Monthly Archives: November 2012

Remakes and Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition

The remake and/or remastering of a game is a tricky proposition for many people, myself included (possibly due to a certain science fiction series’ butchery by its creator). Now, as a caveat, I’d like to note that ‘remake’ does not mean ‘reboot’ like that mediocre Syndicate game that came out this year. Not that there was anything particularly wrong with it but, the story clearly had chunks taken out and was rendered borderline nonsensical by some variety of marketing wonk, and the game content was burnt up in under 30 hours (including the multiplayer). It was clearly a half-assed attempt to cash in on the name, and because of the risk associated with it, only a very limited amount of content was created with the plan clearly to create or release further content only in the event of success. Hobbled, the game limped out, was given a resounding shrug by most critics. I enjoyed it, to be honest- I could extrapolate where the story was going before it went all pear-shaped, and the game was fun if tremendously short. The low level of commitment on the part of the publisher, and the corresponding failure to succeed are clearly linked- and no one wants to have the memories of a classic game tarnished like that again. At least, if a publisher is going to screw up a classic game, we’d like to see them put their whole ass into the effort.

Home again…

Some part of each of us wants our favorite older games redone with minimal changes so that they don’t end up like Syndicate. My personal dream is Chrono Trigger in high def- the music done by the London Philharmonic, everything drawn using the same palette but in 1920×1080 resolution, and not a single change made to gameplay or story. That, I believe, is the key- most people don’t want a ton of extra features or new story. In a few days, I’ll be posting my review of Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition. I’m honestly a little nervous about it- Baldur’s Gate is the game that pushed me from casual to serious gamer. And while I thoroughly support the work of the Pocket Plane Group, I am a little concerned at the addition of 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons elements by Overhaul to a game based in Second Edition. Pocket Plane mods tended to focus on expanding existing elements in the game, such as cut quests and dialogue, or adding romantic elements hinted at. Many of them also correct items, monster stats, or frustrating AI behavior to a higher standard.  In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Pocket Plane Group and Overhaul Games collaborated on the game…and if not, they should seriously consider it.

This is part of my skepticism about remastered editions of games- can companies have the same dedication as a given game’s community? Is the dreaded hand of a marketing executive going to be felt on its release? One of the best examples I can think of regarding a community’s devotion (fanatical to the point of possibly being some variety of death-cult) is that of the VTM: Bloodlines enthusiasts. They continue to patch a game almost nine years old that sunk the legendary Troika Studios. There has to be a certain level of enthusiasm and joy found in their work, and a certain freedom from oversight for it truly to be a labor of love. I think that Overhaul has that magic in it- there’s no huge company breathing down their necks, micromanaging their efforts. They delayed the release of their game to make it better, on top of not charging an arm, a leg, and another leg for the game. The interface and music are keeping in the themes of the originals. They didn’t toss aside all the things that made the original great, and even kept the original dialogue. Overhaul has that dedication that you only get from a group who are really committed to something they enjoy.

Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition will available on tablets, too. What a glorious future we live in!

In the end, I suspect I’ll be staying up late tonight, playing Baldur’s Gate. It’s like a date with that hot girl from high school that you haven’t heard from in a decade…you know what she was like, and she says things have only gotten better. You’re excited but a little nervous at the same time. It’s been ten years since I played the original, and like I said, it was one of those games that made me the gamer I am today.

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Things I Learned From World of Warcraft, Part One

Right off the bricks, I’d like to be clear- I’ve been clean about four years now, since about a year after Wrath of the Lich King dropped. My experiences in Azeroth (and beyond!) have stayed with me- and I’d like to share some of the valuable life lessons the game has given me.

Lesson One: Situational Awareness

Back in the day, when I first started playing with my friends, I was tossed onto a PvP server. As a freshly-minted Undead Priest, I ended up in a largely out of the way zone to start. It was pretty rare for me to see any sort of Alliance presence with the exception of the odd group of brave (but exceptionally stupid) adventurers on their way to the Scarlet Monastery. At the time, seeing them didn’t worry me- I was close enough to Undercity that stopping to gank a level fifteen fighting gnolls added risk to an already dicey venture. It wasn’t uncommon for people leveling closer to the Plaguelands to call out in zone chat that there was a party headed that way…usually just before or just after the Alliance goons cut them down.  It was a dark time, then- ganking was a pastime for many, without even a yelled ‘BREAK YOSELF, FOO!’ to announce your murderous intentions. So there I was, minding my own business  watching the Alliance pass without interest, thinking I should live and let live, when suddenly, a paladin stops. Dismounting, she one hit me, and without fanfare, continued on her way. I shrugged it off the first time, and the second…but when it happened a third time, I got to be nervous. I developed the habit of constantly looking over my shoulder, being aware of what was going on around me in addition to what I was fighting and what people were saying on Ventrilo.

Seeing this from the opposing faction means it’s safe to pass them by…unless they’re lying, backstabbing goons.

At the time, Stranglethorn Vale and Hillsbrad Foothills were also major transit areas. I remember learning the unspoken code of civility- if you were passing through, and you found a member of the opposing faction, you came to a stop a waved. If they waved back, it meant that they didn’t want trouble and you could give each other a wide, wary berth as you passed on your way. If they didn’t respond, they were calling for reinforcements and you had to down them or dash. When you were questing or fighting mobs, you had to have one eye peeled because that was the perfect time to jump someone. In fact, it was considered an ideal time to jump someone of a higher level than you while they were fighting- me and a friend actually went prowling in a slightly-higher level area once to revenge a particularly egregious spree by a particular gnome in the Foothills. We both often leveled together, at least partially for safety- though there wasn’t much we could do most of the time if a level seventy decided he didn’t like the look of my eyeless, mandible-less priest trying to kill something.

Undercity was not a safe haven either. Even before there was an achievement for it, some people would city-raid. While each faction had one particularly hard-to-raid city (Thunder Bluff and Stormwind respectively), it was possible to be minding your own business and get caught up in a raid.You could be sitting there, at the auction house, turning in your leather when out of nowhere forty Alliance could pour down the Undercity pipes or through the far Ogrimmar gates. Players had to be ready to defend themselves, or at least get out of the way. It could be an easy way to get kills by helping defend your city- especially since you respawned so close, and so long as you helped down some of the raiders with area of effect spells or picked away at weaker members you could get a few freebies.

The face of the enemy, in the Horde capital of Ogrimmar, circa Burning Crusade.

Now, how did this translate into other things? Well, playing the game for years with one eye cocked over your shoulder translates fairly well into games like Dead Space. The knowledge that nothing is safe -not even your home city- imprints heavily in games with a survival element. Having to spot far-off Alliance goons gave me a knack for attention to detail. While I haven’t played for years- admittedly, doing thirty hours of raiding per week sort of caused me to burn out on the game- I still remember it fondly and periodically become nostalgic for it- even the PVP.

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Review: Torchlight 2

I found myself far far beyond help. My ferret had ran into town to sell the meagre loot I’d found so far, my skeletal minions were little more than glorified skittles to the forces arrayed against me and it was only a small matter of time until the lumbering golem before me reached its stalactite hands out to beat the last ounce of life from me. Summoning the wolf spirit of my ancestors, I darted back and forth in a violent violet display, draining my foes of their vigor and absorbing it, saving me from what seemed moments before like an inevitable doom. This is your welcome to Torchlight 2.

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Blood in the Boardroom: How Executives Are Ruining Their Own Games

We’ve all seen it- the general reduction of games to a homogeneous pulp, driven by ‘what the next big thing is’. Many shooters are now grey-brown warfighters, despite most of those games turning into flops, most recently the latest entry in the Medal of Honor series. Other games with more niche markets are being moved towards a mainstream presentation. While there are a few exceptions, many games come with mandatory multiplayer; not because it makes the game any better, but because some suit in marketing thinks that it is required to be successful  That seems to be exactly the problem- creative control and direction has moved from the creative part of the industry to a boardroom of people incredibly remote from gaming, gamer culture, and even the nature of their products. Executives will be executives, I suppose.

The first major problem is that game production is now feature driven, not quality driven. There is a general failure to realize that the Call of Duty and Halo franchises are successful and have such large market shares because they’re games that are fun to play, not because they have a large multiplayer aspect. In fact, mandatory multiplayer has measurably worsened games such as Spec Ops: The Line and Dead Space 2. The development of those two games was set back, money wasted on multiplayer for the sake of having it in the game. In both of those cases, perfectly good games had horrible multiplayer forcibly inserted into the product just to have it there. In fact, the lead designer of Spec Ops: The Line described the multiplayer of his own game as a ‘cancerous growth‘ forced onto the disc by their publisher. There seems to be some sort of notion that players want features, not a quality game in the boardrooms of most major publishers. While I appreciate good multiplayer as much as anyone else, it simply isn’t necessary in most games. Multiplayer isn’t the only feature forced into games because a suit from marketing says so- it’s simply the most obvious, and the most common example. Like in Dead Space 2, it’s clear to see when it’s another tick in the box as compared to something there to improve the game experience.

We all remember how well this turned out, don’t we?

Technology continues to advance, and graphics are getting better and better, it cannot be disputed. However, developers are alienating growing sections of the market by mindlessly pursuing ‘better graphics’ as a selling point. The state of the economy worldwide means that not everyone has the capability to afford a liquid-cooled, borderline sentient machine to run the latest games…which they largely can’t afford at sixty dollars a pop. As it is, gamers must pick and choose which titles they can afford at all as companies slowly price themselves out of the market in a way reminiscent of movie theaters. Sales going down does not mean that prices should be raised- in fact, the opposite should occur. However, a new game on release week remain sixty dollars give or take, with Collector’s Editions often costing over a hundred dollars. Regardless, all of these graphical advancements are borderline moot: a console can only give out a certain level of performance, and the number of people who can fully exploit a game’s potential is dwindling. Almost all of the money spent rendering graphics bleeding edge is essentially wasted- doubly so if the game isn’t all that fun to begin with. All that money could have been spent improving the game itself, or lowering the price point so that gamers could afford to give companies their money. The icing on the cake is that a large portion of sales are online, via services such as Steam or Origin- a game purchased there often costs the same as a physical copy.

These problems aren’t just effecting the end users- many game companies are posting losses. THQ barely avoided bankruptcy, and EA posted a loss of 381 million dollars for Q2 of this year alone. They also predicted further losses after the latest Medal of Honor failed to sell, and they aren’t alone. Zynga has had to slash jobs, and Sony’s game division posted a staggering 198 million dollar loss for the same period, which is less than the other horrible losses the company has suffered this year. Failure to adapt to a new business model- one that includes more variety in releases, lower budgets, and lower prices for games- is costing jobs and profits. There are profits in more niche games, if a developer doesn’t sink an enormous budget into trying to make it appeal to everyone. A niche game, like any other, will sell based on its merits and quality, and not on what is popular at a given moment. Dead Space, as an example, didn’t sell based on appealing to mainstream gamers, but instead a core audience of horror enthusiasts. It was successful enough to warrant a sequel, without losing a large portion of that audience. However, seeing the promotional material for Dead Space 3, it looks (and seems to play) nothing like the first two in the series. Instead of claustrophobic, isolated horror, the game seems to be a co-op version of Lost Planet with necromorphs. There is no longer the claustrophobia of being in dimly-lit areas in space, a missed shot away from a hull breach- the outdoor ice-planet vistas make that clear. There is no longer the feeling of almost total isolation and pressure- the game has a mandatory co-op element. Essentially, the game has lost the greater part of their original audience by trying to appeal to a ‘broader audience’.

One of these things is not like the other.

Most people don’t want game companies to fail. They want them to succeed  to be able to make great games for players to enjoy- and if they succeed, they should theoretically go on making other great games. For that to happen, either executives need to leave creative and gameplay aspects alone, or become educated about them- or game companies will continue to sink.

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Preview: Don’t Starve

An odd figure stands before me in a field mottled with grass and twigs. He says very little, spending his few words on a single suggestion: that I should eat before night-fall. He vanishes, leaving me bewildered and alone. I look around the gothic plains in front of me and see a soft shine in the grass, the shattered remains of a larger piece of flint. I secure the flint to a branch to create a makeshift axe. Now I can really get to work. I see a bee-hive ahead and with the advice of the mysterious stranger ringing in my ears, I descend upon the hive to gather some honey. I ready my axe and swing once. Twice. Bees spurt from the top, angry at my invasion of their home.

Then I died.

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The IGF Alphabet (S To Z)

You know what? I consider myself lucky that there’s been a game for every letter so far. I’ve yet to look past V towards the arse of the alphabet though, so things could change. Count that as a warning if there are repeated letters later… Continue reading

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Review: Rock Band Blitz

Back in the winter of 2003, a 10 year old boy bought a PlayStation 2 videogame called Amplitude, developed by an unknown company named Harmonix. The game worked by laying out all of the different instruments of a song onto six different tracks, one for each of them, with your goal being to both activate each track by successfully blasting notes on them and to string several track activations together without missing a beat to rack up the multiplier.

That 10 year old boy thought it was the greatest game ever and, nearly a decade later, that’s an opinion he still holds. He then latched onto Harmonix like most children latch onto their parents; following them through the highs (Guitar Hero, Rock Band) and lows (EyeToy: AntiGrav) with such feverish devotion. It’s safe to say that they’ve had way more of an impact on his life (in terms of games, online interactions and, crucially, music taste) than almost anyone or anything he’s ever known. And it was all thanks to Amplitude, the game that no-one else gave a toss about but he.

Why am I telling you this story? It’s not to be a hipster douchebag by bragging about how I was into Harmonix well before you posers. No. It’s because Harmonix, nearly a decade later, have finally made a sequel to Amplitude. Continue reading

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Impressions: In Verbis Virtus

You’re a wizard, ‘Arry. At least, that’s what In Verbis Virtus wants you to think and, by and large, it succeeds. If you’re one of those people who shouted out the spells along with Harry Potter or spent hours yelling “FUS RO- OH GOD I’M LONELY” at Skyrim, you might just want to join me in giving In Verbis a go.

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Feeling For The Bad Guy

Most gamers aren’t psychopaths trying to escape reality.

Wait, that’s a Godawful way to introduce the idea of sympathy for villains. In many games -especially the grey/brown shooters flooding the market- there’s no expectation of sympathy for the people you’re blowing holes in. There’s only coldly mechanical murder, canned (for those who don’t speak the vernacular, silenced/suppressed) AR’s huffing in the dark as you kill terrorists by the horde. Or Russians, or Iranians, or whoever else is the Bad Guy De Jour. At any rate, many shooters focus on twitch killing everything that isn’t you. Lately, however, there’s been a proliferation of games that at least offer the option of dealing with enemies nonlethally. Along with that, of course, comes the idea that not all bad guys are bad.

It’s a dangerous notion, that. It’s one thing to slaughter Nazis mercilessly, or demons. It’s a black and white sort of situation- evil versus good. But when the modern sneaker/shooter/whatever actually encourages you to think for a moment, that’s heady stuff. Really, think about it. It’s one thing to cut down cyberdemons in Doom, it’s another to be listening to a couple of minimum-wage security guards bumming around, grumbling about the pay and hours. Then, they become more human. It’s hard to put humanity on a cacodemon. It’s another to hear some guy whose job YOU might have had, sitting there in a booth between you and your objective complaining that he thinks that his wife is cheating, or that he’s hungry because he forgot his lunch on the kitchen table. Subtle moments that remind you that most of the baddies in the game you’re planning are real people, with real backgrounds. It makes you think twice about smearing them over forty yards of warehouse.

Most people in the world of Dishonored are just doing jobs, trying to get by in a city gone crazy with plague and rats.

One of the best examples of this actually came out of Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I was replaying it, and sneaking into a certain apartment building in Hengsha. I had to hack a computer inside, and there were a few options: I could shoot my way in, sneak across a few rooftops, or some combination of the two. I opted a quieter option, and unholstered by silenced pistol. I crept, crawled and climbed until I reached the roof, where a few Generic Corporate Goons stood. I leaned out from a corner, and drew a bead on the back of one’s head. He fidgets as his boss talks. The boss tells the guy to shoot anyone on the roof, and he objects. He basically says, “I don’t want to shoot anyone. How am I supposed to tell them to go away? I don’t speak Cantonese,” and the boss basically tells him that the barrel of a .45 speaks a universal language. None the less, the young recruit objects again before the boss tells him to cowboy up or he’d be fired. It was something I could really understand. People need jobs, and I’ve worked security. I didn’t wake up wanting to push people around or hurt them- I and most of my colleagues woke up like anyone else, and just wanted to make another paycheck.

Sometimes, it’s fun to just give way to to fantasy, and blast some aliens. But when you’re becoming immersed in a game, one of the things that breaks that suspension of belief is the idea that there’s endless waves of mindless bad guys, fighting the protagonist for no real reason. In the real world, paid security guards won’t fight to the death for minimum wage and no benefits. They will run, surrender, panic, lay down cover fire for their friends…they are real people, with real problems just like anyone else. As I recently played my way through Dishonored, I looked at most of the average goons, and said…well, they’re not bad guys. Early on in the game, the player is given a mystical object called the Heart, which can be used to learn the secrets of others. Used on most of the denizens of the game, you learn small facts about the target. A city guard worries about his sick kids .The city watch is composed of the few brave or desperate enough to try and control the chaos, almost all of whom are desperate and ill themselves. The street thugs are simply trying to get by- I remember a moment when I used the Heart on one Bottle Street thug, and found out he gave his extra food to a dog. I couldn’t knife him in the spine unawares after that. It felt…wrong.  He was just doing his job, like anyone else. That job may have been holding down his block, but it’s not like anyone joins a gang of murderous thugs if a better option presents itself. And, to be honest, it’s not like job opportunities are overwhelming in a city where half to a third of the population is dying or dead of the rat plague.

A guard drunk in a whorehouse, and a girl trying to wake him. Everyone’s got problems in Dunwall, and escape is a valuable commodity.

Sometimes, it’s the subtle things that give the character you might be killing life, or at least a sense of reality. I was sneaking around, late in the game, and I heard a guard below muttering to himself. I looked down, ready to drop down and drive my blade into him, drag him off into a dark corner. Looking down, I saw him stop, and light up a cigarette. Another guard passed by and nodded. He said, to no one in particular, “I’ll write her again. She’ll see reason.” I boggled for a second. There’s other, more subtle hints as to most of the people in Dunwall having serious issues- the ever-present piles of garbage, the mountains of empty liquor bottles everywhere. They are a people on the brink, and on the bottle.  Who was she? Where was she, and what would she see? Little moments like that made me pause. Even the Overseers, the religious police of the game, have redeeming moments. I ended up going through their mail, looking for clues- I found two letters hinting at plans to desert, one explicit warning to stop going to a brothel, and one hinting at an illicit homosexual romance. I briefly felt bad for murdering everyone in the level.

There were other moments in the game, but that one stuck with me. The characters were human- they had real motivations, real aspirations, and I was just seeing them on the job. They were paying the bills, not being fanatically devoted thugs. In DE:HR, they’re just guys on the job. In Dishonored, it’s clear they’ve been lied to the entire time. Personally, I feel bad stabbing a guy in the spine just for doing his job. A lot of the guards in Dishonored explicitly state that they believe that Corvo killed then Empress, then went on a horrible, murderous rampage. Most of them seem intent on simply doing their jobs and trying  to keep the peace or even just survive- and I didn’t think they should die for just trying to get by. They weren’t strictly *bad* guys, any more than the maid in your target’s house. Of course, yes, there were people worth killing. But not every bad guy is a bad guy.

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Review: Wreck-It Ralph

Let’s get something out of the way early. I’m not much of a gamer. As such, I’m told I missed a lot of the references in Wreck-It Ralph. Even if that’s true, not being intimately familiar with video games didn’t prevent me from liking the movie or getting some of the jokes. At least the Q-Bert ones, at any rate.

The titular Ralph is the bad guy in Fix-It Felix, Jr., an old arcade game in which he wrecks an apartment building. When his game celebrates its 30th anniversary and Ralph is left out of the celebrations, he decides his days of exclusion are over. Determined to be accepted by his co-characters, Ralph crashes the party only to be antagonized by the building’s residents. That night, Ralph sets out on journey to get a medal; if he returns to his game with a gold medal, he will be welcomed as a hero and no longer shunned. Continue reading

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