Saturday, 3 December 2011

In Which I Get Real Excited About Something Probably Meaningless

BREAKING: some guy wore a t-shirt. The ramifications are potentially huge. What? Oh yeah, sorry. A Valve employee wore a t-shirt, and that t-shirt says “Half-Life 3”. Now it’s a big deal, right? Spotted by an employee of Uber Entertainment, developers of the rather good Monday Night Combat, at an industry event, the offending garment is pictured below. 

Half-Life news gets me very excited, no matter how totally inconsequential it is. Four goddamn years have passed since fans were left hanging in the middle of an unresolved narrative by the last game, and Valve have said about twenty words about the future of the franchise in that time. It’s complete fucking radio silence on one of gaming’s most beloved series, it’s become a joke, the new Duke Nukem Forever; I think a little excitability is excused.

This is weird, though. Why the fuck does this guy have a Half-Life 3 shirt? The game hasn’t been announced, they haven’t even finished with Half-Life 2’s episodic expansions. Did he make it himself to wear around the office, get a laugh from his coworkers while they continue to not make it? If it’s official HL3 merchandise that raises even more questions, chiefly- why does official HL3 merchandise exist? Valve are incredibly tight-lipped whenever anyone asks them about the future of Half-Life, and this is the closest to official word there has been. They’re not above simply messing with the fans, but to do so with Half-Life 3 would be cruel; there’s a huge amount of love out there for these games, and their continued absence hurts everyone that cares.

Putting my analytical hat on for a second, since I rarely get to do so for my paranormal detective agency, the shirt looks strikingly similar to one they sell already, bearing the official HL2 logo. There’s a notable difference, though- on that one, the iconic lambda is within the circle and the 2 is without, but here the big ol’ 3 is centre-stage- whether it’s official or otherwise, the designer didn’t want it to be mistaken for the old logo, they wanted people to see that three. I’m no artist, but that makes sense- it’s still distinctly HL, but the emphasis on the three gets nerds like me all excited. Not sure what that actually proves, though. I guess it shows a little more work than simply swapping the number has gone into the logo, which means that if it’s a fake it had at least a moment’s thought given.

It’s hard to tell what to make of this, but I’ll hope against hope that there’s something big coming. Four years is a long-ass time, after all.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Grander Than Ever

Contrary to popular belief, Rockstar Games’s Grand Theft Auto is not just a series about stealing cars and murdering prostitutes. These are, of course, vital gameplay elements; but there’s a little more to the thing than the tabloids, those bastards who get paid for writing stuff, would have you think. They’re games that create a living world, one full of people and attention to detail, of believability and finger-on-the-pulse parody. They’re games that give the player freedom to do as he pleases, and that provide plenty of things to be free to do. They are games that tell a story; one of mobsters, drug deals and psychotics, but also one of comedy, with dark humour oozing from every pore. They are games, as should be obvious, of which I am rather fond. And I felt the closest a miserable bastard like me gets to joy when I found that there was to be another.
While it might not be surprising in and of itself to know that one of the biggest series in entertainment would be updated, there is, I think, a crucial conceptual leap from “sooner or later there will be a new GTA” to “GTA5 is a real thing that is being made, and there is a trailer embedded below”. Announced, in typical Rockstar fashion, with a single cryptic tweet, the latest instalment in the crime-action franchise has been revealed to the world with this first trailer.

A nice trailer, undeniably. But what does it tell us? Speculation on the internet is already rife about the game, but here are the details of which we can be certain- GTA5 is taking the series back to West Coast USA, centring in Los Santos, the game universe’s mirror of Los Angeles, and is set in the present day. We’ve been here before- 2004’s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas had you play as a young street thug from one of Santos’s criminal gangs on a wild adventure around the state, battling with rival gangs and corrupt cops in the pursuit of money and of street justice. While that Los Santos was one of three in-game cities and relatively cramped, looks like the GTAV rendition, given that it seems to be the main event this time around, will be far larger and hugely more detailed, much like the reimagining of Liberty City between GTA3 and 4, which had it much more closely resembling real life New York. The fan-favourite fixed-wing aircraft seem to be back, and I’ll wager they can be player controlled given the outpouring of entitled whining when GTA4 omitted these from its vehicle roster. The shots of mountains and fields confirm that the countryside surrounding Los Santos will be featured in some capacity, too.

Why go back to Los Santos? GTA: Vice City was very popular with its ‘80s faux-Miami setting; why not return there? For the answer to that, we need only listen to the first line of the trailer. “Why did I move here? I guess it was the weather. Or, ah, I don’t know, that thing, that magic.” As well as being the words of a jaded former mobster/federal agent who may or may not be the player character, this is a message from Rockstar to the fans. Setting is as mission-critical to these games as Hellfire missiles are to an attack chopper. New York City is an amazing place, and so was its replication in GTA4’s Liberty City- the capital of the world, the great melting pot, the gateway to the new world and all the other lame-ass clichés. Los Angeles, maybe thanks to its mystification through Hollywood and the media, has a similar magic of its own, an enduring and unique charm. Miami is a superb place for an ‘80s setting, yes; shit, I think Miami was where the ‘80s started and spread forth, the source of all the world’s eighties. But Rockstar doesn’t tend to go over old ground, and outside that grubby decade, what is Miami? Some greasy town in Florida; nothing compared to the City of Angels. Additionally, while the rampant gang culture around in nineties LA has subsided somewhat, I think much of it is still a dangerous-ass place to be, too; this is a game named after a criminal act, after all. I’m real excited to see what Rockstar brings to the table with this game world; they’re the best in the industry at making a world that feels like a real place and not one that revolves around the player, and every game they’ve brought out since GTA3 has improved in this area.

Trailer doesn’t give us too much info about characters. Rumour is there might be multiple protagonists this time around, which is conceivable- GTA4’s episodic expansions each had their own player character, whose tale was distinct from but overlapping with the others, and I could see a similar structure being put into this game. There’s a streetwise looking black guy who appears a few times in the sort of positions a GTA protagonist finds himself in, but it’s hard to be sure. One real interesting thing is the older looking fella at forty seconds in. That face matches the voice somewhat, which is cool, but what’s got the rumour mill working overtime is the noticeable resemblance to Vice City’s Tommy Vercetti. I’m not entirely convinced by that one; Rockstar are perfectly capable of making new characters without dragging up old ones. It’s not inconceivable- dude does look a lot like how Tommy might look after twenty-five years aging and ten of graphical enhancement, and it could be nice to give an aging mobster character that sort of familiarity twist- but the only reason I’m entertaining the idea of that being an older Tommy Vercetti is the fact that, well, it looks a lot like an older Tommy Vercetti. Character design is another thing that has been improving steadily, so this is likely to be top-notch.

Couple other interesting things to note. There’s a dog visible in the first shot, which, combined with the plenty of countryside shown, suggests that the game will have a variety of animals á la Red Dead Redemption. There’s an electric roof animation, hinting at a deeper vehicle system, and the dudes in masks robbing something have assault rifles fitted with suppressors, possibly indicating some degree of weapon customisation. The jet that screeches past the camera looks to be a fighter, and my guess as your friendly neighbourhood military nerd is that it’s a new version of San Andreas’s Hydra jet based on the real-world F-35. There’s probably stuff I’ve missed, I can’t see worth a goddamn- maybe you should mention it in the comments.

Maybe I’m just a dribbling fanboy, but this one trailer has me really stoked already. GTAV should be one to watch. Tune in sometime vaguely soonish for a review of Battlefield 3, and, if I can be arsed buying the same game for the fifth time, maybe Modern Warfare 3 too.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Tanks, World of

Do you have any idea, any idea, just how interesting the history of tank combat is? I'll tell you; shit is incredibly interesting. Did you know, for instance, that the differences in Soviet and NATO tank tactics can actually be observed in the design of the tanks themselves? The ruskies favoured aggressive, advancing-under-fire doctrine, and consequently, the tanks are low-profile and manoeuvrable. NATO didn't play that way, oh no. NATO doctrine dictates that you roll up on the crest of a hill, exposing just your turret, depressing the gun and blasting on fools from behind the protection of geography. The extra gun mobility needed by this approach requires a taller turret, giving the vehicle an increased target profile, though one that is ideally hidden in a hull-down position of cover. Ain't that interesting? No? Well, shit. Guess I'll skip the ten thousand word essay on armoured warfare. Fortunately, the knowledge isn't required to enjoy World of Tanks, an interesting free-to-play game from wargaming.net.

It's not easily genre-able, this one. It's probably an action game, firstly- standard battles pitch teams of 15 tanks up against one another on a variety of maps. To succeed in battle, you need to employ some degree of strategy, since it's just a little more complex than your average Black Ops match, though the same could maybe be said of . In addition to the rootin' tootin' shootin' side of things, we have some RPG-style progression out of battle- you buy tanks and upgrades for them with credits earned in battle, and watch your crewmen increase in skill like some kind of militarised Pokémon. An unusual game, then, but a good one? Maybe.
A garage brimming with my totally sweet vehicle selection.
You start off with three frankly heinous little wagons in your garage, one from each of the Russian, American and German lines. After a few battles in these poorly armed, slow, paper-armoured deathboxes, you might have scraped up enough funds and experience to upgrade. In terms of vehicles offered, World of Tanks is certainly impressive- there are five classes of vehicle- agile Light Tanks, versatile Mediums, powerful Heavies, long range SPG (self-propelled gun) artillery wagons and ambush-focused Tank Destroyers, with each nation having intersecting lines for each class in ten tiers of increasing potency. There's a whole lot of historical accuracy here, with tanks from the inter-war period through to the early '50s, though dozens of the tanks available seem to have been prototypes that never saw combat. Nonetheless, the attention to detail is commendable, almost alarming- each tank has realistic options for equipment and meticulously detailed models, including the positions of crewmen and essential parts with regards to incoming fire. I saw a thread on the (well-trafficked) official forums where digital tankers were genuinely digging up blueprints and design documents for these sixty or seventy year old machines to find the ideal spots to place that killing shot.
Into the fray! I took a screenshot before the enemy appeared because I did not wish to put virtual lives at risk.
The progression system is solid. Players spend experience to to unlock new parts for their tank, which also unlocks further research- the classic 'tech tree' approach. There's a lot of depth, here; researching appropriate advancements is vital to keep your tank competitive, and there are a hell of a lot to choose from. Engines, turrets, guns, suspensions and radio units can all be swapped out. Most of the parts available are straight upgrades, but each tank generally has a range of guns available with variations in rate of fire, accuracy and firepower. There is an awful lot of fucking grinding, though, which can prove a real pain. I wanted to get into the Russian Medium tank line, which includes the legendary T-34 series and ultimately the venerable T-54, arguably the first true Main Battle Tank; a delicious prospect, as I'm sure you would agree if you knew what that meant. However, to get even as far as the T-34 (a vehicle without which your sorry ass, reader, might well be speaking German), I had to progress all the way through the light tank line. Light tanks suck man balls, though, and grinding through was a real drag. Because there is so much grinding (this is an MMO, after all), I worry that it would be all too easy to stick a whole lot of man-hours getting locked into a line that isn't as much fun as you thought it'd be. This is reduced a little with recent additions to the tree whereby you can move more easily between classes, but it remains a concern.
The pre-round period is filled with tension, motivational speeches and shit-talking.
The actual gameplay is pretty fun. Two teams of fifteen vehicles line up against one another on about a square kilometre of semi-accurate historical battlefield. To win, a team must either destroy all enemy vehicles (there are no respawns) or capture the enemy base. A lot of work has gone into the combat; intricate mechanics are present for spotting enemy vehicles, shell penetration and tank damage. There's a potent one-more-match mindset the game invites you into, probably because of the one-life system, reminiscent of Counter-Strike. To survive in combat, you must be fairly thoughtful- positioning and movement is key. Speeding out into the open battlefield will almost certainly leave you with thirty tonnes of burnt out paperweight in short order. Unfortunately, some of the tactics are nullified by the relatively compact maps. These play too much into the hands of the heavy tanks; their crazy armour and god-like firepower is quite a bit more helpful than the extra mobility of the light and medium vehicles. It’s not that badly balanced, (though the developers are Russian, so the Soviet tanks have characteristics between ‘exaggerated’ and ‘nightmare death chariot’) and they are working on it, but the issue is present. Another balance issue comes from matchmaking. Since the available tanks range from inter-war experiments to two-hundred ton prototype tracked mountains, there’s a tier system, and you theoretically get matchmade with tanks around your own tier. I think you can end up with too many extreme-tiered tanks; it’s not much fun to play in a team with five tier-fives against one with five tier-eights, but this seems to happen all too often. It’s not crippling, and if you find the wrapping paper of your mid-tier tank torn asunder by the berserk child at the controls of some steel monster, you can just leave the battle and start one in a different tank, but too often I see a tier-four light matchmade with some tier-nine heavies, and pity that fool.
This guys about to taste some hurt. Or he would be if i hadn't got a bloody ricochet.
For a free game, the production values are great- tanks are meticulously modelled, and a whole lot of effort has clearly gone into their recreation. In fact, for a free game, what faults it has are pretty minor. That said, for a free game, there are an awful lot of ways to spend money on it. You can buy a premium subscription, increasing your credit and experience income, premium vehicles if your time is too precious to grind through the trees to get tanks the proper way and premium ammunition to penetrate thicker armour. You start with a (fairly healthy) five garage slots, and more can be purchased for real money, stuff like that. The devs have, I think, struck that difficult freemium balance where paying real money is both worthwhile and non-essential; even the extra-penetrative shells don’t give much ingame advantage since they don’t do more damage than the standard ammo- essentially they just mean you are less hosed against tanks tougher than your own. At higher levels, the income bonus from a premium subscription is the surest way to make any kind of progress, yes, but at no point is it essential, which is very agreeable.
So, if you find yourself with a desire for some WW2 armoured action, but no desire to pay for it, I could not, in good conscience, recommend any game over World of Tanks. Since various goverments and school boards have rejected my calls for the art of tank combat to become a mandatory part of primary education, it might be the only way you can learn this vital skill.