Archive for May, 2010|Monthly archive page

Keeping Unapprised to Developments

In The Gaming Community, Video Games on May 20, 2010 at 9:02 pm

Lost Planet 2 was recently released to intense criticism that Capcom failed to address any flaws inherited in its iterant features; this is made worse from the flaws inherent in the game’s modicum of new features.  How, it is asked, is this possible?  Lost Planet itself was practically a launch title for the 360 and its sequel sees release in what is likely the autumn of this generation’s lifecycle.  The answers, I fear, are endemic of the culture which produced it, and there are nuances to this that do not facilitate easy understanding.  That Lost Planet 2 is a shooter drastically emphasizes the differences between attitudes in development and growth between the east and the west.

Principally, western-developed games stand upon the shoulders of their predecessors and are developed to stand toe-to-toe, feature-to-feature, with their contemporaries.  The general expectation is that each game should be as good as the game that came before; that means learning from others’ missteps, including popularized features and modifying the scope of a game to match what is currently in demand.  Of the more popular and populated genres, this evolution is swift and merciless to those that ignore it, and in no genre is this more evident than shooters.  With heavy emphasis on gameplay and reliance upon multiplayer to add replay value, these games are played until they are no longer relevant; Quake 3, released in December of 1999, is still being played today because no game matches its frenetic, yet simplistic, deathmatch.  It’s then-contemporary, Unreal Tournament, doesn’t see as much use as it’s seen several sequels that have generally upgraded the whole process.

Shooter savants can tell when a game was produced based upon not just its graphics, but which features are present.  Max Payne popularized “bullet-time,” so you will not see this feature on any title prior to 2001 (even then, most games have the decency to not include it unless it is somehow justified in-plot).  Gibs — the reduction of a model to red chunks and bits — reached its zenith in 1999 with Unreal Tournament, until being replaced with pirouetting ragdoll physics in 2003 with the appropriately titled Unreal Tournament 2003; only very recently have games begun to combine the two into truly spectacular splatterfests.  Halo gave us recharging “health” along with vehicle-based combat, with the former seeing so wide a distribution that only its exceptions are notable, while the latter was immediately integrated into Unreal Tournament 2004.  It also likely served as an inspiration for the Battlefield franchise’s emphasis on vehicles as well.  Half-Life gave us squad-based opponents that worked in concert to challenge the player, and squads now figure heavily into every military-themed shooter, acting as the whole allied team or subgroups of that team.  And, there are tons of smaller implementations, like side-justified weaponry (first seen in Turok of all places), accuracy that degrades with movement and weapon fire (Counter-Strike) grenades as a set, secondary weapon (Team Fortress), third-person camera controls and dodging maneuvers, headshots, limited clip size, alt fires, iron sights, all of these were introduced and met with success in prior titles before being integrated as industry standards.

As such, it is when a game is released in ignorance or with purposeful neglect of these standards, do we begin seeing epitaphs in reviews as the game feeling “antiquated,” or more derogatively, “would have been an embarrassment five years ago.”  Daikatana is infamous for being this, both due to being released incredibly late as well as the arrogance of Ion Storm believing they could do no wrong in the genre they popularized with DoomFortress Forever, a mod upgrading Team Fortress Classic is a bumbling, antiquated mess that refused to acknowledge that games should change with the genre, and that there’s nothing so sacred that it should be exempt from meeting our rising expectations.

Eastern developers don’t function like this.  Examine role-playing games, the most popular genre in Japan: what do they share in common?  What are their benchmarks?  What features must each one include?  Which features were not present ten years ago?  All that they share in common is that there are levels, a battle system and a plot to experience.  Some have real-time battle systems, while others turn based and other still have some fusion of the two; leveling up may be static, imparting pre-set stat bonuses, or the player may direct the growth of the characters, or there may not be levels at all; and so on.  The only standard is the very base of the genre itself; it seems to be more important for games to be differentiated by their features, than it is for developers to learn and integrate well-received features into successive releases.  On this note, sequels are marked by their adherence to previously established mechanics, with deviation met with mixed or outright critical results.  Whence goes progress?  With the emphasis on simply producing a new battle system, little effort is expended on improving that system.

Other genres show this as well.  Fighting game franchises, again a primary export from Japan and not something produced stateside are valued for being similar to their predecessors and offer only additional characters and balance changes with each iteration.  Certainly, additional production values may be present — equipment collection, gaiden modes and so on — but the core game remains unchanged.  From Soul Blade to Soul Calibur IV, Street Fighter to Super Street Fighter IV, each game presents a familiar package instantly recognizable as belonging to the franchise in question through the gameplay alone.  All of this really becomes apparent when we compare advancement in the hypercompetitive shooter genre.  Dirge of Cerberus got panned because its gameplay was nowhere near the standards of the time, even if the story and graphics made it tolerable as an experience. 

And, of course, we have Lost Planet 2, which is an update in story, setting and scope but little else changed, allowing old and new flaws to somehow exist simultaneously when really, it should have been a better game.

And I’m not saying that western developers never fall into this.  Halo has changed little since its debut, and even side titles as ODST deviant minimally, even as a whole gaming generation has come and gone.  However, in this case it is more a developer resting on its laurels, rather than shirking a responsibility to accept changes in the genre — and Halo is surprisingly relevant even yet.

As developers in Japan simply aren’t keen on copying or learning from their predecessors or contemporaries, we are prone to seeing huge steps backwards if they move at all.  How else did FFXIII end up as a huge, FFX-esque corridor where FFXII was a huge, expansive world.

As long as both sides stick to their “strong” points I doubt this issue will come to a head; we’ll keep making shooters, where expectations are high and rising, and they’ll keep making RPGs, where people only expect levels and plot.


You’ve Gotta Figure, the Apocalypse in Russia Must Be Something.

In Video Games on May 17, 2010 at 3:32 pm

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is one of those games that, with its atmospheric presentation, solid gameplay and ambitious scope, gamers had been anticipating for quite some time prior to its release.  At first, not much was known, and the quirky title added to the mystery even as delays piled up.  When the first game, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl was released, it was to less fanfare than perhaps it deserved: its delays and ambition were detrimental as we were presented with a buggy game with a graphics engine two years stale.  With these humble origins, we now stand with three subtitled S.T.A.L.K.E.R. titles, talks of an actual numeric sequel (i.e. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2) as well as a console port of some kind.  Each successive title has been produced with cutting-edge technology, Clear Sky and Call of Pripyat both among the first to utilize DirectX 10 and 11, respectively.  All through this, the series has seen support from loyal fans that purchased S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl at its outset (as myself), as well as those who stumbled upon the series late like unto a drunkard showing up for after-dinner drinks.  Additional support for this much loved series has been granted by those of us that have tried to sell our friends on the game; I, for one, tend to market it as playing like Counter-Strike amid Fallout’s backdrop, but without the latter’s cheery optimism.  As X-Play’s Adam Sessler put it; “It’s dark, it’s raining, you soak up radiation like a sponge, your guns jam, you’re always bleeding, you’re hungry, no one likes you and everybody hates you.”

Naturally, as it’s been eight months since the latest game came out, my friends have begun mentioning some kind of post-apocalyptic game set in Russia that seems pretty cool, and have I heard of it?  Title’s something-something-stalker-something.  After bronchospasming, I explained that this was the game I’d showed, or lent to them years ago.  Were they certain they wanted to go down this path?  I might not stop talking.

The closest kind of experience relatable to S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is how you might remember playing Morrowind.  Pay close attention to the wording on that sentence: I didn’t say gameplay experience, since Morrowind is very clearly an RPG, and how you remember playing it greatly differs from how you actually played it — for the better.  If asked, rather than relating how you spent two hours leveling your unarmed skill (before finding out how useless it was), you might regale your friends about how you used to make ends meet by hawking Indoril armor, immorally but nevertheless satisfyingly acquired by gutting those intolerant guards in Vivec and sold to a talking creeper or mudcrab.  S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is similar: you won’t say that you spent twenty minutes dying and reloading to a couple of mercenaries, but you will let everyone know about that one time you managed to gib the four military jerks demanding a toll under the first bridge with just one grenade.  And, just as you would taut Morrowind’s little defects as features — such as being able to snipe villagers from beyond the radius of their AI to avoid repercussions — you’ll find S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is similarly enhanced by, for example, being driven to paranoid heights because you still haven’t encountered the game’s resident invisible blood sucker even though it spotted you, and vanished, like fifteen minutes ago.  Ontologically speaking, they offer the same retrospective.

In the pacing of their playing you’ll also see some parallels.  Both games aren’t immediately rewarding, and both drop you into the sandbox with very little provided direction or impetus as to what the hell you should actually be doing.  S.T.A.L.K.E.R. might be the worst of the two, as Morrowind has this general idea of advancement through its RPG mechanic: if you want to sling better fireballs or smash people better, just sling more fireballs and smash more people.  S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is much more vague: if you’d like a better gun, first you have to find one.  Is it for sale?  If you don’t have the cash, you’ll have to find something worth selling.  Is it being fired at you?  You could scrounge around for the ideal tactical location for dealing with him and his friends (and he will have friends), but maybe you should get some better armor first.  Outside of this vicious cycle, the game presents a heavy attrition factor with weapon and armor degradation and limited ammunition, and coupled with your limited inventory space you’ll quickly see the advantage in artifact hunting, despite the game providing no specific instruction to do so.  And, hey, you’ll fit right in, seeing as how that’s what everyone else is also doing there.

More than previous games in the series, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat presents a world that does not revolve around the player.  The game’s various factions — which includes but is not limited to stalkers, duty, freedom, mercenaries, bandits, scientists, military, wild animals and mutants — certainly give each other a solid go and you’ll frequently hear shooting in the distance or see wild animals attacking each other, then breaking off to face an incoming mutant.  These little encounters cause the game to grow beyond its parts; I recall the time I was seeking shelter against an incoming blowout (zone-wide explosion) and began travelling with a few mercenaries that were also trying to seek shelter.  The human factions tend to value their lives and as such will prioritize seeking shelter over shooting each other, but that did not stop us from being attacked by wild dogs en route.  Seeing the time get cut close and with shelter still in the distance, I saw one of the mercenaries die to the dogs and made a run for it, essentially leaving the remaining mercs for dead or worse, just to save myself.  I never did see them again.

In the end, you get as much out of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. as you are willing to invest: a true testament to the concept of cathexis, or emotional investment.  This isn’t Grand Theft Russia where you can get away with mowing everyone down; properly played, you should be very cautious and paranoid, heightened to outright terror at the prospect of heading into a darkened building or abandoned lab.  You will also die, frequently, to either bad circumstances, cunning opponents or simple, overwhelming force.  A good S.T.A.L.K.E.R. player will not purport to have avoided death; rather, they will speak about those “failures” with jocularity, because each one added to their experience.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is a great game.  After your first hour you will hate it, but after twenty you’ll wonder how you ever settled for less.