Showing posts with label games. Show all posts
Showing posts with label games. Show all posts

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Gamers and Developers: A Love Story

Communication between gamers and developers is a tough issue. Most people outside the industry (and plenty inside) have no idea how tumultuous live development can be. I can tell you that in previous jobs I've had experiences where one day I'm working on a feature and the next day it's been cut or de-prioritized. This along with other concerns often makes it difficult to communicate with the end user in a way that a) doesn't get their hopes up about a feature they want, but may not see the light of day and b) still engages those users in a way that makes them feel accommodated. It drives both sides crazy. Gamers end up feeling like their investment isn't being rewarded and that they're just being used, while developers end up resenting what they see as "entitled" users who think they know better how to make the game, but are never happy with what they get. Better communication can often help everyone to reach a happy middle ground, but the signal to noise ratio on the internet is lousy and it always has been. Add to this the logistical issues of time, money, manpower, and the need to please the largest audience possible in order to get the biggest return on investment and you're always going to end up pissing someone off and making others feel as if they're being ignored.

I know a lot gets said within the industry about games being art and how dare anyone not think of games as art, and as a designer I agree: games are art. There are degrees however and not all art is created equally. Speaking musically (because I can always analogize things in regards to music) I've come to realize that what we normally refer to as "triple A" games have way more in common with pop music than they do with punk rock while audiences seem to expect a more punk mentality regardless. Mainstream pop music wants to reach the widest audience possible and (to me at least) ends up sounding watered down and bland. There's something for "everyone", but if you're looking for an 8 minute drum solo then you're probably out of luck. Punk rock (real Punk rock ... but that's a whole other discussion) doesn't care about the broadest audience. The philosophy there is "the right people will get this". Is there great pop music? Hell yeah! Is there lousy punk rock? You bet! The same goes for games and when you're dealing with live development on games that are essentially pop music (every game I've ever worked on) you're never going to please everyone.

There's no right way to foster better communication between gamers and developers. I've often been heard to rant that developers should give gamers much more information about the process of development. I'd love for people to really see how the sausage is made, but that's not my call. I like to think that maybe if people saw that just because you can come up with the "perfect" answer to a problem doesn't mean it can be done, they'd be more forgiving. Game development involves a lot of compromise and often frustration. Gamers always feel like their prefered feature is the most important and "why doesn't someone just put this in the game?" To be honest, I know plenty of designers who feel the same way. I personally have designed at least as much content that has seen the light of day as hasn't but that's how pop music gets made. For every 10 tracks on a top 40 album, there's maybe twice as many that didn't make the cut, but that there is probably some (albeit smaller or more dedicated) audience for.

If developers tell you everything they're doing as they make or support a game, there's going to be things that you're really into that just dissipate and when you get people excited about something and then pull it away, it never ends well. I can remember this exact thing happening with Ultima Online back when I was in college when they had proposed a radical and (to me at least) interesting sounding bounty/good/evil system to help curb (or gamify) their player killing issues. The system as it was discussed never went live and they ended up going for a simpler option of splitting the world into PvP and non-PvP mirrors. On the one hand I appreciated the openness and on the other hand I felt cheated out of a system I was looking forward to. In hindsight, I have to assume that the system wasn't all it was cracked up to be and didn't solve their issues in the manner they desired.

You can only ever say too much or say too little and when opinion is already turned against you (warranted or not) the outcry is almost always going to be negative. The more negative the gamers are, the less the developers want to talk to them and the less both sides talk to each other, the further apart they get. If you want real discussion and insight into development, say nice things. Sometimes developers don't have all the information they need. Sometimes developers don't engage enough with their audience. Sometimes developers think they know better than their customers, but developers aren't out to get you and most of them are pretty good at what they do. If those things weren't true then they wouldn't have jobs and you wouldn't be playing their games to begin with. Publishers (in my experience) don't manipulate studios (at all) or as much as the public thinks they do and being that this is pop music, developers are here to make money as much as they're here to make art.  They don't want to be taken advantage of or undermined just as much as gamers. Show them respect and they'll show it right back. Sensationalism and misplaced outrage will only fan the flames and I personally would much rather we find a way to make better games together.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Top 5 Games of 2012

2012 was a decent year for games if not a slow year for games. We seem to have settled into a bi-yearly cycle for the release of numerous major blockbusters and this past year was the off year for those releases. A look ahead at 2013 has a number of high profile titles slated to launch before the end of FY12 and are very likely to be the last such titles we see during this console cycle with the all-but-confirmed announcement and launch of at least one next gen console likely to happen before the end of the year.

While the crop of titles was smaller this year the quality was high and innovation still strong. 2012 was the year of crowd funding, with several recognizable developers utilizing Kickstarter to great effect in getting their next projects funded. This however, along with the continued strengthening of the indie games scene, has done nothing to heal the divide between various gamer factions. Forums and comment sections on gaming sites all over the internet have been constantly embroiled in idealogical shouting matches of mainstream vs indie vs old school.

It seems that gaming has finally developed a very vocal elitist class that claims to abhor modern mainstream marketing techniques such as DLC and F2P/MTX while championing niche throwback titles and bold anti-publisher actions by developers. While its an interesting conversation to be sure, several things remain to be seen:

  1. Will these elitist gamers put their money where their mouths are and withdraw support from mainstream triple-A developers and publishers?
  2. Are the numbers of these gamers as large as they seem or are they just loud?
  3. Are these gamers willing to support smaller, less cutting edge games, that look poorer, but meet their exacting aesthetic requirements or will they expect the same type of experience that big developers require millions of dollars and thus a broad audience to support?

I tend of believe that most of these people are all talk and while I want a Baldur’s Gate style throwback RPG and a massive open-ended space sim too, I don’t realistically expect these things to look and feel the same as a game that has a much broader appeal. It’s going to be interesting to see as some of these crowd funded projects begin bearing fruit how the elitist gamer community and the non-funding audience responds and what that may mean for all strata of development going forward.

Enough industry talk though. These are my Top 5 favorite games of 2012:

1. Mass Effect 3 by BioWare
Controversy surrounding the original version of the ending aside, Mass Effect 3 concluded the epic trilogy in a truly triumphant fashion. Taking some of the best aspects of ME1 and 2 and adding a few new tricks of it’s own, ME3 was a solid, enjoyable experience from start to finish. The game and the story didn’t let off the throttle for one moment and the stakes were always high. Not since the Baldur’s Gate series had I felt such affection for a group of characters in a video game both due to their excellently written dialog and personalities, but also due to the decisions I had made for and with them throughout each game. ME3 ended Commander Shepard’s story in grand style and has thusly earned a place of honor in my collection.

2. The Walking Dead by Telltale Games
After a couple lackluster titles with Back to the Future, Jurassic Park, and yes … Law and Order, Telltale came back in a big way in 2012 with the first 5-part series of adventure games based on The Walking Dead comics. I always tell people that The Walking Dead comic is not about zombies, it’s about people and there just happen to be zombies in it. The Walking Dead game apes its source material perfectly in this respect with the zombies mainly being a device to put people into desperate situations and to force the player to make hard decisions. And boy will you make some hard decisions in The Walking Dead. It’s not always a choice between good and bad either, often it there is no good choice and more often than not the consequences will catch up to you in the end. It’s hard to talk in specifics about The Walking Dead without spoiling a game that’s full of honestly surprising twists. Suffice it to say that every element of this game from the art style, the game design, the cinematics, the writing, acting, and sound all come together to create an emotional tour-de-force that everyone should play at least once.

3. Far Cry 3 by Ubisoft Montreal
Like films that only play in New York and LA in the last week of the year in order to squeak by for Oscar consideration, Far Cry 3 launched at the beginning of December and immediately made an impact on numerous game critics. The thing here is that even if it had launched earlier I’m betting it would have made just as big an impact on many people’s year end considerations. The format is simple enough: Assassin’s Creed 2 meets Far Cry 2 and it’s a combination that works very well. What pushes this title above and beyond however is the main characters (like the brilliantly acted antagonist Vaas) and the story subtext. On the surface this is a very clear cut story of an outsiders getting into trouble abroad and going native to get out again. Far Cry 3 plays subtly with metaphor and allegory however making it’s beauty much more than skin deep. Add into this mix a protagonist that actually grows as a characters (not a common occurrence in this genre) and you've got something unique and refreshing on display here.

4. XCom: Enemy Unknown by Firaxis
The original XCom and it’s few immediate expansions/spin-offs are classics held in the highest regard by PC gamers over a certain age. Sadly in the decade+ since the last traditional XCom game, no one has been able to continue the tradition in a satisfying manner. When Firaxis announced that there were taking a stab at the franchise the PC gaming world breathed a sigh of relief. This new XCom is both homage and a much-needed modern update to the franchise and brings all the core elements one who has played the original would expect, but with modern trappings and manicuring. The end result is a product that new and old XCom fans can both get excited about.

5. FTL by Subset Games
Somehow 2012 ended up being the year of the spaceship crew simulation with games like Artemis, Spaceteam, and FTL each offering their own interpretation of managing the perils and teamwork required to pilot a sci-fi craft through space. FTL is simple to play, but difficult to master as it simulates operating a space craft on the run from an enemy fleet. The simulation is straightforward enough: players choose a craft and on each turn they plot their course through the galaxy. At each stop there is a chance of running into enemies, friends, plunder, or nothing at all making each jump a potential risk. In order to improve one’s chances however qualified captains need to upgrade their ship’s systems and purchase new equipment and that requires scrap gained from successfully navigating these chance encounters. While this is all straightforward enough, players will ultimately have to face the mothership of the enemy fleet, a multi encounter battle that’s seriously hard even on easy difficulty settings. It’s this difficulty that drives the deeper elements of the game and even as the player crashes and burns they’re already thinking of how best to outfit their ship for another go.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Greetings from the Rook Islands

I've managed to spend about 27 hours in the world of Ubisoft's Far Cry 3 up to this point and just when I thought the game had shown me all it had to offer, it pulled something new out of it's bag of tricks. Far Cry 3 drops you off on the Rook Islands as Jason Brody, some rich, young douche bag who has unwittingly gotten himself captured (along with his rich, young douche bag friends) by south Asian pirates/slavers/drug runners. Jason escapes his captors and with the help of an oppressed native population, begins a journey to rescue his friends and retake the islands. All the while Jason actually grows as a character, which while a foreign concept to most FPS games, is par for the course in a game like Assassin's Creed, which Far Cry 3 draws heavily from in more ways than one.

The game play format for Far Cry 3 will be familiar to anyone who has played through Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed games. The player is dropped onto a map that is largely covered by a "fog of war" and that can only be removed by climbing towers in order to get a bird's-eye view of the area. Each uncovered map section has various side missions and activities that are available once uncovered and after a few hours of play it's easy for even the casual player to have tried each of these activities. For the average player I assume the pacing is rather even as the main story takes them from one island section to the next and frequently offers breaks wherein side missions can be obtained and animals can be hunted to craft new equipment. For the hardcore explorer type like myself, I spent much of my first 20 hours uncovering every section of the northern Rook island, liberating every pirate-held camp, and crafting every item available. To say that I've been playing this game "methodically" would be an understatement. The only thing that forced me to move the main story along was the fact that large sections of the RPG-style skill trees are locked by mission completion. You would think even the main mission would be boring to me by this point (having bought, fired, and customized every non-unlockable gun in the game) but I love the AC-style of open world game and as an explorer I'm a huge meta-gamer too. I would often partake in the game's existing challenges such as liberating a camp (killing all the bad guys) without being seen, heard, or having an alarm raised, but I also created my own challenges such as doing to the above using only the bow and arrow. Still (truth be told) by hour 24 I was starting to hit a bit of a wall.

With the southern island locked to me and naught but a few relics left to uncover on the northern island I finally set about progressing the rest of the main storyline. I was on the set of missions that take you to "Badtown" on the eastern half of the northern island, which had some interesting objectives beyond just killing pirates such as using a flame thrower to burn pot fields. Novelty aside, I was still just doing "shoot the bad guy" missions and each mission was more or less a self-contained experience. It was the next set of 3 or 4 missions that acted a shot in arm for me however. Having found that one of Jason's friends had been sold to a ne'er-do-well in the aforementioned Badtown, I embarked on a set of missions to bargain for his freedom. The bad guy wanted me to obtain some ancient knife that had been lost on the island centuries before by a Chinese conqueror. What followed was a chain of missions that (while still having the Assassin's Creed meets FPS feel) threw a heaping portion of Uncharted into the mix as well. I was still killing the occasional pirate, but I was doing so in cave systems and ruins that opened up to entirely new set pieces ranging from the rusted skeleton of a WWII-era boat, to an overgrown subterranean temple-like structure. The experience of this very interconnected mission chain reinvigorated my game play experience, both reminding me that I had only scratched the surface of the game's main story, but also showing me that Far Cry 3 still had new challenges and experiences in store for me. For a game that I'm already quite fond of, I find myself looking forward to the next 20+ hours with renewed vigor.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Thoughts on The Secret World

I've put about 3 hours into The Secret World free weekend now and I think that's about all I need to invest. When I asked some other developers what they thought of The Secret World I got back an answer that I've heard before in regards to other games: "well, it has some interesting systems." For game developers this is roughly the equivalent of "well, she has a nice personality" in dating. You want to be nice, because there are redeeming qualities, but it's just not the total package.

My take on The Secret World is that I can see what they're trying to do, but ultimately I don't find much of what's going on compelling. I dig the idea of the horror angle and I want to become engrossed in it, but (at least early on) those aspects of The Secret World are just too thin for me to grab onto. There may be later areas of the game that better sell the otherwordly aspects I'm looking for, but there's little early on that sells the "secret" angle of The Secret World and that Lovecraftian idea of strange things being just on the periphery at all times is what I came here for. When it comes to MMO's I'm an admittedly tough audience. I think the genre is stagnating by following expectations of WoW-like subscription numbers and fear or misunderstanding of new business models and lack of innovation is the price we're paying. When push comes to shove, The Secret World just doesn't innovate in a way that gets me excited to play and while that's my take, I do have to admit that it's a solid game and I'm sure there's an audience out there for it, just not me.

Saturday, June 16, 2012


Whenever a new subscription-based MMO comes out there's this invisible countdown that begins in the collective unconsciousness of the game community: time till "Free-to-Play". Sometimes the countdown isn't so invisible, sometimes it's the topic on everyone's lips whether it's being whispered or shouted. As a perfect example, in the first few weeks after Star Wars: The Old Republic's release, web comic giants Penny Arcade released a strip about SWTOR, the punchline having to do with when they thought the game would go Free-to-Play.

We seem to have this image in the MMO community that if a game is developed as Free-to-Play, then it's because the developer is small, doesn't have enough money, or doesn't have confidence in their product to compete in the subscription world. When an existing subscription game goes Free-to-Play many of the same things are assumed. In either case any deviance from the classic subscription model towards Free-to-Play is viewed as failure. I can understand the reasoning, the subscription model has been king since the days of Ultima Online and the general thinking is that if people liked your game enough then they'd be willing to pay for it month after month. When a plurality of MMO's are being developed for or quickly turn to a Free-to-Play model and when even successful subscription games like WoW and SWTOR introduce Free-to-Play at least up to a certain level, one has to ask: is it Free-to-Play that is a sign of failure or is the subscription model itself what's failing?

The late 90's PC gaming landscape that brought us the first modern MMO's in the form of Ultima Online, EverQuest, and Asheron's Call was much different than that of today. The subscription model made a lot of sense in a world where half as many households had computers and nearly one quarter as many had internet access as do today. It was a world that had yet to turn to digital downloads as a primary source of content and where the a-la-carte mentality that pervades the acquisition of entertainment media today had yet to take hold. MMO's games were being made for less money for a smaller, more hardcore audience, one that wouldn't think twice about paying a subscription fee for their gaming. Even at this early stage however the question was asked: "will gamers be willing to pay for more than one subscription game at a time?"

Take a moment and think back to the internet of the late 90's. Frames and midi were all the rage on web sites, AOL was still a pay-by-the-hour service, and dial-up was the connection method of choice for most households. In those days internet monetization was still just a vague blur in the distance. Nowadays MMO subscriptions (and games in general) are but one of many services and products we purchase over the internet nearly every day. While we've certainly gotten used to paying for things online, subscriptions aren't generally the monetization model of choice outside of the MMO space. People have become much more accustomed to paying only for what they want and what they use. Culturally we've shifted to a mode of thinking where micro-transactions and a-la-carte are viewed as a better deal. Subscriptions on the other hand fly in the face of this cultural shift and though people will settle for subscriptions where they're required (and where they still see the value in premium services such as Hulu and Netflix), in general they seem to like the idea of paying only for what they use instead.

When you take all this into account it's hard not to see subscriptions as the dinosaurs they are. When you go back to the dawn of the early MMO's when it was a three horse race people were unconvinced that many gamers would ever subscribe to more than one service at a time. Nearly 15 years later there are even more choices and it's not just the MMO's asking for money any longer. We know that there is a limit to the number of game subscriptions people are willing to pay for at any one time and we know that the majority of them are already paying for World of Warcraft. Why then are we all competing against each other for that one top slot? Imagine if the same were true for first person shooters back in the late 90's, if you had to subscribe to them like you do MMO's. If everyone had a subscription to Quake, how many fewer people would ever have picked up Unreal and Half-Life? Would we ever have seen the types of advances in technology, game play, and story-telling in FPS that we've enjoyed over the last decade or would there have been nothing but a bunch of Quake clones desperately trying to win away that market share?

Subscriptions are simply an unsustainable business model for a genre as a whole. Instead of creating a competitive environment where market share can be more easily spread out, subscriptions create a king of the hill competition with every new game trying to get that coveted top spot. It's bad for consumers, it's bad for developers, and it's bad for MMO's a whole. Historically speaking, limiting choice rarely succeeds as a means of controlling a market. The music industry was essentially attempting to do this by fighting peer-to-peer downloads while failing to adopt their own a-la-carte digital distribution systems. As a result, a lot of music was stolen and the big record labels missed the opportunity to control the digital space and drive their business, instead they now find themselves following in the wake of more savvy entrepreneurs.

I've been saying for a couple years now that we've come to the end of the line for subscriptions in the MMO world. Recent releases have shown that the amount of money and the amount of risk involved in trying to get that top spot and be the game that the majority of players subscribe to without question ends up as a losing proposition. MMO developers need to let go of the macho pride they have that surrounds the idea of the subscription model. Anyone developing an MMO right now seriously needs to be looking at alternative payment methods. We need to be looking at free-to-play, micro-transactions, pay-as-you-go, and whatever else we can come up with. Monetization of digital media is changing every day and we've done a piss poor job of keeping up.

When we finally stop trying to take on WoW (or whatever the next king of the hill ends up being) we're going to find ourselves in a much better position and while the fans may be against us at first, they're going to end up with better and more diverse products as a result. If we can turn MMO's into a true competitive landscape where it's no longer about being #1 across all MMO's, but about being number #1 in the myriad sub-genre MMO's that will inevitably crop up then we all win. Back when it was 3 games competing for the top spot it made sense, but now that there's 10 times as many of us and an internet full of digital media for sale, we can no longer afford to look at the subscription model as the only avenue of success. We owe it to ourselves, to the fans, and the genre as a whole to change. We were the pioneers of this digital landscape and there's no reason we shouldn't continue to be well into the foreseeable future.

The views expressed on Plenty For All are purely the opinions of Brian J. Audette and are not at all affiliated with, representative of, endorsed or supported by BioWare, EA, it's shareholders, partners, or subsidiaries.

Monday, June 11, 2012

E3 2012 - Part 4

Here it is, my final E3 post. When all is said and done, while technically we didn't see a lot of new stuff this year, we saw a lot of stuff that was still in early production or only mentioned in passing last year and it's all stuff that is on the horizon for the next 12-18 months. I'm coming away from E3 very excited, even if I know I'll never have the time to play all these games.

Hawken (video link)
These guys have got to be annoyed that a new Mechwarrior game is finally coming out because before that, this was going to be the only stop for giant pilotable mecha action. If you like big robots (and if you grew up with Robotech and Voltron like I did you damn well better like big robots) then Hawken is a dream come true. Even with a new Mechwarrior game in the works, I think there is still plenty of room for success for both projects. If history (and source material) is any indicator, Mechwarrior is likely to be a much more detailed game, bordering on simulation. Based on what we've seen so far of Hawken, it's less heavy on the simulation and instead concentrates on kicking ass. Hawken looks like it could be the Counerstrike of mecha games and I'll gladly take that and still enjoy the brutal simulation I assume we'll get when Mechwarrior Online launches as well.

Deadlight (video link)
Zombies may come and go in TV, Film, Comics, and Literature, but in video games they seem to be a mainstay. At the very least zombies are a humanoid enemy that it's totally OK to kill. Personally I can't get enough of zombies; they're easily my monster of choice when it comes to horror regardless of how they're portrayed. Deadlight not only gives me zombies, but it does so with in the style that seems to blend part point-and-click adventure with the "metroid-vania" formula. The end result is something that (if it works) will likely constitute pure digital crack for me.

Metro: Last Light (video link)
The first Metro game is one whose premise and visuals I loved to death, but that turned me off in several other ways. The town sections were boring, the barter system was confusing (mainly due to a UI that didn't let you see what ammo went to which guns you currently had), and the shooting itself wasn't quite tweaked enough. It was 75% of a great game though and someday I may finish it. From initial impressions I've heard regarding Last Light, it would seem that at least some of my issues have been addressed. If anything, the video (above) that I've seen of the game features some interesting first-person stealth and that's always going to turn my head. Along with the aforementioned visuals and setting of the first game, if Last Light has indeed smoothed some of the edges off its forebears, then that 75% of a great game may get to 100% quite fast.

Miner Wars 2081 (video link)
When it comes to space games, I'm something of an aficionado and that generally leaves me clamoring for information about anything new in the genre since it has been by and large dead for over a decade. Once a PC staple, the space genre didn't evolve quickly enough away from requiring pricey peripherals and towards keyboard and mouse and just sort of disappeared. Every once in a while a new space game will come out, but they're usually small and seldom very innovative. Miner Wars 2081 doesn't look like it's going to save or reinvigorate the genre at all, but it's breaching the MMO space in an interesting way and it's utilizing game play that reminds me an awful lot of the hallowed Descent series, specifically the third installment. It may be nothing more than a curiosity of mine at the moment, but I'm interested to see how this one plays. It seems like a sound formula for a genre I enjoy. 

A Game of Dwarves (video link)
This is another game that I didn't take a look at until several days into E3. Once again the name turned me off. "A Game of Dwarves"? It just sounds like they're trying to blatantly associate themselves with A Game of Thrones and such pandering doesn't sit well with me. The thing is, I kept seeing posts about this game all week and so eventually I had to see what the fuss was. I have to say, I like what I see. It appears that what they've done here is combine Dungeon Keeper (the classic dungeon builder/defender game) with Dwarf Fortress (the indie 4X-style micromanagement simulation). What they end up with is a game that has the sim and management elements of Dwarf Fortress, with the direction and ease of Dungeon Keeper. I've gotta say, it's a damn brilliant combination and I can definitely see myself spending some time with it.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

E3 2012 - Part 3

I'm back with the penultimate installment of my E3 coverage. First up, another game about zombies:

ZombiU (video link)
Nintendo (like mobile phone game developers) is largely trying to entertain an audience that is not me. Because of this fact I believe I should be forgiven for thinking that the Wii U was simply a Wii add-on for the past year. As it turns out, this is a new system entirely and as with most Nintendo systems, I have found it difficult to muster any enthusiasm for it. That is, until I saw ZombiU. While it may not be the best example of the Wii U out there and it may not even be that great a game, ZombiU is the kind of demo that gets someone like me interested in something like Wii U. It seems that Nintendo has realized that while motion control is cool, people still like real controllers. That tactile part of gaming is still very important to us and until we start using haptic holographic displays like in Mass Effect, it is likely going to be. The Wii U seems to combine the good parts of motion control with the tactile usefulness of a controller and the augmentation capability of a second, personal touch screen. ZombiU appears to put all of these elements to good use and while the trailer is very heavily produced, I'll at least keep an eye on it and the Wii U over the next several months.

XCom: Enemy Unknown (video link)
I actually knew about this game a bit before it was announced last year. A co-worker knew someone at Firaxis working on it and spilled the beans. Make no bones about it, I can't think of any developer better suited to finally bring us a real XCom game than Firaxis. For one thing, they understand that turn-based gaming is a choice and not a relic of the past. For another, they have a track record of releasing top-quality products such as the Civilization series. From everything I've seen of this new XCom it looks to be both a faithful adaptation and a much needed modernization for this series. I am very much looking forward to playing this and saving the world again like it's 1994.

Company of Heroes 2 (video link)
I had some really good times with the original Company of Heroes, most of it in multi-player. While my circle of friends were waiting for Relic to release Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War II (a game we thought we'd all spend a lot of time with but didn't) we played a ton of CoH. As far as multi-player RTS games go, CoH is easily my favorite of all time. Where other games rely on gimmicks and require non-stop micro management and twitch RTS skills, CoH was a decent meld of old and new. With tactics, area control, approach, and timing all being crucial factors, CoH reminded me of the old days of Age of Empires II albeit with a much more modern approach and an excellent supply line/control point system. There isn't much on display from CoH 2 at the moment, but I have to hope that it will follow closely in it's predecessor's footsteps.

The Unfinished Swan (video link)
I don't think it was until day 2 of E3 that I actually checked out the video for this game. The name spoke to me in a way that turned me off. "The Unfinished Swan", it just sounds like one of those obtuse Japanese games meant only for native or serious otaku consumption. Eventually curiosity got the better of me and I took a look. What I found at first glance looks like some kind of first person version of the PS2 game Okami or Epic Mickey for the Wii. The Unfinished Swan is a game where (at least initially) you are presented with nothing but a blank white screen. Without any visual cues, there is no way to know where you are going or even if you are going anywhere at all. The player can throw globs of paint at the world though and when they do, the shape of the level is partially revealed. Apparently there is more varied game play later on, but initially it's a concept that's intriguing and one I'm surprised we really haven't seen up till now.

Aliens: Colonial Marines (video link)
Aliens is the movie that made me an unapologetic James Cameron fan. I probably watched Aliens more than any other movie during high school and I was very much into the extended universe that could be found through books and comics. To my adolescent mind the world of Aliens had so much more going on than what was being shown and I wanted to explore those Stygian depths. Aliens: Colonial Marines is more or less a direct sequel to the Aliens movie. From what I can gather (and based on my knowledge of the film) the titular marines are likely the rescue party that Ripley and the others were going to have to wait 3 weeks for on planet LV-426 until it was revealed that the fusion reactor for the atmosphere processing plant was damaged and was going to blow. Gearbox has been working on this game for quite some time and I have to assume they've just been shifting around resources between it, the Borderlands games, and Duke Nukem Forever because it seems like this should have been out a year ago. Still, the game looks great and I trust Gearbox quite a bit so they can go ahead and take their time to give me the best xenomorph extermination simulation around.

Next: Mechs, Mines, and Mutants!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

E3 2012 - Part 2

And so we continue our journey through my E3 experience from afar with the next 5 titles on my watch list for the next for 12-18 months:

Watch Dogs (video link)
The first two people I encountered at work this past Tuesday had only one thing to say to me "did you see the Watch Dogs video?" I hadn't even heard of this "Watch Dogs" before they mentioned it so no, I hadn't seen the video. The tone of voice used by my co-workers insinuated that I needed to see this video immediately and the comment that it was "as if it was based off of William Gibson's novels" only amplified this fact. I went back to my desk and spent the next several minutes with my jaw dropped completely open. Drawing on the kind of modern cyberpunk espionage action that's been at the forefront of William Gibson's latest trilogy of novels, Watch Dogs is just grounded enough in reality to be approachable and familiar, but goes off on the kind of paranoia-induced information distopia spur that nudges it just over the line into the realm of sci-fi. While there still aren't too many details about exactly how the game plays, how open world it is, and how their unique multi-player spin actually fits into the big picture, I'm nonetheless excited for this game and I'll be glued to the Internet for more further information in the coming months.

Star Wars: 1313 (video link)
I don't even know what Star Wars is anymore. There was a time not so long ago when this IP was fairly easy to nail down, but as the expanded universe has ... expanded, Star Wars has really just become an all-encompassing sci-fi universe. I guess this technically isn't a bad thing, the only problem is that the non-Jedi elements of the Star Wars universe just don't seem to have the same branding and unique flavor as the rest of the IP. A lot of times it just ends up feeling like generic sci-fi. Still, if it's fun to read, watch, or play, I guess I can't complain and Star Wars: 1313 looks like it may have the right formula to succeed. While the game play they've shown so far appears to be very tightly scripted, it nonetheless looks like a step in the right direction. Utilizing the now traditional cover-shooter play style and incorporating some Uncharted-style platforming is definitely a much better choice than the dial-a-combo snore-fest mechanics of the Force Unleashed franchise and stepping away from Jedi altogether is both bold and somewhat refreshing choice. What remains to be seen however is how this title is going to make itself relevant to the Star Wars universe and steer away from being just another sci-fi 3rd-person shooter. Back in the day the Dark Forces franchise had the same obstacle and ultimately gave way to the Jedi Knight games and one of my favorite expanded universe characters: Kyle Katarn. Does Star Wars: 1313 have the potential to do the same thing? Perhaps ... if The Force is with it.

Assassin's Creed 3 (video link)
I liked the first Assassin's Creed game, though as most people seem to agree it was a bit repetitive. Still I really dug the idea of the setting and the mechanics; platforming, plus light stealth, plus inventive melee equals a win in my book. I've heard that many of the weak spots in the formula were strengthened or dropped from Assassin's Creed 2, but I never got more than an hour or so into the game to see them. Someday I will finish it, but at present time I still haven't gotten around to it. Regardless of that minor road bump and regardless of the fact that Assassin's Creed 2 spawned something like a half dozen mini-sequels, I'm looking forward to the franchise's third big installment. One major reason for my excitement is the shift in time and location to Revolutionary War America, an underused time period in games and certainly one that's never gotten the action/adventure treatment in recent memory if at all. The other reason is the video (linked above) of the naval combat. I don't know how big a part of the game the naval game play will comprise, but it certainly looks like they spent a decent amount of time on it and it's easily one of the best ship-level representations of naval warfare I've ever seen. Otherwise I expect the game to follow a similar format to the existing Assassin's Creed games, but the setting alone makes this all the more interesting in my opinion, so it looks like I'll have to be getting back to Assassin's Creed 2 sooner rather than later.

The Last of Us (video link)
What is it about the post-apocalypse that so captures people's imaginations? Is it the age-old psychology of learning to face real fears in the safety of a fictional world, or is it simply a power fantasy wherein we long to believe that we have what it takes to survive where others have failed? Regardless of the reasoning, there's something about the alien but familiar nature of a post-apocalyptic setting that I find compelling. The Last of Us takes place 20 years after a strange fungal outbreak ignites a sort of zombie apocalypse. The protagonist is tasked with escorting a 14 year old girl outside of a militarily controlled quarantine zone and what follows seems to be part Ico, part Uncharted, and part Resident Evil. Did I mention the game is being developed by Naughty Dog, makers of the Uncharted games? Based on the E3 footage they've shown this year I'm expecting an action/adventure rollercoaster ride that will likely run the emotional gamut. Naughty Dog have shown a certain affinity for engaging video game characterizations and situations and judging by what's on display in The Last of Us, they don't plan to disappoint.

Beyond Two Souls (video link)
No, I still haven't played Heavy Rain. Having just bought a PS3 a couple months ago there simply hasn't been time. Not to sound like a hipster or anything though, but I was playing David Cage's games long before anybody gave a rat's ass about him and his company Quantic Dream. Having experienced both Omikron and Indigo Prophecy (aka Farenheit) I have a pretty good idea of what Mr. Cage and crew are all about and I'll get to Heavy Rain at some point I assure you. His latest game once again appears to be in the same vein as his more recent offerings in the sense that the "game play" is all about controlling real people in more or less real situations. I have to hand it to him though, many developers (cough ... Hideo Kojima ... cough) make the mistake of sacrificing game play due to their cinematic and story-telling ambitions. David Cage makes finding and/or injecting game play into cinematic story-telling his primary design goal and he is more or less successful. These games may not be for everyone, but as a fan of the classic point and click adventure genre, I see this as a recently grown branch on the evolutionary tree. This latest game seems to be heading back into the sci-fi/paranormal territory covered by Indigo Prophecy with a young woman (played by and modeled to look like actress Ellen Page) on the run from some agency or other, seemingly due to the telekinetic powers at her disposal. The trailer offers us but a brief glimpse into the narrative, but it's enough to pique my interest and put this one on the watch list for the future.

Next: Aliens, zombies, and ... swans?

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

E3 2012 - Part 1

Let me start by saying that I haven't personally attended E3 in about 10 years. I went once about a year after being laid off from Turbine with hopes of networking (something I'm not good at and have since learned is a lousy way to get into game development) and while that effort didn't quite pan out, I did get to see the floor show. The best way I can describe E3 is that it's like being stuck inside a giant pinball machine. E3 is all loud noises, flashing lights, and wall to wall people. If you've ever been to PAX or a big comic book or anime convention then you've experienced only the barest hint of what it's like being at E3. Simply put: it's a madhouse ... a MADHOUSE!

Viewing E3 from afar is a much saner activity and these days it's easier to do than ever. Sites like do a great job of acting as aggregates of E3 information from across the web and gaming news blogs like Joystiq and Kotaku are jam-packed with info on everything their teams see. As a gamer and game designer I can't get enough E3 news. This is the week when many of the biggest announcements that will direct the path of the industry over the next year are made and it's also when all types of titles due to launch within the next 12-18 months are unveiled or on display.

We seem to go through cycles in the game development biz. First there's the console cycle where every 5-6 years a new batch of home gaming systems are released. The beginning of a console cycle is always a little shaky, but by the end people are pulling out all the stops. We happen to be coming to the end of a console cycle right now. Another cycle is a bit more discreet and it's tough to put a finger on it. Still, it seems to me at least that every other year is a great year for games, with tons of amazing titles on display. Last year was decent, this year seems to be one of the great years.

At this point in the week most of what is newsworthy has already been posted as the big developer press conferences have come and gone and the floor is now where the action is. Usually you'll hear about a few lesser publicized games in the last couple days, but these days the majority is unleashed right up front. With nearly 20 titles on my watch list from E3 this year, I figured it was as good a time as any to start talking about what I've been following. We start with the relaunch of a classic PC franchise:

Tomb Raider (video link)
Truth be told, I was never a fan of this series back when it was a "thing" in the late 90's. For me the controls were always awkward and the save system infuriating. Luckily this genre has come a long way, with perhaps the most perfect expression being the Uncharted series of games by Naughty Dog. Watching footage of this new Tomb Raider, it's impossible not to see the Uncharted influence. The nice thing is that from what I've seen so far, it seems like they've done a good job with it. While I hope there's a little more exploration in this game than is usually on offer in the Uncharted series, I think I'll be happy with whatever I get from this title.

Splinter Cell: Blacklist (video link) 
Not even a full week before E3 I had remarked to someone in my office that maybe one of our co-workers who was leaving for a job with Ubisoft, was going to work on an unannounced Splinter Cell game. It turns out that our co-worker will not be working on this game, but Ubisoft did indeed have a Sam Fischer in it's hat. The original Splinter Cell was one of the game I spent a bit of time with at the E3 I attended 10 years ago and it was the first game I bought for my original XBox. I sort of lost track of the Splinter Cell series after the 3rd game however, which incidentally also seemed to be the point where they started messing with the action/espionage formula. Even with that in mind, it's nice to see the franchise return and even though there's no stealth in the portion of the game that they've been showing off, I'm interested nonetheless.

Sim City (video link) 
What can I say? I'm a Sim City fan way back to the Super Nintendo port from the mid 90's. I've played every version since then and even though not a ton changes, I still get drawn into crafting a bustling virtual metropolis. Since Sim City 4 several years back there have been a few attempts by other developers (and even Maxis itself with Sim City: Societies) to innovate in the city building genre. Perhaps the closest to Sim City itself is Cities XL, a series that while lacking in some of Sim City's nuance and polish, pushes boundaries and adds features that the genre was sorely lacking. I was happy to see in the footage shown of this new Sim City that many of these features appear to be incorporated. Even more enticing is the online option where you can connect to and bargain with your friends cities. A really good city sim has been a long time coming and the game that started it all looks to raise the bar again here. I know I'll be spending some long nights pleasing my virtual citizens and crafting a sim utopia.

Dead Space 3 (video link) 
I was a big fan of the original Dead Space. Not only was it artistically interesting, it utilized an interesting new IP, and polished its survival horror game play to a brilliant shine. Dead Space 2 (which I finally finished just recently) was also an amazing experience. While it featured a bit more action in the mix, it was still survival horror and made me jump more than a few times. Having seen what's on offer in this latest installment, it's not difficult to assume that they're adding even more action elements and while it may be true, I'm not willing to jump to that conclusion just yet. A lot of what they've shown off is co-op and a lot of what they've shown off is shooting. I know from experience that horror is a tough sell not just on the E3 floor, but on video in general. It's tough to make a sizzle video of anything horror related and seeing as how they obviously want to feature the new co-op feature, I'm not surprised there's a lot of action. Even if there is more action in the mix and the horror is tamed, I'm still going to dig this title. There's more to this series than getting scared and I enjoy those other elements just as much.

Dishonored (video link)
Just hook this game straight to my veins. With its mix of stealth and action and its unique steampunk setting this game is basically the ideological successor to the venerable Thief series of games. In fact, I'm pretty sure the guys in charge of Dishonored would agree with that given that Harvey Smith actually worked on the last Thief game when he was with Warren Specter at Ion Storm. Dishonored goes a step and a half beyond Thief however with a much more stylized world and a much more open game play feel. Unlike Thief's Garret, the protagonist of Dishonored has access to an assortment of supernatural abilities, allowing him to teleport, possess living creatures, see through walls, and more. This is the first time we've seen any Dishonored game play at work and it fully lives up to the expectations set by their CGI teasers last year. As far as new IP's go, this is one I'm looking forward to in a big way.

Next: Ubisoft reads my mind with Watch Dogs, there's a 3rd person Star Wars game that doesn't look like it will disappoint (re: Force Unleashed), and we find the best looking boat-level naval simulation I've ever seen in the least expected place.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Adventure. Survival. Horror.

I've been in a gaming rut for a few weeks now and today it seems that it may have subsided. A little over a month ago I finished Mass Effect 3, my thoughts on which are detailed elsewhere on this site. Since my ME3 play through had come hot on the heels of my second ME2 play through, I was a little burned out on the choice-centric RPG thing and looking for something a bit different and ideally as non-action as I could find.

The first stop on my post ME3 journey was "To The Moon", an adventure game in the style of a 16-bit RPG. Many months earlier when this game had first caught everyone's attention I had made a note to check it out. As a game designer and a lover of narratives in any form, I have a vested interest in the execution of narrative in video games. When a game like To The Moon comes along and people claim it to be an incredibly moving experience, that's something I need to see. Skeptical as I was, To The Moon did actually deliver an authentically moving experience. All told however, much of what transpired in ME3 moved me more, but seeing as how it was the culmination of 3 games worth of decisions and character building/bonding, that's not surprising.

The second game I checked out was "Dear Esther", a game that's probably most accurately described as an interactive narrative, seeing as you don't ever really interact with anything. Dear Esther was a short, but interesting experiment. I thought they accomplished the challenge of setting and maintaining a mood fairly well, although I felt some further player interaction may have allowed them to hook me into the story in a more profound way.

Truth be told, Dear Esther was merely a decoy, a pit stop, a training exercise. I had decided it was finally time to jump back into "Amnesia: The Dark Descent", a game I had purchased over a year earlier, but hadn't been able to muster the courage to play for more than half an hour. Amnesia manages to mix classic adventure game play, with the first person view point, and survival horror in a most brilliant way. As a man trapped in a mysterious castle in the late 1800's you must unravel the mystery surrounding your lost memory and a diabolical horror that appears to be chasing after you, all without being able to defend yourself against enemies. If Doom is a First Person Shooter and Thief was a First Person Sneaker, then Amnesia is a First Person Hider. In the rare instances that you do come face to face with some other-worldly horror, you have but one recourse in the world of Amnesia: run and hide. If you're lucky then you'll be able to stay hidden long enough for your foe to lose interest and not lose too much sanity along the way. All told, I thought Amnesia was excellent. The only criticism I have (which is typical of horror games) is that by the end of the game, I had figured out all of their tricks. I always knew that certain sounds and events wouldn't result in something I needed to hide from, but based on the developer's (Frictional Games) recent comments about the next game in the series, this seems to be something they seek to address.

Amnesia was great, but short and it left me wanting more. I decided to visit Frictional Games' earlier works: the "Penumbra" series. While one can certainly see in Amnesia the lessons they learned in making Penumbra, the games still hold up as very entertaining. With a more modern setting, no sanity meter, and the limited ability to fight back against certain foes, the Penumbra games were a little less atmospheric than Amnesia, but they made up for it by being much closer the a classic point-and-click adventure game in execution. Really my only gripe about the Penumbra series was that I expected a trilogy when I bought the games, but the third installment is actually a puzzle game in the vein of Portal and while it does advance the story, I was ultimately unsatisfied by the differences.

I had been left unfulfilled by the third Penumbra installment, yet I still craved an adventure/survival horror experience. After perusing several options, I decided to check out "Alan Wake", a game that I had skipped on the consoles, but that had recently been released for the PC. I don't want to say much about the game since I haven't finished it, but the parts that I have played really aren't that satisfying as far as horror goes. As with a lot of console games, Alan Wake telegraphs it's moves far too often and its insistence of taking away control of my camera and throwing me into pre-rendered cinematics as a means of immersing me in the story, has the exact opposite effect. All told, I wasn't satisfied by Alan Wake. This was not the game I was looking for and while I will revisit it, I don't have any desire to continue with it now.

All this led me to the point where there was simply nothing I wanted to play. I would fire up random games I had installed on Steam to see if I was interested in playing them, but nothing stuck. I even re-installed Myst IV, thinking that what I needed was a classic adventure game and remembering that I had never finished that game nor played it's sequel, the final in the series. Sadly Myst IV was not what I was looking for either and so I (a devout gamer ... even before it became my career) was at a loss, until today.

While I was playing Amnesia and Penumbra I had gotten the idea in the back of my head that when I was done, I needed to go back and finish "Dead Space 2". The original Dead Space was easily one of my favorite games in the year it was released, however I never got more than a couple hours into Dead Space 2 after it came out. I knew it wasn't any fault of the game itself and with my renewed interest in horror games it seemed the perfect time to revisit that world. When the third Penumbra game fell flat for me, I didn't really think that I had the heart to jump into Dead Space 2 and so I went looking for a bridge in Alan Wake. Apparently I was wrong in that decision however because today I loaded Dead Space 2 into the 360 and where every other game has failed me recently, this has succeeded.

I don't know if Dead Space 2 will finally give me closure on my adventure/horror game excursion, but it's nice to have a really good feeling about completing a game that you've let sit around for a while. I've got a PS3 on order that should be arriving later this week, so maybe I'll jump straight from Dead Space to Uncharted or the Ico/Shadow of the Colossus HD bundle. Either way it seems my brief drought of gaming has come to an end. Now if you'll excuse me, I have necromorphs to kill.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Brief Thoughts on The Mass Effect 3 Ending (no spoilers)

Having just finished Mass Effect 3 and finally being able to read articles about the ongoing debate regarding its ending, I feel like I'm going to have to side with the disappointed. Mind you, this isn't a Battlestar Galactica level of disappointment, where the final episode (primarily the last few minutes) ruined the series for me retroactively. With Mass Effect 3 it's more a mild disappointment in the setup, delivery, and execution of the game's final choice. The game basically presents the player with 3 options that (while all valid) left me wanting to argue for a 4th choice. The reason I believe there should have been a 4th choice is because I spent a good portion of the game proving that such a solution could work.

Anyway, the game (and series) as a whole is AMAZING. It moved me in ways no game has ever moved me before. As far as the ending goes though, it leaves something to be desired for those who followed what I believe is a prominent narrative path through the series. I'll get into more detail at a later point though and that post WILL contain spoilers.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Opinion: Metacritic

Business sucks, alright? It's cold and rigid and occasionally unfair. Such is the case with Obsidian's Fallout: New Vegas contract with Bethesda, wherein the developer only received royalties if the game matched or exceeded an 85 rating on Metacritic. Leaving aside the fact that Metacritic is a woefully unbalanced aggregation of review scores from both vetted and unvetted publications, agreements like this can leave indie studios -- like Obsidian -- in the lurch should that Metacritic score just barely miss the mark.
As a game developer I find the practice of using Metacritic scores as an exact measurement of a game's success appalling and ultimately self-defeating. Not only does this practice hurt developers who fall short of the arbitrary goals set by their studios or publishers, but it hurts the fans as well.

As a general indicator of success, Metacritic is  a decent tool and I know that I've personally used it to help me determine whether to consider further investigation of certain purchases. Using Metacritic as some kind of industry standard barometer however is just nuts! Consider for a moment that Fallout: New Vegas reportedly shipped 5 million units worldwide in it's first month for a total of over $300 million in sales1. In addition, the game apparently outsold it's predecessor Fallout 3 over it's first weekend2. Consider again that the last two games I've personally shipped both achieved Metacritic scores in the mid 80's. While the former sold just over 1 million copies3, but had a drop in subscribers early on4, the later sold a reported 2 million plus copies and according to the latest officially released numbers, continues to maintain a strong subscriber base5. Clearly Metacritic is a useful, but imperfect means for determining the quality of a given product, yet the devotion to Metacritic's aggregate scores in the game industry is nearly absolute and it's costing people both money and jobs.

Using Metacritic as the sole indicator of a title's success is just wrong and it is unfortunately a practice that I have seen too many organizations both close to and further removed from development place far too much stock in. To see the developer of a universally well-received and successful title hobbled by a Metacritic score only 1 point away from the arbitrary goal set by their publisher is incredibly disheartening. I don't personally know anyone who works (or worked) at Obsidian, but my heart goes out to those who have lost revenue and jobs due to this situation and a practice that fails to take into account the full measure of a title's success/worth in the marketplace.


The views expressed on Plenty For All are purely the opinions of Brian J. Audette and are not at all affiliated with, representative of, endorsed or supported by BioWare, EA, it's shareholders, partners, or subsidiaries.

Friday, February 10, 2012

I'd Like to Thank the Academy ...

My feelings about awards shows in the video game industry are no secret. Couple that with the fact that every magazine and web site has their own "best of" list and it's no wonder you see 10 games with a "Game of the Year" edition on the shelves every year. As far as I'm concerned there is only one award that matters, the Interactive Achievement Award present at the DICE summit each year for the past 15 years.

I've worked as a professional game developer over the last 12 years (roughly 7 studio years and 5 years "between jobs") and while I've worked on games that had previously won DICE awards (my very brief stint on Asheron's Call) and I've worked for studios that have won DICE awards (Mythic, for Dark Age of Camelot), I've never worked on a game and then had it win a DICE award. That changed last night when Star Wars: The Old Republic took the Interactive Achievement Award for Outstanding Achievement in Online Gameplay.

As the one award given out by my peers in the game development community it means a great deal to be recognized in this fashion, especially given competition like Battlefield 3, Call of Duty, Gears of War 3, and Little Big Planet 2. Even without this award, I've been proud to be a part of this project from the start and continue to be as we support the live game. Winning this award is just a bit of extra recognition for an amazing team of developers making an amazing game.

The views expressed on Plenty For All are not affiliated with BioWare, EA, it's shareholders, partners, or subsidiaries and are purely the opinions of Brian J. Audette.

Friday, January 13, 2012

I Came, I Saw, I Skyrimmed

After over 200 hours split between 3 characters, I have completed all 50 Steam achievements for Skyrim and I think I may finally be ready to put the game to rest ... at least until there's some DLC.

There will be a much larger post about Skyrim in the near future, but for now I've decided to commemorate my adventures with these wallpapers:

Senric - Dark Elf Theif @ Bard's Leap Summit (my "main" character)

Steps-Into-The-Fire - Argonian Mage @ The College of Winterhold

Eowyn - Nord Warrior @ Bleak Falls Barrow

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Human Revolution


Anyone who knows me knows that the original Deus Ex is one of my two favorite video games of all time, the other being the original Legend of Zelda. In the last 11 years I have played Deus Ex from start to finish at least 9 times and each time I’ve discovered something new about the game. Never before and never since have I played a game that so perfectly matched an intelligently written and poignant science fiction story that introduced concepts worthy of philosophical and social discussion beyond the bounds of the game world with the kind of guided (yet still open ended) game play that rewards player’s decisions through more than just trinkets and score increases. Deus Ex should not only be considered a model for modern game development and how to provide players with a wealth of choices while still managing narrative direction and overall scope, but also a model for how to tell a smart science fiction story in the digital age.

I won’t get into details here, but as most who are familiar with Deus Ex know, the sequel (Deus Ex: Invisible War) failed to even come close to the greatness of the original title. While it wasn’t a total loss from a sales standpoint, the perception of Deus Ex as a property had been soured and if the world had ended without another title in the series, there would be few regrets. Enter Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a prequel to the series under development by an entirely different team, nearly a decade removed from the original and in a gaming landscape that had all but left games with the depth of the original Deux Ex behind.

Initially I was skeptical, we all were, but as I saw more of the game and heard more from the developers it seemed that the crew at Eidos Montreal might just be able to pull off a title worthy of the Deus Ex moniker. Having recently completed my first play through of the game, I have to say that they succeeded on almost all fronts and even the parts that I have complaints about are still far in advance of Invisible War.

The first and easiest thing to talk about when examining Human Revolution is the game play. On this front, the developers absolutely nailed it to such a degree that if you were to remake the original Deus Ex using Human Revolution’s systems (mod makers: hint, hint), there would be very little you’d have to excuse. Playing the game on the PC I had few complaints (after a mouse lag patch and adjusting my FOV from 70 to 90) and the addition of cover mechanics and 3rd person camera cutaway take downs (console gaming staples for the current generation) both felt completely natural. In fact the cover system turned out to be a much more welcome addition than I had anticipated and in addition to fitting in well with the combat, I felt it added a LOT to the stealth game. Missing is the skill system and health management from the original Deus Ex, the former having been removed complete and the latter replaced by a more modern wait-and-heal system. To be fair, I miss neither system. Sure, the skill system made the original Deus Ex more of an RPG, but curtailing my shooting skills based on skill points always felt odd for an FPS. Granted they could have found more ways to convert the old skill system over to options in the augmentation system, but really … it’s a small complaint. As far as the health system goes, I can take it or leave it. The debate here actually has nothing to do with Deus Ex and more to do with old health bars vs. new health bars. These days I just expect to heal up if I can stand still long enough. It doesn’t phase me at all in Human Revolution, but I’m a quick save whore anyway so when push comes to shove, I just reload.  Beyond these minor differences I feel like I get virtually the same amount of depth from the game play of Human Revolution as I did from the original title. My only complaint might be with some of the level design. The city areas in general are fantastic, with tons of secrets to uncover for the industrious explorer, but the actual mission areas almost made it too easy for me to get around. I felt like the various stealth, hacking, and run-and-gun options were usually rather obvious. If you want to stealth past an area, look for a vent, if you want to hack, find a computer. I feel like the original game had a little more variety. Still this is a minor complaint.

If I have one major complaint with Human Revolution (and in the grand scheme it’s still minor compared to Invisible War) it’s the story. The main storyline never really managed to hook me as a player and I feel like this is a failure on two fronts. The first failure is in attaching me to the story and the characters. I never feel there is any reason to care about any of the characters I run across and it’s not for the game’s lack of trying. They immediately try to get you to care about the character of Megan Reed by mentioning the player character (Adam Jensen)’s relationship with her, but this is not a relationship the player takes part in at all. Almost as soon as we meet Dr. Reed, she’s taken out of the picture and when she shows up again later, Jensen’s reaction makes sense, but I don’t feel it as a player. I feel like the original Deus Ex did a much better job of endearing me to various characters. The very first conversation in the game with the player character (JC Denton)’s brother Paul allows you to play out a big brother/little brother dynamic and forces you to either take Paul’s non-violent posture or actively side against it. This dymanic plays out several times over with other characters as well. The original Deus Ex is always subtly asking you to make choices based on other character’s personal agendas and motivations. The most interesting character in Human Revolution is Frank Pritchard, the asshole IT guy who you find talking in your ear most of the game, but who you only physically interact with once. Had they enhanced the relationship with some of the other characters (specifically David Sarif, Hugh Darrow, Ben Taggart, and Megan Reed) to make those characters more than just exposition devices, the story decisions I had to make late in the game may have held more weight. Another HUGE missed opportunity exists with the 3 mercenaries you encounter at the very beginning of the game and who show up successively throughout. These are your core rivals from the start, the object of either your justice or revenge. Then only time you ever hear from them however is right before you kick their asses. Granted the situation is somewhat different in that these 3 are antagonists from the start, but the original Deus Ex’s Gunter Schultz and Anna Navarre are much better developed villains and because of this, the interactions with them as Deus Ex’s story unfolds carry much more weight.

The second failing of the story is that it throws too many links at you without fully developing them. The original Deus Ex unfolds very naturally with the Grey Death plague initially taking center stage and eventually implicating FEMA, MJ12, the Illuminati, and ultimately Bob Page as the ultimate villain. Human Revolution throws information your way, but rarely asks you to comment on it. When Human Revolution does ask for your opinion, the resulting comments feel more like flavor text than character building. In the end, the story of Human Revolution is almost a comedy of errors that more or less culminates with you cleaning up one man’s misguided mistake as opposed to thwarting an international conspiracy. The real problem, is that the international conspiracy angle is present, but largely undeveloped. It’s to the point where the final boss of the game is a key player in this conspiracy, but until that final battle you have little idea of her ambitions leading up to it. When I got to Area 51 in the original Deus Ex I knew what Bob Page wanted to do and I was there to stop him. In the process of doing so I was given several options for exactly how to accomplish this by various characters I had connected with earlier in the game. These connections along with the fact that the story had been preaching to me in regards to these various viewpoints throughout the game and that the options were physical paths for me to take and not simply and button to press, all contributed to the weight of that final decision. While I am prepared for the choices at the end of Human Revolution to a certain degree, they feel weak not only because I have little connection with the people involved, but also because the game doesn’t make me do anything different to achieve these objectives. You get to the end of the game and push one of four buttons after which you see a bunch of stock footage with some vaguely philosophical voiceover.

I suppose one of the difficulties of making a prequel, especially as (and for) a game that relies so heavily on player choice to determine the outcome of it’s narrative, is ending it in a way that is both interesting and yet doesn’t encroach upon the sanctity of the pre-existing property and it’s world. It’s actually because of this that I feel Human Revolution really dropped the story ball at the end. The Illuminati are the one major thread (besides augmentations themselves) that carries between both games. Throughout the game we are treated to notes, and broadcasts speaking about characters from the first game that we know to be involved with the Illuminati. At this point in time, these people are very much pulling the strings, but by the time we get to the original Deus Ex there has been a schism within their ranks that ultimately creates the situation whereby Bob Page becomes the core villain. While I can see that they didn’t want to associate the two games too closely in order to avoid certain pitfalls, I think this is an aspect they could have played with a bit more, especially considering how much the Illuminati figures into Human Revolution’s end game.

Regardless of these concerns, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is not only an excellent game, but a worthy successor to the original title and one that I hope gets expanded upon with future DLC and hopefully does a bit more to bridge the gap between the world of 2027 and 2052.