Saturday, June 21, 2008

Game Invader : Worst Game Ever

I finally played Big Rigs. And, in order to profit in some way from my misery, I promptly wrote a column on it for good ole Zeitgeist.

Read it here, and don't mind the punctuation ;)

Elsewhere on the same paper (right next to my column, in fact), Videep Vijay Kumar reviews SHOGO : Mobile Armor Division.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Game Invader : Drop Dead Gorgeous

This article first appeared in my column for Zeitgeist, the New Indian Express' Saturday supplement in Chennai. They don't seem to have uploaded it to their site, so I've taken the liberty

Two games I've played in the past week are notable for being among the best looking games I've ever played. They're Assassin's Creed , and Colin McRae : DIRT – both titles have managed to drop my jaw.

I happen to be one of the loudest voices in the 'gameplay over graphics' camp, and I still stand by that credo. However, it's nice once in a while when a game (or two) comes along that simply blows you away by simpy being stunning.

DIRT is far and away the best looking racer I've played. Period. The car models, tracks and environments simply bristle with life and detail – grass rustles, dirt and gravel fly off the track, debris scatters and remains on the track as you make another pass. The damage to your car is also spectacular – dirt and grime, scratches and dents, and cracks on your windscreen all show up to realistically reflect the wear and tear that would be obvious on any car driven as badly as my Chevrolet SUV in DIRT. In fact, I normally prefer racing from a completely first-person view, but DIRT has me switching to third person so I could fully take in the graphic splendour this game delivers.

Who says dirt is ugly? A poke in the eye!

The DIRT menu screens are the most pleasing in recent memory – it's a delight to simply browse through the splendidly designed menus that take you through the game's tutorials and various game modes. Top notch. Deserving of a 'best UI graphics' awards – in fact, they should institute a category just so that DIRT could win!

Assassin's Creed needs no introduction to gamers, but I can't help stating how brilliant the game looks. The level of detail present in the gameworld is unprecedented – no other game has felt so alive. While other fantastically detailed worlds exist (Oblivion, Mass Effect), Assassin's Creed surpasses those in terms of sheer believability. Walking through the crowded streets of the game's locations, you truly get a sense of moving among living, breathing people. The excellent sound design and voice work augment this, but it is unquestionably the visuals that deliver the knockout punch.

Altair effortlessly moves through the crowd, like Karamchand in that classic opening sequence.

Altair's cloak billows in the wind as he free-runs through the treacherous, dizzying levels like some sort of medieval spider-man. The animations are fluid and flawless, the textures meticulously crafted and the colours muted and believable. A pleasure to play, and a treat to watch.

Of course, it helps that both games are fun to play. If they weren't, I wouldn't have lasted long enough to take in all the breathtaking eye candy they pack within. Still, it would be pretentious to assume that the graphic excellence in these titles is in any way subservient to the gameplay – they stand tall as examples of games which would have been less fun if they didn't look as good as they do. A case of graphics greatly enhancing gameplay.

It's also important to note here that DIRT and Assassin's Creed are not 'Crysis' gorgeous – they don't depend purely on technical strengths to strut their stuff. I ran DIRT on the humble XBOX 360, and Assassin's Creed on a laptop running a GeForce 8400 GS, a decent card, but not a monster by any means. Crysis wouldn't even run on these configurations, let alone look pretty. It's important, in my book, to deliver good visuals on medium range systems, and certainly on next gen consoles. (While on that topic, take a bow, Valve, for your source engine)

Games like these are poster children for the 'next-gen' gaming experience – games that make it easy to believe that total immersion is eventually possible, and that one day we won't be able to distinguish virtual worlds from real ones.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Keep It Simple, Stupid!

This article first appeared in my column for Zeitgeist, the New Indian Express' Saturday supplement in Chennai. They don't seem to have uploaded it to their site, so I've taken the liberty

Playing Metroid Prime 3 : Corruption on the Wii is an eye-opener, even for a battle-scarred oldie like me. In perhaps one of the best control schemes to use the Wiimote's motion sensing capability, Nintendo has once again indicated the direction in which gaming needs to progress.

Consider this – the modern videogame controller has two analog 'joysticks', one directional pad, and anywhere in the region of ten (yes, TEN) buttons arranged in finger-twisting positions. To be able to effectively play a modern day shooter like Call of Duty or Halo, you need to use every single one of these in various combinations. To the experienced gamer, this may seem like no big deal, but it makes these wonderful games extremely difficult to learn for someone with no previous experience.

In my personal experience, there have been numerous instances where I've sat down with an eager friend, all set to introduce them to videgames, only to have them quickly lose interest because they're overwhelmed by the controls. Rest of the evening spent over beers and television. Much less fun.

As has been the case all too often in the history of gaming, it's Nintendo who is showing the way.

In Metroid Prime 3, you aim the gun by simply pointing with the Wiimote, wherever you want to aim. Just like a real gun. This simple modification alone dramatically reduces the coordination levels required to master the rest of the controls. Yes, there are still several button presses to master, but by removing one level of abstraction from the mix, the designers free up the gamer's mind to focus on the other aspects of the control scheme. Resident Evil 4 is another game that lends itself beautifully to the Wii controller – and is in fact even simpler to learn than Metroid.

The control schemes for these games aren't quite perfect yet, but they inarguably are giant strides in the direction of more intuitive, less abstract control schemes for videogames.

And with the advent of intuitive controls, one great roadblock towards the mass adoption of videogaming as a hobby will have been removed. For gaming to compete with movies and music as forms of entertainment, designers need to keep the games simple to play. It's easy to watch the best movies. It's easy to listen to the best music. By comparison, it's insanely difficult to play the best videogames.

Of course, I'm not suggesting oversimplification to a degree that the games become boring, I firmly believe that most games today tend to err in the direction of packing in too many features at the cost of accessibility. RTS and FPS games are the major culprits, but other genres aren't immune to these failings either.

Nintendo gets this. Which is why they're working hard and smart towards reducing button presses in favour of easier to understand control actions like pointing, punching, swinging and tapping which normal human beings can learn easily, and get on with the fun part of actually playing the game, as opposed to playing hour-long 'tutorial' levels just in order to get started. In fact, even the process of learning to use the Wiimote is far more enjoyable than a similar process with a conventional controller.

The Wii and the DS (Ninty's equally innovative handheld system) have outsold every other contemporary gaming platform worldwide by large margins. There's a reason for this – a reason other gaming hardware and software developers should do well to heed.