Sunday, November 8, 2009

Life in the Borderlands

Waiting for Diablo III? Need an action RPG fix that allows you to play with a few of your friends?

Looking for some First Person Shooter (FPS) action, but would like something you can play with your friends instead of against them?

Look no further than the Borderlands. This game combines the squad based FPS tactics of Call of Duty or Rainbow Six type games with action RPG of the Diablo Games with a heavy dose of Fallout 3 for flavor. If that sounds like a strange combination how about this: the game’s setting is a clear combination of Mad Max meets Firefly. The alien landscape looks eerily similar to the Australian outback. As if that wasn’t enough you run into characters like Mad Mel (aka Mel Gibson as ‘Mad Max’) and Bruce McClane (Bruce Willis as Officer John McClane from ‘Die Hard’). The developers clearly understand they are crossing a lot of genre boundaries and they do a magnificent job of it. Easter eggs abound for the Action/Sci-Fi fans who want to look.

But the real treat here is the game play. The game opens up with you being dropped off the bus at a rustic little town with a bandit problem. You are thrown directly into the action and you pick your character type and name as you go through the game introduction. And the action if plentiful. This is First Person Shooting top to bottom, no matter which of the four character classes you choose you get a gun to start out. But this isn’t a Quake/Unreal Tournament style shooter. There is a premium on solid tactics. Running straight into the bad guys with guns blazing will just get you thrown back to the last save point in the game. You quickly learn to approach with caution, use the long range weapons when you can, find cover and figure out the enemies weaknesses wherever you can.

If you are lucky enough to play with a friend or three (four player are the max) you get a real treat. A knowledge of basic squad tactics will allow you to succeed, which is important because the game difficulty ratchets up a bunch in multiplayer mode. Find a place to lay suppressing fire and find who is good at flanking the enemy. In some cases, this is the only way to get through in multiplayer as some creatures are virtually impossible to kill head on. Having friends who understand this is key, and good communications will help in that regard. There is no in game voice on the PC, so I highly recommend a voice connection before starting to play.

All of that, and a pretty good story line. Nothing very original (find the keys to the “Vault”), but there are numerous quests and lots of scenery to see along the way. And a whole lot of laugh out loud humor that keeps you coming back again and again.

A word of warning for the timid or parents: this is a fairly mature game, there is a lot of immature language (who would call that adult language?) There is a lot of gore in the game as well, and no way to turn it off that I can find. Then again, I didn’t look very hard for a way.

It’s also good to know that this isn’t a “twitch” type of game. While the action can get very hectic, there is almost always a way to retreat when it gets too heavy and find a different approach to the problem. Again, smart tactics will beat heavy hitting at every turn.

Given the big competition in games this season, Borderlands my be overlooked by a lot of gamers. That would be a shame, because for those who play it, they will remember the experience for a long time.

Borderlands Gameplay Video at Youtube.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Batman’s Arkham story is Best game of 2009 (so far)

Ok, with the Holiday season coming up it is obviously too early to call any game the best of 2009. None the less it has been a pretty good year for gaming so far so I thought I’d put in my two cents for the best game I’ve seen so far. I’d even go so far as to say that when the year ends, this is likely to still be the best of 2009.

For my money Batman: Arkham Asylum (B:AA) is the winner so far, hands down. The game breathes life into one of the most recognizable comic book heroes and goes so much further than any super hero game to date.

It’s probably safe to say that most people who are not familiar with the Batman universe have little or no knowledge of what Arkham Asylum is. And those that know it is a mental hospital for the criminally insane of Gotham City may not fully appreciate what that means. As the place where most of Batman’s biggest foes (Joker, Bane, Two-Face, etc.) end up, Arkham has come to represent a virtual purgatory in the DCU. So it comes as no surprise that having Batman spend a night in Arkham is at the bottom to some of the darkest stories in his history.

Which is precisely the story behind B:AA. As the game starts up we find Batman doing what he does so often, returning Joker to Arkham after another breakout and crime spree by the Clown Prince of Crime. But this time Batman is unhappy. Well, Batman is never really happy, but putting Joker away is usually where the story ends. In this case we find that the Joker has given himself up almost without a fight, and that sounds alarm bells for Batman’s always suspicious mind. And sure enough, it turns out Joker is looking forward to his “home-coming.” Arrangements have been made. A fire at Blackgate penitentiary has made it necessary to move many of the prisoners there to Arkham temporarily. Many of them are Joker’s henchmen, adding to the suspicious nature of Joker’s return.

During the course of the game you will be introduced (or re-introduced if you are familiar with the Batman stories) with many of his most familiar foes. What makes B:AA the best Super Hero game ever is the way you get to experience what it is to be the Bat. At your disposal will be nearly all of “those magnificent toys” the Joker is always going on about. Use the Grappling gun to swing up to a roof top, or hide out in the rafters to listen in to the bad guys conversations to gather intelligence. Switch to Detective mode to find clues about what is going on. You can fight the bad guys head on, or you can sneak up behind them for the classic silent take down. Rarely are you constrained to one tactic in the game.

The fight system in the game is simply spectacular. While most of your attacks are initiated by a simple button press, the fight moves are elegant and varied. Each fight looks like it is being choreographed for a movie, but each fight can go in completely different ways no matter how many times you replay a scenario. It’s the kind of attention to detail that shows that the creators really know and love the Batman mythos.

Which isn’t a surprise either. After all, the game was produced by some of the same artists who worked on many of the movies and animated creations for TV. Writer/director Paul Dini (Batman the Animated Series, Superman the Animated Series, Batman Beyond, etc) wrote the story for B:AA, and his humor and love of the characters shows in every line. Even better, the voices that people are so familiar with from the Animated series are here as well: Kevin Conroy (Batman the Animated Series, Batman Beyond, etc.) reprises the voice of Batman and Mark Hamill (Star Wars, Big Red One, Batman the Animated Series, etc.) does the voice of the Joker. In fact, I think Hamill’s manic Joker voice acting may be the best Joker on film period.

But this isn’t the Saturday morning cartoon series. This is a darker, more adult and much much grittier Batman. This is a a younger version of the Batman from Frank Miller’s 1986 The Dark Knight Returns graphics novel. Graphically this is an amazing game and I mean that knowing how great today’s games can look. This is the best of the year. From Batman’s Kevlar weave batsuit to the foreboding and haunting Arkham Island, the game developers obviously spent thousands of hours bringing the Batman universe to life.

Just as Bioshock surprised me with it’s rich visuals, deep deep story line and snappy game play a year ago, Batman: Arkham Asylum has raised the Super hero gaming genre to a new height. I hope they plan on giving us a sequel. Certainly they have only dipped their toes into the massive world of Batman, with over 70 years of source material to use for more stories. I’ve yet to play this game through completely. I keep restarting it to re-experience various parts, and because I don’t really want it to end. It’s that good. I can’t imagine another game releasing this year that would cause me to change my vote for best of 2009, but I can’t wait to see what the rest of the year holds.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Should you buy a game from this man?

I just finished reading an interview at Ten Ton Hammer of game designer/producer Bill Roper. It was a very candid discussion, but as a software engineer myself there were things Roper said that set off alarm bells for me. Especially on the eve of the launch of his latest game Champions Online.

First of all let me say I am a bit of an MMO addict. I have to try nearly every one that I see hit the market. I’m also a long time fan of Comic book heroes, so I have played City of Heroes/Villains (COX). I expect to play Champions Online (CO) as well and have high hopes for it as a fan of both genre’s.

The thing that surprised me in the Roper interview was his statement that in the recent Open Beta of CO they were forced to “swing the wheel hard to port to make a big course correction.”  By this I take it to mean that they found something in the Beta that was so broken it required a major change to get it where they wanted it. And while I understand the need to sometimes make these kinds of adjustments in a project, it is sad to hear they are still doing that days before the game releases.

Of course, that was still in Beta and that is the right time to make big changes. However, what I have seen in the past with other games is that the developers, forced to release before the game is really ready, get comfortable making major changes of this kind. They forget that once the paying customers come on board it is no longer entirely “their” game. It becomes a kind of community property with the customers making a financial and emotional stake in the game. At that point major changes will cause major headaches.

The other thing that alarmed me was that he would make this announcement the day before the game goes live. It sounds a bit like a warning: “We’re still making major changes, and people may want to be aware of that before the game launches.” Having problems right up to launch time has become a sort of tradition in MMO’s. Making a point of telling people about it, while perhaps refreshing, is also cause for concern for all those preparing to play the game.

I hope CO has a long run as an MMO, unlike Mr. Roper’s more recent efforts. However, I have to go on record and say that if the game fails, I suspect that interview will come back to haunt him and his team. I’ve pre-ordered the game (after reading the interview in fact) and wish the team a long happy endeavor. If only I could shake the feeling that there will be many bumps along the road.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Is Microsoft f(l)ailing?

John Dvorak asks an interesting question: Is the party over for Microsoft? While people have been predicting the demise of Microsoft for many years, I think it may be about time to call the game. The end may in fact be nearer than we think. Of course, having something like US$30 Billion in the bank means MS won’t simply go away. They can play the losing game for years to come.

As Dvorak says in his column, Microsoft has a long history of chasing after markets created by other people. What I think he really misses is the fact that Microsoft has never had any other marketing plan. They “borrowed” the DOS model from Digital Research’s CP/M operating system. They then “borrowed” the Windows operating system from Apple. Dvorak’s list is just the continuation of the Microsoft modus operandi from the start.

The problem is, Microsoft is running out of ideas they can take from other companies. Microsoft has been bleeding money in several of these ventures. In addition, they have been caught “borrowing” so many times that competitors and government regulators are now far more likely to call them on it.

Microsoft is set for a big fall, which is odd because I think Windows 7 will be a big seller for them. I just think they have too many irons in the fire pulling them under (plenty of mixed metaphor’s there.) But they don’t understand that selling a good product and simply making it better is a valid business plan. Especially in a recession.