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.

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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.

So are cheap iPhone games killing the industry or not?

Epic Games, the mighty and historic development studio, once believed that budget iPhone apps were killing the video game industry. Back in April, president Mike Capps said to IndustryGamers in April: “If there’s anything that’s killing [the retail games business] it’s dollar apps. How do you sell someone a $60 game that’s really worth it? People are used to paying 99 cents.” An interesting point raised by a company constantly producing brilliant triple A titles but only a few months later it appears they’ve changed their mind (via CVG).

At the Unreal University event in London, hosted by Epic about using the Unreal Development Kit for games, European territory manager Mike Gamble said the company “didn’t believe” all the nonsense that big budget titles were “going away because the cost is huge and content on App stores is 99c.” But whereas Capps’ comments may have come from the heart, Gamble’s might just be originating from the marketing table. He spoke to over 100 attendees at the event and encouraged them to use the Unreal Development Kit as it could help them create some the of the very best game experiences on any platform and that hardcore games on iOS devices offered a great opportunity for upcoming devs. “Experience tells us that if you create content with high production values the audience will buy it,” said Gamble. “You’re customers, what would you prefer to do: Buy a game like Infinity Blade for $6 with plenty of gameplay, good production values that offers a visceral experience; or pay 99c for something you play once and never ever go back to?”

Not all budget games fit into this category however though the number that does certainly outweighs those who don’t. He continued, urging the young devs to use their experience as gamers as a starting point for making games. “The proof for us has been Infinity Blade. It’s a triple-A quality title built and shipped late last year. So far, we’ve earned more than $11 million of revenue from it – that’s after Apple have taken their cut.” Gamble then said there is an audience who want bigger and better games on their mobiles possibly suggesting there isn’t enough of these games to satisfy them all.

There’s no doubt Apple and its competitors are literally in the pockets of hardcore gamers who prefer a lengthier experience for a few quid instead of a shorter forgettable one. Companies like Gameloft price their games around £4-5 which all sell tremendously but that could be to do with then being clones of existing franchises. Nevertheless, it still proves Gamble’s comments to have some truth as do the sales figures of £5.99 games like Real Racing 2 and even the expensive Square Enix RPGs currently on the App store. But time and time again, the biggest sticking point is a lack of physical buttons and uncomfortable implementation of virtual analog sticks. Again, Epic’s Infinity Blade showed that intelligent game design can do away with traditional inputs and work just as well.

The problem with the cheap price point for mobile games, which yesterday went up from 59p to 69p, is that it exists at all. I think the early day self-imposed necessity to release a game for so cheap has left a lasting impression in the minds of users who are reluctant to pay more. Expensive games do sell as Gamble points out but I still see a hell of a lot of App Store user reviews bitching that a game cost more than 59p. But as more and more top quality, higher priced games get released, this mentality should hopefully disappear.

So Cliff, is Gears coming to PS3?…

Full console specific exclusivities are fast becoming a thing of the past. Unless a platform holder funds a project in some way, the likelihood of one system only ever having a certain game for its lifespan just doesn’t make sense economically for the publisher and all a dev team really want is their game to be played by all. But questions are still always asked as to whether Game X will ever come to system Y and with all the hype surrounding Gears of War 3 what with its insanely popular multiplayer beta just a few months ago, Cliff Bleszinski is regularly fighting the rumour of a PS3 version.

The most recent dispelling of said rumour originates from IndustryGamers where he said: “I would say in the foreseeable future there’s zero chances of Gears of War being on the PlayStation 3. Can we bury that now? Seriously. It’s like, we have a great deal with Microsoft, they’re a great partner…” but before he could finish, IG mentioned Mike Capps’ previous comments saying he’d love to see Gears on PS3 and cater for the Killzone / Resistance loving audience. Cliff’s comeback was to joke about how a quote like Capps’ makes for a good news story and is little more than that. He did mention how the DualShock controller would need tweaking and quickly ended that part of the conversation.

It’s interesting that the PS3’s controller was brought up at all though. I have to admit, it’s one of the reason why I tend to prefer shooters on the Xbox 360 and know of others who feel the same but again, rumours and headlines are being created out of nothing so I won’t pursue that train of thought. If not anything else, the real reason why Epic Games and Microsoft are so pally over Gears of War is down to the amount of support it gets. A good marketing campaign can do wonders for a game and Microsoft pump a shed load of money in making sure gamers know when a new Gears title is out and why they would want to play it. And as one of those exclusives which could become multi-platform (seeing as Epic own the IP), Microsoft need to do all they can to keep hold of it. Not only does it look great on their system but is a powerful triple A title for the holiday season. When the first Gears of War came out, the PS3 was just launching and its shooter, Resistance, was (somewhat unfairly) pitted against it in the usual console war. Journalistically it was a little trite but from a consumer’s point of view, it was hard not to and I would imagine the same will happen this year too when Resistance 3 is released a few weeks before Gears 3.

So will Gears ever come to the PS3? Most probably not but I’m sure the rumour isn’t dead yet, no matter how many times the design director himself denies it.

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!

Reining on Google’s parade

One of the advantages of Google’s Android platform is also the very same thing keeping the iPhone’s showpiece, Infinity Blade, off the Android Store. Mark Rein and Tim Sweeney, co-founders of Epic Games spoke with Gizmondo (via Gamesindustry.biz) about how Google need to make sure Android developers produce consistent results for their handhelds instead of the current hands-off approach because it’s lead to some fragmentation. The handsets that Android appears on differ in specs meaning the experience for the user simply isn’t consistent which is one of the factors Epic isn’t happy with.

“If you took the underlying NGP hardware and shipped Android on it, you’d find far far less performance on Android. Let’s say you took an NGP phone and made four versions of it. Each one would give you a different amount of memory and performance based on the crap [networks] put on their phone,” said Rein adding “Google needs to be a little more evil. They need to be far more controlling.” I’ve been called an Apple fanboy but my reasons for sticking with their devices stem from what Rein is saying. Buying an Apple product I know what I’m getting and the variations differ on a dramatically reduced scale compared to their competitors. But they’re not free from market fragmenting, with owners of the iPhone 3G unable to play some of the newer games found on the App Store.

The draw of Android is a hard one to neglect however with more and more handsets coming out with dazzling CPUs and impressive functionalities. Google do appear to be addressing the problem of quality on their operating system with the latest version, Honeycomb, only available on tablets for the moment while they figure out how to develop a standard for all others to follow. And Epic aren’t against the platform as a whole since they have made a version of Unreal Engine 3 for Android but even that comes with a few annoyances. Dungeon Defenders and Monster Madness are two games powered by UE3 sitting happily on Google’ marketplace for a number of months. However in the case of Dungeon Defenders, the game is larger than the 50MB limit Google imposes meaning the developer has to host it separately resulting in an additional bandwidth costs for them on top of paying to appear on the Android App Store. Infinity Blade is almost 1GB worth of data so imagine if millions of people suddenly tried to download it all at once.

As Rein points out to GI.biz, this only shows how young Android is and not whether it’s inferior to Apple. Comparisons can be drawn to the Xbox Live Marketplace and its original capping of games’ sizes. In the early days it too only allowed 50MB games because they had to fit on memory cards for those who didn’t own hard drives. Nowadays with that problem almost extinct, XBLA titles can be ten or twenty times that size. It’ll take time for Google to get it ‘right’ for their service but the differing handsets could still pose a problem for them. The standardisation they implement could see a number of lower spec ones to suddenly be obsolete or hinder the potential of superior machines. One thing is for sure, they’ll figure it out.

The 3DS is unreal

In an interview with Gamespot, Fabrice Cuny of Ubisoft answered questions on one of the publisher’s launch titles for the 3DS, Splinter Cell 3D and among the usual banter came the shock revelation that despite earlier reports, the 3DS is capable of running the Unreal Engine 3.

Mark Rein from Epic Games, makers of Unreal, came out a while back and said Nintendo’s new handheld just isn’t powerful enough for the engine sparking a frenzy of trash talk from gamers who were stunned at how a brand new system could be weaker than two year old mobile phones. For whatever reason, Ubisoft have managed to get the epitome of game engines working with Cuny downplaying reports that the 3DS is equivalent to a Wii in terms of processing power: “The 3DS is powerful, and we are able to run the Unreal engine on this console, which is pretty impressive for a handheld machine, and the 3D doesn’t affect the performance (thanks to my amazing programmers). The architecture is different compared to a Wii or some other platforms that we had to work with here at Ubisoft Montreal.”

From what I’ve seen of the 3DS, the platform is capable of some wonderful things. It’s unfair to judge a system’s overall power on its launch title but even games like Super Street Fighter 3D looks impressive and it can only get better from here. Just how well the Unreal Engine does run and if the textures and polygonal count suffer when ported down to the 3DS is unclear but Cuny sounded reassuringly pleased with the performance. The engine itself has been used for all manner of games some more clever at hiding the fact then others. It’s not just cover-based shooters but platformers and fighters who are powered by Unreal so the fact Ubisoft claim they can get it working and working well is good news indeed. Whether they decide to share just how their coders got it working however is a different story altogether.