Monday, December 31, 2012

Upcoming Games Of 2013 - Part 1

It's time for my annual round-up of the best-looking PC games that (in theory) should be gracing store shelves in 2013.

First out of the gate...

Developer: Irrational Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Expected: 26th March 2013

The third game in the BioShock series, BioShock Infinite is one of the most anticipated titles scheduled to be released in 2013.  Originally slated to be released in October 2012, Irrational initially pushed the game back to February 2013 before announcing a further short delay to March 2013 just a few weeks ago.

Whilst BioShock 2 was a direct sequel to the original BioShock, Irrational were not extensively involved in BioShock 2's development, so this will be their first release since the original game.  It is not a direct sequel (or actually prequel, since it is set in an earlier time period), but Infinite's lead designer Ken Levine has said that he considers "BioShock" to be more of a method of giving the playing multiple tools to solve objectives in a fantastic setting, rather than being tied to a specific storyline or set of individuals.

You play as Booker DeWitt, a disgraced former federal agent turned private detective, who is hired to locate a woman known as Elizabeth said to be captive aboard a floating city known as Columbia.  This technological marvel was originally built by the United States government to be a showcase of its artistic and scientific excellence, but which over time turned into something quite different, before being lost entirely.  Your employers give you the location of Columbia and the means to get aboard, but stress that the rest is down to you.

Since the game is set in 1912 then expect a fantasy steampunk setting, coupled with an assortment of weapons and unlockable "magical" abilities.  In the original BioShock these were known as "plasmids", but in Infinite are called "vigors".  All I know is that if Infinite is half as good as the original BioShock then it will be a game I would be willing to break my (right) arm off to play.

Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Expected: 12th March 2013

The second installment of StarCraft II (following 2010's Wings of Liberty), Heart of the Swarm will concentrate on the zerg race, but will include smaller changes for both the Terrans and Protoss.

The plot is said to concentrate around Sarah Kerrigan and her issues in attempting to lead the zerg following the events of Wings of Liberty.  With Wings of Liberty being almost universally acclaimed (it has a current rating of 93 on Metacritic, one of the highest-rated PC games of all time) then the pressure is on Blizzard to retain their traditionally high production values whilst bringing worthwhile changes and modifications to the game.  Following the mixed reception to Diablo III earlier this year, Blizzard may feel they have more to prove than usual.

Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Publisher: THQ
Expected: 5th March 2013

Based on the Comedy Central TV show, everyone's favourite fourth-graders are getting their own triple-A RPG, based on the South Park episode "The Return of the Fellowship of the Ring to the Two Towers" (which you can watch online here at the official South Park Studios site).  There have been several other South Park games in previous years, of unfortunately quite variable quality, and this will be the first made by a major studio.  Obsidian are on shaky ground with me for the very average Alpha Protocol from 2010, so hopefully this will be (much) better than that.

THQ have been having some financial issues recently, which led to them filing for chapter 11 bankruptcy earlier this month.  This isn't expected to affect their day-to-day operations, but you never can tell for sure until the ink is dry on deals like this.  The game itself looks to have captured the 2D art style of the show, and some of the brief periods of gameplay that I've seen has looked very interesting and reminiscent of a normal episode.  Hopefully the financial issues do not affect its release to any great extent, and the game comes out as scheduled.

Developer: Bethesda Softworks
Publisher: ZeniMax Online Studios
Expected: 2H 2013

Based on the Elder Scrolls games that first saw the light of day almost twenty years ago, TESO is Bethesda's first foray into the MMO genre in an attempt to bring several single-player games into an MMO universe in a similar way that Blizzard brought World of Warcraft into being on the back of several Warcraft games.

TESO is set a thousand years before The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the most recent release and, coincidentally, one of the highest-rated games of the entire series.  Not a great deal is known about the game right now, other than it will have three factions (which for me is an underused mechanic that I am very much in favour of), each containing three races: Daggerfall Covenant (Breton humans, Redguard humans, and Orcs); Ebonheart Pact (Nord humans, Dark Elves, and Argonians [reptilian humanoids]); and the Aldmeri Dominion (High Elves, Wood Elves, and the Khajiit [feline humanoids]).  There will be player classes, but none have yet been revealed.

The game's director, Matt Firor, was previously heavily involved in Dark Age of Camelot, a highly-regarded MMO released by Mythic in 2001, so I am hopeful that his pedigree will elevate TESO into more than just a cheap tie-in to Morrowind, Oblivion and Skyrim.  Beta sign-ups are expected to go up shortly and "2013" is all Bethesda will say when pressed for a release date.

That's all for now; be sure to check out part two in a few days time.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Honey, I'm Home

Well the game's been out for a month or so now, so I figured it was time to give this highly anticipated (by me) game the once-over.  Could SOE pull something like this off?  Does it accurately capture the spirit of the original?  Why am I asking you all these questions?  Read on, gentle gamer, and all will become clear...

I'm sure I don't need to rehash the original PlanetSide here for most people, but the short version is that it was a sci-fi themed MMOFPS released by SOE in 2003.  For various reasons it wasn't a breakout hit, although is well regarded by the few people that actually played it.  Fast forward to today, with server technology in a much better place, most serious PC gamers having powerful rigs and Internet connections, and the free-to-play elephant looming significantly over the room, and all of the relevant factors seemed ripe for SOE to try this thing a second time.

PlanetSide 2 is amazing.  There we go, I feel better now that I've said it.  Don't get me wrong, it still has its issues (see below), but for the most part it is a breathtaking game that puts something out there you simply cannot get anywhere else.  PlanetSide 2 is essentially the only game where you can duke it out with hundreds of other players in an FPS environment, in realtime, without instancing.  None of Global Agenda's simultaneous instancing nonsense, or MAG's 256 vs. 256; no, this is the grown-up version of those two games, refined, distilled and available to play - for the low, low price of $0 down and $0 a month - without needing to pass "Go" or collect $200.

Graphically, PlanetSide 2 is perhaps the best game I have seen to date.  This visual fidelity comes courtesy of SOE's brand new ForgeLight engine, developed entirely in-house for their next-generation games (of which PS2 is the first), which is responsible for jaw-dropping vistas: blinding sunsets, wintery tundras and arid jungles.  I still find it difficult to believe that SOE were able to develop something this good, and that it's entirely a DirectX9 engine.  Unfortunately you do need a powerful system to be able to run the game on its highest settings (AMD processors seem to have particular issues, judging from the forums) and so a good i5 / i7 and graphics card is highly recommended.  The engine does scale back for older machines though, and SOE have stated that anything up to around five years old should be able to run it on reduced settings.

PlanetSide 2's scale cannot be understated.  Up to 2,000 players can be on one continent simultaneously, meaning it is entirely possible to have hundreds versus hundreds in the game's largest encounters.  Watching tracers fly through the sky at night, with tanks, infantry and aircraft on all sides is amazing to watch, and never gets old.

There are six classes in the game (Light Assault, Heavy Assault, Engineer, Medic, MAX and Infiltrator) and you can switch to them on the fly at any equipment terminal or when you respawn.  There are multiple paths out there for almost any kind of FPS gamer.  If you prefer ground assault then Light Assault (jetpacks!) or Heavy Assault is for you; if support-style play is more your thing then there is the Combat Medic (heals / res) and Engineer (vehicle repair, mines); the Infiltrator can cloak to help line up the perfect headshot for their sniper rifle (as well as hacking enemy equipment and vehicle terminals); and finally MAXes (standing for Mobile Armoured eXoskeleton) are basically walking tanks, and can specialise in anti-infantry, anti-vehicular or anti-aircraft weaponry that is strapped to their arms.  Whether you want to be on the ground, in the air, manning the front lines or supporting from the back, there is a role for you in PlanetSide 2.  The game is entirely what you make of it.

That's the good, what about the bad?

Well, it can sometimes be hard to find a fight.  Hotspots show up on the map, which are meant to be areas of active engagements, but more often than not you will go to one of these and find it's a couple of guys deathmatching each other, or worse, everyone has moved on from a recent fight and there's no one around at all.  It makes no sense that you can see enemy activity on the map but not friendly activity, and more than once I have cried out, wanting my "Reveal Friendlies" option that was available back in PS1 to be in PS2 as well.

In addition, the metagame is somewhat nebulous right now.  By "locking" a continent (owning all the bases on it, excluding the enemy warpgates) you gain a 10% reduction to either your mechanized, aircraft, or infantry costs, but beyond that there is no real reason to continue fighting on a continent once you have locked it, or, indeed, to defend it.  Many fights seem to be an exercise in zerging, where you load the continent with your faction, capture it quickly and then move on to fresh pastures, like a group of particularly hungry piranha.  The endgame clearly needs work, and SOE have identified this as one of their core issues to be addressed in early updates to the game.

Speaking of which, John Smedley (President of SOE) has said that the devs intend to release the initial draft of their plan for PS2's future in January, and that they will consider modifications and changes to it based on community feedback.  Ordinarily I would usually just consider this developer waffle, but since I was in the beta for months and saw first hand how they changed significant portions of the game due to tester feedback then I am more confident that changes will be made if enough of the community asks for them.  I would certainly expect to hear news of future continents in January's update (Searhus, the volcanic continent from PS1, is slated to be the next released in PS2) as well as talk of further vehicle and player customisations and perhaps even details of new vehicles (combat buggies are said to be coming in down the line).

The best experience in PS2 comes from playing alongside other people.  Trying to "lone wolf" it is theoretically possible, especially as an Infiltrator (who can cloak for short periods), but playing with friends is really the best way to get the most out of the game.  Finding a good outfit (PS2's version of guilds) opens up the game to a much greater extent, and seeing several outfit tanks / aircraft / ground transports all rolling together is a sight to behold.

The real question is: should you play it?  And the answer to this is overwhelmingly: yes.  The game's free-to-play nature removes the main barrier to entry, and so there is no reason not to download it and try it out for yourself.  It's not a perfect game, but it comes pretty damn close in my book.  With the right post-release support (read: not how they dealt with the original PlanetSide) this could be a game that runs for years and years.

After almost a decade, the king of the MMOFPS has rightly assumed his throne once again.  What do you have, Blizzard?

Monday, November 19, 2012

And The Sky Full Of Stars

Well the crowdsourcing period for Chris Roberts' space sim Star Citizen ended today, and it broke records as the highest-funded game to date, raising a combined total of $6,238,563, beating out the previous record of almost $4m raised by Obsidian for Project Eternity.

As I said before, this is the first crowdsourced game that I have personally contributed to, and I had no problem doing so.  All of the stretch goals were achieved, and the Star Citizen (persistent online multiplayer) universe will launch with 100 star systems.

I guess the big publishers were right, there really is no demand for a top-end space sim anymore...

Sunday, November 11, 2012

"Screw You Guys, I'm Going Home"

Another of the myriad of games attempting to raise capital on Kickstarter (and other sites of the same ilk) got me thinking about this today, which was basically how the rise of crowdsourced games is changing the traditional developer / publisher model which is so prevalent in the gaming industry.  It's taking aim particularly at the big hitters: Activision, Electronic Arts, Ubisoft et al.

For some time now the big publishers have been steadily moving away from games without a number in their title, or "higher risk" games which may not have an instant demographic available to sell to or be able to be pigeonholed as effectively as a publisher would like.  What they want is to find a popular franchise and then release new games in that franchise every 12 - 24 months ad nauseam, letting the market become flooded with so many games in that genre that it eventually becomes oversaturated, people stop buying them and the publisher then has to find a new franchise to move on to.  You have probably already thought of at least three whilst you were reading this sentence, but here's a fun list in no particular order: Halo, Call of Duty, Modern Warfare, Assassin's Creed, Final Fantasy and Resident Evil.  Some of these are earlier in the process (still making solid titles in the series), some are later (oh my god if I see another X game I will smother a small lemur to death and put it on Youtube), but they all seem to follow the same basic pattern.

Stage left, enter sites such as Kickstarter, which allow game developers to raise capital to develop a game by bypassing the traditional model and not having to dilute their aims or be beholden to someone else's timetable as a result.  The big one that started this off was Tim Schaffer's attempt to create a traditional PC point-and-click adventure game, in the spirit of Monkey Island which he worked on previously, way back when.  Point-and-click PC games, while all the rage around fifteen years ago (the aforementioned Monkey Island, plus Discworld, Loom, Full Throttle, Syberia, Dreamfall, etc.) have fallen out of favour with PC publishers, and the chances of a developer obtaining funding for one in this day and age seemed remote.  Following the modest success of Psychonauts (a tremendous game, pick it up if you haven't already; $10 on Steam and worth every penny) Schaffer looked into creating an oldskool PC adventure game without the hassles of needing to kowtow to a publisher.  His company, Double Fine, dipped a toe in the water and put up a proposal on Kickstarter to attempt to raise $400,000 to fund the game.  By the end of the fundraising period Schaffer had instead raised over eight times that amount, coming in at just over $3.3m.  Suddenly the big publishers had reason to worry; if this became mainstream then their whole raison d'ĂȘtre would be called into question.  Surely though this was a one-off by someone whose personality had attracted most of those crowdfunded donations in the first place?  In a word: no.

Several other developers, some big, some small, have decided to get in on the Kickstarter action.  Obsidian sought $1.1m and actually raised almost $4m for Project Eternity, a new isometric RPG; Uber Entertainment sought $900,000 and raised over $2.2m for their proposed RTS Planetary Annihilation; the list goes on and on and on and on (a new Broken Sword game; two Shadowrun games; a new game in the Wasteland series).  It's such a diverse mix of either sequels or reboots of original games, as well as brand new original titles, that it would be enough to bring a tear to my eye if I weren't such a cynical bastard.

This brings me to the Kickstarter that I became aware of just a few days ago, by legendary (and British!) game developer Chris Roberts.  If you're over 30 then there's a good chance you have at least heard of, if not played, some of his previous games, such as Wing Commander, Privateer, and my particular favourite, Freelancer.  His disillusion with the traditional developer / publisher model over what happened with Freelancer in the early 2000s (our old friend Microsoft being the publisher in question that time around) led to a self-imposed ten year exile from the gaming industry which he has now ended with a bang, and is choosing to crowdsource his next game, entitled Star Citizen, through his new company Cloud Imperium Games.

To say I am excited about this is an understatement, since I was a massive fan of the original Freelancer and left thinking what could have been had Microsoft given it more support and a sequel as it richly deserved.  Instead the game was left to languish and die when it could have been so much more, and Chris Roberts departed the industry for a decade as a result.

Star Citizen looks set to be the best of both worlds: a Wing Commander-style single-player militaristic campaign (dubbed Squadron 42), coupled with a persistent universe multiplayer where you can do whatever you want.  Trading?  Check.  Mercenary?  Check.  Explorer?  Check.  This is the part that gets me happy in the way that only the thought of Megan Fox could previously.

Chris Roberts has his own site for the proposed game where you can donate directly, or they also have a Kickstarter page set up which is essentially the same information in a different place.  I have embedded below the eleven minute video of Chris Roberts discussing the proposed game, which already contains a generous amount of concept art and real rendering which he had mocked up for this presentation.

To which my only reaction could be:

As of the time of writing he has exceeded his initial goals and is well into the "stretch" (optional) goals.  He sought $2m and so far has raised a combined total (his own site + Kickstarter) of almost $3.3m with seven days remaining in the funding cycle.  At this rate it looks a good bet that he will end up breaking $4m and possibly more.

My own enthusiasm for this project aside, crowdsourcing is becoming an important part of the gaming landscape, only nine months after it was first used.  Tim Schaffer blazed that trail and showed that there was pent-up demand out there that was not being satisfied by the established model, and since then it's been game after game after game hitting the crowdsource highway.  Whilst this is not going to make the traditional game publishing paradigm obsolete overnight, it should give the big players significant pause for thought at how easily they can be marginalised by a sufficient amount of money.  This is something that I think we are going to see more and more of as time goes on.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

A Wild Mesmer Appears

So Guild Wars 2 is out now, and I've been asked a few times what I think of it and whether I think people should buy it.  My answer, in two words: hell yes; in three words: very hell yes.

The original Guild Wars, later retooled as Guild Wars Prophecies in order to differentiate it from later expansion packs, was released in 2005 and had some novel ideas for its time.  Chief amongst them was trying to offer an MMO experience without an MMO monthly fee, which at the time was unheard of.  Also a novel idea was the concept of having one single server that would simply load-balance between different districts (so you wouldn't choose a server at character creation, but the game would instead open new instances of zones as needed, and you might end up in #57 when you first logged in, for example).  Many people predicted that, despite ArenaNet's pedigree (all three of its founders held senior positions at Blizzard before leaving to found their own company), Guild Wars would simply buckle under the weight of WoW; that the industry could not support an MMO without a monthly subscription fee.

These people were wrong.

Whilst not my complete cup of tea, due to its heavy reliance on instancing and less of a feeling of an open world, Guild Wars did introduce me to the Mesmer class, one that remains perhaps my favourite class in any MMO ever made, to this day.  Two more add-on packs (that did not require the original game to play) followed: Guild Wars Factions and then Guild Wars Nightfall, both released in 2006, and then a true expansion, Guild Wars: Eye of the North in 2007.  With all sales combined, Guild Wars is the tenth best-selling PC game of all time.  This is no mean feat, considering that many expected the initial game to fail.

ArenaNet was operating on six-month release schedules at that time; committed to releasing new campaigns twice a year that introduced new classes and areas.  What was going to be the fourth campaign, Guild Wars Utopia, quickly turned into something more.  The designers realised that six month schedules did not give them enough time to do what they wanted, which was to tell a better story, in a longer format, with less instancing.  Utopia became a full sequel, and Guild Wars 2 was officially announced in 2007.

Fast forward to today, and while Guild Wars 2 may not be the perfect game, it does so many things right that previous games have been content to do wrong, it essentially rewrites the book on how to make an MMORPG.

At its core, Guild Wars 2 is all about co-operation.  You are rewarded for doing almost anything with other people, whether that is ressing a down or dead player (all classes can res), helping someone else kill a mob (you both get loot and experience), helping with public events (more on these shortly), even helping someone else in their personal story missions; all of these rewards all participants, at higher levels than it would be if they were to do it solo.  All players can harvest all resource nodes (mining, logging, etc.); there is no more racing to try and beat someone else to a rare node since everyone gets to use it.

Guild Wars 2 is still an MMO, first and foremost, but many of the more "grindy" aspects from traditional MMOs have been buried under a veneer that masks their harsher aspects.  For example, every zone has 15 - 20 waypoints that can be travelled to instantly for a nominal fee (once you have discovered them), so travel time is less of an issue.  Quests are not dispensed in the traditional "!" manner, but instead you are directed to various NPCs around the zone who could use your help with various tasks.  Perhaps a farmer needs help eliminating bandits around his farm, as well as cultivating and watering his crop and finding lost equipment.  Completing any of these tasks around the designated area will progress your renown meter for that NPC, and usually it takes 5 - 10 mins or so to fully complete that area for the NPC.  Doing so rewards you with currency and karma points, which is a non-money currency that can be used to buy various items from NPCs (renown NPCs turn into vendors once you have fully completed their renown bar) and also high-level weapons in various zones and cities.  It's a good system that tricks you into doing quests without realising that is what you are doing, and since each has several different things you can do then they rarely get stale.

Crafting is something else I wanted to mention.  Guild Wars 2 has quite a different crafting system than any other MMO I have played.  There are the standard professions, Jewelcrafting, Tailoring, Armoursmith, etc., and while you learn some recipes from the trainer, you gain the most experience (both in tailoring and full game experience for your character) from the discovery system, which lets you mix and match up to four crafting items to discover new recipes.  It's an interesting process that takes a little getting used to, since it isn't explained too well by the in-game help, but once you have it down you will see what ingredients are likely to fit with each other and will starting finding new recipes and gaining experience quickly.  As seems to be the standard these days, you are limited to two crafting skills per character.

Dynamic events are something that have been doing the rounds in recent MMOs, starting in Warhammer Online and continuing up to as recently as Rift last year.  They are essentially large, multi-stage public quests that reward all of the participants to the degree of their contribution.  In Guild Wars 2 they can often change the landscape around them, depending on the success or failure of recent events.  In one area there is always the constant threat of a centaur invasion, and they will control various camps around a certain zone at various times.  The success or failure of how much you are pushing them back will determine which camps they control, which events will happen and how dangerous the map will be at any one time.  It moves public quests along from just being something that happens every twenty minutes like clockwork, to actually having a profound impact on a zone's makeup and the PvE experience in that area.  In saying that, some are better than others, but still, it's something that has not really been seen before, at least to this extent.

Coming at last to PvP, it's a bit of a mixed bag here.  There are two main PvP systems: structured PvP which involves you making teams and going head-to-head against other teams in small PvP maps; and then World Versus World, a large open-world PvP system that matches servers against each other on four massive maps and has them duke it out for control of large structures which then award points over time.  Every week these points are tallied and the winners will go and play other winners from other matchups, whilst the (two) losers will be matched up against, ahem, "lesser-performing" servers in an attempt to find a better opponent for them.  One thing that must be said here is that there is zero lag, even when you have literally scores of people on-screen.  I have participated in large-scale PvP in games such as Warhammer Online and Rift, and every time it was battle of the framerates vs. how laggy can it get.  In WvW they have optimised the game to such a degree that there are no performance issues, just pure PvP chaos.  Real-life siege equipment can be purchased and constructed, including catapults, arrow carts and trebuchets, in order to help defend your territory or lay waste to an enemy's.  It's a very fun system that rewards strategic play but never feels like you have to be a five star general in order to contribute.

I have yet to reach the level cap (only 65 so far; Mesmer, obviously), nor am I in any rush to do so.  I am enjoying the game immensely and feel no compulsion to hit the max level (80) in order to begin playing the game, as is often the case in other MMOs.

Guild Wars 2 successfully reinvents the MMO genre, both for purists who may have become disillusioned with WoW-clone syndrome, and also for newer players who don't necessarily have large amounts of time to sink into a game but instead want to dip in their toe every once in a while.  Since it comes with a subscription price of $0 a month you never feel like it's a job, that you have to log on and do something to get your $15's worth this month.  Whilst it may not be the perfect MMO, it comes pretty damn close in my book.  If you are on the fence I highly recommend that you check it out.  Games like this, especially MMOs, are few and far between, and you would have to be some kind of idiot about both games and the gaming industry if you just dismissed it as the latest derivative WoW ripoff.  It isn't, and it should not be treated as such.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Ubisoft Abandons Ridiculous PC DRM

RockPaperShotgun conducted a recent interview with Ubisoft's worldwide director for online games, Stephanie Perotti, as well as their paid mouthpiece corporate communications director, Michael Burk, confirming that Ubisoft's stupid DRM system for their PC games is no more.

Whilst you should absolutely read the interview itself, because it's quite telling in how they still seem to believe it was a success and somehow prevented piracy but at the same time are removing it, it's still good news for PC gamers.

I have unashamedly beat the drum over this issue for the past couple of years, and have refused to buy any Ubisoft game on principle whilst the policy was in place.  Now that it's gone, perhaps I can finally get around to picking up some of the earlier Assassin's Creed games in a Steam sale or suchlike.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Year Of Pain

Note: This post contains mild spoilers for the Mass Effect series.

It's been a rough year to be a PC gamer.

I don't mean from the numbers.  Recent analyses have shown that PC gaming is still not dead yet (again!) and is, in fact, doing extremely well with regards to sales and subscriptions of premium and MMO content.  No, what I am talking about is being let down by so-called triple-A titles that promised much but in the end failed to deliver (bonus credit if you can name at least one of them before reading the rest of this post).

First off, the behemoth known as Star Wars: The Old Republic.  After playing in the beta I could say it was a game that was fun for the most part, although the UI looked like it was designed by chimps.  Still though, the single-player storyline (which varied for each class) was enjoyable and engaging, in the classic BioWare style.

I was on the fence about picking it up, because while the story parts were very good (and some of the general quests had storylines that were also very engrossing) it lacked several of the features that modern MMOs have been incorporating for years.  The PvP system was flawed at launch, matching max-level characters with relative newbies and only boosting their stats as compensation for this disparity (when in reality the max-level characters had many more skills available in order to slice and dice their lower-level opponents); the worlds / zones did not flow together well and were not connected together in any meaningful way (thus removing some of the immersion that makes a good MMO, which makes you feel like you are in another living, breathing world); both raid and dungeon content was extremely buggy on launch; there was no dungeon finder, which made trying to get a group of people together to do a particular instance (or "Flashpoints" as they are known in TOR) an exercise in talking in General chat on your home fleet trying to attract people's attention; and there was no combat log.  At all.  Yep.

Some of these issues were fixed post-launch (there is a somewhat functional combat log now, as well as a group finder for dungeons) but really, these were things that should have been in the game at release.  BioWare did several difficult things right (notably the single-player story which was probably the best in any MMO to date) and then seemingly a few easy things wrong (combat log, dungeon finder tool).  This prevented what could have been a great launch and a memorable game, and turned TOR into "that game that is fun until you finish the story".

TOR's subscriber numbers have also been going in the wrong direction.  In May it was revealed that, while the game had 1.7m subscribers at launch (a healthy base on which to build), this had shrunk to 1.3m a handful of months later as word spread of its significant problems.  No numbers have been released since May, although if I had to guess I would imagine that they are hovering around the 1m number now and possibly a little under it.

There has been strong speculation that TOR will soon become a free-to-play game.  It is already free-to-play up to level 15, and by all accounts this program has been successful in bringing in many players that would not ordinarily shell out $60 on a blind purchase.  The next step is to go fully free-to-play in the Age of Conan or Lord of the Rings Online style, and I feel this is inevitable.  I would expect to see an announcement later this year confirming that TOR is transitioning to a free-to-play model, and that this change will happen sometime in the first half of 2013.

So that's one disappointment of the year, headed up by BioWare.  Next up on the list is a game by BioWare (you may have heard of them, they were traditionally a strong PC studio until very recently) which was meant to be the grand finale to what has been perhaps one of the best game franchises in recently memory, namely the Mass Effect series.

The original Mass Effect made a slightly delayed PC debut in May 2008 and became an instant classic, bringing true depth and decision-making that actually mattered (or was said to matter in the long-run...) to a futuristic third-person shooter which incorporated heavy RPG elements in its execution.  The story was probably one of the best that BioWare had crafted to date, weaving in a tale of sentient robots that were bent on destroying all life in the galaxy every 50,000 years.

The ending to the first game left everyone wanting more, and Mass Effect 2 (arguably the best game in the series) arrived on the scene in January 2010, this time a simultaneous PC and 360 release, with the game even appearing on the PS3 for the first time a year later.  A slimmed-down inventory management system, an overhauled squad combat system and a triple-A voice cast (including Battlestar Galactica's Tricia Helfer and Michael Hogan, Martin Sheen as well as Carrie-Anne Moss of The Matrix fame) helped to propel the game to stratospheric heights.  While it's usually in the middle that a story sags, ME2 advanced the narrative while keeping the action fast and immersive, with a finale that set up tantalising possibilities for what would be the final game of the Mass Effect series, theoretically its crowning glory.

Mass Effect 3 was finally released, after a delay of several months, in March of this year.  I'm not going to tell you it isn't a great game, because it mostly is, or that you shouldn't buy it, because you probably should.  What I will say is that rarely have I felt more let-down at the end of a game or even a series of games than I did at the end of Mass Effect 3.  Having the ability to import your own saved games into Mass Effect 2 and then into Mass Effect 3 helped give the game tremendous continuity, believing that my decisions (at least all of the major ones) would have significant and detailed consequences when it was time for the endgame.  Even as recently as January, Casey Hudson (the game's director) had said that the endings would be nuanced and not a simple matter of "an A, B or C ending".  Unfortunately, BioWare delivered an A, B or C ending and then fully failed to understand why players were angry about this.  They felt let down that a company which had promised (and previously delivered!) so much would make such a basic mistake.

Perhaps in the end BioWare were a victim of their own success, that by making so many variables in the first two games (quite literally hundreds of separate decisions) it would be impossible to deliver on them in any meaningful way.  I still feel though that they could have done much better than they did.  For the most part, Mass Effect 3 stood toe-to-toe with the previous games, both in scope and execution.  Yes there were some niggles, but these could be overlooked.  The ending though, the ending that would ensure that this would be a game series still lauded 20 years from now even if were just an average ending, this can only be considered a failure.

Post-launch as the nerdstorm raged, BioWare quickly promised new DLC that would "expand" on the ending without directly changing it.  While the DLC addressed some of the issues from the ending, it was basically an exercise in turd-polishing: no matter how much you polish it, the thing is still a turd.  They did manage to add in an extra ending though, so perhaps we should be grateful that you can now choose from an A, B, C or (new improved!) D ending instead of just A, B or C.

I felt compelled to include the above meme that was doing the rounds shortly after ME3's release, because it illustrates the main problem with the game more succinctly than my words ever could.

For myself and many others, the ending was a disappointment.  The game was tremendous, the series was tremendous, but BioWare had managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory with its final resolution.  This brings me back to my main point though, that BioWare, since their takeover by EA, have become a studio in decline.  Indeed, since EA purchased BioWare they have spread the BioWare name far and wide across many of their myriad studios, when in fact the true BioWare, the people who made Knights of the Old Republic, Dragon Age: Origins and the first Mass Effect, were a comparatively small number of people, many of whom have now left the company.

The numbers do not lie though, and BioWare's recent significant missteps (TOR, Dragon Age II, Mass Effect 3) indicate that they have problems.  BioWare used to be one of the "big three" PC developers (along with Valve and Blizzard) who could be relied upon to produce excellence every single time.  Now that EA have got their tendrils into them (EA purchased BioWare in late 2007) they seem to be dragging them down, stifling their highly creative nature in favour of more populist measures that will guarantee sales instead of quality.  I don't know if this will change.  Perhaps the forthcoming Dragon Age III (likely years away and not even officially announced yet) will be the acid test of how closely BioWare and EA are listening to their fans, but that's something we won't find out for several years.

Finally in this race to the bottom I turn to Blizzard, usually a studio that can guarantee greatness, sometimes for the low, low price of $15 a month.  I'm not talking about their WoW cash-cow though, but Diablo III which was finally released in May of this year.  The sequel to the phenomenally successful Diablo II and its expansion pack, Lord of Destruction, Diablo III was announced in 2008 although had been already been in development for some time by that point.

I'll address the elephant in the room first, which is the always-on Internet connection required by the game.  I've already said how much I don't like it and do not care for it.  The launch was plagued by server issues which meant that people could not play their legitimately-purchased single-player game because they could not connect to  Whilst Blizzard have tried their best to emphasise the upside of this (and it's a short list, believe me) the fact remains that its chief purpose is to serve as always-on DRM (by their own admission) and also to legitimise its real money auction house system, to guarantee to people buying items with real money that these are legitimately-obtained items that were not simply created by an exploit (since this was rampant in Diablo II).

Ok so the DRM sucks, but what about the game?  I'm afraid it's average, at best.  I'm a fan of dungeon-crawlers (the original Dungeon Siege remains one of my favourite games) but D3 adds little to the genre.  What's there is fun, in small doses and with your friends helping out, but it isn't the "ohmygawdz I can't stop playing this game" that has led me to 10-hour sessions of WoW or even things like BioShock.  People who enjoyed the other Diablos will probably enjoy Diablo III (I never played any of them before this) but it isn't inexactly reinventing the wheel either.  Monsters drop loot, you collect it and progress through the story.  Want to play a higher difficultly level (it goes Normal -> Nightmare -> Hell -> Inferno)?  Well you can't, because you have to progress through the difficulties in a linear fashion (i.e. you  must first finish Normal in order to unlock Nightmare, and then finish Nightmare to unlock Hell, etc.).  I don't really care to be forced into finishing the game three times before I can take on the hardest challenge, but that's how Blizzard want things to be.

And speaking of how Blizzard wants to do things, I hope you like kiting because that's all you will be doing in Inferno mode.  Want to try a heavy life-leech build and see if you can progress that way?  Well you can't, because Blizzard have been extremely quick to nerf builds of any class (even the melee classes) which promote a playstyle other than kiting.  I'm all for a game being challenging, but locking me into a single way of playing no matter which of the classes I have chosen?  No thanks.  The fact that some of the mobs are quite literally impossible to kill on the highest difficulty also does not engender happy thoughts about the game.

The story in Diablo III is laughably bad.  Granted I'm not expecting Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings", but games like BioShock and Mass Effect have shown that it doesn't have to be one or the other when considering storyline and gameplay (and heck, D3 almost fails to qualify on either count).  Since I hadn't played either of the first two games I got the backstory filled in by some friends and so thought I had the gist of it all.  It turns out I shouldn't have bothered, since the story is told in fits and spurts and feels like it was written by a second-year creative writing student with a hangover.  How Blizzard could think this is acceptable in 2012 boggles the mind.

So all in all it's a fair game with bad DRM, poor story, silly progression and one method of play on its highest difficulty.  It becomes (slightly) more fun with friends, but the fact that you have to endure so much just to get to that point is the hardest thing about it.  It certainly was not worth the wait, I know that much.

Blizzard also cut PvP from the game in order to make their launch date.  They have said that it will be added in in a later patch, but as of the time of writing there is no date for this and most people believe it's months away, and possibly won't even be out this year.  Since you can now buy (and sell) items using real money I have qualms about how all that is going to go down.  Success may mean spending hundreds of dollars on the auction house (which is now seemingly ok because Blizzard are getting their cut) and that is right out of pay-to-win 101.  We'll see once it comes out but I'll be surprised if it's enough to get me to fire up D3 again.

So, we've had three bad games this year (or at least two bad games and a bad ending) from titles that were meant to be strong, so PC gaming is dead, right?  Fortunately its corpse is still up and running and doing quite well these days, at least if you listen to EA.

There is hope for the future.  In less than a month Guild Wars 2 will be released, one of the most highly-anticipated games in the past few years (sound familiar?).  I have played the Guild Wars 2 beta and essentially love almost everything about it, especially the subscription fee of $0 a month, so I have confidence that it is going to be a success.

We've also got games like Torchlight 2, Borderlands 2 and Dishonored due out later this year, and so I'm hopeful of a latter-year reversal on our early-year problems.  It's disappointing that so many "big" games from "big" publishers and developers did not turn out to be worth the wait, but maybe this will just let others step up to the plate and show the bigger guys how it's meant to be done.

It certainly seems to be true that "the bigger they are the harder they fall".  I really hope the big guys are taking notes because while we can absorb some failures, for PC gaming to remain strong we have to have some truly great games (well designed, critically received and strong sellers) to point to.

I think at the end of this year we will have some more examples of these.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Friday, June 15, 2012

With Our Powers Combined

It was slim pickings at E3 this year if you were looking for anything that wasn't a shooter of one kind or another.  That being said, there were some excellent PC titles on show, one of which casual readers will probably already be familiar with.  Who knows, maybe one year I will actually get to go to the damn thing.

Starting us off (best foot forward and all that)...

Developer: Sony Online Entertainment
Publisher: Sony Online Entertainment
Expected: 2H 2012

The sequel to the first (and let's face it, only) MMOFPS, PlanetSide, PS2 ramps everything up a notch for the sequel.  Regular readers will know how much of a big deal this is for me, since I have made enough posts on the subject previously.

PlanetSide 2 was actually playable at E3 (and I am not jealous of that at all) and received a lot of very favourable press from real games journalists, not fakes like me.  Up to 2,000 players can duke it out on each continent simultaneously, and there will be three continents available at launch (namely Cyssor, Indar and Searhus).

I am still staggered that nobody besides Sony has actually launched an MMOFPS, which would seem to be the next logical step in online shooter gaming.  There are other quasi-MMOFPS titles in development, such as Red 5's Firefall, Trion's Defiance (which will launch alongside a SyFy channel TV series early next year) and Blizzard's Titan (which has yet to be officially confirmed and is fast approaching mythical status, like some kind of distant unicorn), but PS2 will beat them all to the punch when it launches later this year.

Sony put up several livestreams of people playing the game at E3, and you can watch all of these on Youtube.  Frankly, the game looks astounding and I can hardly believe it's still only in alpha (the beta is meant to be starting "very soon" according to SOE).  The other unbelievable thing is that PlanetSide 2 is a free-to-play game.  Yes, you will be able to buy things such as aesthetic customisations with real money (a la League of Legends) but you will not be able to buy power, which is the acid test for things such as this.  SOE's ForgeLight engine, which they built from scratch for their new games and which PS2 will be the first game to utilise, looks truly breathtaking.  Rarely am I impressed solely by graphics these days, but damn, PlanetSide 2 is an attractive game to look at.  Since it also looks like it's going to have the gameplay to back this up, it seems like a win/win is in the making.

If there is a merciful god then expect beta to begin before the end of June.

Watch Dogs

Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher: Ubisoft
Expected: 2013

One of, if not the, sleeper hit from E3, since it had not been previously announced, Watch Dogs is an action title set in a near-future Chicago where information is currency and everything, from traffic lights to cellphones, is connected and therefore vulnerable to nefarious people such as yourself.

An open world game that immediately struck me as combining elements of Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Prototype, you manipulate people and the environment around you in order to achieve your goals.  How exactly you do it is up to you, but you will have a wide array of electronic surveillance and espionage equipment, and even cyber-warefare tech, available to you in order to help you complete your missions.

The E3 demo is embedded below.  Pay particular attention to the artistic style (in particular check our the protagonist's coat as it goes from dry to wet when he is outside in the rain) and then remind yourself that, while this game will be releasing on consoles as well (because, come on, it's Ubisoft) speculation seems to indicate that the demo was running on a PC.  So suck it, Sony / Microsoft / et al.  Particularly Microsoft (you know what you did).

Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Publisher: THQ
Expected: 5th March, 2013

A spin-off from the South Park TV series on Comedy Central, The Stick of Truth seems to be loosely based around the 13th episode of the sixth season, which was entitled "The Return of the Fellowship of the Ring to the Two Towers", in which Stan, Eric, Kyle and Cartman attempt to return a cassette to a video rental store before it closes.

Since South Park honchos Trey Parker and Matt Stone are closely assisting in the game's development alongside Obsidian, you can expect to see the usual jokes aimed at gingers, Jews and nerds, and no doubt plenty of other minorities as well.  The trailer is embedded below, and Obsidian certainly seem to have captured the spirit of the show superbly.  Parker and Stone will also be lending their voices to the game, since they voice the vast majority of the characters in the TV show in the first place.

Unfortunately due to Microsoft hating the PC now (there was a family relationship that got broken quickly), it has already been announced that the first three DLC packs for the game will debut on the X-Box 360, and one of these will be a 360 exclusive.  Hopefully the DLC will still appear on the PC, even if it will just take a little longer to do so.


Developer: Arkane Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Expected: 9th October, 2012

I know it's a game I have written about recently, but there was enough new information (and a new trailer, embedded below) at E3 about Dishonored to warrant its inclusion here.

Arkane debuted a new 30 minute demo for the game behind closed doors at E3, which consisted of running a single mission multiple times to show the different ways in which it could be completed.  One playthrough focused on just killing everything in sight, using powers and weapons to essentially toast anything that moved.  Another playthrough instead used stealth and subterfuge to possess creatures and humans in order to eavesdrop information and progress through a fortified area to reach your target.

Whilst it may not be a true sandbox game, the fact that the linear missions can be completed almost any way you want will be a big draw to see just how differently they can be done.  I'm really hoping this game does not get pushed back, since it's currently slated to be released in four months.  The E3 trailer is embedded below:

Developer: Gearbox Software
Publisher: 2K Games
Expected: 18th September, 2012

Rounding us out this year comes the sequel to one of the best games of 2009.  Borderlands was a highly enjoyable cel-shaded futuristic shooter with the focus on obtaining guns, guns and more guns as you explored the arid and dangerous world of Pandora.

Gearbox have taken on board people's criticisms of the weak plot in the first game and have promised to do better for the second.  Borderlands 2 promises four all-new playable classes (although the original four from the first game will be returning as NPCs), new guns, new environments and new enemies to shoot at.  Here's hoping they manage to hold onto the magic from the first game, whilst fixing some of the annoying multiplayer connectivity issues and the paper-thin storyline.

And that's your lot folks; another E3 come and gone in the blink of an eye.  Fingers crossed we'll actually get to play some of these games very soon.

Friday, May 25, 2012

No Re-Spawn For 38 Studios

There was disappointing news from Rhode Island today as it become known that troubled developer 38 Studios had laid off its entire workforce (that's 379 employees including those from subsidiary Big Huge Games) in an attempt to stave off bankruptcy.

For those unaware, 38 Studios has an interesting history behind it.  Founded by former professional baseball player Curt Schilling in 2006, the company received a $75,000,000 loan from the state of Rhode Island to relocate from Massachusetts; in theory bringing jobs and economic resources into Providence where they would move.

38 Studios had ambitious plans to parallel-develop two games, one a traditional RPG and the other an MMORPG (codenamed Project Copernicus) set in the same universe as the single-player RPG.  The single-player game, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, was released in February of this year (readers may recall it made my list of the top 10 games to watch for in 2012) to generally favourable reviews (it currently has a rating of 81 over on Metacritic which I would say is a solid score for a new IP from a rookie studio).  With people such as R.A. Salvatore and Todd McFarlane in the mix it seemed like a sure-fire hit.  Indeed, it has sold approximately 1.2m copies to date, which, again, for a brand-new IP I would say is impressive.

News of problems began to swirl a couple of weeks ago, when the first installment of 38 Studios' loan repayment to the state of Rhode Island became due.  They missed the initial payment date, and only through not making payroll (i.e. not paying their employees) were they able to subsequently correct this and make the first payment a few days past due.  Clearly, not making payroll was a problem and the rumour mill continued to swirl for the past week, indicating the company was in dire financial straits as well as revealing that several top-level executives had left.  This culminated in the news today that all of 38 Studios' employees had been terminated with immediate effect.

At this point it seems that 38 Studios is very close to bankruptcy, and although they are not there yet it may only be a matter of time, especially since they now have no employees with which to further develop assets.  The terms of the loan from Rhode Island dictate that if the developer defaults on the loan (as it seems very likely to do when the second payment becomes due) then all of 38 Studios' IP is transferred to Rhode Island, and the state will essentially own both Reckoning and Copernicus.  This is a novel situation, and I can't really think of anything to compare it to in recent history.

So what next?  Well it seems that there will likely be no more DLC for KOAR since there is no-one left to develop it.  What happens to the MMORPG is a little more murky.  In theory if the company somehow manages to remain solvent it could perhaps sell the entire IP for both games to a third-party, and then presumably use the revenue received from the sale to help pay back the loan to Rhode Island.  The problem there is that at least one industry analyst (the ever-quotable Michael Pachter) believes that the IP is worth perhaps $20m at best, leaving quite a shortfall on the loan.

The other, and probably more likely option, is that 38 Studios defaults on the loan and the IP is then transferred over to the state of Rhode Island.  At that point they would likely auction it off to the highest bidder (in order to try and recoup some of their losses) and you would then end up with the same outcome of the IP belonging to a new third party.  Hopefully this would be someone who was committed to continuing to develop Copernicus, and indeed they may even turn around and hire some of 38 Studios' former employees to help complete the game in a similar way to what happened when Realtime Worlds exploded and APB was sold to K2 then later retooled as "APB Reloaded" (which is apparently doing quite well now).

Either way, it's a sad day for gamers and in particular MMO gamers.  Copernicus was one of the last big-budget blockbuster MMOs, and its failure is only going to encourage publishers and developers to either scale back their projects or perhaps just not make them in the first place.  Indeed, a brief teaser video was released for Copernicus just a few days ago showing some impressive visuals if nothing else (this is embedded below).

The Governor of Rhode Island, Lincoln Chafee, other than having an awesome name, was quoted as saying that KOAR needed to sell 3m copies just to break even, and the fact that it did not meet this requirement meant that "the game failed".  In today's economy, a brand-new IP from an unproven studio selling 3m copies is simply unrealistic.  Indeed, I am surprised that it has sold the 1.2m copies that it has to date, as those are very respectable numbers for a new game.  Needing to get 3m though?  That was never going to happen.  The fact that 38 Studios gambled on that - and lost - is a substantial failure that most people familiar with the gaming industry would have been able to predict.  Certainly it's easy to look back on these events with hindsight, but still you get the feeling that there were perhaps some misguided decisions by upper management at 38 Studios if their entire business plan essentially came down to a bet on Reckoning.

Perhaps in some parallel universe we are all busy driving our flying cars, discussing the 17th season of Firefly and marvelling over the 12m copies that Reckoning has sold to date, but somehow I doubt it.

As promised, the short teaser for Copernicus is embedded below.  It certainly looks nice enough, and I hope that in the fullness of time it winds up at a developer able to give it the finishing touches it needs.

I can hope, right?

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Diablo III Internet IV

Blizzard's next money machine Diablo III was released on Tuesday, and I'm guessing most (all?) people reading this have already bought it.  It's a decent game and seems like it has the potential for a lot of fun, but it's not perfect.

Diablo III, for those who have been living under Dwayne Johnson for the past few years, has no offline mode and you are required to be connected to Blizzard's online service at all times.  While Blizzard played up the social and gameplay-enhancing aspects of this, the biggest aspect and the elephant in the room is that it is DRM so that rampant cheating and hacking which happened in the first two Diablos won't happen in the third, as well as flat-out theft of the game itself.

While possibly, possibly, an acceptable reason, the practice has been far from perfect.  Diablo III was originally meant to be available on Tuesday morning at 12:01am Pacific.  If, like me, you actually tried to login at that time, you would likely have received one of the myriad of errors that was throwing out around that time.  My particular favourite was #37 which denoted that the servers were too busy to process your login, but there were several others other people were getting, with the upshot of not being able to play the game.

These initial problems were fixed around 90 minutes later and I was actually able to get on and play for a time without issue.  The next day yielded a game-breaking bug which meant that the servers had to be brought down for several hours in the afternoon (don't forget, thanks to the integration you could not play your legally-purchased single-player game during this time).  There were further issues later that evening which prevented logins, and also the day after that (each outage lasting several hours).

I mean really?  Blizzard, owned by Activision and one of the last remaining bastions of PC gaming could not get it right?  Over seven years running World of Warcraft did not give them enough experience in backend server management to be able to launch a non-MMO on their online service?

The whole mess represents everything that is wrong about DRM.  It starts off as a company trying to protect their product and ends up by disrupting legitimate customers (who have already bought the game) and pissing people off.  Blizzard knew exactly how many pre-orders they have sold, through their own service and retailers like Amazon and GameStop, and so had plenty of time in order to arrange to have the appropriate capacity to be able to let everyone play when they said they would be able to.  Instead we end up with this byzantine hodgepodge of error messages and downtime which makes people unable to play their single-player game.

If someone like Blizzard can't get it right, what hope is there for smaller developers and publishers (basically everyone else)?

I like Blizzard as a company and I will usually back them in most situations because of their reputation of excellence and "when it's ready" approach to development, but this was a mess and there is no way around that.  Diablo III should have had some kind of offline mode built in, so that even if things like this happened then players could still be able to play the game which they have legitimately purchased.  For whatever reason, always-on DRM is never implemented well (looking at you Ubisoft) and I would even go as far as to say it is anti-gamer.

Blizzard, I get that you want to protect your product, but forcing this upon your customers is not right.  Make it an option, even give us inducements to use it if you want (coughSteamcough), but making us have to use it and then failing at it from your end is just going to make people angry.  The apology they put out today is a useful acknowledgement of their shortcomings over the matter, but nothing will really change in the long-run.

I've said it before and will say it again: ALWAYS-ON DRM IS ANTI-CONSUMER.  It should be resisted by all gamers.

DRM punishes legitimate players to the point where maybe they don't want to play your games at the end of it, which would be disappointing because on pure gameplay Diablo III is a decent game.  I am part of the problem though because I bought Diablo III fully knowing that this system was in place, but overrode myself on the basis that this was Blizzard and they would not fail me.  I was mistaken.  I have not bought any Ubisoft game since they introduced their ridiculous DRM and I should have stuck to my guns and done the same with Diablo III.

You're on notice Blizzard, and the next move is up to you.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

With Honours

I wanted to write about a game which is really not getting a lot of buzz right now but at first glance looks to be something worth keeping an eye on, namely Dishonored (this is a one-time occasion where I will forgo the "u" because it's a direct game title; cherish this event).

Dishonored looks to be a mash-up between BioShock, Hitman, Deux Ex and Thief.  Harvey Smith, one of the original developers of the first Deus Ex game is the lead developer of Dishonored, so this should not be a surprise.  Dishonored is an FPS comprised of a set of linear missions, but you can choose to complete them however you want:  stealth, all guns blazing, persuasion, divide and conquer; whatever floats your particular boat.

The game is set in an original steampunk world, and sees you play as Corvo, bodyguard to the Empress who winds up dead with you being framed for her murder.  As your head nears the chopping block you are rescued and freed by persons unknown who also imbue you with supernatural powers, such as the ability to slow down time (stop me if you've heard this one before), teleport or even possess people or animals for a brief time.  How you choose to complete each mission is up to you, so multiple playthroughs to test out various scenarios would seem to be the order of the day, with the ultimate aim of clearing your name and exposing those behind the conspiracy.

The developer is Arkane Studios, a Zenimax-owned studio based in France but with a US presence in Austin, Texas.  Their previous works include Arx Fatalis, an open-world RPG released a decade ago, and they were also one of the myriad of developers who worked on BioShock 2, specifically in design, artwork and animation.  While their pedigree is not tremendously strong, they were aquired by ZeniMax in 2010 and another ZeniMax company that we are all familiar with, Bethesda, will be publishing the title.

There is not a tremendous amount of information out there about the gameplay, which is somewhat surprising considering the release date is slated for October of this year, but it could well be that they are planning a big push from E3 and beyond in the run-up to launch.  With BioShock Infinite being pushed back until February of 2013 then there would seem to be a gap in the market for a solid single-player, multi-platform title like Dishonored.

Be sure to check out the teaser trailer linked at the end of this post, and keep your eyes glued for more Dishonored information since this could be something very impressive if all goes according to plan.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

All You Need Is Nekro

I recently got an interesting email from a PR company representing DarkForge Games, who asked me to put out some information regarding their newest (first?) project, a game called Nekro.

Nekro is aiming to take the RTS genre and give it its own unique spin by not giving you control of the units that you summon.  You explore randomly-generated worlds and have to choose the right set of minions for the circumstances at hand, as well as "brewing" new items and spells to aid you.

As seems to be all the rage these days, DarkForge (who apparently have industry veterans hailing from such names as Microsoft, Blizzard and Sony) are attempting to raise some of the funding for the game on Kickstarter (and at the time of writing they were almost half way there).

Their Kickstarter page can be found by clicking over here, and they have set a goal of raising $100,000 by 4th May.

Some of the artwork looks interesting and I'm all for smaller studios trying to do their own thing in a sea of EAs and Ubisofts, so I have no problem giving them a helping hand by letting the five people who read this blog check it out.

Pay it forward, after all.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Post - Mortem For The Old Republic (hint: it isn't pretty)

It seems the right time, after playing it for a good 2-3 months, to give my verdict on the latest and most expensive MMO in recent memory, namely Star Wars: The Old Republic.

I'll preface this by saying I have a (maximum) level 50 Marauder in full Tier 3 (Rakata) raid gear, so I am somewhat familiar with the game and how everything works.

TOR is a good game, but it isn't a great game.  The ironic thing is that BioWare have gotten a lot of the difficult things just right, and then made some rookie mistakes that severely detract from the whole experience.

For story, TOR is the best MMO on the market to date, hands down.  BioWare took all of their craft and storytelling from making the Dragon Age and Mass Effect games, sprinkled Star Wars secret sauce on top and came up with close to perfection.  Every class has its own distinct storyline that you will progress through, and they are by far some of the most interesting and varied quests in the game.  At points you will think you are playing an offline single-player RPG, because the voice acting and writing is of such a high standard not usually found in MMOs, where story is often a passing afterthought, placated with a few paragraphs of quest text.

I can only speak for the Sith Warrior storyline, which was outstanding, but I am assured by my friends who are playing other classes that their personal stories were of an equal quality.  Unfortunately for reasons I will explain, this is both a blessing and a curse.

MMOs to date have usually concentrated on endgame content, with the old joke being that "the game begins once you reach max level".  In WoW all of the best content was reserved for the highest-level players, who had their own battlegrounds and raids and had begun to make their characters extremely powerful.  In TOR, you get to level 50 and find that...that's about it really.  Yes there are endgame raids for level 50 characters, but they are both a) quite easy, and b) quite buggy.  It also used to be the case that level 50s did not have their own warzone brackets in PvP, so fresh-faced level 10 characters (the lowest level at which you can queue for PvP) would sometimes go up against some level 50s in the same warzones.  Their stats were boosted to level 50 equivalent, but they still lacked most of the super abilities of awesomeness that were available to the 50s, and so got their asses handed to them as a result.  Thankfully BioWare have already fixed this, and now level 50s only queue against other level 50s, but you are still rolling the dice since the only other bracket available is 10-49.

This brings me to PvP.

TOR has a very clunky PvP system.  There are three instanced warzones that you can queue for, however you cannot queue for specific ones you like, only a single queue which is randomly any of the three.  Some of the PvP warzones are interesting in their own way, but are really nothing to write home about.  There is also an open-world PvP area on the planet Ilum, which is extremely underwhelming.  The first few times I went there the Republic and Empire forces would simply trade the control points back and forth, since that was all that was required to finish the daily and weekly PvP quests which is how you obtained tokens to buy the best PvP gear.  BioWare then changed it to where you had to instead gain a certain number of kills to complete the quests, which sounds good in practice until you realise that the Empire has a substantial population superiority on many servers, including my own.  This means that Republic players spent most of the time sitting in their base - where they cannot be killed - except for the rare occasions where they temporarily have more people and so venture forth looking for Empire people to kill.  The upshot of this is that the PvP quests become extremely difficult for either side to complete, and accordingly the number of people going to Ilum has dropped dramatically in the past six weeks.

And as for obtaining PvP gear itself, you complete the aforementioned PvP quests and obtain PvP bags that in turn contain tokens which you can use to purchase PvP gear.  The bags have a small chance to contain a piece of PvP gear directly, but there is no guarantee it will be a piece you need even if you do happen to get lucky enough to find one in a bag, so duplicates are commonplace.  As I said, it's a very clunky and poorly thought-out system that is a clear placeholder and is being completely overhauled when patch 1.2 comes in a month or so.

Moving on to the UI, which is one of TOR's biggest problems.  In short the UI looks like it was designed by my children, with blocky elements, action bars which cannot be moved or resized, and a UI for the Galactic Trading Network (TOR's auction house) which is so bad it has to be seen to be believed.  BioWare have acknowledged these issues and have promised a revamped UI in the forthcoming 1.2 patch, but to have let the game be released with something that looks so bad is astonishing to me.  This brings me to probably one of the biggest gripes that I (and a lot of other people) have with the game: there is no combat log.  That a game could be released in late 2011 with no combat log is nothing short of mind-boggling.  What just hit me?   How did I die in PvP?  What enemy ability just crit me for 6000?  How much DPS does one spec of mine do over another?  Fortunately all of these questions are moot, because they cannot be answered without a functional combat log.

You might be thinking, Gaff, you have hammered TOR to death, so why are you still playing it?  Well, for all its faults (and there's a lot), it's still fun in short bursts, and a lot of my friends are still playing it.  But with games such as The Secret World, PlanetSide 2, TERA and Guild Wars 2 all scheduled for release in the next few months, I'm not sure how much longer I'll be playing TOR.  I was hoping that it would be "A Clash Of Kings", but it has unfortunately turned out to be more like "A Dance With Dragons".

BioWare got so many of the difficult things right in TOR but then failed so spectacularly with the easier things, you really do think that six more months of development could have fixed these annoyances and would have set the game up to take over WoW's mantle as King of MMOs; it would have been a slam-dunk.  But no combat log in a 2011 game?  Really?

The good news is that most and perhaps all of these issues can be fixed by BioWare in patches.  Their problem is, as I stated above, that there are several big MMOs scheduled for release in the next few months, meaning that time is not on their side.  I hope they succeed, I truly do, but some of these missteps are so egregious that sooner rather than later I will probably be moving to greener pastures in another game...where hopefully they have a goddamn combat log.