new challenger

I make games. I also play them. I talk about both activities here.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Discovered Country

Console Gaming is all about the characters. Sure, Gordon Freeman might entertain some mild celebrity on the PC, and the Doom Marine is a fairly ubiquitous icon, but really, no character who calls the PC home can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Mario, Sonic, Snake, Lara, or even the Master Chief in terms of fandom, fanaticism, or following. This happened for a number of reasons, the most obvious ones involving the way in which PC games and console games elect to relay their experiences. PC games tend to favor either the more immersive first-person perspective (found in shooters like Doom and Half-Life, and RPGs like Oblivion and System Shock) or extremely detached perspectives (found in “god games” Like Black & White and The Sims, and RTS games like Age of Empires or Warcraft). Also, PC games tend to use cut scenes quite differently than console games. Whereas Blizzard might use a spectacular cut scene to illustrate the general, conceptual conflict between humans and orcs, Konami will use their cut scenes to show the character Raiden (“hero” of Metal Gear Solid 2) getting all badass at the expense of several frightening pieces of machinery. And of course, there are exceptions to every rule. Doom 3 uses cut scenes to prominently feature their main character, and conversely, first-person shooters, RPGs, god games, and real-time strategies all reside on consoles comfortably. But in general, I assert that when it comes to strong characterization in games, PC and consoles are in completely different leagues.

That’s probably why third-person shooters are all the rage on consoles as of late. Undoubtedly spurred on by the success of Resident Evil 4 (and certainly a product of console gaming’s two-dimensional roots), games like Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter, Rainbow Six: Vegas, Gears of War, and Mass Effect have all experimented with third-person perspectives heavily influenced by RE4’s claustrophobic – but character-centric – camera angles. Previous attempts at third-person perspectives have largely come off feeling a lot like first-person shooters, prioritizing feel over aesthetic. Avatars would whip around unnaturally, trying to maintain controller immediacy, eschewing any and all notions of composition, believability, or cohesiveness. On the other extreme, when third-person games are mindful of character sensibilities, they oftentimes end up feeling sluggish and unresponsive. What RE4 and its offspring have begun to focus on is reinforcing the feeling of actually moving a meaningful person around in a world space while also being fun to control – something that first-person shooters – still the lords of the PC action experience - have all but abandoned. Beyond modeling a set of arms and putting a wobble on their guns (which is annoying as hell), first-person shooters seem largely content with having control interfaces that feel like you’re maneuvering disembodied limbs through meaningless space. For better or worse (I lean towards worse), Resident Evil has always tried to increase tension by making character movement a conscientious, weighty act, thus strengthening the bond between avatar and player.

It’s looking like consoles may have finally bridged the gap between the responsiveness needed to feel good and the aesthetics needed to look right. Don’t believe me? Well go download the Xbox 360 demo for Lost Planet. Upon its release, Lost Planet will be the best game for the Xbox 360, period. Now, it’s possible (although not probable) that Capcom will screw this game up between now and its end of the year release, but based on the impressions I’ve gathered from the demo, this game is shaping up to be one of the most powerful and satisfying shooter experiences ever. I want to take a look at a couple of the things that Lost Planet does so well, the things that make its feel stand out amongst the flood of third and first-person shooters rising around us. Let’s take a look.

The first thing I noticed about Lost Planet is what I like to call “The Dead Zone.” While moving the target reticle with the right analog, I noticed that the camera did not update its position until I had breached some invisible box, which exists just above the head of the main character, and stretches a few shoulder lengths beyond in each direction. Thus, when aiming within that area, the camera maintains a fixed orientation while the reticle moves freely. This, in turn, coincides with the player avatar adjusting his animation as well, in synchronicity with the reticle. I, perhaps confusingly, commented to a colleague of mine that they had, “…made game function and character movement exclusive.” I don’t think he understood what I was saying, but in traditional shooters, particularly of the first-person variety, game function – things that relate to the player and his interface with the game (which could include utilities like heads-up displays, camera control, navigational abilities, etc.) – are typically streamlined to produce the most immediate, perfunctory service to the player, so that as little interference as possible gets in the way of world orientation/navigation, aiming, and subsequently firing at a target. Reticle aiming, for instance, typically moves at a one-to-one pace with the camera; differentiating between reticle movement and camera movement in traditional shooters is usually meaningless – they are the same action. Character movement and orientation usually get dragged behind this functionality in most shooters, with any positioning and movement by an avatar merely serving the basest level of believability and appropriateness. Lost Planet has broken from this tradition, and I was completely shocked at how dramatically the adjustment affected the overall feel of the game. Now, when I aim, it’s Wayne (the curiously antiquated name of Lost Planet’s main character) on screen repositioning his gun sights, rather than me the player moving a camera with a crosshair attached to it in abstract space.

Highlighted in red, the glorious "Dead Zone".

The next thing I noticed was the variety of expressive feedback that Wayne has. A friend/co-worker of mine and I were having a discussion about what this “next generation” really meant, and we seemed to agree that if nothing else, the amount of information communicated visually from the game to the player will increase dramatically. As such, subtleties that were only implied previously can be conveyed much more explicitly. Lost Planet is a game set in a snowy world, and when Wayne is running, he has to take these high, measured strides through the knee-deep snow. When walking, the effect is exacerbated with even more pronounced struggle animations and haggard, beleaguered breathing sounds. After jumping down from height, Wayne is completely disrupted, crashing heavily back down the ground, going as far as to use one of his hands to prop himself up and temporarily losing the ability to aim and shoot. One particular enemy in the demo has ground-shaking attacks, and if Wayne stands too closely, he is again affected by stumbling, temporarily suspending the ability to retaliate. Weapon choice is reflected accordingly as well. Heavy weapons that are typically affixed to the robot suits (called VSs) that dominate the Lost Planet landscape slow Wayne’s movement when the player carries them, requiring him to stand still when firing. This type of gameplay has met with some controversy in other, more traditional shooters (in Counterstrike, which does have a weapon weight system, players go as far as to switch to lighter weapons during moments of the game where navigation is more important than firepower – an option that Lost Planet, with its inability to store heavy weapons in your inventory, does not allow). In the world of Lost Planet, though, it makes complete sense. What’s perhaps most contextually interesting is what happens when Wayne is hit with heavy fire of caught too close to explosions. On several occasions when playing the demo, I would become caught between two or more opposing enemies’ fire. This oppressive barrage would inhibit my ability to move by throwing Wayne into reactionary fits, oftentimes resulting in my death. If within range of an explosion, Wayne can be knocked completely off of his feet, further exposing himself to additional damage. These types of consequences are what you’d expect from a melee-based action game, not a shooter (although to be fair Call of Duty has played with a disorienting shell-shock effect for some time). It’s pretty standard affair that while enemies may buck or tumble under fire (although some games, like Quake 4, don’t even respect this notion), but typically the player and his avatar and able to run through bullets as if they had never been hit. Punitive reactionary systems not only exist in Lost Planet, they thrive.

I’ve been paying close attention to the buzz surrounding both Lost Planet and its stable mate Dead Rising. It seems that people are really responding well to them – particularly Lost Planet – which got a lot of attention due to its brilliantly timed demo. I hope Capcom gets to reap the rewards for their efforts with these two games, as the 360 could really benefit from Capcom’s continued support in the coming years. While I consider my 360 purchase money well-spent, the game library it has amassed so far doesn’t really suit my tastes as well as I’d like. What you have on the 360, by and large, are very big, bold, safe games (with perhaps the one notable exception being the phenomenally underrated, yet gloriously worthwhile Condemned). Lost Planet is big and bold, but I would call a shooter from the land of the shooter-phobic many things before I would call it safe. I have to give credit where credit is due and acknowledge Capcom for being the most adventurous big publisher in videogames today.

Thanks for reading.


  • At 1:10 PM, Blogger jchensor said…

    With Resident Evil 4, Capcom also breathed new life into the GameCube as well. I keep looking for the game that will make me buy a 360, because as soon as I find it, I'm more than willing to shell out the cash for that thing. If Lost Planet can be anywhere near as refreshing as RE4 was, then maybe it'll just be the game I'm looking for.

    And out of curiosity, have you tried Rockstar's Table Tennis yet? That game has me more than curious.

  • At 1:25 PM, Blogger jchensor said…

    But now I just noticed that Lost Planet won't be out until Q1 2007. I don't really want to wait that long. I'll have to look for something else that's just over the horizon instead.

  • At 7:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Ugh. I've wanted to post here for weeks!

    The first part of the LP demo is awesome. However, I do find the controls a bit sluggish, that's, obviously, by design and something I'm sure I'll adapt to. The thing I'm most impressed with is how they pretty much put the player on a constant timer. Better, the idea that the player can sort of determine whether or not they'll have a constant time regen occur (if you take out all the nest and bugs... then what?). It's a great system. It's a good reason to throw hordes of targets at the player.

    However, the second part of the demo was a bummer due to the AI. Bugs coming at you, I understand that. A swarm of soldiers running at your character? No thanks. Yes, I know just about every action game does this; I was just hoping next-gen games would offer something a little new in that realm when it comes to a human vs. smart entity. They talk, they thrown grenades and drive mechs. Why can’t they look for cover? Why can’t they sneak up on me? I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

    Also, I hope the fiction addresses the random placement of weapons. The world looks to damn good to just have weapons thrown about for no reason.

    By the way, yes, I absolutely love what they did with aiming. Genius. And that quick right 90 degree turn… why didn’t I think of that!?

    Keep posting.



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