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.