Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Stop the Press: Correction

I have just been alerted to a factual error in my (very) recent review of Blue Toad Investigation Files for the PS3. I have updated the review with the correct information, but in the interest of on-line journalistic integrity please find the updates summaries here along with my apologies at the error.

I initially stated that one episode would cost £6.29 and that all six would be £9.99. This is not the case. Episodes 1 and 2 will cost £9.99. Episode 3 is currently free. Episode 4, 5 & 6 will also be bundled for £9.99. All six can be purchased for £19.98. See my updated review.

On a totally unrelated note, I forgot to mention that John Cleese, from Monty Python and Fawlty Towers will be performing for Fable 3. How awesome is that?

Blue Toad Murder Files

Blue Toad Murder files is a downloadable puzzle board game for the PS3. The game is good with a really impressive mixture of puzzles, if a slightly off pricing model

Each episode, of which there are six, contain twelve puzzles. Despite this large number, they feel different from one and another and there is a nice balance between difficulty. None of the puzzles feel cheap and they include word, logic and spatial challenges which means everyone will be good at something.

In fact all the game play works really well. Four players can play with one controller. It takes the board game ethos of letting you choose how competitive you want to play. If you have younger players you may want to work together so they can do the more challenging puzzles, but the game includes plenty of scoring you so you can play against each other.

The great unmasking is also good. You have to be paying attention for the entire episode to be able to correctly identify who is the criminal. The developers have got the balance just right: you don't have to make any unimaginable leaps of genius, but equally it isn't blatantly obvious who it is; in all of the first three episodes at least one of us got it wrong each time.

The exaggerated town and over-the-top story are mirrored in the voice acting and art style. The narrators voice, whilst initially funny, starts to grate as he does a lot of talking. The characters are amusing with a very British sense of humour (there is even a Basil Fawlty-esque character) that give the game plenty of personality.

My main criticism with the game is how it is priced. There are (going to be) six episodes. Each episode has a self contained mystery to solve, but there is an over-arching conspiracy-theory of a plot to link the six. The idea is you can buy just one episode or the entire series. In principal this is a nice idea, letting you see what it is like before shelling out for the full thing. However, the pricing model simply does not reflect this idea.

[This is updated from the original review, see this post for details] The pricing is complicated: episodes one and two together are 9.99, the third one is currently free and the final three will be bundled for £9.99 unless you buy them all for 19.98. Confused, I was (hence the error). Let me do the maths for you: it is no cheaper to buy all of the bundles than to buy it in one hit. So just do that, which will let you try it out first. It is a really baffling price model, which considering the company is trying something new with the episodic content format is a shame.

They are enjoyable and if you are looking for a nice family game, £10 is great for three individual episodes. Though they have very little re-playability, they are fun enough to justify the price. I look forward to playing the final three, which are scheduled for the 8th of April. Because of the price scheme, you should get the first three soon (as the third one is only free for a limited time). I will review the other three when they are released.

This review has been updated to include factual corrections relating to the (quite) complicated price scheme. For full details of the changes, please view my correction post. Veteran Gamer believes in journalistic integrity and apologizes for this.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Mass Effect 2

Masss Effect 2 has numerous issues, especially with the combat, that will frequently anger you. But I can forgive all of these simply because it provides one of the best single player story driven experiences I have ever played.

Clearly, I love this game, so let me pick apart the problems and then point out why I don't care. The combat, for me is the biggest sticking point. For an elite commando, the controls feel clunky and unresponsive. The cover system will have you jumping randomly in to and out of cover and team management still leaves a lot to be desired. Your team seem to largely ignore what you say and it is impossible to explain any marginally complicated plans as you have to maintain eye contact with what you want them to do. I don't expect Rainbow Six level of control, but in its current state, it feels utterly pointless. Co-operative might help to alleviate this problem and would certainly add to re-playability, but it is sadly not present.

The game also has this stupid resource collection mini-”game” that makes no sense in the context of the story and is so dull you will think it's a huge practical joke. The long loading screens also make a return. At the very least they could give you access to your menu so you can read all the information on the back ground while you wait.

However, none of this matters one ounce to me. I have already written too much about the story but I really did love it. The way all your choices, failures and successes are so beautifully woven in to the end provides a compelling experience. The intricate characters, complete setting and quality voice acting made the entire experience a real treat. You were emotionally invested in the characters from about 20 minutes in to the game right up until the dramatic conclusion. The game is really good at making you feel the weight of responsibility as commander and caring for your team in a genuine way.

In conclusion, it is pretty clear that I loved this game. Yes, it has a half broken cover system, long load screens and numerous other problems, but I don't care. I keep using the word “experience” and that is exactly what this games gives, an experience that is worth putting up with all the problems twice.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Story & Mass Effect 2

I have finished my first run through of Mass Effect 2 (review will be up soon) and it has been one hell of a ride. In this post I will be talking about the story, and more importantly, the delivery of the story. I will try to avoid ruining plot turns, but I am with the faction that says good story can't really be spoiled, so consider this a warning if you want everything to be completely fresh. When I wrote this, I hadn't actually finished the story, so don't worry about ending spoilers.

Mass Effect's story is fantastic for a number of reasons. The actual plot isn't actually one of them, it's fine, but it's just standard science fiction stuff. However, Bioware does the other parts so well: the characters are deep and diverse, the setting is complete with really interesting inter-race relationships and the voice acting is stellar (inter-stellar? Ed.).

However, as great and important as all that stuff is, I want to look at how Bioware have handled the dynamic nature of their story. What makes this story so great is that you are emotionally invested in it; that's why I loved Fable 2 despite it having a clich├ęd story.

Some games seem to think that, because books contain good stories, a book is a good model for a game story. There is definitely space for this kind of game, but I don't think that is the way to go if you want story to be central to your game. By making the stories more dynamic, the experience becomes more individual and that, for me, is what made me become emotionally invested in Mass Effect 2. With all this talk about stories, let me tell you a story.

In Mass Effect 2, there are a group of missions called the loyalty missions. You have to complete these to earn the loyalty of a specific crew members. One of your crew is an elite assassin who has a terminal illness. He recently discovered that his son, who he has kept in the dark about his line of work, just discovered what his father does and has now decided to become an assassin. Obviously, his Dad doesn't want this for him and wants to go and stop him. So you find out about what his target is going to be. You then split up, you tailing the target. Unfortunately, I lost the target in a crowd when he went through a door. We then ran to the apartment of the target to try and save him. Just as we get there we see his son shoot the target and run away. You have failed: a politician who may have changed the city for the better lies dead, a son has entered in to a life of crime never to be seen again and the father will die with the weight of that on his head, and it was entirely your fault. There is no restarting or trying again, just responsibility: if I had been better, this could have been avoided

Suddenly the game is personal, you have let down someone on your team and there is nothing you can do. Whenever you talk to him, he is miserably and dejected. You had one shot and you screwed it up. Mass Effect had this to some respect, but with Mass Effect 2 they have really ran with it. Failure and success aren't necessarily linked to restarting and the consequences of failure and cleverly woven in to the story.

The best books are the ones where you find yourself forming an empathy with the fictional characters. And this is what Mass Effect 2 does so well, you feel the pressures and responsibilities as a leader of a team. These are your decisions, your team will stick by them, but you must live with the consequences. And knowing that things can go wrong, like in the case of that loyalty mission, provides that pressure that forces you to care about what you say and do.

Your relationships with the crew also enforce this idea. For example, I accidentally led two of my crew on, hinting (and then out right declaring) that I liked them. The decision there was of course what I said. I could have told one of them we should just be friends, keep stuff professional, but I didn't and now, despite trying to be a positive role model for my team, I may have created a massive divide.

The speech system is another thing I really like about the game. Part of this is again down to the quality of the writing. However, the way what you say can have real consequences and that you can say the wrong thing at the wrong time gives it so much weight.

You won't know the consequences of what you are going to say and while the game does help you a little bit, it isn't always clear which one is going to be the most beneficial. I am sure there are people who will criticize it because sometimes it isn't even clear what you are going to say or the limited options means you can't say what you want to say. However, to me, this makes perfect sense. Frequently in life we are not able to say what we want to say, things go wrong, we mean to comfort someone but we end up antagonising the situation.

Of course, all this isn't just good design that most games ignore, this requires a huge amount of effort. I saw some unreferenced statistic saying that Mass Effect 2 contained 20 000 lines of dialogue, similar to about 20 films. The game didn't cost 20x as much as a cinema ticket, and so it would be unreasonable to expect this standard from every game. And like I said, there is plenty of room for the linear you-can't-make-mistakes stories like Halo's, just don't expect me to write a piece on the story of said game!

Thursday, March 04, 2010

A crazy week or so - your Veteran Gamer news update

A news post on all the stuff that has been going down. It has been a bizarre week (give or take a few days) for the games industry, so I figured I should probably write something about it. After this, I promise to deliver my Mass Effect posts along with a review (and a review of a little PS3 downloadable game called Blue Toad Investigations).

Starting with the AppoclayPS3 (kudos to whoever came up with that). If you missed this, for 24 hours every single fat PS3 bricked. As it turned out, it was to do with the internal clock, which got confused as it thought that 2010 was a leap year. Fortunately for PS3 owners and Sony, the problem resolved itself when a new day dawned. Clearly Sony had no idea to fix it: they provided virtually no updates on their twitter stream (never a good sign) and the fix was wait until the next day.

Then Valve took centre stage, hinting at two separate things. Firstly, a mysterious patch to Portal meant that if you picked up and walked around with the radio, you could pick up encrypted signals. Which, if you are far clever than me, lead you through some Morse code clues to a BBS (a bulletin board system). The other cool Valve related story is that Steam is coming to the Mac. Whilst it hasn't been announced, the pictures give a pretty clear story...

Since starting writing this and thanks to an internet failure, Portal 2 has actually been confirmed and it will have co-operative too. Stay tuned for more details.

Then things started to get nasty. Activision, publisher of the $1 billion grossing Modern Warfare 2, has sacked the two leads at Infinity Ward (the developers of Call of Duty), Jason West & Vince Zampella. As always happens when nobody knows anything, the internet went crazy. However, as the dust has settled details are emerging. More recently, the two ex-employees have filed a law suit against Activision.

The basis behind their case is that the reason they were fired was not actually strong enough to justify getting rid of them and instead was timed so they would not have to be paid royalties for Modern Warfare 2.

The other key aspect is West and Zampella challenging Activision regarding the ownership of the Call of Duty IP. If they are able to satisfy the court that they still own the IP, then they could stop Activision from releasing further Call of Duty titles until the matter has been resolved.

Some of the stuff in the court documents, if true, is very scary:

"Activision conducted the invesigation in a manner designed to maximize the inconvenience and anxiety it would cause West and Zampella. On little notice, Activision insisted on conducting interviews over the President's Day holiday weekend; West and Zampella were interrogated for over six hours in a windowless conference room..."

It goes on, that is the stuff of nightmares. Kotaku has posted the full script and it is a scary read. This cannot be allowed to go on, publishers cannot attack their staff like this. The IGDA (independent game developers association) is broadcasting its board meeting this time, hopefully they will discuss this and what they plan to do. You can watch it at next Friday.

"All your base are belong to us"