I was initially a bit surly when I sat down to play Civ Rev (or Civilizution, as I like to call it). People kept telling me what to do. Get away from me, I gestured with dismissive hand-flaps. I may even have hissed, like an angry cat. I know how to play Civ, thank you very much. Or so I thought. Yes, I knew perfectly well what everything was, and exactly what I was trying to achieve. I didn't, however, know how to make it happen in this new, console-specific remake. This was because it was simpler, more obvious - because it wasn't expecting me to already comprehend Civ's elaborate mechanisms. I had to unlearn hard in order to learn easy. I felt a little like I'd spent years diligently crushing and fermenting grapes whenever I fancied a tipple, only for some passing helpful soul to observe that they sell wine for four quid a bottle in Tesco's. Oh. Right. Yes, that does make more sense.
If you're making a videogame about pirates, there are two other pirates you can't ignore. One is Sid Meier's Pirates!, the other is Pirates Of The Carribbean. Both breeds of pirate are present and correct in upcoming MMORPG Pirates Of The Burning Sea. Can I possibly say the word 'pirates' any more times in this introduction? Oh, probably. Pirates. Piratespiratespirates.
ONLY WAR. Man, I never get tired of saying that. There's something inherently hilarious about Warhammer 40,000's knowingly twisted take on masculinity. "In the grim darkness of the future there is only war." ONLY WAR. Now that's selling your idea in a single sentence. No love. No talk. No morality. No nice sit down and a cup of tea. ONLY WAR.
A chilly November evening, and I'm walking home from town. It's a forty minute journey, most of it steeply uphill. It's cold, it's dark, I'm tired and I'm bored. There's probably another ten or fifteen minutes to go when I grind to a sudden halt, and sigh. There's no pleasure in this. Why do I do it? Shouldn't the journey be as important as the destination? A light flicks on in a house just ahead of me. There's a pause, and then an unmistakable guitarline snakes out into the cold, quiet air. It's Sweet Child O'Mine. I half-grin, and start walking again, fingers unconsciously miming Guitar Hero buttons. I can't help but glance in the window of the house as I pass, hoping to see the face of my personal Jesus. The guy in there sees me and freezes, his fingers also mid air-guitar. We both pause in embarrassment. Then he looks at my hands. I look at his hands. He smiles. I smile. And I walk on, still grinning. Woah-oh-oh-oh, sweet child of mi-i-i-iyyyne.
Having a third-party developer make the expansion pack for another team's latest magnum opus is hardly an uncommon occurrence. It's an odd practice, but I can understand the thinking behind it - "we spent all this time making this game; can't we just sit back and enjoy the big pots of cash for a while? Hey you, here's a biscuit - go make me some levels." It's rare that such cases suffer the complete quality breakdown of the direct-to-DVD movie sequel, enthusiastically but cluelessly directed by the original's lead stunt guy or chief tealady, but it's really rare to call in another superstar developer to do the money mop-up the first guys can't be bothered with. To continue the movie analogy, Big Huge Games (Rise of Nations/Legends) stepping in to handle this latest expansion for Ensemble Studio's long run of Age of Empires games is like James Cameron directing the sequel to Ridley Scott's Alien. And like Aliens was to Alien, this is flashier and lighter - almost a different prospect entirely.
The jock versus geek war wages even on the most microscopic scale. There have been some accusations, for instance that Supreme Commander can feel a little soulless compared to one of its more accessible peers such as Company of Heroes or Command & Conquer 3 - the jocks of RTS, the cool, popular kids who look purrrretty fine to you even if they're not, strictly speaking, your type. SupCom, by contrast, is the geek - the quiet one with a mighty mind throbbing furiously away behind his acquired-taste looks, but whose questionable social skills make it hard for him to make friends. Standalone expansion pack Forged Alliance hopes to change that. The trouble is, it has negative preconceptions to fight.
The British - tea-drinking, moustache-twirling nancy-boys. Usually dastardly, or at the very least conniving. This much, Hollywood and games have taught us. Clearly, uber-RTS developers Relic have spent some time hanging out at branches of Wetherspoons, as they've managed to paint a rather more accurate portrait of the denizens of our sceptered isle, whose forces make up one of the two new factions in this World War II RTS 'expandalone'. Apparently, we're incredibly foul-mouthed, angry and violent. Sounds about right, really. Though I did hear at least one cutscene mention putting the kettle on.
Bad news - they didn't bring back Leonard Nimoy. The highlight of Civ IV, was of course, the befuddled-sounding Mr Spock solemnly intoning "BEEP. BEEP. BEEP" upon the discovery of satellites, or confusedly quoting Velvet Underground lyrics when rock'n'roll was created.
You'd best look away now if you're already pretty familiar with the mod scene. The following isn't for you - it's for folk bored of Half-Life 2, bored of Counter-Strike, and now not sure what to do with themselves while they wait for BioShock and Crysis to show them fun new ways to kill a man. Honestly, there's plenty to do in the meantime. True, for every good mod there's ten incredibly tedious, amateurish or over-familiar ones, but modding is one of the foremost forms of independent gaming. This is where the ace developers of tomorrow are born, throwing as many new ideas as they can at an established template until it becomes completely unrecognisable.
Perhaps I'm just a bad leader. Even though I don't get my men killed that often and they diligently trot out "nice shooting, sir" when I make a headshot, I don't get the impression they're happy. Or even conscious, to be honest. They don't talk to each other, they don't joke, they don't complain about being told to walk backwards into a firezone. Occasionally, if left to his own devices for a while, one will pathetically inquire "sir?" in a voice that sounds like a slightly butchered C-3PO awaiting instruction. But that's it. It's creepy. That's why I've started tackling missions on my own, leaving my squad back near the insertion point to stare blank-eyed at the floor. I might well be in extreme danger as a result, but at least I no longer feel like I'm being followed around by three shop dummies wired up to dog brains.
The phone rings. Oh god. It's her again, isn't it? She'll want to talk for hours, wittering on about how great this was, remember when we did that, how we should do it again sometime. Better not answer. But...what if it's important? What if one of my parents has died? Or I've won the lottery? Or a talent agency saw me in the street and wants me to be the face of Persil or something? Crap. I'd better answer...
You'll have noticed that Xbox Live Arcade gets a lot of coverage on here, with the EG staff regularly thrown into a frenzy of excitement about which new cut-price morsel is up for download this week. Well, the same happens on the PC's Steam (the pay-to-download client provided by those men of Half-Life, Valve), but we've been a little remiss in covering it, occasional highlights like Bookworm Adventures aside. Take a look at the store list now, and there's a bewildering torrent of games you've never heard of on there, growing all the damned time. Is anyone really playing Zen of Sudoku or Iron Warriors and, indeed, should they? Geometry Wars sloping onto Steam this week has made headlines, so now's a good time to play catch-up, starting with a look at what can loosely be clumped under the umbrella of casual games. I'll get the ones with guns out of the way first to keep you happy, because there's a whole lot of Peggle on the final page.
"The sequel to the BAFTA award-winning Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter." Ooh, that still sounds a little weird, doesn't it?
Oh, dear. This isn't right, this isn't right at all. With Vista leaving gamers at best perplexed and at worst furious, getting out a game that actually used its trumpeted but unproven new DirectX 10 graphics, and that looked jawdroppingly, heartbreakingly, console-shamingly blinkin' gorgeous with it, was incredibly important. As DX10's leading lights, Crysis and Alan Wake, are still trying to work out what weekends they've got free to finally come visit, it's fallen to a port of Xbox 360 shooter Lost Planet to trailblaze the future of gaming graphics on PC.
Testing a theory, I conducted an experiment. Calling up a friend who plays PC games but whose technical knowledge ends at realising that he needs to buy (or beg me to build for him) a faster machine every few years, I enquired as to whether he had a physics card. As predicted, he was frightened and confused by the question. Without one, he asked, was his PC somehow incapable of physics? But he could use the gravity gun in Half-Life 2. That had physics, right? So what was he missing, oh God what was he missing? I might as well have asked him if his rig had a water card, or a skin processor. Attempts to explain the purpose of the physics card didn't help greatly, and only further highlighted one of the factors keeping the nascent tech dead in the water. The Ageia PhysX physics accelerator card is trying to fix a problem that no-one thinks they have.
Build your own RPG! Just select one answer to each question below, and you'll have a complete design brief for your generic fantasy hack'n'slash roleplaying game, bound to be accepted by any number of publishers who long ago decided that storytelling, believable characters and variety are just irritating baggage nowadays.
So, a first-person physics-based horror action-adventure. Don't get many of their kind around here, which may have something to do with most folks' idea of gaming physics being Crackdown-style kicking a man into a car so hard that it explodes, or watching a corpse flop slowly down a flight of stairs then laughing at how its legs spasm when they shoot it repeatedly in the crotch. Which is admittedly enormously entertaining, but nowhere near as clever as having mouse gestures directly translate to moving objects that behave in accordance with Newtonian physics. In practical terms, this means, for instance, try and open a door by pulling on its middle and it'll swing really, really slowly, if at all. But grab it by edge (no, not the one with hinges on) and one swift downwards movement of the mouse will open it at speed. Penumbra tries to apply such thinking to puzzles, with varying results.
Watching Sin City last year, I spent the first twenty minutes or so picking it apart in my head, worrying about how hollow it all felt, how nothingy a piece of film-making it was. And then a man torpedoed himself feet-first through the windshield of a moving car, and I had a moment of total clarity. I'm not supposed to take this remotely seriously, and I really, really shouldn't be thinking about it. This is purely hedonism. So, I just decided to go with it, and from thereon in a certain part of my mind was perfectly happy. The same happened with C&C3; the first few levels didn't make me feel anything. It was just there, the campy cut-scenes came and went, I was told exactly what to kill and where, and I kept feeling somewhat unsatisfied. I have done all this so very many times before, and a reasonably pretty 3D engine does nothing to change that.
I'm sure there's some deep, underlying psychological explanation as to why I always play Support class in Battlefield games. Integral to the team effort Support may be, but he's basically a walking ammo box - the rest of the squad's caddy, expected to come running when his more highly-regarded fellows run out of armour-piercing balls.
Back at the start of Infernal, Dave Angeldevil, or whatever the hell its straight-out-of-some-dismal-crap-on-Sky-One-around-11pm hero is called, is given a demonic power that can demolish metal doors and brick walls. It's actually pretty cool - the game seems to be demonstrating that it's over-the-top, it's got decent physics and Dave's (alright, alright - 'Ryan Lennox', but the other name suits him better) a proper badass, living up to his status as a fallen angel now working for the forces of darkness (or at least some guy with a spooky voice). Which only makes it all the more surprising that Dave spends the next few hours being obstructed by wooden doors and flimsy chain barriers that his new ultra-destructo-power can't even dent. The answer? Why, trudging around similar-looking corridors looking for keycards and buttons, of course.
First impressions can be a killer. Especially when that impression is, say, a really long, boring anecdote, told by someone with zero storytelling ability and a tendency to spray bits of half-chewed food over you when they speak. Poor Maelstrom doesn't quite know how to behave in polite company, and as such it's going to find it very hard to make friends. That's a shame, because underneath its crooked yellow teeth, shabby posture and tendency to drone on a bit, it's got a good heart. It'd probably make you very happy, if only you were able to get over those flecks of spittle at the corners of its mouth.
Every other game I ever play for the next, I dunno, million years, is going to feel flat and small and boring. Why? Because they'll only be running on one monitor. Thanks to its ingenious graphical trickery, I can play Supreme Commander on two monitors, and it does funny things to my brain. Something in it I don't usually use is being exercised, but it feels good. I feel totally in control of the game this way. I'm not entirely sure how to describe the way I'm thinking when I use those two screens. It's nothing anywhere near as static as the average DS approach of here is the action / here is the map. Rather, it's more like I'm right in on a battle one on side, while on the other I check to see if a frigate's finished building - not skipping my focus between the two, but somehow watching both at once. Only it's ever-shifting, like I have a pair of robotic eyes zooming coolly in and out at will.
Pushed into a tiny handful of provinces, regularly bothered by backstabbing Englishmen to the South and generating barely enough cash to keep the Shetland Islands clean, prospects for 16th century Scotland weren't good. And yet it was the first country to discover and colonise both North and South America. Go figure.
Operating systems are absolutely ridiculous.
This is the most complicated simple game you'll play in a while. It's the cheerful fling that quickly and quietly becomes something serious, something so intense it's mentally exhausting in all the right ways. Supreme Commander is unashamedly RTS, reduced to the nuts, bolts and panels of bewildering icons that have always defined that most PC of all game genres. Its only pretension is to be really big - it doesn't have Total War's grand strategy map or Company of Heroes' merry gene-splicing of the formula, nor does it need them. It just needs to be huge, and that's where the complexity comes in. Hundreds of units, each with their own handicaps and potencies, maps that'll wear your mouse-arm out to pan entirely across, and constant battles on a good half-dozen different fronts simultaneously. The objective is only ever to kill the other guy, but when there's so much to think about at once, it ain't easy.
A man walks into in a field. Suddenly, it starts raining axes. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of axes, pouring across the skies, all straight at him. He doesn't even flinch, perhaps because, by some miracle, none of them seem to actually hit him. Pull backwards, down a bit, and there's the source of the axes. They're being thrown by a bunch of bald guys in furry pants. I have no prejudice against either bald guys or furry pants - I'm just somewhat confused as to where they keep their infinite supply of throwing axes, given that they're not carrying a sack of 'em, aren't wearing any clothes with pockets in and clearly don't even have hilarious, oversized hairpieces to hide them under. Regardless, they keep throwing, seemingly without effect, and eventually that original man falls over before he can reach them. Presumably this is as a result of the axes, but it's not entirely clear.
Dissing Total War would be like strolling into an army base and proclaiming "you're all only doing this because you're sexually inadequate" - in either case, it'd be massively misinformed and essentially suicidal. But, can I get away with something like, oh, I don't know, "is there likely to be a time when I will not be strung up by my lungs and left for dead for inquiring as to what point one might safely inquire into whether there is a small danger that, at an indeterminate point in the future, some folk might start to question if Total War games might have a small risk of not being considered quite as groundbreaking as they currently are?" Oh, God. I've gone and done it, haven't I? I'm dead. I'm so dead.
How d'you make a somewhat by-the-numbers, forgettable RTS better? Well, you could always just throw in some hypnotised bears. In fact, you could make a total raid of every book on Native Americans in the children's section of the library, and cheerfully shoe-in just about every fact, myth and cliché concerning the USA's long-suffering original inhabitants. So, as well as those mystically bewitched urisdae, we get similarly tamed cougars and wolves, spirit dances and magical medicine men. Everything short of transforming into a spectral hawk, in fact, but that may only be because Prey already tried that trick. Even so, this really isn't your large-bearded, pipe-smoking, stuffily accuracy-obsessed daddy's Age of Empires.
I'm killing cubes of jelly. Dozens and dozens of cubes of jelly. They didn't attack me; I just went for them, because someone told me to. Fortunately for cube sympathisers, new ones appear more quickly than I can murder them - I would put this down to some weird asexual amoeba reproduction, but the trouble is the deer are doing the same. And, frankly, I don't even want to think about how the floating eyeballs breed.
Dear Santa, for Christmas please bring me a Warhammer 40,000 MMO. This is, after all, the franchise that cheerfully pilfers every single great idea sci-fi has ever had, sticks it all in a giant fiction-blender and then adds several pints of bubbling blood. Just imagine all that presented as a living online world to carve your way through. The sights you'd see, the things you'd kill and be killed by - aliens, mechs, demons and men in a startling array of flavours, all itching for a taste of your Heavy Bolter. Imagine, just imagine playing as a Space Marine and falling prey to the corruption of Chaos, then choosing the fascinatingly monstrous ways in which your body mutates and gains dark new abilities. But no, instead we get another couple of dozen cheerless grind marathons filled with elves and wizards. I'm so bored of elves and wizards. If I met one in the street, I'd probably punch him. Why, why, why is the first Games Workshop MMORPG the upcoming Warhammer Online, which, however good it may turn out to be, enters into such an overcrowded online fantasy market when there's a near-vacant sci-fi one GW could just stroll right in and, thanks to that incredibly rich Warhammer 40,000 universe, take without contest? Sigh.