Archive for the “Xbox 360” Category

Outside the MMO side of things with Star Trek Online, Guild Wars 2, The Secret World and random dabbling in Allods Online, I have well over sixty games for the Xbox 360, only a couple of which I’ve ever finished.

Last month I completed the Ghost Recon: Future Soldier campaign and thoroughly enjoyed it every step of the way. The multi-player is still a bit glitchy and desperately needs patching, but the campaign was a lot of fun for me. It wasn’t old-school Ghost Recon (which I didn’t play back then anyway, my PC couldn’t handle it at the time) nor was it anything like the Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter series which I absolutely loved. Future Soldier is its own thing, and I was fine with that.

Syndicate

So far this month, I finally got around to finishing Syndicate last week. When I first got the game, I made it about halfway through the campaign before a combination of focusing more on other games then when I’d put the Syndicate disc in, it was to play co-op, which I played a fair amount of. Last week I figured it was time to start knocking some titles off my Unfinished List so Syndicate ended up first in line. I’d have to say from an overall view, Syndicate was on the mediocre side, slightly above the middle of mediocrity. Back when the co-op demo came out, Aaron and I both spoke of how the AI was very good. After more playing of the campaign, plus playing co-op with four players rather than just the two of us, I’ll revise that statement and say the AI is a bit on the aggressive side, very good at tracking you down and advancing on you, rather than “good” AI. Same for Mass Effect 3 for that matter. Boss fights were their own thing altogether, and many of them were frustrating affairs but soon enough you get into a pattern of breaching, circle strafing and hiding. One thing I discovered during co-op is that while you may have to get fairly close to start a breach, if you hold the button, you can turn away and run to hide as far away as you want and the breach will complete as long as you don’t let go of the button. Handy! I still have a few level-specific achievements to go back and get someday, but as for the campaign, I’m happy to have Syndicate completed finally.

Medal of Honor

Yesterday morning I finished Medal of Honor, the 2010 franchise reboot. I picked it up cheap several months ago on the recommendation of both Aaron and Wiqd who both said the campaign was excellent. They were right! I started the game Monday on Hard difficulty and made it to the last mission Tuesday evening. It’s a short campaign, though that’s sadly typical of most shooters these days. At the time of completion yesterday morning, Raptr had me tracked at a total of seven hours with MoH, but that includes possibly an hour total of multiplayer back when I first got the game (yes, the multiplayer is really as bad as reviews said) so I’ll just say six hours start to finish for me on Hard difficulty, and I felt I was taking it slow and cautiously plus several instances of dying and having to repeat from the last checkpoint. Considering I got the game for $20 even the six hours in the campaign I felt were worth the price of admission. The campaign was really a lot of fun and while it did feature many scripted set-pieces that were very Hollywood in nature, it felt more toned down and realistic. Exciting, yet believable, not the Michael Bay level of high adrenaline ridiculousness that the Call of Duty franchise specializes in. I did more of a review on Google+ yesterday which I won’t repeat here, but suffice to say from a technical standpoint MoH had its share of cons in addition to the pros, and I hope Danger Close learned from them for the upcoming sequel.

Next?

I’ve already decided the next game (another shooter, go figure) to tick off my list will be Operation Flashpoint: Red River. Like Syndicate, I was roughly halfway through the game, but after finishing Medal of Honor yesterday, I put in Red River and now I’m only two missions from the end. I’d still love to see how the online works but I only have one friend with the game. I also picked up the Leviathan DLC for Mass Effect 3 which has three achievements (one is missable) so I may plan on doing that Sunday. After that, it’s anything goes. I’ve been very slowly plugging away one quest at a time in Fallout 3 but I can’t really say I enjoy that game so I tend to play one quest then put it away for a month or more. I have so many half-started games it’s not even funny, and more on the way. I should really pick up Divinity 2 again and finish that, I think I was just over halfway finished last year when other games took me away from it.

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Only one of many, really, that’s the trouble with we armchair designers – too many ideas rolling around, but no means to do anything about them.

Chris aka Scopique from LevelCapped.com and I were riffing in a discussion today that brought to light an idea I’ve had for the past two years. There’s zero chance of it being made, so I’ll just spell it out here since I have no fear some enlightened investor will run with it and find a development team. Chris did a similar post with his own online game idea, as well.

Being a jaded MMO junkie in partial rehabilitation, this will be a persistent world online game. You’ll notice I have not called it a role-playing game, because I don’t want the extra baggage that entails in this one game. It will feature most of the elements associated with role-playing games, however, just done a bit differently.

I’m a huge fan of virtual worlds. It is unfortunate that the MMOs that attract us so eagerly always disappoint due to the dependence on the vertical progression scheme of advancement. That, specifically, is what I wish to avoid with this game concept. I want a world where all of it is relevant all the time, not just the level-bracketed zones you happen to qualify for or the handful of level-cap dungeons.

Multiplayer. Minus the Massively.

Despite my unhealthy addiction love of designer drugs MMOs, I feel too many concessions have to be made under the current MMO paradigm, so I’d like to hearken back to earlier days: Neverwinter Nights, but not for the same reason Chris also mentioned NWN in his post. I am using NWN as the seed (and then discarding it) for the idea due to its (flaky, usually) player-created “persistent” servers that supported (if memory serves) up to 64 players. My game will support somewhere between 64 and 128, ideally. This is to foster smaller, more dedicated and tightly-knit communities as well as to increase so-called “immersion” by not having thousands of adventurers standing at mailboxes.

Virtual World Inspirations

As I stated above, I  have been greatly displeased with the worlds of MMOs in recent years. Oh, to be certain, they are absolutely gorgeous to travel through, but they’re all semi-guided tours to the destination of the level cap dungeons. That’s why they’re called “theme parks” – we’re guided along by glowing punctuation marks beckoning with the lure of gold and XP. They end up being a mosaic of disconnected landscapes we may or may not remember fondly but have no reason to ever return to. We’ve already seen that attraction, and the guided tour is going the other way. Beyond here there be XP!

In the past two years, only two games have really made a distinct impression on me for their creation of virtual worlds: Red Dead Redemption and Skyrim. In each title, we are free to go anywhere and there’s always something to explore or some type of content to do. In short, they were two of the most immersive games I’ve played – ever — and there are always adventures to be had.

Red Dead Redemption dropped the ball, from my perspective, in its multiplayer game by only focusing on “multiplayer activities” such as gang hideouts or PvP. Other than the Survivalist Challenges, there was no use to gathering plants, where in the single-player game we could make medicines in addition to buying medicines, etc. from General Stores. There were never any “dynamic content” in multiplayer like the appearance of a “Friend” NPC who might need assistance, or who might be a bandit in disguise. There were no stagecoach robberies to foil in multiplayer. The only Bounties were against other players who were killing everyone else, there were no Bounties for Gang Leaders or Outlaws in multiplayer. That would have been fun to ride around with a few friends and suddenly some form of “dynamic content” appears. The six co-op missions that were part of the “Outlaws to the End” DLC were all instanced content completely separate from the world, so while they had their entertainment value and challenge, once you’ve done them, you’re done with them.

Despite all the objections of pretty much everyone, I still wish for a co-op Skyrim. I know it would make zero sense for the storyline that suddenly there are two or more Dragonborn? Plus Skyrim (and Oblivion before it) knows full well it’s a single-player game, so the dungeons are quite often narrow affairs that don’t leave room for another player or few. When I said I wanted a “co-op Skyrim” I did not mean that I wanted a “co-op campaign” like other games have, but when it came to the “wandering adventurer” bit, I absolutely would have loved for the ability to have a friend or two join me in clearing a dungeon or discovering a giant’s camp and fending them off, or the big attraction: co-op dragon slaying!

So, like the best armchair “Idea Man” designers, these two games will serve as the basis for my game concept, henceforth known as The Game, with a few nods to a couple others for good measure.

The Game

Despite my love for Skyrim, that is a unique quality for me when it comes to Bethesda’s RPGs. Usually I merely tolerate them. I finished Oblivion and am very slowly plodding through Fallout 3 mostly out of spite rather than enjoyment. Rockstar has had a much better go of things, starting with the GTA3 series, then ramping that up in GTA4. Red Dead Redemption put GTA4 to shame, though. I haven’t played enough of Max Payne 3 yet to learn if it’s a Rockstar Open World game or not, though what I have played has been extremely high-quality entertainment. Regardless, this is my imaginary game, therefore I am having an imaginary version of Rockstar create an imaginary studio just for handling this game, because it will be unlike anything they’ve done to date.

The Game will be a gritty fantasy adventure. It’s Rockstar, they only do gritty, after all. So there will be no whimsical brightly-colored neon world ala Reckoning or World of Warcraft even. It’s a “darker” fantasy world with environments more attuned to the semi-realistic appearances of Rockstar’s previous titles.

There will be a large single-player game featuring a typical Rockstar story written by the Houser brothers: a former “underworld” character has attempted to redeem his or her self and make a new and better life, but the campaign story draws her right back into the seedy environment she sought to escape. All the cinematic scenes, voice work, you name it. The same stuff that kept us all playing GTA4, RDR, to a lesser extent with Team Bondi’s L.A. Noire, and now today with Max Payne 3. When it comes to the single-player campaign, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The Game will be further supported with DLC expansions, offering more story to play through and all that. Rockstar’s DLC tend to be quite substantial, more so than most developers, and this will remain the case with The Game.

Onto the meat and potatoes of this post, however. The Multiplayer Game. This is where Neverwinter Nights served as the seed of the idea, which was furthered by simply playing Red Dead Redemption in 2010 and picking it up again this past week and lamenting what it lacked in multiplayer, plus my favorite aspects of Skyrim.

The Multiplayer Game will come in two flavors: Public servers, hosted by the developers or publisher, and Private servers leased by players. I’ll explain the differences in what to expect later, and why leasing servers could be an incentive for a segment of the player base. I’m old school, so I remember the days of developers giving the server toolset free for players to run on their own servers, but let’s be honest: all the “extras” like player-hosted servers, modding, custom maps, and the whole “mod community” is a thing of a lost era. Monetization is the new gaming industry, and it is the singular cause of why “MMO” no longer means what it once did, and why all the various sub-genres are blurring together turning everything into a Monetized Online Game. Whoops, sorry, that’s a whole other post. Smile Back to The Game…

The Game will be multi-platform – PC, and console (the next generation hardware, not the PS360 generation). I say that because RDR worked perfectly well single- and multiplayer on console (is there still no PC version?) and other than MMOs the console has pretty much become my preferred platform for gaming. This is another reason for the (leased) dedicated servers: consoles have less memory than a PC, but even PCs can’t host 64 to 128 players on a Listen server while playing the game. Plus Listen servers are not Persistent Games, which is the goal with The Game.

The Game will be set in a third-person camera and will feature all the expected abilties of a Rockstar game such as climbing on various types of terrain, crouching, taking cover along with adding some of what we’d expect in a fantasy game. Stealth, archery, magic-wielding, and so on.

Mounts will be their own entities with their own AI, much like the horses in RDR. They can be killed (but recalled after a brief time) just like in RDR. Being a fantasy game, various types of mythical creatures can be acquired or unlocked as mounts during game play.

Players can choose from a set of classes which will determine your base abilities and style, such as being a big beefy warrior or a slender acrobatic rogue or the steady wizard. Your typical fantasy tropes, with a few unique twists to set them apart. From there, you’ll be able to adjust abilities or skills to some extent, similar to Skyrim. However, unlike Skyrim, you are not The Only Hero and therefore able to be the Master of Everything Simultaneously. You will not be able to be the Ultimate Warrior and the Ultimate Wizard. You can half-ass each of them if you want a warrior-mage, but you’ll be locked out of the ultimate tiers of each. Similarly, one player cannot “max out” any particular story faction. In Oblivion, I was the champion of the arenas and guild master of every single guild in existence. In this Game, again, you can half-ass a little of any faction but if you want to “max out” one, then that one is the only one you can do so with.

While you will choose your race and class, you will be seen in-game as your player nickname, not as a character name. It’s a multiplayer fantasy game, not a role-playing game. You can role-play all you wish, if you wish, but you will be seen in-game as your avatar not as your character. (Regular readers may remember I draw a not so thin line between the two.)

How Will It Play Out?

The short version: take everything you love about Skyrim and Red Dead Redemption – minus the cinematic You Are The Hero story bits (that’s what the single-player game was for) – and include all the “dynamic content” they featured, along with plenty of exploration and developer-created stories to play through as well. My vision is for the multiplayer “story” content to be comprised of what I’m going to call, for lack of a better phrase, “story events,” which will be partially developer-created and partially procedurally generated. [This Game is in my imagination, so in my imagination developers have also learned from the mistakes of the past and can now create procedurally-generated content that is actually compelling, up to and including procedurally-generated dungeons and landscapes.] Let’s say there is some Demon Overlord amassing an Evil Army of Goons. The “story events” process might start by Goon Invasions of local areas or towns. Players can defend and fight off the Goons, but if the Goons win, that triggers Phase Two which might have the Goon Army attempt to expand its base of influence, eventually introducing even more powerful or unique types of Goons. The process can be a tug-of-war between the AI Goons and players, either resetting phases or continuing the process. Eventually the players might unlock the Gateway to the Demon Overlord’s dimension (or dungeon, whatever) and fight him, ending the “story event” permanently. There will be a number of “story events” written and occurring in different areas of the virtual world at any given time to help spread the players out, as well as providing different content in various places.

The developers can write any number of “story event” routines, and the procedurally generated part can help determine things like who is the Big Bad Boss, what is his Goal, what are his Powers and types of Minions, and so forth. DLC expansions will add new areas to the world (or new dimensions, it’s a fantasy game) along with all-new “story event” types and monster types, new powers, new loot, etc. Everything you’d expect from an expansion.

In addition to the bigger “story event” types, plenty of smaller “dynamic content” like you’d see at random in both Red Dead Redemption or Skyrim will be present. Random people requiring assistance, and you can choose to help or ride on by. The bank robberies or a group of bandits try to hijack the players, that sort of thing that was unexpected; something that still adds to the immersion of the virtual world but smaller scope “one off” type content.

On a Public server, you will adventure, explore, and “level” (more on that in a bit) your class, which is persistent of course, and to be expected in any modern multiplayer game. The virtual world on a Public server may or may not be persistent, in that more players would be expected to be located on Public servers, so “story content” may be recycled eventually as a result.

On a Leased server, however, now the players with administrative access can set specifics. Do you want Normal or Hardcore modes, whatever those end up meaning. You can set which DLC are enabled on the server, which “story events” are allowed to play, is there “friendly fire,” is there PvP allowed, and so forth. In addition, territorial control is introduced. Players on the server can form Clans (I’d call them Guilds but that’s coming to have an “MMO” implication so I’ll just use the older term instead) and create their own cities. Players will have to maintain their cities, in addition to defending them from monsters or Goons and possibly against enemy player Clans, if PvP is enabled on the server.

The Game will not feature player Crafting, but being a Hunter-Gatherer will be important. You may need animal hide or various ores and gems for armor and weapons, or simply to sell. Plants and herbs for potions. Anything you’d expect from Skyrim more so than Red Dead Redemption, but players only gather things that NPCs will use to craft the items. I’m all for full sandboxes and all and a player economy, but this isn’t that game – besides, I feel that is better suited to an MMO “sandbox” — so no player Crafting. On Leased servers, gathering becomes important to maintain your Clan City. Normal NPC citizens will be attracted to any settlement, so your Clan City will automatically have those, but as your Clan levels up it will gain the ability to bring specialty NPC types into the city. Special vendors, special soldiers for defense, and so on. The more the City expands, plus the more it is attacked, the more resources it will need to maintain the citizens, the soldiers, the siege weapons, even the city walls.

Exploration will be a huge part of The Game as well. Red Dead Redemption had 94 locations for the player to discover, while Skyrim had over 300. A decent chunk of my time in Skyrim is usually spent being distracted by a black marker on my HUD so I go exploring until I find the location and the POI shows on my map and completely forget whatever I originally intended to do. I like exploring huge virtual worlds, so The Game will be more akin to Skyim in that regard, with DLC adding more areas to the world (or new worlds) with new POIs to find and new content located at each one.

AI will also feature into the world. Not only with better AI for the NPCs and monsters (as frustrating as they can be, I’m really a fan of the aggressive AI in Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer) during combat but also their “server behavior.” In Skyrim if I clear a dungeon, gradually over time maybe bandits, orcs or some other NPC type will discover that dungeon and move in. The Game will work in the same manner. The longer that newly-squatted dungeon goes unchecked, the larger the NPC population grows to until eventually that dungeon could become a full-fledged Evil Threat again. The day/night cycle will also matter, as it does in both Red Dead Redemption and Skyrim. Most citizen NPCs will be asleep, most shops will be closed. Certain types of creatures might only come out at night, maybe certain content is only available at night or during certain times. If The Game has werewolves, maybe they only come out whenever there is a full moon on whatever server you’re playing on.

Progression

Here’s where my previous statements of “this is not an RPG” come into play. Rather than RPG “leveling” – specifically the vertical progression leveling that is unfortunately predominant in MMORPGs – The Game will use a more standard multiplayer leveling scheme. You get XP and you can gain levels, but mostly those levels are just for unlocks of various sorts, not the automatic power increase you’d get from a vertical progression RPG. I do this because at its core The Game is a multiplayer game. Anyone should be able to play with anyone else at any given time, regardless of “levels.” Additionally, PvP might be a factor so “levels” should not be an automatic “I Win!” button.

Red Dead Redemption does, in fact, feature the exact type of multiplayer progression I’m thinking of, but to expand on that I will use Modern Warfare 3 instead. In MW3 you get XP for kills, XP for completing Challenges, then XP that is determined at the end of the match on how well your team did compared to the opposing team. As you level up, you’ll unlock new guns, new Perks, and new gun camouflage. From there, completing Weapon Challenges gets you new unlocks for that specific gun, such as a suppressor or 4X scope and so forth.

I propose a very similar progression for The Game. Completing various general Challenges will unlock new outfits to wear as well as additional more in-depth challenges. Completing weapon-specific challenges will unlock new abilities for that weapon. Challenges can be combined with abilities from other content as well. Maybe you play a dual-dagger wielding rogue-type class, and you completed a “story event” against an evil spirit corrupting a sacred tree entity which was poisoning the surrounding area. That completion, combined with a certain rank on your dagger Challenges will allow your daggers to become permanently poisonous. DLC will also add new Challenges, new weapons, new effects, new outfits, etc.

One thing that was new to Red Dead Redemption was the Rockstar Social Club Challenges. I felt that it fell a bit flat, though, but hey, it was the first attempt at a new thing. The simplified version is that they provided a specific set of things to accomplish on each of the Gang Hideouts. If you managed to complete one, it unlocked a piece of a special outfit. A similar thing could work with The Game, and the beauty here is that not only could they be crazy or outlandish Challenges, but they could be the area Rockstar could leverage to provide “new content” for free, simply by piping in new Social Club Challenges every so often and some fluff vanity award to go with them to maintain replayability.

All of the Call of Duty games also have what they call “Prestige” where you can hit the level cap, but if you Prestige you reset to level 1 and start all over with the weaponry but you usually keep the titles you’ve unlocked plus get some new little graphic that lets people know you’ve Prestiged. Red Dead Redemption (and Blur, another of my favorite multiplayer games) have the same thing but they call it Legendary. Once you achieve Legendary status, you reset to level 1 again but you also gain a custom Legendary Mount (or in the case of Blur, a Legendary Car). The Game would absolutely reward players in a similar manner with custom outfits, mounts, weapons, etc. that can only be obtained from a Prestige or Legendary type mechanic.

If You Build It, I Will Come

Get your mind out of the gutter! I’m just saying if some genius developer with an angel investor wants to start up a Rockstar subsidiary specializing in the “Games As a Service” model (persistent world with RIFT-style rapid content updates) I will pre-order your Collector’s Edition and pre-purchase your DLC Pass. All I ask is my name in the credits somewhere. Oh, and some residuals… Yes, the residuals… Smile

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At the beginning of the month, I wrote that the Xbox 360-exclusive real-time strategy title Halo Wars, turned three years old. Some of the former Ensemble developers, now working at Robot Entertainment, agreed to answer a few questions about their experiences building the game.

Disclaimer: I am not a journalist, and this is my first attempt at “interview-style” questions. I did not want to ask the same questions they answered three years ago during all the pre-launch hype. Those are still out there on the ‘net to read today, so I purposefully came up with a handful of questions I don’t recall ever seeing.

 

What units were most difficult to implement in Halo Wars?

Juan Martinez, Animator:
From an art perspective the Warthog was the most difficult unit to create. It basically had all the features of all the other units combined into one. Physics, Driver, Passenger with grenade launcher, another Passenger on a mounted turret or gauss cannon.

Something like the Scarab was actually pretty easy, but we needed to add inverse kinematics for the legs to plant on the ground.

We also had a lot of trouble with building constructions. The final solution of rising out of the ground was pretty simple. But for the longest time the game designers wanted all the buildings to come from space like the Command Center.

Dusty Monk, Programmer:
I moved onto the project about halfway through its development, and one of the main things I was tasked with was pathing and AI movement.  And the coordination between Scorpions and troops was problematic from the get-go.  Trying to produce formations that looked halfway decent and actually resolved into lines when moving through narrow gaps produced all kinds of crazy difficulties.   Also, as Juan mentioned, we spent an extraordinary amount of time working on the Warthog to try to get it as close to the signature Halo Warthog as we could in its movement and physics.

I remember reading the Flood was originally going to be a third playable faction but it kept playing out too Zerg-like, which was not the intent of the Flood so that idea was scrapped. Was that a final decision to scrap the Flood or were there ideas that could have salvaged it but time constraints on the project did not allow it to be worked on?

Joe Gillum, Content Designer
There were a couple of legitimate reasons:

- Can we cram another full civilization’s worth of content onto the disk, and/or run all that with the memory available on a 360?
- We were trying to budget the game to finish the content we had planned. Adding another civ was a big risk.

The pitch I threw out to deal with the memory issue (and the fact that not all 360 owners had hard drives) was a USB Flood Infection Form dongle toy. “Infect your XBOX with the Flood, this fall!”

Prior to notification that Ensemble would be dismantled at Halo Wars’ launch, were there any discussions or plans of DLC beyond the multiplayer map packs? Any potential for additional campaign/co-op DLC? A Halo Wars 2? (Many fans are still hopeful 343 doesn’t forget this franchise.)

Eric Best, Programmer:
We had a good framework in (code-wise) for a lot of future map packs.  We also had a system so that for each matchmaking bucket (1v1, 2v2 Teams, etc.) we could rotate out the map sets and tweak the matchmaking connection values for each one (as well as just adding in new buckets without a patch).

What features were left on the "cutting room floor" either because it was totally justified (just wasn’t working at all) or because of time constraints and "cutting the fat" so to speak? Were there features that were cut that you really wish had been able to get in the game?

Bart Tiongson, Concept Artist
The feature that was cut that I was truly hoping for, speaking as a very biased concept artist, was having interacting wild alien creatures throughout the levels.  We had conceptualized a TON of various creatures that never made it into the game and the ones that we had in there never "reacted" to the player like we were originally hoping.  It was really just a matter of not having the time and bandwidth to do it because of higher priority features. Here are a few concept art designs that were not used:

Juan Martinez, Animator
At the beginning of the project we wanted a Forerunner civilzation. The idea was rejected because it would interfere with the main Halo story line, including pieces we didn’t know about at the time. Other than that, everyone was pretty flexible and even integrated a few of our ideas into the Halo canon.

From my perspective, most of the fat that was trimmed came from the cinematics. There were many more characters to compliment Forge and Anders. But budget and disk space chopped a lot of that down.

Eric Best, Programmer
Splitscreen was working in the renderer and sim, and the network layer was redone so that it was decoupled from the "one player per box" setup that we started with.  But time ran out and there wasn’t enough time to finish the feature.  This was a painful one to not see come to completion.

Additionally we had a system which could pull down a MP balance tuning file where the designers could tweak the movement speed/DPS/etc. on all the units.  The game would check it every time it connected to Live so we could balance stuff without having to patch the game.  But once it was clear that designers wouldn’t be around to make the changes – we had to drop the system.

 

Thanks again to the fellows at Robot Entertainment who took a little time out of their day at work to answer these questions, and to Dusty Monk in particular who forwarded the questions to everyone then got the official clearance to send the answers back to me! Here’s hoping the team gets the itch and the opportunity to try their hand at another console RTS on the next generation of hardware in a few years.

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Halo-Wars-boxartThe swan song of beloved developer Ensemble Studios was the console-only RTS Halo Wars, released March 3, 2009 in the US. (The week prior saw its release in Australia, Japan and PAL territories.)

The game sold over 1 million copies its first month, which I thought was pretty impressive for a console RTS.

Halo Wars has the distinction of being only the second RTS I’ve ever actually played all the way through the campaign, and the first I’ve ever replayed a second time plus playing skirmishes against AI. I’ve always been horrible at multiplayer RTS so I don’t bother wasting my time or my teammates’ time online here either. However, out of pure curiosity I have popped onto the multiplayer lobbies at random times over the past month just to check the population, and at any given time there has been anywhere from 700 for the lowest I’ve seen to slightly over 9,000 players online in Halo Wars! I think that is absolutely incredible for a three-year-old console-only RTS to have that population. I see many other newer and more mainstream titles fade away much faster. Players say they never have difficulty finding a match. I had joked several weeks ago that I found it distressing and sad that I could find a match in Halo Wars so much easier than finding a group in Star Wars: The Old Republic.

One reason, aside from the wildly popular Halo franchise it is part of, that Halo Wars did so well is that Ensemble wisely decided to design the game from the ground up around controller inputs rather than trying to shoehorn all the features of a PC RTS into those same inputs like EAs RTS titles did. That decision caused the hardcore RTS critics to sneer at the “dumbed down” game, but bottom line is that Halo Wars plays much more fluidly as a result. I like PC RTS too, but I don’t believe any one platform is best served duplicating another platform, rather than each platform having its own strengths utilized to the fullest.

I keep very few game music songs on my MP3 player, but Halo Wars also has that honor. I love long-time Ensemble composer Stephen Rippy’s haunting theme which easily stands on its own merits while using enough familiar elements from Martin O’Donnel’s Halo soundtracks to keep listeners immersed in that universe.

So Happy Birthday, Halo Wars, and congratulations to the guys formerly of Ensemble, now at Robot Entertainment, who created the game which continues to thrive! I just hope 343 Industries doesn’t forget this IP and I also have my fingers crossed that Robot Entertainment may someday wish to take the lessons learned here and all the community feedback over the years and try their hands at an original console RTS someday.

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Consider this Tips For Noobs, From a Noob. Because despite being level 52 at the moment, I’m still very much a noob at the competitive side of the game. Racing against the AI is very misleading to your actual skill at driving in the game.

Practice! This is a Duh, Captain Obvious! thing to say, but it’s extremely important. Get accustomed to the way your favorite cars handle under your favorite tune setups, learn the track layouts and how they flow for your car. And it’s important to practice with your controller of choice, be it the gamepad, the Wireless Speed Wheel or one of the more expensive and hardcore steering wheel and pedal setups. Fine, smooth control makes a difference. I’m still working on slowing down. Seems silly, but I have a real problem getting a grip (pun intended) on how effective (or not) my brakes are, and I either overestimate and end up getting way too slow or more often I underestimate the brakes and go careening off the track and into last place. Practice, practice, practice!

Handling! This goes along with practicing in your cars, but while some cars may be faster on the few straight stretches of road, generally speak, races are won and lost in the turns in Forza. Get or create a tune setup for your car that handles well in the turns for your preferred driving style. There are a lot of drift fans out there, and it’s damn impressive to watch but for me, drifting is counterintuitive so I tend to go for grip tunes. The sports cars I had a chance to drive in my youth all hugged the road and could corner like a sonuvabitch, and that’s how I want my Forza cars to drive, not handle like they’re hovercraft.

Credits! If you’re into saving credits as much as possible, here’s a handful of tips. For the car collectors among you, Gamespot put together a list of recommended cars to get while leveling up, in terms of which one is most expensive if you were buying it. Choose the most expensive car as your reward, so you end up spending less credits buying the others. Also, related to the handling paragraph above, most of the default tunes for the cars seem to me rather loose and borderline drifty. There are tons of free tune setups in the auction house but loading them can be costly buying the upgrades they’re built for. Go ahead and drive the car (or any car from that manufacturer) a few times to get your Affinity to level 4 so that manufacturer upgrades are free. Some tunes will use custom upgrades, so you’ll still end up spending credits but much less than if your Affinity were under 4.

Cars! Rather than release new tracks as DLC, traditionally Turn 10 has only released new cars for both Forza 3 and Forza 4. (There are codes that come with the game to download a couple free custom tracks, I’m not counting those because from what I can tell – again, I’m still a noob – they’re only used situationally, not something you race online or in the campaign with. Could be mistaken on that, though.) While I enjoy getting new cars as much as the next guy, I personally don’t see the DLC worth my money because when I look at the list of cars, I would never want to drive a lot of them. I don’t like old beaters and stuff like that, totally not into that scene. However, each DLC pack does offer one of its cars as a free download! You still have to buy it in-game with credits, of course but you’re not spending real money in the form of Microsoft Points to acquire the cars. The free cars are:

Etiquette! As hardcore as the Forza community can seem at times, generally speaking they also expect some level of professionalism in your driving; some etiquette. Problem for me is, I also enjoy “racing combat” games like Blur and Split/Second where smashing your opponents is part of the gameplay. I behave similarly racing the AI in single-player, I’ll go full-bore into a turn and slam into an AI car to slow me down rather than using my brakes. Online, however, that can get you a bad reputation. Not only will they downvote your Gamertag reputation, they will trash you on the community forums and post their replays online for everyone to see your poor behavior in action.

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I don’t normally play, or even like, driving games. But last year I picked up Bizarre Creations Blur and holy crap but that is an extremely polished and fun game! It’s much less of a "racing game" than a "driving combat" game, however, and I’ve heard more than one person say it’s like a Mario Kart on steroids.

Back in my Playstation 2 days I was big into the Gran Turismo series. It was either GT3 or GT4 (most likely 3 due to its release year and my memory of where I lived while playing it) but I bought a Logitech steering wheel to play the game. It was very cool, and steering improved dramatically as you might expect over using analog sticks, but it required being mounted on a table. My coffee table at the time (which I still have) was not designed in such a manner that allows things like steering wheel accessories to be mounted to it. So back to the store it went that night.

Fast forward to the present (well, last summer) and suddenly Microsoft announces they’re making a Wireless Speed Wheel that doesn’t even have a base! (At one time they made a "normal" wireless steering wheel but it’s out of production and often runs $600 or more because of that.) I’d pre-ordered the wheel from Amazon and was eagerly anticipating its Halloween release date. That is, until I watched video after video of early reviewers attempting – and failing miserably – to use the WSW with Blur. It just flat out did not work at all. My assumption, based off descriptions of the WSW’s inner workings, was simply that it emulated the analog sticks, but that is obviously not the case. Still, it didn’t take long for users to compile a list of WSW-compatible games.

I am not certain what prompted me to make an impulse purchase of Forza Motorsports 4, which is Microsoft’s answer to Sony’s Gran Turismo "driving sim" racing series, though I suspect Pete from Dragonchasers is rather high on the blame list. Oddly, however, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the game! Raptr has me clocked at 32 hours of Forza 4 time to date, and I am currently level 44 and just completed the Masters series.

I also went ahead and picked up Split/Second, which is similar to Blur in that it’s a "combat" racer but in a totally different way. Paul, also known as Oakstout has had that game for awhile now and often wishes he knew someone else to race with, so I nabbed it recently, though I haven’t put much time into it yet.

Finally, I also bought Test Drive Unlimited 2 recently. I had played the demo of the original but it didn’t really sink in. In theory though, I approved of the Massively Open Online Racing concept. TDU2 came out last year but was apparently inundated with severe issues, so I let it fade into memory until recently I had a few conversations while co-op gaming with Aaron from Anyway Games where he said he thought he would really enjoy some type of open sandboxy driving game. In the end, curiosity got the better of me.

Before I get to the games themselves, let me just state that the Wireless Speed Wheel has two limitations. First, it was for some unknown reason designed without bumper buttons, which nearly every Xbox 360 game in existence uses, including these racing games. Second, it does not have a microphone input so racing with friends can be problematic. If you happen to own one of the wireless earpieces, you’re good to go. With the normal 360 wired headset, you’re out of luck. I also own the Turtle Beach XP500 headset, which by the way is an absolute glorious piece of hardware, but due to the lack of mic input I can only hear my friends speak and cannot talk back.

So, in total I have Blur, Split/Second, Forza 4 and Test Drive Unlimited 4 as my selection of driving games, plus I own Hydrothunder Hurricane which is an excellent arcade boat racing game on XBLA. Out of those, Blur does not function at all with the Wireless Speed Wheel.and Hydrothunder relies so heavily on the bumper buttons that all you can do is drive the boat around the tracks in last place because you’re unable to hit the speed boost or any other special function, thereby rendering the WSW useless for that game.

So far, in my limited time playing Split/Second, it appears to work fine with the WSW. It does require more oversteering than I’m seeing in the other games, but not enough to make it unplayable at all. The cinematic and explosive "power plays" you use to alter the track or hinder your opponents are triggered with the normal buttons, so the lack of bumper buttons has so far not been a problem at all. The only oddity is that the menu screen is sensitive to the steering so rather than being d-pad only, if you tilt the wheel in any direction the cursor will rapidly move from tab to tab.

The WSW was allegedly designed to work specifically with Forza 4, so again, one has to boggle at the lack of bumper buttons. To be fair, you can play the driving game just fine and never need the bumper buttons at all. But when (when, not if) you want to go into the in-game Auction House to get cars, paint schemes, tuning setups, etc. you’ll have to shut off the WSW and grab a controller because the Auction House and a few other extraneous parts of the game rely on heavy bumper usage. For the main attraction, the driving game, the WSW is really smooth! It does make a few keybind changes without telling you. Driving with the controller, you use the B button to shift, X to downshift. A is the hand brake, and you can use the right analog stick to look behind you and to either side. When using the WSW though, the shifting gets switched to the d-pad which is located on the left "handle" of the wheel. Press up to shift, down to downshift. Makes perfect sense, but I’m right-handed and it’s proven very clumsy and uncomfortable to shift with my left thumb while braking and turning at the same time. I’m getting better at it, but it’s slow going and unintuitive. The A button is now a rear-view camera. Left and right views are gone, and I have no idea if there is a handbrake function at all for those emergency quick turns. Y is Rewind in both controller configurations, and while using the WSW pressing the Back button changes the camera which might be one of the bumpers when driving with a controller.

Test Drive Unlimited 2 is also damn near flawless for the driving portion of the game. Actually let me just state that TDU2 is by far the smoothest feeling driving game I’ve played with a controller! So popping over to the WSW is just heaven! However, the segments of the game where you’re outside your car are awkward and clumsy. With a controller, those segments control like a standard first-person shooter. You walk around the building like you would any shooter and you aim your huge reticle at the various NPCs or interactable objects. With the WSW though, you’re using a combination of steering to turn left or right, and the d-pad to move forward and back and strafe. The WSW only registers left-to-right motion so you can’t truly aim the reticule up or down. To compensate, you can use the trigger buttons to either raise or lower the reticule to interact with those objects not placed in the normal height area. Finally, there are a few option screens that require bumper usage, so a controller is required there.

I’ve heard the Wireless Speed Wheel also performs flawlessly with the previous Forza 3 and also Codemaster’s well-reviewed Dirt 3, which I’ve considered getting at some point. I was a little dismayed to see the notification on the official WSW page that EA’s new Need for Speed: the Run was also not designed for the wheel. I haven’t bothered to read how well it performs at all, since the game is not currently on my To Get list, but I’d considered giving it a try later this year.

For me and the games I do own so far, the WSW has been great to drive with. It’s annoying when I have to switch between the wheel and a controller when bumpers are needed, such as navigating the Forza 4 auction house as I mentioned earlier. Playing alone is perfect, but when I join the AGE guys on Forza 4 Game Nights, the lack of the mic input is a tremendous limitation. I do have a wireless earpiece but it was not charged up the last time I was home for Forza Night so I ended up driving with a controller. I did try using my XP500 to listen then plugging in a second controller to power the Bluetooth mic module but that didn’t work, the guys couldn’t hear me.

If you’re in the market for a wheel accessory for your 360, I will go ahead and recommend the Wireless Speed Wheel despite its two limitations, just decide for yourself how much they will impede your driving experience, if at all.

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So, here we are ending 2011. Seems that a lot (or maybe just a little) has changed over this past year within the circle of bloggers and gamers I interact with, but generally I’ve seen a degree of movement toward being more positive in their outlook on the games or type of games they play. Ironically, I just saw a couple of them on Twitter yesterday complaining how negative so many are getting, full of complaints, shouting, whining, you name it. Apparently I don’t follow those people, and that’s fine by me.

I’m sure everyone who still reads this has noticed my marked neglect of Pumping Irony this year. I just didn’t feel it, for the most part. I had a lot of fun writing about Champions Online‘s first Comic Series, though my glass cannon character got stuck (and still is) on the final fight. The draft post is still sitting there since July waiting for me to finish it, meanwhile Cryptic has the second Comic Series currently running. For the most part, I’ve damn near given up on MMOs, and what’s left of my readership are primarily MMO Gamers. Right now the exception is Star Trek Online but the catch is, MMO or not, I don’t play that like an MMO. Other than that, I’ve mostly gaming on the Xbox 360, which has become my preferred platform for everything except MMOs for now.

The Blog

[This is the "glass is half empty" paragraph] That leaves me in a predicament. I’m barely playing MMOs and when I do, I’m still not bothering to write MMO blog posts. I’m mostly active these days on Google+ where everyone who’s moved there too has been far more accepting of my non-MMO and non-gaming interests. I’m still deciding, but don’t be shocked if I just pull the plug on Pumping Irony. I know one of the top rules for writing is "write for yourself," but this is a blog, not literature. If I get the interaction I seek elsewhere – in this case, Google+ – then elsewhere gets my focus.

[Now for the "glass is half full" treatment] However, I’ve also made a pact with myself to write more in 2012. I have Pumping Irony, and I have a few other blogs that have nothing to do with gaming at all. I’ve neglected all of them, so one way or another I’ve promised myself to take time to write on at least one of them, and to finally pick up writing fiction again. So, in one form or another, I expect more writing out of  myself next year even if it’s in a location you gamer-only readers never see. I enjoy the creativity involved in putting words to paper pixel, the behind-the-scenes research, and hopefully learning new additions to my vocabulary.

What I’ve Been Doing

Other than the aforementioned Star Trek Online, as I said I’ve mostly been on the Xbox 360. But what fantastic games came out this year! The past few months (and upcoming few still) was an onslaught of AAA titles that are well-deserving of anyone’s hard-earned cash.

Role Playing:

Skyrim. Obviously the big recent RPG was Bethesda’s Skyrim. Finally, Bethesda made a game that gets it right for me. Oblivion was a chore for me to slog through a few months ago, but I did it mostly out of spite. With Skyrim, on the other hand, I finally "got" what people say about Bethesda’s games being mostly about the exploration. Oblivion was bland – nearly every environment looked identical and the same music always played. In Skyrim, everywhere I go has its own unique appearance and music. The dungeons are more varied, even though I can still spot individual 3D "tiles" (a 2D description, but you know what I mean) being re-used for dungeon construction. And something very important for me, finally a third-person view that is functional and playable! First-person melee is horrid and bland, and honestly I don’t see it improving, so putting me in a third-person camera where I can see moves that cannot be accomplished from first-person keeps the combat interesting for me.

Fallout 3. As much as I’m enjoying Skyrim, it has caused me to get an interest in finishing Fallout 3, which I last played in May, 2009. I was level 16 at the time, but I had botched a few achievements. Similar to how I played Oblivion, my goal with Fallout 3 is to finish the game (and DLC) with 100% achievements. So I deleted my previous game and started over. This time around, I still can’t say the exploration is all that exciting or interesting, but achievement-wise (which equates to quest-wise) I’ve already surpassed where I left off two years ago, but am also only level 13. I’m not spreading my points all over the place this time, mostly concentrating on small weapons and other skills that will specifically get me through the game. Which is fine, because that’s also how I prefer to play this character. Unless he gets really bad die rolls, he is far more deadly at level 13 than my former level 16 character was. And being able to quickly and violently kill the Wasteland baddies makes me smile and even laugh, which perhaps makes up for the game itself not being all that fun (from a pure "fun" perspective).

Divinity II: The Dragon Knight Saga. I started DKS a few months ago, and got to the point where I could become a dragon and took control of my own Battle Tower. Then other games took my attention, but I plan to get back to it as soon as possible. It’s a really good RPG with some great action moves and a lot of diversity in its freedom to create characters. I don’t often play ranged characters in RPGs (MMOs maybe but not in real RPGs) but I am in DKS and it’s a blast. Some of the higher-tier abilities are just awesome to behold, and I’ve enjoyed the story so far.

Shooters:

Battlefield 3. This is my new go-to shooter. I can’t say I’m 100% satisfied with it, especially some of the maps like Operation Metro that seem like more of a nod towards the Call of Duty style of gameplay, but when I’m playing on a _real_ Battlefield map, I get that _real_ Battlefield feel again.

Gears of War 3. I’ve always like the campaigns in the Gears of War series but I’ve never been a fan of the multiplayer, which I tend to describe as "shoulder rolling with shotguns." I’m just not that good at it, and because it is built around small teams (5v5) that makes me more of a liability to my team, so in Gears 1 and 2 I mostly chose to just avoid multiplayer altogether. Gears 3 is no exception – I’m still avoiding the competitive multiplayer – but with four-player co-op, Horde 2.0 and the new Beast game modes, there is so much variety with Gears of War 3 that I’ll probably give this one my vote for best value overall.

Modern Warfare 3. I own it. I finished the campaign, which was fun (for me, the best part of any Call of Duty) and finished up the series’ storyline. Multiplayer is horrible, though. As much as Black Ops multiplayer pissed me off last year, I gradually learned to at least tolerate it and would often play it even without friends. MW3 has caused me to violently rage-quit almost every single match, though. COD games have always been hyper-fast and hyper-twitchy, but MW3 seems to have finally crossed some invisible line in the sand that pushes it over the edge for me. It’s just not fun, and I do not enjoy dying, watching the killcam and seeing the guy didn’t even hit me, respawning and dying again before I can count to 5. I also don’t enjoy when I kill someone when I never hit him either. It’s sad when the COD franchise is a license to print money yet the multiplayer experience actually degrades with each iteration. In a related note, I did finally start the Black Ops campaign recently, and I’m about halfway through it. Since I only played multiplayer this past year, I had no idea whatsoever the game was set in the 1960s. Strange, but it seems to have put a slight damper on whatever semblance of positivity I felt towards the game.

Other:

Saints Row the Third. Over the top craziness in an open world. Where the GTA series went all serious on us, the SR series relishes in its zaniness. I’m not finished with the campaign yet, but think I’m getting close. The co-op is a lot of fun, though it’s a shame it still only accommodates two players. Like Gears of War 3, this one has been enough fun that I went ahead and bought the Season Pass which discounts all upcoming mission DLC.

Forza Motorsports 4. I’m not usually into racing games, especially the more sim-like ones that lock me onto the track, but Forza 4 has been quite enjoyable on a casual basis. I also picked up Test Drive Unlimited 2 which is a sorta-kinda MMO (they refer to it as a MOOR – Massively Open Online Racing) game.

Also plenty of other 360 and XBLA games have been in my roster, with more to come. I’ll try to do a better job of writing about them as we enter the new year!

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Oblivion 100%

In preparation for Skyrim, I’ve been dedicating myself to finishing Oblivion over the past month. I’ve had the game (GOTY version) for over a year but it just didn’t resonate with me at first. Neither did Fallout 3, for that matter.

But I buckled down, sucked it up, and pulled it off! I completed the Oblivion main story last week then immediately started the Shivering Isles expansion and Thursday night, I finished that as well, earning 100% completion for the game!

I’ve done my share of complaining about the game here, on Google+ and mumbling to myself the entire time playing the game, but I’ll admit the past few weeks where I was getting close to end of the main story then doing the expansion that the game had grown on me in a few ways. At the very least, I think I can see why, or at least some aspects of why, so many players hold it in such high esteem. So I’ll take this opportunity to share the two aspects of the game that stood out for me — the leveling system, and the world itself — and their pros and cons.

Leveling.

I’ve lost count how many times and for how many years I’ve griped about vertical leveling, primarily in multi-player RPGs. So, Oblivion “leveling the world” with you is right up my alley. Oh, I’ve read many complaints that Bethesda screwed up the algorithm in Oblivion and a gimped character would get to the point they could not continue. Honestly, I was expecting to be that person, but I never really had the slightest problem; quite the opposite, in fact.

Proponents of vertical leveling most often put forth the claim they enjoy going back to lower level zones and being more powerful or going back and thumping down a boss who defeated or frustrated them earlier in the game. Trust me, I’m all for that! But I want to defeat that boss not because I simply out-leveled him to the point where he’s grey and doesn’t even know I’m there like an MMO would do, but because I went out and increased my character’s knowledge and abilities beyond where they were. That boss still puts up a fight, he still fights the same way he did earlier, but now I have more to work with to defeat him which makes the victory so much more satisfying than waltzing up to a now-grey mob and one-shotting it with my auto-attack.

Where Oblivion falls flat is feedback. I finished the Oblivion story at level 19 and Shivering Isles at 21 — which could be considered low-level? No idea, really. At no point during leveling did I ever get any visual or otherwise feedback that my skills or abilities were increasing other than the drum beat and text notification saying they had. For me, a good part of leveling and acquiring new skills and increasing known skills is that I get to see the results of my character gradually becoming a badass. I like flashy moves, and I’m not going to apologize for it. One huge problem is that Oblivion is only really playable in first-person view, which is already cheesy as hell for a fantasy game, but makes it pretty much impossible to show off new melee moves. You’re stuck with stiff Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em Robots melee the whole time.

So that leaves magic. Mages get some super-cool flashy spells, right? Again, I finished at level 21 so I had neither enough magicka (174 at level 21) nor high enough level in any particular school of magic to cast any of the spells that sounded cool. I hot-keyed a few spells that I used most, like Protection and Restore Health, but once I was able to cast Flash Bolt fairly early on, that was the most damaging spell I was ever able to use, and that’s not really saying much. The only skill I can look back on and perhaps see an improvement during game play is Sneak. I ended up doing pretty much every dungeon, etc. in Sneak mode so by the end of the game I could sneak by NPCs easily even relatively close to them what I would consider moderate or better lighting. If I was fast enough, I could jump out from behind a wall or pillar right in front of their face and still get the 6x damage surprise attack. So there was that, and it did come in handy a couple times, but in my book being able to stealth closer ranks considerably lower on the badass scale than, say, dodging an attack, counter-attacking by tossing them in the air then leaping into the air, blades twirling, and pounding them into the dungeon floor with my sword piercing their chest in a flashy (perhaps in slow-motion even, on occasion) critical finishing move. Just sayin’…

Finally I’ll talk about the leveling mechanic itself. It was a tremendous drag. I’m out adventuring, slinging spells, seeing notifications that my skill increased in Alteration or Destruction magic, or my Security (lockpicking) increased but… none of that mattered. Only the ones listed as Major Skills contributed to leveling. My Blade skill can determine my level? Block and Light Armor? The only way to increase those is to, respectively, block attacks (duh) or stand there and get smacked around. Hey, I stood still and let this monster beat the hell out of me and guess what? DING! Makes no sense at all. Growing my skills in magic does not help me level, but repairing my equipment does? Huh? The end result is that I ended up spending a lot of time grinding skills, in the worst sense of the phrase. I wanted a better healing spell but my Restoration magic wasn’t high enough so I stood around casting the only one I did know until my magicka was drained (three casts), let it recharge, then cast again until Restoration reached the minimum level for the next heal spell. I had to do that for any number of skills I wanted to increase for various reasons not to mention grinding the Major Skills just to level up. A couple weeks ago I was doing exactly that but also grinding Athletics so I ran laps in Bruma jumping and casting a heal spell. If I was going for “immersion” can you imagine how silly a so-called hero would look running in circles jumping while casting spells on himself?

Continuing with that theme, I remember last year I wanted to increase my Sneak fairly early on. Sneak only increases if there are other people around who could potentially see you and you have to be in motion, not standing still hiding. So I did the equivalent of “macroing” the skill: I put my character into Sneak facing a corner in Imperial City and wrapped a rubber band around the analog stick so he’d constantly walk into the corner. I left for an hour or so to get lunch and run some errands and when I came home, my Sneak skill was pretty much where I wanted it. Now that is some compelling and immersive gameplay right there! /snark

The World

I’ll start with “the world” in the larger scheme of things, and what most of us probably think about when someone says that anyway. I am reminded of the recent 40-minute dev video for Big Huge Games 38 Studios (sorry, I can never resist doing that) upcoming RPG, Kingdom of Amalur: Reckoning where the developers said “open world” means different things to different people. In Oblivion, “open world” means there are no “zones” to load in and out of and seems to have the overall philosophy that “if you can see it, you can (most likely) go there.” In and of itself, it’s great to just “be” in an RPG world, see something off in the distance and say “hey, I wonder what’s there?” and lo and behold, you can go find out! My primary problem with the game is a near-total lack of diversity. Nearly all of Cyrodiil looks identical, covered in the same grass with the same trees, same rocks, same forts and ruins (re-use of limited assets is very noticeable here), and so forth. The two notable exceptions are Bruma, to the north near Skyrim, which is more bleak with some spotty, dirty snow on the ground, and there’s no mistaking Imperial City for any other town in the game. Otherwise, if I was blindfolded and someone loaded up a random area or town in Oblivion, I’d be extremely hard-pressed to open my eyes and know where I was. To accompany the visual lack of diversity, the audio is also lacking. Now, I love me some Jeremy Soule and what little music I did hear in Oblivion was good (though I’d consider it on the weaker end of his compositions) but there was so very little music. It seemed there was only one track that played in the world (there may have been two, but if so they sounded too similar), one for towns, one for dungeons, one for in-combat state. If there were more, the tracks certainly weren’t varied enough for me to notice and remember them. I love a lot of video game music, especially in RPGs, but if all I hear for hours and hours are the same few tracks, well, that’s why people eventually turn the music off and listen to their own choice of music instead.

I still haven’t quite decided if I would say that exploration is “rewarded” in Oblivion. There are a lot of POIs to discover on the map. While roaming the wilderness any POI within a certain distance will have an icon on your compass HUD so it’s easy to look at the map and notice you haven’t been there yet, and set off to discover that location. But the only reward is the text notification that “You discovered [insert POI here]” which is certainly a “micro-woot!” stimulus but that’s it, really. I think there are over a hundred dungeons in the game, but very few of them have a “point” within the game (ie. for the story, for side quests, or for my character) other than to loot stuff for gold or grind your skills to level. Indeed, I found the main use for discovering POIs was simply to have fast-travel points when I’d get a story quest so I wouldn’t have as far to run. Having said that, a fair number of those dungeons had quite intricate layouts so it was rewarding in a way to figure out how to progress through them; ie. how do I open this gate, what triggers this trap and can I disarm it, how do I get to a certain area, and so on.

What I did like is that dungeons don’t reset, per se. The monsters don’t just respawn. If I clear a dungeon (or not, even) then over time as the dungeon is not seeing use from us pesky adventurers (excuse me, pesky adventurer since there’s no co-op) monsters will gradually start moving back in.

Speaking of dungeons, they are way too dark. I had to maximize the brightness setting and even then had to use some form of light in the dungeons to see where I was going most of the time. My character was a khajiit so he had the racial Eye of Night ability but believe me, it got old real fast running through blue dungeon after blue dungeon. Of course, had I not been playing a stealthy character, I could have just used a torch or Starlight spell so that I could appreciate the natural look and feel to the dungeons at the cost of every monster charging me immediately. The dungeon crawler in me loves these things and I want to experience them as the designers built them, not coated in hues of blue. There should be some sort of middle ground where it can be dark but not so dark that I have to crank the brightness, close the curtains and turn off all the lights to play and then still end up having to use some sort of light or night-vision ability. There’s “immersion” and there’s “inconvenient pain in the ass.”

Finally, most non-guard and non-monster NPCs have their own little lives. No static MMO pez dispenser statue NPCs here, no sir! Many have their daily schedules such as from 8am to noon, she visits the chapel, then from noon to 2pm she’s at the local Inn for lunch, but not on this day of the week, and so on. Oblivion is also a “no punctuation marks over quest NPCs” game so that could be a nightmare without the POI pointer on your compass, but purely for the sake of “immersion” or attempting to create a “living” virtual world, I simply love this feature!

My last real beef with the game is that you end up becoming the “guild master” for every guild in the game. The Dark Brotherhood (assassins), Fighter’s Guild, Mages’ Guild, Thieves’ Guild plus the Imperial City Arena, too. That makes absolutely zero sense to me, but neither does being a “master adventurer” and a “master craftsman” in MMOs. However, since sadly my experience in Oblivion was weighed by more negative experiences than positives, I was in a purely Achievement Hunter mindset just to get it over with, complete 100% of the achievements and move on with life, so in that single context I was glad I was able to do them all in a single play-through. Unfortunate, but there it is.

Originally, I had planned to jump into Fallout 3 (which I last played in May, 2009) and start that over (ugh) to finish it before Skyrim but after Oblivion for a month or so, I think I just need a break from Bethesda instead so I’ll be fresh for Skyrim in November.

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I bought The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion last year because everyone raves about how great it is, or was. I didn’t think very highly of Fallout 3, which I still haven’t bothered to finish, and which is in some ways Oblivion 2.0, but got the game anyway in hopes that these two highly-rated Bethesda RPGs would finally "click" for me.

No luck yet, but I am slowly plodding forward inch by inch to finish the game. Mostly out of spite at this point, and to get all 1250 Gamerscore for it (I have the Game of the Year edition which includes the Shivering Isles expansion) so I can trade it and move on with life.

Oblivion starts you off escaping from a dungeon cell, meeting the Emperor (voiced by Sir Patrick Stewart) who dies shortly thereafter and you finally exit the dungeon into the world with the urgent mission to find the Emperor’s heir. Only, it turns out, the mission isn’t all that urgent after all because Oblivion is such an open-world game, it really doesn’t matter when, or if, you bother to do anything. In fact, it would prefer you didn’t, because there are Guilds to join, Arenas to fight in, and all manner of individual NPC who’d like you to do favors for them. I could almost submit that Oblivion is a single-player MMO in that "story" is very sparse and as an "adventurer" all you really do is act as a mercenary doing odd jobs for the NPC’s and/or find caves to "grind" for loot, usually with no real reason to be there other than that.

My initial reaction last year once entering the world is that everything looks the same, which diminishes my feeling of exploration. Since then, I have encountered a few areas that are different in appearance (snow-covered with constant snow weather effects, etc.) but otherwise I’ve traveled to every town on the map and my initial impression seems to hold true. With precious few exceptions, once you exit that first dungeon to begin your adventures, you’ve just seen everything the world has to offer.

Someone on Twitter last week described Oblivion as an "open world exploration RPG" and I’d be inclined to agree with that assessment, only it’s not quite the type of exploration I care for. Since so far, most of the world looks identical there is very little feel that any area is different from another. That limits the "exploration" to simply wandering the world waiting for "You discovered [insert POI here]!" to appear on the screen and a POI icon will appear permanently on your map. That’s enjoyable in its own small, shallow sense but there’s precious little else to "discover" that I’ve come across so far. Worse, it seems an awful lot of "exploration" is the type I don’t like: examining every pixel of the room or area I’m in to see what objects are there and whether they have enough value for me to bother taking them to sell. The only other "exploration" is speaking to every NPC you find to see if they have something for you to do or not. I’m not crazy about MMO Quest Dispensers who stand still 24/7 with glowing punctuation marks over their heads. But even worse is the very old-school CRPG method of being forced to speak to every NPC, not to mention having to waltz into everyone’s home as if you owned the place, to "discover" any "content" the game might have.

The quests themselves, for the most part, are standard fare you’d get in a fantasy RPG or MMO. Go kill someone; go talk to someone; go retrieve and/or deliver an item. Each quest has its own little backstory relating to the NPC delivering it and perhaps with the history or politics of the town or region. You know, the type of stuff you skip over to click the ‘OK’ button if it were an MMO. But since you’re forced to stare at the bobble-head people and listen to the voiceovers, it makes the presentation far superior to a simple quest text in an MMO. Technically, you can skip forward one statement at a time in the voiceovers, and I regularly do so if I already get the gist of the conversation. Nothing about the game has yet made me care enough about my character, the "main story" or the world, so I certainly don’t give a rat’s ass about some random bobble-head’s story. If the voiceover and story is interesting enough, I’ll watch and listen to the bobble-head, otherwise it’s "get to the point already" just like an MMO would be. This is something Star Wars: The Old Republic will have to contend with, as well, but that’s another story for another time.

During character creation, your choices determine your primary skills rather than simply selecting a "class" like you would in an MMO. The problem I’m seeing so far is that all the various skillsets are defined in a strict "fighter, thief, mage" system and you’ll need all three to continue through the game. What you end up with is despite the illusion of all the choices of how to create and play your character, every character is still a "fighter, thief, mage." It doesn’t matter if I play a goody-two-shoes or an "evil" character who sneaks around stealing and assassinating people. The quests can only be played out to a singular resolution so we never have any choices to make, therefore there’s really no "role playing" within the game itself, only to ourselves in the sense of "I’m playing a sneaky thief" or "I’m playing an archmage who throws fire and lightning." That’s a problem I’ve always had with so-called "sandbox" games and players raving about the ability to "tell their own story." I suppose it’s just my own particular perspective or definitions, but I don’t consider "this is how I killed the dude to finish the quest" to be anywhere near the league of "this is my character’s story."

The leveling also bothers me, but possibly not in the same sense it seems to bother many others. I’m not a fan of vertical levels in (massively-) multi-player RPG’s but in single-player RPG’s it doesn’t matter. Oblivion scales as you level, which I approve of in concept if not in execution. The "problem" with Oblivion’s particular leveling system is that I never have any incentive to actually bother leveling. At level 2 I reached Grand Champion rank in Imperial City’s fighting arena. I was the most fearsome fighter in the world and could easily thrash multiples of the worst opponents they sent at me. At level 2. Currently, I’ve done many a quest for many an NPC and have nearly topped out with the Mage’s Guild, getting busy with the Fighter’s Guild and just joined the Thieves’ Guild. I’m only level 7. I could easily finish the game without reaching level 8 unless it’s purely by accident, simply from incidentally raising enough skills to level. In fact, other than leveling would allow me to increase my Strength so I could carry more than two or three decent items to sell, or to increase my Magicka to cast some of the cool-sounding spells, I really have zero incentive to go out and level more because leveling in Oblivion is mindless grinding of skills, and that is not why I play RPGs. The loot also scales with level, so I’ll never see any cool gear unless I level, either, but again if the only way to ever see "cool stuff" is to "waste time" grinding, I guess I’ll just have to do without that cool stuff. I read people post of their high level characters and just boggle at how or why they bothered to get that high (level 20+) considering all the time you have to spend (unless you "macro" your skills… another pet peeve) doing it.

All in all, as I said early on, I am continuing Oblivion simply out of spite and to get all the achievements. But I feel that as an RPG it’s an exceptionally poor one. As an "open world exploration game" it’s great if one happens to enjoy the (in my opinion) limited means of exploration the game offers.

After completing all the Guilds, I will finish up the main story then Shivering Isles. I’m interested to see if my opinion changes once I’m doing full-on story content. But for now, while just grinding enough quests to have something to do while raising skills, I have to wonder why Oblivion is such a big deal to so many RPGers…

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[Note: I started this post last week. Reading it today, it seems a bit "train of thought" and perhaps rambles a bit; I'm not sure if it even gets to the point I set out to make. But I'm posting it anyway.]

It’s no secret that I’ve become a fan of, shall we say, alternate pricing arrangements for my entertainment. MMOs in particular, I find more and more difficult to justify a $15 monthly subscription simply on the basis that I know I won’t “get my money’s worth” out of any particular MMO in any given month. I’m in the travel industry, therefore I’m only home a couple days a week. Totaled, I am away from home roughly 8 months of the year.

The unfortunately-named “Free To Play” or F2P model is attractive to me at this point in time because, in theory, in allows me to play at my own pace and toss the devs a few bucks here and when I see fit if I decide their product is worthy of my dollars. I say “in theory” because we’re all-too-familiar with years of F2P systems that either routinely gate content behind a mandatory pay wall, or gouge players for mandatory consumables.

Guild Wars is my favorite model, and one which in another sense is similar to my experience on Xbox Live: buy the software once, play forever at no additional charge, and buy DLC for continued adventures. I am very interested to see how often Arena.net issues content updates for Guild Wars 2 which will also be using this model.

SiriusXM ran a promotion recently where they gave everyone two weeks of free satellite radio, along with a promotion to signup for $25 for 5 months, equating to $5/month compared to the normal $13/month. As I just mentioned above, I’m not home enough to justify $13/month for radio, no matter how many stations they offer. The longest I’m in my car is driving to and from the airport, twice a week, 30 minutes each. Otherwise nearly everything I need is within 10 minutes of my home. But for $5/month? That’s the cost of a Frappucino at Starbucks, so I can justify that to have a few months of new radio stations I couldn’t otherwise experience.

Bringing that back to MMOs, at this point in my life with not only limited time for gaming but so many gaming choices, both within and outside of the MMO genre, I feel developers or publishers need to continue their pricing experiments, perhaps offering a time-limited access for a substantially lower fee if they insist on subscriptions. I could foresee spending $5 to $7 (which is what a streaming-only Netflix subscription costs) per month for say, a block of 50 hours per month tops?

I look at everyone on Twitter playing RIFT and I can tell just from the scenery graphics I would enjoy the game (or at least the scenery) for awhile, but at the end of the day, it’s just another “level up, gear up” game that has and/or will have all the same problems every other vertical-progression MMO has. I may not have played RIFT‘s sub-systems but, to paraphrase Bartle, I’ve already played RIFT countless times and can’t justify $15/month on it when I consider the other MMO’s I’m already invested in plus all the other games I play in my limited time.

A lot of this falls in line not only with my limited gaming time but also the notion that the subscription is a “game as a service” which is where the unconscious “need” to get your money’s worth comes in. Currently, I don’t have any MMO subscriptions. I casually play three MMO’s — Lord of the Rings Online, Star Trek Online, and Champions Online — all of which I have Lifetime Memberships for. Aside from the convenience of never having to update my account page doing the Re-sub/Un-sub dance, lifetime memberships allow me to change my outlook from “game as a service” back to the normal “game as a product” that I grew up with and continue to experience with non-MMO games. I can pick up or walk away from any of those three at any time, never having to concern myself with my account status, never worrying about getting value out of a single month. Are they a gamble? Certainly! One has to look no further than Hellgate: London to see how short a game’s lifetime can be. But I figure $200 is roughly equal to four full-price games for my Xbox 360, which would be $240 (plus taxes or shipping) or six PC games at the $50 that seems to be the average these days. I currently have a stack of 58 games for my 360, only a few of which are “finished,” and my Steam library shows 26 games installed. Add to that all the MMOs I’ve bought, the non-Steam PC games at home, and so forth. Even though a good chunk of those were pre-owned from Gamestop or purchased during a Steam sale, that’s still a large chunk of money set aside just for my gaming hobby. So when I look at the total gaming library I’ve already invested in, $200 doesn’t seem like that much of a worry anymore. The two Cryptic games are pretty much the only chance I have to play alongside certain people like Blue KaeMMO Gamer Chick and a few others, so I can easily place the “reward” of that over the “risk” of the lifetime membership as part of my own justification process.

Similarly, I bought Call of Duty: Black Ops and both it’s map packs ($60 for the disc plus $15 for each map pack) strictly so I could play online with Aaron and Oakstout (even Genda jumped in twice as a bonus). I’m not sure if I’ve ever ranted here on PI.net about my utter frustration with Call of Duty games, though both Aaron and Oakstout are well-versed with my oft-profane-laden outbursts of vitriol towards the multi-player game. During my worst tirades, Oak usually breaks out into giggles and I have a suspicion Aaron mutes me momentarily if I enter territory that offends his Catholic upbringing. I’ve had a neighbor knock and ask if things were OK, so yeah, to say Call of Duty pisses me off is an understatement, but it’s also a testament to what I’m willing to put up with for the sake of having fun with online friends. I don’t necessarily approve of the steep price of the map packs, but in a sense the model itself falls in line with Guild Wars where I buy the game and play for free, then buy DLC on top of that to continue support. (Don’t even get me started on Call of Duty: Elite, however…) The only difference being that Call of Duty is a “game as a product” and will be replaced in twelve months with the next annual edition of the franchise as opposed to the continuing growth of something of the scale of Guild Wars 2.

Back in the pre-internet days of GEnie we had to pay hourly for the service itself then an additional hourly fee to play online games like Air Warrior or Islands of Kesmai. That adds up way faster than any F2P game that I have deigned to play, believe me. I don’t want to go back to those days, but I also feel that for myself and others who participate in the myriad gaming choices available, subscriptions just don’t cut the mustard any longer. I don’t want to feel psychologically “locked into” one game to the near-exclusion of others because of the full-price subscription.

Funny thing is, and perhaps this is a whole other aspect of psychology, even a few years ago I was all about the subscription games even as more viable choices began to appear, diluting my overall gaming value or perhaps making me spend more on multiple subscriptions. Money was tighter then, too. Now that I’m in a better financial position where I can easily pay for essentially three Frappucinos per month (roughly the same as an MMO subscription) I am more loathe to do so knowing I won’t get the same value from it as I did back in the earlier days where I had to consider the finances, but also had more time to devote to my one (or precious few) choice(s).

 

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