I really like doing these lists of upcoming anniversaries as my first blog post of each year. Doing the light research is a pretty fun trip back through gaming history, so here we go: Continue reading
Foreword: There’s pretty much no way to get around what happened this week before going into a blog post I already had planned at least a couple weeks ago. I try to keep things on this blog (and my twitter if you haven’t noticed) centered on games and tech with a bit of other entertainment, but pretty much never politics. I do have my own political opinions, I just don’t find social media and blogs to be the best place for me to discuss them. Something did pop up on my friend’s blog however that I think strikes a good point about the recently wrapped-up US Presidential Election centered on writing and journalism.
The basic jist I got out of it is that the media spent a bit too much time chasing scandals and a bit too little time actually going over the policies of each candidate. You could say media took on the easy subjects it thought would attract viewers instead of digging into the details that might have had a better chance of swaying them.
I think that’s about as much as I’m going to say here on that subject. If you’re interested in taking a bit of time off to read about video games, continue.
I probably spent way too much time getting through Mafia III, but I just finished it. Everyone has likely moved on from it, but I had my reasons for sticking with it over the last month. The main thing I want to say about Mafia III is that it has the same overall good points and flawsMafia II had, I think both cases are interesting when it comes to people’s enjoyment and perception of video games. Continue reading
Yeah this is a brazen question to ask and it is partly to draw attention, but it get’s at the conflict I’ve been seeing in many open-world games made over the last few years, mainly action sandbox games in the Grand Theft Auto tradition. Of course sandbox games can have good main missions, but in a great many of them, main missions seem to actually detract from the central appeal of the game. Continue reading
If finally finished up Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag this week after Nvidia gave me a free copy with my graphics card back in 2013. Playing it made me realize things about how sandbox games have gradually strayed from their original design principles and how that relates to today’s trend of open-world games. Much has been said about how Ubisoft does open-world games, but I think Black Flag in particular highlights its issues because it actually contains a unique and fun classic-style sandbox game buried underneath a lot of modern trends. Continue reading
I originally didn’t plan to bother with Saints Row IV after recently finishing Saints Row The Third, but that free weekend and $5 sale on Steam took me by surprise (and is actually the same way I tried out and bought The Third). A ways into the game, it’s got me wondering about what’s happened to sandbox games and where the game format is headed.
Open-world game design is getting pretty stilted. I hope new hardware can inspire some evolution on them, but the last few years of open-world games have brought us some design that’s so formulaic it’s starting to feel like busywork. SR4, mostly in purpose but sometimes unintentionally, has brought me to a point of deconstruction with open-world games where I’m starting to wonder why the game’s city is even there anymore. Continue reading
One game genre that’s mystified me over the years has been space flight simulators. The buzz surrounding No Man’s Sky convinced me to finally plan to investigate them this year. Part of the reason people are so mystified with the game is because it’s part of a genre that almost doesn’t exist on consoles. So, for a while you might see a lot of posts on this blog about space games. I decided to start off with one of the first and probably the most influential — the original 1984 Elite, well, a version of it at least.
On one hand I was always intimidated by how complex the flying mechanics of Wing Commander or X-Wing look. On the other hand I wondered how games about trading goods like Freelancer could ever be fun, even if it is in space. Even the title “Freelancer” sounds like some kind of economics job description that’s anti-fun. It’s one more area that makes PC gaming look much more intimidating than it actually is. I think I made the right decision in starting my trek through this genre basically from the beginning. Continue reading
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.
Yeah Grand Theft Auto V is probably gonna be great. Everything looks to be bigger and badder than GTA IV, and that’s cool and all. I just wanna know one thing really:
Do the controls not suck?
This is the main reason I am hesitant to jump into GTA V and why I have really no hype for it at all right now (the other reason being I’m waiting on the inevitable PC version). I’m sorry, but Grand Theft Auto is one of those franchises I just can’t fully get into for one huge reason — I find them all to be nigh unplayable.
I love the work Rockstar puts into the setting of each of its games. That includes the characters, writing, story, graphics, all that. Rockstar games are great worlds to be in that are absolutely packed with content. I’ve been over some of my problems with GTA compared to other open-world games in a previous post, but I’m going to focus on Rockstar’s history with controls here. All that other stuff I praised doesn’t matter to me if I can’t actually play the game.
GTA IV may have been just playable enough for me to finish it with considerable frustration, but you can forget about me finishing any of the PS2-era games. Maybe I can understand them coming from an era before most people figured out how to design third person shooters, but stepping into series with San Andreas introduced me to the most convoluted control scheme I’ve ever seen for a console game.
I think a main issue with GTA is that it tries to give the player direct access to too many functions for a standard controller. Every time I look at the control display on the options screen I shake my head at how ridiculous it is. If you have to sit there waiting for screen to cycle through displays of three different functions for each button then the control scheme has a problem in my opinion. That combined with the archaic shooting controls of the PS2-era games means I can virtually never survive a gun fight in San Andreas. I gave up pretty early on. GTA IV got slightly better control-wise but still felt convoluted, never mind how many hours the game spent teaching you those controls.
What really gets me is how slow Rockstar has been to adopt “good” shooter controls. Red Dead Redemption and Max Payne 3 have good enough shooter controls, but only good enough. In my opinion they still feel inferior to most standard third person shooters today, even other open-world games with standard controls like Saints Row or Red Faction Guerrilla. Rockstar has the functions there, but they still feel somewhat sluggish wrestling with the things Rockstar insists it has in its games.
A big thing is the Euphoria engine. The Euphoria engine is probably a love-it-or-hate-it thing. I’ll agree it gives Rockstar’s games some of the most realistic and smooth character animations in video games, giving the action a more cinematic feel, but that animation also severely slows down the controls. Having to wait for Niko’s or John Marsten’s body to fully rotate in order to turn around has gotten me killed in gun fights. When Digital Foundry did an article on input lag a few years ago GTA IV was listed as one of the worst games in terms of control responsiveness, with controls twice as slow as in most games and nearly four times as slow as those in Call of Duty.
I feel like Rockstar gets away with this because its games are so freaking popular. They haven’t really felt any commercial need to change — sales have justified all the creative decisions they’ve made, and all the open-world games that control much better than GTA don’t sell nearly as much.
I heard GTA V is gonna use some part of Max Payne 3’s control system, and I guess that game and Red Dead have shown Rockstar is capable of doing good-enough shooter controls. I still can’t pull the trigger on GTA V though until I know the controls aren’t a convoluted mess like all the other games have felt to me. I’m afraid I might not be able to find a single game critic that shares my view on the series and on Rockstar in general who’ll give an actual critique on GTA V’s control interface. It’s one of the reasons I’m waiting for a PC version — the hope that maybe the game controls much better on a mouse and keyboard.
So far almost every big game coming out later this year has “Also Releasing On Next Generation Consoles” at the end of the trailer. Having games come out on more than one generation of hardware near hardware transitions isn’t unusual, but I think the extent to which it’s happening now definitely is. I still don’t know if this is a good or bad thing.
This is the first year I remember where nearly all of the biggest games are cross-generational, and it’s easy to think this bet-hedging on the part of game publishers might slow down consumer adoption of next generation consoles. Maybe publishers think adoption is already going to be slow, but if so, this strategy could result in a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s a matter of several factors though: things like the next-gen difference, what customers ultimately care about, and exclusives.
I think this could have a bigger effect than it may have had during the Xbox 360’s launch. I think more than half of the 360’s launch lineup was made up of games that were also available for the previous generation of consoles. Not many of them however were the kinds of games that actually draw hardware purchases — mostly sports games or franchise titles. This was also before the era of $10+ million games hinging on 5-plus million sales.
Among others, Call of Duty: Ghosts, Batman: Arkham Origins, Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag, and Battlefield 4 will be coming out on the PS3 and Xbox 360 as well as the PS4 and the next Xbox this year. Grand Theft Auto V is only coming out on current generation machines and we know the PS4 won’t play PS3 games. On that front, the PS3 itself is getting quite a few enticing exclusives this year like The Last of Us, Beyond: Two Souls, and most notably Gran Turismo 6. It’s funny that the “Year of the PS3” ends up being the year in which the PS4 launches.
Basically, pretty much all of the most important games on the market right now — the games that would most effectively sell new hardware, will be playable on the current consoles. Gamers this fall won’t feel bad about delaying buying into next-gen.
On the flipside, this strategy also ensures that the PS4 and next Xbox will have a lot of really big games to play right out of the gate. Launch lineups are rarely very good — they usually don’t start day one with games as good as Call of Duty, Arkham, Battlefield, or Assassin’s Creed. Those who do decide to upgrade hardware certainly won’t have a lack of games to play, it’s just a matter of whether the upgrade is worth it.
We really don’t know yet what the next-gen versions of these games will look like compared to the current-gen versions. Last time around most cross-gen games were basically PS2 games running at higher resolutions with extra graphical effects thrown on like King Kong or the original Need for Speed Most Wanted. I think we could see the same thing happen this year with a few games being more targeted towards next-gen. I think the best metric we have to go on right now are the differences between recent console games and their PC versions running at max settings, which varies from game to game.
Battlefield 4 will probably be a game you want to play on either next-gen machines or PC. With Battlefield 3 there was a pretty huge difference between the console versions and the PC version, and EA is promoting an upgraded version of that already impressive engine. People are pretty down on Medal of Honor Warfighter, but I think this footage of the PC version maxed-out looks like how I would want a PS4 game to look. The same could be true of any other game EA reveals in the near future running on the Frostbite 3 engine. We can’t really say much on Call of Duty until next week when they reveal the game and its new engine.
I have a feeling Assassin’s Creed IV on the other hand won’t see as big a change in the leap to newer hardware. The PC versions of previous Creed games haven’t looked like drastic upgrades from what I’ve seen. They’re pretty much games made for current consoles. I could be wrong and Ubisoft could be making significant upgrades to their AnvilNext engine though. We’ve only seen a little bit of gameplay. Ubisoft has already confirmed that Watch_Dogs is targeting next-gen hardware and then porting down to current-gen.
Other games are also interesting cases. If Metro Last Light or even Metro 2033 get PS4 ports as 4A games have hinted might be possible, those could really be impressive. 2033 has been known as one of the more technically demanding and beautiful games on PC, comparable to the Crysis games, and I imagine Last Light could only be more so. We’ve already seen that the PS3 version of Diablo III looks considerably chopped down compared to the PC version (which doesn’t even require a beast computer to run), so I think the PS4 version will definitely look and run noticeably better.
Aside from all those games, the main thing software-wise that will and has always prompted hardware upgrades is exclusive games. This is what I see as the main problem right now: we haven’t seen a huge number yet.
It’s probably not fair to call out Sony and Microsoft just yet because if I were them I’d be revealing exclusives at E3 — which will probably be mostly first party games. Third parties are obviously doing the cross-gen thing because whether you buy the PS3 or PS4 version of their game, they end up with the same cut of your money. You gotta admit it’s gonna be hard for Sony and Microsoft to bring out exclusives that can generate sufficient hype in the face of Call of Duty, Battlefield, Assassin’s Creed, and the current-gen-only GTA V.
Sony’s biggest reveals so far are KillZone Shadow Fall and inFamous: Second Son. DriveClub now has to contend with Sony’s own current-gen Gran Turismo 6. Square Enix has that Final Fantasy announcement coming (they’ve also got Lightning Returns hitting current-gen machines this year) and there’s the possibility of The Last Guardian being a PS4 game which would make me reluctantly get one.
Microsoft reportedly has new IPs coming but we won’t know anything until at least next week. Halo 5 ain’t gonna be ready until at least fall 2014. I’m predicting Forza 5 but that’s just me. They could be at a real good short term advantage if the next Xbox is backwards compatible. It’ll be easy for people to upgrade knowing they can play GTA V on their new Xbox, but not the PS4.
Ultimately though it could just be a matter of who the publishers and console manufacturers are going for right now. After seven years of the same consoles I think the hardcore early adopters will go ahead and upgrade to new consoles. That audience usually makes up the bulk of hardware launch sales anyway, with the mass audience typically buying in once prices have gone down. Maybe publishers have finally realized this and are adjusting their pipelines accordingly.
I still think the gaming industry tried to kill off the PS2 too quickly, and the PS3 paid for it. The PS2 was cheap and still getting great games while the PS3 was struggling to build its value. Compared to the adoption of new platforms in other media, video games tend to take things into turbo speed when you think about it. DVD didn’t go away as soon as Blu-Ray emerged, and neither did CD as soon as the mp3 emerged.
What we could be looking at is a soft launch of the next console generation. Publishers might be realizing that most people aren’t going to buy new consoles at $400 or $500, just as most people probably found Blu-Ray players prohibitively expensive when they first hit the market. At the same time, the PS3 and Xbox 360 still have quite a bit of room left for price drops. The basic set of each console (with a hard drive in the case of the 360) still costs $300, which in my opinion is a bigger reason for their decreasing sales than simple market saturation. Who knows how much they could continue selling at $150 or $100. Plus there are also the rumors of an even slimmer, all-digital $100 Xbox 360.
Hardcore gamers maybe “starving” for new hardware as Ubisoft recently said, but I think the industry at large has realized that not everyone is.
As of this writing I’ve played about four hours of Saints Row: the Third – a game I resisted for a while, overlooking it as another Grand Theft Auto clone. Now I find that I’m acclimating to the game much more easily than I ever have GTA.
It’s pretty much due to what everyone has told me is Saints Row’s main selling point – how it focuses more purely on the “fun” than GTA does. This has definitely worked for me, but not for the same reason it might work for everyone else. This game get’s at a core reason why I’ve had a lot of difficulty with GTA.
Simply put, I am a terrible GTA-player. For some reason the game’s mechanics just don’t fit me well at all. I could talk about how much I hate the controls, but I think it’s largely due to the varying focuses seemingly pulling each GTA game apart.
The first game in that franchise I actually played was San Andreas, and despite understanding how most people play GTA to reign chaos and destruction on its virtual cities, I mainly got pulled into this game for the setting and characters. Rockstar does such a good job with its cut scenes, characters, voice acting, and backdrops that I felt much invested in the main plot of the game – the part most GTA fans seem to love to ignore.
The game itself seems to want me to ignore that too. A big reason why I have a hard time with GTA is because it’s very difficult to laser-focus on a single task while playing. It wants you to play chaotically and organically, blowing up people and getting into trouble wherever you go, instead of strictly following the main quest. Because of GTA’s controls (and a few other features) I find it hard to get invested in all that and just end up fighting against the game itself much of the time.
Many fans seem to levy similar, but perhaps opposite complaints on GTAIV, a game that focuses more in its story and reigns back the chaos a bit. The chaos is still there which damages the plausibility of a story Rockstar chooses to push so much. I know most people criticize this because the increased story focus makes parts of GTAIV too linear, but in my experience it has made the game slightly more playable than San Andreas, if still pretty annoying at times.
Enter Saints Row which just decides to cut out the serious story and make a game about the part of GTA that everyone else actually cares about, and in my opinion it handles that part of the game better than GTA too. I started to realize this when engaged in Third’s experience system and collection of perks. That alone gives Third far more carrot sticks to keep me playing than GTA.
What I like the most though is how straightforward quests and activities in Third feel. One of the reasons I can’t play GTA is because half the time I’m on the way to do something I’ll accidentally hit someone or something in sight of the police and have to waste time removing my notoriety before I can start a mission or complete an objective during a mission – if I don’t get killed because of my notoriety and have to start over with all my armor and ammo gone.
Having missions completely disregard your notoriety may be a small element of Third, but it makes a huge difference for me. It might not be plausible enough for the world of GTA, and the same goes for keeping all your guns after respawning, but Third realizes that people don’t play these games for realism anyway.
This is why, so far, my favorite open-world games this generation have been Red Faction Guerrilla and Assassin’s Creed II. Those two games each focus on polar opposite sides of a formula, and each one does its job very well as a result.
Guerrilla is mainly about blowing things up. There’s a story there, but that story is mostly about blowing things up. In most cases the missions don’t even specify HOW you blow something up, just that you do it. It’s that freedom along with the game’s unique procedural destruction engine that set it apart.
On the flipside, Assassin’s Creed II puts a lot of effort into its setting with very little incentive wreak havoc on it outside of missions. A large reason why I found myself invested in the settings and characters in the series is because the Creed games make it very easy for me to access that stuff compared to GTA.
Basically what I’m saying is, for me to be able to enjoy one of these games, especially GTA, it needs to know what it is and deliberately play towards that. I’m sure that it’s possible to make a sandbox game with a great story and fun gameplay. A lot of people probably love GTA for both, but for me the whole formula just doesn’t come together in that case. Saints Row may be a game made in GTA’s shadow, but at least it has a more focused formula.
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