Friday 22 June 2012

Beefjack Has Slow News Day, Interviews Me

Not about anything particular, you understand, but in more of a desert island discs kind of a way. I talk about The Hunt For Red October on Gameboy, and the most embarrassing moments of my career. Also features a photo of me either getting over-excited about dialogue systems, or coming down from a 24 hour rave - I don't recall.

It's over there.

Friday 15 June 2012

Max Payne 3: Worth Writing Home About?

Bias Disclaimer: This is very much written by someone who played and loved Remedy's original games. Max Payne 3 isn't a bad game, but it's not quite the Max Payne 3 I wanted.

Max Payne shares a lot of similarities with Die Hard's John McClane. Like Brucie's signature role, Max was a fresh take on an old genre, and like McLane Max loses his hair as he chalks up more victories. Sadly they also both forget who they are in their later instalments, their new directors instead adopting a kind of generic modernism that does few favours for their aging heroes.

First, though, what has Rockstar gotten right? A great deal, for sure. In terms of gameplay, they've fairly precisely captured the first two games. This is still Max Payne as far as shooting stuff very slowly goes. If anything, in fact, I'd argue they've been too thorough - but more on that later.

More important, for me, is how Rockstar have developed and delivered a new take on Max's storytelling. The exchange of New York for São Paulo is a success. I'm not so staunch in my traditionalism that I'd want to say you can't do noir outside of American cities, and the unlikely pairing of a bald, bearded Max donning his Hawaiian shirt for the first time with the vibrancy and filth of the favellas is one that feels apt for a character who gets his kicks from being alone against the world. Sadly the on-screen buzz of this new Max is short-lived: the game never really never really changes, Max never really seems to hit rock bottom or kick into gear, and it's quickly clear this will be a long, single-note shoot fest.

Rockstar haven't done a bad job of filling the gaps with something interesting, but they have not filled them with Max Payne - or at least, not in his best light. The new approach eliminates the comic book panes of Remedy's originals in favour of long cut-scenes, constantly overlayed with what are presumably alcohol-induced visual distortions and glares which I suppose accurately depict alcoholism in so far as they made me feel sick and annoyed. This more immediate presentation is used to create a gritter, more real urban environment and protagonist, and Max has some fantastically dry, self-loathing bad-assery to deliver - but little else. He takes his own failures so much in his stride that it's hard to really feel like he cares about anything. Perhaps that's realistic, but it's not interesting - in fact it gets quite boring after a while. You never really see Max hurt, so he has nothing to come back on, no stake to invest.

The other characters, as well as the central plot thread, lack the personality and personal importance of the originals'. No one stands out like Vladimir Lem or Mona Sax (the women here are all gunfire-drawing airheads), and Max isn't out for revenge on the people who killed his loved ones or destroyed his life - he's doing a job because he's got nothing better to do. It's just so hard for anyone involved to care.

Sense of Humour
Salt to the wound is that the focus on cinematic realism necessarily winds in the oddball side that was so central before. Who doesn't remember the Pink Flamingo Theme Park, or the self-referential Dick Justice serial about a cop who takes revenge on his wife's (Sharon Justice's), killers? These were bits of narrative design that made Max Payne not just another shooter for me; but they were also a nod from the developers to say that they knew Max was a bad joke, and it was that that prevented the game itself from being one.

Perhaps what most surprises me about Rockstar's Max, though, are some features that feel glaringly early-noughties. A joy of Max Payne has always been the almost pornographic level of detail applied to the weapons and firing animations. Here that same detail is applied, but little seems to have been improved outside of polygon counts. When killed, enemies' hats and helmets fly off as if the final bullet has severed an invisible chin strap. GTA's dynamic Euphoria animation system produces odd results when examined up close. Rounds fired often look larger than the gun barrel they came from. Bullet wounds look like crap - you can usually still see the clothing texture beneath them - and visual damage to Max remains even after healing, meaning Max saunters into cutscenes sporting slews of open chest wounds. Bullet cams are uninspired. The bosses are horrible (you kill one by dropping roof tiles on his head).

It's difficult to forget that games have moved on since 2003, and combat in Max feels far simpler fare than something genuinely contemporary like Arkham Asylum The Darkness 2. The damning conclusion is that at times Max Payne 3 feels a bit like GTA with less driving and more bullet time, and that these days that's not quite enough.

Polish: 2 out of 2
Tilt: 0 out of 2
(Scoring explained here)

Wednesday 6 June 2012

Project Announcement: FTL

This is a great announcement to be able to make. For the past 6 weeks I've been working on FTL - the bridge combat roguealike that's charming everyone. Let me tell you a bit about how I got involved, and what I'm doing.

I first read about FTL some six months ago in PC Gamer, tore out the page to remind me to look it up, and then forgot all about it. Then I played the limited time onlive demo and was blown away (apparently it was the most played game on the service during that period). FTL captures all the good stuff: the ordering crew on suicide missions to fix vital components, the MORE POWER TO ENGINES and the transporter catastrophes. It also tells a randomly generated tale drawn from a vast library of pre-scripted events with different options and outcomes. In short, I wanted me some of that, so I got in touch.

Around the same time Justin and Matthew were making headlines for netting a cool $200,000 from a $10,000 kickstarter campaign, and were in the process of expanding the game's scope and hiring a writer.

The new hangar screen, and the Federation Cruiser.
Working on FTL has been fantastic, mostly because I'm already so sold on the game and the guys' ability to pull it off. I've been developing the alien species (like the rockmen you see in the header image) and we must have doubled the number of events since the demo (which - I feel bad about this - are being pain-stakingly hand-coded into the game by Justin). The aim is to make each sector in the game feel special, with hidden paths and unique events for replayability. We want players to keep on exploring the galaxy long after they defeat the big boss because it's just such an interesting place to visit.

All this being said, the reins are very much with the chaps: they seem to know what they want, and I'm trusting that their top-level view is sound, because I don't have much of one.

Here I've managed to beam two of the deadliest aliens - a Rockman and a Mantis - onto the enemy ship. Then it catches fire and I have to race to bring them back home before it blows.
As much as anything else it's been fantastic to get right back into a decent indie project. I've had a couple of cancelled AAAs over the past few years which is always a bummer, and while I've been involved in a number of other indie things - on Cargo! A Quest For Gravity and my own ir/rational - it's been nothing big enough to compare to working on Penumbra: Overture some six years ago. With FTL we have limited resources, a tough schedule, and thousands upon thousands of words to write. It's great to know they'll be going toward a good end.

The beta for kickstarter donators (why aren't they called donars, incidentally?) is right around the corner, and you can keep up with development at the project blog. FTL should be out in a matter of months.

Tuesday 5 June 2012

Incoming Transmission

You arrive at the beacon; the shattered hull of an alien ship floats peacefully in the shifting tides of a nearby asteroid field, being drawn inexorably toward the sun at the heart of the system. Nothing else happens.

Then, a distant blip on the scanners that keeps on expanding. It grows closer, larger, until it has enveloped the entire system. The ship is rocked by a shockwave, but the shields hold. You check your star charts - everything has changed. Your journey has become longer and harder, carrying you through uncharted systems and alien empires you've never set eyes on before.

You power the jump drive. This is going to be fun.