Halo 4 is a Bad Game

I love the Halo games. The first lacked polish and was greatly improved when it’s remastered edition was released. The second succeeded in doing something different in the face of endless WW2 shooters. The third was an elegant, if mildly absurd thrill ride. ODST was a practise run for something better, while Reach was that something better, blending slick gunplay, over the mechanics and solid and emotive plot. I remember plot points from all of them, and can trace the layout of some of the Halo 3 multiplayer maps in my memory.

h4_005-4f9cdb0532ac44beb85976cd4369531eHalo 4 though – the first game following the breakaway of original series developer Bungie from Microsoft – leaves me cold. I had to look up my Xbox achievements to see if I’d actually finished it, its that forgettable.

The Halo series has never been one to avoid tropes, which can be a sign of bad in itself. Since Halo 3, the games have also been pretty reliant on collectable items, some of which can be missed, to both tell the story and give background and insight into the Forerunners, the race that built the eponymous ring structures. Well used, this can be an effective story-telling tool, rewarding that that are interested in collecting digital trinkets or want to learn more about the setting, but done badly and you end up with games like Assassin’s Creed Unity, where the player is overwhelmed with pointless map icons that are only there for the sake of ticking off a rewardless checklist.

h4_002-f3df874bc11f452d91133674a13f033cHalo 4 does have these tipbits, and they are used to tell a story. Unfortunately in this case, the main enemy, the Diadact, is first named in a missable movie. When he later appears, the AI character Cortana, who provides instructions to the player character, immediately starts using its name with no name and little way of any explanation or exploration of what the enemy is. Halo often had Go There, Do That instructions, and at their best, they using saving entire planets or making a heroic last stand against overwhelming odds. But without any explanation of why the enemy is the enemy, who they are, what they are, its hard to care about why you are fighting onwards. Just being told something wants to destroy you doesn’t make for compelling storytelling and hiding information that provides crucial understanding of the plot and provides motivation is not just poor writing, but poor game design.

Maybe I’m reading too much into Halo 4. In terms of design, there are a number of design elements which have become as token as a beach assault in a WW2 game or breach and clearing an office building in Call of Duty : the a level with wide open spaces and plenty of Warthogs and Ghosts, a level with a pitched battle fought across a bridge, a level set in badlands and lots of soaring spires and light-bridges. The real meat of the other games, excluding the story focused ODST, is the multiplayer. I haven’t tried Halo 4’s multiplayer, after letting my Xbox Live Gold subscription expire, but I put more hours than I care to remember into Halo 3 and Reach with friends from Glasgow. The fast, arcade style shooting, jet packs and squabbles as a complete stranger repeatedly drives a tank into a cliff-face and brilliant hilarious fun, and presumably remain so. But if that’s the main selling point, then why bother with a story-based campaign at all when greater resources can be deployed to increase the number of maps, or improve other aspects of the game. The success of Bungie with the multiplayer only Destiny certainly suggests that this is a viable business model.

Images courtesy of Microsoft and 343 Industries.

 

The End of a Console Era

Xbox ConsolesThe video-game market has changed vastly since 2005. In the eight years since the Xbox 360 heralded the start of the seventh generation of video-games, we have seen the launch of the PS3, Wii, Wii U, PS Vita, iPhone, iPad, Android and the 3DS. Steam has become one of the most powerful content distribution platforms in the world, allowing independent developers and small studios to rapidly reach a large audience and a plethora of kickstarted projects are challenging the dominance of not just the major publishing houses but of the console manufacturers themselves.

Now, with the AMD-based PlayStation 4 due to launch at the end of the year and the successor to the Xbox 360 due to be unveiled on the 21st of May, we stand at the start of the eighth generation of video games. It doesn’t inspire confidence.

Since the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 launched, both systems have changed considerably. Microsoft and Sony both pushed updates to their consoles taking advantage of built-in internet connections to turn them into digital media centres, where you could access the internet, watch TV, read about the US Presidential election or play games. It also allowed both companies, although particularly Microsoft, to put adverts, often paid for by other companies, front and centre on the household television screen.

In terms of the next generation, it sounds very much like both Sony and Microsoft want to ensure that their respective consoles are the centre of the home (in contrast to Nintendo who promote the fact that the Wii U can play some games without the use of a television allowing family members to engage in different activities together in the same room). Partnerships with major content providers and interoperability with handheld consoles and smartphones are being trumpeted.

There is also a hint of desperation in the air. Sony recently acquired Gaikai, a company which specialises in streaming games over the internet and is working with a number of big name independent developers to promote their new console as an easy development platform. Both Microsoft and Sony have been dogged by rumours about the consoles requiring constant internet connections while playing games as an anti-piracy measure, despite the fact that large swathes of Europe and America, core markets for games consoles, don’t have reliable internet connections.

The desperation isn’t surprising. A large swathe of the world is still seeing low or negative growth, outgoings are rising and incomes are falling. Yet videogame publishers and manufactures still have to persuade people to pay for £50 games and £300 consoles. If rumours are anything to go by, they could shortly be trying to sell us consoles using near off-the-shelf components for £400 or £500 instead. These systems are unlikely to have full back compatibility with their predecessors due to the difficulty emulating their complex PowerPC-based processors on mid-level x86-based hardware and both are expected to come with motion controllers as standard, potentially limiting their usefulness in smaller homes.

My response to this is disappointment. I love my Xbox with a passion. It’s been my primary gaming machine since 2007, when it became too expensive for me to upgrade my PC’s ageing socket 754 Athlon 64 processor, AGP Geforce 6800 GT graphics card and the motherboard at the same time, but impossible to upgrade the components one by one due to socket 754 and AGP being phased out. I want to be able to keep playing all of my games on a successor console, preferably one I can transfer all of my save files to easily, I want graphics which exceed the standard of current mid-to-high level PCs and I want it to be worth the money I’m paying for it. But it doesn’t seem like the next generation of consoles will meet these criteria, especially with the corporate attitudes which gave rise to the ad-flooded upgrade of the Xbox 360 dashboard.

Screen Shot 2013-04-27 at 19.10.04Its’s a different story for PC gaming though. The way in which Valve have managed Steam, with aggressive sales, low priced bundles of games from large and small developers, pre-loading of unreleased software and competitive pricing has created a fertile market for mainstream and indie games. Indy developers now have a real income stream, with games such as FTL and Dear Esther seeing success to rival triple-A retail titles. There is real competition in the market, with new games such as Skyrim, Tomb Raider and Watch_Dogs selling for £10 to £15 less than their console versions. The Steam model is so strong that it’s inspired successful competitors such as GOG, who specialise in packaging older games so they work on modern computer systems and selling them for $5 to $10.

It seems that the initial outlay for a PC against the next generation of consoles is now worth it for access to the massive, cheap library of games, the competitive new releases, the competitive graphics and the potential to build a comprehensive gaming and media centre in one box. It’s not a complete escape from Microsoft – Windows is still the best OS for gaming, but at least it doesn’t have ads.

I think my mind is made up already. I have a £600 build picked out on PC Part Picker which I plan to write about soon. It’s not a final build, but something I plan to amend as the new Intel Haswell processors and motherboards come out and as nVidia and AMD release new graphics cards. I’m aiming to build it towards the end of this year and then maintain it at a good standard from there on out.

Thoughts At The Kinect Launch

Last month, I laid down some thoughts about Kinect and Move – the second generation motion controllers to hit the video game market after the Wii. This week, Kinect went on sale, and it’s been interesting to read the reviews of it given my pre-launch opinions.

Seeing the short article on Sonic Free Riders on Ars Technica, it seemed that a lot of my fears about Kinect had proved to be true. It isn’t that accurate, the controls require a lot of movement and it doesn’t feel immersive. If you watch the video in the post, the game doesn’t even look particularly fun. In short, that particular article doesn’t make me feel confident that Kinect does anything more then the Xbox Live Camera and it’s awful motion games did.

So it’s probably just as well that that wasn’t the only article about Kinect that I’ve read recently.

From proper reviews of the system, I’m left with the impression that Kinect is a technology which has been rushed to market. The videos of it in use show that the control system for the Dashboard and games is quite slow, the device needs a lot of space to be effective and that Kinect simply isn’t as integrated into the “Core Xbox Experience” (in particular the standard Dashboard) as Microsoft led people to believe it would be. All of this could likely have been improved given another six months development time. It also seems, and this is a recurring theme, that there is little you can do with Kinect which you can’t do with a controller (other then dance presumably).

That said, I am convinced that Kinect still has potential. Developers need to make sure they avoid the pitfalls which Sega fell into with Sonic Free Riders for a start. Microsoft also needs to build on the launch and quickly, much in the same way they built on the initially poor Games On Demand and Xbox Live Arcade services. In the last four years, the overall Xbox experience (as MS refer to in their PR materials) has improved considerably and Kinect may well do the same.

Even if Microsoft and developers fail to build on Kinect’s launch, it doesn’t mean it’s a failure. I could well see Kinect being the next Mega CD: unpopular, but showcasing an emergent technology which may come to the fore.

We’ll have to wait and see. I know I’m not going to be rushing to buy Kinect based on the recent reviews…but that doesn’t mean I’ll never buy it.

Moving To Make A Kinect-ion

I remember when the Wii was first announced. I loved the idea. I was even a vocal defender of it’s name. As soon as I could, I went and placed a pre-order with my Friendly Local Video Game Store. I got my Wii not long after launch due to the delays by the time the system went on sale in Europe, and I was blown away by how much fun it was playing Wii Sports with a group of friends. On the other hand, I was left cold by Zelda: Twilight Princess. Not because it was a bad game, but because swinging a controller around in an action-RPG felt clunky and uncomfortable compared to using a keyboard and mouse or a control pad.

My impressions of the Wii remained that it was very much a party machine. The games I had the most fun with were the ones which emphasised group play, like WarioWare: Smooth Moves, Rayman Raving Rabbids and MarioKart Wii. Eventually, I realised that I just didn’t play my Wii enough even when I did have people round. I traded it in when I moved to Edinburgh. I don’t regret selling my Wii for a second.

My experience with the Wii should really be enough to put me off both PS Move and Kinect for Xbox 360. One is pretty much a copy of the Wii’s control system with claims to be more accurate while the other is an unknown quantity with more similarities to unsuccessful control systems for the PlayStation Eye and Xbox Live Vision then anything else. Yet, I find myself vaguely drawn towards both systems.

The game which really has me interested in the PlayStation Move is Time Crisis: Razing Storm. This is a new, expanded edition of Time Crisis 4, released specifically for the Move. It also comes with two other rail-shooter games, including one pirate based one which looks like absurd, silly fun. I had great fun in my student union playing Time Crisis 3 and I’d love to be able to do that with my friends at home. I’m also interested to see how Little Big Planet 2 (the sequel to the PS3’s most successful game) and EchoChrome 2 (sequel to a rather nice PSP puzzle game) will make use of the controller.

Sadly, three games which look pretty damned good just aren’t enough to justify spending £100 on a Playstation Eye, two controllers and two navigation controllers. A few more interesting looking games might have me persuaded, but the list of games which are intended to use Move looks quite uninspiring, with many of the games likely to be perfectly playable with a normal DuelShock3 controller. There are also some games which look a bit rubbish and similar to the shovelware titles which have flooded the Wii games market.

If the line up for the Move is uninspiring, then I’m not sure what that makes the Kinect line-up. Of the games announced so far, the only two which I intend to buy are Fable III and Forza Motorsports 4, both of which are likely to be excellant and work perfectly with my existing gamepads. I have absolutely no interest in any of the other games, although I’m sure that Microsoft’s flagship titles – Adventures, Joy Ride, Sports and Kinectimals won’t actually be bad. I’m also dubious about how well the control system will actually work in the real world.

My skeptiscism about Kinect isn’t helped by the fact that I already own an Xbox Live Vision Camera, which was not a worthwhile investment. It came with two games which it was used as a controller for, one of which was called Totemball. It was pretty much unplayable. To quote GameSpot (via MetaCritic):

If you already have the camera, you might as well download TotemBall. But don’t expect to get much enjoyment out of it.

Maybe I’m being a bit too harsh on Kinect. After all, Microsoft has given me around five years of enjoyable gaming, using controllers which fit my hands comfortably (as compared to PlayStation controllers, the PSP and DS Lite, which I find uncomfortable to use). They’ve also had a lot of good exclusive and first-party games, many of which I still play regularly. Ok, so my first Xbox did RROD (thanks to Fable II), but I can forgive these things.

So I’m not going to write Kinect off altogether…yet. I’m quite open to the fact that it might help change my perception of how to control a game in the same way that the iPad and iPhone changed my perceptions of how we should be interacting with computers (something which is being realised in the form of Microsoft Surface). I won’t be holding my breath…but then I never expected to be as impressed with my iPhone as I was.

Sony and Microsoft are both making allusions to Move and Kinect being extensions of their respective system; a stepping stone which will turn 7th generation consoles into the 8th generation. I don’t really buy that, and I don’t think that either the Xbox or the PS3 are suddenly going to steal the Wii’s casual and party gamer market. Rather, I think that both MS and Sony are going to fail to sell many Move and Kinect devices. Mostly because the number of gamers who own both an Xbox or a PS3 and a Wii is vast. Gamers are fickle creatures however, and the lure of motion gameplay with high quality graphics may be too much for some. We’ll have to wait and see.