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.

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…

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.

GoldenEye 007 Reloaded is real, people

UPDATE: Activision put out a press release today confirming the existence of the game and how it’ll be running on a brand new engine. But the graphics won’t be the only new aspect. Here’s the most interesting chunk of the press release: GoldenEye 007: Reloaded is a contemporary James Bond experience featuring HD visuals and realistic environments running at 60-frames per second, akin to today’s elite action games. Additional to the legendary story campaign, the game introduces the brand new ‘Mi6 Ops Missions’ – new, distinct levels separate from the campaign that span the varied environments from the story and challenge players to complete different Assault, Elimination, Stealth and Defence objectives. GoldenEye 007: Reloaded also takes multiplayer to new heights, maintaining and improving its renowned four-player split-screen action and adding full, adrenaline-pumping 16-player online matches with more maps, weapons, characters and game modes than ever before.”

ORIGINAL STORY: A good few weeks ago there was some stirring online about something called GoldenEye 007: Reloaded which slipped out from Activision. Suffixing and name with Reloaded generally means some form of upgrade when it comes to video games and in this case, it looks like last year’s neat remake of an N64 classic is to be remade all over again.

GoldenEye 007 for the Wii was a fun FPS that took the original ideas from the iconic N64 launch game and amended them to fit within the contemporary Bond timeline. As always, there was grumbling from ‘hardcore’ fans who were desperate for the ill-fated HD port of Rare’s GoldenEye to become a reality but since that simply will never happen (too many companies hold separate chunks of the IP for it to ever come out) GoldenEye 007 was considered a suitable alternative. I enjoyed it and like the glory days of my youth, its multiplayer component was hugely entertaining. From the screenshots bagged by Videogamer.com, Reloaded appears to hoik up the graphics for a release of the remake onto PS3 and Xbox 360. But little more is known of the project just yet with more details said to be coming in the next few days at the San Diego Comic Con so there could be more additions other than sparkly new visuals (interestingly enough, the Wii game used the same heavily altered IW Engine which ran the SD Call of Duty games. This could mean the HD GoldenEye 007 would use the original IW Engine).

Even though I already own the Wii version, I may have to pick this one up too. Like I said, I really enjoyed playing it on the Wii but it came at a cost; the controller. Choosing not to re-learn how to play an FPS using the Wii remote and nunchuck, I bought a Classic Controller which did work well but still not as comfortable as an Xbox 360 pad and subsequently shortened my playtime. My fingers are crossed that the transition to HD consoles brings with it a tightening of controls on the relevant pads. And anyone grumbling how GoldenEye 007 Reloaded still won’t be close enough to the N64 version, this is probably the closest you’re ever going to get.

The sequel to success

The business of video games is a sequel-driven industry. Just look at this year’s E3, we had a number of franchises well into their third iteration and the most commonly criticised annual series, Call of Duty, will be on its eighth release this holiday. Some refer to this trend as an unhealthy obsession from publishers to basically milk a name for all it’s worth but others have a more forgiving outlook like id Software ceo, Todd Hollenshead, currently working on Rage. He believes (via Eurogamer) not only that sequels are a good thing don’t deserve all the hate they so often receive: “Sequels are unfairly criticised. One regard is they’re not original. You can do a lot of original things in a sequel as long as you’re consistent and true to the universe that game comes up in.” You certainly can. Take Portal 2 for example. It added liquids to the puzzle-solving mechanics and felt as fresh as the first time you entered a testing chamber. But in all honesty, games like Portal 2 are somewhat outnumbered by the new-setting-same-old-experience types of games. However, that doesn’t mean the idea of a sequel is unoriginal, it’s the money-hungry developers and publishers who lack originality.

Hollenshead went on to say how beneficial sequels can be because it shows the developers are doing something right. If enough people are left wanting more at the end of a game – and not because they felt short-changed by the experience – then the devs have done a good job in creating a universe that gamers want to play in. How many times have you played a game and thought it was so close to being great and with a bit of tweaking it could be? That’s where sequel can play an important role in keeping a good idea alive. I would argue L.A. Noire falls into this category for me. The facial tech and attitude towards story and maturity is outstanding but the its average shooting and chase sequences weaken the game for me. Make a second game (not necessarily using Phelps as the protagonists) without all the ‘action’ and it could be amazing. As Hollenshead says: “Why throw it all away and have to start over every single time?” For as bewildering it seemed for Human Head Studios to be developing Prey 2 with barely any linkage to the first game, it makes sense when you think all the hard work of creating the initial fiction had been done for Prey 1.

Another way of looking at it, suggests Hollenshead, is to consider Mario games as sequels or at the very least off-shoots to the original Donkey Kong: Mario Kart, just because you’re not calling it Donkey Kong 17, doesn’t mean it still doesn’t have Mario in it,” he said. “The reason why Nintendo has been to a great extent inoculated from criticism along those regards is they execute very well in the games they make.” Which brings me back to the point of Portal 2. Yes it’s a sequel, but a mighty fine one at that and I would hate to not be able to go back into that universe and story for the sake of not advocating sequels.

True enough, annualising a game to ride out its previous success and hype often ends in tears for us gamers who get an awful feeling of familiarity but like Hollenshead, I agree that sequels can be awesome and deep down if you love one game, chances are you won’t scoff at the idea of it becoming a franchise.

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?