Saturday, March 19, 2011

A wider point of view, part one.

I may or may not have mentioned the end of civilization recently, which may or may not be coming our way soon. But just in case of a global meltdown, I'm preparing for extreme violence. Luckily as a Belgian I'm not far away from one of the world's most renowned weapons manufacturers. So when I go online and equip a FN F2000, like the ones delivered to the Libyan special forces, to headshot teenagers in Battlefield, I'm actually celebrating our great Belgian Culture. How our Minister of War, Pieter De Crem, would swell with pride and joy upon reading this post. If only he knew how to read. Yet all of that pales in comparison when compared to the way the man can pre flight check a Lockheed C-130 by patting the side of the fuselage as if congratulating it after winning the Ostend Derby. Sadly, the last great Belgian military victory dates back to when horses were high tech in the year 1302, when we kicked the French all the way back to France. We haven't had a French related problem ever since, proving the value of armed conflict once more. But let's not dwell on political games.

Suffice to say, I've been playing a lot of games. Mostly shooters. My most recent stint started about half a year ago with the release of the Medal Of Honor reboot. But even before that the market has been flooded with big budget hardcore first person shooter (fps) games. One remarkable trend among these titles: most of them are multi-platform. Console popularity is on an all time high with developers because of the large user base. So the leading versions are often for console and then get ported over to the PC. A process that almost always leads to an inferior PC title compared to pure PC games. Developers porting from console to PC usually leave out a lot of functionality or options the hardcore PC community is used to. Such as mod tools and dedicated servers. But the lack of one often ignored option has been irking me to no end: A configurable Field Of View variable.
The field of view determines what the viewing angle (in degrees) of a game is according to the old 4:3 aspect ratio. So a 65 FoV gives the player a 65 degrees viewing angle. This same variable, 65, will result in a somewhat wider view in 16:10 and 16:9 widescreen aspect rations.. Maybe it's not quite as ignored as I think though, but I am getting the idea that many devs just don't care. Which leads people who actually are passionate about this topic to write about how devs just don't care.

The following blog posts require a bit of gaming history to really be understood. This first post sets the scene for what is to follow.
I will talk about first person shooters on both PC and consoles. The differences, the design choices and the consequences. To some this might be sliced bread, but I'll highlight the necessary info just in case. And this chronological summary will provide some perspective on the genre today. This is by no means a complete list though, but it highlights the big hitters.

The game that popularized the "modern war" setting was Call Of Duty 4. Current generation CoD games were made with a very heavily modified Quake3 engine by Infinity Ward. The game has a fully moddable FoV in the .cfg file, which could be modified with a simple text editor. The game was smash hit and instant classic on consoles first and PC second. Which led to the sequel Call Of Duty Modern Warfare 2.

A big console shift happened with this game. All variables were locked away, including the FoV. While still having a somewhat usable FoV even for PC, other neglected options, the biggest of which were dedicated servers and the access to an ingame console, made this game into the most hated Call Of Duty for the hardcore PC community. The outstanding production values made things worse as Infinity Ward dropped out of favor. Not supporting the game beyond a few simple bug fixes and exploits added insult to injury.

Not long after Battlefield Bad Company 2 was released. The name "Bad Company" denotes the console offshoot of the Battlefield series. Made by European developer DICE, the original had no PC version but the sequel did. Surprisingly it was quite configurable via an editable config file which allowed PC gamers to change the FoV, among other things. One year after release, the game still has quite an active PC community. While not a steamworks game it still makes the steam top 10 most played games list almost every day. Yet it can't get close to the popularity of CoD.

The 2010 release of Medal Of Honor marked the reboot of the series with a modern combat setting. Not surprisingly it was heavily influenced by the succes of MW2. It had a troubled development though and the game was ultimately split into two separate pieces with two different engines. Resulting in two quite distinct games. The Single Player campaign used Epic's Unreal Engine 3. Which has encrypted configuration files, making it impossible to adjust the FoV. Producer EA pushed the game primarily for the console market to compete with CoD but got absolutely destroyed in sales.
The multiplayer side of the game was done by DICE. They used their proprietary Frostbite engine giving players the same options as Bad Company 2. Making it quite configurable.

The current king of the market is Call Of Duty Black Ops. Made by Treyarch, it has been well supported across all platforms. Needed indeed because the release version of the game was very buggy for PC and PS3. The lead PC programmer (@pcdev) made a promise to make this a genuine PC title. A statement that was bound to come back to haunt him. Yet as a result this CoD game is much more configurable and enjoyable than MW2, its biggest rival. The games options menu has a built-in FoV slider. It and many more variables can be edited with a text editor just as before too. A remarkable and commendable return to form. As were dedicated servers. Mod tools are promised with a future patch.

Not a cross platform game but still important is Guerrilla's Killzone 3, as it is intended to be the flagship FPS game on Playstation 3. It's backed by Sony and presumably the answer to Microsoft's Halo before CoD took over the market. Rightly lauded for it's superb visual design but despite all effort has failed to catch on and hasn't even come close to competing with CoD.

Bulletstorm was made in response to the "serious" military shooters of the last year. This over-the-top arcade shooter was ported to PC and uses the Unreal3 engine. Many PC options were left out in the release version and the config files encrypted, which sent forums alight with rage. To soften the blow a bit for PC gamers, a decrypter was posted on the Bulletstorm forums so they could edit the config file.

Homefront is made by Kaos Studios. A spiritual successor to the developer's earlier game Frontlines. They develop games using Unreal3, not a very promising sign if we look at its history. However, Kaos has been wooing PC gamers with exclusive features, dedicated servers and the promise of editable config files. The game was recently released with moderate success. Undoubtedly it will get stiff competition from existing and upcoming games. But the success of Counter Strike has shown that a PC shooter doesn't necessarily needs to be a looker to be a darling. If it keeps getting support.

Speaking of lookers, Crysis 2 is developed by Crytek. Responsible for the exquisite Far Cry & Crysis 1. Crytek will now foray into the console market with this sequel. Now suddenly skeptical PC gamers are promised the same great Crysis style support and features. Crytek have a lot to live up to as the first Crysis had and still has the most impressive game engine to date. Just about every variable was editable. The game had dedicated servers and modding tools. It was pretty much exactly what the PC community wanted from a FPS game. Gameplay footage from Crysis 2 has been very promising so far. The demo, released on 4/03/2011, was not. Gamers all over the internet were predicting doom and gloom because the demo lacked just about every configurable setting while carrying over a few key console features, such as the now infamous "press start to play" opening screen and aim assist for gamepad users. A demo isn't representative however, so here's hoping Crytek remembers its promises.

Brink is being developed by ID software protegé Splash Damage. Like Bulletstorm a reaction to current "realistic" shooters and like Team Fortress 2 is very stylized. The game uses the ID4 engine, known from Doom3, which was also used in Splash Damage's Enemy Territory Quake Wars. They seem to be very aggressive in their stance on the genre, and very confident of the game's success. They also have the material to back up their claim as the game seems to be in great shape. The PC legacy of the ID4 engine is telling, the game is promised to be fully configurable with an ingame console, FoV modification and dedicated servers on PC. If the game is a success it could spell the end for Call Of Duty clones.

Speaking of ID software. It is also cooking up a new game, with a new engine. It's called Rage and will appear on consoles and PC. Curiously, it seems to be the only one breaking new ground with its engine. As the FoV seems very wide compared to other console shooters. Which is good news for everyone. Perhaps the venerable giant, I'm talking about ID, can come back to compete in style.

Battlefield 3 is the upcoming DICE blockbuster. Using an upgraded frostbite engine, it was originally a PC exclusive and will be using the latest DX11 technology. Meaning the PC version is the one to be downgraded to the DX9 generation consoles. Couple this with DICE's excellent PC support and it should be in great shape.

And then there's Valve. They release few new games, but instead opt to support their games long after release. Counter Strike, Left For Dead and Team Fortress 2 are prime examples. Updated almost every other day, fully modable, dedicated servers and more have made these games fan favorites.
Valve had their own FoV incident when Half-Life 2 was first released on PC in 2004. Many of people were complaining about getting motion sick while playing the game. The standard FoV was set at 75. Shortly after, a patch addressed the problem by adding a feature to modify the FoV to 90. Keep in mind that the Call of Duty standard anno 2011 is 65. You can read more about this historic event here and here and even here.
Most likely the game was configured as such because at the time Valve didn't want their brand new engine to run slowly. So they probably narrowed the FoV to boost performance. Which is key to my next post.

There's another layer of politics going on though. I've mentioned developers so far but it's the publishers who're really competing for the market. The big players are Activision with everything Call Of Duty, EA with Battlefield, Medal Of Honor and Crysis, THQ with Homefront and Bethesda with Brink and Rage.
At present, everyone on the market is trying to knock Activision of its throne, with little success. In my next post I'll explain just why this is and why it's probably not going to change anytime soon while this battle is fought on the consoles. Which in a way has consequences for our PC gaming freedom.

Don't forget to also read part two of A wider point of view.

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