November 11, 2009

MW2 Week, Part 2

So, I know have my hands on Modern Warfare 2, and have been playing it a fair bit. I've completed the campaign, and gotten to level 21 in multiplayer so far. It's rather telling that I picked up Dragon Age: Origins at the same time... and I've barely touched DAO. MW2 is just that compelling.

The multiplayer, of course, is what I would like to talk about. The single player is cool, is interesting, is technically impressive and fun to play, but it's quite short, and the plot makes me wince. The first Modern Warfare, though the plot was not that mindblowing, had some truly astounding moments and sequences. This one... feels like it's trying too hard. Also, you need to switch off your mind, or you will go NUTS. The connection between events is so incredibly loose, you wouldn't believe it. Gameplay designers, you kicked ass. Writers... you need to be kicked in the ass.

But multiplayer. So the multiplayer of Modern Warfare was pretty awesome, and when World at War came out, Treyarch, who was in charge of that one, pretty much decided that either there was no way to improve on the formula without drastically changing it, or was just lazy as hell. I'm leaning toward the latter- the Russian campaign was the only thing about that game that was truly excellent. It wasn't bad, but it was a pretty meh game. I think I've ranted on that before. If they thought there was no way to improve on the formula, though? Modern Warfare 2 proves them DRAMATICALLY wrong.

The addictive levelling and challenges of the first have been built into every aspect of the game. Perks can be upgraded through use now, and using certain attachments on your weapons can unlock new ones. The secondary weapon slot is no longer exclusively pistols, and therefore people actually care about it now. The grenade slot is no longer just grenades- claymores, throwing knives, blast masks and more fill the slot. The perks are just more balanced, and interesting besides. Everywhere you look, you can customize things- the icons and background on your screen name when you kill someone, your loadout of killstreaks, your plethora of weapon attachments.

It's an amazing experience- the game has been upgraded in terms of every major feature, and just feels better to play besides. It annoys me a little that the guns I wanted in (if you check my earlier post) didn't make the cut, but the selection is stellar, I can't fault it. It's so balanced, it's so intense, it's so involved. And there is just so much to do! When I hit the max level in Modern Warfare, I prestiged, and quickly regretted it- I hate the prestige system, frankly. I only did it because I was pretty much out of things to work on. It would take a long, long, long time to run out of things to work on in MW2. I'm sure some people will do it. Those people, and how little they have to do, terrify the everloving shit out of me.

And perhaps more encouraging? Playing MW2 shows you that there is STILL room for growth. You get a sense for what the core of the game is, and thus can understand what can change. Infinity Ward originally didn't intend Modern Warfare 2 to bear the Call of Duty name, because they wanted it to be its own series. At the time, I thought that it was a commendable virtue, but shortsided- with all that they are improving, how could they expand on it? But there was wisdom there. Maybe Modern Warfare 3 won't be a Call of Duty title, then.

November 9, 2009

MW2 Week, Part 1

Alright. Time to weigh in on an issue I hadn't expected to take a side in. This week is pretty much gonna be all talk about Modern Warfare 2, and we're going to start off with an issue that is NOT near and dear to my heart- dedicated servers.

Why is it not near and dear? I'm a console gamer. I play PC when I have to, but I really dislike it as a gaming platform. And so trust me that I am not being a rabid reactionist PC fanboy when I say that Infinity Ward really kicked the PC community in the balls with their IWnet decision. Unlike some people, I think that IW is within their rights to do so, even if it is a very uncool move. I don't think they owe it to PC gamers to add dedicated server support. I just think of it as a Dick Move. Caps necessary there.

Okay, let's start an unbiased analysis of what dedicated servers do that IWnet can't. One, they are faster. This is just fact- dedicated servers use business-speed internet lines and have all their processing power dedicated to hosting the game. IWnet uses client hosting- someone playing the game is chosen as the host. That means that it's someone on a resident-speed internet line, which is inherently slower, and who is using their processing power for any number of things- firewall, antivirus, autoupdater, a bunch of things, and also playing the game as well, not just hosting it. In addition, the host has a ping of zero- has absolutely no lag or reaction time other than his human limits. It is the other players on the server who suffer if he has a shitty connection.

Two, they are communities. The only real PC game I play anymore (besides old stuff and WoW) is Team Fortress 2. I play it a decent amount, because it just has more content than the 360 version (which I owned before I gave up on waiting for Valve to port the content and bought the PC version [dammit Valve!]). Even with as little as I play Team Fortress 2, I have a casual guild I am a part of, with our own dedicated server. We hang out together, play a few friendly matches. I have servers marked as favorites for their community, too- one server that does a great custom CTF map where everyone is polite and talkative, one server that has some really intense arena play, one server where people just goof off. The permanancy of a dedicated server is as important as its speed- dedicated servers have an identity, and lend identity to those who play on them. There are good servers, there are bad servers, there are hardcore servers, there are casual servers. Being able to choose these is very important.

And third... mods. That's all I have to say. One of the biggest driving forces in PC gaming, one of the biggest reasons people choose PCs over consoles, is the capacity for mods. Mods can subtly modify your experience (alter the UI, change an annoying sound effect), or completely revamp it- new maps, new weapons, an entirely different GAME. Modern PC gaming is BUILT on modding- Battlefield 2 came to be because of the excellent Desert Combat. Counter-Strike was a mod that went commercial. So was Team Fortress. Killing modding could well kill the PC as a platform- not entirely, of course, but certainly reduce it to a shell of its former self.

Is that the goal, IW? No, seriously, is that the goal? PC gaming has been an unpleasant business for a while- pirating, hacking, hardware compatibility. It is a LOT more work than consoles, and a lot of developers have decided it's not worth it. Is IW trying to either bow out of PC gaming, or trying to change it to be... easier?

I hope not. For every arrogant PC gamer pissant, there are the guys who name themselves as boxers in TF2, and run around as Heavys, punching people who are wielding far superior weapons just because they can. I love those people. In fact, I am one of those people.

Fun fact, actually. One time, I was doing that with the name "Lennox Lewis" and I dominated "Mike Tyson". Irony!

"Evander Holyfield" was kinda kicking my ass though.

November 5, 2009

Fifty Posts

Well, more than fifty posts, but about 50 REAL posts, when you set aside the crap. Woooo! Here's to many more. But anyway. I wanted to talk about Left 4 Dead 2 today- the first game since Half-Life 2 Episode 2 to sound like a baseball score. Okay, I stole that gag from Yahtzee. Man. A landmark post, and I've ripped someone else off inside of a paragraph. Encouraging.

Anyway. So, I bought the original Left 4 Dead, and I enjoyed it for a while- I thought it was quite a good game. It was simple, solid fun- a great multiplayer experience. The problem with the game, of course, was that there wasn't a lot there. There were only seven weapons (plus two thrown weapons), a handful of campaigns, and six enemy types (zombie, hunter, smoker, boomer, tank, witch). The core gameplay was wonderful- it was like a delicious zombie B-movie, coupled with Valve's always excellent writing. It was a delight. But there wasn't enough variety, and even with the AI Director, which promised to make every playthrough unique... the game got pretty predictable.

So Left 4 Dead 2 is almost out now, and the demo is free on Xbox Live. There's the whole "paying for the experience we should have gotten with L4D1" that people are bitching about, but I can say I disagree, and don't really wanna talk about it here. It's an argument where neither side is gonna convince the other of shit, and it's just gonna be a bunch of yelling. Pointless. Let's talk, though, about what's improved.

For starters, item selection is muuuch better. The demo likely doesn't even have all the weapons in the game, but I have used some eleven primary weapons, nearly double L4D's six, (3 assault rifles, 2 sniper rifles, 4 shotguns, 2 submachine guns) six secondary weapons over only one in the first, (pistol, magnum, guitar, machete, nightstick, frying pan) and four items over L4D's two (medkit, defibrillator, pain pills, adrenaline). Oh, and a new thrown weapon too, the Boomer Bile. There are now plenty more enemy types, three new special infected and the new uncommon zombies. Of the new enemies... the uncommons vary based on level, so all I've seen is the one from Parish, but it's good, it's interesting. They aren't hard so much as you have to take a moment to think about them. You can't just point, boom, dead, you have to deliberately act against them.

Of the new special infected, I am sold on two out of three. The Charger seems to have a hard-on for me, I got charged by him six times in one game (!!!), but he's a very good addition. If you see him coming, he's avoidable, but he moves very fast, and like many special infected, if he hits you, another player has to help you or it's all over. He's half tank, half hunter- instead of discouraging you from wandering off, he's there to discourage you from sticking TOO close to your allies. The Spitter serves much the same purpose- she spits acid on the ground, making it deadly to stand on, thus preventing camping, and sometimes splitting groups up by trapping one member on the wrong side of the acid pool. She's not very much of a threat, usually, but she can really screw you over. The Jockey, though... I can appreciate what they were trying to do, but in the end, he just feels like a lamer, more pain-in-the-ass version of the Hunter. He grabs onto you, and basically forces you to run away from the group while he rips you apart. He doesn't have a very interesting feel, I think.

Other than those changes (though they are significant) it appears to have remained much the same game. The Witches now roam instead of just sitting and sobbing, and that's a good change, and the one big set piece in the demo level is significantly more interesting than ones from the prequel- having to run to turn off an alarm instead of just holing up and waiting for it to end is much more interesting. I think it's walking a fine line, frankly. They said that it was too much of a change to be an expansion pack, and I play it on 360, where it certainly would have... but for a full sequel, it feels like they could have done more.

It's still preliminary analysis, because this is just the demo, and certain the full game seems worth buying, but I would have liked to see them play around with some core concepts more. Multiple paths through the levels, perhaps letting the AI Director choose those paths- maybe a door that was your way out last time will be locked this time. Barracades that collapse under the weight of a furious zombie onslaught. It's an excellent game, but it plays it too safe. There may be more content in the final product, but the core features are locked- these things aren't going to change. Maybe for L4D3. Oh come on, you know they're gonna make it.

November 3, 2009

Peace and Prosperity

Eternally behind as I am, I finally picked up the Lost and the Damned DLC for GTA IV. I'm quite impressed with it, but I wanted to talk about something in particular that they do- something that ties into my talk of sandbox games and what they are doing wrong from earlier. Y'see, one of the really nice things about GTA IV was its writing- the characters overflowed with personality, especially Niko himself, and their interactions were always a delight. Missions that had you driving along with someone to a job, which were frequent, were made much better by the banter between Niko and his partners as they drove. The normally slightly dull transportation parts were much better because of this.

Lost and the Damned keeps up this trend, but takes it one step further as well. Seeing as, in the LatD, you're a member of a biker gang, you drive in formation with the other bikers on your way to missions. This may not seem amazing, but it's handled very nicely- not only do you have several people for your character to talk with, but it's also much less like autopilot- instead of just driving to wherever, you have to keep in position with your brothers, easing up on the gas when you start to lose them, not taking turns too sharply and causing someone following you to hit a railing. In game, you're a better biker than them- that is, you're a better racer. So you kinda have to ease that up when you're in formation, and I like that. It's more immersive and engaging. Plus, sometimes they decide to make it a race among the gang, and I always kick the shit out of them. Heheh.

But that's all beating around the bush. The point is this- not only is good writing necessary, but if you're going to make a sandbox game, you NEED to come up with some way of keeping the running around from A to B all the time that the player will be doing interesting. That's the cardinal sin that most sandbox games fail. Assassin's Creed, Prototype, and inFamous all tried to keep it interesting through utilizing freerunning/parkour. And in all three titles, it worked for a little while... and then it wore off. It wasn't enough. I haven't finished LatD, maybe the formation gimmick will wear off, too. But it's not a minor detail. If you think about a sandbox game that you found boring, I am nearly certain that when you think back to what you didn't like about it, you remember some boring-ass Fedex mission, or something of the sort.

That's the lesson. If you can make just going where you're supposed to fun and interesting... what happens once you get there will have all the more weight. If, on the other hand, you spend fifteen minutes driving across your giant map in silence, trying not to piss off the cops/army/whatever antagonistic force is in your open world, the player is going to be going into the mission in a pretty nasty mood. I still think we need to scale back on sandbox games, but they sell, so I don't see that happening. So how about, at the very least, you make them more fun to play?

October 30, 2009

Sea of Sand

I'm going to talk about a troubling game trend today... I'm certainly not as bothered by it as SOME, but is it getting a little out of control. I am speaking of the sandbox game genre. Perhaps it's not even right to call it a genre anymore... it's a label of sorts that can be applied to anything. Then again, with all the genre bending going on (FPSRPGs, First Person Platformers, Action/Adventure/TPS...) I suppose it's as qualified to be a genre as anything. So I'll stick with calling it a genre, one that has become overpopulated.

I enjoy sandbox games a great deal. Grand Theft Auto, Prototype, Saint's Row, Spiderman 2, Red Faction Guerilla... it's a genre that can be applied to other genres, and with great effectiveness. It's a simple fact of reality that you can, in fact, wander around the world and do different things. It's a way to make games more immersive, and more interesting. It's a concept that actually been around for a long time- pretty much every RPG has a "sandbox" environment, more or less- but now it's really taking over. And you know? Maybe not as much as some people, but I think we're overdoing it. There are places where free roaming is either not fun or not in line with the story. Frequently, sandbox games will let you wander away in the middle of a task- at the end of a mission, you've cornered the bad guy, and now you need to actually fight him in the middle of his stronghold... only you don't, because you've wandered off to blow up some cars and punch random people. It impedes the experience.

Grand Theft Auto IV, even with its flaws (though they are few), is the perfect example of sandbox done right. Everything that happens, every mission, every job, is a self-contained event that adds to the overall plot. When you stop in the middle of a job, it's because you HAVE to- you're waiting for a response from a contact, or for your car to come out of the shop, or whatever. The pauses in action are always logical. Contrast this with, say, Prototype, where there is a mission where you pump toxic gas underground to draw out a monster, and fight to defend the pump... and just as the monster is about to show, the mission ends, so that you can go rip some chick in half and dropkick a tank or whatever before you choose to let the fight start. It's a very rough continuity break.

And then, of course, are games where the sandbox style has no place. If there was ever a sandbox Resident Evil, I think I would cry. Likewise, if a Mario Kart game ever had an overworld, and you had to drive to your next race, and jack a kart, I would be furious. There is a time and a place... and we're starting to go too far. Control yerselves, developers. If nothing else, mess with your game so that it fits. Don't think you can add freeroaming gameplay without changing the structure of your game.

Genres, as set as they are, are starting to blur. Developers are taking the best parts of other genres, and infusing their own games with them. This is absolutely a good thing. But we need to give this limits, or else you end up with abominations like Dirge of Cerberus.