Thursday, January 5, 2012

A wider point of view, The Title Fight

The two game most FPS gamers were keeping eyes on were Battlefield3 and Modern Warfare3. A lot of us were wondering if BF3 would make the same impact as its predecessor. Battlefield2 was the first game to use the modern combat setting but it was Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare that made it popular. Since then the market has been bombarded with a CoD every year. Pointing the way for rival shooters through sheer success. But as the novelty wears off, a lot of gamers are getting tired of the formula. Though the quality and production values of the series are what makes it such a hit every time. The reward-a-minute treadmill might have something to do with it too, and so might the stiff online competition. The gameplay is fast, often rage inducing and frustrating. But when things go your way, it's an ideal way to blow off some steam after a day's work. I should know. The game has to cope with diminishing returns however.

When games like Crysis2 and Homefront tried to copy the formula, some of us got a case of desperation because you couldn't buy a AAA shooter without getting a good dose of Call Of Duty with it. This fear persisted all the way through the development of Battlefield3. Even though most of us who played Battlefield2 knew that series had a lot more going for it. But more importantly, it had different things going for it. From the direction the Bad Company games were going, more console focused, we had little reason to be overly hopeful. But Battlefield3 turned out as an incredible step forward from Bad Company. And while it incorporates a few select innovations from CoD, the game turned out something else. A game with a very high skill cap, not only does a player need to know what role to play at what time, he needs to know it on foot, in tanks or in the skies. And he has to be a team player. This alone isn't the novelty though, but the way the game was made and the way it plays are. The pixel perfect user interface alone makes it stand out compared to the bulky font and laggy mouse found in the MW3 interface. The entire layer of post processing, and colour separation in BF3 also apply to the interface. When I first saw it in the beta I had the wide eyed look of a child who discovers that his new toy not only looks shiny, but also transforms into a robot. It looked so very expensive.

MW3 sticks to its guns. It isn't a spoiler to say that MW3 is "like MW2 but newer". A mark of the stagnation of Call Of Duty, which is just as well because the sub-series has now come to a close. Right on time for the end of the Xbox360. Does this mean that CoD is beaten by default? Not really. And I wager Activision doesn't see it that way either. Queue Black Ops 2 for November 2012 as the swan song of the CoD series as we know it. Another sign of decline could be measured in its players. I'm not saying we should crack open their skulls to examine the dopamine levels but instead look at their dedication. CoD4 was played for two years. And if you're a competitive player, you still do after 4 years. MW2 was actively played for 1 year and wasn't even that good. Black Ops was hot for about 3 months and now MW3 already seems on it's way out after only 1 month. It's hard to tell if it is because MW3 is considered to be slightly less good than BlOps was or if the formula has run its course, regardless of MW3's quality. Battlefield, with its new engine, bigger scope, more interesting shooting mechanic, seems the title to beat now. But still, it seems a very frail reign if we base this claim on sales.

Truth be told, CoD and Battlefield aren't that similar conceptually. They share the modern combat setting. Both have a team deathmatch and the M16, Americans and Russians. But they also share the mudslinging ad campaigns. To the untrained eye, both are advertising the same game! They aren't, but the perception is still there. Neither companies are informing otherwise because they actually are rivals. Both would want the public to buy their game, and not the other. If we go on customer loyalty, Call of Duty takes the lion share. As console popularity has given it the biggest audience. BF vets are almost always on PC, where the series by and large stayed, and are a minority.

As predicted earlier, Call Of Duty remains the more popular of the two. And as long as there's another dollar left, a company will keep making its product. Even to its own detriment. I'm not sure Activision has the audacity to carry the franchise into the future on the same tech though. Which in turn means that Activision will have to procure a new next gen engine to power their franchise for the next generation of consoles if they do. They will, Call Of Duty is a very important money maker for Activision.
This dependency is where Activision may have a problem.

Not a typical PC publisher, Activision has yet to show off a next generation engine or a game using one. Others did, EA has the Frostbite2 engine from DICE. Bethesda has the Rage Engine from ID. THQ has a few projects, Nexuis & Homefront2, using Cryengine3. And no doubt EPIC is working on a next generation iteration of Unreal Engine 3. Unfortunately I was only moderately impressed with the Good Samaritan Trailer they showed at GDC 2011. But we have yet to see a game using it.

Out of all these mentioned next generation engines, Frostbite2 has seen the most actual use thus far. Need For Speed: The Run used it, and rumour has it Dragon Age 3 will use it too. It's no stretch to say that the next generation of Mass Effect, Medal of Honor and Dead Space games will use it too. Just a few weeks ago, Bioware has already confirmed it is using Frostbite for the upcoming C&C Generals2. And then there's Respawn. The original CoD developers, now with EA, who are poised to fill the void that CoD will presumably leave in the next generation if it fails to reinvent itself.

Maybe the future for CoD as we know it today, lies with a free to play model, not unlike TF2 or Battlefield Heroes. A hardcore shooter running through a browser isn't new either. It could be an opportunity to bundle the entire Modern Warfare series onto one unified platform. With all maps, all weapons and a selection of balanced perks. Optimizations could even be made to create a Pro Mod to promote professional play.
Since the specifications to run CoD have become far below those of the standard PC, it can live quite a few years longer in this form, using the same engine, generating revenue through micro transactions or subscriptions. Away from the bleeding edge of technology, where expectations are more tempered. A key ingredient may be the social aspect of CoD. The basic framework is already in place: Call Of Duty Elite. The community site where player's multiplayer stats are shown on profile pages. People can watch video content, participate in community activities, start community groups, etc. Activision has delayed, or aborted according to some sources, the PC release of CoD Elite because they are worried PC gamers will mess with the statistics.
My inner cynic would rather think this story is hogwash because when was this company ever worried about PC gamers or what they did with the game? History has shown that Infinity Ward didn't care in the least about what the (PC) community did. Glitches, exploits and hackers in MW2 didn't push the developer into any sort of action. I'm also not inclined to think IW has had a change of heart, after the stellar job Treyarch did in supporting Black Ops, because the proof is in the pudding. MW3 has no Dedicated servers and no accessible in-game console. The buggy release version and no CoD Elite only add insult to injury. To further tarnish IW's image, this just happened. My guess is it will go unresolved. PS3 users have my condolences.
An argument that comes up time and time again is piracy - by now the oldest cliché in the book. In the case of Activision it's mind boggling considering what its other half, Blizzard, has been doing on PC for years. If a game runs through a (web)client with a bunch of server side operations, its useless to pirate. MMO's can't really be pirated.

DICE is halfway there with BF3 as the game launches from the web browser. Plus Battlelog is available for all platforms. And it's great. So great in fact that I'd wish other EA published games, such as Crysis2, Battlefield Heroes, Mass Effect3 MP, Medal of Honor and the upcoming C&C: generals 2 would use it. The statistics it tracks are useful, the internet browser server browser, yes you read that right, is the quickest thing and the social interaction is just logical considering the time we live in.
It almost goes without saying that BF3 is a pureblood PC shooter. It's very customisable: FoV, dedicated servers, a long list of tweak able variables. A PC gamer marvels at the mere sight of it all. Rendered in a brand new engine that pushes our hard earned computer hardware. Meaning, of course, that the graphics look absolutely stunning. Just look at this clip from FRANKIEonPCin1080p.

I'm tempted to write a good review on it, I really am. But those are so hard to do, and might even be superfluous considering the game speaks for itself. I recommend it as it is, in my opinion, superior to MW3 in every meaningful way, as a serious FPS.

And With that I'll leave you with some BF3 entertainment by BirgirPall. Enjoy, and have fun.

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