Short Ones: Mandatory Multiplayer?

On our last podcast, we discussed whether multiplayer was a necessity to extend the life of video games. I’d just like to double down on the topic again on this post.

On the surface it seems that multiplayer indeed extends the lifespan of a video game. Many examples abound to support this: StarCraft, Halo, Call of Duty, to name a few. A couple of posts back, I talked about how I got caught up in the multiplayer craze. I mentioned how I’ve logged in more than 100 hours in Overwatch despite essentially playing “the same experience” over and over again. However, is it fair to say that multiplayer is guaranteed or even necessary to prolong a game’s life?

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It makes sense, though, why publishers decided to tack on MP modes to these titles. Video games are expensive, so purchasing one is quite a heavy investment. One of the metrics we gamers use to judge if a product is worth a buy is the number of gameplay hours we can squeeze out of a game.Obviously, a game that’s 100 hours long must be better than a game that’s only 7 hours long, right?

If we look back at the last generation of video games, there are a number of titles that run contrary to this philosophy. Bioshock 2, Spec Ops: The Line, and even some of the Assassin’s Creed games featured multiplayer modes and yet no one plays these games anymore. In their case, they were all single player oriented and their main selling point was their stories.

There are also a number of titles that have gone beyond their expected lifespans without the use of multiplayer. Case in point is Skyrim. TES V was released way back in 2011 and yet its user base is as strong as ever. In fact, the game is so strong that Bethesda decided to release a re-mastered version of it titled “Skyrim Special Edition” just last year. Skyrim is a strictly single player existence yet its community has kept it thriving for over 5 years already. Bethesda’s Creation Kit that they released to the public has kept the game alive by continuously providing the game with new mods that add fresh content to the game. Because of community created content, it’s easy to crank out hundreds of hours on Skyrim more than was originally designed. Time will tell if Bethesda’s other flagship title, Fallout 4 will also stand the test of time but if Skyrim and its prequels, Fallout 3 and New Vegas, are anything to go by, mods will keep Fallout 4 alive for a long time, without the need for multiplayer.

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The Importance of Difficulty

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One of the main complaints gamers have regarding mainstream games these days is that most of them are too easy. A big reason for this is that as games become more popular, there is an increasing demand on producers to make the products that are more accessible to consumers. While it’s good to see the industry prosper, it takes away one of the key selling points video games have over other entertainment products: the challenge.

When you watch a TV show, there’s no involvement on your part whether the protagonist lives or dies. Sure, Dora the Explorer sometimes calls for audience participation but nothing you say will actually determine whether or not she catches Swiper the Fox. Likewise, unless you staple your own typewritten pages at the end of Harry Potter, nothing will change the awful fanfiction-esque feel of the epilogue in The Deathly Hallows.

I started playing Castlevania: Symphony of the Night recently, an old classic I’ve always wanted to try because I didn’t have a PSX growing up. Right off the bat, you can already tell the difference in game philosophy then versus now. There’s no handholding here. You’re dropped in the middle of Dracula’s castle and, after being stripped of your high powered equipment, must fight your through the labyrinthine hallways of Castle Dracula with no guides whatsoever. There are no quest markers and no NPC guides, just a world map that gets bigger the more you explore the castle. Whenever there’s a barrier or a missing bridge that hinders your way, you’re left to figure out for yourself how to proceed. Sometimes, the game can be unforgiving, such as when the game leads you to a darkened hallway filled with deadly spikes. You’re supposed to change into Bat Form here and use your sonar abilities to make your way through. But the game doesn’t tell you this; neither does it teach you how to use your sonar ability. The game goes, “Oh you need your hand held? Piss off, I’m busy rendering more monsters for you to fight.” However, this emphasizes the need for critical thinking, not just button mashing, in order to defeat the game.

It’s easy to make a game difficult by just increasing the life bar of monsters or decreasing your character’s stats. This is a cheap tactic because all it does is handicap your player. SOTN is cleverer than that. By emphasizing the need for exploration you empower your player by giving him control on where he wants to go while also challenging him to figure out how to proceed past certain puzzles and enemies. The variety of monsters and enemies in SOTN also adds to the challenge. Unlike Call of Duty where every enemy is the same cut and paste hostile soldier, SOTN has the liberty of adding any monster from any mythology ever.Each of these monsters is different so learning how to defeat them also adds to the challenge in the game.

Video games need to be challenging. Only when games are difficult can there be a sense of achievement.This is where games like the Souls series shines. Not only do the monsters have large health bars and deal lots of damage, they are also varied and have different weaknesses. Fighting each enemy requires ingenuity and experimentation with different tactics and weapons. When you finally defeat one, you have a sense of accomplishment that you managed to outsmart the game’s punishing level design. There’s also the slight ego boost knowing that you beat a game that’s known to be unforgiving and difficult.

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We as humans have within us a desire to conquer obstacles. It is human nature to dominate. That’s why many of us gravitate towards activities that challenge us like taking up sports, engaging in debates, and even competitive multiplayer games. There’s a reason why the e-Sports scene is so huge nowadays. (The recent CS GO ELEAGUE Major had a prize pool of $1 Million. And that’s just chump change compared to what League of Legends and DOTA get.)

Video games need to show their teeth again. We need to be frightened and challenged so that we can roll our sleeves up and tackle them head on. If they’re just as easy as reading a book, I might as well stick to buying novels. At least they’re cheaper.

Assassin’s Creed – why I still care

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My friends and I played a funny game the other day. We put together a list of, in our opinion, the most famous/successful video games of all time. The game was we each had to vote out a game we felt that the industry could do without. In the end, the one remaining game would be dubbed the most iconic and important video game of all time. It had the obvious titles: Pacman, Metal Gear, Tetris, and so on. It was a silly activity that we put together at the last minute. Some of the games included were throwaway titles so that there would be easy eliminations. If we were to do it again, I would compile the list more carefully, with economic and historical data to back up the claims of the game’s cultural influence, but it was fun nevertheless. What struck me, though, was that when someone called to vote out the Assassin’s Creed series, I immediately tried to veto it. Now, I’ll be the first to point out that the AC series is one of Ubisoft’s worst handled franchises. After a series of yearly disappointments, even Ubisoft decided to halt their practice of annual releases for the franchise. Yet, I still voted to keep it within the list. I knew it had no chance of winning the game, what with other juggernaut titles like Mario and Zelda in the list, but I felt the need to protect it. But why?

I loved Assassin’s Creed since the first game was announced in 2006. I remember following all the press releases and media coverage that the game had. I watched all the gameplay demos and exclusive interviews with the developers that led up to the game’s release. I loved the series even more when they came out with Assassin’s Creed 2. I loved them all until Black Flag, but by then, even I had started growing weary of their annual releases. They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder and I can say that was something the AC series needed. Consumers need time to absorb the game and miss it before being given a sequel. If we always had a sequel every year, you reduce the importance of the series by making so many token releases.

Yearly releases also mean less time to work. Assassin’s Creed is notorious for releasing buggy, incomplete games. Who can forget the horrifying “disappearing face glitch” of AC Unity or the disappearing pirate ships of Black Flag? These are just minor issues when compared to the broken state of Unity’s multiplayer when it first came out. Players complained of the game’s inability to connect to servers or infinite queuing times when finding a game. Imagine buying full retail price for a game only to discover half of it doesn’t even work.

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Another problem the series has is that it began to lose sight of the story it was trying to say. 11 years and 9 (main) games down the line and we still don’t know where the plot is going. The whole Assassin-Templar plotline has just been reduced to an annoying and convoluted backdrop to a more fun sequence of parkour and action. Most of their recent games can be stripped of the Assassin’s Creed theme and it would hardly make a difference.Black Flag comes to mind. Remove the references to the Assassin-Templar war, replace the Observatory with some obscure Mayan treasure and you would still have the same swashbuckling story of adventure and redemption. Syndicate, too, when stripped of its AC elements, would remain hardly unchanged.

Knowing all this, I ask myself, why do I still defend the AC series? Why do I continue to stand by a franchise whose creators obviously have no respect for it and only regard it as their personal money printing machine? Why do I care for a series whose owners have no love for it at all?

The truth is, despite the mishandling of the product, I still care for the plot. I like the story of the beleaguered Assassins fighting for truth and freedom from the oppressive and tyrannical Templars. The struggle between freedom and control resonates with me.

The overarching theme is that though the human race may have been created by the Precursors to be slaves, within each of us lies an innate drive to be free. We saw this best in AC 3. Connor may not have been a very charismatic protagonist but he above all other Assassins best personified their Creed. The exchange between Charles Lee and Connor says it all.

“Why do you persist? You put us down. We rise again. You end one plot – we forge another. You try so hard. But it always ends the same. Those who know you think you mad and this is why… Even those men you sought to save have turned their backs on you. Yet you fight. You resist. Why?” asked Lee.

“Because no one else will!” exclaimed Connor.

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Because I love the story, because I want to see it handled well, and because I believe in its potential, do I continue to defend the series. Even though no one else will.

Emily is Away – videogame review

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Emily is Away is an interactive story created by one guy, Kyle Seeley, available on the Steam Store. It’s a 30 minute free-to-play visual novel that plays through the style of an online chat box. You play an unnamed protagonist as you guide him through his chat box conversations with the titular Emily over the course of 5 years. The story is set over the course of 5 years, from Senior High School to the last year of College.

The game is a short little nostalgia trip through the early 2000’s complete with a Windows XP theme and pop culture references. In-game interaction is limited to chatting with Emily. In-game chat is limited to 3-4 options. It’s quite frustrating actually because a lot of these choices for the character aren’t something you would say in real life, so it takes away a sense of agency from the game.

Throughout your conversations you guide the player in his relationship with Emily. You start out as friends but you can choose if you want more to be more than that. Unfortunately the game has a set ending that the developer had in mind. Your choices, while having some influence to how the ending plays out, don’t change the ultimate ending of the game.

The story has a couple of problems, IMO. For instance, though each of your conversations takes place during a certain year in HS or college, the drama plays out in a linear manner and it sometimes doesn’t make sense why Emily is reacting to a certain event from a year ago as if it happened over the weekend. And, again, the ending is set in stone. You will almost 100% fall in love with Emily. You can’t CHOOSE to be single or date another girl, ala-Catherine style (the PS3 game).

Overall the game is very nostalgic and I found myself reliving some memories from my teenage years which is plus points for the game. But the saltiness was pretty real and I can’t say I’d recommend it to anyone.

Looking back on – Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

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I had a late start into the world of PC gaming. Growing up, gaming was limited to my parents’ Windows 95 machine and the only games they were willing to get for me were Jumpstart Grade School educational games. I didn’t have a proper gaming machine until I was in High School, with my budget Intel Core 2 Duo and Nvidia 9400 GT graphics card. At the time, though, these specs were already substandard as the first generation of i3’s, i5’s, and i7’s were just introduced and the GeForce GTX was riding high with its introduction of the 200 series. What my machine was good for was playing the hit games from yesteryear, which was how I was introduced to the Prince of Persia: Sands of Time.

A buddy of mine from High School shared how much he loved The Sands of Time game and how it easily fit into his List of Best Games of All Time. I was always interested in story-driven, single-player games. Despite my parents’ insistence on only getting me “edu-tainment” games growing up, I was able to convince them to buy the occasional Triple-A title once in a while. Games like Star Wars Rogue Squadron and Medal of Honor Allied Assault were among my games library alongside Jumpstart 3rd Grade and Typing. After convincing my dad to indulge my desire for a gaming PC (I did need my own computer for schoolwork anyway) I was ready to try out my friend’s copy of Sands of Time.

The game takes place mostly in an unnamed Middle-Eastern palace set in a Thousand and One Arabian Nights-esque magical time period. It stars the titular Prince, the youngest son of King Sharaman of Persia.When their army invades India they are unwittingly tricked by the treacherous Vizier into unleashing the mystical Sands of Time, a terrible artifact that corrupts and destroys all that it touches. The Prince must team up with Farah, the daughter of the Maharajah of India, to turn back time and prevent the Sands from ever being unleashed.

POP SOT is equal parts puzzle-platformer and action-adventure. The Prince’s excellent parkour skills allow him to run along walls and leap distances in order to solve puzzles. Meanwhile, his agile fighting style lets him fight off multiple attackers. Perhaps the game’s most unique mechanic is its command of Time Powers. With the Dagger of Time, the Prince can utilize captured Sands to manipulate Time, such as reversing it, slowing it down, or freezing time altogether. The Prince must utilize these time powers and his acrobatic skills in order to traverse the palace’s traps and fight enemies.

The game’s story and mechanics meshes seamlessly well in order to create a wonderful final product. The Prince’s early arrogant aristocratic nature is chipped away as time passes and he realizes how it was his hubris that allowed disaster to unfold.The characters complement each other so well. The Prince’s proud and brash nature with Farah’s innocent and eager personality helps develop each other’s character arc. Their interactions were very well written and it helped them feel like real people rather than a series of character tropes videogames would handpick to establish protagonists. There is a scene where the Prince and Farah are trapped in a tomb and the game hints at the Prince’s claustrophobia.

“Are you alright? You’re shivering,” Farah inquires.

“I just don’t like enclosed spaces.That’s all,” the Prince replies.

To me, the Prince’s fear of being trapped just underlined his character so well when you consider his love of parkour and freedom of movement.

The game isn’t without faults. For every step towards perfection, it also manages to take one step backwards. Perhaps the one foible of the game is its combat. Simple and repetitive would be a generousway to describe it. Though it makes sense story-wise that the Prince is not a peerless swordsman/warrior (he remarks early in the game that he “will bring honor and glory, not through battle, but by being first to reach the Maharajah’s treasure hold,”) it drags the game down when you fight nearly all enemies with the same one or two combos. The final boss fight is incredibly unrewarding. /Spoiler alert/ When you reach the Sands and turn back time to before the start of the game, you have a final confrontation with the Vizier. But it’s hardly a challenge because you are at the height of your powers, having unlocked all the time powers of your Dagger and the Vizier isjust a frail old man with tuberculosis even if he is endowed with mystical powers of his own /End of Spoiler/.

Despite its weaknesses POP SOT is still a great game and I would say it still holds up well compared to modern games of today. The environments are still beautiful and the level design ensures that platforming is clever and very intuitive. I would go so far as to say as it is the best Ubisoft game from the PS2 generation. If there were any IP’s from Ubisoft’s library that could use a revival, Prince of Persia would definitely be the one.