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Enough with the freakin' trilogies already

Mirror's Edge Screenshot 

Last year when Crysis came out, I think all of us who played it were a little disappointed in the abrupt, cliffhanger ending. It felt like the ending of Halo 2, where you think you're about to get the biggest, baddest level of the game, and then the credits roll. Crytek's reason for such a lame ending? "It's a trilogy". What? Why didn't anybody say anything before? Are they sure they didn't just run out of time to put in all the levels they wanted?

Today, EA announced that Mirror's Edge will be the first part of a trilogy. What? The first one isn't even out yet. We don't know if it will be any good or if it will sell worth a spit. Need I remind everyone what happened with Too Human?

The state of PC gaming.... again

Last year, hype over the impact of piracy and the supposedly shrinking PC games market reached a head when the NPD reported that Crysis, in its first two weeks of sales, moved only around 86,000 copies. Unreal Tournament 3 reportedly fared even worse, tallying just shy of 34,000 copies. Both of these games received enormous hype, and these seemed like pretty dismal numbers.

Then came the piracy talk. Developers including id, Epic, Crytek, Ubisoft, and Infinity Ward suggested that piracy was so rampant on the PC that it was fueling their decision to focus more centrally on console development. Was CryEngine2 the last great PC gaming engine? Would PC gamers become increasingly subject to "dumbed-down" multiplatform games and belated ports like Assassin's Creed and Mass Effect, while PC exclusives that didn't fall into strategy or MMORPG categories faded into obscurity?

I'm relatively new to the PC gaming landscape. I played some PC games here and there over the years and once lost a whole summer to Quake 3, but until a couple of years ago I had always been a console gamer. But I had always looked at the PC with envious eyes, and had always wanted a really nice, high-end gaming rig. Of course, I realized that an uber-rig was not necessary to enjoy PC gaming. But I figured that since I was going to get a new PC and I could afford to treat myself, why not get something really great? In early 2006 (back when AMD processors still ruled the performance charts) I built my first PC. My first game was F.E.A.R., which at the time was still a PC exclusive. I haven't looked back since. As both a gamer and a hardware enthusiast, I can honestly say that I enjoy PC gaming far more than I ever enjoyed console gaming. But to listen to some people, I got into the game at a pretty dismal time. However, I think that a closer look at the facts tells a different story.

Good Old Games: beta impressions

I was happy today to find in my inbox an access key for the new Good Old Games digital store, an opportunity to try the beta and get my paws on some classic video games. What, do you ask, is Good Old Games? GOG.com is a new store from The Witcher developer CDProjekt that offers digital copies of classic PC games, at low prices and without any pesky DRM. As someone who has tried and failed to find a number of the games that are already available for purchase at the site, I think this service has the potential to garner a significant following.

The store is slick-looking and easy to navigate. Games can be found by price ($5.99 or $9.99), category, publisher, developer, and user rating. There is already a lively user forum with subforums for virtually every game available on the site, and the support section is very well organized and informative. With only two publishers on board—Codemasters and Interplay—the selection is a little sparse, but there are already some notable entries—not the least of which are the two original Fallout games, which will undoubtedly be very popular with the imminent release of the third. I cracked a smile at the sight of one of my old favorites, one I played on the Dreamcast years ago—MDK2. The definition of "classic games" seems like it could be a little loose too, with Colin McRae Rally 2005 slated for release "soon", according to the site.

The site is significant for a couple of reasons. First, the PC platform is long overdue to have an easy, one-stop shop for older games. Most of these games are difficult to find in stores, and some of them may be hocked on eBay at inflated prices. If enough publishers jump on board, GOG.com will be a great way for gamers to get their hands on old favorites or try classic games they missed (I must confess that, because I was not a PC gamer at the time, I have not played the original Fallout games, so I'm excited about the prospect of comparing them to the sequel later this month).

But more significantly, GOG.com is an experiment in DRM-free PC games. Based on the success of some other companies from Bethesda to Stardock as well as the success of DRM-free music services, CDProjekt has every reason to be optimistic. If GOG.com is successful, it may pave the way for the erosion of the increasingly intrusive DRM that has created a great deal of antagonism between developers and the gamers who support them. I have no idea how many beta keys are left, but now is as good a time as any for nostalgic old goats and younger gamers alike to give it a try.

Exposed: Yakuza 2's Mature Content

Haven't had a whole heck of a lot of time to game this week, but what little time I did have was devoted to Sega's Yakuza 2.


This guy is one seriously badass motherf*cker

I'm not going to talk a lot about it right now because I feel an ethical responsibility to review it and I want to save some ammo for that future piece, but I will say that I think it's great. For those who don't know, the game is basically a real-time brawler with some light RPG elements bound together by an extremely well-written crime drama storyline -- and in this case, i do mean well-written. It's not a parody or a caricature of a story twisted around and made to fit all sorts of absurdly contrived game nonsense... it's a real, honest-to-goodness, straight-up serious crime drama.

Microsoft takes second step towards casual gamers

The first step was of course the recent price drop of the Xbox 360 Arcade. Still, this next move is so counter to what the typical Xbox 360 owner wants that you wonder if Microsoft is willing to endure any kind of backlash just so it can grab some dollars from the Wii crowd. The transitioning period that Microsoft talks about is bound to be even longer than necessary since there wasn't a media onslaught similar to what Nintendo did for the Wii. As it is, Microsoft is expecting core gamers to just deal with it when this new "Xbox Live Experience" (and a recent price drop) tempts casual gamers to come play with the hardcore crowd.

Xbox Live Experience

"Dubbed the new "Xbox Live Experience," this re-launched service...really does seem to have something for everyone: an easy-to-use graphical interface complete with deeply customizable avatars that casual players will enjoy, and all kinds of new functionality that will actually reward the dedication of the hard-core Xbox player. Microsoft readily admits that there may be a bit of a transition period for those core players--a time during which a lot of griping might be heard--but the company fully expects a gradual realization on the part of those players that the new service takes the existing Xbox Live and adds all kinds of new community and interactive functions to it."

Piracy on the PC: Where do we go from here?

Just a sampling of the news this month in PC gaming:

  • Epic says that Gears of War 2 will not come to the PC, citing piracy as a primary reason.
  • EndWar creative director Michael de Plater asserts that the PC port of the game (which, incidentally, has not been officially confirmed to be in development) is delayed because of piracy.
  • Bionic Commando, the remake of the 80's hit, is coming to the PC a little later than the console version, again being delayed over piracy fears.
  • Fallout 3 has gone gold, and the XBox 360 version has already been leaked on to torrents. How long before the PC version, too, is leaked?
  • The Witcher developer CDProjekt is struggling to gain publusher support for its DRM-free classic-game service Good Old Games (gog.com).
  • A class-action lawsuit has been filed against EA for its use of SecuROM protection in Spore.

There's little disputing that piracy is a serious problem on the PC. It's also a problem for consoles, but it's certainly more prevalent on the PC. Unfortunately though, there's no real solid data to give us a clear picture just how big of a financial impact piracy really has. A study in 2004 found that music piracy, long blamed by the music industry for a decline in CD sales, was mostly unrelated to the decline. It's difficult to say whether this holds true for the PC as well; most piracy happens in Asia and Eastern Europe, so it's unclear whether game makers are really losing customers to piracy en masse.

But whether or not piracy is actually harming companies' bottom lines, it's clearly having a strong effect on their perception of the viability of the PC market. It's not unlike a bear market, where anxiety over stock viability creates a buying freeze. In other words, developers like Epic, Ubisoft, Capcom and id may be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy by relegated the PC to a second-class market.

At the same time, whether data supports them or not, developers are quick to blame piracy for any perceived lost sales. Epic, for example, dropped the ball last year with the PC port of Gears of War. The game was released a year late at full price with sparse new content, was not available through any of the many popular digital distribution channels such as Steam and Direct2Drive, and received bad word of mouth due to numerous game-breaking bugs resulting from a sloppy implementation of Games for Windows Live which, to add insult to injury, required a paid subscription to access all the online features. And yet Epic seems all too willing to ignore these factors and just blame piracy. I'm not singling out Epic—similar comments have come from Crytek, Infinity Ward, and many others. While piracy may indeed be an issue, the perception of piracy is clearly just as serious a problem, one that may prevent developers and publishers from addressing more immediate problems in their business models.

The response from developers and publishers to this possibly real, but unquestionably perceived threat of piracy has been to lace their games with more and more stringent DRM restrictions. When I wrote a blog chiding gamers for blowing DRM out of proportion, I was heavily criticized for failing to recognize that DRM really does create problems for a lot of users and, so say many, it just makes piracy worse. In retrospect, I was wrong to understate the impact DRM has on users, as well as wrong to overstate its efficacy. Clearly no DRM scheme does much of anything to prevent piracy—even the most heavily protected games are leaked very quickly; and clearly many legitimate users are inconvenienced by increasingly draconian DRM schemes—I've been there myself recently.

And yet, it's not clear to what extent DRM is hurting PC game sales if at all, or whether it makes piracy worse as some suggest—though both are valid possibilities. Again looking at music sales, some data suggests that Apple's DRM-free iTunes Plus may spur greater sales, and Amazon.com has seen great success with their DRM-free music service.

I applaud CDProjekt for their ambitious DRM-free Good Old Games service, and I applaud Bethesda for sticking with a simple CD check for Fallout 3. Ultimately the success or failure of DRM-free software will determine whether frustrated developers will continue to get away with blaming piracy for their woes, and whether DRM use continues to be prevalent. Regardless, it's time developers and publishers take a more critical eye toward their perception of piracy's true impact on their business, and start treating their customers a little better. As long as developers treat PC gaming as a second-class market, that's exactly what it will be.

Ars Technica tackles games with serious issues

Ars Technica closely examines some recent games that raise controversial themes and issues.

On Super Columbine Massacre RPG!:

Essentially, SCMRPG! is a psychological examination of Harris and Klebold. It attempts to put the player into their mindset, exploring how and why they came to do what they did. The subject matter itself questions what a game is meant to be. Though people normally play video games for sheer enjoyment, there is none to be found in SCMRPG! Instead, I found myself actively dreading entering the game world, unwilling to perform the actions necessary to progress.

On Metal Gear Solid 4:

In the world of MGS4, war has become a business, and PMCs are in the center of it. The new war economy means that the world is in a constant state of battle, locked in perpetual proxy wars fought for business purposes. But while this is an interesting concept to contemplate, unfortunately it is not covered with real depth.

As a Kojima game, MGS4 spends much more time tackling strange philosophical debates than it does real world issues like PMCs. And given the fact that the existence of these corporations only came to light recently, it's a topic that is at the forefront of many people's minds. The game is wonderful, but the opportunity for a serious look at the subject was squandered.

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"Life as a Disabled Gamer"

Life as a Disabled Gamer is a guest editorial at Game|Life by Andrew Monkelban, a gamer with cerebral palsy who plays one-handed. His piece covers a lot of important issues, but what most interested me was the kinds of games he likes and doesn't like to play, and why:

Up until recently, I've played predominately roleplaying games, with some focus on fighters. However, with the inclusion of online multi-player and other networking features in games and consoles, I've been able to try different titles and genres (i.e. Devil May Cry 4, Grand Theft Auto 4, and Mass Effect).

One example of a genre I can't play is shooters. Mass Effect is in this genre, and I had trouble playing it, due to the controls being too complicated for one-handed gaming. When you need to hold the controller a certain way, it causes problems when needing to reach some buttons.

Gamers are an incredibly diverse group of people, and I don't think most game developers or publishers (or indeed, most gamers, myself included) fully realize just how diverse we are. Can controllers with sensitive analog sticks and lots of little buttons be adapted for someone who needs a larger, simpler setup? Are there certain games and genres that gamers with certain impairments can't play because of the barriers involved? If so, are these barriers truly "just the way things are" or can we fix them? For instance, can we make audio cue-intensive survival horror games and first-person-shooters accessible to Deaf and hard of hearing gamers? (See the Doom 3 closed-captioning/transcription mod).

By blogging about gaming and disability, I hope to examine these and other questions. And, of course, alert readers to some really cool technology and people.

'Professional' Gamer Loses Cool @ Intel Extreme Masters

Either he's one hell of a competitor or he's a brat who needs a timeout.

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