Archive for January, 2011

Hello 2011! Part 2

Wednesday, January 5th, 2011

Yesterday we looked some of the best video games coming up this year. Today I’d like to look at a few developments that will be interesting to watch in 2011.

The Android Strikes Back!

Last year, Apple was once again the big winner in the mobile market. The 4th gen iTouch devices impressed with more powerful processors and enhanced screens, but it was the iPad that really shook things up. While some questioned if a market existed for a device that was essentially a blown-up smart phone, it has since become clear that the tablet is here to stay.

Meanwhile however, even as Apple extends its dominance over the general public’s imagination, Google’s Android platform continues to grow. Android-based devices have become ubiquitous, and in the smartphone arena they have collectively become almost as prevalent as their iOS rivals. Offered by all mayor carriers (unlike the iPhone, still AT&T exclusive) and available in many sizes and price points, Android OS phones have also come to feature much improved hardware and functionality. The trend promises to continue well into year; and with the release of an updated OS, 2011 will likely finally see some tablets released that can take on the mighty iPad.

Kinetic Movements

Late last year Microsoft and Sony released the Kinetic and Playstation Move, respectively. They’ve come to join Nintendo’s Wii in living rooms (and dorm rooms) across the nation (indeed, the world!) in an attempt to control how we interact with our games, electronics, and indeed, each other. This movement (no pun intended) to revolutionize interaction hardly exists in isolation; one could argue that the multitouch devices we have in our pockets with their pinching and swiping gestures are another part of this trend. As a gamer, I remain somewhat unconvinced; in terms of precision, of simply an reliably translating my intent into actual on-screen results, nothing I’ve tried yet has proven to be as effective as the old standbys: gamepads, or mouse and keyboard. And yet, not all gameplay experiences are about precision, and not all interactivity is about gaming (or so I’m told). A lot of fun can be had with a Wiimote. Still, for us hardcore gamers, the potential of motion controls has yet to be realized. Now that Microsoft and Sony have entered the arena, maybe we’ll finally get our due. Neither system had anything hugely impressive in their release libraries, but then again neither did xbox360 or PS3. 2011 will be the year that will either make or break motion control in the eyes of core gamers.

As an aside, these new systems, particularly Kinect, have other, non-game non-motion functionality, such as cameras and speech recognition. A media center that responds to my verbal commands, a full digital collection of music and video files, reconfigurable touch screens here and there, and little PADD like devices in our pockets. Daily life is starting to resemble an average episode of Star Trek The Next Generation.

Comics Movies in Space

The last few years have seen quite a number of superhero movies released. Many of these have been successful, and some have even been quite good. The first two X-Men, the first two Spider-Mans, the latest Batman movies, The Watchmen, and Iron Man and its sequel have all done at least modestly well and have been at least decent; some have been truly excellent. I would argue that this is partly due to the fact that the source material (the comics) has been respected more than in the past.

However, these movies have featured predominantly “street-level” heroes. Even the super-powered X-Men have primarily dealt with humans or other mutants. Certain things have been simplified (Juggernaut is a mutant; no magic) or avoided (Apocalypse, anything to do with the Shi’ar Empire) to keep the plot straightforward and easy to handle for a general audience. Also perhaps to keep budgets under control. In other words, all of these movies have happened on Earth, often in the streets or neighborhoods of places we know.

That is about to change this year. At least two comics movies are about to be released that are as much sci-fi/fantasy as they are superhero-centered, and I am very curious to see how it all turns out. I’m speaking,of course about Thor and Green Lantern. Both ave trailers out now. One will take us to Asgard and the gods, the other to Oa and the guardians. Both should feature strange locations and some truly epic threats; planet-level stuff. I expect CG to fly like candy, and the trailers so far seem to support that assessment. From the trailers, it also seems apparent that we’ll be getting fairly faithful translations of the comics; at least as much so as previous Marvel endeavors. Faithful in broad strokes and spirit, if not in detail. I like both leading men; I’ve been fond of Ryan Reynolds’ comedic talents for a while and thought he made a fantastic (if horribly misused) Deadpool in the Wolverine movie. Chris Hemsworth I’m less familiar with, but found him instantly likeable as George Kirk; in fact those early scenes depicting the fate of the USS Kelvin were my favorite part of that movie. From the trailer it seems like he has bulked up considerably for Thor, and he seems to look the part. Sir Anthony Hopkins as Odin might potentially make for the coolest superhero dad since Marlon Brando played Jor-El to Christopher Reeves’ Superman.

Both trailers show impressive creatures and Sci-Fi vistas. Asgard and Oa look amazing. The Frost Giants and Kilowog, Sinestro and Loki, all look spot-on at first (brief) glance. The challenge now resides, as it should, on the tone the movies strike, on the tightness of the script, and the performances of the cast. I’m not without some concern about the direction the movies will take and the final result, but remain guardedly optimistic. Still, a decade ago I’d have called these movies unfilmable and would have thought it all but impossible that they would be considered high-potential mainstream blockbusters. Nothing to be done now but wait and see how it all turns out. Somebody please pass the popcorn.

Thats all for now. Bring on 2011!

Hello 2011! Part 1: Games of the New Year

Monday, January 3rd, 2011

2010 was an eventful year, but 2011 promises to be even more exciting. Here are some of the upcoming games that I think bear watching:

Dead Space 2: The year starts with a bang. A scary, scary bang. On January 25 Visceral games releases Dead Space 2, sequel to 2009′s fantastic sci-fi survival horror game. It seems everywhere you look these days you see a new zombie game; the undead are in vogue, and not just effeminate stalker vampires. But frankly, I’ve already had my fill of world-ending plagues set in modern times; sure, its fun to mow down zombies with machine guns, but lets face it, the undead belong in space. Everything is better in space, right? So it would seem, judging by the original.

In the first game, faceless protagonist Isaac Clarke (obviously named to honor sci-fi greats Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke) traversed the huge, derelict starship Ishimura while using a variety of futuristic tools to quite literally tear reanimated corpses limb from limb. Low ammo, dwindling health, and way too many dark corners between you and safety were the order of day in Dead Space, and the ending left us with far more questions than answers. For the second game, we’ve been promised more character development, and we finally get to see Isaac’s face. Worried that the focus on narrative will make this sequel less frightening than the original? Judging by the demo, already out on Xbox Live and the PSN, there’s nothing to be concerned about. I almost peed myself.

Black Prohphecy: This free-to-play sci-fi MMO essentially looks like an updated, upgraded Freelancer running in a full MMO universe. For free. Sign me up. Sign me up NOW. This dark horse MMO boasts some of the best space combat graphics I’ve seen since EVE, but it appears to be much more accessible (if shallower). I can’t wait to get my hands on this one; according to the developers, open beta is imminent.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution: Of all the games on the list, this one fills me with the most trepidation. On the one hand, it could potentially be an earth-shattering, game-changing er… game. Or it could turn out to be a total mess. The original Deus Ex was an incredibly innovative game; technically a first person shooter, but it could truly be played in many different ways. Brute force, stealth, diplomacy, etc. Many games promise us non-linearity and multiple solutions; Deus Ex delivered. Unfortunately, its graphics and aesthetics have not aged gracefully.

All the sequel has to do to be amazing is to recapture the gameplay of the original while bringing the production values up to date. Certainly what’s been shown so far has been very impressive; the art style seems to evoke a cross between Blade Runner and Renaissance Europe; the released CG trailers have me drooling for more. But gameplay-wise it remains to be seen if it can juggle the various play styles as well as its illustrious predecessor did. Best of luck to Eidos Montreal. Expect this one around summer.

Firefall: Global Agenda has recently proven to me how great a sci-fi shooter MMO can be. Sadly, for all its commendable attributes, GA is in many ways only superficially an MMO; in actuality its more of a map-based shooter game with some persistent objectives and character building. Sandstorm teased us with the potential of open world areas and more story content, but it remains a single area for relatively low level characters. Hopefully Hi-Rez will continue to evolve GA, but in the meantime, another contender has entered the ring.

Like GA, Firefall is a sci-fi shooter with RPG elements and character building; unlike GA, the focus seems to be creating a huge, epic open world PvE sci-fi world to explore and battle over. Like Black Prophecy, this free-to-play action-based MMO is a bit of a dark horse ind the industry but it has a lot of potential. The gameplay walkthrough on their site certainly looks appealing.

Guild Wars 2: Guild Wars is the un-mmo. This heavily instanced online cooperative game went head to head with WoW and did rather well. The first big western game to offer MMO-style content without requiring a monthly fee, Guild Wars is huge, detailed, and fun. Its graphics run silky smooth with modest requirements and have aged remarkably well given that the game is over a half decade old now. It remains my one refuge whenever I’m thinking of lapsing back into World of Warcraft. And now, its getting a full-blown sequel.

GW2 is much more of a true MMO than the first game, but its still being marketed as the MMO for people who hate MMOs. Much of what ArenaNet wants to accomplish with this game seems remarkably ambitious, but so far anyone who’s played it has come away very impressed. I’m not sure we’ll see it release in 2011, but if it does it will likely be amongst the biggest games of the year.

Mass Effect 3: We started 2010 with Mass Effect, and it looks like we’ll end 2011 with another. ME3 promises to be the last in the trilogy, ending Shepherd’s story and deciding the fate of the galaxy. The awesome trailer that debuted at the VGA’s reveals that the Reapers have brought the fight to Earth, and its up to Shepherd to put together a force powerful enough to oppose them and rescue the planet. The most intriguing aspect about ME3, aside from continuing all the epic sci-fi goodness of the previous installments, is Bioware’s promise that the choices we’ve made in the previous games will finally bear fruit. All through Mass Effect 2, the game seemed to be telling us “I remember what you did last time… wink-wink” while heaping on new momentous choices one after the other. Bioware had their hands tied, however, since all playthroughs of ME2 had to be similar enough to allow the character to be in the right place to launch ME3. But this time, with no direct sequel looming over the horizon, all our decisions will be free to play themselves out to their ultimate and varied conclusions, or so has been hinted by the dev team. Here’s hoping.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim: Like Mass Effect, The Elder Scrolls (TES) had their next entry revealed in a short CG teaser at the VGAs. Also like Mass Effect, this cause a great deal of excitement for many RPGers, myself most definitely included. The teaser was very vague and showed nothing of the game. It did have, however, an awesomely ominous voiceover by Max Von Sydow, and a chanted version of the Elder Scrolls theme. More importantly, it had a release date: 11/11/2011. In TES lore, Skyrim is the frost-bund province north of Cyrodil (the land where Oblivion takes place), home of the viking-like Nord.

Given that the previous two Elder Scrolls, Morrowind and Oblivion, are two of the most beloved fantasy RPGs of recent years, great things are expected from Skyrim. We do know that it will be a direct sequel to Oblivion, and will feature an all new engine. Hopefully it’ll also feature more Max Von Sydow, too.

And thats it for now. Stay tuned; tomorrow I’ll discuss some of the non-game “events” that have me excited for 2011.

Goodbye 2010

Sunday, January 2nd, 2011

2010 is gone. For me it was a year filled with changes and new hopes. It was also a year full of interesting developments in technology, gaming, and science fiction, and I wanted to share a few with you that I found particularly noteworthy.

On January of this year, Bioware released Mass Effect 2 to almost universal praise. Even more importantly, Mass Effect 2 received great commercial success. I could (and very well might) write quite a long article about the Mass Effect series and my thoughts on it, but there’s a few things about it I’d like to point out. First of all, its a game that is at least as much about storytelling as it is about combat. The branching conversation paths system is about equal in effect and importance as the third person shooter segments, and for once I don’t think I’ve heard a single complaint about “too much talking”. In fact, according to Bioware’s statistics, only 15% of conversations were skipped over; indeed, it almost single-handedly restores my faith in mankind right there (or at least gamer-kind). Second, its the first deep sci-fi RPG series that’s been successful at this scale and in a long time. I for one am very glad to see it. And third, though perhaps related to the second, its one of a growing number of games that are breaking down the shooter/action genre’s with RPGs; I’d include last year’s Borderlands and MMO Global Agenda amongst those, although of the three I’d have to say ME2 is the one that I’m most comfortable with still calling an RPG.

Also on the gaming front, I think we might be seeing the twilight of the pay-to-play subscription based MMORPG. And good riddance I say. I fully understand that these games take money to maintain and that the developers need to feed their children; as a would-be developer myself I’d be the last person to begrudge them compensation for their work. The problem is that the subscription model is too limiting to the gamer; for example, its is often impractical to be paying/playing more than one at the same time. There are many alternatives to the monthly sub system; Guild Wars (arguably, an UnMMO), an old favorite of mine, has the user pay for the box and expansions, with a new item store offering mostly cosmetic enhancements. Other games are completely free to play, with purchases required to advance beyond a certain point. For a long time this kind of MMO was often looked down upon as being second rate; many were Asian ports where this economic model is more prevalent. But last year Turbine started a wave of change when previously subscription-based D&D Online went free-to-play; a move they followed up this year by turning their flagship game, Lord of the Rings Online, similarly free. The image of Gandalf in a business suit yelling “You shall not pay!” might be remembered as a turning point in the MMO industry for some time to come. Already, rival company Cryptic Studios has announced that their superhero game, Champions Online, would be following suit; awesome news in and of itself, but my little Trekkie heart skips a beat thinking that Cryptics other big game, Star Trek Online, might soon receive the same treatment. Beyond these previously paid games going “free”, the quantity and quality of free-from-the-start games seems to be increasing; several are coming in 2011 (I’ll get to those) and in at least one case, Global Agenda, a game that was to have a paid component saw those plans scrapped before the system was even put into effect (leading some to joke that it was the quickest transition to free-to-play of all time).

In hardware news, 2010 saw the 3D trend sort of fizzle, or at least remain flat. There’s good technology there, and I’m all for continued exploration in this regard, but adoption will take a while. This is partially because of the challenges the physical technology still faces, partially the results of the sometimes inflated “premium” prices associated with it, and partly because of some astonishingly bad and irresponsible decisions made by the usual fools in suits. Converting movies shot in 2D to 3D using essentially the same techniques once used on slides for the effing View-Master is NOT how you prove to the masses that you have a hot new technology to sell them. Not everything is better in 3D and more importantly, no 3D is definitely better than BAD 3D. And no matter what your analysts say, there IS such a thing as bad 3D. You might fill a few more seats in the short term, but you won’t fool moviegoers twice. Worse, its basically salting the earth; the next Avatar-quality movie to come along will have a doubly hard time convincing anyone that its best seen in 3D; in other words, it hurts the overall adoption of the technology significantly.

Another interesting hardware development in 2010 was the continued insanity (in a good way?) surrounding the smartphone and tablet markets. Thankfully Apple is finally facing some stiff competition; Android has continued to improve and impress, and Microsoft finally has a credible contender in the Windows Phone 7 line. Tablets are swiftly becoming the next big thing, and the lines between phone, pda, tablet, and laptop continue to blur to an amazing degree. I smile now when I see Picard and crew check something on their PADDs; yea Captain, I’ve got me some of those. Not all is bright and happy; right now its incredibly confusing to go out and make a choice of what to buy; the good news is that the decision is made difficult by the high quality of all the contenders, and not the opposite. Competition is fierce and heated, and when the dust settles we’ll be left with some amazingly efficient and powerful devices; again this is another topic I could write whole pages about, but suffice it to say that the Saga of Mobile is far from over…

And finally, a last word about an entirely different kind of hardware. Its no secret that we, the children of the 60s, 70s and 80s, once thought that by this time mankind would have conquered space; with massive stations in orbit and grand hotels on the Moon. In fact, by now the Leonov should be well on its way back after its encounter with the Discovery in Jupiter Orbit. Ah well. I must admit that my usually unconditional support of our great President wavered a bit as I heard news of the scuttling of the Orion project; all my life I have lived with a terrible envy of anyone who was alive and watching as the Eagle made its historic landing on the surface of the Moon. I did, however, get to watch live as SpaceX launched its first Dragon capsule into orbit, and then recover it some hours later after a perfect flight. For those who don’t know, the Dragon is the first recoverable commercial space craft. Its capable of delivering cargo to the International Space Station, and is contracted to do so for at least 12 missions. It is also designed to carry astronauts, though its first manned flight is likely a few years off yet. In many ways its a stripped-down Apollo-type capsule, with less range than those legendary ships and far less functionality than the shuttle. Still, as a commercial (as opposed to government) venture, its an encouraging step. We’ll just have to wait and see what this means in the long run, but we might get our space hotels yet.

Well, that’s it for now. Oh, a thousand other things happened last year worth mentioning, but those are the ones that come to me now, as I look back after only a day. But enough looking back; come back tomorrow as we look forward to 2011.