The benefits of an always online future

With the next generation of gaming almost upon us, there have been many rumours as to what the future holds.  The most prevalent of  these rumours have focused on the suggestion of an always online dependency, which in turn have raised the idea of an end to optical media (and thus second hand sales).  The purpose of this blog is not to substantiate these rumours or, in looking at the potential benefits, suggest I relish the proposition of always online: Its merely to look at what benefits always online and download gaming could provide.

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The drawback of a prepackaged physical product on the shelves is that it has to be an all encompassing solution.  All of its various components are bundled together and shipped at its recommended retail price – a price that is a reflection off all that content.  What if you don’t want all that content though?  That limited single product is not tailored to the desires of your various customers.  Some people will utilise everything that is on offer, whilst others are only interested in certain elements of the product.  To give you an example, I have friends that have sunk hundreds of hours into the Call of Duty series of games and yet, being fans of online multi-player, have never touched the campaign modes.  This of course works in the reverse: there are gamers that are only interested in the single player campaign and yet have effectively paid for an online component they won’t ever use.

Online digital download removes many of the constraints that occur with a physical product.  It enables the publishers to slice and dice the content into chunks, making for a more versatile product.  This is a scenario that is beneficial to both the seller and the consumer.  The costs involved with hosting download servers and a front end market place are far less than that of producing and shipping physical copy.  The consumer should benefit from not only a reflectively reduced price because of this, but also the option to only buy  the segmentally priced content they desire.  It could be argued that publishers would lose out here, as they gain more from selling you a higher priced product whether you want all of it or not, than they do from selling you just the bits you do want, at a cheaper price.  I’d suggest that the elimination of second hand sales and also disgruntled consumers who don’t want to pay full price for merely a five hour campaign, would negate any of these loses.  There is also the benefit of product availability.  Retailers only have a limited amount of shelf space and need to be smart with their product ordering. They have to second guess the market, making sure they order in enough of what the consumer wants and as little “dead wood” as possible.  As a consumer, this means your local game shop may not have a copy of a game you’re after, as the retailer didn’t deem it worthy of the shelf space.  Online download eliminates this issue (as files can always be available on a server), with an added benefit of 24/7 opening hours.

Open All Hours

So there are some clear mutual benefits around how the product is put to market, but what about the content of that product itself?  How can games, gaming and consequently gamers, benefit from being tied to “always online”?  Firstly, it means everyone will be “forced” into the existing benefits of online gaming.  Online social networking and interaction, the most up to date, patched content and bug fixes, news on the latest releases or up coming games and not to mention access to expanded media services like netflix.  Then there are the potential benefits that games could utilise by a constant connection.  Simulations aim to be as realistic as theoretically possible, using cleverly scripted code to produce a virtual reality.  What if some of that coded reality could be replaced with real time data?  Weather conditions in a simulation racing game could be as dynamic as the actual weather itself, calling in global atmospheric data as you race.  Day/night cycles could be reflective of those geographic locations at the time you are playing.  Imagine playing a game based in a location local to you and witnessing the synchronised sunsets both in game and through the window.

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Graphics are an area that the industry has seen constant improvement over the years, leaving many gamers keen to see attentions turned to other aspects of gaming, like artificial intelligence.  How about actual intelligence?  Data, logging peoples actions, constantly being captured then stored in a database and then used to feed back into the AI, updating its behaviour based off those human actions.  Even the best examples of AI can’t change the fact they are scripted, so running the variables off genuinely unscripted human actions could greatly improve the gameplay, bringing the thrill of the multi-player experience in the solo campaign.  This could potentially be applied to range of gaming genres.  Real time strategy games where you can no longer capitalise on patterns of AI behaviour.  First person shooters where the enemy is as smart and dangerous as you are, and no two enemies react the same.  Opponents in a driving game that don’t feel like they are on rails and are just as prone to making mistakes as you are.  This variety of constantly changing AI means that replay value is vastly increased.  Each play-through, in fact each level, would feel and play differently each time it’s attempted.

These concepts are just the idea’s I could think of, so I am sure there are many more.  Some may seem ambitious, but none are outside the bounds of reality or feasibility, and all of them are exciting additions that “always online” would make possible.

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Innocence lost

This blog post exists purely because it was too long to tweet. Playing Golden Axe (Golden Axe II if I recall correctly) the other night I was ambushed by a sudden onset of strong emotions, brought on by the games music. It probably only lasted a matter of seconds, but one moment I was sitting there playing the game, the next I was pulled through an imaginary tear in reality back to another time and place. 10(ish) year old me was sitting in my friends bedroom with a megadrive controller in hand, like we often would at the weekend, playing some co-op. I was the dwarf, my friend the amazon (because of her devastating magic attack) and I could almost feel the warmth of the sun coming through his bedroom windows and smell the polish of his wooden floors, before the portal abruptly snapped shut and I was back in the present: my solitary dwarf character standing axe in hand, waiting for my input.

Gimli who, mother fucker?

Gimli who, mother fucker?

Like me, i’m sure you all think back to times past, but this one was especially powerful and I am at a loss as to why? At a guess, it was because it happened so unexpectedly, almost unwillingly and because it seemed to instigate what could be described as middle aged crisis type thoughts to spark in my mind. I realised that, at 31 years of age, times I reminisce about are often now measured in not years, but decades. I was suddenly acutely aware of not how different life was now, but more of how simple and care free life was back then. A age of innocence that is lost to me forever, something i’ll never be able to get back and it actually made me feel a little sad inside.

This is not to say that life is bad now, and of course for anything that has been “lost”, new traits have been acquired (stress, sleep deprivation and a burning desire to punch people in the face). There is no real moral or point to this story, but if there was one, it would be the age old cliche about: Those childhood and adolescent years are more important than you could ever realise at the time, so don’t be in a hurry to put them behind you.

Terraria Review

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Despite many of today’s blockbuster titles appearing on both PC and console alike, there are still a fair number of games, especially those from small or independent companies, that only get released on a set platform.  Should such a game receive critical acclaim, be highly successful and generally make a name for itself, someone will eventually come along and port it across to untapped markets (think Minecraft).  Well in this case that someone is 505 Games and the game in question is Re-Logics 2011 multi-million selling Terraria.

Set in a two dimensional open world, Terraria is a sandbox adventure game which actually shares many of the same elements of the fore mentioned minecraft, but utilises them in such a way that it creates gameplay that feels altogether very different.  At its core, gameplay focuses more on platforming and combat than anything else.

You’re introduced to the game via a handy tutorial level that runs you through the basics.  It does a respectable job of helping you grasp the fundamental aspects of gameplay and teaches you the controls system.  The controls aren’t overly complex, but should you find them not to your liking its worth noting that, apart from flipping the jump and grapple buttons, the game lacks proper alternative mapping options.  Upon completion of the tutorial or if you decided to opt out of it altogether, you are free to start a new game by creating a custom pixelated character and then a new game world to spawn into.  Don’t be fooled by the lush green woodland biomes and the sunny sky though, this is a game that likes to keep you on your toes and there is never an enemy very far away.  Once the sun gives way to the moon, you’ll want to have built some form of safe retreat, as the world becomes a dark zombie infested nightmare.

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Thankfully, crafting and building is handled by very user-friendly control mechanics.  Once you’ve gathered some raw materials, like wood, you can simply place it wherever you desire with a simple press of the right trigger.  Bringing up the craft menu shows you everything that you can currently create, which is based off what you have in your inventory and if you’re standing close enough to certain items (known as crafting stations) that increase your crafting options.  The work bench is the most basic item you’ll need but from there you’ll build furnaces for smelting, anvils for weapons and armour, brewing stations for potions, looms for wool and even sawmills for furniture.  The list of crafting options is extensive, but as long as you have the necessary materials in your inventory and you’re standing close to the relevant crafting station, you simply select the item you want to create from the self populating list.

Getting hold of the necessary items on the other hand, is where the bulk of the gameplay comes in!  The relatively safe surface is home to some of the resources you’ll need, but to seek out the rarer materials, you’ll need to mine down from the surface into the dark depths below.  As you delve deeper into the subterranean underworld you’ll discover all manner of new goodies, ores and chests of loot, but you’ll also uncover the hidden nasties that dwell there.  Skeletons, bats, giant worms and undead miners are but a few of enemies you’ll encounter as you explore the dark caves and caverns.  Even from the off, these enemies will all pose a very real threat, so you will begin the addictive cycle of upgrading and exploring as you seek out the materials needed for the next tier of equipment.  Exploration is also the key to finding all important heart crystals that up your maximum health and also fallen stars that can be used to increase your mana pool (used to power magic items).

As combat plays such an important part in the gameplay, you won’t just seek these materials out because you want to, you’ll seek them out because you need to.  Terraria is a very hard game where death can come both easily and unexpectedly.  One miss-timed jump can have you falling to your death and  to stand a chance at defeating even the easiest of the games fearsome, screen filling bosses, you’ll need to have put in the hours in so you’re tooled up for the task.

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Along side the crafting, exploring and combat, there’s also a selection of NPC’s in the game who you can converse and trade with.  Should you develop your home base suitably, outfitting it with habitable rooms, many of the games NPC’s will move in and take up permanent residence.  This adds incentive to experiment with the building side of the game, as a base filled with NPC’s really adds tangible value.  If you want to see everything the game has to offer and obtain access to all the items, you’ll need the full selection of NPC’s at your disposal.  They stock not only useful items, like the nurse with her health potions, but also some unique items, services and, in the case of the guide, offer tips and advice on how to play the game.

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The game runs smoothly throughout whether you’re playing alone or with multiple friends.  There is a noticeable frame rate stutter when the game periodically auto-saves, but its so few and far between that it doesn’t negatively impact on the gameplay.  Although the game runs smoothly, it doesn’t always mean that your progression necessarily will though.  Despite the “how to play” section, the loading screen tips, the tutorial level and even the guide who offers advice, the sandbox nature of the game means that you will often find yourself wondering what you’re actually meant to be doing. The game does have a logical progression to it, but its subtle to the point you won’t know its there. Certain events will only trigger once your equipment is at a certain level or you find specific items.  Fundamentally, its a clever system as its completely unobtrusive, working alongside the exploration and crafting mechanics, making it perfect for the sandbox genre.  At the same time, you may find yourself reaching for online FAQ’s and wiki’s for more objective guidance.

The two dimensional, pixalated graphics have a certain charm about them, reminiscent of the 16bit generation.  Despite their primitive look, you’ll actually discover a surprising amount of detail and variety to be found here.  The various biomes all have their own character and have been created with a vivid array of colour schemes, making each new area you discover feel fresh.  The combination of day and night cycles in conjunction with a lighting system make for some great visual effects.  Torches throw out small pools of light, illuminating a limited area of the world before giving way to the shadows.  Exploring the underworld by torchlight adds a layer of intrigue and suspense as the shadows succumb to light, revealing their secrets, before disappearing to the void once again,  as you move away.

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The game also makes good use of sound too.  Day, night, individual biomes and many of  the events that happen in the game have their own music attached to them.  This serves to subtly change the feel each biome , add atmosphere to the night and enhance the menace of the boss battles, as sinister music heralds their arrival.  Each enemy makes their own tell tale noises, most of the time announcing their presence before they emerge from the darkness.  Your pickaxe makes the appropriate “tap tap tap” sounds as you chip away at the environment and weapons have a nice selection of gratifying audio effects.  Don’t be surprised if you find yourself  flailing your “phaseblade” around like a lunatic purely to enjoy the sound it makes!

The game is multiplayer by default, giving you the option to restrict access to invite only or opt out of online play (for that session).  You can hop between your friends worlds at ease and your character remains persistent, so you take your weapons, armour and inventory items with you.  Its a seamless, drop in, drop out process and lends itself well to loot sharing and teaming up for the difficult boss battles.  There is also an option to turn on PvP and even create teams if you want to face off against your friends, which adds to the sandbox nature of the game.  You can have up to 8 players in any game world, which can be any combination of split screen and/or Xbox live connectivity.

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Overall, Terraria is a very unique feeling game that comes highly recommended.  Devoid of story and offering limited guidance, the heavy focus on sandbox gameplay will be felt as liberating to some players, but confusing to others.  Once you dig below the surface, you’ll find an addictive experience and you’ll want to leave no stone unturned as you try to discover everything the game has to offer.   This all equates to almost limitless hours of gameplay and a substantial amount to see and do for its 1200msp asking price.

Score: 9/10

Crysis 3 Review

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The urban jungle meets the actual jungle in this latest entry in Cryteks popular sci-fi shooter series, Crysis.  Set 20 years after the events of the second game, the cityscape of New York has been transformed into a sprawling jungle after being encased in giant nano-dome by “CELL”, a private military company, under the facade of containing the last of an alien threat.  Although following on from the events of the first two games, if this is your first foray in the crisis series, don’t worry, as the game offers a quick recap of the previous games at the start.  Without giving too much away and to keep it spoiler free, the premise of the story is a fairly simple affair;  aided by your nano-suit, you play the role of a super-soldier who, with the help of a group of rebels, sets out to take down an evil company (is there any other kind?)  known as Cell, who are harnessing Alien technology to advance their goals of world domination.

To introduce (or reacquaint) you to the intricacies of your nano-suit, you’re given the opportunity to take part in the VR tutorial.  Its a nice succinct overview of the controls, the head up display (HUD), and how to utilise the powers that you now possess.  These powers include persistent, enhanced physical abilities like running faster and jumping higher, then two main triggered abilities: cloaking, that lets you move unseen by the enemy and an armour boost, that allows you to sustain much more damage without dying.  You’ve also got access to a scanner that can mark points of interest (like enemies and ammo crates) on your HUD and also lets you hack certain devices, like automated gun turrets.  At first the screen can seem a little busy as you try and monitor your mini map, threat levels, and keep an eye on your depleting energy gauge, which governs your ability usage.  As you get to grips with it though, it will soon become second nature and it’ll not be long before you find a nice flow of scanning each new area for threats and planning your attack.

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Early on in the game you’re introduced to your primary weapon, the predator bow.  This seemingly primitive weapon actually packs an impressive punch and with its different arrow types (ranging from standard, explosive and the ever entertaining electric), it really is the Swiss army knife of ballistic weaponry.  Its coup de grace is that it can be fired whilst cloaked, turning you into an invisible killing machine.  As you scope out your targets from a high vantage point, activate your cloaking ability and then pick off your hapless prey, you really do feel like a hybrid of Rambo and The Predator.  The draw of the bow feels just right and its accompanying thud when the arrow finds its target is a satisfying way to dispatch your enemies.

Aside from your predator bow, you’ll also have access to a wide range of weapons littered around the levels.  These include both human and Aliens weapons, most of which can be customised on the fly with interchangeable scopes, silencers and fire modes.  They all feel suitably meaty and give a nice sense of feedback and recoil as you blast away at your enemies.  The Alien weapons are generally more powerful, but this is balanced by the fact they have a limited amount of uses, before you have to discard them.

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Gameplay is largely depicted by how you choose to approach each situation and how you make use of your nano-suit.  You’re free to play it as a standard shooter, turning each encounter into a frantic gun battle or alternatively, you can opt for stealth.  The cloak ‘n’ bow combo generally works pretty well, but once your energy gauge runs down, guards do seem to have unusually sharp eyes.  As you sit crouched behind some cover, waiting on your energy to recharge, you can often find yourself spotted from across the map by an eagle eyed guard and the omission of a body dragging mechanic means that although you can go invisible, its not easy to go undetected.  Once you start dropping enemies, other guards will soon become aware of the threat and act accordingly.  They will shout out at the discovery of a body, call for back-up and communicate their actions and intentions to the rest of their squad.  This all adds to the sense that you are fighting against a team of disciplined, well trained professional soldiers.  It also adds to the satisfaction as you dismantle that team, one arrow at a time.  Some lines of dialogue are a little over used though, with Cell agents regularly informing their squad mates that “he’s using arrows”.

The AI is generally pretty clever with guards that will take cover, try to flank you and even flush you out with grenades   Even in your cloaked form, once the guards are aware of your presence, they will use EMP grenades to disable your suit and find where you’re hiding.  The Alien threat (the Ceph) feels suitably more fearsome, with enemies like the fast moving stalkers that pounce from unexpected angles, through to the massive devastators that pack heavy armour and powerful weaponry.  There is a great section, reminiscent of a velociraptor attack from Jurassic park, where you find yourself in a sea of tall grass and hunters all around you.  Navigating these sections is genuinely nerve racking as you’re acutely aware of the threat, but being swamped by the grass, you just catch the occasional glimpse of the enemy or worse, you spin round at the last minute as one pounces on you!

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On the medium setting, the difficulty curve is smooth and presents a fair challenge.   Starting out you’ll face off against mainly basic Cell operatives and then later on in the game, the action starts to heat up and you’ll have to take on some of the game’s more dangerous adversaries.  Luckily, littered around the levels, you’ll come across the occasional nano-suit upgrade.  These are used to unlock a variety of perks, like increased armour or longer cloak duration.  Up to four perks can be equipped at one time, tailoring your nano-suit to match your play style or can be changed on the fly to meet the demands of a certain situation, like when you find yourself confronted with a boss battle.

Graphically, the game secures its place amongst the cream of this generations crop.  The game world is both detailed and rich, teeming with subtle touches that help make the fictional setting come to life.  From the moment you step foot into the domed version of New York, you’ll find yourself gazing in amazement at the transformation of the urban environment.  Abundant plant life has taken root in the city, turning it into a literal urban Jungle as far as the eye can see.  Wild deer can be found roaming the streets of the city, swamps have formed and buildings are intertwined with trees and vines.  It’s an area of the game really does impress.

The levels are a nice mix of some tight corridor sections and larger outside areas of the city.  Although not open world, these areas do give plenty of room to manoeuvre and tactical options must be considered.  As you progress through the game, and as certain events unfold, you’ll find yourself navigating a good variety of terrain types and backdrops, with a mix of different weather.  There are no copy ‘n’ paste environments to be found here as each area feels fresh, so the diversity never stagnates.

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The online multiplayer offers up a range of game modes.  Here you’ll find your typical selection of deathmatch, king of the hill and capture the flag.  The nano-suit abilities add some entertaining variety in how these matches play out, but other than that they are a fairly standard, but nevertheless a solid line-up.  The new hunter game type stands out as the most interesting of the bunch.  Starting out, two nano-suited “hunters” face off against a squad of human controlled cell operatives.  Each time an operative is killed, they re-spawn as a hunter, leading to some tense moments as you try to hold out against the ever decreasing odds of survival.  All of the game modes are XP driven, with perk unlocks and with the same addictive leveling that is prevalent in many of today’s titles.  One touch that is quite nice is the highlight reel that plays out at the end of the match, letting you bask in the glory of your cross-map headshot.

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Overall, Crysis is a very good shooter, floating in a sea of other, very good shooters.  It’s far from generic, but at the same time it doesn’t reinvent the wheel either.  Its action packed single player campaign is fairly short, but does offer up some replay value, with the nano-suit offering up a variety of play styles.  The online multiplayer offering is again very good, very solid, but doesn’t offer much that hasn’t been done before.  Crysis 3 is a game that can exchange fire with the other top shooters of this generation, but doesn’t deliver a definitive headshot to the competition.

Score: 8.5

Feminist Reviews

I’m not a massive fan of feminism.  The world I live in, equality is the rule, not the exception, so when people bring up the “issue”, it feels really fucking regressive to me.  However, I am just one person, and it seems I am largely in the minority.  Being a super intelligent mother fucker, an idea occurred to me last night.  Seeing that everyone and their fucking dog is discussing the sexist games industry, whilst simultaneously doing fuck all about it (other then point their fucking finger), I thought why not do something positive.  The general noise around the issue has been bleating incoherently for ages now, but it was rock, paper, shotguns “we shall fight them on the beaches” article the other night that triggered the idea in my mind.  Just to be clear, you were just the trigger – the idea was all mine.  Don’t be claiming I owe you shit when I trade mark this bitch and make my millions.  My idea:  Feminist reviews!

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“LOLZ WUT” I hear you cry – but hang on, bear with me a minute.  We already have reviews informing us about how good a game is, saving us from the dangers of buying a lemon, but who out there is reviewing how sexist a game is?  This is clearly a big fucking issue, in fact looking at my twitter feed, the end result of a game is not as important as the sum of its misogynistic parts.  Its ok though, Fodders got your back. This is only very conceptual at the moment.  Later, once this gains momentum in the industry, we can expand it from sexism to racism and even violence..ism.

So, without further ado, this is my Feminist Review of Terraria (because I’ve been playing the shit out of this game recently)

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Terraria is a retro looking, pixelated game that has been dubbed by many as a 2D minecraft.  This should instinctively cause alarm bells to ring as minecraft is a hive of sexist/racist concepts and game mechanics .  Luckily, things start off much better with Terraria. Firstly, the game allows you to play as either a male or a female.  Further more, you can pick a wide range of skin colours and the sprites are all proportional (tits).  I tried whacking off to the female character model and was barely able to maintain an erection, let alone blow my load, meaning it passed the sexualisation acid test.

Next up the story, or should I say lack of one, which is a massive plus point here.  Being completely devoid of a story means the game is safe from falling foul to the usual sexist narratives.  There isn’t a damsel in distress in sight or a woman in a refrigerator to be found  anywhere (any debuffs to either male or female are only temporary).  The game is an open world, sandbox title, which sits firms within the bounds of feminism.

Its not all plain sailing though, of the 12 NPC’s in the game, only 3 of them are female.  If that massive sausage fest wasn’t bad enough, the game promotes the cliched persona, usually reserved for pornography, the sexy nurse.  Although pixelated, its clear to see she’s blonde, pig-tailed (you know, to hang on to when you’re doing her from behind) and well, not a man.  To slightly redeem itself, the engineer (typically a role applied to men) NPC is a female, which is refreshing to see.

Weaponry in the game is an assortment of phallic shaped swords and spears, which is no doubt a nod to male empowerment.  The game could really do with some more cunt shaped weapons to make for a more balanced line up.  Also, the “ball o’ hurt” is probably less likely to be based on the medieval morning star weapon, and more a subtle dig to “her indoors”  i.e “the old ball and chain”.

Overall, Terreria is game that falls on the safe side of the feminist fence.  Its major stumbling block here is, without a doubt, the portrayal of the nurse npc.  Since writing this review, Anita Sarkeesian has been on the case and clam-bagged the fuck out of the developer responsible for this indignation, who has vowed never to make the same mistake again.

Feminist score 70% safe

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So there you have it, my amazeballs idea that is as profound as it is simple.  Not only does this help the consumer pick the right game for them, it also acts as tangible feedback to developers that may be ignorant to their own actions.  I’m thinking that this could manifest itself in a variety of ways.  A simple review like the above is a starting point, but who’s to say this couldn’t be added to the ESRB information on the back of the case?  Or, content that has been highlighted as sexist or damaging to women, could be completely optional  – much like that airport massacre scene in modern warfare 2.  Let me know your thoughts on the matter in the comments below.