Killing is
Charmless
27-05-16
Posted by Ben at 02:23

I have written some pretentious and nobby stuff in my life, I try to reign in a lot of it, especially when talking about videogames, but here I am, about to write a think piece about Uncharted 4, Doom, and Spec Ops The Line, which came out years ago.

Spec Ops The Line wasn’t a classic game, it was a bit dull, not actually all that much fun to play. It gets lauded, rightly, for what it does in terms of its narrative and the themes it examines. Set in Dubai, you play as Walker, leader of a special forces team sent it to Dubai to check for survivors after a biblical level sandstorm. What you find is that the 33rd, a US Army force sent to help, is in the midst of a civil war with a faction of Dubai’s residents for control of the city. Initially you’re drawn in to conflict with the insurgents, then the 33rd, then the CIA get involved, it’s all very confusing. What the game is really about though is choice, Walker could walk away at any time, report back what he’s found, instead he descends deeper and deeper in to Dubai, getting more and more blood on his hands as he does

I think Spec Ops The Line was a fascinating game, not so much the greater finger pointing theme of “you, player, you always had a choice too! Why didn’t you turn the game off?!” It was bullshit when Bioshock did it, great twist that it was, and it’s bullshit here. It’s thematically interesting, but the player can just shrug “I carried on playing because it’s a game”. Anyway, it’s not that I wanted to talk about, it’s actually the smaller details, the examinations on the ingrained tropes of video games. You see I’ve been reading ‘Killing is Harmless’, a long-form criticism of Spec Ops by Brendan Keogh, and it does a really good job of shining a spotlight on some of the nuance of Spec Ops and Walker’s capitulation. Some of it is small things like language and tone changing; rather than calm and clinical as in the early stages, eventually combat is soundtracked by swearing and ferocity. It’s a thought you’re going to have to hold on to because for this point to make sense I need to go back to Uncharted

The Uncharted series has long had its duality used as a criticism. While he’s out on his adventures throwing out quips, Drake is also killing hundreds and hundreds of people. Rarely is he actually defending himself from harm, he’s putting himself in harm’s way, he could just walk away. Early on in Uncharted 2 Drake is handed a tranquiliser gun because of his reticence to kill people. 10 minutes later he pulls a guy off a roof to his death while Drake’s partner jokes about it. You never get the impression Drake, nor Uncharted itself, cares about these deaths, they don’t stay with him. At least in Gears of War you’re at war with leathery monsters, in Uncharted you’re gunning down people hired to stop people like you from stealing shit.

Uncharted is what Uncharted is, and with Uncharted 4 it feels like Naughty Dog have tried to address it. For the first couple of hours gunplay is fairly minimal, and when it does occur it’s not Nate behind the trigger, initially at least. Smart, especially how they pitch Nate once we get up to present day. Even when it does kick off you’re encouraged to be stealthy, there’s tall grass to hide in and take people down, and a lengthy section where you’re in combat but trying to remain unseen. Apart from a guy I pulled from a roof to his death, I think without any sort of joke this time, I just chose not to kill people. That doesn’t last long though, eventually you’re back to killing people for trying to stop you from stealing stuff. The juxtaposition of the gunplay and tone of Uncharted is kind of redundant, as I said, Uncharted is what Uncharted is, what actually gave me pause for thought was a little more hands on.

There’s a point in Spec Ops: The Line, something that Killing is Harmless focused on, where Walker’s melee takedowns have gone from knocking people out to beating a man so hard and so often he caves in his skull. It’s brutal and unnecessary. There’s a point in Uncharted 4 where Drake lands one or two punches too many during his own melee takedown that reminded me of that scene. Similarly, after a while, it dawned on me that all those stealth attacks, the ones where I’d been choking people out to put them to sleep, were accompanied by a ‘snapping’ sound. Now, maybe that’s just their eyes shutting so fast that you can actually hear it, but I think, think, that Drake might be snapping their necks for no reason other than brevity. That realisation struck me, in amongst this gun fight, when people are clearing away the corpses, it turns out someone, rather than cleanly shoot his enemies, was lurking in the grass to snap their necks. It’s terrifying and ferocious

There were points, and this is where I get a bit nobby, early on in Uncharted 4 where I started to wonder if I was done with games like this. Not with video game levels of killing, I played through Space Marine again the other week, more the violence without consequence. I wondered if my brain had been engaged too much to just turn it off again, if Uncharted was doomed because in every other way it feels more human than most other popcorn blockbusters. That the grounding put it place to make Drake feel human, a likable everyman surrounded by likable people like you, a man who can return home to a normal job with a studious wife, a happy, normal life, whether that extra connection to reality compared to something like Space Marine, means that it doesn’t have as much room to just be a video game.

Fortunately it seems not, but I think we may be reaching the point where games like Uncharted have to solve their contradiction of violence and personality. I want to stress, it’s not the violence itself that’s the issue. I’ve been playing Doom alongside Uncharted 4 and I love it, it may well end up being my game of the year. I love it for the absolute nonsense of it. There’s a moment early on where the narrative is being set and Doom guy literally tosses it away, he, and you, don’t need it. I don’t want every game to be like Doom, Doom’s refreshing because of what it’s not, but it does highlight why the (I got this far without using it) ludonarrative dissonance caused by chatty nice drake ruthlessly breaking the necks of people who don’t know he’s there is a problem but Stevie Space Marine (actually called Titus) and Doom Guy killing monsters, orcs and the corrupted isn’t. To borrow a term from Killing is Harmless, those enemies are never anything more than ‘others’, they’re never anything more than targets, the very thing that makes Uncharted stand out adds a dimension to the world that raises an eyebrow. Not everyone will care, but I think we’re starting to see this problem get addressed, either we’ll have better justifications for the violence, ways around it, or we’ll have more things like Doom
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STELLLLLAAAAAA

15-03-16
Posted by Ben at 17:51

I've just started Stella Glow for review, and so far so good. Actually that was true to a point, then it killed the pace by throwing a bunch of story in with the occasional ‘you can't win’/’you can't lose’ story progressing fight. Hopefully I'm past that now and back in to the routine of killing monsters. While playing, and we're talking about the very early stages, something struck me, something about the tone of the game that made it stand out.

I'm reluctant to call Stella Glow sexist because that's a more damning statement than it deserves, especially as I've only seen a couple of hours of it. Undeniably there's moments in the script that are sexist, the question being if it's merely a reflection of a specific character or the game itself. There's a point early on where Alto, the main character (ish), says something along the lines of “you're going to fight, but you're a girl?!”, his parental figure even says that he's allowed in to the woods while her daughter isn't because he's a boy. Now, I'm willing to accept that it's consistent with the narrative of the game world, something that gets forgotten sometimes. Why couldn't a girl be a hunter? Sure of course, but in this thing aping a small village in the dark ages, it's more likely that would be seen as a man's job.

So that was striking, but given how quickly Alto is put back in his box nothing really worth dwelling on. It's actually Hilda, the game's antagonist, and her outfit that first caught my "that seems topical" eye. Hilda, a fairly young looking girl, is dressed in an outfit that's split down her torso revealing her skimpy underwear. Later in the game you’re introduced to Nonoka, the shinobi guard of the fire Witch Sakuya. Nonoka is straight away remarked on for how she's dressed. Her huge breasts are only barely covered, and even then only by a bra and a fishnet top. Also, I'd like to take a moment to note that I'm writing this in a coffee shop and anyone who can see my screen is making all sorts of judgements about me.

I want to be clear here, I'm no prude. I've no issue with 'Carry On' humour being in games, nor have I got a problem with titillation being in games. In fact were it ever removed completely I think it would be a huge shame, I'm an adult, I shouldn't be dictated to as to what I can and can't play. People have different tastes, some sit uneasy with me, I'm not really in the market for waifu games, but if that's what you're in to, cool. I wish those games were better, and I probably will judge you a little bit, but I'm not going to add you to a watch list or anything. I'm also not writing this to slate Stella Glow for what it is, I'm not writing a think piece about how it's some insidious danger, I'm sure someone else probably will if the game gets any sort of traction.

No, what spurred me to write this is how out of place and time Stella Glow seems. When you've got any and all possible hints at sexualisation or offence being pulled from games, with outfits being modified in Bravely Second, gameplay being removed from the new Fire Emblem, and even Street Fighter coming under fire, seeing Stella Glow's more risqué moments stands out. They aren't even that bad, light sexism aside, they just feel at odds for the culture around games at the minute.

Then I took a look at the release lists, the PS4 port of Witch and the Hundred Knight is out this week. I reviewed the PS3 version of Witch and the Hundred Knight, it's alright, I also found myself sticking up for it when it was criticised for the dress sense of its characters. Even the bit where one of the characters is tied up, it's all actually fairly good humoured. It's in bad taste, sure, if that's not a contradiction, but it's not malicious, it's not trying to take advantage of anyone, it's simply telling a story where you play as the bad guy.

Stella Glow isn't doing that, or at least as far as I know, which is I think part of why it stands out. It's a game that shifts in tone, people are being taken advantage of, the horrors of war, of betrayal, are looked at, even a bit about drug barrons and being addicted to something resembling meth. Then, in the next scene, a hyper positive 'kawai' young witch will make you mud tea. There's a line at one point, while talking about the horrors of war, that I'll paraphrase; "Hard to take without a drink huh?" "I can't imagine it's any easier with one" Having moments like that paired off against activating a Witch power by holding her in your arms, smiling gently as she squirms nervously, then slowly pushing your dagger into the jewel of her heart... I dunno man, it's not that I think it's wrong or dangerous, it's just odd and out of place. Whether that's both in the game and in the greater context of gaming at the minute I can't say. And who knows, if Stella Glow had come out 2 years ago it maybe would barely even register with me, but as things stand it's something that's stayed with me as I'm playing through the game
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Angels on the
Sideline
13-01-16
Posted by Ben at 16:58

There's something that's been bugging me for a while, years probably. It's something that comes up when I'm talking to friends but I don't think I've ever put in a review. It's also something I'm not sure I can explain, so bear with me as I stumble around it.

I don't think I like choices

I finished Shin Megami Tensei 4 today, it's a fantastic game with a slow middle. I also started Until Dawn, Sony's slasher movie homage designed around the premise of the butterfly effect. Until Dawn really lays it on thick too, the game opens with an explanation of the term, has butterfly symbols in the UI, then even has a couple of characters talk about it, it's a game about choice. When it came to the first meaningful choice, or at least consequence, I, well, I didn't like it. I’ve scratched around for words to end that sentence, I didn't resent the choice or having to make the choice, I didn't ‘hate’ it, it just stirred an ‘off’ feeling in me that I can't place.

I don’t want to spoil too much, but I’d seen a warning of what was going to happen and based my decision around that. It didn’t go well, and immediately I wondered about the other choice, should I have taken it, what would have happened if I had, would it have been worse for the character, worse for me?

I think a big part of it is that the rules of a videogame don’t reflect the rules of life. We make an immeasurable number of choices every day, whether to just sack off work is usually the big one, but before I’ve even clocked in I’ve made hundreds of decisions, trivial things about breakfast, what to wear, which order to get ready in, which route to take, what to listen to, when to cross the road etc etc. Granted, I could have picked a different route yesterday morning and stumbled on to a gang war, altering the course of my life immeasurably, but I didn’t. I didn’t because there’s a consistency to life that isn’t reflected in games. I generally know the consequence of my choices because I generally make the same ones every day. Even when it comes to interactions, I’m an adult human, I’m experienced at social interaction, I more or less know what to say to someone, and even if I’m trying to antagonise them how far to go

There’s grey areas in life that can’t possibly be covered in a game. Think about that vague moment in Until Dawn I mentioned earlier. Before that life and death decision how many decisions didn’t I get to make? We ran when maybe I wanted to face down whatever ‘that’ noise was, and we ran in a direction maybe I wouldn’t have done. I think a big part of my problem, and the problem with choices in games, is that it’s a forced hand. I’m left with either, effectively, no choice, or a consequence I couldn’t have foreseen, and the game shrugs at me and says “dunno what you’re complaining about, you chose it mate”

It’s why I mentioned Shin Megami Tensei 4 before. I don’t really want to spoil the end of that game, but while there’s lots of choices along the way, ultimately it comes down to an all or nothing choice. There’s a character I agreed with, but his methods were essentially “kill everyone”, I can’t get behind that, but nor can I talk to him and suggest some sort of middle ground. The choices are binary in a way life's choices are only if you're trying to win an argument. It's frustrating as a player who's invested so much into the game (Shin Megami not life), I was making choices based on “fuck it” rather than picking what reflected my feelings and thoughts. I think even if your character had muttered a word of protest it would have gone a long way.

The other area where choice in games falls down is consequence. While I finished it, and did enjoy it to a point, one of the reasons The Walking Dead lost me was the schizophrenic reactions to your actions. Suggest that someone might want to calm down so as not to give away our position and 3 people get shot in the face. LA Noire suffered from it massively. The text to set up what you are about to say would imply a gentle prodding against a statement, what actually happens is Cole screaming at a 5 year old accusing them of murder. Mass Effect and Fallout suffered from it too, it's a disconnect between the rules of the game and what the player experienced in the real world expects

Maybe this is part of a bigger topic, but I think the nature of gaming and of being a gamer is the introduction of competition. Even when you're told there's no wrong answer, that it's about your experience, but there's usually a 'better' outcome. And that's all it takes, a difference, and all of a sudden you've failed. Add to that your ideal scenario not being available, the setup not matching the conclusion, and options not being available to you, and maybe choice isn't always a good thing
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The Shadow of the
Shadow of Mordor
26-10-15
Posted by Ben at 18:42

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that literally every game released in the past 12 months has been an open world game, literally every single one. In some ways I don't really mind it, I get the appeal. Take something like Gears of War, we've all done it before, that linear cover based shooter, there's very little you can do with it. I played The Order 1886 recently, it's not bad, it doesn't deserve its reputation, and had it launched last generation I think it would have been received more warmly. As it is it's the most linear of linear games, at times entirely focused on narrative. Which has its place, but it's so easy to tear apart for what it is and what it isn't. I do wonder if Ready at Dawn regret not opening the game up a bit, assuming they had the time.

The problem is that an open world for open worlds sake isn't a good thing. I regularly claim that I'm not a big fan of open world games, certainly I'm not a fan of the GTA games, nothing against them in particular they just don't click with me. The truth is though that I really enjoyed Sleeping Dogs, Skyrim, Infamous Second Son, Witcher 3, and, despite myself, Shadow of Mordor. So why am I bringing all this up, because I've been playing Mad Max and it's a boring game.

I'm not sure I hate Mad Mad, that's too strong a word for my ambivalence towards the gameplay, but there's a level of cynicism that grates me. The truth is that with the not terrible (though not great) car combat, and Batman’s fighting system I should like it more than I do. Where Mad Max falls over is with its world, beautifully desolate as it is. Mad Max shares the same structure as Shadow of Mordor, something different from your standard open world game.

Take Assassin's Creed, there's tons of periphery bullshit in that series, but your play is also very directed. Climbing the towers has a benefit,and there's reasons to do the side missions, but often they'll be done on your way to the next story mission. Same with Skyrim, you don't decide to abandon the story quests, you just tumble endlessly down the rabbit hole because you're near that cave, because that dragon isn't all that far away. You're like Sam Beckett, always striving to get back to the right thread. If Skyrim clicks with you it's compulsive, same with Infamous,same with any open world game, you'll stop after you've done one more thing.

What Shadow of Mordor did that's different from most games was just drop you into the world and tell you to fuck off and leave it alone for a bit. It's something GTA does, but then your phone will ring and you'll start a new story mission. In Shadow of Mordor the side quests are the game. That's what it's telling you to do. It's undirected and aimless, and it very nearly ruins the game. The reason it doesn't is the Nemesis system. It adds a compulsion, that ‘one more thing’ feeling, you're never far from a General to kill. It keeps you playing when samey missions and locales would have already out stayed their welcome, and more importantly, spreading your influence is a benefit to the campaign, it's not wasted time.

Mad Max on the other hand is too loose, too open. Fairly early on there's a story mission that involves scoping out a gate, a gate you aren't ready to break through. You're then tasked with going out in to the open world to find the car parts you need to take on the gate mission. There's nothing special about the locations of these car parts other than them having the car parts, they're the exact same scraps or earth and huddle of bandits that house water, parts to equip the safe houses, and memories of the old world. It reduces the story missions to busy work, there's literally nothing different about them from the scores of filler that litter the game

And that's my worry with this trend of genres setting their games in open worlds. It works with some, being a Witcher and taking contracts makes sense, giving a superhero civilians to save makes sense, and amazingly even the stealth of Metal Gear works. These experiences need to be directed, there's very little difference in locations between story and side quests in Fallout and Skyrim, but you can tell the difference from the tone and the setup. Just dumping your mechanics in to an open world isn't enough. Mad Max feels like a game built on telemetry, like someone saw how people played open world games and decided they didn't need the core experience, it's design by maths, it's cynical, and it feels it
0 comments / permalink


 
 
The Capped
Crusader
25-06-15
Posted by Ben at 02:14

Batman Arkham Knight is out, many months late, and launching with a day 1 patch on consoles, it's maybe unsurprising that the PC version has suffered some issues too. However, no one could have predicted quite what a mess the PC version was going to be. As I type I'm writing this article having not played the game for myself. I'm having internet problems you see, it sporadically will start working, and once I managed to get Steam online I left my PC on for many days and finally managed to download the game. Great. I can't play it yet however because the game comes bundled with some DRM that, despite the game being on my Steam account and Steam being set to offline, still wants me online to launch the game. It suggests it's a one time thing, first installation, we'll probably never find out, as with any luck my net will be back up and running before I get around to trying the game again.

The DRM isn't the whole problem though, in fact it's not even the worst of it. Batman Arkham Knight has a locked framerate, a 30fps one at that. For a PC port, released at the same time rather than years later than with some bodged together code, that is unacceptable, although the neogaf post referring to Batman as the 'capped crusader' is almost worth it. You can change the fps cap by editing the ini files, but that brings up new problems, like the game being unable to stream the textures and game world quickly enough off a standard harddrive causing the framerate to plummet and textures to be “low”. In fact even without .ini file editing there seems to be a problem with textures. Warner Brothers have implied that this is normal, that your PC that is many times more powerful than your PS4 is only capable of running the game on 'Normal' settings rather than the console's 'High'

There's reportedly missing elements to the PC version, things like trees and bushes, although that seems to vary from user to user. Ambient Occlusion is missing, it's there in the console versions, just missing from the PC version, so hopefully it's something that can be fixed. There's been people complaining about alaising, the Batmobile causes the framerate to drop further, and weirdly rain textures are absent for Batman and the Batmobile. Again hopefully this is all patchable, and there's some indications to be hopeful, or maybe some to be cynical.

Nvidea, as is their want, were heavily involved in previewing the game, showing off the features only available to their cards. The game looked great, there were rain textures and another 30+ frames! They stopped showing that version though, likely because Sony paid a lot of money for the game to be associated with the PS4, or if you're cynical, because it became apparent that the PC version wasn't going to match their previews. Rocksteady didn't do the PC version themselves, perhaps they started one, perhaps that's the version Nvidea were showing off, but the PC version was passed on to Iron Galaxy. Iron Galaxy are infamous for 2 things; being friends with Giant Bomb, and not being very good at making games. Maybe that's harsh, but I've certainly never greeted the news Iron Galaxy are handling a port with anything other than a wince. Still, they're probably cheap.

Whatever, I haven't played the game myself so I can't really comment, nor do I know enough about the ins and outs of the game's development to know who to blame. It's not why I started this post, what inspired this piece was the consumer reaction. People are furious, rightly so, and it's the first time we've seen that with a AAA game since Valve launched their Steam refund policy. Batman Arkham Knight is taking a panning from user reviews, anecdotally a huge number of people are requesting refunds. Good for them. In fact so many people are demanding refunds that GreenmanGaming have had to come out and change their refund policy from “naw” to “if the game is still broken after the first patch then yes”.

It may seem a small thing, but Valve have removed Batman from their featured games banner on Steam. James and I have both tested this and it seems to depend on if you're signed in. If you are then the recommendations knock Batman out of the features banner, if not it's there but at the back. This is a game that launched yesterday and should have been one of the 10 biggest games of the year, now it's the sort of game Jim Sterling does videos about. For their part Warner Brothers have posted an update saying they're working on fixing the game. GreenmanGaming have already said they're talking to Warner Brothers, no doubt Valve aren't too delighted either. It can't been good for WB either, seeing their sales reverse as refund after refund goes out of their account.

Addendum: As I woke this morning, ready to post this article, I was greeted with the news that Batman Arkham Knight is no longer for sale on Steam, it's been pulled/suspended by Warner Brothers due to the number of complaints, and presumably the number of refunds. It's not the first game to get pulled from sale, it's not the first game to get pulled from Steam, but it may well be the biggest, and it's certainly huge news.

All I can say is good, good for PC gamers. Valve deserve credit for sorting their refund policy, but gamers deserve praise for standing up to their own desire to play and requesting a refund. People should be pissed about this, the game was misrepresented (either deliberately or through ineptitude), Warner Brothers clearly skimped on the port, although perhaps they were simply loathed to delay the PC version while this was fixed. Either way it lays a marker down, if the next Assassin's Creed launches as broken as the last one it's done. Hopefully this is the tonic to 'day one' patches and broken games that have looked like a curse of the modern age in recent years.
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Money For
Nothing
14-06-15
Posted by Ben at 15:47

For most of us the news that Steam had changed their refund policy from "no" to "yes" is welcome news. Granted living in the EU as we do, until a combination of the Conservatives, UKIP, and the Daily Mail ruin it for all of us, we should in theory have had some protection anyway. Anyone who's ever tried getting a refund from Steam will tell you that despite that, it was like pulling teeth. So it was a pleasant surprise that Valve have provided a fairly no-quibble policy, although not everyone is pleased.

Essentially Steam's refund policy is this; if you bought a game and want a refund within 2 weeks, so long as you've played it for less than 2 hours, you're almost certainly going to get it. In fact even if you don't meet those requirements you can still ask and Valve will have a look at it. If you're a developer that isn't quite such good news. It's one thing for the likes of Activision, Warner Brothers, or Ubisoft who will sell tens of thousands of games on Steam, it's another for smaller developers who might just sell tens. That's not to say they should get a free pass, only that you can see why just handing the money back no matter the reason might feel a little unjust.

There's also the issue of game length. An increasing number of games on Steam that could be completed in the 2 hour refund window, theoretically turning Steam in to a deposit down gaming library. It's a concern shared by a number of developers including David Szymanski. It's worth noting at this point that Valve have stated that if they think you're gaming the system then they will stop giving you refunds.

Again another important point of clarification, the developers in the Twitter reactions don't seem to be against refunds in principle, no doubt they're also customers and gamers themselves,only the way it's been implemented. One suggestion was to cut the gameplay time allowed to 15 minutes. While I sympathise, 15 minutes is far too short a window. I've talked before about my issues with Rage, a game I really enjoyed, but had huge troubles getting to run. Starting the game, struggling with it, editing ini files, booting it again to test it. I quite quickly got to 2 hours before I'd got close to getting it running correctly.

As another example, think of your typical AAA game. From the moment you boot the game how long does it take to actually start the game properly. You've got the developer logo, probably a couple of them, the publisher logo, the video codec logo, Speedtree, then the start screen, then the menu screen. Great, now you've got a load, then a cut scene. Now you're in to the game, but it's the tutorial so it's hard to judge, and after that you've got another cutscene and a load. Now you're in to the game and you've been playing 30 minutes. You need time with the game.

That's not to say there isn't issues with the system. put it to the test by purchasing the soundtrack to The Moon Sliver, then simply requesting a refund. Soundtracks from Steam are drm free, so he made a copy and requested, and was given a refund. This is where the warning that Valve give regarding abusing the system should come in, but how many times could you get away with before Valve call foul.

Again the counter for this is that, would you really go to that trouble for a soundtrack you could just Google and find. Same with the games, why risk the wrath of Valve on your Steam account when you could just search the net for a pirate version of the game. I'd also argue that we're at the point where people kind of know what they're getting on Steam. Dear Esther might have been in trouble, as might Gone Home, but now 'walking simulators' are a known concept, same with visual novels and any number of indie genres. They cater to a subset of gamers, the kind who probably don't begrudge handing over money for an experience, and aren't likely to claim an unjust refund.

Of course that's all speculation, and it seems that the refund system might have had the unexpected result of encouraging sales now there's less risk. And I'm not about to start lecturing developers, I've never made a game but I do know from experience that customers are arseholes. It also seems to be the case that there's a huge surge of people taking Valve up on their offer of refunds. Hopefully this is something that will die down, and judging from forum chatter there's a lot of people claiming legacy refunds

Still, I do think it's right that Valve have addressed this, and I'm pleased it's erred more to the consumer side than not, hopefully that sets a precedent.
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Castlenamia

25-05-15
Posted by Ben at 10:36

I'm a week late with this really, if we want hits it should be about how Witcher 3 is terrible (it's not), or I should invite people to view its 10 best sex scenes. Instead I'm writing about Kickstarter a week or so after it was news again.

There was a prevailing logic that Kickstarter had... not run its course as such, more levelled out. The days of games receiving millions, capturing the zeitgeist had gone, now it was going to be for smaller scale stuff. It's easy to say now but that was never true, we'd just started to run out of franchises and developers with enough nostalgia built up. Off the top of my head I can only think of Yu Suzuki, Yuji Naka, and a handful of others who have the recognition and fondness to garner the attention that gets your game funded big. I maintain that Shenmue 3 would attract millions, whether that would be enough to get it made is another matter.

The two recent Kickstarter successes; Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night and Yooka-Laylee, both pull on that same nostalgia. The Banjo-Kazooie games might have passed me by, but a game by core Rare staff is going to get a lot of people excited. Personally I loved the DS 2d Castlevania games, I'm pretty sure I gave Order of Ecclesia our game of the year one year. A new one of those by Koji Igarashi, yes please.

Both Bloodstained and Yooka-Laylee have something else in common. They've got to capture their legacy without their legacy. Microsoft aren't about to hand over the Banjo rights, and Konami are more likely to fire the rights to Castlevania in to space than give customers what they want at the minute. It shouldn't be a problem, not really, but you can't help but have doubts. Maybe it's all the talk of a spiritual successor to Silent Hill, after all the nominative town is a huge part of that series, something that might be lost if your game isn't tied to the series. But then that shouldn't be a problem for Bloodstained, sure you lose the lore of the Belmonts, but that's something Igarashi had moved away from already with Order of Ecclesia.

It doesn't have to be a problem though. There's a very famous game series that had to cut ties with its past, with its name. The corpse of its old franchise still shambles along to this day, now taking the form of a mobile phone game. That game, Football Manager.

It must be 15 years since Sports Interactive abandoned the Championship Manager name, a hugely loved franchise at the time, striking out on their own (well, with Sega), and going from strength to strength. Their audience followed them, they were savvy enough, spread the word, and knew what they wanted. There's actually been some good Championship Manager games since, I feel a bit bad for the zombie comparison, but considering what the franchise was, to now being a raised eyebrow when you scroll past it on your phone's store is a sad state of affairs.

It's a state of affairs Konami, and to a lesser extent Microsoft, who I don't think have any intention of reviving Banjo, would do well to brace themselves for. I liked Lords of Shadow, framey as it was it was also a good 3d Castlevania game once it got going. The 3ds one less so, and while I liked Lords of Shadow 2, it was a mess and didn't leave people wanting more. You can't help but fear for the fates of some of these franchises. The sheer level of scorn that's going to greet the next Castlevania, and even without spiritual successors Silent Hill and Metal Gear, people will be falling over themselves to pull them apart.

All this being said however, I can't help feel some trepidation about these Kickstarter successors. With a sequel, for better or worse, developers are locked in to certain things, there's expectations about what the game will be. Who's to say the developers will see the same things as important as their fans, the small changes might be enough to alter the feel of the game.

Still it's better than nothing, and might even be better than what's gone before. It's at this point when writing about Kickstarter you usually clarify that you've backed something or other. I haven't, tempted as I was for Bloodstained, the far off release date was enough to remind me of my trepidations for the platform, but I'm glad other people are willing to spend money on Kickstarter, there's been a few decent games from it the past couple of years
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Under Review

07-05-15
Posted by Ben at 17:06

I've started a few God Mode On articles recently and either not quite finished them or not pulled the trigger on posting them. This feels like another one of those, but it's inspired by something that's both as old as I am and incredibly modern; the role of the reviewer.

Now, I know what the role of a reviewer is, it's to review things, obviously, but there's a level of expectation beyond that. I'd also like to quickly acknowledge that I know my place in the world of games criticism, no one knows who I am or cares what I think, but I have been doing this a while and think I'm pretty good at it. For me, my role as reviewer is pretty simple, I play a game and then say/write what I think of it. I try to take it seriously, giving things plenty of time, trying to do more than the bare minimum, but equally play as though I'm a normal gamer who has bought the game.

When I sit down to write a review I take my time with it, thinking through my points, often referring to notes. I try to be accurate, not just because that's the minimum level of respect the developers should expect, but also because I'm 'putting myself out there'. I don't want to look like a tit. I also try to think of the game's audience, and I think this may be where there's some divergence between reviewers, and even gamers. I try to look at it like this, not every game is for me, so while I might not like a game it doesn't necessarily make it bad, and while I might love something, especially something that I was sent for free, someone who is about to drop their hard-earned money on it might hate it. I don't think this affects the score too often, but it's a check, it guards the tone of my review and makes me justify why I'm going to give the score I'm about to give.

So far so indulgent. The reason I mention this is because I recently encountered someone on one of my YouTube videos. He was annoyed that I was reviewing something from a genre I don't especially care for (Ride). I have no issue with racing games, I just have no real urge to play them. He felt I had no business reviewing the game because I wasn't an expert in the area. This is something we've talked about as reviewers before, is it better to have the genre expert review all games from that genre or let someone else do it and review for the more "average" gamer? I'm not sure there's a clear answer. On one hand you're preaching to the choir, creating a clique that never invites anyone else in, on the other hand you're not going to review to the depth the core market for that game want.

Personally I'm up for trying new things. It's boring playing, listening, watching, eating the same things all the time, I've been around too long, I've seen a lot of stuff, experiencing something outside your comfort zone can be a very good thing.

His other complaint was that I didn't hype the game enough. I liked Ride, it's a decent game and if you want a motorbike game I think it's worth giving a try. I don't wish the game nor its developers any ill will. However it is not my job, nor my place, to hype a game up. I recognise that we're part of the pr machine, even if we don't like a game we probably have some worth for getting it's name out there, but I'm supposed to be distanced from it. I'm not trying to influence sales either way, I'm a critic, I have enough arrogance to think I have something to say about why a game works or doesn't. Frankly, me hyping a game would be me selling out.

However I've read reviews after I've already played a game before. Indulging in anger that the reviewer has got it wrong, or pleased and praising that they've got it right. I want reviewers to like the games I like. This has been going on since I was a kid.

What's slightly concerning is how it's evolved with the YouTube generation. It seems like overreaction and hype are more expected and forgiven now. I'm not dismissing any and all YouTube personalities here, there's some who despite their styling are pretty good, making some more than valid points. But the line between criticism and promotion has blurred, people seem more willing to be sold to. Or maybe I'm just getting old and it's always been that way, fuck knows I completely bought in to Sonic Twosday when I was a kid
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04-06-14
Posted by Ben at 17:26

A lot has been written about Microsoft's u-turn on the Kinect, and their u-turn on charging to access apps such as Netflix, Hulu, and Internet Explorer. Add to that the change to their Games with Gold program, and they've made a few shifts in direction recently, and there's been a lot written about all of them.

Let me get a couple of things out of the way early; yes I am adding to the noise, albeit a week or two late, and I think all these changes are good things. I'm not going to pretend that I'm any fan of the way Microsoft have gone about this generation, the DRM stuff was a farce, a history that has been rewritten and white washed by its supporters, and one I am a long way away from forgetting. I fell away from the 360 last generation, I'm fine with that, and it wasn't with any animosity. I liked Gears of War, but I didn't love it, and very few of their other exclusives really appealed to me. There was a time that the 360 was my HD console of choice, but with us generally getting PS3 copies of games to review, my lack of a Gold subscription, and the PS3 library fitting closer to my tastes (with the likes of Yakuza, Flower and Ni No Kuni), it was a natural drift from one console to another, in the same way I'd started the generation on the Wii, and ended it very much as a PC gamer.

Still, the always online requirement angered me, I've never liked the idea of apps being hidden behind Gold, and have made fun of the ancient, if good, selection for the Games With Gold program. The only one I was largely indifferent to was Kinect, but that's because my experience with it is quite limited, certainly the extended use I have had with it hasn't won me over, in so much as the voice stuff barely worked, nor did the gesture stuff at the OS level.But I want to be clear, I think all these changes are for the best, for gamers at least, I think that being able to drop the price of the Xbox One is a good thing for Microsoft, but they are now a less powerful PS4 thanks to their USP being removed with Kinect.

The conventional wisdom is that these changes, that the Xbox One has gone from an always online, DRM heavy, always watching, always listening media hub, to a gaming machine that doesn't have proper media support anywhere except the States, is all down to close competition. That we NEED a close fight. That a lack of a serious competitor is a very bad thing for the industry. I'm not sure that's true. People make the mistake of thinking that the competition we need is an equal one, 3 console manufacturers all taking roughly the same amount of market share. It's notable that no one has been making this case with the WiiU taking a beating, but let's ignore that for the minute. We had equal competition last generation, near enough anyway. The PS3 and the 360 will end their lives at around 80 million consoles sold, and that was for the best for everyone. Here's a list of notable things that sprung up last generation (ish). We have to pay for online access, on the Xbox apps were locked behind the Gold paywall, DLC became prevalent, on-disc dlc was commonplace. The RRP for games became £54.99, there's in-app purchases, there's in-app purchases in £54.99 price point games. There was Day 1 dlc, games released broken needing to be patched, there was day 1 patches. There was pre-order bonuses, retailer exclusive pre-order bonuses, 3rd party account systems, 3rd party account systems that would lock you out of your game if they had a problem with their servers (hello Uplay and Rockstar Social Club). Then you've got the topical, thanks to Nintendo of all companies, trend of online servers getting shutdown, meaning you can never play that game online again, and in some cases, just never be able to play it again at all.

So much for competition. You know what was a great generation, the PS2 generation. The PS2 wiped the floor with everything, I'd have to check but I think it's the best selling home console of all time, and still had a games being released for it this year in the UK (PES 2014). In the lifespan of the PS2 we had the Dreamcast, with its free online with a free web browser and online play, and a host of outstanding games. We had the Xbox, which for better or worse shaped the console landscape by bringing over more western PC style games. Then we had the Gamecube, just this week I saw a host of people declaring the Gamecube as a great machine with a host of great games that they couldn't wait to play if the Gamecube does come to the WiiU Virtual Console.

At the peak of equal competition between the console manufacturers Microsoft were about to take your ownership of your own retail games away from you. They forced Kinect and dumped the cost on consumers. They locked apps behind a paywall, and had only just made the faltering first steps at competing with the PS+ service. Microsoft taking a kicking was a good thing for the industry, a very good thing. That they've reversed just about every bad decision they made was down to consumers voting with their wallets against them in a huge way. Nintendo's scrambling, trying to make the WiiU worth buying and spark some vitality in to the 3DS is because they're desperate, then need to claw back consumers.

If you want a healthy games industry you want people fighting for their lives.
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15-04-14
Posted by Ben at 17:30

I’m in the unusual position where I’m about to defend the game press. It wont last, in fact it wont even last until the end of this post, but I think it needs doing all the same.

You may have heard today about Ubisoft’s press event for Watch_Dogs that took place last night. You likely wouldn’t have heard of it, I’m not even sure how much coverage it would generate at this point, were it not for what Ubisoft were handing out. Attendees were given nice new Nexus 7 tablets to take home with them, to keep, and to use however they wanted.

It’s shady, insidious, and suggests that absolutely nothing has been learnt in the 2 years since Doritosgate. It confirms what we all knew, the press and the publishers have a symbiotic relationship, there’s back-scratching aplenty, the PR want to buy the press and the press are more than happy to be bought. Nothing has changed.

Only that’s not true. The reason you’ve heard about this latest gaming ethics controversy is because Steve Hogarty, a member of the game press, brought it to everyone’s attention. Since then you’ve had Dan Pearson of Gamesindustry.biz saying theirs is going to charity, the same for Eurogamer. Edwin Evans-Thirlwell wrote a blog over at Totalxbox, which includes a reply from Ubisoft UK that the Nexus’ contained press stuff (pictures, videos, notes, information etc, the sort of stuff we get via email), and not something they make a habit of. It’s also worth noting, and you can see it in the replies to Hogarty, not everyone who attended got a tablet.

So it’s only fair that when you’re lambasting the press for how willing they are to sell out you remember that this time it was them who blew the whistle. Sure you can question whether it would have been mentioned had Hogarty not posted about it, and whether there’s people out there who have indeed kept the tablet, but it’s clearly not all the press on the take.

However, contrast that with the past weeks other big gaming event, PAX. Out in America, Boston I believe, a decent sized gaming convention with lots of panels. It was worrying to me how close the press were to the publishers and developers. It’s not something I want to dwell on as some of the people involved I mentioned in a God Mode On post a few weeks back, but it’s something that really sits uncomfortable with me. You had an IGN editor hosting a panel for Murdered: Soul Suspect, and Giant Bomb’s incest with the rest of the industry was rampant, and entertaining to be fair.

I’d like to think lessons have been learnt, at least with regards to ‘swag’. The press really need to sort out their distancing though, particularly the Americans. Maybe next year
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