Friday, December 31, 2010

New Domain

I figured I might as well be semi-professional and grab my own domain name for this blog.

You can now update your bookmarks and point them to http://www.gaffonline.com to get here.  It's a little more snappy than the Blogspot subdomain, although that will continue to work.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

More Big Ones

Dragon Age 2

Developer: BioWare
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Expected: 8th March 2011 (NA), 11th March 2011 (EU)

The sequel to 2009's Dragon Age: Origins which I have to admit to still not finishing yet (soon!).

The first was well-received in that it was your typical fantasy affair coupled with BioWare's always-strong storytelling and after a straight-up expansion - Awakening - was released in March 2010, a true sequel was nigh-inevitable.

While the first game allowed you to customise your race and class (hence the Origins) the sequel allows only one playable character, known as Hawke.  You can still change the sex (I assume "as much as possible" will be a choice, if it's anything like the first game) and the class, but your humanity is compulsory.


As with the Mass Effect series you will be able to import your world from DA:O into DA2.  Obviously your character cannot carry over, but the state of the game world can, including "dozens" of decisions you made in the original game, according to BioWare.

BioWare look to be trying to deliver a bit more of a focused gaming experience with the sequel, at the cost of losing some of the open-world allure from the first game.  The second seems like it will be a much more narrative-driven game than the first.  Whether this is exactly what people want I'm not sure, as one of the hallmarks of a BioWare game is usually a vast open world / universe that you can explore as much or as little as you want.

Either way, there isn't a very long wait to find out whether or not this was a good design choice.  Usually everything BioWare touches turns to gold but for some reason I'm on the fence with regards to DA2.  Maybe it's just sequelitus setting in as I see all of these 2s and 3s floating around at the end of game titles.

Dead Space 2

Developer: Visceral Games
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Expected: 25h January 2011

A straight sequel to 2008's survival-horror-sci-fi third-person shooter Dead Space, Isaac Clarke is back to beat the shit out of more Necromorphs.

The first game received solid reviews, perhaps partially because at this point zombies had been done to death in games too numerous to count and this seemed to be a fresh take on the survival-horror genre, as well as a change of scenery to move it into outer space from plain old Earth.


One of the most-voiced criticisms of the first game was that some of the gameplay and the monsters got somewhat repetitive and so hopefully these issues will be addressed in the sequel.  This did not detract from the atmosphere, pace and quality of the first game.  With luck, Dead Space 2 will be one of those types of sequels that improves upon the original game whilst maintaining what made the original game fun in the first place.

Brink

Developer: Splash Damage
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Expected: Spring 2011

Yes, you knew it was coming.  Originally in part 2 of last year's list but pushed back by Splash Damage shortly before the proposed release date of the arse-end of last year, Brink should now be appearing around the Spring of 2011.

Essentially everything I said about the game last year is still true now.  Brink is trying to combine online and offline play is a way that has not been done before, or at least not with any great success.  You have Security on one side and the Resistance on the other, and while parts of the story are revealed playing one side, you will need to play both in order to get the most out of both the game and the story.


Unfortunately it is looking right now that 8v8 is going to be the largest denomination of gameplay available.  I would prefer to see it higher (16v16 in TF2 Dustbowl is where it's at) but it's possible that the game would not scale well higher than 8v8, or that 8v8 might be player-moddable once the game is actually released.

Brink remains one of those truly innovative games that are trying to not only appeal to traditional shooter fans (and let's face it, there are a lot of them) but is really trying to push the genre as a whole forward with some very different ideas.  How many times have we seen a game be a critical success but a commercial flop?  Too many to count.  I really hope Brink is not one of those games.

Rage

Developer: id Software
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Expected: 13th September 2011 (NA), 15th September 2011 (EU), 16th September 2011 (AUS)

The other game from last year's list that received a subsequent delay, Rage is now on-track for an Autumn release.

id and Bethesda are still keeping much of the details regarding Rage firmly locked down, and there isn't a whole heck of a lot that we know now that we didn't know when I was writing the last Rage post a year ago.


One new thing known is that the multiplayer component of Rage will not be using dedicated servers, as many PC fans were hoping.  Instead there will be console-style matchmaking, with all of the negative connotations that that implies.  It's disappointing coming from id, who are such a PC-centric developer, but is perhaps a sign of the times that the PC is not the domineering force in gaming that it once was (although it's far from being terrible, either).

This issue won't affect the singleplayer campaign (obviously) which for all we know will be the strongest facet of the game anyway.

Still, it's a long wait to next September.  With luck we'll see more information coming out of id as we get closer to the game's release.

Diablo III

Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Expected: Q4 2011

Saving the best till last?  Possibly, as D3 is one of those games that will get any Blizzard fanboi salivating into their boots at the mere mention of its name.

In development for approximately five hundred years, we will hopefully get our sweaty hands on it next Holiday season if the Blizzard leaked roadmap is even remotely accurate.

I can't say as I played the first game, or even the second.  That entire fad seemed to pass me by.  Speaking as a disinterested observer though, I'm as much of a fan of the hack-and-slash genre that I can recognise when it's done well, and Diablo III looks like it's doing a lot right.


All five character classes are now known: the Monk, Wizard, Witch Doctor, Demon Hunter and the Barbarian.  Each will have approximately twenty skills available but you'll only be able to have seven equipped at any one time, so you will need to pick and choose which skills you want to have on hand.  Runes can also be used to augment certain skills, so you could make your Whirlwind cost less mana to cast, or have your Disintegrate spell do more damage, for example.  Lower runes will be findable in the world, higher-level runes will require you to craft them, no doubt from difficult-to-obtain materials.

Blizzard don't exactly seem to be reinventing the wheel here but are instead playing to their strengths.  There seems to be enough sprinkling of new, coupled with what everyone is used to and familiar with from the original games (particularly Diablo II) for D3 to be a success.  The only question is, will Blizzard actually stick to their own schedule of trying to release it in 2011 or will it instead slip to 2012?

Well I hope you enjoyed my wrap-up of what looks good for 2011.  No doubt most of them will announce delays very shortly after I publish this post.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Big Ones Of 2011

By popular demand (ok, one person asked about it) I thought we'd take a look at next year's proposed heavy hitters.  Some of these you might recognize from last year's list (part 1part 2) but hey, blame the developers who need more time to "polish their game" and "remove the bugs" and "invent flying cars".  Ok I might have lied about the bugs, but the other two are definitely true.

Starting us off, and in no particular order, it's...


Developer: BioWare
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Expected: December 2011

The direct sequel to Mass Effect 2, many people's Game of the Year for 2010 (including myself) and the final game in the Mass Effect trilogy, Commander Shepard has to finally finish off those pesky Reapers, the scourge of the galaxy, once and for all.

I've already spoken elsewhere about how good a game I think ME2 was.  I think in ME3 we will mostly be seeing more of the same, together with the likely addition of some kind of multiplayer, as BioWare have been hinting for a while now.  Exactly how this will be implemented remains to be seen as BioWare are not talking details at all just yet, but I think in the New Year we will start to get more information revealed, as was done very well with the class videos that were released for Mass Effect 2.

I would expect to see ME3 be one of the cornerstones of EA's lineup for E3, and rightly so.  ME2 improved on the original ME in almost every single way (with the possible slight criticism that perhaps they dumbed-down the inventory system a little too much, but that's close to just nitpicking for nitpicking's sake).

The synopsis for Mass Effect 3 was briefly posted to the EA Store by mistake, and thanks to the miracle of the Internets we know that it stated the following:

"Earth is burning. Striking from beyond known space, a race of terrifying machines have begun their destruction of the human race. As Commander Shepard, an Alliance Marine, your only hope for saving mankind is to rally the civilizations of the galaxy and launch one final mission to take back the Earth."

The only caveat here is that I think December 2011 is being somewhat ambitious, since that would be only a year and 11 months since the release of Mass Effect 2.  I wouldn't be surprised to see ME3 get pushed back to sometime in early 2012, but who knows.  Either way, I think ME3 is going to be a worthy sequel to the first two games, and will be more of the BioWare RPG goodness that we have come to know and love.



Developer: People Can Fly / Epic Games
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Expected: 22nd February 2011

An over-the-top FPS from Epic Games-owned Polish developer People Can Fly (of Painkiller fame), Bulletstorm looks set to be an M-rated gorefest complete with massive weapons, skillshots and more explosions than a redneck's Saturday night.

The following video narrated by Epic's Cliff Bleszinski will show you why this is a game you should be interested in:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bcIesjXSqAc&hd=1 (embedding messes up the HD, just click the link instead)

PCF and Epic really seem to have just straight up got the idea of a sci-fi action shooter without many other frills, and seem to want you to have as much fun blowing things up as is legally possible, at least in the lower 48.


 
The developers have only just gotten around to talking about Bulletstorm's multiplayer component, and confirmed that while there will be online co-op (a la Borderlands) there will not be team vs. team online play available, at least not in the beginning.  It's possible this might be added in down the line if fans clamour for it, but right now multiplayer seems to be concentrating on co-op team play and nothing else.  Whilst my first impression was that this was a ball dropped by Epic and PCF, I can sort of see where they are coming from.  Borderlands really did a great job at online co-op in a sci-fi setting and Bulletstorm seems to promise more of that, just ramped up to the nth degree.

Expect Bulletstorm to do very well come its release in February, as it seems to push all the right buttons for most gamers.

Star Wars: The Old Republic

Developer: BioWare
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Expected: Q2/3 2011

I've already written extensively about ToR in the past, so won't rehash what I've said there (warning: BioWare changed some of their site around so the linked article may have some missing screenshots, you can click through them to see them though).

Simply put, The Old Republic is BioWare's take on the WoW-killer.  If it can't put a dent in WoW then I'm really not sure anything can.

ToR promises to be the first fully-voiced MMO in existence.  While this will certainly help to maintain the immersion (and let's face it, most people just skip reading the damn quest text in the first place), it does represent an enormous amount of work that has to be done, and is something that every MMO to date has chosen not to do, probably for quite a good reason (i.e. the time and cost).


The idea of a more story-driven rather than action-driven MMO is one that has been doing the rounds for a while (Guild Wars 2 is also talking much the same thing) but ToR seems to be the first MMO to put its money where its mouth is and try it out.  Based on BioWare's experience creating deep story-driven universes for Mass EffectDragon Age and even Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic then if anyone can pull it off it would be them.

Let's hope that the leaks coming from a purported insider at EA stating that ToR will flop turn out to be false, because if it does fail then good luck finding someone else to drop over $300million into trying to push the boundaries of what an MMO is expected to be.  Instead, the WoW clones you see today will double and treble in number until they are the only thing you see in the market next to WoW itself, and nobody wants to see that, right?

Portal 2

Developer: Valve
Publisher: Valve
Expected: 21st April 2011 (NA/AUS), 22nd April 2011 (EU)


A standalone sequel to Portal, the unexpected breakout hit from 2007's The Orange BoxPortal 2 was originally slated for December 2010 before being pushed back to February 2011 and then pushed back again to its present date of April 2011.

You reprise your role as Chell from the first game, an unwitting participant / hostage (the game never reveals which) forced to complete a series of bizarre experiments at the Aperture Science enrichment centre.  While the success of the first game caught Valve (and many others) unawares, this time around they are putting more resources into Portal 2 as well as adding online co-up (likely its only form of multiplayer).


It's known that the second game is set "several hundred years" after the first, so presumably Chell has been preserved in some way at the Aperture Science facility, which is now overgrown and quite dilapidated with neglect.  GLaDOS also survived (somehow) and is made aware of your presence early on in the game.  In addition you have at least some help from a robotic AI known as Wheatley who will help to guide you through the 
abandoned labs of Aperture Science.

You can see an introduction to Wheatley, as well as GLaDOS' reconstruction by hitting this video:


One of the things that makes Valve stand out as a developer is the personality and emotion they put into their games.  From Gordon Freeman to Alyx Vance to GLaDOS to the Heavy in TF2, you almost believe that these are real people.  Wheatley (voiced by British comedian and writer Stephen Merchant) seems set to add to that list, bringing a much-needed human element to an environment so inherently mechanical.

I expect nothing less than for Portal 2 to become one of the smash hits of 2011.


Developer: Sony Online Entertainment
Publisher: Sony Online Entertainment
Expected: March 2011 (maybe?)

I've written previously about how PlanetSide in its prime was the most fun you could have with your clothes on, gaming or not (here and here).  As a franchise though, the game seemed dead in the water until an email survey sent to current and past subscribers of the original PlanetSide started doing the rounds at the tail-end of 2009.  This email stated that Sony wanted to expand the PlanetSide universe but requested feedback from players of the original game as to how to proceed.  Should there still be three factions, should it be pay-to-pay, what setting should a sequel be placed in, etc.  From that point onwards there was nothing...until about two weeks ago.

On the 8th December The Escapist put up an interview with John Smedley (President of Sony Online Entertainment) which essentially confirmed that PlanetSide Next (its working title) was coming, and it was coming soon, possibly as early as March 2011.

This is great news for several reasons.  One, getting this game out so quickly likely means that the core gameplay mechanics (vehicles, factions, weapons, etc.) have been carried over largely unchanged.  This is a good thing, as they were the strength of the original game and not the reason for its failure (Sony's mismanagement was all that was required there).

Two, it will give them a heads-up on Blizzard's rumoured MMOFPS currently known as Titan.  I've already mentioned Titan here, although there is not a great deal of information available regarding it as Blizzard are keeping their cards very close to their chest on this one.

Three, sooner is always better.

In recent days Smedley has posted on his blog that a beta for Next will debut early next year, and that current PlanetSide subscribers would be at the top of the list for spots in that beta.  I would say that actually, current PlanetSide subscribers are probably the worst people that Sony could choose to have test the game for them.  How about throwing out some love for the old subscribers, Sony?  Heck, I was the beta for the original PlanetSide and I've been beating the drum for a long time, telling people how great a game the first was at its height, even before there was any talk of a sequel.  You see that email address at the top-right corner?  Toss me a beta invite (or preferably a few, for me and some friends) and we'll say no more about it.

Look out the second half of my 2011 preview, coming soon to a series of tubes near you.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Well That Was Quick

Less than 24 hours after I make a post about Titan and PlanetSide comes news today from The Escapist that PlanetSide Next may be released as early as March 2011.

I'll be honest, while I predicted a fast turnaround for PN I didn't think that we would be seeing it quite this early.

Apparently John Smedley really meant it when he said "it's coming soon."

Next year's Game Developers Conference takes places 28th February - 4th March 2011 and is the first major gaming event of the year, so this could well be the forum that SOE have chosen to reveal PlanetSide Next at.

Either way, something major is coming in March.

Clash of the Titans (Again!)

You may have read previous posts where I waxed lyrical about PlanetSide and stated that it was truly ahead of its time, and also that Sony are apparently hard at work on a sequel, tentatively codenamed PlanetSide Next.


Something that is also semi-common knowledge, at least in MMO circles, is that Blizzard, creators of the monolith that is World of Warcraft are also working on an as-yet untitled and unannounced MMO which they have already confirmed is based in an entirely new universe and is a completely new IP (so no World of Starcraft I'm afraid, at least for now; given how long it took Blizzard to get Starcraft II out the door you can probably consider this a good thing).

One of the persistent rumours that I have been hearing on and off for over a year now is that Blizzard's new MMO is actually an MMOFPS and is apparently known internally at Blizzard as Titan.  Recently, a supposed "leak" of Blizzard's upcoming games and their timelines did the rounds on the web:


There is no guarantee that this is legitimate or even accurate, but I am going to proceed under the assumption that it is because, frankly, it gives me something to write about, and for other reasons that I will get into down the line.

As you can see from the chart, some interesting highlights are the Zerg-centric Starcraft II expansion pack Heart of the Swarm tentatively slated for Q4 2011 (no idea what "SC2 Phoenix" is) with the same Q4 2011 set for Diablo III; the next World of Warcraft expansion in Q2 2012 and the expansion after that one in Q4 2013.  After that check out the entry right at the bottom: Titan, also scheduled for Q4 2013.  Given that Blizzard have apparently been working on Titan for 2-3 years already, setting that game up for release essentially three years from now would give it a 5-6 year development cycle, broadly similar to World of Warcraft when it first launched in 2004.

I find this interesting for several reasons.  Firstly, the name Titan.  I thought the name rang a bell, and after some searching found out why.  Ensemble Studios, a now-defunct developer famous for the Age of Empires series, was also working on an MMO before being closed by its parent company, Microsoft.  The codename of that MMO project?  Also Titan.  It was going to be an MMOFPS set in the Halo universe and was apparently worked on quite extensively by Ensemble before Microsoft pulled the plug on both the game and the studio.

Like House, I do not believe in coincidences.  What I do believe in are higher-order designs masquerading as coincidences that we simply do not understand right now because we do not have all the pieces assembled in front of us.  Completing one piece of this particular puzzle, an employee of Ensemble, Greg Street, now works for Blizzard (you may know him better as Ghostcrawler, if you have ever plumbed the depths that comprise the official WoW forums) and was rumoured to have been working on Ensemble's Titan before that project ended.  Coincidence?  Like I said, they don't exist.


Secondly, if true this would put Blizzard and Sony on opposing sides in a large-scale battle for supremacy over another portion of the MMO market, again.  Earlier this decade it was World of Warcraft versus EverQuest II, a fight that WoW decisively won.  Now, history could be repeating itself by setting up the next clash between Sony and Blizzard, this time between PlanetSide Next and Titan.  Sony must be shitting themselves.  One minute they have the corner on the MMOFPS market with a new PlanetSide to reinvigorate the series and get people back into thinking of large-scale epic combat, then they hear that those upstarts over at Blizzard are now making their own MMOFPS, and on a similar timeline to PlanetSide Next as well.


Ironically, this could turn out to be a blessing for you and I, the humble gamer.  We can basically sit on the sidelines, try both, and reward the better game with our time and (most importantly) money.  Of course there is always the possibility that both are great games and are successful in their own right, but history teaches us that this is usually the exception, not the rule.  But hey, Coca-Cola and Pepsi are still going so they must both be doing something right, yes?

So there it is.  With no official information about either PlanetSide Next or Titan it's hard to go into it much further.  There has essentially been nothing new regarding PlanetSide Next for a couple of years now, to the point where I recently sent the President of Sony Online Entertainment, John Smedley, an impassioned email asking about the status of the game.  Expecting no response (as I'm sure he is a busy guy) I actually got a three-word reply no more than an hour later, simply "It's coming soon."  When I asked for clarification about whether that meant the game or just information about the game, this time I got two words back: "the game."  So whilst I didn't exactly get a scoop resembling the Pentagon Papers, it would seem to confirm that the game is still under active development.  Beyond that, your guess is as good as mine.  I hope to hear something about it at E3 2011, but who knows.

As for Titan, maybe an announcement at next year's BlizzCon?  Blizzard tend not to attend E3, at least not the main show, so BlizzCon would likely be their vehicle of choice to stage a game reveal at.  For now, we just have to wait.

As Zilean would say, "all in good time."

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

You Know What Really Grinds My Gears




I'm glad that on occasion I get visitors from big-name developers and publishers to my humble blog, but it would be nice to get some feedback from your end, even if it's just one of you saying "hey, your blog sucks worse than Alpha Protocol's sales figures."

Yeah, I'm talking to you, people from Sony Online Entertainment, EA, DICE, Valve, id, Ubisoft and Gearbox; I know you've all been here at one point or another because I stalk you via my visitor logs.

Actually if you turn around right now you will see me, I'm that shadow in the corner.

No, not that corner, the other corner.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Foggy Future

Last week a report came to light regarding Valve's digital distribution service, Steam, and how evil it was for some publishers to bundle Steamworks in their games (to manage the backend patching and matchmaking services), thereby giving Steam a foothold into consumers' desktops and encouraging them to buy games through Steam in the future.


Boo fucking hoo and go cry me a river, would be my measured and tempered response to this.

Let's examine how the PC has been treated as a gaming platform over say, the past five years, shall we?

The shelf space reserved for PC games at such retail establishments as GameStop, Wal-Mart and EBgames has gone from its already small size to near-microscopic (seriously, the next time you go into a good-sized GameStop check out where the PC section is, more likely than not it will be a single rack at the back of the store).

Microsoft's Games For Windows Live has been nothing other than a spectacular failure.  Launched in 2007 with the debut title Shadowrun (remember that?), GFWL is a clunky and user-unfriendly piece of software that was Microsoft's attempt at trying to convert X-Box Live to the PC market.  Microsoft, soon realising where they considered that their bread was really buttered, scaled back their support of GFWL, choosing instead to concentrate their resources on XBL.

Additionally, GFWL has come under criticism from some developers for making it too difficult to get patches out of the door (all updates have to pass Microsoft's "certification" first); the fact that GFWL's "offline" mode acts as essentially a completely different game account, so your saved games would become inaccessible if GFWL goes down anytime (and it does, frequently); and the icing on the cake is that full games only became purchasable through GFWL in December of 2009.  Previous to that you would need to head down to a bricks-and-mortar store to buy a game that uses Microsoft's digital distribution service.

Talk about counter-intuitive.


On the flip side, Valve's Steam (originally launched in 2003) has been steadily iterating, listening to its community and rolling out new features year in, year out.  While I remember back in the day Steam had its own fair share of outages, technical glitches, as well as a relatively small range of titles to purchase from their store (publishers were hesitant to let consumers be able to download games since this would piss retail stores off, and retail stores to date had been their breadwinner), today almost every major PC release is available on Steam on day 1.  Outages, other than planned maintenance which is always pre-announced, are essentially a thing of the past.

Let's be clear though, nobody helped Valve in 2003/4/5 when they were building the service from scratch.  They sank what must have been a monumental amount of money into something that could conceivably have fallen right on its arse.  I don't remember GameStop or Wal-Mart subsidising this cost though out of the goodness of their heart.  No, it was 100% of Valve's money going into building this service, and now that it's become a spectacular success they should be free to reap the rewards of what they have built, which is nothing less than the best PC (and perhaps simply the best, regardless of platform) digital distribution platform.


Valve give away Steamworks (for free!) to any developer who wishes to use it, freeing them of the burden of having to find some way to get patches and updates to their end-users.  There is no "Valve certification", the publisher has complete autonomy to do what they want over Valve's service.  In exchange, yes, Valve get to have Steam installed on that user's computer, potentially giving them a paying customer if that person chooses to buy games over Steam, but it's hardly a certainty.  It's like Coca-Cola being allowed to remove one page from your newspaper, and when you call up to find out what was on that missing page you are told "Oh, that was an ad for Pepsi that they didn't want you to see", if publishers actually caved in to these "demands" from high-street retailers.

It's said that Steam holds a near-monopoly on PC digital sales.  First off I'm not even convinced of that since there are several other digital platforms that are apparently doing quite well despite Steam.  These include: Stardock's Impulse, GoodOldGames (who have carved out their own niche of selling older but well-loved games to a new generation) and IGN's Direct2Drive.  Secondly, Steam is the leading digital distribution solution because they are ones doing it right.


Case in point, a couple of years ago I looked into buying Mass Effect when it (eventually) came out on the PC.  Before the days of EA putting their games on Steam, they had their own EA Store to download full titles from.  I went and looked around and was ready to buy it, before I noticed (in the small print, of course) that if I bought it from the EA Store then I only had a certain amount of time in which I could download it again (I think it was a year) and after that time my ability to re-download it would vanish into the ether like Obama's hopes of a second term.  Needless to say I did not give the EA Store any money, and I waited until it appeared on Steam about six months later to make my purchase, since on Steam I can download and play my games as many times as I like, without restriction.

Steam also do several ridiculous sales promotions every year, often selling games at 50/60/75% off of their normal price for a limited time.  And we're not talking old, shitty games either.  I mean triple-A top-rated games that have in some cases only been out for a matter of weeks.  How terrible for the consumer, to have all these choices and great sales and different places to buy from, right?


I have zero sympathy for bricks-and-mortar stores crying a river over Steam being included in some of the games that they sell.  None of them lifted a finger earlier in the decade to reverse the decline of the PC and PC gaming sales.  I would not go so far as to say that Valve single-handedly "saved" PC gaming, but they did a hell of a lot more than everyone else did, and certainly put Microsoft's efforts to shame.  Put it another way, I would not like to see what would have happened should Steam have been a failure.  I think the PC as a serious gaming platform would be in a much more esoteric place, and that is not good for anyone.

The PC remains the one place where you can play a good RTS, for example.  There have been attempts to make a decent RTS game for consoles (the most recent that springs to mind is Halo Wars), but nobody who is serious about their RTS gaming will ever do it on anything other than a PC.  The same probably goes for MMOs.  My point is that the games industry needs the PC to be a viable and effective gaming platform, and Steam has helped to achieve that.

Games For Windows Live?  Maybe it should just die the quiet death that it has been promising for some time now, and let the people who know what they are doing manage the future of PC gaming.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Rift - Should You Care About It?

Next on our MMO hitlist is the interesting Rift: Planes of Telara (formerly Heroes of Telara, renamed about a year ago).

This is not going to be a game that many of you have heard of, and it's an MMO that's flying a little under the radar (similar to Black Prophecy) since it comes from a developer that doesn't really have a track record when it comes to games like this (Realtime Worlds anyone?) but the game itself has some very original ideas.

"I'm charging my laser"

Who's making it?

The developer is Trion Worlds, a studio based in Redwood City, California, but with additional offices in Texas and San Diego.  Rift is not their only project, as they are also working on publishing End of Nations, an upcoming MMORTS being developed by Petroglyph, as well as developing an as yet untitled action MMO for the SyFy cable television channel, which will apparently launch simultaneously with a science-fiction show.

While the studio itself may not have launched anything itself yet, they apparently have hired experienced developers that have over 100 titles shipped, so they are not lacking in industry expertise.

Insert Cthulhu reference here

What's special about it?

At first glance it looks like your standard high fantasy-themed magic MMO, replete with extremely pretty visuals, a guild system, crafting, questing, etc.  If you dig a little deeper though, there are some things that make the game stand out from the pack.


Firstly there is the class system, or as Trion refer to it, the "ascended", since you are meant to play the resurrected soul of a mighty warrior.

There are four basic classes (or "callings", as they are referred to) which will be instantly familiar to anyone who has ever played a fantasy MMO or even any standard RPG. These classes further subdivide into sub-classes, presumably at a designated part of the game (Aion does this once you reach level 10, for example).

They are:

Warrior




A class that likes to hit things with large weapons, the warrior branches out into a Champion (two-handed weapon specialists who excel in close-quarters melee combat), Reaver (defensive tanks who work best at disabling and weakening opponents through dark magics), Paladin (a defensive warrior who can protect nearby teammates through holy magics but are weak against enemy spellcasters) and a Warlord (a buffing class that concentrates on augmenting and enhancing allied abilities, but are relatively weak one-on-one).

Cleric




Your standard healer class, they branch out into a Purifier (a healer that heals and cleanses with fire, they are relatively weak offensively), Inquisitor (casters who combine both offensive and defensive magic, but are less effective healers than a Purifier), Sentinel (defensive-minded casters who have less direct heals but concentrate on group aid) and a Justicar (a melee healer who is dependent on his fighting abilities to power his spells, this class sounds very reminiscent of a Warrior-Priest / Disciple of Khaine from Warhammer Online).

Mage




An offensive spellcasting archetype, they further branch out into an Elementalist (a caster that has the ability to bind the raw elements to their will, they can create minions out of the very earth (and other elements)), Warlock (dark casters who power their spells via the forbidden teachings of death, their damage can be slow to take effect), Pyromancer (as the name would suggest, Pyromancers are the masters of fire, harnessing its force to channel destructive power at their enemies) and Stormcaller (the master of air and water, Stormcallers can control the weather in order to fuel their offensive capability).

Rogue




No class system would be complete without your sneak-in-the-shadows Rogue.  Their sub-classes are a Nightblade (short-range melee combat specialists, Nightblades can also call upon death and fire magic to assault their enemies), Ranger (a ranged damage dealer who excels with the bow, they can also use animal pets to harass and deal damage to foes), Assassin (you knew it was coming and here they are, Assassins strike from the shadows with deadly force, but can be relatively weak if they lose the element of surprise) and Blade Dancer (experts with short-range edged weapons, Blade Dancers also have a small range of defensive abilities to use to counter their opponents).


So all told there are 16 classes (at present at least, the website seems to indicate that there are more forthcoming) to choose from.  However, you can mix and match abilities from each class according to your needs, so for example you could maybe take some of the lifesteal abilities of a Reaver along with the healing of a Purifier and some fire spells of a Pyromancer.  Obviously the super-duper high-end abilities of a particular class will require a heavy investment into the respective talent tree otherwise everyone could run around with near-godlike powers one-shotting anything that moves, but it still seems to allow for a high degree of flexibility in your character customisation that you do not often see these days.

For example, my class which I will name the Gaff class (and I will sue the bejesus out of anyone who tries to copy my handiwork), might be able to use stonking big two-handed weapons, could lifesteal, self-heal a little and be able to run into the shadows when the shit hit the fan.  Sounds like a cool combination, right?  It's hard to judge without having actually played it, but on paper it could well be something that helps Rift stand out from the crowd, since the MMO market is looking towards several major releases over the next 12 months and there is always the elephant in the room that you have to deal with which is about to release its latest expansion.

Such a class system could well be a double-edged sword.  Trion will have to balance between making it a unique and varied system that gives players the ability to pick and choose skills useful to them, but not allow them to become so powerful that only a small handful of combinations are viable and become the de facto standard because they are so insanely strong.


Anything else?

Aside from your usual high fantasy fare, there will also be the titular rifts popping up in the game world which have to be dealt with.  Without going over the back story in detail, in the past there was a war which fractured the world, and now the elemental planes can sometimes break through into the world of Telara.  These planes are the Planes of Life, Death, Fire, Water, Earth and Air, and each manifest in a different way and have different enemies that must be defeated.

If, for example, a Plane of Fire spawns in an area and is not beaten back by players, in a few hours it may have grown larger and even threaten the safety of nearby towns and villages.  Presumably there is some kind of limit to how influential a rift can grow, or it might potentially threaten the entire world if for whatever reason players chose not to go in there to hand the rift its ass.  Either way, it's an interesting mechanic that really has not been done anywhere else, at least I can't think of any game off the top of my head that has tried to do dynamic content quite like this.

"I am not left handed"

There will be inevitable comparisons made with World of Warcraft simply because of how that game has near-singularly re-invented the fantasy-themed MMORPG genre, but Rift looks like it has some impressive new ideas of its own and is not content to simply be a run-of-the-mill WoW knockoff.

How much could I save on my car insurance?

As you can see from the tasteful screenshots I have interspersed throughout this post, Rift is a very pretty game.  I know we're in the days where everyone expects hyper-realistic photograph-quality graphics, but even judging from that frame of reference some of these screens are right up there on the visual scale.

You can also check out some videos on the site which again serve to highlight really how exceptional this game looks.

Rift: Planes of Telara is definitely one to watch, I think.

Trion Worlds have stated that they expect a release date of sometime in 2011.

Edit:

I apparently made a boo-boo when writing about the class system, in that you can only choose additional abilities from souls within your own calling.  So you can't mix and match abilities from a Warrior's calling and a Mage's calling, but can mix and match between an Assassin and a Ranger, for example, because they are both part of the Rogue calling.

My bad!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Guild Wars 2 - The Elusive MMO for Casual and Hardcore Players?

Up next on my list of "big" MMOs to investigate is Guild Wars 2.

The follow-up to the highly successful (and at the time, groundbreaking) subscription-free Guild Wars (and its add-on packs Factions, Nightfall and true expansion Eye of the North), Guild Wars 2 has been in development by ArenaNet for, seemingly decades, but in reality since early 2007.


The original Guild Wars was a critical and commercial success, but was far from the perfect game.  In particular, criticisms were aimed at the fact that the world is so highly instanced that you sometimes forget that it is an MMO at all.  In essence, it was lacking the "massively."  Also, each of the 10 classes (or "professions" as they are known in the GW universe) had literally dozens of skills available, each needing to be bought or otherwise obtained from various high-level monsters in the game.

ArenaNet seem to have taken these and other criticisms on board, and have stated that, although GW2 will still use instancing, it will be at a more toned-down level to the first game.  Hopefully the accumulation of class skills will likewise be addressed, as it is something that got slightly out of hand in the first game.


In another departure from the first game, players will be able to create non-human characters.  While there were other races included in the first game, none of them were playable, so everyone was a human.  Playing a human is still an option, only now it isn't just the only option.

The other playable races are:







Each race will come with its own racial bonus to characters that choose that race (think WoW racial bonuses) but will hopefully not be as overpowered to make everyone who wants to play class X pick race Y.

Speaking of classes (sorry, professions) Guild Wars 2 will sport eight of them, down from the 10 of the original (when adding up all of the extra professions from the expansions) which I suspect will make balancing and testing a fair bit easier.

So far only four of the eight have been announced and they are four that should be familiar to anyone that played the first game.  They are the Necromancer, Warrior, Elementalist and Ranger.  No love so far for my favourite class from the first game, the Mesmer, but I still have hope of seeing them in the sequel in one form or another.


If you've seen anything that interests you then I'd strongly urge you to take a look at a couple of the videos that ArenaNet has released regarding Guild Wars 2.  First off there is the introduction to the new races of Guild Wars 2 (216MB, 1080p, WMV format) and the more recent "manifesto" video where some of the core concepts that ArenaNet wished to build GW2 around were detailed (319MB, 1080p, WMV format).

Graphically the game looks impressive, even though it's still running on the same core engine that the original Guild Wars was built on and that is a game that was released five years ago.  Obviously ArenaNet are heavily modifying the engine for the sequel with added bells and whistles.  This is far from a bad thing, as I was extremely impressed by the visuals in the original game.



So when are we likely to get our sweaty hands on Guild Wars 2?  ArenaNet and their publisher, NCsoft, are being coy, but a mid-to-late 2011 release date seems likely.  There is the outside chance of the closed beta beginning before the end of this calendar year, although that is pure speculation.


Either way Guild Wars 2 cannot come out soon enough.  The first game may have done well but it was lacking in certain areas, almost all of which seem to have been addressed in the sequel.  ArenaNet's promise to "put the player first" has been repeated by so many developers that I'm sure many publications keep it set in type so they can easily roll it out again when the next developer brings it up, but perhaps in this case they actually mean it.  I'd be all for an MMO in a persistent world where the decisions I made actually mattered both to me and to my character's story.

With luck we'll all get to see whether or not ArenaNet can actually live up to their promises in the not-too-distant future.  Hopefully we won't all be flying space cars and eating meals in pill form by then.