Thursday, February 16, 2012

Recent Demo Round-Up

Normally after the ridiculous gaming release schedule that occurs in the last few months of every year things quiet down a bit. Sure, there are a few releases in the first few months, but it’s usually a calmer time until the next big, inexplicable rush to release everything before “the holidays”. This year sees things like Mass Effect 3, Starbreeze’s Syndicate reboot, the PAL release of Catherine, the Western localisation of Ryuu ga Gotoku: OF THE END / Yakuza: Dead Souls, The Darkness II, Ryuu ga Gotoku studio’s second foray into third-person shooters, Binary Domain, and of course the release of Sony’s bizarre new handheld, the PlayStation Vita, and its accompanying launch titles. All before the end of March. And I’m pretty sure I’m missing a few things.

With new releases often come new demos, and recently we’ve been blessed with the Mass Effect 3 demo, a co-op only demo of Syndicate, a taster for Binary Domain, and the first level, roughly, of The Darkness II. The Darkness II demo was enough to assuage my fears that, without Starbreeze’s excellent direction, the second game in the series wouldn’t nearly be as good. Ultimately I don’t think it’s quite as good as its predecessor, but Digital Extremes have created some wonderfully visceral first-person combat mechanics and a well-crafted story to follow-up the original. It also does some interesting things in terms of staying true to the first game whilst also incorporating much more from The Darkness comics themselves – having Paul Jenkins, a writer for the comic, on-board probably contributed there.

But enough about The Darkness. What about the other demos?

Binary Domain (360/PS3 [English] / PS3 [Japanese])

One of several wild-cards where I wasn’t sure what to expect, going in. I was originally introduced to Binary Domain with a lacklustre trailer that made it seem like a poor man’s Japanese Gears clone, complete with slightly offensive copy of The Cole Train. I later learned that Ryu ga Gotoku Studio, the people behind the Yakuza series, were developing it, and I decided to give it a second look. The Yakuza games have long suffered from poor marketing, and while they remain deeply flawed, they’re also quite unique. I wanted to see if I was dismissing Binary Domain too soon.

I’m still not 100% sure what the plot of the game is, but here goes: It’s set in Tokyo, 2080, where a team called the “Rust Crew” have been sent in to investigate advanced robots that are indistinguishable from humans (Replicants and human-model Cylons, anyone?). I think that some time before the game is set, robots have taken over the Japanese archipelago, but frankly, I’m not certain. The demo levels consist of some fairly straightforward “advance through these areas shooting robots and taking cover”. The comparison to Gears of War is somewhat inescapable though slightly unfair, as Binary Domain appears to owe just as much to other cover-based shooters since Gears, and it’s really only the presence of the humorously named “Big Bo” in your squad – the aforementioned Cole-wannabe – that really makes you think they wanted to draw heavily on Epic’s franchise.

Considering this is from the same studio that just put out OF THE END, an interesting if bizarre and sometimes clunky attempt to marry the Yakuza franchise with third-person zombie shooting action, I was impressed with how Binary Domain handled. It’s a smooth game to play, and I often find Japanese games don’t handle smoothly at all – just look at the tank-like controls of even the modern Resident Evil games, OF THE END, Capcom’s Dead Rising and Lost Planet games to name a few. It also has a few nice animation touches, something Japanese studios are, I guess, meant to be famous for paying more attention to than their Western counterparts. Player character Dan takes cover realistically, dropping down low with his back to the wall when not firing. When he is firing, he props his gun on the wall to steady it. They’re little touches, but actually do quite a lot to differentiate it from the hyper-machismo of, say, Marcus Fenix, who slams into cover like a freight train and never seems to relax, always poised to shoot. It reminds me of little details from Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, like the way Sam Fisher used to pause mid-step if you stopped moving, and then slowly, silently, drop into a relaxed crouch instead of abruptly changing animations.

One of the most interesting features of the game, to me, is the voice command system. It’s tied into a “trust and consequence” system that I guess I’ll explain first, though it has much less bearing on the demo. Basically, your squad members seem to have some sort of “relationship” meter, perhaps like Dragon Age’s companions, and how you interact with them affects that meter and informs how likely they are to respond to your orders. I’ve no idea how that will play out in the full game, but in the demo, you can at least experiment with the interaction side of things. Accidentally shoot your teammates – something that happens with disturbing frequency due to their AI’s habit of running into your field of fire – and they’ll complain, losing trust. Here come the voice commands: wearing a headset, you can just say “sorry” or “my bad”. The game has quite an impressive list of commands and natural variations on those commands, so you can respond to instructions with everything from “roger” to “roger that” to “copy that” or “acknowledged”. You can throw out compliments like “nice work” or berate foolish actions. You can even yell “fuck” and have the game understand you.

Initially, I was incredibly impressed with this. In the demo your squad frequently asks for input, and it’s usually a binary (ha) choice – “Is he always like this?” asks a new team member when Big Bo’s banter gets unbearable. You can say “yes” or “no” and they respond accordingly. That worked fine. Later I gave the order to charge instead of holding back, and agreed to go on point when asked to. All these commands were, however, also available by holding down a shoulder button and selecting from the menu that popped up. I was speaking them, but the game was expecting a response there anyway. The big test came when my sniper announced she was going to take out an enemy sniper and promptly did so. I popped open the menu to see if there was a compliment, but I only had the standard “go”, “regroup”, “take cover”, etc., commands. So I said “nice work”.

“Thanks,” said my sniper.

I was impressed. That was when I went into the options and discovered the list of words, and started to experiment. What else could I say? There are various calibration settings you can alter to theoretically improve the accuracy of the voice recognition, and I started playing around with those, too. Unfortunately, this was where things started going pear shaped. Repeatedly trying the voice command test, I uncovered more and more phrases that the game simply didn’t recognise – especially longer phrases. Single words like character names (You can say “Bo”, for example, to get his attention before issuing an order to him directly) or short commands worked better than longer lines like “Hang in there” (a perfectly reasonable translation of the “頑張れ!” found in the Japanese version of the demo).
Some things, though, just refused to work despite their brevity. One was “Cheers”, that is, the alternative to “Thanks” or “Thank you” for those of you who don’t speak British English. The big problem? Neither does the game. I’m fairly certain the issue was with my accent (for the record, I don’t have a strong accent. If anything, my accent has been diluted by spending years in a diverse university town and living in Japan speaking as neutral a version of English as possible). When I tried it in a more stereotypical American accent or, even worse, a hackneyed Cockney accent, it actually accepted “Cheers”. On the Xbox 360, Microsoft has been pushing its Kinect hardware for voice recognition, and games like Mass Effect 3 – or perhaps the hardware itself – includes options for different dialects. I’m not sure to what degree that’s an effective solution, but the recognition in Binary Domain certainly has its problems as it currently stands.

In fact, when I played the demo again later, trying out the voice commands in both languages on the PS3 - I didn't have my headset hooked up the first time round - I discovered that although there's no real difference in the level of recognition between 360 and PS3, there's a surprising difference when it comes to the Japanese vs. English commands. Basically, when running tests on the word lists, the game gives you a score based on its recognition of the phrase you used, from 1 - 200. In English, even when it recognised what I was saying, it struggled to get a score over 100. Most of the time it hovered in the 40 - 80 range. However, when it recognised what I was saying in Japanese, it was much more confident: 120 - 150 in some cases. Now, again, my Japanese is imperfect, and I had problems with some commands - heck, I couldn't even read some of the commands, and had to do a little dictionary digging (Japanese military lingo is evidently something I need to brush up on). In some cases I had to practice my pronunciation a little bit to get it right. The point is, though, the game was more adept at recognising my bad Japanese than it was at recognising my native English - something that should probably concern the developers, and players.

As mentioned above, I played the demo in both Japanese and English. I didn’t make a great effort to pay attention to the Japanese version as I was mostly interested in learning how it handled than learning about the story or the characters, especially as by the time I’d messed around downloading it I’d learned an English-language version would shortly be coming out. That lack of attention means I can’t really comment on some of the differences between the two versions. One of my worries based on the early trailers, though, was that the dialogue in English would not be... great. The English dub of the original Yakuza was a complete travesty, but so far Binary Domain seems to be avoiding that. I would not say the dialogue or translation is great but it’s certainly not painful. There was one truly inexplicable discovery, though.

In the second demo level, your team includes a robot named Cain. In Japanese, I found him quite hard to understand as he has a sort of robotic filter over his voice acting. In English, however, he’s French.

Syndicate (360)

Starbreeze and EA have been much-maligned for “daring” to reinvent this long-dead franchise, rebooting 1993’s original isometric Syndicate as an FPS that draws more than a few comparisons to the recent Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I have to wonder how many of the gamers vociferously complaining actually played the original, and how many are just jumping on the latest bandwagon. Even being a PC gamer myself in the ‘90s, and now being 26, I never actually played Syndicate. I have, on the other hand, played and loved Starbreeze’s prior work on Riddick and the original Darkness, both of which had an incredible sense of being in the character. Not so much in a role-playing (or –inhabiting) sense, but in the physicality of the player model, despite them being first-person games.

The Syndicate demos features only one level of the co-op mode, but it seems to retain a similar level of physicality and brutality. There’s just something extremely satisfying about the way it plays, with little touches like sliding into cover after sprinting or the way enemies take bullets. Plus, the game just seems hard. Although after a few tries my friend and I were able to beat it, and on subsequent playthroughs had far less trouble, the initial experience was one of being shot to pieces, violently and repeatedly. There’s a fairly reasonable checkpointing system at work though that stopped it from getting too frustrating. There’s also a wealth of unlocks, research, weapon pick-ups and character upgrades that seem like they could take a lot of playing to get through, which bodes well for replayability in the finished product. My main interest now is in how the singleplayer is going to turn out, but based on Starbreeze’s other games, I’ve got my hopes set pretty high.

Mass Effect 3 (360)

The big one.  I’m a huge, shameless Bioware fan, and the Mass Effect series has only grown on me over time. I think Mass Effect 2 was a fantastic way of building on the work they did with the original. Some systems certainly suffered, with less customisation in a few parts of the game, less “deep” RPG progression elements, but I think overall what was gained in cinematic storytelling and refinements to the third-person combat made the transition between ME and ME2 more than worthwhile. With ME3, Bioware basically just have to wrap up the storyline of the trilogy in a satisfactory fashion whilst not breaking any of the mechanics they worked on in ME2. Manage that, and I’ll be happy. Improve on the formula and I’ll be ecstatic.

The demo doesn’t really offer enough insight to be able to say whether or not they’ve been successful. First impressions are basically that they’ve retained an almost identical interface to ME2, though there are some welcome improvements. A new “social” suite of options brings much-asked for features like the ability to hide helmets during dialogue where appropriate (presumably, “where not in a vacuum”), as well as the controversial setting that makes story and dialogue decisions for you. Bioware has suggested this option is in response to players who have complained of opportunity paralysis, who just want to focus on playing the game and not worrying whether making the “wrong” decision will deny them some part of it. As long as this kind of thing is purely optional – which the demo (mostly) suggests it is – I have no problem with it at all, even though it’s been decried as yet another example of Bioware “dumbing down” their games. A brief investigation of the character creation tools suggests very little has changed, but as promised, hair has been improved – I’m looking forward to seeing my original Shepards looking like they have hair instead of moulded plastic wigs. There’s also the much-vaunted default FemShep, which is cool I guess, but for my female Shepard I already have my own custom character so it isn’t something that directly affects me. It’s an interesting example of how Bioware interacts with its fans, though.

From here on out I’m going to (circumspectly) discuss the campaign side of the demo, so there will be minor spoilers, but nothing you wouldn’t get from, you know, playing the demo the developers have themselves put out there. The two mission campaign taster kicks off with the opening sequence of the game, seeing Shepard on Earth, presumably suffering the consequences of Mass Effect 2’s Arrival DLC. The demo actually doesn’t go into too much detail of what’s happening there, and I’m curious as to whether the full game will either discuss that retroactively, later in the story, or if the demo has cut out certain information or scenes – a query that pops up repeatedly as we move forward.

My Syndicate co-op buddy was wondering whether Bioware can make the last game sufficiently epic, considering the stakes that were at play in ME and ME2. Considering the game starts with the Reaper invasion, mysteriously centred on Earth, I’m thinking “yes”. I am, however, hoping that the focus on Earth is shown to make sense rather than being needlessly exploitative, somehow trying to tie the mission directly to the player. I, and I expect other fans, already care enough about the universe within the series to want to save it. I don’t have to be told Earth is directly at stake as a motivational tool. I also hope that – because the situation seems so ridiculously, almost hilariously dire – that the game finds a way to beat the Reapers without resorting to some magical McGuffin. If the story is “Shepard, go to a planet we haven’t mentioned previously and get an artefact we didn’t know about and use it as a secret weapon”, I shall be highly disappointed. I don’t mind if that’s a facet of the story, but I hope there’s no magic button to save the universe.

Back to the demo itself, though, and I started to notice some strange things. Combat feels very similar to ME2, despite the improvements previews have discussed – it’s not that there aren’t improvements, it’s just that they’re very minor, or frankly things that should have been in ME2 anyway. Things like moving around corners in cover, some more agile rolls, and so on. There’s also a new “heavy melee” ability that utilises the omniblade. I’d kind of hoped this would get at least some explanation, but maybe in the full game there’s a Codex entry on it; ME2, after all, introduced the idea of “thermal clips” (basically, guns that needed reloading instead of heat management) and explained it away with in-game lore. I hope the omniblade gets a similar treatment, as it’s otherwise too new and weird. The bypass matching minigame from ME2 appears to have gone, and bypassing now seems to be an entirely automated affair, which is a little strange. I wasn’t all that attached to it in 2 but I’m surprised it has no replacement.

The real kicker, though, was the dialogue. I have to preface this by saying maybe I’m being too picky, and maybe I’m misremembering things from the previous games, but two things struck me. First and most obviously, I think every single dialogue choice I encountered was a binary choice between a Paragon and a Renegade response. Sometimes that was true in previous games, but far more often, there was a neutral option and/or questions that could be asked to get further information about a situation. It is possible that those “further info” questions were missing because this was the demo, but the limit to paragon and renegade answers was really quite disturbing. I didn’t notice it too much at first because I remembered there being limited responses during, say, the opening sequence of ME2 when the Normandy was attacked. The limited options continued in the second demo sequence which seemed to be later in the game, which was of greater concern.

The second thing that struck me actually worries me far more. I’m hoping the “lack of choice” I was perceiving was limited to either those conversations that happened to be included or was down to a lack of options in the demo build, not the final game. What surprised me though was how often Shepard “spoke for me”. Moments where I’d have expected some input on matters were completely scripted. As I said before, it’s possible I’m simply misremembering the previous games. Certainly, Shepard doesn’t wait for your input on every single utterance in the other games, but in the ME3 demo, I often felt like the dialogue was out of my hands – and that’s not what the series has been about. And, unlike the “lack of choice” above, actually adding in decision moments seems far less likely than adding extra choices in.

Perhaps my fears are unfounded. I’d be shocked if after two games riddled with dialogue choices, Bioware suddenly threw all of that away in the final game of the series. On the other hand, one of the big criticisms of the Arrival DLC – the DLC released to lead into the ME3 story – was that a hugely important moment was a taken out of your hands and Shepard proceeded without your input. At the time, I argued that it was a necessary moment, something that had to happen, both for ME3 to occur and for because if Shepard acted otherwise the universe would be doomed. You didn’t really have a choice, so the game made it for you anyway. I hope, however, that Mass Effect 3 doesn’t take a similar line with the majority of its decision-making.

Oh, and the multiplayer? I haven’t tried it yet. Soon, though, soon.

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