Monthly Archives: May 2015

Thoughts on GTA V (PC)

I’m not the biggest follower of the GTA series.  Outside of V, the only other games in the series I’ve played are GTAIV on the 360, which I liked well enough, and Chinatown Wars on the PSP.  Chinatown Wars actually may be my favorite PSP game, but it really isn’t representative of the rest of the (modern) series.  I think I wasn’t all that interested in GTAV, because Red Dead Redemption never clicked with me.  I know that game gets enormous praise from all corners, but I just didn’t get very far into it for reasons that I find hard to articulate.  While I missed GTAV for both the last gen and new gen consoles, I recently made some serious improvements to my PC gaming abilities and decided to use the new PC version as a test for my machine.  I’ve put almost 25 hours into the game so far, and I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on the game.

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With my new video card in mind, the graphics were naturally the feature I was most curious about.  At first, I was a little underwhelmed, thinking to myself “Yep, that’s what a 360 game looks like.”  But as I played the game more and more, I found I had a growing appreciation for the visual qualities on a technical level.  While the game might not have the most elaborate 3D models of humans, cars, buildings, foliage, etc., it is incredibly good at environmental and atmospheric effects.  There are times like when it’s raining at night or when the sun is setting on the city, that I’m just taken aback by how well they’ve recreated the feeling and mood (for lack of better terms) weather conditions can have on a place.  It just feels realistic, and I never feel like applying that term to video games.

As I mentioned, my attitude toward the game’s graphics as a technological accomplishment has improved a lot since I first started playing.  With most games, I think the reverse happens.  I’m initially impressed by the visuals, but as I continue to play, I notice more and more little visual imperfections.  With GTAV, on the other hand, I think it’s taken me time to fully begin to notice all of the fine details and polish (such as the weather effects) that have gone into creating the massively complex virtual world of Los Santos.  It’s not the best looking game out there, but I can’t really think of any other that has this same scope.

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Speaking of fine details, I shudder to think what this game might have been like on last gen consoles in sub-HD.  If ever there was a game that benefitted from rendering at high resolutions, GTAV is it.  I tried playing via in-home streaming on my Nvidia Shield tablet (yes, I am like one of the 5 people in the world that own that device), but the loss of resolution due to the video compression really turned me off from playing the game that way.  Higher rendering resolution means that details further off in the distance are clearer.  And in a game world this large, especially when you get up to high speeds in a vehicle, being able to clearly see what lies far up ahead is really crucial.  I think this is a massive advantage of the PC version, and probably the next-gen console versions as well.

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As I mentioned above, I’m not a close follower of the GTA series.  I think my biggest issue with these games is the gameplay.  Superficially, GTAV is a heist game, but like the games that came before it and Red Dead Redemption, it’s not really great at being an action-shooter game or being a driving game.  I think that’s where my indifference toward the series arose.  But as I play GTAV, I think I realize that it’s not the action or the high speed driving that really draws in the massive audience that the game possesses, rather it’s just the insane level of detail and polish that has been put into creating the city of Los Santos and the surrounding areas.  It’s really more about the immersion of the intricately-realized, twisted facsimile of the real world that the game presents as a sandbox to the player.  In this way, it’s more like Minecraft then an action-focused open world game such as Far Cry 4.

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A lot of the missions don’t even involve any action.  There is an entire quest line devoted to towing cars with a tow truck.  You just drive out to a car and tow it back to a garage or impound lot with no further eventfulness, you don’t get attacked or anything.  There is definitely a big focus on introducing novel and varied vehicles and heavy machinery to the player during missions.  One mission involves parachuting from a helicopter to join a bike race through the mountains, another has the player moving around shipping containers with a giant crane, and there are more examples.  Those are such weird things to have in what is ostensibly an action game.  Again, I think the game is really more about creating a big virtual sandbox than being some sort of profoundly well-designed TPS.

I’ve heard the setting of GTA described as both satirical and hyperreal.  I don’t know if either of these terms are really that accurate.  The “satire” in the game is really nothing more than just extreme caricatures of familiar real-life people or organizations.  I wouldn’t call it particularly clever.  Rather, I think the way the game turns everyone and everything into extreme-ified versions of themselves is really just meant to make the player feel less guilty about the reprehensible characters they play as.  When everyone in the world of Los Santos is so awful and cartoonish, Michael, Trevor, and Franklin don’t seem (quite) as bad for doing the things that they do.  I mean, don’t get me wrong, these are terrible people you’re playing as, but in such a transparently morally bankrupt world, they sort of fit in.

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Speaking of the characters, the story I think is okay, nothing particularly unique or interesting.  These games get a lot of praise for their stories, however, I just don’t feel like there’s much there in the way of character development or narrative metaphor.  Honestly, though, those features are something the vast major of “good” video game stories lack.  GTAV suffers from the standard syndrome of these Rockstar games where your characters don’t really seem to have motivations of their own, rather they just sort of blindly follow whatever instructions they’re given by the various NPC “quest givers.”  For many of these missions, I don’t even understand why the main characters would become involved, because they’re not really getting any benefit for themselves out of it.  The exception to that being Trevor.  I mean, Trevor is a psychopath, far worse than the other two, but he’s interesting in that he at least has goals of his own that he proactively works toward and doesn’t just reluctantly obey everything the various “quest givers” tell him to do.  He comes up with many of his own missions, and when he’s given a task by another party, he often just completely turns their plans on its head which results in major story ramifications.

Ultimately, GTAV is a good game mainly because it manages to be better than the sum of its parts.  It’s not an especially good shooter game, and it doesn’t tell the most interesting story.  I think this is the reason I gave up on Red Dead Redemption so quickly.  But with GTAV, I’ve come to appreciate that what you get with these games is really just an incredible sense of immersion that is unparalleled amongst the now crowded genre of open world games.

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Axiom Verge and Titan Souls: Nostalgia-Driven Game Design

For a while now, its been the growing rage in indie games for designers to hang their hat on appealing to nostalgia of vintage ideas and sensibilities.  It’s been a part of the scene ever since it began gaining momentum with the first Summer of Arcade and the early independent successes on Steam.  Early on, there were games like Castle Crashers, which was a throwback to 16-bit era beat’em ups, and VVVVVV, which was a throwback to Commodore 64 adventure games.  But it’s feeling to me like more and more indie designers are leaning far harder into duplicating their childhood favorites.  While games like Castle Crashers and VVVVVV felt like they were building upon their retro influences, a lot of games now feel like they just want to be carbon copies of those classics.

The first game that struck me as being overbearingly old-school was Shovel Knight.  Every time I read an interview from those developers, the designers were quick to stress the influences they had based their work upon.  To me that was a huge turn-off.  I would hope that passionate creators would be more interested in bringing new ideas to life rather than trying to desperately recapture experiences we’ve all already had.

The thing that terrifies me most about getting older is that I fear not being able to appreciate new experiences in life.  It’s the attitude of an old man:  “Everything was better in my day.”  I’ve reached an age where I’ve started becoming acutely aware of this attitude pervading my peer group.  In gaming, I see so many people my age outright dismiss games like Minecraft and Hearthstone that are popular with today’s youth purely out of the belief that their life experiences have been exceptional, and there’s no way that these new games could ever stack up to the old masterworks.  While they produce insipid reasons to justify this claim, I find it transparent that the root of their attitude is often that old games are better simply because they’re older.  That’s not to dismiss arguments that there are some virtues in game design that have unfortunately been lost over the years, but I don’t ascribe to that statement purely out of a self-centered belief that only my experiences growing up are valid.  And, to clarify, I don’t think an appreciation for retro gaming is wrong, I still try to play a lot of the classics that I missed.  But appreciation of the old shouldn’t interfere with appreciation of the new, or vice-versa.

And that’s why the lead up to Shovel Knight irritated me.  The entire proposition that was being laid out for that game was that it was good because it was trying to be exactly like those old games for which we have fond memories.  That it harkened back to a “better” time.  I’m not a huge expert on cinema or really music, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard a movie promoted on the basis that its exactly like a classic movie such as The Godfather or The Shining (unless if its an obvious cash-grab remake).  In music, you have cover bands, but I think those are generally relegated to a lower status than those musicians putting out original music.  Since the advent of Kickstarter and crowdfunding, though, I feel like game designers that are playing off nostalgia are finding themselves placed on pedestals by both traditional game coverage sites and many gaming communities.

But here’s the thing, after playing Shovel Knight, I wasn’t actually all that bothered by it.  I wrote a fairly positive post about it some time ago: link.  While Shovel Knight is heavily inspired by Mega Man with its themed boss-centric stage design, it manages to advance a lot of its own ideas to create something that has a clear inspiration, but also feels very distinctive.  I’m left wondering why people with such clear design talent would be so reductionist in describing their own game.  Perhaps thats just the influence that crowdfunding is having on games today.  The gamers with the most disposable income to divert into crowdfunding are also the gamers that have reached an age where nostalgia is starting to kick in hard.  For Shovel Knight to pass it’s Kickstarter goals, maybe its promotion had to heavily push the NES influences.  Or maybe its simply just the developers’ own worship of the classics clouding their own appreciation of what they’ve accomplished.

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Enter Axiom Verge, currently only available for PS4, a new game in the long line of recent indie releases that flies the “Metroidvania” banner.  Except in this case, it doesn’t just use the Metroid-style configuration of an open 2D world, it also sets off to replicate the same aesthetic design and 2D sidescrolling shooter gameplay found in its NES template.  Axiom Verge with its sprawling alien caverns composed of recurrent 8-bit tiles, its blaster wielding scifi hero, and its creepy-crawly enemies leans much farther into Metroid than Shovel Knight ever did into Mega Man.  I’ll be upfront and say that I actually like this game.  I’ve heard so many people say “It’s not like Metroid, it is Metroid,” and I reluctantly find myself agreeing with them.  It grates on me to feel that way, because I’m left questioning whether it’s good to celebrate a game for being so derivative.

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I mean, I like Axiom Verge quite a bit.  It copies the Metroid formula extraordinarily well.  The designer really understands what made the widely-celebrated series work.  And it’s not like Nintendo is doing anything with Metroid these days.  In the early ‘00s, there was an amazing resurgence of Metroid with Metroid Prime on the Gamecube and Metroid Fusion/Zero Mission on the GBA.  But it seems like after Other M, Nintendo is content to let us forget about the series.  We can’t even get Zero Mission on Wii U VC here in North America.

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And although Axiom Verge doesn’t break the Metroid mold like Shovel Knight did with Mega Man, it does bring a few unique ideas to the table.  The items/powerups and weapons you collect in Axiom Verge are almost entirely unique.  Your not going to be launching into screw attacks or doing hyper jumps in this game, rather Axiom Verge employs several clever means of mobility and environment manipulation that have never been seen in a Metroid game.  And while it features a scifi storyline set on a desolate planet devoid of civilization, I find the story and setting to be far more bizarre, alien, and abstract than the “destroy the alien menace” plots found in most Metroid games.  I was a bit surprised by how the plot develops, it turned out to be a bit more interesting than I originally expected.  Otherwise, I also think the level design is suitably well thought out.  So I’m conflicted about Axiom Verge.  I can’t deny its a good game, but at the same time I’m bothered by how derivative it actually is.

Unfortunately, I can’t be as positive toward Titan Souls.  If Axiom Verge is resurrecting memories of Metroid, then Titan Souls is giving it a try at Shadow of the Colossus.  Superficially, I initially thought it was meant to be like Zelda, but actually it is more like SotC viewed through a Zelda filter.  The entire game is based around fighting bosses, but the bosses are more similar to Zelda bosses.  They are more these somewhat big monsters that chase you around a room, instead of massive beasts that you climb upon to reach a weak point.  You travel a mostly quiet and empty fantasy overworld to find the boss rooms where the actual challenges are held.  Like SotC there are no enemies or really puzzles to solve in the overworld, its just a place that you must travel through.  I enjoyed journeying through the world of SotC, because it had an atmosphere of mystery and wonder….a sense of profound history to the land that helped make Wander’s quest feel epic in nature.  I’m afraid I can’t say the same for Titan Souls.  From what I’ve seen it’s just sort of a pixellated wilderness meant to break up the boss rooms.  So far I haven’t encountered anything that feels wondrous or special.

The lack of atmosphere is far from Titan Souls greatest problem.  The developer’s big idea for making this game more than just a top-down SotC is that both the player and the bosses go down in one hit.  There are no health bars.  If a player takes damage, they immediately die and are returned to a checkpoint on the overworld.  The bosses also go down in one hit, but only if damage is done to their weak point.  Usually, there are only brief moments when the weak point becomes exposed, or sometimes damage has to be done to other parts of the boss before their weak point is revealed.  To accomplish this, the character only has a bow and a single arrow.  If they miss, they have to retrieve the arrow or they can hold down a button that telekinetically draws the arrow toward them.  While drawing in the arrow, the player is held stationary, making them vulnerable to the boss’ attacks, so sometimes it’s not the best way to get the arrow back.

Herein lies the problem with Titan Souls.  It’s very abrupt.  In a game like Super Meat Boy, when Meat Boy dies, he is immediately reconstituted at the start of the level.  This makes the high difficulty easier to adapt to, as the player has less of a wait time with which to become frustrated.  In Titan Souls, death precipitates a brief but still noticeable black loading screen, and the player is revived at a checkpoint in the overworld.  They must then run back to the boss room to try again.  It’s generally not a long way to get back, maybe 10-15 seconds, but it gives the game an unpleasant stop-go rhythm.  Consequently, the overall pacing is just very poor.  And since these are Zelda-style bosses, they operate in a pattern that takes some time to understand, and dying on one hit makes trying to figure out this pattern more tedious.

I’m probably not going to finish Titan Souls, I’m afraid.  Its been a few days since I’ve even really wanted to pick it up again.  It fails both because it doesn’t capture what made its inspiration successful and because the ideas that it uses to set itself apart are more gimmicky than innovative design.  Axiom Verge, on the other hand, really nails the Metroid ideal and introduces a few new tricks that are actually cool.  Axiom Verge is more of an exception to a rule, though.  Most games that try this closely to mimic a clear inspiration end up not quite getting the formula right, and consequently feel like cheap knock-offs.  It’s kind of surprising to see one be so successful.

While I’m still not completely comfortable with the trend, I’m less pessimistic about these nostalgia trips now than way back when Shovel Knight came out.  Over the last year, while “AAA” games have been on fire with various deleterious issues, indie games have sustained as a real creative force.  And there’s so many of them coming out right now across the entire spectrum of gaming genres and production values, that these blasts from the pasts really aren’t something to worry about stunting the further creative growth of indie gaming as a whole, and now after playing Axiom Verge, I feel that sometimes they may just hit the nail on the head.

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