Why I’m Optimistic About Assassin’s Creed Unity

It’s easy to understand that a lot of people are “Assassin’s Creed-ed out.” Despite that, the information we have so far on Assassin’s Creed Unity is just interesting enough to make me want to at least pay attention to the latest franchise entry, yet again.

The franchise, and arguably Ubisoft games in general, have gotten increasingly formulaic since around 2009 (Assassin’s Creed II to be specific). It seems like multiple Ubisoft games from multiple franchises have followed the same formula: experience points to collect, skills to upgrade, things to craft, an economy system, and much of the time an open world with a map full of icons to travel to. The AC games have become annual with their own tried-and-true formula of hay barrels, backstabbing, tailing missions, and other automatic failure stealth missions. If you actually pay attention to what we know about Unity though, it seems like it might try to make the most fundamental changes to the series’ formula since the original game.

Reddit actually has a pretty great, fully-sourced list of currently-known facts about the game. Most of it seems to be tidbits from interviews. What intrigues me is Ubisoft is apparently willing to sacrifice long-standing elements of the AC structure — a structure that I think has gotten bloated over the years. I haven’t played my copy of Black Flag yet (which I was only interested in because of the pirate theme), but if you ask me Assassin’s Creed III could have had half its content cut and maybe gone for a more focused, more polished game. Did running the Assassin’s guild and building a homestead need to be in there? Again? I’m not saying Ubisoft is taking a meat cleaver to the formula for Unity, but it sounds like they’re taking a good look at what really still needs to be there and what doesn’t.

Most importantly, it looks like missions in Unity will be more open-ended. What I and a lot of other people hate most about AC games is stealth missions like the tailing sections where getting seen once or not doing something in a specific way results in an automatic fail state. To put it bluntly, the AC games often seem anti-open-world despite supposedly being sandbox games. In interviews Ubisoft has said that in Unity, a tailing mission instead may start as a tailing mission, but could change into something else if you get seen or if your target is killed. The only real objective there would be to figure out what information that guy had on him, or where he was going.  Apparently you’ll also be able to repeat missions and complete them in different ways. Ubisoft is calling this “Adaptive Mission Mechanic.” This basically sounds like what I’ve always wanted AC to be, even since the original — a game where each mission is nothing more than a place and a goal.

The stealth you’ll employ in these missions has also apparently undergone a complete overhaul. If you saw the E3 gameplay presentation, I think you saw Ubisoft employ a crouch or “stealth mode” that’s manually activated. AC thus far has been about large-scale stealth — hiding in crowds and infiltrating large areas. Infiltration of small areas has thus far resulted in the aforementioned frustrating missions. Maybe Ubisoft wants to allow for stealth on a more intimate scale. I still don’t think this is going to be like Splinter Cell or Thief, but it seems like Ubisoft is at least trying to build an actual stealth game here. I have no idea how well it’ll actually turn out.

Another big change seems to be the scale of the world. Ubisoft already confirmed Unity is going to have the biggest world in an AC game which isn’t hard to understand with the move to new hardware. What might feel really different though is that Unity’s locations will apparently vary between two thirds of real-life scale (2:3), and actual real-life scale (1:1). Where locations in previous AC games have been around half of real-life scale (1:2), Ubisoft said Paris will be at or near 1:1. On top of this around a quarter of buildings will have explorable interiors. That sounds like a big leap from just running through buildings in AC3.

Traversal seems to be getting some of the most interesting changes in Unity. A big thing is that hay barrels are gone. If you want to get down a building you’ll have to parkour down there, for which they’ve tweaked the system. There will also be no guards on rooftops. At the very least it looks like Ubisoft is trying to change how AC players perceive rooftop traversal.

There’s a lot more at the Reddit link that I won’t go deep into here. The new combat and skill upgrade system sounds interesting but Ubisoft hasn’t had a lot of luck in that department over the last decade. Co-op sounds like it might be good but I’m not extremely interested. Let’s just say overall Unity sounds like it’s trying to be a true next-gen upgrade for the franchise.

BULLETS:

  • Man, I really want a new Red Faction Guerrilla game on next-gen hardware. Judging by the sense of scale we’re seeing in games like Unity, Batman Arkham Knight, and Witcher 3, it could be amazing. Just imagine what Red Faction’s Destructibility might be like on modern hardware. Oh, and as I write this I believe Guerrilla is like $2 on Steam.
  • Evo Moment 37 happened 10 years ago. http://t.co/xakbCVSu7p
  • I didn’t realize Dark Horse’s release of Blade of the Immortal reached volume 29 back in May. Volume 30 comes out in October, and it looks like Dark Horse will conclude the series with volume 31 (Samura published the conclusion in Japan in December 2012).
  • Nice article from Wall Street Journal on benefits companies for freelancers. http://t.co/boqklMRDYI
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Pokémon on 3DS and Whether We Need A Console Version

This may as well be a Late to the Party post for Pokémon X, but just as I started the game I saw another discussion come up about the possibility of a mainline Pokémon game for a console. I think Pokémon X and Y have stepped a lot closer to what people asking for a main console game actually want.

I get that some people like the franchise but really want to play a Pokémon game that isn’t miniature sprites running around a tiny world with turn-based battles. They want a “more real” or “more immersive” visualization of what that world looks like, maybe even what the TV show looks like. In short they want a fully 3D Pokémon RPG. The funny thing is, the 3DS games kind of already have achieved a fully 3D Pokémon RPG, but they did it on a handheld.

Now I’m still at a very early part in Pokémon X, but Game Freak has, essentially, finally fully rendered a mainline game in the series in 3D. The games for the original DS basically stuck to the old 2D presentation but threw in some polygons where they fit. Pokémon X feels like an impressive next generation leap for the mainline games. Its graphics and presentation are on-par with Pokémon Battle Revolution for the Wii and superior to the N64 Pokémon Stadium games. If anyone’s disappointed with X and Y in the tech department it’s probably because the games still adhere to the original Game Boy formula. Each town is still a tiny collection of buildings with a population of like 10 people, you still have to run around in bushes to encounter Pokémon, and battles are still turn-based. It all really just looks like the Game Boy games rendered in polygons with more cinematic camera angles. X and Y are about as modern-looking as you can get while adhering to the formula.

The frustration of people who want a console Pokémon game is probably somehow tied into the frustrations of people who think Japanese RPGs haven’t advanced far enough technologically. Similarly to discussions about the Pokémon games, people ask why so many JRPGs still have turn-based or random battles when western RPGs largely got rid of them years ago. They ask why so many have small worlds with many locations relegated to menu screens, dialogue that’s mostly text, and oftentimes basic graphics. Basically, they’re asking why Japanese developers can’t make RPGs with full sandbox worlds like Skyrim, fully-voiced dialogue with interactive conversations like BioWare games, or deeply interactive environments like Deus Ex.

I think that goes back to what seems to be a western emphasis on pushing technology for increasingly fully-realized worlds versus the Japanese emphasis on creating technical play. And technical play is basically what Pokémon has become all about since it got popular. The game has pretty much become an eSport at this point, with a real competitive scene, so Game Freak can only change its rules so much.

I imagine if a western developer came up with the whole idea of Pokémon today on a console or on PC it would probably be set in some sprawling sandbox world where the creatures just appear to be fought and caught in real time. Instead of routes there would just be towns and the space between them. The game might even be an MMO in such a situation, but I’m really not going to get started on that subject.

I think if Game Freak or some other Nintendo-affiliated developer did a mainline Pokémon on the Wii U It would probably look like X and Y with better graphics, sticking to the codified formula for the game. At this point, the Pokémon games aren’t trying to offer a realization of the franchise’s world, but simply interpret it through a game that is now every bit as abstract as the Trading Card Game. Bringing that game to the Wii U would probably benefit the Wii U more than it would the game. This is connected to another problem with Nintendo I mentioned before: the 3DS is powerful enough to run almost all the kinds of games Nintendo likes to make.

And even within the abstraction of the Pokémon video games, X and Y still feature a lot of refinements over the previous generation of Pokémon games. Mainly, Game Freak seems to have made playing and trading with others online and offline a lot easier. When I found out you don’t even have to be at a Pokémon center to do those things anymore I was kind of floored. More than anything else playing X feels like opening up the newest edition of a board game.

Maybe what many people want from the franchise is indeed a fundamentally different game designed from the ground up for a console. Then however you have to deal with the philosophical divide between how Nintendo and a lot of Japanese developers operate and what many western fans may want. It’s the same reason some people ask why games like Street Fighter are still one-on-one side-scrolling games with health bars after two decades. You could theoretically ask a similar question of DOTA or the whole MOBA genre which grew out of a 12-year-old game.

BULLETS:

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Why NeoGAF’s PS1 Demakes Are So Interesting

A nice little thing that’s making the rounds is NeoGAF’s imagining of what some modern games would look like if they were made on the original PlayStation. I think it’s interesting think about for multiple reasons beyond the Photoshop skill being displayed.

This all started in GAF’s main thread for the PS4 remaster of The Last of Us. Someone made some joke images of what the game would be like on the PS1 and things spun off from there. I think what this touched on was a sense of lineage attached to the PlayStation consoles and PlayStation games. Sure NES and SNES “demakes” are a thing, but what’s interesting here is you don’t see a total gameplay conversion.

The 2D demakes are usually reinterpreted into side-scrolling or top-down games, with the gameplay usually being drastically different as a result. The PS1-era demakes though are still 3D. They look a lot like their current iterations, just with far less fancy graphics. You could more plausibly ask yourself “What if these games really had been made in that era?”

Part of where that PlayStation lineage comes in is how PlayStation has used basically the same control interface since the original Dual Shock. We haven’t had any truly fundamental evolutions in game interface design since the move to 3D. There have been groundbreaking things sure, but nothing like the addition of an entire dimension. Many of today’s popular games could plausibly have been made 10 or 15 years ago. A lot of them are simply ideas no one thought of until now.

Looking at fake PS1 screenshots of games like Dark Souls or Titanfall raises possibly the most interesting question: “What if developers made PS1 games knowing what they know today?”

A recent episode of the Idle Thumbs podcast touched on a similar topic. On the episode they theorized that an idea like Spelunky could have been done 20 years ago on the SNES or NES and would have had much greater impact on the industry as a whole back then. They also mentioned someone who figured out how to display MPEG video on an early Apple computer.

A lot of PS1 and N64 games don’t hold up that well today. A lot of it is because those consoles were barely powerful enough to display recognizable 3D graphics, but it’s also because back then developers were still figuring out how to design 3D games. The control interfaces of that era are clunky, and many of the games hold fast to 2D design philosophy. But there’s nothing technically stopping a PS1 game from having much more modern controls.

As I wrote that last paragraph the franchise that popped into my head was Metal Gear Solid. Go back and look at the controls for the original MGS on PS1, then play Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes on the PS3 or PS4. Now, realize both games were designed on the same controller layout despite having been made 15 years and two console generations apart. I’m not saying the entirety of Ground Zeroes or Phantom Pain could have been done on the PS1. The main caveat I’ll give to modern hardware is that it makes larger open worlds possible (although Grand Theft Auto III has a spiritual predecessor on the N64 — Body Harvest). But certainly, many of MGSV’s basic mechanics and controls were technically possible back then. The ideas just hadn’t come forth.

This is what makes some retro-styled indie games appealing. I haven’t played Shovel Knight as of this writing, but I’ve heard it resurrects a lot of NES-era gameplay with 2014 refinements. We’re almost at a point where indies start styling games with PS1 and N64 graphics. What would a game with that era’s visuals and today’s refinements look like?

Admittedly, a lot of the games being converted in the GAF thread actually have predecessors from that era. The PS1 conversion of Persona 4 could easily be the first or second Persona game. Dark Souls on the PS1 could simply be King’s Field, and if you look to the PC side, BioShock could be System Shock 2, which I’ve said many times is actually a superior game.

This is far from the first time I’ve pointed out popular console games of today that have PC predecessors displaying deeper gameplay. I’m sure fans of some of the games in the GAF thread probably prefer their earlier predecessors. It all really reminds you that you can’t assume a game or sequel is better simply because it was designed on newer technology. It’s what developers do with that technology that matters.

BULLETS:

  • The only thing I’ll say about Destiny after playing the Beta is that game is basically “Halo Star Online.” If you’re still waiting for Phantasy Star Online 2 to make it outside Asia, just give it up and pre-order Destiny.
  • I might be sold on Mike Tyson Mysteries youtu.be/P58WJ-4PxcU
  • Polygon has a really great overview video of Freedom Planet. http://t.co/B005AXZFE1
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In ArmA You Are Not The Only Hero

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After finishing up (roughly) ArmA III’s main campaign, I feel I must observe possibly the last subject of peculiarity that separates this game’s singleplayer modes from those of others. Generally speaking, Bohemia Interactive’s military games constantly impress a feeling of smallness upon players, and some people can’t figure out if that’s good or bad.

If you read some reviews of ArmA III’s campaign from places like GameSpot or Rock Paper Shotgun, some note that its final chapter — titled “Win,” persistently makes the player feel like a tiny cog within a massive system. On one level or another this actually happens throughout the entirety of singleplayer ArmA II and ArmA III. Basically, there are many times where the player actually has very little impact on the flow of the game, and much of the time the game is often essentially running itself.

On the one hand, it’s a spectacle to behold as an achievement of video game technology, but on the other hand, how much are you really playing the game? In the ArmA III campaign’s final battles, you see dozens of non-player characters fighting each other in massive dynamic setups that play out differently each time you load the game. In the campaign’s first chapter you’re one guy taking unscripted orders from an AI squad leader, and you have one small role among many other characters. In the middle chapter when you command a squad you’re still just one guy in that squad. In Call of Duty other characters are just background scenery and ambience, but in ArmA they are indeed contributing to the fight. The problem with this is a lot of the time the AI in ArmA is quite capable of winning the battle on its own.

In my experience in ArmA III, having personally shot even five enemies over the course of a mission is a lot. There are usually many more, but most of them were taken out by my squad mates, or even other friendly squads in the area. This goes into overdrive during “Win” because you’re fighting alongside friendly tanks, helicopters, and bombers (although you’re often the one to call them in). At that stage it becomes an armor-level war, and as a single foot soldier there’s only so much you can do.

Where this feeling of smallness is most acute is in ArmA II’s final campaign mission. There, the game turns into a real-time strategy affair where if you don’t choose to command your side, you turn into just one unit in a gigantic systemic battle involving hundreds of NPCs. You really don’t even get to see most of the fighting even though it’s a real “game” that can be won or lost and not just ambience.

Towards the end of that battle I headed to the enemy side’s last stronghold where the friendly commander was making the final push, and realized how little impact my one squad had on the proceedings. All I could really do was watch in awe as each side threw a wave of APCs at the other.

To understand why this happens you probably need to understand that ArmA’s singleplayer content is really just an extension of its multiplayer. In its essence ArmA is supposed to be played by dozens of hundreds of players organizing against each other, each one indeed a small cog in the overall operation.

ArmA’s “Warfare” mode, which ArmA II’s final mission emulates, is supposed to be a hybrid between an RTS and a first person shooter, simulating an entire chain of command. Other games have tried to do something similar but not been very successful. I think it works in ArmA for two reasons: 1) Orders from on high aren’t received as actual strict orders, but more as objectives to be completed. When the commander sends orders down to squad leaders, he’s not telling them exactly how to move and act, but rather giving them suggestions and then trusting them to do their jobs. The same relationship exists between squad leaders and grunts. This is true both in multiplayer and singleplayer with the AI. 2) ArmA has nailed a particular audience instead of going for the mainstream. As I understand it much of that audience consists of actual military personnel who sometimes use ArmA to simulate exercises.

In light of this, playing singleplayer ArmA is kind of like playing a multiplayer game with bots, except Bohemia added a storyline. The bots are actually affecting the flow of the game, and even though you’re the only human involved, you’re not really the only “player.”

BULLETS:

  • Tried this visual novel compilation fighting game called AquaPazza real quick. What struck me the most about it is how liberally it uses animation in its presentation that looks pretty much indistinguishable from an actual anime show. It seems modern gaming hardware has finally allowed games based on anime to, well, actually look like anime.
  • 2014 Evo moments. https://t.co/OQSolL3OXI
  • The Legend of Zelda – 31 – The Bow feedly.com/e/887AXdFF
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Freedom Planet Might Be The Best New Indie Release That’s Getting No Coverage

freedom_planet_artwork_by_gashi_gashi-d5y2buo

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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