Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Last Hurrah

Here we are again...another console generation is coming to an end.  Some like to look to the future and all the new and exciting games that will be possible on new hardware platforms.  Others look to the past and reminisce over their favorite games of yesteryear.  For me though it isn't about the past or the future, but rather the here and now.  The reason I feel so inclined to enjoy this twilight period is because more often than not it has some of the best gaming experiences of a system's entire lifespan.

Looking back to my first console, the Atari 2600, I had a good time with Pitfall 2.  Skip ahead a bit to the SNES and it was Starfox courtesy of the FX chip.  N64 had Perfect Dark, which book ended rather nicely with the console launch window title GoldenEye.  Then on PSX, I enjoyed titles like Front Mission 3 and Vagrant Story.  PS2 more or less concluded it's illustrious carrier for me with Shadow of the Colossus...rather fitting since it began with Ico.

Of course the reasons for most video game systems finishing strong comes from developers learning how to get every last drop of processing power out of the hardware.  As an added bonus the price tends to be a bit cheaper than usual as well.  I can remember picking up Vagrant Story for $30 at a local Best Buy electronics store because they were doing an inventory clearance sale to make room for next gen products.

Moving back to the present we are now seeing titles like The Last of Us, but it's only the first stanza in the PS3's swansong.  Dark Souls II, Grand Theft Auto V, Assassins Creed: Black Flag, Thief 4 and a few other promising titles are all scheduled to come out on PS3/Xbox 360 before retirement.  Even after that I'm sure one, or possibly both consoles, will enjoy greater longevity than we have seen in the past since this next generation of hardware is not backwards compatible.  PS2 saw years of continued support after the PS3 release, particularly in Asia, where there isn't such a big push for developers to make their games on the latest hardware.  Perhaps the large install base of last gen might convince some studios in Europe and the Americas to do likewise this time around.

Regardless, don't get overly nostalgic, or conversely too excited about the future. Right this moment is the best time to be into video games in a long time (and most likely for a long time to come).

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Vehicular Mayhem

I remember a time of chaos
Ruined dreams of this wasted land
Another age when the world was powered by the black fuel
Where deserts sprouted cities of pipe and steel
Two great warrior tribes went to war
They touched off a blaze which engulfed them all
Men began to feed on men
Only those mobile enough to scavenge and brutal enough to pillage survived
The roads were a white line nightmare
Gangs willing to do anything for a tank of juice
In this maelstrom of decay the ordinary were battered and smashed
Men like Max
With the roar of an engine he lost everything
A shell, burned out and desolate
Haunted by demons of the past
Wandering the wasteland

Post-apocalyptic Australia was a rough place back in the early 1980s.  Critical oil shortages sparked a nuclear war which destroyed most of humanity.  Down Under they escaped the worst of it by virtue of not being an especially high value target.  That said, major cities and military installations were most likely swept away in fiery atomic blasts.  Folks living in the outback though managed do alright for themselves, at least until basic necessitates began to run scarce.  The formation of the Main Patrol Force, or MPF, represented the last attempt by surviving local governments to enforce law and order.  It failed.  The patrol officers either perished in the line of duty or else became marauders themselves.

So, there you have the back drop for the Mad Max trilogy of films.  But what of video games, you say?  Well...there was one title produced for the NES...and that's it.  But to say the influence of Mad Max was insignificant would be be a gross misstatement.  There was the board game Thunder Road and the miniature game GURPS Car Wars.  Pen and paper RPG gamers also had stuff like Road Hogs, and then, for the less dice-rolling-inclined, there was the Freeway Warrior series of gamebooks by Joe Dever.  Getting back to video games, Death Track was my first experience with cars and conflict.  If your more of a console gamer, Road Rash might be more familiar to you.  For the youngster out there Fallout, Rage and The Last of Us are probably all you're really familiar with from this particular kind of genre.

Past experiences aside, Max Rockatansky is back!...and for awhile without an Australian accent.  Not a good start, and the fact that it looks to be a movie tie-in bodes ill as well.  Still, I have hope for this game since the developer is Avalanche Studios (the makers of Just Cause).  They do have their work cut out for themselves though, and I'm not just talking about all the challenges that come with putting together an open world game with robust vehicle customization options.  Post-apocalyptic settings like Mad Max are tricky to do right because there are a number of factors that need to be taken into consideration in order for audiences to buy into the setting.

Road deterioration is one such example.  Any climate that has a freeze/thaw cycle will chew up pavement and concrete surprisingly fast.  Within less than a decade of neglect it's reasonable to expect a significant number of hazards such as potholes, fallen trees, landslides and collapsed bridges.  Fuel degrades with time as well.  Although theoretically gasoline will keep forever the reality is is starts to go stale over time due to moisture, air exposure and high temperatures.  Stabilizers and quality refining can extend shelf life, but even diesel will suffer from similar problems caused by microbes like fungus and mold (not to mention pollutants like sand, dust and other foreign particles).  Working cars need to be older models as well, since no modern internal combustion engine, with their sensitive electronics, would still run after exposure to EMP shockwaves.  Equally important are guns...or rather the lack of ammunition.  Military arsenals were most likely vaporized long ago and as for private collections...well, lets just say Aussies don't stockpile ammunition like Yanks.  Hence, the reason there's a fair amount of hand to hand combat and crossbows in the Mad Max films.

Then again they could just go the Venus Wars route and have turbocharged unicycles, tanks the size of city blocks and machine guns for everyone.  After all it sounds like they don't want to put much effort into figuring out how they game fits into the the larger fiction.  Personally, that leads me to wonder why they bothered to use the Mad Max label to begin with then, but who knows...perhaps the picture will become clearer as the launch date approaches.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Phase Paradox

Japan has its share of weird video games ranging from silly simulations such as Ka (Mr. Mosquito) to the seemingly ordinary with surprise control schemes like Operator's Side (Lifeline).  Usually the fate of these unique titles is a short parade around the internet full of ridicule and laughter.  More often than not it's followed by by a general sharking of heads and comments along the lines of "Those crazy Japanese developers..."

It's a sentiment that I can understand, but I also think that some of these strange games slip under the radar and are missed entirely.  So, on that note allow me to share one such title.  Be warned though it's not a good game by any stretch of the imagination.  That said, you might find it interesting nonetheless.

Phase Paradox is an early PS2 release and a sequel to the early PSX multi-angle bullet hell shooter Philosoma.  Incidentally, if you double the "l" and replace the "i" in the game's title with a "y" it's the correct scientific term for a subspecies of lobster larva....what?...just say'in.  Spelling and and word choice aside, players of Phase Paradox probably wouldn't make the connection between these two games partly because of the change in title, but also because of the complete change of genre.  How you make the transition from this (see video): a quasi-adventure horror game is beyond me, but that's exactly what the developers did here. Events in Phase Paradox take place aboard the spaceship Gallant. Shortly after completing a sortie with her complement of Strega-class fighters, the nearby planet 220 (referred to in dialogue as "two-two-oh") explodes in the opening cutscene.  The blast inflicts extensive damage to the Gallant and embeds a large object in the hanger bay. The story then revolves around three playable characters; a damage control officer, a bio-lab scientist, and a black woman who is a specialist of some sort. There's also a large supporting cast which drop in and out of the story quite a bit.

Gameplay consists of classic survival horror style exploration via fixed third person camera angles. Breaking up these segments are cinematics sometimes punctuated by a binary yes/no choice mechanic. It's all very linear though and every action sequence is done via proto-quicktime events.  For that reason and the railroad plot progression, it's in a difficult genre to classify.  The closest I can get is to call Phase Paradox a horror themed adventure title, minus the emphasis on item gathering and puzzle solving.

The visuals of the game are a high tech mishmash of stuff that looks straight out of films like "Blade Runner" or "Evengelion". For some reason there is also a two story old school video arcade in one section of the ship. Despite the de-emphasis on combat, a number of personal side arms make appearances in Phase Paradox ranging from sleek lasers (which make a muffled zapping sound when discharged) to good old fashion slug throwers. Voice acting and the menu system are entirely in English while subtitles and in game text are in Japanese. Music is practically nonexistent outside the five minute long credits scrawl. Sound effects are also used sparingly which gives the game a weird vibe. The ending is split between three different viewpoints depending on who you choose to follow during the final chapter. While the events are the same regardless, each ending feels altered because of the differences in perspective. Motion capture and dialogue delivery seem almost deliberately bad all around. So much so it's as if the developers deliberately wanted to capture the look and feel of a low budget direct to video production. It's a truly surreal experience that very few know exists (outside of a handful of rabid Japanese game connoisseurs).

I want to recommend Phase Paradox simply for the novelty factor (and especially to people who are fans of Echo Night: Beyond, Deadly Premonition or even just cheesy sci-fi).  Of course, how much enjoyment you get out of your time spent with Phase Paradox depends on the individual.  I'm sure some gamers will take one look at the dated graphics and dismiss it as crap that is best left buried and forgotten.  But for me, at least, it was an interesting venture into "what if...?" territory.  

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

R.I.P. Ryan Davis (1979-2013)

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Sum of All Parts

I was recently catching up on Extra Credits videos and happened to watch one episode in particular that got me thinking.  It's entitled "In Service of the Brand."  If you haven't seen it here it is:

I'm going to assume you watched it so without further explanation time to jump into the main topic of this article; video game series that shifted genres.

Dune II is probably one of the earliest examples.  The first Dune was an action adventure game modeled after the David Lynch film, which in turn was based on the Frank Herbert novel.  Granted, if you played far enough in Dune you would get to some real-time strategy bits of gameplay.  However, Dune II decide to forgo story in lieu of what is essentially the first Command and Conquer style game.  Unsurprising, when you consider the developer was Westwood Studios.  Halo Wars is another somewhat similar example, taking the well known FPS and converting it into a top down RTS spin-off.

Game titles with the word "tactics" in them usually mark an RPG which has been transformed into a turn based strategy game.  Final Fantasy: Tactics and Fallout: Tactics being the two biggest that come to mind.  For better or worse none of the reworkings I've mentioned thus far were terribly successful aside from one outrageously profitable venture called World of Warcraft.  Although different than the above examples, it was not a huge leap considering that RTS Warcraft games had RPG elements as early as Warcraft II: Beyond the Dark Portal.

There's also an entirely different kind of overhaul worth mentioning.  Zelda II, Duke Nukem 3D, and King's Quest 8 are all examples of series sticking to the same genre, but changing up gameplay dramatically either because of improvements in hardware performance or game design.  Then we have Might and Magic.  Originally a long running series of RPGs which morphed into Heroes of Might and Magic, iconic turn based strategy games that got re-imagined as a puzzler (which I reviewed here).  Personally, I think all these conversations were for the better, both commercially and artistically.  So, I guess that lends credence to Extra Credits' opinion that Bioshock: Infinite would have been better off breaking with brand conventions.

Actually, I have one exception I want to mention that represents a radical shift in genres despite being a direct sequel made by the same team as the original.  There's a lot I want to say about this game though so I'm going to dedicate a full blog post to it for the next update.  Until then...