Next-Gen? No Thanks.

“Next gen,” two little words that make me tense up and feel overwhelmed. Why? Simply put, I’m not ready for it, nor am I remotely excited by the prospect of a new set of consoles.

Some of you may feel exactly the opposite, and I can see why: new leaps in graphical abilities; better AI; sleeker hardware, UI, and control schemes. But I don’t really want any of that. What I want is new experiences, new ideas — even new genres or takes on existing ones — from the games themselves, not the hardware. But the big gaming publishers don’t seems to see it that way.

More Graphics

It seems like the biggest driving force behind the next-gen push (and really any console iteration leap) is graphics. Recently, 2K games president Cristoph Hartman said that the industry can’t hope to evoke any sort of real, honest emotion until games achieve “photo realism.” He cites Brokeback Mountain as his example of the type of emotions games could create, but haven’t yet. To make matters worse, Crytek, developers of the graphically-powerful Crysis series, made a statement claiming that the current generation’s graphical capabilities have been tapped, which somehow means we need to move on to the next set of hardware…

Bullshit, I say. Not to the graphical capabilities being maxed, I’m pretty sure that’s true. But the part that makes me roll my eyes is this notion that graphics are immediately tied to the level of emotion response and entertainment value we get out of games. This is absolutely and unequivocally false. Let’s look at this past generation — one where graphics have been venerated above all else as the major draw to gaming. Off the top of my head, the one genre that has succeed this generation is the military FPS — the “bro-shooter”. These games had mountains of cash pumped into their graphics engines to create as “realistic” an experience as possible. The result? Stagnate, same-y shooters caked in a veneer of brown textures and lens flares. I’m not knocking these games, I’m sure there have been some great titles, but I never touched them because they never looked appealing. Call of Duty, Battlefield, Medal of Honor, Spec Ops, Killzone, Resistance… even games like Gears of War  could be thrown into the mix. Show me a screenshot from one of these “realistic” looking games, and I probably couldn’t tell you which was which. Then again, I could easily point out games like Enslaved, Borderlands, Tribes: Ascend — even Uncharted and Halo, due to their own unique looks and art styles. 

Wait, wait. Don’t tell me…

The problem is, the people saying graphics sell games have a point: when it comes to the (rather large) percentage of gamers who only buy 2-3 games a year, and usually only from the same franchises (Madden, Call of Duty, etc.), graphics matter big time. Being the first thing they see is a screenshot or trailer, this crowd needs to see marked improvements from one year to the next in order to be sold. I don’t mean to generalize, but just take a look at the comment section on Youtube or gaming blogs. You’ll find fanboys and shooter-bros writing off games entirely just because another titles graphics are “better.” So, to a point, 2k games and Crytek are correct: in order to continue pandering to this section of the market, we need to hurry up and jump on board with the next consoles. But not really because that’d be silly.

Development Costs

I’m gonna take a quick tangent to touch on development costs before I return to Hartmans’s rivitingly asinine remarks about photo-realism and emotion.

Games cost a lot; AAA games cost even more. Those graphics engines I talked about earlier require millions of dollars. In an effort to keep up with the likes of EA and Activision’s massive budgets for their annualized franchises, smaller companies are forced to pony up stacks of cash to even hope to compete. We witnessed this with 38 Studio’s Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckonning. Curt Schilling borrowed money from Rhode Island in order to complete the game. The game sold very well, over 410 thousand copies in the U.S., but the Governor of Rhode Island felt that wasn’t enough, calling the game a “failure” for not selling a projected 3 million copies (a rather unrealistic number for a small, niche title). Due to this and number of other internal scandals, 38 dissolved. Now, THQ faces a similar fate, their fate in the hands of gamers who buy games like Darksiders 2. EA hopes to see Dead Space 3 sell over 5 million copies, despite the past games not selling anything near those numbers. Now imagine a game with wildly experimental gameplay and presentation, but whose developers need to sell 5 million copies to see a profit. As Minecraft creator Notch said in response to Hartman’s statement, “you limit the number of new genres if you focus on photorealism.” Experimentation and creativity are always diminished in favor of sure-things.

Leaked picture of Xbox “Durango” dev kit

For instance, at E3 we saw Dead Space 3 paraded about as a bro-shooter. For fans of the series, this was infuriating. We saw the same happen with Mass Effect 3. It turned out that both of these first impressions were false, but it underscores a major problem in the industry. Companies want to compete; they want to have the flashy high-fidelity graphics, fast-paced action gameplay, and huge set pieces to draw in the CoD crowd. But in doing so, they alienate the core audiences. Spending too much money on graphics and homogenizing your gameplay is a dumb thing to do. And what’s more, it’s entirely unnecessary.

Emotional Depth

Okay sure, I’ll admit, I am enamored with beautiful graphics as much as the next guy At E3, I was awed by the Crysis 3 demo; Watch Dog‘s animations made me giddy, and the things Unreal Engine 4 can do are mind blowing. But when I think back to the games that really made an imprint on me, it wasn’t because the looks “real,” it was because they looked unique.

I have several games in my library I hold up as having impeccable art direction. And with most of those games, my emotional connection to the experiences and stories within are stronger because they captured my imagination and creativity. I don’t need to say it for the dozenth time, but Dead Space, Rayman: Origins, Dark Souls, The Legend of Zelda, and Shadow of the Colossus enraptured me with their beauty and atmosphere.

Much like a Pixar movie, videogames that feature highly stilized visuals have been the ones I not only remember best, but have the strongest connection with. Super Metroid’s archaic sprite-based graphics still instill the feelings of exploration and isolation I had the first time I played it. And even though they looks like ass today, games like  Medieval, and th N64 Zelda games have a charm that few games of this generation ever achieved.

As ominous as ever.

But it would be false to say that every emotional experience I’ve ever had with a game was due to creative or memorable art design. No, the single most memorable and impactful part of any and every game is its gameplay.

For me, videogames are game design first, and stories/visuals/music/etc. second (if not further down the list). They’re not movies, not comics. They are unique in the way they allow for entirely different types of stories and interactions to occur. I’ve harped on it before, but games need to chill the fuck out with this whole “imitating cinema” thing. There have been some truly moving stories told in videogames, but if you can’t present them in  way that allows me to PLAY THE GAME, then your game has failed. Heavy Rain is a perfect example of a game that, truly, would be better suited as a movie. I’m a big proponent of the silent protagonist as it allows for the player to connect directly to the world and story, rather than act as puppeteer or pilot guiding a pre-made character down a pre-determined path. But for every Gordon Freeman, there’s a Jon Marston. On the flipside, for every Samus Aran there’s a…. Samus Aran. My point is, games should not be about narrative archs or photo realistic visuals — that’s cinema’s game. No, games are about gameplay and interactivity. We need to remember that.

Silver Lining

Hawken: powerful, yet stylized graphics.

I don’t need a new generation of consoles. I’m perfectly content with what my Xbox 360 and PC can do. I still feel there is life in this generation, if for no other reason than indie/retro development. I don’t care how flashy the next big shooters look. Hell, despite my excitement for Darksiders 2 and Halo 4 (games with stylized visuals that put emphasis on gameplay, mind you) it’s titles like Hawken, Ultima Forever, and the Baldur’s Gate re-release that have me really excited. I’m even excited at the fact that games are still coming out for the Dreamcast.

And like I said, there are plenty of great games still to come on the Xbox 360 for the next year or so, if not longer. And despite my aversion to talk of new consoles, the OUYA has me very, very excited about the future of game development, Free 2 Play games, and indie games. So perhaps there is one new console I’m excited for.

I guess what I’m trying to say is this: I love F2P, indie, and retro gaming, and love the types of games still coming out for these “dated” systems, not because of their graphics, but because of their gameplay. I still love AAA console games, but based on the recent climate of that development scene, I worry about the future of companies like THQ, Square-Enix, Sega, and Even Nintendo and Sony. And while I will always have a place in my heart and on my shelf for the next big Bethesda and Bungie games, they’ve become secondary to the far cheaper, and far more engrossing titles from companies like Mojang, Double Fine, Supergiant, The Behemoth, Frictional Games, and dozens more. My only hope is that I’m not alone in thinking that.

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Halo 4 Demo and Discussion

The first day of E3 kicked things off right. Amidst all of the beautiful and exciting new games that were shown off today, one in particular caught my eye: Halo 4.

Being a long time Bungie Halo fan I had kind of said good bye to this much beloved franchise of mine. I knew 343 would do a fine job with the series but it wouldn’t be same without the Bungie community I had grown to love and had become a part of over the years. When Bungie departed Halo it felt like my parents had just had a divorce and 343 was my new step-parent. So with that in mind I set out to end my Halo career with Reach and savor what I thought would be my last Halo game.

But as time progressed and Halo 4 details started to leak out I found myself once again become enthralled in the series I had spent way too much of my life playing. I had come to love and accept my new step-parent. And with the demo today during E3 I find my passion for the game as strong as ever.

The first thirty seconds of the demo had me sold. The demo starts out with a short cinematic that surprisingly reminiscent of the 2007 Halo 3 E3 trailer and from there proceeds to game play in a dark jungle again drawing connections to the first level of Halo 3. Seeing this and watching the Chief move through the underbrush once again with the Battle Rifle in hand and hearing Cortana guide him comforted me by really demonstrating that this was the franchise I loved so much. While significantly more stunning and beautiful than the prior games it definitely was still Halo. We quickly see him encounter and dispatch of some covenant in some stylish new garb and my spirits absolutely soared when the Elite bellowed out an all too familiar “wort, wort, wort”.

But building a game that was still Halo wasn’t all 343 set out to do. The old trilogy had come to a conclusion and it is time for something new in the series. Right off the get go you can tell it’s a new and different game. The opening cinematic shows off Master Chief’s new armor better than ever and what once looked foreign and different now looks absolutely bad ass and fitting. The enemies, the world around him, and the HUD all looked smoother and sleeker, cleaner and more detailed. It all maintained that Halo style and feel while moving forward and progressing the game. The design and visuals aren’t all that’s new in the game though.

Words can’t explain how excited I am to bust heads the BR once again

The Chief trudges on and quickly encounters the games new enemies. The new enemies are Forerunner technology, AI defense systems with golden lights and hues to perfectly contrast the Covenants neon purples. These first enemies he encounters are clearly the weaker of the bunch, reminiscent of small robot dogs, all easily disposed and not that intimidating. As he starts mowing down a second wave I started thinking these guys don’t pose much of a challenge, these have got to be the Grunts of the new enemy type.

But what about the Elites? Almost on cue, the Elite unit drops in. You don’t get too close of a look at it before this large and terrifying unit opens up its face to reveal a molten gold skull and roars in your face. Intimidation and challenge were lacking in the smaller enemies but it is not the case here. As you proceed to battle this new beast you quickly realize that this is a completely new enemy that requires a completely new attack plan. These golden AI are equipped with powerful golden lasers (which the Chief is able to wield) and are able to teleport and move incredibly fast. If this wasn’t enough, they are also able to dispatch a flying unit which assists them in raining fire down upon you, shielding the enemy, calling in more bad guys, and throwing the grenades you lob at it right back in your face.

As Brendan mentioned in his E3 Day 1 Wrap Up these new enemies and the games new style at this point are incredibly reminiscent of Metroid. The best way to describe the new Elite unit would be to call it a Space Pirate mixed with a bit of Crysis’ Ceph and topped off with some golden hues. The other new AI enemies as well seem like something straight out a Metroid game. In no way is this a bad thing though. Metroid did an incredible job designing its enemies and seeing that in the Halo 4’s new antagonists provides us with a small sense of familiarity in this terrifying yet foreign enemy.

The similarities to Metroid continue as the demo comes to the end seeing the countless enemy AI swarm upon him through a green mist with the aid of his new thermal visor. We have seen enhanced visors in Halo before but not of this complexity and intricacy.  This will also be the first time this useful tool will be available in multi-player.

I came into this E3 with mild interest in Halo 4 but after day 1 I am leaving with an excitement for Halo 4 that I have become all too familiar with prior to a Halo release. All of my doubts in 343 were thrown right out the window. In this 5 minute demo 343 have shown that they were able to make new game that is still 100% Halo while still adding enough new things in to spice things up. This is hands down the prettiest of all Halo games to date and the new enemies look like they are going to be some of the most terrifying yet the most fun to hit the series in quite some time. Getting a glimpse of the Chiefs new visor and arsenal have got me itching to lay some fiery golden lasers into some Covenant and AI faces alike. I came into this demo biased and with unrealistically high expectations and came away absolutely stunned and blown away. I am absolutely stoked for Halo 4 in a way I haven’t been in quite some time.

Check out the demo below!

Final Thoughts on Mass Effect 3

WARNING: MASSIVE SPOILERS.

I know, I know. The topic of Mass Effect 3 — the ending specifically — has been beaten into the ground, debated and discussed, hashed out and argued. But let’s talk about it just one more time.

A few weeks ago, I talked about how I felt about the Mass Effect 3 ending in the greater context of story telling in video games. And how it kind of sucks. A couple of weeks later, myself and the rest of the team put our thoughts to rest in an episode of Powercast.

But here we are, nearly eight weeks since Mass Effect 3 was released, and discussions are still simmering in pockets all around the internet. Debates about indoctrination theories, explanations of plot holes, and speculation of the future abound. And ever since Bioware responded to the ending-hate with assurances of expanded ending DLC, the fanbase’s fervor has been reignited.

This is absolutely unprecedented in videogames. Never has a story enthralled players to the point of deeply discussing an ending weeks and months after the game’s release. I’m actually quite  impressed that our favorite entertainment medium has crafted a story which facilitates as much discussion as Lost or Inception. It’s a sign of the medium’s growth and maturation towards something much more rewarding and expressive.

"The work of one man (or woman) results in a shift that leads to change on a massive, galactic scale."

Now, when I offered my two cents on the ending, I said that while I had some big problems with it, overall I was fine. My big issue
stemmed from the lack of control and variety in the endings or how they play out. This opened up the floodgates for why I feel storytelling in videogames needs to change to better converge narrative with gameplay.

To be clear, I still strongly stand by this. In fact, in the time since that post, I’ve found myself seeking out games with more creative or gameplay-driven storylines. In my opinion, Mass Effect still falters in its execution, relying too much on cinematic practices and not enough on gameplay. But in my criticism of Mass Effect’s illusory decision-making, I overlooked something incredibly interesting: Bioware was playing into the constraints of the medium.

By playing into the illusion of choice, Bioware in fact used gaming’s greatest flaw in the Mass Effect 3’s favor. Instead of a cliche “you saved the world” ending, we got three wildly different end-scenarios. I say scenarios because all players saw practically the same cinematic, just different colors or prerendered clips inter-spliced. But all three possible outcomes (and every permutation within them) create wildly different outcomes for the future of the galaxy, Commander Shepard, and your crew. And before you bring up the plot holes or the random Normandy fate, consider this: your relationships with these characters came to a close throughout the entirety of Mass effect 3. The entire game is the ending, not just the last 20 minutes.

“More often than not, videogame endings don’t make us feel anything at all.”

And don’t forget, if indoctrination theory is right, none of this really matters after all.

For me, the “destruction” ending is the most plausible for my story, but that’s because I like the indoctrination theory. For others, synthesis may be ideal, and others still, control. There’s a choice there, and when you look at the ending from the point of view that “these people saved billions of years of life,” the fate of Commander Shepard and a few dozen crewmates ultimately becomes null in vastness of the universe.

And yet, extraordinarily powerful.

The work of one man (or woman) results in a shift that leads to change on a massive, galactic scale. NONE of us will ever cause such change. In that way, Commander Shepard makes quite possibly the most important decision ever posited to a videogame character: the cosmic fate of all organic life. While many have taken away the idea that the ending seems to say “nothing matters in the end,” I believe the opposite. Everything matters. Every choice creates a slightly different path which could lead to radically different outcomes for the three possible scenarios. We, as Shepard, are literally changing the face of the cosmos.

Carl Sagan would be proud.

Don’t get me wrong here: I wasn’t happy at the end, far from it in fact. I was sad. Whether or not Shepard lives or dies, there is massive, soul-crushing loss on such a large and unfathomable scale. But I like that the end didn’t make me happy. That doesn’t happen often in videogames. More often than not, videogame endings don’t make us feel anything at all.

"We, as Shepard, are literally changing the face of the cosmos."

Mass Effect 3 made us feel. We saw many of our favorite characters die, and watched as worlds were lost, and hope eroded. In spite all the positive change you bring to the galaxy, the loss of beloved characters is immediate and harsh. It’s not easy knowing that we can’t get a happy ending, but knowing the power our decisions wield in the face of such unfathomable odds is inspiring. And if it’s indoctrination theory, the door opens for innumerable possible outcomes each player could find for themselves. I love that idea. So much so in fact, I almost wish the expanded DLC wasn’t coming. I’ve decided my own ending, I don’t need Bioware to tell me how it all ends.

Sure, there are issues with the ending outside of just the choices and outcomes. And I don’t dig the reliance on cinematic tropes. But plot holes and space-magic aside, the ending of Mass Effect works. It makes sense thematically within the series and tone of the final game. Did I want a happier ending? I’m not sure. A part of me wants to say yes, but I know I wouldn’t be satisfied with that either. It’s an ending to a great story and series, nothing was going to be ideal. But no matter how dark it was, or how upset it made people, the ending sparked debates which have lasted weeks, and created an opportunity for personal interpretation usually reserved for literature and film, proof the stories in our medium are growing up. That’s an exciting and inspiring thought.

Halo 4 coming November 6th

It’s confirmed.

After rumors abound that the next installment of the sci-fi shooter series would be releasing this fall, major gaming news outlets are confirming a November 6th release for Halo 4 via a press release for the game.

According to the press release, Halo 4 aims to set the bar high with “a new standard for blockbuster interactive entertainment.”

It’ll be fun to see what 343 Industries will bring to the Halo series. As a fan of the original Halo: Combat Evolved, I’m curious what direction the new studio will take the series.

Are you ready for the return of Master Chief? Sound off in the comments.

Crysis 3! It’s coming!

Last week I commented on the rumors that Crysis 3 was going to be unveiled, citing my hopes for a return to the jungle and sandbox gaming, as well as my excitement for seeing more for this series.

Well, it looks like those wishes were granted.

As you may have seen on numerous gaming news outlets, Crysis 3 has been officially revealed, along with new sceens and details on the game.

Crysis 3 will return players to the jungle of New York — not the concrete jungle, but the honest-to-goodness jungle. It seems as though Crysis 3 will be a mashup of both the urban and tropical settings from the previous games, creating a unique landscape to experience. According to the game’s website, New York has been encased in a “Nano Dome”, turning the city into a wilderness of grasslands, dense forests and canyons, and the subway system into a deep labyrinth of caves.

“You’ll need to plan for any situation in the wreckage of the city. With the dome overhead and alien technology on the loose there’s no telling what challenges you’ll face. So, you better be ready to use every situation and environment to your advantage, because you won’t get a second chance. It’s a jungle out there.”

This new setting will combine the sandbox gameplay and tropical setting of the first Crysis, with the intense urban set pieces from its sequel. Players will take the role of Prophet (which is surprising given the event of Crysis 2), and will be armed with a high-tech bow, as well as Nano Suit abilities, and plenty of other weapons.

On top of that, Crysis 3 will be powered by Crytek’s new Cry Engine 3, promising to continue the series’ tradition of pushing graphics fidelity further, and with less hardware requirements.

Personally, I am extremely excited for this game, and it’s been a while since I’ve said that about a first person shooter. In fact, between Crysis 3 and Far Cry 3, I’ve actually become interested in the FPS genre once again.

We’re sure to hear a lot more about the upcoming game between now and it’s tentative Spring 2013 release window, but for now, peek these awesome screen shots:

Is PC gaming dead?

–By Brendan

We’ve heard time and time again over the past five or six years “PC gaming is dead.” Sure, any gamer can tell the industry is heading towards new horizons; new ideas and innovations like motion controls, super-powered handhelds, digital distribution, and free-to-play games seem to be ushering in a new era of gaming.

Where does the PC stand in all of this? Once thought to be the unmatched king of graphics, speed and multiplayer, the PC is seeing perhaps the biggest changes to its formula in order to meet the industry’s demands. But is the platform truly dead? Continue reading “Is PC gaming dead?”

Skyrim is unleashed!

–By Power Cords crew

It's here!

Hey guys!

I’m sure you’re all well aware of this, but FINALLY Skyrim is here! If things seem a little quiet from us today, it’s because The Power Cords crew are busy roaming through the wilderness, as I’m sure many of you are as well.  Continue reading “Skyrim is unleashed!”

Don’t forget: Modern Warfare comes out TONIGHT!

–By The Power Cords crew

Sup, dudes!?

So. Yes. Tonight: MW3 is unleashed upon the public. There will be laughter, tears, and fits of rage. You can guarantee your trusty Power Cords crew will waiting in line, and up all night playing! Continue reading “Don’t forget: Modern Warfare comes out TONIGHT!”

Rumor Mill: ‘Xbox 720’ to be cheaper than 360?

–By Brendan

According to IGN, specs for Microsoft’s new console, which they say is code named “Loop”, have been leaked in a blog post by MS Nerd. According to the post, “Loop” will be both smaller than current 360 consoles and cheaper to manufacture, as well as feature a Zune-HD style hardware setup, and a modifed versions of yet-to-be-revealed Continue reading “Rumor Mill: ‘Xbox 720’ to be cheaper than 360?”