Monday, January 27, 2014

Battlefield 4 Single Player

When you think FPS, chances are you're not thinking about the single player experience.  As such most shooters either leave it out entirely or relegate it to a few "training" missions.  To many a seasoned FPS player that's the proper role for a single player mode.  Get a feel for how the game is played, lock down your display settings, map your keyboard controls and that's all the depth you need.

But with the rise of immersive single player franchises like Bioshock and Elder Scrolls (Skyrim) straddling the line between shooter and RPG, the modern FPS is as dependent on story as it is scenery.  It's about more than survival in these games, it's about advancing a story even if you never bother with the single player campaign.

The reality is that anyone can make an FPS.   Regardless of the stunning realism of the trees or the crumbling ruins of a war torn landscape, it's really just another shooter without at least some involvement in the narrative.

Without the story, the opponent is hollow.  In most FPS games, you can't tell friend from foe unless there's some indication of the opposing team hovering above their heads.  That may be enough for some players but it's more fun to know why the bad guy IS the bad guy.

That's why games like Call of Duty continue to set the standard regardless of their technical failings.  I've said it before but playing the single player campaign of Call of Duty is usually like being a part of a Tom Clancy novel.  The story sells the game and it's that reality that's brought a focus back to single player campaigns in  Battlefield games.

The Battlefield franchise got its start back in 2002 with Battlefield 1942.  Groundbreaking for its time the game's single player campaigns functioned as little more than the aforementioned "training ground."  Setting was important but story was not.  It was about an expansive multiplayer and co-op experience with a number of gameplay modes to explore

But where Battlefield catered more and more to the online gamer, Call of Duty was more story focused with its online component less refined.  Where Battlefield multiplayer allowed tactical gameplay Call of Duty was more of a deathmatch affair with survival your primary tactic.

Something changed around 2011, however.  Perhaps it had something to do with Call of Duty's track record of 98 million to Battlefield's 26 million total sales to that date.  Or maybe it was the fact that Battlefield's best selling title was Bad Company 2 which just so happened to be the most narratively focused game in the series.

So with Battlefield 3 (BF3) we finally saw the single player experience attempt to be more than just target practice.  With an entire campaign complete with it's own achievements and unlockables it appeared that Battlefield was going to try to be more Call of Duty than the real thing.

Of course the effort fell short and the few who played BF3's campaign mode rained more complaints than praise.  If Call of Duty was James Bond, Battlefield 3 was Inspector Clouseau.

Battlefield 4 continues the trend, however, and has again included a single player campaign.  With a story more fleshed out than its predecessor, Battlefield 4 has moved closer to Call of Duty.  A bit too close at some points.

Battlefield 4's campaign revolves around the adventures of a special operations team called "Tombstone."

It's 2020 and you're Sergeant Recker, a member of "Tombstone" and with your team you undertake missions amidst a backdrop of war between the U.S. and China and to some extent the Russians (again.)

Just like Call of Duty Modern Warfare, Black Ops and Ghosts, the single player campaign in Battlefield 4 tries to evoke a virtual camaraderie between your AI scripted teammates.  Unfortunately while it's a better experience than BF3, the story still falls short.  It's almost as though the story was crafted around the gameplay rather than the other way around.  Which is precisely why it doesn't work.

While you have the freedom of an open world in the single player campaign (unlike Call of Duty), you'll frequently find yourself frustrated.  Objectives spread too far apart, inadequate weaponry and game bugs work against the fantasy.   It's in those times that the campaign mode falls back to its training ground roots.

There's ample opportunity to pick up new weapons from felled enemies and weapons crates spread around the maps as well as special in-game trinkets.  Finding them assumes you have enough time to go on a treasure hunt, however, as even on the Easy setting the action can be overwhelming.

If Battlefield 4 is anything it's consistent.  You'll find the same annoyances on the same single player battlefield as you do trading ammunition with the masses online.  Can't miss shots that do, map bugs that trap you in between textures not to mention flawed AI that never seems to be where you need them when you need them there.  On more than one occasion I found myself literally trapped on a platform unable to move to cover because my AI teammate wouldn't get out of the way.

Getting through the single player campaign will take you between 6 to 10 hours depending on the level of difficulty and whether you bother to stop and smell the roses.  Stick to the objectives and things move along quickly: ignore them and expect a grind.

My single player experience with Battlefield 4 was a haphazard commitment at best.  Like most Battlefield players the game's multiplayer was far more compelling.  As would be the cooperative mode if Dice had chosen to add one.  Still, I did manage to complete the campaign if only to see if the climax of the story arc was finally on par with Call of Duty.

The video below chronicles the last campaign mission for Battlefield 4 called Suez.  Spoilers aside, the mission manages to encompass the entirety of a a single player Battlefield 4 experience.  See for yourself...

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

A gaming primer: Making sense of the alphabet soup of RPG's, FPS's and all the rest

A friend turned me onto "Metacritic" a while back.  In case you don't know, it's a site that offers reviews of games and other types of entertainment from both "professional" (and I use the term loosely) game reviewers as well as from actual players.  For the most part I throw out the professional reviews. 

They're of no more use to me than an EA press release. 

The user reviews are far more useful. 

Of course there's nothing to stop a game publisher from getting a few shills to pump up the "user" ratings but for the most part they're easy to spot.  Gushing testimonials, irrational praise and personal attacks on contrary opinion are the hallmarks.  I tend to throw out the "perfect" 10 out of 10 as well as the 0 ratings.  Neither is possible, nothing is ever that perfect nor that awful.

I mean think about it, if a game were that bad who would buy it? You'd literally have to be forced at gunpoint.  Perfect?  Not possible either, it's software and all software is flawed.  Game glitches, texture screw-ups and unbalanced opposition happen all the time.  Even games I have a profound fondness for have left me pounding the desk in a fit of rage.

A good game transcends the sum of its parts.  You may notice the problems but they don't get in the way.  A good game accomplishes the task it was designed for, namely to entertain you and never pops the bubble of your fantasy.

Ok, so buyer beware, take every opinion with a grain of salt, blah, blah, blah.  But just what does make a good game?  

How can we be objective about such a subjective topic?

First you have to figure out what kind of game suits you.  Otherwise you're going to be spending an awful lot of money based on YouTube trailers and cover art.

Are you looking to be the next Chuck Norris or are you more of a Hobbit?  Do you enjoy blasting hordes of baddies or scheming to bring them to a certain doom.   I'll attempt to help you find your niche in what follows.

With apologies if my presentation is a bit generalized, I'll attempt to break it down by the major genre's.  Of course there's going to be crossovers and sub-genres like RPG-Action and Adventure games but for the most part the major categories include:

FPS (shooters)

RPG (Role playing)

Racing (Simulation and Arcade)

and MMO's which increasingly cross categories.

We'll start with the most hyped category, the shooters.

Shooters, FPS or otherwise....

First Person, Third Person or otherwise if the whole point is that you're shooting at somebody who's likely shooting back you're in a shooter.

These days, the shooter that probably leaps to mind is Call of Duty or maybe Battlefield.  Both of those are shooters designed to put you in the role of a combat ready character with the unique distinction of saving the world all by yourself or with a few buddies if you play multiplayer.

Some FPS's are more focused on a story like Call of Duty while others are more focused on multiplayer like Battlefield.  If you're into Tom Clancy novels then don't expect much of a narrative from a game that touts its online multiplayer action.  Conversely, if you're into more of a tactical experience you'll generally find the online component of story based shooters lacking. 

Shooters are often used as a stress reliever.  Let's be honest here, I mean, how many of us have raced down some distant virtual battlefield with visions of our boss's face on every opponent.  Makes Tuesday morning a little more bearable doesn't it?

So what makes a good shooter?

Like any other gaming genre a good shooter allows you to become immersed in the game environment.  It doesn't have to have the best graphics or the most weapons but it does have to let you feel like you at least have a chance against the opposition.  It should also give you a variety of roles and equipment to choose from.  Some people like to play Rambo while others would rather be MacGyver, there's a place for each and there should be plenty of toys to play with when you get there. 

Shooters are about running around and shooting at stuff, that should be obvious.  That means whatever ammo you're flinging at the bad guys shouldn't routinely bounce off their chests like Superman.  It also means that all the pretty scenery in the world is useless if you can't move around it.  Invisible walls that block your way, map glitches that leave you exposed or stuck  and overly complex controls only serve to distract you from playing the game

That said, a good FPS should have simple controls but still give you the option to twist your keyboard or gamepad in knots if you so choose.   Along those same lines, it should also allow you to map your controls however you want to.  

One of my personal pet peeves is a game(of any genre) that doesn't allow me to use the same control layout that I've used for years.  I have a certain way of doing things and if I'm paying $60 for a game I damned sure better be able to set them up any way I want!

If you're into multiplayer (and who wouldn't be if they're playing an FPS) then you have to be able to trust the servers you're playing on.  Cheaters are everywhere but there should at least be an attempt to discourage them.  An active program of anti-hacking and anti-cheating vigilance should be in place.  It's no fun to be someone else's cannon fodder and publishers like Activision and EA have gotten wise to the threat to their revenue stream by cheats. 

The bottom line is,  the mechanics of a good FPS never get in the way.  If you're new to the genre chances are you're going to be somebody's target practice for awhile but there'll be enough opportunity for small victories to keep you hooked. 

Recent FPS titles are some of the most heavily demanding that any gaming platform will handle.  If you're on a PC you'd better have at least a midrange graphics card (no integrated graphics allowed, not even Haswell.)  That video card better be able to handle Direct X 11 and the rest of the system should have the fastest storage system available.  Nothing is more irritating to an FPS player than waiting for a map to load while your friends with SSD's are already blasting the baddies.  The only thing worse is some joker with a 400ms latency slowing down the whole game.

RPG's or Role Playing Games....

If you'd rather not spend your time running around shooting at anything that moves all up close and personal but still enjoy immersing yourself in a virtual world then RPG's may be your thing.  The best way to visually describe most RPG's is the old time arcade side scrolling games.  You generally have a top-down view of one or more characters under your control and try to complete quests (objectives) to advance you along the storyline.  Story is important in an RPG, probably more so than any other genre. 

Aside from the top-down views of the map that identify the usual RPG are the player customization and inventory screens.  As you progress you acquire ever more powerful items to help you on your quest.  Inventory management is central to an RPG as are trades, upgrades and merchants.  All of which usually take place in the neutral territory of some quiet hamlet.   Most are set in a medieval/fantasy setting with others taking more of a sci-fi bend. 

RPG's tend to be more susceptible to grinding gameplay than other genres.  Maddening puzzles, seemingly impassible enemies and hidden destinations test your resolve.  That's why story is important and unless you cheat there's no skipping ahead to the last page. 

RPG's don't have to be side scrolling helicopter view affairs, however.  Games like the Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim  borrow elements from FPS games in that you get up close and personal with the trials and tribulations of your character. 

What makes a good RPG is the story.  It's often the only thing that keeps your grinding away as you traverse huge maps and battle an array of foes both great and small.  I personally tend to reserve my harshest criticism for this type of game because it usually requires the biggest commitment of time.  If that investment doesn't pay off you could find yourself cheated out of 100's of hours.

I don't spend a lot of time with RPG's myself mostly because I've found very few worth the commitment.  Of the few I like, however, all shared common traits.

First, they didn't confuse me with overly complex inventory systems with organization straight out of an accounting textbook.  Let me put my stuff where it needs to be, assign it to a few hotkeys and be done with it.  If somebody's bragging about the 12 levels of their inventory system I'm running the other way.

Second they didn't make me have to twist my fingers into pretzels just to control my character.   If you expect me to run around a map and dispatch demon hordes don't make me do triple key combinations when a right click would do.  It's a game, not finger yoga.

Third, and this is a big one, If I have to go through an entire quest just to save my progress I'm done with your game.  Nothing's more irritating than having to beat back the same enemies repeatedly because I stubbed my toe and died with the end in sight. 

Fourth, they didn't bore me.  I love open world games of any type but don't make me have to participate in a 2 day marathon just to get to something interesting.  You can only dispatch so many woodland creatures before it gets tedious.  If I wanted to take a nature hike I'd go outside instead of playing your game.

RPG's are usually less concerned about graphical quality than FPS games but that doesn't mean they have to be ugly.  The Elder Scrolls series (Skyrim, Oblivion) as well as Dungeon Siege and Diablo featured cutting edge graphics.  The difference between a game engine for an RPG as opposed to an FPS boil down to the RPG engine optimized for player movement and combat.  FPS's are more concerned with the realism of the immediate player environment. 

RPG's I  liked were: Dungeon Siege 2, Torchlight 2, Fallout 3, Star Trek Online and BioShock.  Disappointments were:  Fallout :New Vegas, Dungeon Siege 3 and Diablo 3.

Racing (Driving) games (Simulation or Arcade)....

It's funny how genres tend to crossover.  I've played driving games that might as well have been an FPS on a racetrack with objectives and weapons mounted on the car. 

The two primary types of driving games (arcade or simulation) are primarily differentiated by their controls, views and how realistic your vehicle reacts.

In any racing game there's usually a " racing series" consisting of individual events that you'll have to place well in to advance.  Some offer upgrades and better cars as you progress through the game as well as unlockable tracks and other bonus content. 

Single and Multiplayer options are usually available with online play brokered via specialized portals like EA's autolog and Codenaster's RaceNet.   Single and Multiplayer achievements rarely transfer between game modes with some exceptions like the original Race Driver: Grid.  In that game your single player experiences could unlock more cars and more tracks to challenge your multiplayer rivals.  

 In some cases the single player game is handled through the portal as well.  EA's Need For Speed games tend toward the practice as do older versions of Codemaster's "Dirt" series of games. 

Of course racing games are best enjoyed with friends but expect to have to go online even if you're in the same room.  An unfortunate trend that can ruin an evening if the game servers go dark. 

That's what racing games have in common, now the differences...

Simulation racing games are more demanding and in my experience are best suited to players with higher end gaming systems and realistic driving controls like steering wheels and pedals.  They often have graphical quality rivaling the best FPS games.  In fact the latest Need For Speed games are using the same game engine as Battlefield 4. 

That has more to do with the emphasis on realistic looking damage than car control in the case of Need For Speed, however.  Destructible environments are just a bragging point for EA's Frostbite 3 engine used in Need For Speed: Rivals and Battlefield 4.  Strange that those two games would have anything in common isn't it?

Playing a driving simulation can be an exercise in futility if you don't have the right platform.  Car control will always evade you if you're stuck with a gamepad or keyboard as your only options.  With the emphasis on realism, subpar graphics hardware will also ruin the experience.   If you can't see the forest for the trees chances are your virtual ride will be wrapped around one of them more than you'd like.

Cockpit views are essential to complete the fantasy.  With multiple monitor setups all the rage these days you can put yourself behind the wheel of a Stock Car tearing up the Nascar circuit or the streets of Europe in a touring car.

Examples of Driving Simulation (racing) games are: Need For Speed: Shift and Shift 2, Forza and Sports Car GT.

Arcade driving games are often visually indistinguishable from their simulation counterparts.  With eye-popping (but not necessarily realistic) graphics and a dizzying array of both single player and online play options.  While you could use steering wheel controls it's usually not necessary.  There's not as much of an emphasis on a realistic experience outside of the look of the cars and the tracks.  Car control is much more forgiving and the emphasis on speed and fun.   Sims are about speed as well but the average arcade racing fan is going to be frustrated by overly sensitive controls and lost races. 

Controls are simplified and cockpit views are less common than the more popular bumper cam.   It's more about the competition than the environment.  They're called arcade because they can trace their lineage back to arcade classics like Pole Position and Outrun.

Games in this subcategory include: Blur, Split Second, Test Drive Unlimited, Mario Kart and Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit are all considered arcade racing games. 

MMO's or Massively Multiplayer Online Games....

In earlier articles I've mentioned World of Warcraft (WoW) and Star Trek Online.  These are two examples of the MMO or massively multiplayer game.  Different from the multiplayer options available in many games, an MMO is built around large game environments designed for thousands of players.  Most MMO's are some variant of an RPG while others follow other genres.  The key is that the environment has to be able to support huge throngs of players.  64 players on an FPS map may seem like a lot but it's nothing compared to the thousands exploring the worlds of Star Trek Online or WoW at any one time.

Most MMO's also embrace the concept of "Free to Play" or "Freemium."  The games are usually free to download and play but the revenue model is built on players buying upgrades and other items from the publishers online store to enhance the game. 

Where most other games are more of a solitary experience, MMO's are designed from the outset to be social.  In-game messaging, chat rooms and special events encourage a social network built around the game.   Graphics, controls and settings can vary widely making the type of game less important than the community that supports it. 


I'm sure there's gamers out there that will take issue with some or all of my definitions of the different types of games.  I've purposely over generalized simply because the lines are frequently blurred.  A quick glance at the Steam store shows just how much.  RPG Action, Adventure and Puzzle are just a few of the  extra adjectives you'll see tacked on to this list. 

On the subject of handheld games like those you find on smartphones and tablets know that they  generally follow the categories above.  However, due to the obvious limitations of the touch interface the most popular usually fall into RPG/Puzzle and driving games.  I'll leave it to you to explore those options as I tend to treat mobile gaming as little more than something to do while I wait for somebody's plane to show up.  Many of them employ the "pay to play" or "Freemium" model so be warned, they're designed to be addictive.

That's it, I'm off to see if I can find any good Battlefield 4 servers.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Reviewing Steam reviews...

I'm going to pick on Steam again...

On November 25th, 2013 Steam launched Steam Reviews.  The promise was to allow players to rate games they actually own.  Whether by purchase, gift or the family plan if you played the game you got to tell everyone on Steam about it.

Good premise.  Who else is better suited to rate a game than somebody who's spent a few hours of their lives actually playing it.  Metacritic is a go to source for many and Steam actually includes their ratings in a game's store page if available.

Of course there's nothing to stop a game publisher's shill or someone who just wants to troll a publisher from skewing the Metacritic user ratings. 

So that's a good thing.  Except like all things Steam there's a flaw.

Case in Point...

I'm a pretty big fan of the Borderlands series.  Loved the original, the sequel and just about all the DLC.  I almost can't get enough of the game.  Even with the latest trend toward DLC disease I still find myself losing hours to mowing down baddies of every persuasion.

My entire Borderlands "career" encompasses over 500 hours of gameplay including DLC packs.  I've reviewed both Borderlands games using the Steam Review utility but when it came time to review the DLC my efforts were denied.

Instead of enlightening my fellow players about the joys of "The Secret Armory of General Knox" or the "Zombie Island of Dr. Ned" I was informed that I had to have played the game for at least 5 minutes. 
Aside from the fact that at least 50 of those 500+ hours spent  in the Borderlands universe can be attributed to those 2 DLC packs I started to wonder if Valve is keeping its eye on the ball.

The Steam Cloud is supposed to synchronize your gaming activities across multiple computers but that's not guaranteed.  For instance, Bioware's Bioshock does not synchronize with the Steam cloud, Neither does Poker Night 2 and in some cases Borderlands 2. 

If you look closely at your games list on Steam you'll notice that DLC rarely shows up instead being a component of the primary game and visible only on the store page.  Still, it shows up as an available title for review under your game reviews list.  That is, if you can find your reviews.  They're buried under your profile under the "reviews" heading on the right side of the page. (see the screenshot)

I thought for a moment that the problem may be due to the fact that the game wasn't installed but quickly disproved that when I was able to review games that hadn't been installed in over a year.  I was even able to review a game that I had never played on Steam but instead had imported using the "Activate a product on Steam" option on the Games menu.

So what I'm left with is the ability to review a game I never played on Steam but a denial to review the one's I did!

Speaking of reviews, they're kind of hard to find.  If you scroll down the store page of a game you may find them but not before being subjected to promotions for DLC, 4 packs and Metacritic scores.  There is no quick and easy way to see Steam user reviews without visiting the store page. 

That kind of makes them irrelevant.  They're not so much a tool as window dressing and considering that you may be unjustly barred from reviewing a game you've actually played it makes them even less compelling.

In the end, it's ultimately just one gamer's opinion but if you're not going to take it seriously why bother to offer the functionality in the first place.  Steam had a good idea here but their execution is undermining it.

Fix it Gabe...

Related Video Below...

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

SteamBox up, Steam down

Gabes' proud....

At CES today  amidst the announcements of SteamBox hardware from the likes of Alienware, Maingear and  OriginPC  the Valve CEO dismissed questions about his competition.  When asked how the SteamBox might fare against competition from Xbox's 3 million subscribers, Newell responded with boasts about his 65 million Steam subscribers.

Numbers are fine but nobody at Valve is saying much about the disruption caused by a couple of script kiddies over the holidays.  Valve's Steam, EA's Origin as well as other online gaming services were DDOS'd offline multiple times.  It seems the issues continue as both the Steam portal as well as the community have been offline multiple times either completely blocking access to Steam and Origin or leaving users with the dreaded "error 118."

Online services go up and down but when you're betting on them to push your agenda you'd better pay more attention when somebody kicks your service offline.

A new steam client update came down today but nothing in the release notes hinted at the recent issues.  At least the Download progress bar was fixed...

How to buy a video game: What you should know

10 out of 10 stars, Best Game of the year!  A joy to play...


Gamers are always looking for the next big thing.  We want a bigger battlefield with more guns, more tracks with better cars or an open world to conquer in hopes of quenching our RPG fantasies.

Forums will burst into flame leading up to a new game release.  Sides are chosen, armies formed and reason goes out the window.  It seems like everyone's got an opinion and none of it is free from a fanboy bias.

Determining whether a game is good or not isn't an entirely subjective process, however.  There are criteria to help you get past the hype. 

The first thing you need to know is that opinions are like thumbs, everyone has one and nobody's is any better than yours.  Ignore the rabid fans of a franchise that will bestow accolades regardless of proof to the contrary.  Even in a rough economy, some people have more money than sense but you don't have to be one of them. 

Games have one and only one purpose... to entertain.

That seems obvious but there's a multi-billion dollar industry predicated on making you suspend your better judgment.  I don't trust the business of video games so I don't put much stock in what it has to say about them beyond a release date.

if you can accept the premise that a good game is one that can transcend the sum of its parts then I can give you a few tips to choosing one that doesn't disappoint.

1. -  Never, ever buy a game on pre-order no matter how good it looks. 

The reason is that pre-orders are a sucker bet.  Promises of early access to DLC and exclusivity pale once the hype has worn off.  Those extra few maps and a week or so of playing before everyone else won't make up for that sinking feeling you'll get when the game goes on sale for 50% off a month later.  Pre-orders benefit game publishers looking to dazzle their investors not the players.  Pre-orders are nothing but an extension of the hype publishers like to build up around a new game release.  EA is facing a lawsuit from its investors because of broken promises based on hype.  If that doesn't convince you nothing will.

2 - DLC should never be the reason you buy a game

DLC or downloadable content should extend an already good gaming experience not be the reason you buy the game.  A good personal example were the DLC expansions for the original "Borderlands" game.  The core game was entertaining and the promise of more of the same was appealing.  I'm always suspicious of new releases that include DLC in the announcement.  It's not unlike those free-to-play games that make you buy upgrades to complete them.  Borderlands 2, Call of Duty: Ghosts and Battlefield 4 are all guilty of this.  Luckily, most of them are good games otherwise but not because of their DLC offerings.

3. - Do your homework

Don't just check out the ads for a game, check out the developers.  If you can find an earlier game by the same development team you can get a feel for what to expect from the new game.  For example, does Battlefield 4 look interesting to you?  Then you may want to check out Battlefield 3.  It's by the same developer, Dice, and it's gotten as cheap as $10 since it's a 3 year old game now.  You should also make sure you know what you're getting into.  Some games like World of Warcraft are less about the game than the community.  People have literally held weddings and funerals within the game environment.  We're talking about real events not virtual cosplay type affairs.  WoW has become more of a social network than a game.  If that's what you're into, go for it.  Otherwise you're just paying a monthly subscription to play an RPG with graphics from 2006 with a bunch of strangers that are going to slaughter you at every chance.

4. - Watch out for console ports

You'd think this would be less of a problem with the new Microsoft and Sony consoles being based on PC parts.  Thing is, console games are still written with limitations in mind.  That includes controls, graphics and an all too common reliance on calling home to the mothership.  You can make the argument that PC games do that too and it was the downfall of the SimCity and Diablo 3 launches.  The major problem with most console ports is that sales volume trumps quality.  There are good console games that can take full advantage of the sandbox but that rarely translates to other platforms. 

5. - Make sure you can actually play the game

This one's obvious but there's more than one factor you have to consider.  If you pick a game that requires Internet access you may want to upgrade from that 2Mbit DSL connection you've had since the Bush administration.  Whether it's PC or console you're not going to make many online friends if their game's getting screwed up by your 450 millisecond ping.  Building on that, Don't expect your five year old gaming PC with an 8800GT to play Battlefield 4 with any quality or at all for that matter.  It requires Direct X 11 (to look right) which means  you'll have to come into this decade with your hardware.  Check the system requirements if you're a PC gamer and don't get excited over an Xbox 1 exclusive if you're still rocking a 360.

6. - Try before you buy if you can

Some of the best (and admittedly worst) games I've ever played never cost me a dime.  If you find a good free to play game that doesn't require you to pay anything to enjoy it take advantage.   It's not uncommon for new and even established developers to try out a new concept using the free-to-play model.  Some good examples are Star Trek online and Warframe (both available on Steam.)  If you like the game you can throw a few bucks their way to show your appreciation.  If you don't all you've lost is a little time.

7. - The more hype there is the less I'm interested

This should be rule #1 but since I've been alluding to it throughout the article I figured this was a good time  to drive it home.  Look, the squeaky wheel may get the grease but you have to remember that something was wrong with it in the first place!  The more noise a publisher makes about a game the more likely it can't stand scrutiny.  Games like Battlefield 4 had a built in market based on its predecessor but the game was relentlessly hyped for over a year.  When it finally launched it was plagued with crashes, server outages and continuing issues so serious that it affected EA's share price when sales didn't meet expectations. 

Those are some generalized rules of thumb for selecting a game no matter what the genre.  They are the metrics I use to make a buying decision.  Time is short and money isn't that easy to come by anymore so a little legwork can save you a lot of both.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Your "Next Car Game?"

Where's the fun?

There's been dozens of so-called "triple-A" game releases across every conceivable platform over the past few years.  From shooters to RPG's and pitch perfect racing games each one tried to outdo the next.  Maybe it was Battlefield's cutting edge graphics or Forza's realism that drove the masses to fill the pockets of the big game publishers.

We're a long way from the days of blasting pixelated enemies in the arcades or our living rooms.  Video games have become cinematic with storylines and effects rivaling any big budget movie.

There's nothing wrong with that but somewhere along the line it seems we started taking gaming a bit too seriously.  We demanded better graphics, more options and more challenging opponents.  Play any modern FPS and you may as well be a character in an action movie.

That's fun, in its own way, but at some point we all hit a brick wall.  At that point you have 3 options.  You give up and quit the game, you find a cheat to get you by the obstacle or you just keep grinding through. 
Far too often the thrill of the game turns into a career and that's when things go sour.  Games are supposed to be a release not another chore.

So when somebody dangles a carrot hinting at a game that would actually be fun to play I pay attention.  The game in question is from BugBear Entertainment.  The folks who brought us the best Flatout Games (not Flatout 3) are offering up a new game in the same vein as those classics.

It's called "The next  car game," at least for now.  A free technology demo is available for the asking with only an email address as the price of admission. 

The video below shows my adventures with it and right off the bat it feels like going home.  It's about rattletrap hot-rods doing ridiculous stunts in a destructible world.  It's what's been missing in driving games and Bugbear proves they're the only ones capable of even attempting to capitalize on their past success.
If Bugbear gets this one right and doesn't go down the road of Ridge Racer: Unbounded (with its awful controls) We may have the first really relevant independent triple-A racer in a long time.

Try it out for yourself at

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

2013 gaming wrap-up

I had a lot of trouble getting this article started.  Not because of a lack of material but rather because 2013 was what they call in football "a rebuilding year."

Not that anyone intended it to be.  The long wait for next gen consoles finally came to an end with the launch of the PS4 and Xbox1.  Call of Duty and Battlefield saw new releases and a hotly anticipated classic got rebooted in SimCity.

It seems, however, that every advance came with two steps backward.

The console wars heated up with February's PS4 announcement that told us all about games and virtually nothing about the hardware.  May saw the reveal of the XBOX 1 which was all about the hardware (mostly TV) and one game...with a dog.

It wasn't until June and E3 that we finally got the goods on both consoles and found out that they were mostly the same.  Sony slashed their price by $100 made possible by the elimination of the kinect like motion capture camera.

Of course this all came after Microsoft's PR nightmare where Adam Orth (former creative studios director) thumbed his nose at the uproar over the "always-connected" requirement of the console. 

In a typical Microsoft move the response came quickly...They backpedaled and dropped the requirement and Orth quietly slipped away to pursue his career elsewhere.   Of course Sony seized on the opportunity and made light of Microsoft's troubles with their own PR campaign highlighting their contrarian stand on used games and always-on connections for their console.  In shot, if Microsoft said something stupid, Sony was there to take advantage of it.

When it came to actual games it was all about the shooters.  EA built up the hype for Battlefield 4 starting from Christmas of 2012 with early access to a closed beta for those unfortunate enough to pre-order the ill-fated Medal of Honor:Warfighter.  Call of Duty:Ghosts was the spotlight game of the XBOX 1 reveal which spawned hundreds of YouTube videos poking fun at 20 minutes of gameplay featuring a dog and a TV tuner. 

SimCity and Diablo 3 made news but not for cutting edge graphics or groundbreaking gameplay.  Instead we saw a troubled launch day for SimCity with server outages and Diablo 3 developers finally admitting that their new marketplace had essentially ruined the game.  

EA followed up the SimCity launch later in the year with another spectacular failure in the guise of  Battlefield 4.  Server failures, game crashes and constant patching proved once and for all that EA favors sales numbers over content. 

Battlefield 4's launch went so badly that it's first DLC packs were delayed by 2 weeks and in a rare move EA actually offered refunds to disgruntled pre-order customers.

In a related story EA is being sued in a class action lawsuit but not by its customers as you'd expect but rather by its shareholders.  The suit alleges that EA misrepresented the serious issues with Battlefield 4 to drive up its share price. 

Call of Duty: Ghosts  was Activision's entry into the 2013 triple-A launch wars but aside from the comical focus on a dog was little more than a halo console release for both Sony and Microsoft.  That makes sense since unlike Battlefield 4, Ghosts was little more than a minor franchise release akin to Battlefield's Bad Company series.  It relied on an updated but still long in the tooth graphics engine that paled in comparison to Battlefield's Frostbite 3. 

There were other releases that should have made more news like Crysis 3 and Need for Speed: Rivals  but spectacular launch failures and constant console hype drowned  them out. 

Hardware news was less than exciting for gamers as the graphics wars cooled.  Both AMD and Nvidia chose to refresh current designs saving their newest stuff for the end of the year.  AMD's new volcanic islands was launched leading to the flagship R290X.  Meanwhile Nvidia's 700 series cards are still holding reign while the 800's won't be seen till Q1 2014 at the earliest.

CPU news was a bit more exciting with the long awaited 4th generation Intel processor, Haswell, launched in the summer and powering the long awaited refresh of the Mac Pro.  With better onboard graphics the pendulum for mainstream computing moved closer to the elimination of discrete graphics cards.

AMD followed suit with its Fusion APU designs powering both next generation consoles and offering the best integrated graphics in the industry.  Based on AMD's 6000 series of graphics processors the platform is capable of supporting entry to mid level gaming without the need for a discrete GPU.

We had weird stuff too.  Nvidia decided to make the handheld Android gaming device, Shield, an actual product.  Still largely regarded as a solution in search of a problem it remains to be seen if it survives till the 2014 holiday season. 

Valve finally made good on rumors of the mysterious "Steam Box" with a Linux distro, hardware spec and special trackpad based controller.  Far from an actual physical console it seems that much like Nvidia GPU designs, Valve plans to push a spec rather than a manufactured product.   A number of hardware manufacturers have committed to the product but success is dependent on graphics vendors and game publishers to follow suit.  As of now the jury is still out.

Pushing aside games and graphics cards, however, the real news of 2013 was an awakening of sorts.  For the first time in a long time gamers showed resistance to the hype.  Next gen consoles sold well but consumers were asking more questions before they laid down their hard earned money.  Game publishers primed the hype machine for triple-A titles but when the sales numbers rolled in the words "record breaking" couldn't be found.

The days of the $60 pre-order may be numbered as titles like Battlefield 4, Call of Duty:Ghosts and Crysis 3 found far fewer takers than their predecessors.  Battlefield 4 servers remain largely empty even 2  months after release and Ghosts isn't faring much better. 

Hype isn't enough anymore.  Publishers have to deliver and they haven't been doing much of a job of it over the past 2 years.  Gamers can be the most rabid of fans but a franchise can die overnight if they feel like they've been crossed.  A fact that may hurt games like Battlefield and Call of Duty in the long run.

So as memories of 2013 slowly fade and we embark on 2014 you can count on the midagedgamer to extend a sincere and outstretched middle finger to the hype happy lapdogs in the pocket of game publishers!