Survival of the Toughest

Hi.  Oh wow, it’s been a long time since I wrote anything here!  In case any of my many, many loyal fans and visitors to this site (hi mum, hi spambots) really miss me and want to know where I’ve been writing about games all this time I have actually been posting some stuff for Beefjack.com (a proper, like, gaming site, I know!  My stuff can be found here) and I’ve started up my EVE Online blog again over here.

In the meantime I wrote a little article about the wonderful and brilliant Day Z that I and half the internet have completely fallen in love with, and survival games in general.  It didn’t really fit on either of my other thought outlets so here it is.  Feedback and comments are, as always, very welcome.

Welcome to the apocalypseSurvival Days

I have had a recurring dream since childhood.  The setting can change, but the overall dream is always the same: I get chased by an angry mob of everybody I have ever met and I have no option but to run.  The dream’s always the same, there will be a point when I keep slipping or feel like I’m running through treacle, and then it ends with me diving into some makeshift hiding place only to be found by the horde and at that instant wake up in a cold sweat.

My reason for sharing this deeply personal anecdote with you, dear readers, is because yesterday I accidentally recreated this dream in the ARMA2 mod Day Z, and in doing so realised why the survival genre is such a brilliantly absorbing one.

Zombies are bad, but other players are worseDazed

We humans are designed for survival.  Living comes easy to many of us in the 21st Century, but survival is still with us, knitted into the fabric of our DNA, our subconscious dreams and our conscious worries.  For all the millennia of changes humans have lived through we haven’t had time to evolve to our new lives, so the same instincts that drove our ancestors to hunt, forage, kill and seek shelter drive us still.  It’s the reason we form strong social bonds with family and friends.  It’s the reason why we love fatty, calorific foods much to the detriment of our waistlines.  It’s the reason we have nightmares as our brains force us to practice fight or flight situations.  It’s why we still get angry and violent when there might be little to get angry or violent about.

It is survival, and it’s why yesterday for a few glorious but terrifying moments in Day Z I forgot I was playing a game at all, pursued by a town’s worth of zombies up a barren hill into an abandoned shack that’s door, I realised too late, could not be shut.  Instinct had kicked in, adrenaline had taken over, I thought I was really there, and was frankly relieved when the zombies burst in to my useless shelter and sent me back to the server lobby.  It was just a game! Thank god.  And then I remembered all the kit I’d lost.  ARRRRGGGGHH!

Day Z, for those that haven’t heard, is a new mod for PC soldier-sim Arma2 that starts you on a beach on an island infested with zombies and 50 other players with no objective other than if you don’t move you will die of thirst and starvation.  So you better get moving!  It’s been so popular it’s been responsible for Arma2‘s rise to the top of the Steam charts for a spell last week, and for Amazon selling out of Arma2 CD keys.  So why has it been so popular, and how can yet another zombie based action game be so ground breaking?

Nightfall provides cover, but you can't see a thing without throwing attention grabbing flaresDon’t Die!

For a start it is so refreshing to be given such a clear and naturally compelling goal: Don’t die!  For years games have spun ever entangling narratives to give us reason to move from A to B and traverse the obstacles and enemies that lie between.  “Your princess is in another castle”.  “Look out! Hitler’s opened the gates of hell!”.  “There’s even more terrorists in that next building!”.  “Oh no! Zombies!/Dragons!/Aliens!/Dr.Robotnik!”.  Etc, etc.

Last night, though, respawning after my terrifying defeat I spent 3 hours looking for a fresh water source in Day Z’s apocalyptic wasteland.  That’s it!  No back story to uncover, no NPCs to save, and no achievements to unlock.  I just needed water or else I would die.  Despite that, it was easily the most engrossing few hours of gaming I’ve enjoyed this year.  I spent 3 hours sprinting from shadow to shadow, looting fallen players, scavenging zombie infested farms, taking a massive detour around another player who didn’t respond to my “friend or foe?” call, and making an audible whelping noise when I crested a grassy hill in the dark to find the silhouettes of 6 shuffling zombies 5 feet in front of me.

Day Z isn’t the first survival game. Even in the last couple of years titles such as Minecraft, Fallout: New Vegas, I Am Alive, S.T.A.L.K.E.R., Dead Island and Project Zomboid have all contained some or all of the same survival mechanics: an open world, scarce resources, living off the land, punishing toughness and the tough punishment of permadeath.  Oh, and a constant, crippling atmosphere and tension.  Oh god, the tension!

What makes Day Z stand out from those games is that it strips away any of the peripheral distractions like Fallout‘s storyline, Minecraft‘s collecting and architecting or Project Zomboid‘s skills and perks.  Day Z focuses purely on survival.  It takes ARMA2‘s existing open world, combat mechanics and inventory system and replaces all story and objectives with 4 HUD markers indicating thirst, hunger, temperature and blood.  The objectives don’t need to be spelled out: You need to keep those indicators green.  The storyline doesn’t need an intro cutscene or reams of text: It’s written by your actions as you go.

Not goodNumbers games

I think the appeal of something so simple comes as a subconscious backlash to the RPG-ification of all genres over the last decade or so of gaming.  Sure, in any game we are playing a role but the stats based RPG gameplay that originated in Dungeons and Dragons board games and has worked it’s way from traditional RPGs like Baldur’s Gate into other genres via groundbreaking titles such as System Shock has now proliferated into all games and genres.  I challenge anyone to find a modern game that doesn’t involve some form of levelling up, earning skills and improvements or acquiring unlocks and bonuses through meeting set achievements.

It all comes back to instincts.  The reason we enjoy ‘playing’ as a species is to practice our survival skills: fighting, puzzle solving, reactions.  Equally the compulsion to horde loot in Diablo or to find a bow with a better damage rating in Skyrim comes from the same package of instincts that have helped the human race survive so well over the last million years.  You want more and better stuff than your rivals.  You want to level up to the maximum possible because bigger numbers are better.  It is in our genes.

Yet there is only so many times levelling up yet another character (or vehicle, or football team, or whatever) can provide satisfaction.  You start to forget why you even care that your Old Republic bounty hunter is level 36 rather than level 35.  Survival games remind you by taking away all the distractions and placing you in seriously dangerous surroundings: You care because it’s life or death.

Sanctuary!Playing roles

Day Z also takes role playing back to what it should be about: Playing a role defined by the way you play not the stats you apply to your character.  Its stats and skills are broken down to the simplest calculations: machineguns are better than pistols.  Darkness is stealthier than light.  It’s character progression is equally natural: Do you use that last inventory slot for more bandages or more ammo?

Despite this simplicity clear roles are appearing in the 50-person servers of Day Z games.  The hunter-gatherers live off the land, catching, cooking and eating wild animals, avoiding zombie infested towns and replenishing water bottles at lakes.  The looters forage the towns and cities for new gear, food and water, every incursion a balance between risk and reward.  Meanwhile the bandits form ragtag, distrustful groups of player hunters, earning their survival through the murder and looting of other under-equipped players.

The only goal is survival, the only highscore is the number of days you lasted.  That’s why Day Z is the embodiment of the budding genre of survival games, and why survival games are in many ways the embodiment of gaming in general.

And perhaps a therapeutic cure to life-long recurring dreams?  Here’s hoping.

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The PC gaming year that was 2011 – Part 2

Another game about permanent death

.. and I’ve seen it before

.. and I’ll see it again

.. yes I’ve seen it before

.. just little bits of history repeating

Dame Shirley Bassey there, singing about PC games.

Have I ever told you about my first video game?  I’m not so sure that I have.  The first video game I owned was Super Mario Bros 2 that came with the NES I got one Christmas in 1990 or thereabouts.  The one infuriating feature of that game and pretty much every game of that era that remains so strongly ingrained in my memory, buried somewhere between memories of stubbing my big toe on mum’s coffee table and catching myself in the zip of my jeans, is that you could not save your game.  None of the games at the time let you save your game, apart from very rare exceptions (the first Zelda title did in 1987) the consoles and game cartridges just didn’t have the memory to support save games.  It took hours and hours to complete Super Mario Bros 2, even with a healthy knowledge of the hidden warp pipes to skip whole worlds (all of which would have to be found personally or learned from the playground, as the internet wasn’t an option) you could still spend an entire day reaching level 90 only to run out of lives and be booted unceremoniously back to the start.  Or worse a power cut would take it away, or you’d brush the overly sensitive reset button on the front of your NES and all those hours of hard work were worth nothing.

Thankfully technology soon caught up and the ability to save your progress or at the very least get a level code to bring you back to the last level you reached next time you loaded took off in the SNES era, meaning we didn’t need to worry about failing or turning our computers off quite so much ever again.  In fact the safety net provided by the proliferation of ‘quicksave’ buttons, save checkpoints and respawning over the course of the decade mean the modern gamer rarely has to play the same stretch of game twice, and is therefore no longer afraid of death.

Some people think that is not such a good thing.

PermaDeath is Dred-ful

2011 – The year of PERMADEATH!!!

So if there is one gaming trend in 2011 that I’m fascinated by the most it is the sudden resurgence of Perma-death as an acceptable gaming occurrence, and in some cases the entire premise around which to build a game.  Of course the idea of a game that doesn’t let you save is not new, and the genre that holds perma-death as a core belief, roguelikes, has been quietly producing games since the 70s right through to now, but 2011 was the first year I’ve seen so many popular games released where death means death.  Plus I’ve largely enjoyed all of them instead of running out of the room screaming, which is a first (Spelunky aside) since those heady days of the early nineties.

What games am I wittering on about you ask?  In no particular order I am thinking of:

Binding of Isaac  I talked about this in part 1.  Whilst it shares more in common with early Nintendo games in its gameplay it does share all the basic premises of a roguelike with: no saving, no ‘lives’ (well, except for one very rare 1up item), and every new level is procedurally generated at random when you start.  The beauty of the Binding of Isaac is each game is thankfully short, so even if you reach the second last level and die, it’ll only take you 20 minutes to catch up.  But maybe next time there won’t be any keys around to let you into the item rooms on each level leading to a certain death half way through this playthrough?  Or perhaps instead the devil will appear after an end of level boss and offer you a super power up in exchange for a heart of health that makes the difference and helps you reach the final boss?  It’s the random nature of each game and the never-ending list of items and power-ups to be found that make it so replayable, which is essential for a game that forces you to start again every time you die.

Dungeons of Dredmor Probably the most roguelike of the games I’m talking about Dredmor has turn-based combat, RPG levelling-up, item looting and crafting, and an increasingly difficult depth of dungeons to fight through.  Slightly disproving my point, though, savegames are an option in Dredmor.  However, Permadeath is still very much, err, alive.  Which just means you can spend all week getting further than you’ve done before, saving your progress as you go, levelling your character into a super Diggle hunter, crafting marvellous weapons of destruction, only to die in a slightly over-ambitious skirmish and lose everything you worked for with your saves being wiped instantly.  That said most of my attempts have ended in the first 2 dungeons, meaning I’ve barely levelled up or collected anything to lose.  While there’s a wealth of items to collect the biggest problem with the pleasantly humourous Dungeons of Dredmor is the decision to make almost all enemies Diggles.  They’re just so daft and repetitive.  They’re the RPG equivalent of Halo’s grunts.

Realm of the Mad God Mad is the operative word in Realm of the Mad God.  Give it a go now if you haven’t before.  It’s totally free and plays in your browser.  Go on, play it now.  Stick with other players and try to be the first to grab any dropped loot.  You’ll die within 10 minutes, but have a good idea what I’m talking about then.

Finished?  Have fun?  It’s insane isn’t it?  I can’t remember a game in which you level up quite so fast.  Once again it’s a game released in 2011 that cares not for how much loot you’ve collected or what level you’ve reached.  When you die, YOU DIE.  Imagine if Skyrim did that to you?  Realm of the Mad God shares that pace and brevity with Binding of Isaac that mean it’s not too frustrating to start again following death, and it brings back that other aspect of early nineties gaming – trying to beat a personal best.  It’s certainly wormed its way onto my favourites tab.  My highest level reached?  A pitiful level 10, so far.

Desktop Dungeons Again there is a free version of this if you want to try it (there’s also a spruced up complete version on the way).  This was the first game I played this year where permadeath was a key feature.  The turned based combat, loot drops, permadeath and dungeon delving are all taken from roguelikes and again they’re packaged up in an accessible, addictive, coffee-break lengthed blast of fun.

Made by the Spelunky guy.  He's got a thing about PermadeathSo…yeah.  that’s just a thing I noticed in 2011.  Will permadeath feature in more games next year?  Or were roguelikes just this year’s 2D platformers?  Will Modern Warfare 4 feature a ‘Realism’ mode where when you die the game shuts down and can’t be played ever again even if you take it back to the shop and get it replaced?  Will I take the hint made by the fun I’ve had with the 4 games mentioned and take a dive into a true roguelike, like Nethack or Brogue perhaps?  Probably none of the above.  But I will be playing Binding of Isaac and Realm of the Mad God again.  And again…  And again….

The PC gaming year that was 2011 – Part 1

Spooky2011 now officially over it seems a good time to review the year that was, and what a year it was for PC games!  The world seemed to fall apart around us month by month, but thankfully those hard working developers large and small kept producing a vast amount of high quality video games to keep us all distracted from impending Armageddon.  There has already been a few opinions on whether 2011 was a vintage year for gaming.  Perhaps the quantity of titles masked the quality of them.  Perhaps the need, in this big-budget money driven industry, to make games that are known to be popular over games that are original and new has been to the detriment to the art form, and the fact that the vast majority of big games this year were sequels and the remainder were new stabs at tired genres would probably back that up.  Whatever the case though, I don’t think anyone can disagree that there were a lot of great games released in 2011.  I can’t remember a year in which I had so much fun.  So to round it up there’s a couple of things that happened this year that I think are worth noting over the course of a few blog posts.  First of all, 2011, the year that was….

2011: The year of Indie abundance

With the big developers sticking to what they know best (more on this later) it was again down to the independent developers to provide something new and exciting for the jaded gamer in 2011.  Although Minecraft only officially came out this year I think it’s fair to call it 2010’s game, and along with Amnesia: The Dark Descent, it stole the show from the AAA developers last year with the 2 being my favourite games of last year.  This year I don’t think any Indie game was quite that good, but so many came close and this can only continue to inspire a future of small, cheap, original and superb games from creative and unrestricted indie developers.

So in a very particular order of ‘quite pleased by’ through to ‘most pleased by’ 2011 produced (deep breath):

Spacechem You only had to wait until 1st January to get your first gaming fix of 2011 with this delightfully brain-twisting puzzler.  It’s hard, confusing and feels a little bit like doing science homework but if you want originality in a neatly presented package with just the right amount of narrative to give you reason to carry on then that box was ticked on day one.

Limbo Visually stunning, great use of sound, shame about the puzzles and the fact the first 10 minutes are the best part of the ……OH CHRIST!  A SPIDER LEG!

Victory Pose!Chtulu Saves the WorldFrom my limited knowledge of what ‘the kids’ are listening to nowadays I understand 2011 was all about the early nineties sound, and so it seems that gaming in 2011 had a big early nineties thing going on too.  Acronym of the year must go to SNES, and Chtulu Saves the World probably played the greatest homage to the best console ever (you can quote me on that, future historians).  Chtulu plays like a SNES RPG, like Final Fantasy IV era FF games, but gives away its year of birth through the reams of hilariously knowing writing that takes the piss out of its own genre’s foibles as well as every other genre and media form.  From the story, to the characters, enemies, weapons (there are SO MANY characters, enemies and weapons) and even the options menu this game is silly, you’ll know in the first 2 minutes whether you’re going to enjoy its brand of humour.  If you do, play it on easy, blast through the annoying combat and you can enjoy one of the funniest games of the year.  Plus at £1.99 full price on Steam and clocking in at 10s of hours of play it’s also the year’s best bargain (ignoring ‘free-to-play’ things).

SmashingAtom Zombie Smasher Insanely fun, apocalyptic, explode everything-em-up that once again proves there is no end to the different genres zombies work in.  AZS is basically a Real-Time Strategy game with a turn based ‘preparation’ layer between levels, making it sound a tiny bit like a Total War game, but believe me it is something completely different that I’m not even going to try and explain.  Look, just try the demo, it’s great.  It’s one of the few games I actually enjoy losing, there’s just something right about the game ending with your valiant efforts being all for nothing as the zombie infection spreads across your entire city.  Which is just as well because I have only ever beaten it on the patronising ‘Casual’ mode.  AZS also wins the award for soundtrack of the year, in my humble opinion.

Terraria It’s not a 2D Minecraft, but it does involve mining and crafting.  Where it differs is the complexity of things you can find and create and the structure that increasingly difficult monsters and bosses bring to the procedural proceedings.

Like a cute AlienCapsized Indie developers love a side-scrolling platform/shoot em-up and 2011 was no different, but Capsized really is as good as the genre gets.  It is beautifully drawn, has a wealth of slowly discovered weaponry, the best use of a gravity gun outside of Half-life 2 and every level is different and interesting.  You really need to play this one to the end so you don’t miss out on the low-gravity floating-island hopping of the last couple of levels.  Then play the gravity-gun only ‘armless levels’.  Just perfect.

Frozen Synapse I’ve talked about this before.  I’m still enjoying it when I occasionally hop on for a game.

Gemini Rue I’ve done this before too.  It’s ace.

Wait til his mum finds outBinding of Isaac Another game that drips with early nineties inspiration, the Binding of Isaac plays like a bastard child of the Legend of Zelda and Smash TV that was locked in the basement for the length of its childhood with nothing to do but relive its rogue-like nightmares over and over again day after day.  Providing you’re ok with the setting this is an incredibly addictive time-sink that I’m still enjoying even after finishing it once (and trying and failing to complete it about 50 times) there’s just so many items to unlock and achievements to achieve.  That setting, though?  Well, the Binding of Isaac is a cartoon game with biblical overtones whose main protagonist, Isaac, is a naked child who shoots tears and pee at his horrifying enemies who are all flys, worms or contorted caricatures of himself.  His goal is to find and kill his own mother (in self-defence), and the power ups include a dead cat, his mum’s high heels and sanitary towels, and bomb diarrhoea.  It’s, err, not for everyone, but that just makes me like it even more.

The kid done goodBastion – Last and (just) best in my little Indie round-up of 2011 is this beautiful action-RPG that’s light on the RPG, heavy on the action and absolutely dripping with artwork, atmosphere and superb narrative (and I mean literally, the narration is superb).  Considering the story sees you trying to salvage a home and search for survivors in a post-apocalyptic world torn apart by genocide, war and weapons of mass destruction the game built around this dark heart just looks so nice and sweet!  The graphics and artwork are lovely.  The combat is fluid and fun, with unlocked weapons providing different tactics rather than just more firepower (except for the last couple).  And the way the story unfolds through the narrator’s Big Lebowski style southern-US drawl is charming, original and, come the final moments, genuinely neck-tingling.

One of the most exciting things about Bastion?  It built so much hype pre-launch that the game was snapped up by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment for publication (who’ve published Batman: Arkham Asylum, Lord of the Rings Online and FEAR 3 among others), proving that Indie games are getting a lot of attention from big investors nowadays, and whilst Minecraft and others have proven you don’t necessarily need the backing of big publishers to make big games, it has got to be a positive sign that the most creative source for games are getting proper backing and attention.  Are publishers tiring of backing massive-budget games in the same old genres where one failure can bankrupt a publisher and endanger an entire network of developers?  I don’t know about that, but the gap between ‘AAA’ games and ‘indie’ games is definitely getting narrower which can only be a good thing for the future of games.

Next up in the 2011 round-up – Perma-death and Detective work

Private Foyle’s Battlefield 3 Multiplayer Impressions…..concluded!

BLA-BOOM!

So, enough with the stories, hopefully they’ve given you a little taste of what Battlefield 3 multiplayer plays like.  If it’s seemed disjointed, manic and difficult to comprehend what I was actually doing most of the time then I’ve successfully described the Battlefield 3 experience.

What do I think of it at this early stage?  I am absolutley loving it.  Compared to Battlefield:Bad Company 2’s (BF:BC2)  brand of anarchic team-based multiplayer, of which I was a big fan anyway, this is a real step up in realism, depth and, through the bigger focus on vehicles, fun.  It’s not a return to Battlefield 2 (B2), and some may be disappointed by that, it’s more of a balance struck between the faster paced BF:BC2 and the more tactical B2.  I for one think it strikes that balance well, capturing the chaotic playground fun of mass brawls where everyone has ridiculously overpowered weapons and the more tactical, careful approach that’s required to really do well and achieve a scoreboard leading points haul.  You can achieve very little on your own in this game, when you do well it is when you’re working with or for your team.

Cool vaulting animation in action

The improvements over the previous games come in the details, and I’m not just talking about the obvious improvement in graphics and sound.  For one, the points system is really well refined.  It’s more forgiving for newbie players as it gives points away like confetti for every little bit of service you give towards your team, so that even on a bad game where nothing goes right for you you will still end up with hundreds of points towards your next unlock or rank up.  Plus the points are even more focused on rewarding team contribution over being the player with the highest kills.

I’m also a big fan of the changed class roles, although it’s not immediately apparent from their basic set ups.  The new assault class seems like an overpowered super class to begin with, with their machinegun rifles, health kits and quickly unlocked defribillator and grenade launcher.  It’s in the unlocks that the balancing begins: If you want to equip that grenade launcher you need to sacrifice your medkits.  And if you want extra ammo for that grenade launcher you’ll have to sacrifice your defribillator, and before you know it you have a classic Assault class player.  Switch that the other way round and you’ll be a Medic.  And either way you’ll have an excellent mid-range machine gun.

This must be one of the peaceful seconds between someone having a lock on me and somebody else having a lock on me

The same becomes apparent for the other classes.  The Engineer has obvious advantages from the off (vehicle repair and rocket launchers) plus a more mid-range rifle aswell, but the seemingly less useful Support class can unlock mortars, C4 explosives, and claymore mines on top of his usual mountable heavy machinegun and ammo refills to become THE defence class, and the only one well equipped to tackle both infantry and land vehicles on their own.

The Recon class is the one that has suffered the biggest cutbacks from BF:BC2 now that they’ve lost their ability to call in mortar strikes and the fact that sniper scopes now give off a glint that makes it a lot easier for your distant targets to spot you when you’re trying to line up a headshot.  Personally, though, I think it’s a fair reduction.  Anyone who spent a frustrated game of BF:BC2 being picked off by invisible snipers on the other side of the map who were earning hundreds of points per kill for the over-generous headshot bonus will probably share my feelings.  It’s still a viable, and occassionally very useful class, but now it’s stripped down to it’s core focus of sniping a spotting I think it’s going to be a lot less popular, so no more teams of snipers to have to hide from.

Ker-SMASH-CRACK!

What it lacks is anything particularly new.  Battlefield 3 has carefully refined and improved the Battlefield experience that already existed, but it hasn’t really added anything.  The game modes are identical to BF:BC2, and although all the maps are cleverly set up to support both Rush and Conquest mode well I can’t help thinking there could have been more.  Inspiration could have been gained from the singleplayer where whole levels are played out in a single vehicle, why not introduce Jet-only modes or Tank-only modes into the multiplayer?  That would be a lot of fun.  Or how about combining Conquest and Rush modes to form something more epic where an area is fought over in a typical conquest style, but when one team wins that section the fighting moves to an adjoining area where more flags must be caotured and held.  That way whole cities could be fought for in a single multiplayer game.

Perhaps future updates will be more adventurous in this way rather than just adding to the already strong line-up of maps.  We’ll see.  For now though, I’m heading back to the battlefield.  Hopefully see you there.

Swwwwwwwsssssssssh-BLAM-BLAAAASTKERSPLODE

 

P.S. By the way, if anyone reading is one of those 3 guys who were in the back of that jeep I drove straight at an enemy tank on Caspian Border, I need to explain:  I’m not a COMPLETE moron, I just figured the last thing he’d expect me to do was drive straight at him and that would give us all the element of surprise when we all leapt out and surrounded him with our RPGs.  In the end it only gave us the element of explosions, death and respawn and for that I am very sorry.

Private Foyle’s Battlefield 3 Multiplayer Impressions…..continued!

Welcome back to Private Foyle’s Battlefield 3 Impressions (If you missed the first batch you can catch up here).  Since yesterday’s initial deployment to the battlefield Private Foyle has been issued with the latest war correspondent technology: A screenshot capture button.  So we no longer need to rely on his frankly terrible literary powers of description to paint a picture of his online capers, he can use the power of his terrible photography instead.  You have been warned:

Kharg Island - Not as Piratey as the name suggests

KHARG ISLAND – CONQUEST LARGE

Oh, yes.  Now this is more like it.  No more tight tunnels.  No more sheltered courtyards and running infantry battles.  Here is a proper Battlefield map.

We find ourselves fighting over flags dotted around a desert peninsula.  The land is open and barren, with fragile warehouses and occasional stone buildings breaking up the crisscrossing sand and tarmac roads.  Warships wait menacingly just off shore.  And is that an Aircraft Carrier I spy?  This is clearly a vehicle led map.

Flag successfully defended

Again I’ve joined mid-game so I deploy my trusty Assault class onto an already captured flag.  After impatiently waiting about 30 seconds to defend against attackers that don’t show, I give up and go looking for a vehicle.

Jeep! Jeep!

Here’s one!  It’s not a tank but it’ll do.  Onwards to battle!  Which way to the frontline!?

Who leaves anti-tank mines THERE!?

OWWW!  What are the odds!  If you can’t quite place that picture it is approximately where the one before was taken from.  I got 2 metres before driving over an anti-tank mine.  Balls.

Luckily one of my erstwhile squadmates (whom I’ve not even seen yet on this vast map) has commandeered a tank that needs a gunner.  It’s so handy just spawning into vehicles like this!

The view from a tank's mounted gun.  The green tint matches the nauseous feeling you get being driven around

Here we’ve just blown up an enemy tank!  I say we, I mean the driver who controls the main gun, but don’t worry I did manage to shoot a few guys before we met a fiery death after something (possibly one of the planes overhead?) missile locked us and blew us up.  I now realise the bleeping warning signals mean somebody has missile locked you.  You live and learn!  Or….well, you die and learn and then respawn.  Into….. an attack helicopter!

SQQQQQUUUUUUUUUUUUUEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!

WOOOOOOOOOOOOOHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!  WEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!  WAAAAAAAAAAAHHHEEEEEYYYY!

Wooooah.  I've still not got used to the chopper controls

Blank screen:  YOUR TEAM LOST!  Buggar.  I didn’t even reach the mainland.  Must get in an attack chopper again soon.  And back on this map, it’s awesome.

No time to rest, though, onto the next map:

OPERATION METRO – CONQUEST

I was going to quit this one having played it to death in the Beta, but then I remembered that was only the Rush version, and a Conquest game played out on the Paris park at the start of the Rush map would be awesome.

Battlefield 3 running on my PC. (There's a sprinting joke in there somewhere)

Oh, right.  The Conquest game plays out in the bloody tunnels.  Bah.  Well, I’ve started so I might as well finish.  We capture 2 flags and then meet a complete bottleneck on the escalators down to the train tracks.  Handily there’s only 3 flags so we are technically winning.  As long as we can hold the escalators this should be easy.

Blurry screen = you are being suppressed, get out the way of the bullets

As well as accruing a ridiculous amount of healing points for plonking down medkits at the top of them (check out the screenshot above: 415 points from healing alone!) I spend most of the game lurking at the top of the escalators like in the picture above and (when I’m not being ‘suppressed’) pop over to shoot peoples.

Only paramedics can spell defibrillator without looking it up

The rest of my time spent resuscitating the piles of bodies that form at the top of the escalator and before you know it…

Hooray!

Hooray, I guess.

Incredibly boring map, though.  Remind me to never play Operation Metro again in any form.

Back to Kharg Island for me I think.  More impressions to follow, I expect.

[A note on the screenshots and system requirements – I won’t bore you with the details but my PC isn’t the newest and most powerful beast, so is running the game on ‘Custom’ graphics settings set a tiny bit below ‘medium’.  Apparently ‘low’ is the equivilent of the XBOX 360 version, so it should be better than screenshots of that, but it’s not going to match up to others you might have seen.  If you’re worrying you’ve just spent £1000 on a new rig and that’s all it’s going to look like, don’t worry, yours will look a lot better!  But for those wondering if their old faithful can play the game mine is a Dual-Core AMD 3Ghz; 2Gb RAM; GTS 250.  Ok, I lied, I did bore you with the details, but if you read til the end you probably wanted to know!]

Private Foyle’s Battlefield 3 Multiplayer Impressions

Battlefield 3 - at least the 5th game in the Baattlefield seriesIt’s here!  Battlefield 3 has arrived and after finally being dispatched far too late by my chosen online retailer I’m at last able to get my hands on the game.  I’ve played some of the singleplayer and I’ve been pleasantly surprised.  It’s taken hefty inspiration from Modern Warfare, and is painfully linear for much of the campaign, but the level of detail in every aspect of graphics, dialogue, sound and the sheer spectacle of some of the set pieces probably set it a notch higher than its inspiration.

I’m not going to go in depth about the singleplayer, though.  There’s already a million reviews out there for it and all of them will tell you one thing, if you weren’t already expecting it: you shouldn’t buy this game just for the singleplayer.  Battlefield has always been about the multiplayer and that’s where we’re going to be taking a good look today.  I say ‘we’ because I’ve drafted in a comrade and online alias of mine to give us a frontline perspective of his very first deployment into the 3rd Battlefield.  His name is Private Foyle and he’s a veteran of every single Battlefield (except the first Bad Company game), and even got to spend many hours on the Battlefield 3 Beta.  What he hasn’t learned through years of walking into lines of cross-fire, over-cooking grenades and trying to stab tanks to death with a rifle butt just isn’t worth knowing.  What he’s going to do is run through a round or 2 of some of the new maps and describe his experience as he goes, hopefully giving us an impression of the game and the maps as he does so.  So without further delay, lets try and patch him through.

Private Foyle, can you read me?

<over radio static> Yep, roger, I can here you.

Great.  Private, what’s the sit-rep?

Err, the err, the what what?

The situation report!  What’s happening there, what can you see?

Oh, right!  Well, I’ve been deployed high in the…in some mountains.  There’s alpine vistas everywhere I look.  Lot of dust.  Lens flare.  We appear to be fighting for a tunnel, that cuts through one of the mountain ridges, linking one valley full of mining machinery with another valley…also full of mining machinery. 

What’s the tactical sense in capturing that?

Err, none that I can see, but we don’t get paid to ask questions.

No, you don’t get paid at all.

Well, quite.  Right.  There’s 3 flags to capture.  One at each end of the tunnel, out in the open, and one in the middle.  There’s a tank here, and ooh, a helicopter!

What’s the plan of action?

Err, probably get in the helicopter before anyone else and see if I can work out how to fly it. 

And if that fails?

Um, probably just shoot some guys.

Ok great.  Take it away Private Foyle:

Damavand Peak - In Conquest mode there is no peak

DAMAVAND PEAK – CONQUEST

Right, the games begun!  Where to spawn?  Deployment area or…inside the scout helicopter?  Helicopter obviously!  Hmm, how do you fly these things?  WASD controls throttle and rudder, that’s fine, but using the mouse to steer and pitch is insanely inaccurate.  No time to perfect this, though, let’s just find the enemy!  I hit the throttle hard and climb up over the ridge leaving my team mates to charge down the tunnel.  Reaching the peak of the ridge I tilt the craft forwards to reveal the enemy deployment area and their already captured flag at the other entrance to the tunnel. Holding the forward tilt so I can aim the guns at their flag (no idea if there’s anyone there to be hit but it’s a good place to start) I charge down the mountain side machine guns blasting and….. POOFSH!  I blow up over the enemy deployment area.  Approximately 10 seconds into game.  I’ve lost the team’s only helicopter.  I have no kills.  Damn.

Respawning at the central control point my more sensible teammates have captured I find a handy crate to hide behind and try and pick people off.  This is going well, much less laggy than the Beta, although this is a 32 player map.  Reach my first rank up just crouching behind this crate and blamming opponents silly enough to come charging up the tunnel!  Easy!  Until… AIEEE!  A tank!  Throw my only grenade vainly at its tracks and run into the nearest cover: a concrete doorway.  Where does this go?  Oooh, a really tight pedestrian tunnel running parallel to the main one.  I wonder if I can reach the opponents flag from here?  Take 10 paces before meeting a tidal wave of enemy fire coming the other way.  I’m not the only one with that idea then!  No where to hide in the narrow corridor = dead.

Respawn inside squadmate’s jeep.  Oooh, I’m manning the guns!  Where are we?  Oh crap!  The middle of the enemies deployment area!  Squadmate parks under enemy’s flag at the end of the tunnel and obviously expects me to keep the hostiles at bay until we’ve captured it.  Luckily most of them are attacking the central flag, but after picking off a few strays we’re interrupted by an enemy APC!  Having gulped down my panic my mounted gun soon cripples the armoured truck and picks off the fleeing inhabitant as they try to escape.  Turns out noone was on it’s mounted gun so no wonder it was so easy!  We capture the flag just in time… they have their own chopper lifting off.  A tense chase around their base (us being chased, natch) ends with us exploding into the tunnel (literally) after trying to make a hasty retreat.  I must have done a lot of damage to the chopper though as moments later I’m awarded points for assisting in it’s destruction.

Conveniently our own chopper is available again as I respawn from that fiery death.  This time I try controlling it using WASD and directions keys instead.  This is MUCH easier.  Position myself at the friendly end of the tunnel and send volleys of machinegun fire down the tunnel.  Have no idea if I’m being any use, though, as I’m so low to the ground the dust kicked up by the rotors is obscuring my view.  This should be annoying but I can’t help a beaming smile at the graphical detail and fun of it all.

In all the excitement I’ve failed to notice we have now lost the central flag and must have done so a while ago as our ticket counter is dangerously low compared to theirs.  I ascend again quickly ,this time ready to bail out over the enemy base and parachute into a corner.  No one seems to have noticed me so I pick off a couple of their guys from behind but all in vain…the screen goes black and the outcome appears…YOUR TEAM LOST!

Buggar.  Oh well.  On to the next map!

Ironic because you will cross the Seine many times in one game

SEINE CROSSING – CONQUEST

Now for my first 64 player game.  I’m deployed mid-battle into a squad lying down on some stone stairs leading up from the banks of the Seine onto a Parisian street.  Paris glows in the sunshine, and looks every bit the lovers’ holiday destination of choice that it is…except for the half exploded military roadblock I can see on a bridge up the river.  Oh, and the noise.  And the cowering on the stairs.  Just from the sound of gunfire and explosions near and far you can tell there are more players here.  It sounds like chaos.  I try to get some bearings.

A quick glance at the mini-map identifies why we’re lying on the stairs: 4 angry red triangles line the other side of the street that we’re trying to push on to.  Having my one grenade I line up a throw that loops over the wall and across the street.  After a finger crossed pause a KER-BLAPT throws grey dust into the air above the street and those magic words appear: ENEMY DOWN 100 points.  Wow, that actually worked!  My squad use the momentum to peer over the top of the stair way and hurl machine gun fire at the enemy position.  Car windows shatter, brick dust flies, sparks and muzzle-flash consume my field of view.  Taking it in turns to pop up, shoot, then duck back down to reload we successfully clear the other side of the street and advance on the previously enemy occupied building.

The squad I was auto-assigned to when I joined clearly knows what they’re doing.  I follow in awe and try to copy what I see as they advance in a tight line, at every corner one drops to the floor and peers round.  No shots fired the rest of us pile past to the next corner and take up covering positions.  Swapping roles again another squadman peers round followed by the rest of us at a charge.  Soon we’re within site of an enemy flag on the minimap.  It’s inside a courtyard with only 2 narrow entrances on either side.  Being my turn to look around the corner I dive into a prone position in front of the opening.  Seeing hostiles I open fire and down one before another gets me.  I can see all hell break loose from the deployment screen as I impatiently tap tap tap the deploy button even though its timer is still ticking down.  Eventually it goes green and I deploy on a squadmate.  We’re still stuck outside the courtyard entrance facing volleys of machinegun fire.

I drop a medkit, one of the assault classes specialities, and start racking up points as it heals my injured squadmates.  The speed with which you acrue points in the game is ridiculous.  Every little action results in some points being added to your total.  A squadmate spawning on you?  10 points.  Healing a friendly?  20 points.  Laying down suppressing fire?  50 points.  That last one is what we try now.  Shooting near to any enemy now causes their screen to blur, forcing them to withdraw and find a less dangerous position.  We use this to our advantage as we fire wildly into the courtyard and chuck our last grenades before charging in.  A squadmate falls but I’m able to revive him with my newly unlocked Defibrillator.  We secure the courtyard and after earning a load more points healing the squad again I push on with the squad again.

The round ends shortly after with my first team victory (which earns another 500 points on top of the 200 for just taking part!)!  And I win a squad ribbon for being part of the best squad!  A quick check of the scoreboard confirms it was definitely the other 3 members that earned us that reward, but what the hell, I’m not going to refuse the points that come with it.

I’ll keep updating with more maps as they come.  On to the next one!

Haven’t I been here before?

Atmosphere with a capital ATI love the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games.  Ever since I first stepped in to the Zone in Call of Pripyat I’ve become totally enthralled by the atmosphere, exploration and harsh environment of these spectacular open-world games.  Having completed Pripyat (twice) and then enjoying the original Shadow of Chernobyl just as much,  I’ve been playing through the slightly less well received STALKER:Clear Sky over the last week or two to complete the trilogy (albeit, in completely the wrong order).  Clear Sky blurs the line between add-on (or DLC, if you must) and full game by having the vast majority of the game take place in the exact same locations as Shadow of Chernobyl, and that got me thinking: Does revisiting an old location from a new angle add something to the game and the world it’s created?  Or is it just a player-jarring cost saving measure by a developer keen to milk every penny from an expensively created environment?  I’d love to know your thoughts on this too, but here’s what I’m thinking:

In Clear Sky it works.  It really shouldn’t but I think GSC got it right here.  One of the great features of STALKER, and any open-world game, is the feeling of exploration as you venture to new parts of the map.  Seeing a grey blob on the satellite image map and carefully heading there through the hostile landscape not knowing whether you’re going to find a giant radioactive lake infested with monsters, or an exploded government bunker (…also infested with monsters) is one of the best thrills STALKER has to offer.  To know that was going to be removed in Clear Sky where 90% of the locations were already familiar from a playthrough of Shadow of Chernobyl  had me prepared for a big disappointment.  What I hadn’t prepared for, though, was how GSC were going to change the character landscape that rests on the physical one.

Hmm, is it Deja Vu....For those that haven’t played it, Clear Sky’s main unique selling point was the ‘faction wars system’ in which different NPC factions fighting for control of the zone could help or hinder your progress depending on your allegiance (or hostility) to each of them.  Ultimately the system was widely derided for game-ifying otherwise simulation-based gameplay, and for frankly being a pain in the arse, but this shift in focus to the human conflict within the zone meant that, where before all but the most secure strongholds were devoid of human beings (of the unmutated and non-zombified variety, anyway) and crawling with terrifying monsters, in Clear Sky areas you expect to be a struggle are a guided by armed-guard walk in the park, and areas you once strolled through are now an inch by inch gun-battle through the territory of a faction you had the misfortune of pissing off.

I guess what I’m trying to say is Clear Sky doesn’t feel like a rerun of the same environment because you still don’t know what to expect as you retrace “the marked one’s” steps through the zone.  The meaning of exploration is in finding out what lies over there and as soon as you realise it’s not going to be what you found in Shadow of Chernobyl that feeling of exploration returns.  Add to that the dynamic weather and passage of time, the atmosphere of a place can be completely different the second time through.  Like when an abandoned industrial site that was once the location of a fear-filled artifact hunt in the dead of night with only a torch and lightning flashes to light the way becomes a pleasant meeting with the head of a friendly faction, complete with reggae music echoing through the concrete halls and shafts of sunshine beaming in through the windows.

Stupid Map. THANKS SHOWING ALL THE BADDIES AND RUINING ALL THE TENSION!I’ve enjoyed Clear Sky, not as much as the other STALKERs, but it’s still a good game.  What it lacks is not a new environment but that feeling of being let loose in a barren, hostile world.  It’s too careful to highlight what you should and shouldn’t do via the enemy markers on the map and the faction standing meters on your PDA.  It feels too much like a game and not an experience.  What I’ve really liked about it, though, is that feeling of following in the footsteps of someone great, heading towards something cataclysmic.  Another layer of tension is added by your knowledge of the previous game, both in the locational sense and the story.  It’s something I’d like to see more of in games, especially games where you can pick and choose your actions.  I’d love to follow in the footsteps of my Fallout 3 or Witcher 2 character in the eyes of, say, an assassin or a detective tasked with capturing the person you once played.  To see the trail of destruction your original character left, which at the time seemed necessary, but through the eyes of your pursuer seems wanton, and to form new opinions of your own actions would be a really interesting mechanic to explore.  It’s not something I’m aware has been done yet, perhaps I’m wrong?

...I could swear I've been here beforeOther series’ have reused locations, especially with DLC.  Rockstar’s return to Liberty City in the Grand Theft Auto IV DLCs The Lost and the Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony works well because the city was only ever a canvas for the story to be painted on.  Again a slight shift in gameplay focus, from cars to bikes to helicopters, matches the shift in narrative focus so you get to experience Liberty City from a new perspective both literally and narratively.

The wonderful Opposing Force add-on for Half-Life let you see Black Mesa through the eyes of an infiltrating Marine, rather than an escaping scientist .  Gearbox created mostly new environments within the Black Mesa facility for the add-on to take place in, but the occasions when you saw a familiar locale, or crossed paths with Gordon Freeman added an overarching feeling of being part of something greater.

I guess that’s perhaps the issue with reusing locations:  If it’s a sprawling open-world like the Zone or Liberty city, there’s scope to force players to revisit with a new story or gameplay mechanics attached and it still feel new.  Something more linear like Half-Life and Bioshock are always going to struggle to create a ‘new’ feeling when you’re venturing down the same corridors to the same areas, which is why their add-ons and sequels have always demanded new locations to be built, even though players want to return to Black Mesa and Rapture.

At a time when procedurally generated 3D worlds are a possibility, like the infinitely constructing Minecraft world, what locations would you like to revisit?  Or is it best to tell each gaming story in a new location?  Let me know your thoughts or if I’ve missed any good examples of revisited locations.