Tony Hawk's gotta wake up and smell the kickflip

There's been a lot of chatter recently about the latest release in the ages-old Tony Hawk's Pro Skater series.  A lot of this chatter revolves around the ill reception the game has recieved from the press, and the fact that it's not all that good.  Most reviews have rated the game below average, and many pundits predict that is will become just another blip in the Guiter Hero-dominated landscape of peripheral games.
 
They're probably right, but there's a lot more to it than the quality of the game.  Now, I haven't played it so I can't really share my opinion much further than what I can glean based on face value.  The face of this game though, an aging professional skater, can actually tell us a lot about the future of the series and where things might be headed.  As an ex-skater, I have the utmost respect for Tony Hawk, because he set standards in skateboarding that have still not been met, but also more than any other skater he has brought the sport to the masses and can easily be considered the first real crossover star that skating has produced.  And the THPS series of games played no small part in that happening.
 
A bit of a history lesson - when THPS was first released for Playstation was when skateboarding made it's first major push into the pop culture sphere.  Suddenly, gamers knew who Tony Hawk was, and skaters knew that it was time to buy a Playstation.  As soon as Christmas rolled around, Tony Hawk became a household name as parents around the world ticked the game off their christmas lists.  Kids who'd spent their lives simulating amazing feats on their television screens realised that for the first time, those amazing feats were grounded in reality and with a bit of investment they could learn to ollie just like they played in the game.  THPS was responsible for the massive influx of skateboarding fans, and without a doubt gaming in general became somewhat cooler - here was a reason for the 'cool kids' to finally take the plunge and buy a console.
 
The thing is, in the beginning the game paid a lot of respect to skateboarding and skate culture.  The environments were gritty and basic, just like the spots real skaters would search long and hard to find.  The tricks were sometimes outrageous but only slightly, and combos were short and sweet.  Diligent players could find and unlock skate videos for each of their favourite pros - and this was very important, because skate vids were and still are the bread and butter for professional skaters.
 
But, as time went on, the environments became more and more colourful and the introduction of manuals and reverts meant that to complete a task, you had to perform stupid combos that took you on a grind odyssey around the outside of a skyscraper then across a whole city block on a power line.  The tricks became daft and unrealistic and eventually, we were riding mechanical bulls with Steve-O and Bam from Jackass.  It was no longer an homage to skating but a parody of all that skating had become.
 
Then came Skate.
 
EA released what could be considered the ultimate homage to the sport.  Remember what I mentioned earlier?  Skate ticked all those boxes.  The environment, while vast and expansive, was based on real geometry and required the player to search long and hard for the sweetest spots to skate.  The control input had a learning curve, not unlike real-life skating, and it required actual skill and dedication to perform moves fluidly and realistically.  But finally, it engaged the all-important concept of the skate video - players were given the tools to make clips that showed off their skill and style.  On all accounts, Skate engaged the audience that THPS had left behind with all it's backflipping and kilometre-long grindery.   You only need to take a quick glance at what's going down in the skate.ea.com forums to see that what they've done is a success.  Many of the game community's greatest supporters also upload videos of their real life skating achievements.
 
So, now, Tony Hawk has come out in defence of his game, stating in an interview "They were ready to discredit it before they even tried it, and if it didn't play exactly how they imagined it... then they passed it off,".   Can you blame them Tony?  For years, the game with your name on it has portrayed skating as a cartoon, full of larger-than-life characters and stunts.  I'm not going to say that they're bad games, but now, you've included a plastic peripheral which only highlights exactly what I've mentioned before: these games no longer represent skate culture but look to bastardise it, package it up in a little bonbon wrapper and feed it to six year olds in the promise that they'll be getting closer to skating than ever before.  Meanwhile, all the actual skaters have moved on to a franchise that supports what they do and shows a clear understanding of the culture from which it emerges.
 
Tony Hawk is a man that takes the piss out of the laws of physics on a daily basis.  There's no need to continue taking the piss out of the people and activities that made him who he is today.  Real skaters can't respect something that doesn't respect them and that's why Skate 2 is the current champion of skating games.  I don't doubt that his son, Hudson, plays it more than he plays any of the games that his father endorses.  There's a reason for that - the brand "Tony Hawk" is quickly shifting from a top-tier skating brand to a middling and forgettable video game character, a bit like Sonic the Hedgehog.  That, in itself, could do more damage to the public perception of skating than anything else.

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Some thoughts on Battlefield: 1943

It seems that Battlefield: 1943 has been causing a little bit of buzz lately, and unsurprisingly.  It's a real gem of a game for many reasons which I'll certainly get into, but for the most part people are focussed on two different things; the amount of content it delivers for it's price, and the nostalgia value it provides to those who were big fans of the original (Battlefield: 1942).

Nostalgia


I played a bit of 1942 myself, quite a long time ago.  Not so much that I was ever considered to be involved in the game but it was certainly more popular to me than games like Counterstrike during visits to the local LAN cafe.  I was never a PC gamer, so such visits meant playing networked games I normally didn't have access to.  Battlefield 1942 was a game that I enjoyed mostly for the novelty factor - wow, look at the size of that map!  You can fly, as well as drive tanks! etc. - but I found the accessibility of the game was somewhat limited compared to what I was used to.  As a twitch-FPS player I found the learning curve of driving tanks, trekking across large expanses and emergent squad tactics never really gelled with me the way acrobatic rocket launcher multi-kills did in Quake 3.  For this reason, Battlefield: 1943 didn't exactly remind me of happier times - more about crashing my plane into a friendly tank, or being team-killed by by my friends for laughs.  I can, however, understand why so many people hold the original in such high esteem.  When it was played well (i.e. when I was not participating) it was a great game, with tactical flow hidden within the chaos, and subtlety apparent in the grand ambition of it all.

But I think, maybe, that the nostalgia appeal of the new title is a bit of a double-edged sword, because while it is a great game, it is not the same game.  Obvious differences aside, such as the setting and the generation of platform, 1943 has benefitted from years of revision to the brand itself, and also to the FPS genre and it's common trends.  The Battlefield series has expanded and grown, with many different settings and concepts explored in every iteration.  Somebody who has not been involved in Battlefield since the original, or Vietnam or whatever, will begin to play this game and it will feel almost totally alien to them.  In it's attempt to create an easily accessible game 1943 has implemented some very welcome gameplay elements such as replenishing health and ammo which have made the game quite fast-paced and simple, it has also simplified the class system and made vehicles work rather differently due to the nature of a console controller.  It's a bit like Battlefield-lite, which is not a bad thing; however veteran 1942 players never loved it for it's simplicity.  It worries me that the nostalgia aspect is often being played up by those marketing the game and those reviewing the game, because the intrinsic difference between both games means that it is possible that those players will be turned away when what they get is not what they expected.

Value


The other major talking point of the game is the amount of value received upon purchase.  Not long ago I paid something like half the price of this game for additional Halo 3 content - three maps to be precise, which is exactly what Battlefield: 1943 delivered as soon as it had finished downloading (plus a sort of bonus game mode and map, which I don't much care for, which unlocked with no extra download once a community milestone had been reached, but more on that later).  The major difference here, however, is that to enjoy the Halo 3 content I still required the original game disc to be in my possession and that I was still playing the same game I have been playing for years.  1943 is a complete game that delivers everything it intends to in one hit.  It is not a fraction of a bigger game like the other downloads I usually pay for over XBox Live which is why I'm very, very satisfied with the money I spent.

One of the things that many people attribute to the overall value of any game is the length and variety of gameplay it provides.  The variety of gameplay is not large but still significant.  Since my time with the game I've played a few rounds as an Infantryman using the shock tactics associated with a short-ranged, powerful weapon, and moved on to become rather effective as a Rifleman at mid- to long-range.  In the future, I might change things up by learning how to use the sniper-wielding scout class, and there are four different varieties of vehicle which I still haven't taken the time to master (I have noticed that some players have devised some rather cunning tactics using boats or cars which I think is great for the strategic appeal of the game).  I've played the game with my usual group of Halo team-mates and various other members of my friends list, as well as strangers that populate the game's servers, and each time the flow of gameplay and tactics has changed.    As more of my friends downlaod the game, then undoubtedly more variety in gameplay will emerge.  1943 might not be a vast, expansive game but for it's price there's an awful lot of game to be played.

Length, however, isn't something that can be accurately gauged.  We will not know what the lifespan of this game is until people stop playing it, which could be tomorrow or next year, or it could develop some sort of mutant life expectancy like Counter-Strike did and survive for millennia.  But this is where 1943 holds a trump card: it is, I believe, the first true pick-up-and-play FPS for a console.  It sits on your hard drive and is accessed via the dashboard, so at any time, during any game or movie you can simply pick up your controller and jump in to play, unlike other games like Halo 3 or Team Fortress 2 which require the added effort of getting up and inserting a the correct disc.  There is no penalty for logging out at any time, so you do not have to set time aside to play - you can accept any invite from your friends at any time and not be concerned that you only have twenty minutes before work or that a game might keep you up later than you should be.  This leads me to believe that the game will have a very good lifespan; it will always be worth keeping on your hard drive for impromptu rounds of WWII combat.

Gameplay and Design


The gameplay of Battlefield: 1943 is very simple given it's roots.  Deathmatch FPS games really came of age with games like Quake, where the objective was to kill your opponents more times than they killed you (or each other) but always weighed you down with traditional design choices such as static health and limited ammo that needed to be replenished by taking a break from the combat.  Over time, the objectives in FPS games became more complex - team games of capture the flag and return it to your base, assault-style games with attacker/defender scenarios, class based gameplay which added levels of complexity delivered by the addition of player-specific actions a la Team Fortress and it's ilk - the list could go on forever.

Battlefield: 1943 implements a common trend in recent FPS shooters which is to replenish the player's health after a few short moments out of combat.  This is a very effective design device intended to make sure the action comes on frequent and furious.  There is no need to take a long break to find a health pick-up after a particulary close battle- you simply need to "take a breather" to regain full combat capacity.  This is one of the reasons I hold Halo 2 and 3 in such high regard, they were brilliantly designed so that each encounter with an enemy was based more upon your skill level and less upon the likelihood that a less experienced player could capitalise upon the damage you took in a previous fight.  1943 takes this a few steps further by giving the player unlimited ammo for their main weapon and small "packets" of ammo that replenish over time for your secondary weapons and grenades.  There is no need to limp away from a fight in the shadows, wounded and unarmed, hoping that nobody takes advantage of your weakened state.  You simply take a step back, recoup your assets, and throw yourself back into the fight mere moments later.  This really harks back to what I said earlier about pick-up-and-play.  You can be assured that any short period of play will not be marred by gameplay down-time.

The game also utilises a simple objective system.  Ultimately a game is won or lost by killing the opposing team more than they kill you, but it is altered and enhanced by the use of "capture points".  If you control more of the five flags on each map than your opposing team, then every kill you make is worth more points.  If you die, you can respawn at any capture point your team controls.  The action of capturing a point is as simple as standing near a flag while no enemies stand near it.  There is no need for any particular class to be present, so any success you may have in attacking a capture point can be instantly rewarded without any need for further tactical behaviour on the part of your team-mates.  Even if your team controls all five flags, the game can swing back in your opponents favour quickly because your team will then be spread too thinly across the map.  It's very rare to become complacent in this game, unless your opponent is completely useless, you'll always have something to attack and defend.  Further to this, you can respawn adjacent to any member of your four-man squad, so you don't always need to trek across the map to rejoin the battle (especially if your squad communication is good and your friends go into hiding when you get killed).

Classes are very simple - you can select between one of three classes and every class can use every vehicle to it's maximum capacity.  The Rifleman is an all-round mid- to long-range attacker, and the Infantryman has excellent short range damage potential and the ability to eliminate vehicles easily, while the Scout is probably the most tactical option available as he is better camouflaged, can lay remote charges, and has a sniper rifle good to take out individuals at long range.  As the game encourages the players to act in squads of four, each class can be represented and work effectively.  The sniper can find a vantage point and defend himself more than adequately by creating a small perimeter of remote charges, then locate and suppress the enemy with his sniper rifle.  Riflemen can lay down ranged fire and kill most of the enemy threat while the Infantrymen can run in and clean up enemies in hiding.  I have played in squads of four Riflemen, simply holding contested flags and racking up the kills, as well as sitting on a boat with a sniper and two riflemen creating absolute havoc on the shoreline.

Finally, the level design is amazing.  Each of the three provided maps is on an island in the sea.  Using the small array of vehicles available, any point on the map could be under threat from nearly every angle.  The islands are laced with geographic channels which funnel the combat in an interesting way, and they all interconnect very well.  No point on any island gives you a major advantage over the whole map.  A good example is the map Iwo-Jima.  The hardest to capture flag is on top of Mount Suribachi at one end.  It gives you visual access to nearly half the map, but if an enemy assaults you up the cliffside, you won't see him until he's in your face.  Of course, you can keep an eye out down the cliffside, but you're then exposed to sniper fire, and there is a flag point in the fishing village at the base of the mountain.  That particular fishing village can be assaulted from along the beach and is very susceptible to attack from the sea.  Meanwhile, there is a lighthouse in eyeshot, which is a haven for snipers, and a short steep path up the back of the hill for easy assaults.  Long story short, every part of the island interconnects well with the others, each flag point can give you some sort of tactical advantage even if you control no others.  The fact that each island is surrounded by sea means that anything can happen anywhere at any time.  It makes for frequent combat with very few lulls in the action, and you need to think differently no matter which direction you look.

Gameplay Habits


Battlefield: 1943 encourages the player to invite his friends into a squad, by simply sending a play invite from the in-game menu.  There are a maximum of four players in a squad, and if using the game's chat channels you are limited to chatting to those four players only.  If you are in an XBox Live party, you can have I think  a maximum of eight players.  This means an entire team is never on the same wavelength and it shows.  I very rarely see entire armies working in unison, it's usually little pockets of 2-3 players achieving objectives of their own choosing.  That being said, one squad of four players communicating well will cause all sorts of headaches for the opponent, especially when the last man standing manages to survive long enough for all of his teammates to respawn right next to him.

I have noticed that the Rifleman seems to be the most popular choice of class which can kind of diminish the variety of tactics thrown at you.  The tank is nearly impervious to anything but a couple of Infantryman rocket launcher shots, and this means that people in tanks become quite effective at assaulting and capturing flags.  I have found that if I'm defending a position as the rifleman and I'm taken out by an incoming tank, I can respawn as an Infantryman and he won't expect the explosive damage headed his way.

Planes are hard to control, but for somebody that has mastered them, they can control the airspce and anybody with lesser skill will quickly be knocked out of the sky.  I think it's where the greatest imbalance lies in the game.  If you check the scoreboard at any time during the game, you will normally find the person with the highest amount of kills will be ahead by quite a considerable margin, and they will usually be flying a plane.  It doesn't overly affect the metagame however, as the planes cannot take and hold objectives.  It's often best to just keep out of their way, play the game on foot and occasionally knock one down with an anti-air gun emplacement.

Another thing I find is that the average player doesn't seem to acknowledge the fact that the game is about kills and a round is won or lost when you have achieved your quota.  Yes, holding flag points helps, but a lot of players make risky, suicidal attempts to capture flags at any cost.  This includes leaving cover to run into a base with no support, which is of course giving a free point to the opponent.  A much better strategy when overwhelmed is to hold on to two flags and dominate the space around them, but the limited communication and control of the game prevents such a co-ordinated strategy from occurring.  Ultimately it doesn't really matter, the drop-in drop-out nature of the game means such army-wide strategies have no value, but it can get a little annoying when your squad is playing very well and you're about to be told that your army lost the match.

On the Whole


Battlefield: 1943 sets out to achieve a simple, accessible, but deep and fun FPS experience, and it is certainly accessible in that regard.  You will not find yourself up against a team populated entirely with experts but if you're ever in a position to get 24 good players together for a private game, then there is no doubt that it would be incredibly tactical.  Everything it does is done to a good standard, the sound serves it's purpose well, and apart from a few clipping issues the graphics are lush and represent the tropical locales fantastically.  It holds up very well to analysis, any scrutiny I level at it meets justification on the design's part, any major faults seem to be due to player error.  I am very appreciative of my time with the game, and very happy that I made the purchase, even going so far as to say it's probably the best value buy I've made this year. 
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Touching

This game twigged an emotional reaction from me, nothing too serious but it certainly drew me in.  I thought the level design was absolutely sensational.  I've already played it through twice, once by myself and once with my girlfriend.  The story is brilliant.  While I found some of the puzzles challenging, I found that sleeping on it and then coming back to it was the best option.  Also, taking a five minute break for a drink of water in between worlds, to reset your way of thinking for the next type of time manipulation.

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Oooh, errr

Basically, I'm doing this at work on the work computer instead of working.

So don't expect much in the way of consistency, alright?

In fact don't expect much of anything.

The long and short of it:

I want to design games for a living, but I can't afford the schooling.  So I spend a lot of time playing, learning and designing on my own.  Board games, video games, sport activities, whatever.

I might, if you're lucky, use this blog to impart the different things I've learnt and observed.

Later.

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