Manually redundant

In recent years the video game manual, a once prized possession in any young gamer’s back pack has shrivelled into something barely reflecting its former self. Publishers have lost faith in the paper based medium and last year, Ubisoft decided to do away with the traditional manual in favour for an electronic version. EA have just recently announced (via Gamespot) their rejection of printed tree-pulp leaving few companies to either follow suit or maintain the status quo. Those who bought either Mass Effect 2 for the PS3 or Fight Night Champion may have noticed the lack of manual in the box and addition of a virtual one on the discs but if you didn’t notice, it really just proves the point that a paper version is no longer needed.

Younger gamers probably won’t be all too fussed about the loss of an instructional booklet but being a child of the 80s, I remember when manuals were cool, feature rich documents that let you immerse yourself into the game world even when your platform of choice was no where to be seen. The car trips or school lunch breaks would always be a good place to brush up on your knowledge, usually bypassing the very first few pages which showed button configuration and onto those which gave background info on characters and settings. They were for me, the prelude to a game.

But for a number of years the manual is but an afterthought with few publishers savouring the chance to use them as extended fiction for an IP and merely regurgitate information readily available on screen. Rockstar are a newer company who know how to make a good manual though and games like GTA or Red Dead Redemption contain what can easily be imagined as documents plucked from the game itself. Maps on the backs of posters or booklets made to look like tourist guides, these are the kind of manuals that get people looking and talking about your game harkening back to the classic gaming literature found in early Zelda or Mario titles.

EA want to be more green however and along with the removal of paper, they’ll soon be using DVD case that are easier to package games. But doesn’t that suggest that these games are disposable? Maybe it’s because I’m a bit of a hoarder – or collector – that I tend not to think of throwing out my old games but I’m sure there are enough people who treat their games differently, either trading them in or eventually chucking them out after a few years or even months. I can’t really blame EA for wanting to rid themselves of what has become a waste of time and money but I do blame the majority of publishers for letting them get that way. I’ll get over it, I mean I’ll have to when eventually we’re all downloading our games without even a disc let alone paper manual!

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Good is the new bad. Apparently.

Take-Two were once a publisher who fought to keep its head above water in between Grand Theft Auto releases. Now they’ve achieved an ironic independence to one of their own titles, able to turn a profit year upon year with games and franchises like BioShock and Red Dead Redemption. In 2010, Take-Two had the best overall ranking of any publisher on Metacritic.com, an infamous aggregation site of reviews for all forms of media. CEO of Take-Two, Strauss Zelnick, is positively chuffed to bits and that excitement has seemingly lead him to summerise the video games industry in an incredibly sad but all too familiar way: “Making good games just isn’t good enough. I believe good is the new bad. … Games need to be great.”

The statement was given to Wedbush Morgan Securities Technology, Media & Telecommunications Management Access Conference recently (via Gamasutra) and is that kind of thinking which is leading many gamers astray, filling forums with disgruntled posts about the state of the industry. On its own, a comment like that is quite inspirational. No one wants to make a crappy game or even ‘just’ a good one but there are a hell of a lot of games that never go beyond the label of good yet are still fun to play. If not then we might as well do away with any form of rating system that doesn’t consist of three levels: Bad, Great, Awesome and we all have those cherished games that wouldn’t fit within those categories.

Zelnick backed up his comment with a reference to Metacritic which is why a once aspirational quote quickly turned into something altogether more ugly. He said how a site like that can be very influential on a game’s sales figures and Take-Two’s “ability to have high scores over and over and over again is a huge competitive advantage, and that advantage drives sales, it reduces risk and creates profits.” Again, there’s nothing wrong with wanting your game to score highly with critics as it does show your title has a level of quality important to gamers but when a company focuses on only making ‘great’ games that sit within the 90-100% Metacritic bracket, the longevity of said quality begins to come into question as does the legitimacy of the score. The problem with aggregate sites like Metacritic is the lack of consistency. Not every game has the same amount of reviews so it’s unfair to suggest that all games are treated as equals.

Games don’t have to be considered great nor should they be part of the elite hobnobbing in the 90%+ section for them to be worthy of attention. Striving to produce quality titles is a healthy attitude for developers and publishers but one man’s great is another man’s okay so the combined opinions of an ever changing aggregation system shouldn’t be part of that attitude. To give credit to Zelnick, he also said how Take-Two franchises aren’t tied to annual releases and therefore do not have the suffocating development schedules or potential series fatigue for gamers. Lets have more of that kind of thinking please!

The clone wars

One of the iPhone’s biggest developers, Gameloft, have sat down with IGN to discuss the company’s future and what ceo Michel Guillemot thinks of the accusations of IP theft. Some of Gameloft’s biggest selling App Store games, N.O.V.A, Modern Combat and now Shadow Guardian have more than a striking resemblance to Halo, Call of Duty and Uncharted respectively. Guillemot was asked what he thought about the criticism Gameloft receives when their corporate goal appears to be a mimicking of other already established franchises, his response was simple: “The video game industry has always played around a limited number of themes. There is maybe one new idea a year.” To him, this is good enough reason.

Guillemot mentions the explosion of open-world games after Grand Theft Auto and how most games just copy one another. Guillemot also argued that Gameloft are simply giving its fans with games that wouldn’t necessarily come to the iPhone without their intervention and: “If a type of game is not available, then you should make it. The damaging thing is if you do a bad expression of a good idea.” Inspiration is one thing and continuing a tradition of reusing ideas another but these games go beyond that level of replication. And if you truly believed that only one new idea comes out a year, isn’t the cure to this a dedication to come up with new ideas and not become part of the problem yourself?

I agree and even commend the company for providing gamers with the chance to play these experiences on a system that isn’t their usual habitat but it’s the artistic similarities that a lot of people take exception to. The Uncharted clone, Shadow Guardian could have merely used the idea of Naughty Dog’s adventure game and created its own character and art-style but instead chose to use a protagonist that even shares the same half-tucked shirt as Nathan Drake. And GT Racing, a game that replicates the menu system from Gran Turismo as well as the ideas behind the racer is why the word ‘shameless’ is often used when describing Gameloft’s ethics.

But maybe we’re just viewing them all wrong and these are more of an homage to console and PC greats rather than a profiting off another’s IP. Most if not all the reviews found on the App Store of Gameloft’s prized inspired games are highly positive with gamers stating the similarities are a good thing. So their fans are happy which in tern makes them happy and if the developers of the cloned titles were too bothered, a court case would have happened long ago. And some of the game in question, like N.O.V.A for example, really are very good…

Rockstar Games offer some bedtime reading

In celebration of over ten years in the business, Rockstar Games are releasing a three-volume hardback collection of books, detailing the design and production of their extensive back catalogue. From the first Grand Theft Auto right up to Red Dead Redemption, nothing is left out with illustrations, ads, press material, wireframes and inspirational pieces making up the bulk of the content. Adding to this is a DVD with even more gubbins to enjoy. Book publisher Steidl who are handling the distribution state “The hundreds of colour photographs and never-before published video-scapes all culled from the archives of the creators will acquaint readers with the vast areas within the games that allow unparalleled freedom, and a unique experience every play.” They also claim that Digital + Analogue: The Art and Science of Rockstar Games will be out in August for the phenomenal price of £310. If you don’t use £10 notes to blow your nose and believe such a sum of money is rather a lot for a set of books – no matter how good they may be – Amazon UK has them down for the more sensible price of around £75. That sounds considerably kinder for my fragile wallet!

{Thanks Develop}

Zombie Infection = Resident Evil

There’s no denying that Gameloft are a talented bunch. Games like N.O.V.A (see my review here) are very well made and enjoyable to play. What is lacking however is obvious when you see the shocking similarities between N.O.V.A and Halo. Or GT Racing and Grand Turismo. Or Modern Combat: Sandstorm and Call of Duty Modern Warfare. Or Gangstar and Grand Theft Auto. You get the idea? No IP is forbidden ground and soon Zombie Infection will lurch onto the iPhone and iPod Touch causing many to say “Isn’t this just Resident Evil 5?”. It’s an over-the-shoulder, third person shooter set in Africa with a male and female protagonist who work for a secret government agency. They’re tasked with investigating a mysterious plague that appears to have turned the locals into zombies (or unthinking humans as we’re suppose to believe). You can’t hear me but I’m clapping very slowly in sarcastic appreciation. Kotaku had some hands-on time with the clone and pointed out the biggest difference is the ability to walk and shoot – something that is alien to a true Resident Evil. However they felt that this didn’t actually add anything special to a game that whiffed of ‘legally different’ plagiarism.

Red Dead Redemption gameplay trailer

Vodpod videos no longer available.

For all those seeking a new open-world experience next year should definitely check out Red Dead Redemption coming April 2010. Rockstar have been kind enough to post a 4 minute trailer featuring some very, very nice gameplay. Adding to that is some mouth-watering graphics and lighting effects resulting in a satisfying feeling of immersion. With our trusty steed we can either gallop like a madman or take a casual trot through the woods. That’s just between missions which may be similar to GTA in their overall handling, but have a look around 2:30 to see the kind of awesomeness Red Dead Redemption allows us to do. I wasn’t initially all that excited about the game but after watching this video, my mind has definitely changed – roll on April!

Modern standards

Modern Warfar 2 - shocking...

UPDATE: Activision has officially commented on the leaked video confirming that we will be playing as an officer who’s infiltrated the inner circle of a terrorist. The scene is meant to show off the horror of terrorism but with the real news flooded with such a thing, do we need reminding? We will have the option to skip the scene which begs the question ‘why put it in at all?’. After that will surely come ‘why not have it as a cut scene?’

Original story on October 28th 2009: Claims that Modern Warfare 2 has over stepped the boundaries of good taste sounds to me like a hefty serving of double standards. The story (via Eurogamer) goes that a now-removed video was leaked onto YouTube showing the fourth level of MW2 where the player appears to massacre an abundance of innocents after emerging from a lift in an airport. At one point, the player can be seen shooting the wounded civilians as they attempt to crawl away. The voice over before such bloodshed suggests that we’d be playing as an undercover officer inside a terrorist gang which is why we’d take part in the killings. Either that or our character will be an ex-soldier who deferred to the enemy. I can’t be too sure since it’s all a little vague but the following voiceover left me feeling a little uneasy: “Makarov… obeys no law. He has no limits and stops at nothing: torture, human traffic, or genocide. He’s guided by no ideals, respects no rights, no countries. He trades blood for money. He is our new friend.”

Regardless as to whether I actually want to partake in the killing of innocent people in a video game, it’s really nothing new and I don’t see what all the fuss is about or why it’s being dubbed as ‘shocking’. Prototype had us absorb random civilians for health and, of course, the infamous Grand Theft Auto series is rife with potential massacres of the innocent. It will be interesting to see whether we’re actually forced to take part in the killings for progression or if we’d have a choice in the matter. I’d be surprised if the BBFC would allow the former to take place in a game after the scandal with Manhunt 2 but then again, Modern Warfare 2 is this years biggest game and I’m sure an agreement would be made.