Thursday, March 25, 2010

Metro 2033 Review

Metro 2033 is, so far, my favorite game of 2010 (Yes, I enjoyed it more than Mass Effect 2 and Bioshock 2). Here's why, originally published on Hooked Gamers.


The Russian Underground

Walking through a Russian metro station as lead character Artyom in Metro 2033 is an experience much like Gordon Freeman's introduction to City 17. You are given the impression that this is a living, breathing world, inhabited by people with unique stories and personalities.

But unlike City 17, the Russian metro contains less despair and oppression despite its claustrophobic nature: Two men listen to an old jazz record in their tight quarter, a married couple argue through a locked door, a father watches his young son draw colorful pictures on the concrete floor, and two women discuss flirtations with men while working in the kitchen. The crafting of such scenarios by 4A Games creates a palpable atmosphere in Metro 2033 that really immerses you in the game. In the case of metro stations, you are inundated by conversations and life from all sides. But outside these stations, the atmosphere is much more foreboding.

The tunnels that connect metro stations are solitary places, especially after the vibrancy of the stations. In the quiet darkness of these passageways, every little creak or piece of falling rubble creates tension, signifying the presence of nearby mutants. And that tension turns to frenzy when you hear their screams and see their dark outlines rushing towards you.

Stay With Me

Unfortunately, as much as 4A Games try to create a gripping atmosphere, they damage their efforts with immersion-breaking mechanics. Cut scenes in Metro 2033 inexplicably remove your control of Artyom, and sometimes even remove the camera from him altogether, giving the first-person shooter a third-person view. This can be especially frustrating during thrilling sequences in which you want to control Artyom as he is facing death.

Metro 2033, disappointingly, also incorporates stale quick-time events. If a mutant gets too close to Artyom in a certain situation, you have to pound a key to stab it with a knife. If Artyom starts to lose his grip on an unstable ladder, you have to pound a key to stop him from falling to his death. Not only do these events remove you from Artyom, they run contrary to the innovative and thoughtful mechanics that 4A Games has incorporated in Metro 2033.

Innovating Conventions

Given the game's post-apocalyptic setting, there are many places, including the surface, in which Artyom will need to use his gas mask. But this is no simple task. Wearing the mask distorts Artyom's vision, giving the immediate landscape a grainy effect and severely blurring his peripheries.

The mask's filter doesn't last forever either, as evidenced by Artyom's increasingly heavy breathing. Changing the filter when necessary is usually simple, provided you have an extra. But when you are fending off homicidal mutants and Artyom starts to breathe heavily, you will wish you were back inside with that quarrelling married couple. The gas mask can even crack beyond repair if Artyom takes too much damage, requiring you to quickly find another before it's too late.

When moving through dimly-lit areas, Artyom has the option of using a flashlight or night vision goggles. Unfortunately, batteries are scarce in the metro, so you have to periodically wind a hand generator to maintain power to the two devices. If the generator loses all power, the flashlight will barely light the immediate floor and Artyom's night vision goggles will cease working altogether. Much like the portable generator, pneumatic weapons must be pumped constantly to maintain adequate pressure. A fully pressurized gun can take down an enemy in one shot, whereas a pneumatic gun lacking pressure will have to be fired four or five times to do equivalent damage.

Such innovations are not revolutionary, but they really add to your immersion in the game world. Even a mechanic as simple as having to hit the reload key three times to fully reload the automatic shotgun deepens your experience.

Less Innovating Conventions

Not all of Metro 2033's innovations increase the game's immersion, however. The health system utilizes a combination of health packs and regeneration. Arytom's health recovers slowly, so when mutants blitzkrieg you, you will want to use health packs to quickly recover. But if you are severely injured after a heated battle, you can wait for your health to regenerate. There is nothing particularly wrong with the health system - it works well - but its reliance on shooter conventions is disappointing when compared to the unique flashlight and night vision goggle implementations.

The game's highly touted "ammo as currency" mechanic is also somewhat shallow. The Russian metro uses military-grade bullets as currency. These powerful projectiles can be used for quickly taking down mutant or human combatants, or buying better guns and other types of ammo. But therein lies the problem: military-grade ammo isn't the only type of ammo. You can easily treat the high-quality bullets solely as currency and fight exclusively with normal ammunition, thereby avoiding any interesting decisions that would've arisen were there only one item in Metro 2033 that completely encompassed both currency and ammunition.

Of course, all these innovative mechanics and tools are necessary to protect Artyom from the denizens of the metro tunnels and barren surface. As implied, you'll encounter two types of enemies in Metro 2033: human and mutant, both of which offer very different experiences.

Bandits and Mutants

Bandits and other human combatants provide very dynamic firefights. They are always heavily armored and use cover well, while also doing enough damage to keep you behind cover. They also keep you moving from cover to cover with grenades and well-timed flanks. As a result, firefights against other humans are very satisfying, especially on the surface where you can shoot their gas masks off and watch as they scramble to put them back on.

Mutants, contrarily, offer a repetitive experience. Your initial encounters with them are harrowing affairs: They can take a lot of damage and always swarm you - an effective tactic on their part given how slow Artyom reloads certain guns.

But after a few mutant encounters, you begin to see a pattern. Artyom almost always encounters mutants at the end of a tunnel or passageway, where he must survive wave after wave, and in some unfortunate cases, endless respawns.

Reaching the Bar

4A Games set the bar so high on Metro 2033 that when the game adheres to conventional gaming mechanics and doesn't find new, more immersive ways to engage you, you are left slightly disappointed. But that is not a denouncement; it is a testament to the superb quality of this game. Metro 2033 provides a phenomenal atmosphere through crafted experiences, alarming sound effects, and engaging visuals. Its subtle innovations to traditional shooter elements draw you into the post-apocalyptic Russian metro.

Despite its linear nature, you will want to play this game again and again to experience its sights and sounds. Metro 2033 is, so far, one of the best single-player experiences of 2010.

Why We Will Accept Ubisoft's DRM

My controversial opinion on a controversial topic over at Hooked Gamers.


Permanent Internet Connection

"A permanent internet connection is required to play the game." The sentence is stamped in bold white letters on the front of Assassin's Creed 2. A variant of the phrase graces the back of the box, headlining a list of features including "No need for cd/dvd to play," "Unlimited installs," and "Saved games are synchronized online," as if Ubisoft is doing us a favor by requiring a permanent internet connection. But we all know that's not true.

Like any good PC gamer, I was irate when Ubisoft initially announced its new DRM initiative. Since then, dutiful hackers apparently developed a workaround to the system, which Ubisoft repeatedly denied. The publisher's authentication servers went down due to attacks, leaving Silent Hunter 5 and Assassin's Creed 2 owners stranded, twice. Ubisoft even softened their stance with an update allowing Assassin's Creed 2 players to resume their games uninterrupted if they temporarily lose internet connectivity.

Throughout all of these developments, I've had time to digest this brave new authentication and the atrocities it seemingly commits: It's inordinately intrusive and impractical because not all gamers have a permanent internet connection. It's restrictive because you can't play games while traveling. It's unreliable because its authentication servers can go down. Finally, it's evil because it shackles legitimate gamers as if we're all criminals.

After scrutinizing all of these points and experiencing Assassin's Creed 2 on the PC firsthand, I've had to revise my stance. The arguments against Ubisoft's DRM don't hold up when examined closely; they seem exaggerated and born of undeserved malice. I've come to the conclusion that Ubisoft's DRM just isn't that bad.

Déjà vu

Back in 2004, Valve met an outpouring of protests when it announced that Half-Life 2 would require online authentication through its digital distribution service, Steam. Opponents argued that gamers without internet wouldn't be able to experience the game.

Of course, such outcries didn't stunt Half-Life 2's success. It sold so well in fact, that Valve's servers couldn't keep up with the large number of online validations at launch, which in turn, simply fueled the protesters.

Over five years later, how many PC gamers don't have a permanent internet connection? World of Warcraft has over 10 million subscribers. Steam now boasts over 25 million users; and while the service doesn't require a constant connection, it's severely hampered without one, thanks to large game downloads and Steam Friends. With the addition of instant messaging programs - AIM, MSN, Yahoo, Google Talk, ICQ, Skype - and the increasing prevalence of streaming television shows, movies, and sports events, it's hard to imagine any PC user without a perpetual internet connection, much less a gamer.

Plugged-In

For those who really don't have constant access to the internet, consider the new service that is going to revolutionize gaming: OnLive. Gamers will be able to play any game, anytime, anywhere without any of the expensive console or PC hardware, thanks to modern super-fast connectivity and innovative cloud computing. Numerous publishers are already supporting the service, including EA, THQ, Eidos, Atari, and Take-Two. But, guess what? OnLive will also require a constant internet connection for all of its games, just like another one of its partners, Ubisoft.

With current online applications and future online services like OnLive, we're moving closer to internet ubiquity. Considering that, Ubisoft's DRM is hardly intrusive or unfair - it's not wreaking havoc on our computers, nor is it changing the way we use them. It's just a natural extension of current and future behavior.

On the Road

Unfortunately, while a permanent internet connection may be available at home, such connectivity may not be available when traveling with a laptop. Then again, electrical outlets can also be hard to find, so is gaming while traveling really an issue?

If so, the ubiquity of wireless networks has been greatly understated. All major U.S. airlines - such as American Airlines, US Airways, and Continental Airlines - and many international carriers currently provide in-flight WiFi or plan on doing so in the near future. The same is true for trains: Amtrak offers wireless internet on its cars in the northeastern corridor and plans to expand. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority intends to follow suit by the end of this year.

Private establishments - including coffee shops and bookstores, not to mention internet cafes - and even major metropolitan cities continue to provide wireless access.

Again, considering the increasing ubiquity of internet access in planes, trains, and maybe one day, automobiles, Ubisoft's DRM doesn't seem any more restrictive than other implementations of DRM. It may even prove liberating, as gamers don't need to pack game DVDs when traveling - no CD/DVD check is required.

Hardware Malfunction

Of course, even in a world of universal internet access, Ubisoft's authentication servers can go down, as they already have, twice. In such cases, the most advanced broadband connections are useless - you're simply not going to be able to play your game.

However, this situation isn't new to PC or console gamers. As mentioned before, Valve's DRM implementation created headaches for owners of Half-Life 2. Since then, server hiccups have created minor problems and delays for users trying to download major updates and even play online games.

But such problems are rudimentary when compared to the Xbox 360 RROD. Depending on where you get your information, Xbox 360 failure rates ranged from 23.7% to 54.2%, as evidenced by surveys from 2009. And receiving a RROD didn't result in a minor stoppage of gaming: it meant you'd have to wait anywhere from days to months without gaming.

Even PlayStation 3 owners know what a stoppage in service is like. When the date changed from February 28th to March 1st this year, older PS3s locked up, and gamers everywhere lamented as they couldn't play Heavy Rain.

Unfortunately, gamers are familiar with unreliable hardware and service interruptions. Is it fair to hold Ubisoft to a higher standard than other companies? If Ubisoft's servers go down, at least you don't have to ship anything back to the company and wait for a replacement; you can engage in some other leisure activity while waiting for your game to become available.

See No Evil

Regardless of whether or not you believe Ubisoft's DRM is intrusive or restrictive or unreliable, you may still think it's evil because it assumes all gamers are pirates and treats them accordingly.

Granted, there are nicer solutions to piracy out there. Stardock's GOO ties games to a gamer's account, instead of hardware or a distribution platform, and allows for the resale of PC games. Even EA has adopted an enlightened approach to DRM: The Sims 3, Dragon Age: Origins, and Mass Effect 2 all only require a basic disc check. To reward legitimate gamers, EA has provided free day-one DLC to consumers for each of these titles.

Comparing Ubisoft's DRM to such examples, it may seem like a push in the wrong direction. But unlike previous solutions to piracy, it doesn't install malicious software (StarForce, SecuROM) on our computers, nor does it intentionally restrict our access to the content we've purchased.

Considering everything, Ubisoft's DRM treats PC gamers more like average PC users than criminals - it's hardly evil. Because it's an extension of conventional PC gamer behavior, and because it's leading the way in taking advantage of increasing connectivity, Ubisoft's DRM is ahead of its time.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Jesse Attard: From Bioshock 2 to Immortal Empire

I recently had the opportunity sit down with Jesse Attard, a lead programmer on Bioshock 2. We talked about his new indie studio, developing a browser-based while working simultaneously on Bioshock 2, and how indie development compares to mainstream. Originally published at Hooked Gamers.


Moonlighting

You may not recognize Jesse Attard, but you definitely know his work. As a member of Canadian developer Digital Extremes, he was a programmer on both Dark Sector and Bioshock. Most recently, he was the lead programmer on Bioshock 2's multiplayer component.

But during his time at Digital Extremes, Attard has also been moonlighting as an indie developer under the name Tactic Studios. Attard recently released his first game under this banner: Immortal Empire. The game is as far from Bioshock 2 as possible - it's a browser-based strategy RPG, featuring single-player, co-op, and PvP gameplay.

Immortal Empire is certainly an interesting title, and a good deal of fun in my experience. Perhaps more interesting, however, is why the lead programmer of one of 2010's biggest games would want to develop a low-budget browser game. As I discovered when talking with Attard, cell phone games and old-school RPGs are to blame.

Controlling Nostalgia

Prior to joining Digital Extremes, Attard was the assistant studio head for Capcom's North American mobile studio where he developed games like Street Fighter II, Megaman, and Resident Evil for cell phones. The combination of his lead position at Capcom and the small scale of mobile games provided him with a level of creative freedom that he missed when he began working on larger-scale console titles.

"When you're working at a bigger company on a triple-A title, you have influence, but… it's a team environment. You've got to work with a lot of other people, which I love and I love having that experience of communicating with everybody," said Attard.

"With cell phone games… it's a really different experience: being able to come up with some concept and then just program it… Now something you thought of is in this game that people play. That's a pretty cool feeling.

"I really wanted to have something that was my own idea and make it into my own game… So I started making what I felt was the simplest [game] that I could handle while having a fulltime job."

While his experience in mobile gaming motivated him to develop his own property, Attard's experience with mainstream titles as a young gamer really shaped Immortal Empire's design. He explained, "When I dreamed about being a game developer, which I always did from a very young age… I wanted to make X-COM. I wanted to make Baldur's Gate or Diablo or any of these awesome games.

"Now that my career is in videogames and I'm doing that for a living, it's a very different world. Now people are making these massive games, and shooters are everywhere, and everything is in 3D. Which is really cool… but there's some nostalgia aspect in making these older-school style games. Browser-based games are a good avenue for exploring that medium again."

Games at Work, Games at Home

Of course developing an idea into a playable game is never easy and is further complicated when you're already developing another game fulltime. Attard learned this very well when he began working simultaneously at Digital Extremes and on his own game two and a half years ago. "I was literally working every day on [Immortal Empire]. After I came home from work, ate dinner, then I went straight ahead to making this game until I fell asleep. That was my life for a long time: Games at work, come home, more games, and then go to bed," he said.

"There [were] times when you think, 'what am I doing here making this game?' But you just keep plugging away until it's done."

Through the early stages of Immortal Empire's development, Attard worked alone in developing the game's concept, writing code, designing the storyline, creating the graphics, and even voicing the game's characters. As he explains it, "I didn't want to bring too many people on, just because I wasn't sure how far it would go. I didn't want to commit anyone to something that may never materialize."

But as he gained confidence in the game, Attard contracted artists to create graphical and sound assets that he was unable to develop: "I just paid out of my bank accounts and gave them money, and they gave me artwork." From more experienced concept artists and pixel artists, he obtained hand-drawn assets, pixilated characters, spell effects, and environmental tiles.

For Immortal Empire's soundtrack, Attard decided to take a different route. He held a competition "like the Castle Crashers guys did," focused on Renoise, a digital audio workstation, and its community. "There's so many talented people out there… and I got a lot of music, great entries," said Attard.

Listening to Feedback

"It's going good. I'm really happy," said Attard after I asked him if he's happy with how Immortal Empire has been received. He seems content with the number of users and revenue it has generated so far, but Attard is particularly pleased with user feedback, and not just the positive feedback. He stated, "I love getting feedback on the game… and the more of that I get, I think, the better the game will be.

"It's hard [for me] to stand back and look at the game and think, 'this is good or that's bad,' because I'm used to it. I've been looking at it for two and a half years. But the customers - this is their first exposure to it, so they're going to have a lot of different feedback on how the game will feel."

Through user feedback, Attard has fixed small usability issues such as pathfinding algorithms and how users select units, but he's also making large additions to Immortal Empire: "A lot of people emailed me saying this whole 'buy a game, get it' is an archaic model, which is what I grew up with. But a lot of these guys… like this crazy microtransaction system, and a lot of browser-based games do this. So we're adding it in."

Expansions & Sequels

Despite investing a great deal of time and his own money in Immortal Empire, Jesse Attard currently has no intention of leaving Digital Extremes. He stated, "I'll kind of play it as it goes. There isn't any grand plan here. Certainly, for the time being, I need my fulltime job." In fact, he's still working as a lead programmer on an as-of-yet unannounced title at Digital Extremes.

But Attard isn't done with Tactic Studios either. He's developing "a couple expansions for Immortal Empire to really bulk it out into a sixty-hour, seventy-hour - what [he] considers to be a full RPG."

He's also thinking about the distant future. He explained, "You find a lot of studios don't reach a lot of success until they've got multiple games out. That's certainly common and I think it makes sense. You attract a user base and then you can bring them all back to try out your second game, and people who didn't try your first game get to play it."

Mainstream vs. Indie

When I asked Attard if it's common for mainstream developers to envy indie developers and the creative control they possess, he responded, "Absolutely. Almost every person I talk to at work will say something like that at one point or another. I say in a huge way that exists.

"I find a lot of guys leave the triple-A game industry just to start up indie things. In fact, I have a friend who did that very thing: started up his own company. It's pretty common, and I think it's just because it's so different. You're really exercising different parts of your… brain and that's why people love it."

But he was also quick to point out that the opposite is also true: Indie developers may envy the budgets and press that mainstream studios receive. Attard explained, "That's kind of how I felt at Capcom. I knew a lot of people were playing these cell phone games, but they don't exactly get a lot of press. And there's something sexy about press… It is always really rewarding to see a commercial come on of something you've made. It's cool."

As Attard pointed out, the grass is always greener. That's probably why he's attempting to get the best of both the mainstream and indie game development worlds.

You can try Immortal Empire at the Tactic Studios website, and discover what one of the developers of Bioshock 2 does in his spare time.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Misadventures of some Odd Gentlemen

When a gaming publicist pitched me an interview with the men behind P.B. Winterbottom, my first reaction was to decline. I write about PC gaming, not Xbox Live. But the opportunity to go one-on-one, or one-on-two as it may be, with these gentlemen was too good to pass up. So I accepted, and I'm glad I did. Hopefully you are too. Originally published at Hooked Gamers.


The Birth of Winterbottom

Silent films, clones, and pie. Lots of pie. This is the world of P.B. Winterbottom - a world that lead designer Matt Korba and producer/janitor Paul Bellezza have lived in for the past three years while developing The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom.

The game began as a thesis project. While a graduate student at USC's Interactive Media Division, Korba saw Zbigniew Rybczynski's short film Tango. The film's complex choreography provided inspiration for the game's time-manipulating looping mechanic. And the works of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd - auteurs Korba gained experience with as an undergraduate film major - supplied the aesthetic.

Korba joined with fellow student Bellezza to create a team comprised of other graduate students, undergraduates, engineering students, and even a high school student - all focused on making Winterbottom a reality. After many sleepless nights and lots of pie (of the pizza variety, not dessert), the team had a Flash-based bare-bones Winterbottom prototype.

"We just submitted it to the [2008] Independent Games Festival and then waited by our e-mails for weeks until we found out if we got in," said Korba when I asked the cofounders of The Odd Gentlemen about how the game came to fruition. "We ended up getting in and that's where the ball started rolling."

Trade Shows, Press, and Publishers

After winning a spot on the IGF Student Showcase, The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom garnered significant attention from media and publishers. "It was overwhelming, trying to work on the game and handle all this press."

Korba and Bellezza began actively shopping their game to publishers after receiving more positive attention at GDC 2008. "We literally had a meeting with everybody."

"Some of the publishers we met with had their own spin on [Winterbottom]," said Korba. They told him the game should be made in color, Winterbottom should talk, "and all this other crazy stuff."

However, one publisher stood out. "2K, from the start, got what we were going for and they weren't going to mess with it creatively. They got it and they know that… you should just leave the creative people to be."

But neither side was ready to strike a deal. After all, Korba and Bellezza still had to finish their graduate theses. The two went back to school but continued publicizing their game by submitting it to E3's Indiecade, Wired's NextFest, and the 2008 Tokyo Game Show. Korba reminisced about the 2008 Indiecade. "It was really cool that year because it was the year that [E3] was really small, so we were literally right next to Mirror's Edge."

"We actually won Best of E3 Awards and Top Ten of the Show from giant sites, which to us was just flabbergasting. We were totally honored because we were a little Flash game that was nominated with these big huge budgeted games."

Of course, Winterbottom's continued success was not lost on publishers. "2K came by again," Korba chronicled. "I think they were starting to get a little nervous because of all the attention we were gathering."

After negotiating with the publisher, Korba and Bellezza finally signed over The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom's publishing rights to 2K Play. But the duo didn't have time to enjoy their accomplishment. They still had to make a fully developed Xbox Live Arcade version - Winterbottom remained a Flash prototype.

A Braid Intermission

Winterbottom has often been compared to another XBLA game, Braid, and not without reason - both are side-scrollers with time-bending mechanics. To lend even more credence to such comparisons, Braid developer Jonathan Blow served as Matt Korba's thesis advisor at USC.

When I asked Korba about the influence Blow's game had on his project, he was quick to respond. "When we started this game, Braid wasn't out. We didn't know about Braid."

So I asked if the opposite was true: Did Winterbottom influence Braid?

Bellezza chimed in, "The advice from Jonathan on our game wasn't even really about mechanics but more about, 'What do you want the user to feel? What do you want the experience to be like?'"

Korba persisted, "We never swapped time tricks. It wasn't like, 'Hey, try this time trick or try that time trick.' [Jon] was more about… 'What do you want the player to feel?'"

I guess great minds really do think alike.

From Students to Professionals

The first step for the professional partners was to build a completely new team, under the recently formed Odd Gentlemen studio, that could develop the game for its new platform. "When we had to go professional, we had to hire outside engineers and artists… cause half the student team was either still in school or didn't have the skill sets we needed to actually build the Xbox version," said Bellezza.

Korba continued, "As a student, in Flash, it's so easy to just get things up and running. We didn't really need a team of engineers. But obviously that's not the case with C++ and harder code."

The Odd Gentlemen then began the arduous task of reimagining Winterbottom. "Everything that was on the student game was just a prototype. We had to flesh it out and fully redesign the game. There was no magical way to take the student game and push it to the Xbox."

"I remember one day on the whiteboard, we had this crazy flowchart about what happens if you pull the trap but another clone is standing on top of the clone [that pulled the trap]. Does the clone fall down? Does he poof and disappear?" said Korba. "We were trying to figure out these paradoxical equations to make… sure we had all those edge cases covered."

Despite having had to essentially start from scratch on Winterbottom's professional counterpart, Korba maintains an attachment to the original bare-bones student version. "One day I want to just put it out there so people can see where we started from."

Looking Back

Both Korba and Bellezza took a moment to appreciate their tumultuous journey into the videogame industry when I asked them if they ever considered dropping Winterbottom to pursue something else.

"We've been moving so fast we really haven't had any time to think about anything. Making a game in a year has been pretty hectic. It's not really a road I want to walk down again, trying to do a brand new IP in a year. It's just been really crazy," said Korba.

Bellezza expressed more awe than fatigue. "It's surreal that the game's coming out because we've literally been working non-stop since March 2007. That's almost three years now, and we're finally at a point where… the game is coming out. I'm three years older. It's been a whirlwind."

I also asked Winterbottom's designer and producer if they had any advice for current students trying to develop and sell their own games. Both were very forthcoming.

Korba began, "I think the best advice is just do something personal that means a lot to you and worry about the game… I think one of the things we did right is, even though we had all this crazy stuff going on, we always focused on the game first. No matter what, it was always about the actual game."

"And I would say if you can't code… if you don't have engineers or you don't have artists or whatever, just do whatever you can do. Do it in Flash. Do it in Game Maker. It doesn't have to be this huge thing."

Bellezza echoed his partner's sentiments. "A lot of students talk huge ideas, like Halo-scope ideas. And you, as a student, will never be able to make a Halo. You might one day in your career, how many years off, but as a student, you've got to keep it in scope for what you can do… Don't design this grandiose design document and think 'this is what is could be if I had unlimited resources.' You've got to look at your resources and see if you can make something that speaks to you out of it."

"If you can demonstrate some core nugget of fun, even if it's the worst possible art… you've got something and that's what you should invest your time in."

The Possibilities

So what's next for these odd gentlemen?

"Anything's a possibility right now… We're excited to obviously work on something new, but we are excited too about the possibilities of what else we can do with Winterbottom and his universe."

Given their seemingly meteoric rise from students to indie game rockstars, it really does seem like anything is possible.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Sins of a Solar Empire: Diplomacy Review

My Sins of a Solar Empire: Diplomacy review, originally published at Hooked Gamers.

Revisiting a Classic

When Stardock released Sins of a Solar Empire two years ago, the game's large-scale blend of real-time strategy and turn-based strategy elements garnered multiple PC game awards. But its slow pace and predictable AI soured the game for me a bit.

After taking the time to establish a sustainable economy and large fleet, while fending off constant hit-and-runs from AI opponents, I could methodically destroy enemy fleets and planets. At least until the AI players allied with each other. Such scenarios were either very frustrating when they crushed me or very rewarding when they didn't.

Love Me

Diplomacy, the recently released micro-expansion for Sins allays many of the qualms I had with the original by providing features fitting to its title. The biggest and most encompassing addition is a new way to win campaigns: Diplomatic Victory. Theoretically, achieving a diplomatic victory is straightforward: make everyone love you. Practically, doing so is complicated.

Every player in a campaign has a diplomatic score, which represents how he or she or it feels about you. That diplomatic score results from a large number of detailed variables, including adjacent territory, military actions, resource trading, and fleet strength. Some variables are out of your control, such as racial inclination. The Advent do not like the TEC - and diplomatic inclination - and some AI players just don't like you from the beginning.

Increasing Relations

To make those players like you, the Sins expansion offers a new research tree aptly titled Diplomacy for the TEC, Understanding for the Advent, and Manipulation for the Vasari. The new win condition may be Diplomacy's largest addition to Sins, but the new technology tree is its most important.

The first researchable technology, and your initial foray into relationship building, is a new cruiser which can be sent into other systems to increase relations with and generate income from AI or human players, thereby creating new opportunities with allies. You can also research general relationship bonuses that automatically improve Diplomacy points with other factions.

In the original Sins, AI players could offer you missions, but you had no way of offering missions back. With Diplomacy, assuming you have the required research upgrade, you can pay an AI player with an amount dependent on your Diplomacy points to attack an opposing player's specific planet. It is a great way to keep AI players vulnerable and to prevent them from ganging up on you.

You can also research mutually beneficial pacts, to share resource, missile, armor, and other technologies with allies. Doing so can afford increased metal extraction rates, increased missile damage, and improved armor strength, respectively. Of course, you have to be careful in creating pacts - while a pact can bolster your armor, it may do the same for a potential enemy.

Diplomacy also greatly increases the strength, and resultantly the cost, of pirates. If you spend enough money, you can generate a pirate fleet large enough to destroy home planets. However, I found the addition of missions really reduced the necessity of pirates. And given the large amount of credits it takes to hire pirates, why not just upgrade or add to your own fleet? I always found pirates and their bidding wars to be a distraction from what I really wanted to do. Now they're powerful enough to obliterate me in early stages of the game.

Balancing Power

Outside of the new in-game features, the micro-expansion also offers a new and very welcome pacing option, Faster. You can apply it to a campaign's income rate, build speed, ship speed, and other game variables. Two new difficulty levels, Cruel and Vicious - both of which I'm too scared to try - are also available. And of course, the expansion adds new maps.

Despite the micro-expansion's victory option and all of its related features, you're not going to be able to sit back and win. Even the new peaceful victory requires more traditional gameplay: to establish an adequate economic base for Diplomacy, you'll need to expand your empire. You also can't completely ignore the diplomatic options and focus solely on military might - relations offer substantial rewards and you can be sure AI players will make use of them. One of those AI players may even reach a diplomatic victory before you can reach a more traditional one.

Diplomacy's strength lies in the balance and depth it creates between your relations with AI players and their relations amongst themselves. AI players are no longer either enemies or allies. Now, they can be trade partners, military advisors, potential employers, or just tools for achieving an end.

Improving a Classic

Diplomacy may be a micro-expansion, but the features and gameplay it adds are akin to what one would expect from a fully developed sequel. It evolves Sins of a Solar Empire into a deeper, more varied, and more satisfying experience.

Given that Diplomacy is available alone or as part of Sins of a Solar Empire: Trinity - a package that also includes the original game and its first expansion, Entrenchment - there is no excuse to not experience this improvement on an already worthwhile game.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Mass Effect 2: Making Me Care About the Team

Because of the great response I received to my Dragon Age recounting, I decided to take a similar approach when writing about Mass Effect 2. Unfortunately, no one read this article at Bitmob. I guess the spoiler warning really scared them off this time around.

Spoiler Warning: Do not proceed unless you have completed Mass Effect 2.

The Team

After finally passing through the Omega-4 Relay, we emerged in what appeared to be a spaceship graveyard. So this was the fate of all ships that passed through the relay.

A few seconds later, I discovered how these ships met their fate. Numerous enemy drones appeared from among the debris and began firing upon the Normandy. Joker attempted to dodge their fire, but there were just too many drones. A blast from one of the drones ripped through the Normandy and hit Jack, killing her in an instant.

“She can’t be dead, get to medical!” I yelled at no one in particular. But she really was dead.

I never liked Jack – I found her to be scary and gross and a little too whiny. I was always content to leave her in the bowels of the ship.

Jack

But she was still a member of my squad. Like a good paragon, I had helped her to overcome her traumatic childhood. I had grown accustomed to her, and I couldn’t believe she had died so suddenly. Where was my moment to say goodbye?

As I attempted to get over the shock, Joker steered the Normandy into a particularly dense debris field, hoping to lose the remaining drones. The plan worked, but not without casualties. A collision with a large piece of debris resulted in a depressing status report from EDI. “Explosion in main engineering. Damage was contained. Unfortunately, Tali didn’t make it.”

I still hadn’t recovered from the loss of Jack, and now I was forced to deal with the loss of Tali – a much more poignant loss as I had befriended her years ago. But the worst part about these two deaths was that I began anticipating more – remorse turned to dread.

After escaping the drones and clearing the debris field, the remaining crew and I gained sight of the Collector base. Unfortunately, a familiar Collector ship emerged to intercept the Normandy. Again, Joker took a high-risk action – steering the Normandy right down the Collector ship’s throat – and again the Normandy prevailed, but not without a casualty. An explosion caused a beam to run straight through Thane, who was sitting peacefully in his quarters.

Thane

The crew’s reaction to Thane’s death was perhaps their most cursory: Miranda simply yelled out, “They got Thane!” Such treatment didn’t detract from the effect it had on me. Of the three squad members that died, I sympathized with Thane the most. The contrast between his lethal skills and religious nature, in addition to his reconciliation with his son, drew me to have more conversations with him throughout our acquaintance.

After finally accepting the deaths of Jack, Tali, and Thane, I was pissed off. How could Mass Effect 2 kill off three of my characters? During a cut-scene? Giving me no opportunity to save them?

However, the game had given me ample opportunity to save all of them; I just didn’t recognize it thanks to my self-centered in-game personality. In the original Mass Effect, I chose to be a Sole Survivor – a soldier who lives against all odds while everyone around him perishes.

Following that sole survivor mentality, I always gave myself the best weapons and armor in Mass Effect, leaving the lower-level armaments for my squad-mates. After all, they were just fodder – targets for the enemy to focus on while I hit every shot and eliminated every target. I was badass.

I maintained a similar mentality in Mass Effect 2. I spent every ounce of iridium and palladium and platinum on upgrading my health and my armor and my weapons. I never thought to spend resources on upgrades for a particular squad member, much less enhancements for the Normandy – enhancements that could have saved Jack, Tali, or Thane.

Shepard

Like a good sole survivor, I managed to escape Mass Effect 2’s suicide mission victorious and unscathed. Though, I left behind four members of my squad (Mordin died in the Collector base) and the entire non-combative crew of the Normandy: Dr. Chakwas, who I shared a bottle of brandy with; the cook, who I procured special ingredients for; and Kelly, who I flirted with on a regular basis.

Throughout the Mass Effect series, I’ve always treated my allies as expendable. Now that they’re really gone and I’ve met the logical consequences of my decisions, I don’t want the best armor or weapons anymore. I don’t want to be a badass or a sole survivor. I just want my crew back.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Thoughts from Beyond the Sea: A Bioshock 2 Interview

Prior to the launch of Bioshock 2, I had an opportunity to sit in on a Q&A with the developers of the game. This is what I discovered. You can listen to the entire conversation at Hooked Gamers.

Perhaps no developer has dealt with more pressure and scrutiny than 2K Marin. The original BioShock, released in 2007, was a truly original title in its Art Deco design, dystopian setting, moral quandary, and Randian inspiration. Given BioShock’s fully developed story, many questioned the need for a sequel.

With BioShock 2’s release date imminent, I had the opportunity to sit in on a conference call including the game’s Creative Director Jordan Thomas, Lead Designer Zak McClendon, and Lead Environmental Artist Hogarth De La Plante – all members of 2K Marin, the studio built specifically for BioShock’s sequel. The developers discussed the challenges of making a sequel to 2007’s most beloved game, in addition to the inspirations and thought processes behind certain design decisions for the sequel.

In the Shadow of a Giant

“Everybody who joined [2K Marin] was an immense fan of the first game… There was a lot of reverence to it, which can lead to a lot of second-guessing and a lot of trying to please everyone,” said McClendon. The developers at 2K Marin had to find a balance in BioShock 2: They couldn’t simply follow in the footsteps of BioShock developer Irrational Games, nor could they rebel against it irresponsibly.

Jordan Thomas elaborated on maintaining BioShock’s influence. “The setting of Rapture will never be as new as it was in the first game. And I think trying to change that would have been folly on many levels.”

“BioShock has an extremely detailed mythos: The backstory is novel length… Adding new history into that canon was certainly a challenge, and it’s something that I took very seriously. The writing team in general had to become very familiar with the script of the first game so that we weren’t contradicting ourselves.”

To balance mythos with originality, the team decided on a central theme of family for BioShock 2 – an exploration of the perverted father-daughter relationship between Big Daddies and Little Sisters. Players experience the game through Subject Delta, the first Big Daddy successfully bonded to a Little Sister. “He’s really out in search of his original Little Sister, so he has a much more personal stake… [in] Rapture itself.”

Jesus or Hitler?

While maintaining perhaps the most iconic representation of BioShock, exploring the father-daughter relationship as a Big Daddy also offered 2K Marin a number of opportunities in the development of moral choices. The developers specifically acknowledged BioShock’s choice to harvest or save Little Sisters as lacking depth. Maintaining that same binary gameplay for a Big Daddy “would undermine the value of a moral choice,” Thomas stated. “You are still called upon to make those choices but you are not forced to mistreat [Little Sisters].”

Zak McClendon elaborated, “We tried to make our choices around the Little Sister a little bit more grey. It’s both harder to be good and more rewarding to be really truly evil.” Adopting and eventually harvesting Little Sisters in BioShock 2 provides players with a great deal of ADAM as in the first game. However, unlike the original, saving Little Sisters in BioShock 2 leaves players starved for ADAM – there exists no benefactor to reward a player’s kind nature. “But there’s a middle ground and if you are the kind of player who really wants to work for it and gather ADAM from bodies and save Little Sisters, you can keep pace with the selfish player… but you’re going to be doing a whole lot more work for it.”

“We’re hoping that gameplay choice is actually a little bit more reflective of the choices that go on in your head when you’re trying to deal with complex moral situations.”

Destructive Altruism

Considering the central theme of a father-daughter bond, 2K Marin wanted to create an antagonist early on that would “subvert the traditional definition of family through a heavily altruistic filter for the common good above individual loyalty,” Jordan Thomas stated. 2K Marin created Dr. Sophia Lamb, borrowing influences from numerous altruistic philosophers both past and present, including John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, Richard Dawkins, and David Pearce.

Given Lamb’s contrasting philosophy when compared to Andrew Ryan, her influence on Rapture is much different. BioShock 2 explores “the perspective of the disenfranchised, the perspective of the altruist or the religious – [philosophies] that would have been banned by Andrew Ryan, but in the areas informed by Sophia, these things were kind of battle-flags. They were her attempts to control culture and assassinate Ryan’s character from the ground up.”

“[She] has a very different attitude and her splicers are deeply loyal and adopted the butterfly, the symbol of their faith. You see a lot of that motif with her,” said Thomas.

Rethinking Combat

Outside of the story, casting a Big Daddy as BioShock 2’s protagonist also offered 2K Marin new and evolved gameplay features. At the outset, the development team had to reevaluate the workings of weapons, the feel of the character, and the balance of combat. “It really was a good way for us to bring a fresh perspective to all the gameplay of BioShock,” said McClendon.

He also cited Subject Delta’s ability to dual wield weapons and plasmids as BioShock 2’s biggest improvement over its predecessor. Players don’t have to think, “I’m going to switch to my plasmids, use Electro Bolt, shock the guy, switch back to my weapons, equip the wrench, and hit the guy.” McClendon stated, “It’s all part of just one fluid action for players, and it really brings a whole lot more immediacy to the experience. It was one of the first things that we added when we were still working with the early BioShock toolset, and it just changed the way the game played substantially.”

Despite greatly increasing the protagonist’s prowess and durability, 2K Marin aimed to maintain the visceral and adrenaline-pumping combat of BioShock. Ten years after the events of the original game, Rapture is apparently a much more dangerous and hostile place – a place that Jack Ryan could never have survived. “The Big Daddies are still immensely challenging for you, and we have a new Big Daddy type, the Rumbler… You may get knocked down a few times and have to replan your strategy. It’s not meant to be an even battle most of the time.”

“The first time you went toe to toe with a Big Daddy in the medical pavilion in [BioShock] was just shocking and terrifying… We have a lot more of that when you fight the Big Sisters.”

All Grown Up

Big Sisters are physically unstable grown-up Little Sisters – manifestations of a father’s influence on his daughter, given their appearance and desire to protect other Little Sisters. “The ADAM they’ve been ingesting for years and years and years has begun to manifest,” Jordan Thomas explained.

Zak McClendon discussed the design philosophy behind these Big Daddy-Little Sister hybrids – a philosophy that greatly contrasts their lethal nature. “Whereas the Big Daddies have this kindly old man, weary, lumbering appeal to them, the Big Sisters were meant to embody an awkward adolescent phase… They’re a little awkward in their posing and they have leg braces.”

Despite their awkwardness, Big Sisters still maintain a grace and soft edge, further accentuating the idea that they are Little Sisters who have grown up too fast. “Some of the smaller details that you may not notice during gameplay are things like little ribbons on the basket that she uses to carry Little Sisters or small childlike drawings on her tank.”

Taking a Break

While maintaining the visceral combat of BioShock was important to 2K Marin, continuing the isolation and perpetual tension was not. As Hogarth De La Plante stated, “We had a lot people who said, ‘It’s sort of weird that I walk around in the city and all I see are these murdering splicers all the time. Aren’t there any other normal people like me who live down here?’”

Subject Delta has the opportunity to meet “normal human inhabitants who aren’t spliced up murderous lunatics.” As De La Plante explained, these sane inhabitants provide a much-needed respite from the hectic and tense combat, while also being important to the narrative. “I think they really do help make [Rapture] feel a little bit less lonely.”

McClendon also weighed in on why 2K Marin wanted to create a more varied pace in BioShock 2. “Rapture from the inside is such a dangerous, tense place and so many people who played the first game, when we talked to them, talked about how they never felt safe and never [enjoyed] the beauty of the environment.”

McClendon cited such fan feedback as motivation for the game’s outdoor levels. Going outside affords players a lull from splicers and Big Daddies and Big Sisters while providing a view of “this gorgeous amazing city from a different perspective.”

Maximizing a Sequel

While BioShock was a story complete in and of itself, 2K Marin tried to make the sequel both familiar and original by allowing players to explore Rapture from a different perspective and different philosophical viewpoint. This strategy allows players unfamiliar with BioShock to enjoy its sequel by itself, while also allowing veteran players to gain a new appreciation for an existing world.

A sequel to BioShock may never have been necessary, but 2K Marin certainly attempted to make it welcome.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Save the Date: Fostering Online Relationships through Videogames

This is a very personal article about a subject that I still have mixed feelings about: online relationships. Luckily, the response at Bitmob was phenomenal.


davneet_save_the_date

December 18, 2010. That's the day my friend is getting married. He's invited me to the wedding, but I don't know if I want to go because, well, I don't really know if we are friends.

I certainly like him -- we share similar tastes in movies, books, and video games. We have similar senses of humor, and we talk on a daily basis. I've known him for almost two years, but I've never actually met him. We've never attended a happy hour, waited in line for a midnight movie opening, hung out at the local pool hall, or played basketball together -- any of the things that I do with my "real" friends -- because he lives over 1,000 miles away.

 

Instant messaging programs, VoIP services, and Team Fortress 2 have been the main channels for our relationship. I originally met Brian when he joined my clan's Team Fortress 2 competitive team. We initially didn't like each other thanks to our vastly different personalities. His superb sniping ability -- grating when he aimed at me -- furthered my disdain. He mainly didn't like me because of my tendency to get... intense when losing scrims or matches.

That intensity is another, probably larger, reason for my hesitancy to attend Brian's wedding: My online and real-life personas are completely different. During work-related activities and interactions, I'm mostly calm and patient, and I always try to be amiable with everyone I meet. I'm much more crass with a keyboard under my fingertips and headphones covering my ears. That's not to say I'm bigoted or obnoxious or hateful. I simply have a different vocabulary and sense of humor when conversing with online acquaintances.

If I attend Brian's wedding, those two personalities will collide. I don't think I'll be the person Brian's come to know and like online, nor will I be the person my co-workers appreciate. I'll be something in between, an amalgamation of the two.

I suppose I'm afraid that my two worlds colliding will turn me into one of those people in the documentary Second Skin -- people whose online personas fully consume their daily lives, who define themselves through rendered manifestations, and who prefer simulated activities to real ones. I want to plug in and pull out of the Matrix at will, not inhabit it indefinitely.

Although maybe I'm closer to being one of those people than I think. Two years ago, I went out once or twice a week. Today, I'm content to sit at my computer on Friday and Saturday evenings. I don't think that's because I'm becoming more obsessed with PC games. Given how much I already enjoy them, that would be hard to accomplish. I just really enjoy the company of my online acquaintances.

gaming_rig

I'm more honest with Brian, and I laugh harder at his jokes. Our conversations are more stimulating than those I have with real-life friends. I guess it's too late to worry about becoming one of those people. I already am one.

Well, so what? Establishing and maintaining a relationship via gaming, platonic or otherwise, can be healthier than doing so by some other means. Being of Indian descent, my parents had an arranged marriage -- they didn't see or talk to each other until their wedding day. But their relationship still worked out in the end. Actually, not really.

Surely gaming relationships are healthier than arranged marriages. At the very least, they bring personality to the forefront, an achievement that everyone should commend in this superficial age. Considering that, perhaps we should tout online gaming over blind dating, speed dating, and all those other visually-oriented relationship services.

I can rationalize my increasing investment in online gaming relationships any number of ways. But what really matters is whether I'm okay with my situation. And, after a little thought, I am.

I like Brian, and I'm going to meet him for the first time at his wedding because he's my friend.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Saboteur Review

While I wasn't particularly impressed with The Saboteur, I had a lot of fun both playing and reviewing it. Here's what I thought -- originally published on Hooked Gamers.

Friendly Fire

Prancing along the rooftops of Nazi-occupied Paris, I spotted a German general flanked by two bodyguards loitering on the street below. Given that killing Nazi generals grants me extra contraband, I set my Scoped Steiner in line with the general's head and fired a shot. Before the general hit the ground, I ran to another set of rooftops and hid among the jagged peaks. As the two bodyguards came to attention, a Sturmwagen drove by and deposited three more vigilant and glowing Nazis directly in the middle of traffic.

The Nazis stood perfectly still in an "alert" state with their weapons pointed in all directions, ready for any sign of the assassin. They were completely immersed in their hunt, so much so that when a German transport truck came barreling down the street towards them, they didn't flinch. Not wanting to harm any soldiers, the truck driver swerved to avoid two of the Nazis… and ran over the third, instantly killing him.

In their constant vigilance, the remaining two soldiers continued to stay perfectly still, not noticing or caring that their comrade had just been murdered. The truck driver maintained a similar attitude - his delivery was just too important to stop and check on the Nazi he had just crushed.

Pandemic Studios' swansong, The Saboteur, is a massive open-world game full of such conflicting moments. It attempts to maintain an immersive experience by integrating elements of plot, gameplay and artistic design, which it accomplishes most of the time, but a few poor design decisions and bad implementations often break any sense of immersion.

French-Irish

In The Saboteur, you play Sean Devlin, an Irish mechanic turned professional racecar driver turned French resistance fighter in 1940s Paris. He's a heavy-drinking, chain-smoking, womanizing asshole with vengeance in mind.

Before Germany invaded France, Sean's impending victory in his first official race was sabotaged by Doppelsieg's top driver, Kurt Dierker, who went on to claim victory. That sabotage, along with Sean's recklessness, sparked a series of tragic events that resulted in Sean hiding out in Paris while biding his time before killing Dierker.

The plot can be somewhat hokey. Ridiculous plot devices - the main antagonist is a champion racecar driver who moonlights as a professional torturer for the Nazis - derail all attempts at poignancy, like Sean's mentor, Vittore, imploring him to stop seeking vengeance. Even so, the one-dimensional yet diverse cast of characters and the resulting secrets, reluctant partnerships and betrayals, manage to keep the narrative slightly interesting. The banter between Sean's two love-interests is very amusing, and even ancillary characters existing only to provide extra missions are unique, if not well developed. While other French resistance fighters are focused on general sabotage, Margot calls upon Devlin to stop the Nazi war on culture and Dr. Kwong brings a new age of psychological warfare tactics.

While The Saboteur provides a small number of repeating mission types, the game's plot also ensures that missions similar in structure don't feel overly repetitive.

How to Take Down a Nazi

The open-world action adventure contains five self-explanatory and recurring mission structures: Tailing an enemy, rescuing allies, chauffeuring allies, sniping targets, and the most general of mission types, blow stuff up.

Pandemic Studios keeps each mission interesting by varying the underlying motivations and corresponding characters. The first chauffeur mission requires Sean to drive his best friend's sister, Veronique, around the city, while unbeknownst to him, she picks up and deposits a bomb to assassinate a high-value German target. Another chauffeur mission, assigned by Dr. Kwong, requires Sean to drive a brainwashed Nazi around the city, as the soldier willingly delivers a bomb to his commander. The first mission carries an air of tension, given the relationship between Sean and Veronique, whereas the second is quite humorous: when Sean attempts a conversation with the brainwashed German, he receives a prerecorded and repeating script.

The Saboteur also occasionally breaks from its defining mission structures to provide more story-driven experiences. Sean's chase of Kurt Dierker through an exploding zeppelin and a rescue mission conducted on a moving train are two particularly memorable moments in the game. Unfortunately, there are few comparable moments throughout the game.

Walk Softly but Carry a Big Gun

To accomplish all of these missions, Sean has the option of running in with heavy weapons, creating massive amounts of death and destruction, or stealthy infiltration, going unnoticed by any Nazis. In the first case, Sean has a large arsenal of pistols, machine guns, shotguns, rifles and explosives at his disposal, though very few of the weapons are actually worth carrying. After finding a decent machinegun and sniper rifle early on, there's no real reason for Sean to use anything else, at least until he meets the Nazi Terror Squad.

In choosing to be stealthy, Sean has the ability to sneak behind enemies and perform quick stealth kills, and disguise himself in Nazi uniforms that grant him free and unhindered access to Nazi bases. Once inside a Nazi uniform and base, Sean can complete the necessary mission without disruption as long as he stays outside of dynamic areas of suspicion.

The stealth method is almost always much easier than the guns-blazing method thanks to the absurdly stupid enemy AI. As long as Sean remains outside the areas of suspicion, he can continuously plant explosives on objects of interest unhindered. An entire base may be engulfed in flames with explosions continuously going off, but Nazi soldiers will completely ignore it all as long as Sean doesn't jump out of his disguise.

Uber-Nazis

While this stealth formula is maintained throughout most of the game, it is broken by the aforementioned Nazi Terror Squad. These superhuman behemoths carry futuristic weapons - their shotguns fire as quickly as machine guns and their machine guns fire as quickly gatling guns - and they're immune to stealth kills. In some cases, half a dozen headshots are necessary to taking one down.

What results is the removal of any semblance of believability that the game tries to build through its characters and well-designed world. The Saboteur, like any good open-world game, is heavily built on providing players with choice. But the Terror Squad completely removes choice, contradicting everything else that Pandemic Studios created in the game.

Sound the Alarm

If a Nazi does notice Sean performing illicit activities, the Nazi can sound a general alarm and, as is typical at the end of most missions, Sean must flee the area before further German forces arrive and the alarm level increases. To escape alarms, Sean has a number of options including leaving the alarm area, which is particularly difficult at higher alarm levels, and running into a designated hiding spot, such as brothels and hatches on roofs.

In a nice addition to open-world games, Sean also has the option to fight back during high-level alarms. At designated "fight back" areas, Nazis will retreat and unsound the alarm once Sean and his allies have killed a certain number of pursuers in what amounts to all out warfare on the streets.

Economic Woes

Outside of the provided missions, Sean has the option of destroying Nazi targets - guard towers, search lights, AA guns and propaganda speakers - that litter Paris and the outlying countryside. While very repetitive, doing so is necessary in order to gain contraband, currency of Nazi-occupied Paris.

Sean can spend contraband to purchase explosives, weapons and ammunition from dealers. He can also use contraband at garages to purchase vehicle upgrades and body repairs.

However, The Saboteur's economic system is fairly light, considering it boils down to a formula of complete task then receive rewards. As opposed to a fully fleshed out trading system, Sean can't sell back or return items he doesn't have a use for.

The Saboteur also includes an interesting perk system that mimics the achievements all videogames incorporate. Performing specific actions a certain number of times unlocks weapons, vehicles and new abilities for Sean that are very useful. The game's best sniper rifle, racecar and stealth kills are all obtainable exclusively through the perk system.

Black and White

As alluded to, the majority of the game is set in Paris, which Pandemic Studios rendered beautifully - adding landmarks such as The Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, the Tour Eiffel and Notre Dame - and managed to capture a lived-in old world feel. But Sean must also travel to the French countryside and shore, which can take a good deal of time. Like any road trip, however, the drives also act as a respite from tense circumstances.

Tying all the environments together is The Saboteur's highly touted color-scheme. At the beginning of the game, Sean meets a French freedom fighter named Luc. In an attempt to recruit Sean, Luc enters into an inspirational diatribe, "We will push back the darkness, free the city from fear, house by house and street by street."

While Luc is speaking figuratively, Pandemic Studios considered that statement more literally. Areas under heavy Nazi occupation appear in black and white, with small accents of color, reminiscent of Schindler's List. After Sean completes certain high-profile missions, Nazi influence decreases and the game reveals a full color palette for the area in an inspirational moment.

Seeing an area in color, after spending hours in its black and white counterpart, is like seeing it for the first time. The effect is quite stunning. In addition, viewing the seams, particularly those places where a dark chaotic sky meets its fully colored neighbor, acts as a reminder - there's still more work to be done.

Innovative vs. Fun

With perhaps the exception of its artistic design, The Saboteur doesn't do anything new. It takes all of its design elements from innovative games, like those in the Grand Theft Auto and Assassin's Creed series, but implements them in a much less flattering manner. However, that's not to say the game isn't fun.

The game possesses eye-rolling situations, overpowered enemies, terribly dumb AI and other look-at-the-camera moments, but these breaks of immersion add to an enjoyable experience instead of detracting from it. Watching that German transport truck run over the Nazi soldier was so unexpected and so contradictory to the situation, I burst out in laughter. It only made me want to play more.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Rogue Warrior: Making Other Games Shine

Rogue Warrior is easily my worst game of 2009, which is probably why I had so much fun writing this review. Originally published on Bitmob.

Rogue Warrior

Warning: This article is rated R – Restricted for language and explicit badass-ness. Readers under 17 require an accompanying parent or adult guardian.

Upon starting the single-player campaign in Rogue Warrior, three difficulty options greeted me: “If you’re a pussy, select this one,” “Bring it on, motherfuckers,” and “Think you’re fucking special, huh?” I chuckled at each of the statements. My girlfriend, who was sitting next to me, summed up her feelings with one word: lame. But she thinks every game that isn’t Team Fortress 2 is lame, so I decided to roll with the situation.

So what if the difficulty levels are kind of cheesy? The game hasn’t even started yet. Let’s see where this goes.

The opening credits began with a Dick Marcinko monologue voiced by the unmistakable and gravelly Mickey Rourke. “A spec warrior, one who gives a fuck. That’s me.”

My own inner monologue continued: Sounds pretty badass.

“Whether I’m prowling and growling, or going full fucking Faulkner with lots of sound and fury, you count on this: I get the job done.”

A reference to The Sound and the Fury, huh? So, he’s badass and clever.

“I’m running a skeleton crew. Minimum footprint, maximum impact. S.O.P. for assholes like me.”

Well, maybe not so clever. And I get it, you’re badass. You don’t have to call yourself an asshole.

“I trained these men up through the SEAL program. They’ve saved my ugly ass more than once.”

Further self-deprecation isn’t going to increase your badass rating.

“They’re dirtbags and hard motherfuckers.”

Wow, I get it. You’re badass, they’re badass. Well done.

Marcinko paused as one of his men lifted his middle finger to the camera.

Seriously?! So calling your fellow SEALs dirtbags and motherfuckers wasn’t already enough to establish your collective badass-ness. Now one of these hard motherfuckers has to stick his middle finger up at… me?

Fuck you

Lessons from a Violent Stealthy Shooter

I realized the ineptitude of Rogue Warrior’s script early on and at no point during my play-through was I convinced to reconsider my decision.

However, a game’s script typically has no bearing on its gameplay. I pressed on, hoping for more… but the game quickly and fully dashed my hopes for a decent experience.

First of all, there is a large number of weapons in the game. Unfortunately, they all feel exactly the same, with two exceptions: the shotgun – essentially a one hit kill weapon – and the sniper rifle – definitively a one hit kill weapon. The silenced pistol is just as effective at taking down an enemy as an AK-47, whereas the sniper rifle is so effective, it will instantly kill an enemy with only one bullet to the foot.

The absurdly predictable enemies further exaggerate some of the parallels between weapons. In ongoing auditions for a new Whac-A-Mole game, communist soldiers will hide behind cover, count to ten, pop their heads out to look around, return to cover for one second, pop back out and fire for five seconds, and then repeat the process. Over and over again.

I would definitely hand over the Whac-A-Mole roles to these communists if it weren’t for their tendency to always reveal a knee or an elbow while hiding behind cover. Shooting oneself in the head is an equally effective tactic when facing a sniper rifle-wielding Marcinko. The Locust Horde retains its mole-king status.

To be fair, communist soldiers only play the hide and peek game when they’re aware of Marcinko. When they’re not aware, Marcinko can run up behind an enemy, place a necklace of unpinned grenades on his shoulders, and run away with the enemy never realizing – even though Marcinko just performed the same action on five other nearby communists.

Marcinko doesn’t actually like to use grenades though. Instead, he’ll use his knife to stab enemies in the side of the neck, the back of the neck, the forehead, the back of the head, the back of the kneecap, the kidney, etc. There are over twenty kill moves that all accomplish the same thing.

Stab to the kidney

The Rogue Warrior developers even incorporated a cover system. Communists in the game are either hiding or completely unaware of Marcinko. Why is a cover system necessary? It’s not. Unlike well-developed cover systems in other games, Marcinko’s cover system is a downgrade from basic strafing and crouching.

To emphasize the poor gameplay, Rogue Warrior blankets its mechanics – from the weapons to the AI to the cover system – in a very dated aesthetic. With the exception of a Russian palace, every apartment building, factory, dock, and dam looks exactly the same. Each concrete wall and metal pole blends into the bland surroundings, resulting in a stale and rusted industrial environment.

Even when there is a drastic change in the aesthetics – as in the aforementioned Russian palace – it’s hard to appreciate the scenery due to the lack of detail. The sparseness of each environment conveys an extreme sterility, as if each location had been uninhabited for centuries prior to Marcinko’s arrival. Unfortunately, the game is set in the real world, in the 1980s.

Increasing the Badass Factor

Surprisingly, the gameplay and the graphics are both far from being Rogue Warrior’s worst aspect. That honor goes to the expletives Marcinko spews every few seconds. Colorful examples include:

“Drop dead motherfucker, you fucking amateurs.”

“I’ve got bullets for every one of those motherfuckers.”

“Fucking… fucking retard, dead piece of shit.”

“Better dead than red, assholes.” (My personal favorite and probably the only sentence Marcinko utters without adding a superfluous “fuck.”)

If I didn’t know that Rogue Warrior was based on Dick Marcinko’s equally explicit autobiography, I would’ve thought the game originated from a developer bet: How many times can Mickey Rourke say “fuck?”

How to Read

That’s not to say I’m against explicit language in videogames. I believe it has its place in the medium, along with sex, violence, and any other controversial subject matter. Duke Nukem’s creative trash talk still brings a smile to my face. “I’m gonna rip your head off and shit down your neck,” demonstrates a wonderfully poetic rhythm. Marcinko’s expletives demonstrate nothing more than elementary and overcompensating attempts at creating attitude. “Get dead, fuck bag,” is just not on the same level.

The Real Victim

I can’t help but feel like Rogue Warrior has victimized me, as if a thief broke into my house and stole my gaming PC – my only valuable possession, other than the refrigerator.

However, I’m not Rogue Warrior’s only victim. I’m not even its greatest victim – that would have to be the underpaid and overworked programmer or artist or level designer at Rebellion Developments.

This lowly developer entered the videogame industry not for the money, not for the fame, but simply for the love of videogames. This developer has an incredible amount of talent and some amazing ideas. Unfortunately, for whatever reason – be it the poor job market or social pressures – this developer had to work on Rogue Warrior. Superiors who demanded subpar work infected this developer to the point of eroding his or her integrity and self-worth. To you traumatized developer, I’m truly sorry.

Terrible, Terrible, Terrible

Between the shallow gameplay, dated graphics, extensive expletives, and traumatized development team, I believe I can describe this game in one simple statement: Rogue Warrior is terrible.

That’s right Rogue Warrior, you are a terrible game. I don’t think I’ve ever said that about a videogame before. I’ve certainly played many games over the years that I didn’t enjoy. But I’ve always appreciated some aspect of every game, even if it was just the shiny graphics or the poorly executed attempt at innovation.

I never thought I could justifiably use a single word to describe a game. After all, describing a game with only one adjective is no better than assigning a game one of those arbitrary numeric values that Metacritic perpetuates. However, with you, Rogue Warrior, “terrible” fits.

Almost all videogames at least try to be more than they are. Rogue Warrior, you never even thought about trying. I can find nothing redeeming about you. In fact, I really want to despise you for wasting my time and money, but I can’t. After all, what is good, without bad? How can we appreciate the groundbreaking titles without the fodder to compare them?

Boo

I suppose I did find something redeeming about you. Well done, Rogue Warrior… I guess. Can I still call you terrible? At the very least, I can agree with my girlfriend and call you lame.

Afterword

Two questions regarding Rogue Warrior’s development process continue to nag me. I can’t get them out of my head because I can’t find a rational answer for either of them.

First, why didn’t Marcinko provide his own voice for the videogame?

He was a Navy SEAL during Vietnam, he created the first dedicated counter-terrorism team, and he ultimately served time in federal prison for supposedly defrauding the government. He’s the closest thing to a real-life Rambo!

He even hosts his own talk show – America on Watch – so he should know how to speak into a microphone.

And it’s not like he needed a strong acting pedigree. In-game Marcinko’s range of emotions spanned from angry-and-cursing to slightly-angry-and-cursing. I’m sure real-life Marcinko has had experience with both ends of the spectrum.

“But,” you might interject, “if Mickey Rourke is readily available, why not use him?”

“Well,” I would counter, “maybe some of that Mickey Rourke money could have gone towards creating some decent gameplay.” It’s just something to think about.

Run Away

Second – and the more obvious question – why did Bethesda Softworks publish this game?

This is a game developer known for crafting some of the most visually stunning, atmospheric, story-driven, and generally innovative experiences. Morrowind, Oblivion, and Fallout 3 all number among my favorite role-playing games, and The Shivering Isles is one of the most imaginative places that I’ve ever visited.

Even though Bethesda’s forte is role-playing, the company must have at least an inkling of what goes into a good shooter, considering its parent – ZeniMax Media – recently purchased id Software.

This all makes Rogue Warrior all the more perplexing. Everyone at Bethesda must have known Rogue Warrior was terrible. Why not delay the release? Valve does it all the time and they still come out on top, despite the constant outcry from fans. Was money a factor? I can’t see how it would be considering Fallout 3’s success and ZeniMax’s aforementioned acquisition.

I just can’t fathom how such a principled developer could have played a part in, much less published, such a terrible gaming experience. I suppose I’ll have to limit myself to games that Bethesda Softworks has both published and developed, and ignore those it has only published.