Tuesday, 31 May 2011

On over-socializing...

    XBOX Live chat-rooms, PSN text messaging, various gaming clients on the PC... applications and services aimed at making our gaming experiences more social and involving. They serve a plethora of purposes, spending some time with friends online is easier than ever, grinding for that time-consuming achievement/ trophy has become so much more pleasant and finding out what others are playing in order to join them is finally a breeze. All in all, the once theoretical term of "social gaming" has become reality... or rather, routine.
    There is, of course, nothing wrong with having your pal available for a little chat at the press of a button. We are, after all, social creatures by nature. Unless we count ourselves as some kind of lonely hermits interacting with others is a very logical process. But what about those games, deeply invested in their story-lines and atmosphere, who actually REQUIRE our complete and undivided attention to offer us all they have to give? What happens when we play Dead Space, Dragon Age or The Witcher while someone's voice keeps booming in our ear about "that headshot" or "where I was last night". It is clear as day that the mood is bound to get spoiled. Funny thing, we don't even notice. The reasons are very specific.
    We enjoy the socialization. Playing alone seems like a bit of a drag when we can do it with some company. Why waste time in contemplating silence when we can have our mates throwing the occasional one-liner in the mix, lifting our spirits? So we go from the "The atmosphere and story is important here" idea to that of "let's just spend some time gaming". It surely does not seem problematic by default... but the damage to the experience itself is very real. In the end, we might find that a supposedly horror-related game was not as spooky as we had thought. We might think that the scenario of an RPG was lacking, because we missed something during the "lulz". The emotional spike at the end of that very intricate moment in Mass Effect came out like an odd joke. All in all, the game expects you to play in an invested enviroment... sadly, in many cases, this is not the case.

     The beginning of Mass Effect 2 boasts one of the most dramatic events in gaming history. It's not so much about heroic acts and self-sacrifice as it is about loss and desperation. Seeing the things that you became accustomed and attached to during the course of a 50-hours-long storyline during the original being taken away in 5-minutes-long event is a very drastic, very powerful procedure. Watched under specific circumstances this can create some pretty powerful emotions. Watching it while you are chatting with seven other people via XBOX Live chat makes it look... "cool"? You are still going to enjoy the eye candy no matter what but the sentiment will be lost unless the scene is treated with some respect. I mean, is chatting about unrelated things all the time worth losing this splendid moment?

     Some might think that I am making a very big deal out of this. Maybe in the eyes of the casual, cut-scene-skipping player I do. But really, as a person who considers gaming an art form I have to pay some mind to what the creators of a title wanted to give me. Surely, all the gorgeous music, the fantastic environments and complex characters were not meant to be experienced while holding a controller in one hand and a tortilla in the other. Since I've been relatively young I've been following a specific code of conduct concerning the way I invest my time in various activities: If you do not respect what you are spending your precious time on, you probably do not respect yourself. Now, you don't have to agree with me dear reader but consider this, as a piece of friendly advice: Making the most out of everything is something that instinctively resides in every person. So try doing yourself a favor and invest some time into absorbing all that the developers intended to give you. You are going to spend the chunk of time and you've already paid for it. Now I believe it's a good idea to reap as many of the benefits of that labor as possible.
     Many people believe that silence and contemplation are closely related to philosophy. I tend to agree. After all, few came to a deeper understanding of themselves while throwing back shots during a night in some club - not that I have anything against such things, being the booze hound that I am - don't you think? Let's offer ourselves a moment of concentration, when the chance arises and let's give these works the time they deserve. Some might even surprise us.
     After all, there is always the chance for another playthrough with our pals, throwing around the occasional joke.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

On "Difficult" and "Cheap"... (Part 3)

    In my last entry I tried to backup my statements about what makes a game difficult or cheap by giving a specific example from the realm of action games: The 3D Ninja Gaiden games. In this one I will try to complete my analysis on the matter at hand by presenting another specimen, this time taken from the genre of Western RPGs. Steel yourselves for the last section of my three-part and lets take a trip into the insanity of imba in the land of Thedas... time to sink our teeth in...

    Dragon Age...

    To be fair and accurate, there are not many issues of the kind related to the first game in the series, Dragon Age: Origins. The game was fairly balanced on all difficulty settings, offering ample challenge without sacrificing "fairness" towards the user or rewards/ demand. From beginning to end, even on "Nightmare," the player was faced with a plethora of tough combat scenarios but most of them required more thinking and strategy than brawn and stat abuse. It was exhilarating to get past these enemies and in the end of the session there was a sense of accomplishment to be found. One would have managed to get past something seemingly impossible by being a better tactician. It FELT right.

    Of course it was not all rainbows and lilies. In true "old-school" fashion the game would divide its enemies into categories: Normal, Lieutenants, Bosses and Elite Bosses. No matter the class of the enemy, since it was included in one of the above categories it would assimilate its characteristics - Boss Mages would have the HP of 100 Warriors combined and Normal Reavers (a specific, very resilient kind of fighter) would fall like paper towers. It was a situation of pure "this is the tough guy and these are the creeps" likeness that seemed totally obsolete and stupid in 2009... and only looks more morbid in 2011. It is old and tired. Baldur's Gate II did it the right way in 1998. Surely the company behind Mass Effect 2 can do better.

    But, for all its small setbacks DA:O was still a balanced, enjoyable title no matter which setting one was using. It left a sweet taste in the mouth after most encounters and backed-up its thesis about "making it hard without making it cheap" that was present in the options menu. We had to wait two years to get our hands on the sequel and, well, let's just say that two more would have been fine...

    It becomes painfully apparent from the get-go: Numerous enemies, of little individual worth, reinforced every 20" out of nowhere while the player is stripped of most useful tools and abilities. I have NOTHING against making the game more direct and fluid but in this case I felt like I had to fight an Ogre with nothing but a simple fireball spell and a cheap sword... wait, I actually HAD to!

    The message is still there, of course, taunting us. The developers claim the "Nightmare""  is not aimed at making the experience un-bearable, it's simply there to test the mettle of the best tactician. Yeah, right. I can name numerous occasions in which the player is simply overpowered, outmanned and faced with the grim reality of MORE ninja reinforcements. And when I say "ninja" I more or less mean it: Thugs and Templars jumping off the bloody roofs! I mean, is that even possible for a person wearing 50-60 kilos of solid steel armor?

    No, I did not forget, my dear reader of similar experiences. Of course I did not forget about the various Assassins, Hunters and what-ifs. Out of nowhere, on various occasions, some lout will cloak in plain sight, following the GENIUS plan by backstabbing a party member and causing tremendous damage (this is a reference to Hard and Nightmare, the "Diablo-clone" Normal mode is of no substance). In most cases this will mean instant death for most Rogues and Mages. It is imbalanced, infuriating and without real counter. The game states that an area attack will de-cloak any such enemies but in most cases this simply doesn't work, not to mention the fact that on Nightmare even melee skills will damage your own characters. Add to this mess the fact that the smallest, most insubstantial of foes sports more HP than your most hardened Warrior, and that simple prodding by any Archer in melee is enough to stagger you most resilient of combatants and you have in your hands a fine example of irredeemable, imbalanced and total FUBAR situation. No, I will not elaborate on what FUBAR means. Google it. 

    It is a cluster-phail of proportions epic enough to fit right next the game's excellent and original story. A real shame considering how the botched combat really takes most pleasure out of it on the higher levels. It is a simple test of patience until you grow too tired and decide that the best option is simply waiting for the next balancing patch that comes along. If ever...

This magnificent dragon looks like a foe worth combating. After all, the game is called Dragon Age, isn't it? A shame then that the ONLY available High Dragon is one summoning dozens of reinforcements, like any other lowly poop, making the battle drag on and on until you either tackle it successfully or come crushing down to the realization that you have to repeat the 20' encounter all over again. It gets old, really, REALLY fast...

    It is to go without saying that you do not have to agree with me. I believe though that I have delivered a solid argument, proving that cheap gameplay can fit in all genres and pollute even the most epic of experiences. At some point developers will have to realize that when a game is shipped, every and each of its aspects has to be balanced. A higher difficulty setting does not have to mean more HP for the enemies or handicapped player-characters. It should be more about tactics, patience and skill. Why do we have to empty whole clips on a single Locust Drone, repeatedly pummel a single Darkspawn or melee a lone Elite fifteen times when a single headshot should always do the trick, one petrified enemy should logically get smashed by a single blow? I mean, it happens to OUR characters, does it not? 
    The average player expects balance from his or her games. A dedicated one demands it. If it is impossible for the average developer to include balanced setting into their games it's better if there are none to be found at all. I will always remember the titles that offered fine-tuned experiences no matter the picked options with a smile. As for games like those mentioned in this article... I'd rather wait for some patch.


Sunday, 15 May 2011

On "Difficult" and "Cheap"... (Part 2)

    In this entry I will present and try to analyze some of the titles I consider "cheap" and cases of series that have degraded from being difficult to being imbalanced. The views offered are completely personal but I find it highly probable that many who have played the games I will be mentioning will consider my statements at least close to the truth. So, without further ado, let's move on to...

    Ninja Gaiden (XBOX - Normal & Black Editions -, PS3 - Sigma Edition -): TECMO's "ninja simulator" (as it is sometimes mentioned) series was a reboot of the old NES and arcade titles of the 80s. These games were always considered very hard to tackle, even in the golden age of tough-as-nails gaming that spanned most of the 8-bit era. The 3D iteration we were treated to on the original XBOX was indeed a worthy successor: Challenging, gorgeous and varied. It wasn't perfectly balanced by any means - some of the worst level design and many of the most annoying enemies ever can be found in this pulp - but most of it was fair in terms of the tools offered to the player and the tasks at hand. Ryu, the series protagonist, is really the most one can imagine in an action hero and a ninja at the same time: Strong, fast, good-looking and speechless with a strong sense of justice. On the field, he is a force to be reckoned with. Once the player understood - and that required some getting used to - how to utilize this bad-ass' full arsenal the sky became the limit. An amazing trip all-in-all, with its issues but surely a great offering from the house Itagaki-san built.

When NG was released it took the market by storm. The game was pure eye-candy, both aesthetically and technically. Above and beyond anything we had seen up to that point, its graphics alone were a key selling point. Sadly, the sequel failed to deliver even on that regard...

But alas, NG is a fine example of a series gone bad... REALLY bad. Let's move on to...

    Ninja Gaiden II (XBOX360, PS3 - Sigma Edition -): It was the graphics. From the first second in, I knew something was amiss. No anti-aliasing, no shaders, no attention to detail. Simply put, no charm. It was a bland mixture of blurry textures and muddy weather effects, a shifting mess of geometry. Of course, judging technology alone is not a valid way of evaluating a game so I braced myself and jumped into the action. First impressions were rather good: Combat was fluid, violence levels were acceptable - we all want some blood and gore in our action games after all - and the overall feel was up to standards. I followed Ryu on yet another attempt to save the Hayabusa village, the damsel in distress - barely dressed as always - and the world in the long run. During that trip I experienced some of the lamest, most mundane and uninspired design choices ever to "grace" the comforts of my living room: Mat-colored corridors, bare-bones caves and generic-beyond-belief enemies are just a few examples. I swear, the cave worm encountered at some point - complete with botched physics and all - is probably the one, most awful foe I've ever cut through. Simply... I can't seem to find an appropriate word that will express my disdain and keep the blog civil. And what would an uninspired game be without problematic - apart from blatant - tech? I really don't know how this game got out of the studio's quality control. Frame-rate loss was unacceptable, sometimes slowing to a crawl and cutting in the action. Mid-combat loadings were present as well, making me think of a simple, yet totally relevant question: "What were they thinking?".
    I really didn't want this to turn into a "damning" review of NGII, but I suppose giving you my complete thoughts of the game will make my following statements more pristine. You see, dear reader, there are some things in gaming that can really make or break an experience. One of this is reaching - or breaking - the player's tolerance limit in designing mistakes. If this game had balanced gameplay, or if that balance was a little off - like in the first NG - but the tech was 100% up to standards people probably wouldn't pay as much attention to how broken it is. In this case, the mess is total. I took so much time earlier to explain the technical inefficiencies of the title because they really add up to the imbalance factor. On the higher difficulty levels, a split-second delay in reaction is guaranteed a disgraceful death. Granted that this time frame is probably taken away by some freeze frame of loss of fps ratio it is no surprise that the game can get annoying, fast. I will not go into over-analyzing the various challenge modes - I will leave those for another entry - but there are certain points where the player is relentlessly assaulted from all angles, shuriken fly everywhere - coming from enemies inside and outside the action frame - and you are faced with the gross realization that something is off. Way off. Add to this the game's endless stream of enemies - something that would have been a treat if the title actually worked - and you have yourself a special mix of the following: Imbalanced mechanics, broken technology and lack of creative vision. A real shame after the glories of the original. Bad tech aside, NGII is just imba.

This "interesting" individual is Itagaki-san. Once awe-inspiring for his technical expertise and creative vision - along with his emphasis on female characters' breasts - it came as a great surprise that he allowed his "protege" project to be botched up so badly. A part of the gaming community suspects that it had something to do with his falling out with TECMO. We'll probably never know...

    People who know me have heard this argument before. It always slips from being a strictly balance-related statement to that of an overall review including my condemning thesis on the game's tech, lack of inspiration and so on. The reason is simple: I loved the original NG. I didn't want the sequel to be what I "expected" but surely I was awaiting something that would "work". Sadly, it was not to be. I am not "bitching" because I hate NGII. I do it because I love NG as a  series. And this game, in a long-running series of classics, is a disgrace.

    In order to avoid posting a huge entry I will stop here and come back with a new one. This time we will be moving from the genre of Action/ Hack 'n Slash to that of Role-Playing. It's time for yet another one of my all-times favorite games and for a sequel that managed to live up to my expectations... until it became apparent that someone was abusing too many illegal substances while programming its combat.

    It's time for Dragon Age...



Saturday, 7 May 2011

On "Difficult" and "Cheap"... (Part 1)

    There is great contradiction concerning matters of difficutly and "cheapness" in video games. In most cases a person's "hard" title can be another's "cheap", arguments appearing in fora for months after a game's release. But which is the factor that places an offering in either side of that argument?
    In my humble opinion, it is "balance". This simple, seven-letters-long word encompasses many variables, all of which must be taken under consideration. It is a mix of what the player is given, or the "tools" one has at hand to complete each task, how demanding said task can be and how much "fault" is allowed to the player.
    Most people make the crucial mistake of branding a game "cheap" when the third of these characteristics is in effect. If a task requires great precision it is likely that most people will just give up, call it unfair and be done with it. But is a title's lack of fault-tolerance really reason to consider it "unfrair"?
    No. Games, at least those aimed at the "hardcore" pool of gamers, are supposed to be challenging. You cannot expect to find challenge when a game forgives your going to the kitchen to prepare a sandwich while it is running without consequence or effect. If one has to step on a certain milestone then that step has to be earnt. It's the subtle procedure - or exchange if you prefer - of "challenge" and "reward" that is the driving force behind gaming, and, behind most of the actions during our lives.
    Of course, like most things, fault-tolerance can be miscalculated, botched, abused. In this case we are looking at the very common state of "cheapness". When a game gives you too little and demands too much putting just a little less of the above quality in it can have disastrous effects. Automatically, it falls from the graceful, respected position of "Difficult" into the void of "Cheap"... in other words, it becomes imbalanced or, as the "technical" term stands in the ranks of gamers everywhere, "imba".

"Demon's Souls has to be the fairest of all extremely-demanding games released in the past five years. It bears a close-to-zero tolerance for mistakes but offers great precision to the player. That, along with the abudance of choice in character builds and equipment makes it absolutely possible to survive any situation. Fine print is that, if you are not careful or prepared, any and all bad decisions will lead only to one outcome: Death. You will be dying a lot in DS. The Knight on the cover, peppered with arrows, is a testament to how demanding From Software' s masterpiece is. Make no mistake however: You CAN prevail against those odds... if you are dedicated enough in your efforts..."

    Understandably, it is impossible to be exact in such statements if specific titles don't get named. In this part of my article I tried to pass along some of my thoughts on what makes a game imbalanced and infuriating. In the second, upcoming entry, I will analyze specific cases of games - along with their sequels - regarding the lack of balancing and, in certain cases, the decrease in said quality from one part of a series to another.

    Until then, best regards and I hope you found this read interesting.




Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Gentle Ones....

    I propose you listen to this while reading this short, unscheduled entry...

    As a gamer, I've experienced countless moments of intensity, agony, horror. I, like so many of you, have grown accustomed - and attached - to the sounds of firearms, the screams of characters, the groaning of engines and other such stimuli. That's why it's moments like this, while I am sitting here drinking a glass of white wine, that I am contemplating just how little of that sublte, discreet state of mind I've come to expect from my favorite activity... how little serenity there is to be found.
    It really is no suprise... It's in the nature of man to expect and crave exhileration, to seek out moments of... force. It is simple, most of the time. You can sit down, tweak the lights and, if the pacing and direction is accurate, get swept in the maelstrom of the events taking place inside the frames of your monitor. But calmness... lucidity... Those require a different state of mind.
    They require a connection. A connection with the world, the characters in it, the sounds of the enviroment. They require that you listen, become on with its "living" entities, breath the air they do. You need to BE Ico, to walk in Tim's shoes, to touch the walls of Misty Town as Fred...
    It isn't easy. These... people want you to invest in them. To care. To look beyond their actions, right into their cores, to what keeps them going. Like all worthwhile things in life, it is a process of nurturing, of understanding. In the end, it turns into a bond. One that, due to the undying nature of all fantastic beings and works of art, is eternal and incorruptible. The process will ask for some of your time, of your ability to feel, of that which makes you human. It, if you listen well enough, will reward you with the most important gift one can hope to be given: Enduring, dear memories.
    There is a particular short text, found in the back of a title that few have experienced, that has moved me like few thing of its ilk have. You will find it following my closing statement... this wish: May you always be able to feel on you the touch of these mystical creatures' magic dust like I have... even if it is a fleeting, rare state of serenity...

"Together they must find a way to escape. Their prison is vast and holds many secrets. Every twisting stairecase, creaking door and towering pillar is another part of a much larger puzzle. Each torch and shaft of light serves only to illuminate another mystery. Their journey is dark and treacherous, but together they know they will find a way out of the dark castle, back into the world of light..."