Gears isn’t as good as you remember (apparently…)

What was your first real HD gaming moment? Mine was less triumphant than I would have liked considering for a good year or so I only had a standard SD TV for my Xbox 360. And in that time I played the hell out of Gears of War which looked pretty fantastic in a lower resolution. But for a HD game, Gears, or rather the Unreal Engine certainly raised the bar for console graphics. So much so, executive producer Rod Fergusson told Eurogamer how he felt the start of Microsoft’s stop-and-pop franchise defined high definition gaming: “We were far ahead of a lot of games when Gears 1 came out. Everybody’s been catching up, and a lot of people are fighting for ownership of that title. But we continue to push the box and what HD means. At the time it defined what HD was. It defined what your HD TV could do. People remember that.”

A mate of mine actually bought a HD TV just so he could experience Gears of War in all its glossy glory and we did spend a good amount of time zooming in on textures and dead enemies marvelling at the detail – after it had popped in of course. Even after the beauty and additional colours of Gears of War 2, I still regard the first as being something special. But Fergusson and the Epic team have these rose-tinted memories to contend with for all future titles. They not only have to visually improve the looks on paper but in our minds too: “Your memory is far better than reality,” said Fergusson. “When I was a kid, Gilligan’s Island was the funniest show on television. When you watch Gilligan’s Island now, it’s just plain terrible. With Gears 2 we were competing with the memory of Gears 1 and what people remembered it was like. We got to the point where, at the review event in San Francisco, I suggested we put up a single station of Gears 1 so the press could play it and realise it wasn’t as good as they remember. They were saying, ‘Oh, it kinda looks like Gears 1.'”

I can see where the reviewers were coming from, the style does indeed look similar but there is also a very noticeable upgrade too. The textures for one have greater depth to them and remember the meat cube tech demo? That showed how improved the graphics engine was in Gears 2 by rolling a cube of wobbling flesh towards a COG team member.

That being said, I wonder how well the Gears of War 3 multiplayer beta will go down with gamers today as it launches for those who bought Bulletstorm Epic Edition. Will it be met with the same kind of unrealistic expectations as Fergusson explained? Or will people be having too good a time slicing up each other on the battlefield? I hope it’s the latter and can’t wait to have a go myself!

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Bulletstorm demo in Crysis on XBL

A couple of demos have showed up on Xbox Live, one of them expected, the other I had no idea about. So imagine the gleeful surprise when I checked Xbox.com a few minutes ago and found not only the Bulletstorm demo but an 360-exclusive Crysis 2 multiplayer beta. Expect to a bit of a wait and almost 3GB of space disappear off your HDD however but neither games run on engines that scrimp on graphics. But hey, I can live with that for gorgeous visuals. The write up for Crysis 2 states “The next big leap in multiplayer gives you nearly unlimited ways to approach the dynamic combat environment,” or in other words, “bye bye social life, hello frag-fest.”

For Bulletstorm, you’ll play through the Collapsed Building level in Echo mode, comparing your scores and skillshots to those on your friends list. In order to nab those all important rights to brag among friends, kill the enemy as creatively as you can. I’m up for that! Though it’ll sadly not be for a good few hours yet. The demo comes to the PlayStation 3 tomorrow.

Add the Bulletstorm demo to your download queue from here or the Crysis 2 beta here.

Try before they die

Hey jerk face, get a load of my piece of meat… ahem… sorry, just getting ready for People Can Fly’s Bulletstorm which comes out at the end of next month but is to be teased to gamers in a week or so. EA has today announced a demo of the gritty, foul-mouthed shooter available via PSN and XBL on January 25th featuring unlockable upgrades for the full game. The demo offers a taste of the Echo mode that constantly compares your kill scores with those of players on your friends list making an already competitive action game all the more sporting. Lionhead’s Fable III had a similar system that tallied your in-game achievements with friends’ and fast became a crafty way at keeping me playing for longer than originally intended. In Bulletstorm, there’s the skillshot system with increasingly creative ways of killing enemies to discover so expect plenty of group discussions and forum posts about how to pull off that ultimate kill. Ah, nothing like the artful demise of a grotesque mutant to bring people together eh?

Bulletstorm will have you seeing red

Exploding barrels. A divisive game mechanic that are either viewed as a method of conserving ammo or a lazy inclusion to most if not all shooters. Game designer Arcade feels they are an expected cliche and serve a valuable purpose in his current game, Bulletstorm, though he and the rest of People Can Fly tried to do something a bit different and found that going against the grain only leaves you with splinters. Over at the developers blog (via Kotaku), Arcade comments on how exploding barrels are easily understandable, you shoot them and they explode. But it turns out that’s got more to do with their colour than anything else: “We made a stab at trying something different, instead of going with the cliché. In the beginning we had green barrels, but people didn’t get it right away. They got completely ignored by the players and no one guessed or assumed that they were explosive. Why not? Because they weren’t red.” It seems that along with the idea that shooting a barrel will cause anyone near by to take a permanent nap, they have to be red in order for players to recognise their destructive qualities. The shape is another important feature with a simple cylinder being a bit too simple.

Now Arcade and People Can Fly are happy with the final design (seen above) but I can’t but wonder if using a model that doesn’t scream “shoot me and I go bang” would have worked in a different way. Sure some players may ignore them and with the amount of action happening on screen in Bulletstorm, having a familiar look to the barrels helps with singling them out but giving them a different skin would make gamers rethink their need. For example, if you’re the type of shooter fan that relies on exploding barrels to make it through a level, having them no so obvious could have opened up the playing field, especially since Bulletstorm is all about varying your kills for maximum points. And if you prefer to experiment with a game’s surroundings, the discovery that these green cylinders result in an almighty explosion would be a pleasing one. But then again, People Can Fly are the experts here and certainly red barrels haven’t hindered the performance of other top shooters. It’s cool to see a developer at least trying to fight the stereotypes of gaming even if they do settle on an established format.

Bulletstorm goes all epic

Another game, another collector’s edition but with Bulletstorm, the bonuses go beyond art books and early DLC. EA announced that the Epic Edition of Bulletstorm, named in homage to Mark Rein’s bunch of merry folk, will contain a code to guarantee entry in the Gears of War 3 multiplayer beta. If that isn’t enough, you’re just being greedy but fear not, the fancified version also comes with 25K experience points, visual upgrades for your leash and a Peace Maker Carbine complete with boots and armour.

Revealed back when GoW3 was given its five month delay, the multiplayer beta hasn’t had a great deal said about it but a preview video is doing the rounds on YouTube. And follows an ever increasing trend to bundle in beta codes for related franchises. Medal of Honor did it giving away access to Battlefield 3 but the most famous and often ridiculed example is how the first Crackdown offered a chance to play Halo 3 multiplayer before your friends. Whereas the linkage between an open-world crime fighter and intergalactic super soldier is a tad tenuous, the relationship between Bulletstorm and Gears 3 is a lot more coherent. Epic Games are working with People Can Fly to deliver the over-the-top FPS and the high levels of testosterone seen in the game so far match those found in the Gears of War franchise giving a greater probability of a crossover of fans.

No announcement of a European price has been given just yet but the US are getting their Epic Editions for the standard $59.99 so you can expect to see it retail for around £40 over here when it’s released on February 25th. Another plus for the upgraded version of a game when some publishers slap on an extra 20 quid and offer little in equivalent value to playing a new game early. Add Bulletstorm to cart? Yes please.

A storm of misconception and a mind-blowing twist

People Can Fly founder Adrian Chmielarz was interviewed by Eurogamer recently about his upcoming FPS Bulletstorm. Apart from looking stunning, the game has often been criticised for looking like a juvenile, brain-dead blockbuster that is more harmful to the games industry than good. I personally don’t see it and think that Bulletstorm is shaping up to be ridiculously fun which leads me onto the Chmielarz’s answer to the question, Is Bulletstorm misunderstood?: “People have a certain opinion of the game, that it’s mindless or old school. We have an amazing ratio of people who are converted when they touch Bulletstorm. I’ve seen people playing Bulletstorm at E3 and other shows, and 98 per cent come away being fans.” And remember people, words can be hurtful: “Because of the fun elements we have, the over-the-top gameplay, people start throwing around words like old school or mindless. Old school, maybe that’s fine, maybe that’s not, but mindless is something that bothers me a lot.”

Going back to my point about the game looking like a great deal of fun, Chmielarz added credence to my thoughts: “If you want to let off some steam after work and just blow s*** up, sure, you can do this in Bulletstorm. We do have explosive weapons and crazy gameplay. But if you really want to play Bulletstorm the Bulletstorm way, which is to execute skill shots and earn points to unlock stuff, it is one of the most engaging and complicated experiences, but complicated in a good way.” I’m one of those people who welcomes any game that can help rid those daily stresses and would happily argue their place within gaming genres. One thing that hasn’t helped with Bulletstorm‘s public perception is the writing and dialogue that’s been shown so far. Chmielarz promises that there’s more to it than that: “The story is way more engaging, serious and, basically, good, than what people expect.” He then states why gamers are yet to see any of the greatness he speaks of: “Here’s the problem. Imagine you’re at a promotional event for Sixth Sense. How does this guy sell this to you? ‘There is a great twist in our movie in which the main hero is actually a ghost.’ That’s the problem.” Sorry if you haven’t seen Sixth Sense yet…

But like Shyamalan first and best movie, Bulletstorm is said to have a twist of such magnitude, it will blow our (absent) minds: “It’s everything. It’s me, right, it’s in my best interest to advertise the game, but we have a moment in the game that people are going to talk about for years to come. I’m absolutely, 100 per cent sure of that. But I don’t want to spoil it for you. I want you to experience it as a gamer who sees that for the first time. That’s the tricky part.” What on Earth could that be? The game’s marketing has centred around the phrase “Kill with skill” but that in itself has shaped the story into the jaw-dropping spectacle that we’re lead to believe it is: “It turned out our story is in the way of that kind of gameplay. It turned out from the various tests we had with regular gamers that they get so engaged in the story they sometimes forget the skill shot gameplay. It’s our job they don’t forget it, so we try to combat that with the design, but they only scratched the surface because so many other interesting things are going on.”

Wow, impressive talk eh? That may have changed your views on Bulletstorm or add to the excitement for February 25th when it’s released on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC. I’m a hell of a lot more excited about the game now. If People Can Fly have truly made something that allows you to switch off and have fun one minute or become deeply engrossed in a competent story the next, I’m all for it.

How do you kill a giant? Be better than it.

John Riccitiello has a dream. Not one as lofty or famous as the dreams of other leaders but one that’s just as difficult to achieve. He, the boss of EA, believes that Activision’s Call of Duty franchise can be toppled from being the public’s number one FPS. His plan (via Kotaku) is simple: “Make a better game. And make a better game again.” Last year, Modern Warfare 2 broke all kinds of entertainment records and this year, Black Ops strode past those numbers with ease. Before any review was even read, Activision already had gamers queuing at midnight. So their brand is a seemingly infallible one but rather than battle it head on, Riccitiello would prefer his game – whatever it will be – to receive a higher Metacritic score. “If I had to pick the story I’d like to play out next year is we ship a 90[%] and they ship an 85[%].” He clearly considers the internet’s review hub as an acute indicator of a game’s quality. Riccitiello added: “What I’ve witnessed a couple of times in the games industry is the way you unseat a market leader is you make a better game a couple of times in a row. “ EA have indeed tried their best to do just that with Battlefield Bad Company 2 and Medal of Honor. The problem they had was how both games borrowed a couple of elements from Call of Duty (more so with Medal of Honor) and when your main focus is on toppling the competition, you don’t tend to have a 90% quality game.

Choosing to ignore Medal of Honor‘s combined score, Riccitiello cites Black Ops and Battlefield Bad Company 2‘s Metacritic average as a noteworthy comparison. He said he thought it was “interesting” that they both received 88%. But when BBC2 was reviewed by 75 critics and Blops had 84, the results aren’t exactly scientific. Still, Riccitiello thinks that DICE who developed the Battlefield games (and MoH‘s multiplayer) are the studio who can put an end to Activision’s rule: “We knew we were building on [the] Unreal [graphics technology] for Medal of Honor which wasn’t our foot-forward tact. We knew that going in. Our next game [Battlefield 3] is being built on the second generation of Frostbite which I think is at least in my opinion is a class act for FPS. I think we’re going to lift the game pretty dramatically in the first-person shooter category.” I hope so and was talking to a friend about this today, how FPSs are in need of something new.

EA performed pretty well this year with their shooters but as is the way with company bosses, Riccitiello wants more out of 2011 and again states DICE with the next Battlefield to be the ones that can deliver just that: “I have great expectations to do a lot better in 2011 than in 2010 on the strength of a couple of products like Bulletstorm and Crysis [2], but most importantly for us, Battlefield 3, which I feel incredibly good about.” He added : “Over time we can take the lead.” However, it’ll take both changes from Activision and EA to elicit a shift in dominance. The next Call of Duty game will have to be a sub-standard version of its former self and Battlefield 3 needs to best it in every way. That should sow the seeds of doubt in consumers’ minds and they may just start to believe their friend who always says how superior Battlefield is to CoD.  And of course EA are publishing the next game from Jason West and Vince Zampella, former key members of the Call of Duty series. All eyes will eagerly be on them to see if they can produce a golden egg for EA as they previously did for Activision.