Sunday, December 29, 2013

Upcoming Games Of 2014 - Part 1

Time once again for my round-up of the best looking games that aim to be gracing store shelves in 2014.

In no particular order, we begin with...

Dragon Age: Inquisition

Developer: EA BioWare
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Expected: Q4 2014

The third game in the Dragon Age series, Inquisition is looking to roll back some significant mis-steps BioWare made with Dragon Age II, generally considered to be a lacklustre sequel to one of the best RPGs of all time, Dragon Age: Origins.

Highly reused environments are out, replaced by a large open(er) world with a much greater emphasis on exploring, rather than being shepherded down a tightly-controlled linear path. The overhead camera, sorely missing in DA2, makes a welcome reappearance, as will being able to give item drops to party members, rather than most of them being locked solely to your main character.

It's been a rocky few years for BioWare, with Dragon Age II, The Old Republic, and Mass Effect 3 all under-performing, both in terms of sales and quality. Can BioWare turn it around? I hope so, but my phasers are set to "cautiously optimistic" on this one.

Tom Clancy's The Division

Developer: Ubisoft Massive
Publisher: Ubisoft
Expected: Q4 2014

A title that seemingly came out of left-field at 2013's E3 but went on to win many Game of the Show accolades, The Division is a tactical third-person shooter set in New York after a rampant pandemic has left the city a wasteland. You'll need to find friends, gather supplies, neutralise threats, and find a way to survive in harsh environments following the catastrophe.

The Division is probably the single most beautiful game I have seen so far of all the next-gen engines. Running on Ubisoft's Snowdrop engine, from the video I will link at the end you will see it looks absolutely stunning. The multiplayer operates in a persistent world, so grouping up with friends might be the way to go to maximise your returns here, since soloing may be challenging.

My only concern is, given how ambitious this title seems to be, will it be ready by this time next year? I'm hopeful, but wouldn't be surprised at all to see this slip into early 2015. Hopefully we'll find out more in the months ahead.


Developer: Carbine Studios
Publisher: NCsoft
Expected: Q2 2014

The only MMORPG to appear on my list this year, Wildstar looks to be a fresh take on a stale genre. Frankly I'm tired of the WoW clones by this point, and Wildstar's art style has minor similarities with WoW, but the comparisons basically end there. Set on the planet Nexus, Wildstar is a sci-fi themed RPG which has some novel ideas about customisation and combat, namely that it should be fun. Unique combat mechanics, coupled with the Path system which basically lets you further customise your character beyond race and class to deliver precisely the kind of gameplay experience you want, make this the most exciting MMORPG I have read about in years.

Sadly my beta invite got lost in the mail, but I hear through the grapevine that the game plays as good as it looks. Carbine are also doing social media right, and their "Devspeak" videos are absolutely worth looking at as they detail the game's humour and mechanics in ample measure. The only concern I have is with its payment model, since the game will be subscription but you'll be able to buy an in-game item called CREDD which will act as a one-month subscription. I'm not sold on this, but I'll wait to see how it actually all works before making a final judgement.

No release date has been announced yet, although the beta has been going on for about six months now, so it can't be much longer until release. Expect this to hit store shelves around the Spring.

Lords of the Fallen

Developer: Deck13, CI Games
Publisher: CI Games
Expected 2H 2014

Unfortunately there's not a lot of information about there about LotF yet, but the little there is looks very interesting. Tomasz Gop, former senior producer for The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, is the executive producer here, and comparisons have been made to Dark Souls when it comes to the game's setting.

Three classes have been announced (warrior, rogue, cleric) with skill trees devoted to each, and the game's art style certainly tickles my fancy. Again, details are scarce, but I have it on good authority that new information will come to light in January, with more to follow later in the year. This one's flying under the radar, but worth keeping an eye on.

South Park: The Stick of Truth

Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Publisher: Ubisoft
Expected: 4th March 2014 (NA), 6th March 2014 (EU)

After a year's delay following original publisher THQ's implosion, The Stick Of Truth will finally be released in March. South Park Studios are extensively involved in the game's development, and South Park co-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone wrote the game's script and provided the relevant voices. Expect bathroom humour, pop culture references, and swearing aplenty. This one will definitely be Not For Children (although no doubt many will buy it for their kids).

Basically, if you like the show you'll like the game, and if you hate the show then you'll hate the game. Hopefully there'll be enough content here to justify a full-priced game; god knows they've been working on it for long enough if that's any indication.

Stay tuned for part 2 of my 2014 wrap-up, coming as soon as I have the time to write it.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Next Big MMORPG?

It's been a difficult period for MMOs these past couple of years in the gaming industry. We've seen Star Wars: The Old Republic crash and burn, although BioWare continue to poke its corpse; we've seen The Secret World not become the breakout hit that Funcom needed it to be, although it's doing a little better these days following its free-to-play conversion; and we've also seen Guild Wars 2 have probably the best launch and post-release period of the three. I've already written about NCsoft's forthcoming Wildstar, and Bethesda continue to beaver away on The Elder Scrolls Online, but last week saw perhaps the biggest pretender to the MMO throne partially unveil what it has in store, and boy was it interesting.

I am speaking of course about SOE's EverQuest Next, revealed to the public last weekend at SOE Live, Sony Online Entertainment's version of Blizzcon.

First thing first: the game looks amazing, hands down the best-looking MMORPG that I have seen to date. This is due in no small measure to SOE's proprietary ForgeLight engine that currently powers PlanetSide 2. It's not all about the visuals though, EQN has a lot going on under the surface to where this might actually be the prophesied "WoW-killer" foretold so long ago.

At first glance, perhaps the most eye-catching feature is the destructable environments. The entire game world is made up of voxels (think three-dimensional jigsaw pieces) which can be broken apart at will by the game. Of course, some areas will always be safe (certain outposts, towns and cities, most likely), but even just in the conception stage this opens some tantalising avenues for gameplay that really haven't been seen before. Fencing a bunch of mobs together and then blasting through the ground so they fall to their deaths below sounds appealing, as does actually digging into the ground in order to mine mineral deposits in certain areas, or even finding new areas underground to explore.

Another interesting snippet is that at any one time there will be one primary world quest for everyone on a particular server. These "rallying calls", as they're known, will advance in stages, at a pace dependent on how many players are participating and how much everyone is doing. The example given by the developers so far is to create a new settlement off the beaten track. Initially the area might need securing from wildlife, so that would need to be taken care of first. Then materials could be needed to actually construct the settlement, and bandits may appear that need to be repelled, defences might need to be constructed, etc. Each server would advance at its own pace, and (presumably) rewards would be handed out proportionally to those players who have contributed the most to the various stages. On paper, this sounds like an more advanced version of public quests, initially seen in Warhammer Online and refined in Guild Wars 2, but worldwide across the entire server, not delineated by zone, as is usually done in MMOs today. Provided these are varied enough, and there is enough to keep players interested in contributing to the objectives, I can see this kind of system being somewhat of a metric used to "score" your server against others (similar to WvW rankings in Guild Wars 2 currently).

Developing from an idea first used in Guild Wars 2 (again!), the class and skill system is unique, too. There will apparently be 40 classes (!), and, as seems to be becoming the norm these days, you will be able to have eight skills equipped at a time. Four of these skills are derived from your class, and four are determined by the weapon you are holding at the time. SOE's twist here is that you will actually be able to learn abilities from other classes and add them to your own repertoire; this will lead to your class actually becoming your class, completely tailored to the skills you want to use and the weapons you want your character to wield. Speaking of weapons, crafting also looks to be significantly different. Instead of having to start with common materials, make hundreds of crappy things and then selling them or breaking them down for materials, then rinse and repeat with higher-level materials, SOE have said that each material will have specific uses that will remain useful for the entirety of the game, rather than the usual Copper -> Tin -> Iron progression for mining, Linen - > Wool -> Silk for tailoring, etc. This is reminiscent of Ultima Online, where certain materials had certain properties, such as silver weapons doing double damage to undead monsters. In addition, SOE have said that crafted weapons and armour will actually look like the materials they're constructed from, so you won't need to inspect another character's paperdoll to see what they are using, you will just recognise it by how it looks.

Perhaps one of the biggest announcements by SOE, and I'm surprised they were able to keep a lid on this up to now, was that there will be a second EQN-based game - to launch this year - called EverQuest Landmark. Think Minecraft but in EQN gamespace. Players will be able to claim particular areas of land, construct buildings, points of interest, etc. They will be able to sell their creations on SOE's Marketplace for real money, and if their works are used in other buildings (the example given is that if you make a tower and then someone constructs a castle that incorporates your tower) you will automatically earn a cut of that castle's earnings. The very best areas and buildings stand a chance of making it into the full version of EverQuest Next. This sounds like a very interesting way to both build up interest in the EQN brand, but also appeal to players' artistic interests, as player-made content is very popular right now in several Valve games (TF2 being the most popular) and moddable games such as Minecraft and even Skyrim. EverQuest Landmark will be free-to-play and is meant to be released before the end of 2013, so expect to hear news about this in the very near future.

All in all, I am very interested in EverQuest Next. I enjoy MMOs and have played most of the major ones on the market today, but too many are content to try and make WoW 2.0, forgetting that the original World of Warcraft was released in 2004, almost a decade ago, and that the gaming industry of today is very different from the gaming industry of back then. The fact that WoW's subscriber numbers drop seemingly every quarter is just more evidence that people are looking for something fresh and original, and EverQuest Next could well be it (because god knows it sure wasn't TOR). SOE have apparently rebooted EQN twice, abandoning much of the work they had already done and starting over, because they felt that it wasn't of a high enough quality. That a company is willing to keep iterating like that, and eat what must be significant financial costs every time they do so, makes me very interested in what is to come. If SOE can deliver on even half of what they have unveiled so far then expect EverQuest Next to be a significant shake-up of the MMO sector - and perhaps even as big a shake-up as the original WoW created, all those years ago.

EverQuest Next will be a free-to-play title and is expected to be released sometime in 2014. Anyone interested can sign up for the beta by clicking here.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

A New Challenger Appears

What will be the best MMO that launches this year? If you said The Elder Scrolls Online, or even Neverwinter, then you'd probably be right, but you might not be...

WildStar is an MMO that's flying a little under the radar right now, which puts it right up my alley. It's a sci-fi / fantasy MMORPG in development at Carbine Studios, and our old friend NCsoft are the publisher (since they own Carbine). I'll link some videos and screenshots through this post, but I already know the first thing that will come to mind is, "This looks like WoW". Well, no surprise there, since Carbine has a bunch of ex-Blizzard devs on its payroll, but if you think it's going to be just another generic WoW clone then I believe you will be sadly mistaken.

At first glance, the story seems fairly ordinary: the location of the planet Nexus, home of the long-dead alien race the Eldan, has been discovered once more, and everyone heads there to grab as much treasure and alien technology as they can find. Ok, not the most original, but no mention of elves yet so I think overall we're ahead.

There are two playable factions, the Exiles and the Dominion. Each have four races available (only three of which are announced right now, so each faction has one more race to come), and there's none of that any-race-can-be-any-class nonsense you found in Guild Wars 2, classes are tied to certain races only.

On the Exiles bench we have:
  • Humans - Two hands, two feet.  The usual.
  • Granok - Beefy rock-monsters.
  • Aurin - Space Elves.  Goddamit.
  • TBA
And on the Dominion side:

And for classes:
  • Warrior - A melee damage dealer, they hit things with large weapons.
  • Spellslinger - A ranged DPS class akin to a Hunter from WoW or Ranger from GW2.
  • Stalker - A rogue-type class which can stealth and uses sharp blades.
  • Esper - A caster / support class that seems similar to the Mesmer from GW2.
  • TBA
  • TBA
Where things get really interesting is the Path system. Paths are almost like vocations / super tradeskills for your character, that change the way you play the game depending on which you have selected. They are based on the Bartle test, which was an attempt to ascertain what type of gamer people are in four key areas: Killer, Explorer, Socialiser and Achiever (those interested can take the Bartle test here, it will give you a random selection of thirty questions). In WildStar you can choose one of four Paths:
  • Soldier
  • Explorer
  • Settler
  • Scientist

Any class can choose any path, and they change the way the game plays for you. Soldiers, for example, get special missions to kill enemies, protect allies, destroy areas, etc. Explorers can unlock new areas and mini-zones where they will receive specialised quests of their own, and can even link remote areas together in a personalised fast-travel system. Scientists examine and manipulate wildlife and discover aliens relics to unlock new abilities. Not much has been announced with regards to the final path, the Settler, but you are said to be able to create and upgrade outposts in order to expand the frontier for your faction. Paths really sound interesting, and I can't think of any other game which has does something like this previously. The fact that you can bring along friends to mix and match different playstyles could really bring this Path system to the fore.

Unusually, Carbine have already stated that both player and guild housing will be in the game, not just envisaged for an expansion but actually at launch. This makes it something of a rarity among MMOs, which often pay lip-service to the concept (I know WoW devs have been talking about it for, oh, six or seven years now) but rarely follow that up with actual action. Heck, I think the last MMO I played that had player housing was Ultima Online back in the day, and that was a looooooong time ago.

The private beta is ongoing at the current time; those interested can sign up for beta consideration, with the game currently slated to be released later this year. No word yet on what kind of subscription model WildStar will use, but since it's an NCsoft-owned developer and is being published by NCsoft themselves, I think it's likely the game will mirror Guild Wars 2's system of buy-to-play, where you pay $60 for the game and there are no recurring subscription fees on top of that. I personally am very much in favour of that system, and so I hope that is what they choose to go with.

With the ability to include both sci-fi and fantasy elements, WildStar could well be the game that gives TESO a run for its money as the most eagerly-anticipated MMO of this year...

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Why EA Is Not The Worst Company In America

You may have read that, for the second year in a row, Electronic Arts was recently named the "Worst Company In America" by Consumerist. I am here to tell you why that is not the case.

First off, EA was up against companies like Bank of America, AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast. So you're trying to tell me that EA are worse than two cellphone companies fleecing you for 4G, one media conglomerate fleecing you for cable TV and Internet, and a bank that's fleecing you for, well, pretty much just being alive? Sorry, I'm not buying that.

I'm not giving EA a pass here, either. They have serious issues right now and have made some major mistakes over the past few years, but I simply don't subscribe to the theory that that somehow makes them the "Worst Company In America".

Let's be honest, EA have been on a downward spiral for quite some time.

To start off with, and probably the one that's top of my personal list, was the mediocre ending to the Mass Effect trilogy. The three games, perhaps one of the strongest RPG franchises in recent history (the original Mass Effect hit the XBox 360 in 2007 and made the transition to PC in 2008), built a relationship with you over the first two games by giving you plenty of decisions to make and promising that those decisions would matter in the final resolution. Well that didn't happen, and the ending to Mass Effect 3 boiled down to an A, B, or C ending, that was later expanded by 33% to an A, B, C, or D ending following the (justified) outcry. Put simply, the games wrote a bunch of cheques that in the end BioWare could not cash.

Unfortunately, the writing had been on the wall with regards to Mass Effect 3 for a while. The lead writer of the first two games (and essentially most / all of the Mass Effect universe lore), Drew Karpshyn, was instead writing Star Wars: The Old Republic at the time, and so had next to no involvement in the conclusion. The average-at-best ending was a tremendous letdown, and turned what should have been one of BioWare's crowning achievements into the whimper heard around the world, as people figured out that the emperor was not wearing clothes so fine that your eye couldn't see them, but was simply butt naked.

And then we've got the more recent issues with SimCity's always-on DRM system in Origin, that most game companies seem to actually be moving away from except for Blizzard and EA. It was exactly the same problem that Blizzard had dealt with a year earlier (in that case with Diablo III), in that so many people were trying to connect to Origin to play their (legitimately-purchased) game, that a great number of people were just not able to authenticate and so could not play until EA added additional server capacity and disabled some game features to free up even further capacity. It was the height of arrogance for EA to decide that what people wanted was an experience similar to the previous SimCity games, but without any of that, you know, being able to play without being connected to the Internet, nonsense. For several days many people simply could not play the game, or when they could, found that their newly-created city did not save (and EA, in their infinite wisdom, created no local save option, only cloud saves through Origin). Since Origin is wholly owned by EA then they knew precisely how many pre-orders of the game they had sold and should been easily able to account for that with the requisite server capacity. Even if they had budgeted the correct amount of hardware, this wouldn't mean that this type of always-on DRM is not anti-consumer, because it clearly is; the SimCity issues (and Diablo III issues) just highlighted it for all to see.

Next up, we've got the nonsense over EA thinking it's ok to bring in microtransactions for a game you've already paid full price for. I'm of course talking about Dead Space 3, the latest game in the franchise, that EA seem to be doing their level best to run into the ground. "Hey, microtransactions seem to work really well for mobile games, so why don't we throw them into a $60 retail game and see what happens?" You can well imagine that this conversation took place at EA Towers a year or so ago. You know what the biggest difference between retail and mobile games is though? Mobile games are often completely free or sold at a minimal cost, which is exactly part of the reason that people have less of a problem dropping a few dollars here and there in the first place. EA are already having their cake and eating it too by charging $60 instead of the usual $50 for PC games (they and Activision led the charge on that), but now want to start nickel-and-diming you for better weapons? Of course you don't have to buy them - and I hope most people won't - but it represents a worrying development in EA's thinking that they believe they can directly migrate features from mobile gaming to traditional gaming. Bottom line - if I've already given you $60 for a game then I am not going to be giving you an extra few bucks for some weapons, either. This is blatant moneygrabbing of the highest order.

Finally, I come to The Old Republic. I'm not even talking about the game itself here (but beyond the single player story it wasn't much to write home about, which is a problem when you're talking about an MMO) but BioWare's implementation of the free-to-play model which TOR transitioned to in November 2012, almost a year after its retail release. Calling TOR's current model free-to-play is being somewhat generous though, as it has so many restrictions it's more like an endless demo rather than something like League of Legends, PlanetSide 2 or The Lord of the Rings Online, all free-to-play games which do not have contempt for their players as TOR seems to. Take a look at the comparison table on TOR's site and you will see just how bad their free-to-play system really is. Want bank access on a free account? You have to pay real money for it. Want to run some Operations (TOR's version of raids)? You have to pay real money for it. Want to do some PvP Warzones? You're capped at five per week unless you pay for more. Free accounts cannot equip most purple items (the highest quality) without paying for the privilege. Oh, and I hope you aren't attached to hotbars, because free users in TOR only get two of them and have to pay for more (although you should be grateful since they used to only get one). Locking off parts of the UI and charging money for them? I think that might actually be one of the more despicable things I have seen in any game, and I voluntarily bought Brink.

So yes, whilst technically TOR is "free-to-play", it's perhaps the worst implementation of a free-to-play system I have seen in any game to date. Ironically, perhaps TOR's best feature, the single-player story, is completely free with no restrictions whatsoever. That would be the only reason that I would ever recommend that anyone should try TOR out, because the story (at least for the Warrior, which I completed) is truly exceptional. Beyond that, forget TOR ever existed. I could not be more disgusted with BioWare's tentacles oozing out from TOR and making a direct run for your wallet. I guess the meeting for TOR's free-to-play conversion went a little something like, "Hey, let's consider everything that every successful free-to-play game has done with regards to monetisation and then toss that out of the window. Time for lunch!"

Ugh. The more I write the more I think that maybe EA deserves that award. But no, while I think they have done a lot of crappy things recently (and apparently their board agrees, since John Riccitiello was recently ousted as its CEO) and has lost its way significantly, I still don't think they're worse than the likes of AT&T and Bank of America. Let's be honest though, it isn't a complete wash for EA. They were still willing to take risks over something like Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, which they published under their EA Partners label (and the sad news is that EA are apparently ending that program). Whilst no one could say what happened with KOA was a success (with it ultimately leading to the implosion of 38 Studios), that was hardly EA's fault. By all accounts KOA was a solid initial title (that I recently picked up on sale for $8, so will be trying it out myself) that suffered from significant financial mismanagement behind the scenes. So anyway, at least EA's soul isn't completely beyond saving. As it stands though, even Angel would find himself hard-pressed to see where to start here.

I truly hope that EA turns it around.  The forthcoming appointment of their new CEO will do much to indicate in what direction they wish to go. Personally, I hope they move away from the flagrant pennypinching and "pay for everything" attitude that has been so pervasive in EA's culture these past few years, and that they actually make a return to treating their customers with respect and trying to earn your money, rather than believing that they have a god-given right to it.

The ball's in your court EA...

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Site Changes

Readers with eyes may have noticed that I've done a little spring cleaning around here.  The layout has been "freshened up" a little, and I have changed the name to Unbooted (but the old domain will redirect here for a few more months at least).

I hope you like the changes.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

"We'll Solve This The Old-Fashioned Way - With Violence"

I posted an article over at Destructoid about violence in games (specifically BioShock Infinite, but also touching on other titles) which I'll link here, on the off chance that anyone wants to take a look at it:

Friday, April 5, 2013

Infinitely Biological

I just finished BioShock Infinite an hour or so ago and wanted to at least get this article started while everything was still very fresh in my mind.

BioShock Infinite is an amazing game, an amazing experience, and everyone should play it.

I would absolutely say that BI is right up there with Portal 2, Deus Ex: Human Revolution and the original BioShock as one of the best games made in the past ten years, easily.

I ordinarily do not pre-order games anymore, post-Brink (of which I shall never speak again), but when the first reviews started to roll in on the Monday (for the Tuesday release), specifically 10 / 10 on Destructoid and 91% at PC Gamer (honestly I think that's a tad low, but it's still a great score), I figured that since it was going to be a light gaming year (unless TESO or Neverwinter rocks then this is basically it until Watch Dogs and South Park: The Stick of Truth at the end of the year) I would go in on it, especially since GreenManGaming were doing a very nice deal of $60 + $15 credit + X-Com: Enemy Unknown + The Darkness 2.

That first night I loaded it up and expected to do what I usually do which is mess around for a few minutes, have a bit of a look around and then put it to bed with an expectation of picking it back up again in a few weeks or maybe a couple of months.  As someone is fond of constantly reminding me, I have yet to finish BioShock 2 and that came out several years ago.  I figured BioShock Infinite would probably go the same way.

It did not.

Once I started playing I just could not stop.

BioShock Infinite is a breathtakingly beautiful game.  Visually, the art style just pops and has sex with your eyes everywhere you look; from hummingbirds buzzing around, to intricate signs and paintings, to the buildings slowly moving up and down, there is always something new and vibrant to look at.  The floating city of Columbia is nothing less than a feast for your eyes.

Gameplay-wise, there isn't much different here from the original BioShock, at least not initially.  One hand carries your weapon du jour (you can have two equipped at once and switch from one to the other via a hotkey), whilst the other houses your current vigor (like weapons, you can have two equipped and can swap at will).  Vigors are essentially plasmids from the original BioShock (now powered by salts, not Eve), fantastic abilities which verge on magic in some cases, with varied effects.  I don't really want to spoil these here because they are quite fun, but broadly you can lift enemies in the air or surround them with a murderous...murder...of crows, for two examples.  In addition, if you hold down the button for them it will instead place a "trap" version of the power on the ground which will then trigger the next time an enemy walks over it.  This is fairly useless early on, but becomes more important down the line when it helps to at least have a basic plan other than running into the middle of a pack of enemies, shouting "Leeroy!" and toting your gun.

With the introduction of the skyrails though, all bets are off.  These are essentially train tracks in the sky, and you can zoom along them (forward or back, fast or slow) using your skyhook (which also nicely doubles as your melee weapon) and even land on enemies when you dismount, which will usually kill them or at least make them think intensely about their chosen career path.  This element of verticality literally brings a whole new dimension to combat, and changes zones from being simple straight progressions to something much more open and engaging.

The real standout aspect of the game though, as with the original BioShock, is the story.

You play as Booker DeWitt, a disgraced former Pinkerton agent (think Blackwater but turn of the century) down on his luck, hired by persons unknown to retrieve a woman called Elizabeth which will erase some rather considerable debts you have incurred.  I am certainly not going to spoil the story here, other than to say it is mind-bending, intricate, and nothing other than a masterpiece.  I think it is something that will be the new gold standard when it comes to story-based shooters, and perhaps just stories in games altogether.  If I have one criticism (and this seems to be a common point shared by others) it's that you get the story doled out in pieces fairly regularly for the first 3/4 or so of the game, and then in the last thirty minutes the narrative just goes into overdrive and it's story, story, story, thrown at you left and right.  For someone like me, who is a sucker for a good story that is well told, then it was less of an issue, but even so it still felt a little jarring in places.  Moving some of the story elements a little further back into the game might have helped a bit with this sense of overload near the end.

Coupled with the story is Elizabeth herself, arguably the best part of the game and perhaps more important than Booker himself.  She is with you for most of the game (with some notable exceptions), and might be one of the best characters I have seen in any game.  Her mannerisms, her facial expressions, everything about her screams that she is just a person and not a character in a game.  She is not targeted in combat (other than some scripted sequences) so you do not have to babysit her, and she will assist you when engaged against enemies.  If you are taking some hits she will sometimes toss you health, if you are low on salts she will often find some for you, and she can also find ammo and sometime even money.  In addition, she will spot the more powerful enemy types and mark them on the screen for a short time so you know where they are.  She can even pick locks for you, revealing hidden areas.  In short, she is a delight, to the point where you genuinely miss her presence during those periods of the game when she is not with you.

Elizabeth's other main ability is the ability to open tears into other universes and bring things through to help you.  These could be weapons, cover, sometimes even guardians that will protect you for a short time.  Making the best use of these tears can sometimes be challenging, and while there is no limit to the amount Elizabeth can open for you, she can only open one at a time.  Of course, you also need to find out why Elizabeth has this ability in the first place...

I also want to mention the voice acting, which is phenomenal.  Veteran voice actor Troy Baker voices Booker, and newcomer Courtnee Draper is the voice of Elizabeth; both turn in accomplished performances.  Draper particularly shines as Elizabeth, bringing true depth and emotion to what could have been just another generic game companion.  Jennifer Hale, better known as the Female Commander Shepard from the Mass Effect series, also makes an appearance as Rosalind Lutece, and a personal favourite of mine, Keith Szarabajka, plays Cornelius Slate (but to me he will always be Holtz from Angel).

As I said I am not going to spoil anyone here and reveal any plot details, but the ending of the game really elevates it from being great to truly exceptional.  BioShock's ending was criticised quite heavily in some quarters for being something of an anticlimax and Irrational have not made the same mistake twice, crafting a story that twists and turns but has real impact and a genuine resolution at the end.  It is so good that I am considering buying the season pass for the DLC (which is unheard of for me), because if all the three announced pieces of content are up to the standard of the main game then I have absolutely no problem in doing so.  Like Oliver Twist, I just want more - more Columbia, more Elizabeth, more Booker, more everything.

In an era where some game companies are happy to produce shit and then try to charge you through the nose for it (looking at you EA), BioShock Infinite stands out as one of the best games I have ever played.  I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Would you kindly go pick it up?

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Origin Still Adding Value Screwing Gamers

I've written before about the restrictive DRM practices of companies like Ubisoft (who thankfully have recently come to their senses and scrapped theirs) and Blizzard, and how it does almost nothing other than make it harder or even impossible (in some cases) to play the game someone has paid for, whilst doing almost nothing to prevent piracy.

Fortunately a wild new example has appeared, and it may be the best case in point thus far about how bad things can get when it's abused by the publisher.  The new SimCity, by all accounts an ok game, requires you to be connected to EA's Origin service at all times to play your single-player game.  In addition, no information is saved locally on your PC, so if you do somehow manage to get SimCity connected through Origin (and that's a big if), Origin reserves the right to screw you down the line by having the server fail to save your game correctly, losing any and all progress you have made in the past since the last successful sync.

Things got so bad that for a couple of days this week Amazon actually had the balls to stop selling the game, instead showing it as "Unavailable" and linking to Origin's page about the continuing server issues that were plaguing it.  Angry gamers also decided to post numerous 1-star reviews on Amazon, tanking its rating for all to see.

So far EA's response has been to actually disable some features of the game (you couldn't make this up...) such as leaderboards and achievements, in order to free up server capacity for people to, you know, actually play the game.

EA and Maxis continue to add additional server capacity, but for now it's a crap shoot whether you can actually get to play that game you purchased, coupled with will any save game data actually save to Origin, since there is no local save to your machine.

Good god, the shitstorm over Diablo III was bad but EA found a way to top it and make their game look a hundred times worse in comparison.  Why on earth is there no local save?  Why does absolutely everything require you to be connected to Origin to do it?  Why did they not see the number of pre-orders they had and then budget the amount of server capacity accordingly?  This is just junior grade incompetence of the highest order, with EA demonstrating just how hard it is to like them these past couple of years.

EA apparently will give out a free game to everyone who has bought SimCity by way of apology (through Origin though, so don't expect to be able to play it), so I guess that somehow makes it all ok.

These kinds of DRM need to just die a horrible death.  Kudos to EA for managing to find a way to sabotage a decent game with this horrendous always-on system that torpedoes the gaming experience.

In the meantime, I would strongly advise anyone to avoid purchasing this game.  Not only is there a good chance you won't actually be able to play it, but it just sends the message to EA that people are ok with this kind of anti-consumer system.

I will close with the first sentence of the top review for SimCity on Amazon, which explains things more eloquently than I ever could:

"Guess what? If you'd love to experience the nonstop thrills and excitement of SimCity, then please remove $60 from your bank and promptly pay someone to kick you repeatedly in the friggin' mouth."

You just can't buy that kind of publicity.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Aliens: Colonial Latrines

Another week, another game controversy.

This time it's Gearbox's Aliens: Colonial Marines, by all accounts an atrocious train wreck of a game that seems to have suffered from the "too many cooks" syndrome of thinking that more developers = a better game.  Clearly, this is not the case.

The game has been in active development for around six years, after Sega purchased the gaming rights to Aliens from Fox and then approached Gearbox to develop the game for them.  From various leaks in the past few days it seems clear that Gearbox did not take the project as seriously as they should've, choosing instead to focus on their own in-house projects of Borderlands and then Borderlands 2 (which are both great games).

Gearbox outsourced Aliens to TimeGate Studios, developers of the average-at-best FPS Section 8, to do most of the heavy lifting on the singleplayer campaign, whilst Gearbox themselves would concentrate on the multiplayer, with Demiurge and Nerve heading the DLC and other ancillary tasks.  So far that's four different studios involved, not counting the publisher.

As Sega began to make threatening noises with regards to possibly suing Gearbox for breach of contract for not delivering the game as promised (since they were busy working on Borderlands, then Duke Nukem Forever, then Borderlands 2) Gearbox began to run out of time and excuses.  The work from TimeGate on the singleplayer was (reportedly) poor, and so Gearbox had to scrap much of that and start from scratch.  Sega granted them one final extension, and essentially it seems that much of the game was cobbled together over this previous year or so.  Features that were stated to be in the game were simply dropped, or implemented so poorly that they should have been dropped.

Gearbox tried to pull all of the disparate elements together into one cohesive game, but the writing was on the wall.  The game itself has been panned on almost every single gaming site and print magazine.  Notable mentions go to PC Gamer which awarded the game 48 / 100 (ironically it scored as high as it did mostly for the multiplayer); Destructoid which Jim Sterling gave 2.5 / 10; and Eurogamer which gave the game 3 / 10 (again, mostly for its multiplayer).  Its current rating on Metacritic is 42 for the PC version.

Nobody looks good coming out of this, not Sega, not Gearbox, not Randy Pitchford (President and CEO of Gearbox), not TimeGate nor any of the other collaborating studios.  In particular, heavy criticism has been levelled at Gearbox for the major differences between the demo of Aliens: Colonial Marines that they displayed at PAX and other shows, and the final product which is almost entirely different.  Jim Sterling has an excellent video describing these changes and he is not one to mince words.

I like Randy Pitchford, I like Gearbox and I like many of their games (the Borderlands series particularly), but Gearbox really look bad in this.  They took on a project, essentially half-assed it for a number of years, farmed it out to another middling developer, failed to adequately monitor what they were doing, then rushed to try and pull it all together at the end.  It was the gaming equivalent of a college student pulling an all-nighter to turn in an essay due the next day that he'd been putting off for three months.  Gearbox's deception over the demo (for which the phrase "bait-and-switch" seems eminently suitable) adds the cherry to the top of this shit-sandwich.

So is this the end for Gearbox?  No, but their reputation has taken a heavy hit over all of this.  No doubt fingers will continue to be pointed over the next few weeks, Gearbox will come up with a bunch of excuses ranging from solar flares to sabotage by the Illuminati as to why the game turned out as it did; perhaps some of these will he justified but I'm sure most of them won't.  The only thing that can be said with certainty is that the game stinks and is not worth the $50 they are charging for it.  If you desperately want to play it (perhaps you like cutting yourself, perhaps you're just a big fan of the circus) then wait for a Steam sale, which by all accounts will probably happen sooner rather then later.  Do everyone else a bigger favour though and just don't buy the game at all.  Don't reward developers for putting out crap like this because that just sends them the message that it's ok to make shit because people will buy it.

It's particularly disappointing that this comes from Gearbox, a developer that has made perhaps two of the best shooters of the past decade in Borderlands and Borderlands 2.  How they can think this is ok in 2013 is beyond me.  I would strongly advise anyone thinking about purchasing this game to avoid this turkey at all costs.

Shame on you Gearbox.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

For Sale: One Game Publisher (Slightly Used But In Good Condition)

It seems like the dust has settled on the fallout from THQ's bankruptcy sale, and it's not great news all around (see below).

THQ were initially going to sell to one company, set up as THQ2 and continue life fairly unchanged, but the bankruptcy court decided that if separate bids on all of THQ's assets exceeded the $60m bid already tabled for the entire company then a piecemeal sale it would be, and that's precisely what happened.

The two biggest items when it comes to PC gaming concerned South Park: The Stick of Truth, and Vigil Games.  Ubisoft picked up the rights to publish South Park, but the matter has been further complicated by South Park Studios filing a motion with the court to invalidate the sale of the rights to Ubisoft, stating that their own contract with THQ prevents any transfer of the licence they granted, provided they repay all monies received from THQ to date.  Theoretically this would mean they could "buy back" the game from THQ and then shop it around to any publisher they wanted, which would likely be an easy sell since the game at this point is probably almost complete.  The court has yet to rule on SPS's motion, and it is unclear when they will do so.  The cynical part of me expects this to be resolved by Ubisoft throwing a pile of money at SPS to make their objections go away.

The second aspect of the sale was the sad news that Vigil Games (developers of the Darksiders series) received no bids and have therefore been shuttered.  Vigil were also developing the Warhammer 40k MMO, which was later scaled back to be a single-player game, before THQ stopped talking about it completely.  This probably means that the game will never see the light of day, especially now Vigil is defunct, although THQ stated that they would continue to make "every effort" to sell those assets which have not yet been disposed of (presumably including Vigil).  Vigil was a solid developer and both Darksiders games were well-received by gamers and the industry, so it's truly tragic that no one decided to buy them.

Going forward, it will be interesting to see how the South Park situation pans out, and whether Ubisoft get to keep their publishing rights or if they revert to SPS.  Either way, it's now highly unlikely the game will make its March 2013 release date.  I would expect this to be pushed back to much later in the year, perhaps late summer at the earliest.  We can only hope that the game itself does not suffer as a result of this.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Upcoming Games of 2013 - Part 2

Continuing my round-up of the most interesting and appealing PC games due to launch in 2013.

Starting us off...


Developer: Cryptic Studios
Publisher: Perfect World Entertainment
Expected: 1H 2013

Cryptic's first game following their takeover by Chinese game company Perfect World Entertainment, Neverwinter is an MMORPG set in the town of...Neverwinter...and will utilise a modified form of the 4th Edition of the Dungeons & Dragons ruleset.  As with all of Perfect World's games, it will be fully free-to-play with no charge for either the client or a recurring subscription (although expect an optional subscription to make an appearance).

The game itself was initially billed as a co-op RPG, in that you could build a group of up to five players and then go dungeon crawling to see what you could find.  Recent updates have indicated that the game has been restructured into a full MMORPG at Perfect World's behest, resulting in its delay to the current release date of "early 2013".

Neverwinter is also notable for its "Foundry" system, which will allow players to create their own adventures, quests, and locations for friends and other players to try out.

Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher: Ubisoft
Expected: Q4 2013

One of the breakout hits from E3 2012, Watch Dogs is an action-adventure game which posits that information has become currency and that technology is becoming increasingly connected.  Similar to Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Dishonored, you will have objectives to achieve in an open world but will able to choose your own method of achieving those goals.

You can hack various computer systems, such as traffic lights and cellphones, and will be able to pull up information on your mobile computer about NPCs, such as their current financial state, and their propensity for violence.  This will help you decide how exactly you wish to approach scenarios involving certain individuals.

Watch Dogs is probably the game I am most excited for for 2013.  We have been treated to a gluttony of exceptional action-adventure open world games recently (such as the aforementioned DE:HR and  Dishonored, together with Thief 4 in development and also the Assassin's Creed games) and this looks to be the next evolution.  There is also talk of there being some kind of co-op (online?) included in the game, as the video below seems to indicate.  With Ubisoft having abandoned their stupid PC DRM then you should have no excuse to check this out, hopefully towards the end of this year.

Developer: Trion Worlds
Publisher: Trion Worlds
Expected: April 2013

In what will be a gaming first, Defiance, a co-op MMO (FPS?) will be launching alongside a SyFy TV series this April.  Both the game and the show are in parallel development, with each intended to influence the other as events unfold.  The TV show is set in St. Louis, whereas the game is set in San Francisco, so there is that separation, but crossover is expected from both sides down the line.

It's an intriguing idea, and I am very interested to see how it works out.  No spoilers here, but in brief terms the show (and presumably the game too) tells a futuristic story of several alien races who come to Earth seeking a new home, and chronicles how these aliens and humans attempt to co-exist in such a new paradigm.

That's all well and good, but what if the game bombs but the TV series is great, will that continue standalone?  Or what if the TV series just can't keep up with the heady heights of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo or The Jersey Shore and gets pulled, but the game does well, can / will the game carry on by itself?  Ideally they will both be good, but (a) I'm a realist, and (b) I don't want to push my luck.  Either way, it's a fascinating experiment and I look forward to seeing how this unfolds.  The game is being made by Trion Worlds, notable for their successful MMORPG Rift, so the pedigree there is solid.

Those interested in the Defiance beta can sign in here with their Trion Worlds account (or make a new one if you have never played a Trion game before) to be considered for the first beta event, which begins on 18th January.

Developer: Maxis
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Expected: 5th March 2013 (NA), 8th March 2013 (EU)

The latest game in the SimCity series, the 2013 version comes courtesy of a new simulation engine known as GlassBox, which allows for more accurate representations of what is actually happening in realtime in your city, as opposed to pre-rendered animations that are chosen as the closest match to your current activity.

The game itself looks very pretty, and the new 3D rendering engine does an excellent job of showcasing your city, including (for the first time!) roads that are actually curved, instead of straight as in every other SimCity game to date.

Unfortunately, you have to be connected to EA's servers at all times to be able to play the game, even when playing in single-player.  You would have thought that in 2013 this was dead and buried, but apparently not. Nothing turns me off a game more than this, and this is no exception here.  Devs can talk all they want about "value-added" and "how it's good for the gamer" but I'm afraid I'm not buying it, both literally and figuratively.  It's disappointing to see a solid game starting from two steps back just from its DRM, but there you go.

Remember Me

Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Publisher: Capcom
Expected: 4th June 2013

Perhaps the sleeper hit of 2013 waiting to happen (this year's Dishonored?), Remember Me is a futuristic platformer / action-adventure title, set in a future where memories have become a commodity to be bought and sold.  You play as Nilin, a so-called "memory-hunter" on the run from her previous employer, Memoreyes, who have seen fit to erase your memory for reasons unknown.  You must reclaim your old memories and find out why they were taken from you in the first place.

The first game from Paris-based studio Dontnod Entertainment, Remember Me (initially known as Adrift) garnered much attention at Gamescom 2011, which ultimately led to no less than four different publishers trying to pick the game up.  Dontnod eventually signed on with Capcom with a view to releasing the game in mid-2013.

I always have a soft spot for new IPs trying to plow their own furrow in the endless seas of Modern Warfares, Battlefields, and Assassin's Creeds, and Remember Me certainly looks like one to watch.  It's notable for what you won't be able to do, which is wield any guns (you use fighting styles only, no weapons) or even die.  On paper this looks like a rough path to take, especially for a new game from a new studio, but four publishers apparently thought differently.

And that's your lot, folks.  Nine games that look like the cream of the crop for 2013.  No doubt every single one will be delayed to 2014.