Shawn Elliott’s Review Symposium Part 1

December 22, 2008 § Leave a comment

On Thursday Shawn Elliott posted the first part of his review symposium, a series of articles of epic proportions discussing the role of reviews in gaming journalism and criticism as well as their relationship with readers as well as developers and publishers. It’s an incredibly interesting article and worth reading, with further parts to follow, but at almost thirty five hundred words it’s not going to be something you can skim through in five minutes.

To aid those of you who may not have the time to read it in its entirety I present to you a brief summary of what was said in the first part of the series. This may also provide a good opportunity for me to weigh in with my own ideas on the subject, seeing as how Shawn Elliott seems to have missed me off his list of contributors somehow.

Nearly all participants started by voicing concerns that review scores were damaging the industry. They said that it created a culture in which the number given at the end of a review devalued the actual content of the text, causing people to lose sight of what may have been the reviewers problems with the game and instead choosing to focus their anger on the scores themselves. The very nature of scoring an opinion was seen as absurd by some writers, an objective numeric value placed on what is essentially someone’s subjective opinion surely couldn’t fulfill its intended purpose.

But what of the reviews themselves? Questions were raised about preconceptions going into a game, after all if a game has had hundreds of people working on it should its flaws be considered much greater than those of a game made on a shoe-string budget by a team of less than fifty? Ultimately it was agreed that judgement should be taken as much with the readers perspective in mind as is possible, with a game’s price point playing a major role. After all what does a gamer care how many people worked on a project if it doesn’t affect the price they pay?

Soon the question on the tips of everyones‘ tongues emerged blinking into the light of day. “What’s the problem with reviews?” was asked, to which their was much response. Every editor seemed to posses some anecdote of how positive or negative reviews had had a serious impact. Most problems seemed to stem from negative reviews, which aside from generating harmless fanboy hatred from forums, could also carry a much more sinister evil. Stories were told about how relationships with developers had been seriously harmed by negative reviews, leading to a lack of co-operation with exclusives in the future. Conversely some had also had experiences where positive review scores would have had massive benefits for their publication, through increased advertising or the rights to an early review.

As for the actual purpose of reviews opinions were divided. Some believed them to be purchasing guides, designed solely to allow prospective buyers to evaluate whether the product would be worth their money. Shawn Elliott however, weighed in to this debate with the observation that nowadays gamers have more options than ever before to establish their views on a game before its, and accompanying reviews, releases in the form of online videos, demos, and even previews. John Davidson likewise agreed, saying that often people will look at reviews simply to justify their own opinion of a game.

I’m of the opinion that there are many more different types of gamer than people want to admit. Some, like myself, have the time and interest to read a review in its entirety and from that then work out whether it’s worth the money or not. Others however may not have the time, and need a scoring system to base their opinion on, something they can look at briefly to get a general idea of a game’s worth. Additionally those with less ingrained knowledge of video gaming culture simply may not understand the terminology used in the body of a review and so for them reading the full review is simply not an option. That’s not to say that an individual can belong exclusively to one group. For example, as someone who doesn’t keep up with PSP game news I occasionally need a rough guide as to what the best games released recently have been, and to that end scores become very useful. Within seconds I can have Metacritic open and be browsing the top rated games on the system, without having to trawl through dozens of pages of text to find out what games I should be caring about. Review scores can provide a dynamic list of the best games around, and for this reason they can’t be completely abandoned. Review scores and reviews are not one and the same, both provide options for prospective buyers but simply in different situations.

Hopefully part two will be published soon, but until then here’s to hoping this intelligent discussion about gaming continues in other corners of the Internet.


Prince of Persia Review: Pretty Vacant

December 16, 2008 § Leave a comment

It’s often the thought of developers that with a new generation should come a great change in their work. Grand Theft Auto 4 has it’s new realistic direction, Uncharted left the Jak series well behind developer Naughty Dog, and the Burnout series went completely open world. Ubisoft Montreal have taken a similar view with their fourth Prince of Persia game (with no subtitle this time around), but rather than add to the features of Two Thrones they’ve stripped the game right down, simplifying gameplay in what can only be seen as an effort to take in a new audience. Newcomers to the series won’t therefore be disappointed, but long standing fan’s might start feeling a touch of nostalgia for the last generation’s trilogy.
Perhaps surprisingly Prince of Persia reverses the importance of character and story. Previous game’s emphasis on a nation torn apart by evil is still present, but the nation is never shown in its former glory, and we never meet any of it’s occupants. In this way whilst you’ll always be working to banish the evil from an area by reaching the ‘fertile earth’ and healing it, locations transformation is purely aesthetic. Characters however, see much meaningful development over the course of the story – even though there are so few – and the Prince’s relationship with his companion Elika is believable, if a little Hollywood. Players will find themselves caring much more for the characters themselves rather than this land they’re saving, whether that’s a good or bad thing is up to you to decide. The story revolves essentially around you healing the land by reaching the fertile ground in each of the areas in the game. It’s by no means complex, but provides an exiting climax nevertheless.

A passive observer of the game may be fooled into thinking it plays like any other POP game, but picking up the controller destroys this view instantly. The game has a very automated feel to it, you no longer, for instance, need to hold a button to wall run, and so after setting the prince on his way by jumping off a platform the game takes on what is in effect quick time event style gameplay. You watch the prince’s movement’s and are then given visual cues of what button to press, your reward being the avoidance of death and a visual feast of acrobatic movement. Any time when you miss a jump and fall to your death your companion Elika will teleport you to the last bit of safe ground. This ensures you never have to repeat large sections of the game due to a mistake, but crucially doesn’t make the game too easy, towards the latter half of the game you spend large amounts of time off the ground, meaning that when you ‘die’ you’ll be dropped back more than a mere couple of meters.

Elika’s powers aren’t just limited to providing a handy checkpoint system though. At some points you’re required to use ‘power plates’ handily placed around levels, usually to reach some far off platform. Each of the four colours – red, green, blue and yellow – carries with it a different method of transportation. Red and blue are fundamentally the same, simply throwing you across the world, green is the most enjoyable of the four, placing you in a wall running minigame in which you must avoid obstacles and yellow is the worst of the bunch, a flying minigame in which you must also dodge obstacles. The problem with this is that you have no power over the direction of your movement, and so if when heading towards a pillar you try and pass it on the left when the game wants to take you by the right you’ll fall to your death. It makes some levels incredibly frustrating whilst adding nothing to the overall experience.

Combat is even less enjoyable. It’s always one on one, filled with quick time events – this time proper ones, with screen prompts and everything – and either far too short or far too long. You have a combination of sword, magic, and gauntlet attacks, which you can use interchangeably to unleash some amazing looking combo’s. On its own this might prove to be a satisfactory form of combat but at any point the enemy can drag you in to a quick time event, in which even if you win you inflict no damage. Additionally the game makes enemies harder by simply allowing them to block your attacks seemingly at random, giving you no way to increase your chances of success with a hit. The combination of these two leads to some much elongated battles in which time you’ll be frantically button mashing trying to score a hit before the next quick time event. Alternatively at times if you manage to score a hit whilst the enemy if on the edge of the platform you’ll instantly kill them, which can make some battles feel criminally cheap. It never manages to get this balance right, and overall feels bloated with useless ideas.

A major new feature of POP is the series’ first ever open world. From the game’s outset you’re able to explore the world’s areas in whichever order you choose, free from any loading screens in between them. You never have any significant choice as to what you want to do next, merely choosing to complete areas in whichever order you choose. Certain areas require you to posses a certain plate-power, and these are unlocked by collecting light-seeds, small balls of light which appear after you heal a level. As a result of this, frequent back tracking is required to collect enough light seeds to unlock the required powers, and this never becomes too much of a chore. Those who wish to collect all 1001 light seeds throughout the game will have a hard time doing so, but this is entirely optional, and on a normal run though their inclusion serves to lengthen the experience considerably, but never to a needless extent.

Considering what the series had become after three previous iterations, Prince of Persia’s simplicity isn’t entirely unexpected. Any additions the the gameplay of Two Thrones would have made the game nigh-on unplayable for newcomers and as such POP is a much more instantly accessible game. Many of the new additions aren’t as well implemented as they could have been, and the single player co-op gameplay doesn’t do much to distinguish the game from its contemporaries, but there’s enough at it’s core to make for an enjoyable experience, and if you can ignore some obvious blemishes it should prove most enjoyable.
By Jon.

Mirror’s Creed or was it Assasin’s Edge?

December 8, 2008 § 2 Comments

Mirror’s Edge, seemingly to be the game to take the 7th generation by storm and introduce a whole new kind of gameplay experience, is a dissapointment. EA’s beautifully innovative and unique first person parkour free-running game showed us glimpses of pure magic and had the gaming public licking their lips at the mere prospect of being able to play what was shown in front of them at full blast high definition at E3. That was the beginning. The hype and excitement generated by the first trailer always meant that from the top the only way to go was down. Then came the demo, which received mixed reviews from everyone alike. Seemingly hardcore die hard Mirror’s Edge fans (before release) were quick to defend and to say how the demo was a mere taster as demos should be. Big mistake number one. To keep an open mind is sometimes the hardest thing to do which is why I write this now, mere minutes after finishing this game for myself.

Where does the root of the problem lie? With innovation and originality, must follow execution of the highest calibre. Mirror’s Edge’s problem is that once you’ve seen the trailer and played the demo, there is nothing major you are left to experience. The demo it seems is actually the first chapter of the main storyline, which I found extremely lazy in terms of story telling. The tutorial, hand holding mission to introduce a story is a classic case of “Once Upon a Time…” so and so happened when you read the literacy book of an 8 year old. I’ll point you towards the direction of Bioshock which does the same thing but is an absolute pleasure to experience in terms of story telling. The neu-age 1984 style setting of a free running video game is a gem. You play as “Faith” who acts as a “runner” (someone who acts as an illegal courier) in this controlled totalitarian society and delivers such packages by scaling roof tops and jumping buildings. Faith has “runner vision” which literally highlights the things she can use to make her running more swift and flowing. The new bright alpine white against blue in this dictatorial society is indeed very arsty and pretty. The building interiors are so formal and contrasting, it gives this impression that this world has a front put on because it’s hiding something, a la Orwell’s 1984. Environmentally, the design team are to be applauded on ideas that obviously didn’t go to waste.

Why then in this wonderfully created world must the characters be so lifeless and generic? Why does the story begin and end lazily as if the whole game’s events were pointless? To be fair, the story is so poor the ending can’t do much to help it. The basis on which the game is introduced to you, falls through by the second chapter. The severe lack of personality in any of the characters really makes me wonder wether developers decided to miss out story all together in some kind of sacrifice for gameplay. Big mistake number two.

The gameplay reminds me throughly of Assassin’s Creed’s. Do you remember holding down R1 and X to do just about everything and anything when it came to getting to your destination? Imagine replacing that with periodacal tapping or holding down of L1. The first person view is honestly unfaulted and the flowing running, wall jumping misjudging distances and face planting 100 ft falls is actually fun however the developers seemed to have missed this concept slightly. Slowing down the game is the worst and most painful thing you can do with it which unfortunately happens too much in Mirror’s Edge. The frantic escapes and using your head in a supposedly non linear environment was the greatest appeal about this game. From first person heaven, it went to first person bore within almost an hour. Non linear is it not? Mirror’s Edge was introduced as a game that was meant to use quick wit. To get to your destination by your own means, supposedly providing more than just the single method of going from point A to B. Let me say this now. If you make a game linear but stick a few meaningless obstacles in the middle, you can’t make that claim. More often than not you find yourself truly stuck as to what you’re meant to do next. Some argue this is where the puzzle element kicks in however I strongly and avidly disagree. If that was the case, the game wouldn’t dedicate an entire button as a “hint” button to point you to your next direction. Big mistake number 3. The button is hardly ever useful. For example say you want to get to another building but you are unsure as to what you should do. Press the hint button and it will immediatly point the cursor as to where the building is in relation to where you are. Still don’t comprehend? You ask me how you can get to India, I respond by pointing to my left.

What positives do you expect from such a hyped up game? I could talk about the ruined soundtrack or the length of playtime, (which is so short you are actually grateful for it). The game does many ingenius things well though. The use of momentum to make jumps and the heavier breathing corresponding to Faith’s movements are all real advancements for all first persons alike. With every complement there is a, “yes but..” and here it is. Dice failed to come up with a way to move as humans do. We do not strafe if we are to move to the left. The running and escaping, when properly executed, will be the most fun you can have with a first person game. The controls are fairly tight but with touching on one thing, I must once again critise another. The combat is appalling. I finished this game without shooting a single enemy, (as I had the impression this game was meant to be played as). Now take Metal Gear Solid, a game rewards you and adapts to you for not killing. By the end of Mirror’s Edge however, Faith’s body was so bullet-ridden, I had the impression this game was either a racist or just extremely inconsistent.

The magic word. Inconsistent. Inconsistency drowns this game in every possible way and is the word to sum up what could have been. Dice it seems have the map for the Philosopher’s Stone of perfection in first person. However they decided to soak it in tea and rip it up a bit to make it look older and more like a pirate’s treasure map as 8 year olds do. Still they manage to almost get there, but half way to “almost” there, their metaphorical truck blows up, killing all common sense. What’s left is the dying, malnourished corpses of golden ideas and innovation. To assume the role of a courier, you would assume delivering packages are a main feature of the story? To take a shotgun shell to the face you would expect to die? Combat is the main feature that someone decided to soak in human excrement. For the last two chapters all the excitement you experienced in the first two chapters disappear. You have to die because EA doesn’t like you. In fact they never liked you. Let me give you a few tips if you are to play this game. When you are judging distances, keep in mind you can probably jump further than you think. Don’t bother understanding the story if you are lost/bored. What’s a good word to describe this? Inconsistent. Everything was set in place to be one of the best games of the lastest generation, but innovation it seems is not enough and here, it’s all it ever had.

– Sorry for the lack of activity, recently. James

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