Saturday, December 31, 2011

A wider point of view, The Aftermath

As far as gaming goes though, 2011 has been an important year for first person shooters. There were some ambitious titles this year, many debuts. Most of them poised to capture the hearts and minds of the same public. Now at the end of the year, at last, we can look back as the dust settles. As I type this I am aware that I'm writing this from the one perspective, that of the PC gamer. I also realize there were more interesting shooters this year then mentioned here. But I wanted to keep the scope of this post limited to those games aiming squarely at Call Of Duty. For some these are competitive games and PC still remains the home of that. Console gamers should look to PC as well, because the tech that's present now will be what dictates the hardware of the next consoles. This is especially important now, because the next wave shouldn't be too long out.
Talking about hardware almost always means talking about graphics. But I shouldn't sell PC gaming short, it's not all about graphics. The social aspect of gaming shouldn't go unnoticed. More and more people are playing games. Pulled in by their friends, or simply because everyone else is doing it.
It won't be long before we find it hard to imagine the social aspect absent from gaming. For a good long while now Steam, Xbox Live and PSN have been familiar names to gamers, yet these platforms are still evolving. Becoming more social oriented instead of being just a digital marketplace. Facebook is the norm to follow. This year was also important because it marks the point at which console ports seem to look really dated. This is generally a bad thing, making developers push their tech if they want to keep selling on PC. It only takes one, because if the competition does...
So how did the other contenders to the throne fare? I'll give you the rundown of what I remembered.

Homefront turned out a little Battlefield-clone that could. Or at least wanted. At first glance, gameplay looked like a cross between the fast paced action of Call Of Duty and the scope of Battlefield Bad Company. Multiplayer was about that, if you could handle the way it played. Inertia and loose screws are two words I could use to describe the experience. None of them are overly negative, but it took some getting used to. Not nearly as fluent as CoD, but still fast. Not nearly as deep as Battlefield but not shallow either. The PC version of the game got some extra attention and it showed as this was by far the superior version. Just looking at the archaic options screen that looked as dense as an excel sheet made me smile. But that's where the praise stops for most people. Homefront got outclassed by the competition in every way. I also make a deliberate point not to mention the campaign mode. It set the scene for Homefront, let's leave it at that.
The Homefront franchise is not done though. THQ wants its militairy shooter. After all, they've been doing very well recently with their other titles such as Darksiders, Saints Row and all things Warhammer 40k. To everyone's surprise Crytek will be making Homefront 2. Originator Kaos studios was put out of business.

Crytek also had its own seminal shooter this year. Showing the prowess of the Cryengine3. At the time of the release of Crysis2 is was quite clear that real time computer graphics had taken the next step. This first engine that was ready to enter the next generation was still on current consoles. But it was until the engine started showing some muscle on DX11 tech that we saw we were dealing with an engine for tomorrow. My quad core PC with a single gtx460 had to bow out but the screenshots thrown around the web spoke volumes. Crytek had made another engine for tomorrow's systems.
The game itself was very good indeed, the gameplay mechanics deviated drastically from the standard run and gun found elsewhere. Instead you'd run, gun, cloak, super-jump, shield up and gun some more. Unfortunately the game was run like a console game, even the MP part was done by a console developer: Crytek UK, formerly Free Radical Design. Known from Timesplitters and more recently, not to mention notoriously, Haze. As a result the MP was well done but FRD was clueless when hackers started taking over as soon as the game went live. Pirates could play MP unhindered. Bringing with them the ire of all honest Crysis fans that made the franchise what it was. Steps were taken, but by then the game was bleeding active players.
The single player campaign was quite good. I'd rate it higher than both Battlefield 3 and MW3's campaings. Sure it was a lot more linear than Crysis1, but it still had set pieces which one could tackle whichever way you wanted. The story was a lot better and held a few interesting twists.

Brink didn't need a new engine. Brink took another, more artsy direction. The look of the shooter game with the hooligans was well established. The caricatures in this game wield caricatures of real guns. Too bad then, the gameplay wasn't quite the caricature of what Team Fortress has to offer. The concept of the game was painfully limited. Multiplayer matches were essentially a series of objective-oriented team challenges. Where one side would have to stop the advance of the other. These story missions got very old very fast though and that's what killed the game for me. The missions were well made but once everybody figured out the maps, every match would play out more or less in the same way. Needless to say, things got boring. I still feel extra, more open, game modes such as team death match, domination and payload could have saved this game.

After my disappointment with Brink, I was hesitant to give Bethesda more money for Rage. So I am holding off until Rage gets a hefty discount, or steam has a sale on it. Rage was well received by the press. And people seemed to like it well enough. The PC version wasn't very good at first - the techniques used by Carmack were more fit for consoles. This brought out the usual pitchfork mob of disgruntled PC gamers. Carmack sold out. Carmack lost his mind. Carmack has left us. Carmack made amends. He then stated that the PC should propably have been the lead platform for the game, and will be for future ID projects. PC problems were fixed within a few patches though, so in the end it all came together. The big upside to Rage is that Bethesda now has a established next generation engine. The engine is very powerful as it is, making Rage run at 60fps on current consoles is no small feat. Though it remains to be seen if it will be used in the future. The next big FPS from Bethesda will be Prey2, and that looks fantastic even though it still runs on the old Doom 3 engine.

Once, in a Steam review of the game I wrote the following (see quote):

Simply put, TF2 has become the best shooter of all time. It has proven its staying power for years now: the timeless art style, the classic gameplay, the support from one of the best developers. The micro-transaction based free to play model is a sign of things to come, as TF2 is the herald of a new age in computer gaming.
And I feel I was pretty much right. Even though I wrote it in a hurry in exchange for an event achievement. TF2 went free to play this year. Boldly going where no big mainstream shooter dared go. Valve was rewarded in a huge way for their calculated gamble. The game even surpassed Counter Strike, which had been on top for years, as the most played Steam game.
Income from TF2 now comes solely from microtransactions from the in-game store. Once a player buys an item, he'll activate the random drop roulette that exists within the game. Which gives him even more, craftable and tradable items.
By making the game free, Valve has effectively invited everyone to the in-games store that has already made them, and the in-store item creators, a fortune. With this Valve has changed its initial stance on character customization. They had always put character silhouette first, to improve the recognizability of the various classes. Don't take out the pitchforks just yet, because this means we can expect more solid titles from Valve because of this. Dressing up your own characters is fun but this doesn't say anything about how fun the game is to play. The answer is very. But by all means try the game out for yourself. It's free. Despite being really old in gaming terms, TF2 is still getting a ton of attention from its creators, almost as if it was an MMO. There's something new almost every month. Valve isn't resting on their laurels either. Soon Counter Strike: Global Offensive will storm Steam, and the world as the next e-sport. Next to DOTA2. Another e-sports game. They don't seem to concerned about what happens in the world of FPS, keeping Counter Strike in a league of its own. Much like that other e-sports titan, Starcraft from Blizzard.
Duking it out for the mass market though, are EA and Activision. The title fight! In the next post.

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