Tuesday, February 24, 2009

It's Like Star Wars, But With A Hell Of A Lot More War

Show me what passes for fury among your misbegotten kind!

Since the dawn of PC gaming, real time strategy games have always included one essential element: base building. From Dune to Starcraft and up to the most recent Red Alert game, part of being an effective commander always included building up a collection of barracks and vehicle factories to produce the cannon fodder you’re going to be sending into battle.

Relic, far from accepting this old RTS convention, has taken a chain-sword to the notion of base building and has eviscerated it completely from Dawn of War II. Instead of spending half a game constructing the structures necessary for combat, Dawn of War II has you micromanaging your troops constantly instead of jumping back to your base every minute or so to pump out more grunts.

By adding an RPG element with upgradable wargear (DoW speak for loot), Relic hopes to breath fresh life into the RTS genre, and for the most part they succeed admirably. In the campaign, you’re given control of a small force of Space Marines, led by one Force Commander, who is essentially your avatar. Other squads are added along the way, following the typical Games Workshop army set: Tactical Squad, Devastator Squad and so on. Each squad has their own specialty, whether it’s range combat, or getting up close and personal with the enemy. The wargear that you collect is suited to making the squads better at what they do, and all pieces of armor or weaponry add combat bonuses and stat multipliers.

Furthering the RPG connection, DoW2 includes a leveling system, where your Marines earn experience for defeating enemies and completing objectives. Stats are divided into four categories: Health, Ranged Combat, Strength and Will. Perks are added along the way, depending on which skill tree you level. The perks serve to make your Marines more effective at their assigned roles, and if you’ve got an Assault Squad, it makes more sense to add skill points to the Strength tree. Every Marine squad also has a certain number of slots for their inventory, so you can equip your Marines with everything from grenades to health packs and the ability to call in orbital bombardments.

As far as game play in the campaign is concerned, it’s fairly straight-forward if not highly entertaining. The mission set is pretty standard, with little variation between the different scenarios. Your Marines are tasked with eliminating enemy bosses, defending an important location or wiping out general enemies. The mechanics are what really differentiates the combat from standard RTS fare. As you’re constantly managing your troops and not worrying about a base (you’re dropped in from an orbiting ship every mission), you’re free to use cover, or flank the enemy and take them out. DoW2 feels like it has a lot of strategy to it, as opposed to using a giant force to overwhelm the enemy with numbers. More often than not, you’re the one who’s severely outnumbered, so the use of cover and careful squad management is essential.

The plot for the campaign isn’t anything special; it’s mostly there as an excuse to throw the four races of DoW2 together in one sitting. You’ll fight Orks, Eldar and Tyranids, jumping from planet to planet in an effort to prevent the system you’re in from falling into complete chaos. Character-wise, the squad leaders you’re commanding are fairly likeable, even if they are all gruff military types. After every mission, you’re treated to a few minutes of bickering between your various underlings, and a lot of it is talk about honor and duty, and what that means. Some of it is a little groan-worthy, but it all helps to flesh out the story of the campaign, if you’re interesting in anything more than slaughtering aliens, which the story has in heaps.

Overall, the story line is highly enjoyable, especially if you’ve got a friend to play co-op with. Controlling two squads each, it’s a lot of fun to plan assaults and use the benefit of two minds to confront the enemy.

For the player versus player portion of DoW2, Relic changes it up again. Each player picks their own unique commander, and the three different leaders for every race offer up different abilities to use on the battlefield. You have offense, defense and support commanders, and savvy teams will use the abilities to complement each other. There is no base building here either; everything you need is built out of one structure. Resources are gained by capturing power nodes and requisition points, which is carried over from the first game. This creates several hot-spots as your enemies will be hankering to take your resources points away from you.

You always have an eye on the action in multiplayer, so the game play is fast and furious, leaving little room for breathers. For such an engrossing game, Dawn of War II ships with a rather small number of maps, so you’ll be treading familiar ground for a while before Relic releases some new maps.

For all the praise Dawn of War II is getting, it’s also weighed down by a hefty number of bugs and glitches. Relic has patched a large number of these bugs (such as the one that ate saved games), but crashes are still fairly frequent, especially if you’re playing on Windows Vista 32-bit with the setting on High or Ultra High. For those Vista owners with their machines built specifically to destroy even the most graphically demanding of entertainment software, playing on medium graphics can feel a little insulting. Relic has said that a fix is on the way, but for now you’ll have to tone those graphics down if you want to play DoW.
Another low point is that the game requires the use of Windows Live, Xbox Lives’ inbred cousin. Disconnects are frequent, and it sometimes feels like you’re fighting the Live interface. Windows Live games have always been plagued by this, but this game would have benefited with a smother interface.

Dawn of War II takes everything you thought you knew about strategy games and throws it out the window. The game does so many things right with its mechanics that it’s hard to fault it for the number of bugs and repeated missions that it has. Even if you’re not a fan of the Warhammer 40,000 universe, you’ll find plenty of good game play to occupy you in Dawn of War II.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Why the Battlefield Series Has Gone Casual

When you think of hardcore PC games, it’s hard not to mention the Battlefield series, DICE’s seminal fragfest. Since its intro onto the scene with Battlefield 1942, this has been the “shooter’s shooter”, the epitome of large scale conflict. The iterations after 1942 have all expanded on the “hardcore” aspect of the Battlefield series, with ranks, unlocks and medals all being earnable with a significant investment. (The precursor of achievement-related unlocks, in my opinion.)

When DICE expanded its repertoire to the console with Bad Company, Battlefield was still holding onto its hardcore roots. The ranks and unlocks were still there, but they were easier to get. Despite this, the multiplayer segment was still twitch-driven, where a quick index finger would lead to inevitable victory over your foes.

During the development of Bad Company, DICE announced Battlefield: Heroes, a browser-based game for the “casual” audience. Built to accommodate a less frenetic playing style, Heroes plans to add some Team Fortress-inspired elements, giving players an opportunity to carve out a niche role on the battlefield. A bevy of class abilities are planned to make your character a more efficient medic, tank driver or soldier. It also sports a very cartoony look, reminiscent of Valve’s PC juggernaut, Team Fortress 2.

This left the future of the Battlefield series in doubt. Was Heroes the follow up to 2142, or did DICE have another Battlefield game hidden up their sleeves? Not one to leave their loyal fans hanging, DICE revealed Battlefield 1943: Pacific at the New York comic con. 1943, running on DICE’s proprietary Frostbite engine, seemes like the sequel that Battlefield fans had been asking for. As the convention progressed, more info started to come out about the new Battlefield.

Where previous Battlefields were full-priced, disc-based products with a large smattering of maps, 1943 is going to be a fairly low-priced downloadable product, with only three maps. It’s going to be available across all three major internet-connected platforms: PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

A twenty dollar price point sounds pretty good, but only three maps? Traditionally, while the games have had a large offering of digital playgrounds, chances were that you would only end up playing a small number of those maps anyways. By paring down the map selection, DICE is streamlining this into a product that could easily fit on the relatively smaller hard-drives of the Xbox and PS3.
1943 also changes the formula a bit by reducing the class selections down to three roles: Infantry, Rifleman and Scout. All three classes have anti-vehicle abilities, and health and ammunition are going to be in abundance. (In fact, ammo is unlimited.)

Seems the casual bug has bitten DICE again. While this isn’t the full Battlefield sequel that has been clamored for, one can argue that this makes the most sense for DICE’s business right now. By offering up a cheaper product across three successful gaming platforms, DICE is guaranteed to reach a bigger audience than they would if they had just put out a sixty dollar PC exclusive. By reducing the class selection and giving everyone a chance to fight effectively, DICE is also reaching out to the Call of Duty crowd, which is a little less familiar with the specialized roles common to the Battlefield setting.

1943: Pacific is also going to feature paid DLC, small chunks of extra content doled out for a hopefully reasonable price. By starting small, and adding little bits of extra game play along the way, DICE may just be looking into extending the life span of 1943 instead of focusing on a full-fledged game every two years. With the way the economy is, a long term plan where you can continually milk one product is probably the wisest. No one can fault DICE for trying to make money, but this is still a relatively new method of trying to get your business.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

I'm a Fricking Blur Over Here!

Valve, being the benevolent gaming gods that they are, have seen fit to bestow upon us a new content pack for one of Team Fortress 2’s classes, this time turning their gaze on the Scout. As with past class expansions, the Scout Update contains a couple of new maps in addition to weapon unlocks and achievements specific to the Scout class.

Valve is teasing the specific parts of the pack day by day, slowly leading up to the content’s release next Tuesday. So far, we’ve been given a sneak peak at the new bat, The Sandman, as well as the two new maps that are being included. Today, we’re introduced to the set of achievements that you’ll have to collect in order to unlock the new gear, as well as the Scout’s version of the Heavy’s Sandvich: The Bonk! Energy drink.

The description is written in the Scout’s Boston accent, but for those of you who can’t penetrate the closely held secrets of this regional dialect, it seems that the Bonk! Energy Drink will bestow a few moments of Matrix-like bullet dodging upon the Scout, with the trade-off being that consumers will be slowed down considerably after the drink’s affects have worn off. For those Scouts who have nabbed the enemy Intelligence and need a bit of a boost before they get turned into hamburger by a Heavy’s minigun, this seems like the ticket. Just make sure to get behind some cover when the drink wears off, otherwise you’ll be a sitting duck.

The achievements included with the pack don’t have their description yet, but judging by the icons associated with them, quite a few are related to the new Sandman bat, which launches concussion-inducing baseballs at the target’s unlucky cranium. Expect most of the achievements to take advantage of the Scout’s specific role, much as they did with the previous three update classes. Grabbing the intelligence, swatting foes and generally being a major fleet-footed pain should all nab you a decent set of achievements. A few seem to be geared towards annoying Engineers; maybe the Scout’s infamous cries of “Need a Dispenser here!” will finally garner some recognition.

Valve has been quite noteworthy in their dedication to keeping Team Fortress 2 up to date and fresh. Over the year and a bit since it has been released, Valve has offered up over 60 updates to the title, the four large ones adding new and exciting ways for the altered classes to contribute to the fray.

With their Steam distribution system and the attention to their franchises via downloadable content, Valve seems to be one of the few industry giants who are advocating the best way to do business in the increasingly internet-centric marketplace. By offering up a service where you can get games relatively cheap, Valve has found a way to effectively combat piracy, a topic which is a growing concern among industry insiders.

Gabe Newell, Valve’s head honcho, recently spoke at the Design Innovate Communicate Entertain (DICE) conference in Vegas, where he re-iterated Valve’s view on PC piracy. He believes that PC pirates are not stealing games because they’re cheapskates, but because piracy offers a way to get games fast and DRM-free. Valve is trying to beat piracy at its own game, not trying to stamp it out with increasingly draconian security measures. (Like the install limit in EA’s Spore.)

In my opinion, this is why a lot of gamers are willing to cut Valve slack when they delay their games. We know that when the product finally hits, it’s going to be extremely polished, and any issues will be addressed quickly. When the Left 4 Dead demo hit, Valve patched that. It’s unheard of, but it plays into Valve’s business model. By maintaining a good relationship with their consumer base, Valve has guaranteed its place as one of gaming’s most popular developers, a position which is well earned.

Bonus Content:

Here’s a little something extra at the end of the post, a place where I’ll add some tidbits I’ve collected over the internet, but I can fit into the theme of the main article.
• Bethesda continues to tease at Fallout 3’s next expansion pack, the Pitt. Three new screentshots have hit the web, giving a little glimpse into the setting, as well as a look at one of the new weapons, the AutoAxe. Check them out here: http://fallout.bethsoft.com/eng/info/thepitt.html
• GamerSushi, which in the past has called me out for hating on Battlefield 1943 (I’ll talk about that soon) has a new article on things that are hurting the industry. If you’re interested, it’s a good read. http://gamersushi.com/2009/02/18/5-things-hurting-the-video-game-industry
• GTA IV: The Lost and the Damned has been released, so as soon as I can scrounge up twenty dollars worth of Microsoft Fun Bucks, I’ll give it a try.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Freebird! Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X. Impressions

The problem with most flight combat sims on consoles is the lack of a decent control method. Obviously, a joystick is the preferred choice of interface for your dogfight enthusiast, but when the complex controls for manoeuvring jet aircraft get translated onto a gamepad, well, suffice it to say that the game suffers a little as the result.

This is case with Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X., the demo for which was released on Xbox LIVE last Wednesday. Shortly after booting up the demo, you’re promised that H.A.W.X. will “revolutionalize” your flight sim experience. Before you start your training mission, you’re given a quick preview of the control scheme. The left analog stick controls the aircraft completely, relying only on the shoulder buttons and the triggers for yaw and speed control. To a generation of gamers that have become used to the two-stick control method, using one stick for input will seem stilted and awkward at first.

Once you get used to using one stick to manipulate your aircraft, the game introduces you to “Off Mode”, in which the complex computer systems helping you maintain control over your fighter are turned off, giving you greater dominance over the plane’s performance. In Off Mode, you can perform complex turns and drifts that would be impossible in assisted-flight mode, giving you a leg up during hectic fights.

Unfortunetly, Off Mode also comes with the worst camera angle possible. The camera snaps away from directly behind your fighter, and gives you a long shot view of your plane. This is done to give you better awareness of what’s going on around you and also enables you to see those fancy tricks that you’re pulling off. You’re also made to fight in Off Mode and, if you still haven’t mastered the one-stick control scheme, this can be a bit frustrating.

Due to the odd camera angle, you have to constantly jostle your plane around until your targeting computer can get a lock. Controlling the fighter in Off Mode is rather like trying to skate on greased ice: you slide everywhere, and controlling your movements is far from precise. It’s a good thing that your targeting computer is highly forgiving; you’ll lock on to bogies that are far out of the view of your cockpit.

After you pass your flight certification, you’re launched into an assault on Rio de Janeiro, tasked with defending the city. Hope you’ve got binocular vision, because you’re mostly going to be shooting at indistinguishable black dots on the ground and in the sky. H.A.W.X. has run into the problem that a lot of flight sims have run into: in an attempt to give the game a realistic scale and feel, your enemies are incredibly small and by the time your close enough to get a visual, they’re already behind you.

Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X. might have been a fun game, but it's plagued by a few persistent problems that have been with console flight sims for a while. Floundering controls, strange camera angles and microscopic enemies all make for a frustrating experience. This is only the demo, but I doubt that the full product will have much else to offer flight enthusiasts. If you’re really hankering for a dogfight, I’d consider renting this Clancy outing as opposed to putting down sixty of your hard-earned dollars on it.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

A War among the Stars

With an echoing screech, a purple-tinted airship rockets over-head, its forward mounted cannons spewing azure death. Beneath the surreal tableau of glinting violet airships is another horrifying sight: A vast alien host moves forward, diminutive creatures up front, being lead by seven foot tall abominations. Amongst the chaos of battle, you can see one of the taller aliens clearer than the others. Wearing ancient looking silver armor, he opens his four mandibles and belts a terrifying roar. With his battle cry, all of the aliens around him surge forward, as the purple ships turn back for another attack.
All around you, you hear the distinctive clatter of automatic weapons fire. Fellow humans, doing everything they can to hold back the tide of on-rushing creatures. Your rifle feels heavy in your hands, almost as if it is daring you to heft it. Slowly, you raise your weapon, and open fire. You target the smaller aliens in front, blue-skinned simian creature wearing large tanks on their backs. With a lucky shot, you pierce one of the tanks, setting off a large explosion. The small creatures can only breathe methane, and the backpacks are part of their environment suits.
You’ve torn a small hole in the advance, but not enough to deter the attack. The gap closes quickly, and the aliens are suddenly on top of you. Swinging your rifle, you hit one creature in the head, but another three take its place. One of your allies bolts towards you, working the slide on a shotgun. A sharp report sounds, and several aliens fall back squirting blood. Before your fellow human can chamber another shell, one of the larger aliens lifts him up by his neck.
The being is wielding a sword made of bright blue glowing plasma, and it holds the weapon aloft, preparing for a vicious blow. Before he can bring down the sword, you hear a familiar sound. It’s a high pitched whine, an engine struggling to maintain maximum speed over rough terrain. The alien looks up, distracted by the sound, and drops the human he was holding. As your ally gasps for breath, five Warthogs, chain gun mounted combat jeeps, burst over the small cliff behind your position, and smash into the alien horde, splattering the small aliens milling around the sandbags.
The large alien that had been holding your friend ducks its head instinctively, and you seize the moment. You press the barrel of your assault rifle into its back, and pull the trigger. Purple blood spurts out in a torrent, and the alien lets out a yell of surprise. You keep firing until you hear the gun click, a sign that you’ve spent your entire magazine. The alien drops to the ground in front of you, the hole in its back smoking slightly, and its sword sputters and dies.
The Warthogs, having continued the attack, are now far enough into the enemy’s position that you can see the ground in front of your position clearly. Heaps of the small aliens cover the ground, interspersed with the corpses of the larger creatures. Here and there, a number of dead humans littler the ground, a sad testament to the price paid to retake this small patch of land from an implacable foe.
Sooner or later, you, and all of the human forces on this planet will have to face the main body of the occupying force. Sooner or later, this land will be retaken from the genocidal aliens who have claimed it. Sooner or later, the planet Harvest will be in human hands once more.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A Tangled Web We Weave

When you think of comic book characters, you’d think that, of all the forms of media available to video game developers, the transition from print to the console would be a simple transfer. Most super-heroes don’t do anything beyond beating up a variety of colorfully costumed bad guys and save the occasional damsel in distress. On paper, it looks good; however, in practice, super-hero games rank as some of the most disappointing games on the market.

There have been some exceptions over the years, most notably from everyone’s favorite web-head, Spider-Man. Spider-Man 2, originally released on the X-Box and PS2 brought a much needed sense of freedom to the Spider-Man games. Gone were the extremely linear levels, replaced by a large-scale replica of New York, where armchair super-heroes could swing to their hearts content. Since the original Spider-Man games way back on the NES and the Genesis, Spider-Fans have longed for the perfect Spider-Man game, one that featured all their favorite villains, the ability to swing around New York, and that sense of humor that Spider-Man is known for, something that the movies sorely lacked.

Spider-Man: Web of Shadows tried really, really hard to fit the bill. Cameo appearances are made by a plethora of Spider-Man regulars, and some characters are brought in from outside the regular Spider-Man setting for a good dose of fan service. Wolverine makes an appearance, as does Moon Knight, Luke Cage and the corpulent master of crime, the Kingpin, just to name a few. With fan favorite Venom filling the role of main villain, and the ability to wear Spider-Man’s infamous black suit, Web of Shadows seemed on track to be the definitive Spider-Man game.

Unfortunately, it’s weighed down by poor mission designs, a host of potentially game-crippling bugs, and a very unfeasible plot, even by comic book standards.

The game starts off in a brilliant fashion, however, with Spider-Man slowly walking towards the edge of a roof while chaos reigns around him; S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and Kingpin troopers fight off a large number of symbiote creatures, and landing craft fall out of the sky, harried by winged terrors. The city is in bedlam, and you’re thrust straight into the middle of it. After you’re re-united with Mary Jane in the prologue, the game jumps back four days to when Venom makes his first appearance. During the scuffle, Spider-Man gains the black suit, and he immediately sets to work dispatching a variety of clich├ęd gang members.

Here’s where Web of Shadows stilted mission design cripples the game. You’re given an objective, i.e. beat up 20 thugs. Once you’re done that, the game has you defeat 50 thugs, restarting your tally at zero. In the later stages of the game, the missions have you defeating upwards of 500 enemies per objective, something that can wear even the most patient player down.

It wouldn’t be so bad if the missions were a little varied, but you’re either taking out enemies, rescuing civilians or destroying enemy bases. Repeat ad-nauseum, and the limited palette of objectives looks suspiciously like game-lengthening.

The one thing the developers got right in the game is the fighting, and Spider-Man’s movement animations. Once you’ve leveled up your abilities a bit, fighting becomes sheer joy; leaping from one enemy to the next and delivering a flurry of punches feels very Spider-Man, and it looks fantastic.

Spider-Man strikes all the classic poses from the comic books, and it’s a nice touch being able to play him in arguably his two most famous costumes, the classic red and blue suit, or the black and white living costume.

Switching appearances isn’t just a cosmetic touch, it also affects Spider-Man’s repertoire of moves. In the red suit, Spidey moves quickly and favours a barrage of light hits over stronger single attacks. In the black suit, you’re at your best when you go toe-to-toe with your foes; black suit Spider-Man’s hits are both powerful and sweeping, with long tendrils extending from the suit to strike at adversaries and knock them away.

With the dual-sided nature of the game play comes the requisite “light or dark” choices, where our hero has to decide between his normal good nature, or whether he lets the alien costume alter his thoughts. The black suit options are sometimes wildly out of character for Spider-Man, but it still feels good to play the bad guy sometimes. (Besides, if you’ve followed the various types of media where the black suit has been depicted, you know that old Peter Parker can turn into a bit of grouch when he’s wearing the symbiote.)

As great of a feeling you get from swinging around New York and dispatching bad guys, you can’t help but notice that the Big Apple is kind of...bland. New York is a city well known for its eclectic inhabitants and taxi-choked streets, but Web of Shadow’s New York is like a tame, distant cousin to the kind of crazy open world cities we’ve seen in games like Grand Theft Auto and Saint’s Row.
New York citizens walk around in a kind of stupor, oblivious to Spider-Man’s exploits unless he’s saving their lives or detonating a car on top of their heads. Occasionally, the walk animations for the civilians will become extremely choppy, and look like something that would have been an eye-sore on the Nintendo 64.

Besides being extremely bland, New York is also home to a lot of crippling bugs. Bad guys, cars and citizens will disappear randomly, and if you’re in the middle of pulling off a mid-air combat move on an enemy and they disappear, you’re out of luck. The game will freeze, and you’ll have to restart. The game engine really chugs along at times, seemingly for arbitrary reasons. When you’re just swinging around, the frame rate will drop to almost nothing, and you’ll be watching Spider-Man leap around Matrix-style for a bit.

The path finding for your AI teammates is particularly atrocious, most notably when you’re helping Wolverine track down symbiote. If he gets stuck behind some garbage cans, prepare to wait for him while he attempts to claw his way out of his trap instead of stepping two feet to the left.

Web of Shadows is a perplexing game, to say the least. It does so many things right, but fails miserably on so many other accounts that it can be hard to recommend this game to anyone other than the hard-core Spider-Man fan. If you’re up for a few hours of web-swinging fun, and don’t want to resort to the abysmal Spider-Man 3 game, Web of Shadows just might do the trick.