Thursday, March 12, 2009

Grand Theft Auto IV - First Impressions

Apologies for a very long absence. But due to personal concerns I could not offer any time for this blog coupled with the fact that my workplace banned a lot of vital sites. Overzealous IT admins is every workers nightmare when it comes to successful procrastination.

Moving on, Over Christmas I obtained an Xbox 360 and have been playing it heavily ever since then. Fighting with my flatmates to get some cuddling time with the gray little box, which I have developed a sort of love/hate relationship with. The games are great and the graphics amazing, the improved Xbox menu system is very well thought through and easy to navigate while Xbox Live is just as easy to set up. My great hatred has to do with the completely baffling amount of bugs, freezes and glitches the system produces.

Moving onto GTA IV. I had only played the game for about 2 hours before I had managed to encounter gamestopping bug and freezes no less than 6 times. First I had the loading screen getting stuck at loading indefinitly (twice). Then the whole console would freeze up (twice), forcing a hard restart. And thenI entered the bowling alley with my easily impressed lady Michelle who was not impressed when I was completely unable to start the bowling mini-game due to a bug upon which I accidentally punched wildly into the air due to S.I.R.B.M, or Stress-induced Random Button Mashing. This did not impress and had her flee in panic from our date.
And finally, I encountered some sort of 28 days later reference when I would walk out my apartment after loading only to find the streets completely empty, no human in sight anywhere.

Now I REALLY hope this is just my bad luck and that it was just coincidental. I simply cannot believe such a massive production would regularly stop in its tracks every 30 minutes. Because beyond the repeated technical raping I had to receive the game appears to be quite good.

The city is very fluent and organic, it doesnt feel like a world made up of soft or hard textured boxes interacting like the previous games did. Following the mission structure is just as engaging as it is to go on a stress relieving killing spree across the city, just to see how many pedestrians you can ragdoll under your wheels before the cops finally corner you. I believe the combination of these two styles of play to be the most winning concept of the whole game. Especially when the game put you right in between and you just barely escape with a mission accomplished. All the GTA games have a tendency to give you loads of tedious, infuriating, hard and ludicrous missions requiring you to do everything from piloting RC helicopters to playing strategic table-top war games, so the killing spree aspect is vital in keeping you going.

The eurotrash theme they introduced in this one works quite well, and while not as flamboyant and graphically toy-like as the previous two games, it sets the tone very well and creates that dark and dirty side of New York in a way none of the previous games could, on the downside it seems a bit dull and while the graphics are great you don't really take notice because there is nothing really interesting to look at. The main character being an ugly redneck from the middle-of-nowhere give you that sort of blank slate to work with, it will be interesting to see how the game will allow me to shape him, if at all. I'd loveto see him go from a poor and humble war-veteran to a power-hungry psychopathic druglord similar to Tony Montana or that guy in Vice City.

But still the game suffers from that fake and shallow feeling, especially in gunplay. The guns sound like toys, NPCs take far too many shots to go down, the blood and gore just doesn't come out right. Massacring three pedestrians doesn't seem to bother the acquaintance you just picked up at the subway station. I understand a lot of this is to keep the game playable rather than realistic, but still I would like to feel a bit more impact when i decide to run over a whole sidewalk of innocents. But most of all I would like to see GTA treating the FPS component seriously and actually delivering a satisfying shooting aspect rather than taking time to create dozens of quite pointless mini-games and playing dress-up.

As I see it GTA needs to finally decide what it wants to be. Is it an RPG or an arcade action game? Is it a driving game or a shooter firstly? Should it be truly open ended or have a linear mission structure? Because right now the game just feels like a table of tapas, no dish particularly engaging or in-depth but nice for a snack. But trying to eat all of them simply steals too much time and effort and still leaves you hungry one hour later.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Bitter disappointment

Feeling quite cheery on the 5th of September I strolled down to the closest McGame store after work assuming there would be some copies of Wright's new epic. Luckily there was and after a few minutes of resisting the urge to get the galactic edition I headed home, eager. I popped the game in and away I went for a spectacular 35 minutes followed by a Belgian blue taking gigantic, cold dump on my face. My computer goes belly up and a second later the Windows loading screen is displaying. Quite sure I had just traveled back in time to 35 minutes earlier, I thought well shit happens and went on to play again. Started a new creature straight in the creature stage and enjoyed a full 15 minutes ov devouring bunny-wombats when again the mighty blue bovine pressed his scrotum against me and unleashed brown-blue furious rage.

A slight pinch of panic started travelling from my gut up my spine. Okay, once can happen... twice.... can it be? I started looking at the forums, about every third topic on Gamefaqs was "CANT INSTALL", "CRASH", FREEZE", "COMPUTER REBOOTS". A long sigh later I started browsing for fixes, but as the game is barely released in the US, this was of course a waste of time. I started blaming myself, my vid card IS intergrated, but then again the readme says "should work satisfactorily on low settings". So I went on a tweaking spree. I increased the shared RAM for the vidcard, I updated to the latest ATI drivers and updated and lowered every setting possible.

I double-clicked that jeering, manically laughing icon again. After the three minute loading time that appears to be normal, the game fills my screen. Crossing my fingers I launch yet another creature. Looking around my nest I gang up with another hunter and head towards the nearest nest of prey. Me and my buddy quickly butcher half the nest and just as I bow down to feed a humongous blueish thing jumps out from behind my desk, knocks the monitor aside and performs an elegant 259kg elbow drop on my crotch.

After having gone through every single thread on the technical support forums for this game as well as numrous more google seaches, I had amassed a ton of threads with this exact same issue, most of them seem to have been with ATI cards. Beyond that, it's actually astounding how much backlash the release of this game has seen. People are simply furious.

I noticed during my previous workday before the game was released that the reviews were quite meiocre for a game of this scope and the threads that weren't about technical issue were screaming about how the game apparently sucked. Now I wont stoop so low as to concur without having played through the game, but not being able to play it, surely qualifies a game as being a bukkakefest of Belgian proportions. Fuck you Will. I followed this game for three long gaming years and as everyone else, concurred that you must be a genius. But judging by the maggot ridden shit you delivered and your own damn words in this article; I can only agree no matter how brilliant you used to be, you are now truly the EA posterboy no one thought you would be. Now be a good boy and go join Vanilla Ice and Hammer down the 7th level.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The rise and fall

Pending the releases of two immensely anticipated sequels, which by now truly are household names, Diablo III and Starcraft II, as many already have, I realized that Blizzard might be heading for its downfall. At some point, there is just too much money, brand awareness and pressure on a company for it to try anything but what can be mathematically predicted to make shitloads of cash. This happened to Nintendo, Microsoft, DICE and many others once they hit #1. So here follows a run-through of every single major release the Blizzard brand has given us since 1993.

1993 - The Lost Vikings
This was the very first release of Blizzard's, a cute and funny platformer where the objective was to guide three Vikings through the same levels, utilizing their different abilities to beat the ingenious level design. This game really has no hint of Blizzards future brands, but shows a willingness to think beyond the bare minimum and attack a tired old concept with new thinking and new ideas. It's important to remember that platformers were so dominant in the early 90s and late 80s because it was a tried and true concept that nicely fit within the limit of what a PC could do back then.

1994 - Blackthorne
Here we have another game in the spirit of the 90s console platform games. Similar to Prince of Persia and other more mature platformers, the game contained a bit of action and gunfighting but mainly focused around navigating mazelike levels with a good deal of thinking involved. This is still far away from the bright future of Blizzard and they are still just a struggling run of the mill game developer just trying to earn its bread.

1994 - Warcraft: Orcs and Humans
Here we go! As we all know, around this time Blizzard consists of a dozen or so nerds, neck deep in their D&D, Fantasy books but most importantly, Warhammer. The guys were simply crazy about the artwork, models and gameplay of Warhammer and Games Workshop. So, they approached Games Workshop and asked to collaborate with them in order to make a computer game of the brand. Unlike the Starcraft story, which is just a rumour, this one is actually proven to be true. GW however, did not feel confident about this proposal and thus turned them down, a mistake on par with the ones of the loads of people who turned down George Lucas or JK Rowling. Blizzard, probably disappointed, still happily said "fuck it" and went on to create the first game in the biggest franchise the computer game world has ever known.

Based on the gameplay of Dune and Command & Conquer, the game ended up a very appealing and well made RTS game, with artwork quite similar to that of Warhammer. The key here being the genius of Cris Metzen, while he did not take an active part in the game itself, he created the illustrations and cover art for the game, which combined with Blizzard excellent sense of execution and quality would eventually become the heart and soul of Blizzard.

An important observation we can make even this early is that Blizzard is not an innovator, more of a perfectionist. None of the three game I have talked about here are in any way original, the fantasy setting is borrowed and the game mechanics are nothing new, still, its rocketing upwards.

1995 - Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness
Following the release of several other less important games such as Death and Return of Superman, Rock N Roll racing, The Lost Vikings 2 and Justice League Task Force. Blizzard eventually comes around to the sequel of Warcraft, ie Tides of Darkness. The story centers around the Orcs once again invading Azeroth.

The game introduces many new elements such as flying and naval units, excellent graphics, CG videos and a ton of personality, action and memorable missions. It's the same old RTS as Warcraft but with something magical about it. While being engineered to utter perfection, the games superiority can largely be attributed to Chris Metzen, whom Blizzard liked so much they let him be creative designer of the game, and it shows. The games graphics, while cartoony, are extremely appealing with a bright and strong palette and tons of personality and character; What would eventually become the company's trademark is immediately observable here. It still borrows heavily from its Warhammer roots, but is moving away from the grim setting of GW:s towards something more dynamic.

1996 - Diablo
Blizzard thrives in its success of Warcraft and goes onto release an expansion, Beyond the dark portal, the following year, adding a new campaign featuring Outland as well as hero units. While possibly one of Blizzards less interesting expansions, it was still worthwhile. With Chris Metzen at the front, the team was looking for something fresh. They had satisfied their common roots in table top gaming with Warcraft. But they had so far not explored their other passion: dungeon crawling.

Typically the same crowd that goes for Warhammer also enjoys D&D. Late nights with coke, dimmed lighting, dice and spreadsheets. The team then pictured a tribute to this , a dark and thrilling game, submerging the player deeper and deeper into the earth while encountering more and more enemies. The end product was Diablo, an action RPG dungeon crawler with a horror twist. Gone was the bright colors and cartoony style of WC2. The game was an immediate success and extremely good at what it intended to do. The graphics were dark, mature and sinister and very gory. It was a great game and became one of the three major franchises Blizzard would end up with. While they tried something new, they have still failed to truly show originality. But, as any person in the industry will tell you, games are about 20% idea and 80% execution. Regardless of whatever it borrowed from, I have yet to play a single other game in this genre that could even begin to compare, and there has been MANY attempts.

1998 - Starcraft
Early this year, Hellfire, a licensed expansion for Diablo was released by a third party developer. Unfortunately, this was to be considered one of Blizzards few flops and was overall a bland and uninspired experience. Most importantly though, Blizzard and Chris Metzen are at it again. In an effort which combined the most mind-blowingly good artwork, story, creative design and visual concept together with unparalleled gameplay and balancing, Blizzard produces this masterpiece. 10 years later it still played tons around the world and considered by many to be the perfect RTS in competitive gaming.

The darker side of the story however, is that once again, the art wasn't entirely their own. As we already have established, Blizzard were huge fans of Warhammer and Games Workshop. So while there isn't any direct proof, it is certainly hard not to deduce that Blizzard borrowed a lot of the design from Games Workshop's Warhammer 40,000. The story goes that Blizzard again wanted to collaborate with GW but got turned down, however this I find hard to believe as Blizzard already had its own visual concept and direction, that not withstanding the fact that some inspiration is evident in the game. As is the Blizzard tradition, later that year Brood wars was released as an expansion to an already amazing game, and somehow made it even better.

2000 - Diablo II
Following the original Diablo of 96, Blizzard started an annoying tradition of only releasing games every 2 years. Furthermore they completely dropped all games outside of the Diablo/craft franchises. Typically, Blizzard also always gave each franchise an equal amount of releases and took turns in developing them and released an expansion after one year. So in 2000 came Diablo II. As always with Blizzard, the anticipation was massive. And I still remember to this day how I ran home to my friend with a beta key every day after school in order to get a chance at the smooth new graphics, awesome barbarian class and fastpaced gameplay.

The game was, in essence, the original but on steroids. The concept was expanded upon and while it lost some the suspense, it became a much more enjoyable and accessible game. The collecting and trading aspect also increased the fun significantly, this time around Diablo II was all about the multiplayer. After the first run through of SP there was simply no point in starting anything but an online character, and it was incredible fun. While staying true to the concept with many additions it was still essentially the same game. D2 would spawn a whole new breed of addicts and was one of the major games that brought buying items for money into the mainstream. Still to this day it is one of the most popular non-MMOs played online. By now Blizzard had everything going for it and it had been so for a while, they were considered gods and completely incapable of producing anything but solid gold.

2002 - Warcraft III - Reign of Chaos
Blizzard is now beginning to enter its peak. There are still a few years left to the nuclear explosion that was WoW, and the company had slowly but surely went into its now fixed path. Here we had tons of decision making going on. Interestingly, Blizzard was exploring new directions and other options. And for a while, it seemed like there may still be hope, they may still produce another groundbreaking franchise or create a new world for us to explore. But as we know, "with great power comes great responsibility" or in other words, with great money comes great limitation. Warcraft Adventures: Lord of the clans was one effect of this. A point and click adventure game set in Azeroth. What a great idea!! They could master a new genre and explore the Warcraft world in a more intelligent manner. But, that's when the paranoia set in.

As we know, Blizzard is all about quality. They will not release a game unless it is a guaranteed 10/10 success. So, naturally as they don't have sufficient experience in anything but the RTS and RPG genre, they decide to drop Lord of the Clans, it's a new genre which means new grounds which equals a gamble. They are so afraid of staining or cheapening the brand that by now they simply can't innovate anymore. This is also evident in the production of Warcaft III. Reading up on the game prior to its release, it wasn't actually intended to be an RTS at all. It was going have no base building and instead focus on a select number of fighters, heavy on dialogue and RPG elements. But, fearing anything but a complete utter success they dropped this and pow, we get Reign in Chaos, a cheery and cartoonier Warcraft featuring hero units as the leftovers from the original ideas. Not a bad game by any means, actually excellent, but it is widely considered to be inferior to SC or WC2. More alarmingly they completely recycled the storyline from Starcraft, Ie "Good guy goes bad halfway through and conquers the universe" In my opinion, they should have made the gamble, yup, people would have been angry, many of them, but Blizzard would still have options. Now they are stuck.

Doomsday - World of Warcraft
The year after WC3, as expected, the expansion Frozen throne was released. Nothing much new here, mainly just a continuation of the story with some new units. More importantly though. Anticipation was building up for Blizzard's take on the now peaking MMO genre. There were loads of games around, developers attracted to the potential profits, but none really made the cut as a truly good game. Everyone knew that if Blizzard tried they would win. For a PC developer, they were swimming in cash, but not compared to what was to come.

We all know this story. Blizzard released WoW, a new world order dawns. People who never touched games flocked to their PCs just like The Sims. Blizzards amount of subscribing customers quickly exceeds the population of Ireland and starts approaching Sweden's while ending up past 10 million. Everything in the world is Warcraft. Addicts and rehab clinics start popping up like mushrooms. Blizzard has now, truly, taken over the industry. Should they merge with EA, we would up with an almost completely monopolized market. This is the point of no return. There is no going back. Blizzard IS the new, cooler and bluer EA but with actual games as opposed to just adds in 3D.

For the duration of the coming years, Blizzard is only WoW. Everything else is put on hold. They open up hundreds of new servers every month and they even had to stop production of the game several times to keep up with server capacity. The burning crusade is released to cash in some more and later Rise of the Lich King is announced, being the first Blizzard release to get three consecutive releases. Blizzard now declares that they are all about "customer service" and "giving fans what they want" or in other words, being fucking lazy and cashing in.

Not surprisingly, another spinoff is dropped during these years. Starcraft Ghost which was pretty much on the shelves, I even had it pre-ordered and paid for, got binned. This was going to be Blizzards attempt at the console market but it was deemed to be sub par Blizzards standards. After WoW, rumours were bustling about Diablo III being in development as Blizzard North was sacked and merged with Blizzard itself. Rumours circulated about the game being pretty much finished, but again, not up to standards.

2008 - Starcraft II and Diablo III are announced.
So, WoW is still going very strong and printing money as usual. Rise of the Liche King is due out the last quarter of the year, Blizzard realizes that its core fanbase are done with WoW and are craving something new from the mothership. So Blizzard finally unravels Starcraft II and Diablo III. And here we have the definite, most solid proof that the company we have now is of the shape it will go to the coffin with.

Starcraft II is well, it's a sequel, but somehow doesn't even obey the rules of sequels. The graphics are nice and while cartoony, still hold some measure of maturity. However, everyone knows sequels need to be bigger, badder and better with even more explosions. SC2 is the same core game with some units switched out, ragdoll effects and 3D. That's it. Seriously. What the hell? It's more of a remake than an actual sequel. If by fanservice they meant "keeping the Koreans happy" well then thumbs up, you did it, maybe. When I first watched the demo video, after the first few minutes of joy the fact of the matter began to set in and I simply stopped caring. Blizzard has done the unforgivable, they got lazy. I'm sure they worked many years trying to perfect the game and make the original fiends happy but this is just dull. I'm sure its going to be a nice and enjoyable 12 hour sitting through the storyline but its not going to change anyone’s perception of the genre, that much is certain.

Diablo III took a similar direction. No news, the characters are switched out and renamed, the Necromancer is now a Witch doctor. And overall it just seems like they took D2 and infused it with WoWiness. The colors are, as even my Amish grandmother is aware of by now, brighter.
And the game overall is more focused around fair play and teamwork, similarly to WoW. This is not a bad thing, but D3 is not Wow light. D3 is a grim, hard, difficult and bloody mess. And while I would be happy to play a different kind of RPG game in that setting. I don't want to play Diablo II:s system in a WoW setting, actually that's completely the opposite of what I want.

So to conclude this article. I absolutely adore Blizzards games, I think they are simply outstanding, and I will probably purr with pleasure when I go through these games next year with raving reviews, but that does not mean they are doing a good job. They are doing the bare minimum, and that is simply not enough if you want to compete with the growing talented studios out there, I'm looking at you Relic. I predict this will end up like Microsoft and Apple. The dominant player becomes fat, lazy and bored while the struggling one just blows past them with fresh exciting ideas. Is it just how it works? Or can Blizzard prove otherwise. We'll find out next year.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Old awesomeness: Zeus - Master of Olympus

Impressions games and Sierra are pretty much the creators of one single genre of city builders which have had a huge impact on city-builders in general. This type of game is quite the opposite of the Simcity type, where you focus on the larger scale city planning. These more small-scale city-builders are to name a few, the Caesar games, Zeus, Emperor and Pharaoh. As you can imagine, these games are near identical with the major changes being in the historical and cultural setting as well as a few minor twists here and there. Never the less, they are completely awesome.

Zeus obviously has the same core as the other games. The maps are relatively small and limited, forcing you to plan you buildings carefully. The gist of it is that you have homes, service and production buildings all working together towards the goal of earning you tax and trade revenue while making the population as happy as possible. The latter is absolutely vital as their homes will automatically upgrade to more advanced and luxurious types as you increase their comfort.

Micro-planning is key here. The impression city-builder has one unique feature; You lay out your road networks firstly, the important consideration being that all service buildings send out walkers, these walkers walk aimlessly forward across the road, straight forward and will not automatically walk to wherever you placed your homes. At you disposal you therefore have "stops" which block where these walkers can go. So, the obviously most efficient way to do this is a loop of road, as the walkers need to pass every home in order to give them the service they need, like water, food, building maintenance, entertainment and the like. In other words you citizens are quite a lazy bunch.

Naturally, the population you host should produce something. Those who are not occupied in service buildings such as the markets, fire departments and temples are put in farms and factories. The farms can be used either to just supply the population or you can overproduce if you have good trade connections. There also clay workers, potters, sheep hearders, cloth factories, wineries and the like. These, while also satisfying your populations needs, are important for sacrifice and for trade.

The unique twist of Caesar is that it also contains mythological creatures roaming the maps. A typical mission will be get X houses to Y level, sell Z amount of Cloth a year and oh, kill the murderous ravaging Minotaur who has half the map as his territory. In order to get the Minotaur dead you usually have to summon the classic Greek heroes. These heroes won't just come because you ask them but you to sacrifice and build temples in their honour. In other words you have to manage and let your city grow on a quite limited space to avoid the monster and then once it's dead and you can then complete the rest of the mission.

The above might seem bothersome but it is actually a very good incentive for keeping playing and its a fun and satisfying way of completing you missions, rather than just watching a spreadsheet report of the last year and conclude that you should be finished within 20 minutes once that cloth ships off. Awesomely enough, rather than starting over on every mission, you have one or two major capital cities and then half a dozen outpost cities, who produce a specific commodity needed to supply your major cities. So you frequently go back to your old cities to expand them as you gain access to new goods, like marble for example. This forces the player to plan ahead and keep his cities as space efficient as possible.

There are of course a few problems with the design as well. The most immediately frustrating aspect for new players, apart from the road system, which takes a while to get used to, is how you store goods. You designate warehouses which you can set to retrieve or just accept specific goods. Here is where you will spend a majority of time as the warehouses are quite small, furthermore, there is no easy way to determine how much you should produce, how much to keep and how much to export. An easy way way would be to just have an overarching slide that you could adjust to determine globally how large a percentage you want to keep etc. But no, quickly you will find yourself having a dozen warehouses with insanely complicated setups of what goods they store and how many pieces of that they will accept. You will almost always overproduce as the traders rarely accept any larger amounts annually. Knowing how many factories and how to manage trade and storage is thus an important but cumbersome aspect.

There is also a war aspect which has plagued this franchise throughout its lifespan. The offensive part is easy enough, you procure better warriors by selling the villas armour, weapons and horses while your more humbler population turns into simple militiamen. You then send them off out of the map and 10 minutes later you receive the results and the survivors. The defensive aspect however is a nightmare in every single of these games. You get a note saying there is an incoming attack and you then assemble your forces. If your cautious, you will have walls surrounding the important part of the city. However, the enemy AI is weird, stupid, fidgety and will come in from a seemingly random part of the map, they will also go straight for buildings while you try to chase them down and kill them. Controlling your forces is also a horrible experience and the RTS like system is close to unplayable. Usually its a better idea to just pay off the enemy and continue your peaceful existence.

Luckily though, Zeus is overall a great game and not overtly technical. It is a charming and warm game with tons of humour and life. It's simply fun to play and very engaging, unlike for example Simcity 4 which is satisfying in a completely different way but can quickly just get too heavy on you. While the small scale and focus on detail can sometimes hamper your enjoyment, once everything runs smoothly you will be having a very good time.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Tyranids confirmed!

A bit late on the news here but yes. There are now offical videos and images of Tyranids in Dawn of war 2. As an avid fan of the monsters you can imagine me rolling the floor spasmic with love for the world and Relic in particular. So far I have spotted Warriors, Carnifex, Hive Tyrant, Lictor, Raveners and of course gaunts. So far no genestealers reported, to my knowledge, but leaving them out would be no less that detrimental to the experience. So far the new game has turned out to be a real fanpleaser with the new elements added so I can't imagine they leave this out.

Yes Blizzard, for all your incredible games and wonderful storylines and creative direction, Tyranids remain the mother and far superior race to Zerg. They are like the dinky-toy version of Nids and while a huge fan of both, I still can't believe people who would argue that Zerg are not derived from the Nids.

Is that Ravener.... trying to get tanned?

That horrible fanboy discussion aside. We will not be getting a nid campaign (they are too badass for dialogue) as confirmed by Relic. There will be one long and in-depth Space Marine campaign, however it has also been acknolwedged that the Nids, Eldar, Orks and obviously Marines are all playable in multiplayer and skirmish. The inteview linked to above by IGN with Relic suggested that base building might still be in the multi-player aspect while removed and replaced by a tactical equiping interface in the Single player mission, as mentioned previously

Extended Dow2 trailer with alternate ending
Tyranid trailer from those brownnosed bastards
Interview with Relic regarding Tyranids

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Empire: Total war

So for a while now we have had the great pleasure of looking forward to the next chapter in history, filtered by the frequent need to main burn and kill everything on a scaled down map of what we in the west consider to be the "relevant" parts of the world. Nonetheless as this game is mainly focused around the era of colonialism it is not without surprise. Politics aside, there are some important changes to the core of the game that seem more than interesting. I'm suprised to see there has been a fair bit of ups and downs in the communities expectations, many revolving around the decision to not include the US in the main campaign.

We will now have real-time naval battles, at last! Should your armada collide with another on the turn based strategic map, the game will appropriately present you with a 3D simulation of the battle as have been the case for all other military engagements in the previous games. I predict that this feature will either make or break the game depending on how well they do it. The problem is of course that if you make it too advanced you will alienate a majority of players who are not familiar with the fundamentals of maneuvering ships, Ie taking winds, currents and the poor "handling" these vessels into account as compared to troops or vehicles who go where you click without further ado. The wiki article states that "dynamic weather has a major impact on naval battles", suggesting that it might be quite good.

Make it too simple and you will have a quite bland experience not unlike RTS games where you just drag a box and click the opponent. It will be interesting to see how they manage this. In any case it will be an impressive sight to see multiple ships unload a broadside on the opponents, turning the enemy to woodchips while ramming enemy ships with your own that have been lit ablaze. They key here is to make it properly dramatic and explosive (not literally). Artillery fire has in general been quite a boring part of Total War so far and I found myself frequently pushing the fastforward button, waiting for the ammo run out. They just have to ammed this somehow in a game that focuses mainly on musket and cannon fire.

I'm actually not that excited about the political aspect of the game and nor have I been in any of the previous games. Total War has always been ambitious but in the end, the game is about amassing armies and moving from country to contry conquering. I often found diplomacy to be quite an obstacle as oppoed to a tool when it came to winning. The main villain here is the incredibly random and twofaced AI that would make pacts and alliances one day only to stab you the next turn as soon as you thin your forces on a front. Put bluntly, diplomacy is worthless if your the only one using it.

Aside from that and the battles comes treasury and managing your population as the other half of the game. We used to have some arbitrary control of the taxes in cities, but this was more of a tedious routine rather than a policy. Ie you would click through you cities, trying to push your taxes as high as possible while retaining at least a yellow half-smiley in the happiness field. You then checked against your income charts to see how many more units you could train while still making some cash.

Now we will be givent the possibility to manage taxes for different social classes, of which there will be three different ones. How this will work and effect gameplay remains to be seen, as in the end it still should amount to quelling rebellion while making money rather than some sort of interactive social study where we try to fuel or prohibit different ideologies, as it should be.

The game now also introduces three different types of government that will in some way change the way you play. These are
absolute monarchy, constitutional monarchy and republic. To my knowledge, no details have been released on what exactly the gameplay differences will be. But I assume Monarchy will mean more control but angrier people while republic is the opposite and constitutional is the middle option.

But the meat of the game is as always total war. In battles we will now be able to field music playing infantry and on the less merry side, a plethora of artillery, guns, muskets and other ranged types of ranged death. Armies will leave severed corpses and blood splatter, unlike previous games. Hopefully they will capture the total chaos the guns introduced to the battlefield. Historians often talk about how battles in the 1800s usually looked like a huge cloud of smoke and dust with people shooting randomly in the direction of the enemy. Friendly fire and the like was very frequent.

Historical characters will be introduced, such as Charles the XII and while that's a slight taboo in Sweden, it should be interesting to see if capturing Moscow is as hard as they say.
Overall I am thrilled that they introduced this era but of course, it was quite obvious ever since we left Medieval 2. Many are now speculating on what direction CA will take with this franchise, some are thinking early 1900s while others are speculating on an Asian setting with a return to Shogun or ancient China, the latter I think would be more likely an interesting. Will get back to you on that in 2010 or so.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Phoenix Wright - Ace Attorney

More than just a popular source of memes, Phoenix Wright has become a very iconic part of the online gaming culture and has been subject to countless webcomics and other media. The pointing hand and the spiky hair has probably reached you dozens of times without you even knowing that this is actually a game. That is because the concept of basing a game on the court of law would seem like yawnfest. What about humor? Large breasts? Samurais? This is what we demand as young adolescent gamers today, and thankfully, this is exactly what Phoenix Wright delivers in an intelligent, hilarious, stylish and engaging package somewhat related to playing a defense attorney.

You are Phoenix Wright, a fledgling defense attorney receiving his first case as the game begins. The story follows you and your clients and colleagues through four cases. A few central characters remain throughout the game and keeps it familiar. There is your nemesis, Prosecutor Edgeworth, Your mentor Mia Fey, her little sister Maya as well as officer Gumshoe. These characters form the framework of each case and provides you with important hints and evidence. Maya is your sidekick throughout the game, a quirky spirit medium (my least favourite character, although they are all great). The story is really the whole game here and without spoiling anything, its spectacular and immensely engaging. There is a main storyline as well as the four separate ones in each case.

You are a defense attorney as opposed to a prosecutor. You goal is thus to clear your client of all charges and, unlike the real world, also find the actual perpetrator. You do this by investigating the crime scene, interrogating involved witnesses and suspects while gathering clues and evidence around the scene of the crime. Do not fret, the key items you need for the trial cannot be missed, however if you don't pay attention you might miss important hints.

Actually that is the core of this game. Paying attention. You have to constantly take in all information that is given to you, consider it and try to find suspicious statements and motives even before the trial. You then proceed to the trial where the witnesses give their testimonies. And here comes the crucial part, cross-examining. You will now try to find contradictions by comparing what the victim says to the available evidence. Alternatively you can 'press' the victim for more information, sometimes causing them to slip up. As they start sweating and making mistakes they will revise their stories to cover the holes you find and finally they break, ripping hair off and crying while Phoenix smugly savors his success. That is of course assuming you are successful.

The crux is that you are only allowed 5 misses. A miss is when you present evidence that does not contradict the current segment of the witness's testimony. This is most of the time not a problem but quite frequently you will get confused or actually find a contradiction but not the one you are "supposed to find", and the judge annoyingly penalizes you.

This entire style of gameplay is actually quite similar to reading comprehension tests you do in school, except a lot of fun. The characters in this game are simply outstandingly portrayed and very funny. The game has so much personality that for the first few hours playing you will be almost ecstatic with joy over what good a game you're playing. The gameplay is extremely rewarding and there is nothing more engaging and dramatic then being on a roll and being totally in sync with Phoenix's line of thought, always one step ahead, in quick succession presenting contradiction after contradiction and ripping a testimony to pieces.

The game does one thing perfectly which is the key to its success. It makes the player feel clever, even when you are not. Most of the time you get a fair amount of hints and clues to what the game wants you to do, and should you sit back and analyze the situation you would find most of everything to be completely obvious, at least in the first few cases. But that's not how you play. The animation, music and dialogue all comes together to completely envelope you and no matter how obvious and simple the case is, you truly feel like an ace attorney all the way through.

The game is split up into 5 cases, 1 of which is "hidden". It start out simple and then cases get progressively longer and more complicated with more witnesses, more evidence, more twists and more drama. The cases are separated but they are tied together by a mysterious case from the past which all of the main characters are somehow involved in. You will face murder, framings, cover-ups and corruption among other things.

I only have one real complaint with this game, preventing me from giving it a perfect 10 and that is the 3rd case, which feels a lot like filler and is generally quite uninspired. The 4 others however more than make up for it.

The graphics here are very stylized and appealing. It's without a doubt Japanese and very manga/anime. The game is very short on frames and animations but they are so good and so well done that you never get tired of them. The characters are all very strongly exaggerated and stereotypical, but none the less entertaining and nice to look at. The best part are the trials where its hard to tell if your watching an anime action fight or a trial. When you present contradictory evidence to the witness he is smacked back in despair and almost knocked out of the chair. The judge gasps, eyes wide and the prosecutor knocked back with panic. Its all completely off the charts exaggerated but it makes the game very vivid, dramatic and funny.

The sound consists mostly of a dozen or so music tracks. Some characters have their own themes while evidence gathering and trials have very different moods. Trials have the same tracks and starts out quite idle and sober at the beginning while progressively escalating until it reaches boss-battle levels of excitement. The music is overall very good, very skillfully used and never gets old.

There is no in-game clock but I would guesstimate that you will get about 20 to 30 hours out of this game. That is quite a lot for a game this linear and structured. The replayability will be nill for some, as once the puzzle has been solved, a lot of the appeal is lost. However, As with any game, if you let it rest on your shelf for a year, it will likely be a fresh experience again. You will most probably though want to move onto the sequels in the series before playing this game again.

Do whatever you can to get a hold of this gem. It is so worth the money and the time. While this game is seldom found in stores and quite rare and pricy on ebay. Do try! There are few games I would recommend as warmly as this one and I am usually quite picky. If looking on ebay, do include worldwide into your search as I hear its near impossible to get this on American ebay alone.