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REVIEW: The Brink of a Genre, Worth Exploring

Stretching The Edges of a Genre

Brink was developed by Splash Damage and published by Bethesda Softworks for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Windows PC. It was directed by Paul Wedgewood, Richard Ham, Olivier Leonardi, Chris Sweetman, Arnout van Meer, Richard Jolly and Stephen Gaffney. The Xbox360 copy was played for the purpose of this review following the day one patch released from developer Splash Damage.

Innovation rarely produces perfection, but it always brings something new to the table. Something on the brink of existing standards, stretching old rules with the new ideas it brings forward. Flipping on Brink for the first time, and watching it’s lengthy tutorial videos (10-30 minutes), you get the immediate sense that you are playing an ambitious shooter. Four classes, directly interdependent with one another, three distinct body types, and a plethora of weapons and abilities help shape the battlefield of Brink in a way that is rarely seen in this generation’s “run ‘n’ gun, lone-wolf” brand of first-person shooters. Brink’s team centric, objective-based battles are laden with a variety of fun opportunities, but they are also fraught with technical issues that will leave those with slow internet connections as well as eye-candy junkies disappointed. Visual issues frequently result in constant texture pop-in and online lag often interrupts the fast-paced flow of combat. Problems with the bot’s artificial intelligence in Brink can also be downright infuriating. There, is without a doubt, mountains of lasting fun to be had with Brink, however with all it’s innovation aside, it falls short of perfection.

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Check out Brink’s Intro As Well as New Security Gameplay

Two videos for your viewing pleasure; first, the intro to the game–accented narrator and all. Second, a video that showcases some new gameplay from the Security portion of the storyline. Both are new!

Interesting tidbit from the intro video: the Resistance is trying to escape. That…makes things interesting. Why wouldn’t Security allow people to leave? Wouldn’t that help out the situation–given that resources are scarce?

RAGE Dead City Gameplay

Speaks for itself, really. Things of note: pew pew bullets. Also mutant-like monsters which sort of look like zombies. The UI looks slick. But mostly, gray. When the world ends, so will all the color, it seems.

A Preview of The Available Abilities in Brink

Behold! A small taste of the (seemingly) vast number of abilities available to unlock in Brink, the class-based shooter slated to drop on May 17th. It’s got molotov cocktails, imma-hack-into-da-turret-now, and the perhaps broken “Oh, did you kill me? I’m just gonna…revive myself now” as abilities. Like Black Ops, it seems that abilities change your appearance. This being the case, the number of options in appearance will be ridiculous.

Normally, this might be grounds for a compliment, but I can’t help but have Matthew Burns’ ‘Why We Don’t Have Female Characters’ in the back of my mind (as some of you might know, there are no female characters in the game, and the developers have excused it by stating that it was a choice between deep customization options or half-assed male-female options). A snippet, though you can read the rest of the satirical post here,

“Well, it’s hard to make female characters. First of all, in order to accommodate female characters in our pipeline, you’d basically need to re-code the entire engine from the ground up. Because the technology we have today just wasn’t built to be able to handle stuff like that. I’m thinking about it now and I have no idea how you’d even start making those kind of changes in our low-level architecture. The implications to our engine are just all over the place– the threading system, the frame buffer…

Then there’s the art aspect. Can anyone say they really know what a woman looks like? I mean we all have ideas. But we’ve tried them and they don’t work. Women are difficult to model because they have– they’re sort of put together– well, let me put it this way: male bone structure is mostly made up of ninety-degree angles. Right? Maybe a couple forty-fives here and there. But it’s simple, and that makes it easy. I guess I shouldn’t say “easy,” but I mean more straightforward.

Female bone structure, on the other hand, is extremely complicated. There are, like, n-gons and inverted matrices in there and everything.”

Black Ops Mythbusters

Ever wondered if you could put C4 on an RC Car? Shoot down a Valkyrie missile? Shoot down a care package? Well, wonder no longer–here are some myths about CoD: Blops, tested out for your viewing pleasure.

Players who are sick of getting killed by RC cars will probably  benefit from knowing that the flak jacket is resistant to the RC explosion.

Contract With the Devil

Dispute the validity of ‘gaming addiction’ all you want, but designers are definitely try to tap into gaming compulsions to engineer games that keep you playing. To this end, Treyarch’s latest foray into the Call of Duty franchise implements a couple of interesting features: contracts and wager matches.

Contracts are essentially challenges the player must complete in a given time frame in exchange for CoD points or XP. Of course, we’ve already seen a system similar to this earlier in the year in Bungie’s Halo: Reach–aptly named ‘challenges,’ no less. In a way these contracts function like achievements do, enticing a player with rewards to perform acts they might not otherwise. Wagers on the other hand see players betting that they can finish a match standing in the top three, all for a smaller buy-in price. Points that players win in normal matches or contracts may be used to wage bets.

Couple these new features with additional benchmark challenges (say, for example, reaching X number of kills with Y weapon), and you’ve got yourself a full-fledged rewards system that functions in tandem with the actual game. The more money and experience you earn, the more you can buy/equip for your loadout, the better you might perform in a match.

Contracts may take advantage of compulsions to show mastery over a given system–almost like a dare–but they also have the ability to reward players for trying something different. For example, you’ve got things like contracts to knife someone in the back, to getting 5 kills with a flamethrower attachment. Normally I wouldn’t give the flamethrower attachment a second glance: sure, it might be cool and flashy, but it’s probably not as effective as a grenade attachment or a shotgun underbarrel. With contracts in effect, however, I’m constantly weighing in if a change in my loadout or playstyle is worth a few extra credits.

Thus I recognize the value that contracts provide: they pepper a game which might otherwise become dull and repetitive (after all, it’s only a matter of time before a dedicated player settles in on a loadout, a playing style, a particular route) with a little spice to keep things interesting. There’s nothing like a good ‘ol fashioned risk vs reward scenario to keep players engaged, right?

Nonetheless for every interesting contract or challenge, you’ve got a dozen uninspired and monotonous challenges that plague both CODBlops and Reach. The potential for creating a novel experience is there, it’s just a matter of putting a little effort into making the contracts. It’ll be interesting to see these systems implemented elsewhere, too: imagine, for a second, a Battlefield challenge to snipe a helicopter’s pilot? Unfortunately it’s probably easier to make implement randomized “Kill X number of enemies with Y weapon” than it is to come up with interesting challenges, and that’s a shame. I want designers to impress me with challenges that explore nuisance, challenges that make me explore the game in an ingenious way, challenges that keep me engaged. Otherwise, the “addictive” system becomes a missed opportunity.

Moreover, implementing weirder challenges or challenges that are very difficult to do have the possibility of alienating certain players, and the idea is to keep people engaged in the long-term. I recognize that a hypothetical challenge of sniping an Apache pilot would be incredibly difficult, but I also don’t think all challenges should be general enough that anybody can complete them without working for it. The issue is finding the right balance in terms of risk vs reward, deciding how inclusive challenges should be, and recognizing what sorts of challenges operate within intended gameplay systems.

Where contracts disappoint, wager matches succeed: wager matches are all about the novel experience. Modes include one in the chamber (where you only have one bullet), gun game (where every kill lands you a new weapon), sticks and stones (crossbows, ballistic knives and tomahawks only) and sharpshooter (weapons cycle randomly ever 45 seconds). Intense, ridiculous and crazy, wager matches are a definite must-play, even for players completely disinterested in winning CoD points. I would not be surprised if players who partake in wager matches experience long-term engagement with the modes, since everything about them is novel and quirky.

Still, I can’t help but wonder if the ultimate purpose of contracts and challenges isn’t so much to keep things interesting for players, but rather to involve players extensively as a means of keeping a market continually open. This means more players will hang on to their games and play longer, and that means more players will be interested in buying a 15 dollar map pack or the long-rumored subscription models. The contracts and wagers are devilish and genius, really.

With these systems in place, I would not be surprised to find Activision’s desire for a year-round revenue stream from CoD coming true soon. And if the numbers for the map pack are any indication, we’ll welcome it with open hands: we’ll be too engrossed in their game not to.

Is that a bad thing? I can’t say.

Building a ‘soldier sim’, part 1

I’m not the hardest of the hardcore when it comes to shooters, either first or third person, but I’ve played my fair share.

There are some interesting games that really change the concept of being a shooter, my current favorite being Borderlands, and I’ll be really excited to see a game like Bulletstorm when it comes out next year. These blend sci-fi imagination with a ‘pulp-ish’ attitude that embrace, for lack of a better word, their gamey-ness. Attaching modifiers to my killing style and racking up points sounds like a lot of fun, and games that nail this can really stand out.

One the other end of the spectrum we have the ‘military’ FPS genre. In many ways, you could argue that these games are increasingly blending together, despite Medal of Honor‘s “Tier 1” ad campaign. Gameplay feels similar, and while the names and visual models of the military assets involved might be realistic, there’s not much realism to be had.

I’m not going to hate on the genre. Call of Duty 4 was a fantastic game. Its successor was flawed in many respects, but the multi-player in particular provided me with more than my $60 of enjoyment. DICE’s Battlefield: Bad Company 2 sucked even more of my life away, and provided a somewhat more involved team simulation. Still, there’s a far cry between these games and actually feeling like we’re on a battlefield.

Sure, a game–even if it could capture that essence–probably shouldn’t. I’m fine with games existing to provide entertainment value and I don’t want this to be about the games as art debate–something that with every iteration approaches the asymptote of absolute futility. What I do want this to be about is a very fundamental discussion about this question: are military-themed FPS games destined to either being realistic or being fun?

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Halo: Reach single-player review

“From the beginning we know the end.” It’s straight from the marketing department, but that’s definitely a good way to approach Halo: Reach.

The first thing we see upon loading the game is the planet laid waste by the Covenant. In the background is a mountain, its entire surface burnt and smoldering. In the foreground is a lone Spartan helmet, its visor fatally cracked. From there our perspective shifts back in time, showing the protagonist (known only as Noble Six) putting his (or her) helmet on while riding across a rugged landscape to join Noble Team.

Your introduction to Noble Team is quick, but effective. Carter is the leader–though at the service of a distant master. Kat is “number 2”, and the one you’ll actually spend the most time with. Jun is a bit of a cipher, but snipers interact at a distance. Jorge is a giant, and the only member of the team who can say he’s met the Master Chief. Emile is a jerk–but the skull looks cool.

That said, the very first shot can be a little confusing. I’m the new “number six”, as Jorge informs me, so I (initially) thought the broken helmet was of the Spartan I’d replaced–and the planet in the background was a previous colony “glassed” by the Covenant. The second time through, however, I’d upgraded my helmet and changed colors in the Armory–and the broken helmet in the cinematic was my helmet, painted in my colors. No doubt there as to whose death we were talking about.

Armor permutations that show up in all modes of the game represent a subtle improvement, but one of the best made in Reach. No matter what armor permutation and color combination I have–including the flaming helmet unlocked by purchasing the Legendary edition–it is all reflected during the in-engine cutscenes. Seeing my character’s death before I’ve played a single second sets the mood: somber, but not the depression of ODST.

Other improvements under the hood for the single-player include a heavily revised graphics engine. Halo fans will see battlefields more detailed–and considerably bigger than any previous game in the franchise. At numerous points in the game, players get to experience the combination of linear direction and open sandbox play that differentiates Halo from other games in the FPS genre.

There are legacy issues which date back to the very first game: framerates drop at regular intervals, particularly when checkpoints load. I’ve also noticed a significant amount of screen tearing in the early cutscenes, though forum posts indicate it might just be my individual setup.

That said, the main interest is what happens truly in the game, and here the franchise has matured. Read the rest of this entry

MAG to Charge 99 Cents Per Month For Additional Soldier Slots

Last week, Zipper Interactive announced that they’d be “giving players the option to create and maintain multiple characters in the MAG universe.” MAG players everywhere grateful for the decision, since the ability to maintain only a single soldier per account is a cumbersome, annoying system. Today, however, Zipper told us about the giant asterisk attached to their previous promise: players will have to pay a dollar per month to keep extra soldier slots on their profiles.

“Gamers who log in this afternoon will discover two additional slots below their original default character. For $0.99 (US) per added slot, players can select the extra character they want to unlock and create a brand new persona,” they stated.

The perk? That while characters will only last for 30 days after your purchase, they’d still remain in the MAG servers until you decide to pay up again–they won’t just delete your soldiers.

“Don’t fret if you decide not to renew one or both of them immediately. Once your extra characters have been created, they reside safely dormant on the MAG server until activated for subscription once again.”

Could this move by Zipper be a sign of things to come in terms of online multiplayer games and subscriptions to them/paid features associated with those games? In any case it’ll be interesting to see how many people actually bite on this “offer,” and how many people will simply do the usual ‘delete the character you’re bored with and start a new one in a different faction’.

Medal of Honor is a “Creative Risk” From Which EA Will Not Back Down Despite Media Criticism

Frank Gibeau, president of EA Games, told Develop that what they are doing with Medal of Honor is tied to creative vision. “We respect the media’s views,” he said, “but at the same time [these reports] don’t compromise our creative vision and what we want to do.”

More than creative vision–art!

“At EA we passionately believe games are an artform, and I don’t know why films and books set in Afghanistan don’t get flack, yet [games] do. Whether it’s Red Badge Of Courage or The Hurt Locker, the media of its time can be a platform for the people who wish to tell their stories. Games are becoming that platform.”

Hmm. I was under the impression that art provoked critical thought of some sort? How can you claim to produce art when you can also say that you don’t intend to push too hard? Now, I know what you’re thinking. Patricia, that’s a quote from DICE, and they’re just handling the multiplayer aspect. So what? They are still speaking on behalf of the game, but more importantly, we already know that games with multiplayer components do not have to suffer a complete dichotomy from the single-player. Brink has taught us that multiplayer can be completely purposeful and integrated into the main game: hell, there’s no dichotomy between the two modes, there. Am I to believe that EA wanted to give such justice to the subject that they’re fine with providing us a mindless game mode, which only exists to satiate new consumer demands for online multiplayer? There’s really no excuse for it.

So, then, is it any surprise that they’re proud of what they’re doing? “The development teams care very much about what they’re building, and of course a bit of criticism from the media causes some to get demoralised, but at the end of the day we’re proud of what we’re doing. Brining Medal of Honor back was no small feat.”

And why brave all the criticism for this game? Because they want you to see “what it was like to be in a soldier’s position.” Because that experience is completely transferable in an entertainment medium, right?