26 November 2008

A Much Shorter Absence

Haven't posted in a while for a couple of reasons. And those reasons are Fallout 3, Fable II, Mirror's Edge, Left 4 Dead, and Wrath of the Lich King. Mostly WotLK, though. This time of year is always a crunch but, surprisingly, this year has been fairly light compared to holidays past. Still, the new content in World of Warcraft alone consumes the majority of my time. I managed to tear myself away from the shores of Northrend long enough to make a few updates.

You may or may not have heard that the NIMF has done an about-face with it's stance on video games and declared the fault to be mostly, if not entirely, on parents and educators. The industry report card contains such sweeping statements as "[t]he ESRB has become the entertainment industry leader in educating retailers and parents about the rating system." Like many, I was overjoyed to hear this. This could be the first major step towards the video game industry being accepted as a legitimate medium, right up there with movies, television and music. This is definitely worth keeping an eye on. Let's hope this is only the start of a trend away from blaming games for all of the ills of the world.

Reading up on Star Wars: The Old Republic, a certain detail concerning the gameplay caught my attention. Bioware intends to implement a companion system, allowing players to recruit certain NPCs to travel and quest with. Although only one companion can be recruited at a time, each recruitable character comes with their own story, abilities and quests. The reason I found this notable was that this seems to be a throwback to Neverwinter Nights, Baludur's Gate and, of course, Knights of the Old Republic. If done properly, this feature alone could bring what makes all of Bioware's single player affairs so great to the game and serve to make The Old Republic stand out from the MMO crowd. Just when I thought I couldn't be any more excited at a new Bioware release.

One last things before I head back to the frozen peaks of Azeroth, if you're ever even heard of Mortal Kombat, you need to take a look at this. In response to the release of Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, Maxim Magazine scored an exclusive with Hernan Sanchez, the voice responsible for the iconic "Finish Him!" in every Mortal Kombat game since the beginning. And, rather than delivering a typical interview, Maxim took the opportunity to do something exceptional. I think "Flawless... Ensemble!" has to be my favorite...

05 November 2008

More EndWar

I want to take a moment to bring up Tom Clancy's EndWar once more. If you recall from my last post regarding the subject, EndWar is a nifty new RTS coming to PC and consoles that combines voice commands with quick, small scale combat to make for a fine strategy experience. Checking my usual sites this morning, I saw that 1up.com had posted their review of the game, the day before it's scheduled to hit retail shelves. So I read it, as is my ritual, and was shocked (Shocked!) by the apparent contempt for the fledgling IP contained within. A "C"? I've played EndWar in both beta and demo forms and I'm of the opinion that , even if one were to concentrate solely on the faults of the game, it's a "B-" at worst. The game MIGHT have taken a slide in quality since the beta but, given the state of the demo, that's unlikely.

Now, normally, I'm not one to dispute review scores. I read reviews largely for entertainment value and I'm seldom swayed by their expressed opinions, especially when they conflict directly with my own. Furthermore, I pay the review scores even less mind than the review itself, since the numbers are largely arbitrary and useless without the content of the article to provide context. If this were simply a case of differing opinions, I would have payed it no mind and this post would be about something entirely different. Maybe politics and their effect on games.

But this seemed to be more than just a case of "to each, his own". Certain phrases in the review tipped me to the notion that Mr. Haywald's review was less than impartial from the start. He starts with some niggling complaints about the single player campaign. I can't speak to this because I haven't been able to sample the full game, but it does set the tone for the rest of the review. The first really suspect phrase is "[...]beyond a few minor differences in upgradeable abilities, each faction feels exactly the same." I was under the impression (and I've seen firsthand) that the developers went out of their way to give each faction a unique feel. The American's fight with precision, the Euros are fast, and the Russians are lumbering powerhouses. They all play the same, in the sense that the controls are no different and the unit types are the same, but the units receive different upgrades the more you play, upgrades that further differentiate the different playstyles. I was honestly confused when I read this part of the review.

In the next paragraph, the review starts to break down into senseless nitpicking. "EndWar's rock-paper-scissors battle system -- helicopter beats tank, tank beats transport, etc. -- doesn't add much variety, either. [...] [T]he context-sensitive commands they learn aren't intuitive to use and simply add an annoying layer of micromanagement. What's the point in having tanks that can fire SAMs if you have to tell them to do so every time?" (Bold print added for emphasis.) First off, the "rock-paper-scissors" gameplay adds a layer of strategy to an otherwise small-scale game. This isn't Starcraft. The point is to maximize the effectiveness of the units your given, not to march over the enemy with an overwhelming force. This gives the game a feel more similar to what (I'd assume) real combat is like. Which brings me to the part in bold. Really? You're going to complain that you have to TELL your units to do things? Yes, what's the point, Mr. Haywald? Why bother playing Super Mario Bros. when you have to TELL Mario to jump? Why play Halo when you have to TELL Master Chief to shoot aliens in the head? Why, indeed? Maybe we'd feel more at home reviewing a non-interactive medium, like books or movies, hm? OF COURSE you have to tell them to use their abilities. There's a reason I mentioned Starcraft earlier. That game has a similar system, where units are given special abilities, in addition to their default attack, that have to be activated manually by the player. The difference between that game and EndWar is that Starcraft allowed you to command many units of the same type to activate their abilities in unison, whereas EndWar does not. Starcraft also expects you to micromanage dozens of units simultaneously while EndWar tasks you with managing... well, one dozen. Seems to balance out, at least in my eyes. It also takes the bite out of Justin Haywald's petty criticisms.

"Moving your forces from point A to point B is simple enough, provided that you carefully monitor the route they take -- without your input, your army's single-minded march easily derails. If a tank gets in front of your infantry on the way to an outpost, they'll just try to walk by without opening fire, taking cover, or doing anything intelligent whatsoever." Once again, I'm baffled by Mr. Haywald's observations. Did he review a copy of the game from Bizzaro world? Even in the private beta, units were intelligent enough to fire upon nearby enemy units while following your movement orders without deviating from their path to your designated destination. In my personal observations, this aspect of the game had even more polish on it when it went to public demo. I was surprised by how effectively my units would react to unexpected confrontations before I could give them new orders. The only exception to this are infantry units, who need to be directed to garrison a building or find cover, as they are weak when fighting from an unfortified position. The infantry AI will automatically seek cover if they are attacked while idle but this sometimes is ineffective, as Mr. Haywald points out. Of course, this all ties back into that "annoying layer of micromanagement" that Justin is ever so fond of.

Just when I think I couldn't be any more baffled, Justin hits us with the next statement. "Playing against real people is, as always, more fun than just challenging the computer. Human opponents are more unpredictable and thus make things more exciting. But this mode's as vanilla as the main game, with no additional options -- and the same micromanagement problems that plague single player are just as persistent." At this point, I was certain that Justin had played a different game than I had. Ignoring for a second that he neglects to even mention the game's persistent online campaign, his logic still seems faulty. EndWar comes with three skirmish gametypes (Assault, Conquest, Siege). The game doesn't really need any more than that. The whole point of the game is providing a simple ruleset to build strategy on. The complexity of the game comes from the nuance of meeting the demands of each battle. Of course, since Mr. Haywald doesn't seem to enjoy the game at it's core, why would the multiplayer change his mind? Omitting the existence of the online campaign, though, is inexcusable. It's more than half of the game. In the beta, the online campaign is what kept me coming back. The gameplay reminded me of Chromehounds and gave me hope that EndWar might fix some of the minor flaws evident in that game's multiplayer. Also, the rank and upgrade systems gave the game a sort of RPG levelling appeal that kept me coming back, even when I knew my progress would all be lost when the beta ended. Justin Haywald doesn't mention ANY of this in his review. I... wow. Words fail me. The inconsistencies in this review leave me speechless.

Finally, and this a big "Finally", Mr. Haywald wraps up his review: "It just isn't enough by itself to raise the game beyond "mediocre RTS." It's definitely worth checking out to see voice command done right, but overall, it lacks the depth and substance to bring anyone over from superior PC alternatives." This last phrase is highly suspect and, frankly, is what inspired me to type out 1000 words on the topic. "It lacks the depth and substance to bring anyone over from superior PC alternatives." Let's just forget for a second that I, personally, think the game has more depth and substance than Mr. Haywald gives it credit for. If we take his words at face value, he's saying that PC RTS are better because they're MORE COMPLICATED. This, combined with his allusions to Command & Conquer at the beginning of the review, seems to tell us that Mr. Haywald would rather be steamrolling newbs with a squad of 4 dozen Mammoth Tanks than learning the ins and outs of a new game, regardless of its quality. Maybe you feel the same. I certainly don't. The point is, this is a glaring example of a reviewer's taste and bias interfering with his assessment of the innate quality of a game as a product. Is the game good? Bad? Who cares? Justin Haywald doesn't care for it. Why should you?

Go ahead and tell me I'm reading too far into this. Tell me I'm splitting hairs. Hell, feel free to point out that MY bias is what inspired me to write this rebuttal to begin with. You'd be right on all accounts. That doesn't make my point any less valid, though. I just want to know: How can an otherwise intelligent person who considers themselves a gamer look at a lovingly crafted game with the same level of spit shine as EndWar and think "Meh."? Judging by Gamerankings.com, I'm not alone.