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Monthly Archives: October 2010

Sonic 4: Episode 1 | Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

The introductions for Sonic games are as clichéd as those that exist for World World II shooters. In this first paragraph I by law must state that ever since the Needle Mouse entered the third dimension he has struggled to find his feet. On pain of death I must inform you that with every iteration Sega has promised that this version is the one to bring the fans back on board. And, finally, the contract states that I should conclude that once again they fail to deliver. Or at least I should, but with Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Sega have pretended the intervening sixteen years since number three never happened.

Gone are the countless superfluous trappings, from the 3D hub world to the multitude of “friends” Sonic has collected over the years. In their place is the more traditional 2D platforming associated with the blue rodent. So much so that the first zone, Splash Zone, is so reminiscent of Green Hill that you could be forgiven for being mistaken that you’d plugged your MegaDrive back in.

Each of the twelve levels, split into four zones, are equally filled with familiar, iconic Sonic structures. From the loop-the-loops the show off his pure speed, to the pinball bumpers that throw him around at neck wrenching regularity, you begin to realise just what was really lacking from Adventure and beyond. To garner such an experience from a fully open world is folly, as Sonic is all about pinging swiftly down a singular path and the illusion of freedom is wasted. Those that granted freedom then failed because they lacked the breakneck, choreographed pinballing that made the series famous.

One feature that persisted through the transition back to the flat plane is the homing attack. Targetting bumpers, enemies and powerups alike, when airborne, certain objects of interest will highlight and a second tap of the jump button will send you twirling towards them. Given the hectic nature of your level traversal, this can be a life saver as it pulls you out of a near-certain bottomless pit or turns a row of enemies into a potential set of stepping stones.

That’s the only thing to survive, however. Every aspect has been tailored to bring back memories of the 16-bit era, right down to a faux MIDI soundtrack. But even though Sonic 4 looks the part with a bright colour palette, classic enemies and a return to core values, it still contains a litany of issues. From Sonic’s soul-crushingly slow acceleration to the fact he appears as though he’s floating on top of the level rather than standing in it, niggle after niggle presented itself. Many sections adopt a “learn by death” approach that seems incredibly outdated, not helped by the homing attack that can easily trigger on unwanted occasions. All too often I either felt out of control as the levels flung me hither and thither or generally frustrated as the pace slowed down only to find out that Sonic is not built for precision platforming.

Almost as with Crackdown 2, you feel that the team responsible have made a good crack at creating a sequel, but they never had a grasp on the finer points that made the original such a success. It’s the difference between refining an existing product and attempting to mimic its qualities. There are mine carts, ball balancing, underwater mazes where bubbles need to be found to prevent drowning, and a dozen other tricks that prove that there is a spark in there, but it just fails to ignite.

Some have proclaimed this as a return to form, and it’s easy to see why. It is a return to what Sonic was; dispensing with Werehogs, human love interests, bi-tailed foxes, and that pesky sense of freedom. But for me it is too much of a return to what was safe and too little of a step forward, coming across as though it were a fan-made game where all the best bits of the series were packaged together with no innovation. However, after so many years in the wilderness can you blame Sega for playing safe?

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode One is the first step on the road to redemption, but with the forthcoming instalments I hope to see something more befitting Mario’s once great rival.

6 /10

Long service

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

Mission Log: 1226/21/10/10 Military Calendar. UNSC Installation Sword Base. Reach.

Spartan 014 threw his back heavily into the plasticrete wall. The force of the impact dented the surface, and the hail of pink shards intended for James flew past only inches from his face. Sensing the Elite was reloading, James checked his clip and then burst from cover, firing short, sharp bursts of DMR rounds at head height. The first three impacted on the alien’s skull and caused his shield to flicker and fail. A fourth round at the same point would surely see his target fall. But then the world froze. Time stopped, and all that could be heard was a ringing in the ears as though caught in a blast wave of distant explosion.

Sadly this isn’t an extract from the latest Halo novel, but more a re-enactment of the Red Ring of Death that caught me mid-game last week. My limited edition green launch console – which recently celebrated its fifth birthday – has finally gone the way of the majority of first generation Xbox 360s and now resides in silicon heaven. Out of all my friends, it was one of the last standing of the day-one batch and it has served me well and brought me through Halo Hump Days and Viva Pinata Community Evenings alike.

This isn’t my first Red Ring, however. I admit to having another console (one for home, one for work) and it has RR’ed on several occasions, thankfully all until this point under warranty. With this latest incident though, it came down to the choice of spending £80 to get it repaired or dropping nearer £200 on a brand new slim line Xbox. Given the likelihood of it re-ringing if repaired I conceded that the extra £120 would probably be a good long term investment and so my new, angular Xbox is now winging its way to me through the post.

If it were any other piece of equipment that had failed so regularly on me, I doubt I would give it the time of day. A toaster I’d probably just bin and resort to the grill; if a washing machine did similarly you’d no doubt find them on Watchdog within months; and goodness only knows what the media backlash would be if it happened in the car industry. And yet we keep going back to the 360. Such is the value I put in the catalogue of games, the network of friends I have on there, and the quality of what the online offers, I didn’t even give it a second thought when it came to picking up a replacement box.

Darn you, Microsoft, you have somehow won me over without question. But if there are others out there like me, you wonder how many consoles of their 30+ million sold belong to unique users.

Top Gun | Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

Up until very recently a poster used to sit proudly upon my office wall. It came from a NES game and displayed the finest wares that Nintendo’s angular, grey box had to offer. It was the exact same colourful flyer I used to pore over when I was younger, desperately seeking which game to save up for. Aside from the mysteries of Metroid and the strangely rounded Mario 2, it was the F14 fighters that drew my attention. How could a game based on my favourite plane at the time fail not to be brilliant? 20 years on, I get to ask exactly the same question.

The new Top Gun dons its flight suit and once more whisks you through the US Navy’s top pilot school. Through a campaign taking you from flight basics to an extended engagement over India, you get to fly in some of the best jets the military has to offer, all whilst battling tangos, bogies and a legendary Russian fighter pilot known simply as Ivan.

Anyone familiar with Ace Combat or HAWX will be instantly at home in Top Gun’s cockpit. Using the same template that every combat flight sims have used since the dawn of 3D time, the bulk of your missions involve dog-fighting other jets, constantly circling in an attempt to get a missile lock on them before sending them tumbling back down to earth. As is also tradition, an array of anti-air batteries, gun boats and tanks also pepper the ground, giving you more stationary targets to also concern yourself with. Both prove reasonably standard fare, but you never have to worry about bullet counts, limited missiles or overheating your guns; as long as you can get your goal in your sights you just have to worry about pulling the trigger at the right time.

The tricky part is avoiding those who are equally trying to deprive you of your wings. Missiles come screaming in with gay abandon, with nimble use of high-g turns and flares required to stay airborne. It seems the US have fitted their planes with Halo-style recharging shields to help you out, but take too many hits in quick succession and they won’t do jot. Though your flares are always effective, the frequency of the threat and the recharge time on said munitions are such that pilots will need to learn a balance of both avoidance techniques. Frequently I stared fixedly at my radar, watching the many tiny motes of light creep and beep their way towards me, knowing that if I didn’t drop a flare and then immediately perform some stunning aerobatics then it wouldn’t just be Goose they were fishing out of the ocean.

Possibly the most hackneyed part about the entire product is the way that the movie is shoehorned in. There are no cutscenes other than shots of planes streaking across the open sky with the pilots nattering to one another. Despite that, they manage to squeeze every notable line of dialogue in, no matter how they have to achieve it. Goose and Iceman banter back and forth, directly speaking to and about Maverick, and yet Mr Cruise’s character remains uncharacteristically mute throughout. They do little for the atmosphere or context of what is actually going on, and by the fifth mission the urge to skip these painfully played out skits.

Though it may look like a PS2 game and its narrative is on a par with the Twycross Christmas panto, the core experience is solid if unspectacular. In this day and age the combat flight sim is where racing games were a handful of years ago, and although fun and a fine way to spend your time, you feel that you’ve seen it all before and it’s just the coat of paint that differs. That shouldn’t stand against Top Gun however, and if you can’t dig out your NES, flyby the PlayStation Store.

6 /10

Inside the Industry | Testing

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

One of the most underappreciated roles in game development is the Tester. Those hardy chaps who spend their entire life playing the same game day after day, week after week, and quite possibly month after month; from the moment it becomes playable to the second it ships. Though that may sound like a dream job for some of you, it has crushed the soul out of many a person. It takes dedication and passion to do that for a living and I have the utmost respect for those who put their enjoyment of a medium on the line in the name of the greater good.

But how does a game come to be tested? If the last few years are any indication the preconception is that “betas” – unfinished games that still have a few rough edges to work out before finally shipping – are simply handed out to the community and they can do the work for you. That, however, is very wide of the mark.

In the beginning

The first question that should be asked is “when should a game start being tested?” The answer is as soon as possible. Although, surprisingly, this is not by Testers but by very people who tend to introduce the bugs: the Programmers.
Early on in a development cycle, chaining enough gameplay together to warrant putting a Tester on it is tricky. Systems are evolving, structure could be a long way off, and generally so many disparate parts are yet to come together that it would be a waste of everyone’s time. Instead, what if the code could test itself?

This principle is called Unit Testing, the means by which individual modules of source code are put through a thorough set of tests to ensure that they are fit for purpose. Every time a programmer creates a new class or module, that new piece of code then has as many pathways and assumptions about its logic checked. This could be as simple as making sure a value stays within expected boundaries – does Square( value ) always returns a positive result – or, for more complex situations, checking the knock-on effects certain actions might induce – if I call ThrowFrisbee( direction ) does it adjust my Frisbee’s state to one that indicates it is airborne and does it have a reasonable velocity?

In an ideal world, each batch of tests would rely on solely the module that is specifically being tested, so as to remove the possibility of outside interference causing unexpected failures. The benefit then being that more complicated systems and processes can then be built out of build blocks that you know to be (allegedly) bullet proof.

From this point on, Programmers will write scenes and scripts that stress test any new feature they create, but as the game evolves nothing can beat it being worked over by someone with a knack of breaking things.

On team testing

The next phase begins when the product has taken on enough shape to be recognised as a game. There is no strict definition to when this occurs, and what could be seen on screen may be anything from a stickman wandering through a forest of cubes but playing like Mario 64, to something visually very polished but has no more gameplay than a floating camera. If there is something to “try”, be it the running and jumping of the former or detecting holes in the background for the latter, then there’s something to test.

There still may be only work for a single Tester but their work will prove invaluable. Becoming part of the development team early on allows bugs to be caught promptly and when they are relatively easy to fix, and allows for an extra pair of eyes to be cast over the overall progress.

It’s not uncommon, and understandably so, for people to turn inwards towards their own little portion of the process and it is the Tester that will probably be the first one to attempt to tie all the pieces together. Programmers will claim that they have tried brand new features with the rest of the game before committing it back, but it will be the on-team Tester that gives them their first thorough examination.

Throughout more organised periods, this can be aided by a Testing Plan; a document set out by jointly by Designer and Programmer that lists the aims of the new feature and its possible weaknesses. We like to think our code is infallible, nevertheless any hints or tips as to how the new feature can be broken aid testing greatly. Though others later on will test it blindly, the Testing Plan is the difference between being handed a blank treasure map or being gifted one with a giant X.

Many hands make light work

As the game canters on apace, a whole band of Testers will then be unleashed upon it. Numbers will vary depending on the size, complexity and budget of a title, but their coverage must always be the same: complete.

Lead Testers will split their teams up and set each onto different portions, covering every possible nook and cranny they can find. In our Frisbee game this could see one group tasked with hammering Frisbee Golf, another put to Target Frisbee, whilst the third, less enviable group is prescribed doing everything possible to break the frontend.

During this time, the on-team Tester has an even more vital role to perform. Though this may sound strange, they must make sure the game works before a version can be sent for testing. This is not to say it must work utterly and completely, for what would be the point of testing such a game, but they need to ensure that for the most part all features and modes are accessible. This is called the Burn Test and it allows the Testers to know that what they are running is a generally stable version with no major blocking issues.

Burn Tests can be nightmarish things as the on-team Tester must cover as much of a game as possible to ensure stability for his testing brethren, with blocking issues requiring immediate fixes from the dev team in order to keep the cycle moving.

With every build the process of scouring every inch for crashes, text errors and softlocks must start again. Nothing is taken for granted and just because it worked last time doesn’t mean the same applies for the current version. For weeks on end, and for dozens of versions, the testing team work tirelessly to catch every bug they can.

When everything is almost honed to perfection, the final stage is to burn testing discs to track down any problems that may stem from the game running on optical media. At this point you prey long and hard that everything runs smoothly as extracting debug information from a disc running on a mocked up retail kit is next to impossible.

Of course, no amount of testing is fool proof. With an infinite amount of time and an equal amount of resources, there’s still no accounting for every little thing that can go wrong. This comes from personal experience and when something nasty does sneak through at best it is embarrassing and at worse it can be expensive.

That is usually the exception, however. The many dozens of Testers I’ve worked with over the years have helped see to that as they have helped polish and improve every game I have ever worked on. So next time you do find a bug or glitch in a game, don’t complain. Just thank the Testers for catching the other 51,529.

Breaking the lore

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

Anyone that bore witness to an unpacking of Halo: Reach’s Limited Edition will hopefully be in agreement that it is, to my mind, the finest “Limited” Edition to have ever been produced by this industry. From the “black box” packaging that’s as robust as they come, to the Spartan patches found hidden within, there’s a quality that the extra £10 spent on it seems an utter steal.

The true highlight, however, is the journal of Dr Catherine Halsey, originator of the Spartan II programme. Rather than just being a quick pamphlet pumped out at little expense, this is a wonderful hardback, bound book that has had time, thought and effort invested in it. With countless pencil sketches, diagrams, doodles, thoughts and scribbles, it not only adds a tremendous amount to the Halo lore, but it looks the part, too.

Which is why it’s even more of a shame when the game itself rides roughshod through a great portion of the lore already laid down by Bungie.

Just prior to the release of the original Halo: Combat Evolved, Eric Nylund penned The Fall of Reach, describing the origins of Master Chief and his Spartan comrades, their engagements with the Covenant, and the surprise attack and destruction of humanity’s military HQ, Reach. People’s opinions on the quality of writing aside, the book did an amazing job of fleshing out the universe and putting across the plight of humanity. Better than any in-game cutscene, it showed what those involved in the Spartan programme had sacrificed to protect their fellow man and the politic and military fallouts of their decisions. It, and not the game, was what drew me so deeply into Halo.

With Reach the game, Bungie have all but ignored the existence of the book and rewrote vast swathes of the bedrock of their universe. Without boring you further with the details, it’s the equivalent of Geoff Hurst banging in a hat-trick in the World Cup final in 1966 whilst somehow also playing on Hackney Marshes at the exact same time. The journal attempts to explain some of these anomalies, but to my mind Bungie have needlessly alienated a small but dedicated group of fans.

I can’t quite get across without resorting to expletives the utter annoyance and disappointment I feel at this, with the time and money I invested in reading the Halo books, taking in the story laid out in the games and poring over Marvel’s entries into the world now feel utterly redundant. And moving forward, how do they expect those who bought the books before to now continue doing so when they’re held in such low regard by those at Halo’s helm?

So as much as I enjoyed the Dr Halsey journal, I can’t help but now flick through it bitterly. What I see in front of me may be wonderfully presented, but it’s tainted. Just how much of it was written to attempt to plug the countless holes shot through the original timeline? How much of the journal itself will be tweaked in future? The value has dropped considerably in my eyes. This may appear more of a rant than a Bleet, but when any series, be it film or game, is built on such solid foundations – by which I mean a consistent and predictable fabric on which those experiencing the universe can rely on – only to start taking liberties, I feel wholly disappointed.

At least I can at take this from my experience; I now sympathise heavily with all those Star Wars fans out there every time Lucas announces “a bold new direction” for the franchise.

Halo: Reach – Multiplayer Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

Ever since the pre-Live days of Halo: Combat Evolved, Bungie have executed a masterclass on how multiplayer gaming should be handled. With a wealth of options and generous selection of well crafted maps, it provided everything for those able to hook themselves up to a LAN to lose themselves for hours at a time. Now, eight years, three sequels, and the advent of Xbox Live later, what they’ve packed into Reach is tantamount to the most refined online experience yet.

With everything from the user interface to the subtleties in networking code behind the scenes, Bungie have taken the years of Halo being played to breaking point by the community and channelled that experience into a series of considered and sensible updates. Halo: Reach is not a dramatic change from previous outings; but why alter a winning formula?

For most, the biggest change will be the inclusion of the loadouts (previously discussed in our campaign review) into the multiplayer arena. Far more so than in the single-player experience, these have shifted the focus to a far more tactical affair than before. True, you can just jam a jetpack on your back and spam bullets from the skies just as well as you could from the ground, with little regard for the rest of your team, but on objective-based games splitting your forces between defensive armour locks and bubble shield and offensive active camo and sprint can make the world of difference.

Also shifting the feel is the inclusion of far more mid- to long-range weaponry. The human DMR and the Covenant needle rifle has opened up Halo to allow battles on lengthier maps, giving players range that just wasn’t available before. In the hands of someone blessed with a reasonable shot, these rifles are powerful weapons, and together with the load-outs the help edge Halo slightly further towards the Rainbow Sixes and Call of Duties of this world. It’s not a massive move, however; regulars will still find most fights resolve when two fighters run headlong at each other, dumping a full assault rifle clip into the other, before finishing them with a melee to their Mjolnir encased head.

The most notable change for hardened veterans of Halo 2 and 3 is the removal of your skill level. Before it used to sit prominently as a large number every time you entered a ranked hopper, declaring how good (or bad) you were at that particular event. In its place is The Arena. Operating over a set period of time, e.g. a month, players will have their skill rated and ultimately a division assigned to them, almost like StarCraft 2. The system is much more refined and (seemingly) less open to exploitation to than the previous ranking scheme. Plus, it has the added benefit that if you do take a break from Halo only to return months later, you won’t be punished for your previous greatness by going straight in with the big boys; you get to start over.

Similarly getting a makeover is Firefight, which debuted in Halo 3: ODST. Based on the current vogue of surviving wave after wave of enemy fighters, it used to be a turgid affair that last for hours with no defined end point. For Reach, however, it has become a short score attack mode, very reminiscent of The Club where amazing feats – such as multi-kills – earn multipliers and push your points total ever higher. And as has been fashionable in many a recent Arcade title, throughout each Covenant wave your friends’ high-scores sit in the corner of the screen, driving you ever onwards.

Though at first glance Reach may not seemingly offer the biggest choice when it comes to maps, the wealth is split between specialist arenas for general multiplayer and Firefight. With the exception of Forgeworld, all are snapshots of environments seen in the campaign, giving a sense of continuity between the two disparate modes. The asymmetric, gritty, human-themed Power House and likewise styled Bone Yard prove particular highlights, though all are strong with only the Forge-built Pinnacle and Cage proving a tad disappointing due to their dull texturing.

Everyone will find their favourites however, especially when you head into the map editor and tweak together your own game types. A dizzying array of options means everything from the amount of ammo in your secondary weapon to whether an objective can be attached to a vehicle or not leads to almost complete freedom. Only a couple of weeks after launch and giant race tracks, complex mazes and ingenious gametypes are being put together by an eager community.

And due consideration is always given to Bungie’s most ardent followers; embracing and promoting a player’s friends list like no other title. Every moment spent outside of a game, half the display is given over to updating you on what your friends are doing, who they’re playing with, and encouraging you to shift over and join them.

That system alone personifies Bungie’s theory of making your time spent online as enjoyable as possible, and understanding that it’s the little things that go together to create a wonderous whole. From being able to vote on match types, a long string of commendations to earn online and even the minutia of being able to mute someone swiftly mid-game, they have every base covered. I may have said it before, but 343 Industries have a mighty task ahead of them to keep up the standard.

 

10 /10

Achievement Unlocked

I’m not in my wife’s good books this morning. For quite some time past her bedtime I was sat in front of the television in what I thought was silence, headphones on and aiming for the epic Endure achievement on Halo 3: ODST. Rather than silence, however, this two-hour Firefight caused me to sit in a darkened room barking out orders at intervals, each stirring Ali from her sleep in the room above. When asked why had caused her a restless couple of hours it seemed that my reply based around the word “achievements” was not wholly understood nor appreciated.

Achievements are strange beasts. A generation ago the concept of in-game rewards may have existed but there was never such a fervour about them. Then again, there was never a unified system that would go from game to game and that you could compare with your friends. Give a group of competitive people something they can amass, preferably with large numbers associated with them, and you are pretty much guaranteed that once one person starts showing off their fine collection of virtual medals then the rest will follow.

For me, however, there are four types of achievements – two good, two bad: those that promote trying out game modes or features; those that extend the lifespan of a game by suggesting you play it in a different way; those that are a grind; and those that actually hamper your experience.

Whilst the first batch may seem like cheap points to some, they are now a legitimate tool for designers to push players into different parts of a game that they may not have otherwise give the time of day. You can put up as many dialogue boxes up as you want suggesting that someone may like to go there or look here but it’s fair to say we’re all guilty of either skipping through tutorials or just blatantly ignoring them. Many, however, are all to eager to pull up and pay full attention to the list of remaining achievements and if they can be gained by entering a particular portion of a game then it is that particular portion of the game they will head to next.

achievement

Whether they stay in that game mode once the chime has rung out and the points are credited to their score is hard to say, although unlikely. Even if only a fraction play through this newly discovered area and enjoy it however, then the achievement has done its job. Recent examples for me have been watching Project Gotham TV in PGR3, uploading replays to community sites through FIFA and checking out ghost runs of high scores on several different Arcade games. Each time they attempt to introduce the user to an aspect of the game that is in the periphery of the main event.

The second flavour of achievements are my favourite. These are the ones that take a game and make you play it in new or different ways, or even just make you play the modes you know and love more often. They can be silly things, like completing levels without shooting in shooters, more socially focused marathon co-op efforts or ones that force you to become a little bit creative. Banjo Kazooie: Nut and Bolts and World of Goo are prime examples where the list of achievements are almost a suggested build list, nudging you into attempting to create something which you possibly haven’t so far. At a different extent you have games like Dead Rising where the achievements promoted the replayability of the game, rewarding the player for meeting all those that were trapped in the mall and in the exploring every inch of it on a look out for swag to help you on the way.

The final pair of achievements make me groan whenever I see them on a game’s list. The grind is pretty self explanatory; tell me to kill 10 grunts in a certain but specific way and I’m happy, but tell me to kill 10,000 grunts in any manner I chose and I just don’t give a monkey’s. Whereas achievements based around exploration, discovery or playing the game in new ways are creative ways of extending the life of a title, asking me to commit genocide on an epic level is lazy. It shows a distinct lack of thought in my mind and an even greater lack of imagination.

Worse of all, however, are achievements that actually ruin a game, and primarily I find that these are usually found in a multiplayer context. I’m not talking about co-op play or social scrums where achievements can be earned whilst japes are being had but the ones that are only available in competitive matches. Many times during the early Halo 3 multiplayer days, games were brought down to the level of utter farce as people begged others in the lobby to help them get a certain award. I honestly don’t mind helping out friends or acquaintances but when it starts to interfere with my gaming and derail what I want to do then I really get agitated by it. I’ve heard the same is true in Gears of War 2 and countless other games where designers have foolishly placed these trinkets in a realm that can have a detrimental affect on others whilst you try and strive for it.

With that chip off my shoulder I can reflect very happily on last night’s achievement. Falling into category number two, co-op achievements are among my favourite to work towards. I may be in trouble with the other half, I may be slightly sleep deprived and mocked by my work colleagues but we got it, damn it, and the communal sense of relief and accomplishment when it blipped up on screen will keep me smiling all morning.