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mattDP Blog

Don't Pick Games Like I Pick Games

A word of advice that most of you probably know already.

When I went out and bought my nice shiny XBox a couple of years after the system was released I made myself a vow. "XBox games are expensive", thought I, "and I don't have an awful lot of time to play games so I'm going to make sure I only pick the very best games to play".

To aid me in my search for only the very best games I enlisted the help of www.gamerankings.com to help me out. That site collects game reviews from all over the place and collates them into one handy overall rating. There's also a stats organiser that lets you find out what the top 10, 20, 100 games are on Xbox (or PC or whatever).

So, for the past couple of years I've resolutely only been buying games that are in the top 20 XBox list on game rankings. The only exception was Brian Lara Cricket and I figured that was allowed because not enough US outlets would review a cricket game to give it a fair rating. But I own one other game which, when I bought it, was in the top 20 but which has now plummeted to position 42 as of time of writing. That game is Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30.

I only heard about BIA by chance. I'd wandered into a shop in search of something not-at-all game related but the shop happened to sell games and had a big advert for the soon to be released BIA game in there. I don't know why that particular advert caught my eye but it did and when I did a little research about the game I caught myself salivating with desire. Combining FPS action with small unit tactics in a genuinely well-researched historical setting? Ooh, suit you sir!

But I stuck to my guns. When the game came out I clocked up the rankings on www.gamerankings.com and sure enough it was top 20 material so I snapped it up. And I wasn't disappointed - I loved the game. It's the best game I've played in years and certainley the best I've played on the XBox - only GTA3 and Halo come close. I still love it so much that I'm dragging myself through the game on "authentic" setting which is absurdly hard and, with no save points, a horrific excercise in futile repetition. But I don't care about that because I love playing the game so much.

The point of this long-winded entry is that had I come upon BIA weeks after it's release and found it languishing at number 42 on the all-time list I'd likely never have bought it and missed out on a fantastic game. So now I've decided that my rule is worthless and that if I like the sound of a game I should buy it - providing of course that it's got a fairly decent overall rating, maybe 75% or over. On the flipside there's a couple of well-regarded games I've bought that I didn't get really massive enjoyment from - Crimson Skies for one. Top Spin for another. Neither sounded like they'd be really outstanding games for me but because they were highly rated I bought them anyway. Both were good fun, but I'd still rather have been spending my time playing BIA. Or Brian Lara for that matter. Shame neither was available at the time.

But this leaves me with another, horrid dilemma: I now have no useful criteria for thinning out the games I want to play! The BIA sequel Earned in Blood I'd originally rejected due to it's slightly lower ranking (position 70) but I enjoyed the first game so much that it's back on my wants list. but I don't have time to play it! The new Call of Cthulhu game sounds unique and I'm a Lovecraft fan but I don't much like the sound of all that trial-and-error adventuring, it's not a style I'm fond of. So do I buy it? Far Cry: Instincts is another game that sounds great but got mixed revews, so what to do?

Come back www.gamerankings.com, all is forgiven!

What's going on?

Not that anyone cares. No-one reads this but I find it entertaining to look back over my blog entries to find out what I've been playing and enjoying in the past.

At the moment I'm trying to muster the enthusiasm to play through the latter sections of Knights of the Old Republic a second time to see the alternative ending. It's difficult because I'm currently completely addicted to playing Brother in Arms: Road to Hill 30 on authentic. It's awesomely difficult but also awesomely intense and it's a tribute to how good the game is that I'll keep playing it on authentic mode where there's no save points and two or three shots will kill you. But where else can you get quite such a rush as dashing through a field at the end of a mission desperately trying to stay alive in a hail of artillery fire knowing that one stray shell could kill you and send you back to the start of the mission again? That's  what I call intense!

Anyway, the reason I want to get KotR finished the second time is so I can trade it and Crimson Skies for something new. Neither are games I can see myself playing again. The question is do I trade in PGR2 at the same time? I've not played it in a long while and I know in my heart of hearts that I'm never, ever going to finish all the levels on gold, let alone platinum (I've done it all on silver). But something inside me is nagging that at some point in the future I might just want to try for those gold medals in just one more car class. I guess that's the sign of a really good game.

I'm glad I've got games I want to replay and that I've still got stuff on my wishlist. I won't be buying an X360 (or a PS3 for that matter) for a few years yet ...

The Longest Game in History

I work for the civil service. One of the plusses of that particular line of work is that I get the occasional extra day off - known in the trade as a "privelidge day". As you can probably imagine, I spend quite a lot of these days playing video games. I had one yesterday and devoted several hours to Knights of the Old Republic.

I was vaguley hopeful I might get it finished, but it seems not although I am pretty close to the end now. I've been playing it a long, long time. Over 24 hours of play time according to my save game files and excellent game though it is, truth be told I'm starting to get a bit sick of it.

Normally I love games that have huge play time. If I'm shelling out my hard earned cash for a videogame then I want to be entertained, and want to be entertained for a long time. My all time classics list would be composed almost entirely of games that have vast replay value, usually because they've got some variable tactical element that allows the player to approach the challenge of the game in more than one way.

The key phrase here is "replay". KOTOR has replay value, certainley, but only to unlock the dialogue and quest options you missed the first time around. There's not much tactical replay. It's the just more of the same, spread out over a long, long period of time.

Since KOTOR, like most RPG's is plot driven, it gets annoying that the game is so spread out that as I approached the end of the game, I found that I'd forgotten several important plot points that were revealed early in the game. Imagine watching a film 24 hours long split into hour long episodes over the course of several months. Imagine that at the end of the series it kept referring back to stuff that happened near the beginning. You'd forget some of what was going on, wouldn't you? I sure have. And that's where you need to be a bit careful with long games and intricate plots. Bite size pieces please!

** spolier warning **

Of course, it could be that I'm just annoyed because the game diverts you off onto another planet with another 4 odd hours of gameplay just when you think you're nearing the finale. But then again ...

The Shortest Trial in History

Inspired by the release of the latest Star Wars film (which, by the way, I won't have time to see for over a week - bah!) I've started playing Knights of the Old Republic again. I'd forgotten just how engrossing it can be.

I'd given up playing it many months ago due to a slightly bizarre oversight on my part. I should warn you that this is going to be spoiler heavy, so if you haven't played KOTOR, you might want just to ignore this whole article.

Wandering around Manaan, I found it confusingly large, and there seemed to be so many people to meet and talk to, and so many quests to follow up. I started following them up in dribs and drabs - a little here, a little there. Then I met a gentleman who wanted me to join a super-secret society of assassins. The target he wanted hit first seemed like a bit of a scumbag that the universe wanted to be rid of, so even though I was a light side Jedi, I wanted to take him out. However, doing so got me dark side points. I suppose I should've seen that coming - assassination isn't generally seen as the most goody-goody of professions after all.

Anyway, I didn't much care of this so I thought I'd go back a few save games and start Manaan all over again. I went around talking to all the people I'd talked to before and getting the same quests but ignoring the assassin master this time. This seemed fine, but sadly I'd forgotten to talk a second time to one particular Selkath, who wanted to know where his kid had got to.

So I broke into the Sith embassy and started slaughtering everything in sight. Eventually I came to a door that would not open. I tried bashing it to no avail. I tried lockpicking it, but it didn't budge. I yelled and ranted at my Xbox, but it refused to relent. I was not happy. But I left the door and went left the embassy and got arrested, tried and, after what seemed like an age of rather tedious legal dialogue, put to death.

I figured that the way out of the trial was to find something that was behind that door. So again I wandered in to the embassy, but this time I took along Mission and that annoying little droid both of whom have superlative door opening skills. They're rubbish fighters though, so it took me quite a while to get through the embassy levels. Coming to the door again I found that neither Mission nor the droid could get it open. I went through the trial again, and got put to death a second time.

By now, I was totally fed up with running round Manaan. I'd spent far too much time on it, so I just packed it in and started playing something else. I suspect it might have been Crimson Skies.

Turns out for the door to open, you need to have talked to that old Selkath a second time. I only found this out from a KOTOR walkthrough - the first time I'd felt the need to consult such a document. I checked my save game history and sure enough, in my original wander through Manaan, the quest text was different to my second time round - I'd forgotten to talk to the Selkath. Having rectified this I went through the base again, got through the door got the datapad and hey presto! Got let off the trial charges before official proceedings had even started. Has to be the shortest trial ever in galatic history.

All I'd ask though, of game designers, is to give me some sort of clue that would have indicated that door couldn't be opened by any normal means. It'd have saved me an awful lot of time, trouble and frustration. KOTOR is listed as an RPG after all, it doesn't have "intensely annoying puzzle-based adventure game" on the front of the box, does it?

Diverting the Attention

I finished "Brothers in Arms" last night, on difficult. The last mission is a real corker - I won't spoil it for anyone, just to say that it's worth playing through "Carentan" just to get to see the final level. It's a got an awful lot of what makes BIA so compelling: drama, confusion, clever tactics. But it also managed something else, which is what I'm going to talk about today.

We all know that genuinely free-roaming games are a myth. There have been some genuinely good attempts at doing it - GTA being the prime example of course. But even the GTA games stretched belief with the way they had cities spread across long, narrow islands and closed bridges between them for long stretches at a time. With FPS games it's even worse - often, level design can make or break an FPS so it's vital that there are walls, corridors, dead ends and so forth in order to keep the game interesting.

A lot of FPS games are set inside sealed areas - like the tournament levels in Quake 3 or Unreal Tournament for example. This is fine. But a lot more have outdoor sections, or are set in what is supposed to be a much more open world and of course BIA falls in to this category. There have been a number of occasions in BIA where I've wanted to climb over a particular fence or blockade but found my passage restricted - I'd found the edge of the level design. This spoils the atmosphere somewhat. Are we really expected to believe that Sgt Baker wouldn't climb over a pile of sandbags to get a good spot to flank the enemy?

After I'd finished the last level, I suddenly realised that I hadn't had a moment like that in the entire level. Why? Not because of some clever physical level design - there's always got to be limitations in that regard. No, it's simply because the excitement of the level and it's compelling narrative kept me so enthralled that I was never tempted to try and look for the edges and get to parts I'd never go to. I wanted to complete my objectives and so was driven on to do so.

A lesson there, I think for most game designers. Keep us enthralled by the game and we'll forgive you anything.

No, really, we will!

The Tomb Raider Factor

This is still about Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 on the XBox. I've spent the weekend playing through the levels "Carentan" and "Tom & Jerry" on difficult. And boy was Carentan hard work.

BIA has managed to turn ordinary game design logic on it's head. Normally if you find yourself playing the same section of a level over and over again it's indicative of bad design or a too-steep difficulty level. But in BIA it feels like part of the game. Obviously, the game can't kill you so it seems as though it reminds you of the perils of war in the best way it can find - by punishing the player by making him replay sections of the level until he gets his tactics right. And so I'm left feeling that my death was just desserts for bad decision making and I start to wonder (not for the first time) how anyone ever survives combat in the age of mechanised warfare. And I keep playing.

But "Carentan" almost broke that spell and make me want to drop-kick the XBox out of a top floor window. That'd hurt my foot as much as the Xbox, mind, 'cos it's a heavy piece of kit. But what's so different about Carentan, does the difficulty level suddenly ramp up? Nope. It's the Tomb Raider factor coming into play.

Let me digress. When Tomb Raider came out, it seemed as though wherever I went, I'd find friends playing Tomb Raider. People even used to play it in little groups, gathering round the screen to discuss plans of action and taking turns trying to execute particularly difficult jumps. This perplexed me, because I hated Tomb Raider with every fibre of my being.

What, may I ask, is the point of playing a game which largely seems to involve hurling yourself at blank walls and desperately stabbing at buttons in the hope that there's going to be a handhold to grab on to? In a nutshell, the problem I had with Tomb Raider is that it encouraged you to experiment with the game environment but gave you very few clues as to how you should shape that interaction in order to progress. I've always loathed that aspect of game design - it seems supremely lazy to me and hateful to play through. It made it's first appearance in early adventure games where the "puzzles" seemed to consist of you just trying different inventory objects in different locales until one worked - with precious little rhyme or reason as to what combined properly with what. It was bad enough in adventure games which at least gave you time to stop and think. But Tomb Raider was the first time I ever saw this gameplay technique in an action game. And boy, did it suck big time.

So what does this have to do with BIA? Well, I'll tell you after I've given you a brief spoiler warning - I'm going to have to describe a little of what happens in the "Carentan" mission so turn off now if you don't want to know.

The last phase of "Carentan" has you assaulting a warehouse. It's pretty intense as there's a lot of Germans in a small place, and it's defended by two machine gun nests which put down a lethal hail of fire across the area. It involves a lot of dashing between stacks of boxes you can use as cover and desperately supressing the Guards with automatic weapons before picking them off with the rifle. It's really, really good.

At least it is to start with. The initial way to progress on the level is to get rid of all the guards in the courtyard and then sneak round the left hand side and into the building, which allows you to take out one machine gun nest. But one you're in, you'll discover a problem - there's no way to get to the second machine gun nest from the side you're in. You can't even see it to shoot at it. And I was utterly perplexed as to how to shoot it down. I tried various things including sheltering behind the trucks in the courtyard and taking potshots at the gun. I even tried climbing on to the roof, only to find the ladder was blocked. I died, a lot, and got very cross because I couldn't see any way to get rid of the machine gun. And every time I wanted to try, I had to clear out all the guards and the other machine gun first, and that was hard and took a long time.

I eventually managed to take it out by crouching behind a truck on the right hand side of the courtyard and taking shots from there. It was a pretty nervy experience as I was wholly fed up with doing the level by this stage and I was badly wounded. I thought that'd be it, but no, the level carried on and my objective marker was now pointing into the section of the warehouse that I couldn't access. How frustrating!. Whilst wondering how to deal with this problem (and starting to think it was a bug of some kind) I hit on an idea. I could see into the area I needed to get to, so I ordered a squad to take up position there and followed them, presuming they wouldn't be able to find the way up. Lo and behold there was a tuny stairway hidden from view behind the very truck where I'd been shooting at the machine gun from.

If I'd have wanted a game where I had to search for tiny hidden staircases, I'd have bought a Tomb Raider sequel. Please, game designers, you can get a long way by combining generes, but throwing in the occasional reference to a totally different play style in a game designed as a mix between FPS and a tactical wargame isn't fun. Don't do it again!

The first

I feel it should be special somehow, this first journal entry. Magical, different, in some way unique and personal to me. But it won't be. It's going to be about Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30.

This is the game I've been playing a lot recently. I'm making a concerted effort to get it finished despite recently having picked up Halo 2 and wanting to replay KOTR thanks to the trailers for the new Star Wars film. I like to finish my games, otherwise I don't feel I'm getting my moneysworth.

Anyway, BIA blew me away the first few times I played it. I'm a bit of a history buff and I like tactical wargames as well as FPS games, so something that combined all three was just a must-have for me. In fact, it's the first game I can remember in a long time which I lusted after in the run-up to it's release. Usually I'm content to wait until I've seen a batch of reviews, and often I can wait until it appears in the second-hand bins. But not with BIA, oh no. I really couldn't wait to get my sticky paws on a shiny new copy.

But the last couple of missions in the game have just become really frustrating. It's a testament to how much I love the game that I've soldiered through them (excuse the pun). I'm playing on difficult, but that's not the source of the frustration.

No, it's the AI. A game like this, shooting with tactical elements was always going to stand or fall on it's AI, and sadly, BIA comes up a bit short.

Friendly AI is the worst. Grab your command ring. Point it right behind some nice, solid cover like a wall or something and realease the trigger. Watch or arm circel round and here yourself shout "Red! Get to that cover!". Cover, see? The game recognises that you're ordering your troops to get down behind some cover to protect themselves. Watch with amazement as your troops skillfully duck and weave their way toward the cover in the teeth of murderous enemy fire. Watch with abject horror as two of your troops get into cover as they're instructed while the third stands up like some prize pudding and gets himself shot to bits.

Why? It's clear from the voice acting that the fact you want the men to take cover has been recognised. So why don't they do it? I don't like to loose squad members. I get all misty eyed over that sort of thing. But there are sections in this game (most notably on the mission buying the farm) where I just gave up trying to use the squads and tanked it out myself. I died a lot, but ultimately it was less frustrating than watching my highly trained troopers bumble around like idiots.

The enemy AI is a curious beast. One of the best things about BIA is it's sheer immersion. There have been some stunning moments of gameplay, such as getting myself stuck in the middle of a crossfire and managing to direct my squads to lay down enough fire for me to escape. And one of the other great moments was the complete panic I was thrown into early in the game when some of the German squads supressed my troops and outflanked me! I had high hopes for the game then. But it seems that the further I get in to the game, the less this is happening and the more the German troops seems to be following prescripted paths to run to certain points of cover and sit there until they die. I'm not sure why this is happening, but it's a shame. Clearly the correct AI routines are there, but they're not working in the later levels. Have they been turned off? Overridden? Or is there something in the level design that stops them trying to flank me.

Of course, it could be that I'm just such a tactical genius that I'm managing to keep them pinned all the time. That must be it.

Anyway, I'll let you know when I finish the game. Not that anyone will ever read this, but it makes me feel better.