VFX Talk notes for Star Wars Battlefront

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I recently attended a talk by Anders Egléus who was one of the VFX leads for Star Wars Battlefront. I'm not going to do a full blog post because I don't really think I can do justice to his fairly technical talk but I thought I would highlight some interesting bits.

Production on Star Wars Battlefront was 2 Years but the game was only in full production for 9 months.

At last count, including DLC, the approximate VFX asset counts were as follows: 5000 Emitters, 1500 Effect Containers, 300 VFX Textures, 450 Pixel Shaders, 50 Vertex Shaders.

The desire was for the effects to look like the effects from the original films but remastered to remove artifacts such as those left behind by optical printing. The team was instructed to not reference the original Battlefront games. Often movie assets where placed in-game on flipbook textures to directly compare against the realtime effects. They were shooting for an 80s pyrotechnic look with lots of sparks and self-shadowing smoke.

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Compared to the Battlefield games there was more performance needed for rendering the models so the effects performance budget was smaller, their budget was just over 1 millisecond of frame time so they needed to use less particles than Battlefield 4.

The Frostbite engine has "Perfect" particle sorting since all the particles are rendered in a single draw call but this requires all particles to share a single texture atlas. There are low res and hi res versions of this particle atlas. Low res particles are always rendered behind high res particles.

To get around limitations of the Frostbite particle system the team adopted a cpu-based vertex animation system pioneered by Ghost Games (the Need for Speed team) to animate birds. They use a mesh particle which is a series of disconnected square polygons and then procedurally animate the vertices to move these polygons around and by doing so they effectively create a particles system within a single particle which is very efficient for rendering. Each Frostbite particle can represent 100-1000 particles to efficiently render lots of snowflakes on Hoth or a giant burst of sparks. This method is 80 times faster than rendering the same effects using just Frostbite's particle system.

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This system is used for rendering some stuff that you might not expect, such as background dogfights. Particles were used to render X-Wing, TIE Fighters and projectiles to fake distant dogfights. A very impressive Aurora Borealis effect was created but did not make it into the game because the Lucasfilm team informed them that there is no Aurora Borealis on Hoth.

Some effects are movie textures with each movie frame split between data for normals and alpha / z-depth data. Others use Frostbite's Gnomon lighting system which is a volumetric effect pre-rendered from 6 different angles and then the angles are blended together along with vertex lighting to match the level lighting.

Some of the effects that did not make it into Battlefront have found their way into Battlefield 1.

The team was trying to mesh together the offline particle rendering that is used in film with the real time particle systems seen in games. Egléus is hoping to get a GPU-based particle system into future DICE games.

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Ryse Siggraph Vancouver presentation synopsis

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I attended a Microsoft/Crytek development presentation that Siggraph Vancouver put on last night. Marius is 85k tris, he has 770 bones, vertices have 8 bone influences and there are 230 blend shapes in the face. There is no LOD version of Marius since the camera always stays in close and the cutscene model is the same as the gameplay model.

The number of triangles is higher than last gen but only about double that of the later Naughty Dog games but you are looking at about a seven to tenfold increase in the number of bones and that is a ridiculous number of blendshapes. 8 bone influences (which determines how many bone positions can pull a vertex at once) is unheard of. I've never seen an engine that didn't max out at 4, many still use 2 or reserve 4 for the highest-end graphical settings on PC. The character models took one man-month each to rig.

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Crytek's Budapest studio was the original developer of the 360 Kinect version but that version was completely scrapped (no assets carried over) and development was brought in to the main Frankfurt studio. The team was mostly comprised of new members, many who had never previously worked with CryEngine. The game was developed in about 2 years. The Marius model was barely modelled before E3, it was so tight that the advertising team had to create their own model based on the concept art so there are visible design differences between the game and ad versions of the model.

The performance capture was done at Imaginarium Studios, Andy Serkis's new mocap studio; as a side note the cutscenes kind of remind of Heavenly Sword, not quite as cheesy but the overacting does come through a bit in the performances. The cutscenes themselves are a mix of real-time and pre-rendered from the engine, which is done to mask load times, they can blend back and forth between the two seamlessly. An example they gave of this was a cutscene that started real-time, switched to pre-rendered for footage of carvings on a wall and then back to real-time.

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While the game does have real-time physics on stuff like cloth and foliage, the destruction physics are actually all pre-baked. If an object has multiple breakable parts, those parts can be triggered in different orders but there is no physics for both efficiency and art-direction reasons. They showed experiments with BeamNG physics that allowed some impressive real-time destruction but I don't believe any of that stuff made it into the final product, look for it in the sequel though.

After watching the presentation, seeing some of the cutscenes that are deeper into the game and playing a bit of the combat I think Ryse is the showpiece for the Xbox One. It is that game that you can confidently say couldn't have been done on last-gen, where the graphics are more than just an up-res and shader update. The story is intriguing, probably more thanks to the performances of the actors than the script. It is focused gameplay design that doesn't take a lot of risks and doesn't have a lot of variety (the developers themselves sighted 90% combat) but seems worth picking up if you want to feel okay about your new console. There is also co-op which was not shown in the quick-look, it takes place in an arena and seems okay.

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At the end of the presentation they did a cute little trick where they announced "This entire presentation has been running on Xbox One." and then they backed out to the Xbox One home screen to reveal that they had run their laptop feed through the system. They proceeded to jump into the retail version of Ryse and played it while taking questions. So they sold me on a copy. It is not a system seller but man did they pull off an impressive launch game.


The Death of Xbox Live

It is only the death of the original Xbox Live, but it still feels significant. The games will still be there, you can still get your Halo/Halo2 Lan parties on and when you really think about it Halo 2 isn't all that different from Halo 3 which will still be kicking it till 2017 when the robot overlords fight the mole people over the matter of who gets to harvest our organs.  
It probably has something to do with the fact that Xbox Live and especially Halo 2 ushered in the modern era of gaming. Lets face it, server lists suck, you spend your first 15 minutes trying to jump into servers with a nearly full list of people only to have some jackass on the other side of the internet beat you. Then when you finally get in and become someone else's jackass you probably won't end up on a server you like on the first try. Maybe you'll get kicked out because its people who are waiting for a friend and they don't know how to make a private server or they vote you out. Maybe you'll jump onto a server with custom sound effects, music and maps which has about the same chance as being awesome as it does being terrible, maybe leaning more towards terrible. Or maybe you'll jump into a server with people who have been playing this game for the last 10 years and just end up in a  sequence of 1 second deaths. Yes if you find a good server you can bookmark it and make it your go to server but there is no guarantee it will be as awesome as the first time you found it. 
Consistent match making across all games mostly solved these problem, sure if you have a tiny pool of players it didn't work out so well, but if you had a large pool of players like Halo 2 it was amazing. Halo 2 drew a line in the sand and said that we just needed match making, no server lobbies and we would like it damit! Most of us did like it. Sure the match making was molasses fast on day 1 but it was still awesome to be able to join up in a party with friends and just jump from game to game, often being matched with similarly skilled opponents, it was like magic. Being able to jump onto Live with four-player split screen was magic, it was like playing Goldeneye but you didn't have to worry about people seeing your quadrant of the screen because your friends were fighting with you against other groups of players doing the same thing.  
We have seen the death of online games before. MMOs tend to be the most interesting to watch as the remaining staff try to put on one last show with no budget for new features. The death of a service, especially something as popular as Xbox Live is new. Anything this popular tends to live on in some form with a small dedicated group of players, but Microsoft holds the keys here. The original Live is stifling the growth of the new Xbox Live and they are pulling the plug. All roads on Xbox lead through Live and if it gets shut off they all die. Games like Mech Assault, Crimson Skies and the Splinter Cell Adversarial mode have no next-gen equivalent, when the switch gets pulled they are gone. Maybe you could tunnel the lan feature to get something up and running, but the community is gone and it wouldn't be the same. 
For another blog long in the tooth this is Gametag: Cybexx / Cybexx13 signing out. 


Kasumi's Stolen Memory

For some reason I can't place a review for this DLC right now. The "Add Review" button does nothing. So I'm going to write it in this Blog Entry instead while it is fresh in my mind and transfer it over later.  
Kasumi - Stolen Memory got me back into ME2 and I am glad for it. Like a lot of people I haven't touched ME2 since finishing my first play through, if it wasn't for all the other games demanding my time at the moment I would probably go an finished my 2nd play through of ME1 and take character into another play through of two, but that hasn't happened yet. I wasn't sure if I wanted to go back to my completed save to play this DLC, but I am glad that I did. 
The DLC centers around a Master Thief named Kasumi who will join your crew if you agree to break into a criminal's vault to retrieve a Grey Box containing the memories of her deceased partner. You break in Mission Impossible style by posing as a mercenary leader and try to get into the vault. I really enjoyed the setup and it leads to some good exploration and combat. An interesting aspect is that for the 1st half of this DLC their are small combat sections blended into the exploration, this breaks from the main game's tradition of Exploration Levels and Combat Levels being separated.  
Kasumi is setup like Zaeed, she finds home in one of the observation decks and you can talk to her, but this will not initiate a dialog tree. You can also click around on the objects in the space to get her to explain their significance. A lot of people did not like this similar setup for Zaeed, but I found it fine because Zaeed had something to say after nearly every mission unlike my other more fleshed out party members. Kasumi seems to have a decent amount to say and I was surprised to see her commenting on some of my past choices, such as my relationship with Tali. 
The DLC lasted me almost 1.5 hours, it is pretty short but it is priced fairly. After the DLC you have Kasumi as a party member, her ability to cloak and stealth kill enemies looks awesome, you also receive a new type of SMG and some new tech research. I would recommend this DLC to fans of ME2, it got me back in and reminded me why I love ME2 while also presenting me with one of the best Loyalty Missions in the game. Bioware doesn't look like they will be adding any more characters but I hope they continue to add additional content throughout the year. 
Score: 4 / 5 


Monster Hunter: Dissecting the Fun

What is Monster Hunter?

 Monster Hunter is a game about hunting monsters, simple. Everything in the game revolves around going out into the wilderness and taking down these big vicious monsters, then stripping them of their valuable parts. You can then take these parts and craft them into better weapons and armor for yourself or sell them.  
If you have heard anything about this series you most likely know that is is huge in Japan. The series started out in 2004 on the PS2, which appeared to have been overlooked by North America, but judging by the expansion pack and sequel released only in Japan it did okay there. I was interested in the original Monster Hunter when it came out, but I never played it myself. The PS2 games are notable for their online support, something the series has so far lost on the PSP.  
The thing about Monster Hunter is that the games are really built around co-operating with three other players to take down these big monsters, you can solo the games to an extent and they are probably better solo games than most co-op centric experiences, but to get the most out of Monster Hunter you really need to play with others, or so I hear. I like most North Americans who are no longer in grade school don't hang out on a regular basis with others who own the same portable game systems and the same games. Even though I work for a Game Developer, the prospect of trying to pull together three other people with PSPs with copies of Monster Hunter and have them all care about playing it on a regular basis is nearly unfathomable. Running into strangers with PSPs playing the same game on transit is similarly unlikely.  
Which is where I think we get to the obvious root of the problem with Monster Hunter in North America, out society is not set up to support this type of game except in rare circumstances. For this game to really get off the ground in North America one of the big things that needs to change is Online Support. Yes you can use the PS3's Adhoc Party to tunnel your PSP's connection to an online game, but this is kind of unacceptable. You need a Japanese PSN account and the knowledge of how to download this and how to set it up without the assistance of any english text. And I believe that is not acceptable for the average consumer. Now you could argue that anyone who doesn't know about all this is someone you don't want to play with, but that creates a very exclusionary society. You either will find the hardest of the hardcore Western players online or the Japanese players who if they are playing online using this method are probably also pretty hardcore and neither of these groups are very accepting of new players who want to learn the ins and outs of the game. If the Online option was just built into the game you would end up with a much larger pool of people of varying skill levels to play with and trust me this helps games rather than hindering them, you can still make your "Hunting G32 NO NOOBS!" room and the rest of us can get on with our day.  

Why do I care?

 Just the prospect that this is one of the most popular games in Japan intrigues me, I have to ask "Why is that"? I felt that Japanese developers were still having trouble with adapting to 3D game design last generation, something about the interfaces and the stiffness of character-to-environment and character-to-character interaction was off, not it all cases of course. This has continued ten fold into this generation with a lot of those interface and character interaction problems sticking out like a sore thumb compared to western games. I think it has something to do with Japanese games feeling more mechanical and western games feeling a bit more procedural. Japan has always had great Art Design, but they seem to be trying to let that carry more weight than it can bear this generation. This has resulted in many Japanese developers turning their attention to portable platforms, since this allows them a safe haven to work similarly to generations past. Avoiding skyrocketing budgets, that force them to build for international audiences, and meeting lower expectations on the portable platforms. Japan has also gone increasingly mobile so I assume that helps as well. 
Alright back to Monster Hunter, I feel these points are what poised Monster Hunter to become the success it is in Japan, while also creating the indifference seen in the west. The PSP games allowed the developer to continue their work on PS2 in a similar environment, online play was lost in the transition and due to contemporary Japanese society not only did Adhoc Wireless make up for it, it probably contributed to making it even more popular. Multi-player with friends makes any game more fun, especially co-op since there are no losers, everyone works together towards a goal.  
I have been very intrigued by the concept of these games, but knowing my experience in the past with portable co-op experiences I feared it just wouldn't work for me. I recall trying the demos of Monster Hunter Freedom 2 and Monster Hunter Freedom Unite and running into the same experiences I believe most Western gamers run into while trying these demos, "Fuck these controls are ass and the combat is infuriating!". Watching the Giantbomb quicklook of the upcoming Monster Hunter Tri for the Wii they seem to have had pretty much the same reaction. Thus my thoughts turned to "are the Japanese crazy? Are these problems so easily overlooked when playing with friends?" Co-op can make up for a lot of problems, but making up for fundamental problems with the main game mechanics is a little extreme, are the Japanese really that crazy?  

My Freedom Unite

 Monster Hunter Freedom Unite is the latest Monster Hunter game to be released in North America, it was released in June 2009. it is an expansion pack to Freedom 2 and is knows as Portable 2G in Japan. It is the Japanese definition of an expansion pack however, which means all of the original game with new content, so you don't need Freedom 2. I played the demo of this game before it came out and ran into the  "Fuck these controls are ass and the combat is infuriating!" problem. So I didn't buy it, but the prospect of picking it up has been gelling in the back of my mind since then. I figured there has to be something else that the demo does a terrible job of presenting. I have friends who will not touch a game if they find something fundamentally wrong about it. I am the opposite, if I find something about  a game that I really like, that I can latch onto I am willing to endure the bad bits to see the good ones. So I spotted Freedom Unite for 20 bucks and decided to pick it up for this long weekend with the intention of digging into it and seeing if I can find that fun enjoyable aspect to latch onto and after playing it last evening and this afternoon I feel I'm close to finding it. 
First of all I have not tried Multiplayer, I have the Adhoc Party downloaded on my PS3, but I have not ventured there. I feel with my limited knowledge and lowest level gear I wouldn't be doing myself any favors jumping in there this late in the game's life. My goal is to get in, find the fun, play around for a bit and then transition into Monster Hunter Tri in a couple weeks assuming the game still holds my interest. I am hoping the built-in online functions of that game and getting in there day 1 with the rest of the westerners will be the right mix of ingredients to get me into this franchise. But watching the Giantbomb quicklook has told me that the Wii game has the same fundamental gameplay issues that are present on the PSP. 
Those fundamental issues are the Camera and the Combat, mostly stemming from seemingly terrible control choices. The analog nub moves your character, fair enough, but the d-pad moves your camera, meaning that you need to play finger twister to move the character and control the camera at the same time since they are both on the same side of the PSP. I can see why they did this, to free up the right side buttons for combat and other interactions, but it is really awkward. While fighting a monster the camera is often your biggest enemy. You can hit the L button to center behind your character, so most the the time I don't bother with the D-Pad, but there are situations where I want to be running in one direction while turning the camera to face the monster and this is nearly impossible to do.  
Combat is centered around three buttons. Triangle is your main attack, Circle is your secondary attack and the R button defends. Each weapon has variations on these controls. For example, the R button doesn't defend when you have two swords it instead activates an ability that trades stamina for power. Similarly, the R button on hammer weapons makes you perform a running charge and if you hold it for long enough you will do a spinning attack when released. Long range weapons like bowguns use Triangle for reloading and circle for shooting, taping the R button takes you into a 1st person shooting mode while holding the R button places you into a 3rd person mode. This is something that came off terribly in the demo, you had a bunch of choices for pre-made characters with different weapons, but you had no idea how to use those weapons. I think most people probably pick the guy with the big bad ass looking sword or axe, but they get into combat with an excruciatingly slow to attack weapon that they have no idea how to control. Simple things like the fact that pressing Triangle and Circle at the same executes a 3rd attack is lost on the demo audience. I came out of the demo feeling like the weapons controlled poorly and that the whole game was limited to two basic attacks. After playing through the tutorial with all the weapons types I now appreciate the stunning variety and tactics that can be employed with these weapons but that doesn't solve a large problem with the game, there is no lock-on. With terrible manual camera controls and weapons attacks that can lead you into long un-interruptible combo attacks that leave you swinging at air this game screams for a lock-on system.  
I hear that a lot of hardcore fans think a lock-on system would ruin the game and make it too easy. They claim that being able to attack certain parts of a monster is fundamental to the gameplay experience and that a lock-on system would not allow for this. To these people I say that they are crazy, just because it has always been like that doesn't mean it is the best way. I feel tightening up the combat in this game would make it a lot more accessible and would result in a lot more players, especially north american players. The lock-on would make up for the lack of a right stick on PSP and even on console it would be welcome, there was a lot of depth available in the lock-on system in many of the Legend of Zelda games, I feel a similar system would do wonders for Monster Hunter. I would say they should take the L button and make that the lock-on button, holding it locks on to a foe, tapping it cycles through targets. D-pad left and right cycle through your inventory, tap up on the d-pad to use the current item. Down on the D-pad sheathes and unsheathes your weapon. The triangle button is a contextual use button when the weapon is sheathed. The circle button is used to crouch or climb depending on the context. The Square button rotates the camera left and the x button rotates the camera right (depending on settings). In combat triangle is main attack, circle is secondary, pressing them both is a 3rd attack (The reason circle isn't camera right) and the R button is shield/special. While locked on the square and x buttons cycle through different parts of the monster, allowing you to lock on to a specific part, pressing both at the same time resets to target the whole monster. Select is still kick, I guess. To dodge you tap R and a direction, though this doesn't work so well with all weapons, so more thought has to be put into this. I feel something similar to this control scheme would give the flexibility the hardcore are looking for while making the combat much more manageable for everyone else, more time fighting the monster, less time fighting the camera. 
I am getting used the controls the more I play though, I don't think I'll get to a point where I accept them, but I think I can deal with them. And I hope the right stick on a Classic Control for Tri will make the camera more of a moot point. Though I still feel even then I want lock-on for combat or something similar to God of War style automatic lock-on to direct attacks towards enemies and be able to change the direction and target of the attack on the fly. I have made my way through the tutorials, which are informative but too long in the tooth and quite text heavy. I feel the tutorials could have been compressed into something smarter and quicker, unless I am misreading information, a recent interview on G4TV about Tri seemed to indicate the tutorials are going more in this direction for that game.  

The Fun?

 So I have come to a point where I believe the most enjoyable thing about these games is the character progression. Going out, fighting monster and collecting their hides, tusks, livers or whatever and then crafting that into more powerful cooler looking shit is kind of addictive and I could see if I had more people to play with this would be even more addictive not to mention make the battles much easier. 
The battles I have been in so far against the monsters have been pretty intense. I came out of all those tutorials feeling like I could take on anything and then proceeded to get the crap beat out of me by my first hunt. Even the smaller monsters put up more of a fight than in the tutorial. I feel it is because my Sword / Shield combo are pretty crappy at the moment and worse than the Sword/Shield in the Tutorial, so I am working diligently to improve my weapons. The monsters are hard, no thanks to the camera. I am learning ways to be more efficient at combat ,  mostly involving rolling around to their sides or back and chomping away till they turn my direction, then rolling around them and continuing my attack. This doesn't work quite as well against monsters who do attack damage as they are turning, need to figure out a better strategy for them. I also don't understand how to get more traps, I get one free shock trap at the beginning of the hunt and it is very useful but it is gone too fast. I don't see where I can buy more of those, but I do have this trap tool I don't know how to use, that is probably the key. 
The learning curve on this game is steep, but the payoff is quite handsome. I also have this farm I can upgrade, these cats I can hire as either cooks or party members during my hunts. The cats can gain new abilities in different ways, there seems to be a lot of depth there. I can also fish and mine at my farm or while on hunts. Combine items into new items. There are also specific Missions that only involve fishing, mining and trying to figure out how to transport an egg back to my camp without cracking the egg from falling too far. There is a heck of a lot to do once you get into the game and I heard Freedom Unite boasts around 500 hours of gameplay, providing you can find friends to tackle the harder stuff. So for 20 bucks I am pretty satisfied with my purchase at the moment.  
The game also has a surprisingly quirky sense of humor. While roasting some meat over a fire you play a little minigame where you need to press X at the exact second it is ready for the best results, this is accompanied by some cheerful bouncy music and if you pull it out of the fire at just the right moment your character jumps up and cheers while proclaiming "Tasty". Similarly if you order something from your felyne cook you get some more bouncy music, your character holds a giant fork and knife and bounces to the music while the cook throws a large riceball in time with the music. I should have probably expected this from a Japanese game, but the atmosphere this game gives off belays its more goofy undertones. 


 This blog entry has gone on far too long now, but I felt I needed to write down my thoughts about this series and my experience so far with Freedom Unite. I will continue to play that game, but I may not write anything further till I have Monster Hunter Tri in my hands. If you can look past its problems the game offers some great experiences with a wealth of content. Despite the combat feeling iffy, there is a lot of depth there with the different weapons and all the monsters have unique behaviors that almost gives them a Shadow of the Colossus feel.  


So the Spike Video Game Awards have been becoming a more legitimate award show each year, the main categories this year are fairly solid in their nominees, some odd choices here or there but it is fairly solid. Where the VGAs still fall flat on their face is Best Performance by a Human Female, Best Performance by a Human Male and Best Cast.
These categories seem to have nothing to do with quality and should probably be re-named to something like Best Celebrity Voice. What does Best Performance even mean when the list is pretty much filled with Hollywood celebrities who phoned in their lines, Megan Fox and Shia Labeouf in the Transfomers game, really? Is it best performance because their likenesses were used for the Character Models? And Bill Murray in Ghostbusters, he was the stand out sore thumb in that game.
Best cast is not nearly as bad, but it should also be renamed to Most Hollywood Celebrities In a game, sure Brutal Legend's cast was pretty solid and I guess having Matt Stone and Trey Parker count as a cast, but no Arkham Asylum, Dragon Age and especially Uncharted 2, WTF?
Seriously Uncharted 2 is the reason this year's list stands out more for me than ever. I honestly think Uncharted 2 is the only game this year that could possibly claim any kind of Performance category since not only did the actors do their own voices, but they actually had their performances captured as opposed to that entire list of celebrities who maybe came in for a head scanning session and then they were animated by someone else. 
It is pretty much a crime to not include Nolan North, Emily Rose and Claudia Black in their categories, hell Elena's cameraman would have been a better pick then anyone else they actually picked. Instead all the real acters get to duke it out in the Best Voice category, which I have to say was not poorly picked, in fact just in terms of pure voice acting I would go with Mark Hamil who absolutely owned his final role as the Joker. But that is the problem, why is there no Best Voice Male / Best Voice Female? Could these actors not get into the Performance category because they aren't "Human"? Seriously again WTF?
And on a side note, if they are just going with Hollywood Celebrities for the Performance Category, why does Jack Black also just end up in Best Voice? I mean the character isn't made to look exactly the same as him, but its about the same difference between Samuel L Jackson and Afro Samurai. Jack Black would actually be someone I wouldn't mind winning that category if Nolan North is forbidden.
And here we get to the crux of the problem with the VGAs, the whole award show is just a facade to desperately try and get some celebrities to attract the mainstream audience so major Game Publishers have an hour to bombard them with upcoming games. If this show is anything like last year, they are going to spend most of their time on the Performance categories, a little less time on Game of the Year and every other category will fly past without any award acceptance in two minutes flat. The majority of the time will be spent on "Exclusive" reveals of 2010 games.
I understand why they do it and I don't expect much more from Spike, but really who actually tunes in to watch this, am I completely off my rocker in thinking we could legitimize all the categories without losing the audience. I am assuming even the main stream audience must have a passing interest in games, otherwise even if they stumbled onto it while channel surfing I can't imagine they would stick around once they figure out what the show is about. I really doubt anyone would be tuning in just for the celebrities, but then again I don't watch the MTV Movie Awards and that is obviously the model Spike is trying to copy, I just really don't think it works in this context, I think non-gamers couldn't care less about the show.


I have learned a valuable lesson today

Never ship from Play Asia using the cheap Air Economy shipping, it only cost $3, but I ended getting charged $20 in customs. As opposed to when I ship UPS for $20 I get charged $3 for customs. So they both work out to the same in the end, except UPS takes 2 Days and Air Economy took over 2 weeks.

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However I now have my copy of Dragon Quest 9, now I just have to surmount the imposing Japanese language barrier and I'm all set. Go iPhone Japanese Dictionary Go! I'll be back with impressions after I've played the game for a bit.

F.E.A.R. playthrough

I just finished playing through F.E.A.R. , no not FEAR 2, the original F.E.A.R. Fear 2's release last week made me realize I never finished the first FEAR. I assume a lot of people probably did not finish the first FEAR. Any time, anyone brings up FEAR they will always assuredly mention the fact that there are an endless amounts of similar looking office spaces  throughout the game. This is true, the first half of the game alternates continuously between office spaces and rooms made of concrete, like sewers and maintenance rooms. This repetitiveness probably bored many people before the half-way point of the game.

Thankfully if you can slug it through the first half your treated to some much needed variety in the later stages, while it sounds like FEAR 2 does a much better job at mixing it up throughout the game, FEAR's later half is not too shabby. You get to explore medical offices (trust me, even the smallest change of a "medical" office helps), an abandoned apartment building, some back alleys and the good old FPS main-stay, the warehouse.

In these semi-repetitive environments you get to experience FEAR's main draw, the gunfights. FEAR's gunfights are really really good and still stand-up 3 1/2 years later. The enemy AI is smart at taking cover and working together to flank you, a lot of games claim their AI does this, but FEAR's AI does it and does it well. There were numerous times throughout the game that the AI did something that surprised me, which is good because throughout most of the game you are fighting the same replica soldiers over and over again.

FEAR is a bit lacking in the enemy variety. You have you standard replica soldier, who gets upgraded with heavier amour 3 times throughout the game. You have the Armtech soldiers, who are basically the same as the replica soldiers. You have the Heavy Soldier, with big shoulder pads to block your shots, equipped with a powerful weapon. You have the man-sized mechs, who can soak up a lot of damage and fire missiles at you. You have an enemy I believe is called the Watcher, they are fast, cloaked,  stick to walls and have a strong melee attack. Finally you have the ghosts, who show up mostly at the end of the game, they just fly at you and are easily killed.

The thing is that 90% of the time your fighting the same Replica Soldiers, the Heavy's show up now and again, the Mech's only show up a handful of times. The Watchers are probably the coolest looking enemy in the game, but they only show up twice. Maybe this is a good thing though, since any time anything but the replica soldiers showed up I would loose a lot of health, that and the Replica soldiers are the most fun to fight.

Not only are they fun to fight because they are smarter than your average AI grunt, you also get to employ the game's bullet-time mechanic. There are a lot of games that have tried to pull bullet-time off, but I think FEAR is one of the few that get it right. I think Max Payne 2 does it better, but FEAR's bullet time is good for the same reason. Both games employ a lot of particle effects, bullet hits, blood and ragdolls. I really never got sick of dropping into bullet time, turning a corner and blasting three guys in the face with my shotgun before they had the chance to pull the trigger. Lots of nice touches, like when you kill a guy who is firing at you, he continues to spray the room as he dies in glorious slow-motion death.

I originally heard FEAR described as "John Woo meets The Ring", I would probably append that to be "John Woo meets the matrix, meets The Ring, meets Akira". The John Woo influence is obvious with dual-wielded pistols, gun-ballet and martial art kicks. Just as obvious is the the game's connection to anime and Japanese horror. Throughout the game you encounter Alma, a psychic creepy little girl with dreams of revenge. This manifests itself in psychic illusions throughout the game, basically this means creepy shit suddenly happens, then disappears. Thing is, its not really that scary, as cool as some of the sequences are, like one in which the ceiling turns into a river of blood, they are not really scary. Especially in the jump-scare kind of way, since the game always gives you an audio cue of a creepy static sound just before anything happens. These sequences are fun to watch, and don't take away anything from the game, but they really are not scary. Monolith's own Condemned series can be much creepier and scarier. FEAR's story brings up a lot of questions and it really doesn't bother answering any of them till the end.

Overall I think FEAR is a solid game, that is still worth a play through if you have about 7 hours to spare. I found the gunfights fun until the end and while the game isn't scary it is well put together and entertaining. I wasn't really looking forward to FEAR 2 much a couple weeks ago, but after this play through of the original game I really want to see where this goes.