I’ve been reviewing games for about 4 years now and since I’m not exactly a top tier reviewer I’ve had to employ other tactics to get my reviews in front of other people. Primarily this just used to be via my Twitter and Facebook accounts however after I noticed my reviews getting submitted to other sites (by other people, no less!) I decided to start doing that process myself rather than wait for some unknown individual to do it for me. Primarily I used to just post to N4G and Reddit however after the launch of Steam Communities I started posting my reviews on there, figuring that people who were buying the game would likely sift through there before purchasing. Seems I wasn’t the only one doing this as Valve has decided to formalize the idea in Steam Reviews.
It’s essentially just another part of the Steam Community Hub that every game has (which now includes things like game guides and trading posts) where users can leave and rate reviews for that particular title. If this sounds similar to the recommendations that steam has had for ages you’d be right and this new review system will be replacing it wholesale. All your old recommendations will be upgraded to reviews however which means that it’s somewhat useful right off the bat (although unlikely to have anything negative due to the way the old system worked) and none of the work anyone put in gets lost in the transition.
One of the marked improvements that the Steam platform can give to reviews like this is that users will not be able to review a game they haven’t played. This doesn’t extend to needing to own the game either so if you played a game on a free weekend or got a title shared to you from a friend you’ll be eligible to write a review on the Steam page for it. Whilst this won’t entirely eliminate the bad review train that tends to happen with certain titles it does limit the scope to people who’ve actually had a crack at the game rather than anyone who feels like jumping on a bandwagon.
Currently they’re just worded reviews with no score indicator on them however that’s apparently set to change during the beta. Whilst some will lament their inclusion I still believe that they have some value so long as we, the gaming community, use them appropriately. Since I’ll be actively participating in this open beta (I’ve still got a ton of reviews on my blog that haven’t made their way onto Steam in one way or another) I’ll be submitting feedback to encourage use along those lines so that games can more easily compared against each other, rather than some subjective view of perfection. How this will come about I can not be entirely sure but if anyone can change the way scores are used in the wider gaming world its Valve and Steam is the platform to do it.
Whether this will translate into more exposure for small time reviewers like myself will be something of interest as whilst I’ve had a few people come to read my review from Steam it pales in comparison to other platforms. Steam Reviews could change that as they’ll be given a prominent location in the Community Hub rather than being lost in the wash of the general discussion forum. That’s really a side benefit for people like me however as the real value here will be from getting a much better view of what the gaming community thinks of a title, hopefully free from much of the bandwagoning that’s made Metacritic what it is today.
Valve spent all last week teasing the greater Internet community about how the Steam Universe was going to be seeing some massive expansion in the coming year. The first announcement, SteamOS, set the tone for the rest that followed them even though many a Valve fanboy hoped that the last announcement would be Half Life 3 (although honestly they do that with any announcement from Valve). Whilst it’s been known that Valve wanted to make an attempt on the living room for some time now, as Big Picture mode demonstrated, these last 3 announcements form the basis of their first dedicated attempt to bring PC gaming into the world that consoles have dominated for decades.
And the crazy thing is it might just work.
PCs were the dominant platform for quite a long time, indeed those of us who grew up with games during the 80s and 90s would have had it as their platform of choice. Many of us would have had consoles as well however but the best games that we played would always be found on a PC. Over time the convenience of consoles started to attract more and more people to gaming and this snowballed to the point where the vast majority of gamers now get their experiences through a console of some type. However to many of us there is still nothing better than a PC for gaming and with the time frames between console generations getting longer and longer the PC has seen something of a resurgence of late, especially with distribution platforms like Steam backing it.
However the primary interface for a PC, the mouse and keyboard, isn’t exactly conducive to the living room environment. Most of us PC gamers have been at a LAN where we were confined to a couch or attempting to play games on our big TVs just for the fun of it only to find that the experience is sub-par when using traditional PC input methods. However whilst you can get around this with a controller there are genres of games where a mouse and keyboard are required (any RTS and, personally FPS). The Steam Controller seems to be an attempt to bridge these two worlds together and I can see some situations where it would work however there are others where it will still struggle. I’ll reserve final judgement until I have one in my hands but suffice to say that I feel that RTS style (like DOTA2) games will struggle with it.
What I’m particularly interested to see is what kind of hardware Valve will make available as part of their Steam Machine platform. Traditionally PCs required fairly regular refreshes in order to play the latest games (I do mine every 3 years at the latest) although that has been stymied somewhat by the consolization of games. The specifications of their hardware will determine where the line is drawn between games that have a great experience and ones that don’t as whilst it’d be great to run Crysis 3 at 1080p @ 60fps the hardware required to do so would push the cost of a potential Steam Machine far beyond that of a traditional console. In short if Valve is trying to compete with consoles they’re going to have do it in the same price range and that will put an upper limit on its capabilities.
The sum total of all these different parts is a clear strategy from Valve to increase the PC platform’s market share and, consequently, grow Steam’s potential market. It’s a smart move as they’ve effectively dominated the PC as a platform and the next logical step is to grow it further. This can only be done through cannibalizing gamers from other platforms and the best way to do this is to bring Steam to them rather than try to convince them to switch to PCs. Whether that value proposition works for current console gamers is something I’m not completely sure of however if anyone can convince them to come across it’s Valve.
Ever since Steam reached a certain level of functionality any game that was distributed on it was kind of expected to make use of it. This isn’t a hard requirement from Valve or anything like that, no more it was an expectation from gamers that should Steam provide some services, like user login and what have you, then any game requiring them to do that again would be met with derision and, in my mind, rightly so. Whilst there were numerous examples of different game developers using their own login systems (Ubernet being one of the first to come to mind) by far the worst offender in this category was the Games for Windows Live service which would always manage to weasel its way into any game that came out or was published by Microsoft Studios.
Games for Windows Live got the most negative attention due to the fact that it directly replicated Steam’s technology, including things like the screen overlay, which meant that the user experience became somewhat confused. Additionally the benefits it provided were pretty slim as the only thing I could see was integration with my Live account, giving me achievement points, but considering most of those such games were cross platform intrepid achievement point hunters would likely prefer their Xbox. This was made all the more worse as since most PC gamers didn’t use it often the client usually needed to update itself, requiring multiple game restarts in order to get it working.
So you can imagine that there was no love lost when rumors started circulating that it was to be shut down next year.
The news comes from an unwitting source, Age of Empires Online, who mistakenly made the announcement as a courtesy to users who’d no longer be able to use the game after that point. The announcement was taken down almost immediately, although of course in the age of the Internet there’s always someone with a screenshot, which would seem to add a little credence to the idea that this was something Microsoft didn’t want everyone to know right now. Indeed in a strange coincidence it was also announced today that Arkham Origins would not be using the Games for Windows Live framework, strange considering that the previous two installments in that franchise did. Indeed looking at the list of Games for Windows Live games reveals that there’s been something of a dearth of titles released using the platform this year which would seem to confirm its imminent demise.
If the title of this post wasn’t a dead giveaway as to my feelings about this I’m honestly glad to see it go. The service never provided me any value and only served to get in the way of me playing the games, something which I don’t take kindly to. I’m sure this sentiment is shared by a lot of gamers, especially those who’ve made huge investments in the Steam platform like I have. Whilst I’m always wary of monopolies I’d hope that game developers took note of this and eschewed their own login systems in favor of something more standard and accepted.
Of course there’s also a dark side to this as Games for Windows Live going down will mean that games which rely on those services will simply stop working. Whilst I’m somewhat hopeful that the bigger titles might see a patch come through to remove it, at least enabling single player, I can’t imagine every title will see the same amount of effort put into it. There is a slim hope that Microsoft might make a general patch available however since a lot of the CD key authentication stuff was tied up with those servers I’m not too hopeful.
There is every chance that the Age of Empires guys got this wrong and Games for Windows Live will be sticking around but the evidence seems to say otherwise. Whilst I believe this is an overall positive for PC gamers the downsides to losing a hosted service like this are a painful reminder of the trade offs that coming with using them. We all like to believe that Steam is invincible, immune to things like this happening to it, but there’s every chance that in the future the same will happen to it. How the companies deal with this situation will be telling for the future as I’m sure this won’t be the last time we see such a service go down.
I’ll have to be honest when I say that when a game comes at me out of no where I have a tendency to shoot them down. All those hours spent shuffling through the Steam store looking for games to review has shown me some pretty oddball titles and after a couple not-so-great experiences I’ve come to cast a skeptical eye in their direction. Just because a game tries something new or different doesn’t necessarily make it good and whilst I (and many others) might deride the generic indie 8bit styled platformer puzzler which has become the norm these days developers of such titles do seem to have better hit rates. Still after a boozy night I, along with a close mate, watched a good hour long Let’s Play of Papers, Please and I can say this unique game gets a lot of things right, especially when it comes to forming a compelling narrative.
Congratulations, the screen reads, the October labor lottery is complete. Your name was pulled. For immediate placement report to the Ministry of Admission at the Grestin Border Checkpoint. An apartment will be provided for you and your family in East Grestin, expect a class 8 dwelling. With that you’re thrown into your new job as an admissions officer for the border to Arstotzka with little more than a handbook to guide you through all the rules, regulations and potential threats that might cross your path. Whilst these rules appear to be easy to apply at first they become increasingly blurry as you learn more about the people coming through the border and the greater geopolitical landscape.
Papers, Please has that familiar pixelart style reminiscent of old adventure games. It makes use of a decidedly dreary color palette done obviously to create that oppressive Soviet-esque feeling that permeates throughout the game. One thing that really stuck with me in the game was some of the foley for the various things you do, just routine things like stamping and moving paper around, I’m not sure exactly why it did although it could be that with everything else being so dark and drab those sounds seemed so much more joyful than they really were. That’s probably the only thing that marks the game as being from this generation as otherwise it wouldn’t be out of place was it released 15~20 years ago.
The basic premise of Papers, Please couldn’t be anymore boring: you’re a border agent charged with verifying documents before granting people access to your country(indeed my wife asked me if I was “Playing DMV” when she first saw me fire this game up), Arstotzka. Essentially this entails taking the documents given to you by immigrants, checking them over for errors and then, based on the evidence you have in front of you, deciding on whether or not to let them in. In the beginning it’s rather simple as you’re only required to verify obvious things like the dates being current and the details on various documents matching each other but as time goes on the rules start to get rather complicated and there’s all manner of things that could be wrong that you probably won’t notice the first time around.
Indeed thanks to watching an hour or so of someone else playing Papers, Please I was able to breeze through the first couple days without much of a hassle. That started to change however as other documents started being added to the mix as any additional document was always a chance for something to be out of line. Worst still is that when you’re introduced to a new mechanic, such as seals potentially being forged, you’ll instinctively scrutinize that aspect very closely in the beginning (and the game will usually throw you an example of the new rule as the first immigrant of the day to test you out) which will lead to you missing things in other areas. I can’t tell you how many times I let someone through only to find out that I’d missed something as obvious as their gender not being correct, giving me a citation.
Of course this would be a rather hollow exercise if you didn’t have some kind of motivator pushing you to cycle through as many of these as you could and Papers, Please gives you one that works beautifully but is also incredibly dark. You’re the sole income provider for your family, tasked with paying the rent and providing them with heat and food. For each applicant you process successfully you’ll receive 5 dollars and in order to keep your family happy you’ll need to process at least 10 of them a day. That sounds easy right? Well you have a time limit and when that clock starts flashing you start wondering if you’ve done enough and that’s when you start making mistakes. Of course there are opportunities for you to supplement this income should your moral compass be flexible enough to accommodate it.
This is where Papers, Please starts to shine as whilst the mechanics are solid enough to carry it on its own (there’s a reason why the developer included an Endless mode) the narrative that drives it is by far some of the most compelling and depressing that I’ve encountered in a long time. Whilst the choices seem arbitrary initially, like whether or not to admit someone based on what another person has said, you’ll quickly find out that your actions have consequences with many of them not being a simple case of if I do X now Y will happen later. Indeed even if you try your hardest to avoid any kind of conflict you’re likely going to find yourself being pushed into a corner where you’ll have to make a choice that you don’t entirely agree with but will have to do if you want to keep on playing.
PLOT SPOILERS AHOY!!!
When I first started playing Papers, Please I decided that I’d be a by the book kind of guy, ruthlessly applying the rules as they were given to me so that there was no conceivable way I could get into trouble with anyone. This works, for a while, until I got into the uneasy position with The Order where they gave me a truckload of cash. Of course being by the book I denied the second agent from getting in and of course a couple days later I find myself in jail. No worries I thought, just let him through and then I can go back to being the guy I wanted to be, and so I did but that was just the beginning of my moral compass turning south as from that point I started to make more and more compromises until I got to the point where I was just doing everything I could to survive and that’s when things started to get really hairy.
I found myself weighing up bribes and how many violations I had remaining for the day to see what I could get away with in order to make the maximum amount of profit. Whilst I tried to keep myself as moral as I could, like hanging onto a watch for a guy when he said he’d be back for it with all the required paperwork, if there was an opportunity for me to make money I’d take it. This reached a fever pitch when I was told I’d be audited soon as I knew that’d be the end of me so suddenly my objective of just surviving turned into a no holds barred approach to get me and as much of my family out of there as soon as I could. Thinking back over it I’m really quite surprised how quickly I changed from being a cold, uncaring border agent to someone who’d do anything as long as the price was right, even though I couldn’t point you to a time when everything changed.
My god, is that how it happens for people doing this in the real world? I don’t even want to think about that…
YARRRR PLOT SPOILERS OVER!!!
Papers, Please is a true gem of a game, one that could have easily been considered a top notch title based on either its core mechanics or its driving narrative. The combination of both produces an intoxicating game that draws you into its dark world and refuses to let go, forcing you to rethink how you’re playing it and to question your moral compass, whichever way it points. I could go on but honestly its a game where your experience with it will be quite unique as you navigate your way through the moral hazards, political traps and unrelenting drudgery that is the world of Papers, Please.
Papers, Please is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total play time was approximately 5 hours with 23% of the achievements unlocked. Glory to Arstotzka.
In the digital distribution world there’s really only one player: Steam. Sure there are alternatives like GoG or Desura but they’re essentially niche branches that cater to a specific audience, ones that favour no DRM and modding respectively. The one notable competitor to Steam is Origin, the platform that was built solely for the purpose of distributing EA’s games. Love it or hate it if you want to play one of their games you’re going to have to download Origin and, for people like me who like to review games, this means a non-zero portion of my game library is on there. The only reason it exists is so EA can capture that part of the market that it was losing to Steam although if the words of EA’s EVP Andrew Wilson are to be believed it’s all about creating a better experience for gamers:
“I think your perception is absolutely correct,” Wilson agreed. “I think when I look at the journey that service has taken, I think the transaction component of that service has taken a disproportionate amount of the communication and mindshare of what we really try and provide, and the barrier that that puts in between you and the game that you want to play.”
“We think of Origin, in this new world, as the gracious host of the party. It’s not the center of attention; it’s not the DJ, it’s not the dance director, it’s just a gracious host. It’s someone who greets you at the door and ushers you in to where you want to go and points you in the direction of your friends so that you can go and party with them together. That’s really how we see it.”
Wilson is trying to change the narrative around Origin, pushing it away from the widely held perception that it’s just a money grab (which it is, there’s no doubt about this) and trying to guide it more towards it being something of a value added service. Indeed this is apparently where the future of Origin lies, in adding more features to it that mimic those that have been a major part of Steam for years. He’d like to think of Origin as the place gamers go to play their games because that’s where all their friends are, they’re just the facilitator that allows them to join up. The rest of the interview reads like the ramblings of someone trapped in a fever dream as the world that Origin exists in is so vastly different from the one Wilson paints for it.
I’ll be frank when I say that any game that’s on Origin puts up an instant barrier for me, both as a player and as a reviewer. As a player I know that a game being on Origin means that the vast majority of my friends won’t be playing it because they just can’t be bothered with Origin as a service. Indeed for many recent games that I played on there like Simcity and Crysis 3 I was either alone or one of 2 people on there at any given time despite the long list of friends I have on there. Worse still trying to simple maintenance tasks on it, like backing up game files so I can move them (and the fact that that link is on the Steam forums should tell you something), is a royal pain in the ass which eats away at the time I could be doing what I wanted to be doing: playing the damn game. This is on top of the lack of screenshot functionality which means I have to run FRAPS in order to get the screenshots for review which doesn’t help to endear Origin to me.
It’s not just the simple fact that Origin is yet another piece of software we have to install and maintain, that’s just the beginning, more it’s because Origin is an inferior service, one that we’re locked into using should we want to play an EA published game. It may make the experience for EA games better due to the common installation and patching platform but that’s all it does and it’s not something that couldn’t be accomplished through other, more established channels. It’s akin to all those social services that every game seems to have these days (and as we’ve seen are massive security risks) which are required to play the game.
Gamers don’t want this; it took us years to warm up to Steam and the idea that we’ll somehow cosy up to yet another service that provides next to no benefit for us is a ludicrous proposition. If EA really did understand gamers like they’re purporting to they wouldn’t have bothered with Origin as a digital distribution service in the first place, they would’ve just made it a back end platform that all their games can use should they not want to use Steam’s. EA might think that it’s just a matter of layering on some more services and features but it’s going to need so much more than that before gamers will consider it on the same level as Steam. With Origin’s primary focus being EA games I don’t believe that will ever be achievable, especially when Valve keep going from strength to strength with Steam.
It really is quite staggering to see how far games have come since I first started playing them nearly 3 decades ago. Even more surprising is how each style of game still has a place in the market today, even those that forego all modern trimmings in favour of recreating those early experiences. Last year saw a bevy of such titles cross my path and I was really quite surprised just how enjoyable revisiting that period of gaming could be. When I first read about Evoland it seemed like an intriguing idea as it would take you through the history of adventure games whilst also telling its own story.
Evoland starts out as a classic Legend of Zelda clone, all the way down to the pixely graphics and limited colour pallette. However as you move around and start finding chests of loot you’re not greeted by additional items to help you on your journey. No instead you will typically get an upgrade to your game experience like the addition of music, better colours and, my personal favourite, extra dimensions. These all build upon each other so as you progress through Evoland it becomes an ever increasingly varied game, one that aptly captures the essence of nearly all adventure games that have come before it.
Considering that Evoland’s primary goal is to take you through the history of adventure games the art style varies wildly from flat, 2D pixel art right up to full 3D environments that are reminiscent of titles like The Longest Journey. The pixelart is quite good, especially after a couple pallette upgrades, but the 3D feels incredibly rudimentary by comparison. It’s somewhat in line with the rest of the game as nothing about Evoland is terribly complicated so it all kind of fits together, at least enough to carry the overall thrust of the game forward.
In the beginning Evoland is your run of the mill, top down 2D adventure game complete with enemies that run around randomly and you equipped with only a sword with which to dispatch them. It plays exactly like the old Zelda games as well as you’re left to run around the environment looking for the next puzzle that’s blocking your progression. You can also, if you’re so inclined, explore even further to find all the collectibles that are scattered around the map although there’s little reason to do so outside of wanting to complete all the achievements.
The more you play Evoland the complex and nuanced it becomes, something you’ll be acutely aware of because it’ll tell you every time you unlock another game mechanic with an alert plastered across the bottom of the screen. Some of them have obvious and immediate impacts on the way the game plays, like the introduction of a world map which introduces random turn based combat encounters ala Final Fantasy, and others are more subtle like the “Something happened somewhere” alert that indicates you triggered an off screen event.
Initially the introduction of new elements is quite fun as it’s like a whole new game has been opened up for you. However due to the rudimentary nature of Evoland’s many different aspects they quickly start to descend into tedium. The random turn based encounters are probably the best example of this as you can’t walk for more than 10 seconds without one of them occurring. After a while these don’t take too long to resolve but the lack of variety in these encounters means that after the 3rd or 4th fight you’ve seen all the enemies Evoland has to offer and you’re essentially just grinding away XP and glis (a nod to Final Fantasy’s Gil system) which only has a limited amount of utility.
Indeed whilst Evoland is a cohesive game on the surface the actual mechanics of it aren’t exactly uniform across every new iteration. Most dungeons have been designed with a specific idea in mind and whilst some of the abilities will transfer across (like the upgraded combo sword attack) most of them won’t. So whilst one dungeon might give you a health orb rather than the 3 hearts system you’ll likely find that once you go anywhere else the health system du jour is back again. They also all seem to have separate internal values as well as half health in the turn based combat system doesn’t seem to translate to 1.5 hearts in the dungeon system.
Realistically Evoland is more like 4 distinct games that are loosely tied together by common elements. Viewed like this I’m more inclined to overlook the faults of them not completely interacting with each other. Indeed since the overall thrust of the game is more to take you through the evolution of adventure games rather than provide an in depth experience in each successive iteration of them I’d be missing the point if I judged it on the merits of the individual section’s gameplay. I guess what I’m getting at is if you’re looking for a solid gameplay experience you’re likely to come up short with Evoland, but that’s not the reason you’d play it.
There is some semblance of a story which really only sees development during the last couple sections. It might have been because I named my characters Dudeface, Butts and Mouman respectively but I didn’t feel any attachment to them nor any real drive to move the story forward apart from the desire to see which game mechanic would be unlocked next. The final boss battle was pretty cool though with the combination of music and larger than life boss aptly capturing the essence of those same encounters in games of yore.
Evoland serves as a great history book, detailing the many transitions that adventure games have undergone during the years. As a game it’s nothing spectacular but the essence of each era of adventure games is captured within each upgrade of the Evoland’s mechanics. There’s a very specific audience in mind for Evoland and it’s for people like me who grew up on all the titles that inspired it. So if you find yourself pining for the golden age of gaming or you’d just like take a trip down memory lane then Evoland is the game for you.
Evoland is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total game time was approximately 2 hours with ~83% completion and 34% of the achievements unlocked.
I’m not a big user of the second hand market but there have been times when I’ve delved into it in order to get what I want. Usually its when I find out about a particular collector’s edition too late to buy a retail copy and will just wait it out until someone wants to hock their copy on eBay where I’ll snap it up for a song. The last game I did this with was Uncharted 3 (although I failed to mention the saga in the review) and whilst I didn’t get all the collector’s edition downloadable goodies the seller went out of their way to make sure I got a similar amount of value as they did when they purchased it new. I certainly didn’t expect this but it was deeply appreciated all the same.
However his generosity is a symptom of the larger problem at play here. Almost 2 years ago a silent war began between developers (well mostly likely the publishers) and the second hand market where first sale doctrine was being usurped by crippling used games. The first title that I purchased which was affected by this Mass Effect 2 and whilst I have no intention of ever selling that game the fact that it was crippled after initial sale didn’t sit particularly well with me. The trend has been on the increase as of late with many games including some form of one time use DLC in order to make second hand titles less attractive.
It gets even worse when rumours start surfacing that the next generation consoles will start supporting features that cripple second hand games natively removing the requirement from game developers to implement their own system. The justification would probably be something along the lines of “this is what we’ve done for ages on the PC” which is kind of true if you count CD keys but they were usually transferable. There’s also the sticky issue of digital downloads which currently have no method on any platform for enabling resale which is why many publishers are beginning to favour those platforms instead of physical retail releases.
The golden days of unsellable digital titles (and by extension crippled second hand titles) may not be long for this world however as the German consumer protection group VZBV has started legal proceedings against Valve in regards to the Steam platform. This isn’t the first time they’ve gone up against them but recent rulings in the EU have set up some precedents which could lead to digital distribution platforms having to implement some kind of second hand market. Considering Steam has been dealing in digital trade for many years now it’s not like they’re incapable of delivering such functionality, they just simply haven’t had the incentive to do so. Heavy fines from the EU could be the push they need in order to get them moving in the right direction but we’ll have to wait until the court case resolves before we’ll see any real movement on this issue.
I have real trouble seeing how the second hand game market is such a detriment to publishers. Indeed many people use trade-ins in order to fund new game purchases and removing that will put a downward pressure on new sales, to the tune of 10% or so. Now I don’t know how much revenue that publishers are making off those second hand uncrippling schemes but I’m sure a 10% increase is above that, especially if you count the amount of good will generated from not being a dick about the used market. Valve would be heralded as the second coming if they enabled used game trading on Steam, even if they charged a nominal fee to facilitate the transaction.
Really I can’t see any downsides to supporting the second hard market and actively working against it doesn’t do the publishers any favours. I’m not saying they have to go out and actively help facilitate it but they could simply not try to work against it like they’re doing right now. Digital distributors do have to pick up their game in this regard however and I hope it doesn’t come down to strong arming them with the law. Should the EU ruling hold up however that’s could very well be what happens but it would at least be a positive result for us consumers.
I have a love/hate relationship with the new wave of hardcore platformers that have swept through the game scene recently due to the indie game developer revolution. Initially I find them quite fun, as I did with Super Meat Boy and They Bleed Pixels, but usually towards the end when the difficulty starts to ramp up and my total play time sky rocket despite progress slowing to a crawl I tend to get frustrated with them. None of them have matched up to the Nintendo Hard hell that was Battletoads but ramping the difficulty up to insanity in the later levels might be part of the fun for some, but it certainly isn’t for me. No Time To Explain is another instalment in the indie platformer genre and despite my history with them the videos were intriguing enough to make me want to play it.
No Time To Explain drops you in a nondescript house with you casually minding your own business. Not long after a good chunk of your house is blown away by some unknown force and then suddenly someone who looks strikingly similar to you appears. “I’m you from the future. There’s no time to explain!” he exclaims at you before he’s snatched away by a giant alien crab who’s intent on taking him, you, away. You then find yourself in possession of a weapon capable of dealing untold amounts of damage whilst also functioning as a partial jetpack to get you over any obstacles in your way. It’s then up to you to rescue yourself from whatever dangers you find yourself in.
Whilst I’ve described some games in the past as being Flash-like due to their styling and choice of colour palettes No Time To Explain is in fact a flash game brought to you as a standalone executable thanks to Adobe’s AIR framework. This means the graphics are pretty much what you’d expect to see from any browser based flash game. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, indeed for No Time To Explain the cartoonish presentation is what makes it so hilariously awesome, but there’s a certain standard that flash games seem to hit and never get passed no matter how long is spent on it. It’s probably a limitation of the platform more than anything although I can’t really comment since the last time I looked at ActionScript I got scared and decided to stick to C#.
Whilst Not Time To Explain starts off as a kind of soft core version of Metal Slug where you basically just wailing on random things with your giant beam weapon the core game mechanic is actually that of a physics based platformer. Your gun, whilst unleashing torrents of destruction where ever you aim it, also has something of a kick to it. Pointing it in the right direction can send you soaring up into the clouds or launch you across wide gaps at incredible speed. The trouble then becomes figuring out what the right angles, amount of force and then how to correct your trajectory whilst you’re up in the air.
At the beginning this is relatively easy as your landing zones are huge and there’s nothing that will kill you brutally should you get your timing wrong. Soon after however there will be spikes coating surfaces, bottomless pits to fall in and jumps/obstacles that seem to be next to impossible to cross the first time you see them. Thanks to the decent auto-save system though you’ll be able to fine tune your strategy rapidly without having to go through everything from the start again. I have to say that this was a welcome change from the Super Meat Boy way of doing things where one particular obstacle could block you for ages simply because it took so long to get there in the first place.
Each section is capped off with a boss fight which usually involves aiming your laser at whatever is moving and then waiting for it to keel over. This is perhaps where the save system is a little too good as there’s not a whole lot of challenge in the majority of the boss fights when you can literally stand in one section the entire time and simply wail on them until they die. Of course you can make it interesting for yourself (and speed up the process) by dodging the incoming bullets and positioning yourself better but that’s not technically a challenge the game provides. There was one boss fight where the quick save system didn’t apply which was a refreshing change but there were bigger issues at play there.
The Drill Squirrel boss is the first one where you can actually “die” in the sense that should you get injured at a specific point you’ll be sent back to the start of the fight rather than respawned where you were last standing. This is fine in and of itself however the fight is completely and utterly broken should certain things happen. Easy ways to replicate this are: be in the pit when he does his laser eyes at you or be on the same platform during said event. Once you’re past that the next section, where the pits fill with lava and fiery columns spew up from the ground, simply won’t happen and the drill squirrel will get stuck in the ground. This isn’t the only bug either, should you get bounced into a wall by him during the second phase you’ll get stuck in there as well but at least the game recognizes it and restarts you from the start.
No Time To explain is an awesome platformer title, combining some of the twitch aspects of its more insanely difficult brethren with mechanics that make the platforming enjoyable rather than a chore. For the most part it works well with many of the times I got stuck being down to me not getting the puzzle rather than game breaking bugs. However there are still some teething issues that need to be worked out, especially with that one particular boss, before I could say it was a trouble free experience. I also have a small gripe over the price since it’s rather short (and is available a lot cheaper direct from the developer) but it is on sale right now which kind of renders that complaint moot. Overall I quite enjoyed No Time To Explain and after reading through the developer’s blog I have to say I’m interested in their future titles and hope that their recent Greenlight success will give them the capital to see it through.
No Time To Explain is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total game time was approximately 2 hours.
The defacto platform of choice for any gamer used to be the Microsoft Windows based PC however the last decade has seen that change to be some form of console. Today, whilst we’re seeing something of a resurgence in the PC market thanks in part to some good releases this year and ageing console hardware, PCs are somewhere on the order take about 5% of the video game market. If we then extrapolate from there using the fact that only about 1~2% of the PC market is Linux (although this number could be higher if restricted to gamers) then you can see why many companies have ignored it for so long, it just doesn’t make financial sense to get into it. However there’s been a few recent announcements that shows there’s an increasing amount of attention being paid to this ultra-niche and that makes for some interesting speculation.
Gaming on Linux has always been an exercise in frustration, usually due to the Windows-centric nature of the gaming industry. Back in the day Linux suffered from a lack of good driver support for modern graphics cards and this made it nearly impossible to get games running on there at an acceptable level. Once that was sorted out (whether you count binary blobs as “sorted” is up to you) there was still the issue that most games were simply not coded for Linux leaving their users with very few options. Many chose to run their games through WINE or Cedega which actually works quite well, especially for popular titles, but many where still left wanting for titles that would run natively. The Humble Indie Bundle has gone a long way to getting developers working on Linux but it’s still something of a poor cousin to the Windows Platform.
Late last year saw Valve open up beta access to Steam on Linux bringing with it some 50 odd titles to the platform. It came as little surprise that they did this considering that they did the same thing with OSX just over 2 years ago which was undoubtedly a success for them. I haven’t really heard much on it since then, mostly because none of my gamer friends run Linux, but there’s evidence to suggest that it’s going pretty well as Valve is making further bets on Linux. As it turns out their upcoming Steam Box will be running some form of Linux under the hood:
Valve’s engineer talked about their labs and that they want to change the “frustrating lack of innovation in the area of computer hardware”. He also mentioned a console launch in 2013 and that it will specifically use Linux and not Windows. Furthermore he said that Valve’s labs will reveal yet another new hardware in 2013, most likely rumored controllers and VR equipment but we can expect some new exciting stuff.
I’ll be honest and say that I really didn’t expect this even with all the bellyaching people have been doing about Windows 8. You see whilst being able to brag about 55 titles being on the platform already that’s only 2% of their current catalogue. You could argue that emulation is good enough now that all the titles could be made available through the use of WINE which is a possibility but Valve doesn’t offer that option with OSX currently so it’s unlikely to happen. Realistically unless the current developers have intentions to do a Linux release now the release of the Steam Box/Steam on Linux isn’t going to be enough to tempt them to do it, especially if they’ve already recovered their costs from PC sales.
That being said all it might take is one industry heavyweight to put their weight behind Linux to start a cascade of others doing the same. As it turns out Blizzard is doing just that with one of their titles slated for a Linux release some time this year. Blizzard has a long history with cross platform releases as they were one of the few companies to do releases for Mac OS decades ago and they’ve stated many times that they have a Linux World of Warcraft client that they’ve shied away from releasing due to support concerns. Releasing an official client for one of their games on Linux will be their way of verifying whether its worth it for them to continue doing so and should it prove successful it could be the shot in the arm that Linux needs to become a viable platform for games developers to target.
Does this mean that I’ll be switching over? Probably not as I’m a Microsoft guy at heart and I know my current platform too well to just drop it for something else (even though I do have a lot of experience with Linux). I’m very interested to see how the Steam Box is going to be positioned as it being Linux changes the idea I had in my head for it and makes Valve’s previous comments about them all the more intriguing. Whilst 2013 might not be a blockbuster year for Linux gaming it is shaping up to be the turning point where it starts to become viable.
There’s no doubt that the kings of the video game industry are still the consoles. Us long time gamers might lament the last decade which saw our crown taken from those console upstarts there’s no denying that they’re the current driving force behind the explosive growth the industry has enjoyed of late. Many of us have been stalwart in our support of our chosen platform however, so much so in fact that the release of Diablo III this year marked the first time since 2010 that a PC only game was the top selling title during its release. Indeed the PC platform has been making something of a come back for a while now and the past year is just a confirmation of that.
A good chunk of that resurgence can be attributed to the wild success of the Steam platform. At any one point there are up to 5 million users using Steam and the total people signed up for it, some 50 million or so, eclipses that of Xbox Live (the most popular online console network) by a wide margin. Of course Valve’s presence in the home entertainment space, a place where the consoles have found a secondary niche, is practically 0. Valve has been aware of this and the recent release of their Big Picture mode was obviously aimed at turning any home media PC into a beach front for Valve’s wide catalogue of games. With many of them being cross platform titles that were built for controllers in the first place it was an extremely smart move by Valve and whilst it won’t have developers jumping ship from consoles any time soon it does signal the beginning of a shift back towards PC gaming, even if it’s with a console like façade.
The missing piece of the puzzle was a curated hardware platform that could function as the next step in Valve’s grab for the home entertainment space. It had long been rumoured that Valve was working on something called a Steam Box which would essentially be a console like device, complete with its own custom controller, that would run some part of Valve’s catalogue of games. When I wrote about it at the time details were scant and I had partly assumed that it’d be some kind of walled garden type device (I.E. constrained to Source engine titles or some other limitation) which had me on the fence as to whether I’d want one or not. Additionally if all the titles on the Steam Box were on the PC I’d have little incentive to play them anywhere else as I’m quite accustomed to the mouse/keyboard as my primary input device.
As it turns out those rumours appear to be true as Gabe Newell said in a recent interview that they’re working on their own hardware platform. Gabe says it will be tightly controlled which I take to mean that the specifications will be fixed like a console, ruling out the idea that it’d simply be a small form factor PC with the Valve logo on the front. Interestingly though he has also stated that others are free to make their own version as well which would indicate that, whilst they’ll be controlling the hardware specs of their devices, you will get the same experience if you simply build your own PC and run big picture mode on the top of it. This also opens up the opportunity for OEMs to make their own Steam Box-esque PCs that are purposed designed to live next to your TV and play high end games. You could draw parallels to the ultrabook segment of the laptop market as they were born out of pressures to make smaller form factors more powerful (and I’ll hazard a guess they’ll be strikingly similar under the hood as well).
I’m still not entirely sure if a Steam Box would be appropriate for me as whilst Big Picture mode is great on my media PC there aren’t that many games that I’d prefer to play on there if they’re available on the PC. That being said I know there’s many people out there who prefer the console experience and making these kinds of bridge devices could well be the catalyst that pushes PC gaming back to the top of the pile. I’m very interested to see what Valve will be bringing to the table with their own curated hardware platform as their Big Picture mode is pretty fantastic and anything built by them around that concept will, hopefully, be just as awesome.