23 November 2012

2012 Videogame Dynamic Awards

       Best Press Release:

Winner: EA 

Sims Are Kinky (Yes this was an actual press release)

Top Places to “WooHoo”
Whether in a mystery box, tree house or even a time machine, Sims sure know how to have a good time in a variety of locations.

We count down the best places to “WooHoo” in The Sims games to see where the horny little simulated beings are getting crazy and kinky lately. From hot tubs to haystacks, your Sim baby-making locations have only gotten more exciting. What locations are your favorites?

1.       Hot Tub Summer in the city has never been hotter than when Sims moved into the sprawling urban landscape of The Sims 3 Late Night. Hot tubs were a staple of The Sims 2 and returned to The Sims 3 by popular demand. With the addition of roof-top decks complete with steamy hot tubs, voyeurism reached new heights.
The Sims 3 Late Night
The Sims 2

2.       Haystacks Hay is not just for horses! The Sims 3 Pets gave players a new reason to raise a barn. Itch cream unfortunately not included.
The Sims 3 Pets

3.       Dog houses For the first time in The Sims, players saw through the eyes of their furry friends in The Sims 3 Pets. What better way to get in on the action than with some playful WooHooing? Remember, when the dog house is a-rockin, don’t come a knockin’….
The Sims 3 Pets

4.       Photo Booth A picture says a thousand words…. Do you dare WooHoo with the lights on? The Sims 3 Showtime brought this WooHoo spot back from The Sims 2 Nightlife, reminding us that there are few spaces too small to get it on.
The Sims 3 Showtime
The Sims 2 Nightlife

5.       Box of Mystery Magicians shouldn’t be the only ones allowed to unlock life’s mysteries. Asking for volunteers took on a whole new meaning in The Sims 3 Showtime.
The Sims 3 Showtime

6.       Tree house The Sims 3 Generations lets you live life to the fullest and maybe even create a new life or two. Get frisky in a backyard tree house, but cross your fingers that it was built with a sturdy foundation… and watch out for nosy neighbors!
The Sims 3 Generations

7.       Time Machine Who wants to time-travel without their boo? The time machine in The Sims 3 Ambitions allows love to cross the bounds of centuries while WooHooing through time.
The Sims 3 Ambitions

8.       Actor’s Trailer The Sims 3 Late Night brought back another fan favorite from The Sims Superstar with the actor’s trailer, bringing new meaning to the term “working lunch.”
The Sims 3 Late Night
The Sims Superstar

Best Score:

Winner: Mass Effect 3
Developer: BioWare
Publisher: BioWare
Composer: Sam Hullick, Christopher Lennertz and others
Platforms: PC (Origin), PS3, Xbox 360, Wii U (€30-40)

Though Mass Effect 3 did not have the services of series veteran composer Jack Wall Mass Effect 3 nevertheless had an astounding soundtrack with tracks such as A Future for the Krogan offering a more than satisfactory reflection of the game it was based around. 

Assassin's Creed 3 also provided an excellent soundtrack (arguably the best thing about that particular game. NB: I love the series consider the last two installments to have been disappointments). The game's main theme is a particular standout. 

Another notable mention is Halo 4 which, like all titles in the series, has a superb OST. Blue and Green as well as Awakening being just two of the tracks to stand out here.

Best New IP:

Winner: Dishonored
Developer: Arkane Studios
Publisher: Bethesda 
Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360, PC (€45-55)

In Dishonored Arkane produced a game with a world that made sense, stood out amid it's competitors and enticed you to experiment with different forms of gameplay. Corvo's quest for retribution or redemption proved to be one of the most original of the year with the diverse, often gloomy, setting of the game becoming the empress' bodyguard's playground.

Characters with ulterior motives and a story-line perhaps more closely resembling Game of Thrones than anything in the videogame world (including the actual Game of Thrones games) made the title stand out as few have in recent years.

Best Indie Game:

Winner: Papo & Yo
Developer: Minority
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Platform: PlayStation Network (PS3) (€15)

There aren't many games that can make you truly care but Papo & Yo does. Making this all the more remarkable was that there was barely any speech in the game and what little there was came in what the developers call "Latin gibberish", a language they invented to convey the Brazilian favela-esque game space.

I won't spoil it for you but if you're looking for a relatively short game that more than rewards your investment than Papo & Yo is it.

Best Graphics:

Winner: Halo 4
Developer: 343 Industries, Certain Affinity
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Platform: Xbox 360 (€50-60)

Halo: Combat Evolved set a visual threshold when it was released in 2001. Eleven years later Halo 4, 343's first entirely new entry in the series, has done it again.

Halo 4 is arguably the best looking game on the Xbox 360, a remarkable feat given the now nearly seven year old nature of the technology within the system. While Halo may not match the trumpeted 60 frames per second of Call of Duty it ultimately didn't matter. Halo 4 has set a benchmark in graphical integrity and is, in that regard, the Xbox 360's Uncharted.

Biggest Disappointment:

Winner (loser?): Assassin's Creed 3
Developer: Ubisoft
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platforms: PC, PS3, Xbox 360, WiiU

Assassin's Creed 3, set in the American War of Independence promised - if you'll the phrase - a revolution akin to the jump from Assassin's Creed to Assassin's Creed 2. Instead it delivered a game which ranks with Revelations at the bottom of the pile.

I am an Assassin's Creed fan, massively so, yet the newest installment failed to deliver. It was not due to tiredness, as was the case with Revelations, but rather to a combination of ideas which simply didn't work.

The Assassin's Creed template was never designed for more modern styles of warfare, particularly the open battles that Connor was forced to run through. Similarly the loading and firing of muskets - whilst historically accurate - were to slow for any practical gameplay use.

Similarly the game suffered from a protracted tutorial and a core character who simply wasn't especially likable.

It had it's moments of course and the score was excellent but one indication of the game's problems is that Ubisoft have had to issue a patch to make some of the chases easier. That says a lot about how this game plays.

In addition to which a host of bugs spoiled many gamer's playthroughs and the engine, including the graphics, appeared to suffer on current gen systems.

I differ from most people on two points however, I have no love - at all - for the naval battles and I, for one, rather liked the ending.

There were far worse games this year and as much as I may complained about Mass Effect 3 I consider Assassin's Creed 3 to be the most disappointing game of 2012.

Biggest Entirely Avoidable Controversy: 

Winner: Borderland 2's 'Girlfriend Mode'

When Eurogamer posted a piece on Borderlands 2 they no doubt thought both parties would mutually benefit. Eurogamer because it would drive hits to the site and Gearbox would have the added publicity. In the end both of these happened though not for the reasons they anticipated.

Borderlands 2 Mechromancer mode, essentially an ultra-easy version of the game for newcomers, was referred to as a Girlfriend Mode - which suggested that women are poorer gamers than men. Certainly there are more male gamers (in the core market at least) than women gamers (as as aside most of my friends on Xbox Live and PlayStation Network are actually female) but that certainly doesn't make them better.

The problem may not have been so big, were it not for the fact that this was a one-off slip of the tongue. Apparently this was the in-studio phrase regularly used to describe the option. Studio president Randy Pitchford was forced into collateral damage mode on twitter.

The controversy was picked up widely and might marked one of the main points of the year in which sexism in the industry was thoroughly placed under the spotlight.

The Bad Year in the Game Industry Award:

Winner: BioWare (and, by extension, EA)

Much of what happened to BioWare in 2012 was arguably beyond their control. Having spent $150-200 on Star Wars: The Old Republic the game eventually became free-to-play until level 15 (the announcement coming at E3) only a few months later the studio announced the game would go free-to-play until level 50.

This wasn't totally a failure on BioWare's part EA sent Star Wars out with an outdated subscription model that, in theory, only World of Warcraft can continue to utilise (subscriptions for WoW actually increased according to Activision-Blizzard's latest quarterly earnings report). The studio possibly also over estimated the power of the Star Wars brand when developing the game. SWTOR is, according to reports, the most expensive game of all time, this should allay any fears that the next Mass Effect will be an MMO, EA are not going to stump up the credit for another BioWare title of that nature anytime soon.

But of course BioWare had more problems than SWTOR this year.

First came the novel Mass Effect Deception, penned by William C. Dietz. The previous books had been written by Mass Effect 1 & 2 lead writer Drew Karpyshyn. It was clear not far into the book that Dietz was not familiar with the material. A cacophony of errors plagued the text so much so that the resulting furor caused BioWare to announce the book would be rewritten.

In fact some fans were so annoyed they burnt their copies of Deception. The full list of errors can be found here.

Then came the eagerly anticipated Mass Effect 3. No doubt you're well aware of the uproar over the ending and subsequent Extended Cut BioWare released to 'fix' it.

And finally studio founders Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuck retired from the company.

Hopefully, with Dragon Age 3 coming from Edmonton and the next Mass Effect on the way from Montreal - both using DICE's frostbite engine - BioWare will have a better 2013 (and beyond) than 2012.

The Very Bad Year in the Game Industry Award:

Winner: Zynga and THQ (honorable mention: Sony)

There's simply no flattering way to describe Zynga's or THQ's year. Resignations racked both companies, as did lawsuits. Both fell have posted horrible financial results and it looks as if THQ may not survive (though their IPs will undoubtedly be snapped up by EA, Activision or possibly Ubisoft after the publisher's president expressed an interest).

Meanwhile Sony was also met with a very poor 2012. Poor financials ultimately causing credit rating agency Fitch to downgrade the firm to 'junk' status.

Sony's game division - one of the company's best performing divisions over recent years - also suffered as an effect of lagging retail sales and a lack of major AAA exclusives. The PlayStation Vita meanwhile suffered from poor hardware sales despite strong software.

Nevertheless Sony has made some acquisitions during the year acquiring online streaming service Gaikai for €294 million and buying a stake in troubled Japanese camera maker Olympus for €471 million.

Sony may yet have a chance to turn themselves around under Kazuo Hirai's leadership but for now at least they're not a good position.

THQ may yet be able to pull off a last minute credit deal to save themselves though the prospect is tenuous at best. Many of the firm's licenses will likely be snapped up by other publishers should the company collapse but there's no guarantee that THQ's studios will also be saved.

Zynga may yet save itself if it can diversify to other platforms and expand in the mobile space.

Game of the Year:

Winner: Halo 4
Developer: 343 Industries, Certain Affinity
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Platform: Xbox 360 (€50-60)

It can, and has, been argued that 343's first entirely new entry in the Halo series is a love story of sorts wrapped around a first person shooter. And certainly it says something videogame relationships that the Chief connection to Cortana - a largely Aristotelian affair due to the fact that Cortana is, well, an AI - proves to be one of the most endearing in recent titles. This is not least because of Jennifer Taylor's superb voice acting (for which she has been nominated for a VGA).

But of course the focus of Halo is the combat, and the evolution (apologies), of the series under 343's stewardship.

Despite the initial reservations of many series fans Halo 4 is classic Halo, which is a very good thing indeed and probably the finest the FPS in quite some time. As I've already discussed the game benefits from excellent graphics and a near flawless soundtrack yet most importantly it looks and it feels like a Bungie game.

While new enemies, the Prometheans, offer the Chief access to new weapons, these tools can, in the right hands, prove just as deadly as the Covenant's or the UNSC's but feel far more alien, made all the more appropriate perhaps as a method of signifying the Prometheans origins - and their transformation.

Halo 4 isn't a perfect game, arguably the customisation options were better in Halo: Reach, and while the general pacing of the game is to be commended the ending can perhaps be considered a little awkward (at least I found it so) to play, yet it comes very close.

Perhaps most importantly what we can take away from this game is that the future of Microsoft's most important franchise is secure even if Bungie have moved on to new pastures.

The One to Watch: 

Winner: Beyond: Two Souls (honorable mentions: The Last of Us, Tomb Raider)
Developer: Quantic Dream
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment 
Platform: PlayStation 3 
Estimated launch: 2013

There are a lot of games coming out next year and with the PlayStation 4 and Xbox Next likely to be released during 2013 there are undoubtedly some we aren't aware of. There are of course the major releases such as Grand Theft Auto V and Modern Warfare IV (for which rumours have already surfaced) as well as The Last of Us, Bioshock: Infinite and Tomb Raider. There are also smaller titles like Tearaway and Puppeteer.

But the one I'm most interested in, for now at least, is Quantic Dream's Beyond: Two Souls. The French studio's next titles was one of the biggest announcements of an otherwise staid E3 and though rumours emerged about the title in the hours before launch the stunning trailer - using entirely in-game footage - helped edge Sony past the competition (The Last of Us also contributed to what I believe was a third consecutive E3 'win' for Sony), at least among the big three - Ubisoft, most agree, had the best overall media briefing even if the host was rather annoying.

Quantic Dream illustrated their commitment to emotional storytelling in Heavy Rain which, whilst a flawed titled, was highly effective in what it set out to do. They demonstrated this capacity to affect players again with the tech demo Kara (which will sadly never be released as a full product). Yes the E3 trailer showed off explosions and car chases but much of it revolved around the characters within it and how they interacted.

Beyond concerns our understanding of death and promises to be an incredible journey. It may not be to everyone's taste when it launches but David Cage's next game builds on a strong tradition and if it can lift the level of videogame narratives than there's certainly no harm in that.

Best New Videogame Blog:

Winner: The Videogame Dynamic. ;)

18 November 2012

As The WiiU Launches What Are Its Prospects?

Last night, at midnight, the WiiU launched in North America. The reviews were soon to follow yet the system's online operations are not fully functional and frankly to review a console at this stage is simply disingenuous.

However, we can garner some impressions and offer some expectations even before the console launches in Europe on November 30th.

Nintendo intends to proposition the WiiU as a console for everyone, from the most casual of players to the most dedicated segments of the core market. If Sony can take credit for opening gaming to the mainstream with the first PlayStation - and to a greater extent - with the PlayStation 2 than Nintendo can surely be praised for expanding the market to demographics which would never before have purchased videogames.

Undoubtedly the Wii reached family audiences in a way gaming never had but to carry that audience forward is an entirely different proposition. The WiiU has enormous potential in the social space with MiiVerse and there are the staples of Nintendo's formidable first-party lineup to encourage casual gamers to part with their cash however the market is radically different than it was when the Wii first launched, in more ways than one.

While many families purchased the Wii for the novelty factor of motion control in all probability those the consoles have been left to gather dust. Even those casual gamers which continue to use the Wii for titles like Wii Fit and Wii Sports will likely be unaware of the WiiU. There are a number of reasons for this, firstly by their very definition casual gamers cannot, and should not, be expected to keep themselves appraised of the latest trends and technologies in the gaming world.

The second reason is that the Wii offered something intrinsically new and was a distinct departure from the GameCube. It had a new name, new marketing, new logo and of course motion control. The WiiU keeps all of these aspects none of which are new today. Of course Sony and Microsoft kept the name for their consoles the same with each generation (there is even some speculation that Microsoft will simply call the next Xbox Xbox).

What differentiates Sony and Microsoft however is that they not primarily game companies. Sony is a consumer electronics maker (though under Kaz Hirai gaming is set to form a pillar of Sony's business) while Microsoft is principally a computer software giant.

Nintendo only makes games, though organically they produced cards and toys, and so with Nintendo the name of the console matters less than the company behind it. The Wii illustrated that nicely. Each time Sony launches a new PlayStation or Microsoft reveals a new Xbox there is a concerted marketing campaign to clarify to the gaming, as well as the general, public that here is a shiny new system for you to spend your money on.

When the WiiU was originally revealed at E3 2010 many in the audience were unaware whether Nintendo was showing them a new console or simply a new controller. While I gathered quickly that was in fact the Wii's successor (not intended as a boast by any means) some of the journalists and industry insiders present at the event were confounded. Even by E3 2011 CNN's technology correspondent at the event thought the WiiU controller was simply an update for the Wii.

And while that journalist was not specifically a game reporter one would expect him keep on top of such things. If Nintendo has that kind of trouble with the initial reaction of the E3 press and industry figures it is surely not a stretch to say they'll have significantly greater trouble with the casual market. This is hampered, in Europe at least, by the seeming absence of any concerted marketing campaign. The WiiU launches on the continent in just 12 days.

It would be interesting to know what percentage of the Wii's ownership are even aware of the WiiU's existence. At a guess I would hazard about a third and certainly less than half.

For the other sector of the market, the core gamer demographic, Nintendo has other methods to try and illicit interest in their new system.

First and foremost of course are the games. Nintendo, as stated previously, has a formidable first party collection to choose from and while making titles such as Bayonetta 2 an exclusive was in theory a good idea  as it essentially says "we're taking core gaming seriously again."

In practice Bayonetta was not a particularly successful title commercially and while it has an avid fan-base it's difficult to determine how may players will fork over €300 to play the followup. Other titles such as Batman: Arkham City, Mass Effect 3 and Assassin's Creed 3 - while great for Nintendo gamers - are unlikely to sway anyone either. All of these titles have of course already been released on other platforms.

Of course there are new IPs for the system as well. Ubisoft's ZombiU for instance is a launch title, initial reviews have been somewhat mediocre however while Nintendo Land is a mixed bag by all accounts. In effect there are no must buy titles for the system announced to date. A console's launch lineup does not, by any means, reflect the eventual success of the system.

The 3DS is widely considered to have had Nintendo's weakest ever array of launch window titles while the PlayStation Vita had the strongest in Sony's history. The 3DS has since had a remarkable change in fortunes while the Vita has undeservedly sunk.

Yet for the moment at least, Nintendo has failed to offer a compelling reason to buy a Wii U beyond the early adapters. As with the 3DS this might in time change and certainly given supply problems, which seems likely, there will be a high sell through which is likely to last for some months although this period of extremely high sales will almost certainly be shorter than it was for the Wii.

The market has changed since 2006, Nintendo is selling for €50 more than the Wii and while the €300 pricetag is far from the highest launch price it will certainly be a deterrent for the casual market and, given the limited advances over existing systems, will likely prove a difficult buy for core gamers conscious that the next Xbox and PlayStation are likely 12 - 18 months away at most.

Casual gamers are likely satisfied with their Androids and iPads and propositioning a €50 game compared to €0.99 apps is almost certainly a non-starter. The bulk of the casual market is lost to the console business and this will be reflected in the sales of all three next generation systems. Nintendo, which so carefully cultivated this segment, will bear the brunt of this decline.

This is not to say consoles are doomed, not by any means, they will likely continue to play an important role in gaming for many years to come but it will be a significantly reduced one.

This generation of home consoles has, to date, seen combined sales of around 230 million (made up of about 95 million Wiis, 70 millions Xbox 360s and 67 million PS3s). It would be astounding if the fourth generation replicated those numbers given the proliferation of smartphones and tables as alternative game playing devices. The overwhelming majority of iPad owners use the system for gaming after all.

Similarly the economy will have eaten away at the spending power of all sectors of the market. €300 may be half the cost of the PlayStation 3 when it launched but the Wii U is being sent into an economy racked by years of redundancies and austerity. €300 is a significant investment in those circumstances for a luxury product which Nintendo have failed to compellingly sell up to this point.

There are other matters to consider. The WiiU's online capabilities will not likely be known fully until there are title's available to take advantage of the Nintendo Network. However we can make some guesses as to how Nintendo's position has evolved. Firstly the fact that games will be available in retail and digitally at the same time is to welcomed, it is the inevitable progression of the industry.

Yet the 8GB WiiU model has a mere 3GB of space for downloads after mandatory system installs. This coupled with fact that the console does not support system wide achievements, a staple on virtually all rival platforms and not just consoles, indicates that though Nintendo has made some progress it has not yet fully grasped online gaming. The absence of achievements are unlikely to deter those interested in the consoles yet early games with the accolades on both Xbox 360 and PS3 boasted enhanced sales for certain titles for some time.

Initial reports also say that players can do nothing during firmware downloads and in that regard it seems Nintendo have not learnt from Sony's mistake with the PlayStation Network either.

Then there is the GamePad controller. This is the WiiU's unique selling point and yet, for that, it is not all that unique. Apple to some degree provide that capability iPad and Apple TV whill Sony have for years offered remote play for both the PSP and the PS Vita and even Nintendo has offered a similar experience with the GameBoy and GameCube in the past.

And personally the best use of the 'WiiU's technology' I've seen was at Sony's gamescom media briefing where they demoed LittleBigPlanet 2 using the Vita as the controller.

I have not personally used a WiiU though I remain doubtful as to the ease with which gamers will determine which screen they're supposed to look at. While the Pro Controller, once again Nintendo's way of demonstrating their commitment to the core market has a serious flaw. The sticks are in the 'wrong' place.

By moving the sticks above the buttons on the Pro Controller Nintendo have replicated the layout of the GamePad disrupted years of accepted controller layout and done so unnecessarily at that. A second can be enough to see you die in some games and if you've been playing Call of Duty on Xbox all these years a misstep like that won't encourage you to play on WiiU instead. Perseverance would no doubt lead to familiarity but Nintendo's efforts to fix something that wasn't broken is somewhat questionable.

Ultimately it is too early to determine what success the WiiU might have however I submit for the record my belief that the WiiU will not share the Wii's success, in the long term, at least and shall shift around half of its predecessors numbers. That's still a very respectable 35-50 million and certainly better than the GameCube performed.

I also stand by my assessment - which I have held since the console was first revealed - that the WiiU is a gimmick, attempting to be all things to all people, and one again purporting to revolutionise gaming. The WiiU cannot do these things though Nintendo should never be discounted and they might pull off another winner in this new generation though I do not think this is likely.

I'd like to be surprised by Nintendo. I really would.

14 November 2012

The Power Of The Atom: Fallout 3's Megaton

Upon exiting Vault 101 Fallout 3 players are temporarily blinded by a searing white light, it's a symbolic moment. After living underground for your entire life you feel the natural light of the sun for the very first time.

It's one of many such moments. The majority of players will find themselves in the nearby town of Megaton, named, you soon discover, for the un-detonated nuclear bomb around which the town was built and resolving The Power of the Atom, the quest which revolves around this weapon, is perhaps the most potent reflection of Fallout 3's world.

The seeming absurdity of this scenario - who on Earth would choose to live in the crater on an atomic bomb?  - serves two purposes. The first is to explain, principally to series' newcomers, the importance of nuclear energy to the Fallout universe.

Before the apocalyptic war of 2077 there was Nuka Cola (radioactive soda) which people willingly drank, well aware of the isotopes within. There was Vault-Tech, a company predicated on the basis of selling slots in secure underground Vaults in order to allow some to survive the inevitability of a nuclear war. There was, in essence, a fascination with the terrible finality of nuclear power.

After the war is almost makes sense for some at least to worship the bomb. Nuclear fire cleansed the world in fire, could the atom not do so again? The ridiculousness of their belief is somewhat excusable given the harshness of the world the people of Megaton find themselves in. It's also notable that the principal reason for Megaton's location was the aspiration of one day being granted access to Vault 101.

In other words, the prospect of permanent resident in an ancient confined vault proved more alluring than the threat of potential nuclear annihilation. That shows the horrifically brutal world of Fallout to players, in most cases, very early on in the game.

The second purpose of Megaton being constructed in this most unlikely of places is in order to introduce the game's morality system: karma. At no other point in the game is the decision quite so stark, detonate the bomb - killing perhaps two dozen people, the equivalent in this depopulated world of tens of thousands - or ensuring its permanent deactivation.

Indeed, the reasoning for leveling Megaton is to create a better view for eccentric British expat Alistair Tenpenny. Such a trivial and base reason for destroying a town, one of the Capitol Wasteland's few successful settlements, proved illuminating and a valuable introduction to karma which few games with similar moral compasses provide, at least not so early on and not with such distinctly different outcomes to your choice.

The choice offered players the dual perspective of seeing Tenpenny's childish glee at the destruction of the city and the cool contrast with Mister Burke, who expresses a restrained form of awe when the bomb lights up the horizon. In this manner the Bethesda revealed the nature of the game and the player.

If you saved the town or hurl it into oblivion you likely remember it and played the rest of the game in reflection of your decision. You may not remember much of Fallout 3 but chances are you remember The Power of the Atom or as I've dubbed it: How I learned to stop caring and love the bomb.

And if you choose not to complete the quest than you illustrated the nature of Bethesda's games and the prominence of player freedom within.

Now all that's needed is a Dr. Strangelove cameo.

11 November 2012

One Year On: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, released one year ago today proved to be a phenomenal success both commercially and critically for Bethesda. It was likely always going to be, launched even as it was within days of titles such as Modern Warfare 3 and Assassin's Creed Revelations, following the stunning reveal of the title at 2010's Video Game Awards.

Though the fifth installment in the series it would not be until Skyrim's release that the The Elder Scrolls brand truly made waves, selling ten times as well at launch as Oblivion, the previous entry in the franchise.  

Skyrim also marked the first game in the series to be released simultaneously on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC. The Gamebryo engine had had it's fair share of glitches and bugs - some where hilarious and harmless, others irritating and even game breaking. 

So Skyrim, with an all new engine should have put those issues to rest, of course that didn't happen. As with Gamebyro the Creation Engine's problems were most acutely felt on the PS3 where extreme lag hampered the launch on the console. 

Also notable is that months after both Dawnguard and Hearthfire's release those expansions still have not arrived on the system. 

Bethesda recently tweeted "we're also close on new Skyrim content for PS3 and PC."

Not much of an update at all, really. Yet that is what PS3 gamers have had to suffice with - it should be noted that neither Dawnguard or Hearthfire are particularly outstanding or necessary additions to the game but that is utterly besides the point, particularly with Dragonborn already announced and on the way for the Xbox 360.

Being unfamiliar with the PS3's architecture was a reasonable argument in 2007. In 2012 it simply isn't.

However, the game is more than just the difficulties it has faced. As an RPG it is difficult to find one more expansive (though if you're looking for a large fantasy RPG this year's Kingdom of Amalur: Reckoning is certainly worth a look). 

Skyrim may not be able to compete with the characterisation of BioWare's Dragon Age or with the plot of a more narrowly focused RPG - strong narratives are inherently difficult to marry to open world titles - indeed the Civil War quests proved particularly weak in that regard however the core plot was significant improvement on Oblivion. 

I can't comment on Morrowind, Daggerfall, or Arena having never played them.

The Elder Scrolls can never quite make you love your character the same way a BioWare title can, as a blank state and with your character's background is largely (in terms of the plot) irrelevant this would be very difficult feat to pull off for any developer. It is also the Elder Scrolls' greatest asset. 

The Elder Scrolls is ultimately about freedom. Few games have enough diversity that, theoretically, having completed the opening level you need never return to the main quest-line. There are the side and miscellaneous quests as well the guild missions each the length of many other entire games. 

Skryim creates a world and if you want you can save the world from dragons or simply chase the butterflies. This is, and always will be, The Elder Scrolls' greatest asset.     

07 November 2012

Reflections On Five Years Of Mass Effect

When - in the August of 2009 and almost two years after Mass Effect was originally released - I walked into GAME branch in the Ilac Centre which, like all GAME stores in Ireland, is now gone I saw the Classics' Edition of Mass Effect sitting on the shelf. I had never heard of it yet I bought it nonetheless.

And I am eternally grateful that I did.

Mass Effect was a not a perfect title by any means. At its core however was what remains the strongest RPG in the series to date as well as one of the best games of all time. To some extent both the graphics and gameplay were gimmicky and both control of the Mako and combat were largely viewed negatively by the community.

Indeed such was the hostility to the Mako that driving, and by extension planetary exploration, were all but cut from the subsequent titles. This was an opportunity for refinement, not elimination even so the combat and Mako were sufficiently small aspects of the massive entity that was Mass Effect as to make their overall impact negligible - or at least inconsequential when compared to the overall experience.

The game's true strength lay in the complexity and believable nature of the world BioWare had created. With massive areas to discover such as the Citadel's central area, the Presidium and characters that players would learn not simply to endure but to actively love and if possible, pursue as a romantic interest in the game.

The naivety of Liara which some considered over-stated felt to be alluring by others. While Garrus and Wrex were the very essence of powerful, substantive NPC's who didn't need your help, something many games still cannot properly balance and Tali, at once innocent and yet also decidedly deathly. Of course there were the human squadmates as well. Ashley, who had a complicated history with aliens and Kaidan, who won many hearts - on and off the battlefield.

At the opposing end of the spectrum was most notably Saren who remains to this day one of the most powerful antagonists in videogames.

And then there was the music, if Halo showed the world how important music could be to a game experience Mass Effect cemented the score of a game as one of its potentially defining features. The synth-style soundtrack complimented the game in a way which few titles, with the exception of Mass Effect 2 & 3, have been able to replicate.

Mass Effect 2 came with high expectations and delivered beyond most of them. Criticised by some for the removal of RPG elements in an attempt to reach a broader audience and by others for essentially distracting away from the main goal of the trilogy's story arc - defeating the Reapers - by instead concentrating on the Collectors, a race in thrall to the Reapers.

Some also argued that their Commander Shepard would never cooperate with Cerberus, a terrorist organisation and one the first human spectre had often battled against in Mass Effect though in hindsight it's clear that BioWare were not aware of the transformation Cerberus would undergo from Mass Effect to Mass Effect 2 when they began.

This sequel was a game about people. It was a game wherein the majority of the missions involved either hiring squadmates and then earning their loyalty. Over this course of this game you found characters to love (or to hate) - I have previously written of my affection for Miranda but there were a host of memorable NPCs returning to the game or newly added.

The salarian doctor Mordin, the thief Kasumi, the justicar Samara. They were personalities with depth something rare in so many titles. And yet again the score for the games was superb. The Illusive Man, the End Run, Suicide Mission to name but a few remain some of the finest tracks to be committed to a videogame or indeed any piece of entertainment.

No post on the Mass Effect trilogy can justifiably ignore the controversy surrounding the ending of the series. Mass Effect 3 was wonderful game, make no mistake, yet the ending ruined both it and the trilogy for some. Others merely felt that BioWare could, and should, have done significantly better. Regardless BioWare listened and implemented the Extended Cut DLC. No not everyone was satisfied, the developer admitted before releasing the additional content that that would be the case.

Regardless of how the ending was originally handled or whether the Extended Cut was enough BioWare listened and distributed the content for free. They should be regarded most highly for trying, even if they haven't met everyone's expectations - an impossible feat.

Without Mass Effect 1 & 2's main writer and score composer Mass Effect 3 still provides for an epic experience and an excellent game. Even if things fell apart at the end.

There will be more Mass Effect and though that will be without Commander Shepard and I'm once again grateful for walking into that shop and buying a game I had never heard of. I always will be.

Happy N7 Day everyone.


02 November 2012

The State of Games: Tutorials

Virtually every game has them, they've become such a part of gaming culture that tutorials are things we simply must grin and bear - even if they are ultimately unnecessary - but the question is, why?

Anyone who picked up Pokemon Black 2 or White 2 played through the early stages which will be familiar to anyone who has ever played a Pokemon title. I selected my starter (the water Pokemon Oshawatt if you're interested) and received my Pokedex, all well and good.

But then the tutorials set in. You're asked if you know how to use the running shoes, you respond with an affirmative and you're talked through it anyway, this feature has never changed in a Pokemon game, all you have to do is press B in the direction you want to go. One wonders why gamers are given an option at all if you're going to be talked through the process anyway.

This was followed by another tutorial showing you how to catch Pokemon, which cannot be skipped. This too is an element of the series which has never changed, lower your Pokemon's health as far as possible, throw a Pokeball and hope it goes in. If GameFreak ever choose to change how this process works then yes, there should be a tutorial even for veteran series' players but until that point in time you shouldn't be made to sit through it and you do have to sit through it.

By that I mean you don't even have control during the tutorial, an NPC shows you how it's done and then advises that you follow her lead in future. You're not even given the opportunity to try it for yourself in a practice environment if you're a novice player.

I am not alone in pondering the state of tutorials in games today.

Last year former Epic producer Cliff Bleszinski  tweeted: "In a world of YouTube, wikis, and forums one can't help but wonder if this connected generation even needs tutorials in their games."

I think he's wrong about this. Some aspects of a game can be tough to grasp from reading about it on a wiki or even from seeing it done on YouTube. There is something to be said too for discovering how to play a game on your own. I have been compelled to use these services to help play many games but the fact is sometimes there isn't any help available or what assistance is out there just isn't enough. Sometimes you'll play a game before people have been able to make guides.

Some of you no doubt remember the controversy last August over what Gearbox developers internally referred as 'Girlfriend Mode' in Borderlands 2. It was a poor choice of words, inferring that women were inherently inferior gamers, which is by no means the case, however the core concept of the mode - essentially a version of the game for new players or noobs - was sound, there is even an argument to be made that a similar option should be available in far more titles.

While Girlfriend Mode wasn't the actual name of this feature, the Mechromancer skill tree, the concept of somewhat leveling the playing field should be welcomed as a potential means of enticing non-gamers into the fold. If you've never held a controller before it can undoubtedly be a daunting prospect to try to master.

Should there be tutorials? Yes, of course, but if, fundamentally the mechanics haven't changed as in Pokemon or even Assassin's Creed free running sections they should at least be optional. A possibility to consider is the Uncharted series' feature whereby at certain points of the game you can choose to push the right stick to highlight something important.

You don't have to do it and the camera is only taken off your hands if you choose to do so and returned immediately once you drop the right stick. If this same mechanic could be applied to tutorials than many of the problems that exist within this gaming staple would surely no longer be problems. Alternatively developers could endeavour for that rarest of tutorials, one where it's not clear you're playing a tutorial at all.