Saturday, November 16, 2013

Grid 2 and how "Freemium" dooms yet another game

Just once I'd like to be able to sit down and honestly say I was wowed.  Looking back over the last 2 years of writing for this blog there's a definite streak of snarky in almost every game I've written about.  It's distressing...

I really want to be able to say that somebody finally got it right.  I'd just love to see a game that made me proudly proclaim! " I paid $60 for this and it was worth twice that!"

Alas, it's yet to be...

Case in point, Grid 2.

I was a devout fan of the original Race Driver: Grid, so I waited with anticipation for its sequel.  The original occupied hours of my time and consumed many more competing with my friends.  I wanted to learn every nuance of the game and it was actually  possible without spending a dime on DLC.  If you drove a McLaren, it wasn't going to handle like a minivan.  The tracks were challenging but not discouraging.  The cars reacted the way you expected them to with the physics spot on.  A Camaro was going to drift like a drunken sailor on a Jet Ski and you could be sure a Pagani Zonda was going to handle like it was on rails. 

Having actually owned a few examples that appeared in the game I can attest to the accuracy. 

Rarely would you get a car that was completely unsuited to a particular race type or track.  It did happen, but not enough to abandon the game.   

Unfortunately, that happens a lot in Grid 2 and that's just the first of my many annoyances with the game.  After many months of avoiding it I went ahead and loaded up Grid 2 tonight to give it one more shot before declaring it shunned. 

I have about 25 hours into the game so it's not like I haven't given it a fair chance.

My attempt to redeem the game led me to try a few global challenge events.  In one I was asked to drive in one of my (least) favorite types of events called overtake. 

In case you don't know, "Overtake" is best described as a commute on steroids.  The whole idea is to pass a bunch of trucks without running into them .  Every pass gives you points and they multiply with every additional vehicle that succumbs.  The wrinkle is that there's a countdown timer that gradually reduces your awarded points if you don't pass another vehicle in the allotted time. 

Oh yeah and if you so much as let a hubcap stray off the track you lose all your current (not banked) points and start at 0 for going "off-track".  I won't even get into how the trucks can ram you leaving you with the "collision" penalty.  I mean c'mon! At least give me a whiplash bonus!

That wouldn't be so bad except that you usually get the wrong car on the wrong track with an astronomical goal almost impossible to achieve with your available vehicles. 

That is, unless you buy DLC packs. 

See, Grid 2 has a bad case of "Freemium" disease except that the game wasn't free.  There's a constant push to get players to buy more DLC for the game.  That DLC is almost always in the form of a selection of better cars.  Cars that coincidentally (NOT) are perfectly suited for the event unlike the sad examples you have available otherwise.   I've literally seen events  that had all but one vehicle labeled as an "add-on." (DLC)

Of course devotees would argue that you could always upgrade or buy better cars without any DLC but it's a catch 22 since you'll be hard pressed to win any races without the right car and thus not have too many greenbacks to purchase that perfect ride.  There's also the issue of some DLC cars being better than anything you could ever build via the in-game car upgrade system. 

Bottom line,  the game is slanted towards DLC and without it just becomes an endless grind.  If you wanted to top the leader boards you'll have to buy every DLC pack available for Grid 2 to get the necessary cars.  When you were done,  you'd end up  paying more than the original purchase price of the game!  ($70)

DLC is supposed to enhance the experience not be a core component of it.  Grid 2's DLC is largely composed of car bundles and maybe a new route on an old map.  New cars are nice but you shouldn't need them just to play the basic game. 

I've literally had a challenge meant for a McLaren with only the choice of a Volkswagen Golf to race with.  Needless to say I didn't medal in that race.  I've also had drift events where my only choice of car was the aforementioned Mercedes SLR or McLaren road racer.  Two cars that were explicitly designed NOT to kick their tails out!  Grid 2 at least got the physics right on that one.

So it's back to the shelf for Grid 2.  It's not fun anymore.  The first few weeks were amusing but once I tired of the pretty scenery it got to be a grind.  The real problem is, the game is all glitter and no gold.  Even my regular LAN party buddies have given up on the game choosing instead to go back to the original game to satisfy that need for speed.

I'm really tired of being disappointed.  I'd honestly like a game to be worth its purchase price but few are.  Think about this.  If a publisher can slap a $60 pre-order price and then give away $15 of DLC then the game is overpriced.  It really is that simple.

I'm probably at least a decade older than most people who write about games which means I have a lot more patience and spend a lot more time evaluating my game purchases.  Loyalty has a lot to do with that and lately I feel a bit betrayed. 

I'll gladly plunk down a few extra greenbacks to extend the fun but one of the reasons I have yet to buy Battlefield 4 (aside from the price) is the money machine it's become.  BF4 is about the multiplayer and you're not going to have much fun for very long without paying EA for DLC.

Truth be told I'll probably buy Call of Duty: Ghosts first simply because I know the story is good and the co-op won't require me to buy any DLC.    Activision is no better than EA in it's DLC schemes but at least I'll get my money's worth out of the purchase of the core game. 

That's the failure of the "DLC first" strategy.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

SLI = Still Lacking Innovation?

More is better, that's what 100's of years of marketing has tried to make us believe.   Who can argue with having a bigger house, a gaggle of friends or more money?

If you're a gamer you're very familiar with the mantra of more.  More performance usually means more clock speed, more memory, more video cards.  More of everything except what's in your wallet after you pay for all of it.

In the swirling vortex of the enthusiast PC market churn is as natural as the change of seasons. 

It is a "market" after all, built on a volume of repeat sales but often it's participants are disingenuous about the merits of their wares.  It's common, for example, to see a previous generation's graphics platform get a few tweaks and reintroduced as something new. 

Remember the Nvidia 8800 GT?  It was still around 3 years later having changed names twice before it finally ended up as the GTS 250.  Everything old is new again I suppose.

We see a market where performance gains from 1 or even 2 generations back only rise to the level of single digit percentages.  All of these "features"  you hear about while useful are just window dressing.  It obscures the fact that we're getting more fluff and less substance. 

Want a recent example?  Look no further than the latest Intel family of CPU's, Haswell.  It's got better power consumption, improved embedded graphics on the chip (whether you want them or not) and native support for USB 3.0.  Yet in spite of the marketing,  real world performance is only marginally better than its Ivy Bridge predecessor. 

It strikes me that the whole push for more everything may actually be a sign of failure.  It doesn't say much for innovation if the major players need to recycle old technology just to fill out a lineup.  It also makes me wonder why in this day of doing more with less that performance is still measured in having multiples of the same component with features irrelevant to the primary function.

Copious CPU cores are great if you need them but 90% of us don't.  2 to 4 threads is more than enough for most people, 16 is just gross overkill.    Multiple GPU's may be required for ridiculously high resolutions and eye candy but the average gamer doesn't need them for 1920 x 1080 gaming. 

If they do, something is very, very wrong.

I may be speaking heresy here but I really do think the whole concept of SLI or multiples of the same anything for that matter is a huge admission that innovation has stalled.  I shouldn't need two graphics cards to do the job of driving one display or even multiple displays (within reason).  I also shouldn't need 8 cores just to open a spreadsheet. 

That we've accepted that configuration for over a decade is even more damning of the lack of innovation.  We accept lower performance from mobile devices because their convenience will always trump any performance shortcomings. 

$700 to $1000 for a graphics card is neither cheap nor convenient.  That much money should not require an exponent (x2) for what is ultimately a middling benefit. 

Perhaps there are advantages but my point is that at this stage you shouldn't need 2 of anything just to enjoy a little more than the bare  minimum.  We should be an order of magnitude further along than we are but instead we're forced to buy multiples of what often amounts to just rehashed old technology.

I don't deny that those of you that have embraced the concept of more (SLI, 8 core CPUS) are seeing some benefit.   I just believe that the "more" you  should be getting has nothing to do with what you ultimately ended up with.

Forgive me if I lapse into a bit of gearhead tech but I see a correlation here.  For a long time cars depended on a device called a carburetor to get fuel into an engine.  Over time refinements to its design  were made to improve its efficiency but in the end you still have a largely unregulated fuel delivery system.  At the end even computer controls couldn't provide enough lipstick for that pig.  It took fuel injection to change things. 

Right now, PC tech might as well be carburetors.  Just refinements to the same old technologies being passed off as revolutionary.

I'm waiting for fuel injection before I get excited.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

21 Days

508 hours....

That's how much of my life I've spent playing Borderlands 2 and Battlefield 3 over the past 2 years.  I'm sure there's some truly hardcore gamers out there that can attest to many, many more but I'm just talking about 2 games here. 

Why have I invested the equivalent of 3 weeks of my life into games with a relatively simple premise, i.e., run around and shoot stuff?

Battlefield 3 certainly doesn't have the depth of story of say a Call of Duty but it's got better multiplayer.  Borderlands 2 is unapologetic about its simplicity.  It's all about "87 Bazillion guns" with plenty of targets to test them on.  Don't look for any veiled Tom Clancy references here.

Let's be honest.  Both games are about the grind.  In case you don't recognize the term, in gaming it's a series of repetitive objectives that must be completed to gain a reward.  How very Pavlovian, do a trick get a treat...

Life may be a journey but while gaming is ultimately about the destination you can't bore the player while they're getting there.  There has to be more than just the promise of reward to keep you engaged.  In a good game, the grind lives on the razors edge of being challenging without discouraging the player.

Pretty scenery and player customization alone can't make up for bad game mechanics and lopsided objectives.  Overcoming obstacles is part of any game but the core design shouldn't be one of them.  Look no further than the latest installment of EA's Medal of Honor franchise for an example.

Battlefield's take on the grind offered a multiplayer environment both immersive and beautiful occasionally offering up those "epic moments" that just don't happen in other shooters. For a gamer it's a fix that's worth suffering through the cheaters and endless developer tweaks.  What the game may lack in story it makes up for in realism.  Many a middle-aged gamer has lived out his Rambo tendencies  in the virtual desert wastes of Iran.  ...and it was fun...

Borderlands 2 allows you to engage your "Mad Max" fantasies while you strive for ever bigger guns.  That's fun for awhile but there's an overarching storyline with interesting characters that keeps the player engaged.  Even if you're doing badly you're still progressing.  Knowing that no action is ever in vain makes the sometimes insurmountable odds more palatable.   Players know that they will eventually win, you just have to find the right combination.  You may even forget that it's just another gaming grind.

I've played lots of games but few have approached the time investment I've made with these two.  Call of Duty came close but when missions became unwinnable after dozens of attempts my interest waned.  I've played many Need for Speed titles as well but found my attention wandering after one too many skill trees to get past just to unlock a decent car. 

Up till now I've been talking largely about the past.  Truth be told I haven't played Battlefield 3 since June.  EA's incessant push for add-ons and DLC releases began to veer off into just pretty landscapes without much more to offer.  After 213 hours I'd had enough.  EA made the mistake of focusing on marketing instead of gameplay and did little to keep my interest. 

It was just the same grind but for no real purpose.  I set the goal of achieving the rank of colonel and once I'd accomplished it, I was done.  I was starting to feel the grind instead of enjoying the journey.
I almost gave up on Borderlands 2 as well until Gearbox released Tiny Tina's Assault on Dragon's keep DLC.  Up to that point there was one remaining objective in the main game that I was going to have to either grind through what were now all too familiar missions or cheat the game to beat.  Neither was an attractive prospect.

As a gamer we know that regardless of how much we may love a game, we'll eventually get sick of it.  Battlefield 3 is pretty much dead to me now and that Battlefield 4 is really just the same game with a prettier face does little to motivate the purchase. 

Still, Battlefield 3 and Borderlands 2 kept my interest longer than any previous game ever did.  Only the original Borderlands and Star Trek Online came close.  The common thread was a focus on the experience and only when someone took their eye off the ball did I move on.

With games becoming more cinematic and a crossover of talent from Hollywood, it stands to reason that the gaming experience is becoming more than just a casual pastime. 

That's great news for all those salivating publishers already awash in the cash from rabid fans of their franchises.  But it's both a blessing and a curse.  They'll keep putting out titles so long as they keep making money but at some point you're going to end up with RoboCop 3.  That's called milking a franchise and EA, Activision and Sony are all guilty of it. 

I'm quivering in fear over Battlefield 10 for example...

Playing a game should be something you want to do not something to be suffered in hopes of it getting better with the next level up.  I've often said that in games there's "challenging" and "stupid."  Challenging at least lets me believe I can eventually win.  Stupid happens when you feel like you're being punished for some unknown sin.

If there's one thing that could save us all from boring game grinds it's a return of the game demos.  You know, like Doom, Quake and Commander Keen.  It's a refreshing change when it actually happens.
Battlefield 4 offered both a closed and open Beta where you could try out the game and I appreciated that.  It's also nice to know that my efforts weren't made in a vacuum.  The few paltry accomplishments I managed to achieve in the Beta are still showing up in my stats. 

In fact the beta moved me that much closer to purchasing the game but not enough to pay $60 for it.  I could almost see myself putting a few hundred hours into it, almost.  The Beta for Crysis 3, on the other hand, convinced me that my money was better spent elsewhere.

I'm sure I'll happen across another time sink in the near future but whether or not it's a triple-A title is by no means a certainty.  I'm already lukewarm on Battlefield 4 and Call of Duty: Ghosts but you never know.