Freedom Planet Might Be The Best New Indie Release That’s Getting No Coverage

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Fan art by Gashi Gashi (http://gashi-gashi.deviantart.com/art/Freedom-Planet-Artwork-359546496

This is another one of those “under-the-radar indie game alerts” I like to do from time to time, but this is probably the biggest one I’ve done on this blog yet. This goes double if you were ever a fan of SEGA’s Genesis/Mega Drive action games. In relation to its apparent quality and craftsmanship, Freedom Planet could end up being one of the most criminally underrated indie games of 2014, right alongside Oniken.

This is also a case for why you should scroll down Steam’s New Release section every now and then. It’s filled with trash these days (which I honestly think makes it look more representative of the gamut of PC gaming), but there are still gems that might not make it onto a featured page. I think Freedom Planet is one of them, and I would never have even heard of it had I not scanned Steam’s New Releases on Monday.

After a quick search through well-known gaming websites, only Destructoid and Eurogamer have briefly mentioned it over the last couple years. Apparently this game got some love from niche fans when they released a demo in 2012 (which is still available at the game’s main website) and when it blasted through its kickstarter last year. It’s hard to say how much attention Freedom Planet will get now that it’s fully launched.

Basically, an indie developer set out to do what SEGA hasn’t been able to do in arguably 20 years — make a good Sonic game. Shovel Knight is getting all the love for being a great 2014 NES game, and in the same vein Freedom Planet is basically a 2014 Genesis game. It’s more than that though. After trying the demo and watching the launch trailer, it comes off as an impressively comprehensive love letter to fans of the Genesis Sonic games, the Saturday morning TV show, and the Archie comic. A significant dash of Gunstar Heroes is also immediately apparent. Others have made comparisons to Ristar, Dynamite Headdy, and Rocket Knight.

You run through side-scrolling levels that are designed with real intricacy and craft. A lot of Sonic’s old gimmicks are there as the game shamelessly employs springs, ramps, and loops. But, Freedom Planet doesn’t hesitate to employ things I never saw in Genesis-era Sonic. It’s definitely not just you running forward — it doesn’t just leave it all up to speed, employing some light puzzle-solving and multi-layered paths. The enemies are surprisingly varied too, smartly utilizing the game mechanics. One level in the demo even does something with its boss we don’t see enough — have that boss flee and then reappear to harass you in interesting ways throughout the second half of the level. The specific game of which Freedom Planet reminds me the most is Sonic 3.

Where Freedom Planet seems to go beyond “good Sonic game” and into “love letter” territory is its presentation and story. Basically, it tries to be a Sonic game with a storyline reminiscent of the Saturday AM TV show or the comic. As the opening prologue plays — entirely in the gameplay engine like many Genesis games, there’s a sense of a story that’s serious while also trying to stay within 90’s children’s TV standards. The villain is a cartoon villain, but his goal seems more complex than initially let on. Then they throw in some political conflict for good measure. Freedom Planet also employs a surprising amount of voiced dialogue which I’ll say isn’t terrible. It’s definitely a shade above “fan production” quality, maybe even in-tune with the era of entertainment it’s trying to evoke.

Maybe one reason Freedom Planet might not get the attention it deserves is precisely because of the fan base it appeals to. As soon as someone sees its anthropomorphized animals they might take it to be a game for furry fandom which has kind of a bad name in general “nerddom.” That itself has been attached to the reputation of people who still hang on to the Sonic license (the circles admittedly intersect). I think the weirdest parts of those communities have made people forget there was a time when furry characters with attitude were cool. Freedom Planet seems like a look back at that entire era. Plus, Dust: an Elysian Tail was good right?

BULLETS:

  • Pretty touching story of someone discovering their deceased father’s ghost in a racing game. http://t.co/X3D6sFGxmR
  • What is this thing? http://t.co/6Iznwqf0sk It can’t just be a router.
  • The third Witcher novel came out in the US some time ago.
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Drakengard 3 and Today’s JRPG

Over the last year or more the PS3 has entered that phase of its lifespan where the niche Japanese RPGs start to arrive. As I peek at maybe a couple hours of one of those games — Drakengard 3, I’m reminded of how long it’s been since I played one of these games, as well as how much or how little they’ve changed.

To be more specific, I’m talking about class of JRPG that emerged from Final Fantasy VII’s influence on the original PlayStation. I’m talking about the kind of game that set itself apart back in the 90’s with stories written for teens instead of small children, J-pop music, anime cut scenes, and provocative Japanese character designs while largely maintaining the same gameplay JRPGs have had since the 80’s. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed games like Demon’s Souls, Ni No Kuni, and Dragon’s Crown because they make a point of evoking pre-1997 RPGs with subtler narrative exposition and more to-the-point gameplay.

Drakengard 3 is a sharp reminder of that teenage era of console RPGs because as soon as I turned it on and was greeted with a flashy intro video I realized I’d have been seriously hyped to play this game when I was 13. Going a little deeper I realized Drakengard 3 is actually supposed to be somewhat of a send-up of this style of game but I’ll get to that later, because the game showing me what it’s calling out was a reminder of why I hadn’t been interested in these kinds of JRPGs in years.

Basically, this style of game hasn’t changed a whole lot since the late 90’s, but I have. Being an action RPG, Drakengard 3 has you slash through hordes of enemies (mainly by pressing the square button) in environments that almost look like they came from a PS2 game, or at least a PS3 game from eight years ago. You buy and upgrade equipment, and so-on. Now I’m not gonna completely slam a game for modest graphics or even unoriginal gameplay — if that gameplay still feels fun. To me the combat in Drakengard 3 has the same effect Killer is Dead has — it just makes me want to load up one of Platinum’s more refined games like Bayonetta or Metal Gear Rising.

Drakengard 3 even manages to evoke a few things from western games I’ve gotten tired of — loading screen tips, excessive in-game banter, and obvious mission objective displays. One of the more recent JRPGs people have talked about — Xenoblade Chronicles on the Wii, has gotten more positive reception precisely because it makes the possibly western-inspired changes to the JRPG formula it needs to in order to feel like a real advancement for the genre. Its environments are uniquely large for JRPGs and you can go in and out of battle without transitions (like Final Fantasy XII which more games should have followed).

But as with a lot of JRPGs of its ilk, Drakengard 3’s gameplay probably isn’t even its main selling point. That would be the story and cut scenes — a focus that initially felt neat in the late 90’s but today just distracts from the actual game.  This however is where Drakengard 3 tries to make its own statements about JRPGs and probably Japanese media in general. When I started a new game I almost immediately became bored with the cliché prologue telling of yet another legend of goddesses and ancient wars or whatever… until the protagonist showed up and murdered the narrator mid-sentence.

One of the most immediately striking things about Drakengard 3 is that the protagonist isn’t a teenage boy on a word-saving quest but instead what appears to be a young woman on a quest for personal gain. Furthermore, pretty much every character in the game is revealed to be a horrible person on one level or another, the main cast representing specific vices. That focus, along with the admittedly above-average localization makes Drakengard 3’s story feel probably a step more mature than the likes of Final Fantasy XIII, but only because it deliberately calls out modern Final Fantasy and its progeny.

As I understand it Drakengard 3 actually comes from the same team responsible for Deadly Premonition, which would explain a lot. I can look past that game’s horribly outclassed graphics and janky gameplay though because it actually tries to do something different and interesting mechanically. I feel like Drakengard 3 would be more interesting if it also tried to take a serious swerve with its gameplay in-step with its observant story. Uninteresting conventional gameplay for the sake of making fun of uninteresting conventional gameplay… is still uninteresting conventional gameplay.

I’m thinking about maybe trying out one of those Atelier games that have been popping up on the PS3 seemingly in rapid fire over the last two or three years. I’m a bit put off by their character designs but I hear they revolve around some kind of shockingly deep alchemy system. That’s called a unique gameplay crux right there.

BULLETS:

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Why Do You Pre-Order Games Anymore?

To me, the business of pre-orders has become so ever-present in video games it’s become background noise. I guess it was time someone like Polygon’s Ben Kuchera questioned the status pre-orders in today’s market. I think this past week’s episode of the F!rst for Gamers podcast had some great commentary on it as well.

The idea of the recent discussion has been to ask what the use of pre-ordering games is these days other than padding the pockets of publishers and retailers while also promoting content practices a lot of gamers don’t like. People pre-order games for a lot of reasons but I do at least agree the business side of it has grown out of hand from where it started.

The original reason to pre-order games was scarcity. Back in the 90’s if a game coming out was really hot there wasn’t a guarantee you’d be able to walk into the store and find a copy on day one. For the most part we don’t live in that world anymore. In almost all cases you don’t really need to pre-order to get your copy as soon as a game comes out. There are a few exceptions like niche Japanese games that get low print runs or if you live in a certain region that doesn’t get as much physical stock or doesn’t have very many stores. Even in those cases online and digital distribution mitigates the problem.

So, retailers have kind of invented reasons to pre-order — usually in the form of pieces of the game sectioned off to specific editions or specific retailers. To this day I haven’t seen a single piece of pre-order or retailer-exclusive DLC I’ve cared about. It’s all been too inconsequential. The closest I came to making a purchasing decision based on it was Metal Gear Rising’s GameStop-exclusive Gray Fox costume. Otherwise it’s always been something I only think about after making the decision to pre-order a game.

Basically, for me to even think about pre-ordering I have to already be dead-set on buying the game for full price even before it comes out, and I only do that if I’m feeling the highest levels of hype for a game. The only game I’ve pre-ordered so far in 2014 was Dark Souls II. I’m going to try to pre-order the 3DS version of Super Smash Bros. and the PC version of Grand Theft Auto V. That’s it. They are all games that are completely known or somewhat-known quantities I know I want.

But even in those cases pre-ordering isn’t essential. I could probably find copies of Smash and GTA V in stores on day one. I could definitely have bought Dark Souls II on Steam on the day of release. GTA V is going to be on Steam and Smash on 3DS eShop.

I’ve heard some people say they pre-order just to get the idea of paying for the game out of the way. If I know I want a game that’s coming out later but I have the money for it now, I find it’s easy to just pay it off immediately. Smash and GTA V are my priorities for this fall, and I’m only going to think about buying other games once I’ve paid off the pre-orders on those two. There are other games I’d definitely like to play this year, but I’ve completely let go of day one hype for all but my absolutely most desired games. I can wait a few weeks or even months on Wolfenstein: The New Order, Far Cry 4, or Dragon Age Inquisition. My backlog is big enough already.

On the subject of digital though, I think Steam and other PC digital storefronts have done a significantly better job of incentivizing pre-orders than brick-and-mortar stores. Two big parts of that are pre-order discounts and pre-loading. Even 10% off discounts alone aren’t enough to push me to pre-order — I already wanted Dark Souls II, but GreenManGaming threw in a further discount that let me pre-order the game for around $36. For a game you want to play as soon as possible, pre-loading on the other hand is indeed a big deal, one I’m glad to see consoles finally adopting. Other PC digital incentives have been cool too though, most notably how Steam often offers classic games as free extras. CDProjekt RED is going overboard with pre-order incentives for The Witcher 3: a sizable discount with a soundtrack, art book, and other similar extras.

John Davison and Garnett Lee had a great discussion on this subject, touching on how the pre-order business got so bloated. Lee attests to having seen pre-order numbers affect the course of game development, as marketers use pre-order numbers to gauge how well a game is coming along. If pre-orders do indeed have a real effect on development and contributes to games adding features of other popular games to increase numbers, then it’s really just another facet of what’s happened to AAA console games as a whole.

I said I only pre-order the handful of games for which I’m the most hyped, and the problem is every game is trying to be those games. Every game is not going to get the same pre-order numbers as Titanfall or even a fraction of Call of Duty’s. Every big-budget game launch isn’t going to feel like an event to the populace, just like every game isn’t going to sell as much as the biggest games in the market. Pre-order culture is just one more facet of the “me-too” bug that’s caught on in this industry.

BULLETS:

  • Before you call judgment on Assassin’s Creed Unity, Reddit actually put together an impressive compilation of existing facts on the game. http://t.co/DyNj7BNr1S Some of them are a pretty surprising turn from the series’ established formula.
  • A kickstarter for a pretty cool-looking game called Knuckle Club. https://t.co/N2MRKN2XYO
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ArmA 3′s New Tutorial: Dealing With The Learning Curve

[PC exclusives are typically] designed to be as complex and unintuitive as possible so that those dirty console-gaming peasants don’t ruin it for the glorious PC gaming master race.

–Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw

If you’ve been reading this site or know anything about ArmA, you probably know it’s not a pick-up-and-play game. It’s not supposed to be, it’s supposed to be realistic, kind of like the Gran Turismo of military shooters. It’s so deep in fact, developer Bohemia Interactive had to create not just a tutorial, but an entire tutorial campaign for ArmA III they ended up releasing around nine months after the game’s “full release.” And it still doesn’t cover everything to my liking.

This is a game where, to order a guy to get in a truck as the gunner, you have to press F2 (or whatever corresponding F key) to select him, then 4 (I think) to bring you to the vehicle-entering sub-menu, then 2 to select “gunner.” Picking this (and ArmA II) up reminded me of first picking up Ultima Underworld. It feels like that 90’s PC game design mentality where developers just stack one gameplay system on top of another to create the most deep and complex world possible with little regard for simplicity or a game’s learning curve. It creates incredibly impressive games but also very intimidating ones. It’s exactly what turns a lot of console gamers away from PC gaming. Such games actually feel much less common on the PC these days, the only other big example I can think of being Star Citizen. People on podcasts like Idle Thumbs talk about not even being able to figure out how to hop in a space ship’s cockpit and lift off in the demo for that game. You ever see that Zero Punctuation review of the first Witcher game criticizing the complexity of its UI and pinning it on the stuck-up “Glorious PC Gaming Master Race”? ArmA III is that game.

In this type of game, ArmA III in its initial state basically throws you into the campaign, or even the multiplayer, with the absolute bare minimum of assistance. Oh Bohemia gives you tool tips during the campaign as if the game is Microsoft Office, and that’s a pretty apt comparison for ArmA and big PC games of its ilk — it can often feel more like a computer application than a game. Oh and there’s the field manual too, which operates very much like the help section of Microsoft Word and contains about as much content. And Bohemia does expect you to read it.

The tutorial is in two parts — a VR-themed mode that teaches you basic actions and a mini prologue campaign that takes you through some slightly more advanced aspects of the game as well as the story.

Here you learn how to operate weapons and order people around, as well as the difference between certain AI behaviors. To its credit the tutorial focuses on a lot of the things that separate ArmA from Call of Duty or Battlefield, like how fatigue and distance affect accuracy. It even shows you how claymores work in the game in a highly illuminating manner. Most useful of all, it teaches you how to read bearings on a compass and use that in conjunction with the map to find things based on vague descriptions. It even tells you what “one click” means in case you don’t know.

In my opinion it all only really scratches at the surface. Actually I think that’s a problem fairly common with a lot of simulator games I try: their tutorials teach you the basic controls but don’t teach you anything about how to not suck at the real game.

The original Ghost Recon teaches you the basic controls but never how to actually survive firefights. It doesn’t teach you how you should approach the enemy, how you should cautiously move through terrain, or how to properly clear a building without losing your whole squad. The only non control-oriented thing it teaches is how you should always open doors from the side so as to not be targeted if there’s someone on the other side. The Total War tutorials I’ve tried also thoroughly teach the basic controls but little in how to actually win battles. I never got a grip on what formations I should use when, or what were good numbers to have in a battle. There were times I’d win a battle in Total War and have no idea why.

ArmA III’s tutorial will teach you how to order your men into a column formation, but never why, or in what situation you should do so. The manual has information on when certain formations are useful, but a playable tutorial could have fully illustrated this. What about standard tactics for assaulting bases? I had to learn on my own that it’s a good idea to attack from elevated positions. The main campaign has some characters give you advice but it’s pretty generalized most of the time. Basically, there’s little here to teach you actual strategy.

And I’m not even talking about the multiplayer. Bohemia actually has you covered there. The tutorial update actually includes a multiplayer coaching mode where one player can mold situations for others to follow in order to teach them things. But no, I’m just talking about not sucking at the singleplayer campaign.

And oh God, the tutorial still teaches you very little about the inventory system. It should teach you about things like carrying capacity and what side of the menu means what. ArmA II’s inventory took me forever to figure out, and ArmA III’s is only slightly less obtuse. Having such an inventory system is a great idea for a shooter, it’s just weirdly executed. Couldn’t Bohemia have at least just ripped off classic RPG equipment screens or something?

All that said, this update does include tools for fans to craft more tutorials. That’s really the story of this whole game I hear from official reviews: that ArmA III’s real value is mostly as a massive toy chest for fans to create things. It has a huge, dynamic, beautiful open world that the campaign underutilizes, and now a lot of tutorial content that leaves a lot of room for the community to fill in. Even before this update I already saw at least one fan-made helicopter tutorial. Once nice thing the update adds is an armory where you can test out every weapon and character in the game.

This whole post probably comes off as making ArmA III feel like the most intimidating shooter on Earth. It is intimidating, but you should never come in here expecting a fast-paced game built on the immediacy of most video games. In fact the tragedy of a game like ArmA III is it’s a shooter built for the gamer who prefers slow-paced, cerebral games.

Put it like this: If you can deal with the learning curve of Final Fantasy Tactics, Disgaea, a Shin Megami Tensei game, or better yet Gran Turismo, you can probably figure out how to play ArmA. ArmA’s base interface just isn’t quite as intuitive as most console games. Gran Turismo is probably the best comparison you can make to someone who only plays console games — it’s one of few console games that prefer the clean simulator appraoch with realism as its first priority.

If you’re wondering why I even keep playing the game after all this, you only need to look at the previous post on this blog.

BULLETS:

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What Playing ArmA Is Really About

My squad’s latest objective is to confirm an enemy helicopter wreckage deep in the forested mountains in the north. The suspected range of its location is something like a square kilometer, and the edge of that range is at least that far away from home base. It’s night time with no moon, so it’s pretty much pitch black, and there are undoubtedly already enemy squads sweeping the forests for the wreckage.

After a short drive with only a truck’s headlights to illuminate the trees and country highway, I manage to find the top of a ridge overlooking the entire suspected area and park our truck there. The hills and trees below form a mass of blackness against the blue night sky, but in that blackness I can immediately spot a glimmer in the woods about 700 meters in the distance which is almost certainly the burning wreckage. Before we even move we spot enemies around there running through the woods. I never see the actual enemies themselves but all I have to do is aim towards their flashlights — dancing in the darkness like fireflies.

I imagine one way developer Bohemia Interactive intended for this ArmA III side quest to go down was for me to have a firefight deep in the valleys below the ridge in the middle of a pitch black forest. I just happened to pick an advantageous spot which completely turned the battle around. That mixture of open-ended mission design and atmospheric scenery is why I play ArmA.

The intimidating thing about ArmA is the fact that it’s a realistic military simulator, and many of the game’s fans probably do play it for that hardcore simulation. This gives everyone else the impression that the series is just a sterile workbench that takes away what makes Battlefield or Call of Duty fun.

I’ll admit ArmA’s gameplay is probably everything console gamers hate and fear about PC gaming. The moment-to-moment fighting is a very 90’s Microsoft Flight Simulator mentality where you have to know which sub menu is where just to be able to restock ammo. To ask your squad’s medic to heal someone you have to press F3 (or whatever corresponding F key) to select him, press 6 to go into the command action menu, then press 1 or 2 to select injured team mates within that menu. When you’ve killed an enemy you’re expected to press 5 to reach the status communication menu, then 7 to manually make your character say “tango down” so the rest of the squad no longer has to factor that enemy into their behavior.

I’ve already gone at length about how a main reason I play these games despite their difficult, complex gameplay is because they’re some of the only shooters that let me decide how to conduct missions. I’ve also talked about the scale and beauty of this franchise’s open worlds. Where it all comes together is how successfully Bohemia has managed to utilize these things together.

Actually, a major element I haven’t talked about is the pacing of ArmA. Being a tactical shooter should make it obvious things are going to be much slower than a Call of Duty game, but ArmA’s pacing extensively leverages its scenery and terrain. Honestly, the game moves along more similarly to an RPG than any military shooter.

Bringing my squad all over the countryside feels like bringing an RPG party through trails or across the world map, only instead of swords and spells we’re decked out in military gear. The subtlety of that scenery, in turn, creates a contrast that makes every shootout feel more intense. It’s kind of like Shadow of the Colossus really.

Similar to that game, in ArmA you could spend a sizable chunk of time driving along a dirt road, trekking through a forest, climbing over a hill, flying over the mountains in a helicopter, and finally coming upon a deserted town, taking in the scenery until a bullet whizzes past your head. In an instant the tone changes as you plant your face in the grass and your buddies start screaming out enemy positions. Or rather, you’ve set up an ambush and spend several minutes waiting on a silent mountain overlooking a valley before the time comes to strike.

Among shooters this is a huge difference from how Call of Duty likes to have things turned up to 11 almost 100 percent of the time. Maybe this kind of pacing is simply inherent to open world games, which inevitably require some amount of travel, and thus time to experience the world outside combat. Then again, a lot of people who play action games are bored by that kind of stuff, hitting fast travel as soon and as often as possible.

People apparently hate traversal across Far Cry 2’s world, but driving along sun-baked landscapes or boating through rivers is one of my favorite parts about that game. These are the same people who don’t like sailing in The Legend of Zelda: the Wind Waker, but I love how big sailing makes that game feel.

Like I’ve said before, if I could play a shooter with ArmA’s open world, freeform gameplay, atmosphere, and sense of pacing, that wasn’t a terribly complex military simulator, I would. Far Cry is among the few action shooters that allow for that contrast between calm and explosions, but ArmA of course does this on a much larger scale. The other closest example we see on the horizon is Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Its recent gameplay video gives me high hopes for what I’ll be able to see and do in the final game.

The point is, ArmA isn’t just its hardcore focus on realism. ArmA is heading out into a world that is at once massive, intricate, and beautiful, and making your own decisions about how to conduct combat missions. The reason I’m willing to accept the hardcore realism is because these games are almost the only ones in the shooter genre willing to strike out from the “corridors and explosions” formula.

BULLETS:

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Fighting Game Season

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Last year was the first time I actually watched the Evolution fighting game tournament stream live. This weekend will be my first time after having acquired hardware that can easily run twitch on my television (Microsoft’s recent Xbox Live policy changes notwithstanding). For that and other reasons I’m taking this opportunity to dip back into fighting games for a bit.

For a while now I’ve kind of wrestled with the time commitment fighters, like other competitive games, require. I can be pretty decent at Soul Calibur depending on how much practice I’ve had. I can understand what goes on in Street Fighter because that game has been part of my lexicon since I was seven years old. With everything else at tournaments though, I’m probably dozens or hundreds of gameplay hours away from really being able to play. It’s not quite as steep as the DOTA 2 learning curve but it feels similar.

It’s really a testament to the sheer saturation of competitive games in today’s market when even one genre has an overwhelming amount of games to take in. The oversaturation of online shooters is common knowledge, people are starting to talk about how the MOBA bandwagon has filled up, and I’ve definitely written here before about how there are too many fighting games today. Out of all those, fighters feel the most personal to me, and the surprising part is the genre just keeps growing.

I would’ve spent more of this past week finally getting around to trying Ultra Street Fighter IV before Evo, but ArmA III put a serious hole in those plans. I also find myself drawn to King of Fighters XIII even though I have the barest minimum of experience with SNK fighting games. Perhaps it’s how straightforward the game feels combined with its appealing character designs, but having to skillfully use three characters in any given fight is a deterrent for me. I gave up on Marvel vs Capcom pretty early. That game just feels way too hectic. I choose not to mess with competitive Smash Bros. The only game at the indie showcase I’m really interested in this year is Yatagarasu.

Perhaps next year I’ll start watching all the tournaments leading up to Evo, but I’m not at the point yet where I actually start following major players.

Another reason I start practicing fighting games in late summer is Otakon usually happens near Evo, and though it’s an anime convention it hosts a fighting game area every year. I don’t ever expect to do extremely well, but I at least like to be in practice when I show up. That probably means some Soul Calibur V practice is in order since that’s the one game in which I’ve done relatively well at gatherings.

The hard part I guess is sticking with fighting games year-round when I’m trying to play so many other games. I like to think I have a more eclectic mix of video game preferences compared to most people (I’m talking about tactical shooters one post and fighting games the next) and that it allots me less time for more games. That wasn’t a problem when I was younger and had access to fewer games — Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, and Soul Calibur used to be staples of my free time. Maybe if the Soul Calibur scene was more visible I’d still play that game more. Maybe the scene is there and I should actually follow it. In any case, this is just one genre in the massive pool of multiplayer games I seem to dart between. I did after all just spend two posts trying to convince people to try out an online shooter.

BULLETS:

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ArmA III And The Future of Open World Scale

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After playing enough of ArmA III to actually enter its main phase, the one thing that is consistently impressive about the game is the variance in scale of its open world. Like its predecessor it takes a different approach to scale from most sandbox games which I hope is indicative of all the open world games the new consoles seem to be getting.

Every developer that tries to make an open-ended world in a video game, especially one that’s supposed to represent landscapes of plains, mountains, and cities, has run into the problem of scale, each one making its own compromises. Classic RPGs have you run across a map as a miniature character and visit cities with less than 10 characters and half as many buildings. Games with world sizes closer to reality have 90 percent of their doors locked. More recent games still have their worlds significantly scaled down from reality (the land of Skyrim would be much bigger than 16 square miles in real life). Other games choose to render a smaller area in higher detail. It’s like a push and pull. ArmA III’s main map has convinced me that hardware advances are beginning to loosen that push and pull.

The island of Altis is massive, feels realistic in scale, and is potentially capable of surprising density and interactivity for its size. Officially Altis is around 270 square kilometers (104 square miles) — about 75% the area of the real Greek island it’s based on. Some measurements pit it at maybe twice the size of Grand Theft Auto V. Yet, you can enter 100 percent of Altis’ buildings and open around 99 percent of its doors. ArmA III’s gameplay in this world ranges wildly in scale between indoor corridors and battles seamlessly ranging across mountains and cities. It’s the only game I’ve played where I can look at distant mountains and towns that in other games would be background images or at best simple set-dressing and say “I can go there, and I can go inside all those buildings without seeing any loading screens.” Even the fields, hills, and all the wilderness between towns looks like it’s scaled either 1:1 or closer to 1:1 than most open world games. If ArmA III makes any compromise, it’s that its world is nearly barren of civilians — it feels like a vast ruin.

A lot of the PS4 and Xbox One games we sat at E3 were open world, and I hope ArmA III is a preview of what modern hardware can do to reconcile scale versus density. The Batman: Arkham Knight demo was particularly impressive for its sense of scale. Witcher 3 developer CDProjekt RED likes to talk about how you’ll be able to explore everything you see in the distance in its cityscape screenshots. Even Zelda director Eiji Aonuma said basically the same thing about his game. John Davison on his F!rst for Gamers podcast claims he saw AI characters go about real daily routines and ships follow shipping routes in real time in a Witcher 3 demo. Ubisoft claims that Assassin’s Creed Unity’s world will be 1:1 or nearly 1:1 scale and that around a quarter of its buildings will be fully explorable.

Another reason some developers don’t create extremely huge worlds though is to tighten the pace of a game. The first two Elder Scrolls games — Arena and Daggerfall, still have some of the largest worlds ever created in video games despite having been made almost 20 years ago. Daggerfall’s size is comparable to the real Great Britain I believe. But I hear in that game it literally takes hours to get from one town to the next. The developers of the upcoming Kingdom Come: Deliverance discussed this problem in a blog post — Warhorse studios wants their world to feel realistically big, yet intricate, but not boring. I think they settled on creating a realistically-scaled three square kilometer map. ArmA doesn’t care, mostly because it’s a simulator going for realism over entertainment. It’s not afraid to make you spend 30 minutes getting from one place to the next. It’s only concession is a time acceleration feature.

One thing that probably governs the size of a lot of open worlds is the player’s main mode of transportation. Skyrim needs to be small because you’re on foot most of the time. Grand Theft Auto needs to be larger because the word “Auto” is in the title. Some of the biggest worlds in games are actually in open world racing games because you spend all your time driving upwards of 100 miles per hour (but those games don’t have on-foot exploration). One reason ArmA needs to be big is to accommodate aircraft. Scale-wise could probably think of the game as an air combat simulator where you can also walk on the ground.

No Man’s Sky seems like the logical conclusion to all this: starting out walking on the ground and ending up flying a space ship all over the galaxy without any break in player control. That game is pretty much trying to be the ultimate realization of video game scale many of us have probably been dreaming about for decades.

BULLETS:

  • Also of note is the island of Skira from Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising, which is around the same size as Altis, except they got it to run on PS3 and Xbox 360. I don’t know what Dragon Rising’s gameplay is like compared to ArmA III though.
  • So there’s an Eve Online comic based on actual player-driven events. Do any other MMOs do this?
  • Man I don’t know about Ridley Scott’s Exodus. http://t.co/SuYKe2v8Kt
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Why You Should Try NeoTokyo: Part Two

968full-neotokyo°-screenshot

I feel like I should do another post on NeoTokyo because my last one wasn’t really about why you should try the game but rather what it is. Here’s my best attempt at describing what the game feels like and what actually sets it apart.

A major thing about this game (and maybe all tactical shooters) is how it manages to be tense and fast-paced while also requiring careful and patient play. It’s not for the kind of people who like to run all over the place gathering kills, but rather people who try to carefully control the map to complete an objective, even if that objective is killing the other team. The reason it’s one of my favorite multiplayer shooters is because it’s built around that more strategic style of play.

Last time when I said NeoTokyo sometimes descends into team deahtmatch by nature of its lack of respawns, I really should have said that’s what happens at least half the time. The sole mode of the game is about capturing a cyber brain — called a “ghost,” but it’s really that and TDM at the same time, depending on the situation. The meta game that flows out from NeoTokyo’s unique mechanics is what does this.

Basically, each team can begin thinking about the first one or two steps of their strategy as soon as a round begins. The ghost spawns in a different place each round, inevitably putting it closer to one team than the other. More importantly, the location of the ghost (even when someone has it) and all capture points are visible to everyone from the beginning.

Say a round starts and the ghost appears to be pretty close to your team — you already know you’re going to get it first, and from there you can try to reach the capture point or defend the ghost until you’ve taken down the whole opposing team. Matches with low player counts change the game completely.

Years ago I remember playing a two-on-two match where the pace turned into something very unusual for shooters, but oddly believable for tactical combat. Basically, each round would start with each team immediately trying to find the other for a couple minutes, followed by about five seconds of gunfire before the round was over. I thought that more than anything else highlighted the rhythm of tactical combat.

What’s odd about that feeling is that NeoTokyo is supposed to be a futuristic game. You have a cloaking device and some players have motion vision, yet its combat feels more realistic than most modern military shooters. It’s definitely a unique combination.

Then you have the differences between classes. Each one has specific jobs and play styles, but they aren’t as immediately apparent as, say, Team Fortress 2’s classes. Recon players can bunny hop and run around so they usually end up with the ghost, plus it’s easier for them to reach roofs and hidden high-up locations. Support players on the other hand are better suited for camping to defend points since they can take a lot of damage, aren’t fast, and don’t have cloak.

I’ll go ahead and admit NeoTokyo definitely has a learning curve. The website has a decent tutorial for the basics and those same tutorial images appear on screen at the start of each round. Some control nuances however don’t become apparent until you either stumble into them or look at the key bindings. The meta game only really comes into view through communication with experienced players.

For a free and low-budget mod, I think NeoTokyo is a really tightly-designed and unique game. Hopefully it can find an audience the way Source mods like Day of Defeat and Zombie Panic did.

BULLETS:

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Why You Should Try NeoTokyo

neotokyo_recon_nsf

I was gonna blog about something else today — probably something decidedly American, but Steam blindsided me and finally decided to put one of my favorite lesser-known multiplayer shooters up for download. That game is NeoTokyo, something with a much more Japanese flavor.

Basically, this Source engine mod is Counter-Strike (or maybe Insurgency) meets Ghost in the Shell. It’s a very similar brand of round-based tactical shooter gameplay but with a heavy cyberpunk theme. It employs high lethality with no respawns (along with things like lean and ironsights) and is class-based. The game started out with a few maps back in 2009 but last year developer Studio Radi-8 upped the number to around 16.

Since its original release NeoTokyo has been free for owners of pretty much any of the Half-Life 2 games. I think it switched over to the standalone 2013 SDK base last year though so it might be totally free now. Problem is, the game’s servers have been dead for months. Ever since I saw the game show up on Greenlight I’ve hoped it would make it to the actual list of Steam games so it could get some real exposure.

Gameplay-wise the two main cyberpunk elements are the temporary stealth cloak which most players get, and the game’s main mode — capture the cyber brain. It’s pretty much capture the flag except the player who grabs the cyber brain can see everyone’s locations through walls in real time and is expected to relay that information to teammates. I’ve seen that completely change the pace of a battle.

Because of the high lethality and lack of respawns, people playing NeoTokyo pretty much automatically try to behave much more tactfully than they might in Call of Duty (it might just be people transplanting their CS skills). Also, rounds can very quickly turn into essentially team deathmatch since eliminating the opposing team also nets a win. This happens very often in games of 2-on-2 or less. Let me tell you, that’s been some of the most tense TDM I’ve experienced.

NeoTokyo’s classes are Recon, Assault, and Support, ranking in that order in progression from mobility to strength. Recon players get a long cloak, unlimited sprint, and night vision. Assault players get better armor and motion vision. Support players get the most armor and thermal vision, but no cloak. The game also employs an escalation system with its weapons.

There are some other interesting bits about the way this game plays. For instance, manually reloading before a clip is spent will actually throw away the remaining rounds in that clip. The game also advises players to consider surrounding lighting and surfaces when using the stealth cloak.

The biggest cyberpunk element of NeoTokyo is of course it’s art direction and overall theme. One of the best parts about the game is its soundtrack (iTunes link) which oddly almost never appears in the game at all. Part of the reason the game is free is probably because its maps are littered with licensed Japanese imagery like posters of anime and Japanese adult models. You’d think it would come off as looking like just another otaku game but in my opinion it works, likely because the game lifts primarily off of GitS and Akira as opposed to today’s “kawai” anime.

Oddly, NeoTokyo has managed to remain one of my central multiplayer shooters over the last couple years whenever I could actually find anyone to play it with. It’s been more strangely addicting to me than most AAA multiplayer games. I just hope the official Steam release resuscitates the servers.

BULLETS:

  • http://t.co/sz8i6ZhNhB The part of this article that really got me was the quote from Hiroshi Yamauchi and Miyamoto’s interpretation of it.
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Are One Era’s Complaints Worse Than Another’s?

The last major thing I picked up during the Steam sale was ArmA 3. I know I said a while back I’d stop blogging about ArmA 2, but that was ArmA 2. This new game feels like a whole other level, though I’m barely scratching its surface right now. I’ve only just finished the first section of its campaign, which I’m told changes dramatically in the following two sections. More than anything else, that first chapter reminded me of what military shooters were like before Modern Warfare took over the industry.

I’m not even talking about just tactical shooters either, but military-themed shooters in general. It feels like the thought process of a PS2-era action game brought to today’s technology. ArmA 3 is supposed to be an open-world military simulation like its predecessor, but the first third of its campaign is actually a collection of pretty linear missions. In effect, it feels like a standard military shooter from 15 years ago on today’s technology. It reminds me of all the things we complained about before Call of Duty gave us new things to complain about.

Actually, the main campaign of ArmA 2’s expansion, Operation Arrowhead, had pretty much the same feeling. Instead of endlessly moving from scene to scene we’re back to mission briefings in ArmA. Even though the paths in ArmA 3’s early campaign are relatively determined, they’re still wide paths where you have some latitude with how to fight battles. It is linear, but not scripted.

I’m not down on Call of Duty, Halo, and Gears of War at all though. I just think the majority of modern military-themed shooters have done a poor job of imitating those games, misunderstanding why they did what they did.

ArmA 3’s early campaign reminds me a lot of the early SOCOM games on the PS2. Structurally the squad tactics and objective structure remind me of Ace Combat missions. Arrowhead’s abundance of vehicle-based missions had the same effect — to the point where I found myself turning on Ace Combat briefing music during Arrowhead’s briefings. Maybe the only difference is that the older games keep the player on a slightly looser leash and don’t rely so much on elaborate scripted events or QTEs.

And I remember people used to complain about military-themed games back then too. They were just complaining about doing the same objectives (secure this point, plant this bomb, etc.) and the games having repetitive storylines. I feel slightly relieved to go back to that crap in an era where people instead complain about the abundance of QTE’s and tight corridors.

I’m not saying this as some profound reason why ArmA 3 is a great game or anything. Playing these linear missions within this open world just reminds me of an earlier era, as well as the differences between that era and this one.

I guess none of that really matters how because from what I understand ArmA 3’s campaign becomes a very open-world affair from here onwards.

BULLETS:

  • New roguelike to keep track of. http://t.co/hkI9tZfB7R
  • Like clockwork, Super Time Force get’s announced for Steam.
  • Dave Chappelle went hard on Donald Sterling youtu.be/63NwEBRaKyc
  • This “Ultima Ascension” thing from the Ultima Underworld guys sounds extremely intriguing. First we get a bunch of people resurrecting classic isometric RPGs, now somebody might be trying to resurrect classic-style immersive simulation RPGs. I just hope they can get the production capital to do it.
  • RIP Animated Series Gordon.
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