Friday, December 19, 2014

Hedging Expectations

There are a lot of awesome looking games scheduled for release next year and quite a few of them are sequels.  Take these numerically ascending titles for example; Final Fantasy Type-0 HD, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Resident Evil: Revelations 2, Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, Uncharted 4, Halo 5,  The Order: 1886, Gran Turismo 7, Dynasty Warriors 8 Empires, Mighty No. 9, and Mario Party 10.  Each is noteworthy in its own way, as are quite a few other titles I'm not going to bother mentioning right now.  Instead, I really want to focus on a half-dozen new IPs that have caught my fancy.  Mostly because they are gloomy in tone and as such will dampen my enthusiasm just enough to make the wait tolerable.

From Software's spiritual sequel of sorts to Demon's Souls, this game seems to be about a Victorian era city blighted with an illness that slowly turns men into monsters.  True to the Souls series tradition this action RPG looks really challenging.  More intimidating still, players won't get a shield to hide behind either since there are none in the game.  Maybe the tagline for this outing should be "Prepare to Die...even more than before!"

As if physical harm weren't bad enough, how about some mental trauma?  In this Kickstarted indie project by Red Hook Studios players have to manage a stable of heroes as they attempt to expunge an ancient evil from the land...possibly at the the cost of their sanity or very lives.  Worse still, one of the archetypal adventurers is a leper; meaning that even if he somehow endures the horrors of the dark he's still screwed in the long run.

Another kickstarted indie title, and beautiful pixel art game, set in a distant future long after they fall of human civilization as we know it.  Aside from poking around the ruins of humanity's former glories, the titular Drifter must find a cure for a disease that is slowly killing him.  Adding to this melancholic theme is the name of the studio, Heart Machine, which in turn is a reference to the game director's lifelong struggle with congenital heart disease.  

Brought to you by the makers of Just Cause, everyone's favorite post-apocalyptic road warrior is back!...except it sounds like his iconic V8 Interceptor has been stolen...and he's stuck in the middle of a barren wasteland, devoid of even basic necessities such as drinking water.  Don't worry though, there's plenty of psychotic marauders out to do all sorts of bad things to the player purely for entertainment value.

Trapped in the cold, dark, crushing depths of an ocean, players must explore an underwater research base infested with robots which have begun to display human characteristics.  Expect to deal with existential horror concerning the nature of conciseness and existence.  Particularly if this title, like Frictional Games' last five outings, has players controlling a character that can interact with objects in the environment without every using any visible limbs.  I guess it all kind of makes sense when one considers that "soma" means "body" in Greek.

As if being isolated under water wasn't bad enough how about being stuck in a seemingly abandoned research base on the moon?  In this case players will have to contend with the hardships of rogue-like gameplay complete with unpredictable layouts and enemies, as well as 1980's aesthetically driven technology.  So, basically Alien: Isolation with permadeath.  Sounds like a potentially nightmare inducing scenario although it's hard to say for sure since developer Lunar Software is keeping most details top secret.

Is your excitement subdued at all?  Hopefully so.  If not though you have my sympathies.  2014 was a downer in a lot of ways, and not just in terms of video game releases.  Hence, after all that dissatisfaction it's pretty hard not to get pumped for the better days that lie ahead.  Just remember to manage those expectations though otherwise it's pretty much guaranteed you'll feel let down once again.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Witcher, Hexer, Spellmaker, Pole

Polish video game developer CD Projekt RED is slowly but steadily approaching the release of the third and final entry in it's trilogy of Witcher themed action RPGs.   Long before Geralt of Rivia ever appeared in a game though, he was having all kinds of adventures in prose form.  His first appearance was in a short story written way back in 1986 by, now well regarded author, Andrzej Sapkowski.  This businessman turned novelist's writings were heavily influenced by the Slavic folklore of his homeland of Poland, along with movers and shakers like J.R.R. Tolkien.  Unlike the father of modern fantasy literature though, Andrzej Sapkowski's works are very much a deconstruction of the genre.  His short stories, in particular, represent post-modern interpretations of fairy tale classics such as Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Rumpelstiltskin, Snow White, and Little Mermaid.

Starting in the mid 90s Witcher novellas gave way to full length books.  Sadly, only about half of the short stories and three out of the five novels staring Geralt have been officially translated to English.  The first non-fan effort, ironically titled "The Last Wish," wasn't published until 2009, a decade after the final novel in the series was released in the original Polish.  Thematically, the books and video games match each other fairly closely; Geralt is wiry, white-haired, cat-eyed, professional monster hunter.  He works for money, but has principles and doesn't lie.  He fools around with women, but has one in particular he's especially fond of (she, on the other hand, is kind of hot and cold toward him).  The setting has a strong eastern European vibe although stock fantasy races such elves, dwarfs and gnomes are present, along with humans organized into late medieval era kingdoms.  A foreign warmongering empire launches an invasion and everything pretty much goes into Game of Thrones direction from there.  At times oddly placed instances of maternity occur.  Discussions about metallurgy, biochemistry, genetics, racism, terrorism come up from time to time.  There's also a university in the world of the Witcher that feels like a closely hewn copy of Oxford.  For me the real distinction of the Witcher though is its tendency to subvert expectations.

Sure, Geralt is a badass, but he doesn't have much luck saving the princess, nor does he do a very good job of rescuing other damsels in distress.  He loses spectacularly in a one-on-one fight against the big bad of the novels.  When asked to deal with a highly poisonous monster that threatens his traveling companions he simply runs it off by banging a pot and ladle together.  The first full length story "Blood of Elves" begins with the bard Dandelion, singing about love and war only to have his audience try to dissect the details of the song in order to separate fact from embellishment.  Thus far though, my personal favorite is a scene involving a faun.  Traditionally, stories like these involve a lot of nonsensical riddles and tricks.  Instead, Geralt simply tackles the little goat-legged twerp.  What follows is a hilarious amount of grappling, kicking, and rolling in the dirt that doesn't end well for anyone.  All these quirks of the series are what makes it standout from the boggy morass that is modern fantasy literature.

Other than the Witcher saga, Andrzej Sapkowski has written a spy novel set during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, a trilogy of (mostly) historical novels that take place during the Hussite Wars, a table-top RPG book, and a fantasy encyclopedia.  His style is what makes the Witcher interesting, and I find myself wishing that even more of what's in his books were in the games.  That's not to say the games are bad.  On the contrary, there extremely well made.  Having said that though, I am looking forward to reading future translations of Andrzej Sapkowski books even more than playing The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Yearly Video Game Awards

Despite the huge number of games delayed until 2015, I managed to scrape together a list of award winning titles for this year.  As always the category descriptions can be found here.  Now, let the show begin!

Avant-garde Award:
Major tonal shifts and unique art style aside, this side scroller's biggest innovation is the fact that it's a video game about war in which you don't actually shoot anyone.  Sure, you drive a tank, direct some artillery and incapacitate a few guards by clonking them on the noggin, but you never pick up a gun.  Even the evil baron (who you defeat in a fistfight) is simply shamed and made irrelevant rather than outright killed.  

Backlash Award:
As the first big new open world IP of the next console generation expectations were running high for this one...and boy did it disappoint.  Not only were the graphics downgraded from what was shown at preview events, but the story was shallow and suffered form a severe case of ludonarrative dissonance.  The protagonist also turned out to be thoroughly unlikable jerk with no fashion sense.  Batman with a smart phone?  More like The Joker with a gun.  Couple that with bland bug-ridden gameplay and this Ubisoft product rightfully drew a lot of people's ire.  Perhaps the worst aspect was the sloppy PC port which suffered from poor optimization to such a degree that real life hackers were able to make noticeable improvements to the visuals just by altering a little bit of code.

Brutality Award:
There's something to be said for an already difficult game that's willing to wipe out half-an-hour's worth of progress simply because of bad luck.  The winner here is just such a game.  No matter what you do there's a scene midway through the second chapter wherein everything comes down a Russian Roulette style pull of the trigger.  Because the revolver has a single round in it's seven chambers this means there's always at least a 14.3% chance you'll have to start over at the beginning of the chapter...ouch!

Canvas Award:
While there have been more flamboyant looking games to come out in 2014, this Norse themed tale of hardship and survival stands out to me because of its more restrained visual style.  Oftentimes a scene is framed in black and white with subtle shades of blue or green, but dominating it all is a splash of vibrance somewhere onscreen.  The titular banner itself is a slash of red symbolizing a scrap of vitality and hope in a gloomy dying world.  Character portraits too have little touches like a small ornate ring on the finger of a gnarled hand, or a bright pair of eyes set deeply in a weathered solemn looking face.  It's one of those rare cases where the use of color works perfectly with the music, gameplay, story and overall themes.

Ecology Award:
Rail shooters are a hard sell in this day and age partly because the main appeal of one, i.e. holding a light gun, is not supported by most platforms.  Despite that Polish developer Teyon was determined to copy the staples of the genre.  The voice acting is ripped straight from DVD copies of the movies.  Cutscenes and gameplay feel like they're recycled low resolution 3-D renderings of exactly what took place in the films (except for Sylvester Stallone's hair which seems to have a life of its own).  Because there's only so much you can get out a couple of two hour action flicks, be prepared to see the same enemy models, hear the same lines of dialogue, and play the same sort of shooting (along with QTE) sequences over and over AND OVER again.

"Engrish" Award:
Normally this award goes to some poorly translated game from overseas.  This year though I have decided to give it to a game developed by industry veteran Bungie Studios, a company which (I might add) consists mostly of native English speakers.  While the grammar here is technically correct, the serious yet completely deadpan delivery of such an astronomically outrageous statement, mixed with the fact that the line is spoken by a famous and talented actor, is what really makes it hands down the winner in this category.

Esoteric Award:
Two playable factions, seventeen individual nations and 1,450 different units make this one of the most complex RTS games ever made.  Land, sea and air combat are all in full effect here.  The fog of war also plays a major role and can be affected by everything from simple smoke screens to the latest in electronics warfare.  Because of all these factors, knowing the subtle differences between the multitude of units on the battlefield can make the difference between victory and defeat.

Lemon Award:
It's one thing to label a game "early access" and release it in a buggy incomplete state.  It's another thing entirely to charge $20 for a unpolished full release title that has glitchy enemies, poor collision detection, unskippable plot info dumps, whacked-out crosshairs, shoddy AI, and text that scrolls the wrong direction.  Even simply jumping causes the view to clip through walls.  Lack of VR support at launch aside, this game needed a lot more quality assurance testing before it went to market.

Testosterone Award:
When a passenger airplane goes down in a remote forested coastline, the players of this game find themselves forced into a survival situation.  As if natural environmental hazards weren't bad enough, players also have to fend off groups of naked sallow-skinned cannibals with improvised traps and weapons (like a hatchet or flare gun).  Alternatively, the player can try to ward away danger by dismembering the bodies of slain foes and make them into gruesome effigies...which can then be lit on fire!

Underdog Award:
An episodic title and spiritual successor of sorts to Deadly Premonition, this quirky detective story features a unique sense of humor and geniunly meaningful Kinect support.  Sadly, it's also an Xbox One exclusive.  Hence, many fans of the game director's previous work are unable to enjoy his latest creation (having gone with PS4 instead).  It doesn't help that Microsoft has done absolutely nothing to promote the game.  Hopefully it will at least be ported over to the PC, if not other consoles, at some point.

So ends another year in the history of video games.  What will next year bring?  A lot actually, but I'm going to save topic for next time.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Trees don't Grow on Money

I haven't talked much about crowd funded video games on this blog, mostly because the process is ongoing.  So far we've got a few noteworthy titles such as the Banner Saga, FTL, and that Double Fine adventure game that's only half released.  Then there's a bunch of interesting games that were successfully funded and look promising, but are not quite ready for launch yet; Darkest Dungeons, Massive Chalice and Hyper Light Drifter.  For now though, I want to focus on some of the failures of Kickstarter.

The reasons projects fail are numerous and often discussed around the internet.  Perhaps the most common is an unexciting pitch, either because it's yet another entry in an oversaturated area of gaming.  Case in point; Impact Winter, a failed project that had a cool (pun!) isometric prospective and art style, but was awfully similar to a number of other wilderness survival games that had come out not long before.  Alternatively, sequels/remakes of a title that wasn't particularly well received the first time around also typically flop.  Case in point Night Trap Remastered, Nexus 2 and Shadow of the Eternals.  On rare occasions there are (now finished) projects that were, in a manner of speaking, too successful.  Dive Kick got all the money it wanted on Kickstarter and then some, but before the halfway point in its campaign the project was cancelled and all the money refunded to backers because the developer secured an alternate source of funding.  On the other hand, Alpha Colonies' second attempt at a 30 day fund raising campaign ended a demoralizing $28 short of the $50,000 goal.  Due to Kickstarter's all-or-nothing system this meant no money, which in turn led to the abandonment of the project entirely.  In my opinion though the most intriguing Kickstarter failures are the ones that have a cool idea, but are hamstrung by poor planning.

Human Resources, aside from sounding like a department in some vast corporate office, had a lot going for it.  A real-time strategy game wherein players take the role of an apocalyptic force battling with other such entities while simultaneously trying to harvest helpless humans in order to keep the doomsday war machines well supplied.  The pitch had some nice videos and screenshots, but lacked a single player mode and, when you get down to it, simply had bad timing (Tip: Never kickstart a video game project during the fall crunch of new releases because people will be too busy playing games that are already out to care about something a year or two from now).

Blackmore was the dream project of Jeremy Baustein, an industry veteran who has overseen the localization efforts of various Japanese games, most notably Metal Gear Solid and Silent Hill.  His pitch was to essentially make a steampunk version of the Snatcher, an adventure game he worked on ages ago that was basically "Blade Runner" meets "Terminator."  Not terribly original, but it did have support from the multi-talented David Hayter.  Sadly, there wasn't a whole lot to show aside from a few pieces of uninspiring concept art and a couple of crude pre-alpha screenshots.  Even the plot specifics were a bit thin.  Still, the concept hasn't been ditched entirely.  In fact, it might even make a return under the slightly different title Blackmore's Bane.

Another steampunk genre failure is Golem.  Brainchild of the developers over at Moonbot Studios, players were supposed to take the role of a giant automaton tasked with the defense of its homeland from an invading army.  There were some interesting concepts regarding upgrades to the golem's abilities over the course of the game, in addition to a second act revolving around the golem acquiring a soul.  However, the team behind the project was first and foremost an animation studio rather than a game developer (a problem which support from the well known movie director Guillermo del Toro failed to alleviate).  Couple that with the pre-visualizations in the pitch video, which failed to convey any sense of scale or mass, and you got another serious hangup for potential backers.  A shame really, since Golem was looking to be the next Giant Citizen least in terms of getting to directly control a colossal monster.

Anyway, those are just a few Kickstarter failures I thought were worth mentioning.  I should also say that I've never actually backed a Kickstarter project (although I have bought some crowd funded games after they were completed).  My reasoning being pretty much any Kickstarter video game project that looks interesting to me has no trouble securing the necessary cash, and all the most exciting stretch goals, long before the end of its fund raiser.  A bit selfish of me, I know, but I trust the prudence of more experienced Kickstarter backers when it comes to these matters.