Saturday, February 26, 2011

Nice Shiny New Toys On The Horizon

As many of you in the gaming world know, Elder Scrolls 5 was announced recently.  And with panache.  New site.  New engine.  New concepts.  New story.  New ad infinitum.  Release date is supposedly Rememberance Day 2011 (or November 11th for the newbies).  Cool.

For those of you aren't "in the know" about the Elder Scrolls series, it takes place on a fictional continent called Tamriel.  All of the core games in the series are played in real time by way of first-person perspective.  The continent is divided into nine provinces, and each game other than the first, Arena, focuses on a different region.  Unlike most RPGs that rely on getting Experience Points to level up, later Elder Scrolls games employ something different entirely - you increase your core character skills, which in turn lead to levelling up after so many have increased; unlike the staggered character development found in everything from Final Fantasy to Fallout, this means that your character is literally getting stronger all the time.

The first game in the series, Arena, allowed you to explore the entire continent; you could visit each province, their capital cities and go traipsing through dungeons in each.  Unfortunately, when the game came out in 1993, the dungeons were 2D labyrinths that all looked and felt the same, except for the core dungeons of each province. 

The premise of Arena is that the Emperor has been deposed and replaced with an imposter, and it's your job to find eight artifacts to assemble a staff that will bring the Emperor back.  Before you do, you have to escape from prison.  Being a prisoner will be a common theme throughout the series; at least in this one, you know why - your character knows that the emperor is an imposter.

The artifacts that you will need to find are hidden all over the continent, one in each province excluding Cyrodiil.  To find them, you will need to visit each province, learn of where the all-important secret dungeon is, find it and then track down the artifact, all while killing monsters and even solving riddles.

Arena was still fairly innovative for its time due to its sheer size, although character depth was questionable.  Each of the 18 character classes had their core strengths and weaknesses, but character development was little different than, say, the first Final Fantasy game where you simply gained levels. 

Overworld, the towns and cities that you visit try to look 3D, but generally have a 2D feel to them.  You can commit crimes overworld such as theft and murder, and you can be punished for these, although I have yet to experience that; I killed the guards and ran and never got arrested, such the brutal killer was I.

Bethesda offers Arena as a free download from their Elder Scrolls site, and it's worth a look, if only to get an idea of the series' origins.  A word of warning - find some way to throttle the processor, or this game is going to glitch on you.

The second game in the series, The Elder Scrolls 2: Daggerfall is the first game in the series to take a regional approach, taking place in The Illiac Bay, which in essence are the provinces of High Rock and Hammerfell.  It's also the first game in the series to employ the skill-based levelling system.  It's also the first game in the series that allowed you to join guilds (which gave you random quests) and make potions, spells and magic items.  And finally, it's in the Guiness Book of World Records because it's played in the largest game world ever built; it's the size of the UK.

There is another first and, in the case of Daggerfall, only:  It's the first and only core game in the series in which you do not play a prisoner - at least so far.  However, the combat system remains mostly the same, although a few spells no longer exist.

Character development is much deeper in Daggerfall, and is in fact possibly deeper than the rest of the games in the series because of how deep you can go.  Where it will take you five minutes to make a character in Arena, it will take you 20 minutes or more in Daggerfall - it was also the first game in the series to let you build custom character classes.  Sure, Arena let you pick gender and face.  But Daggerfall let you set stats, pick class strengths and weaknesses, weapon proficiency bonuses, health regeneration, mana regeneration.  You could pick far more core skills, and there are skills that no longer exist, like climbing.  The strengths and weaknesses were turned into the birth signs that we see in the later games.  This is most likely due to balancing the game, as these strengths and weaknesses allowed users to churn out some absolutely destructive characters.

Daggerfall's character development is so deep that you can later become a Vampire or Werewolf, both of which have their strengths and weaknesses, but allow you to create very elite characters.
The world was the first 3D world in the series, and the dungeons were sprawling; in fact, they put the dungeons of most RPGs to shame.  And these were not simple dungeons; even the randomly generated ones had secret passages and hidden nooks and crannies.

The story of Daggerfall starts off less urgently than that of Arena, but it is much deeper and, for effect, there are six different endings.  You have been summoned by the emperor to investigate the death of King Lysandus of Daggerfall, the capital city of High Rock.  He haunts the city with a legion of ghosts, and emperor wants this to stop.  On the way there, your ship is caught in a storm and you find yourself in a dungeon called Privateer's Hold.  From there, it's your job to unravel the mystery of King Lysandus's death.

Daggerfall is available for free download from The Elder Scrolls site,  Like Arena, it's best to use some sort of processor throttling program as the game will actually become unplayable.  You generally want your computer to emulate nothing faster than a 200 MHz Pentium, that would probably be the sweet spot.

The third game, Morrowind, takes place in the province of the same name.  It's the first fully 3D game in the series, and it's much more regionalised than Daggerfall, as it takes place not within an entire province, but only a small region of it - the volcanic island of Vvardenfell.  It is also the first game in the series to appear on a game console, as opposed to being PC-exclusive.  Many changes occur with how the game is played; while still in a first-person perspective, the combat system was drastically altered.  Many skills are cut and character creation is also drastically altered.  Some spells were removed as well as an entire spell system.  Many of the spells removed are spells that could drastically effect game balance (such as Disintegration - aka instant kill), and the spell system that was removed covered these spells, so it makes sense.  Lycanthropy, the opportunity to become a werewolf, was removed and then re-incorporated with the Bloodmoon expansion.  This was most likely due to the fact that it could be used as the ultimate game breaker for combat-based character builds in Daggerfall.  You also couldn't ride horses anymore (although that was  moot point anyway; it wasn't as cool as it sounded).

However, unlike Daggerfall, there are no random quests.  Everything - everything - is hand crafted.  There are stories everywhere you go.  The weather system is much more realistic; the game is much more atmospheric, and despite the significantly smaller world, the game is still huge.  Plus, there new spells and weapon types added that compensate for what was removed, included a swath of summoning spells.

As previously mentioned, Morrowind also has two expansions - another first for the series.  These enrich the story further and even go so far as to add new gameplay elements.

The premise of Morrowind is that there is trouble brewing under Red Mountain (the massive volcano in the middle of the island), and the emperor believes that you are the one to stop it.  The people are split because the religion is not as credible as it used to be because the three living gods that rule Morrowind are not as powerful as they used to be.  To add to that, another power is rising up - the malevolent Sixth House, which is associated with a royal family, House Dagoth, that was believed to be wiped out.  In short, the crap has really hit the fan from the get-go (as opposed to building up to it in Daggerfall).

The first expansion, Tribunal, is a follow up to the events of Morrowind and it starts off with you being marked for death.  Unfortunately, if Trinunal is part of your Morrowind installation (or disc if on XBox), you'll be dealing with this as soon as you start playing the game.

The second expansion, Bloodmoon, runs along side Morrowind's storyline and it takes place on the northern island Solstheim, which borders the province of Skyrim.  Needless to say, there are lots of Nords (a viking-like human culture) inhabiting the place.

The fourth game in the series, Oblivion, is the latest release to date.  Like every game in the series, its skill and spell systems have been revamped.  The ability to fly (levitiation spell) as well as Mark and Recall have been removed due to engine limitations and the combat system has been given an action-oriented touch.  Attacks are now based on whether or not the weapon physically strikes as opposed to being based on chance and blocking is mapped to a button instead of a percentage.  You can also use spells alongside weapons.

Oblivion was released for the PC and all current-generation consoles except the Nintendo Wii (because it wasn't potent enough) and is considered the title that pushed the XBox 360.

Oblivion also has two expansions, Knights of the Nine and Shivering Isles.

The premise of Oblivion is that emperor has been assassinated and all known heirs have been as well.  A new heir needs to be found.  Like Morrowind and Arena, you start the game off as a prisoner.

Neither expansion is really a continuation of the Oblivion's storyline; they just run alongside it.  Knights of the Nine is about an order of paladins and stopping a new coming evil.  Shivering Isles is about preventing the Realm of Chaos from being destroyed by the forces of Order again.

Oblivion's world is much larger than Morrowind's and, considering the hardware, much prettier.  It's combat is more enjoyable, and unlike the previous game sin the series, you can cast spells while fighting as well due to a clever use of the face buttons.

And coming up this year, the newest entry in the series, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.  What I know about it so far is that the combat is being upgraded again to incorporate things such as dual wielding weapons and/or spells; combat will be based on the fact that you have two hands.  Make of that what you will.  Double-bonus, you can finally actively shield-bash.  Daddy likes.

Oh yeah, the graphics are better, too.  Skyrim will be released on the same platforms as Oblivion was - so, PC, 360 and PS3 owners rejoice. 

The premise is that dragons have returned to Skyrim.  They're wreaking havoc, and the only one that can stop them is the Dragonborn.  I'm not going to go into what that might mean for newcomers to the series as it will most likely throw out some huge spoilers (yes, I actually know enough of the Tamriel lore to know what Dragonborn may refer to).

Also, The Darkness II is not only in development, but there are already in-game screenshots.  The Darkness II is the follow up to the 2007 video game based on the comic series of the same name.

For those who havent played it, The Darkness is a first person shooter where guns are not your only weapons. 

It was released on both the XBox 360 and the Playstation 3.
The main character is a mafia hitman by the name of Jackie Estacado, and the game takes place on his 21st birthday.  On that day, his boss betrays him and he learns about The Darkness, the festering creature living inside him.  The Darkness is both an offensive and defensive ally and it can be used to heal, summon allies and attack your enemies.  It's also used to solve some of the simpler puzzles in the game.  The Darkness was unique not only for its story-telling but also the flow of the game as you could take on what were essentially side-quests that affect potential obstacles that you may or may not run into later on.

The game more or less ends on an open note, so a sequel was expected.  However, the sequel is not being developed by the original studio, Starbreeze and is now under the wing of Digital Extremes. 

Here's a screenshot of the upcoming The Darkness II:
The Darkness II is expected to come out on the XBox 360 and PS3 at the end of the year.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

I Don't Know Jack

I was trundling along on some gaming sites today (translation - I went to Gamespy, Gamespot and IGN out of sheer boredom) and I came up an an arcade game quiz that taught me that I really never did spend enough time in arcades.  Or at least my MAME box wasn't diverse enough.

Of fifty questions, I got twenty-four right.  Effing ouch.  And this was stuff I should have known.  What does it all mean?  It means that my next MAME machine better consist of more than just Capcom Beat 'Em Ups and Konami shooters.

Actually, now I'm wonderng what my MAME machine did have.  I know I had those DnD games (King of the Dragons, Tower of Doom and Shadow Over Mystara.  Certain I had The Simpsons.  I had Aliens.  Aliens Vs. Predator...I think I had the TMNT arcade game, too.  Not sure though.  I know had Knights of the Round until I got Capcom Arcade Classics Vol. 2 (even pre-ordered it, the game list is effin' 1337, or elite for normal human beings.).  I'm certain I had Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, I even had Vendetta (and hated it after I beat it). 

I miss the old arcade days, and I miss some of the games.  I mean, there are few ports that add up to the original Double Dragon.  The NES game doesn't even count because it's practically a different game altogether.  A very good different game, but still incomparable.

It's funny, I can remember the first video game I ever played.  I can remember the first NES, SMS and SMD game I ever played.  Actually, come to think of it, I can remember every game for every system I ever played.  But I can't remember what the first arcade game I ever played was.  Maybe as much as I liked it, it just didn't hold the same importance.  Or I just played a crappy game (arcades in the early to mid-80's were full of those).

This is actually starting to bother me because I wanted to add a couple arcade cabinets to my business when I put it together, and I can't even remember the first arcade game that I ever played.  Screw it, we'll say it was Spy Hunter (it probably actually was).  That game sucked then (unless you were 6 and as long as it didn't lock up, the screen didn't go funky) and it sucks now.  I can't believe I went looking for it for the NES.  And I even owned it for a few years.  As I remember I got rid of it in a trade for Crystalis.  I was a lot happier after that, that I am certain of.  However, the arcade version did have certain aspects over the NES version; the cabinet actually made you feel like you were in a high-tech sports bar...well, the one at The Wizard's Castle did...I think that game had like three different cabinets. 

And considering all of that it would explain why I was having such a hard time remembering.  Now I have to ask...If it was gonna be a Midway title, why couldn't it have been Smash TV???

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Missing Pandemic

My buddy Jason came by for a visit today and we wound up - for the second time in a row - playing Star Wars Battlefront 2.
For those of you who missed this on the XBox (which is the platform I played it on) and now have a 360, there are a few things I need to say.

One, the gameplay is classic.  Two, the emulation is effing flawless.

So, what is Battlefront 2?

Battlefront 2 is a tactical 3rd person shooter in which your goal is to capture as many bases as possible in a scenario and slaughter the other team's guys.  When you enter a map, you choose a base to start from and then pick a role.  The available roles are based on the force that you're playing for, and the forces are based on the timeline in the Star Wars movie canon.  On top of the standard unit roles, there are also Leaders which can be selected.  Leaders include gunfighters, Jedis and Sith Lords. 

On the battlefield, you can fight with your standard equipment or engage in vehicular combat if the mission allows for it.  There are also space battles, which are an awesome change of pace.

Obviously, the game is geared more towards multiplayer, but it has a single-player mode that can be played locally, too.  It also has an awesome mode called "Galactic Conquest" which is a combination of Battlefront 2's action mixed with some light strategy.  This can be played in single- or multi-player and it can be co-operative or competitive.  Unfortunately, this mode can't be networked.

The multiplayer modes are the standard base-capturing mode, deathmatch and capture the flag, which are fairly common modes in just about any shooter.  What's uncommon is the the game's lightning-fast pace combined with the Star Wars universe, and the gameplay just doesn't get old.

XBox Live is pretty much done, but if you have the space and patience, you can always link systems.

The game was given average reviews, but coming back to it after it having been out for a few years, I think many reviewers were being stingy and dismissive - as well as short-sighted.  This game is an excellent gem from the last generation.

That said, the developer was Pandemic Studios, or just Pandemic.  Pandemic went insolvent after releasing The Saboteur in 2009, another gem for the 360 and PS3.  Before that, they made the Star Wars Battle front games (two titles), Full Spectrum Warrior and the Mercenaries games. The also made the first two Destroy All Humans titles.  Other than the second Mercenaries title, these were all made for the XBox and PS2.

While I did not play the Full Spectrum Warrior titles, I did have the pleasure of playing both Battlefront titles, both Mercenaries titles and, as previously mentioned, The Saboteur.  All of these are rock solid, if a little glitchy, and well worth a look.  Destroy All Humans had its moments, although I did not play the second as I lost interest with the first.

Full Spectrum Warrior was a military action/strategy hybrid, and that's all I really know about it.  Both titles were developed for the XBox, PS2 and Windows PC, and the first title in the series was originally developed for the US Armed Forces, who were actually very upset with the final result.

Mercenaries is an open-world 3rd-person shooter series where you had free reign to destroy almost everything with vehicles and air-strikes.  The second game in the title also allowed for online co-op play.  A bit of trivia, the first Mercenaries game was actually supposed to be a reboot of the Strike series (Desert Strike, Jungle Strike, Urban Strike, etc.), but Lucas Arts picked it up instead of EA.  It does actually feel like one of the Strike games, if just a little bit.  The first game, Playground of Destruction, was developed for the XBox, Windows PC and PS2.  The second was developed for the XBox 360, PS2, PS3 an Windows PC.  The PS2 version was universally panned by commercial reviewers.

The Saboteur is also an open-world game, but it's mostly played on foot.  It takes place in WWII-era Paris, and you're working for the French Resistance.  While vehicles do play a role in the game, they're more a means of getting from point A to point B.  Much of the game will be played on foot as you jump and climb to avoid the 3rd Reich.  Unlike the other Pandemic games, Saboteur has a bit of an artsy visual angle; when you are in Nazi-controlled territory, the world is mostly black, white and grey.  Liberated areas are in full colour; it's just an interesting dynamic.  Plus many of the important landmarks, such as the Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame Cathedral, and of course, the Eiffel Tower are present.  While The Saboteur was released two years after the second Mercenaries game, it was being developed alongside it, and it's even referenced in Mercenaries 2 by means of a pickup item.  The Saboteur was developed for the XBox 360, Windows PC and PS3.

The first Destroy All Humans takes place in the 1950's and it's more or less a straight mockery of 1950's sci-fi B-Movies.  You play an alien who's objective is to harvest human DNA, while obliterating the entire species.  You do this with ray guns, anal probes and your heavily armed flying saucer.  You go all over the U.S. terrorising hicks and G-men alike allin the name of genocide.  And progress.  The second game takes place in the 1960's and supposedly offers up local co-operative multiplayer.  Unfortunately, I lost interest with the first game, and so I ignored the sequel.  Both were developed for the XBox and PS2.  Later sequels were developed by other companies and can be found on the Wii, XBox 360 and PS3.

Pandemic's pedigree includes far more titles than these, but these are wonderful highlights of the last two console hardware generations from a studio that is now gone.  Pandemic had bases in the U.S. and Australia, and developed games for the PC, Sony and Microsoft consoles from 1999 to 2009.  In that time, they developed  for Activision, 3DO, THQ, LucasArts and Electronic Arts, who dissolved them just before the release of The Saboteur.  The remaining former members of Pandemic work EA; some are supposedly working on a sequel to Mercenaries at EA Los Angeles.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Lock Band 2

I had an interesting experience this weekend - problems with Rock Band 2 on the XBox 360 where there were none before.

The problem was that the game was locking up when the system was connected to XBox Live.  I'm not aware of it being a problem with anyone else, but if a network connection with internet access makes the difference, I wouldn't doubt it.

It's pretty painful when a game starts locking up.  Unfortunately, I can prove this.  I sign in an account that does not have an XBox Live ID associated with it, everything's fine.  If I sign in with one that is Live enabled, and it locks up. 

Originally, I thought the disc was buggered because the girlfriend confessed to dropping it.  But then, I thought, wait, it ran fine under her profile.  I was troubleshooting a hardware issue (it causes problems with our Guitar Hero wireless guitar) before this occurred.  It was in the system and working fine.  Okay...who was it signed in as?  Kristin.  So, I signed her in, and the game ran fine.  No lock-ups, no stutters, no problems.  I log her out and log in as me, it locks up.

The differences between our system accounts are few, but there is a very important one:  Mine is attached to an XBox Live Gold account, Rabbi Voody.  Hers is not.  Clearing the system cache (which has fixed problems with other games such as Ninja Gaiden II) did nothing to fix the issue, so the only way I could play the game is unplugging the network connection.  Boohoo, not like I needed it at that moment.

I have had problems with the Rock Band Music Store before where it locked up when I tried to access with a standalone XBox Live program that you can download and use for free.  I can only imagine that it's related to that, though as I have no proof.  Plus, I didn't have a problem with Rock Band 2 the last time there was a problem.  But, the problem lasted for quite awhile.  Hopefully this is resolved quickly.

So, you have been warned; if you have an XBox Live-enabled sign-in and are connected to XBox Live, you may have problems trying to play Rock Band 2.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

You Don't Need My Approval

Gamers can be a fickle bunch; I should know. 

We all have our tastes, our fetishes, and most of all, our opinions.

Some of us have an attitude of prestige (I covered this in the previous post), some only play based games off of the opinions of others.  But most hardcore gamers don't usually rely on the opinions of others.  Well, not entirely.

We generally know what we like, and our close friends that are also hardcore gamers have a good feel for what we like.  Or at least we hope (I've been very lucky). 

I hope to be able to capitalise on this aspect of our culture when I finally get my business idea together.  Granted, it won't necessarily create a civil environment due to what we call "fanboys", but it will build a sense of family, which is what want to achieve.

For those of you who don't know what a fanboy is, it's a term referring to someone who is a diehard fanatic of a video game, game series, or gaming hardware.  They could also be a fanatic of a specific brand.  I've been there and done that myself.  They aren't necessarily part of what is ruining gamer culture so much as the black sheep of the family.
I think that, to a greater extent, corporate reviews and the conglomeration of the major video game retailers has created a void in our culture that has been lacking since the last Microplay left Ontario.  Now we have the big retail titles - Halo, EA Sports, Assassin's Creed, Killzone, Guitar Hero/Rock Band and Final Fantasy shoved down our throats by the big box stores.  Used games are only a few dollars less than used and you get peanuts for them.  A lot of the more obscure games - especially artsy titles - get shunted to the sidelines, and further iterations of those titles suffer because they start simplifying to be as marketable as the titles that are pushed so hard.  Case in point, Gothic 4 - which didn't even make sense because the series had been gainging quite a bit of popularity by word of mouth alone.

Corporate reviews are also dangerous to our culture.  A lot of them are geared toward the bottom line, and such things as advertising money, advanced play for early reviews , backends and useless tchotchkes take precedence over honest reviewing.  This a travesty, considering that games are not the collector's items they used to be.  They rapidly depreciate in value, and they get shorter and shorter.  Multiplayer is also being pushed to the forefront, which is okay to a certain extent, but it's not what keeps a game going when the servers go offline.
Other critics outside of the industry also try to dumb the videogame media - possibly to prevent it from eclipsing movie sales - which it did in 2009.  There is an art to gaming as well, and there's a great deal of art behind a game - story writing, character drafting and concept art.  Building worlds can easily be compared to architecture (and in fact, the program that iD Software used to make levels for Doom is based off of an older version of AutoCAD), so there is indeed a rich culture behind the pixels.

The corporatisation of our hobby and denigration of our culture has created a huge divide, with the hardcore hobbyists trapped on an island and the casual gamers within their own nation.  This is because we're a vast minority, but I think that can change because gaming transcends race, creed and culture.  And we don't need marketing to do it, just a the right display of passion and openness that our culture is not known for, if only because we're painted as being hermits by the vast majority of those who don't understand us.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Don't Let Nostalgia Go To Your Head

I was thinking about this while I was putting my business ideas together and observing some of the posts on Gamefaqs (the latter is the first big mistake), and it kind of struck me.  A lot of us old-school gamers - myself included - are a bunch of pretentious asses.  Well, that I should be lumped in with them isn't exactly news - at least to me - I'd come to that realisation a long time ago.

The thing that I'm seeing is that a lot of people are not so much enjoying nostalgia as creating a sort of religion from it.  They talk about how x or y title is the one to have, how certain genres and stories are so important then, etc., etc.  And some get upset because you haven't played or don't like certain titles from yesteryear.

Now, the idea that nostalgia can be dangerous is universal to anything, but it applies most to technology.  Many of us have this idea that if it ain't broke, don't fix it.  To a certain extent, that's true; I mean, you're not going to upgrade your own toaster with, say, some sort of convection setup.  But in contrast to that, to believe that the old is better than the new is naive; ignorant, even.  Not to say it isn't true, but it becomes less and less so by the day.

Video game design has come a long way, and a lot of ideas used twenty, even thirty years ago may still apply today.  And, in a modern game with modern trappings, it can work.  Just look at New Super Mario Brothers.  But they don't necessarily translate well.  The newer Final Fantasies suffered from excessive random battles until XII - and this is a common trapping of most Japanese RPG's; random encounters in most Western RPG's are either subtler or, unfortunately, completely removed (like in Fallout 3 and New Vegas).  I've already done a rant about RPG's, so I'm not inclined to persue that line in great detail.  Needless to say, some old ideas just don't work anymore.

I think it's a neat idea that Microsoft, Nintendo and SONY are investing in older titles as inexpensive downloadable content, too.  This is a brilliant business venture because older games were only pirated as ROMs because, for the mostpart, they were no longer available.  And it's great to see some of the origins of one of my favourite past times available to younger generations who just didn't have the chance to try it out; Nintendo's done an awesome job with DLC; you can even download old Turbo Grafx-16 games for the Wii.  Yeah, that's how far back I go.  But some stuff really doesn't hold up, and in fact, wasn't that great to begin with.  I was thinking about this when I was reading a review the X-Men arcade game, which on the surface is really cool but underneath is simple, shallow and short (although the latter is a general application to most arcade games).  You basically pick your favourite mutant, and battle through several flat stages.  There's nothing special about how you play the game, either.

And yet I have Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game and Turtles in Time.  Mind you, the latter actually has a lot going for it, like special throws.  The former...not so much.

Unfortunately, as a game collector, I've come to realise that many of us collectors do carry an air of prestige when we get to show off our collections; Being that I do feel a surge of pride when I show off my games collection, I know what that's about.  But I don't really live in the past like that.  Sure, I'll play something every once in awhile - heck, I still have to finish Super Metroid - but I would rather enjoy my more recent systems.

That said, I think it's better to honour the old than worship it.  It makes it a lot easier to move into the future.  Plus some of the newer games are far better than the old.  Although I do really wish that Bethesda would put the ability to scale walls back into the Elder Scrolls; that was pretty awesome.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

New Business Idea

While I was writing my rant/musings on RPGs yesterday, I had a revelation.  I breath, eat and sleep gaming, and I can turn this into a business.

This has all been underlying, and it's most likely been inspired by my Dad doing the exact same thing - started a business from his greatest passion.

So, why not a restaurant for me?  I know nothing about the restaurant business.  As a cook, I'm a diamond in the rough; I have ideas but no real technique.  Sometimes these ideas turn out great (like my macaroni and cheese), sometimes they blow up in my face - or at least boil so hard they get stuck on my ceiling (like an overcooked meat sauce I made a couple years ago).  A restaurant is also one of the biggest financial risks one could take.  It's the equivalent to playing eeny-meeny-minee-moe with the stock market and your entire savings.  And then some.  The estimated average start-up cost of a restaurant is over $451,000.  That's more than a little daunting.  While my Dad's neighbour Malcolm might have the chutzpah to say "The Lord hates a coward", I'm more inclined to respond with "Chance favours the prepared mind".

My goal will be two-fold - to create a haven for enthusiast gamers by providing the products and services they need at a reasonble price and to turn a profit.  These services include but aren't limited to procuring rare and/or discontinued games, repairing classic consoles and setting up multimedia servers for newer consoles to stream movies or music. 

I also have an IT background, and I intend on applying that to my services.  Not so much because it allows me to diversify, but that modern gaming benefits from that knowledge.  Okay, and it lets me diversify, too.

So far, I have four pages of ideas and needs.  The "needs" part will grow substantially as I figure out costs for the things I want and the things I need.  I'm probably going to need about year's time or more to get this off of the ground, but that will also be enough time to figure out exactly how I want to do things.

One of the ideas that I'm wrestling with is selling used games.  I want to do it, but I doubt that it's going to be realistic from the get-go.  One, the prices I'll be offering will only be a little better than The Hock Shop  - or worse - although the price's I'll be selling at will blow them away.  This is because I'm going to use a real appraisal list as opposed to what the competition uses, such as estimated market value (pawn shops) or greed (EB/Gamestop).

I'll post more as I figure it all out.

Now, to end this post, I want to present a piece of news.  It's about a week old, but casual gamers may have missed it.  Activision has killed the Guitar Hero brand and closed the studio that makes the games.  To some, this is good news, to others, it's kind of meh.  I personally rather enjoyed it, despite the lack of innovation in the last game; what it lacked in the alleged innovation of the fifth incarnation of the game it more than made up for with its track list.

Now, what is/was Guitar Hero?  Think of it as an air-guitar simulator where you rocked out along to some mostly good music.  Guitar Hero focused mostly on hard rock, but also dabbled in country, progressive rock and heavy metal.  There are six core games in the series and four add-on games - Smash Hits, Aerosmith, Metallica and Van Halen.  The games supported multiple players and are all awesome party titles.

So, why the studio closure?  Well, Activision got pretty greedy with the brand, as they have with other brands under their umbrella, specifically Call of Duty.  They were releasing a title every year or less, and people just got sick of buying 40-song track packs for the price of a full game.  I can't blame them.  It's a shame because Rock Band 3's track list is actually inferior to Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock, at least in my opinion.  But then again, I have no love for pop and nu-metal, which was the focus of Rock Band 3's track list, as opposed to Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock which was geared more towards different genres of rock in general.  This included punk, metal, grunge, emo (not one of my favourites), hard rock, classic rock and progressive rock in mostly equal proportion.

So, no new Guitar Hero games will be released nor will any new downloadable content.  That's a shame because I was hoping they'd actually get some music that I care about.

The moral of the story is:  No one likes a spammer.  Too much too soon leads to "big whoop?"

Oh well, there may still be a Rock Band brand, and their available song downloads are more numerous and eclectic than Guitar Hero's.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Musings on Japanese Role-Playing Games

On Sunday Afternoon, I hung out with my good friend Jason, who recently returned from South Africa. We were catching up and showing some of our latest video game acquisitions; he showed me Final Fantasy XIII and Lost Odyssey and I showed him Warriors Orochi, Aliens Vs. Predator and Fallout: New Vegas.

Upon showing me Final Fantasy XIII, I immediately saw the goods – the flashy cutscenes, the awesome cutscenes, and the awesome flashy cutscenes. It's exactly as how it was panned by reviewers. It isn't to say it's without its merits. The problem is, the game doesn't have any new ones. The best parts of it are the good parts of other Final Fantasy games. Furthermore, the ATB (Active Time Battle) system is still in use. While it has been modified, it's still what it is. This has been around for 20 years. Square, you need to scrap this. What I saw that I liked was the overworld where you could choose to fight by running into your enemies; how you encounter them is determined by the angle with which you enter the battle. Buuut...this is from FF XII. You can also change class in the middle of battle, which opens up new tactical avenues. Too bad this is from X-II. Then there's the Job system which hails all the way back to Final Fantasy V...I guess I shouldn't complain, though. Not like The Elder Scrolls has gone through any real leaps and bounds since Morrowind. But I don't have to battle for hours on end to beat a super-powerful opponent, which has always been a problem with the Final Fantasy series. But Jay loves it, so it's all good.

I should backtrack a little. For those of you who don't know what a role-playing game is, it's a game where you go on an adventure and develop characters. More often than not, these characters are pre-defined (and rail-roaded into specific equipment and style builds). In some of the games, you will be in control of a team of characters, called a party. In others, you may only be in control of a single character. Characters generally develop by “leveling up”, which is where their abilities enter a new plateau. How they level up is generally based on their class. The means by which these plateaus are defined depends on the game. Most rely on acquiring points called Experience Points. When you get enough, you advance to the next plateau. Others are based on skill advancement; when you've used a skill enough times, it levels up. When you've leveled up enough skills, your character will then level up.

Each character can use various weapons and equipment, even magic – unless the character is railroaded into very specific equipment and skills. This has been an ongoing thing with JRPG's since about 1993 when Breath of Fire hit it big. Characters can develop skills as well, athough this is dependent on the game. Final Fantasy characters have no really need to sneak or pick locks – and in fact, can't. Skill sets are more common in North American and European RPG's, where character builds seem to be much more specialised as far as skills go and much more generalised as far as equipment is concerned.

Some of the more popular role-playing universes are Final Fantasy, Shin Megami Tensei, The Elder Scrolls, Fallout and Diablo. The majority of these are completely unique from each other.

Getting back to showing off games, the next game was Lost Odyssey. This was definitely not my cup of tea. Or I should say that it's the kind of game I'd need a good 20 hours or so to figure out if I actually like it. For such a recent game, I found that it felt more like a SNES RPG like Lufia. - which is 18 years old. Old gameplay styles sometimes hold up. If you don't believe me, play New Super Mario Brothers, it's fanastic. Unlike Final Fantasy XIII, I actually played Lost Odyssey. The first thing that put me off was that I was running into random fights one after the other. Seconds apart at best. This is something that has been expressly protested against from both reviewers and gamers and for good reason: Even if an RPG has a great combat system, constantly fighting can get old fast. From what I gathered in the 15 minutes that I played, the game's combat system is equally antequated.

Somewhere along the line between 1997 and 2001, I developed a dislike for Japanese Role-Playing Games, also known as JRPGs, specifically turn-based JRPGs. A lot of people like them for their story and superficial character development, which is all well and good. But a story can only carry a game so far. I've always carried the belief that if the gameplay isn't good, it doesn't matter how enthralling the story is; the game sucks. Now, with JRPG series – especially Final Fantasy – you really need to watch your P's and Q's; the fanbase is big and rabid. I could be arrogant and say that this is a crowd that doesn't know art but knows what it likes, although that would probably be a better description of me.

Part of the reason that I dislike the genre is that, for the mostpart, it hasn't made any serious leaps and bounds in terms of gameplay since the late 1990's. This is a generalisation, and in fact, it's mostly applicable to Final Fantasy. But it does hold true for a lot of other series, unfortunately. As a matter of fact, I would say the last truly innovative turn-based RPG from Japan was Chrono Trigger (1994), but that's also the last one that I had played that I would give that distinction to. The other problem with this genre is that there's not a whole lot you can do with turn-based systems. It's all been done. Active battle systems - where you take turns in real time – have been honed and refined to the point that you really can't do a whole lot with them. The class systems are only a few generations away from being similar to GURPS (where your characters' prowess and class is more defined by chosen skills than by a specific template), which is used in the majority of the Elder Scrolls series. Another problem is character advancement. Square Enix has some great ideas with their job-wheel, but everything either boils down to a statistic or a spell. At least they're allowing users to upgrade equipment, now. This has been a huge thing with Western RPG's since Diablo II introduced the concept of “sockets”, which would allow you to place statistical modifiers onto weapons and armour.

My friends all know where my ambivalence in general towards JRPG's come from: Final Fantasy VII. Now, to be fair, I was playing Final Fantasy VII and The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall side by side. This is impotant because FF VII is highly polished whereas Daggerfall, while recognised as a bug machine, still maintained very high ratings and won far, far more rewards. In short, it was like being forced to choose between blade steak and Filet Mignon. With Sauce BĂ©rnaise. Yeah, I know, hard choice. In the end, I forgot about FF VII and spent six months in Tamriel.  Why?   Final Fantasy VII was a minimalist RPG and Daggerfall was everything plus the kitchen sink and an extra pair of blinds thrown in. While all of Final Fantasy VII worked (whereas some of Daggerfall was broken), FF VII's features were okay but mostly superficial, and little of it was new. The stuff in Daggerfall that did work was absolutely necessary for character development, and the stuff that didn't was superficial fluff. Conceptually very cool, but ultimately useless. FF VII essentially moved in a straight line, Daggerfall was open-ended and huge. Where Final Fantasy pigeon-holed character builds, Daggerfall let you do whatever you wanted. But FF VII had the wicked-cool cutscenes, super-evil villains, and had an alleged green agenda. Daggerfall had crooked politicians, conniving lords and crazy seers. Oh, and a plot to usurp the Imperial throne.

A lot of the Final Fantasy stuff is unfortunately stereotypical for the turn-based JRPG. That isn't to say that they're all bad, let alone exactly all the same. Unfortunately, I do get the impression of every single one that I read about that the Japanese developers take superficial things very seriously. Either that or they've run out of gameplay ideas and simply mask them with unique methods that still result in the same ends. Like in one of the Shin Megami Tensei games where the characters attack enemies by essentially mimicking suicide. I mean, either way, they're still taking a turn to attack the opponent. It just has a sado-masochistic vibe – which is still superficial. It isn't like Oblivion where you can perform different charged attacks based on the direction you move in, and each of these attacks can have another special property.

Final Fantasy VI (which came out in 1993) brought some really awesome combat ideas to the table, and these have helped keep the series from going completely stale. These include being able to steal from opponents in combat, using special equipment, and charging up special attacks. This was nerfed (made significantly less effective) horribly in Final Fantasy VII, but from what I've gathered, many JRPGs still plant special attacks on characters. Ogre Battle and Tactics Ogre did, and these attacks really helped bring the classes out into their own. Games like Final Fantasy which pigeon-hole characters and make them very cookie-cutter (Every FF game after VI has someone that only uses swords, someone that only uses staves, etc.) are being crippled right out of the door. Even Blizzard's Diablo II, a game with specific character classes, was developed so that each character can be highly customizable – and they are. Excluding class-specific equipment, any weapon or armour is good to go. The real differences are weapon proficiency and skills – but that's as far as the restrictions go.

Obviously, playing games in which the ability to customize becomes a superficial venture annoys me. I have to admit, the Final Fantasy games have very strong stories and the characters contain a great deal of depth. Moreso than Western RPG's, but they tend not to go into “TMI” territory. If you're questing for the Holy Rock of Saint Richard The Minute, does it really matter if the quest-giver is a homosexual philanderer who still sleeps with women, likes to eat babies, bark at the moon and cry a river over spoiled food? Probably not.

I guess that's not fair, JRPG's aren't that bad. They sometimes kind of feel like it, and coming to Western RPG's, a lot characters tend to hold their thoughts and emotions close to the chest until the time is right. Knights of the Old Republic is a beautiful example of this, as is every Elder Scrolls canon title from Daggerfall to present. The Fallout series is also a good example of this. However, unlike Final Fantasy, most of these games are not actually driven by the story; they're driven by exploration, loot, opportunity for moral depravity and leveling up. In the Fallout series, you tend to not even know who the real enemy is until the very end – in fact the first game in the series to break this tradition was Fallout 3. Even the console game, Fallout Brotherhood of Steel, leaves you completely in the dark until about three quarters of the way in. Mind you, anyone who played Fallout 2 would have had an idea who would try to throw the lionfish into the blender after playing Fallout 3 for a couple of hours.

Clearly, Western storytelling is wildly different than Japanese storytelling. Or is it? Atlus uses the Fallout method in many of its games – and it seems to actually produce far more RPG's than most companies in a single year. At least they know the value of the twist.

This isn't to say that all Japanese RPGs suck. I very much like The Ogre Battle/Tactics Ogre series by Atlus (in fact, I like a lot of their RPG's in general, at least what I've played), and they try to take great leaps and bounds to change the genre. Their action RPGs aren't half-bad, either. Summon Knight comes to mind here.

That said, Square-Enix has a tough road ahead of them to regain me as even a potential customer. Final Fantasy VI had me wanting more, and Final Fantasy VII was a quick dive to snap up the casual RPG gamers – and unfortunately, the series didn't stop there until XII. For the fanbase, XIII is another slap in the face. Mistwalker, the guys who made Lost Odyssey and, as far as I remember, Blue Dragon? They don't even have a chance. They need to bring their gameplay out of the dawn of the 90's, because no shiny graphics can cover that up.

That said, does it mean that old games are inferior? Not exactly, some things are timeless. Like Super Mario World, Syndicate, Smash TV, Contra, and despite the newer games in the series, Street Fighter II. You need to figure out for yourself what you like and what you don't like; it doesn't pay to be an elitist because you tend to miss out. And as long as the Xbox 360 gets inferior JRPG's and I remain short of cash, I guess I'll be missing out, too. Of course, I also need a 40 hour+ long game like I need a hole in the head.