Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Brink: Preliminary Report

I have learned much in my years as a gamer.

The first and most important lesson is to always temper your expectations. It's okay to be excited, but don't let your ideas of what you think a game will be overpower the reality of what game designers are able to accomplish.

To that end, I approached Brink with an open mindset. The previews I've read were relatively favorable and it looked like a decent game. Team-based combat with character customization and shiny graphics. Seemed at the very least it'd be a good game to play for a bit.

Now let me preface this, as always, by saying that I'm playing this on my PC and the results may be different from those of console players.

The reason I'm calling this a preliminary report because I've found that I cannot continue with a full review in the game's current state. In fact, I'd rather not because I'm not sure if it's technical or the fault of the game, but my initial opinion of Brink is not a good one.

From the start you're told to choose a side. Being one of the people that bought into All Points Bulletin (A Cops and Robbers MMO that lasted almost exactly two months from launch), I thought this would have far more impact on gameplay than it actually does. In fact, you can switch between both factions at will.

The Security faction in the game are the "Cops" of the Ark, a massive floating city. Their rivals are the Resistance "Robbers". The Security wants to save the city, the Resistance wants to abandon it. It's a generic story and from what I've seen, doesn't become anymore complex.

As far as the character customization goes, it's more limited than I expected. You can't directly edit your character, only select from preset faces and skin tones. And, sorry ladies, no females at all, at least that I've seen.

The apparent "story" is told through short cutscenes between NPC squadmembers between Campaign missions. The voice acting is cheesy, but it more or less fits in with the stylization of the overall game. However, don't go into this game expecting to play solo. The AI of Team Fortress 2 could run circles around the idiocy of the game's AI.

The meat of the game is in its objective-based multiplayer and that part of the game is decent. As I stated at the outset, technical difficulties have prevented me from really exploring this area of the game, however from the articles I've read it seems that multiplayer lag actually is an ongoing issue.

The gameplay itself is extremely familiar if you've played any team-based game, well, ever, especially TF2. You have four roles, soldier, medic, engineer and operative. The soldier handles ammo, the medic heals and revives, the engineer buffs weapons and the operative can disguise himself like the enemy faction.

The shooting handles like a blend between TF2 and Modern Warfare, there's only one downside to the gunplay that, frankly, kills any modern shooter's gameplay: absolutely no location-based damage. If I shoot a person in the face, they need to die.

Although this plays into the gameplay by allowing medics to revive fallen soldiers, it creates the un-needed annoyance of having to go through rooms full of enemy team members you already dropped and shoot them while they writhe in pain on the ground. Something I think unintentially adds a dark turn to what seems to be billing itself as a bit of a more lightsided shooter.

I mean, you're going through and executing wounded and dying enemy soldiers...kinda off-putting in a way. But your alternative to doing that is leaving a bunch of wounded enemies behind you on your way to an objective so they can be revived by an enemy medic and flank you.

Putting that aside, there's a large variety of guns but they don't seem to have the variety one would expect. The SMGs handle similarly to the ARs and the shotguns aren't all that effective, but perhaps that'll change with upgrades.

As to the feel of multiplayer itself, that's the primary area that's affecting my ability to confidently review the game and it ties directly in with technical issues.

I'm playing Brink on a new Asus laptop with a great graphics card, an ATI. There has yet to be a game released this year that I cannot play at near max settings. However, even when I lower Brink to it's barebones settings, I have framerate and lag issues.

Looking into the forums, it seems like Brink is not playing well with my graphics card, although other reviews I've read say there's technical issues in the game itself.

So what I'm going to essentially do, is give Brink a few days to see if they release an update that'll hopefully address this issue. If they don't, then by the end of the week I'll pass my official verdict on the game based on the information I'm actually able to gather.

As for right now, I'm going to recommend to everyone reading this that you avoid Brink for the time being. While it tries really hard to be a cutting edge, team objective-based shooter, it seems that it isn't able to follow through on anything.

Stay tuned here for an update and verdict later in the week.

Until then, game on and take care.

Friday, May 6, 2011

DLC, Microtransactions and Free Updates

If there's one thing that has been working to divide and galvanize the gamer populace, it is the rise of the microtransaction.

For those unfamiliar with the idea, a microtransaction (MT) is a service or additional item added to an already released game for the owners of said game for a fee smaller than the original purchase price. The items can range from harmless non-combat pets to entire classes and areas in the case of free-to-play (F2P) MMOs.

The conflict among gamers arises with the debate over when gamers should be charged for additional content, how much should be charged and whether or not companies should even charge for additional content at all.

I'll start by saying this, I have little problem with developers and publishers having the right to have MTs. It's their game, their product and as long as the initial product we bought and paid for is complete without the addition of these items, then no harm no foul.

The place I really start to get angry is when you can tell at a game's launch that elements were ripped from it solely for the purpose of charging MTs. The most notorious recent example of this are the removed outfits and dyes from Fable 3. It was obvious that dyes like the color black were missing from the shelf totally with the knowledge that people would pay for it later.

This sort of event is why MTs have terrible reputations and those who utilize them are labeled as money hungry sadists with no respect for their fans and customers. Although I have to lay a good amount of blame at the foot of the publishers too. It's more than likely that these sorts of scenarios were put into place only because of publisher pressure rather than the developer's personal desires to be as evil as possible.

 However, MTs aren't necessarily terrible...when done right.

When it comes to F2P MMOs, then MTs are perfectly suited to that style of subscription. The one caveat to this is that the full game needs to be equally accessible to everyone. Let's take Lord of the Rings Online (LotRO) as an example, being that it's currently the front runner F2P MMO. (I'm not going to be addressing social games in this post, that will have another all to itself.)

When you subscribe to the game, you have a substantial chunk of area to explore. You also have all classes leveling and developing the same as those classes that belong to paying customers. The path diverges a bit with the MTs. The MTs they offer include additional classes and new zones in addition to less major items like pets and mounts.

The place this gets rocky is when you're already paying a subscription and additional items are launched as MTs. As I said above, this works with F2P games. But when you're still paying a subscription and they ask you to pay more for items that you should have access to anyway, it's not a good thing. Especially when these items could in some way upset the balance. It's at that point that gameplay comes down to who has the larger wallet. If I'm paying a subscription, then I should have the exact same opportunities as everyone else paying a subscription. (Note: I'll expand upon the subject of equal opportunities in MMOs at a later date.)

The bottom line of this is, MTs should not gimp you in any way if you decide to skip them. They should add to the experience, like the expansion packs of yore.

But there's a point where it starts to really grate on my nerves, like the Fable example above, and that's adding things purely for the quick buck. One of these pet peeves involves the idea of selling map packs.

Recent shooters such as Halo: Reach, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and Call of Duty: Black Ops are guilty of this, as are many others. They charge you 5-15 dollars for 2-3 additional multiplayer maps. It is quite obvious that these are implemented solely for the idea of making additional funds.

I understand part of this is because of certain XBox Live policies. But when they do the same thing on Steam, it rings alarm bells. Speaking of Steam, Valve just recently announced that all updates to Portal 2, on ALL consoles will be free of charge.

I rejoiced immensely at this news. First, because it cements Valve as one of the best developers of this gaming generation and second because they're throwing down the gauntlet to other developers who are charging for map packs and add-ons.

THIS is how you support a launched game. THIS is how you give add ins to those who already purchased your product and Valve deserves massive kudos for treating it's playerbase with such respect.

That all being said, what is the final verdict?

To put it bluntly, it is entirely the developer's right to launch as ask for money for DLC. It's somewhat unfortunate, but it's true. We as the consumer have to pay with our wallets and tell them, "Hell no. I'm not paying five bucks for black dye. How about you put it in my game when I buy it?" We also have a responsibility to point at Valve and say, "See? They can do it, why can't you? What's stopping you?"

DLC is here to stay and it's our responsibility to shape what that DLC is from this point onwards.

Game on and take care.