Sunday, 29 January 2012

I fail at FIFA 12 because I play like a footballer, and not like a gamer

I'm a huge football fan. I spend much of my free time watching whatever match I can find on TV, and a good portion of my gaming time is spent with EA's FIFA series. The FIFA games have strived, year-on-year, to improve the franchise and immerse players in an engrossing football experience. The latest instalment, FIFA 12, continues this trope but its improvements maybe too clever for its own good.

Overall, the game is a fantastic sports title. The game modes, gameplay, graphics and animation are all a step up from last year's title. The seamless transition from play to cut scene, as well as player gestures and reactions complement each other and make you feel like you're watching a match. Head-to-head seasons give new incentives for success in online gameplay with divisions to progress through and relegation to avoid. For the first time in the series, FIFA 12 introduces tactical defending to give players a greater degree of control when not on the ball. Rather than just running back alongside advancing opponents and trying to bully or slide the ball away from them, players are now able to turn and cover attackers if they can keep goal-side of them. This serves to draw you into the intricate tactics of defending and makes them think more like a footballer about covering and moving into space when not on the ball.

This is all well and good, football fans can emulate the sport they love more closely than ever before. We can see what our on-field hero's look like playing in a style we dictate and we're drawn more deeply into an experience that increasingly looks like what you'd expect to see at a real match. However, the shift in tactical thinking hasn't been supported by the AI programming, which lets me down regularly and causes me to fail at FIFA 12.

Off-ball players are controlled by AI and you can change which player you control with a quick tap of a button or flick of an analogue stick, however, doing so can have unexpected consequences. For example, an AI controlled defender may be running back just ahead of an attacker and you wish to take control of that player to see off the danger. Taping your button you stare aghast as the player who was so capably tracking his marker stops dead for split second, even if your aiming correctly for him to continue his run, and allows the opponent through for a shot at goal. The game's intricate defensive tactics have lulled me into a false sense of security, making me believe my AI controlled players will react exactly how I would expect a professional footballer to. This isn't the case. It fails to anticipate.

This is just one example, others include AI players failing to close down obvious loose balls in favour of maintaining their formation, to the detriment of their team's effort. The clever player animations that add depth occasionally cause a player on the break to raise his hands in frustration at a tackle rather than chasing down the ball and recovering it, like a professional would. When a number of the opposition are playing high up field and you get the ball, a quick counter attack can often be snubbed out by your strikers choice not to start a run while you still hold the ball with another player. This leads to frustration and, often, failure.

FIFA 12 is a great game, but the level of control it affords leads to an assumed empathy between the players that simply doesn't exist. When I fail to score or I defend pitifully it isn't for the want of trying, it's because I'm thinking like a footballer and not like a gamer. If I expect the avatars to act like computer controlled sprites, adjust my play style accordingly and remember that I'm simply reacting to on screen stimuli, then the gamer in me can get back to responding to the situation and shaping the game as I want it. I need to rely on my actions, not the assumed understanding of an algorithm. I must remember it is just a video game, and I should approach the play as a gamer, and not as a footballer.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Pre-owned re-moaned: gamers must use their economic power to prevent unwanted changes to how they pay for games

Gaming sites across the Internet are reporting rumours first shared by Kotaku suggesting that the next Xbox console “may not play used games”. It rears an ugly and, in my opinion, pointless argument about pre-owned game sales and their effect on the video game industry. I can categorically prove that far from impacting upon sales, pre-owned games actually boost developers' incomes: I would never have paid full price for Mass Effect. I knew nothing about it at its release - as I was abroad and missed the launch PR drive - and it simply didn't appear on my radar. A friend tried to convince me to buy it so I purchased a pre-owned copy at a reduced price. I became hooked on what is still one of my favourite games of all time. It lead me to buy the second game at launch and my pre-order for the third instalment of the series sits on the system of my local retailer. Bioware didn't lose £20 by my pre-owned purchase, it gained £90. Preowned games aren't killing the industry, they supplement it; they boost it.

The argument is in vain though, because despite the awesome buying power of gamers – we spent $1bn in 16 days on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 - we do not wield our influence effectively to prevent changes to the industry that we, as consumers, simply don't want. Pre-owned is one example. EA are dominating in the war against the pre-owned market, implementing online passes as a way to force pre-owned buyers to pay again to access online content that the original owner had full use of. Most of EA's flagship titles hinge on online content and gameplay. Without multiplayer access the FIFA, Tiger Woods PGA and Battlefield series are just shells of games. Having to purchase a pass after buying a game from the pre-owned section negates any financial bonus of the sale. Gamers might as well buy new. EA are winning that battle.

Another example of gaming taking a heading at odds with the wishes of consumers is pay-to-play. With multiplayer in games such as Halo and the Call of Duty and Battlefield series being such a big draw to the franchises, businesses – and lets not forget that is what developers are – are noticing a potentially lucrative revenue stream. Rather than giving gamers unlimited access to as many multiplayer matches as they want for as long as they own the game, there are worrying rumblings of a tectonic shift to subscriptions and pay-to-play. The first steps toward a pay-to-play future have been taken in the form of Call Of Duty Elite, a subscription service for more dedicated CoD players. The service isn't compulsory, or even necessary to have a great online experience, but it is a move in a direction which was being discussed by people like industry expert Michael Pachter two years ago. The crux of Pachter's comments was that multiplayer is such a huge portion of the game market, unlimited plays on games such as CoD and EA's sports titles are directly detrimental to new sales. You'll excuse me if I rile at this, but If I pay for a game and pay an annual subscription to use Xbox LIVE, I'm quite certain that I don't want to pay a further subscription to access online gaming within a franchise.

Video game sales may not be what they were in 2008, but nor is housing or anything else. We are still in the throes of a global economic crisis and consumers have less disposable income. This doesn't mean that gamers should be punished for finding cheaper ways to enjoy their chosen pass-time, or milked for more cash to supplement the industry's coffers in the bad times. Gamers posses a massive economic weapon and, if we choose to wield it, we should seriously consider using our right not to buy in order to prevent an irreversible change to how we access and pay for gaming.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Filibuster: Skyrim reveals my in-game political immaturity

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Bethesda's latest mammoth title, has me reflecting on political choice in games and how that relates to real-world political thinking. I like to think of myself as a politically savvy person. I keep abreast of current affairs and try to weigh arguments before making judgements. I get my news from a variety of sources spanning the political spectrum to ensure I don't fall foul to party political bias or spin. I even allow myself to be swayed in my opinion by the weight of a convincing argument. However, as Skyrim has shown me, when it comes to in-game politics, I'm best described as immature.

Personal politics and voting tendencies are largely a compromise. Voters tend to align themselves to a party or an ideal that best fits their value system, or vote depending on which manifesto they believe will best benefit themselves. My game politics depart from this established, sensible mantra. In the gaming world, if my views don't completely align with the politics of any faction or character then I don't participate. My game ego doesn't allow me to settle for the best of a bad bunch - it causes me to strike out on my own, to shape the world as I would have it.

Although there are numerous political factions present in Skyrim, the story is anchored in the turmoil of the civil war waged by two major parties: the Imperials and the Stormcloaks. From the outset, the game has you choosing between the two and ushers you to pick a side as the story evolves. This is where my political immaturity came to light. I found it difficult to choose. Despite playing as a Nord character native to the land, and their separatist ideals being based on Skyrim for the Nords or similar rhetoric, I found it difficult to subscribe to the Stormcloaks' view of the world. I felt that the borderline racist rants of the faction's leaders and their unwillingness to compromise made it impossible for me to join their ranks. Yes, I'm a Nord. Yes, I think the Nords' homeland should be shaped by its natives. Yes, I believe people should be free to worship as they see fit but no, I cannot and will not abide prejudice on racial grounds – and in the case of the Stormcloaks, this prejudice runs deep.

So then, to the Imperials? I like that they are holding together an eclectic and inclusive society. I like that they see the Empire as stronger united than divided and I believe that a separated Skyrim would see both the diminished Empire and the lone province more susceptible to invasion or influence from outside parties. So surely my allegiance should lie with the Empire? Well, no. I can't make peace with the idea that they would give up their subjects' rights to worship to the demands of the Thalmor, the High Elf supremacist leaders of the Aldmeri Dominion. I don't like how they appear to be the puppets of these invaders. I can't reconcile their heavy-handed approach to those who would seek political change, but mostly, I can't forgive them for trying to hack off my head without trial or due procedure at the genesis of my quest.

This uncompromising gameplay trait has reared its head in other games too. Fallout 3, Fallout: New Vegas, and the Dragon Age and Mass Effect series all stand out to me as examples of choice-driven games in which I have been unable to compromise my sense of right and wrong to align myself politically. In New Vegas, my choice seemed to be between the “evil” Legion, or the “meddling” republic; I chose neither and my god complex led me to find my own solution. In Mass Effect, my personal politics and sense of right and wrong lead me to unleash a deadly insect race upon a Galaxy it once threatened, whilst I myself struggled to save it from another great danger. My feelings on the warlike Krogan and the genophage plague used to control the species' numbers left me struggling to trust Krogan, Turian or Salarian characters on either side of the argument.

My experience in my first play-though of most games is usually a “how would I handle it” approach, and it is in my first play-though that I struggle with political immaturity. Subsequent plays will see me acting as a shining beacon of goodness, or a despicable example of evil, and in these games I care not for the worries of politics. But when I'm approaching the game as I would – or as I would like to believe I would – a real-life situation, I find myself hamstrung by my code, my compass and the overwhelming sense of self-importance that any game engenders when it makes you the protagonist.

Is this political immaturity though, or is my reluctance to compromise a result of the fact that I don't have to? In the games I've described, players have the luxury of choice and an abundance of avenues of action, and ultimately thats what politics is: a choice between different ways of interacting with and seeing the world. Games that afford less choice, or even no choice beyond “shoot the guy in your iron-sights, or don't”, have a much less blurred political landscape. In Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3's campaign, there is little by the way of choice, but the plot is steeped in political intrigue and interactions on a global scale. Regardless of player politics, the game will play out the same way. In Batman: Arkham Asylum you adopt the politics of the costumed vigilante and you will bring down the Joker, or you simply won't complete the game. Your choice is limited to which tactic you'll use to pummel the bad guys as you close on your target. That's not to say the run-on-rails nature of games like these makes them bad - far from it - but the lack of player choice doesn't allow for player politics to add a new dimension to the game play.

When it comes to more open world, choice driven role-playing or sandbox games, the freedom of choice and action seeds my political immaturity - because to believe you can solve the world's problems on your own and not have to forge alliances to do so is naive. In any alliance there is compromise and my inability to do so in Skyrim would have major ramifications to the provinces' inhabitants. Skyrim won't run itself and for me to leave it suffering a civil war that I could end by picking a side is politically irresponsible.

My choice is the third way: I will shape Skyrim as I see fit. And why can I do this? Because unlike real life, my limitless respawns, vast power and moral compass won't let me settle for a less than perfect affiliation between my view of the world and that of a faction I support. I don't have have the maturity to compromise and am doomed to struggle against all factions in the game - at least in my first play-through.

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

Sunday, 8 January 2012

We interrupt this silence...

I have been criminally negligent with regard to my writing over the past few months. As you can see, this blog hasn't been updated for a while and I've submitted nothing new to any of the outlets I write for since August. This post simply serves to say that this drought will be ending shortly. My latest article is with my editor and when ready will be posted here and elsewhere.

By way of mitigation for my lack of content I should mention that I have spent a considerable amount time at sea during the past 6 months and 7 weeks ago my wife gave birth to our beautiful baby daughter – so it's not like I've been sat on my hands since August. Anyway, watch this space for updates shortly.

Friday, 12 August 2011

LA Noire Review

My review of LA Noire has been published at Game Kudos. I found the game to be equal parts outstanding and disappointing. Overall, the technological achievements and the main game mechanics make for an excellent interactive gaming experience, however, the choice to root the game in Rockstar’s familiar formula of 3rd person GTA style open world exploration detracts from an otherwise excellent adventure.

I think LA Noire could be a contender for game of the year but, unfortunately, I believe the game – as good as it is – promised so much more.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

The kid’s aren’t alright: LA Noire’s children

Rockstar have a habit of keeping kids out of their games. The trend is bucked slightly in LA Noire but, with only their toe in the water, perhaps they should have stuck to their guns.

For obvious reasons Rockstar’s hit games, which pride themselves on believable rendering of entire cities and landscapes, are notably lacking in one human element: children. Being the purveyors of the kind of video game violence and questionable content that anti-gaming lobbyists love to pounce upon, its choice to keep the streets of Liberty City clear of innocent ankle biters saves the developer that particular political pitfall. Somehow mounting the curb with your stolen vehicle and mowing down a group of innocent passers-by while evading the LCPD would take a turn toward the sinister if mangled prams were among the wreckage in your rear-view mirror.

I approve of this choice, as nothing freaks me out more in gaming than kids. Be it Little Sister from BioShock, the child-like necromorphs from Dead Space 2 or even “normal” kids like those from Fallout 3’s birthday party, their presence in games is unnerving to me and, with the exception of John Marston’s son in Red Dead Redemption, their omission from my Rockstar diet is greatly appreciated. That is, until LA Noire.

The streets and parks of 1947 Los Angeles aren’t filled with children, and their absence simply makes the free-roaming aspect of the game feel like a GTA title, but during your investigations the story sees you interviewing one child and hounding the father of two others in front of them after telling them their mother had been murdered. Their odd responses to the devastating and life-changing events unfolding around them are somewhat unnerving, especially when conveyed using the game’s MotionScan technology, and I actually felt a deep pang of guilt as I condemned one of them to a life of state care.

These child characters serve a purpose in the game; they add a level of believability to the family dynamic of some of the homes you investigate in the course of the game’s cases, they provide a focal point for the reactions of some suspects to help you make your judgement on their guilt. However, because there are only a handful of child characters in a city of countless sprites, their presence in the game is also to its detriment. It leads to a nagging thought in the back of your mind when playing: Why is it there are no kids anywhere else in the game but for the few cut scene encounters in those investigations? It’s not something that spoils the overall enjoyment of the game, but combined with a couple of other aspects (like the ridiculous body count) it picks away at the mortar of a superbly written story, which is delivered - for the most part - in a refreshingly new and exiting way.

Unlike GTA and RDR, LA Noire has heavy focus on protecting the population of the city and hurting pedestrians as you speed through the streets chasing down bad guys is heavily discouraged. Indeed, the game prevents you from un-holstering your weapon at inappropriate times and collateral damage is kept lower than in any other similar title I can think of. With that in mind, and Rockstar’s choice to use child characters in the main narrative, I feel it should have made the braver step to infuse the game with a more believable age range within the city’s population. Not doing so simply highlights how out-of-place the ones that are there feel.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Army of One or a cog on a wheel?

To accurately represent warfare, games must engender a sense of collaboration toward an overarching strategic aim, not focus on the tactical weeds of individual effort.

Despite occupying a significant proportion of video game content, military titles of all genres fail to depict warfare accurately. FPS are fun and exciting, but ridiculous. The game pace, number of incidents and body counts familiar to FPS fans are to modern conflicts as Rambo movies are to guerrilla warfare: a cartoon depiction. In 2011, the average number of daily battle casualties per 100 troops in conflicts worldwide is 3 (source: The evolution of weapons and warfare, T.N. Dupuy). How does that compare to the attrition rate of 2010’s Medal of Honor? Players are divorced from the actions on-screen and are prone to taking extraordinary risk to achieve objectives. Without the fear that normally comes with danger, games simply can’t recreate the true feeling of being under fire. Even if players could somehow achieve empathy with their on-screen character, the way FPS single-player campaigns are designed results in players being constantly harried and channelled to follow pre-scripted actions to progress the story.

RTS military titles are engaging but outside of a despotic society no one person has so much control over the macro and the micro as is permitted by the genre. Even games like Civilization, Age of Empires or Command and Conquer, which incorporate the economic and societal elements of war, cannot give any player a faithful experience of commanding forces at any level. Although RTS games allow players to make the mental leap from the tactical to the strategic, the sheer scope of the faculty entrusted to them is unlike anything that would be experienced by any individual within any military or governmental organisation. To return to the emotional level, players simply don’t, and shouldn’t, care about the hundreds or thousands of units sent to their digital graves in pursuit of the overlord’s aims.

These are examples of the Army of One mentality of video games. Even in multiplayer focused military games the individual is king and players are out to clock up kills and demonstrate their prowess. The number of stakeholders in any military operation, not to mention a full-blown war, is mind blowing. From troops of all spheres of warfare to logisticians, planners and propagandists, politicians and media outlets, the list endless and all have an input to the effort. I’m not suggesting here that any game could simulate the complex nature of a conflict so accurately but highlighting the stark difference between the reality of such operations and how they are represented in our gaming entertainment.

Video game warfare is largely land-centric and it is for this reason, coupled with the individual nature of console ownership, that games don’t make the paradigm shift necessary to depict warfare as the collaborative effort that it actually is. One branch of warfare that is under-represented in games, but which by its very nature requires a collaborative approach, is naval warfare. Sea power is by far the most influential of military might. Navies can legally position aircraft carriers 12 miles off any coast on the planet and influence the area for hundreds of miles around the hull. Submarines can deny access to logistically vital sea-lanes by the mere suggestion of their presence and marines can be landed on any beach by amphibious units with little or no notice. The nature of naval operations means that fighting units – ships, submarines and aircraft - cannot be operated individually and require cohesive teamwork to effect such formidable and versatile weapons. However, from a gaming perspective, the largely individual nature of gaming precludes this vast and intriguing sphere of warfare from being fully explored.

Indeed, the most notable recent example of naval warfare in video games is that of Eidos’s Battlestations: Midway. The battle of Midway is a master class in the employment of naval air power and escort warfare. The world shaping exchange between the US and Japanese carrier fleets influenced the tide of the second World War and gave the US the foothold it needed to press its advance across the Pacific. The game representing these events was woefully below par, reducing the experience to a single-player, ultimate-control farce with one person effecting the navigation, gunnery and command of naval units all at once, so as to make the experience laughable.

The mantra of naval warfare - and indeed that of land and air warfare - is that each individual is a cog on a wheel, a small but vital component in the machine. Everyone knows their job and together they combine to fight the war as directed by those in command, who are in turn guided by the strategic aims laid out by an appropriate authority. Perhaps the only video game genre that could even attempt to replicate the intricate and complex essence of military operations is MMO. If players can make the mental shift away from the weeds of individual effort, and appreciate how fulfilling their role correctly - not for personal glory, but for the collective aim – can have a huge impact on the outcome of a conflict, then they would be much closer to understanding the reality of military effort than they would by running and gunning their way through a restricted shooter map.

As intriguing an idea as this is though, I doubt it would be a viable project. It can be argued that an accurate representation of the human mechanics of warfare is not the aim of these games and that escapist entertainment is the main goal. If players want to test their hand-eye co-ordination whilst enjoying an exaggerated - albeit entertaining - storyline and revel in impressive graphics and sound then the current crop of military titles meets this. However, if players want to experience war in accurately reproduced combat situations but without the physical dangers inherent in military service, then the selection of war games available fails to provide. The dichotomy is that any game that could accurately simulate warfare would be exactly that: a simulation. It would most likely be used to train military personnel and not to entertain the gaming public. After all is a more accurate understanding of the mechanics of war actually what gamers want? Probably not.