Monday, 4 June 2012

On Motorcycles and Middle-Earth

I can’t stop fucking thinking about motorcycles. Not just any motorcycles, either- 1000cc supersport motorcycles. I find myself obsessing over the engineering balance of the Honda Fireblade, the digital supremacy of the Aprilia RSV4 and the savage purity of the MV Augusta F4R. My father has a Ducati 916, widely regarded as a classic of the class, and took it out yesterday. It took twenty minutes to start and when it did it deafened me and woke the neighbours. But what a fucking thing it is! That styling, that ferocity, that v-twin rumble. This is dangerous; a fat fuck like me, who has never ridden so much as a moped, shouldn’t get any ideas about fast bikes. Cocaine is a healthier vice, and more socially acceptable, too. Fuck it. The heart wants what the heart wants, and my heart wants to race. All that remains is to find some money and negotiate the ever tightening maze of UK bike licensing laws, and I can get myself a cheap shit 125cc commuter bike- a start.

Been reading Lord of the Rings again. I’ve heard people complain and disparage about the books, claiming they aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. While I can see where these people are coming from, I have to disagree. The Lord of the Rings is an unparalleled masterpiece- what it isn’t is readily accessible to the modern reader. Tolkien created not so much a story as a world, one that is fit to burst with depth, richness and melancholy. This, I think, is why we get songs that last four pages about some plot-irrelevant elf-maiden’s favourite tree while the deaths of major characters are done with in a few sentences. I mentioned in my post about the GTAV trailer how the GTA games give the player a beautiful world to lose himself in. Tolkien did the same shit with just text.

It’s also E3 season, with the Microsoft conference starting in about 45 minutes at the time of this writing- I’ll be posting about this one afterwards over at www.invalidopinions.com (HA HA PLUGGING). Hopefully, it won’t be a repeat of the casual gaming Kinect shitfest we saw last year. I’m hoping for some more GTAV content, maybe a new Playstation console, and for the Wii-U not to be completely horrible. As ever, you can bet that lots of stupid shit will be shown and that Half Life 3 won’t.

Friday, 1 June 2012

My Work for Invalid Opinions

I haven't posted here in three weeks; considering past form, that's a miraculously short interval, but I'm still unhappy with myself for it. There is a reason, though- I'm now on board with an independent games journalism site. Invalid Opinions seeks to provide articles and reviews with the unbiased and honest opinions of real video game enthusiasts, disillusioned with the current state of video game journalism and the industry as a whole. We've been picking up momentum pretty nicely, but it has occupied me away from this blog- much of my gaming content will be heading there for the time being, though it should work its way over here after a while. So! Check out Invalid Opinions, but don't stop checking here. I'm sure I'll find some aspect of my incredibly adventurous lifestyle to report on. You can see a couple articles I originally did for Invalid Opinions below.

Starhawk Review

Since the release of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare way back in 2007, there hasn't really been a lot of room for innovation in the console shooter. Developers have sought to replicate COD as closely as they could to attract the brain-dead masses. For the discerning gamer, like you, dear reader, this is not good. As such, it gives me pleasure to report that Lightbox Interactive's Ps3 exclusive Starhawk breathes some much-needed new life into the sector.

Set in a space-faring sci-fi western universe that owes a lot to Firefly, Starhawk is a third-person team-based shooter  with open maps and vehicle gameplay in the vein of Battlefield, outwardly similar to its spiritual predecessor Warhawk, a decent third-person shooter that was sadly completely overshadowed by being released about 3 weeks before the original Modern Warfare. Two teams square off across a wide, open battlefield in objective based-gameplay, as you might expect, but there's a twist- players can summon structures to be dropped into play from orbit, changing the face of the arena in real time.

Turrets, vehicle spawners and fortifications are all available from this so called "Build & Battle" mechanic, and this is what sets Starhawk apart from the crowd. It demands more thought from players than the average shooter- correct use of it is vital for both team and individual success. You spawn with an assault rifle and a handful of grenades. This is fine for fighting some other punk that just spawned, but to mount a serious assault on the enemy base, or a concerted defense of your own? No chance. Call in a a siege tank depot or a supply bunker, though, and maybe you can have a go at it. Building is done with a straightforward radial menu, usable enough that it doesn't get in the way, and can be done by anyone- there's no commander or support role in charge of it. And it works, even in an uncoordinated public server team- walls go up, turrets placed strategically and vehicle structures placed where they can be readily accessed. I'm impressed that a mechanic like this has ben made to work as well as it does in the notoriously anarchic console shooter environment, probably down to the design devotion of the developers- improvements have been made from beta, and more are promised.
The broader gameplay is pretty good- while unmodified infantry combat can be a little flat, things get much more interesting when structures and vehicles are involved. Genuine excitement comes from the constant shifting of a match's dynamics as buildings are alternately erected and obliterated- you gotta keep on your toes. Infantry weapons are pretty standard- general purpose assault rifle, close range shotgun, sniper rifle, rocket launcher- but all have their uses. Vehicles play a big part- the firepower of tanks and aircraft is needed to break a siege and the speed of jeeps and jetbikes to whisk the flag away- and handle well.

To my surprise, there is a singleplayer, and even more surprisingly it doesn't feel completely divorced from the multiplayer. Story hinges around the precious so-called "Rift Energy"- space-crude-oil, essentially. Out in the space frontier, there's a constant battle between Rifters (roughneck space cowboys) and Outcasts (once-men mutated and consumed by the energy). Our player-character is somewhere in between; a rifter with just a hint of outcast glow. It's a pretty decent space western, with colourful characters and animation cutscenes, but nothing earth-shaking. Starhawk does, however, buck the shooter trend once more by using largely the same mechanics in singleplayer as multiplayer- success rides on the use ofbuildings and vehicles just as much in both  cases. This lends a good chunk of player choice to what might otherwise be a fairly dreary campaign. The setting is really cool, though, with a real frontier vibe and great artstyle.

One thing that does strike me about Starhawk is the amount of really neat design features incorporated; I get a feeling that a lot of love went in from the designers, who were dedicated to do the shooter thing a little differently. Instead of just popping on to the map as if by magic, players drop in from above in a pod, able to make subtle flight adjustment to land exactly where they please. It's not just show, either- land your pod on an enemy player or vehicle for an instant (and hilarious) kill. Bunkers have team-exclusive doors and one-way shields on the firing ports to allow occupants to fire out safely- to take them out requires serious firepower or a daring dash up the external ladder to drop in and butcher those within. The "Hawk" aircraft is suited not only to dogfighting as is so often the case with air vehicles in shooters, but bombing as well, and can transform to a walker form to really take part in the ground fight. These things and more are real sparks of creativity and are very welcome indeed in the stale shooter market.

It's so easy to make an average shooter in today's market- just copy Call of Duty. Starhawk shies well away from this approach and does its very best to do something very different from the norm, and manages it, providing a unique action experience with its unconventional design approach. I like it quite a lot, but there are a couple issues I must mention; were it not for the dynamicism offered by the building mechanic, I don't think the shooter gameplay would work- it doesn'y play as well as a conventional shooter as a good conventional shooter does. Additionally, there are a few balance issues lingering still, particularly with vehicle spam- every player on a team can build himself a heavy tank, and if they all do it stops being much fun for the enemy. Nonetheless, Starhawk is living proof that different things can be successfully done with console shooters- take note, developers.

This article was originally posted on www.invalidopinions.com - check it out, it's totally awesome. 

The Perils of Kickstarter

Kickstarter funded game development is happening more and more. After the “Double Fine Adventure” project received over three million dollars of a relatively modest $400,000 goal, a great many people have been trying to get in on that sweet croudsourced funding. Projects that might never otherwise have seen the light of day, like Wasteland 2, are suddenly becoming viable by reaching out to the gaming community for support. Great, right? Yes, obviously. But I’m a little wary of this trend- what are the consequences of doing without publisher support?
Kickstarter- is it all really free funding and creative freedom?

Game development is a pain in the ass. It’s a complicated, challenging and costly process, and always has been. It’s not at all uncommon for games to be delayed, undergo radical changes or to be cancelled outright during development. Big projects from big developers aren’t immune- where is Rockstar’s Agent, for example? Even if a game does manage to come out on schedule and within budget, there’s no guarantee whatsoever that it’ll actually be any good. This isn’t really a problem; it’s merely the nature of the beast.

Nominally, the job of the publisher is to tame that same beast. They’re supposed to bankroll multiple projects from multiple developers, providing support and resources as required, and using business know-how to turn raw creative output from the developers into a marketable product, thus making money for everyone involved. Ideally, the developer-publisher relationship is one of mutual service and benefit, and while today’s publishers may be primarily concerned with shoving DLC down our throats, they have to at least try to do it right to stay afloat.

Making a good pitch for a game is easy; making a good game is hard. Imagine that instead of an angry unemployed asshole, I’m a new studio with a vision for a game of massively multiplayer vehicle combat and racing in a persistent online wasteland, with high emphasis on loot, customisation and the unique specification of your personal ride. Sounds great, right? Trouble is, I don’t know how the hell to actually put such a thing together- I’m an ideas guy.  Ordinarily, this is where a publisher comes in. They look at my pitch, ask me some questions, and, if they think I can deliver the goods, they give me resources and a schedule to bring my vision to reality. However! If I decide instead to fund myself with a Kickstarter, I’m losing out on the publisher assistance, which (should) go beyond the financial.

While it is by no means impossible to find success in independent game development, it does place the burden of financial and business stuff necessary to make a game not on the guys in grey suits at a publishing company, but on the creative types actually making the game, who could easily be woefully ill-equipped to deal with such things. Like I said, making games is hard, and there are often complications. What if a key designer falls ill? What if there’s a fire or an earthquake or a Godzilla attack and vital code is lost? What if the project runs over budget, and the Kickstarter cash is all gone? These are the sort of things the publisher is supposed to handle.

When a conventionally-published project goes down the pipe, it’s only really the publisher that loses out. When one funded by a Kickstarter does the same, it’s you and me- the real life gamers who put up the cash for its development, who are taking the hit.

Don’t get me wrong- I do like the Kickstarter funding thing, and I wouldn’t dream of suggesting it stopped. What I will suggest is that when you look at a Kickstarter page, you bear in mind the unique perils of this approach to development.

This article was originally posted on www.invalidopinions.com - check it out, it's totally awesome.