Monday, March 16, 2009

Separating the medium from the message.

What if we used the technology behind videogames for purposes other than to play? Why isn't this happening more?

Ultimately, gaming engines are a medium. Just like the printed word and pictures, moving images, or audio. Videogame technology in fact, is arguably the only completely new medium to have emerged in the past twenty years, if you're in the camp that believes that the internet is only a mashup of other existing media such as print, video and audio, with added navigational and participative functionality.

A videogame environment, on the other hand, is a virtual, three dimensional navigable space that responds in a number of ways to multiple simultaneous inputs from the user. A videogame creates a wholly unique experience where information is continually exchanged between the system and the user in a way quite unlike any other medium. Playing Call of Duty gives you a completely different way to experience World War 2 from watching films about it or reading books or comics or web sites. It's a genuinely different and credible medium of communication that offers many experiential aspects that other traditional media simply cannot.

The question is, then, why do we use it only for play?

The printed word is used for innumerable applications – to entertain, educate, inform. We have novels, biographies, advertisements, instruction manuals, textbooks, newspapers, comics and porn. Ditto the moving picture. We can choose between watching Governor Schwarzenegger battle aliens, some guy explaining the right way to use fertilizers, or vicariously explore the jungles of the Amazon. We have documentaries, blockbusters, cartoons, and abominable horrors such as corporate motivational-videos!

But the games medium (for lack of a better word) has just games, with a few notable exceptions. Underutilized potential? Perhaps.

Flight trainers use game technology to train pilots. Some armed forces and police units are using videogames to train their personnel in tactics and combat techniques. And educational institutions are finally waking up to the potential of using games as effective teaching tools in a variety of ways.

But these are exceptions, novelties, news-items. These applications for videogame technology are hardly as mainstream as documentary films or educational publications which enjoy far greater parity with their entertainment counterparts.

There is a need for the industry as a whole to separate the medium from the message, and wake up to the potential of using gaming technology and techniques to impart new kinds of experiences, apart from purely fun-oriented products that are now the norm.

With so many experts shouting from the rooftops about how experiential learning is superior to a classroom environment in so many ways, it's a great opportunity for game developers. With gaming technology so sophisticated today that it can deliver so many unique interactive experiences and virtual simulations, there is no reason why it cannot be used to deliver experiential learning solutions of many kinds.

Just think – a virtual survival experience for geography students where they have to use tools available in the wilderness to survive harsh conditions and fierce beasts. A retail management simulation where a store manager has to efficiently manage a very large supermarket. Fire drills for workers in large buildings where they have to memorize escape routes and procedures in a virtual replica of their own building. The possibilities are endless, and the techbology is already here and affordable.

In breaking out of the 'game' mindset, we can take our industry places that it deserves to be in – proudly sitting beside print, audio-visual and hypermedia as an important medium that has many crucial uses.

Killzone 2 – Should you believe the hype?

This article first appeared on my weekly 'Game Invader' column for The New Indian Express

First, let's get this out of the way. Killzone 2 is the best looking console shooter of all-time. It's a frenetic, furious and intense FPS that is far and away the best PS3 shooter, and one of the best games available on the platform. It's taken a weak franchise and made it a force to reckon with in the highly competitive genre.

But is it a game-changer? Is it a hall of famer? Will it be remembered fondly ten (or even four) years from now?

When I recently suggested that DOOM was the most important FPS ever, a lot of my knowledgeable friends responded with the inevitable Wolfenstein 3D argument. Wolf predated DOOM. No Wolf, no DOOM.

I find it hard to disagree. Wolf was the single, one game that made me fall in love with gaming, and see the mind-boggling potential of the first-person viewpoint. Within minutes of playing Wolf, my head was spinning with mad, wild love. This WAS the coolest thing of all time.

In my opinion, DOOM is the single most important FPS ever made. Disagree? Argue with THESE guys.

But DOOM took the baton from Wolfenstein 3D and raised the bar it to a different level. It was the Usain Bolt powered anchor leg to Wolf's already impressive first three, but that's what gets all the great press. Wolf was exciting, DOOM was piss-in-your-pants scary. Wolf looked brilliant, DOOM was photorealistic, back in the day. Darker, more violent, and in every way a more definitive experience, DOOM is what made the FPS hardcore gaming's dominant genre.

Many also forget that DOOM introduced network play to the FPS. Up to eight players, over LAN, could shoot each other in the face until 3 a.m. Ever heard the term 'Deathmatch' ? It was invented by DOOM. DOOM was also the first FPS to be moddable, giving users the power to create their own levels. Has there been a more important game?

Half-Life and its evil twin Counter-Strike are next in the ladder. Half-Life is the definitive modern FPS, showing how shooters could be so much more than glorified duck-shooting galleries. More than any other game, Half-Life delivered the experience of starring in your own action movie, something that every action game today tries to emulate. Today's design convention of never exiting the game engine, was first demonstrated by Half-Life, the first game in my memory never to break your suspension of disbelief, not even for a single moment. No cut scenes. No loading screens. Nada. A stellar work of art.

Other uncontested all-time greats?

Counter-Strike, for showing the world how much fun multiplayer shooters could be, and making multiplayer an essential component of FPS design. And for creating millions of fanboys who love it so much, they refuse to even consider playing anything else.

Halo showed the world how FPS could be done right on a console, and established several genre conventions that are followed to this day.

Halo, for showing that FPS could be done right on a console, and launching a billion-dollar industry. Halo was responsible for single-handedly raising the profile of consoles in the eyes of the hardcore, and showing the world that consoles weren't only for kids, the casual set and Japanese adults. With XBOX Live, Halo was the first title to establish the ground rules for online multiplayer on consoles. Along with its sequels, Halo continues to be the finest online multiplayer experience in console gaming, breaking new ground so other titles could follow.

So our answer to the Killzone question is a resounding 'Nope'. It's quite simply an amazing game that is a must for every modern gamer, but it stands on the shoulders of giants.

The games? They can only get better.

This article first appeared on my weekly 'Game Invader' column for The New Indian Express.

Both Hollywood and Gaming have become dependent on sequels for a large part of their revenue generation – sequels to proven hits providing cash cows for studios to milk.

But, almost inevitably, game sequels do far better than movie sequels do – both in terms of critical and commercial success. In a manner of speaking, the gaming cash-cows are way more milkable (is that a real word?) than their movie counterparts.

Typically, when game publishers and developers hit upon a winning formula such as Halo or Diablo or Metal Gear Solid, they arrive at core gameplay and storytelling mechanics that then become the bedrock for further creative and commercial growth. It's then a process of incremental improvements over the gameplay, adding new features, more eye candy, and the occasional innovation to keep die-hards happy. As long as developers follow the “If it ain't broke, don't fix it” maxim, it's very hard for them to go wrong. And millions of slavering fanboys then act like a supercharged, zero-cost marketing department – making their voices heard loud and clear over the Interwebs, screaming to all and sundry about how Resident Evil 5 is the best thing since sliced bread (or, at any rate, since Resident Evil 4). This brouhaha inevitably attracts many new users as well, growing the rather mainstream cult following that huge game franchises usually enjoy.

Interestingly, even when some of the hardcore faithful are disappointed over what a game sequel offers ( many fans criticized Halo 3 for not offering enough innovation in single-player), it usually doesn't matter much, as there are tons of newly converted fans to drown out the voices of dissent. And, to be fair, it's usually only a small minority that games like Halo 3 disappoint. I loved it.

Movie makers have a much tougher job. Essentially, game sequels need to replicate and marginally improve gameplay (based on existing code), while movie sequels have to better a good story with a completely new one set in the same world. Filmmakers don't have the option of taking a simple story, adding a couple of new scenes or characters, and then expecting their sequel to be successful. Poor saps.

Plus, movie fans and critics are generally less forgiving than their gaming brethren (with the possible exception of Star Wars fans, but that's another story). If a movie sequel doesn't offer an experience that exceeds (or at least matches), the original, they will rip it to shreds. They want change, freshness of ideas. They won't give their money to a filmmaker who gives them old wine in a new bottle, however fancy the bottle happens to be. Which is in a sense what most game sequels are, and in fact, need to be.

These essential differences are probably why we find that while film franchises tend to grow weaker with every sequel (Rocky, Spider-Man, Pirates of the Carribean), gaming franchises generally get stronger ( Grand Theft Auto, Metal Gear Solid ). Even in the cases where movie franchises have recovered with a strong sequel, such as Rocky Balboa and Revenge of the Sith, it's usually after a long break, or punctuated by some weaker instalments. Not many dream runs like GTA here.

On the flip side, the sequel-driven thinking in the gaming industry is leading, many believe to a lack of innovation in mainstream, hardcore games (though the indie / casual scene is seeing a lot). Even titles such as Mirror's Edge, which attempted some cool new ideas, didn't do very well commercially. Thankfully, they've announced a sequel, so there's still hope.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Ultra Beatdown : Street Fighter IV review.

by Videep Vijay Kumar

Doing a Street Fighter IV review might seem like the easiest thing in the world, but it's not. It's an emotional experience involving nostalgia, writer's block and memories of the ultra-beatdown you got from Seth in the game's “hard” difficulty setting. A review will also not be objective/free from bias, because every gamer/reviewer who is into fighting games is a bona-fide Street Fighter fanboy (yours truly included). So “What is the purpose of this credibility-losing rant?”, you ask? Well, it's simple – Street Fighter IV is probably the greatest fighting game ever made, and easily the most addictive, so addictive in fact, that I'm still air-rehearsing Akuma's Ultra and Super combos while writing this review!

Fighters from Street Fighter IV argue over whether Killzone 2 is better than Halo.

Roster: Evolution

Chronologically, Street Fighter IV is set between Street Fighter II and Street Fighter III. The roster, while not the biggest in all Street Fighter games (Street Fighter Alpha 3 does), contains a great mix of characters, with a character for every conceivable style of play. The total number of characters including the unlockable ones is 25. This includes twelve from SF2, with popular characters like Ryu, Ken, Sagat, Chun Li and Zangief all making a comeback, four new characters in the form of Abel, Crimson Viper, Rufus and El Fuerte, and nine unlockable characters. These include characters who've appeared in SF4 games before, like Akuma, Fei Long, Cammy and 'joke' character Dan. Capcom will continue to add characters to the game and will make them available in the form of downloadable content.

The roster features a varied mix of old faves and interesting new additions.

The roster is really quite varied and fans of the series will be very happy to see their favourites return, and the joy of executing your first 'hadoken' will really give you an unmatched feeling of nostalgia. If you've played any of the older games, you'll feel right at home with Street Fighter IV, particularly if you're playing one of the 'shoto' clones (Ryu, Ken, Akuma, etc. ) because there haven't been any changes to the button combinations of their special moves. The new characters have some very interesting (and powerful) moves, which can take a little practice to execute effectively. Some characters (like Abel, for example) will require a different play-style. So there's enough new content here from the characters alone that will keep you coming back for more. If you're looking to master every single character, quit your job/school/college, stay at home and play Street Fighter IV till you dislocate your wrists.

Round 1, Fight!

The arcade version of Street Fighter IV made it's way to Japenese arcades in July last year, and now, some seven months later, we've got a next-gen version on our hands. The home version includes six new characters, online play and promise of downloadable content and an all new “challenge” mode, which will unlock artwork and outfits on the performance of certain tasks. Other than the challenge mode, SF4 also features the usual Arcade mode, which serves the purpose of a story mode, with a prologue and ending cutscene for each character – people who like anime will definitely be able to appreciate these, even if they're a bit dissonant. You'll also need to complete the arcade mode with certain characters to unlock more. There's also a versus mode – this is where you and your friends will spend most of your time. There's also a trial/practice mode which will help you hone your skills.

I have no idea who this move is hurting more.

The fighting mechanics in Street Fighter IV have been polished to the point of perfection. Ever since the game's arcade release, Capcom have been hard at work, continuously improving the game after collecting feedback from top players. In fact, an update has already been launched for the PS3 and Xbox360, all within two weeks of the game's release.

SF4's gameplay is reminiscent of Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike and Super Street Fighter II Turbo, making use of six buttons for various degrees of attacks, including three punches and three kicks (light, medium and heavy). Pressing two light attacks (a kick and a punch) and forward or back, initiates a 'throw' move. All characters have unique throws and some can throw mid-air. Pressing the medium kick and punch attacks simultaneously initiates a 'focus attack', which allows you to absorb incoming attacks, while also giving you the opportunity to initiate a counter-attack of your own. Going out all guns blazing is a tactic that will see you lose more matches than winning. The game expects you to read your opponent, predict his moves and then beat him/her with a clever combination of counters, standard attacks, special moves and focus attacks. It also helps that you can taunt your opponents by pressing both heavy attack buttons together (no direct impact on a fight, but it sure will tick him off!). The game also features dashing (which requires successive direction presses either by d-pad or analog stick) and quick recovery (press down as soon as felled).

Street Fighter IV is the best fighting game ever.

Super Combo and Ultra Combo gauges are also present in Street Fighter IV, adding more variety to the mix. The Super Combo gauge can be charged by performing regular special moves – it's not required for you to hit your opponent, and merely performing the moves will suffice. The gauge will also fill up if you take damage. The Ultra Combo gauge, on the other hand, will only fill up if you take damage – it fills up a lot faster than the Super Combo gauge when taking hits. Once either (or both) the gauges are fully charged, your character can initiate a Super Combo or an Ultra Combo – you can do this by executing a semi-complex series of directional inputs and button presses (in some cases, all three punches or kicks for Ultras). The Ultra does more damage than the Super, but the catch is that you can use it only when your health meter is in the red-zone. Ultra and Super Combos can often produce comebacks and unexpected results in a bout simply because of the amount of damage they do.


Why is Street Fighter IV the greatest fighting game ever made? It is because Capcom have achieved something that most other developers haven't in a fighting game – they've found the perfect balance between accessibility and challenge. I mean, it's definitely not 'pick-up-controller-and-execute-super-combo' accessible, but by being more forgiving in terms of controller input, it's a lot easier to execute special moves and combos, unlike, say, Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike. It's more about timing in Street Fighter IV, so if you're able to read your opponent's moves and time your attacks to perfection, you're most certainly going to win. The game does cater to a wide variety of players with varying skill levels, so there things which only pro players will use, like cross-ups and focus cancels.

The Pwnzor is Street Fighter IV. The Pwned is all other fighting games. Savvy?


Developers/publishers Capcom have created a fighting game that has surpassed everything that has come before it. Street Fighter IV is easily the greatest game the genre has ever had to offer.

Killzone 2 : Single Player Review

by Videep Vijay Kumar

Killzone 2 is arguably the most hyped game of all time. Delayed by over a year, the game has finally hit the streets in a few 'select' countries before the official Indian release date of 25th February -- it is believed that this happened because of a few over- zealous retailers in an Asian country who broke the street date. As a result, gamers in the West are still watching gameplay videos, while in India, people are labouring through the uber-difficult singleplayer campaign -- since the game isn't officially out yet, there aren't too many multiplayer servers up and running. It's a very interesting reversal of roles -- and recession probably had nothing to do with it.

The protagonist of Killzone 2, Sev, sports a haircut only a mother could love.

So, does KZ2 live up to all the hype? Are the game's graphics anywhere close to the 'gameplay' videos shown at E3 2005 (and subsequent improved versions)? Is it a Halo-killer? Read on to find out.

The Hellghast. Someone should tell these morons that their glowing red eyes make them easy targets. D-uh.

To Helghan and Beyond!

Killzone 2's story takes over from the story of the previous (forgettable) games, Killzone (PS2) and Killzone: Liberation (PSP). The game takes place on the Helghast's (the game's bad guys) home planet, Helghan. You play Tomas 'Sev' Sevchenko (no relation to Andriy), and are part of 'Alpha Squad', a regiment of elite soldiers who are a critical part of the ISA's (Inter-planetary Strategic Alliance) invasion force of Helghan. The whole invasion thing is retaliation for a prior invasion by the Helghast on an ISA colony, with the ISA wanting to return the favour. Sev's ultimate objective is to capture Emperor Visari, leader of the Helghast and 'bring him to justice' (kind of like Operation Iraqi Freedom, come to think of it). Alpha squad and the rest of the ISA's invasion force realise that the Helghan are a lot harder to fight on Helghan, who have adapted to the hostile environment and weather conditions of the planet, and have created large contraptions which capture lightning, turning it into a weapon.

The game is set up well with an opening cinematic that is rendered in a modified version of the in-game engine, and the narrative is carried forward by a bunch of non-interactive cutscenes that occur in-game. The dialogue is largely run-of-the-mill, predictable and sounds like it has been written by the guys who wrote Gears of War 2's dialogue. Not a single piece of voice-acting stands out – not even the bad guys, who sound like they're from England. The script-writers have abused the words 'F**k' and 'S**t', and these words seem to be present in every single line of dialogue. However, If I were to pick one character with tolerable voice-acting, it would be Colonel Radec, who sounds like a camp-y mix of Darth Vader (he also looks like a Nazi Vader) and a Lord of The Rings character. All the other characters come off as being too generic and 'badass' for my taste (it worked for Gears of War, but is atrocious here), and most importantly, lack personality – particularly Alpha squad.

We just included this screenshot to reassure readers that Killzone 2 is indeed an FPS.

Load & Reload

The weapons in Killzone 2 are standard issue. You're got your assault rifles, side-arms, SMGs, LMGs, Shotguns, Sniper Rifles, RPG launcher and a bunch of grenades. You'll find yourself using the standard weaponry (the assault rifles, in particular) most of the time. The game does throw some surprises at you a few hours into the game, in the form of two really cool weapons: the bolt gun and the electricity gun. Both these weapons provide a much-required (albeit brief) change from the monotony of firing an assault rifle. Guerilla seem to have put these weapons in specific areas which would help you tackle some of the game's set-pieces which would've been too difficult to get through otherwise.

The bolt gun seemed similar to a weapon from the game Timeshift, but the Electricity gun was a different experience altogether -- the game gets a lot easier in the section with this weapon, so I guess it's a good thing that you only have it at your disposal for a brief period.

The shooting mechanics are brilliant, giving you both that sense of immersion and realism that only a console gamepad can provide. The game allows you to look down the sights of all weapons that have sights, or fire them from the waist position. The sniper rifle is the coolest in any game to date, with the game making terrific use of the sixaxis feature in the PS3 controller -- you can steady aim and control recoil by keeping the controller still. That, incidentally, is the best use of the feature I've seen so far.

Killzone 2's grenades can be cooked before being thrown (expect lots of grenades to be thrown at you as well), increasing the chances of catching some Higs (slur for Helghast) in the blast. Later on in the game, you'll get to unleash some of the Helghast's own electricity-based tech against them in the form of shock grenades. In other sections of Killzone 2, you'll get to drive a tank, an armoured Mecha and shoot an anti-aircraft cannon in an intense aerial battle. Can't wait to get your hands on this game, can you?

Illusion, Light & Magic

The game's AI can be a mixed bag. At times, enemies will seem hyper-intelligent, digging in behind cover, flanking and get off highly accurate shots from difficult angles and throwing grenades at you, while at times they can look utterly helpless, exposing themselves by taking cover on the wrong sides of a wall. They're also not very good at dodging cooked grenades and dealing with melee attacks. Friendly AI, on the other hand, is not a mixed bag. Your buddies are almost always helpless, and you'll spend a lot time reviving downed comrades in the heat of battle.

The graphics in Killzone 2 are, by far, the best in any console game to date. Everything from the spectacular lighting effects, the incredibly detailed animation, to the environments, level design and weapon effects are truly top-notch. It's going to be a while before Killzone 2 is displaced as the best in the graphics department. Due to the game's non-linearity, Guerilla have gone all-out in creating the most spectacular-looking and immersive levels possible. The game's sound (other than the dreadful voice-acting) is up there as well, and is sure to put your high-end home theatre setup to the test.


Killzone 2 is the first must-have title for the Playstation3 this year. It sports the best graphics we've seen in a console game and the game's single player campaign offers a high degree of immersion, a wide variety of weapons and some truly brilliant set-pieces. It's difficult, but ultimately rewarding.