wtorek, 28 września 2010

Good Old Games?

What makes a game good? Is it the experience we have of it? Or does each and every game have some universal values which make it good? How does a game age?

I've been recently thinking about these issues, and it seems like I'm not the only one (an article posted recently on The Escapist tackles the whole thing from a philosophical perspective). As a reviewer, it is my duty to be objective. But at the same time, I cannot be objective, because that review of a game is mine, and not somebody elses. I have my own tastes, my own likes and dislikes.

But consider this, for a moment. If we assume that video games are a medium in the same sense that movies, books and music are mediums (and they are), but at the same time they are a completely different medium than the other three, we can start seeing why video game reviews are more on the 'objective' side of things, then the 'biased' one.

Music is a medium which you cannot really rate objectively. Think about it. I may think that Hip Hop or Techno is crap, but what arguments do I use to back that statement? I could try to point out how it's not complicated, or dumbs down the whole 'music' aspect of music. But what about commenting on, say, The Beatles? Is "Yellow Submarine" a shitty song? You may say yes, or no, but you cannot say, for example, "It's shit because it's old.". I like old music. I enjoy jazz and blues, and well as big band era music, and a lot of other people do as well. I enjoy Tchaikovsky and Chopin, and these guys were around for quite more than a century. But still, you are able to rate a certain piece as being better or worse than another piece from the same genre, or by the same artist even. Not many Iron Maiden fans will say that Factor XI is their favourite album, or that "The Angel and the Gambler" is the band's best song.

But then, take books and movies. Both mediums are very much rooted in today's culture, and have been for something like a hundred years now (books were around for much, much longer, obviously, but the general rise in literacy and availability in the XX century suggests that books became a "public" medium only in the last 100 years), haven't really evolved much since their humble beginnings (maybe thematically and technologically they did, but otherwise - not really) and are quite more easily rated as good or bad. Tastes still matter, obviously. I probably wouldn't be able to get through a chick-flick book, even if it was very good, and I can't stand drama movies - in the same ways as my mum shivers at the very mention of reading a fantasy book and "doesn't get" any movie which challenges your perception even a bit (like "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind", for example). But I still can say that a drama movie was good, if it's REALLY good (I remember thoroughly enjoying 'The Pianist' and 'Good Will Hunting', even though both belonged to a genre I generally despise), and not every fantasy or Sci-Fi movie I've seen was good only because it was part of a genre I like.

See, books and movies are more 'technical' than music is. Sure, you can rate the music's quality by what kind of equipment the musicians used. But if a song is good, it may be of shitty recording quality, but is still good. It's not exactly the same with books and movies, if you take into account not the 'technological' side of things (so we're not focusing on the quality of paper the book was printed on, or whether or not the camera stayed in focus throughout the whole movie), but a 'technical' side of things. For books it's going to be whether the writer does his job well or not. The plot might be enjoyable, but if his sentences are clumsy, he uses wrong words to express what he means etc, the book itself probably won't be very good. The same goes for movies - crappy acting, a bad script, or even sub-par editing can ruin an otherwise good movie. Sometimes, this creates guilty pleasures - movies that are sooo utterly bad, you suddenly start having fun and seeing them as good, in a way. What about games, though?

See, games rely on that 'technological' part very much, and always have. Better graphics, better sound, better stability are all very important for reviewers. These bits do influence the final rating, but are very easily made obsolete by technological progress. But video games are not only that. They are also music. And cutscenes (movies). And lots and lots of written text (books). And stories. And one thing that neither of the former have - interactivity, or gameplay. So how do we review games - by taking all these into account, of course. And from all these elements which would you say are most important? I would say (in descending order): gameplay, story and technological issues.

Alright, but how do you review games? Are they prone to a certain bias and dependent on your tastes? Of course they are. I don't enjoy sports game, or arcade-style dexterity games. I do enjoy cRPG's and FPS shooters, which a lot people do not like. Video games share a certain something with both movies and books, namely that they can be, quite objectively, rated as to whether or not they are any good. Simply put, in 9 cases out of 10, if you give me a game I hated, I would still be able to tell you what is good about it - and most people who loved the game would agree. And the other way around, my main concerns about a game I love would probably be shared by people who thought it wasn't very good. Objectivity is what makes sharing your views about video games different from discussing music. How do games differ from books and movies then? Well, it's the technological thing. They don't necessarily age very well.

And so we come to the main issue at hand. What makes old games good, and how can you say if an 'old' game is good? With movies or books, there is no such difficulty. 'Casablanca' is a good movie, even though it was made around 70 years ago. Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' is a terrific play, in my opinion much better than anything written in the last 100 years, even now - after 400 years. But is Pac-Man a good game by today's standards? I would argue it's not. Is Pong or Asteroids a game you'd see yourself playing today as an afternoon activity - and would you choose it over Call of Duty or Titan Quest or The Sims?

See, I am kind of an old-school person. The majority of music that I listen to has not been recorded in the last 10 years. The music that I listen to and is quite recent, is mostly folk - again, thematically set in the past. When given the choice of watching a modern romantic comedy or a movie with Marilyn Monroe, I would choose the latter. When faced with reading a book on today's life and mentality, I would gladly exchange that for a 60's or 70's fantasy book, or any of Shakespeare's plays. But video games are a different matter. Or maybe they aren't, if you think about it.

Games get old very fast. And it's not because of the technological improvements, even though it is, to an extent. Great graphics and sound do not make a great game, but the general improvements allow games to grow and become more complex and innovative. There is a lot of old video games which are still great today. The Lucas Arts adventure games come to mind. Mortal Kombat immediately reminds us of itself. Warcraft 2, Diablo, Starcraft, Tyrian, GTA, Quake, Unreal - the list goes on. All of these are great, or at least good, even today. How is it, then, that, for example Quake stays a great game, while some more recent FPS' are already pretty bland? It may be the nostalgia.

See, when you played a game as a kid, you may have liked it and now, years later, when you revisit it, you can say why you did, and the experience of the game now is close to what you have experienced back then. But if you would pick a game from the late '90's which you never played, and gave it a go, you'd probably say it's not very good and you don't get what the fuss was about back when it premiered. See, only those GREAT games can stand this test of time. Only the best of the best can now be taken to hand by a young player and be commented on as "Hey, this is good, despite it's age!". And this is pretty much true about ALL mediums. Think about it. You probably heard about the "Maltese Falcon". Have you heard about any other crime noir movie made in the same period? Probably not. You know why? Because the "Maltese Falcon" was the best, and this is why it was carried over to present times. Sure, the other, not as popular movies may be great, maybe even better than the Falcon, but you will only know about them if you actually go out of your way to see them. In the same way, some video games survive as hidden gems - while others take their place in the Hall of Fame almost instantly. Because they made an impact. And they probably did, because they were good.

So, when I review Age of Empires 2, I can safely say that from today's perspective (the perspective of a person who reviews the game as a whole and doesn't much care for the graphics - it's the gameplay that's important) the game hasn't aged well - in the same way as I can determine that another game from the same period, like Unreal Tournament, for example, has aged like fine wine and is still enjoyable. Revisiting older games is tricky stuff - you have to know when your nostalgia comes in, and when you are actually seeing what mechanisms of a game are good and work. Those best games will stay ageless, like great movies or books. But most of them will wither away, having failed to leave an impact.

Finally, the title of this short essay (but long blog post!) is taken from a site which sells older games, optimised to modern systems. You HAVE to check it out. They have a mix of some titles every gamer should own, some you will enjoy because of the nostalgia... as well as some which are there only because somebody apparently thought that they can make money on them. Anyway, it's a great trip down memory lane, and it's very cheap, too! The address is www.gog.com

niedziela, 26 września 2010

Short Review #8: Age of Empires II

Revisiting another oldie here, and from my previous post you can probably guess that this revisiting didn't go as well as I hoped.

I touched on some of the game's irritating features in the previous post, so I'll just repeat them here, briefly.

- paper/rock/scissors mechanics. I hate those. It is understandable that a game like AoE2 has them because of it's 'historicity', but some great historic games don't have it, at least not to such a big extent. If you have a look at Medieval: Total War, for example. It is obvious you'll want to counter archers with cavalry, but not because they deal more damage, but because they are faster and can actually reach the enemy when they are running away. In the same way, using spearmen against cavalry is a good idea, but you can use them against infantry and it'll still work. In AoE2, a couple of spearmen will absolutely decimate your cavalry, and attacking a bunch of archers with your infantry is pure suicide. And matching cavalry with regular infantry will just result in a long fight with both sides getting some damage, but not enough to finish it quickly.
- the stances. Whichever you use, it's not going to work well because your units will either run after an enemy until they get killed, or stand in one space doing absolutely nothing.
- ALL THE FACTIONS ARE IDENTICAL. There are some minor differences (one unique unit per faction), but that doesn't change the fact that gameplay and strategies are EXACTLY the same for each of the many nations. Not to mention really silly features of this, such as the fact that the Japanese and Vikings have mostly the same kinds of units as, say, the Celts and Arabs.
- The music is really atrocious. I mean, for a 1999/2000 RTS game, it's really poor. I usually find that if a game really sucks, it at least has enjoyable music. Not AoE2. It sounds as if it was composed around 1996 at the most, and given that some games from that period have way better (even if not 'newer sounding', quality issues) music than AoE2, it begs the question - why is that?

So yeah, that's it, in a nutshell. It all amounts to this one capital concern of mine about the game, which is the fact that it basically got away with being an RTS inferior to ALL of it's predecessors, and still was popular with critics and players alike. I can't imagine why, unless the theme of it was found as unique and the whole attempt at historicity (from the perspective of titles such as the Total War series, an absolutely botched attempt) was considered to be innovative. But still, answer me this - how come a game which has so little differences in factions got made after Starcraft? How come such bad music was produced even though it was made after Total Annihilation, Red Alert and, again, Starcraft?

I think it all comes down to this - because of the similarity of factions, there is no lasting appeal in this game. No matter who you play, what type of gameplay you will choose, or which Single Player campaign you start, the game is going to play out almost EXACTLY the same. Age of Empires II definitely hasn't aged well, as I can think of at least several titles from around the same year as this game which do EVERYTHING better. And, most of all, are not boring as hell. Seriously, I cannot bear to play AoE2 anymore, because I am just so bored. There are no surprises left for me in the game, no new things to discover - not even a specific troop mix to experiment with, because of that god-damn rock-paper-scissors mechanic...

I played AoE2 for the first time around a few years after it's premiere. Back then I thought it wasn't very interesting or gripping and gave my borrowed copy back to the person who lended it to me. Now, six or seven years later, I feel kind of sorry that I didn't trust my memory of the game and bought it from an entertainment exchange a few months ago. Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds doesn't do a good job at being a good Star Wars game, but it does a waaaay better job of being a good game in general than the game it basically clones - Age of Empires 2. And since I own Galactic Battlegrounds, in hindsight, I really didn't need to get AoE2 - what do I need an inferior version of the same game for if I own a superior one?

Oh well, you have to pay for your mistakes, I guess. Good I only had to pay a small price for mine in this situation. Age of Empires 2 cannot get a better rating than a 5/10 from today's perspective. It simply feels so old, that if I was told that it was the first RTS game with no knowledge of my own on the topic, I would almost be able to believe it. Compared to games like Starcraft, Warcraft 3, Total Annihilation, Red Alert 2 or Tiberian Sun, it just plain sucks. It's boring, has no mechanisms which would make it stand out... it's RTS destilled to a soul-less, enjoyment-less, character-less form which simply isn't worth your time in today's day and age, even as a revisit. With no redeeming value in either the historical approach (which is nice in the History section of the main menu, but in the game itself it's just laughable), music or graphics, there's just nothing to look for here.

PS: ANY quasi-historical game which tries to be educational in any way should be immediately DAMNED TO HELL the moment it decides to put a horned viking helmet ON THE FRIGGIN' COVER, as well as putting a Viking unit in wearing such a helmet. Please, this is just embarassing...

PS2: I'm giving a chance to The Conquerors expansion for AoE2. From what I've seen for the first half hour of playing, there is NOTHING in the expansion which improves the game in any significant way, so do expect a short note when I'm finished with it, but don't expect a review, because most probably there will be nothing to write about other than "See my AoE2 review and add a 0.5 to the rating".

wtorek, 21 września 2010

Anathomy of a bad strategy game

I'm playing two titles at the moment - Starcraft: Brood War and Age of Empires II. They both have something in common, namely, I don't consider them to be good strategy games, even though, back in the day, they were the best the genre had to offer. Here's why I feel dissapointed in these titles.

Let's start with Starcraft. I love what the game is about. I have become so used to the familiar factions that I could spend hours just creating units and listening to their chatter. I love the graphics in the game (if you ask me, RTS' didn't have to go any further than the beautiful drawn graphics of the day), I love the music, the story and the universe... But what I find at best lukewarm is the gameplay itself.

By now we all know that Starcraft is a gaming phenomenon, just because it's possibly the most 'serious' tournament game in the world. We all know the jokes about the Koreans, but you cease to laugh when you see this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YbpCLqryN-Q This is just plain creepy. I think everyone will agree that this is not what a 'strategy' game should be about. This is pure dexterity and 'learning the game'. Not even learning about the game, or how to play the game, but just learning the game. In this light, 'strategy' means only that you know which units to use to counter the enemy's units.

But hey, I don't play online, so this is not my gripe. Hell, if somebody wants to waste his life on learning a single game (which has recently been replaced by Wings of Liberty), then have fun. My gripe with Starcraft is the game's mechanism itself. With Warcraft 2, you knew what to expect most of the time. Whatever forces you had, there was a good chance you'd be able to defend against the enemies attacking you, even if that meant a lot of losses. Starcraft improved on the formula by allowing you to queue units and making all three factions radically different from each other. What it also did, was going for the rock-paper-scissors mechanic by adding a lot of flying units and units which could be cloaked. Don't get me wrong, these mechanisms added a lot of variety to the game, but they also made it nigh impossible to complete during the campaign. Because for every Bunker or Sunken Colony I place, there's going to be a Reaver or Siege Tank out there. For every one of these, there's a Scout or Wraith. And then there are the Ghosts and Dark Templars.

What I'm saying is - there is not a single strategy which works for Starcraft. This is possibly a good thing, but on the other hand it becomes simply SICK when an attack after attack gets wasted because it just so happened the AI had something to use against you. In the campaign, it becomes a serious chore when you're supposed to attack or defend against several opponents. There's a limited amount of resources, so how should I attack if I have to spend all that money on defence, because you know, in other case I'll just die?

Starcraft is a bad strategy game in two ways. In multiplayer, it's bad because it allows players to win just because they can click faster. In Single Player, it's bad because there is no way in hell to be prepared for anything. With how expensive the units are, and how vulnerable some of them are, it just becomes an irritating chore to try and do anything later on in the campaign. Warcraft 3 did the right thing by adding difficulty levels to it's campaign missions and the whole system seems to be less irritating than in Starcraft.

Age of Empires 2 has a different problem. The most important one is the lack of variation between the factions. For a 'supposed to be historically accurate' game that AoE2 is posing as, it's just ridiculous that the Japanese, the Arabs and Vikings have exactly the same units and upgrades available to them, with very minor differences. When I play the campaigns, I really don't see much of a difference between playing with the Scots and the French, or even the French and the Arabs. The missions themselves are all exactly the same - built up a force, attempt to destroy their forces / base, fail, try again. Why 'fail'? Simple: the god-damn paper-rock-scissors mechanics. Also, the very poorly done behaviour settings. So you can choose between Aggressive (your units will follow enemies all around the map, spread out, get killed), Defensive (as above, but there's a slight chance they'll give up the chase at some point and get back to where they've been), Stand Ground (hello, archers shooting my cavalry with no reaction whatsoever!) and No Attack (why would I use this?). So you can see how the campaign missions can quickly become a chore here.

When I played Galactic Battlegrounds, a Star Wars-themed Age of Empires 2 rip-off, I thought that game wasn't very interesting. But there, at least, was some variation. The factions actually looked differently, even if a majority of the upgrades and whatnot was shared. The missions weren't as dull, some of them were even quite fun to play. Suffice to say, I didn't think that game was very good, but it was still a lot better than AoE2.

Closing notes - I decided to give in the temptation and finish the remaining 7 or so missions of the Zerg campaign in Brood War using the invulnerability cheat code. I just don't care anymore. I tried, I really did. I just don't think this kind of gameplay was ever for me. I used to enjoy it, but no more - I'm looking for something deeper in a strategy game nowadays. Preferably not as irritating, too. As for AoE2, I really don't enjoy the game anymore, but I feel I should at least try to get through it and its expansion's campaigns. I just think I'll stop playing it for now and divert my attention to something else.

czwartek, 2 września 2010

Kristof's Triangle of Gaming - The Comeback

So hey, I've got a new Triangle of Gaming for you!

As you can see, I'm more into RPG's now and Board Games than Video Games, but mostly RPG's. The old hunger grows, and I'm very happy to have found a group of people I may be playing Vampire: The Masquerade with. Which is cool. Also, I recently picked up a Conan Roleplaying Game, unfortunately based on the d20 mechanic. But it seems it not only fits it WAAAAAY better than it did Star Wars, it's also not as limiting and actually pretty thematic! Could this (editing mess, I have to add) be the book that changes my attitude toward that horrible mechanic? We'll have to find out at some point in the future, because I do intend to run at least a single scenario in this setting. Something tells me that a combat-slanted mechanic is going to fit the world of Conan much better than a much more convoluted and complicated combat-slanted mechanic fitted Star Wars...

Anyway, the Board Game tendency you can see on that Triangle of mine is, again, thanks to Conan - but this time, the Age of Conan strategy board game, which I would REALLY love to get, but I'm not very sure about buying it myself. I hope I get it for the BoardGameGeek Secret Santa coming around December, but it is pretty expensive, so I don't want somebody to pay a lot of cash for my sake, because that's kind of selfish. But I can dream... or if I make some money and have a bit to spare, I can buy it for my birthday next year!

Incidentally, Conan is on the menu heavily recently. I'm very tempted to try out Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures, the MMO game. But, two reasons - 1) I don't have the computer to run it 2) you have to pay subscription, which is something which I just don't do, on principle. In the future, I may break and give it a go. Now - not a chance.

In other news, I'm working my way through UDK with some success, while looking for a job, with no successes or progress at all for three weeks now. But that was to be expected, I guess. I'm also reading Mists of Avalon, and watching Futurama and Band of Brothers if that's of interest to you guys.

As a farewell note, I strongly suggest you check out this show:
It's called Extra Credits, and the guy there talks a lot about Video Game design, philosophy, the industry, market and everything in between. It's a great, very thought-provoking show and I think every gamer should watch it, and take notes more often than not.

And with that I leave you until my next update. Again, no idea when that's going to be. Sorry.