Wednesday, January 21, 2009

IT'S... ALIVE!!!

Activision Blizzard C.E.O. Bobby Kotick came up with an interesting answer to the question: How do you exploit a successful game franchise with yearly titles and have them not turn into watered down crap? Actually it was a question of his making and ‘exploit’ was his term of choice. It wasn’t a move for squeamish gamer purists however, people who might hesitate just because an idea could be considered artistically unsavoury. What he did was take the popular Call of Duty brand and allow two separate developers to work on alternating titles. Each team had two years to make a game and they would be published on concurrent years. The games would get the time they need to ensure a minimum level of quality and yet there would be a new product to push every Christmas. The people who cared about games would be happy and the executive who only cares about money would be happy.

One thing this plan had going for it was Activision-owned Infinity Ward, creator of the original Call of Duty and its sequel. These were the developers that initially captured lightning in a bottle with their tight gun play, intense atmosphere, and dedication to historical facts. All other companies that would make a Call of Duty game, be it for personal computer, console, or cell phone would have an established standard to achieve, to say nothing of their proprietary engine and other essential pieces of game tech.

The catch - and there’s always a catch - is that the other company, called Treyarch Corporation, did not share in equal success. Call of Duty expansions and the number three title in the series were generally considered good but not great. This consensus was exacerbated when Infinity Ward’s next game, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare became a smash hit, one of the highest rated shooters of all time, and a multiplayer power house.

It was at this time when enthusiast gamers began expressing their impatience with the Kotick business model. It was clear that the now revered Call of Duty franchise was at its best when in the hands of Infinity Ward and that Treyarch’s attempts were a distraction. When Activision announced that the next title in the series, the unnumbered Call of Duty: World at War, was not only going back to Treyarch but back from the fresh modern setting to the overplayed World War II theatre there was much dismissal and general disdain. Not to worry, we were told. Call of Duty 3 was not indicative of Treyarch’s abilities, they weren’t given enough time to shine and that would not be the case henceforth.

So now, with the kinks of the Kotick plan ironed out what was the result? How does World at War stand on its own and how does it measure up to Modern Warfare, one of last year’s best games?

The first thing I’ll say is World at War is an unsettlingly accurate clone of Modern Warfare. I use the term unsettling because while playing the game feelings of a Frankenstein transplant were evoked, of a brain being moved from one body to another. I’ll credit Treyarch with this: they managed to make a game that doesn’t feel like they made it.

That said however, they did copy an award winning game and so naturally World at War has a lot going for it. The thing is the game is so much like Modern Warfare that if you read that review a year ago you’re pretty much up to speed on this game. (In truth that’s why I took so much time laying out the unusual history of the franchise rather than talk about the game itself.)

But on to it we’ll go: World at War looks and plays nicely, exactly like Modern Warfare did only with a World War II skin. There have been some minor additions to the game engine like limb damage and flame throwing effects. Other than that it’s a by the numbers Call of Duty with a tank level, a plane level, a sniping level, etc. This isn't the first time we players get to attack the Reichstag in a war game but they do a nice job and it is the first time we get to experience the event in High Definition. The horrors of war are revealed to the player dutifully, from torture to air strike survivors to soldiers on fire falling almost gently to their knees before lying down. You can play the single player chapters in co-op mode but in what must have been a design oversight you have to complete the level in single player mode before it unlocks for co-op. This was an annoyance for those of us who wanted to play with friends right off the bat.

The multiplayer component mimics its wildly popular predecessor right down to the levelling up for new weapons and perks. The expansion here was the addition of tank levels, or levels where tanks re-spawn and can be entered to boost firepower. These levels are larger to accommodate the vehicles which results in more sporadic fighting amongst the infantrymen but I found it to be a nice change.

One value added feature deserves true praise and that is the ‘Nazi Zombie’ mini-game. Nazi Zombies you ask? I say why choose? In this mode you (and a buddy or three if you wish) are holed up in a building while wave after wave of Nazi zombies try to get through the windows and into your sweet, succulent brains. You get points for every zombie you kill and these points can be redeemed for weapons hanging on the wall or to open up new areas. This mode has become a gamer night favourite and is a great example of what other kinds of games can be made with the engine. A full game version of this mode with an expansive haunted mansion to explore would be an instant classic!

So yes, World at War is a good game and yet my usual enthusiasm for titles of this calibre is usually more effusive. I’m finding it strange to applaud a developer whose best effort to date, their crowning achievement, was to become the shadow of another team. Am I being too sentimental in thinking that games should have their developer’s personality within, their sense of style embedded somewhere in the code? Or is cloning success the cost-effective wave of the future? Mr. Kotick, who upon Activision’s merger with Blizzard under the auspices of the Vivendi media conglomerate, now runs the largest video game empire on earth. I would guess that he’s the one with the most say in the matter, at least until he discovers another product with more appealing numbers than video games.

Surely there are other industries worthy enough to be exploited? I hear he likes modern art.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A Ten Megaton Triumph! Break out the Fancy Lad snack cakes!

Another year, another attempt to resurrect my neglected blog. I have buried myself in all of the excellent game titles that crop up come year's end to say nothing of the momentous news events of 2009. I've been absorbing all and not letting a drop out, reading rather than writing, playing rather than pontificating. Now I've come up for air and will do my best to provide some reviews...

Video game enthusiasts can be a particularly demanding breed of customer. These days every industry makes use of the Internet to connect with their base to a certain degree but game players were pioneers in this regard and they have taken the outlet further than most. To that end they are not only opinionated but determined to project their views in a public forum. As a result huge groundswells of public sentiment are not uncommon.

There are advantages to this phenomenon. Game developers can receive as much feedback on their work as they are capable of processing. One hopes this constructive criticism assists in creating a better product down the line. There is a dark side to this feedback as well however, when enthusiasts erupt into rabid howls of protestation when one of their sacred cows switches owners and moves into another dairy farm. Such was the dilemma Bethesda Softworks found themselves in when they had the audacity to secure the rights to the formidable Fallout franchise from Interplay Entertainment. Despite the hail of outcry from such highbrow institutions as the fan site ‘No Mutant Allowed’ Bethesda persevered to release Fallout 3.

The story begins with brief, character building scenes of your birth, infancy, childhood, and approach to adulthood. All of this takes place in a hermetically sealed Vault that protects your community from the ravages of a nuclear holocaust that occurred some two hundred years ago. Play truly begins with a tragedy that forces you to leave the Vault and enter the irradiated wasteland where Washington D.C. barely stands. There you will find mutated life forms, pitiless raiders, and the last remnants of human civilization in all their motley factions. You will arm up, pick a direction, and scavenge your way towards adventure!

Those familiar with Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls games will feel at home here. Their signature open world in the first person perspective is on display. To say however that this game is merely ‘Oblivion with guns’ is grossly unfair. It’s obvious that Bethesda has learned much from each game they have made and Fallout 3 in my opinion is their finest effort yet.

There are few games one will spend more time with than a roleplaying game. In Fallout 3’s case it was around sixty hours from beginning to end, making sure to take my time and see what the world offered. I was delighted to discover that nothing got old in this time, nothing felt repetitive. The combat, a combination of real time and turn based style remained satisfying throughout. The many computers to be hacked and locks to be picked presented some well thought out mini-games that broke up the fighting scenes nicely. The conversations with non-player characters along with your dialogue options were not as advanced as what we have seen in similar games such as Mass Effect, but they were to the point and got you back into the action with minimal fuss.

Given all that must be done to create an open world game I was impressed by how expertly all aspects of this title was crafted. This was especially true with the character development system, the statistics that tell you who your character is. The system is better than what Bethesda has used in their Elder Scrolls games, it is not nearly as exploitable and each of the twenty levels the players advance through adds something interesting to the character. This information is conveyed to you with a simple yet stylish menu system that I found pleasant to navigate and manage. The point of all these disparate components in a roleplaying game is to immerse you in your character, to let you know who that person is so that you may better become them while you play. In this regard Fallout 3 did an excellent job. While playing I became my character and acted as I thought she would rather than what I might do. This is perhaps the greatest compliment I can give the game designers and I feel what must be at the heart of a successful roleplaying game.

The second part of that immersing equation is the world itself, is it worth exploring and interacting with? Again Bethesda did fine work in this regard. It was a brilliant idea to have the game take place in Washington D.C. after the bombs fell. Seeing America’s greatest monuments, scarred but still standing is a surprisingly emotional experience. To discover the regal throne of Lincoln, all but the Great Emancipator’s head, is to experience not only the awe of standing before the real thing but also to feel a great injustice at its defacing. I had no reason, or quest if you will, to fight my way into the Capitol Building but I did, as any tourist of the age would. Despite its ruin it still felt sacred. Though my character was heavily armed I still performed the cautious tread of one who walks on hallowed ground. The game abounds in such history and the dread of what may come if humanity’s Final Solution comes in the form of a nuclear holocaust.

If all this sounds too sombre and dreary for your tastes then worry not, for Interplay’s original vision of camp 50’s Americana clutched in the cold war mentality remains. A retrospective on the Duck and Cover era continues to be perversely humourous. Bethesda has made sure to mine the material and provides a light hearted counterpoint to the horrors of the waste. When hiding in the dark, eating mole rat meat and drinking toilet water just to survive, the anecdotes of President John Henry Eden on the radio will always cause you to crack a smile.

I found the various missions or quests throughout the game to be enjoyable and their rewards interesting. Many have been unsatisfied with the game’s ending and in truth Bethesda could have thought it through a little better. This is not uncommon however; ending a game seems to vex developers of all calibers. In games however the final ten minutes does not have the impact it would on a movie. Sixty hours of play over the course of a month is a true journey after all. You do it to get there and if the game is good then you don’t want to end at all.

Bringing the Fallout franchise out of the 90’s and into the new millennium required significant changes to the formula. When Bethesda did this they were the objects of an inordinate amount of disdain. This is regrettable, made even more so by the fact that Fallout 3 is a terrific game. Thankfully the final product seems to have silenced most detractors and even the most nostalgic of players must grudgingly admit that the franchise is in able hands. While not the most polished or refined video game I’ve played this year it is still one of the best and surely the most ambitious. It should not be missed and given the level of overall improvement I’ve seen, I’d wager Bethesda’s next offering will also be a must-play.