Thursday, November 27, 2014

Friday, November 21, 2014

Hit and Miss

Fall 2014 has seen it's share of releases that are decidedly of mixed quality.  In some cases the titles nail what they trying to achieve, but in other ways they fumble badly.  Let's take a look at a select list of five such games, shall we?

Hit: The nemesis system works extremely well as a form of emergent storytelling.  Excellent traversal and combat mechanics make interactivity with the system an enjoyable moment-to-moment experience.  Player character death as a narrative device, rather than a failure state, also adds a lot to the overall experience.

Miss: The main plot and back story come across as severely tone deaf with regards to the source material.  Shamus Young over on The Escapist does a good job of summarizing the problem, but suffices to say this game really shouldn't have been set in Middle-earth during the Third Age.

Hit: The look of the environments are a perfect homage to the 1979 classic.  Even new material like the Seegson androids make excellent additions to the setting.  The cat-and-mouse relationship between the player and alien also captures the feeling of the original film really well.

Miss: The directorial focus is off a lot of the time.  It's difficult to summarize in a few sentences, so I'll just offer up a link to the Errant Signal analysis of the game.  It's a good video that articulates the thematic issues that plague what would otherwise be a masterfully crafted experience.

Hit: True to Firaxis tradition, this next entry in the Civ franchise has the just-one-more-turn addiction driven gameplay that makes it such great strategy game series.  Customizable factions are a great feature added to the game, as is the change in local.  The tech web is also fantastic and should be implemented in more 4X games moving forward.

Miss: In some ways the strengths of this total conversion of Civ V are also its weaknesses.  Gone are the distinct real world cultures that gave the game personality, making diplomacy feel hollow.  It's a problem further exaserbated by a weak AI, and, at least until some expansions come out, an overall less robost experience than the previous outing.

Hit: This third person action RPG takes a lot of the mechanics in the Souls series and innovates on them in clever little ways.  It's also an extremely good looking game on the PC.  The story is also less obtuse which (some may dislike, but) I think is a nice change of pace.

Miss: The art direction, while consistent, looks a bit silly given the way the game plays.  What's with all those huge pauldrons?  Is this some kind of "grim-derp" Warhammer Fantasy knockoff or what?  The overall lack of depth reinforces the notion that it's really a Souls clone rather than a distinctly different IP.

Hit: Say what you will about Shinji Mikami, the guy knows how to put together a tension filled experience.  Shortages of health restoratives, ammunition and brain fluid, mixed with constant feelings of lurking dread (even in supposed safe zones) really emphasizes the "survival" and the "horror" of the genre.  The relentlessness of the pacing is also great.

Miss: It goes without saying that survival horror games usually have lame storytelling attached to them, and this is no exception.  A far worse problem though is the lack of optimization.  Granted patches have been released, and still are coming out to address some of the issues, but it's still disappointing to see next gen gaming struggle to meet last gen standards.

If there's one takeaway from the big autumn releases this year, I think it's a good idea to hold off buying the newest titles.  All of the above games are worth playing, just not at full price.  Plus, in some cases the developers might iron out the kinks later on down the road.  Patience fellow video game enthusiasts!  You will be rewarded for you forbearance.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Speed of Akira

"You wanna ride it, Tetsuo?"
The great frame rate debate has been going on for well over a year now, so I figured I might as well take a moment to address it.  Do video games really look and play better in 60fps?  I think so, but some claim that they don't notice much of a difference between 30 and twice that amount.  Plus, certain compromises to detail have to be made in order to free up the necessary computing resources to achieve such a high (yet steady) number of frames per second.  My response to both the former and latter criticisms of 60fps is to point to another kind of media that has suffered from similar issues, namely cartoon animation.  The answer to it all is, in a word, Akira.

"Computer controlled
anti-lock brakes..."
Just in case that means nothing to you, Akira is a landmark feature length animated film and an epic manga, spanning six volumes and over 2000 pages of illustrated panels.  Much like NausicaƤ of the Valley of the Wind, the movie is a distilled version of what transpires in the comic.  Certain characters, plot arcs and events are redacted, changed or removed entirely to adhere to a manageable screen time of about two hours.  Even so Akira, the film, was a massive undertaking.  It cost an unprecedented (for the time) 1.1 billion yen and required 160,000 individually hand drawn cells of animation.  Story-wise it's about a secret government funded psionics program, teenage biker gangs and a dystopian future in the Tokyo bay area circa the year 2020.  I could say more (and will later), but suffices to say anyone with an interest in cyberpunk or post apocalyptic settings should give the manga a try.  Why not save time and just watch the less time consuming movie?  Well, to tell the truth the film is really meant for fans of the comic book series.  Not only for the much needed background information, but also to truly appreciate all the subtle and not-so-subtle tweaks made to the original story in order to adapt it to the big screen.  On a side note, I'm not a purist when it comes to watching anime, but if subtitles aren't an option then go with the 2001 English remastering/redub since it's vastly superior to the original 1988 localization attempt.

"200 horses at 12,000 rpm..." 
Anyway, what does this got to do with frame rates in video games?  Glad you asked!  I was on one heck of a tangent there...but bear with me a bit longer.  In animated films there's a common resource saving process called limited animation.  Basically, it involves a number of tricks to not have to draw a new image for each of the 24 frames of animation shown each second.  Why 24?  That's something the film industry discovered a long time ago.  Any more than that is considered wasteful, but any less than 24 and the human eye becomes increasingly intolerant toward what it is seeing.  The most obvious trick is using fewer frames when there's little or no movement on-screen.  A lot of low budget anime will go down to 12 or even 6 frames a second during dialogue scenes wherein the characters remain relatively static except for their mouths which oftentimes enunciate with the accuracy of a sock puppet.  Akira doesn't do any of this, and boy does it show.  Action is incredibly fluid and every spoken line is carefully lip-synced with pre-recorded dialogue (a process, I should note, that is rarely done in Japan).  Of course this also makes accurate dubbing very difficult to pull off successfully.

" motor coils were just
getting warmed up..."
So, what with all that painstaking drawing, they must have skimped on visual details, right?  Well, yes and no.  Part of what makes Akira special is its judicious selection of themes.  Sure, it's an seminal entry in the cyberpunk genre...except there really isn't much "cyber" stuff when you get down to it.  Computer screen readouts probably occupy less than one entire minute of the film's screen time.  As for the "punk" part...actually, there's not a whole lot of that either.  For the most part everyone (both male and female) wear fairly unremarkable clothing with skin that is free of tattoos or other adornments.  It's a time saver which allows the animators to concentrate their efforts on the things like the nighttime cityscape, intricate machinery, and the kinetics of destruction.  This choice of focus helps emphasize the political overtones of the tale with regards to civil unrest, chaotic uprisings and grey-on-grey morality.

"That's Mr. Kaneda to you punk!"
There have been numerous attempts to adapt Akira to a video game format.  Most notable of the failures is the canceled Sega Genesis title that was going to be a chase view motorcycle racing game, FPS, side scroller, isometric shooter, and one-on-one fighting game all rolled into one.  Personally, I think any game about Akira should take the Godfather: Part II approach and expand on events that occur before and after the original.  It might be interesting to play an open world game as Kaneda, forming the "Capsule" biker gang or putting together that highly customized iconic red motorcycle of his.

Regardless, when it comes to what you see on-screen whether it be Akira the film, or a video game you can have your cake and eat it too.  You just got to ask yourself what matters most when it comes to the frosting.  The right combination of ingredients is key to making something in a visual medium that will stand the test of time.

Friday, November 7, 2014


Educational video games have been around since the early days of home computing.  Some of the most well known titles are the history focused Oregon Trail and Carmen Sandiego series.  However, I think it's important to stress that a game doesn't need to be labeled "educational" to facilitate learning.  Minecraft is now part of the Swedish elementary school system curriculum as an introduction to architectural design.  Similarly, I've always felt that Lemonade Stand is a good way to teach children the basics of economics.  Early entries in the Simcity series were also a great way to illustrate the importance of city planning.  For me educational games go back even further.  On the Atari 2600 Artillery Duel was my first real exposure to applied physics.  Sid Meyer's Pirates! taught me a lot about the geopolitical situation of that time and place.  More recently NASA has endorsed Kerbal Space Program as a tool for understanding the rudimentary ideas behind aerospace engineering.  All of this is wonderful stuff, in my opinion, but what about the fundamentals?

In the USA the foundation for all higher education centers on what is referred to as "The Three Rs".  More specifically; Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic.  Yes, I know only one of those actually starts with an "R".  It's supposed to be a joke about how even educators can't know what...never mind.  Regarding reading, it's pretty much a given that any game featuring text will advance that particular skill.  Pure arithmetic, on the other hand, is so abstracted from any tangible aspect of reality it's difficult to have math in a video game without shifting the area of study to one of the other sciences.  So having addressed both of those "R"s all we're left with is writing.

Text parser video games are one way to learn typing and spelling skills, but what about grammar (or what is the probably the most interesting part of English literature coursework, creative writing)?  Up until just recently I would have said making an educational game about this sort of thing is impossible, but now that Elegy for a Dead World has been successfully funded on Kickstarter I'm having second thoughts.  The premise of this creative writing edu-game is to tell the story of one of three extinguished civilizations.  Each is unique in that the concept, or seed (to borrow a term from Minecraft), is derived from real life poetry penned by long-dead authors.  Players take the role of an interstellar traveler exploring ruined landscapes and committing to words the circumstances in which each world came to its ultimate end.  Evocative text prompts and inspiring on-screen visuals are provided in places to help spark the spacesuit-wearing writer's creativity.  Once the player has finished they can view the entire record like a kind of mini visual novel.  Of course this can be shared online with peers which should produce some interesting interpretations of each world's demise.  Granted, a lot of attempts will result in banal tales filled with more typos that what you find in these weekly blog posts (hard to believe, I know).  That's alright though because mistakes are how English is learned and ultimately mastered.  So while I'm not expecting any modern day Shakespeares, I think whatever players write, it will be better for them than if they write nothing at all.  

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Where in the World is Gallia?

If you've never played the PS3/PC exclusive Valkyria Chronicles I highly recommend giving it a try, especially if your a fan of strategy games.  Weak AI and a poorly implemented evaluation system aside, you're looking at one of the best video game stories to come out of Japan in a very long time; weighty without being depressing, and exciting without becoming manic.  Fans, who are also knowledgeable when it comes to World War 2 history, will undoubtedly notice that the fictional country of Gallia is a composition of various European nations; Dutch windmills, towns named after real places in the Netherlands, a government reminiscent to those found in Belgium and Luxembourger, military structures modeled after Finland, and a national conscription system very similar to that used in Switzerland.  However, something that might surprise even hardcore fans is just how much of the more outlandish elements are based on another usually unmentioned country, Poland.

Take for example the lancaar/theimer weapons which combine the role of a bazooka with a mortar.  Visually these anti-armor devices resemble medieval lances (a common weapon used by Hussars).  Contrary to legend, WW2 Polish cavalry didn't make any ridiculous attempts to charge tanks with this weapon (or sabers for that matter).  Instead they had an extremely deadly anti-tank weapon.  What you might ask?  Considering the invasion of Poland took place in 1939, there was no such thing as the bazooka, panzerschreck or panzerfaust.  Simply put they used special high powered rifles.

A secret weapon of sorts, these extremely long barreled firearms looked somewhat similar to a lance when slung over the back.  Unlike most armor piercing munitions (which use a sabot or similar projectile) the bullet for this gun had a soft lead core and hard outer casing.  Rather than punching a hole, the impacting round would transfer its kinetic energy through the armor plate causing the inner surface (about 20mm in diameter) to spall off at high speed.  As a result the Wz. 35 was capable of piercing the armor of any tank at the time.  While no exact figures have survived to the present day, no less than 832 German tanks were lost during the invasion of Poland.  Granted some of these had to do with mechanical failures, but approximately a third of these losses are marked as being irrecoverable.  I think it's safe to say that a nontrivial amount were destroyed by exceptionally powerful rifles.

Another absurdity that's featured in Valkyria Chronicles is the size of certain tanks.  While it's true that nothing as massive as the Batomys was ever designed and built, the Poles (along with other nations) did make use of armored trains, complete with turret mounted machine guns, cannons and artillery in addition to a sizable complement of infantry.

There are a number of smaller nods to the real history of Poland as well.  The persecuted Darcsens are combination of Jewish people living in Eastern Europe and Polish workers forced to labor under harsh conditions in Axis factories.  Obviously, the geographical location of Gallia on the map of Europa corresponds rather well to the location of Poland on an actual map of Europe.  Then there's the term "Valkyria" which sounds like a derivation of "Valkyrie," women who according to Germanic folklore, were imbued with superhuman abilities.

In the end though we're just talking about a game here, so I don't want to risk over analyzing any more than I already have.  That said, it's surprising just how much real history seeps it's way into places that never actually existed.  For another great example of Polish history influencing game design look no farther than the Witcher series.  Unlike Valkyria Chronicles though I'll leave the research and fact finding up to you on that one.