Friday, 5 October 2012

Eurogamer Expo 2012: Something is different

Last week saw the annual Eurogamer Expo take place at the Earls Court Exhibition Centre in London and this year, along with a few friends, I decided to attend. The last time I graced the hallowed halls of the Eurogamer Expo was back in 2010 and this year there were a couple of things that struck me about the whole event, things that were markedly different from the last time I attended.

The most telling difference was in the clientèle attending the show. While you still had a good number of your stereotypical ‘gamer types’: overweight, neck bearded, badly dressed (and in need of good shower); I was surprised at the number of females and also parents with their children in attendance. It was good to see that different demographics now feel comfortable with expressing their love of gaming and attending expos like this. 

The other big difference I noticed was the growth in indie and casual games on the show floor. While previous shows had included an Indie Games Arcade, this year on top of the arcade, there was a whole extra area given over to indie orientated games and there were also a lot of smaller XBLA/PSN/Steam type games on show along with a few ‘casual’ games as well.  It was certainly a change to two years ago when the likes of Hell Yeah! and Hotline Miami would have stood no chance of getting a look in against the big blockbuster titles.

Shows like this often hold a mirror up to the gaming industry and it was interesting to see the way things had changed. Yes, you still had your scantily-clad models, your cosplayers and the aforementioned ‘gamer types’, but you also had clear proof that gaming is starting to move out of the cupboard and join the rest of the entertainment industry.

It felt refreshing to walk around the show floor and see all the different people enjoying their hobby. There was a different feel to the whole show from when I was last in attendance and I think that has a lot to do with the industry growing up and the influx of a more rounded group of people into gaming as a whole. Personally, I welcome the change and I look forward to seeing whether things continue in this direction and next year’s Expo has the same kind of feel.

I'll finish by posting a video taken of us all during the event.

Just as a small side note Rab Florence (of Consolvania fame) has just posted a story in Eurogamer about the inclusion of Booth Babes at this year’s Expo. In reply the Managing Director has made an interesting post that outlines Eurogamer’s take on Booth Babes and I recommend everyone go and read it. You can find it here.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

What I Think:- Spec Ops: The Line

Spec Ops: The Line is an interesting game; very rarely do you get a shooter which sets out to make you question what you are actually doing. Call of Duty and the infamous ‘No Russian’ level had a slight tilt at this moral conundrum, but it wasn't the central theme of the game. For Spec Ops to task you with killing enemies and then get you to question whether what you are doing is the right thing is very rare in our medium.

The premise of the game is that as the captain of a Delta Force team you are charged with going to Dubai and finding out what has happened to Colonel John Konrad and his battalion which was sent into the city six months earlier to help evacuate the populace after a massive sandstorm hit. Dubai is now cut off from the rest of the world by a giant storm wall that prevents any communication from going in or coming out. It is your job to go in and find out what has being going on and why the 33rd Battalion has defected; so far so generic, but it isn't long before the situation starts to unravel and you learn that perhaps things are not quite what they seem. As you progress through the city the mental state of both the player character and his team-mates begin to unravel as the acts you are required to undertake, in order to get to the truth, become more and more questionable.  

There were times during the game where I really had to sit back and think about what I had done. One part in particular, which I wont go into as to do so would spoil the experience, really stood out and made me really question whether the lives I had taken were justified by the mission objective. This became even harder when the original goal to evacuate Dubai and save the populace was overtaken by the desire for revenge. It is at this juncture that I felt the game faltered slightly. To change direction in such a way means it's a whole lot easier for the game to make you feel bad about what you are doing. Whilst the saving of innocents can often justify deplorable acts, when it becomes just about revenge there is less ambiguity and it is much easier to see such acts for what they really are. Consequently the question of what behaviour is acceptable during warfare becomes less effective. While I applaud Yager Development for sticking to their objective, I feel that this change in tact did the game a disservice and watered down the central conceit about what is truly acceptable in combat.

However Yager Development should be commended for following through on their promise to centre the game around this question and they generally succeed in their objective. There are a lot of violent games released every week, but this is the first time I can remember actually questioning all the carnage. That they managed to invoke that response is testament to the world they have created. At times it can come across as slightly hackneyed, but it is mostly conveyed with finesse.

There have been complaints from various media outlets that the game surrounding this moral quandary is not up to scratch. While I will agree that in places the graphics look a bit ropey and the combat is not on a par with other cover based titans, such as Gears of War, it is functional and I found it enjoyable to play as a shooter; besides quibbling about such things is missing the point. Journalists and commentators are forever bemoaning the fact that games never bother to tackle moral issues. It is always clear who is the bad guy and you always play the good guy. However, when a game comes along that tries to tackle the issue of the morality of war, instead of recognising the bravery of such a move, the focus is instead on how the game isn’t as technically sound as the best games in the genre. There are already enough Gears of War clones in the market and Yager should be praised for trying something different. Games seem to be able to get away with average story when backed-up with good gameplay, but not when the story excels and the gameplay doesn't. To me this is wrong headed; the industry needs to grow up a bit and understand that gameplay is not the be-all and end-all.  

If, like me, you have a desire to see the shooter genre move forward and for third person shooters in particular to move away from the sterile arena in which they have been trapped, then I recommend that you take a look at this game. Don’t expect a technical marvel, but do expect to encounter something a little different; a game that is willing to buck the trend and get the player to really think about what they are doing. 

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

The Return of the Used Game

So you thought with the advent of digital distribution that second-hand sales would go the way of the dodo? Well think again ­– as yesterday the European Court of Justice ruled that publishers can not prevent their customers from reselling games they have bought digitally. This means that consumers within the European Union are now free to sell any games they have purchased from sites such as Origin, Steam and Gamersgate, regardless of any End User Legal Agreement they might have signed when they downloaded. This is bad news for publishers as they were hopeful that digital distribution would slay the dragon of used games sales.

Right now, of all the major digital distribution sites out there, only Green Man Gaming allows customers to trade some of their games back in and it is unclear whether the rest will look to incorporate this feature into their sites, or whether it will take a customer to enforce this right before there are any changes. Whatever the reaction, I am sure it is a major blow to publishers.
It is a well-known fact that second-hand sales are a major problem for companies like EA and Activision. Indeed in the past few years they have tried to come up with a variety of schemes to limit used copies of games and entice people to buy a new copy, such as EA’s Project Ten Dollar. The reason for this is because they do not receive any money from the resale and it also counts as a lost sale because the customer has not bought a new copy of the game. It was always believed that digital distribution would expunge this’ annoying’ feature of the market as it is not as easy to trade-in downloadable games and currently there is no real way to do so. However this ruling changes all that and will require publishers and content providers to provide a way for customers to be able to sell on any games they download.

I wonder whether this ruling will change minds and put a break on the current rush to a digital world. On the same day as the ruling was announced, our old friend EA Labels boss, Frank Gibeau, told Gamesindustry International that “...we're going to be a 100 per cent digital company, period. It's going to be there some day. It's inevitable." He went on to say that this change will take place in the not too distant future. Will this new development push their plans back a bit, or will they carry on regardless? Whatever publishers such as EA choose to do, there is no doubt that this ruling will eat into their profits, much like pre-owned sales at retail are currently doing.

However, with publishers now having a more direct route to customers through digital distribution and knowing about this development, ahead of it becoming a widespread practice, they can move to lessen the impact. Green Man Gaming shows the road forward in the way they currently deal with trade-ins. They have setup deals with various publishers where they receive a payment every time their game is sold, thus making them a bit of money from trade-ins. However, the boss of Green Man Gaming, Paul Sulyok, sees another issue that may arise now that people can resell digital games.

"The classic technique of deep discount, short time limited discounts, all of that will be slightly skewed now, because you don't want to have a deep discounted game that can then be sold on elsewhere. The secondary market then cuts in and then what will happen is the same sort of thing as you've seen in the high street whereby a supermarket chain puts a fantastic discount on a product for consumers and all the other high street retailers trot down to the supermarket to buy them to stop them." (Quote courtesy of Eurogamer

So you could see one company going to say, Steam, buying up a load of copies of the game at a cheap price and then selling them on at a slightly higher price, thus making a nice profit. This would be fairly easy to solve by preventing people from buying numerous copies of the same game, but it is still a headache for publishers and digital distribution companies to have to deal with.

I think the way forward is for publishers to follow Green Man Gaming’s example. They know about this ruling now so they should be proactive. Setup deals with all the major digital distributors that allow them to see a bit of the money from any resale of a product. However with publishers more concerned about the bottom line, any loss of money will most probably be seen as heresy and so instead they will no doubt try to fight against any digital distribution platform offering any kind of trade-in or resale scheme.

As it stands this is a good deal for consumers and helps to reaffirm a right that many feared may disappear with the move to a digital world; namely that when you buy a product, whether it is physical or digital, you own the rights to do with that product what you wish. This ruling strengthens that right and puts it down in law.

I look forward to seeing what the industries’ reaction to this is and in particular how the ‘darling’ of the digital distribution world, Steam, deals with it. But for now I’ll finish by quoting the prescient part of the ruling.

"Where the copyright holder makes available to his customer a copy - tangible or intangible - and at the same time concludes, in return form payment of a fee, a licence agreement granting the customer the right to use that copy for an unlimited period, that rightholder sells the copy to the customer and thus exhausts his exclusive distribution right. Such a transaction involves a transfer of the right of ownership of the copy. Therefore, even if the licence prohibits a further transfer, the rightholder can no longer oppose the resale of that copy." (Eurogamer)

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Why you should seriously consider building your own PC.

Today’s post is really more of an information piece as I wish to draw attention to an area of gaming that people often don’t even think about; building your own gaming PC.

As we reach the 'fag-end' of the console cycle, the PC has become the lead platform for many of the games now being developed, they also look best on the PC as the power it can bring to the table outstrips what is possible on the aging console hardware. Consequently if you want a system that can give you modern games with the best graphics then you need to turn to the PC.

The following article by Eurogamer helps to dispel the classic myth that PC gaming is expensive. As they show, for very little out-lay you can get a pretty powerful system that allows you to play all the new releases. You don’t even need to worry about having to play at a desk as modern PC graphics cards now come with HDMI ports allowing you to easily hook up your PC to an LCDTV; add in an Xbox 360 wired pad and living room PC play is possible, giving you exactly the same experience as a console, but with better graphics and of course the ability to do everything else you normally can on a PC.

I know for some it may be a bit daunting to think about building your own PC, as the article suggests, but as someone who has built his last three PCs let me tell you that it is totally worth it. It isn’t as hard as it first appears and there is plenty of help out there for when you take the plunge. The first link below is to a site which provides a wealth of useful information and help with building your first PC and the other two are great places to go if you become stuck and need a bit of technical help.

Once you take the plunge you will never go back, plus there are two added bonuses. Firstly you get far more ‘bang for your buck’ when you build your PC from scratch than you do by buying off the shelf, and secondly it is much easier to upgrade.

As someone who is a ‘self built PC’ convert I would heartily recommend that you take the plunge, especially as components have never been cheaper and right now the PC is where you are guaranteed the best graphics. I haven’t even mentioned Steam or the much wider variety of gaming experiences available on the system, but suffice it to say that if you want the best gaming experience possible right now forget the Xbox 360 or PS3, forget the forth-coming Wii , build yourself a PC. I promise you, you will never look back. 

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Do games have to please everyone to be successful?

"In general we’re thinking about how we make this a more broadly appealing franchise, because ultimately you need to get to audience sizes of around five million to really continue to invest in an IP like Dead Space. Anything less than that and it becomes quite difficult financially given how expensive it is to make games and market them."

The above is a quote from EA Labels President Frank Gibeau. He is talking about the next instalment in the Dead Space series, Dead Space 3 and the quote is in answer to the response that the game received from the gaming world during and after E3. At E3 Electronic Arts focussed very heavily on the action side of the game with new features such as unified ammo, an emphasis on action with the introduction of a cover system and two player co-op very much to the fore. There was less shown of the horror side of the game, something that fans associate with the Dead Space series. Consequently fans got a bit upset and questioned whether Dead Space 3 was heading in a direction they didn’t want the series to take. The cover system in particular had people claiming that the game was going to be action focused and that the horror elements were going to take a back seat.

Visceral Games, developers of the game, have quickly moved to quash any fears series fans might have by saying that the original horror element is still present. Senior producer on the game, Dave Altman, told Eurogamer,

"A traditional fan wants to have that alone in the dark on the couch moment. That game's there for you...Tight corridors, atmosphere, tension, horror, everything you've come to know and expect. No AI followers, not anyone chatting in your ear the whole time. It's the game that you know when you see Dead Space."

We won’t know if this is really the case; or whether Visceral are trying to keep fans onside, until the game is released in February 2013. But whoever is right, it is the comments by Gibeau that highlight a problem that I see developing in the game industry, and it’s something EA are becoming more and more guilty of.

It seems that EA and others think that all you need to do in order to make a good game sell better is to bung in a load of features - such as multiplayer and if it is a third person game a cover system - that apparently appeal to a broader audience. Do this and you are guaranteed to instantly boost sales. However, I question the wisdom of spending more money on a game series in order to try and open it up to a wider audience in the hope that it achieves more sales. I just feel that this doesn’t achieve anything.

I have no problem with developers and publishers making games that specifically try to appeal to the broadest market possible. After all they need to make money and just look how successful Call of Duty has been by following this strategy. However, I fail to see the sense in trying to take an existing series that is well liked and has a large, if not huge following, and trying to turn it into a mass market game; all the while trying to keep the series fans on board. I just don’t think it works and EA more than anyone should know this. They tried to do this with Dragon Age 2 and ended up with an inferior product that didn’t attract many new players and seriously alienated those who liked the original. Dragon Age 2 sold around 150,000 units in its first ten weeks which compares with the 250,000 units sold by the original game, Dragon Age: Origins. In total DA2 sold around 1.45m units while DA:O sold over double that at 3.79m. These figures demonstrate that all EA succeeded in doing by making the game more appealing to the mass market was to seriously impact sales, probably by driving away series fans with the precise changes that were meant to result in more sales. Now they look like making the same mistake with Dead Space 3.

Certain companies seem to have it ass-backwards when it comes to making games. They want to hit the magic sales mark, in the case of Dead Space 3 five million, because of the cost of making the game, but the game has only become more expensive because you want to appeal to more people, so you have to put extra resources into it in the hope of broadening the audience. The game then fails to hit the necessary sales mark because the publisher/developer changed the game so much that they ended up not pleasing anyone. 

Just introducing certain features like co-op or multiplayer into a game in order to make it appeal to a wider audience isn’t going to work. It’s not ‘back of the box’ features that sell games, but the quality of the product in the box. The reason why the Call of Duty series is so successful is because Call of Duty: Modern Warfare was an excellent game and the series built off that. Make an excellent game, market it correctly and the sales will come. Trying to take a pretty successful franchise and boost it into the top-tier sales wise by messing with the formula and alienating the fans doesn’t work. The fans lose out because the game changes and becomes something they no longer want to play, the publisher loses out because sales aren’t high enough and they either don’t make enough money or no money at all, and the developer loses out as they end up being closed down because the game didn’t sell enough.

I hope Dead Space 3 turns out well and doesn’t end up alienating fans - whilst failing to find that broader audience it strives for - as no one wants to see a good game fail, but if publishers continue to mess around with popular franchises in this way, then we are all on a 'hiding to nothing.' 

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Wii U be buying one?

So the Wii U.

Nintendo had promised that it would be for the core gamers and the press conference at E3 would be all about the games. However the truth turned out to be altogether different. 
Nintendo started strong by showing Pikmin 3 and followed that with New Super Mario Bros U, but things soon went downhill. First up was a lengthy demo of a game that many people have already played, Arkham City:Armoured Edition. Next we had yet more focus put on casual titles such as Wii Fit U and SiNG. Finally they then finished off by showing NintendoLand which, while a good way of demonstrating what you can do with the new controller, it wasn’t a game that the core wanted and to compound things right at the end Reggie told the audience that there was one more thing to come. Were we about to see a quick shot of a new Metroid game or perhaps another Zelda HD movie, no we just got a fireworks display from NintendoLand.

This was not exactly the showing that many were hoping for and indeed there was much criticism levelled at Nintendo directly after the conference ended and in the days since. What made it even worse was that during E3 itself Nintendo went on to show a number of interesting ‘core’ games such as Platinum’s new game Project P-100, Game and Wario and a great on-the-floor demo of Zombie U which could have easily replaced the Batman one shown during the conference. Here were a few games that Nintendo could have shown during the conference that may have tempered the fury a bit.

However the whole of E3 failed to demonstrate to me what Nintendo want to offer with the Wii U. A major message during the show seemed to be about allowing people to keep playing games when someone wants to use the TV–a novel goal, but not necessarily a problem that plagues many people. It may be the case in the East that people only have the one TV and there is a constant battle over who does what on it, but in the West people generally have multiple TVs in their homes so this fails to be a problem. Added to that if the system is meant to be about enticing ‘core’ gamers back to the fold, what do they care about this issue. They certainly are not battling to use the TV. Come on, they are gamers; they either live on their own or in their parents basement. I jest, but seriously if you are a gamer then you will already have some form of setup that will allow you to continue gaming when the main TV is in use.  So this message doesn’t resonate with them.
The other message Nintendo seemed to be championing again was that the Wii U is perfect for the ‘casual’ audience who bought a Wii. A large part of the press conference was devoted to this message, but does this audience want a new system or was the Wii the only console they ever needed. Or indeed have they moved on, perhaps to mobile/tablet gaming. There is also the question as to whether they even know that this is an entirely new console. Much hilarity ensured after CNN posted a story claiming that the Wii U was just a periphery to the Wii. If a major news organisation can’t even tell what the Wii U is, how are consumer supposed to?

The whole thing was a bit of a mess, but I do have a bit of sympathy with Nintendo, even though I thought they blew a great opportunity to sell the Wii U to gamers. What else could Nintendo do with regards to a new console? They find themselves in a tough position. Microsoft and Sony are no doubt going to announce new consoles next year with good money on Microsoft, at least, having a new console on the market by Christmas 2013. This leaves Nintendo with a small window in which to operate. As I see it there are two options open to them. They either try and emulate the success of the Wii and appeal to the casual market, hoping that lightning strikes twice; or they release a system that is much more powerful and aimed at ‘core’ gamers, hoping that they can recapture a similar market share they had back in the 90s. Both options carry risks. As I’ve already mentioned it is debatable whether the ‘casual’ market Nintendo managed to tap into last time around still exists having flocked to mobile and Facebook gaming, although I continue to doubt claims that everyone is happy playing throwaway 5 minute trash on their phones. As for the ‘core’, the last time Nintendo tried to appeal to this market with the GameCube they had limited success, and coming off the back of the Wii they would have to work ten times as hard to convince those who own a 360 or PS3 that the Wii U is where they should be putting their money, especially with successors to both consoles just around the corner. Third party support would be hard to garner and if this kind of gambit failed, it could leave the company in serious financial difficulty. 

In the end it seems that Nintendo has tried to chart a path between the two and while this means that they haven’t really sacrificed anything when it comes to getting the ‘casuals’ invested again, the ‘hardcore’ it seems remain totally unconvinced that the Wii U is anything other than an HD Wii.

Partick Klepek said something that really chimed with my on one of the Giantbomb E3 podcasts. He likened Nintendo’s position to that of Sega when they were in the midst of releasing the Dreamcast and I can really see the similarities. We know how the Dreamcast turned out for Sega and I hope that the same doesn’t happen to Nintendo for although they have a great suite of IPs that would no doubt look great on Microsoft and Sony’s consoles, I can’t help thinking that Nintendo wouldn’t be the same company if they just made games. Making new hardware and innovating in that area drives the gaming side forward. Without those desires to innovate prelevant within the company, I think their gaming output would suffer and then they really would be just like Sega.

Nintendo stands at a crossroads with the Wii U and they need to decide which road they are going to travel down, because right now they want to go both left and right and when you try to do that, you invariably end up crashing into the ditch. 

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

E3's a coming...

Next week sees the start of this year’s E3, the premium video game trade show that allows the industry to showcase what they have coming up for the year ahead. Over the years, the press conferences in particular that run the days before the show official starts, have seen many shocks and surprises as the major platform holders demonstrate their new hardware or games.

This year however, things are altogether a bit more muted. Microsoft and Sony are not expected to make any big announcements as the console cycle is coming to an end and neither company is ready to show anything of their new systems. Also company's traditional stick to tried and tested formula as the console cycle winds down, so we are unlikely to see any surprise game announcements with publishers holding back most things for the next generation. This leaves it up to Nintendo to provide the surprises, with the Wii U set to get its full unveiling along with perhaps a price and launch date. 

When the Wii U was initially announced I was pretty sceptical. Whilst I had been excited about what the Wii meant for the industry, the terrible banality of a lot of the software produced, and a couple of lean years from Nintendo themselves, meant that I had lost a bit of faith in Nintendo and doubted whether they could produce another top level system. However as E3 approaches I find my excitement growing, I’ve always had a soft spot for Nintendo and I admire what they try to do with home consoles. The industry would certainly be a worse place if they did a Sega and just concentrated on software.

For me this excitement over what Nintendo is going to announce is what E3 is all about. Gaming is meant to be exciting and E3 can deliver that in spades, it’s just a shame that there is very little prospect of surprises this year. 

Regarding the show itself though it is good to see E3 getting back to where it belongs. A few years ago, during the financial crisis, people were questioning the need for such an expensive trade show, something I think they was wrong. Yes to an extent E3 had become overblown and companies were spending far too much money on the show, but the show gives the industry a unique platform to publicise their wares to the wider, mainstream media; people who don’t come to preview events and only really cover gaming when it is deemed newsworthy i.e. X game has been linked to Y violent act. This in turn gets gaming into the public conscience and portrays the industry in a positive light. Every major entertainment media has their marquee event and this is ours, without it, as an industry, we would be diminished. 

So while publishers, games journalists and developers bemoan having to spend a week in LA rushed off their feet, I will be rejoicing in all that E3 brings, hoping for that major surprise and thankful that we have such an event in the first place.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Stay a while and listen.

There is really only one subject that I could talk about on this week’s blog, Diablo III.

It's been 12 years since the previous game, Diablo II, and fans finally got the chance to play Blizzard's latest game in the serious last Tuesday. Unfortunately, as has been much documented across the Internet, the launch didn't exactly run smoothly–with login errors, server queues and even server failures all making the first 48 hours a bit of a chore for most. Even after the issues had been sorted players still complained of huge lag and for the first four days not one session would go by without some sort of lag interrupting my game. To add insult to injury, as things had started to calm down towards the end of the week and the weekend approached, fresh disaster hit on Sunday when Blizzard had to take the servers down again, due to problems with Battlenet. They were off for around four hours in total and during that time Blizzard were unable to give any indication as to when they would be coming back. 

Thankfully since then there have been no serious server issues, and lag has also reduced. However there have been fresh issues in the form of accounts being hacked with items and gold stolen. Blizzard's response to this has been swift, but strange claiming that this kind of thing is normal when a new online game is launched. That might be the case, but if it keeps happening and Blizzard know it is going to happen, why are they not doing more about stopping it? Especially since the whole point of making Diablo III an 'always online' game was to reduce this type of thing. If they had kept the singleplayer offline then most of these people probably wouldn't have had their accounts hacked and we certainly wouldn't have had the problems we have experienced over the last week. However this post isn't going to focus on the merits or pitfalls of the 'always online' side of the game. I disagree with Blizzard's stance and believe that the singleplayer portion of the game should be playable offline, but today I want to focus on my thoughts of the game itself, putting aside the server issues.

I have always liked action rpgs, there is something inside me that just loves finding new loot and unlocking new skills and whilst other genres have started to incorporate these mechanics to varying degrees of success, arpgs, and the Diablo series in particular, have got this form of gameplay down to a fine art. With Diablo III though, Blizzard has made some changes to the formula.

The first thing to say is that Diablo III doesn't do anything revolutionary. At its core you still bash/slash/stab/kick/punch/cast spells to kill monsters, who upon death shower gold/armour/weapons/trinkets out of their corpses for you to pick up. Bigger and tougher enemies lead to better loot drops and every time you level you unlock new skills, but this is where things are slightly different. Diablo III no longer provides you with skill trees to progress along. Instead you unlock skills in various categories which can then be tweaked by adding runes to them.  

The major addition to the series though is the auction house. This allows players to sell loot that they have found in-game which in turn other players can buy using gold they have collected in the game. This is a unique feature, but for me it totally destroys one of the major reasons why I play these games. The thrill of finding new loot completely disappears if I can just pop on to the auction house and buy it. Yes you can just ignore the auction house, but when you play co-op and your mates are sporting gear much better than yours because they have been able to purchase it from the auction house, it spoils my enjoyment of the game. If you do cave in and buy new gear then it often dwarfs anything that drops in-game for a good long while, in fact you could go from level 10 to the end of the game without using any loot found in-game, making the loot system completely redundant. 

The auction house and skill system, for me, are not enjoyable additions to the game and make it an inferior game compared to previous Diablo games. However it is still enjoyable to play as the world Blizzard has created, the polish applied and the fact that while I would prefere a skill tree, the skill system in place still provides enjoyment with each class having some fun abilities make it a great game to play. A mention should also go to the excellent co-op system. The game really shines when there are three or more of you blasting through Diablo's minions and the systems within the game make this easy to accomplish. 

The major thing that is bugging me though is that Diablo III doesn't do anything new. The arpg genre has been pretty stagnant with developers prefering to copy the template set out by the original Diablo with only Torchlight adding anything new. With 12 years to think about it I was hoping that Blizzard would add more than they have. This game is incredibly polished, but baring the slightly different skill system it is really just Diablo II with modern graphics. Not every game needs to do something new, but I feel that Blizzard had the opportunity to create something unique and for whatever reason they bottled it. It seems like it is left up to Runic Games and Torchlight II to take the genre forward and do something new. In the meantime I will continue to enjoy Diablo III, but with the nagging feeling that it could, and perhaps should, have been a lot more. 

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Diary of a Warlock

My time with Warlock: Master of the Arcane.

Month 1: I have just been crowned Lich King the IV, but to be honest it isn’t anything to shout about. I barely know any spells and my kingdom comprises of just the one city. Looks like I have my work cut out if I want to create a kingdom that will allow me to be top Warlock.

Month 2: I have told my scholars to concentrate on discovering some nice destruction spells and commanded my generals to recruit some troops. Hopefully soon we will be able to strike out and deal with the pesky spiders that have been harassing my borders.

Month 3: My squadron of Skeletal Archers and Skeletal Warriors easily squashed the spider hive and the way is now clear for me to create my first new city, and thus double the size of my kingdom. This ruling lark is child’s play.

Month 4: My barracks have been churning out the troops and I now have three Archer and three Warrior squads along with a squad of Zombies. These blokes are great as they slowly regenerate health and will surely scare my foes out of their wits. Funds are a bit low so I have ordered another city to be founded to the south, near the coast where I can hopefully go for my summer holidays.

Month 5: I met my first rival this week. He is a lowly Rat King and although he has four cities already I don’t think I will have too much trouble dealing with a lowly rat. However he has blocked my path to the west so I will have to look to the East for a place for my next city.

Month 6: Curses! The path to the west is also blocked by a certain Nicholas Frost. What kind of name is that for a Warlock? He sounds like the offspring of a certain winter dweller. He is already starting to try my patience by demanding a tribute of 50g. I paid up for now as I am unsure of the extent of his forces and kingdom and only a fool goes into battle without doing a bit of reconnaissance first. My scholars tell me they have discovered a powerful spell that will allow me to call a firestorm down on the heads of my foes. Maybe I will use it to melt Frost if he continues to badger me.

Month 7: Right, I’ve had it with Frosty boy. He sent another of his lackeys to court today demanded another tribute of 50 gold, he really has some balls does old Nicholas. My spies tell me that his army is made up of men and the city closest to ours is poorly defended. Maybe it’s time to set a fire under Frost a cause a bit of meltage.

Month 8: Well it’s war. Frost sent yet another demand and by this time I felt my troops were sufficient in number to take ... so I politely declined. Having prepared myself for perhaps having to teach Frost a lesson I had already stationed my army near the border so it was just a simple matter of moving in. Back on the home front and I have managed to recruit a Ghost Squadron. These guys are bad asses as they are totally immune to normal damage. Lets see how Frost’s forces stand up to them.
Month 9: It seems the intelligence was correct as ... fell with barely a fight. Half the citizens ran away when faced with my ghastly army and the other half soon capitulated after a few fireballs. If I knew it was going to be this easy I would have attacked a lot sooner. Still at least I have added a new city to my kingdom. Not bad work for around two months rule.

Month 10: My scholars continue to impress in their work and I now have a collection of spells that will strike fear into the armies of Nicholas Frost. They are a pretty timely arrival as the war seems to have bogged down a bit. The next city in our sights is Vindoland, the capital and seat of Frost. If I can take that down the rest of his kingdom will fall apart. However it is guarded by a mountain range upon which the enemy has dug in and are backed up by a catapult. Whilst my troops haven’t suffered any major loses it is proving difficult to wear the enemy down. Due to their superior defensive position it takes more than one squadron of Skeletal Warriors to make an impact on one of Frost’s squadrons. Consequently they often withdraw before we can wipe them out. In turn we can’t purse due to the devastating fire from the catapult. There is a town to the south, but advancing towards that would leave ... open to attack and we don’t quite have the forces to both protect ... and advance on ...

Month 11: Finally a break-through. My ghost squadron was able to advance through the enemy line thanks to its resistance to melee attacks and attack the catapult. I helped things along with judicious use of my fire spell and that was the end of that. Now we should be able to drive the humans back and move on to Vindoland. I have to say that is rather a strange name for their capital. It sounds like the name of a curry. Maybe Frost is partial to the Indian dish.

Month 12: Things never run smoothly. We are still at war with Frost and now Rat King is demanding a tribute of 200 gold. I would have thought that the way we have been bashing Frost in the West would have made Rat boy be a bit more civil towards me. If I had been able to role Frost’s forces back a bit quicker I would be marching on ... to shove Rat King’s request up his butt. However for now I will pay the price for peace, but I ordered the formation of more archers and warriors in case Ratty’s greed gets the better of him.
Month 14: Well it’s been a busy couple of weeks, hence the gap. We have eradicated Frost’s forces and my troops surround Vindoland. Unfortunately the stubborn fool will not give up and keeps summoning squadrons of pesky bats. My forces can easily deal with them, but added to the immense fortifications surrounding Vindoland it may be a while until we can take the city.

Rat King has been far too greedy and soon requested another 200 gold so I thought it time to show Ratty that the Lich King’s army has no equal and it is war on two fronts. Because we had reduced Frost’s forces to nothing I felt I was able to move some troops from the western front to the new war in the east. Added to my forces that had already started to build up in the area we steamed into Rat man’s territory and soon took Axelos Christ. Despite the easy with which we took the city my experience with Frost made me cautious, as while there seemed to be no forces anywhere in sight I knew that Rat King had a large kingdom and no doubt there would be forces hiding further east.

Month 15: Another major unit has been added to my army, Vampires. We also met the vanguard of Ratty’s army. It seems that he has gone for a different approach to Frost in that his army is small, but full of large units. It took four squadrons of warriors to take down the Werewolves, but having done so the way was open to Goblincliff and after dealing with a few more Werewolves that city fell into my hands as well.
I have to say that the human troops I conscripted from ... have stood up pretty well. Originally I thought I could use them as fodder to wear enemy troops down, but they have proved to be more durable than my Skeletons. 
Meanwhile in the West, Frost has suddenly had a change of heart and wants to sue for peace. Does he really think that after his behaviour I will let him keep his capital? Dream on Mr Snowman, Vindoland will be the jewel in my eastern empire crown.   

Friday, 13 April 2012

An oldie, but a goodie

After a break due to illness I find myself returning to gaming in a bit of a lull. There are no interesting major releases scheduled to arrive in the next few weeks and while I still have games like Kingdoms of Amular: Reckoning and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim sitting on my drive, uncompleted, I feel like I need a change from the fantasy RPG genre after having been almost completely immersed in it since Christmas. It was a conversation with my lovely wife over the weekend that finally got me settled on what I would play next.

It started innocently with her asking if I had any of the original Sonic games, as she wouldn’t mind playing one of those with me. I was pretty sure I had the first two for the Sega Mega Drive, but after digging out the console I realised that I was severely lacking in the Sonic department. It didn’t really matter though as upon connecting the Mega Drive up to my TV I struggled to get the thing to work. Eventually I gave up, realising that the wire that connected the system to the TV was probably broken. However having seen some of the classic games that I still had for Sega’s console I decided to check out a bit of PC emulation.

Going back a few years I used to have a pretty extensive emulation collection on my PC, but after a subsequent hard drive failure I lost it all. I could still remember most of the sites I used to build that collection, so I set about getting hold of a Mega Drive emulator and some roms of the games I currently owned. After a bit of fiddling with a program called Joy2Key I managed to get Castle of Illusions running with my Xbox 360 pad. This only whetted my appetite though as I started thinking about whether I could emulate a more modern console, namely the GameCube.

I duly set about finding out about Dolphin, which for those who don’t know is a great emulator which allows you to run Nintendo’s finest GameCube and Wii games on your PC. The idea of playing The Legend of Zelda:Wind Waker or Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door in stunning high-res was too good to pass up, so I promptly got hold of the latest version of Dolphin and a rom of each game. After consulting various guides I managed to get the graphical and sound settings just right and also configured the 360 pad to work with the GameCube games.

After everything was set I decided to boot up Paper Mario first and was greeted by a spectacular sight. Everyone knows that Nintendo’s art direction is among some of the best in the business, but due to the antiquated nature of the GameCube tech married with an HDTV, it doesn’t look as good as it could. But when you play the games through Dolphin, the power of modern CPUs and GPUs are brought to bear and the result is nothing short of astounding. Having seen the effect on Paper Mario I quickly booted up Wind Waker and was equally delighted with the result. 

Seeing these classic games in their new clothes made me want to instantly sit down and play through them again. However first I had to decide which one I was going to start with and I also wanted to try and get a better set-up going. I have a fairly decent 21” LCD monitor connected to my PC, but I also have a lovely 26” HDTV sitting only a few metres away, as well as a nice comfy couch. I already had an HDMI cable connecting the PC to my TV and after a few tweaks Paper Mario was now displayed on a nice big screen.

Game wise I decided to plump for Paper Mario as, like many games I brought when I was younger and had more disposable income, it fell by the wayside when other games arrived and distracted me. Yes I know that technically it is another RPG, but it is quite different from the RPGs I have been playing with a totally different setting.

Having got GameCube games working on the PC I am now resolved to also get Wii games working. This will require a bit more work though as getting the Wiimote to talk to the PC is slightly convoluted and requires a Bluetooth connection, something my PC is currently lacking. However I have ordered a Bluetooth adaptor and once that arrives I am hopeful that the added fidelity will get me back into Skyward Sword, once I have completed Paper Mario of course. Right now though, I am happy that I can once again enjoy some of Nintendo’s finest games in a more modern setting.

If you are interested in playing your GameCube and Wii games on a PC here are a few pointers to help you get started.

  • Dolphin Homepage with the latest version. 
  • A Wiki which will help you with most problems including getting the right settings for each game. 
  • A guide to getting the Wiimote to work with Dolphin 
  • As for getting hold of game files you can rip the games directly from the discs if you have the necessary hardware, just Google to find out how. If this is beyond your capabilities you can get GameCube roms from the net by searching Google, there are a few sites out there. As for the Wii your favourite torrent site is probably your best bet.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Bye, bye Game

Yesterday the beleaguered Game Group gave up the ghost and finally entered administration after being unable to find a suitable partner to rescue the business from collapse. PwC, the administrators put in charge, announced that they would be closing 277 Game and Gamestation stores across the UK and Ireland, making 2104 staff redundant by the end of the week. This will leave 333 stores open which will according to PwC make the group a more attractive proposition to buyers.

It was a sad day for me as I read the announcement and the list of stores to be closed that was compiled on , especially as the two closest stores to me in North Finchley and Brent Cross were ones earmarked for closure. No longer will I be able to enliven my trips to either destination by popping into Game to see if anything takes my fancy.  

It’s never a good day when that many people lose their jobs and it is especially tough with the current economic situation. Those 2104 employees will probably end up joining the 2.67m other unemployed people looking for work. However while a degree of sympathy is required for those who work in the trenches at Game, the same emotion should not be directed at the senior management who have quite clearly messed up, badly.

Administrators at PwC have blamed The Game Group's collapse on its "ambitious" overseas expansion and the "unfortunate" close proximity of its stores and it is the latter point that I think speaks volumes about the kind of people who were in charge of The Game Group. It is easy to see that Game had too many stores on our high streets. Ask any gamer at random and they will tell you how there are either two Game stores or one Game and a Gamestation store on their local high-street, often in close proximity.
I myself used to work for Game and was staggered when I heard that they were to open a concession store in a Debenhams just down the road from the store I worked in. Then when Game took over Gamestation you suddenly had a situation where the Game Group had three stores on one high-street. Anyone could see that this situation was hardly the best way to run a business–as all these stores would do was cannibalise each other’s sales; and you still have to pay rent and wages for each individual store. The Game Group already had too many stores in similar areas before they bought Gamestation and that purchase made things even worse. That the senior management never thought about cutting the number of stores it had is just plan madness. Throughout the last few months as the trials and tribulations of Game have been reported, comments under news stories and on message boards have often stated the same incredulity. If the public could see where the problem lies, why couldn’t high-powered business men?

The demise of The Game Group should go down as one of the biggest cock-ups in retail history. That you can take a group that is providing goods in what is predominantly a growing economic sector, and run it into the ground is just beyond belief. Many commentator’s believe that it was the rise of digital distribution and the increase in online sales that did for Game in the end, but retail still makes up 50% of all video game sales and the fact that Game couldn’t make a good fist of what is a buoyant sector is damming evidence showing that management just lost the plot.

I hope someone is able to come and save the remaining 333 stores and their staff. The high-street needs a video-game presence on it. Not purely for the reasons outlined in my previous blog, but because it serves as a reminder to the public at large that games matter. As it currently stands it’s a sad day for retail, a sad day for gamers, but an even worse day for the 2,104 people who have lost their jobs because of the terrible mismanagement of the company.  

Friday, 23 March 2012

It's the economy, stupid.

It's a my budget!

Between 2008 and 2011 it was estimated that the percentage of people working in the video game industry within the UK had fallen by 10% according to TIGA. This fall in the amount of people working for the industry resulted in £100m less tax and a loss of a quarter of a billion in contribution to the UKs GDP. This is a shocking state of affairs especially when global growth for the industry sits at around 23% despite the current economic turmoil.

There was hope in 2010 that the sector would finally receive the tax breaks that were long overdue, tax breaks that the film industry was already receiving, breaks that when implemented in France had seen a 20% increase in staff. However when the Coalition came to power in his 2011, Budget Chancellor George Osborne announced that they would not be carrying out Labour’s promise to introduce tax relief for the video games sector. 

All was not lost however as finally this week in his 2012 Budget Osborne recognised the value of the industry to the economy and announced that following consultation video games would finally receive tax breaks similar to those currently benefiting the UK film industry. Obviously there was great relief within the industry with UK Interactive Entertainment claiming that it would lead to 4,700 new jobs and £188m investment by studios while the Department for Culture Media and Sport reckoned 1,650 studio jobs would be created and £280m added to the GDP. We already make some great games here with studios like Liohead(Fable), Codemasters(DiRT), Rockstar North(GTA), and Rocksteady (Batman:Arkham Asylum). This break, which could be as much as 20%, will allow those studios and others to make even better games. 

However before we get too excited there are a few things to be concerned about. The UK has seen a massive ‘brain drain’ in this area over the last few years with major studios such as Bizarre Creations, EA Bright Light and Black Rock all closing. In the case of Bizarre Creations 35%, mostly senior people within the studio, left for jobs in other countries and in total it is believed of the 10% of jobs lost in the industry since 2008 41% have moved abroad. This drain will not be easy to reverse and while tax breaks are great it will still be a while until they come online. There will need to be a period of consultation to figure out how this is going to work and EU approval garnered, which in itself can take up to a year, to make sure it’s not seen as state aid. 

But apart from the relief itself it is more the statement the government has made by introducing a tax break that is important. Gaming is still not as mainstream as people within the industry like to think and many investors don’t see it as a serious place to put their money. With this move the UK government is saying that they consider video gaming to be as important as TV and film and this will encourage people to invest. This is the point that I think people should take away from the announcement. By recognising the industry as being important the government is, for the first time, saying to the public ‘we take the video game industry and its output seriously’ and that will go a long way to helping grow what is a brilliant sector.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Mass Effect, the end.

I managed to complete my journey through the Mass Effect trilogy last week and originally I was going to write a bit about my thoughts on that ending, but since the Internet has been inundated with people arguing for and against how Bioware chose to finish up their tale I thought I would do something a bit different. (For the record I was disappointed with the ending and I think this article and this video sum up my problems with it.)

No matter how you feel about the ending though we should be praising Bioware for what they have achieved with the Mass Effect trilogy. Over the course of three games they have managed to bring to life a world and a cast of characters that players have grown to love. For the first time a series has allowed you to shape and mould the protagonist over not one, not two, but three games. The Sheppard and story that you had to tell at the end of Mass Effect 3 was one that was shaped by your actions, not one that had been predefined before you even started. This is pretty much unheard of in the realm of video-games and I think this fact has been lost beneath the vitriol coming from both sides of the divide. 
The amount of fervour on both sides of this divide about the ending, clearly demonstrates that people have become invested in the characters and world that Bioware has created. That people care so much about the way the story has finished shows what a great job Bioware has done with the series. People have become emotionally invested.

For me the Mass Effect series feels like the maturation of what Bioware started to do with the Baldur’s Gate series. In those games you had a few decisions to make that changed how things played out, but with Mass Effect they have taken that genesis further.

Despite the success however, I do feel like this may be a once in a lifetime series. With budgets increasing and EA already meddling with the design, I don’t know whether Bioware will get the chance to do anything like this again. The cost involved in designing a number of different stories must be quite large, added to that–people’s expectations will only grow leading to cries for more choices and even more divergent outcomes. It’s hard to see a publisher, especially one as conservative as EA, green-lighting such a project again.

So whatever your thoughts on how the series has wound-up, I urge you to recognise the feat that Bioware have managed to achieve with the Mass Effect series, especially as we may never see its like again. 

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Mass Effect 3 you decide, maybe.

Tomorrow sees the launch of what is arguably the first major release of 2012, Mass Effect 3. It is the final game in the long running trilogy from RPG luminaries Bioware, and brings an end to an epic tale that has allowed players to directly influence the story in subsequent games, based on the decisions made in the previous one. With the release of Mass Effect 3 you can guide your own unique character through to his/her dénouement.

For most gamers who have followed Commander Sheppard, the protagonist, through the previous games, this is a thrilling climax to a story that they have become heavily invested in. However, with various sites and publications, along with our friends across the Atlantic, having had a three day head-start on defeating the Reaper threat, news is beginning to emerge that people might not be altogether too happy with how the story turns out. 

You see, it seems that in order to get what has been classed as the ‘perfect ending’ the player is required to jump through a number of hoops, hoops which in the first two games have not been necessary. The hoops in question are as follows:

Hoop 1- Multiplayer
The player must engage in co-op multiplayer where the objective is to survive wave based assaults and complete objectives. By doing this they increase their ‘Readiness’ meter which acts as a multiplier for their War Asset number. Basically by engaging in multiplayer you can raise your War Assets which make the final battle easier with fewer casualties.

Hoop 2- Scanning
The old scanning chestnut from the second game rears its ugly head, albeit in a slightly less ghastly manner. In this case the player has to scour systems for planets that aren’t marked on the map and then fire a probe at them. This added to completing all the quests in the game will push your War Assets to the required mark without having to engage in multiplayer.

So it is a case of either/or if you want to get what Bioware terms the ‘good ending’. Fail to do so and I suppose you end up with a much worse ending, although that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all this game sees the whole galaxy at war, there is going to be death and suffering and you should expect to lose friends. The problem is that this stance taken on the ending by the developers is in direct contrast to that of the previous games in the series. In both Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 the ending you got was largely dependent on the choices you made during play, not making sure you did every quest in the game or playing multiplayer in order to fill some arbitrary meter. It certainly feels like after sticking to their guns throughout the series and allowing the player’s choices to decide the story for them, at the last minute Bioware have decided to abandon that to a certain degree and introduced a totally different mechanic.

Without completing the game it is impossible for me to make any forgone conclusion about whether this decision has spoilt Mass Effect 3. However I will go into the game knowing that in order to get the ending I want, I’m a sucker for wanting to keep as many characters alive as possible; I will have to jump through one of the two hoops Bioware have placed before me and personally I have little to no interest in playing multiplayer Mass Effect and do not want to go near anything that is even vaguely like the planet scanning from Mass Effect 2. So I may end up with the less-than-perfect-ending, which if that is the case, I will not have got the ending I would have wanted, and for a game that has prided itself on letting the player influence the outcome that is a pretty terrible thought.

As I said, right now I don’t know how I will feel once I complete the game and I will certainly enjoy finding out how the story ends, but I look forward to re-visiting this topic once I have completed Mass Effect 3 and seeing whether Bioware really have fundamentally changed the way the player’s choices impacts on the story’s end. I live in hope that my decisions still have a major impact on which path the story takes.   

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Assassin's Creed 3 an American Tale.

I am a huge fan of the Assassin’s Creed games, but after seeing the announcement trailer and reading the accompanying press release for Assassin’s Creed 3 I find myself slightly perturbed.

The first thing that I have issue with, is what seems like a move away from the huge cityscape-type play area towards a more open-world style of game with talk of wide landscapes mixed with towns. For me a major part of the Assassin’s Creed games is the city traversal and although I don’t mind if after four games Ubisoft decides it is time to change things up, I am a little disconcerted that they seem to be moving towards an open-world style game ala GTA and others. These games are great, but I don’t really want to see Assassin’s Creed go down this path as the Creed games have always been sufficiently different, giving me something other games of this nature have not. With this third game I think that Ubisoft might be getting away from what makes Assassin's Creed stand out from the crowd.

The more pressing concern though is the setting. In the past games, you have often been fighting in an historical period during a time where there are no clearly defined historical ‘bad guys.’ What I mean by this is that even though you were fighting against the Templars, in the first game you were involved in the Crusades, but neither side was portrayed as the ‘good’ side with Templars on both the Christian and Muslim sides. In subsequent games the focus was more the time period rather than any specific conflict.

With the choice of the American Revolution I can't help but feel that Ubisoft may end up picking a specific side and portraying them as evil. This fear has been backed up by the trailer they released that was very pro-American and had Washington railing against the ‘evil’ British. Now this may not be representative of the whole game, but it has me worried. With American values dominating the Western development scene I find it hard to see a situation where a game is released that in any way depicts the American Revolutionaries in a bad light. I’m not about to go into the rights and wrongs of the American War of Independence, but it cannot be boiled down to something as simple as the Colonists were the good guys and the British were the bad. 
Entertainment media has a bad track record when it comes to properly depicting history and when it is something as close to American sensibilities as this you very rarely get an unbiased approach. Case in point: The Patriot. The major reason why I didn’t watch that film was because it was terrible reductive history and I don’t want to see that kind of jingoistic nonsense in a video game, especially in one of my favourite video game series. If you are going to tackle a period of history I think it is imperative that you tell the truth and stick to the facts especially when the only history some people get today is from entertainment media. Tell a lie in a film or game and that lie soon becomes accepted fact.

My fears may end up being totally unfounded and Ubisoft may be able to strike a delicate balance with neither side being portrayed as good or bad, but right now I fear that I may be giving Assassin's Creed 3 a miss.