Monthly Archives: July 2015

Opinion – Evaluating the Past

Adjusting my rose colored glasses.

When approaching a retro review, it’s important to recognize the baggage that comes with it.  Unlike a current review, retro reviews evaluate beloved games of old to see if they hold up to their more modern descendants.  As a result, retro reviews are sometimes colored by happy memories of the past or differing criteria based on the time they were made.  In this article, I address some of the flaws I see in retro reviews and the flaws I hope to avoid in my upcoming review of Starcraft.

One of the most common flaws in retro reviews is the idea that some aspect of a game is “good for its time.”  This most often comes up in the context of outdated graphics, but can also apply to story, controls, or any other mechanic.  The idea is that problems in a game are somehow mitigated because they weren’t so bad when the game came out.  The issue with this argument is that it excuses unfavorable comparisons while ignoring the fundamental fact that some aspects of older games don’t age well.  It assumes the player is operating under the prevailing standard of the game’s origin year rather than the present.  This is obviously false.  For a game to be good, it ought not require that gamers forget all that came out between the game’s launch date and today.  If an older game truly is to claim the title “classic” (or even just “good”), then it must compete against the current standards.

In addition to creating outdated standards, the “good for its time“ argument suffers from the fact that the reviewer is never in “its time.”  While most retro reviewers were alive during the launch of these games, they are still years, if not decades, removed from the gaming scene that existed during the release date.  Unless the reviewer is going to replay games from that era, it is difficult to recollect what the prevailing standards of the time were.  “Good for its time” relies on understanding enough of the period to compare the game to.  Without actually having those games on hand, the reviewer is relying on old memories likely colored by happy recollections.

Alternatively, it’s important to recognize that lacking modernity does not mean lacking quality.  While some concepts and mechanics are no longer used in current games, they still may represent sources of fun and entertainment. The game Painkiller is a perfect example.  Lacking a strong story or RPG elements, Painkiller was a throwback to the simpler run-and-gun style FPS game that faded with the rise of System Shock and Half Life.  Despite focusing on an out of favor style of FPS, Painkiller was rightly lauded for its fun, arcade gameplay with clever settings and weaponry.  Developers move away from game mechanics for any number of reasons besides the fun derived from the mechanic.  The fact that they aren’t using a particular mechanic now does not necessarily reflect the quality of the mechanic.

The opposite is also true.  Nostalgia is real and many gamers have fond memories of older games played in a different time.  Some reviewers have a tendency to favor games from an earlier period precisely because that was a time when they really connected with the games.  While there is nothing wrong with enjoying, or even preferring, old games, reviewers should be wary of approving of games simply because of their age and associated memories.  A game should be reviewed based on the current experience it provides rather than the happy memories it recalls.  Readers of a retro review cannot download old memories, only old games.

The key with a retro review is to remember that the reviewer should evaluate the game as if it were released today.  Understand that many players are coming to the game fresh without the attending memories and knowledge that older players may have.  While all reviews are ultimately a reflection of the reviewer, reviews should only address what the player can access.

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Opinion – RTS Past Blast

Did you know the world keeps changing?  It’s shocking, I know, but this is something that happens all the time.  I don’t want to scare you, but it’s happening right now.  Realtime strategy games, being part of the world, also change.  I’ve been playing the original Starcraft and its reminding me about how much the genre has moved forward since the good old days.  Here are a few things we should all be thankful for.

Varied Mission Design – In the olden days, campaign mission were skirmish maps with a story.  Sometimes they’d mix it up by varying the unit types or the map was a little strange, but the basic formula was build an economic, make an army, and murder the enemy.  Campaigns rarely focused on taking advantage of the single player experience by coming up with unbalanced units or unique scenarios.  They relied on constant repetition making the many campaigns feel like tutorials for the multiplayer mode.  In the end, the battles became progressively more boring as the player rebuild an army for the millionth time.  Starcraft 2 strives to incorporate varied mission design with game choices outside of the match allowing for variety in gameplay.  This evolution is more than welcome.

Better Pathfinding – Have you ever told a group to go one direction and a single unit decides they’d rather blaze a trail towards your opponent’s death ball?  Did that seem like fun?  No?  Great!  That doesn’t happen much anymore, but it used to.  Unit AI had difficultly figuring out the best path to reach wherever the player wanted them to go.  Oftentimes, it would consider fellow player controlled units as impassable blockades and send units around giant mountains and lakes rather than push through allied units.  RTS games caused much frustration because they were not only poor at translating player strategy into onscreen action, but because they did so in a manner that jeopardized a player’s ability to win.  Ugh.

Less Clunky Everything – Some of the changes to the RTS genre have been revolutionary, but most are evolutionary.  The basic Dune II template hasn’t fundamentally changed since the game came out in 1992.  That being said, developers have worked on refining the genre to include hotkeys, visual aids, and clearer user interfaces.  Units respond quicker and with more obvious movements.  On the whole, the player is better able to understand the battlefield and respond how they wish far better than the early genre forbearers would allow.  Developers have streamlined almost everything that players could want and it makes for a much more approachable and appealing experience.

Complexity –The currently RTS genre is filled with complicated tech trees, micro intensive spellcasting units, and countless interactions.  Each aspect informs detailed strategies which require quick minds and quicker fingers to perform.  The fact that the modern RTS has leagues and competitors shows how far the genre has come.  By comparison, the early RTS games are simplistic.  They lack the intricate interactions that form the basis of most modern RTSes.  While games were clunky and unwieldy, this was a necessity.  In many ways, the refining of the control scheme allowed for the development of more complex games by allowing players to have tighter control over the action.  Of course, this is a double edged sword.  The more complex the genre becomes, the harder it is for new players to learn it.  Many may give up, frustrated by all they need to learn to compete.  Complexity increases the appeal of RTS games for some, but it also weakens it for others.

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Opinion – GamARTing

Sunset is a game by indie developer Tale of Tales about being a maid in the early days of a revolution…which you never played.  How do I know this?  Easy.  The game sold 4000 copies and the developer complained about it here.  In their blog post, Tale of Tales talked about how it did all the right things, yet the game still failed.  There’s a very real sense of entitlement throughout the entire post which hints at why they failed.  Beyond that, the post almost asks a very pertinent question: What is the role of art in gaming?

It is unfortunate to see that most artists and art minded critics feel that the role of art is to criticize people who don’t appreciate art.  Tale of Tales’ blog post, with the adjoining Kotaku article, lament the popular crowd and its failure to understand the brilliance of the indie scene.  From this view, the general games buying public is a mindless mass that gobbles up cheap Call of Duty fare, but lacks the capacity to appreciate the genius of the small, auteur creator.  Should the general gaming crowd point out a problem, the indie minded critic cries “but its art!” to explain away all manner of gaming sin, assuming the developer is sufficiently avant-garde and the audience is suitably popular.  By the end of this kind of article, art in gaming feels like an elitist club designed to make the complainers feel better about themselves by denigrating the greater masses.  The critics are wrong to do so.

The problem with the above argument is that it stems from a limited understand of why people play games and so imposes the motivations of the arguer on to the public.  For the vast majority of people, video games are a fun way with to relax and socialize with friends and that’s totally legitimate.  The average player of GTA V isn’t looking for deeper meaning, but rather would like blow to stuff up in an entertaining manner.  Our hypothetical GTA V player might look to something else for greater meaning, or not, but their failure to do so within the context of games does not suggest there is something wrong with them.  Gaming need not be a major source of artistic value like it is for some passionate followers of the medium.  It’s also important to recognize that appreciating an artistic game often means understanding the long history of gaming.  A new player can’t pickup up an artistic game and appreciate the high level of meaning any more than a consumer of just a few cheap romance novels will grasp Kant.  Many of the ideas analyzed in these games rely on a mental infrastructure that artistic gamers, developers, and critics have developed over years of play.  Art complainers are effectively criticizing people for not spending the considerable time and money needed to reach this understanding.

The real insidious nature of this kind of argument is how it warps the potential role of art in video games (I got here…eventually).  The devoted art gamer often hones in on the most expressive and least accessible examples of the medium, while ignoring the very real potential for meaning within its most popular expressions.  One of the greatest artistic achievements in games is the original Bioshock for its ability to marry gaming’s popular appeal with a deep critique of Ayn Rand.  The role that art can and should play is to use the relevance of the medium to impart messages in a way that gaming’s audience can appreciate.  The more art gaming breaks away from the basic appeal of video games, the more it isolates itself from the broader public who might benefit from art gaming’s message.

There is a role for developers who want to push the boundaries of meaning.  They investigate new ways to express ideas through games that may make their way into the popular scene.  While we applaud their efforts, we should recognize that their work is necessarily limited by the small, devoted audience the players their games.  These developers aren’t better for their niche pursuits.  Instead, they fill a necessary role within gaming that should be appreciated alongside the triple A developer who takes a less nuanced approach to a broader audience.

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Review – Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor – PC

I seriously did not want to finish this game.

If you read my previous article on Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, then you probably know where this review is heading.  Shadow of Mordor (SoM) isn’t a great game, however, it is an interesting one for how it fails.  SoM is less than the sum of its parts because developer Monolith seemed to not understand what makes any of its systems work.  This game is a jumble of contradictory ideas that should never inhabit the same game.  Yet they do.  It’s fascinating!

The game begins with the protagonist, Tailon, dying alongside his wife and child.  Tailon awakens attached to the ghost of an undead elf and a thirst for vengeance.  The plot and characters are carbon copies of stereotypes from other games and there aren’t any real innovations.  The only surprise is the developer’s decision to frame the story as an attempt to stop Sauron from returning.  Given that the game is set just before the Lord of the Rings trilogy, most players will start the story knowing how it ends.  It seems pointless to invest time and emotion into a plotline spoiled by one of the most famous sets of books of all time and a trilogy of blockbuster films.  Combat is similarly clumsy.  Tailon builds up combo points while attacking enemies which he then uses to unleash special attacks.  When enemies attack, the player hits a button above the enemy’s head to counter that attack.  Unfortunately, the button presses are unresponsive and major fights devolve into an endurance battle between the enemy, the player’s ability to counter, and the player’s patience for mowing down wave after wave of the same orc.  Monolith clearly wanted an elegant dance of blades, but the designed battles better fit the ham-fisted Dynasty Warriors series.

These missteps come to define SoM and undermine even its best features.  The only truly innovative aspect of the game is the nemesis system.  Players can mind control (the game calls it “branding”) the evil Uruk and help them reach ascendancy within Sauron’s army.  Branded Uruk will fight for the player and engage in missions on his behalf.  Tailon, on the other hand, didn’t get the message about the branded Uruk being allies.  He’ll happily target them as if they weren’t on his team making large fights a duel battle of killing the enemy and not killing the player’s allies.  Perhaps even more ridiculous and avoidable is the instant death that sometimes follows branding.  Tailon releases the newly branded Uruk by giving them a shove.  He will happily wade through a brutal, frustrating fight, brand an enemy hero, and then hurl him off a cliff requiring the player to start all over again.  This kind of mistake is made all over the game and comes to define it far more than any other aspect.  It’s frustrating to lose time invested in SoM to poor and contradictory feature implementation.

The most confusing aspect of Shadow of Mordor is why it’s an open world game at all.  The story and mechanics of the game conflict with the traditional benefits of the open world genre.  Open world games allow for exploration and discovery yet SoM’s transportation is slow and doesn’t have monuments or features to discover.  Furthermore, the game is set behind enemy lines.  It’s hard to be a tourist when there are Uruk patrols every five feet.  Open world games also allow for emergent gameplay; a feature notably missing from SoM.  Missions are carried out within self-contained levels and rarely include any element of surprise.  Every creature is an enemy and behaves in a predictable pattern.  Finally, there is no way to have a lasting impact on the world.  Nothing the player does appears to alter the landscape of Mordor.  The nemesis system might have provided some sign of progress, but the influence of the branded war leaders only appears to extend to the few bodyguards that surround them.  In some cases, it’s actually more detrimental to fight beside your branded Uruk than apart.  Branded Uruks fighting for the player are identified as traitors by their non-brainwashed compatriots.  Given the vast number of non-brainwashed Uruk, the branded Uruks are overwhelmed quickly forcing the player to hunt down and promote yet another Uruk hero.  SoM is surprisingly bad at all the things that open world games are good for.

I really wanted to like Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor.  The reviews are great and I’m a huge fan of open world games.  I just can’t support a game that is so confused about everything that it’s attempting.  Combat mechanics only work for small parties yet the game is full of huge battles.  The nemesis system wants the player to create an army, yet combat treats branded Uruks like enemies.  Finally, the setting and world totally contradict the virtues of an open world style game.  The game feels like Monolith tried to jam in their idea of a Lord of the Rings game into a publisher’s demand for an open world game.  The mix doesn’t work and I cannot recommend this game.

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