I don’t like the fact that I need to assign marks for games, but I like Empire, which I reviewed for Softpedia. It’s big, it’s complex, it’s gonna take a few months of my life over. I can barely wait for mods… and although Tom Chick is right about the AI and the lack of documentation I believe that his review is overly harsh.


How We Approach A Game

March 3, 2009

I read this Angry Bear column at Gamespy and it got me thinking about something. The gaming world is inhabited by 14 year old boys. I myself have this age, sometimes. And gaming will only evolve when the industry becomes interested in telling stories about something other than things 14 year old buys like. That’s what Allen Rausch says and it’s probably true. At the end he asks: “We can reproduce the experience of flying in a Colonial Viper against a Cylon Raider but — to paraphrase President Joe Bowers — wouldn’t it be better if you knew why you were in that cockpit and why you were fighting that Cylon?”. This Battlestar Galactica themed ending drove my mind on a tangent…

It would be better, but I think most gamers approach videogames a bit differently. When I buy a book I know pretty much nothing about what happens. I might know the theme and the author. Most of the times when I see a movie I know what the trailer tells me and maybe the names of a few actors. I get the enjoyment out of movies and books (which are the genus proximus for videogames) by experiencing their story. I can focus my attention on the backstory, the details, the movements, the meanings. It’s not that I’m doing anything else. I am in a state which allows my mind to receive and process information.

When I approach videogames I tend to know more. There are previews which detail mechanics. There are interviews, trailers offering more information, comments from various journalists which have seen the game in action. Even for original intellectual property this means that I have a lot more information than for a movie or book. Also gaming involves doing stuff, be in shooting guys in the face or creating the perfect city block or timing dishes to serve in the dinner. All of this means that my mind is in a state in which it aims to solve problems by doing things and direct narrative in this state can be dismissed as an obstacle which impeds progress.

So yes, I would like to know why I am shooting down the Cylon raiders. But videogames have two obstacles build in, when it comes to telling stories: I already know stuff and all the stuff the game wants to tell me can be seen as taking away from my progress. Maybe developers and publisher need to find a way to tell the story of the vidogames in two tiers: one in game, minimal in most titles and subservient to gameplay, and another outside of the game, in blogs, comics, movies, other mediums. The Jackal tapes from Far Cry 2 and the Killzone 2 intel seem to be good examples of this.

So it’s not only that we’re 14 year old limiting stories in games but the medium itself seems to have some in built mechanisms which are making harder to tell stories.

Dawn of War II Stuff

March 2, 2009

This is my review of Dawn of War II for Softpedia. And here are a series of articles dealing with my day by day impressions of the game. I also talked about the multiplayer beta but those articles are pretty much outdated so I won’t link to them.

And with the gaming world searching for something to have the significance of Citizen Kane (was it really that movie so important to bringing a new level of respectabiltiy to the movie industry?) I think that we have found the way the gaming industry can equal something like Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers. Some will say that World War II themed shooters already replicate the above mentioned movies but I would argue that Dawn of War II manages, by having the players firmly inhabiting the power armour of the Force Commander while creating the story around him through Tarkus, Cyrus, Avitus and the other “-us” named Space Marines, to create a cinematic experience which does not eliminate the possibility of a sentimental connection to the story and the characters. And to all those who are saying the acting is wooden I can only say that these are tough, superhuman Space Marines who live hundreds of years and fight genocidal aliens. They can’t have the sensibility of a Oscar winning actor…

Weekend reading at Softpedia.

Will you separate the two?  The commander (hero?) is powerful, Scouts are rather weak. I split them and send one for a Victory Point and another for an energy node. Hit F1. Do you build a Tactical Marine Squad, flexibile and upgradable, or a Heavy Bolter Squad, suited for suppresion and slow moving? I fo for the Tactical Squad. The first point is captured. Do you go for for energy, requisition or another Victory Point? I go for requisition. My Tactical Squad is complete. Do you… My commander (I play Apothecary) is in trouble. The Ork Warboss he is facing is tougher. Do you continue to fight or retreat? I stay in the fight, send the Space Marines in and hope there are not a lot of Sluggas around the Warboss. I promtly forget about my scout squad which gets slaughtered by Orks. I build another Scout squad, as I need the mobilty and like the Shotgun and Stealth combo they get long after the first two minutes. Has it been two minutes? Damn, I forgot to set the damn clock again.

Yes, I am playing the Dawn of War II multiplayer beta. And I like it. One of the reasons is the fact that the whole Warhammer 40,000 universe appeals to me. It’s in the future and very dystopian, focused on bringing out the fark element in each stiation and in each character. There’s continous war and there’s are a lot of very weird alien races in there. The other reason is that, with the base building taken out and the upgrades moved to the individual squads, the game is uniquely suited for multiplayer matches, especially head to head.

And there’s a shitload of choice. Above I’ve just listed a few of those which pop up in the first two minutes of a Head to Head battle, where you take on another player on a rather small map. I’ve actually made a lot more choices than I’ve written about. There are some mourning the lack of base expansion, saying that it limits the amount of choices. I don’t thing so. Each squad gets upgraded individually and, save for the commander unit, the upgrades are mutually exclusive. A Tactical Marine Squad can only have a flamer or a heavy bolter or a rocket launcher.

Choices. Meaningful ones, considering the limited population cap and the need to constantly adapt to what the enemy is throwing at you. Choices in the gear the commander can equip. Choices in how and when to use the abilities you get, both individual and global.  Choices in the way you devote resources to going up the three phase tech three or to building more units. Choices in statically defending a zone or choosing to roam around, responding to threats. meta choices in selecting from among the four races and from the three commanders, with different tactical focus, of each races.

I like choices, I like the Dawn of War II beta and can’t wait for the game to arrive. I am though a bit concerned about the singleplayer…

Posted during the weekend at Softpedia.

In a recent interview with The Telegraph Dan Houser, of Rockstar, talked about The Lost and Damned, the DLC for GTA IV, but he also added a few considerations related to the maturity of games and how he hopes that the “growing up” does not happen to soon as  “it’s really fun at the moment because we’re not in any Academy and the medium’s not codified”.  Houser seems to believe that somehow the the freedom of videogame creators would be constrained if games become more like books and movies.

I do believe one can argue against his idea but I believe the real moneyquote in the Telegraph interview is this one:

We always try to get the tone of the story and tone of the graphics to feel seamless. We’re trying to make a world that feels like it exists. And the old graphics were far more cartoony because that was all we could to, so the story and the writing needed to be as well”.

Houser basically says that we need graphics which grow in quality approaching near reality in order to have narrative in game which approaches the level currently found in books/movies/other arts. Well, let me call bullshit on this statement.

The level of graphics development and the level of maturity of the story are not connected in any way, except if the game creator really wants to tie them up together. The narrative in adventure games has been quite well developed since their appearance, even if the graphics were poor. Even in the GTA series (how I lived the first game in that series, with its top down look and orange conga walking pedestrians) a complex story could have been told in the graphics of GTA III. Polygon counts are not a prerequisite for good game writing.