Monday, November 28, 2011

Treading (Un)Charted Waters..

 It's funny, before Uncharted 3 released, I sat around listening to my friends yell and prophesize about the return of the greatest game ever. I can't exactly blame them. Starting with the first and coming together in an unprecedentedly brilliant way for the second game, Uncharted deserves all the acclaim it gets, and then some, both as a technical showpiece for the Playstation 3 architecture and as a benchmark for the modern action/adventure game. So when everyone sat around getting high off the fumes of the early expected 9 and 10 reviews, I sat very calmly, of course much to their dismay that I wasn't openly receiving the same kool-aid pearl necklace as other reviewers.

 It's because I know the third can't match the second one. You can only have an emergent genesis in one game, then it's up to the developer to keep the bar raised for the rest of the series. Its what defined Gears of War in the second, Splinter Cell in the third, the first Devil May Cry.. and so on. So with the comfortable realization that I wouldn't be blown away like the second, but instead pleasantly surprised at the refinement of tricks from the second, I eventually picked it up.


It is awesome, but something The game is a massive spectacle filled with jaw dropping moments, but something nagged. Considering what I'm playing, it was easy enough to ignore however.


It wasn't until my girlfriend and I were joking around about ol' Nate's inability to brush his teeth without something going terribly awry (leading to the room collapsing) that I subtly acknowledged something, but kept it in my pocket. That something has been digging at me a bit, amazing as the game is.

I was going to write about this feeling. Someone beat me to it. Check it out, because word-for-word, it robbed me of an editorial. This is exactly how I feel about the game. It raises a very good point.

Fair warning: If you are halfway or less through the game or don't want to have your opinion muddled with before you can form one, I suggest you don't read.

Counterpoint: Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception (Destructoid)

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Thursday, November 24, 2011

2 Thanksgivings later..

Happy Thanksgiving!
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Thursday, November 17, 2011

(Black) Boxed In.

Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit redefined the franchise from the moment of its release. The action was fast, furious, and brought back the cat-and-mouse gameplay the series was originally known for, after having spent the past few years as a surrogate Fast and the Furious game. Being able to step behind the wheel of either a cop or racer was a great twist, and the sheer variety of events kept things interesting with nary a need for a cutscene. With series-new developer Criterion at the helm, the visuals and control had also never been tighter. It also introduced Autolog, a persistent leaderboard system that inspired replay value through competition, and was such a success that it became a series staple from that moment. Whether intentionally or no, it served to trim the fat that mainstay developer Black Box had acquired over the years, and made NFS exciting again.

With this new game, you can imagine the pressure was on. Essentially, Black Box has two things to prove: That they can create a next-gen NFS game from the ground up, and that they can keep up with where the series has been during their absence.

I'll start by saying what the screenshots already do--Need For Speed:The Run is a very nice looking game. Battlefield 3’s Frostbite 2 engine is pushing some very large, detailed courses here, and the strange choice in engine is made all the more obvious when they start to come apart at the seams. Taking a page from Motorstorm: Apocalypse, what was a tricky slalom run can quickly turn into a race against the elements as an avalanche threateningly obscures your vision and litters the road with chunks of debris mid-race. Volcanic eruptions rattle the screen without warning, and impromptu earthquakes split the ground, creating makeshift ramps and barriers to be dodged. Forcing players to adapt on the fly is one way to shake up the formula and keep things new, but this focus on mayhem serves an even better purpose. It adds a layer of tension unheard of in a NFSgame, where the uncertainty of what may happen around you is at odds with your ability to finish the race in good standing. It's a rush.

..Or it would be more of one had Black Box not fouled up the controls.

(Quick history: When Criterion took the reins, they used their experience with Burnout and made a solid driving model that had the speed and precision of an arcade racer, but with the weight and inertia a longtime Need For Speed fan would recognize. The result was a control scheme that complimented the game’s sense of speed perfectly, and is apparently one of the most responsive games in existence as insinuated by DigitalFoundry during their tech analysis.)

Going back to NFS: The Run after Hot Pursuit almost feels like a time machine. The cars have a strange weight to them, feeling too light on straights and too heavy on turns. Turning feels like doing so with a rudder instead of a steering wheel, and handbrake is unreliable, as using it seems to do more harm than good. Even driving at a high speed felt twitchy and unwieldy, something that shouldn’t be in a game where your base vehicle is a low level supercar. I thought it had been because I hadn’t played in a while, but a quick return to Hot Pursuit confirmed it – they may have brought other aspects of the series up to par, but the driving feels like a step back. The many crushed guardrails and flattened vehicles I had to endure during races had me calling the game Need for Speed: The Boat Run under my breath. Suddenly, the new rewind feature seemed less like a caveat for the more questionably scripted hazards and more like an apology for the busted control.

Considering that it was Hot Pursuit’s superb control that brought this to light, I took another step, thought about the past year in terms of NFS, and came to another realization. I think Black Box needs as well if they haven't already. The series is evolving. Not just in providing better excuses to lead foot it arcade style, but in indulging both the realistic and over the top aspects of race culture, as evidenced by companion series like Shift and World. This increased scope means Need For Speed is a franchise with more than one active developer now, but that doesn't come without a catch. Critically, this means any new titles moving forward will be acknowledged not by sequel number, but by the pedigree of the team in charge of the latest installment and what they've brought to the table. It’s always the silent implication in situations like this, and how we as gamers treat any series with a split creator base.

This control issue wasn’t game breaking, but it was enough to cast Black Box's return in a negative light. I’m glad that they've taken all the appropriate visual cues from some of the more exciting racers this year. I’m all for the proliferation of Autolog, and I welcome the return to over-the-top theatrics, but it’s all for naught if they aren’t truly ready to keep the bar of quality as high as their contemporaries. We’ve been at this ascent for three games in a row. Slightly Mad Studios brought the in-car sensation of speed to new heights with Shift, Hot Pursuit brought Autolog, and Shift 2 Unleashed brought it all together in addition to pack racing and a broader career. While apocalyptic spectacle is the one feature I want to assign for this latest installment, It's a bit of a bitter pill if it feels like Black Box hasn't updated their racing model since Undercover.

No matter the innovations, it just takes one flaw to render them all irrelevant in memory, and open the floodgates for harsher scrutiny. Almost seamlessly, your game can go from having a sick narrow train escape, to a question as to why there’s a QTE in the middle of your race.

Then credibility falters as you begin to question what really was added to the experience.

Honestly, I’m already thinking of this title as the cool looking one where they improved everything but the driving.

Am I being mean? Perhaps not.

Black Box taking a vacation was for the good of the series and their team, but the home they've come back to is not the one they left. Colleagues have been improving their game while they weren’t looking, and expectations with each release are much higher. NFS: The Run doesn't meet them entirely, but it at least shows that while they have good intentions to keep NFS relevant on an intense level, they're still somewhat stuck in the past. Let’s hope they can keep up, lest a Treyarch/Infinity Ward style split of public design opinion happens at EA, and we start subconsciously marking their titles as the “inferior” ones.

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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Stiff Competition

"No one can get immersed in a game standing up...except maybe the guards at Buckingham Palace."

I'm admittedly more enamored with my Kinect than I care to admit, but seeing the opinion of another who ISN'T viewing it through a rose tinted Dance Central lens is always fun. Who better than Yahtzee Croshaw?

There's also an extra blog from him calledExtra Punctuation. Do give it a click just to spice things up, and make you feel even more silly for your flailing, motion controlled ways.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to finish that Dance Central 2 review..

Source: Zero Punctuation

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Monday, November 7, 2011

20 years later...

....*record scratches*

"Now, Darkness, the tables have turned.."

Rick James themed playthroughs are (I'm certain.) one of the many ways fans of the original Infinity Blade are keeping occupied as they await another update to what may very well be one of the best iOS games of all time. After all, the game's blend of highly detailed graphics and addictive RPG-styled gameplay would've been something on a console. The fact that it's on a smartphone makes it all the more outstanding, and raises the bar considerably high for a second installment, said to be a flagship title for Apple's new device.

But with an announcement date so close to the release, details have been a bit slim.

Slide to Play has a great Q and A with Donald Mustard, the creative director of Chair Entertainment, talking about just that and more. Along with the trailer we all know and love, there is also some great insight to be had about the sequel, slated to release December 1st. Aside from being a compelling the best reason to upgrade to an iPhone 4s (no Siri, god rays. I'm just saying.) much of the game is still a mystery, but details involving persistent, evolving worlds, story details, and a range of other improvements are discussed in deliciously vague detail.

If you aren't a fan of Infinity Blade yet, here is a great place to start.

Get addicted :)

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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Call of Battlefield: Modern Bore

With the release of Battlefield 3 already upon us and having time to settle, I am not filled with feelings of excitement, nor hatred. I cant really identify with any kind of feeling in particular aside from exasperation. Not at the fact that I've gotten military shooter this year as a part of this 2011 FPS gauntlet we've been running but at the fact that man, does it look a lot like Call of Duty campaign wise.

I'm not the only one who thinks so.

In fact, it's such a strange shift in focus for a game that has stuck to its guns as long as Battlefield, the reactions are almost unanimous: in stark contrast to the multiplayer portion, it doesn't feel or play anything like a Battlefield game.

Eurogamer reports that "EA has constructed a package that echoes its rival in so many ways it's downright eerie."

IGN describes the gulf in quality between the single and multiplayer modes as the game suffering an "identity crisis"

Destructoid says "If you're a fan of single-player games, there's nothing for you here."

I hope it's starting to sink in. The race for every military shooter to capture that Call of Duty "magic" is a fruitless one that continues to ensure that all our military FPS stories will have the same interchangeable, hollow campaigns lacking in substance.

Call of Duty hasn't been an action packed history lesson for years, but they wisely ditched the format when WW2 was thoroughly mined. Changing the scope of the series from that to one more loosely based in our current events was a wise move on a creative and gameplay front, and gave them legs for something new. That something new worked in the original Modern Warfare But their success has literally become a blueprint for the modern FPS. If they are the trailblazers, people will start following their cues for a taste of their success, and oh are they.

(If you can't tell which game this is at first glance, something's wrong)

Wait for NPC B to kick in door A, terrorists pop up like cardboard cutouts, shoot, repeat until set-piece activates. While I appreciate EA going for Infinity Ward's throat, they may have gone about it the wrong way by following what has become the lowest common denominator blueprint of FPS design. Since Modern Warfare 2, short, linear military rollercoaster rides with a heavy focus on multiplayer has been the consensus. The difference however between every other game adopting these bullet points and Call of Duty embracing them, is the fact that their multiplayer is so popular and nuanced that they can AFFORD to let the campaign deteriorate into this.

EVERYONE ELSE DOES NOT HAVE THAT CUSHION. While I don't mind CoD jumping a multiplayer shark, everyone is attempting similar leaps now, and unsuccessfully at that. This means we have a bevy of failed attempts at this same slanted, rigid campaign/multiplayer focus instead of memorable, lasting experiences from franchises old and new. It means new creative ideas are being ditched, or compromised, or outright rejected for what works, like their method. It means a loss of identity. It means becoming a statistic.

It also means being forgotten while the major players who did get it right burn the genre to shreds by trying to reproduce their apex until they no longer can. The ones getting it wrong drive the nails further into the coffin.

I suppose the point I'm trying to make is, I'd rather watch Call of Duty topple under its own weight, with it's own flaws, without dragging an entire genre down with it.

There's still an opportunity to craft a story in a military shooter that can resonate viscerally because unlike shooting candy colored aliens, the threat of what's presented here is more personally identifiable, if not always completely plausible. There's a chance to create an exciting, tactical gauntlet that can test more than a player's ability to aim down the sights. Elements like visuals, score, and an intensity of events that simply can't be matched anywhere but in first-person because without an avatar to view constantly, immersion increases exponentially. Imagine all of this paced with intent, having a clear start and finish. Having the ability to stir and evoke emotions in players, and knowing they have been challenged by development team clever enough to do so is a power they are forgetting they have. Regardless of the success of their individual approaches, at least that's exactly what they are, individual, and not yet another attempt to recreate another badass soldiering montage.

More Saving Private Ryan, less Pearl Harbor, moving forward please.

I'm speaking not just to DICE, but the rest of the developers on that one. If CoD has given up on campaign, that's the competition's space to make it better, and innovate. Not follow them mercilessly into the increasingly bleak and derivative popcorn hot-dog-on-a-string campaigns awash in brown hues, foreign countries and explosions. The time for distinction is now, while Battlefield 3 paints a by-the-numbers approach to this as a noticeable problem. I understand the nature of business first, but this is how you beat the competition.

Otherwise, soon you all won't have a genre to compete in.
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