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How to treat your customers with respect

The Witcher

A big round of applause to Polish developer/publisher CDProjekt for actually giving their customers the respect they deserve. While Electronic Arts continue to shaft consumers with draconian digital rights management, CDProjekt have not only gone on record encouraging the rest of the PC games industry to abandon DRM altogether, they have also seen fit to reward people who bought their RPG The Witcher by providing a massive revision of the game completely free of charge.

The new version of the game, labelled the Enhanced Edition, is a direct response to community and critical feedback and contains a massive number of bug fixes, improved dialogue and animation, interface modifications and a host of other tweaks. The version on store shelves, which, as far as I can tell, will completely replace the original version once supplies are exhausted, also comes with a bunch of additional goodies including a soundtrack CD, a strategy guide book, a map and a “making of” DVD, but, for those who already own the game and don’t want to buy another copy, most of this is available to download for free.

I applaud CDProjekt, I really do. I don’t consider The Witcher a masterpiece, but the news that this new edition had been released was enough to prompt me to crack open the DVD case again and give the new and improved version of the game a whirl, and I’m definitely well on the way to sinking in several more hours of play-time. I also think that, if more companies took this attitude instead of looking to screw their fans at every opportunity (EA, I’m looking at you again), we would see far less piracy. Case in point: the DRM restrictions placed on Spore were intended to reduce the number of people playing pirated copies, but an unauthorised DRM-free version of the program was available on the major P2P networks before the boxed copy was released, and the irony is that those who download a bootleg for free will have a far more hassle-free experience than those who actually fork out for a retail copy.

Or, to use another example, Mass Effect. Like a growing number of EA-published games, the PC version features SecuROM DRM. I tried out the Xbox 360 version last night, and could really see myself getting into it. Unfortunately, I’m a died-in-the-wool PC gamer at heart and, try as I might, I simply can’t get used to controlling the game with a gamepad (I believe that the ideal control system in most cases, but particularly for first- and third-person action games, is a keyboard/mouse combo), so ideally I’d like to pick up the PC version. However, thanks to SecuROM, I won’t be doing this, so EA can consider themselves to have lost a sale to me because of their automatic assumption that anyone interested in playing their games is a filthy rotten pirate. Sucks for both of us.

Update, September 26th, 2008 05:40 PM: I’ve just discovered that another EA title and one of my most anticipated purchases of the year, Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3, will also feature the same DRM implementation and sneaky rootkit shenanigans as Spore and Mass Effect. In their immense magnanimity, however, EA have decreed that customers will be allowed to install the game not three times but a whopping five. How generous of them! I’m sure I’ll eventually come across some means of playing it, but I certainly won’t be installing a retail copy on my machine.

 
Posted: Friday, September 26, 2008 at 5:04 PM | Comments: 4 (view)
Categories: DRM | Games | Technology | Web
 

I have a new toy

Ain't she a beaut?

Above: Ain’t she a beaut?

Today, I found myself in possession of an Xbox 360 Arcade System. If you’ve been reading my brother’s blog, you’ll know that his Xbox 360 recently died a tragic death. It came back the other day after being repaired after Microsoft refused to service it (apparently it didn’t have enough red rings or something), sounding like a vacuum cleaner thanks to its new cooling system, which we both agreed wasn’t ideal for watching movies: until it pegged it, it doubled as both a games console and our HD DVD player.

With prices of standalone HD DVD players having gone through the roof after being discontinued, I decided that the only semi-cost-effective solution to having a way of playing my 60+ HD DVD titles was to pick up a 360 myself. I ended up getting a reasonable deal on the Arcade package, which gives you five free mini-games, plus a retail game of your choice (I went with Mass Effect, which I haven’t checked out yet), and it arrived today. The timing was, though I say it myself, impeccable, as Lyris’ 360 died yet another death within two hours of the new system’s arrival.

The irony of the situation is that I’ve never bought a single console game in my life, and yet I now own both of the current generation of games consoles. (I hear there’s a little thing called the Wii as well, but last time I checked there wasn’t very much software available for it that actually qualified as what I would call “games”.)

 
Posted: Wednesday, September 24, 2008 at 11:27 PM | Comments: 6 (view)
Categories: Games | HD DVD | Technology
 

Playing the integrity game, redux

Games

Remember the Kane & Lynch: Dead Men reviews fiasco that kicked up a shitstorm last year? Well, I know how much you all enjoyed reading doctored reviews of a mediocre game, so guess what? I’ve got some more for you.

If you’re interested in the computer gaming world at all, you’ve probably heard of a little game called Spore, the latest creation of legendary SimCity and (shudder) The Sims designer Will Wright. You may also, therefore, be aware that it has attracted some controversy over its extremely stringent digital rights management (DRM). Basically, the game allows you to install it up to three times, after which you will have to get down on bended knee and beg publisher Electronic Arts to be allowed to once again use the software you paid for. Perfect for those of us who routinely reinstall Windows, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Satisfied customer #879. (Image: Wikipedia)

Above: Satisfied customer #879. (Image: Wikipedia)

Anyway, some people had had enough of being violated by the well-lubricated member of PC gaming’s most reviled publisher, and decided to let the world know they weren’t going to stand for this sort of infringement of basic consumer rights. Their retaliation came in the form of negative reviews on various web sites, stressing the overly draconian nature of the game’s DRM and urging potential customers to boycott the product (or at least be fully informed of the risks if they then chose to go ahead and buy it). One such site, Amazon.co.uk, decided to retaliate by systematically deleting negative reviews of the game. Positive reviews, now they’re fine and dandy, but have something less than glowing to say and you’ll quickly find yourself choking on Amazon’s ball-gag. (Some of the reviews were luckily PrintScreened before the evidence disappeared for good.)

It seems pretty clear to me that this is the Kane & Lynch fiasco all over again: (1) Publisher releases problematic product. (2) Reviewers/fans (delete as appropriate) respond with negative criticism. (3) Publisher leans heavily on sites on which said negative criticism has been posted. (4) Said negative criticism mysteriously disappears.

Now, I know what you’re going to say: a flood of one-star reviews which say nothing about the content of the game itself is hardly a measured response against some intrusive DRM. And you may be right. However, this still doesn’t change the fact that to dictate to consumers who have forked out money for a product how many times they can use it, which a number of publishers seem to be increasingly fond of doing lately, is utterly absurd and demands a frank and unequivocal response. It’s not a game that interests me greatly, but I am now even less likely to pick it up than I would have been before wind of this fiasco reached me. The greatest irony of all is that this is simply going to send more people scurrying to BitTorrent to download a crack to remove the DRM… or perhaps even a pirate copy of the game itself. Once again the studios bleat about piracy, the consumers get screwed, and the pirates shrug their shoulders and carry on as normal.

Update, September 12th, 2008 03:53 PM: Somewhat surprisingly, it appears that Amazon’s US wing is not expurgating reviews criticising the DRM.

Update #2, September 12th, 2008 08:37 PM: Oops, spoke too soon. It appears that Amazon.com have deleted all the reviews of the game. However, the overall 1-star rating, based on 2,216 customer reviews, still stands.

Update #3, September 13th, 2008 08:21 AM: And the Amazon.com reviews are back again. This is like playing musical chairs.

 
Posted: Thursday, September 11, 2008 at 10:56 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: DRM | Games | Technology | Web
 

Another day in bland collect-‘em-up world

Space Siege

With the release of Diablo III still a long way off, many gamers are doing their best to find the Next Big Thing in the action RPG world to keep them entertained in the interim. A lot of people thought that might be Hellgate: London, designed by the creators of the first two Diablo games, but that turned out to be a disappointment for many. Others have looked to Titan Quest (which I can’t say impressed me a great deal), which offered similar gameplay mechanics, this time in a world inspired by Greek Mythology.

Recently, a little game called Space Siege, developed by Gas Powered Games, came out for the PC. This is a game that sounds like great fun on paper: a slick, down-and-dirty ARPG pitting a solitary hero against hordes of aliens - a sort of heavily streamlined Diablo set in space. Its creative director - Gas Powered Games’ CEO, Chris Taylor - also has an interesting pedigree, having masterminded a number of successful games, including Total Annihilation, Dungeon Siege and, most recently, Supreme Commander. Barring the latter, which I haven’t played, his games have never done a great deal for me, with Total Annihilation’s revolutionary use of terrain elevation and real-time 3D models (a rarity at the time in real-time strategy games) seeming to distract people from the overall blandness and homogeneity of the games design, and Dungeon Siege playing like a third-rate, dumbed-down version of Diablo with a few interesting tweaks in the form of party support and a dynamic character development system which automatically adjusted to the player’s style of gameplay instead of going down the usual rigid class-based route. Still, despite not being particularly impressed by any of these games, I was more than willing to give Space Siege a go. After all, Diablo in space? Sounds like fun.

Space Siege

Then the reviews started coming in, basically summing up the game as bland, easy, dumbed-down beyond belief and completely, utterly generic. Undeterred, I downloaded the demo and had a go myself. Fifteen minutes later, having completed it, I promptly uninstalled it from my hard drive.

It’s interesting, because one of the main criticisms levelled against Hellgate: London was that its developers were guilty of overreaching, setting their goals too high and over-hyping what was otherwise a pretty unremarkable game (which has always slightly confused me - were people expecting them to trumpet their game as “a middling game that doesn’t aim too high” or something similar?). Space Siege’s problem is the exact opposite: it’s essentially a freeware casual game with lavish production values and an A-list price tag. Everything about it has been pared back to the barest minimum, resulting in a game that can’t be accused of aiming too high because it doesn’t seem to aim at all. There are no character classes, just a single generic hero with the mega-bland name of Seth Walker who gets access to a range of around ten guns over the course of the game. There are no stats or experience: instead, you level up at pre-determined moments and occasionally find a new weapon to replace your current one (you can’t keep both). Effectively, the experience, loot and currency have all been homogenised into a single system of mechanical parts which are periodically dropped by fallen enemies, and in turn can be used at various stations to buy health, grenades etc. or upgrade your weapons and armour. It’s all very flat and unimaginative, and the lack of a meaningful stats systems means that it’s unclear what an upgrade of “+4 to armour” actually means in practice. It doesn’t help that all of this is visualised in the form of graphics that are technically proficient but completely and utterly unimaginative, making Hellgate: London’s oft-criticised monotonous environments look positively varied. In a sense, I suppose it looks the same as it plays, which is to some degree appropriate.

Space Siege

The one relatively original idea in the entire game is its system of cybernetics upgrades, in which Seth can choose to replace various body parts (e.g. eyes, arms, legs) with various robotic equivalents, which improve his abilities but in turn reduce his “humanity” rating. I’m told that the absolute ultimate is a cybernetic brain, but that in practice even this barely changes the gameplay one iota, beyond slightly altering other characters’ reactions to him and resulting in a slightly different ending. As the inimitable Jeff Green (one of my favourite gaming journalists) said in his review at 1UP:

I went full robot, taking the ultimate final step: a cybernetic brain, which — all told — reduced my humanity to 5 percent. Fully expecting a dramatic or even traumatic change in my character (would I still be speaking the same heroic-yet-wooden dialogue?), I discovered that the game barely acknowledges it. In the final cut-scene, I saved the world…and apparently lived happily ever after as a robot.

If a bland, derivative, completely unimaginative and over-simplified point and click action game pitting a witless hero against hordes of witless space mutants sounds to you like a good use of your $50 and a fine way of passing the time before Diablo III’s release, knock yourselves out. Myself, I think I’ll just play Diablo II some more.

 
Posted: Thursday, August 28, 2008 at 4:54 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Games | Reviews | Technology | Web
 

More thoughts on Red Alert 3

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 beta

I’ve played quite a few more matches of the Red Alert 3 beta since my last post on the subject, and am slowly but surely forming an overall understanding of the game. I’m also getting a bit better at it too, winning a handful of games while playing as the Allies, who are not as underpowered as I first thought.

Above all, what impresses me about this game is that EA seem to finally be intent on moving the Command & Conquer franchise away from the old “mass a load of units and steamroll your opponent with superior numbers” mentality that has, to an extent, characterised the past games. Watching some of the replays and shoutcasts over at Red3.org, it has become pretty clear to me that, in this game, there is an increased focus on hard (as opposed to soft) counters. In other words, each unit in the game has a direct counter that can completely obliterate it, which can then, in turn, be obliterated by another unit, and so on and so forth. This is in stark contrast to many of the older games in the series, where this rock-paper-scissors dynamic was a lot less pronounced. The result, I think, is that the game is more rewarding to play, particularly if you take the time to learn the various counters, because you’re forced to actually think about which units you’re building, and adapt your strategy depending on what your opponent is doing. There’s something very satisfying about spotting an enemy player making for your base with a gaggle of heavy-duty Airships (huge flying balloons which can decimate your base by carpet-bombing them), and then quickly training a handful of anti-air Apollo Fighters to take them out before they even reach you (Airships can’t attack other air units).

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3

What I have been noticing, however, is a tendency towards games developing into a stalemate in which the two theatres of land and sea end up being controlled by different sides, with neither able to make a sizeable dent in the other. This is, in part, due to the fact that, if one player rules the seas, it’s virtually impossible for the other to venture into them without being hammered. Land units can’t really do anything against sea units, unless the sea units venture too close to the shore, while the Soviets’ impressive naval-based anti-air capabilities tend to make it difficult to bomb them from the skies (not impossible, but difficult). Add to this the fact that resources in Red Alert 3 are finite, and you can often end up in situations where neither side is able to build new forces, meaning that it’s essentially a case of one side waiting for the other to get fed up and go on a suicide mission, or quit in frustration. Of course, this is an problem inherent in virtually any RTS, but one that I suspect could be smoothed out with a bit more balancing in terms of the land/sea/air spread between the various factions.

Then again, I’m still learning the ropes, so it could be that something obvious is eluding me. Given that every unit in the game has a secondary function, the applicability of which is often somewhat vague, requiring to be used in tandem with the abilities of one or more other units, there’s rather a lot to get your head around. What I am fairly sure of, though, is that Red Alert 3 is shaping up to be a great RTS, and one that I’m definitely looking forward to picking up when it’s released.

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3

 
Posted: Monday, August 25, 2008 at 3:13 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Games
 

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 beta initial impressions

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 beta

As I’ve stated before, I’ve not always been a fan of the Command & Conquer series of real-time strategy games. In the mid-to-late 1990s, the RTS landscape was dominated by two key players, Westwood Studios and Blizzard Entertainment, with Westwood’s Command & Conquer games pitted against Blizzard’s Warcraft (and later Starcraft). While I know that many gamers were able to enjoy both, the majority seem to have come down firmly on one side or the other, and I was a staunch loyalist of the Blizzard camp. For me, their games were always more intuitive, tactile and polished, offering an overall more pleasant experience. In contrast, I tended to find Westwood’s games more finicky, frequently suffering from mushy, indistinct graphics, control issues and a general lack of a meaningful connection (a typical Command & Conquer game tended to consist of cranking out as large an attack force as possible and rushing the enemy en masse, whereas Blizzard’s games tended to stress quality over quantity, forcing the player to make strategic decisions about which units to build).

Times, however, have changed. Westwood Studios is no more, and the last RTS Blizzard put out was Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos in 2002 (with an expansion set in 2003). The publisher of the Command & Conquer games, Electronic Arts, established their own studio, EALA, to continue development of the franchise, beginning with the rather poorly-received 2003 spin-off Command & Conquer: Generals. In the meantime, while Blizzard arguably continued to dominate the RTS market, particularly as far as E-sports are concerned, several other franchises emerged to compete, muddying the waters somewhat and meaning that the old C&C/-craft binary no longer existed.

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3

In 2007, the Command & Conquer series was resurrected with Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars, which, coincidentally or not, was the first one I genuinely enjoyed. I picked up a copy of the game in April, and then snagged the Kane’s Wrath expansion set in July. Since then, both have remained on my hard disk and have been played rather obsessively. I’m not sure precisely what EALA did, but they managed to turn my thoughts on the franchise around completely, allowing me to enjoy their game in a way that I never could with Westwood’s efforts. (This turnaround, incidentally, mirrors my experiences with the Tomb Raider franchise, which I believe improved exponentially when Crystal Dynamics took over from Core Design.)

Kane’s Wrath came with a free key to enter the beta test of Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3, the third instalment in the spin-off Red Alert franchise. (While the vanilla Command & Conquer series takes place in the future, the Red Alert games operate in an alternate reality Cold War scenario in which Hitler never came to power and the Soviet Union emerged as the dominant adversary to the Allies in Europe.) My account was activated this morning, and I’ve spent most of the day getting the hang of it. (Normally I’d be at work, but we’re all on strike today over a pay dispute.) The beta supports only online play, without any means of learning the ropes before jumping on to the Internet and invariably taking a savage beating from more experienced players. Four maps are provided, as well as all three playable factions: the Allies, the Soviets and the new Empire of the Rising Sun (i.e. Japan).

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3

Whereas vanilla Command & Conquer has always offered a semi-realistic take on the world, the style of Red Alert is altogether more exaggerated, with units that range from your traditional infantry to armoured bears who can be shot out of cannons and parachuted into the enemy base. Much like the franchise’s famous FMVs, all of this is done in a firmly tongue-in-cheek manner, resulting in a rather silly but nonetheless engaging experience. Visually, the colour palette is a good deal more saturated than that of Tiberium Wars, and accordingly the unit and building designs are more exaggerated, looking chunkier and more toy-like. Lower-grade units such as infantry are still a bit too small on the screen, making it difficult to distinguish between, say, a Peacekeeper and a Javelin Soldier (a long-running complaint I have with these games), but otherwise the design is bold, striking and richly saturated.

Otherwise, the mechanics are largely the same as those of Tiberium Wars. The unit names and designs may be different, but the basic principles are more or less unchanged. The biggest monkey wrench comes in the form of the added emphasis on naval combat. Many buildings and a few units as well can be placed on both land and sea, which gives the gameplay an added dimension. I still haven’t quite got the hang of it (naval combat was always my weakest point in RTSes like Warcraft II and Age of Empires), but it seems fun and adds a degree of variety to the tactics that are available to you.

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3

Right now, certain aspects of the gameplay do feel rather unwieldy, although there’s nothing here that can’t be changed with a bit of balancing and polishing. The controls seem a tad unresponsive, a combination (I suspect) of lag on the beta server and the fact that, like Tiberium Wars, the frame rate has a forced cap of 30 fps (words cannot express how much this irritates me, especially in a fast-paced game like this). Likewise, the interface looks and feels somewhat clunky, which is odd given that it’s virtually identical to the one used in the previous Command & Conquer games. That aspect of the art could, I suspect, do with a bit of a polish to make things feel a bit more finished. Also, it may just have been my experience, but currently the Allies feel somewhat underpowered in comparison to the two other races. So far, the only game I’ve won while playing as them was against a complete beginner who hadn’t even managed to build any troops before I steamrolled his/her base, whereas I had considerably more successes while playing as the Soviet Union. I haven’t tested the Empire of the Rising Sun to any great extent yet, although their heavy emphasis on mechanical, “Transformers”-like units it’s really to my personal tastes. Oh, and I’ve experienced a fair number of crashes and connection failures, but that’s par for the course with unfinished software.

Overall, what I’ve seen looks fairly promising. Tiberium Wars definitely has a slicker, more polished feel, and it’s unclear whether this discrepancy is down to the fact that Red Alert 3 is still in beta, but I’d hazard a guess that, with just over two months to go before release, there won’t be any major changes made to the core mechanics between now and then. On balance, therefore, while the saturated, exaggerated world of Red Alert 3 appeals more to my tastes than the more realistic, sci-fi-oriented Tiberium Wars, I could see myself sticking with the latter in the long run.

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3

 
Posted: Wednesday, August 20, 2008 at 5:57 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Games | Technology
 

Ham and cheese

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 beta

This morning, I received my invite for the ongoing online beta test for Electronic Arts’ Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3. I’ve played a few matches so far (and received a royal whupping from my opponents on almost every occasion), and will be posting my impressions later, but for now I thought I’d share with you the deliciously dreadful trailer unveiling some of the “talent” that will be appearing in the game’s live action full motion video (FMV) sequences.

From hopelessly inexperienced no-names to reasonably familiar veterans signing on to embarrass themselves, the FMV sequences for the Command & Conquer franchise are always a laugh riot. It seems to be tradition that they be as unconvincing and over the top as possible, peppered with dreadful dialogue, extreme overacting and some of the worst production values this side of a television show commissioned for BBC3. With Red Alert 3, it really looks as if EA have outdone themselves, peppering their cast with a diverse array of talents and no-talents, including everyone from Tim Curry (doink hees best Rrrrrrussian accent, comrade) to Jenny McCarthy to some blonde woman out of Channel 4’s rubbish weekday soap opera, Hollyoaks (or, as the press release more grandly describes it, “the UK’s Hollyoaks”).

You can download the high definition QuickTime trailer from the official site, or, if that’s too much effort, just feast your eyes at some of these choice screen captures and try to keep a straight face. It’s much funnier in motion and with sound, though - if you can believe that.

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3
Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3
Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3
Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3
Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3

 
Posted: Wednesday, August 20, 2008 at 3:59 PM | Comments: 6 (view)
Categories: Games | TV | Web
 

Why Britain will never complete with Boll and Fagrasso

Honest

Note: this film was sent to me by Baron Scarpia as part of our ongoing trade in dreadful movies. You can read his thoughts on the film in question here.

My good friend the Baron once opined that the UK traditionally doesn’t have much of a track record for producing truly awful filmmakers. While Italy has given us Claudio Fragasso and Germany has bestowed Uwe Boll upon us, and America is responsible for Tom Green, I don’t really think the British Isles has an equivalent. Broadly speaking, Britain tends to make films in the “drippy toffs played by Hugh Grant who find love” or “grimy northern squalor picture in which everyone has perpetually just been laid off from their job down the coal mines” models, and most of them are far from dreadful, just mind-numbingly tedious and depressing. Occasionally, an exception to the rule comes along, such as Pawel Pawlikowski’s romantic drama My Summer of Love or Neil Marshall’s excellent monster horror flick The Descent, which serve to suggest that perhaps the British film industry shouldn’t be dismantled after all, but by and large this country wastes its lottery grants on brain-destroying crap like Sex Lives of the Potato Men (of which I managed to stomach approximately twelve minutes before turning off my TV and disconnecting it from the wall lest it somehow turn itself back on and subject me to yet more pain).

There’s a third broad category of British film about which I’ve yet to say anything, and that’s the gangster movie à la Guy Ritchie. I don’t like gangster movies, particularly British ones. There are few things I find more irritating than watching a bunch of gristle-chinned wannabe thugs swaggering about, talking in incomprehensible Cockney accents and calling each other unpleasant names. About the only thing I find passably interesting about them is the moral grey area in which they operate, broadly speaking encouraging the audience to align its sympathies with a bunch of moral degenerates for whom theft, assault and murder is a way of life. It’s possible to pull off if you’re good: I’m sure I’m not alone in finding Hannibal Lecter to be a highly compelling character in spite of (or perhaps because of) his nastiness. Lecter isn’t a gangster, but he serves to illustrate a point: if done right, it’s possible to root for the bad guy.

'The All Saints eagerly examine the papers for reviews of their film.

The All Saints eagerly examine the papers for reviews of their film.

Honest doesn’t get a lot of things right. For a start, it stars three-quarters of a British girl group known as All Saints. (If you’ve never heard of them, don’t worry. They were never really relevant to begin with and are extremely unlikely to become so in the near or distant future.) If you’ve had the misfortune of seeing Mariah Carey or Britney Spears’ forays into the world of acting, you’ll know that such endeavours rarely meet with success, and that’s before you even begin to take acting ability into consideration. The All Saints (I’m not going to bother referring to them by their actual names, because neither they nor their characters do anything in particular distinguish themselves from each other), I must assure you, cannot act. Given that at least one of them appears in virtually every single scene in the film, you’d be forgiven for assuming this to be a massive problem. Oddly enough, it’s not, and the reason for that is that their incompetence is matched on every level, if not dwarfed, by a dreadful script, moronic direction and an outlook so morally derelict that it makes Dr. Lecter simply seem like a cheeky chappy who went a wee bit too far.

The All Saints, you see, are gangsters. Hard-talking ladies who walk the streets of 1960s East End London and routinely do things like steal diamonds and threaten innocent bystanders with crowbars and shotguns. One such jaunt goes wrong, and one of the Saints ends up being apprehended by and falling in love with a wretched excuse for a journalist, whose seemingly radical prose is matched in its incompetence only by every single other act of incompetence committed by the filmmakers. Along the way, we get to see the All Saints doing their damnedest to act menacing, getting stoned out of their minds and having a slow motion argument inside a moving vehicle. No, that last part is not a typo.

'Cos this is, like, what the 60s was all about.

Cos this is, like, what the 60s was all about.

This film was directed by David A. Stewart, who the Internet Movie Database handily tells me was part of the Eurythmics. Barring some music videos that he shot for his own band, Honest was the first thing he ever directed, and I’m pleased to report that he has never stepped behind a camera since. He also provided the film’s music and co-wrote the script (along with Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, who between them have written everything from Porridge to Across the Universe). A man of many talents, clearly. Or not. You see, consider that one person had his hand in so many pies and it begins to look pretty obvious why every single one of them tastes foul. No matter what’s wrong with this movie (and there’s a lot wrong with it), Stewart is the common factor. This is a man who thinks that the most exciting part of a car chase is a conversation taking place between the vehicles passengers, and that the best way to accentuate the tension is not to show exterior shots of the car travelling in slow motion, but to show close-ups of the characters talking in slow motion. He also believes that slowing down and speeding up his footage to a handy “Whoomfff!” sound effect is the height of stylishness, that shots of naked people writhing around during an acid trip is, like, the coolest, most provocative thing ever, and that the All Saints can act. To be fair, you could argue that he is simply being let down by useless leads, but then he also manages to draw useless performances from competent actors like James Cosmo and Corin Redgrave, which puts paid to that theory. (Oh, and Matt Bardock, who currently plays Cockney wideboy paramedic Jeff in Casualty, appears in this film as a Cockney wideboy gangster. I wonder if the loss of hair that he experienced between his appearances in these two productions is to do with the stress resulting in the knowledge that he had appeared in such a train wreck.)

Did I mention the script? Clement and La Frenais have done good work elsewhere, so I can only assume that, once again, the problems stem from our friend Mr. Stewart. Gangster movies generally have the unenviable task of aligning the audience’s sympathies with people who are utterly nasty individuals who, by rights, should be locked away for the rest of their lives somewhere where the sun doesn’t shine. Most gangster movies are reasonable honest about this and either don’t attempt to excuse their anti-heroes’ behaviour, or at the very least pit them against people who are equally or more repugnant than they are. Honest, despite its title, is anything but. At every possible occasion, the script attempts to exonerate the All Saints for their contemptible behaviour by offering pitiful excuses like suggesting that they don’t like doing it (don’t do it, then), that they’re only doing it to get their dad a new telly (get a job, then), or that it’s because their mother is dead (get over it, then). Oh, and we have a tasteless little subplot involving one of them teaching a lesson to a next-door neighbour who routinely assaults his girlfriend, which again is only there to show us that the girls are good after all, innit? (The Saint in question, incidentally, pours engine oil down the offending ladybasher’s throat, which, in addition to being incredibly messy, strikes me as about as distasteful as you can get once you realise that the writers actually want you applaud this act of torture.)

One of the All Saints recreates how she got the part.

One of the All Saints recreates how she got the part.

Oh, and the film is also content to wallow in its own hypocrisy, opening with the girls chastising a security guard for looking at pornography, despite the fact that the film is loaded to the gills with gratuitous nudity, the most leering of which is provided by two-thirds of the three-quarters of the All Saints, neither of whom are even attractive enough to warrant such exposure. I have, however, provided a picture of one of them, in order to rub their faces in their own double standards.

All this is well and good, but the film’s greatest crime, by far, is how boring it is, and this is where my opinion and the Baron’s part ways. The Baron, you see, feels that a film can do worse than be boring. I, on the other hand, think that there is no greater crime. Note to filmmakers: you can be as incompetent and as morally bankrupt as you like, but provide you do so in a semi-interesting way, you may at least retain my attention. Unfortunately, for the most part watching Honest is like watching paint dry. There are a few moments that make me shake my head in disbelief and cry out “What the fuck were they thinking?”, but, for the most part, it’s simply as dull and worthless as virtually every other British movie, and it’s because of that that it doesn’t make it into “so bad it’s good territory”. It’s just a feckless, incompetently made waste of celluloid.

Incidentally, the back cover of the DVD proclaims that this film is a “cult classic”. Presumably, in the same way that Manos: The Hands of Fate and ET: The Extra-Terrestrial for the Atari 2600 are cult classics.

 
Posted: Sunday, August 03, 2008 at 6:47 PM | Comments: 7 (view)
Categories: Cinema | DVD | Games | Reviews | TV
 

Go faster, my son!

Technology

After owning my current system for over two months, I finally decided, last night, that now was the time to start putting my excessive cooling solution to good use and overclock my processor. Back when I was putting the system together, I decided to go with an OEM 3 GHz Core 2 Duo, foregoing a quad core system in favour of a dual core system with a higher clock speed. There were two reasons behind this. First, and most obvious, was simple economics: a dual core system, particularly an OEM one, costs considerably less than a quad core system with a comparable clock speed. Secondly, although I do a bit of video encoding here and there, most of the applications I use (games, mainly) don’t take advantage of multi-core technology anyway, meaning that, 99% of the time, I’d be unlikely to see any performance gains with four cores as opposed to two.

Vroom!

Anyway, last night, I cranked my 3 GHz system up to just over 3.4 GHz, and so far have had no stability problems. I’ll be squeezing a few more megahertz out of it later today and intend to keep going until it gets unstable. It’s quite amazing how long it’s taken me to hop aboard the overclocking bandwagon, given my love of fast hardware, and given how easy it is to do these days.

Update, August 1st, 2008 02:17 PM: Up to 3.6 GHz now with no problems so far.

 
Posted: Friday, August 01, 2008 at 11:51 AM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Games | Technology
 

It’s okay to emote, you know

The Witcher

Over the last few days, I’ve been playing a game I got the previous Christmas but, for one reason or another, never really devoted much time to, until now. The Witcher is based on a series of Polish fantasy novels by Andrzej Sapkowski, about which I must confess I know next to nothing. I am, however, told that they are phenomenally successful in their homeland, spawning a film and television series, comics, card games and now a PC role-playing game.

On the face of it, the game is not unlike any number of other CRPGs. Based on the Aurora Engine developed by BioWare for Neverwinter Nights, it features a tried and true combination of character building, item hunting, monster-whupping and plot development. It’s in respect to the latter that The Witcher distinguishes itself. Most fantasy RPGs have a fairly black and white view of the world, usually pits noble humans, elves and dwarves against irredeemable, bloodthirsty orcs, ogres and the living dead. This isn’t entirely surprising when you consider that almost all fantasy worlds are ultimately derived from JRR Tolkien’s writing, which had an “us vs. them” mindset to an even greater degree. As much as I enjoy games like Baldur’s Gate and Diablo, therefore, I often find myself drawn to the ones that try to do something a little different. Planescape: Torment, one of the best games of all time, did that by situating the game in the wildly unique and imaginative Planescape universe, which is devoid of traditional elves and goblins, and also by allowing the player to create a morally grey character whose actions and behaviour would have lasting implications on how he was treated and how the story unfolded. Seemingly minor decisions the player made at the beginning of the game could come back to bite him/her later - the Butterfly Effect, if you like.

The Witcher

I’m not going to suggest that The Witcher is the new Planescape: Torment. It’s far too clunky and awkwardly written (a by-product, I suspect, of the fact that I’m playing an English translation of a game originally written in Polish) for that. Planescape: Torment didn’t exactly have the most wonderful gameplay mechanics either (it used BioWare’s Infinity engine, whose combat system always seemed somewhat counter-intuitive, particularly in comparison with action-oriented CRPGs like Diablo), but its writing was first-rate, particularly for a computer game, and it, in conjunction with the evocative graphics and Mark Morgan’s moody score, helped suck the player into the world. In comparison, The Witcher’s mechanics seem rather unwieldy, while the world depicted definitely feels closer to a pastiche of Tolkien than something as original as Planescape, with the usual vile beasts and ale-swilling dwarves (complete with cod-Scottish accents, of course, since for some reason people have got it into their heads that all dwarves hail from my part of the world).

It does, however, appear to take the notion of the Butterfly Effect philosophy of game design to the next level. Seemingly insignificant decisions can open up entirely new avenues, while at the same time closing others off. There is also a commendable effort, on the part of the writers, to create a feeling of moral ambivalence, in that no ideology, race or decision is defined as unwaveringly good or bad. In the first chapter, for instance, there is an incident in which you have to choose between siding with some pitchfork-waving yokels who want to burn the local witch, and aligning yourself with the witch in order to fight off her assailants. This was by no means a straightforward decision. The locals were clearly stupid, violent and led astray by a corrupt priest, but at the same time ample evidence existed to suggest that the witch might very well have been up to no good. Champion of the underdog that I am, I decided to help out the witch, although, given that I then had to single-handedly defeat a horde of armed yobs, I suspect I chose the tougher path. The point is, though, that the game provided me with a moral dilemma and, instead of going with the easier option, I opted for what that felt more ethically acceptable. That, to me, is the essence of good game storytelling.

 
Posted: Saturday, July 26, 2008 at 5:56 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: Books | Games | Technology
 

Clinging to the flotsam

Hellgate: London

Recent reports about the closing of Flagship Studios may have been premature… but that’s about as far as it goes. After four days of silence, the company has finally put out an official statement on the matter, claiming that, while the bulk of the staff have been laid off, the studio still exists as an entity and has retained the rights to its games. As per DIII.net:

San Francisco, CA (July 14, 2008) — Flagship Studios has announced today that despite rumors to the contrary, the company is still operating.

“It is with deep regret that I must announce that Flagship Studios has laid off most employees. However, the core management and founding team members are still at Flagship.” said Bill Roper, CEO of Flagship Studios. “The past five years have been an incredible experience for us, but unfortunately, we couldn’t sustain the size of the company any longer.”

Flagship Studios owns the rights to all its technology and IP, including Hellgate: London and Mythos. Due to the current situation, Flagship will not be taking any new subscribers for Hellgate: London, and all current subscriptions will not be billed.

Flagship wishes to extend their heartfelt thanks to those that have supported the company and games over the past five years.

Regardless of which side of the fence you’re on, I don’t think this development can be considered to be particularly good news. It smells suspiciously like a last ditch attempt to hold on to their property, and, although I’m first and foremost in favour of artists being allowed to have control over their own work, whether the results are good or bad, part of me feels that it would be better for the game in the long run for it to be handed over to someone else. With only a skeleton crew left at the studio, I highly doubt that we will be seeing any ongoing content updates (such as the 2.0 patch, currently in beta on the test server) any time soon. In any event, their reputation has been so greatly tarnished, partly because of false information being reported by several major gaming news sites as fact, and partly because of the reality of the situation (bugs, lack of content updates, general lukewarm reaction to the game itself), that, barring divine intervention, which of course is a fantasy, there’s no way they’re going to bounce back.

Really, this is just prolonging the inevitable. I will, however, be holding off on my planned Hellgate/Flagship autopsy until we have more definitive news about what to expect from the game and the company in the future.

 
Posted: Wednesday, July 16, 2008 at 8:21 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Games | Technology | Web
 

Gaming in living colour

Devil May Cry 4

Well, the decidedly neutered 2008 Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) is under way, and, as Lyris reports, Microsoft are set to shovel yet another selection of derivative and/or colour-sucked titles out on to the Xbox 360, along with some big news in the form of their ensnaring of the previously Playstation 3-exclusive Final Fantasy XIII. For me, the only upcoming games that have any pulling power whatsoever are Diablo III, Starcraft II and Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 (in roughly that order), only the latter of which is being shown at the expo, so none of this really matters from my perspective.

And yes, Anephric, you were right, Gears of War 2 is considerably more colourful than its predecessor. How strange that this paragon of brown and grey now looks comparatively saturated among the current Xbox 360 line-up.

Right now on the gaming front, I’m keeping track of the ongoing developments (or lack thereof) regarding the closure of Flagship Studios and what this will mean for their two games, Hellgate: London and Mythos. In spite of the hyperbolic and at times downright unpleasant statements from various commenters (yes, I’m sure you spending $50 on a disappointing game justifies personal attacks on the people who made it and jubilation over them losing their jobs - not), Flagshipped.com is providing by far the most comprehensive rundown of the situation. (For a slightly less vitriolic version, try Voodoo Extreme.) With the developers seemingly in hiding, unwilling to make any public statements on the matter, there’s no real way of knowing what’s going to happen in the near future. At least the game servers are still up at the moment, although it’s anyone’s guess how long that will remain the case.

On a brighter note, I received the retail version of the PC port of Capcom’s Devil May Cry 4 (or, as I’m apparently supposed to call it, going by the entry created in my games control panel, DEVIL MAY CRY 4) today. So far, it’s pretty good fun, but I remain unconvinced that gamepad-style gaming is for me. To be honest, I find the process of mashing buttons on a crudely shaped lump of plastic clunky and unwieldy, and would be far more at home with a traditional keyboard and mouse combo. I suppose I’m just a died-in-the-wool PC gamer who can’t change his ways after all these years, but I still wish Capcom had offered the option for PC gamers to play the game with the keyboard and mouse. I can’t imagine it offering any problems, and I’m sure it would have been quite straightforward to use the mouse for camera movement and the W-A-S-D keys for character movement.

World of Warcraft figures

Oh, and, while I was out shopping today, I picked up a couple of World of Warcraft figures at HMV - a steal for a fiver each, particularly given that the two that I was able to find, Valeera Sanguinar and Thargas Anvilmar, are both out of print. (Personally I’d rather have had a Warlock, but they didn’t have any left.) The pair of them look rather fetching perched on top of my (extremely dusty) audio decoder.

 
Posted: Monday, July 14, 2008 at 10:41 PM | Comments: 1 (view)
Categories: Games | General | Technology
 

The dream is over

Hellgate: London

It looks as if Hellgate: London developers Flagship Studios have finally bitten off more than they can chew. After numerous rumours of employees leaving in droves and customers dissatisfied with the quality of the game and/or the support being provided with it, the final nail has been hammered into the studio’s creaky coffin, with Flagship apparently closing its doors following the laying off of the entire staff. Financial support from Korean distributor and co-owner of the intellectual property HanbitSoft has reportedly dried up, with the implication being that HanbitSoft will, from now on, take full control of the franchise and continue to develop it themselves:

HanbitSoft states that the reason it is pursuing this course of action is because “It is hard for us to accept Flagship Studios’ requests for continued support in capital and funding any longer and because Flagship was being difficult”, and because it co-owns a direct stake in the IP, it therefore “has a say in reviewing and determining any course of action to be taken with Hellgate: London.”

HanbitSoft is expected to take full control over the IP. HanbitSoft goes on to state that in doing so, it will be able to “properly manage and develop Hellgate: London into a good game with proper content”, with its own in-house team of developers.

Ouch.

I’m not entirely surprised, but I’m disappointed nonetheless. I would have liked to see Flagship Studios succeed. The games industry is coming ever closer to mirroring the movie business in the sense that all the power these days is in the hands of a small number of megacorporations, and something about the idea of Flagship striking out on their own as an independent developer appealed to me. Theirs was a worthy attempt to deliver a triple-A game as an autonomous company, but ultimately they failed to pull it off. I still like Hellgate: London, in spite of its myriad flaws, and I genuinely hope that HanbitSoft are able to salvage something from the wreckage, but it’s a damn shame that its creators will no longer be involved with the project they poured their heart and soul into, whatever you might think of the end results.

No creator, regardless of the medium in which they work, likes to see their baby dragged away from them, particularly under circumstances such as these (shades of the 1992 Nickelodeon takeover of Ren & Stimpy, methinks), and I can only hope that the Flagship people are able to bounce back from this in some form or other. Hmm, I suspect they’re probably greatly regretting walking out of Blizzard Entertainment back in 2003.

 
Posted: Saturday, July 12, 2008 at 9:57 PM | Comments: 1 (view)
Categories: Animation | Cinema | Games | TV | Web
 

The Internet tells you what to think

Diablo III

Something Awful’s humour can be a bit hit or miss at times (though their Photoshop Phriday features rarely fail to put a smile on my face), but they’ve absolutely nailed it with their reaction to the negative buzz surrounding Diablo III in some circles. I particularly like their take-down of the (by now tedious) “it’s too colourful” argument:

My Initial (Wrong) Opinion: Wow, it’s the world from Diablo in 3D, rendered like a painting to retain the 2D flavor of the previous games. The dark and ominous themes are still there, only now we don’t have to use our imaginations to fill in the details suggested by blocky sprites.

The Internet’s (Correct) Opinion: Wow, it’s a shitty cartoon! This is NOT the same world that Diablo I and II took place in. No way.

[…]

Here’s the dark and gritty Diablo II, which Diablo III should look like:

Diablo II

I rest my case.

 
Posted: Friday, July 11, 2008 at 10:20 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Games | Web
 

Birthday bash

Blu-ray

Thank you to all of you who wished me a happy birthday yesterday.

A couple of you wanted to know what sort of swag I managed to bag, and the answer is that, on the actual day, I didn’t get many presents. This is because my parents had already given me some money towards the new computer I put together at the end of May, so in effect I already had my main present. Still, I did pick out a couple of smaller goodies, including the Kane’s Wrath expansion set to Command & Conquer 3 and the Eye of the North expansion set to Guild Wars, both for PC. I also snagged an Xbox 360 controller, given that I’ve come to the conclusion that playing combo-based action games like Devil May Cry 4 with a keyboard isn’t the best idea.

Finally, the Blu-ray release of Gangs of New York arrived the day before my birthday, so I decided to throw it into the present pile just for the heck of it. Ultimately, I’m glad it wasn’t a “proper” birthday present, because the transfer really is absolutely horrible - every bit as Robert A. Harris and Xylon have said.

 
Posted: Saturday, July 05, 2008 at 5:49 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | Games | General | Technology
 

Damn your eyes!

Diablo III

In a previous post, I briefly mentioned that certain members of the online fan community had reacted with dismay (that’s a polite euphemism, by the way) to Diablo III’s richer colour palette as compared with its predecessors. Today, I want to expand on this issue.

Colour in games is a subject I’ve touched on before. To put it simply, I think there isn’t enough of it. The trend, these days, is to go for grim, desaturated visuals in games, presumably because the developers are under the mistaken impression that using a colour palette comprised exclusively of brown and grey makes their product seem more mature and “serious”. The games industry has a rather irritating habit of aping Hollywood rather than breaking new ground of its own, and I suspect that what we’re currently seeing with games like Gears of War (in my opinion one of the most visually unappealing games released in recent years) is an offshoot of this. In filmspeak, “desaturated” has come to equal “raw and gritty”, and game developers, thinking that “raw and gritty” beats “fun and escapist” any day (despite the fact that any game’s first goal, surely, is to be fun to play), have latched on to this grim aesthetic.

Isn't this cheery?

Above: Isn’t this cheery?

I’ve already demonstrated the visual decay of the Unreal Tournament franchise, with the latest instalment, Unreal Tournament III, sucking all the saturation and joy out of a franchise that once prided itself on its arresting design and frankly excellent use of colour. Thankfully, there are people who understand that not everyone wants to play their games exclusively in brown and grey, with the recently released Community Bonus Pack 3 serving as an excellent example of what the game should have looked like from the outset. Here, a group of fans have taken the tools made freely available to them with the game and have created levels which, frankly, blow their official counterparts out of the water in terms of aesthetics.

Someone else who gets it is Brian Morrisroe, art director on Diablo III. Here is what he has to say on the subject of visual design:

There’s a certain amount of grit and realism that we want to bring to the game, but it’s important to take the player into a fantasy realm. That’s what we’re really all about here, is exploring that idea of giving you something you’ve never seen before. If we simply took photographs and just applied that to a bunch of polygons, that’s really not us doing our job, so we really wanted to explore and push this idea of bringing a unique, different look to the Diablo III universe.

Diablo III

Quite. Rob Pardo, Blizzard Entertainment’s Vice President of Game Design, expands on this when talking about the game’s colour design:

If you look at Diablo I and II […] they obviously have the Gothic look to it, but […] they weren’t very colourful games, and one of the challenges we wanted to take with Diablo III was could we add colour but still maintain that Gothic dark feel? […] I think we want to take […] dark as an emotion rather than actual colour art choice, and I think that’s something that took a long time to get to the point that we’re at now - like, I think we’ve probably gone through at least three pretty major art direction shifts until we got to the point where we’re on stage, because I think it’s really difficult to pull that off, but we’re really happy with the look of the game now.

This is all well and good, and I must say that, from watching the gameplay trailer and looking at the screenshots, and perhaps most importantly from listening to what the people in charge of the game’s look have to say, any fears I might have had that they didn’t know what they were doing quickly evaporated. Yes, the original Diablo is a tense, atmospheric exercise in mood, and much of its success in that regard an be attributed to the desaturated palette and heavy use of shadows, but that doesn’t mean that this is the only way to achieve that mood. Rich colours can be just as effective at conveying terror. Just ask Dario Argento:

Suspiria
Suspiria
Suspiria
Suspiria
Suspiria
Suspiria

Unfortunately, none of this seems to have occurred to the armchair game designers currently throwing their toys out of the pram over the new game’s art style. The web, in particular Blizzard’s official Battle.net and unofficial diii.net forums, are awash with people reacting with horror to the game’s frankly lovely graphics. Petitions have sprung up and angry gamers have threatened to boycott the game unless Blizzard alters the art style to make it look exactly they way they want, while the less articulate have resorted to calling the graphics “gay”, “cartoony” and “childish”.

The reaction, from some people, has been so extreme that the subject of this negative response was even broached in an interview with Brian Morrisroe and producer Keith Lee. Mercifully, Morrisroe’s response was a polite but firm “fuck off”:

Diablo II had some very vibrant colours in it, and that’s something we wanted to play up, and […] something we really wanted to continue to explore was how can we use that colour, how can we use that vibrancy to really establish a mood? If you look at a lot of pop culture out there, colour is used to establish emotional states, and that’s something that we’ve studied over the development of the product. […] We pick our palettes accordingly, so although it might seem vibrant, the contrast levels, the dark and light values that you’re seeing within the game are still within the realm of the universe that you know, but we’re just adding a bit more colour to bring out an emotional response from the player.

The thing is, what the complainers seem to be forgetting is that, if the vibrancy offends their eyes so greatly, it’s easy enough to dial down the saturation either on their monitor or within their graphics card’s control panel, in order to get something more akin to what they’re looking for. Once colour has been removed, however, it’s incredibly hard to add it back, and turning up the saturation control doesn’t make shades of brown and grey any less brown or grey. There seems to be an expectation among some people that Diablo III should both look and play exactly the same as its predecessors, which I honestly don’t understand.

 
Posted: Wednesday, July 02, 2008 at 7:41 PM | Comments: 4 (view)
Categories: Cinema | Dario Argento | Games | Technology
 

Softly, softly

Diablo III

This morning, I blew the dust off my Diablo and Diablo II CDs (remember when games came on CDs?) and went for a spin with both of them. Watching the Diablo III gameplay movie got me thinking about the ways in which the gameplay mechanics have changed since the original Diablo in 1996, and what this might mean for the third instalment.

Diablo

Diablo

The first game in the series is a pretty basic game on the surface. One of the hallmarks of the Diablo series as a whole has been its straightforward gameplay mechanics, stripping away a lot of the daunting complexity of a traditional role-playing game and combining what remains with fun, satisfying action elements, but this first outing is the most simplistic of the lot. The multiple act, multi-dungeon structure of the second and, it would seem, third games is nowhere to be found; nor are the weird and wonderful character classes like the Necromancer and Witch Doctor. Instead, players get to choose from one of three broad fantasy archetypes - a Warrior, a Rogue or a Sorcerer - and do battle in a single, multi-level dungeon, descending gradually deeper into the earth.

In many ways, though, simplicity is its greatest strength. This is a game that knows exactly what it’s meant to do, and more importantly, so does the player. Right from the beginning, you know that your mission is to make your way deeper and deeper underground until you ultimately face and defeat the Lord of Terror himself, Diablo. The tone is remarkably consistent: everything is dank and murky, swathed in shadow, and the atmosphere is incredibly foreboding. This feeling of dread is achieved in many ways, and it’s not just the gloomy visuals and highly evocative sound design. Movement in Diablo is rather slow-paced, meaning that, should you be overwhelmed by insurmountable odds, running away is rarely an option. And it’s easy to be overwhelmed, particularly if you play the rather frail Rogue and Sorcerer classes. If you aren’t looking where you’re going, chances are you’ll find yourself slap bang in the middle of a pack of angry monsters, in which case it’s often game over. This ensures that you’re constantly on your toes, gingerly creeping down each corridor and round each bend, mindful of the fact that you could, at any moment, be signing your own death warrant.

Diablo II

Diablo II

Superficially, Diablo II is a direct continuation in every way. It retains the same basic premise and gameplay mechanics as its predecessor, but I can’t help feeling that the developers changed the tone in a subtle way. With the first Diablo, it quickly became clear that people liked doing two things: killing monsters and collecting loot. So, thought the designers, let’s give the players more of what they want. Let’s throw in more monsters and more loot, and let’s have people get to the monsters and loot quicker. To lessen the wait between dispatching one group of enemies and the next, players were given the ability to run, which had the immediate result of doubling (at least) the speed at which the game was played.

Unfortunately, this had the effect of stripping away a lot of the tension. The ability to run made it possible to stage a hasty retreat should you stumble into the middle of a gaggle of bloodthirsty monsters. In other words, you could afford to be more reckless, which in turn made the game more of a clickfest than ever before. Add to this a reduced emphasis on dungeon crawling with the addition of wide open outdoor maps, and the game not only lost a lot of its tension, it more or less completely removed the feeling of claustrophobia. Likewise, much of the atmosphere created by the first game’s moody locales and limited colour palette fell by the wayside thanks to the sun-scorched deserts and lush green jungles which players found themselves exploring. Put simply, Diablo II was a lighter, brisker, less tactically-oriented game than its predecessor.

Now, I love Diablo II. I consider it one of the greatest games ever created, and despite being eight years old, it remains permanently installed on my hard drive, and I continue to sink countless hours into frying skeletons to a crisp and beating zombies to a bloody pulp. When I want to whittle away a few minutes, or indeed a few hours, without having to tax my brain too much, chances are I’ll be reaching for the Diablo II CD. But, if I want a deeper, more immersive, more mentally taxing experience, it’s the original Diablo for me.

Diablo III

Diablo III

Flash forward to the present day, and Diablo III has just been announced. Now, without any hands-on experience with the game, and with numerous changes no doubt due to take place between now and the release date, it’s impossible to be sure of anything, but, with the help of the screenshots and particularly the gameplay trailer that have been released, it’s possible to speculate as to how Diablo III will compare to its predecessors in terms of atmosphere and gameplay style.

While watching the gameplay trailer, it’s abundantly clear, right from the get go, that the designers are intent on stressing the quantity factor, throwing massive hordes of monsters at the player, to be dispatched in a highly visceral show of splattering blood and squelching sound effects. So far, so Diablo II, and it’s also clear that we’re once again going to find ourselves playing in a combination of tight indoor and crowded outdoor environments. The official list of features states that players will explore the world of Sanctuary (with an emphasis on world) “in gorgeous 3D”, which suggests another globe-trotting yarn. No tightly-controlled Diablo I-style focus this time round, then.

That said, much of what has been stated and demonstrated in the gameplay trailer suggests that the developers are intent on pushing for a return to tactics rather than simply wading in and popping potions while spamming one or two spells. There appears to be a commendable emphasis on enemies working together to bring the player down, using their skills in conjunction and therefore requiring the player to use all the abilities at his or her disposal in order to survive. That gets my heartfelt approval, given the extent to which Diablo II is populated by cookie cutter builds relying on only a couple of overpowered abilities.

Likewise, I commented yesterday that the new game seemed to herald a return to the gloomy, foreboding atmosphere of the first Diablo. This is a particularly impressive achievement given that the colour palette is more saturated then ever before (something which has, rather predictably, already drawn its fair share of professional whiners who hate the notion of the game coming in colours other than black, grey and brown). Perhaps not surprisingly, this is only really evident in the interior levels, with the outdoor areas seeming lighter and breezier, but, provided there is plenty of dungeon crawling, I have no complaints about that. Particularly impressive is the sense of scale: at any given time, it’s hard not to be impressed by the high walls and expansive nature of the maps. This is especially evident when traversing higher ground, given that the truly 3D nature of the new engine allows the player do look down at areas below him or her, shrouded in fog and shadow. Sound design will, I suspect, once again play a key role in maintaining a dark mood, and I’m crossing my fingers that Blizzard are able to get Matt Uelmen, composer for the first two games, to once again provide the music.

 
Posted: Sunday, June 29, 2008 at 11:30 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Games | Music | Technology | Web
 

And the heavens shall tremble

Diablo III

Who was right? ;)

During my lunch break today, a booking on one of the library’s computers and several incessant clicks on the Refresh button told me that Blizzard Entertainment, as predicted, did indeed unveil Diablo III at the WWI in Paris.

And good golly, does this game look impressive or what? I was very worried during the run-up to the announcement that either the game wouldn’t live up to its predecessors, or else it would be something else entirely, like a World of Warcraft style MMO. Rest assured, however, Diablo III retains the series’ trademark top-down perspective and emphasis on action/role-playing hybrid gameplay. Best of all, we have confirmation that it will be playable in single player mode, jettisoning any concerns that this was the “next-gen MMO” that has been mentioned several times on the company’s Employment Opportunities page in the last couple of years.

Diablo III

For me, it was watching the 20-minute gameplay trailer when I got home that hammered home how amazing this game is going to be. The trailer, complete with commentary by lead designer Jay Wilson (who, MobyGames informs me, previously worked on Company of Heroes and Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War, among others), shows the amazingly fluid gameplay mechanics, beautiful graphics and, of course, the tried and tested formula of mowing down thousands of monsters in a row. It’s not rocket science, but it’s what made the first two games so much fun. What impresses me most is that, at least in the interior areas, some of the foreboding atmosphere from the original Diablo, somewhat absent in the second game, has made a welcome return, while at the same time making the most of the 3D engine to deliver environments which are more than just a flat plain.

Diablo III

There is, of course, a slight caveat in all of this, and that is that virtually none of the developers of the first two Diablo games are still at Blizzard (many of them, including the key designers and project leads, went on to dubious acclaim with Flagship Studios and Hellgate: London). Not that this necessarily spells doom and gloom - Blizzard employee turnover has been constant for years, and the one thing that has remained more or less consistent has been the quality of the company’s output - but it does suggest that we may get a dramatically different Diablo. This is the first game in the series to be developed solely under the Blizzard Entertainment label (Blizzard North having been disbanded in 2005), and aesthetically, things look to be rather different. The familiar logo is gone, and the screenshots and gameplay movie that have been released hint towards a subtly different art style, one with richer hues, a grander scale and, at least in the demo build shown at the WWI, a tendency towards a rather self-deprecating sense of humour that seems out of place in the series (I hope what they’ve done with the character of Cain is not representative of the final product). It might seem a little mean to say this, but given the completely new talent behind the scenes, this will in some ways be more of a Diablo clone (à la Dungeon Siege or Titan Quest) than a true continuation.

Diablo III

One thing’s for sure, the new team will have their work cut out living up to the legacy left by their predecessors. I wish them the very best of luck and have considerable faith in them, but am aware that I should probably expect something subtly different… which is not necessarily a problem, since Diablo and Diablo II, which have resided on my hard drive for twelve and eight years respectively, aren’t going anywhere any time soon.

Seriously, Starcraft II and Diablo III in the pipeline? It’s every PC gamer’s dream come true.

 
Posted: Saturday, June 28, 2008 at 10:19 PM | Comments: 4 (view)
Categories: Games | Web
 

Not long to go now

Blizzard Entertainment

Blizzard Entertainment’s 2008 Worldwide Invitational begins tomorrow in Paris, and all signs point to them announcing a new game. With Starcraft II in the pipeline and World of Warcraft’s second expansion set, Wrath of the Lich King, already common knowledge, that essentially leaves two viable options: either they’re about to announce an entirely new franchise, their first since 1998, or Diablo III is on the way.

Over at DiabloII.net, which was essentially the Diablo II news site back in the day, one of the editors, Rushster, has made the bold claim that, as per “reliable inside industry sources”, Diablo III will be announced on Saturday. Of course, every man and his dog can trot out the “I’ve been told by an insider” line, but something about the guy’s certainty, along with DiabloII.net’s long-standing reputation as one of the most reliable and accurate fan sites out there, makes me think that this could well be for real. Put it this way: it’s an awful lot of credibility to lay on the line if you’re not reasonably certain of your claims.

One thing’s for sure, Blizzard’s ever-cryptic splash page isn’t shedding any light on the subject. Over the last few days, they have continually updated their rather baffling piece of art, the most latest image showing two demonic-looking eyes superimposed against a night sky. These could well be Diablo’s eyes… but, as others have pointed out, they could just as well belong to the Protoss from Starcraft, or Arthas from World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King. All well and good, but, as I already stated, both Starcraft II and Wrath of the Lich King have been announced, and it would strike me as very strange for Blizzard to create this amount of hoopla over something that is already common knowledge. Needless to say, they’re not making this at all easy to guess, and you just have to do a quick Google search to see some of the weird and wonderful theories that people are coming up with.

One things for sure, I’m going to have ants in my pants at work tomorrow.

 
Posted: Friday, June 27, 2008 at 8:40 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Games | Web
 

Something is a-coming

Blizzard Entertainment

A mysterious image has appeared on Blizzard Entertainment’s web site, presumably serving as a teaser for the next new game they announce. The image itself offers no clues as to what that game will be, but what we do know is that the company’s 2008 Worldwide Invitational event kicks off in Paris in Saturday June 28th, so the chances are that it will be used as the venue for the announcement, much as the currently in development Starcraft II was announced at the Worldwide Invitational in Seoul in 2007.

It’s a fairly safe bet that, with World of Warcraft continuing to rake in billions of dollars and Starcraft II still in the oven, the new title will not take place in either of those game worlds. This leaves us with two alternatives: a new Diablo game, or an entirely new franchise. Given that the fact that Blizzard was, at one point, working on a Diablo III (postponed or cancelled outright due to the departure of the original creators from Blizzard North and the eventual shuttering of that satellite studio) is one of the company’s worst-kept secrets, I’d hazard a guess that this is most likely what will end up being announced, but, if that was the case, I’d have expected a more “hellfire and brimstone” image than the rather cold, icy one currently on display.

One thing’s for sure, it’s going to be an agonising five days waiting for the secret to be revealed.

 
Posted: Monday, June 23, 2008 at 9:48 AM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: Games | Web
 
 

 
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