Rather than repeat the torture of last year by posting everything I’ve written individually on this site, I’m going to cobble all of my witterings together into one single, hardy word-boot. 2011 was a fairly good year for my various writing endeavours. Alongside finishing my degree, I wrote for several major publications, extensively experienced the weird world of videogame news, and even won a prize for something that had nothing to do with computer games.
I know, I know, we’ve used this headline before. For once though, it’s not us who are well and truly extracting the Michael. For the past couple of weeks the games industry has been shooting itself in the foot (and the consumer in the face) with everyone’s favourite anti-piracy measure, Digital Rights Management, or DRM.
It all started in January, when Ubisoft announced that all their forthcoming PC releases would come packaged with a new DRM system which requires a constant Internet connection to play the game, regardless of whether the game was single- or multi-player. In short, should your Internet connection fail while playing games like Assassin’s Creed 2 or Silent Hunter V, you will immediately be booted from the game.
Naturally, the reaction from the PC community bordered on nuclear, but Ubisoft persisted with their draconian piracy-protection system, and a fortnight ago Silent Hunter V was released. Typically, just over a day later, the new DRM system was cracked.
The insanity doesn’t end there. On the day of Assassin’s Creed 2’s PC release, Ubisoft’s servers, which have to constantly monitor the new DRM in order for it to work, went down across the board, the result being that any legitimate purchaser of either Assassin’s Creed 2 or Silent Hunter V found themselves unable to play the games. In contrast, anybody with a pirated version of those games could play without any problems.
DRM has been a thorn in the side of gamers for years now, and it seems the situation is only set to get worse, as measures like Ubisoft’s only serve to create justifications for piracy. Which would you prefer: to pay for a game and then be forced to wait a week before you could play it, or to acquire a game for free and be able to play it immediately?
It has been shown time and time again that attempting to curb piracy by treating the consumer like a criminal and then beating them across the head with a stick of capitalist righteousness simply does not work. The pirates will inevitably crack the coding, and the consumer will feel even more justified in downloading a pirated copy regardless of legality.
However, pirating a game ‘out of principle’ is not the solution; it only serves to exacerbate the problem and lead to companies like Ubisoft creating even more intrusive DRM systems. For although they are quickly cracked, they do protect their immediate profit, which is all game publishers care about. If you want to make a stance against DRM, the most appropriate move is simply to not buy the game at all.
Being a Colonial Marine must be a contender for the worst job in fiction. As if it wasn’t bad enough fighting the squealing, acid-filled spawn of H.R. Giger’s twisted imagination, some bright corporate spark at Fox decided that the Xenomorph existed in the same universe as the dreadlocked race of interstellar hunters that believe the most honourable way to die is at the epicentre of a mushroom cloud.
It does however, make an excellent premise for a game, which is probably why Aliens versus Predator has occupied a prominent spot in gaming history for the past three decades.Developers Rebellion have played a significant role in the shaping of the series, to the extent that their two best games so far are Aliens versus Predator and Aliens versus Predator.
The latest of these was released way back in 1999. Unfortunately, since then Rebellion have occupied themselves with creating some of the worst games known to man. Their most recent technological cow pat was Rogue Warrior; a ludicrously gory corridor shooter that was shorter than a mayfly’s adolescence. So I sat down to play Rebellion’s third iteration of AvP with mixed emotions of hope and despair, and when I finished playing it the very next day, my feelings for the game remained mostly unchanged. Thankfully, AvP is not the abomination it so easily could have been, but neither is it a return to greatness for Rebellion, which it also so easily could have been.
AvP’s single player follows the format of the previous games, consisting of three campaigns where you play as the Alien, Predator, or Colonial Marine. Rebellion’s familiarity with the franchise shows from the start, as each race is superbly realised. This is most evident when playing as the Predator; watching the Marines patrol below you through your thermal vision mode, listening to their distorted voices as you sight one unfortunate soldier in the target of your shoulder cannon and unleash a bolt of bright blue death. The Alien plays in a similar manner, albeit devoid of all the gadgetry. Instead you have a body made of chitinous knives and the ability to climb all surfaces and lurk in the shadows.
The Marine’s campaign is a more standard shooter, although one which is solid in its execution and thrillingly tense for its majority. This is thanks primarily to the oft-misleading bleeps of your motion tracker, which highlights any movement, whether it’s a dangling wire or a Xenomorph tail. Your first encounter with an Alien is a terrifying one, as in those early stages you’re separated from your squad, armed with nought but a pistol and a very short supply of luck. That, and the cheeky bugger comes from behind you like you’re part of some grotesque pantomime.
Staying vigilant and keeping your distance is necessary for survival as the Marine. For the Alien and Predator, getting up close is where the fun is at. Combat is a simple yet effective mixture of speedy light attacks, stunning heavy blows, blocking and counter moves. It works well, learning how to anticipate an enemy’s attacks and respond appropriately being key to success.
Alongside this are the much-vaunted trophy kills; incredibly messy finishing moves which can be effected by either stunning an opponent or sneaking behind them. I find myself in two minds about them. They are authentic to the films, particularly the Predator’s penchant for ripping out spines and the Alien’s tendency to chew through people’s faces, but the fact that the game’s marketing has emphasised them so heavily is somewhat questionable, especially when you consider the possibility that these flashy killing animations may be an attempt to divert the player’s attention from the multiple problems the game has.
Most obvious of these is the game’s length, or rather, lack of it. The Alien campaign is barely two hours long, with perhaps three hours for the Predator and four for the Marine. Worse, all three campaigns are set in the same six or seven levels. Rebellion seem to have concluded that the ability to walk on the ceiling or view the world in infra-red compensates for playing the same pathetically short game three times over. It doesn’t.
This isn’t the only area where Rebellion have been lazy, the story for the campaigns is hardly something to shout about. I understand that creating a compelling narrative revolving around a giant insect which is more aggressive than Russell Crowe on Buckfast is no easy task, but annoyingly Rebellion were half way to succeeding.
The Alien you play as is known as Number Six, a quasi-sentient Xenomorph birthed in a laboratory as part of Weyland-Yutani’s ongoing attempts to harvest the Aliens as biological weapons. This sets up for a potentially intriguing exploration of a creature consciousness lurking between hive-minded instinct and budding self-awareness.
Instead, the Alien Queen orders you to kill everything that doesn’t bleed acid, and you comply like all your fellow drones, the end. The Predator’s tale is no better, using their vague honour system as a shallow excuse for killing stuff instead of trying to expand and explore the concept. As for the Marine, well, your characters name is “Rookie” and your Hispanic commander’s monicker is the horrendously stereotypical “Tequila”, which pretty accurately represents the plot in it’s entirety.
While you can complete the singleplayer in a day, the multiplayer could last you much longer. Game modes range from three-way team deathmatch to Predator and Alien tag, where one player assumes the role of your preferred extra-terrestrial, with everyone else tasked with hunting them down as Marines. There is also Survival mode, where players team up against endless waves of Aliens, yet with a pitiful two maps on offer for Survival, it’s unlikely to keep you occupied for long.
Overall the multiplayer is fast, frenetic fun, provided you can actually get onto a game. Sadly, AvP drags behind itself the most awkward matchmaking system I have ever encountered.
To begin with, you can’t start a game without a full lobby, so large chunks of time are spent listening to the ear-splitting crackle of the agonisingly sensitive voice-chat system which all but allows you to hear the heartbeats of other players. You can’t join a game that has already started, and sometimes you can’t leave a game which has already started, which is frankly absurd.
All of which brings me to the rather uncomfortable conclusion that AvP is a ludicrously gory corridor shooter that is shorter than a mayfly’s adolescence. Worse, it reeks of being rushed out for a quick cash-injection to keep SEGA’s conglomerate heart beating. It’s only Rebellion’s extensive experience with the franchise that saves them from resting so heavily on their laurels.
AvP is little more than a graphical update for a decade-old game, and that it stands up at all shows just how good Rebellion’s 1999 release actually was. But considering how much progress has been made since then, this should have been something special.
As if there weren’t enough ludicrous rumours about video games turning children into obese zombies with the attention span of a mackeral/genocidal maniacs who take guns into school and scream “MULTI-KILL!” while they blast everyone in sight, apparently games are now “sexualising children,” according to a recent report produced for the home office.
That’s right: all that time staring at the back of Princess Peach’s head in Mario Kart Wii is turning little Timmy into a ball of red hot lust. The report, which was compiled by Big Brother psychologist Linda Papadopoulos, criticised games containing “highly sexual content,” alongside pornography and sexualised advertising slogans.
One of these games, Miss Bimbo, includes challenges such as obtaining breast augmentations in order to marry a wealthy man.
Before we consider why an important governmental report is being conducted by a celebrity instead of a real psychologist, we would like to point out that Miss Bimbo isn’t a game at all. It’s actually a social networking site with a few woeful minigames tacked onto it, which goes to show just how much Dr Papadopoulos knows about the industry that her report condemns.
If a game like Bayonetta was easily obtainable by children then we would understand where this report was coming from, but it isn’t, and we don’t.
Returning to the point that this report was compiled by someone whose job is to assess the mentality of people who don’t have a mentality, the government’s attitude towards one of its biggest potential sources of revenue is becoming increasingly bizarre. Already we’ve had bloody Supernanny collaborate with Parliament to assess whether or not games are corrupting the youth in one form or another, the result being nothing other than a superfluous alteration of the way games are rated.
Additionally, the government continually fails to recognise British game development as a legitimate industry, despite worldwide acclaim for developers such as Edinburgh’s own Rockstar North, most recently creators of Grand Theft Auto IV.
Of course, all sorts of controversy surrounded GTA IV, but only because the government stubbornly refuses to let go of the belief that video games start with Mario and end with Sonic.
Next week we’ll be assessing Mumsnet’s review of Aliens vs Predator. It’s going to be a corker.
If you happen to be a regular reader of Tech (or this blog if you don’t read the Student), you may have noticed we have been keepign a close eye on the Constellation Project; NASA’s construction of a new fleet of rockets to replace the ageing space shuttles, with the eventual prospect of maybe, perhaps, if you’re really good and eat all your vegetables and go to bed when you’re supposed to, returning to the moon. However, should Barrack Obama’s 2011 budget request pass through Congress without any hitches, the entire program will be cancelled.
Obama’s reasoning for scrapping the program is that it is massively over budget and massively behind schedule, now posited for completion in 2013 with the space shuttles due for retirement at the end of this year. His decision has brought considerable criticism, one Republican Senator claiming “NASA will no longer be an agency of innovation and hard science, it will be the agency of pipe dreams and fairy tales.”
Frankly though, Constellation was a dubious concept from the start, especially in terms of innovation.The program began back in 2004 under the supervision of George W. Bush, which is hardly the most auspicious of starts for anything more technologically advanced than a paper aeroplane. Of course, such a statement would be misplaced if the Ares I was going to change the face of space travel. It wasn’t. The design of Ares I was based (read: almost identical to) the Saturn V rocket which shot Neil Armstrong & co into orbit in 1969. So this sparkling new interstellar technology was forty years old before it had even been built.
This design decision may appear odd, but it doesn’t seem so strange when you look at events prior to the announcement. In 2003 the Columbia space shuttle disintegrated on re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. The Constellation program was a knee-jerk reaction to this unfortunate event, a quick fix to replace the shuttles and prevent any further disasters. Six years on with the program nowhere near complete and the fix no longer seems so quick.
Obama’s proposed alternative to the Constellation program involves a $500 million incentive for the private sector to create a more efficient means of space travel than strapping seven men and women to an enormous and highly temperamental bomb. Concepts include placing fuel depots in space ahead of the rocket and so reduce the size of rockets on lift off, or putting further research into ion engines, which eject positive ions to gradually propel a spacecraft forward. Additionally, significant sums will be put into creating robotic probes, which are the most effective (if least exciting) method of exploring the solar system at present.
However, in terms of actual objectives Obama’s budget request is rather vague, and while I agree that a rerun of the sixties’ Moon landings is not the best way forward, a more permanent residence on the moon is the next sensible step towards humans traversing the solar system. Furthermore, after so long, a return to the Moon in any form will almost certainly provide a huge boost in popular interest for NASA.
Perhaps though, the future of human space explorations lies not with the US. China put their first human into space in 2003, and India plan to do the same in 2016. While both are a long way off overtaking NASA as the dominant space exploration agency, they could well be on their way by the time NASA have another coherent program of events. On the other hand, Obama’s decision could well be the kick up the backside that NASA needed, and we’ll be zipping around the Moon on space-skis in no time.
As many of you have probably experienced, gaming can be an expensive pastime/hobby/way of life, and if financially ravenous corporations like Activision and Nintendo have their way, prices are only going to rise. Already those ridiculous plastic instruments in your average Rock Band package will set you back around £100, and if you want to buy faux-wheels for Mario Kart Wii (which do NOTHING except make you look even more like an idiot) then you’re talking an additional £30 per wheel after purchasing the console, the game and the extra Wii-motes.
Of course, there are ways of making your evening’s entertainment less likely to suck your bank account dry. One method is simply to buy pre-owned games instead of shiny new ones. Alternatively, you can purchase a new game and, once you’ve completed it, sell it back to a retail store like Gamestation or CEX at a moderately reduced price. However, should you acquire your game from a digital distribution service like Steam or Direct2Drive, trading in your purchase is not an option. At least, not at present.
Step forward Green Man Gaming, the first digital distribution service to advocate digital trade-ins. The fact that nobody has considered this before might initially seem absurd, but there are very good reasons for why this has not been tried yet.
Game publishers are obviously not keen on outlets selling pre-owned games, as they don’t recieve any profits and consequently cannot afford the unicorn blood they need to survive. GMG have found a way around this, simply by giving the publishers a share of the profits of any game that is traded in and re-sold.
A more difficult issue facing GMG is that digital media does not decline in quality. Files can be corrupted and become worthless, but there is no box to scuff or manual to rest your coffee mug on, and so there is no relationship between the quality of the product and its price. Again, GMG claim to have a solution, in the form of a series of algorithms which determine the price of a pre-owned game.
GMG declined to comment on precisely how their pricing algorithms work (I suspect a roulette wheel or a dartboard is involved). Nevertheless, even if their pricing system is theoretically sound, it makes little sense to buy a new game when a pre-owned one is exactly the same in terms of quality and format. No purchases of new games means no trade-ins and resultantly no re-sales. Unless GMG can find a way to accept trade-ins not originally bought on their website, the lack of new game sales may well be where Green Man Gaming falls flat on its green face.
When I saw the early trailers for Dragon Age: Origins, the ones with Marilyn Manson’s ‘This Is the New Shit’ blaring in the background, I was worried. After a virtually flawless record of great games including Baldur’s Gate, Knights of the Old Republic and most recently Mass Effect, BioWare’s next project appeared to be a shameless rip-off of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, made into an ‘adult’ role-playing game by taking the original concept and adding extra blood and tits. It was enormously embarrasing; the marketing equivalent of letting off a giant, squelchy fart in the middle of an exam.
Of course, to condemn the game based on its trailer would be idiotic. Aside from perhaps Sonic Chronicles, BioWare have yet to make a genuinely bad game. After playing Dragon Age for a good hour, however, my concerns had still not been assuaged.
Picture the scene: I’m running aimlessly around the castle of the noble House Cousland, the location of my character’s Origin story, picking up menial tasks and listening to the voice acting which ranges from borderline excellent to mildly awful. Eventually I am directed to the kitchens where my Mabari War Hound is allegedly causing trouble, and am promptly tasked with exterminating some giant rats. That’s right: giant, fucking, rats. I almost switched my PC off right there, so disgusted was I at BioWare parading the biggest cliché in fantasy gaming like it’s a slice of toast with the face of Jesus burned into it.
Despite this urge I calmed myself and persisted, and I’m glad I did, because although Dragon Age starts slowly, it gradually reveals itself to be BioWare’s most accomplished and (amazingly) mature game yet.
Let me start with a few numbers: my character’s opening tale – depicting the downfall of House Cousland – is one of six completely different Origin stories which are determined by the type of character you pick. These initial scenarios affect the rest of your game experience, not only in how you can interact with other characters and vice-versa, but in terms of which parts of the game you will actually play through. Entire sections are exclusive to character types and the decisions you make along the way.
Even with these character-specific sections, a single play-through of the game is estimated between 60 and 80 hours, which is frankly astounding, and makes you wonder whether Infinity Ward spent two years watching porn and playing spider-solitaire before cobbling together Modern Warfare 2 in a caffeine-fuelled fortnight.
Although this sounds impressive, quantity does not equal quality – Transformers 2 was nearly three hours long and contained more explosions than your average world war but was still atrocious. By the same token, Dragon Age has a huge amount of content, but the basic plot structure is terribly generic.Whichever Origin story you land in, you are eventually selected to become a Grey Warden. The Wardens are a reclusive sect of warriors dedicated to destroying the Blight, an army of generally unpleasant creatures which look very similar to the Orcs in the Lord of the Rings, but are called Darkspawn and so are obviously completely different. At Ostagar – the Grey Warden’s base of operations – you are betrayed in what is supposed to be the climactic battle against the Blight, and consequently the Wardens are obliterated. Having somehow survived, it is up to you to reunite the armies of Ferelden and take the fight back to the Darkspawn.
While this is hardly an original premise, the story is excellently told. Voice acting improves dramatically once you get past the opening stages and the writing is some of the best you’ll encounter in a game, laced with subtle humour that fits the tone perfectly. Additionally, the world of Ferelden is crammed with carefully considered lore that you can either submerge yourself in or completely ignore without it affecting your experience.
Where Dragon Age really shines is in the supporting characters, and it’s a rare occasion indeed when you can say that about a game. Easily the strongest cast BioWare have come up with, their personalities are so complex your attitude regarding them constantly shifts as the game progresses. Alistair seemed like a colossal berk when I first met him; a childish and egotistical Grey Warden whose jokes fall flatter than a three-legged giraffe on a frozen lake. Gradually you realise he is riddled with insecurity and self-doubt. As his self-confidence grows he becomes far more likeable, and his remarks become genuinely funny. Similarly, Morrigan, the young and callous witch of the wilds, suffers no fools and can provide useful advice, but she can also be prejudiced and downright scornful.
This shifting relationship with your party is reciprocal. In Mass Effect, improving your standing with your comrades involved solving a problem related to their past, and Presto! they would like you more. Now, your motley crew of allies judge you on your actions alongside any favours you might do for them. Morrigan is solely concerned with defeating the Darkspawn, and will become annoyed should your efforts be distracted by more mundane tasks like helping an old lady across a battlefield. This is more realistic than the binary morality system present in BioWare’s recent games, not least because morality in Ferelden is far from clear cut, acting for ‘the greater good’ being an oft-recurring theme.
As with most of BioWare’s games, direct conflict can often be avoided through dialogue. Darkspawn aren’t the talkative sort, preferring to communicate with stabbing patterns. As the trailers so insistently portrayed, fighting in Dragon Age is brutal and bloody, with your party drenched in scarlet after a fight. What the trailers fail to show is the tactical thinking required to emerge victorious. Dragon Age is incredibly hard, which frankly is a refreshing change from the mind-numbing simplicity of most current releases. Although many battles require an effective strategy, they can be won. My only gripe is that some basic opponents like wolves have a stupidly powerful ability called ‘overwhelm’ which essentially allows them to sit on a character and chew on their face until they die. And the day you encounter a dragon, well, I feel sorry for you already.
What doesn’t help is that, rather ironically, the Tactics screen, which instructs your characters on how to act in battle, is a mixed blessing. Tell a character to use a health potion after taking so much damage and it works, but tell him to attack the enemy with the lowest health and he will run around the battlefield like Silvio Berlusconi at a Miss World competition instead of picking the weakest target and sticking to it. Also, some blindingly obvious tactics, like telling rogues to attack from behind, are inexplicably unavailable.
The problematic Tactics screen is the only real issue the game has. Nevertheless, Dragon Age will not please everyone. Some people may be put off by the setting that boils down to another redressing of Tolkien’s masterpiece. Others may balk at its unforgiving difficulty level. Ultimately, though, Dragon Age will not be universally loved because it requires patience, something that there is too little of in a world where many games consist of six hours of explosions and a script written in the first five minutes of a board meeting. If you can sit with it for a few hours without wincing at the nonsense words and overused fantasy tropes, you’ll be rewarded with another complex, engrossing epic from BioWare.
As you have probably already read several times on these pages, this is The Student’s final issue of the decade. Technology has certainly come a long way in the past ten years. The modern human now looks lost and confused without a mobile phone in his hand, and you can download porn fifty times faster than you could in the primeval, barbarous nineties.
Yet alongside these notable achievements there have been major technological hiccups. On November 20, after fourteen months of inactivity, extensive repairs costing £14 million, and a truly bizarre incident involving a rogue chunk of baguette, everybody’s favourite black hole machine the Large Hadron Collider was finally restarted, and the search for the elusive Higgs-Boson particle (hyperbolised by the media as the ‘God’ particle as if it was some sort of plot device in a Dan Brown novel) is up and running again.
If we’re being honest, it wasn’t the most impressive of starts for the £6 billion particle accelerator. After disappointing apocalypse-mongerers around the world by not destroying the universe, the LHC then went and (with an irony that can only be described as delicious) blew itself up, running for a pathetic nine days before an electrical fault caused a leak of six tonnes of liquid helium and destroyed several enormously expensive magnets.
This led to the wonderfully absurd theory that the Higg’s Boson was travelling backwards through time to sabotage itself in order to prevent itself from destroying the universe. The fact that the LHC had been running perfectly well for just over a week without so much as a glimpse of existential obliteration was curiously omitted from the paper.
At the time of writing, the LHC is still up and running, and should it continue functioning without annihilating either itself or everything around it, there should be enough collected data to know whether the Higg-Boson particle exists or not in around twelve months, potentially the first great scientific discovery (or embarrasment) of 2010.
Of course, I couldn’t do a nostalgic Tech column without positing a favourite game of the decade. For me, it’s got to be Half Life 2. It was simply so well crafted, seamlessly melding so many varied scenarios from skulking through zombie-infested Ravenholm with the beautifully insane Father Grigori to battling alongside Alyx in the depths of the political prison Nova Prospekt; I’ve replayed it more than any other game, and I will definitely continue to do so.
Here at Tech it is somewhat ironic that amidst all the game reviews and articles on whether Facebook is more annoying than Twitter or vice versa, we only occasionally manage to get our keyboard-strained fingers around some genuine gadgetry. While the tide may not exactly have turned, we do have a few ripples of quirky technology lapping at our feet this week. These are in the form of a pillow and an inflatable gaming chair courtesy of www.soundasleeppillow.co.uk.
Now I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t exactly call pillows revolutionary technology. They have been around for quite a while – since they replaced moss-covered rocks in (insert large number here) BC in fact. Obviously though the Sound Asleep Pillow is more than a soft clod of fabric to put your head on. The secret of the Sound Asleep Pillow is…wait for it, wait. for. it… it has a speaker inside. Brilliant!
The concept behind the Sound Asleep pillow is that it allows you to connect your MP3 player to it and listen to music in bed without annoying your partner/Pollock cupboard-mate while not having to endure the discomfort of wearing headphones, to which my immediate response was, “How exactly is a pillow with a speaker inside it going to be more comfortable than wearing headphones?”
Sound Asleep has not just chucked a sub-woofer in a sack though. In fact, it is impossible to tell the location of the speaker simply by squeezing the pillow, without compromising hugely on sound, although you obviously won’t get certain headphone effects such as panning. Furthermore, if you are a metalhead, chances are you’re still going to keep your other half awake, but if you consider the songs of System of a Down to be gentle lullabies then there is something seriously wrong with you.
I was a little less impressed with the inflatable gaming chair. The idea is that you sit down on the chair, plug your games console into it and sound from the game is emitted from two speakers at shoulder height. Admittedly it is pretty damn comfortable and sturdy enough so you do not feel too wary about it exploding under your backside. On the other hand, the in-built speakers produce very tinny sound. Additionally, the sound cable was only just long enough for me to connect it to a netbook on my lap, so unless you play games with your X360 on your knees it is not much use.
Whilst I find the chair difficult to recommend, if you’ve got some rowdy neighbours or just cannot sleep without some dulcet-toned teenager crooning in your ear, then the pillow is definitely worth a look.