Monday, July 20, 2015

The Road Untaken

So I finally got around to seeing Mad Max: Fury Road, and while I'm not sure I'd call it the best movie ever made, I was impressed with the style and setting.  I particularly enjoyed the "cargo cult" built up around the powers that be.  V8!  V8! the vegetable drink!  The nomenclature was especially clever too.  Compound terms like "black-thumb" and "war-rig" were neat, but Frank Miller really took it up a level when it came to names.  "Furiosa" literally translates to "She, who is angry," and I'd bet that "Immortan Joe" is an abbreviated version of the title "The Immortal One, Joseph."  One of the more impressive 4-wheelers in the film has the name "Giga-horse," as in one-billion horsepower.  Although I doubt that any internal combustion vehicle could actually have that much oomph under the hood, it was still an impressive looking machine.  Anyway...seeing the movie also got me thinking about the video game adaptation.

Currently under development by Avalanche Studios, makers of Just Cause, it's clear that the Mad Max game missed an opportunity to coincide its launch with the movie premier.  Then again, based on what I've heard the game isn't quite ready for prime time yet.  Perhaps Avalanche Studios is doing the right thing  by not rushing to market.  After all, move tie-in games have a pretty sullied reputation as is.  Regardless, I can't help thinking that the approach for this game is fundamentally flawed.  Sure, getting to play as Max Rockatansky in his iconic V8 interceptor might seem like the main appeal of the game, but I have to it, really?

What distinguishes Mad Max from other post-apocalyptic settings is largely a matter of style.  More specifically Frank Miller's use of subtext and skill as a world builder.  The character of Max acts primarily as a witness to historically inspired events which are in large part out of his control.  I guess what I'm saying is there are other road warriors, but places like Bullet Town and Gas Town are unique because of the allegories they represent.  Religion, weather it be the naive beliefs of the lost tribe or the dangerous fanaticism of the war-boys, is also an important part of what defines the setting in a unique way.  Max, on the other hand, is just a drifter, scavenger and everyman simply trying to survive.  Don't get me wrong, I like Max...he's easy to relate to, but why not let players create their own character (male or female), who can them carve out their own path in the wasteland?


Monday, July 13, 2015


Satoru Iwata
1959 to 2015

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Not Big Enough

Jumping animation
not included
I didn't back Double Fine's second kickstarter project, Massive Chalice, but I did purchase the game when long-delayed version 1.0 finally rolled out.  Right away the music struck a cord with me, evocative tunes that conjured up a world of faded memories and half-forgotten daydreams.  Sadly, that's about as far as I got before I began to notice...well..."problems" isn't the right word for it, but an experience that felt awfully sterile.  Perhaps it's easier to talk about the game in terms of what it needs rather than what it lacks.  To ease comprehension though I'll try to break it down into five areas.

Bandits and Rebellions
Considering how much Massive Chalice borrows from XCOM it's kind of surprising that there's no Exalt equivalent in this fantasy themed interpretation.  It would be interesting to have a force of (possibly redeemable?) heroes in-league with the Candace.  In lieu of open conflicts, inter-house rivalries could add to the experience in the form of duels, tournaments, plots, and intrigue, as well as wards and political marriages (essentially hostage exchanges between families to ensure peace).  Basically, add more "Thrones" and "of" in front of the "Game" part.

Personality and Customization
Despite having heroes with personality traits like "cocky" or "rebel," I didn't see any of that conveyed when the characters were on-screen.  In fact, heroes appear to be devoid of any passions or motivations.  Even basic stuff like "asthma attack" or "hung over" don't have any visual indicator aside from a tiny white text prompt.  I understand that house sigils and names were a special contribution made by upper-tier kickstarter backers, but the inability to choose given names (or even nicknames) makes it difficult to keep track of who's who.  There's also no "Tomb of Fallen Heroes" (or equivalent) that players can visit to reminisce about past glories and sorrows.  For a game centered around bloodlines and ancestry this seems like a major oversight.

I would have been happy with any of these concept
artworks for the over-world map in the final game
Images and Animation
A few more splash screen stills like the one shown in start of a new game would have gone a long way toward defining the world of Massive Chalice.  Some in-engine cuts-scenes or images to accompany the text based events (a la Crusader Kings) might give the player more reasons to care about the fate of lands under his (or her) control.  The over-world map also suffers from a bland presentation.  Three-hundred years is a long time.  Stuff should gradually change to reflect the passage of centuries if not decades.  At the very least each fortress should have a distinctive look with the appropriate banner flying from its ramparts.

Swapping pixels for polygons might not have
been the best idea from a graphics standpoint 
Art and Weapons
Pretty as it is, the UI needs streamlining.  Some simple icons the player can mouse over for more information or click on to modify would be a large improvement over the current system which requires a lot of menu navigation.  Maybe it's just me, but something about the vibrant color pallet makes me think of some mythic kingdom in South Asia.  Rather than the oddly generic European medieval vibe of the game, a slightly more stylized look might have helped distinguish the visuals.  The exotic weapons wielded by heroes into battle would have complemented those found in middle-ages India quite well.  For example the pata, katar, urumi, chakram, bagh naka, and gandasa are all extremely unusual weapons rarely feature in these sorts of games, but great additions nonetheless.

Armies and DNA
The in-game conceit that only a small number of genetically predisposed individuals are able to effectively fight the plant-like Cadence monsters is a bit of a cop-out.  At the very least the developers could have thrown in some kind of simple multi-choice system for sieges and field engagements that, in turn, influence the small scale heroes skirmishes, as well as spread of the Cadence.  It would have also been nice to have some objectives that were something other than "kill all enemies" during battles.  Here's a link to a forum post with some ideas on how vary it up.  The strategic aspect of the game would be a lot more interesting if the research unlocks had greater variety too.  Off the top of my head something that could extend the lifespan of a single hero, whether it be a potion of youth or "Sleeping Beauty" time stasis, could create compelling player choices with regards to prosecuting the war against the Cadence.

Ancestor count may vary
Weapon types subject to change 
One last thing I want to mention about Massive Chalice is the amount of funds this game received, 1.2 million dollars and change to be specific.  Compare that with a similarly kickstarted game, The Banner Saga, and I find myself wondering what happened.  Both are roughly comparable gameplay-wise, and yet The Banner Saga has far more flare despite getting 43 percent less funding.  The only rationale I can come up for this discrepancy is that fact that Double Fine is based out of San Francisco.  Perhaps it would be better if they didn't develop games in the most expensive city in America?  Oh's hoping the mod community picks up where Double Fine left off.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

A Bad Year

Twenty-fourteen...where to even start?  Bodily injury and work trouble in my personal life aside, it was a terrible year for video games...possibly the worst ever.  Looking through my Steam account transaction history, it shows exactly three purchases made by me (excluding gifts) for games that were released that year; The Banner Saga, Ultimate General: Gettysburg, and Elegy for a Dead World.  All tiny indie projects, one of which is more of an exercise in creative writing than an actual game.

On the big budget side of things there were so many disappointments.  The reboot of the well regarded Thief series and Strider IP were both flops.  Destiny was a fairly lean experience despite the fact that it consumed a great deal of the money, labor and time during development.  Even game of the year award winners like Dark Souls 2 and Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor were marred by some questionable choices on the part of their respective publishers.  Of course, they still had it better than Mythic Entertainment, Irrational Games, and Crytek USA which were closed down.  Despite new console hardware, or possibly because of it, a number of high profile titles were pushed out of 2014.  Of those that remained at-launch bugs and glitches abounded, as well as a general malaise of underdevelopment in the form of graphical downgrades, shallow storytelling, and recycled game mechanics (particularly all the HD remakes, not to mention most of Ubisoft's lineup).  Titanfall could have really used a single-player component.  Watch Dogs needed a better plot and a relatable protagonist.  As bad as all this was, I haven't even gotten to the truly rotten stuff yet.  In all honesty I don't really feel like going over it in detail, but suffice to say two loosely associated groups abbreviated as "GGers" and "SJWs" got into a pissing match across various media outlets, both on and off the internet, wherein there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth and little net gain to be had.

There is a silver lining to all this though.  Now that we've hit rock bottom it's a lot easier to go up than down.  Many of those delayed games are finally nearing completion.  A number of early access and/or Kickstarter titles hit version 1.0 recently (Kerbal Space Program and Massive Chalice being two examples that come to mind).  Steam has also finally implemented a proper refund policy, while it isn't a perfect solution, at least consumers have some degree of recourse when they get burned by deceptive reviews.  No need to stomp out corruption in the games media if even those of us on a limited gaming budget can discover the truth for ourselves.