Friday, July 25, 2014

Weird Box Art

Do they get a fixed salary or are they paid by the hour?

Replace the "p" in that last word with an "h"
and the title would make a lot more sense...


I always wanted to play a Turkish circus performer who time travels!

A visual representation of Sega's recent business strategy?

This NES game is called "Swords and Serpents"
but all I can think of is "Protein and Snacks"  

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Saved by Creativity

More often than not bland presentation and mundane interaction spell doom for a new video game IP.  That said, there are a few titles which distinguish themselves without either of the twin pillars of beautiful graphics or engaging gameplay for support.  The ways these exceptional oddities stand out is through shear imagination.

Take for example Sunless Sea, an early access title available on Steam and sequel of sorts to the browser based game Fallen London.  This open ended adventure game cherry picks a few concepts from golden oldies like Sid Meier's Pirates, but otherwise oozes with originality.  Players are free to explore a vast subterranean lake, interact with a bizarre array of isle denizens, and encounter giant crustaceans (along with other underground/aquatic monstrosities).  Both navigation and combat are heavily tied to artificial illumination.  The former is necessary for maintaining crew sanity while the latter ensures the accuracy of gunfire.  Players can also become merchants, but rather than trading in normal goods like silk and spice, commodities in the sunken depths consist of things like spider thread and mushroom wine.  Yeah...and I thought shipping a cargo hull full of fluffy rodents in Wing Commander: Privateer was weird.

Moving to the opposite kind of environment, there's the bright open deserts in Legions of Ashworld.  In this turn-based game players find themselves trying to rally a divided land of individual city-states against the mutual threat of invasion by a powerful foreign empire.  Unlike most fantasy settings, the primary influence here is Mesopotamian rather than bog-standard northern European.  The artwork also has a classic style akin to what you might find printed on the pages of an ancient history book in the children's section of your local library.  It's refreshing to see a developer fully embrace an unusual concept for a make-believe world (difficult-to-pronounce names and all).

Lastly, there's the sci-fi puzzle platformer Lifeless Planet.  While a bit drab during the early sections, this game has a strangely enticing quality to it (like something StanisÅ‚aw Lem would write except here it's in video game form).  It starts out with an impossible situation and slowly over the course of the game provides logical clues and ration insights into prior events such that by the end of the game things have become disturbingly plausible.  Feelings of foreboding mystery, then creeping dread and finally increasing helplessness slowly permeate what on the surface appears to be just another generic indie title.  While I wouldn't go so far as to say the ideas in this game are unheard of (the concepts used for the most part are based on well understood science).  It's the way they are presented that feels unfamiliar in terms of presentation and pacing.  The result is a uniquely haunting experience that defies comparison.

So, there are three games that have neither impressive graphics, nor particularly compelling gameplay.  However, they make up for it with intriguing premises and a lot of creativity.  While I wouldn't necessarily call any of them great games, I do think they're worth a look-see even if that only entails a "Let's Play" on Youtube or some other equivalent video game footage hosting service.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Just Say "No" to Pre-orders

With the rise of digital distribution the whole notion of reserving a copy before launch day feels a bit antiquated.  That said, video games publishers still care a great deal about pre-order numbers.  So much so they're more than willing to make "exclusive" offers to entice would-be buyers before a game's release date.  The thing is though pre-ordering has become an increasingly bad idea of late and here's three reasons why:

If you're not familiar with the term "bullshots" by all means look it up.  Sufficed to say gaming companies have demonstrated that they are perfectly willing to use smoke-and-mirrors videos and screenshots to deceive consumers into pre-purchasing a product that isn't up to the quality it claims to be.  And while such business practices are deplorable, it's really up to consumers to bring this kind of exploitation to an end.  It's not that hard either.  Exercising common sense is all that's needed.

Case in point, Aliens: Colonial Marines.  Let me start by asking the question, "has there ever been a good video game adaptation of the Aliens IP?"  The only halfway decent title I can think of in this failed franchise is Aliens vs Predator 2.  Even then it's a crossover series rather than a game set purely in the Aliens universe.  Now, I haven't played every single Aliens game to come out, but my first brush with the xenomorphs in interactive media was Aliens: The Computer Game way back on the Apple IIc followed several years later by the side-scrolling Aliens arcade game.  On consoles I missed out on the Pac-Man copycat Alien for the Atari 2600, but I did play both the SNES and Genesis versions of Alien³ (surprisingly neither of which was a port of the other).  Aside from those games, I've tried out a light gun arcade rail shooter with the rather self explanatory title of Alien 3: The Gun.  Heck, I've even got part way through the obscure PC game Aliens: A Comic Book Adventure.  Plus the Doom total conversion (which was actually very good, but not counted here because it was a free mod and not a licensed product).

So, getting back to my point, why would anyone in their right mind trust that the latest Aliens game is going to be good considering pretty much every single entry up to this point has been varying degrees of dross.  Not to mention the developer this time out is Creative Assembly, a company specializing in notoriously buggy historical strategy games gimped by bad AI.  Worse still the publisher is Sega, which despite making quality games in the past, has a rather tarnished reputation these days, particularly with regards to copyright trolling on Youtube.

Anyway, I've gone on long enough so let me wrap this up by simply saying - as tempting as it might be don't pre-order!  It isn't worth the risk, and any worthwhile bonus content offered will inevitably find its way into some DLC included with the original product (probably as a discounted "Game of the Year Edition" or "Steam sale bundle") less than a year after the release date.  Do you like code optimization, bug fixes and community made mods?  Chances are your not going to get any of them right after launch, which means your definitely not getting the most polished experience possible if you pre-order.  It's kind of like early access except waiting means you pay less instead of more.  Think about that, won't you?

Friday, July 11, 2014

Damage Models

When it comes to simulating destruction, video games have more often than not borrowed a page from their table top fore bearers.  If you're not sure what I'm getting at here, two words for you - "Hit Points."  Honestly, I couldn't find fault with this mechanic back in the 8 and 16-bit eras (or 286/386 for PC users).  CPUs back then lacked the capacity to handle anything more complicated than the most rudimentary location damage tracking.  As processing power increases though I feel like abstract methods of measuring damage are increasingly obsolete artifacts of simpler times.

As of yet though most games still rely on HP bars and the notion of critical existence failure when it comes to actual gameplay.  Granted, driving games have been dabbling with vehicular carnage for quite a while, a practice that has culminated in BeamNG Drive (and it's soft body physics/collision system).  If you really want to see robust damage models though look no further than the simulation genre.  Even back in the aforementioned early days of PC gaming there were some impressive attempts at pseudo-realistic damage models.  Games like Mechwarrior and Wing Commander had rather brutal systems resulting in all sorts of woes including smashed weapons, shattered armor, crippled engines and fried sensors.  Despite all the destructible subsystems though these games still had to depend on a finite supply of hit points in order to determine when the death blow was dealt.  Additionally, there was very little in the way of external visual feedback aside from a bit of smoke or a trail of sparks.  Granted these games came out a long time ago, but it's still surprising just how few games have tried to improve upon existing mechanics.

Simulation titles such as Navy Field, World of Warplanes and Mechwarrior Online are all fairly derivative in terms of damage modeling despite being relatively new releases.  However, there are a handful of games that strive to punch through into new territory.  Rise of Flight has some very nice methods of handling structural damage.  While high speed crashes perhaps don't look as dramatic as they could, it is cool to see aircraft frames and wing spars warp and break apart when subject to severe punishment.  Another good example is War Thunder.  Still far from perfect, it does do a lot to represent the effects of ballistic impacts on a variety of machinery.  Every vehicle has a double digit number of location specific subsystems, each with its own unique qualities.  I particularly like how they went to great lengths to include forms of damage such as a ruptured fuel tank, oil leak or punctured radiator (the kind of things that don't result in instant destruction, but still need to be dealt with expeditiously).  External damage is usually clearly visible as well in the form of rends, holes, flames or in some cases pieces being blown off entirely.  Sadly, here's where I talk about some failings of these systems.

Progress has been made but there's still a lot more that can be done.  Window screens don't crack or shatter, and aircraft fuselages are visually pretty much indestructible (although they sometimes fall bellow the ground texture giving the impression that the crashing airplane disintegrated on impact).  Being able to see bullet impact marks is neat, but despite detailed ballistics tracking the textures don't always correspond to the damage inflicted.  Sometimes the transition from undamaged texture to damaged texture is awkward looking as well.

While a bit gory mechanically speaking, I think it would be cool to see "bleeding" coolant, oil, fuel or hydraulic fluid along with white vapors (when appropriate) instead of spewing black smoke exclusively.  A common criticism I hear brought up against more detailed damage models is that they require a great deal of computational resources.  While I agree that detailed simulations require a lot of calculation, it's exactly the kind of thing modern computers are designed to do (not to mention the ubiquity of multicore CPUs these days).

Graphics are offering diminishing returns, AI is a tough nut to crack and sound in video games is much more of an art than science at this point, but despite all of these potential dead ends there remains a lot of straight forward things that can be done to improve the simulation aspects of games.  I keep hearing people online calling for all games to have 1080p and 60fps this console generation, but I'd much rather see more in the way of destructibility whether it be vehicles, buildings or even digital people.  Now excuse me while I go watch some old Godzilla flicks.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Return to the Fortress

Slaves to Armok II: Dwarf Fortress is a game that feels like it comes from an alternate reality.  Another branch of video game evolution wherein developers chose to ignore graphics in lieu of a highly detailed "under the hood" simulation.  If there ever were a title that thrives on emergent gameplay it would have to be Dwarf Fortress.  However, for the last two years the game has received no official updates.  Understandable, considering the fact that Bay 12 Games (the company making the game) consists in total of two brothers, only one which actually does the coding.  Ever increasing complexity is mostly to blame, but the long wait is finally coming to an end.  July, 2014 will mark the next step in this game's lengthy development history.

Interestingly enough the focus this time around seems to be on adventure mode.  While the majority of folks play Dwarf Fortress for it's management driven fortress mode, I'm glad to see other modes getting some much needed attention.  True story...the first time I tried adventure mode it was on a laptop.  Hence, no number pad which meant I couldn't create a proper starting character.  Unsurprisingly, the result was me wandering through some woods for a while until a pack of wolves decided to turn my unarmed avatar into a midday meal.

I'm going to go out on a limb here any say for a lot of fans of this game, myself included, the real appeal of Dwarf Fortress isn't the game itself, but rather the many stories that come out of it.  Some are short, often darkly humorous accounts no longer than a typical blog post (check out a few here).  Others, such as Oilfurnace and Akrulatol, are presented in an infographic style.  The greatest tales though are the succession games, passed from one player to the next each in-game year, these accounts detail the rise and fall of fortresses from the POV of "overseers."  The most famous epic is probably Boatmurdered, renown for the undead mammoth-infested swamp in which it was built.  In my opinion though the most entertaining read is Syrupleaf.  The tragic chronicle of that fortress' ultimately futile struggle to survive against wave after wave of monsters is truly heart wrenching, but very true to the Dwarf Fortress mantra - losing is fun!

When asked in an interview about the eventual completion of Dwarf Fortress one of the two brothers responded by saying that he expected the game to take another twenty years or so before it would no longer be in the alpha phase of development.  So, regardless if you're interested in Dwarf Fortress for the gameplay or stories it sounds like this odd little piece of donationware will continue to endure as long as it sparks the imagination of the fanbase.