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.

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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.

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.

Is this the real life?

As an industry that moves forward with technology, video gaming advances in sophistication very rapidly. In 1980 Pac-Man was the height of gaming, a 2D yellow blob eating smaller yellow blobs in a maze whilst being chased by ghost shapes. 20 years later, the Sims allowed us to take complete control over a character’s life. Now we have games with open worlds, morals, communities of real people playing together and Pac-Man playable on our already obsolete mobile phones. One of the industries greatest strengths is its ability to adopt the latest technology and push it to produce fantastic entertainment. But, while the advancement of technology is seemingly infinite, is there a point in the advancement of video games that will be too far?

Morals have been finding their way into games lately. At the moment they tend not to be greatly developed. Actions are either good or bad leaving no grey area; your character can either be a hero or a villain, but we can assume that morals will play a bigger and more developed role in the future . In current games, however, I find it hard to be the bad guy. I know the villains always have the best weapons and powers but I just can’t bring myself to be that much of a dick. As the industry advances this is only going to get worse, with more excruciating decisions, maybe making games more difficult to play. Realism is something that games seem to aim for but I don’t believe that is why we play games.

It doesn’t end with morals either, advancement in graphics could be an even bigger problem. Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain has one particularly difficult point where you have to cut off your character’s finger. It is amazing that a game can immerse you to the point where you have an emotional response, but how much is too much? Heavy Rain is not the most graphically accomplished game but perhaps that’s a good thing; if it was too realistic then it might be difficult to play.

How did you chop?

There are a number problems that could arise if games become too realistic. Arguments around violence in games could gain momentum (perhaps rightly so) and gamers might be alienated from newer systems because games hit too close to home. Can you imaging playing a Call of Duty where your character looks real and you have to kill AI that looks real? I think that such a game would be unsaleable. But does that mean that at some point the games industry will reach a plateau where no technical advancements are made? Perhaps, but it’s more likely that the industry will have to evolve, changing the type of games it makes and the type of style it uses in visuals. No one plays games purely for their realism; in 1980 Pac-Man was the height of gaming and it is still played and loved today. Games should first and foremost be enjoyable experiences and let’s hope that as they become more sophisticated they don’t lose sight of that.