The PC gamer returns

I have a gaming PC now. After a two year break, I am a PC gamer again.

You might wonder what the specifications of my PC are! I shall tell you:

  • Quad core CPU
  • 6GB RAM
  • Graphics Card
  • 22 holes for wires at the back
  • It’s black
  • Case is missing one side and rattles when you move it

But there is a problem with my PC. The problem is that it has no sound. Recently I tried to fix the sound. I spent 52 hours trying to fix it, entering a kind of trance where I forgot to sleep, eat or drink anything. At 10am yesterday I decided to celebrate not fixing the sound by going out and buying a six-pack of beer. Footage of my arrival at the shop is already circulating the internet.

Did I mention the wireless on my PC is also broke? My solution was to buy 20 metres of ethernet cabling which now run from my room to the downstairs modem like some kind of enormous parasite grown fat on communications. I have told my roommates this monster is ‘temporary.’ I am not upset about the wireless being broke, because I read on a forum that my motherboard’s wireless might be what’s breaking the sound.

I know I am a PC gamer again because I have played a game on my PC! Turns out Minesweeper is an excellent game to play when you don’t have any sound, and I won (ha!).

Anyway, my 360 is arriving soon. If I do not have the PC fixed by then I’m going to put on a shoe, kick out the innards of my PC, take off the shoe, place the 360 inside the case, connect the 360 to my monitor, turn on the 360, play a game, turn off the 360, then set fire to my shoe, the case, my girlfriend and myself, in that order.

It sure is good to be back!

Whiskey Monday: Arkham’s cutscenes

I did battle with the mold in my house yesterday. It’s a substance which has everything in common with those pools of sentient, man-eating shadow you find in the new Alone In The Dark. I’m talking mold which creeps across the floor and ceiling at walking pace when you turn your back on it.

I had a chemical disinfectant spray in each hand, a rag tied around my face for protection and a piece of glass attached to my head via a twisted coat hanger that acted like a rear-view mirror. I knew it would be a fight to the death, but I was not afraid. Should the mold defeat me, should it spread to my body, rot my flesh and make a home of my lungs, it would only ever be so much fungus. As a man, victory was already mine.

Empty of fear, my head soon filled with the noxious fumes of my corrosive alkalis. I went a little crazy during that time. All I could think about was

BATMAN: ARKHAM ASYLUM’S CUTSCENES.

The following is spoiler free. Anyone spoils anything in the comments and I’ll pay a visit to their mother and spoil her for everybody.

This game has the absolute worst case of Let Me Do That Syndrome (L.M.D.T.S.) I’ve seen in a while. You’re aware of the affliction, I’m sure. It’s when you’re playing a game and control is wrested away from you for the duration of some high-octane cutscene, and you’re left wishing you’d been able to play through those events yourself.

Arkham Asylum has it bad. A real terminal case, no visitors allowed, burn your clothes and shave your head if you entered the development studio in the last two years.

It has it bad because it’s a colourful, story-driven game with a protagonist who has a very well-defined personality. During the course of the game certain things happen where we all know how Batman will respond, and the developers were unwilling to let the player damage the narrative by acting otherwise.

It’s extra-frustrating because all the game’s peaks occur when it nails letting you ‘be’ Batman, and yet during all the moments where Batman gets to display some personality (which is to say whenever he adjusts the word ‘bad’ that prefixes his ass like a license plate) the game cuts you out from the action.

To give one of the less coronary-inducing examples, in the opening five minutes of the game Joker escapes his shackles and beats the guards escorting him into unconsciousness. A cutscene then shows you, Batman, beating on the security glass between him and the Joker. One punch! Two punches! Batman’s going mental! The glass is shattered and Batman leaps through the window, though he’s too late and the Joker’s moved on. This is where you get control back.

To give an example which made my very soul itch, at one point in the game you finally catch up to a villain who’s been hassling you for hours on end. Because they’re known to be no physical match for Batman, instead of any manner of fight you’re shown Batman knocking them down like a house of cards in a cutscene. Chasing a villain across the island then having to watch Batman beat them up stems the flow of catharsis somewhat.

For a game so comprehensively smart and polished to simply submit to this problem and let the most dramatic sequences transpire in cutscenes is, I guess, an embarrassment. It shows a lack of imagination, or perhaps a desire to play it safe. OBSERVE how easily fixable this is:

SCENE: The Joker breaks free and Batman fails to reach him in time.

FIX: The game already makes you hammer a button for physically demanding tasks like prying open vents. When the Joker starts breaking free, lock the player into one of these minigames where they have to taptaptap a button to accelerate Batman’s glass-punching. It doesn’t matter if the player isn’t very fast because the Joker gets away anyway, right?

SCENE: Batman dispatches a physically weak villain.

FIX: Let the player fight somebody who goes down in one hit! The villain’s combat animations are in the cutscene anyway. What are you afraid of?

I’ve got dozens more of these, but I don’t want to get any more specific for fear of spoilers. Arkham Asylum’s horrible cutscenes are a fat fly in the Bat-ointment that infest the game right up to the (similarly horrible, incidentally) final boss fight and can’t be forgotten or forgiven.

Other than that, I give it two Bat-thumbs up.

And just so you know, the connoisseur’s choice when it comes to knocking out armed guards is to catch them with the grapple and pull them down stairs.

Most Destructables

bf

With the coming of Red Faction: Guerilla and Battlefield 1943 it seems the games industry is starting to wrap its excitable, sweat-slicked hands around destructible 3D environments.  I’m genuinely excited about the development of this tech over the next decade. Here are my ideas for games centred around it:

BAD DAY JOB

You play a undernourished man with thick glasses and thinning hair as he progresses through a series of mundane workplaces with increasing real-estate values. Level 1 sees you as a dishwasher in a roadside pie shop, level 2 puts you as a clerk in a gas station, in level 3 you’re a salesman in a used car dealership, and so on. Control scheme is third person and weighty, similar to Dead Rising.

You’re given 60 seconds at the beginning of each level to run around manipulating it how you see fit (collecting and moving items, activating elements within the environment to create traps), and after this 60 seconds your boss announces that he’s going for a coffee and that “you’re in charge for the next five minutes”, whereupon he leaves the level. In a running joke, this is when the establishment immediately comes under attack by vandals ranging from gangsters to drunks to rampaging animals, all of which can and will cause damage to the place. Damage done is measured in dollars and displayed prominently at the top of the screen. These enemies never come after you directly, though getting in the way of attack animations will knock you down.

Your job is to fend the interlopers off using anything and everything you can find (fire extinguishers, plates, chairs, cars), again drawing parallels with Dead Rising but with the twist that anything you break gets added to the dollar ticker at the top of the screen. Let the place get too wrecked before the boss comes back, it’s game over.

SCORCHED EARTH

I know there’s already a game called Scorched Earth. Shut that smart mouth of yours.

A large scale team game in the vein of Battlefield (potentially just a new gameplay mode for it), Scorched Earth has one team trying to conquer a base, building or area as another team defends it for a set amount of time. The more ruined the objective gets, however, the less points either team gets for winning. Therefore when a team looks like it’s going to win the losing side has to decide whether they keep fighting or focus on doing as much structural damage as possible. Certain key targets on each level (documents, fuel silos, docked submarines, whatever) count for far more than simple structural damage, so both teams will have to keep an eye on them.

Mainly I like the idea of doing all your fighting with an eye for where each rocket and grenade will end up if you miss, and the defenders making their last stand by taking cover behind the very thing the attackers want. A lot of clever tactics could come into play here.

MACHINE TERROR

A co-op game most closely related to Gears of War 2’s Horde mode but inspired by Holy Invasion Of Privacy, Badman!, this has a team of players defending the factory they work at from increasingly powerful waves of robots that arrive at timed intervals. The robots will keep coming until the humans are dead. There is no stopping the robots. There is only temporarily wedging the vice as it slowly closes on your fleshy testicles.

The robots can’t be harmed by the cutting lasers, simple explosives and pistols you’re equipped with (though you can use these to get their attention), so instead you have to take them down using the environment. Valid tactics might include crushing robots with falling masonry or pillars, taking out the floor or bridge they’re walking across, knocking them into pits or anything you can dream up. The goal isn’t necessarily to destroy the robots, just to keep them from being a threat. Bury them, trap them, tip them over, whatever you can manage to keep your team alive.

What I like about this last idea is that you’re dooming yourself with the methods you’re employing. Eventually there will be no roofs or bridges to bring down, the pits will be full, rooms will be sealed off and welded shut with furious robots inside (“NOBODY BLOW A HOLE IN THE WALL”) and you’ll have nothing to do but go scrambling over piles of rubble and twisted industrial machinery as the robots close in on you.

I guess you could have a rescue ship show up after a set amount of time, but where’s the fun in that?

Incidentally, I really cannot wait for games to get good at 3D liquid physics. Any of these ideas with the added feature of gargantuan dams and pipes waiting to be broken and levels designed around the concept of flooding would be the absolute best thing.

Whiskey Monday: Fable 2’s breadcrumbs

I’m busy during the week. I play games, skim news, annoy editors, brainstorm articles, forget deadlines, make errors, correct errors and send polite emails to accounting departments asking where is my money, could I please have some money, that would be so nice…

But the weekends? The weekends are built from dark days. The Irish city I am currently living in is soggy and stony like you wouldn’t believe. The rain is everywhere; you breathe it in and out. If you put your hand to a clump of moss you can feel pulses coming from a secret heart. The land is angry. Last night I think I heard a swan demand my wallet. I kicked it in the neck and fled.

I’ve taken to sheltering in my rented room for these periods because it is safe, although this means facing the awful bitterness in my head. I intend to use this. During the bad weekends I will take something in a game that makes me furious and write about it while drinking both a little too much and not enough Jameson 12 year. Let’s start with an old one I never got around to writing about at the time. Let’s start with

FABLE 2’S BREADCRUMB TRAIL.

With every review copy of Fable 2 Peter Molyneux chose to include a cover letter explaining that this was a game designed for non-gamers, and asking if we, the press, could review it as such. Fable 2’s most prominent features that made it ‘accessible’ for the non-gamer included the removal of player death (each time the player ‘dies’ they get a new scar and the fight continues) and the inclusion of what Molyneux called a ‘breadcrumb trail’, meaning the player could toggle on and off a trail of floating gold particle effects that would lead them to where they had to go to continue whatever quest they had selected.

fable3

I detest Fable 2. I consider it something of a dick move to make the target audience of your game’s sequel all the people who didn’t buy and enjoy your first game. I hate its infantile sense of humour, and how in every demonstration he gives Molyneux demonstrates the same mindset as that breed of casual gamer who giggles like a naughty child when the game berates them for stripping naked or pointlessly murdering passive characters.

I hate the idiocy of expecting combat to remain exciting when you’re playing with infinite health, and I find insufferable arrogance in the opinion that you can achieve this if you simply scar that player’s avatar with each ‘death’ because it ignores the possibility that the player won’t give a shit about their avatar.

If games are my life then Fable 2 is my own personal pus-soaked gut wound. It embodies the rise of this hateful opinion that the way to make everybody enjoy your game is to remove everything and anything which might piss them off, and then make every single piece of content so blindingly obvious that it cannot escape their attention.

For example, your character’s dog can sniff out buried treasure. He does this some 10 or 20 hundred times throughout the game. Whenever it happens the dog will run off to a patch of dirt and start barking wildly, but just in case you couldn’t fathom this mysterious hint the word “DIG” and a picture of a fucking spade materialises over your dog. Here is the idiocy of this illustrated in bullet points:

  • Dog runs off.
  • Dog starts barking, telling you to dig.
  • The word DIG appears, telling you to dig.
  • An icon showing a spade also appears, making sure you know to dig even if you do not speak whatever language you’re playing the game in.
  • Laboriously you walk to where the game says, equip your spade and watch a digging animation that goes on for too long.
  • Oh you found some buried treasure!
  • Oh, well done!

It’s even worse when your dog finds a treasure chest. The dog barks, runs over to whatever treasure chest might otherwise have escaped your attention and then the word “TREASURE” appears over the dog. You, the player, end up looking at a dog going apeshit at a treasure chest the size of a fridge, above which floats the word “TREASURE” alongside a small white icon of a second treasure chest.

This is not the way you make your game accessible to non-gamers. This is not putting training wheels on a bicycle, this is putting the player in a baby seat mounted on the back of the bicycle while Peter Molyneux rides the bike, his asscrack poking out the top of his jeans the entire time.

fable2

But it’s the breadcrumb trail that really gets to me like fingernails on a blackboard. Of all the hateful missteps this game makes it was always the one I was most scared of spreading like [insert STD here] throughout the games industry during the inevitable cross-germination of ideas that’d come after Fable 2’s success.

Being able to complete almost any task in the game by following the trail like a fish on a hook does a very good job of incinerating immersion, wonder and a sense of achievement. You walk the line. You do not deviate from the line, because deviating from the line will only slow the rate at which you progress. Molyneux’s goal was obviously to create a game where no player, no matter how inexperienced, would ever get lost, yet he either couldn’t see or didn’t care how much less human the this makes the experience.

The breadcrumb trail rips the soul from that glorious intimidation that comes from arriving at a big city, and it flays the fear from walking into a dark forest and not knowing where the monster you were sent to kill might be hiding. You might say a real hero never gets lost (which I’d disagree with anyway), but fuck if real heroes zip from town to monster to reward to dungeon like medieval bicycle couriers.

And you know what? It’s idiotic to try and let everyone be a hero. Not everyone’s cut out for it. My mother is not cut out to be a hero, Peter Molyneux. She binge-drinks, cannot open jars and is scared by foreigners. Did it occur to you, Peter, you turd in the grass, that if you’re putting out a game where my mother can be a hero I might not find playing it quite so heroic? Leave being a hero to those of us who want it badly enough to spend £200 on a game system and £35 on your Goddamn game.

And don’t you DARE TELL ME I “Don’t have to use it!!”. Doing that is a useless platitude which does nothing but cooly demonstrate an ignorance of how games work. For example, I enjoy the difficulty of taxing action games like Devil May Cry and the new Ninja Gaidens, but if you put a button in there that instantly regenerates your health I’m going to use it. I enjoyed the lack of fast travel in Morrowind, but if it had been an option available on the map I’d have used it.

Likewise, fuck if I’m spending two minutes fumbling around for where to go in Fable 2 when the answer is a menu option away, especially when the game has been developed without half as much care for dropping hints as to where you have to go because the developers knew the breadcrumb trail would always be there.

fable1

Alright, I’m done. I’m not always such an ornery bastard, you know. Here’s my new Eurogamer article cheering on a few examples of anti-breadcrumb level design, levels which have incredible success deliberately confusing the player. Ooh, and there’s my Steambot Chronicles retrospective! It came out pretty good! Although I guess I get my teeth into Harvest Moon in the fourth paragraph so maybe it’s not such a good example.

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