Monday, 30 August 2010

I just don’t ‘get’ Halo

With the imminent release of Halo: Reach I thought I’d throw my hat into the ring and explain why I won’t be buying it; I just don’t ‘GET’ Halo. And I have tried. I got a copy of the first game free with my first Xbox console. I played the second game through in a co-op multiplayer, but there my experience ended, for a while anyway.

Halo is huge, I understand that. Aside from the games, which have sold more than 34 million copies worldwide, the series has spawned 6 best selling novels, comics, toys and other merchandise making the Master Chief and the non-oiled-up Spartans icons of the modern gaming age. But, for me, Halo just doesn’t do it. I have had cause to consider why recently, and what I found has surprised me.

I love sci-fi. I enjoy StarTrek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica (old and new) and films like Serenity and 2001: A Space Odyssey rank among my favourites. From a gaming perspective I grew up playing Elite and other Space based games as well as early FPS games such as Doom and Duke Nukem 3D. More recently tiles such as Mass Effect and Dead Space have sapped countless hours from my life so Halo’s setting, themes and back-story should have me gripped right? Sadly no.

Then what of the FPS genre itself? I have played and enjoyed more FPS games than any other genre I can think of. From Goldeneye to Wolfenstein, Band of Brothers, Call of Duty, Left 4 Dead, Rainbow 6; there’s nothing I like more than running around a well-rendered map staring down the sights of weapon at my enemies and then ending them. Again, Halo ticks this box as one of the archetypal titles in the FPS genre, so why don’t I care about stopping the Covenant from overrunning Earth and destroying humanity the best way I know how?

One of my biggest complaints about a lot of FPS games is the formulaic nature of vehicle-based levels. Sitting on the back of a Jeep firing mindlessly at anything that moves tends to bore me and many excellent titles fall at this hurdle, in my opinion, but the Halo games don’t. They do vehicles well, with multiple vehicular positions, driver, passenger and gunner, giving variety to the portions of the game that they occupy. But it still doesn’t grip me.

So what about graphics? Is it that the colourful settings and characters, the brilliant blue skies and the bright green or purple vehicles have soured my perception? Again I don’t think so. Games like Borderlands have much more bright and cartoon graphics than any of the Halo series and yet I thoroughly enjoyed rampaging around Pandora’s bright wastelands.

And what of gameplay? Halo was one of the first FPS to integrate more complex console controls into an ergonomic and instinctive control system. It’s multiplayer, whilst not new, was a great addition and dominated Xbox LIVE for a very long time, even after Xbox 360 came along. I used to play Halo 2’s multiplayer on split screen with my friends and we had a lot of fun, but I still preferred Soldier of Fortune’s multiplayer, which seemed more considered and somehow less ridiculous. Recently, when trying to organise an online get together with my friends we discovered that of all the games we collectively owned Halo 3 was the top hit, and out of all my friends I was the only one without a copy, so I acquiesced and bought it from Amazon for a mere £10.

When it arrived I decided to give Halo another chance, not just for multiplayer shenanigans, but also on the single player campaign. This was when I had my epiphany. A mere two levels into the game I realised why it was that I didn’t love the other games, or care about the release of ODST; the missions seemed fake. I’m not talking about realism, I have written before about how I feel realism is not required or indeed possible in games, but a feeling of pointlessness and fakeness about the motions of the game. The player seems herded through the story rather than driven or lead, the voiceovers seem strained and unconvincing and you can’t aim down your weapons sights! It’s a minor thing, I know, but I ‘feel’ more involved in a shooter if my left trigger raises my sights to my eye so that I can take better aim. Halo’s weapons feel like toys too, with the colourful beams of light slowly causing damage to the enemies rather than short, sharp, loud explosive thumps hammering against your foes with thunderous impact. The sound distracts me, the weapon noises are dull and the enemy vocals are just plain annoying, especially those squealing little buggers.

For all of its individually excellent aspects, Halo just doesn’t come together for me or make me want to care. I don’t feel driven as I progress the game and I don’t get that feeling of achievement when I pass a particularly difficult section of the game. The drama of Halo is lost on me and I think it is mainly my fault. With so many fans of the series around the world I’m clearly the difficult one here, but I won’t apologise for it, and I won’t pay for something that I know won’t entertain me.

So this year while many of you are spending your time with Reach, I’ll be happily battling Dead Rising 2’s zombie hordes, enjoying some post-apocalyptic gambling fun in Fallout: New Vegas and giving more of my money to Activision for the latest Call of Duty, but I won’t be sharing in the Spartans’ adventures. I’ll still be playing Halo 3 multiplayer with my friends, mainly so that I can spend some time having fun with them, but I won’t be buying any more Halo games and I don’t feel that I’d missing anything anyway. I don’t hate Halo, I just don’t ‘get’ it.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Golf and War, together at last…

As promised, I’m linking up the reviews and articles that I have had published at other sites. Today’s selection comes from Game Kudos.

I recently reviewed Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11 on the Xbox 360. The full review is at the link, but the short version is:

A great golfing game; simply the best golf simulator I have ever played. The clever use of the analogue control system gives the player a level of “feel” and control usually only experienced in golf games on the Wii. Accurately rendered courses, largely great visuals (with a couple of below par aspects) and immersive gameplay. Clever XP system for character building that almost takes the game into the realms of an RPG. Ryder Cup mode gives the game an extra sense of competition and career mode will ensure game longevity. PGA Tour 11 has a superb selection of online game modes and competitions with up to 24 player multiplayer team matches. If you like golf, you’ll love this; if you don’t, you won’t.

Overall Score: 8.2/10

I also wrote a review of an older game, Call of Duty: World at War. Again, full version of the review is at the link, short version:

Good addition to the Call of Duty series. Familiar CoD game mechanics and graphically similar to Modern Warfare, World at War takes the series back to its WW2 roots. New “occlusion” sound technology creates a more immersive experience due to sound muffling (thick walls muffle sounds more than thin) and players can tell if a gunshot was fired nearby or in the distance. Good use of two-theatre story line, both of which have a feeling of retribution as the protagonists struggle to repel the invading forces of the Axis powers. It sports a great multiplayer mode that elongates the life of this game exponentially. Fans of Call of Duty will love it, as will FPS fans in general, but there isn’t much new except Nazi Zombies, an excellent sub-game that unlocks after the completion of the single player campaign.

Overall Score: 7.5/10

Both reviews were edited by Dennis Scimeca, GK’s editor-in-chief and writer of gaming blog Punching Snakes.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Realism in games? Be realistic!

Much is made of the requirements for games to have “realism”. Realistic backdrops, realistic graphics and sound, with realistic weapons causing deadly realistic reactions in our realistic enemies, but do we really want true realism in games? What’s the point?

Take for example the hugely popular Modern Warfare 2. Many gamers would agree that it was a very realistic shooter. Excellent graphics, modern, accurately rendered weapons and absorbing gameplay, all of which lead to the argument that it is very realistic. But is it? I would argue no.

In the case of the single player game, despite the accurate physics and the detailed aesthetics, regardless of how much I enjoyed the game, not once during my experience of it did I feel in danger. I was not in fear of my life and was willing to take enormous risks regularly to progress the game. That is not realistic. The “Army Of One” concept can only go so far. What are the odds of engaging literally hundreds of armed, well trained enemies and coming out unscathed whilst their corpses lie in piles tens high? It simply isn’t feasible.

If one were to make an entirely realistic war game then players would spend months training in seemingly benign scenarios over and over until they react almost instinctively to expected stimulus and follow orders and procedure unquestioningly. They would then be given an idea of where in the world they would be fighting and then spend several more weeks training for that particular environment. There would be frustrating period of acclimatization in an area of the world similar to the conflict zone and then, finally their boots would hit the ground. Once there, players would have an entirely different outlook on the gaming experience, investigating and absorbing everything in the sure knowledge that one explosion, on roadside bomb, one stray bullet would end the game. There would be no re-spawning, no restarting from last checkpoint.

In multiplayer there would be no mindless running and slashing with combat knives so prevalent in the current online experience. Players pre-disposed to this sort of activity would find their game/lives cut very short. More thought would be had to the use of cover and unnecessary risks wouldn’t be taken. That would be more realistic.

Notably, games that have tried to be more realistic, like the realistic limb controls in Jurassic Park: Trespasser for PC, were not so well received. Trespasser aimed to use very realistic physics and make players control arms and wrists individually with very realistic control of movement, but it was difficult. This made firing your weapon effectively harder and often lead to death by Raptor. The game was considered a failure selling just 50,000 copies and receiving poor reviews, this despite the game’s aim to make the experience more realistic.

So perhaps when we talk of realism in games we are referring to the graphics and the sound and the physics engines, but not necessarily the social realism. If we were to act in games as we do in reality then titles such as GTA wouldn’t have such a large appeal. How many of us would actually steal a car, run down pedestrians or leap from skyscrapers after peppering a street full of innocents with a helicopter’s mini-gun? Surely there can’t be that many sociopath gamers. It is the inconsequential nature of games that allows us to act without moral reprisal that would normally be attached to such behaviour.

The mentality of gamers plays a large part in what makes games so popular and successful in the first place. Recently Sid Meiers, creator of Civilization, gave a keynote speech at the 2010 GDC covering the psychology of game design. When games are being made the developers must consider the way gamers think. Why do they play the games in the first place and why they would stop playing? As Meiers said at the conference, “I never received a letter that said ‘Hey Sid, great game but I win too much.’” What he says is true; gamers wouldn’t play a game that they thought was too hard, or which they constantly fail to progress. When you consider that the majority of games place players in situations and roles in which they would never find themselves in reality, then it calls into question whether gamers actually want games to be realistic. They want games they can beat, regardless of the odds and often feel hard done by or cheated if they lose to AI.

There is suspense of disbelief at work here. For an ordinary gamer to expect to be able to take down a special forces squad single-handed isn’t realistic, so surely realism isn’t actually what players want. That’s not to say that we don’t want to be challenged though; a game too easy to beat would be boring, or at the very least have a short shelf life.

So I would suggest that what gamers want is fantastic, not realistic. Fantastic graphics and sound with realistic physics that allows players to engage the fantasy of the game coupled with intuitive control systems. Actions without consequence in the real world are what draw people to games. You may not be a good footballer, but when playing a football game you can compete against and beat some of the greatest athletes in the world. Now that’s fantastic and that’s what video games provide: an escape from day-to-day reality and the ability to pit yourself against unthinkable odds and, more often than not, win.

This article was written for Game Kudos and can be viewed in its edited format here.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Red Ring Of Death! - Farewell to a friend, and hello to a sexy new model

After 5 long years and countless hours of awesome (and some not so awesome) gaming, my trusty Xbox 360 slipped away to a better place last week. The dreaded “Red Ring of Death” left its mark on my otherwise happy home. For the uninitiated, the Xbox 360 has a ring of lights surrounding its power button that are generally green. Green is good. When those lights turn red then you have issues. It means that, for one reason or another, your console is dead or dying and needs repair.

The warning signs came a couple of weeks ago, when playing Borderlands the screen froze a few times. That was followed by one red segment of the ring being displayed. Panicked and confused I blurted my worries to the world in general over Twitter. Surprisingly, the good people at Xbox Support, who obviously trawl the social networking site looking for poor unfortunates like myself, got in touch with a solution to my problem. They sent me a message linking a help forum at their website dealing directly with “Red Ring of Death” and the solution described therein worked. I was pleased.

Sadly, one week later the inevitable happened; the screen froze again and this time it was accompanied by a full “Red Ring of Death”. Nothing in Xbox Support’s solution arsenal was effective and I had to accept the fact that my old friend was gone.

Ordinarily you can send your console off to Microsoft for repair, but only if you’re still within your warranty period, and as mine was a launch model my warranty had expired years ago. I was forced to submit to the inevitable, to lay my old friend to rest and to visit my local store for a replacement.

As timing would have it, a sexy new model, the Xbox 360 slim, was launched recently and has improved in many ways upon the original 360. With a smart shiny black veneer, the slim is more compact than its predecessor and has built in WiFi. The model I bought came with a 250GB hard drive, a vast improvement on the 20GB of my old launch model, and the cooling fan is nearly silent, quite unlike the sound made by my old console, which was reminiscent of Seaking helicopter launching. What’s more, the system makes a satisfying “Ping” noise when you press the eject button (simple things please simple minds).

However, I have cause for concern. When I bought the slim the helpful staff member at my local Game store told me that some people have been experiencing problems with the new console. She claimed that fans break, the laser disk reader burns the faces of the disks on occasion and many have suffered the same catastrophic shut-down that killed my old model. What worried me most was when she said “You don’t need to worry about Red Ring of Death, you don’t get them with this console. Oh, that’s not because they don’t break, Microsoft have just removed the red light bulbs!” A grim thought indeed.

That said, forewarned is forearmed and I’ll be on the lookout for any of these supposed problems. As it stands the new slim is occupying old-faithful’s plinth and is serving very well. Something about the whole experience has been niggling at the back of my mind though, and I have finally put my finger on it. Many who I have spoken to about the demise of my first 360 have expressed surprise that it lasted as long as it did. One of my friends told me he was on his 4th model, having suffered “Red Ring of Death” 3 times.

I’m now wondering why we, as consumers, accept this. Surely something as expensive as an Xbox 360 should be expected to last more than a couple of years, and the general acceptance of regular breakdowns is infuriating. These things should work. Unless you drop them, spill something on them or leave them on too long and overheat them, why don’t they just keep working? It’s not for this post, as I intend to research this more and write about it more thoroughly and thoughtfully, but can you imagine if you bought a car and then after 2 years it catastrophically broke down only to hear from the world in general that that was expected, and have you checked your warranty? I wonder how many people would buy an expensive TV or other household appliance if the life expectancy were so low.

However, I have my entertainment for now, my gaming may continue. But I’ve got my eye on you, Xbox, and I will be far from pleased if this happens again.