Quick, term starts in a week and you’re leaving in four days. Nothing’s packed, you’ve forgotten so many things that you think you may actually be dumber than you were a year ago, but one question hangs in the air: what game can I play and finish before I leave?
[caption id="attachment_26367" align="alignright" width="300"] A typical solution to a middle-difficulty puzzle. Or rather, one part of it: by Act 2 or 3, Spacechem throws puzzles at you that span two or more reactors; then your head explodes/Zachtronics Industries[/caption]
Choices! Choices range out before you: the geniuses will invariably gravitate to Spacechem, a game of cellular automata which starts out merely quite difficult, and ends with the eventual explosion of the player’s head as they try to comprehend the nightmarish complexity of later levels: rumour has it that completing the game entitles you to a starred-first in maths and a special free pass into any PhD programme in the world. Chess players find themselves picking over Frozen Synapse’s similarly hard-as-nails blend of abstracted, symbolic graphics with simultaneous turn-based combat: everything hinges on predicting your opponent’s movements, since your orders play out together, in five second bursts. Getting caught in the open is death. Getting stuck alongside a wall is usually death. Walking down the wrong corridor (or sometimes even the right one) is, again, death. Nothing is random, except for the level layout and your troops: a shotgunner will kill a rifleman in the right spot every time, just like a knight can wipe out a rook and pawns. It’s bullet chess.
But perhaps you’re not an inhuman videogame genius: perhaps you’d prefer something a little gentler, a little more inside the modern game envelope. With four days, multiplayer is probably out: getting good will take too long. Something downloadable is good: delivery means a 25% cut in playing time. Maybe something story-driven, too: you could spend the next four days mainlining Breaking Bad – something with a plot at least half as good as that would be nice. The idea’s not to waste four days: it’s to enjoy four days.
[caption id="attachment_26368" align="alignleft" width="300"] Chess-with-bullets is aided by a planning and simulation mode: plan out your moves, and what you think the enemy might do. Then watch as you screw up, take it back, and make refinements. It won’t help in the end, when you get totally outsmarted, but you might just make it/Mode7 Games[/caption]
Naturally, I have a game in mind. Sequel to the much-loved Deus Ex and much-derided sequel Invisible War, the long weekend game is the year-old Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a first/third person hybrid shooter/RPG. It’s The Future, where everything has been dragged through a barrel of golden syrup to remind the population that they are in The Future, but more importantly, humanity is at a crossroads. Artificial limbs, organs and implants have begun to outstrip the natural capabilities of the common man: thrown into it is half-Solid Snake, half-Sam Fisher private security consultant Adam Jensen, whose girlfriend is kidnapped in the prologue. He’s a tortured fellow. Human Revolution is a lovely little piece of transhumanist storytelling – not a Philip K. Dick classic scifi, but smarter than the average videogame. It also has the distinction of playing almost as smart as it talks: to a veteran of the series, some mechanics seem dumbed-down, but for new players, the combination of tough-yet-forgiving setpieces with wide-ranging routes for everyone from the shoot-first Gears of War veteran (from which Human Revolution borrows and refines its’ cover mechanic) to the dedicated talk-em-up player who, quite rightly, hails Planescape: Torment as one of the greatest games of all time is a lovely way to tug at a player’s head-strings: every level is a string of puzzles in miniature, whether they are solved with a clever stack of boxes, a quick (or not-so-quick) natter with some key NPCs, a meticulously-planned route of stealth-mode dashes and instant knockouts, or just a series of bullets. Or, indeed, all four and then a couple more for good measure: perhaps a hacked-open door, or an exploded-through wall, would be a better way in.
[caption id="attachment_26366" align="alignright" width="300"] Jensen stalks a guard while dodging a camera: both are natural predators of the augmented angst-ridden secret agent/Gamespress.com[/caption]
Human Revolution is deep, but a playthrough will fit in a long weekend with just enough room around the edges to write about it afterwards; it’s a linear progression of sandboxes with the cement of a genuinely engaging story. Deeply flawed bossfights aside – for which Eidos Montreal have apologised, in a rare display of AAA developer contrition – Human Revolution is exactly the sort of game that can replace the series binge. In these dying days of summer, with the weather closing in on any attempt to have fun outside, it’s a chance to escape into a dystopia, before hanging up the game spurs until Christmas.
Spacechem (PC/Mac/Linux/iOS/Android), Frozen Synapse (PC/Mac/Linux) and Deus Ex: Human Revolution (PC/Mac/PS3/X360) are all out now.
It’s war in the land of handhelds at the moment, and as is traditional in three-way videogame strategy battles, each side is unique: in the news this week, Kaz Hirai admitted the faltering sales of the PS Vita and a further focus on PS3 sales from Sony, Nintendo continued their policy of saying nothing while continuing to sell the 3DS to just about everyone, and on Tuesday, Apple announced the iPhone 5, to considerably less fanfare than previous launches, by which I mean only a third of the internet tuned in to the livestream to watch the announcement of a slightly longer, slightly thinner, slightly faster slab of glass and aluminium. But this is the videogames section, and with the announcement of anything iPhone, it’s required to point out that Apple now represent both the most popular hardware on which to play handheld games, and the biggest digital download marketplace through which to acquire them.
[caption id="attachment_26128" align="alignright" width="187"] The iPhone 5: Soft, strong and very long. It seems that Apple have decided that size matters/Apple Inc.[/caption]
So what does the new iOS family hardware and the iOS 6 update bring to the table? For the most part, not very much: the jump to an A6 processor opens the door to bigger, shinier sequels to Demon’s Souls at which to be enraged, and the switch to a 16:9 aspect screen offers slightly more space for thumbs to rest while playing Gameboy emulators; iOS 6 offers a way to suppress Words With Friends notifications until tomorrow morning and little else new: iOS 5′s Game Center remains a benchmark for Doing Games On Smartphones (and Android’s fragmented and inconsistent approach barely deserves mention). The iPhone/iPod family are perhaps the best-executed pieces of handheld design of this generation, and Apple have got hardware with the consistency of a console into the hands of a generation – a grand success compared to Google’s approach of cultivating a thousand hardware/software combinations, where a game might reasonably target ten to twenty of those. Like Nintendo, the cycle of relatively frequent hardware refreshes and predictable upgrade cycles has grown a strong developer community (even in spite of Apple’s certification process, which by the standards of console releases is downright frictionless) and a wealth of iOS-exclusives not through the traditional sacks of cash, but simply through convenience and the relative certainty of an App Store launch. Nintendo may have won the fight to 2010, but Apple are squaring up as the big dogs of the new decade in handhelds.
[caption id="attachment_26129" align="alignleft" width="300"] The PS Vita, a console which was supposed to bring balance to the industry/Gamespress.com & Sony Computer Entertainment Europe[/caption]
And where does this leave Sony? With the announcement of a new, even-slimmer PS3 (at a higher base price) and Hirai’s admission of the PS Vita’s expectedly underwhelming sales performance, Sony have once again been batted back in the handheld war, and not for lack of trying: perhaps even more cutthroat than the home console market, Microsoft have stayed away from the fight entirely, leaving the Japanese titans to duke it out with each other and Apple. Sadly, the Vita is not a bad console: it may be the most technically and artistically adventurous and advanced handheld on the market, but smacks of kitchen-sink design from the pre-recession era: huge screen, two touchpads, thumbsticks, 3G, a processor to rival the PS3′s, and a form factor which seems impossibly small for the device it encloses adds up to a handheld which can be judged on one statistic alone: the secondhand sale price. A 50% discount or more, for like-new-with-box, is the mark of a console which simply does not have a market: the lack of first-hand sales depresses game production, and Sony’s approach of bringing AAA home console title size and quality to a handheld only drives development cost up. The Vita plays host to a wealth of first- and second-party titles, but a void of third-party games. Hirai was right to admit failure on the Vita: to rely upon it further would be a millstone around Sony’s neck. But in my heart, it remains a console born only a little too late, and one which it is a shame to see pass into the halls of obscurity, to sit alongside the Game & Watch and GBA SP.
Star Wars games are, much like the films, a grab-bag of excellence (Knights of the Old Republic, Jedi Knight, X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter, LEGO Star Wars, Rogue Squadron, and The Empire Strikes Back) and atrocity (Force Unleashed 2, Rebel Assault, Starfighter, Rogue Squadron 3, post-NGE Star Wars Galaxies, and Episode 2). It’s been a while since anyone took a run at a genuine Star Wars action game – the last was the solid-but-lacklustre Battlefront 2. The cryptically- and numerically-named 1313 is the next attempt at a mainstream-genre Star Wars game, and in this it could be a nail-on-head success: in short, 1313 promises to take Nathan Drake, disguised as an as-yet-unrevealed but much-speculated-upon new Star Wars character, into space and subsequently down, deep below the surface of Coruscant and into the bowels of a city which shamelessly lifts all the best bits of Asimov’s descriptions of Trantor. Activision and Lucasarts stress the new, grittier, ‘mature’ themes that 1313 will bring to the table (conveniently forgetting the genre-classic Dark Forces saga which set the bar for ‘mature’ themes in ‘90s sci-fi games) by descending beneath the gilded spires and pseudo-Queens backstreets of the movies, and into the conceptually rich but authorially lazy space of the ‘prison level’, where daylight never touches. I’m not sure, but I’ll venture a guess that we’re going to see some daylight in 1313. Corridor shooters are not Nathan Drake’s thing.
[caption id="attachment_25781" align="alignright" width="300"] No Star Wars game would be complete without droids. No action game would be complete without cannon fodder. 1313 naturally introduces one to the other in a tried and true fashion/Gamespress.com[/caption]
But why drag Uncharted’s chiselled platform-leaping gunslinger into this at all? Star Wars is a big franchise, surely it can have its own heroes. Sadly, the as-yet-nameless lead guy in 1313 really does look like a cookie-cutter of Uncharted, in the best possible way: while 1313 has been an on-rails hands-off demo and nothing more, it looks to have all the slickness and flair of Uncharted’s gunfights, and the same robust and cinematic platforming sections which fuse the drama of QTE sequences with the consistent-control paradigm of retaining at least similar button pushes to nudge yourself around a burning spaceship’s gently-exploding frame as to when hiding behind chest-high walls. Space Nathan Drake is as good as his regular counterpart at all this: from the brief sections of gameplay on show, the shooting is good, the moving is good, the jumping-around is good.
More importantly, 1313 is pretty. Demoed on a high-spec custom NVidia, this is a game which looks better than Revenge of the Sith did in cinemas, and matches up (in real-time) to Prometheus and Avatar’s digital components: while there are obvious shortcuts being taken to trade marginal graphical quality degradation for huge framerate gains, the simple fact is that 1313 is a game which takes the idea of the game-as-cinema literally, and not only in the Kojima hour-long-cutscene way: for unoptimised code, the sheer graphical beauty of 1313 and the solid framerate with which it is delivered are a triumph.
[caption id="attachment_25782" align="alignleft" width="300"] You’d be angsty and brooding too if you were told you’d only be a placeholder for a big-name character right after the trainee hairdresser savaged your ‘do/Gamespress.com[/caption]
Sadly, I have yet to be convinced that 1313 is anything other than the dumb blonde of next year’s releases: its’ looks seem in inverse proportion to its’ smarts, and it has been glimpsed only briefly in the vast club dancefloor of the games media world: specifically, for a two-minute demo, it’s the prettiest girl (or boy) in the room. Try to get to know it though, and it’s clear that all that Acti are showing are those two minutes: they’re within their rights to, and 1313 is definitely not a game just tapping at the inside of the egg, but suspicions run high for a game being kept so tightly under wraps despite a media blitz. Keeping the surprise is one thing – though if mainline Lucasarts storytelling is anything to go by, all the talk of “no Jedi” that Activision have trumpeted will be overruled in the third act, and any given plot twist is relatively likely to play out at some point – but the vacuum of information surrounding 1313 is troublesome: as yet, it speaks to a game which could mature into a well-rounded, enjoyable roll through a segment of the Star Wars universe which has previously only been the preserve of comicbooks and novels. Equally, though, it could end up as all face and no brain: the chosen one, supposed to bring balance to the franchise, actually giving rise to a thousand fans doing their best Hayden Christiansen Big No impression.
[caption id="attachment_25509" align="alignright" width="300"] Cars litter the average terror mission: convenient for the average supersoldier, since they can’t take more than a couple of hits in a mission without access to a medkit/Gamespress.com[/caption]
This year has been one of sequels, for all sorts of reasons – major publishers have achieved a coup with the acquisition of rights for, and the management will to embark on, sequels to all manner of back-of-indie-game-shop classics; among them the rights to XCOM, beloved turn-based tactical strategy of retro gamers everywhere. In fact, it’s so beloved it has spawned not one but two successors: X-COM, the Fifties noir sci-fi FPS; and XCOM: Enemy Unknown, an unashamedly faithful modernisation of a game that, until I sat down to play Firaxis’ take on things, I was convinced would never fly either as a remake or a spiritual successor. Surprisingly, perhaps to everyone, XCOM might be both.
In updating any Nineties classic, there are a few standard pitfalls: vertical learning curves, nonexistent or laughably poor tutorials, a reliance on the player being wise enough to read the manual – which would be an actual printed one – before playing, and a checkpoint system that ranges between capricious and nonexistent are all pains that the modern gamer has been rightly spared, and XCOM is perhaps over-cautious in this regard, with an opening forty minutes of extended, near-universal tutorial gameplay spanning all three of the singleplayer missions on show at Gamescom, but for the new player and especially the console player that 2K are aiming at, an expansive tutorial is welcome: there hasn’t been anything like XCOM on consoles in the last five years, and in keeping one eye on their source matter, Firaxis have retained a wealth of complexity and subtlety, while adding both an interface which holds up in the light of modern games, and their own layers of yet more tactical depth. Throwing the player in at the deep end was fine when the game wasn’t up against a swathe of altogether bigger titles: now, the gradual introduction of depth and complexity is a matter of crucial importance, and to its credit, XCOM’s extended tutorial segment is definitely an enjoyable one, and while the lessons continue, the training wheels come off as soon as the first mission is over – a whole-squad wipe (and accompanying failure) is entirely possible, and in an XCOM game, that usually means a return to the mission screen to head out again on something different, with a rather greener and less-capable team, because this is not a game where failure means reloading (unless you’re like that) – instead, it’s the squad-based-tactics version of an open world game, where mistakes are as important as victories. And in XCOM, a mistake can turn into a debacle can turn into a disastrous clusterfuck as you’re left with one veteran pinning three Sectoids down as the rescued abductee runs for the extraction Skyranger.
Perversely, XCOM’s turn-based play ratchets up tension in a way that a real-time game could never do: every turn is a knife-edge tradeoff of high- and low-risk strategies. Screwing up is never a mistake of reactions or reflexes: every (permanent) death is, absolutely, your fault. And as a result, outwitting the AI – which was perhaps the only low point in the previews that 2K have shown, demonstrating a disappointing lack of flexibility or aggression – is all the sweeter: the four-moves-at-once chess game that is a tactical strategy is as much a puzzle with pieces to move as an action game. In an inspired move, though, Enemy Unknown avoids the pitfall of older turn-based games by using a full 3D engine, and end-of-turn micro-cutscenes rendered in-game, to pull into a hybrid of Gears-style over-the-shoulder camera shots and Fallout 3’s VATS action camera: rather than lacklustre (or not, in the case of rocket launchers) explosions viewed from an isometric perspective, the destruction that a team of XCOM supersoldiers and their alien adversaries visit upon each other and the landscape is something witnessed up-close, without being intrusive.
[caption id="attachment_25510" align="alignleft" width="300"] In multiplayer, it’s a free choice for players to compose their teams of any units from the game – aliens and XCOM alike/Gamespress.com[/caption]
XCOM is most assuredly not a game for everyone, but it promises rewards to anyone with the patience and temperament to let their battles play out slowly – except in multiplayer, where thinking fast is the order of the day, since turns are played out on the clock. Needless to say, it looks to be a slow burner but a contender for a modern classic.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is out on October 12th, on PC, 360 and PS3
[caption id="attachment_25356" align="alignright" width="300"] Co-op? Check. Ridiculous enemies? Check. Guns? Extra check/Gamespress[/caption]
Borderlands was not the original ‘up to 11’ game, but it has a pretty good claim to being the first to hit consoles, the first of the ‘new’ generation, and the first to hit the full-on AAA bigtime. Only a quick glance at the marketing shows that this was a throwaway game that lasted 25-50 hours: whether this was a flaw or a triumph depends on your perspective, and largely which of the millions of guns landed in your hands first. Borderlands, more than any of the Call of Gears of Battlefield shooters, is a game about guns. Guns to own and use, guns to covet, guns to be amused by.
It is no mistake, then, that Borderlands 2’s headline statistic is simply ‘more guns’. By a factor of ten or so. It would be a mistake to ignore them: more guns is playing to the series’ strengths, and it speaks volumes to both the designers and writers that gun branding is a Thing That Exists: from the little logo that pops up as you equip your weapon of choice, the player can learn a lot about this gun just by who made it. Naturally, as part of Borderlands 2’s project to be bigger, faster and more explosive, some refinements have been made. Tediore, the Tesco Value of gunsmiths, now aren’t reloaded: they’re thrown away – to explode. New classes are in, too – no change from the structure of the old, with three trees of skills in which to specialise, but now with more attention paid to the play design of each tree, and some truly absurd skills to be found with enough levelling and focus. The soldier, a turret-dropping gentleman who is perhaps the closest to a straight transplant from the first game, now has the ability to let off a tiny nuclear explosion as his turret deploys, after teleporting to its’ location. ‘Up to 11’ indeed – Gearbox understand that, rather than rationing out your nuclear detonations à la Call of Duty, they should be an integral part of each and every fight. Rounding out the class selection are Salvador the Gunzerker: a dwarf with a power to dual-wield any pair of guns in the game, while running around with infinite ammunition; Maya the Siren, owner of various stunlocking and healing abilities, leading up to the ability to convert enemies to allies, then smash them into tiny pieces, and the daftly-named but wonderfully conceptually rich Zer0, a ninja assassin and sniper. Joining the roster shortly after launch, thanks to the vagaries of console certification, is the Mechromancer, built around the ability to summon a robotic familiar and designed both as a deeper class for old hands, and a starter class for new players, dragged into multiplayer co-op by friends or significant others.
[caption id="attachment_25357" align="alignleft" width="300"] Wary of breaking entirely with tradition, Gearbox did see fit to leave in one insane optional boss with a mountain of hitpoints. They present Terramorphous the Invincible, inevitably to be renamed Terramorphous the Thoroughly Defeated. After half an hour of solid combat/Gamespress[/caption]
The focus on Borderlands-as-social-gaming deserves mention: added in 2 is four-player splitscreen, for bouncing around the campaign as a sofa-full of friends, rather than detached voices in a headset. The touch of designers who prefer their games to be fun right now, rather than a progression of skill challenges to be surmounted (or racial slurs over voice comms to be depressed by) is clearly evident: while the infamous ‘girlfriend mode’ comment will go down in history as a PR disaster, it speaks to a desire in all gamers: the ability to grab someone you care about, hand them a controller, and sincerely promise “come play this thing with me, I guarantee you’ll have fun”. If Borderlands 2 is about generating enjoyable out-of-game social experiences, it’s looking like a dead cert.
But what of the experienced gamer? To settle into a 30+ hour videogame is the same sort of commitment as Russian literature: tough work at times, but with the promise of dribs and drabs of plot and inspiration which are made all the sweeter for the challenge. The story in Borderlands was, while not weak per se, a fairly perfunctory affair: the final boss drew uncharitable if accurate comparisons to that of one of Gearbox’s earlier successes, Half Life: Opposing Force. They promise better this time, bringing in established videogame funny-man Anthony Burch to write: while the plot remains mostly under wraps, the introduction of a recurring adversary in the form of Handsome Jack inevitably lends more structure and more direction to a game that could have easily fallen into the open-world trap.
[caption id="attachment_25358" align="alignright" width="300"] After bringing in one Burch to write, the other half of the comedy duo voices Tiny Tina, an insane thirteen-year-old seeking only to hold a tea party. With bandits and shotguns/Gamespress[/caption]
Borderlands 2 promises the earth (or rather, Pandora). The seeds are all there, though the nature of the game hides its’ success from the demo stand all too well: this is a game to get lost in over hours and days, not blast through a half-level in 25 minutes. Whether it matches expectations is a question that can only be answered in September.
Borderlands 2 is out on September 21st
[caption id="attachment_24421" align="alignright" width="300"] This Big Daddy is confused because he just appeared in a room with no obvious entrance except the one you just came through. It’s alright though, he doesn’t have a life to get on with. He’s a complicated prop in an interactive theatre. / Gamespress.com//2K Interactive[/caption]
The horror genre is something of the red-headed stepchild in games: genre conventions from film and literature are near-intrinsically subverted by the mechanical conventions of games. Our agency in games is part of the vernacular – to thwart player agency is to make us feel powerless and passive. While some of the most memorable scenes in interactive media come from stripping player agency, or from suddenly pulling back the curtain to reveal the rails we were on all along – Aeris’s death in Final Fantasy 7, SHODAN’s starring role in System Shock 2, the infamous scene with Andrew Ryan commanding his own death in Bioshock. Running through all four of the ‘Shocks is the sensation of being a rat in a maze – particularly in the middle two games (not unexpectedly, the critical favourites), the player spends the first act as a willing, deluded pawn; the second under non-consensual control or coercion, and the third as a newly-free agent. It’s no mistake that this parallels the horror film structure: the use of a first-act twist and subversion of what is usually a willing suspension of disbelief in the invisibility of invisible walls is a powerful mechanism for dragging the player into the protagonist’s head, just as we start to identify with Ripley in Alien as a result of shared reveals and responses.
Subverting player expectations is a cheap shot – taking away agency is an easy one, but there are other, subtler choices on the menu for gamemakers centred not around a lack of control or a lack of agency, but on direct subversion of the player. Perhaps the best examples lie in a quirk of level design: the creation of “impossible spaces”. Brilliantly, this isn’t a new thing – Bungie, latterly of Halo fame but notable here for the System Shock-esque Marathon series, included in the 1995-era Marathon 2 a number of maps in which four right turns won’t take you back to where you began, and in which the direction you traverse a hallway makes a difference as to where you arrive. Nothing is ever new, though – Stanley Kubrick’s design of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining does the same thing. The Overlook has doorways to nowhere, impossible corridors, and bizarre spatial compressions – Hallorann’s tour of the kitchens and freezer reveals a classic example of a two-way door effect, where leaving drops you in a different place to entering. Interactive impossible spaces open up extra possibilities to create a sense of the uncanny – the layout of the Overlook isn’t just an eerie feeling and a hidden joy for film buffs, but a genuine navigational challenge. Other clever-but-devious level design tricks appear in Prey, where doorways in an alien museum lead to the inside of an exhibit that you’ve already seen. Being able to fire back through the door, and watch a rocket fly through the room you’ve just left, is a strange experience indeed. More pragmatically, the exploitation of impossible space techniques crops up even in games that don’t want to lead us on a dance into the uncanny – Portal 2, despite the level design team being headed up by Adam Foster (among others), king of ‘realistic’ spaces in games, uses techniques from the development of uncanny spaces as a development aid and a design convenience. Foster himself admits in the developer commentary that at least two impossible spaces do exist in-game, but the beauty of such architectural tricks is that they only become apparent if made obvious, or with long-term familiarity.
[caption id="attachment_24427" align="alignleft" width="300"] The nameless island that provides the setting for MINERVA. Unlike most spaces, near-enough everything has a plausible backstory. Similarities to the Silent Cartographer are almost completely coincidental. / John Glanville//Adam Foster[/caption]
There are three kinds of space that can be made in a virtual world: the possible, the plausible and the impossible. The first sort are rare and compelling for their fidelity: Halo’s Silent Cartographer, Adam Foster’s MINERVA and Someplace Else, Fort Frolic in Bioshock and the overall structure of Liberty City. They speak to their functions outside of the game; they tell a story just through their shapes and spaces, and they are elegant for it. We feel a familiarity with them which is missing from the second category of plausible spaces: those which don’t actually violate the Euclidean world-shape with overlapping rooms or changing sizes, but which are nonetheless a series of corridors and arenas without a sense of place or shape. Story drapes over the corridors of Gears of War, through the art-deco stylings of the rest of Rapture, and post-apocalyptic Dubai in the truly remarkable Spec Ops: The Line, and wraps around Black Mesa, City 17, and White Forest in the Half-Life series. The plausible space is believable, if we are willing to accept that there are no machine rooms (except plot-critical ones) in Rapture and no bathrooms on the Sovereign, so we can put aside our doubts and be led through an interactive succession of film sets which are good enough to fake it. They don’t trick us, but they don’t grab us either.
The haunted house of impossible spaces is perhaps the artist’s domain more than the level designer’s: a space which is intentionally alienating to the player is one with an intent beyond just creating a space to lay a texture over. Like the designers of possible spaces, creators of Escherian impossibilities are out to key our experience in-game to those away from the screen, to feelings of exploration and confusion. They’re in the business of subverting the player’s expectations. Creating confusion with the unconscious help of the player themselves is just doing things with a little style.
Gamescom is Europe’s answer to E3: in fact, it arose partly as a result of the ‘dialled back’ E3 in 2008 and 2009. Three years on, it’s the largest “games event” in Europe, and sized appropriately to rival the new, old E3: the convention centre it’s held in could do double duty as a set of airliner hangars; the site as a whole takes twenty minutes to walk without breaking a sweat. Gamescom is not just big, it’s vast – and it’s living proof that videogames are big money.
On the business days, timed to coincide with the end of GDC Europe, and throughout the convention in general, this is a place to do business at every level of the industry, from independent studios looking for publishers to retail distributors from supermarkets and brick-and-mortar specialist retailers (well, the ones which are left) looking for what to stock: while the next iterations of Annual Franchise Shooter and Annual Franchise Football are assured, this is a golden opportunity for sleeper hits like Landwirtschafts-Simulator 2013 (tr.: Farming Simulator 2013) to make it to the bigtime: a brick-and-mortar retail deal can push a game from a niche darling to a smash hit, especially in the offline-dominated genres: not ‘dad games’ per se, but anything that might come as a birthday present from a non-gamer. This place is serious business, in every sense.
Except that it isn’t: the other side of the Koelnmesse contains the consumer halls: the industry talking to the customer directly, even when that customer is dressed as Cloud Strife from Final Fantasy VII (there will always be a legion of Cloud ‘cosplayers’) or a Stormtrooper. And in terms of euros-per-customer-exposure, marketing budgets here are outmatched only by the amount of amplification provisioned for the Mr. Motivator-descended line of PR reps whose job it is to exhort, with all the faith and vibrance of a Southern televangelist that you really, really should play their new free MMO which works on phones, iPads, Facebook and (presumably) the Sega Game & Watch and Virtual Boy as well.
This year’s consumer-side convention is dominated by the free-to-plays, as well as the expected megatitles: in many ways though, the Blizzard, Activision and EA stands are doing very little except keeping up appearances. Their customer base is assured, and it’s merely a mark that they still punch their weight that they occupy huge swathes of conference halls. Blizzard’s stand is given over to legions of PCs running the World of Warcraft expansion Mists of Pandaria, and the new Starcraft 2 expandalone Heart of the Swarm: both are nice to have, and both serve a real interest in both the press and consumers, but ultimately, Blizzard are not here to make a sale. Everyone who sells games will already stock them, subject to the usual negotiations. Activision are not here to make a sale: you can count the number of current Call of Duty players who don’t plan on buying Black Ops 2 on fingers and toes, and the market is saturated: as a non-COD gamer, the franchise glances off me. Ultimately, Activision are spending perhaps the most, for the least real return: their job here is just to be here.
Near-irrelevant to industry’s conversation with itself and the consumer, this is a place for the geeks and gamers of Europe to bond over a shared love of Borderlands and disdain for Mad Catz peripherals. As much as a commercial event, conventions are a cultural one too: for professionals it’s a time to meet PRs spoken to only through emails; for the average consumer, it’s a chance to see that there really is a community behind the forum. Both of those sound like a good thing to me, and it’s why, if you’re in the Rheinland before Sunday, you should give it a visit.
[caption id="attachment_24686" align="alignright" width="300"] gamescom 2012 is upon us and it all starts today (14th) with the EA Media Briefing at 4pm local time (3pm UK, 10am ET, 7am PT) where we’ll get to see FIFA 13 in action/fifasoccerblog.com[/caption]
High priest of nerdom John Glanville brings you the inside track on the future of gaming from this year’s Gamescom convention in Cologne.
The biggest Gamescom story so far is, funnily enough, one of failures and vapourware: in particular, the ongoing wait for Half-Life 3 (Regular readers will notice that I have a certain fondness for the franchise). For a few brief but significant minutes, the “list of announcements at Gamescom” document held the words “Valve – Half Life 3”. Naturally, everyone near a computer and with a passing familiarity with videogames did a doubletake, then proceeded to write incensed forum posts about how, obviously, they’d been working up to it/there’s no way it could be real (delete as appropriate). Obviously, someone has messed up: while Valve are infamously into the “alternate reality game” launch method, simply giving the answers away in a prospectus is not the sort of thing that their usual ARG designer is known for.For a man who announced his new job with the aid of a Hungarian numbers station, a simple PDF is uncharacteristically lazy.
So what about the prospect of Half-Life 3 can so incense the modern PC gamer? Why did I write a column capitalising on it? Will it ever actually come out? For starters, we should head for the beginning: very late 1997, and the release of the original Half-Life: even this, Valve’s first real game, was late by a year – it had been scrapped almost entirely in 1996 and rebuilt. A reputation for both a commitment to shipping complete, excellent games, and for missing deadlines like journalists miss meals, happily combined to produce a game which was and is beloved by the critical establishment. Then … silence. Counter-strike, a mod, was released and promptly bought out by Valve; the team was hired. The same happened to the teams and games behind Day of Defeat and Team Fortress Classic: promising talent released something, were hired, and ostensibly continued supporting their previous work. In the meantime, Valve later admitted, projects ‘churned’ in the background: occasional showings and leaks of things like ‘Team Fortress 2001’ (as it would become known) and an early Half-Life 2 alpha test only helped to prove to the playing public that Valve were at work on Good Things, as if Willy Wonka had periodically shown the world his sweets-in-progress. In 2004, with almost no warning: Half-Life 2, and a promise that in the future, they’d try to be less prone to waiting years to release a game. Episode 1 would follow in the autumn of 2005 with a promise of six-monthly instalments; Episode 2 arrived in spring 2007, admittedly with two other games in tow. Nevertheless, each was a 9/10 game or better: almost perfect. Valve justified their lackadaisical attitude to release dates, with a commitment to release quality.Notoriously, Valve slap a release date of “when it’s done” on just about anything they announce, or make Apple-esque announcements which declare a product or update out today or tomorrow. Even then, they’ve been known to slip on releases.
All of this adds up to a fanbase which has faith that if they wait long enough, the game they want will materialise eventually; it doesn’t help that recently, Valve have taken numerous moves which seem to point to either a period of expansion in a desire to kickstart (or finish) something big, or a radical shift in the makeup of the company; on top, Gabe Newell gave a now-notorious interview mostly on ‘Ricochet 2’, allegorically assumed to be Half-Life 3. Everyone is beginning to run out of jokes about how Valve can never make anything with a “3” in the title. Analysts are starting to point to a “now or never” situation with current-gen technology and direction. With the era of the traditional FPS seemingly almost over, the wait for a conclusion to the trilogy is assumed to have a cutoff. The rumour mill, and the fear that sits alongside it, isn’t one that the end product won’t measure up: it’s that the end product won’t get a chance to arrive.