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Starcraft 2 Beta Diary – Day 1

February 19th, 2010 No comments

I haven’t found the time to play terribly much today, but it will suffice for a short ‘First Impressions’-summary:

  • The game plays incredibly well. As expected, Starcraft II has already reached a level of sophistication that most titles never achieve in their entire life cycle.
  • The viewport zooms in at about the same level it did in Warcraft III, which feels a little close at first, but this feeling won’t last very long. Still, keeping a clear view in the heat of the battle is particularly challenging because of the limited screen-real-estate.
  • The soundtrack is downright gorgeous. I especially like the Terran music pieces which feature interweaved segments of Western-style guitars and violins. Seems someone at Blizzard has been watching a lot of  Firefly, which really can’t be a bad thing at all.
  • Graphics are fine, though not spectacular. The level of particle effects on screen never reaches the degree of a Command & Conquer, but the few effects present do their job very well. The polygon count is comparably low, but far from chunky. The true quality of Starcraft II‘s looks doesn’t come from its graphical gimmicks but from the matured design: Achieve the maximum impact using as few on-screen effects as possible. Prefer a single, distinctive effect over massive particle feasts. The result is admirably streamlined and by all means sexy, though it never gets in the way of the actual game.
  • Players are currently assigned to games exclusively through Battle.net’s match-making system. It’s hard to say how well it really works, since everyone just started playing. At the moment one can simply state that it does find games and does so quickly. Which is already more than you can say of most similar systems out there.
  • Gameplay mechanics are, as expected, complex as hell. Usually, one finds a decent combination of units through trial-and-error pretty quickly and will stick with it. That is until after a few games you get hopelessly bashed without knowing what’s happening to you. Starcraft II takes rock-paper-scissors to the extreme, which you will feel immediately, even after playing only a couple of matches. Hopefully, there will emerge a blooming theorycrafting-community soon, as there is definitely lots of stuff to figure out.

So much for first impressions, more detailed articles will follow as we go along. For now, let’s close with some screenshots:

The new Battle.Net main screen. The icons in the upper left corner replace your traditional menu bar. Not the most intuitive design, but at least its functional. The icons in the lower right are for voice-chat and community features, which are both new features in Battle.Net. Didn’t get a chance to play around with those yet.

A gang of Zerg Roaches circumvents Terran defenses. This was actually my first game. As you can imagine, I was quite surprised suddenly having to fight a full-scale Roach infection in the back of my base.

Of course my resource logistics department wasn’t too happy with the issue. Which lead to me loosing this game soon thereafter.

These Watchtowers were introduced in the Battle Reports. They require special attention, as they reveal a large part of the map from the Fog Of War. In this particular scene, Blue (me) has complete overview over Red’s expansion and due to his elevated position is also undetectable by Red’s ground units.

Rock-paper-scissors in action: A group of Void Rays will easily devastate any number of Carriers. Which is particularly frustrating to careless players, since Carriers are a lot more expensive than the little ray shooters.

This Protoss base is pretty much doomed. A nice new feature of SC2 is the replay-bar for replays, that can be seen on the right edge of the screen. By clicking on it, you can directly jump to a part of the replay, almost like with a video. Currently you can only jump backwards, i.e. to scenes you’ve already seen, but still a useful feature.

Another Protoss vs. Protoss battle. Pay attention to the sparingly used effects on the collapsing Gateway in the foreground. Needless to say, this looks a lot more impressive in motion. Maybe I’ll upload some videos over the next few days.

Three Protoss Zealots (mine) harassing a Terran Player. Zealots are still very powerful on the ground and will prove useful even in longer games. At the moment, the average match length in the games I played was a little under 15 minutes.

That’s it for Day 1, folks. I hope you’ll check back with us later, as our Pageant of the Bizarre Beta Diary for Starcraft II continues…

Categories: Games

Starcraft 2 – Beta Live

February 18th, 2010 No comments

The long anticipated Beta of Starcraft II finally started today and this author is among the lucky few who already got their key. Fortunately, Blizzard did not put a restrictive NDA on this one, so you will get to enjoy a series of coverage articles on the game over the next few weeks.

So stay tuned for the amazing Pageant of the Bizarre Beta-Diary for Starcraft II – soon on these very pages.

Categories: Games

The Millennial Years – 7 Video Games

February 13th, 2010 No comments
Video Games

7 Video Games

We apologize for the unexpected delay and present without any further ado – the newest article in our Millennial Years retrospective.

No other media has undergone as much change and innovation in the last ten years as video games. Besides the countless revolutions caused by the rapid technological progress – most prominently the rapid progress of real-time 3d graphics – there has also been a fundamental shift in target audiences. With the rise of Casual Games and the establishing of technical gadgets as lifestyle accessories, games finally went into cultural mainstream. Today, games are considered to be on a par with traditional entertainment media like music or cinema for the first time.

Along with the broadened acceptance in the mainstream a fundamentally new type of games rose. Born in the same dark corners of the Internet as Casual Games, these Arthouse Games move along the brink of known gaming experiences. Pushing the very notion of what is considered interactive storytelling and art, it is those games that seem most promising when it comes to evolving the media today.

However, since this movement emerged only about five years ago, and a comprehensive coverage of Arthouse Gaming will easily blow the context of this series, it will be completely ignored for this list. Don’t be surprised if you find the topic covered in a separate series of articles in the near future though. For now, we will restrain ourselves to the mainstream – that is, titles that were published in a traditional way for the store shelves. We hope you’ll excuse this severe limitation.

The seven games presented are nonetheless among the finest representatives of the media, each offering its own unique and inspiring influences. However, as with all articles in this series, they are of course just a few among countless other games, many of which are more influential or ‘better’ than the ones presented here.

Shadow of the Colossus (PS2, 2005)

Shadow of The Colossus

After their highly acclaimed 2001 debut Ico, Sony’s design studio Team Ico released this quasi-sequel, which, although following a completely different approach gameplay-wise than its predecessor, is undoubtedly recognizable as its spiritual offspring. While the main challenge in Ico was overcoming the environment, represented by a huge castle, Shadow of the Colossus sends you into battle against sixteen gargantuan creatures inhabiting an otherwise distressingly non-hostile world.

In order to save the life of his loved one, the hero pacts with a god-like entity that commands him to slay the graceful, gentle giants wandering the lands. Although the player is made aware of the unspeakable evils unleashed by his doing, he is left with little choice, as killing the colossi remains the only way of proceeding in the game. Masterfully building on this moral dilemma, Shadow of the Colossus unfolds an emotional arrangement that is as complex as it is intense. Due to the flawless presentation, founded on the fabulous visuals and a stunning soundtrack, Shadow of the Colossus is one of the very few games that try to exploit the full emotional capacities available in gaming.  It furthermore features a unique understanding of space in a virtual world, a very innovative view on game pace and arguably the single best usage of force-feedback vibrations ever experienced in a game. From a theoretical view, it remains among the most interesting releases in interactive media of all time. This easily makes up for some minor design flaws, such as the seeking-sword mechanism that will leave you lost a few times when searching for the next colossus. Still, if you’re a games enthusiast, this one alone will make it worth purchasing a PS2.

God of War (PS2, 2005)

In many aspects, God of War is the perfect counterpart for Shadow of the Colossus. Both games were released for the same console at about the same time, both are glaring examples of what the marketing referred to as Next-Gen Gaming at the time and ironically, both were only available on last-gen hardware. And of course, both were landmark examples for the future development of games in their respective fields. While Shadow of the Colossus became an instant classic among the Games-Are-Art people, God of War established the blueprint for next-generation AAA Action Games. Unfortunately though, it seems that most of the titles imitating its concepts are only succesful in mimicking the worst habits of the original: We have a suprisingly shallow gameplay hidden under previously unmatched quantities of gore, regularly interrupted by the abomination which is quick-time events. From a cynical point of view, God of War could be called the initial seed of all bad desing decisions haunting mainstream games today – if it weren’t for one tiny but nonetheless most impressive fact: God of War is actually a hell of a lot more fun to play.

The frustrating gameplay mechanics are well-hidden underneath a spectacular presentation, that leaves you too busy admiring its grandeur as to ponder about its weaknesses. Gore is actually used as a fundamental stylistic element of design, rather than a fashionable but disposable feature to impress the adolescent audience. And the cliché-driven story is presented with such a naive over-the-top attitude, that it really leaves no room for intense criticism. God of War is the living proof that games of Next-Gen-mainstream proportions are not necessarily doomed to be bad. If nothing else, it is for that insight, that there is no excuse for any gamer not to have played it.

The Longest Journey (PC, 2000)

Released at a time when Point-And-Click adventure games were practically dead, Funcom’s The Longest Journey is one of the shiniest examples of interactive storytelling, clearing the way for the second large wave of adventure games emerging in the late 00s. At the time of its release, critics savaged it for its confusing puzzles and near boundless talkativeness. What they missed was the fact, that the endless dialogues were precisely crafted to immerse the player in a breathing world, adding layers upon layers of plot elements, resulting in a level of authenticity otherwise only known from the most well-written role-playing-games. Obviously inspired by Neil Gaiman’s magnum opus graphic novel The Sandman, the game weaves a story about storytelling itself.

At the side of young April Ryan we delve into a cosmos of symbols and metaphors, filled with memorable characters and the mysteries that surround them. In the end, it is not the monumental main plot surrounding April’s quest that will impress you the most, but the many small stories encountered along the way. From the ancient legends of the Alatian people of Arcadia to the twisted fate of that faithful sidekick only known as Crow – it is the countless little tales that make the greater picture truly come to life. It is remarkable how well the quality of those stories will make you forget about the weaker parts of the game: The character artwork ranges from decent to downright horrible (like in some cutscenes) and the puzzles are sometimes so confusing, you shouldn’t even attempt playing without considering a walkthrough. And yet, when you finally finish the game, it will fill you with a sense of contentment and closure that has become so rare in modern games.

Which is of course no excuse for missing the excellent sequel Dreamfall and the upcoming conclusive games of the series. Both The Longest Journey and Dreamfall are available for purchase via Valve’s Steam platform. Production of the third episode is currently on hiatus, but hopefully won’t remain in that state for too long.

Rez (Dreamcast/PS2, 2001) & Rez HD (XBox 360, 2008)

An abstract musical rail-shooter featuring minimalistic graphics, a trance-inducing soundtrack and massive use of vibration features? Seriously, why would anyone want to play that… And yet Rez works, it works remarkably well – although you will need a few hours of playtime to get used to it.

The experience is still hard to explain though – Using logical and emotional stimuli alike, Rez‘s ultimate goal is to make you forget that you are playing a shooter, forget that you are playing a video game, forget that you are. Utilizing the unique immersive possibilities of the medium, the experience induced by Rez is a psychedelic one. Contrary to the first careless attempts in psychedelic gaming in the late 80s and early 90s, Rez fortunately manages to induce more than serious headaches and nausea. At its very core, it manages to develop a fascination that, despite the ridiculously short length of the game, will keep you playing for weeks, if not years. Although it is no game that will get you addicted in the sense of hour-long marathon play sessions (or is it?), Rez works more like a really good casual game that you can pick up every once in a while and have a great time. Only the experience feels much deeper than mere amusement.

The HD remake for the XBox 360 comes with the benefits of higher graphics resolution, while the PS2 version comes with support for the Trance Vibrator, a strong vibration extension for the console that offers its very own ‘special’ possibilities.

Silent Hill 2 (PS2/XBox/PC, 2001)

“In my restless dreams, I see that town… Silent Hill.”

What started out as an ordinary survival shooter preying on the success of the Resident Evil-series (which itself was preying on the success of the Alone in the Dark-series), ultimately caused one of the most terrifying and psychologically intense experiences in gaming. With the second installment of the series, Konami delivered an unmatched masterpiece of interactive storytelling that has lost none of its intensity over the years. Remembering the very roots of the horror genre, Silent Hill 2 describes the horrors encountered during the game as mere reflections of the inner horrors haunting the human psyche. Even more so, these horrors turn out to be ‘Born From a Wish’, as manifestations of the guilt-induced self-hatred of protagonist James Sunderland.

It is remarkable how well Silent Hill 2 manages to utilize gameplay mechanics to sell this message. Starting with the incredible tense opening sequence where the player is forced to run along a single, fog-clouded path for minutes without anything actually happening, to the claustrophobical labyrinths encountered later in the game, few works of art managed to describe what it must feel like to become insane as well as this game does. Apart from a few glitches here and there, most notably the disappointingly conventional final boss battle, the game mechanics are just dead-on effective. Paired with the, for japanese standards, atypically streamlined writing, in which every character and most of the events serve the single purpose of reflecting the protagonist’s guilt, Silent Hill 2 is probably one the most scary, yet also most intelligent representatives of the entire horror genre.

Unfortunately, the franchise never managed to reach the quality standards established by this game. Both the other game installments, as well as the (still very viewable) movie adaption of the series focussed on the canonical mythology of the town established in the first Silent Hill game, losing much of the mystery and fascination that make up for much of the second game’s unique experience. Still, if you’re only going to play a single horror-game in your life, be sure to make that one Silent Hill 2.

World of Warcraft (PC, 2005)

Although it may feel a little misplaced on this list, World of Warcraft has earned its place, by becoming the very synonym for Online Gaming these days. Online Games and especially MMORPGs were a small market in the Western world, drawing very little attention and even less paying players. While there was definitely a boom of Massive Multiplayer towards the midst of the decade, no one would have dared to anticipate the huge impact that World of Warcraft had. Suddenly people who were in no way considered as target audience for Serious Gaming were willing to grind online for hours, just to give their characters that long awaited level-up. With simplest design decisions and an almost ridiculously basic reward-system, the game had an impact widely beyond its own field of activity.

Not unlike God of War, its legacy in gaming remains ambiguous. Especially RPGs suffer increasingly from the developer’s urges to make their games seem more MMO-like, often resulting in dull and unnecessarily time-consuming game mechanics. How badly some developers understand the inner workings of their own games was demonstrated by the glorious failure of Hellgate: London in late 2007, which was technically just a fusion of the two most succesful concepts of Online-Roleplaying games, namely Diablo and World of Warcraft. It remains to be seen, whether the heritage established by World of Warcraft will actually be a curse or a blessing for future games.

Portal (PC, 2007)

What a triumph. When Valve first announced Portal it was nothing more than ‘That little puzzler that comes with the Orange Box‘, vastly overshadowed by the big names of Team Fortress and Half Life. That of course changed within hours after its release.

In the tradition of the best representatives of Casual Gaming, Portal starts out with a single, easy-to-grasp concept and explores the possibilities of this concept to the fullest during the course of the five-ish hours needed for a playthrough. Paired with some fantastic writing, featuring characters both memorable and obscure, being it the omnipresent evil computer GlaDOS, or the fragile but beautiful Weighted Companion Cube, Portal left a more formative impression than any of the so called epic AAA-titles of the last years with their 15+ hours of playtime. Due to its charming mood and the well-tested level design, the game is incredibly accessible and due to its condensed structure, provides an entertaining experience for every single minute of play time.

Whether you like the hype around the game or not, if there was a single instant cult-classic in gaming over the last ten years, it must have been Portal.

Waiting around the corner…

..are our movies of the decade. Join us as we delve into the unfathomable depths of cinematic glory, soon on these very pages.

Categories: Games, The Bizarre