June 29, 2010 § Leave a comment
Returning after a long absence, I saw how my comrade Jon soared through the gigantic mainstream clouds of modern gaming, admiring endless vistas of normal-mapped wall textures and high dynamic range lighting. Crawling soot-blackened from my cave entrance, I brushed the cobwebs from my face and tried to re-attach my dusty journalist hat.
It fits a little strangely, so let’s see if it still works.
While waiting for Dan Tabar to reappear on the radar, I’ve had time to check out some other self-made developers. Ever since I came across Minecraft, I’ve been lurking far below, deep in the forests and caverns of my very own procedurally-generated paradise of adventure. It’s an independently-made gem of a browser game, being developed by a Swedish gent who goes by the name of Notch (Markus Persson by day), whose dedication I have yet to see matched by any other indie developer – nay, any game developer, full stop. Inspired by the good ideas behind the less-ambitious Infiniminer, he set out to make a version that could be played in your browser. That didn’t take him long, so he apparently just kept on going. At the time of writing he is working constantly on new features and ideas, taking just the right amount of input from the community. It has grown into something far more impressive than Infiniminer ever was, and is definitely worth the ten Euros it’ll set you back if you pre-order.
The best way to explain Minecraft is through the form of a travelogue. Therefore, I present: The Crafty Mine Adventures of Nige!
Oh yeah, everything in Minecraft looks like this. I was surprised how quickly I got used to it, but not nearly as surprised when I found myself wanting to use words like “beautiful” in describing the landscapes created with it. Like a towering 1:1000 GTVA Colossus made entirely from Lego blocks, the whole is far more impressive than the sum of its parts.
Anyway, that tower off in the distance looks like a good spot to build my death fortress. Onwards, to adventure!
But first, I’m going to need some tools. Watch, as I punch this tree down to harvest the delicious heartwood core! This is the first task of any canny Minecraft player. Collect wood, craft tools from it. Use wooden tools to gather rock and other materials, use rock to make better tools that can gather iron and so on. It’s kind of like a testosterone-fuelled Harvest Moon in this regard, only you don’t shear sheep to make clothes, you PUNCH THEIR GODDAMN WOOL OFF.
Scrabbling up the nearest hill, I get a decent view of pastures beyond. No mountain ranges in sight. A shame, since they’re my favourite kind of terrain. No matter, we’ll just keep on walking and the terrain generator will add more land to the map as we go.
Wielding my newly- crafted rock pickaxe and some torches, I reach the foot of the tower, passing through a large, interestingly formed cavern at its base. From the front it looks like some hulking colossus kicked the bottom out from under it, leaving it looking like a gigantic three-legged beast. This is small-time, though, compared to some of the incredible formations you’ll see in your time playing. I once saw what looked like an eighty-foot high AT-ST Imperial walker made from stone, with a hat of soil and trees.
With no easy route up the tower, I decide to move on. I can see the ocean’s edge just ahead and want to find a nice spot before nightfall.
Notch hasn’t implemented boats yet, so it looks like a long swim out to that archipelago.
Some interesting sandy formations appear as I swim onwards. Looks like a vulnerable spot, though, so let’s keep going.
Oh my. Just as night falls, I find this rather fascinating waterfall, leading underground. I don’t want to fall in, so let me just take a peek before hunkering down for the nigh-FUCK
Okay, well I should try and make the most of my situation. I seem to have discovered a flooded underground cave. Placing torches to light the pitch blackness, I move carefully forward.
Notch’s water physics are more convincing than the flat oceans above might have led you to believe. Better keep out of the river, don’t want to get swept away twice in one night.
Spelunking further downwards, I discover a magma spring! Dynamic lighting means if I follow this, I won’t need torches to keep the monsters away (that’s right, frigging monsters haunt these tunnels in the dark).
I smash a hole in the ground for the magma to flow through, and find a huge cavern below. I can hear the sound of rushing water some distance away. Let’s go and check it out!
FUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK! Breaking through a wall a little carelessly caused me to fall into a huge lake of fire on the other side. I tried to wade to the pond on the other side, but burned to death mere feet from safety. In my dying moments I hear something ahead of me, over the crackle of my sizzling flesh.
I guess death is sometimes a mercy.
Now I respawn, ready for another adventure in the world of Minecraft!
The above documents maybe the first ten to twenty minutes of a Minecraft game. I’ve only shown you a satellite photograph of a crudely-drawn picture of someone pointing in the general direction of the tip of the iceberg. There’s nothing quite like cowering in your tiny log cabin overnight while listening to monsters fighting outside, wishing you hadn’t lost your sword and all your torches in that lava flood earlier; riding a mine-cart at breakneck speed down into the bowels of the earth, flashing through light and dark areas and flying past underground streams filled with hundreds of lost pigs; completing a month-long building project that connects your self-built villages into one gigantic mining complex with massive, valley-spanning bridges; even just turning the corner and seeing what the game creates for you is potentially a powerfully affecting experience. I’ve seen some genuinely unbelievable terrain. Emerging from underground in the middle of a dried-up lake, above the surface of which floats a self-contained island, easily a hundred metres in the air, made more of an impression on me than many professionally designed game environments.
All I can really do is list things that have happened to me, because there are limitless possible stories that can emerge as you play. This isn’t the bullshit of Spore, where everyone experiences the same boring story, just with the main character having a different number of legs or something. It’s the kind of storytelling which games like Dwarf Fortress and Sleep Is Death excel at, because it results in a highly individual, beautifully original tale with just a little imagination from the player.
To close, there are two things I’d like to see in the future of games:
–Truly open worlds, where stories tell themselves without being restricted by the imagination of the designer. Games where you’re just plonked down somewhere and told to play, without being forced into someone else’s idea of what is fun.
–More goddamn minecarts, they rock shit hardcore.
Nige be finished, yo.
June 28, 2010 § Leave a comment
Far from being E3’s defining moments, the motion controller demonstrations left me feeling a little disappointed. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, both Sony and Microsoft (the latter especially) have divided their audience squarely into two. The casual audience, they’ve decided, are only interested in casual, motion controlled experiences, whilst the ‘core’ audience just wants more guns, more explosions, and generally more of the same.
It’s depressing to me because these stereotypes have been proven wrong time and time again. Casual games will draw people in not if they’re controlled with some goofy peripheral, but if they’re genuinely fun to play (a la Peggle). Meanwhile there’s not one ‘hardcore’ gamer out there who doesn’t want a little variety with their bald space marines.
Microsoft’s Kinect has the potential to add to existing gameplay experiences, but it’s a shame the potential is all being used on games aimed at non-gamers. There’s nothing wrong with these of course – more people playing games is a good thing no matter what – but I can’t help but think there’s so much more that can be explored. For example:
What if games took notice of your body rather than just your hands?
There are some people out there who’ll jump at loud noises in horror games (myself included). Other gamers are braver, and for them playing a horror game is a much less tense experience. Jumping in fear is something that Kinect could register, and use to adapt the game’s experience. A scared mess of a player could be given a slightly easier time than someone who’s sitting there stoically playing through the game.
Similarly if someone’s beating their controller to a pulp in frustration, why not subtly remove a couple of enemies in their path, or reduce the rubber-banding in your racing game by a couple of fractions to ease them through the challenge without making them feel like a cheat.
A more basic application of Kinect could be its use as a glorified pause button. Going to the kitchen for a sandwich? Kinect will notice you get up and pause the game for you. Switching controllers between players during a frantic split-screen session of Halo? Kinect will pause it until you’re all comfortable.
What if Kinect put you in games that were actually good?
In your average game there are dozens of screens dotted around levels showing fake television shows, or mission co-ordinators. Kinect (or the Playstation Eye for that matter) could really mess with you by chucking your image onto these. Walking past an image of yourself gaming in a virtual shop window is a surreal experience I can tell you.
Ok, so maybe that suggestion’s a little lame, but what about the potential for identifying your team-mates as something more than just a screen name and an annoying accent. Remember how in GTA4’s multiplayer you could call up people on your phone to intimidate your enemies? What about if you were able to video call them, for that added terror of knowing your enemy can see you in your undies?
The characters of driving games are traditionally a very stationary lot. The most you’ll usually get out of them is a movement of the arm to change gear, but aside from that they’ll just sit there, much like you are at home. Hows about imbuing these static avatars with a little more character, directly from the gamer at home? Motorstorm had a taunt button which allowed you to shake your fist at other racers when on the back of a motorcycle. What if the character copied your own movements at home, giving the finger to other racers as the pass you online, or gloating as you left them in your dust. It would also be that much more menacing to see someone flick you the bird as they pass, knowing that the player at home had to take one of his hands off his controller to get it to work rather than just press a button.
The ability to scan objects was one of the potential features shown of by Microsoft at 2009’s E3, there with the example of a kid holding his skateboard up to the screen to get the graphic directly into the game. Lame as it sounds, it might actually be fun to have more of that kind of thing. What if Niko’s clothes were a replica of an outfit it your wardrobe? The feature could be taken further in games like the Sims, where it would become much easier to get your exact duvet design (snakes and ladders in my case) onto your sim’s bed.
Kinect has the potential to make many of these games we’re already familiar with into much more personal experiences, but it’s a shame no one seems to have given the possibilities much thought as it stands.
Speaking from personal experience, gamers tend to make a lot of stupid faces whilst playing. This stupidity isn’t limited to their countenance’s however, as my heroic end-of-a-difficult-level dances will attest to.
Most of these things are pretty embarrassing, which means they also have the potential to be quite amusing. Much in the same way as Burnout Paradise, games could record you at key moments, to capture that heartbreaking moment you missed the last jump in a lengthy Prince of Persia sequence. On the flip side, I’d gladly watch back some of my victory dances weeks after getting a platinum ranking in Bayonetta.
Stupid though many of these ideas are, they do show that with a little out of the box thinking, a peripheral which has been passed on by most gamers as being ‘not for them’ could enrich their favorite games in ways they’d never thought possible.
We haven’t even come close to seeing the dozens of Kinect enabled games promised to us by Michael Pachter, so to write the device off at this point could be excluding yourself from one of the most potentially interesting developments in console gaming this side of rumble.
As always, time will tell.
June 27, 2010 § Leave a comment
Mass Effect 2’s shooting never reaches
As good as these sections are though, they’re not likely to be what you remember after finishing the game. Moral choices pepper the beginning, climax, and even the middle of most missions, and their effects vary from having an extra wave of enemies to fight, to losing entire extra crew members. Most of these choices occur within dialogue trees, which allows the game’s sublime voice acting to make those choices that much more personal. Although the game pretty clearly spells out which choice it deems to be the ‘good’ option, some choices are genuinely very taxing.
No matter how difficult, these choices would mean nothing were it not for both characters and a universe that you care about. Mass Effect 2 has both of these and so much more. Every character has a backstory, every planet a description, and then beyond this there are literally pages upon pages of codex entries for almost every alien and technology you come across within the game. There’s more here than you could ever hope to digest in a single playthrough, but this is a good thing rather than a waste. It creates a sense of a universe that exists beyond your game, that keeps ticking even when you’ve left the area. The game doesn’t really have to push you towards saving the universe, because you already want to.
This desire might just be as a result of how good everything looks however. Mass Effect 2’s finest visuals are undoubtedly in its larger areas, where in the distance there’s always a stream of hover-cars or an impossibly tall skyscraper. Fittingly the game’s character’s are visually the same way. Generally speaking, the more fantastical the creature design is, the better the graphics engine presents it. When it gets to the creature equivalent of the indoor corridor, the human, the visuals fail to impress. At these moments it’s hard to notice though, because the quality of the acting is more than enough to pull through.
It’s such a shame then, that far from just letting you get on with the game – which it manages to encourage in so many other areas – it’s resource collection minigame is slow, tedious, and will ruin a good few hours of the game’s length. The problem is that the vast majority of the game’s resource currency isn’t available within its missions, you have to search for them in your ship. This involves scanning planets for various minerals in a time consuming minigame which never gets fun, even when you happen upon a mother load of resources. If you want to buy many upgrades for your crew, then you’ll have to pay a pretty hefty price.
June 25, 2010 § Leave a comment
I’ve never owned a guitar rhythm game. Part of this may be due to my house, which I doubt will ever have the capacity for more gaming peripherals, let alone a plastic drum kit. However another more significant part is that I play guitar.
Now I’m not going to get all snobby about Rock Band and its imitators. I appreciate that they tap into the music scene in a way almost no other games have managed, and are genuinely a huge amount of fun to play. They’ve just never really appealed to me is all.
Rock Band 3 has already changed all of this.
The fact of the matter is that tabliture, let alone good accurate tabliture, is incredibly hard to come by on the internet. Companies that produce sheet music have been shutting down sites for a while, and those few that are left contain a large amount of tabs that leave a lot to be desired.
The alternatives then are to either tab stuff yourself, or buy officially licensed sheet music. Getting what you hear down onto paper is an invaluable tool for every guitarist to learn, but it’s a very hard thing to do, especially for more complicated songs with one, two, or even three guitar parts, as well as bass in there just to confuse you. Sheet music then could be your best option, were it not often as inaccurate as amateur tabs, as well as the fact it’s only ever available for an entire album.
If you’re telling me that I can buy Rock Band 3, crank the difficulty up to full, and actually learn real songs, then I’m going to be very excited here. It’s not just the fact that the game could replace written tabs for me, its that it has the potential to do things that printed tabliture has never been able to do, namely giving the duration of notes (a very very important feature when some guitar solos will whip around notes at incredible speeds).
Rock Band 3 could also potentially make me a much better guitarist to boot. Put in practise routines to do on a daily basis, and I’ll gladly play through them a couple of times to improve on my speed. Not only that, but the ability to rate your performance in these otherwise boring routines could revolutionise the practise schedules of millions of bedroom guitarists.
Let’s not get carried away here. There are inevitably going to be things you can do on the Rock Band guitar that won’t sound right on a real guitar, but will get you points in game. In these cases, you may not know you’re doing something wrong, but you’ll subconsciously take on this bad habit which may be very hard to break out of further down the line. Not everything about playing guitar comes out the amp at the other end; there are things like hand posture, and strumming fluency that I don’t believe any software can teach you, and may make it impossible for you to get beyond a certain skill level.
So Rock Band 3 isn’t going to replace guitar teachers any time soon. If however you can buy the game with the guitar, practise for a couple of months, and then go and get lessons without having to buy a new instrument, that’s going to be a huge incentive for people to get learning.
Harmonix is a development studio made up of musicians, and if anyone can pull this off its them. As soon as I get my hands on one of these guitars I’ll let you guys know if a new generation of musicians is just around the corner, so until then if anyone from Harmonix is reading, send one of those bad boys this way!
June 18, 2010 § Leave a comment
The downside of Sony’s motion controller was made pretty obvious right then and there in Sony’s press conference. The Move’s wand, Tretton announced, would cost just $50. He then announced, in an appreciably quieter tone, that the Navigation controller would set users back a further $30. Even from my desk at home I could hear the audience’s cheers dramatically subside. $80 for a peripheral many aren’t even convinced by yet? That’s a hard sell if ever I saw one. Even the news that emerged later about users being able to use a standard PS3 controller single-handedly in its place didn’t manage to repair the damage done.
Whilst not faffing about with motion controllers, each of the three managed to find a fair amount of time to talk about games. Microsoft and Sony both chose to play it safe, and fill in the blanks of games that we more or less already know about. Killzone 3, Halo: Reach and Gears of War 3 all received on-stage demonstrations, but nothing mind-blowing was shown.
It almost seems inevitable that press conferences have become a bit of a mixed bag. In our opinion, there needs to be a competing trade show for mainstream outlets, where companies can show off their games not intended for enthusiast gamers. The alternative, as we’ve seen this year, is an E3 with some very interesting moments, buried within shows that could otherwise take up far less time. Digs at ‘casual’ content aside, it seems there may well be something for everyone to enjoy this holiday, no matter what system they decide to use.
June 12, 2010 § Leave a comment
June 11, 2010 § Leave a comment
Warning – Pretension within: I like writing that over-analyses games. If you don’t I suggest you hit backspace, because this article is one of those.
Red Dead Redemption’s main star is the Wild West. Sure, there may be this guy named John Marston gallivanting around looking to put a bullet between the eyes of some former ‘comrades’, but the story of the demise of the ‘Old West’ – as it’s referred to in the game – is a much more potent one. The ideals of the setting, of the freedom to do exactly as you please, is something that Marston collides with head on, and eventually becomes converted by; He sidesteps left politically, as a direct result of the events he witnesses within the game.
By the time the events of the game start John is already on his way to the political right, having been quite the socialist in the past. Whilst riding with his old gang, he sought to redistribute wealth more equally by “[stealing] from the rich, and …[giving] the money to the people who needed it more.” Marston’s views directly equal that of left wing politics; the idea that a more equal distribution of income is beneficial to all. Modern day income redistribution takes the form of a progressive tax system, a century ago it was the task of outlaws – at least in the eyes of Red Dead’s protagonist.
Even during the game’s first half he still holds some of these ideals dear. When tracking members of the Ballard Gang back to their hideout Marston asks the sheriff why they don’t just arrest them then and there if they’re known gang members, but the sheriff disagrees. Marston believes they should prevent the crime in the first place, Leigh Johnson that they should punish it when it happens.
Why do his views change though? An obvious reason is the actions of the Mexican rebels in the game’s middle third. These rebels have support from followers who truly believe they’re working towards a fairer, more equal Mexico. They hope to achieve this through a socialist government, which Reyes even tries to convert Marston to at one point (“You would make a fine socialist.”). To a certain extent the rebel leaders believe their cause is noble as well, though as with any politician it’s hard to tell their beliefs from their rhetoric.
The problem Marston discovers, is that of the
Although this may have pushed him over the edge, it’s undoubtedly the government’s control over his own life that he resents the most. Characters he comes across within the game often assume he’s working for the government, which is only really half true. To claim someone’s working for someone implies they have a choice, when in actual fact he’s being blackmailed to do so. In this way John sees the flip-side of increased government intervention, its negative impact.
Coming face to face with his old gang members reveals how much his beliefs have changed. A key concept often used in the political broadcasting of the left is that of ‘fairness’, but Marston gives up on this utopian view, “Ain’t nothing fair” he says, and also “It was just an excuse and we all knew.”
John Marston’s time during the game changes him. He started out with a firmly held belief that a government (or in his case: outlaws) should intervene to restore fairness and equality, but drops this belief when he sees the dangers of too much governmental control in Mexico. By the game’s end Marston wants one thing: freedom, and he’s willing to put up with all of life’s hardships to enjoy it. This is in my view the game’s biggest achievement. It doesn’t just take the Wild West as a convenient setting, it makes the central ideal of the West, that of freedom, its central theme.