Destiny, I fucking love you!

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I can’t think of another game that has polarized opinion as much as Destiny. When I hear complaints about the game, I usually react by nodding my head in agreement, before returning to work on adding to the 350+ hours I’ve already sunk into it. I’ve even concluded that had I’d been reviewing the game, I probably would have given it a seven too. Despite all that, I love Destiny. Regardless of its many flaws, Destiny is quickly becoming my most played console game, ever. With that in mind, (and before I write about the things I don’t like) I thought I’d go through the things I love the most about Destiny.

Destiny_20141119212713 Hand Cannons. Oh my god, Hand Cannons! I love these bad boys so much, I very nearly made two of these things Hawkmoon and Thorn. Once in a while, I come across a weapon in a game that has the magical X factor, and I fall in love with it. In Halo 3 it was the Spartan Laser. In Gears of War it was the Longshot Rifle. But In Destiny it’s a whole damn class of them. Nothing else feels as good as headshotting enemies with a Hand Cannon – not even killing a Hunter in PvP just after they’ve popped their Bladedancer special. Hand Cannons are so much fun to use, if I had an actual physical version, I would do dirty, dirty things to it.

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Raids. When I first started playing Destiny, all the talk from those further along than I was about the Vault of Glass, and just how good it was. After a frustrating few weeks of no raiding, I eventually lucked in to a group of friends tackling the Vault, and found out for myself what the fuss was all about. Without a doubt, the Vault of Glass is some of the best designed, and most enjoyable video game content I’ve ever played. I could go into more detail, but I don’t want to spoil it for you. What I will say is that in my opinion, the Vault is the perfect example of how you create co-op gaming where every player has a meaningful role.

Destiny_20141124221420 The Iron Banner. Version One of the Iron Banner was not good. All that weaponry and armour we’d been carefully gathering and levelling was more or less meaningless in IB v1, and players were not happy. Bungie went away, reworked the mode, and sent Lord Saladin back to the tower. The first few minutes into my first game, I headshotted another player on the other side of the map with Bad Seed Down, and instantly I was converted. Power finally fucking mattered. Oh boy, did it matter. Since then I’ve taken part in every Iron Banner, and learnt the joy of headshots with a fully levelled Hawkmoon. After a shaky start with destiny’s PvP, I can honestly say that Iron Banner is one of my very favourite parts of Destiny.

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Warlocks. Apart from having an exceptionally cool sounding name, Warlocks are also blessed with having some of the best looking armour in the game. The Iron Banner set for example is simply beautiful. And if there’s anything better than swishing around in robes, firing off Nova Bombs – I’ve yet to find it. I do have a Hunter and Titan, and I’ve found them quite fun to play, but they don’t have the same sort of swagger the Warlock does. Flying electrical fists and golden guns are all well and good, but let’s be honest, they’re not the same as tooling around in a cool outfit, wielding Hawkmoon, and fucking shit up with purple balls.

 

Destiny: Crota’s Cheesy End

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Sorry about the title, I couldn’t help myself.

Cheese. Bungie does not like it apparently. Not if the content of their latest update is to be believed, anyway. If you’ve been following Destiny’s progress, you’ll probably know that the new Raid – Crota’s End, has been suffering from a particularly cheesy odour since it’s introduction as part of the Dark Below expansion. Tales of Guardians using various cheesy methods to run through the raid easily, hoovering up loot, were becoming commonplace, and it was only a matter of time before Bungie stepped in.

Not cheesing this time round.

Not cheesing this time round.

Now that they’ve at least begun that process, I thought I’d talk why I’m glad they’re trying to de-cheese the Raid. Firstly, I’d like to say that I’m not against cheesing per-se. As someone who’s crimes include hiding beneath the stairs in the Cerberus Vae Strike, I’d be a massive hypocrite for a start. But mainly it’s because the whole thing is a massive grey area. Where does cheesing end and exploiting a game bug begin, for example? If its possible (although highly unlikely) to be killed whilst hiding in a “cheese spot”, is that cheesing? There’s no right or wrong answer in my opinion.

So why don’t I like it in the Raid? I’ll explain. Destiny is a strange game when it comes to challenge. Unlike similar games within the genre, its possible to replay the entirety of Destiny’s story mode content whilst being hugely over-levelled. The gear and weapon levelling mechanics eventually render the game’s “normal” difficulty curve meaningless, and beyond the odd Heroic stipulation on various Bounties, the game never really insists you turn the difficulty up. The vast majority of Destiny’s PvE content therefore, relies upon the player choosing to be challenged to remain meaningful, and that’s why I have a problem with Raid cheese.

Definitely cheesed this one

Definitely cheesed this one

Players solo-cheesing their way through Crota’s End are rendering the most meaningful content in the game meaningless. They’re rendering the achievement of earning Raid gear meaningless. And in a game that relies upon the player to keep content relevant, I don’t understand why you’d do that. What is the end game anyway? You cheese your way to a full set of Raid gear, and then do the Raid as intended? That doesn’t make any sort of sense. Destiny is all about the gear you’re wearing, and the guns you’re wielding, and I personally don’t know how you can take any pride in that when you’ve cheesed your way there.

As I’ve said, cheesing is a ridiculously grey area, and something I myself have partaken in, so I don’t want you to go away thinking I’m making a judgement here, because that’s not my intention. This is an expression of bewilderment at the specific issue of soloing Crota’s End to short-cut your way to Raid gear and weapons. So by all means, feel free to ask me why I’m not also questioning whole Raid groups cheesing bits of the Vault of Glass, or to tell me I’m taking a bunch of pixels way too seriously. I won’t mind. Yes, its ridiculous the Raid can be solo-cheesed. Yes, Bungie should fix it PDQ. But also yes, I think the players have a responsibility to resist the cheese, no matter how fragrant.

 

The Obligatory Festive Blog Post

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Seasons greetings!

As we’re all in that weird period of stasis – between Christmas and the New Year, I thought I’d bore you with some words. Hopefully you had a great Christmas and enjoyed all the traditional seasonal things like turkey, too much chocolate, and PSN outages. Personally, having spent Christmas Eve night throwing up, I spent the holiday gingerly eating things in an effort to work out what made me sick in the first place.

Obviously from a gaming point of view, the big news of the holiday was the attack upon Xbox Live and PSN. Both services went down at one point, and rather predictably, Xbox Live recovered quickly whilst PSN stumbled around for days until users patience had run out. I know a lot of people got hot under the collar about the outages (probably justifiably so), but I simply can’t bring myself to be angry.

Maybe it was the Christmas cheer, or maybe it’s my time spent playing Eve Online (where the best way to beat the griefers is to just ignore them until they go away), but my response was to simply play Far Cry 4 offline and ignore it all. The ONLY time I got slightly fretful was when I realised Xur had the Hawkmoon upgrade for sale, and even then my panic was quickly alleviated by PSN coming on for long enough for me to buy it.

Apart from that, my Christmas was spent either sighing at the sight of all my children’s presents spread across the living room floor, or wistfully glancing at my unfinished modelling projects, and wishing this could all be over so I could get back to doing them. Pretty much the same as usual then! Hopefully you enjoyed your festive period as much as I did. Come the New Year normal service (whatever that may be) will resume, until then, have a good new year!

The Game Jar Files: Cutting Costs; The Xbox One price cut rumour

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Originally published on The Game Jar – February 19th 2014

A few weeks ago, a rumour popped up on the internet regarding a potential Xbox One price cut, and ever since then I’ve been considering just how likely that would be. Well, to be honest, I spent a fair amount of that time rolling my eyes at the notion, given that a price cut at some point is almost inevitable. But today I’ve started to take it a little more seriously after reading the news that Sony’s PlayStation 4 is still outselling the Xbox One. I know that sales between the two consoles are reasonably close, but as I noted a little while ago, I don’t think Microsoft knows how to ‘do second place’ any longer. Leading the race is where they’re most familiar, and I’m sure a price drop is one of the things they’ve talked about to get them there. What I want to know is; what does a cheaper Xbox One look like?

The discless option

Removing the Bluray drive was one of the things being guessed at by the internet hive mind, and I guess it kind of makes sense given Microsoft’s push towards a digital future, but to me it seems a little contradictory. ‘Welcome to the all-in-one, Xbox One’ is the tagline encapsulating the multimedia pitch for the console, but doesn’t removing the disc drive mean making it a little less all-in-one? The thing I think that people forget is, you’re not just removing the capability to play Blurays. You’re also removing the capability to play DVDs and CDs, and that is a big deal. I know we have iTunes and Netflix, but just imagine saying to every household with a large DVD collection ‘here’s a box that will do everything except play all the movies you’ve spent years collecting’. Its insanity. Removing the disc drive from the Xbox One would only be viable if Microsoft fully committed to the digital delivery only model, and as we all know, they’ve already pulled back from that.

The kinect-less option

Removing Kinect from the box is perhaps the most obvious option when trying to reduce the cost of the Xbox One, but to my mind it’s also the least likely. If you watched the initial Xbox One reveal, you’ll no doubt recall how much of that presentation was given over to demonstrating how Kinect was central to the Xbox One experience, and as such it makes removing the peripheral a massive PR disaster. Kinect is absolutely integral the console’s design. It’s why they couldn’t launch with a cheaper, Kinect-free hardware bundle. It’s why they redesigned an operating system that didn’t need redesigning. Admitting they got those decisions wrong by removing Kinect (which is essentially what they’d be doing) would be a step too far for Microsoft, and that’s why I think they won’t do it. Kinect is a game-changer as far as Microsoft is concerned, it’s what separates their console from the rivals. To abandon that just a year in after selling it so hard? Inconceivable!

The suck it up option

Assuming that Microsoft haven’t reduced manufacturing costs for the One by the end of the year, the ‘suck it up’ option is the most likely route to a price cut in my opinion. Having ruled out removing either the disc drive or Kinect, Microsoft is left with no other choice than to simply swallow the loss on each unit sold until costs come down. I know that sounds drastic, but it’s not unprecedented, and it doesn’t dilute the integrity of the Xbox One’s offer either. For all my criticism of Microsoft’s original pitch, I do believe they’ve got a good console on their hands, albeit one that costs too much. By leaving the console as it is and cutting the price, they could fully support the hardware – Kinect and all – whilst competing with Sony on price. For many people, the only thing preventing them buying an Xbox One is the price. Temporarily making a loss on each one sold is the quickest way to solve that problem

Whether Microsoft drop the price of the Xbox One is a question that doesn’t need asking. There’s absolutely no way they’ll want to go into a second holiday period with the most expensive hardware – especially as they’re already being outsold. How they go about it is the real question. All consoles get cheaper to manufacture over time, and usually these cost savings get passed on to the customer, but will Microsoft wait that long? In the end, I’m only making educated guesses here, but of the options I’ve listed, only making a loss in the short-term makes any real sense to me. No doubt time will tell how wrong I am, hopefully I’m not too far off though, as I have an Xbox One-shaped hole under my TV that needs filling.

The Game Jar Files: What will the next Gears of War game look like?

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Originally published on The Game Jar – February 24th 2014

I have a pretty special relationship with Gears of War. It was the game that convinced me to buy an Xbox 360, the game that showed me what Online Co-Op could be like if done right, and the game that encouraged me to venture out in the world of gaming communities. I’ve had a lot of fun playing these games. So when the news broke that Microsoft had acquired the rights to the franchise, and also revealed that there would be more Gears of War games on the way, I was slightly surprised to find that my reaction was one of trepidation. Having followed the development of multiple Halo games, I’m of the opinion that Microsoft aren’t really a ‘hands off’ type of publisher, so what would a new Gear game look like now that Microsoft have direct control of it?

In 2013, Gears fans got a taste of what a non-Epic made Gears of War game would look like. The People Can Fly developed Gears of War: Judgment arrived with much fanfare, but ultimately failed to capture the same spark the previous games had. For whatever reason – the lack of Horde mode, a changed multiplayer, or revamped mechanics, fans just didn’t take to the game and now they’re quite rightly wondering how the next game will shape up. Fans can be somewhat reassured that the studio responsible for creating the next Gears game – Black Tusk – is being headed up by series veteran Rod Fergusson, but how much freedom will they have to make the kind of game the series desperately needs?

If we’ve learnt anything from Halo 4, it’s that Microsoft doesn’t appear to like taking risks with their premier IP’s. There’s a set formula for making successful Halo games for example, and I don’t doubt for a second that Microsoft made it very clear  to 343 Industries they were expected to stick to it. To give 343i their due, Halo 4 was a pretty good game, but it came after five other Halo games and had no ambition to be original whatsoever, and as a result it was never going to be a truly great game. Playing it safe held Halo 4 back in my opinion, and I fear the same will happen to the next Gears game. Having witnessed PCF’s failed reboot of the series, will Black Tusk be given license to stray from the Gears of War formula? I think not. So I find myself asking; is that really what Gears of War needs right now?

Personally, I like to think the reason Judgment wasn’t that great was because People Can Fly would rather have made Bulletstorm 2, and as a result their heart wasn’t quite in it, but that’s just me being mischievous. Very probably Judgment’s lack of stellar quality arose from the studio being unable to fully unleash their creativity. I say that because I’ve played both Bulletstorm and Judgment, and I find it difficult to reconcile to two games. The former is a brilliantly fresh take on the genre that doesn’t pull its punches, and the latter is a game that never feels confident in the changes it’s tried to make. It’s almost as if someone was looking over the developers shoulders, constantly telling them ‘you can’t do that in a Gears of War game’

The trouble is, Gears of War’s particular brand of meathead combat has already been perfected over the course of three games, and it’s hard to see where the franchise goes next. The most obvious option is to explore the Pendulum Wars, but with the storyline never really being the series selling point, it’s difficult to think of a scenario that won’t simply be Gears of War with different weapons. In my opinion the game needs to start with a blank piece of paper, perhaps one that does away with single player all together, and focuses solely on Co-Op modes and multiplayer. Whatever direction they go in, one thing is for certain; the next Gears game needs to be a triumphant return to form.

Whether Gears of War can ever be the system seller it once was, I’m not so sure, but to stand a chance, Microsoft need to allow Black Tusk the kind of creative freedom that gave birth to the franchise to begin with. If the studio is given the freedom to tear up the Gears blueprint and start afresh, the next game could be truly special. After a lacklustre last game, the last thing the series needs is a publisher determined to play it safe by holding on the hand brake. As much as we love chainsawing Locust in half, we’re also ready for something new. Whether Black Tusk are allowed to give it to us, only time will tell.

The Game Jar Files: My crimes against gaming revealed!

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Originally published on The Game Jar – December 17th 2013

With the Christmas spirit in full effect, I thought I’d take advantage of you all. Whilst you’re all feeling warm and fuzzy about the prospect of spending time with your loved ones during the festive period, I’m going come clean about my crimes against gaming in the hope you’ll go easy on me. In the spirit of truth and reconciliation, I’m going to unburden myself of all my biggest gaming sins in the hope that I can begin the new gaming year with a clean conscience. So settle down dear readers, as I take you on a journey through the seedier end of gaming.

I’ll begin slowly by confessing to a crime I don’t really have a problem with – I’ve never owned a Sega console of any kind. I’ve played on family and friends consoles plenty of times, but never actually owned one myself. When The Gameboy was first released, I coveted Game Gear for its colour screen and TV tuner, but there was absolutely no way I was going to convince my parents to buy me one. During the great war between the Megadrive and Super Nintendo, I was firmly on the side of good, righteousness, and more controller buttons. From there I spurned the Saturn for Sony’s fledgling machine, quite rightly in my opinion, and so my Sega boycott continued. The closest I ever got to owning a Sega machine was the Dreamcast, which looked ultra-cool with its chiselled lines and special memory cards, but I never quite got round to turning to the dark side. I don’t really regret never owning a Sega machine because I thoroughly enjoyed the consoles I did have, but I do feel a little responsible for Sega pulling out of the hardware market. Perhaps if I’d had been willing to settle for an inferior console, Sega would still be making them. So I’m sorry Sega fans, it was all my fault.

I’m not proud of this one, but I did say this article was all about truth and reconciliation, so I will come clean: I have played through, and finished Too Human on more than one occasion. For those of you who that don’t know what Too Human is, it’s an action RPG game based around a futuristic take on Norse mythology. Now before you start to think that doesn’t sound too bad, let me give you a potted history of its development. Originally slated to be a PlayStation release in 1999, development moved to the Gamecube in 2000. Five years later, the rights were sold to Microsoft and it became an Xbox 360 title. Finally releasing in 2008, Too Human had spent nearly a decade in development hell, but the saga wasn’t over. Approximately a year before the game’s release, Silicon Knights and Epic Games (creators of Unreal Engine 3 – the game engine Too Human was built upon) became entangled in legal action. Silicon Knights eventually lost, and were ordered to recall and destroy any unsold copies of the game. Given its difficult birth, there was no way Too Human was ever going to be a good game, and so it turned out to be. During a third playthrough of the game, my 360 chose death by Red Ring of Death rather than play any more of it. Yes, that’s right; so bad, even the console wouldn’t play it.

Lastly, this is the one I’m genuinely not proud of. The rest of this article is fairly lighthearted – I don’t really think Sega consoles were bad, for example – but I do feel slightly bad about this. I knowingly traded in a broken Crackdown disk, and bought the rather excellent Dead Rising with the proceeds. Knowingly traded because I was the one that broke it. I’d thrown it across the room in a fit of gamer-rage, Frisbee style, and the result was a tiny, barely visible crease in the leading edge of the disc which rendered the disc unreadable. Having turned my game disc in to little more than a shiny coaster, I hatched a sinister plan. I removed any signs of damage from the disc, placed it back in its case, and took it into a game shop that I shall not name here. For one tense moment, I feared I’d be rumbled as the assistant examined the disc, but no! He smiled, declared how much it was worth, and rung up my new copy of Dead Rising, which I got for free. A month or so later, after I’d finished playing Dead Rising, I picked up a second copy of Crackdown during an Amazon sale, and picked up where I left off. Occasionally I felt the odd twinge of guilt about my deception, but not for long, because… well, Dead Rising was a great game!

So there we go, my deepest darkest crimes against gaming laid bare for you entertainment. I hope I haven’t shocked you too much, and hopefully my confessions have given you the courage to step forward, and unburden your gaming soul too. During this season of goodwill to all gamers why not indulge in a little group therapy, and get it all off your chest, we can even hug it out if you want. Come on, confess your gaming sins. You know you want to.

The Game Jar Files: What does Microsoft’s vision of the future mean for the Xbox One?

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Originally published on The Game Jar – January 9th 2014

One of things I’ve found most interesting since the launch of the Xbox One, is reading about, and listening to, gamers reaction to some of the changes made to the console’s operating system. As you may know, Microsoft have made a few changes to the OS during the transition from one generation to the next, and not all of them have been welcome. We can all have our opinion on whether these changes are good or bad, but what’s more interesting to me is whether Microsoft are either interested in, or indeed capable of, altering their design plan for the Xbox One. I’ve felt for a long time now, that the company has a very definite idea of where they’re going to try to take gaming in the future, and I wonder what that means for the future of their latest console.

I never went to an Xbox One midnight launch, but I can take a pretty good guess as to the kind of people standing in those lines; they were gamers. Hardcore gamers. I know that’s not a fashionable term for Microsoft these days, but they are the people who buy your console on launch day, and evangelise about it through the lean launch window. On the other hand, the people most unlikely to be present in those lines would have been the kind of users the Xbox One seems to be mostly aimed at – parents familiar with technology, and looking for a way to get the Windows 8 experience on their televisions. In other words, not the kind of consumers willing to part with a large sum of money, whilst putting up with a slim selection of worthwhile games.

What this means is, that even if we accept that a ‘multimedia entertainment box’ of some kind is the future, and that there’s a significant number of families out there desperate to use Skype on their plasma TV’s, whilst being utterly fed up with pushing buttons on a grey plastic box to change channel, the Xbox One still needs the support of hardcore gamers during it’s infancy. The trouble is, every signal from Microsoft seems to suggest that they now consider gaming as ‘something the Xbox One also does’ as opposed to it being the reason for making a console in the first place, and that gaming needs to develop in a direction dictated by them.

When the Xbox One was first revealed, the level of negativity surrounding some of their more controversial design choices shocked Microsoft I think, but not to the point that it demanded a change in philosophy. Reading interviews with prominent Microsoft employees, it’s my opinion that internally Microsoft genuinely do not believe they were wrong. I’m convinced that were you to be on the inside, you’d hear talk about how it was the consumers fault that they didn’t get the One’s original design plan. Despite what they say publicly, I’d argue that the company has lost touch with what their core base wants. Instead of questioning their own ability to listen to, and communicate with their customers, they’re repeatedly telling themselves that we weren’t ready to hear what they had to say.

To my mind, the root of this problem is the fact that Microsoft aren’t used to being in second place. Last generation, they never really had a serious fight on their hands. Sony launched the PS3 much later than the Xbox 360, and at a higher price, which gave Microsoft a lead in the console arms race that they never lost. Having spent nigh on eight years leading their rivals, the temptation to assume that they could do no wrong with the One’s design must have been hard to resist, and perhaps they weren’t entirely successful. How else do you account for the fact that they’ve taken Xbox Live  – something which was pretty much perfect  last generation – and gone backwards with it?

Given that the Xbox One needs retain it’s base of  hardcore gamers then, the decision to remove or alter some of Xbox Live’s core functionality seems absolutely crazy to me. The Friends List system worked. The party chat system worked. Why touch those things at all if they didn’t need fixing? I’ve heard it said that it’s almost as if Microsoft have deliberately made the Xbox One’s UI awkward to navigate with a controller to enhance the appeal of Kinect. I don’t know if that’s true, but if users feel that way, it’s not a good sign. It tells me that Microsoft isn’t really invested in providing an efficient alternative to using Kinect, or that they want you to be free to use your console in the way that you want, and in the long-term, that’s a problem.

This generation, Microsoft are facing a totally different kind of Sony. The PS4 has launched at the same time as their console and for a lower price, it’s more powerful, and perhaps most crucially, it’s much easier to program for than it’s predecessor. For the first time in eleven years, when the original Xbox went up against the all-conquering PlayStation 2, Microsoft are up against a strong opponent, and I don’t think they know how to cope with that. At a time when their biggest rival has built a totally inoffensive machine, focussed on being the best games console it can be, Microsoft is busy trying to sell us features we never really asked for in the first place.

The Xbox One is not a bad console by any means, and many owners out there are happy with it the way it is, but not all of them are. Quite a few owners have been asking why familiar functionality has been changed or removed, and all they’ve had in response is vague assurances that things will get better. The Xbox One is at the beginning of its life-cycle, and as such, it will change over time, but will that change be for the good? With Microsoft still smarting over the initial reaction to the Xbox One, I don’t think they’re in the mood to compromise. In the long-term, if anything is going to hamper the Xbox One’s success, it won’t be things like a lack of pixels. It’ll be Microsoft themselves, and their inability to admit they got things wrong.

The Game Jars Files: A trip down gaming memory lane

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Originally published on The Game Jar November 28th 2013

With the next generation of consoles just round the corner, I’ve decided I need to begin the journey mentally refreshed. Time to dig out the install disc, wipe the cranial hard drive, and make room for lots of lovely new adventures. With that  in mind, I thought I’d commit a few of my most favourite gaming memories to text, so that they’re not lost forever to the mists of time. These memories aren’t about the games – they were just the catalysts – it’s about the moments spent gaming I’ll never forget. The nights sat in a lobby full of friends, giving each other shit about each other’s gaming prowess. The hilarious friendly fire incidents that immediately followed heroic speeches and great bravado. In short, the little things that make gaming worth doing.

Playing Gears of War for the first time.

In 2006, I was stuck in between console generations. Microsoft’s early euthanasia of the original Xbox, and subsequent announcement of the Xbox 360 had caught me out, and I ended up sticking with my trusty PlayStation 2. Then, at my mother’s house on boxing day that year, my brother asked me if I wanted to have a go on his Xbox 360. He fired it up, placed Call of Duty 3 in the disc tray, and showed me what a next-gen console could do. I wasn’t particularly impressed if I’m honest, but he was determined to get me hooked, so he switched to Gears of War. I was utterly blown away. The graphics were stunning, it had this whole cover to cover mechanic going on, and the gun had a chainsaw built-in to it. A FRICKIN CHAINSAW! I left my mum’s house knowing I had to have this game, and so on the way home, on boxing day evening, I stopped in Gamestation and bought an Xbox 360 and Gears of War. I joined the next generation right then and there, and all because of Gears of War. No surprise then, that it’s one of my stand out memories of this current generation.

Race Pro with friends

I’ve often thought the real selling point of Xbox Live isn’t the games at all, it’s the friends you play with, and the connections you make. Without them, Xbox Live is nothing. Never was this clearer to me than during the time I spent playing Race Pro with the guys over at Xbox Society. The Race Pro WTCC competition they ran was easily the best online racing I’ve ever taken part in, and served as proof, if any were needed, that with the right group of friends, any game can feel truly special. Race Pro, in my opinion, is the best handling sim racer on the current generation of consoles, and when it’s mixed with a group evenly matched players, you have the recipe for a fantastic nights racing. The competition was fierce, but clean. The whole race was spent either defending your position, or trying to take someone else’s. It was quite literally, bumper to bumper racing. I learned with that one competition just how important the social aspect of Xbox Live really is. Friends, not code, are what make an online games really memorable, and that’s why recall Race Pro so fondly.

The sweet, sweet Halo 3 beta

As I said earlier, I was caught out by Microsoft when it came to Xbox, so I never did that whole Halo thing. Friends were telling me about it, but somehow I was never sold. Halo 3 then, was my first proper taste of Halo, and the beginning of that was the beta test. I don’t know why Bungie chose the three maps they did, but it was a perfect choice as far as I’m concerned, because I fell in love with the game instantly. Snowbound was a perfect small map, with high points for sniping, and interiors for close combat. High Ground was an absolutely brilliant asymmetric map, perfect for attack and defend game types such as capture the flag. Finally, the awesome Valhalla was an updated take on the classic Halo CE map Blood Gulch, and was an instant classic. These three maps where a revelation to me, where had this game been all my life? As soon as I’d played it, I understood why my friends were always talking about Halo. After the beta, I went on to play every Halo game released, and with each game, I fell deeper in love, but it all began with the beta, and for that I’ll always remember it.

Clan life and Rainbow Six

When Microsoft announced that Rainbow Six Vegas would be one of the free Games with Gold titles, I thought they were insane. It’s ugly as sin, as buggy as hell, and I couldn’t think of a single game less suited to showing off what the console was capable of. But then I thought of my time spent play it whilst being a member of the now defunct gaming clan, LoX Gamers. Like Race Pro, here was a game capable of transcending its technical limitations with the addition the of a good group of friends. Those early days spent playing Attack and Defend and Team Sharpshooter were my first real taste of what gaming could be like when playing with the same group of people, and it really crystallised what online gaming was supposed to be about – friends getting together online, and having fun. LoX gamers is long gone now, but most of the friends I made then, are still on my friends list now. Rainbow Six Vegas was one of those early games that cemented us together, and without it my friends list would be emptier.

A little while ago, I wrote a piece asking whether you’d stop being a gamer. One of the points I made was that I felt like I’d seen all the games industry had to offer, but perhaps this is the counter-argument. This current generation of consoles has added so many good moments to my memory banks, it’s impossible to look back over it without raising a smile. I’ve enjoyed many games over the course of this generation, but only a few of them have left an indelible mark upon my brain. Every single time my friends and I recall past escapades, these same few moments come back to us. That’s the real power of gaming, the ability to forge common memories between friends, and I look forward to the next generation forging more.

The Game Jar Files: Should Call of Duty and Battlefield bother with single-player any longer?

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Originally published on The Game Jar November 19th 2013

Right now, first person shooter fans all over the world are basking in the warm glow of the latest releases from two of the biggest franchises in the genre. Whether its Call of Duty: Ghosts, or Battlefield 4, a significant portion of those players will have jumped in to the multi-player without having touched the single-player part of the game, so do developers need to bother with creating it in the first place? Years ago, the idea of a major FPS title not having a single-player mode would have been unthinkable, but has that tide turned?

In the interest of full disclosure, I should make it clear that I’ve not played either campaign yet. I’m one of those gamers buying a next-gen console, and as such I’m waiting for the new hardware before I buy any more games. What I have done is read and watched numerous reviews of both games, and none of them have particularly praised the single player portions of either. Granted, many reviews have made a point of telling us that Battlefield 4’s single-player campaign is better than the last game’s effort, but as that was utter garbage, I don’t think you can really see that as praise. So if both Call of Duty and Battlefield are doing the bare minimum when it comes to single-player, why bother at all? Just ditch the single-player, and stop wasting our time.

Releasing an FPS without a single-player mode wouldn’t work for every game, I grant you, a Halo game without single-player would be utter madness, and Bioshock would be… well it wouldn’t exist, but they’re on much longer development cycles to CoD and Battlefield, and arguably, have a completely different type of audience. Unlike those two games, nobody buys CoD or Battlefield expecting an epic and meaningful story, so perhaps the quality of that story is unimportant. If it is unimportant, surely that means it plays no meaningful part in convincing gamers to buy the game? If gamers know that the single-player part of the package is not worth playing, but still buy it anyway, I’d argue that taking it away would have little to no effect on the game’s sales.

With the single-player portions of these games unlikely to get the development time needed to produce a really great experience, why not separate the two, and release the multi-player separately from the single-player? Make all physical copies multi-player only, and offer a separate, downloadable campaign mode for those who want it. Activision or EA then have twice the amount of games to sell, and anyone not interested in the single-player doesn’t have to pay for something they don’t want. In addition, the multi-player could stick to its yearly development cycle, and remain just as profitable, without impacting the quality of the single-player content, which could have more development time.

To my mind, it’s only a matter of time before EA and Activision go down this road anyway. Both games are already being developed by multiple studios at the same time, so a separate release for each half of the game is the logical next step. The only stumbling block in my opinion, is the price. Publishers have long felt that the current price point of £40 is too low and doesn’t adequately reflect the rising cost of development, but have had a hard time convincing gamers of that fact. Given that, they’re simply not going to offer a multi-player only game at a reduced cost, and gamers might have a hard time accepting that. It may be ironic, but removal of a mode they never play may just be a step too far for some.

In the past, I would have had a problem with suggesting that games like CoD or Battlefield shouldn’t have a single-player mode, but not any longer. My view today is that if developers aren’t going to do a decent job of making a single-player mode, they probably shouldn’t bother at all. Just give us the multi-player, and farm the solo campaign out to a developer who’s willing to spend time doing a decent job of it. OK, you could argue that we’d end up paying the same amount of money for half the game, but if you never play half of it, or if that half isn’t worth playing, what’s the problem? Surely, not buying a poor campaign to begin with, is preferable to paying for one that’s terrible.

Sooner or later, gamers and publishers are going to have to sit down for some FPS group therapy. We gamers are eventually going to have to be honest, and admit we no longer care for campaign modes in first person shooters, and publishers are going to have to come clean by revealing that they’ve wanted to stop making them for a very long time now. Until we do sit down for together and hug it all out, we’ll be stuck where we are now; paying for a mode that most of us no longer play, whilst watching its quality decline year on year. Nobody wants that, so let’s do the decent thing, shall we?

The Game Jar Files: Tragedy! Gaming’s darkest moments.

Originally published on The Game Jar.com – 01/03/2013

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The decline of the coin-op. When I was growing up, arcade machines were (almost) everywhere; in the chip shop, in the news agents, in the video rental shop. I could walk around my local area with a pocket full of twenty pence coins, pop into one of them and get my gaming fix. Today, they’re still around, but nowhere near as prolific. That makes me sad, because once upon a time the humble coin-op was the fuel for our collective gaming passions. If you were a child who had parents that failed to see the educational value of a home console, you could still get your gaming on, all  thanks to the coin-op. If you wanted to play the very latest games way before they were released on console, you could do it, all thanks to the coin-op. And if you wanted to get a hint of what the next generation of home console hardware might be capable of, you could do it, all thanks to the coin-op. I know arcades are still around, but they’re not the same. They’re not cheap to play, they’re not at the cutting edge of gaming technology, and they’re not just around the corner. The next generation of gamers are growing up without the coin-op experience, and that’s a damn shame.

Microsoft buys rare. On the face of it, Microsoft’s buyout of Rare in 2002 was a good thing. The company’s future was secured, they might not still be in business if they’d stayed independent, so why have I included it here? Well, my reasoning is best summed up by this quote from studio head Scott Henson: “Kinect will be the main focus for Rare going forwards as it’s a very rich canvas. This is just the beginning of an experience that will touch millions of people.”  The studio that bought us Killer Instinct, Golden Eye 64, Perfect Dark, Donkey Kong Country, and Banjo-Kazooie now reduced to creating Xbox Avatar fluff, and Kinect shovelware. I’ll admit, there’s a possibility that I’ve put the rose-tinted spectacles on, and that I’m over-exaggerating the level of Rare’s past glory, but I still find it heartbreaking to see this once great studio spending their time doing what they’re doing now. Kameo and Perfect Dark Zero may not have been examples of their finest work, but they were launch titles, the studio soon proved they’d relocated  their game making mojo again with Viva Piñata, Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts and, and Viva Piñata: Trouble in Paradise. All three games demonstrated that the studio is still capable of producing good quality, enjoyable games. If they’re allowed to do so. Which they’re not. They do what Microsoft tell them to do, and Microsoft tell them to make Kinect games. That’s why their buyout was a tragedy.

Publisher buys studio, closes them down. Originally I intended to focus solely on Activision’s buyout and subsequent closing of Bizarre Creations for this one, then I recalled the multitude of other studio closures over the last couple of years, and realised that the real tragedy was the repeating pattern of buyouts and closures itself. The pattern is thus: A small-to-medium sized developer starts to build itself a reputation for making good games. Their latest release becomes a minor hit. Not a “blockbuster” by any means, but a big enough that the studio can consider future expansion, and more ambitious games. This catches the eye of a big publisher, who then goes on to buy the studio, and any original IP they might have. From this point on, the studio make the games they’re told to make, and when they don’t reach blockbuster levels of success, the studio is closed down. The publisher creams off all the original IP, offers to relocate a minority of the staff to one of their soulless game making factories, and make everyone else jobless. Too many promising studios have gone in the last few years, their IP gobbled up and mothballed by publishers uninterested in anything original. Never before has the world of game development looked so grim.

Sega pulls out of the console market. If you’re the sort of gamer that gets all misty-eyed by the merest mention of Shenmue or Jet Set Radio, you’ll need no reminder that January 31st 2001 was one of the darkest days in the history of gaming. After three years of continuous annual losses, Sega finally announced that they would become a third-party publisher only, and leave the hardware business for good. To say that it was big news at the time would be an understatement. Gamers that could trace their console owning heritage right back to the Master System now had to come to terms with the fact that the line would end with the Dreamcast. Even those of us with other consoles felt the shock waves.  A major player in the console business had waved the white flag, and given up. I personally never owned a Sega console, but I had plenty of family and friends that did, and as a result I spent many hours happy hours gaming on them. I understood what it meant to see the hardware go. Ask any Sega fan why they love the company and you’ll hear a variety of different reasons, but for me, they’ll always be the company that were most successful at bringing the arcade machine into our living rooms. Once upon a time, the best looking games were found in the arcade first. It was where the cutting edge technology was found. So seeing games like Daytona USA, Sega Rally, or Virtua Fighter arrive in our homes, and visually comparable, was impressive. That link between the arcades and the home console is just one small facet of what was the “Sega way”. No other manufacturer has replicated that ethos, and that’s why we miss them.

So there we have it, the biggest events to occur in gaming that I really wish hadn’t happened. They’re all personal to me, so I rather suspect that you probably would have chosen differently. Canvassing the Game Jar staff threw up a whole host of suggestions, the implosion of THQ just as things were starting to get interesting, Star Wars Battlefront 3’s cancellation, John Romero leaving ID and the subsequent closing of Ion Storm afterwards, all things that never crossed my mind when writing this. So that obviously begs the question what would be on your list? What things would you change given the chance?

And you’re not allowed to mention Final Fantasy VII or Aeris…

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