Sunday, July 26, 2009

It's still The End of the World

Ok, part deux of my little post-apoc roundup. Yesterday saw me give the treatment to Fallout 3, Borderlands, Rage and Earthrise (see below for details). First on the list for today's installment is...

Fallen Earth. This is another post-apoc MMO and comes to us from Fallen Earth LLC and Icarus Studios LLC. The game is set in the near future after both a virus and a nuclear holocaust have devastated the globe, resulting in the annihilation of more than 99% of the world's population. One of the last major outposts of human civilisation is the Grand Canyon Province, an area that managed to avoid the worst of the cataclysm thanks to the intervention of an industrial tycoon who wished to turn the Grand Canyon into his own protectorate.

As with Earthrise the developers have chosen to go the classless route, instead constructing a skill-based game where you essentially define your own class as you decide exactly which skills to work with. There will also be what are termed "mutations", these being superhuman powers which developed in the human race as a result of the virus or radiation or possibly both. Available mutations include: the ability to radiate extreme heat or extreme cold to others; the ability to infect others with diseases and radiation; even the ability to drain the health of others and to restore the dead to life. The cool thing is that each of these mutations are favoured by 1-2 factions in the game, who will assist you in learning them and who will help you to develop your skills. There are 6 factions in the game whom you can choose to align yourself with. These include Enforcers (representing Order), Chota (representing Chaos) and Light Bearers (representing Society).

The complete list of factions can be found here and interestingly this wheel helps show you your friends and enemies. Suppose you choose to dedicate yourself to the Light Bearers, your allies would be those factions immediately adjacent to you (in this case Enforcers and Vistas), your arch-enemy would be the polar opposite (in this case the Travelers) and your enemies would be the Techs and Chota ("Children of the Apocalypse"). It is possible to change factions but depending on your current faction you may have to work around the wheel somewhat in order to be able to change to your newly-desired faction. It does add an original twist to the gameplay though, and will make you think twice before you dedicate yourself to any Tom, Dick or Harry who asks for your help.

Fallen Earth is currently in closed beta testing with a projected release date of 9th September in North America. An open beta is expected to be available sometime before this date but as of the time of writing no details are yet available regarding this, so keep checking their site if this is something that you want to test-drive before retail.

Chance of greatness: 60%
(some highly interesting gameplay choices and a unique faction system seem to indicate that the developers have put a lot of work into this, but can it defeat the elephant that Blizzard keeps in the corner of the room? That's a tough sell for anyone.)

Next up I'm cheating a little since I'm not sure this game truly qualifies as post-apocalyptic, but I'm going to go with Brink. Coming from developers Splash Damage who got their start making PC mods before taking things retail, this is an FPS which aims to blur the line between single-player and multiplayer gaming. You will begin the game playing solo, but at any point people on your friends list (or indeed people anywhere, if you wish it) can join your game, replacing one of the computer AI allies you have with a real person. Or you could choose to join their games in the same way. Therefore there will be no specialist "multiplayer" mode, it will simply be a slightly modified version of the main game. If this works as well as they say it does then it could well revolutionize what we come to think of when we consider the word "multiplayer."

As with Rage, the game will run (and be released) on the PC, 360 and PS3 since it runs on the id tech 4 engine that was previously utilised by such titles as Doom 3, Quake 4 and Prey.

The game is set in the near future aboard a floating city known as The Ark following an unspecified disaster on Earth. There are two factions, the Resistance (fighting to take over The Ark) and Security (fighting to keep it). Whichever faction you choose to play as will change the storyline, meaning you may need to play through it completely as both sides in order to fully explore the available narrative. Other details are thin on the ground so far, but it has already been announced that we should be seeing Brink in Spring 2010.

Chance of greatness: 70%
(some attractive screenshots and a unique spin on multiplayer make this a game worth watching to see if the developers can keep their promises. If they can, expect to see this game possibly change the way other games do multiplayer.)

And for now that's all she wrote. No doubt there are other post-apocalyptic games in development but I feel these are today's major players.

For tomorrow's...who knows?

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The End of the World

It seems you cannot swing a cat (or for those in the southern US, a possum) these days without running into a post-apocalyptic game being touted as the Next Big Thing, so this is a short run-down of recent and upcoming p-a games together with their potential of success.

First off we have everyone's favourite, Fallout 3. 2008's "Game of the Year" by almost anyone who matters, Bethesda's revival of the old Interplay favourite produced an immersive, open world where you could do almost anything. I picked it up myself during the recent sale on Steam and while enjoyable, it hasn't had the lasting appeal I had hoped for. If anything it's a little too "open-worldy" for me. I enjoy a bit of linearity here and there and Fallout 3 just plonks you down and leaves you to fend for yourself. I'm clearly in the minority though as everyone else and their dogs seem to absolutely love it, although one consistent gripe from many sources is that the main storyline is too short.

Bethesda have also {continued to support the game post-release / milked the game dry for all it's worth} (delete as you believe is appropriate) by releasing regular installments of downloadable content. So far we've had Operation: Anchorage, The Pitt, Broken Steel and Point Lookout with the final DLC offering Mothership Zeta due in a matter of weeks. All are (unfortunately) available on Games For Windows Live for a price of 800 Microsoft Points or, for people who live in the real world and don't use pretend Monopoly money, 10 of your hard-earned United States Dollars. Of these the most successful and well-received has been Broken Steel, which upped the level cap from 20 to 30 and did a bunch of other nice things. Both O: A and The Pitt received middle of the road/poor reviews with Point Lookout falling somewhere in-between.

Chance of greatness: 100% (all those Game of the Year awards make this a no-brainer)

Next up we've got Earthrise from Belgian developer Masthead Studios. A post-apoc MMO that has chosen the classless route, you instead define your character by the skills you have him choose and gain proficiency by using them. There is also said to be an offline component to the game, perhaps similar to Eve Online where learning (or forgetting) certain skills takes amounts of real time that passes whether you are logged in or not.

Some of the screenshots are impressive, and give the feeling that Fallout got drunk and had a baby with Guild Wars. This will be Masthead's first project though, so it remains to be seen what the finished product will look like. For now you can sign up for the beta and hope to see Earthrise's retail release sometime before the end of 2009.

Chance of greatness: 50% (this one could go either way)

Rage is my next selection, from the good old Texans down at id Software. This will be id's first new IP in almost 14 years, since there are only so many sequels to Quake and Doom that you can make before people start to yearn for something different, although this hasn't stopped id from quietly starting work on Doom 4.

We won't be seeing Rage until Spring 2010, but id have recently been doing a few interviews and releasing more information about the project. It seems to be heavily influenced by Fallout but with a dash of vehicular combat and racing on the side. id also started a viral website for the game, titled After the Impact, that is gradually revealing more and more tidbits about the title. Initially there were just a couple of objects to click on in the background scenery, but after being updated over several weeks there are now some NPCs you can interact with who will give you a little backstory. It's an interesting way to do things, typical of id, and should help to further interest in the game over the coming weeks and months.

Rage is also one of two FPS games slated to use id's next-generation graphics engine id tech 5 (the other game being Doom 4), which among other things is able to run on almost any hardware. This means not only will you be seeing Rage on the PC (id's traditional home) but also on the 360 and PS3, and running almost identically on all of them. Whether this is just marketing truthiness or has some basis in fact remains to be seen.

Chance of greatness: 80% (it's hard to bet against id)

Coming in at number three on my list (and these are in no particular order) we have a little game called Borderlands. This is a game I have been heavily interested in for about 3 years now, since I first saw the trailer for it during the 2006 Spike TV Video Game Awards. Borderlands is also the first of these games I have mentioned to be set on a planet other than Earth. In this case the game is set on a distant planet known as Pandora, which while initially was gobbled up many corporations trying to find its secrets, has now been left in ruins after most of these people turned around and left empty-handed. There is rumoured to be a massive cache of alien weapons though, and it's up to you to find it...

Borderlands is famous in part for its claim that there are well over 500,000 weapons able to be found in the game, as loot is generated dynamically. I for one don't have 500,000 pockets and typically when you've seen one badass gun you've seen them all, but I'm certainly willing to give the developers, Gearbox Software (another company out of Texas) a break on this one. 4-player online co-op and what is being described as the world's first "role-playing shooter" make this a title that is either going to be amazing or the flop of the year.

The game has a very unique look, almost cel-shaded. This style was only recently implemented in its development cycle. Previously it had a much less stylized, more realistic visual appearance. I for one think the new style looks amazing and some of the recent gameplay videos really do make this game look good:

Borderlands now has a solid release date of 20th October in North America and the 23rd October in Europe, so we don't have much longer to wait.

Chance of greatness: 70% (Gearbox have a good track record, since they produced the well-received Half-Life expansion packs Blue Shift and Opposing Force as well as the Brothers in Arms series of games, but it remains to be seen whether gamers will go for the new art style)

That's your lot for today, I'll be making a second post tomorrow with the final picks for my post-apocalyptic run-down.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Huxley (or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love The Game)

I've posted my thoughts on Huxley before so I won't re-hash them here.

I was accepted into the Huxley closed beta about 6 weeks ago, but since I never received the email telling me this as Gmail's spam filters decided I didn't need to know about it, I completely missed the first phase of the closed beta test.

"Never mind", I thought, "at least I'll be able to play in the second phase and read the closed beta forums and see what people who have actually played the game think about it."

It turns out that I was wrong on both counts. Even though my account over at ijji is flagged as being a closed beta tester for Huxley and that automatic access to the closed forums should be granted, it never was. But wait! On the public Huxley forum the lead GM says to PM him about not getting access to these closed forums, and judging by that thread it is not a small number of individuals that are having this issue.

I send him a PM and wait. And wait. I wait some more. Finally, as a last resort, I wait. That was over two weeks ago and I still lack access to the closed beta forums, so I can only assume that this individual either cannot read, got fired, or simply doesn't care. He has posted in the interim, so he couldn't have got fired, and seems able to string a sentence together so I assume he can read, so this leaves me with the fact that he doesn't care.

I even went as far as to send a message to the administrator of the ijji forums to see if that would yield any results. I'm sure I don't need to tell you what happened after I did that.

Does this matter in the grand scheme of things? Not especially, but as a trend it is worrying. If ijji cannot even manage to run their forums properly then what hope for the game as a whole? It would take literally seconds for them to grant me access, and from their forums there are dozens of others all having the same issue. The fact that these people are essentially being ignored is not making me any more enthusiastic about Huxley, quite the reverse in fact.

All of this is making ijji/NHN look amateur at best. It is by far the worst-run beta I have had the misfortune of being involved in, and I've been in almost a dozen tests for triple-A games over the past seven years or so.

Alan Wake - not coming soon to a PC near you!

Alan Wake is an upcoming psychological thriller/puzzle/action game coming from the makers of the Max Payne series, Remedy Entertainment.

We were originally meant to be seeing it at the arse-end of 2007, then sometime in 2008 and now it is tentatively scheduled for an early 2010 release, which will have meant it has been in development upwards of five years; not into Duke Nukem Forever territory but certainly approaching the coast of that particular gaming continent.

I'm a big proponent of releasing games when they are finished though, as opposed to releasing a sub-standard product out of the door early, so the delays, while a minor annoyance, were something I could understand. What I cannot understand is why Remedy (and AW's publisher, Microsoft) have felt the need to further piss off PC gamers by announcing that the game, originally slated for both the 360 and PC, will now (at least initially) be 360-only with maybe a possibility of a PC version sometime after release (a la Gears of War and Mass Effect, which both took over a year from their 360 releases to make it over to the PC.)

The 360 is basically a scrubbed-down PC, so we are told (or so you can find out for yourself if you feel like opening yours up - let's face it you are probably going to get the red ring of death here pretty soon anyway) and porting from the PC to the 360 or vice-versa is meant to be a fairly simplistic task. So we know it's unlikely to be a technical issue as to why we won't be seeing AW on a PC anytime soon - so what does that leave us?

Perhaps Microsoft (and reports on Kotaku seem to indicate that the death of the PC version is largely their decision and not Remedy's) are looking at their bottom line, and with 360 games regularly retailing for $10-20 more than their PC counterparts it might be a case of not wanting to give those people a cheaper alternative.

Perhaps it is because Microsoft want to put a big publishing push behind AW as a 360 "exclusive" and so they are preventing the release of the PC version as a result of that.

Perhaps the game requires further polish in order to meet its Spring 2010 release and to do that Remedy had to sacrifice one of the versions in order to finish the other. When that calculation is PC vs. 360 then that decision is only going to go one way. Maybe they still fully intend to release the PC version after the 360 release is out the door. Stranger things have happened.

Either way, it's another kick in the teeth for the PC gamer. Alan Wake was a game that I have personally been following for more than a couple of years now, have told friends about and got them interested in it and now the rug is pulled out from under me.

Microsoft, originally such a PC-centric company, is fast becoming that kid who goes away to college and never goes back to his hometown, thinking himself too good to hang around with those nerds he used to play DnD with, back in the day.

Is it ashamed of its PC origins? I would hope not, since the PC as a gaming vehicle is technically superior to any console you could name in almost every single way. Yet PC gamers continue to get the shaft when it comes to projects like Alan Wake, Gears of War (a port that took far too long) and others, even when "one of their own" is helping to pull the strings. And don't even get me started about the PC port of Halo 2.

Step it up Microsoft, and give the trusty old PC some love, you know, like back in the old days where PC gamers would rub your back and then you would make games like Freelancer in return.

Come to think about it I guess I have never really forgiven Microsoft for not making Freelancer 2, either.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Star Trek Online vs. Star Wars: The Old Republic

Well I figured it was time to get into this Goliath versus Goliath battle, the likely next great MMO tussle of our time.

Beginning with Star Trek, it's definitely had a tumultuous development cycle to date. STO was originally slated to be developed by Perpetual Entertainment, who acquired the licence and commenced work on the title in early 2004 with an announcement of its development later the same year.

Information was scant regarding the title. Perpetual released some low-res screenshots here and there, along with various vague allusions regarding possibly making STO a more "casual" title funded not necessarily by subscription fees but perhaps with micro transactions. Needless to say this didn't go down too well with the (rabid/hardcore/basement-dwelling - this is really choose your own adjective time) nerds that comprise the Star Trek fan-base.

Fast forward to 2007 and Perpetual are having financial issues, to the point where they close down work on the other MMO they have in development, Gods and Heroes: Rome Rising, with an effort to focus resources on STO. This fails to help matters, however, and it is announced in early 2008 that Perpetual has closed up shop and all code of STO has been transferred to an unknown Bay-area developer (now known to be Cryptic Studios, creators of the successful superhero MMOs City of Heroes and City of Villains).

Finally with an established name at the helm, and not least one that knows their arse from their elbow, it seems STO is at last in the hands of someone who know what they are doing. Interest in STO has been ramping-up, with an official site that actually has some content. The game is set a short number of years after the TNG timeline, where relations between the Federation and the Klingon Empire are strained if not broken down completely. Your bridge crew will be comprised of NPCs whom you can co-opt onto your Away Team when you beam down to other planets, and you will be able to specialise your Captain (as you will be on your ship, unless you plan on taking orders from the toaster) in various fields such as Science and Diplomacy.

For visuals STO is adapting the engine Cryptic used to power CoH/CoV, which is tried-and-tested if not a little mundane. Maybe they will tweak the hell out of it and make Borg Cubes jump out of your monitor; stranger things have happened.

But for all this, STO just has not grabbed me. That's unusual in itself because in any Star Trek vs. Star Wars contest I am usually firmly on the side of Trek. I can't say that it's the best sci-fi of all time (I'm afraid that particular honour goes to Babylon 5) but I've always enjoyed the Trek series (except - shudder - Enterprise) and thought they were well-produced and well-developed. For some reason though the MMO just isn't pressing my buttons.

On to The Old Republic, which also has an interesting development history of its own.

Rumours were circulating for the past couple of years in the gaming press that BioWare were working on an unannounced game, likely set in the Star Wars universe to capitalise on the tremendous success of their games Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 1+2. The rumour mill said that the new Star Wars game was going to be an MMO, such as had been tried before with the terrible Star Wars Galaxies but with less utter, utter badness (always a good thing).

Invitations started popping up in the gaming press and on various gaming sites that BioWare was going to make an announcement in October 2008, and finally on 21st October 2008 the world knew officially what had been the worst-kept secret in the MMO world: that BioWare were working on a Star Wars MMO tentatively titled The Old Republic.

The game is set some 300 years prior to the events of Knights of the Old Republic which also predates the films by some 3,700 years. Given the quality of the last few films this is not a bad idea. a la WoW there will be two factions, the Galactic Republic and the Sith Empire. Playable classes announced so far include: Jedi Knights (of course), Sith, Bounty Hunters, Troopers and Smugglers. BioWare also recently announced that ToR will be the first MMO to be fully voiced; no more reading tiny windows crammed full of text in order to glean the only two facts you require (what you need to do and where you need to do it).

The official site for ToR is equally as good as that for STO. BioWare release regular updates detailing new features and classes, and also several trailers, screenshots and even comics filling-in some of the back story, as well as regular updates on social networking sites from some of the producers.

In short, both ToR and STO have figured out that to make an MMO based on these iconic sci-fi franchises the best way to do it is by firmly involving the established communities that already exist. There is no need to reinvent the wheel, and the PR people at both Cryptic and BioWare are to be commended for their involvement of the fan-base at large to date. Some of those nerds don't even wash, which that makes the developer's contributions all the more impressive.

Of the two it seems that we will likely see STO first. As of writing it has a pending release date of "early Spring 2010", whereas BioWare are adopting a Blizzard/Valve approach of "when it's done." Will one affect the other? Both developers will say no but they'd be stupid if they weren't keeping at least one eye on the competition. In saying that, I think there is ample room in the MMO universe for both games to flourish and succeed, but that is really going to depend on the finished products.

A lifetime Trekker hates to admit it but ToR really does look superior (in my eyes) right now. If BioWare can re-create the magic of KOTOR and add a dash of MMO sprinkles to it, I think it would be very hard to see that game not become a commercial success. If STO meets their release date of early 2010 perhaps this will encourage BioWare to shove ToR out of the door a little quicker than usual, but with EA bankrolling their operation they aren't exactly poor these days.

BioWare, feel free to toss me an alpha/beta invite. You too, Cryptic, since you've got ground to make up with me.

(I also accept any hard currency)