Spec Ops The Line Review

31 12 2012

I know I’m cutting this one close, but I wanted to get it in before the end of 2012. The reason I want to do that, is up until this point, for this year and gaming period, I finally played a shooter game that challenged previous conventions, and had a story that actually made me think about what I was doing.

Originally, when I stumbled upon this game, I played the demo and decided not to purchase it at full price, particularly as the demo wasn’t anything impressive. Upon revisiting the game, and actually playing it, I can tell you it’s well worth your time. Especially if you’ve been looking for a shooting game where you feel mentally challenged. Before I get to the main segment of this piece, let me get a few technical negative aspects that I didn’t like about it first. Naturally, I played this game on PC and the controls do not convert well to a keyboard and mouse. They take some getting used to and there were certain places, or controls, in the game that didn’t function well because of it. If you’re playing with a controller or on console, you’ll be fine and won’t notice these issues.

Now that I’m done with my main complaint, let’s get on to what I experienced while playing through.

NOTE: I will try to keep this as spoiler free as possible, I just want to convey emotions I experienced by certain actions, not give away key plot points.

Moving on, if you are an avid gamer as I am, than you have probably played a fair share of shooter type games, especially as it’s been an industry staple as of late, thanks to the COD’s and BF’s of the industry. Having been playing these games since as long as I can remember, I never once felt regret for having to do something, or any of my actions. The games themselves were usually over accentuated power fantasies, thusly spent the entire game ramping you up to some type of hero or badass to save the world. Naturally, there’s nothing wrong with this, but it’s an old recipe and it’s been done far too many times.

This is where Spec Ops The Line really shines. Personally, if they had removed “Spec Ops” from the title, it would have been better off in my personal opinion, but I digress. Without any specific spoilers, you’re an American Delta Force team sent into Dubai, which is being destroyed by sand storms, to find out what happened to an American Army unit which defied orders and went in to Dubai to evacuate the citizens. Once again, without spoilers, your small team more or less gets stuck right into the middle of a civil war between American troops, CIA, and Rebels.

 

It quickly becomes apparent, that things are not going to end nicely for anyone, but you have a glimmer of hope throughout most of the game of rectifying the situation, but along the way you keep having to make decisions that are hard and feel very wrong, but as they are forced upon you, you literally have no choice but to press on. As your team progresses through the hellish encounters and decisions they have to make, their morale, dedication to the mission, and even physical appearance changes and breaks down. They react to the decisions you’ve been forced to make, which is rare in shooters, as AI teammates usually stay quiet and are hardly ever developed as characters. In this game however, everything starts to become personal for each one of your teammates, and it shows significantly as the story progresses.

I honestly can’t say much more than that, or go into detail, or I’ll be giving up key elements of the story, and nobody hates anything more than a spoiler! I can promise you, however, that the ending will definitely surprise you, and leave you trying to mentally sort all the pieces together. When I was finished playing through, I legitimately felt bad for what I’d done, but I still feel that I didn’t particularly have any choice in the matter at the same time.  A lot of it sums up to a damned if you do and damned if you don’t type scenario.

 

For me, this game was a sign that shooter games CAN be made to send a message and do something more than create a power trip type fantasy. As gamers, we don’t always need the cookie cutter shooter game, with the ever so predictable “Terrorists are going to nuke the world, and only you can stop them” plot line. I also noticed that a lot of ratings for this game were mediocre on most websites. Which surprised me, as game journalism is always crying for the “mature” grown up shooter experience that does something more than feel like an 80’s action movie. This is probably a result of the marketing team which was responsible for getting this game out there, not truly understanding what they had on their hands, but I digress on that as well.

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Perhaps you won’t have the same experience playing this game that I did, but I honestly believe if you are searching for a more meaningful experience in a shooter game, you should seriously give this a shot. It’s fitting, that I publish this review on the last day of the year, as this game is my diamond in the rough, and to this point is the most unique action shooting game experience to date.

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End of 2012 and traditional business models

29 12 2012
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Nuke Explosion Courtesy of Deviant Art – Kingsandji

So naturally this time of year people reflect upon their lives, decisions made, experiences had, and then inevitably begin to look forward to the New Year and what it might bring. Since my blog is strictly about video games (for now at least) I want to talk about what I’ve observed.

As an individual working in the industry, mass consumer of industry news, and avid gamer my entire life, I’ve observed several interesting patterns and here’s my predictions. I know I’ve said it before, but retail will soon be finished, and if consoles do not change their business models, then they will not survive past another console generation. I believe Sony and Microsoft realize this, and that’s why I believe the next two pieces of hardware that hit us next year, will not be what the core gamer audience expects. They are most likely going to be an “All-in-one” media entertainment box”, I say this because Microsoft is a metric compiling and consuming beast, and when their metric data is telling them that the majority of XBOX 360 owners are NOT playing video games, but streaming Netflix, music, and video, that something has changed. This is due to a number of variables, which I will not get into; I’d rather talk about the business model for selling games, and what has recently happened to me.

Let me start by saying, “I LOVE MY XBOX 360”, and until now I’ve been incredibly dedicated to it, only switching to PC to play a strategy or MMO game on occasion. I however, woke up one day and realized that slowly I was being sucked back into playing games on my PC, and for one major reason, it was a better deal. Yes Steam, I’m looking at you. Steam is literally the digital crack needle of video games for me. I find myself getting around to playing games that weren’t on the top of my list, JUST because they were on sale, or I find myself delving into new experiences because of a lower price point. Here is my point, the traditional “Purchase a physical copy of a video game at a brick and mortar store for +/- $60” is dying and will soon be dead. This is mainly for two reasons, one is a matter of convenience to the consumer, and the other is it is a better business model for developers. Consider the following, for a developer releasing a game through Steam (an online digital distribution service by Valve) they keep 70% of the profit from those sales versus selling in the traditional model of a physical copy at retail where they maybe see 30% of a $60 purchase, maybe.

Why, you ask, will things go this way? It’s because currently, the development costs for AAA games is NOT sustainable anymore. Most of the AAA games you see on the market that are sold cross platform, need to sell upwards of 5 million (or much more) copies just to break even, or begin to see a ROI or return on investment. The golden age of consoles has long since been done, and it’s time for something new. I am not predicting the death of consoles outright, more along the lines of their inevitable evolution. In closing, I’ll deal with the inevitable comment of “Well PC’s are too expensive, that’s why consoles will never die yaarg!” (Sorry about the pirate)

Yes, a quality PC gaming rig is more expensive outright than a console. However, the game has changed (see what I did there?) Due to changes in digital distribution on PC’s, I rarely paid $60 up front for a game on PC, while console gamers are still paying $30-$60 for games that I’m paying $15-$30 for. So do the math, yes PC has a higher barrier to entry on price, but you easily recoup the cost in saving on video game purchases. Just as an example, I ran a calculator service, just now, on my Steam game library, which calculates every game in my library at their regular cost (not what I purchased them for on sale) and currently my library is worth $1620.25, and I’ve only recently switched back to PC gaming. That’s already well over what I paid for my gaming PC, and it plays everything on ultra-graphics settings.

In closing, I know it sounds like this entire post was a Steam fanboy rage. Take it how you will, but it’s undeniable, that their digital distribution methods are changing the industry, and the way we consume video game technology. Sooner or later, you will have to get on the bus. So what has my rant about business models really been about? It’s about the wave of change we are about to see unfold next year, and personally, it’s going to be damn exciting, and the real purpose of this blog was to lessen the blow of any disruptive technologies that blindside the average gamer next year. The winds of change are upon us!

Thanks for reading!

-Cheers





The Witcher 2 Review

23 12 2012

 

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I know I’ve been absent from my blog for some time, well life and business has a way of catching up with you. Now that it’s the holidays, and I have some time to write, I want to talk about a game that snuck up me. Now, as a frequent user of video games, I want to talk about a game that came out of nowhere and had me completely enthralled.

If you’re an avid gamer, you know what I’m talking about. That awesome feeling when you stumble upon a game that resonates perfectly with you, and you find yourself playing nonstop. This is particularly amazing when you weren’t looking for that game the in first place. As the incident goes, I stumbled upon The Witcher 2 on a Steam sale, and picked it up with barely a mild interest, honestly, it was a drunken impulse buy.

With an hour or so into the game, I was completely hooked, and amazed by the overall experience that I was having. There are very few games that I can say this about, and The Witcher 2, definitely earns the prestigious merits and accolades. That being said, let’s dive a little into why I thought the game was amazing, and some of the issues I did run into along the way (nothing can be perfect). Join me, for a quick analysis of The Witcher 2, as we peel a few of the layers back and take a look under the hood!

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Story, aesthetics, and fantasy universe, now with less spoilery-goodness! (Okay maybe a little)

Let’s start with the games strongest feature, and that is undeniably the story. You will find yourself in a rich fantasy universe, reminiscent of a medieval world; complete with all the trappings you would expect, and more. The world is full of the traditional races you have seen countless times, dwarves, elves, and humans etc.

There are several things that really stand out about the story and the environment with this game, that I felt were incredibly fascinating. First, and probably the most interesting to me, is that there are no real “Good” or “Evil” decisions that you make. Many RPG games follow the traditional style of awarding the player “Good” or “Evil” points for the decisions they make in the game, especially if the game has branching path decisions or not. At first, you feel that this is going to be the case, as you will have to make some pretty big decisions, who to side with, who to kill, who not to kill, what types of reactions you use, etc. Even though you can make seemingly “Evil” or “Good” decisions, you realize by the end of the game, that it doesn’t matter. As is true to reality, “Good” or “Evil” is simply a matter of perception, your choices in game have huge rippling effects, but the world goes on and you don’t transcend into some champion hero, or sinister villain.

I won’t spoil the last encounter, mainly because I enjoyed how the developers let you truly choose, especially against traditional game endings, but needless to say, you will probably be surprised.  Closing comments on the “Good” & “Evil” concept, I feel that not having to worry about what type of points that would be awarded for my choices, I was able to REALLY project myself upon my character while making the decisions on a case by case scenario with how I felt my character would really act. Overall, it allows for a greater sense of immersion in the story and the character you’re playing.

The next piece of the story, and the fantasy universe, that stood out was how pronounced and visible the societal issues between races were in this game, in fact, it ended up completely altering my decision making process to when I started. As spoiler free as I can be, you start out naturally allied with a specific race or faction, but as the game progresses, you see rampant racism, acts of genocide, and other tragedies commonly frequent in real life scenarios.

These issues, were well done enough that it led me to completely changing who I was allied with, which you get to choose eventually through pivotal decisions, and ended up taking me down a completely alternate story path from what I intended to go down from the beginning. In conjunction to that, the game has a particularly “adult” theme to it, so I don’t recommend letting your kids play this if you have any. Don’t let that keep you from experiencing the story though. The adult theme lends a very strong hand to establishing the fantasy setting, and doesn’t feel too over accentuated or gratuitous, as it can feel in some games.

That will segue into my next portion of the story, the romance plot! All at once, you can hear the collective clicks as all of the males reading this close the web browser! (I kid) Seriously though, it’s actually a driving portion of the game, which naturally leads to the “damsel in distress” story arc. Normally, I’d sigh with the thought of the story doing nothing new, but this time, it felt good to me. Plus, there’s a pretty solid twist at the end, which ties into it, so you won’t be let down.

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I do have one gripe about the romance plot, but I’ll leave that out, as I feel it might be a bit of a spoiler so I’ll just tease you with it instead!

Summary of story and universe:

Overall, I felt the universe was rich, well crafted, and very easy to immerse myself into. You’ll feel and see the obvious inspirations that the developers had from several sources, yes; some Tolkien is in there too. You’ll be greeted with gorgeous visuals, strong adult themes, societal issues, mythical monsters, a captivating story arc, and a hero cycle that feels great.

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Core Gameplay Mechanics:

So on to a few of the functional aspects of the game. To sum up the combat, it is pretty much a third person hack and slash, with menu based special abilities/items, which are used in real time but in a bullet time type mechanic. Confused? Okay in English, you can chop your enemies to tiny bits with your swords, or change your spell & item hotkeys during combat with a wheel menu layout, while you do this, you enter a bullet time state, thus giving you time to strategize without fully pausing the game or interrupting combat.

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The combat mechanics feel pretty good, and are kind of fresh. You can choose to go all out melee, or you can bounce around setting traps, tossing magic, and throwing bombs/knives at your enemies.

I feel that there are some balancing issues with the combat, as far as correctly ramping difficulty throughout the game. For example, early on, I was fighting by the skin of my teeth, but I felt that once I crafted some nice swords and armor, plus a few points into my chosen skill tree, that I was unfairly pummeling my enemies after the first chapter. Perhaps this is on purpose, as when I started the last couple encounters, and the end game sequence; I was quickly on my toes again (and dying a lot). It also could have been because I was spending time exploring, crafting, and doing quests outside of the critical path of the story arc. (So maybe I was ahead of the curve a little, which that isn’t inherently a bad thing)

I did feel that on occasion, the combat felt a little clunky with specific encounters. Plus, the AI was a little too easy to deceive at times. Don’t let that discourage you though; you’ll have plenty of moments where you are too busy fighting for your life to notice small issues.

There are a few QTE’s (Quick time events) throughout the game, but they are spread out enough that they don’t detract from the combat. They are usually saved for fighting mini-games, and boss finishers.

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Overall, I felt the combat mechanics were different enough to be fun and interesting, but I think there are some balancing issues with the difficulty ramping, and the game didn’t particularly force me to use all of my abilities. I found I was using maybe 45%-50% of my available abilities. I found a few dominant strategies, and stuck with that for the majority of the game. Personally, this didn’t detract from my experience, but from a design perspective, it’s not really a good thing.

UI

Not too many issues, however, I will comment on the inventory interface. At first, when buying/selling, or navigating your inventory, you’ll probably feel a little confused. The interface does a poor job of properly highlighting your selection, and until you get used to it, you can easily become lost. It’s not game breaking, but I feel they could have designed the inventory UI just a touch better.

Bugs/Issues

The most issues I observed on my play through, was some minor AI pathing and reaction issues. Overall, nothing too obvious to the untrained eye. I have heard, from other sources, that there used to be some “blocker” type bugs that would prevent a player from progressing. I believe, that these have been addressed and fixed, as since I just purchased the game and I did not encounter any of these issues. Keep in mind though, there are different story branches you can proceed down, so maybe some of these bugs still exist, but I ran into none of them.

Summary:

The Witcher 2 was a sleeper game for me. I didn’t really know anything about it, but once I spent a few moments in the game I was hooked, and played practically nonstop through the game. Perhaps, the game just happened to resonate to me perfectly, but I feel that anyone who values a compelling story, fleshed out characters, and a rich environment will immediately take to this game. Besides, the game is probably on sale on Steam, so give it a chance and tell me what you think!

Hope you enjoyed my small review of The Witcher 2, and I hope I kept it as spoiler free as possible!