Aiden Pearce is a Dick

Story is, to my immense joy, increasingly becoming one of the defining factors in quality video games. If a game wants to be considered great it must have a story that is, at worst, coherent and at best the foundation upon which the game is built. Heavy Rain, Spec Ops the Line, The Wolf Among Us, just a small selection of great games that have story at their core and are paving the way for games of the future. The best games are those that can strike the elusive balance between story and gameplay. Ubisoft’s latest blockbuster, Watchdogs, tries and fails to do this.

It is really a great shame that Ubisoft bothered to attempt to fashion a proper storyline for Watchdogs. This is a game with excellent mechanics, a plethora of content and fantastic quality of execution that would have sat nicely around a clichéd and ignorable nothing of a story. But great games need a story, and Ubisoft wanted to make a great game, so a story has been forced in where it doesn’t belong. Completing the campaign missions of Watchdogs was, for me, a slog and it is only on reflection that I can recognise the many things I enjoyed about playing the game. As I worked my way through Aiden Pearce’s tale of retribution and soul searching I increasingly hated the man under my control. He is selfish, immoral, cruel, reckless and, despite his many statements to the contrary, appears to feel no remorse for the chaos he causes. As Pearce a player will commit crimes from privacy invasion all the way to murder with Pearce reassuring himself of the necessity of these actions to further his mission for justice.The creators desperately want you to care about him too. The crux of Aiden’s moaning is that his niece was killed by an attacker who was sent to kill Aiden. The game bombards you with reminders of this, including areas on the map where you can trigger chunks of Aiden’s memory on the subject, and one “mission” where you are tasked with getting to the cemetery so Aiden can look sad and his sister can comfort him. It is all boring and pointless and it in no way makes you feel sorry for the protagonist as I believe is the intention. Fun as his hacking powers are to wield the fact remains that I hate Aiden Pearce, he is a dick and I have spent a lot of time with him (which perhaps says something about me).

He’s probably shooting some puppies…

The problem with the growth of story driven games was never better illustrated than here. Watchdogs is so close to being a good game, so close that I genuinely believe I could write a story that would better suit it. I’m not claiming that I can write an excellent video game script, on the contrary, my point is that I can’t, but Watchdogs doesn’t need one. Had Aiden Pearce been nothing more than a vigilante (a title that he is given in Watchdogs, regardless of the ratio of crimes stopped to crimes perpetrated), a man using his abilities to fight crime in a city where corruption prevents crime from being fought, Ubisoft would have had a really nice game on their hands. In fact, some of the best parts of Watchdogs are when you have no agenda other than fighting for justice. Having completed the story I find the game much more enjoyable as I can freely pursue the side missions without the gloomy shadow of Aiden’s background hanging over me.

There are also problems with the story that go beyond the writing. The way that aspects of the tale have been portrayed sometimes borders on the comical. At one point Aiden is blackmailing a gang member (yes blackmail is also on his moral fails list) and he ends a phone conversation with: “We’ll talk soon”, presumably to intimidate the target but then proceeds to immediately call him back which, to Aiden’s credit, at least suggests he’s never blackmailed anyone before.

Good

At the very end of the story (after some of the credits have rolled in fact) you are given a kill-or-let-live scenario. In other games I have played, such a scenario causes genuine questioning of what to do. Usually the target has done something bad but the player has been through some serious shit and is questioning their morals and the morals of the characters by the end. In Watchdogs, however,  I had no doubt what so ever that a real Aiden Pearce would redecorate the room with brains and not lose a wink of sleep over the extinguished life before him. I honestly think that any video game can be enhanced by a well written and well implemented story, but that doesn’t mean that one is necessary for a game to be good. At some point in Watchdog’s development a brave soul should have raised their hand and said that maybe a rewrite was needed, maybe the player doesn’t have to empathise with the protagonist, maybe he doesn’t need this weird hypocritical story. Sadly, what we have is a game with many excellent qualities that are overshadowed by an appalling story that I highly doubt anyone has found interesting or engaging. If nothing else, Watchdogs has shown us that, while a storyline can push a game to greatness it also has the capacity to pull it into mediocrity.

Advertisements

Buy Another Day

The new console generation is upon us! Let us rejoice in the hum of new machines, the shine of better graphics and the chatter of critics. Few things in gaming are more exciting than the release of new hardware. It gets people from all walks of life talking about what to buy, but, amid all of the excitement and hype, I urge you to take a step back and consider not buying any new console at all; at least, not yet.

Which to buy? Which to buy?

Let me take you back to the release of the Nintendo Wii. It was a simpler time where motion control was Nintendo’s new thing, and it had a lot of promise. In the UK the Wii was an elusive creature and I was desperate to have one. I had succumb to its charms, to the promise of a game being shipped with the console and having the new Zelda available at launch, to the unorthodox and intriguing controller and, to the seemingly more immersive gaming experience that the Wii could offer, not to mention the attractive price point. Finally, in early 2007, I got my hands on the box, and for a few months I had a glorious time with Link and my Mii. Alas, this time was not to last and after I had played through Zelda and had my fill of Mario (in a variety of guises), I found few titles that could keep me playing. I returned to my PS2 and my PC, a broken man. I’m not trying to bash the Wii with this story and I am certain that many will disagree with my assessment of the console; but, if I had waited, if I had let a year or two go by, I would have known that the Wii wasn’t for me, and I could have avoided the bad experience I had after the euphoria of new games and a new console. I had some good times with the Wii, but I now know that purchasing it as early as I did was a mistake.

So much promise.

For me, the launch of the PS3 was very different. I have been a Playstation user for most of my life but I had no real desire for the PS3 at launch. It was prohibitively expensive for a start and there had been numerous redesigns and changes made to aspects of the console since its initial reveal. The games were also underwhelming, the best of the launch titles being (most likely) Resistance: Fall of Man, a critically acclaimed first person shooter, but a first person shooter none the less, offering little in terms of novelty or ingenuity. When it was released, I saw the PS3 as little more than an upgrade of the PS2, with better graphics and not much else. The 2007 me looked at the PS3 and dismissively waved his Wiimote. The 2007 me was an idiot. Over a few years, the PS3 collected a library of excellent games, the Playstation Network improved (I urge you to try Playstation Plus if you haven’t already) and the price and reliability of the console got better too. In late 2009, I got a PS3 and I have never looked back.

Get it sorted!

Would I have been happy if I had bought the PS3 at launch? I suppose I would be content now, but I would have spent a large amount of money on something that would take years to reach its full potential. By waiting a few years I was able to get the console that I really wanted (even if I didn’t know it to begin with) for less money than it was originally sold for, with a bigger hard drive than was originally available and with an excellent back catalogue of games available second hand, or even new, for very reasonable prices. There are, undoubtedly, some very intelligent market analysts in the world who are able to make a well informed prediction about how games consoles will look in the next few years; but most of us will be buying a console based on what it offers us on the day we buy it. With that in mind, it makes sense to buy a console  later in its life cycle, when it has more to offer.

Much better.

We love shiny and new, we love being at the forefront of technology and being the envy of our peers, but really it’s our own personal enjoyment that matters when it comes to games consoles, and I truly believe that a console will never reach its potential in its first year of availability. That being said, if nobody buys a console at launch it will never reach its potential. Thankfully, millions of new generation consoles have already been purchased by brave gaming pioneers, and when I buy a new console, I’ll have them to thank for the improved experience I get. For now though, I will enjoy the twilight years of the PS3, Humble Bundles and Steam sales until the time is right for a new console. Maybe you should do the same.

Dishonored: Game of the year?

Perhaps naming a game of the year now, when so many excellent titles have yet to be released, is a little bold, but Dishonored ticks so many of the boxes that it seems hard to imagine anything surpassing it. Dishonored had its hand on the trophy even before release. In demonstrations and publicity, Dishonored has been nothing short of breath taking. While other games, such as Hitman: Absolution (another game of the year contender) have gone for a more traditional shock-to-create-awe approach, Dishonored simultaneously showed its strength in gameplay and in style, and although the gameplay is to be marvelled at, it is the wonderfully realised style of the game that grabbed attention before release.

Set in the fictional city of Dunwall, Dishonored is played in a steampunk style universe where whale oil is relied upon for power. The protagonist, Corvo Attano, was once the protector of the empress but at the opening of the game he is framed for her murder and the abduction of her daughter Emily, the heir to the throne. From there the story follows Corvo as he seeks revenge and Emily, to restore his reputation and rescue Dunwall from the oppressive rule of the Lord Regent who has taken over.

Dunwall is an oppressed and diseased city

Dunwall is beautiful and wonderfully quirky. It has aspects of Victorian Britain mixed in with unique pieces of technology from the fictional world. The game is not open-world but it does promote exploration and you’ll want to explore, as much can be learned about the world through books and conversations that you come across. There are collectibles too, whose locations are given to you from the off which encourages you to roam further afield. The characters are brilliantly realised, with fantastic voice acting from a stellar cast including Chloe Grace Moretz, Susan Sarandon, Brad Dourif, John Slatterly and a number of other stars. Given the talent used for the NPCs it is a little disappointing that Corvo is a silent protagonist, especially when there are conversation options presented to the player on a number of occasions. This sits in stark contrast to Corvo’s well realised surroundings but it never ruins the experience.

And what an excellent experience playing Dishonored is. Stealth and player choice are emphasised here and the game provides multiple ways to complete each level, immediately giving it replay value. While you are allowed to play as you like – being a stealthy assassin, a brutal murderer or more a benevolent hero – the game gently suggests that you kill as few people as possible, and on your first play through you’ll likely fluctuate in body count between levels, although it is possible to complete the game without killing anyone. Dishonored adds into the bargain supernatural powers that can be upgraded in a pseudo-RPG system, opening up new avenues of play and meaning that, although the goals are broadly similar across all levels (neutralise the target), the way in which each level plays is very different. These powers are granted to you by The Outsider, an interesting character who comes to you in dreams and visions when you visit shrines people have made to him. He is the object of the religion that exists in Dunwall but his morals remain ambiguous throughout the game. The powers available are fun and useful, however, Corvo does, at times, feel a little over powered, to the point where levels only become really challenging when you impose your own rules (such as don’t kill anyone or never be seen). Despite this, the game is hugely enjoyable and although comparisons with games like Thief and Deux Ex are inevitable, Dishonored does enough to be unique and still be enjoyable, making the player want more and replay levels to see different outcomes.

You can fight a number of ways, or not at all.

The storyline of dishonored is perhaps its weakest point. While the story is by no means terrible, there is so much potential for storytelling in this game that the way it is done and the extent to which there is a well developed story is disappointing. Much of the back story of Dunwall is told through books and documents that you discover along the way, meaning that you can choose whether or not you learn about the city, but if you are interested, the amount that you have to read really slows the pace of the game and feels lazy on the part of the developers. The characters are brilliantly voiced but are not really developed and the poorer citizens of Dunwall who are oppressed or diseased seem to be looking for our pity but more often than not they get in the way and, again, hinder the pace of the game. The religion and The Outsider are also under explored by the story which, again,  feels like a missed opportunity. Given the effort put in to the rest of the game and the success that has come from that effort, it is a shame that the same attention was not paid to the story.

You have to read a lot to get the whole story in Dishonored

The style, gameplay and brilliant vocal performances in Dishonored make it a fantastic game. The story is a little weak and there are some balancing issues between the difficulty of the game and the abilities of the playable character, but these do not take away from what is a wonderfully enjoyable experience. You will play Dishonored multiple times and enjoy each of them for different reasons. In a market often dominated by sequels, prequels and remakes, it is refreshing to play a new game and come away from it satisfied. For this reason I feel that Dishonored can confidently wait to be named game of the year, and it thoroughly deserves it.

9

Let’s Get Physical

In the last six months I have bought maybe six games on two platforms, my Playstation and my PC. For those on the Playstation I traded some of my old games, but I didn’t leave the store with another disk, I left with PSN credit and I bought, downloaded and installed my new games from the comfort of my sofa, as I have done with all of my recent purchases. This is the future of game shopping and very soon it will be the only way to buy games.

“So what?” I hear you ask. Well aside from the inevitable job losses from the business of games retail, the next generation of gamers will lose out on the (as Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon put it) “oh-so-satisfying journey from discovery to desire to possession.”

Enjoy it while you still can.

For convenience (and perhaps a slightly lower price tag) we sacrifice the experience; it’s the difference between a train journey and teleportation, sure you’ll get where you’re going faster, but you won’t enjoy the ride. Let us take this time then to reflect upon the wonder of the physical game.

The first video games that I had didn’t come in neat little packages that could be stacked or tucked away, they came in boxes that could easily have contained War and Peace, occasionally with a flap at the front revealing information about the game.

What is this guy going to put in these shelves now? Books or something!?

I remember megadrive and N64 cartridges requiring a swift clean with a breath and then a firm shove into the slot and the crossing of fingers as the power button was pressed.

Fixing game cartridges is a highly technical process.

And then the Playstation and its disks black as vinyl coming in those fat CD cases with the most fragile hinges ever created. All of these gave way to the variations on the DVD case that are so common today, the last of their kind. We all have different gaming memories of different games over different platforms, but the ability to hold that game in your hands is a common denominator. There’s also the whole experience of buying a game from a shop. The browsing of titles, looking at the crap on the back mainly for the screen shots and because of the God awful cover art on the front.

Someone got paid to design this cover. PAID! With money!

Then taking it home and writing off the rest of the day to game time, or perhaps being forced to wait as trivial things like education or work held you back from your purchase. Either way, the anticipation is palpable and all centred around the physical manifestation of the game.

Perhaps the death of physical games will be slow, like that of music, or maybe it will be precipitated by console makers or perhaps an event like the closure of a major distributor. However it happens, physical games will one day be a thing of the past and I doubt too many people will mind, but every so often I’ll miss having something tangible to connect me to my purchases and I’ll reminisce about the good old days when a game was more than a piece of software.

Superhuman Vs Supernatural

After six long years, fans of the Hitman franchise have a new title to salivate over. Hitman Absolution is set for release in November and (despite a questionable marketing campaign) things are looking very good indeed. Assuming Hitman survives some bad PR, there is still, however, one more obstacle to overcome, a new challenger to the assassin throne. Dishonored will arrive in stores a month before the new instalment of Hitman, sporting many of the latter’s elements but with freshness in abundance. Which of these two is worthy of your pennies? The superhuman abilities of Agent 47 or the supernatural powers of Corvo Attano?

Hitman is one of my desert island games. It is a franchise that has consistently provided entertainment, but more than that it has struck a balance between linearity and open play that few other games have achieved. Hitman games are organised into levels, each level set in a relatively small and restricted environment with clear objectives that must be completed (one or more people have to die, bar one or two levels that advance the story where escape or survival are the aims); yet the player doesn’t feel restricted. From the moment you begin a level you are left to your own devices. The game offers you ways to complete your objectives and help along the way, but all of it is optional, you’re free to choose how to go about the task at hand. As a result, Hitman feels like a series of sandboxes, each new level supplying new toys and ways to play: you can be the ghost assassin or you can be the gun wielding maniac and still have multiple ways to complete the level. And unlike so many other franchises, Hitman has not overloaded us with unnecessary tie-in games or sub-par, rushed sequels. Six years have passed since the last game and this is only the 5th of 12 year old franchise; Hitman provides greatness in moderation, preventing the experience from becoming old.

All he ever wanted was a desk job

However, despite the delay between games, Hitman still has an uphill struggle against its own confines; all Hitman games after the original have had to try and maintain their identity while at the same time bringing something new to the party. Hitman games are restricted by having to include the things that made their predecessors successful, a burden that brand new games do not have to bear. Enter Dishonored. In this we once again take the role of an assassin, Corvo Atano, a man framed for the murder of the empress. After being given some magic powers by the Outsider, Corvo goes on a rampage of revenge, learning what really happened along the way. Much like Hitman, Dishonored is not set in an open world environment but it still encourages exploration by the player. Dishonored also promotes player creativity allowing you to complete missions in a variety of ways.

 

So far, so familiar both from Hitman and the likes of Deus Ex, but Dishonored also provides a completely new environment and a whole new style of gameplay with the inclusion of supernatural powers. Set in the fictional city of Dunwall, Dishonored has a distinctive steam punk style with clear influences from Victorian Britain and an arsenal of weaponry to match; no high-powered sniper rifles here. You do, however, have the ability to teleport short distances, to possess animals and people, to slow time and you can see through walls. Corvo’s abilities are upgradable and you can mould him into the kind of assassin you want to play. Like Hitman, missions have clear objectives but you don’t always have all the information you need to complete them to begin with, often having to eavesdrop or maybe just plain ask for it. Dishonored has taken many of Hitman’s aspects and added new layers with powers and more espionage all wrapped in a complete fantasy world rather than the individual locations of Hitman missions.

Does Dishonored surpass Hitman Absolution? That remains to be seen. In reality both games are likely to be worth a look. From Hitman we know mostly what to expect. Certain things have been tweaked such as being able to use 47’s instinct mode rather than the map of previous games. My main worry about these things is that the game may be a little easier than before. Agent 47 can now predict the movement paths of enemies where before it was a case of observation or guessing and in a play through of one of the levels we see little warnings pop up like “Visibly Armed”.

These are only little things but if too numerous, the challenge may be lost. Dishonored looks very good but maybe the array of powers and abilities will prove too complicated and like so many other games the player may discover that it’s easier to stab or shoot than to implement a more elaborate technique. Hitman might also have the edge on longevity, with the introduction of Contracts Mode, where players can create contracts by selecting up to three hits in any level and then challenge the community to complete them. In the end your decision will probably be based on scores from critics or whether they spell dishonoured correctly in the UK or how badly Himan’s marketing gets. Whatever you decide you will be getting a game with an emphasis on the player’s decisions and both titles look like game of the year contenders. All that is certain is Q4 2012 is looking good for games.

From Brain to Game

A recent article published online by Edge magazine raises an interesting prospect in gaming; the use of neuroscience in the research and development of games. The article focuses on the possible replacement of violence in games with something more acceptable that gives players the same thrill. While this is an interesting prospect the more general use of neuroscience in the gaming industry could be a real possibility for the future. In an earlier post I described gaming as being intrinsically linked to the advancement of technology but perhaps, in the future, gaming will be linked to advances in our understanding of the brain and what goes on in there when we enjoy a game.

You can probably name the types of games you like, give examples and even go so far as to break these games down into the aspects that you particularly enjoyed and those that you didn’t care for; but when pushed, can you articulate precisely what makes a game fun? This is the challenge for game developers the world over, to create a game that consumers will enjoy. It therefore seems logical that developing an understanding of such enjoyment could lead to the development of better video games. This is the prize that neuroscience can offer. And research into video gaming isn’t even that big a leap, games have already been used in neuroscience. Maguire et al. (2009), for example, used an adapted version of the game The Getaway to examine the brain activity of London taxi drivers as they navigated the virtual streets. This was a landmark paper in the study of human spatial navigation but it also demonstrates that games can be used in laboratory experiments, in fact, they are well suited to MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) studies that require the subject to keep their head still. Neuroscience in gaming could allow developers to understand what has made successful games so popular, perhaps by taking components of these games (such as violence) and examining their effect on gamers’ brains. In terms of development, new game mechanic designs could be tested similarly and their probable success determined from comparisons with already established mechanics.

I would volunteer to be a test subject.

So why has neuroscience yet to be utilised by gaming? Part of it (possibly a big part) is the vast amount of money that would be required to undertake such a project, with no guarantee of return. Chris Stevens talking to Edge magazine claims that:

“The first game publisher which buys an MRI scanner will make its money back in publicity”

but those who can afford such equipment are already successful and may therefore lack the incentive to invest in such an ambitious venture. Proof of concept may also be required before investment is made and perhaps other industries such as advertising will need to adopt a neuroscience approach before the games industry dives in.

There are also ethical issues that need to be noted. An understanding of the brain could lead to its exploitation. In his book The Decisive Moment (a.k.a. How We Decide) Jonah Lehrer describes how mortgage lenders and credit card companies have exploited flaws in the human psyche to sell consumers products that they cannot afford. While there has been no direct use of neuroscience by these industries it is conceivable that such exploitation could be used in any industry with an understanding of the brain. Even if a games developer has no unethical intentions they could unwittingly make a game that is tailored so perfectly to enjoyment that it becomes addictive. Games that already exist have been shown to cause addiction in some people. Tapping into the reward and pleasure centres of the brain could be a slippery slope and perhaps games developers that utilise neuroscientific research will go too far before they realise their mistake. We are already surrounded by advertising that uses psychology to make a sale but perhaps using neuroscience will be taking that principle too far.

Addicted anyone?

The potential to develop better, more enjoyable and perhaps more socially acceptable games through neuroscience surely exists. It is only a matter of time before one non-scientific industry or another uses neuroscience and eventually I believe games will too. We must be careful though, there are dangers to using such knowledge that may not be realised until it’s too late. So much is still unknown about the brain that exploiting it too early may prove damaging. Neuroscience can be used in games but, only time will tell whether it should be used or not.

Zombies! A Love That Never Dies.

There’s an argument, a perfectly valid argument, that certain video games glorify war. Video games like Call of Duty and Battlefield where you actively participate in war and kill (virtual) humans, can be criticised by this argument but they are acclaimed by game critics and defended by those who enjoy them, which is a sizeable number of people. Personally, I find it difficult to play such games as I can’t find a strong argument against those who damn them. Can I really justify enjoying participating in a simulation of something that I would be opposed to in real life? It’s a modern moral dilemma. I have no qualms, however, about blowing the head off a zombie.

Already dead? A little more dead won’t hurt then…

Perhaps it is this destructive freedom that makes zombie games so appealing. We are absolved of responsibility when the enemy is the mindless killing undead. Zombies also present the challenge that gamers seek, essentially having the abilities of humans but with fewer weaknesses and self preservation instincts. And there is room for flexibility when it comes to developing zombie games. We all know the standard zombie model but games like Left 4 Dead and Dead Nation (both of which I recommend) have added variations and just look at the plethora of creatures spawned by the Resident Evil franchise. So while your basic zombie hoard offers a decent challenge, developers are free to add challenge by changing (mutating if you will) the enemies in the game. This is not true for games where humans are the enemy and there are greater restrictions to their abilities. Endless story possibilities exist in the zombie world and this in part contributes to the large number of these games that exist.

Holy zombies Batman!

A problem arises, however, when the zombie apocalypse gets over used. Innovation and challenge are craved by gamers and too much of the same results in a loss of interest. I love zombie games but I look at the games I own and see very few in my collection. This is because, while zombie games have been done to death (pardon the pun), they are not often done well enough to warrant me parting with cash. Technical issues aside, zombie games can often be repetitive (within themselves and in reference to other games) in gameplay, cliché in storyline and badly written. The announcement of a new zombie game is therefore often met with groans amongst gamers, and this can lead to the view that we’re fed up with this format all together. But that’s not true; one of the most anticipated games of 2013 is Naughty Dog’s The Last Of Us, a post apocalyptic game where at least some of the enemies are zombie-esque. The demand and love of such games is there but they have been done so badly in the past that excitement for The Last Of Us comes almost entirely from the reputation of the developer.

While there is room for flexibility in zombie games, there are a few things that help make it good. Survival against the odds is a theme that should be included but, more importantly, the player needs more objectives than “kill as many zombies as possible”. Killing zombies is fun but killing just for the sake of it gets old fast. I for one am very excited about The Last Of Us and I’m interested to see how ZombiU turns out too. Zombies don’t appear to be leaving the games industry any time soon and I cannot express how happy that makes me.