Saturday, June 28, 2014

A renaissance for players

If you're like me you've gotten used to the tiny update progress bar at the bottom of your Steam client every time you open it.  Mine seems to be busy almost every time I log in to the service.  As such, I've just come to accept that Team Fortress 2 will be keeping the download manager busy at least once a week. I may only play the game a few times a year but I like to keep it handy when I get the itch which makes the minor inconvenience worth it.

And so it was last night.  

What was strange was the other game getting updated.  That being, Unreal Tournament 3  (UT3.)  It was odd to see a 7 year old game (arguably the least popular in the "Unreal" series) getting an update.   Not that old games don't get updates but they're usually titles embraced by a vibrant modding community and abandoned by developers that have since moved on to greener pastures.  UT3 doesn't enjoy that kind of devotion, however, at least not on Steam.

It all became clear with a click on the game's "news" link from developer Epic Games.

"This “patch” is actually a replacement executable that will direct you to the new Unreal Tournament 3 master server which we have moved to the Epic Games server bank along with the Unreal Tournament 99 and Unreal Tournament 2004 servers."

Since the announcement of Gamespy's demise a few months ago the fate of older games that relied on the service for online multiplayer has been hanging in the balance.  Many titles like Unreal Tournament 3, Crysis, Battlefield 1942 and Medal of Honor:Allied Assault are either approaching or are already a decade old.  More importantly, most were never designed to become another cog in the endless DLC money mill that plagues newer games.  That means developers and publishers don't have much of an incentive to support a devoted but unprofitable fan base. 

That doesn't appear to be stopping them, however.  2K, Capcom, EA and many other developers have announced efforts to save the multiplayer component of some of their popular older titles. 

Which is an interesting change of posture from the days of EA pulling the plug on titles like Need For Speed: Carbon after only a handful of years had passed.  You may not even notice if you never played online but considering that LAN play options have all but disappeared it can become a problem if you just want to play with a few friends in the same room.  So it seems strange that we now find the company making herculean efforts to get Battlefield 2, Battlefield 2142 and Bad Company 2 back online.

Even Sony seems to have seen the light.  Infamous for their NO REFUNDS! policy; in the case of customers who dropped $60 on a  pre-order of The Last of US: Remastered (due out on PS4 at the end of July) that policy no longer applies.  When Sony announced a price drop to $50 last weekend (which in my opinion is what it should have been at the beginning) it also announced that pre-order customers would get a $10 refund.

Which brings me to this whole renaissance thing...

Is it possible that game publishers have discovered the value of seeing further than the next quarterly earnings report?  Perhaps so.  In spite of how they've tried to spin it, the simple fact of the matter is that game pre-order numbers are down.  Admittedly, the annoying trend of overcharging for games may have something to do with it. 

It's far more likely, however, that after half a decade of repeatedly overpromising and under delivering, customer fatigue may be the real cause. 

Gamers have been burned too many times by flawed releases, inadequate online resources and poor support after the initial launch of a game.  The video game industry has been around for almost four decades but it seems it still can't get a launch day right.  Buying a pre-order may as well be buying into a BETA test.  That's like paying to be punched in the face...
So what's led to this Renaissance of the Player

For years game publishers have literally treated their customers like dogs; throwing them a bone with the promise of something new "just over the horizon" to distract you  from the screw-ups of today.  And gamers keep falling for it...

Or do they?

Nothing is free in this world and it's likely all this effort to support old games has more to do with wooing a diminishing customer base than any act of magnanimity. 

No, it's far more likely that a long term business plan focused on a community instead of a single blockbuster release may be taking root.   Even the most cyclical of businesses, the automakers, have learned the value of supporting what's come before.  Dealerships still make more money off their service departments than their sales departments.  Treat the customer right in the service bay and chances are they'll visit your showroom when the time comes.

Which is not the history of the "get rich quick" gaming industry.  Years of abusing a customer base will eventually have consequences regardless of how well oiled your hype machine may be.  A quick look at the relatively flat sales numbers of the XBOX 1, Battlefield 4 and Call of Duty:Ghosts bear that out.  Yes, they sold well but not as well as their makers would have hoped.

Nobody pays upwards of $50 for a game just to dispose of it like an empty burger wrapper in a few days.  Gamers are buying into an experience not just a pastime.   If you're not providing what they expect they'll vote with their wallets and it seems more and more that's exactly what's happening.

So if we can safely assume that the industry is finally getting a clue then this is indeed a renaissance and the gaming industry is placing the player on a pedestal.  Right where they should be and I say it's about time. 

Just don't take the player for granted once your fortunes start rebounding, game industry.  You can't survive off of .99 mobile games for long and all those annoying little indie developers will be more than happy to eat your lunch.

That's not a threat, it's basic business.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Playing Battlefield Hardline

After 3 years somebody finally thought I did something special enough in my gaming articles to merit letting me in on a closed Beta. 

Well, at least that's what I tell myself.  I'm sure if any of your gaming hours are spent in EA's Origin client you saw the plea to join the closed Beta for Battlefield: Hardline.  No matter, it's a closed Beta which means everything I do is being closely watched by someone.  Which is great since my play style is a little different from most online gamers.  Maybe some of that weirdness will end up making a better game.  I wouldn't lay any money on it though.

So what about it?

What's Battlefield: Hardline like?

In a word, It's a lot like Battlefield 4 but the maps actually resemble the urban maps in Battlefield 3.  It's pretty much a run and gun affair with vehicles thrown in for good measure. 

After logging into Origin you're taken to a Battlelog webpage very similar to Battlefield 4 where you can check your stats, outfit your character and chose your server.  The game starts with a spawn map very similar to Battlefield 4 with a minimalist overview of the action on the ground.  You're either on the side of the cops or the crooks and you've got a limited amount of time to steal the loot or keep it from being stolen.

Just like Battlefield,  you've got 4 classes to choose from including:

The Operator, which is a medic.
The Mechanic, which is an engineer.
The Enforcer, which is an assault class.
The Professional, which is a sniper.

Each class has special perks, weapons and loadouts with upgrades available as you earn cash awards  from your adventures.  This is virtual cash by the way, not the pay to play variety.
After you've chosen a class it's time to decide whether you're on foot or in a vehicle.  Although that's not a hard and fast rule.  I've even seen crooks steal cop cars.  If you like running around then by all means do but 

I always find it more fun to sample the vehicles and see what kind of carnage I can whip up.
Your chosen ride can be anything from hulking Police command vehicles to muscle cars and helicopters.  Both Cops and Crooks have access to an assault vehicle although the Crooks seem to have improvised a bit.  The cops have an all out assault vehicle similar to the assault transports in Battlefield 3 and 4 while the crooks get something that looks like a VW Jetta with a 50 Cal assault turret bolted on top.  Who says Visceral doesn't have a sense of humor?

Once you spawn it's off to the races.  The premise is simple.  You're either going after the loot or protecting it. 

They call the first game mode "Heist" and it's similar to the "Rush" game modes in Battlefield games.  The only exception is that instead of arming bombs and protecting them till they blow up you're going to be trying to blow up bank vaults (or protecting them) around the city and get the goods back to your getaway helicopter.

The other game mode is called "Blood Money" which is more like Team Fortress 2's Capture the Flag.  Players either try to rob a bank and get the loot home or try to prevent that from happening (if you're the cops.)

The games move very fast and I actually played 3 games in 30 minutes with a full 32 player server.  For a beta the lag wasn't bad at all and even my crusty old GTX 260 216 card (DX10.1) handled Battlefield:Hardline with ease.

If you've played a Battlefield game in the past 5 years then this game is very familiar to you.  That includes the flawed Kill Cam, texture tears and glitches.  Still, it's more fun than Battlefield 4 and seems to have at least the same level of polish.  Which doesn't say much for Battlefield 4 does it!

The closed Beta is apparently over now and I think I know why.  I never found a lack of servers but I did find a serious lack of players.  EA's extended the Beta period and opened it up to all players which has resulted in an increased population although there are still plenty of empty servers.  At least with all the additional player activity they'll get more data than the pitiful 4/32 that was common before they opened it up.

The video below represents the average player experience in the game.  There's some epic moments but for the most part it's textbook Battlefield.  

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Peggle Deluxe free on Origin

Originally published on Kupeesh!

EA's got another freebie for you but unlike last month's brief offering of Battlefield 3, it isn't exactly anyone's idea of a triple-A title.  

The game is called Peggle Deluxe  and like Plant's Vs. Zombies, it's another PopCap offering.    After more violent titles like Dead Space, this decidedly non-violent entry may be a nod to the more casual and less bloodthirsty gamer.

In Peggle Deluxe the premise is simple.  Your job is to shoot balls at pegs in hopes of removing as many orange colored examples as you can in one shot.  Clear them all and you advance to the next level.  Along the way you will be aided by Peggle "masters" who will deposit specially colored pegs that impart additional abilities like activating a second ball or allowing more control of your ball's trajectory.

The gameplay is loosely based on Pachinko with elements of pinball and Bejweled thrown in for good measure.

Along with the requisite single player there is also a multiplayer mode called "Duel" that allows players to take turns to beat the other's score on the same level.  There's also an "Instant Replay" function that activates when a particularly spectacular event happens such as a difficult scoring combination or clearing of the level. 

It's a PopCap game so don't expect a lot of depth.  It's a guilty pleasure and a guaranteed time sink that just about anyone can play.

If there's anything wrong with the game it's the overly cutesy Rainbow Brite theme of the game.  There were just a few too many unicorns and rainbows for my taste.

Peggle Deluxe is available for PC and Mac via EA's Origin service and free of charge until August 5th.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Battlefield: Hardline

Originally published on Kupeesh!

The thought had to have crossed your mind at least once...

Play Battlefield 4 long enough and at some point your mind is going to wander as you wait atop your sniper's perch in Siege of Shanghai.  Assuming you don't get knifed, you may look down at the streets below and think to yourself...

"This would be more fun with cop cars.  Yeah, cop cars and SWAT teams and bank robberies and cranes crashing down on innocent bystanders.  It would be just like a Die Hard movie!"

Well, if you can get past the obvious milking of a franchise, EA may just have a way for you to live out your fantasies.

The game is called Battlefield: Hardline and this time around the conflict is a little more local.  You're either a cop or a criminal and from there on it's pretty much textbook Battlefield.  

At E3 Monday, EA showed a teaser video that featured an armored car heist with all the goodies including:  assault weapons, helicopters, car (and motorcycle) chases, ziplines and of course those levolution driven destructible environments.

The game is currently recruiting for a closed beta on the Origin game client.  However, If you want to take a leap of faith (always a bad idea) the pricing for the Digital Deluxe edition (5 battlepacks included) is available on pre-order for $69.99.  A standard edition (2 battlepacks) will also be available but no price has been set as of yet. 

Whether the game is just another Battlefield game with cops and robbers or a classed up Grand Theft Auto, the price is a bit steep.  Hopefully the developers have learned from the woes of its cousin Battlefield 4. The developer, Visceral, supposedly began development on Battlefield:Hardline in early 2012. 

No specific system requirements for PC have been released as of this writing but you can expect similar requirements to Battlefield 4. 

Battlefield: Hardline is due for release on October 21st on all supported platforms including PS4, PS3, Xbox 1, Xbox 360 and PC.  

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Titan Quest, worth a second look

I suppose I may have what some would call a bias toward older games.  It's not that I don't like new games I just wish they didn't come with all the baggage.  It wasn't so long ago that you could buy a game, maybe play it with couple of friends and if you wanted more content chances are an "expansion pack" would show up a few months later.  Not that you needed one.  It's only in the past couple of years that game development has been based more on a quarterly earnings report than its content. 

Games stood on their own, literally, no Internet connection required unless you needed to install a patch and even that was optional. 

So when I get the opportunity to play an older game that can still hang with the best of them after half a decade I'm in.

A friend did me a good turn and bought me a copy of the Gold Edition of THQ's (game now dev'd by Nordic) Titan Quest which included the Immortal Throne expansion.  It was on sale for less than $5 (currently $19.99) on Steam and worth at least what my friend paid. 

Titan Quest was released in 2006 and the Immortal Throne expansion showed up a year later to critical acclaim. It's the kind of game that perfectly symbolizes what used to be good in games.  In fact I'd go so far as to say it's a perfect template for how games should be produced.  None of this assembly line crap with its endless DLC, Internet connections and rushed development ultimately leading to overpriced sub-par titles like Battlefield 4 and Diablo 3.

So what about the game itself?  Well, here's the down and dirty, no punches pulled and while all isn't perfect I still say it's a great game.  So let's go...

Titan Quest places you in the role of a hero running around ancient Greece, Egypt and China.  In your travels you'll meet a myriad of characters from their respective mythologies as you continue your quest.

The story opens with a short explanation on how the world was once ruled by mighty Titans who were overthrown and imprisoned by the gods of Olympus.  But something's gone wrong and the Titans are trying to make a comeback. Monsters are appearing everywhere laying waste to civilization.  It's your job to figure out whom or what is causing all the trouble and on the way enhance your fame by completing related side quests as they avail themselves to you.

Some say Titan Quest is the best of the Diablo 2 clones but offering better graphics and gameplay.  The base game is eight years old now and having played newer titles like Torchlight 2 and Dungeon Siege 2 and 3 among others, I think that may be selling it a bit short. 

It's held up well although you won't find features now taken for granted like player customization, Steam achievements, auto-mapped player movement and multiplayer party features.  You don't pick a class either.  Your class is determined according to how you allocate your skill points.  That's both good and bad because you could theoretically create a combined class like the classic "fighter-magic user" without the rigid confines of being either or.  The downside is that your character will never be as effective a "fighter" or "magic user" (mage) than if you had chosen to specialize which makes the omission of a character selection at the beginning of the game a problem if not a bit misleading.

Still, the game is engaging and challenging but just enough to keep pulling you along in the story not making you throw up your hands in frustration. 

Just as in Torchlight, or Diablo, there are no 20 minute play sessions, more like a few hours or more so settle in.

The perspective is third person and you control your character with mouse movements and assigned keystrokes.  The game looks great and the maps are interesting but sometimes it does seem a bit long between merchants and you can run out of health potions quickly when you're in a particularly heated battle.
When that happens it can be a bit of a grind as you take out a few baddies, die and run back from your "rebirth" fountain but at least you get some XP for your trouble.  The camera angles are fairly limited but you can zoom in and out but in battle chances are you'll stick to the "helicopter" view. 

There are times I wish I had more control of the camera but it doesn't really get in the way of playing the game.  Unlike Dungeon Siege 3 whose camera controls were so bad they made the game unplayable with their wild and random swings.   Titan Quest stays locked on in comparison and you're never left looking at a wall when you're trying to see your opponent.

If I had one complaint in the single player it would be the combat system.  You're forced to fight one enemy at a time even if you're going up against 30 baddies.  You spend a lot of time selecting individual opponents and chugging health potions as a consequence of it.  At least I haven't been trapped by a such a group.  

There always seems to be an avenue to run away when needed and the baddies only chase you for a short time giving you some reprieve especially if you're out of the aforementioned health potions.  You can also use this tactic to draw out individual enemies to thin out the herd but it doesn't always work and you either end up drawing out everyone in a tri-state area or get ignored.  It's almost an art to make it work but it is possible and the fact that it is just adds to the playability of the game.

The ability to save on the fly is available unlike even some new titles but expect to have to hack through everything you already dispatched all over again when you come back.  I kind of like things I kill to stay dead in the same game.  Although to its credit if you don't leave the game session,  dead things will stay dead no matter where they are.  I just wish the saves would follow suit.  It's another example of how the game can be a bit of a grind in some places.

You can customize weapons and armor with enchantments and the inventory system is very much like Torchlight or any other RPG with inventory slots set up in a grid.  The skills tree is easy enough to understand but the game is a bit stingy with skill points meaning your special abilities won't do you much good till you're done with the game.  It can be annoying to get beaten by a lower level enemy who has a special ability that you're nowhere near achieving.

There is fast travel capability and you can portal to any city you've visited on the quest map that has an activated portal shrine.  You can also portal to a city from any point on the map using a personal portal and when you're done you can go right back where you started from.  Just be sure you pay attention because the return portal indicator is not obvious and I completely missed it making my life much harder than it needed to be.  You may also notice a few new baddies have respawned whenyou return as well but you'll be ready for them.  Fast travel portals were something I liked in Torchlight 2 and Dungeon Siege 2 and I'm glad to see it in Titan Quest.

If this game really falls down anywhere, however,  it's the multiplayer/co-op gameplay.  Yes it has a LAN play option which is welcome but unlike newer games in this genre, XP and loot isn't shared between players.  That means if you're level 3 and you go into a game with a level 16 player all they can really do for you is play bodyguard which means there's not much in it for them.  The loot drops don't level with the player either so often times you'll pick up items you won't be able to use due to being a much higher level or attribute than you have or they are so weak as to be useless to you.  Although that's a common complaint in RPG's in general and not just Titan Quest.

In the end even with its flaws I really liked the game and the benefits far outweigh the annoyances and goes in the list of my top 3 favorite RPG's so far.  

Even if it is older than dirt in comparison to current games...