Archive for March, 2011

So, despite it taking me once again to stupid o’clock in the morning last night, I managed to finish Dragon Age 2. Actually completing games is a bit of a rare occurrence for me… I think I must have short attention span or something, as eventually I just get bored or decide to move on to another game. Obviously for work purposes I try to play through as much as possible, but I’ve never been of the camp that you ‘have’ to complete a game in order to be able to review it.

Your review is better the more you play, obviously, but if the first 10 – 15 hours (if it’s that long) aren’t enough to grab your interest, then it’s hard to recommend it as a  product to the consumer.

*** MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT ***

Anyway – as I said in my review, Dragon Age 2 was good, but flawed… the further you progress in the game the more lazy the design gets it seems, and the bugs really come out as well. In fact one chain of quests related to a companion was, in hindsight I realised, triggered out of order so I didn’t really know what was going on, and then there was a another side quest that wouldn’t trigger at all, so I couldn’t complete it. Very sad to see. Still, the narrative is what drew me in, and the narrative is what kept me going. The ending was as I thought (I’d gotten the details from someone who had completed it for the review) – very anti-climatic, and a bit of a slap in the face. The main issue I had though was with how they handled the central themes of the game.

It takes different forms early on, but racism and discrimination are both central to the story. At first, it’s the stigma of being a refugee in a city that doesn’t really want you (although to be honest, it’s not really done that well, didn’t really ‘get’ it that much). As the years go by, and Hawke grows into an important figure, it shifts to Xenophobia against a group of non-humans who’ve been stuck in the city for a while. They finally get sick of being mistreated and try to ransack the place, forcing you to step up and bitch-slap them back to where they came from.

But the last, climatic shift is one of severe discrimination against Mages. Like the ever-going mistreatment of elves as second-class citizens, this fear of mages isn’t something they’ve brought into this game – you see it in Dragon Age: Origins as well. The Dragon Age religion – the Chantry – has a militaristic branch known as the Templars (very influenced by Christian history here), and it’s their job to watch over the mages and keep them in check. Mages, sadly, whilst possessing incredible power, are also constantly tempted to turn to what only can be described as the ‘dark side’, deal with demons, kill innocent people, and generally causes a ruckus. Because of this, all mages are branded as a potential threat and so are kept on a very short leash.

In Dragon Age 2, this way of thinking is taken to an extreme, due to the very paranoid Knight-Commander Meredith who’s in charge of the Kirkwall Templars. She’s portrayed as very heavy handed, very paranoid, and she keeps the mages locked up like animals, punishing them for the slightest mis-hap, all in the name of keeping the mages in check. She argues that the mage is unstable, that the mage will usually always be tempted to turn, and so she pre-empts all this by personifying Hitler or something.

What I found unsettling though, really, is that Meredith turned out to be right in the end. Nearly all the mages in that fricking game, bar those who were killed and one who was more of a drunk incompetent French stereotype than a mage, turned to blood magic and ‘evil’ in the end. Some mages who wanted to escape the tyranny of the circle to be free, ended up turning to blood magic – one even kills his wife.

Someone you save early on in the game ends up hating you, kidnaps your sister, and turns to blood magic. One of your own companions commits an act of mage-themed terrorism on the local scale of 9/11 (albeit it wasn’t blood magic). Even the ‘head mage’, who for the whole game stood as a beacon of practicality – trying to get the Templars to lay off his mages, get some basic freedoms, whilst also keeping his guys in check because he does know the danger, eventually turns to blood magic.

Being Dragon Age – you eventually had a to make a choice – supporting the Mages was clearly the ‘good’ path, and helping Meredith crack down on them was clearly the ‘bad’ path – I’m still disappointed there was no true middle road you could explore. As much as I knew this is how it was set-up, I hesitated. All of the Knight-Commanders worries had tangible backing, stuff that I’d witnessed happen with my own eyes.

Now, the counter-argument here was that Meredith’s extreme actions forced the mages to act this way, but to be honest some of the stuff that happens in this game means that message is lost. I don’t remember seeing one notable mage resisting temptation, not one mage was so kick-ass they could resist capture, defy the circle and not turn to evil whilst doing it. The only reason your sister (who’s a mage) doesn’t turn bad, or do anything important, actually, is that apparently one choice ends up getting her killed earlier on in the game, so I guess they couldn’t really do anything with her. That smacks of poor design as well, and completely devalues her character.

Wow… that was a bit of a rant, wasn’t it? It was just all kind of depressing really. I couldn’t help but draw parallels from today’s world, terrorism, discrimination etc… and I just wonder what message Bioware wants me to take from this. It’s not a hopeful one, to say the least.

Until next time.

To me. Exactly one year ago, I had a rather long winded conversation with the owner and managing editor of Strategy Informer, and they decided to promote me to Deputy Editor, which I’m sure they’ve been regretting for the past 12 months. Strategy Informer was one of the first sites I ever started working for nearly three years ago, and I’ve been with them ever since.

Not THE first, incidentally… the first site I actually started working for was called GameSlave, a small volunteer run site owned by a nice guy from up north somewhere. It was unpaid, and I committed the cardinal sin of just disappearing on him after a couple of months… I’ve always felt bad about that.

Anyway, Strategy Informer was the first, and only, paid gig I got back then. At first it was just reviews and some news… then when I got some free time they sent me to events as well.

It’s a testament to the power of networking really – I quickly added the ME, and then the owner to MSN, and I talked to them a lot. As time went on I tried to get more and more involved in site issues, offering suggestions, helping out where possible, even volunteering to go to GamesCom on their behalf. Did that for two years and then they brought on officially as a member of the management. Fun times. It’s been a very interesting year: Being self-employed, working from home, having a serious(ish) job… all new experiences, and the past 12 months have been one big learning curve. A good one though… I think. It’s been very stressful, some of it is to do with my specific situation, part of it is to do with the fact that I’m growing up – which sucks – but it’s all looking up I think. I hope.

Thoughts now turn towards want I want to do from here. In the short time, I might think of moving jobs if I can… towards a bigger website or a magazine if possible. We’ll see. One of the great things about working here is that I’m involved at the top, and am actively helping shape it’s future, which is something I probably wouldn’t be able to get anywhere else. Still, we’re not the most mainstream of publications and it would be nice to move to one of the sites that are higher up the food chain.

Long-term thinking is what’s really got me down though… knowing how hard this industry is, and how low it pays… I’m not going to be content with just making do until I’m like 30 or 40… I need to keep moving tangibly upwards, earning more… I mean I’ll want a family eventually, and I’ll need to support them. The logical part of me knows I may not be able to do that and stay in games though… I’d need to found a successful company or move to another industry, but maybe a related one. Some of you might point out that I’m only 23, but that’s not really an excuse – I’ve been complacent before, and it’s not gotten me anywhere, so I have to be more proactive.

Anyway, enough about me. I’m petitioning the Queen to make this a national holiday, so go out and enjoy One Year Day.

Until next time.

Just thought I’d wish everyone a good St. Patrick’s day, try not to get too drunk, it’s not Friday yet…I’ll be celebrating myself tonight though, so have fun! Even if you’re not Irish!

(I’m not Irish myself, but I have Irish heritage – Mum is second generation, Grandparents were proper Irish.)

So, I saw Gears of War 3 yesterday. It was good, actually. I’ve never really been that good at playing Gears online – I find it requires a level of skill and concentration that’s a lot different to what COD or Battlefield needs, and I was just never that good at it. I should really finish Gears of War 2‘s campaign though… that’s been in my Pile ‘o shame for a long while.

I wrote a preview of it for the site, which you can read here for more thoughts, but long story short I love the new bayonet lancer. Skewing people on that thing is proper Napoleonic, it’s amazing.

What was really interesting though was the interview we did with Rod Fergusson, you can read the full transcript here, but it was mainly this news piece that we took from it that raised an interesting point. Basically, Fergusson mentioned during the presentation that you can’t really do technical betas anymore – something that I’d heard before when I interviewed one of the lead developers for MMO RIFT (still playing through that). I didn’t follow up on that last time, but this time I felt I had too as this was the second time someone had commented on the state of the beta these days.

As you can see, Fergusson believes that true beta tests – where you play an unfinished product to help work out the kinks and test out features, are hard to now for a console audience:

“The idea of a console beta that’s an unfinished product is really foreign to that audience and so their expectation is that this is representative of the quality of the game and they have to judge it on this. It’s really hard to do betas then because you have to make it so polished and so far along that it’s hard to get the feedback you want.”

Whilst the RIFT developer was talking more about how betas had become another marketing tool as opposed to something gamers no longer understood, both points highlight the decline of the beta process, and as a possible result the decline of the QA process as well. I mean when you get Obsidian levels of bad QA, then you know there’s something else wrong there, but the fact that developers no longer want to rely on their consumer base to help test the game means that they have less people to help them do quality assurance.

I mean sure, every company hire QA testers as part of the process, but they never have, and should never be, the sole source of troubleshooting beta-builds. There’s nothing quite like tens of thousands of people testing out a game all at once, especially for online components to help iron out the kinks, but now the developers are so shit scared of their games being judge before they’re ready that it’s practically unheard of now outside of PC gaming, and even there you’re starting to see less technical betas.

And do you know what? It’s partly our fault. Well, not my fault – your fault. I don’t judge games before they are released, even though that’s what I’m paid to do… erm… anyway: Sure, there’s no escaping the fact that Publishers are actively using betas and demos as marketing now – that part of it is all their doing, but Fergusson is right also, gamers DO look at betas, look at demos, and judge the whole game based on those, and at the end of the day these guys want their game to sell so instead of concentrating on just making a game, they have to split their attention and try and sell it at the same time.

Just something to think about. Rather chuffed though, that news story got picked up in a few places which is always nice, so you could say it’s another spotted.

Until next time.

It’s odd how timing works. Obviously you’ll know by now what happened in Japan – my thoughts are with all those who have been affected. I’ve always thought though that if anyone could handle themselves in a situation like this it would be Japan, and from what I’ve seen they’ve rallied quite well. It’s interesting because whilst their architecture these days is very much geared to help withstand earthquakes, it’s not necessarily built to withstand Tsunami’s… but then what can you do with counter one of those?

Recently I review Total War: Shogun 2 for Strategy Informer, and I was surprised to see the community questioning whether or not its release today was in ‘bad taste’, considering what had just happened. They argued that, whilst this game has nothing to do with Tsunami’s (although Earthquakes and volcanoes are present as an environmental hazard), it depicts a very violent and bloody period in Japanese history. Not sure I’m with them on this one – as far as I know, the Japanese aren’t ashamed of the Sengoku jidai era of feudal Japan, so it’s not like the release of Shogun 2 would be bringing up yet more bad memories for them. I can imagine if, say, Germany had a massive natural disaster and then a game about the Nazi’s game out, sure, maybe there’d be something to think about, but a strategy game is pretty harmless I feel. Still, it’s hard for me to judge, so if you guys have any views feel free to share them.

Something that HAS made be pause though is a game I saw only yesterday. I won’t mention the name of the game or anything as I’m under an embargo that runs out tomorrow evening, but I’ll talk about it more then. Still, the single gameplay level I had to play with involved me having to deal with a Tsunami, which seemed like awfully bad timing to me. I thought about asking the developer about that, but to be honest it would have been pointless, I mean this game’s been in development for a while, and it’s not due out for a while either.

Still, my preview will be going up tomorrow, and I’m wondering whether I should writer about the Tsunami stuff with care, or just pretend that it doesn’t matter. Hmmm.

Until next time.

Now this is interesting. I touched briefly on Dragon Age II the other day, although I didn’t dwell on it too much because I was tired and I once again left it on the go for so long that I just got bored. Anyway, been reading a couple of news stories that have been floating about though, along with a fairly interesting interview over at Eurogamer, and it seems I may have been on to something after all.

First off, our news guy ran this story about how the Dragon Age II composer was saying how the score for that game was a bit of a rush job, specifically citing how EA was pushing hard for the game to be released around about now to capitalise on the success of Origins. I said in my review that the ending felt a little cut-off – one of those obvious cliff hangers that sets everything up a little too well for a sequel, and I had to wonder whether they were pressed for time or something. Maybe I was right.

Looking at all of the review scores that have been trickling out over the past week, it’s clear something went wrong. I mean to be fair the lowest score is around 6 or so, which is in a real 1-10 scale is slightly better than average and still an ok score, but in the PR world likes like the apocalypse or something. Head on over to this news piece, which is actually taken from this interview, and you can see that even Bioware are slightly disappointed in how things turned out, but hopefully they’ve taken everything on board. Maybe they should leave it a bit longer to develop the next one, eh?

In other news, that legal battle between Sony and LG also had some news today. Not sure how much you all know about this by Sony started some Legal War against LG a while back, but LG recently got the upper hand and actually got PS3’s banned from sale in Europe. Well, technically they were banned from sale and distribution from Holland. Sony could import PS3’s directly into any other EU country if they wanted, but I guess they used Holland as a main ‘supply drop’ for the continent so it might as well be a proper ban. That’s just recently been overturned though.

It’s been a long week, as I mentioned last time, but it’s over now. I’ve got Homefront and RIFT to do for review still, some preview coverage to do… but I think I’ll take it easy this weekend, relax. Hope you all enjoy your weekend as well.

Until next time.