Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A LIttle Love for Swarm (PS3/360)

One of the big challenges associated with being an adult gamer; someone with a job, responsibilities and a variety of interests beyond gaming, is simply not having the time to sit down and play lengthy and/or complex games. Try as I might, I find myself less and less inclined as years go by to commit the time required to learn and master new game mechanics or slog my way through the artificially-elongated narratives most AAA games are saddled with to artificially extend their length. A lot of people complain when a game experience is 5-10 hours long, but I actually see that as a positive. Quite often, I simply want to be entertained for a few hours and move on to the next experience. It's only the most exceptionally well-crafted games (say 1 in 100) that leave me wanting more.

Don't get me wrong. I completely understand people being upset about paying $60 for a game experience that only lasts five hours, but that's a topic for another post. I'm talking about the idea of it being completely acceptable and often-times preferable for a game to be more of a casual experience; something I can fiddle around with for 20 minutes at a time and get a sense of satisfaction that scales based on the effort I put into it.

"Swarm" is just such a game. It's extremely light on story: You play, unsurprisingly, as a swarm of 50 "swarmites," who've been deposited on a rather hostile planet with their "mother" who spits them out at the beginning of each level and sucks the survivors back in at the end once they've traversed the area and gathered the energy necessary for her to grow.

While you can't control any of the swarmites individually, unless you find yourself left with only one, you can give the swarm commands for directional movement, jumping, clustering and spreading out, which they'll basically follow to the best of their ability. This means that they'll do what you want them to do for the most part, but are easily distracted by shiny and/or deadly things and don't have much of a self-preservation instinct to speak of; such that telling them all to cluster together and run into a spinning saw blade will result in them all being cut to ribbons. :)

In an interesting mechanical twist, you can combine the basic movement commands to achieve interesting results, such as clustering the swarm to charge their collective energy then spreading it while moving for a quick speed boost, or jumping while clustered to create a sort-of swarmite totem pole for reaching things out of normal jumping range.

The really interesting and borderline sadistic part of the game is how disposable the swarmites are. Only one need reach the end of a level to complete it and there are many spawn points along the way in each level to replenish the swarm up to its maximum of 50, so the game outright encourages you to use them recklessly; going so far as to provide a combo system that can be extended by periodically sacrificing the occasional swarmite in a variety of gruesome ways.

The idea of a game that not only embraces but encourages the wholesale murder of its protagonists is pretty unique. There have certainly been games based around the idea of disposable creatures in the past. "Lemmings" springs to mind, but the gusto and ferocity with which it's done in "Swarm" kinda raises the bar. There were several times while playing the game when I found myself gasping audibly and literally apologizing to the screen for the horrors I'd unwittingly or intentionally visited upon the poor little buggers running desperately across it.

The mixture of joy and remorse the game managed to invoke in me is a testament to just how cool and well-implemented a premise it has. I'm only a few levels into the game, so don't take this as a "review" of it as a whole, but I just can't help singing its praises based on what I've experienced so far. At $15, I feel like I've already gotten my money's worth out of it after just a few hours and would encourage all of you to at least check out the demo on your system of choice.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

It's Not What You Play but Who You Play it with...

I've been playing a lot of multiplayer games lately. From "Battlefield: Bad Company 2" to "Worms: Reloaded" to "Killzone 3" to "Tetris" - Yeah, there's multiplayer in that now too. :)

The thing I've found myself acutely reminded of as a result is how much the people you're playing with dictate the sort of experience you're going to have and how it's often necessary to either adjust your expectations and play style or seek out a different group of people to play with to attain and prolong positive experiences no matter how well crafted the games themselves might be.

This really hit home for me the other day while playing the "Warzone" mode in "Killzone 3." For those unfamiliar with it, "Warzone" consists of a random set of game modes that flow into one another during an overall match between two teams representing the game's two factions. You might for example play a team-deathmatch style mode for five minutes where the only objective is to kill more members of the opposing team than they kill of yours. As soon as that mode ends, you might be tasked with defending a spot on the map for five minutes while the enemy team tries to plant explosives there, or assassinating a particular player on the other team while they try to protect them for a time.

It's a very fluid style of play as you're never sure what the next objective is going to be and spots on the various maps that are ideal for particular scenarios are completely worthless in others. Good players are constantly assessing the in-game situation and adjusting their play accordingly, but when that doesn't happen, your team is likely to get steamrolled.

Case in point, I played two "Warzone" matches the other day. In the first, my team could not have been more coordinated. People were moving in groups, playing their respective roles and utterly dominating the other team as a result. The next match I played was the polar opposite, with players lone-wolfing, going to parts of the map that weren't relevant to the objectives and using the game's voice chat to insult each other rather than offering any useful information or feedback.

The difference in the two rounds was so striking that it literally gave me pause as I pondered how and why the pendulum could swing so radically from match to match, but the answers came to me pretty easily given a little consideration.

The simple answer is that who you're playing with matters much more than what you're playing. Do they understand the mechanics of the game? Do they know the levels/environments the game is being played in? Are they high on meth? Do they understand basic principles of strategy and tactics? Are they assholes? Are they easy or difficult to communicate and coordinate with and do you have a relationship or rapport with them outside of the game?

When you stop and think about it, there are a lot of great reasons why random groups of people playing objective-based games together online shouldn't ever succeed, but clearly they do at least 50% of the time because one team always wins. Of course, that discounts the possibility of clan play, which is made very easy in modern games like "Killzone 3," but I'm talking about encounters where both teams are comprised of people randomly grouped together by an automated matchmaking system. In those cases, something happens that makes one team "better" than the other, and given how carefully balanced most multiplayer games are these days, it would seem to come down to the individual players on each side and how they work with or against each other.

As someone who typically plays a support class in these sorts of games; the guy who stands behind the guy up front and helps them succeed by keeping them alive or providing additional fire on their targets, I like to think that a big part of all this comes down to what I like to call "difference makers" - people who play in a way that's more concerned with benefiting their team than their own personal score. It's tempting to ascribe some sort of subconscious, psychological significance to it; perhaps assuming that the way people play games online is a reflection of the way they are in real life and that there's somehow a general lack of people willing to put the good of those around them ahead of their own personal gain such that when a few people who are willing to do that show up on one team or another it's enough to turn the tide. That could well be true but I've found it's not that cut and dry. Quite often, people's online personas and actions are very different from their "real life" behaviors or vary based on mood, so I don't think it's something that cam be simply generalized, but it seems clear that, regardless of the catalyst, a significant number of players on a given team choosing to play as a team makes a difference.

I guess the bottom line to all this is that it's made me appreciate even more the value of playing games with friends. Simply sharing those experiences with them make them better in very meaningful and measurable ways. There's another level of synergy that groups of friends have that translates very well into the realm of most game worlds. As long as the game doesn't do anything to get in the way of it, it just happens.

Perhaps that too is the difference between a great gaming clan and those based on random collections of internet strangers; that personal connection that makes people try a little bit harder or give a bit more thought to their actions. I think it's much the same as what makes a great sports team or professional organization.

Not exactly revolutionary thinking I know, but something that I think is worth considering and remembering from time to time. If nothing else, it makes it a lot easier to tolerate bad random groups and a lot easier to appreciate it when things go right. And if you do find yourself in one of those bad groups, pro tip, use the opportunity to try out new and unorthodox in-game strategies. You might end up making some lemonade.

Friday, March 11, 2011

A Little Love for Modern Combat: Domination (PS3)

With all the games that come out each week, it's pretty difficult to give each and every one their due consideration. As a result, a lot of games, especially those in crowded and highly-competitive genres are simply overlooked. Being completely free to pick and choose the games I cover, I often find it fun and interesting to go a little off the beaten path and try out games that aren't getting a lot of buzz or critical attention to see if they have anything to offer. Sometimes I'm pleasantly surprised. Sometimes I'm horribly disappointed. More often than not, the experiences tend to be a mixed bag of pros and cons.
"Modern Combat: Domination" for the PS3 is a game that has a lot going for it but suffers from a few flaws that keep it from being really great.

First, the good stuff:

  • It's $8 on the PlayStation Store
  • It's a fairly competent multi-player first person shooter in terms of movement, the feel and use of the weapons, the level design, game modes and overall esthetic.
  • It pretty successfully combines a lot of elements from other shooters like kit customization (based on in-game currency) and a persistent leveling/unlock progression. 
  • There are bots to get up to speed and practice against before going online.
  • There's a respectable amount of control customization, including PlayStation Move support.
  • It's $8! :)
On the down side:
  • Load times can be a bit long/annoying (especially when playing on servers that change maps frequently).
  • Automatic Matchmaking doesn't always work and sometimes doesn't pick the best server option in terms of network performance.
  • Network code seems a little janky. The game plays fine if network conditions for all players are at least decent, but it doesn't handle lag particularly well. Think back to how shooters of the late 1990's and early 2000's played online if you have that point of reference and you'll have a good idea what to expect. In fairness, these problems can often be solved by simply switching to a different server/host.
  • There are only five maps.
For me, the problems with this game are outweighed by the things it does right, and it's difficult to ignore the value proposition of getting a game that for the most part does a lot of the things you'd expect from a modern, multiplayer first-person shooter for $8.

It's already been patched once since its release, which seems to have fixed a few minor bugs/glitches and I find myself hoping that the developers will continue to improve it and possibly make some new maps available through a DLC pack or two.

It's no "Battlefield" or "Call of Duty" but it's not a bad game and is certainly worth a look for fans of the genre. There's a free demo on PSN and I haven't had any trouble finding plenty of people to play with since the game's release.

A lot of people will probably dismiss "Modern Combat: Domination" as a "me too" multiplayer shooter, and in a lot of ways it is, but the price is right and it's got some charm, so don't hate. :)

Thursday, March 3, 2011

My Battlefield 3 Wish List

I'm a big fan of DICE's Battlefield series, going all the way back to "Battlefield 1942." So, it shouldn't be any surprise that I'm ridiculously excited for their upcoming "Battlefield 3" game; especially after seeing the latest footage of it in action.

But now I find myself wondering, just how different will it be from the Battlefield game I'm currently playing (Bad Company 2) on PC (Is there any other way to play these games? :) )

What new features and possibilities will BF3 bring to the table and what features of games past will make a return?

Here's what I'm hoping for:

Co-op Campaign - This has been hinted at and rumored but not yet confirmed to the best of my knowledge. Can't help thinking how great it would be to share that experience with friends; especially after the disappointment of Bad Company 2's Onslaught mode not making it to PC.

Better Environmental Interactions - Whether it's guys sticking their guns through geometry glitches to kill me from behind impenetrable cover or just getting stuck on scenery with fatal consequences, I'm really hoping that Frostbite 2 (the new version of the game engine driving BF3) does a lot to cut down on these sorts of things. It's not that such problems are rampant in the current BF games, but when they do occur it really hurts the otherwise excellent sense of plausibility and immersion the games generally create.

Better Matchmaking and Auto-Balancing - I would love to be able to queue as a squad with friends, ensuring that we always end up in the same squad when joining a game. Far too often on the PC version of Bad Company 2, I find myself struggling to team up with friends in the game. This is a particular area where the console versions of the game seem to excel and I hope to see some of that make its way to the PC with BF3. Also, it would be great if BF servers took more into account when auto-balancing teams than simply ensuring that an equal number of players are on both sides. Don't break up my squad of friends or put all the high ranking players on one side or the other. Have the servers base what they're doing on all the data that's available to them and make smarter decisions about who ends up where and the experience will be better for everyone.

Dismemberment in Hardcore Mode - It would be really cool if where an enemy was hit had a more dramatic effect on them. I completely understand why DICE and EA might not want to implement something like this in the game's standard modes, but I don't think I'm the only one who'd like to see an enemy's head pop off (with an appropriate blood spray) after lining up a tricky shot with a sniper rifle. Believe me, I'm very much aware of how that statement might come across out of context, but in the context of a game that in a lot of ways is trying to simulate something that could occur in reality, I think it would be cool for them to push things a bit and notch up the realism in a way that could have interesting gameplay consequences. For example, shock paddles aren't going to do much for a guy who's missing a head, or what would it be like to have to shoot a sidearm with your weak hand because your dominant arm's been blown off? Again, clearly not for everyone, but I'd definitely like to see them explore these sorts of things given the general tone of the game.

In-Game Clan Support - This is something I've seen explored in other games like "Metal Gear Online" and "MAG" to good effect that I think BF, with its clearly-dedicated user base could really benefit from implementing. Again, this is something that could be integrated into an updated matchmaking system and with EA's general emphasis on social gaming of late, I wouldn't be at all surprised to hear that this sort of thing is already being explored. In case anyone's not familiar with the term, a "clan" refers to an organized group of players who coordinate their in-game efforts against other such groups.

Having said all that, there are already tons of confirmed new and returning features for BF3 that I'm very excited about like 64-player support on PC, more destructibility in the environments, improvements to the animation system and jet fighters to name a few. I have a lot of faith in DICE as a developer and I'm pretty confident that BF3 is going to be an awesome game, even if none of the things I'm hoping for make the cut, but it's nice to dream out loud and add my voice to the chorus of BF fans eagerly anticipating the game's release.

I live... again


Those of you who make a habit of checking out video game web sites and blogs may remember me as VT from the Gaming's Edge web site that ran from 2005-2010. Sadly, that site no longer exists but I still get the occasional urge to write about games and various gaming-related topics, so I've decided that it's about time for me to get back to doing that sort of thing as time allows.

Rather than trying to resurrect Gaming's Edge and tackling all the work that would be involved in doing that, I've decided to start out small with this blog and focus on creating some hopefully-interesting content for it. We'll see where things go from there. :)

So... Welcome! Come on in! Relax! Have a look around and I'll do my best to make this little corner of the internet worth our time. :)