Saturday, 16 April 2011

The Cake is a Lie

Food and videogames have a lot in common. As consumers we purchase them with a pre-conceived notion of how they’ll satisfy our tastes based on their combination of ingredients. And in both cases, while we can speculate how satisfied we’ll be based on our past experiences with similar combinations, or based on their appearance; we can’t make a judgement until after we’ve consumed them for ourselves.

Continuing this odd train of thought, I’d like to refer to the Gears of War franchise. The first game established a core philosophy that won over its consumers and offered an alternative to the established status quo of the time, in food terms it was a delicious Sponge Cake in the year 1615. Nothing fancy or complicated, but thoroughly delicious, and a culinary revelation. As developers, or in this strange analogy a baker, Epic needed only to expand on the set formula to improve the dish and therefore satisfy the consumers.

Prior to release they pulled back their golden curtain to show theses consumers the ingredients added for this second iteration, and what they showed was the videogame equivalent to icing, butter cream and jam. All looked well.

As fans ordered this new improved dish, feverish for what they believed to be an improved recipe, they didn’t know what they were about to receive. Upon that first mouthful, they didn’t recognise the texture and taste of this new Sponge Cake. It didn’t sensate the taste buds in a similar fashion, and so the new ingredients didn’t improve the dish, but offered an unfamiliar distraction to what was an already inferior meal.

In simple terms the new game was slow, whereas the old one was quick. The new game too tried to hamstring the player’s ability to use their favourite weapons, rather than offer them viable and equally efficient alternatives, and finally, amidst all this disappointment, for the first six months at least, the game simply didn’t work. Shotgun shells fired vertically downwards and lag crippled the player’s movements and therefore ability to succeed.

Epic tried too hard to add to the ingredient list that they lost sight of what people enjoyed in the first place.
And so it was with this memory I entered the Gears of War 3 Beta for the first time, wary yet excited for what I was about to experience. Would my first bite be met with such similar sensations of disgust and disappointment? No.

If I was to summarise my opening thoughts on this metaphorical first bite, despite an abundance of icing, butter cream and jam as promised and expected, my overriding reaction was that this was the best fucking Sponge Cake I’d ever tasted.
This was the same core game I’d experienced on that wonderful day back in 2006, and the same core experience I expected on that woeful day in 2008.

So what defines this core experience? In raw terms I would say speed. Epic’s intention with the second game in the series was to slow players down in order to curb a reckless tendency to engage in close quarters combat and stretch the encounters further apart across the map. They did this not only by improving the effectiveness of long range weapons, but by decreasing the effectiveness of the short range ones and the players ability to navigate into a position in which they could use them.
Gears 3 reverses this, allowing players to move at the same speed as the original, a speed that allows players to engage opponents at any distance they choose. If anything, Gears 3 feels faster than the original because of the improved cover mechanics and “omnidirectional” rolling, a system that allows players to roll in eight directions rather than four. All this does is allow you to get where you want, faster, and it’s a wonderful addition. There is an option to disable this and return to the traditional four directions but to do so would be foolish, as there’s no harm in having more abilities in combat.

Alongside the speed, Epic have removed the delays between moving and firing your shotgun altogether, meaning you always feel in control of whether you come out of combat standing or in little pieces. Combine the rejuvenated shotgun and a smorgasbord of speed and you get a game that returns to the precise, skilful nature of the original. Kills at close quarters are defined by how well players utilise the cover, strafe and roll mechanics in conjunction with their shotgun, and the increased speed elevates the skill gap back to Gears 1 levels. If there is one way to describe the Gnasher to players of the original game, it’d be the equivalent sensation of playing as the host. It’s precise, powerful and consistent. Because of the increased agility close quarters duels can return to the epic nature of the original game, as players dart and dodge between blasts trying simultaneously to manoeuvre into an advantageous position for their own, all the time their ammo counters tick perilously close to zero.

One reason which contributed to Epic attempting to avert away from the close quarters nature of the original with Gears 2 was that players became very adept at utilising the Gnasher in conjunction with the cover, meaning new players, or players without the time to dedicate to learning the system were at a crippling disadvantage in close quarters. In Gears 3 Epic have given less able players a viable chance at competing in close quarters without gimping the abilities of the top players. This comes in the form of a Sawn of Shotgun. Selectable in place of the Gnasher at spawn, the Sawn Off(SO) offers an extremely generous spread, compensating for the players lack of aiming ability. While this may sound overpowered it simply isn’t. The player must perform a three second reload animation between each shot and the distance needed for the SO to effectively kill a player is only marginally greater of that required to perform a melee attack. You have to get cosy. Not only that but the large reload time usually means that while you can kill your opponent, if there were another player in the vicinity you’d be largely defenceless, preventing it’s adoption by the better players who aim for more than one kill per every death.

While that’s the core explained, I’ll also talk about the added ingredients. Whilst many elements of Gears 2 felt contrary to the philosophy of the original, much of that feeling it seems was largely produced because of the distorted core base, and in fact many additions I rued over the last two years have seemed ingenious when applied to the classic Gears formula.

Stopping power for example. I was one of the people who abhorred this mechanic in Gears 2. It made the slow, slower, and so I despised its existence. In Gears 3 with my lighting movements it seems a perfect fit. I’m not going to declare Gears 1 perfect; a criticism can be the lack of a threat at medium distances, and for that stopping power helps out. If a player wants to blindly run at an opponent head on without using cover then they deserve to be killed. Stopping power doesn’t mean you can’t attack a rifle wielding player directly, it just means you can’t do it like a brainless bellend. If you use cover and the walls around you it’s still possible to engage enemies at a close distance if you so choose, and believe me once you get into those positions there’s no amount of stopping power capable of beating a gnasher.

One thing to note, and this is definitely a positive is that stopping power is all but nonexistent when firing your shotgun. This means players with a proclivity for longer ranged weapons can close the gap on foes wielding those close quarters weapons, and the new Retro Lancer is particularly useful for this with its bayonet charge. This roadie run-esque charge often forces them to mistime their shots as the pressure of being impaled clouds their judgement. Not only that but once the chainsaw is revved on the traditional Lancer, bullets don’t cause it to jam, so should an opponent not have a weapon equipped that possesses serious stopping power then they’re at mercy to the chainsaw. Although a skilled Shotgunner should rarely feel pressured as long as they keep a cool head, easier said that done.

All this doesn’t feel overpowering though contrary to what it might seem. Epic have taken the stance of making each option completely viable and effective within reason, meaning it’s the players choice which one they adopt. This is the opposite to Gears 2s preferred method of gimping one style and thus forcing another. It’s a balancing masterstroke and contributes greatly to why Gears 3 is gaining such favourable reactions, including my own.

Furthermore, elements like the Mortar and Grenade tagging are much less effective when your character can move without resembling a deep sea diver. The time between a character tripping the proximity of a tagged grenade and it exploding has been increased to the point whereby nobody really uses it unless incredibly well concealed, and the mortar is easily escapable as long as you get your ass moving when you hear its loud, audible cues.

Lastly, map design makes a triumphant return to that of the original Gears, leaving little space on the map that doesn’t offer adequate cover to escape the fire of opponents or use as a tool to gain the upper hand in a shotgun battle. Thrashball in particular reminds me massively of Raven Down from the original, dropping symmetrically placed pieces of cover to dance your way around in a small pit of shotgunning bliss. There are spaces either side of the map to flank your opponents which also offered the tantalising prospect of exposed, unaware flesh should you execute your movements covertly.

A quick note about lag. It’s plagued the series since its inception and finally Epic have caved in to the realisation that dedicated servers are a necessary expense to pay. Now despite them not being activated at this current time, my experience has been smooth, very smooth. Buttery almost. No lag, no having to compensate for my shots and no bullshit. The thought that this can only get better is almost incomprehensible, because if someone were to tell me I was already playing on dedicated servers I’d be close to believing them.

Not all the changes to Gears 2 were bad. It’s just the changes to the core gameplay were, and weren’t conducive to the gameplay style the original had propagated, leaving a horrible taste in many consumer’s mouths. Epic have fixed this. First and foremost that Gears Sponge Cake has been perfected, reverted back to the quick, heart pumping pace of the original.

It feels wrong to say Gears of War 3 is excellent.

Because this is Gears of War 2.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Far From a Rythm Paradise

It was a bitterly cold evening at Anfield when the announcer rang through the news that Fernando Torres wouldn’t play a part in the evening’s game; for his wife had gone into labour with his second child. When my immediate disappointment had faded and morphed into a congratulatory one, I realised ‘El Nino’ (The kid) was no longer an appropriate nickname for my Spanish hero. Although once applicable to the young, blonde striker captaining his home club Atletico Madrid at the age of 19, at 26, as one of the biggest names in world football, Fernando Torres was now quite definitely not a kid anymore.

It was 2005 when Activision and Harmonix combined to produce Guitar Hero, a new entry into the Rhythm genre that would capture a generation by storm. Since then however, following almost unimaginable growth, the franchise and its twin sibling Rock Band have fizzled into obscurity, plummeting down the sales charts which they had not long ago ascended. This shift in consumer trends has critics and publishers confused. Perhaps it shouldn’t do.

According to an Amazon survey, the 8-12 year old American child’s most wanted Christmas present last year was an iPad. Besides showing that the majority of children these days are greedy, self entitled bellends(not Fernando’s obviously), this study reaffirms the notion that consumer trends, especially within youth culture are completely context driven.

Would these children get much use out of an iPad? Probably not. It doesn’t offer them the functionality and flexibility to perform tasks any better than devices they more than likely already have access to, however for these children that fact is irrelevant, they just want the most popular item of the current cultural context, in 2010, this is the iPad.

As an expensive product, Guitar Hero’s sales largely relied on this hive mind philosophy, whereby everyone must have the latest version of the game to stay within a particular social relevance. Kids were aware of the little coloured buttons on the crude plastic guitar that would enable them to enjoy gaming experiences they could not have anywhere else. A guitar revolution formed, sales spiked, Activision smiled.
Alongside Activision’s yearly reproduction of the game’s winning formula, the consumers who were buying these products were also introduced to real guitars. Of course, this took away from the magical empowerment Guitar Hero produced, and to these consumers some of the air guitar innocence had been lost. They were no longer playing along to iconic rock songs, they were pressing plastic buttons in time with tunes they could actually learn to play themselves without the help of a television screen and an £80 boxed product.

It’s also worth noting that six years on from the launch of the very first Guitar Hero, the initial audience that sustained the franchise growth have themselves grown rather significantly. That puts me at 13 years old when the original released, a young schoolboy, impressionable, fantastical. Now I’m 18 years old and a University student, cynical and stubborn. I can also play an actual guitar with a modicum of success, and am certainly able to string together most songs with enough practise, a feat that would give me more gratification than I could receive from any plastic imitation.

Guitar Hero was a cultural phenomenon. It blossomed within a cultural context that provided the perfect conditions for maximum success. An audience embraced it, an audience which, like the cultural context of today, is much different to that of 2005. They have grown older, the context has shifted and it seems a long time since the idea of a plastic instrument sparked much excitement within the masses who are needed to maintain a degree of financial success the series is used to.

I began writing this article on a train in December of 2010, and since then (It is now February of 2011) a couple of key things have happened. Firstly, Fernando Torres has left Liverpool to join Chelsea, and Activision has discontinued the Guitar Hero franchise. In both cases, a bout of realisation has been made. Fernando accepted that he may not be able to win the trophies he craves at Liverpool Football Club, whilst Activision accepts that Guitar Hero isn’t the franchise it once was on a cultural level. Whilst the logistics behind Fernando’s decision could be called into question (For Liverpool beat Chelsea on Torres’s debut for the Blues), that of Activision’s is without a doubt a smart one. Like Tony Hawk, Guitar Hero is an image of the past, and one which hasn’t translated into the present.

In both Fernando and Guitar Hero’s cases, the phrase “hero to zero” is romantically applicable.