Friday, July 10, 2009

Top Ten Non-Playable Characters

My Top Ten Non-Playable Characters list is up at TGR, so you should likely go check that out, ya know, if you want. A quick note about Top X lists:

I'm tempted to say that I hate Top X lists; that they're the worst kind of feeble-minded pandering that is ruining the industry. And to an extent, I do. Rate the top 10 babes in gaming, get a ton of hits! It's not rocket science. Though I think there's more to them than selling out.

A good summation on a Top X list can bring new appreciation to that particular entry. I knew people liked Sephiroth, but had no idea why until forced to write that list and really force myself to understand his appeal. My only hope is that people learn as much from my lists reading them as I did writing them.

The other great thing about these lists is that they can highlight games and achievements you may not have thought about. When's the last time anyone's thought about Murray the Demonic Skull? He's a great character though, and if this helps bring Curse of Monkey Island to people's attention or remind them that they should play it, then the list has done its job. It's meant to refresh people's memories as well as turn them on to new stuff. Provided you can take Top X lists with a grain of salt and not get too wrapped up on how similar they are to your own personal choices, I think there's a lot of value to them. They may not be particularly deep, but they can work as a summary in what you might have missed or failed to fully appreciate your first time through.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

In Defense of the Pre-rendered Cut Scene

Final Fantasy VII’s impressive cut scenes took it to new levels of popularity.

I’ve been playing Demon’s Souls, From Software’s dungeon-crawling action-RPG that’s coming to American shores soon thanks (once again) to Atlus. During a recent playthrough it struck me that while the game’s dark fantasy aesthetic does look good, it doesn’t look as good as its cut scenes do. The cut scenes look stylistically similar to the rest of the game, but there’s more detailed texturing, smoother animation – in fact, it looks better in every conceivable way. Demon’s Souls uses pre-rendered CGI footage for its cut scenes, sparingly placed between long chapters of dungeon crawling. It reminded me of the PlayStation games of the late 90s, when pre-rendered footage was the standard for video game cut scenes. A decade later and CGI cut scenes are almost completely out of fashion. What happened?

It used to be that games traditionally told their stories via text and in-game animations. That all changed with the advent of 3D gaming around the PlayStation era. The industry shifted towards pre-rendered cut scenes using computer-generated imagery to help push narrative forward, with Final Fantasy VII being the epitome of this shift. Prior to VII, the series had always been rather niche outside of Japan, but Square’s debut on PlayStation employed CGI cut scenes for the first time in the series. Sony’s merciless promotional campaign featuring these lavishly produced cut scenes – and none of the game engine – helped to ensure Final Fantasy VII’s immense popularity, and to make the brand a household name. Everyone wanted the game that looked like a movie, and its dependence on pre-rendered cut scenes quickly became the dominant form for video game storytelling for several years.

Yet by the time the PlayStation 2 had launched, the impetus within the industry was to use game engines to handle cut scenes. Games like Metal Gear Solid proved that developers didn’t need to rely on flashy CGI movies to tell a rich, complex story, while the PS2 allowed them to achieve fully realized 3D character models that weren’t overly pixilated. By the time this generation of consoles launched, the concept of pre-rendered footage became all but taboo. But I think there was something to the old way of doing things that’s been lost in the industry’s dogged persistence to prove it can do everything within its game engine.

Check out the rest of the article here, at TGR.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

E3 09: Borderlands Preview

In an age where shooters are all trying to outdo each other’s realism, it’s refreshing to hear Gearbox’s creative director Mikey Neumann tell us that, "realism can eat shit and die." This bolshy mantra is first made apparent in Borderland’s new art style. It’s gone cel-shaded since we last saw it, making for a flashier, comic-book style vibe. This succeeds at streamlining the focus of the game from a gritty, desolate atmosphere to pure, raw fun.

Borderlands is a "Role-Playing Shooter" from Gearbox Interactive, the creators of Half-Life: Opposing Force and the Brothers in Arms series. It aims to combine the open-ended structure and leveling commonly found in role-playing games with first-person shooter combat and a healthy dose of co-op. Borderlands is primarily set in a desert wasteland of the hostile planet Pandora, where your rag-tag crew of treasure hunters is looking for a legendary alien vault containing unspeakable technology. Unfortunately, a lot of others are looking for this vault as well, forcing you to duke it out with them while also surviving the local wildlife. Thus begins your quest of exploration, looting, mission-hunting, and killing things, all of which will take you across miles of open terrain.

Arguably, Borderland’s biggest selling point is that it will contain over a million different weapons. This may sound like an exaggeration, but it’s not. Each gun is comprised of multiple components that are randomly generated and cobbled together. As such, no two weapons will ever be exactly alike. You’ll also have the option to make your own custom weapons out of parts that you find lying around the environment. Creatures disappear and leave ammo and weapon parts behind, which is another wonderfully daft example of Gearbox’s reluctance to conform to the standards of reality. This custom nature also extends to different ammo types, of which there are plenty. The most noteworthy of these are the self-explanatory "healing bullets," which sound like great fun in co-op.

Check out the rest of the preview here, at TGR.