Thursday, 26 December 2013

the emperor's old clothes

Since the release of Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII in Japan, there has been a lot of noise made about its costume editor ; the ability to modify your player's in game clothing and appearance. For some, it's the ultimate time-waster, while for others, as a recent website commenter (Lynzxer) put it, "All I've read about this game is costumes, costumes, costumes. If I wanted to play dress up I'd get a damn Barbie. Goodbye final fantasy"

But even more noise was made when Square Enix, the game's developer, accidentally released the limited offer Aerith (FFVII) costume DLC to all owners of the game, regardless of whether they qualified for the content or not. While it seems like a small issue, there is a louder rumble underlying all this noise. A rumble about the franchise itself.

The Aerith costume DLC for "Lighting Returns: Final Fantasy XIII" 
For those of us who will probably buy the new title regardless of its quality or any DLC technical faults, such as this, there's also another concern. Releasing the Aerith DLC seems like a concession for a developer who have resisted at every turn the remake of FFVII for modern platforms, despite the years of agitation. While I will write about this at some hazy future point, my own feelings are that I would not welcome such a remake. The short version is that I like FFVII as it is, warts and all (and there aren't many warts, let's be honest). However, the DLC has opened up a bigger can of worms than the probably impossible remake ; that fans are simply not happy with the creative direction which Square Enix has taken with many of its recent games. Its online FFXIV has caused numerous headaches and disappointments, while there remains a deeply sectarian divide among FF fans about the merits (or demerits) of FFXIII and its sequels.

While the DLC does not, I think, presage the remake of the classic FFVII, its mis-release has re-opened many lingering concerns about the franchise by fans - an issue about the urge to drive the game back to its roots, while making the most of the capabilities of the new XBOX One and PS4 systems.

As a long-time FF fan - I'm currently playing and planning a review for the very smart and fun remake of FFIII -, there is an ominous question mark surrounding Final Fantasy XV, if that is to be the next single player iteration of the series. And yet, the costume element that is so enraging some players has a certain intrinsic appeal, and so it is easy to understand why the developers are providing it - arguably, it harks back to the early FF game mechanic of job changing ; of the ability to tinker around with the roles and competencies of your party in the longer flow of the game (rather than the mid-battle "paradigm" shifts of FFXIII and its sequels).

The question, for me at least, is whether - if at all - future installments of the game will reach into the heritage of the series in other ways, beyond its costumes and weapons - beyond elements that are, for now, only aesthetic. Will we see a revisiting of old worlds, past characters, story mechanics, or gameplay devices? (Personally, I'm anticipating, perhaps naively, hopefully, a return to the magic junctioning of FFVIII).

crash and burn? Crash of the Titans revisited

In a recent piece in SpawnFirst, Angie Santiago asked what ever had happened to Crash Bandicoot ; the character who was once the mascot of PlayStation, who had starred in a number of best-selling titles and party-favourites (Crash Team Racing, of course), has been silent both on the PS3 and PS4. As Angie suggested in her article, there has been a feeling from within PlayStation and Activision (his "owners") that Crash Bandicoot just isn't going to appear on these platforms, at least not in the foreseeable future.

But there has been noise and movement in the past month. Activision made a public statement that they are still interested in the franchise (here, and yet, there have been rumours about the sale of IPs, removals of Crash references from the Activision website, and ghostly Wumpa fruit bouncing around in their fruit bowl (I made that last one up). You can take all this two ways ; either Activision are just promising, vaguely, while really not committing, or else they are preparing something big for 2014 - a new Crash title. But for now, all we have is the past. But how does that past hold up now, on its dusty consoles and in its ancient clothes?

For many of us, it was Crash Bandicoot Warped that was the last "good" word in the Crash Bandicoot series ; a title that combined the ingenuous (and often infuriating) platform puzzles, anarchic humour, and attractive platform worlds that epitomises the series as a whole. While Crash 1 and 2 were extremely good fun in their own right, Warped added enough new elements to make the game fresh without either ruining it or sending it "off message" altogether.

When an updated Crash was announced for the PS2, XBOX 360 and Wii in 2007, many - like myself - expected something that was really going to be "just like" Warped, though there were many glum predictions. After all, Naughty Dog, the game's original developers, had handed over the job to Traveller's Tales who had produced a couple of unfortunately lacklustre placeholders (The Wrath of Cortex and Twinsanity), which had failed to impress. Cortex was a poorly held together paint gloss of Warped, adding a few extra effects and new gameplay mechanics, but losing out in fundamental areas like character control and mapping. Crash didn't feel like the acrobatic marsupial that we knew and loved, but a sickly shadow of him. I gave up on Cortex after sending Crash plummeting off an easy platform one too many times ; his movement was just too loose and hard to control.

Reading the article got me thinking about the series - the series which, over the years, I have probably sunk more hours in than I've spent with any other gaming mascot (Mario comes in at a not-so close second). Knowing that my PS1 titles were stored away somewhere unreachable (the attic), I had to get my Crash fix somewhere else. This review article has come directly from going back to Crash, not just to nostalgically sing its praises, but to argue that really the last good word is not to be found in Warped at all, but in the now forgotten fun of its PS2 offspring - Crash of the Titans.

opening up the temple :: Crash Bandicoot Warped

One of the first and most obvious things about Crash of the Titans is that it is not a spin off - there is no tiger-riding, carting or jet pack scooting (as fun as they are, I think we've had our fill of them from previous installments). It is a platformer. But it is also more than this, because it has a new and crucial hook ; that Crash can take control of monsters (titans) through the use of his companion mask (Aku Aku), and then ride around on their backs doing damage, both to regular minions and other titans. So, while this was a new path for the series, it was a gamble definitely worth taking ; lolloping around on the back of the titans, swiping and crunching and bashing away at your enemies, is addictive and satisfying fun. But more than that, it is also an essential tool to complete the levels ; each titan has its own abilities, whether because it they are simply large enough to defeat larger "boss" titans, or whether they can freeze overpowering torrents of water or shoot lasers at hard-to-reach enemies. These skills and special attacks mean that the titans have not simply been dumped on the game to make it more interesting, but have been built in to the mechanics and the structure of the game itself.

This is not, then, a typical Crash game ; because of the emphasis on "jacking" titans, the gameplay has been oriented almost entirely to this - to combat. And so, while it is a platform game in one sense, it is no longer purely about solving the spatial puzzles of the original games, where combat was really only important during boss battles (where ordinary enemies could be, for the most part, overstepped or avoided by other means). This means that the levels are very different in terms of their layout. There are wider areas, flatter ground, and the occasional bowl "arena" where larger titan battles take place.

In truth, the original Crash titles were also linear, so nothing here has been lost. And while combat is essential to completing the game, there are still inventive puzzles to solve which require timing, jumping and running (although these become less common as the game progresses). The combat itself is more fun than technically challenging; you will only really lose if you either are not "jacked" or not jacked to an appropriate titan, or if you get outnumbered. Most of the battles are won by furious "punch" button tapping, although you can vary this with each titan's special attack (which recharges over time and the collection of dropped items), and with the acquisition of new skills for the base Crash as you progress through experience "levels". The leveling mechanic is simple enough, adding new and more powerful skills such as a prolonged and more damaging spin, or the ability to chain regular attacks for additional damage. These mean that there is an incentive to "power up" your Crash in order to wreak more damage in the final levels. It also serves to add a bit of much needed variation to the gameplay.

The graphics have also had an overhaul, with smoothly rendered textures and interesting and varied backgrounds, as well as crisply defined character models. The animations for attacks, titans and special moves are colourful and vibrant, which means that when you're in the heat of a large battle it can seem very active and bright without being overpowering or dense. While the developers have drawn away from the early titles' use of standard and unconnected level themes (Egyptian tomb, island paradise, Great Wall of China, Space), these are still referenced by the thoughtful and often very attractive decals and backgrounds, many of which have a Polynesian flavour to them. Because the story line moves from island to space ship, the scenery changes in tandem with the design, which pulls it together nicely. As the story progresses, as well, new and more powerful titans are introduced, which adds an element of anticipation to each of the game's levels.

While the game is too short - I completed the game in under ten hours - there is not the same level of completist fun that the earlier titles had, where you could spend hours and hours searching for relics, gems and 100% wumpa fruit. Because the title is simply not focused on these, they seem less important, and so I rarely found myself bothering to ensure that I made these collections. After all, I was more concerned with gaining the requisite powerups that would improve my attack strength.

Impressions ...

Crash may never appear on a console again (boo!) - and so, we may have to remember him only from a handful of more or less good (or occasionally brilliant) titles on older consoles. Crash of the Titans was actually, despite its largely mediocre reviews, a fun and perhaps unfairly treated addition to the Crash family - sensing how poorly a pure puzzle game like Wrath of Cortex had gone, the developers sided with a new mechanic in a familiar world. Crash of the Titans, while not the defining peak of the Crash range, is not an unworthy addition. It is a game that has not really aged, and which, unlike the failures of Cortex and Twinsanity, has some real staying power.

Playing Crash of the Titans again, and remembering fondly the antics of Warped, I realised there were some positive signs for the future. Namely, that the Crash franchise isn't a dead weight or a mode unsuitable to the new range of consoles. The extremely addictive and satisfying mechanic of Crash of the Titans - its jacked titans amid satisfying level design - is one that suits big environments, lush textures and design, and casual gameplay. If I could do all of this on the XBOX One or PS4, but in a bigger, more varied and tighter game, then I'd definitely be glad to welcome Crash back to the fold. I wonder how long we will have to wait?

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

the decline and fall of Lucius Marcellus ; an essay on Rome: Total War

For years, now, Lucius Marcellus had been the rising star of the family. When he had first donned the heavy armour of a General of the Brutii, striking out on his first command, he had followed in the footsteps of his father, and of his father before him. And then, at Epirus, with the westerly wind ruffling the waves, he had held back a Greek column – undermanned, out positioned. And so, Lucius star began to rise – first, a military governorship, in the mellow southern warmth of the recently conquered Larissa. And next, with his uncle’s untimely death – not in battle, as he had dreamed, but on a pile of sweated-on sheets, days before his battle with the last bulwark of the Greek army – he had taken command, and had ousted the Greeks and thus had won their homeland. The white became green, became Brutiibecame Roman.  

And then it happened, the decline and the fall of dear, poor Lucius' battle stats. His influence began to drop. True, the war was over, but a new campaign beckoned – he was to lead fresh armies to the east. A commander, a general – even Aedile to the Senate, serving alongside his own father, the Praetor, Appius Marcellus.  But that is when, for dear Lucius, it all went to pot. 

Maybe it was the fame, the easy life away from the campaign tent. He acquired a drinking companion. That’s not a bad thing, really – a general, a Roman, should enjoy his wine, and revel across the dining table after the day’s administration is through. But for Lucius, the taste of wine became too sweet, too often. Next came the Floozy, his personal security dropping. She had bright rouged lips and a low blouse. I had wanted him to marry, and soon, to secure the Brutii line. But with a floozy and drunk in toe, could this ever happen? Would he be just another laughing stock on the senate floor – drink addled, red eyed, inelegant – un-Roman. 

But there wasn’t time to dwell on this. An uprising, to the north. The city of Bylazora had been wrested from our control. I knew I had garrisoned it too weakly. Lucius was sent, at the head of my crack troops, the veterans of Greece, to put down this nuisance – and to put it down bloodily. But poor Lucius had picked up not a few bad traits in Larissa, in the summer of his excess; his character profile listed him as a drinker, as “lewd”, even, now, an “indecisive attacker”. But he had also become a gourmand, stuffing his stomach with meat, bread and wine until his once finely fitted armour no longer clipped around his belly. 
And at Bylazora, beneath the city walls, with the far mountains rearing in the distance, we lost.  

I’m narrating this sorry story not just because I found it, later, quite amusing – but because, in Rome: Total War, I have never not been able to play like this. That is, to play through narrative – to fill the stats and towns and characters, with their metrics of positive and negative traits, with real people and relationships. Lucius could have been just a “General”, a “Governor”, a means to boost the army’s attack capacity and morale. But he was more than that; he was a human, a man. A man who was flawed, like all of us. A man who had glory, once, but failed to build on it. 

So what happened to Lucius? He survived the defeat, but, the shame faced dead weight, he could no longer show his face in Rome (aedile, indeed!). And so, poor Lucius was sent into “exile”, given a meaningless and out of the way command where, amidst the cold wind and sticky swamps, he could languish and think about the “glory days”, when he had routed armies, when he was somebody 

Games cannot just be stats and routines and hierarchies of actions and responses – for many players, like myself, it is impossible for me, for us, not to identify with the world that we are participating in. This is one of their central qualities – that they enable narrative and meaning and identification even when, in their rawness, these things are not immediately obvious. Rome is easy for this, because there are characters, with postage stamp sized portraits and names and habits. But even in other worlds, other games, I feel the same urge. 

But there was never the sense for preservation or for achieving the “right” narrative – only narrative itself, unburdened of the soft gloves of revision. If Lucius had to fail, then fail he should. However much it pained me to lose a good general, I knew that, to be the Pater Familias, to be the head of the family, I had to cut him away. I wouldn’t let him die, of course (and I have engineered a fitting “noble end” for more than one irksome, but otherwise loyal family member), because he once had hope, and promise. But I would not let him near the bright light of my future glory. There was a new star in the ascendant – Brutus Asina. Where Lucius was weak, Brutus was strong – sober, pious. A little boring perhaps, but strong. 

When I was teenager, when I played Rome and built Warhammer models and listened to too much metal, narrative became a means of knowing that I could engineer this real world toward something deeper and more significant. I recognised the banality of my ordinary life, but knew that through narrative – and, moreover, in the epic narratives of history – there was room to make tough calls, to be the decider of fates, to push not just a “button”, it was never about that, but to create effects in the world. For this to be true, that world had to be coherent and real, to be more than the sum of its parts – more than its strings of code or textures and their interactions. It had to be an enduring story, almost as if it had once really happened and I was merely repeating a history that was already done, carved in stone. I read histories of Rome, but not the modern revisionism of balanced scholars, who looked down the lens of time, but of Agricola, Suetonius, Livy. At antique book stores I brought dust thick, leather bound volumes that had, since their typesetting and printing in the 1890s or 1910s (these were my preferred treasures), sat on library shelves or in drawers and had told a deep, ancient story of morals and lives, wars and discourses that had no life left in them, only bones and the rusted slabs of ancient weapons. My Rome, when I played, became full with references to these histories, with names and peoples and places. The cities which the game generated were small and generic, but in my mind they had quarters and stench and bawdiness. And in their alleyways spies swapped intelligence, and deals were bartered or broken. Alliances were made, fates sealed. But still this lived in the Victorian translator’s diction of Rome, which was itself an illusion, a revision. But I didn’t mind. These illusions of Roman history gave force and significance to what were just textures.  

And so, Lucius’ fate was not really mine to decide, but that of a ponderous roll of history. Making the game credible meant building character and identity – a history of the self – in to the game world. The line between Lucius, the turn-based flow of Rome’s history, and the “real” history of Rome in its history books, became increasingly blurred – and happily so. 

Lucius spent his last years in a rotten outpost, guarding mud and poverty, never drawing his sword but to prise the muck from his boots. But history had been served, and now moved on to further shores.