Sunday, March 31, 2013

A Call for Financial Transparency

It was originally my intent to post on Sundays, so I've been holding off on posting until today. The game industry is pretty much in a lull over the weekends, though there is still new entertainment on Saturdays (The always NSFW Red Dead Ridiculous, for example). As such, from here on out I plan on posting my opinion articles on Sundays, and will continue posting reviews as I write them.

When is the last time you heard how much a game cost to make? I’m not talking about a general “Games are three times as expensive as last generation,” but actual hard numbers, an educated guess at the production of a specific game? I honestly can only recall a handful of games to do this, and most of those were small, indie games where the “cost” is absurd, because a lone programmer in his own apartment doesn’t get a definitive wage. I heard rumours that Witcher 2 cost 1.5 million to make, but even if that was at one point true, they’ve put much more work into it now, that number doesn’t really hold up.
Why is this important? We tend to view this medium as a close relative to movies. We regularly hold it up to that standard, we use terms like “cinematic” on a regular basis. We want, regardless of the truth, to be held in the same regard to film. We want “gamers”, which I will from here on out refer to as gamephiles, to be considered as legitimate as a cinephile, and the title of game critic to be just as good of a position as a film critic.
In another blog, I’ll address a few things keeping all that from becoming reality, but for now, I’ll just mention the simple fact that, with film, we usually have access to this data. I know that The Croods, last week’s number one movie, made $43.6 million, and cost $135 to make, and has not yet made its money back. I can use this information as a consumer to help inform my decision to see this movie, or see it again. If the movie is failing, I can help it out, or let it die, and that’s my choice. The people making the movies can use it for their own benefit, or compare themselves to similar films. It promotes financial responsibility. If Studio A spends $50 million and only makes $40 million, but Studio B releases a similar title for $30 million, and makes the same $40 million, Studio A sees that and then looks at what they should have done to cut costs.
Neither part of this information is available for video games. Most games, there isn’t even an attempt to guess at how much the game cost to create. It’s not unless a game is exceedingly expensive that a guess is made. Star Wars: The Old Republic, for example, cost an estimated $200 million to create, which is supposed to be the most expensive game ever created according to many sources. How advertising focuses into this, however, is up in the air.
There are a handful of sites that take guesses at how many copies of a game have been sold, but none of them are reliable. The NPD only reports by the month, and Ben Kuchera of The Penny-Arcade Report has already written about why they should be ignored. Steam, the largest platform for the purchase of PC digital sales, doesn’t report sales numbers, preferring to keep this information private. Sales information is, plain and simple, not available, so not only do we not know about the state of a specific game, but the industry at large.
Why does Valve, the studio behind the creation of Steam, keep these numbers secret? I really don’t have an answer. My best guess is that it relates to their company philosophy as a whole, which seems to revolve largely around secrecy. We know very little about the structure of Steam as a company. We don’t know how many employees they have, what daily life is like, or what their strategy is for the future. They rarely make announcements very far in advance, and we don’t have much of a concept of what games they are working at, beyond assuming they are making sequels to their larger titles. They are an odd company, almost a shadow organization on some level, though more benevolent than the term would imply.
The industry is crying out that development costs are rising. They load microtransactions and DLC upon us because they need to supplement their costs. They do what they can to find new ways to get more money out of their consumers. Make no mistake, they are asking for our trust when it comes to finances. When THQ went out of business, Darksiders 2 was essentially a last ditch effort to keep the company afloat, and we are told that it wasn’t successful. Personally, I have my doubts over whether that means the game didn’t make money, or it didn’t make enough money to keep the company afloat.
So where does this all leave us? With an industry that is only held liable by its stockholders, and not its consumers. The only concrete financial information we receive is about the individual publisher’s profits or losses. A handful of companies hold information that could help change the market into a consumer driven one, and choose to sit on it.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Farcry 3 Review

Farcry 3 starts off on one of its better strengths, Vaas. After a short video that looks like it was made for a bad MTV reality TV show, which introduces the protagonist and his friends, we pan out to a man who is one of the best characters of 2012. Vaas is crazy. You’re never given any doubt. We first see him taunting his prisoners by talking about their fancy technology, threatening to kill them, claiming they’re already dead, saying he’s going to ransom them, and then being pulled away by his boss. He is clearly unstable, while still being menacing, throughout this opening sequence. Vaas remains a highlight every time he appears, and the biggest failing of the game is that he isn’t present as much as, say, Handsome Jack from Borderlands 2.
During this opening sequence, we’re introduced to one of the more interesting gameplay mechanics of the game: stealth. It works considerably better than a large number of the games we’ve seen lately where they try to force stealth in, such as Resident Evil 6. It’s clearly an intended gameplay mechanic, and the game pulls it off wonderfully. You use silencers, take downs, and sneaking through bushes in order to take out enemies. There are missions specifically designed to take down an enemy using the stealth, and they work to great effect. What’s most interesting about the stealth mechanic, however, is that the game is open world. In use, this means that before assaulting a base, you can climb the nearest hill and scout out where the enemies are. Tag them, then plan the best way to go in and kill everyone without being seen, or figure out how to deactivate the alarms before going in guns blazing. Getting seen when an enemy suddenly turns around can be frustrating, but ultimately I never felt cheated.
The game also has some basic platforming. You use this mostly for climbing the games radio towers, but it does appear in a few missions, and fairly often when trying to get all the games collectables. For the most part, this works well, but every once and a while there is a mechanics failure. While I was playing, I noticed two different issues. The first being that sometimes the game wouldn’t register a leap-grab properly, where I would jump off the edge at a ledge, and my character wouldn’t grab the ledge and pull himself up. The other is that, if you came to a chest high wall and jumped, your character would attempt to slide over it. This sometimes resulted in my character sliding right over the platform and falling 50+ feet to their death. Both of these issues happened a handful of times, and were ultimately a minor annoyance at their worst.
There is a skill upgrade system, where the game shows your power through a tattoo on your arm. These skills grant you more health, new takedowns, and general upgrades through the use of XP which is granted by essentially everything you do on the island. While an interesting concept, it really doesn’t serve much purpose to level it yourself, as by the time next set of skills is unlocked, you should have enough skill points that you can learn everything. The game would have been better served if it had gotten rid of the XP system altogether, and unlocking skills was tied into certain milestones.
The game features a large number of collectibles and side missions. There are 18 radio towers to climb that unlock weapons and unlock the map of that area. Each of these towers has 2 outposts surrounding it, which serve as quick travel points once the enemies are cleared out. The outposts serve as murder playgrounds; you can choose how to clear them out, either dealing with reinforcements, or taking the enemies out silently until you can deactivate the alarms.
All the other missions are entirely optional. These include 23 hunter missions, 14 side quests, and 24 wanted missions where you must kill an enemy with a knife. There are also 12 “Trials of the Rakyat”, which are essentially killing galleries, using a provided weapon to get as many kills as possible.  The hunting missions are used hand in hand with hunting on your own, and the pelts you receive can be used to upgrade your ammo and money capacity. This all ultimately serves that, by the time you reach the second island, you’ve already seen everything, upgraded everything, and done everything. The only thing that really changes is that you are granted a wingsuit, making mountain descents more interesting, and a costume, making it so you can move around the island without fighting anyone, except at the outposts which are “restricted areas”.
The game also includes a large number of collectibles. Scattered across the islands are 120 relics, 20 letters, and 20 memory cards. These all serve no real purpose other than granting you another avenue for XP. The letters have little snippets about how other people wound up on the island, but if there was anything interesting there, I didn’t see it as I got bored reading them after the third I found. The memory cards have drug names on them, and an amusing reference to the Dune series of novels, but again, no purpose beyond that.
As far as the story in concerned, I’ve already mentioned the best part. Vaas is done amazingly, his writing and voice acting stand well above what we’re used to seeing in video games. I can’t say the same for a single other character, however, as most the dialog isn’t as well written, and is delivered in a very heavy handed manner. The only other exception I would point to is Citra, who, while not as good as Vaas, is the only other character that feels like a real person. The best thing I can say about your own characters dialog is that it ultimately serves to remind you that he was one of those rich MTV kids at the beginning. The game tries to make you feel like your character is suffering from a slow descent into becoming a monster, but ultimately falls flat, particularly in the shadow of Spec Ops: The Line.
The game also ends with a simple choice, left or right trigger. The good choice, the bad choice, where there is no other choice in the game, and it ultimately serves no purpose. I’m sure there are plenty of people that chose the bad choice by default, but that really kind of goes against the rest of the games narrative, and does nothing but give the game a little shock value. I had actually expected to wind up in the same location, but as a final mission, not to be presented with such a choice.
The last thing I want to mention is a weird issue that may have been a result of my play style. I was playing on PC, with an Xbox 360 controller. Pressing Y was switching weapons, but rather than cycling through all 4, it would only switch between the 2 previously selected weapons through the Left Bumper. This issue was compounded, by the fact that doing certain things would have the game pick weapons. During one sequence in particular, the game kept switching my gun to a shotgun after planting dynamite, even though I wanted my Assault Rifle/sniper combo at the ready. Another small issue, but a curious design decision.
Overall, I enjoyed FarCry 3.  It’s one of my favorite shooters of 2013, being held back by a few weird design choices, a somewhat bland story, and, frankly, too much to do. I got bored doing the sidequests by the end, and ignored them in favor of completing the story, which I find is often the case while I’m playing Open world games.

RATING: $60 Game. Even not touching the multiplayer, I got my money’s worth. The game isn’t perfect, but I had a blast playing it.
Crysis – The game features a beautiful lush jungle that you can explore at your leisure. Stealth here is more refined, as you have no magical “invisibility” power, and can clear out a whole area without anyone knowing that you are even present. The shooting component is similar as well.
Assassin’s Creed Series – The large radio towers that you must climb in order to reveal the map is incredibly similar to any of the titles in the series. Here, the sections are in First Person instead of Third, so the actual act of climbing is quite different. Also worth mentioning is the hunting, which has much the same results as it did in Assassin’s Creed 3. The level of collectibles is also comparable to the first game in the series, where there are a lot and no real benefit to them.

Deadlight Review

Side-scrollers are bound to have some growing pains as the re-emerge into the main stream. The genre mostly disappeared in the late 90’s only to come back within the past few years with hits like Shadow Complex, Limbo, and not to mention the New! Super Mario Bros. series. Deadlight was an attempt to break back into the 2.5d realm and spin its own unique take.
                The story and gameplay of the game go hand in hand. The premise is that the world ended a few short months ago when zombies (called “shadows”) made an appearance. You play as a man plagued by dreams and nightmares of his family, trying to get inside 1980’s Seattle to be reunited with them. The story won’t provide you with many surprises, but it’s well told and successfully sets up the games atmosphere.
                The story is made awkward by some pretty ham-fisted dialog and voice acting. The cutscenes are done in a comic book manner that we’ve seen before, and I can only assume is supposed to invoke thoughts of The Walking Dead comics. Assuming that you’re supposed to take the game seriously, it fails pretty spectacularly. However, all this combines into an interesting campy aesthetic, and makes you feel like you’re stuck in a 1980’s Grade B horror movie. Based on the subject matter, and the time the game takes place in, I’m going to assume that’s what they were going for.
                In order to reach the end of the game, you will use your wits and a handful of weapons to outsmart your enemies. The name of the game is evasion, and often times your attempts to kill the enemies in your path will be fruitless. There are sections of the game dedicated to running away, as a helicopter appears towards the middle of the game. The largest portion of the game is the platforming, where you must stay out of reach of zombies, successfully jump between buildings and over fences.
                The inclusion of collectables is a bit perplexing. Over the course of the game, you find 3 different types. The first, and most useful, are the hand held gaming systems, which unlock mini games that can be accessed through the main menu. These mini-games are interesting homages to the old handheld games of the 80’s, but ultimately a waste of time. The more common types of collectables are random pick-ups throughout the game, such as newspaper clippings and pictures, which help set up the games atmosphere. The last type, which is really a subcategory of that last one, are a collection of ID’s, which all have the names of serial killers. This could have set the game up for an interesting twist, but I’m going to go ahead and spoil the game by telling you that you do not play a crazy homeless man on a killing spree.
                The in-game text pop ups repeatedly cover portions of the game screen, and can block your vision of coming dangers, resulting in unnecessary deaths. There’s also a big issue with platforms blending in with the background or foreground. You often won’t know if you can interact with a surface until you try, which will lead to severe falls, or confusion when it comes to navigating obstacles.
                Adding to the confusion about where to go next is the simple fact that often times it’s not clear what you’re supposed to be doing. It may seem like a strange complaint since it’s not an extremely thorough Metroidvania style game, but it does bear a passing resemblance. There are a few places that you may get a bit lost, though it only takes a minute to figure out the proper path. The last issue I had with the design was that a handful of buildings in the game would start to crumble upon entering. This didn’t happen enough for you to be on the lookout, and yet if you hesitated for even a second, you ended up dying. It really served no purpose, other than to add on another death, as they were pretty hard to fall for a 2nd time around.
                The controls, while functional, are a little sluggish. Rather than ruining the game, it actually heightens the experience. It keeps you looking ahead and thinking about what comes next. You can’t course correct at the last second, so it slows the game down and makes you think rather than react. The only actual issue I had with the controls is in the finishers. After knocking an enemy to the ground, in order to kill them, you have to stick an axe in their head. Upon trying to do this, I regularly missed enemies while I was standing on top of them, or completely lost sight of the enemies that blended in with the foreground.
                The last thing I want to touch on is some other reviewer’s complaints. The one I’ve heard the most is the complaint about pacing during the games second act. In it, the main character goes underground and proceeds through a gauntlet of completing puzzles. A homeless man offers to help if you can survive his challenges. The odd thing about this section is that these puzzles don’t really appear anywhere else. However, this is not a tutorial, this is a gameplay section by itself, and the controls don’t change.
                All in all, this was a good game held back by a handful of design decisions. None of the issues hold it back enough to make it a chore to play. I never got frustrated and had to put the controller down, and I was actually compelled to move on to the next section time and time again.

RATING: $10 Game. Once beaten, there’s not really any reason to go back and play this again. An additional mode would have been welcome, but the experience that is there is enjoyable.
Prince of Persia – The action platforming is similar to the original Prince of Persia games, also known as Prince of Persia Classic on the Xbox Live Arcade. The controls feel quite a bit better when put side by side, though probably not as good as what you remember.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Mission Statement & Reviews

There are many issues today that affect the video game community. Many that people are aware of, and many that we try to ignore. This editorial is an attempt to shed some light on these issues, from the viewpoint of a gamer. I have no industry experience, I’ve never developed a video game, and I’ve never worked as a professional video game journalist. These are my thoughts, independent of the people involved. Many of these include sweeping generalizations, and should be taken with a grain of salt.
When trying to decide what I should write about first, I had a hard time making up my mind. At first I thought I should talk about Downloadable content in some capacity, as we’re seeing a huge influx of it. Then I considered micro-transactions, being such a controversial subject. When I started planning, THQ was falling apart, and I thought that might be important to talk about, but there’s still information leaking from that and not everything has been solved. There was also Aliens: Colonial Marines, and how its demo materials looked nothing like the final project, but everyone else was talking about it, and it’s been well documented. As I began putting my writing together, it became obvious what was most important to what I’m trying to do here: The Ratings Systems.
The issue is immediately apparent to anyone familiar with Metacritic. Media falls into 3 categories: Positive, Negative, and Mixed. Everything is ranked by a score of 1-100, based on aggravate reviews. The brackets are different in gaming than every other form of media, which is the first sign of there being an issue. For movies, television, and music, a score of 1-39 is negative, 40-59 is mixed, and 60-100 is positive. For games, it is 1-49 being negative, 50-74 is mixed, and 75-100 is positive.
Think about that for a minute. Half of their scale is negative. But when you look at their recent releases on Xbox 360, only 2 games are given a negative score. Meanwhile, there are 12 positives, and 15 mixed. Movies, which gamers would consider their closest relative, have a much different spread. At time of writing, under “wide releases”, there are 10 negatives, 12 mixed, and only 1 positive. That’s almost a complete flip. These titles are basically December 2012 through February 2013, what could be considered a down period for both industries, but I’ve checked these number in the past and they are not abnormal. So, not only is the scale for gaming more lenient than all other forms of media, but even adjusted on a curb, we still aren’t seeing the same level of critique.
Going to individual games, we see an interesting trend. Aliens: Colonial Marines, a game which was universally panned by critics as being a joyless, barely playable mess, has a metacritic score of 48. Two points below being a mixed score. Such a (supposedly) terrible game, to get that close to a “mixed” is awkward. Heck, if it were on the same scale as movies, it would have gotten a mixed.
So, there’s a whopping pile of data. Now the question is, where does this all come from. I’m actually going to leave a large part of this for a later article. For now, suffice to say, it’s the poisonous relationship between developers, publishers, and journalists. Journalists, due to fear, due to pressure, often due to sheer incompetence, and due to other issues, do not always do their job properly. 5 out of 10 is not a terrible rating, but we, as gamers, are trained to view it as unplayable.
What we end up with for ratings is 2 different rating scales. For a triple-A title, a 90 or above is usually expected. People get into arguments saying, “this didn’t deserve a 95, it only deserved a 90,” like that really changes anything. When a triple-A title gets lower than a 90, it may still be worthwhile, but it got that score because there’s something wrong with it. Then we have a separate scale for the non-triple-A games. When these titles get a 70 or above, we see it as a positive and see all the things it has done properly. These aren’t necessarily indie games, but mid-level or lower, ones not released by a major studio. So, the end result is that, if Activision releases a game that only gets an 80, it’s because it’s worse than a game released by Atlus which gets a 75.
How do we fix this? What I’m going to say to that is simple. The gaming press needs to view themselves as critics instead of journalists, and be critical of games. Don’t be afraid to stick out from everyone else. If everyone else gives a game a 95, and you think it’s a barely playable mess, feel free to give the game a 25. If you rail against a game because it’s riddled with bugs, has a bad story, terrible acting, no atmosphere and barely passable game mechanics, give that game a 10. If the game is flat out broken, give it a 0. Obviously, it’s not as simple as all that, but that’s the idealistic view.
My personal solution is a separate review scale. This will be a 5 point scale based on what the cash value I find in games. This will be be adjusted for different priced games and different types of games. For the baseline, 60 USD games, the scaling will be as follows; “$60 Game” (Full Price), “$40 Game” (Sale), “$20 Game” (Bargain Bin), Do Not Purchase, and “They Should Have Paid Me”. This will allow me to say my overall feel for the movie, as well as give me the leniency I need if I decide I need a scale that is more than 5 points.
If you have any thoughts, feel free to comment. I’d like to think of these as fluent, not static, and that I’m able to be convinced that I’m incorrect about some things.