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?