen thousand different releases of Ocarina eat into development time which could have been spent on other titles? Wouldn't three or four versions have sufficed? The big games of the year from Ninty are always new editions of something old, suggesting that they don't have the confidence any more to push something fresh. Nintendo's past glories are immense. I can't see any developer matching the quality of Nintendo's back catalogue any time in the next decade at least. Yet sadly Ninty don't seem to care about adding to that catalogue anymore. Being proud of your past is fine - as long as you're still looking to the future. Can Nintendo honestly say that they still are?

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Now we are 1.6

I meant to make this post longer, funnier, more pretentious and - ahem - about three weeks ago. Sadly, events conspired against that, so here's a late and cut down version of my thoughts on Minecraft 1.6.

The big thing to come out of the 1.6 update (or rather, collection of 1.6 updates) was the ability to travel between the normal overworld and the alternate hell-dimension, the Nether, in-game in multiplayer servers - meaning no more having to piss about with file names. I've found that adventuring in the Nether is very different to regular caving. In an - and forgive the awkward phraseology - overworld cave network, I always feel tempted to push on beyond my limits. There's always another passage, another vein of ore. It's different in the Nether.

The Nether is open plan, more or less, so simple navigation is easier. Actually getting where you want to go, though; that's much, much harder, because the ground is so uneven. Almost every block of the way you're building staircases or bridging gaps, making it slow going. These factors, combined with both the relative scarcity of essential minerals and the overwhelming lethality of the Nether in general, mean that adventuring is a much more focused affair. Rather than epic four hour potholing expeditions, you descend, pinpoint what you want, grab it and leave as soon as possible. It's much more of a tense race against time to get what you want before you die, compared to the grand exploration jaunts of an overworld cavern system.

Tha's no bad thing. Contrasting gameplay elements add value. There were times when a big potholing trip didn't grab me, as I wanted something a bit more adrenal to do, and the Nether fills that hole. Too often when I died after two hours of gathering resources only to die to an unseen creeper or sudden lava floe, the feeling wasn't one of "I'll get even with you, game" nor even "oh well, must do better next time," but "eh, bored now, cbf replaying just to lose all my stuff again. Whatever. Bai." Since overreaching is rarer in the Nether, that sort of death bringing feelings of resent and waste are also less frequent.

And if you thought overworld adventuring was a communal excercise... more than ever, the Nether requires a party to work together. There's no time for getting lost or wandering off, no need for "Dig up, stupid" type conversations. You have to be a co-ordinated team to pull off a big heist. The biggest threats are the ghasts - giant floating cow/octopus things which shoot fireballs with unerring and unnerving accuracy. They can only reasonably be fought via bow and arrow, they have a longer range than player characters, and they have all the hit points in history. Oh, also: they usually come in herds of three or four. A frantic escape from an engraged ghast pack, covering each other's backs as you pelt for the portal, is something to experience.

Aside from some irritating bed bugs (ho ho!) 1.6 is the best thing to happen to Minecraft in some time. Anyone who stopped playing, I recommend you gather up a party and try out adventuring in the Nether. If nothing else, building a portal chamber can cut out on tedious travelling time between your bases topside, which was always one of Minecraft's bugbears.

Speaking of Minecraft, I've given Terraria a try. It seems fun, and it's actually surprisingly different to Minecraft. While early guesses had Terraria pegged as 'Minecraft with a bit of Castlevania,' in practice it's more the other way around. This is a platforming game at heart, which happens to feature terrain manipulation as one of your tools. A lot of the challenges revolve around working out how you can use the landscape around you to go here, fight this, collect that. My favourite Minecraft moments are the architectural challenges you come across while caving - navigating your way up a gigantic waterfall, or working out how to stem a lava river to save as much obsidian as possible, or constructing a precarious scaffold up to a vein of ore in the ceiling. I'm looking forward to trying more of Terraria and seeing how it measures up.

Another online game I've started recently is Spiral Knights, one of Steam's five free MMOs. It's cutesy and energetic and just the right side of tactical to be engaging without requiring too much concentration. It's nothing special, but it cuts down on the usual MMO gumph effectively and throws some varied challenges at you. I already like it more than any other MMO I've enountered. Review forthcoming, once I've spent some more time with it.

Back to Minecraft to close us out: Zelda Adventure looks like it could be entertaining. And the Minecraft Ghibli World is sickening in how spectacular it is, especially the Laputa chasm. Certainly makes my best-ever structures looks like complete rubbish.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Correlation: Good Graphics = Bad Graphics

Much has been written about the poor quality of the graphics in the new Alice game, Alice: Madness Returns. Indeed, it seems to be about the only thing concerning the game which has been discussed in any depth. Now, I haven't played it. But I still know what it looks like courtesy of screenshots and YouTube. And to say this game is ugly is utter bunk. Not only those uncharitable (or hopelessly rose-tinted) souls who've claimed it wouldn't look out of place on the original PlayStation, but anyone who's dismissed this game for not having cutting edge graphics: you're kidding, right?

Remember the advent of true 3D? Remember when dynamic lighting was the brand new in thing? Or curved textures, bump mapping, per-pixel shading, HDR lighting, particle effects processing? All of those things were new once. And all of them improved gaming, but - here's the thing - only as much as the developer's care in applying them. Advanced visual technology used intelligently to enhance gameplay, that's great. Enhanced visual technology for the sake of waving your engine's dick in other developers' faces is a waste of development resources which could have been spent on something else. More draw distance in a game with a sniper rifle, smoke effects which obscure the battlefield, lighting which alerts you to an enemy's presence via shadows: YAY! These are all Good Things. Yet those things don't preclude a bit of style. Too many games - even some great games, with Gears of War instantly springing to mind - expend vast resources on (apparently) making games look as grey, bland and repetitive as possible to no discernible gameplay effect.

This has always been a problem - think back to the "too brown" Quake - but the trend seems to be on the rise with every generation. Even games which by today's standards have a striking visual flair are often murky to the point of eye strain, with that plasticy clingfilm look to them. Consider: Arkham Asylum, Bayonetta, any recent Lego game. Technology moves on and one era's photorealism is the next's retro kitsch; truly great graphics come from imagination and art.

Although that might be a bad thing, if reception to Alice is anything to go by. Apparently for a big chunk of gamers, if it doesn't feature all the latest graphical wizardry then it's an archaic throwback not worth another joule of thought beyond the first screenshot. It seems that this is the same crowd who dismiss anything with the slightest bit of artistry or originality, or which contains more colours than Grey, Brown, and A Different Brown, as 'casual' - that catch-all word of contempt for anything which isn't the latest edition of Like Halo But In WWII, or of course its spinoff, Like Modern Warfare But In Space. Oh the crippling irony. I can't blame them for the bitterness of it being lost on them, though; after all, they're used to swallowing Bobby Kotick's semen.

Sadly, these people who think that 'hardcore' means dutifully sucking down whatever garbage IGN tells them to like represent not only a major proportion of the buying power in the market, they also represent a major proportion of the population of message boards and review sites out there. Graphical fidelity shifts units and encourages hype. Innovative gameplay and artistic flair do too, but not half as much. It's a common complaint that nobody's innovating in games anymore; well, lots of people are, just not on the cardboard standees in HMV.

By all accounts, Alice is a pretty mediocre, bland game once you look past the visuals. But those visuals are stunning. As with the original, this is a game with a huge sense of style, a huge commitment to showing you sights you've never seen before. So what if they're not taking full advantage of modern processors? Does that really matter that much? Some people have actually called Alice's graphics 'criminal.' That's insane. It looks better than any FPS released yet this year, latest technology be damned. So can these people physically not play games more than a couple of years old without feeling sick? Show 'em Wasteland or the original Civilization and what, will they have an anuerysm?

I'd better stop now before I ask even more rhetorical questions. But suffice it to say, I'll take graphics which are technically outdated but inventive and stylish over graphics which are cutting edge but creatively moribund, any day of the week.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

You'd be better off sleeping

All these years I'd been under the impression that a game demo should show off, tease you, make you want to try out the full thing. That it should include just enough of the game features to tantalise you into wanting to see the rest, or enough of the story to make you eager to find out what happens next. Playing the demo for Vigil: Blood Bitterness, however, makes me wonder I've been dead wrong this whole time.

Yes, Vigil: Blood Bitterness. Yes, that is possibly the worst name any videogame has ever had. "Blood Bitterness?" Does that even mean anything? Well, apparently so, because in the opening cinematic protagonist Dehon tells us that 'Bitterness has entered my mouth.'

Oooooohhh... kay. If you didn't at least snigger slightly at that, you're a better person than I.

Also he tells us that there's a deadly venom in his veins, but I think that's supposed to be metaphorical. He tells us that he killed his family, and he throws around a lot of words like sanctuary and offering and unworthy. Apparently there's some sort of Evil afoot. Not just evil, but Evil, which gets capitalised like four times or something. Also, it's threatening to destroy the universe, because that's what Evil does.

All of this is related in some breathy, hoarse, whispering voice speaking in a high fantasy sounding language. The voice is probably meant to sound dark, tortured and mysterious - I just found it mildly irritating, personally, like needing to scratch the sole of your foot in public. Religious iconography abounds in the graphics, which are a cute stylised black and white affair with the occasional red wash. The visuals are certainly the first element to jump out here, even if they're almost as painfully attempted-badass as the narration. By the end of the introductory cutscene, it's fairly clear that this is the ancestral prototype for gothic power metal ballads re-imagined in game form. The music, by the way, is an atmospheric little synth-soundscape which - while far from Mark Morgan - is pleasantly haunting enough.

So then, we play, glossing over the fact that the atmosphere the game is trying to build gets kinda shafted by the sudden appearance of a blue bar bearing the legend "Loading datablocks." We find ourselves in a black and white corridor, with yellow stuff splattered up the walls. The controls have a few reponse issues but are basically fine; left click moves you to a location, right click interacts with things. Let's walk over the yellow thing. Oh, it's a body. Dehon (who looks like a cross between Voldo and Bane) stands there with his arms spread and proclaims, "Ancient slave, I devoured your face. You dared to stand in my path. I, who had purified your lineage!"

I wish I was making this up. This is terrible dialogue. It's just vaguely religibadass words strung together. It's po-faced, incoherent and rapt with its own profundity. Oh, I'm sure it'll prove to be plot relevant or something later on, but as the first thing your character says in-game? And in that same hoarse voice, with that crazy fetish getup and borderline Jesus Christ pose? I repeat: power metal album in game form, or what? And I hate power metal.

Exploring a bit shows us some nice stylised architecture, a bureau we can't interact with and then there's... an altar, but it's... oh my god, it's randomly floating up into the air and then coming down again. That shit is whack. Let's have a look.

There's a body on the altar. We talk to him and he seems disappointed with us. But he's not bouncing into the air anymore and that's a plus, right? More wandering. There's a door in the other room - of the two rooms available to us - which we can't open. At this point frustration might set in, but the stylised monochrome graphics, camera angles and general paucity of decoration all make it pretty clear that there's only a handful of things which can be interacted with. That cuts down the frustration one can feel in some games when the next step isn't clear.

In this particular case, the solution is to pray on the four large symbols in the main hall. This makes the altar descend into the dais (no, really) allowing access to the bigger symbol hanging over the room. A word on the praying - it's the same chant soundbite in that same voice repeated twice, and you pray four times which means yes, you hear the same thing eight times in rapid succession. For some reason that means that you can now go and open the door in the other room by praying in front of the same symbol again. One door closes behind you like an airlock, and after a moment, the other opens. Pleasingly, you can run around during this... spiritual decompression, or whatever, rather than the game removing control from you. The doors still take a bloody age to open, though. You walk through the door, and then another door.

And then, "You have successfully completed the Vigil: Blood Bitterness demo."

Y'what? I looked at a corpse, talked to another corpse, prayed a bit, and opened some doors. And that's the game demo. That's the entirety of the game demo. But what am I supposed to actually do in this game? Is there combat? Do I solve puzzles? Pick stuff up? What's this 'clues' business in the menu about? Answers are not forthcoming.

There's almost no gameplay to the demo, so the style surely must be the selling point. It's certainly atmospheric but personally I found it overbearing, pretentious and obtuse - and I have a higher tolerance than most for overbearing, pretentious and obtuse. I feel like maybe if I was a younger man, more into things like high fantasy and heavy metal, and thought that mixing religious and fetishistic imagery was inherently super epic, then perhaps I'd be fairer to Vigil. I'm not any of those things, though. Like Winter Voices, Vigil is a game I wish I could like for trying something different and injecting a little more art into the medium. I also wish I could have a pet leopard and a pile of gold bullion the size of a Ford Transit. Vigil isn't appallingly bad in a Deer Avenger or E.T. sense, but I still can't recommend it.