Following on from my other post about Blur, after the closure of Bizarre Creations I wanted to eulogise what is probably my favourite racing game ever – Project Gotham Racing 2. Judging by a lot of the reaction online to the demise of Bizarre, PGR2 was commonly cited as the best of the 4 game Project Gotham series and Metacritic scores agree with thatComparing between franchises is obviously a much more subjective thing and in racing it often comes down your personal preference between realistic ‘simulations’ and knockabout ‘arcade’ fun. With licensed cars and real world cities, all meticulously modelled, the simulation approach would be expected for PGR and indeed there is a lot of nuance built into the game’s handling model. The tracks, at times tight and twisty streets, often demand judicious use of the brakes and for some having to pull the left trigger even once is far too ‘sim’ orientated for them. But since the game is focused on how you drive as well as how fast, it not only allows but positively encourages you to drive in the most fun way you can, even if the wheel-spinning tire-screeching slides of Project Gotham aren’t necessarily realistic. What sets the game apart is its finely judged balancing act along the simulation/arcade spectrum. There is depth without the daunting array of options of Gran Turismo and Forza, where endless mechanical tweaking in menus can be used to over come ability gained and learned in the driver’s seat. Pick your car from the small selection per event (certainly to begin with) and go.

The Cars

PGR2 still loves its cars every bit as much as those more feted simulation franchises. This is the game that introduced a showroom mode, letting you wander among your collection of gleaming expensive machinery. From here you can test drive any car you happen to be looking at. The game might not get bogged down in the minutiae of having every possible iteration of every model of every car, but it does want you to feel a sense of ownership and it does want the cars to feel real. In any car, in any event, even a test drive, there’s a small odometer clearly visible beneath the speedo, totting up every single mile you drive and have ever driven in each car. In your favourites, those quickly add up.

Continue reading Bizarre Creations part 2: Project Gotham Racing 2

The Instrument Genre years

With the death of the Guitar Hero and DJ Hero series and Harmonix being let go by MTV Games, we’re currently seeing the demise of the music-game genre. Or at least the musical-instrument genre – dancing seems to have stepped up to at least partially fill the void. All of which makes Ubisoft’s sudden entrance into the instrument genre, due for this September, even more unexpected – but more on that later. Only 3 years ago, the music game genre was booming. In fact its success was so remarkable that, in a record year for games sales overall, the rise of the music genre seemed to be most responsible for a bumper 2008. Guitar Hero and RockBand were the two titles underpinning the music genre so with the former now gone people are naturally asking if, and how, Rock Band can survive. Harmonix themselves have been teasing an announcement at the forthcoming E3 but the hints have been pointing at either new IP and/or a use of motion controllers. So is Rock Band quietly going to slip into the background of Harmonix’s lineup?

Continue reading A Look at Rock Band and Rocksmith

(Continuing on from part 1, I’m going to write a brief bit on the other games and demos I tried at the 3DS launch.)

It’s become an oft repeated cliche about console launches that there’s nothing decent to buy when a platform first comes out. For all the hype and midnight queues, once you’ve got your hands on the machine there isn’t anything worth playing on it until at least six months down the line. Rushed development on unfamiliar hardware in order to meet the strictest of deadlines – it’s a formula that’s rarely conducive to creating good titles. But the exceptions to this rule of thumb are also notable. The Xbox launched with the original Halo, a title that not only justifed the console’s existence but also Microsoft’s rather surprising entry into the gaming hardware market. Super Mario 64 was similarly important, a game that felt at home on the N64′s weird tri-prong controller and also showed how Nintendo’s mascot could not only remain relevant while moving to 3 dimensions but also still blaze the trail for others to follow. Arguably the most important launch title was Wii Sports, the free pack-in title that for many families was the only reason they ever bought the console and made it into the must-have gadget of the time.

3DS Built In Games

Ok, so perhaps my introduction wasn’t fair on the 3DS, building up to it’s packaged software by mentioning one of the best-selling games ever. From the looks of things, Face Raiders and AR Games are more like nifty distractions that are fun to show off for a little bit but don’t go any deeper. Face Raiders works well as a word-of-mouth demo – once you’ve taken a photo of someone’s face they become enemies for you to shoot at by moving around the 3DS itself, while the level background is whatever the camera is recording in your surroundings. The face-photo is sort of 3D too although it mostly just seemed to be mapped onto a sphere in this game. It was quite fun though and by encouraging you to take photos of new people, it also quietly encourages you to show the console off to more friends – or, alternatively, to start creepily photographing strangers.

AR Games puts a boss encounter in familiar surroundings

AR Games meanwhile makes use of the AR (augmented reality) cards packed in with the console. The game I played (I don’t know if there’s more than one) had a card lying flat on a table – looking at it through the 3DS camera instead ‘revealed’ a 3D monster on the desk. You shot at it through cross-hairs on the 3DS display so you had to move yourself in order to adjust your aim and it felt a bit like playing some kind of real-life/virtual hybrid FPS. You could move up to and around the monster from any angle while shifting weak points forced you keep circling to get a shot off. As a game beyond the few minutes I played, it would require more to sustain it – but as a new experience it revealed some of the potential in the hardware. Having the game taking place on the desk made the monster’s virtual presence seem very real – which made some of the later effects, when the desktop surface shimmered and warped, even more impressive.
Continue reading 3DS Launch Titles – First Impressions part 2

Two proper Nintendo VIPs

Two proper Nintendo VIPs

The Event

I was lucky enough to be at Nintendo’s VIP launch event for the new 3DS in London, despite being a Very Unimportant P. Nintendo could certainly be accused of putting on the event purely for the benefit of furthering their standing with the mainstream – hosting was by Russell Kane and there were performances by Plan B and Parade (a girl band…no, I’ve got no idea either).

For the cameras, filming for Sky 3D, there were more than a few knocks against geeks as if to reassure everyone that they weren’t about to catch some kinds of nerd-disease for turning up or tuning in. When they cut to a presenter live at the HMV queue counting down to launch, out came the tired cliches at the expense of the eager punters there. It’s obvious that Nintendo wanted the buzz of a midnight queue event so why go on to imply that the hardcore faithful fanbase they are sad weirdos?

The kind of celebs present – the likes of Blue and Louise Redknapp – are people you’ve either seen or could imagine doing their gaming in cream coloured DFS living rooms. In other words, the event (and particularly the coverage) was targeting the same market Nintendo created and expanded with the original DS and Wii, and who can blame them? Sales to new demographics are what made the original DS the monster success it is but one or two of those same demographics are now likely to have an iPhone in their back pocket competing for their attention.
Continue reading 3DS Launch – First Impressions part 1

Red Dead RedemptionIf you’re not paying absolute attention during the early stages of Red Dead Redemption – or maybe if, like me, you’re just not that au fait with the history of the Old West – it can be difficult to pin down the time period that you’re in. Horses? Check. Guns? Check. Cowboys? Check. It all seems like the basic constituent parts of a Western are in place so the date is pretty much an irrelevance, let’s get to the shootin’.

As the game goes on though, whether through the dialogue, newspapers or the shock of seeing one of the new fangled automobiles, you realise that you’re actually in the early 20th century – 1911 to be exact. Of course, Red Dead is hardly a documentary and it’s set in the fictional area of New Austin, a US state on the border with Mexico. But like it’s sister Grand Theft Auto series, Rockstar’s game is very much about a real time period, a real location and the real-world America (not to mention Mexico). There’s a reason why the names of the countries have never been fictionalised in those games.

One of the themes that becomes more prevalent as Red Dead progresses is the encroachment of civilisation and order onto the chaos of the West. Our protagonist John Marston is the last of a dying breed as both a cowboy and an outlaw. Even though the player never ventures outside of the West it still becomes apparent, through visitors, newcomers and their attitudes, that the rest of America views them as a curio. The cowboy becomes labelled as a ‘noble savage’ in places and is increasingly lumped in with the Native American ‘Indians’ by the somewhat patronising heralds of progress. It’s an omen that foretells their marginalisation and eventual irrelevance.
Continue reading They Have It So Easy These Days

Blur

Bizarre Creation's Blur

With the recent and unfortunate news that Activision have closed down Bizarre Creations, now is a good a time as any to look over a couple of their games, starting with the recent Blur.

Closure seems like a strange decision from the point of view of Activision’s portfolio – the largest games publisher in the world is left with no developers that have any significant experience of making driving games. EA, their biggest competitor, have an abundance in that particular area while the only remaining quality racing game developers are at Sony, Microsoft, Codemasters and relative newcomers Disney Interactive. Bizarre seem to be suffering the fallout from recent releases that were at best mediocre  – The Club and their latest game James Bond 007: Blood Stone both suffered critically and in terms of sales. These two games were also both 3rd person action/shooting titles that were far removed from Bizarre’s usual driving or downloadable arcade games. When the studio stuck to what they knew best, as with the recent underrated Blur, they could still produce excellent games.

Blur was sadly overlooked when it came to sales though. New IPs, without a huge marketing spend, tend to struggle these days. The racing genre is much like the sports one – newcomer titles have a doubly difficult time. Creating a straight sim-racer to go up against the big three of Gran Turismo, Forza and Need For Speed would be the same as trying to make a non-licensed football game to compete with FIFA and Pro Evo. One solution to this problem is the route Codemasters have taken – create specialised realistic games that focus on one particular real-world racing code such as the recent F1 2010 or the off-road-centric Dirt series. By releasing games regularly and basing them on their Ego engine,  they spread the risk across titles. On the other hand, there’s the expense of the license(s) and the work involved in having to realistically model the cars and real-life tracks.

Continue reading Bizarre Creations part 1: Blur

…to my little blog about games design. I’m going to be writing here with some of my own thoughts about games and the industry, with my topics being anything that takes my interest. Beyond that you can read some of my thoughts about what I want this blog to be, here: An Introduction.