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Grand Theft Auto V: Lessons Rockstar Needs to Learn (Article)

February 10, 2013 Leave a comment

GTAV-Protagonists

Let’s get this out of the way: I don’t like the Grand Theft Auto series. Whoa now, before you start writing that highly offensive comment telling me how wrong I am, hear me out. I don’t like the GTA series, but I really really want to. I’ve tried so hard to like the games; I’ve played almost every title in the series to some extent, I completed GTAIV, I’ve even enjoyed many aspects of the series and had a ton of fun with them.

That being said, I think when it comes down to it, the Grand Theft Auto games could be so much more than they are.

Since GTA IV is the most recent entry in the series, the one I’ve actually played all the way through and the game which GTA V will surely be building on, I’ll be using that as my reference point.

GTAIV-Niko

Grand Theft Auto IV starts off so strong. You’re introduced to Niko, a fairly likable character with a dark past, and his cousin Roman, a man who clearly likes to think he’s more successful than he actually is, but remains endearing despite that. Niko wants a new life, one like Roman’s–free of death and crime. Unfortunately for him, it’s not to be, as Roman’s life has its own paths into the underbelly of Liberty City.

This sets up the game wonderfully, and as you play, you forgive the fact that the shooting isn’t all that great, climbing is clunky, moving Niko around is awkward and numerous other faults the core mechanics of the game have. You overlook those because the story hooks you, because Liberty City feels like a real place–a dense, populated, living city. Evidently, this seems to be the part that garnered the game such rave reviews. Whenever people talked about GTA IV, they always mentioned the amazing feeling of the city, never the actual gameplay.

Fifteen hours later, you are less forgiving. Now all those faults you were overlooking are infuriating; they’re prolonging this game which already feels too long. To top it off, the story starts to go off the rails. You’re given supposed moral choices, which you are seemingly meant to be invested in because they involved characters who are “friends.” But they aren’t, they’re just characters who have been around a while, and proximity to someone, of course, doesn’t make you invested in them. Just because I’ve completed five missions for this character, and seen them in 20 minutes worth of cutscenes, it doesn’t mean I care about them. Niko starts protesting that he’s just doing all this deplorable stuff for the money, so he can have the better life he wants, he doesn’t want to kill anymore. While you look to the corner of the screen and see he has more money than many people make in a year. Then you go murder 100s of men for a few grand, cause Niko really needs that money. Maybe it’s to decorate the several different apartments he now has? Who knows.

GTAV-Pest-control

For some reason, Rockstar has it in its collective head that GTA needs to be a 30-40 hour game. With GTA IV, they made an attempt to go almost completely into a more serious tone, but it didn’t quite work out. At best, the narrative begins to meander off on tangents, at worst it barely makes sense and ends up painting Niko as a complete psychopath  Perhaps it’s because they build this huge world for you to inhabit, and they don’t want all that work to go to waste–the shorter the game, the less exposure to the environment. Whatever the reason, GTA games need to be shorter, or they need to find a solution that allows them to be 30+ hours while not suffering for it. Hopefully GTA V‘s three protagonist route will help to alleviate this. Could that mean we get three super-tight, 10-hour stories? We can but hope.

There’s reason to believe Rockstar can and will improve on this, though. Since GTA IV, we’ve seen them release Red Dead Redemption, a game with a far more coherent and enjoyable story. It managed to tell a long-form story that didn’t overstay its welcome, even if it did trail off a little. Of course, Red Dead also has the benefit of being set in a completely different time period, one in which character motivations are far easier to simplify and make believable. John Marston rarely lost sight of why he kept doing the awful things he was asked to, he wanted his family back, pure and simple. The old west setting, and his background as an outlaw made his actions believable. He was reluctant but didn’t mope about it

One of the most recent and arguably best examples of a story-focused open world game, Sleeping Dogs, proves that you can make a 12-15 hour open world story immensely interesting and satisfying. The story of Wei Shen is intriguing and gripping while also serving up interesting gameplay scenarios, which take him all over the dense city. The narrative and characters do not fall to the same contradictions we see in GTA. Wei does not start complaining about lack of money despite having an abundance of it, he does not start bemoaning all the killing he is being forced to do. In fact, in Sleeping Dogs that last aspect is actually dealt with, as we see Wei start to become affected by what he’s forced to do while undercover.

GTAV-Trunk

Of course, as previously mentioned, the problems with stretching the narrative aren’t the only issue with GTA. There’s also the clunky gameplay, which is pretty unforgivable when you have to deal with it for almost 30 hours. Looking at GTA IV now, it looks downright archaic. When it released it wasn’t great, but in a world with Saints Row: The Third and Sleeping Dogs, the gameplay mechanics in GTA IV feel unplayable. That may be a bit harsh, but the core mechanics are certainly lacking in polish. The driving is probably the most robust part of the game, with shooting and general traversal mechanics being clunky at best.

While Saints Row‘s gunplay and general gameplay are arguably no more robust than GTA‘s, as Volition has iterated on the series it’s learned to put fun first. Which is why we have things like the so-called “awesome” button, which allows players to modify their actions and execute crazy but satisfying moves like jumping through a windshield to steal a car. Then most recently we saw Sleeping Dogs raise the bar by bringing in robust action-game mechanics to the open world genre, with satisfying melee combat, akin to an Arkham Asylum or Assassin’s Creed, and shooting mechanics you might expect to see in something like Max Payne. That’s not to mention more than a few ideas from the underrated Wheelman implemented into to the driving portions of the game. Wouldn’t you much rather have fun while also experiencing a well crafted story? Rather than trudging through mediocre gameplay in the hopes that the fumbling story gets good again.

There’s no arguing the Grand Theft Auto franchise is important. After GTA III especially, the gaming landscape changed. We wouldn’t have those Saints Row: The Thirds and Sleeping Dogs in the world without first having GTA. But it’s a series in danger of forgetting what games are about, so here’s hoping Grand Theft Auto V can manage to be as fun and entertaining as it deserves to be.

Originally published on StickSkills.com

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The problem with touch controls (Article)

December 23, 2012 Leave a comment

Chrono TriggerRecently I started playing the iOS version of Chrono Trigger, the classic Super Nintendo role playing game. The port is well done, for the most part, the visuals are perhaps a little muddy but not to the extent they detract from the experience. I’m usually wary of iOS ports of games originally played with a controller but being a turn based RPG I expected the translation to touch controls to be a fairly easy one.

For those unfamiliar with the game, depending on how much exploration you do, the first half an hour or so of Chrono Trigger is fairly low on combat. As such this section of the game required use of the bane of many an iOS game, the virtual analog stick. Personally any kind of virtual replacement for physical buttons almost instantly puts me off, but in this case I was ok with it because I knew the majority of the important gameplay would not require it.

Little did I know there were a few instances were precision and speed would be needed, something that is not the virtual stick’s strong suit. The problem with virtual analog sticks, d-pads, and buttons is the lack of tactile feedback. When using an actual analog stick for example you can feel out the directions and know how much give you have based on how easy it is to move the stick and how much the stick pushes back. Current technology on smartphones and other touch devices just can’t give that kind of feedback.

In this particular case the issue could easily have been overcome with, simply by adjusting the few sections that require precise use of the analog stick to compensate. I think developers should always tailor their game to the platform. However it seems Square-Enix decided to keep the port as faithful as possible rather than change things for the sake of the platform it was porting to.

If you look at some of the most popular iOS games, they all use the unique aspects of the platform, rather than tailor an established type of gameplay to platform it wasn’t designed for. DoodleJump uses the iPhones acceleratometer (or gyro) to create an simple yet engaging take on high score orientated games. The beauty of a game like this is that it requires almost no instruction. Give someone DoodleJump for 30 seconds and they will know exactly what they’re doing. If you need a five minute tutorial to explain the ten different virtual sticks and buttons then you’ve failed in making an iOS game. You’ve made a PSP game and released it on the wrong platform.

In the case of Chrono Trigger the touch aspects added to the game just don’t work very well and are not intuitive. Menus can technically be navigated by touch but they do not react the way one would expect, in fact it is often easier to use the virtual stick to navigate them. When using a virtual stick to navigate a menu on a touch screen is the easier option, something is very wrong.

I’m not saying virtual controls can’t work, games like Dead Space managed to get the controls about as right as one could hope. Michael had no real complaints about those in the recent GTAIII port, so they can be done well. It can’t just be a case of shoving a virtual analog stick in there and hoping it all works for the best. Developers need to put a little more thought into the process than that.

Originally published on Square-Go.com

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XBLA’s Most Wanted: Star Wars – Jedi Power Battles (Article)

December 23, 2012 Leave a comment

The two console generations previous to this one saw a rather large amount of Star Wars related video games. With this generation however, due to various changes at LucasArts, we have been limited to LEGO Star WarsClone Wars and Force Unleashed games. Back in the PlayStation 1 era when Star Wars games were much more prevalent we saw the release of Star Wars Episode I: Jedi Power Battles.

Jedi Power Battles cover

The Episode I in the title would suggest this was planned as a series which would follow the prequel films as they were released. Perhaps that was the plan but aside from a Dreamcast port and a GBA version (sans Episode I title) of the PS1 game a sequel was never made.

Jedi Power Battles was essentially a side-scrolling brawler akin to Streets of Rage or Final Fight. Changing the protagonists to Jedi and the enemies from street thugs to droids and various other space menaces makes all the difference. Power Battles was good mindless fun, playing alone or with a friend one could quickly go from level to level tearing down droids and battling bosses. It wasn’t ground breaking by any means but it was a fairly well executed take on the genre with a Star Wars skin.

What should change:

Customization – If there’s one thing gamers love in Star Wars games it’s the ability to make their own Jedi. There’s a certain thrill to the process of choosing a lightsaber hilt or of course the all important color. Will you wield one lightsaber? Two? Or will you follow in the footsteps of Darth Maul and go with a double-ended laser sword? Power Battles would become immensely more compelling to modern audiences if it were to add a customization and/or leveling mechanic. Consider the Call of Duty multiplayer template applied to a game like Jedi Power Battles. Players gain XP for kills and as they level can power up their abilities and customize their appearance. Congratulations, you reached Level 5! You’ve unlocked the pink lightsaber color!

Encompass more of the franchise – The first Power Battles was limited in that it was released to tie-in with the Episode I movie. The other prequel movies were still in the works so short of going back to the original trilogy it’s scope was fairly limited. We now live in a world that has seen the release of all 3 prequel movies as well as a remarkable amount of Expanded Universe fiction. This gives far more to draw on for not only levels but playable characters. Run through a Geonosis level as Kit Fisto? Yes, please. The locations seen throughout the prequel trilogy would provide many more new and varied environments and potential for some interesting enemies.

Expanded co-op – Side-scrolling brawler games were made for couch co-op, XBLA games like Castle Crashers and Scott Pilgrim have shown that people still love that kind of multiplayer experience. On the PS1Power Battles was limited to two players, developers rarely expanded on this number because so few people had the multi-tap peripheral needed to play with 3 or 4 players. That is no longer an issue with current consoles, we can now easily have 4 players on one console or best of all 4 players over Xbox Live. Whether online or local an expanded co-op mode is a must, as they say everything is better in co-op. It’s a sure bet slicing up battle droids with some Jedi buddies would be a blast.

Jedi Power Battles Screen 1

What should stay the same:

Keep it simple – Power Battles has a fairly basic combo system, there’s no real need to change that. More elaborate animations would of course be welcome, we’ve seen far more impressive lightsaber combat since the original games fairly mundane slashing.

Perspective – The side-on viewpoint that the original game had works perfectly for the type of game it is. If one were to change that to a behind the back third-person camera, similar to Force Unleashed, it would over complicate things. Power Battles should be a pick-up and play game, anyone should be able to jump on and get straight to the action without having to worry about making sure their camera is the right way round.

Extras – For the dedicated players there was a ton of stuff to unlock in the original Power Battles. From hidden characters to silly (but fun) side-modes. In addition to customization and leveling, unlocking these sorts of added bonuses would add a lot to the replayablity and make a nice palette cleanser between all that droid slicing.

Jedi Power Battles Screen 2

LucasArts has gone through too many restructures to count since Jedi Power Battles was first released. Their focus has shifted numerous times as a result, with the last generation seeing a good deal of variety in their Star Wars output. From traditional action games like the Revenge of the Sith game to slightly less traditional fare with the squad shooter Republic Commando.

Now their internal development amounts to the two Force Unleashed games, Monkey Island remakes and the puzzling side project of Lucidity. It is that final release that could possibly give one hope that LucasArts may consider looking to XBLA for some future releases. If they do then we hope they take a good look at their back catalog and realize just how well-suited Jedi Power Battles is.

Originally published on XBLAFans.com

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XBLA’s Most Wanted: The Strike series (Article)

December 23, 2012 Leave a comment

With the release of Renegade Ops earlier this year, the name Desert Strike was name dropped a lot. In reality the games aren’t all that similar, but the few times you get to fly a chopper around reminded many of the long forgotten series.

Strike-MW

Most remember the first game in the series Desert Strike: Return to the Gulf, which put players in control of an Apache attack helicopter. However there were actually five games in the series, with a sixth planned but ultimately cancelled (though it morphed into Future Cop: LAPD). The 16-bit era Strike games, Desert, Jungle and Urban were all fairly similar with the only changes being settings and the ability to pilot other (ground based) vehicles in the latter games.

With the jump to the PlayStation the core gameplay of the series remained the same but Soviet and Nuclear Strike boasted live action FMV. Of course this was all the rage at the time, usually looking extremely low budget and coming off as incredibly cheesy. While the FMV in the Strike games was a little cheesy and the acting slightly hammy, it was very well produced and often extremely effective. A lot of the praise goes to the fact they used FMV for everything, meaning you could look up videos on every enemy, weapon or mission objective. Even now we often have to trawl through a huge body of text to find out objectives or even learn how to play the game.

Strike screen 1

What should change:

Variety is the spice of Strike – Desert Strike made the Apache a gaming icon, but it’s clear the people behind the series realized it needed more. With Jungle strike and almost every game afterward (Soviet Strikewent back to Apache only) the Apache was not the only playable vehicle. There were tanks, Harrier jets, gunships and of course hovercrafts. As fun as the Apache gameplay has always been, it’s always nice to get a bit of variety. We think these sections should be fast-paced action to contrast with the more traditional gameplay of the series. This would also help to vary up the mission objectives, which could sometimes be a little too similar.

Team Strike – Everything is better with co-op, everyone knows that. Why should Strike be any different? Imagine heading out with a couple of your buddies, each of you in different vehicles, tackling different objectives to complete the same mission. Someone has the Apache and goes behind enemy lines to rescue some POWs, another is in a tank clearing an LZ that’s been overrun and the pilot of the hovercraft is racing through enemy territory to come pick up those POW’s. It’d require a ton of teamwork co-ordination but we think it would really compliment the single player experience.

Strike Screen 2

What should stay the same:

Striking pace – Some may disagree with this one, but we don’t think the Strike series would be the same without its slower pace. Renegade Ops was all about fast arcade action, but the Strike series has always been about methodical precision. We want to have to worry about not destroying friendly targets or non-military buildings. While the plot was always a little over the top and pulpy we liked that the gameplay was at least somewhat grounded.

Strike: The Movie – It might have only appeared in the two PlayStation games but we think the FMV in those games made a big difference. The 16-bit games didn’t have much to them plot-wise and what they did was delivered through fairly dull semi-animated screens with captions. Alan Wake’s American Nightmarerecently proved you can do a lot of high quality FMV on XBLA without too much hassle. As long as the tone and quality is kept in line with the previous games and doesn’t stray toward Command & Conquer territory we think it’d add a lot to the games atmosphere.

Serious Strike – While it was always comparable to a Hollywood action movie/thriller rather than a realistic document of events, we feel like the series’ more serious and realistic tone needs to stay. We hate to keep bringing it up, but Renegade Ops fills the over the top cartoon action here. Fighting the equivalent of a Saturday morning cartoon villain is all well and good but we want the stakes to seem a bit more real than that. Give us terrorists, foreign conflicts and all that’s in between and maybe throw some conspiracies in there just to spice everything up a little. We also think the conceit of a covert “STRIKE” team from the PlayStation games would work best for this. The idea of the team who have to stop conflicts before they happen is always a fun one.

Strike Screen 3

Why it would succeed:

XBLA has proven to be a great platform for many genres that don’t really have a place in retail anymore. Were the Strike series to come back as a full retail product it’d of course be a full on 3D action game, probably with on-foot third person shooter sections. That’s not what we want from a revival of this franchise. We want the same type of gameplay, the same isometric view and the same well done FMV, just with a modern coat of paint.

Originally published on XBLAFans.com

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Along came an indie: FTL: Faster Than Light (Article)

December 23, 2012 Leave a comment

FTL-Logo

My spaceship, Quorra, has lost three of her four crew members in a pirate attack. Shields are down, life support is dead, weapons are at half power and there’s a fire in the engine room. Oh, and she’s venting atmosphere. My last crew member, a human pilot named Emily, leaves the bridge and rushes to life support. Without it, there will be no oxygen to replace the air currently being vented into space to combat the engine room fire.

She successfully repairs life support, but oxygen is dangerously low. Thankfully, the fires are out. But, before the air lock doors can be closed, the still attacking pirates hit door control with a powerful laser blast, knocking it offline. Emily tries to get there before it’s too late, but the oxygen is gone and she perishes while making her way through the engine room. With her crew dead, Quorra is left to drift lifelessly through space.

That story comes courtesy of the last few minutes in a game of FTL: Faster Than Light. Developed by Subset Games, it’s one of the first games to launch after being successfully funded through Kickstarter. FTL is described by its developers as a “spaceship simulation roguelike-like,” and if you’re familiar with Roguelikes at all, you’ll know that means you won’t beat FTL the first time you play. You’re not meant to. Heck, I’ve played 45 games so far, and I only got to the end boss when I bumped it down to Easy. In a way, it’s not about beating the game – it’s about playing and experiencing a new story every time.

FTL-Screen 1

In FTL, you take control of a spaceship and its crew. You only have one shop choose from at first, but you can unlock more by meeting certain requirements throughout the game. Each ship has a different layout, sometimes completely different systems and varying numbers and species of crew. Once you’ve selected (and of course renamed) your ship, you must set out on a mission to deliver important data to the Federation fleet while a huge Rebel fleet is hot on your tail. You’ll jump from system to system, exploring nav points along the way. Each nav point will potentially contain a random event – anything from a pirate ship attack to a Rebel ambush in an asteroid field. The encounters themselves are scripted, of course, and you’ll see the same ones pop up, but when and where you experience them is entirely random.

It’s that random element which makes FTL so exciting, while also being the thing which makes it immensely frustrating. Not knowing what you’ll encounter next, and judging from how little I’ve unlocked there’s still plenty I’ve yet to see, is thrilling, but it also means you can’t really prepare for specific encounters. Your next jump could just as easily lead to a fairly easy battle with an automated drone as it could to a well-armed, well-shielded Rebel ship sitting next to a volatile star emitting solar flares. If you were wondering, the survival rate of that second encounter is about 60/40. Solar flares tend to set your ship on fire, and if luck isn’t on your side (which it isn’t), it’ll hit your most vital systems first.

FTL doesn’t often feel unfair, but it does on occasion. On Normal, it may place you in seemingly unwinnable situations or tedious battles of attrition. Even on Easy, there will be scenarios which just seem to pile on as many issues as possible. Important systems will be attacked by enemy crew who have beamed aboard, most likely those crew are of a species which is especially adept at combat, making them very hard to get rid of. So, you’ll soon find yourself with a crippled ship, dead crew and a couple of very dangerous intruders still at large. It’s a scene you’ll see play out far too often, and it’s especially frustrating when you’ve just spent 15 minutes flying around improving your ship. With each game only really taking about 20-30 minutes, though, it’s hard to get too annoyed.

FTL-Screen 2

Actually playing FTL is a deceptively simple affair. Aside from a few hotkeys assigned to the number keys and space bar, it’s entirely mouse driven. Your ship, and those you encounter, are presented as bird’s-eye view cross sections, allowing you to see the full layout of your ship and its systems. The controls are so simple because things very quickly become complex when you’re under pressure. It’s at those times that controlling power distribution, crew placement, weapon targeting and dealing with the inevitable fires and system repairs can start to become overwhelming. Thankfully, a quick hit of the space bar allows you to pause the actions, giving plenty of time to formulate a strategy and even allowing you to issue commands. As you get further in and upgrade your ship’s systems, strategy becomes key. Diverting power from the rarely used medbay to shields or weapons will become second nature, as well making the quick decision of which system of an enemy ship to target first.

While FTL is not without its issues, they are very easy to overlook. Usually because they happened an hour ago and you’ve played three more games since then. Even as you curse your last defeat, you will find it very difficult to ignore the temptation of just one more game.

Originally published on StickSkills.com

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Why the Xbox 720 Will Be the Next Generation’s Top Dog (Article)

December 23, 2012 Leave a comment

Xbox-swoosh

Over the last few weeks, Josiah and Angelo have explained why they think the Playstation 4 and Wii U will come out on top of the next console generation. They made some good points for sure, but they’re wrong.

You could argue that the Wii “won” this generation, but while it may have accrued the most console sales, those sales eventually fell off a cliff. Truth be told, the Wii was just the “Wii Sports Machine” to a large number of its owners. There were a few third-party successes here and there, Carnival Games and the like, but ultimately software was not the Wiis strong suit.

As for the folks at Sony, they stumbled into this gen with a console that was priced ludicrously high and, despite its better technical specs, was notoriously hard to develop for. Pair that with setbacks like PSN getting hacked and the abysmal user experience and numerous system/game updates, they’ve still got a ways to go.

That’s enough about the competition though, let’s talk about Microsoft’s Xbox 360. It was almost seven years ago now that Microsoft made the decision to essentially kill the original Xbox. The company wanted to focus solely on the next gen, which meant the Xbox 360. Released a full year before its competitors the 360 was immediately snapped up by gamers eager for something new. It’s had a few dips here and there, but right now it’s outselling Wii and PS3 monthly and with pretty impressive sales for a console that is seven years old. So with that in mind, here’s why I think the next Xbox (it won’t be called 720, let’s be serious) will be next gen’s top dog.

Halo-4-Chief-1024x576

5. Kinect 2.0

No matter what you think of the games that have been released for it, there’s no denying Kinect is a cool piece of tech. It’s no secret that the hardware released falls short of the vision Microsoft had when they originally revealed the hardware as Project Natal. You can bet they won’t make that mistake with the next iteration of Kinect, especially when it’s rumored to be bundled in with every console this time around. With a boost in processing power, both in the Kinect itself and the console, the possibilities are endless. All those Kinect hacks we’ve seen can become a reality, and games will finally have the accuracy and fidelity we expected from the first Kinect. With that, our living rooms will come that much closer to Minority Report.

It won’t just help games either, one of the better uses for the current Kinect hardware is menu navigation and voice control. With an all around more accurate system, there’s no reason more apps and games can’t use this, especially if everyone will have one.

4. Xbox Live Arcade

It’s fair to say Microsoft has made some fumbles when it comes to XBLA (and most definitely in regard to Xbox Live Indie Games/Community Games), but that doesn’t take away from the strides they’ve made for downloadable games on the console. Even before Minecraft sold four million, games like Castle Crashers and Trials HD were selling two million copies and beyond. There are some high profile disc-based games that struggle to sell that much. Microsoft nailed it with XBLA. By doing things like making demos standard and introducing promotions like Summer of Arcade they ensured XBLA is the top downloadable platform on consoles.

There’s plenty to improve on of course. Microsoft knows that better than anyone, so you can bet they’ll be taking everything they’ve learned on the 360 and use it to make something even better on the next Xbox. Heck, even if they kept the platform as it is now it’d still be miles better than what Sony and Nintendo will have to offer.

3. Xbox Live is a brand now

Xbox Live is no longer tied to your console, with the launch of Windows Phone 7 Microsoft turned Xbox Live into a brand. You can now use the same profile from your Xbox on the go, even to get achievements if that’s your bag. When Windows 8 launches this month Xbox Live will make the jump to PC (which will no doubt mean the end of Games for Windows Live). There’s even an official Xbox app for iOS and Android, showing that Microsoft is moving away from their old ways.

Skulls of the Shogun will launch alongside Windows 8 and have cross-platform multiplayer, allowing players to face off against friends on PC, Windows Phone and Xbox 360. It’s not too hard to imagine a next-gen scenario where this becomes more common, heck maybe there will even be Xbox-Live-enabled iOS and Android games. This could do wonders for the Xbox brand, especially since Microsoft has at least a year to sell the idea to everyone.

Xbox-Live

2. Staying connected

Why do third parties do so well on 360? Xbox Live, players are already hooked into the system–whether it’s simply because they pay for it or just because it’s better than anything else out there. It’s absolutely baffling that the Xbox 360 is the only console that allows cross-game chat, it seems like such a fundamental feature but apparently it isn’t.

Come next gen, Microsoft is starting with a solid base that’s almost 10 years old. All they can do is make it better, whereas their competition will be struggling to catch up. Playstation Plus and Day-One Digital downloads of retail games are all for naught if I can’t jump online, talk to my buddies and easily setup a multiplayer game.

1. The Call of Duty effect

Let’s take the Forzas, Gears of Wars and Halos out of the equation and talk about third parties. The Xbox 360 has been the third party platform, I’m not just talking sales here either. For the vast majority of this generation the 360 was the lead platform for most big third party games, for the simple fact that it was easier to make games for. Of course the fact that those games also sold more on 360 than other platforms was probably a factor too. Call of Duty is without a doubt the biggest third party franchise out there, and a lot of the time you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for an Xbox exclusive. It may have begun as a PC franchise but it now sits firmly as a 360 game in many gamers minds, and that will make all the difference when it comes to choosing which console to go for next gen.

You can bet Microsoft is doing everything in their power to keep the deals they already have in place, so expect timed (or complete) exclusives on new Call of Duty maps, Elder Scrolls VI DLC and lots more. Third party publishers have seen how strong the Xbox brand has become and they’ll want to stick with it, which will no doubt lead to a strong launch line-up and a ton of support in the future.

Originally published on StickSkills.com

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The Best James Bond Games That Aren’t Goldeneye (Article)

December 23, 2012 Leave a comment

007 LogoAs Bond mashup 007 Legends hits consoles and we await the release of Sam Mendes’ cinematic take on Bond with Skyfall, I thought it’d be a good opportunity to look back on the 007 video game franchise.

The MI6 agent has had a varied relationship with video games, with Goldeneye still being the golden example to beat. Arguably no game since has been quite as popular or highly regarded, but some have been great all the same. So rather than retread ground and tell you why Goldeneye is the best Bond game – cause let’s face it, you already know why – I thought I’d talk about the other good Bond games. Presented in order of release, here are the Bond games you should play which are not Goldeneye.

Agent Under Fire

When EA took over the Bond license it stumbled a little, with the movie tie-ins Tomorrow Never Dies and The World is Not Enough being average at best. And the less said about 007 Racing, the better. Upon moving into the PS2/Xbox/Gamecube era, however, developers stepped up their game, the first result of which was 007: Agent Under Fire.

Agent-Under-Fire

Despite the success Goldeneye had, the first-person shooter has never quite seemed like the right fit for Bond. Yet, it does seem to be consistently successful, even if it does mean the action quota is often raised a little higher than in the movies. AUF continued that tradition by being a solid FPS with some fantastic action, sprinkled with that trademark Bond charm, wit and whimsy.

Thanks to the new consoles, the varied and exotic locations Bond visited (China, Switzerland and Romania feature) were far more detailed and impressive than they’d ever been before. That translated to the gameplay, too, with plenty of guns and gadgets to use in missions. Driving sections were also a well-executed and welcome addition introduced to break up the pace.

AUF also saw the introduction of some on-rails shooting segments, which were a great way to put you right at the center of some of the big action set-pieces that have been so prominent in the movies. Add an over-the-top story involving a plot to take over the world by cloning prominent world leaders, and it’s not hard to see why AUF is such a great addition to the franchise.

Nightfire

Agent Under Fire veered into the action side of things, but with 007: Nightfire, we got something that was much more distinctly Bond. While action was still high and rightly so, Nightfire brought the idea of being a spy to the forefront. Stealth was encouraged on many missions, with the option to add a silencer to 007′s trademark PPK being just a button press away.

Nightfire

Your inventory was also often filled with more gadgets than you’d actually need for your current objective, allowing for plenty of experimentation. This was further encouraged by the fact many levels had several methods with which to complete missions. Need to sneak into a part at an Austrian castle? Well, you could be especially brazen and creep past the guards patrolling the front door, or you could take the more elaborate route which involved shuffling along window ledges. Each method was challenging in its own way and could be accomplished with as much or as little combat as you wanted.

Nightfire is also notable for its great multiplayer mode. Here, the variety of weapons and surprisingly good (most of the time) bots made for an extremely fun experience. Now four-player splitscreen had that little bit extra when you were all also on the look out for equally dangerous AI players.

The story in Nightfire felt like it could easily have been a Brosnan-era film, admittedly that could be because it borrows some aspects from Goldeneye (and the driving sections are ripped straight from Die Another Day). It stands well on its own all the same, with lots of intrigue and surprise double crosses. Pierce Brosnan only lends his likeness, not his voice, to the proceedings, which is a tad disappointing. His replacement does a great job, though; perfectly capturing the cheeky, never too serious nature of Bond.

Everything or Nothing

Speaking of not being too serious, 007: Everything or Nothing went a bit nuts. To be fair, the film series had done the same with the abysmal Die Another Day. Thankfully, EoN‘s craziness paid off and made for an incredibly fun action game – one of the best of the generation, in fact.

Everything-or-Nothing

EA went all out with this one. Brosnan was on board (his last appearance as Bond in a game or film), lending both his likeness and voice this time round. He was joined by the rest of the regular film cast, with Judi Dench and John Cleese reprising their roles as M and Q respectively. Some other big names were thrown into the mix, with Willem Defoe playing a wonderfully over-the-top villain while Heidi Klum, Shannon Elizabeth and Mya (who also sung the game’s theme) joined the Bond girl ranks. Jaws even makes an appearance, because, why not?

You’d be forgiven for thinking EoN is all style and no substance, but the impressive celebrity roster was backed up by fantastic gameplay and action. Bond returned to third person, EA having abandoned the genre after Tomorrow Never Dies, which is arguably more suited to the 007 style of action. There was something for everyone here, with a bit of stealth, plenty of shooting and a much bigger variety of driving/vehicle sequences.

Pierce Brosnan should be thankful this was his last appearance as Bond, as it can be much more fondly remembered than his final cinematic outing. Whereas Die Another Day took the franchise in a direction no one wanted it to, EoN continued down the path of the previous Brosnan films and the result is something that can stand proudly with the best 007 has to offer.

Blood Stone

The last original Bond game, Blood Stone, once again went back to third person after Quantum of Solace and theGoldeneye remake went down the FPS route. While those two games did a good job of being Call of Duty knock-offs, they were pretty rubbish Bond games.

Blood-Stone

Blood Stone used Daniel Craig’s Bond to great effect, his more grounded style being a far cry from the over-the-top insanity of Everything or Nothing. But it still remains distinctly Bond. There’s still some outrageous action set pieces and plenty of shooting, it’s just that this time around, there was a bit more focus on quick and efficient melee takedowns. 007 clearly took some notes from Sam Fisher, too, as he gained a mark and execute-esque feature. Though there were still bigger shootouts and some driving sections, this style did a good job of capturing the deadly efficiency of modern Bond.

Admittedly, Blood Stone had enough issues that it doesn’t quite hit the highs of a Nightfire or Everything or Nothing, but it’s still a solid action game and one which portrays the new style of Bond almost perfectly.

So what have we learned from this list? Well, Bond seems to do his best work from the third-person perspective, and he is definitely better served by a unique story not based on a specific movie. Most of all, a certain balance has to be found between stealth, gunplay and action. James Bond is a spy, but he also lives in a world where riding a motorbike off a cliff to catch a plane is just another day at the office. It’s difficult for a movie to pull that juggling act off, let alone a game. I think the games above have managed to do just that, and here’s hoping we get some more like them in the future.

Originally published on StickSkills.com

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Halo 4: Bringing humanity to Cortana and Master Chief (Article)

December 23, 2012 Leave a comment

Halo-4-Header

The following contains spoilers for Halo 4, if you have not completed the campaign we recommend you do so before reading on.

Cortana has always been one of the most fascinating parts of the Halo fiction for me. A.I.s in the Halo universe are just very interesting in general; they’re based on the neural pathways of a human brain, which means their initial intelligence is that of a human, but they can perform far more simultaneous tasks and acquire more knowledge than any one human ever could. This comes at a price, however, with one of the core conceits of their existence being that they only have a lifespan of around seven years. These so-called “smart A.I.” (there are “dumb” A.I., too, who don’t deteriorate) acquire so much information that eventually they just cannot process it all and quite literally will think themselves to death. This is known as Rampancy, and often sees the A.I. turn against their masters as they begin to fully comprehend the finite nature of their existence.

This brings us back to Cortana, who at the start of Halo 4 has been in operation for eight years. Four of these have been spent in almost complete isolation, floating through space. Cortana isn’t like most A.I.s, either. For starters, she’s based on the brain of a young Dr. Catherine Halsey, the creator of the Spartan program. Secondly, Cortana has experienced a lot more in her short time than most. She spent an extended period of time inside a Halo’s master control room, during which time she had access to more knowledge than she knew what to do with. Shortly after that she was the captive of the flood hivemind known as Gravemind, a time which we know very little about. Though we did get hints of Cortana’s struggle in Halo 3, the messages she sends to Chief show her in great distress.

Halo-4-Screen 1

Once Chief recovers her, however, she seems like the same old Cortana. But fast forward to Halo 4 and we immediately see a very different A.I., and I’m not talking about her shiny new character model. Cortana is now far more emotive than she was before – even her voice has a completely different tone. Before she was pretty much all business, with the occasional wisecrack slipping in for good measure. In Halo 4, her voice is continually strained, and we see anguish on her face more often than not. Her brief existence is coming to an end. She knows this, and it scares her.

343 Industries has done a masterful job of bringing humanity to a character who isn’t even human. Thanks to the fantastic voice acting of Jen Taylor and performance capture of Mackenzie Mason, you’d have to have a heart of steel to not feel for Cortana. Throughout the game we see her lose control of herself, as her “mind” tries to keep itself together. Fragments of old memories burst to the forefront, and we see near-literal explosions of anger come from seemingly nowhere. The parallels with mental illness are easy to see, and it’s hard to watch it happen to a character we’ve know for 10 years.

It’s not so much that 343 has made me care about a character in a video game, because that’s certainly happened plenty of times before. It’s more the fact that they managed to evoke those feelings for a character who is removed from and arguably of humanity. She’s a naked blue lady for crying out loud; if anything, she should make me feel uncomfortable. Instead, what she looks like doesn’t even enter my mind. All I see is a person dealing with her mortality, and it breaks my heart. The portrayal from writing to acting is just so well executed that it’s nigh impossible to not become engrossed.

Halo-4-Screen 2

Through Cortana’s torment, we also get to see more of Master Chief, who up until now was just the stoic action hero who rarely said anything of note. But now he’s stuck in denial, clinging to the false hope that if they can just get to Dr. Halsey, everything will be fine. She tells him that it won’t work, that she can’t be fixed, but he doesn’t listen. He just reiterates that they need to find Halsey. Even when she puts the mission, and his life, in danger, he still won’t admit the inevitable.

Cortana has been the one constant in his life, with anyone else he could consider a friend either dead or presumed to be so. He often struggles to mask the sound of fear in his voice, and when Cortana finally says goodbye, his body language turns him from a hulking armored soldier to that of a small child feeling helpless and lost. While the main story may have fallen short, 343 nailed the relationship between Cortana and Chief.

It leaves us with a Master Chief who is now lost, that guiding voice in his head is gone. Halo 5 should be very interesting, as we see Chief deal with his loss, and one has to wonder who will replace Cortana. Will it be an entirely new A.I., or will they go with the familiar in another version of Cortana? Though as our Cortana said, “it won’t be me.”

Originally published on StickSkills.com

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How Podcasts Influence the Games I Play (Article)

December 23, 2012 Leave a comment

I listen to quite a few podcasts. Since I consider gaming my main hobby — and the one I’m most passionate about — the vast majority of those podcasts end up being related to games. I’ve discovered a surprising corollary to all this podcast listening: Podcasts are actually influencing the games I play.

By that I don’t mean that I’ve heard about a game on a podcast and then went out and bought it, although I have done that. No, I’ve found that because I listen to podcasts while I’m gaming, I often decide what game I’m going to play based on whether new podcasts are available.

This often presents me with a dilemma, as it most recently did with Dragon Age: Origins. Since it’s an RPG, the game features a hefty amount of dialogue, and most all of that dialogue is important to the development of either the story or the characters. On top of that, the small sliver of inessential dialogue is still definitely worth listening to. For me, this signals that Dragon Age is most definitely not a podcast game. I’d either miss important dialogue or be constantly pausing the podcast any time a dialogue tree popped up. Either of these options would greatly effect the flow of both the podcast and the game.

So what sort of game do I pick out when the latest episode of the Mobcast drops? I certainly don’t play anything that requires listening to lots of dialogue or concentrating on reading text. Instead I look to arcade-style games and multiplayer modes.

One recent example of a perfect podcast game is Modern Warfare 2. Missing out on the dialogue won’t hamper the experience, and all the sound effects and audio cues can still be heard with the volume lowered to a reasonable level so as not to drown out the podcast. Other similarly great podcast games I’ve found are Halo 3 (multiplayer), Burnout Paradise, and Borderlands (single player). Open-world games in particular are a great option, as you can avoid any story-heavy missions and focus on side quests that don’t generally require you to pay too much attention to the dialogue. Finally, if you’re itching to complete a second playthrough of a single player game, podcasts can be a great companion.

Maybe this concept is something unique to me, but it got me thinking: What else affects the games we play? I know oftentimes gamer parents will exclusively play violent or mature games once the kids are out of sight. Other people will often play a certain game because their girlfriend or boyfriend wants to watch them play.

Does podcast listening have any bearing on the games you play? Are there other surprising influences that factor into your gaming decisions?

Originally published on BitMob.com

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Efficiency over fun? (Article)

December 23, 2012 Leave a comment

Darksiders sword

“The sword ends up as the most powerful weapon you can use so there’s no reason to switch to the others”, this is a comment (paraphrased) I heard recently on a podcast. It got me thinking, is this a valid criticism? Does it reflect badly on the game or does it reflect badly on the gamer who made it? In this specific example the person is talking about Darksiders. In the game your weapons level up based on how much you use them, as a result the sword you start with ends up as the most powerful by default. This is certainly a flaw in the design of the game but does it really mean you shouldn’t even bother using the other weapons?

This is something I’ve heard many gamers complain about over the years, “X weapon is too powerful, there’s little point in using anything else” or “this combo is so effective there’s no need to learn the others”. To these statements my first reaction would be “here’s a reason, using different weapons/combos would be more fun”. I’ve often heard God of War and similar games criticised because you can easily dispatch enemies with a handful of combos through the entire game. Yes it may get you through the game but will you feel at all satisfied having watched the exact same set of moves onscreen for 10 hours or so? The fact a flaw exists does not mean it has to be used.

If you’ve discovered a weapon that makes the game a cake walk why not ban yourself from using that weapon? If you’ve found a combo that makes you unstoppable why not mix it up and use anything but that combo? If you’ve found a flaw in the enemy AI that makes combat incredibly easy do you really need to exploit it? If you restrict yourself to a way of playing because it’s the most “effective” you are doing yourself and the game a disservice. Exploiting such things often leads to a flat and monotonous experience.

The gamers who react this way often seem to forget one of the primary reasons for video games, fun. Sure part of playing a game is to beat it and at a time that was the only challenge, but even then the process is supposed to be fun. If you’re “beating” the game by exploiting a flaw that you are aware of then you’re denying yourself some of the fun, at least if it’s your first playthrough. These days so much of games is about exploration, whether that be exploring the world or exploring the games mechanics.

Halo 1 Pistol

There is something to be said for going through the a game after you’ve beaten it and setting yourself some interesting parameters. For example in Halo 1 the now infamous pistol is so powerful and satisfying that a playthrough of the game using it exclusively would not only be a challenge but also alot of fun. Resident Evil 4 and 5 have a mechanic dedicated to this, multiple playthroughs allow you to unlock incredibly overpowered weapons. This gives you a fun reason to playthrough the game more than once. Of course if you were given this option the first time you played the game it would just come across as too easy and dull.

What do you think? If you find an effective way to “beat” a game will you choose to forego everything else because of it? Do you think you’re getting as much fun out of the game as a result? Why do you think some gamers choose to play this way and why do some complain about it rather than use it to make themselves play differently?

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