Are FPSes the enemy?

A man of many talents, Hideo Kojima is best known for his pioneering work in the stealth-action genre with the Metal Gear franchise. In a recent interview with Official PlayStation Magazine he expressed his concern with the state of the video game industry and how first-person shooters are the dominating force, making it harder for original ideas to blossom. Kojima told the mag that there are only about ten big name games that can grab the public’s attention and that Japan-centric games will find it hard to compete with them.

“I think it’s more consumer demand – right now, consumers are happy with what they have. First-person shooters sell like crazy, so there’s not really a strong demand for anything else, and that’s why [original ideas] stop being made. People are satisfied with making minor upgrades and tweaking things here and there – as long as that’s the landscape, it will keep on happening. I don’t see a problem necessarily, but at the same time it is nice to see new things come.”

While I agree that the FPS genre is a hard one to beat it’s also hard to master and the number of titles that can get away with incremental updates gets less every year. Take the most famous shooter series, Call of Duty. The third Modern Warfare release sold very well and floats nicely near the top of the charts but the excitement for the franchise is definitely wearing thin. I’ve hardly seen it appear in my Friends’ Lists of games on Xbox Live and the general buzz about it felt less enthusiastic than last year. Partly due to the other big military shooter and partly because gamers do look as if they want something more than an FPS. The relatively poor sales for id’s Rage eludes to this as does the fact that Skyrim took the Christmas number one spot in the UK’s all format Chart not to mention the almost universal praise of Portal 2 throughout the year.

But it’s fair to say that publishers who are keen to make a quick sale will often go down the FPS route whether the game calls for it or not. And shooting in general is a mechanic that is found in the vast majority of titles. Though I would say that just because the wider audience gobble up a first-person-shooter, that doesn’t mean developers should exclusively cater for them. Yes it makes far better business sense in the short term but a great original game will resonate with the masses regardless of genre. The aforementioned Skyrim shows this as does the Assassin’s Creed series. The latter may be experiencing its own stagnation but has been very profitable and playable for both publisher and consumer.

Kojima added how that a digital distribution method or even off-shoot could be a good way of getting new ideas out with less risk than traditional releases.

“Maybe for new ideas, the way to do it is [by] releasing things via online services first and then seeing how people react to that. Or even if you’re making something from a game-design perspective that’s completely different, you could tie it to an existing franchise – like even if it had the Metal Gear Solid title, it could be completely different. Maybe you can make a Batman game that has the Batman title, but you can still be free with what you make the game into. Making something that’s completely new – where the gameplay, the characters, the world, everything is completely from scratch – that’s very hard to realise in this day and age.”

Batman is an interesting example used because Rocksteady’s Arkham Asylum and Arkham City are two huge successes. I may not have been as wowed by Asylum, City has been a joy to play and the franchise took very big risks with the potentially repetitive combat and lack of stereotypical content. Like how there is now Batmobile in either games. If asked what a Batman game would feature before 2010, I would have expected there to be a driving level complete with a poorly handled Batmobile. For all intense purposes, you could view the Arkham series as an off-shoot to the typical Batman or indeed action-adventure-brawler game. Kojima mentioned a Metal Gear Solid title that was completely different and while Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance isn’t part of the ‘Solid’ collective, it’s still very a Metal Gear game that, from what we’ve seen, will play quite differently.

I do very much enjoy a good first-person shooter and understand Kojima’s frustrations, equally wanting to experience some new and interesting ideas in gaming. Luckily, BioShock Infinite is set for to come out this year and from what Ken Levine’s team have done in the past, it should be a good combination of FPS ideas with new ways to play them. Perhaps a better way of combating the languishing genre is to take a similar approach rather than admitting defeat.

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Battlefield 3(60)

The mediocre single player campaign in Battlefield 3 didn’t put off a number of gamers over the weekend who picked up a copy of the game. I’d imagine the reason for this was because very few of those early adopters give two hoots about solo play and were keen to kick some arse online. With marginally more robust service and arguably greater number of shooter fans, the Xbox 360 version dominated UK retail sales gobbling 53 per cent of the delicious money pie. But those players weren’t too pleased when the servers crapped out forcing them to experience the weakest part of Battlefield 3, the single player mode. That is if they felt like sticking with it at all. Not the best start for EA and their desperate (and a little one-sided) battle with Activision to be publisher of the greatest FPS. Still, the sales were positive and from what I hear, all is well when trying to get online so give it a few days and all will be forgotten. Though it does make the online pass packed with nearly all games seem a little ironic.

Interestingly enough, one of the biggest games this year may have sold the best on the Xbox 360 but it’s Sony that is selling more consoles in the European territory. So far, the PS3 has sold around 3.5 million units whereas both Xbox 360 and Wii are hovering at the 2 million mark. Does that mean these kinds of games are more profitable on the Xbox 360? The figures to suggest that’s where publishers should maybe focus their attention when doing timed exclusive DLC – a practice becoming more and more common. Microsoft were smart enough to snatch up all of the Call of Duty DLC packs first until 2012 but Sony are offering patrons the chance to download all the Battlefield 3 DLC a week earlier than the Xbox 360 and PC. In contrast, the fact that Battlefield 3 sold better on Microsoft’s format may also suggest gamers are getting tired of such exclusivity deals and will buy a game for whatever they feel most comfortable on.

Battlefield, dull? You’re just not playing the right bits…

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I haven’t been one of the lucky few who have got their hands on an almost complete version of Battlefield 3 but have read a number of posts from those who have over the weekend. So how’s it looking as a usurper to the Call of Duty thrown? Well opinions will always be divided on which is the better game but B3 to me has lost foothold in their climb to the top by having what a lot of people are calling a dull single player campaign.

But how can this be when the multiplayer looks and plays so very promising? As did the gameplay videos EA have touted in various trade shows and conferences this year. Kotaku asked executive producer Patrick Bach the same thing and was told

“To be honest, a big part of what single-player in Battlefield is is a tutorial for multiplayer, quickly adding “It’s not a training mission, it’s not a shooting range—it’s an emotional roller-coaster at the same time as it shows you all the bits and pieces of the game. It’s a great introduction for the multiplayer. Because when you go into multiplayer for the first time, it’s very dry, it’s very ‘Here I am, with my gun, what do I do?’ While single-player brings you more on a journey.”

The Call of Duty franchise is equally guilty of this and despite the added narrative and Easter eggs in Black Ops, it felt the most like a free-flowing shooting gallery. However, according to the previews, so does Battlefield 3 only it sounds as if there’s even less personality to it. But does that even matter? The vast majority of gamers who will buy either of thins year’s big military shooters won’t touch the single player component and dive head first into multiplayer. They don’t need or want a tutorial for online play and will most probably find both games to be the most fun they’ve had since the previous title so a weak campaign isn’t really a big deal. Plus Battlefield has always been a multiplayer-focused game and it was the Bad Company series that introduced a grand storyline to follow. Personally I fall into the minority with shooters as I tend not to play a lot online preferring to fight on my own. So a good campaign is more important to me and it sounds as if, once again, I’m going to be a little disappointed.

That’s fine, these games aren’t made for me, they’re made for the millions of competitive multiplayer fans charging across Xbox Live, PSN and PCs every day. I had hoped that the direction which EA appeared to be taking the series in was to be an all-encompassing FPS, combining a Bad Company campaign with traditional Battlefield online battles but the latest buzz from The Guardian paper is that Bad Company may make a comeback after all. I also hoped that all the trash talking from Jeff Brown towards Activision would actually mean something and EA would release a game superior to Modern Warfare 3 in every way. I get the impression that in reality we’ll be getting something that fall short in all the same ways Call of Duty does.

And on the seventh day they went to the Eurogamer Expo

Last Sunday, like many thumb-bandits, I ventured to London with a mate for the sights and sounds of Eurogamer’s 2011 Expo at Earl’s Court. Six hours were spent queuing, gaming and chatting to like-minded individuals all eager to get their hand on games either already available or in the very near future. There were a couple of things that I really wanted to see in particular like Bethesda’s romp back into the wilds of the Elder Scrolls Skyrim. However, I was thwarted by a rather long line up of people keen to wield a sword or shoot a fireball or two. I did stare longly at the obscenely thin Samsung TV screens that showed the gorgeous graphics of Bethesda’s (allegedly) new game engine. It was hard to tell whether it was running on the Xbox 360 or PC with a game pad but it sure looked mighty fine.

Next up was the 3DS booth where I dabbled in Super Mario 3D Land and have to admit, left feeling a smidgen of disappointment. It looked and played much like expected, a combination of New Super Mario Bros. and Mario Galaxy with visuals that felt perfectly suited for the 3DS. But when there was any hint of stereoscopic 3D, navigation became harder and smiles turned to frowns all too quickly. When first announced at GDC in March, Nintendo president Satoru Iwata said the 3DS’ instalment of Mario would put an end to the troubles caused when platforming and jumping by shifting a traditionally 2D game to 3D. That sounded like a swell idea to me, someone who is more at home with the earlier Marios. But what I found from playing Super Mario 3D Land was that stereoscopic 3D did the exact opposite and made it harder to figure out where I was jumping. Off, and the game played great, on and I fell down every hole possible. Hopefully, this is more to do with the fact I hadn’t played from the beginning and eased into the new 3D looks though if not, well then I guess the 3D switch will permanently be off for that game.

Some games that did do 3D very well were Resident Evil Revelations, Metal Gear Solid Snake Eater 3D and Kid Icarus. Sadly all I could do with Resident Evil was peer over the shoulder of another player (in the ‘sweet spot’ too) to watch the superb graphics Nintendo’s little handheld can deliver. Jill Valentine was rendered beautifully and moved just as nice with the environments suitably creepy and the 3D enhancing the immersion (until you move your head. Top tip, don’t move your head). While Resident Evil Revelations had a constant flow of people wanting to play it, Metal Gear Solid Snake Eater 3D did not so I had a chance to get my grubby mitts on what is considered the best game of the series. And now in 3D. As expected, it looked as nice in motion (I had feared otherwise after some early screenshots looked a bit muddy) but as with the PSP games, Metal Gear Solid works best with two analog sticks. Since the 3DS second-stick add-on was absent from the show, the face buttons had to suffice in controlling the camera and unfortunately is wasn’t pleasant. I couldn’t see a way of using the stylus in lieu of another stick as that used to be an acceptable substitute on the DS. But hey, it’s Metal Gear on the go and if that go will have to include a bulky cradle then so be it. The 3D effects certainly worked well and the 3DS is where I want to be playing that game again in the hope the Kojima will do something interesting with all the new features of the system. Speaking of which, Kid Icarus was quite a joy to play. Fast, frantic shooting in a Space Harrier kind of way with 3D that didn’t intrude but sat nicely with the art style. I don’t think an expo was the best place to experience a game with narration and what looked like an interesting story but I left feeling confident that Kid Icarus was definitely a day one purchase.

One nice surprise as the venue wasn’t the superb Joker and Harley Quinn cosplayers but my experience with Ubisoft’s Ghost Recon: Future Soldier. Tucked away in the over 18s section it wasn’t something I gravitated towards not being a big fan of the franchise as a whole. And the press haven’t been too kind either after its E3 showing in June. But the multiplayer match I played was more fun than I had expected it to be. A lot more. Maybe it’s because I’m Lancer deep in Gears of War 3 at the moment but Ghost Recon‘s movement felt similar when running from cover to cover and popping out occasionally to take out my foes which isn’t a bad thing at all. A neat addition is a reticule that you can place next to cover showing exactly where you’ll be running to. It made navigating the war torn street map really easy and combat quite fun. Though for a game in development for so long, it did look rough with questionable textures and jagged edges around pretty much everything. I hope Ubisoft can get it cleaned up and eventually released because it felt more tactical then, say, Gears and has promise but could so easily bomb at retail if left in its current state. The Kinect implementation wasn’t part of the demo either, not that I think it’s a deciding factor in whether people will pick it up.

On the topic of motion controls, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword was a game that I originally thought would have to slip to 2012’s list of purchases for me what with a full winter ahead but from what I saw a the Expo, I may have to reconsider. It may end up being the last Wii game that is worth our attention but what better franchise to go out on than Zelda? Everything looked bright and busy with a lot of things going on in the back and foreground making the world come alive. How was the Wii MotionPlus? Well, a bit hit and miss. Swinging the sword had less precision than I thought it would but enough to get the job done. Shooting arrows worked pretty much identically to Wii Sports Resort by holding the Wii Remote towards the screen and pulling the nunchuck back as if drawing a bow. And like Wii Sports Resort, you could quite easily lock you view at an odd angle making you wonder if a simple press of a button would have been better. I imagine the more time invested in Skyward Sword would help players get used to the quirks and there’s a charm that all Zelda games have that I’ve not found on any other franchise.

All in all, Sunday was a very good day for gaming. I didn’t brave the queues for Battlefield 3 or Modern Warfare 3 but both looked stunning with MW3 slightly edging out ahead in terms of frame rate and graphics at least on the 360 anyway (the console I saw them running on). The lack of booth babes made the Expo feel creditable and not a nerd cliche though the ones that did strut about with a large percentage of buttock on show were harmless enough. As were the many guys trying to take pictures of them from behind. But it was a good day and as soon as we left, conversations of what will be buying and how broke we’ll be intertwined with what we’d like to see at next year’s show.

That’s a lot of map packs…

Nowadays I often get the feeling that the words Call of Duty are likened to a particularly nasty phrase or that one swearword that everyone feels ashamed to say in public. Most comments and chatter among hardcore enthusiasts is that Battlefield 3 will be superior and the overpriced DLC and exploitation of a franchise has made Call of Duty a place where few wish to tread. However, the fault doesn’t squarely lie at the feet of Activision because it appears no matter how much they charge, people are willing to pay.

At an investors event yesterday, Activision ceo Eric Hirshberg made a lot of attendees smile manically as he revealed a whopping 18 million map packs have been sold for Black Ops making the company a teeny bit richer. The packs sell for around $15 each so times that by 18 million and your calculator just may melt in the process. Compare that to the previous Call of Duty games and it shows how popular Black Ops has become. Treyarch’s World at War sold nine million map packs in the same amount of time as Black Ops and Modern Warfare 2 sold eleven million. The former went for $10 a pop whereas from MW2 onwards, packs have become the now standard $15.

Critically, Black Ops wasn’t as loved as Modern Warfare 2 and the fact that Treyarch, thought of as the ‘B-team’ studio, worked on meant those who cared where slightly dubious of its quality. I may not have enjoyed Black Ops as much as MW2 but it was still an enjoyable game and clearly more favoured by the larger mainstream audience. Hirshberg added to his earlier claim saying how consumer engagement is at an all time high, making people think twice about brandishing the franchise as one that is on its way out:

“There are over 30 million unique players of Black Ops who collectively have amassed, incredibly, more than 2.3 billion hours of play. To put that number in perspective, that’s more than a quarter of a million years of play and that means our millions of fans spend more time per day on Black Ops multiplayer than they do on Facebook.”

So where does that leave Call of Duty? With figure like this it certainly isn’t going anywhere soon. The paid-for stat-tracking service, Call of Duty Elite, surpassing two million Beta registrations not to mention pre-orders of Modern Warfare 3 looking to best those of Black Ops, the fall of the FPS may be a little while yet. Not that I’d want it to. Say what you will, there’s still room in the industry for games like Call of Duty and the more choice we have of what to play the better. And if we’re pissed at high prices for DLC map packs unfortunately we only have ourselves to blame. Well, maybe not directly…

A Frank view on consoles

From the humble beginnings of both Xbox 360 and PS3, the platform holders optimistically said this generation would last at least ten years. No more jumping ship before a console had time to truly mature, Microsoft and Sony look like companies quite comfortable with their hardware thanks to new additions such as 3D visuals and motion controls. Whether or not the WiiU will make a big enough splash to force a sudden quickening in development for whatever Sony and Microsoft do next is yet to be seen. Thought I doubt it.

Some, like EA’s Frank Gibeau, find it hard to think of a world with the next generation of consoles, wondering what their purpose would actually be. Speaking with CVG, Gibeau dismisses the need for anything new:

“It’s hard for me to conceive what you would do on a PlayStation 4. The displays are already 1080p, you’re already connected to the internet… You could make it faster, you could have more polys and you could up the graphics a little bit… but at what cost?”

It’s interesting that Gibeau focuses on graphics when enemy and NPC AI still struggles to perform acceptably in some games. That is what I’d want from a PlayStation 4 (or Xbox ‘720’). The power to make me believe who I’m fighting against or alongside is a competent representation of thought and not a bundle of scripting. We’ve definitely advanced from the steadfast tradition of static invisible tracks for AI controlled characters to aimlessly stroll down and a good FPS shooter, for example, will have enemies who constantly flank and jeopardise your cover. But there’s also still a lot of remedial AI confused by the simplest of obstacles, taking players right out of the experience in one dumb move. Partly the blame can be put on developers not utilising the full power of current consoles but I do wonder just how much more can be harvested from seven year plus technology.

To Gibeau’s credit, he does point out that as gamers we have a lot of features in the current models than we’ve had before. Constant online functionality with a robust infrastructure and the highest of definitions that TVs can handle not to mention new forms of controls. These are the three usual bullet points touted as a reason to buy systems and in Gibeau’s case, a reason to stick with what we’ve got. Not only that but as he points out (coincidently), Battlefield 3 is looking really impressive on the PS3, better than a lot of games that have come before it.

I’m not advocating new consoles anytime soon, however. Like I said, we’ve just got Kinect and Move opening the possibilities for new interactions with games and I’d rather see what comes of those before having to upgrade the hardware they’re played on. Though I don’t think evolving our systems should centre around adding more features or indeed boosting the graphics when there’s a lot of transparent coding and game-shaping mechanics that can be improved by meatier CPUs. If ever there was reason to release a new console, better AI for me would be at the very top.

The retailers’ battlefield

For better or worse, there are gamers and publishers who want Call of Duty to fail. They want to see the smugness disappear from Activision, they want the ‘dude bro’ gamer to find some other hobby and most definitely want to see some significant change to first person shooters. John Riccitiello and his merry band of EA would love to usurp the FPS thrown from Activision and haven’t been shy about saying so with Battlefield 3 being the best chance they have. It’s coming out before Modern Warfare 3, has a gritty real-world setting that we can relate to but feel equally heroic and features a stat-tracking service, similar to Call of Duty Elite but is free instead of paid-for.

All in all, it’s looking good and EA can’t put a foot wrong with marketing and hype – except for the unnecessarily lengthy tank level shown at their E3 press conference which quickly lost its appeal. But if there’s one thing that pisses off gamers it’s pre-order bonus that give unfair advantages to those who stump up the cash early and Battlefield 3 will be no different (via Kotaku). Customers in the UK who pre-order from either GAME or Gamestation will receive the Physical Warfare pack which includes additional weapons and ammo that are normally reserved for unlocks. This means getting them early could shift the balance from a level playing field to downright unfair for anyone not willing to pre-order.

For the UK, it’s not about money because you can freely pre-order titles without paying a penny until release and even then you’re not always obliged to buy them. But it does get a bit crappy when you think of everyone who would rather pick up the game from another retailer, not the two EA have partnered up with. They won’t be entitled to having a suped-up shotgun or flechette ammo on day one but will likely be pitted against someone who does in multiplayer. And there’s nothing that breaks a decent online mode more than feeling like you’re gimped against the opposition.

So for all the belly aching towards companies like Activision for trying to monetize features, it’s become frightfully clear that there are few companies who wouldn’t. But hey, they’re exactly that, a company so while it sucks for us, it’s now just the unfortunate reality of video games and in the grand scheme of things, will it effect whether you buy the game or not? Or rather, should it?