Friday, August 28, 2015

Screenshots from Space

I've been playing a lot of Kerbal Space Program since it hit version 1.0 and, while I decided to take a break, I'd thought I would share a select list pictures.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Variety is the Spice of Games

I'm not totally sold on the idea that "inclusivity" automatically results in better games, but I do appreciate the ever increasing diversity of game developers we have these days with respect to nationality.  Back in the 8 and 16 bit era, the overwhelming majority of video games on store shelves were the products of Japanese or American development teams.  Occasionally you'd get something by a UK team, but more often than not this tended to be exclusive to the commodore 64 home computer.  Now days (and in large part thanks to digital distribution) we've got a lot more countries dipping their proverbial toes into video game development.  Take for instance CD Projekt, the Polish developer responsible for the eastern-European themed fantasy RPG Witcher series, or in Mexico city, Squad, the team that gave us the quirky space flight-sim Kerbal Space Program.  In Russia, we've had an explosion of new developers who have brought us all kinds of titles ranging from S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and SpinTires to Warthunder and World of Warships.  I'm also curiously looking forward to Reverse Side, but that's a blog post for another day.  The highly detailed melee combat simulator, Examina, comes for a developer based in Italy.  Meanwhile, the indie-platformer Papa and Yo was made by a one-man south American studio.

Of course it isn't all sunshine and rainbows.  A lot of the contributions made to gaming by studios from newly participating nations have had decidedly mixed results.  Take for example DreadOut, a Thai flavored horror game that presented a lot of interesting ideas, but ultimately felt like a poor-man's Fatal Frame (from a gameplay standpoint).  Chinese and Korean game developers, while increasingly prolific in number, have an unfortunate tendency to prey on people who suffer from OCD.  France has also produced a number of video games over the years, from the highly influential Out of this World (a.k.a. Another World) to more middling titles like République and Fehrenheit (a.k.a. Indigo Prophecy), all the way down to Remember Me and the hot garbage that Ubisoft cranks out on a regular basis (Valiant Hearts excluded).

Even though there's a lot of chaff mixed in with the wheat, I still think it's a net positive, especially when one considers the fact that established publishers from countries like the USA and Japan turn out their fair share of dross on a regular basis too.

So which is better at defeating ghosts
an iPhone or a Galaxy?

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Apocalypse Then

The PC mod Long War
overhauls the reboot
experience considerably
XCOM is one of those games that if it weren't for an enthusiastic endorsement from a friend I probably would have never taken any interest in the the series.  Thankfully, I did play the original, along with the sequel, Terror from the Deep, and the two new reboots; Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within.  I also played the entry in this turn-based strategy series that is the redheaded stepchild of the bunch, XCOM: Apocalypse.

Unlike other mainline entries in the XCOM series, Apocalypse allows for battles in real-time with the option to adjust the speed (and even pause the action to issue orders as needed).  Squads are split into six fire teams of up to six soldiers each (for a total of 36 units!).  In an effort to streamline gameplay, players can issue orders to squads rather than individual units.

The air war also takes place in real time with the possibility of engagements between multiple UFOs and XCOM craft.  Similar to the setting of Judge Dread, humanity has gathered into a single mega-city protected from the polluted wasteland of the outside world.  The cityscape acts as a backdrop for the action, but features a number of science fiction curiosities such as skyscraper-sized hydroponic farms, a star port, and public schools that transmit knowledge directly into the brains of their students (rather than relying on things like lab work and teacher lectures).

There's some interesting fan fiction
that has influenced the reboot in subtle ways 
There are a variety of factions within the city as well, ranging from political parties to corporations (that manufacture goods and provide services), all the way down to gangs (one of which will sell incendiary grenades to XCOM if befriended).  A cult is also present.  Similar to Exalt, they are enemies of XCOM and allied with the aliens, but can be raided.  On one occasion I remember looting a sizable amount of "psiclone" (a cybernetic narcotic) from a cult temple which I then sold for a tidy profit.  Of course, one of my bases was later attacked in retaliation by a combined force of cult members and aliens.  Some of which were armed with XCOM made equipment I had regrettably sold on the grey market.

It's important to note that the aliens are interdenominational rather than extraterrestrial this time around.  Incursions happen when UFOs pour through one of several dimensional gateways floating above the city.  The crux of the endgame revolves around building craft that can travel through these gates and take the fight to the aliens.  From there players can launch highly destructive raids on alien facilities including UFO construction yards, incubation facilities, and other logistic centers.  So, why isn't this the greatest XCOM of all time?  Well, there's a couple of reasons...

Notable sci-fi artist Tim White created
sculptures which regrettably are only
seen in static screenshots  
The aforementioned city factions, while intriguing in concept, are woefully underdeveloped.  Most don't interact with XCOM at all unless it is to demand recompense for property damage caused by the player.  Graphically, the game is also sub-par, even by the standards of that time.  The retro-future look the developers were going for never quite worked on-screen.  Some of the aircraft look nice, but the aliens are particularly fugly.  Most are little more than muddy looking blobs of blue, orange or purple, whose forms can be only be identified in any real detail after an autopsy report.  There's also no classes although players can recruit androids or hybrids in lieu of humans to get a wider range of unit stats.  That said, most XCOM personnel are pretty much interchangeable mooks defined by load outs instead of skill sets.

XCOM: Apocalypse may have simply been too ambitious for the era in which it was created, but an opportunity exists to capitalize on it's strengths with the upcoming dystopian near-future setting of XCOM 2.  If the developers can find a way to take the best aspects of both new and old, then this soon-to-be-released entry in the franchise has the potential to outshine all the rest.  Good luck Commander!...I mean Firaxis.  

Right...moving on...

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Reciprocal Influence

Motion pictures have been influencing video games for decades.  Look no further than the concept of a cut scene for an obvious example of cinematic techniques. To create the look and feel of digital environments, visual styles in film have also been borrowed by video game developers extensively, especially the works of directors like Ridley Scott and James Cameron.  In some cases the visual aspects are pretty much one-to-one, but more often than not games are a mishmash of influences such as in the case of Splatterhouse (an amalgamation of practically every slasher flick ever made).  Perhaps a more interesting question to ask though is, how have video games influenced movies?

Obviously adaptations of Silent Hill and Mortal Kombat spring to mind, but those aside, it's not so common to find a film that is clearly drawing from video games.  Even when one is made it can be tricky to detect the influence.  Take for example the art house movie "Jerry".  By the director's own admission a lot of the cinematography was inspired by third person video games.  This little insight explains why a lot of the shots in the film are over-the-shoulder chase views and even camera angles pointed at the sides or front of character's faces are kept in close enough that it could be achieved on a console video game controller by rotating the 3D perspective with the left analogue stick.   There are also very few cuts in the film which in turn leads to shots that tend to go on, and on...and on.  The longest is over a full seven minutes in length!  It makes sense though when you consider in video games getting from point A to point B involves watching the whole journey (unless some kind of fast travel system is in effect).

Camera placement aside, "Children of Men" stands out as a film made whole cloth from the aesthetics sensibilities of Half-Life 2.  Granted Gordon Freeman isn't in the film, nor are there any headcrabs, but the oppressive, rundown dystopian future of the movie matches extremely well with City 17.  A number of dynamic single-take shots are done throughout the film which help immerse the viewer in much the same way video games do.

Sometimes the influence of video games on film can take on a very roundabout form.  "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" started off as a comic about a Canadian youth sub-culture built around indie rock and the Sega/Nintendo era.  The property was eventually adapted to a retro beat'em up game and a live action motion picture.  The latter of which presents a rather hilarious  big screen take on gaming culture.  "Edge of Tomorrow" is another example of this phenomenon.  Originally a Japanese sci-fi novel entitled "All You Need is Kill", the premise involves a soldier who is repeatedly KIA only to wake up each time on the eve of the same battle.  The film changes a lot of the details.  For example, the location is moved from Tokyo to London and the protagonist is rewritten as an American conscript rather than a Japanese volunteer.  However, the basic time-loop premise remains relatively unchanged and the author freely l;admits in the back of the book that he got the idea from playing difficult video games during his childhood.

Perhaps the most bewildering example of all though has to be Sword Art Online.  Originally a web novel, the story takes some cues from "Tron" in that the plot involves people becoming trapped in a video game where the stakes are life and death in the real world.  Unlike the vector graphics of "Tron" though Sword Art Online is a virtual reality MMO.  The IP was so successful it spawned a series of print novels and was adapted to a prime time anime TV mini-series in Japan.  True to its video game roots, certain HUD elements such as character stats and HP bars are used for dramatic effect or storytelling purposes.  Even more mind boggling is the fact that actual video games have been published under the Sword Art Online license, thus making this Japanese oddity a case of franchise fiction becoming reality.

With the increased reliance on digital effect such as motion capture and 3-D model rendering it's easy to see how video games and motion pictures are gradually becoming one in the same.  The barrel ridding sequence in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" feels like it was ripped straight out of a video game QTE.  Then again playing certain games, such as Metal Gear Solid, feels a lot like watching a movie.  Of course the one big difference between the two is film watching is a passive experience while playing a video game is an interactive one, assuming you're not just watching a someone else play on Youtube or Twitch.  Regardless, I think if these two forms of media feed off of each other excessively there is a real danger of both becoming a kind of cannibalistic ourobors.  I'd argue a major reason why the Resident Evil movie adaptations are not good is because the games they were drawing on were in turn influenced by old George A. Romero zombie flicks.  Hang on...maybe that's why there are so many zombies in media these days...soylent green is people!

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Alpha, Beta, Gamma?

I can think a variety of criticisms aimed at early access, some more valid than others.  For me though the big one has to be exacerbating the erosion of already counter-intuitive game development terminology.  Take, for example, the terms "alpha" and "beta" in reference to build status.

Alpha traditionally means a game has reached a playable state, although still missing a number of features.  The term "pre-alpha" footage was often advertised as an indicator that the final product would look as good (if not better) upon coming to market.  Since debacles like Aliens: Colonial Marines and Watch Dogs though pre-alpha can actual end up meaning the opposite.

Beta supposedly indicates when a game is more-or-less feature complete, but still requires work on code optimization, balance tweaking, graphical polish and most important of all bug squashing.  I'm not a programmer by trade.  That said, I understand that it's practically impossible to get the complex games of this day-and-age completely free of bugs and glitches.  Still, companies really need to do a better job of distinguishing between "KS" (Known Shippable) and "YDTGDBMR" (Yo Dawg This Game Done Busted Mah Rig!).  Simply put, if there's an issue that falls in the latter category the game really should not leave beta.  Further adding to the obfuscation of the term is the fact that some early access titles will claim to have entered beta purely as a marketing ploy designed to increase hype for their product regardless of its actual state of development.

Another annoyance is version designations, which often have no apparent rhyme-or-reason to the numbering system.  You'd think that a game would follow a linear progression, but in the case of Kerbal Space Program the first release build was version 0.08 after which came a steady progression of 0.01 increments (or less) up until version 0.25 when it suddenly leaped to version 0.9 and called itself a beta build even though certain important features, like resource extraction and conversion, hadn't been implemented yet.  As of July 13th, World of Warships is at version while Dwarf Fortress is labeled as version 0.40.24 (rewind about fourteen years and it was at version  Minecraft is at version 1.8.7 which begs the question, what do you call a game that is still in active development even though it is considered a complete product?  I wonder if there are any developers in this kind of situation that would consider using the term "gamma" as a shorthand reference to the development status of their product?  It is the next letter in the Greek alphabet after all...