Friday, 30 October 2015

Thinking back to... an early Open-World simulation...

Finally... the game actually loads correctly and I'm in the car, 80's dashboard rendered. Outside though, cars are moving by and I'm parked at a crossroads... Their simple textures don't seem to notice me. Yes, it's a simulation game and there is a world going on out there. But it's also San Francisco and it gives me a huge sense of urgency to explore and cause some trouble is stirring... For someone who can't drive yet, this game will be fun...
What is this game that I've just remembered?.. suddenly it occurs to me... Vette!, a driving simulation game behind the wheel of a Corvette and with an actual version of San Francisco to explore. This was the first taste of total adulthood freedom for any 80’s kid with a clunky PC where sometimes games just didn’t even load at all. I don't think there were many missions apart from trying repeatedly not to get fined, and failing to capture some other fast cars.

For a full review and retro-reminiscing, visit this extensive video...

I think my uncle gave me this game as a kid, on floppy disks. But I now realise it would have come with a cool manual, a full map of the city etc. I’d love to receive such a gamebox, even today…visit more cities... especially a non-fictional GTA-style one... So…more driving simulation open-world experiences please !

The STAR WARS post !

A Galaxy of Games... A Universe Getting Closer and Closer...

star wars logo

The signature Star Wars universe offers such ultimate opportunities for developers that almost every type of game has a Star Wars version. Shooters, simulations, adventures, mobile platformers, lego, pinball.., It just goes on and on, and seems to be getting more and more wide-ranging. There are even mods for other games to turn them into Star Wars games (search Skyrim Star Wars mods). And as technology improves the scale and vividness will increase until… well… until we will be plunged one day into some Massively Multiplayer Virtual Star Wars Ongoing Conflict, which moves on, I suppose, a cyclical time-loop of all movies that have been made. In that universe, many types of game will exist, from entering a Tatooine pod-racer or an Endor speed-bike to piloting the Falcon on smuggling missions or Death Star raids. The question will only be how long will a character survive for, in whatever path they choose to take? How will we die and be reborn and delay player fatigue and frustration? How can we stop ourselves playing any other Star Wars games, outside of this futuristic game-world vision??

Today we exist in a world of fragmented Star Wars experiences, the newest of which as I write – the new Battlefront reboot game – surely captures a vivid sense of participating in the major battles.

Star Wars is a fantastic universe that offers a package outlined by the vivid movies: an array of exciting scenarios, characters and aliens, from the reluctant good guys (Han Solo) ,strong females to the guardian Jedis, with an even greater array of charismatic evil characters, including one of these Jedi Knights turned bad. It was just a unique combination of mythical elements brought carefully together. A deep saga for the space age with iconic fighting devices and sound effects.

How can games take advantage of all this, to create the most resonant or involved experience?

zen pinball

I’m still playing Star Wars games. Due to limits on time I’m reduced to the absorbing distraction of Zen Pinball and the fortify game Star Wars Commander on my phone.

But I remember a different time… especially the time of Kyle Katarn in Dark Forces. This was the first time 3d shooters post-Doom entered the Star Wars domain and we could properly begin first-person adventures in these realms.


Let’s think about what these early developers decided to do for a moment to really capture and sell an engrossing, exciting, educational experience, entering and enhancing the star wars universe (which they did).


The above format simplifies a large part of it. Just as in Wing Commander the trick was firstly to make an engaging story with levels set in different – old favourite – worlds or scenarios, with a brand new character to engage interest and act as our avatar. Of course, he'd be a mix of Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, and we'd see him interact with old favourite characters. Next, the story would be coloured by exciting cut-scenes that described his situation, before we enter the first-person shoes of the hero. Over now to the level designers who – in the Jedi Knight series – continuously came up with surprising, challenging, memorable and frustrating(!) levels. On top of this progression must come the Force, of course, and the possibility of choosing a binding path through the game which is either Good or Bad, with a number of force powers to employ.

You could say this is pretty impressive and long-awaited since the credits rolled and left us stranded after Return of the Jedi. LucasArts pulled it off here at the beginning of the Age of Gaming. Add to this the variety of weapons with all our favourite sound effects and music, and a graphics engine that got better with every release, enabling it to cater for more and more widespread multi-player action.

dark forces screenshot

This format is still in use today with such focussed adventure shooters. In fact, even the larger-scale open-world games simply contain this format, but offer us more widespread or prolonged interaction with a universe. But the focus gets lost and for many these ambitious games are simply too much.

There are game formats that Star Wars hasn't yet breached. I don't think there's a Wing Commander-type Star Wars game, with a campaign that gets positively or negatively affected. There isn't a full-scale RPG Elder Scrolls type game yet (although the online Star Wars Galaxies came quite close). And meanwhile we see some newer developments arising in games, in response to the improving technology. In games these days, a scenario can be more fully explored without compromising game-play or switching to cut-scenes anymore. The focus seems often now to be about not compromising one, fluid, elaborate first-person gaming experience. I’m thinking Alien: Isolation and the Nathan Drake games.

How can game companies escape the passive cut-scene without jeopardising our sense of story and character? The answer has come by bringing the cut-scene into the game itself, by merging the two into a fluid, continuous action set-piece. Or by making it a part of the world itself that the character is watching. Or by making the game one big scenario, so cut-scenes are no longer necessary. The Assassin’s Creed series still breaks into cut-scenes which tend to go on forever. But games instead are largely moving away from the retro Single-Player story experiences. Everything – perhaps - needs to be connected online and unfolding in the games of tomorrow.

So I think back with real affection at my time in the Dark Forces and Jedi Knight strategic shooters, (even where cartoon/animated elements described the blaster fire and cut-scenes). We were this separate commando-type character yet operating within this vast, familiar conflict. How would we get the Death Star plans out of the secret Imperial base? How would we free the captured rebel spy from the Detention Centre? You'd lie awake wondering how you were going to get through the tricky bits. It threw us into its large levels (where one blaster shot might shoot an alien off a walkway from long distance) and we knew we had to work it out using stealth, map consultation and the right combination of weapons, in order to achieve the exciting star wars-related objectives. Check out the Youtube videos of these old, engrossing classics.

Recently, I've been to to buy Jedi Outcast, because I might be able to find a moment to actually play this later Jedi Knight sequel, one that I missed when my PC was too slow. At the end of the day, such Star Wars games, those that enable you to 'become' a Jedi, offer an exciting promise to young adults; a chance to escape and explore, to become something, be good at something, and also to test themselves against others. Therefore the physics and keyboard controls etc. had to be finely tuned for in-depth PC controlling immediacy. It had to be a platform for wannabe hero gamers. Online, Jedi Knight was the first time I truly felt the power of Multiplayer Gaming... I would be running down a corridor and an opponent would be running towards me. I would use Force Pull to take his weapon out of his hand, and then use it on him before slashing him down with a sabre stroke. A complicated keyboard-assisted move and not so easy on a console. The pace of action was quick (when Internet was running well) and players would be re-spawning continually, but the trick was to use speed and to die less than others...

Later, with the less strategic and more accessible Star Wars Battlefront 2, the Unleashed series (a good try at more involvement with the Wii controller too) etc…we only knew the games would get more and more sophisticated until the entire universe will likely be available to play virtually and online, with the ability to play as any character… Surely there will come a proper smuggling Han Solo + Falcon-flying game one day too!…Because at the heart of this heroic, chivalric universe, there must always be: character, a sense of adventure, proximity to the classic characters, spirituality and friendship…if not cut-scenes, then ways to make you feel like you are close to the context, close to the experience you wish to complete… Good luck future designers... May the Force be With You!

Monday, 12 October 2015

Double Dragon 2 in EGA graphics

Having just downloaded the mobile game app of Double Dragon, which contains episodes 1 to 3 for a great price, I need to mention this nostalgic experience here. I only had the sequel, but now I get to be Billy Lee once again, fighting to rescue some unenviable lady friend and avenge myself with a variety of raw fighting moves. It's not easy being a small Patrick Swayze-like bitmap character. However, I find myself tapping away on a mobile and re-living the same excited sensations of seeing new scenery unfold as I fight my way onwards - rightward - to the edge of the screen.

DD2 original box
click to enlarge this 80s Game Box Artwork

The last time I saw these graphics in Double Dragon 2, was in the 90s, in EGA graphics, using a keyboard with keys so big they made a sound and now I get to see it work at a decent, playable speed. In the process, the controls of attacks have lost a lot of their depth but the mechanics were never subtle. Back then we hoped they were subtle. But this was before Mortal Kombat combos.

In this adventure fighting game, it was also possible to play Co-operative, with Jimmy Lee helping out against the assorted baddies. Seeing the magic of these Coin-op classics (yes, I had Golden Axe too), to play in the comfort of home on a PC/console was the real start of gaming, family and social. We were fighting our way through this key-stroked action movie, just after watching one on VHS, before leaving the house on BMX bikes.


Video gaming will get ever more advanced, and more immersive, and maybe more social. But we should never forget the simple (and frustrating) kind of experience that being Jimmy and Billy Lee in a platform-style adventure provided. What would the next baddy be like? Laughable or insanely difficult to thrash? What keystroke combos would work best? How long could we last before being sent back to the beginning of the damn level? And what would be the nugget of wisdom we might glean from the wise master at the end of it all?

Well in this case there are no nuggets... but you do get to fight the final boss from Double Dragon 1 and then... a spooky clone of yourself !

Saturday, 3 January 2015

I Made the Journey and Transcended

I’m just beginning to wonder where I seem to be heading or being carried along to, when the world starts speeding up and the music gets more light and airy. I seem to be hitching a ride with some kind of paper dragon down some ancient, ruined corridor… then another… then I float downwards and start surfing along this incredible golden sand. A great vista has opened up, filled with dazzling golden light coming from... the mountain... which is now… closer. My excitement rises as I’m still so curious about reaching it and getting up to the summit.

Journey is an interactive parable, an anonymous online adventure to experience a person’s life passage and their intersections with other’s. You wake alone and surrounded by miles of burning, sprawling desert, and soon discover the looming mountaintop which is your goal.Faced with rolling sand dunes, age-old ruins, caves and howling winds, your passage will not be an easy one. The goal is to get to the mountaintop, but the experience is discovering who you are, what this place is, and what is your purpose.Travel and explore this ancient, mysterious world alone, or with a stranger you meet along the way. Soar above ruins and glide across sands as you discover the secrets of a forgotten civilization. Featuring stunning visuals, haunting music, and unique online gameplay, Journey delivers an experience like no other.

I can’t add a lot more to the above, from thatgamecompany’s site, the text to accompany a project that went so over-budget the company run aground. Wikipedia provides more detail.

Let me just say it’s a game that needs to be experienced, unlike a book or film… although there is a story there and it’s an ancient, moving, collaborative one. It’s an extraordinary achievement: original, intuitive, spiritual and absorbing. You are not alone either. Someone else goes with you.

It was one of the first games I remember playing that was completely linked cooperatively. Once you started playing, there would be another avatar playing alongside you. If they disconnected, there would be another who would appear. Somehow the game ensured you had a human partner sharing the gamespace throughout from somewhere else on the planet.

It was a simple, atmospheric and cheap game I remember downloading from the PSN store for about £8. It involves simple interaction with the differing environments of each level - and there are only about six or seven. It’s about atmosphere. There are no words spoken at any time.

What we see in this game is how the control over an on-screen avatar can be made to feel fluid, spiritual and organic. Your robed character emits musical sounds and wears a scarf that glows with power. It glows with proximity with items in the world and with your companion. This means co-operating shares power and enables an easier journey.

The use of space and simplicity in the design makes you feel like you’re in a Buddhist animation from the Far East. It’s not for everyone; for the gun-toting or the restless gamer. It wants to make you play a game that leaves you with a different kind of resonance. After half an hour or more the controls become familiar and then it’s just about progression, about finding the best or obvious way forward.

It dictates nothing but impresses itself with the sound and beauty of an experience. It asks nothing. It invites you to play along. It leads you to what to do. It won’t frustrate you or do anything more than suggest its purpose in the act of playing. We get a few cut-scenes about some ancient civilisation.

What is the aim or purpose?

Perhaps just to enjoy the feeling of movement, freedom, sound, melancholic music and open space, and find your way to some sort of mountain in the sky and there transcend - finally- to some other plain.

Your character weakens but this is possibly the hardship of the climb. You begin to feel the Journey's toll as you encounter strong winds.

I do wonder what this game would be like if/when it’s ever translated to first-person POV and inside a VR headset… It would truly be an experience. And what games could follow in its wake for people always looking for experiences that offer something deeper and richer...?

To ‘watch an entire Journey’ you can find one on the Youtube channel (top right of site)

Wikipedia explains a lot more detail about the game and its story:

Thursday, 1 January 2015

I was a Dead-Eye in Armadillo

I’d been there before in a hundred westerns, but now I got to go... yes... as a dodgy-looking guy called John Marston. As the train pulled slowly to a halt in Armadillo I continued to regard my fellow passengers and take in the dusty world outside. I knew I would soon make it all my own (just like real life!) 

When opening credits had finished - themselves a spaghetti homage - we knew we’d be riding third-person across a rugged ‘scape filled with old barns, rocks, ravines, creeks, cacti and dangers of many kinds mostly involving bandits. Nothing would be safe... but we'd be safe from nothing. An almost dog-eat-dog world. And we would be searching… for redemption… and for the next cheesy cut-scene with more madcap western stereotypes babbling their intros to the next mission… And this would all lead slowly towards some lonely, final shoot-out. Once more Rockstar Games had seen too many movies… but they knew what to do about it. They knew what a stunning setting it would all make with places like Gaptooth Ridge, Mercer station, Thieves Landing and Escalera.

Red Dead Redemption, its add-on game Undead Nightmare, with their Multiplayer Free Roam world with Competitive and Co-operative maps, make up a gameworld that will be long remembered.

They were powerful experiences for a period of many months. Basically an alternative world in the Wild West, that took the rise of the open-world sandbox adventure game, and polished it. Rockstar are the makers of Grand Theft Auto after all, so they had made these games before. Now was their chance to take the Wild West and plunder it for long hours of immersive fun, and they managed just that. And all so … cinematically. With a real gritty style. A terrific shooting system. And such a sense of freedom.

The trademark game mechanic is the Dead-Eye targeting system, which allows the player to aim at targets in slower motion on the battlefield and then attack with a flurry of bullets.
[from Red Dead Wikia]

You can get lost in the wilderness and encounter all sorts of distracting missions and strange bandits, or... you can stick to consulting the map and finding marked missions in order to see more storyline and progress your character. But it was clever like this, for it was so easy to get distracted. Those distracting missions were deliberately distracting you, making it harder to get on with the game. Sometimes it would be like the fates of Red Dead Redemption were conspiring against you, when it came to getting from A to B. Gossip overheard in the town taverns reflected what sort of progress you were making as did the local paper sold on the corner. And yet still we rode, taking in the landscape, the space, taking potshots at birds far away and saving the innocent… or not.

And then there we’d be… again... lying randomly somewhere underneath the sound of vultures because we had strayed again. To our old ways. Cursing the choices we’d made...

...And another tempting choice was to flick up the Multiplayer Free Roam and load the same, entire worldmap but online… sharing it with other friends or up to 15 anonymous explorers. Mostly they would pick you out from long distances with sniper rifles until you learned to keep down and keep watching your map for nearby connected foes. But also there were mini-adventures to share, mini-games, shoot-outs to enter cooperatively or just ride into town, shoot everybody randomly and then await the coming of the Law. And these posses of the Law were as ruthless but even more fun than in GTA. Occasionally, another player would attract their attention and you could just watch as they were most often finally shot down.

the world map

It can only be celebrated, those who fired this game up on the consoles of the day. Not only did we experience the real possibility and scale that gaming had now achieved, but probably the hints of what it one day could become. Massive. And finally the dream of being in a western comes true. A real feat of design and level creation. With a narrative that takes John Marston down to the creek. 

Some negatives are the usual Rockstar faults: emotional immersion suffers compared to a movie since the narrative and cut-scenes are hammy and self-indulgent and take away the pace of the playing. It can be sometimes tiring to get to or find the next mission. What about a slicker narrative that cuts even quicker into the gameplay? GTA 5 didn't really improve on this, although there was a bit more going on. They knew they had to build more into the Multiplayer Free Roam in order to increase the longevity of the game.

Character progression suffers as in GTA 5: even though there are sometimes a choice of missions, you do know there are the “key” missions which have to be played in order to progress, or unlock more map sections. This formula is ok if you’re new to it all but for seasoned players the sense of realism in single-player deteriorates.

I'm not saying there aren't some amazing moments that provide a real connection with the game. Once the first part is complete, a song from Jose Gonzales strikes up and you enter some new terrain - a kind of Mexico - towards your next mission and the start of the second half. Your appreciation of the game soars. You really wonder if the character you’re playing can actually find redemption.

Then there were all the little things you could get up to, just to see what could happen.  Like tossing folks down canyons, lassoing nasty types and dropping them onto train tracks. Youtube started filling up with new channels for gamers posting creative or hilarious sandbox moments. You could say the new artform of spectating while others play or provide commentary on video games was truly beginning...

What else can I say about this game, or that this game makes me want to say about games generally? Its missions drew you into its world, some of which could involve merely helping an old flame to round-up wild horses. Or defend a barn from bandits. Some taught you things about this historic time where many a book or documentary cannot bring to life.

None of the missions were particularly difficult but this enabled the player to feel like we were always on the point of progressing. The open-world game becomes more about the experience, or experiences on offer. Like the mini-games of poker, knife games, darts etc, that can be played in the taverns against bots or against other online players of the online map. It’s all a great illusion of prowess (thanks certainly to a masterfully designed weapon system) and it enables sustained enjoyment that doesn’t frustrate or challenge like a conventional, level-based game. You can’t really get stuck in games like Red Dead Redemption, you can only progress and experience the places and scenarios it takes you through.

When the multiplayer game loads there is more a sense that anything can happen. The Multiplayer dimension plus the add-ons expanded the life of the game for many more months as all shooting scenarios were exploited. There were even huge battles you could join.

I won’t forget joining random posses of online players. Another memorable aspect was the excellent Co-operative Multiplayer levels, specially designed for groups of gamers to work alongside for a brief time in a multitude of scenarios of rescue, defend or attack.

It all makes essentially for a very immersive shooter with a dimension of storytelling and a load of mini-games and side quests. And this formula is still being applied to the more recent games such as Grand Theft Auto V, on an even larger map scale. At the same time, it’s not Skyrim, or such RPGs that took steps further where anything seems possible for your character that you are trying to build. However, the style and slickness of the gameplay in Skyrim suffered when compared to the immediacy of Red Dead. But then, in Red Dead the main occupation is basically shooting.


And there is the Undead Nightmare add-on... a zombie wild west. Not just an add-on but actually adding an extra dimension. Here, the map we know and love is a cursed, changed realm with a new kind of danger. It’s all being steadily overrun by an undead plague. This means that if towns are not rescued the undead could take over and gradually overwhelm the map.

This is a great idea. Actually it’s one that has been applied to some entire games: the slow, breakdown of a whole, open-world war or map, unless the players unique involvement can turn the tide.

The multiplayer section of Undead was similar, but making full use of the shooting system in this setting. I vividly remember the Undead Overrun Co-op where, unless you worked together with your other players you would be overwhelmed quickly. It’s a survival mode featuring endless waves of undead. There are some cool elements: you can revive your friends if they are downed and also be the first to find one of the spawning coffins that give supplies and ammo. Working together was crucial. However, I used to hold back, helping occasionally but waiting until my fellow players were dead. Then I’d camp out in a clever spot where I could take out zombies and therefore be the last man standing. The whole scenario is the closest thing to that ending in Tarantino’s film Dusk till Dawn

All that shooting gets tiring, and the control over one’s own destiny or character is not there like the massive open-world games of today. So one day will come another total Wild West experience. Maybe it will have more disincentives to draw your weapon and greater character depth, meaning that to do bad or to do right could have real consequences on your character and abilities. But will it have as much sheer cinematic fun as this?