Monday, 22 December 2008

What are the Odds?

It's always frustrating when a game's design and concept hits the mark with me so perfectly, yet in practice I just don't get on with it. Such was the case with Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee (1997). Abe was such a loveable character, the visual style was beautifully realised, the story and world were creative and unique, yet I suck at playing it. In fact, I suck at pretty much all stealth games, so let's just leave it at that. I'm digressing.

Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee

It's refreshing to know that, after a 3-year period of not releasing any games, Oddworld Inhabitants are still active and are in fact working on a new Oddworld title, as well as a CGI film called Citizen Siege. Details are all still very shady at this stage and it is in fact a new IP (not set in Oddworld) but it's enough to keep me going. It will be nice to watch someone else suck at being stealthy for a change.

Check out these interviews for more information:

Friday, 19 December 2008

World of Warcraft sequel: World of World of Warcraft

Warcraft sequel lets you play a character playing Warcraft.



I like The Onion. It seems to be one of the few American comedies that can successfully do satire.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Modding Busybody

Just a quick update today to announce that I have joined not one, but two mod teams in the past week.

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The first is Human Error, which is part of the Half-Life 2: Short Stories project. In this mod the player will assume the role of one of the Metrocops seen in Half-Life 2 and combat some old adversaries. Most of the level design is done at this stage, so I'll be working on detailing the environments and making them look pretty.

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The second mod is Ivan's Secrets, a new story which takes place in Russia's Caucasus Mountains. It will feature some breathtaking open environments and realistic new weapons. For Ivan's Secrets I am working as a full-on level designer so I get to create entire areas from scratch. The work you see here is by JLea who is an extremely talented mapper despite being almost a decade younger than me... Not that I'm jealous or anything...

Check for updates on their respective pages, and I'll keep you posted here too!

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Far Cry 2: The Problem with Sandbox Games

I never really could get my head around sandbox games - that is open-world, non-linear, free-roaming affairs. I enjoyed the odd Grand Theft Auto game here and there but never managed to see one through to the end. It usually trailed off once I'd explored all the new environments. When I played Far Cry 2 I wasn't expecting something along these lines. The first game in the series featured wide, expansive environments but it was essentially linear. You had to progress from point A to point B and so on, but how you got there was largely up to you. This time around you are dropped into the heart of an unnamed African country and are pretty much left to your own devices, being able to explore in all four directions of the compass.

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The problem, for me, lies therein. What am I doing? Where do I begin? According to the text displayed at the bottom of the loading screen I'm here to kill an elusive arms dealer known as 'The Jackal', who also happened to pay me a threatening visit whilst I was bedridden with malaria. I am released into the jungle in search of medicine to calm my intense migraines, but apart from these two loose goals I have no clear objectives. How do you track down a man and a pill in Africa? Where do I begin? Far Cry 2 points you in the right direction to an extent but I often found that I was wandering aimlessly until I uncovered a new side mission in which I had to assassinate an unknown figure for an unknown employer.

A vital ingredient for a great game is purpose. In other words, having objectives and feeling the sense that you are working towards reaching them. I do not particularly get that feeling in Far Cry 2, instead I feel that I am like some sort of nomad who knows nothing but violence and survival.

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Ubisoft had a great opportunity to portray some fascinating characters: refugees made homeless by the conflict, thieves forced into crime to survive, etc. But instead the downtrodden natives are shown to be leaving the country in the introductory car ride and the only people you meet are warlords, henchmen and people trying to make profit from the situation. Character interaction is wooden and uninspiring, with NPCs doing little more than standing and staring at you while they quickly recite their lines. There is very little hint of emotion. Perhaps I've just been spoiled by playing too much Half-Life 2...

On the plus side, it's not all bad. The scenery is breathtaking, the AI is pretty impressive, the shoot-outs are challenging and intense, the music fits perfectly and the weapons are satisfying to use. But these are all things we have come to expect. After all, we've been honing those skills for years. Why can't we get the other things right?

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Finally, I feel I should comment on the level editor that comes bundled with Far Cry 2 on all versions (PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360). The very fact that this software is available on the console versions probably tells you a lot about it; it's a stripped-down piece of software which makes large-scale terrain morphing to be performing quickly and very easily. Constructing buildings is as simple as selecting one from a list and clicking where you want it (also allowing you to manipulate its orientation at any point). The image above is a map I whipped up in less than an hour. This kind of ease does, of course, come at the cost of freedom. You are unable to create your own buildings or walls as you are completely restricted to Ubisoft's premade assets and currently you can only create multiplayer maps (no AI NPC options available, although enough pestering on Ubisoft's forums might hopefully change that). The editor is certainly a good starting point for anyone interested in level design, or even anyone who just wants to mess around and create some great-looking maps with ease, but don't expect it to teach you all the skills you need to move on to more complex editors like Hammer and UnrealEd.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Eurogamer Expo 2008

What a day! It's difficult to know where to begin when describing my visit to Eurogamer Expo (part of London Games Festival). First I'll give you a run-down of all the games I managed to play...

Fallout 3
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Probably the game I was looking forward to the most. In actual fact I think it was somewhere near the bottom compared to the other games I played. This may be partly because I was playing on PlayStation 3 (I really can't stand those analogue sticks for first-person mode) and also because I was sat very close to the massive TV so it looked quite grainy. I only played a small part and - considering the game is meant to be somewhat on the large side - I probably didn't get a real feel for its magnitude. The dialogue system seemed to be pretty in-depth and commendable and the locations were, as you probably know, jaw-dropping.

Mirror's Edge
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Certainly one of the highlights of the show for me and my gaming companion. The game's focus on parkour, agility and mobility was helped a great deal by its simple control system and sleek, HUD-less interface. The lack of varied colours was surprisingly both beautiful and functional as it allowed you to single out the important elements of the area and head straight for them. My only criticism was that gauging the jumps was sometimes a little tricky, although this may well become easier with practice.

Killzone 2
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Without a doubt the best-looking game at the show and second only to Crysis and NBA 2K9. The gameplay was certainly a step up from the original as it seemed to be more varied than simply run and gun. The demo I played featured a battle through a war-torn city with long and short range combat round every corner. It culminated in a face-off between ISA and Helghast tanks in a damaged street (or possibly dried canal) whilst I protected an allied convoy. Movement was slightly clunky but I always feel that way about FPS games on consoles. I'm really annoyed that this won't be released on PC...

Little Big Planet
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Another great title for the PS3 which I can only describe as pure fun. Within minutes of playing we were laughing and joking with complete strangers as the little Sackboys frantically chased a runaway skateboard down a steep slope. It was charming, simple and innovative and I can now see why it's been so highly praised. A nifty checkpoint system kept the game moving quickly and prevented it from becoming stale or frustrating.

Call of Duty: World at War
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What can I say? It's Call of Duty. Treyarch's return to the World War II era may have received mixed reactions but at the end of the day you can't beat the series' intensity. I played a short segment in which I stormed a German encampment with machine guns and a rocket launcher. It was pretty standard stuff, but that's not to say I didn't enjoy it. Quite the contrary. This is a game I will definitely be getting and I'm happy to see it sticking to its solid roots.

Left 4 Dead
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Once again, Valve deliver the goods. I was slightly sceptical as multiplayer is not really my forte but one round on this changed all that. It was an intense zombie-fest through abandoned subway tunnels which somehow managed to draw four people (two of whom I'd never met before) into a tight-knit team of action heroes. The Infected hordes were truly terrifying, the co-operative features such as healing were flawlessly implemented and the locations were deliciously creepy. Another game I'll surely be purchasing.

Prince of Persia
This latest addition to the series features a unique new look. The combat mechanics were interesting as it seemed to be more of an 'overpower your opponent' affair than 'reduce their health to zero'. The movement was slightly too responsive at times and we encountered two major bugs in the demo that prevented us from advancing any further. Hopefully these will be addressed in the final version. It looked great but I couldn't play enough to get a real feel for it's main mechanics.

Legendary
I only played this very briefly but nothing struck me as being particularly awesome. The graphics were mediocre, especially in comparison to all the other top titles on display. The gameplay featured nothing I hadn't seen before but, again, I didn't play much so I can't give a fair criticism.

Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix
Just like the old game but with a gorgeous HD visual update! But I'm not really a fan of fighting games...


As well as this I also managed to watch people play Resident Evil 5, Gears of War 2, Street Fighter IV, Far Cry 2 and Resistance 2, all of which were pretty impressive. Of course RE5 took the prize from this bunch with a terrifying new axe-wielding enemy akin to the Nemesis and Mr X.

Oh and guess what, there were several white zombies in there too.

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As well as all this there were some sports game which don't interest me in the slightest, and a whole wall of Nintendo Wii and DS games that were largely ignored. It was a pretty poor show on their part and it makes me wonder if they've got what it takes to keep their momentum up enough to compete with the big boys.

Finally, I recorded a couple of videos (albeit with a shoddy camera phone so they are low quality). You can view them here:
Killzone 2
Resident Evil 5

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Back again with Union videos

After a critical problem with our family computer and then moving into a new house with no internet access, I am finally able to post again. Which is nice. I'll post some new reviews and articles and whatnot in the near future, but until then here are some videos which show the entirety of Union. Obviously they contain every spoiler possible so avoid watching them unless you've played it (or don't intend to play it). You can use them as a sort of video walkthrough as well if you want.

Meanwhile I'm preparing for an awesome winter of gaming: Far Cry 2, Fallout 3, Dead Space, Mirror's Edge, Little Big Planet, Gears of War 2, the list seems endless. Where were all these games during the summer drought?





Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Emily isn't real

This article shows off new technology which allows for extremely realistic facial animation, and I would recommend giving it a look.

http://technology.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/tech_and_web/article4557935.ece

The video made me realise that the most realistic animation is achieved when it is captured with the person providing the voice acting. When it is applied afterwards it must be extremely difficult to match up the audio with the visual as they may not be perfectly in sync. I hope that more game developers start using this technique.

Sorry this isn't more in-depth but I'm pressed for time today!

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Curse of the Impatient Gamer

I have memories of being in a computer shop in my early teens. My dad was handing over his credit card to pay for our brand new, top of the range PC with Windows 95. My eyes were wandering across the shelves of bulky game boxes when they stopped on Fallout, a enticing marvel to behold if ever I did see one. It turns out I couldn't afford the game on my measly pocket money and, for one reason or another, lost interest and stopped pursuing it. Yesterday, inspired by the recent previews of Fallout 3, I decided to finally try it out.

To be honest I'm not entirely sure what I expected but it certainly wasn't what I experienced. My first gripe was with the interface. Granted, I probably should have read the manual (you have to be prepared for this kind of thing when you dig out '90s PC games) but for the first 15 minutes I found myself awkwardly fumbling around with menus and icons and wondering why the game wouldn't just let me perform a straight-up left click. I also found the combat to be extremely jarring as it was constantly forcing me to halt my exploration and shift into a skill points/turn-based system, making me wait while enemies slowly shuffled towards me. My patience was finally tested when I accidentally clicked on my ally with the attack command (because he was standing right in front of an enemy and obscuring most of it). He proceeded to shoot me dead within 2 turns, not enough for me to escape or even try to tell him that I wasn't really out to get him, and that I just had a brief case of spaz-hand.

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Fallout (1997)

So, about 30 minutes into the game and I had already admitted defeat. It had irritated me too much and I couldn't be bothered to work with it any more. The whole thing got me thinking: would I have kept trying if I had played the game 10 years ago? Back then playing a new game was a rare treat, not a weekly tradition. I didn't have the money to try all the new big titles, just the select few I could afford and I can assure you, I would squeeze every last penny's worth of enjoyment out of those games (with the exception of 7th Legion, that was just guff).

Of course there are myriad factors involved (time, money, the cynicism I have developed as I've grown older, etc.) but one of the major ones, in my opinion, is the techniques games use to introduce the player to its mechanics. These days (most) games seem to have it nailed. Half-Life 2 springs to mind as it's probably the game that first got me thinking about this concept. Whenever the game introduces a new mechanic or vital skill that the player will need to rely on, it makes sure that we have a firm understanding of how it works and how to use it (usuaully in a safe, stress-free situation) before we are thrown into the deep end. The result is an experience which never feels frustrating or cheap. There is never a moment where the player is unsure why they met their demise or failed to complete their objective.

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Half-Life 2 (2004)

Compare this to games from 15+ years ago, sometimes even more recent, when the player would be laughed at for not considering to read the manual. Lists of controls would be printed - sometimes on double-page spreads - and we would be expected to learn them before popping the disk in as if the game was some sort of exam to see how well we can memorise 30 different key functions. I have the same problem with the recent surge of mobile phone games; they often give you a screen showing you the controls and then just chuck you into the action and expect you to be a master.

Nowadays people talk about the 'dumbing down' of games, made easy for the casual masses. HUDs become less obtrusive but make way for on-screen button prompts. Personally, I can't argue with this new method of player training. When I play a game I want to become totally immersed in its world, I don't want to be constantly taking my eyes off the screen to read an inch-thick instruction book. If the game needs to help me along a little bit while I'm playing, that's fine; not all of us are geniuses.

P.S. I love Fallout's setting and universe, so I still want to give it a chance. I'll probably try again soon. This comment was included so that I don't piss off any Fallout fans as apparently the game is quite good.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

David Cage: Gamasutra Interview

I know it's a few days old, but I just got round to reading this interview over at Gamasutra and I have to say it's one of the most interesting I've read. David Cage is the founder of Quantic Dream, the development studio that brought us Indigo Prophecy (Fahrenheit in Europe) and is soon to deliver the much-anticipated Heavy Rain on the PlayStation 3.

Dreaming of a New Day: Heavy Rain's David Cage

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Cage talks about narrative in games, the difference between how it applies to linear and sandbox games, links between cinema and games as media and that one particularly hot potato: censorship. All these topics are open to a lot of debate and are areas I'm very interested in. I'd love to hear your views too!

One last note: I'm finally downloading Fa├žade as I write, a game I've been intending to play for a long time. For those who don't know, it's an experiment into artificial intelligence and character interaction and it can be downloaded for free at www.interactivestory.net.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Half-Life 2 Mapping For Beginners

I just came across this on ModDB, so if anyone is reading and wants to get started with map editing for Half-Life 2 or any of the other games that use the Source engine (Team Fortress 2, Counter-Strike: Source, Portal, etc.) then you should check it out! It's a pretty straight-forward introduction with video tutorials too.

http://www.moddb.com/games/half-life-2/tutorials/half-life-2-mapping-tutorials-for-beginners

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Review: STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl

Deciding whether or not to try out STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl was - as I imagine - much like one of the game's eponymous scavengers debating whether or not to travel into the confines of the Zone. I had heard... stories... about that game. Bad things can happen when you play it, but is that enough to deter you? The rewards may be ripe and plentiful. With reports of high rates of crashes, numerous bugs and glitches around every corner, I would have to get quicksave-friendly or pay the price. In the end I took the plunge and entered the Zone...

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As you have probably guessed already STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl is set in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster in a region of 30km square that has been ravaged by bizarre environmental phenomena. This area (now known as "the Zone") is populated by mutated abominations and groups of stalkers; the men who risk their lives to retrieve priceless artifacts which defy known science. The player begins the game as one of these stalkers who has lost his memory, his only hint at a past life is a PDA message which instructs him to "kill Strelok". It is with this fascinating backdrop in mind that I set out into the Zone to see what it held in store for me. I'm still deciding whether or not I liked what I found.

The game boasts an atmosphere like no other, and this is clearly due to a number of contributing factors. Firstly the game loosely borrows its setting from the movie Stalker (Tarkovsky, 1979) and the novel Roadside Picnic (Strugatsky brothers, 1972) which has a direct impact on the thick, foreboding ambience of the irradiated fields and woods. Secondly, the development team have clearly done a lot of research into the real-life Chernobyl and have brought it to the game very realistically. Certain buildings and vistas are recognisable from famous photos such as the ferris wheel and the nuclear power plant itself. The sounds especially contribute to the mood of STALKER as you hear tides of wind rippling through the trees, dogs barking in the distance and unexplained knocking and banging in the dank corridors of the underground research facilities. It all sent shivers up my spine and left me hungry to explore more of this tragic, beautiful landscape.

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Unfortunately for me, I found that STALKER fell at some of the first hurdles as far as gameplay is concerned. A cluttered, awkward interface kept my engagement teetering on the edge of immersion, never quite moving aside so I could concern myself with the actions I was trying to perform rather than what buttons to press. My main gripe is with the inventory menu which requires so many clicks and drags of the mouse that I often died during combat because I was merely trying to pull out a different weapon. I also found that mouse buttons were downright unresponsive at times, forcing me to click them several times before they registered I had done anything at all.

Another problem I found was that, although STALKER has a wonderfully intriguing backstory, it does very little to further that story while you're playing it. I'm actually just about to start the final section of the game and I still feel that I haven't learned much about the Zone and I haven't really had any effect on it either. The characters I meet are very obviously not real, which is exacerbated (yeah, I just said exacerbated) by the fact that they repeat each others' dialogue, all look remarkably similar and do very little to acknowledge the fact that I am a person and that they too are people. As I mentioned dialogue I will elaborate on that too. It is poorly-written at best and did very little to further my interest in the Zone. There was next to no evidence of characterisation with all people speaking in a bland, factual manor. Maybe these people have been changed by the Zone and that's why they're all dullards, but then again maybe the game should have made this fact more obvious.

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As I mentioned, I'm really in two minds about STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl. On one hand it draws me in with the feeling of a real environment, something that many games can learn from, but on the other it slaps me back with poor mechanics and frustrating challenges. Well, I have persevered with it so it must have done something right but the whole time I was playing I couldn't help but think that it could have been so much better.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

First Year Coursework: Luminesca

I got my results back for my first year of university today (I passed comfortably) so I thought I'd share my coursework with you. I mentioned it here a few months back with the intention of making a fully-fledged game. That goal may see more work in the future but until then it exists as a simple 2D platform/collectables quest.

You can play it here.

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Luminesca was created using Macromedia Director.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Review: Alone In The Dark

The early tech demo trailers of Alone In The Dark had me waiting with high anticipation. It boasted a strong focus on 'real world rules' whereby answers to puzzles were grounded in reality. Locked door blocking your way from a burning room? Bash it down with a heavy object. I enjoy this sort of logical thinking as opposed to perhaps more abstract solutions seen in the older Resident Evil games, which involved conveniently shaped gem stones scattered around old police stations fitting into conveniently shaped eye sockets on ancient statues, a mechanism which eventually opens the door. Did no one use keys 100 years ago?

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Anyway, the opening moments of Alone In The Dark are promising. It has a professional cinematic style which is enhanced by the gorgeous lighting engine and physics effects. The set pieces and environments all look fantastic and they really help to add to the atmosphere. The first stage sees you (the unintroduced hero Edward Carnby) escape from a New York skyscraper which is literally being torn apart by a strange creature that seems to permeate the very walls of the building. It's an absolute joy to observe (I was watching friends play at this point) but the problems finally arose when the controller was handed to me.

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I have two main gripes with this game. Firstly, its control scheme is shockingly difficult to get to grips with and we ended up spending the first two stages finding the buttons more of a problem than the actual on-screen obstacles. AITD essentially suffers from Trespasser Syndrome, as it uses the right analogue stick to control the hands of Edward. For example, if you are holding a chair you can tilt the stick to the right and he will hold the chair towards the same direction. Quickly pushing the stick across to the left makes Edward swing it with force so you can hit enemies or objects. This high level of control reminds me of Trespasser in that the system is great in concept, but falls down in its overly-complex execution as you clumsily twist and twirl the item you're holding. The game also suffers by utilising a single button for several important actions. You use A to run, pick up items, turn your flashlight on and off (assuming you have taken it out with LB first) and operate various objects within the world like switches. Its an awkward method that sees you constantly trying to remember what order you should press buttons in to perform the most menial tasks. Oh and by the way, I hope you don't seriously think you can open a door whilst holding a broom at the same time do you? Good, because the game will take the liberty of forcing you to drop it first.

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The second case in which Alone In The Dark falls short is its unforgiving difficulty and insistence on repeating sections over and over. There are a large number of quick reaction-based events that require you to pre-empt the challenges the game is about to throw at you. If you fail, you die. Instantly. Thankfully there are a lot of checkpoints so you rarely have to repeat much, but we still found it occurring with frustrating frequency. It's as if AITD hasn't evolved since the 1980s style of punishing gameplay. The game also features a strange and unique feature which allows you to skip entire sections in the same way you would with DVD chapters. Exactly why Infogrames decided to include this feature is beyond me, but it's almost as if they had finished the game and realised that no one would have the patience to sit through each segment time and time again so they built in a level skip cheat. Only it's not a cheat.

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I realise at this point that I haven't said much about the plot which is usually my main focus of a game. That's because it was so obscured with awkward gameplay that I didn't really pay much attention to it. It revolves around a dark secret beneath the facade of New York City which has been kept by some sort of cult for many years. I haven't played any of the other games in this franchise so I don't know if I was supposed to understand what was going on or not, but the game didn't exactly help me out when it came to setting the scene and forming any sort of idea as to what was going on. The story is revealed by cutscenes filled with contrived dialogue, lacklustre voice acting and an unnecessary amount of expletives (presumably because it makes the game more 'adult').

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All in all, Alone In The Dark is a promising game with a lot of potential and it's almost breath-taking to watch. Unfortunately, it's fundamentally flawed in a number of critical areas and in ways that games really shouldn't be flawed after so many years of learning from past mistakes. Rent it or watch someone play it.

P.S. Your female companion is extremely irritating, utterly useless and will not cease her incessant pestering and complaining. I wish the 'real world rules' applied to a fire extinguisher to the head.

P.S.2. Clicking the right analogue stick to blink for the first 10 minutes of the game gets old very quickly.

Sunday, 1 June 2008

Review: Audiosurf

It's been a big year or two for games recently, with huge blockbuster titles coming out left, right and centre. How surprising it is that one of my favourite new games of recent months has been a relatively unknown game -- Audiosurf -- from indie developers Invisible Handlebar.

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Audiosurf is a rhythm-based game in which you control a futuristic jet vehicle thing at the bottom of the screen as it races forwards along a multi-coloured track with 3 lanes. The thing that makes this game so great is that you can import any of your own songs or sound files into it, which not only provides the soundtrack but also determines the way the track is formed. Your speed is affected by the incline of the road, which is in turn affected by the tempo and volume of the song.

Making your objective more difficult is the task of collecting coloured blocks which are littered across the track. Your vehicle will pass these squares as they appear in time to the music and, depending on your chosen playing style, you will have to collect them, avoid them or sort them into groups.

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The game is beautifully simplistic and works amazingly with most songs I've tried, breathing life into music I thought I'd grown tired of in an innovative new way. This is the type of game I can see appealing to anyone providing you have at least a little bit of love for some sort of music. It's further enhanced by its online scoreboard which lets you see how well you fared against every other user in the world (based on skill level). The game is only about £5 and is available on Steam, or you can download a demo for free. Why haven't you bought it yet?!

Sunday, 18 May 2008

Toxic Gauntlet, Patapon again

Just a quick update today. As I've now finished university for the summer I decided to mess around with Hammer some more and I've come up with this environment that I'm very pleased with. I'm still not 100% sure whether or not I'm going to continue Union, or what it would be like if I did, but this is one of the possibilities for an area in the second chapter.

As you might be able to tell, I've been experimenting with the color_correction entity and trying to give the area a unique flavour and atmosphere that I hope will make it easy recognisable amongst the hundreds of other mods out there.







P.S. I finally got to have a good go on Patapon and it's had me hooked for hours. The only problem is that when I stop playing the game I feel like I have to keep doing everything in rhythm.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Review: Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII

Final Fantasy VII was one of my all-time favourite games. It opened up my eyes to the world of storytelling through games, showed me what a compelling cast and atmosphere can do for the experience, and highlighted the importance of scope and mood through audio and visuals. It is one of the few RPGs I have played through several times.

What a disappointment, then, when I got my hands on its little brother: Crisis Core. I wanted to enjoy Crisis Core -- I really did -- but I really should have known better. You see, Final Fantasy has always been at the pinnacle of design, technology and art but as the years go on I sense that they seem to have forgotten about design in an attempt to blow the competition out of the water in the other two areas.

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Crisis Core really is a visually stunning game considering the hardware limitations of the PSP, and this is evident in cutscenes and in-game sections alike, but all that goes out the window when the game is absolute dog shit to play. I'll explain why.

The battle system is a repetitive process of hammering attack buttons (occasionally interspersed with healing if the retarded DMW system didn't happen to give you free health, see below). Each battle is started and ended with an extremely irritating voice-over which becomes mind-numbing after the first few tries.

At random intervals in the battles, your button mashing is interrupted because a constantly-spinning slot reel (the DMW) happened to match up two pictures. Cue a time-based action to try and match a third picture so that you are allowed to use your special moves. On the spot. That's right, the timing of your special moves is selected randomly, thereby eliminating ALL strategy in using them. At one point the game decided I should try and match Aerith's picture so I could have a free healing spell. 'No thanks', I thought, 'My health is actually double my maximum health at the moment' (?!) So I decided to be cunning and stop the slot reel on a different picture, therefore avoiding watching the jarringly-long spell animation. 'No', replied the game, 'I think you should have a healing spell now' and forced me on to the matching picture anyway. I wouldn't mind this kind of crap if it was occasional, but I found this to be happening with incredible frequency. Strong attack moves would kick in when I was just about to deliver my finishing blow to a long line of enemies. If there was any sort of pattern to this feature then the game wasn't explaining it to me well enough.

Occasionally you also be forced to sit through a cutscene or flashback to a previous interaction with a main character. DURING THE BATTLE.

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Oh, did I mention that your character only levels up when you get 777 on the DMW? Yeah, it's not based on experience or skill in any way.

If I start to sound like Yahtzee it's probably because I'm starting to feel like him.

The battle system would probably be bearable if it weren't so prominent, but it's pretty much the meat of the game. Any outside quests are handled by either wandering round an empty-as-sin town area, reading pages of uninspiring text in your e-mails list, or participating in the hundreds of additional missions.

Don't get me started on the missions! Well, I've already started actually, so I'll finish. The optional missions (I'm so relieved they're optional) consist of running around a bland, repetitive 'dungeon' area with a high frequency of random encounters until you find your target enemy. This is one enemy that is exactly the same as the rest, except it is visible before you enter the battle instead of appearing out of nowhere. Once you kill it, you succeed the mission. That's it. I've completed 20% of the missions (that's at least 30 missions I think) and every single one has followed this exact same formula. Any story given to you in the briefing is a shallow excuse to slog through one more gruelling grind.

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It's not all bad. The graphics are superb as I mentioned before, and the many references to the original Final Fantasy VII are plentiful and accurate. But as I have come to expect from Square-Enix in recent years, the good parts are not enough to outweigh the bad. I found this game incredibly infuriating and it tried my patience far too much. I would recommend it if you were a fan of its predecessor but beyond that it really isn't enjoyable enough to endure its broken mechanics.

I've managed to play a decent amount of a few other new games lately; namely Call of Duty 4, Crysis, Bioshock and Assassin's Creed. Expect some opinions on those games soon.

Friday, 11 April 2008

Review: God of War: Chains of Olympus

I just completed this game yesterday and I have to say it's definitely the best PSP game I've played so far. It's actually the only PSP game I've ever completed too; the rest only held my interest for so long.

God of War: Chains of Olympus (PSP)

God of War's strength lies in the way it manages to mimic its PS2 bigger brothers almost flawlessly. With the exception of using the right analogue stick to dodge (you now have to hold L and R and use the left stick) the controls are exactly the same, both button-wise and also with the moves Kratos is able to pull off. Magic is handled slightly differently too but it works fine.

God of War: Chains of Olympus (PSP)

The story was probably the weakest part of the game for me, especially in comparison to the previous instalments. Anyone who has played the first God of War will know all about the twist in Kratos' dark past, and given that this game is a prequel I was expecting it to focus on that some more. I was a little disappointed to find what is essentially a completely unrelated 'mission' given by the gods. The Elysian Fields scene near the end was very touching but this is the only point in the game where the story has an relevance to Kratos as a person.

But in all fairness, while God of War's narrative has always been above average it's really not the reason I play the games (and I'm sure many others would agree). The gameplay is spot on with responsive controls and superb animation, sound and level design. If you own a PSP and are remotely interested in action games I couldn't recommend God of War: Chains of Olympus more.

Friday, 29 February 2008

Union post-mortem (Part 1)

Well, I have been absolutely amazed by the great feedback I've received for Union. It seems a lot of people really enjoyed it and, despite a few minor problems, it has achieved pleasing results. So to all the people who left kind comments: thank you! You make the hours of hard work worth while! I really couldn't have asked for a better response.

Now what I would like to do is share some of the decisions I made while I was making Union and explain how it came to be what it is. This is sort of my equivalent of the commentaries for the Orange Box games, only using text and pictures rather than in-game audio. I will also show some screenshots of the maps during production so you can see how they changed.

WARNING: It goes without saying that this will be full of SPOILERS! If you have not yet played Union I would urge you to do so first or you may spoil the effect.

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So, let's start with the first room. When I first started designing Union, there were only two parts I had solidified in my head: the start and the end. I knew that the player would start out by recovering from unconsciousness. However, it took me a while to decide whether the player would witness the fall of Nova Prospekt or whether they would simply wake up with everyone dead. In the end I chose the latter, as it created a much creepier atmosphere and got the player wondering. It also means that I now have flexibility with the timeframe of the events.

The first room is designed to immediately give the player a sense that something terrible has happened and to make them feel trapped and even slightly disorientated. By locking the door and using the burrow as an entrance/exit route we can also see that the antlions were cunning and must have easily overpowered the Combine forces.

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The first antlion we catch a glimpse of makes the player cautious and (hopefully) frightened of advancing. In early designs, the player would pick up the crowbar in this corridor and use it to smash some boards covering the far exit. This was removed to increase the intensity and danger when we finally come face-to-face with the antlion, also adding to the sense that the vortigaunt is a worthwhile companion and useful aide. In addition, the door to the vortigaunt's room was originally open but this didn't really make much sense in retrospect. If the vortigaunt was free to walk around, why hadn't he done so? I added the padlock to imply that he had been imprisoned hastily by the Combine during the battle.

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The Combine gates were something I had envisioned right from the start, and I feel they are one of the most important elements of Union's gameplay (especially considering they are integral to the dramatic ending). Through using these gates, the player realises that they must work together with the vortigaunt in order to escape. One cannot proceed without the other. This area has the gate, the activation 'pod' and the terminal all in close proximity so the player can quickly understand that they are directly connected.

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I actually learned to use lightmaps whilst making Union. I had never really tried them out before. This corridor's lighting is a credit to Valve and their fantastic engine. Originally this whole corridor, and indeed many other areas of Union, had different textures and were lower in detail. The texture seen in the previous screenshot was the same used in the 'Entanglement' areas of Half-Life 2 which was going to be the setting for Union. As things developed it became apparent that the areas from the 'Nova Prospekt' chapter were more appropriate both visually and from a setting stand-point. Similarly, the large room used to fight antlions was previously a cell block but later a laundry room became more appropriate and allowed for more interesting use of textures and props.

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Originally, this small room full of goodies was the way the player would enter the laundry room (by blowing the window open with grenades). I later decided that it would be better to add in some more walking and combat so that the following battle was not too close (time-wise) to the start of the level. The antlion burrows were a logical solution, and allowed the goodies room to become a secret bonus area. Unfortunately, the exit proved extremely troublesome given the small space and in playtests I noticed a lot of players simply gave up trying to climb up. This small piece of navigation is, in my opinion, the weakest part of Union but I really couldn't find a way to work around it. I guess it made the goodies that bit more rewarding!

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In the antlion burrows we see the worker drones for the first time, preparing the player for fighting them in the laundry room battle.

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As the player exits the burrows they can see the vortigaunt waiting for them dead ahead. In earlier versions, the switch to open this gate was right beside it. However, this encouraged players to trigger the large battle before they really had a chance to get their bearings. This often lead to confusion and frustration when, in the heat of battle, players had no idea there were ammo crates lying around. I simply moved the switch so that players would almost certainly notice the shotgun and ammo when they went to throw it.

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The laundry room probably took up the majority of my time making Union. I don't mean literally making it; the layout is fairly straight-forward. What took so long was tweaking the timing and flow of antlions, item placement, cues from the vortigaunt and other such fine-tuning. In such a chaotic situation it is difficult to know what the player will be doing at any given time, but I'm pleased with the way it turned out. The room's open design (using fences and height differences to limit movement but retain visibility) allows for some spectacular acrobatics on the antlions' part. The catwalks give the player some different areas to explore and shoot from, but they will eventually have to come back to the thick of the battle when their ammunition runs out. The hole in the ceiling was added near the end of development to give the sense that the antlions are attacking from all directions.

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After the timed battle with the antlions swarm is over, I am faced with two challenges: how do I remind the player of their goal and lure them back to the Combine gate, and how do I provide a new way of leaving the previously-locked arena? I solved this problem by introducing zombies into the area. As the vortigaunt powers up the gate, a zombine staggers out. When the player is near the doors (or if the player waits too long), the zombine pulls a grenade and blows them open. This draws the player's attention to this area and provides a new exit to the laundry room.

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The 'zombie corridor' contains the terminal to keep the Combine gate open. Several playtesters missed this terminal on the way through and, as a result, left the vortigaunt behind and got stuck in the boiler room. Considering that there is a drop shortly after that cannot be climbed back up, I will probably modify this part for future versions. Leaving the vortigaunt behind can essentially break the game and cause the player to become completely stuck, and reminding them to open up a path for him can be quite tricky without use of custom voice acting. Perhaps this is something I will consider for the future too.

Anyone who has listened to The Orange Box's commentaries may have realised by now that I have learned a lot from Valve's design techniques. In my opinion they are the best game developers out there and I admire their approach to design hugely. I have seen how it pays off, and I have tried to use that approach to my own mapping. I guess it's up to you whether or not it paid off.

I hope you've enjoyed reading this and I hope it's been insightful. Look out for Part 2 coming soon.
As always; let me know what you think, I love to hear feedback whether it's good or bad.