ArmA And The Potential For Open-World Military Shooters

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Okay I think this is the last post I’m going to make about ArmA II. I’m in the middle of the campaign, and so far I think I would describe it as an imaginative but budget-constrained collection of ideas I would love to see EA or Ubisoft attempt. In my experience it’s one of the most interesting and ambitious attempts at an open world first person shooter. It’s also very hard to describe because there is pretty much nothing extremely similar to it. It has small similarities to a lot of shooters, RPGs, and strategy games but the complete package is very different from pretty much any mainstream game. I think it’s best if I just describe what some of the missions feel like.

The second main mission in the game puts you and three squadmates you command in an industrial complex roughly the size of a 64-player map from Battlefield (the central southern city on this map). You need to find and kill one sniper in that complex, with no directions as to where to go and your only information being “he’s on a tall building.” If you’re not quick enough, either he’ll kill a group of friendly characters, or another friendly may get him first. The first time I played this mission I just climbed the tallest building in the area, found him on the roof of an adjacent building, and told my marksman to shoot him. The second time I played the same mission, all the enemies in the city including the sniper were in a general retreat northwards due to an allied force making some kind of push. I was able to catch him running towards the northern tip of the complex with about 20 other enemies.

The second main mission tasks your team with capturing another guy, but he could be anywhere in the southeastern third of the map, which is probably more ground to cover than all of Liberty City. You start out with a couple leads and your choice of which to follow, and a time limit of about an hour. Following those leads takes you on a breadcrumb trail of True Detective proportions through hills, forests, and a bunch of villages. You gather clues and talk to locals who give you a Zelda-style runaround. Furthermore, the target has to physically move through the world just like you do, so it’s possible to run into him at any point during your investigation (though he’s scripted to head somewhere when certain conditions are met). If you fail the game continues — as the campaign actually has around five endings.

On one attempt I immediately put my team on a helicopter and directed it towards a village I heard mentioned earlier. As it neared the destination the chopper took enemy fire from around a castle sitting atop a forested hill near the village, so I touched down around there and went to investigate. After a firefight in the forest I spotted the target exiting the castle and bolting through the woods. On the official ArmA II forums someone posted an account where after gathering up clues they got a scripted call that the target was headed to a certain town and they had about 20 minutes to intercept. This guy put his team in a humvee and slams it down the road, at one point having to dodge an enemy APC and its cannon, eventually spotting the target’s car just upon entering the town. A game of chicken ensued between the two vehicles, and the target spun out, got out of the car, and limped towards a nearby barn as the team pinned him down.

The third main mission which I’m on now puts the team in a similarly-sized area but with over half a dozen different objectives spread out all over the place, and your choice as to how and in what order to do them. It’s kind of like a shopping list of Fallout quests. Some have you track leads on gun runners, some have you trek comb forests looking for enemy camps (and because this game world is realistically scaled, a forest is as big as an actual forest, not a collection of trees). Among these objective are two people you need to capture. You have a photograph of one of them, as well as detailed descriptions of both their daily routines: where they work, what time they go to church, etc.

And finally, you have missions and scenarios set up in ArmA II’s unique “Warfare” mode. At the beginning you can choose whether or not to be the commander of a whole military force. If you take command, the game literally turns into a real-time strategy game where your job is to capture a bunch of towns and important areas by building bases and commanding units. If you chose not to take full command, the AI will, and you’ll just play as what is effectively a single unit in an RTS (potentially with command over your own small team). The AI commander will still build a base and everything, but its commands manifest in the form of objectives which you can tackle when and however you want.

If you choose the latter, in practice ArmA II becomes something like Battlefield’s conquest mode but with you and possibly hundreds of bots spread out over a GTA-sized map. The effect of choosing an AI commander is that mission objectives essentially become dynamic. Say for instance a helicopter somewhere get’s shot down but the pilot survives. If you’re the closest guy to where that happens, the AI commander might give you an objective to rescue the pilot.

By the way, I’m pretty sure all these missions support co-op.

ArmA II is of course not the kind of shooter every shooter fan wants to play, on account of it erring much more towards realism than fun, which is why I really wish someone would apply its mission structure to a more mainstream, action-oriented shooter. Another issue is that a lot of what I described above is possible because ArmA II’s singleplayer simulates complex AI over distances of many square kilometers, which wreaks havoc on most CPUs. On my 3.4 GHz i5 I’ve decided to settle for 30 frames per second on some missions (and I’ve confirmed it’s not due to GPU strain). I don’t know how any console CPU could handle that right now. Also, Bohemia Interactive’s budgetary limits definitely show in ArmA II’s low production values. Character animation is non-existent, the voice acting is pretty terrible, and the game is so buggy that I often have to retry missions because the scripting doesn’t work. And yet, it attempts things games with budgets multiple times its size never even dream of. I just can’t help but think what would happen if someone put an EA or Ubisoft-sized production budget on a military shooter with least some of ArmA’s ideas, or at least one that tried to capture the same sense of freedom.

Some of the stuff I described above could theoretically happen in a Fallout or Elder Scrolls game. Far Cry 3 also has a lot to see and do as an open world shooter, but I feel its main missions are much too linear, which kind of kills the point of being open world. Far Cry 2 is probably the closest mainstream shooter to what I might be looking for — an open world where each mission is little more than a place and a goal with everything else left up to you. The problem with that game is that it was a bit too shallow. Right now I’m pinning my hopes on Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. I liked the open-ended mission structure of Ground Zeroes a lot and anticipate how it will translate to a true open world.

BULLETS:

  • Nintendo’s season pass for Mario Golf World Tour doesn’t seem too bad. It’s only $15 and nearly doubles the amount of content in the game — a game that is already the most content-rich Mario Golf ever. The season pass itself adds as much content as any entire previous Mario Golf game.
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Game Boy: What Else Were You Going To Play On The Go In The 90′s?

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Even though the 25th anniversary of the Game Boy in North America isn’t until June, everyone else seems to be going with the Japanese anniversary date here so I guess I’ll write down some kind of account of my experiences with the system. In a way it’s a bit of a reflection of what got the Game Boy to where it was in the market, especially in the years before the platform’s post-Pokémon explosion.

The Game Boy was a really old system by the time Nintendo finally put it to bed. Even counting to the release of the Game Boy Color, the original Game Boy hardware basically dominated handheld video games for nine years. Not only that, it’s top-selling non-packed-in game, the killer app for which it is most remembered, came out at the tail end of its lifespan. The original Game Boy is pretty remarkable not only for what it achieved but also for the environment surrounding it throughout the 90’s.

I actually couldn’t even get a Game Boy of my own until around 1993 or 1994. I spent years watching other people play Tetris and Super Mario Land. When I finally got one, I spent most of my time with it prior to 1998 stuck with the same handful of games: Yoshi, a port of Pac-Man, a port of Killer Instinct, Tom & Jerry, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Back From the Sewers.

My mom ended up enjoying Pac-Man and Yoshi more than I did. As bland as those other games were (Okay TMNTII was pretty cool), I still played the crap out of them for nearly four years because there really was nothing else to play while on the go. That’s the story of most of the Game Boy’s lifespan — it had no real competition. The Game Gear was cool for while, but software support for it died pretty quickly, not to mention its ridiculous power issues, leaving me with the same old Game Boy games.

Oh Nintendo released some excellent first party hits in the Game Boy’s early years, just not very many considering the span of time we’re talking about here prior to Pokémon. Plus, I didn’t even own most of them until near or after Pokémon. I occasionally got access to other people’s copies of games like Land, but I didn’t get my own copy of that game until at least 1997, and I didn’t get Land 2 until much later. Link’s Awakening? The Game Boy Color version in 1998 was the first time I got to play that game. I didn’t get a Game Boy copy of Tetris until it came out on 3DS Virtual Console in 2011. Virtual Console is probably how I’m experiencing most of what the original Game Boy had to offer. I still haven’t gotten a chance to touch the Wario Land series. Maybe the Game Boy’s best early games were just unknown to all but the most well-informed Nintendo fans. I don’t think any Game Boy game prior to Pokémon, with the exception of Tetris, got as much exposure.

But man when Pokémon did hit, it was like a revelation. For starters, looking back, there were almost no substantial portable role-playing games available before Pokémon, which is crazy considering how handhelds are a center for JRPGs today. But after that game and the subsequent Game Boy Color it was like development of Game Boy games was reinvigorated despite the GBC not being a quantum leap for the platform. We got subsequent Pokémon games, Pokémon Pinball, Metal Gear, Mega Man Xtreme, Shantae,the Zelda Oracle games, etc. It was like I had actual reasons to play the system, even when consoles were within reach. It’s just weird that the best times for the Game Boy were probably towards the end of a very long lifespan. I guess a system in its position could afford to do that though. Even afterwards, no one was really able to erode Nintendo’s position in the handheld market until Apple came along.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that no matter what happened, Game Boy pretty much was handheld gaming for around a decade. Yeah it had some great games if you knew what they were, but even if you didn’t, no other real options ever stepped up.

BULLETS:

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So Is Evoland Any Good?

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If you’ve been browsing indie games on Steam, Humble Bundle, or GoodOldGames over the last year or so you might have noticed Evoland, if only at a glance, and maybe wondered for a second whether it was any good. It might even be in your Steam backlog. After a Giant Bomb quick look I got interested enough to actually boot up the game and take a look. Ultimately it’s a pretty good idea that probably could have had a meatier game devoted to it.

Evoland advertises itself as a trip through the history of action adventure games and RPGs. In practice it toes the line between fan game and capable parody game, its unique gameplay element being introducing the advancements in the genre as actual items to collect in-game.

I have to admit, getting items that drastically change how the world is presented and what you can do in it feels pretty cool. Opening a chest that all of a sudden doubles the number of directions in which you can walk, or grants you a life bar, can immediately and drastically alter what you’re doing.

At the same time, the old school-style gameplay to be found in Evoland is actually pretty well-designed despite being very simple (even compared to the games Evoland emulates). The turn-based combat feels nice and quick for anyone who enjoys JRPGs. . There’s no mana system so it’s pretty much just attacking and healing , but there’s no too much of this combat unless you get seriously lost on the world map. One dungeon in the game — which pretty much tries to be a dungeon out of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, offers some surprisingly well-done puzzle-based gameplay and a suitably challenging boss fight. There’s even one area of the game that took me totally by surprise by parroting gameplay I didn’t expect it to. Let’s just say Evoland is a pretty shameless Zelda and Final Fantasy parody up until a certain point.

The thing is though, Evoland is a very small game. It took me just over two hours to see the credits, and at that point it told me I’d seen around 85 percent of all the content. This doesn’t really give players enough time between getting each new game feature, as you collect them at a rapid pace. What level design is there is well-crafted, there just isn’t a whole lot of it.

For some reason the parody game I keep comparing Evoland to is 3D Dot Game Heroes on the PS3. Both use parody in gameplay elements and end up featuring genuinely good game design on their own merits, but of course 3D Dot was made by a much larger team and printed on $40 discs.

BULLETS:

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Why I Prefer GameFly’s Movie Rental Service

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It’s been a couple weeks since GameFly started renting out movies but I guess I should go ahead and talk about it since I intend to use the new service a lot. In a time when I’m unsure how to rent movies anymore, the service I’m already subscribed to offers what almost feels like a godsend.

If you don’t know, GameFly started offering DVDs and Blu-Rays at the beginning of April, and it looks like a pretty generous service. It adds no extra cost on top of the existing game rental service and movies are available with no delay from their retail release. So basically we now have a robust mail-in service for renting both movies and video games.

I loved Netflix back when it was known as a movie mail-in service. For just $8 a month I rented movies at a pretty rapid pace. I got so used to it that I really felt the damage when Netflix agreed to delay new movies for 30 days. When Netflix upped the price by separating the streaming (which it sees as the future now) and mail services and other companies started rolling out pay-per-rental plans I realized producers had decided Netflix’s model was too generous. The only reason it got off the ground in the first place is because everybody thought it was crazy in the beginning.

I could never get comfortable with paying $5 to rent one movie for a few days when for just $3 more I could get a whole month of Netflix. I know the $5 is basically identical to the old Blockbuster system, just digital, but I felt like Netflix was a step forward. Redbox also feels like part of the old system because it has late feels. Basically, I feel like the film industry has forced the rental business to take a step back for the sake of profits.

GameFly movie rentals seem like a return to the old Netflix system, just for a higher price that includes video games. I’m already using it to catch up on last year’s Oscars, and it seems like I’ll be catching up and keeping up with much more this year because of the service.

For some reason, at the end of the month GameFly is gonna get a ton of anime, including basically every Studio Ghibli movie that’s currently out on Blu-Ray in North America. I’ve been holding off on watching most Ghibli movies until I can get them on Blu-Ray, so GameFly is about to save me a ton of money as I will likely spend the summer on some kind of Ghibli/Miyazaki odyssey. Eventually I’ll probably end up buying some of these movies.

I think the reason GameFly is able to do this when Netflix can’t is 1) Netflix is mostly a streaming service these days where GameFly is still about mail, 2) GameFly’s price is a bit higher than Netflix’s, and 3) Producers probably don’t pay as much attention to GameFly. I wonder if this might increase GameFly’s appeal to the point where it does catch some more attention.

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ArmA II: Getting Lost In The Editor

I’ve put about 15 hours into ArmA II and I haven’t even touched the main campaign, much less multiplayer. I already talked about the game’s massive tertiary armory mode. After that came its extremely flexible and easy-to-use level editor.

The editor in ArmA II isn’t one of those things they built specifically for modders who already know the game’s code. It’s pretty much a straight graphic user interface that any common player can use once they figure out how the logic of the AI and mission objectives work. The funny thing is, I haven’t even really been making my own missions, but rather doing everything else the editor makes possible.

If you want you can use it to just explore the entirety ArmA II’s massive world using whatever vehicle or aircraft you want — and there are some interesting locations to see. It’s also a great way to test or practice every weapon, vehicle, and aircraft the game has to offer without having to unlock all of them in the armory. I’ve been using the mode to set up battles.

By simply putting groups of opposing characters in the world you can get them to fight, and you can put them in whatever town, forest, or other location you want. You can even choose to play as any one of these characters which brings about its own interesting dynamics. A big part of what makes ArmA so impressive is how dynamic and complex its AI system is. Every squad spawned into the editor has a leader who gives the others orders according to the mission objectives he’s been given. These orders change fluidly in response to whatever’s happening as they all call out enemy positions and other information to each other. You can play as the leader and take control of the squad, but you can also play as another member and simply receive orders form an AI which kind of feels like a Call of Duty game but far more dynamic.

Knowing this, I was able to set up multiple squads around certain areas and give them objectives (like “seek and destroy”) that would bring them into contact with enemies, and the AI would just handle the rest. It was pretty amazing the first time I saw a squad leader begin automatically assigning targets and maneuvers as soon as he came into contact with the enemy. Before long I’d set up a battle with possibly close to 100 characters fighting for control over a castle on top of a forested mountain. Sometimes the battle would take place in the castle, sometimes in the forest. That’s possibly the best part of all — no battle in ArmA happens the same way twice. You can replay the same scenario over and over and get a different experience each time.

If I spend any more time with this I might be able to figure out how to get squads into helicopters and drop them off into battle zones while other aircraft are going at it above them. Or I could just check out all the missions people have already made with a lot more experience with the editor. Someone already recreated Ghost Recon Island Thunder.

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The Appeal Of Tactical Shooters

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Even though I said I shut the book on the original Ghost Recon on Monday, afterwards I decided to at least try out the expansion packs Desert Siege and Island Thunder. As of this writing I’m most of the way through Siege as I finally commit to a long-planned sincere attempt at tactical shooters. I think there are two main elements that differentiate hardcore military simulators from most other shooters, including modern games that call themselves tactical shooters.

The most intimidating element of them is of course the high lethality — in most cases one or two bullets will kill a character in these games. That one thing drastically changes almost the entire experience. When you’re being shot at in most shooters it doesn’t matter at all, but in games like ArmA and Ghost Recon it’s seriously intense. To that end, those games have distinct sound effects for bullets hitting near you. As opposed to the hundreds of dudes you mow down in Call of Duty, winning a Ghost Recon or ArmA gunfight with just four or five enemies feels like an achievement. Most importantly though, the high lethality rule turns a shooter into a less visceral and more cerebral game, which is what really goes counter to mainstream shooters.

For instance, in Ghost Recon if an enemy knows your location and you both get behind cover, if you peek out from the same place where the enemy last saw you, he’ll probably take you out almost instantly. Also, when you shoot at enemies they immediately hit the deck and find cover. In games like these flanking tactics are far more important, and you can pretty much never rush into situations. The main thing that turns people away from true tactical shooters is that they quickly punish you for any mistake, but it’s a distinct taste that offers its own fun if you’re willing to find it.

Other than some interface issues, the only thing about Ghost Recon I’ll say feels outdated is how it handles indoor combat. The 2001 game takes a broad approach to combat that works for its massive, open-ended maps. You spend most of your time shooting at guys in open fields 150 yards away, but that same apparatus becomes clumsy once you have to clear a building. I can almost never order units to enter buildings without them getting shot, and when doing it myself enemies often aim and shoot faster than I can react. In a game about shooting at enemies before they see you, it’s tough to do that when you’re breaking into their houses unless your sniper perched somewhere can see them through windows.

I think the most fundamental difference from normal shooters brought on by things like high lethality and more tactical AI is the loss of player empowerment. Most mainstream games today are about making players feel cool and powerful. Assassin’s Creed wants to make you feel like the baddest guy in the room. Halo wants you to feel like a supersoldier. Call of Duty wants to make you feel like the badass protagonist of a military thriller. Ghost Recon, ArmA, and other military simulators make you feel like an ordinary soldier, or at most a Special Forces guy who despite being geared up is far from invincible. You feel vulnerable, or at least as if you’re on the same playing field as the enemy, and you have to actually use your brain to win.

The feeling reminds me of the classic Thief games — how Garrett never feels like a badass but rather a guy who’s just slightly more skilled than those around him and can die from just one mistake. That seems to be a common trait of older immersive simulators. System Shock 2 makes the player feel perpetually at-risk and Ultima Underworld starts players off in a notably weak state.

The older Resident Evil games are what I would compare this feeling to on consoles — that sense of having to really think about every decision you make, and every enemy feeling like a real threat. The modern Ninja Gaiden and Ninja Gaiden II are similar to these kinds of games as well due to how even common enemies in them actually use defensive tactics and need to be outmaneuvered. The most recent and relevant example though is probably Dark Souls — a game that never lets players feel invincible.

The other main element that sets tactical shooters apart is how open-ended they are. I touched on this in Monday’s post, but I really think it’s arguably the most important thing about these games. It’s definitely the most appealing thing for me and the element I’d like to see make a return in mainstream shooters.

I can understand Ubisoft making the modern Ghost Recon and Rainbow Six games more forgiving, but I think they threw the baby out with the bathwater when they also made the games more linear. A big reason these games were called “tactical” shooters is because players could actually plan their own tactics. Each mission in OG Ghost Recon is an open map where you decide what path to take and in what order to complete objectives, including optional objectives. I don’t see how that makes a game more difficult or intimidating.

The main reason I started playing these games now is because playing through Assassin’s Creed III’s (ironically an open-world game) linear main missions gave me a taste for something with a greater sense of freedom. I don’t think that has to be mutually exclusive to the “one hit and you’re dead” system. Why can’t there be military shooters that still offer player empowerment while also offering the level of player choice displayed in hardcore tactical shooters? Far Cry 2 almost got there but is too shallow an experience, and Far Cry 3 made all its main missions linear again. I think Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is the closest modern game to what I’m asking for.

Basically, one of my dream games would be a tactical shooter that isn’t so punishing but still gives the player total control over the mission plan.

BULLETS:

  • I’d forgotten about that American remake of District 13. Didn’t know Paul Walker and David Belle were in it either. Looks promising. https://t.co/6aZNycwDCW
  • Wired has a pretty glowing write-up of that Nintendo F2P game. wrd.cm/1jwh5Lj
  • First screenshots of that Daisuke Jigen movie. http://t.co/PYSFN2izSW
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How The Smash Bros. Release Dates Illustrate Nintendo’s Current Problems

Overall the Super Smash Bros. Nintendo Direct this week brought a lot of hype, but the big takeaway for most people was likely the heavily staggered release dates of the 3DS and Wii U versions. Once again the 3DS seems like it’s possibly cannibalizing the Wii U.

In my opinion, if Nintendo really can get the 3DS version out before September then I’d really like to have my portable Smash as soon as possible. Nintendo and Namco are probably trying like hell to get the Wii U version out this year but I guess it can’t be helped. It’s just another sign of how difficult HD console development has been for Nintendo.

For people watching the market the big fear is that people won’t see the need for the Wii U version when it finally comes out, having been playing the 3DS version for months. I guess that depends on how much unique content the Wii U version has, but back when we believed they’d be launching simultaneously I was already considering just getting the 3DS version. The Wii U really needs unique software to sell it, and almost all Nintendo’s serving up right now is sequels or enhanced versions of 3DS games.

Right now though the 3DS doesn’t have an extremely robust lineup for 2014 either. Getting Smash out in the summer is sure to bolster it, but between now and then the system has maybe five notable games coming out. That’s a stark contrast from last year’s avalanche, but at E3 Nintendo will likely continue its policy of announcing games for it that’ll be out before the end of the year. Let’s just hope they can manage the same for Wii U.

The situation with Smash is actually a bit ironic for me. I’ve wanted a handheld Smash game for a long time, but now that we’re getting one in a few months I’ve started to ask myself “Do I need the console version in this case?” Nintendo’s robust handheld software libraries have never posed a threat to its console lineup till now because this is the first time the two platforms have been able to run roughly the same kinds of games. Maybe the issue is Nintendo hasn’t been making enough games with gameplay only possible on powerful hardware. Maybe we’re reaching a point where handheld and console need to converge.

This is likely the reasoning behind Nintendo’s merging its handheld and console hardware divisions in early 2012. Two future platforms with similar architecture would be a great way for Nintendo to solve this problem.

BULLETS:

  • Original DS games hold up surprisingly well at high resolutions. http://t.co/cI1moCKHjr
  • Stunned at Ultimate Warrior’s passing. RIP.
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ArmA II: Getting Lost In The Armory

Playing 40 hours of Assassin’s C reed III over the last couple weeks made me tired of AAA games that hold your hand as much as Ubisoft likes to these days. By the time I finished it I was in the mood for a much more open-ended action game, and for some reason that meant military simulators. Between now and the PC launch of Dark Souls II I’ve chosen to mess around with ArmA II and its utterly shocking amount of freedom and content.

First I decided to mess with Ubisoft’s own original Ghost Recon. I ended up deciding not to finish it since losing my original save file, but I did mess around with it for one last time. Like a lot of mainstream gamers, I find its “one-hit death” rule pretty intimidating, but I keep coming back to the game because it’s the only one in that franchise that gives me the elbow room to plan the execution of each mission myself instead of running from waypoint to waypoint. The real tragedy of tactical shooters is that developers have forgotten that’s the real appeal of them.

After closing the book on Ghost Recon I went to ArmA II because I had a barely-played copy sitting around, it (along with its sequel) is almost the only true tactical shooter made for modern hardware, and there’s more to do in it than most AAA games I’ve ever seen. I meant to mess around with some main singleplayer content but ended up spending hours in a completely tertiary mode.

If you haven’t touched an ArmA game, try to imagine Battlefield 4 but in an open world at least as large as Grand Theft Auto V and with less forgiving game mechanics. When I originally tried ArmA II what initially blew me away about it is how it tries to simulate the battlefield chain of command, having each character’s AI constantly reacting to and communicating with other AI. Commanders will send orders down to troops who will call out locations to each other, and absolutely none of it is scripted. ArmA II is also one of the buggiest and cheaply put-together military shooters I’ve ever seen, but you can’t help but still appreciate the sheer magnitude of what it attempts.

The meat of the game is the multiplayer, and the stuff I described above mostly comes into play in the main campaign, the extra scenarios, and the many fan missions that have been made for the game. I’ve been caught up in the ArmA II’s “Armory” mode — basically a sandbox mode where you get to try out every single weapon, vehicle, and character model. It includes a very basic but extremely replayable series of challenges.

Basically, ArmA 2’s Armory mode has you do pre-made challenge objectives in randomly selected places on its world map. That world map is so large that I honestly don’t know if I can run out of different challenges to play. I might play the “Assassinate the VIP” mission a dozen times, but there is so much space in which it could randomly generate that the mission might never happen the same way or in the same place twice. And you can do this with seemingly hundreds of different weapons, vehicles, and characters which you unlock through the challenges. I could easily see myself spending 30-plus hours on what was probably an afterthought feature. Then there’s the easy-to-use level editor.

I think that gets down to the real allure of ArmA for me. Most people might play it to experience realistic military combat, but ArmA II is also an enormous toy chest of military shooter scenarios. It and its sequel feel like an extremely stark departure from an industry of linear cinematic shooters.

BULLETS:

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Immersive Sims: Old And New

On Monday USGamer published another one of my articles. It revisited the idea of great PC games even your crappy laptop will run, this time focusing on the thousands of old school classics available digitally today. More specifically, it focused on what some would call “Immersive Simulators” which were influential in PC games of the past and have become influential to today’s console games.

I think the best way to describe immersive sim game design would be to say it occurs when developers design worlds to behave more like real places than video game levels. The “simulation” part of the term doesn’t mean realistic at all, but rather that these games sit the player in a world of factors that affect each other, and allow them to manipulate those factors. The designers of Ultima Underworld – the game that spawned this whole subgenre, said they wanted to make a world that was “sensible,” meaning it behaved in a believable way based on dynamic mechanics rather than scripting.

If you’ve played the recent Elder Scrolls or Fallout games, Deus Ex Human Revolution, the recent THIEF, or Dishonored, you’ve experienced the progeny of this gameplay style. They all come from the same family tree and the same general circle of developers including Irrational Games (Bioshock) and Arkane Studios (Dishonored). A lot of people think those modern games lost a little something compared to their predecessors from the late 90’s and early 2000’s, mostly in areas like depth and actual immersion in favor of “gameyness.”

A great console example of immersive sim-style level design is GoldenEye for the Nintendo 64 and the original Perfect Dark after it. One of GoldenEye’s level artists explained that they basically designed the levels as if they were real buildings first, and planned the actual game design afterward. Another artist said, “The benefit of this sloppy unplanned approach was that many of the levels in the game have a realistic and non-linear feel. There are rooms with no direct relevance to the level. There are multiple routes across the level.” If you go back to them today, you’ll notice the two N64 classics feel a lot more open-ended and organic than the likes of Call of Duty.

I already did a whole blog post on how the original Crysis behaves in much the same way, and how its sequels feel much more like deliberately designed video games. I feel this is the change that happened to a lot of western games in varying degrees as they transferred to the PS3 and Xbox 360, including the immersive sims.

The most pronounced shift is in the Thief franchise to which I also devoted a blog post. An example of a more graceful transition might be how Deus Ex. Human Revolution focused very much on player choice, multiple routes, and environmental investigation, though it was a bit simplified compared to the original for the sake of people more used to mainstream shooters. Its game mechanics felt less like ever-present factors and more like solid gameplay rules. That seems to be the main difference between the old and new games — the newer ones play by stricter rules.

Bioshock is another example of this. Just look at this image comparing map sizes from the original System Shock all the way to Bioshock Infinite. The original Bioshock is very much about open environments and telling its story in those environments, but compared to System Shock which is a survival RPG,it’s much more geared towards fast-paced action shooting.

Of all the modern immersive sims, I think the ones that stick the closest to classic style are Betheseda’s recent games — Skyrim and Fallout 3 (I haven’t played Oblivion) as well as Obsidian’s Fallout New Vegas. If you haven’t played the classics mentioned above, Fallout 3 and New Vegas are probably the best modern approximation of what they’re like available on consoles. They feature worlds planned out like functioning places where you have near total freedom in how you manipulate characters and use your tools.

To me it feels like, on consoles, Bethesda is possibly the only publisher that has resisted how, “gamified” modern game design has become. Their games have their fair share of flaws but compared to most other AAA games these days they feel like a distinct resistance to the trend of  dolling out points and mechanics for the sake of positive reinforcement.

Just look at what happened between Far Cry 2 and Far Cry 3 for an example of the trend. (Far Cry 2 director Clint Hocking is another believer in sim-based game design, as he made Splinter Cell Chaos Theory another great example of the doctrine). FC2 tried very hard to feel like an immersive world with environments designed like places and missions heavy on player choice. FC3 constantly presents players with points to earn and its main missions are linear paths to waypoints.

This is why, for me, the most interesting upcoming games for PS4 and Xbox One are probably the next main Elder Scrolls, the new Deus Ex Square Enix confirmed, the next Fallout game, and Far Cry 4. I feel like these games have the most to gain from the new hardware. All these new games with next-gen graphics are great but honestly I’m a bit tired of beautiful environments where I do nothing but shoot. I’m ready to see next-gen graphics used for environments I can really explore and interact with.

BULLETS:

  • A game I talked about a while ago called Odallus: The Dark Call just passed Steam Greenlight. http://t.co/RvJjfOWhxI

One of my favorite 2012 games, FTL, is now available on iPad.https://t.co/cUnrqo7GoB

Fire TV: The First Good Android Console?

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Amazon’s new Fire TV looks like the first really  big attempt at what people have been speculating on for a while now — a transference of the existing mobile operating system market to the living room. Whether or not it actually gets off the ground, much less have an effect on the game industry, remains to be seen.

Mobile is of course the new course for mobile computing, and is tearing apart the traditional gaming handheld market. It’s been long speculated that Apple or Google could do something similar to living room computing and gaming. I think the Fire TV is the first real push for this.

The difference between the Fire TV and the Ouya and Roku is, well, Amazon. The Fire TV looks like it’s going to have a library of software that is both robust and structured. It’ll probably grow bigger than the Roku store and be better curated than Ouya’s store. The launch software lineup is proof enough how much strength the existing Android ecosystem gives Fire TV. You can already cheaply play games like Sonic The Hedgehog, NBA 2K14, and Deus Ex: The Fall on this thing. Not to mention the backing of big game publishers and the brand cloud of Amazon. This is similar to what people have been thinking Apple was bound to do with the Apple TV.

Of course the future of Fire TV depends on one thing — software support. Will the likes of EA, Ubisoft, SEGA, and Square Enix stay the course on it? Will mobile developers come to support it? What kind of difference will Amazon’s first party studios make (with guys like Clint Hocking on board)?

I’m not necessarily saying mobile games will instantly transfer to the TV, or that the people who play them will even want to do that on a TV. What’s possible however is that either big publishers might crack that market, or mobile publishers might start thinking about living room-oriented games for the mass audience that might choose a $99 box over a $400 console.

Make no mistake — if you already own that $400 console or a $1000 PC and are willing to pay $60 for games, you probably don’t need any of these little media boxes. What I’m talking about is the casual audience that could, in time, get sucked away from PlayStation and Xbox.

It could be as simple as someone deciding to pay $8 to play NBA 2K14 on the Fire TV instead of paying $60 to play it on the PS4 if they don’t care about the graphical differences. What if a developer lands a killer app with the exposure of Candy Crush but also the family gaming appeal of Wii Sports? What if Fire TV eventually get’s a free-to-play Mario Kart clone, or better yet the existing Android version of Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed?

That’s all purely speculation of course and likely a long way into the future. It could occur that living room gaming isn’t for the mass market at all outside a handful of popular console games. On the other hand, people are still waiting for Apple and Google to enter this arena. In the nearer term, it at least looks like Fire TV might be the final nail in Ouya’s coffin and a very good competitor to the Roku.

BULLETS:

  • Oh, and Microsoft just announced it’s bringing basically the whole Windows app store to Xbox One. That’s kinda big.
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