Monday, March 29, 2010

I Wanna Hold Your Hand

Let's get this out of the way, I am a fanboy. I am shameless in my love for Final Fantasy and have been for years. There are certain non-canon spin off things that I've generally avoided, but with the exception of III, X-2 and XI, there hasn't been one I didn't enjoy on some level. The characters are always interesting and developed well, the stories are epic and the worlds are beautifully realized whether based in the medieval or the futuristic or both. I could go on and on about the merits of the series, but I won't. Instead, I'll try keep things as subjective as possible. Besides, FFXIII is just a segway for my point in this post: Linearity and it's place in video games.

Reports on Final Fantasy XIII, while generally favourable, all point fingers at one aspect of the games first half. In several reviews I've read things like, 'the game is shockingly linear' or 'the linearity is ridiculous'. Statements which, especially in the context of a final fantasy game, continue to baffle me.

Since when is linearity the enemy? I love a good story, and I genuinely believe that games have the ability to provide unique, innovative narrative experiences, but only if there's something interesting there to work with in the first place. Without gushing like the miserable fanboy I am, FFXIIIs 'shocking linearity' works 'shockingly well' in my opinion. It's a different experience to the usual formula, and the lack of exploratory freedom isn't going to go down well with everyone, but it's this linearity that provides the much needed momentum to the story. These people are cursed and have no idea how to fix it. They don't have time to go trouncing around forests or fields chasing mutated squirrels and giant lizards, they're too busy continuously pushing forward in a collective effort to not die.

I realize a full post on FFXIII (and how I love it) would be too predictable for me. But as an example of my point it's quite useful. Linearity, coupled with good storytelling (most of the time anyway), has ALWAYS been a huge part of the FF experience, one that has enthralled as many as it has repulsed. Why are critics suddenly so eager to point this out?

I hear the arguments coming already. 'Every path is just a tunnel or a narrow corridor', 'the level design is unimaginative', 'TOWNS TOWNS WAH WAH WAH'. Yeah every path is a narrow corridor, as I said the current storyline doesn't lend itself well to time-wasting, we're in a life and death situation here. Unimaginative? Are you for real? I don't think there's been even one locale in the game this far that didn't make me grin like an idiot, the game, including its levels are nothing short of beautiful. As for the towns, get over it. Yeah I liked them too but things have to change.

'Change? But aren't you, here, on this blog, decrying this change? you hypocrite!' I hear you cry. Not quite, I'm afraid. I'm not against change, in fact XIII has done away with a lot of the shit that bugged me about previous entries, and even the new additions I'm not too keen on deserve their part in the experiment.

No More Heroes, my favourite game of 2008, suffered the opposite of this. With an open-world idea (very obviously) tacked in as an afterthought, one that never really felt very open at all, NMH came under heavy criticism. Now FFXIII has decided to toss any and all pretense of an open world, with a story that justifies, no, demands it's 'shocking linearity' as a sense of urgency. It seems as if people genuinely are just impossible to please.

Open world gaming is a great idea. But admit it, when faced with an open world sandbox to explore or terrorize (Just Cause 2, GTAIV, Saints Row etc.) how much attention do you usually pay to the story? Very little, I'd wager. Not that I'd blame you, those games usually have stories as impressive as those found in Stephanie Meyer books or the type of fanfiction you'd find on DeviantArt blogs. That, or they end up shockingly pretentious in their efforts to avoid it. Either way the open world idea lends itself much better to gameplay than it does to narrative.

Which basically brings us to what you personally want from a game or what you believe games can do if you believe they can do anything. Personally, I think there is untapped potential in the idea of games providing truly unique narrative experiences and that's what I want to see. Sandbox games are incredibly fun to play, but their novelty ultimately wares off and I often find I need a little more to sink my teeth into. A good story, well told, is a nice way of providing that extra depth.

I mentioned in my Heavy Rain post that there seems to be a growing divide between what developers want to make and what consumers want to play. Realism has proven to be a false-prophet for the industry, and I think this disdain for linearity will end up the same.

I'll probably be posting more on Final Fantasy XIII in the not too distant future, there's bigger plans afoot than what I've talked about here.

TL;DR: A mediocre post on the merits of Linearity. Expect a better one when I have time to string a metaphor together.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Moving Units

*NOTE: This is an article for this weeks TN2 magazine, I'm assuming anyone reading this already knows what PSmove is. If you don't, enjoy my briefing. If you do, enjoy the rest of it.

Despite opinions to the contrary, I am personally of the belief that flashes of healthy skepticism are a positive force in a world riddled with manufactured hype. I don't necessarily buy into the idea that corporations are the enemy or that Starbucks harvest children for sandwich meat, but it's important to recognize the difference between actually wanting something and being told that you want something. That said, there is little in this world that bugs me quite as much as unfounded negativity and my faith in 'healthy skepticism' is often mistaken for the unreasonable belief that 'everything is shit until it can prove itself otherwise'.

So the long talked-about PlayStation motion controller has finally been unveiled as the PlayStation Move, and it seems as if the bloggers are ready to fire up their cynicism cylinders and declare it a failure before it's even hit the track.

Far be it from me to preach about the merits of keeping your hopes up, especially where Sony are concerned, they have an unfortunate reputation for not delivering on promises (or lying, as it's more commonly known), but anyone ready to dismiss the PSMove as a 'Wii-Too' is clearly unaware of the technology that's actually involved.

Let me make one thing clear; I own a Wii. I like the Wii. Sure, it's gimmicky and there's hundreds upon hundreds of terrible, unnecessary and terribly unnecessary titles out for the thing, but the (admittedly few) games I do own I enjoyed immensely. No More Heroes is still my favorite game of 2008 and its sequel could end up being my favorite game of 2010 (FFXIII not withstanding), but even I can't feign ignorance towards Nintendos marketing strategy, although I could be inclined to refer to it as evil genius. The Wii-Motion Plus, which, let's face it, many of us shelled out for, was basically a peripheral to make the Wii do what it was always meant to do in the first place. We'd been had; tricked into buying a console with a control system that was, unbeknownst to us, incomplete and then charged for its completion when sales started to dwindle. Sony's decision to imitate the technology this late in the game isn't much better, but at least they've come to the table with a finished product.

The PlayStation Move is exactly what you'd imagine a Wii-Remote to look like if it were made by Sony and had a giant plastic ball attached to it. If that sounds comical, well, it is. It looks ridiculous. However, last week at GDC the press finally got their first chance to test it out first-hand and while a trip to San Francisco was just slightly out of TN2s budget this year, the reports from more financially viable press sources have been generally favorable.

The giant ball at the top of the controller contains three LEDs that can combine to make any color you can imagine. When a game is fired up, the eyetoy camera (a peripheral required to use the PSMove) scans the room for colors and lights up the controller in a color it didn't find, thus providing a highly effective way to keep the tracking at a ratio of 1:1. For instance, if you were in a room with lots of blue, the sphere would likely turn orange or red, so the camera can track the big orange or red thing in the room full of blue. It really is that simple.

While Sony have admitted that they're planning a considerable amount of casual fare to be released for the device, their insistence that they're still a company for the 'core gamer' (a term I use with much disdain) took a sharp turn for the believable when the latest title in their much revered SOCOM franchise, SOCOM 4, was demoed using the PSMove in a way, nay a multitude of ways, that actually worked. Admittedly, it required the presence of the conspicuous 'sub-controller', an additional wand that resembles Nintendos Nunchuck peripheral, which seemingly brings us right back to the Wii argument, but the video is undeniably impressive, showcasing a tracking ratio unlike anything I've seen on the Wii, with or without it's motion-plus add-on.

The PlayStation Move is currently scheduled for an autumn release, coinciding with the release of Microsofts controllerless-controller-camera-thing, currently codenamed Project Natal. The unveiling at GDC confirmed several bundle packages, the most alluring of which being the 'starter kit', containing a controller, a game and the eyetoy camera for (apparently) under $100. Microsoft have come under some criticism for their avant-garde approach to this idea (doing away with a controller altogether) and with Nintendo consistently underwhelming everyone of late, Sony might just be on to a winner here. Only time will tell if developers will really get on board with this, after all third-party support for the Wii has been thin on the ground, but with the right software support and the inevitable marketing push towards Christmas 2010, the PSMove has the potential to truly finish what the Wii began.

TL;DR: PlayStation Move could quite possibly do what Epic Games have failed to do: Kill the Wii.

Andy x

Monday, March 1, 2010

Heavy Rain - Rated 'R' for 'Real'

3 months in and no posts in 2010. Let's fix that.

Last night I finished Heavy Rain, a game I'd been itching to get my hands on since 'the casting' tech-demo was unveiled at E32006. The lead up to its release was tense, with Quantic Dream showcasing what was easily one of the best marketing campaigns I'd seen in a game for years. From the deliciously-vague profiling of the four characters (and the appearance of half their faces in several magazine ads) to the 'four days' viral campaign which sent myself and countless others on a hunt for what turned out to be the demo for the game, it was clear that thought had gone into this, and most-likely every other facet of the product.

Having read through several reviews of Heavy Rain (some glowing, some flickering) I think I have a reasonably good handle on both sides of the argument. Yes, the game does rely quite heavily on QTEs. Yes, there are technical issues. No, the control system isn't perfectly tuned. The game definitely has its faults and is far from perfect. But I cant help but feel that these critics are somehow missing the point. For me, the issues that occasionally cropped up during my experience with the origami killer were not enough to break my immersion (although a trip or two through the uncanny valley certainly came very close) or impede my enjoyment. Far from proving that Heavy Rain is not perfect, these imperfections simply reiterated to me the idea that perfection is impossible to achieve.

The QTEs didn't bother me. They've bothered me in other games, Wet being one of them, and I'm definitely of the opinion that they are overused by lazy designers. That said I can't believe this to be the case with Heavy Rain. What the team at Quantic Dream has done here is special. I actually panicked as my avatar did. When characters began freaking-out, the action and emotion was mirrored almost exactly by me, an experience which disturbed and enthralled me in equal measure, and this is where the QTEs made sense to me. Far from being tacked in without thought, these were the exact decisions that you or I would have to make in the situations presented to us, all of which, it's worth noting, are just within the realms of possibility. We're being chased, do we go left or right? Before we have time to think about the choice we just made we are asked again, left or right? Up or down? In or out? Life or death? Heavy Rain isn't just another action/adventure game full of QTEs, Heavy Rain is aware that in life, real life, quick thinking can be the difference between success and failure. Life and death.

My current benchmark for games is the consistently astonishing Assassins Creed II, and as a barometer of quality it's particularly useful here. Did I enjoy the experience of playing Heavy Rain as much as I did ACII? No, I didn't. Heavy Rain wasn't particularly heavy on fun. Is Heavy Rain more important than ACII? Absolutely. 'Fun' is a subjective term, and even to the one person can mean many different things. Heavy Rain is an experience. My heart has never pounded playing a game like it did during sequences of Heavy Rain (possible exception of Silent Hill 2), rarely have I connected so much with characters, a connection consistently strengthened by the very real possibility that any of them could die at any moment and it would be entirely my fault. From beginning to end I was on the edge of my seat, aching with anticipation at every potential plot-turn and pitfall.

Reality or 'realism' is something the game industry has been fascinated with this generation. While developers are insistent this is where we should be going, critics and fans haven't been so eager to agree (GTIV anyone?). With so many games having 'realism' thrust upon them as an idea, as alien to them as it is to their audience, it is refreshing to see a game finally nail the formula and be truly deserving of the term 'Mature'. Heavy Rain is not perfect. Heavy Rain is real.

TL;DR: Heavy Rain is a flawed masterpiece. A step-forward for games as a narrative medium that is worthy of your time and money.

Andy x