Sunday, 13 March 2011

Bayonetta Mini Review

A bonsai review I fired off to Xbox World 360 in the hope of landing a week long work experience placement.
Unsuccessful, but practice makes perfect. I think there was a 150 word limit for this one:

I REALLY thought it was going to be sexist. All legs, ass and lips, wearing clothes which come off during special attacks framed by a lecherous camera. I mean, come on!
But having had the chance to sit down with Bayonetta, I realise now what a charming, intelligent and funny character she really is. Formidable in gameplay, revered in cutscenes, Bayonetta is an exciting and playful hero, a spirit which inhabits every component of the game.

Memorable tunes swirl round your head as you coolly work through another of the grand set pieces or epic bosses . My only real criticism is that the pacing of the story is often misjudged and takes momentum away from the game, but this title still comes highly recommended.

(Apologies to the teams of Japanese artists who surely toiled for weeks creating a strong and sexy heroine, my artistic capabilities have plumbed new depths)

Monday, 10 January 2011

Under Construction

Sorry about lack of updates, things have been hectic since finishing my degree! Site is being updated with new writing, redesign and an area to showcase my portfolio work.
Stay tuned or whatever the internet equivalent is.

EDIT: Oooh look! A new site layout and design, an updated Portfolio page with more links to my previous work and Flash game Starring Harvey Phillips for you to salivate over. Bon Appetit!

Coming Soon:

Team Fortress 2 Project
Bayonetta Review
And an unswerving commitment to EXCELLENCE

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

Summer’s here! So what better way to worship Ra then to sit indoors playing all the games you manfully ignored in order to pass your degree?
Just like the compelling ‘hook’ at the start of a great film, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves presents spectacle and tension from the get go as you awaken, crumpled, shot and battered inside the creaking passenger car of a train.
Whooomp! Debris falls past your groggy head as the world comes into focus. Things are the wrong way up. This train is dangling off a cliff. GET OUT.
What follows is a desperate scramble up the side of a train carriage as it constantly threatens to tumble endless miles down the side of beautiful snow-capped mountains. A last second jump as gravity takes a firm hold of the train and Nathan Drake lies incredulously on the edge of the cliff. Not the most secure terrain but it’s an improvement.
A moment of peace and Nate allows himself to think back to the events that preceded this mountainous derailment. And that’s where the player goes as the next sections of the game are played in these ‘flashback’ levels.
And it’s worked. I’m hooked.
I love this introduction for both narrative and gameplay reasons. From a ludic perspective, the threat of danger (which I’m sure is far lower than the scene portrays considering this is the first level) creates a fabulous dramatic tension, and the concept of scaling a train carriage hanging precariously off of a cliff is a winner too.
But narratively and structurally I love it just for doing something as simple as breaking up the traditional A->B linear structure to go with most games’ traditional A->B linear level progression (especially in the action-adventure genre). When you reach this scene once more through progression of the past events, it’s still great, and now it’s infused with the added depth of backstory and motive. It’s just a nice touch that reminded me how often games use linear narrative structure when we could be doing so much more. Anyone who’s seen Memento knows what an impact irregular narrative structures can achieve.
In every one of its cinematic ambitions Uncharted 2 is deftly executed, from the sweeping high-adventure score, its underdog characterisation and accompanying quips, and its globe-trotting spectacle mixed with a hint of the occult. It is as close as anyone can get to actually being Dr. Indiana Jones. The minute to minute mix of gunfights and white-knuckle cliff scaling is extremely satisfying, with Uncharted 2 allowing for scenes involving both at the same time when its predecessor did not.
The stealth system from the first game returns in great style. It now works around 95% of the time and many encounters seem cleverly set up to allow the player to silently sweep through if they are observant enough to the enemy patrols. The villain’s lackeys are just as satisfying to battle as in the first game and use a variety of grenade-flushing and flanking tactics to keep firefights interesting. The melee combat mechanics return with another great range of choreographed fisticuffs, although I miss the double ammo bonus the first game would bestow for a melee kill, and generally melee seems less viable in this sequel unless you are going mano-a-mano.
This is part of a bigger problem which is one of Uncharted 2’s greatest weaknesses. It’s too hard.
Not the climbing bits, or the puzzles, just the gunfights. This may be rose-tinted spectacles, but it seemed like Uncharted 1’s Nathan Drake was a little hardier, it really doesn’t take much to drop you in this game. One flanking goon with a shotty. A man with a balaclava and a laser sight. The checkpoints in the game are brilliant almost everywhere except for in the large firefights where 10 minute long sections must be replayed if the player dies as developers Naughty Dog throw their 8th wave of armoured cretins into the battle bowl.
It’s just such a shame. I’ve been playing shooters my whole life so I consider myself pretty good(hell I’m the mac-fucking-daddy), and yet I struggled on some sections repeatedly, and this is all on the Normal difficulty. It’s the one thing stopping it from having the truly mass market appeal it deserves. I know my parents would love it, and I’ve told them to buy it. I just hope the Easy difficulty is easy enough, because I know they’ll love every other element.
And while we’re on the topic of bad combat experiences, my other bugbear is that the final boss in this game seemed a little repetitive, dull, and overly long. The main villain too, Lazaravich, is a bit flat and uninteresting, though this might be made more apparent by the fact that the rest of the cast is excellent. For a game that shines in every other aspect, and has as far as I can remember no other bad levels, this was a slight anti-climax.
None of this would stop me recommending this game to anyone who’s ever thrilled at a rollicking adventure yarn. The imagination sprinkled throughout creates wonderful vistas and fantastic set pieces, you’ll be diving between trucks on winding mountain roads, escorting a wounded friend through a war-torn city, made to climb Tibetan monuments at gunpoint and participating in firefights on the 15th floor of a building while it collapses around you. Fabulous level design is married with the best execution of narrative and gameplay integration I’ve seen recently, to create a blockbuster experience that everyone owes it to themselves to try.

Robbie McKnight

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Where did 2010 go?

Yes yes, I’m a bad blog man. With my final year university deadlines looming large since the Xmas break, I’ve been in fully dug into my trench up until a few weeks ago when I emerged bleary eyed holding a 10,000 word dissertation in one hand, a 5 map campaign for Left 4 Dead in the other (hell and a huge cigar in my mouth too, since this is my metaphor).
Due to this slavish attitude towards my coursework, I never had a chance to reveal to you lovely people the nature of my Left 4 Dead campaign. Cram this into your corneas and we’ll talk shop:

OK, did it make any sense? It’s hard to see the wood for the trees when you spend 9 months working on every aspect of a major creative work (That’s major with regards to the man-hours required to make five maps in the Source engine, not with regard to the amount of creativity to be found within, I’m no Egosaurus). The concept which should come through is that this is a campaign that exposes Left 4 Dead as a game, an artificial construct, and where digital concepts and spaces become manifest.
The eponymous AI Director is cast as the creator and controller of every element of the world and is the primary antagonist for the plot. Our four survivor player characters will meet and vanquish the Director during the campaign, but at great risk to the both the stability of the game world and their own existence, which the game heavily suggests is also digital.
With the Meet the Director promotional video that I had to do, I’ve presented as a fictional tourist board video promoting Riverside. Only as the video progresses does it become more apparent that these locations are more sinister than simply a sleepy town and a TV studio.
I felt the ‘trailer’ for Meet the Director, should avoid actually showing the Director, after all, everyone’s had the disappointment of going to see a film where all the best bits were in the trailer, so I’ve tried to show some, but not all, of the game’s highlights.
So unless you play through Meet the Director you’ll miss out on AAA stuff like my zombie driven forklift! Why wait? Download today!
DISCLAIMER: You’ll need Left 4 Dead installed on your PC to play, the game is rough around the edges so there may be some crashes and it was designed and tested in single player so I make no claims as for the ability to play through in multiplayer, though it should work.
I’ll be updating this blog with a full post-mortem of Meet the Director, discussing what worked and what didn’t, and examining how I could have tackled certain challenges now I have the benefit of hindsight. I may also port Meet the Director to Left 4 Dead 2, though early tests done at the start of this year suggested there may be too many differences in the engine tools to support the more abstract stuff in Meet the Director. Expect to see tales of my successes/failures in this endeavour on GameBrush soon along with more general posts on what I’ve been playing and noticing in the digiverse.
For now, I’ll direct your eyes to a great looking campaign for L4D which is approaching completion. Here’s what’s possible with three times more time, people, and talent!
I Hate Mountains
I Hate Mountains Trailer from NykO18 on Vimeo.

UPDATE: I Hate Mountains is live! I’ll see you up there!

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Where did November go?

Update ahoy!

Apologies blog, a whirlwind of deadlines and projects have swept me far away from any chance of updating this regularly. However, with Xmas kindly breaking up the academic year, term is over and frivolous blog posts can commence!

So while blog writing has been on hiatus, Left 4 Dead mapmaking has been at full rod, with the prototype maps giving way to work on what will become final maps. I think the next post I write on this topic will be the reveal of the theme and narrative of my campaign, because I'm still paranoid of thunder-theft (NOTE: I do not however, think my idea is so awesome that it warrants being stolen). So today's post is going to be about the rough brushwork I've been creating for my world and how design decisions around gameplay and aesthetic feed into that.
Two out of the final five maps have been blocked out in Hammer editor, a development environment that has proven itself to be far from perfect, but more grounded than Epic's attention seeking Unreal 3 engine with its constant cries for help. If game development engines were fuelled by profanities, me and Unreal would be on our third orbit of Saturn's moons, whereas Hammer could only power a trip to Woking and back, with its one-time decision to 'leak' through an invisible hole in a solid brush.
One of the biggest mapping considerations is that barring the addition of models and detail to your scenes, the rough brushwork shapes will greatly define the gameplay possibilities in any one area. The keys to designing a good Left 4 Dead map in my eyes are:

Multiple Avenues of Attack

As an experienced player of Left 4 Dead, my route though any given map is influenced by areas that give me a strategic advantage. For the Survivors, the easiest areas to traverse are narrow corridors since they are at no risk of being flanked, and attacks can come from only two directions, front and back. As a four man team it is very easy to cover each angle, even in the face of a swarming zombie horde. Corners with no nearby doors or windows offer a similar security. Dull.
With my maps I am doing my best to ensure that in any combat space there are multiple avenues to keep the gameplay more dynamic and make the gameplay more tense for the Survivors. It will also force the Survivors to opt for a make-do formation for defence if pressured by attacking waves, rather than settling into an optimal arrangement.

Make it Wide

Although I'm all too familiar with this rule following my Unreal deathmatch map from my second year, it bears reiterating as Jack Monahan has done on his excellent game design blog Gausswerks; Keep it Wide.
Width allows for flanking opportunities which increases the strategic possibility space, and in a game dominated by zombies it also allows the team to become surrounded in a fashion that could never happen in narrow corridors. This is perfect as we want the occasional situation to occur where a survivor is faced on all sides by the braying undead.
The other consideration is that this is a team game, so spaces have to be designed with a four man squad in mind and width helps them to navigate around one another.

Length = Difficulty

In Left 4 Dead the longer the map, the lower the chances of survival. This is because the game is partly designed to be a war of attrition against the health bars of the Survivors and unless the players are skilled, 100 health and 3 lives will only get them so far. In addition, the director 'punishes' teams that are deemed to be performing well by giving them a harder time through its use of infected spawn times and equipment spawn locations. The director's algorithms are designed to have you limping through the safe room door. Finally, the size of the zombie hordes that infrequently flood the map grow in strength as the map progresses too.
And yes, I admit it. My maps might be a leetle bit long. But I should be able to balance this in testing through copious placements of health and ammo.

Cover to Cover

The infected in Left 4 Dead work on a line of sight principle. The zombies and boss infected can spawn anywhere the Survivors cannot currently see, so that their appearance feels more natural and they do not just pop into the world (in reality the rules are more complex than this, but my rough explanation will do for the purposes of this design goal). In addition, surprise is one of the key components of the infected's arsenal. Liberal scattering of multiple types of cover increase ambush possibilities for the infected team and gives them places to hide while they wait for their attack timers to recharge. The simple placement of a couple of cars and a truck turn a stroll down cakewalk avenue into a more nerve-wracking dash past possible ambush spots. In addition, both the Boomer and Smoker boss infected can perform their jobs better with a diverse range of cover since they are severely weakened by early detection from the Survivor team.

OK, so it’s probably not an exhaustive list, but these are the thoughts I've been juggling with while shaping the world of M.T.D. Remember there are plenty of other design considerations with regards to art, lighting, sound etc. but I am only talking about the basic world geometry and with specific reference to Left 4 Dead's gameplay. There are many other rules for general FPS space creation, but I am focusing on what I consider to be the main ones for Left 4 Dead (and specifically the first game, having now bought and played the sequel, excitingly there are a multitude of new design considerations when developing for the sequel but I'll leave that for another post).
Mod of the week is the excellent Dead Before Dawn by Darth Brush, the long awaited Dawn of the Dead homage campaign (unfortunately an homage to the remake rather than the original) which has an amazing amount of detailed custom content, looks great and has only couple of gameplay niggles. While not quite yet feature complete (the finale map isn’t finished yet), there’s a lot to like including getting the original voice actor for Francis to record new dialogue!

I hate malls!

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Gaming is Serious Business

Partly as research into the Source engine, and how people have tweaked it for mods, and partly because I’m intrigued whenever a game with depth gets attention (especially when it’s a write up from these guys: Rock Paper Shotgun), I downloaded and played through Dear Esther, and Korsakovia, a couple of Half Life 2 mods developed by thechineseroom, a small team at Portsmouth Uni working on injecting more emotion and meaning into games.

Having said that, the first mod, Dear Esther, isn’t really a game, it’s more like a first-person poem; a thought-provoking, sorrowful one at that. Whereas Korsakovia plays more to classic game tropes, and is made worse as a result. Before I continue, I must stress that I am not saying that the content of Korsakovia is unsuited to a game format, simply that the addition of badly implemented ludic elements to a strong narrative has harmed the overall impression of the product. I suspect there’s a great game in Korsakovia, it can certainly do tension, but the level design and core mechanics need serious attention to eliminate the mounting frustration that comes from a play session.

Okay, so some details then: Dear Esther takes place on a remote Hebridean island where you assume the role of an unseen protagonist (presumably the narrator of the piece, but as with many elements of Dear Esther, this is never made clear and is open to interpretation). There are no enemies, no weapons, and no challenges, yet immersion and engagement are in abundance.

Dear Esther lures you in quickly with some stunningly well crafted scriptwriting and voice acting, of a quality that truly puts many multi-million pound development teams to shame since these results are obtained at a fraction of the budget the big players toss around. The narration leads us to understand that we have come to the island in search of Esther, however both the island and its characters are shrouded in mystery and as you progress you realise things might not be as simple as first thought.

Its wild environments and eerie soundscapes collude to become as evocatively sparse and isolated as the narrative, which itself is fed to you in small pieces. And because information is at a premium, it allows for multitudes of meanings in what is quite an open, and interesting, narrative.

My only criticisms of Dear Esther would be that I felt a cave exploration section in the middle was unnecessary and detracted from the drive of the narrative in heading somewhere important. And my experience was harmed slightly by a couple of technical glitches such as multiple audio cues playing over one another, one scripted event not working properly, and that when I finished the mod it hung on a black screen leaving me to wonder for a minute or two if anything more was to come.

Overall I came away feeling melancholic and pensive, but delighted to have experienced such a mature Source mod, it comes highly recommended. Unfortunately, the end screen of Korsakovia, was greeted by two-fingered salutes and language not fit for (web)print.
And I’ll tell you why:

Korsakovia’s key themes are paranoia, madness and suspense, with a plot that seemingly plays out in the mind of a man suffering from Korsakoff’s Syndrome. Progression is accompanied by narration from the patient himself as well as his doctor who is becoming concerned that Christopher is increasingly living in a dream world of his own creation and incorporating more and more elements from the real world into it, instead of returning to reality.

As you progress through the mod, reality becomes increasingly distorted (with a visually stunning payoff towards the end), and your advancement is hampered by wailing black fog entities that will make a beeline for you should they catch sight of you. So far so good, EXCEPT it isn’t because these creatures will become the bane of anyone who tries to complete this mod. So frustrating they are that after being hunted and killed in the same section over and over again my eyes were glancing towards the ‘Quit’ option (which is aptly labelled ‘Forget’), because you see in Korsakovia, you have a health bar represented by cracks in the corners of the screen, and these monsters can chase and kill you in around 3 hits, and sometimes there’s 6 or more of these things, and they can run faster than you, and sometimes they’re invisible and quite often you don’t have a weapon. You might be able to see at this point how frustrating this game can be(the invisibility thing might be a bug, but it happened several times over the course of my playthrough and I’ve seen others online with the same issue so I’m doubtful).

Even if you are lucky enough to be armed when facing these apparitions, the only weapon you’ll be brandishing will be the legendary HL2 crowbar which is simply not up to the job when you’re trying to hit fast moving fog monsters. There is no aural or visual feedback to tell the player whether they are even making contact and the monsters can damage you from outside the crowbar’s limited range regardless.

It’s not just bad combat that mars the title, there are some rote jumping puzzles, poor level design and insufficient signposting.

And it’s heartbreaking. I came to this title with such relish after playing Dear Esther, and I was very interested in exploring Korsakovia’s rich plot, but getting stuck and killed because of bad game design so very nearly made me ragequit. Instead I noclipped my way past two or three hair pulling moments in order that I could soak up more of the narrative.

Annoyingly, after playing Dear Esther I wondered what the same talents might create within the constructs of a more ludic experience and it looks like I got my answer. I eagerly await more releases from Dan Pinchbeck and thechineseroom, but I hope for their next project more time is spent crafting a rewarding core gameplay loop, or that they simply excise the gameplay completely.