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Mortal Kombat Demo Impressions

29 Mar

Mortal Kombat has an interesting legacy to live up to. The original wasn’t exactly the greatest fighting game, even at the time of its release, but it holds a certain nostalgic appeal to a lot of gamers. It’s sequel was a superior title, but it’s gameplay was massively overshadowed by Street Fighter II. As years passed, Mortal Kombat tried 3d, attempted a scrolling brawler, shoehorned in a cart racer and never relinquished its gore. Sadly, none of the games ever lived up to MK2, and many were less than stellar.

The ninth iteration of the series is on the horizon and I must admit to mixed feelings. I was a Mortal Kombat fan in the early nineties, not because of the gore and controversy, but because it was fun. Any offense caused by the game was absurd to me, even then, because it was cartoon violence. Itchy and Scratchy on The Simpsons showed more gore than Mortal Kombat’s pixellated people did and the furore it caused was ridiculous. Graphics have come a long way though, so I approached the new game with some trepidation, assuming it would be extremely graphic.

This... is supposed to offend me?

Well, it is and it isn’t. The game is brutal in some ways, heads are chopped off, limbs are severed, the usual, but it’s still cartoon violence. It’s not just too over the top to be taken seriously, it’s nicely judged in terms of how graphic the violence actually is. Scorpion’s fatality is basically him chopping an opponent in half at the waist, then lopping off his head at the neck. He then boots the torso, causing the head to fly skywards, which he then cuts down the middle. The blood is minimal throughout, there’s no sound of slicing through bone or any real hideousness and it just doesn’t seem all that violent. It’s still a cartoon really, and layers of graphical polish haven’t changed that.

The only genuinely graphic element is the X-Ray move. These moves show the screen in black and white, except for the part of the victims skeleton which is affected by the move. Again though, there’s something altogether silly about the whole thing, as jaws shatter unrealistically into pieces and limbs snap, only for the victim to return to the fight with a slight graze. I’m sure some will say that it’s a bad message, but the game is 18 rated, and any child whose parents are irresponsible/permissive enough to let them play it will just scoff at any parental disgust, as we did in the 90’s.

Will reptile still be a nightmare to unlock?

The game itself is a fun fighter. It’s not Street Fighter IV, but it’s a great return for the series. Fights have their own style, reminiscent of Tekken on a 2D plane. It’s full of nostalgic appeal, classic characters like Sub-Zero and Johnny Cage, and trees with evil faces. Fans of the originals should enjoy it a lot. It does start to feel a little lacking in depth, but I don’t claim to be an expert on fighters, so I could be wrong on that. 2-Player is the best part really, it’s a battle to see who can perform the most ridiculous moves and get to do their fatality. The fatality commands have mercifully been simplified, so even novices can pull them off.

It’s not genre defining, but a solid effort nonetheless. It’s an improvement over Armageddon certainly. The problem is, the reboot concept, and the marketing to go along with it are overselling the game to a huge degree. It’s probably best left to gamers who remember MK in its heyday, who’ll revel in shoving their opponent into a nearby tree’s gaping maw. Gamers who never enjoyed it won’t, on the demo at least, be won over, and younger players would be better off with Soul Calibur or Street Fighter. If they really want graphic violence, I’d even suggest that this probably isn’t enough. It really is just as silly, over the top and unrealistic as the originals, nowhere near as violent as the press, the Australian censor and the publishers would have you believe.

If you liked MK and have some friends and a few beers/energy drinks/methamphetamines, then I’d say this will be worth buying. If not, unless you really love the demo, or the full release is a massively improved game, it’s probably not really worth paying full price for. Could be a real bargain bin classic though.

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The Indie Ethos – An Interview with Project Zomboid’s Developers

19 Mar

I was lucky enough to get to interview Lemmy and Binky – the guys behind Project Zomboid. They were absolutely brilliant, very funny, affable and had a LOT to say about the games industry.

It’s up on Push-Start now, and well worth a read. Some great insights into the life of a developer in a big studio and into indie games.

CLICK ME PLEASE, I’LL BE YOUR FRIEND!

As per usual, here’s another cute picture (of penguins!) to make up for you having to click a link.

Minecraft Meets Dawn of the Dead in ‘Project Zomboid’

16 Mar

I’ve mentioned being sick of zombie games, but in the same article I did say they had potential if handled correctly. As is becoming standard in gaming lately, it’s the indie developers who come up with interesting ways to approach familiar concepts, like Minecraft’s sandbox utopia or Braid’s platform-puzzling. A pair of developers nicknamed ‘Lemmy’ and ‘Binky’ are doing just that with zombies, and offering what could be the most interesting zombie-related piece of entertainment since ‘Shaun of the Dead’ parodied the genre wonderfully.

The premise is simple, a randomly generated world in which you must survive an apocalyptic scenario in which zombies run rampant through the streets, nothing new really. What makes this interesting is that the characters and encounters are not only random, but according to the description offered on the creator’s blog, rather unpredictable. The idea that your companions can seek solace in alcohol, only to find them depressed or dangerous, is incredibly intriguing.

Simple looks, big ideas

The game is essentially an RPG, but like Minecraft, would appear to have few immediate goals beyond survival. This approach made Mincraft a haven for gamers with imagination and creativity, and this concept applied to a more immediate survival-based gameplay has huge potential. The game may look simple, but the ideas are big, and Lemmy suggests the game will take some time to perfect. Like Minecraft though, this will be based on players having access to early edition of the game, offering input and advice to its creators.

The community aspect of indie games, which creates a dialogue between creator and player, is a fantastic model. It’s great to see developers who understand the importance of player input. In a game with massive ambitions, it makes sense to let players direct, to some degree, what the game becomes, as this allows the developers to focus on the elements which most appeal to players.

The game uses a classic isometric viewpoint

The only problem for the creators of ‘Project Zomboid’ is that they are brimming with ideas. RPG elements which allow the player to become better at various aspects of survival, crafting of items and weapons, a progressing wider story which allows events in the game’s wider world to affect the smaller world inhabited by the player and zombies which react to sound and lighting are just some of the ambitious features of the project. There are just so many features that some may have to be cut to get the game out in the wild. They do say they’ll spend the time getting this right, and Mineraft has shown that a game doesn’t need to be finished to be fun.

It sounds fantastic, and is exactly what many gamers have been looking for from a zombie experience. With none of the fanfare or, thankfully, melodrama of Dead Island, this is likely to fly under many people’s radars, but it really deserves more attention – and for more than just the promise of the game. The developers were keeping this project a secret up till now, and have only revealed the project in the hope of getting donations from gamers who are interested. Hopefully there are many gamers willing to offer a little to this extremely exciting project.

You can find more information about the game, and donate to its development (rewards for this are offered) here.

DICE – As Lazy as the Competition – On Push-Start Now

14 Mar

Another article of mine on Push-Start.co.uk, this time a reaction to DICE calling their competition lazy.

CLICK HERE!

Go read it, leave a comment too, if you like.

And here’s another cute thing:

WWE All-Stars Preview

10 Mar

Professional Wrestling games hit a peak of sorts during the PS1 era with the original (then WWF) Smackdown, the game which has evolved into the current WWE Smackdown vs. Raw series. Unfortunately for WWE fans, the series has stagnated. Matches are extremely slow, there are far too many control options for casual players to enjoy and what began as a fast-paced, exciting take on sports entertainment has failed to innovate in years of annual updates. WWE All-Stars looks set to change all that.

Developed in house by licence-holder THQ, All-Stars is a return to the glory days of wrestling games. The wrestlers look larger-than-life, as they should, and move with fluidity. While SDvsR sees realistic versions of John Cena et al. All-Stars’ wrestlers look like the steroid-enhanced physiques of the 80’s have made a comeback, it’s pure caricature. Clearly, someone at THQ saw the potential for a version of the WWE as over-the-top as what happens on screen, and it looks fantastic. Featuring a roster not only of current stars, there are also a host of past favourites, so this is one for people just looking for a fun game. Even if you wouldn’t recognise Sheamus if he walked by you on the street (and he’s pretty hard to miss) the inclusion of the likes of Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant lend a certain air of nostalgia to the game and the style of play looks like what a child sees on screen.

The action is ridiculously over-the-top

The gameplay, from what THQ have shown, is fast and furious. Videos show wrestlers juggling others with punches, bouncing them off the ropes and into a suplex. It appears to have more in common with Soul Calibur than Smackdown, and that’s no bad thing. A control scheme ever increasing in complexity has hampered WWE games massively, so simplifying this and ramping up the pace is a much-needed change. It’s not that the WWE games have been awful, just that the main changes to gameplay made have added layers of difficult button combos to what started off as a system which avoided the slow pacing of the 16-bit era games. All-Stars looks to have some classic arcade-style gameplay, a throwback to match the visuals.

There are, though, potential pitfalls for All-Stars. Legends of Wrestlemania attempted something along these lines recently, and lacked depth. This game needs to have the level of immersion that the realistic editions offer, season modes and customisation. Without that, there may be little to encourage players to keep coming back to All-Stars. If the career mode that is included is reasonably robust however, this could be a hit. With gameplay based on combos, it seems a little like a mix between the classic WWF Smackdown and the excellent No Mercy on N64. The look is appealing, so if the developers can back that up with solid gameplay mechanics, we might see a game that doesn’t alienate all but hardcore WWE fans. If nothing else, it’s shaping up to be a fun trip down memory lane, both in terms of gameplay and style.

But enough from me, here’s the Macho Man Randy Savage to tell you more. Oooooh Yeahh.

And here he is on GamesMaster. No, really.

WWE All-Stars will be available on March 29th in the US and April 1st in Europe.

The Role of Women in Video Games

8 Mar

I have written an article about female characters in games to coincide with International Women’s Day 2011. If you’d like to read it, you can find it here:

!!!CLICK ME!!!

If you enjoyed it, feel free to leave a comment or share the link and apologies for the lack of a proper post, I’ll be splitting my time between GGB and push-start.co.uk from now on. Don’t worry though, I’ll still be posting here!
To apologise for the lack of a full article (though you can of course read my piece on push-start!) Here’s a picutre of some cute kittens:

So cute!

Games as Art – Part 4 (David Cage GDC 2011)

3 Mar

At this year’s Game Developers Conference, David Cage, creator of Heavy Rain, questioned the creation of games which are ostensibly for teenagers. (Source: CVG) The focus on killing as sole objective is an aspect of gaming that he disagrees with, in that it fails to engage and tell a story in an interactive manner. Cage makes some very interesting points, looking at the fact that adults are the biggest audience for games now, and that games can use their interactivity to tell a story. Unfortunately for Cage there are a few problems with what he said. Firstly, adults enjoy killing things as much as teens apparently, and in the same way that the most popular movies are simplistic, games are not looked to for their artistic merit by the majority.

For those of us who do look for more from our entertainment, secondly, Heavy Rain, which Cage points to as a more story focused interactive experience, is not all that well plotted in terms of interactivity. Cage deserves an awful lot of credit for attempting to create something so different, but ultimately Heavy Rain has too many flaws to be what he envisioned. The plot is its biggest downfall, more reminiscent of the throwaway thrill of ‘Criminal Minds’ or ‘CSI’ than an intelligent piece of entertainment. It doesn’t answer the question ‘How far would you go for someone you love?’ It is different, it was an exciting few hours and it’s certainly worth playing, but as an example of what gaming could be intellectually and artistically, it falls short.

Cage's Fahrenheit was a far superior game to Heavy Rain

There are, however, some examples of how interactivity and the game format can tell a story in a way a movie, book or any other form of media never could. While Heavy Rain fell back on movie clichés in its storytelling, games like ‘The Last Express’ and’ Facade’ follow a more unique path. These games are far more interesting for the would-be developer than Cage’s creation, and should be held in higher regard amongst gamers. Both games would fail to reach any level of mainstream popularity for different reasons, but one can only hope they become the ‘Velvet Underground’ of gaming. Not many people played them, but everyone who did went on to make a game themselves, to paraphrase.

The Last Express appeared as the adventure game fell from popularity. Created by Prince of Persia developer Jordan Mechner and Smoking Car Productions, it was a perfectly realised period piece. The setting is the Orient Express, the legendary train which travelled from Paris to Constantinople. With characters discussing revolution, and conflict on the lips of most passengers, the pre-Great War setting is stunningly evoked. What makes the game special though, aside from the richly detailed train, is the use of time. The player must travel around the four carriages of the Express, engaging in conversation, looking for clues and trying to piece together exactly why main character Robert Cath is a wanted man attempting to fulfil the revolutionary goals of his murdered friend, Tyler Whitney. The mystery takes a back seat to the characterisation rather quickly, as eavesdropping on conversations reveals more and more about each individual on the train.

The Last Express was an artistic triumph

In using the interactivity of being able to move about the train, Mechner realised a form of storytelling which creates a different experience for each player. In real time it is impossible to hear and see everything, and snippets of overheard discussions of politics shape the way the story pans out. While there is a linear thread holding everything together, there are so many incidental details that the game has far more mysteries than those which affect Cath. The ladies who may be in a relationship, though this is never explicitly stated, the young girl with her sick aristocratic grandfather who meets her childhood friend, now a callous revolutionary, aboard the train, these are the characters which remain with the player long after the game has reached one of its many conclusions. In a book or movie there would either be no time to explore such intricacy, or it would be explicitly available, rather than a wonderful discovery on the player’s part. It is entirely possible to miss all these elements and that is why The Last Express stands above most other games in terms of storytelling nuance, subtlety and interactivity. The reward is not in killing, nor reaching the ending, but discovering the wealth of detail Mechner and his team created.

Facade is similar to Last Express in that it plays out in real time, but this time there is only one room and two characters. The player is faceless and essentially voiceless, simply watching Trip and Grace, a couple the player character is friends with, as their evening descends into soul searching and genuinely affecting relationship breakdown. It’s more like a play than a game, but the player can interject with responses to questions and prodding to influence the flow of their conversation. Multiple endings exist, to the point that after more than ten plays later I have yet to see two the same. Trip and Grace have all the human complexity that is so rare in any form of entertainment, let alone games, slowly revealing truths to each other as they weave through their broken dreams and shattered lives. They can be pushed apart or pulled together, though the player’s input never quite influences things in an obvious manner – Telling them to make up causes them to argue more for example. This is a far cry from the simplicity of most conversation based games, such as Mass Effect.

Grace and Trip have remarkable emotional depth

In telling its story in a manner which allows the player to assume a role, yet in many ways not that which they intend, Facade offers perhaps the most human experience ever seen in an interactive medium. Trip and Grace are far too complex to fully understand after playing through the ten minute experience, and attempting to comprehend their motivations and personalities is compelling. They have more to say in a sigh than most videogame characters manage to grunt out over twenty-plus hours, and that is a tremendous achievement. Without the interactivity this would be a mere stage play, a fleeting glimpse into one part of their relationship, one facade. Giving the player an odd form of control over events allows that facade to be lifted and far more to be revealed than would be were this any other form of media.

Both of these games do something which developers desperately try to and fail in the attempt. All the graphical heft in the world can’t create an immersive world if the player doesn’t feel a part of it. Action games make the player the centre of the universe, a universe where enemies wait for them to arrive only to die in seconds. The problem with this approach is that it’s too formulaic. There is no element of unpredictability to most games. Any surprise is so obviously scripted that an ambush is exactly the same as every other enemy encounter. Immersion requires the player to play a role in the game, yet feel they are part of something bigger. They may be a major player, but there must be that element of a larger world, otherwise the game is just a series of linear levels with the occasional thing that goes ‘boo’. Bungie, for all their faults, knew this when creating Halo: Combat Evolved. It’s disappointing they seem to have forgotten along the way, but Halo was brilliant because Master Chief, overpowered as he was, merely acted as a cog in a greater machine.

Heavy Rain was occasionally rather immature

Last Express and Facade both made use of this element, that the player could influence the story yet it would play on without them, perfectly. Adding real time to this only made the premise more convincing. Gamers often discuss what is and is not ‘art’ in a game. For gaming to truly be considered art, the medium must create a method of storytelling truly distinct from others, and in Facade and Last Express it has. Through offering the player the chance to prod the story along, change its course or merely watch it play out, gaming can carve out a creative niche that cannot be filled by any other type of entertainment. The problem with this is, since adults seem to enjoy ‘teenage’ games, Cage stating that you can create games for adults is just a whisper in the ocean of noise that is the games industry, and money will always shout loudest.

It’s not that these games don’t exist, but Last Express bankrupted the developers and Facade saw more praise from the art community than from gamers. Cage may have done something somewhat different, but it ended up being a heavily marketed, dumbed down thriller which failed to truly innovate, falling into the same routines he criticised other games for. It was not the meaningful game he claims, truth be told and I can only imagine he had to compromise heavily to gain the kind of push Sony gave Heavy Rain. Any developer with a true artistic vision will be hampered by the same problems, the need to create a game with broader appeal. Those who want to break that mould only have to look at the failure of The Last Express to see where creativity, intelligence and vision lead. Even Cage’s own Fahrenheit, which was far superior to Heavy Rain, saw far less success. I agree with Cage completely, games need to be more mature, but they also need to draw the player into the world, rather than making them a casual spectator, as Heavy Rain ultimately did.