Friday, August 21, 2009

What's with the overly generous review scores ?

by Anand Ramachandran. This article first appeared in my weekly 'Game Invader' column for the New Indian Express

I'm surprised at how easily high scores are doled out at gaming review sites these days.

A close look at the popular review aggregator site throws up some interesting information. While the scores on a specific review site are susceptible to factors such as reviewer bias, the scores on an aggregator are usually good indications of its general critical success. In the interests of focus, we'll stick to the PC platform for this analysis, though console platforms do seem to show a similar trend.

On, the 2007 classic Bioshock sits alongside Half Life and its arguably better sequel at 96 points. This puts it above Baldur's Gate 2, Grim Fandango and Diablo. To anyone who has even a cursory understanding of the history of PC gaming, this is plainly ridiculous. Bioshock was a fantastic title, but it did very little that hadn't been done before. The role-playing elements were a dumbed-down version of the ones found in System Shock 2. Sorytelling in FPS games was done equally well, if not better in a number of games, notably in the Half-Life series. The only area where it was unparalleled for its time was in the audio-visual presentation. But if graphics were the benchmark, then Crysis would be the best game of all time.

BG2, Grim and Diablo were games that pushed at the very boundaries of game creation – either creating new genres or taking existing ones to unheard-of levels. Each game, even today, sits at the pinnacle of its genre. Not true of Bioshock, which is surpassed for greatness by Half-Life, System Shock 2, and even the original Doom.

A little further down the scale, we see a distinctly mediocre game like Mass Effect scoring above classics such as Starcraft, Myth II, Serious Sam and Icewind Dale. This is even more patently absurd. At least Bioshock was truly a great game that paled only in comparison with all-time classics – Mass Effect was ordinary even by the standards of its day.

Further down the scale, things get even murkier, with many of today's rather good-but-not-great games (Dead Space, Ghostbusters) sitting alongside classics from the past (Arcanum, Curse of Monkey Island).

I remember, back in the nineties, a score of seven or above generally meant that a game was good enough to buy. Above eight was a guarantee of a great game, and nine or higher was an absolute classic. While the grading remains reasonably consistent at the higher levels, the lower scores have become something of a free-for-all. Today's gamers will not even look at a game that scores a seven . My questions to game reviewers is this – why isn't the average score five, as common sense would dictate? A seventy percent score indicates to me that a game gets more things right than wrong. So why dole out such a score to a game you say is not worth my money? It's counter-intuitive, and misleading.

In fact, I believe that the whole score / star based rating system is a lazy cop-out for people who can't be bothered to read the review text. My advice to game-buyers is this : read the review, don't depend on the score. Reviewers usually get it right in their text – discussing the finer points of all aspects of the game, but their review scores are often completely incongruous with the content of the review. It's often along the lines of “Gee, this game completely sucks. Let me give it a 6.5”.

Go figure.

Marvel vs Capcom 2 - Furious, Frenetic, Fun

by Anand Ramachandran.

Now THAT is a roster. Other fighting games can eat their hearts out.

In a year that has already seen two of the finest 2-D fighters ever in BlazBlue and Street Fighter 4, the re-release of Capcom's old classic arcade fighter Marvel vs. Capcom 2 could easily have passed without much notice.

But, thanks to a brilliant fighting system that rewards the hardcore without being too harsh on n00bs, charmingly arcadey presentation that is retro in the most wonderful way, and a diverse and awesome 52 character roster, Marvel vs Capcom 2 takes its rightful place among the top fighters available today.

Spins a web. Any size. Catches thieves just like flies.

MvC 2 was a much loved game in its arcade and Dreamcast avatars, and thankfully, most the good stuff remains unchanged in the new version (available for download from XBOX Live in India). The arenas have been modified to fit the widescreen ratio, and this actually opens up a little more space for fighting, impacting the tactics ever so slightly. The sprites remain unchanged, and look great even today. It's not quite Next-Gen visual pwnage, but it's stylish and pacy and rather trippy. The character portraits which appear on the victory screen and the team selection menus are all immaculately drawn and hand-painted, looking terrific.

The fighting system itself is superbly designed and balanced. Every character is viable, and, if you invest the time to master each one's individual moves, you'll be rewarded with an incredibly satisfying gaming experience. MvC 2 doesn't confuse you with a bewildering array of moves like the Mortal Kombat series for instance. Each character has anywhere between eight to ten moves, including specials, all of which are easy to learn. The challenge is in the execution and timing – winning in MvC 2 is about intelligent team composition, control of arena space, mastering the timing of combos, assists and hypers.

Ryu, Thanos, Cable. Triple-team. Nuff said.

All fights in MvC 2 are tag-team, and you can tag a team-mate into play at any time. This is especially useful if one of your characters is taking a pounding – swapping him out for a teammate will restore some health, and the teammate may be better suited for a particular opponent. Smartly tagging your characters in and out is crucial to success. Also, depending on your combo-meter level, you can perform devastating double-team or triple-team hyper combos that deal serious damage. But, unless you time them well, your combos can be blocked or dodged, so desperate hyper-comboing isn't a guarantee of success. You can also forcibly knock an opponent out of the fight and swap one of his teammates in, another critical tactic you must master to focus on a weak opponent and knock him out. It's all very tactical and skill-based, and it's extremely satisfying to win fights after implementing a well-thought out strategy, combined with old-fashioned butt-kicking.

The character roster is also complete awesomeness – Spidey, Iron-Man, Hulk, Cap, Logan, Doom, Iceman and more from Marvel duke it out with Ken, Ryu, Zangief, Abel, Dhalsim and many other Capcom faves. Sights such as the tiny ServeBot growing to humongous proportions and flattening the Hulk with a cartoon hammer are incredibly funny (unless you're the one playing Hulk), and the move combinations are virtually endless. Every character has some great specials, and these are great fun when combined with two or more characters to create maximum carnage on screen.

Servbot acquaints Steve Rogers with the power of a non-Mjolnir hammer.

With 52 characters in the roster, you can probably spend forever playing this game, even in single player. Add a smooth online experience, Marvel vs Capcom 2 is probably the best value for money 2-D fighter available in the market today.

Sony drops PS3 price in India to Rs.19,990/- , PLAYSTATION™ to become PlayStation™

This is probably the best news Indian console gamers have heard for a long time – SONY is dropping the price for all 80GB PS3s in India to Rs.19,990/-, effective immediately. They're also bundling two great titles for free – Uncharted : Drake's fortune, and GT5 Prologue. Now there's a really sweet deal – so people, go out and get one. The PS3 is a great console to own at that price point, and considering it plays Blu-Ray movies as well, it's an offer that's hard to resist.

In India, where console penetration is reasonably low, this is a great move that should see a substantial improvement in PS3 sales. SONY has, by also aggressively marketing and supporting its PS2 and PSP consoles in India, proved to be the smartest and most dedicated of the console giants in India, and surely deserve to dominate the market. Microsoft bungled their first mover advantage, and at this point, I can't see anyone but dedicated online gamers (thanks to Live) choosing the XBOX 360 over the PS3.

But of course, along with the good news, Sony also typically provided some hilarity to please cynical observers such as myself. A sample from Peter Dille, Sony senior VP of marketing : We track purchase intent very closely and we know that consumers have been interested in buying a PS3 for some time. A lot of people have been waiting for the price to come down. We understand that. That’s why this new unit has been configured and conceived.” Really, Einstein? You finally figured out that lots of people weren't buying your console because it cost about a couple of hundred dollars more than its competitors? Wow.

And, even more stunningly, there's something to keep the marketing retards busy : henceforth, PLAYSTATION™ will be known as PlayStation™. Seriously, SONY, do you think customers give a, pardon the language, fuck? And if the answer is yes, it took you this long to figure it out?

SONY makes a great console that now comes at a very attractive price. If only they would show a little common-sense and listen to their customers, instead of being insufferably arrogant and pompous, they would never have lost so much ground to Microsoft and Nintendo in the console wars. But wait, we're talking about a company which is planning to introduce the PSP Go. I'll shut up now because there's nothing more to say.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Will Project Natal kill the conventional controller?

by Anand Ramachandran. This article first appeared in India Today's Gadgets and Gizmos magazine.

When Microsoft demonstrated Project Natal, their 'controller-free gaming' experience, at E3 earlier this year, they managed to drop the jaws of everyone present. Stunned onlookers gaped with awe at what they saw – games where the avatar on-screen perfectly mimicked the physical movements of the gamers themselves. A fighting game where the player actually kicked, blocked and punched to deal with his virtual opponent. A skateboarding game which allowed you to scan your own skateboard design, and import it into a game. And the high point for many was when game design legend Peter Molyneux demonstrated a virtual character named Milo, which could use Natal's technology to actually recognize and interact with a real person. 'Milo' was not only able to recognize and respond to the faces and speech of human individuals, he could even detect and identify emotions – through facial and voice recognition. It was all very sci-fi and exciting.

Of course, every self-respecting gamer knows that you can't really take anything Peter Molyneux says too seriously.

Shortly thereafter, the industry, the press and fanboys went into another one of their periodic tizzies. Will this change the face of gaming? Is this the beginning of the end for the conventional controller? Fanboys hailed it as the arrival of the promised land. Naysayers scoffed, saying it was all very well to 'demo' something like this, but it would never work in practice.

As always, the truth lies somewhere in between.

To arrive at it, we only need to travel back to the last time we heard similar rumblings in the gaming industry. This, as it happens, wasn't all that long ago – a mere three years back when Nintendo rocked the world by introducing their blockbuster console, the Wii. The Wii's now-iconic motion controller, the Wii-mote, created an almost eerily similar impact when it first arrived. Gaming would never be the same, they said. The old controllers would become obsolete, they said.

The Wiimote hasn't exactly caused the demise of traditional control systems, not even on it's own console.

Now that the hype has died down, we know the effects that the Wii had on gaming. It broke open the market, bringing millions of new gamers into the fold – first-time console owners who were thrilled by the prospects of the racquet-swinging, jabbing and punching, and golf-club-swinging gameplay seen in the Wii Sports title that was bundled with the console.

It's interesting to see what happened next. While the casual trinity of Wii Sports, Wii Play and Wii Fit remain at the top of the sales charts, games like Super Mario Galaxy, The Legend of Zelda, Metroid Prime 3 : Corruption, Resident Evil 4, Super Smash Bros, and Mario Kart have sold in the millions, garnering critical and commercial success. And not one of these is a purely motion-controlled game. Many of them feature some degree of Wii-mote control, but would have worked perfectly well without it – surely a case of retrofitting motion control features into gameplay that didn't really require it. Most of these games, in fact, featured conventional control scheme options for gamers who didn't want to bother with the more 'innovative' controller implementations and just wanted to get on with their gaming. Markedly, the game with perhaps the best use of the Wii-mote to date, Steven Spielberg's excellent Boom Blox, failed to set the sales charts on fire.

So, while the Wii-mote managed to appeal to a completely new market with it's more accessible controller, it didn't quite kill off conventional controllers the way people expected it to, not even on its own console. Hardcore games continued to sell millions of units, and even Nintendo's own blockbuster franchises largely continued to use traditional control schemes.

It's likely that Project Natal will see a similar product adoption curve. Sure, there will be a couple of breakout titles that will make intelligent use of the technology to create completely new gaming experiences that will sell millions of units. Many existing game genres will add features to their gameplay that use the motion-sensing, facial and voice recognition capabilities of Natal. It's possible that, once again, millions of new gamers, attracted by the innovation and novelty factor, will buy enough XBOX units to fill a small country.

But our old friend the game controller is unlikely to go anywhere for many more years. Because there's a very good reason why it's so popular.

Imagine trying to actually pull off a move like this using Project Natal. Ouch.

You see, games appeal to us because they let us do things that we simply couldn't in real life. In a videogame, I can run for my life from a pursuing T-Rex, leap across a gorge, acrobatically turn in mid-air and take down the beast with a well-placed crossbow-bolt to the eye. I can roundhouse-kick like Chuck Norris, knock down my opponent, and then follow-up with a flying dragonball headbutt to his chest. I can perform death defying stunts on a dirt-bike or a skateboard or a monster truck. I can do all these things because my controller lets me do them. Press X to jump. Press Y to roundhouse kick. It's easy, and I can do these things sitting comfortably on my bean-bag, without the risk of broken bones or twisted ankles.

If I had to do this stuff by actually replicating movements in real life, I think I, and millions of gamers like me, would pass. Imagine what a session of Street Fighter would be like if you had to turn somersaults, perform cartwheels, and acrobatically kick higher than your head to get Ryu to perform these moves in the game. I rest my case.

Some games are simply played better using abstract control schemes where a button-press simulates a more complex action in-game. And games featuring over-the-top action and thrills are always going to be popular – saving the world, kicking bad-guy butt and attempting crazy stunts are essential and basic elements of adventure and action gaming, which are staples for the industry. They're not going to be replaced by puzzle, painting and casual sports games overnight.

The role of less-abstract input systems like Natal, at least initially, will be to make games more accessible, not more realistic. This will mean whole new kinds of games, as well as more accessible and interesting features in existing games. This will undoubtedly help the industry reach wider markets, and deliver a broader range of gaming experiences.

But it will be a long time before we see the end of gaming as we know it. Don't throw out your gamepads and joysticks just yet.

The Rock Band experience comes to the PSP.

My first reaction to Rock Band : Unplugged on the PSP was one of scepticism. The basic appeal of the Rock Band series was that you get to feel like a genuine rock star – thanks to the plastic guitars and drum kits that made every 'air' musician's dream come true. What's the point of a handheld game using the same mechanic, but without the cool instruments? Lame, right? Like the mobile versions of Guitar Hero.

But Rock Band : Unplugged is immensely fun in its own right, and thank the gods of rock for that.

If you can look past the lack of instruments and get used to hitting the face and shoulder buttons in rhythm, you'll find that Rock Band :Unplugged delivers a great portable rhythm game experience – similar to and yet different from its console cousins in the best possible ways.

The Rock Band franchise has always been about delivering a 'complete band experience' , and the PSP version manages to do that surprisingly well by incorporating a smart new innovation – by hitting the left and right shoulder buttons, you effectively switch between playing the guitar, bass, drums and controlling the vocals. Hit every note for a short period, and that particular instrument will go into 'autopilot', playing itself for some time while you focus on the other tracks. You'll need to make sure that no track fails – ignore a track for some time and it goes into a 'red zone' of sorts. You will then need to play that track and hit every note for a while to bring it back to speed. Thus, the game makes sure that you're always switching between tracks, devoting roughly equal time to each one in every song you play.

While this sounds a little clunky and awkward, it's in fact far from it. Once you get used to the controls, you'll be effortlessly switching tracks, playing solos and rocking out like a pro band. You actually do get the 'band' feeling, and it's extremely satisfying to nail some of the harder solos later on in the game. This could also be partly because you create your entire band from scratch, giving them names, dressing them up, and kitting them out. You can't help getting attached to the little buggers, and share in their successes as they zoom up the international charts. Your band starts out small, and eventually grows to international superstardom, playing gigs all over the world, travelling by private jets, and picking up groupies, managers and even their very own spiritual guru. It's all presented very well, too – sharp, colourful visuals and impeccable audio (play this with headphones).

Rock Band isn't the first handheld rhythm game that I've enjoyed (Elite Beat Agents on DS, Gitaroo Man on the PSP), but it is without doubt the most satisfying one for the rock fan in me. The song list, such an important part of any such game, is extremely solid and covers a wide range of genres. Among the more fun to play tracks, early on in the game, are The Jackson Five's ABC, Pearl Jam's Alive, Billy Idol's White Wedding and Boston's More Than A Feeling. You can also download songs through PSN, but for players in India this isn't an option, obviously.

Rock Band : Unplugged on PSP offers a great way to pass the time at airports, waiting rooms and queues of all kinds – you're gaming and listening to music at the same time. What could be better?

Zork : The Great Underground Empire

by Anand Ramachandran. This article first appeared in my weekly 'Game Invader' column for the New Indian Express

There's so much brouhaha today about 'interactive storytelling' and 'creating interesting gameworlds' that you'd think it was some newfangled, cutting-edge idea.

The fact is that, in the early days of computer gaming, there were several games that would rival the best of today's products in terms of storytelling and writing. And one of these, the venerable Zork series, remains largely unsurpassed in terms of creating a fascinating, engaging and fun gameworld for gamers to experience.

Zork. The very mention of the name will bring fond memories rushing back to anyone who played the games when they first came out. Memories of white houses, elven swords turning blue, saying 'Hello Sailor' in unlikely places, counting Zorkmids and being Totemized (a very bad thing). And, of course, avoiding places which are pitch dark, where you were likely to be eaten by a Grue.

The iconic opening screen from Zork

The first three Zork games (sensibly called Zork I, II and III), were text-only adventures, which might seem unbelievable to many younger gamers, for whom games = graphics. But back in the day, these games sold over a million copies (contributing to INFOCOM's rise as one of the first successful computer game publishers) , and continue to be downloaded by thousands of gamers eager to relive the memories or find out what all the fuss was about. Some would argue that the lack of graphics actually made these games better, more vivid experiences – in a way that some people make a case for books over movies.

And to those of you who consider yourselves 'hardcore', understand this - these games didn't pamper you with features like automaps or auto-journals. You had to meticulously keep manual notes – mapping the gameworld and writing down clues that would help you get through the game – if you hoped to finish the game. It was a pretty common part of the early adventure gaming experience, and it was usually great fun to go back and revisit the furiously scribbled notes once you were done with the game.

While the three graphical follow-ups (Return to Zork, Zork Nemesis and Zork Grand Inquisitor) weren't as critically and commercially successful as the earlier text-based adventures, they were still great games in their own right.

Gamers saw the famous white house for the first time in Return to Zork.

Return to Zork, in particular, introduced a number of extremely interesting features to the point and click graphical adventure genre. You could take snapshots of things with a camera, use a 'recorder' to record what game characters spoke to you, and you could kill anyone in the game ( although at the cost of making the game unwinnable). It was a superbly written adventure with hilarious characters, a rich history and back-story, and great dialogue. A pity it had some seriously frustrating design flaws – you could wander the gameworld for hours without realizing that you had made an earlier mistake that would prevent you from completing the game. Still, RTZ had some great moments. Players still remember the famous drinking sequence with Boos Myller, where you had to drink him under the table and then steal his keys.

Boos Myller was the first videogame character I had to beat in a drinking contest.

The Zork universe remains perhaps the finest example of striking an unlikely creative balance – the universe managed to be laugh-out-loud funny and eerily scary at the same time. And it's not for nothing that it has been included in the digital games canon, as one of the most important games of all time.

Zork Grand Inquisitor starred world-renowned David Hasselhoff precursor Dirk Benedict.

Those of you who are interested in a bit of gaming's history would do well to look online for free-to-play versions of the classic Zork games. Much fun to be had.