Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Real Next Gen

After the cause célèbre that was the marketing campaign for Heavy Rain, developers and gamers alike may wonder just what defines the next gen, or where it is headed. Superb graphics? Novel game-mechanics? Plain innovation?

A game which has been compared to the afore-mentioned title, Alan Wake, is everything the former is not; rather Max Payne with a coat of paint. Many companies, such as the Raven Software/id Software pairing, are particularly guilty of rehashing games whose sole purpose is to shoot everything that moves.

Titles such as Portal and Mirror's Edge, both non-violent FPSs, have shown that the genre is capable of much more without being boring in the least. Even Batman: Arkham Asylum portrays a hero that, while powerful, does not kill his enemies.

Granted, LAN games such as the Unreal Tournament series or similar are a lot of fun, yet the problem arises when a series such as CoD: Modern Warfare, while no doubt immersive, is depicted as "realistic," whereas one like Operation Flashpoint gets little to no credit.

It has been pointed out in the past that gamers from the east have a differing taste from those of the west. Their culture is collectivist while ours is individualistic. Maybe absorbing part of their tradition does not hurt; certainly not in gaming.

Take the following older games, and consider how easily they would fit in the current generation; Cold Fear, Doom III, Riddick: EFBB, Half Life 2; the list goes on. Some of these games have been re-issued for newer consoles, in fact, given that technological advancements sometimes take years to develop.

"Western games have expanded in the true sense of action games," whereas Japanese consumers "prefer more storytelling, more detailed settings within the game, a more narrative kind of style often with anime mixed into it." - Hideo Kojima

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Rise of the White Wolf

A changing world; new, more dangerous monsters; fisstech, slavery, banditry unpunished - Geralt

I was preparing to purchase a certain heavily-promoted, medieval fantasy RPG sequel, when I decided to play the demo beforehand; I was completely underwhelmed with it. Then I recalled another demo I had played some time ago, of a game which is about to release its very own sequel; it was that of The Witcher.

The now classic PC game grabs you right from the start, with excellent presentation and gameplay that matches it. This is by no means an undiscovered gem, though not as much of a bestseller as better marketed RPGs. The Witcher clearly owes its well-deserved success to word of mouth. Is there anything in gaming quite like a rainfall over the outskirts of Vizima?

The Witcher employs a modified version of Bioware's Aurora Engine, so in a sense, CD Projekt's creation is closely related to Dragon Age: Origins, though that game runs on Eclipse. However, the former behaves more like the latter's big brother. Scanning the forums, it is quite remarkable how even non-gamers have been attracted to this title. Elaborate essays can be found there. The Witcher is also riddled with glitches yet its fanbase is resolute in their support. A game in which you get lost in the swamps due to their size, even with a map, speaks for itself; the most gloriously nonlinear game I've ever played.*

Partially based on the book series of the same title by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, the amnesiac Geralt of Rivia and the other Witchers are genetically mutated hunters, in a quest to fight their foe, the Salamandra. Gone is the morality system employed by many games, as the lines are less clear cut. Considering that The Witcher preceedes DA:O, then the treatment of racism, here less thinly disguised, reinforces the excellent execution. Minorities were blamed for everything in medieval times as they are now; the human animal has changed little.

There are various memorable set-pieces, such as a standoff dealing with the witch Abigail in the outskirts of Vizima. If the Temple Quarter is where the plebe and the dirt is, then the Trade Quarter is all about posh intrigue, and in fact, a confrontation takes place between Geralt's more earthy love interest, Shani, and the worldly Triss, over the protection of a powerful child, Alvin. This entire setup is truly well handled, with Dandelion, the bard, offering some spot-on comic relief. The cast of dozens of important characters adds incredible depth.

The game can be played in two isometric views or over the shoulder, all of which function marvelously. There are different fighting styles suited for differing enemies, as well as alchemy, or potions, and levelling up, while Geralt goes to meditate by a fireplace. The Witcher can be upgraded to an Enhanced Edition, with graphical updates and side-missions. At this juncture, european-based developers CD Projekt and Starbreeze have clearly become forces to be reckoned with. Here's hoping the sequel makes it to consoles. *Except for Skyrim.