Hiatus   Leave a comment

I may be away for a week or two as my new home (starting from the 1st July) won’t have Internet access until then. I may be able to update once or twice with a little luck.

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Posted 30/06/2011 by expandingfrontier in Uncategorized

The good old days of gaming   Leave a comment

Recently in a Steam sale, I picked up the game VVVVVV. The name draws attention to two features of the game, the fact that each of the six characters have names beginning with the letter and the triangular spikes that litter the game. The game is a deliberately retro platformer and it wears its intentions on its sleeves from the ZX Spectrum-era music to the loading screen from those by-gone days.

When I tend to think of retro games, I tend to think of games beyond a certain point in time, more than two generations in console terms. PS2 and Xbox games aren’t retro to me yet, but Playstation, Sega Saturn and N64 games (as well as their contemporary PC titles) are. What I’ve seen, however, is a lot of people use the term retro gaming to refer to games specifically from their childhood days. Now, my first gaming machines were from the 16-bit era and, as such, long after the video games crash of 1983. As such, when I see VVVVVV it really harkens back to an age of gaming where I was not alive, let alone playing games, but I have played video games from the 70s and 80s and do consider myself a bit of a retro-gamer, but playing VVVVVV made me think.

It presents itself as a very hard game and it really is. It also presents itself as very frustrating and, perhaps that is true for the hardcore fans who saw their first games before I was born and are pushing towards middle-age or have reached it by now, but I never found it frustrating. There’s this one bit where the game puts you through a series of levels where you have to dodge carefully placed spikes to reach a platform which you bounce off to get to a trinket on the other side and it almost seems to gloat (given the screen names) about how frustrating, unfair and, ultimately, how unrewarding the trinket is at the end.

And that’s something that bothers me. It’s not frustrating me at all because there’s no real challenge there. It’s simply a matter of time and death is barely a setback. Sure, I died a few hundred times getting through that puzzle, but the point is I got through that puzzle.

What do we actually want from older games? The fact is their difficulty alone wasn’t enough to make them good games. Castlevania on the NES was hard, but it was possible to do it first run, you just had to sit and think about how you were going to approach each task rather than learn by rote what you needed to do at what moment in order to get further. VVVVVV isn’t like that, there’s a lot you learn to do simply by rote and getting your timing right can be very hit and miss.

It’s not an awful game, it’s got a lot of charm to it. What it does, however, is make me very thankful that games have blossomed beyond the very limited set of genres and ideas that games in the 70s and early 80s had. In Charlie Brooker’s Gamewipe, he gave the example of a programme from the early days on computer gaming where one presenter dismissed games as lacking any long-term or mass appeal. He criticism wouldn’t stand today because, at the time, games only came as aesthetic variations on one of a few concepts.

My point to all this is we should not harken back nostalgically to a supposed golden era of gaming where things were better, because games are much better today than they have ever been. It’s fun to play some of the older games that were good at the times, but can we really compare classics like Space Invaders to the best of modern day gaming? No, Space Invaders bores me to tears quickly because it’s the same level repeated for the sole achievement of earning an increased number near the word ‘score’ that does not appeal to me as much as it did to those gamers. Pac Man is a little more fun because there’s a bit more balanced challenge and variety but, again, modern gaming wins out. After the NES came out, the face of gaming changed radically and grew into new forms; it still does.

The problem is every time a Brink or a Dungeon Siege III or a Duke Nukem Forever comes out, players are rushing to praise how older games had it right, but they are comparing the better games that they remember to any game coming out today. The fact is that there was plenty of crap coming out then, why does anyone think the crash of ’83 happened? But people won’t remember Custer’s Revenge or E.T. on the Atari 2600. People remember the first Castlevania more than they remember Simon’s Quest and we don’t realise that we do this all the time (and not just in gaming).

So I have a criticism of VVVVVV and that’s the assumption that pins a lot of the talking that games are too easy, too soft on gamers today. They’re not, because the difficulty of games like VVVVVV aren’t a complex, satisfying challenge; they are just arbitrarily difficult to extend game length and we should not condemn modern games for cutting this out. What’s worse, I don’t get irritated or give in to the frustrations of VVVVVV because death is so trivial and arbitrary that it’s turned itself on its head and become fairly easy to complete.

Team Fortress 2 “Meet the Medic” trailer (PC trailer)   Leave a comment

I saw it coming that they would go free to play a long while ago. They’ve been gearing up to it with the in-game store and the earlier F2P burst on Steam was a precursor. I feel ambivalent about it for the moment, but we’ll see what happens.

Obsidian’s problems   Leave a comment

If there’s one thing I want anyone to take away from this, it’s that, regardless of how much we loved Black Isle and how good their games could be with proper QA, we should just stop buying Obsidian games until they either change or die off. The sad fact is they are not improving their QA after 8 years of buggy games.

Obsidian Entertainment recently released Dungeon Siege III and while Metacritic scores are veering towards the better side of mediocre, user scores are hitting the same lows as games like Dragon Age II. While it’s easy to treat this as a sign that you shouldn’t take professional reviewers at face value due to their unfortunate tendency of being less critical of games that they ought to be, there is a distinct problem at Obsidian that needs to be solved.

I am talking about their bug-ridden software. Defenders of Obsidian often point to their game’s large scope and depth as a reason for the bugs and we should expect these problems. This simply doesn’t work as a defence, Dungeon Siege III had a larger number than any comparably-sized release I’d seen for a long while and, more importantly, launch-time patches designed to fix problems introduced even more problems that seem so surreal and outlandish that it is hard to imagine how any programmer could derail a patch so.

It’s not even as if Dungeon Siege III is the only bad release, either. Look at the Wikipedia pages for Fallout: New Vegas, Neverwinter Nights 2 or Alpha Protocol. Of them, only Fallout: New Vegas got a positive Metacritic score across both professional and user ratings. While it’s the case that Fallout and Neverwinter Nights 2 both have fans of older, non-Obsidian games lowering their user ratings, the lion’s share of complaints from both games seem to be about bugs.

It’s interesting they don’t mention Neverwinter Nights 2 or Alpha Protocol in this.

What is worse, as demonstrated by the Dungeon Siege III launch-time patches, is that Obsidian’s patching policy makes the problems worse. Dungeon Siege III with its control reversal problem or its hour-long game lockout due to two separate patches is not the first to do this, both Fallout and Alpha Protocol fell short here with new problems introduced as old ones are being (often only partially) fixed.

Dungeon Siege III is also plagued by a horde of poor design choices: co-op mode puts the second player, in the words of Penny Arcade, in the role of a side-kick in the first player’s story with no long term gains; players cannot reconfigure any keys or controls for the keyboard, and many complaints on the forums have been met with a “use a gamepad” response. There is also the fact that many older fans of the series complain that the game doesn’t live up to the earlier games, but to what extent these sentiments are based on problems or just dogged gamer conservatism is hard to tell.

If I’m not holding punches for Mojang over this, I won’t for Obsidian. Various game magazines have spoken with people at Obsidian about this issue and they have received the same line: Fallout’s problems were unfortunate, but we’re working extra hard on the QA of Dungeon Siege III.

They evidently didn’t work hard enough, as evidenced by these new patches. They are like the trainwreck spouse who keeps coming back with a promise this time will be different and ends up wrecking it for you yet again if you let them in. In this situation, part of the blame lies on the person who keeps foolishly letting someone like that back into their home, likewise the consumer needs to be more demanding and more savy about what they are getting for their money. There aren’t really any major consumer rights groups for video games out there that have really made themselves known and it’s long overdue.

The short of all this is that Obsidian needs to change the way it views QA, but no promised internal effort on their part has enacted such a change. If a company fails like this, repeatedly over the course of at least four games, then it is time for the consumer to force the change. The simply answer is do not buy Obsidian’s games, do not buy Dungeon Siege III because you liked Black Isle and want to see Obsidian survive regardless of how talentless they are at QA or because you need that third instalment of a loved series. Stay away from Dungeon Siege III because it is buggy and mediocre, just like Neverwinter Nights 2 and Alpha Protocol.

Finally, an update   Leave a comment

It’s been busy again and I really can’t maintain earlier levels of activity, but the blog isn’t going away. I’ve been playing a bit of Terraria recently and it seems that it’s kept up a few of the promises in version 1.0.4 with a new boss fight, extra equipment and enemies and a new type of equipment in the form of social attire (along with the accompanying NPC). It’s got further expansions on the horizons, but the new content is working just fine and it does one thing especially well in that it adds extra tasks for player characters who have maxed out everything, been everywhere and have everything.

It’s only minor stuff so far, but when you have the ability to suddenly descend back into the underground jungle in order to gather seeds for an above ground jungle that produces extra goodies, it effectively adds a new quest, something new to achieve. This is something that Minecraft lacked with major updates. Version 1.0.5 is apparently already looking at end-game content specifically and really, that’s something that will make Terraria shine brighter.

But there is something that I detested about Minecraft that has happened in Terraria, something awful. The latest version of Terraria suddenly had buggy code when it came to host and play multiplayer that meant changes to the game world weren’t properly saved. This was not a problem when using the separate server software, but not everyone uses that anyway and I had to learn the hard way that server problems occured using the base game’s host and play feature.

This is something that pales in comparison to Minecraft. Minecraft released beta version 1.6 recently, only to add so many bugs that instructions and Youtube videos popped up on how to revert back to version 1.5 (even after the bugfix 1.6.5). This is a point in a long history of buggy updates for Minecraft and I think that in the long-term, Terraria mustn’t get into the habit of adding bugfixes only in updates that also have extra content (as they will do with version 1.0.5) or they will inevitably get into a cycle of “bugs in, bugs out” that mixed content updates and bugfixing patches bring. Beyond that problem, however, the game is still more played at my house than Minecraft is despite having two formerly keen Minecrafters.

Posted 15/06/2011 by expandingfrontier in Opinion piece

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Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm teaser trailer   Leave a comment

Sorry about the lack of a weekly summary last week, it’s been a busy week again.

I don’t like this whole “Kerrigan redemption” line they’ve seemed to have pulled. I think I preferred her portrayal as a wilful malevolence to what will inevitably be a much more sentimentally-portrayed and ultimately forgettable character.

Capsized (PC review)   Leave a comment

Developed by: Alientrap Games Inc.
Published by: Alientrap Games Inc.
Out now
Reviewed on: 26th May, 2011.

Presentation: Stunningly beautiful, especially given its independent origins. The graphics display a complex and rich alien world that has been rendered by hand so lovingly that the visuals sometimes make it hard to see the gameplay. The effects and music are likewise really well done and I cannot criticise the immaculate presentation of the game.

Atmosphere: The atmosphere is akin to other indie games centred of a strange alien environment such as CreaVures or Aquaria, except with a much more aggressive approach to dealing with problems. It has an FPS influence in the controls and is a lot more combat-focussed.

Control and Mechanics: A gamepad can be used in a way similar to a dual-stick shooter, but normally a keyboard mouse combination typical of mainstream FPS games is used.

Who should buy this: Those who want a beautiful, well-made and very robust side-scrolling shooter with a lot of gameplay options and game modes. Those who like both FPS and 2D platform games and want some combination of the two. Those who don’t mind sudden increases in difficulty.

Who should avoid it: Those who don’t like the FPS control system. Those who want more innovation in their games. Those who want something that stays more casual.

If I have to give a score: A beautiful, well thought-out game that does nothing new but has everything it takes from elsewhere polished to a sheen and will provide a lot of replay value 3/4.

Review

Capsized is, on one level, the same sort of game as Plain Sight in that it is a good indie game that I don’t think will get continued long-term play. Most people will pick this up and really enjoy it, because it’s a great game, but put it down after a few months of play. It was a shame when this happened to Plain Sight because that was being expanded after release and has nothing to offer casual players except mediocre bots. Capsized has a sizable single-player element that saves it from this unfortunate fate.

The premise is simple enough: you have crash landed on an alien world with only your space suit and a basic laser gun to protect you from the beautiful, but hostile, environment as you attempt to save your crew mates and search for an escape. The first thing you’ll notice about the game beyond the clichéd premise is the world really is beautiful. It’s hand-drawn and high-resolution, and it really pays off. One criticism I’ve seen in other reviews is that the beautiful green haze of the world makes it harder to see the action as it’s going on, but I’ve found this criticism odd. True, sometimes it is very hard to see where the enemies are, but they are creatures from this alien environment, native to it; your character bumbles in so contrasted to the rest of the world. This strikes me as an intended feature, not a bug and I don’t really fault it for that.

Besides the visuals, the music really does deserve praise too. It has a sense of mystery and wonder to it and the overall effect seems to capture something of the spirit of 16-bit era games from the Amiga. This helps evoke the overall sense of the sublime, but terrifying, experience of a beautiful alien world.

What really counts, though, is gameplay and the game stands solidly there. There is nothing new here, no innovative mechanics, your character moves about to tough-to-reach ledges via tricks like a jetpack or a grappling hook that can also be used to pull obstacles; you are ambushed by enemies and fight them off via a selection of futuristic weapons like short-range, area affect weapons or sniping laser beams.

The main campaign follows through a set of levels about finding and rescuing crew before finding out how to escape. It’s not too interesting a plot, but it serves the function of offering a nail upon which to hang gameplay. The game itself is immensely enjoyable and offers a variety of different challenges and levels for you to traverse.

Beyond that, there are several extra gameplay modes that extend the life of the game. True to the FPS influence, there are multiplayer modes and bot matches as well as others, including single-player modes.

My main criticism of the game comes from the relative simplicity of the enemy AI in this game. Neither the bot matches nor the main game were particularly advanced in their use of AI, alien enemies would often stand there blasting at where I was as I finding a way to sneak attack and the bots didn’t offer any real challenge compared to human opponents. More than that, some traps in the game were just downright unfair and couldn’t be realistically detected before already eating at your life bar. Besides that, there was also the controls which would benefit from compatibility with a wider variety of controllers (but as this is also an Xbox 360 game, it doesn’t surprise me) and to be a bit more responsive.

These are all minor criticisms, though. For the very low price it is being sold at on Steam, this is a solid game that offers a vast, stunning world and more than repays the original investment in fun and may even merit a return for the occasional evening of gaming. A solid shooter platformer with a beautiful visual layout.

Capsized is out now and available on Steam for £5.99