Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Thoughts on Portal 2

At this point, everyone who plays games knows that Portal 2 is one of the best games of the year and most people who are interested in it have already played it, but I do feel it's worthwhile to say a few non-spoiler things about it.

First and foremost, if you are at all interested in the game, go and play it right now. Don't put it off any longer. As with the original, the surprises are some of the best parts of Portal 2 and the longer you go without playing it, the greater the chance that you'll have them ruined for you accidentally or intentionally.

While the potential for replay is about the same as it was in the first game, you'll definitely want to play Portal 2 on your system of choice as you only get to experience it for the first time once. For me, that was the Windows version, which looks downright awesome with all the video settings maxed.

Play through the single player experience before playing the co-op. The reasons for this will become obvious once you do.

When a bit more time has passed, I plan to write a more detailed piece on this game, but it's impossible to do that without spoiling at least some aspects of the experience. Bottom line: If you think you might want to play this game, go play it. It's great. If you haven't played the original Portal yet, it's not required to appreciate and enjoy Portal 2, but you should play it as well given the opportunity. It's also great. :)

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Brink Patched

Just a quick note. Splash Damage has released a patch for Brink via Steam that addresses a lot of the issues people have been having with the Windows version of the game. I gave it a try last night and it has indeed made substantial improvements. There still seem to be a few little quirks and bugs for them to iron out; especially with regard to sound, but there's now no doubt that they're taking customer feedback about the game into consideration and acting on it in a timely manner. I'm now even more confident endorsing this game and encourage anyone who's interested in it to give it a try.

I should also mention that Splash Damage has announced that the first DLC for Brink, which is scheduled to be released in June, will be free as a "thank you" to everyone for buying the game and putting up with the initial technical problems. Perhaps that's just PR spin on their part, but free "maps and additional content" sounds good to me in any case. :)

Friday, May 13, 2011

A Little Love for Brink

Note: For some unexplained reason, my original version of this post disappeared. I'm going to re-post it with a few updates based on new information that's been made available since yesterday and some additional experiences I've had with the game since then, but if problems persist, I may need to look into moving this blog and its content elsewhere.

I'm often dismayed when I read game reviews these days. More and more, I feel like I just can't relate to the mindset of the average game reviewer. It probably has a lot to do with the shift away from objective analysis of a game's technical execution and toward more subjective areas. As someone who's made a decent living over the years as a programmer, I still tend to look at games as technical achievements, and while I certainly have likes and dislikes when it comes to narrative themes, settings, artistic styles and all manner of subjective qualities that comprise the total package of a game, I'm always extremely hesitant to shit all over something that people have clearly spent a lot of time and effort crafting. A game has to be genuinely horrible in some measurable way for me to hate on it and despite what a lot of people on the internet seem to think, Brink is nowhere near a bad game.

Does it have issues? Absolutely it does, and I'll touch on those a bit later, but I think this game is getting a very unfair treatment from many in the critical community and I'd like to do my part to help offset that a bit. As I write this, there are over 15 thousand people playing it on Steam who certainly wouldn't be if it were half as bad as some folks are making it out to be. I've personally logged about 20 hours with the game and have completed all the campaign and "What if..." missions both from the perspective of the Security Forces and the Guests, which has left me with a level 18 (Rank 4) character and a level 4 (Rank 1) alt that I've been experimenting with.

So, for those unaware, Brink is a Team/Objective-Centric First-Person Shooter from the developer Splash Damage, which started out as a modding group that created the famous Enemy Territory mod for the classic FPS Return to Castle Wolfenstein back in the day. They've since applied the Enemy Territory style of gameplay to the Quake IP with Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, but Brink is the first game they've built from the ground up (IP and all).

In a lot of ways, Brink is a very ambitious game. It combines elements seen in other popular FPSes from recent years in a way that is kinda mind-boggling when you stop and think about it.

Character movement through the environments feels like a streamlined version of the traversal mechanics from Mirror's Edge, with the additional wrinkle of three potential body types that effect how nimble or durable your character is.

Weapons feel a lot like Borderlands, but instead of picking up a new one every five minutes, you'll be unlocking augmentations like scopes, red dots, extended magazines and stabilizers that can be added to a selection of primary and secondary weapons that broadens as you move toward the heavy body type, which is required to wield the more hefty armaments. Some folks have been complaining about the sound of the weapons. I say, get better speakers. There's a ton of dynamic range and subtlety in how each gun sounds but you're not going to notice it on $30 speakers or a $10 pair of headphones. So many shooters have ear-crushingly, overblown sound that lacks any sort of finesse or basis in reality that I actually find the sound design of the weapons in Brink quite refreshing. In all seriousness, if you think all the guns in Brink sound the same, you may want to have your ears checked because you've probably lost or are in the process of losing some of your hearing.

General gameplay feels very Battlefield-esque. The team/class/objective-based nature of it can't help but evoke the feel of that series. There are a decent variety of objective types, but you'll definitely find yourself doing the same sorts of things pretty frequently if you stick to primary objectives. That's certainly a valid approach, but it should be said that there are a lot of great tactical opportunities and advantages provided by pursuing and completing many of the secondary objectives on a given map. Controling additional Command Posts or opening and closing additional routes through the level can be real difference makers, especially when the teams are evenly matched in terms of skill.

Speaking of skill, I've seen some reviewers complaining about bots in the game being ineffective. Granted, they aren't the sharpest tools in the shed, but I've seen way worse and they do scale pretty well at different difficulty levels and as missions progress and time starts to get short. Sure, the AI could use some tweaking and improvement, but with the greater-then average sophistication present in the game's mechanics and traversal system, I think people are being a bit harsh in their judgement of the bot AI.

I hate to keep making all these comparisons to other games but in a lot of ways Brink feels like a combination of a lot of the best elements from some of the best FPSes in recent memory, and for the most part, it does exactly what it set out to do; however, as I said before, there are some problems with it.
  • Matchmaking could be better. It's a little old school, at least on the Windows version. There's some minimal support for Steam friends, but it takes a bit more effort to figure out how to get a game running with friends than I'd prefer and there are some oddities like the host having to be the highest ranked player if there's a discrepancy and the need to open TCP/UDP ports 27015 and 27016 if you are hosting a game. Nothing really new for most PC gamers, but I find myself wishing the whole thing was a bit more elegant and simplified.
  • Multiplayer performance, at least on the PC, seems a bit sketchy when you get more than six or so people in the game. Playing with a couple friends consistently worked without a hitch, but results have been more mixed in games with more human players involved.
  • There's a nasty rendering glitch, again on the PC, for many users of AMD Radeon GPUs wherein whitish grid lines appear over everything that's being rendered at times. Some folks have also reported drastic framerate drops at times on said GPUs but that seems to be a less common issue as I haven't experienced it since upgrading to the latest Catalyst hot fix (11.5a).
  • The good news for console owners, is that these problems don't seem to exist there. Of course, with the PSN still down as of this writing, PS3 users won't be able to put that theory to the test, but 360 users seem to be fairing okay aside from some reports of multiplayer lag that have cropped up since the initial patch for that version of the game.
  • The narrative elements of the game are a bit thin. They basically consist of a few cut scenes that bookend each of the eight campaign missions and some audio logs that get unlocked as you level up your character. I didn't buy this game on the promise of narrative or single-player set pieces, so this isn't a big letdown for me, but I do think it's fair to say that people looking for those things will be disappointed with what Brink has to offer in that regard. A contemporary in terms of narrative bulk and presentation would be Left 4 Dead, where the narrative elements and setting are more of an accent or an excuse for the carnage than a end unto themselves.
  • There's already been a patch for the Windows version of the game to address a potential game save-killing bug, but Splash Damage still has some work to do to address the aforementioned technical problems and some others that I haven't personally been able to duplicate.

For me, the bottom line is that I really like this game. Despite its issues, which I have confidence will be resolved in time, I've been having an absolute blast playing it and it's been providing me with exactly what I wanted from it. Could it be better? Sure, but it could also be a LOT worse.