The Video Game Awards 2011

On Saturday night, all eyes were on Spike TV as it hosted it’s annual Video Game Awards. Less of an actual award show and more of a huge marketing stunt for multiple publishers, the 2011 VGAs was heavy on the random celebrity appearances and world exclusives but light on awarding achievement. Nevertheless, take the show for what it is – a good place to see new video game content – and this year’s VGAs did promise some exciting new stories. Prior to the show, companies were hyping their fans by claiming new IPs and titles were to be revealed, making us almost forget that Charlie Sheen was handing out an award (yeah, I don’t know either). And with only minutes to go, one of the big stories of the night, that being the future of Metal Gear Solid: Rising was spoilt online with news outlets managing to get early scoops thanks to the trailer leaking. It then became a matter of whether or not the newly born rumours were true.

But kicking things off were Sony and Naughty Dog whose world exclusive trailer for brand new IP, The Last of Us, sent people into a frenzy. The graphics, as you expect from such a praised developer, were stunning and later claimed to be running in real time from the PS3 for which this game is destined for. Joel and Ellie, one a middle-aged man and the other a teenage girl, are scavenging what they can from an abandoned house when they’re attacked by humans ravaged with some kind of disease. They look mutated and it’s unknown as to whether they’re zombies in the traditional sense but it sure looks like The Last of Us will fall in the zombie/survival horror genre. The end of video sees the two burst out into the street which over looks a city that has been reclaimed by nature. Think I Am Legend. But if you do, prepare to be flamed in forums because this game is proving quite divisive despite so little details. The optimists are quick to say how it’ll be the greatest thing ever with pessimists firing back with sighs of how it’s just another zombie game, ripping off Will Smith’s 2007 hit. And while I am one of those bored with zombie games who did notice similarities with I Am Legend, the important factor is that it’s being developed by Naughty Dog, a studio proven themselves to be more than capable at delivering a fantastic narrative experience. Despite a promotional campaign suggesting otherwise, Dead Island wound up being just another zombie game so it’s understandable for gamers to be concerned but Naughty Dog certainly are a studio who seriously could change the way we play these types of games.

Next up was BioWare who first showed off some more footage from Mass Effect 3 with Shepard and his crew fighting a reaper. It looked very much in-game and a great mix of action and short story sequences that is making the wait between now and March 2012 so much harder. Then came BioWare’s big new game, the next thing to come out of the studio after all this sci-fi shenanigans. And it was a sequel to an existing IP. Command and Conquer Generals 2 is the next instalment of PC real-time strategy warfare coming 2013 (unless the Mayans are right) and the trailer didn’t offer a great deal of info other than it’ll be using the Frostbite 2 engine which currently powers Battlefield 3. So at least we know it’ll look gorgeous. I’m sure RTS fans were delighted but I was a bit disappointed, not being a fan of the genre. I wasn’t expecting any particular title from BioWare but am a little surprised that they’re taking on an RTS. I presume EA are hoping the Canadian developers can sprinkle a bit of their magic onto a once forgotten off shoot of a franchise, bringing it back to profitable status. I do worry that EA are relying on BioWare a bit too much and wonder what other types of games will we be seeing in the years to come from a company whose strengths lie elsewhere. But who knows, the RTS genre could be a perfect fit for them.

The next game that caught my eye was Alan Wake’s American Nightmare, a downloadable action adventure game first mentioned back in May. Then it had no name but was definitely not Alan Wake 2 and from the looks of it, this isn’t. In AWAN, Wake is fighting against his evil double, Mr. Scratch, who is after his wife. Naturally, Wake isn’t too pleased at the idea so must stop him using the same combat mechanics as the first game where you shine light onto enemies to burn off the evil, then blow them away with a firearm. Mechanics that I really enjoyed and am really pleased are making a come back. It looks as if Remedy are taking things less seriously with this game and adding in easier to follow storyline too. The other thing about this game is how its an Arcade title instead of store release and so hopefully will be less of a financial risk for Microsoft who could of easily buried any chance of extending the franchise after the original game didn’t sell as well as it should have. Alan Wake’s American Nightmare is coming early next year.

Epic announced their new game and did prefix the reveal with how it’ll be something entirely new and different from the studio. And it sure did look it. With Epic and its Unreal Engine, a certain art-style is expected but Cliff Bleszinski took to the stage of the VGAs and showed Fortnite, a cartoonish, tower defence shooter where the key is to survive. From the video showing teenage-looking kids rooting around old buildings for scrap, there’ll be a day and night cycle with the day dedicate to strengthening and building your fortress and the night spent fighting off zombies (yep, zombies). Could be interesting but tower defence and/or fortress management never quite appealed to me as it has for many others. It’s good to see Epic expanding on the fortress mechanic from Gears of War 3 however and even better that the art-style is so dramatically different for them.

The show was full of other games with the awards bunched together in montages and respectable heads of studios being T-bagged on stage by a dude in an army costume but the game that closed the show is what I’ll end this piece with. No one was sure what had happened to Metal Gear Solid: Rising after its E3 2010 showing. Konami and Kojima hadn’t said a great deal about it with many suspecting it had been canceled. Which was true, according to Andriasang but that clearly didn’t last long because the game has now been given a different title of Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. Gone is the Solid and storyline set between MGS2 and 4 with Revengeance now taking place after the fourth game. Platinum Games are in charge of development and Hideo Kojima will produce so expect the absurdity of Kojima’s stories and frantic action from a team who gave us Bayonetta and Vanquish. Cosmetically, Revengeance looks more like a Platinum title and moves in much the same way. Stealth is to be replaced with balls to the wall action too making the game the kind of thing fans joked about after MGS4 was released. Back in 2008, we saw Raiden change from the dorky pretty-boy of Metal Gear Solid 2 to the ultimate badass that everyone wanted to play. And soon, I heard more and more people say how cool it would be play an action game featuring the cyborg ninja. Bizarrely, in order to get that, an MGS game had to be canceled and reborn as something else. Still, I cannot wait.

Co-op effect

Mass Effect 3

So it’s finally official, Mass Effect 3 is to include a multiplayer mode. When the news first broke yesterday, no one quite knew what the details of this mode and naturally the fears of a compromised single player campaign floated to the top of the internet. After all, it has been said that ME3 will be the most accessible for newcomers or a wider gaming audience and tacking on a multiplayer mode would certainly help this. But before things got out of hand, BioWare forum aficionado Chris Priestly posted on the official site that the multiplayer component will actually be a co-operative mode, mostly separate from the campaign. I say mostly because, as Priestly stresses, the new addition is designed to compliment the campaign not withhold content to solo only players. The better you do in co-op, the higher Commander Shepard’s ‘galactic readiness’ stats go up but you can just as easily do this on your own in the campaign.

Good news then. If you want Mass Effect 3 to be a one player only game then you can have just that. And the development hasn’t been affected either. A new studio was formed in Montreal to take care of all things multiplayer while the folks at Edmonton got on with the main game. Remember that infamous job posting from June last year? This is the result.

The co-op mode will allow up to four players to, well, all that’s been said so far is fight in what’s being called the Galaxy at War System, influencing Shepard’s stats as they do so. Sounds like it could very well be a horde equivalent which would fit within the concept of Mass Effect. And if it is to be as minimally intrusive to single player as BioWare promises, a horde mode that doesn’t necessarily need much narrative feels right. What the co-op will also do is introduce a brand new set of characters to develop because Shepard is exclusive to the campaign and his story ends with Mass Effect 3. But the franchise will not. Bringing in new characters that players can directly interact with is a great way of bridging future Shepard-less titles. And why no deathmatch or usual multiplayer modes? Because that would be stupid.

More details will be coming soon but at least the will they won’t they saga of Mass Effect‘s multiplayer has come to an end that shouldn’t be offensive to anyone. Well, here’s hoping.

Liara’s new look

Even though Mass Effect‘s Liara Tsoni was probably conceived as an object of titillation, the character is one with a far deeper personality than many a video game heroine. The promiscuity of her race and the fact she’s not too bothered which sex takes an interest in her didn’t tempt BioWare design her as an object purely for the camera to linger over her curvatures. That’s what Miranda is for. So why then has the company commissioned Kotobukiya to make a Bishoujo (meaning cute girl in Japanese) version of the space sorcerer, turning a military ally into little more than a pair of boobs?

Yesterday, BioWare released three images of an unfinished Liara statue on their official Facebook page (via Kotaku) and want fans to give feedback on how it’s looking. So far, the response hasn’t been good. Many share the same feelings as I do and are confused as to why an anime version exists at all and disappointed that it’s made a favoured member of the Normandy a bit of a joke. I’m not sure what BioWare expected but it probably wasn’t the negativity they’re currently receiving. But then again, these aren’t for the western market and it’s the East, particularly Japan, where figurines like this are really quite popular. However, with estimated sales of the franchise being under 1 million units in Japan, I wonder if the avid Bishoujo fan would know or care who she is.

Shepard’s last hurrah

You’d best say your goodbyes to Commander Shepard next March as Mass Effect 3 will be his last appearance in a video game. BioWare ceo Ray Mazuka was asked as this year’s Gamescom by PC Gamer whether Mass Effect 3 will be the last game set in that universe. Echoing comments from previous interviews, Mazuka once again confirmed the company’s desire to further the fiction and world they so painstakingly created:

“We have ambitious plans to continue this franchise going forward. Mass Effect 3 is simultaneously a couple of different things; a thrilling and epic conclusion to the trilogy as we promised our fans we’d provide for Commander Shepard, but it’s also a brand new beginning – it’s an entry point for new fans and it’s also a brand new beginning.”

When asked if Shepard would appear in any more Mass Effect games, producer Michael Gamble said how ME3 will complete the Commander’s storyline and therefore will not be making a comeback.

With the level of detail put into the first two games, following one Commander and their loyal team is just a tiny part of a much larger story. Sure, whether Shepard succeeds or not has greater consequences on the universe as a whole but, like Star Wars, the lesser characters are equally if not more interesting than the one in charge. The loyalty missions from Mass Effect 2 and the franchise’s extensive codex scratch the surface on a vast number of species and personalities all ripe expanding on in someway. I’m curious to find out just how the third game in series can successfully draw in a large number of newcomers but it’s something both BioWare and EA have said a few times now so there’s something going on and I doubt it’s just the optional Kinect features revealed at E3.

Could this latest statement from BioWare add a little more credence to the rumours of a multiplayer co-op shooter set in the universe? It’s been lingering for some time now and was expected to be announced at last year’s Spike VGA’s but never showed up. Some claim it’s an additional mode in Mass Effect 3 whereas others say it’ll be a standalone product. I think it’s safe to say that no one really has any idea. Other than BioWare. And EA. So a couple of people then…

The casualties to Gears of War

Discussing the third instalment of the Gears of War franchise at the San Diego Comic-Con, Epic game designer Cliff Bleszinski said Gears 3 will include a casual mode for both online and offline play (via Eurogamer). The main feature in this mode will be an aim assist that should allow less experienced players to lay waste to the Locust threat without becoming worm food themselves. But the mode isn’t available for everyone because if you’ve had even a whiff of Gears of War, you’ll be locked out. Anyone who has played the first or second game or took part in the multiplayer Beta earlier this year won’t be able to select the casual mode. Nor will can they play in the dedicated casual multiplayer channel, giving newbies the chance to learn the ropes instead of repeatedly dyeing.

Having a casual mode in any game makes a lot of sense with the stigma that online gaming has of being an area unfriendly to anyone who doesn’t spend their life with a controller in hand. If only Modern Warfare 3 were to include a similar mode then maybe it would escalate to an even greater fan base than it already has.

But like Mass Effect 3, it does seem a little odd that an easier mode is included after two games have already shipped. Back in May, John Riccitiello spoke of how BioWare are adjusting Mass Effect 3 in order to appeal to the largest market possible. In short, he wants casual players to pick up the game as well as veterans. Though I suppose in Gears 3‘s case, it’s a bit different since the story is enjoyable but not essential to the entertainment. If you miss the Gears 1 and 2, sure you’d have missed out on two fantastic shooters, the first being incredibly influential on this generation of video games, but you’d be able to catch up on the story pretty quick. And it’s better late than never to try and wrangle in even more customers to a very expensive franchise.

BioWare’s massive effect on the female gamer

Having only ever played the Mass Effect series as a male character, I’ve only ever heard the celebrated voice work of Jennifer Hale, who plays female Commander Shepard, on the odd occasion. But word is Hale out performs her male counterpart and has done so relatively unnoticed by the majority of players so far. Because the games give you the choice to change pretty much all aspects of Shepard from appearance to attitude, BioWare had to design a default character to work on advertising campaigns and box art and until now, it’s always been a dude. But for the third game, the company have begun including the default female Shepard and so far she’s been spotted in a trailer and collector’s edition packaging with BioWare marketing chief, David Silverman, saying there could be more of her to come.

In an interview with VG247, Silverman discussed the debate over male and female Shepard and rattled of a few statistics to boot. Like how only 13 per cent of players use the default Shepard with the rest opting to make changes as they see fit. In total, 18 per cent of gamers will play Mass Effect as a female so whether or not Hale provides the brilliant performance that she does, it starts to look less like stereotyping and sexism that the male Shepard has always been the hero. Not to say that perception can’t change or at least make way for a co-hero. As Silverman points out in the interview, the games industry is lacking in strong female leads so the fact Mass Effect has one is worthy of celebration. But not just because she’s voiced by a talented actress but because a female Shepard represents a quality that BioWare are masters of; giving players choice. Despite a few angry forum posters, gender and indeed the choice of sexuality is something BioWare, for the most part, treat with a great deal of respect. In Mass Effect 3, players can now choose for their male Shepard to be gay which was only reserved for the female Commander in the first two games. Hopefully the implementation will be as humorous as it is poignant since most male Shepard players only chased women in Mass Effect 1 and 2.

On the subject of sexuality, Silverman defended BioWare’s inclusions of the many, many, butt shots and general curvature close-ups of Miranda in Mass Effect 2. Being a guy, I wasn’t overly bothered by them though did find them a tad gratuitous but according to VG247, female players were less than impressed. Silverman insisted the shots were necessary: “The fact is, some characters are defined by their attractiveness, such as a woman who is genetically engineered to be perfect. Camera angles help tell the story and portray key aspects of each character – in Miranda’s case, her curves and sexuality. We had similar shots of Jacob.” I didn’t notice the scenes of Jacob but arguably I wasn’t really looking. While I fully understand the fact that Miranda was meant to be ‘perfect’ so showing off her various curves helped get that point across, I can’t help but think the angles were mainly conceived to show off a nice butt. Now the adolescent heterosexual in me may be shouting “Yay, bum!” but if I listened to him for too long, I’d only be playing Dead or Alive games.

The spirits within Mass Effect

I must be in a very small group of people who actually enjoyed Square Enix’s CGI flop, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within but at least some of the people in my gathering include BioWare’s art team. Derek Watts, Mass Effect 3’s art director, chatted with Xbox World 360 magazine about the franchise’s influences which pretty much owes a lot to the 2001 movie.

“Yeah, you know we actually reference a lot from Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. We used a lot of their GUIs and the way they did their ship – that was kind of like in some of the early designs for the Normandy.” Of course! It’s so obvious once it’s pointed out! The funky holographic GUIs on Shepard and his (or her) compadres look a lot like those in the film. Blade Runner is the usual comparison but come to think of it, that’s a bit too gritty. Watts wasn’t shy of just how much he and his team use Final Fantasy as a well for concepts: “Our attack helicopters are loosely based off that movie. There’s some great stuff, especially their glowing GUI screens; we used those a lot. I keep a folder of that stuff and I still actually tell the guys ‘just go back and look at that. Change it like that!'”

What particularly tickles me about an off-shoot of the Final Fantasy franchise is how the end of Mass Effect 2 made me cancel my pre-order of Final Fantasy XIII. I completed an incredibly action orientated sci-fi space opera that still resinates to this day and shortly after began watching a new trailer for the Japanese RPG. The complete difference in style and execution left me wondering if a traditional JRPG was the kind of game I wanted to play at that moment in time (I have played it since then…). So to think one of the reason why I love the Mass Effect series – its art – is so heavily influenced by a frequently ridiculed aspect of Final Fantasy amuses me so!