Thursday, January 22, 2009

February 2009 - The Month of DLC

February is looking to be an odd month when you look at some of the new videogame related stuff coming out. FEAR 2: Project Origin and Street Fighter IV are coming out, but it seems like the biggest new releases are for games we've already played.

Fallout 3, Burnout Paradise, Mirror's Edge, Tomb Raider Underworld and Grand Theft Auto IV are all getting new expansions to the original content they came with in some form or another. Developers now seem fully committed to extending the life of a game through new downloadable content, and now that the holiday crush is over, they want us to return to the games we rushed through earlier, or finally pick up the ones that we regretfully decided didn't make the cut for a purchase. I would love to see the sales figures for downloadable content from the last few years, but that information seems to be a closely guarded secret for reasons I don't understand.

In a way, Bethesda helped pioneer this brave new DLC frontier we're currently exploring. They still haven't lived down the overpriced horse armor they released for Oblivion, but the subsequent expansions they released were much more feature rich and sensibly priced. It sounds like the new stuff they have planned for Fallout 3 will take a lot of what they learned from their experiences on that earlier game. They all look like they're going to offer a substantial amount of content for the amount of money being asked for. The DLC for March will also fix one of the main complaints about the game: not being able to continue past the main quest.

Burnout Paradise of course has been receiving free content for the past year, but February's DLC will mark the first time an update is being charged for. There will also be a free patch to go alongside it, but the paid portion will test just how much goodwill has been built up over the past year from the free stuff. My worry is that this first premium pack seems to add features that nobody was really asking for, while not adding what people DO want. It adds a local multiplayer "party" feature where players pass around a controller and compete in challenges like the online multiplayer has. What people have actually asked for is a split-screen racing mode, but that has not been added in. The free patch will be adding a restart option for events, which will at least address the other large complaint many people have about the game. I still contend that pining for such an option misses the point of the game, but I'll live.

Mirror's Edge is getting a new pack of time trial levels for players to master. The interesting thing about them is that they're presented in a very different and abstract style compared to the levels in the main game and original time trials. As shown in the picture above, the new levels look to be purely a playground for the fast, fluid freerunning the the story mode only occasionally got right.

The DLC for Tomb Raider and GTA4 seem to be the most traditional. Tomb Raider simply adds a few new levels to explore that were cut from the main game. GTA4's episodic expansion, The Lost and Damned, will cost $20 and feels like the disc-based expansion packs that used to be sold for PC games a few years ago. It adds a new story and characters, but other than that we don't know much about it.

The first three examples are the most interesting to me because they all represent efforts by the developers to respond to player feedback. Mirror's Edge may be a happy coincidence, since the DLC for it was announced soon after the game was released, but otherwise we're finally seeing significant changes come to game instead of having to wait for a sequel to fix our collective gripes. It will be very interesting to see if The Lost and Damned has responded to the narrative and character complaints that people had about the original game. I think it would also be hilarious to hear the term "ludonarrative dissonance" mocked on one of the new radio or TV stations that will be added.

Responding to player feedback through patching has been pretty common on the PC for years, but it's new for consoles, and monetizing it is new to both sides. Bethesda once again seems to have paved the way for paid downloadable content on the PC with Oblivion and Fallout 3. Valve has released a slew of free updates for Team Fortress 2, but will be forced to charge for them on the Xbox 360. Infinity Ward released several free map packs for Call of Duty 4 yet charged for them on both the Xbox and Playstation 3. I'm frankly surprised that there wasn't more of an uproar from PC gamers when the Oblivion content was released. Except for the horse armor, perhaps people felt that the content being offered was done so at a fair price. When you add in the fact that DLC may directly address the larger issues that players may have had with a game, it becomes worth the price even more.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Playing Catch Up - Final Fantasy VII

I've stated before that I have a bit of an insecurity about the games I never got around to playing. Like I stated in that post, I had a Sega Genesis and played the Sonic games obsessively, then stuck to playing Star Wars games on the PC until I bought an Xbox 360 in 2005.

The latest effort to shorten my list of gaming classics never played has been a playthrough of Final Fantasy VII. I managed to snag a copy relatively cheap compared to the astronomical prices found on Ebay and am currently working my way through the first disc.

It's hard to know how you're "supposed" to react to these older games. I've been hearing people rave about FF7 for years now. Everyone wants a remake on the PS3. Everyone's heard about how the game made players cry. So how is someone like me supposed to react? I suppose it's like reading a classic novel, or watching a classic movie. Even if it may not be the greatest thing ever anymore, you can still appreciate what it did at the time. Having said that, here are some quick initial thoughts on the game:
  • I miss the sphere grid. FFX's leveling system was much more interesting and fun to me than FF7's old fashioned passive advancement system. The Materia system is an interesting attempt to go beyond just earning levels, but so far the Materia I have grow so slowly that I don't think about it much. It's obviously harder to go from a more refined version of a game to an older one.
  • Similar to that last note, the graphics are rough. I don't mean that as a knock against the game, but it's amusing to go from the extreme amount of detail in Fallout 3 and then look at the "state of the art" graphics from the PS1 days. It's amazing how far we've come, and how far we still have to go in terms of realistic graphics. It also makes me wonder about the number of "all time great" games like Ocarina of Time, Super Mario 64, Metal Gear Solid, and Final Fantasy VII. These are undeniably excellent games, but I wonder if seeing these already long running franchises in three glorious dimensions had a larger part in imprinting these games in people's memories than they give it credit for.
  • The tone of the story and characters seems a bit schizophrenic. It's like the game can't decide if it wants to be a goofy lighthearted adventure, or a more serious and dark adventure about a tormented superhuman and the people he's hurt in the past. Barrett annoys me every time he opens his goofy text-based mouth. I think this, along with a somewhat boring leveling system, has contributed the most to my somewhat "meh" feelings toward the game.
  • Why does the game wait several hours to tell you what the various statuses in combat mean? Why is that explanation in an optional area of the game that some players could easily miss? Not even the strategy guide I acquired explains everything. Not everyone has been playing these types of games since birth.
  • The moment Sephiroth discovered who he was and destroyed Nibelheim WAS cool. Dark and dramatic, with the perfect soundtrack to go along with it. I can see why that character in particular has stayed in gamers' collective memory this long.
I'm not really sure how far I am in the game. I've been doing a lot of preemptive grinding in order to try and avoid the frustrations I had in FFX where I moved through the game at what I thought was the pace determined by the developers, only to be stopped short by an annoyingly hard boss. I guess grinding on my own terms is more acceptable than being forced to by the game.

In all, my feelings so far are that it's an enjoyable game, but I'm not finding myself blown away! ( drawn into it like I was with FFX. I do plan to keep playing it though. Hopefully it won't end up feeling like an obligation. My OCD already hates me for not having finished FFX yet.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Difficulty Done Right - Part 2

I meant to have this up sooner, but I wanted to play more Prince of Persia first and ended up playing, well, all of it.

A lot of reviews I read for Prince of Persia made it sound as if the game practically played itself. I suppose to the jaded reviewer tasked with reviewing five games a week, the game is easy to blow through quickly. For myself, I still found plenty of occasion to get annoyed at myself when I messed up a tricky platforming segment, or missed a quick time event during a boss battle.

Many of the game's achievements on the Xbox 360 (and, I assume, the trophies on the PS3) are comically easy to get, but some of them do require a bit more skill, or, at least, patience to acquire. Beating the game under 12 hours is easy if you only get enough light seeds to beat the game and don't bother with the side conversations between the Prince and Elika. Using all of the combos in the game is easy if you use the list provided in the menus, but the certain situations make it so a combo doesn't "count." Probably the trickiest achievement is having Elika rescue you fewer than 100 times during the course of the game.

Even so, the game is easy compared to most triple-A games being released, and I'm not sure that adding difficulty through achievements or trophies really counts as adding difficulty. The platforming doesn't require the precision and timing of Super Mario Galaxy or LittleBigPlanet. Bosses can regenerate health during fights, but only a few times. I confess that I found the boss fights frustratingly drawn out until I realized how to string combos together to take out large chunks of an enemy's health. I think the hardest part of the game is tracking down all the light seeds that end up scattered around each area after a boss fight.

Overall, the game is welcoming to newcomers, and the platforming looks and feels good enough that someone who prefers a harder game may forgive the low barrier to entry. The combat at least benefits from learning the combos, but if nothing else the enemies can be killed through slow attrition. Ubisoft made it much easier for people to play, but they perhaps didn't do enough to make it appealing to the more hardcore gamer.

So we've discussed Call of Duty on Veteran and how only the most skilled and dedicated are able to complete it. Burnout Paradise rewards exploration and knowledge of the city more than straight reflexes, but those reflexes are still necessary to progress. Prince of Persia is a pretty easy game compared to most, perhaps too easy for many. Is there any game that casts a net wide enough to catch those looking for a more casual experience along with something to appeal to the masochists out there?

I believe one has at least come close.

As I've played Super Mario Galaxy, I've been struck by how the game is structured to include multiple difficulty levels around collecting all 120 of its power stars. Each of the game's six observatories has several galaxies. As you collect stars, you unlock new galaxies. Later galaxies in the observatory are generally more difficult than the earlier ones. Many galaxies contain hidden stars, and finding them takes more observation than simply completing the level. Even when you know where a hidden star is, the route there may be far more treacherous than the rest of the level.

In addition, many levels will have a star that you can only acquire when a comet shows up. The comets take a previously played level and change it somehow. Sometimes you have to race the clock. Sometimes enemies are sped up. Sometimes you have to fight a boss with only one slice of health. Sometimes you have to race a doppelganger of Mario to the star. All of them require at least a passing familiarity with how a level is structured.

As you collect Star Bits, the in-game currency, you can unlock other galaxies that are outside of the normal observatories. These levels are also generally more difficult than normal. Finally, there are three hidden green stars that unlock the trial galaxies. When I decided to do the final boss fight, I had between 80 and 90 stars total, and the three trial galaxy stars were the most difficult to acquire. They required all of the skills gained throughout the game, and two of them had no checkpoints at all. If I died at the end of the level, I had to do the whole thing again.

The great thing about these varying difficulty levels is that it's completely up to the player whether or not to attempt them. Only 60 stars are required to defeat Bowser, but the game encourages you to get more by hinting at the rewards that will be unlocked. Earning stars unlocks chapters in the storybook, which explains the origins of the enigmatic Princess Rosalina. Even opening up new galaxies is a reward in itself. I was constantly wondering if the game could top the previous levels I had played, and it almost always did. A red star sits atop the library in the hub world, teasing you with, "I have a secret! But I'm not telling you." Get enough stars, and you'll eventually learn what that secret is. Getting all 120 allows you to play the game as Luigi. There always seems to be another reward to shoot for.The game accommodates multiple skill levels from the outset while encouraging players to push themselves further to see what they will be presented with next. Burnout Paradise, as much as I like it, really only presents completion itself as a reward for progression. There are dozens of cars to unlock, but only a few balanced enough to use regularly.

Obviously, a certain amount of skill is required for even the easiest levels. My mom has a DS and New Super Mario Brothers. She enjoyed it, but wasn't able to get very far in the game. When visiting I could often hear her yelling "Come on Mario!" when she missed a jump. When I showed her Super Mario Galaxy, she loved how it looked, but didn't even want to give the game a try. I think she assumed that she'd have no chance at doing well in the game's 3D environment, especially in levels where gravity and the camera are constantly shifting around. I can't blame her for thinking that way.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Prince of Persia - Why?

Major Prince of Persia spoilers ahead.

I can accept that the Prince fell in love with Elika. Okay, as their relationship developed over the course of the game, it felt like it went from mutual loathing to friendly respect, rather than loathing to love. However, the Prince has always been a loner, living for himself and staying on the lookout for the next fortune, the next girl. He may not have known he had those feelings until Elika dropped dead at the base of the tree imprisoning Ahriman. Or, perhaps he simply kept those feeling hidden from Elika, and by extention, the player. I can believe it in the same way I believe two people can fall madly in love over the course of a 90 minute movie.

What I'm not sure I can accept is that the Prince is so grief-stricken, so selfish, and so stupid at the prospect of Elika's death that he would then unleash Ahriman again into the world, completely invalidating the previous 12-14 hours I put into the game. He's selfish, but the game convinced me that he's not a fool. He understands the devestation that Ahriman will wreak upon the world. He knows how the corruption can distort even the most honorable of kings. He also understands that to Elika, imprisoning Ahriman and helping her people return to their lands is the most important thing to her.

So to suddenly have the Prince be so devestated by Elika's death that he decides to free Ahriman again in order to resurrect her feels like a betrayal of the character, and a betrayal of the player's understanding of the Prince and the time spent playing. Was it supposed to be justified by his established selfishness? Was Ahriman strong enough to cloud the Prince's feelings so much that he would completely undo everything he just did? It feels like Ubisoft Montreal couldn't figure out how to have a cliffhanger ending while also having an epic final battle. As I neared the end, I thought to myself, "I wonder what the story for the sequel will be." Apparently, it will be the same as this game. The final line in the game is Elika asking the Prince, "Why?" That's what I'd like to know.
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