Nintendo´s mystery that is 2010 Q3/Q4 and the time after

February 25, 2010

Nintendo´s Media Summit 2010 is over – and it actually delivered! Kind of. American gamers can rejoice, while Europeans have to deal with an unknown date for Metroid: Other M sometime in Q3, and many other smaller games haven´t even been mentioned. Still, everyone got dates for Sin & Punishment: Successor of the Skies, Monster Hunter Tri and, most importantly, Super Mario Galaxy 2, which will be out at the end of May/early June, which is a lot sooner than many people expected. There is reason enough to be suspicious, though.

The first half of 2010 is definitely packed on the Wii. We already got Endless Ocean 2, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, and we´re getting Red Steel 2, Fragile: Farewell of the Ruins and Monster Hunter Tri. Not even mentioning a Mario- AND Metroid-game. All of that for just the first half of the year. That makes one wonder: What does Nintendo have up their sleeves for the second half of 2010?

Game-wise, we know of Xenoblade and The Last Story. Xenoblade does have a chance, as it is supposed to be released this spring in Japan. Tales of Graces should be coming overseas, as well. Then there´s Epic Mickey from Disney. And that´s it. That still is missing a real blockbuster for the end of the year, which is why many people started to think that that´s where Zelda Wii comes in. Satoru Iwata and Eiji Aonuma already mentioned that the game´s supposed to be released in 2010, but nobody really took that for granted until now. With all bigger known Nintendo-games coming out in Q2, though, that picture changed. Zelda Wii now seems like the obvious choice for Nintendo´s big Q4-title. And we also know that the 5th gen Pokemon-game will be released in 2010. Maybe we´ll be surprised and see an oversea release soon after the Japanese release date?

2010 looks really good on the software side…so good, actually, that it makes one wonder what´s after. All big known Nintendo-games will be out at the end of the year. Nothing left to release. It´s unlikely that we´ll see another Mario- and Zelda-game on the Wii, and filling 2011 with more niche franchises like Starfox, F-Zero and Pikmin (and Kirby) isn´t really a smart business decision.

It has been speculated many times, but it really looks like 2011 is the year we´ll see a new Nintendo-hardware. Whether that will be a handheld or home system is in the unknown, but some kind of hardware seems likely. It becomes all the more likely if you consider my theory about Nintendo engaging a hybrid-console concept, where there isn´t a clearly defined generational cycle anylonger. The one developer we haven´t heard from for a long time is RetroStudios, and taking all this time would suddenly make sense if it´s for a gorgeous launch-title of a new system. After all, an HD-game of the quality of a Metroid Prime is not something that can be done over night.

In the end, all of the above speculation is for fun only, because it´s the “Now” that is interesting at the moment. So let me, again, remind you to buy Fragile. And maybe GDC will reveal new interesting stuff.


Magic made real – Future technologies beyond Minority Report

February 20, 2010

If I had the choice, I´d love to live in a world full of fantasy and magic – you know, with all kinds of exploration and cool visual elements. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a Mana Tree or something else that helps us using magic. But there is an alternative way, a way made possible by our modern reality. Or near future reality, to be more precise. It´s advanced technology that has the potential of creating a world full of seemingly magical elements.

I wanted to talk about this topic for a long time, since it is something that could change our world on a fundamental basis. Originally, I planned to use the anime “Dennou Coil” as a sole example for what I´m going to talk about, but I´ll gladly admit that I underestimated fellow tech-fans. It´s because of those people and their commitment to their joy of exploring new technical advancements that I can provide you this article today. From here on, I´d like to simply present you three actually under-development examples of projects that could bring us closer to a world of fantasy, using technology instead of mana.

The main feature of the anime “Dennou Coil” was that the characters in that fictional reality all are wearing glasses. Special data glasses, that are made of a transparence material, but let you see virtual content that is integrated into your surrounding real world seamlessly. It isn´t explained in detail of how it worked in that anime-series; one could imagine that the glasses work in combination with very precise GPS-technology and miniature camera-tracking devices. That way, the glasses allow the characters to see virtual pet dogs running in front of them as if they existed in reality. All that while the real environment is also integrated into the digital world, meaning that your virtual pet dog won´t be able to run right through a real tree or wall. Now imagine that instead of integrating a virtual pet dog we´re integrating a giant dragon and you finally get a grasp of what I meant when I was talking about making magic real.

The first of the three real “existing” examples (set in quotation marks because they´re either just concepts, yet, or rather far off from being available for mass usage) that I´d like to show you comes from some Israeli comedy TV-show. It isn´t a realized concept and the video is “fake”, to say so, but it shows off a really great concept. Instead of sleek glasses like those from the above mentioned anime-show, here you have to wear a rather big apparatus, consisting of a camera and visor. The camera captures the environment, while the visor integrates virtual content accordingly to the camera´s input data. As can be seen in the following video, that allows for shooter-games to take place in reality. Poor paintball-manufacturer would probably lose their jobs – but it´d be awesome nonetheless. See for yourself:

Video: Augmented Reality Game Example – Future of Augmented Reality Gaming

The next example is something that is actually worked on for mass market usage – and, according to the leader of Oblong Industries, being used in companies already. That company´s leader is John Underkoffler, who created the concept of the popular Minority Report´s computer system for Steven Spielberg´s movie. He founded Oblong Industries and then attempted to make the fictional idea reality – and succeeded. The project´s name is g-speak and works exactly like you would imagine it, if you´ve seen the Tom Cruise-starring movie. The technology used for g-speak goes beyond mouse and keybord and let´s the user interact by just their fingers´ movements. Videos can show this better than words, so just click the next link and scroll down a bit to find two videos, showcasing the g-speak-technology. Maybe he´s a bit overly confidend, but Underkoffler said he thinks the average PC-user might be able to get this technology in about five years. It´d be great if true, but it is already great to see someone working on this stuff at all.

Video: Minority Report is real – the g-speak technology

I guess you think how anything could top the above stuff. But here comes Pranav Mistry, a genius guy from India, and his project SixthSense. Again, just watch the video below to see exactly what it is, though only a few words: The SixthSense-technology consists of a mobile camera-and-projector-device that you wear somewhere on the front of your body. Meanwhile, the tips of your pointy- and middle fingers will have to be marked by the use of color. Pattie Maes, who works together with Mistry at the MIT Media Lab, said that you could just color your fingernails and it´d work. What SixthSense does, is that it recognices typical gestures of your hands and inputs data accordingly. The most impressive scene from the demo is when Mistry does the usual photo-taking gesture, just the gesture without a camera in his hand, and the picture IS taken. Now, that is only part of what makes this technology so groundbreaking: With help of the projector ANY surface becomes your operating area. You can browse the photo you have just taken moments ago, or you could write or do whatever you want. The final, and most important, part of SixthSense, though, is its real-time connectivity to information. You go to the super market, grab a box of eggs, and on the surface of the egg box, it´d show you if the eggs are from an ecological friendly producer. And you could click onto the information on that surface to gain further information. This really makes it a connection of the real and the virtual world. And now watch the video to see even more fascinating stuff. Unfortunately, Pattie Maes is more realistic about future release dates for this technology, and it might take ten years or more for SixthSense to arrive on the mass market. On the plus side, Pranav Mistry said how this technology wouldn´t be more expensive than your typical cell phone and would be easy to mass manufacture.

Video: Pranav Mistry presenting SixthSense-technology at TED

So this is the technology to watch out for. Who knows, maybe it´ll be videogames that will help one of these technologies to reach the mass market. We already have the Wii´s gesture controls, that have been improved upon by MotionPlus just last year, and Microsoft is even closer to the above concepts with its upcoming project Natal. We cannot know for sure, but however way, knowing that technology like the above IS in the works makes me incredibly happy – and excited.

A simply enjoyable adventure: First details of Xenoblade

February 17, 2010

The latest issue of Famitsu did not disappoint. It features a multi-page article on Xenoblade, the upcoming JRPG of Monolithsoft. The magazine features some definitely gorgeous screenshots of the world of Xenoblade – a rather interesting world. The game is supposed to take place on top of the bodies of two frozen-in-motion deities. These two deities once fought each other. Now, each of their bodies is populated by a different culture. The hero´s Deity marks the home of organic life. The other giant body is inhabited by mechanic life. The story starts by mechanic life stirring up organigc life´s peace.

Besides the already interesting setting and story, the actual gameplay bits sound even better: The whole world is one seamless world that Tetsuya Takahashi, director of the game, said he wanted the player to explore. And indeed, taking a look at the new screenshots totally makes me want to explore that world. Part of what makes the scale of Xenoblade that fascination is its similarity to MMORPGs that Takahashi himself mentions. Not only is the world´s scale supposed to be like that of a MMORPG, also the combat-system sound a lot like World of Warcraft. Enemies are visibly running around on the overworld. Once you engage them in a fight, your character will fight automatically. You as the player have the option of choosing special attacks, recovery skills and other special abilities. Nearby enemies even will join your current enemy, something  I only experienced in Etrian Odysse. If that´s still not enough great news, then let´s tell you that Takahashi mentiond how the game will take supposedly 50-60 hours to complete – without endless grinding or cutscenes.

Xenoblade is shaping up to be a very promising game. And no matter how it turns out in the end, the fact that Tetsuya Takahashi himself said that Xenoblade is supposed to be a simply enjoyable adventure, a return to the origin of RPGs, is a great realization that most, if not all, modern developers are missing. Let´s hope that everything comes well together…and please no circle shadows, Mr. Takahashi.

Ratio: Mass Effect 2

February 15, 2010

The first Mass Effect-game was a milestone in terms of cinematic video gaming. Unlike other so-called cinematic games, Mass Effect actually managed to turn the cinematic part into gameplay. No passive cutscenes, no flashy over-the-top action only to return to ingame-gameplay that is a lot more toned down. Mass Effect throws you into an original world (actually, universe, haha) and leaves any further decision to you, the player. Of course, the realm of choices isn´t as open as some fans sometimes make it sound, but that´s maybe why Mass Effect works that well: You´re given a linear path that you have to follow. But what you experience on that way is totally up to yourself.

Mass Effect 2 took that concept and improved upon it. The moment you start Mass Effect 2 is like beginning to watch some epic scifi-movie. Only seconds later, you´re given control over your character. The whole entrance scene, which I am not going to spoil, is brilliant. The mood, the visuals, the sound, the plot contents of  just the very first minutes grab your brain and won´t let you go for hours. It´s one masterful cinematic game experience. You never feel as if control is taken away from you. Yet, every single moment could be from a movie. Where Mass Effect 1 was a great start of a new franchise, Mass Effect 2 simply feels so much more massive, polished. The way your character moves, the way you fire your weapon, the way you talk to people. The basic mechanics are all there, but they´ve been improved upon tenfolds.

Mass Effect 2 is the second act of a trilogy. That means that the game functions as a preparation for the grand finale that will be Mass Effect 3. While Mass Effect 2 is very well capable of existing by itself, the man plot is this game´s weak point. Mass Effect 1 gave you a clear enemy, Saren. Each and every mission in that game built up to a final confrontation with the corrupted Turian. Such an arc nemesis is missing in Mass Effect 2. There is a main plot, but it isn´t until the end part of the game that you get a feeling for that story. But Mass Effect 2´s strength is somewhere else.

The first game within the franchise introduced some characters to the player, but neither of them was worth more than an optional sidequest that didn´t feature much story in itself. In Mass Effect 2, your crew is the star of the game. Instead of the five long main missions in ME1, now you have a vast variety of shorter missions awaiting you. Each of these new missions won´t take you much longer than thirty minutes each. That comes with both positives and negatives. On the one hand, many missions lack the variety of decisions that you had in ME1. Just think of all the different possible outcomes on Noveria. Everyone that finished ME1 several times will know about that. Mass Effect 2 still features important story within these missions, but they´re more to the point. You´re fighting your way through enemy-contaminated areas, then you reach a check point where a cutscene (again, “cutscene” within the ME-franchise means that some talk is going on) starts and where you might be presented with making one of several decisions. That´s due to the linear structure of these missions. Mass Effect 2 is less about exploration than ME1, and more about decision-making. The whole way the game is made really invites you to replay it many more times. You still have your Paragon- and Renegade-options, your “gray“-options, and sometimes a newly introduced action-option, where Shepard will do something, like pushing an enemy through a windows as one early trailer-video showed.

What greatly helps to make the more linear missions fun is the completely new combat-system. It is also where Mass Effect 2 decided to become a real role-playing game. Instead of relying on skill points, combat now feels more like that of a real shooter-title. You´re aiming by yourself, no skill points for higher accuracy. Duck and cover-mechanics have changed. It´s a bit disappointing that you cannot crouch at will anymore, but the new cover-system couldn´t be that much better. Hiding behind objects to avoid enemy fire works very well, as does jumping over these objects by double-clicking the A-button. The quick-button inclusion for biotic-attacks also comes in handy. Using “Burn” on an enemy feels great, especially if you have it leveled up that much that it one-hit-ko´s him. What really makes the difference, though, are the weapons. Instead of four weapons that only differ in terms of dealt damage, Mass Effect 2 features a relatively enormous arsenal of guns, rifles and other awesome stuff. My favorite item is the fast-firing sniper rifle. To give an example of how full of love for detail the game is, if developing it far enough, you gain the passive ability of getting a short slowmo while aiming with the sniper rifle. And not only is the slowmo-effect nice visually, it also takes effect on sound effects. Which at times is annoying if you wanted to listen to your crew members.But it really emphasizes the feeling of being a badass sniper that enters his own world where there´s nothing but himself and his target.

Mass Effect 2 let´s you visit the home planets of some of the alien races. Where the game still fails is to finally show us how female Krogans, Turians and Volus look like. And that´s not the biggest tease, without giving any more hints. Yes, Mass Effect 2 feels a bit too humanoid just about everywhere. The crazy alien worlds are missing. Still, the locations you get to visit are built with a high level for detail. Omega alone is such a varied place, stuff going on at every corner. Then you have the old citadel, that is a lot smaller than the original citadel, but still features nice scenes. And then there are more planets. A lot more. There are no more open planets like the ones in ME1. This doesn´t give monotony a chance, but surely it takes away from the fascination of space and the unknown. To find new, optional planets to land on, you have to use the new scanning-feature. Using it, you can mine different minerals that you´ll need for upgrading your equipments. Mass Effect 2 doesn´t have loot in the sense of its predecessor. You don´t pick up new weapons and suits all the time. Instead, you collect minerals and money and buy add-ons later on. These add-ons have to be attached manually. Again, stuff like that is what makes Mass Effect 2 feel more massive. you´re really adding this new stuff by yourself. And you can see the differences.

The best way to describe Mass Effect 2 is in saying that it is what it is: The dark, second act. Unlike Mass Effect 1, where you had to explore space in search of evidence for the danger that the Reapers are, you already know about that danger in Mass Effect 2. It´s all about preparing for facing off this known danger. By doing that, the game will introduce one of the greatest casts of characters and propose you to some of the most spine-chilling decisions you ever made in a video game. And so much more than the first game, or any video game at all, Mass Effect 2 makes you permanently think:

What if…?

And that is probably what makes Mass Effect 2 the greatest of modern gaming: With all its cinematic presentation, it induces the player´s curiosity to play over and over again. Where all the usual big, hyped “blockbuster games” are lacking in the end, Mass Effect 2 proves that lacking in content and interactivity is not the medium´s fault. And to think that a thirty-hour game features such a level of replayability is remarkable – and embarrassing for most other developers.

And that´s just the start. A new crew-member is announced for the near future, as well as the so-called Hammerhead-DLC, the successor of ME1´s Mako, including a set of missions designed for this vehicle. And besides all the new content upcoming, don´t forget about the sheer variety the game features as is. Not only can you decide within cinematic talks, the game also heavily changes depending on what class you chose. Each class has special abilities. My favorite, the Infiltrator, can turn himself invisible for a short period of time. And that´s really just one class you can choose.

To conclude: Even if the main plot is weaker than its predecessor´s, Mass Effect 2 is the single popular video game that puts emphasis on the medium´s strength: Interactivity. A piece of advise: Do never reload a previous save just because of a seemingly wrong decision. When the credits start rolling, it´ll have been your own adventure. With all the personal decisions you made. In that respect, Mass Effect 2 has become a real role-playing game.

“Stealthing” – An Ignored Common Gameplay Mechanic

February 12, 2010

Within the realm of myriads of gameplay components some are more important than others. Varying in importance depending on what genre you visit. Jumping-mechanics alone could fill dozens of paragraphs. How far to jump, how high, how fast to fall back to ground, double jump or not, long jump or not, wall jump or not, and so on. Fighting mechanics are another very important part of gaming, of course. There´s so much variety in how you can build up a game from the ground. There is, however, one mechanic that has yet to make its entrance into the realm of “general gameplay options”. Jumping mechanics are something general, first person has become general, as have many others. Stealth mechanics have not.

To this day, stealth mechanics are being kept exclusive to, well, stealth games. Be it Splinter Cell or Metal Gear Solid, you will not find many other games out there that feature proper stealth mechanics. One of the few, better examples these days is Assassins Creed. Another great example is Mini Ninjas.

Stealth mechanics shouldn´t be exclusive to games that focus on them. The reason why “stealthing” is fun in many games is because it gives a sense of freedom, of non-linearity. Be it fully developed stealth games like Metal Gear Solid or just games with certain stealth mechanics, it´s always so much fun to find out how to approach a problem. Kill the enemy head on, sneak by or sneak near him to suddenly finish him off. In a way, stealth mechanics really are what could make the difference between a typical action-adventure and a real adventure-experience. It´s a common problem in most videogames that once you´re within a certain radius of the enemy, he magically makes you out. Just like that, without actually having seen you. That takes away a lot of the fun, as you are granted only one approach by the developer. I can remember James Bond: Agent Under Fire where that was a big problem, but also the Zelda-series.

There are three games that used stealth mechanics the best, as far as I have experienced them. One is Assassins Creed. There is so much satisfaction in sneak-killing someone, slowly walking away, folding your hands as if praying, and acting as if nothing happened…while several meters behind you people finally realize what´s going on and are shouting nervously. Where AC fails is in hiding once you´ve been found out by guards. You can only hide in one of those roof-boxes or in a bunch of straw. No hiding within the masses of people, no running away, running around a corner…they will keep hunting you as if you have been marked by something. The second game is Mini Ninjas. I didn´t expect anything genius from this game, but it has superb stealth mechanics. You have to know that the game features very nice grass, high grass where you can crouch and hide yourself. This is super fun. You can sneak just one or two meters next to an enemy, and he won´t see you. You can pass by an enemy behind his back and hide within grass on the other side. And most importantly: Once you have been spotted, you can crouch within high grass and try to get away by sneaking…the enemies will start searching where you crouched. Truly awesome. As is the third game I´m going to mention: Crysis. A game that is criticized so often by people that didn´t even play it. “It´s just a graphics demo”. No, it is not. Definitely not. The open world structure of Crysis wouldn´t work as well if it wasn´t for the non-linear gameplay. The invisibility ability plays a huge role in that. You can activate that one at any given moment. I had some of the funniest scenes with that ability. Once, there were six enemy soldiers. I was hiding behind a small hut. So they keep storming in, I become invisible. Some are coming from the left, some from the right. One or two enter the hut. Meanwhile, I take out two of them. I become visible while shooting. Two other soldiers come running, shoot at me, but I run around the corner of the hut, invisibility on. I slowly sneak away a few meters, the soldiers are confused. I take out another two of them. The scene repeats. Just like that I have an intense fight only within the area of that small hut. Thanks to stealth mechanics that are by no measure standard within first person shooters.

In a way, it is no wonder why stealth mechanics are either shitty or don´t exist at all in modern videogames: They demand more thoughtful design, more effort. But it is effort that´d be worth it. After all, it is the game that I can play in many different ways that I keep putting in my disc drive.