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Embedded Reporter: Retrospectives!
Oct 27th, 2008 by Dan

Deep from the trenches, it’s time for your Monday video feature: Embedded Reporter.

Gametrailers is at it again with not one, but two retrospectives this week. With Fallout 3 and Wrath of the Lich King coming out soon (Fallout 3 a lot sooner), they’ve put out their one part Fallout retrospective and part one of what I’m guessing to be a three or four part Warcraft retrospective. Enjoy!

Game Overview/Food For Thought: Odds and Ends
Oct 21st, 2008 by Dan

I tell ya, it’s been a good long while since I’ve had to write a post that’s not really about baseball and it’s got me rather at a loss of what to do. Instead of focusing on one topic today, instead let’s look at a variety of things going on that I care about:

Peter Molyneux has got a problem. You see, he’s one of the movers and shakers in video game design and his ideas have more or less shaped the industry as a whole. For example, while you can argue that Ultima or Fallout did it first, Peter and his boys at Lionhead popularized the whole good vs. evil aesthetic that so pervades the medium right now with his landmark title Black & White. You can’t really argue that his game made it cool for the visual look of a character to change dynamically with alignment that Bioware eventually used in their epics Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect.

The problem though, comes when you realize that Peter is more of an ideas man. Black & White sold tons of copies, but was generally tepidly received or remembered due to its feel as more of a sandbox game or a tech demo. Its unfocused nature. The idea was gold, the game wasn’t there. Fable was promised to be an epic story where things you did from day 1, like planting a tree, would radically change the future. It didn’t. The list of things promised for Fable that weren’t delivered was so long that it became a media point to say that what Peter says doesn’t necessarily get into the game, no matter how enthusiastic and brilliant he may sound saying it.

Today I’ll be picking up my pre-order of Fable 2. Will it satisfy or will it fall short of his promises? You can be sure that I’ll let you know here once I have a solid conclusion.

Also on the table for today: I tried adding some Just Bunches to my Honey Bunches of Oats and I’d have to say the result was stellar. The addition of more bunches really makes the cereal better without overpowering the other elements. A great idea, but not one I’ll be repeating by buying another box of Just Bunches in the future.

Little Big Planet, if you hadn’t already heard, was delayed until next week due to a controversial music track included in the game. The game had, I should say, a track in which passages of the Qur’an were recited in the background. Muslims claim that it is offensive to include passages in the Qur’an in art, so Sony decided to push back the game’s release date and Media Molecule, the game devs, removed the track from the discs. Some say that Muslims need to learn to chill out if they want to be respected in the global, free world, others say that they’re in the right to ask that their religious texts not be used. I agree more with the former, but I also understand why Sony did what they did and I do think that they at least made a good business decision, since they get pretty good sales in the Middle East.

Game Overview: Pre-Current Gen PC All-Stars
Jun 20th, 2008 by Dan

Insert another credit, because it’s time for your weekly video game news and you’ve just hit the Game Overview screen.

Due to some poor life decisions, I find myself stranded for five weeks without any video games. What’s a guy to do, right? Well, rather than just giving you some of the headlines from the week’s video game news in lieu of what I was planning to be gameplay impressions, reviews, and the like, I’ve instead started a five week “All-Stars” feature. Each week we’re going to look at a video game era and spotlight my top three games from that era. Each of these games will also receive a place setting at the prestigious “Table of Honor” feature that I’m working on. Here’s the weekly plan:

Week 1: 8-bit Console Era
Week 2: 16-bit Console Era
Week 3: Post-16-bit Console Era, Pre-Current Generation
Week 4: Pre-Current Generation PC Games
Week 5: Current Generation

Yeah, the categories are broad, particularly weeks three and four, but it’s how I want to do them, so get off my back!

Constant through all these years of transitioning video game consoles has been and always will be the PC games market. Despite all those cries of “The PC market is dead!” I’ll tell you one golden rule about the PC market: It will always exist for as long as people use PCs, which seems like it would be indefinitely, the way that technology is going. I will concede that the PC gaming market is not in its golden years like it once was. The reasons for this are many, including more powerful home consoles whose games look comparable to PC games, the advent of the laptop, and the general weakness of any non-gaming rig due to lame motherboard graphics processing power.

However, despite these issues, the PC has always managed to produce great games and it will always continue to do so for the foreseeable future, simply because the markets have not converged enough yet. In fact, the four PC games that I will be talking about in this generation are all mostly games that either just plain don’t work well on consoles or just plain control better on the PC.

One final note before we begin, X-COM: UFO Defense will not be appearing on my list, even though it’s a staple of top PC lists everywhere. The simple reason: I’ve never played it. Maybe one of these days it’ll be on Steam or something and I’ll get a chance, but for now I have no idea how it plays. Also on the never played list: Fallout and Baldur’s Gate. These games might be so awesome they replace what’s on my list, but I don’t know any better at this point.

The first game we’ll be looking at today is one of the most popular games in the entire world. This game is so popular that an entire country more or less enjoys it as a national past time, complete with comedy routines that revolve completely around mimicking in-game sounds. It’s the game that’s sweeping Seoul and supposedly getting a sequel this year, StarCraft.

#3 StarCraft

I still remember the first time I tried to play StarCraft. Note that I said tried…

We ran a pretty pathetic rig back in those days. I’m sure it was decent at some point, but our 90 MHz (seriously!) junker couldn’t quite run anything! StarCraft installed and I even managed to get it to boot, but playing it…well it ran at a snail’s pace. I even remember trying to play it with my friend Tony over the Internet on our 14.4 modem (I know…). Needless to say, I never quite got around to beating StarCraft back then, but once we updated to a 1 GHz computer (holy cow! an order of magnitude better than our “100 MHz” machine!) I was finally able to experience Blizzard’s masterpiece.

Blizzard may have started their RTS days making Warcraft games, refining mechanics and storytelling ability with their Tolkien rip-off world, but they really came into their element once they took it into outer space. The single-player campaign tells the brilliant story of the Protoss, Terran, and Zerg as they all jockeyed for control of the known galaxy. Whether you were controlling Jim Raynor for the Terrans, working with the heretic Zeratul of the Protoss, or the converted Queen of Blades, Sarah Kerrigan, for the Zerg, you always felt like things were plenty cinematic (even though briefings were just talking heads) as the plot twisted and turned. As far as I’m concerned, StarCraft was really the only real original story that Blizzard was able to tell. Warcraft III borrows heavily from SC (come on…Arthas becoming Undead totally mirrors Kerrigan! Don’t even get me started on how the Protoss and Night Elves are nearly identical…), as it well should, since the betrayals and battles make for a very compelling storyline. Trust me when I say that the game that launched ten years ago was a masterpiece whose continuation I cannot wait to see later this year (hopefully!).

As far as gameplay goes, SC goes far beyond what most other RTS designers were doing at the time. Sure, most RTS games, Warcraft included, had multiple factions that the player could control, but rarely did these factions vary in essential gameplay concepts. They all had comparable infantry units or heavy units that had more or less identical firepower to each other. In fact, a lot of the time, the faction choices basically just represented which art style you preferred most and had little to no impact on gameplay. The three races in StarCraft absolutely bucked this trend. If you played as the Terrans you were required to play a fundamentally different game than the Protoss or Zerg were playing. The magic that made SC so special was that you basically had three games packed into one neat little package.

Even with these great innovations, everyone knows that SC has survived this long for one reason alone: competitive online play. Blizzard was wising up to Internet gaming not too long before SC’s launch, so it was no surprise that StarCraft launched fully capable of online competition via the awesomely free Battle.net matchmaking service. Sure, people had direct connected through phone lines to play RTS games before, but this was unprecedented. Now you could just log on and see who else in the country was on and just go up against their army. It took great study and care to actually be competitive in the online SC community, but B.net was a great idea by a company devoted to high quality releases.

I think the only thing I have to say to really make this sink in is that you can make a living in S. Korea just by being a professional StarCraft player. I rest my case.

Blizzard was also really great with cinematics, even way back in the day. Check out the opening to SC: Brood War:

The next game on the list has been a favorite of mine since I was in grade school. Granted, the version I will be featuring today is the latest iteration (beat the release of the current generation by about a month), but that’s only because the latest version has come back and shown us how truly amazing the series is. There’s nothing like a game that will have you awake at 0500 with the sun streaming through your windows as you tell yourself, “Damn, I gotta go to sleep…I’ll get on that after this next turn…” That’s right, I’m talking about Civilization IV.

#2 Sid Meier’s Civilization IV

If you’ve never played a game in the Civilization series, then you don’t know the meaning of gameplay addiction. I’ve played many games until ungodly hours of the morning, but the game series that has made for the most red-eyed, bleary mornings has got to be Civ. If it weren’t for Civilization IV, the best of the series would have been the sophomore outing, Civilization II. Not that III was no good, but it just kept too much the same while not making enough different and new, which is, I believe, why IV succeeded so well in the series. It took everything that was bogging down the Civilization series, gave it a quick boot to the head, and came at it from a new, amazing angle.

I have to give great credit to Soren Johnson for reinvigorating what some may have felt to be a stagnant series. Civilization IV benefits from the direction he took it, making multiplayer a focus, getting rid of corruption and civil disobedience, adding great people, removing infinite city sprawl (ICS!), and attempting to diversify combat. Sure, sometimes the game is still slow, you still see unit stacks of doom, despite siege weapon deterrence, and the occasional phalanx might do serious damage to a battleship, but once you start going in and messing around with your own custom governments, you’ll see what an improvement Civ IV is to its predecessors.

A relative rarity for these lists, Civ lacks any story whatsoever other than whatever narrative you happen to create as you play. At the end of the day, you’re fully in control of your empire and more or less in control of how the AI treats you. For example, I know for a fact that Gandhi is secretly a war-mongering bastard. I have experienced his nuclear fury (granted…it was in retaliation for nuking him first, but still…). I’ve also seen the great Julius Caesar reduced to groveling at my feet as my armies marched into Rome (always satisfying) and I cannot emphasize how much of an aggressive, back-stabbing asshole Montezuma is, but these things do not make a game story. Plenty of the games don’t even feature any of these leaders, if you choose them not to. It’s a testament to this game’s character that I am able to have such fond memories of battling AI for world dominance without anyone but my own computer controlling them.

I would tell you to go out right now and buy Civilization IV to experience utterly refined game design and fun, but I don’t want to be held liable for the drastic decline of the rest of your life as you sink countless hours into building up the mighty Persian empire. Just remember that I warned you about this when it’s now 0723 and you’re still saying “Once construction on this wonder completes I’ll save and go to bed.”

Here’s some video of diplomacy gone bad:

A GREAT trailer compilation:

My absolute favorite PC game in pre-current gen era is actually a bit of a surprise to me. If you would have told me before I ever booted up that wonderful piece of software that I would love a first-person shooter. It’s like someone opened the faucet of creativity and poured it on this wonderful game. If this game is still as awesome when it’s 50% depleted, it will still kick more ass than most games on the market today. My favorite PC game (really up to the current gen) of the generations preceding this one is Half-Life 2.

#1 Half-Life 2

Valve is used to revolutionizing the medium. Gordon Freeman’s first quest was game of the year when it launched and Half-Life 2 received similar acclaim. There’s just so much about the game that it just exudes perfection. From the moment the game opens and the G-Man deposits you on the train into City 17, Half-Life 2 just never stops. Every character has inherent life and realism in their actions, the voice acting is superb, and the story just flows so well.

I could ramble on and on about how awesome HL2 is, but instead I’m gonna focus on something that only a few other games in the ENTIRE history of gaming have ever done (Ico’s the only one I can think of, but be sure to add more if I forgot some), add a sidekick that you not only genuinely care about, but is also totally useful, lifelike, and, most importantly, not annoying.

Alyx Vance is, bar none, the greatest character ever created for a video game. Game designers create tons of NPCs, especially female ones. It is so easy to go the cheap route: plenty of T, plenty of A, but, from the get-go, Valve knew they were gonna do something else. Alyx is a pretty girl, mind you, but in a much more restrained, realistic way. She wears normal jeans and has no cleavage, which is, quite frankly, pretty rare in this business (see Naomi Hunter in MGS4 for a blatant example of the opposite). Even so, if you were to go to a Valve message board, you’d most definitely find tons of posters stating how much they love Alyx. How did Valve do that? Quite simply by paying attention to real human emotion and interaction and by hiring amazing voice talent.

Voiced by Merle Dandridge, Alyx is given more than enough life by her voice acting, the way she reacts to situations, the way she urges you forward, and the way she interacts with the other expertly characterized NPCs. When Alyx is scared, you can not only see it in her amazingly animated face, you hear it in her voice. It’s present in abundance, yet it’s also understated. It’s perfect, really. She truly is your companion on your journey (even more so in Episode One).

Half-Life 2 brought life back to PC gaming and the FPS genre for me in such a big way. Never in my wildest dreams as an RPG player would I have imagined that an epic, fun, and good story could be told in that context. It just goes to show you that a masterful game can exist in just about any genre, it just takes talent and like ten years of time and devotion.

Enjoy the haunting opening to HL2 that drew me in right from the get-go:

And that, my devoted readers, is that. Be sure to tune in later this weekend (it may be Sunday instead of Saturday) to see the runner-up for the PC category!

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