Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Merry Christmas, War is Over

The other day I thought to myself, I fancy a game of Homefront online.
Having put the disc in and fired it up, I found to my dismay that the servers for Homefront were no more. Following the demise of THQ, Crytek (who were developing Homefront 2 anyway), bought the rights to the whole franchise, but they haven’t as yet turned the servers back on following the transition. That was a couple of months ago now, so a return to the battlegrounds of Homefront is looking increasingly unlikely.
Chances are you are shrugging a “so what?” right now. This probably means you’re one of the many who either didn’t bother with the game at all or were put off by one or all of the following things:
A very short campaign, questionable AI, an online component with little in the way of game modes or customisation, problems connecting with parties and friends.
But there were those of us who saw past these issues. We looked beyond the problems and the lacklustre first impressions. We cracked the surface and found diamonds beneath.
The campaign may have been four hours’ worth at best, but they were filled with explosive action. The story may have been preposterous, but it was believably told with emotional impact. And the multiplayer? Oh man, the multiplayer. Before Battlefield 3 arrived to steal our hearts and our time, Homefront gave us a brilliant multiplayer experience that – for those who really embraced it – surpassed anything Call of Duty was bringing to the table.
On large, well-designed maps, Homefront used a simple, but perfect mechanic to shape its online struggles. With every kill, assist or captured objective, you accumulated XP that you could spend right there and then in the heat of battle on war gear or other perks. Or, once you’d been killed, you could spend XP to respawn in a teammate’s vehicle or in one of your own. And the more XP you saved up, the greater the vehicles – from armoured trucks to tanks and gunships.
This resulted in games of Homefront starting out relatively subdued, but they would grow into chaotic confrontations as players called in armoured support, choppers and airstrikes.
Homefront multiplayer may not have had the technical brilliance or scope of the Battlefield series, or the tight, smooth gameplay of Call of Duty. But damn it was fun. And there is a bunch of us out there who mourn its loss.
Homefront is dead. Long live Homefront 2. Come on Crytek – make it happen.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Battlefield 3: A Love Letter

Dear Battlefield 3,

The first time I saw you was just a video of your first mission, a simple playthrough. Lots of action and nice atmosphere, but still simple and straight forward. But God, you were beautiful. The lighting, the animations. And the sound! My word, what a voice you had.

And then we met. So often a meeting in the flesh can be a disappointment - the reality struggling to live up to the ideal. But not you. You were everything I'd seen in that first glimpse and so much more. Some spoke ill of your campaign, saying it was trying to imitate the success of others, but I saw a thrilling effort, emotional and varied. Whatever the case, none could argue what you were really bringing to the table. Frostbite 2 - a next-gen engine working on current consoles, pushing them to their limits and giving us visuals and sound quality the likes of which we'd never seen before. What a show you put on.

And that's before I got to the multiplayer - the meat and potatoes of the Battlefield 3 experience. So ambitious, with innovative modes and sprawling warzones. Others who had come before you had taught me little else but selfishness. They were all about my kills and my achievements. You taught me teamwork. You were all about our kills and our achievements. They were I and you were we.

Whether it be reviving squad mates, resupplying their ammo, spotting enemies for others to take down, offering a ride in your many vehicles - your gameplay was so well designed, so brilliantly tuned towards teamwork that it encouraged us all to work as a team even in situations where there were no points to be gained for ourselves. Sights like this amongst the chaos are not uncommon:

Forgive me, I'm rambling and I don't want to keep you. I know you're getting ready for curtain call. As I write this, your Premium members are experiencing your final piece of content and in two weeks, all will be able to access it and witness your last waltz. The End Game.

It is an exciting time, but also a sad one.  I know we have a lot more time to spend together, more memories to create, more Battlefield Moments to experience. But I can't help but think of when we eventually separate, when our time together comes to an end, as all things must. It is on the horizon like a distant silhouette. 
I dread the day when I have to say, "I've met someone else." But I know we'll be ok because we both know who that someone will be. It is you - only bigger, better and fill of all the sights, sounds and moments that can only be found in Battlefield 4.

But let's not think about that now. Let us seize the day and hit the ground running or strap in and take to the skies. Before we draw that line in the sand, before we close the book - let us write that final chapter.


Sunday, 3 March 2013

I've Got a Bad Feeling About This Drop

Aliens: Colonial Marines. Right, where do we start? 1979?
You know about the films and you know there have been a handful of decent games made off the back of them, but none of these games have fully lived up to our expectations. We had no reason to believe any of them ever would, until this glimmer of hope shone through the darkness in 2006………
Oh my. This is it, we thought. Finally. All we’ve ever wanted was to be a Colonial Marine playing out James Cameron’s Aliens. It doesn’t matter which previous game you can think of in the Aliens franchise, they all aspired to be just that. Whether it was Aliens vs Predator on the PC, Alien 3 for the Megadrive or Alien: Resurrection on the PS1, all of them tried to replicate the second film in some way and all of them fell short. But this, this had promise.
After all, with the technology we now have, how hard could it be to make an Aliens game? All you need is right there on the screen.
With the possible exception of Death Race, I can’t think of a film more suited to a videogame adaptation than Aliens. You have a cast of characters, a squad mechanic, great locations, atmosphere, the monsters and an almighty boss battle.
So what the hell happened?
After that initial reveal, it all went quiet on Colonial Marines. It would be six long years before it emerged again, but it arrived on a wave of big words from developer Gearbox. It was their baby, their labour of love and this game was so true to the franchise that it was proclaimed as official canon by Fox and the true sequel to Aliens. Despite shitting out the worst game ever made in Duke Nukem Forever, Gearbox had our attention and our trust and what they were showing us pointed to a brilliant game ahead.
We approached the release. Where were the reviews? It became evident that a review embargo was in place. With publishers trying to maximise week one sales by getting the games magazines to sign non-disclosure agreements, embargoes are rarely good news and show a lack of confidence in their own product. 
Sure enough, when the release day came, the reviews landed and they were hard to read:
Edge called it "a familiar mismanagement of a rich and potent set of ideas and images," while OXM described it as a "superficially faithful clone with little of the films' spirit inside."
And of course, Hitler had something to say about it too.
Despite the Fuhrer, I decided to make up my own mind and handed over my money with trembling hands.
The game starts well enough with all the right sounds and titles and these sound effects continue throughout the game – the horrifying blip of the motion tracker, the hiss of the aliens and of course the deep, raw sound of the pulse rifle – all are present and correct. Even Lance Henrickson has lent his voice.
Other highlights are the first few sections as you are still expecting a true Aliens experience. You are creeping through the darkness, the tension mounting. Finding locations and little nods from the first two films will also cause a few stirs of emotion from you.
Voice synching with the marines’ lips is terrible, the AI is seriously flawed and full of bugs – marines suddenly spawn in front of you when you run ahead and you can shoot and walk right through each other.
The textures are awful and the whole game, while not quite last gen graphics, is pretty damn close to it.
I know the game is supposed to be action packed, but there are just far too many aliens and facing them quickly loses its impact.
And the story, while adequate, ends with the hope of a sequel that we’ll never see and also (and I won’t give away how), it gives an almighty "fuck you" to Alien 3’s opening.
Having said all that, I did find myself reasonably entertained. I think I had more fun than I did with Black Ops II’s campaign, I was never as frustrated as when playing Kane and Lynch and it isn’t as bad as Duke Nukem Forever. Nevertheless, even if you’re the kind of person who can justify the price for 6 – 8 hours of reasonable entertainment, there are still a lot more games you’d be better off with. The multiplayer is awful and you’d never choose it over Halo or Battlefield and even though there is fun to be had in split screen or 4 player co-op, this will be more down to your friends than the game.
But the main reason I can’t in good conscience recommend this game has a lot to do with this:
We were lied to. Gearbox rolled us one up. They had us believe the game was better than it was and if Sega have anything about them, they will do something to ensure this doesn’t happen again.
But I haven’t told you the worst part.
The worst part of Aliens: Colonial Marines - and this is the game’s greatest crime of all……..The Xenomorph are not scary.
Sure there are a few bits in this game that will make you jump and there’s the blind-firing panic you get into when you’re caught in the open or one has worked its way behind you in a corridor, but ultimately this game becomes a firing range. You step boldly into rooms where you should be edging your way in, checking those corners. You run, gung-ho through levels when you should be hunkered down, preying your motion sensor doesn’t beep.
These are not H.R. Geiger’s ferocious creatures that have haunted our dreams since 1979. They are far from the perfect organism with a structural perfection matched only by their hostility. They are dumb, limp AI with no direction or grace, flailing headlong at your gun barrel. They are mere cardboard cutouts of cinema’s most beautifully terrible creation.
Game over, man.