Sunday 28 August 2011

'GAMESbrief: Traditional Games, Transition and the Power of the Free' is a Book I Helped Write

One of many differences between Plot is Gameplay's Bitch and GAMESbrief is that GAMESbrief sells books with intelligent, marketing-led headers like:

"Buy GAMESbrief Unplugged Volume 2 for 40% off"

GAMESbrief also doesn't having swearing in its name.

At any rate, GAMESbrief is an industry analyst blog run by industry analyst, Nicholas Lovell. We used to work together for GameShadow, and I sometimes write stuff for his blog. Sometimes that stuff gets polished, supplemented and printed up in a lovely coffee table book called GAMESbrief Unplugged.

In the words of its author, Vol.2 features 'lots of insight from you', where 'you' is referring to me. Also:

  • If you want to know what really happened at Realtime Worlds, and how to avoid the same thing happening to you, you need to read this book.
  • If you want to understand what role publishers and retailers will play in the future of the games industry, you need to read this book.
  • If you want to be prepared for the next decade in a fast-changing games industry, you need to read this book.

So, that's enough shameless plugging for one month. Go buy for anywhere from £8.97 - £60.

Wednesday 17 August 2011

Most Anticipated 2011 Part 3

03. Monaco
Andy Schatz
PC, "at least one console"

Damn do I like the look of Monaco. A top-down indie co-op stealth game, it's all the things I love: indie, co-op, stealth. And top-down. It's Thief meets L4D, if we're going there, or as the developer puts it, 'Gauntlet meets Hitman', which also at least 50% floats my boat.

Much like Nidhog, Monaco offers new way to play with friends, but it's the purity of its stealth that entices me. For such a well-loved genre and - at least as subsystem in actions games - omnipresent genre stealth seems to have been suffering a dearth of content for some time. Hitman's on hiatus, Thief 4's still hush hush, and the linear simplicity of the Splinter Cells and Manhunts knows where the itch is but can't fully reach around to scratch it.

Monaco looks fantastic. The perspective complements the gameplay. My only fear is that it may prove too quick fire: too much online tomfoolery and not enough quality dramatic content. Obviously there's a massive market for that, and fair play to it. For me, though, the core joy of a stealth game is the exploration - the sense that through our own guile we're accessing a living world that we have no right to. I hope Andy Schatz shares that perspective.

02. Deus Ex: Human Revolution
Eidos Montreal
23 August 2011
PC, PS3, 360

Another sequel, another beloved franchise handed over to a new team. Why should we be excited about Human Revolution? Well for starters everyone that's played it says it's Deux Ex. As in it's a first-person action RPG with branching story, multiple solutions and intelligent cyber-punk writing. These are good things.

While trying to make X-wing work the other day I stumbled accross this RPS list of the most important PC games ever. Funnily enough Deus Ex wasn't on there, but what struck me was what they had to say about a much more personal favourite: Vampire The Masquerade Bloodlines (too many colons to bother).
Bloodlines is important because it signposts a direction to a future of games that we were denied. It is a lament, and a warning. It’s also brilliant.
At first I wanted to to scoff, but when you do get to thinking about Vampire's lineage, what's out there? The Witchers and Dragon Ages follow a much more traditional high-content, low-detail path, and really when I'm pushed to name a single RPG with the fidelity of world and narrative that Vampire hosted all I can come up with is Mass Effect 2.

Here's hoping we can add Deus Ex: Human Revolution to that list very shortly.

01. Hitman: Absolution
IO Interactive
PC, PS3, 360

Oh yes. I've expressed my Hitman-love in the past, so it's natural this five-years-in-the-making follow up should top my list. Above all else, Hitman is a dynamic, open ended and detailed world simulator that just so happens to let you murder people in it. I wouldn't really care if you were just there to fix the plumbing, provided I had to navigate pool parties, arsey security guards and drunk women to do so.

Somewhat akin to Bioshock Infinite, the guys at IO are talking up the technology and experience that's finally allowing them to deliver the depth of AI that the genre demands. It's an incredible challenge in balancing - how do you make people smart enough to seem real yet dumb enough to provide freedom within the gameplay? It's also one that can't really be demonstrated fairly in a trailer.

Will IO manage it? Well, the series has a reputation for pushing the bar with each successive entry - see Blood Money's crowd scenes and flexible solution design - while somehow honing and polishing the formula simultaneously. It's also done when it's done. 2012 could be the year Hitman finally realises its extraordinary potential.

A few lessons learnt from Kane & Lynch in the story department wouldn't go amiss, though.

Wednesday 10 August 2011

Most Anticipated 2011 Part 2

06. Prey 2
Human Head Studios
March 2012
PC, PS3, 360

You'd think this was The Times' sudoku page there are so sequential numbers in this year's list. Prey 2 completely revamps what was a solid and occasionally inventive sci-fi shooter, by removing the perfunctory portals, central character and setting and using Blade Runner's instead. This is, probably, a good thing.

It's hard to describe why I'm excited about Prey 2. It's probably not a good reason: it's probably that all those free running, bounty hunting trailers promise an open, fleshed out world that I'm mentally populating with my personal wishlist.

Original or not, I want to explore a Blade Runner type alien city. I want to inhabit the shoes of an Eastwood-style bounty hunter in a world that reacts to my actions. I want a kind of a cross between Anachronox and Bioshock, only better than both and with more shoulder mounted rockets.

That'll be the day.

05. Bioshock Infinite
Q2 2012
PC, PS3, 360

Obligatory really. The Bioshock's didn't live up to my expectations, largely because they weren't really the spiritual follow up to the System Shocks we were initially promised. Infinite finally introduces live human characters, and I'm interested to see if Levine and his team know how to do that - by their own admission it's only now that they feel prepared to tackle that.

This said, there are some games on this list I'm endlessly excited about for no particular reason, and then there's Bioshock Infinite, which I'm told I should be more excited about than I am. Perhaps it's the legacy of the series and the crowd-pleaser expectation the team and the publisher naturally have to pursue. Perhaps it's all the explosions and falling in those gameplay videos.

I'm staying quiet on this one.

04. Arkham City
18 October 2011
PC, PS3, 360

And yet I've got so much to shout about Arkham City. Funny, huh?  This is a game delivering exactly what a sequel delivers: the same good stuff, only bigger, prettier and more polished. Why should that be so enthralling?

Arkham Asylum was, simply put, one of the best games I've ever played, albeit emphasis on game. At a time when the Bioshocks and Bayonettas leave me cold, Arkham Asylum grabbed me through its every breath: one of the most satisfying, beautiful and tactical combat systems of any game ever; a world that felt consistent and engaging in a way reminiscent of an N64 Zelda game; a character and associated set of abilities and bad guys to use them on that were powerful and steeped in lore.

Arkham City isn't going to be the best written game of the year. It isn't going to change how we do things or how we look at the world. It is going to be one of the best and perhaps even one of the smarter AAAs we have to look forward to. If you're going to do AAA bombast, you do it with the care, respect and invention that UK devs Rocksteady are guaranteed to apply.

Watch this space for part 3, coming soon.

Tuesday 2 August 2011

Most Anticipated 2011 Part 1

Last year I did a great big preview of the 15 games I was looking forward to. Six of them are out, and a couple of predictions from the time ring true:
"That Team Bondi expects us to be able to tell whether or not we're being deceived at all is a unique and crucial step forward; that we're expected to do so not from what characters say but from how they say it renders this an exciting experiment indeed."
"For all the brilliance of writing Portal displayed, in terms of delivery it was rarely a game that introduced anything new. But then, when the content is this good I guess that can be forgiven."
Anyway, it got some good clicks, and I even got to work on one of the games in the list, so I'm doing it again. This is, really, a very subjective 'E3 Made Me Want This' list, expect E3 was ages ago.

09. Max Payne 3
Rockstar Vancouver
December 2011
PC, PS3, 360

When I think of Max Payne I think of a guilty pleasure - ridiculous noire posturing and a central mechanic designed entirely around making the player look cool for minimal effort on his part. To say that that's Max's legacy would be to underplay him, though. For all the tongue that's in his cheek it's a wonder he can narrate at all, but the writing style remains a key strength in a game released at a time when 'style' tended to focus on how much of the screen the word 'HEADSHOT' took up.

That the dev rights now fall to Rockstar's in-house stable rather than creators Remedy shouldn't concern too much. These guys know the franchise thanks to their involvement throughout the series, and they also know entertaining writing.

The Brazilian setting seems all kinds of wrong; so does the newly heavy set star. There's little doubt Max Payne 3 will deliver pretty, satisfying gunplay - but it's always been about more than that. Max Payne is about a linear game world that offers surprising depth through intelligent detail like the Pink Flamingo TV serial or the interactive funhouse. It's  about poignancy through the ludicrous, and even style (or at least structure) over substance.

Suddenly getting the bullet time right seems like the easy part.

08. SSX: Deadly Descents
EA Canada
PS3, 360

God I love SSX. Sure, that's in part because it makes me feel a bit like the mainstream - I can't beat my housemates at Pro Evo or GT, but strap a pair of planks to my virtual feet and I'm off.

SSX On Tour - the last non-Wii iteration from 2005 - stands up as the highlight of the series. Aside from having excellent manly dress-up options its presentation, its accessibility and above all its sound design stand out. From the intro sequence cut to Iron Maiden's Run To The Hills, to the dynamic system that layers the assorted indie rock and electro tracks to reflect your speed and creativity, On Tour was a beautiful, polished experience that to this day reminds me that games can be important to me without bothering to be important.

There's no team on the planet with snowboarding experience like EA Canada, and Deadly Descents is exactly the adrenaline shot this under-supported genre needs.

07. Nidhog

Everyone seems to be talking about Nidhog. Everyone seems to have played Nidhog, even though there's no official release date in sight. I particularly enjoy this faux interview discussing the high end performance capture the game doesn't have. It almost had me going.

Nidhog allows two players to compete in an unending adventure of combat and abstract visualisation. Drawing unashamed notes from Prince of Persia one player's goal is to move unerringly right, the other the inverse; simple arcade swordplay occurs when the two meet. It's fast, frantic, yet retains the promise of tactical play and immense pay off with each successive victory - albeit a pay off that only lasts as long as your opponent's spawn delay.

I like Nidhog because it's pretty, because it's social, and because it threatens to redefine how we interact with one another. Naturally it does so in a very humble way, but nonetheless it feels like something fresh.

Part 2 coming soon.