30 March 2009

MadWorld: Sega Does What Suda Don't. (And Sony.)

After a two-level session of MadWorld this morning, two things struck me:

1. MadWorld is a better action game than God of War.
2. MadWorld is No More Heroes Done Right.

I noticed the first point immediately when I *tried* to play God of War first. To begin with, the overabundance of transparent walls blocking my every path was annoying the hell outta me, and secondly, my lack of familiarity with Sony's obstinate insistence on unique button symbols sent me into a brain-flipping frenzy every time a quick-time sequence was initiated. Not only was I forcing myself to play a game other than the new game MadWorld, I had to force my brain to think that 'X' was the bottom button, and not the left. I had to do this using an inherently incorrect algebraic equation:

A = X, X = Square

Or for those brought up in the backwards land of Nintendo, the equation would look something like this:

B = A, Y = X; therefore, B = X, Y = Square

Can we get the Big Three into a room and get them to agree on the placement of the 'X' button please? Like the good old days post-World War II?

Nintendo, Microsoft & Sony meet to decide the fate of the 'X' button.

But at the end of the day, all I could think was that I was forcing myself to play God of War even though all I really wanted to do was play MadWorld. Partly because MadWorld was 'the new game', but mostly because it is a better action game. I say "better action game" because God of War does many things that MadWorld doesn't. God of War is a blockbuster action/puzzle/platformer in the vein of 'epic' Hollywood films like Gladiator, while MadWorld is an indie love-letter to Streets of Rage and Sin City. That is to say it is raw arcade-y action minus the puzzles, trinkets and lever-pulling. You'd think by now I should have mentioned God of War in the title, and not No More Heroes.

MadWorld pulled me away from THIS.

But you'd be wrong. I haven't forgotten my second point: No More Heroes could have been the sytlised, raw action parody that MadWorld is, but was lumbered with its drab and sluggish overworld, replete with mini-games and annoying transparent walls (I understand that this too was a parody, but what's the point of a parody if you can't have any fun with it?). What MadWorld essentially gives me is what I wished No More Heroes was. And that is, just the action bits. Crunch-crunch-crunch - that's how an action game should feel. Come to think of it, even God Hand does a better No More Heroes impression than No More Heroes does.

It's as if PlatinumGames got together down at the local pub [instead of staying home to play WoW in their nerd lairs] to discuss what was wrong with No More Heroes. And to recap their conversation, they said something to the effect of "right -- we need a bolder presentation, more contextual controls, more action set-pieces, more intentional level design, and for the love of God, NO OVERWORLD!" Then they went back to the office and made MadWorld. That's almost certainly not what happened, but it's a nice story, anyway.

What's black and white and red all over? MadWorld, that's what.

Now, to hone in on the specific elements of that fictional pub conversation, the presentation is probably MadWorld's strongest suit. Its Sin City black-and-white-and-red-all-over palette is confident and makes it stand out in the sea of 'mature' titles. The pulp comic and arcade stylings frame the action in a comedic light, which can be your only defence when the ESRB and family groups come knocking at your door, crying for blood. No More Heroes attempted this and failed - it wasn't contextual enough for the BBFC - and so the European version was neutered blood-wise [though rumours suggested that could have had more to do with the release of Manhunt 2 than anything else].

The controls are more contextual than NMH as well. They 'make more sense' if you will, and the result is something far more tactile: hit the 'A' button for jabs and punches, hold 'A' to hold enemies and items, swing the remote for a more powerful punch from your mechanised arm, hold 'B' to retract your chainsaw from said arm, and swing while holding 'B'. There are a few spur-of-the-moment prompts (let's call them 'quick-time events' for lack of a better term) for split-second decisions that also make a lot of sense. Thrusting forward with the Wii remote during a 'B' finish to carve your punk-ass foe like a Christmas Turkey just feels right. And the icing on the cake: a quick shake of the nunchuk headbutts the captive in your thrall. Probably my only qualm is the way the game prioritises picking up punks to picking up items. Sure, those priorities make sense from a survival perspective, but it doesn't do the scoreboard any favours. Something both games lack: a rotatable camera. Hopefully Suda addresses this in his next outing.

Lamp post in head = Contextual Violence.

The items are MadWorld's sticking point. After a quick tutorial at the start, it becomes immediately apparent where each item sits in the Circle of Death. Tires and oil drums immobilise, signposts skewer, and 'rosebushes' hang 'em out to dry. These are the bread and butter of MadWorld, but plenty other environmental disasters are interspersed to spice up the carnage. Being a Gameshow of Death, every level is lovingly crafted for that express purpose. In No More Heroes, one gets the feeling that the levels are just 'there', cobbled together for the express purpose of housing enemies. Again, MadWorld trumps in concept and context.

Which is a shame, because the concepts are remarkably similar. In both games, you essentially face off against the World's Greatest Merchants of Death to improve your ranking as a Merchant of Death. There's a lot more to both, of course, but that's the crux of it from a gameplay perspective. But the narrative informs MadWorld's mechanics in a far clearer fashion. In a plotline reminiscent of Batman: No Man's Land, the city of MadWorld has been sealed off from the outside world. A criminal organisation turns the city into a perverse gameshow for its wealthy clientele, and its citizens must kill or be killed for money. The last man standing is the winner. The sealed-off city serves the arcade-style gameplay, framing each level as a battleground. You kill enough people in one area, you progress to the next area, unlock new challenges and so forth. Your score is your cash, and you earn more for more creative kills. And so the Mighty Chainsaw becomes a last resort, and the imperative is to use as many items and hazards as possible in the most creative ways possible. The overworld of No More Heroes is at odds with the rest of the game. That Suda 51 repletes his overworld with invisible walls only speaks to the conflict in design. The inanity of mowing lawns and collecting coconuts for cash is frustrating when you know you should be mowing down suits with swords and collecting assassins' heads for trophies. Can you see the contrast here? Both are brawlers at their core: in one you raise money for the opportunity to fight; in the other you fight for money. MadWorld cuts out the middle man and the result is a tighter gameplay narrative.

No More Heroes is its own worst enemy.

Don't get me wrong, No More Heroes is a good game, and full respect for getting the action-satire ball rolling on Wii. But it gets in the way of its own fun! MadWorld is recognisable as the evolutionary next step: it trims the fat, leaving only the meaty gameplay. It's what No More Heroes should have been.

29 March 2009

Chix & RTSs.

I don't know about you guys, but I just can't be arsed micro-managing special units in RTSs. I'd sooner rush my opponent mindlessly and get each and every unit slaughtered before I bothered with niggly recon crap like spawning broodlings, irradiating, and so-on-and-so-forthing [which is sad for me, if you know how much I love Starcraft]. I suppose that explains why I love this so much:

Ah, Hell March. It's like music to my ears.

Red Alert requires a whole lot less multi-tasking than most. It's a pity I still suck at it, though. And it's all because I can't be bothered putting the effort into those special units and abilities. Which is why I propose a hypothesis:

Women, being the masters of multi-tasking (and hence micro-management), should be naturally pre-disposed to pwning at real-time strategy games.

So, whaddaya think? Are there any representatives of the fairer sex that out there can speak definitively on the subject? Have you ever been schooled in the art of war by a lady friend? If so, I'd be genuinely interested to hear from you.

27 March 2009

I Bought MadWorld.

So shut yer cakehole.

Not that it was my obligation or anything. Just because I WANTED TO. I recommend it to you if you like hard-boiled comic books, stylistic gore, underground hip-hop, and side-scrolling beat 'em ups. But don't be a fool and buy it just because it's 'mature'. 'Mature''s not a genre; that doesn't help you decide whether you'll like it or not. I could expend 5,000 words or more on the inadequacy of terms like 'casual', 'hardcore' and 'mature', but I'll save that for another day. Instead, I'll tell you this; MadWorld's success - good as it is - is Sega's responsibility, not yours. If MadWorld fails to sell a million copies, it's not your fault for not buying two copies and telling your twenty friends to go out and buy it as well; it's Sega's fault for not promoting it aggressively enough. So read the review, see if it sounds like your cup o' tea, rent it if need be, and go out and buy it if you want to play it. Don't buy it just because it's 'mature' [which I assume means it has lots of blood and gore] and you want to secure the possibility of seeing more 'mature' titles on the Wii in the future. It's not your responsibility.

MadWorld: it's a good game. Buy it if you want.

Videogame publishers needs to wake up and realise that they're Big Boys now, and like the other Big Boys of Industry they need to advertise their products to make them profitable. It's no longer acceptable to dump a videogame on the shelves and expect it to sell off the back of enthusiast press coverage and word-of-mouth. Ever notice that when a 'good' game doesn't sell, we get blamed for either not buying it, or not 'getting it'? Don't look at us, buddy - most of us purchase more videogames per capita than entire family units combined. We've known about your game *at least* six months prior to its release because we read these websites every freakin' day like starved animals with an insatiable appetite for gaming news. We're freakish anomalies and we are not to be relied on for sales, marketing, or otherwise. That's your job; you know, that thing that you get paid to do?

This is 'mature'?

They also need to wake up and realise that there's more than two types of gamer. The IGN Nintendo team (and others) have probably done more harm than they realise for peddling this hardcore/casual BS so aggressively; now developers and publishers are starting to believe it. There are games for old-timers, children, and soccer moms, and there are games for psychotic adolescents who just want to kill things in the most gruesome fashion possible. It's funny, because the terms came into popular use via the mainstream media to describe something they didn't really understand. Gaming journalists latched onto those terms because they didn't really understand nor expect the Wii's success (and still don't), and in the process have denied decades of genre diversity and envelope pushing. Okay, I promised I wouldn't discuss this at length so I'll leave that issue right there. The point is, that like in every other entertainment medium, every type of gamer should expect to be catered for, not beg to be catered for. If a game doesn't sell, it's not because x type of games don't sell on this system; it's because people didn't know about your game, you dolt!

[Aside: Hideo Kojima was just lamenting the lack of a comedy genre in gaming this week at GDC, and I think it's a very valid observation.]

Sega has taken a particularly long time to come to grips with this, which is funny, because they used to understand it. It's no coincidence that Sega's most successful console was the only one they advertised on television on a regular basis. They advertised their games regularly as well. They even made good Sonic games.

Panzer Dragoon Saga: The Greatest Game No-one Played.

If ever there was a Top 100 Greatest Games No-one Played, Sega would probably take out half the list. Shining Force III, Panzer Dragoon Saga, Burning Rangers, Jet Set Radio Future, Shenmue, Panzer Dragoon Orta, Virtua Fighter 2, 3, 4 & 5 - and that's me not even trying. The common denominator? No advertising, save for print ads in comic books and banners on websites. Talk about preaching to the converted! Sales, then, were entirely reliant on enthusiast press coverage and word-of-mouth. You know who else relies on the enthusiast press and word-of-mouth? Local rock bands with NO MONEY. And even they use flyers sometimes. There is NO EXCUSE for multi-million/billion dollar videogame publishers not to adequately advertise their product. It should never come down to the consumer at all - we're not disciples "spreading the Good News", and we're not 'Street Teams' for emo bands with bad hair. We're the customers, dammit. We pay for a videogame, [hopefully] enjoy it, and that's the end of it. Sure, there's nothing to stop us recommending it to someone, or showing it off to our friends, but when the marketing stops with us and not the publisher, then the publisher isn't doing their damn job.

The onus doesn't lie with the gamer to 'vote with their wallet' to ensure that they are catered for with future releases; the onus lies squarely with the publisher to ensure that the product they've spent thousands or even millions on becomes a profitable endeavour, and reaches the largest audience possible. When marketing duties fall to someone who's not even paid to market anything, then it's time to either fire your entire marketing division or get them off their asses and make them do something.

25 March 2009

Things That Make You Go "Hmmm...": PETA Goes to War With Call of Duty.


The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have taken issue with yet another videogame. Surprise, surprise. And this time it isn't Cooking Mama. No-hoo, this time it's Call of Duty: World at War. I can feel your surprise increasing. PETA also apparently take issue with modern history, and seek to change it. So, all around, not so many surprises.

No, it isn't the slaughter of millions of soldiers that have got on PETA's goat, but rather those poor Nazi attack dogs. You know, the ones you receive as a bonus after getting seven kills in a row?

[Maybe you don't, in which case ur a n00b.]

Well, apparently shooting these crazy canines in self-defense (i.e. to prevent one's own virtual consumption) is cruelty to animals. Or maybe it was just the Nazis training the dogs to be flesh-eating psychos in the first place, I'm not quite sure. The reason I'm not sure is because PETA are up to their same old gimmicky nonsense again.

It all started when a group of Academy of Notre Dame students [is it wrong to imagine a posse of hunchbacked youths?] organised a petition to voice their displeasure. PETA, in their trademark arrogant and patronising tone, put together a 'care package' to send to Acti-Blizz. Consisting of copies of Nintendogs. Oh, and a free pass to their 'Developing Empathy for Animals' seminar.

I hope to God that the seminar is real, otherwise PETA have completely wasted their patrons' funding. They could be using the money to - I don't know - save real animals from abuse perhaps? I can already think of several more effective 'care packages' than the one they provided, one of which involves doing what most of them probably already do - coming home to greet the family dog with a friendly pat and a nice scratch behind the ears.

"Promote animal cruelty and we'll give you a free videogame!"

I'm not a historian or a World War II expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I'm *pretty* sure that ze Germans didn't pet or play frisbee with their murderous muts. Just a hunch. Thankfully PETA drew the line at burning the history books on a pire, because that would be too ironic.

It's not even like World at War was the first game to feature attack dogs. We've been committing virtual acts of killer dog cruelty since the dawn of the FPS genre: Wolfenstein 3D. If anyone's earned a free copy of Nintendogs, it's John Carmack - he practically invented the rulebook on killing killer canines.

Don't do it! You don't know what you've started!!

What do you think? Are we too cruel to animals in videogames? Or is it all about context? Who's up for a game of Pokemon?