Chris Chester


December 4, 2007

A common refrain you’ll hear often amongst a lot of stalwart MMO players is that the next evolution of the MMORPG has to be focused first and foremost around a fun, balanced PvP component. These gamers, usually with long histories in other PvP-centric MMOs like Ultima Online, Dark Age of Camelot, and EVE Online, are a fairly vocal minority, but a minority nonetheless. The qualities that have endeared monster hits like Everquest and World of Warcraft have been the PvE and social aspects, for the most part. Fury is a game developed with that PvP crowd specifically in mind. The problem is, it seems like developer Auran never really stopped to consider whether the game that players have been clamoring for was actually such a great idea as described.

Truthfully, it’s hard to describe Fury as an MMORPG at all. In reality, it’s something of a spell-based third-person shooter. The only really persistent element is a sort of lobby, where you can find almost all of your NPCs and most of the players waiting to get into a battle. The meat of the game is played within instanced battles, in one of three separate gameplay types. There’s Bloodbath (deathmatch), Elimination (team deathmatch), and Vortex (multi-flag CTF), and that’s it. Progression is entirely measured within the prism of player versus player combat. I don’t mean to make it seem like these options are necessarily shallow–many an FPS has flourished with a similar range of gameplay options, but compared to its competitors on the market it seems a little flat.

This lack of depth might be more forgivable if the combat were actually something worth playing for any extended period of time. Fighting is fast, frenetic, and above all chaotic. You can have 24 spells hotkeyed at any one time, and there’s a massive list of spells available. Even for players who are given to this sort of nuanced cost/benefit analysis, it’s just too much. Spell effects are often redundant, and with the gameplay being as ridiculously fast as it is by virtue of the brisk run speed and quick spell-recharge times, the action on screen is nothing more than a garbled mess of flashing lights. The auto-targeting, which might have mitigated this problem, is unreliable.

Graphically, Fury is a pretty game to behold, when it actually runs as intended. At times it flexes the Unreal 3 engine quite well, but when too much starts happening on-screen (which is just about always) there’s a lot of stuttering, teleporting, and just general confusion. Spell damage and status effects flash colored text above players’ heads, but with all the action on-screen, it tends to congeal into a curious blob of letters and half-information. Don’t even bother trying to play this game if you’re not well into the recommended specs though, because Fury will eat your machine alive.

Usually one would have to be hesitant to review an MMO and slap a score on it. They’re games that develop over long periods of time, and many of them age like a good bottle of wine. Fortunately for this reviewer, Fury is not really an MMO as such. It takes many of the elements of MMO PvP combat and tries to synthesize them down into a simpler product. If simpler was their charge though, developer Auran has done quite the opposite. They’ve taken fun gameplay mechanics and watered them down with their lack of focus and vision. The end result is a game that not only fails to justify a monthly fee, but isn’t quite worth the purchase price to begin with.

For all the success that the Wii has enjoyed to date, for all the press and internet fanfare that it has generated, for all its dominance of hardware sales charts, the Wii has really done little to sustain player interest. Outside of short, explorative stabs at the novelty of motion controls and the handful of GameCube ports that have found their way over, there just hasn’t been a lot on the platform to get excited about so far this year. So we wait, with baited breath for each successive Nintendo release, assuring ourselves that surely this one is going to be the one worth writing home about.

There’s no use beating around the bush; Mario Strikers Charged is not the game you’ve been looking forward to. A sequel to the moderately successful Super Mario Strikers on the GameCube, Mario Strikers Charged follows the Mario sports mantra to the letter: take a sport, strip it of all the unnecessary rules and gameplay elements, add some ridiculous super moves and power-ups, and wait for the money to flow in. For a lot of sports, this formula works exceedingly well. Games like Mario Tennis and Mario Golf benefit quite a bit from this approach and have enjoyed considerable success. And while it is indeed possible to develop an arcade soccer game (look no further than Next Level Games’ own Sega Soccer Slam on the GameCube); it requires a more nuanced approach to the game in order to keep things from getting out of control.

Sadly, “out of control” is probably the most apt description one can think of to describe Mario Strikers‘ gameplay. Players control teams of four players, with one perennial Nintendo star as the Captain, and three sidekicks of various shapes and sizes. True to the formula for dumbed-down sports games, each character is essentially weak and fast, strong and slow, or in the middle. In this respect it feels almost like that Virtual Console favorite, Ice Hockey. Captains are capable of delivering brutal Megastrikes which can score as many as six goals at once, and multiplayer games frequently devolve into a test to see who can get the most Megastrikes off without being disrupted by the other team.

And boy are there ample ways to disrupt shots. There are all manner of things that can separate a dribble player from the ball. There are scads of items that can be picked up by shooting power shots – including various colored shells, Chain Chomps, Bob-ombs, Bananas, mushrooms, and so on. Captains each also have their own individual power-ups that are nearly impossible to escape or counter, the most memorable (or notorious) being Diddy Kong’s tractor beam, which sucks an opposing player off of the pitch completely. And as if that didn’t make for enough chaos to begin with, most stages have ridiculous game-interrupting elements like electric currents running through the ground, giant balls of magma taking up a quarter of the field, or flying tractors careening across the grass.

This might seem like a fun spin on the sport in abstract, but playing against the game’s unforgiving AI in a setting as unpredictable as the one presented in Mario Strikers is a recipe for lost tempers and broken controllers. While the AI is apt to roll over on the Easy difficulty setting, getting through even the second of the game’s cup challenges requires a good deal of patience and a lot of practice. The Challenges the game offers also prove to exceedingly frustrating, as you only get to play three or four before the difficulty gets out of control.

The game’s saving grace is the fact that it’s the first to make use of the Wii’s understated online multiplayer capabilities. And believe me, if you want to enjoy this game, you’re going to need to play it with a friend. Whether on the couch with you or across the country, Strikers becomes much more palatable when you’re playing against somebody you know. More competitive folks will likely be frustrated by the seeming randomness of the scoring, but those just looking for an easy game to get into without a lot of depth will have a lot of fun with what the game brings together.

I imagine there is little I can say or do that would dissuade game-starved fans from picking up this latest Wii release from Nintendo. It’s the first solid title in a while and the first to make use of the online multiplayer. So I can’t say I blame them. But for everybody else, I can’t recommend this game in full confidence. The single player experience is shallow and frustrating, and the novelty of the multiplayer is fleeting. Mario Strikers Charged would make a terrific rental for the weekend, but it’s just not worth the full purchase price.

One announcement that may have come as a shock to many within the industry this past week was that Activision snatched the “biggest third-party on the block” crown from EA for the first half of 2007, bolstered by an impressive $387 million in earnings, over $20 million more than their Redwood City rivals for the same period. Of course, to be fair to EA, the sports franchises that make up the bread and butter of the bottom-line don’t start to roll out until August, so any claims of a new world order are probably a bit premature.

Still, the announcement was somewhat refreshing for the scores of us who like to watch the big corporations duke it out like some sort of capitalistic soap opera. Gamers have long bemoaned EA’s rigid focus on riding the same old intellectual properties into the ground, releasing yearly updates to their major franchises and charging full retail price for what often amounts to roster reshuffling. Sports games and yearly updates definitely have their place at the table – Madden alone has probably expanded the gaming market more than a lot of Italian plumbers I could mention. But their rigid focus on this tired release philosophy has made them few friends within the gaming community.

In light of EA exec John Riccitiello’s comments that the company has under-supported Nintendo’s Wii, is it possible that EA might take a few furtive steps in the direction gamers have been pointing for years – using their position as an industry leader to drive the development of innovative and experimental titles? Before I started praising my new Activision overlords, I thought it might be a helpful exercise to compare the two companies’ strategies for the remainder of this year to find out whether EA’s really operating from such a prone position as the community seems to believe it is.

Activision’s 2007 Upcoming Release Lineup:

Bee Movie Game (PC, Wii, DS, 360)
Soldier of Fortune: Pay Back (PC, 360, PS3)
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (PC, 360, PS3)
Spider-Man 3 (PSP)
Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock (Wii, 360, PS2, PS3)
Tony Hawk’s Proving Ground (DS, Wii, 360, PS2, PS3)
Spider-Man Friend or Foe (PC, Wii, DS, 360, PS2, PSP)
Animal Genius (DS)
Enemy Territory: Quake Wars (PC, 360, PS3)

Of course, we also have to keep in mind that Activision just recently released Guitar Hero Encore: Rock the 80s and a Transformers game for nearly all platforms, both of which you can expect to sell extremely strongly. But if you look at what the company is offering for the rest of the year, it becomes evident that nearly all of their titles in development are going to be big hitters in terms of sales.

If the success of past iterations is any indication (and if people are still digging the novelty of the idea), Guitar Hero III will sell like hotcakes, even if Neversoft’s re-imagining of the franchise doesn’t end up being quite what fans of the series are used to. Call of Duty 4 made a huge impression at E3, and given how sales of Call of Duty 2 are still plugging along, it’s not too much to expect that the fourth game in the franchise will continue to exceed sales expectations.

On the flip side, while the Tony Hawk franchise has been a huge money-maker for Activision over the past decade, I don’t think it’s got nearly the momentum that it once had. I’d expect it to probably crack the Top 10 in NPD sales for at least a week or two, but I wouldn’t be shocked at all if it got flushed out quickly by all the other mega-hits coming out around the same time. Enemy Territory: Quake Wars was highly anticipated amongst fans, but the demo left a sour taste in most peoples’ mouths. I don’t think it was really poised to be a big seller outside of the hardcore community anyway, but with the poor showing it received, especially in playable form, it might be hard for them to recover.

EA’s 2007 Upcoming Release Lineup:

NCAA March Madness 08 (PS3, 360)
Burnout Paradise (PS3, 360)
Medal of Honor Heroes 2 (Wii, PSP)
Army of Two (360, PS3)
Crysis (PC)
Left 4 Dead (360)
The Simpsons Game (Wii, DS, 360, PS2, PS3, PSP)
SimCity Societies (PC)
Mercenaries 2: World in Flames (360, PS2)
Medal of Honor: Airborne (PC, 360, PS3)
Need for Speed Pro Street (PC, Wii, DS, 360, PS3, PSP)
FIFA Soccer 08 (PC, DS, 360, PS2, PS3, PSP)
EA Playground (Wii, DS)
Half-life 2: The Orange Box (PC, 360, PS3)
Rail Simulator (PC)
NBA Live 08 (PC, Wii, 360, PS2, PS3, PSP)
EA Replay (PSP)
SKATE (360, PS3)
MySims (Wii, DS)
NHL 08 (360, PS3)
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 08 (PC, Wii, DS, 360, PS2, PS3, PSP)
Madden NFL 08 (PC, Wii, DS, 360, PS2, PS3, PSP)
Boogie (Wii)
Rock Band (360, PS3)
Hellgate: London (PC)

You don’t need me to tell you how big that list is. Even if you were to take away all the sports games from that list, you’d still find a healthy and hearty mix of new IPs (Army of Two, Hellgate: London, and Crysis seem like slam dunks), promising sequels (Mercenaries and Medal of Honor look pretty good), and direct snipes at the competition’s market share (how else do you explain SKATE and Rock Band?). Even if you don’t like the company for it’s business practices, it’s hard to imagine a Christmas list later this year that doesn’t include at least one title published by EA.

The one flaw I see in their strategy is the flaw that CEO Riccitiello highlighted in his meeting with investors – while EA is the number one publisher for the Wii at the moment, they’re still under serving that market and losing a lot of potential revenue. If there’s anybody whose good at squeezing money from the casual market, it’s EA, and the Wii fits that bill more than any console in recent memory. Of course, they’re in no worse a position than Activision in this respect, but it’s still a glaring oversight on their part.

So what can we conclude from this? Pretty much what we suspected all along. EA is anything but weak at the moment. The multi-headed hydra of a publisher is poised to pounce on consumers this fall, and you can expect them to do it with some authority. Indeed, with Madden‘s release date right around the corner, Activision’s edge in sales will erode quickly, despite their best efforts, and the world will soon return to a state of normalcy.

In the end, so what if EA is still the Mr. Burns of the game industry? As long as they keep delivering the games, we’ll keep playing them.

In a recent interview with Gamasutra, once and former Xbox 360 big-wig Peter Moore identified the lack of mainstream appeal as the number one thing that Microsoft needs to improve with its game division. “As much as we love our hardcore guys — they’re going to love Halo 3 and Grand Theft Auto IV and all of the incredible games that we’ve got — at the same time, we’ve got to get fun back in the living room on our platform,” he said. “We need to accelerate that reach. That’s the only thing we’re looking at, in terms of what our competitors are doing. I think Nintendo is doing a phenomenal job in providing that fun, unexpected experience, to their credit.”

It’s a mantra that seems all the rage these days, as Nintendo is accelerating towards a position of market dominance, despite continued hardware shortages. And it’s not without a solid foundation in truth and observable fact. In a business like the games industry, where companies have traditionally had to battle for a share of the limited pool of hardcore game sales, the simplest solution to the problem over the past several generations has been to simply expand the market. And expand it has.

But for all this talk about non-gamers, new markets, and unfamiliar demographics, it seems like one group that is continuously left out of the discussion are hardcore gamers. Companies like Nintendo seem to be taking for granted the fact that the people who have, for the last two decades, put them in the position they are today will continue to stay with them forever. And while their continued voracity for titles like Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Super Mario Galaxy is unquestionable, Nintendo has shown little indication that they’re doing anything to expand their IPs aimed at gamers.

While offerings like Wii Fit and Brain Age are ingenious ways to introduce older audiences to the concept of holding a controller, truthfully I think they do little or nothing to actually expand the market for anybody besides Nintendo. It’s a problem that has plagued the company in the past, even before this shift to focusing on the casual market, and it will likely only become more pronounced if Nintendo becomes the industry leader in installed userbase. I can’t help but feel like this is a mistake. During the last generation of consoles, many third-party developers had to limit or halt altogether production of games for the GameCube because users rarely purchased games without Mario’s mustached moniker on them. This trend seems poised to repeat itself on the Wii, perhaps to an even greater degree due to the complexity of integrating the Wii controls into the design process.

The result? The Wii will probably have among the smallest attach rates of any console in recent memory, perhaps ever. Are we really to presume that once Grandma is done exercising on Wii Fit and playing tennis with the grandkids in Wii Sports, she’s going to throw down in some Metroid Prime 3? Casual gamers play casual games. Despite what the PR says, they are not some mythical gateway drugs that are going to make converts out of the elderly. The money is still with the hardcore.

There’s data to support this. A report by the NPD Group found that “heavy gamers,” while making up only 2% of the individuals polled, purchased more than eight times as many games as the average gamer. In the past three months, avid gamers purchased over 13 titles on average, compared with 2 games over the same period for “mass market gamers.” Heavy gamers not only spend more time playing games, but are more likely to play online and take advantage of digital downloads, which open new revenue streams for savvy publishers.

And that doesn’t factor in the fact that hardcore gamers are usually a crucial first step for innovative ideas to make it to the mainstream. Games like Guitar Hero, which over time have come to be highly successful mainstream products, would never have gotten off the ground had the hardcore community not embraced them so enthusiastically at its onset. An $80 game with its own peripheral would have been a hard sell to John Q. Public had it not garnered approval from the gaming community. Now Guitar Hero and its cousin Rock Band are poised to be major sellers in all segments this holiday season, to hardcore and casual alike.

Market segmentation isn’t the end of the world, I know that. The game industry is full of enough creativity, drive, and capital to support games directed at every market. At the same time, I feel like executives are doing themselves a disservice by pushing the casual games pitch as hard as they have, often to the detriment of traditional games. Many long-time fans of Nintendo found their E3 presentation, where Wii Fit took preeminence to Super Mario Galaxy, lacking. And then to hear that Peter Moore say, “We love our hardcore guys but…” It doesn’t feel right.

Halo 2

May 21, 2007

Console shooters have always been treated with a degree of derision by gamers whose tastes lie predominantly in the realm of the PC. Diminished graphical capability, lack of precision mouse-guided controls, and the absence of mod-ability are just some of the complaints levied by this particularly critical community. Historically, innovation has always occurred on the PC side of the divide before being ported down to consoles. This is still true to an extent, as the 360 has already seen ports of popular shooters like FEAR, Far Cry, and Prey, to name a few, in its relatively brief lifespan. But the dynamics of the games business has been changing rapidly in the past decade, and more than ever the big money lies in console development. It’s increasingly common to see games that were developed with consoles in mind being brought to the PC, instead of vice versa. Halo 2 is the most prominent example of this in recent memory – as Microsoft proffers their premier Xbox franchise in the hopes that it will sell PC gamers on Windows Vista and Live for Windows.

Originally released in 2004 for the Xbox, Halo 2 is the second entry in Bungie’s landmark shooter trilogy. Starting off in the immediate aftermath of the destruction in the original, Halo 2 doesn’t just put the player in the shoes of Master Chief, but also seeks to expand the scope of the story by including the Arbiter, the disgraced Covenant commander held responsible for their loss in Halo, as an additional playable character. The game starts off on Earth, but quickly expands in scope, as shooters of this sort are want to do, in a pan-universal quest to prevent the destruction of all sentient life.

For a game that was released in 2004 for the original Xbox, Halo 2 sports some incredibly hefty recommended system specs. Ostensibly, the reason for this is that the game has received a significant face-lift over its aging Xbox brethren. While this is something one learns to tolerate in certain cases, it doesn’t appear to yield terribly significant results in the case of Halo 2. There are new, high resolution textures, slightly larger numbers of character models during cut-scenes, and new, dynamic lighting. Unfortunately, these are all tacked onto a game that nonetheless still looks like it’s over two years old. Moreover, Halo 2 doesn’t take advantage of Vista’s DX10 architecture, a curious choice given that the game is supposed to be the flagship title for gaming on Vista. It’s also difficult to accurately convey how frustrating it is when your normally capable gaming PC has trouble keeping up the framerate for an Xbox game on modest settings. It reeks of poor optimization.

The difficulty also apparently wasn’t optimized for the PC audience, as playing Halo 2 with a mouse and keyboard, even on legendary difficulty, is an absolute breeze. The game was designed with the relative imprecision of a console gamepad in mind, meaning playing with a mouse is like shooting grunts in a barrel. The fact that the auto-aim is disabled is almost meaningless, as the enemy encounters themselves are too easy for mouse and keyboard play. Of course, this can be remedied by using the Xbox 360 pad to control the game, but one has to wonder what kind of person is going to have the ubiquitous console pad handy without owning a 360. Anybody in that position would be much better served by simply playing the Xbox version of the game, which can be had much more cheaply at this point.

The multiplayer component has survived intact, and is probably the games single most marketable feature. All the standard multiplayer modes and options are included, on top of the downloadable maps for the Xbox and two new maps by Hired Gun, the internal MGS studio who managed the port. What makes the multiplayer intriguing is that they have once again included the full suite of mapmaking tools that were used to develop the game. So while it isn’t completely moddable down to the source code, casual players can try their hand at cobbling a level together, which is a significant utility for wannabe game designers with limited technical know-how.

And of course, Halo 2 is the proving ground for the Games for Windows Live service, which will purportedly bring the unified Xbox Live experience to PC gaming in the near future. It’s only implemented in a limited capacity at this point – since you can’t actually play with Xbox Live users, so one hesitates to cast final judgment. It’s a neat experience for those already equipped with Xbox Live accounts, but the likelihood that there will be significant numbers of PC gamers willing to not only migrate to Windows Vista and buy Halo 2, but then subscribe to a pay service on top of that is extremely slim.

For most, Halo 2 is only really worth your time if you receive it as a pack-in with your new Vista-enabled PC. The perceived advantages over the Xbox game are negligible, and gamers with a choice should always opt to plop down on the couch and play it on a huge HD set. But for that relatively small niche of PC hold-outs who haven’t seen much of the game except in the media, Halo 2 might prove to be a worthy curiosity. It doesn’t show nearly the polish of the myriad of shooters released for the PC since 2004, but Bungie’s cinematic flair is such that it can be enjoyed by all, regardless of the platform.