31 December 2012

Five Games to Look for in 2013

5) Bioshock Infinite

Ken Levine's latest work has all the hallmarks of the original entry in the series and in Columbia, the floating city where the game takes place, has the potential to forge an atmosphere every bit as dynamic as that created by gloomy Rapture. 

There's also the potential too for a compelling story created around the relationship between Booker De Witt and AI companion Elizabeth. Recent controversy over Elizabeth's relegation to the back of the box aside Infinite may well be the game that helps define player's connections to NPC's for many years to come. 

Levine has said he wants Elizabeth to be at least as good as his favorite AI companion, Half Life 2's Alyx Vance, lofty goals but if anyone can carry it off it's Irrational. 

4) DMC 

Many fans are, or at least were, outraged when Ninja Theory were revealed as the developers of the new Devil May Cry with a new 'emo' Dante to boot. 

But the game's trailers have done much to allay the fears of series' veterans while Ninja Theory's storytelling flair mixed with Capcom's fluid combat mechanics ought to create something special. While it may not be traditional Devil May Cry that isn't necessarily a bad thing. 

3) Tomb Raider 

Crystal Dynamics' latest foray into Lara Croft's story is, as you no doubt know, an origin story. Lara isn't the heroine female equivalent of Indiana Jones, she's a new Lara and for at least part of the game she wants nothing more than to survive and escape. 

Tomb Raider had to change in light of Uncharted's runaway success in recent years and by the looks of it the series has changed for the better. Combat, always a weakpoint in the franchise, will be key to seeing just how far Lara's come as will exploration. 

The inclusion of multiplayer, while controversial with some fans, need not be a negative factor though that remains to be seen. 

2) The Last of Us

Which isn't to say the developers over at Naughty Dog are going to give Irrational the monopoly on compelling relationship-centric stories. 

Naughty Dog surprised everyone with the announcement of The Last of Us at the VGA's last year and we're promised everything that's made the studio famous. The dynamic exchanges between characters set against beautifully rendered environments ought to provide for a unforgettable experience worthy of the studio that brought us Uncharted. 

And while some might look at The Last of Us and think 'another zombie game!?' they're doing themselves a disservice. Naughty Dog rarely fail to deliver and we might just be looking at the PlayStation 3's magnum opus. 

1) Beyond: Two Souls

Leaked mere hours before Sony's E3 media briefing, a relatively impressive feat in this industry, Beyond still managed to surprise and delight many with it's trailer which focused on Ellen Paige's character being questioned by the police. 

One of the few trailers of E3 without widespread violence (though there were explosions near the end) Quantic Dream demonstrated the improvements they've made to their technology since Heavy Rain which, while a flawed game, set a benchmark for emotive storytelling. 

Perhaps Kara, the tech demo the studio revealed earlier this year, may have been a more interesting project ultimately but Beyond has plenty of things to worth getting excited for. 

Five Top Gaming Moments in 2012

5) Curing the Genophage - Mass Effect 3 

Whatever other criticisms you might have of BioWare's latest entry in their sci-fi opus it delivered some truly spectacular moments. Priority Tuchanka: Cure the Genophage was one of them. 

This missions allowed for players to not only learn more about the krogan - the reptile like species that hale from the planet - such as their artistic expression before nuclear war laid waste to the planet but also introduced Kalros, the mother of all thresher maws. One of the core cutscenes of this mission even has kalros take down a Reaper.

Also standing out is the section where you're tasked with summoning Kalros, a frantic section which sees you dashing through krogan ruins while the reaper's massive legs crash down mere meters away even as brutes rain from the sky. 

And then there's the conclusion to the mission, which has the potential to be very saddening indeed. Mass Effect 3 may have failed to interweave and fulfill Commander Shepard's story but in this at least BioWare's writers where on top form. 

 4) Have I ever told you the definition of insanity? - Far Cry 3  

Ubisoft's media briefing was the highlight of an otherwise dull E3 which saw Assassin's Creed 3 and even, amazingly, something completely unknown beforehand with Watchdogs. But the game that caught many by surprise this year was Far Cry 3. 

Questionable sex scene aside Far Cry 3's trailer delivered on what it set to do, putting the game on many people's radars while also revealing just how extreme life on the island could be. Vaas is an unusual videogame villain in that not only is he unusually well developed as a character he also chillingly manic. 

There are many highlights in Far Cry 3 but Vaas is definitely one of them. Oh, you can also blow up rabid dogs with a rocket launcher, that's cool, right? 

3) Assassin's Creed 3 E3 Trailer

There was always something that told me the Assassin's Creed story would be better suited to the French Revolution that the American but Ubisoft did an excellent job in marketing the game with the E3 trailer driving away my doubts (all of which I think were proven correct by the final product) still it would be completely untrue to say I wasn't blown away by what they showed, so much so that I picked up the Freedom Edition at midnight, the first time I have ever done so. 

In the end I consider Assassin's Creed 3 to be a significant let down on par with Revelations at the bottom of the pile, I even named it the most disappointing game of the year (which is not to say it was the worst by any means). 

Still watching the trailer below I can remember being very excited about this game. 

2) Master Chief and Cortana - Halo 4

343 Industries laid to rest any doubts as to their ability to carry the Halo franchise forward with Halo 4 with a slightly darker story then what's come before in the series and solid gameplay Halo 4 is an excellent choice for shooter fans everywhere.

Part of the appeal though is the tender relationship between Master Chief and his AI companion Cortana. More than a mere friendship it could be argued that Halo 4 is a shooter wrapped around a love story (and no, not that kind of lover story). 

Without wanting to give too much away it shall be interesting to see what Chief does next and whether we'll see his blue partner again. 

1) Restoring Lady Emily to the throne - Dishonoured

Not so much the moment itself but rather the whole of Corvo's tale is worthy of praise. His betrayal and fall from grace - the dishonour of the game's title - to his quest for redemption and second betrayal and eventual rise. Of course, this only happens in one of Dishonoured's possible walkthroughs but there is something satisfying about seeing the young girl you rescue, not once but twice, ascend as Empress Emily. 

Wrapped around sound gameplay and with the unusual novelty so late in a cycle of being a successful new IP - as well as the Pratchett-esque flair and steam-punk aesthetic - there will hopefully much more to see and do in Dunwall or anywhere else in Corvo's world. 

13 December 2012

Mass Effect PS3 Review

Mass Effect was originally released on PC and Xbox 360 in 2007 and to some degree the PlayStation 3 version of the game - released more than five years later - show it. Mass Effect's problems, borne more of outdated game design choices than anything else, ultimately prove to be a minor detractor from the overall experience BioWare created.

If you've played Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 or you're simply looking for an excellent RPG than the original entry in the series is unmissable and is the best version of the game released on console to date. Motion blur is all but eliminated as is visual tear while the frame rate is less likely to drop below 30 FPS, although this does occur often when driving.

Similarly frame rates within cutscenes are much improved while texture pop-in is all but eliminated due to the requirement to install the game, which takes quite some time. Regrettably the implementation of shadows within the game is far from perfect, particularly with regard to people's faces and Shepard's hairstyle is far from smooth (though it never was), with sharp lines and edges as if the barber's hand slipped and the Commander let it be, though of course, that's a minor issue if it is one at all.

The Mass Effect saga's opening entry also benefits from Jack Wall's excellent synth sci-fi score which, while unaltered from the original release, is aided by certain added sound effects. Somewhat annoyingly however NPCs, particularly enemies, have only a small number of lines which they repeat time and again. Cries of 'hold the line!' and 'enemy is everywhere!' are far too common.

The Mako, a tank like vehicle used for side quest exploration as well as throughout the main story, was always one of Mass Effect's less popular features and handles identically to the Xbox 360 version. One feels that in porting the game to PS3 the developers could have made minor tweaks. The Mako, and the opportunities it offered to get off the beaten track, were removed after Mass Effect because handling it could prove difficult (especially in mountainous terrain) which is somewhat regrettable as the large maps offered a sense of scale arguably missing, at least to some degree, within the confines of the narrow corridors and close quarters popular in the title's sequels.

Yet it is the combat that represents the biggest snag, poor and unwieldy - particularly when using a sniper rifle - it is here you feel the developers missed the biggest opportunity to improve the title, if only to make it easier to aim weapons. Fighting in the first Mass Effect was always the game's biggest flaw and doesn't represent a particular issue with the PS3 version.

Mass Effect's problems are largely a result of its age but in the context of the period in which it was released (before Modern Warfare and Gears of War) it remains an excellent game even now as well as the purest RPG in the franchise to date. The game tells a sweeping yarn which, despite its faults, represents one of the finest examples of videogame storytelling this generation.

Having created a unique Commander Shepard, or chosen the male or female default, players are immersed in a broad universe with literally dozens of worlds to visit and hundreds of characters to encounter. What Mass Effect also excelled at, more so than it's successors, was giving gamers a formidable enemy that is easy to hate and yet remains admirable, to some degree, nonetheless. Saren is in many ways a more immediate and more charismatic foe than the Reapers who stay shrouded in relative mystery until the Leviathan and Extended Cut DLCs for Mass Effect 3.

Mass Effect is also the title that arguably provides the greatest diversity in player choice. Your selections when creating Commander Shepard; whether, for instance, you were born and raised on Earth or in the colonies, have a greater degree of impact than in subsequent titles with certain quests only becoming available based on those initial decisions.

The best example of a stark choice comes late in the game Shepard visits the planet Virmire and will, without wishing to give too much away, be forced to make a choice. The Commander must sacrifice one of his/her crew in order to save another, the gravity and diverse implications of that decision are rarely replicated at other points in the series. It is also notable that this choice comes not long after a confrontation in which Shepard may decide to kill another squad member.

The diversity of the choice offers significant replay value and will take at least two playthroughs to fully appreciate the extent of the differences.

If you've never played Mass Effect 2 or 3 now is the perfect time to enter the fray. Even if you have but are curious to see how Commander Shepard's journey began than you really should consider it. Series newcomers - as well as those who have not yet experienced the game - may find some of the design choices archaic and while the opportunity for major overhaul for the PS3 port was regrettably passed by players should recall that pre-production on the game likely began in late 2004.

Mass Effect remains one of the finest games of the current generation and quite possibly the greatest RPG. The fact that the game comes with The Bring Down the Sky add-on contributes to the value of an already impressive package though the fact that Pinnacle Station is not, and will likely never see a release Sony's console, is unfortunate.

Mass Effect is available now for €14.99 from the PlayStation Store or as part of the Mass Effect Trilogy for €69.99 digitally or €59.99 at retail.

Mass Effect PS3 9/10

07 December 2012

2012: The Year Sexism Came to the Forefront in the Games Industry

Earlier this week Square Enix was forced to pull a controversial Facebook marketing campaign for Hitman: Absolution after less than an hour.

The promotion urged users to place a 'hit' on their friends. What potential value the campaign's creators saw in encouraging potential customers to threaten their friends, even jokingly (if that is possible), proves questionable at best yet the reason for the removal of the promotion was not the virtue of this Facebook app, rather, it was the reasons you were asked to give as reason (certainly not justification) for the faux assassination attempt. 

Firstly participants were asked to select how the target would be identified by the assassin. Attributes included: "her ginger hair" and "her small tits" and "his small penis". 

After which users were asked to give the reason for the elimination, with options such as "she cheated on her partner."

There has been some speculation that this was perpetrated as a publicity stunt. Yet the expense of hiring an outside agency to produce the campaign and release it before shelving the app within 60 minutes would not overcome whatever sales might be generated by the promotion, if any were to be generated at all (which seems unlikely). If this was a stunt if was a very poor one indeed and if it was not then it was gross oversight by both the marketeers (you can read Leigh Alexander's excellent piece on the direction and focus of marketing in the games industry here) and Square Enix, both of whom green-lit the promotion before releasing it.  

Taken on its own the crudely sexual nature of the campaign is in quite poor taste yet the unfortunate reality is that there have been several incidents this year which have exposed shocking attitudes, sexual discrimination, and even outright abuse - some of it directed at colleagues from those within the industry. This is not to mention the vitriol with which women who aim to enter the games industry are often met. 

IO Interactive apologised, yet that is thoroughly besides the point, there should never have been a need for an apology, this promotion should simply never have happened.  

Within gaming there is also the ever present concept of the 'girl gamer'. There are no 'boy gamers', or at least no males who are called boy gamers, as such, the very act of placing a gender before the word 'gamer' creates an unnecessary and frankly archaic differentiation. In a world where political correctness has arguably gone too far it is remarkable that such a distinction exists in the world's largest entertainment industry. 

Of course the majority, 53%, of gamers are male and the percentage is likely significantly higher in the 'core' market. Yet regardless of whether someone is a core Call of Duty player or a casual Angry Birds player (and there are plenty who fit into both categories) they are still gamers (yes, believe it or not, they are) - this is equally true regardless of gender. In effect, if the term girl gamer were to die it would be no bad thing. 

When playing online there is often no way to know the sex of your fellow players unless their online ID informs you or they communicate through their headsets - at which point women are often ridiculed simply for their sex, regardless of their ability. Like it or not simply being a gamer is important, not the sex of the gamer, no more than their sexual orientation or religion. 

Hitman: Absolution was also the subject of negative attention over the infamous Attack of the Saints trailer which featured latex wearing assassin-nuns. At the time IO issued another apology, one would have imagined they would have learnt their lesson.   

Compounding this problem Forbes decided to interview a stripper for her take on the Saints. The interview drew forth such quotes as "you never see male assassins in a thong with dollar bills hanging out."

This is almost screaming as a cry for page-views: "successful new game featuring strippers + interview with a stripper about game = page-view bonanza." 

The post has been viewed over 16,000 times. Would a similar interview be conducted in the film industry? I'm not so sure, though I will happily correct this post if anyone can find an interview with a stripper concerning the accuracy of, say, Sin City

Crystal Dynamics, another Square Enix studio, has also been the focus of a hostile backlash this year after a Kotaku interview with Tomb Raider's executive producer, Ron Rosenberg, discussed Lara Croft being sexually assaulted. 

Rosenberg said: "and then what happens is her best friend gets kidnapped, she gets taken prisoner by scavengers on the island. They try to rape her, and-."

This was followed by a clarification from studio president Darrell Gallagher that "sexual assault is categorically not a theme that we cover in this game." 

There is sexual assault and even rape in other forms of popular entertainment, George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire for instance, yet the witnessing of an act on TV or the reading of it in a book, is not quite the same as pressing buttons on a controller - if only for your character to escape their horrific fate. Perhaps in time, storytelling and gaming generally will advance to the point where such - though never acceptable - will at least be contextually permissible within the confines of the story.

The games industry simply, and regrettably, isn't there yet, certainly not when there is rampant discrimination and often abuse fielded towards female members of the industry and the gaming community.  Of course, if these situations are never represented in videogames or other mediums so much the better (I am no prude but I do not wish to see someone sexually assaulted even if it is 'acting'). 

Gearbox Software was also met with hostile publicity over Borderland 2's so called 'Girlfriend mode', this version of the game; actually known as Mechromancer mode, was referred to as a Girlfriend mode with a Girlfriend skill tree, on more than one occasion by the development staff. Essentially an ultra-easy mode for newcomers the implication was obvious, girls are not good at games. 

Mechromancer mode is a good idea, and one I've argued should be brought to more games in future. Yet to suggest women are worse gamers is disingenuous especially, coming as it did, from developers themselves.

GameRanx recently ran a story on Halo 4 having to be scaled down, in the piece the author quoted 343 Industries' Kiki Wolfkill and followed by saying "yes, that is his name." Wolfkill is a woman, not being intended as any form of brag by any means and certainly not with the purpose of being an annoyance, I pointed this out to the site's editor who promptly corrected the mistake.

It should be noted that the editor in question, Ian Miles Cheong, is a staunch feminist and didn't write the original post. Even so such slips are unfortunate.

This was either an honest accident, the result of poor research, or a flawed assumption. Either way these little mistakes are hardly encouraging when they are continually compounded by the game industry's often disturbing attitude towards women.

In late November Twitter was overwhelmed - it is too generic a term to say 'taken by storm' given the significance of what happened - by the trend #1ReasonWhy.

The trend related to the discrimination faced by women in the industry and why it is so important to fight for equality in gaming, both in the games themselves and in development studios, publishing houses as well as in the game media.

There are far too many examples to go through yet here are some of the worst:

"None of my women developer friends will read comments on interviews they do, because the comments are so nasty" - Charles Randall; staffer, Capybara Games.

"Once heard an art manager say 'we don't need anymore women, they're more trouble than they're worth' as he viewed applicants" - Gabrielle Kent, games lecturer.

"Because I'm sexually harassed as a games journalist, and getting it as a games designer compounds the misery" - Lillian Cohen-Moore; journalist, games designer.

"Because conventions, where designers are celebrated, are unsafe places for me. Really. I've been groped" -  @filamena; designer, freelance writer.

You can read more here and here. Though far less obviously malicious in intent than any of examples listed above perhaps one of the most illuminating points during the #1ReasonWhy campaign - if it can so be called - was Gamasutra's decision to associate a picture of high heeled shoes with their piece on the story. The image was not particularly sexual or suggestive in nature yet it was regrettably stereotypical and in the majority of cases utterly non-representative of the people who work in the industry - game studios are simply not formal enough for such attire to be necessary.

Gamasutra subsequently changed the image to that of Wendy the Welder, presumably after the inappropriateness of the original picture, given the context, was highlighted.

(The original image can be seen here, not terribly bad by any means but unfortunate given the circumstances.)

Google 'booth babe controversy' and there will be an article on almost any major industry event from any of the past ten years. They aren't going anywhere yet nor are they in anyway necessary either, again an indictment of the industry. This year saw a furor over a misogynistic Asus Tweet which admired the rear of one of the technology company's booth babes.

Similarly booth babes stirred a negative reaction at CES in January and then there's this:

There's little that needs to be said here except that any story on booth babes will, in most circumstances, feature plenty of pictures of booth babes (sorry, here you'll have to settle for the image above). And that's often regardless of whether the piece comes from within the game's media or the media generally so yes, the game industry does not have a monopoly on the fault here.

Ben Kuchera, Penny Arcade's editor, recently wrote an editorial 'Games with exclusively female protagonists don't sell (because publishers don't support them)'. 

In it he explored the publishing operations and marketing budgets behind dozens of games and concluded that publishers simply don't volunteer the necessary resources to make female-centric games major hits. Think about Portal and Tomb Raider are perhaps the only two games in that category which have enjoyed continued substantive success. It's even posited that such games are sent out to die. 

Perhaps they are, look through your game shelf, how many titles feature a female protagonist? Chances are not many.

Even Mass Effect 3, which has been used by university courses as a positive example of women in games, is not entirely balanced - the trilogy uses the default male Shepard for all of it's marketing (reasonable enough given that more people would be familiar with the male version - itself a result of male Shepard being more heavily marketed) but within the game itself there are seven straight relationships for male Shepard's and two for female. While there are two gay relationships male Shepard can pursue as opposed to four lesbian relationships. 

Technically there are four straight female relationships yet [Spoiler alert] Thane dies while Jacob leaves Commander Shepard for another woman [Spoiler ends]. In fairness to BioWare they've done more than almost anyone to even the odds and EA, despite any other criticisms that may be leveled against them, have done more much to foster the LGBT gaming and developer community.

However, the status of LGBT's in gaming is an argument to be debated in another post.

I have touched on this subject before and as a result of something I have not mentioned here. Sexism and misogamy did not force its way into the game's industry this year nor are they by any means exclusive to gaming yet the scale of these problems in this industry is staggering and the fact that so many of these blunders are perpetrated by industry 'professionals' is mystifying and mortifying in equal measure. 

Videogames are a young medium, and they are an artform (regardless of what The Guardian has to say on the matter), but it remains an emerging industry and one with growing pains. We owe it to ourselves to remember that regardless of what games we play we are all gamers. Equally we need to recall that Halo 4 had women developers, as did Assassin's Creed, so too has Tomb Raider (including the game's lead writer Rihanna Pratchett). 

We owe it to these women to reflect on what they go through to provide us with our entertainment and try to make the sexism and misogamy as insignificant a part of work - and game - life as possible. 

03 December 2012

Win One of Four Copies of Crashed Ice for Kinect!

Crashed Ice, the Kinect title from Red Bull Media Ice, is out now on Xbox Live Arcade for Kinect.

Red Bull Crashed Ice is a worldwide tour of the extreme winter sport ice cross downhill. You can see the trailer below.

If you'd like to be with a chance to win all you have to do is:

1) Follow @TheVGDynamic (it also wouldn't hurt your chances to follow my personal account @StephenDaly17).


2) Retweet the post about this competition.

Winners will be contacted by Direct Message. There are four codes up for grabs so spread the word but you can only enter once! Entries must be in before 00:00 GMT Saturday 8/12/12.