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It is finally here: FIFA 11 October 1, 2010

Posted by Cesar in gaming me.
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2 comments

The most important game of the year was released this Tuesday: FIFA 11.

Most people I tell this look at me with an offended face (remember I’m in Canada, not Brazil!). But I do not intend to preach, I’m just expressing what the game is to me. And mind you, it is not the best game of the year. But it is definitely the one I will play the most. So, to me, it is also the most important one. FIFA 11 will shape hundreds of hours of gameplay until around September 2011 FIFA 12 comes out.

I’ve been playing the new installment of the EA Football series since its release and I read quite a few reviews. Most of them talk about the same things and I’ll summarize. In FIFA 11:

  • You can play as the goalkeeper;
  • Now there’s an 11 vs. 11 multiplayer option;
  • A new passing system was implemented;
  • An innovative animation system makes players moves more realistic;
  • The player can now record crowd chants and have them played during matches.

However, if you, like me, are a die-hard football game aficionado, who plays since the first Winning Eleven and FIFA 94 (I actually remember playing considerably older football games, but that’s going too far), you know there are only two things that truly matter: gameplay and multiplayer quality. We can ignore most other flaws as long as these two are top notch. And since the multiplayer in FIFA is notoriously great, let’s talk about gameplay.

Even though reviews are unanimous to say FIFA 11 is just a tweaked version of last years innovative game, the game plays quite differently. First of all, the pace went down a notch, mostly due to the new passing system. And this is a very positive change: before, with reasonably good players, all passes were perfect, no matter how difficult they seemed. This is not the case anymore. Now, even playing with the likes of Chelsea, Internazionale or Barcelona, if the body orientation of the footballer is not adequate and his pass skill is not high enough, the pass will not only go in a poor trajectory but it will also be slow and, as a consequence, way easier to intercept. This gives a greater edge to players with really high pass skills (like Frank Lampard or Xavi) and stops some crazy plays from working the way they did before. Gone are the eternal first touch pass chains, with the defending team unable to ever see the color of the ball.

At this point, fans of the PES series will look at this post with an ironic grin and say: “Big deal, that’s how it’s been in Winning Eleven for the past 15 years.” And they will be right! But the fact that EA finally made the change means the game got an important improvement and, considering the fact that for the past few years Seabass Takatsuka’s team has been underdelivering, it is now clear in this blogger’s mind that FIFA is better than its Konami competitor by a considerable margin.

However, not everything is perfect. The AI of the players gets confused with the new system. Passes that are obviously too weak to reach the target player are sometimes ignored by your other teammates, which means even if the ball goes slowly right next to one of them, they don’t do anything to catch it, no matter how desperately you try to make it happen pressing all possible buttons on the controller.

Another down side, this one way harder to fix, is that most of the time it is not possible for the game to distinguish an attempt at a fast pass from an attempt at a pass to a farther away player. So during the past few days I tried many fast passes (remember they are considerably slower now) by holding the button longer and ended up with a pass to the wrong guy (usually being intercepted by the way). Knowing a fast pass would have made the play work and not being able to pull it off is frustrating.

However, there’s an interesting way to make it better: pressing the lobbed pass button with the right bumper also pressed makes what the game calls a bouncing lobbed pass. This is a mid height pass, which can be used to avoid ground interceptions but is also faster than a simple press of the ground pass button. I’ve been learning to use it when I really need the speed and have seen some results already. And of course it is always possible to try the manual controls, but I digress.

Another noticeable change is in the physical interactions between the players. This is a less obvious update, but the impact is significant and I would say it is vastly superior to the old system. Reviewers gave a lot of emphasis to how physical contact looks more realistic, but it plays better as well. While heavy players can defend and dribble using their balance and strength (think Ibrahimovic or Drogba), small and agile players can still go around defenders and resist the occasional bump (think Messi or Robben).

Another interesting effect of the new physical play are the tackles: even though tackling is just as easy, it is now a bit harder for a defender to recover the ball if the other player thinks fast. It is possible for the attacking player to recover from weaker tackling efforts and fight to get the ball back, even if in a worse position. This was a rare event in FIFA 10 and it feels like a very positive change;. Tackles are not so binary anymore: there are bad tackles that let the attacker advance freely, good tackles that steal the ball precisely and not so good tackles in which both attacker and defender need to jostle for the ball.

All in all, I would say this is the best FIFA game so far. I’m still not sure the gameplay is as exciting as it was in the best versions of the Winning Eleven series (or Pro Evolution Soccer if you want to use the new name), the new changes still need some adaptation on my part, but if you take all other factors into consideration (multiplayer options, lack of lag, Be A Pro modes, etc), FIFA 11 is the best football simulation ever.

See you space cowboys…

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Why is Tilt To Live so darn good? September 23, 2010

Posted by Cesar in gaming me.
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1 comment so far

Forget Geometry Wars. If your gaming platform is the iPhone, I don’t think any game does it better in the shooter genre than Tilt To Live.

The most basic description of the game I can offer is: “It is like Geometry Wars, but you do everything without ever touching the screen”. That’s right: when the game starts, you control your ship only by tilting the iPhone, hence the name. Tilt To Live is not only a great shooter but also a fantastic example of how to make motion controls a perfect fit. You never feel like you died because the controls are flawed; quite the contrary, every difficult dodge is very gratifying.

The game offers multiple modes of play, but none of them is truly innovative, the appeal really is on the controls and the amount of effort put into the main game. Between new weapons and awards, it is easy to spend hours playing this little fella, so much that I found myself going for it even at home, with the FIFA 10 DVD inside the 360 and the Uncharted 2 disk in the PS3. Tilt To Live is that addictive. And this is coming from a guy who played Pacifism to exhaustion in Geometry Wars 2 (and I challenge anyone reading this to beat my 715 million points record).

Isn’t it interesting how this apparently simple game can be so good? I’ve been playing it for a while now, but recently started thinking about that. There are several factors in play. For one, the Geometry Wars formula is not new and very successful. In a self competition way (so it works even without online leaderboards), endless games in which the difficulty is constantly increasing provide a very satisfying search for a new high score. As the game gets harder, the reward for playing only increases, each move harder than the previous one, challenging and honing the player skills at the same time.

Of course that’s not enough, the twist are the motion controls. And, like I already mentioned, they are not a hindrance but very natural. So natural that I dare say in Tilt To Live the controls are transparent, playing is very instinctive (take a look at this post for more on the subject). This takes Tilt To Live to a new height, because making the controls transparent allows players to truly immerse in the game and enjoy it on a different level, which is very rare in such an abstract game.

Of course we cannot forget presentation and attention to detail play a big role in the formula. And the fact that Tilt To Live delivers in that area too contributes even more to increase immersion. The graphics are sleek, the soundtrack is a lot of fun, the gameplay seems to have been tweaked to perfection. Once again, there’s nothing off pitch to detract the player from the experience.

I wonder how far these components alone – transparent controls and a lot of polish – can take a game with a nothing but OK design. I suspect they are not enough to create a classic, but might be enough to ensure the game is not a flunk. However, in this case, it doesn’t matter, because Tilt To Live is just great. Seriously, go buy it.

See you space cowboys…

Video games and time: eternal brief moments August 6, 2010

Posted by Cesar in gaming me.
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6 comments

Let me propose an exercise: think of games that have been around for a very long time.

If you thought of any computer game you didn’t think big enough. The first versions of Monopoly date to the beginning of the 20th century, when Lizzie Magie created a game to explain the downside of economical monopolies. It was published in 1924 as The Landlord’s Game. Charles Darrow’s variation, the one we know as Monopoly, was published in 1930.

Want to take it one step further? Poker can be traced back to the 15th century in Germany. Old versions of the game were played with 20 cards, the english 52 cards deck was introduced “only” in the 19th century. And if you think “new” variations are recent, the never so popular Texas hold’em dates to the beginning of the 20th century, more than a hundred years old.

Not old enough? Let’s talk about chess. The history of chess is huge and its precursors have been around for 1500 years. We can trace it back to 6th century India! And even the “modern” version, conceived in Europe and played across the globe to this day, has been around since the 15th century.

I could continue the list for a while. Olympic games are way older than chess. And I’m sure kids have been playing hide-and-seek since the beginning of mankind. But I digress, after all playing is part of who we are. So I will stop with chess for now and ask the big question: why is chess a secular game and video games have so short life spans?

When I initially thought about the subject, the first thing that popped into my head was depth: chess is a deep game, with millions of alternatives. No match is ever the same. It is probably true that a shallow game would have a short life, but video games history and theory defy the idea: since the games industry inception, games have been evolving pretty fast and as games evolve and grow more and more complex, the time people spend with them paradoxically gets smaller and smaller.

Look at the Atari generation: River Raid was played for a very long time. Then Nintendo came and we played Super Mario Bros for ages. In the Sega Genesis I played Sonic from the day I got it until I finally stopped using the platform. Even the concept of old games was fuzzy: we didn’t care if the game was from 1 or 2 years ago, we just played it.

But our games evolved and nowadays a game’s lifespan is much shorter (even though there are exceptions). For how long did you play Metal Gear Solid? What about Bioshock?

Someone might argue that, like I said before, Metal Gear Solid and Bioshock are shallow games. It is true, but not in a bad way. Some modern games are way more story driven. In old games, the goal was always to achieve the highest score possible. Some of them never ended and would loop back to the beginning so you could continue playing. When a game is too story driven, like Bioshock, it loses replay value. Of course you can play again with variances. But after 2 or 3 times, you got everything you could from it, unless you feel nostalgic afterward (like it happens with movies and books after all).

What really keeps a game alive is competition. We continue playing to beat the ever changing AI, a friend or ourselves, in score based games. So, in order to survive, a game needs to be entertaining, competitive and deep. And then I ask: how long did you play Modern Warfare 1? What about Company of Heroes (the best ranked strategy game at gamerankings.com)? Isn’t Company of Heroes deep enough? I’m sure it is.

So I was thinking about that. It is a bit sad that great games last so little, it feels like the cultural value of the game gets much smaller. I played Monopoly when I was a kid. My father taught me how to play chess. Yet somehow I don’t think I’ll be teaching my kids how to play Company of Heroes.

I think games are doomed with the curse of sequels. Be them direct sequels or not, the games industry is always recreating games. And the new ones replace the old inside the DVD drive. I stopped playing Modern Warfare 1 to play Modern Warfare 2. And stopped playing Modern Warfare 2 to play Bad Company 2.

The timing for this post is no coincidence. Last week Starcraft II, the sequel to the best RTS ever (IMHO), finally came out. Starcraft was a bastion for video game resilience: the classic from 1998 continued being played for 12 years without a sequel (just the Brood Wars expansion shortly after the original release), it became a national sport in South Korea. Is it probably just as complex as chess or even more. But its legion of players was getting smaller, the game surrounded by newer, better looking alternatives.

Last week, when reviewers started writing their impressions on the new game, probably the highest point of PC gaming in 2010, they mentioned innovations and improvements. And while I’m thrilled to see the sequel and craving to play it, I’m also a bit frustrated. It is sad to see a great game, that lasted 12 years, get a killing sequel. Starcraft was already loosing ground, even though many kept playing it even when Warcraft III came along. But I’m afraid it won’t resist a direct sequel. The old gives space to the new.

I’ll finish talking about the moments of joy games provide during their brief lives again. The current generation of players probably won’t teach the new one how to play Starcraft, not even Starcraft II. But while the games go back to the shelves, the genres continue alive and well.

In the constantly reinvented games industry, there’s no space for secular games, but there’s space for secular icons and concepts. The RTS genre won’t die. Nor will FPSs. And because the concepts remain the same, that’s what we’ll pass to the next generation, that’s the legacy of video games to the future.

And I’m sure Mario will be there too. That’s gotta count for something.

See you space cowboys…

OnLive: the future is not that close October 26, 2009

Posted by Cesar in gaming me, working me.
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2 comments

onlive

A while ago there was an interesting discussion about OnLive on a LinkedIn group.  And I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently. I should say my religion is technology and I believe in the concept of OnLive from a theoretical point of view. That is: with a good enough connection, it will be possible to play high end games without disturbing lag. And I believe that connection exists.

That’s not to say I think OnLive will be a huge success. I think while the current connection speeds can be good enough for the service, they will often not be reliable enough, which will be a huge problem since local playing is not an option. You know those days you can’t surf all that well? You won’t be able to play either.

But that’s not all. One guy in the above mentioned discussion brought up a point that is very valid and somewhat unquestionable. While the connections are fast enough, they are not ready for that much traffic. And I am not talking just about the infrastructure, but also about the business model. Most ISPs in the US, Canada and Europe have what they call a fair share policy: there’s no written limit, but if you abuse it, they will cut you down. And according to the OnLive FAQ (and you know how these things go right?), to play with a 720 resolution at 60 fps, you need a 5Mbps connection. But unlike regular online games, where traffic happens in bursts and latency matters more, we can expect a somewhat constant data flow when playing OnLive. So…

That’s 625KB per second.

Roughly 2.2 GB per hour.

For a casual gamer that plays 7 hours a week, we are talking 63 GB per month.

Now imagine how much an avid gamer will consume. I will not even write it down. It is not doable. Not right now. Not with the current plans offered by most ISPs.  So while I believe in the technology, I don’t think the hit will be all that big. In fact, I think we’ll still see one whole generation of home consoles until the OnLive model becomes truly feasible. That is not to say it will fail blatantly either. It just won’t change the industry this winter like many have been saying. I for one intent to get it anyway, even if it is as a secondary console.

But I could be wrong. I hope I am.

See you space cowboys…

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