Sunday 28 August 2011

Fable: Past, Present and Future.

On the off chance that Peter Molyneux reads this, I’d like to ponder a few thoughts and ideas about the Fable series.

It’s fair to say that the Fable games are by no means perfect – occasionally making some bewilderingly stupid choices, such as trying to take the RPG element of an action RPG in Fable 3; toning the main story down to almost background ambiance in Fable 2 and starting an action RPG game series with ‘choices’ being at the heart while slowly witling down both the impact and quantity of player choices as the series continues. Despite being consistently plagued by stupid decisions, Fable still has a big fan base – which I make no bones about being in myself.

Thinking about it, I’d say that the success is down to it being quintessentially British; therefore witty, funny and brilliantly light-hearted whenever appropriate (i.e., sidequests don’t really affect the main story in any game, so there are usually funny resolutions available in Fable games). As far as games design is concerned, I wholeheartedly support this approach to sidequests – they should stem from the main narrative and/or game world, but because they’re not necessarily expected to evolve into anything significant, they should be little relieving tangents with various approaches to solving them for the player’s amusement.

For example, if an NPC asks you to complete a fetch quest, then sets you steadily more objectives (with the ‘while you’re there…’ tagline), the game should cater for at least the following resolutions:

- The player completes all the objectives for a bigger reward.

- The player ignores the extra objectives and completes the basic fetch quest, receiving a smaller reward and a few insults from the ungrateful NPC.

- The player gets annoyed and leaves the ingrate to his own devices.

- The player gets pissed off, kills the NPC and loots their corpse for a moderate reward, risking only legal troubles.

This is something that the original Fable attempted (well, all right, it was The Lost Chapters version that did it better), although hampered by limitations of the available hardware and software; it made a smaller appearance in Fable 2, although there was usually very little weight to the decisions as the quests felt like they evaporated rather than resolved; but while the potential was glimmering just out of reach, multiple endings to sidequests were almost completely abandoned in Fable 3.

What the Fable series reminds me of is Blackadder, and like Blackadder, Fable has had three instalments, all interesting and charming in their own rights, but nothing to set the world on fire. With the fourth instalment in production, I can only hope enough people at Lionhead have noticed this parallel and aim for a truly brilliant classic of a fourth instalment.

The timeframes are kind of similar for both series, so why not follow this trend and set Fable 4 during a global conflict, mirroring the themes of Blackadder Goes Forth (the insanity and pointlessness of war, with the main characters being caught up in it, doing what they have to in order to survive and avoid combat)? Not only would this lay the foundations for a subtly political, intelligent and intensely funny story, but the idea of a global conflict would open up the world of Fable, with new continents and cultures vital to the story, sneaky underground resistance movements, messenger fetch quests with some sense of meaning and an overarching quest of empirical expansion and colonisation, to name a few ideas. Also, why not bring in Hugh Laurie to play a character to befriend or rival Stephen Fry’s character? How about Rowan Atkinson? Just a thought, sprouting from the ever expanding comical British voice actor list.

I imagine this would probably be very difficult to implement, but surely no more difficult than making a dodgy Kinect spin-off that literally no one will get excited about, and will only piss off fans if anything.

Can someone please pass this on to Peter Molyneux before he makes a right arse of a series struggling to find its feet and reach its potential?

Tuesday 9 August 2011

Call of Juarez: The Cartel

I’ve been known to say some horrible things about the popularity of Call of Duty, specifically how it’s causing most new games to be gritty and realistic first person shooters with characters reacting to bullets like real people react to trapping their fingers in doors and skimping on ambition in favour of token online multiplayer. One thing I will say about these games is that they mostly seem to drop the notion of faithfully recreating looking through a camera lens by giving you a focal length of about thirty inches.

As pretty as the environments are in Call of Juarez: The Cartel, I found myself very nearly headbutting my screen in an attempt to distinguish the blurry mass of an enemy from the blurry mass of the cover he was hiding behind, calling me ‘bitch’ more often than anyone can be trusted to tolerate before bursting into tears. Or just generally getting more frustrated than a premiership footballer tied to a lamppost outside a brothel.

In the name of sportsmanship, I’d like to make it clear that I played and finished Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood, and thoroughly liked it, shocking brevity and tedious quickdraw sequences aside; so I’m all for more spaghetti western games; and I’ve also played a good number of Rainbow Six games, which I also enjoyed, blaming only myself for dying constantly due to charging out of cover before getting a good look at where everyone was hiding. The point I’m trying to get across, is that I know both Techland and Ubisoft are more than capable of making good games in their own right; but who in their right mind thought of trying to combine the two styles?

Call of Juarez: The Cartel is, in a sentence, a hybrid of two good games with all the frustrations of each and a general impression of being cobbled together over the course of a few months so that hopefully no one would realise that removing the period setting from a cowboy / spaghetti western is a really stupid idea in itself; even if it has a handful of interesting elements.

For starters, it’s nice to know someone was listening when we all whinged in utter bewilderment about Bound in Blood having two playable characters but no co-operative campaign. The Cartel not only has co-op (should you have not noticed the aggressive advertising campaign), but has three-way co-op, presumably by way of an apology. As a result of three playable characters, The Cartel also boasts significant longevity over Bound in Blood, as each character has their own version of the campaign, influenced by secret agendas – giving you a reason to play the campaign at least three times.

In lieu of horseback chases, The Cartel doesn’t jump on the recent bandwagon of bringing back jetpacks and space combat (much to my dismay) but brings in car chases – during single player you’ll constantly get tossed the keys as the designated driver, as you would if you go to the pub with your asshole drinking buddies and you’re the one with a sprained ankle during happy hour. The driving physics and viewpoint are on the right side of the fun/realism border to give some feeling of weight without the typically hopeless handling of the average American SUV, even if the whole ‘car’ part of the ‘car chase’ is suspiciously quiet. The few times you get to play drive-by like a heavily armed spaniel feel frantic and exhilarating without adopting the nasty habit of murdering you before getting a chance to enjoy yourself.

As with most… actually, sod it, as with all first person shooters these days, there’s a strong focus on cover-based combat, and continues the evolution started in Bound in Blood (wherein you’re trusted to get into cover by moving up to it and the controls subtly change to allow you to slowly lean around, rather than popping your head and immediately breathing through the new hole in the back of your skull). In The Cartel, there are fun little sequences wherein your two allies will cover you while you scamper from cover to cover, highlighted by a marker, until you manage to flank the Mexicans getting a bit too high and mighty with their astonishing military budget. Finally, as far as praise goes, the soundtrack’s still good and still adds to the atmosphere and spaghetti western setting.

Naturally, when someone starts praising the soundtrack of a game, it means one of two things: either the soundtrack is of such astounding quality that it deserves honourable mention, or far more likely, that they’re running out of nice things to say about a seriously flawed game.

Getting back to the point I made earlier about The Cartel essentially having three campaigns due to three main characters, therefore at least three playthroughs; the final mission pretty much makes this redundant because all three characters hate each other from the start and reveal this fact and also decide they’re running out of time to pour their hearts out before the credits roll. I ran a little experiment in this; I played through as Ben McCall, the closest to a cowboy this cowboy game has to offer, then revisited a couple of missions as the suspiciously white ethnic support characters. Fair enough, you have different collectables, and different people ringing you at really inappropriate times, but it doesn’t really make any difference: the only person capable of scratching their arse or actually landing a shot on an enemy is going to be doing all the driving, advancing the plot and hiding from the AI before the crap dialogue and mismatched subtitles send you barking mad.

I don’t know why this annoyed me in particular, you can turn off the subtitles, but they’re on by default. Couldn’t they have given an option to stop the NPCs talking unless they were contributing to the plot? I’ve played games with annoying, 2-dimensional support characters before (Haze comes to mind), but I’d have to say that the newcomers in The Cartel have valiantly stormed the leaderboard. Even if you play as a different character, the one you ditched will start sprouting the same crap you were trying to avoid.

So, while the characters in Bound in Blood were genuinely interesting and engaging, partly down to one of them being DS9’s Gul Dukat (one of my favourite villains ever), they seem to be deliberately unlikeable in The Cartel by being generally irritating, terrible at helping you outside scripted advancing-cover flanking manoeuvres and furiously reinforcing their bland and uninteresting personalities via forced swearing.

If you were wondering, I’m pretty certain the developers’ least favourite character is Kim. Aside from the fact that she’s comparatively as resistant to damage as a choux bun, I found a recurring bug when using her ‘concentration mode’ (bullet time that isn’t bullet time), which meant that rather than spouting the bizarre and completely unexplained lines of philosophy like her counterparts, she gets a subtitled error message. Nice one.

In summary: the setting doesn’t make sense, the characters are unlikeable, the shooting’s temperamental, the replay value’s a filthy lie, you can’t see most of the time and if you try appreciating the beautiful level design you’ll be swiftly booted back to your last checkpoint after a stern telling off.

Nevermind, plenty of bad games have been let off the hook because of a strong multiplayer element; and I promised myself that as a centrally co-operative game with a singleplayer option, I’d give The Cartel’s multiplayer a good going over. At least, that was the plan – word seems to have got out pretty sharpish about The Cartel, because I only found about four people playing over the course of two days, at different times. The idea of having the game lobby as an actual 3D environment is a good one, certainly better than staring at a ‘searching’ animation for 10 minutes, but it’s lost on a game that no one cares about. I eventually got into a campaign level with one real person, but he immediately left in a huff because I was once again the designated driver.

Ubisoft and Techland are better than this. If you want a good spaghetti western first person shooter, get Call of Jaurez: Bound in Blood. If you want a good squad-based tactical shooter that’ll severely punish the gung-ho approach, get one of the Rainbow Six games, the only thing you really need to know is that Rainbow Six Vegas 1 is mercilessly challenging and Vegas 2 is the only one with a sprint button.

Wednesday 20 July 2011

Games For The Impoverished: Volume 1 - Left 4 Dead 1 & 2

As all of my friends are total arseholes, they'd be quick to tell you that I'm a tight git when it comes to money.

Seeing as this is true, I figured the least I could do is share some secrets with you all, in regards to how I manage to mainline a steady stream of decent games when I usually can't afford a night on the piss.

Recently I've been playing a lot of Infection games on Halo Reach, so I've been in the mood for a proper zombie game. Remembering that Dead Island isn't finished yet and that the Dead Rising and Left 4 Dead series are in their own ways about as definitive as zombie games get, I figured this was a good area to revisit.

I bought the original Left 4 Dead at launch and loved it because:

1. It's a zombie game.
2. It should be used as a how-to on co-operative gameplay.

However, a few months down the line I got lumped with an internet connection that was crap, shortly followed by one that wouldn't support Xbox Live whatsoever. So I had a game that mastered online co-op, but no online capabilities. Reluctantly, I traded it in and got a surprising amount of my money back. Eventually I played Left 4 Dead 2; it's pretty much more of the same, albeit brighter and with some more variety in the form of a couple of spectacular set-pieces in lieu of the better atmosphere of the original.

In a nutshell, Left 4 Dead 1 and 2 are very good zombie shooters, big on co-op, but almost completely vacant in the story department. Let's face it, the longevity of the big hitters is in online play anyway, where you spend your time in matchmade games shooting at different people in the same few environments.

The Left 4 Dead games fit this concept beautifully, with an AI 'director' mixing up encounters and ammo caches depending on how well you're working together. Best of all, I picked them up for £8 a pop (including postage) from eBay, and Left 4 Dead 1 has a free downloadable 'survival mode'. If you play shooters online, you should own these games, if you can't play online for whatever reason, you wont get the most out of them, sorry.

Wednesday 13 July 2011

Pending Consumer Advice

Speaking as a cheapskate and previous employee of a well known games retailer, I assure you that I know a thing or two about getting good value for your games (along with when games are likely to shoot up in price: bet you all the Call of Duty games become suspiciously expensive in the month or so before Modern Warfare 3 comes out).

As such a cheapskate and smartarse, I'm setting myself a little challenge:

Assuming all goes well when my car goes into the garage next week, I'm planning to upgrade my old warhorse of an Xbox to one of the shiny new ones. My first challenge is to see how much I can save on buying a new Xbox, immediately followed by an expedition into bargain games.

How good a game can you get for £20 these days? Watch this space.

Tuesday 12 July 2011

Defending Duke Nukem Forever

So last month, as you should be aware, Duke Nukem Forever finally hit shelves across the globe, promising to bring The Duke along with a whole lot of fun back into shooters. Naturally, after 14 stupid years and the liberal use of the phrase ‘when it’s done’, everyone who ever gave a damn about Duke Nukem had long ago got brutally annoyed with waiting and have been planning to tear it and 3D Realms several new ones for taking so bloody long.

For some reason, I feel inclined to defend Duke Nukem Forever. I can’t really justify this compulsion; technically it’s shit, ugly, clunky and out-dated. It’s also short as fuck, joining the elite club of games that I’ve finished the first playthrough in a day (along with Mirror’s Edge, Halo 3: ODST and Halo 2, to name a few). But, before being spurred on to defend it by digging into the unsurprising kicking the entire internet gave it, I found myself disappointed when I finished Duke Nukem Forever; because I wanted more of it.

As several men have said to dissatisfied women, complaining that something’s over too soon generally means you were enjoying yourself. Like I said, Forever is definitely flawed but at least it’s not another bloody Call of Duty – which I maintain has become this generation’s FIFA, wallowing in the financial safety of online multiplayer and sapping any attempts at bringing new and exciting things into gaming – and it’s not Gears of War; a game that was technically impressive and interesting until the point where again, everyone decided to cash in and force us all into cover behind chest-high walls.

The selection of weapons is still a disappointment; I know it has the Shrink Ray and the Freeze Ray, and I know it was Doom had always had the sexy and interesting weapons, but as an answer to this ‘realism’ infection gaming picked up a few years ago, I was expecting something interesting. I mean, Painkiller showed us that interesting weapons can still be thought up, after all.

I don’t quite know what I was expecting from the weapons, but what I wasn’t expecting was for the shotgun to lodge itself firmly in my heart as the most satisfying weapon I’ve ever used in a game. Yes, I’ve played Bulletstorm, but Duke’s shotgun is satisfyingly louder and a well placed shot reunites us with the lost art of gibbing – using unnecessary force to reduce your target into a widely spread spattering of giblets.

I’m perhaps a little too grateful that it still has a sense of humour – aside from that bit. You know which one. I’m not going to complain that the humour relies on Forever being self-aware; seriously, if anything takes this long to come out and tries taking itself seriously, we’re all entitled to give it a kicking (like Too Human, which also took forever to come out and I think we’re all agreed that it was shit in every way).

Ultimately, say what I will about why you shouldn’t condemn Duke Nukem Forever, but I still feel like I’m waiting for the finished game. I feel the same about Duke Nukem Forever as I do about Mirror’s Edge, Alan Wake and Fable 3; for all their flaws and all the nasty things people have every right to say about them, I’m glad they exist, because they all tried something interesting.

The execution of these interesting things may have been a bit crap:

Duke Nukem Forever tried to bring back the fun to shooters, but forgot to rise above the things it was taking the piss out of.

Mirror’s Edge was astonishingly pretty and experimented with the whole ‘first person’ part of ‘first person shooter’, but the parkour was generally a bit temperamental and bloody difficult.

Alan Wake made a big thing about its light and dark motif, but completely buggered up the horror part of the horror game for lots of stupid reasons.

Fable 3 let you rise to power as the ruler of the land and then actually do ruler-type things, however briefly, but cut back significantly on the whole open world/moral choice thing.

Maybe the onslaught of samey mainstream crap has just lowered my standards in the desperate search for something different?

Oh yeah, whoever's responsible for the pathetic loading times on Duke Nukem Forever; I agree with each and every nasty thing said about the loading times. You're a dick.

Tuesday 18 January 2011

The Thing About Mainstream...

I'm not going to be pretentious enough to condemn "the mainstream". As far as I'm concerned, popular things are mainstream, and popular things are popular for a reason. For instance, jeans are very popular because they're a good combination of ruggedness, comfort and they look pretty good. There are also weird anomalies in what's mainstream: surely everyone knows that most movie tie-in games are terrible and all tv tie-ins are worse, yet people still make CSI games and people still buy them, despite discovering that the last one they bought was shit.

It's not all bad though; it seems that the more popular Rockstar Games get, the better their games are. The original Grand Theft Auto games were fun, but that was then, and now they just hold nostalgia value, and while GTA IV may be slow to get going, it's still fantastic and one of few games that's going to stick in my memory as something that actually lived up to my expectations.

The thing about mainstream though, is things that try to be mainstream. The easiest way to make something mainstream is to make it passive, unoffending and indiscriminate. Not that discrimination is a good thing, it just majorly sucks when something gets popular due to its fans, then that thing betrays its fanbase to attract more sales. Case in point, the Tony Hawk games. Example of justice? Again, the Tony Hawk series - the games steadily got worse to the point where it became one of the biggest casual gaming flops I've ever seen. Speaking of which, did anyone bother playing Tony Hawk's Ride?

I came to a startling realisation of the damage done to gaming by the mainstream not long ago. I'm a big fan of the Fable series, always have been, and it's mostly because of what I think can be done with it, rather than the finished games. While playing Fable III, the one thing I couldn't get out of my mind was the abysmal lip-syncing, on par with Thunderbirds. I can't really call it a bad game; I never called Fable 2 a bad game and at least Lionhead actually bothered to attach the storyline to the character this time.

Someone once asked me; "What's Fable III about, then?" and my only reply was, "Erh, well... it's got Stephen Fry, Simon Pegg and Jason Manford in it". Despite personally realising this was a retarded answer, the response was; "Ooh, sounds like my kind of game". I haven't been able to get this out of my mind. I actually sold a game on star power because I can't properly articulate criticism for it. Having owned various crap PC's and played so many games, I've learned to ignore glitches so my entire thoughts on Fable III are that as a game, it's heavily scripted and quite bland; for some reason, I prefer to think of it as a book, you iron out the creases in your head and fill in the gaps with your imagination and properly get stuck in while waiting for the soothing tones of Stephen Fry.

I hope that once geek chic stops being popular, we can get some decent chewy games again.


Before the time of enlightenment, "geek" is what you called someone, not what you admitted to. And by "enlightenment", I of course mean "mainstream blockbuster gaming". As such, I generally agree with the few people who say that you shouldn't call yourself a gamer - because playing games is just something we do, like driving cars, watching TV or playing sport. It's nothing to write home about, and the same applies to being a geek, in this sense. Naturally, you may feel free to ridicule anyone who sabotages their social life to needlessly repeat the same set of actions in solitude for the sole purpose of stat-building (suck it, World of Warcraft players).

Occasionally, and more importantly for the sake of argument, geek culture consists of geeks and the kind of people who call themselves geeks because they think Pokémn is retro and therefore cool, while the rest of us played Pokémon Gold/Silver to death and never want to set eyes on the bloody thing again.

As geeks, we've never enjoyed sports. Sport was that thing you had to do at school every week wherein the teachers would encourage the big boys with over-active thyroids to kick the shit out of you in some form of objective-based combat. That's fair game in something like rugby; as a geek in highschool, you'll probably be overweight, which is actually an advantage in rugby so you can finally dish out the pain yourself. Unfortunately, "sport" is boiled down to two things in England; cricket and football.

Cricket is boring for all concerned, but more importantly, it was one of few things you had to play at school which not only armed the aforementioned thyroids with bats, but also gave them armour while a bunch of their mates were given really hard balls to throw at you. Football is almost as tedious, but the massive and frankly illogical following in England makes it about a million times worse.

We don't like sports. We started playing videogames to get away from sports; and yet, even in my twenties people still assume I'll enjoy watching football or that I'll suddenly want to go out and play it with friends. Two words: FUCK OFF. I may have fun for about 2 minutes, but then quickly remember that I can't actually kick a ball and that I hate football.

If I want to compete with anyone, I'll play Halo on Xbox Live. That way, I'll have a gun of some description, all my stats will be available somewhere and more importantly, if someone's being a bellend, I can mute them and shoot their character in the face. Or in the case of Halo Reach, I can mute them, stalk their character across the map then pop out from behind them and snap their neck in a brutal and satisfying manner.

Gaming is the core of our culture; it's where we live out stories, experiment in fantasy, and if needs be, it's our sport - we can get together and kick some ass, all without worrying about destroying our favourite trainers because some dick forgot that it pissed it down yesterday and the field they've dragged us to has the consistency of chocolate mousse.