17 December 2008

A favour...

I'm not sure how many people read this blog with any regularity but i have a favour to ask. I co-host a gaming podcast on a site called Eggmen.co.uk - however i get the feeling that no one listens to it. Normally i wouldn't be too bothered about lack of listenership because i'm doing it because i enjoy doing it and not because i'm looking for internet fame.

However, after doing three or four podcasts i think we need some constructive criticism and feedback on what we're doing right and wrong.... i'd like to be able to do the best we can do. If anyone could take the time to do something like this i'd really appreciate it.

12 December 2008

Lara pollarva (or pallarva - can't find the exact spelling!)

I've just gotten around to playing Tomb Raider: Underworld and boy.... I'm a bit let down. Not by the graphics - they're fantastic and in comparison with what i thought was next-generation in Legend this game really is a completely next-gen graphical parade - no, i feel that I'm let down by the controls.

I remember not long ago i read an article where one of the developers was saying how much they had changed under the hood of their engine and i agree with all of their graphical changes.... they've also upped the animation and Lara's interaction with the environment - that is to say that the environment isn't interactive but that Lara interacts with it more realistically; she will push away branches that get in her face, trip when she falls a small distance or stumble over rocks etc. They've really tried to get a more realistic feel to Lara's adventures... unfortunately they've almost completely wrecked the one thing that is really important in a game - the controls.

At first, when i played the demo, i thought maybe it was me and i was mis-remembering. I asked in forums if other people noticed the same things as i did and they said, "no" but i held off the purchase anyway. Then i saw the game for 60% off and one impulse buy later i owned it. Now, however i realise that i wasn't wrong and that i may just be more observant than other people. To make things worse, I've just gotten through playing a game with one of the most well-made control systems I've ever encountered (Prince of Persia) though some people argue that it takes a lot of control away from the player.

Let me explain what's happening. Underworld has twitchy controls or more accurately, it has twitchy controls for the analogue sticks. When i first played the game i became dizzy and felt really sick.... it only occurred to me as i was getting to the point that i had to put the game down that i actually was suffering from motion sickness - something I've never been susceptible to in gaming or real life. I put the game down, went to bed and have played some more tonight. It wasn't as bad but i still ended up watching flash-frame close-ups of Lara's behind/back/legs and random walls/floors.... you name it, as i moved around the levels.
Lara now turns on the proverbial dime, her movement is so fast and quick that my mind has trouble comprehending her almost jerky super-movements. Even the simple action of running is exaggerated to some degree and in a really annoying nerdy moment i realised that her hyper-fast legs run in an inward V-shape as if she was a model posing rather than actually running properly.... (okay, it's mainly annoying to me because i did cross country running for 7 years of my school life along with many other sporting pursuits.... i know what people look like when they run).... all of this means that Lara ends up looking like her animations were modelled after a toddler (watch any movie of a toddler or young child running and their body parts seem to be moving faster than they should be for how fast they are actually moving).

Then there's the typical Tomb Raider environment vs. movement affair we've come to know and love. I can't count the number of obstacles that i've tried to climb onto but have instead gone for a jump off. Try again, this time standing next to the face of the object or ledge, without the direction button and the same thing happens. Run Lara in a circle and retry and this time she deigns to grip the top and allow you to indicate that you want her to pull herself up. I've "tripped" when trying to drop down or jump off ledges/objects and met invisible walls that were really obtrusive and countless little niggles that all add up. Most of these things wouldn't even be a problem if her movement and camera controls were okay.

But hey, it's a 3rd person adventure game - why am I so hard on it when there have been so many games that had these same issues? The answer is because they didn't exist in either Legend or Anniversary or at least they were less of an issue then.

In Crystal Dynamics' move to make the newest Lara truly next-gen they seem to have abandoned everything that worked in the much-loved games and improved on some of those areas but made others more finicky and harder to get to grips with. I actually went back to play Legend and see if i was suffering from some sort of short-term nostalgia (i only played it a couple of months ago) and was happy to learn that i was correct... it wasn't all just in my imagination - just amplified by the ease and frustration-free controls of Prince of Persia.

In Legend, the camera is further behind Lara so, while you may not be able to get as good a shot of her arse in the game, when she rolls underneath an overhanging obstacle you don't get a front and centre view of her left ass cheek. Nor do you end up viewing some sort of Blair Witch-esque cinematography when platforming in general. You also had a first person view by clicking one of the analogue sticks.... which is really useful because even in Legend there are plenty of ledges and overhangs that will not allow the camera to be positioned such that you can see what's across from your position - they removed this feature in Underworld and replaced it with an over-the-shoulder-with-a-slightly-more-zoomed-in-position camera..... which can't be utilised when on said ledges... thus making it that much more difficult (and frustrating) to see whether you're about to jump to safety or a plunging crevasse.
I mentioned before that Lara turns really quickly, as does the camera, and there is less of a 'dead' zone and gradient applied to both analogue sticks - though there may be some way to reduce the sensitivity on them that i haven't found. To top it all off.... in Legend and Anniversary Lara's running was almost perfect - straight legs and everything!

Overall, i've been a bit frustrated with the first 'level' of the game (i've played through two levels but they both took place in the Medditeranean Sea and am up to the end of the demo in Bohisvarta) though hopefully i'll grow acclimatised to the controls and camera..... but it really is a shame that they ditched the control mechanisms from the last two games. I made the comparison between The Angel of Darkness Lara and Underworld Lara in my last post.... I just hope that the similarities don't get much more deeper.


I played through more of the game this morning... turns out that first person view has been replaced by a camera thing that Lara lifts to her face. The problem is that in confined spaces it's still useless as it's slightly zoomed in and has a depth of field effect applied to it's view.

Still not liking the camera and movement controls though i think i've pinpointed the problem with what they did for the camera. It appears that the developers have used a universal 'turning rate' for the camera - what this means is that the further away from Lara you are, the better control you have over the camera while the closer you are the more quickly the camera will move making it harder to control. Let me show you schematically:

Say Lara is at the centre point of a circle and we take the above slice as an example of wanting to move the camera through its arc. Having the camera always move at the same speed is annoying because when moving from point 1 to 2 it takes longer while the closer you get to Lara it becomes much quicker, e.g. from A to B. This is an example of a universal movement/turning rate where the distance covered by an object in a given time is not related to its position in the system. It's mostly annoying in Underworld because, as i mentioned further up somewhere, the camera is much closer to Lara this time than in the previous two incarnations. What you really want is for the camera to be on some sort of inversely proportional movement rate from its distance to the character so that you have fine control when zoomed out and when zoomed in.

One other factor that makes the game more frustrating is the fact that when the camera moves so does the direction that you are moving Lara. Say you're holding forward, running down an L-shaped corridor.... you can quite smoothly run Lara around that corner by gently moving the camera - which is good! But if that camera gets stuck on a piece of the environment or if it suddenly decides to jump to a different position you are left smacking Lara's head into a wall or something because your movement reference just did a 130 degree spas-out for very little reason.

While i haven't quite figured out the problem with the analogue controls for movement of Lara herself i spent about 20 minutes doing a 5 minute segment due to the finicky controls this morning. I was trying to jump from a beam to a pillar which you stand on. Because as soon as i went to the position to jump the camera would get up close and personal with Lara, making it difficult to aim my jump. The first two times it was really the camera that made me miss the pillar.... the second three times i aligned myself perfectly but for some reason Lara decided to jump over or right next to the pillar but not on it. Finally i managed to do it but it's very frustrating.

11 December 2008

The evolution of Miss Croft...

Many thousands of words have been dedicated to this icon of gaming and at least a good portion of them were in relation to her appearance. This is going to be one of those times...

Today I received Underworld and while sitting there looking at the cover and not playing the game it struck me that something was different this time:

First off.... someone dislocated their hip! It's almost half a foot lower than the other one and she's not doing that slanty hip thing that models do. Secondly, she has a tummy! A realistic tummy too and i found myself strangely hypnotised with this bared midriff. Then it struck me - is this the first time i've seen a realistic female character? Fortunately not, Half Life 2 had Alyx and Dr. Mossman, Mirror's Edge has Faith - though i can't think of any others off the top of my head. What it was that had me though was that i was seeing 'realistic' body proportions on Lara.

Some of these are art rather than in game models though the general appearance is accurate

Look at the evolution of Lara's appearance over time. What's strange is that Lara pretty much stayed the same over the first 5 games up until Revelations/Chronicles, gold belt buckle and all then there was a sudden transformation as Eidos tried to invigorate their franchise in the Angel of Darkness (a game i enjoyed) and which unfortunatey fell foul of critical and general gamers' ire due to Eidos forgetting to update the movement controls along with the rest of it. Lara's look for AoD was that of a more serious and strong character. It was as if she had suddenly listened to the Spice Girls for the first time and realised that she wasn't quite 'girl power' enough so toned down the large eyes, thick lips and made herself have a more realistic figure - which included a reduction in the size of her breasts though she also lost quite a lot of her waist and hips too. Generally I liked the look - thought it was good.

Ever since Crystal Dynamics (of the fantastic Legacy of Kain series) took the reigns of the franchise, Lara has been more dynamic, slick and increasingly realistic... along with the graphical and gameplay reboots they also re-worked the story of the original game into the middle of a trilogy. Legend was pretty much the best 3rd person game i'd played since Prince of Persia and her khaki-style getup was pretty modern and individual. However, she still suffered from a few of the old traits of 'idealistic' character design, namely her waist which was pretty thin and her stomach was unrealistically shaped/toned. Anniversary, the remake of the original, left her basically unchanged with the exception of (i think) her face which was altered slightly. Strangely, despite Underworld taking place in the same story arc with basically the same engine they have completely revamped her physique.

Gone are the impossibly thin hips, she has good proportion between chest-waist-hips and her breasts seem more natural - these are all good things - and to my point above her stomach seems real, like as if it were actually based off a real woman who wasn't super muscled or anorexic. Most alarmingly though they've completely redone her face which was really off-putting when i tried out the demo and it seems to be in relation to her new official real life model who is a gymnast. Now though, Lara is about as close as we can get to being based on a real woman there's not much more that can be done except alter between different shapes and sizes - for which there is no need. However, looking at the pictures of Underworld's Lara i couldn't help but notice the striking similarities between her and the Lara from Angel of Darkness; similar sort of composition to the character from her clothing to her hair including the bangs in her 'fringe'. There's also the tone of the game - what with the intro of her house exploding and her walking away from it.... It's like history is repeating itself.

Are Crystal Dynamics doing a mini-homage to the worst received Tomb Raider game? If so, i'm cool with it. I'm also cool with attractive, realistic female protagonists/antagonists/any roles in games. I can't imagine what my 15 year-old hormonal self would have made of the current Lara considering what he actually thought of the original (yeah, i'm a sad, sad nerd/geek who needs to get out more) but let me tell you one thing.... kids these days don't know how lucky they are to have better graphics, and better female role models in games. Now we just need to work on the male role models in games. I think the Prince of Persia is the best character i can think of to be an inspiration to young men.... otherwise what else do we have? Duke Nukem/Gears of War?

Yeah.... and people wonder why i tend to prefer playing female characters in games.

And this is why PEGI shouldn't be the rating standard in the UK...

Turns out that a mother was horrified to discover that a version of Scrabble on the DS uses swear words pretty readily. Now the interesting thing here is that the game was rated 3+...... 'by PEGI'.

The story goes that the woman bought the game for her son and played it first to discover words like tits and fuckers (wrongly defined btw). As the article notes:

The worst thing is that there's an age rating of 3+ on the box and no advisory warning about adult language on the packaging at all.

So she wrote off to Nintendo who told her to contact Ubisoft.... who told her to contact PEGI.... who just ignored her and has been doing so for the last three months:

It in turn blamed the game's publisher, Ubisoft, and told her to contact video-games rating system Pan European Game Information.

She emailed them three months ago but has yet to hear whether any action will be taken.

I've mentioned before why PEGI is not a good rating body for rating games for 12+, 15 and 18 in the UK as the industry seems to want but it seems that unless they change the way that they allow games to be rated that these incidents will happen more frequently.

Primarily it's because PEGI allow publishers to do a 'self assessment' from which a rating can be derived. The games are usually not played so any rating ends up less of a function of actual game content and more of a function of some check boxes (i know it's not quite that simple - but who thinks of using swear words in scrabble when you're thinking about how the game works?) on what is considered the gameplay.

Secondly, shame on Nintendo for not dealing with this. It's their console and they have the power to actually get a response from Ubisoft and PEGI. They should be protecting not only their brand but enforcing standards on their consoles. Shame on Ubisoft for not sorting this out themselves - it's their game for god's sake! Shame on the faceless and organisation of PEGI for not rating games thoroughly.

Again, i want to decry PEGI and champion the BBFC who actually play through every game before rating it. ELSPA and publishers can try and get PEGI as the rating standard in the UK all they want but they also need to learn to take responsibility rather than just passing the blame onto the next company who, in the end, don't care.... well.... none of them care as long as the game is out there, being sold.

I contacted PEGI for their comments on this incident and how it will affect the ratings process of future games... so i'll keep you updated on how that goes - if it 'goes' at all. Three months!


8 December 2008

Hearing things....

Every now and then i begin to hear a dissonant wail in the distance causing a brief stir of alarm within my chest and a tightening of my nerves. Am i crazy?

Luckily not! It seems there's a WW2 enthusiast or something nearby because occasionally (and randomly) during the day an air raid siren will sound. It's a testament to the unsettling nature of this dissonant wail that it cuts through whatever else i'm doing and makes me sit up and pay attention. I'm also constantly surprise that, despite not having ever lived through World War 2 or any other major conflict on home shores, i immediately respond emotionally to the siren's call.

It has such a powerful emotional meaning in history that even I am trained to heed its call and it's no surprise that they chose it for the trapping of the Eloi by the Morlocks in the 1960 film adaptation of HG Wells' The Time Machine.

This feeling links in rather nicely with an article over on The Brainy Gamer. Though the article focuses mainly on dissonance in relation to game interaction and feedback i think there needs to be more purposefully dissonant feedback in games: sounds and graphics.
How many of the most memorable games you've played have had one particular sound or creature that freaked you out or had you on edge every time you knew it was coming? Or perhaps just provided a fond memory of encountering them in the game? Doom 1&2 did this for me. The spiders and the Arch Vile put me on edge every time i heard their sound effects. Morrowind had the followers of Dagoth Ur where there would be whispering chants in the background of their sanctums. Killzone had the red eyes of the Helgast. Ico had the contrast between the Queen and her minions and Yorda. Stalker had the psychic enemy and the blood tentacled guys (sorry, my memory fails me).

These little details add to the game world and environment and they also help reinforce certain aspects of the games the designers are trying to put across.... whether it be danger or the alien nature of a world or place.

4 December 2008

GTA 4 Clusterf*ck...

Looks like GTA 4 is a crappy, buggy mess for a lot of people. Rockstar issued a brief statement saying:

Hey guys,

We are aware that a small number of fans are having problems running GTA IV on their PC’s and we would like to assure them we are working to help solve these as quickly as possible.

We would ask anyone that is encountering difficulties to contact their local technical support helpline for advice and recommendations. These telephone numbers can be found in the game’s manual.

There is also a regularly updated technical support page available on the Rockstar Games website http://www.rockstargames.com/support/ where there are many useful faqs and information on how to resolve some common problems being encountered.



Of course, none of those support lines are free of charge....

The main problem i see here is that there are two separate issues. The first is the most stupid and that is having to rely on three separate programmes to be able to play the game:

  • Securom activation
  • Games for Windows Live!
  • Rockstar Social Club
Each and every one of these three things has to have zero conflicts to be able to play the full game. Now, i've said elsewhere on the internet that it seems likely (i.e. a high probability) that one or more of these services can fail or be taken offline or whatever.... I guess the fact that i was always bad at statistics means that i have some real-world grasp of how things are likely to happen as opposed to the multiples of failure probabilities (i'd add those three up there rather than multiply their probability factors).

The second issue is that they released the game half a year later than the console versions and it's incredibly buggy. Who's going to buy a game that came out on consoles half a year ago? The people who primarily play on PC or big Rockstar fans. So, to curb piracy and to show that it's worth waiting and playing on PC you release a super DRM-laden, bloatware-laden (and i never usually use that term but when you have to install two extra programmes it's ridiculous) and buggy game what do you expect to happen?

It's possible that multiple patches will be released.... however their track record is not good on PC. Bully received no patches (at least not that i could find), San Andreas got one patch, Vice City also got one patch and the original GTA 3 got no patches.

People of course want refunds. However, as i've pointed out before - games consumers have no voice - they have no power to vote with their wallet because of some unspoken conspiracy to be unable to return games no matter how defective or bad.

Of course, for people who bought it through Valve there is some chance of getting a refund... just not very likely:

"It's a hit or miss depending on who recieves your ticket, and how you present your case. Some people have been getting their refunds, some people haven't."

"I've been denied a refund for games that do not work on my computer two times now.

From what I understand, and have been told is "We do not give refunds for digital purchases.""

It also turns out that Valve operate on a "one-time courtesy" policy for third party products - meaning that if you do manage to get a refund for this game there's pretty much zero chance of managing to get that other crappy and buggy game refunded.

No other industry is like this.... only the service industry and even then they are fully accountable because you hold a service account with them and can switch to other, similar services if they are treating you badly.... it's a shambles and each time it happens i'm coming that much closer to shutting down my PC for good. I bet a lot of other people are too.

2 December 2008


Is that the future of buying games? I'm not talking about getting a game and then having to pay more to get features and content. No, i'm talking about buying the 'same' game from different retailers.

Due to recent increased competition in the UK games retailer market and also due to the financial dip we're in, retailers are having to work at getting people's custom, which they seem to be doing by offering exclusives. Now, i don't know if they're paying the developers or publishers for these exclusives but it's beginning to get a little confusing when knowing what you're going to get and if you'll be able to access all this offered content in the game.

For example: Prince of Persia (the new one)
  • You can buy the standard game - no bells or whistles
  • You can buy a standard game with a nice case from HMV or GAME
  • You can also buy a nice case with some unlockable codes for character skins from Play
The bog standard game is £5 cheaper but all the other three versions are indentical in price (which is fair enough, it's up to the retailer to set the eventual price) but my question is if i want the game the only shop i'm going to get it from is Play..... but if i didn't hear about the game when it was released or had to pick it up later on due to financial restrictions do i still have access to those character skins in the game through natural progression and unlocking ability? Do these games have the same content?

It's a similar situation to Shaun White's snowboarding over in America. Target teamed up with Ubisoft to make extra content for the game that's only available in Target stores. Now, it's $5 more expensive than the normal version.... but that's extra content that you can't buy through DLC or anything....

I'm trying to think of a similar business situation but the only one that comes to mind is in the music industry, where 'artists' (because i'm sure it's more to do with the labels) have recently begun selling their albums and then a few weeks later (or simultaneously) selling a new version that has exclusive content such as 4-6 new songs for an extra price. This means that fans either have to buy two versions of the album or do without - though some of these songs are available through downloadable stores.

The practice seems to be a good way to hoodwink the consumer into paying more for the product they wanted and it also seems a good way to alienate your consumer base by splitting up the products into haves and have-nots. I was lucky in seeing the Play offer because i don't normally shop there and because i'm a big fan of the PoP series i immediately switched my pre-order and paid £5 more just to ensure that i still had access to that cool content..... but really, it comes down to lack of information. The same way that DRM is peddled and practiced on the PC the process is not transparent and so we, the consumer, have to make uneducated guesses when deciding how or where to buy our products.

It's a confusing world out there, developers, please don't make it worse.