For the last five years, the small Finnish game studio Remedy has weathered a stormy economy, kept its studio small against the trendy tide of high production costs, and has somehow kept Microsoft at bay from canning its project after a half decade of tinkering. Come May 18, Alan Wake will finally have its day in the sun. Unlike so many games that lose their steam and tech edge after a five-year development cycle (witness Peter Molyneux’s first Fable and Dave Perry’s Wild 9), Remedy’s Alan Wake just seems to keep getting better.
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During the last demo of Fable 3 at Microsoft’s XO10 conference in San Francisco, Lionhead chief Peter Molyneux asked us if he could sit, as he explained, he had been working 10-12 hour days. Eventually has asked if he could get onto his knees to illuminate actions on the HDTV. Since my associate and I were the only guys in the last session of the day, we agreed. Molyneux, whose repertoire of games reaches back to the 8-bit and 16-bit days and includes hits such as Syndicate, Black and White, and Dungeon Keeper, is known for both charming audiences during his infamous demo sessions and overpromising on games that often only deliver a portion of those promises.
In our demo, Molyneux demonstrated exactly why he is so captivating as a speaker and as a game designer. He speaks personally to as many journalists as possible, to such a degree that his “handlers” have to end the sessions for him. He expresses a child-like joy for the games he makes, which you can hear in his voice and see on his face. And few of his games are proper, predictable sequels. They’re always packed with new ideas and attempts at doing something different. As the chief of Lionhead, he said, he loves his job, asking in what other position could he employ such off-the-wall ideas, or make such drastic changes, or have so much fun at his job?
Of course, the opposite can be said, and with conviction. Molyneux’s games often only contain a portion of the ideas he hypes, leaving lots of gamers frustrated and angry at him, and leaving a game that clearly looks like it has been cleaved (like Fable 1, for instance).
Fable 3 stands to build upon the previous Fables in the series, with more character customization and innovative options in three ways, says Molyneux: 1) by rewriting the rules of traditional story-telling in games, 2) by enabling an Ico-like hand-holding mechanic called “touch,” 3) and by enabling players to customize their weapon (as an outgrowth of customizing their characters).
THE HERO MYTH REWRITTEN
“Video games are always told by means of the hero’s journey,” said Molyneux, referring to the common concept of heroes from writer Joseph Campbell’s book, Hero of a Thousand Faces. “A big baddy does something really bad, you’re the hero, and you work all game long to beat him. Then, the worst thing happens. The credits roll. When you beat him, the story ends. In our game, after you beat the leader of the town of Logan halfway through the game, you become the king.”
Molyneux’s premise is that gamers always play the same story model, and by putting gamers in the shoes of the king, they’ll gain an enormous amount of power and then have to make decisions that will make some followers happy, but will eventually let other people down, giving players choices over how they’ll reign.
“Let’s face it, when it comes to expressions in Fable 1 and 2, it really came down to one funny ‘expression.’ Farting.” In Fable 3, Lionhead is borrowing the hand-holding mechanic first introduced in ICO to connect gamers with characters in the story.
Molyneux demonstrated the idea with a family of three, a father, mother, and a young, lost daughter. In order to find the daughter, the character relies on his pet dog to track her scent. Once located the father lifts the girl into his arms and they hug. Players can then punish or reward the daughter for running away.Your character then tries to lead her into the pub, where she responds by saying, “Daddy, that’s the pub. Mother said she never wanted you to go there again.”
They then walk back home hand-in-hand. “When we have couples who play game in co-op walk in hand in hand, everyone single one of them is moved,” said Molyneux. “It’s amazing how simple and effective it is.”
Molyneux also showed how “touch” negatively affects characters. By putting his character’s hand on the shoulder of a beggar and misguiding him into believing he’ll be fed, the father leads the beggar to a labor shop. Once the beggar realizes he’s going to the labor plant, he pulls and tugs and tries to break free from your grip. But no such luck. By physically connecting players with characters in the game, they’ll feel more attached and emotionally connected to the game, added Molyneux.
WEAPONRY: SAM’S AXE OF DEATH
Finally, Molyneux explained how the weapons have been changed and improved over Fable 2. “We were in a design meeting talking about weapons,” explained Molyneux. We had created about 300 weapons already (Molyneux signs with boredom at the thought of so many weapons) when we suddenly realized that we should allow you to create your own weapon.”
In the demo Molyneux shows a striped face warrior holding an unusually shaped axe. “It’s tall because of the 1,000 kills you’ve tallied. It’s spiked because of your Xbox 360 gamer skills. And it’s named ‘Sam’s axe of death,'” said Molyneux. The best part? You can trade or sell your weapon online, or buy another player’s weapon.
In conjunction with Microsoft and GameStop, Bungie is fueling its custom Halo 3: ODST Transport and is scheduled for a 22-stop, nationwide roadtrip to offer gamers a chance for hands-on sessions of Halo 3: ODST’s new Firefight mode.
Starting at 12 pm, Saturday, August 22 at the GameStop in Redmond Tiwn Center, Seattle, WA, Major Nelson and his Xbox Live crew will head up competitions that start this Saturday in the Pacific Northwest and end at the Sunset Plaza in North Babylon, New York on September 19.
For those folks who live in the Bay Area, the “Bungie-Mobile” will stop at Union Landing, Union City, CA on Tuesday, August 25, and Wednesday, August 26, at the Center at Slatten Ranch, in Antioch, CA.
Check Major Nelson’s blog for the full schedule.
I got an email from an associate the other day about a mini video documentary called “Digital Trends Presents Players Only with Scott Steinberg: Video Games are Dead.” The headline irked me because to say that ‘video games are dead” is a shock-jock journalistic trick to get attention, and instead of watching, I ignored it.
A half dozen months back when Wired wrote that blogs are dead, I felt the same way (ugh, more gimmicky headlines), but I work in the video game industry and from all accounts, the industry is far from dead. So I went back to playing Resident Evil 5 with my son.
But while reading VentureBeat.com over coffee this morning I watched the whole piece, and the content of the story has real meat to it. Its author asks good questions and gets a surprising wealth of responses from industry designers, businessmen, and presidents, and analysts including Chris Taylor, Michael Pachter, the good doctors from Bioware, David Perry (yes, he’s my long-lost Irish brother), and more.
What’s it all about? The video game market isn’t dying, it’s changing. From the popularization of online casual games to the iPhone to the immense cost of production, the video game industry is still in its teenager years and still sprouting. How exactly is the gangly, pimpled kid turning out? I recommend watching the video; it might surprise you.
We sat there glued to our TV screens. The familiar countdown sounded off–four, three, two, one… until the black TV screen revealed a narrow hallway where I stood shoulder to shoulder with my team, three ODST soldiers. Stepping into the sunlight we saw Covenant Phantom dropships appear from left and right. Grunts and Snipers descended onto the grassy slopes of Security Zone, the first of three Firefight maps shown during a hands-on session at Bungie’s Kirkland studios Tuesday.
The first wave of Covenant was easy: Four of us against a bunch of alien meat puppets. But it was the appearance of two Covenant Wraith tanks coupled with the re-appearance of new dropships and the constant, accurate plasma blasts reigning down on us that made me nervous.
The silence between waves was even more nerve-rattling. During those short windows of time (maybe 10-15 seconds), we sprinted across the green searching for ammo or any ammo-filled enemy gun we could find. The third wave of the first set brought Brutes. The fifth wave finally came, bringing the distant icon of the Brute Chieftain, with his elaborate headdress protruding into the air and the massive, powerful hammer clutched in his paw. You could hear him grunting a hundred yards away. I watched one teammate take the Chieftain’s first swing, his body like a puppet slammed 30 feet back. It took all four of us to mow him down.
That was wave one.
Firefight is the new survival mode in Bungie’s Halo 3: ODST. Along with a fleshed out single-player campaign, ODST comprises a multiplayer mode, Forge, Theater, and all of the community tools first revealed in Halo 3. Additionally, if you purchase Halo 3: ODST, you’ll be invited to play the Halo: Reach beta next year.
Firefight reminds most people of Gears of War 2’s Horde mode, although Survival gameplay modes have existed in fighting games for dozens of years now; they’re nothing new. But Firefight is new to Halo, and it’s a logical extension of the Halo play style that bolsters co-op play and camaraderie, as up to four players team up to fight endless waves of Covenant enemies. Bungie’s Lars Bakken, senior designer on Halo 3: ODST, said he recalled being aware they had something great just after Halo 3 shipped. “In the first section of Halo 3, when the jungle opens up, we toyed around with the idea of Firefight. We just reset wave after wave of enemies, and we could see the making of something really fun. It was stripped down, not at all like what we have in ODST, but that’s when the roots of Firefight began.”
In Bungie’s version of survival mode, you and three other ODST soldiers start with a single suppressed SMG and (scoped) pistol each, and you’ll fight off five waves of Covenant enemies, each wave separated by about 15 to 20 seconds before the next wave hits. Your team shares a pool of seven total lives (shown the upper right hand corner); meaning you get seven lives to survive three sets of five waves before Bungie rewards you with a Bonus Round. Survive that, and you’ll get new ammo, extra health, and new lives. The Firefight maps are specifically designed for ODST and there are about 10 of them.
Adding to the fun are skulls. Skulls are like wild cards or little dark clouds, depending on your point of view. Bungie and its massive ark of fans love the skull challenges. In our sessions, each new set of enemies added a new skull to up the ante. In the first round of five, Tough Luck, which directs enemies to dive away from grenades, is employed. The second round sees Catch, a skull that enables enemies to hurl dozens of grenades at you. And, finally, on wave three, you’ll see Black Eye, a brutal skull that forces you to physically attack enemies with melee attacks to regain health.
Getting to the third set is easier said that done. The par goal Bungie set for the game is 200,000 points, and our team, using the normal setting, averaged about 68,000 to 80,000 points. In our several attempts we nearly beat the third and final round, but our last human fighter died, having run out of bullets with nowhere to go against the Chieftain. High points are earned for doing cool things, like attaining multiple deaths in a row, gutsy kills, or successful melee attacks.
For instance, one guy on our team hurled a plasma grenade into a group of Grunts and watched five of them explode–he gathered a hefty number of points for that. On normal mode, I snuck down into the lower green and jacked both of the Covenant Tanks, for which I was awarded handsomely. In the same way that multiplayer modes require study and patience, Firefight requires teamwork, quick assessment of dead aliens’ weaponry, and weapon placement. For instance, on a lookout spot at the top of the hill, you can grab a detachable turret, but once those bullets are emptied, whatever the aliens dropped after dying is what you’re left with. One strategy is to save the big guns for the later, tougher battles.
Fighting with Four and Seven
Bungie showed off three Firefight maps during its all-day, hands-on MP/Firefight session: Security Zone, Crater (at Night), and Alpha Site. Security Zone is like Zanzibar in that it quickly demonstrates the full potential of Firefight. It’s simple, easy, and a quick map to understand. It’s also the first map Bungie showed of the mode, so by now everyone has seen a portion of it. Security Zone comprises a gradual grassy slope anchored with three lookout points at the top of the slope and has a few structures creating partial barriers near the slope’s bottom. There, a flat grassy section ends with a gray alcove designed for various purposes (such as hiding or grabbing a sniper rifle, for instance). When the mission begins, players start at the top and fan out across the field as Covenant dropships blast cover fire while dropping their soldiers. This Environment is both wide and long, and if you look hard enough you’ll find a power rifles, rockets, and sniper rifles in the wings of the level.
Crater (night) is a smaller, circular map built upon three or four split level balconies and ramps, along with a crater in the middle. This map, as indicated, demonstrates what a night map looks like, and you’ll need the night visor to handle this level best. Hit X and the dark, hidden enemies will appear for a limited amount of time in full light. Crater is full of mischief. It’s packed with circular sloping paths, alcoves, and tons of little nooks to duck into and re-appear in to handily slaughter enemies. Since Firefight is limited to four humans per team, this map delivers the perfect size and structure, giving you the ability to always seen your comrades if need be (and there will be the need!).
The third map, Alpha Site, is another circular one; only it’s flat and appears during the day. Covenant waves appear on a wide balcony at the far end of the level, split in the middle and connected by two narrow-ish doorways, creating potential for bottlenecking. This level, however, is distinguished more by the multiple columns that split up the opposing end, giving both you and the enemy cover sections and hiding spots from which to recover and attack.
I liked Security Zone in the same way that Zanzibar was the picture perfect capture-the-flag map. It’s big and obvious, but there is room to play. And it’s also wonderfully balanced. Its biggest fault is that it’s actually too big; you often find yourself completely adrift from your teammates more often than not. All of the maps are solid, but I found myself really liking Alpha Site, as the environment is filled with columns, walls, and areas to avoid fire and surprise enemies. Moreover, the many columns stop the Chieftain from performing his deadly hammer attacks.
In each of the three Firefight maps shown, not one included drivable vehicles. Bakken explained that a handful of the other Firefight maps were large enough to include vehicles, specifically citing Warthogs. He pointed out, however, that you couldn’t jack a Wraith tank, which I so desperately wanted to do in Security Zone; you can however, plant a bomb to destroy it. Jacking the Wraith tanks was something Bungie toyed with early on, but it quickly became apparent, as Bakken pointed out, that it threw the game out of balance and changed things for the worse.
Hands-on Multiplayer with Citadel, Longshore, and Heretic
The all-day session also offered us a look at the three new multiplayer maps: Citadel, Longshore, and Heretic, a remake of the previous released map, Mid-Ship. With these three new maps, Halo 3 and Halo 3: ODST offer a total of 24 total multiplayer maps.
“Our fans have been asking (demanding) more symmetrical maps,” said Brian Jarred, Bungie community director. “We assessed at all the Halo maps and looked to see what niches were missing. The areas we were short on were small and symmetrical maps. Heretic, a true re-creation–although I won’t say it’s a pixel perfect one–of Mid-Ship, is a fan favorite. A small team of eight people is perfect for this map.”
Citadel is a solid symmetrical map that’s somewhat similar to Heretic in that it offers multiple pathways and a center piece, but it’s got a larger diameter and so it’s got wider paths and slightly bigger spaces. Both Citadel and Heretic are especially good for shotguns. “Citadel is simple and pure,” said Jarred. “And dare I say it, it’s my favorite.”
Longshore is a big team battle map like High Ground or Zanzibar. It’s an industrial warehouse setting that delivers a sense of vast size. It’s asymmetrical and has multiple stories, includes a Covenant Ghost, a rocket launcher, and an Energy Sword and we were able to play Capture the Flag and One Bomb on it. There is little else to say than it was a blast. Although, I’ll add that there are multiple ways to get the flag, perched on a four story high tower, including an extension bridge that expands almost directly above the tower.
The extension bridge can be activated by running up to the second (or third) floor and hitting a green-lit button. The activated bridge makes a big lurching sound, so it’s obvious it is extending, which can be useful for an attack or as a decoy. When on defense and we heard the bridge extending, we all focused our attention on it, even though the opposing team wasn’t coordinated enough to use it.
Bungie Studios is holding a day session on location for select journalists to play Halo 3: ODST and yours truly will be there to report on it. Microsoft has placed an embargo on the material, so expect a hands-on report at 9 am PST, Wednesday, August 12.
For what is essentially an add-on pack, ODST is turning out to be something quite big, and despite Halo 3 ending the story arc of the vaunted series, ODST this year will be followed by Halo Reach next year, giving gamers two straight years of new Halo games. Additionally, Microsoft recently announced three new maps for Halo 3: ODST: Longshore, Heretic, Citadel. And at Comic-con in San Diego, Bungie announced its intention to Matrix-ify the IP, an anime-style series consisting of seven short films.
Check back tomorrow for a detailed preview.